Prepare yourself. From annual to pulse surveys. An unstoppable shift.

Ferrari pit stop

This week I joined a webinar hosted by Questa Agency with Matt Stephens and Dominic Walters of Heartbeat Ltd  on: “Top 10 reasons to ditch the annual survey and to choose the pulsing approach”.

They were certainly preaching to the choir in my case.

Last year Heartbeat were predicting the death of the annual employee survey in favour of more regular thermometer check surveys within 10 years. More recent conversations with business leaders suggested the annual survey might be gone in half that time.

Even with this shift I wondered why any business felt that the annual survey is a worthwhile investment?

Perhaps the (misplaced) loyalty stemmed from a reluctance to abandon decades of trend data. Heartbeat understand that Executive bonuses are often tied to survey results and, until that link is broken, these businesses will still doggedly favour the annual survey.

The wealth of data from the lengthy and broad-ranging annual surveys is a commonly quoted reason for continuing them. When challenged by Heartbeat about what they do with all this data, even the Executives who sponsor this activity struggle to give a good answer.

I believe that the annual survey doesn’t tell anyone in the organisation anything they don’t already know.

The 10 Reasons were a useful summary of the benefits and relevance of regular pulse surveys compared with the annual employee survey. The most interesting aspect to me was that the presentation identified a critical success factor that any business moving to pulse surveys should have in place before implementation. That is, the ability of line managers to ‘own’ the results and engage their teams in conversations about what these results mean for them and their activities.

This might seem counterintuitive.  One of the benefits offered by tools like Heartbeat’s pulse survey is results that are immediately available to all staff simultaneously. If that’s so, how and why should line managers have any greater ownership of the results than their team members?

In my view, one of the benefits of a centrally managed survey is the ability to provide a consistent and committed response to any controversial results; e.g. those that may undermine corporate strategy or values.

Without this support from the centre, there is a danger of line managers making it up as they go along by suggesting a plan of action that is not forthcoming or going to ground and refusing to discuss the survey results at all if they feel too exposed.

I raised this topic. Heartbeat quite rightly said that, in tune with the modern workplace, pulse surveys are more about enabling meaningful conversations between line managers and their teams and less about cascading corporate responses to pre-determined questions.

It’s clear to me that for businesses to reap the full benefit of moving from an annual employee survey to more regular, transparent and accessible pulse surveys, the capability of the line manager is critical.

Line managers have two key roles to play in this process:

  1. Using the insights provided by the survey to have two-way conversations with their team members so all team members feel informed, energised and included. This is a real skill and it should not be assumed that it’s one all line managers naturally have.
  2. Feeding any concerns or queries raised in these conversations back up the line to keep senior leaders aware of the grassroots dialogue. Without this feedback there’s a danger that the surveys are operating in a slight vacuum.

If the shift from annual surveys to pulse surveys is accompanied by a focus on the organisation’s capability for meaningful, shared conversations it will be a win all round.

Posted in Authentic communication, communication channels, Culture, Employee Engagement, Feedback surveys, Internal communications, Middle management, People management / motivation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Future of Internal Comms. Is there one?

Black Mirror art installation by Doug Aitken

Picture credit: “Black Mirror” art installation by Doug Aitken

Job hunting over the last few months has given me the opportunity to rethink the role the IC professional plays within a business. A variety of inputs have spurred my thinking:

  • IC professionals debating “The Future of IC”

Before Christmas I was invited by specialist recruitment agency Comma Partners to participate in a networking event entitled: The Future of IC: Riding the Waves or into the Wilderness. The IC stage was set by Paul Osgood, Global IC Lead for law firm Clifford Chance. Following a general discussion participants were invited to say whether they believed that the IC function was about to break through as an influential voice in the C-Suite or whether our days as a standalone function were numbered.

Of the 20 or so participants, only two of us were sufficiently disillusioned or, in my case, provocative enough, to support the wilderness proposition.*

I don’t really believe that the IC function has no future or I wouldn’t be so keen to get back into it. But I am dismayed at how many years IC appears to have been poised to play a more strategic role within corporate life and yet we’re still having this debate. With social media blurring the lines between internal and external comms plus the drive to enable broad employee advocacy, it’s easy to imagine that the days of the IC function as we know it today are numbered.

So, what has prevented us from being a more powerful influence? This brings me to my second input:

  • How we are perceived is determined by what we do.

Recently I was asked by a Company Director whom I’ve known for years to improve a presentation he had created for a first meeting with an important new stakeholder. It was clear that his expectation of my input started and stopped with the design and formatting of his presentation. I explained that my immediate priority was to see that the messaging and audience take-outs were fit for purpose and I might involve a specialist for any extraordinary design features. He was surprised and rather dubious.

After jointly reviewing the original deck, I went away to re-work it and sent it back for consideration. His feedback was thoughtful and illuminating. He expressed surprise that I had understood the core issues of a highly complex business and operating environment in sufficient detail to be able to translate his thoughts into clearer and more compelling slides.

That is (one of) the problems with the IC function today. We have been too ready to live down to the expectations of the C-Suite. Namely, that our key purpose is to create attractive and carefully crafted messaging that will supposedly engage the audience through stylish presentation. In my opinion, we have failed to challenge the lazy assumption that all we have to do to get the attention of today’s distracted, jaded and overwhelmed workforce is to play the visual stimulation card, re-packaging the same messaging in ever-more creative ways.

The other discussion my revised slides inspired was whether he was prepared for the potential fallout these more challenging, thought provoking slides might elicit. It was clear that this meeting was a watershed moment. The original presentation underplayed the challenges and allowed the audience to skate comfortably over the tough questions implicit in the slides. The new version made these explicit. Despite the risk, the Director acknowledged that it was far better to know sooner rather than later the new stakeholder’s appetite for challenge and change which the updated slides would expose.

This is one way that a good comms professional adds value. Stepping back from the detail to see the big picture and challenging the presenter to dig deep and find the essential story and not simply recycle the same old blah in stylish new clothing.

  • Is the IC professional in danger of becoming a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’?

Over the past few months I’ve read a large number of IC job descriptions and am horrified at the number that have around 12-14 key responsibilities. It reveals the range and scale of activity that has come within the IC domain. Many roles cover, in some form or other, the majority of the following:

Channel development and management Employee engagement initiatives News sourcing, drafting, editing
Annual employee survey launch, track and follow-up Relationship building /stakeholder management Strategic IC advice/coaching to leadership
Mid management comms coaching Comms planning and
Best practice tracking / implementation
Comms strategy development Employee events/briefings Social media content
Measurement and tracking Budgeting / cost control Team/function development

On the one hand this demonstrates how close to the beating heart of business operations our function sits. However, despite the nods to relationship building and strategic advice, there’s a clear focus on delivery on which these roles will be judged.  Can we really expect to be seen as experts in our field when the brief is so all-encompassing?

In my view we are the authors of our own misfortune. Too many of us have put style over substance, focusing on delivery rather than influence. By operating too much in the delivery rather than the strategy space, we are failing to make leaders understand that employees want honesty and authenticity even more than they want the latest digital channels, and that employee engagement is about more than trends measured in the annual employee survey.

If we want the internal comms function to have a more meaningful role in the future, we will need our people to be braver and more challenging than many of us have dared to be in the past.

*Following the debate, the majority of opinion had switched to the wilderness proposition, mainly in recognition of a case better argued rather than a fundamental change of heart. To read about the event read the corresponding article in Simply Communicate.

Posted in Authentic communication, Business Leadership, employee advocacy, Employee Engagement, Internal communications, People management / motivation | Leave a comment

Taking personal responsibility – a too rare leadership quality

gandhi-quoteA few years ago I was asked to produce a high impact presentation on the strengths and opportunities for improvement of the organisation’s leadership capability. The presentation would be used to introduce a facilitated discussion on leadership at their annual global leadership conference.

My solution was to use the global IC network to identify credible, astute, representative spokespersons at all levels below MD who would be prepared to give honest (anonymous) responses on tape to the following three questions:

  1. What characteristics do you look for in a good leader?
  2. How do you think our leadership capability compares with other places you have worked?
  3. What one change would significantly improve leadership in our organisation?

The responses to the first question were illuminating more for what was left out than for the suggested characteristics. A torrent of descriptions covering the spectrum of personal values – honourable, genuine, role model – and the ability to make things happen – inspirational, decisive, effective, but not a single allusion to personal responsibility.

In today’s litigious and over-exposed society, the temptation to avoid commitment and deny responsibility is pervasive, from the top of government and the heads of corporations down. Consequently, when you do encounter an example of personal responsibility, it is so unexpected and remarkable that the amount of goodwill it generates is disproportionate.

I know this from personal experience.

Flying to the UK from Jersey recently I, unusually, booked a case into the hold.  At check-in, the clerk offered to check my carry-on into the hold FOC.  I accepted the offer as I would already be waiting for one case at the other end.  I have no idea what happened to the case but it must have been an extraordinary incident as one corner was completely destroyed and my laptop was damaged beyond repair.

At no time was I told that any valuable items in my hand luggage would not be insured if I checked in the bag. As I had my laptop and my new £400 camera in the case, had I been informed of this condition, I would never have checked it.

EasyJet baggage insurance immediately accepted liability for the case. However, it was only when I made a claim for the contents of the case – an entirely separate claims process – that I found out about the insurance caveat for baggage contents placed in the hold. I was advised to try either

I was incensed and in no mood to follow their advice to pass on what was clearly EasyJet’s liability onto either my travel insurance company or my home and contents insurance company.

Internet searches on customer complaints suggested that it might be productive to write to EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall. An article in The Guardian cited her as one of the CEOs who responded quickly and personally to a test email sent by The Observer.

My own email to Carolyn McCall sent on Monday morning resulted in an email from their Baggage Claims Manager early Tuesday morning with an apology for their previous handling of the issue and an invitation to get in touch for resolution. Having submitted copies of paperwork and evidence I received a phone call the following day with an offer of a very generous cash settlement. It was more than I had expected and has transformed me into a staunch advocate of the airline.

Even though I didn’t receive a personal response from Ms McCall, the speed and quality of the response I did receive supported the point made by Marcus Williamson, founder of, at the end of The Guardian article:

I find the responsiveness of the chief executive tends to reflect the responsiveness of the company overall. It’s like a barometer – the less responsive the chief exec, the lower the overall customer satisfaction in a company.”

Carolyn McCall gets it. It’s just a shame that more CEOs don’t appear to see this as part of their job description.

Posted in Business Leadership, Corporate Values, High performing companies, Leadership Behaviours, Personal Values, Success factors, Trust | Tagged | Leave a comment

Anticipating the message; I couldn’t have been more wrong


Image credit: Sabbian Paine

Tuning into BBC radio 4 recently, I caught the last few minutes of an episode in a series I had never heard before – The Headline Ballads. From what I heard I understood the programme to be comparing and contrasting the response of two very disparate communities to the trauma of flooding. The piece that made a strong impression were the translated final words of a Bangladeshi woman:

We are doing what we can to help each other. We are digging out the soil so we can raise our houses and live here permanently. We don’t just wait for others to help us. We would rather be doing it ourselves.

The only context I had for this snippet was the half-heard short clip of a Cumbrian woman who was talking when I tuned in. She appeared to be bemoaning the hardship of having to live with the constant threat of being flooded.

From these few snippets, I believed the programme was comparing the resilience, stoicism and self-determination of the Bangladeshi community with the English tendency to believe that someone else is to blame for such misfortune, and someone else – i.e. the Government – is responsible for putting it right.

I was basing this on an impression gained over recent years from the media coverage of UK flooding events in which victims seem to me to be continually looking for someone to blame.  The Government, local councils, builders, insurance companies, all come in for their share of blame or criticism, while the flood victims appear to me to be in a state of suspended animation as they wait for someone else to make things right for them again.

How wrong I was and what a salutary lesson in basic communication principles.

I’d heard only a very small piece of the whole and, based on my interpretation of some of the storyline, I jumped to a conclusion about what the ‘compare and contrast’ exercise was going to reveal.

Yet, as a ‘professional’ communicator, I know that listeners will interpret the same story a multitude of ways based on their own experiences and beliefs. Even those who have been exposed to exactly the same messages will recall it differently as each listener attributes greater or lesser significance to those bits that resonate most strongly with their own situation or understanding. Ensuring that the audience is given the opportunity to assimilate the message in its entirety through consistent repetition and reinforcement is a basic principle of effective communication.

In reality the programme was a much more complex and subtle piece in keeping with the theme of the series in which “…poets and storytellers respond to stories underneath the world news headlines”.

In this episode, the writer and poet, Kamal Kaan begins with the story of his own parents move from Bangladesh to escape the poverty and the floods of their native homeland. His ballad is interwoven with personal testimonies from those who have experienced firsthand the devastation caused by flooding.

The half-heard quote from the Cumbrian flood victim, when heard in full and in the context of the rest of the programme, painted a picture of determined optimism equal to that of the Bangladeshi woman I had so admired. She was most definitely not the whinging stereotype I had erroneously assigned her.

You’ve got to build up an emotional resilience to (the prospect of flooding)….You’ve still got to live your life. You can’t live thinking that every time it rains you’re going to flood because, what kind of life would you have out here in Cumbria. It’s the wettest county in the country. It rains quite a lot!

I’m glad that I took the time to listen in full to an unusual and illuminating programme even if it did shame me to realise how far from the mark my initial assumptions had been. In my business, if I start thinking in stereotypes, I only have myself to blame if none of my messages get through.

Posted in Authentic communication, communication channels, Internal communications, People management / motivation, Story telling, Success factors, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How to make a (good) decision.


I believe I am a decisive person and, having made a decision, I rarely spend time worrying about whether I’ve made the right one.

Whether I make good decisions is a whole different matter.

The last truly big decision I made – to put my career on hold and move to Jersey for an indeterminate period, was life changing but easily made as I was going to spend time with my elderly father whose health was in slow but inevitable decline.

The significant decision before that one was deciding between two job offers. Both had their pros and cons which I had listed to help my decision-making process. The listing process was inconclusive and, in the end, I took the job that was both more challenging and held a greater risk of failure, figuring that it might be my last chance to be offered such a learning opportunity.

You could say that I made the wrong choice as my role was made redundant within a year, whereas the person who took the other role is still happily (I assume) in post three years later.

However, my redundancy led to my taking a short-term contract that, while both interesting and different, was also in a rather frustrating and uncertain work environment. This made me much more open to the idea of a career break and moving to Jersey than if I’d been in a stable, head of department role.

The choice I made did not pan out as I might have hoped in career terms but it undoubtedly gave me a broader range of experience than I would have had in the other role and, indirectly, gave me an irreplaceable year with my father.

I’m now facing another tough decision and have started listing the pros and cons once again. This time round however I have a stronger feeling that whichever choice I make will be the right one.

Have I, at the age of 56, started to believe in fate? Not really. But I do believe that your destiny is yours to decide as long as you keep a focus on the doors that are open to you rather than those that have closed.

Posted in career opportunities, Change, Job search strategies, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ladies, don’t be a purveyor of ‘the deadfish handshake’

dead-fishI’ve been shaking a lot of hands lately. This is primarily because we are in tournament season at my tennis club and etiquette demands that, win, lose, or crash and burn, we end each match with handshakes all round. As I’m playing in two ladies doubles tournaments, that’s a lot of handshakes with a lot of ladies.

Being tennis players, you might expect the handshakes to be on the firm side, so I’m rather disconcerted at how many ‘deadfish handshakes’ – i.e. limp – I’m experiencing. It’s almost unnerving and it does make me (slightly) reassess the characters of the women involved:

– they are healthy, energetic and appear confident.

– two of the three women have just won (most probably, as I’m playing slightly above my
league!) a match so they should be, at least inwardly, cock-a-hoop.

– So what’s with the ‘deadfish’?

Having just experienced another limp handshake, this time in a business environment, I was sufficiently intrigued to look into it further.

An article on this very subject in from March 2015 made the point rather well:

According to 2014 research by jobsite Monster, hiring managers rank their first impressions of a candidate as the second most important factor when considering whether to employ a candidate, and it takes just over six minutes for a candidate to make an impression.

When asked to give examples of the types of behaviours that create the worst first impressions, in top position was a “limp handshake” (alongside smelling badly, ignorance about the company or the role, arriving late and being high on drugs – just to give you an indication of how unimpressive the wrong handshake is).”

In an item on body language, proposed that a limp handshake “….can indicate to someone that you’re not interested in building rapport with them and want to escape the greeting ritual as soon as possible.” Other interpretations are shyness, a lack of confidence or, possibly, a sign of introversion, guilt and general anxiety.

None of these is a characteristic you want to display if you are hoping to impress. It’s a shame that our club etiquette is only to shake hands at the end of the match rather than at the beginning as my confidence would be definitely bolstered if an opponent offered me a ‘deadfish handshake’ at the start.

Having said that….

…. two of my tennis club circle are Japanese ladies. Both, in their own way, are demons on court, and both have what I would call ‘limp’ but, which I now know from my research, are ‘delicate’ handshakes. An article on body language in highlighted that, what is seen as a personable and confident greeting in one culture, may create a less favorable impression in another:

“Delicate handshakes, accompanied with minimal and brief contact, are acceptable in Asian countries; however, a slight bow is a more common greeting. In some African countries, the limp handshake is the thing to do.”

This would explain why, in the case of my Japanese opponents, a delicate handshake is no predictor of feeble performance on court!


Posted in Authentic communication, Culture, first impressions, Success factors | Leave a comment

Is your job still offering you learning opportunities?

Lonely_Planet_Guide_BooksI’ve really enjoyed Michael Robinson’s recent series on BBC Radio 4 in which he’s been exploring the trends and challenges of the UK’s work environment – The New WorkplaceIn the last of the series he invited spokespersons representing different aspects of the world of work to give their views on such questions as:

  • Do we have to get used to a low wage, low skill economy?
  • What is the future for self-employment?
  • Is the idea of a lifelong career outdated?
  • Will trade unions become more relevant to the great majority of workers?

As a warm up session he asked each what was their first paid job and what, if anything, they had learned from it. The responses had the hallmarks of being unrehearsed and, as a result, were fairly uninspiring, but the question rather than the answers did stimulate two streams of thought:

  1. Would I have been any more inspiring if asked about what I’d learned from my first job?
  2. Thinking about my recent jobs or roles, are they still providing me with learning opportunities or has it become a case of SSDD (Same S**t, Different Day)?

I realised that the answer to the first was undoubtedly no as, crafting pithy soundbites to virtually any question requires time and consideration, so any off-the-cuff response is almost inevitably going to be fairly bland.

And am I still learning in the jobs that I do?  The answer to that is best captured by French composer Michel Legrand’s expansion of an Albert Einstein quote:

The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know.

My career path has been opportunistic and unpredictable. The freelance consulting route (which is where I’ve ended up) is not a career path I planned but what it lacks in financial stability it more than compensates in terms of challenge, learning opportunities and personal as well as professional growth. Each role seems to offer more challenges than the last, which is why the Legrand/Einstein quote resonates with me.

We all experience days when our job’s reward / pain equation appears too far on the debit side and begs the question “Is it time to look for something else”? On these days, it’s worth taking 5 minutes to answer the following question: “What was my last learning opportunity in this role”? The answer to that question should either help you to battle on through or give you another reason to re-evaluate your current role.

Can you match the panellists above to the first jobs and learns listed below? (Answers at the bottom.)

The panel of spokespersons:

  1. Frances O’Grady – the General Secretary of the TUC
  2. Justin King – for 10 years the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s
  3. Alison Wolf – Professor of Public Management at Kings College, London who has long specialised in skills and training policy
  4. David Willetts – minister for Universities and Skills in the coalition government and now the Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation – a think tank that aims to improve living standards for people on low and middle incomes.

First paid jobs and learns:

a.   Counting and banking the takings of a local store: making sure it balanced
b.   Worked in a factory in Birmingham in my gap year: how to move even large items of
office furniture by applying a bit of ingenuity
c.    Two jobs – weekend job at a newsagent and kitchen assistant at an Oxford college:
broadened knowledge of the world by reading the papers and, as a kitchen assistant,
joined the union
d.   Paper round: learns: turn up on time and be nice to customers – bigger tips at


1 : c   //   2 : d   //   3 : a   //   4 : b

Posted in 21st century workplace, career opportunities, Employee Engagement, job satisfaction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment