Hello everyone! If you’re someone who’d rather read dialogue instead of listening to a podcast or watching a video, we’ve got you covered. Today we’re chatting with organizational leadership expert Denise Cumberland, PhD. Dr. Denise Cumberland is an insight driven marketer, focusing on consumers and how data can help bring those insights to light. She’s also Associate Professor at the University of Louisville, teaching both in the M.S. Human Resource Education Program and the B.S. Organizational Leadership and Learning Program.
DENISE: I’m doing great, Ed.
ED: Good. So, let’s visit today about listening to your internal community. For context, update our audience on what you’re doing now and how that has shifted from what you did, say, 15-20 years ago.
DENISE: Okay, well 15 to 20 years ago, probably 70% of my world was listening to the consumer and maybe 20% was listening to the employees. Now as a professor, and sometimes consultant in the university, as well as externally to some clients, I often am asked to help understand their employee situation better. So, the stakeholders, employee stakeholders. I’ve been conducting for some organizations this summer, some listening sessions, to help them gather information that frankly they may not have gathered, had things in the environment not sparked COVID and certainly the social activism going on. So, they want to stay in tune with how their employees are feeling, their worry curves, what roadblocks have they hit, and then some best practices listening to them. These are large organizations. So, there’s a good ability to share information. Once we collect information, we can share it to create some new best practices.
ED: Interesting. Now, that’s such an interesting progression because if I remember correctly, you started out more in media buying and advertising and really pushing messaging of a brand, for a large national/international brand. And then you went into product development, in consumer insights and really actionable data. That lead you to get your Ph.D. and have not only had a great deal of involvement and collaboration with entrepreneurs, but also looking at like systematic organizational construct structures and listening. Are there any best practices that really, have remained true in all three or four of those phases?
DENISE: I do believe communication…and understanding the group that you’re dealing with. So, whether it was in media, where you were trying to understand behavior of consumers in terms of your audience, what were they watching or listening to or reading? Behavior. Understanding when I went into consumer insights and product innovation, what did they like or dislike in terms of products, food products, and service? What kind of service were they looking for? And now, organizations are oftentimes trying to understand how to make their world better and healthier for their employees. And when I say that, I mean workplaces that people want to come to, right? So, my research, and all of the work I’ve done over 30 years probably is really grounded in human behavior and understanding people.
ED: You know, it’s funny, as you brought up the word communication as a common thread, I remember a conversation we had in the basement of a building with a machine operating. And I think I said something along the line, maybe I’ll write a book one day about effective or ineffective communication is the rise or fall of every organization. What I have said, probably more recently, with some of our clients is that he or she who communicates wins. I think it’d be safe to say that you and I have a bias that if your communication is not effective, it is actually not communication. Would you agree with that?
DENISE: Yes, and it’s unfortunate, but it is probably the biggest challenge for organizations—communication. And the larger they get, the more it can become problematic. So, I would say that understanding the “how to communicate,” but not just “what can we say or how can we listen”? And then once we know things, how we can act upon them. Communication isn’t just about listening, it’s about taking action afterwards, right? So, your communication should be leading to some activities. I do action research. I don’t just do research to understand things. I try to understand how it can be used, put forward, make, create interventions, create change. Communication is a lot like that.
ED: Why is it difficult for organizations, big or small, to communicate effectively? Why is it so challenging?
DENISE: Sometimes I think about that, and I think, is it the pace we’re running at? Is it faster than it used to be? Are there just more ways to communicate than there used to be? You know, we always sit back and go, well, you know, 30 years ago we didn’t have as many pathways to reach people, right? So nowadays, we have so many different ways. The larger you get; the more complex things get. Sometimes I look at it and I think also the pace we’re running at which goes back to the forums we have to communicate. I think sometimes it really is just the sheer number of forums, creates an opportunity for mistakes and opportunity for misses. It takes a lot of energy to make sure your communication is—across every platform—consistent to whoever, whichever audience you’re trying to reach.
ED: Well, and I think also, the challenge is – for communication to be effective, it’s a two-way street. The message has to be crafted and sent out, but also has to be received. And there should be some kind of action to your point base. You know, one of the things that we really challenge our clients to look at as they’re trying to figure out their marketing strategy, or we’re trying to help them figure out their marketing strategy, is that we believe that you have a message and you have a methodology. But what we tend to skip is “what do I want my audience to do with that message?” Is it I want them, externally, to buy the limited time only fish sandwich? Is that I want them to know that we’re closing at nine o’clock today? Is it that I want them to know that we feel this way about them? Or do we want them to know that we’re about to take this away from them, right? Have you seen any global best practices? You know, I know it’s not that simple. But if I’m sitting here, as a leader of a company of 10 people or 50, or 100, what are two or three things that you would say that—based on my experience—here’s some things you should either consider, do, explore?
DENISE: Well, I would say that large or small, I think that leaders and organizations have to take the time to listen, to hear what messages the employees or the consumers have. I’m a big believer that from the top it has to be role modeled in terms of understanding what’s going on in your organization. On the floor, as well as, out in the back room with your employees, when they’re talking. Listening is important and then acting on what you heard. Best practices I would say from—I’d love to tell you there’s always a one answer—but I think it kind of depends on your industry and your category. But listening is probably the first one, creating processes, to gather information that is not cumbersome. I know we way over-survey people, we won’t even go down that track.
ED: Well actually, let’s talk about that for a second real quick, because as I’m sitting here listening to learn from you, okay? Not just like, “damn this conversation.” I’m going okay, “so what are ways that I and my organization can actively listen?” And so, one of the things proposed in the past is we could survey your employees. What is the challenge with surveys?
DENISE: I would say in the last five to 10 years surveys have become bastardized. There are 35,000 employees in an organization I’m currently helping, and their response rate is less than 1%. Okay, so when they send out these, they’ve been over-surveyed. And, candidly, sometimes surveys are written so poorly, everyone thinks because they have Survey Monkey or the latest survey software, they can write their own surveys. The questions are so poorly worded, and the data is almost unusable. So, I would say that it depends – if you have 10 employees, you don’t need to do a survey anyway, you can go out and talk to them. You can go out on the floor and talk to your customers. And again, I would encourage leaders of teams and departments to stay connected. I read this not too long ago about a study with major healthcare organizations who the CEOs would have regular breakfast with different groups of employees, rotating basis. And they didn’t just do it once a year. I mean, they did it every month. From the standpoint of consistency, it’s not just tapping into the annual employee engagement survey, right? Once a year, you’re supposed to tell how engaged you are, or the survey to the customer – we all know about the auto dealerships who, if you don’t give me a five, I will be fired tomorrow. They basically bastardized the survey process.
ED: And I’m not gonna finish the loan until you give me a five.
DENISE: Exactly, exactly. I look at the data there, and I think, “garbage in, garbage out.” Such low response rates that I don’t have the perfect answers, but I think more qualitative research, more direct conversations with people. Frankly, getting down into the trenches.
ED: You know, as you’re saying that I’m coming back to a word that we have used together often and that’s the word “connection.” And I think while listening is obviously tactical, I think entrepreneurs, business owners, leaders can really have a real gut check, not just like a strategic check, but a true gut check and ask, “how connected am I with my people?” And I think especially right now, where most organizations of any size are not physically together, the ability to walk past a desk or see someone’s emotion when they walk in the door…we have so many less receptors, or data points, that we’re even having to be more deliberate with connecting with our people. Would you agree with that?
DENISE: Absolutely. And I do think that connection is the critical key. I was watching the news just the other day, and it was about Disney reopening. And I thought, wouldn’t it have been fantastic if corporate headquarters had all gone down there and worked out there and listened to employees and actually been on the ground and talked to customers. Instead, you didn’t see any of that. Now, maybe they did, and I’m being harsh to judgment, but I think if they had really been out there listening and showing that they were willing to be in that environment as well, it would have gone a long way for the employee who sells whatever. So, I think putting yourself out there, instead of behind an ivory curtain, so to speak, put yourself down on the front line. I’m a big believer that it brings a lot of credibility, both externally to your customer, but also internally to your employees.
ED: So while surveys are over-surveyed, we could be on the forefront of the next pandemic and that’s the pandemic of listening sessions.
DENISE: Well, I hope we get a little more listening going on. But you know, listening is only one part of the equation. You and I both know that. I’m conducting some listening sessions right now for a major organization, who really wants to understand their employees, with all the social activism and the pandemic. What they gain from those insights is going to be what they use and how they communicate back to the employees. So what steps are they taking? What interventions are they going to develop? What processes can they put into place to make the next time easier? What can they do now? So it’s going to be, “you have to keep the feet to the fire.” It’s going to have to be in the execution and coming back and telling people what they’ve done. Otherwise, they really wasted a lot of time.
ED: Wasted time, but also, frankly, you use the phrase “bastardized surveys”…they’ve bastardized their integrity.
DENISE: That’s right.
ED: Because if I, as a leader, say I’m going to listen to you, now it doesn’t mean I’m going to do everything you say, correct? But if I don’t acknowledge what you’re saying, and have some kind of response, and maybe the response is, “We can’t do it that way.” But to just to receive the data and not respond back, that can frankly, I think, do more harm than good.
DENISE: I agree. I have a lot of confidence in this organization. I do believe they will follow through on what they can and explain why they can’t do everything. I mean, people have common sense. They understand you can’t do everything that I want. I work for a major university, they can’t do everything that Denise wants. But at the end of the day, they do connect with me, and they do listen, and they understand that I don’t feel comfortable going on campus for big meetings. I’d rather do virtual, teams or zoom, and that they can listen to that and employ it. And if there’s a point when they say they can’t, there will be times we have to, I have to understand that that’s their decisions they’re making, and as long as they explain it, I’m a reasonable person, I hope, and most people are pretty reasonable.
ED: Right. What is the best way of managing all the data from a listening session? And how do you assimilate it into actual data?
DENISE: Sure. And I think that’s where some training comes in, and that’s why they’ve reached out to me. That’s what I’ve done all my life. Try to look through data and find themes and find commonalities and also pinpoint things that while they’re not commonalities, they could be unique, creative solutions. So, there is an art and a skill to go sifting through data. And it is a lot of data. Oftentimes the reason people go to surveys is because they’re numbers, and once you add them up, you can get percentages. And it’s so much easier to say X percent of people, rather than just say, there was a lot of conversations about this being a worry curve, and here’s some solutions people offered. It’s a lengthier process, sometimes it can take a little more analysis, to be honest with you. Numbers are
just – sometimes we gravitate – I am a fan of numbers, but at the end of the day, I think we go to them sometimes fast, because it’s an easier, digestible form of understanding something. But I’m not sure it always gives you a good picture. But sometimes you need more than that.
ED: You need that. You need the why. We’ve had this conversation relative to consumer messaging. Go back to Peter Drucker Ziegler, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Peter Drucker. I can’t remember who it was, I forget his name. So we’ll put that in the footnotes, but basically seek to understand versus be understood (Franklin Covey). What I have found, the difference between organizations is, if you and your leadership team are using the listening session to try to get a message out, that’s not a listening session. If you are using listening sessions or a device, to truly receive information, then receive it. But if you receive the information and you don’t have a clarity on why the things matter that are being shared, I would encourage you to dig deeper versus act. Would you agree with that?
ED: I do think that’s important, and again, I think sometimes we in our pace to get things done—I always tell when I teach classes, I tell students, a lot of times in one of my classes—it’s very difficult to get leaders to try to focus on the root cause of the problems or the issues. Everyone, all of us are problem solvers. We, and my students, and so I have to tell them, “So you’re jumping to the conclusion that that’s the problem, right? So why don’t we take a step back?” That requires someone looking at data to take a step back and listen some more, right? And we intuitively want to speed things along, rather than dig deeper. Then, there’s a point where you have to say, “Okay, I have enough now. I feel confident I understand what the employees are saying about x. I can see their point now.” Whereas before if it was murky, then you might need to kind of go a little bit further. Ask a few more questions.
ED: Well, and you know, as we’re wrapping this up, something that popped in my head was ”Yeah, listening sessions, obviously are essential and other devices like that, but it’s caused me to think as a leader, I need to be even more aware of watching and listening informally.” And really, when I see an opportunity, taking that opportunity, and creating a solution from it. In closing, I’ll share this example. This comes back from 20 some years at Chick-fil-A. At Chick-fil-A, you got free lunch, and there was a fountain machine and Chick-fil-A sandwiches, and other food and everything. It was just part of the benefits. Well, down in the warehouse, there was an “old-timey” Coke machine that had little bottles of coke, and they were free. Well, all of a sudden, one day they were 10 cents, which was really contrary to kind of the Chick-fil-A environment. And I asked the President of the company, who was down there going to get his four o’clock “Yoo-Hoo” or whatever. I asked, “why are these 10 cents now?” He said, “Well, I noticed a lot of half-full bottles on people’s desk when they left. And when we made it 10 cents, there were a lot less bottles half-full on people’s desks.”
And so what was interesting about that was that it’s not that he was saying that the team there was entitled, but the environment did, was not reinforcing value worth relevance. That little gesture right there, really struck me as first like, darn, they’re 10 cents, but then I thought, you know what, as a human, I was much more deliberate about when I got a bottle out of there. What was so interesting about that is…that leader was known for observing, sometimes too much. But he was known for observing, and so it’s kind of like with consumers. Sometimes if you just sit in the place they are and just observe, you can learn as much as if you just intentionally do it.
DENISE: I’ve got one for you real quick. Same thing with a franchisee. They once shared this story about a buffet. And they said they noticed that with the chicken (back to our chicken). They sat in their store and they would watch. They would watch people take a lot of chicken, if the chicken was low or they didn’t have a lot of chicken out, people took more. So he told his team, “I never want to see the chicken go low because if people were confident the chicken would still be there when they wanted their second piece, they wouldn’t stock up.” So people were hoarding because they only saw a little bit of chicken, and I thought that was a brilliant. And he got that by sitting in his store and watching people go through the line. So it seems counterintuitive to tell your team members, “keep the chicken piled high”, but the reality was less waste.
ED: No doubt.
DENISE: One observation, huge benefit. Taking a little time to both watch and listen.
ED: Well. Watching and listening comes back to there’s logic and you better be leaning into both to make those decisions.
ED: Always a joy to visit with you. Thanks, Denise.
Ah, chicken. We always seem to get back to chicken. I really hope this gave you some insight on the importance of hearing from your audience. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Denise, and you’ll continue to join me for future interviews and musings. If you like what you’re learning, please consider subscribing to the Howie Grow a Brand podcast or YouTube channel. Hopefully, we’ve inspired some JOY in you and you’ll inspire JOY in others.