Is Idealism Dead?

March 7, 2014


Recent PR talk suggests the downturn is over. Whether you believe it or not,  it won’t feel that way to most employees who’ve suffered at the sharp end for a very long time and will need some inspirational nurturing if they’re to rise to the very different, gear-changing challenges that come with optimism and raised expectations.

I was recently running a tough session with a particularly jaded group of what I suppose you would call middle managers. As part of the process of driving to the heart of the issues at the core of their discontent, I was encouraging the participants to brainstorm examples of famous figures who exemplify the values of the ideal business culture.

This was an attempt to move the conversation into more positive and energising territory and to restore a much needed sense of empowerment and control to what felt very much like a war-torn and shell-shocked corporate platoon.

In amongst the usual safe-bets of Mandela; Branson; Churchill; Roddick and Dyson, someone threw in a curve ball by mentioning Don Quixote as the source of their inspiration.

Not surprisingly most of the group needed a quick Cervantes refresher but a swift i-phone search by the brave antagonist offered the following quote:

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favourably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves.”

“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.

“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”

“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”

“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”

Our middle manager explained the lasting effect the book had had on her, how the term Quixotic had become synonymous with romanticism and foolhardy idealism but how she had always been inspired by the notion that one person’s quest is so often derided by the many as foolhardy.

She then went on to challenge the groups’ roll call of famous leaders and suggested that in every case at more than one stage, they had been derided as romantics; iconoclasts or idealists, especially during their darkest days.

At this point the conversation turned to the film When We Were Kings, the account of Muhammad Ali’s shock defeat of George Foreman in The Rumble in The Jungle.

This led to a heated debate about the qualities of campaigners Erin Brockovich and Harvey Milk and by the time we got round to exploring the various values-led-leadership case studies and the need to restore innovation, energy and aspiration into the business there was a palpable change in energy levels.

Idealism, it seems, is never far from the surface.

This year I’ve been privileged to attend and sometimes host talks by inspirational characters working for a range of businesses from M&S and John Lewis through to Fujitsu.

Whenever we’ve discussed moving from surviving to thriving and most importantly sustaining success, however, it’s clear that most leaders now recognise the empowering effect that new media has had. And many have sleepless nights over the risks their businesses are exposed to most critically from the inside-out.

Calling this the “citizenship movement” may be too strong a term but even the largest of corporate organisations recognise that the meekest of stakeholders, be they customer; shareholder or employee, has the power to significantly impact their brand and business.

The really clever leaders are taking steps to engage more effectively with their stakeholders by taking engagement seriously. When faced with “rants” or “pants”,they don’t see madmen but potential “giants”.

I guess the rest are laughing at the idealists and ignoring the warning signs.

In these challenging times it may well be advisable for most employees to keep their visors down and keep marching.

But there will always be those who are bold enough to break ranks and charge at giants and monsters just as there will be blinkered leaders who are foolish enough to disregard the sounds of the groaning windmills baking in the sun.

Rosa book review

Given the perplexing state of the economy, the traditional soft skills disciplines have had a difficult time, in many respects. With this in mind Ian, along with a select group of experienced thought-leaders,  was approached by communications platform, Simply Communicate, and asked to reflect on what the new year may have in store for the internal communications community. Here’s what he had to say:

Internal Comms – BIG in 2014:

Having worked with leaders across sectors during a couple of major economic slumps now, the ones that emerge with most credit work hard to focus their stakeholders on three phases:

  1. STAY ing in the game
  2. PLAY ing the game
  3. and finally LEAD ing the game.

In short, most will have initially been focusing their people on doing all they can just to survive, usually by cutting costs wherever possible and ensuring that all noses are to the grindstone of the day job. They will be aware how attritional this can be and they won’t have liked watching most of their employees shuffle down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But they will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that they’re still in the game when many competitors and peers have fallen. And when the time is right, they will hope to switch gears and eventually look to out pace the competition.

This downturn has been longer and deeper than most. Yet as the economic indicators start to show some delicate signs of recovery, moving from a survival mindset to one which embraces the changes required to meet the challenges that come with improved trading conditions isn’t easy, especially with the fatigued and disengaged workforce that all the statistics suggest most organisations now have.

It’s a little known fact that more businesses go bust during the upturn phase of a recession than during its darkest days. This is because they fail to adapt to the cultural and behavioural challenges and can’t facilitate the very different way of thinking and working required to take advantage. The skills required to engender innovation and inspire fresh thinking are very different to those of the hard-nosed, axe-wielding downsizer, as many leaders have found to their cost. And internal communicators working alongside the leadership team throughout often find themselves on the change management front line given they have such a potentially influential role to play in shaping the ongoing change narrative. As a consequence, they need to nimbly change gears themselves or risk being seen as part of the problem.

With this in mind, I suggest that there will be three key focal points for internal communicators as the gradual upturn we’ve witnessed thus far gathers pace in 2014:


Internal communication should, of course, be about much more than message management. Customers, whether internal or external, care much more about promises delivered than weasel words. This will never be more true than on the upside of a downturn during which so many have had their confidence undermined. Internal Communication professionals who believe in the increasingly abused term “engagement” must finally recognise that it’s less about channels and more about behaviour and that in order to influence the internal culture/behavioural agenda they must form close partnerships with the HR community who, along with the CEO’s office, are and will doubtless remain the function most responsible for shaping and managing the behavioural change drive. This should embrace leadership development, especially the relationship between organisation values and leadership processes like performance management, reward and recognition. I predict that in 2014, the best Internal Communicators will be working increasingly closely with their HR colleagues to create sustainable, results-focused engagement strategies in partnership, not ploughing a lone comms planning furrow obsessed with broadcasts, media and message.

Interim Management:

This has clearly been a substantial growth area during the downturn as organisations have sought to offload fixed costs from beleaguered balance sheets. While we’re all doubtless aware of the considerable advantages that interim employees can bring in the form of fresh external perspectives and an alleged objectivity with regard to internal politics (at least in theory), it’s seldom the sign of a healthy business when business critical internal functions are managed by essentially external resources. For me, the flexibility of this arrangement is out-weighed by the loyalty, dedication and conviction which is offered by someone with “skin in the game”. I’m also a believer in the notion that employees at all levels are at their most effective 2 years into a role and am not the only one to view appointments of less than a year with suspicion. Given the need to stimulate fresh, inspired thinking and create a more opportunistic and positive mindset amongst often long-suffering employee populations, I’m already aware of a shift from the use of interim IC resources largely employed to generate copy to employing more experienced Internal Communicators who have the skills to mentor, coach and form genuine partnerships with their internal stakeholders while bringing the complex insights that can only come from having experienced people-centred change previously. I expect this shift to quality and full time roles to gather pace in 2014.


The downturn has coincided with the development of rafts of new media from platforms through to apps, communities through to gamification and infographics. All have merit in one form or another, most have been a tantalising addition to the way we interact with each other inside and outside of the office, and most have served to democratise access to information to such an extent that quantity threatens to swamp quality and we risk losing sight of the proverbial wood for the trees. However, there has been an overriding misunderstanding, perpetuated by the purveyors and producers of these tools that any one of them could/should be a communication elixir. Yet none are, nor will they ever be. The beauty, as ever, will be in the blend. To coin a well-used line “it ain’t what you do but the way that you do it”!

The best internal communication professionals will develop appropriate strategies where the tools help to deliver the business outcomes rather than the business becoming the slave to a delivery mechanism that like many before it (like email broadcasts) will be rendered obsolete if the messages aren’t reinforced through appropriate leadership behaviour. While I expect the development and adoption of social media and other platforms to continue apace in the new year, I expect to see a significant rise in the perceived importance of face-to-face communication between senior leaders and their employees and particularly first line managers and their reports. This has always been and will always be the surest way to generate sustainable engagement, moving the conversation from surviving to thriving and, despite the additional channels, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that there’s a better way.”

Ian is the author of Brand Engagement (2007) and Brand Champions (2011).


It’s ironic that for months, nay years, belated rants and pants aplenty about the “engagement movement” clogged up the communication superhighway. Now, like Jnr half an hour after breaking into the Haribo cupboard, folk are seemingly sick at the sight or sound of the word.

I’m not sure whether you’ve ever felt moved to engage with the hype, but seemingly hundreds (!) of gurus were “kettled” into a process of allegedly corralling engagement “lore” perhaps in the desperate belief that there would seemingly be work for them at the end of the yellow brick road. Yet it would appear that while there have been “honours” for some, the global employee engagement statistics have continued to nose dive at an ever alarming rate. Try explaining that one to your kids when they ask you what these people do for a living.

I exaggerate (a tad) for engaging effect, of course. But it is ironic that since the start of the global recession, when one would have thought that employee engagement initiatives would be welcomed with open arms, we appear to have experienced a prolonged downturn in the connection between employer and employees while the electronic grapevines are now clogged with complaints about the “standard” approach, patronising discourse and clichéd terminology. Never have I been less pleased to say “I told you so”.

State-sponsored movements (no pun intended) often emit an unpleasant odour for a reason. Not least because they’re often sponsored and administered by seemingly well-meaning, establishment  folk who are well behind the curve. But what happens when it’s the establishment that’s at least a large part of the problem? And let’s face it, it’s tricky to role-model something about which so many have such high expectations yet which can only really be fulfilled one patch at a time in a manner appropriate to local stakeholders.

Sure, there are best practices to share about the component parts of an engagement system ranging from how to set objectives, how to run an internal comms department, how to run events, how to use new media, measure etc. Great! But the over-arching, big, hairy, strategic,  woolly mammoth of an elephant in the room issue is that engagement can only ever be a means to an end (why do so few people GET this?) and can only really be effective if its part of an organisation development strategy with very senior sponsorship from both internal and external-facing executive functions. Without this it’s simply internal PR and, let’s face it, external-facing PR has a bad enough name right now when easily-made promises by slick wordsmiths are so hard to keep.

Improving the engagement landscape in order to help pull this or any other country out of the economic doldrums can only ever be achieved one company at a time. Why? Well that’s because any engagement strategy (or whatever you call it) needs to be fit for purpose for the local market, the workaday people who breathe life into the machine. And like the funky folk I was working with this week, they may just not be inspired by the terminology, the prescribed wisdom or the hype. They may like the principle of an integrated organisation development model, however, they just see the same rose and call it by another, more attractive name, one that works for them and which suits their brand and the preferences of their people.

They don’t like vision or mission or terms like change management much either, mind you. But rather than argue about semantics, they’re getting on with developing their own version of a growth strategy based on energising and mobilising their people.

There may be a lesson here…

“The dew-shower fell on thee, the sunbeam play’d,
As Life is ever made of smiles and tears;
And ofttimes has the breeze of summer sway’d,
And with its mellow music mock’d thy fears;
But now, O wonder, thou art pale and wan,
And there’s a beauty and a fragrance gone!” (A Withered Rose-bud, Walter R Cassels)


Sustainability is too often taken as shorthand for the environment lobby. It should really be viewed as an approach to business strategy that ensures an organisation is still around to enjoy the benefits that a positive legacy of wise decision-making brings. That should be pretty handy for the environment too. So with the notion of longevity and balance in mind, why is there so much short term transactional chatter about?

It wasn’t that long ago that any senior level cv containing a role held for less than two years was viewed with alarm; the word career was a major selling point in an employment brand strategy and transformational qualities were viewed much higher than transactional when it came to assessing leaders. Yet in a business environment where shareholders expect quarterly incremental returns creating “up or out” shock waves throughout the performance management infrastructure, is it really surprising that current executives appear to be becoming increasingly transactional, focused on task and output only and readily hop jobs/organisations much more frequently? Or that organisations now employ more interim execs than ever before?

Little surprise against this backdrop that self-styled behaviour gurus like Bernard Marr  are cautioning todays executives to be careful about what they share with their colleagues at work and become more transaction focused or run the risk of rendering themselves “vulnerable”. Quite a depressing ask in an increasingly transparent society. And  judging by the comments his articles are attracting, however, it would appear that he may well be aiming wide of the mark.

As someone who believes strongly in authenticity, I find his views typical of the short sightedness currently hampering true economic recovery and undermining the general sense of wellbeing that is so important for businesses to stabilise, thrive and innovate.

Sustainability is all about being around, not only for a long time, but for a good time. That means setting balanced goals and being judged a success by all stakeholders inside and beyond central office. Work has too great an influence on all of our lives for there to be too great a mis-match between corporate goals and individual values; corporate culture and personal beliefs; employer brand and working reality. And let’s face it, people work harder for longer for people they get on with.

As I wrote as part of the conclusion to Brand Engagement, “brand (and business) management can have a profound impact on the things that matter most to society by helping us refocus our collective consciousness back onto the things that really matter. At a time when respected leaders are in short supply in so many facets of life, work becomes increasingly important as a channel for expressing our values and beliefs.BEngagement

You can tell a lot about what a society values by the relationship between the structures that dominate our mental and physical landscapes, the places where brands literally shine brightest. I can’t help thinking that we’ve missed the point somewhat in recent times. As trees and mountains have been replaced by megaliths and totems, village halls by churches, churches by castles, castles by palaces, palaces by corporate HQs, spirituality by corporate policy and corporate HQs by corporate brands and the world wide web, we’ve lost the connections and something has fallen through the cracks at each successive stage, something’s missing.”

New media,, for example, brings its own unique range of opportunities to re-connect and gather around different “totems”, subjects and crowds or societies. But if these tools are to help us all become more fulfilled and to realise our potential, their owners too have to walk that fine line between enabling people to connect while getting the job done and avoid being hijacked by the transactional agenda at the expense of the transformational lobby who will bring their own norms, ethical standards and values to bear, whether operating within or beyond the boundaries of any particular business or brand.

With this in mind, a word of advice for the more enlightened business leaders out there who really do value corporate culture and who have a mind to thriving rather than simply surviving to the next quarter:

“We can improve the cultures we live in (whether corporate or otherwise) by improving the performance of the brands that support the full range of our needs, even if that means being brave enough to open the doors to alternative ways of seeing and encouraging our colleagues and peers to really bring themselves to work.”*

Let’s face it, the alternative is too depressing to ponder for too long. It attracts the type of people who won’t stick around for long enough to witness the outcomes that result from their decisions. And far from being sustainable that behaviour can’t be good for anyone but themselves.

*Brand Engagement; Buckingham (2007).


We’ve all doubtless been shocked and not a little disgusted by the scandals that have  rocked the NHS and healthcare industry.

And how many times are we going to have to witness scenes like the red-faced RBS boss Stephen Hester locked in the City PR stocks once again, the target of more public vitriol as he shells out more public funds on behalf of his so-called “liborous” rogue traders?

And as for the humiliation of senior MP Chris Huhne, well, can there be a stone left for him to crawl under that isn’t occupied by former parliamentary colleagues or disgraced corporate executives?

The culture change specialists writing in People Management magazine*, myself included, have published volumes on the relationship between culture, values, behaviour and organisation performance and the need to view organisation development holistically, as a system, rather than playing “whack a mole” crisis management.

But it’s about time this all became a lot more personal as it’s obvious we have a very pernicious problem on our hands.

A particularly worrying conversation I’ve had recently was over a few emergency glasses of wine with a senior HR friend of mine. She works for an organisation charged with transforming an industry blown apart by brand disasters of an unprecedented scale and record levels of customer, shareholder and employee disengagement.

She’s been working 14 hour days for years playing her part in the efforts to put things right. In that time she has donned many an HR guise that will be familiar to most of us:

  • process engineer
  • re-organiser
  • hatchet person
  • enforcer
  • politician
  • bleeding heart
  • confidante

But, as she told me, it’s been way too long since her role has been truly developmental, nurturing or even adequately strategic.

Things came to a head during a recent series of grievance meetings when she found herself repeating a silent mantra over and over again “Just because I understand where you’re coming from doesn’t mean I care”.

It frightened her so much that, for the first time in a decade, she took some time out, working from home. But, after reflecting, and despite her age, seniority and the state of the world economy, she has suddenly called time on her HR career in favour of…..well, she doesn’t know yet.

Now this isn’t a cry for HR professionals to suddenly down tools. But it is a challenge to every HR professional who reads this to ask themselves: “When was the last time I stopped and reflected on what it is that I truly value?”

There are at least three factors influencing what we value at any stage in our lives and they include:

  • context
  • trust
  • and our level of psychological development.

The problem with a recession is that it plunges us all into a crisis (context) and undermines our sense of security. In theory, we shuffle back down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and focus on survival.

And for HR professionals this is a particularly dangerous time.

Given the need for more diverse boardrooms, the loss of my friend is as much a disaster for her organisation as it is for the HR profession in general. A highly respected and well rounded businesswoman, first and foremost, she was attracted to HR as she has a passion for nurturing the potential in people.

Although it may not seem that way at times, HR is a people profession and for many people it’s a vocation. As such, it should be a route to happiness. But is it?

Given the time we all spend at work one of the most important social networks we all have includes our colleagues and sometimes our customers.

Like it or not, HR professionals are orchestrators of that corporate culture. They have a huge contribution to make to the fate of the organisations and brands they represent. But how many feel that they are making a difference?

We can’t always change an organisation overnight. But we can start with ourselves and the decisions we make daily. Perhaps if we all engineered our own personal values crisis from time to time by asking ourselves why we joined the profession in the first place, we may even start to take control of the legacy we’re likely to leave behind?

I’m willing to bet there would be fewer corporate scandals if we did.

* article originally published in People Management, the publication of the CIPD.


The standout headline from a business breakfast I hosted recently for senior leaders on the topic of building sustainable businesses, came from the sustainability supremo of Marks & Spencer. It was that it’s people who make or break businesses by the way they elect to behave at work, especially in this new media age where we’re all just 1 viral scandal away from brand disaster.

Being an advocate of building brands and businesses from the inside out, this was naturally music to my ears. He was, of course, talking about reputation management and the need for systems, processes and procedures for managing the PR interface via Facebook; Twitter; Linkedin etc, something I’ve long called “downstream communication”. Yet any enlightened HR director will know that reputation management starts upstream or, as a very senior banking executive recently put it “the only sure way to stop people saying bad things about you online is to stop doing bad things as a company”.

As we all know, culture, is the way we do things round here or the sum of the behaviour of the employees, starting with the leaders. It’s a term trotted out to such an extent in recent times by the likes of Hester, Diamond, BBC and NHS leaders and co, whether in connection with banking; broadcasting or healthcare crises, for example, that it has become a cliché. Yet, perversely, proactive culture development costs very little, needn’t be at all disruptive and can transform organisational effectiveness completely within a few months, as I’ve witnessed many times.

However, a host of myths are perpetuated about culture change. Allow me to debunk just a few:

  1. It’s too complex, you can’t manage culture. Wrong. You can and you most certainly should. Just as business leaders have a responsibility to ensure that they set the vision, pace and tone of the business, they have an obligation to communicate a very clear picture of the desired culture necessary to deliver the goals and objectives of the business. But the management of the strategy to deliver that culture requires as much planning, resources and application as developing the marketing strategy or there’s little point attracting clients to your door if you can’t deliver. So, why isn’t this happening where you work?

  2. It has to be focused on the top. Culture change certainly requires the endorsement and support of the top team who should lead by example. But by far and away the first line management community is the bedrock on which culture is built. And if the way “we” currently do things isn’t going to deliver the results necessary, most of the change effort needs to be focused on the team leaders, recruiters and performance managers. Is it?

  3. The need for change is intuitive. Well, that’s true to some extent in that the best leaders “get it”. But just as you’d expect to have to develop a business case for a new IT system, it’s worth setting out the business case for culture change including metrics like opportunity cost; cost of complaints; employee retention stats; engagement metrics etc. Helps to convince the more left brained, whatever their level and helps to justify any request for resources.

  4. It can all be achieved using internal resource. It can’t. Familiar with the phrase “you’re part of the problem”? Well it’s virtually impossible for internal change agents to be either objective; bullet proof (especially in a recession) or well informed enough about comparative best practices, to steer clear of political pitfalls and steer the organisation through the rocky road of what is often emotional and extremely testing change. Not using trusted external advisors paid to work with the senior team as well as the wider employee base is a false economy as the change process will have blind spots and will be much slower, if it is sustained at all.

I’m sure there are many more myths we can all think of. But the important point here is that culture management should be one of the core pillars of the organisation development strategy of all organisations as it touches upon so many stakeholder management engagement points whether recruitment; performance management; leadership development or the increasingly popular social media platform development. And when it comes to managing consumer perceptions, far, far better to sustain positive employee behaviours upstream than to chase the stampeding horses of scandal downstream or online. And planning for culture change and development is certainly part of HR’s remit regardless of whether they have formal responsibility for communicating that change, or not.

Readers of my books and other writing will hear the word “authenticity” a lot.

Quite often it’s part of a sentence urging business leaders to be as they say, to be comfortable in their own skins, show some vulnerability and thereby engage more effectively with their employees. Sometimes it’s an appeal to brand managers to ensure that they create internal cultures that are capable of delivering on the brand promise broadcast in their advertising. Today however, it’s aimed at marketing departments who have such a low opinion of their target customers that they embarrass us by making us listen to the vain attempts of their conscripted sales mercenaries trying to blunder their way into our pockets like a prom date with a bad case of the adrenalin shakes.

I’m sure you have your own favourites. But here’s my current top 5 sales and marketing techniques that are a blight on modern life:

1. Off shore call centres: they  shoot for rapport when a complete stranger calls another stranger and reads “how are you (insert first name)?” from an on-screen script. And they usually miss badly.

Given that most of us are normally very busy when they call and feeling violated by the intrusion, badging yourself Wendy or Jason for the sake of compelling cultural convergence just doesn’t cut it. So give it a rest and reverse the cost cutting decision which gained your predecessor his promotioninsincere before the procession for the doors becomes a stampede.

2. Complex tariff bundles: Don’t get me wrong, I understand that your technical specialists get off on the cleverness of tying in different usability rates with the phases of the moon, just as I get it that IT guys swell in the trouser department when they wrong foot most of us by dangling jargon on a teleconference line. But we just don’t have the time or patience to search for the perfect tariff wave every month, just to keep abreast of the open mobile, banking or utilities markets…..but then you knew that already right? Clever! And while you’re on the line, before someone sues you, please sort out your 8+ pages of Ts and Cs with this thought at the front of your mind “a message is only communicated if it has been understood by the recipient.”

3. Product Insurance for electronic goods: I’m amazed that sales guys still have the front to ask people for money for this or that people STILL fall for it. Here’s the rub, either sell me a product for a reasonable price that will work for a reasonable amount of time or I’ll use the growing social media mafia to bug your CEO and damage your brand. Simple!

4. Extras on economy flights: You know the score if you’re going to buy a flight for £5 i.e. someone is eventually going to charge you £75 for using the toilets. Planes are bad for the environment. Travelling in them is very stressful. It should be a pleasurable experience for a transparent, all-inclusive price. Have the front to charge a fair fee and you can shove your stealth sur-charges thanks. Same applies to car hire companies.

5. Reality TV “talent” shows: I thought we’d see some changes following the tele-voting scandals that rocked even the best of the brands, like the BBC.  Yet the pay per view practices seem here to stay, replacing quality entertainment with dancing dogs and singing freaks and other such pap for the dispossessed who still seem to part with their hard-earned pennies, albeit filtered through their phone bills rather than direct from their bank accounts (clever!). Why do you think the genuinely talented so often lose to the best sob-story? Pay per view? Pay per tear perhaps?

But where does the true power behind all of these shoddy practices and more lie?

Well it’s entirely with you and a single powerful word: “No”!

Then walk out, switch off, switch brands or switch over!


Very unhelpfully, political and economic commentators are suggesting that the current austerity culture and resulting economic stagnation may well persist until at least 2020.

Politics aside, to hell with that!

I’m old enough to recall the last recession and while the root cause was very different, it’s now high time business leaders removed their heads from between their knees and recognised that, rather than stare into the oncoming headlights of the vehicles they can’t control or continue to bang the drum for business as usual while the world changes around them, they should be doing all they can to make the most of the assets they have, namely their people, proposition and brand.

One of the many problems of the chatter about employee engagement is that it’s the equivalent of lecturing the drowning man about why he isn’t swimming. And when the folk handing out the lectures come from the public sector, training, eventing or even comms  stable or have patently never managed a P&L let alone a corporation or even a team, it gives an entire “industry” a bad name. The so-called engagement “movement” is doing little more than dumbing down the decades of past learning and providing catharsis for the cynical and disaffected at the moment. The stats unfortunately back this up.

I’ve long expressed the view that the goal of educating Board directors about the importance of employee engagement misses the point by quite some way. Most directors worth their salt know that more focused, motivated employees make for more productive employees. So now, once and for all, please repeat after me: “Engagement isn’t an end in itself . It’s just one of the factors that help drive organisation performance”.feel good? Thought so!

Having come safely through the engagement fug, what exactly can the forward thinking CEO; HRD or fellow director take upon themselves to do differently to buck the austerity trend and steal the march on their competitors who mistakenly believe that forcing noses back to grindstones will win the day?

Well, they could start by reflecting on ways they can help their people do things better or do better things and take the time to learn the lessons of  a brand like Zurich which went from an indistinct  insurance company to a leading global player, not by making gradual changes nor  through acquisition or by splicing their management demographic with the DNA of creatives but by cultivating a culture of innovation amongst their existing leadership population. Importantly, Zurich didn’t just browbeat middle managers about their engagement skills. They achieved success, largely by re-distributing internal budgets and embarking on a 3 year people-centred change strategy which involved:

1. using trusted advisers to gain the commitment of the top team (“I will if you will”) and begin to create a supportive culture from within

2. focusing on innovation as an exciting core strategic principle and core value, a break from the safely grey branding of old

3. setting clear and measurable targets and goals that even the FD could relate to (new concepts; culture; cost/income benefits of mobilisation events etc)

4. developing a shared process for:

- idea generation and recognition

- engagement (road shows supported by creative comms)

- senior support and sanction

- accessing guiding expertise (behaviour change as well as new product development etc)

- cross-industry partnerships

They transformed their brand in the process and stole the global march on many of their competitors.

You can learn more about the ZFS change journey and other examples of leaders and organisations who have moved rapidly from engaging to performing in Brand Engagement: How Employees Make or Break Brands or by dropping Ian Buckingham a line.


 I was recently asked to write a piece about communication, leadership and networking for the Rugby Business Network and while reading a recent Mc Kinsey&Company article offering ambitious insights into how leaders can leverage six social media dimensions for employee engagement I was reminded of the Facebook vs face time phrase, which I coined over five years ago, .

So-called social media, a much abused misnomer for the relatively new technological, almost virtual, communication gathering points fed largely by constantly evolving gadgets, is literally fantastic. What had latterly been the stuff of fantasy has led to cultural and business revolutions; has liberated many-a-Dilbert from their cubicle and has clearly added a whole new dimension to communication.

I’ve long been a fan of many of the fresh communication channels to have emerged in the last decade or so. But having spent most of my career working with leadership teams in one shape or another, usually trying to help them become more effective, I remain sceptical of the too persistent claims that electronic channels are, or will ever be, communication nirvana. Why? Well, let’s face it, similar claims have been made since man first used electricity to generate messages yet it’s hard enough getting many leaders to talk the talk let alone walk it as their people need them to.

The six social media dimensions and skills outlined by McKinsey’s Deiser and Newton, which they claim every leader now needs, are:

1.     Producer

2.     Distributor

3.     Recipient

4.     Adviser

5.     Architect

6.     Analyst.

I’m not so sure I buy into that list as with all due respect to the authors of the report, in reality, most organisations will do well if, when it comes to any media for that matter, their leaders manage to be:

o       consumers

o       listeners and

o       possibly originators.

The rest of the list, in my view, is the specialist domain of a professional communications function, as this excerpt from a job description for a comms manager at Tesco illustrates:

• Colleagues hear from us first about what’s happening in the business and my stakeholders recognise the impact of the work I deliver
• The narrative I deliver links back to the core purpose and uses it as a central thread to embed a new culture/way of working
• All communication is joined-up, produced to a high standard, is simple, open and honest and sent out in a timely manner
• I explore new ways of communicating to our colleagues, utilising new technology
• I speak to colleagues and get their feedback on the effectiveness and impact of our communication and the channels we use
• I have evaluated the activity and produced positive results
• I build and maintain positive relationships across teams
• Suppliers are proactively managed and reviewed.

But that doesn’t imply that all communication matters are the sole domain of a specialist function, far from it.

Around ten years ago, I was a director of probably the leading internal communications and change consultancy at that time, certainly in the UK. We ran countless diagnostics for clients across sectors and invariably the most persistent criticisms levelled at leaders were:

o       failure to provide opportunities for feedback, involvement and dialogue

o       not listening and acting on feedback received

o       a reluctance to communicate, especially when times were tough

o       not leading by example or walking the talk

I’ve seen nothing since to convince me that those criticisms aren’t still valid today given the state of employee engagement generally or that new media platforms have made much difference as, whatever the delivery mechanism, the old adage of “sh*t in, sh*t out still applies.

No communication strategy, however funky the channels therein, exists in a vacuum. Corporate culture, or the way we do things round here, is inevitably the key component and leadership behaviour has a huge influence on corporate culture.

In short, the issue with leadership communication isn’t channel-specific, it’s mostly about behaviour. And addressing behaviour is way beyond the pay grade of the comms professionals alone, is clearly the domain of the OD, change and leadership development specialists and is the responsibility of the leaders themselves.

In order to ensure that the leadership communication system is operating effectively, leadership teams need first to be able to answer at least the following fundamental questions:

1.     Why are we here, what’s our primary purpose and have we communicated this?

2.     How will we operate and what are our key leadership processes, including the way we communicate?

3.     What are the foundations of leadership, our behaviour as a group, our leadership style?

4.     How do we interact as a leadership team?

5.     How do the individual members behave with key stakeholders, including employees

Speaking as someone who works across sectors, it’s surprising how seldom leadership teams can tick all of those boxes. There’s little point, in my view, bolting on channels, whether new media or old school like Team Briefing, video cascades; town halls or even emails, until the leadership team has addressed these fundamentals. Why? Because of the importance of the term “social” and the behaviour implied.

All communication is essentially social in that it should take at least two and is about information received, understood and acted upon more than information pushed. To be truly effective, it requires a relationship of sorts to exists between initiator and receiver. And the effectiveness of that relationship is mostly determined by behaviour not volume or content.

Much of the effectiveness of communication is dependent on the state of trust that exists between the parties, reciprocal belief in each other and the level of authenticity implied (being what you say). It requires transformational elements (showing that you know the person and care about them) as well as transactional components (being clear about what you want from them). Fail to get the balance right and the initiator becomes just another spammer, cold caller or online pest.

New media may well provide fresh opportunities for obtaining, conveying and sharing information communally. But without the application of basic social skills, the damage it can do can outweighs the problems it solves. And for leaders, this is an especially tricky dilemma, particularly during a downturn when people need the additional reassurance that can only come from pressing flesh and seeing confident smiles.

Most employees welcome fresh channels and involving ways to express themselves. But I can’t think of a single comms audit in which people prioritised electronic media over and above more effective face to face. Take this HBR article, for instance, which points out that despite the rise in the influence of “the machines”, “the face-to-face conference business is robust, we’re flying more miles than ever to interact with others, the brightest minds still converge on innovation hubs like Silicon Valley, and collaborative spaces in firms are increasingly popular”.

As I illustrate in Brand Engagement, while I was working with UK super technology, semi-conductor giant Arm Holdings it soon became clear that engagement is “all talk there”. Their boffins and geeks hardly ever use internal social media – most of their communal communication being face to face. Sure they have all so-called social media bases covered externally and use Twitter in particular to engage with external stakeholders. But the point is, they still believe that sociable face to face, wherever possible, should come first. Their directors clock up masses of air miles ensuring that they visit their global offices regularly and they genuinely pride themselves on their huddle meetings and open door policy. Arm is a business based largely on innovations resulting from what futurist Richard Watson calls “serendipitous encounters” during both large-scale and micro meetings that are much more dynamic than Wikis or online forums

Having said that, we live in an age of exciting innovation, especially with regard to electronic communication. What business wouldn’t want to expand their communications repertoire? And we all have a unique opportunity to “play” with new platforms and potentially bend them to our needs. As with many things in life however, the answer to how to integrate electronic social media into the leadership practices of any business doesn’t lie at the extremes of application but in the blend. Success is clearly dependent upon appreciating the technology for what it is and merging it with all-important, multi-sensory, face to face, cheek by jowl congregating and gathering in person, pressing flesh, eyeballing and communing with colleagues and contacts. New channels certainly aren’t a substitute for getting the classic basics right. And there’s no more important time to promote this blended approach than during times of attrition when communities need leaders and the reassurance of inspiring, warm words as well as a confidence boosting arm around the shoulder which costs nothing but potentially means everything. (Ian Buckingham)

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Interesting post on the CIPD site by editor Alison Gilbertson this week alluding to the disconnect between the apparent needs of recruiting employers and apparent expectations of Gen Y.

While I dislike the gross generalisations in this context as much as I found the clumsy gender stereotypes irritating in the book to which it alludes, the research raises a number of interesting points for anyone responsible for managing their organisation’s employer brand:

Employers are from Mars, young people are from Venus

New research launched at last week’s CIPD HRD Conference, reveals a gulf in expectations between young people and employers that is seemingly contributing to high levels of youth unemployment. It’s also fuelling a ticking time bomb of skills shortages for UK businesses, who may be limiting their access to this important and diverse talent pool.

The report identifies flash points hindering young people from finding work and the CIPD has published a practical leaflet with top tips for recruiting young people.

In such an employer’s market, it’s easy to dismiss these findings by placing the emphasis back on young talent to adapt to the stated needs of the recruiters,especially with regard to “classic skills” an argument too easily overlooked. But over on the flip side, it does beg the question whether recruiters are so far behind the skills and innovation curve that they may well be missing out on the type of talent that will help boost the recovery drive.

There are opportunities to influence thinking in this area by voting on a CIPD poll.

Alternatively, drop us a line if you would like to explore employer brand, recruitment or engagement challenges you may currently be faced with as we’ve helped a range of organisations from sectors as diverse as financial services, not for profit and healthcare re-connect with existing and prospective talent.

Peter Cheese, Chief Executive, CIPD: ‘Too many young people are struggling to find their first job, whereas many employers are finding it difficult to get the skills they need. This mismatch needs to be addressed’. Hear Peter Cheese give his views on the future of HR – challenges and opportunities – at the Industrial Law Society’s one-day spring conference on 18 May in London.

Why authenticity matters

April 18, 2013

609337545“If the work you are doing is what you chose to do because you love it then it may well be your bliss. If not, then it’s your dragon.” (Joseph Campbell 2001)

 I often think about Campbell’s quote, not least when times are tough and people are clearly having to “put up and shut up”.  It reminds me of that scene in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil and of the Kurtzman dilemma I wrote about in Brand Engagement.

The dilemma alludes to the flawed notion that we can somehow entirely divorce the “work” me from the “home” me and is caricatured by the famous scene in which Mr Kurtzman, the sinister, institutionalised manager is undermined by his own “army” of clerks who clearly despise their tawdry roles.

The scene starts when Kurtzman is suddenly disturbed in his grey factory of an office by the sound of cinematic gunfire.  When he throws open his office door to investigate, contrary to his suspicions that fun rather than work may be afoot, the general office of clerks is unexpectedly a hub of normal industrious activity. Meanwhile, behind his back, his personal monitor switches from the figures he’s been working on to a classic Western movie.

Returning to his office, the moment he closes his door the movie resumes on the monitors in the general office and the clerks once again grind to a leisurely halt.  The scene repeats itself several times over, the manager, Kurtzman growing increasingly paranoid and agitated with every iteration.

 As the viewer we’re complicit in the subterfuge which is revealed to us whenever Kurtzman opens and closes his office door.  It’s a memorable parody of the “us” and “them” mentality and the way we’ve been conditioned to view work and leisure activity as polar extremes.  It also illustrates how, despite even the most draconian of regimes, the human spirit of rebelliousness and mischief in pursuit of some form of involving interaction will out and will channel the attention, creativity and energy of employees.

In my experience of working with brands across sectors and with people at a variety of levels, it’s that self-same human spirit, call it what you will, that makes or breaks organisations. People are undoubtedly more comfortable, more engaged and more productive if they are self aware enough to understand their deep-seated hopes, desires and ambitions and the values and behaviour that can lead to the fulfilment of those desires and dreams.

In turn, organisations are much more engaging, successful and ultimately sustainable (the ultimate objective) if they are clear about their goals, values and culture. Put another way:

Employer brand (aspirational) minus employee brand = employment brand (actual).

Sure, it’s natural for leaders to become obsessed with survival and enforcing the ”day job” in the tough times. But the sooner we all recognise that it is the day job of leaders at all levels to encourage self-awareness, self-actualisation and to cultivate a true performance culture in which people feel free to be themselves and thereby share in the ownership of the organisation’s goals, the faster the recovery process will be.

And that’s in everyone’s best interests, isn’t it?


Surely at least one of the aims of any learning intervention has to be the pursuit of smarter decisions driven by improved skills and levels of understanding. Part of the process has to involve face to face interactions between people to develop empathy, understanding and cultivate emotional intelligence.

While welcoming and embracing the benefits that  so-called social media and technology solutions have to bring to the world of communication, I’ve long held the view that the term is a misnomer! “Social” should embrace the full gamut of interactions, both technology linked and eyeball to eyeball, with the emphasis very much on the latter. Consequently, so-called “gamification”, a rather clunky US term for “playing games as a customer or at work in order to increase engagement levels”, should embrace more than technology delivered “faster, better, instantly, yesterday” etc.  It should include scenario planning and strategic role-playing that is informed by and not dominated by technology like, you know, real business is!

One of the biggest issues we currently face at work and in society is the myth that technology is the route to more effective communication, forgetting that communication isn’t about “pushing” messages, it’s a two-way process which should result in some sort of understanding and consequent action.

I know from experience both as a customer and a designer of customer and executive learning programmes that the best “games” are those that blend technology with real play involving actual people. If you’re in any doubt, watch how much fun your kids can have with a friend or two, an old plant pot, couple of sticks and a cardboard box. Now compare that to their Playstation time!

The quality of the interactions is what’s most important whether we’re learning, working or just having fun! Something worth remembering the next time you have the chance to feed back on an organisation’s 25 pg long terms and conditions, a new training initiative that replaces workshops with “distance learning”; a call centre that asks you for a minute to complete a “survey” because you forgot to opt out of the process yet takes an hour trying to sell to you, or see that colleague who dumps multi-meg files in your in box on a friday night in the name of “improved communication” ;-)

Appreciative-Inquiry-Diagram1Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a particular way of asking questions and envisioning the future that fosters positive relationships and builds on the basic goodness in a person, a situation, or an organization. It’s an organisation development process or philosophy that involves and engages individuals within an organization in its turnaround, renewal, change and focused performance.

Put another way, it’s an approach that believes in the power of positive thinking and seeks to draw out the inner superhero in every employee rather than a self-fulfilling belief that all employees are dullards or innately villainous.

Used effectively, it enhances an organisation’s capacity for collaboration and change.  It’s a fantastic way of signaling an energising alternative to the depressing and draining, downsizing mentality of a recession.

Appreciative Inquiry utilizes a cycle of 4 processes focusing on:

  1. DISCOVER: The identification of organizational processes and behaviours that work well.
  2. DREAM: The envisioning of processes and behaviours that would work well in the future.
  3. DESIGN: Planning and prioritizing processes and behaviours that would work well.
  4. DESTINY (or DELIVER): The implementation (execution) of the proposed design.

Even the headings are inspirational.

The basic idea is to build organizations around what works, rather than just trying to fix what doesn’t. It is the opposite of problem solving. Instead of focusing on gaps and inadequacies to find blame and remediate skills or practices, AI focuses on how to create more of the occasional exceptional performance that is occurring (and there will be examples), regardless of conditions, because a core of strengths is aligned.

The approach acknowledges the contribution of individuals, in order to increase trust and inspire best practice. The method aims to create meaning by drawing from stories of concrete successes with the potential of becoming best practices and lends itself to cross-functional social activities. It can be enjoyable and natural to many managers, who, let’s face it, are often sociable people when they come out from behind the badge.

There are a variety of approaches to implementing Appreciative Inquiry, including mass-mobilized interviews and a large, diverse gathering called an Appreciative Inquiry Summit Both approaches involve bringing very large, diverse groups of people together to study and build upon the best in an organization or community.

The basic philosophy of AI is also found in other positively oriented approaches to individual change as well as organizational change. AI fosters positive relationships and builds on the basic goodness in a person, or a situation. The idea of building on strength, rather than just focusing on faults and weakness is a powerful idea in use in mentoring programs, and excellent performance evaluations – where superheroes come into their own.

If you’re wondering what to do with your employee survey and are a little nervous about how any internal benchmarking activity will be received; if you’ve had enough of the pessimism and would like to know more about the power of Appreciative Inquiry or just need a hand spotting those brand champions quietly battling the economic doom and gloom, get in touch. We’re happy to share ideas.

the walking dead working dead at office

The status of HR remains one of the persistent love ‘em or hate ‘em leadership debates of our time. After two decades of business transformation experience at the sharp end, despite the ravages of time, I still stand squarely in the HR camp.

This is largely because I believe passionately in the importance of behaviour to brand and organisation performance and that the enlightened CEO should embrace rather than marginalise the HR function.

To transform an organisation successfully and sustainably from within, the CEO and HRD need to work shoulder to shoulder as the most important custodians of organisation culture.

The CEO always has demigod status whether they cultivate it or not. And first line managers are of course, the critical behavioural pivots around which organisation culture revolves. But when I reflect on the many culture transformation programmes I’ve led or facilitated down the years, there isn’t one that was successfully achieved without first transforming HR.

There are two very good reasons why:

  1. Like it or not, the HR function owns most of the people processes like recruitment; induction; performance management; reward; training and development and even internal comms. And we all know what happens to the house if we don’t take care of the plumbing
  2. HR professionals, in my experience, tend to have highly-tuned survival instincts that enable them to adapt to the needs of the most vociferous business leaders, fly the people flag yet avoid alienating themselves from their more left-brained colleagues. However, rather like litmus paper they soak up and reflect prevalent leadership cultural norms.

You have to transform the HR department if culture change is going to stick. So it makes sense to ensure that the HRD plays a leading part in the business improvement programme or process.

There’s clearly little doubt that HR has a lingering and possibly worsening image problem, however. According to a very recent survey of 418 C-suite managers, for example, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by management consultancy KPMG:

-          a mere 17% believe that HR does a good job, with many seeing it as a non-essential department.

-         75% of those questioned pointed out that their workforces were becoming increasingly global, virtual and flexible, yet only 25% believed that HR excelled at projecting the employer brand and finding and retaining international talent.

-         A worrying 24% also warned that HR teams were simply unable to support the company’s globalisation strategy

Not the greatest endorsement from this group of internal customers, albeit the research was undertaken in an age when we’re hardly being overwhelmed by positive leadership role models generally.

I’ve been in fine company when I’ve called for culture change, not just in Financial Services, but within the boardrooms of many of our FTSE organisations. The Governor of the Bank of England; the CEO of the CIPD and many organisation leaders themselves have recently acknowledged the role that culture has to play in sustaining business and brand equity. Businesses and brands aren’t built on promises but on the cumulative weight of the everyday actions of workaday employees. Culture is the sum of that behaviour. Terms like presenteeism have recently been dreamt up to describe the invidious impact of rotten culture. It’s what happens when employees turn off yet dangerously still turn up. My shorthand for them is the walking or working dead* and in the current business climate, if we’re to believe the overwhelming evidence of the more credible engagement research it’s unsurprising that shambling masses are seemingly shuffling to work in the undead equivalent of droves.

The term culture change rolls easily off the tongue. But it’s tricky to implement, especially when you’re part of the problem and are too close to the key issues. No CEO can fix corporate culture alone. If the likes of Stephen Hester at RBS are serious about a culture-led transformation of their brands, it’s time they stopped filibustering about values and behaviours hoping for favourable PR. They need to start inspiring and empowering their HRDs who in turn clearly need to become more than yesterday’s seemingly safe pair of hands. And if they don’t believe in their HR leadership the time may well have come to seek out more proactive talent to help wake the walking dead.

* Brand Engagement (PalgraveMacmillan 2007)


It was a privilege to share my thoughts on maintaining employee engagement during challenging times with the wonderful HR people representing the housing associations of Wales at the HR conference organised by Community Housing Cymru.

Banking crises aside, few people have a more difficult task than this dedicated band of HR folk right now but none are as dedicated to climbing the engagement staircase*.

During my talk, I advocated a simple but balanced approach to employee engagement in the current climate, aimed at improving involvement levels first. Regardless of the sometimes mystifying rhetoric surrounding the subject, it’s undoubtedly better to set a few goals and to perform well than to overcomplicate matters and freeze.  So I was uplifted and not a little impressed to hear Stephen Cook, CEO of Valleys to Coast (V2C) outline the essentially straightforward but very effective way in which they have addressed employee engagement challenges within their region, quite rightly positioning the initiatives they have taken as examples of leadership best practices rather than overwhelming employees with an impossibly complex engagement programme.

During the last three years, in response to thorough and widespread consultation,  V2C have employed a clear and essentially  straightforward series of initiatives under three headings :

  1. Pay/Benefits
  2. Line Management
  3. Job Security & Recognition

Initiatives have been led by HR in conjunction with line managers and the senior team and have included initiatives like job swap days; employee consultations and networking events; leadership training and a revised performance management and reward process.

As a consequence, they have significantly improved many of the key indicators all the more impressive given this has been achieved in the face of a severe economic downturn.

Notable improvements include:

  • Colleagues feeling valued

2006   53%

2008   73%

2010   74%

  • Colleagues who believe their Snr Manager is accessible

2006   70%

2008   88%

2010   92%

  • Colleagues who believe Chief Exec is visible/accessible

2006   44%

2008   57%

2010   69%

I can think of a host of CEOs who would kill for results half as good as those or to find themselves at No 13 in the Times Best Companies poll, as their near neighbours Coastal Housing just have. Proof positive once again, of the link between leadership, culture and performance and plenty of food for thought for anyone struggling with the seemingly slippery issue of employee engagement right now.

*The engagement staircase is a simple but effective representation of the engagement journey as showcased in Brand Engagement (Palgrave 2007).

Rosa book review

As we face more talk of triple-dip recessions there’s patently too much doom and gloom about and it can be sapping stuff, especially for line managers on the front line. But as the ancient wisdom goes, the fast track to feeling more empowered is to focus on what you can personally influence.  We all have some degree of empowerment in the workplace, even if it fees like “blowing into the wind” at times, whether we’re the CEO or  a supervisor. And even if we can only influence the apparently little things, they all add up over time.

If the barrage of statistics is to be believed (and it’s not fair just to trust the bad news), companies with high employee engagement levels grow on average 4.5 times faster than those with low levels (Hays 2010).

As I illustrate in Brand Champions, engaged employees are:
R- receptive
I - involved
P -  proactive
E - energised and energising

So, if you’re keen to nurture these characteristics in your colleagues, why not try these top tips to promote the engagement drive within your own organisation. As you’ll realise, most are within your control and most of them are free:

1. Give recognition
If someone has done well, let them know you know it. A simple thank you goes a long way to increasing engagement even if it’s one colleague at a time, so “catch” them doing the right thing.

2. Give constructive feedback
Managers giving little or no feedback to their workers fail to engage 98 per cent of them, according to a 2009 study by Gallup. Let employees know how they are doing and what they can do to improve. It’s worth giving your first-line managers in particular training on how to do this.

3. Incentivise good work
Ensure that your HR processes are hard-wired to recognise objectives that are “on brand” and “on strategy”.

4. Create an engaging culture
An open door policy creates an approachable feel to the office, where employees feel comfortable. Ensure management have a physical presence in the office and are role models for your core values.

5. Involve people
Self-managing teams are engagement nirvana. Involving people in company decisions will make them feel part of the organisation and give them a real sense of ownership.

6.Keep people informed
Don’t assume that people don’t know or don’t need to know. They will appreciate being in the loop about any changes in the company. Internal communication must do more than SOS (send out stuff).

7. Encourage suggestions and input
Let them know their opinions count…. chances are the answers to your issues can be solved in-house.

8. Promote role models
Rather than favouring favourites look to unusual suspects for examples of great practice and celebrate them. This will engage more people than you can imagine.

9. Encourage training, development and a career path
Stress the benefits of working for your brand including developing new skills and having a career path in return for development. Relationships count but they need to be nurtured.

10. Focus on their talents
Get to know the “real people” who work for you. Play some games. Find out what talents they have or want to have. Use these when delegating projects to ensure they are using their talents and developing in the right areas.

For more free employee engagement resources, pick up a copy of  Ian’s latest book, Brand Champions.


I really like Joss Stone. She has a voice and a style that seems to have been grafted onto her 20-something physique. I’m also willing to confess that I sometimes find myself humming along to Jamie Cullum or Katie Melua, very talented artists in their own right.

But after I’ve finally downloaded an album or two, I’ll inevitably turn on the radio and have a chance encounter with Billie Holiday; Miles Davis or Sarah Vaughan and instantly regain a sense of perspective about my recently purchased sixth-form soul.

I really don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man. But for me, you really do have to have lived a little before you can authentically transmit the ebb and flow of love and life and all the other intricacies of relationships.

This may seem like a bizarre subject but my contentious pop v soul thesis does have some resonance (honest!) when reflecting on the importance of culture development as a driver of sustainable organisation change. Why? Because it frankly takes a mature attitude (true soul, if you like) from the leadership team to appreciate the importance and therefore the value of internal culture development.

In my experience, especially in these troubled times, true leaders who’ve experienced the power of cultural transformation won’t be the ones issuing popular sound-bites, or schmultzy metaphors. They most definitely won’t be promoting internal marketing to justify, post-rationalise or even sweep up after change.

They will be the ones who will be kicking off the change process by consulting people. They will be passionate about engaging employees with the big picture, goals, the desired culture and the honest change process. Furthermore they will be role modelling the change they want to see, not just talking about or delegating it. These leaders know that effective culture development is critical to achieving change. They appreciate that it isn’t a reactive tool to be used to post-rationalise the new world experienced by the survivors.

So the moral of this tale is, if you’ve got to engage your employees with change (and in this environment, who hasn’t?), better make sure you look beyond the trendy purveyors of pop. It’s worth consulting your leadership back catalogue. There will be plenty of material available – and the tunes are classics for a reason.Rosa book review

*article first appeared in the CIPD publication People Management in 2009


The branded bunting was out in profusion and I certainly witnessed plenty of determined, progressive intent when I was fortunate enough to visit several of India’s leading brands and participate in the state and business sponsored debate about Brand India some years ago now.

So it’s not without  concern that we learn that the most valuable brands in India:  State Bank of India; Tata Motors and Reliance Industries have seen a recent decline in their net brand worth of as much as 13%.

According to the WARC site, Unni Krishnan,  Brand Finance brand strategy director, believes that the larger organisations “face serious challenges in their ability to transform themselves in line with the changes taking place in the market”. And according to Professor YLR Moorthi of  IIM Bangalore, external factors like global economic volatility, cost pressures and corruption scandals are all “external worries” threatening to undermine the confidence of most Indian brands.  As we know only too well in the West, when the “signature” brands come under threat, so does the nation brand.

In an article first published in the India Economic Times, then by Admap/WARC, then updated for the book Nation Branding (2009) under the title “Whose Brand is Flagging Now”*, we warned of the dangers inherent in brands that send mixed signals to the market, that promise one thing in their advertising and livery yet deliver something else.

With particular reference to Indian brands and the Brand India debate, we pointed to the almost paradoxical juxtaposition of a rational, overly professionalised inclination in some of the brand positioning that perhaps belied the somewhat bureaucratic reality of  day-to-day corporate operations. We argued then, and still do, for a more authentic and powerful blending of the best aspects of the aforementioned characteristics with the  unscripted,  buccaneering, spiritual, almost chaotic and certainly pioneering traits that are undeniably as much a part of a tantalising national culture and which need to be embraced not just begrudgingly accommodated.

Perhaps it is testimony to this argument that some of India’s smaller branded businesses have bucked the blip amongst the  “big beasts” of Indian commerce with, for example, the likes of defence business Mahindra & Mahindra increasing value by 65% and Idea Cellular as well as Axis, a retail bank, growing by 73%.  Could it be that their core cultures are still fleet of foot enough to be able to transform rapidly and keep in tune with their core values and the changing needs of their stakeholders, both inside and out?

Perhaps just as importantly, could there be lessons for the likes of TATA and co to learn as they look for ways to reverse this setback in brand value before it becomes a trend? Time, as they say, will doubtless tell.

If you would like a PDF copy of the original article or have any questions about anything in this article, please contact us.


Ian’s latest People Management column examines the last round of brand implosions including RBS and the NHS and asks a number of searching questions of the HR population:

  • why did you become an HR professional, was it for the job or the vocation?
  • are you able to see the cause and effect behind culture problems?
  • systemic solutions are needed but first and foremost, what can HR execs do to prevent future brand catastrophes?

So if you’re tired of playing “whack a mole” crisis management, look in on the CIPD site, take a look at the post in context and do join in the debate.


Oddly this is just as apt now as it was a year ago…what does that say about the progress the FS sector has made thus far?

Originally posted on The Brand Trilogy (TBT):

We’re used to seeing various manifestations of “humbug” and avarice on our screens over the festive season and Scrooge has seldom been so widely and viciously lampooned than now. But did anyone notice that the 2011 festive season featured a number of documentaries tracking the long forgotten philanthropic roots of many of our banking institutions, especially the good works of their founders who literally had to re-distribute their carefully accumulated wealth to stand any chance of a place in heaven?

One of the organisations highlighted was the Lloyds group. Its founding fathers include Sampson Lloyd II, persecuted for his Quaker beliefs but ironically lauded for his generosity and “good works”.Contrast this story with that of the man who only recently took the top job, Group CEO António Horta-Osório. He had to take time off work last November to recover from the exhaustion of attempting to single-handedly tackle the problems of the beleaguered brand. But now that Horta-Osório has returned to work, could we see a different chapter in the…

View original 590 more words

Nice to catch up with the brand synonymous with conciliation and arbitration, Acas, last week and to hear that they’ve been endorsing our approach to employee engagement for some time now.

Here’s what they posted on their website at the turn of the year, revisited in the hope that it may inspire a fresh perspective or two in this final quarter:

 A few simple tips from employee engagement expert Ian Buckingham can help you get 2012 off to a productive start.

  • Give credit where it’s due: Key to staff engagement is giving recognition and constructive feedback. If a member of your staff has done well, let them know – and let everyone else know, too. Championing good practice and achievements can work wonders to incentivize staff and breathe new life into a stagnant working environment. Similarly, if there’s room for improvement, give constructive advice and let everyone benefit.
  • Keep the door open: Be an approachable, hands-on manager who listens. An environment where staff feel that their suggestions will be taken seriously can help boost your in-house problem-solving capabilities and encourage creative thinking at all levels of your organisation. You might even find you uncover some hidden talents among your workforce!
  • Communicate: Talk to your staff. Tell them what your plans are for the future, and explain how they feature in it. Even if the news is bad, your staff will appreciate being told what’s going on rather than being kept in the dark.
  • Know and nurture your people: Even when times are hard for your business, don’t lose sight of the fact that the people who work for you still have goals and dreams. Listen to them, find out what they want to achieve in their careers and do what you can to support them. Take the time to discover and develop the unique strengths of each member of staff and your business will reap the benefits.

The Acas engagement mission of promoting employment relations and HR excellence has always been music to our ears. Let’s hope these few simple messages help improve the employee engagement and wellbeing statistics , even if it has to be one line manager at a time.

The November edition of Admap in which Ian regularly features, explores the vital role of the employee in creating engaging brand experiences whether in the physical or virtual shopping space.

In collaboration with retail environment specialists M Worldwide, Ian asserts that as customer choice increases, employees always make the difference between a truly innovative, enriching and engaging service experience whether delivered online or face-to-face.

He singles out the emergence of holistic brand offerings like Nuffield* and Lloyds Pharmacy as examples of organisations who “get it” and strive to “get it right” by collaborating with and engaging their brand champions to ensure that they fulfill their ambitious service promises.

Click on the link below to read the article in full**:


*Talking about our work creating the Nuffield Service Promise and Champions Engagement strategy, our client said: “You introduced some fantastic ideas, challenged our people to discover what they need to be as leaders, and created high quality, engaging materials.”


**The article is, of course, a collaboration between the authors and the publication and is reproduced with permission of Admap.

Journalist and broadcaster Ian Fraser’s blog was characteristically forthright in its criticism of the latest high-profile PR/brand disaster for RBS when he called CEO Stephen Hester’s LSE lecture “platitudinous bullshit.” I have some sympathy for the RBS boss given the scale of the task he opted to shoulder, but have to say that Fraser’s not far off the mark in this instance.

As our US friends would say, it really does seem more than a little lame for any City CEO to be decrying Milton Friedman’s so-called doctrine of greed given it was this self-same doctrine that delivered the extraordinary bonuses shareholders and senior stakeholders enjoyed for so many years, a doctrine they would doubtless readily endorse again should those days return. After all, what exactly has the RBS boss during his now extensive tenure done to address culture management shortfalls since the crash? More to the point, if he and his contemporaries are really serious about re-engineering the banking culture and customer relationship, why is there hardly ever any mention of the role long-suffering employees have to play as workaday brand custodians on the increasingly hostile front line where they have no choice but to try to be the keepers of the promises made to consumers?

It certainly doesn’t do much for Hester’s cause if you consider the lecture about culture his then Barclays counterpart Bob Diamond gave us all not long before his ignominious departure for failings within the Barclays internal leadership framework, values and behaviours.

It’s one thing to fill column inches with empty hyperbole about the importance of customer service. But when faced with debacles like the Sanatander u-turn; major payment systems problems; pending Libor issues and OFT investigations etc it may well be time to start taking those rock-bottom employee engagement statistics seriously. This was something I brought to the attention of the RBS boss when he first acquired the reins only to be told that he “had the matter in hand”. The problem is, that was over four years ago.

As I said at the beginning, I do have a great deal of sympathy for the RBS chief. I’ve long held the view that the CEO can only be primus inter pares or fist among equals at best in spite of their lightning rod status in the PR department and press. But as I mention in my latest People Management blog, what’s perhaps most puzzling about the empty filibustering under the culture change banner  is that these keynote addresses rarely acknowledge the role of the HR function and first line managers as the ultimate cultural barometers, coaches and role models.

HR as currently configured, may have a lingering image problem, certainly if recent leadership opinion polls are to be believed. But I’ve never witnessed successful culture change without some sort of committed partnership between the office of the CEO and that of the HRD.

We’ve certainly been hearing increasingly levels of lip-service about culture. Both internal and external stakeholders of our game-changing brands have had enough of the platitudinous PR, it’s time for some tangible action. Given their pivotal role as facilitators of critical people processes like recruitment; induction; performance management; learning and development; internal communication and the employment brand generally, the key components of internal brand equity, I can’t imagine a better opportunity for HRDs to step forward and grasp the culture change agenda and in the process transform perceptions of the profession for good. The time has undoubtedly come for transformation-focused CEOs to back them and re-distribute the load, as they know they should.

Interesting article in The Harvard Business Review, September 11. Patricia Nazemetz,  former CHRO, Xerox Corporation discusses the power of working collaboratively to bring about business transformation inside and out, an ideology we’ve long espoused of course.

The article makes some punchy claims about HR that raise an eyebrow or two like:

“The HR discipline is evolving into a strategic voice because its sphere of influence — talent attraction, engagement and retention — is now recognized as the foundation to organizational success”

It may be over-stating the true status of HR at present. But she’s certainly right to highlight the growing empowerment of  employees as a result of the indomitable wave of electronic media that is liberating the  voice of  employees and customers alike and the important role that HR could/should be playing in maximizing the opportunities these channels present:

“…..the pervasive influence of social media on the work world demands change in the way employers motivate and communicate with talent. We’ve seen success with a novel approach to talent engagement: an integrated HR-Marketing strategy that teams Marketing’s brand messaging savvy with HR’s internal perspective and expertise. When HR brings a communication orientation to its role, the entire company benefits. The partnership brings added value to Marketing as well. How much more effective could a CMO be if he or she knew for certain that talent would deliver on the brand promise made in every external marketing message?”

Marketing, as we’ve often illustrated, should be actively courting HR right now given that consumer trust levels as well as employee engagement levels are at an all time low. Bad news for marketing spend as employees after all, remain the promise keepers, choosing whether to truly deliver on behalf of the promise makers. Tapping into and nurturing their discretionary effort is vital.

” When Xerox re-branded itself as a document solutions leader….we recognised that employee engagement was integral to Xerox’s transformation and continued growth as a Fortune 500 company. After all, productivity and the strength of the company brand both live within Xerox’s workforce. Employees, at first skeptical, embraced their new work environment. And HR, as a full partner in this effort, made sure our messages were consistent and reinforcing – not conflicting.”

As Nazemetz rightly acknowledges, while still not common enough, the Xerox HR-Marketing collaboration was not the first of its kind:

“nor are we the only ones doing it, especially as employer branding gains importance. Another example dates from 2008, when Lincoln Financial Group — buffeted by the financial crisis — created an HR-Marketing partnership to foster deeper engagement within its pool of 8,500 direct employees and 1,200 independent financial planners. The collaboration began with research into the pulse of the workforce. We talked with more than 600 employees to understand their relationship to the company, to the brand, and to their work. Then we worked closely to define an employer brand rooted in the voice of Lincoln employees and connected to Lincoln leadership’s vision for the organization. The joint Marketing and HR team brought the brand to life in employee meetings, and through printed and digital communication channels. The CHRO, Lisa Buckingham, connected with the leaders of Diversity and Inclusion, Corporate Responsibility, and Recruitment in order to weave the employer brand into HR communications enterprise-wide. As a result, every HR program was aligned with the Lincoln employer brand, making them feel focused and consistent to Lincoln’s employees.

“It hasn’t always been the easiest journey,” says Buckingham. “But once we got everybody on the same page, everyone agreed how important employer brand is and how it actually touches so many facets of the organization. We recognized that there needs to be a consistency in what we’re saying and what our values are.” One measure of the program’s success: In the 2012 employee survey, 58% of Lincoln employees said they were “highly engaged” — a score well above the financial services benchmark of 35%.”

One of the drums that we continue to bang relentlessly is the fact that sustainable business transformation requires a systems approach to managing culture and people processes from recruitment and retention through to performance management and re-sizing.  In our experience, once leaders view brand and organisation development as intrinsically interlinked, union between HR & Marketing moves from pipe dream to necessity, regardless of whether that sits comfortably with either camp, especially in a market where leaders have no choice but to deliver more for longer and for less.

I was a flag-waver for mutuality long before mutual organisations gradually started “trending” in the wake of the largely investment-banking-led financial tsunami.  So I should be celebrating the attention the government and business commentators are currently lavishing on them.

For me however, it’s puzzling how mutuality is still misunderstood and too often patronised by critics who see the mutuals as dull, unexciting and a throwback to an apparently largely irrelevant age of innocence.

When the talk turns to mutuality it’s usually the  shareholding and remuneration elements that attract the most attention. It’s true that finance and reward help to unify stakeholder groups of which the employees are arguably the second most important (behind their customers). But having worked with many high-profile brands down the years, I know that it’s too simplistic to suggest that even in an economic slump, sustainable performance is largely down to the financial contract with the employee.

I feature a range of building societies as well as the much heralded John Lewis Partnership in my books.  John Lewis’ current head of  internal communications used to work for me. And I know from my experience as a customer that their partnership mentality in particular is more a manifestation of voluntary behaviour than financial incentives.

The employees (called partners) have a respect for the legacy of the business and are attracted to the brand because of the way of working and their employer brand as a whole. They have a shared ethos, philosophy, value set and culture that they nurture with care. Their values are at the centre of their HR processes, ranging from recruitment and communication through to performance management. In fact, it’s a reflection of the regard in which the people functions are held that the company’s chief executive used to head up HR, a very rare phenomenon.

It’s no surprise to me that John Lewis has largely bucked the downturn. JLP, like another high-profile, counter-cyclical performer, the Co-operative group, is very much a mutual organisation at heart. As with the Co-Op, which has grown significantly during the downturn, the success of John Lewis is rooted firmly in the way it creates advocates and collaborative partnerships within and beyond the organisation by remaining true to its values.

While it is encouraging to hear Cameron; Clegg and co laud the JLP ethos to such an extent that they suggest the model could be critical to the recovery of the UK economy, the true route to sustainability, as the mutuals and their ilk have proven time and again, is engaging partners with their core values and ensuring that they back them up in their everyday behaviour or culture. Practising what you preach is what the great brands do best, and by great I also mean sustainable.

Yet the mutuals are still criticised in many quarters for being dull, uninspiring and old-fashioned. Take these comments by Interbrand’s London CEO Graham Hales, for example, made during the Financial Services Forum’s Seminar into Modern Mutuality* :

“Mutuality as a term isn’t well understood by consumers, and in a category where interest ranges from passive to downright negative, it’s wrong to expect them to find out what it means. Claims that we operate in our customers’/members’ ‘best interests’ shouldn’t really feel like
new news. In its own right, it’s not enough and indicates a weakness of a brand if that’s all there is to say. Better to think further forward to brand promises that are more differentiating and relevant to today’s, and better still, tomorrow’s consumers.
Sadly, their needs and demands have never been more apparent or less satisfied; it’s just their interest and relationship with the
market that have subsided in the face of complex and unfulfilling products and sleep-inducing messaging.”*

While I can see where Graham’s coming from, I would argue that his comments underestimate the core mutual customer and underplay the impact the ongoing financial crisis has had on general consumer needs, perceptions and tolerance levels, especially with regard to risk and trust. What was “fashionable” five years ago has changed dramatically. What constitutes brand weakness/strength has undoubtedly changed too.

The financial facts speak for themselves. A growing number of consumers clearly now crave the customer satisfaction ratings the mutuals attract. They seemingly understanding enough about the mutuality principles and the importance of  living the brand given the ongoing defection from the hitherto dominant brands who spend considerably more differentiating themselves in their advertising but continue to be tainted by wave after wave of scandals.

It’s no coincidence that values, behaviours and culture are being spoken about more and more frequently in consumer watchdog and regulatory circles and feature more prominently in advertising like Nationwide’s “On your side” campaign.

I don’t agree with the view that customers’ “interest and relationship” with the market” has changed as a consequence of either “complex” or “unfulfilling” products. They have been badly and repeatedly betrayed by brands that say one thing yet practice another and who confuse impenetrable complexity with choice. I would argue that forward thinking boards are recognising that true differentiation for tomorrow’s consumers will take the form of brands that simply and consistently keep their promises. I would also assert that it’s actually the role of the agencies and consultancies to help leaders clarify, articulate and remain true to the unique essence of their brand while finding ways to engage with customers by adding value and generating meaning. Like most businesses, mutuals are unlikely to be attractive to every consumer segment or critic. But practising what they preach is where they deliver more often than not.

Sure, attracting and retaining employees who willingly go the extra mile to make ambassadors out of their customers has something to do with the way profits are shared.  Remuneration practices certainly need to be competitive and consistent with the values. Sexy, even arrogant advertising attracts certain types of customers and employees to the shop window. But we should have learned by now that truly sustainable profits come from consistent, on-brand behaviour. As the ongoing problems within the wider financial services sector illustrate however, don’t be fooled into believing that the financial model is the stick with which to drive sustainable performance, that funkiness or arrogance is essential or that brand wizardry of the slogan and strapline variety is the answer alone. As so many investors, consumers as well as employees continue to learn the hard way, there are many more vital lessons to learn from the true partnerships, the mutuals, who certainly hark back respectfully to their heritage but will perhaps be a more important part of our futures than most people anticipated.

*This quote is featured in Blessed are the Mutuals, the Summer 2012 edition of Argent, the Journal of the Financial Services Forum in which you’ll find a range of  informed perspectives including quotes from myself, critics and commentators as well as leaders of mutual organisations past and present. Click here  for a soft copy.

Like the millions of people suffering withdrawal symptoms after the extinguishing of  the London 2012 Olympic torch in the wake of an epic games,  I was deeply moved and hugely impressed by the awe-inspiring opening to the London 2012 Paralympics watched by a UK tv audience of over 20 million people.

As that grizzled hack Simon Barnes of The Times put it:

“The opening ceremony began last night with a Big Bang, in just about every sense of the term, and some words from Professor Stephen Hawking, the world’s most agile mind once again leaping free from the ruined body. It was all good inspirational stuff, but doomed to be forever second-best to the inspirational things we will see as the Games start today.”

Watching those extraordinary scenes of exceptional people it reminded me of the Motability brand re-launch which remains one of the most successful transformation programmes I’ve had the pleasure of being associated with and which still puts so many FTSE 100 change journeys to shame.

In the space of two years, Motability went from an apparent employment back water with a laid-back charitable culture  to an extremely professional, top 50 organisation in the Times Best Companies poll; Local Employer of  the Year; operator of Europe’s largest vehicle fleet and “best thing since sliced bread” in the eyes of their customers who, along with the dealerships, rated the organisation as a premium brand. No surprise then that the stories of so many of the athletes competing in the games, who also happen to be Motability customers, resonate with the brand. Not for profit doesn’t mean unfit for business.

It’s depressing to hear talk of values, culture change and engagement trip so easily from the tongues of so many business leaders in recent times without the intentions or actions to back up the fine words. But when your founding mission was to liberate people with disabilities from the confines of the trike through the simple device of providing the use of a motorcar, perhaps it’s easier to engage the right people in the right way and inspire them with values like Friendly; Flexible and Facilitating. Perhaps. But first they need to feel proud to be part of an organisation that can be as hard-nosed on behalf of their customers as it is accommodating to its customers, which is where the culture bit comes in.

Under the leadership of an inspirational CEO, Mike Betts, the Motability management team transformed the way they do things, the internal culture, in the space of 18 months by opening with a process of engagement via consultation and then role modelling their core values as they set about evolving the processes that mattered most to their people from recruitment through to communication and appraisal.

The engagement of key stakeholders from garages through to manufacturers came next with contract and service levels re-negotiated to the point that the re-designed Motability brand and logo moved confidently to pride of place on forecourts and industry publications. Motability is now a leading player in the UK car market with 1 in 12 or so cars sold in the UK going to a Motability customer.

The 2012 Paralympics is the first in the history of the games to be completely sold out. As always, however, it is the athletes who give the games their soul. What made Motability’s transformation different for me was that there was a universal belief in the core purpose and desired culture of the organisation, from front of house through to the most senior of leaders. It is always the employees, the workaday brand champions who give the organisation its soul. And once they had learned to blend commerciality with passion and conviction while remaining true to the integrity of their core purpose, the brand grew wings. If only the leaders of  the abundant beleaguered brands could feel that for themselves, perhaps the spirit of the Paralympic village could work its magic in corporate HQ. In fact, Oliver Holt could have been writing about Motability when he penned these words to describe last night’s events:

“Before a new flame was lit in this magical London summer, the words of an Ian Dury song rang out around the Olympic Stadium. ‘Hello to you out there in Normal Land,’ the lyrics to Spasticus Autisticus went, ‘you may not comprehend my tale or understand.’ Normal Land watched on. Not with distaste. Or disdain. Those kinds of emotions began to seep away a long time ago. Not even with indifference. No, Normal Land gazed at the Opening Ceremony for the London Paralympics with admiration, even a little envy.”

* you can read more about the Motability transformation journey in Brand Engagement (I.P. Buckingham 2007).

Writing for Management Today Michael Northcott has just announced that “the spread eagle has hired one of the City’s biggest legal figures to conduct an internal review of the bank’s culture and practices.”

Clearly the Libor and leadership scandal has hit Barclays the hardest so far and now, to try to put this particularly persistent  debacle to bed, the bank has brought in what they are calling an expert to lead an ‘independent business practices review’.

Anthony Salz, a corporate lawyer who has been with one of the world’s largest law firms, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringe for more than 30 years and for the last 10 was the firm’s senior partner and now vice-chairman at Rothschild, will lead the review. Apparently he will be supported by what is being called ” a team of dedicated staff “ and “will have a professional services firm behind him”.

I’m not sure how reassuring that will be for shareholders, customers, communities and staff alike, however.

Northcott comments “Perhaps bringing in one of the City’s most accomplished lawyers will be a breath of fresh air for the trading floors”. Commenting on his appointment, Salz said: ‘I very much hope that this review will significantly assist Barclays in rebuilding trust and reaffirming its position as one of our leading institutions.’ That’ll take some doing, Ant…

The announcement comes amid rumours that former Treasury minister Lord O’Donnell is the front-runner to succeed former chairman of Barclays Marcus Agius, although O’Donnell claims nobody from the bank has actually approached him for discussions about the role. He has also been favourite for taking over as governor of the Bank of England next year, but, since money might talk for this career civil servant looking for some decent wedge to top up his pension, we reckon he’d probably go for Barclays. Those millions won’t grab themselves, will they?”

Ironically, only a year or so ago, I was addressing an audience of senior partners from professional services firms who were very clearly just attempting to start the journey towards making the link between culture, behaviour and brand. Most of the talk was of patriarchal cultures, undifferentiated brands and closed shops with little appreciation for the power of culture as a key differentiator. Yet now one of those firms is expected to become a key catalyst for change within the FS sector!

Attempting to put all skepticism aside, as a senior partner within comms, change and brand agencies and someone with in-depth knowledge of the financial services industry; as a communications, change and culture development specialist who has worked both in-house and across sectors, including within professional services at the highest of levels, this really does read like a PR nightmare.

With all the best will in the world how can external stakeholders be expected to swallow the notion that anyone so infused with the culture of the establishment and seemingly devoid of either classic or contemporary culture change credentials can be entrusted to have  the objectivity, knowledge or, I’m afraid to say, credibility to either undertake a comprehensive and insightful review or more importantly develop the strategy to bring about the sustainable transformation needed?

I’m sure I speak for most people when I scrape my jaw from the floor wishing the Barclays board well, especially given what’s at stake.

Brace yourselves gentlemen! Good luck, and in the meantime,  you might want to read this…….while picking up a copy of this, pdq:

Fascinating to read Rosie Baker’s post in Marketing Week today that, according to a study by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), brands risk losing customers by failing to create customer experiences that match up to promises made in marketing campaigns ~cue drum roll to mark rather large penny dropping~

Her comments were hopefully delivered with tongue firmly set in cheek as the revelation is akin to a hungover teenager waking up stunned from a very messy party to find that she didn’t come home alone after all yet would inevitably have to remember the name of that body sleeping beside her and sharpish.

The report found that the problem stems from a “damaging disconnect” between boardroom, marketing departments and customer experience. We’ve been warning of this since before the Interbrand days, but would definitely add HR and comms into that mix given they are predominantly responsible after all, for that vital promise keeping community, the employees.

The study says that marketing and brand leaders’ priorities should be seeking to take a more active role in “educating ‘up’ in the organisation” and to build brand understanding across all levels of employees (although not mentioned in the study, that’ll be the HR & comms bit!).

Seemingly seven out of ten (69 per cent) marketers believe that investing in customer experience is more effective than investment into marketing communications when it comes to building brands, but only 13 per cent believe that their company “excels” at delivering a day-to-day brand experience that matches up to what the brand promises (culture and behaviour).

It found that while customer insight and research are being shared across business units, and senior leaders, it rarely permeates the ranks of the organisation. Only 14 per cent of the marketers surveyed said it was the main driver of decision-making.

A third of organisations were found to not use the brand guidelines that are in place, while half of organisations that don’t use customer experience or employee brand behaviour guidelines. That’s 50% of the surveyed organisations failing to climb the very first step on the  staircase to brand engagement heaven!

Thomas Brown, head of insights at the CIM,  in a quote that could have been taken direct from Brand Engagement(2007) or one of Ian’s many articles, says: “Essentially, brands are built on promises but it’s the experience you have of an organisation that constitutes reality.

“This study shows that leadership and belief have the greatest impact on successfully delivering a branded customer experience … this suggests you can lead your way to a branded experience, but not manage your way there.”

The Branded Customer Experience Benchmark, carried out by Lippincote, surveyed insights from 100 senior marketers at international organisations including Elizabeth Fagin, marketing director at Boots and Markus Kramer, global marketing director of Aston Martin and Mike Harrison, chief brand officer of Timberland.

In light of the escalating spate of brand disasters from the News of the World through to Barclays and G4S, perhaps it’s time the marketing community accepted that, spurred on by this type of research and the big brand body count it’s becoming increasingly likely that CEOs are going to expect much greater”bang” for much less “buck”!

Well, the answer to catching up and climbing that engagement staircase oddly enough lies with plucking up the courage to first and foremost embrace current bedfellows. Then who knows, it may just be the start of something beautifully sustainable after all.

Worn by royals and pop icons alike, design icon Barbour is one of Britain’s classic brands.

It has been headquartered in the North East for the past 100 years and has a long lineage of family owner-managers, brand custodians one and all including Dame Margaret Barbour who took the reins in the 70s.,

Travelling draper John Barbour opened the first shop in 1894 in South Shields. His sons Jack and Malcolm came on board as partners in 1906. The first Barbour catalogue appeared in 1908, and within ten years the company was selling garments to South America, Hong Kong and South Africa.

In the 1930s Barbour began retailing clothing designed for motorcycling, kitting out British international motorcycling teams for three decades in Barbour International Oiled Cotton suits.

Margaret Barbour was born and brought up in Middlesbrough and trained as a teacher. Following her husband’s untimely death she dedicated herself to driving forward the business. She first became a director, working in every department to understand and appreciate the company root and branch.

In 1972 she took control of its fortunes when she accepted the role of chairman. Dame Margaret immediately began refreshing and diversifying the well-established brand, introducing accessories and new styles to open up the Barbour name to a wider range of age groups and countries.

The iconic designs of Barbour’s classic products, at the core of which are its corduroy-collared waxed jackets, are now evolving to include a large range of contemporary twists on a well-established theme.

Strong design, a deep understanding of retail markets worldwide yet retaining a very clear site of heritage and legacy all underpin Barbour’s perennial appeal. The company believes that design is a priority best carried out by those who know the brand well.

Dame Margaret said: “Design has been and remains at Barbour, a team effort. We have the benefit of being a smaller company that can work in a close team from the original conception of the product through to final production. We do not believe the brand has a need for a named designer like the pure fashion brands. We have always numbered designers from casualwear backgrounds within the team and find it is this mix of skills which makes our products unique and exciting.

It is essential, however, that designers understand the importance of Barbour’s history and heritage as this is at the very heart of the brand. We have our original catalogues from 1908 (when the first one was launched) and they are a constant source of material and inspiration to our design team.”

Barbour has been awarded three Royal Warrants, first from the Duke of Edinburgh, then the Queen, and in 1987, the Prince of Wales.

The royal connection has boosted sales – not only from the Royal Warrants but also from the Oscar-winning film The Queen. Helen Mirren’s depiction of the Queen wearing a Barbour jacket doubled sales in New York.

They may now have offices in Germany, France and America and close working relationships with distributors in all other markets, but Barbour’s brand identity is in safe hands. Dame Margaret comments: “It is important that as we develop and evolve the brand we remain true to our founding principles of quality, fitness for purpose and durability.

“New contemporary styles return you to relevance but only delivering quality and innovation can ensure that you remain there.”

Barbour prides itself on its values and ensures that each and every one of their employees embraces them, stimulated by communication, training and development, leadership and the cultivation of an internal culture that prioritises community, respect, integrity and trust.

As Sue Newton, head of PR states “You should never underestimate how important the trust is between company and consumer, how long it takes to build up and how quickly it can be destroyed.” There are many senior execs who’ve learned this lesson the hard way in recent times.

According to Chris Sanderson, cofounder of international trend consultancy The Future Laboratory, Barbour’s success is built on its values and is fed by a growing need for authenticity. In a Daily Mail article titled Why the Barbour is suddenly so Rock and Roll he writes “for this generation, Barbour is quite a discovery”. You coud say the same for several generations who have discovered this grounded but innovative, classic brand.

Any lessons there for other sectors?

To read more about Barbour and the philosophy and the people who sustain and nurture this iconic brand, pick up a copy of Brand Champions which features an in-depth case study of the brand and its key champions in action.

My column for the CIPD’s  People Management publication was published last week under the title Time to start banking on values and was inspired or rather provoked by two incidents on the same day in which members of the public demonstrated their growing frustration with the financial services sector. The article was the latest in a series of critiques of the approach to change within the sector, dating back to 2008 and was written as the libor scandal was finally breaking.

In my latest piece I warned:

“The fact is we have every right to expect our banks to keep the promises they make. Until culture change is taken seriously, CEOs are running the ever-increasing risk that customers, shareholders and even employees will rise to their feet ….. either literally or via the increasingly powerful social media networks, and demand that the leaders of our important financial services brands either demonstrably live by their values or start voting with their feet if they either won’t or can’t.”

However the key details in the article published on friday were soon overtaken by live events as first Barclays chairman Marcus Agius became the fall guy (predictable perhaps) before, (and no-one saw this coming), Bob Diamond himself overtook his chairman in the revolving doors and was uncharacteristically shoved through the exit. The COO del Missier soon  followed as the chair then apparently returned to his office to manage the crisis and change process.

What a mess!

In a flashback to the Arab Spring of 2011, what was perhaps most striking for those who followed this unfolding drama using a blend of so-called social media and more traditional news sources, was that the twitterati were infinitely more informed than the news desk editors, tweeting the breaking scoops faster than the journalists could type. As one commentator put it “had the banker in the pinstripes opposite me on the train read twitter rather than his FT, he would know that Diamond had already resigned”

Since people first grouped together to form companies, even the most robust of CEOs have come and inevitably gone. But a unique feature of this corporate drama was that the regicide was played out in public, seemingly every detail exposed red in tooth and claw. Never has my adage that the hitherto deified modern CEO is now simply “primus inter pares” or first among equals seemed more true than in witnessing the demise of this famously dogmatic, much feared and, lest we forget, much respected former Barclays CEO.

A man who counted US senators as friends, who famously and repeatedly told his critics where to go and who lectured the world on the importance of values and culture  in spite of the discredited status of many of the big FS brands, was  seemingly laid low, not by his detractors without but largely it would appear, by his stakeholders within.

Never has the power of internal comms to decide the fate of a brand been so explicitly proven than now.


Well most of Diamond’s many critics, using rather sweeping generalisations, are somewhat belatedly blaming the apparent Barclays culture and that of the City.  Although currently fixated on Barclays, they appear to have belatedly overcome the decoys of structural change and regulation which have stalled much-needed improvement in the sector for almost five years in the process. Yet the big questions persist for all FS brands:

  • to what extent is this culture issue less of a banking thing and more of an investment banking thing?
  • how wide-spread is it?
  • what has happened to the legacy culture associated with career bankers and steady performing stocks that we all relied upon not so long ago?

Culture is an easily abused, undervalued and misunderstood term, much more readily spoken than managed. It is  simply “the way we do things” and it is fuelled primarily by three components:

  • leadership example
  • people processes managed by HR (including performance management & reward and recognition)
  • internal communication and the link to employee engagement

Diamond’s hastily prepared address to all Barclays employees, widely published in the media shortly after it was delivered, spoke volumes about his dominant and domineering style. Most importantly, it deepened the crisis rather than addressing it.

In my experience in the change and engagement space, this sort of heavy-handed approach after the fact is hugely disempowering for the most important leaders in the business, the first line managers. And it illustrates the point that corporate culture isn’t the result of big bang, totemic events or actions. It has to be cultivated not prescribed and is the result of millions of everyday discretionary actions by the people who really count, the employees.

Unless the desired culture is properly:

  • defined
  • led (example)
  • communicated
  • reinforced (via measurement and reward)

it will most likely be at odds with the brand projected by marketing through allusions to the values; the crux of this problem.

It’s no surprise therefore, that Barclays employees are known to have ridiculed the last communique from their boss, with one famously threatening to “clock him if he showed up in the gym”.

Diamond it would appear, made the cardinal mistake of  alienating himself from the people who matter most, his employees, by allowing one of his team to become the undeserving fall guy and appearing to blame his people rather than taking a hard look in the mirror. But imagine the impossible task of his internal communication advisors attempting to sugar the bitter message by warning him of the likely reaction of the staff. It’s tough being an internal change agent at times, as I know well.

Whatever the press may say, it isn’t all doom and gloom within Barclays or within financial services. The Barclays brand is famously robust. The organisation is packed full of quality people who have the ability and passion to permanently restore the faith in banking and bankers.

A corporate culture can be transformed within 18 months if the transformation programme is properly resourced and led. But boy are they going to need some strong internal leadership and some robust, objective, properly qualified external support if they’re to overcome their current tag as the latest whipping boys of the banker bashing media and develop a sustainable, positive culture that can prove their critics wrong .

Culture can and should be positively influenced and synchronised with the vision, mission, strategy and goals. But first it has to be taken very seriously rather than relegated to HR or decried as soft skills somehow irrelevant during a downturn. It has to be treated as both an enabler and an outcome in much the same way as financial and customer service metrics. But there are few signs of enlightened leaders anywhere right now who either appreciate the link or more importantly are rising above the penny-pinching to take positive transformational steps.  If they need any more convincing then perhaps they should imagine wearing Diamond’s shoes right now in the face of the internal and external stakeholder mob.

There’s currently much too much talk about establishment reviews and enquiries when what all stakeholders need is action, brand by brand, company by company, starting, if necessary with an alliance between hr; comms and marketing under the stewardship of the truly enlightened CEO.

Clearly the sooner the boards of our leading FS brands get that message the better for us all. Because while some may take a macabre pleasure in the demise of hitherto lauded hero leaders like Diamond and Goodwin and co it’s abundantly clear that if the FS sector sinks much further, we’re all going down with the ship.

If we were to apply the parlance of haute couture to brand management, then it would appear that modesty is fast becoming the new black this season.

Given the importance I place on the unassuming everyman as the pivotal brand champion, that’s good news for those with the wisdom to realise that sustainable brands aren’t forged in the flames of advertising but evolve steadily from within.

While Microsoft; Apple and co continue to attract the sexy headlines in the technology sector, Fujitsu has become the world’s third-largest IT services provider with over 172,000 employees supporting customers in over 100 countries. Very much a brand to watch, Fujitsu’s Next Generation Technical Computing Unit, for example, recently developed the world’s fastest supercomputer.

But just as very few of us are aware of the impact Arm Holdings has had on mobile technology, chances are you probably had no idea about the credentials of this company. And therein lies the cultural essence of the Fujitsu brand.

Fujitsu’s brand attributes are:

  • responsive
  • genuine
  • ambitious

At the start of their brand engagement journey around 4 years ago, the leaders were conscious that in order to grow, that growth would need to be outside of Japan and Fujitsu would need to become accepted as a global brand in key markets and among stakeholder groups externally. But they also recognised that the first step on their journey would have to involve gaining and then sustaining the belief, involvement and engagement of their colleagues within.

Modesty can be a compelling but it’s a potentially stifling trait if taken lightly.

Standards of modesty (also called demureness or reticence) are aspects of the culture of a country or group of people, at a given point in time. It is a measure against which an individual in a given society or culture, whether a nation-state or a corporate collective, may be judged.

It’s often expressed in social interaction by communicating in a way exhibiting humility, even shyness and is associated with:

  • downplaying achievements
  • behaviour, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency
  • avoiding insincere self-abasement through false or sham modesty, which is a form of boasting

Quite a contrast to the traditionally boastful and über confident philosophy underpinning most marketing campaigns and certainly the flip side of the behavioural coin that has caused so much controversy  within the financial services sector.

I recall a long conversation with a senior executive from one of the UK mutuals which took place just before the banking crash. He was lambasting his colleagues for their lack of ambition and was calling for more of a performance culture in terms of risk and reward and wanted this to be driven by people processes like recruitment and appraisal. He didn’t get the chance to make those changes. Yet his business, like many of their more prudent peers, has more than weathered the prolonged and repeated financial storms.

The salutary lesson for that brand is that transformation can be achieved without sacrificing the essence of the brand, provided that essence is sound in the first place of course. This is epitomised by Fujitsu.

There’s a healthy balance about the Fujitsu brand attributes, between listening and responding to changing customer needs; having ambition yet remaining genuine or authentic. It’s a formula that respects the all important notion of being able to back up the promises in the glossy brochures with actions, quietly meeting and exceeding expectations rather than shooting wildly from the lip.

Fujitsu’s employee brand engagement champion Julie Clarke is in many respects the apotheosis of the Fujitsu brand, although she would blush at the compliment. Julie has had a long and distinguished career, importantly spanning front line; hr and latterly marketing functions, an important mix of ingredients for the central brand champion. But Julie is characteristically modest about her achievements. She has undoubtedly been instrumental in developing and implementing one of the most comprehensive global employee engagement programmes to have launched since the economic downturn began, very much bucking the global trend. Yet Julie spends most of her time celebrating  the pivotal role played by the country champions rather than the centre.

Testimonials from VIP customers, business partners and employees alike are proof positive that in the fourth year of their brand transformation journey, internal and external advocacy levels, colleague communication, good news stories and best practices are on a high despite the global downturn and unforseen natural catastrophes like the Asian Tsunami.

“Our brand engagement journey is the product of constant and ongoing collaboration and is very much the sum of its many parts. We make no secret of the fact that we’ve collaborated with thought partners and external agencies to bring best practices and to help frame our thinking. Brand Engagement was pretty much my bible as I transitioned from HR to Marketing as it speaks to both audiences and sets out the key stages while recognising that the nature of the journey differs from one brand to the next.

Some of our key milestones along the way have included:

  • creating a compelling business case for change
  • obtaining buy-in at senior leadership level first
  • identifying senior sponsors and champions
  • simplifying the engagement programme into 4, bite-size phases
  • collaborating across hr and marketing
  • encouraging everyone to think global but act local and personalise content for their markets
  • investing in local training and development
  • improving internal communication substantially
  • building on the Fujitsu legacy, not reinventing the wheel
  • working within the prevailing culture rather than imposing alien approaches
  • setting hard and soft goals
  • sharing best practices and celebrating wins
  • creating a network of credible local brand champions as catalysts and ambassadors
  • managing the evolution of the Fujitsu brand story in the context of the wider strategy

It was always our aim to ensure that the programme had local ownership. We’re really seeing momentum now in the form of regional stories and best practices and are well into the embedding and reinforcing stage where the role of local champions will become increasingly important. It’s great to see some of the very real customer case studies making the link between the Fujitsu values and the bottom line.”

There’s clearly still work to be done and challenges to face before Fujitsu assumes the position in the pantheon of global brands that it quietly aspires to. But built as it is on a platform of modesty, realism and engagement-driven innovation, blossoming steadily rather than erupting aggressively, Fujitsu is very much a brand of its time.

* Julie Clarke and her Fujitsu brand engagement story will be one of the brand champion case studies to feature alongside brands like M&S and Arm Holdings in Brand Challenger, the third book in the Brand Engagement trilogy.


Yesterday I made a rare visit to a bank branch and left after a lady in her 70s attacked the security screen in frustration at receiving a “computer says no” answer to a query that would have been child’s play to the former staff of that branch.

That evening, I witnessed at least half of a very mixed cinema audience jeer and slow hand clap an expensive advertisement for an insurance brand which was cynically seeking to capitalise on the recent banking collapse. The mocking laughter reached a peak when the actors promised values like integrity and honesty on behalf of an organisation they probably never heard of before receiving the casting call .

Almost five years since the start of the collapse it was apparent that the brand promises and the reality were still poles apart and I couldn’t help feeling that the FS sector should be much further forward than it appears to be right now. This view was endorsed by new CIPD chief Peter Cheese, in his very first public address as he can plainly see the need for urgent change within the sector and the role that HR should be playing to bring change about.

Watching the too numerous public debating forums however, the apparent paucity of basic knowledge amongst pundits and public alike about the key issues which recently sent world financial markets and economies into a tailspin is worrying. Most still blame the regulators and national governments for the crash. But the implosion had very little to do with regulation. It was predominantly caused by cultural schizophrenia conveyed via individual brands responding to the demands of the markets, and much of that schizophrenia sadly has its origins in HR.

That’s a fairly punchy statement, so let me deconstruct it.

Many of the more informed critics and commentators of the sector typified by Will Hutton who has been a leading writer on matters financial for over 30 years, and Richard Edelman (of Edelman Trust Barometer fame) point to a fundamental breakdown in trust between:

  • the institutions and customers
  • institutions and shareholders
  • the institutions and other institutions

but most importantly in my view, the institutions and their employees.  It continues to baffle me how so many informed analysts miss this fundamental issue.

Governments rather belatedly appear to have “rumbled” the core structural cause, namely the convenient blending of the high risk investment banking operations with the steady cash cow of retail operations. It’s going to be tough disentangling them. But even as the structural wrecking crews move in, they are missing a more insidious issue. Deep seated culture management issues are at the core of the financial services brand management problem.

The media in the main has targeted the once heroic and now infamous senior leaders. But if we allow ourselves to obsess about hunting tabloid scapegoat caricatures of “Fred the shred” and his peer group we’re in grave danger of very much missing the point. The shortcomings of the directors/lapsed hero leaders themselves and problems the City faces are merely the symptoms of a much more invidious infection – the notion of the so-called performance culture tied into quarterly stock market reporting.

Not so long ago finance was a relationship business. Customers expected to retain a relationship with their manager for many years. Staff expected to remain loyal to one brand for most if not all of their careers and relied on fostering internal relationships and networks. Even in the corporate sphere, commerce conducted business to business was largely relationship based. Investors including pension fund managers had a stable relationship with banking stocks, the steady and guaranteed incremental performers.

These relationship patterns all changed after Big Bang.

But as the financial institutions evolved rapidly in many respects to reflect the increasing demands of investors; the march of process automation (including people processes within HR) ; cost saving outsourcing and off-shoring and what I believe to be the mis-interpretation of the performance culture concept caused cultural schizophrenia.

The core problem is that the brands failed to evolve to reflect their operational reality. They still promised values like listening; integrity and stability to staff and customers yet were acting very differently both in the markets and arguably more importantly within their own offices.

Employees who were accustomed to five-year strategies and three-year plans became tied into the life cycle of executives with 18 month bouts of tenure. They were encouraged to take risks pursuing incremental rises in targets despite market conditions heading in the opposite direction and we’re now witnessing some of the consequences as the OFT and FSA belatedly show their teeth.

Notions of customer service were subverted in part by apparent exploitation of customer inertia. HR had nearly all of its developmental edge undermined by process re-design. Six monthly performance contracts replaced annual reviews and increasingly locum and short-term contracts began to phase out loyalty bonuses and expensive benefits packages.

None of the factors like these would be sufficient on its own to unilaterally bring about a catastrophe of such scale. But together these elements have slowly poisoned the well of goodwill, often through internal communication that is essentially disingenuous at source. Increasingly the words and figures failed to add up for staff and customers alike summed up in increasing spin like the ABBEY re-brand which, let’s face it, was never going to turn banking on its head. I describe this phenomenon as” behavioural brand creep” in Brand Engagement (2008), my first book.

Now, even the hitherto untouchable Masters of the Universe like Goldman Sachs, are witnessing unprecedented levels of market criticism and scandal. When the premier brands are tarnished, the financial services sector really is running on empty.

So what’s to be done?

This is a case where the “hair of the dog that bit you” isn’t going to put things right. The FS companies have to change the way they manage their brands and to place HR (yes, HR), at the core of that process.

These steps may help:

  1. Leadership teams should take a back to basics approach to stakeholder engagement, look beyond shareholders, regain control of the core narrative of the business and ensure that the story of the evolution of their vision; mission and strategy and brand development approach are all in harmony. The power of giving customers and employees a real voice, listening hard and then acting should not be underestimated
  2. The link between culture and brand needs to be recognised and so-called EVP/employer and commercial brand brought sharply back into single focus
  3. A brand valuation should be prioritized and current and requisite culture analysis undertaken to start to develop a  future organisation culture that is fit for purpose
  4. Brand coalitions need to be created consisting of at least Marketing/HR and the CEO’s office to ensure that the brand promised is the brand employees are capable and willing to deliver
  5. Internal communication needs to be professionalized and encouraged to shift from push communication, technical gimmicks and director led Town Halls to encourage more intimate, local, face to face, engagement, up down and across the organisation
  6. Measurement: The annual employee survey should be discontinued and replaced with regular pulse takes and a suite of measurement tied into a balanced scorecard for which all leaders are accountable
  7. Performance management has to refocus on accountability over the medium term rather than encouraging short term “win at all costs”
  8. Training and development and organisation development strategies must embrace the values and behaviours stemming from the brand rather than re-inventing them
  9. Line managers and first line supervisors are undoubtedly the modern pivots around which the organisations revolve. They should be recognised and rewarded as such and development support provided accordingly
  10. The FS organisations need to take a long and hard look at the consultancy and professional services supertankers who have been advising them about how to put right problems which they arguably played a large part in creating. Are they flexible, fleet of foot and even impartial enough to help facilitate the engagement levels to bring about the necessary change?

It’s not entirely doom and gloom out there for the sector. Performance figures seem to suggest that, although much damage has been done, the worst is over – for now. There are some leading lights including brands like First Direct, which was remarkably ahead of its time and innovators like Virgin who are influencing the sector from within. Increasing competition from the retail sector may help.

Interestingly, the hitherto unfashionable mutuals who value prudence and place great stock on values and behaviours are leading the way with their values based management approaches and word on the street is that even some of the investment banks are attempting to simplify and synchronise their organisation development; brand development and communication functions.

But when you consider the adverse impact that the global financial services brand meltdown has had on world economies, it’s a worrying time. As profits bounce back, will the fresh finances fuel much-needed investment in the brand infrastructure and investment in managing the organisation culture that underpins brand?  Or will the budgets continue to be squandered on bonuses, thereby rewarding the behaviour that brought about boom and bust in the first place fuelling advertising to entice customers and investors back through the doors, lured by false rhetoric about a performance culture that is ultimately unsustainable?

Not only are the critics asking which brands will bounce back the fastest but surely the fund managers underpinning so many pensions have to be asking serious questions about sustainability, don’t they?  And will we ever see a financial services brand topping the FTSE; brand charts and employment leagues by keeping the promises  made to its own people and the market?

Whatever happens next, it’s undeniably time for some joined up and fresh thinking within this critical sector. As someone who knows financial services very well, I know how much people want to restore the pride bank into the term banker and I have little doubt that HR functions are uniquely placed to come to the rescue of their organisations by leading the transformation charge and arguably have greater motive, support and opportunity than they have ever had before. But until then, the cat-calling and slow hand-clapping seems destined to continue…..

When, as a partner at SDL, I first worked with Bill Parsons, Arm’s leader & chief strategist for most things with a pulse, he was giving a keynote speech to a large room of senior insurance executives at an event we had organised aimed at helping to cultivate a culture of innovation within the organisation. Despite employing less than 500 people at the time, Arm shortly thereafter entered the FTSE 100 (in 2000) and grew revenues by more than 60 percent that year, outselling Pentium at a ratio of 10:1.

That insurance brand went on to do rather well too.

I’ve written a number of articles charting Arm’s evolution for various journals down the years and featured a major case study on this Cambridge-based global leader in semiconductor intellectual property in Brand Engagement (2007). 

I’m not exactly a “tech-head” but I do have a great deal of admiration for this paradoxically modest UK powerhouse of a brand especially as their success isn’t built on the superhuman qualities of a few but on the cultivation of a collaborative, sustainable cuture amongst the many.

Having caught up with Bill last week, I’m pleased to report that nothing has changed yet everything has improved, despite the worldwide economic downturn. They’re a truly multi-national business now, albeit still a brand typified by characteristic understatedness to the point of being virtually unknown outside of the IT technology world. As their corporate literature states: ARM technology is enabling the world’s leading companies to succeed. It stresses their partnership ethos rather than conveying a sense of dominance even though in 2011 ARM maintained a >95% market share of smartphones and tablets and Google and Microsoft announced that they were creating versions of their PC operating systems and application software to support ARM processor-based computers.

As I wrote back in 2000, innovation is all talk at Arm. They may employ the cream of the technology graduates from over 50 nationalities, but employee engagement is at the forefront of their people strategy and face to face communication is prioritized wherever possible. They may have been at the leading edge regarding the use of wikis as collaborative development tools but they greatly prize leadership accessibility and cultivate the sort of partnership culture internally that they so prize in their external stakeholder relations. As Warren East, CEO states in their 2011 annual report, “we believe partnership is the smartest approach to creating value. Rather than establishing a business that tries to do everything we partner with many companies each of whom can focus their efforts on where the best add value.” They take the same approach to leadership and project management and as a consequence their employee engagement statistics have improved from 83% to 89% over the last two years. I’m struggling to think of a set of figures that could compare during the same period.

It won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone but perhaps Bill that his time is very much in demand by executives struggling with the challenge of change. He’s even helping to shape thinking around marketing & communications and the ever-evolving use of social media, something he admits he never thought he would be asked to comment on. But it’s both reassuring and pleasing to see that, regardless of the part ARM is playing in the evolution of the tools and gadgets that are in many ways opening up a world of possibilities for enhancing the ways we communicate, for Bill, engagement is still very much all talk @ Arm Holdings.

To the employee engagement zealots the phrase “wrong type of engagement” is an anathema.

But it certainly exists.

I’ve long been warning of the dangers of what I call “car crash” engagement: the type that brings out the rubberneckers and clogs up rather than liberates the metaphorical corporate communication highways.

Employee engagement is a means to an end and not an end in itself as often implied. Take employee brand engagement for instance. It’s simply a term to describe the process of clarifying and forging a relationship between employees and the brand they represent in a way that ensures they are able to deliver on the promise the brand makes to the market.  It isn’t an obligation to entertain through corporate drama and expensively staged events nor is it achieved by performance management alone or by ramming benefits statements down the gaping maw of the collective needy. Engagement is achieved through involvement and by appealing to both logic and emotion. But above all it should be pragmatic in ambition as employee engagement initiatives for the sake of it are potentially damaging unless they enhance the ability of the business to deliver on its mission, vision and core goals

The latest CIPD research backs up this view. It rightly differentiates between transactional and emotional engagement and suggests that employees who are just transactionally engaged only connect with the task or job role at hand. They may well respond positively in engagement surveys however, thereby giving a false positive. Certainly in the short-term, they can display behaviours associated with commitment. But they are less likely to perform well and will quickly leave for a better job if offered a better financial deal, gathering intellectual property at the expense of the organisations they join as they go. That may suit some and may help to explain the growth in the interim market, but it has worrying implications for brand sustainability in the medium term and beyond.

In contrast, staff who are emotionally engaged believe in the organisation’s mission and values and feel a connection with their own. They are more likely to perform well, have higher levels of wellbeing and remain loyal. Great news all round provided they in turn, are encouraged to keep their “eye on the ball”.

Not surprisingly the research found that high levels of transactional engagement were potentially damaging for both individuals and their organisation because such employees report higher levels of stress and more difficulty in achieving a work-life balance than emotionally engaged employees. Transactionally engaged employees are also more likely to behave in ways that could damage the business, for example acting out of self-interest rather than in the interests of the organisation or making decisions that seem fine in the short-term but come back to “bite” long after they have left.

This potentially damaging type of engagement is arguably more prevalent during times of economic hardship when employees have shuffled down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and become more obsessed with the need to earn a living and meet minimal workplace expectations rather than nurture more developmental or higher order needs and values in themselves and their colleagues.

As Claire Churchard states in her PM article, 23 May ”Emotional engagement is prompted by elements that go beyond the job role itself, including colleagues, line managers, the organisation and clients. It is driven by an employee’s desire to do more than is expected for which they gain a more fulfilling psychological contract.”

Angela Baron, research adviser at the CIPD, said: “While we definitely encourage organisations to measure engagement, it’s not enough to focus on increasing scores without considering what type and locus of engagement is being measured. What people are engaged with, and the nature and driving force behind their engagement, also need taking into consideration – otherwise organisations risk misunderstanding the actual extent and nature of engagement.” In short, it’s entirely possible to be engaged in the wrong way leading to counter-productive outcomes for both the business and the individuals. Surveys aren’t enough, they’re just the starting point, as we’ve always said, leaders need to understand the underlying factors and that requires involvement through timely and frequent face to face consultation.

Baron added that HR and line managers have a key role in clearly defining engagement criteria and interpreting engagement surveys and scores because they have the insight to identify the different interactions at play in the workplace.  Any support for the pivotal role that first line managers have to play at the engagement front line is very much on message as far as we’re concerned.

I’ve long been a fan of the Malmaison brand having had the pleasure of spending considerable time at a number of their facilities during my travels.
I’ve always found the employees to be great brand ambassadors and that this positive and empowered behavioural culture worked well with the physical brand trappings. I featured Malmaison in my second book, Brand Champions (2011), a case-study-based guide to the role that everyday employees play in bringing brands to life from within.
It was pleasing therefore, to read  Michelle Stevens’ article in People Management on 22 May 2012 detailing how the staff recognition scheme had “paid off at Malmaison”.
The group received more than 8,000 customer ‘wows’ as part of an engagement plan, largely as a result of empowering and rewarding customer service initiatives. The programme has also reduced staff turnover significantly and increased consumer loyalty at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin. Kate Underwood, the company’s people development manager announced at a recent HR Forum that  the hotel chain had introduced a ‘Wow’ employee incentive scheme to drive customer service in response to the recession.“Our challenge in 2010 as a boutique brand was to reduce costs like everyone else, but ensure that our customer service did not struggle,” she explained to delegates on the Aurora cruise liner.
As a result the Wow campaign was launched by the firm’s CEO in June 2010, which trained and encouraged staff to provide an extra level of customer service or give away complimentary items at their discretion.The need to “involve the trust and empowerment of staff” to go the extra mile for special occasions or rectify a complaint situation was key, Underwood added.
Employees were then able to report when they had ‘wowed’ a guest, which was signed off and logged by their manager, the audience heard.Employees achieving 10 Wows were rewarded with a free meal in one of the hotel restaurants, while the ‘Wow of the month’ won £150 and personal congratulations from the CEO. Staff recognised as offering the two best customer service examples of the year won a trip abroad.

More than 8,000 Wows have been recorded to date, with 650 occurring in the first two months of the scheme as hotels competed in a weekly league table.

Underwood explained that since the introduction of the campaign, the proportion of customer service related complaints had dropped from 69 per cent to 17 per cent.

In 2011, staff turnover dropped 17 per cent and customer loyalty had increased, with repeat business up by 51 per cent.

Underwood said that against those improved figures, the total cost of complimentary items had only been £6,500.

She added that Wow training was now included in inductions and some of the special touches instigated by staff – such as those around birthdays and anniversaries – had become standard customer service elements.

Furthermore, recent employee surveys found that 96 per cent of staff now felt that they received excellent customer service training, and the proportion of staff proud to work for Malmaison & Hotel du Vin had increased from 87 per cent to 98 per cent.

“What made the programme innovative was the simplicity of the message,” said Underwood. “We highlighted that service was our top priority.”

More positive reinforcement for the fact that employee engagement initiatives are largely cost  negative at least and at best can be a hugely powerful way of ensuring that employees feel involved and empowered to keep the promises made by the marketing department. What FD worth his salt wouldn’t endorse that business case, especially during these austere times?

Bill George (2003), in True North, one of the seminal texts on leadership and authenticity, defines the concept of authentic leadership as, in effect, being true to yourself. This means understanding and being true to your values, finding your own style and ensuring that there is appropriate fit between your values and the organisation you represent. He refers to 5 dimensions:

1. Understanding and pursuing your purpose with passion

2. Practicing solid values

3. Leading with your heart

4. Establishing connected relationships

5. Demonstrating self-discipline.

Being your own person is absolutely key, it allows the leader to be objective and independent. Understanding what the real you is can be an altogether trickier undertaking. Clarifying the true culture and values of your organisation is a great deal more complex than consulting the marketing literature; but ensuring that the real you fits with the brand of your organisation is the trickiest proposition of all.

Authentic leadership is the central challenge facing anyone in a leadership role, who is concerned with brand management and believes that employee engagement is the key to effective brand management. It is the challenge that now faces true ceos, or as Caroline Hempstead, AstraZeneca’s group corporate communications lead puts it in Brand Engagement:

“The best role models and most effective communicators I’ve known are all:

  • astute business leaders who are positive about engagement, not just pushing information
  • good at simplifying and staying on message, linking information to develop a consistent story, adapted for audiences
  • comfortable in their own skin, so their communication is authentic and consistent with other aspects of their leadership style
  • as good at listening as they are at communicating
  • being themselves and, therefore, they’re inspirational but also predictable which adds to the credibility of the message

The acid test always is “would I follow this person into battle”?  That’s a characteristic which owes a lot to integrity and authenticity rather than being a slick communicator.

“If the work you are doing is what you chose to do because you love it then it may well be your bliss. If not, then it’s your dragon.” (Joseph Campbell 2001)

I was reflecting on Campbell’s quote recently while re-watching Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil and was reminded of the Kurtzman dilemma I wrote about in Brand Engagement.

The Kurtzman dilemma alludes to the flawed notion that we can somehow entirely divorce the “work” me from the “home” me and is caricatured by the famous scene in which Mr Kurtzman, the sinister, institutionalised manager and un-civil-servant is undermined by his own “army” of clerks.

The scene starts when Kurtzman is suddenly disturbed in his grey factory of an office by the sounds of cinematic gunfire.  When he throws open his glass office door to investigate, shouting for his deputy Sam Lowry, contrary to his suspicions that fun rather than work may be afoot, the general office of clerks is unexpectedly a hub of normal industrious activity. Behind his back, however, his personal monitor switches from the spreadsheets he’s been working on to a classic Western movie.

Returning to his office, the moment he closes his door the spreadsheets re-appear on his own pc and the movie resumes on the monitors in the general office, the clerks once again grinding to a leisurely halt as their movie re-starts.

The scene repeats itself several times over, the manager, Kurtzman obviously growing increasingly paranoid and agitated with every iteration. 

 As the viewer we’re complicit in the subterfuge which is revealed to us whenever Kurtzman opens and closes his office door.  It’s a memorable parody of the “us” and “them” mentality and the way we’ve been conditioned to view work and leisure activity as polar extremes.  It also illustrates how, despite even the most draconian of regimes, the human spirit of rebelliousness and mischief in pursuit of some form of involving interaction will out and ironically that this could and should be harnessed in some way.  

In my experience of working with brands across sectors and with people at a variety of levels, it’s that self-same human spirit that makes or breaks organisations. Most people can force themselves to be “on brand” when on the spot. The trick is to ensure that they care enough to want to be “on brand” even when the boss isn’t watching. To this end, people are undoubtedly more comfortable, more engaged and more productive if they are self-aware enough to understand their deep-seated hopes, desires and ambitions and the values and behaviour that can lead to the fulfilment of those desires and dreams. 

In turn, organisations are much more engaging, successful and sustainable if they care enough to be clear about their goals, values and culture and to engage their employees appropriately and sustainably. Put another way:

 Employer brand (aspirational) minus employee brand = employment brand (actual) 

Sure, it’s natural for leaders to become obsessed with survival and enforcing the ”day job” in the tough times. But the sooner we all recognise that it is the day job of leaders at all levels to encourage self-awareness, self-actualisation and to cultivate a true performance culture in which people feel free to be themselves and thereby share in the ownership of the organisation’s goals, the faster the recovery process will be. 

And that’s in everyone’s best interests, isn’t it?

 The controversial talk about cost cutting and “austerity measures” has been relentless in the lengthy aftershock of the financial crisis. Most worryingly for organisations in general is the apparent fact that what are wrongly referred to as the “discretionary soft skills disciplines” including training and development; internal communication/employee engagement; brand engagement and culture development are constantly under threat  just when they’re needed the most.

A large part of the reason for this is that the finances for these disciplines wrongly fall into the discretionary spend category making them the first victims of cutbacks.

But there’s a very obvious flipside to the blinkered cost argument.

Market research leader Gallup asserts that in 2008 alone, the cost of disengagement to the UK economy was between £59bn – £64bn and an IES/Work Foundation report found that, if organisations increased investment in engagement practices by just 10%, they would increase profits by up to £2k per employee per year. (source Employee Engagement Today, vol 2, Autumn 09).

As someone who has first hand experience of the impact disaffected employees can have on business performance and brand management, I believe these to be conservative figures, but they still make a very strong point.

David Bolchover, in his book The Living Dead*, states that in the UK alone, doctors receive over 9 million “suspect” requests for sick notes per year. This is equivalent to the entire population of Sweden.

His book came out during the good times.

In addition one in three midweek visitors to a major theme park are reputedly “pulling a sickie” from work. Great news for the entertainment industry but worrying for HR departments. It also begs the question where do the theme park employees go when they fancy a duvet day?

A 2006 study by ISR found that a 5% improvement in the overall level of employee engagement converts into a 25-85% increase in profits for service oriented organisations.

A survey of 500 Fortune 100 companies, published  in the book Optimizing Talent by Sharkey and Eccher in 2010 revealed that  if you improved culture to support Talent Management 1 point you would generate a 10 percent gain in financial results. Conversely if you improved your performance management system by three points, you would get no improvement in business outcomes. Culture, Strategic Alignment and L&D came out as the top3 change levers.

Jack Welch, legendary former CEO of GE, identified employee engagement as the most important barometer of organizational performance (Business Week, May 3, 2006 “A Healthy Company).

The CBI reports that apparent sickness absence costs the UK economy more than £13bn a year, backed up in the 2011 PWC research into the direct and indirect cost of absenteeism.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2010 report, Creating an Engaged Workforce found that just under a third of employees are actively engaged with their work at any one time. The 2010 Putting it in Perspective report from ORC International found that although levels of job satisfaction have increased slightly across the UK, organisational pride and the confidence of employees to speak up and make their voices heard has dropped.

It’s literally “pick a survey, any survey” as they’re all saying virtually the same thing. But business case for employee engagement at an individual business level aside, recovery of these figures alone would go a long way towards solving the various national debt problems.

Yet encouraging people to “go the extra mile” is an apparent goal of the government-backed, so-called employee engagement task force and there is widespread acknowledgement that increasing levels of engagement across the UK could really help to boost productivity.

We need our organisations to function if the economy is to function.

There are no organisations without people.

Performance is not sustainable without engagement.

Most engagement initiatives can be at least cost neutral if properly conceived and implemented. The visionary organisations have already moved on from setting their HR and finance dept the task of proving the business case and have been energising, mobilising and re-connecting their people for some time now.

Begs the real question…..other than surveying your people, what are you doing to bridge the engagement gap where you work?

In Part 1 I listed the issues poisoning and undermining the engagement landscape.

Now as promised, here are some practical suggestions for addressing these problems, all, as ever, based on recent client experience:

1. Measure what you treasure: We’ve criticised the measurement industry which has grown up around employee engagement, largely on the grounds that the processes are all too often too cumbersome and there’s far too great a lag between recognition of the problem and action. When directors are obsessed with quarterly reporting and expect to move on every couple of years, what’s the use of a bi-annual staff survey?

We’ve also spoken in the past however, about the need for some form of measurement to win round the left-brained, data-worshipping cynics and to create a stake in the ground from which improvement can be tracked.

It’s far better however, to ask a few powerful questions and take swift action to address the issues highlighted. It sends out a signal that the leaders care, especially if they can see swift results. After all, there’s usually time to dig deeper at a later stage and to involve more people in that process.

2. Pull together a brand coalition: Sustainable brands are built on sustainable stakeholder involvement inside and out and side to side. Constructing and maintaining a united and consistent picture of the business is very important if the business is to back up the promises made about the brand. This can’t happen in isolation, however, and needs at least HR; Marketing and Comms working in concert to address the process and behavioural challenges.

3. Think beehive, think culture: I can’t think of a board room where “the way we do things” isn’t tabled daily. Yet so few attempt to clarify what that means in practice, usually fearing the consequences of shaking the beehive. Organisations are the sum of the behaviour of the people who work for them. You can’t engage people unless you understand them. Involvement is key to engagement, so find a way to understand the current norms and then work with the decision makers to create a compelling picture of the culture required to deliver the goals, strategy and vision and an engagement programme to bring it to life, role modelling that desired culture as you go. If in doubt, ask a trusted advisor to lend a hand in shaping and facilitating the journey.

4. Lead by example: It’s tough at the top. But that’s what you’re paid for. Remember how you used to look to your leaders for cues about how to behave, and how not to? That never changes. Yes, organisations have had to adapt to prevailing social norms and become more democratic and affiliative in leadership style. So-called social media and the communication revolution is going to ensure that this trend continues. The modern manager simply has to lad by example if they’re to sustain a career within a sustainable business. Values-based leadership is a powerful development strategy, as is mentoring and hugely cost-effective. These are tough times but how are leadership development budgets or even personal development budgets being spent where you work? And what’s the opportunity cost of a disengaged workforce?

5. Appreciate the power of appreciative comms:  Last but not least, conscripted armies of favourites don’t build sustainable brands. Cynics don’t destroy them either. Brands are undermined by a million small cuts; insidiousness and passivity leading to what I call “creeping brand death” like the spreading darkness in The Never Ending Story. The thriving brands, however, have champions everywhere in all shapes and sizes who feel connected because they believe in what they’re hearing via the internal communication channels and their values resonate with what they experience at work not just what they hear the leaders saying. So be appreciative and start actively seeking out examples of best practice behaviour that exemplifies the business you want to see and celebrate it. Good news is infectious, especially in dark days.

If you would like to know more about the detail underpinning these 5 approaches which are all based upon recent case studies or would prefer a confidential chat about the engagement issues you’re facing, please contact Ian. 

British branding establishment figure, Wally Ollins claims in a Marketing Week article that “It’s too late for BA ‘To fly. To serve’ when you’re in a tailspin”, criticising their latest, timeline-based advertising campaign.

Wally alleges that: “The problem for BA and, for that matter, most European and all American airlines is that they have become cold, mechanistic and absolutely uninterested in their passengers.” Fairly punchy stuff on the one hand.

Yet on the other he states that “The advertising campaign is brilliant clever and original, and fine for internal morale but leave us passengers out of it. Don’t talk about service. Do it.”

“Fine for internal morale….leave us passengers out….”!?

I’m afraid this is the perpetual minefield for the external-facing brand fraternity which includes Wally, namely the persistent notion that employee engagement with brand is somehow consigned to morale building, push communication or internal advertising.

Speaking from the standpoints of passenger, engagement and change consultant with intimate knowledge of BA and as a brand specialist, I have to admit to finding his comments puzzling.

Firstly, I agree  that the advertisement is clever. I know from past and current experience that brands with a legacy have a potent opportunity to provide a sense of stability in troubled times. Wherever possible, especially during mergers and acquisitions or periods of major change I urge my clients to embrace and respect the history of the brands involved. People retreat to the comfort of the known during troubled times, the village and the homely embrace of trusted values and associations. Consumers and employees alike are comforted by heritage and “stickability”and seek out islands of stability when the cold winds of economic misfortune blow. Brands with a rich heritage like BA, should be valuing and re-communicating that heritage. After all, Virgin recently did the same regardless of the fact that their roots extend only as far as the 80s. And is it a coincidence that the tv series Pan Am, about a long-lost and much lamented brand, has become a hit now?

I disagree that the BA campaign is largely irrelevant for customers and much more relevant for BA employees. Of course BA has to back up their service promise. It’s patently wrong to suggest that the advertising campaign is primarily for the benefit of BA employees, however. I’ve been vociferous in my own cries for the BA leaders to do much more than simply “show their employees the adverts” as internal engagement is a more subtle art, requiring very different approaches to convince the harshest of critics that the leaders are listening, consulting and acting to preserve an organisation and brand they hold dear. But at least they’re taking brand engagement seriously and are seemingly investing accordingly.

It’s obvious that the airline industry is in turmoil and has been for some time. Banker bashing has overtaken airline strike spotting as the business media’s favoured sport. But it wasn’t that long ago that I hosted a debate between some of the leading airline brands at Interbrand hq in which it emerged that the impact of bargain-basement airlines; short-termism and obsession with quarterly shareholder reporting had become the biggest risks to the industry.

Contrary to what Wally’s article implies, I don’t believe the blanket negative caricature of BA employees he portrays. Yes, the airline industry would benefit from a refresh, even if that has to be a brand at a time. But BA is still one of the most beloved brands of these British isles and to a large extent, the problems the BA brand faces are synonymous with the trouble brand Britain finds itself in. And we know what happens when Brits are backed into a corner.

Sure, the BA leadership could do with some help re-connecting with their stakeholders inside and out. Yes, they would do well to explore the fabulous engagement initiatives of the past. Of course they should listen with open minds to the opinions of the marcomms critics, their customers and employees. Yet they do need to be applauded for investing and taking risks at a time when most board rooms are content to hunker down and ride out the economic storm. Most of all, they’re absolutely right to look back in order to move forward.

Plan A at M&S (because there can be no plan B)

Back at the start of the year, I facilitated the first in a series of executive networking breakfasts, this time featuring Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business

Mike wouldn’t call himself an iconoclast. But the first of many myths he debunked over the croissants was the notion that a corporate conscience was somehow a luxury for the boom times. A sustainable brand embraces the full range of stakeholders, inside and out, engaging the key communities with a compelling vision and conveying a genuine sense of corporate responsibility reflected in both the value set they project and the behaviour they demonstrate.

The evolution of sustainability at M&S covered the philanthropic and fair trade touchstones we would all expect. It is an extension of the CEO’s vision of the growing power of customer and NGO communities. And it is a powerful motivator for managing reputation risk. But few of the gathered executives listening to Mike’s story could have expected that the drivers of sustainability within M&S now include:

  • continuously managing down their cost base
  • the increasing power of customers and the citizenship movement, liberated by new media and powerful communication tools
  • the impulse to stay ahead of the competition who in many cases are adopting an increasingly visionary stance and often seeking to differentiate themselves as brands who are sustainable, focused on all stakeholder groups and are here to stay
  • the need to continuously drive innovation through engagement or run the risk of being undermined by a disruptive, game-changing development in their core market

As most businesses tiptoe tentatively into 2012, organisations across sectors are under unprecedented pressure given the ongoing turmoil in world markets. Leaders are under fire as never before and they need all their stakeholders on side, acting as advocates for the brand. To achieve this they have to encourage inspirational and silo-busting thinking. Yet the notion that developing a culture of sustainability detracts from the day job or is a complicated or complex process is the second of the major myths undermined during the discussion.

Mike highlighted the following key milestones in the development of their strategy:

  • the appointment of a self-managing role-model champion or catalyst
  • the close integration of what we refer to as the brand trilogy of Communications; HR and Marketing working in harmony with the core team
  • having a strategy and a plan (an overlapping 5 year one in this case)
  • focusing on a consistent set of key metrics accessible to all, especially line managers
  • linking a significant percentage of reward to the programme
  • clear leadership, sponsorship and  role-modelling from the top
  • sharing and reinforcing best practices through supporting communication
  • creating a compelling brand for the programme
  • creating a network of local champions to re-educate; engage and drive “viral change”
  • engaging, educating and inspiring stakeholders across the 4 Cs: community; colleagues; customers and corporate
  • focusing minds on a few high-profile engagement events but encouraging local initiative, empowerment and innovation

To a large extent, Mike was preaching to the converted.  Stakeholder integration has always been at the heart  the Brand Engagement philosophy. But even the assembled group of like minds couldn’t fail to be impressed by the multi-million pound financial benefits the M&S management information system has directly attributed to their Plan A sustainability strategy. The scale of tangible benefits represents quite a compelling business case for the doubters, especially in a downturn and that’s before a value is attributed to the so-called intangibles like employee engagement levels; customer advocacy and good will.

Needless to say, the questions from the floor ranging from “how to simplify the engagement process” through to “how to adapt the programme for a global audience” and the resulting discussion could easily have filled the day. We’ll be pleased to share the outputs and insights at greater length if you drop us a line. Better still, join us at a future meeting of the Executive Breakfast club.

On this occasion we were pleased to be joined by my Brand Engaged colleagues and senior executive contacts from the following brands: Pfizer; British Library; Barclays; HSBC; John Lewis; RBS; Fujitsu; McDonalds; Tullow Oil; Vodafone and Rio Tinto.

* If you’re interested in the noton of sustainability, values and mutuality take a look at this editon of Ian’s People Management blog

“Public-sector cutbacks”, “corporate re-sizing”, “brand relaunches”, “values implosions”; “threats of strike action”: yes, we’re knee deep in massive change again. And there’s nothing quite like the threat of change to test the mettle of your leaders and the tolerance of your employees.

If leadership is partly about inspiring a community of individuals to undertake a collective endeavour, then stories are essential to articulate that vision. Noel Tichy in his book The Leadership Engine remarks that: “The best way to get humans to venture into unknown terrain is to make that terrain familiar and desirable by taking them there first in their imagination.”

Further, writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry remarked that: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

When a leader inspires, he or she breathes life and energy into their followers. When we reflect on the extraordinarily motivating speeches Winston Churchill made, it’s clear that no amount of PowerPoint (had it existed) and no amount of consultancy or accountancy models would ever have had the effect of his well-chosen words. And Martin Luther King had a dream, he didn’t have a change goal and wasn’t at a critical point of inflection. Or was he?

The results of a study at London Business School show how much of the message we retain depends on the vehicle of communication.
• Statistics = 5-10%
• Statistics and Story = 25-30%
• Story = 65-70%

And the moral of this story is that if you are delivering the “who we are” (brand identity), “where we’re going” (mission/vision), “what culture we need” and “how we’re going to get there” (strategy) piece, then don’t rely too much on statistics alone to land the message. As Ian illustrates in the case studies in Brand Engagement, involve people, paint pictures, provide a context, use metaphors, bring challenges to life use live forum theatre and empowering communal problem solving, take responsibility for the emerging narrative and work towards the best possible outcome for all groups.

Engagement, regardless of the subject matter, relies on achieving resonance between corporate and individual values. Unless that resonance is there, there’s no psychological contract, people won’t relax and be themselves and employees simply won’t go the extra mile and invest that little bit more that may just make the difference.

This is most definitely the time to reflect on the story of the foundations as well as the evolution of your organisation and where your people fit into that narrative to create a culture that positively supports rather than resists change.

Ian writes: I was more delighted than usual to recently receive a card from the leadership team of a particular client company who have had more than their fair share of challenges, most of which would put the usual corporate change travails to shame.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board was one of the brand development case studies I featured in Brand Champions.

I’m sure I don’t have to labour the difficulties they have faced in turning around stakeholder perspectives about visiting their country.

I’m sure I don’t really have to mention the impressive advertising and marketing campaign they have embarked upon to chart the re-awakening of that beautiful part of these islands as you’ve doubtless seen it already.

I possibly don’t even have to point out the huge leaps forward Belfast has made as a City destination of choice; or the way the pride of the people of Northern Ireland has blossomed as they have grown in confidence and joined together to embrace the future, regardless of the hostile financial backdrop or ever-testing political landscape.

What you probably don’t appreciate, however, is that the transformation of the Northern Ireland brand started and has been continuously role-modelled from within. Alan Clarke and his team at the tourist board have been on a journey of transformation that has ensured that they walk the advertising talk in terms of the values, behaviours and culture they cultivate and perpetuate when they’re promoting their national brand. They are  passionate about delivering on the brand promise and are now rightly proud of the fact that they can invite visitors to share in their stories, a far cry from the bitterness of the past.

It’s incredibly heartening to see the fledgling signature projects like the Giant’s Causeway re-development and Titanic exhibition come to life as planned and to witness the passion, confidence and pride with which they are being promoted. That wouldn’t have been possible without the internal engagement signature projects which gave the brand refresh its backbone by leading with the values and transforming the corporate culture. Many congratulations to the senior leadership team and your colleagues for what has been a real team effort throughout.

Take a look at the NITB website to see what’s happening in Northern Ireland in 2012, experience a dose of positivity and to witness a brand flourishing from within.

If you haven’t visited yet, you really don’t know what you’ve been missing.

Out-takes from our Brand Engaged breakfast with Professor David Clutterbuck and executives from leading brands.

They exaggerate those marketers do. Brand building is clearly less about the colourful and shiny stuff and more about cultivating the behaviour you need to keep the promises made by the business. This means understanding what underpins that behaviour, celebrating best practices and addressing performance problems.

It also implies some form of critique.

Yet in the shadow of the nanny state that spawned the non-competitive school sports day, criticism somehow became a dirty word. It’s still usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and notes raised on personnel files if uttered in a corporate context. But I’m pleased to say that we reclaimed the c-word at breakfast this week, when a seasoned group of senior practitioners drawn from across sectors acknowledged and celebrated the importance of real, constructive dialogue to brand building from within.

To my mind, critical has always implied balanced critique. It’s all about the motive. If intent and style are clearly positive, critical conversations can be well-rounded encounters of huge importance. Clearly, however, culture and context are key.

It’s no surprise that the enquiries into the collapse of many high-profile financial services brands are belatedly highlighting the effect that command and control norms had on entire executive teams, blinkering their leaders and leading to some devastating decisions with catastrophic consequences not only for the brands themselves but global communities.

David Clutterbuck has spent 40 years or so studying and striving to improve the quality of conversations and dialogue within organisations. He has written over 50 books in that time (!) and has another on the way. During his talk he shared many examples of the impact of re-wiring the norms of dialogue that become ingrained within corporate culture. These ranged from his work with the police and household brands like Asda through to the transformation of conversations during board meetings by building in more time for consideration and reflection; building more respectful relations by borrowing time normally spent posturing and speech-making.

David reminded the group of the difference between the transactional elements of conversations (the task) and transformational (relationship development) and the impact that remote working and time-poor decision-making can have.

He shared 7 types of transformational conversation and 5 levels of  all-important listening in a way that was easily accessible and actionable. But perhaps most importantly for the assembled group of senior executives, he emphasised the vital role of internal change agents who, through a mixture of leading by example and influence, were in roles where a large proportion of the power to transform the communication culture from within rested with them.

During the discussion David encouraged the HR and communication functions in particular to cultivate a suite of “bloody awkward questions” in order to overcome some of the barriers to more powerful dialogue. He also called for these functions to cultivate cultures in which 4 core conversations happen daily:

  •  “Who am I, what do I stand for and where am I going”? Some would call this a personal branding conversation within the head of the employee and largely reserved for conversations with trusted advisors/ their mentor.
  • “What are my intentions with regard to my current role and this organisation”, a more fulfilling conversation with their immediate line manager and peers.
  • “What’s working, what isn’t & what can we improve” between the organisation and its talent base generally.
  • General conversations on the social networks of the employees themselves from which the organisation can learn and evolve. This is the polar opposite to the strategy of policing social media adopted by some high-profile brands.

It was broadly acknowledged that the role of the internal change agent is on the one hand helped by access to information and first-person experience of “the way we do things”. But on the other hand, it’s not always easy to remain objective about what needs to change and even more difficult to influence the most senior of stakeholders who appear to wield the most significant impact, especially when your salary is at stake.

Our own conversation over croissants centred on the growing importance of mentoring and coaching as one way of helping internal executive change agents transform the quality of dialogue and in turn culture from within even if it has to be one conversation at a time. It was acknowledged that not only does this enable access to external support and expertise in a less intrusive way than a consultancy intervention, but it is a highly effective way of developing networks of skilled champions committed to the communication cause.

At breakfast this time we were joined by clients and contacts from 10 different organisations ranging from Bonhams through to Virgin. The beauty is always in the blend and it’s impossible to do justice to the quality of the discussion in this format without the attempt undermining the intent. Hopefully however, this provides a flavour of what was, in the words of one of our guests: “A great session & an inspired discussion in an excellent environment. I really enjoyed myself and left with loads of ideas and plans.”

If you’re interested in hearing more about this breakfast session; would like more information about ways to promote more effective dialogue where you work or would like to join our breakfast club yourself, then do get in touch.

We will be holding a series of workshops and drop-in sessions on similar themes throughout 2012, so watch this space.




There’s plenty of doom and gloom about. But it’s always this way in the eye of an economic storm. Yes, there’s a certain macabre fascination watching the car crash that is European finance play out before our eyes. But as the ancient wisdom goes, the fast track to feeling more empowered is to focus on what you can personally influence. We all have some degree of empowerment in the workplace whether we’re the CEO or ceo.

If the barrage of statistics are to be believed (and it’s not fair just to trust the bad news), companies with high employee engagement levels grow on average 4.5 times faster than those with low levels (Hays 2010).

We know that engaged employees are:

R- receptive

I – involved

P- proactive

E – energised and energising

So why not try these top tips to promote the engagement drive within your organisation:
1. Give recognition
If someone has done well, let them know you know it. A simple thank you goes a long way to increasing engagement so catch them doing the right thing.
2. Give constructive feedback
Managers giving little or no feedback to their workers fail to engage 98% of them, according to a 2009 study by Gallup. Let employees know how they are doing & what they can do to improve. It’s worth giving your first line managers in particular training on how to do this
3. Incentivise good work
Ensure that your HR processes are hard-wired to recognise objectives that are “on brand” and “on strategy”
4. Create an engaging culture
An open door policy creates an approachable feel to the office, where employees feel comfortable. Ensure management have a physical presence in the office and are role models for your core values.
5. Involve people
Self-managing teams are engagement nirvana.Involving people in company decisions will make them feel part of the organisation & give them a real sense of ownership.
6.Keep people informed 
Don’t assume that people don’t know or don’t need to know. They will appreciate being in the loop about any changes in the company. Internal communication must do more than SOS (send out stuff).
7. Encourage suggestions & input
Let them know their opinions count…. chances are the answers to your issues can be solved in-house.
8. Promote role models
rather than favouring favourites look to unusual suspects for examples of great practice and celebrate them. This will engage more people than you can imagine.
9. Encourage training, development and a career path
Stress the benefits of working for your brand including developing new skills and having a career path in return for development. Relationships count but they need to be nurtured.
10. Focus on their talents
Get to know the “real people” who work for you. Play some games. Find out what talents they have or want to have. Use these when delegating projects to ensure they are using their talents & developing in the right areas.
We hope these tips help but if you want to explore any of these points in more detail, do get in touch for a confidential chat.

I was pleased to be sent a recent report in which the team received some fabulous feedback about a service and brand champions workshop designed and delivered for a new client as part of a brand transformation programme.

Having been around the block a few times however, (so to speak), we unfortunately had to temper the excitement about the event by looking to the future and the fact that a change programme never survives or thrives on the back of the catalysing event, no matter how inspiring it may be.

Any serious attempt to improve an internal culture needs to be accompanied by serious initiatives covering each of the following phases:

1 Evaluating and defining

2.Communicating and engaging

3. Educating and learning

4. Sustaining and motivating

And when you arrive at phase 4, yes, you’ve guessed it, you start at 1 again.

Unfortunately, too many change programmes are dogged by a short-termist notion of performance and mistaking action for progress or SOS (sending out stuff) versus engagement-led communication. Hence the obsession with “giving good conference” or “giving good copy”.

Lasting change is largely the product of behaviour change. Based on the principle that it’s far better to do a few things well and succeed in some way rather than attempting too much and failing completely, why not try the following:

1. When measuring, why not ask your colleagues/customers whether they would recommend your organisation to their friends (advocacy) and then dig into the detail?

2. When communicating, try using the term colleagues rather than staff, or employee;  talent rather than resources; mentors rather than managers and see the difference it makes.

3. When attempting to educate, upskill or train, treble the amount of interactive, hands-on and delegate-led sessions at the expense of facilitator speeches and see what happens.

4. Ensure that the project or programme team as well as the senior leaders first and foremost role-model the values or standards they are seeking to transform by ensuring they receive regular feedback from their internal stakeholders.

The internal change agent’s lot is seldom a happy and almost always a thankless one.

But be brave, keep the faith, keep it simple and best of luck!

And if you lose your way, shout!

One of the benefits of an economic downturn (yes, benefits), is that organisations have little choice other than to do things better or do better things. They have to make the most of their existing assets as they don’t have the luxury of replacing them.

It may be a tired cliché that people are an organisations’ greatest asset. But I, for one, happen to believe it, qualified by the assertion that it very much depends on how the leaders treat them. Viewing people appreciatively as a pool of talent is very different to seeing the back office as a cost base or the support team as “burden”.

With this in mind, it’s encouraging to see some of the people-focused debates finally starting to emerge in the business press. I recently stumbled upon the belated revelation that the workplace has become the least enjoyable place to be for the majority of people. This week the revelations included the belated dropping of the proverbial penny about RBS, namely the report that the financial crisis was as much a cultural as it was a regulatory issue; a point we made three years ago or more, having deep knowledge of the sector and the company. Perhaps more surprisingly, these debates included the recognition in the CIPD publication People Management (for which I write a regular column),  that people are more effective when they feel free to be themselves, namely that they are many times more innovative in the pub, for example, than at work.

In 2005, a BY2W survey of 1500 employee in ceo roles (pivotal internal communicators), rated the following characteristics of leaders as most valued:

  • openness
  • bravery
  • honesty

Conversely, they saw the following as most hindering engagement:

  • insincerity
  • spin
  • inaction
  • cascaded messaging

The overwhelming majority of those surveyed stated that they believed they were more effective when they could be themselves at work. Clearly the above-mentioned characteristics have a major influence over the internal culture and extent to which they feel able to be themselves and be effective in turn. The degree to which they were prepared and equipped to suggest new and better ways of working (or be innovative) falls into this definition of effectiveness.

In his visionary book Future Minds, futurist Richard Watson corroborates the data supporting the notion that people are overwhelmingly more effective at generating ideas when they aren’t in the workplace by publishing the results of his own survey of leading thinkers and everymen alike.

But what can leaders do to create a more authentic internal culture in which talent will thrive not just survive?

First and foremost, leaders clearly need to recognise the cause and effect relationship between performance and a definitive description of the culture of their organisation as well as the way they communicate the essence of their organisation within and beyond the pool of talent. They then need to take responsibility for shaping that culture through the values and behaviours of their line managers.

However you look at it, there’s an overwhelmingly compelling business case for authenticity in the workplace if you’re the sort of leader who has the courage and the vision to look beyond the next quarter’s results. Authenticity is a major driver of innovation and can be turbo-charged by the example set by the right sort of role models drawn from the pool of existing talent, the organisation’s greatest asset.

If you’re convinced or at least worried enough by the why to be curious then pick up a copy of Brand Engagement or Brand Champions for many more clues about the how.

Alternatively, drop us a line. We’ll be very happy to share stories.

It isn’t very fashionable to talk about what motivates people at the moment. As we all know, it’s an employer’s market and survival and job security are understandable obsessions. But even though employees have undoubtedly slipped quite some way down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, fear and drum-banging cascade communication will never be enough to sustain performance indefinitely. And surely even the most hard-nosed FD must have one eye on the consequences of recovery.

Almost every week now we’re hearing about employee engagement studies like this one from the Hay Group. Yet we’re still shocked that, despite the fact that most business leaders identify disengaged employees as one of the top three most significant threats facing their business, very few ever “get down to” or even discuss employee engagement in the boardroom.

So what can we infer from this paradox? That the leaders don’t really care? That they feel they can get away with doing nothing? That they are wary of stirring the passions of their people if they start whispering sweet nothings and aren’t sure they’re up to dealing with the consequences? I have my theories. You make up your own minds.

I’m not sure the latest report into internal communication trends from Edelman helps though. While there’s much of interest in the report, it hardly role models effective communication in the way it’s written. And I’m frankly dumbstruck by  statements like “Employee engagement is becoming more and more about how an employee “experiences” the organization – relationships with leaders, managers, colleagues, andcustomers coupled with access to information,connectedness to conversations.” “Becoming”? If engagement hasn’t always been about actual experience, what exactly have people been talking about/doing?

Against this disconcerting backdrop, it’s interesting, however, to note the slowly swelling tide of articles stressing the importance of culture to the apparent employee engagement conundrum. One of the latest is by GE exponent Ron Ashkenas in the Harvard Business Review outlining the need to focus on evolving culture development rather than dictating change.

Regardless of the apparent gap between leadership thinking and doing, however, it’s interesting to observe that authenticity emerges time and again at the heart of the engagement and culture discussions.

Genuine, trustworthy communication is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of employee engagement. It encourages openness and honesty and stimulates involvement, all qualities which are critical to developing and sustaining a culture of performance.

True performance cultures aren’t just short-term focused. They are sustainable and are based on mutual trust and respect. Only a fool focuses solely on the outputs without devoting time and effort to understanding and replicating the conditions that maximise returns.

Job security, pay and rations are clearly very important. But true wisdom lies with the 30 to 40 per cent of leaders who not only acknowledge but, right now, despite the downturn, aren’t fretting over definitions or business case but are putting in place systematic engagement and culture development strategies to not just survive but move ahead of the game. There are clearly genuine engagement lovers, those who talk a good game and those who dare not speak its name.

We’re intrigued to hear what category your leadership team currently falls into



August 21, 2011

Marketing departments make promises about your brand, but your people decide whether your organisation keeps them.

Engaged employees who can be themselves at work thrive on an involving, empowered culture where clarity and authenticity shines through in the example set by the leaders of the organisation.

The By2w fellowship has a long  and established track record of helping our clients bring brands to life from the inside.

Our aim is to share our approach and stories here and hopefully inform, entertain and engage in some small measure. We would love you to join in the conversation so please don’t be shy.


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