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

transformative change

“Are We There Yet?” — Change, Communications, and Culture

If there’s anything that’s more difficult than transformative change, it’s communicating about transformative change. And let’s face it, the past two years have been defined by change.

As leaders of organizations living through a profound period of global change, we’ve learned some powerful lessons:

  • The future will not be more stable or more certain.
  • Black swans feel much different when we live through them (sometimes multiple times), than when we read about them in economics textbooks.
  • Disruption or large scale change cannot be contained to one aspect of life.

In short, societal shifts spill over into personal and business life, business upheaval impacts personal and societal security, and uncertainty about personal health throws a wrench into every aspect of life. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, transformative change comes for all of us.

With the hindsight of the last few years, now is the time to review our approach to change and ask ourselves how we can better prepare for and communicate about the next wave of transformative change. Let’s take a closer look at the core aspects of strong communication here.

The Pulse of the Organization

Exhausted organizations do not handle change, let alone transformation, well. Think about how well you operate after a series of all-nighters. Even the thought of having to eat — to survive! — feels like a monumental task. Similarly, exhausted organizations can barely perform key functions, which doesn’t bode well for facing changes with grace.

When leaders continually keep their fingers on the pulse of their organizations, however, they are less likely to lead exhausted organizations and much better positioned to handle transformation. Keeping your finger on the pulse means recognizing when your people are being pushed to their breaking point and making the necessary adjustments needed.

How do you take the pulse of your organization?

  • Get to know your employees and customers: Use pulse surveys (Voice of the Employee (VoE), Voice of the Customer (VoC) surveys), “ask me anything” sessions (AMAs), virtual and IRL coffee chats, town halls, skip level meetings, “walking the halls” (for those back in the office).
  • Get to know your leaders: Keep tabs on your people leaders and customer leaders too. Managers can often be the linchpins of culture and influencers of others.
  • Ban the “just deal with it” mentality: Of course, decisions need to be made and transformative change must go on, but if your strategy is to tell your people to “just deal with it,” then you have a failed strategy on your hands. Instead, build a plan with the tools, support, resources, and aircover they need…and be ready to adjust. 

Transformative Change and Culture

Taking the pulse of your organization is only the beginning of figuring out how to communicate about transformative change. To really pull this off, you also need to consider the culture on a deeper level.

Having a change playbook is important, to a point (and lord knows you can find a consultant who will sell you one), but remember that a guide is just that — a guide. There may be times when what your team really needs is for you to set that playbook on fire (maybe even literally).

Here are some areas to consider when it comes to culture: 

  • Consider what is authentic to your organization. What is the general tone of communication? And if there was ever a time to be more transparent, more honest, more plain spoken…transformative change is that time.
  • Consider who is trusted in your organization. Perhaps the Board of Directors is more trusted than management (I’ve worked there). Or perhaps long-tenured middle management is trusted more than the new or newer executives? Understanding these relationships and building that into your strategy is crucial.
  • Consider why you’re doing what you’re doing and have a good answer. Just because “all the other $1B organizations” use top-down communications for layoffs, doesn’t mean that you have to. Keep in mind, “because I said so” is not a successful strategy for successful change.
  • Consider what you are asking of your team and customers. Transformative change, or any change (hello, Atomic Habits), requires commitment. It’s about the larger purpose and that’s generally an emotional ask. You are asking your team and your customers not just to help you make a business change, but to take a journey with you toward achieving your organizational purpose — which will solve more customer problems, make the world a better place, make the organization a better place to work, or any combination thereof.

A Few More Do’s and Don’ts

Once you have thought through the lay of the land and have the big picture in front of you, here are a few more do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.

1. Don’t sand down the edges on the executive team. 

Whether it’s a layoff, a major acquisition, or an IPO, your people are your biggest asset — yes, even in the metaverse. And employees, customers, and the media are all looking for leaders to lead and exhibit humanity.

In a recent interview, Brian Chesky, the CEO of AirBnB, said it well, 

“I think CEOs and leaders are more human than they come across. I mean most of these people are real people. They do have feelings. I think the problem with corporations is the lawyers and the HR people and the others, ‘sand the edges’ off the person in an effort to protect the person. And, that is a major disservice because they just reduce them to something that’s not even a human being anymore, they’re just this very cold person.” 

Of course, you need to work with your executives to communicate in a way that complies with the law and represents the organization appropriately, but this is very different from turning them into robots who are afraid to show any glimmer of vulnerability.

2. Do acknowledge the suckiness, if it sucks.

You may be surprised at how much resistance to transformative change can be relieved with a simple acknowledgment of how difficult it is. When it feels like you’re the only one feeling the pain, change can be a really lonely place. Often your people just need you to see them doing their best through an objectively sucky situation. And if it sucks for you too, talk about it.

3. Do acknowledge the excitement of the future, as appropriate.

As hard as it can be, change also usually comes with a lot of excitement. Don’t be afraid to embrace the excitement and display appreciation for the teams that will make the change happen.

4. Don’t promise a return to the status quo.

Never offer to “stop the change.” It may be tempting to try to relieve the pain of transformative change by promising a return to the status quo on a particular date, for example. This falls into the category of promises you can’t keep, though. Sure, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, a product launch, a closing date on the merger, but even those flashpoint events aren’t likely to spell the end of change. 

We’re all changing, all the time. Our environment is changing, the market is changing, society is changing. All we can do is remain in a ready stance — flexible, fluid, optimistic, and ready to roll with the next pivot or “tweak.”

Finally, I want to leave you with some more words of wisdom from Brian Chesky because these two sentences are really all you need to know when it comes to communicating about transformative change: “Just do whatever you think is the right thing at that moment. Take care of people and then they’ll root for you.”

And you know Audacia Strategies is here for you. We’re ready to help you better prepare for and communicate about the next wave of transformative change. Let’s talk!

Photo credit: Businessman Applauding With His Colleagues During A Presentation by Flamingo Images from NounProject.com

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

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

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

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

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

M&A issues

What No One Talks About in M&A: Culture Integration and How to Deal With It

We’ve talked about M&A before—the pros, the cons, where deals can go off the rails—but now let’s talk about what happens after the deal is closed. What comes next and what M&A issues come up?

Once your deal closes and the dust settles, it’s time for the real work to begin: integration. With any luck, you’ve already done some focused thinking about integrating the two firms. You’ve looked at M&A issues such as aligning billing systems, benefits plans, compensation strategies, etc. and you have strategies for each.

But what about culture? What’s your strategy for culture integration? If your reaction here is anything like, “A strategy for culture integration? Oh, the department heads will handle all of that,” you will probably want to keep reading.

Love and M&A Integration

M&A deals that work well are actually a lot like happy marriages. Yes, there will be some upfront work to do on both sides. But once you’ve skipped down the aisle after saying “I do,” you begin a new phase with its own set of challenges. This is the work of meshing together two lives into a cohesive, long term, happy union.

An M&A transaction can be a bit like courtship (ah, and you thought chivalry was dead): You date around for a bit, decide that you’ve found “the one,” get engaged, and then, you throw a heckuva wedding. And when you wake up after the honeymoon, reality sinks in…the thoughts start flying.

  • Thought Bubble #1: For better or for worse…wait, you didn’t tell me about that billing issue!
  • Thought Bubble #2: For richer or for poorer…what happened to the sales pipeline we reviewed?
  • Thought Bubble #3: ‘Til death do us part…why are all the employees leaving?

And as with any new marriage, there are logistical M&A issues that no one really considers before they sign on the dotted line:

  • How are we going to celebrate holidays? (Is everyone onboard and motivated by how we recognize and celebrate success?)
  • How should we handle joint finances? (Do both parts of this new mixed organization share the same fiscal priorities?)
  • How often do I have to see your family and friends? (What’s our customer relationship strategy?)

I’m not suggesting that the key to successful M&A integration is scheduling time for employees to do a bunch of trust falls and escape room activities. What I’m suggesting is that you consider how culture impacts any business transaction in the same way you consider how to maximize earning potential for shareholders.

Lessons from a Culture Integration Fail

Early on in my career, I worked for a multi-billion dollar firm. With much fanfare, we acquired a smaller firm that was highly respected and well-known in the industry for its creativity in “getting things done” for customers.

Within a year of acquiring the firm, the larger company had overlayed all of their big company processes and requirements onto the smaller firm—squashing the very flexibility and creativity for which they had been known (and for which we had acquired them!). Unsurprisingly, half of the employees were gone within 2 years…as were the customers.

While it’s easy to see the internal (e.g., from the employees’ perspective) impact of cultural M&A issues, we don’t often think about the external (e.g., from the customers’ perspective) impact. However, culture certainly does impact customer experience and this is especially true after a merger. For a case study in how NOT to complete a successful integration, check out the Starwood / Marriott merger. Yikes!

The hard lesson learned here: The reality is that human challenges are often harder to smooth over than system challenges. If you don’t anticipate the cultural challenges, it doesn’t matter how prepared you are on the business side. So, how do savvy M&A dealmakers address the human side?

1. Start early.

By early, I mean during due diligence. Yes, cultural fit is a deal maker or breaker! The very things that make an acquisition target attractive may also be the most fundamental to their culture…and the most different from your organization’s current culture.

Make sure that someone on your team is putting together a culture strategy prior to the close of the transaction. At a minimum, this strategy should include:

  • Key metrics for competitive landscape, demographic, and market trends to discuss with leadership.
  • Outlines for any necessary cultural change initiatives (Tip: stick with no more than 2 major change initiatives during the first year).
  • Ideas for creating employee buy-in and a sense of community.

2. Know thyself.

What is your vision for the joint culture? What changes after the deal? What stays the same?

Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There are no rules that say that everyone must conform to a single culture or that culture is immutable. In fact, allowing room for the culture to adapt is crucial for long-term viability.

Why are these firms merging? What is valued in each and how can we take the best pieces of our cultures and bring them together respectfully?

3. Focus on building credibility.

In most cases, there is a fairly steep learning curve that happens after a merger. Like moving from dating to marriage, we need to adapt to daily life and its new rhythms. How can we put in place mechanisms to better understand each other? How do we establish trust?

Remember that credibility is earned, not given. When a large firm acquires a smaller firm (especially if the smaller firm was once a competitor), there can be some apprehension. It’s important to warn employees of the large firm that taking a victory lap is not appropriate.

Past is not prologue. So the acquiring firm should look to create the right environment to nurture a bright future and bring the new acquisition into the fold. This will require transparency in sharing plans, following through, listening when challenges are raised, and addressing the concerns of everyone.

This is a key building block for #4.

4. Communicate.

Communicate early and often. Key leadership (ideally those with credibility) should share the aspirations for the combined entity in a clear, straightforward manner and acknowledge that integration won’t be easy. When talking about challenges, be specific. Show everyone that you are committed to making this work and addressing all M&A issues together.

Employees need to know what’s changing, why, when, and what will happen, both in the overall big picture, as well as on a day-to-day basis. They need to understand what the merger means for them and what the new expectations will be.

Communicating is about way more than printing off new motivational posters with the company’s core values and firing off a few “rah-rah” emails. (GAH!!) Cultural integration requires a change management focus, leadership commitment, transparency, a willingness to listen (and integrate) feedback, and continued communication via as many channels as possible…even when you think you’re done, you’re not. Keep going. Like a marriage, you’re in this for the long haul.

Preparing for a big M&A deal in 2019? Check out our guide for working with a Communications Specialist.

The team at Audacia Strategies is ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you as you make a smooth integration, both in terms of systems and culture. Contact us to learn more about how we can enable your transformation and help you avoid serious M&A issues!

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