[img id=”1″ align=”right”] Employee brand advocacy. Internal social media. Brand ambassadorship. Workforce Marketing.

If you were with us for Summer Brand Camp you heard a lot about these topics. Whatever the current vernacular, the challenge is the same: how do you get employees to say what you want them to say, when you can’t control what they say? (Hint: The experts are laughing that the word “control” is anywhere near this conversation.) But some companies have found success, and you can, too.

In partnership with Ajax Workforce Marketing, we held a webinar to discuss exactly that.
Ajax CEO Jason Seiden interviewed Chris Ebbeler, Sr. Manager, Workplace Community & People Branding at Chili’s Grill Bar about what it takes to partner with your employees on social media, what newcomers to social business should be prepared for, and how to survive with a title that’s too long for the typical business card.

Here’s how it went down:

Q: You’ve set up a crawl/walk/run approach. We have 5 questions that we know the runners will have “yes” answers to. Let’s go through them so we can understand the Chili’s journey a bit better.
Our first is about investment: Help us level set. Our first question is whether the company is willing to make a long-term, sustained investment. Clearly you are!

A: Yes, absolutely! One of the most exciting chapters of my professional life has been seeing this vision come to life. But, it wasn’t without a lot of discussion and passion around getting it right. We’ve been on a cultural evolution for about five years now, guided by our COO Kelli Valade asking us all…”What would it feel like to be small again?” More specifically, small in the sense of connected, close and aligned to a shared set of beliefs and values. Along the way, we sought out feedback from rock star talent, and asked them some simple questions: would you consider leaving your current role for an opportunity at Chili’s? What we learned is that people weren’t connected to the story of how the brand had evolved, and what we were doing to create the single best place to work. It was eye opening, and it challenged us to think about what was the most relevant way to tell our story in a very hectic world.

Q: You’re on a journey to best-in-class, yet you have to deal with what’s out there today. How do you even find a starting point when everything’s in motion?

A: We identified a starting point by saying: What are people just flat out getting wrong about us? Here’s what we heard: “You aren’t growing. You’re an old brand that isn’t innovative. There’s no growth and development for me since you’re not growing.”

Every one of those statements weren’t true. So, we took ownership and turned inward, asking ourselves what is the five core messages that we want people to know? We’re opening new restaurants. We’ve completely reinvented our business model. We’re investing in technology. We’ve reinvested in restaurant design and innovation. We have one of the best cultures in the business. More importantly, we heard candidates say, “If something cool was going on, I’d be hearing the buzz from your people.” Right then and there I started advocating for a social strategy—to let people get a peek behind the curtain of why we love what we do so much. Frankly, we took accountability to determine our own destiny; or someone or something else will.

Q: Is leadership walking the talk when it comes to social?

A: The most fun part of our shift to embracing social and letting ChiliHeads help tell the story, is that the dialogue has changed in the hallways and meeting and water cooler conversations throughout the brand. I’ve never heard so many leaders get competitive about who’s following them on Twitter or how many favorites their tweets are getting. Who knew social could become competitive for a leadership team? But, the best part of this journey is when a leader comes to me and says, “I interviewed someone today who told me she saw what I was saying on Twitter and got excited about our culture.” Our leaders fundamentally get that we are all in this together, and regardless of role or title or span of control–the more connected they are to the teams delivering an amazing experience every day in our restaurants, the more we feel connected to one another and more like this is our home away from home.

Q: Edith Ann Ramey, Chili’s Head of Marketing has her kids and dog on her Twitter page. We refer to this as being profersonal™. How do you balance personal and professional social engagement at Chili’s?

A: One of my favorite quotes from ChiliHead icon, Doug Brooks, is that “we’re in a people business by way of food.” The amount of heart and soul that floods through this brand is almost overwhelming. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, our kids accomplishments, new puppies, marriage proposals, new cars—just give us a reason to raise a glass, we aren’t picky. Ultimately, the human part of this business is what matters most to us. The connections we make with real people that come through our doors every day is what drives us. If the past decade has taught us nothing, it’s that the clear lines between personal and work life that might have existed in the past are gone. Rather than try to create clear lines between the two, we blur them like crazy. Because you don’t check your life at the front door—we celebrate the whole person.

Q: Did you have execs who were nervous about this? Or who want to keep a bright red line between their home and work lives? And how did you win them over?

A: Absolutely. And you know what? We won’t win them over, and we won’t try. Social sharing can be tough for some, and there are tons of reasons why. Anyone in a leadership role, at any company, that chooses to live a more transparent life on social is “at risk” of hearing a lot of noise. It truly is a choice. Some of my favorite conversations are with peers or leaders that know EXACTLY what I’ve been sharing on social, even though they might never comment or jump into the conversation. They might just feel more comfortable sitting on the sidelines letting the conversation go on without them. But, the really cool thing is that when all is said and done—they are still more connected to the pulse of what’s happening in the world around them. Let’s be honest—this isn’t for everyone!

Q: How do you get employees engaged in the process?

A: Here is where I’ll start to get goosebumps! Why? Because the single most powerful way to get our teams engaged in the process is simple: turn it on and give them a voice. There’s not a day goes by that we don’t get incredibly emotional about seeing our ChiliHeads get excited because WE SEE THEM. We celebrate how special they are to us, to this brand, to our leadership team and to one another. We were very conscious about going slow and steady; we want to get it right, rather than get it first. But, when you literally sense the momentum and sit back and see it all unfold, it’s truly magical. And in true social fashion—they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on.

Q: Employees are hospitality workers. Some will have natural content skills, but many won’t. How do you prepare them for success? What content do you create?

A: We don’t see ourselves any different than a marketing team aligning promotional messages around new offerings or product launches. We work from a content calendar that is aligned to what’s happening in people’s lives, and we look for ways to show what’s trending at #todayschilis. We believe that all of us live in a “seasonal” lifestyle as consumers, so why wouldn’t we take the same approach for our talent community? It’s a mix of pre-planned quarterly campaigns that help show what’s happening, along with more “real time/in the moment” ideas that might be prompted by what’s hot off the press or bubbling up in pop culture.

So, for some of our ChiliHeads, they just simply share what content we’re producing, which we love—share the love and share the story! More than anything, we encourage everyone to consider that our community wants to see and hear what we care about—so we try to model for them what that looks and sounds like. As an example, we’ll often see our teams posting about terminology or acronyms that a broader audience may not understand—those are the coaching moments that we work on as more brand ambassadors jump into the community.

Q: Follow up: how do you make sure your content resonates with employees?

A: Feedback, feedback, feedback! One of our cultural beliefs is that feedback’s priceless, so we keep our eyes and ears open to what our community is saying. But, we feel compelled to tell a genuine, authentic story, filtered through the lens of what we value and what we care about. Our field teams reach out and share amazing stories with us too, and often they are the heartbeat of what works best, because they are right there connecting with the ChiliHeads that touch our Guests every day. We hear stories that simply floor us—from Hometown Heroes that pull people out of collapsed buildings after the tornado in Moore Oklahoma, to ChiliHeads who shave their heads to raise money for St. Jude. The best content for us is always the content that makes us say, “THAT’S what it’s all about!”

Jason Seiden is the founder and CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing, Ajax on-boards employees to a company’s brand, creating message alignment and amplifying key messages through employee networks. He is on the verge of launching Brand Amper, an application that fosters sustainable employee brand advocacy by giving employees a concrete way to make the company’s brand work for them. Jason’s personal story has been about making professional communication more genuine and productive. His experience spans twenty years of digital and interpersonal communications work.

Chris Ebbeler leads a forward thinking team working to strengthen the connection between ChiliHeads and the brand’s purpose, culture and passion. Chris and his team create relevant people experiences along the entire team member lifecycle. Through sharing the story of #todayschilis on social, and shaping experiences that connect Chili’s teams to their passion for making others feel special, his team is all about driving engagement.

As a diehard believer that we are all seeking to put more purpose into our work lives, he can speak from experience on the power of aligning your life’s work to your true calling.

To listen to the webinar in its entirety, please click here