Brand development; stakeholder engagement and diversity

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

2012 – The year of collaboration & achieving more with less.

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So, the forecasters are all promising more economic turmoil ahead. No surprise there. But there is some blue sky set against an otherwise dark horizon, especially if you’re one of the brand trilogy of Communication, HR and Marketing .

Since the bubble really burst back in 08 one of the positives we’ve seen is an increase in the levels of collaborative communication within organisations – the brand trilogy working together to do more with less. And this isn’t something sector-specific, it’s the product of enlightened leadership thinking.

In a world of doom, gloom and negativity it is tempting to think that burying the corporate head in the sand while the storm clears might be a viable strategy. But the days of blissful ignorance are long past. The relentless buffeting barrage of statistics prove that , amongst other things, this results in “low engagement and employee performance  now the second most common business challenge cited with one-third of employees looking to leave compared to 19% two years ago.” There are few factors more damaging to your brand than discontented employees, trapped by financial circumstances, very slowly undermining customer perceptions with millions of seemingly trivial expressions of their malcontent.

Despite the obvious fact that organisations are continuing to fail to motivate and engage employees, we are seeing select role models bucking the trend, and as with the last downturn, fully expect that the strongest will thrive. In the darkest times, as Jim Collins eloquently put it, the best managers “look in the mirror not out of the window” ; they also communicate generously; talents are pooled, budgets are shared and more is achieved with less.

Rather than view culture development as a luxury; increasingly enlightened brand managers and senior leaders will recognise the power of creating truly engaging brands where the silos and barriers come down, employees become increasingly intolerant of duplicity and people work to sustain a way of working that will embrace the new reality of true sustainability and social responsibility. These aren’t buzz words for the good times.

Visionary Communication, HR and Marketing functional heads will increasingly re-evaluate their respective skill sets and come together to create a new order and style of engagement: ‘collaborative communication’. No more SOS comms (Send out Stuff), no more ‘parent/child’ or ‘top down’ driven corporate speak. We’ve already helped a select number of forward thinking leaders head the collaborative charge and combine traditional brand and marketing thinking with behavioural and culture development best practices to buck the negative cycle. It’s hard work, but the results speak for themselves.

We’re increasingly, albeit not as rapidly as anyone would like, witnessing a democratised style of ‘everyone to everyone’ communication, combining strong leadership with powerful corporate feedback mechanisms and individual/personal mentoring. This will allow people to grow and learn through ‘pull driven communication’ and a leadership style of support and encouragement not instruction and dictat.

Recognise any of this where you work?

Well, with any collaboration someone has to make the first move. And those pessimistic commercial weather forecasters aren’t going to go away……