Do you build business and brand advocacy in all key communities?



Behaviour change should be front and centre of business transformation, not a nasty afterthought.

Nearly every major business transformation project I’ve been called upon to help out with in the last few years has begun as a technical process change, like the introduction of a new IT platform or sales system. Stands to reason, I guess, given the business climate has hardly been kind to soft skills “leaps of faith”. Capex spend in particular has been under intense scrutiny, doubtless requiring months of fevered business case creation prior to coming before the grand inquisition, namely the torture chamber of the FD.

Yet what these programmes have all lacked has been the recognition of the need for any form of behavioural change imperative, the recruitment or conversion of advocates inside and out as justification for investment in culture development or due attention to leadership by example.

Cue the OD paratroopers and the HR consultancy special forces as a rear guard action.

Too little, too late, costing a fortune.

While Execs have been alert to the need to do different things, there has been little or no recognition of the need to do things differently. I’ve personally seldom seen much evidence of the appreciation for the need for behaviour change to underpin the process change. In short, businesses have invested heavily in designing and starting to develop a shiny new vehicle only to realise after considerable spend that they neither have the leadership capability to unify the workforce to build it nor the skills necessary to drive it out of the garage let alone take to the open road.

So, rather late in the day, they have had to retro-fit the behavioural business case because they have only belatedly managed to get their heads around the ways of working and operating culture required. What chance then of developing future-proof values and behaviours fit for purpose rather than reinforcing the limitations of current leadership norms?

Needless to say, a heavy focus on culture, values and behaviour change at the 11th hour is the corporate equivalent of the playground “wedgie”. It comes as a shock, takes folk by surprise and it feels disturbingly violating and invasive at the same time given it happens with little or no warning.

To make matters worse, quite often the bulk of the corporate budget has been committed by the time the behavioural penny drops. So more often than not, the engagement process has to be managed on the fumes left in the finance tank and employee engagement initiatives become intrusive interventions, late additions to the project timeline forced through using a combination of excessive internal PR and brute force from the HRD or CEO’s offices.

Yet internal stakeholders see through the subterfuge of proactivity disguising the after thought and robbed of the chance to work through the emotional change curve, either resist openly or, more likely, become silent corporate saboteurs. They resent the fact that the required behaviour change has been bullied through rather than led by example. Cue much more anxiety than was necessary, delays and missed deadlines as, not surprisingly, change really struggles to stick.

And guess who notices next? That’s right, those external stakeholders in the matrix, the ones who pay the blessed bills.

Sound familiar?

Seems like a decent business case for changing the way we do change, to me……..


Advice for your younger self


(Collaborative thought piece by Ian Buckingham; Kevin Keohane; Dan Gray and Hilton Barbour).

A father recently walked into his kitchen to find his child clearly upset. So he dropped what he was planning to do to stop and listen.

Seems the child had been disturbed by much buzzy noise on social media about fame and success. They were starting to feel that they would just never be able to shape up as people expected them to. Turns out they were feeling the pressure of making certain subject selections at school that they worried would set them on a path in life when they hadn’t really made up their mind. But they felt like they should know and it was worrying them.

Dad was just grateful he was there for the moment. So he started a series of conversations to help them navigate their way.

He shared this story with a few of us recently. It so happens that we are each relatively experienced friends and fathers who have worked in the Marcomms space, both agency and in-house, for some time.

One question in particular prompted an online conversation:

Q1:”Reflecting on your career to date, what is the one piece of advice you would give the younger you/or your son or daughter when entering the world of work?”

Here’s a precis of our reflections, for what they’re worth:


Find and follow your bliss

It took me a while to see this because of the games that all people play with each other.

There’s much talk about progress. But even if you reflect on what has happened since the industrial revolution, infamous for cramped housing, serfdom and little real time for what makes life great, things haven’t really moved on. Not as much as they should have.

People still live in the same or smaller houses but they somehow pay a fortune for them now; they work even longer, have fewer children, spend even less time with them and still donate their labour for other people most of their lives. They are quite often producing stuff that’s pretty useless and leaves a mess for others to sort out.

There’s more to life than stuff, there really is.

We all have to make sacrifices and compromises in life.

Some involve decisions we feel we have to make to survive.

But whatever you do, always strive to make an impact on the world and leave it a better, wiser, happier place for you having been here.

You stand the best chance of doing that by finding your passion, trying lots, sharing lots, failing lots, succeeding some but growing lots. Eventually, with lots of determination and not a little luck, you will find the sweet spot where work and you crossover.

If you’re really lucky it will seldom feel like work.

When you find that place, whatever it may be, it will be your “bliss”. Until then, good luck spotting the dragons on the way, the takers not the makers, the talkers not the leaders.

The greatest tragedy is not a life lived without money or power or fame. It is a life wasted, without taking risks just trying to impress others while forgetting or not discovering what brings you joy.

You, for me, are part of my bliss. You are my joy. I just hope you’re as lucky as I am to know that feeling too.

handsAlways keep a ‘growth mindset’

Be a humble and voracious learner. Go broad, not narrow, in your quest for knowledge, actively searching for new ideas and perspectives, especially from disciplines outside the one you have chosen. Therein lies the key to long-term success and fulfilment.

Others will tell you you’re wasting your time filling your head with stuff that they think bears no relation to the ‘day job’. Don’t listen to them. Ten years from now, they’ll probably find their job has been eaten by a robot, and they’ll be screwed because they invested all their time and energy in developing deep technical skill.

It’s good – necessary even – to be a polymath. Seek out experiences that will help you develop and hone the timeless mindsets and metaskills that are at the heart of what makes us human – initiative and self-reliance, communication and collaboration, critical reasoning and creative problem-solving (to name just a few).

Your prowess as an integrative thinker, sense-maker and problem-solver will be what keeps you one step ahead of the robots, grants you the ability to adapt and thrive whatever the future of work holds in store, and makes you valuable in an era when business is increasingly expected to step up and help solve society’s ‘wicked problems’.

No-one’s going to solve those problems with the inch-wide, mile deep perspective of the functional expert, so stand tall and be proud to be a generalist.

Because the future belongs to you.

daddydWhatever you may lose, never lose your optimism. 

Much has happened since you were born my darling son.

Man living on Mars. Oceans now free of plastic waste. Racial and gender equality that seemed a pipe dream when I took this role. Many of these advances were made by businesses and business people. Hard to imagine growing up that we once looked on politicians to solve the issues of the world.

Whether its politicians or business people who’ve solved some of our most systemic ills, one thing I’ve learnt is that humanity needs leaders with imagination and with optimism.

Your mother, who I wish deeply each and every day, instilled a curiosity in you that has served you well. Never lose that desire to question. To go back to 1st Principles and understand why? Why? may be a small word but it has been at the heart of many of our greatest discoveries and our incredible leaps forward.

But “why?” is not enough.

You need to do more than understand. You need to actually do something with that knowledge. But do it with optimism. Don’t just create, but inspire. Don’t just solve for others, infuse them with hope and optimism. Optimism is the warmth that fills a weary heart. Optimism is the hand that lightens the burden of the downtrodden. Optimism is the light we all seek in the dark.

When I was a young man, an optimistic leader once said this to his country:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

You will face many challenges in the years ahead. You will not always win.

But whatever you may lose, never lose your optimism.

That is what separates true leaders from the mediocre one’s. And you are far from mediocre, my darling son.

Time is all you really havedaddaughter

Time is going to drive some tough life choices. You’ll have to learn to balance genuinely rewarding time spent against time wasted buttressing ego and self-esteem. Avoid time-vampirizing behaviors that are ultimately not in your best interests. The sooner you learn this, the better.

Learning this, you’re going to encounter two kinds of people inhabiting the ecosystem in which you seek to play (however it’s sliced and diced – and we’ll come to that in a moment).

You’ll meet those who say, and those who do. Spotting the difference is essential to understanding human nature. And while building eminence and dare I say “personal branding” is important: Become not desperately distracted in seeking the oxygen of attention.

Be a doer, not a sayer.

With ever increasing ease of access, it will unfold around you: personal brand builders with the same search engines as everybody else. They’ll form and join clubs. Achieve the giddy heights of important-sounding voluntary board positions. Sayers dive deep, debating to the death then decoding and defining the minutiae of “best practices” and the essential esoterica of the doers’ capability set. Sayers seek to mark lines around disciplines. Sayers unearth things first discovered and since internalized by doers, polishing and repackaging them as distinctive points of view to present at conferences and breakfast briefings.

Ignore turf-protecting boundaries between disciplines—because when you fly above the sayer landscape, you’ll notice something. There aren’t actually any lines down there. You’ll be a designer. A connector. You’ll think adjacently. Your reputation will spread—with those who matter. As a doer, what will you earn instead? Meaningful work at the Big People Table.

Despite this, yes, you’ll probably feel the sting when sayers win trinkets.

Don’t sweat it.


Q2: But enough of our reflections. What would be your one piece of advice to your child, or the younger you?

Let’s face it folks, employee engagement has had its day


MMMA few years ago I contributed a chapter called Marketing and the Internal Market to Professor Phillip J Kitchen’s book Marketing Metaphors and Metamorphosis in which a number of marcomms experts debated the use and abuse of the metaphor in internal and external stakeholder communication.

Given the fact that, despite years of “noise” and effort verging on overkill, employee opinion polls remain firmly in the “red” with regard to employee engagement which, of course, has a causal relationship with communication, perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate a concept that has constantly divided opinion and which runs many of the same risks associated with the mis-use of metaphors in everyday parlance.

“For many years, internal communication was seen as an off-shoot of marketing and largely reported to the marketing head. Recent evidence suggests that corporate communication and, rightly or wrongly, HR are starting to assume increasing responsibility for employee engagement (see Melcrum study in Brand Engagement).

This subtle power struggle is a sign that internal communication is gradually gaining improved status as the importance of employees as deliverers of the promises made by brands via marketing receives increasing recognition. It may also be a signal that the marketing function lacks the appetite and aptitude to influence the internal markets appropriately.

While there are clear similarities between the internal and external communication markets, especially in industries where the distinction between customers and staff is blurred, the internal market differs from the customer-facing market in a significant number of ways. This means that a blanket approach to communication based upon the use of marketing methodology is essentially a flawed model. Employees are more savvy, more informed and more innately cynical than customers. They literally know the product/service inside out and most importantly, understand the means of production. They also have a feel for the core values and motives of the business owners and managers. They demand greater authenticity in internal communication which has implications for the way metaphors can and should be used.”

The core thesis was that the process of employee engagement differs from customer engagement yet essentially there needs to be greater authenticity and audience focus, especially with regard to internal comms.

Yet it strikes me that this lesson hasn’t been learned as bluster, commoditisation or creation of “engagement products” exaggeration and spin continues to undermine talk about systems-based engagement, amplified by the proliferation of social media where it is hard to differentiate between enthusiastic opinion based on scant knowledge and well-honed and grounded experience.

Hardly a day passes without hearing about fresh attempts to:

– define the term

– create a business case for it

– lambast leaders for ignoring it

– deplore the lamentable statistics associated with it

– badge initiatives like internal marketing, training, brochure design, app design and events etc as “silver bullet” engagement solutions.

The problem is that, even the few who appreciate that employee engagement is just a cog in the wheel of a comprehensive, systems-based organisation development solution to a compelling business need, namely to tap into the full range of latent employee potential, are fast becoming sick and tired of the term.

Let’s face it folks, the employee engagement “drive” coinciding with the global economic downturn, has amounted to little more than a cathartic filibuster. The volume of noise it has attracted/generated has only caused the community leaders most in need of support to withdraw and retrench and this is reflected in the global employee engagement matrices, as well as the proliferation of culture-induced brand implosions which have typified the period in question.

Just as the use of metaphor can be a powerful tool in marketing but detracts from the core message if over used and abused, the very term engagement has sadly become a lazy shorthand for employee satisfaction or wellbeing. It is too readily dismissed as a “nice to have” by cynical senior leaders who have too many conflicting, often short-term priorities to pay it much heed, especially given that the employment market is still buyer loaded. And despite the talk of Edleman and co creating engagement indices as well, I do fear that the term, riddled with mis-use and miscomprehension has had its day because it lacks credibility with the outcomes focused people who matter. The need for employee engagement should be a given, but ironically the terms itself and the circus of single solution practitioners may well have had its day.








15 Shades of Internal Communications


BCsiteacket.aspProud to see that Simply Communicate’s Gloria Lombardi chose Brand Champions as one of their 15 internal communication must reads, alongside the likes of Seth Godin. An eclectic list appreciative of the reality that internal communication doesn’t sit alone in the corporate radio station but at its best is part of an integrated system including hr, brand, marketing, leadership and culture.

We encourage you to take a long look at the list on the site but here are the kind words she had for Ian’s second book:

Brand Champions. How Superheroes Bring Brands to Life, by Ian. P. Buckingham

If you were looking for a book describing the role of brand as a powerful and unifying route to sustainable employee engagement, you may want to read Brand Champions. How Superheroes Bring Brands to Life by Ian. P. Buckingham.

In his work, the author shows the link between employee and brand engagement, making a compelling case for branding as something that belongs to each employee of the organisation.

According to Buckingham, at it’s core, engagement is based on reciprocity and the exchange of things with others for mutual benefits. It implies a state where the company and its employees exist in a condition of mutual understanding.

In this context, the employer strives to create a work environment that is satisfying and rewarding for its employees, while stimulating their emotions and desire to address their higher-order needs. “The employer literally invites them to bring themselves to work and become similarly invested (engaged) in the long-term success of their organisation or brand.”

A point stressed by the author is that employees’ engagement with the brand is discretionary, which means it cannot be forced or faked. Engaged employees are usually self-electing rather than made that way by corporate programs. That is why two-way communication needs to be “expanded dramatically.”

This requires allowing employees the opportunity to explore assertions made about the brand for themselves and two-way channels to exchange feed-back. The more empowered and involved they feel, the more likely they are to generate on-brand and on-strategy initiatives through their own power and efforts.

The author writes about a joined-up approach to engagement which takes into consideration the outsider world, such as communities, customers and corporate partners. With the increasing use of digital communications and the power, reach, unpredictability and response time of social media, it’s no longer possible to control stakeholder perceptions with silos-specific communications. Boundaries are blurring. “It’s disingenuous, counterproductive and confusing to pretend that the brand the world outside engages with is or should be any different from the brand “presented” to employees.”

This requires trust and transparency inside the business. “Trust is fundamental to sustainable employee engagement and brands can’t be sustained without engaged employees. There is a lot of noise surrounding the Edelman Trust Barometer for a reason.”

Leadership and control


Gatland eyes up

When working with leadership teams as part of a culture change or development programme, we sometimes ask them to negotiate a behavioural contract with each other based upon what we call five stations:

1. What is your primary purpose as a team or why are we here?

2. What are our leadership processes and how will we operate?

3. What’s our leadership foundation, our style of leading, our qualities??

4. How will we interact with each other or our leadership culture?

5. What’s the role of each individual within our leadership system?

Being a fan or rugby union, it’s fascinating to observe how this leadership model applies to team management, something I was particularly interested to apply to the unique environment of the last Lions tour, a unique institution which involves shaping a high performing team from the best individual talent from these islands within a matter of weeks.

Professional rugby teams are complex machines. Adopting a military metaphor, the coaches are the commissioned officers, the generals if you like,  who control the master plan, the strategy and their team of NCOs. The NCOs are the on-field leaders who input to and then motivate the players to implement the strategy before acting as the pivot between players and coaches, providing insights and feedback.

It’s obviously important that the generals and the platoon leaders, lieutenants and sergeants buy into the same behavioural contract at the start of something like a Lions tour. On the tour to Australia in 2013, Warren Galtland was head coach while the key on-field leaders were Warburton; O’driscoll, O’connell; Alun Wyn Jones, Lydiate and Parling.

In various interviews, Gatland had been asked very direct questions about his attitude to leadership.Talking predominantly about his role as boss of Wales, he talks about core values dear to his heart including trust; loyalty and honesty the importance of really hard work and how peer pressure is vital for the selection of the optimum leader. He also talks about the importance of empowering coaches and players and how a plan empowers leaders on the pitch. He describes how the most successful teams are where senior players take ownership of the game and the plan. Interestingly, Gatland states that he “loves individualism” and how “talented people are a bit different and it’s important to harness this so they conform to the team plan”.

Famously, however, quicksilver talent seldom wants to conform as many French coaches have found down the years. He obviously likes coaching Wales who he characterises as being unwilling to critique their peers and ironically rather like the French in that regard, clearly recalls the famous French win over New Zealand as an example of individualism igniting on the day but failing in the long run.

I believe that the difference between what Gatland says and does is very revealing when viewed in the context of the 2013 Lions tour:

1. Selection: The 2013 tour party was notable for having few star names or blockbuster players in it. This was largely circumstantial but Gatland clearly has issues with the likes of the Quixotic Welshman James Hook, who he dropped from the Wales party and who never stood a chance of touring. Mavericks like Henson and Cipriani clearly never stood a chance of being considered even though the latter has recent  form in Australia. Instead he chose to tour with just two, relatively young and hitherto fairly unspectacular fly halves. Does this simply reflect a talent low point or does it say something about Gatland’s actual leadership style and how he views control?

2. The tour skipper: By opting for Warburton, the young captain of Wales, an exemplary individual and player yet someone who seemingly had to be talked into taking the captain’s armband, did Gatland overlook the obvious experienced candidates like Bod and Poc (the choice of most former players), because of doubts over their fitness or form? Or was the decision a sign that Gatland wanted his own man who could be trusted to understand and implement his plan?

He deliberately placed Warburton in a tough position given he was clearly under pressure for his place, faced a great deal of criticism as a result and, although he is clearly a decent operator with regard to referee rapport, in my view he currently lacks the necessary experience and gravitas that comes with experience and seldom displayed evidence of yet having the top two inches and cool head needed during a game.

I believe Gatland’s language consistently displays a desire to control every aspect of  what can be an unpredictable game. Although he talks of empowering his team, he caveats his statements with phrases like “to deliver the plan” and “the more you plan the more I can pull back”.

But, as great generals have famously said,  plans go out the window at the first engagement. In short, the best rugby teams have leaders all over the park who can improvise and, informed by the plan, make decisions “in the moment”. World cup winning coach Woodward’s teams, in contrast, were full of leaders who were trained to think clearly under pressure. Yet he had many years with them not a few weeks and he failed spectacularly as Lions CEO.

3. Captaincy during the tests: Gatland is clearly a man who has fixed ideas about the gameplan, call it “Gatball” if you will. He likes a predictable  forward platform and appears to see the centres as rugby ground zero where the game is won or lost. This philosophy isn’t universally shared, especially within more empowering rugby cultures like France or Australia where much pivots through the fly half.

Gatland’s fly halves tend to be more pragmatic than poetic which has brought much success for Wales in the northern hemisphere, perhaps the yin to the Welsh rugby culture’s yang of flair and backline craft. Yet famously they have not been able to achieve the same success against teams from south of the equator who are clearly the pace setters on the global stage.

There were a number of occasions in Test 1 when Sexton looked to the old guard of Poc and Bod to confirm decisions rather than Warburton. To the onlooker, it appeared that the leadership system was working and the on field leaders were sharing responsibility. But by the second test, Poc was gone and Sexton appeared to be playing much more to agreed set patterns, standing deep and kicking Garryowens. This nullified most of the attacking play as the kicking plan backfired.The Lions defended well with Warburton and Bod leading by example with their faces stuck in rucks for most of the game. But they stuck to the plan and lost.

For me, the mark of problems within the leadership cadre on tour were most apparent in this Test and were summed up by a single incident. The Lions won a penalty with no time on the clock and were camped on half way. They could and should have advanced the ball to ensure that it was definitely within the excellent kicker, Halfpenny’s range. This was exactly the call Johnson made at exactly the same time during the 2003 rugby World Cup final and the rest is history. Warburton was off the field and it isn’t clear who made the decision but Halfpenny kicked without the extra yardage. It fell short and Australia drew level in the series, gained momentum and the series moved to Sydney’s crunch match.

4. Dropping BOD and Reverting to the Wales Comfort Zone: On the back of the disappointment of Melbourne, in an unprecedented move, Gatland’s strategy lurched radically back towards his comfort zone, in my view. He changed almost half of the team and began the Sydney test, the decider, with 10 Welshmen and Alun Wyn Jones as the captain for the first time on tour. AWJ is a great warrior but again, he never craved the captaincy. Apart from Parling who is still a novice, he was the last of the experienced on-field leadership cadre remaining with Brian O’driscoll being controversially dropped from the squad altogether.

Some applauded Gatland’s courage, ruthlessness and decisiveness saying it’s part and parcel of the modern game. The vast majority, however, including the highest profile figures and Lions legends like Willie John McBride expressed disbelief at the number of changes between tests, the apparent inconsistency in the manifest strategy and style and the way the legend Brian O’driscoll was treated given his commitment and hard work could not be faulted (qualities Gatland states he values highly), a man who was at the very heart of the Lions defence in Test 2.

A few critics and commentators, shocked by Gatland’s actions, tentatively suggested that perhaps he had this surprise in store all along and hid his intentions so well that everyone was surprised, most notably the Australians who were on the back foot as a result.

My personal opinion, is that it’s important to read between the lines of what Gatland himself says and what he does. I believe he analysed past Lions tours and came to the conclusion that it is virtually impossible to blend the playing styles of the 4 nations completely to the point that the players become unconsciously competent and comfortable in new partnerships. They just don’t have the time. Recent results appear to back this up. He tried on tour, hence many variations within partnerships, but it failed to deliver the control he needed. Hence the fans witnessed largely pragmatic and unspectacular fare until he reverted to type.

I also believe that Gatland was forced by injuries and the inability to facilitate the style of play he favours, to revert to a Wales-dominated side who know his style and the plan by heart. Remember his phrase about on-field leadership,“the more planning you do the more I can pull back”? Well his plans were undermined by the reality of the tour, so rather than pull back for the most important game of his career, I believe he stepped right back in to control the game by deploying the troops he knows and the style he spent years cultivating, supplemented at key moments and in key positions by a handful of talented players from England and Ireland.

What about the leaders? Well, despite his statement that “the most successful sides have been where the leaders have taken ownership of the plan”, he had to assume greater ownership of the strategy by appointing the players he knows best and in the end had fewer strategic leaders on the field than ever. He didn’t have to as he could easily have opted for O’driscoll to play with Roberts, a winning combination after all. Yet in the same interview he lists his greatest mistake as once appointing a leader who wasn’t in accord with the views of his peers. The players from Wales expected their general to enforce his will and, sentiment aside, he did by dropping the most capped player for the most important game.

Whether this is true is pure conjecture, of course, Whether this was always the plan is open to debate. Whether fielding 10 players from one country and making so many changes between tests is wise, is an interesting talking point. Whether this approach clashes with the values and culture of the Lions is a question that will certainly be asked as part of the review of this tour. But the records will read that they thrashed Australia in the final game and broke many records in the process.

Despite the leadership controversies, Gatland’s team delivered as the professional players responded well to the crisis and drama and the starting 15 as well as powerful bench delivered, improvising well from a solid platform of forwards.

Interestingly, the Australians had their on field leader recently restored for the game and in Genia had an amazing cavalry commander. But they were clearly at odds with their coach. And they lost, badly.

Obviously Gatland couldn’t fly the team by wire on D day yet still, they won, guaranteeing his place in the pantheon of the Lions.  But I wonder what lessons both he and his management team learned about leadership in the process and how the experience will transform the fortunes of Wales and indeed Lions teams in the future?

Still see culture change as discretionary?


ivory tower

There are plenty of definitions of organisation culture.

But put simply it means “the way we do things here”.

So, peeping out from the C suite, how’s it looking down there?

Are you really seeing what we’re seeing?

As I said in Brand Engagement, for the CEO the world consists of smiles and fresh paint. It’s hard to get a straight answer during even the friendliest of walkabouts and it’s lonely and more than a tad disconcerting as a result.

Well it is, for the wise.

It wasn’t that long ago that I had to face the ignominy of the then CEO of an NHS trust, throwing our painstakingly assembled report into employee engagement levels within his organisation, into the bin. He claimed not to recognise the detailed accounts of institutional negativity and passive aggression within the workaday ranks.

Suffice to say, neither he nor his board of largely interim execs took any action.

Within 6 months he was gone.

It cost the organisation a fortune they could ill afford, poisoning the well of employee goodwill for years to come.

At least he left eventually.

Most worrying however, is how many leaders like him are still in their jobs?

Based on that experience, I’m far from surprised by the succession of scandals that have rocked one of our most treasured institutions and dare I say, beloved national brands,  ranging from chronic mis-management through to patient abuse and falsification of customer feedback. These are dark days indeed for many parts of the health service and the millions of great people who devote their lives to it. But there’s little doubt that leadership culture is largely to blame for the conveyor belt of issues. Yet what is being done about it when investment in organisation development just isn’t prioritized?

A few years before that, I briefly worked with a director from one of what has since become one of the more notorious FS brands. We had a customer service focused brief yet it became increasingly obvious that most of the management team had been gradually disempowered and struggled under the weight of quarterly targets in return for greatly increased pay and rations. The consequence? An “up or out” culture displaced the career banking, risk-averse legacy culture almost overnight. And not in a good way!

Yet when we pointed this out, the senior directors claimed to have the situation under control while their PR depts flooded the airwaves with talk of integrity.

The brand disasters, personal brand disasters and economic collapse which erupted for the next five years were, with hindsight, to be expected as the gulf between the promise making and the experience of employees and customers grew and grew. Despite talk of recovery within the sector, I remain to be convinced that the lessons have been fully learned.

But  investment in culture change is still seen as discretionary spend.

Make sense to you?

And what of the scandals repeatedly rocking the energy sector, the horse meat scandal or record low levels of trust when it comes to public institutions like the political parties or major religions etc? Well, as Robert Peston so eloquently put it recently when talking up the virtues of family businesses; “Customers are sick and tired of being lied to and let down just so that faceless corporates can make another short-term buck for shareholders. They are desperate for a relationship with organisations that give a damn about their espoused values and at least have some sense of longevity and accountability”.

How people crave authenticity and suppliers delivering what they promise.

Yet how often is culture evaluated at board level and what plans are in place to cultivate appropriate and sustainable behaviours?

I think you know the answer.

We may just be emerging from a downturn and an employer’s market where shareholders have just been grateful to stay in the game and employees have lived in fear of their jobs. Yet it’s a little known fact that more organisations go bust coming out of a recession than going into one as the employees reach their tipping point owing to the ongoing neglect of the people processes and plumbing. This malaise becomes abundantly clear when they are asked to turn up the performance heat, and simply can’t.

Understanding and developing an appropriate organisation culture is arguably more important than generating sales as there’s a direct relationship between sustaining performance and the behaviour of employees. As we enter the phase where organisations try to get ahead of the game, enthusiasm, energy, innovation and discretionary effort are all vital.

Employee engagement isn’t a magic elixir, it’s just the point of initiation.

Yet engagement figures are still worryingly low.

Leader-led, values-based culture development is the key to re-energising, re-focusing and re-mobilising the disenchanted.

But the first step towards enlightenment is admitting that you have a problem in the first pace. And, right now, there can be few who don’t.

Internal Comms: What does 2014 have in store?


iancanadaGiven 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).

If you can’t see this as an opportunity, why exacty did you choose a career in HR?


People-Management-red-140x80We’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.

Health and Safety Advice: Come to your senses!


What image do you conjure up when you say the words health and safety? People engaged in a business critical activity? Or do your eyes glaze over picturing men in grey suits and frowns, tutting whilst placing crosses on tick lists? It’s probably the latter because the term has become part of the pantheon of business-speak cliché and if the organisational equivalent of UKIP existed, there’s every chance you’d vote for them just to avoid having to spend time thinking about the subject.

How about the term “wellbeing”? Well, it fares slightly better but suffers from the same association, with clichéd imagery based on misunderstanding and preconception, seasoned with a large dose of cynicism. Yet health, safety and wellbeing make good business sense for the business and its stakeholders alike and when an organisation invests the time and effort to build a culture in which these terms mean something and are part of that organisation’s usp, tangible business benefits flow.

The concepts behind the terminology are simple really. The sole purpose of the safety practitioner is to protect people from injury while at work and to protect the business from the financial and reputational impacts of potential incidents and enhance their brand in the process. The same applies to the wellbeing practitioner with the focus on sustainable performance levels, albeit safety is something most stakeholders take for granted as a basic requirement whereas health and wellbeing is becoming an increasingly important factor both when recruiting employees and doing all they can to keep them.

We were working with the leaders of a petro-chemical company not that long ago, who found themselves suffering from a spiralling pattern of serious safety “non-conformances”, poor employee survey results and sliding attendance levels. This was undermining their KPIs and was causing a great deal of damage to their brand.

Part of our role was to take an objective view of the leadership culture on-site and it soon became apparent that the issue wasn’t down to the safety procedures themselves. The issue was that the culture in which those processes were being implemented was undermining the systems and procedures and the culture started at Board level and filtered down. In short, the problem wasn’t a technical one but was down to how people were talking to and briefing each other.

All the people processes from induction through to performance management and communication, especially team briefings, were infected with a non-sensory disease.

Managers, in response to the terminology in their performance contracts and appraisals, had adopted corporate double speak. Terms like “terminal events” were used to describe deaths; KPIs to describe goals and standards and “executive” to describe the people doing the job. Sitting through manager-led team briefs was the engagement equivalent of listening to Andy Murray read the telephone directory, no context, no narrative, no story, no emotion but half an hour of bad news, excuses, bollockings and orders. They became as popular as a Monday colonoscopy.

The answer was to re-train the leaders, re-connect them with the stories that defined their careers and get them talking with emotion but more importantly facilitating dialogue and listening, listening, listening. After re-engineering the behaviours and re-connecting the people, the next role was to re-personalise the appraisal, goal-setting and communication processes and to re-position the core values so they had relevance and meaning. We introduced masterclasses led by champions within the business, re-configured the internal comms channels and its wasn’t long before the “KPIs” were back on track.

As respected health and safety expert David Gunniss puts it:

“Most line management and HSE departments interface as per this diag (below). It’s important that every manager, supervisor and worker has a job description and that their performance contract details their HSE responsibilities and that there is an HSE Policy document and Safety Management System. But this simply provides the platform.”

As with communication, for example, it is defined by whether messages are received and understood, not just by crafting the message. Little point having processes if no one is engaged enough with them to bring them to life.

“Workplace culture, both the physical environment and the way people behave towards each other is absolutely vital. It’s fine having the documents in place and understanding the lines of command, but there needs to be trust between leaders and workers and between leaders and their HSE function. If the system’s going to work properly everyone needs to understand the benefits and to take personal responsibility for what they can influence and that means feeling a sense of belonging, ownership and community.”

The benefits to the petro-chemical client were obvious when you consider the costs of getting the processes wrong in terms of fatalities, environmental disasters, morale and litigation and the damage all of this can do to the brand. Or put another way, sound advice from an HSE professional or culture change practitioner can not only prevent the company and its officers from ending up in court but can help create an environment in which innovation flows from actively engaged employees who feel cared for at work. Professional, objective advice can be expensive, but consider the costs of getting it wrong. And in these tough days, who wouldn’t benefit from that sort of unique selling point as part of their customer and employee proposition or when bidding for new contracts?

Leaders – embrace social media, but remember that Facebook will never replace real face time


leaderI was reminded of the Facebook vs face time  phrase, which I coined over five years ago, while reading a recent McKinsey&Company article offering insights into how leaders can leverage six social media dimensions for employee engagement.

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 but in the blend. Success clearly lies in appreciating the technology for what it is and merging  it with all-important, multi-sensory, face to face and cheek by jowl, congregating, gathering in person, pressing flesh, eyeballing and communing with colleagues. New platforms and 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.     


What if Superheroes were Sponsored by Brands?



In Brand Champions (Palgrave 2011), Ian plays with the notion of the superhero employee as “ultimate brand custodian”, suggesting that people are too complex to buy into the alignment logic of many brand campaigns, intrinsically suspicious of internal marketing and PR. He offers the suggestion, instead, that the great brands are built on authenticity both inside and out and are supported by willing advocates who understand what the brand stands for and who see themselves in the values they project be they customers or employees.

Many of our favorite, comic book superheroes, especially popular during tough times, fight crime for the greater good. But what if they were sponsored by brands and made to ‘represent’ the companies that paid them?

Italian graphic designer Roberto Vergati Santos helps to make this point in his illustrated series titled ‘Sponsored Heroes’ which plays with the juxtaposition of personal and corporate branding in the context of icons many consider to be “heroic”.

Taking familiar superheroes from comics and movies, Santos linked each of them to a specific brand by dressing them in colors and logos of the company.

In the series, showcased on the Design Taxi site, ‘Batman’ can be seen wearing Nike gear, while McDonald’s sponsored Tony Stark’s ‘Iron Man’ suit.

“Imagine if one day capitalism reaches the point, where the big brands start to sponsor the superheroes,” Santos explains. “How would this influence their images? Based on this hypothesis, I decided to experiment with some characters, and see what would be the results of such idea.”

The results are fascinating and oddly disturbing but certainly make you think twice about the relationship between brand advocacy, values and endorsement.


The future of work & the future for HR


logo_cipdTo celebrate their centenary, the CIPD invited Ian to contribute his voice to a feature about the future of work and the future of HR.

There’s much food for thought but we were particularly struck by what the leader of Tesco Bank’s HR function had to say, words which had a very familiar feel:

Therese Procter, Personnel Director, Tesco Bank

Centenary-100-thoughts-therese-procterFor me, HR’s future can be summarised in two words: value and values. In the past, the value created by public and private sector organisations has been measured primarily in financial terms. Following the global economic crisis, however, organisations will be judged not only by the financial value they deliver – but also by the social value they create. Consequently the impact organisations have on the lives of employees and customers, on communities, and on the environment will be studied as closely as their impact on shareholder and taxpayer returns. This, in turn, will bring the values of organisations into far sharper focus, because how and why things are done will now be subject to the same level of stakeholder scrutiny as what gets done. I believe that progressive HR practitioners will play a pivotal leadership role in driving both financial and social value in this new era of values-led organisations.

This very much supports our conviction that HR will play a leading role in the eventual  recovery of the more forward thinking organisations.

You can plug into what Ian and other HR strategists, practitioners and thinkers are saying by following this link to the CIPD site.

What does your packaging say about what your people think of your customers?



During my Interbrand days I was known as a vociferous flag-waver for the behavioural aspects of brands, less interested in the signage; packaging and many physical manifestations of the brand management art.

I guess a large part of the reason for this was that the design team largely had this covered. Yet the people factors were and remain by far the greater business and brand challenge.

But this Christmas, faced once again with a mountain of packaging and the notorious dad challenge of liberating the toys from their cellophane and cardboard cells, assembling them and breathing life into them with the right set of batteries, strokes and nudges, I couldn’t help but reflect on how little the predominantly Chinese packaging departments appeared to care about the customer experience once the purchasing decision had been made.

I’m sure parents around the globe are becoming increasingly frustrated with toys and presents that are ALL about the marketing, shelf appeal and the promise but appear to give scant regard to delivering on that promise post purchase. When faced with a doll that has had three screws inserted into its head and hair to make it look nice on the shelf and a little girl crying in frustration to get to grips with the goods, or a scarlet-cheeked little boy who, try as he may, simply can’t liberate a toy car from the lacerating plastic and tie-grips, it’s easy to see where Tim Burton’s inspiration for The Nightmare Before Christmas came from.

As I frantically cut, tore, peeled, tugged, unscrewed and assembled much more than I was expecting to given the amount of money we had spent on the goods, I pictured in my mind’s eye an army of particularly malicious factory workers in China dexterously engineering micro screws and fastenings that would test the patience of Buddha as some sort of  post -modern, post- imperialistic backlash. But the truth is, the manufacturers are most likely complying with the very letter of the brief from the marketing department in Washington or London and the workers are simply being as efficient as they can possibly be.

So is there an issue for the brands concerned?

Oh yes there most certainly is.

Regardless of the science underpinning the product development, effective brand management is a holistic process. The physical elements of the brand mix need to work in harmony with the behavioural. That means ensuring the customer is engaged with the product at all key stages, un-packing included. But not as some sort of de-facto home-based assembly line operative. And that calls for listening and empathy to be included in the employee skill set


Because ultimately it isn’t Santa (sorry kids) but we long-suffering parents who pay for the presents. And in the famous words of The Who, “we won’t be fooled again”.

Well….not until next Christmas, birthday, reward day, anniversary, baptism, baby shower……….

Stocking fillers and corporate thrillers – best business books



We’ve been very flattered to feature on a number of “must read” lists down the years. Here’s what that cosmopolitan bunch at design and infographic champions Shift Business are recommending as stocking fillers for the discerning business book buyer. Pleased to see Ian’s Brand Champions in such exalted company……

Looking  for inspiration in your business? Want to try something new and innovate? In this day and age, there are a million and one blogs out there that will give you some great pointers. But sometimes you need something a little bit more in-depth to really get your creative juices flowing. Immersing yourself in a longer-form book can be an ideal solution.

So why not put down your summer blockbuster and instead pick up a business book to help you get a fresh perspective. There’s plenty of books out there to choose from.

Here’s five of our best reads and some detail about how they might be able to help and inspire you:

1. Web Analytics 2.0 by Avinash Kaushik

A company website is vital for any small business out there these days. Who better to learn from here than Google’s own digital marketing evangelist, Avinash Kaushik. In this great book, Kaushik shows you how to use the copious amounts of online data out there and understand more complex strategies such as online analytics and the eight critical web metrics that will help you succeed. This is a book for anyone that wants to measure the effectiveness of their website.

2. The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick

Facebook is everywhere these days! And increasing numbers of companies use the social networking site to connect with customers and prospects. But how did Facebook get to where it is today? What are its secrets of business success? This book will tell you more about how founder Mark Zuckerberg took his company from just two employees to 3,976. Get ready to be inspired!

3. Brand Champions by Ian P. BuckinghamBCsiteacket.asp

Does branding matter? According to Ian Buckingham it really does. He also thinks the secret to success lies with your employees. If employees don’t embody a brand, then how can a company keep its brand promise to its customers. Your employees are your brand custodians and this book will help you turn them into the beating pulse of your company.

4. Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach

Content is king right? If you still need to be convinced then this is the book for you. It will help you put together a content strategy and explain why it is important for your business. You’ll find out why messaging is worth paying attention to and how to write blogs that resonate. So get reading (and writing!)

5. Good to Great by Jim Collins

This book is about being the best in the world and not just sticking to the average. If that sounds like something you would like for your business, then pick up this book. Filled with inspiring tips and tricks, it is a step-to-step guide on the important things to focus on in business and how to make positive changes.

The relentless rise of foie gras internal communication


Never in everyday pursuit of corporate endeavour have so many been force-fed by so few.

The rise of social and technological media and the proliferation of communication channels means your average employee could be nearing communication saturation point.

But are they?

I would suggest the appetite for effective communication has never been more keen, yet effective communication is still in very short supply.

Lest we forget, communication is essentially an outcome,not an input. At recent team briefing workshops, I had to make a point of reminding a group of senior civil servants that
“success isn’t measured by volume, pace or quantity. Good communication is a product of whether the message has been received, understood and resulted in the necessary action”.
For a number of years now, when I’ve conducted communication audits for clients, employees across sectors have complained about being bombarded. Despite the rather
trendy discussions about the difference between internal communication and employee engagement, message management and push communication appears to be
increasing.The biggest culprit is the dreaded email.
Having just carried out an audit of internal communication channels for another public sector client currently undergoing major change, I’ve been struck, by a bizarre, and frequently seen contradiction. In answer to the question “How would you prefer to be informed of changes?”, a whopping 76 per cent of respondents voted for face-to-face communication. Of those 76 per cent, some 68 per cent wanted that communication to come from their immediate line manager/s. The second preference was for some form of internal social media allowing them to provide feedback and debate in an interactive, real-time environment.

But when we looked into the communication department’s communication methods of choice, they prioritised: lunch meetings with the CEO and senior team; email bulletins; voicemail; and publications.

As the change programme gathered pace and brought with it ‘right sizing’ and major structure changes, the top two methods fast became the only ‘official’ channels. Sadly, team briefings led by line managers had faded to sporadic bursts.

It’s perhaps understandable that a number of line managers and supervisors had taken a backward step when faced with extremely difficult message management. It happens. But in this case, it was soon very clear that abdication on this scale reflected deep-seated leadership issues. Their CEO, in Hero Leader guise, although well intended, was clearly undermining his leaders. They had also lost faith in their communication function which was simply stepping aside by pressing the forward and ‘cc’ buttons.

The simple fact is that top down, cascade bombardments, particularly by email, are synonymous with lecturing. They allow the originator to tick a box but are largely
ineffective and simply reinforce one-way messaging. Cascading swarms of messages in the interest of employee engagement means the organisation promises one thing yet delivers another. It’s disingenuous and creates deep seated resentment.

Most of us learn much more effectively in interpersonal environments, when we’re involved and can interact with others. This is one of the reasons why line managers and immediate supervisors are increasingly important communicators. When they have the opportunity
and take the time to commit to Facetime rather than Facebook, employees are enlightened and reassured by the example being set as well as the opportunity for face-to-face discussion, debate and reflection.

Nearly everyone now appreciates the merits of electronic communication. But despite the simple temptation of “compose, click and send” and the sophisticated charms of new-wave social media tools there really is no replacement for good, old-fashioned, face to face, eyeball-to-eyeball communication. This is especially true during testing times when people lose what appetite they may have had for Foie Gras and deeply resent the fact that there’s no comfort food on the menu.

*first published as The Last Word in Employee Engagement Today.

You can download it as a pdf by clicking here: Buckingham_last word

Does a civil partnership between HR & Marketing really make for an odd couple?


Interesting article in The Harvard Business Review, September 11. 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.

Paralympic brand watch: Motability’s culture-first approach to brand transformation


Like the millions of people suffering withdrawal symptoms following 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 tv audience of 20 million people in the UK alone.

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).

The London 2012 opening programme – a masterclass in engagement


I’ve been working in the engagement and transformation business for well over a decade. Never have I seen the so-called people disciplines in such a state of disempowered crisis, cruelly at a time when they are needed the most.

But in these dark days, what an uplifting delight it was to watch Danny Boyle’s genius unfold before the world as we watched the London Olympics 2012 opening ceremony.

While boardrooms pontificate and procrastinate about measurement and meaning citing austerity as an excuse for avoiding the very action that would ironically help to kick-start recovery, Boyle and co conceived a strategy based on the yang of authenticity to counter China’s intimidating, totalitarian, resource-rich yin.

They were up against almost impossible competition. But when put to the most extreme of tests, with the eyes of the world literally upon them, they found a way to out-perform the previous games.

While governments squandered scores of months on enquiries, committees and spin to explain the economic and engagement downturn that has dominated world news since London won the bid , Boyle’s creative team quietly ignored the emasculating criticism levelled at their plans and confidently assembled a complex showcase of brand Britain which from pastoral idyll through to NHS more accurately portrayed what it is to be British than anything I believe any of us has hitherto seen.

To the many change practitioners out there who find themselves increasingly confused and frustrated by the ever-slippery engagement word, take some time out and have another look at the show. Remind yourself that like most things, engagement is essentially a simple concept. It’s more sensation than dry understanding. It’s more feeling than thinking. It’s more story than event.

In the context of an organisation, it’s how connected employees are to the entity they work for and how prepared they are to be themselves or to give more than is contracted from them. It’s the sum of the moments when the hairs rise on the back of a tingling neck or the warm feelgood glow that comes from sensing that an organisation shares the values you personally hold dear. And from the perspective of the leaders the more widespread, consistent and persistent that feeling, the more impact it’s going to have on the way those people and that organisation performs.

Of course there are lessons aplenty that business leaders can learn from the opening to 2012. The first however, is to acknowledge how much engagement really matters and to appreciate the impact it can have. The second is to take action and “make it so”.

Reflecting on THAT oh-so-important ceremony however, it’s worth remembering that:

  • the ceremony was only 1 stage on a long journey from heritage via strategy to legacy. As I wrote in Brand Engagement, don’t be fooled into believing the hype perpetuated by the event or training companies claiming that engagement is a quick, marquee-event fix. Transformation needs more than a short-story mentality from leaders, a vision and journey not an initiative.
  • As the thousands of volunteers, programme of events and interactive opportunities show, from social media through to the relay of champions, collaborative art works etc the route to engagement is the involvement of as many stakeholders as possible as often as possible. Push communication, PR and instruction all have their place. But engagement they ain’t.
  • Your true champions aren’t the marquee names, they’re the Everyman communities, the unsung names, the sum of your potential who inspire their peers with the sense of “if they can I can”. The “guard” of building workers and entire torch lighting process was a masterclass in this principle.
  • There’s nothing more powerful than authenticity. Andy Murray found this out at Wimbledon recently in a moment that transformed his relationship with the public. All the athletes role model this when they’ve given their all and it’s certainly summed up in this “unbelievable” clip of Bert le Clos, father of “beautiful” South African surprise gold medal winner Chad :-).

When planning the ceremony Boyle knew Britain couldn’t compete with the Chinese resources. So he showcased our thinkers, our planners, our builders, our carers, our artists, our singers, our lovers, our tryers , our jokers, our champions and mentors but most of all our indomitable ordinary, authentic people….and look what they achieved!

Quite possibly the last is the most important point of all. The Opening ceremony showcased British ordinariness and diversity in all its magnificent quirkiness. It couldn’t match the razzamatazz and overwhelming corporate might of the US games or the tikeish new world charm of Sydney. But spin and PR aside, it touched upon the weirdly wonderful uniqueness of what it means to come from these small emerald isles and the people who have punched above their weight in the world for such a long time.

I’m not one to gush, but like many people who were trepidatious about these games, I wish a few of the leaders of Britain’s brands would take just a lesson or two from the way Boyle devised and executed his vision of Brand Britain as showcased in the preliminary process and ceremony which gave our Olympics the adrenalin injection they needed.

We would all undoubtedly be a lot the better for it if they did.

The financial services brand meltdown and the square root of trust


The past fortnight has seen Barclays and then HSBC, arguably the two premier UK bank brands (according to the Interbrand annual poll), implode.

Almost two years ago, I wrote this in my CIPD People Management column:

Mervyn King recently became only the second Bank of England governor to address the TUC – and what a time to choose. Interestingly, he highlighted the bonuses still being paid in the financial sector and told union activists they had every right to be angry over the damage that bankers had inflicted on the economy.

He warned that the country would feel the effects of the banking crisis for a generation and argued that there was no alternative to tough action to cut the national deficit. He may well be right; but this was hardly the sort of speech to inspire, induce confidence or spread goodwill.

But King’s comments are backed up by the publication of Interbrand’s Best Global Brands poll for 2010. With just five UK entries in the top 100, the poll reinforces the sense that our national pride, expressed in brand dominance terms, appears to be over-reliant on financial institutions.

Even in these dark days, two banks represent the UK’s highest ranking brands: HSBC at number 32 and Barclays at 74. In fact, the financial services sector as a whole recovered from a 40 per cent drop in the charts in 2009 to a 26 per cent overall improvement in 2010. But at what cost? This recovery hasn’t been matched by other sectors, which are undoubtedly still feeling the effects of supporting their financial service counterparts.

This rise is attributed to aggressive new market entrants and economic recovery. “What recovery?” I hear you cry.

While the apparent recovery of the banks may well be great news for the bankers, it’s arguably good news as well for most other sectors that benefit directly or less directly from fluctuations in the fortunes of the banks. Issues over the distribution of wealth aside, this does beg a number of big questions:

• Have financial services organisations learned the lessons of the recent past, and will they finally start to build sustainable internal cultures based on core values and a return to relationship management?
• Have the worldwide regulatory bodies developed the appetite and aptitude needed to ensure that the global economy isn’t thrown into a spin by questionable practices?
• How patient are non-banking workers?

What the Interbrand league certainly seems to suggest is that the UK economy urgently needs stronger sustainable brands, certainly within financial services but also from a more diversified range of sectors. And leading brands are built and sustained, first and foremost, from the inside out.

The UK has some fantastic brands with stories to be proud of. In brand management terms, however, we unfortunately appear to be a long way behind many of our international competitors. That can be addressed with a large dose of appreciative, joined-up thinking. But what the economy needs right now is inspiration – not the dour doom-mongering from the heads of our national institutions, be they politicians, religious leaders, CEOs or even the head of the Bank of England.

While debating the PR disasters which have inevitably afflicted both HSBC and Barclays (who, lest we forget, were lecturing us all on trust and culture not so long ago), I was reminded of the ancient Chinese proverb concerning two emperors: One was wicked and suppressed his people and the other was benign and giving. When the wicked Emperor softened just a tiny bit, his people loved him. But when the good Emperor had to introduce some unpopular laws… he was assassinated.

After nearly 6 years of financial meltdown and countless brand disasters, we’re still frustratingly far away from witnessing action to address the root cause of the trust-related issues which are poisoning the sector from within. It’s actually questionable whether the leaders who matter really  appreciate the true root cause rather than making excuses for the symptoms. Even the seemingly drastic measures Barclays has reputedly taken, employing a high-powered City lawyer to root out the problems at the core of the culture fails to acknowledge that culture development requires a systemic, appreciative solution facilitated by credible, independent experts rather than a witch hunt by members of the same establishment who are probably part of the problem.

But perhaps we can all draw a tincture of comfort from the Chinese proverb, namely that popularity may well be over-rated and that having reached an all time low in the eyes of multiple stakeholders, the only way, as they say, is up…..

Brand watch: Barbour, a lesson in heritage and values-led innovation


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 could 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.

More creative tension on the employee engagement front


A few weeks ago I featured the Employee engagement taskforce in my regular People Management column.

Why? Well it’s no secret that I am a passionate advocate of employee engagement as one of the core pillars of sustainable brand management. But like many people, I’ve grown increasingly weary of witnessing rank dis/misengagement within organisations; reading about the seemingly countless surveys saying the same and then listening to the government dissemble about the topic yet take very little practical action other than to commission more committees and studies.

Perhaps this initiative will be different? I guess more time will tell.

In the meantime, a little grit in the oyster will hopefully help, especially as it comes from a passionate place.

I was naturally pleased to see the numerous and varied, mostly useful comments that the post attracted, not least this piece from North of the border by leadership specialists Able.

Creative tension on the employee engagement front

Posted on May 9, 2012

Ian Buckingham’s blog has a great new post with an even better title, ”Employee engagement Taskforce: an oxymoron?” Clearly not impressed, he says progress is ”painfully slow” whilst offering some pragmatic reasons why employers are not responding quickly enough to the case for action on the employee engagement front.

The Taskforce’s communications manager Ali Godding has provided a very useful and informative comment on Ian’s blog explaining what has been happening in the past year and what is about to happen now. All good sensible things about spreading awareness, gaining buy-in, employing social media, building momentum, etc, etc. Well worth reading.

The creative tension, however, is clear to see in this crucible. I back Ian and favour the pragmatic approach of getting on with it. I’ve written before about the simplicity and honesty of former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy’s approach, which is backed up by The Training Foundations “Rules of Engagement”: it’s all about managers being leaders and creating a positive impact in every conversation, interaction and relationship they have. I say, let this drive the need for more sophistication, rather than spend time now trying to engineer it.

I couldn’t have said it better myself Mac.

Creative tension is healthy.

But perhaps one positive to emerge from the Barclays debacle, the latest brand to implode dramatically on the back of a fundamental misunderstanding between the perspectives of the leaders versus the major stakeholders (starting with the employees), will be that the key decision makers might just start to pay a lot more attention to this business-critical area.

Tipping point?

Cross-cultural communication and the line manager


We were asked to undertake an extensive comms audit of the global offices of a multi-national brand. Apparently the leaders were concerned at the differences in the way their town hall meetings were being received in different parts of the world and with diversity in mind wanted to ensure that the cascade approach they adopted to internal communication was working.

What we uncovered, as the enlightened internal communicators out there may expect, was a fundamental difference in the way local communities responded to what they perceived as central dictat. Much depended on:

  • the quality of local line management facilitation
  • the degree of flexibility spelled out in the core materials
  • the behaviour of the visiting Vip leader
  • the amount of consultation involved and quality of the feedback process

The improvement process that resulted included the transformation of the standard team briefing process to a team listening approach as well as skills development workshops for first line managers who were identified as the pivotal communicators.

There are many reasons why this group is so important to local engagement. One of the most important is illustrated in this light-hearted table:

Why not create your own version for the country in which you operate?

Here’s a satirical take on the subject as part of London-based designer Yanko Tsvetkov‘s Mapping Stereotypes project.

Be great to build up an international set, don’t you think?

Employer brand: HR perceptions vs employee reality – that’s quite some disconnect


I’ve long been a champion for HR as a key engagement pivot and have always promoted the importance of employee advocacy to brand building. But this infographic powerfully shows the extent of the gap between HR perceptions and employee reality.

Time to start thinking employment brand and sharpish?

Brand Watch: Fujitsu, the blossoming of a supercomputer brand.


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 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.

Brand watch: engagement is still all talk @Arm Holdings


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 culture 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.

Gamification: engagement nirvana or emperor’s new clothes?


If you have even a passing interest in employee engagement you’ve probably come across the term gamification. A typically crass hybrid of a word invented by the largely technology-based gaming industry. It’s intended to describe the use of largely online, interactive games in the workplace designed to increase or enhance employee skills- development or engagement. And that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

As with the so-called social media frenzy however, and so many other aspects of corporate life, the gaming fans run the risk of alienating rather than engaging much of the audience given that the beauty of most engagement techniques is in the blend. Sure let’s celebrate the march of technology and embrace the freedoms and opportunities advanced gaming technology brings. But let’s keep it in perspective folks!

One thing we’re all born with is the ability to play. Whether it’s constructing new worlds via the imagination of a five-year old; dropping the entrenched facade of the corporate uniforms we all don from time to time both literally and psychologically and allowing ourselves to have fun at work …..or just finding our own toes fascinating as pre-toddling babes, we all know how to play. We may dismiss it at times or may occasionally lose our way but we all instinctively know the power of a good game. And we often do it best of all when we have little more than a few physical props, a group of like minds, a common goal, encouragement, support, space and time.

Most of our homes are fast becoming wi-fi palaces and software citadels. Sure we can all enjoy an evening on the Wii as the Redknapp clan would have us believe they spend most of their time doing. But I’m willing to bet that Jamie still dreams about his England caps while Louise revisits her own Wembley appearances before she falls asleep at night.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised that a recent trip to the cinema with our own troupe to see the latest Marvel offering The Avengers was a huge success and that the games consoles have been replaced by action figures, role play games and colouring pens for some weeks since. Far better to choose the super hero who exemplifies the qualities you hold dear and act out those super powers with your mates than push buttons while watching a screen, essentially on your own.

Of course there’s room for  virtual reality alongside the actual. But never underestimate the appetite of people for face to face interactions with and for their mates, chums,  colleagues, tribe or team.

So while you consider the claims of the software developers promising remote learning nirvana or positioning so-called gamification developments as if play was invented yesterday, reflect on how easily, naturally and readily people interact, become involved and yes, engage, if the conditions are right. And while you wrestle with innovative ways to credibly and impactfully hold back the tide of pessimism and negativity that is an omnipresent threat in testing economic times, it’s worth reminding yourself that gamification is first and foremost about people, relationships, attitude, involvement and empowerment rather than technology. It needn’t be expensive and should be relatively simple to implement. But the aim should nearly always be to involve and discover the latent superhero qualities in the many, not to implant extraordinary superpowers in the elite few.

Brand Watch: Malmaison “wows” with employee engagement programme


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?

It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it.


There’s a catchy 80s tune  by Bananarama which includes the lines “It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it. Ain’t what you say but the way that you say it”. Oddly I couldn’t get it out of my head this week.

As part of the research for an employer brand assignment, I had been watching a series of dvds of the leadership team of a well-known brand delivering an address to their employees…and I guess my mind wandered a little. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one.

During the talk, clad in suits and ties they took turns to stand behind a lectern with their backs to a Powerpoint deck and repeated a well-rehearsed series of phrases which included the terms wellbeing; diversity, engagement and employee satisfaction.

It reminded me how much these words have become a non-sensory, almost corporate version of Orwellian double-speak for emotive but oddly business-critical issues.

I’m sure that like me, most of the intended audience would have been lulled into tolerating this sort of 20-minute ritual by the status of the presenters, intonation and the gravity implied by the setting. Yet judging by the feedback, the intended audience clearly failed to understand most of what was being said.

I couldn’t help feeling that had at least some of the speakers, who I know to be passionate about their job and who had a difficult message to sell, injected at least a degree of realistic context, humanity and empathy into the piece both in words and delivery style, they would certainly have connected with the audience. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that they had been sitting at one of the tables facing the stage.

Perhaps if they had paid at least some attention to the economic backdrop against which the talk was taking place (severe financial challenges etc) and focused on the business case for both the business and the individuals, they would have come across as sympathetic yet capable of making informed decisions in the best interests of the business, a position which few would be able to disagree with.

Most of all, however, they needed to recognise, like most of us do from time to time, that the semantics matter. Despite the catchiness of the Bananarama tune, those 80s sirens were wrong. BOTH what you say AND the way you say it matters.

Firstly, it’s clear that the business, like many of their competitors, needs to find ways to turn speeches like this into  dialogue at a local level. The topics they were talking about have perception problems. They’re seen as luxuries for the good times. Employees under-fire are always looking for the devil in the detail. They don’t take apparent platitudes at face value. So it’s the role of the leadership team at all levels to point out that there’s the same expectation about ROI/return on investment for the inappropriately termed soft skills programmes as there is for any other initiative whether in terms of tapping into discretionary effort; innovation or just keeping the collective consciousness connected with the corporate strategy and motivated to keep going.

If the notion of wellbeing or diversity has truly been embraced by the board in spite of the economic climate and, heaven forfend, isn’t a ruse, then it’s something to shout about and the least they can do is make the effort to share what that means in language the audience can relate to and explain the business case as the executive team sees it. That’s what people expect from their leaders. They don’t appreciate compliance dressed up as favours. And they deplore corporate catharsis cloaked in the trappings of employee engagement and delivered by a speech accompanying a bi-annual survey that everyone suspects no-one really intends to action.

The acid test of a leader: “Would I follow this person into battle?”


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.

Let’s get physical Part 3: The Future


The Future…..

M Worldwide has been instrumental in developing and implementing the brand realisation strategy for the all-important physical environment in which a host of high-profile brands operate. Ian has partnered with clients across sectors to clarify their brand promise and create the optimum internal culture keep that promise. Looking to the future, as a modest “think tank”, what developments can we expect in terms of the way brands will evolve their spaces and places and what are some of the changes we will see in terms of the relationship between internal and external brand stakeholders?

Banks of check-outs?

Not any more.

  • Superficial product information on flimsy bits of A4 paper?

Not very 21st century. The love and the embracing of technology by online brands means established in-store retail norms are increasingly being replaced by a ‘have a go’, no barriers approach to the bricks and mortar environment. Digital signage, mobile pay points, home delivery order points, magic mirrors in changing rooms, music that changes to match the clothes you’re trying on using RFID tags etc etc. Exciting stuff for customers as well as employees who, lest we forget, are customers in their own right after all and can have a significant impact on the design of these spaces.

Smartphone penetration in the UK has now reached 45% – and growing. Converging phone, video, internet, wallet, apps and social media, it’s the bridge between the physical and digital worlds. It links shoppers to their friends, bringing them into to the browsing and shopping mix. McDonalds and Superdrug have already trialled prepaid technology for smaller purchases. And in February 2012 Barclays Bank launched Pingit which allows users to transfer cash between mobile devices.

Even the tedious chore of queuing to pay will soon be alleviated thanks to near field contactless technology. Once payments are made, loyalty schemes and vouchers that drive future visits will be delivered digitally. This places a great responsibility on employees, however, to ensure that all face to face interactions are maximised as there’s much less room for hit and miss encounters.

Consequently, employee workplace experience is going to matter even more than it does now .Sales staff increasingly access more knowledge about products and services through smartphones – supported by videos and digital demonstrations. There have been some impressive developments in the use of online learning solutions and virtual reality technology in corporate training, especially useful for global organizations and those who have a high proportion of remote workers. And gamification is rapidly gaining more air time as an involvement-driven engagement phenomenon.

Gone will be the days when products are cheaper online than in-store, where customers go to shops to road test products and then go away and purchase them at a cheaper cost online. Retailers will provide transparency and in-store price matching there and then through mobile or in-store technology.

The shopping environment will be all about experience rather than stuff. Stuff in all its ranges, sizes colours and packaging will need to be available, but it will not be the main attraction. Apart from all the emotional, rational and functional aspects of making choices and purchases, people also need somewhere to go, to hang out, to see and be seen. Employees will, therefore, be more conscientious about the “hangouts” and brands they want to be associated with.

The food/cafe offer as part of a retail experience is now a hygiene factor. Events, demonstrations, activities, in-store theatres, bars and gardens are what’s needed. But only those with the right mind-set, belief and attitude can deliver them. Compare the lackluster sampling and demos seen in UK supermarkets to the browsing experience in the toy store Hamleys. Supermarkets are the biggest food retailers in the land yet their cafes are hardly temples of food love. Quite some improvement opportunity.

But even the more conservative players are loosening their ties and getting in on the engagement act. At the end of 2011, online bank ING Direct launched its eighth bricks and mortar outlet in New York City’s Union Square. This is a 17,000 square foot cafe. You can’t make a deposit or a withdrawal, but you can grab a cup of coffee, take advantage of the WiFi, and enjoy face time with others. The bottom level of the three-story space allows small business owners and non-profits to host meetings, free of charge, for as many as 40 or 50 people. If you think this all sounds a bit too touchy feely, consider this: ING Direct found that deposits increased by about 10 percent in the cities where they have a physical presence.

Traditional retailers, especially those in fashion, often excel in terms of product newness, but lack originality in how that’s presented. Etailers, on the other hand, excel at fresh and new ways at looking at content. This puts them in good stead to make stores feel really different on a regular basis.

The real innovators will also be those that harness the power of their employees through effective engagement channels and consumers through social media, creating and driving content with imagination and clear focus about their point of difference. They’ll also leverage their supplier brands to do more and be more active.

Humans are inherently social animals.While there are those for whom shopping is a chore to be done as quickly and painlessly as possible, for many others shopping is an art in itself — and stores are the galleries. Innovative retail brands have the chance to embrace true multichannel retailing in a way that most traditional high street retailers can only dream about. This should lead to a virtuous circle for the enlightened…great online and physical environments leading to more customers and in turn attracting and engaging more visionary employees who, if properly treated, will care enough to create more of those environments………..

Here’s to true engagement inside and out leading to brand-based innovations that will benefit all stakeholder groups.

Authors: Ian P Buckingham in conjunction with Chris Hill & David Martin of retail design experts M Worldwide. (Published online in 3 serialised parts & also appeared in specialist marketing magazine Admap M-Worldwide_Admap_ShoppingAsArtForm_1Nov12).

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


“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?

5 ways to bridge the engagement gap


In Part 1 we listed the issues plaguing 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. 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 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. 

Diversity is a key driver of engagement not a “nice to have”


WASP males don’t tend to get too many invitations to be involved in the promotion of diversity management; which is more than a little short sighted.  I’m a firm believer in the notion that the promotion of diversity should embrace the full range of stakeholders and should truly practice inclusiveness in the way stakeholders are engaged with the philosophy or it runs the risk of being seen as a marginal activity aimed at an exclusive audience.  Within businesses, this means adapting the language used to promote diversity from the usual hearts, flowers and equality stuff to appeal to left brain and bottom line thinkers. It needs to empower and celebrate uniqueness not reinforce difference. As with the CSR and sustainability agenda, this can be done, as it makes damn good business sense. But a “push” communication approach may be one of the reasons why the diversity flag bearers within organisations sometimes find themselves struggling for real influence at the top table.

This thought piece isn’t intended to critique the notion of diversity or challenge its increasing relevance to the organisation development and employee engagement agenda within challenger brands in particular. It’s intended to promote the diversity cause and to that end, I would like to share a rare moment of Belgian enlightenment.

Picture the scene.  The wonderful and irrepressibly inspirational Myrtha Casanova of the The European Institute for Managing Diversity had enlisted my help to co-facilitate a workshop she was running with the senior executives of a global producer of cereal crops and foodstuffs.  They had been embroiled in a PR war with NGOs and pressure groups worldwide because of controversial growing techniques and what was perceived as an arrogant communication stance which was adversely affecting brand perceptions and most importantly hitting them where it hurt, on the balance sheet.

The workshops were intended to develop diversity strategies across their global businesses come what may.  Most of their senior executives were gathered in Belgium to that end – and they weren’t very pleased about it.

It was soon clear that their beleaguered HR Director had been forced into developing a diversity strategy by the board who were in turn responding to US legislation.  The executive cadre encamped in Belgium were 90% male, mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin and frankly, felt they had much more pressing priorities.  In short, the workshops quickly regressed into trench warfare.

The turning point came, however, shortly after lunch on day one when, rather than push more and more statistics, facts and process at the group, we adopted a less evangelical approach and asked them to explore their brand from the customer’s perspective.

They had traditionally seen themselves as a business to business organisation but it took one of the more junior managers, who also happened to have the largest team and who also happened to be a woman, to point out that housewives could make or break their brand.  By drawing a simple supply chain model she was able to quickly illustrate the route their primary product ultimately followed to market and how it was immaterial that they weren’t putting the bread on the shelves themselves. Women still make the vast majority of purchasing decisions per household and the retailers were reliant upon their suppliers to provide raw materials in tune with the ethics and values of the consumer.  An epiphany!

This simple, jaw-dropping moment proves to be a revelation for her cynical peers who had clearly spent years developing competencies and promoting values appropriate for managing their equally macho purchasing managers in the businesses they were selling to.  Suddenly the link between organisational culture, brand and their PR problems was put into stark relief. More importantly, they realised that, without a more representative management structure they would make similar mistakes.  The business case for diversity had become clear and the rest of the session was put to productive use developing a central and local diversity policy, strategy and engagement approach which owed much to a loaf of bread!

Clearly diversity is about much more than gender as the superhuman events of the forthcoming Paralympics will doubtless show. The development and cultivation of a culture in which people are valued for the unique qualities they bring to work is in everyone’s best interests, not least the customers’ and consultation, involvement and inclusiveness should be the cornerstones upon which to build an engagement strategy.

If you want to find out more about the EIMD (a not for profit organisation founded in 1996, with headquarters in Barcelona and which operates across the European Union), take a look at their website or feel free to drop us a line and we’ll tell you more about this and similar stories.

Let’s get physical 2: It’s all about culture


Part 2: It’s all about culture

Organisation culture put simply is “the way we do things”. The physical aspect of the internal culture or the “space in which we do things” is hugely important and often under-rated as, whether inadvertently, or by design, it signifies what’s important. It certainly needs to be factored into any customer brand engagement programme and is just as important to an employee engagement drive. 

Consider how all the talk about openness is undone by a closed office door; respect is undermined by unfair parking privileges or unjustifiably different standards of office furniture or an inappropriate front of house setup.

As odd as it may sound, we recently worked with a not for profit, disability focused charity where the desk in reception was too high for wheelchair users and the offices resembled a 1970s sit-com. Pretty tricky changing the logo on the outside in pursuit of a brand refresh and change agenda when the illusion was shattered as soon as employees and customers crossed the threshold.

We often fail to appreciate the importance of the physical, the visual, the use of space, colour and shapes in corporate communication. Yes, it’s a cliché that a picture paints 1000 words, yet we often persist in using words devoid from their context. All the executive speeches and even podcasts in the world couldn’t compensate for the interactive brand walk-through experience we co-created for the employees of a global insurance company. Better still, consider the impact it had when we took the brand walk-through experience to the people rather than the people to the exhibit when we mounted it aboard a touring flat back truck.

The real breakthrough in developing, launching and embedding a service and brand engagement programme for a major health and wellbeing organisation came when we recently threw away the slides and rooted the champions training in the physical space.

Given the fact that the brand strategy involved offering a complete healthcare solution delivered through relationships rather than products, an off-the-shelf service training approach would have been counter-productive. Instead, we worked with a panel of champions and designed an ideal centre layout in 3d and, working with the centre teams  tracked the respective journeys of different client types throughout the workshops. By grounding the service standards in the environment for which they were designed rather than drowning people in theory, the champions were able to raise and tackle very real situations and scenarios and share best practices with each other that they could apply straight away, giving the whole programme a much more practical feel. This was especially important as the participants were active folk who spend their working lives leading by physical example. It was also an opportunity to explore the whole customer experience and the roles and responsibilities of the employees to maintain service standards whether the customer touch point was online, in-store or on the telephone.

Traditional retailers spend years in the equivalent of customer-service “labs” trying to understand and dissect in-store customer journeys – shoppers’ missions, mindsets, behaviours and ultimately their path to purchase. But there’s no longer much time for navel gazing and scenario planning. Different customer journeys are now taking place simultaneously across channels and technologies. It calls for a more enlightened, involving, innovative, open-eared, empathic and customer-focused approach to listening. It also means that the way retailers do things, on and off-line matters as much as the goods they offer. Brand managers would do well to heed those words.

In part 3 – The Future…..

Authors: Ian P Buckingham in conjunction with Chris Hill & David Martin of retail design experts M Worldwide. (Published online in 3 serialised parts & also appeared in specialist marketing magazine Admap M-Worldwide_Admap_ShoppingAsArtForm_1Nov12).

Mind the engagement gap…


The 10 degrees of separation: Part 1

A day seldom passes without more doom and gloom about employee engagement levels worldwide.

The story is usually the same – workplace democratisation yet declining levels of trust in leadership. Technologies driving faster personal communication and so-called social media yet dramatic falls in face time. But the same critics point out that, in the face of the worst ever economic slump, lowering productivity and even lower morale, engagement is vital for innovation, customer service, health and well-being.

At the turn of last year, we brainstormed the root causes of disengagement based on what we’d witnessed recently and found that many organisations are struggling with major issues of separation. These issues of separation are manifesting themselves in ways we’re sure you’ll recognise:

1. Separate messages and message makers with their own agendas. This can be at operational/country/brand level and will be exacerbated in merger and re-structuring and other change scenarios

2. Separate functional departments (often silos) competing for who owns the brand and the communication radio station, who are not operating to a unified vision and not using a complementary set of tools to integrate messages and media in the best interests of building brand value

3. Separate stories pasted together in an attempt to present a unified culture but often delivered in a journalistic fashion. They aren’t embedded anywhere, no-one is managing the overall narrative nor is it an involving process. It reeks of what Ed Robertson of Fedex used to call SOS or “send out stuff”

4. Separate employee and/or customer service programmes creating temporary engagement spikes or patching over business issues but often dragging morale lower once the smoke has cleared.

5. Separate channels and processes such as intranets or podcasts or eLearning for training

6. Separate and broken/outdated tools for “top-down” briefing and “bottom-up” on-going feedback like Team Briefing while technology solutions like Sharepoint and Facebook are meant to plug the side-to-side gap but are usually viewed as a threat by senior management

7. Separate research exercises occurring as annual or bi-annual disruptive and provocative events. The outcomes are seldom timely and line managers struggle to know what to do without a strategy that engages them first and foremost.

8. Separate styles of leadership/management where values and culture development is seldom at the fore and mentoring skills are seen as distinct from the core competencies. They are also seen as the preserve of separate departments and not owned by the line.

9. Separate communities inside and out where internal activities are carried out in splendid isolation and not joined up under one brand with one vision and voice. Corporate Responsibility often falls victim to this.

10. Separate perceptions about the nature and importance of employee engagement leading to a confusion about strategy, solutions and approaches.

Any of this sound familiar?

Well, despite the chatter, it’s not entirely doom and gloom everywhere. We know from past and very recent experience that the first step towards addressing the engagement gap is to start by practising what you preach and facilitating a collaboration between the brand trilogy.

But more about that when we return with Part 2……

Let’s get physical – the critical importance of space and place to brand engagement


 Part 1: The emergence of online retailing and the prevailing importance of engaged employees

One of the lines most frequently quoted from Ian’s first book, Brand Engagement is the bold assertion that “ brands are 20% physical and 80% behavioural” implying that HR, Comms and Marketing departments really should collaborate more . This is usually accompanied by the ironic news that the reverse ratio applies to brand development budget allocation, with Marketing departments commanding a lot more than the lion’s share of brand spend.

Regardless of whether you’re a designer or a behaviouralist; a communications specialist or so-called social media junkie, there is a very clear relationship between the physical environment and employee and customer behaviour. The impact the operating as well as shopping environment has on the ability of the brands to deliver on the range of promises made to customers and important stakeholders is often under-estimated.

Take the retail shopping experience for example. Store environments are probably the spaces we’re all most familiar with, where the various manifestations of the physical brand deliberately stimulate certain emotions, responses and decisions from consumers. So with retail shopping online increasing exponentially, bringing a brand to life in a comparatively expensive “in store” context is increasingly under the microscope to deliver and make a difference.

In basic terms the internet has polarised retail and the reasons for visiting and spending time in store vs. going online. For years traditional bricks and mortar retailers have talked about creating ‘experience’ and ‘theatre’ in store. Some of them have also grasped the importance of at least paying attention to the way their employees experience the brand. Now with commodity and price the territory of online retailers the physical experience needs to be re-envisioned and often re-engineered both in the shop window and on the shop floor.

But fighting the corner for face time vs facebook and the www for a moment, what does the physical store brand experience deliver for customers that the internet can’t? Well, try these for starters: instant gratification, impulse, spur of the moment, peer comparison and interaction – all need states that have driven purchase behaviour since the year dot. In addition, the physical interaction is clearly a face-to-face opportunity for brand champions to shine at the front end rather than design end of a process.

Even online same day delivery can’t deliver in the same way (delays aside) as the retailer effectively delegates a large proportion of the purchasing experience to a third-party supplier, the delivery company. And let’s face it, delivery times and taking time off work to wait in are just not that convenient.

As we all know if you’re somehow enticed into a shop, you can usually get your hands on the things there and then and have at least the opportunity for a more enriching shopping experience. It’s very hard to achieve the ‘retail therapy’ experience online in terms of total immersion of the brand and its products. There’s nothing like being in a physical environment to satisfy the basic human need to be in places with other people who ideally inform; advise and (when they’re doing their job well), provide valuable information and feedback. All the “reviews” in the world can’t replicate that.

Lest we forget, it was said at one time that talkies and then video and DVD in turn would sound the death knell of the cinema. What actually happened was that movie houses were forced to do a better job in fulfilling the large screen experience: reclining seats, proper food and drinks served at your seat, leading technology in comfortable and contemporary surroundings. Cinema theatres are arguably no longer the film business but the popcorn selling business. And just as cinemas attract customers through screening movies that tell stories, shops sell their own brand of dreams and in the process showcase and retail products and services like scenes from the story of that brand. But in an age of constantly changing communication media and lifestyles the context and way that the retail experience is delivered has to be constantly rethought. Neurosis for some, excitement for others as even the most well-known brands are constantly challenged to adapt and embrace change.

In early 2012, for example, even the online retail giant Amazon, which was supposed to permanently upstage store-based shopping, announced plans to open its first physical retail store in Seattle, selling tablets and e-readers. Its aim? To provide customers with a hands-on experience of its products in the context of a fully branded experience facilitated by employees who are advocates and champions of the brand. Sound familiar?

Buying certain products and services requires big decisions and will always involve road-testing or a more personal and expert, even reassuring touch prior to purchase. It’s a brave cyclist, for example, who buys a new road bike without actually sitting on it and taking it for a test ride. It’s a foolhardy patient who purchases meds online without some form of professional consultation. And what about the anxious first time parents in need of expert advice when buying buggy, cot or car seat?

Most people still look to a small group of people for advice and reassurance – friends and peers, family, doctors and sometimes trusted sales advisors. We’re seeing a new generation of umbrella brands that act as impartial advisors enabling other brands to coexist in one space – a kind of fragmented department store model projecting a clear set of values and which offers edited choice and more reasons to visit and engage.

Lloyds Pharmacy is currently testing a concept in two UK locations that may very well revolutionise health and wellbeing – the Health Village. Teaming up with aligned brand partners such as Betterlife, Connect Physical Health, Hidden Hearing, Shuropody, Skin and Vision Express, these are the UK’s first retail health centres that offer a wide range of healthcare services under one roof. They also offer the Lloyds Pharmacy Online Doctor service, an innovative and discreet in-store online service. With healthcare needs of local communities increasingly changing and people no longer passive about it, Lloyds Pharmacy’s community based philosophy, combined with the expertise and reassurance of its partners, is the perfect way to offer personalised, convenient healthcare services. It’s a really smart move, and by bringing in brand partners, newness and content are much easier to generate.

But there’s little point corralling a set of brands under one brand umbrella, however aligned they may be on paper, unless the employees can role model the approach in their everyday interactions with customers. Whether online or face to face, at the core of the brand proposition are people and they have a choice about how they interact with each other and with customers. Add up those exercised choices and you have the culture of the brand whether manifest online or in person.

Part 2: It’s all about culture follows next week…….

Authors: Ian P Buckingham in conjunction with Chris Hill & David Martin of retail design experts M Worldwide. (Published online in 3 serialised parts & also appeared in specialist marketing magazine Admap M-Worldwide_Admap_ShoppingAsArtForm_1Nov12).

Re-claim the “c” word! How critical conversations build brands.


Out-takes from the networking breakfast with Professor David Clutterbuck and executives from leading brands, facilitated by Ian Buckingham.

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 a future breakfast club session 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.

Cold conditions call for comfort food and comforting leadership


During the darkest days of the global economic storm, I was asked to write a piece for Melcrum in which I referenced the Harvard Business School professor, John Quelch.* Quelch claimed that companies should focus on family values in a downturn rather than appealing to conspicuous consumption. His assertion that “when economic hard times loom….we tend to retreat to our village….as uncertainty prompts us to stay at home and also stay connected with family and friends” resonated with me at the time. Interestingly, these sentiments are underpinning David Cameron’s nostalgia-focused Big Society initiative and are behind the growing obsession with heritage and legacy within even the biggest of brands, arguably starting in the UK with the re-launch of the artic roll by Birds Eye and now including the likes of Nike running social media campaigns to resurrect their back catalogue, re-releasing Air Jordan for example.

The central point is that while much may disappear beneath the waves of fickle fashion following the relentless ebb and flow of economic fortune, classic principles and values and the services and products that epitomise them are classics for a reason. While they may be temporarily out-shone by more eye-catching alternatives, they add value, they address core needs and most importantly they work. There’s a reason why the market is witnessing an upsurge in interest in products like Team Briefing and other face-to-face communication vehicles and why the noise about mentoring is gradually overtaking that about management.

While researching Brand Engagement and the sequel, Brand Champions, one of my aims was to expose the obsession with the material manifestations of brand and to identify and articulate the true  DNA of brands as typified by the behaviour of the people who work for them . I know from my consultancy experience across sectors that authentic brands are more than promises made to employees and customers. They’re about promises delivered. And I know from my own experience of business that there’s nothing quite like tough economic conditions to sharpen focus.

Whatever the rhetoric of the internal marketing zealots may imply and despite what managers may sometimes believe, organisations have little choice other than to rely upon their people to give something of themselves if they’re to connect with the organisation, their peers and customers alike. This is tricky to achieve at the best of times but especially elusive when economic conditions turn sour.

Having worked across sectors in the internal communication and engagement fields for nearly twenty years, it’s frustrating, however, to hear the persistent language of alignment. The conviction that some form of corporate internal media is the way forward is depressing. It reminds me of the culture which dominated institutionalised post war media and led to the phenomenon of pirate radio which emerged as a reaction to the establishment stranglehold of state-owned communication. In the UK, Radio Caroline has become the literal flagship for iconoclastic broadcasting.

It’s my firm conviction that corporate engagement can’t be conscripted. Internal media which is out of touch with the true culture of the organisation may dominate the internal airwaves but sadly few people truly listen in.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of tough market conditions is that the language of corporate command and control increases as does the tendency to focus on “push” communication as managers struggle to cope.

Clearly, the internal communication community has a pivotal role to play within the brand trilogy of HR; Marketing and Comms to ensure that employees are engaged with the brand and vice-versa. Irrespective of market conditions, I would argue that clarity about brand can never be a bad thing especially if it’s based upon authentic dialogue and trust and conveys an impression that the brand has a heritage, a legacy which brings with it a wisdom and strength that is comforting rather than stifling.

If you buy into the importance of legacy, why not try resurrecting some of these classic leadership ingredients as staples within your own recipe to bridge the engagement gap:

1. Always role model an open door policy, especially in turbulent times. If in doubt, increase consultation. It’s an unfortunate fact that managers tend to adopt a “laager mentality” when faced with problems. It’s the worst thing they can do. Ignorance breeds insecurity which in turn breeds misunderstanding – the sibling of poor performance.

2. Be honest with your people and really emphasise the personal qualities needed in tough times, the type of culture that is needed to thrive in adversity based on experience. I’ve consulted in a number of downsizing situations and this is a proven way of giving people some sense of control over their fate. Regardless of the outcomes of tough trading conditions, when people come out the other side of a downturn, whether they were directly impacted or not, they are always grateful for straight, empathic but honest talking

3. Take the temperature more frequently. Measure the impact of internal communication constantly via concentrated pulse takes rather than with cumbersome, seemingly expensive surveys

4. Seek out and promote positive role models, mentors and good news stories. Whatever the conditions, they will be there.

5. Don’t underestimate the power of core values. A downturn is just the time to reflect on the reassurance of a legacy which implies that “we’ve been here before, we’ve survived and even thrived”

So, be brave. Use your experience. Reflect on your legacy. Remember, the classic techniques have withstood the test of time for a reason. And for many people, hitherto fed a relentless diet of supposed one-size-fits-all technological solutions and alleged invention, retro can be cool as they may well be discovering your classic back-catalogue for the first time.

*Financial Times February 18, 2008

Brand development; stakeholder engagement and diversity


WASP males don’t tend to get too many invitations to be involved in the promotion of diversity management; which is a shame really.  I’m a firm believer in the notion that the promotion of diversity should embrace the full range of stakeholders and should truly practice inclusiveness in the way stakeholders are engaged with the philosophy or it runs the risk of being seen as a marginal activity aimed at an exclusive audience.  Within businesses, this means adapting the language used to promote diversity from the usual hearts, flowers and equality stuff to appeal to left brain and bottom line thinkers. As with the CSR and sustainability agenda, It can be done, as it makes damn good business sense. But a “push” communication approach may be one of the reasons why the diversity flag bearers within organisations sometimes find themselves struggling for real influence at the top table.

This thought piece isn’t intended to critique the notion of diversity or challenge its increasing relevance to the organisation development and employee engagement agenda within challenger brands in particular. It’s intended to promote the diversity cause and to that end, I would like to share a rare moment of Belgian enlightenment.

Picture the scene.  The wonderful and irrepressibly inspirational Myrtha Casanova of the The European Institute for Managing Diversity had enlisted my help to co-facilitate a workshop she was running with the senior executives of a global producer of cereal crops and foodstuffs.  They had been embroiled in a PR war with NGOs and pressure groups worldwide because of controversial growing techniques and what was perceived as an arrogant communication stance which was adversely affecting brand perceptions and most importantly hitting them where it hurt, on the balance sheet.

The workshops were intended to develop diversity strategies across their global businesses come what may.  Most of their senior executives were gathered in Belgium to that end – and they weren’t very pleased about it.

It was soon clear that their beleaguered HR Director had been forced into developing a diversity strategy by the board who were in turn responding to US legislation.  The executive cadre encamped in Belgium were 90% male, mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin and frankly, felt they had much more pressing priorities.  In short, the workshops quickly regressed into trench warfare.

The turning point came, however, shortly after lunch on day one when, rather than push more and more statistics, facts and process at the group, we adopted a less evangelical approach and asked them to explore their brand from the customer’s perspective.

They had traditionally seen themselves as a business to business organisation but it took one of the more junior managers, who also happened to have the largest team and who also happened to be a woman, to point out that housewives could make or break their brand.  By drawing a simple supply chain model she was able to quickly illustrate the route their primary product ultimately followed to market and how it was immaterial that they weren’t putting the bread on the shelves themselves. Women still make the vast majority of purchasing decisions per household and the retailers were reliant upon their suppliers to provide raw materials in tune with the ethics and values of the consumer.  An epiphany!

This simple, jaw-dropping moment proves to be a revelation for her cynical peers who had clearly spent years developing competencies and promoting values appropriate for managing their equally macho purchasing managers in the businesses they were selling to.  Suddenly the link between organisational culture, brand and their PR problems was put into stark relief. More importantly, they realised that, without a more representative management structure they would make similar mistakes.  The business case for diversity had become clear and the rest of the session was put to productive use developing a central and local diversity policy, strategy and engagement approach which owed much to a loaf of bread!

If you want to find out more about the EIMD (a not for profit organisation founded in 1996, with headquarters in Barcelona and which operates across the European Union), take a look at their website or feel free to drop us a line and we’ll tell you more about this and similar stories.

Is talk of sustainability a luxury when leaders are obsessed with survival?


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

Out-takes from our January networking breakfast facilitated by Ian Buckingham and 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 we approach 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 as this gathering was predicated on the belief in the need to consistently engage with multiple stakeholder groups to sustain brand performance. It’s at the core of 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 where in March, we’ll be joined by Professor David Clutterbuck for a lively debate on Critical Conversations and the link between communication and mentoring in bringing brands to life from within.

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

Can the ghosts of Christmas past restore confidence in the banking sector?


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 history of the evolution of Lloyds and a return to philanthropy? Well, charity begins at home as they say and the best gift he can offer society is to help restore stability to and faith in the sector. As part of his reformation, Horta-Osório has apparently said that he will cut the number of executives who report directly to him and has promised to delegate more. For the modern, stakeholder-besieged CEO, this is a brave and probably quite a tough decision which has already been criticised in the media. But is this a sign that the CEO is not up to the job? Is it unfair on the three or four executives who may now have to report to the finance director and could ‘lose the ear’ of the CEO? Could it be that the critics have missed the point?

Horta-Osório’s track record is impressive. That’s why Lloyds hired him last year after all. As for whether some executives will lose touch with “the boss” well some would argue that having a boss who turns up for work but can’t function is a lot worse.

The recovery of the leadership mantle at Lloyds very much depends on how honest and astute the CEO and his top team have been this last year when identifying the core issues their organisation and sector faces. There is obviously a need to encourage a different relationship model with external stakeholders by embracing more evolved leadership internally. Leadership should be spread across their pool of talent, be more collaborative, be relationship not just transaction based and be guided by the core values of the business, including those heritage values that represent both the formal and informal foundations of the business and the mutual societies the group has bought along the way.

Lloyds are not alone in this regard. I have a long and deep knowledge of the sector having worked in-house at a senior management level and with most of the major players on the consultancy side.  Stable senior executive tenure is crucial. So it’s good to see the Lloyds boss retain the backing of the board.  Everything depends upon planning for the medium to long-term, having a vision and being around to implement it. Restoring a true performance culture and development mentality in order to share power and influence is just as important. Leadership needs to be a collective notion, conveying first among equals status to the CEO, not that of a multi-armed deity.

Uncharacteristically for his ilk, Horta-Osório has acknowledged his challenges openly in public, demonstrating an engaging vulnerability and humility that could help in the long run. He is actively seeking to decentralize power and influence across the organisation which could also be good news. But this must be part of a deliberate strategy of returning to a values-led culture and ensuring that leadership development is back on the agenda of the top table and will be managed systematically. It needs to be introduced across the organisation so that there is a coherent level of power sharing, effective coordination, and communication up and down the line.  The culture must be transformed to ensure that local leaders are truly empowered, involved and engaged.

Some Lloyds investors have said that their confidence in Horta-Osório’s ability has been dented. But if our recent executive breakfast is anything to go by, he isn’t alone in feeling the pressure from all sides and in seeking to sponsor powerful collaborations across the business silos to nurture the brand from within.

Investors would do well to look to leaders who are strong enough to be honest about their vulnerabilities as well as strengths; who talk about emotions; values and behaviours in a positive way and have learned from the ghosts of Christmases past, be they harbingers of doom or benevolent spirits.

Your service promise comes into its own in a downturn, provided you…..


….invest time and effort on teamwork and think laterally about engagement.

As we enter the final quarter of the year, glancing back at past client assignments suggests that the Indian Summer we experienced on the outside may well be reflected in a select number of boardrooms. Punchy words given the economic indicators.

Having lived through several waves of the slings and arrows of outrageous business fortune in the past, we know that economic downturns are typified by a lot of breath holding in the hope of business as usual. But it’s very difficult for organisations to operate when oxygen isn’t filtering through to key stakeholders and communication has all but disappeared.

In the darkest of days, however, there are always a select few who bravely buck the trends and recognise that engagement is the key to morale building; that collaboration leads to fresh thinking and that teamwork, which is free, can break the cycle of depression and actually lead to improvements in employee and consequently customer satisfaction. And these select few have been very busy since the Summer.

The notable avant-garde organisations this time around include a forward thinking head of internal communication who refuses just to SOS or send out stuff and has formed a partnership with the marketing function to secure budget for an engagement programme and ensure that the brand is delivered in a seamless fashion. There’s also an HR director who has pulled together a brand coalition (yes, an HRD!) to help define a service promise and most importantly ensure that the coalition is capable of delivering on those fine words by taking a champion-led approach to engagement. And we’re working with a director of learning and development who has borrowed budget from the marketing department to fund a change management training programme for the sales team based on our Hero’s journey approach in order to address sliding engagement statistics directly linked to customer satisfaction problems.

Each project is innovative, yet it remains cost neutral. Why? Because in each case, the leaders involved have recognised the causal link between customer satisfaction and employee engagement, promise making and promise keeping. In recognising this they have also acknowledged that brand is simply a hollow word unless supported by an internal culture in which on-brand values and behaviours thrive. They have consequently agreed to re-align budget along these lines and have shared responsibility for engagement inside and out.

The engagement solutions we’ve facilitated for them have been largely cost neutral as they have replaced traditional training and/or been funded by re-channeling spend on less effective initiatives whether within the HR/Comms or Marketing spheres. Why SOS when you can engage people to the point that they become self managing teams?

Tough times breed ingenuity. Viewed this way, downturns can be remarkable hot houses for initiative and innovation and yes, engagement. But as the latest engagement statistics from the US suggest employee engagement levels at an all time low (28%), it would appear that this joined-up, liberating, silo-busting thinking is sadly still in short supply. Ridiculous when, with some lateral vision, it costs nothing and with some professional, well targeted guidance, yields much!

Could your employer brand be the Bez in your band?


We’re all familiar with the cliché that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In fact it’s a philosophy on which process management methodologies like total quality management (tqm) and kaizen are based.

But what has process and systems thinking got to do with the subtle arts of people-centred services like HR management, Organisation Development and the concept of employer brand?

As some of you will be aware, we believe the term “employer brand” is a misnomer. It implies that there’s one brand for customers, one for existing employees and a third for potential recruits. And as we all know, the latter smells of fresh paint and is largely portrayed by beautiful people and copywriters.

Employer brand is only half the story.  It represents the “promise making” part of the employment equation.  A more appropriate term is employment brand as this takes into account the promises made by the organisation about the working practices, values, norms – or put another way – the culture. But it also factors in the reality and actual employee feedback about the delivery of the promise.

In short, employment brand = promise minus reality.

We’re accustomed to seeing the application of principles like customer relationship management (CRM) and the management of the customer value chain by our marketing colleagues who should be obsessive about the brand projected to customers.  But how many of our HR colleagues are applying similar principles to the management of the employment brand?  I would suggest, right at this moment, very few, given their targets (where they have them), are largely recruitment not retention based.

The value of a process-focused and value-chain approach to managing employment brand is that it:

– stimulates cooperation between the key internal stakeholders responsible for managing the links in the chain

– should encourage HR functions to take a more collaborative approach with external stakeholders and suppliers (recruitment agancies included)

– it helps to drive consistency in how the brand is interpreted and communicated

– it encourages performance measures at each link in the chain and provides a platform for more effective relationship management at each stage

To illustrate this point, take a casual wander through the vacancy pages of even premier recruitment sites and job boards.  How many simple but explicit errors can you detect in the advertisements?  Now ask yourself how this makes you feel about the capability of the agency in question to manage your account, cv or personal profile with appropriate care and sensitivity. More importantly, what impression does it create of the organisation in question which should be taking ownership of that collateral?  If you’re the client of the agency, how well do you think they are representing your brand and what are the explicit and opportunity costs of these errors? Now ask yourself whose responsibility it is to manage the brand and who the Bez* in the band may be?

Simple errors aren’t the only problems faced when managing the recruitment chain. Perhaps a less obvious but arguably greater problem is the trend of over promising through the representation of a brand which belies the reality. During our general consultancy work, we see examples of very high profile organisations with unacceptable levels of employee and contractor churn as the culture encountered by new recruits is poles apart from the brand template the recruiters are told to use to attract talent through the doors.

It’s unfair to single out the recruitment agencies who have a tough job in this climate and are largely reliant upon the quality of the briefing they receive from their relationship contacts. But hopefully these simple examples illustrate my point.  It’s very difficult for HR professionals to ensure they are sufficiently in tune with the espoused core culture (which can be very different from the actual) and strategic goals of the business and translate this data into the processes they promote and stakeholders they rely upon as they manage the evolution of the employment brand.

What is clear, however, is that HR has a pivotal role to play in managing the chain of people developing the brand. How they go about managing the employment brand does call for collaboration and systems thinking.  However, this does present another opportunity for coordination with their more explicitly external facing colleagues to bring consistency of voice and presence, Who knows, it may even be the basis for a discussion about “share of purse” in the best interests of bringing the brand to life from the inside?

*For the very few people who may not know, Bez is the iconic member of legendary Salford-based indie group The Happy Mondays (check them out), famously talentless bar his “crazy” dancing……”you’re twisting my melon man”!

Take care, it’s a jungle out there.


Systems thinking, as I understand it, is the process of exploring how things influence one another within a whole. Ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish are examples of systems in operation in nature. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, behaviours, patterns and processes that work together to make an organization healthy or unhealthy. Understand the patterns and there’s a chance you can minimise the problems and make the most of the positives.

In the face of this primal wisdom which is reflected in everything around us every day, it’s a little puzzling to see linear or siloed thinking and behaviour as well as the resulting blame culture when it comes to managing reputation and brand. In his last blog, for example, my fellow columnist at People Management, Graham White, berates organisations for handing employee engagement to HR as a task or “scheme”. He quite rightly emphasises the pivotal role of the line manager  and this clearly accords with our past and ongoing client experience as well as the research to date.

On a related tack it is interesting but again disappointing to see the news of the pending customer and employee brand refresh activity at BA, referred to as communication campaigns in Marketing Week. Interestingly, the criticism this has evoked is largely of the “finger-pointing” variety, lambasting one function, one department, suppliers, leaders and the employees themselves for failing to fulfil the “campaigns” of the past.

There’s plenty of valid criticism contained in both articles. The common issue, however, is that without systems thinking, the critics fail to see the organisation and the brand as a whole. Without appreciating how the living, breathing, evolving stakeholders either support or cancel each other out, the engagement system never functions as well as it should. And it is a system, not a “silver bullet” or nice to have initiative, as so often portrayed.

Brands survive and thrive on the back of the culture of the organisation.  Culture is driven by behaviours which stem from values and experience. Processes play a part but the system is key and within the system the leaders, especially the heads of marketing; hr and comms have a hugely influential role to play.

As you embark on the daily brand management adventure within your particular corporate jungle, reflect on the fact that any expedition is only as good as the sum of the parts and that a problem with the system requires a systemic solution. It can’t be fixed by a single initiative or any unit working alone, despite what the sponsors may claim.

The survey and referendum culture: we’re not waving but drowning!


Anyone who uses the business networking platform Linkedin will attest to the fact that it has helped to launch a thousand surveys.

Anyone who has ever dabbled with Surveymonkey will tell you that tools like this make it very simple to create and publicise a poll.

Some will claim that these very platforms have democratised the data gathering process. To some extent, that’s a fair assertion, especially when the mammoth data houses created and then largely dominated the stakeholder feedback market.

Others vociferously lambast the survey culture suggesting that it leads to “analysis paralysis” and is often used as a tactic to delay addressing the root cause of the problem, especially when times are tough.

Fair enough, until the self-same critics eventually succumb to creating surveys of their own of course. And more often than not, they do.

Asking questions is a communication exercise in its own right. It signals what the sponsors consider to be important. It can be cathartic and relieve pressure. Most importantly it can sometimes (!) lead to valuable feedback to resolve organisational challenges.

But, given that every consultancy, commentator, intermediary and critic from HBR; PWC; Towers; CIPD through to Melcrum and the IABC has already published data about the nature and status of employee engagement, for example, each claiming to be definitive, doesn’t it beg the question:

“why, oh why do we need yet another survey”?

The moral of the story? Next time you’re asked to complete yet another one of these unique proformas, regardless of the incentive or funky teaser, start by asking yourself 3 questions:

  1. – what’s in it for me?
  2. – what’s in it for them?
  3. – why can’t they see I’m not waving, but drowning?

Storytelling as an engagement tool. Are you a woodsman or a sailor?


“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.

Do we value values any more?


I’ve recently been helping a couple of organisations find ways to re-connect with their employees following record falls in employee confidence and pride in the brands they work for. The conversations we’ve been having with employees have centred around prevailingly negative public perceptions about the way they conduct business, especially the way they market their services and their direct sales techniques.

At the core of their issues have been:

–  a growing sense that, while there are theoretically two-way channels in place, they aren’t being listened to

– a growing cynicism about the values the organisation publishes to all stakeholders and the way the leaders talk about customers

–  an innate insecurity about the notion of a career given that there is a  perception that a growing number of new recruits are either locum workers or job-hopping every 18 months or so and seldom develop proper relationships.

Of course, we’re trying to substantiate their comments with some hard facts. But regardless of how the statistics stack up, these issues were echoed at all levels when we investigated the sliding engagement figures.

Our last meeting was on the 4th of July, a time when there’s much “tootin and hootin” about US Independence. Regardless of your own ideological leanings, it has to be said that there’s a certain pervading clarity about the American way which is rooted in Thomas Jefferson’s work in crafting the Declaration of Independence.

This single document became a powerful manifesto for the creation of a nation, based on clear values and has become a totemic rallying point for the US ideology ever since. Whether you like or agree with American culture, you have to respect the foundations upon which the culture is built.

Given the investment every employee makes in terms of time they devote to the organisations they work for and the role those organisations play in meeting so many of an individuals’ basic and higher order needs, it’s only natural that the relationship between people and their work is going to be an emotional one. To fail to recognise this relationship; to treat people like numbers, to give them an official message about how to behave but unofficially expect them to “win at all costs” or to patronise and dump messages on them using internal marketing and spin is ridiculous.

Values are the fundamental building blocks of a brand. They set the tone and the foundation for the emotional contract between employees and their employer. In a week when yet another brand, this time The News of The World implodes on the back of another values and culture based brand disaster, there must be a ripple of discomfort running through many boardrooms? There certainly should be.

In an age of pressure selling, public sector strikes in the face of banker’s bonuses and pensioners having to choose between heating and eating, what high-profile brand will the powerful social media machine gun focus its sights on next?

Isn’t it time leaders started valuing values again?

What is a true brand champion?


Superman or Supernerd, what is the profile of a brand hero? Seems to me that you don’t have to have a qualification in the legacy of Marvel comics to appreciate the link between the popularity of heroic figures in popular culture and testing social circumstances.  It’s no great surprise, therefore, that the Golden Age of Superhero comics coincided with the aftermath of a catastrophic World War. But this isn’t a geeky treatise on the power of fiction and fantasy. This book is grounded in commercial reality. It’s about the superpower behind organisations, it’s about the people behind brands.

We’re all aware that these are troubled and testing times for so-called free market economics. I pointed to problems with the capitalist system in Brand Engagement but when, a few months later, single companies lost more in a year than the GDP of the nation they stem from, it would appear the scale of the issue was larger than anyone anticipated. In the first few months following the infamous credit crunch the UK government allegedly invested more in interventionist policies to stabilise the economy than they spent financing the whole of WW1. But even the dark days of international conflict gave rise to role models and heroes. Where are they now?

As former Masters of the Universe investment banks, those bastions of a certain brand of performance culture momentarily slunk into the shadows for a rethink, how many ancillary industries have we seen suffer in their wake? Seems a genuine corporate champion or two wouldn’t go amiss.

It may be popularity polls and shareprices rather than bombs that are dropping these days but as world and corporate leaders struggle with economic crises who wouldn’t welcome a caped crusader who could clear tall buildings in a single bound?  If they also had the answer to the sub-prime mortgage fiasco plumping out their codpiece, all the better.

Here in the real world, as so many political and corporate leaders appear t have embraced “the dark side” we’re more likely to bump into a bumbling Clarke Kent, a nerdy Bruce Banner or an uber slick Bruce Wayne than a Super or Batman.  The heroes who are most likely to live and work around us every day are the alter-egos of what we may expect.  They include police officers, doctors, lollipop ladies, bean counters, teachers and insurance underwriters, personal assistants, Mac wizards and spreadsheet jockeys. They’re often the little people who are able to rise above the universal and altogether natural concern for the self and put the needs of others first in their list of priorities.  They too fight for health, safety, authenticity, growth and excellence in their own modest way.  But like many of their comic book counterparts, they’re not forced or compelled to heroic acts. They do it because they choose to.

Though they seldom acknowledge it, organisations count on there being enough of these workaday superheroes in sensible shoes quietly making a stand for truth and justice within the corporate rank and file. If they aren’t wearing their underwear over their tights or aren’t sporting a natty cape and tiara, however, how do you spot them?

10 Ways to Spot an Engaged Employee

Well, if anyone is prepared to willingly bear the symbol of a brand on their breast there’s a fair chance they’re going to be substantially engaged with that brand. But what does an engaged employee actually look like? While there are variations and eccentricities, in my experience the most common traits exhibited by engaged employees are that they are:

  1. Obvious  (they clearly add value although don’t always shout about it)
  2. Authentic (they are themselves in the workplace)
  3. Receptive (they listen and are open to new and different approaches)
  4. Involved  (they are active members of the community)
  5. Proactive  (they take the initiative)
  6. Energised  (they do things)
  7. Achievers (the things they do tend to be fruitful)
  8. Advocates (they are proud and happy to recommend the brand)
  9. Role models (they lead by example)
  10. In demand

Delve beneath the surface of the various Best 100 Companies poll and you’ll encounter these characters and characteristics in spadefuls.  Having been privileged to have worked with a number in the past I can confirm that in each case:

– the Top Team were advocates of a culture-led approach to brand management

– they developed a very clear business case for change

– they understood the current culture and were clear about the desired future culture

– they involved and engaged all employees in the development of a compelling story about the evolution of the business

– they “professionalized” their internal communication function and ensured that line managers in particular were skilled communicators

– they insisted on partnerships between the external and internal facing communication/engagement functions, like Marketing and HR.

Doesn’t sound anything like where you work? Well next time there’s a corporate crisis just pause for a second, try to look beyond what the emails from the CEO and army of middle managers are saying and consider why the otherwise unassuming and bespectacled Jane from IT always grabs her coat and heads for the stationery cupboard when the going gets tough. After all, someone keeps the super villains at bay and the systems running!

What are the consequences of dis-engagement where you work?

working dead BE 2

A lot of people jumped on the employee engagement bandwagon in recent years and one of the side-effects is that it has become a bit of a cliche.

There’s so much noise that it engenders a sort of social-media equivalent of an ice-cream headache.


Because so-many opportunists are offering silver-bullet solutions to the scourge of the walking dead employee in the form of “an app” or “a tech solution” that the zombies have become immune, especially those in the leadership positions who should be taking the subject very seriously indeed.

As I’ve proven and illustrated time and again throughout my consultancy career, whether with the Omnicom group helping blue chip brands or my consultancy career helping the likes of the Nuffield Group, Northern Ireleand Tourist Board or even tech companies like ARM Holdings, organisation culture, people processes and leadership behaviour are the keys to building sustainable brands.

Yet in recent times we’ve seen organisations like United Airlines and VW/Audi, Bell Pottinger forget these principles, involving them in costly, high-profile brand disasters. It also affects the public and non-profit sector too as we have seen at Oxfam and even today, Theresa May’s government has plunged itself into another avoidable crisis over the deportation of the Windrush generation. This was yet another reputation crisis that could so easily have been avoided with judicious internal culture management and internal communication/engagement rather than reliance on PR to sweep up after yet another disaster.

But this disconnect appears to run deep in too many organisation as well as across government.

On the subject of PR, last year ended with CAFCASS CEO Anthony Douglas making a series of high-profile, ground-breaking announcements about a growing malaise being experienced by loving parents nation-wide, namely the scourge of parent alienation or PA. It is a relatively modern phenomenon where one parent, usually the resident parent, post divorce or separation, exploits the current family courts and blind spots of the social services infrastructure, to abuse their extra time with the children they share to erase the non-resident parent from the children’s lives. This has been proven to happen over a lengthy period of time using, what amounts to psychological abuse, to bend the children to their will.

Douglas has now formally recognised the existence of PA and the fact that it is affecting around 1 million of the cases CAFCASS oversees, although pressure groups suggested the figure is more like 4million. Factoring in the 5-6 extended family members this will also affect, that’s as many people as the population of Wales and Scotland combined ripped cruelly from the lives of their own children.

Psychological abuse of this nature has been widely proven to have a long-lasting and damaging future impact on children measured in under-perfromance at school in later life, problems with depression, self-harming and failure to thrive. Now add to this the impact on the adults in terms of depression and psychological harm and the impact of as many people as the population of Wales and Scotland combined wasting money on unnecessary legal fees, time off work and the cost of treating them, not to mention the rising levels of related suicide in the targeted population (men around 40), and that is a considerable business case for change.

However, almost a year since Douglas’s announcements, pressure groups report that there has been little or no evidence of:

  1. general awareness or acknowledgement of PA on the CAFCASS front line by vital case staff
  2.  alternative approaches to recognise and address alienating behaviour

So, not to sugar the pill, while corporates would be hemorrhaging money; in the public sector and social/child protection services, because of a failure to engage properly with their own staff, the child abuse continues unabated with little or no change. That too leads to indirect losses of money. There appears, sadly, to be a clear disconnect between the great PR and fine words and employee engagement by the most senior of leaders within CAFCASS.

As a consequence, family courts, reliant on CAFCASS support, remain powerless to address the growing problem and more and more cases of alienation are reported.

Putting the sensitive issue of emotional child abuse and the impact on the economy and well being of people aside, just consider the impact on the trendiest of topics, gender equality and pay at work. Around 97% of UK “singe-parent” households are female led. That’s at least 1 million single mothers who will likely be lost to the job market because they are not sharing the parenting of the children they treat like possessions. *

So, ask yourself again, what are the consequences of  dis-engagement to organisations?

Well, the example of CAFCASS illustrates this perfectly. Businesses, organisations and brands are not built by external PR and fine words alone. What really counts is action, on the front line, where employees face customers, daily. Communication has not landed until CHANGE occurs.

Hopefully the latest addition to the CAFCASS leadership team, Edward Timpson, will recognise the importance of culture change within CAFCASS and wider social services and the need for proper external support. Because if an organisation set up to protect the welfare of our children can’t get this right, will it really matter what commercial organisations hoping to sell to them in future do because goods and services can’t compensate for the love and support of both parents.

* Figures taken from the Peace not PAS pressure group website who asked me to comment on the OD aspects of their article “Parent Alienation and Organisation Culture”

Always follow your bliss!


As I explored in Brand Champions, it was mythologist Joseph Campbell who coined the phrase “follow your bliss” to describe how people are at their happiest when the work they do aligns to their true character. And I have little doubt that leaders of organisations who set out to create cultures that inspire, involve and engage people, are the ones that thrive over time.

So, on #InternationalChildrensBookDay, it seems a fitting time to announce the delivery of a personal project I’ve been working on alongside the internal brand development crusade.

In collaboration with our two little heroes, I’ve recently written a series of childrens’ fantasy books, the Changeling Trilogy.

The first, Legend of the Lost, will hit the shelves this Summer.

But it is in post-production and available for pre-orders now.

Needless to say the plot line follows Campbell’s hero’s journey cycle, as you would expect. All the best stories do. Although the heroes and many of the villains were inspired by the very many characters we’ve encountered along the way, especially where the work and corporate me have overlapped.

So, as a treat to yourself or a junior loved one (aimed at 7-11 year olds but intended to be engaging for adults to read to/with them too), check it out on Amazon. But fear not, the cover is discrete enough for you to have a read on the train, and if anyone asks, you can always claim it’s a high-brow brand management tome and part of your CPD.


PS- if you spot yourself in the stories, the kids have told me I am not at liberty to either confirm nor deny the truth. But buy me a beer and…

BE THAT NUTTER on the bus!

“It was a tough journey yet the results speak for themselves.

You’ve heard Jim Collins’s phrase in Good to Great about leaders needing to get the right people on the bus?

Well one of the problems with being ahead of the change curve is that people in meetings look at you like the nutter on the bus”.

I’m quoting a client who recently proudly celebrated their successful brand engagement drive which has generated some very impressive bottom line results over the last five years, despite very testing economic conditions.

They are one of the case studies in Brand Champions selected for the very reason that, as with the other case studies, the top team understand that sustainable brand development comes from a solid internal culture and that the only way to achieve this if for HR and Marketing, not the most likely of bedfellows, to get into bed together, strategically speaking.

It can be tricky to realise this when you’re trapped within the internal silos of structure charts and organisation politics. So it’s one of the value-adding insights external advisers can bring. Which is why, when I have been approached to help create an employer brand or a service proposition whether for an investment banking division or a major healthcare business, the first question is usually the same:

“Do you have Marketing and HR around the same table with the backing of the CEO?”

If the answer’s “no”, then we make it so, regardless of whether the project is badged brand or employer brand or culture change even service proposition development.

Like it or lump it but sustainable brand development is all about synergy not about internal competition.

As so many change programmes discover too late, be they brand, tech/process or HR driven, the best laid plans and processes are undermined, not by a shortage of spreadsheets or governance, but by a shortfall in one of these areas:

  • employee engagement
  • communication
  • culture change
  • leadership role modelling

Yet far too many organisations still believe they can bluff, spin and now “buzz” their way to enhanced performance through dumping content and data through “whizzy” new channels or considerable “buzzy” advertising spend to drive brand awareness.

Few stop to ask themselves:

“What do we do when we attract customers or recruits but are not able to deliver on the promises we make?”

In my experience, this is down to one of three things:

  1. Naivety
  2. Silo thinking
  3. Seeing this as a problem for someone else

The point the CEO was making during the presentation of their case study (they were COO at the time of the change by the way), was that the truly enlightened are too often dismissed when the approach they propose differs from currently presumed wisdom/current culture. Yet they are being viewed and judged through the lens of a prevailing leadership culture iornically not quite fit for purpose given the pressing need for change.

Now, I’m sure there are many HRDs and Marketing Directors and a few CEOs who will be reading this and dismissing it as the rantings of another nutter on the social media bus.

I’ve certainly heard my fair share of detracting voices down the years.

I can think of some who have managed to protect and ring fence their budgets for long enough to survive a budget round or two and have then moved on.

I can think of some who have made a lot of money for themselves from making a lot of people redundant.

But the ones, most notable, are those who couldn’t, at first make the leap of faith to reach across their silo, yet when they did, are now celebrating the results from taking the path less trodden rather than the path of least resistance..

In the main the same individuals have all built truly sustainable brand-focused cultures wherever their careers have taken them.

But perhaps it’s a coincidence that those organisations include some of the best places to work and highest ranked brands?

“ding, ding”

* Want to read more stories from the business transformation front line? Pick up a copy of Ian P Buckingham’s Brand Engagement- How employees make or break brands and Brand Champions – How Superheroes bring brands to life.

Employee Engagement: It’s a leaky bucket, folks!

Another day, another bucket full of employee engagement articles, most of them woefully misguided and terribly confusing.

Employee engagement, put simply, is a state of mind in which employees deliver to their full potential because of an emotional and rational connection with the organisation they work for.

It is no more complicated than that.

It does not require dozens of definitions. It most certainly is not, as many commentators imply, a goal in and of itself.

Employee engagement is a means to an end and that end is the achievement of the objectives of the organisation.

Far too many people who should know so much better suggest that employee engagement can be achieved by a single initiative or requires complex behavioural science. No wonder the statistics have flat lined over the last decade while CEOs leave the room in search of the headache pills upon mention of the term.

Of course organisations can influence engagement levels and of course they should given engagement is an important enabler or driver of organisation performance. But it requires a systems approach to fix the leaky organisation bucket. Concentrate all efforts in one area only, promise what you can’t deliver and you’re likely to do more harm as the goodwill leaks out elsewhere at a rapid rate.

I’ve worked with dozens of organisations to bring about sustainable, positive change. I’ve seen examples of great initiatives that have created energy and focus. But this always fades away unless the people processes that drive the organisation development system are improved systematically. These include, but are not limited to:

  • culture management
  • leadership development
  • internal communication
  • recruitment
  • retention
  • succession management
  • performance management
  • training and development

The best organisations recognise that brand management involves collaborative partnerships between internal and external facing departments and they form alliances between hr, marketing and comms.

So do everyone a favour, unless you recognise that employee engagement is an enabler not an outcome and you’re prepared to address at least all of the above holes in your otherwise leaky OD bucket, then please drop the engagement word. You’re wasting your time, doing yourself and your organisation an injustice and giving the people disciplines a very bad name.

* Want to read more stories from the organisation development front line? Pick up a copy of Ian P Buckingham’s Brand Engagement- How employees make or break brands and Brand Champions – How Superheroes bring brands to life.