Lessons learned

Reflecting on the Evolution of Audacia: 3 Big Changes and Lessons Learned

In business, there is often a tendency to set goals, chase them down, and then set more goals. Rinse. Repeat. Taking a step back from this relentless pursuit of achievement to take stock of lessons learned, though, is critical. 

We see this tendency all the time with our clients working through big transformations. If they become overly focused on getting through what they think of as the “hard part” – the merger, the transition, the restructuring – without picking their heads up, they can miss what’s even more important. Without understanding how that big transformation fits into the overall strategy, there’s a risk that you’re simply going through the motions, making change for change’s sake. There’s almost nothing worse than a checklist untethered from a strategy.

At Audacia, we periodically reflect on where we’ve been, so that we can move forward with our eyes wide open. In that spirit, let’s look at the biggest changes and lessons learned from the past (almost) seven years.  

1. The Team is Growing

One of the most visible changes that we’ve made over the years is our growing team. In the beginning, it was hard to think about bringing others on. Sure, I was happy to quietly partner with people I had worked with throughout my corporate career, but the thought of developing my own team… shudder, at least in those early days.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, entrepreneurship doesn’t run in my blood, and the idea of being responsible for other peoples’ livelihoods was scary at first. But, of course, the stories my mind invented were much more terrifying than the reality.

In fact, building out our team of experts, partners, and employees has been one of the greatest joys of running the business. Today we’re 14 strong and growing. Together, we have created a culture of trust and transparency. Because I can trust my team, I have more space to think strategically, and I can focus on the big picture without getting lost in the details.

Not only that, but we’re also able to leverage our collective experience and talent to deliver bigger and better solutions for our clients. And diversity of thought, experience, and perspective, enables us to deliver those solutions to a broader range of clients. 

This is not to say we’ve got it all figured out; we are a work in progress. But I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made and excited to see where our path takes us next.

Lessons Learned:

  • We are better together.
  • Don’t let fear hold you back from making a bold move. (I’m still a work in progress here!)
  • Building a reliable support system is one key to being successful as a business owner.

2. We’re Getting Clearer About Who We Are

This change may be less visible from the outside, but it is crucial to finding ideal clients, honing our service offerings, and boosting our credibility – not to mention, strengthening our messaging. Getting clearer on our superpowers and how our values express themselves through the work we do has allowed us to back away from saying “yes” too often.

Over the years, we have zeroed in on what we do and how to position ourselves in the market. Living through pivotal moments in our business has helped us figure out how to help our clients through pivotal moments in theirs as well. We can confidently talk about how we work with organizations experiencing structural transitions including: 

These types of transformations have internal and external ripple effects to be aware of from the beginning, but those effects can be invisible to teams on the inside. Our team comes in, gets the lay of the land, and develops a coherent communications strategy to carry you through the transition and beyond.

We provide much more than a coherent communications strategy, though. Developing such a strategy requires you and your team to think through crucial details about the transition and the fundamental changes on the horizon. In strategy sessions with Audacia, clients have breakthroughs that improve operational efficiency, usher in a new era of cultural transparency, and spark innovative ideas that lead to even bigger transformations.

Lessons Learned:

  • If you want prospects to understand what you do, you need to be clear about what you do.
  • Having a coherent communications strategy is about so much more than communicating well.
  • Teams that know their value deliver above and beyond their value.

3. We Answer Client Concerns Before They Have Them

Perhaps the most important change Audacia has made over the years has been the way we approach our clients’ needs. In the beginning, we were mostly reactive. When a prospect reached out to schedule a consultation, I listened to their concerns and devised a solution connecting all of the dots. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It’s one that yields success for many, including Audacia in the early stages.

However, we’ve evolved beyond this reactive approach. Today we are more proactive, anticipating our clients’ needs even before they have them. When I sit down with a prospect, I listen. I want to hear not only the text, but also the subtext. Our advisory is unique to each client and their situation. We are constantly formulating and reformulating strategies to present solutions for clients in all different stages of transformation.

As a result, we’re adding more strategic value to our clients and we’re more engaged across their transformation journey. Our average client engagement has grown from three months to six months. 

We’ve also seen more repeat business in recent years as clients come to value our strategic perspective, ability to “get *ish done,” and tangibly/actually move them forward. Because we have been around the block, we are well positioned to lead our clients through the shifting sands of transformation, and having access to that kind of reassurance in the midst of chaos or crisis can be absolutely priceless.

Lessons Learned:

  • Helping clients see around corners is the cornerstone of a true partnership. Often solving one problem leads to another and organizations need help recognizing when this is the case.
  • Small shifts in the way you think about client work can have outsized benefits.

Looking back on the early days of Audacia, I can’t help but feel gratitude for what we’ve built. Here’s to setting more goals and chasing them down, but also taking time to reflect and learning from the past.

Photo credit: Business Associates Sitting In Board Room Having A Meeting With Coffee And Tablets by Flamingo Images from NounProject.com

Meet the Team: Sarah Gershman, Executive Presence Partner

Building a strong business is all about building strong relationships and at Audacia Strategies, we love to say, “it’s not ‘just business.’ It’s about people working together toward a common goal.” That’s why partnering with the best is a top priority. I’ve known many of our partners for years. They’re not just business associates, they’re people I’d sit down with for a casual dinner (and probably an adult beverage or two). I’m proud to know, partner, and collaborate with each of them. 

In a previous article, we introduced you to one of the Sarahs on Audacia’s team, our Manager of Business Operations, Sarah Deming. This time, we’re introducing Sarah Gershman who is our Executive Presence Partner.

Interview with Sarah Gershman, Executive Presence Partner

At Audacia, we are all about strategic communications and strong communication is all about getting the key players within an organization to stay on message. This starts with leaders and this is where Sarah Gershman shines.

Sarah is an executive speech coach and CEO of Green Room Speakers, a communications firm based in Washington, DC. She is also an adjunct professor of communications at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, where she lectures to students from around the world.

As Audacia’s Executive Presence Partner, Sarah puts her specialization to work helping leaders deliver high-stakes and complex messages with clarity, authenticity, and conviction. Having coached executives at organizations including Microsoft, General Dynamics, Booz Allen, Lockheed Martin, Eli Lilly, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the US Department of Commerce, the US Department of Justice, and the US Department of Labor, Sarah brings a wealth of experience to the table.

Below are highlights from Sarah about the valuable contributions she makes to our team.

Q | Can you describe your role at Audacia Strategies and how you fit into the team?

As an executive speech coach, I help leaders elevate their executive presence as they grow their businesses. In practice, one of my roles at Audacia is to get to the core of what a leader needs to communicate to their target audience. When one of Audacia’s executive clients needs to be prepped for an engagement like a critical speech, townhall, investor presentation, I come in to coach them on how best to communicate key messages. So I spend a lot of time helping leaders think through mission critical messaging.

I also coach leaders through communicating big changes within the company. This can be especially challenging because there is a need to tell a coherent story that bridges the gap between the firm’s past and its future. Often, finding that story takes stepping back to look at all the current messaging and making connections that might not be immediately obvious to leaders themselves. Together with others on Audacia’s team, I provide much needed perspective.

Q | What is your favorite part about working with Audacia?

There is something so exciting about working specifically with companies in transition. Audacia’s clients are taking bold risks, making big changes, and going through high stakes transformations. As the leader of an organization experiencing rapid change, communication skills are a top priority. If you can’t get the message across, you lose buy-in from stakeholders.

I love the excitement of helping organizations in these critical moments. It lends an added pressure – in a good way – to the coaching I do. 

And I love the people! Katy has put together an incredible team that attracts incredible clients. It’s a privilege to work with everyone.

Q | Can you describe a win or highlight from your time working with Audacia?

The example that comes to mind is working with a CEO in transition as he stepped into his new role. Although he had been a leader within the company with a strong reputation, he had never been a CEO, so he understandably needed guidance around executive presence.

When we first met, the CEO had a harder time commanding the room. Part of the challenge was that he was replacing a beloved CEO who was a rockstar, literally. We needed to find a way for the new CEO to tell his own story.  

In just a couple of sessions, we helped him find his message, own it, and connect much more deeply with his audience. It turns out that the new CEO loves chess, so we helped him tease out what that says about leadership and his personal leadership style. Once he connected those dots, he stepped more fully into his role, quickly earning the trust of his team and investors.

Q | Are there best practices associated with your role that you’d like to share?

One of the skills that makes me successful is listening. It may seem simple, but it actually requires a lot of practice. When I’m meeting with an executive, I listen deeply, and I ask a lot of questions.

Coaching an executive to have presence, charisma, and to communicate clearly requires not just hearing what is being said, but also the unspoken message underneath. I try to discover my client’s motivations on a deeper level. When I know what makes you tick, then I can figure out how to leverage that information to help you truly engage your audience. So I’ve trained myself to listen for those things.

My goal with every executive I coach is to get them to think through their story and their messaging themselves. It’s not good enough for me to tell you what your message should be. If you don’t feel it at your core, your words won’t feel authentic to your audience.

Sarah is one of a handful of experienced and talented strategic partners I’m proud to call part of Audacia’s team. Together, she and I have over 20 years of experience working with executives and investors. 

We recently put our heads together to write an article for Harvard Business Review about the three big questions investors ask themselves when evaluating a CEO. Reading it will give you insight into why our executive clients always walk away from sessions with Sarah feeling more confident and ready to own their messages. 

Is your firm going through a big transition? Are you a leader who needs support as you develop your communications strategy? Our team is here to help. Contact us to schedule an initial consultation.

People

Meet the Team: Sarah Deming, Manager of Business Operations

At Audacia Strategies, our biggest asset is our people. From the beginning, I’ve known that to build a firm that provides strategic communications for organizations going through big transformations, I needed to build my team intentionally. And I am really excited about how the team has come together.

Long time readers also know that we talk a lot about transparency and walking our talk. So in that spirit, we will be sharing some interviews with Audacia team members giving their take on our evolving culture. First up is our Manager of Business Operations, Sarah Deming.

Interview with Sarah Deming, Manager of Business Operations

Every successful firm needs people who can be the glue holding things together behind the scenes. For us, that’s Sarah Deming. 

Sarah has a background in art management, small business, and operations administration. At Audacia Strategies, she assists with scheduling, email management, human resources, and marketing strategy. She’s eager to take the lead on projects and makes smart decisions for our clients. 

As Audacia Strategies’ Manager of Business Operations, Sarah has a knack for creating and implementing processes that help businesses grow as efficiently as possible. She has an eye for detail and understands the importance of organization and effective communication. In her free time, you can find Sarah reading a good book, making art, or enjoying the great outdoors with her husband and two daughters.

To learn more about what makes working for Audacia a great fit for Sarah, continue reading.

Q | Can you describe your role at Audacia Strategies and how you fit into the team?

I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades behind the scenes. My role is part Operations, part Executive Administrator, part Marketing, and part Human Resources. It was really eye-opening recently to sit down with our CEO, Katy (Herr) Hew, and take a closer look at the tasks I perform on a daily basis. The most typical thing about my day is that it’s never typical – each day is a little different and that’s one of the things I love!

Although I work most closely with Katy and our COO, Natalie Homme, I also communicate with our partners, clients, and the rest of our team to schedule meetings. Additionally, I monitor social media, post content, update our website, organize documents, onboard new team members, and so much more.

Q | What is your favorite part about working with Audacia?

The people! We have the absolute best team. Everyone is supportive, open to new ideas, positive, kind, eager to solve problems, and always willing to help each other out. Working with Audacia has shown me that it is possible to find a workplace with a culture that genuinely encourages team members to find the work-life balance that works best for them.

While other places I’ve worked have paid lip service to creating a supportive environment, Katy makes it happen. She cares deeply about Audacia – our mission, clients, and the people who work for her. Trusting her team to enjoy their lives AND deliver results, Katy demonstrates strong leadership every day. She really makes me feel seen. I’m so grateful to be a part of Audacia Strategies and to have a professional woman leader like Katy as a role model.

Q | Can you describe a win or highlight from your time working with Audacia?

When I first began working with Audacia, we switched email marketing providers and I facilitated our migration to the new platform. During that process, I evaluated the current email drip sequence we had set up for new subscribers and saw some areas where it could be improved.

I pitched Katy a new nurture sequence with evergreen content about Audacia and what we can do for businesses going through transformative change, and she loved the idea! Four months later we launched our new and improved nurture sequence, and it’s still yielding amazing results.

By implementing projects like this, it shows me that there are opportunities to grow into a bigger role within the company. Because I’ve seen firsthand how eager Katy is to invest in her people and in our ideas, I’m motivated to actively look for ways to develop on a personal and professional level. It really feels like the sky’s the limit in terms of learning and growing at Audacia.

Q | What do you think makes you especially well suited for your role as Manager of Business Operations?

Being organized and efficient are essential to what I do. If I’m scheduling a meeting, my goal is always to get it on the calendar within 48 hours. Sometimes that’s just not possible, but having this in mind drives me to be responsive and on my toes. It’s like a game I play with myself! 

Also, I take a lot of pride in responding to emails quickly, being friendly and warm, and generally being available to everyone on our team for any and all matters that may arise in the course of doing business. I’ve learned that with a little creativity, most problems have ready solutions. 

Of course, I make sure to set healthy boundaries as well. Because our team is entirely remote, we have to stay committed to make sure working from home doesn’t mean working all the time.

It’s also important for me to use our project management tool to keep track of my tasks so nothing gets overlooked. I write down even the smallest tasks and even create tasks to remind me to follow up on other tasks.

Behind every successful firm, you will find someone like Sarah Deming holding things together and making sure everyone has what they need from an operational standpoint. But Sarah is truly one of a kind. Audacia Strategies wouldn’t be where we are today without Sarah. 

To find out more about how our team has your back, contact us today. Sarah will get back to you to schedule your consultation.

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/

listening and learning

Audacious Transparency: Reaffirming the Core of Our Business

At the end of 2020, Audacia Strategies passed a big milestone for a small business. We celebrated five years in business. As the CEO, I’m simultaneously thrilled and anxious to see what the future holds.

As we grow, I’m doing all I can to make sure Audacia remains true to our guiding purpose: helping companies achieve their boldest initiatives and transformational vision. Here are a few of our steadfast guardrails:

  • Vision, conviction, and clarity have been the core of our business since day one.
  • We hold the line when it comes to our business values and we walk our talk.
  • We start with clarity about who we are — we support organizations taking the biggest steps and we enable our clients’ bold visions.

After all, if you’re going to start a business and turn down a regular salary and steady hours, there had better be a bigger purpose — a bigger prize — on the horizon. This remains my philosophy of business ownership.

All that being said, we faced our first real test of our mission and values in 2021. So in the spirit of audacious transparency, I wanted to share what we learned.

Growth! Scaling! Excitement!

In a previous blog article, we discussed keeping tabs on our underlying messages. While it’s easy to get caught up in the big, surface level messages we want to share with our audiences, if those messages aren’t grounded in our core values, it’s easy to get off course.

Not only does this happen with corporate messaging, it also happens with the way we run our businesses. And I think one of the biggest reasons businesses fail is because they lose sight of their core values or make too many compromises in the name of scaling.

Now here we are, five years in and Audacia Strategies has served a variety of clients in industries from specialty chemicals to cyber security to government IT. We are growing quickly, but the “Founder fear” is always there. Could it all disappear? (Hint: It won’t. But fear isn’t rational.)

And this brings us to the story of our biggest test yet. We were approached by a politically-motivated, third-party to support a coal-based chemical firm in need of crisis communications support and management. 

My gut reaction: This is not in our lane. It’s not where we want to be and it’s not who we want to work with. Just as quickly, though, the fear sneaks in: “What if it all goes away? What about growth, scaling, excitement? We should at least take the call. So we took the call and started putting together a team. Then, a team member with many years of experience in this industry came back to us and said, “I just can’t do this.” She was right. We stepped back and referred the work to a large firm with deep resources, deep pockets, and a very broad client set. 

Today, I’m confident that decision was for the best. I’m relieved not to have pursued the business or expended the energy. When making the decision, though, I was flooded with so many emotions (fear, panic, relief, shame, disappointment). Brene Brown would have a field day here! I’m still working through the experience.

Positive Outcomes

Even while I continue dealing with the emotional fallout from this near miss, as a team, we’re seeing many positive outcomes. 

Since stepping away from that opportunity, we have moved planned new offering(s) forward significantly (coming soon!). We’ve been able to expand our support to current clients and their transformations are taking flight.

Also, we’ve had some really fun, fulfilling, and meaningful new opportunities walk through the door (although nothing simply walks through the door in entrepreneurial life — it’s all based on the work you put in and forgot about or wrote off days, weeks, and years earlier)

In addition, saying “no” to the opportunity that wasn’t right for us, means we can direct our energy toward what feels right. And this experience reminds me that focusing on our missions and values yields work that doesn’t feel “purely transactional,” but that feels purposeful. It almost seems like the universe is rewarding us for making a good decision. 

And it’s a good reminder that taking work solely to chase the goal of scaling and growth comes with an opportunity cost. Clearly, we saved ourselves from going down the wrong path. It scares me, though, to think about how close we came. I don’t think we are alone in this challenge. In fact, I see it with our clients all the time and that’s why I want to share our experience.

Still Learning and Listening

It’s too soon to claim that we’ve learned any transformational lessons from this experience. We’re still integrating, but I want to share my initial thoughts while they are fresh.

1. I’m grateful to work with folks who are willing to say, “I can’t do this” and lend a hand to help reframe and refocus priorities.

2. We’re learning Tony Robbins’ lesson first-hand: “where energy goes, focus flows.” It has been amazing to see what has appeared once we refocused on our vision.

3. We’ve recommitted to the work. We have our eyes on our page. This is our journey and it just doesn’t matter what others are doing as long as we are true to our vision/values and our clients are achieving their vision(s).

4. This is why I started Audacia Strategies. I’m reminded of the beauty of building a business with shared team values at the core. If we “have” to take on work that is outside our values, then why do this hard work at all? It’s like working for someone else and building their dream.

Audacia Strategies has emerged from this experience stronger and more committed to our mission, vision, and values than ever before. We appreciate the nudge to recommit to walking our talk and this conviction is something we are proud to bring to our clients. After all, every business faces similar challenges. And every business needs to recommit to their priorities on a daily basis.

As always, we’re grateful for the chance to learn, listen, and yes…make a mistake. We’re even more grateful for the near miss and the lessons learned.

Ready to let your your vision, conviction, and clarity guide your next business transformation? Contact us to schedule time to chat!

Photo credit: Jacob Lund from the Noun Project

underlying messages

More Than Words: What Underlying Messages Are You Sending?

It’s 2021. And I, for one, cannot remember a time when our words — all of our words — carried more weight or were more carefully scrutinized. It’s no longer an overstatement to say that the Internet has the power to make or break your brand. Welcome to the communications pressure chamber where anything you say has the potential to be found and amplified.

As leaders and communicators, our job is to shape conversations. But with the speed of information dissemination, the time to strategize is before — not after — a narrative is trending online. Anticipating all the facets of how your narrative might be perceived, however, can feel like an impossible task.

It’s no wonder we are hearing from many, if not all, of our executive clients asking how they can be more aware in their communications (look for a post about humanizing communications coming soon!). So let’s talk about strategies for making sure our underlying messages are consistent with how we want to represent our brands to the world.

The Challenge

If you’re a leader worried about the underlying messages you’re sending with your content, you are likely facing one of the following challenges:

  • The fear of saying the wrong thing is paralyzing, so you put out watered-down, over-wrought messages that end up effectively saying…nothing.
  • The fear of saying the wrong thing is paralyzing, so your communications have stopped altogether. But saying nothing at all says so much more.
  • You’re ready to walk the talk and you want to communicate directly, but you fear reputational harm if you “don’t get it 100% right.”

These fears are understandable, but the answer is not to get defensive or hide behind jargon. Former President Barack Obama, speaking at the Obama Foundation summit in 2019, told his audience: 

“The cancel culture is predicated on this idea of purity; the illusion that you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff…You should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.” 

Rather than tip-toeing around your communications, maybe it’s time to embrace the messiness and welcome conversations around what our underlying messages are saying both to those within our circles and to those on the outside looking in.

Embracing the Messiness  

Cancel culture aside, this heightened state of awareness creates challenges for leaders and communicators, but we can also choose to see these challenges as opportunities for change. 

I’m in a heightened state of awareness too. Not only am I hyper aware of the words organizations use (including Audacia Strategies!), but also I’m aware of their actions. This past summer, for instance, I received a message from an M&A consultancy announcing its recent merger and its partnership with several large universities to bring on new team members. 

I heard the surface-level message loud and clear: Growth! Scaling! Excitement! 

The problem was with the underlying message. The email included their full new leadership team — with photos. All 9 were white, male, and all appeared to be over the age of 50. And this was the message they chose to use as a recruitment tool directed at new graduates. I was stunned. It felt completely tone-deaf. 

When I opened that email so many questions flooded my mind: 

  • What does this say about the priorities of this firm? 
  • What does this say about the structures of higher education? 
  • What does this say about those completing business valuations? About opportunities to acquire, sell, or engage in M&A processes? And about the finance and banking industry more broadly?

The underlying message being sent—not only by emails like this, but by the lack of equity, inclusivity, and diversity across corporate America—to women and BIPOC is “you are not welcome here.” So what can we as leaders of the business community do to bring about change? Here are some ideas to get you thinking.

1. Take a stand as anti-racist

Now, there’s no doubt that the M&A consultancy was unaware of the underlying message their email was sending. They were firmly focused on the “Growth! Scaling! Excitement!” 

And this is precisely why it’s important for organizations to take an anti-racist stand. It’s not enough to say you’re non-racist or inclusive. The public needs to hear your personal and professional commitment to anti-racist action. Why not make this a regular focus of your content?

Too often when the national narrative gets uncomfortable, corporate leaders go silent, at least until they’ve completed their focus group testing and run it by Legal. As a leader in this moment when the country is engaged in discussions about institutional injustice, it’s essential to state your anti-racism clearly and announce the actions you’re taking to support those words. 

Communicate this in official statements, through updated company policies, and in your daily workplace interactions. Beyond these direct statements, partnering with a communications expert who specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion can help you become more aware of the subtle non-inclusive messages you may be inadvertently sending.

2. Examine and address systemic racism in your organization.

If your response to my description of the email I received made you bristle, that’s because of systemic racism. Remember, and this is crucial, systemic racism harms all of us. Systemic racism makes members of “dominant groups” blind to their own racism and bias. Being blind to racism and bias makes us write company policies and procedures that are also biased. 

The only way to fight systemic racism is to face it head on:

  • Examine all company policies and procedures
  • Create a committee to examine and weed out or flag problem areas
  • Ask: Are paths to advancement within your organization structured to disenfranchise people of color?
  • Consider what efforts you are making to hire people of color as well as how you’re ensuring these employees thrive
  • Make visible changes to support a truly diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist culture

3. Use your power to change corporate norms.

Leaders have the power to use their resources and privilege to drive change. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to look beyond what you mean to say and consider how others might interpret your content. Then get to work improving corporate culture.

As leaders, we are uniquely positioned to move the needle on changing social norms. We need to recognize the position we’re in and commit to taking meaningful action. There’s much to be done. There’s much you can do to infuse your company with anti-racist values and create an anti-racist culture.

In this spirit, here’s what we’re doing:

  • We’re actively examining our recruiting, partnering, and networking processes to engage a diverse network of partners.
  • We’re committed to bringing a broader set of values and bigger, more audacious, thinking to clients and to our community.
  • We’re listening, learning, trying and failing, trying and advancing, and pushing ourselves to learn more, get uncomfortable and bring more awareness to our communications and our actions.

Becoming more aware of our communications is about more than rooting out racism, though. We’ve been seeing increasing calls for companies to take a clear stand on environmental issues, for example. So another change you can consider is to make sure you have a clear set of values and that you stick by them.

Ask yourself and your team:

  • Do our messages amplify our company values?
  • What messages do the images we use in advertising send?
  • What social change movement would you like your brand to lead? What are you doing to move the needle?

All of this can feel overwhelming, which is why it’s so important to have a diverse team. Considering perspectives and voices that are different from your own will make you more aware of the underlying messages you’re sending.

I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers or that we at Audacia Strategies have it all figured out. Audacia has a long way to go. I have a long way to go. We aren’t going to get this right the first time and we will make mistakes. 

As CEO, though, I’m committed to taking action to increase true diversity and inclusivity. With this focus, the underlying messages will fall into place. We have to start, fail, learn, and improve. 

So, what are you doing?

Photo credit: Jacob Lund from the Noun Project

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

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

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