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

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3 thoughts on “Cold conditions call for comfort food and comforting leadership

  1. Pingback: 5 ways to bridge the engagement gap | The Brand Trilogy (TBT)

  2. Pingback: 5 Ways to bridge the engagement gap « Bring yourself 2 work

  3. Pingback: It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it. | The Brand Trilogy (TBT)

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