Still Here, Still Kicking

A year ago, I nonchalantly went in for my annual mammogram. A year ago, I learned I had breast cancer. A year ago, I learned how scary those two words are.

Today, following surgery and radiation therapy (and unbelievably wonderful support from all of you), I’m celebrating 11 months of being cancer free. Caught early, I was one of the lucky ones. I’m perfectly fine today. Perfect, really. Because I got my regular mammogram and had access to excellent health care.

Yeah, maybe I’m not quite as gorgeous as I was before, but such a small price to pay for being able to watch our children flourish and our grandchildren grow up.

So just a short blog to say thank you to all of you for your kindness and support – and to remind my girlfriends: Don’t forget to get your mammogram!

thank you

XOXO to all of you.


When Bad News Comes Knockin’ at Your Door

wolf at the door

You know all the signs. Conference rooms are booked. Doors are shut. Quiet conversations cease when someone comes near. Then the suspense is over: you get the call – come meet with the management team; an announcement is near.

Whether the news is layoffs, your company’s been sold, or benefits are being cut, you already know what the next few weeks are going to be like – grinding, stressful, busy, and just plain no fun.

A good chunk of your plan is business as usual. Bring the team together, sign non-disclosure agreements, craft the key messages, segment your audiences, identify your stakeholders and nail down a tight schedule.

But breaking the news to employees? That’s never business as usual.

Because no matter how good your plan is, if you can’t manage the employee reaction, you’re not going to succeed.

Managing Management

Before we even get to employees, let’s talk about a couple of pitfalls to avoid with senior management.

Pitfall #1: Senior management underestimates the time it takes to absorb the information. This group has been talking about and planning for the change for weeks, if not months. While there may be full appreciation of the shock employees will experience, they may underestimate how hard it is for employees to grasp the facts. Result? Impatience with employees asking a lot of questions. And that impatience will come off as management not caring about employees.

Pitfall #2: Senior management has unrealistic expectations for a successful rollout. No one ever thanks you for changing the game on them. While senior management may see some positives in the changes that are coming, employees likely will see none – they’ll just see takeaways.

Never has this been more brilliantly portrayed than in the original British series, The Office. David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, has an announcement to make:

“The Office: Judgement (#1.6)” (2001)

David Brent:

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if you wanna stay. I know, gutting. On a more positive note, the good news is, I’ve been promoted, so… every cloud. (sobs of workers fill the room) You’re still thinking about the bad news aren’t you?

David Brent

Part of our job is to prepare senior management for employee reactions – let them know what to expect. Helping them to understand that a successful outcome may simply be that employees accept the change and move on will make your job much easier and less stressful.

Managing Your Communicators

 Sad news. You are not the most influential communicator during tough times. Nor is your team. Nor is your CEO. Nope, the most influential communicators are your supervisors, managers, and human resources. These are the folks who are going to be hit with all the questions, and these are the folks who will shape the reaction of employees by how they react.

So we need to help them help us. Here’s how.

Human Resources

HR plays an important role in any change the organization goes through. While these folks are pros at handling tough situations, even they get nervous about dealing with angry, confused employees.

One approach that works well is to invest in training of the HR team – and to do so in stages, tying the training to anticipated employee reaction. For example, let’s say you’re announcing outsourcing, resulting in layoffs.

The employee reaction curve looks something like this:

Employee reaction

You can help soften that reaction by providing tools and training at critical points. For example, prepare HR before the announcement goes out. Then have HR prepare managers, who are on the frontline with employees. When details are ready, have HR and managers prepared again, ready to answer questions and manage reactions.

Why wouldn’t you want to do this?

OK, there’s a risk that word may get out.  So have HR sign non-disclosure agreements and then train them properly. Give managers a heads-up but do it just the day before the announcement. This will limit the rumor mill.

If your organization is publically traded and you’re announcing a material change (one that could affect the price of your stock), you can’t tell anyone before you announce it externally. That may mean that without non-disclosure agreements, you must stay silent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t immediately get support material out to your managers when the announcement is made.

Tools and Training

Few people are as motivated to learn as those who know they’ll have to answer questions and explain an unpopular decision to a bunch of anxious and angry employees. Take advantage of this and put together a powerful training session to help them cope.

A good training session should:

  • Provide a clear, concise description of the planned change – explained in a conversational, straightforward manner. This must be jargon-free zone.
  • Train participants on how to handle difficult questions. Provide practical tips that are easy to remember and follow.
  • Create a list of those tough questions (best practice: have the participants brainstorm the list of questions that scare them the most) and then, as a group, brainstorm the answer.
  • If formal employee meetings are in the plan, role-play the meeting for them. Ask them to act like their employees will, and ask you difficult, emotional questions so they can see how you’d handle them.
  • At the end of the role-play, ask for a critique on how you did – how did they feel, did they believe you, what was their reaction?

A good toolkit should include:

  • No more than five key messages
  • Speaking points
  • FAQs
  • A meeting kit, if holding formal meetings (versus more informal Q&A sessions) is a requirement

Setting Expectations

HR and managers need to know what you expect of them – and what you don’t expect of them. For example:

It’s not their job to make employees happy about the change. It is their job to let employees know the facts so employees can make up their own minds.

It’s not their job to know every detail of the change. It is their job to know why the change, what the change is on a high level, and what will happen as a result of the change – these should be contained in your five key messages.

It’s not their job to answer every question on the change. It is their job to handle questions in a calm, professional and objective fashion, not adding fuel to the fire. And not knowing the answer is perfectly acceptable – “I don’t know” is an honest answer.

Image Stays

In the end, how articulate managers and HR are at answering questions is not as important as how they interact with employees. We tend to forget words but remember image – confidence, aggressiveness, sympathy, impatience all shape our impressions.

Helping our communicators help us means making them into ambassadors who empathize, listen, and try their best to answer questions. And you’ll be hero for making it happen.

(Like this post? You can find loads of interesting original blog posts at Baker Brands including – ahem – this one! Lots of smart people there with cool perspectives. Check it out!)

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!”

Best Friends

Dogs don’t live long enough. Period. We give our hearts to them – and they give theirs to us – and then they leave us all too soon.


We came home from a wonderful trip to the Baltic to find our beloved Boo staggering around the house, unable to walk without falling. As I tearfully hugged her, I asked Scott if he thought she’d had a stroke. When we made it as far as the kitchen, we found the answer in a stack of papers from the vet – our girl had geriatric vestibular disease – a sudden disorder of her balance system. She became quite ill on Monday and our wonderful house sitter had the sense to take her to the vet immediately.

So that was the bad news. After talking with the vet today. I feel somewhat better. This is something that just happens to old dogs, and it usually clears up within a month. She’ll never have her old sense of balance back, but the vet assured me that she would figure out how to deal with it.

We’ll have our best furry friend around for awhile longer, but this close brush with the end made me so sad. Boo is so much a part of our lives, our family, our hearts. I had to imagine yesterday what life would be like without her, and I didn’t like it one little bit.

Lost a Step or Two Along the Way

It’s been quite an eight months. Carolyn, Juan Carlos and our grandchildren returned to Santiago, Chile.  Fought and won a quick war with breast cancer. Lived through two and half months of construction, as a leak turned our house into a disaster zone for way too long. Took on an intense assignment for a San Francisco client that was a lot of fun – and a lot of work. Then got an even more intense assignment with a Southern California client that has had me running non-stop for three months and will do so for the foreseeable future. And finally, since nothing much else was going on, we decided to demo the kitchen and start over from scratch.

I’ve managed to juggle it all, but for one thing – walking five miles a day  become just impossible, or so it seems.

Two weeks ago, the battery on my FitBit died, and I couldn’t find the stupid little recharger that comes with the One. I tossed the FitBit into my nightstand and ordered a new recharger. Which is on back order until May 13. The final excuse to be a lump had fortuitously arrived.


Except that I find myself anxious and prone to depression. Not to mention chubby. Walking 5 miles a day, it turns out, is a pretty good treatment for whatever ails you. So rather than upping my Zoloft, I bit the bullet and order a new FitBit – just for the recharger. Extravagant, yes, but I decided that waiting another two weeks to get back to a good routine was too long. And yes, thank you, I am that neurotic that exercise doesn’t count unless I can measure it and strive to meet a goal.

I’m no less busy and my life is no less crazed. But with the motivation of knowing that I don’t want to look at the FitBit at the end of the day and see that I’ve taken exactly 45 steps, I think I can start to get healthy again. One step at a time.


Among my communication friends, the whole Yahoo “work from home” “don’t work from home” debacle has been the subject of loads of speculation. A lot of us were highly critical of the move; a lot of us were very supportive of the move.

But no one, not one person, thought it was well communicated. And the whole disaster reminded me of what I’ve preached for years – that communicators are risk managers, change agents, advisors, who can add tremendous value to their companies when they have earned the respect of the leadership.

Here are my thoughts on the subject, recently published on the website of Baker Brands, a Santa Monica-based design and branding consultancy:

The Changing World of Employee Communication

Common Sensa

before after

If there’s a diet designed for suckers, I’ve fallen for it. Cabbage soup? What a fabulous idea! South Beach? Yup, done it. (Lost 30 pounds on that one, which is kind of amazing because the complete lack of whole grains and dependence on protein made for a seriously constipating experience. Oh, and I gained the weight back once I returned to eating normal food.) I’m embarrassed to admit that I even tried the Shangri La diet – for one day (This one swore that if you swallowed a teaspoon of olive oil in the morning, you wouldn’t be hungry all day. Which was true, because I was nauseous for 12 straight hours.). Tried Jenny Craig but couldn’t stand talking to the saccharine sweet “weight advisor” once a week. Tried NutraSystems but my freezer wasn’t big enough to store 30 days worth of frozen meals that tasted suspiciously like cardboard. And yes, I’m on and off Weight Watchers but hate to clock the points for those two glasses of wine every night.


Hey! Stop rolling your eyes! I can see you!  And I know what I’m doing wrong. Including those two glasses of wine at night. Which I don’t want to give up (and have no intention of doing – life is tough enough without skipping wine).

I also know what I’m doing right – tons of exercise, don’t eat dessert, always eat breakfast, don’t drink soda. So I’m not a complete loser. And in fact, took off 15 pounds three years ago and have kept it off. But I’d love to lose another 15.

So I’m back to searching for the silver bullet – the plan that will let me eat and drink just as I’m doing today but will help me shed weight. Because you know? I’m not into sacrifice right now.

And then, as if Facebook’s magic genies were reading my mind, up popped a series of ads for Sensa on my home page. Yes, Sensa, the latest miracle cure for us fatties. I resisted for a few days, but my resistance was down. (One of the many unpleasant aspects of having cancer is going to the doctor constantly – and being forced to get weighed with every visit…””Hmmm, very good, Mrs. McKenzie, you haven’t gained any weight. But your BMI is still over 27….”) So I clicked on the link…

And there it was. The miracle diet to beat all miracle diets. And, best of all, it involves magic powder! All you do is sprinkle the magic on your food and after a few bites, you’re full. You can eat whatever you want, but Sensa powder gives you instant portion control. Instead of scarfing down the entire turkey burger, you’ll have a few bites, put the burger down, yawn casually, and say, “Oh my. I don’t think I can eat one more bite. I’m sooooo full.”

Sign me up! I was about to click “Yes! I want to try Sensa for free and with absolutely no risk!” when my finger hesitated. Was this perhaps too good to be true? So I typed “Is Sensa a big fat fraud?” into my browser. I was immediately swept to Amazon customer reviews where I learned the following:

  1. Yes. It’s a big fraud.
  2. The magic powder makes your food taste so vile that of course you stop eating it. You could accomplish the same thing by making yourself a dung burger instead of a turkey burger. After one sniff, you won’t be the least big hungry anymore.
  3. Once you click on the free trial, Sensa will be in your life forever. Just try unsubscribing or quitting the program – once Sensa has their lethal claws in your bountiful flesh, they won’t be leaving without a fight.

Damn. I was so sure I had found the solution. If you’ll excuse me for a minute, I think I need a glass of medicinal Pinot Noir to get myself over this severe shock…