Do You Have Skin in the Game?


In 1999, a silver haired bespectacled gentleman – Rajpal at an advertising agency I worked taught me an important lesson.

Responsible for the production department his role was crucial to the success of any brand campaign we ran.

Those days, hard copy artworks were the norm as designs moved from concept to completion. Rajpal, a hard taskmaster and the ‘owIMG_0108ner’ of the agency studio never allowed any artwork to go past him to production unless the copy chief, the art head and the client servicing executive had all signed on the copies. If anyone evaded his attempts at penning their signatures they often got it back hard. He would ignore their pleas on billing or look the other way for any new tasks which came by.

No amounts of name dropping or calls for urgency were entertained. He was labelled ‘hard hearted’ and ‘cruel’ by many in the organization but the leaders knew the value he added. He was the quality gatekeeper and the conscience of the agency! Rajpal would give his customary grin if an account executive told him how upset the client was or that we were close to losing a prestigious account. Nothing unfazed him. If you hadn’t got the requisite approvals and sign-offs the client could wait and the design wouldn’t leave the office!

By ensuring people put their skin in the game (by signing their name on what they crafted) or believed were their best work he put ownership back in context. Apart from the individual’s and the agency’s reputation on the line there was a lot more at stake – the client’s funds, the time and effort of many team players  and most importantly, the respect for the process.

Think of the work you do every day in your department and what leaves your inbox as it heads towards your stakeholder. Did you put your best foot forward? Are you truly proud of what you delivered?

Consider a campaign your team is managing currently. Did your team sign off on their work? Do they have a stake in the outcome? Have you sought better quality on outcomes if they didn’t meet the mark? Are you agreeable if the outcomes were met if the process wasn’t followed? Does the buck stop with you or with the team?

What passes by you becomes the standard that others think you have set for yourself and for others. To have skin in the game you need to take ownership, champion quality and be committed.

The 5 Cs Of Effective Face-To-Face Employee Interactions


Aligning employees on key organizational messages can be done using many channels such as webcasts, e-mail and chats.  Call them ‘huddles’ or ‘open houses’ or ‘town halls’, face-to-face communication is known to be the best format to engage employees. Although getting all staff at one venue can be an expensive and unmanageable process at times. How can employee-leadership face-to-face interactions be effectively conducted? What must internal communicators be aware of while implementing such engagements?

Here are 5 key themes to consider.

Connection: To begin, you need a strong reason to connect with your employees. There are often many questions on their minds and not every question may be relevant for face-to-face conversations. Attention spans are on the wane and unless you link your interactions to a specific topic which appeals to employees you may not get wholehearted participation. There is also a lot to think of as you plan your interactions. Will the interactions be held at a specific location and periodically? Do you plan to have all or some of your leaders convey the messages? Do you want to invite questions in advance or keep a free-flowing format? It is important to give your employees sufficient notice on the sessions and make it accessible for all. Depending on how your businesses are structured or how the workplace is designed you can hold your interactions at spaces which don’t disturb employees’ everyday work.

Climate:  The timing of these face-to-face interactions matter. Leaders must get in front of employees when they are most receptive to your messages.  Employees need to have the mind-space to actively engage. It is important to be in front of your employees during times of large changes such as mergers, restructures, leadership movements and crises. Of course, meeting employees face-to-face needn’t be only about change – leaders need to also make time for recognitions and celebrate important occasions and successes.

20150725_143507

Content: How you deliver in terms of content is as important as what you deliver. Give sufficient notice to employees on what they can expect during the interactions and how they can engage. Host a calendar on your intranet and explain how they can make the most of the opportunities to know the business context and their role in the organization’s future. Prep your leaders on the content they must address. If possible organize ‘dry’ runs. Structure the content to include sufficient time for Q&A. If you have a presentation to share, the leader’s interaction mustn’t be scripted or else it will appear staged. Provide messages that all leaders need to share consistently.  An inspiring video interspersed during the presentation can add depth to the interaction. Often internal communicators are asked to keep business interactions ‘light’ by including entertainment/talent programs. De-linking the two pieces can provide better focus during the conversations.

Culture: Modify your approach based on your organization’s culture. If you have a rigid and hierarchical culture there is little chance of employees having open and transparent conversations. However, if employees do notice that leaders are accessible and respond with respect they will be keener to participate. On the other hand if you have a pulse of how your employees think you can consider involving them early in the process so that they feel comfortable with the interactions. Remember to circle back on suggestions that employees shared. If your leaders are unable to make progress with a specific suggestion it is important to communicate the reasons and the alternate solutions offered. It is fine for leaders to not know the answers to all questions as long as they are open to responding when they get the information sought by employees.

Consistent: Brand your interactions so that employees get to see consistent messages through your ‘surround’ communication. Empanel an informal group of employees to share feedback on the sessions. Report an update from every session with information on participation and themes which emerge from the interactions. Also capture feedback via online surveys to gauge the value of the interactions and the potential actions employees will take based on the messages shared.  Review the questions for insights that can support future communication. Record a couple of interactions on video. These can also come in handy for your post session communication and for future interactions.

Although face-to-face interactions are time consuming and expect a lot from leaders they are rewarding and help build trust – a crucial competent of engagement.

What has been your experience with managing face-to-face employee conversations? Please share them here.

Look Within To Guide Your Branding Decisions


Decision making in corporate communication is as important as in any part of the business.  Bad decisions can frustrate even the best intentions and demoralize the most energized team. Without a structured attempt at aligning objectives and outcomes placing your bet on any communication ‘property’ is a shot in the dark. Just as how Lina and her team discovered in a case study – ‘Shall We Brand An Athletics Meet?’ I shared recently.

Often communicators, branding experts or event management professionals are expected to define, create and invest in events that will enhance the brand image and reputation of their organization. They need to consider many questions. Those include:

  • Which branding exercise makes the most sense for the organization?
  • Do you sponsor an existing event or focus on a ‘not so well-known’ theme?
  • Will you gain from a ‘first mover advantage’ or does it really matter?
  • Is it wise to create your own event and brand it?
  • How do you manage the engagement? Internally with a handful of employees or outsourced to an agency?

Such decisions can be vexing for even the most seasoned communication leader. Very often internal stakeholders have a say in such decisions and are called to align internal priorities with what will work outside for the brand. Bias can creep in and heavily impact final decisions. Such decisions are saddled with many challenges; they are often poorly thought through, lack clarity, and are unable to generate pride and excitement. Sometimes, a recent trend can become the wave your leadership team may want to ride.

20150802_114229

How do you navigate through these discussions and what will guide communication professionals in arriving at a pragmatic approach for their event or brand strategy?

In this post I am sharing perspectives that can help communicators make an informed decision and steer conversations towards a meaningful outcome.

  • Taking stock of your goals: Many organizations have a great event going year on year – either funding a sporting program or a technology forum. This can in partnership with an agency or in tandem with an industry body or a series of collaborators. Other companies look to this engagement and wonder if they need to join the bandwagon or do something that works in their interest. To arrive at that decision, the communicator must first understand what makes the most sense for the business, who are the stakeholders are and how do they perceive what the company stands for and will there be merit and appetite to pick something new. Triggers for event branding can be an output of an internal need – a new strategic direction, a need to increase the customer base, connect (or, reconnect) with customers, builds loyalty and recall. Outcomes expected from such events include more customer leads, proud employees, improved sales prospects, better brand recall and enhanced customer experience.
  • Gauging your organization’s ‘branding’ readiness: Not every organization needs to be funding an event or creating one. Understand the motivators for getting into the event branding league and take a hard call if your organization is really keen to be in the game. Beginning a branding journey is easy but staying the course is much harder. Unless you have the resources and the inclination such events soon die a natural death. Your first port of call must be your employees – seek their inputs on what they expect from their brand internally and externally. It can even be that the organization needs to be more active as a corporate citizen and ‘own’ a social responsibility property.
  • Arriving at your event ‘property’: It is never an easy task to nail the right theme to link your business goals.  If you are in the healthcare sector it may be relevant for the organization to focus on improving a specific health area or lead in a certain challenge that is impacting society globally or locally. Research what is already out there in terms of organized and sustained brand initiatives. Are they one-off exercises? Can you think of any specific brand in your sector that stands out in your mind? If there is an immediate recall the chances are that the brand is doing something which works!
  • What does the organization stand for? Are you known as knowledgeable, trusting, caring, and supportive or any other key attribute that defines your core? If yes, begin from within to identify branding themes that relate to these attributes.
  • What do your stakeholders care about? Not just customers, it is also your employees who need to have a say.
  • Where does your organization’s brand need to go? Is it known as old-world and archaic? Has the organization’s purpose evolved over the years? Does it need to now be seen as young and vibrant? Does your organization want to be known for being innovative? It needs to first demonstrate over time that there is merit in taking the ‘innovation’ space otherwise the branding effort will not be viewed as credible.
  • How does it link to your organization’s business goals? Consider what is logical first – is you are in the sports business funding a athletics meet or a marathon makes sense. A bank funding a marathon can be a stretch even though initially it may be seen as good for the brand. To establish the connection you will need to invest heavily in terms of time, effort and funds.
  • Is your organization taking an unique position? Think how the branding can differentiate you from others. What is that your stakeholders and employees will be proud to share with others? If there is an immediate recall you are closer to arriving at your branded event focus.
  • Event branding approach: Consider a few approaches that resonate. Begin small. Consider seeding the initiative with your employees first. If possible, extend the initiative to their families and gauge the response. Focus on initiatives that are:
  • Aligned with business objectives
  • In line with stakeholder/societal needs
  • Focus on long term relationships
  • Test the idea and theme with stakeholders through a structured survey or by running focus groups. Improve and refine the approach based on feedback you receive. Consider if there is a team you can organize internally to own and drive the brand event engagement. If not, you will need to look up an agency that runs it for your organization. Budgets and other factors will decide if the latter approach is viable or not. Focus on a branding initiative that can be extended beyond the initial years, has a future potential and which can be sustained over time.

Communicate the progress on the branding decision making while you are moving forward. Keep refining the idea till you are confident you have arrived at what the brand’s stakeholders will value. Nothing works like going back to the core of your existence and seek answers within.

6 Steps To Enable Individual Social Responsibility At Your Organization


Tanya works as an administrative officer for a large real-estate firm with global operations. Her company has made CSR commitments for the environment and sustainable practices in line with their business objectives.

As a real-estate firm developing properties means that they need to cut trees and make way for large projects in the city. Therefore, the company decided to make afforestation a priority. Tanya is passionate about educating less fortunate children in her neighborhood and spends time every week at an orphanage engaging your people. Over the years she has observed that the school lacks funds for basic infrastructure and even though she has asked her circle of friends it never adds up to much. She is in a dilemma knowing her organization won’t be supportive since the focus areas and priorities are different.

Supporting Personal Passion

Every organization running CSR initiatives are expected to focus on core areas of interest aligned with their business goals. This often leaves employees who contribute their energies on other pursuits feel unrepresented. Yes, employees need to follow their heart with initiatives that matter to them.  What if organizations can pitch in with support for people like Tanya who contribute through ‘individual social responsibility’?

Individual social responsibility can be defined as prosocial actions to do good for society by people in their personal capacities. It can range from helping elders in an old age home, creating learning material for schools, teaching young adults life skills among others. Often these individuals form a collective and do more together or continue their good work in their own little way. Key elements of such engagements are personal accountability, stakeholder relationships, passion to improve society and ability to spot opportunities. The issues of scale and funds are some of the constraints that hinder better and sustained impact.

If you are leading or shaping your organization’s corporate social responsibility policies there is immense value in making your plans more inclusive. It is in your organization’s best interest to tap the power of employee volunteering. Such acts spread positivity among other employees and for others outside the firm. Research studies also indicate that employees who volunteer their time are more engaged at work and give them meaning and a purpose in life.

Here are 6 steps to help you make your process open and fair while helping leaders make appropriate decisions.

Gauge the interest within: Your volunteering surveys and informal conversations can give you insights on where and how your employees currently give back their time for CSR.  If you haven’t yet run a survey consider asking questions about their current engagement, how much time they devote, what skills they offer and why they volunteer with those specific institutions.  Have there been requests from employees to support causes they participate in? If you see a lot of interest your organization is probably ready for ‘individual social responsibility’ championing.

20150725_141151

Define your approach: It can be confusing and unmanageable if organizations receive a flood of requests for support. Some organizations allocate a certain portion of funds for such initiatives while others try to blend it within their overall CSR framework. However, to ensure there is consistency and transparency, organizations need to define a clear approach and process to enable such opportunities to be surfaced. Very often employees want organizations to be aware of what they do and be heard. They may not even need funds – just encouraging words can go a long way.

Outline a clear process:  Explain why your organization is willing and open to supporting employees with their causes. Earmark a certain portion of funds which we can invest in say the top 5 initiatives which employees can bring to the table.  Even by getting all initiatives tabled they get the spotlight and attention they deserve – which is motivating for employees .Announce officially  the commitment for individual social responsibility and that the organization will evaluate and decide which ones to go with in a fair and open process.

Spell out the criteria: Keep it simple so that employees don’t feel overwhelmed by the process. Here are some steps:

  1. a) Employees to present their proposals as projects to the CSR committee
  2. b) Employees need to be involved directly and lead the initiatives they propose
  3. c) Employees need to work with the internal teams to conduct due diligence (e.g., financial review of NGOs, provide references of companies who are currently engaging with the entities, formal request for support from the institutions themselves)
  4. d) They need to commit to a minimum of 6-8 months of continuous involvement
  5. e) Must have a succession plan in which they nominate employees who can carry on the good work
  6. f) The project must highlight the long term view and the impact it creates (people it will reach/impact, the value etc)
  7. g) The project must have ways to scale up or improve other similar initiatives (school curriculum development for example can be extended to other schools who have needs).
  8. h) Employees need to report the progress and impact periodically

Enable the initiatives:  To ensure these initiatives are successful your internal systems and processes need to be in place and flexible. Can employees get access to funds in a simple, transparent manner? Can they expense claims based on actual bills? Are the key stakeholders involved in improving the process? Provide easy to use templates for employees to bring proposals to the table. Participate and understand what the projects aim to deliver. Make visits to the places the funds will reach. Remember to recognize great work.

Consider the issues: While opening up on individual social responsibility don’t take your eyes off the core CSR focus areas. Consider the bandwidth of your CSR committee and how much time they can spare. Be sure of how many and to what extend you can support initiatives. Sometimes, the initiatives can bloom into a very large engagement. Have a plan to review the engagement and also step back if it isn’t adding value to employees and the communities you support.

Overall, there is immense value in engaging your employees and supporting their interests in ways that work for both the organization and the communities. Having a clear and simple process and strategy can improve your chances of succeeding in your pursuit of promoting ‘individual social responsibility’.

Shall We Brand An Athletics Meet?


Lina proposed a branding idea to the leadership team of RayStar Service Centre, a captive unit of a leading travel company and listened as the group debated the pros and cons of event branding.

Lina is the head of HR and she has been tasked with improving employee morale which has seen a dip in recent times. The organization isn’t faring too well either with the travel business slowing down a bit. Lina is very passionate about sports and been a state level basketball player for many years before making her mark in the corporate world.

Manish (CEO): “Lina, thanks for bringing this proposal to the table. When we met as a group, we had reviewed our current state of our business, looked at how our employees were feeling disconnected and what we needed to do more to re-engage. I appreciate your interest in sports and can see the drive you have to make this happen. We are evaluating other proposals as well. Before, we get there I would like my leadership team to share their views.”

Imam: (Business Head – IT): “Lina, it might help for us to get a gist of what this proposal is about. We can give our views thereafter.”

Lina: “Our employees are well connected and know what is going on in the corporate world. I have heard many of them share how TripMate and HippHop are branding large scale events in the city and country and that they are getting influenced by how those organizations are having more brand awareness in the talent market. You are aware that some of our employees recently moved to these entities. That apart, we haven’t as a brand been present in terms of an event we can own and call it ours. I am sure if we invest in one big ticket event – either as a sponsor or creating one theme we will be in the news”.

20150712_111910

Imam: “Ok, so we feel that there is a need to be more aggressive in our brand building effort. I am surprised however that we aren’t known as much as TripMate and Hipphop despite us being around longer than them in the industry. Also, our profile as a captive doesn’t warrant us to be out there actively pitching for events. We don’t have customers in the country per se – we do all our work for our parent company. Yet, I do understand that doing something which relates to our audiences may help us improve our standing. Were you considering an external event or was it internal?”

Jane: (Business Head – Emerging Countries): “Lina, I agree with Imam. Is there really a need for doing something like sponsoring or owning an event? Can’t we just participate and get some basic brand visibility? Also, if our employees are feeling low, we should do an event for them, first – right?”

Lina: (looking flustered): “I meant we can also do something for employees first and see how it shapes up. But, if we do it externally, there will be more takers and we will get all the media attention we can ask for. I am very excited and know this sports meet will be a big hit. You can see how well some of the recent sports events such as professional league kabaddi was received. Our athletes are doing well in global events as well. We have stars in the making right in our country.”

Dipak: (Business Head – Marketing): “Folks, I have been listening in to this discussion and have a point of view. From a marketing perspective this makes a lot of sense. It is important to be visible and be known in an area that we can promote and project. However, I am unclear on why we need to be doing a sports meet? Why not do something which impacts travelers? Why not a travelogue on TV? Why not an arts exhibition? Or support travel journalists? Or our employees like Jane mentioned. Incidentally, we can also check if there is an opportunity under the CSR themes that the government has defined”

Imam: “These are good suggestions. Do we know if our employees want an event or our travelers see it as a need which will change how they perceive us as a brand? Dipak, do we have any research that explains what they currently think? Or why can’t we sponsor some athletes whom we can nurture. Or better still, can’t we create an academy to train these athletes. ”

Dipak: (realizing he spoke too soon and wasn’t prepared with insights): “Hmm. Well. We have been considering a survey for a while but getting new business was a priority for the last few years. We can do a quick study if budgets permit.”

Manish: (stepping in): “Team, we need to revisit our branding approach. It doesn’t seem clear to me as to what we want to do – for our employees, first. To me, that was a priority we were initially focused on, right? What is the connection of sports with our business? Can you consider what is most appropriate and come back with a strategy and a plan?”

Lina and the team troop out murmuring why they weren’t able to arrive at a concrete solution in this meeting.

Reflect on this case study and share your views.

How can you help the group arrive at a suitable approach and a decision to get to their branding initiative? Keen to hear your thoughts. Do share them here.

When Actions Speak Louder Than Symbols


In my earlier post I shared a case study – ‘Why Don’t We Make Symbolic Gestures To Show Our Commitment To Employees?’ that gave Dinesh food for thought on engagement interventions to resurrect their organization.

I have heard and witnessed many actions that have sent strong messages to employees in organizations.

Here are a few:

  • CEO sending home an employee who was dressed inappropriately – reinforcing the need to dress in a way that represents the brand and values of the organization.
  • A leader sending a company-wide mailer asking the employee who printed a 400 page photography manual for personal use on the company printer to personally come and collect it from his office.
  • A business leader who rips up notes on meeting rooms that divide the company by business units and makes it first-come-first-serve to improve collaboration.
  • A company where every employee – leader or otherwise shares commons spaces and cabins and special privileges are done away with.
  • A CEO from a mining company who went first into a tunnel to prove that it was safe for workers, right after a tragic accident.

IMG_7035

Dinesh is in an unenviable spot with a management team that believes in symbolic gestures while refusing to address the core issue of trust and credibility. There are many examples of how leaders can take measures or actions that send a definite message which resonates with employees at all levels.

However, doing symbolic actions in isolation can lead to employees mistrusting the intentions of the organization and further diluting the engagement that exists.

Which intervention will work and why? That will mean listening to employees and seeking their views on what they value the most. Missing this important step is a surefire way to fail.

What also matters is the timing. Do an intervention right after a crisis and it will seem like a knee-jerk reaction. Do it later – and the leaders can be branded as inefficient?

The key point is that no matter what intervention is done the intention must be authentic and transparent to everyone.

Can Combining Forces Help Corporate Social Responsibility?


On Saturday, June 13, I had the opportunity to participate as a panelist in the 2015 Rotary CSR Roundtable at Bangalore where NGO representatives, corporate communication leaders, CSR practitioners and academia gathered to debate the subject – ‘Integrating Two Worlds – Corporates And Communities’.

The first panel on ‘United Effect:  When CSR Partners Collaborate’ discussed CSR collaboration, reporting, the importance of trust in the partnerships, criteria for selecting partners and governance models.  In the other discussion, when I joined the panel on ‘Integrating Two Worlds: Corporates & Communities’, the topics of debate included the role the impact of CSR on employee engagement, the role of CSR communicators and practitioners in enhancing value, the focus on individual social responsibility and the linkage with retention.

IMG_6156

The audience raised pertinent questions and asked the panelists to consider ‘CSR as post-paid’ – in terms of maximizing the power of funds available and measuring outcomes more effectively. Another feedback which the panelists received related to addressing the ‘right issues’ rather than what matters to the corporations. In that sense, it seemed that many felt the need to work more collaboratively and through the eyes of others.

IMG_6093

My key take-aways from the discussions were:

  • Trust and credibility among NGOs and corporations needs further strengthening – the concerns of openness, transparency and reliability were highlighted
  • Most felt that the 2% CSR guidelines has resulted in a more positive behavior among corporations. NGOs are seeing a difference in the way corporations engage after the Act has come into play
  • There are immense opportunities for corporations and NGOs to exchange ideas and lessons – however, this area lacks focus and attention
  • NGOs and corporations have diverse approaches of arriving at partnerships – the former expect companies to be invested for the long term, get leaders involved, have a vision, be accountable, stay hands-on and look beyond ‘numbers’ as a ‘mathematical model’ to arrive at a benchmark for success. On the other hand, corporations expect NGOs to set clear goals, be credible, think of areas of mutual interest and stay committed.
  • Lots of conversations revolved on ‘shared value’ (how businesses-NGOs can partner effectively for common outcomes), ‘board room CSR’ (the way CXOs are involved more on CSR spend and delivery) and the skills demand gap (where corporations have a role in understanding the processes and systems for supporting NGOs in doing their best).
  • The combined CSR spend available across the country got discussed more in terms of how it is now becoming an ‘industry’ in itself with mushrooming NGOs and opportunities to collaborate more.
  • A call for companies to be CSR ‘certified’ was made and the need to encourage social entrepreneurship got discussed
  • One panelist called for organizations to ‘avoid starting CSR if it can’t be sustained’ highlighting the need for long term goal setting.
  • There were calls to integrate CSR ownership with performance management and to ensure every employee got involved and recognized.
  • Fears of CSR getting the unkindest ‘cut’ when it came to budget reductions were raised. Most organizations looked it as a ‘good to have’ option and that needed change.
  • Measurement of CSR impact is misunderstood and rarely considered. Organizations continue to look at ‘soft’ measures such as improved team work, new skills which employees learn and continue to take a ‘heart over mind’ approach.
  • There seemed to be reluctance among practitioners to overtly communicate CSR citing factors such as perception among stakeholders and the need to be ‘low key’.
  • On the growing importance of CSR practitioners as boundary spanners there is a need for communicators to play the role of a catalyst, map talent with the most appropriate need. The opportunities to impact morale and pride were immense. With a view on the inside and outside CSR practitioners were able to transcend boundaries better than other employees within organizations and therefore play a critical role in CSR.
  • There are expectations from industry bodies to facilitate CSR involvement although organizations were themselves better placed to overcome trust issues and lead direct and local engagement for the communities they serve.

Overall, the interactions helped to surface key issues and bring relevant concerns to the fore in a non-judgmental manner. Excellent work by the Rotary Club for organizing and bringing stakeholders of CSR closer.