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Communication Pros Take Notice

In the mid-nineties, a University of Michigan professor named David Ulrich made a bold statement: “HR must give value or give notice.”

Back then, many top companies were reinventing their human resources departments —shifting work from traditional personnel administration toward workforce capability building and dramatically increasing the value that HR contributed to their organizations.
Fifteen years later, communication departments need to take notice.

Last week, I addressed a regional conference of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).  They heard a similar wakeup call from my former colleague and past IABC chairman, Mark Schumann, whose keynote presentation bluntly asked: “Can business communication reinvent itself or is the ride over?  And he pointed out that:  “Our profession is disappearing before our eyes.”

I spoke the day before on a related subject: “Reinventing the Role of the Communication Function: From Tactical Implementers to Value-Adding Change Leaders.” While Mark’s comments centered around the what and why of the need to change, mine addressed how that change needs to take place, based on work we’ve been doing with clients for a long time.  From the audience’s reaction, it hit it the spot.

Here’s the short version of what’s going on.

Communication departments are doing the same things today that they were doing 30 years ago—distributing news and information. Only the media have evolved.

Amid the flurry of communication activity is Adam, who sits in his sales office in Dallas losing customers and revenues because he can’t get pricing information quickly enough to pass on to his prospects before his competitors do.  Then there’s Jennifer, who struggles to meet her claims processing accuracy and speed goals because she hasn’t received proper instructions on how to do her job.  And in the company across the street, they’re having trouble getting new products to market because their matrix structure all but stifles the cross-functional information sharing that’s needed to innovate.

Lack of information, inaccurate information, mixed messages and slow moving information represent organizational friction that gets in the way of people who otherwise could get passionate about eating the competitors’ lunch, if only they could get the information they need to do so.   Essentially, many communication people are very busy doing the wrong things—things that add little to no value, if you define value as those things for which customers are willing to pay.

However, as with HR departments of the mid-nineties, today there are enlightened communication pros who are hard at work reinventing themselves. They report to leaders who understand that one of the most virulent forces working against organizational super performance are communication breakdowns that almost dare people to try to be their best at what they do.

Reinvented communication departments are focused less on output and more on outcomes that matter. Results such as improving quality, service, delivery, safety, costs and productivity. Their priorities are based on the size of the gains they can create and the amount of returns they can generate, not who screams the loudest. This business concept is being adopted by departments that heretofore have been stuck playing a role that was relatively detached from the business of making money.

As I told my crowd in Pittsburgh, you’re going to have to step back and ask yourselves Philip Kotler-like questions such as what businessare you in, how are you going to add value, what do you really need to be good at it?  Assess what’s working and what’s not while putting a price tag on both. Then you need to shift your work to that which adds measurable value to your organization and scrap that which doesn’t .  Skill-up now so you can be amazingly good at what you need to do to succeed.

This is a big job. But those who’ve made the transformation are happy people. They know they’re valued for the value they add. They go home at night knowing they made a difference in peoples’ lives.

The bonus is they’re also viewed as equal partners by their peers in other departments, including HR.

Is There a Best People Measure? Maybe Not.

Measurement is a powerful communication device.

What you count counts. What you measure tells people what’s important. It drives actions people take and the results they create.

When you try to measure too many things, it may tell the people you lack priorities because “everything’s important.”

Recently, we worked with a leadership team that had 15 performance measures. In focus groups employees told us they were confused about priorities. “One minute everyone’s running after improved safety,” one employee told me. “Then it’s quality. Then it’s something else. They need to make up their minds what’s important.”

We were able to whittle the list down to four core measures. Then everything that was said and done focused on those four measures.

One of the most difficult measures to decide on is a people measure—a measure that lets us know how well we’re leading our people.

Here are two schools of thought.

One school says that measuring relevant operating and financial performance such as safety, quality, delivery and cost or productivity is the best measure of how people are performing. Open book management supporters believe financial statements are stories about people and what they do. All their employees understand the financial statement and manage pieces of it every day.

The other school acknowledges that there are specific people-related measures that can be adopted. That’s fine in theory, but you need to make sure you know what outcomes you want before you adopt one of those measures.

Take engagement, for example. Measuring engagement through the use of surveys is useful, but engagement isn’t an outcome. It’s a condition that can lead to the right outcomes if focused well.

Or take retention. Measuring retention can be helpful if you’re measuring turnover of key people. But simply measuring retention may encourage managers to keep poor performers.

Productivity is another measure, with revenue per employee being the most widely used. But measuring revenue per employee might invite some leaders to downsize over the short term in order to hit the numbers, or play the numbers games by outsourcing people.

A better measure might be output produced to total employee compensation. This measures return on compensation (investment) rather than return on employees.

A few years ago, I worked with a client who measured the number of people attending training during a year. That’s fine if that’s all you want to know. But if you want to increase the competencies of your workforce so they generate better business results, you should measure that, not training hours.

Measurement is a powerful communication force. But if you don’t use it right it will send energy in all the wrong directions.

Get It Together!

Why don’t people work together?

Why don’t sales and production people work out the tension between inventories and on-time delivery?  Why don’t human resources and internal communication folks create and administer one employee survey instead of two?  Why don’t department heads with competing priorities work out their differences? Why do complex organizational matrices throw unnecessary political friction into an already overburdened business?

Yes, it’s true that some organizations have worked out these issues. But by my count, not many have. Huge amounts of productive time are wasted trying to negotiate the conflicting priorities, or figuring out ways to work around So-and-So who’s known as a turf-protector but has all the right contacts in high places.

How much could we get done for the customers if we didn’t have this collaboration friction?

Here are four likely root causes of condition, which in fancy-talk is known as organizational segmentation (versus integration).

The root causes:

  • The organizational arrangements are based on antiquated business functions, not on value streams. That is, they have little to do with meeting customer requirements.
  • Leaders are being paid to meet the goals of their business unit, geographic region, department or functional unit. The compensation arrangement dictates that they make the numbers, all else be damned. (It’s not that crass, but that’s really what it’s saying.)
  • There are no priorities, or too many priorities (one in the same), or conflicting priorities. Everyone is on his or her own and until someone figures out what it really takes to win, everything’s up for grabs.
  • Processes aren’t in place to enable conversations across functions. Even if the previously mentioned causes were tied down perfectly, when there’s no formal or informal way to build consensus (as in over lunch), getting together is difficult.

Most CEO’s I work with or know wouldn’t put up with what others routinely face before that nicely packaged presentation makes it to the CEO’s desk.

Congratulations to ITT for Winning Platinum

PR News announced that our client, ITT Corporation, won the 2010 Platinum Award for Internal Communication. The award recognizes the work we did in the company’s Texas Turbine Operation in Lubbock, Texas.  Courtney Reynolds led the effort for ITT.

The project was focused on integrating the so-called hard and soft sides of lean to improve operating and financial performance. During the effort, sales increased 30 percent, productivity went up 10 percent, quality went up 40 percent and on time delivery increased from 70-95 percent .

This work now is serving as a company model for other facilities undergoing a lean transformation.

To learn more, watch the video on the our home page.

Young Grads Need to Differentiate

I receive many resumes from recent or soon-to-be college graduates. Many are extremely bright kids from the best schools. They do a good job laying out what they’ve done before and during college, but almost all have a flaw that can be fatal in this economy.

Let’s assume you and I are looking at the resume I was reviewing last week. It was a model background, great college, lots of impressive activities and internships during school and between semesters. Call it the model background for a college kid.

Content was strong but the packaging was deficient. Call it an iPod in a crummy box, which Steve Jobs would never permit.  The primary packaging deficiency? Lack of differentiation. His model background did not sell him over all the other model backgrounds out there.

Here’s what I told a young neighbor who was seeking my “business advice” about her resume and job search just recently.

“You and others with model backgrounds are competing for a finite number of jobs. Think of yourself and your competition (i.e., those with other model backgrounds) as boxes of cereal on a supermarket shelf. You’re all sitting there with very model backgrounds that are waiting to be purchased. If I’m a recruiter or a hiring manager at Name Your Company and I have a pile of model backgrounds from people coming out of school (I’ve thrown away the ones from people with average backgrounds), why should I hire you? What is it about your resume that makes you more special than those other boxes of cereal on the shelves?

“Think of your resume as packaging, not a list of activities. There’s a reason Apple is obsessed with design and packaging. Sure, people buy the results that an iPod or Mac Pro delivers. But the cool packaging helps make Apple products further stand out—and sell.

One way to differentiate is to turn activities into results where you can.  I realize that a 21 year old has a smaller list of accomplishments than someone older.  But, try your best to explain not just what you did but why it mattered. If your competitors have lists of activities and you have even a small list of results, you may have a point of differentiation that will represent a tipping point for your customer.

A good hiring manager has choices (lots of them these days).  She will decide on the candidate that stands out above the crowd.

What will make you stand out and, in turn, make the hiring manager look good to her boss?

Your Position Has Been Eliminated?

A professional at a client company with whom I had worked called the other day to tell me he was leaving  because his position had been eliminated. I knew better. I knew there was a performance issue related to this person. But, when he was told he must go, his manager used “your position has been eliminated” as the reason, which it was not.

Yes, there are times when jobs must truly be eliminated. It happens in belt tightening efforts. It’s often why mergers and acquisitions occur in the first place–to take advantage of synergies. I’m not suggesting it’s right or wrong. But, it is a business reality.

However,  firing people for this reason happens frequently without any consolidation activity in a company. I think it’s a crappy way to terminate people and here’s why…

What’s also a business reality are the managers who do not address performance problems straight on. They fail to give someone who’s struggling the honest feedback they need to succeed. They don’t help the person shore up his or her weaknesses. Then, when “the decision” needs to be made about the poor performer’s future, the cop-out “your position has been eliminated,” is offered as the reason the person must leave the company.

Leaders use this excuse for several reasons. Some by nature are conflict-avoiders. Some have done a pathetic job of documenting performance conversations with the  under performer, so HR counsels the leader to eliminate the position rather than expose the company to legal action. Other leaders have never been adequately trained or held accountable for delivering constructive feedback.  And there are some who know what to do, but consider leading others a major intrusion into their already busy work-a-day lives.

The worst thing about using the “position has been eliminated” rationale is that it’s an out-and-out lie. It’s the equivalent of the internal email and external news release that announces the under-performing CEO’s sudden departure for “personal reasons.”  Certainly getting fired for poor performance is very personal. But we all know the guy was fired because he didn’t deliver. So we wink knowingly. But it’s still communicating to anyone who knows better that we are not telling the truth.

It’s the same with using the rationale that the position has been eliminated, when that really wasn’t the reason.

So rather than fix these root causes of a performance problem, we establish lying as a value to be perpetuated.  It becomes a cultural norm–alongside customer-centricity,  one company mentality, innovation, valuing people, integrity….