Still see culture change as discretionary?


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.


What if Superheroes were Sponsored by Brands?



In Brand Champions (Palgrave 2011), Ian plays with the notion of the superhero employee as “ultimate brand custodian”, suggesting that people are too complex to buy into the alignment logic of many brand campaigns, intrinsically suspicious of internal marketing and PR. He offers the suggestion, instead, that the great brands are built on authenticity both inside and out and are supported by willing advocates who understand what the brand stands for and who see themselves in the values they project be they customers or employees.

Many of our favorite, comic book superheroes, especially popular during tough times, fight crime for the greater good. But what if they were sponsored by brands and made to ‘represent’ the companies that paid them?

Italian graphic designer Roberto Vergati Santos helps to make this point in his illustrated series titled ‘Sponsored Heroes’ which plays with the juxtaposition of personal and corporate branding in the context of icons many consider to be “heroic”.

Taking familiar superheroes from comics and movies, Santos linked each of them to a specific brand by dressing them in colors and logos of the company.

In the series, showcased on the Design Taxi site, ‘Batman’ can be seen wearing Nike gear, while McDonald’s sponsored Tony Stark’s ‘Iron Man’ suit.

“Imagine if one day capitalism reaches the point, where the big brands start to sponsor the superheroes,” Santos explains. “How would this influence their images? Based on this hypothesis, I decided to experiment with some characters, and see what would be the results of such idea.”

The results are fascinating and oddly disturbing but certainly make you think twice about the relationship between brand advocacy, values and endorsement.


Gamification: engagement nirvana or emperor’s new clothes?


If you have even a passing interest in employee engagement you’ve probably come across the term gamification. A typically crass hybrid of a word invented by the largely technology-based gaming industry. It’s intended to describe the use of largely online, interactive games in the workplace designed to increase or enhance employee skills- development or engagement. And that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

As with the so-called social media frenzy however, and so many other aspects of corporate life, the gaming fans run the risk of alienating rather than engaging much of the audience given that the beauty of most engagement techniques is in the blend. Sure let’s celebrate the march of technology and embrace the freedoms and opportunities advanced gaming technology brings. But let’s keep it in perspective folks!

One thing we’re all born with is the ability to play. Whether it’s constructing new worlds via the imagination of a five-year old; dropping the entrenched facade of the corporate uniforms we all don from time to time both literally and psychologically and allowing ourselves to have fun at work …..or just finding our own toes fascinating as pre-toddling babes, we all know how to play. We may dismiss it at times or may occasionally lose our way but we all instinctively know the power of a good game. And we often do it best of all when we have little more than a few physical props, a group of like minds, a common goal, encouragement, support, space and time.

Most of our homes are fast becoming wi-fi palaces and software citadels. Sure we can all enjoy an evening on the Wii as the Redknapp clan would have us believe they spend most of their time doing. But I’m willing to bet that Jamie still dreams about his England caps while Louise revisits her own Wembley appearances before she falls asleep at night.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised that a recent trip to the cinema with our own troupe to see the latest Marvel offering The Avengers was a huge success and that the games consoles have been replaced by action figures, role play games and colouring pens for some weeks since. Far better to choose the super hero who exemplifies the qualities you hold dear and act out those super powers with your mates than push buttons while watching a screen, essentially on your own.

Of course there’s room for  virtual reality alongside the actual. But never underestimate the appetite of people for face to face interactions with and for their mates, chums,  colleagues, tribe or team.

So while you consider the claims of the software developers promising remote learning nirvana or positioning so-called gamification developments as if play was invented yesterday, reflect on how easily, naturally and readily people interact, become involved and yes, engage, if the conditions are right. And while you wrestle with innovative ways to credibly and impactfully hold back the tide of pessimism and negativity that is an omnipresent threat in testing economic times, it’s worth reminding yourself that gamification is first and foremost about people, relationships, attitude, involvement and empowerment rather than technology. It needn’t be expensive and should be relatively simple to implement. But the aim should nearly always be to involve and discover the latent superhero qualities in the many, not to implant extraordinary superpowers in the elite few.

Brand development; stakeholder engagement and diversity


WASP males don’t tend to get too many invitations to be involved in the promotion of diversity management; which is a shame really.  I’m a firm believer in the notion that the promotion of diversity should embrace the full range of stakeholders and should truly practice inclusiveness in the way stakeholders are engaged with the philosophy or it runs the risk of being seen as a marginal activity aimed at an exclusive audience.  Within businesses, this means adapting the language used to promote diversity from the usual hearts, flowers and equality stuff to appeal to left brain and bottom line thinkers. As with the CSR and sustainability agenda, It can be done, as it makes damn good business sense. But a “push” communication approach may be one of the reasons why the diversity flag bearers within organisations sometimes find themselves struggling for real influence at the top table.

This thought piece isn’t intended to critique the notion of diversity or challenge its increasing relevance to the organisation development and employee engagement agenda within challenger brands in particular. It’s intended to promote the diversity cause and to that end, I would like to share a rare moment of Belgian enlightenment.

Picture the scene.  The wonderful and irrepressibly inspirational Myrtha Casanova of the The European Institute for Managing Diversity had enlisted my help to co-facilitate a workshop she was running with the senior executives of a global producer of cereal crops and foodstuffs.  They had been embroiled in a PR war with NGOs and pressure groups worldwide because of controversial growing techniques and what was perceived as an arrogant communication stance which was adversely affecting brand perceptions and most importantly hitting them where it hurt, on the balance sheet.

The workshops were intended to develop diversity strategies across their global businesses come what may.  Most of their senior executives were gathered in Belgium to that end – and they weren’t very pleased about it.

It was soon clear that their beleaguered HR Director had been forced into developing a diversity strategy by the board who were in turn responding to US legislation.  The executive cadre encamped in Belgium were 90% male, mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin and frankly, felt they had much more pressing priorities.  In short, the workshops quickly regressed into trench warfare.

The turning point came, however, shortly after lunch on day one when, rather than push more and more statistics, facts and process at the group, we adopted a less evangelical approach and asked them to explore their brand from the customer’s perspective.

They had traditionally seen themselves as a business to business organisation but it took one of the more junior managers, who also happened to have the largest team and who also happened to be a woman, to point out that housewives could make or break their brand.  By drawing a simple supply chain model she was able to quickly illustrate the route their primary product ultimately followed to market and how it was immaterial that they weren’t putting the bread on the shelves themselves. Women still make the vast majority of purchasing decisions per household and the retailers were reliant upon their suppliers to provide raw materials in tune with the ethics and values of the consumer.  An epiphany!

This simple, jaw-dropping moment proves to be a revelation for her cynical peers who had clearly spent years developing competencies and promoting values appropriate for managing their equally macho purchasing managers in the businesses they were selling to.  Suddenly the link between organisational culture, brand and their PR problems was put into stark relief. More importantly, they realised that, without a more representative management structure they would make similar mistakes.  The business case for diversity had become clear and the rest of the session was put to productive use developing a central and local diversity policy, strategy and engagement approach which owed much to a loaf of bread!

If you want to find out more about the EIMD (a not for profit organisation founded in 1996, with headquarters in Barcelona and which operates across the European Union), take a look at their website or feel free to drop us a line and we’ll tell you more about this and similar stories.

Book Review: Future Minds by Richard Watson

Given the cover and sub-title “How the digital age is changing our minds…”, I have to confess that I approached futurist Watson’s second book with the same trepidation a twelve-year-old feels when faced with a Winter cross-country run. I expected it to “do me good”. But I didn’t expect it to be so enjoyably engaging.

This isn’t a geek’s treatise. I’m pleased to report that Richard is a humanist rather than a techie and a pragmatist rather than a dogmatic zealot perpetuating the marketing myth that life begins and ends with so-called social media; mobile phone functionality and the whims of Microsoft and Apple.

Some time ago I published a piece titled “Facebook will never replace Facetime”. It was targeted at the non-sensical hysteria surrounding so-called social media and reminded people of the importance of deep thinking; relationship management and development and the necessity of contact and connections flesh to flesh rather than via an ISP. My treatise is primarily based on experience of facilitating change within organisations. Watson’s thesis is based on extremely well researched fact.

Here are some of his challenging observations:

–          Gen Y “screenagers” have become better at IQ tests than their predecessors, yet the No1 gripe from employers is a lack of basic reading, writing and arithmetic

–          The effectiveness of multi-tasking is largely a myth

–          Online crowds are drowning out individual wisdom

–          The culture of pace for the sake of it and rapid response (reaction rather than reflection) is perpetuating mistakes and half-truths

–          The anonymity of the web is eroding core relationship skills like empathy and promotes virtual courage over real emotion and accountability

–          As so-called social media grows at the expense of true social interactions there are increasingly fewer opportunities for serendipitous encounters (a great phrase)

–          The next working generation will be less resilient as they have a “re-boot” mentality

–          The increase in on-screen reading at the expense of books and paper may improve the pace and volume of apparent reading but it  is already having a detrimental effect on problem-solving & deep thinking

–          Handwritten correspondence is staggeringly more successful at engaging recipients than electronic messages

–          We have to try harder to allow children to be child-like for longer

–          Workplaces are very seldom conducive to generating ideas

–          Humour is hugely important to forge relationships and break conventional patterns of thought

–          Personalised, intrusive advertising is imminent

–          Mental privacy will become one of the hottest issues in the next 30 years

–          Expect to see a return to the real and the growth in localism and crafts

These are just a few of the well thought through and provocative arguments which run through this book. Interestingly, many of his points echo similar phases in social evolution like the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement as a reaction to industrialisation and mass production, for example

But before the tech heads start to cry “Tolpuddle martyr”, it’s important to stress that the ultimate thesis of Future Minds is a plea for balance and a blended approach to technology.

It’s clear that Watson believes in the power of so-called new media. But what he does very well in this book is re-visit the biology of thinking as well as the sociology of relationships to appeal for individual and collective responsibility for re-framing how man uses machines “Technology should sometimes be forced to adapt to us” and not the other way round. And he makes a compelling case with the help of a great deal of hard, factual evidence, expert testimonial and provocative, sometimes disturbing case study. Perhaps the most shocking is the couple who let their real baby starve because they were obsessed with caring for a virtual infant online!

Ultimately, this book is a timely reminder that our technology should be an enabler not an end in itself. Actual experiences will always take precedence over virtual ones and we need to determine the technology agenda and set and remain in control of the rules “It seems to me that what people seem to want more than ever these days is the opportunity to be touched emotionally by the thinking and experiences of other people ….What should we do if we are concerned about the invasion of screen culture into our everyday lives? Bluntly, we should think.”

Far from being a geek-fest, Future Minds is controversial; thought-provoking; easy to read (I finished it in 1 sitting) and most importantly, entertaining. I never expected to be confronted by a chapter concerned with the Sex Life of Ideas, for example, and the wisdom that “For new ideas to be born you need two or more old ideas to jump into bed and get frisky”.

In the ever-evolving debate about existing and emerging technology, it’s refreshing to see someone straddle the old school (no pun intended) and the new so very comfortably yet is grounded by an admirable value set and a gift for appreciative critique. I highly recommend you pick up a copy as I’ve little doubt you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement as you turn the pages, at least most of the time, even if it may feel a little heretical to point at the elephant in the room or acknowledge what I’m sure most of us are thinking.

Go on – hug a cynic!

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the usual “employer brand”-style communication campaigns. You know, the glossy brochures filled with beautiful people decked in power suits, killer smiles and emasculating handshakes? Or the so-called “champions” plucked from the ranks of the unwashed and the obscure as apparent beacons of the corporate values and virtues paraded at awards ceremonies, on “star of the week boards” or launches.

I’m a little ashamed to say that in the past, I’ve occasionally been complicit by commissioning “fairytale” imagery and copy or adopting a “no negatives” approach to recruiting internal facilitators which belied the workaday reality of the people whom the initiative was meant to represent.

Marketing certainly has its virtues. But internal audiences are much more demanding than customers. They expect authenticity from their representatives and gritty realism from their representations. And it’s a tad short-sighted to recruit employees on the back of false and empty promises. They’re unlikely to recover from the cold dose of reality that meets their idealism once they’re through the revolving HQ doors.

One of my “eureka” moments on the long and winding road through corporate change and development is that the power to be engaging, more often than not, comes with a dose of skepticism; a maverick edge, a darker side or even a little vulnerability.

Consider the enticing power of the rebel; the hooded renegade; the Everyman who represents the rank and file. Or reflect on the beguiling charm of the flawed hero or the beauty with the scar!

I was interested to read a McKinsey article suggesting that 2/3rds of major change programmes fail because of the failure to target true leaders and positive change role models. Well, as shocking as that statistic is for the big battalion consultancies, I know from current and past experience that the first line management community is absolutely key; the senior leaders must walk the talk but just as importantly, the sometimes cynical but usually authentic informal leaders have a very powerful influence over their peers. But it’s impossible to spot them unless you’re prepared to take a people-centred and mentoring-focused approach to change and live the values from the diagnostic through to evaluation stages.

In my experience, it is far more effective to connect to employees via the sincere medium of true representatives who not only reflect a personalised take on the corporate values, behaviours and culture but who are brave and honest enough to give a warts and all representation of what it’s really like to work there. That’s why I favour the use of the People Panel; the facilitator with less polish but bags of character; or the informal editors of the grapevine whenever I’m called upon to help facilitate change.

So go on! Be brave and embrace your cynics. After all, tough times call for thinking differently and when was the last time you saw one of the “fragrant T&T “crew leading an innovative and even revolutionary charge?

For more information on mentoring programmes for the leadership community drop us a line.