June 16, 2020

Total Performance Leadership Blog Post #20: Stakeholder Engagement-Conversations

By Rob Andrews

This has been the strangest year of my life. Our firm has had a year full of organizational change, most of which have been incredibly positive. We have new leadership, a renewed sense of purpose and momentum for which I am truly grateful. In mid-February, it looked like we were off to the races, and then came the pandemic. By May 25th, it looked as though we might have weathered the worst of the coronavirus and things started the slow return to normal. Then came the horrific, senseless, and shocking murder of George Floyd.

This last Wednesday, June 10th, we had our bi-monthly meeting we call All Hands on Deck. We’ve got folks scattered all over the world so half of us attended by video. We decided to take a moment to take the group’s temperature about the protests, riots, funeral, and current state of racial unrest around the world. The meeting quickly morphed into a conversation that was emotional, raw, gut-wrenching, and also cleansing.

Having thought of myself as highly evolved and enlightened, because of the significant time I’ve spent in Black, Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic communities over many years, and because I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body, I am now embarrassed to realize that our country has not made as much progress as I had been telling myself. I have long refused to associate with bigots, be in conversations in which any form of racial disrespect exists, and have tried to practice and promote racial diversity and equality. In 1972, I graduated from a 4,000-student high school that was all white. In 2007 and 2012, my daughters both graduated from a large high school in which the student body was extremely diverse. The only thing my daughters notice in terms of diversity is the lack thereof. When I moved to Houston in 1961, the city was mostly white and completely segregated. Today, Houston is the most diverse city in the nation and, as far as I know, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Europeans are welcome to live in whatever neighborhood they choose.

The problem of course is that my perspective was, and is, woefully incomplete. Our firm is fairly diverse. We’re 55% female, 14% Black, and 10% Hispanic. We pride ourselves on diversity of race, creed, color, thought, gender, political and sexual orientation, and generation. So, it’s easy for me to convince myself that all is well from a race relations standpoint, which is just not so. In our meeting this week, I heard horror stories from one of our African American partners that she receives calls from Black men who have been stopped by police officers as a safety precaution “just in case” something unexpected happens and they don’t make it home. That is lunacy. That same partner and I had a conversation yesterday and talked about what we could do as a firm to make the world a better place. This problem is so big and so pervasive, I questioned whether or not we could make any difference at all. My partner said one of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard: “It starts with a conversation.”

And so there you have it. It starts with a conversation. Let’s start one. I spent a couple of hours googling how to start a meaningful conversation around an important topic and discovered the Cluetrain manifesto in one of my favorite books, Firms of Endearment. The manifesto contains 95 “theses”, some of which are more salient than others. It begins by stating that online networked markets, which is where we have many of our conversations these days, are organizing faster than the companies who serve them. Markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.

The manifesto contains much wisdom that we can harness to begin and further this important topic. It begins asserting that markets are conversations, consist of people, and are not just demographic sectors. Conversations among human beings sound human and have a real and human voice; open, natural, and uncontrived, and enable people to speak to one another in a very powerful way. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally and provides far better information and support than depending on vendors or listening to corporate rhetoric trying to add value to commoditized products.

There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone. Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies often sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman. To communicate effectively in a networked conversation requires a bit of humor, practicing values, humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view. Companies trying to “position themselves need to take a position. If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.

Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what’s really going on inside the company. Brand loyalty is the corporate version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart markets are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed. Smart markets will find suppliers who speak their own language. Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can’t be picked up at a conference; rather you must share the concerns of your stakeholders.

If your corporate culture ends before your stakeholder community begins, you will have no market. Human communities are based on discourse, on human speech and real concerns. The community of discourse is the market. As with networked markets, people are also talking to each other directly inside the company, and not just about rules and regulations, boardroom directives, bottom lines.

Such conversations are taking place today on corporate intranets. But only when the conditions are right. Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore. Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranet worked corporate conversation.

When corporate intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked marketplace. Paranoia kills conversation. That’s its point. But a lack of open conversation kills companies. There are two conversations going on. One inside the company. One with the market. In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.

These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognize each other’s voices. Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner. If willingness to get out of the way is taken as a measure of IQ, then very few companies have yet wised up.

However subliminally at the moment, millions of people now online perceive companies as little more than quaint legal fictions that are actively preventing these conversations from intersecting. This is suicidal. Markets want to talk to companies. They want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.

So, we don’t have all the answers. But we do care. And we do sincerely want to make a difference. So let’s start a conversation that never ends.