About ianpbuckingham

Consultant, writer and former SDL and Interbrand (Omnicom) director, de-fuzzing the internal comms; employee engagement; brand; organisation development and culture change fields (phew!). Champion of people with a passion for building sustainable brands from within. Promoter of a strategy that calls for partnerships between HR; Marketing and Comms. Founder of the Bring Yourself 2 Work Fellowship www.bringyourself2work.com and Elder management consultants. Clients very varied (from Deutsche Bank to Nuffield Health) and cover most sectors. Case-study-based books include Brand Engagement - How Employees Make or Break Brands (Palgrave/Macmillan 2007) and Brand Champions (Palgrave/Macmillan 2011). Currently writing the third in the brand trilogy (TBT), Brand Challenger. Blogging Columnist at CIPD/People Management. ianpbuckingham67@gmail.com.

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

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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

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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

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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?

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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?

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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:

Behaviours:

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.

Gimmicks:

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?

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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.