Tuesday, 29 January 2019

What's new about trust?

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer provides the usual mix of insights and commentary on public trust. The headline to me was that the relationship people have with their employer is now the one they value most. In the words of Richard Edelman in Davos, “the employer is the most trusted institution in the world.”

This is interesting. At this point in history, we feel our employers are the institutions closest to us. We place our trust in them and expect them to honour that trust, now more than ever. As Richard Edelman expounds, we believe we can influence our employer (he cites the Google walk-out in November last year as an example), we want our employer to play an active role in the local community and we expect our CEO to be a shining light, taking action on social issues without waiting for government.

The crystallisation of the CEO’s role as an ‘activist’, for want of a better term, is an interesting insight that I’m sure will command more exploration and analysis. However, I was disappointed in some of the other conclusions drawn from the research. In particular, the four-part model developed to sum up steps to success: “the new employer-employee contract”, as Edelman have termed it.

The first part talks about the importance of purpose, “a big idea” as Richard Edelman termed it at Davos. In other words, employees believe an organisation should do more than seek profit. That’s hardly news, is it?

Similarly, the second element of the model focuses on ‘Empowering Employees’: this has been central to the concept of employee engagement, and at the heart of high-engagement cultures, for many years. Surely the idea that employees need to be informed and should be your “first order of business” is simply common sense.

The third element suggests employers must ‘Start locally’ by contributing the communities in which they are based. The words may be different, the concept is not new.

Finally, the model’s requirement for ‘CEO Leadership’ breaks little new ground, emphasising as it does that CEOs must be exemplars of an organisation’s values and engage directly with people, on a personal level, both within and beyond the organisation. There is some new context associated with this, given the point around activism and social focus outlined above, but the basic guidance is not a revelation.  

Overall, then, I couldn’t help feeling a tad underwhelmed, as I often am with new models. On this occasion, too, I am reminded of previous (and rather ephemeral) attempts to establish an intangible ‘contract’ between employers and their people.

The research crystallises the context in which organisations are now operating and reinforces the responsibility that employers have. However, many of the solutions proposed, in my view, re-tread familiar ground. Much of the advice already exists in different forms and enlightened employers are already working with it.

I don’t think we need another re-framing of good practice: we need to get on and deliver it. 

Monday, 21 January 2019

What is your ideal day?

Given that a new year often prompts people to think about a new role or next steps, I thought I would dust off this post from a couple of years ago. Hope it is of help to someone. 

A few years ago, when I was weighing up the next step in my career, I was asked a question that really helped me crystallise things. I thought I would share it in case it also helps you.

I was canvassing a range of contacts, clients and former colleagues about what my next move should be. One of them asked me this: “What is your ideal working day?”. 

The question was simple, yet deceptively powerful. It encouraged me to strip away all the different factors and considerations that might otherwise have clouded my thinking. It made me focus on exactly what it is that inspires, excites and motivates me every day and enables me to do my best for the people I work with and for.

It helped me crystallise what I wanted to be doing on the road ahead and led me to set up the communication consultancy I have been running ever since. Without considering that question, and working out how I could bring my ideal day to life, I might not have done things the way I have, or maybe enjoyed it as much as I have.

Everyone’s ‘ideal working day’ is different, and the answer will change over time. I had different views 20 years ago, when I first entered this industry. My aims and priorities will no doubt evolve further in the years ahead. But asking myself the same question every now and then will help me assess this and make sure I’m still doing what I truly want to.

If you’re in a similar position now, or considering your future career path, I’d encourage you to consider that same question. It might give you the clarity or focus you need.

I found my ideal day. I hope you find yours.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

A 'detox' plan for internal communication

It must be January: lots of people I know have suddenly discovered a deep-rooted desire to cleanse  themselves and their lifestyles from every perceived impurity. They’re marching under the banner of ‘wellbeing’ towards the promised land of energy, vitality and self-contentment.

Despite this slight, and rather hypocritical, cynicism - I’ve often considered something similar, but never quite closed the ‘intention-action’ gap - there is a laudable aim here. The idea that we should take a step back and examine how we can look after ourselves a bit better. Shouldn’t we be doing the same as organisations?

We’re all so busy, all the time, that it’s difficult to pause and take a fresh look at how we might improve the effectiveness (and/or efficiency) of internal communication practices. Yet checking the alignment of plans, narrative/messaging, and tools/channel sets with business needs can pay great dividends for the rest of the year. So before 2019 really takes off – and in the manner of all good detox programmes - here is my six-step plan for success:

  • Explore the environment – you’ll probably have plenty of sources of information on strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that you haven’t had the chance to review and interpret. Now is the time to collate such data and derive insights that will help you enhance effectiveness during the year (as well as identifying any gaps in knowledge that you need to fill)
  • Involve stakeholders – you’ll know whose input you require (some will be leaders, others won’t). Approach and gain their views on current effectiveness and future goals for internal communication. If you’ve got time and scope, seek to involve employees more widely (although sometimes maligned, focus groups can be highly productive if you can gain the cross-section of people you need)
  • Articulate objectives – being clear on what you want to achieve, and with whom, is not as easy as it sounds. But drawing on the research and analysis above, it’s a valuable exercise to articulate your overall aims and ‘desired response’ from different employee segments. A simple summary can become a practical reference tool during the year to ensure the messages, activities and tools you employ always align with what you want to achieve
  • Remain focused – it’s easy to be attracted by what’s possible, but is it desirable given your objectives? I’m sure we’ve all seen people fall victim to ‘shiny new toy syndrome’, in which they appear dazzled by the potential of new technology, but introducing such tools isn’t always the answer. Reviewing and refreshing current channels could be a more effective and efficient way of achieving your goals
  • Prioritise activities – don’t try to boil the ocean. As the old adage goes, it’s better to do a few things well rather than spread yourself too thinly. Concentrate on the core programme of activities required to achieve your objectives and augment these when feasible, given budgets and resources
  • Change where needed – last but not least, if you’re picking up signals that things need to change, respond to them. If you set the ball rolling on any exercise like this, you need to heed the findings, or the opportunity for improvement will just wither on the vine.
I’m sure there are many other steps and opportunities, but these are six simple steps that could help you ‘detox’ internal communication and aid alignment with business needs for the year. Even small changes could have a significant impact…

Friday, 14 December 2018

Uncertainty concerns, speculation is worse


Every change or crisis comms text you’ll ever read will declare, somewhere within its sage advice, “never speculate”. It’s one of the fundamental tenets when dealing with the natural inclination to make up for an absence of facts: don’t make a rod for your own back.

There will be lots of internal communicators in UK-based companies fighting the impulse to give some reassurance to employees over Brexit right now.

There is so much uncertainty, and the political situation is changing so quickly, that firm facts are hard to discern. However, the desire to reassure employees over the future for the company, and the prospects for EU nationals in the workforce, must be growing every day. When nothing is clear, it’s hard to build confidence. But the need to do so remains.

In such circumstances there is a tendency to distil concrete and discrete scenarios: to say if x happens, it will mean y and we’ll do z. But that means hoping the sands don’t shift any further in the coming days (let alone weeks): routes that seem likely today could easily be ruled out tomorrow in the current febrile environment. Make one wrong prediction, in a bid to address uncertainty, and the company’s credibility as a source of reassurance will be shot.

Far better, in the short term, to emphasise that the company is zealously monitoring the situation and planning for many different scenarios. To emphasise that robust scenario planning means it has a whole toolkit from which it will deploy appropriate measures when the time is right.

In other words, acknowledge the uncertainties, don’t seek the resolve them. Emphasise that the organisation is ready for anything and prepared to act. Confirm the company’s commitment to share news and provide clarity as soon as it can. This might not immediately bring the certainty employees crave – and that communicators want to give – but it will help to maintain the credibility of communications and mean there’s more trust in the well when the situation becomes clearer.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Shaping successful company narratives

One of the fascinating areas in which my colleagues and I are working is the development of company narratives. These are endlessly intriguing, stimulating projects from which the outputs can make a major difference for any organisation, no matter what size or sector. I’ve seen them work wonders in terms of enhancing engagement, alignment and common purpose.

But they are often discussed in articles and commentary in wildly dramatic terms, as if there is some mystic art behind their development and delivery.

There isn’t.

A narrative should be a clear, concise and practical tool for the organisation, forged from the culture of the organisation and used as the foundation for all engagement activities with stakeholders. It should be developed with extensive input from those within the company and embedded across all the organisation’s touchpoints with those groups. There should be at least as much emphasis on embedding its use as there is on its articulation in the first place.

Here are a few steps (among many) I would recommend:

1. Understand parameters 
Any narrative project, however wide the commitment to employee involvement, must start with a framework. This must come from conversations with leaders, so you gain a clear understanding – in their words – of the organisation’s purpose, ‘north star’ and strategic themes. Those leaders will also set the cultural tone for the organisation and act as guardians of its core values. Drawing out different leaders’ views on all these areas will give you a framework within which to work.

2. Involve team leaders/supervisors
Sometimes, in these projects, there is a rush to involve front-line employees as quickly as possible. Such involvement is, of course, essential to creating a narrative that is both compelling and credible. But don’t neglect the ‘squeezed middle’: the team leaders and/or supervisors who play a pivotal role in translating strategic aims into day-to-day action. They are a crucial group in their own right, so gain sufficient representation from them and tailor your research guides and materials to seek their input.

3. Craft, test, craft, test 
One great challenge in these projects is to collate and distil key themes emerging from employee involvement into a clear, concise and compelling narrative. But don’t shape it solely behind closed doors and then unveil it to the world. Test it with key stakeholders to help maintain their involvement and assess whether the themes (and words) you’re proposing resonate and inspire. Make it an iterative process.

4. Find the ‘proof points’ 
Any narrative stands or falls on its credibility and, therefore, must be supported by evidence. This can come in several forms, from facts & stats to mini case-studies, all of which should form part of the supporting material on which you can draw for engagement activities. Spend time seeking these ‘proof points’ early on.

5. Work with touchpoint ‘owners’
Every organisation has multiple touchpoints with its stakeholders. These are often managed by many different people, with limited interaction or cross-over: these colleagues’ adoption of the narrative – or otherwise – will mean the difference between a narrative that lives and breathes within the company and a project that withers on the vine. So identify these colleagues and examine how best to connect and communicate with them. Lean on your senior sponsors to help them set expectations. Work with touchpoint ‘owners’ to engage them in the narrative, identify their support needs and flesh out any concerns. Provide a simple toolkit of materials and guidance to help them. Stay in touch and work with them on delivering principles in practice. Be a collaborator, coach, agony aunt and steadfast support.

6. Keep evolving 
A narrative should be a living, practical tool for the organisation. It should not be a set of fine words that sits in a document or is posted on a website and forgotten about. As the company changes, the narrative should evolve with it. Establish a practical and systematic process for reviewing, updating and re-issuing the narrative (and/or supporting ‘proof points’) to touchpoint owners.

There are many other steps to consider, but these are some fundamental pointers that make a big difference, whether you’re an SME or a multinational.

Friday, 8 June 2018

The company with nothing to hide


At the Engage for Success conference this Spring, I saw a powerful presentation by the Chairman and CEO of Absolut Vodka, Anna Malmhake. She told a story that was deceptively simple and extremely impressive.

Like many other institutions, in different countries and sectors, Absolut wanted to ensure their brand values were shared and followed by colleagues and partners around their world. In their case, they wanted clear and consistent messages in which they could engage teams and markets in the wider Pernod Ricard family.

After distilling five campaign beliefs they want to weave though all their brand marketing activity, worldwide, they summed their mantra up as “the vodka with nothing to hide”. The thinking being: we are a pure vodka and nothing detracts from our purpose or our product.

The Absolut team then looked inwardly and examined how this mantra could be brought to life for current and prospective recruits. The internal perspective being: we are an open company that is fair, straightforward and engaging for everyone.

But how to bring this life for people, so they can see the company means what it says?

Simple. Produce a film to communicate the message. Using employees.

Naked employees.

Colleagues from across the company’s single production site in Sweden appear, au naturel, in an induction film that communicates and celebrates what is special about the company and its culture. It is a bold concept, wonderfully expressed, in a really engaging film. Click here to see it on YouTube (if you’re over 18!). It has attracted nearly two million viewers.

I love the idea and its expression because it is simple yet bold, aligned with the values of the brand. It’s also interesting that they looked at what they were trying to say to consumers and realised they could do more with this concept from an employer branding perspective.

Fabulous stuff.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Engagement before induction: the ‘Peacock Principle’

At the Engage for Success conference last month, I was inspired by a tale from serial entrepreneur Sir Eric Peacock regarding one of the practices he follows within his companies.

It’s a simple thing: his companies send a bottle of champagne with a couple of glasses to people about to join them. The message is clear: “we’re looking forward to seeing you”. The aim is to engage the employee before they even walk through the door, to demonstrate that this is an employer that will value them. Of course, there’s a defensive aspect to this – they don’t want the prospective employee to be attracted by a counter-offer from their current company – but there is also a real commitment to engagement and to treating an employee as individual, even before he/she joins.

It’s not the only thing that is sent. There is other material that follows it, including the usual pre-joining stuff you will get in any company. But the celebration comes first: an important signal that sets the context for the connection between employer and employee.

I’ve heard about it before, but I still found it inspiring. Why? Because we don’t do enough of it, in any of our organisations. It doesn’t have to be champagne, that’s not right for everyone, but a gesture that shows we are excited to welcome a new employee and can’t wait to start working with them is a powerful signal of intent. It’s easy to appreciate the warmth that such a gesture creates. So why don’t we do more if it?

To start as we mean to go on, to really connect with people and seek to build engagement, we should be using every opportunity. We should also be creating additional touchpoints to ensure a connection struck during recruitment is maintained and even strengthened rather than falling fallow. The ‘Peacock Principle’ as I shall now be calling this, is one to remember.