Company ambassadors to fellow employees is a different challenge than brand ambassador programs2013-03-06
During my presentation yesterday on employee ambassador programs, several people asked if I was planning to address ambassador programs for internal purposes.
I wasn’t. Like most people, when I think of ambassador programs, I think of tapping into the population of engaged employees to turbocharge marketing, increase engagement with customers and bolster the company’s reputation.
In my hotel room last night, I searched for references to internally-focused ambassador programs. And searched. And searched some more. And I came up with nothing.
I also took a trip down client memory lane for instances in which I was asked to help develop a corps of employees advocating among their co-workers on behalf of company priorities, strategies, values or initiatives. Not only couldn’t I recall one in the 17 years I’ve been consulting on my own, I couldn’t even remember a company that had such a program.
This doesn’t mean nobody’s doing it or that it can’t be done. It’s not as easy as getting employees to tell their family and friends about their jobs, their pride in their employers’ corporate social responsibility achievements, or the exciting new product the company has launched. The risk of being an ambassador to your co-workers is being viewed as some kind of corporate shill, a rah-rah goody-good who has forsaken critical thinking to buy into every company message hook, line and sinker.
Internal communicators can avoid this syndrome. The trick is to approach it from a completely different angle. Seeking groups of highly engaged employees works great for external ambassadors. Internally, those who aren’t engaged might be more inclined to roll their eyes at the enthusiasm of the highly engaged, thinking to themselves, “Wow, that guy has sure drunk the Kool-Aid.”
Here are two real-world approaches from my experience over the last 35-plus years, approaches that worked, plus one no-brainer.
An Ongoing Program: Communications Councils
While I’d love to take credit for this idea, the truth is that I heard about the concept from a speaker at a conference more than 25 years ago. I made some adjustments to accommodate the culture at my employer at the time—I was running internal communications for Mattel, Inc.—and launched what turned out to be a remarkably popular program.
The idea was for every department to send a representative to a monthly meeting with the top leaders of the company. Rather than select the most actively engaged employee, we asked departments to rotate through their staff, designating a new representative every three months.
A few days before the meeting, we reminded representatives that it was upcoming and asked them to query their co-workers about any issues or questions they wanted raised at the Council.
The first 10 minutes of the session (after lunch was served; food is a great driver of attendance) was given over to any announcements the C-suite wanted to make. The rest was give-and-take between department reps and the company’s senior leaders. The topics ranged wildly, from parking problems to challenges to company strategy. I was struck at every session by the number of answers that came not from the leaders on stage but from other department reps. (These days, internal social media can also facilitate that rapid discovery of who knows the answer to your question.)
At the end of the meeting, we produced a Q&A document that we distributed to all the reps to share with their staffs. Our research showed that employees were better informed and more satisfied with leadership as a result of the meetings.
The ambassadors in this case, of course, are the reps that are designated for three-month terms. This program, by the way, goes back to 1985 or so, but is equally valid today. Sure, we have intranets and videoconferences and social channels, but nothing beats face-to-face for everything from engagement around troubling issues to building stronger connections between front-line staff and the company’s top executives.
(Coincidentally, as I compose this post while at the Ragan summit, I’m listening to Heather Maley, senior manager of internal communications at Cintas, talk about how her short-term communications panel—part of a research effort—was made up of employees nominated by their managers.)
Short-Term Programs: Internal Peer Influencers
Among the networks you can map in an organization, one of the most neglected is peer-influence networks. Our peers are the people of equal standing we work and interact with at on the job. “Equal standing” could mean people employed at the same level, people of the same age or gender, or any other dimension that puts you in the same group of co-workers.
Peers groups can be powerful change tools. In a Harvard Business Review blog post, Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan note:
Peer to peer interactions may be the single most neglected lever of change. When enlisted, they are change’s most powerful ally; when resisted, they are its most stubborn foe. Peers in large organizations are invaluable in spreading behavior change across an enterprise. In that respect, they constitute a woefully underused set of resources, mostly accessible within the “informal elements” of our organizations.
Among peers, however, there are those who are particularly influential. Whenever a change is announced, other employees ask these employees what they think of the change. Their views shape the opinions of entire groups of employees. You can identify these influencers and even map their relationships to their peers and tap into them to help communicate major changes and key initiatives.
In the early 1990s, while working for a global HR consulting firm, a client was making a dramatic change to its compensation program, a change that was sure to create a lot of resistance, anger and confusion. After developing the communication plan, we gathered peer influencers in a room. Of course, they couldn’t look at one another and say, “Hey, wait a minute. We’re all peer influencers!” And we didn’t identify them as such. We told them they were random representatives with whom we wanted to test our communications.
We outlined the reasons for the compensation change, then showed them the communication plan and asked for feedback. We were told what would and wouldn’t work, what needed tweaking and what needed revision. We implemented every suggestion, even if we didn’t like it. We effectively made this group of peer influencers the owners of the communication plan.
When the change was announced, we encountered barely a ripple of protest, largely because peer influencers universally supported the change.
I would never suggest that deceiving peer influencers about what you’d like from them is always a great idea, but the results we got demonstrates the power of peer influencers.
The No-Brainer: Internal Social Media
If you’re looking for employees to support change or other internal initiatives, the easiest answer is simply employing internal social technology. Enthusiastic employees can share content with peers if content-sharing is enabled. They can comment on why they’re enthusiastic if commenting is enabled. They can give articles, videos and other content five stars if ratings are enabled. All these actions are not only visible, but elevate the visibility, inspire more conversation and help spread the word.
How About You?
What kind of internal ambassador programs have you been involved with? It would be great to list several examples of focused efforts to build internal advocates in support of business goals, priorities, strategies and initiatives.