March 13, 2013
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 :
- Line Management
- 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
- Colleagues who believe their Snr Manager is accessible
- Colleagues who believe Chief Exec is visible/accessible
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).
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?
November 6, 2012
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.
September 6, 2012
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).
June 18, 2012
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:
- 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
- The link between culture and brand needs to be recognised and so-called EVP/employer and commercial brand brought sharply back into single focus
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Performance management has to refocus on accountability over the medium term rather than encouraging short term “win at all costs”
- Training and development and organisation development strategies must embrace the values and behaviours stemming from the brand rather than re-inventing them
- 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
- 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…..
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?