It's taught in all the best business schools: If you have an unpleasant message for your employees, don't send a memo. So much for lessons learned in B-school. These days, stinging memos are everywhere. From the nooks and crannies of Big Blue to the four corners of the Magic Kingdom, they're appearing more and more in photocopies slipped into "in" boxes or as blinking messages in electronic-mail queues. Sometimes they even appear excerpted in newspapers and magazines.
Most often, the message is grim: Business is bad, and it's your fault. IBM Chief Executive John F. Akers asked the troops what they had done for him lately. Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates's recent companywide memo exposed his fears that his "nightmares" about rivals were coming true. Walt Disney Co.'s Jeffrey Katzenberg waxed eloquent for 28 pages on the need for cutting costs.
Maybe it's the terror they induce in employees. Maybe it's just the power of entertaining prose. But hop-to-it memos, whether distributed, leaked, or purloined, are joining power ties and low golf handicaps in the executive arsenal. Who knows? You too may soon feel a need to reach out and shake somebody via memo. If so, take a few lessons from the masters:
--It doesn't have to be a memo to be a memo. Akers' now-infamous remarks about people standing around water coolers and the sorry state of IBM's work ethic was actually a transcript from informal spoken comments. The rapscallion transcriber even passed along Akers' profanity. But there's a moral: Should word get around that your company has become staid, mouth off in the vicinity of a good note-taker. It'll become a memo soon enough.
--Gush it up. In January, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had Hollywood abuzz with his epic on what's wrong with the movie biz. Obsessed with selling tickets for big-budget extravaganzas, Katzenberg wrote in passionate tones, the studio should instead "concentrate on what happens in the big room where the lights dim and the magic is supposed to happen."
--Invoke other memo-writers. In his May memo to Microsoft employees, Bill Gates cited as inspiration what he termed a "brilliantly written and incredibly insightful" memo from the founder of Autodesk Inc. in Sausalito, Calif. He even offered tomake copies available. The president of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. noted in an employee publication that he shares "Mr. Akers' frustrations."
--Expect leaks, but always act as if your memo were top secret. After a series of techno-leaks, excerpts from the Gates memo were widely quoted, and the full text appeared on one electronic bulletin board. But Microsoft remains stalwart. Its public-relations agency ships copies of the memo to "selected reporters" but with this caveat: "Though in providing it to you we realize you may quote from it . . . we ask that you treat the document confidentially and that you not circulate the memo widely among your staff or to anyone outside your publication."
--Brace for the parody backlash. At biotech firm Genentech Inc., a stern memo on drug testing once prompted a countermemo urging employees to deposit a urine sample on the desk of a certain vice-president. Katzenberg's memo prompted a well-publicized parody urging Disney staffers to take a "voluntary" 88% pay cut, the refusal of which would entail no adverse consequences "other than losing their jobs." Sophomoric? Inevitably. But guess what? Employees like to blow off steam, too.