Always follow your bliss!


As I explored in Brand Champions, it was mythologist Joseph Campbell who coined the phrase “follow your bliss” to describe how people are at their happiest when the work they do aligns to their true character. And I have little doubt that leaders of organisations who set out to create cultures that inspire, involve and engage people, are the ones that thrive over time.

So, on #InternationalChildrensBookDay, it seems a fitting time to announce the delivery of a personal project I’ve been working on alongside the internal brand development crusade.

In collaboration with our two little heroes, I’ve recently written a series of childrens’ fantasy books, the Changeling Trilogy.

The first, Legend of the Lost, will hit the shelves this Summer.

But it is in post-production and available for pre-orders now.

Needless to say the plot line follows Campbell’s hero’s journey cycle, as you would expect. All the best stories do. Although the heroes and many of the villains were inspired by the very many characters we’ve encountered along the way, especially where the work and corporate me have overlapped.

So, as a treat to yourself or a junior loved one (aimed at 7-11 year olds but intended to be engaging for adults to read to/with them too), check it out on Amazon. But fear not, the cover is discrete enough for you to have a read on the train, and if anyone asks, you can always claim it’s a high-brow brand management tome and part of your CPD.


PS- if you spot yourself in the stories, the kids have told me I am not at liberty to either confirm nor deny the truth. But buy me a beer and…


BE THAT NUTTER on the bus!

“It was a tough journey yet the results speak for themselves.

You’ve heard Jim Collins’s phrase in Good to Great about leaders needing to get the right people on the bus?

Well one of the problems with being ahead of the change curve is that people in meetings look at you like the nutter on the bus”.

I’m quoting a client who recently proudly celebrated their successful brand engagement drive which has generated some very impressive bottom line results over the last five years, despite very testing economic conditions.

They are one of the case studies in Brand Champions selected for the very reason that, as with the other case studies, the top team understand that sustainable brand development comes from a solid internal culture and that the only way to achieve this if for HR and Marketing, not the most likely of bedfellows, to get into bed together, strategically speaking.

It can be tricky to realise this when you’re trapped within the internal silos of structure charts and organisation politics. So it’s one of the value-adding insights external advisers can bring. Which is why, when I have been approached to help create an employer brand or a service proposition whether for an investment banking division or a major healthcare business, the first question is usually the same:

“Do you have Marketing and HR around the same table with the backing of the CEO?”

If the answer’s “no”, then we make it so, regardless of whether the project is badged brand or employer brand or culture change even service proposition development.

Like it or lump it but sustainable brand development is all about synergy not about internal competition.

As so many change programmes discover too late, be they brand, tech/process or HR driven, the best laid plans and processes are undermined, not by a shortage of spreadsheets or governance, but by a shortfall in one of these areas:

  • employee engagement
  • communication
  • culture change
  • leadership role modelling

Yet far too many organisations still believe they can bluff, spin and now “buzz” their way to enhanced performance through dumping content and data through “whizzy” new channels or considerable “buzzy” advertising spend to drive brand awareness.

Few stop to ask themselves:

“What do we do when we attract customers or recruits but are not able to deliver on the promises we make?”

In my experience, this is down to one of three things:

  1. Naivety
  2. Silo thinking
  3. Seeing this as a problem for someone else

The point the CEO was making during the presentation of their case study (they were COO at the time of the change by the way), was that the truly enlightened are too often dismissed when the approach they propose differs from currently presumed wisdom/current culture. Yet they are being viewed and judged through the lens of a prevailing leadership culture iornically not quite fit for purpose given the pressing need for change.

Now, I’m sure there are many HRDs and Marketing Directors and a few CEOs who will be reading this and dismissing it as the rantings of another nutter on the social media bus.

I’ve certainly heard my fair share of detracting voices down the years.

I can think of some who have managed to protect and ring fence their budgets for long enough to survive a budget round or two and have then moved on.

I can think of some who have made a lot of money for themselves from making a lot of people redundant.

But the ones, most notable, are those who couldn’t, at first make the leap of faith to reach across their silo, yet when they did, are now celebrating the results from taking the path less trodden rather than the path of least resistance..

In the main the same individuals have all built truly sustainable brand-focused cultures wherever their careers have taken them.

But perhaps it’s a coincidence that those organisations include some of the best places to work and highest ranked brands?

“ding, ding”

* Want to read more stories from the business transformation front line? Pick up a copy of Ian P Buckingham’s Brand Engagement- How employees make or break brands and Brand Champions – How Superheroes bring brands to life.

Advice for your younger self


(Collaborative thought piece by Ian Buckingham; Kevin Keohane; Dan Gray and Hilton Barbour).

A father recently walked into his kitchen to find his child clearly upset. So he dropped what he was planning to do to stop and listen.

Seems the child had been disturbed by much buzzy noise on social media about fame and success. They were starting to feel that they would just never be able to shape up as people expected them to. Turns out they were feeling the pressure of making certain subject selections at school that they worried would set them on a path in life when they hadn’t really made up their mind. But they felt like they should know and it was worrying them.

Dad was just grateful he was there for the moment. So he started a series of conversations to help them navigate their way.

He shared this story with a few of us recently. It so happens that we are each relatively experienced friends and fathers who have worked in the Marcomms space, both agency and in-house, for some time.

One question in particular prompted an online conversation:

Q1:”Reflecting on your career to date, what is the one piece of advice you would give the younger you/or your son or daughter when entering the world of work?”

Here’s a precis of our reflections, for what they’re worth:


Find and follow your bliss

It took me a while to see this because of the games that all people play with each other.

There’s much talk about progress. But even if you reflect on what has happened since the industrial revolution, infamous for cramped housing, serfdom and little real time for what makes life great, things haven’t really moved on. Not as much as they should have.

People still live in the same or smaller houses but they somehow pay a fortune for them now; they work even longer, have fewer children, spend even less time with them and still donate their labour for other people most of their lives. They are quite often producing stuff that’s pretty useless and leaves a mess for others to sort out.

There’s more to life than stuff, there really is.

We all have to make sacrifices and compromises in life.

Some involve decisions we feel we have to make to survive.

But whatever you do, always strive to make an impact on the world and leave it a better, wiser, happier place for you having been here.

You stand the best chance of doing that by finding your passion, trying lots, sharing lots, failing lots, succeeding some but growing lots. Eventually, with lots of determination and not a little luck, you will find the sweet spot where work and you crossover.

If you’re really lucky it will seldom feel like work.

When you find that place, whatever it may be, it will be your “bliss”. Until then, good luck spotting the dragons on the way, the takers not the makers, the talkers not the leaders.

The greatest tragedy is not a life lived without money or power or fame. It is a life wasted, without taking risks just trying to impress others while forgetting or not discovering what brings you joy.

You, for me, are part of my bliss. You are my joy. I just hope you’re as lucky as I am to know that feeling too.

handsAlways keep a ‘growth mindset’

Be a humble and voracious learner. Go broad, not narrow, in your quest for knowledge, actively searching for new ideas and perspectives, especially from disciplines outside the one you have chosen. Therein lies the key to long-term success and fulfilment.

Others will tell you you’re wasting your time filling your head with stuff that they think bears no relation to the ‘day job’. Don’t listen to them. Ten years from now, they’ll probably find their job has been eaten by a robot, and they’ll be screwed because they invested all their time and energy in developing deep technical skill.

It’s good – necessary even – to be a polymath. Seek out experiences that will help you develop and hone the timeless mindsets and metaskills that are at the heart of what makes us human – initiative and self-reliance, communication and collaboration, critical reasoning and creative problem-solving (to name just a few).

Your prowess as an integrative thinker, sense-maker and problem-solver will be what keeps you one step ahead of the robots, grants you the ability to adapt and thrive whatever the future of work holds in store, and makes you valuable in an era when business is increasingly expected to step up and help solve society’s ‘wicked problems’.

No-one’s going to solve those problems with the inch-wide, mile deep perspective of the functional expert, so stand tall and be proud to be a generalist.

Because the future belongs to you.

daddydWhatever you may lose, never lose your optimism. 

Much has happened since you were born my darling son.

Man living on Mars. Oceans now free of plastic waste. Racial and gender equality that seemed a pipe dream when I took this role. Many of these advances were made by businesses and business people. Hard to imagine growing up that we once looked on politicians to solve the issues of the world.

Whether its politicians or business people who’ve solved some of our most systemic ills, one thing I’ve learnt is that humanity needs leaders with imagination and with optimism.

Your mother, who I wish deeply each and every day, instilled a curiosity in you that has served you well. Never lose that desire to question. To go back to 1st Principles and understand why? Why? may be a small word but it has been at the heart of many of our greatest discoveries and our incredible leaps forward.

But “why?” is not enough.

You need to do more than understand. You need to actually do something with that knowledge. But do it with optimism. Don’t just create, but inspire. Don’t just solve for others, infuse them with hope and optimism. Optimism is the warmth that fills a weary heart. Optimism is the hand that lightens the burden of the downtrodden. Optimism is the light we all seek in the dark.

When I was a young man, an optimistic leader once said this to his country:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

You will face many challenges in the years ahead. You will not always win.

But whatever you may lose, never lose your optimism.

That is what separates true leaders from the mediocre one’s. And you are far from mediocre, my darling son.

Time is all you really havedaddaughter

Time is going to drive some tough life choices. You’ll have to learn to balance genuinely rewarding time spent against time wasted buttressing ego and self-esteem. Avoid time-vampirizing behaviors that are ultimately not in your best interests. The sooner you learn this, the better.

Learning this, you’re going to encounter two kinds of people inhabiting the ecosystem in which you seek to play (however it’s sliced and diced – and we’ll come to that in a moment).

You’ll meet those who say, and those who do. Spotting the difference is essential to understanding human nature. And while building eminence and dare I say “personal branding” is important: Become not desperately distracted in seeking the oxygen of attention.

Be a doer, not a sayer.

With ever increasing ease of access, it will unfold around you: personal brand builders with the same search engines as everybody else. They’ll form and join clubs. Achieve the giddy heights of important-sounding voluntary board positions. Sayers dive deep, debating to the death then decoding and defining the minutiae of “best practices” and the essential esoterica of the doers’ capability set. Sayers seek to mark lines around disciplines. Sayers unearth things first discovered and since internalized by doers, polishing and repackaging them as distinctive points of view to present at conferences and breakfast briefings.

Ignore turf-protecting boundaries between disciplines—because when you fly above the sayer landscape, you’ll notice something. There aren’t actually any lines down there. You’ll be a designer. A connector. You’ll think adjacently. Your reputation will spread—with those who matter. As a doer, what will you earn instead? Meaningful work at the Big People Table.

Despite this, yes, you’ll probably feel the sting when sayers win trinkets.

Don’t sweat it.


Q2: But enough of our reflections. What would be your one piece of advice to your child, or the younger you?

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.