I changed the names in this post on LinkedIn....
Hello. Today’s post is just for fun. I’m grateful my first employee communications job was for a manufacturing company. For the holidays, I’d like to offer an excerpt from a book I’ve been writing for far too long: it’s a description of an American food-production factory, from a tour I took a few Novembers ago….
“Phyllis and I were invited to tour John’s factory, and we drove over in the morning. I love factory tours and had watched newspapers, airplanes, computers and ceiling tiles being made, but not food. My November visit coincided with the run-up before Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the shop was banging. First we solemnly donned surgical costumes. Then we picked our way through a series of giant rooms, each with its own climate. We marveled as potatoes were sorted, skinned, cooked, milked, mashed, spiced, packed, scanned for foreign objects and imprinted with UPCs. John was never not working: wherever we went, employees stopped him. Does this taste okay; should we adjust this setting; how can we fix the consistency of this?
“Peering through a thick window in a closed door, we saw a dark room where the spices were kept. In spite of the fierce air-filtering system, the entire space was murky brown, shrouded in fine spice-dust hanging in arid, nearly motionless suspension. A lone employee in an astronaut suit, complete with helmet and oxygen tank, was measuring cinnamon, cloves and pepper from enormous vats into semi-enormous containers. We were allowed to open the door briefly, holding our breaths. The employee gave us a thumbs-up, moving slowly in her gear. The room next door was jungle-level humid, as if we’d skipped to another planet. It smelled good: cranberry sauce with oranges. Every surface was slick with juice and bits of fruit.
“We ended our tour at the beginning of the potato line, a massive, high-ceilinged space for spud intake, dark and chilly, smelling of earth. Climbing one of many built-in steel ladders, we clung to a catwalk about thirty feet high and gazed down at seven segregated oceans of loose potatoes. Each ocean was a truckload, the entire contents of a really big semi. They were kept separate, John explained, because even the same breed of potato grows differently in different places. The first spuds from each truckload were tested as they went through production, so the settings could be tweaked for those particular taters. We climbed down.
“Suddenly, John was needed in another part of the factory, and Phyllis and I were politely but speedily ejected from the building. As we were getting back into Phyllis’s car, we saw a semi bringing in another trillion potatoes. The truck backed up to an open bay, beep beep beeeeeeeeeeep, and the whole boxcar-sized container began to rise. Then it slowly tilted nearly upright, rumbling, and the back door was opened. Loose potatoes thundered through the air for quite a long time, disappearing into the giant intake room we’d just left. I enjoyed watching that.”
Hello. Today I’m thinking about change management and how to handle those first few months after you’ve joined a company. What if you’re asked to be a change agent, but even your bosses resist your suggestions? I learned by doing it wrong, that it takes time to get to know a new company, and even more time to build managers’ trust in your ideas and judgment. In my second employee communications job, I tried to change too many things too quickly. My managers eventually began to approve of my work, but they never relaxed enough to really trust me—a problem I might have avoided if I’d started more slowly.
That company was more than 150 years old, but no one had written its history. I wish I’d written about the company's heritage as my first project. Not only would it have helped me do my job better, but it would have signaled my trustworthy intentions and pro-company stance to my managers. As “advocacy journalists,” we create a storyline that shows a company in its best light. That story is its culture, its heritage. Done right, it’s a source of pride for employees and trust for customers and shareholders. Has that story been written at your company? Was it offered to you during your job interview?
Communications professionals working with older companies generally have lots of material to draw from. However, there are ways to tell the story of a newer company—and it’s extremely helpful to start creating a compelling narrative as soon as possible.
See if this sounds familiar: You’ve joined a great young company. Exciting! Maybe next year it’ll go public, but in the meantime, the 50 or so employees are working crazy hours to do the best job ever. You know the CEO and top employees personally; everyone is on a first-name basis. Morale is high. Six months later there are 300 employees, and after a year, more than 1,000.
In a fast-growing company, a CEO who is accustomed to working directly with employees will lose that personal connection. Unless there’s a communications professional and plan in place, morale will suffer. Even your top executives will feel a sense of loss when they walk down a hall full of busy strangers, where once they recognized everyone. Aspects of company culture, seemingly learned by osmosis when there were 70 employees, will be lost when those 70 people make up only 10 percent of the workforce. This is a risky time for the company's reputation, when a misunderstanding can lead to a post on social media … and just like that, a company’s shiny brand is not so shiny any more.
Founders, please hire communications professionals early on. Choose someone you like and respect, and give them access to you. Create an employee communications plan. You’ll be glad you did.
Thank you for your time today.
Hello. Today I'd like to talk about pinpointing corporate culture. Here’s a major lesson I learned about #changemanagement: If a company’s culture is difficult to identify and characterize, the culture is going to be impossible to move.
Typical roadblocks are a lack of documented company history (often the case with newer companies that grew quickly), frequent changes to the vision-mission-goals (watch for CEO turnover), or functional groups behaving more like factions than allies. I’ve found that researching and highlighting stories about the company’s origins and history can build a solid, trustworthy identity. In my opinion, it's a necessary foundation before I’d begin to introduce the strategic changes needed to move forward.
Looking for a job? You’re already assessing a company’s culture during your interviews for an #employeecommunications position. Take notes! This is your only opportunity to see the company’s culture with fresh eyes. Of course you’re doing the usual job-seeker research, but you can also analyze the company’s character. Is it clearly perceptible? What are your impressions, and are they being conveyed similarly by multiple interviewers? All of the messages you receive during the hiring process can be useful to you, not only as to whether the job's a good fit, but also as the beginning of your ongoing communications research if you join the company.
During interviews in the past, I wish I'd paid more attention to the communication team’s tools and what they say about the job. I once worked for a giant multinational that had no database of all employees’ physical or email addresses, negating effective “push” communications. Another big question: is there a flagship publication? (I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that sometimes “push” print pieces are a wonderful addition to the online “pull” emails and links. Print pieces last, and you can place them in your lobbies. They can be meaningful keepsakes. Employees can take them home, where their families can read them, too. Maybe I'm dreaming, but could an online magazine be supplemented with a print version, if only once a year?)
In what countries does the company operate? Do onsite managers have input on translations and cultural sensitivity? As to content, what strategic campaigns are currently in place? How is the style--is it boring? In my experience, the most engaging internal stories aren’t about products or services. They’re about the employees who make the products, solve the problems, deliver the services.
Once you’re hired, make note of how new employees are welcomed. Is it smoothly done, or chaotic? What does orientation (if any) look like? All of the elements that make up an employee’s experience with the company communicate something, be it good, bad, or indifferent—and the experience drives employee satisfaction.
Thank you for your time today, and have a great week.
... because as a freelancer I don't get the chance to mentor as many people as I'd like. In the hope it's useful, I'm offering some of the lessons I learned.
I’ll start with two things I wish I’d done differently: I should have heeded red flags before accepting jobs at a couple of places; and I should have spent more time absorbing a company’s culture and history before suggesting that it change.
What would you ask before joining a company as an employee communications professional? I think CEOs deserve scrutiny: Every company is unique, and CEOs have an enormous influence on culture. What is the CEO’s style? Is there turnover in the C-Suite? Does the board trust the CEO? Do you? What do you think of the CEO’s commitment to employees; diversity, equity and inclusion; and quality management/process improvement? What does the CEO think of your role?
Where does your employee communications department report? (Organizational Development within Human Resources was ideal in the aughts, rather than Advertising or Marketing, where it sometimes languished as an extra assignment shoved onto copywriters.) What’s your budget, and what are the current employee communications vehicles? Will you have a coordinating part to play in Vision/Mission/Goals and brand wording? Public relations? Speechwriting for executives?
Employee communications is a fun and fascinating career, and in my next post I’d like to share and learn about ways to assess a company’s culture and communications. I’d like to add one more item today: the employee communications department’s raison d’ȇtre. I once joined a company and was proudly shown my predecessor’s mission statement: “We will engage employees’ hearts, heads, and hands.” (True story.) I discarded it. That company’s employees there weren’t all that happy, and talking about their hearts and heads wasn’t helping. Besides, I was taught in the 1990s that employee communications exists because good leaders know it improves productivity and the company’s bottom line.
Past travels with a trusty camera; current work on James E. Brewton Foundation research and memoir
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