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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

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.

Health and Safety Advice: Come to your senses!

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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

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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.