Ask Your Boss Anything: How Bloomberg Connects Its Global Staff

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Bloomberg, Member, Employee & Communications Team, Shaun Randol
Shaun Randol, Member, Employee & Communications Team, Bloomberg, LP

With some 19,000 employees spread across 192 offices in 73 countries, Bloomberg needed a way for leaders to engage staff without breaking the bank or the laws of physics.

Why? Because results from an employee survey revealed that Bloomberg employees crave more interaction from the company’s leadership. Individual contributors want to know more (and more often) about the company’s strategy for growth and its leaders’ takes on evolving market conditions, and even about their leadership styles and who they are outside the office.

We also learned that Bloomberg employees prefer to interact with managers through town hall-style meetings, where they can hear directly from leadership and ask their own questions.

Hosting regular town hall meetings in Bloomberg’s 192 global offices is inconceivable, but that doesn’t negate the obligation to answer employees’ requests to hear from management. Our team needed to find a platform that could transcend geographic boundaries and be replicated easily.

The solution was inspired by Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) forum. The AMA features experts in any field or experience—like Barack Obama, actress Leah Remini, climate experts, firefighters, you name it—taking questions from the public and answering them in real time through written responses.

AMA Overview

Despite Bloomberg’s flat organizational structure, some employees might never get a chance to meet the head of their department, regardless of whether they sit in headquarters or a remote office, so a lightweight, real-time Q&A format seemed a good match for us.

With the proprietary chat system— Instant Bloomberg—a mainstay of every employee’s daily workflow, everyone could participate in a chat room without additional training. The barriers to entry were nonexistent.

Moreover, the AMA is fun for employees (and managers) because it’s an out-of-the-ordinary way to connect. With loose grammar and sentence rules de rigueur in chat room conversation, the format is conversational, engaging and informal, which helps everyone relax.

First Experience

Bloomberg’s initial AMA involved 175 staff in 12 offices on five continents speaking with an executive in San Francisco.

Since that first AMA in spring 2016, Bloomberg has hosted five more as of this writing, featuring business leaders speaking with hundreds of employees around the world, fielding dozens of questions. The topics have ranged from free-for-alls (literally, ask me anything) to a focused conversation on Asia sales strategies.

Bloomberg AMAs have taken three approaches:

1. All employees regardless of where they sit in the company are invited and the floor is open to any topic employees want to discuss.

2. This approach is theme-focused, such as career development or evolving market conditions. It therefore is appropriate for a more targeted audience (e.g., all employees in South America; employees in department X).

3. This is the most granular AMA, in that the conversation is focused narrowly (sales strategies for product X; reasons for an upcoming merger) and the invitation is limited to audience members who are directly affected, such as salespeople who sell product X; employees being absorbed in a merger, etc.


8 Steps for Creating an AMA

Step 1: Identify the executive who could benefit from participating in an AMA and decide on the theme. Try to find a pillar to lean your pitch on. Can you tie the AMA to a product release? Is there a major strategy shift or reorganization afoot? Perhaps the exec won’t get to a certain region this year, so the AMA can stand in for a trip.

Step 2: Invite employees. You should know whether anyone can join, or if the AMA is limited to certain departments or demographics. Regardless, make sure people sign up, so you can measure interest versus actual engagement. We typically invite employees with a note in our global newsletters (if the AMA is open to all) or with targeted emails.
Here’s a sample message we included in our global newsletter:

“Justin Smith Wants You to Ask Him Anything! Want to know more about Bloomberg Media’s recently announced Twitter partnership? Interested in hearing about digital disruption and the future of media? Join an IB AMA featuring Justin Smith on May 25 at 11:30 AM EST. You’ve got questions. Justin has answers. RSVP here and submit questions in advance to Shaun Randol.”
Step 3: Collect questions in advance. Doing so serves several purposes: First, it allows employees to submit anonymous questions, in case the topic is sensitive. Second, it allows employees to participate in absentia if they have a conflicting appointment or are in a different time zone. Third, advance questions give you an idea of what’s on people’s minds, which you can share with the executive.

Last, you can bank questions that you can drop into the chat, should there be a lull in the conversation.

Step 4: On the day of the AMA, send a reminder note to everyone. Also, save the list of names of employees who signed up, so you can send them follow-up materials.

Step 5: Open up the chat room and welcome everyone. At this time you can drop in some housekeeping language, like reminding them of the AMA topic or to not ask questions that have already been asked by others. The executive can then jump in and prompt for questions, or you can start with a pre-submitted question to get the ball rolling. Our AMAs have all lasted an hour, with no shortage of conversation until the end.

Step 6: Once the AMA is finished, download the transcript and share it with the executive and relevant stakeholders.

Step 7: Measure the success of the AMA. Ask the manager how she felt about the conversation, what insight she gained from the questions, any surprises, and—most important—whether it was valuable. Also, poll everyone who signed up for the chat.

Step 8: If agreed to by the manager, edit the transcript so it’s a readable Q&A (not a sloppy transcript) and publish it to your internal newswire. Don’t forget to report back once more on the metrics for that second posting—the executive surely wll be curious about how the conversation performed.


Convincing the Boss

Unless your boss is Sheryl Sandberg and willing to share life moments in regular internal Facebook posts, you may have to expend time and energy convincing executives to participate in an AMA. Managers can be loath to put themselves in vulnerable situations, especially a forum called Ask Me Anything.

One can forgive an executive for being shy about opening up in front of employees, what with every gaffe being so tweetable. And few enjoy being put on the spot or called out for something they weren’t prepared to address.

But executives should not fear being heckled by their employees. Employees normally will avoid posting nasty items, especially when their name is attached to it.

You could minimize an executive’s anxiety by limiting the conversation’s scope. One option is to add an object to the end of the AMA title: Ask Me Anything About Sales in Asia. Ask Me Anything About Our Go-To Market Strategy for Project X. Ask Me Anything About Leadership. You get the idea.

An addendum to the title focuses questions coming from employees because they understand the bounds of the conversation.


Five ways to convince your executive to participate in an AMA:

  • It is just 45-60 minutes
  • There is no need to prepare notes or a presentation
  • Travel is unnecessary
  • They can discuss a theme tied to their business needs
  • They are speaking directly to employees

 

Things to Look for in Technology

Bloomberg has a proprietary chat platform that all employees learn to use on their first day on the job. That doesn’t mean you need to build your own software to host an AMA. Any old chat tool will do: Google Hangouts, Instant Messenger, Asana, Slack, etc.

Just because the setup is easy doesn’t mean you should leap before looking. From a technology standpoint, there are several variables to consider: security, scalability and ease of use, not to mention cost. External (third-party) platforms can be risky because data typically is stored offsite, making it vulnerable to cyberattacks. Before you commit to a tool—if you lack one—be sure your risk and compliance teams vet the platform. If your employees are global, you’ll also want to make sure the technology can be used in their countries.

Another consideration is capacity. Can your chat room handle hundreds of participants, if need be? Where does it max out? Bloomberg discovered on its proprietary chat platform that the default maximum number of participants in a room was set to 500. When we hit that number we realized we needed to request an upgrade to 2,000+ participants.

We also recommend participants be unable to engage anonymously. Sure, they can submit questions in advance and ask not to be named, but whether it’s in an email or a question dropped into a chat, the employee’s name should be apparent. This is a practical fire line to ensure silly and off-topic questions are minimized.

Last, be sure you can capture the conversation for archiving and editing. It’s possible that once you shut down the chat room, you’ll lose the content. You should be able to email or download a copy of the conversation. At the least you can copy and paste the discussion into Word.

Q&A: Bloomberg exec Justin Smith responds in real-time at an AMA. Source: Bloomberg
Q&A: Bloomberg exec Justin Smith responds in real-time during an AMA. Source: Bloomberg

If We Could Do It Differently

The singular disadvantage of a chat room is that the conversation is not nested and possibly is difficult to follow for those jumping in and out of the AMA because they’re also checking email, taking calls, distracted by other work, etc.

Nested chats (or forums) display the parent (original) comment, with all replies “nested” below. Visually the format makes it easy to follow particular conversation threads.

NOTE: This content appeared originally in PR News, September, 26, 2017. For subscription information, please visit: http://www.prnewsonline.com/about/info

CONTACT: srandol1@bloomberg.net

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