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

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

change fatigue

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging that Change is a Constant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Treat everyone like adults.

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

Give them the information they need to 

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

Then give them space to work within certain boundaries. 

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

2. Gather the leadership team together often.

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

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

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

3. Address challenges head on.

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

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

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

4. Provide resources to help.

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

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

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

5. Over communicate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Jacob Lund from Noun Project

Corporate Communications

Cut the Crap: Putting the Humanity Back into Corporate Communications

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

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

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

1. Think Like a Reporter

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

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

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

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

2. Dump the Buzzwords

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

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

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

3. Get Vulnerable

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

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

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

4. Step Away from the Webinars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

strategic narrative

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

Who are you? 

What have you done? 

Where are you going? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a strategic narrative?

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

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

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

Your strategic narrative:

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

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

Do we really need a strategic narrative?

Great question! 

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

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

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

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

How do we nail the aspirational aspect?

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

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

Insight into your organization

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

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

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

Reflection on how your organization is perceived

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

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

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

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

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

reading list

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

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

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

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

An Anti-Racist Reading List

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

Anti-Racist Podcasts

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

Anti-Racist Viewing

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

How I’m Thinking Differently About Business

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

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

The Research

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

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

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

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

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

For a True Brain Break…

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: TORWAI Suebsri