Give 'em Something to Talk About: Leverage Your Company's Grapevine

    Jan 24, 2019

    What I Learned at McDonald’s

    Web 2.0 technology is great for spreading information fast throughout your company. But podcasts, video blogs, intranet, instant messaging, and wikis are only as good as the messages they carry. How well and how consistently does your company communicate its core values? In a crisis, could you rely on any executive—or any street-level employee, for that matter—to tell your company’s story accurately and well, and to spell out and defend your company’s core principles?

    McDonald’s provides a great model for growing and nurturing what I call “the company grapevine.” It starts at the top, with leadership. In the case of McDonald’s, founder Ray Kroc worked side-by-side with his people—from his circle of top executives to the staff at any random store he happened to walk into. There are countless stories of Ray jumping behind a counter to help during a particularly busy rush hour, or asking a manager for a mop to clean up a spill. Kroc’s spirit of kinship with the workers caught on and still continues at McDonald’s today.

    Ray’s hands-on encounters with his employees not only helped to spread his favorite messages—”Never be satisfied” and “Work hard and you will be rewarded"—but they showed everyone precisely how positive messages are spread:  by one person at a time. If Ray Kroc believed it, everyone else would too.

    Very early in my 34-year career at McDonald’s, I discovered that messaging played a critical role in my experience and success at the company, as it did for others like myself who were climbing up the corporate ladder. It became clear that anyone who wasn’t onboard with Ray’s messages soon fell by the wayside.

    How to Spread Your Company’s Message

    To get your people talking about “it”—whatever you want “it” to be—I offer the following tips, all invaluable lessons I learned at McDonald’s: 

    • Create your story.  Every great American company has a compelling story that has become folklore and fills workers with pride. Employees pass these well-crafted stories down through the ranks and incorporate their messages into their work. Examples of great legacy builders include Sam Walton, Lee Iacocca, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, and Ray Kroc.
    • Start from day one. Communicate your company’s goals, objectives, mission, and values to every trainee—from mail-room manager to newly promoted vice president. Don’t simply post them on a wall:  incorporate these messages into your daily work dialogue in interesting and engaging ways. Connect to these ideas and others will too.
    • Reinforce your core principles. Repetition is the key to leveraging the grapevine. In newsletter contests, at company meetings—whenever possible—get employees to restate and reexperience your company’s values and principles in their own words.
    • Plant a positive message. Employees gossip—it’s a fact of office life. But rather than let rumors and complaints dominate the grapevine, plant a positive message—such as the newest green policy or a great product review—and watch it spread. When people are used to bragging on their work and company, it becomes a positive habit.
    • Hold rap sessions. Create staff blogs where people can air their ideas freely and informally. Leaders should also contribute to let everyone know they are listening. Employees want to feel as though they are part of the communication stream and company culture.
    • Eat your words. Regular breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with new mixes of people create an environment of camaraderie and sharing. This is done less often than it should be in most companies. Picking up the tab at such low-key events may be one of the most cost-effective performance-boosting initiatives you have in your arsenal.
    • Plan some “windshield time.” At McDonald’s, windshield time was when executives toured the field with staff. Commit to hearing as many points of view as possible, as often as possible—and let all levels of employees see you doing it. This practice promotes upbeat chatter.
    • Make it fun. Retreats and conferences are great places to communicate your company messages creatively and to generate positive dialogue, sharing, and brainstorming among employees. Messages “stick” when people feel happy.
    • Get them talking. Nurturing and tending your company grapevine is all about fertilizing it with many points of view. Ask individual employees to offer suggestions on how to improve communication within your company as well as its reputation with the outside world.
    • Say it without words. If you want to show employees that hard work, innovative problem solving, and risk taking are attributes your company values, have an awards ceremony. Often, showing is a more powerful way to shape company communications than simply telling.