Beware the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

When is communication just communication and when is communication actually change management? I’ve struggled with this for years, and have been frustrated by change projects that really didn’t amount to much more than strategic communication. But I’m finally able (I think!) to articulate the difference – and how it impacts the project. My warning? Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing!


I recently wrote this piece for Baker Brands in Santa Monica, an awesome creative branding agency with whom I’m privileged to be associated.  You can find the post here, or you can just read it for yourself below…

From the fabulous Baker Brands website…

I’ve done dozens of change management projects. Usually, they’re disguised as communication campaigns, but when you get right down to it, the company is almost always looking to change behavior. Treating the effort as a communication project alone is dangerous, because you’re not taking into account the challenges presented by what’s hiding inside.

Just like petting a nice sheep, unaware of the wolf within, you can get bit by underestimating what is needed for success.

A standard communication project focuses on knowledge – what the audience knows today and what you want them to know tomorrow. A standard change management project focuses on behavior – what the audience is doing today versus what you want them to do tomorrow. These different objectives demand different approaches.


If you’ve known me for any length of time, than you’ve heard me harp about the importance of understanding the knowledge, attitude and actions of your target audience. Most people think of this as know/feel/do. Here’s what it looks like and why it’s important.

know feel do

Should you find that most of the activity of a project has to do with giving people new information – for example, making sure employees understand a new pricing model – than you have a genuine communication project.  You’re dealing with what your audience knows. Not much wolf hidden inside of this assignment.

But should you find that while knowledge is important, changing people’s attitudes and actions are required – for example, reinventing your corporate culture – than you have a change management project. You’re now concerned with how your audiences feel and what your audience does. And if you’re depending solely on PowerPoint presentations and key messages to succeed, you’re going to fail.

Each of these objectives – know, feel, do – require different tactics to move the needle. We’re most familiar and comfortable with knowledge tactics:

  • Key messages
  • Emails
  • Articles
  • Videos
  • Speeches
  • Posters

Changing people’s feelings, however, requires a different approach:

  • Personalization – how do the facts of the change affect me as an individual?
  • Context – why the change, impact of the change in my business area?
  • Emotions – how does this change make me feel? Are the materials inspirational, appropriate, interesting?
  • Role models – how does our CEO feel about this, how does my manager feel about this? Are their actions aligned with the change?
  • Peers – how do my colleagues feel about this?
  • Consequences – what happens if I don’t go along with this? What happens if I do? What are the rewards and consequences for compliance?

Changing people’s behavior requires changes to both knowledge and attitudes – and then a little more:

  • Training – do I have the skills I need to succeed?
  • Clear instructions – do I know exactly what I have to do?
  • Feedback – how am I doing so far?
  • Reinforcement – am I being recognized for my efforts?
  • Results – is the change bringing about positive business results? How?


Creating tactics, from key messages to training programs, require a lot of work but are not that difficult. A solid communication person and training professional can generally put these materials together relatively quickly. What’s harder is changing attitudes and building acceptance.

That’s where your stakeholders come into play. Who is a stakeholder? Very simply, a person, group or organization that has interest or concern in your project. Some stakeholders are important because they hold the purse strings. Others are vital because they have special needs you must meet to succeed. Others need extra attention because they are influencers – of senior management, of other stakeholders, of employees.

You can’t win the hearts and minds of your audience if you don’t have backing from your stakeholders.

In a recent IT change management project I led, my team and I put together an Excel spreadsheet to help us identify and track our stakeholders. It looked something like this:


As we created our stakeholder plan, we identified distinct stages of the project and what level of support we needed from each stakeholder. We then assigned a value between 1 and 10 to indicate where that stakeholder’s support was currently and where we needed it. Finally, we created action plans for each critical stakeholder to make sure we had the support we needed at each point in the project.

This was a ton of work, and it continued to require a lot of attention throughout the project. But the payoff was clear – we had support from key players when we needed it, and we were able to anticipate and meet the needs of important groups of employees. Fewer surprises meant we could keep to our schedule and budget.


There’s a lot of lip service given to listening in communications and change, but lip service doesn’t cut it. You have to be willing to listen to feedback, to change your process based on feedback, and to stand up to feedback that doesn’t make sense. No small task.

We built in listening opportunities throughout our process, sponsoring receptions at offices around the world. Our sessions were structured, combining small group work and big group discussion, all sweetened by a great lunch and a light attitude. We took every piece of feedback we received as a gift, and made major modifications to the rollout process as a result. We publically gave credit to our employees for the positive changes, and urged them to keep the comments coming.


When you’re making technical changes, training is an absolute requirement. We made sure it was available 24/7, translated into 12 languages, and we broke all video training into short, manageable chapter of information. The result? Our folks took the training and were prepared for the change.

Final Thoughts

Change management requires planning, organization and a thick skin. It’s not about fancy academic models nor is it about just communication. Surround yourself with a great team who you like, give yourself the gift of time to plan, and prepare for a great ride. Your reward will be when people say to you, “I’ve been through a ton of change efforts at this place, but this is best I’ve ever seen. Great job!”


Money Can’t Buy You Love

There’s a lot of talk about employee engagement these days in the circles I travel. As times stay grim and companies continue to make unpleasant decisions to keep their doors open, worries abound as to how to keep employees onboard. Companies have the luxury of not worrying so much about employees quitting – in today’s economy, after all, where would they go? But they are, and should be, concerned about how much heart and soul folks are putting into their jobs.

I hear it from friends who work at some of the world’s biggest and most respected corporations.  For example:

  • “All this company cares about is making a buck.  They don’t care who they run over to do it.”
  • “This company fosters an environment of no trust and no risk-taking.  If you don’t CYA, you’ll get canned in a heartbeat.”
  • “Just shut up and do your job – that’s my company’s idea of employee engagement.”

Ouch.  It makes me wonder how much longer those employers will be the biggest and most respected around.

If you talk with management, you’ll hear that there is limited money for raises and employee development.  You’ll hear that bonus pools have been cut and discretionary travel eliminated.  What tools, they wonder, do they have left to engage employees?

Well, here’s a tip.  Look at what people are bitter about – they are angry at being taken for granted, at not being appreciated, and working in a toxic environment.  I don’t care how big your budget is – money can’t buy you love.

But listening to employees and valuing what they have to say costs nothing, and can make a huge difference in how people feel about your organization.  And this applies if your company is in the knowledge management or in the fast food business.  People who are close to the customer and far from the ivory tower just might have something to teach those with fancy titles.  Just look at the popularity of Undercover Boss, a show which has resulted in transformational moments for the participating company, the boss and the employees with whom the boss interacts.  Those “Aha!” moments change perspectives and they change lives.

So here’s my tip for the day.  Instead of wringing your hands because you don’t have a big budget for employee engagement, take a look at how people are treated in your company.  Are employees afraid to speak up?  Then you have a problem.  Do your executives think they are smarter than everyone else?  Then you have a problem.  Do all the ideas and insights come from the same place?  Then you have a problem.

Successful companies have all their employees excited about the company’s future and feeling as though they contribute to their organization good fortunes.  That starts with listening and ends with appreciation.  It means treating employees as fully functioning adults who can and should understand the business, including the good, the bad and the ugly.

I’m going to be speaking on this subject at IABC next fall in Chicago, and I really can’t wait.  If there’s one place a passionate communicator can make a difference, it’s here.  And you don’t need a big budget to do it.

I’m humbled…and grateful

Thanks to all of you who engaged in the conversation on my last post regarding Great Places to Work. I learned a lot hearing from you, both those who responded publicly and those who contacted me 1:1. You really showed what participation and open dialogue are all about.

We have some things to fix here, but we have so much going for us. The passion I heard from you reminded me why I’m here – and not ready to give up on this place.

So my next blog will go onto another subject – bullies, this time. But as I see things happening here, I’ll keep writing about it.

Thank you again for your openness. Oh, and I did miss one country who made a GPTW list this year – South Korea. You guys rock!

Rejected! Great Places to Work

OK, I’m going to say what is obvious to anyone who picked up the February 4 Fortune magazine – Sun did not make it on the U.S. 100 Best Places to Work list.  And I was soooo disappointed.

Because I think Sun is a great place to work.  Unfortunately, some of our randomly selected survey takers didn’t agree with me.

For those of you who are not familiar with the coveted Great Places to Work (GPTW because I’m getting tired of typing) list, let me quickly fill you in.  You get your face on Fortune Magazine’s cover and fabulous publicity if you’re chosen as the number one place to work in the United States.  That honor has gone to Google for the past two years, curse them.   Not that I’m jealous.  Anyway, you get on the list -which is incredibly prestigious even if you’re number
100 (Joke:  What do you call the person who graduates first in class from medical school?  Answer:  Valedictorian.  What do you call the person who graduates last?  Answer: Doctor) by going through a grueling application process.  Two-thirds of your score is based on a survey that goes to a very small subset of your employee base – something like 400 people this past year.  No, we don’t get to choose who gets it.  No, it’s not statistically significant. Yes, those are the rules you must play by for the playing field to be even.

I’m now going to reveal a big corporate secret.  Reporters, take note!  Are you ready? While our application was fabulous, we were done in by some pretty poor survey results.   It seems that doing a series of reductions in force over the past five years has not contributed to warm, cozy feelings on the part of our survey takers.  Nor have other cutbacks we’ve been forced to make to stay in business made our participants feel particularly good. And let’s face it. Reductions cause not only insecurity for employees but very valid concerns about career opportunities. So I’m not kidding myself about their impact on employee morale.

As Bob Dylan said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Our wind is apparently darn cold and from the north, based on that survey. (In fairness, I have to tell you that our broad semi-annual  employee attitude survey – while pointing out some distinct areas for improvement – was far more positive than the GPTW survey.  I don’t know if that means that employees are drinking happy juice when completing our corporate survey…)

Here’s what’s ironic to me – of all the companies that I know of who have gone through extremely hard times, companies who have had to fight for their lives, Sun shines brightly in our determination to be as kind to employees going out as employees coming in.  We are, IMHO, a darn nice place to work.  And beyond that, we’re a place filled with interesting work and smart people.

Our turnaround – fought for by every single employee in this company – is showing results.  Analysts have good things to say about us.  Customers have good things to say about us.  Developers have good things to say about us.  Our press coverage has dramatically improved.  We’ve been public about what we’re going to accomplish and we’ve met those commitments.  We’ve stopped changing our strategy and focus on a too-frequent basis and are demonstrating “stick-to-itness.”

I’m proud of this company and of our leadership, but mostly I’m proud of our 33,000 employees who have done so much to keep us going.

Building on the momentum of success is easy. Rebounding after six bad years is extremely difficult.  I think maybe it’s time for a new award.  The “Tough as Nails Proud to be Relevant” award (TNPR).  Or the “Better than Ever Despite Hard Times” award (BEDHT).  Or the “Got Guts, Got Heart” award (GGGH).
Somewhere there needs to be recognition for those of us who have marched on a tough trail, teetered near disaster and recovered strongly albeit battle-scarred.

I miss so many great people who used to be a part of us.  Who through no fault of their own are no longer here.  So this award is for you, too.

Oh, and one last thought. How many companies would let you – never mind encourage you – to say what’s on your mind about sensitive subjects like getting dinged by your employees? As my friend and colleague Betty Verstegen said, “You don’t have to get on a list to be a great place to work.”

On Joining Sun

Today is Wincy Ip’s, my new program coordinator, third day at Sun. I know she thought we were stalking her because the instant we saw her resume…well, it was love at first read. We got the resume, called her instantly, did the phone interview, twisted her arm and got her into our office the next day for not one, not two but three interviews, checked her references the next day, and offered Wincy the job the following day.

Who says we can’t move fast??

So, WIncy’s first impressions….

Sun’s a big world, and you can definitely drown in all the new information. Even finding your way around our Menlo Park campus can be a challenge (no, it’s not just new people – our buildings are truly bewildering). And our intranet has so much information on it that it’s hard to know where to start.

On the other hand, she’s loving getting back to technology, and being able to put her knowledge of wikis, blogs, instant message and social forums back to work. And she’s thrilled to see Sun is fully in the Web 2.0 swing of things (yes, it was a selling point – not to just experience it but to help make it a reality for our entire employee population).

Joining a company is always a trip. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have joined three companies (Computer Sciences Corporation, Sheppard Associates, and Sun Microsystems) where it was an instant love connection. Right culture, right people, right challenge. I stayed at each of those firms at least five years (and still counting here at Sun), and left only with regret, thinking I would never again find such a great place to work.

I’ve had the opposite experience, of course. Companies that seemed great until I joined, when all the blah blah blah ended and reality set in. Two weeks at one, two years at another, four years at a third (still amazed I lasted as long as I did at the last). Honestly, why waste your time and your life at a place that you’re not happy (a recurrent theme for me)?

But back to Wincy. We have a brand new, peppy orientation program, so she was spared considerable agony (the remake of our new hire program was coined “atrocity reduction” by our very smart and very funny CLO, Karie Willyerd – you cannot imagine how dreadful it was). Generous spirits that we are, we even bought her lunch her first day at work. Then it was on to reality…

While I was off to a video shoot that featured cute children, their parents and pizza (yeah, I know. Poor me. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it), she was getting her first full afternoon of OJT. And let’s face it — that’s never pretty.

But she returned to work the next day, despite the downpour and bad traffic conditions. And I’m hoping her experience with Sun will be like mine – connecting to a great community of smart, great people who are passionate about what they do – and who have a good time doing it. Despite having to use an occasional terminal window to type in an actual command…

Thanksgiving a Little Early

Ahhh.  A clean page in front of me.  That’s a bit how I’m feeling right now – still caught up in the afterglow of time off but really enjoying being back at work.

Part of it is just beaming with pride over how much got down – and how beautifully it was done – during my absence.  My team? They rock!  It’s just that simple.  They got through earnings, crisis communication on wildfires, a major presentation at a professional conference, a high visibility communication opportunity with Jonathan, planning of offsites and  leadership meetings, and sensitive internal issues not for discussion here, all on top of the usual day-to-day stuff.  Which is nothing to sneeze at…  Good thing I come with a, well, shall we say healthy ego, or I might be looking over my shoulder, wondering if I was still needed!

Thanksgiving is two weeks away, so you’ll pardon me for getting a jump on what I’m grateful for today – and that is this team of professionals who work so hard on behalf of Sun.  And do it with grace and a great sense of humor.  Many, many thanks to each and everyone of you on my extended staff.  You do us proud!

A Thousand Conversations

So I suppose this is a bad thing for Sun’s head of employee communications to admit, but…

I hate company values communication campaigns. Too often, the campaigns feel contrived, celebrated with great chest beating, shouting how fabulous
we are.  The content can be trite – I mean really, does any company have values that don’t celebrate truth and justice? (see Divas, Liars and Thieves if you want to hear me continue the rant.) Ugly t-shirts, refrigerator magnets and paperweights engraved with “Our Company Values” complete the travesty.  Yuck.

And yet, I’m here to talk about Sun’s values.  Without balloons.  Without Lucite pyramids. Without smugness. Because I believe we’re doing this in the right way – articulating values that reflect who we are and who we want to be, and then tying the whole thing to performance management.

When Jonathan did his direct report reviews in August and September, he framed the conversations around the values that are near and dear to the core of this company.  And when he and his top management team reviewed high potentials and talked about succession planning, the dialogue centered as much on people’s character, as exemplified in the values, as in their accomplishments.

That’s putting your money where your mouth is. And it exemplified integrity, which happens to be one of our five values:

o  Courage
o  Integrity
o  Innovation
o  Collaboration
o  Pace

By the way, Sun’s reputation for courage, integrity and innovation brought me to this company almost five years ago.   At that time, collaboration was in scant evidence and pace a joke.  Since then, in my opinion, we’ve come a long way on collaboration, breaking down silos, truly putting all the wood behind one arrow. Pace?  Well, we’re not going to win any land speed records just yet but there’s recognition that we must do better in that area.  And as we all know, what is measured is what is done.  So putting the spotlight on pace can only help us.

Rather than bringing in the elephants and dancing girls to celebrate our values, let’s do something a tad more meaningful.  Let’s talk about them.  Talk to your co-workers, talk to your employees, talk to your managers about them.  We’re all going to assessed on how we lived them this year – they are that important.  Let a thousand conversations begin, and let those spur another thousand, and another thousand, and then perhaps another thousand. Let’s get clear on what these values mean to us as an organization, what they mean in our workgroups, and as leaders and employees in the company. In the end, how we hold ourselves and others accountable for living these values is what will make a difference.

For more on our values, you can listen to Bill MacGowan, our chief human resources officer, talk about them here.