How do employee’s EXTERNAL interests work to engage people INTERNALLY? #MercerActive

“Why would anyone outside my office and work team care about the 5K I just ran for charity? I mean, I’m proud of it, but it doesn’t feel like something the whole world needs to know about, and why would I use our firm’s hashtag?”

I was recently asked these great questions from a modest colleague who I was trying to convince to post about it on Twitter using our MercerActive hashtag. Never mind that people post all the time on much lesser accomplishments, but why associate it with #MercerActive? The short answer is that it helps build colleague engagement across Mercer, but that probably deserves a bit more explanation.

The MercerActive hashtag was established to create connective tissue around all the health and wellness activities our colleagues do in their spare time, or occasionally on behalf of Mercer (e.g., race sponsorship, office softball team). You may be wondering why not just let colleagues post on their activities on their own accounts, and those who follow them can be updated there, rather than create a special hashtag? Here’s why.

  1. A communications “binding agent”: At many global organizations, employees tend to bond with their immediate team and office mates, but not with anybody else across the company. There is absolutely nothing wrong with local bonding, especially since it may be that work and customer activities need to be very local. However, even if that is true, there are always good reasons to get people to link with colleagues outside of their local teams. For instance, it opens up connections between people that allow for idea and information sharing. It also reminds people that they are part of something bigger than their local team that both gives them a broader perspective and helps them see how their work fits in with the company’s overall mission. There are a number of “binding agent” topics that reach across employee populations. Health and wellness is something that employees are concerned about and interested in all over the world. Whether it is achieving an athletic accomplishment or talking about a new healthy diet, it sparks interest and conversations among employees who would otherwise never speak.
  2. We want active employees: Unlike some personal interests that employees may hold (e.g., rebuilding car engines, puppeteering, etc.), health and wellness is one that promotes the interests of almost all companies. Most companies have some health and wellness program that this would fit into nicely, or at least have a stated position about the importance of healthy employees. At Mercer, we also have a business that promotes health affordability, accessibility and quality outcomes, and being able to show through our #MercerActive hashtag that we have a culture that values healthy employees is in sync.
  3. Presenting an attractive culture: We could fulfill the above by having employees just post their active pursuits on the intranet. However, by making it a hashtag to be used in external social media, we are projecting an attractive culture to potential recruits who value exercise, health and even competition. They can also see how we encourage, support and congratulate each other when we post about our MercerActive accomplishments. It allows us to show our supportive culture rather than just say we have one, which is much more powerful.

As a colleague, I am proud of the traffic on our #MercerActive. As a communicator, I am thankful for it.

Rebuilding Babel: 7 ways Internal Communications can break down silos

One of the more well-known stories from the Bible is the Tower of Babel. In short, generations after Noah and the flood, a united humanity in the land of Shinar decided to build a tower to reach the heavens. God didn’t appreciate the arrogance of this effort, but instead of destroying the tower or killing all the builders, God makes it so that everybody speaks a different language. Unable to understand one another (it sounded like “babble”), they stopped building and went on their separate ways to form different nations.

I have always heard that the purpose of this story was twofold: (1) to show that there is a limit to the arrogance of man that God will tolerate; and (2) to explain how humans separated into different languages and nations. However, as a communicator, I see another lesson: the most effective way to stop humanity from achieving the creation of something so monumental that it was offensive to God was to cut off their means to communicate with one another. It is a story about the power of communication. The bricklayer didn’t lose his ability to lay bricks; he just lost his ability to coordinate and communicate with other builders.

Fast forward to the modern company; particularly the modern global company, which may contain world over the same amount of people who were building the Tower. Either from a lack of a strong central culture creating what I have heard called “functional or cultural fiefdoms” or poor hygiene in integrating acquisitions, many companies have evolved into silo’d entities that have strong identities that are separate from the global culture of the company.

And this is a problem because?

Do I even need to convince you that silos are damaging to business outcomes? That from an efficiency and productivity pov, they create redundancy and poor collaboration? That from a broader perspective, they can create a state of unaligned priorities across the organization that may actually conflict?

In an era of increasing market, geopolitical, environmental, and competitive disruptive forces, it means that while parts of your company may be agile, silos make it very hard to turn the tanker of your entire company to stay ahead of these disruptors. Thinking about it less reactively, and especially with the advent of employee advocacy, you are not punching at the weight of your entire corporation and instead function as a loose partnership of smaller businesses and brands.

Time to bust the silos

Communication can do so much to help to break down the silos, especially cultural ones. Of course, let’s acknowledge that changing structure and incentives are often needed to create a more unified organization. Also it doesn’t hurt to have a leadership team that acts like a true operating committee when they get together and not as a meeting of the five families from The Godfather movie. Also, technology is making collaboration easier, including forming cross-company communities on your intranet, or on specialized collaboration tools such as Yammer or Slack. However, even with those changes, Internal Communication is needed to bring the culture along with the structure and the leadership.

There are countless tools and ways of creating a more common culture and bust through silos, but I have seven favorites. You’ll notice the first four are focused on breaking through the silos using common interests as the hook.

  1.  Doubling down on business resource groups. To those who may not know, business or employee resource groups (sometimes called affinity or diversity groups) are collections of employees that are organized around a common identity: for example, gender, race, sexual orientation or where you are in your career. They are created to empower these groups within companies, giving them a voice and early opportunities to lead. With the disbanding of these groups at Deloitte, there is some debate over whether they are a good strategy to achieve those means. Without getting into that, I can say confidently that they are an internal communicator’s best friend when it comes to communicating across silos. Because they are formed on commonalities outside of what business or geography employees are in, they can help you reach across organizational boundaries. So for instance, I recently wrote about multi-office internal campaigns; in one of the more successful ones I was part of, we worked closely with the rising professionals BRG to help find volunteers across offices. Because these mostly young professionals were not only scattered across offices, but were also, within an office, scattered among the sub-businesses, they were able to cast a much wider net in getting people to participate in that campaign.
  2. Getting well together. Wellbeing or Wellness initiatives also cut across geographies and businesses. For example, we had (as many companies have had) a step challenge where teams were formed and competed against other teams across the company on average weekly steps. While it was a competition, there was no prize and the step counts themselves were mostly on the honor system, so it was meant to be, and taken to be, a fun competition that didn’t create a serious “us and them” atmosphere that would work against breaking down silos, generating more fun taunting than anything else. But it did bring people into contact with one another that would never have crossed paths. We could have taken the added silo-busting step of forming the teams centrally to put strangers across offices and countries on the same teams, which I believe other companies have done. (We didn’t opt for it because we thought that people choosing their own teams would be part of the draw in participating). Also we launched a wellbeing site on our intranet, where you could find other people interested in things like yoga, or running, or eating healthy.
  3. Forming a community to take care of a community. It is typical workers from the same company will work in that same location, possibly seeing each other day after day for years, nodding hello in awkward familiarity, and have absolutely nothing else to do with one another. In terms of silo-breaking, this would be what I would call low-hanging fruit. Now you can get those colleagues together for events or even mixers, but if you really want them to bond, then there is nothing like a group volunteer event. Participating together in an activity for a worthy cause will bring people together, get them to learn each other’s names, and just chat. The event can then live on through pictures on your Intranet, shared stories, communal pride, and hopefully some new friendships. It is a powerful silo-buster. The one restriction is that corporate social responsibility events tend to be local in nature, so it is difficult to use them to bring together people across larger geographies that cannot possibly spend a day together (unless you fly them there).
  4. Jamming and hacking. Whether they are called idea jams, innovation challenges, or hackathons, the crux is to get disparate groups of employees together for the purpose of crowdsourcing a solution to an issue. The issue needs to be specific enough that it elicits specific solutions. The problem may require certain technical expertise to solve it (e.g., solving a particular product design weakness) or be general enough that everybody can participate (e.g., coming up with the best ideas to celebrate International Women’s Day across the company). They can be competitions where ideas are voted upon to find the “best” solutions or group exercises where people can build off of others’ ideas to come to a specific solution. Since you can find great articles on how to run one of these, I won’t go into more specifics, other than to say that to me, this is the best kind of silo-buster. It allows people to interact across a platform, such as your employee social network (although they have, for a price often, specialized platforms and agencies created for these efforts) to solve a problem. I tend to like Hackathons and other more technical problem-solving events, because it gets people together who have specialized skill sets and often common interests, and that interaction is more likely to lead to further interactions after the event is over.
  5. Sharing the same experience. Working closely with your HR team, internal communications can help ensure that whether an employee sits in a 10 person office in Indiana or a 3000 person office in Brazil that they are having common employee experiences unique to your company. This starts with a common onboarding experience, but includes similar experiences in those touchpoints where employees interact with the company as an employee (e.g., performance management, learning & development, etc.). This is where having a strong employer brand is helpful to tie all these experiences together and give them a similar feel even if they are not exactly the same country to country. I have already written about the ways I screwed up implementing an employer brand, so will leave it at that. Suffice it to say that sharing a common experience doesn’t necessarily create moments of collaboration and interaction across silos, but it does set the stage for it because employees feel like they are a citizen of the larger company and not just a member of a specific team or office. It is easier to find commonalities when you see yourselves as common citizens.
  6. Illuminating goals horizontally. This is another one that needs a strong partnership with HR. When we set goals at the beginning of the year, you may hear a lot about vertical goal alignment, which is making sure that my goals are aligned with my boss’s goals, and my reports’ goals are aligned with mine. However, you rarely hear about horizontal alignment. It starts with the CEO; her goals should reflect the company’s strategy to fulfill its business objectives. Her executive team’s goals should be aligned with her goals, which is again vertical alignment. However, what you don’t see often is the executive team sharing their goals with each other and the rest of the company. Now all employees can see how different parts of the business are contributing to the company’s priorities and how they may (or may not) be aligned with each other. Depending on the size of the company, you can even share horizontally the goals of the next level down from the executive team; although, you may not want to go too far down the chain because then it becomes an overwhelming amount of goals. However, illuminating the top goals, helps everybody see how their leaderships goals and ultimately their own goals fit in with the larger priorities of the company. It makes the employee appreciate that even if they are all doing different things, they are all rowing in the same direction. Again, feeling like you are all on the same team working towards the same priorities can weaken the silos between you and your colleagues. Which brings me to the last and most important method to break down the silos . . .
  7. Working towards a common purpose. When your company has a strong common purpose, and you communicate it loudly and embed it throughout your communications, you are integrating a shared mission in your culture that is, I believe, a necessary pre-cursor to really uniting your employees in a positive way. It is not just a tactic; it is table stakes. Tactically, one of the great ways of reminding your colleagues of your purpose in a visceral way is bringing your customers voice into your communications. Having all employees hear from customers about what the company is doing for them and how it is solving their problems can be a powerful way to unite people in the most important common cause.

These are far from the only ways of breaking down the silos in your company, but they are ones I have used and can recommend. I’d love to hear what you have done. As internal communicators, we have to bring the Tower back, and help our employees reach the sky together.


Mistakes Were Made: 5 Ways I have Screwed Up Employer Branding

Why do your employees choose to work at your company? As the search for the best talent becomes more competitive, this question — your employer brand question — is more important than ever.

I am a great believer in the power of a strong employer brand as part of internal communications and employee engagement, and have been fortunate enough to be involved with the launch of a few of them over my career. A good brand should illustrate the reason why your best employees were attracted to you and stay with you.

The best lessons come from mistakes and failures, so the cliché goes. And while I have made many many mistakes when it comes to employer brands, I have chosen to share five of them that I would have never discovered without the hands on experience of making them personally.

Before I open those old, proudly-earned wounds, I do want to say we got a few things right with the brand:

  • We based the brand on a lot of leader and employee input and validated it with focus groups in every region we had offices.
  • We translated and transliterated it (when a translation wasn’t possible) in 7 different languages.
  • We created visual and written guides, and built an automated template builder to make it easy to use.
  • We mapped out the significant touchpoints the company had with employees throughout their career lifecycle (e.g., performance management) and created special “banks” of brand language for each area
  • We created training videos on how to use the brand, and a newsletter that reported on its roll out and usage

Ok, so our hearts and often our efforts were in the right place. But mistakes were made, and I want to share five of them with you:

  1. We didn’t help employees “fit” the employer brand in with everything else. Before we launched the employer brand, we had recently launched a new company purpose and values. We also had a corporate brand that was in the middle of being refreshed (more on that below), and a relatively new enterprise strategy from our relatively new CSO. While we had a wonderful slide that showed how the employer brand fit in with all these other things, we didn’t take the time to really explain it to employees; at least not enough to help them answer the perennial question, “why should I care?”

    So we got a lot of employees with questions about when they should use each component, and very likely, a lot more employees who saw the corporate lingo stew, threw up their hands, and didn’t see enough relevancy to their jobs to even ask the question. My takeaways were (1) you need to make it crystal clear how the employer brand relates to and fits in with your purpose, your values, your mission, your strategy and whatever else you have launched that offers a roadmap to employees, as well as how all of these things relate to their employee experience and job; and (2) unless you can launch them all together as a very tight package, space out the launch of these various things, because when they come out in close succession, employees start to feel overwhelmed. Alternatively give employees a roadmap of the launches so they know when things are coming and how they will fit together from the outset.

  2. We didn’t bring in talent acquisition early enough. This was just silly. Most employer brand efforts start with recruiting. Somehow, we got fixated on how the employer brand would improve the employee experience for current employees by tying together their employee experiences and relating it back to the unique proposition of the company. Which wasn’t a wrong thing to focus on, but somehow it distracted us from how it might relate to sourcing external talent. Because of that, we didn’t bring in talent acquisition until after we had decided on the brand and started to put together launch plans. Not surprisingly, Talent Acquisition felt little ownership of the brand. As a result, their efforts to launch the brand in our recruiting materials were delayed and half-hearted. It was hard to blame them.

    Although most of you won’t make this particularly egregious mistake, it does point to the fact that you need to be as inclusive as possible when creating a brand. Just like Marketing forgetting to include Sales and Service in the creation of an external brand, it is easy to miss key groups internally. Although including more teams earlier on in the process may increase the difficulty in coming to a consensus, it will be worth the early pain for later success in execution.

  3. We decided against a Big Bang launch. This was the classic case of cold feet. We had put a lot of work into developing the brand and chose a launch date. However, as we got closer, some in our senior leadership started to express concerns that it would interfere with other launches going on, and that managers already had enough on their mind. So I agreed to a “soft launch,” which in this case meant an e-mail to all employees and a post on the intranet. I had convinced myself that if we did a good enough job of embedding the brand into those employee lifecycle moments, and of training those who would most use the brand (e.g., communicators, HR, and recruiters) that the brand would become integrated into the fabric of our culture without a Big Bang launch.

    Good theory, sort of. Without a Big Bang launch that made the new brand seem important and exciting, however, people got the message that it was not that big of a deal. It was bad optics.

    The truth is that there will always be other launches going on and managers will always have too much on their plate. If you are launching a way of defining the unique experience of working at your company, it is a big deal and needs to be treated that way no matter what else is going on. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be strategic in the timing of your launch, but when you do it, it should be BIG. It goes without saying that today, employees don’t need to just be engaged in the brand; they need to be turned into social advocates for it. That will take attention-getting tactics, and it can’t be done with a respectful hush that you saved for trips to the library.

  4. We didn’t create a troop of brand advocates, ambassadors or champions. I have no good explanation or excuse for this, but especially with the growth of employee advocacy, this would have been an even bigger mistake today than when I made it a few years ago. So at least I have that thin shred of dignity to cling to.
  5. Our employer brand didn’t mesh with our corporate brand. About six months after we “launched” the employer brand, the Brand team launched a refreshed expression of our external brand. There were several issues with this. (1) Referring back to Mistake #1 above, we again had competition for employee attention. Since the newly refreshed external brand was the shiny new object and did have a Big Bang launch, guess which brand won that competition? (2) The two brands had no connective tissue: the employer brand focused on the unique culture and how we worked together (i.e., without going into details, it centered around how the company demanded diversity instead of homogeneity), and the external brand spoke about why we existed as a company. No matter what we tried, the two felt separate and unrelated. (3) In the battle between the how and the why, the why is always going to be more resonant. (see Simon Sinek, Start with Why).

It was Mistake #5 that really undid us. No matter how culturally true our employer brand was, it was unconnected to what we did and why we did it. So this is my final thought: I don’t believe an employer brand works unless it is connect to the company’s purpose. Some part of the brand must relate to what good your company puts out into the world. We had focused on our culture and values as why we were a uniquely great place to work, which is fine, but that did not feel connected to what we did or the impact we were making in the world.

What is your experience with employer brands? Do you think I am wrong that an employer brand needs to be focused more on purpose than on culture and values? I would love to hear what you think.