March 25, 2013
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:
- 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
- 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)
February 27, 2013
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.
*article first appeared in the CIPD publication People Management in 2009
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.
May 14, 2012
Last year we witnessed the rapid and messy implosion of the superinjunction in the face of guerrilla communication, the high-profile demise of the head of the IMF, more MP scandals than you can shake a ballot box at and the ongoing News of the World debacle. Behaviour was squarely in the spotlight once again.
I was speaking at an event not that long ago attended by a host of senior names from the professional services sector. The core theme was brand development and brand engagement, an area of increasing relevance for this sector that has hitherto relied on the superhero/star-chamber model epitomised by the names above the door.
Professional services firms, particularly the legal ones, despite what the largely terrible advertisements may imply, are gradually recognising the importance of differentiation when it comes to competition for market share, mergers and acquisitions, succession and, yes, the war for talent. Consequently the role of HR may be assuming new-found prominence, given they are responsible for ensuring that the employer brand, values, culture and people processes – such as recruitment, performance management, and training and development – support rather than undermine the brand. They are accountable, ultimately, for ensuring that employees – and partners – keep the promises their firms make to their customers.
The various debates were fascinating, not least the shared insight that reputation, rather than brand, has greater resonance with partners. It was also apparent that in many firms the top team still resists attempts to include them in the common employee throng, making it extremely difficult for change facilitators to ensure consistency when communicating the firm’s brand.
There was a shared acknowledgement, however, that culture development is becoming increasingly important as a way of focusing on behaviour that may help differentiate one firm from the next in the eyes of the customer. But the change agents’ lot is not an easy one.
In such a politically charged environment, where hierarchy is still king, an objective “third way” can be very helpful. Measurement, in the form of a pragmatic and tailored employee engagement gauge, or culture benchmarking facility like the Organisation Culture Index, can be very powerful, especially if linked to customer data. HR has the opportunity to play an important role bridging the internal and external stakeholder communities.
Despite the inherent difficulties, HR functions can be hugely influential drivers of culture improvement to grow the rather vulnerable and extremely exposed “brand”, especially if they have the ability to convince the stars in the chambers that brand is less about process and more about behaviour and that there’s a clear business case for change. The value or price of employee advocacy is something most professional sevices should at least appreciate. If stuck, they can can make a start by asking the killer question….. “what price reputation?”
“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?
“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.
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:
Conversely, they saw the following as most hindering engagement:
- 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