There are times when the universe converges in some of the oddest coincidences. It happened one day last week when two members of the original Jefferson Airplane lineup died on the same day. Most people familiar with what my teenaged daughter would call Classic Rock know the name Paul Kantner and his role in co-founding the band, Jefferson Airplane. As reported in his New York Times (NYT) obituary, “seen as the intellectual spokesman for the group, with an ideology reflected in his songs, that combined anarchic politics, an enthusiasm for mind-expansion through LSD and science-fiction utopianism.” Kantner wrote some of their top songs, including Today, Young Girl Sunday Blues and my personal favorite (Woodstock version) Volunteers. He also wrote Wooden Ships with Stephen Stills and David Crosby, which described a group of people escaping a postapocalyptic society to create its own freedom in a time and place unknown.
The second founding member of Airplane is much less well known. Signe Toly Anderson was the original female vocalist for Jefferson Airplane. As reported in Consequence of Sound, an online publication, Anderson joined Jefferson Airplane shortly after their formation in 1965 and sang on their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. She left the band following the birth of her first child, due to an unwillingness to tour. Grace Slick replaced her and the Airplane had their classic lineup in place. In a statement another Airplane co-founder, Marty Balin said, “One sweet Lady has passed on. I imagine that she and Paul woke up in heaven and said ‘Hey what are you doing here? Let’s start a band’.”
While I did not purchase all the Airplane studio albums and listen to them as I did when The Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey died last month, I did purchase a couple and grooved out to them over the weekend. One of the clear things expressed to me was the evocative song writing, in a word communication. I have been thinking about communication in compliance programs, specifically around hotlines since I read an article in the most recent edition of Harvard Business Review (HBR) by James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris, entitled “Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?” One of the key points from the article was the need to focus on communications throughout your organization; both up and down the line.
They stated the problem, as they saw it, was that while leaders try “to make it easier for employees to share ideas and concerns-they usually end up doing the opposite.” They cited two key reasons: (1) fear of retaliation and (2) lack of responsiveness. They provided a list of several programs and policies that a company could implement which they believed might address these shortcomings. I found their list useful for a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner to consider in not only their whistleblower program but as greater communications enhancements in any company.
Make feedback a regular, casual exchange
This means get out and meet with the troops. The authors suggest, “Schedule regular meetings with your employees, and don’t cancel every time you don’t have an agenda. In fact, you might occasionally announce that the top item on the agenda will be employee feedback. Tell people in advance what sort of conversation you’ll be having (a brainstorming meeting, for instance, or a planning session), and explain the kinds of problems or possibilities you want to discuss.” Equally important is that you actually implement an appropriate suggestion from such meetings, i.e. bonus points giving credit to the employee who suggested it.
For a CCO or compliance practitioner, one of the most important things you bring to any employee interaction is credibility. Part of this credibility is in being transparent. The authors suggested a transparent timetable for triage, implementation and feedback. They noted, “Spelling out guidelines and commitments up front made contributing feel less daunting and futile to employees.”
This is more than simply the ‘duh’ moment of getting out of the office. It means to seek out new ideas and new opinions. Yet the authors had a fresh slant on it when they said, “When you do ask for feedback, go to the people who know something you don’t. The folks in your immediate network probably are similar to you in background, perspective, and knowledge—so branch out. Counteract the all-too-common norm of expecting new people to quietly fit in until they understand “how we do things around here.” New people can tell you how other organizations operate and will have a fresh perspective on your firm’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Soften the power cues
Power can not only squelch communications but can kill it outright. Coming from the energy industry, with its hierarchical nature, I certainly understand the power dynamic. Here the authors are concerned with the symbols and vestiges of power, down to things like the office setting. Of course, there is always the concern when you are seen going into the CCO office so the authors suggest, “take steps to make your guests feel more comfortable. Add a small table with chairs of the same size and quality so that when someone comes to talk, you can sit together. Table shape matters, too. It’s usually easy to guess who has the most power at an oval or a rectangular table, but there’s no “head” at a round table. And consider your attire: Do you really need a tie for meetings with the creative team? You want employees to feel you’re one of them.”
Avoid sending mixed messages
If you beat up people who present ideas, people will stop presenting them to you. Moreover, if you put constraints on the size and dimension of information that can be presented to you, it may well be seen as a negative signal. The authors wrote, “Even informal “blue-sky” sessions were stifled by reminders to use the company’s standard PowerPoint template and adhere to rules about maximum words per slide, which reinforced the feeling that people needed to stay within certain bounds.”
Be the example
This does not mean, as Chevy Chase intoned in Caddyshack to be the ball; but instead means advocate for those who bring suggestions. As the authors stated, “Employees feel inspired when they see you advocating for them. That message came through quite clearly when we spoke with people at a real estate firm.” If you cannot advocate for them, explain to them why you cannot do so.
Close the loop
Feedback, feedback and feedback. One of the surest ways to close down employee input is not to provide feedback or as the authors said, “If you don’t want people to think their ideas went straight to the trash can, make sure you tell them what you did next and what they can expect as a result. In surveys of more than 3,500 employees in multiple companies, we found that bosses’ failure to close the loop increased subordinates’ belief that speaking up was futile by 30%. But if managers had closed the loop in the past, their reports spoke up 19% more frequently—even after we accounted for any increase that happened simply because managers were perceived as open, interested, and willing to make changes.”
While the authors overall attack on hotlines was certainly not merited, they did provide some solid suggestions for any two-way street of communications. The techniques they posit are useful for any compliance practitioner who is communicating up or down the chain.
While you are thinking about it, check out this YouTube clip of Jefferson Airplane playing Volunteers at Woodstock.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016