If you can’t see this as an opportunity, why exacty did you choose a career in HR?


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.


Brand Watch: Malmaison “wows” with employee engagement programme


I’ve long been a fan of the Malmaison brand having had the pleasure of spending considerable time at a number of their facilities during my travels.
I’ve always found the employees to be great brand ambassadors and that this positive and empowered behavioural culture worked well with the physical brand trappings. I featured Malmaison in my second book, Brand Champions (2011), a case-study-based guide to the role that everyday employees play in bringing brands to life from within.
It was pleasing therefore, to read  Michelle Stevens’ article in People Management on 22 May 2012 detailing how the staff recognition scheme had “paid off at Malmaison”.
The group received more than 8,000 customer ‘wows’ as part of an engagement plan, largely as a result of empowering and rewarding customer service initiatives. The programme has also reduced staff turnover significantly and increased consumer loyalty at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin. Kate Underwood, the company’s people development manager announced at a recent HR Forum that  the hotel chain had introduced a ‘Wow’ employee incentive scheme to drive customer service in response to the recession.“Our challenge in 2010 as a boutique brand was to reduce costs like everyone else, but ensure that our customer service did not struggle,” she explained to delegates on the Aurora cruise liner.As a result the Wow campaign was launched by the firm’s CEO in June 2010, which trained and encouraged staff to provide an extra level of customer service or give away complimentary items at their discretion.The need to “involve the trust and empowerment of staff” to go the extra mile for special occasions or rectify a complaint situation was key, Underwood added.Employees were then able to report when they had ‘wowed’ a guest, which was signed off and logged by their manager, the audience heard.Employees achieving 10 Wows were rewarded with a free meal in one of the hotel restaurants, while the ‘Wow of the month’ won £150 and personal congratulations from the CEO. Staff recognised as offering the two best customer service examples of the year won a trip abroad.

More than 8,000 Wows have been recorded to date, with 650 occurring in the first two months of the scheme as hotels competed in a weekly league table.

Underwood explained that since the introduction of the campaign, the proportion of customer service related complaints had dropped from 69 per cent to 17 per cent.

In 2011, staff turnover dropped 17 per cent and customer loyalty had increased, with repeat business up by 51 per cent.

Underwood said that against those improved figures, the total cost of complimentary items had only been £6,500.

She added that Wow training was now included in inductions and some of the special touches instigated by staff – such as those around birthdays and anniversaries – had become standard customer service elements.

Furthermore, recent employee surveys found that 96 per cent of staff now felt that they received excellent customer service training, and the proportion of staff proud to work for Malmaison & Hotel du Vin had increased from 87 per cent to 98 per cent.

“What made the programme innovative was the simplicity of the message,” said Underwood. “We highlighted that service was our top priority.”

More positive reinforcement for the fact that employee engagement initiatives are largely cost  negative at least, and at best can be a hugely powerful way of ensuring that employees feel involved and empowered to keep the promises made by the marketing department. What FD worth his salt wouldn’t endorse that business case, especially during these austere times?

Let’s get physical Part 3: The Future


The Future…..

M Worldwide has been instrumental in developing and implementing the brand realisation strategy for the all-important physical environment in which a host of high-profile brands operate. Ian has partnered with clients across sectors to clarify their brand promise and create the optimum internal culture keep that promise. Looking to the future, as a modest “think tank”, what developments can we expect in terms of the way brands will evolve their spaces and places and what are some of the changes we will see in terms of the relationship between internal and external brand stakeholders?

Banks of check-outs?

Not any more.

  • Superficial product information on flimsy bits of A4 paper?

Not very 21st century. The love and the embracing of technology by online brands means established in-store retail norms are increasingly being replaced by a ‘have a go’, no barriers approach to the bricks and mortar environment. Digital signage, mobile pay points, home delivery order points, magic mirrors in changing rooms, music that changes to match the clothes you’re trying on using RFID tags etc etc. Exciting stuff for customers as well as employees who, lest we forget, are customers in their own right after all and can have a significant impact on the design of these spaces.

Smartphone penetration in the UK has now reached 45% – and growing. Converging phone, video, internet, wallet, apps and social media, it’s the bridge between the physical and digital worlds. It links shoppers to their friends, bringing them into to the browsing and shopping mix. McDonalds and Superdrug have already trialled prepaid technology for smaller purchases. And in February 2012 Barclays Bank launched Pingit which allows users to transfer cash between mobile devices.

Even the tedious chore of queuing to pay will soon be alleviated thanks to near field contactless technology. Once payments are made, loyalty schemes and vouchers that drive future visits will be delivered digitally. This places a great responsibility on employees, however, to ensure that all face to face interactions are maximised as there’s much less room for hit and miss encounters.

Consequently, employee workplace experience is going to matter even more than it does now .Sales staff increasingly access more knowledge about products and services through smartphones – supported by videos and digital demonstrations. There have been some impressive developments in the use of online learning solutions and virtual reality technology in corporate training, especially useful for global organizations and those who have a high proportion of remote workers. And gamification is rapidly gaining more air time as an involvement-driven engagement phenomenon.

Gone will be the days when products are cheaper online than in-store, where customers go to shops to road test products and then go away and purchase them at a cheaper cost online. Retailers will provide transparency and in-store price matching there and then through mobile or in-store technology.

The shopping environment will be all about experience rather than stuff. Stuff in all its ranges, sizes colours and packaging will need to be available, but it will not be the main attraction. Apart from all the emotional, rational and functional aspects of making choices and purchases, people also need somewhere to go, to hang out, to see and be seen. Employees will, therefore, be more conscientious about the “hangouts” and brands they want to be associated with.

The food/cafe offer as part of a retail experience is now a hygiene factor. Events, demonstrations, activities, in-store theatres, bars and gardens are what’s needed. But only those with the right mind-set, belief and attitude can deliver them. Compare the lackluster sampling and demos seen in UK supermarkets to the browsing experience in the toy store Hamleys. Supermarkets are the biggest food retailers in the land yet their cafes are hardly temples of food love. Quite some improvement opportunity.

But even the more conservative players are loosening their ties and getting in on the engagement act. At the end of 2011, online bank ING Direct launched its eighth bricks and mortar outlet in New York City’s Union Square. This is a 17,000 square foot cafe. You can’t make a deposit or a withdrawal, but you can grab a cup of coffee, take advantage of the WiFi, and enjoy face time with others. The bottom level of the three-story space allows small business owners and non-profits to host meetings, free of charge, for as many as 40 or 50 people. If you think this all sounds a bit too touchy feely, consider this: ING Direct found that deposits increased by about 10 percent in the cities where they have a physical presence.

Traditional retailers, especially those in fashion, often excel in terms of product newness, but lack originality in how that’s presented. Etailers, on the other hand, excel at fresh and new ways at looking at content. This puts them in good stead to make stores feel really different on a regular basis.

The real innovators will also be those that harness the power of their employees through effective engagement channels and consumers through social media, creating and driving content with imagination and clear focus about their point of difference. They’ll also leverage their supplier brands to do more and be more active.

Humans are inherently social animals.While there are those for whom shopping is a chore to be done as quickly and painlessly as possible, for many others shopping is an art in itself — and stores are the galleries. Innovative retail brands have the chance to embrace true multichannel retailing in a way that most traditional high street retailers can only dream about. This should lead to a virtuous circle for the enlightened…great online and physical environments leading to more customers and in turn attracting and engaging more visionary employees who, if properly treated, will care enough to create more of those environments………..

Here’s to true engagement inside and out leading to brand-based innovations that will benefit all stakeholder groups.

Authors: Ian P Buckingham in conjunction with Chris Hill & David Martin of retail design experts M Worldwide. (Published online in 3 serialised parts & also appeared in specialist marketing magazine Admap M-Worldwide_Admap_ShoppingAsArtForm_1Nov12).

5 ways to bridge the engagement gap


In Part 1 we listed the issues plaguing and undermining the engagement landscape.

Now as promised, here are some practical suggestions for addressing these problems, all, as ever, based on recent client experience:

1. Measure what you treasure: We’ve criticised the measurement industry which has grown up around employee engagement, largely on the grounds that the processes are all too often too cumbersome and there’s far too great a lag between recognition of the problem and action. When directors are obsessed with quarterly reporting and expect to move on every couple of years, what’s the use of a bi-annual staff survey?

 We’ve also spoken in the past however, about the need for some form of measurement to win round the left-brained, data-worshipping cynics and to create a stake in the ground from which improvement can be tracked.

It’s far better however, to ask a few powerful questions and take swift action to address the issues highlighted. It sends out a signal that the leaders care, especially if they can see swift results. After all, there’s usually time to dig deeper at a later stage and to involve more people in that process.

2. Pull together a brand coalition: Sustainable brands are built on sustainable stakeholder involvement inside and out and side to side. Constructing and maintaining a united and consistent picture of the business is very important if the business is to back up the promises made about the brand. This can’t happen in isolation, however, and needs at least HR; Marketing and Comms working in concert to address the process and behavioural challenges.

3. Think beehive, think culture: I can’t think of a board room where “the way we do things” isn’t tabled daily. Yet so few attempt to clarify what that means in practice, usually fearing the consequences of shaking the beehive. Organisations are the sum of the behaviour of the people who work for them. You can’t engage people unless you understand them. Involvement is key to engagement, so find a way to understand the current norms and then work with the decision makers to create a compelling picture of the culture required to deliver the goals, strategy and vision and an engagement programme to bring it to life, role modelling that desired culture as you go. If in doubt, ask a trusted advisor to lend a hand in shaping and facilitating the journey.

4. Lead by example: It’s tough at the top. But that’s what you’re paid for. Remember how you used to look to your leaders for cues about how to behave, and how not to? That never changes. Yes, organisations have had to adapt to prevailing social norms and become more democratic and affiliative in leadership style. So-called social media and the communication revolution is going to ensure that this trend continues. The modern manager simply has to lad by example if they’re to sustain a career within a sustainable business. Values-based leadership is a powerful development strategy, as is mentoring and hugely cost-effective. These are tough times but how are leadership development budgets or even personal development budgets being spent where you work? And what’s the opportunity cost of a disengaged workforce?

5. Appreciative comms:  Last but not least, conscripted armies of favourites don’t build sustainable brands. Cynics don’t destroy them either. Brands are undermined by a million small cuts; insidiousness and passivity leading to what I call “creeping brand death” like the spreading darkness in The Never Ending Story. The thriving brands, however, have champions everywhere in all shapes and sizes who feel connected because they believe in what they’re hearing via the internal communication channels and their values resonate with what they experience at work not what they hear the leaders saying. So be appreciative and start actively seeking out examples of best practice behaviour that exemplifies the business you want to see and celebrate it. Good news is infectious, especially in dark days.

If you would like to know more about the detail underpinning these 5 approaches which are all based upon recent case studies or would prefer a confidential chat about the engagement issues you’re facing, please contact Ian. 

What is a true brand champion?


Superman or Supernerd, what is the profile of a brand hero? Seems to me that you don’t have to have a qualification in the legacy of Marvel comics to appreciate the link between the popularity of heroic figures in popular culture and testing social circumstances.  It’s no great surprise, therefore, that the Golden Age of Superhero comics coincided with the aftermath of a catastrophic World War. But this isn’t a geeky treatise on the power of fiction and fantasy. This book is grounded in commercial reality. It’s about the superpower behind organisations, it’s about the people behind brands.

We’re all aware that these are troubled and testing times for so-called free market economics. I pointed to problems with the capitalist system in Brand Engagement but when, a few months later, single companies lost more in a year than the GDP of the nation they stem from, it would appear the scale of the issue was larger than anyone anticipated. In the first few months following the infamous credit crunch the UK government allegedly invested more in interventionist policies to stabilise the economy than they spent financing the whole of WW1. But even the dark days of international conflict gave rise to role models and heroes. Where are they now?

As former Masters of the Universe investment banks, those bastions of a certain brand of performance culture momentarily slunk into the shadows for a rethink, how many ancillary industries have we seen suffer in their wake? Seems a genuine corporate champion or two wouldn’t go amiss.

It may be popularity polls and shareprices rather than bombs that are dropping these days but as world and corporate leaders struggle with economic crises who wouldn’t welcome a caped crusader who could clear tall buildings in a single bound?  If they also had the answer to the sub-prime mortgage fiasco plumping out their codpiece, all the better.

Here in the real world, as so many political and corporate leaders appear t have embraced “the dark side” we’re more likely to bump into a bumbling Clarke Kent, a nerdy Bruce Banner or an uber slick Bruce Wayne than a Super or Batman.  The heroes who are most likely to live and work around us every day are the alter-egos of what we may expect.  They include police officers, doctors, lollipop ladies, bean counters, teachers and insurance underwriters, personal assistants, Mac wizards and spreadsheet jockeys. They’re often the little people who are able to rise above the universal and altogether natural concern for the self and put the needs of others first in their list of priorities.  They too fight for health, safety, authenticity, growth and excellence in their own modest way.  But like many of their comic book counterparts, they’re not forced or compelled to heroic acts. They do it because they choose to.

Though they seldom acknowledge it, organisations count on there being enough of these workaday superheroes in sensible shoes quietly making a stand for truth and justice within the corporate rank and file. If they aren’t wearing their underwear over their tights or aren’t sporting a natty cape and tiara, however, how do you spot them?

10 Ways to Spot an Engaged Employee

Well, if anyone is prepared to willingly bear the symbol of a brand on their breast there’s a fair chance they’re going to be substantially engaged with that brand. But what does an engaged employee actually look like? While there are variations and eccentricities, in my experience the most common traits exhibited by engaged employees are that they are:

  1. Obvious  (they clearly add value although don’t always shout about it)
  2. Authentic (they are themselves in the workplace)
  3. Receptive (they listen and are open to new and different approaches)
  4. Involved  (they are active members of the community)
  5. Proactive  (they take the initiative)
  6. Energised  (they do things)
  7. Achievers (the things they do tend to be fruitful)
  8. Advocates (they are proud and happy to recommend the brand)
  9. Role models (they lead by example)
  10. In demand

Delve beneath the surface of the various Best 100 Companies poll and you’ll encounter these characters and characteristics in spadefuls.  Having been privileged to have worked with a number in the past I can confirm that in each case:

– the Top Team were advocates of a culture-led approach to brand management

– they developed a very clear business case for change

– they understood the current culture and were clear about the desired future culture

– they involved and engaged all employees in the development of a compelling story about the evolution of the business

– they “professionalized” their internal communication function and ensured that line managers in particular were skilled communicators

– they insisted on partnerships between the external and internal facing communication/engagement functions, like Marketing and HR.

Doesn’t sound anything like where you work? Well next time there’s a corporate crisis just pause for a second, try to look beyond what the emails from the CEO and army of middle managers are saying and consider why the otherwise unassuming and bespectacled Jane from IT always grabs her coat and heads for the stationery cupboard when the going gets tough. After all, someone keeps the super villains at bay and the systems running!


Welcome to The Brand Trilogy (TBT)

A place to meet, to explore. to challenge, to gather thoughts and ideas about the engagement movement and developing potent brands from within.

Our mission is to celebrate and unite the community of people who believe that big brands are sustained and maintained by everyday superheroes.

We aim to share the collective body of stories and  together, create the third in the brand trilogy.