I had a wonderful reunion Wednesday with one of my communication inspirations, John Onoda, who taught me how much a communicator with courage and brains can accomplish. Which, of course, reminded me of the most disappointing period in my career, a year-long attempt to fashion myself into a communication consultant. I chronicled that time in this essay, published in the May/June, 2003 issue of the Journal of Employee Communication Management. Because I think some of my readers will relate to some of the stories contained here, I reproduce it here with gracious permission from Ragan Communications. —DM
The other day I got a call from a friend in the business. He wants to leave his job as a communication director and get into employee-communication consulting.
Like so many mid-career corporate types, he sees consulting as a chance to be more creative, applying his employee-communication knowledge to many different companies. In his mind, every consulting relationship is like the honeymoon period in a new job: The client has admitted it needs help, it has chosen you to provide that help, and since it is paying you and your firm big bugs to render that help, the client will presumably listen to what you have to say.
I know this line of thinking well. It's the same notion I myself carried into a job as an employee-communication consultant several years ago.
Based on that experience, I told my friend: If you're sick of your corporate job, get another corporate job. Do not go into consulting. You will not like it, and you will not be good at it.
I would say the same thing to any other employee communicators who take pride in doing quality work, in seeing projects through to the end, in rendering advice and service that actually helps management and employees alike.
I may have hurt my friend's feelings. I may have wounded his pride, the way mine was wounded, when I decided to quit the consultant job and try a career as a freelance writer [in the spring of 2000]. At that time, my boss wished me the best and said, in passing, "Yeah, you were probably not cut out to be a consultant anyway."
I wish the public relations guru I'd gone to a year before for career advice had told me that when I asked him whether I should be a consultant or a writer. The wise man said consulting was a much more rewarding job than writing, because you're actually engaging in an enterprise rather than simply writing about others who are. HIs advice was thoughtful, sincere and generous—based on his own experience advising CEOs at top organizations. It couldn't have been more wrong for me and, chances are, it couldn't be more wrong for you.
Why? The answer boils down to two impossibly opposed truths: 1. Communications clients want to hear that the problem is not with them, but with management. 2. Most communicators don't have enough influence with management to get management to significantly change its behavior.
Of course, if either of these ideas were not true, consultants could do a lot of good. No matter how little power they have to change the organization as a whole, communicators who see the need to change themselves or their departments could learn a lot from a good consultant. Conversely, no matter how dysfunctional the actual communication department, consultants could make a big difference by getting top management to understand and follow some of the basic tenets of good employee relations.
But it was my experience—and my limited experience, I admit—that most of the time, both of those options were tightly shut. Therefore, I'm afraid I did very little good in my year as a consultant. I left the job hoping only that I also did little harm.
Why don't employee communications people want to see the problem as their own?
Because they assume the serious problems—employee dissatisfaction, management's frustration with low productivity—don't lie within the cubicles of the employee communication department.
And you know what? They are absolutely right, and we'll get to that in a moment.
But the fact remains, most employee communication departments do have serious internal problems to solve. One of my consulting colleagues used to compare communication department to the ironically dog-eat-dog world of children's publishing. On the way out of cities in airport bars, he liked to lean back and say, "The best part of this job is the gratitude you feel when you see all these hideous departments that you don't have to actually work in."
Not that communication departments are any more dysfunctional than other staff functions in organizations; they've got the same problems any department has: backbiting, poorly defined missions, bad bosses, bad workers and bad results.
When a communication department hires a consultant, sometimes the ostensible reason is to solve these types of problems. However, my dear consultant, beware: Nobody in the department really wants to do what's necessary to solve these problems.
Several cloaked examples from my short, unhappy life as an employee communication consultant:
• We went to work for a hospital. We were doing the standard employee communication consulting job: surveys and focus groups with employees, which would yield results that we would eventually share with the communicators and management.
A small part of this job included an expert analysis of the employee communication media the hospital currently put out. I was that expert, and my main job was to write a report on the general strength of these publications as communication tools.
I might have actually gasped when I got my first look at the main employee newsletter. It was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen. You didn't have to read a single article to tell how bad it was. The photos, all grip-and-grin shots, were muddy and brown, one front-page effort actually showing an employee's back in the foreground. The headlines had multiple acronyms and no verbs: "CHFLA a proactive DDM for ACI." Babies, bowling scores, job anniversaries, stilted executives' columns with headlines like, "From the Corner Office." The newsletter was bad right down to the paper it was printed on.
The publication was 30 years behind the times, but the editor was young, energetic, and presumably teachable. I spent two days searching the publication for a few good things to say, and plumbing my vocabulary—indeed, my very soul—for diplomatic ways to speak of the infinite negative aspects of the publication.
Writing that report was an agonizing exercise. I ran it past my colleagues, begging them to help me make it more palatable. But they'd seen the publication too. The knew I'd done the best I could. We sent the report to the communication manager via e-mail. She made no reply, until the next time we visited the headquarters. Then, she screamed at me for 20 straight minutes about how "dangerous" the report was, how she was terrified "even to have it in the e-mail system."
My choices were to flip the table and cost my company a $100,000 consulting relationship, or do what I did: sit and take this until, upon finally reaching the parking lot, shocking tears of humiliation streamed from my eyes.
A worst-case scenario? It was certainly the worst thing that happened to me as a consultant. Much more common were the things that happened to others as a result of communication managers' ultimate unwillingness to look at themselves.
One of our most extensive engagements was with a grocery-store chain. It didn't take us long to figure out that there were big problems in this communication department. The communication manager confided to us that she thought her employees were essentially ne'er-do-wells who didn't understand the first thing about modern communication methods. Furthermore, they were lazy scoundrels who did the very least bit of work they could get away with.
Then we talked to the communication staffers themselves. They told us the boss was a "psycho," that she played mind games with them all the time and furthermore, knew next to nothing about employee communication. One employee called her "pure evil," and all agreed that her only skill was sucking up to the CEO.
To some extent, both parties were right. We probably should have washed our hands of the entire matter. But there was money to be made and we talked ourselves into the idea that we could actually help ameliorate the problems.
We made various recommendations—mostly to the boss, of course, who was signing the checks: We said we'd teach the staff everything they needed to know about excellent employee communication practices. We'd help them move from competent but timid print and video producers to strategic communication partners to the CEO and other various departments and business units.
We'd give them a chance to become better communicators, and if they didn't take to this training, we'd recommend that the communication manager let them go and replace them with her own hand-picked staff.
In the end, they didn't and she didn't. (Often, I found, communication managers think they're fed up with lousy staffers they've either inherited or mistakenly hired, but really, the manager sees the employees more as his or her naughty children, and so recommending a firing is akin to telling a mother to put her children up for adoption. Managers should care about the strategic ends of the company more than protecting their employees, you say? For better or worse, they usually don't; communication staffers are rarely fired over performance issues.)
Of course, the grocery chain's dysfunctional communication department wasn't the main problem at the company, so ultimately, we tried to focus our efforts on the bigger picture. That didn't work either.
Why don't communicators have the influence to address the biggest problems in their organizations?
Well, that's a tiresome question, isn't it? Tiresome because it's old. And in some organizations, it's actually out of date. In some organizations, communicators do solve big problems. But not in the ones we consulted with.
The worst thing about being an employee communication consultant is discovering that an organization is so fundamentally awful that nothing you can do will fix it.
I was running a focus group at a nuclear power plant. I called roll, and everyone was present, so I began the session. Five minutes in, a man walked in and sat down in the back.
"Sir?" I said. "What is your name? I think everybody who's supposed to be here is here ...."
"Don't worry about it. I'm the supervisor. Go ahead," he said.
Obviously, the whole point of focus groups is to get employees' honest opinions about the organization, and allowing their supervisor to be present is a standard no-no. I explained this to him. He wasn't impressed.
"Don't worry about it," he repeated truculently. "Go ahead."
All eyes were on me. I had no choice but to say that I couldn't continue the session as long as he was in the room. He stormed out and slammed the door behind him. The entire room broke into applause.
Now, how in the hell is some employee communication recommendation I would make going to cure a corporate culture as sick as that?
I got the same sinking feeling when I did a series of focus groups with employees of a major retail chain. In separate focus groups, workers and store managers all told me the same thing: They were terribly stressed out, underpaid and unhappy. They received every employee communication correspondence from HQ—and they got lots of it from the well-meaning and super-intelligent communicators—as yet another damned thing to fit into their impossibly busy days. They tossed out the newsletter, deleted the all-employee voice mails and never looked at the intranet. Their recommendation boiled down to: no more communication from HQ. "We don't have any time for it," they said.
Ooookay. I'll just go ahead and tell the communication professionals. I'm sure they can use the break, too.
At another company—a franchise organization—our task was well-defined: Write the employee newsletter. Which we did, except the approval process was so hideous that the four-page monthly became a quarterly and then ceased publication after only two issues. Every time we'd be ready to go to press, the in-hosue communicator managing the process would have to check one more time with "the guys"—that's how he referred to top management at this corporate dinosaur—to make sure the articles were still current. Of course, they never were and we'd have to update them and go back to the guys again.
One of the major problems with approvals had to do with a "how we're doing" financial feature, where we'd share basic sales and profit figures. The in-house communicator could never get straight answers from the CFO about what the sales and profits actually were.
A couple years later, "the guys" announced to the world that they had understated the company's liabilities by millions, and a new kind of consultant moved in—the Securities & Exchange Commission.
But the grocery chain was the client that convinced me once and for all to get out of this business. Having more or less given up our efforts to soothe the problems in the communication department, we began to conduct focus groups at the organization's most prized store—a high-end supermarket near the company headquarters.
I'll never forget the experience. Walking through the store as a customer on breaks between focus groups, I found the employees incredibly cheerful, helpful and competent. It was truly a great grocery store, beautifully designed and with an amazing selection of fresh foods. And far from the rancor in the employee-communication department, the store employees seemed to have an intense ownership of their sections and deep knowledge of the food they sold. The place seemed like a piece of heaven.
But close the door in the upstairs office where we held the focus groups, and look out. Venom poured from these people. Some of the complaints were similar to the other retail chain—too much work to do, too little time, and no time at all for employee communication "stuff," as they usually called it, politely. Also, the workers felt they were forced to smile in the face of humiliation by mean and bitchy customers from the rich neighborhood that surrounded the store.
At some point as a consultant, you learn to listen to these focus groups only for problems you can actually solve, and in the course of these particular groups, I though I heard one such problem.
To wit: Because the store was sort of the company's flagship, and because it was located so close to the HQ, the CEO came in every afternoon to check on things, and usually to try out new merchandising ideas. The CEO—trailed by various vice presidents, who employees suspected weren't nearly as sincerely interested in the store as the boss—was forever asking the employees to change this display, rearrange that section, create a special promotion. The CEO's hands-on approach was admirable, but the fact that it happened every day in the same store was clearly excessive. "We don't have time to do our jobs," the employees complained—again, from managers to front-line workers.
This seemed easy enough to solve. Our recommendation was that the CEO cut back his daily visits to this store to weekly, or perhaps twice a week. If he wanted to visit a store every day, he and his colleagues could fan out a bit and cover some of the many stores in the surrounding community, and give their star workers a break.
But of course, we didn't have direct access to the CEO. We had to go through the communication manager.
"That will never fly," she said. "We can't tell him that." We argued, but no no avail. And with that, the one reasonable, practical recommendation that came out of all these time-consuming and expensive focus groups was dropped.
So in the end, despite months and months of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars in billing, I'm afraid we didn't help the company, we didn't help the employees and we didn't even help the communicators.
A depressing tale, to be sure. My experience as a consultant was so depressing to me, in fact, that it drove me to tears once again. One night after many drinks, I broke down in sobs and declared I was giving up and going back to writing. I didn't know how I would accomplish this, and I didn't much care.
It strikes me that maybe I had a particularly bad experience. Certainly, the consulting firm I worked with dealt with clients at too low an organizational level to make significant changes. And perhaps I lacked some of the skills and political know-how that the best consultants use to make change even in the most hidebound organizations. And maybe, too, I was naive about how much consultants can expect to accomplish.
I hope that consultants who believe in what they do—and it is these people who I look hard in the eye when they talk about what they've accomplished, wondering whether they know something that I don't—will write letters explaining where I went wrong, how my experience isn't typical, or why they manage to do more good than I did in my single year in the business.
But as for me, I'm back doing what I love and what I know I can do well. And as for my boss, who said I wasn't a good consultant anyway, his remarks stung at the time, but the more time passes, the more I hear it as the compliment I hope he intended it to be.