All posts by Les Landes

Meanings are in people.

When I was a kid, I really wanted to learn to play the piano.  Weird, huh?  Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford it, and the apartment was too small for one anyway.  So when my youngest daughter decided she wanted to take lessons, I was thrilled.  I couldn’t wait for her to become good enough to enjoy the music more than she dreaded the practice.  That was three years ago when she was 10.  Luckily, she was persistent – and I was patient.  Now when she sits down to play, I stop whatever I’m doing to listen.

What Do You Mean, Dad?
The other day, she was playing something very moving, and I told her that when she plays, it makes my heart soar.  She looked surprised and asked me, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”  I couldn’t believe the question, and I quickly assured her it was very good.  “Then why does it hurt your heart?” she asked.  That’s when I realized she thought I said her playing made my heart “sore.”

It was a vivid reminder of a lesson I learned years ago from my communication mentor, David Berlo – Meanings are in people, not in words or symbols.  That lesson is obvious when it comes to homonyms like “sore” and “soar,” but it’s more subtle and complex in other forms of communication, and professional communicators need to be highly sensitive to all of its nuances in everything we do.

Align People’s Meanings – Inside and Out
That sensitivity is especially vital when it comes to aligning the meanings that people inside and outside the organization have for the words and symbols that organizations use to communicate.  It’s common practice to do focus groups with customers to test promotional messages for interpretation and impact before rolling out a big advertising campaign.  However, you rarely see the same attention given to assessing how employees inside the organization interpret those promotional words and symbols. What’s more, the implications are seldom considered for how employees need to perform in order to deliver on the promises being made in the marketplace.

Inside or out, with one person or many, here are some guidelines to help you avoid the “meanings trap”. . .

  • Don’t ask what a word means – because IT doesn’t mean anything.  Instead, ask what people mean by the words they use.
  • Don’t assume people know what you mean when you tell them something or send out a message.  Check to make sure they’ve interpreted it the way it was intended.
  • Don’t ask people if they understand what you mean if you want to make sure they understand something important.  Ask them to repeat what you’ve said until you’re satisfied you share the same meaning.
  • Don’t expect to find common ground in a debate about the meaning of a word, but rather in a conversation committed to a common understanding of what is meant by the people using it.  As the famed communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan, once said, “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”

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Play, Work and Hell

If you believe the essence of good marketing is “relationship building” – both inside and outside the organization – here’s something to think about.  I’ve written before about a communication giant and former colleague named David Berlo.  He used to say that all activity in the workplace can be classified into one of three categories – play, work or hell.

Play is the stuff that people love to do – the things they enjoy so much they’d do it without pay if they didn’t need the money.   Work is the stuff that’s not great fun, but it’s acceptable enough that people will do it if they get something in exchange that they want and don’t have.  That’s why we call it “compensation.”   Hell is the stuff that no one wants to do, and you can’t pay them enough to do it.

So how do you optimize performance?
First, whenever possible put people where they can have “fun” – not frivolous or silly things, but the kind of work that people find genuinely enjoyable.  In part, that means finding out what gets people tuned in and turned on, and then creating a culture that lets people find the work that suits them best.  You can almost always count on people to do their best on the things they enjoy most.

Second, when it comes to run-of-the-mill work, it’s pretty basic – compensate people fairly, and the vast majority will give you a fair day’s effort in return.

Finally, for the stuff that makes work feel like hell.  Start by asking yourself if it really needs to be done.  A lot of crappy work exists only because it’s been hanging around forever, and no one ever asks why.  If the answer is no, stop doing it.  If the work does need to be done, ask yourself if it can be done another way.  If it can, change it so it’s not unbearable.  If it can’t be changed, and it still needs to be done, and you can’t pay people enough to do it, you play “Let’s make a deal.”  Ask employees what they would need in return if they’d be willing to do it.  Then negotiate until you get to a place that works for both of you.  If you can’t come to a mutual agreement, you better give it up.

There’s always one more option.
You could resort to the traditional management method of just forcing people, telling them they have to do it or there’ll be – of course – hell to pay.  In fact, the question “How can I motivate my people” is often a cover-up for the question, “How can I tell employees to go through hell, and make them like it.”  If you do decide to take that approach, be sure to prepare yourself for the resulting decline in employee engagement and the quality of customer relationships.  Hmmm … on second thought, what were those other options again?

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Proof for the profitability of engagement.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …” So goes the famous opening of the Charles Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities.  As I listen to business conversations these days, those words seem to capture the emerging state of mind about our current economic climate.  Times are tough for lots of people, to be sure.  Still, I’m sensing a conviction that we’re gaining wisdom from the foolishness that produced the “meltdown.”  I’m also seeing a firm resolve to “get things right” that’s grounded partly in a renewed appreciation for the bottom-line basics of employee engagement.

Despite the economic conditions, many companies are discovering what most of us in the “people professions” have known all along.  You can count on the vast majority of employees to step up and deliver the “discretionary effort” it takes to help their organizations survive and thrive.  Tapping that potential, though, takes more than sending memos, giving speeches or sounding alarms.  It requires a commitment to the kind of trust-building policies, practices and processes that support and energize employees to contribute the very best they have to offer.

Engagement Gives ’em an Edge
Interestingly, hard times have reinforced the value of that commitment according to a recent study conducted by Hay Group Insight.  They found that revenue growth in organizations that have boosted their employee engagement efforts during the economic downturn is 4.5 times greaterthan in low engagement companies.

The study underscores another crucial point – “engagement” alone is not enough to produce success.  Hay Group Insight’s global managing director, William Werhane says, “It is clear from our research that while many organizations are focused on employee engagement with good reason, leaders must also enable employees to channel their extra efforts productively to deliver superior results.”

Enabled Engagement Helps Winners Win
Some approaches are more effective than others, of course.  At our firm, we’ve devoted considerable effort to understanding what engages and enables employees most effectively, focusing heavily on what we call our ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System.  Although we’ve refined it over the years, the system’s basic design is rooted in a process that’s been used successfully by a number of Baldrige National Quality Award winners.  It’s produced notable results in increasing both the volume of implemented improvements (up to 500% over previous suggestion programs) … and the employee participation rate (typically more than 60% annually).

As its name implies, some features of the ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System are counterintuitive – they run against the grain of the typical suggestion program.  Still, the basic premise underlying its design is pure common sense.  If you want to generate substantial employee engagement in improvement efforts, it can’t be a one-off activity – it has to be imbedded as an integrated system that runs alongside the daily work routine.

In the next issue of Inside Out, we’ll look at some of the system’s success factors, including the “counterintuitive” features that make a big difference in getting employees engaged in systematic continuous improvement.

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Change your cascade to a fountain.

A metaphor can be a wonderful thing.  It can also steer people down the wrong path.  Take the familiar term often used for disseminating information throughout an organization – the cascade.  Frequent readers of Inside Out know how fervent I am about avoiding the trap of believing that you’re communicating when all you’re really doing is sending out data and messages to an “audience.”  As I’m often fond of saying, that may be the best you can do sometimes, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s communication.  I have a stock reply for people who bemoan that they need more “two-way communication” in their organization – Seriously, what other kind is there?

Getting Stuck in a Downflow
The problem with the cascade as a metaphor for communication is that information only goes one way – top down.  Sometimes, organizations try to build in processes to help ensure that the people responsible for cascading the information to the ranks below actually do what’s expected of them.  But it’s rare to see any real accountability built into the system for doing it right.  What’s more, people are seldom given the opportunity to engage in a genuine conversation about the information they’re receiving.  The typical drill is more like “hear this and do that.”  On top of that, you rarely see a process to ensure that the questions and comments that come up at the bottom of the cascade find their way back up to the originators of the information.

Cascading Down the Drain
Part of the reason for this flawed approach to communication is that people take the cascade metaphor too literally.  The emphasis is on making sure that messages get from the top to the bottom of the organization – like a cascading waterfall.  That’s because they’re more focused on the process than the outcome.  Bottom line, if you don’t have some way of generating feedback with the same rigor you devote to sending out a “message,” it’s like information down the drain.

Creating a Fountain of Feedback
A better metaphor for the communication process – one that captures the interactive quality of how communication is supposed to work – is a fountain.  Think of it as a cascade with feedback.  That’s essentially what a fountain does – water flows around and around from top to bottom and back up again in a continuous loop.

The fountain also works better to illustrate the growing awareness that the main function of organizational communication should not be to create messages to be sent to audiences, but rather to facilitate conversations among partners and stakeholders.  What’s more, the interactive nature of a fountain approach to communication also captures the growing demand for transparency and authenticity in the workplace.  It’s a vivid reminder of the Marshall McLuhan quote I’ve cited before in Inside Out – “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”  Next time you’re tempted to use the term cascade, ask yourself if a fountain might be a better reflection of the principles and practices you want to embody in your organization’s approach to communication.

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Winning hearts and minds.

My wife, Dawn, is a “personal chef.”  That’s culinary lingo for a person who prepares meals for small groups of people with whom the chef makes a close personal connection.  Sometimes, it’s just for a couple, rarely for more than 15-20 people. Sometimes it’s for a single night, sometimes for weeks or months or even years.  Sometimes it’s haute cuisine, and sometimes it’s meat and potatoes.  But one thing is constant with all chefs like Dawn.  The connection they make with the people they serve is up close and personal – unlike most dining experiences where the chef is removed and shrouded behind kitchen walls.

Dawn is also an avid reader of all things related to food and cooking.  Not just magazines, but websites, food-related murder mysteries, biographies and anything else she can lay her hands on.  On our recent vacation, she read a book called A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg, a food writer who’s highly popular right now in the culinary blogosphere (  It’s an autobiographical love story with the kitchen at its center – along with lots of Wizenberg’s recipes.

Everyone Needs a Chocolate Cake

Dawn was so smitten by the story that she was constantly regaling me and our daughters during our trip with something funny or touching from the book.  As she read the final chapter, she was visibly moved.  It begins with an assertion that “Everyone needs a chocolate cake in her repertoire,” and Wizenberg’s is called the “Winning Hearts and Minds Cake.”  She writes, “It’s not something you want to serve to someone you feel so-so about.  It’s what you serve when you want his undivided attention.”  Setting aside that she was talking about her fiancé, the sentiment she captures later in the chapter relates strongly to a central theme in past issues of Inside Out.

As I wrote in one recently, the typical approach to marketing is focused disproportionately on promotional activities like advertising – the attraction side of the marketing formula.   By comparison, relatively little effort and expense goes for relationship-building – the retention side of marketing.  While both are essential, numerous studies show that efforts aimed at retention typically are more lasting and cost effective in the business-building process.

Relationships = Recipe for Success

In the last paragraph of her book, Wizenberg compares cooking to life, saying that “what it all comes down to is winning hearts and minds. Underneath everything else, all the plans and goals and hopes, that’s why we get up in the morning, why we believe, why we try, why we bake chocolate cakes.”

As Dawn has experienced time and again – and what every marketing and communication professional must understand – you don’t win hearts and minds through promotion and persuasion.  You earn it through personal relationship-building – with people both inside and outside the organization, especially when you want their “undivided attention” – and when you want them to feel like they’re the center of your world.  In the end, that’s the surest recipe for heart-throbbing success – in cooking, in business and just about everything else in life.

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Mastering the balance of image and performance.

The other day, I was looking at different definitions for marketing.  In a nutshell, it’s described mainly as a process for getting in front of prospective customers and enticing them to buy your product or service.

  • The American Marketing Association defines marketing as the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.  Marketing practice tends to be seen as a creative industry, which includes advertising, distribution and selling.
  • On Wikipedia, marketing is defined as an integrated communications-based process through which individuals and communities discover that existing and newly-identified needs and wants may be satisfied by the products and services of others.
  • Webster’s dictionary describes marketing as the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service.

As far as they go, those definitions are okay, but their main thrust can be summed up in one word – attraction.   While that’s important, it doesn’t account for the other vital half of the business building equation – retention.

Invest in Keeping the Customers You Have
Depending on what sources you cite, it takes 2-20 times as much investment to attract a new customer as it does to keep an existing one.  But look at where most of the business building dollars go.  It’s mainly for advertising, sales and other promotional tools and techniques designed to acquire or attract new customers.  For many marketing people, that’s essentially how they view their role.

When it comes to retention, that’s usually handled by customer relations or consumer affairs or some similar function – and only a fraction of what’s typically spent on marketing is dedicated to the work they do.

Define Marketing as Relationship-Building
Rectifying that imbalance starts with a more encompassing definition of marketing – to create, sustain and continuously improve relationships with the organization’s key stakeholders.

At a minimum, that definition begs for marketing and customer relations people to be joined at the hip in working on the company’s business building efforts.  But the implications go farther than that – to the very heart of why marketing communication and employee engagement must go hand-in-hand.  It’s pretty simple, really.  If you define marketing as “relationship building,” then it’s no longer just a promotional activity for creative specialists.  Instead, it becomes an integral part of each employee’s job.  Everyone who has an impact on customer relations – directly or indirectly – ultimately shares responsibility for the company’s marketing success.

Live Up to Your Image
Loyalty programs like “frequent flyers” are designed as a retention device, but they’re usually in the form of promotional spiffs.  While that can be effective, it still falls short of the personal relationship building that goes beyond loyalty and leads ultimately to customer advocacy.

In the end, attraction comes more from the image you project, while retention comes more from the performance you deliver.  Both are vital, so don’t get suckered into putting disproportionate emphasis on getting customers in the front door – when keeping them is so much cheaper than replacing them after they slip out the back.

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The customer comes second – sort of.

Organizations often try to claim they’re “different” as a convenient excuse for dismissing new ways of doing things. It’s the old, familiar “That won’t work here because …” syndrome. True, every organization is distinct to some extent. Still, virtually all organizations have some basic things in common, and those commonalities make a compelling case for the importance of aligning employee engagement with marketing communication.

For starters, they all want to be successful.
No dispute there. They also all have customers. Call them consumers or taxpayers, students or patients, passengers or clients, patrons or donors … or whatever you want. In the end, their satisfaction largely dictates an organization’s destiny.

All organizations also have employees.Call them associates or co-workers or partners or colleagues … or whatever you want. In the end, their sense of trust and happiness in the workplace determines how they relate to customers – and how satisfied those customers will be.

Connect the dots, and the picture is clear.
Making employee well-being a top strategic priority is more than a nice thing to do. It’s just good business. That’s the central theme of a highly touted book that came out several years ago entitled The Customer Comes Second: Put Your People First and Watch ‘Em Kick Butt.

The principal author is Hal Rosenbluth, the fourth-generation head of Rosenbluth International, a family-owned corporate travel agency that grew in annual revenues from $20 million to more than $6 billion in a span of 25 years under his leadership. When he joined the business right out of college, he noticed that they put a lot of emphasis on making customers happy, but virtually none on the employees who served them. That didn’t make sense to Rosenbluth, and the disconnect showed on the unhappy faces and performance of disgruntled employees. So he set out to shift the company’s focus first and foremost on the attraction, retention and development of outstanding people.

Realizing that’s counterintuitive for many organizations, Rosenbluth explains, “Companies are only fooling themselves when they believe that ‘The Customer Comes First’ … Only when people know what it feels like to be first in someone else’s eyes can they sincerely share that feeling with others. We’re not saying choose your people over your customers. We’re saying focus on your people because of your customers. That way, everybody wins.” With industry-leading customer satisfaction rates of over 99%, how can you argue with him?

A Secret Weapon
Rosenbluth is also emphatic about employee development being a vital part of the success formula. While attracting good people, listening to their ideas and treating them respectfully are important, that’s only part of the equation. “Perpetual training is a secret weapon, because the growth of a company is really just the aggregate of the growth of its people.” What’s more, he says, “Broad-based programs that are philosophical in nature are as important as technical training.”

It all adds up to a simple yet significant phrase from the book, which serves as a poetic and memorable motto: “People who feel cared for will care more.”

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Nothing new to mom.

My mother used to be a sales representative for a company called Queen’s Way to Fashion. She never read any books about employee engagement or the need to align internal and external communication, but her experience there epitomized those ideals.

Queen’s Way reps like my mother managed their own small businesses selling fashion apparel at parties that their customers held in their homes. Mom’s regional director got all of her reps together as a group each month to talk about business and share ideas on how to make their parties more successful. My mother was a go-getter and a great talker, so she always had lots to share. Even though some of her associates occasionally had lukewarm reactions to her ideas, the regional director encouraged her and everyone else to keep sharing, and she always acknowledged them when they did.

Treating the Customer Like Family
Mom extended that approach to the way she worked with customers. She always worked closely with the “hostess” to plan the party and share ideas on how to make it successful. Another big factor in her success was how she worked with people at the party. “I never tried to sell anything to anyone,” she told me one day. Instead of being a salesperson, she saw herself as a true fashion consultant, and she was there to help people look their best. She had impeccable taste, and if she saw someone try something on that wasn’t very flattering, she would deftly recommend something better suited for the customer – even if it meant selling a lower priced garment with a lower commission.

Getting that Extra Effort
I asked her one day if she could sum up how to get employees to go the extra mile, and here’s what she said:
• Explain why their work is important
• Give them encouragement
• Listen to their ideas and take them seriously

I’ve got a bunch of business books that essentially come down to those simple, timeless truths.

Being Super is Simple
Mom eventually became one of the company’s top performers. She was also pretty modest about it. One time, she invited me to the final night dinner at their national conference that was being held near St. Louis where I lived. It was a large, festive event, and we sat at a table with several other reps from around the country. At the end of dinner, they had an award ceremony. After about 30 minutes, they got down to the big ones, and Mom was called up on the stage. She knew about it, of course, but she hadn’t told anyone, including me. Everyone at our table cheered, and one woman said, “Wow, I didn’t know we were sitting with a superstar.”

I was very proud, of course. Mom, though, would be the first to say that there was nothing super in what she did at all – certainly nothing “new.” It was just simple appreciation and sensibility for how to communicate and work with people – inside and out.

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The good old days of social media.

My old mentor, David Berlo, used to say “selling is lying when you’re doing it to a teammate.”

His point goes to the heart of a troubling trend emerging from the business world’s current fascination – and struggle – with social media. We’re seeing an unsavory mandate coming from corner offices in companies nationwide. Now that they have this way cool tool called a “blog,” they want to use it to promote corporate messages alongside its intended use as a conversation tool for building relationships.

As blogging experts know, of course, once an organization starts down that path, credibility goes down the toilet. Some companies go so far as to use their blogs for posting news releases. You can imagine the reaction from bloggers to that kind of promotional intrusion? You might as well be wearing a neon sign flashing – propaganda.

So what’s a communicator to do?

It’s All About Conversation
Maybe we can make some inroads by reminding executives of the good old days when one of the main forms of “social media” was – consumer affairs. What? Consumer affairs? What’s that got to do with social media?

Some years back, when I headed up corporate communications at the international food giant, Pet Incorporated, consumer affairs was one of the departments that reported to me. We had about half dozen people who spent their days either answering letters or talking with people on the phone – all different types on lots of different topics. But all of those people had one thing common. They wanted someone to talk with them … to hear their stories and deal with their issues. They certainly did NOT want someone to sell them the company line. We worked hard with our consumer affairs specialists on how to have conversations with people – and we steered them away from spouting corporate propaganda.

Resist the Temptation for Promotion
Of course, there’s one big difference between that kind of socializing with stakeholders and what’s happening in the blogosphere. Today it’s not just one-on-one with a few hundred or even a few thousand people a year by phone and snail mail. It’s about connecting with potentially millions of people – in a matter of days or even hours and minutes.

And therein lies the rub. The allure to violate the implicit social media code to converse rather than promote is just too tempting to resist for many promotionally minded managers.

It’s a classic case of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. They’re going to exploit social media until nothing is left of their credibility but a pile of ruffled feathers. So remember these truths:
1. Only the technology for social media is new, not the concept
2. If you use it for promotion or propaganda, you do so at your peril

Valiant communicators may have to fall on their sword for the cause, but those who stand up against the temptation to abuse social media will avoid the trap of “lying to your teammates” – inside and out.

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Cure for the common town hall meeting.

So here’s a curious question. If you don’t have a town, can you still have a town hall meeting? I mean, if it’s only a company and not a whole town, and if the top person at the head table is hired by a board instead of being elected by “citizens,” what’s the point?

Okay, so we all know what’s really going on. Somewhere along the production line, someone got the notion to call what usually amounts to a series of droning management speeches something warm and fuzzy like a “town hall meeting.” That way, the company and its executives would seem more real and more…well…transparent – sort of like the emperor’s new clothes.

Let’s Get Real
If you go back in time, you’ll find at least one striking difference between colonial days when town meetings were the real thing and the feeble attempts of companies today trying to duplicate the effect. When they opened the floor for discussion, it created true dialogue. Sure, employees are usually invited to ask questions at corporate town hall meetings, too. But few step up to the microphone to ask anything probing or provocative because they don’t feel comfortable talking in front of lots of people. What’s more, the responses are seldom substantive because it puts senior managers on the spot to come up with answers off-the-cuff.

Make it Meaningful
Once you get clear on that idea, here’s one way to make town hall meetings more energizing and meaningful for employees:

  1. Start with the goal to create substantive engagement, understanding that acceptance and behavior change occur more from conversations than presentations.
  2. Break everyone into groups of 8-10 people.
  3. Pose a question for small groups to discuss for 10-15 minutes, and ask them to come up with a list of responses; if you have multiple topics and limited time, assign different questions to different groups.
  4. Ask a spokesperson from each group to give a 90-second report on their top three ideas.
  5. Have the person facilitating the process give a brief response, acknowledging input from each group.
  6. If the group is too big for everyone to do a report, select a manageable number, and request that remaining groups submit their answers in writing for later review and response.

Reinforce with Follow-up
What matters most, though, is what happens next. Nothing worth talking about can be sustained from one quarterly meeting to another. Without a systematic follow-up processes to embed the conversations deeper, the impact will quickly fade.

At least two things should happen. First, all employees should receive a summary of the meeting with the input that the small groups gave to the core questions. Second, departments should continue discussions on topics from the meeting to ensure they are assessed and addressed at micro levels of the organization. Be sure to do it in group conversations, though, not by management edict. That way, employees will feel more like involved “citizens,” and not just an audience.

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Learn more about Landes & Associates and our unique approach to employee engagement.