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.

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

  1. Pingback: Is talk of sustainability a luxury when leaders are obsessed with survival? | The Brand Trilogy (TBT)

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