A View from Blue Grotto

Monday, October 30, 2006

Managing your culture

Corporate culture has taken center stage in the last few years. With the well-publicized collapse of some companies, the hostile resignations of CEOs and board chairs, and the merging of companies far and wide, there is no doubt that the environment of corporate culture will never be the same.

Your organization’s culture is a reflection of its values. And values are organic to any organization – you can’t simply make them up, or transplant them from one company to another, or worse yet – dictate them from the corner office.

Most companies’ values are not brightly illuminated until there is a crisis. But the company’s values, good or bad, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, are determined long before the crisis arises. And in many cases, the company’s values are what pulls them {everyone – from the CEO and executive team, all the way down to the janitorial staff} through to the other side of the dark tunnel {see the 9/29/03 HBS Working Knowledge article Do the Right Thing by Michael Sisk http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/3689.html }.

How do you manage your organization’s culture when you’re not tacking into the wind?

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, has written extensively on the role of organizational culture in success and adversity. In his April 12, 2004 HBS Working Knowledge Executive Summary Waking Up a Sleeping Company, {http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/4054.html} George discusses his company’s challenge in managing, and ultimately trying to change, a successful culture. He addresses the question most leaders face: how do you manage values in a performance-driven environment? Or in Medtronic’s case, how do you infuse a performance-driven environment into your company’s half-a-century-old culture?

Working with a company as they prepare to celebrate an anniversary or milestone, or assisting a company with a knowledge management program, we inevitably end up documenting organizational culture. I had the great pleasure of working with Medtronic as they celebrated 50 years. Many of the learnings that bubble up are expected and are an affirmation of a culture, like the tenet that 3M is patient with its internal investment, allowing initiatives to root and take hold, rather than killing an initiative after the first quarter reports. Other clients have extracted from Blue Grotto’s research and oral history components a management analysis, or benchmarking and evaluation tools. One client, knowing their top leadership would turn over soon, asked interviewees what leadership attributes they felt would be congruent with the organization’s culture.

In the past, corporate culture tended to conjure up a ‘soft stuff’ image for executives. But as Roger Enrico, former CEO of PepsiCo, once said: “The soft stuff is always harder than the hard stuff.”

Email me with an example of how you are working in your own organization to understand and manage your company’s culture.

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Narrating your own story

Everyone is in to podcasts now. Me included. One of my favorite weekly podcasts is the Journal Report produced by the Wall Street Journal {http://online.wsj.com}

One episode of particular interest is Jeffrey Zaslow’s interview of professional writer and personal historian Paula Stahel about memoir writing, a topic near and dear to Blue Grotto. First published Thursday, June 22, 2006 this podcast runs about fifteen minutes.

Stahel, who co-authored The Wonder Years - My Life and Times With Stevie Wonder with Ted Hull, Wonder’s teacher, says that the most daunting aspect of writing your own personal history is that most people don’t see themselves as writers. You don’t have to be. She advises people to start by sitting down and writing a letter, as though you were writing a letter to a grandchild or future grandchildren. Include everything from the mundane to the spectacular. Decades and generations from now, your daily life today will seem fascinating. What was a podcast? Your heirs will ask.

The letter idea is a great start. String several letters, and you’ve got yourself a chapter. And think of the power of a letter. Remember President Ronald Reagan’s letters to wife Nancy? The letters of a man written to his wife over forty years gave a rare insight into the personal relationship of a very public couple. Think of the letters compiled of soldiers writing wives, sweethearts, mothers from the front lines of WWII. How do they compare to the men and women serving today in the US Armed Forces in far off places all over the globe?

Someone commented to me recently that, as a society, we’ve plain forgotten how to write personal notes – of thanks, of congratulations, of sympathy. Instead, we pound out a quick email, and attach electronic photos. When was the last time you received something personal in the mail, other than the electric bill?

One of the greatest gifts to a family is the celebration of their culture and history. Personal and family histories offer a unique opportunity to capture and communicate what makes a family distinctive – its stories of growth, success, leadership in the community, generational characteristics – all sources of pride and accomplishment.

Though many individuals may demur on their own story, their imprint on their family is indelible. It is often their own philosophies, hard work and devotion to family that allowed others to grow and succeed. And it is those same philosophies and perspectives that will remain important for decades to come.

Email me, or write to me on that fancy stationary collecting dust in your office, about your own efforts to chronicle experiences, accomplishments and memories.

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Is What You Say What They Hear?

How many times have you finished up a meeting with a co-worker, a subordinate, a boss, even a client, and they stare back at you with glassy eyes, a perplexed look, or, worse yet – as if you were speaking Japanese the entire meeting? In the end, for some, the question remains: is what you say what they hear?

I came across a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge Newsletter article about effective communications. In Loosen Up Your Communications Style (http://hbsworkingknowledge.hbs.edu/archive/3559.html), Theodore Kinni outlines the need for leaders to combine three effective styles of communication: Emotional, Factual and Symbolic.

Kinni presented a statistic I found both amusing and frightening: “… in a 2002 survey of 1,104 employees around the country, 86 percent of the respondents said that their bosses thought they were great communicators. But only 17 percent said their bosses actually communicated effectively.”

Finding ways to connect with your audience is only one step in effective communications. Making sure you give folks the tools to carry your message forward can be even more challenging. Remember, what you say does not always equate to what they hear. Think of the game of ‘telephone’ – how one person interprets your directive directly impacts how it is carried out.

Storytelling is an effective and powerful tool to use in presenting an organizational message. A story—more than a flow chart, a power point presentation, or even a mission statement— has the power to motivate an audience to take action.

Working with Blue Grotto clients on corporate and organizational histories and documentation projects, we see the impact storytelling has on everything from rallying the troops, to defining problems and brainstorming solutions, to crisis communications. Clients found that storytelling promotes the shared vision that strengthens their connection to listeners. And storytelling offers perspectives in a format that is both easily grasped and easily repeated. Imagine how successful you can be when your key message can be retold by staff, your clients, your vendors, even your competition.

Email me with your favorite example of a communicator or storyteller and why that person or business left an impression (hopefully a good one) on you.

Ohayo gozaimas! (Greetings! in Japanese)
Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.

Monday, October 09, 2006

National University of Singapore celebrates 100 years

I often refer to client success stories when talking about Blue Grotto’s work - real-time examples of organizations who truly take the message of leveraging a milestone to heart.

One organization, though not a Blue Grotto client but who deserves special mention in the milestone category, is the National University of Singapore, just concluding a year-long celebration of their 100th anniversary. I found out about them through my weekly tracking of hits to the Blue Grotto website. The folks at NUS visited our site several times throughout 2005-06.

Amazement would describe my feelings when I, in turn, visited their site. The comprehensive program, as outlined on their Centennial page, http://www.nus.edu.sg/centennial/ is truly impressive. From a video, to a roving exhibit, to more than a dozen pieces of memorabilia commemorating the Centennial – their organizing committee had significant resources available to them. And though not every organization will have that same level of funding devoted to an anniversary, resources, of any magnitude, and the support of the organization’s leadership are critical to the success of any milestone program.

Some may argue that many of the NUS “activities” go against the grain of the Blue Grotto philosophy that an anniversary is more than just a party, but the University also demonstrated a keen understanding of messaging and communications as well. An ongoing newsletter helped to keep visitors to the site updated and engaged, and served as a vehicle to articulate key messages throughout the year. Most importantly, the University communicated its strategic plan for the Centennial with an outline of the organizing committees, people charged with the tasks of implementing activities, and by making a copy of the Master Plan available to staff and faculty through the University’s intranet site. Communicating how you plan to maximize resources helps others to support your efforts.

The National University of Singapore’s Centennial campaign is a terrific illustration of the opportunities to reconnect with alumni, instill loyalty and pride in students, and articulate the importance of the institution in the commuity. Objectives any oganization or company would be eager to put to use.

Email me with examples of an anniversary message or campaign that impressed you.

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Marathon offers Milestone analogy

The Twin Cities Marathon, considered the most beautiful urban marathon in America, celebrated it’s 25th anniversary yesterday. Appropriately, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press offered up some wonderful historical facts in Sunday’s newspaper. Being a historian of sorts, I love factoids. They offer a snapshot, even if just in the highlights, to some of the successes, challenges and practical learnings of an institution. And, at twenty-five years, the TCM is indeed an institution. Runners from around the world participated yesterday, with many serious competitors for the $25k prize money.

We live just a few blocks from the marathon route in St. Paul, and each year my husband and I walk up to the route to cheer those determined, sometimes haggard – we are at mile 21 – runners, exhausted but still moving toward that finish line. And as I stood there on the sidelines, shouting for a guy with “My name is Mike, cheer for me” painted on the front of his t-shirt as he ran past me, I thought about the magnitude of running a marathon. It is essentially a game you play against yourself. Though you may be running alongside ten thousand other exhausted, haggard people, and hearing the applause of 26 miles of supporters, a marathon is a solo milestone experience. Marla Runyon, a two-time Olympian, and this year’s women’s winner, was quoted as saying “It’s a very humbling event.”

Milestones, big and small, are a part of every day life. And the Twin Cities Marathon illustrates some wonderful examples, from the folks out there running their first marathon, to the folks running to raise money, to the folks just wanting to run a marathon in their lifetime. Most importantly, milestones serve as benchmarks.

As in personal life, companies and organizations celebrate milestones as well. Anniversaries, milestones of programs, product launches (3M recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of Post-it Notes, who can imagine life with out Post-it Notes?), leadership and leadership changes all offer the chance to celebrate, to reinvigorate and to learn. Many business and organizational leaders can relate to the marathon experience. Think of how many times you hear an experience described with the analogy of a marathon.

Something worthy of that analogy could also be a milestone. Remember to celebrate even the smallest triumphs, use them as the chance to reinvigorate your troops and take the time to learn from them. Even the occasional 5K runner celebrates with a Powerbar, logs her finishing time, and makes note if she thinks she could shave a few seconds toward her personal best.

Email me with milestones you’ve celebrated or acknowledged. We at Blue Grotto hope you continue to make the most of them!

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto