Friday Oct 03, 2008

A European Perspective



This week, I had the privilege of being in Austria, chairing the Marcus Evans conference on Employee Communication and Engagement. It was two days packed with presentations, perspectives and ideas. Even better, from my perspective, I was the only North American presenter.

So I had the chance to learn about Corporate Social Responsibility as part of the employee value proposition from a senior advisor at Hydro, a Norwegian metals company. Communicators from a bank in Hungary, a telecommunications company in the Czech Republic, and a financial institute in the U.K. spoke passionately about the importance of brand and the best ways to engage employees around it. Fiona McKerrow of Syngenta International AG shared her company's innovative method of challenging employees to create stories that demonstrated company values.

And yes, I shared the exciting work Sun is doing in the Web Next world, but was blown away listening to the great work happening at BT and ABB, as they push intranets to the next level. I also presented how we fuse change management and communication here at Sun; in return, I learned how OMV does it here in Austria.

Ah yes, we can be a sheltered lot here in the States. What we take for granted is seen as good, bad or sometimes just plain bizarre in other parts of the world. For example, a CEO who casually talks with employees? Not a big deal for us, but pretty unusual in more formal cultures. And it's fine to be a touch provincial – unless you're a global company. Then it's not OK. At all.

By the way, the next time I'm congratulating myself on my presentation skills, I'm going to remember my fellow presenters here in Austria, all of whom presented in English - a second or third language for the majority of them. Ginger Rogers dancing backwards - in heels.... Looking good.

So I thank the good folks at Marcus Evans for inviting me to act as the chairperson of this conference, and also for allowing me to share some of the cool stuff Sun is doing. I walked out of the conference with my head bursting with new ideas, but also feeling so proud of Sun and the work we've done. Sometimes you have to talk to people outside your own neighborhood to realize we have lot that we should feel very good about accomplishing.


Saturday May 10, 2008

Bragging Rights



In the midst of stories dissing my company because of our weak Q3 and subsequent drop - ok, plunge - in stock price, my day was brightened this morning when I opened up my morning paper, the Los Angeles Times. There, on the front page, was this headline: A Second Life for Corporate America

I'm an internal communicator, and my job is typically behind the scenes, not making headlines.  So the fact that our recent Global Employee Connections meeting in Second Life was prominently featured in the story has just made me grin, ear-to-ear.

Here's a quote from the story:

"Sun Microsystems, which makes computer servers and software, owns seven islands in Second Life, two of which are open to the public. The rest are used for training sessions and meetings. During its biggest event, a 12-hour corporate meeting held last month, 14 of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun's top executives hobnobbed with hundreds of employees. Alpine skiing, car racing, live jazz and a sandbox were also part of the event....

....Hundreds of Sun avatars lounged in the audience, some wearing sneakers and jeans, others in business attire, asking questions about new products, Second Life and Sun's competitive position. Thousands of other employees watched the virtual meeting on monitors in Sun's offices in Santa Clara, New York and Tokyo."

How did employees react to our global meeting in Second Life?  I'd say the reaction was pretty split, with some people loving it and other not so crazy about it. But while not everyone loved the experience, you've gotta love good publicity!

OK, I'm going to get this big grin off my face any minute now....




Tuesday Feb 05, 2008

"Question Authority, If You Dare"



I've been an avid reader of the Los Angeles Times since moving to Southern California in 1976.  It was a consistently terrific newspaper but has suffered under new ownership and market realities over the past few years, which is a real loss for the community. Now a member of the Tribune Company, I see its future as even more fragile.

Consider Molly Selvin's article in this morning's edition: Challenge Authority, if You Dare... It's a story that answers the question, "Why doesn't anyone ever ask executives any questions around here?"

The tale starts with a new employee handbook the Tribune put out.  The handbook got rid of the old boilerplate, turgid, stiff language and replaced it with clear, crisp  and frank directives.  Quoting the Los Angeles Times quoting the handbook: "Ask your manager, supervisor, business unit head or anyone in Corporate any question you have regarding the business.  Question authority and push back if you do not like the answer.  You will earn respect and not get into trouble for asking tough questions."

All right! You go, Tribune!  Music to this communicator's ears.  Alas, the story does not end there.  Sam Zell, the Tribune's new chairman, attended a staff meeting in Orlando, where he was asked a question he didn't much like by an Orlando Sentinel photographer.  His response was sarcastic and unpleasant. (And don't even get me started on the content of his response, which was pretty appalling.)  He completed his response by turning his head and muttering a two-word obscenity at the staff member.  One can only imagine...

Oh, wait!  There's no need to imagine.  Someone videotaped the meeting and now that infamous moment has made its way to YouTube and The Gawker, where all of us can enjoy it.

Putting lipstick on a pig does not make the pig beautiful.  Writing nice platitudes in your employee handbook does not transform a culture.  Please don't mislead employees about your true nature.  It's only a matter of time before the truth comes out.  Be genuine.  Be authentic.  Be yourself.  It's OK - we're all adults and we can deal with the truth.  What is hard to swallow and creates cynicism and disengagement is hypocrisy. If Mr. Zell didn't agree with the policies in the handbook, then he should have spoken up.  And if the communications department published that new handbook without getting executive buy-in, well, shame on them. 

Gee, why doesn't anyone ask any questions?  Maybe because the answer is a slap in the face.  Communicators beware....


Monday Oct 08, 2007

A Thousand Conversations



So I suppose this is a bad thing for Sun's head of employee communications to admit, but...

I hate company values communication campaigns. Too often, the campaigns feel contrived, celebrated with great chest beating, shouting how fabulous we are.  The content can be trite - I mean really, does any company have values that don't celebrate truth and justice? (see Divas, Liars and Thieves if you want to hear me continue the rant.) Ugly t-shirts, refrigerator magnets and paperweights engraved with "Our Company Values" complete the travesty.  Yuck.

And yet, I'm here to talk about Sun's values.  Without balloons.  Without Lucite pyramids. Without smugness. Because I believe we're doing this in the right way - articulating values that reflect who we are and who we want to be, and then tying the whole thing to performance management.

When Jonathan did his direct report reviews in August and September, he framed the conversations around the values that are near and dear to the core of this company.  And when he and his top management team reviewed high potentials and talked about succession planning, the dialogue centered as much on people's character, as exemplified in the values, as in their accomplishments.

That's putting your money where your mouth is. And it exemplified integrity, which happens to be one of our five values:

    o  Courage
    o  Integrity
    o  Innovation
    o  Collaboration
    o  Pace

By the way, Sun's reputation for courage, integrity and innovation brought me to this company almost five years ago.   At that time, collaboration was in scant evidence and pace a joke.  Since then, in my opinion, we've come a long way on collaboration, breaking down silos, truly putting all the wood behind one arrow. Pace?  Well, we're not going to win any land speed records just yet but there's recognition that we must do better in that area.  And as we all know, what is measured is what is done.  So putting the spotlight on pace can only help us.

Rather than bringing in the elephants and dancing girls to celebrate our values, let's do something a tad more meaningful.  Let's talk about them.  Talk to your co-workers, talk to your employees, talk to your managers about them.  We're all going to assessed on how we lived them this year - they are that important.  Let a thousand conversations begin, and let those spur another thousand, and another thousand, and then perhaps another thousand. Let's get clear on what these values mean to us as an organization, what they mean in our workgroups, and as leaders and employees in the company. In the end, how we hold ourselves and others accountable for living these values is what will make a difference.

For more on our values, you can listen to Bill MacGowan, our chief human resources officer, talk about them here.



Friday Sep 28, 2007

The Accidental Communicator



My sister, who is older and wiser than me (Sorry, sis!  I know, I know, you're not that much older than me!), once commented that it seems people come to their careers in one of two ways.  Some people just grow up knowing what they want to do.  My sister wanted to be an attorney, my husband a physician, my cousin both a musician and a lawyer (she recently retired from labor law, working with musicians, and now teaches the viola - talk about having your cake and eating it, too!).  Others, like yours truly, set out without a definite path.  We take various jobs along the way for various reasons, and if we're lucky, end up in an interesting place well suited to our skills.

I don't know anyone who said, "When I grow up, I want to do employee communications!"  Yet there's a bunch of us out there who have fallen into this odd way to make a living.  Over the past two weeks, I've met communicators from 20 different states here in the U.S. plus South Africa, Canada, Chile, the U.K., Slovakia, Singapore, to name a few. 

We have a lot in common - for example, we pretty much agreed that our profession has undergone huge changes in the past 10 years, and is now set to undergo another major shift.  But it's our differences that make for an interesting story.

Here at Sun, we pride ourselves on our global workforce, but we struggle on how to communicate and behave in a global manner.  Well, imagine you're a telecom company - such as T-Mobile, MTN Group or Zain, and you decide to grow through acquisition.  When these guys acquire a company, they often acquire a portion of the globe that they weren't in before.  Based in South Africa, like MTN?  To grow, you're now dealing with other parts of the African continent, with vastly different cultures than that of South Africa.  And you're now in the Middle East, where once again you face huge societal differences. (BTW, their very clever way of bringing people together is to introduce a new way to greet each other and answer the phone: "Y'ello!"  See, their brand color is yellow and... well, anyway.  Darned clever.  And effective.  Wish I'd thought of it!)

Talk about change management and communication!  So it was a true pleasure to rub shoulders at this Jacob Fleming conference with the resourceful, creative and smart communicators who help lead their organizations through change.

From there I moved on to Chicago where I was privileged to give the keynote address on social media at the Melcrum Conference. The crowd was enthusiastic, excited and engaged, leading to   many terrific conversations about social media and other communication challenges.  There were many presentations, such as Roger D'Aprix's excellent and moving address about our profession, that will stick in my mind for a long time.  But for now, let me leave you with the advice given us by David Grossman, CEO of Chicago-based dg&a:

        My Summary of dg&a's 7 Must Do's for Communicators:

  1. Daring discipline in planning - excellent execution doesn't happen without careful, thoughtful planning.
  2. A method to your greatness - set service level agreements, pay attention to messaging, increase your efficiency with common templates for strategy development and measurement, tie your work to performance management systems for maximum impact
  3. Drive the business goals globally and locally - don't be a headquarters geek or a silo servant.  Look around and make sure you're aiming at the right audience - and results.
  4. Conversations rule -Nothing has as much impact as a conversation between two people.  Communicators need to be ready to ask the tough questions, change the dialogue, listen well and encourage others to listen well.
  5. Continually upgrade the skills in your group - don't get stuck with yesterday's standards.  Push the limits; insist that everyone stay up-to-date and try new things
  6. Meaningful measurement - that which you measure is that which gets done.  Look for ways you can impact the bottom line, increase key indices around employee engagement and productivity.
  7. Unparalleled strategic counsel - be a business person first, and a communicator second.  You'll be amazed at the increase in your impact
Like these a lot.  Especially #4 and #7.  To both I would add, do this with courage and conviction.  Be civil and respectful - but have an opinion and a spine to back it up.

Accidental communicators?  Well, yes, at least for me.  Accidental contributor?  Not on your life - that's all planned, worked on and driven with passion.






Monday Jul 09, 2007

Truth or Consequences



At the Sun Social Mashup that I spoke of in my last post, we got into a vigorous discussion over the veracity of wikis versus print.  Some participants pointed out that some pretty big untruths had been outed from Wikipedia, and that wikis should be viewed with caution because the information may not be reliable.

And print is reliable?  Hmmm, I beg to differ. 

While there is great comfort in holding a book or magazine in your hands, adding "weight" to your research, the fact is that no media is exempt from fiction parading as fact.  Remember the brouhaha over James Frey's book, "A Million Little Pieces"?  Was it a factual recount of his efforts to become clean or was it a historical novel, with some fact and some fiction mixed in? (I found it a great read, by the way, regardless of what literary license was taken.)  Want another example?  How about the books that claim the Holocaust never occurred?  Or instruction manuals that are so poorly written that they are misleading or just plain wrong?

Now those who were arguing that print is more reliable talked about the fact that respectable publications have editors who lend a critical eye to the content and, if they're doing their job well, uncover inconsistencies and shaky information.  I can't argue with that, and in fact the growing reluctance of too many publications to invest in fact-checkers makes me uneasy.  The web does leave us without official editors and replaces them with passionate participants who likely have an ax to grind.

Still.... does the light of day expose fraud and bad information?   James Surowiecki's book, "The Wisdom of Crowds," reviews how a diverse, independent audience of thinkers can uncover the facts and make sure good information surfaces.  My first reaction to this argument, I admit, was that "the wisdom of crowds" sure sounded like an oxymoron to me.  Paul Ginsparg of Cornell University put in more eloquently: "The problem with the global village is all the global village idiots." But when you actually read Surowiecki's book, you see that under the right conditions, the crowd can actually provide a powerful - and accurate - counterpoint to the thoughts of a single person.

Who do you trust?   Information is only as good as its source.  As a writer who has been in the communications game for more years than I like to think about, I know that more eyes can create higher quality - different people catch mistakes that slip right by the writer.  And that, of course, is the beauty of wikis. 

Then again, only a fool believes everything they read without independent thinking and review.  Let the reader beware.



 



Friday Jun 29, 2007

Revolution



Revolutions are generally poorly funded, chaotic, messy affairs.  By definition, they are grass roots.  There are moments of glory and moments of ignominy.  And the outcome is not guaranteed.

Revolution is on my mind, not only because of the July 4th holiday here in the states but because of a very interesting meeting we hosted here at Sun yesterday - our first Sun Social Networking Mashup. Forty folks joined us, both in person and virtually, as we came together to talk about how we can move the company forward, pushing the envelope further and further.  Communications, software, marketing, labs, the field and many other groups were represented.

Is revolution an overstatement?  Not at all.  Our session demonstrated many of the characteristics of an uprising - grass roots,  little funding, lots of egos (heck, mine alone took up two seats!), lots of ideas, agreement, disagreement, debate, discussion, and, well, some chaos.  What a blast it was!

Mashup1   Mashup2

So in this brave new world, our leaders will learn that they must earn their audiences, much as bloggers do.  A title will get you a first listen, but not necessarily a second.  Messages needs to be sharp, meaningful and relevant - the audience has moved from victim to volunteer.  Communicators don't get off unchanged either.  We will find that "managing the message" is a thing of the past.  The genie is out of the bottle, and the smart communicator needs to find out how to facilitate the process, not fight it.  And life for the citizenry?  Overwhelming, involving, self-selected.  

John Dutra, our CTO for IT, pointed out that 40 people can't change the world.  But 40 people can convert another 40 people, who can convert another 40 people, and so it goes.  In fact, there are already thousands of people at Sun who have joined the revolution - now the question becomes how we can use the revolution to form new communities, to collaborate with people who we might never have thought to team with before.

Mistakes, missteps, collisions are all a part of this.  How wonderful to work for a company that embraces this messy process.  For in that way we are a state-sanctioned revolution, chartered by our leadership to leap ahead, assume nothing and make the new world ours.


Monday Jun 11, 2007

The Face of Communication



When our daughter, Carolyn, was a new baby, I used my limited craft skills to create a little human faces mobile to hang over her crib.  Aside from the fact that my husband claimed that the faces looked more like demons than humans and worried I was traumatizing our firstborn, Carolyn stared and cooed at the faces endlessly.  This is hardly a testament to my craft skills - it's a fact that babies are wired to recognize and react to human faces.

So I can't say I was terribly surprised to see the results of a recent survey at Sun that showed 61 percent of our employees still prefer to get information from their manager.  Social networking makes it easier for managers to reach out to employees and do much of what employees like - provide context to the information, cast it in terms of what matters to the manager, the employee and their group, and just talk about it.  Emoticons make it possible to humanize the interaction, sharing feelings and being more genuine.

But there's still something about face-to-face communication that is pretty impactful.  Consider a seminar I attended last week on social media and communication.  At the session, we saw a demo of a virtual world that was used for company meetings. Part of it was way cool. Virtual meeting places, personalized avatars, interfacing with the real world through a window to a physical conference room...great stuff. In fact, the person speaking to us was from Europe and joining us through his avatar on a big screen in the conference room.

But.  I found the experience devoid of emotion and not terribly engaging. Why? Because I was looking at a face that didn't smile, wince, roll eyes, frown, blink or show any kind of reaction at all.  Any expressions that came through from body positioning (fold, unfold arms, etc.) were consciously initiated, taking the authenticity factor away.  We saw what he wanted us to see, not who he really is.  I couldn't relate to him.

So while I find virtual worlds intriguing, I can't say I find them engaging.  And I think we'll have to do a better job on the engagement side so that the worlds are not just an intellectual exercise or a video game.  Or I think lots of us will lose interest in them pretty quickly.

We're pioneers together in this world.  And because communication is at the heart of our humanity, what we do in shaping this world will in turn shape ourselves and our children - how we share, how we relate.  What an opportunity we have.  And what a privilege.



Monday Jun 04, 2007

When Truth Meets Perception



The sky is definitely orange.  The sky is definitely purple.

I was listening to a National Public Radio show from April in which Bill Moyers talked about his return to PBS.  Moyers spoke about the role of the press in reporting and interpreting information, and how that's more difficult today than it has been in a long time.  This made me think about my own role as chief employee communications guru at Sun, and what the role of my team is in communicating with Sun employees.

When I first joined Sun early in 2003, I spent a fair amount of time just reading and listening to much of the archived internal communications we had on hand.  Frankly, I was disappointed.  It felt to me like a spin machine, and after hearing again about how splendid things were at Sun, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, I remember taking my headset off and groaning.  Why couldn't we just 'fess up and talk about the world as it really was in 2003 - we had quality problems, our stock sucked, morale was in the toilet and there was tangible fear that we would be acquired by a company whose vision and values were very different than ours.

I've lost some of my naivety since then, and I do understand that there are some things that it is wise not to discuss in public forums - you don't want to yell, "Fire!", and start a stampede, for example.  But there are many others that should not be kept in the closet.  You don't solve problems by pretending everything is just ducky.  You solve problems by facing them and coming up with solutions.  And that means communicating about them.  Honestly.  Fairly.  Objectively.

The sky is definitely orange.  The sky is definitely purple.  Who is right?  How do you get to the underlying facts and how do you present them in such a way that you treat both sides with respect?  And what is your role in pointing out that maybe, just maybe, the sky is, in fact, blue?

We've done some pretty interesting things at Sun to open up the environment.  We've run polls on our internal home page after quarterly earnings reports, asking employees if their confidence in Sun was better, worse or about the same after hearing the news.  The results weren't always fun to get, depending on the quarter.  But it let us know what people were thinking.  We've asked employees what one question they would want answered by our executives -- and received hundreds of questions, some of them tougher than what even Mike Wallace in his heyday might have asked.   When executives know that employees know what's going on, good things happen.  Just like when politicians know citizens are paying attention...

Open questions help with open communication.  It's harder to dodge the tough issues when you have 34,000 employees asking you about them.  So what are the principles of a principled communicator?  Well, just about the same as a principled Sun employee, as embodied in our Sun values of innovation, courage, collaboration, pace and perhaps most important of all, integrity

And by the way, the thorniest communication problems come not with reporting if the sky is purple or orange.  It's those shades of blue and gray that are the toughest to manage...
 


 


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