planning for the future

What’s On the Agenda for 2022?

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen, heard, and read one too many articles about trends for 2022. I even published a 2022 trend article myself. And as much as I enjoy thinking about and planning for the future with Audacia’s incredible clients, I’m also a realist.

Has anyone effectively predicted anything during the past two years? Fortunately, we don’t need to predict the future to build a solid strategy. What if we, instead, accepted the uncertainty and focused on building flexibility and the capacity for resilience inside our organizations?

With this in mind, let’s discuss what’s in, what’s out, and preview the flexible plan we’re implementing at Audacia Strategies this year.

What’s In

As we continue to watch workplaces shift and organizations rethink how productivity happens, some corporate culture trends have real staying power.

1. Building corporate trust.

The pandemic continues to erode public trust in large institutions. Early last year, when we were mostly feeling optimistic about a swift return to normalcy, we talked about ways corporations could begin rebuilding trust. Back then, public trust of businesses stood at 61%, higher than any other institution, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer.

Now, after enduring another year of working from home and dealing with the uncertainty of the delta and omicron variants, many of us have given up on the concept of “a return to normalcy” entirely. And the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that business holds onto its position as the most trusted institution, with even greater expectations due to government’s failure to lead during the pandemic.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • By an average of a five-to-one margin, respondents in the 28 countries surveyed want business to play a larger role on climate change, economic inequality, workforce re-skilling and addressing racial injustice. 
  • All stakeholders want business to fill the void, with nearly 60% of consumers buying brands based on their values and beliefs, almost 6 in 10 employees choosing a workplace based on shared values and expecting their CEO to take a stand on societal issues, and 64% of investors looking to back businesses aligned with their values. 

“Business must now be the stabilizing force delivering tangible action and results on society’s most critical issues,” said Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. “Societal leadership is now a core function of business.”

2. Establishing credibility as a trusted information source.

The 2022 Trust Barometer also revealed that trust in news and information sources has eroded over the past decade. Trust in all news sources has dropped (with the exception of owned media, which rose one point to 43%). Social media experienced the sharpest decline at eight points to 37%, followed by traditional media dropping five points to 57%.

In addition, concern over fake news being used as a weapon has risen to an all-time high of 76%. And the most credible source of information is communications from ‘My Employer’ (65%). 

Clearly, trust is at a premium now, which means there’s also a huge opportunity for organizations to establish credibility as a source of reliable information. Doing so will likely require skillful repetition of the truth and transparency in your internal and external communications.

It’s more difficult than ever for consumers to sift through all the available content and find useful information. Making increasing trust a part of your firms’ strategic plan in 2022 could be a serious differentiator.

3. Staying nimble.

Also, with all the challenges to public trust and uncertainty in the air, perhaps the best strategy for thriving in 2022 is to stay nimble. Where can you keep your strategic options open?

If you’re working on an M&A deal this year, for example, positioning your organization for the sale is key:

  • As your business model and corporate strategy shift with the times, you may need to re-evaluate how M&A fits.
  • Keep in mind that there are more options for M&A available now, such as SPACs and other non-traditional financial configurations.
  • Make sure your due diligence covers more than just the financials. The unfolding of the criminal trial and conviction of Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of the debunked medical startup, Theranos, has driven home this point. Many Theranos investors have been criticized for not doing the proper due diligence.

What’s Out

With the above in mind, let’s turn to what’s striking a discordant note with consumers, investors, and trend-setters.

1. Overpaying for an acquisition.

We’ve seen some of the highest M&A deal volumes ever in the past year, and multiples are at record highs. Still, the M&A market remains competitive. While many deals are worth the multiple, there’s no good reason to overpay for an acquisition. 

In fact, we see firms making this mistake for a variety of reasons:

  • Deal fever: It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a bidding war. Instead, be willing to walk away from a deal that doesn’t really work.
  • Cutting corners on due diligence: Due diligence is like going to the dentist. If you don’t do the preventative work, you may end up needing a root canal.
  • Not getting real about your competition: The deal will have ripple effects. Do your best to anticipate how it will affect your competitors and the market in general.
  • Getting entranced by “synergies” [or insert your favorite buzzword]: Don’t fall for talk that sounds good but isn’t backed up by substance. Always have a gut check strategy.

What we recommend: A comprehensive integration strategy that goes beyond IT systems and benefits (both vital!) and addresses culture, leadership style, behavior expectations, and just plain “what’s in it for me?” And by the way, this comprehensive integration strategy should include perspectives from employees, customers, and investors.

Consider one of my favorite quotes from Dan Doran: “Value is analyzed, price is negotiated.” Write it down on a sticky note and keep it top of mind for deal negotiations.

2. Mixed messages to employees and customers.

Remember how we’re inundated with information and unsure whether we can trust any of it? Well, one thing that contributes to this paucity of trust is mixed messages. So replace complex, inconsistent, and vague messages with simple, consistent, and transparent communications.

And also, it can’t hurt to approach all messaging with a healthy dose of realism and empathy. For many, January 2022 feels an awful lot like April 2020. Pandemic fatigue is at an epic level and right now it’s hard to be an employee, a leader, a customer, an investor, a parent, a kid, a teacher, a doctor, a nurse…a human.

3. Everything being a top priority.

With everything we have to deal with on a daily basis, we don’t need the added burden of everything feeling urgent. So it’s best to think extra carefully about your real top priorities as an organization. 

Employee burnout is real. Customer burnout is real. No one has the patience to discern what’s a true priority. If you treat every task or project as if it’s Defcon Level 5, you’re likely to invoke a fight, flight, or freeze response.

Instead, pick your top goals, staff out each project appropriately, and give realistic deadlines, all with team input. Then maintain productivity by communicating your priorities and why to all levels and all stakeholders.

What We’re Doing at Audacia Strategies

Of course, by now, you know we at Audacia are always thinking about how we can walk our talk and 2022 is no exception. 

Here’s what we’re doing to build flexibility and the capacity for resilience:

  • Lots of deep breaths.
  • One of our guiding principles: Start with empathy.
  • Recommitting to our values and actively building our culture around them.
  • Focusing on prioritizing our business investments: We’re doubling down on what has worked by augmenting our offerings and building our capacity to support executive transitions, exits (IPOs, M&A), and refreshed marketing positioning.
  • Focusing on building our kick*ss team: We are proud to work with professionals who are the best of the best in their field, highly respected, customer-focused, awesome people with a fabulous sense of humor, and are no bullsh*t team players. We’ve already announced that IR pro, Mike Pici, joined the leadership team, and you can check out our team page to find out more about our strategic partnerships.
  • More deep breaths…

If the question of building a solid strategy amidst chaos and uncertainty has your organization reaching for the Magic Eight Ball, contact us instead to schedule a consultation

We haven’t been able to predict the future (yet!), but we do help clients develop strategies for dealing with anticipated and unanticipated transformations, and we can do the same for your organization.

Photo credit: Business Colleagues Having A Meeting Discussing Graphs And Figures by Flamingo Images from NounProject.com

M&A trends 2022

Considering an M&A Deal in 2022? Keep an Eye on These Trends

With 2021 firmly in the rearview mirror, now is a good time to explore the merger and acquisition (M&A) outlook for 2022. After an historic year, fueled by a backlog of deals from 2020, soaring global markets, plenty of access to capital, advantageous changes to tax rates, and attractive valuations, investment professionals expect a still active but cooler market in 2022.

While many of the factors that contributed to global M&A volumes topping $5 trillion for the first time remain in play, they are less pronounced. And dealmakers agree that deal volume peaked in August of 2021. This coupled with the likely rise of interest rates this year, which will increase the cost of debt, could impact valuations and slow deal volume.

Despite these potential headwinds, if you’re considering launching an M&A deal on either the buy or sell side in Q1 or Q2 of 2022, you’ll likely find a busy dealmaking environment. So let’s discuss the M&A outlook and what to watch as you prepare your materials.

Takeaways from 2021 M&A Activity

During a panel discussion at the end of last year, my fellow panelists and I discussed strategic M&A opportunities for investors and the M&A outlook for 2022. To watch the full panel discussion, click here.

As we kept an eye on deals playing out at the end of 2021, here are our biggest takeaways:

  • Private equity will continue to play a huge role: Private equity firms played a huge role in M&A deals in 2021 and will continue to do so. According to one report, private equity now accounts for 30% of M&A activity. This makes sense because with the market surge, private investors have a record amount of dry powder (capital) available.
  • Valuation/multiples have been climbing but will likely level out: Most M&A professionals believe that valuations in several sectors have reached their peak — or are borderline frothy. It’s hard to envision a scenario where valuations would be significantly higher a year from now and likewise, few see valuations dropping significantly. Experts expect valuations to settle at a sustainable level in the next few months.
  • More selective deal strategies are on the horizon: While few practitioners expect a slowdown of the M&A market, many see more selective deal strategies on the horizon. We’ll likely see megadeals playing a transformational role and smaller, tuck-in acquisitions playing an increasingly important role for small- and medium-sized companies looking to build and scale capacity quickly with less integration risk.

Key Differentiators Remain

Looking at the big picture, key differentiators remain. Whether you are on the buy side or the sell side, you and your team will want to keep the following in mind:

1. Integration matters.

If you aren’t looking past the deal to the future, then you will be at a distinct disadvantage when negotiating. On the buyside, you’ll want to be ready to share your integration plan. Show your awareness of everything from projected revenues to cultural implications to talent management. Changes to the labor market, for example, could complicate your deal. Be ready to prove that you’re aware of these details.

On the sellside, you’ll want to make integration easy to whatever extent is possible. Identify and mitigate key risks early both in the external competitive market and in the internal workings of the company. In addition to risk mitigation, look for opportunities to create value. Be prepared to talk about how you can add value and the quickest path to increased profits as you see it.

2. Keep non-financial due diligence on your radar.

The M&A outlook also reminds us that there are a lot of factors that can affect deal success and financial performance, but which are non-financial in nature. In fact, 70-90% of M&A deals fail due to non-financial aspects. 

Show your deal partners that you know where the non-financial risks and opportunities lie for your brand. Dig deep into factors such as executive reputation, employee sentiment, culture, and communication style.

Management’s credibility is also important to convey. Develop your story connecting your managers and executives to the company’s mission, vision, and values. The more you can show leadership as standing strong together, the better your prospects for closing a great deal.

3. Pay attention to middle management.

More often than not, middle management — as opposed to the C-suite — controls the narrative for employees and customers. Because managers are often more accessible and work more closely with these stakeholders, they are trusted. So, you’ll want to give middle managers the same attention you give to executives.

According to Sarah Gershman, Executive Speech Coach, CEO of Green Room Speakers, and one of Audacia’s partners, it’s important for middle managers to feel prepared to communicate appropriately throughout the deal process. “Middle managers spend most of their time interfacing with customers and doing the work,” says Sarah. “And telling the story of the merger doesn’t come naturally when you’re in the weeds. So it’s a smart idea to find an expert who can help middle management understand and empathize with their audience.”

Beyond prepared remarks, there will be questions and plenty of uncertainty. Managers are the first line of defense in helping to stabilize nerves, and they are your best line of offense in sharing enthusiasm for the next step of this transformative event. That said, the key when answering questions is to show that you understand the question. “Deep listening is a critical skill here,” says Sarah. “You want to listen not only to hear the question, but also to understand what’s behind the question and what’s at stake.”

What if someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer? According to Sarah, as long as you have demonstrated that you have really heard the question, you can feel empowered to say the magic words, “I don’t know. Let me check on that and get back to you.” Remember, it is always better to share authentic and accurate information than incorrect information or speculation.

4. Clearly articulate the narrative.

For both the buyer and seller, it is essential to be able to articulate the narrative around why this deal, why now, and why this property is best in XYZ hands. “Keep in mind,” says Sarah, “people have spoken and unspoken needs.” Unspoken needs are usually driven by emotions, like fear. To clearly articulate your narrative, you need to drill down and find the precise emotion you’re after. “If you want to inspire your audience, that’s different from motivating them or energizing them.” 

With an M&A deal, addressing the other side’s unspoken needs goes far beyond explaining your unique capabilities and differentiated IP. You must also be able to demonstrate an understanding of your company’s markets, customers, opportunities, and competitive pressures. And telling the story of your company’s value within the context of the deal is key.

The bottom line: Despite the headwinds identified, the M&A outlook for 2022 is very good.

If you’re ready to ride the M&A wave this year, you need the right partners by your side. At Audacia Strategies, we’re prepared to work with you and your team as you navigate the next big deal. Contact us to discuss your M&A strategy.

Photo credit: Modern Businesspeople Having A Video Conference In A Boardroom by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

IPO

The IPO and SPAC Market is Hot. Is Your Firm Ready for the Public Eye?

2021 has been a record-breaking year for Initial Public Offerings (IPOs). Analysts predict that by December 31, we will have seen roughly 1,000 companies hit the market. As of now, there have been 372 IPOs and 535 SPACs, for a total of 907 companies representing $266 billion in proceeds. 

Among the most notable companies on the upcoming IPO agenda are giants like mobile payment company Stripe, San Francisco-based Instacart, which has more than half the U.S. online grocery delivery market, and Impossible Foods, the maker of plant-based burgers. Others include Databricks, an artificial intelligence company and a Brazilian digital bank, Nubank, backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

With the market this hot, we know that you may be considering joining their ranks and raising capital either through a traditional IPO or a SPAC. And while you can find plenty of IPO checklists and guides, making the process seem deceptively simple, the decision to take your firm public requires careful consideration. So, we thought it might be appropriate to look at some of the questions founders tend to overlook.

Make Sure You Know Your ‘Why’

There are a lot of good reasons to go public, but being the CEO of a public company adds several layers of complexity to your job. So it’s important to make sure you know your ‘why’ and why your ‘why’ makes you unique in your market (AKA your differentiator). This will help you stay grounded throughout the tough moments.

Many firms may think, “I need to raise capital, so I think I’ll take my company public.” Maybe you need access to capital to support planned acquisitions or maybe you want better access to debt and equity markets to carry out your growth plans. That access comes with costs both in flexibility and on the bottomline. Whatever your reason, spend some serious time evaluating it from every angle. A murder board can be a great resource here as well.

Another reason knowing your ‘why’ is important is that you need to be prepared to own the IPO process. Don’t assume that the investment bankers, lawyers, accountants, and consultants you hire will manage the process. Make sure you (and your team) manage the timeline and understand the process. Ask a lot of questions. Avoidable delays may cause you to miss your window in your industry. When you stay in charge of the timeline, you stay in control of the process.

What are SPAC IPOs?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a surge in what’s called a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) and these relatively new types of deal are fanning the flames of the IPO market. Also known as a blank check company, SPACs are another way to raise capital.

Not your typical IPO stock, SPACs start out as shell companies that raise money by issuing stock. Then they use the proceeds, combined with bank financing to buy and take privately held companies public. SPACs typically set two-year time limits on completing the acquisition and if the deal doesn’t go through, then investors get their money back.

Although SPACs aren’t new, they have seen a rise in popularity after COVID-19 shut down the IPO market in Q1 of 2020. Prior to 2020, we were seeing about 15 SPACs per quarter. During Q3 of 2020, that number jumped to 82, and it jumped again to 129 the following quarter. In the first quarter of this year, we saw a record of 298 SPACs.

But whether SPACs are a temporary trend or have real staying power is yet to be determined.

3 IPO Tips from an IR Pro

There’s one other point that founders should be aware of when considering whether it’s time to take their company public: it’s all about the investors. Sure, you need to focus on the SEC regulatory requirements and keeping the analysts on your side. But when it comes down to brass tacks, public companies live and die by their investors’ decisions.

To that end, here are four tips from Managing Director of Investor Relations and Financial Transformation, Mike Pici:

1. Get your house in order.

There’s no reason to be in a hurry to go public. In fact, we’re seeing trends go in the opposite direction. Whereas a startup receiving a healthy stream of venture capital might have once gone public in four years, today the process might take eight years or more. Companies are waiting longer and growing larger before they go public. 

This is a positive trend because it is hard to course correct when you’re being publicly held to the results. So make certain your house, both financial and non-financial, is in order before going public.

2. Be prepared to show a track record of growth.

If you’re thinking like an investor, then you know that investors aren’t just looking for positive cash flow or past success. They’re also looking for evidence of future growth. The amount of revenue is not as important as showing healthy growth quarter over quarter. To this end, we recommend that you show a minimum of 1-2 quarters of growth before filing for your IPO.

3. Consider whether the firm can withstand the amount of stress going public will create.

You’ve likely faced obstacles in the growth of your business. And you should be proud of how you were able to face and overcome those obstacles. But if you believe overcoming adversity qualifies you to take your company public, you would do well to talk to other founders who have gone through the process.

You need to know what you’re walking into before you sit down at the table. The stress of going public is a particular type of challenge and while most founders will only do it once in the lifetime of their businesses, remember that you’ll be working with experts who have done hundreds of deals. Make sure you and your management team are up to the task.

Your IPO Roadmap:

Once you have decided to take your firm public, you’ll need a plan. At Audacia Strategies, we work with our clients through every stage of the IPO process. Here is a preview, which we call our IPO Roadmap:

Part 1: Developing your IPO story 

Although you’ll have multiple filings that describe your business, your risks, and your opportunities, you’ll also want to develop an overarching narrative to share with diverse audiences. Now is the time to refine your value proposition, establish credibility and proof points, set your guidance strategy, and set up internal processes to establish consistent communications.

Part 2: Building an Investor Relations (IR) program

A successful initial public offering requires syncing up several moving parts. If doing a product launch feels like playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” an IPO feels like playing “Beethoven’s 9th.” Of course, to play a symphony, you need an orchestra. For your successful IPO, that means building an IR program. You can schedule a consultation with our Managing Director of IR, Mike Pici, here.

Part 3: Navigating life after IPO

Once you’ve successfully taken your firm public, it’s time to follow through on the commitments you’ve made and deliver against those proof points. Remember the IPO is really just the beginning of your journey.

If you’re ready to start your IPO journey, contact us today to discuss your needs. Our team is ready to develop a transformational strategy that works for you.

Photo credit: Team of two women analyzing charts and diagrams by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

Investor relations

Ask an Expert: Managing Director, Mike Pici, Discusses How Investor Relations Drives Value by Looking at Ordinary Events in an Extraordinary Way

Communicating with investors and potential investors can feel like walking a tightrope. Investors want to know how you’re going to protect and ideally increase their investment. Investors and analysts don’t appreciate uncertainty and surprises can add volatility into your stock’s trading.

Enter the Investor Relations expert.

First things first: Investor relations is not about pumping up the share price or sweeping surprises under the rug. It’s about supporting an accurate valuation and understanding of the firm.

IR professionals are there to keep your investors and analysts grounded. They are the first point of contact between investors, the Street, and the company. And their job is to effectively communicate the management’s mission, vision, and strategy, while being prepared for anything any stakeholder might ask.

Do you know what your investors are thinking? Or are you walking a tightrope?

Interview with Managing Director of Investor Relations and Financial Transformation, Mike Pici

To get you started down the IR road, Audacia Strategies CEO, Katy Herr, sat down with Managing Director of Investor Relations and Financial Transformation, Mike Pici, to talk about the what, the why, and best practices for coming up with an investor relations strategy.

Mike brings to Audacia 20+ years of financial and capital markets experience including investor relations, business modeling, budgeting, forecasting, and planning processes, as well as thorough experience with financial statements, i.e., 10-Qs and 10-Ks. He has also been a key internal advisor on portfolio transformation activities including $1B+ of acquisitions, multiple corporate spin-offs, asset divestitures, integrations and associated stranded cost mitigation planning, strategic portfolio reviews, and transformation messaging. 

To find out how your firm can benefit from working with an Investor Relations and Financial Transformation expert, check out these highlights from Katy’s interview with Mike.

Q | Can you talk a bit about what a Managing Director of Investor Relations does and how Financial Transformation fits into the picture?

Investors and potential investors naturally have a lot of questions about the companies in which they’re investing. Of course, they’d love to talk to the C-suite directly, but this isn’t always feasible. So IR steps in to answer investor questions between earnings calls or annual shareholder meetings.

Now, when your IR professional is doing their job well, they are on the same page as the managers and effectively communicate the managers’ narrative in a way that puts investors at ease. Credibility and transparency are key here. When investors trust the IR liaison, they can better weather any storms that may affect the company. It’s a win-win.

For example, if the IR manager can explain how a CEO transition fits into the broader business model and overall big picture, investors will feel more grounded and comfortable staying the course. Without earning their trust, though, IR and leadership will face a barrage of questions that could trigger significant turmoil.

Here’s where the financial transformation piece fits in:

What kinds of questions do investors ask most often? Questions about the financials, of course. 

Clearly, IR professionals have to know their numbers. But they also need to be able to communicate about the numbers in a way that makes sense to investors.

There’s no degree in IR. Typically, you’re either a finance person or a communications person. I have a financial background (Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A)), so I’m often falling back on the numbers. This is helpful because the Street is always trying to build a model. So my financial background gives me the ability to think like an analyst and communicate in a way that steadies the waters for investors.

The real advantage in working with an IR strategist, though, is that they are always focused on the reality on the ground and how to best communicate about it in a way that aligns with your overarching messaging. Everything I do. Everything I look at. I always ask, how does this affect the numbers?

And this one-pointed focus is important because people get really emotional about money. So if you’re facing a potentially destabilizing situation, your IR professional can look past the perceived impact to the reality of the situation and be able to talk about the reality in a way that grounds your investors.

For example, right now there are shipping containers on ships stuck outside the port in L.A. How does or could this affect your bottom line? When investors inevitably call up and start asking how much of your product is stuck in that port, don’t you want someone who can help you answer that question in the most diplomatic and accurate way?

The ability to answer questions like these during some of the most trying times in the lifecycle of a firm makes working with IR a game changer. Yes, IR must align with the management team while finding a way to connect with investors. But the trust needs to flow from management to the IR person as well. 

It’s true that sometimes I have to speak truth to power. Part of the job is bringing messages back from the Street or from investors to managers and telling them hard truths. I often start these conversations saying, “I think this is what you pay me to do,” which is code for “I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear.”

When management and IR can find common ground, managers trust IR, and investors trust the IR professional, then you have a streamlined system that sets everyone up for success.

Q | How does a typical IR process work? Are there best practices that companies should follow when coming up with an IR strategy?

When I start working with a new client, the first thing I do is gather information. Firms need to know, first and foremost, where they stand. So, I call up the analysts to get a sense of their perception of the company. I also call up the top 10 investors to get their perspective. Then I take this information to the managers and have a conversation about what I’m hearing.

This allows me to start shaping the narrative that can be proven out over time during quarterly earnings calls. We figure out what makes you different from your peers and why that counts in your favor. Then we make sure every earnings call references your special sauce.

But this early process only scratches the surface. To keep the momentum going, each quarter I approach quarterly earnings calls in the following way: 

  • About a month away from the end of the quarter, I get in touch with the FP&A group and ask them how the forecast is shaping up. This gives me a sense of how the firm is performing relative to the Street’s expectations
  • Then I get the analysts’ models — the most invaluable piece of information. I lay out all the models and compare them to the forecast. And I compare them not just on the metrics we guide (e.g., revenue, earnings per share (EPS), or cash), but also on what they’re expecting throughout the P&L. 
  • So suppose I see that our margins (profitability) are coming in a little lighter than what they’re expecting. I can also see, we’re bridging the gap because we have fewer Selling, General, and Administrative (SG&A) expenses than they’re expecting. 
  • Now I can start to frame a narrative that the firm can build on each quarter. 
  • Armed with all this information, I’ll have a meeting with my management team two or three weeks before the end of the quarter to talk about key themes for the next earnings call. Obviously, we will always talk about the financial results. But we can also discuss major program wins or new product launches. And of course, I’ll ask management what they want to deliver during the call. Often we discuss market trends or the competitive environment. There will be some give and take here.
  • Within hours after each earnings call, I do follow up calls with analysts to correct the record and make sure the note reflects what we want.
  • Prior to the earnings call, I proactively extend an invitation to the top 10 active shareholders to meet after the call as well.
  • Because accessibility is key, I also go on the road with management once a quarter immediately after each earnings call.

The above process reflects what I see as best practices in IR: consistency and transparency. Knowing where your firm stands is imperative, but you also want to have a plan for where you’re going, knowing that you may need to pivot, but all the while maintaining continuity of your messaging. When you maintain a credible message with the Street and with investors and you support that message with facts, then you have a brilliant IR strategy.

Remember, good numbers can fix a bad message, but a bad message can hurt good numbers.

IR is all about communicating the future and getting others to see your vision. So how do you know you have a strong IR message? You know you have a strong IR message when the questions on the earnings calls and in conversation with buy-side investors become more strategic, than tactical. At this point, you know they see your vision and they’re with you.

Other key questions to ask:

  • Who’s investing in our peers and not in our firm?
  • Who do we want to be investing in our firm? Which rooms do we need to be in to make this happen?
  • Which analysts are tracking our peers and not tracking our firm?
  • Who should management meet with when they do the next roadshow?

Q | If there were one thing you wish your clients knew to get better outcomes or something that would make the process easier, what would it be?

Keep your audience at the forefront. To get the best outcome possible, you have to make sure you’re hitting on the points that are most important to the person on the other end of the call. Whether that’s an investor, an analyst, or a member of the media, you have to understand how they perceive you, meet them where they are, and get them to walk the path with you.

For managers, this takes an incredible amount of situational awareness. It means proactively reaching out to the right people and addressing the right issues. But it also means considering key components of communication that often get overlooked.

Consider your tone of voice when talking to investors, for instance, it’s not just the words that you say, but how you say them. If your numbers are off and you’re calling down your guidance for the quarter or year, you know it’s going to hurt. But when you’re in this situation, call down the guidance, acknowledge it, own it, offer a solution, and show investors how you plan to move forward. And if you deliver even a less than stellar message with confidence, you’re far more likely to get the outcome you’re hoping for.

Q | So what can an IR professional do for your firm that even a combination of PR, media relations, and marketing can’t do? 

An IR professional offers your firm the unique blend of communications skills and financial prowess that allows you to gain the trust of analysts and investors alike. Like it or not, successfully wooing investors is a game of controlling the narrative around the numbers. 

The unique thing about IR is that it forces you to look at ordinary events in an extraordinary way.

If you’re ready to look at ordinary events in your firm in an extraordinary way, schedule a consultation and let’s talk about your next business transformation.

Photo credit: Businesswoman leading a video conference call from her tv screen by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

c-suite change

C-suite Change Can Be Energizing or Panic-Inducing. The Choice is Yours

Does this sound familiar? Your organization is one of the bright, rising stars in your industry. It has taken years of hard work, but you’ve finally reached a point where you have strong leadership across the board, a steady vision for the future, and everyone from the executive team down to the employees on the frontlines are working together like a well-oiled machine.

And then…the CEO turns in their resignation letter. Does the prospect of C-suite change send a shock wave of panic through the company? Or are you ready to guide everyone through a smooth transition?

If your initial response is panic, that’s okay. This is the perfect time (i.e., before this scenario becomes your reality) to come up with a plan. Let’s look at how you can reframe c-suite change as an opportunity rather than a potentially destabilizing event.

Revisit Company Culture for Successful C-Suite Change

First, recognize that C-suite change is a natural part of company evolution. The person you had steering the ship during the start-up phase may not be the best person to lead you through the next stage and beyond. Thinking about how far you’ve come and how your culture has evolved will help you choose the right CEO for this next phase.

Also, if you’re moving from a founder as CEO to a new corporate executive, you’ll want to consider how much of the company culture is tied up with the founder’s personality and whether that makes sense going forward.

For example, suppose your Founder and CEO is a literal rockstar. He plays the guitar and performs regularly with his semi-famous band. He has even been interviewed by Rolling Stone. It’s an interesting draw and has given the marketing team lots of fun campaign ideas. But is this crucial to the DNA of the organization? In other words, is it critical that the new CEO also play the guitar?

Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that you need to figure out what is part of the DNA of your organization and look for a new CEO that shares the same values — someone for whom your culture is authentic to who they are as a leader.

Why is culture so important when considering C-suite change? Well, it’s likely that culture is one big reason that scaling and reaching the point where everyone is working together like a well-oiled machine has happened. So as you consider the selection and managing of the C-suite change for customers, investors, and employees, keeping the culture consistent should be your first priority. 

How to Keep Company Culture Consistent:

Once you begin to see your CEO’s resignation as part of the evolution of the organization, you can turn your attention to deciding, likely with the help of your board, what is crucial to the company’s DNA. Take your time here because decisions about how to separate the former CEO from the company culture will determine whether stakeholders perceive the C-suite change as energizing or destabilizing.

Keep the following tips in mind:

1. Have a good sense of the culture as seen through the eyes of employees. 

Find a way to take the pulse of your employees. One good approach is to use an external team to conduct Voice of the Employee interviews. You may be surprised that what you think of as crucial to the culture of your firm is really hidden from your employees and vice versa. So this kind of research is hugely beneficial for smooth executive transitions.

It’s also important to announce the transition itself to employees at the same time as you announce the C-suite change publicly. If you announce internally and externally at different times, rumors will fly and rumors are a huge source of instability during big transitions.

We recommend having a specific employee communication plan to address key cultural issues and how the C-suite change will affect the organization from a macro perspective. Also, as soon as possible, set up a town hall meeting where employees can be formally introduced to the new CEO and have their questions and concerns addressed.

2. Ground everyone back into the company strategy.

While the CEO may be changing, the company strategy is staying the same, especially if we’re sticking with the scenario where everything is going well and the CEO needs to move on. This means it’s a good opportunity to go back to basics. 

Let your mission, vision, and values drive you forward. Get everyone to recommit to company fundamentals and talk openly about what is changing and what will be staying the same.

3. Be as honest and transparent as possible.

This third recommendation is a big one, so strap in. As soon as your executive gives you notice that they’re even thinking about moving on, you want to have a strategy in place. This will allow you to be as honest and transparent as possible. This goes for all of your key leadership, not just your CEO.

Perhaps you will want to call a board meeting to open discussions about all of the topics above. Perhaps you’ll want to make an announcement (internally and externally) early and reassure everyone that the transition period will last several months. Whatever your first move, having a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) around C-suite change is a smart idea.

In a previous blog article, we talked about the elements that plan should include whether your C-suite change is expected or unexpected.

4. Know your game clock.

Timing is also important here. The more you can be in control of the timeline, the greater your ability to control the message of the transition. Unexpected changes can raise questions about the stability of an organization. One way to ease these concerns is to share (at a high level)  your succession planning process with key stakeholders so that they understand the corporate calculus behind the leadership selection. 

For public companies: if you have a planned transition with a good amount of lead time, it’s good to make this announcement as part of your quarterly reporting cadence. If the transition is unexpected, public companies will likely have to disclose the leadership change via an 8-K within four business days, but make sure to consult with legal counsel to determine your specific disclosure requirements.

5. Teamwork makes the dream work.

If possible, make time in your transition strategy to allow the outgoing and incoming CEOs to work together. If appropriate, having a “pass the torch moment” can be a critical element to  transferring credibility and trust from the outgoing CEO to the incoming CEO. Part of this strategy should include coordinating their narrative. As an example, the outgoing CEO may talk about why they built the company and why the new CEO is the right person to carry the mantle forward. This gives the new CEO the opportunity to share their own vision about the future of the company.

Finally, make sure your new executive is prepared to take over. Is the new executive on the same page when it comes to the company culture? Have you defined your key messages? Have you acknowledged that C-suite change requires an acclimation period that can take at least 30 days? Have you organized listening sessions and key meetings with stakeholders? Do you have a comprehensive introduction strategy?

For our private equity-backed companies: if your CEO has experience with public company boards and they will be transitioning to working with your private equity board, do they understand what that entails? This is a helpful resource to share from McKinsey

C-suite change can be a powerful signal of an organization’s evolution. If you’re ready to move into the next phase of your company’s metamorphosis, our team can help make the transition energizing instead of panic-inducing. Let’s talk about your next business transformation!

Photo credit: Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

M&A deals

Over 70% of M&A Deals Fail to Meet Their Goals — Beat the Odds With These 5 tips

The last time we talked about M&A deals here on the blog, we were all wondering how the pandemic would affect the economy and watching some of the biggest players abandon deals in the pipeline or take the Covid chaos as an opportunity to get into the game. 

While the pace of recovery has varied among companies and sectors in 2021, U.S. deal volume and value are up from 2020 numbers and forecasted to continue to rise. Meanwhile global mergers and acquisitions for the first half of the year totaled a record $2.4 trillion, up 158% for the same period last year.

But even as the numbers continue to rise and many organizations sharpen their knives, M&A deals have also gotten more complicated. Let’s look at the why and how these changes should influence your approach to due diligence.

3 Major Changes Afoot

In recent years, M&A has become something akin to 3-dimensional chess (if players could constantly enter and exit and the rules were also a moving target). Three major changes contribute to the increasing complexity.

1. COVID-19 has hastened disruptive trends.

First, COVID-19 has hastened pre-existing disruptive trends across industries, drawing a clear bright line between business models that will succeed in the future and those that are outmoded. Rather than looking merely to deals that will create scale and cost synergies within an industry, organizations are looking to increase scope and add new capabilities, especially in technology, proprietary data, or scarce talent.

2. The M&A process is faster and more complex.

Second, the M&A process has become faster and more complex. Whereas corporate acquirers have always had the upper hand with deeper pockets and M&A deal experts to lean on, private equity players are giving them a run for their money. Nearly every deal is now an auction. Access to debt capital has been a nonissue during this crisis, so competition for attractive, high-growth assets is higher than ever. 

Add to this mix access to data, broadening regulatory scrutiny of deals on the basis of national interest, and a flood of major technology companies. Consider, for example, the involvement of Amnesty International in the Google, Fitbit deal. The organization sent a letter to E.U. regulators, arguing that they should block the deal unless Google addresses human rights issues like the right to privacy and nondiscrimination. Evaluating the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) impact is becoming an integral part of the diligence process. For many looking to make a deal, this is new territory.

3. COVID-19 has forced organizations to adapt their M&A deals.

Finally, COVID-19 has forced organizations to adapt quickly in a myriad of ways and M&A is no exception. In a 2020 Bain & Company survey of M&A practitioners, 70% of respondents reported that diligence was more challenging during the pandemic and 50% found it harder to close deals. Companies that adapted quickly, developing capabilities in virtual diligence and virtual integration, have made great strides.

The use of data in the M&A process is another differentiating factor. Smart M&A teams are leveraging data (and sometimes artificial intelligence) to screen for targets and create profiles, so they are ready even before targets come to market. During diligence, companies are using digital platforms to perform risk analysis and generate customer insights among other data collection to give themselves an edge.

As companies rewrite their M&A strategies for a post-pandemic world, some of the principles of what a good deal looks like still hold true. The most astute M&A teams understand the importance of proper planning and forethought in the months, weeks, and days before an acquisition. And they understand that due diligence goes well beyond the financials.

Beyond Financial Due Diligence

Given the above changes and the likelihood that M&A will continue to play an increasing role in revenue growth for years to come, it pays for leaders to get clear about their own approach to due diligence. In particular, it’s critical for organizations not to overlook the non-financial aspects of due diligence.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We aren’t trying to downplay the importance of financial due diligence. You need to run the numbers and they absolutely need to make sense. Still, all too often it’s non-financial factors that we see tripping up M&A deals. 

By non-financial due diligence, we have in mind:

  • Is this merger the right cultural fit for your organization? And, do you have a strategy for cultural integration once the deal closes?
  • Do you have a solid, agile, proactive M&A team in place and ready to jump into action when the right deal opportunity comes along?
  • Is this deal really the right deal showing up at the right time or are you suffering from deal fever?
  • Have you considered the intangibles? Here I mean variables like corporate reputation, brand promise, employee sentiment, and customer engagement? 

What can you do to position your organization for future M&A success?

We see five things leaders can do to equip their organizations for future M&A success:

Re-evaluate how M&A fits into your broader business strategy. As your business model shifts and you revise your corporate strategy, you will also need to update your M&A team’s goals. How has the pandemic affected your industry and sector? Does this change where to buy vs. build to remain competitive?

Consider non-traditional M&A. One of the ways in which M&A is changing is that companies are getting creative. Many are using a combination of joint ventures (JV’s), partnerships (with or without equity, with or without financial sponsorship), and corporate venture capital to tailor deals and integration. Also, organizations are partnering with other companies to explore opportunities for mergers and acquisitions. This lowers the risk and increases the likelihood of selecting the right deal.

Bring expertise into the process early. Given the growth in speed, scope, and capability deals, specialized expertise early on can help organizations better gauge fit. When you work with an external team like Audacia Strategies during the diligence process or even before, you get a set of eyes and ears in the room as an extra “gut check.” We know the transaction cycles, value creation opportunities — and how to avoid the trapdoors.  

Know the lay of the land and be ready to spring into action. The fierce competition for deals means that firms can no longer wait for bankers to come to them or rely on a singular source of deal intelligence. Companies need to continually scan the industry landscape, see how it’s evolving, and be ready to focus when an opportunity arises. Establish an ecosystem of external partners (bankers, tax and legal advisors, private equity experts, due diligence partners, etc.) who have access to data, connections, and can strike quickly.

Go beyond financial due diligence. When it comes to increasing capacity through an M&A deal, it’s not sufficient to simply understand the value of a target. You also need to assess factors like cultural fit, sustainability, and employee and consumer sentiment at the diligence stage. Consider also regulations and new challenges that may arise as your organization evolves.

The future of M&A is here. If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, now is as good a time as ever to jump into the fray. The above will give you some orientation, but if you really want to ensure your deal goes smoothly, you need the right partners on your bench. At Audacia, we’re here to walk you through the non-financial side of due diligence. Contact us to talk about your M&A strategy

Photo credit and description: Group of people working around a laptop at an office by Flamingo Images from NounProject.com

reading, listening, watching

Reading, Listening, Watching — Brain Candy for the Hottest Part of Hot Vaccination Summer

As we enter the hottest part of the summer in the D.C. area, it might be a good idea to retreat to the air-conditioned comfort and catch up on some high-quality media (reading, listening, and watching). I know this will be my plan for the next couple of weeks.

Rather than slowing down (though I have made some time to travel and spend time with family), I’m spending this summer thinking through strategy and gearing up for the end of the year.

Here’s what has been on my reading, listening, and watching lists lately.

Reading

You won’t find any beach reads here. But so often real life supplies all the drama and details we need to keep us glued to a story. For me, the most interesting stories have been about the recent leadership changes at Teneo and IBM.

Teneo

Outsized executive egos, abhorrent leader behavior, and million-dollar monthly retainers (!) aside, this is an incredible story of hubris and fear. What most fascinates me is the way Declan Kelly built Teneo and the messaging that played into the fear — and possibly imposter syndrome — even in leaders at the top of the largest companies where Teneo was hired as a consultancy. 

Will Teneo survive CEO and co-founder Declan Kelly’s resignation? Will Teneo survive this PR crisis? Have we seen the end of the largest companies distancing themselves from Kelly and Teneo? This story is still playing out. I’ll be watching closely.

IBM

I’m the daughter of a retired IBMer (30+ years!) and have always been fascinated by the company, its turnarounds, its commitment to research, and its willingness to invest and bet big (i.e., the Red Hat acquisition). IBM’s recent leadership announcement — including the news that former Red Hat CEO, Jim Whitehurst, is stepping down less than two years after his appointment as president of IBM — may infer quite a bit about culture, leadership style, and acquisition integration.

I’m thinking a lot about the value (*cough* intangible assets and goodwill) that is wrapped up in culture, brand, reputation, and employee engagement as Audacia Strategies prepares to launch our non-financial due diligence offering (coming soon!). Every successful M&A process comes down to pre-acquisition due diligence and clear-eyed integration… whether we’re focusing on the financial or non-financial aspects. 

The IBM case offers us a cautionary tale about the challenges of integration:

“Red Hat’s agility stems from a modern, ready-to-adapt approach while IBM is rooted in its age-old bureaucracy-esque practices. For instance, decisions in Red Hat are taken by the teams themselves — a hallmark of the bottom-up approach — as opposed to IBM’s top-down approach for decision-making.”

IBM is always one to watch and I’m looking forward to seeing their strategy emerge.

New Rules for the Future of Work

I’m also here for all the discussions about the future of work. This pandemic reset has shifted our thinking and every time I read a piece offering innovative ideas for how to get work done, I feel a twinge of optimism. This is my contribution to the conversation.

I also endorse this — all of it! 

Here’s a little taste: “To get more leads, the B2B salesforce needs to meet their potential customers where they are: online, primarily on LinkedIn and Twitter. As part of this effort, your salesforce must become recognized thought leaders in their fields and contribute to digital conversations in new and provocative ways — a role previously reserved for those in the product, customer success, or professional service arms of the company. And they must use client specific and industry-focused solution selling, which is more relevant than ever in a digital environment.” 

Hat tip to Krystle, CEO of Revmade for the share.

And, as we return to offices and rethink our ways of work, Gen Z seems to be speaking for more than their generation. Khalil Greene, senior at Yale University, offers his future employers some sage advice in this open letter to CEOs:

  • If you’re still making the business case for diversity, your company isn’t the place for us. 
  • We want companies to take a stand.
  • We are works-in-progress.
  • We want to be ourselves.
  • We want to make an impact.

CEOs are you listening?  

SPACs

Special purpose acquisition companies — better known as SPACs — have been all over market news this summer. Are they cooling? Are they hot? Who knows but there is a LOT of money tied up right now that will have to be placed… a few pieces of my reading to stay on top of things:

Listening

Besides all the reading, I’ve also been listening to a couple of podcasts religiously:

  • Pivot is worth the listen every week. Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher are individually incredible minds on all things tech and innovation. Listening to them riff together on the latest issues of the day (and always calling out the Tesla Board to rein in Elon) is great brain candy.
  • The Bakari Sellers Podcast is another great listen. Bakari Sellers gets the most interesting people to open up and talk about important topics. I’m relistening to his interview with Ursula Burns in light of her appointment as Chairwoman of Teneo (see above).

Watching

So very little to share on this front — probably more Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood than is healthy for an adult. Sadly, my brain won’t let me focus enough to binge lately and most movies seem too much like the news. 

Yes, I know I need to climb back on the meditation train. In the meantime, I’m slowly working my way through Schitt’s Creek and tagging into Bravo reality shows (I’m looking at you Million Dollar Listing). Send help… and recommendations.

What’s on your lists? I’d love to know. The air-conditioning is calling.

Photo credit: https://thenounproject.com/flamingoimages/

back to the office

3 Tips for Hitting a Home-Run As You Bring Your Team Back to the Office

As remote workers are being called back to the office here in the U.S., many are experiencing a reverse of the identity crisis we collectively experienced during the early days of the 2020 shutdown. Whereas when offices shut down we felt our routines being abruptly disrupted, now we have the opportunity to intentionally re-enter our post-pandemic work lives.

It’s time for leaders to consciously decide how to make re-entry as smooth as possible for their employees. And if it sounds like I’m asking you to come up with a strategic plan, that’s because I am.

See, re-entry is not something to be taken lightly. You can’t expect your team to go from languishing to flourishing overnight just because they’re back in the office. But if you send a message of realistic optimism. If you make it clear that this is a time to reset and build our future together, with time, you will see a new, stronger team emerge from the pandemic ashes.

So, let’s discuss your triumphant back to the office strategy.

Reconstructing How Work is Done

Despite all the challenges of figuring out how to juggle childcare while working and creating healthy boundaries around work, surveys show that most people enjoy working from home. A McKinsey study from June 2020 found that 80% of workers enjoyed working remotely. And while many now prefer to have the option of returning to the office, there’s still a strong preference (55%) for working from home at least two or three days a week.

The pandemic forced the question: is this really how work should be done? And leading organizations are taking this question seriously. They’re questioning assumptions about what employees need to do their best work and re-examining the role of being together in the office.

There’s, of course, no one-size-fits-all answer here. Reconstructing how work gets done will look different for every organization. this is about achieving your business and cultural outcomes. 

Get your managers and teams together (you want a diversity of perspectives!) and have a discussion around the following:

  • What are the most important systems and processes for each major business, geography, and function?
  • How can you boldly re-envision each of these systems and processes?
  • How does being physically present in the office enhance professional development?
  • How does being physically present in the office push a project forward at different stages? For example, previously, a business unit may have generated new ideas by convening a meeting, brainstorming on a whiteboard, and assigning someone to refine the results. A new process might include a period of asynchronous brainstorming across a digital channel, like Slack, followed by a multi-hour period of debate via video conference.
  • What values, practices, interactions, and rituals most promote the culture your organization wants to develop?
  • What suboptimal habits and systems can you do away with completely?

Of course, reconstructing how work gets done at your organization is no easy task. Undoubtedly, tough choices will arise and leaders will need to be empowered to make decisions that move individual business units and businesses forward.

In addition, it’s important to recognize that permanent change requires strong change-management skills. Both leaders and workers need to maintain a level of flexibility that allows for pivots based on what’s working.

The good news is that if you hit a home-run here, you will achieve the culture you’ve always wanted: an environment where everyone feels safe to enjoy their work, collaborate with their colleagues, and achieve their personal goals while achieving the organization’s objectives.

How to Hit a Home-Run:

1. Have a Reboarding Plan

Once you have gathered together your team to envision the future, it’s time to make that vision a reality. So, you’ll want to treat this return to the office like you would treat a merger or an acquisition or a new product launch.

Yes, making sure your return to the office is triumphant and not tragic is all about having a solid reboarding plan. First, consider how you do onboarding. Typically, this occurs at the very early stages of employment. But forward-thinking companies view onboarding as a strategic process that filters throughout an employee’s experience and can be leveraged at any point in a person’s career with the company.

This is where reboarding comes in. After a big transformation, like returning to the office following a pandemic, it’s time to reintroduce employees to policies and procedures that they may have let slide in various ways. It’s also an important time to introduce any new policies and procedures.

If you take a people-centered approach to your reboarding plan, you will be in a better position to help your employees embrace the new changes and make a smooth transition back to the office.

2. Lead with Empathy

Looking at the unemployment data and what’s happening with economic recovery, some economists have taken to calling this the “Take This Job and Shove It” economy. Employees want to feel valued and they seem to have little trouble quitting or moving on from positions where they aren’t feeling this way. A year of grieving and dealing with an elevated level of fear has reminded us all that life is short.

One way to ensure you’re recognizing the humanity of this moment and not simply focused on your organization’s bottom line is to lead with empathy. For example, instead of recalling everyone 40 hours per week and expecting a return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity overnight, consider spreading out the physical return and phasing in policy changes aimed at increasing productivity.

Some organizations are even anticipating a summer slowdown and intentionally working that into their strategic plans for the rest of 2021. Giving your team a break this summer is another way to show employees, who were stressed before lockdown, that you understand the toll the past 16 months have taken. After a true recharge this summer, everyone can return to work in full force this fall.

3. Communicate Well Both Internally and Externally

Above all, making the transition back to the office successfully will require strong communication guardrails both internally and externally. First, establish clear, regular, two-way communication with your team. This will allow employees to feel as if they are in the loop and that their input matters. Also, make sure not to limit communications to only what has changed. Talk about what isn’t going to change as well.

Second, make sure to communicate early and often. Once you have your reboarding plan in place, you can communicate that plan internally with your managers and employees. Make sure they understand what is happening when and what responsibilities they have within the plan so they can manage their own expectations. All of this should be firmly established before you start communicating externally.

Next, make time for collective venting and open communication. You want your employees to feel free to participate in any future changes and to get buy-in from them, they need to feel heard. Collective rituals are one way to help your team feel supported and heard.

For example, you could reserve an hour after lunch on Fridays where teams come together virtually or in-person for a group venting session. Allow everyone some time to check-in with each other about anything that’s causing them stress. Make sure to end the meeting with time for each person to express gratitude. Moving, in this way, from feeling stuck to expressing gratitude can help to navigate the range of emotions everyone experiences.

Returning remote workers to the office is a big transformation for any organization. Having a strategic plan in place gives you the best chance for success. With the above in mind, you’ll make strides toward achieving the culture you’ve always wanted and supporting your team as they re-learn how to thrive in our post-pandemic future.

It’s an exciting time! This is our chance to reset and intentionally redefine what work means to all of us. Audacia Strategies is ready to partner with you as you make the transition. Let’s chat about how to reconstruct the way work gets done at your organization.

Photo attribution: Team of investors meeting in corporate office with documents and laptop by Jacob Lund Photography from Noun Project

communications guardrails

Communications Guardrails: Your Key to Forward-Thinking, Innovative, and Grounded Messages

We recently posted this blog article about strategies for making your underlying messages consistent with how you want your brand to be perceived by the world. With the speed of information dissemination in our digital age, you can’t afford to be reactive. But being proactive is a real challenge too. Anticipating all the ways our messages might be received is a tall order.

However, there is another way to ensure you are shaping conversations, rather than allowing conversations about your firm to be shaped by those outside of your organization. All you have to do is come up with some strong communications guardrails and stick to them. Let’s dig in!

Communications guardrails? What does that mean? 

Communications guardrails are a list of do’s and don’ts that are unique to your organization. They let the world know what your organization does and does not stand for. You can think of guardrails as rules, but that makes them sound really restrictive. 

We prefer to think of your guardrails as well… guardrails. They are boundaries that keep everyone corralled just enough to ensure that the conversations you’re having both inside and outside of your organization are forward-thinking, innovative, and grounded.

Your guardrails will also act as guides as your communications evolve. They include your values, branding messages, and talking points, but we encourage our clients to go even further. To start, ask your team these five questions:

  • What are we actively doing to show our commitment to our purpose, vision, and values?
  • What are our firm’s priorities when it comes to communications?
  • What industry-wide beliefs and best practices do we accept?
  • What industry-wide beliefs and best practices do we reject?
  • Do we have a solid crisis management plan? (because if communications are going to go off the rails, it will happen during a crisis)

With the answers to these questions in mind, you can begin creating your own guardrails. 

Also, you’ll want to consider what has worked for you and your competitors in the past. But don’t forget to look outside of your industry for ideas too. If you want to be out front leading, you’ve got to think beyond those tired, worn patterns.

Finally, avoid the 7 Deadly Sins of Business Communications:

1. Pride: Lack of consideration for or understanding of your audience.

2. Envy: Trying to ‘copy and paste’ another organization’s messaging because it worked for them.

3. Gluttony: Know when enough is enough and skip the buzzwords.

4. Sloth: There are no real marketing “shortcuts” or “hacks.” You’ve got to put in the work.

5. Lust: Beware of falling in love with the latest trends or tools. Keep your communications genuine.

6. Anger: When communications are perceived as angry, defensive, or overly negative, your audience will tune out the message.

7. Greed: It’s okay to make the ask, but make sure you consider carefully who’s winning in the deals you make.

Time to Give Those Communications Guardrails a Stress Test

Once you have come up with your set of guardrails, the next step is to test them. This is yet another reason the guardrail metaphor is apt. Road crews don’t build guardrails and then put them out on the street without doing a proper stress test. 

In the same way, you don’t want to assume that your communications guardrails are solid and test them out in the “wild.” You want to test them internally first. 

One method we use with our clients here is the Murder Board. The term murder board (AKA “red team”) originated with the military, but it’s shorthand for creating a team of rivals or a committee of killjoys whose sole job is to poke holes in your team’s best ideas. It’s great not only for testing communications guardrails, but for any new idea you might come up with.

In short, the murder board is tasked with locating the problems, risks, and bugs insiders might miss. So bring your guardrails in front of a murder board.

Murder Boards are beneficial in a variety of situations related to communication guardrails:

  • When prepping crisis communications, the murder board can hep you prepare for any number of scenarios and develop do’s and don’ts for your CEO and spokespeople.
  • When prepping to talk to investors or analysts, the murder board can role play scenarios with your CEO to ensure she has answers to any number of “tricky” questions.
  • When prepping your sales team or customer service on the frontlines, the murder board can get them ready to reply to customers who can be some of the toughest critics, especially during a crisis.

For high-stakes communication situations, there’s nothing better than a murder board. Finding your communications guardrails is a high-stakes situation. Without guardrails, you’ll find everyday communications feeling chaotic and overwhelming and crises quickly spinning out of control.

When you take the time to create your communications guardrails with your team, though, you have the opportunity to shape the conversations you’re having and to lead your industry into a brighter future. 

What are your communications guardrails?

At Audacia Strategies, we’re used to fielding questions from executive clients about how they can be more aware of the underlying messages they’re sending. Our go-to answer is let’s work on your guardrails. Ready to see us in action? Contact us to schedule an introductory call!

rebuilding corporate trust

Rebuilding Corporate Trust: 4 Ways Business Leaders Can Bring About Real Change

As we slowly leave the pandemic behind and enter the rebuilding period, let’s not forget our responsibility for rebuilding trust in public institutions. With all the highfalutin talk about rebuilding society and cultural norms coming out of the pandemic, it’s tempting to point the finger at the government, NGO’s, and the media.

But we are at a unique crossroads where business leaders are positioned to bring about real change both inside and outside of their organizations. Want evidence? Look no further than corporate reactions to measures tightening voting accessibility. Just over a week ago, hundreds of companies and executives signed on to a new statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would make it harder for people to vote. 

This type of overtly public engagement has become increasingly common over the past few years as corporate executives step into the trust gap vacated by government organizations. 

Earlier this year, global communications firm, Edelman, released its 2021 Trust Barometer and the results are revealing, especially when it comes to rebuilding public trust:

  • Business has a 61% trust level globally (that’s higher than any other institution)
  • 86% of respondents believe that CEO’s must lead on societal issues
  • 68% say CEO’s should step in when governments fail

We can point the finger at others, or we can embrace this as an opportunity to reshape relationships and build new communication paths providing benefits that will long outlive the current moment. Edelman’s Trust Barometer makes it clear which choice your customers and employees want you to make. So let’s look at the why and how of rebuilding trust.

Rebuilding Corporate Trust in Response to the Epidemic of Misinformation

How did we get here? If you were an alien landing on Earth today, you might expect to find people turning to governments and other long-standing institutions for guidance as we restart the global economy. However, the way governments handled the global health crisis has not engendered confidence in people.

Time Magazine nicknames the findings of the Edelman report the “Epidemic of Misinformation.” In the first half of 2020, public trust of governments did rise. Early on, both U.S. and Chinese citizens deemed the government to be the most fit institution to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. However, by May 2020, China and the U.S. saw significant drops in trust by 18 and 23 points respectively.

To explain these sharp decreases, Richard Edelman points to China’s use of censorship and U.S. officials’ touting of “miraculous cures” that were discredited while simultaneously diminishing the efficacy of mask wearing and social distancing in favor of reopening businesses. Edelman’s recommendation: it’s time to declare information bankruptcy

As trust in governments has diminished, trust in businesses has only grown stronger. Given that trust is the glue that holds society together, especially during trying times, leaders must take the initiative to rebuild corporate trust.

How Our Clients are Rebuilding Corporate Trust

Even before the pandemic, many CEO’s appeared to be heeding this call and stepping into their roles as “America’s new politicians.” In 2019, 181 of the nation’s top CEO’s agreed that “driving shareholder value is no longer their sole business objective.” This is a significant break with the past profit-above-all-else mentality.

And this shift, spearheaded by Business Roundtable Chairman and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, reflects growing pressure from employees, social media, and customers to do more than increase stock prices. The pandemic and recent political events have only accelerated this shift.

At Audacia Strategies, we’re fortunate to have a front row seat to see this change in action with our clients. Here’s how our clients are stepping up to rebuild corporate trust one organization at a time:

1. Looking deep into the “soul” of the organization

Our clients are looking deep into the “souls” of their organizations to tap into their purpose. They’re asking: Why do we exist beyond profits? And what value do we add?

They’re also recognizing that often rebuilding corporate trust requires reaching out to customers and employees to ask for help. They’re initiating Voice of the Customer and Voice of the Employee studies to really take the pulse of their key stakeholders.

In many cases, though, rebuilding trust is perpetually aspirational. This applies not only to startups, but also to long-tenured companies. As the world changes, how we leave an impact can and must evolve too.

2. Knowing credibility matters

Employers are recognizing this moment for the opportunity to be a credible voice and to provide clear, unambiguous information for employees to follow — whether it relates to corporate strategy, benefits changes, or societal changes.

When organizations look at employees as humans, as opposed to money-making machines, they see beyond increasing productivity, profitability, and financial performance. They see how having empathy for what their employees have experienced in the past 12 months can open doors for the organization.

In the current climate, employees are exhausted from having to parse through health messages online, in their inboxes, on television, and in the media. Misinformation and disinformation have created a void leaving many without an orientation point from which to believe anything at all. Operating in such a gray area is exhausting and demoralizing.

Companies focused on rebuilding trust recognize the chance to fill this void for their employees (and customers) and gain credibility as a result.

3. Believing consistency is king

The quickest way to blow your credibility when it comes to communications is to broadcast inconsistent and sporadic messages. The old 7×7 rule is still a good starting point — but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

For our clients, we encourage a message architecture that ties every communication back to the organization’s purpose and vision

Overcommunication is key… but not via an avalanche of emails. Instead, use multiple channels and — most important — use live events whether structured town halls, small group roundtables, regularly scheduled staff meetings, or just chatting before the next Zoom call. All of these are opportunities to reinforce a consistent message. And that leads me to…

4. Proving trust is not a one-way street

Employees must also have a voice and provide feedback in real time.  And although annual engagement surveys can help, these shouldn’t be the only means of listening. Some ideas:

  • Hold open Q&A sessions
  • Use your internal communication tools like Yammer, Slack, or Google Hangouts to solicit and facilitate feedback
  • Share pulse surveys
  • Voice of the Employee (VOE) research 
  • Have an open inbox/phone line/door for receiving and sharing feedback

When your employees feel heard, they trust that you’ll share with them what’s working and what’s not in a constructive way. They trust that you’ll share the questions and suggestions you receive. And they will trust you to create a roadmap forward and share your progress regularly. 

Rebuilding corporate trust is hard work. It’s sticky. It can be emotional and truthfully, it can be exhausting for the leader who often says, “but I’ve said this in the last 5 meetings — let’s move on.” Remember, though, consistency is credibility and credibility is trust. 

As leaders, we don’t have the luxury of passing the buck here. Rebuilding public trust starts with us. If you’re ready to boldly step into this new era of radical transparency and corporate trust, your partners at Audacia are here for you. Contact us to discover how we can work together. 

Photo credit: Group of happy people working together in an office by Flamingo Images from Noun Project