5 ways Levi Strauss encourages employee input

Would your senior leaders want to speculate on which actor might play them in a movie? At the clothing maker, staffers are free to ask—and invited to offer their two cents in group meetings.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Talk about change within organizations often centers around startups that have experienced breakneck growth.

Yet the subject is just as relevant for other organizations that have had to usher a nervous workforce through a time of transition, whether it involves a merger or a pivot in strategy, says Elizabeth Owen, global head of employee communications for Levi Strauss & Co.

Owen discusses the apparel maker’s success in managing change in her Ragan Training talk, “Corporate transformation: Accelerate change and drive engagement through communications.”

“Change can kind of freak people out sometimes,” Owen says, adding, “If employees aren’t brought along, costs are high. Don’t underestimate the role that you play.”

In one of four major areas of her talk, Owen covered the topic, “Be a convener.” What she means is, “Create structure to bring people together.” Here are a few of her recommendations:

1. Gather your flock.

Levi Strauss has three headquarters—in San Francisco, Brussels and Singapore—so its organization is geographically and culturally dispersed. Add to that the way people work within their own function or project team, and it can be difficult for a communicator to take the temperature of employees across the business.

That’s not unusual in any large organization. To get around it, she says, “One thing that I would encourage you to do is formalize the mechanism so that you can bring people together, so that you can have people from different parts of the company who can … share ideas, information.”

2. Hold opt-in meetings.

Levi Strauss sent out an open invitation for employees to offer ideas on matters of organizational culture. Being a clothing maker, Levi Strauss called them “tailors.” The communications team publishes an agenda asking tailors for feedback on specific matters, such as rolling out a purpose statement. Communicators also afford participants open time to say what’s on their mind.

This provides real-time feedback from cohorts such as store managers and employees, who are busy selling pants to customers and therefore have limited access to company messaging.

3. Keep the intelligence you gather hush-hush.

The company makes clear that the information it gathers from “tailors” is confidential. Says Owen, “We’re not going to go back to your boss and say, ‘You’re not going to believe what this person said.'”

4. Bring in your leaders and influencers.

The “tailors” were so successful that Levi Strauss created a second group. In March (for the first time in three years), the company brought in 200 senior leaders from around the globe.

Communicators also asked each executive to designate a team member who was then “volun-told” to participate. Participants were asked matters as straightforward as, “Here are five speakers we’re thinking about bringing in,” Owen says. “What do you think about this agenda?”

People liked the group so much that they didn’t want to disband, Owen says. They appreciated the opportunity to meet with people from across the business and weigh in on the issues because they felt it mattered. Meanwhile, between this group and the “tailors,” the comms staff had two new sources of information.

5. Use technology to increase questions in meetings.

Have you ever had a meeting in which your call for questions was met with silence? Sometimes employees find it hard to pose a tough question. Especially in times of change, people fear their jobs might be at risk, Owen says.

To spice up its Q&As, Levi Strauss uses a digital tool called Pigeonhole Live, enabling employees to post questions from their phones and vote others’ questions up or down. True, there are risks, Owen acknowledges: Some communicators say their audiences can get a bit snarky on digital devices.

Likewise, oddball questions sometimes emerge. When a leader from human resources was asked, “What actress would play you in a movie about your life?” it shot to the top. People were wondering, “Yeah, I wonder who would play her,” Owen says.

Well, what’s wrong with that?

“She answered it,” Owen says. “She had some fun with it. … It gave people that sense of, ‘Oh, she’s a person. She’s kind of fun, and she can think on her feet.'”

Isn’t one goal of executive communications to humanize the top brass? Employees want to get acquainted with their senior leaders as human beings, Owen says. They want to know, “Who are you? Can I trust you?”

If the answer isn’t “yes” at your organization, it’s time to roll up your sleeves—denim or otherwise.

[Subscribe to Ragan Training for more tips and strategy from Levi Strauss.]

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