Businesswoman sitting on bed using digital tablet by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

Reading, Listening, and Watching—Closing Out 2020

We’ve packed so much into this final quarter of 2020 that sometimes it doesn’t feel real. But before I head off to rest and enjoy the holidays, I wanted to close out the year with some of what has been massaging my brain and a lot of what I’m planning to catch up on in the coming weeks.

Reading

Honestly, I’ve had a hard time doing much reading lately. I have a lot of stuff queued up on my Kindle, in my Pocket (loving this new tool!), and in (way too many) open browser tabs. So I’m sharing a bit of what I have actually read and more about what I hope to read.

FutureCast

“10 Lessons form CEOs on How to Manage Corporate Reputation in a New Era of Activism”

This is a fascinating read. The overarching themes are all about action, taking control, and shaping your message before someone else does. Also, I love this line: “reputation is today’s employee pension.”

And if you want a good listen, I had the opportunity to engage in a LinkedIn LIVE conversation about all things reputation and communications with the author of the article, Denise Brien. Denise is the managing director of research operations for Purple Strategies—a corporate reputation strategy firm and Courtenay Shipley, President of Retirement Planology.

Professor Galloway

“The Great Dispersion”

Professor Scott Galloway is the author of the recent NYT bestseller, Post Corona. In this article, he discusses how the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already changing how we think about the future of work. There’s a lot to unpack here. As we work toward the next normal, we will have to grapple with the structural issues that are reshaping our culture, reducing empathy and reshaping our concepts of community.

Making Holiday Memories

The Christmas Parade! 

We read this book a lot at our house. The girls love a good read-aloud and I fall asleep with the cadence of the toddler board book stuck in my head: “BOOM biddy BOOM biddy BOOM BOOM BOOM! What is that noise filling the room?”

Planning to Read

From Wired

“A Mission to Make Virtual Parties Actually Fun”

Because we’re going to be social distancing for a while yet and Zoom happy hours just aren’t cutting it anymore and I’m not ready for virtual reality happy hours just yet.

From the Library of Congress

“More About the Business of Scrooge and Marley: An Ethnographic Approach”

Growing up, my family watched A Christmas Carol (always the George C. Scott version – the best!) during the holidays every year. We can (and do) quote it. I can’t wait to geek out over this article.

Listening

I’ve listened to a lot of business and productivity-type podcasts this year—that’s a separate topic in and of itself. But I’ve needed a little more inspiration lately and find myself turning to interviews and memoir-type podcasts.

I’ve never hopped on a Peloton, but I loved this inspiring interview with Peloton Instructor, Tunde Oyeneyin. In addition to her incredible life story, Tunde’s ability to share her message is a masterclass for anyone who needs to communicate, motivate, or inspire others (all of us!).

Code Switch. Every episode of this podcast teaches me something, expands my perspective, and draws me into their reporting and storytelling. The hosts do a fabulous job of weaving the macro-level (big issues) through the individual stories. It’s Apple’s podcast of the year for a reason.

I’m not running as often as I would like these days, but I’m looking forward to pounding some pavement while listening to this interview with Dr. Mark Hyman about the impact nutrition has on our minds and food as a social justice issue.

Watching

I’ve been terrible, utterly terrible about watching television. I just want escapism in my T.V. viewing these days and there is much too much reality on T.V. I’m open to recommendations but at the risk of sounding Grinch-y, no Hallmark Holiday movies please!

I do hope to watch The Social Dilemma and I’m definitely looking forward to the new Wonder Woman movie!

I hope you get a chance to do some reading, listening, and watching during the holidays. And from all of us at Audacia Strategies to you and yours cheers to a very Happy New Year!

Photo credit: Jacob Lund from Noun Project

bold steps

5 Lessons from 5 Years (and What’s Next)

This month, I’m celebrating five years taking bold steps as the CEO of Audacia Strategies! Anniversary messages tend to be like toddlers…all about “me me me me me!” But the truth is—it’s all about YOU, Audacia Strategies’ clients, partners, and community.

As I take time out to reflect and celebrate at the end of a year like none other, I am overcome with gratitude. Your willingness to listen as we strive to balance your current business needs with the future needs of a transforming organization means we can cover more ground more quickly. Your positive responses to our content gives us the confidence to be leaders in our community. And your support on so many fronts makes it a joy to get up and do what we do every day.

So, as I share five lessons from five years in business, I want you to know we’re always thinking about how the lessons we learn can be applied to your organization as well.

1. Choose Your Name and Brand Identity Carefully

What’s in a name? Well, I won’t say the name of your organization is everything, but a great name can be a good conversation starter. And since we’re all in the messaging business in one way or another, it is a good idea to give names and titles careful thought. 

Why the name Audacia?

Here’s the definition:

From audāx ‎(“bold, daring”), from audeō ‎(“I dare”)

  1. daring, audacity
  2. boldness
  3. provocativeness

I chose the name Audacia Strategies because I never want to forget that spark that started me down the path to building my consulting business. With this name, I knew I’d never forget my big “why.” I knew it would be crystal clear to my team, clients, and partners that we are all about taking bold steps and transformative action. We don’t back down. We aren’t afraid to take risks.

More recently, I’ve purposefully shifted a lot of my language (both internal and external) to talking about my team. As I like to say, “this is not the Katy show.” All of this is part of discovering my brand’s true identity. Have you reflected on your organization’s identity lately?

2. Insist Upon Your Values

I also want to keep our company values on the forefront of everyone’s minds. There’s no mistaking what we stand for and because we know actions speak volumes, we make sure to walk our talk.

When I look at the strides we’ve made as a team, I know what works only works because we have clients who share our values. Trust, transparency, and audacity are the key ingredients to our success. But if any of these were missing on either side of the equation, we know we wouldn’t be where we are today.

When organizations have strong values that their customers recognize, it humanizes those organizations. Make sure that you infuse all of your messaging, both internal and external, with your company values. Could your customers list your organization’s values? 

3. Stay On Top of What’s In/What’s Out

Top organizations stay on top of what’s in and what’s out in their industries. Messaging and corporate communications has evolved a lot over the past five years. Just consider how much attitudes about Facebook and other social media platforms have changed during that time. Remember the carefree days before Cambridge-Analytica?

Here’s what stands out in our industry:

 

In Out
Straight talk Flowery prose
Teamwork “It’s faster if I do it myself”
“Revenue Driver” “Cost of doing business”
Progress Perfection
Getting uncomfortable Playing it safe

 

4. Taking Bold Steps Pays

For the past five years, Audacia Strategies has been in growth mode. I knew from the beginning that to meet my ambitious goals, I needed to set my fear aside and take steps I didn’t feel ready to take. I knew I couldn’t sit back and wait for the planets to align. I had to go out and find great partners so that I was ready to serve big clients. I had to believe that if I made smart investments, the revenues would come in and I’d be able to cover those big moves. In short, I had to trust myself, so my clients would trust my team.

Betting big has paid off big for us. It hasn’t always been a perfectly smooth ride, but that’s the point. Smooth rides mean that you’re covering well-trodden territory and change-makers can’t afford to play it safe. What big, bold steps do you need to take to raise your organization to the next level?

5. Look to the Future

So, what’s next? More of what we do best—rolling up our sleeves and diving into your biggest investments and boldest ideas. We’re bringing more firepower to the game with expanded voice of the stakeholder (customer, employee, community) capability, non-financial due diligence offerings, and more straight-talk-results-focused communication strategy.

What else should we be working on? What do you need most? Where would you like Audacia Strategies to focus its efforts in the coming months and years? We would love to hear your ideas for what’s next and what we should be working on! 

Give us your best ideas in this short (90 seconds) survey and we’ll share the responses in 2021. Fill out the survey here. #accountability

Here’s to all of us for making it through 2020! And here’s to another five years and beyond of bold steps for Audacia Strategies, our clients, partners, and community!

Photo credit: by Jacob Lund from the Noun Project

change fatigue

Change Fatigue in 2020: How to Reframe Change and Cut Through the Noise

When we look back on the wreckage that is 2020, one thing will stand out: the rapid and constant change. For months now, we’ve endured business and organizational change like we’ve never seen. All this while managing through the anxiety of perpetual Zoom meetings, online / hybrid / in-person school, job insecurity, family health concerns, a shaky economy, tectonic cultural and societal shifts…plus, a pretty brutal presidential election. Change fatigue is real!

Everyone has a lot on their plates. Everyone is tired. And the best most of us can do is keep our heads above water every day. But of course, none of this means life and business stops.

As a leader of an organization—which also needs change to reset and keep the doors open—what can you do to help you and your organization thrive through this climate of change fatigue? 

Let’s look at what’s really going on here and five practical steps you can take.

Acknowledging that Change is a Constant

Before we get to the practical steps, we need to do some reframing. Prior to this year, many organizations enjoyed an unprecedented level of stability. Sure, they dealt with leadership changes, they went through reorganizations, they shifted strategies from time to time. But relative to now, markets were barreling ahead full speed and the future seemed relatively predictable.

All that has changed. At Audacia Strategies, our team is currently working with clients going through: major leadership transitions, reorganizations, and strategy shifts—all at the same time! 

And for many of our clients, this has been an ongoing cycle:

  • One client has had five senior leadership transitions in as many years.
  • Another client has gone through multiple rounds of layoffs as they integrate a series of acquisitions.

So how do organizations experiencing this cycle of change deal with change fatigue? 

First, they realize change happens. It sounds simple, but it’s more than a cookie-cutter message made for Instagram, “Enjoy the journey!,” “Embrace change!”

What I mean is organizations that successfully deal with a lot of change realize decisions beget decisions. Organizations can’t stand still, in the same way that we as individuals can’t stand still. We’re all evolving all the time. It’s just that right now, the evolution feels more urgent.

Instead of bracing for the bump, skilled leaders accept that rough waters are coming and engage their entire organizations. 

Recognizing that change is a constant won’t necessarily make it any easier. After all, the results of the 2020 election played out basically the way we all thought they would (give or take some percentage points) and that didn’t make the week of waiting for the numbers to come in any easier. 

Still, we can’t wrap our minds around the practical steps we can take without first acknowledging the things we cannot control. So what do we do?

1. Treat everyone like adults.

Once we accept how much change fatigue is affecting all of our lives, it’s time to trust that good people will find their way through. Show your employees that you trust them by treating them like the adults they are.

Give them the information they need to 

  • (a) make decisions 
  • (b) take care of their teams and take care of their families 
  • (c) make the information simple, straightforward, easy to use, and easy to access. 

Then give them space to work within certain boundaries. 

This sounds easier than it is. When we talk about acknowledging the things we can control, managing your team might be the first thing that comes to mind. But if you try to micromanage everyone right now, you’ll quickly end up with a lot of burned out folks.

2. Gather the leadership team together often.

It’s always important to have leadership on the same page and it’s especially critical during times of change and organizing your gorgeous chaos. So, step up the number of conversations with your leadership team.

Get everyone together to identity key pain points for each big change coming down the pike. For example, if you need to furlough employees, you’ll want everyone’s input to figure out the best way to handle issues like:

  • fear of job loss in the remaining employees 
  • concern for the future without departing employees 
  • concern for the wellbeing of departing employees 
  • increased workload 
  • gaps in customer coverage 
  • lost customer and internal relationships

3. Address challenges head on.

Also, remind leadership and lead by example when it comes to addressing challenges. Change fatigue is difficult enough without challenges being swept under the rug. Instead, face them head on and be as transparent as possible.

Address the challenges by developing plans that are flexible and take alternative solutions into account. Remember, though, that not all challenges have solutions.While you can’t make an employee feel better when their colleague is laid off, you can acknowledge the challenge and the emotions. 

Your employees may not like the decision, but they will respect it if you give honest answers about why the organization is changing and show them that your organization is treating departing employees with respect and humanity. If that’s not the case now, it’s up to you to advocate for more humanity in your organization. 

4. Provide resources to help.

Be open to finding resources to help everyone at your organization deal with big changes and change fatigue. These resources could include:

  • Executive and life coaching
  • Relaxation and stress reduction training
  • Flexible time off and personal time policies

Make these easily accessible for all, including those working from home, at a client site, interacting closely with customers, etc. 

5. Over communicate.

I’ve put this one last because it’s a big one. In my podcast interview with Mike Regina, we discussed how we’re all being bombarded by messages daily and we’re all distracted by #2020life. It feels like we need to live seven times, seven ways. 

To cut through the noise, your messaging needs to be on point. So carefully review all leadership messages for tone, ownership, and future vision.

  • Focus on messages of those closest to employees (e.g., middle management and line managers)
  • Engage employees early in the process. 
  • Give employees opportunities to ask questions (e.g., comment box, anonymous email, town halls, AMA chats, drop in Q&As, pulse surveys, voice of the employee surveys)
  • Prepare leaders for hard questions and hard conversations. 
  • Give leadership resources to help answer questions. 
  • Give leaders space and outlets to share what they’re hearing, their experiences.

Encouraging managers share their experiences of change (through change stories) with employees humanizes the experience. These stories are your best tonic for dealing with change fatigue.

Change in 2020 is not really different from other moments of change. What’s different is the context in which the change is happening. Because of change fatigue, the messaging around change needs to be stripped down to its essentials: no flowery language, fewer Venn diagrams. Get to the point. Make the case for change. Speak simply and directly. Be respectful. Be human. Be kind. 

If your organization is struggling with ongoing change during this time of uncertainty, our team is here to help. Contact us to schedule a consultation and let’s figure out how to move forward together.

Photo credit: Jacob Lund from Noun Project

Corporate Communications

Cut the Crap: Putting the Humanity Back into Corporate Communications

Maybe it’s all the election coverage or the fact that I haven’t been in the same room with anyone outside of my immediate family in almost nine months, but my tolerance for corporate-speak is hitting the floor. And I don’t think it’s just me.

If there ever was a time to get human, it’s now. What does this mean? In the simplest terms, it means cutting to the chase with our corporate communications and messaging. Your audience is clamoring to feel seen and heard. So why not give them what they want?

Take a look at my best tips for putting the humanity back into your corporate communications.

1. Think Like a Reporter

Whether you’re working on a value proposition (i.e., what makes you unique in your market?) or a restructuring message to share with investors, strip away all the complexity and find simple language. 

One way to do this is to think like a reporter. Journalists are trained to give the who, what, where, when, and how of a story in the first sentence or two when reporting on a story. Replicate this tactic by getting your marketing and communications teams together (or go outside of these departments for a different perspective) to brainstorm: 

  • the what, 
  • the why, and 
  • the what’s next.

Whatever you think of James Carville’s politics, he is a master communicator and strategist. During Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Carville knew exactly how to drill down and develop core messages that were simple, memorable, and meaningful. Carville used his most famous quip, “it’s the economy stupid,” along with “change vs. more of the same” and “don’t forget health care” to anchor messaging throughout the campaign. The election results speak for themselves.

2. Dump the Buzzwords

As one health reporter brilliantly puts the point in this Atlantic article, “if there’s anything corporate America has a knack for, it’s inventing new, positive words that polish up old, negative ones.” These buzzwords do more than whitewash or paper over the stuff we don’t want to talk about, though. They also obscure your message and make your organization seem less authentic.

In this time when everyone is distracted by a global pandemic, an unusual Presidential transition, and how both could affect their future, it’s more important than ever to dump the “disrupting,” the “pivoting,” and the “growth hacking.” 

Your employees and customers don’t have time for this. They want you to give them information they can act on. If you confuse them with jargon or industry terminology, they will ignore you. So cut the crap.

3. Get Vulnerable

What can you do instead of resorting to the safety of buzzwords? Get vulnerable. Be careful here, though, getting the tone right takes a lot of nuanced thinking. And I’m NOT suggesting that you manufacture adversity. But if you’ve faced a genuine struggle that has made you rethink how you do business, it may be the time to share the new ‘why’ behind your ‘what’.  

You can make sure to stay within critical communication guardrails by letting your organization’s authentic voice be your guide:

  1. Pay attention to the voice of your leadership team and use it to steer messaging.
  2. Make sure your corporate communications reflect your company culture.
  3. Take a step back and consider the big picture whenever communicating with the media, your audience, and other stakeholders. 

4. Step Away from the Webinars

In relation to considering the language and the tone of your corporate communications, you’ll also want to think about the method of delivery. I’m not a speaking coach (though I am happy to hand out referrals to great teams), but I find the formality of webinars often results in participants feeling totally disconnected.

For this reason, we have been recommending that clients step away from webinars in favor of less formal interviews, discussions, roundtables, open mic Q&A, etc. While it may make sense to give a short written statement or update to kick off an investor meeting, listening to written remarks being read for any longer than 10-minute intervals is probably too much to ask from those on the other side of the camera.

Regardless of the format, to ensure that you are connecting with your audience, spend some time practicing your delivery. In fact, if you can spare the time, put more time into practicing your delivery than you do writing up your remarks. 

Why? This world of virtual meetings we all inhabit makes it harder to feel a genuine connection. If you’re the kind of speaker who draws on the energy of your audience, then this is even more true for you. Ask these questions as you prepare for your next town hall meeting:

  • Would my grandparent understand what I’m saying?
  • Have I removed all the jargon?
  • Have I included smart visuals that are easy for my audience to understand almost immediately?
  • Do I have a story or narrative to share?

Above all, be mindful of the ways in which your customers, your employees, and your investors are more distracted than they’ve ever been. When your communications cut to the chase and avoid the corporate-speak, your audience will feel seen and heard.

With these tips under your belt, you’ll be ready to send a clear message with your corporate communications. Is it time for your organization to get human? Contact us and let’s talk! 

Photo credit: Transgender woman leading meeting by Noun Project from Noun Project

strategic narrative

Where Are You Going? 3 Critical Questions for Nailing Your Strategic Narrative

Who are you? 

What have you done? 

Where are you going? 

Equal parts old perspiration and aspiration, the answers to each of these questions form the core of your firm’s strategic narrative. Having worked with several firms to define and articulate their narrative, we focus on aligning their vision and values with a narrative about taking that vision and those values into the future. 

For example, we recently worked with a firm that wants to apply their services to a different and more challenging set of problems. In other words, they are ready to expand their product and service offerings to bring additional value to their clients’ organizations. 

They knew that the strategic narrative was the place to start even before working on marketing, messaging, and communications. 

We facilitated a series of discussions with their leadership team to distill their areas of focus, figure out their core competencies, and get specific about their aspiration for the future. To ensure the strategic narrative aligned with what their customers truly wanted, we also conducted a Voice of the Customer assessment. The VOC delivered insight into customer trust, awareness, and loyalty.

What we’ve found in working with these clients is that companies are pretty clear on where they’ve been and what they’ve done. It’s where they’re going that is a challenge to articulate. In other words, the aspiration trips people up. 

So, let’s dig into the what, the why, and the how of strategic narrative, then we’ll be able to see the aspirational piece more clearly. 

What is a strategic narrative?

Before we answer this question, let’s talk about what a strategic narrative is NOT. When most marketers and leaders hear “strategic narrative,” they think, “we need a story that defines our organization’s vision and communicates our strategy.” 

They think, “we have a mission statement and a vision statement, so why can’t we just pull in language from those to create a strategic narrative?” But creating a strategic narrative is about so much more than creating the next piece of marketing collateral or writing that P.R. puff piece. 

Your strategic narrative should discuss your firm’s values and how you create value for your customers or clients. It’s the comprehensive, guiding narrative that draws a line in the sand for you. You can think of it as your organization’s North Star. 

Your strategic narrative:

  • Shows employees and leaders their roles and purpose.
  • Drives change when it’s time for a pivot or transformation.
  • Guides all of your communications in times of celebration or crisis.

You can revisit the key steps for developing your strategic narrative in this previous article.

Do we really need a strategic narrative?

Great question! 

I could answer by referring to the history of storytelling. I could tell you, for example, that stories have helped human beings figure out who to trust, establish community, and connect with each other for thousands of years. 

Or I could answer by referring to the psychology of storytelling. I could tell you, for example, that fancy cells in our brains called mirror neurons allow us to not just follow a story as it’s being told, but “live” out the action in our brains. This is why you jump along with the actor in your favorite thriller flick.

Bringing this closer to home, I could also remind you that putting thought and intention into your strategic narrative is more important now than ever before. We are all consumers. We are all clients. And we are all looking for connection. We want to align ourselves and our organizations with the people, organizations, and firms that share our values, understand our goals, and can contribute to our desired legacy. 

But beyond the benefits of connecting and captivating your customers, you need a strategic narrative to inspire employees, excite partners, and engage influencers. These are the reasons the aspirational aspect of the narrative is so critical.

How do we nail the aspirational aspect?

Creating a narrative that inspires, excites, and engages is tough, as anyone who has tried to strategize a social media campaign for “going viral” can attest. Add to that creating an aspirational strategic narrative that also aligns with your values and your value proposition and it’s clear how easy it can be to get lost in the weeds.

Nailing the aspirational aspect of a strategic narrative takes equal parts insight into your organization and reflection on how your organization is perceived. 

Insight into your organization

Your narrative—the story, the language, the tone—must be authentic and true to your organization. This is why input from leadership is key. It should also ring true to those who interact with your organization. 

Integrating the internal pulse that drives your team and the external perception you project out into the world is where the magic happens in messaging that is authentic, accurate, and persuasive. 

  • To gain internal insight, ask the following questions: What are the values we currently espouse? Do they still hold true? Do they need an update or clarification? Does the tone of our organization represent those values? Who do we want to be? How do we want to impact the world? What change do we hope to bring about in the world? Are our values clear to our employees? If answers to these questions are in any way fuzzy, take a pause and schedule a town hall meeting.
  • To gain external insight, ask the following questions: Can stakeholders identify our values based on the tone of our messaging? Are our values clear to our customers? Is it clear to our customers that our organization walks the talk? Do they view our aspirations as aligned with their needs? If answers to these questions are in any way fuzzy, consider whether a Voice of the Customer assessment makes sense.

Reflection on how your organization is perceived

Once you have taken the time to answer the above questions, it’s time to build your aspirational strategic narrative. Reflection on the insights gained through the process described here should reveal your path forward. If you find the answers misaligned with how you want to be perceived, figure out what data to track to get to the bottom of the issue and build up from there.

In addition, if your aspirational goals include expanding your services to reach a new market or solve a different set of challenges for your clients. Reflect on what those answers are telling you in light of your vision for the future.

Together, these pieces of the strategic narrative come together to deliver a narrative that is true to your organization today and a North Star for your future.

If your firm is unsure of where you’re going or how to communicate your aspirations internally or externally, a strategic narrative might be the missing link. Our team at Audacia Strategies is ready to sit down with your leadership team and find your North Star. Let’s find some time to connect!

Photo credit: https://www.canva.com/p/gettyimagespro/

reading list

A List for the “Next Normal”—Reading, Listening, and Watching

If this were a normal summer, I’d be busy trying to decide what to pack for our next family trip out West or south of the border. Alas, this is not a normal summer. What does a vacation even look like during a global (or more accurately, a national) health crisis? I’m not sure.

Instead of thinking about vacation plans, we’re all thinking about what we want to take with us into our post-COVID world. Still, we could all use some time to step away from the home office, occupy our brains with something other than work—and no, #doomscrolling does not count as a break. 

Personally, I’m taking note of how the media inputs below are impacting my thinking about the “next normal” for Audacia Strategies. Here’s a peek inside my reading, listening, and watching lists: 

An Anti-Racist Reading List

I’m making my way through this anti-racist reading list. This is the time for reading, learning, evolving, and taking action. Let’s not let the peaceful protests against police violence fade into the background.

Anti-Racist Podcasts

In addition to reading, when I want to listen, I’ve enjoyed these podcasts for learning and thinking more deeply about our social structures and how we can reshape them toward justice:

Anti-Racist Viewing

13th, the documentary on Netflix about over-criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison boom is devastating and so important. I couldn’t turn away.

How I’m Thinking Differently About Business

The items on my reading, listening, and watching lists are really just the tip of the iceberg, though. I could easily spend the rest of the year immersed in anti-racist resources. But because I know educating myself about anti-racism is only the first baby step to bringing about change, I’m also investing in training about implicit bias and “whiteness at work” with the Adaway Group

The only way to bring about the destruction of oppressive systems and build up equitable workplaces is for all of us to focus on changes we can make together. As a leader and business owner, I’m ready to do the work. How about you? 

The Research

It’s clear that we need more womxn and BIPOC in leadership roles. The results are obvious:

  • America’s Black female mayors are doing what leaders are supposed to do during a national crisis: “they are promoting strength, unity, and above all, they are showing empathy and understanding.”
  • And some of these leaders are even defying the governor’s orders to do what’s right for public health.
  • Then, there’s this fabulous interview with the first female and first African American mayor of Ferguson, MO, Ella Jones. 

I’m also thinking a lot about storytelling and data in the midst of so much debate about statistics surrounding the pandemic. This tweet from @JamesClear caught my attention:

‪”The two skills of modern business: Storytelling and spreadsheets.‬ ‪Know the numbers. Craft the narrative.”‬

The success of the “Flatten the Curve” chart drives home the power of storytelling through data to get people to take positive action. The 4 Lessons in this article show how organizations and corporations can refocus their stories as we move into the “next normal” (coined by UNESCO, who is running an amazing marketing campaign around this concept now). I’m considering both how I can take these lessons into my own firm as well as how I can use them to help my clients shape their communications.

For a True Brain Break…

That was a lot. I know! The world can feel totally overwhelming in one moment and wildly open to possibilities in the next. I think my reading, listening, and watching list reflects this tension.

So, in an effort to release a little stress and focus on something entirely different:

  • I’m nurturing a sourdough baby/starter. I’ve named her Gertrude and she’s produced delicious bread, pancakes, muffins, and other goodies. I am also actively following numerous #sourdough accounts on Instagram these days. 
  • I’m working on capturing that summertime feeling at home too. This recipe for Summer Spaghetti and fresh Limeade was easy, delicious, and uses the best summer produce. The pasta tasted even better with a glass of rosé…
  • I’ve been watching (maybe) too much mindless, escapist television (i.e., anything on Bravo or HGTV). I’d love good recommendations for new, slightly smarter shows!
  • Brain break podcast: LeVar Burton Reads If you remember Reading Rainbow (a childhood favorite!), you will love this podcast.

No matter where your summer adventures take you—home or elsewhere, stay safe, stay sane, and #WearADamnMask!

Photo credit: TORWAI Suebsri

M&A strategy

5 Key Findings from a Survey of Executives: How to Think About M&A Strategy During an Economic Earthquake

One of the million- or billion-dollar questions firms are asking, given the pandemic, is whether this is a good time to pursue M&A strategy. Looking to high profile players, you’ll find examples both of companies, like Boeing, abandoning deals and companies, like Google Cloud, publicly saying they are open to acquisitions.

To guide your thinking about M&A best practices through the end of 2020, it makes sense to consider what we know about how firms are currently making decisions. The M&A Leadership Council recently conducted a survey of 50 C-suite executives and senior corporate development leaders about their plans. 

Let’s discuss the major findings from the survey and what they mean for you as you think about strategically positioning your firm to succeed when economic activity rebounds.

1. Deals in Progress

The good news is that deals are still getting done, especially those in later stages. While just over half (51%) of those surveyed reported a “temporary pause” in M&A activity, only 14% indicated they had halted all deals currently in the works. And 12% actually reported expediting late-stage deals, while another 12% indicated that they fully intended to proceed to deal closing assuming negotiations go well.

What does this mean for you?

If you’ve put the brakes on a merger or acquisition, it may be time to reengage your vetting process and due diligence. Go back and review your M&A best practices checklist to make sure you’re going in with eyes wide open. Pay special attention to the items on the list that may have shifted with current events and those that are most likely to be volatile as the economy sorts itself out.

Proceed as follows:

  • Meet with your project team to regroup and discuss moving forward
  • Review monetary and non-monetary assets and business priorities
  • Make an exhaustive list of questions that have recently come to light

2. Anticipated Deal Volume

With regard to deal volume, it’s no surprise that 26% of executives report a substantial reduction in the number of M&A deals for the remainder of 2020. Additionally, the 51% of executives reporting that they are on a “temporary pause” expect to remain paused until they see signs of an economic recovery, which is not likely to happen before the end of the year.

Despite this sobering news, 23% of respondents anticipate no significant change to or an increase in the number of M&A plays they pursue this year. For buyers staying in the M&A game, four motivations were prevalent:

  1. Seeing opportunities in M&A hotspots
  2. Looking to gain the “first mover advantage,” while other prospective buyers are still in shock and trying to sort out their plans
  3. Needing to innovate or reposition for post-COVID market realities
  4. Wanting to accelerate commercialization of the most promising new technologies, medical advancements, or delivery systems

What does this mean for you?

You aren’t necessarily crazy if you’re seeing opportunities for M&A plays. If your balance sheet is strong, your stock price steady, and access to credit solid, it may be a great time to keep your eye on who you want to partner with as we reinvent our post-pandemic work lives. 

3. Deal Objectives

Many companies are predictably broadening the scope of deal types they’re considering. While 57% indicated they’re most interested in doing deals similar to those they’ve done in the past, the data also suggest these acquirers simultaneously shopping in several different strategic deal-types.

59% reported their intent to opportunistically buy distressed companies and 23% said they are targeting new, non-core technologies, solutions, or segments to intentionally diversify their future revenue streams.

What does this mean for you?

Acquiring companies that are struggling during tough economic times, but which will likely thrive quickly once the economy picks up steam again is a valid M&A strategy. Play your cards right and you could end up with a really lucrative deal, while saving a technology or smart solution, which might otherwise be lost to the dustbin of history.

It’s also a good time to consider how to diversify or reinforce your own revenue streams. Many firms experiencing a slowdown in the past few months have taken the time to strategize about insulating themselves from future economic distress. One savvy strategy is thinking outside the box about new ways to bring in revenues and develop new efficiencies.

In addition, for firms concerned about their own ability to weather the pandemic storm, a “marriage of survival” may be a mutually beneficial solution. If you know of a competitor or adjacent company that you suspect to be in a similar struggle for survival, it might be worth a phone call.

4. Operational Challenges

Sellers in prime position will be in high demand. Any sellers who are ready to do a deal, but confident about surviving the economic lockdown, will be prepared to hold out until P&L statements recover. So finding the best play may be more of a challenge than you anticipate.

Additionally, this may call for a level of due diligence and dialogue that some buyers aren’t prepared for. For instance, looking at 2020 financials, to what extent have core fundamentals, competitive pressure, or other internal or external factors impacted the drop in revenues? How confident are you that the impacts attributed to COVID are accurate? Also, how should your leadership team evaluate and validate the target company’s rebound plan?

What does this mean for you?

If your firm is eying an M&A strategy as a buyer to gain market share, keep in mind that the most attractive sellers will be in high demand. You’ll likely need to get creative about bridging the valuation gap. Consider: 

  • Valuation, 
  • Deal structure, 
  • Growth incentives, and
  • Talent retention.

Your strategies here will need to be simple and convincing to win the bid. Remember, acquisitions, even in the best of times, are highly emotional transactions. Now is not the time to spare the empathy. If you want the transition to be smooth, be sensitive during this delicate dance.

5. M&A Capabilities

Finally, survey respondents reported they are calling in reinforcements to bolster their internal M&A capabilities. For many firms, operationally executing an M&A strategy amidst so much economic uncertainty, across all deal phases, and over multiple deal-type scenarios requires a level of M&A sophistication beyond what they currently have in place.

As the chair of the M&A Leadership Council, Mark Herdon, cautions us: “Mergers and acquisitions are notoriously difficult in any environment and post-Covid, they may be even harder. Setting aside political sabre rattling from the recently proposed ‘Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act’ [which could also throw a monkey-wrench into your M&A plans], even the most skillful acquirers may be hard-pressed to navigate other real-time acquisition challenges.”

What does this mean for you?

Upleveling your M&A strategy means upgrading your M&A operating processes, playbooks, software solutions, skills, and resources to enable working remotely for any deal type, market environment, or deal volume. To support your crisis recovery strategic objectives, consider carefully any gaps you might need to fill.

Of course, shoring up your M&A capabilities need not require a long internal hiring process. Working with an external team that has significant skills and experience in the M&A space offers several advantages. Audacia Strategies offers a network of specialized partners who bring specific expertise, depth of resource, and proven experience. Check out our services to see how we can support you. 

Photo credit: Gino Santa Maria

best communications practices

A New Look at “Chaos is Our Brand” in Light of the Coronavirus Crisis

When Audacia Strategies CEO, Katy Herr, originally taped this interview with Dan Doran, CEO of Quantive, for his podcast The Deal—Unscripted, we had no idea just how relevant it would be now during the current crisis. A year later, we are living a case study in crisis communication and thought it was a good time to revisit some of the takeaways about best communications practices from that conversation.

1. Don’t Wait to Create a Strategy for Best Communications Practices

This recommendation applies as much to a wide-spread crisis situation like the Coronavirus pandemic as it does to a big company transition like a merger or acquisition. It never pays to procrastinate on creating a communications strategy.

If you find yourself without a clear strategy, you’re likely feeling the pain acutely in this moment. As far as we know, no one has invented a time machine, but there are some things you can do to develop a stop gap strategy:

  • Stay calm and present as you weigh your options.
  • Figure out who needs to hear from you, when.
  • Develop straightforward messaging that doesn’t promise more than you can deliver.
  • Make sure you have a designated team with assigned roles to streamline communications.

For more ideas, check out 5 Lessons from our Crisis Communications Playbook

Many of our clients contact us when they’re facing one of two situations: times of crisis or times of transformation—hence our unofficial tagline: “chaos is our brand.” This makes a lot of sense, but too often what we find is that if an organization hesitates to develop best communications practices and a communications strategy early enough, things can go off the rails quickly. 

At the risk of sounding too sales-y and mindful of the many hardships experienced during this time, here are a few of the benefits of using an outside communications firm:

  • An outside set of eyes gives you transaction experience, critical perspective, and unbiased advice when communicating your message to the outside world.
  • An outside firm is in a good position to place your organization in a broader context (i.e., the competitive set, the market, and your financial stakeholders), while you focus on running day-to-day internal operations.
  • An outside firm isn’t influenced by the “groupthink” or silo-ed communications that can be an obstacle to projecting the strongest public image.

Whether or not your organization ultimately decides to enlist the help of a firm like Audacia Strategies during this crisis or the next one, the most important thing you can do is start strategizing ASAP.

2. Think About Who Your Stakeholders Are 

In this moment of uncertainty, you are right to worry about accidentally leaving stakeholders off of your list of communications. One of the first rules of communications is to control the narrative. But if you hesitate to reach out to stakeholders or skimp on the stakeholder analysis, this is precisely the risk you take.

Remember that at its core communications is about storytelling. What is the best story you can tell to a particular set of stakeholders? Suppose the governor in your state has decided your industry is among those allowed to reopen, but you disagree with the reopen policy for your business. Your best bet is to be honest with your employees, customers, and investors. State your case and speak your truth.

Depending on whether you are a publicly or privately held company, stakeholders could include any or all of the following sets:

  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Financial stakeholders: 
    • Public debt holders and ratings agencies
    • Private equity companies and banks
    • Investors or shareholders
  • Community partners
  • Contributors (for non-profit organizations)
  • Business partners and service providers
  • Strategic partners
  • Government regulators and political community (local, state and federal) 
  • Media and industry influencers

3. Understand the Difference Between Marketing and Communications

This is especially important now when best communications practices may require a very light touch. If you think you can “get by” using your internal marketing department to craft crisis communications, you may want to reconsider. 

Marketing and strategic communications are different tools. Whereas marketing primarily focuses on telling the story of how your product or service will help your target customers, strategic communications partners can knit together the entirety of the business story to give investors and other stakeholders a comprehensive picture. As the experts in helping clients weather chaos, we have developed best practices over many transactions, crises, and change events.

Now is the time to ask big picture questions about how your market may respond to this crisis, how resources should be optimally redirected, and how investors, customers and employees should be engaged throughout. This is a great time to consider what has changed for your customers and employees and what you can offer as we begin to feel our way through life post-lockdown.

4. M&A Tips and Tricks

As we hopefully begin to see COVID-19 infection rates peak over the next several weeks and markets start to stabilize, many predict that M&A (mergers and acquisitions) will start to pick up in certain industries. This is, of course, assuming lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t place a moratorium on big mergers—a conversation we’ll be monitoring closely.

There are still a lot of unknowns here, but if a merger is in your future, we work with corporate development teams, in-house financial teams, lawyers, and investment bankers helping them think through the market and storytelling from an M&A perspective. At its core, M&A is about risk, the ability to manage risk, and telling the story of how the acquisition fits into your broader business strategy and culture.

For example, if you’ve been working on a deal that has been in the preparation stages for months, should you call it off or push forward to completion? One thing is for sure: for companies that have built a healthy balance sheet during the economic boom of the past ten years, declining valuations create opportunities to pursue deals that create long-term value. While we can’t help you decide whether to hold or fold, we can help you communicate your decision.

Finally, we’ll leave you with some pitfalls and opportunities to consider when it comes to best communications practices during a merger or acquisition: 

M&A Pitfalls:

  • Companies that overpay: We have another blog post dedicated to this topic. Suffice it to say, if you overpay for an acquisition, it can create credibility issues with your investors, your Board of Directors, your employees…the list goes on. Negotiations can get emotional quickly but consider that the business strategy will have to support the valuation.
  • Cultural fit failure: We’ve seen it happen: a small start-up firm develops an amazing technology and gets bought by a huge firm looking to prove it’s innovative and “hip.” Then, within a year, all the original start up employees are gone. Avoid this kind of cultural disconnect by having an air-tight integration strategy from the beginning. Make sure you are walking your walk, so you can deliver on what you’re promising. (Pssst! Hot tip: Audacia Strategies has a new service rolling out to help avoid just this problem. Make sure you’re signed up to be among the first to get the details!)

M&A Opportunities:

  • Integration is key: The best M&A success stories are those where the merging leadership teams think about integration all the way along. When companies have a successful communications strategy that includes communicating the big vision well for both internal and external audiences, the proof is in the stakeholders’ response.
  • Customers see opportunities: Ideally, when two companies merge, customers say “this is exactly what I needed.” Rather than seeking out two solutions, for example, the customer gets one-stop-shopping from the new hybrid. It’s your job to help communicate this feeling across your stakeholder groups.
  • Employees see opportunities: And if you can also pull off a merger where employees in both companies see the transformation as good for their own careers, you’ve developed a winning communications strategy. Often employees of the smaller firm may feel anxious about being acquired. But if you can honestly demonstrate opportunities for career mobility, earnings potential, and other benefits of working for a larger company, it will go a long way toward easing transition tensions.

The above is only a sampling of the insights and best communications practices gained from Dan and Katy’s conversation. You can watch and listen to the 30-minute interview in its entirety, here

As everyone keeps saying, this crisis is unprecedented. Still, there is something to be said for working with a team that faces down chaos and keeps walking through the fire. We are here to help you figure out your next step and keep you moving forward. If you want to talk, we’re ready to strategize about your best next steps. 

Photo credit: https://www.123rf.com/profile_deagreez

timing corporate communications

How to Think About Timing Big Announcements in the Age of Uncertainty (3 Questions You MUST Ask!)

I first shared my thoughts about timing corporate communications back in December of 2016. The world looked very different then. We were still in the midst of the longest economic bull run in history. We were still shaking hands, going into the office, and not thinking twice about getting on a plane.

Yes, the corporate world looks very different today as we navigate the choppy waters of COVID-19. But best practices for when and how to make big announcements remain largely the same.

While it’s important to get the messaging right, when and how you say it matters as much—if not more than—what you say. So, let’s consider the big questions to ask before you drop a big announcement. 

1. Is your announcement subject to regulatory restrictions?

Markets may be a bit topsy-turvy at the moment, but you can assume that the existing federal regulatory rules of your industry still apply. There are rules regarding what you can communicate, to whom, when, and how. So make sure you brush up on the SEC disclosure requirements and the law relevant to your industry concerning timing corporate communications.

Also, make sure you stay up-to-date on the latest developments affecting your industry and any SEC statements about how they’re responding to the pandemic. This is especially crucial for firms subject to rules governed by The Division of Trading and Markets

Example: Material Announcements

Speaking of regulatory restrictions, Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg FD) requires all publicly traded companies to release material information to all investors at the same time. Ideally, leadership would communicate the changes during a scheduled conference call with investors or a town hall meeting. Staying in touch with investors is critical.

In addition, to stay clear of Reg FD violations, remind directors, officers, and other corporate insiders that they should refrain from trading in the company’s securities until any risks that would be material to investors have been disclosed. The unknowns of COVID-19 put us in a fluid situation, so it’s even more important to stay vigilant here.

However, as always, if word of a material event or material information is inadvertently leaked to some investors or analysts (i.e., an “unintentional selective disclosure”), as soon as a senior company official learns of the disclosure, she is required to disclose the information publicly. Companies must make the announcement either (a) within 24 hours or (b) by the start of the next day’s trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

2. What are your competitors doing?

I know that you’re juggling a gazillion balls. But one of those balls has to be keeping an eye on the competition. I’m not asking you to be obsessed with your competitors—that’s not likely to be helpful either. Still, how much of a splash your announcement makes, whether positive or negative, at least partially depends on the behavior of your competition. So do pay attention.

If you have good news to share, you want to time the announcement carefully to capture as many likes, comments, and eyeballs as you can. With bad news, you want to be as transparent and complete as possible in your initial communications to avoid continually referencing the issue and detracting from your broader corporate strategy. 

Example: Product or Service Launch

Let’s say you have pivoted and are ready to roll out a new offering that will address an emerging need in your market. Sure, you are excited about the product or service. But if you rush to make the announcement without a solid strategy, you risk being overshadowed.

For example, suppose you suspect your competition might be working on a similar offering. Should you rush to beat them to market? While you might manage to steal their thunder by announcing early, you also need to think through the consequences of such a play. Could you lose credibility by putting out a product or service that hasn’t been thoroughly tested? Do you have a plan for dealing with a shouting match should your competitor start one?

While there’s no crystal ball to predict what opportunities are on the horizon, waiting a bit to make that big announcement can pay off. This is doubly true if your industry is experiencing extra volatility during this time.

In addition, if waiting to announce gives you time to gather crucial information about what your customer needs, this will ultimately result in a more successful launch. The benefits to rushing corporate communications here are few, while the costs can absolutely be a reputation killer.

3. Does your corporate communications policy respect your staff?

Communicating in a way that expresses empathy toward employees is key. Again, this isn’t just about the language of your messaging. It’s about timing corporate communications too. Some announcements affect your internal staff more than shareholders or the general public. Your employees and staff don’t deserve to hear bad news from external sources or through the rumor mill.

Example: Corporate Restructuring

When making an announcement like a corporate restructuring, it’s important not to take your staff for granted. Relationships internal to your company are as important, or even more important, than external partnerships if you want to come out of this reorganization with your corporate culture intact. If you focus on the interests of one group to the detriment of others being affected, you risk looking callous and insensitive.

So, follow this general rule: put as much thought into announcing corporate restructuring as you would into announcing a corporate acquisition. If layoffs are part of the strategy, be as transparent as you can about how you came to decisions about whom to let go and what this means for the company as well as individuals.

As with any external message, be mindful of how your internal announcement will affect your audience. Don’t let emotions get in the way. If you are the head of a division, the corporate restructuring might be bad news for you as well. But when you make the announcement to your team, be considerate of their feelings in hearing the news for the first time.

Having the right overall strategy for timing corporate communications takes a blend of planning, finding the right words, and practicing authentic human engagement. At Audacia Strategies, we have helped companies like yours find the right timing strategy for big announcements. Schedule a consultation to discuss your specific needs.

Photo credit: Canva Stock Images

COVID-19 resources

Reading, Listening, and Watching—The Quarantine Edition

I don’t know about you, but I’m living in my blue light glasses and I have real feelings about Zoom vs GoToMeeting vs UberConference. I’ve binged on articles about how to look my best on camera and how to host effective virtual meetings. I’ve signed up for and subsequently never started a very cool sounding course on Coursera about neural networks and deep learning.

My truth in the time of COVID-19 is that staying connected via calls and video takes more time than I anticipated and staying on top of other work often requires working odd hours. That said, I do find that I need “brain breaks” more than ever these days. I imagine you might feel the same way. So, here’s what’s filling my cup.

COVID-19 Resources

I’m still figuring out how-much-is-too-much information for me, but these resources are informative, accessible, and visually compelling. And, in a time where it’s easy to feel powerless, there is absolutely power in information. 

Reading

As we navigate this unprecedented experience, there are real implications for how we communicate with stakeholders. For most organizations, the main struggle is about how to set expectations at a time when there is such uncertainty. It’s helpful to (a) stay pragmatic—as in, do the best you can with the information you have and (b) stay aware of the regulations and recommendations of regulators. Here’s the most recent response from the SEC.

And here’s a terrific example of a leader exhibiting empathy during an exceptionally difficult period. Keep in mind that as leaders, our employees, social media followers, and stakeholders all look to us for cues about how to behave and feel during uncertain situations.

Listening

As a regular listener and fan of Planet Money on NPR, I’m happy to report they are crushing it with the COVID-19 resources. If, like me, you’re wondering how this crisis will affect the U.S. economy long-term, this is the best analysis I’ve heard about which indicators to watch (and bonus, the whole episode is only eight minutes).

In another episode of Planet Money, Robert Smith and Nick Fountain checked in with the female owner of an auto mechanic shop in Queens, NY about how the pandemic is affecting her business. Like her, many of us with fewer than 500 employees, are looking to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as a life preserver for our businesses. The problem is that this $350 billion program, meant to save the economy from collapse, is untested. It was thrown together in a week, and the launch has been a mess (reportedly, as of the morning of Thursday, April 16th, the program ran out of money).

Also, if you’re wondering how the Feds can seemingly “click their heels together” and come up with two trillion dollars for an economic rescue package, the folks at Planet Money are wondering the same thing. In this episode, they do a deep dive into the mechanisms involved in  Congress coming up with $2,000,000,000,000 before the economy collapses. Also, they ask: Can you create too much money, and what happens when you do?

Watching

Personally, I haven’t taken the time to watch the Tiger King saga or the latest season of Ozark on Netflix. When I’m not in a virtual meeting, I prefer to Facetime with family and friends. Seeing their smiling faces really helps me feel connected even when we can’t be physically together.

Real World Inspiration

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to brag on a few of my fellow entrepreneurs. Throughout the present unpleasantness, I’ve been so impressed with the work they are doing on behalf of their clients and their generosity in sharing their skills with the community at large.

Quinn Strategy Group

For leaders considering how to lead during uncertain times, Quinn Strategy Group published a helpful blog article. I love the simplicity and power of the concept: do the next right thing! 

RevMade

So many of us are asking the eternal question: should you continue to market to your audience during a global health pandemic? Answer from RevMade: If you focus on understanding what your audience needs, then you will never go wrong. What they need has likely shifted in light of the crisis, but your audience may need you now more than ever. Don’t know what COVID-19 resources your audience needs? Maybe it’s a good time for a Voice of the Customer (VoC) assessment.

Digital Caffeine

The smart folks at Digital Caffeine Group remind us that now is a great time to get experimental. If not now, when? Get visible and build that brand awareness while some of your peers may be experiencing analysis paralysis. Why not take advantage of this time when “the Internet is on sale” and try some new communication strategies

BirchBox

Finally, as a business owner, I’m always on the lookout for inspiration from others who have been through significant challenges. Quarantine is no exception. How I Built This always offers inspiration, optimism, and a reminder of the importance of resilience. 

Here’s a quote from a recent episode that stuck with me:

“It’s not just the grinding. But I think resilience is underestimated…To endure being kicked down a lot. When you have headwind or when you have challenges—what do you choose to do in those moments? I think it would be tough to imagine not building, it would be tough not trying to build reality. It really excites me to imagine the world I want to exist and to try to create it.” — Birchbox, Katia Beauchamp, Co-founder and CEO

How I Built This – March 20, 2020

Keep grinding and stay resilient! We will get through this together, while keeping an appropriate distance, of course. The team at Audacia is here if and when you need us.

Photo Credit: dolgachov