AOL (TWX): AOLers on How to Fix AOL

Plenty of talent still at AOL, judging by the quality of many responses to our “Help Fix AOL” series.  You can read the full posts in the comments of How To Fix AOL 1: Boost Morale, and How To Fix AOL 2: Appoint One Content Head Instead of Three.  Key points and excerpts below.  More as we get them.

Key Points:

  • Yes, Ron Grant would be better in a strategy role.  Randy Falco should be the relationship guy.  (It sounds as though this change has already been made.)
  • More transparency, more telling it like it is.
  • Clearer overall strategy, especially for content.
  • Reward performance, break up fiefdoms.

Excerpts (after jump):

Better communication from senior management. We need to hear what the strategy is. We need to understand the motivations and drivers for it… we can help fill in the gaps to the plan and make it happen, but we have to at least understand where the gaps are.

More commitment from employees.  Showing us what the plan is, how we’re going to measure success, and showing how and why we’ll change course again if needed can help build the commitment again. It would be interesting for people leaders to ask their direct reports, “Are you committed? Why or why not? Is there any way you will become committed? What could go wrong that we’d lose your commitment?” Some would answer, most are too paranoid to answer honestly, but there are a few of us who would speak our minds, perhaps that would be enough.

Compensation system must reward performance. 
Rewards should ALWAYS be based on merit. The facts are that most budget controllers at AOL (generally Directors) are scared to alter the AIP (Annual Incentive Plan) pay out amounts in fear that people will compare numbers. So they just simple click “ACCEPT” and take whatever magic formula HR came up with and pay out the same percentages throughout their organisations. How disenchanting to an employee. You MUST reward the best workers. You MUST tell the rest of the team who the Top Talent is. Give folks the chance to recognise that performance is rewarded and appreciated.

Management needs to start listening to employees and acting on what they learn We’ve had MULTIPLE employee opinion surveys where we never hear the results. We’ve had others were we hear the results of the survey but actions are never taken. Only once since I’ve been here were results reported, action teams created, and the progress of those actions reported as well. Things actually started looking up. That was about 6 or 7 years ago though. Since then, there has been no evidence of the highest levels of management listening to their employees.

Create a culture based on innovation (again):
Not just talking about a product “pipeline.” Talking about a true culture centered on innovation, and an org design (and yes, a rewards system) that mirrors it. Where next qrtr’s results don’t determine fate of strategic, long-term plays. Where “those intellectual types” aren’t mocked for not having to “put out fires 24X7.” (Perhaps intellect, patience and self-confidence would help prevent some of those fire-drills in long run.) Where a clear approach and commitment to innovation is put to operation based on graduation of ideas (sorry Google, but I did not steal your term here – the concept has enough common sense that schmucks like me can think it up independently).

More Randy, Less Ron. I can confirm that some of these meetings with Randy and employees took place in Dulles this week as well. And Ron was conspicuously missing from them! I think Randy may already be thinking along the lines of what you’ve proposed, Henry. One of the first restructuring Miller had done was to get rid of the COO (I forget the name). He claimed that shareholders in today’s internet companies expect the CEO to be closer to the operating units. I believe Randy should do the same.

Help!  We employees are just deer in headlights.  Middle managers are just sitting around clueless waiting to be told what to do. Upper managers are even clueless waiting for senior management to tell them what to do. Workload has gone down significantly, sales doesn’t know what they are selling, and the market is turning away. Senior Management should stay up a little later at night and at minimum send an email to the 8000 people left telling them what the new organisation looks like.  There hasnt even been an email detailing who is left, what they do, and what we’re focusing on…

Need an all-hands meeting now, because no one’s left to tell us what’s going on: There is no one left in employee communications to focus on restoring loss trust and bad morale. They were all laid off. The TV news monitors and daily update mechanism has been turned off because no one remains to program it or write about what’s happening. How symbolic is it to see such blank screens as you stand waiting for the elevators each morning? The company needs to return to the practices of the Miller days when transparency and small meetings with leadership took place regularly, and all hands meeting focused on questions that were on employee’s minds, and answers were straight and thoughtful. When that kind of management is in place, maybe employees will start to feel they are working for a worthwhile company and things can get better.

Quit whining, start working.
  Any middle managers waiting around “clueless” to be told what to do should be working on their resume. If you aren’t aware of what your organisation looks like, ask. If you don’t know what to work on, ask your employees, your customers or take a good hard look at your competitors. Want to help improve morale? Buy a $20 blow-up chair and a bag of chocolate. Most importantly, get your team working. Grab your core team and ideate on fun, quick wins that our customers will love and will provide a sense of accomplishment to your staff. Don’t wait for an invitation to be empowered, empower yourself. My team is taking advantage of this lull to work on initiatives we deprioritized months ago. They are starting to get excited and seeing opportunities. Yes we have less people and each person has more work to do but smaller teams are almost always more effective. Ever worked for a small company?  AOL has wasted much time. Stop contributing to the problem and be part of the solution or get out of the way and let someone else do the job.

Randy?  Ron?  Sorry, down here in Dulles it’s still “Smithers and Burns.” 
The one thing I think management at AOL (especially EVP and higher) needs to understand is that they are viewed as less than pond scum right now, and no amount of kowtowing and empty promises will get that back unless employees see that they mean it when they say they are committed to the company and to the employees. That means no more outsourcing to Bangalore (where the average employee couldn’t press the enter key unless their Dulles-based trainers put it in writing in a training manual).  That means Smithers and Burns need to spend at minimum 1 week a month living, breathing, eating, and sleeping life in AOL Ops at the Dulles Campus. That means a real career path at AOL for cross-training into new divisions, a checklist to follow to qualify to be promoted into higher-ranking jobs.
Shoot straighter, damn it.  We can handle the truth.  AOL upper management needs to stop lying to employees. If they’re planning layoffs, just say so. If they’re planning on spinning off or selling off the access arm, say so. Don’t let SAI scoop them. Offer a one-time incentivized deal to employees to leave of their own accord (maybe in September) as a way of both reducing the workforce population and as a way of avoiding the ugliness of Bloody Tuesday’s layoffs, which seemed to most AOLers as arbitrary at best.

Fire the soccer mums.  This isn’t a non-profit, it’s not a communist country, and it’s not Little League.  One of the fundamental problems with AOL in the post-merger era focused on culture. Specifically, the whole “we’re one big team” concept, trumpeted by 20- and 30-somethings who grew up in a soccer-mum world, where every child participates, no one is left behind, and competition is *bad* if it makes anyone feel “less than.” As a result, an entire generation of project managers and middle managers evolved who had no idea how to make important decisions, or even trivial ones, for that matter, without group consensus…The pre-merger days at AOL were dynamic, fun, challenging, and rewarding…because the company encouraged individuals to think out of the box, to have the courage to propose the unconventional, and the drive to pursue it. Was it expected that every idea was the next insanely great idea (with apologies to Steve Jobs)? Of course not, but fear of failure was never a consideration. Growth requires that sometimes you stumble and fall down.

Access is an annuity and Platform A is a low-margin business.  Therefore, the key is AOL content:
Fixing AOL is inescapably about its publishing business. That’s doomed if the upper management line is always ‘make it like Yahoo or Google’. AOL has to identify a segment to win in for its owned and operated businesses, which means finding something where it can be innovative and then acting boldly in taking the risks of being innovative. If AOL doesn’t grab some new segment & make it its own, to present a changed face & identity for itself to the market and suggest genuine internal reinvigoration, then come a liquidity event it will continue to be seen as a dud – & the market will be right to apply a special EBITDA multiple discount in valuing its media business in recognition that it is a dud. AOL’s failure has always been firstly a failure to act boldly. In its O&O business it needs to start from there.

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