IRS Employee Training Videos: A Good Investment

"Organizations with strong learning culture have 37 percent greater employee productivity, according to Bersin & Associates’ 2010 study High Impact Learning Culture." -

In the context of a larger scandal surrounding Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting of conservative (and Jewish) groups, the news that the agency spent about $61,600 for employee training videos is not going down well.

The videos in question include a Star Trek spoof, a Gilligan's Island takeoff and a video showing line dancing. What did the taxpayer get for the money?
  • The IRS has stated that the Gilligan's Island video, at least, was used for training purposes for 1,900 employees. 
  • The Star Trek is like a trip into IRS-speak-land, and I can't tell you what it is except maybe a rah-rah for whatever it is the auditors do.
  • The line dancing video is an exercise in endorsing teamwork.
Taken as a whole, the videos clearly convey and celebrate a coherent and cohesive IRS culture. I don't know what that culture is about, but as a communicator I could see that the employees making them looked happy and not forced. Whether or not they found the exercise "embarrassing," the question is whether they were worth the investment.

Are employee videos a good use of money? Or an exercise in wasting taxpayer funds?

To answer this question one would have to answer two questions:
  • How well do IRS employees know their jobs, and do training videos starring employees enhance their skills?
  • How healthy is the organizational culture at the IRS as measured by current typical index scores such as the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey? And do videos such as this enhance culture, detract from it or have zero impact?
Obviously we can't answer these questions without getting into the IRS organization and seeing what data is available. But we certainly can't assume that the videos were a waste of money right off the bat.

In fact it seems to me that if you are using employees rather than external paid actors, $61,600 for three videos -- one of which is training nearly 2,000 people -- is not a lot of money at all. One training seminar for one employee can easily run $1,500 alone.

It could be useful to look at the videos as a reflection of IRS culture. Then we could ask, to what extent are IRS employees productive and engaged? 

We could start with its own discussion of human capital issues. In 2012 the IRS Oversight Board held a Public Forum and shared a white paper, "Human Capital Management Challenge: Fostering Employee Mentoring, Engagement, and Development in a Limited Budget Environment." The paper notes the business need for high cultural cohesion and high morale:

"As others have already documented, the current demands upon the Internal Revenue Service are enormous. More output and greater outcomes are being expected each year from each IRS employee. Yet resources relative to the demands are shrinking during these tight budgetary times. Without an engaged and committed workforce, the IRS will not be able to provide the revenue and the benefits and services that the government and the public its serves so urgently need."

The IRS therefore puts a priority on employee morale and culture directly because it has a positive correlation with productivity. Accordingly:

  • "The Internal Revenue Service in 2011 had a score of 67.6 (in overall workplace satisfaction) and it ranks 65th out of 241 federal agency subcomponents or the top third."
  • In addition--"On the workplace dimension that measures their perceptions of teamwork in the IRS. They give IRS and their colleagues a score of 71.6 in 2011 which gives IRS a ranking of 28 out of 229."
  • On, employees give the IRS an overall score of 3.4 (out of 5) and 78% expressed confidence in the head of the agency, Doug Shulman.
  • And according to a news report out today, "The Numbers People, By The Numbers":
    • "66: The IRS score, out of 100, in a measure of employee morale by the federal Office of Personnel and Management. In a 2012 ranking of job satisfaction in 292 federal divisions, the IRS finished in 98th place."
    • "76.6: The score in the Office of the Inspector General for Tax Administration, making it the 13th best place to work in government. This is the office that exposed special IRS audits of tea party and conservative groups."
Overall I think it is fair to say that something went very wrong in the IRS targeting certain groups for extra scrutiny. But it is not fair to lump employee training videos in as a symptom of the problem. Just the opposite, they may very well have been part of what kept the culture as strong as it was - and even what led to the revelation of the "special" audits in the first place. 

* All opinions, as always, are my own.

Privacy in an age when privacy is gone

As employees, people do not want to be branded with your logo. They would rather see themselves as different, special and unique.

In fact the more you throw the brand (or even the word "brand") in someone's face the more they will rebel.

People don't want to be branded in a lot of ways.

We don't like relationship labels...religious labels...neighborhood labels...class labels...gender labels...any kind of labels.

Because there's always an exception to the rule. 

Because we need to preserve our privacy. Meaning, that gray space between our secret inner selves and the glaring harsh light of the outside world and how people judge us and label us.

In a world where privacy is functionally over - and let us be clear that it absolutely is - how do we attain and maintain privacy? Regain it?

The only way, I think, is to make the personal choice to respect it.

Just because you can see something, know something, doesn't mean you should.

Let people have their space - don't try to label and capture every aspect of them. As an example, if you are a job recruiter, this means leave their social media alone. But it also has broader implications, when you consider the "real person" behind a leader of celebrity figure. And obviously there is a lot more to be said.

I am all for branding in the sense that we clarify who we are and what we offer to the world in terms of personality, products and services. But there is a serious line there that we should not cross.

In a free society it is important that people have their space.

The Wrong People Are In Charge Of Your Brand

"One of our main criteria for joining the team was -- you could not be a jerk." - Anon.

Branding is always a marketing exercise, but its first and primary goal is the recruitment and retention of high-performing employees through continuous organizational development. 
  • The brand tells you what kind of leader is right -- because the leader sets the vision for the rest to follow.
  • The brand tells you what kind of planning will work -- because it's not just a matter of allocating resources but of institutionalizing processes that will work in the culture.
  • The brand tells you what kind of person can actually earn you money, based not just on skill but also on the customer's preferences. For example, some brand consultancies take the academic approach while others are more design-oriented. Both are "accurate" but it's the customer's preference that determines which is chosen.
  • The brand tells you what kind of person is needed to support the revenue-generators. The human resources team, the accountants, the IT professionals, and so on do not work in a vaccuum. They do work in a team where a certain kind of behavior is accepted. 
  • Finally, the brand tells you what kind of advertising, marketing, social media, sales, and PR campaigns make sense for this unique organization. If you know the organization well enough, you can filter out a good campaign from a bad one in about five seconds. 
The first step in branding is on-boarding new employees. Two corporate handbooks are out there and popular now: Valve and Netflix. Zappos has an entire corporate culture section of its website. (Last I heard, which was a while back, they will also pay you $2,000 to quit.) Southwest has an extremely influential Culture Committee.

All of these efforts go to the basics of the brand. Which is "everything," true. But at the end of the day the brand is how your employees behave. Not the logo, not the vision or mission statement, or the tagline or the business strategy or any document. It is what they do.

If you want to strengthen your brand, start with training in leadership, management, organizational development, and communication first. After that, the rest will follow.

* As always, all opinions are my own.

That Yawning Gap Between Leadership Books And Reality

I am not here to lecture anyone. 
But it is hard to understand how there can be so much good advice about leadership flying around, and yet there is such utter cluelessness about basic common sense.
Like how to treat people when you meet them. How about saying: Hello? How are you? How's the weather out there?
Or how to delegate an assignment.
Or how to not scream at your subordinates and throw books.
I was grateful today that my friend and colleague Jeri Richardson took the time to speak about leadership. Things like this.
She came over and shared basic principles of leadership. More than that, she shared her personal experiences.
Jeri told us how to get results, how she's done it over a period of decades:
* Modeling leadership behavior
* Focusing on underlying business needs 
* Dealing with the customer as a human being
...and so much more.
It was all good stuff. But I found myself wondering as she talked, how is it and why is it that so many people I know over the years -- across companies and agencies alike -- have had to manage around their leaders? Rather than the leadership lighting the way?
Is this not what leaders are paid to do? 
It is great that there are people as strong as Jeri is, as tolerant and patient with the foibles of the workplace. 
And we all should learn to lead by example. 
But at the same time, isn't it time for some sort of leadership metric? 
Instead of talking a lot about how much we value our people, or not talking a lot because we are not sure we're perfect, or instead of focusing so much on the work that we miss the human factor altogether --
I would suggest we pay as much attention to leadership and management during work hours as we do in training seminars and reading leadership books and articles.
That leadership become in itself a technical specialty. 
That emotional intelligence -- the core of leadership -- be recognized for what it is.
Not a "soft" meaning "unimportant" skill. But the essence of what leadership is.
That's my hope, anyway. Because in the workplace, the only person who can tell you very clearly what has to be done is the leader. It's the one thing that cannot be delegated down.
I only wish we could institutionalize that kind of secret sauce.
It's an essential ingredient to any high-functioning workplace.

* As always, all opinions are my own.

What The Most Valuable Brands Have In Common: They Are Boring

There is nothing a creative person likes more than to create a brand. And that is great when there’s a new brand to be built. But when the brand becomes familiar and established, it can be financial suicide to take it apart. Here’s why boring brands are more valuable:

1. You remember their name.
2. Knowing the name makes them sound legitimate.
3. Familiarity generates loyalty by default.
4. Consistency simplifies choice.
5. Fewer choices reduce stress.

Google, Samsung, Apple, and Amazon don't try to reinvent themselves every six months. They simply focus on doing what they do: serve the customer, to make more money -- which is in the end the object of business and what every marketer should be focused on as well.

Neat: Predicted Brand Stock Index, and Now It's Here

It was only a matter of time before somebody did this. I'm just wondering what took so long.
  • August 12, 2007, I wrote: "I have a major, major idea for Young & Rubicam: They should start a brand index mutual fund based on their Brand Asset Valuator ( The fund should tie to current strong and emerging brands."
  • May 23, 2013, FutureBrand posts: "The FutureBrand Index is a real-time global stock market for brands offering a predictive view of brand strength. ....The resulting share prices create a real-time Index of the top 50 global future brands called the FBF50. As with all markets, the ranking is constantly changing as share prices rise and fall based on trading activity."
Here is a link to the FutureBrand site where you can sign up to trade. Not sure when it launched, but it looks amazing, and glad that somebody picked this idea up.

5 Ways To Respond To The Critics: Lessons from McDonald's CEO

Superficially McDonald's and the government are different. But when you get closer they have at least one thing in common: an enormous, diverse customer base, many of whom rely on the institution for daily subsistence.
Normally the government is very cautious about responding to its critics. The reasons are infinite and familiar: many different interests at play - the need to speak in unison - the wild and provocative nature of some of the attacks - the impossibility of answering every one.
Plus there is this sense that to play defense is to lose. You don't want to get into mudslinging. (And add to that the fact that some back-and-forthing has to do with ongoing investigations, or confidential material that simply cannot be shared.)
All of this is why the speech by Don Johnson, CEO of McDonald's at the company's annual meeting was so refreshing. According to a report in, "Nutrition Critics Get No Apology From McDonald's CEO At Annual Meeting," (May 24, 2013) Johnson aggressively took apart their comments point by point.
Here are some key takeaways perhaps applicable to other contexts:
1. Validate Accurate Criticism: A corporate responsibility group said McDonald's was promoting obesity. Johnson in effect validated that this used to be true.
2. Show Improvement: Johnson pointed out the healthier menu options now available to increase choice.
3. Never Apologize For Your Mission: The McDonald's also said clearly that the brand is about "fun," and that it's not a bad thing to let kids enjoy junky food every now and then. (Score one for simple rationality -- it makes your critics look like ridiculous duds.)
4. Point Out Attempts To Manipulate Your Story: In response to charges that McDonald's directly aimed to exploit communities of color by marketing to them, Johnson said, point blank: "McDonald's is not the brand that you describe." Period.
5. Establish a connection with your critics: Johnson noted that he grew up in a low-income housing project in Chicago. The underlying message: I am one of you - I would not betray you. While this could backfire, it's effective if it's perceived as sincere - a way of breaching the gap between the corporate boardroom and its corporate accountability critics.
The bottom line is, large organizations should avoid excessive timidity about corporate messaging. It's OK to be "human" - nobody is perfect - and most people understand that at times "mistakes were made." While of course you can't defend wrongdoing, avoiding public remarks entirely is never a solution. Rather, admit it and go on.
The rest of the time, when the criticism involves a large area of gray, it is important to stand up for yourself. Talk about your efforts to improve, and never apologize for being who you are.

* All opinions, as always, are my own.

Search This Blog