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. 

Friday, 23 February 2018

Engaged or 'in here'?

There has been more media discussion this morning on the lingering issue of ‘presenteeism’ and its links – or lack thereof – to productivity.

It is amazing that we are still debating such issues. Commentators have been discussing the need for managers to look upon flexible working more favourably, rather than having to see the whites of someone’s eyes in order to manage them effectively. Haven’t we been having such debates for 20+ years? Why are we still floundering around the issue rather than identifying methods and models that make flexible working an accepted and effective element of the modern workplace?

If some leaders and managers are yet to be convinced, maybe they need to see more overt proof of the impact. So why aren’t the various bodies involved in these debates doing more to identify and share lessons from organisations who have really made flexibility work, for employer and employee? We need less discussion over ‘why’ and more focus on ‘how’ if we are going to move the debate on.  

As one commentator this morning has put it, in a knowledge-based economy, whether someone is physically at their desk is increasingly irrelevant. Nor is engagement location-specific. There is so much employers can do to build effective relationships with their people – and enhance productivity – whether or not those individuals are physically in front of them. We should be focusing on how to make that happen, not whether it should take place.  


Tuesday, 21 November 2017

IC and IT: the more things change….

Earlier this week, I took part in SMILE London, an annual digital workplace conference. While I soaked up lots of information on new ideas with implications for internal comms, I was also struck by one enduring issue: the requirement to build stronger relationships with internal stakeholders.

Whether we’re working in-house or as extensions of in-house teams, internal communicators rely on the relationships they establish. Input from executives, HR teams, marketing colleagues and other protagonists within the business is absolutely crucial. If we can’t engage and involve these stakeholders, we’ll have little to work with and even less chance of unlocking the full potential that internal communication offers the organisation.

The IT team is another of these stakeholders. Always has been. From the evolution of email to the development of intranets, internal comms practitioners have always needed to work closely with IT. The evolution of more complex tools and channels, such as the range of tools and opportunities discussed during SMILE London, simply increases the importance of such liaison. But the tenor of some discussions during the conference suggested we still haven’t got it right.

It’s not that relationships are adversarial – I don’t see much evidence of that – it’s just that, from the tone I discerned, they aren’t as symbiotic as they could or should be. Within our organisations, we’re sometimes still arguing over who ‘owns’ what rather than developing a shared agenda between our complementary roles and activities. That can only undermine the potential of some of the innovations now on offer. Without a profound and practical working relationship with IT, the introduction of any such mechanism will be akin to a house built on sand.

The intersection between IC and IT has never been more important: we should play our part in strengthening the relationship. 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Culture starts and ends with each of us


I’ve seen a rush of recent articles and blog posts on elements of ‘cultural transformation’. Model after model on how to mould an organisation’s culture around the way you want things done. Isn’t this the wrong way of looking at things?

No model or process is going to ‘make’ people do things differently, willingly and enthusiastically, in a way that re-shapes the organisation. No employees take an edict from on-high and embrace it to the extent that they love and follow it as their own.

What anyone eager to change the way an organisation works must do is articulate a vision of the future and engage them in the benefits of that change. Don’t lay down, in minute detail, every element you want to re-shape, but engage people in the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’ and allow them to connect, interpret and change working practices to align. Set the parameters, in other words, and support teams and individuals to respond.


You can’t forcefeed colleagues with culture change. Instead, engage and empower them to take on your goals as their own, and make their own changes to support the vision you’ve outlined. I feel that’s a big difference between ‘transformation efforts’ that become embedded into the organisation and those that simply wither on the vine. 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Don't say we didn't tell you...

Everyone makes predictions at this time of year, don’t you find? People turn into the employee engagement equivalent of Mystic Meg with a set of sound and apparently sensible projections of what lies ahead for our profession in 2017.

Well, we don’t see why we shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon, so here are a few thoughts on likely events over the next 12 months, and what communicators can do about them…

1. Communicators will continue fighting for attention
Despite all the surveys and statements suggesting employee engagement is a priority for leaders, communicators will still struggle for time, attention and budget. As a profession, we will need to articulate an ever-stronger case, clearly and persistently, to help us turn stated priorities into actual practice.

2. Employee advocacy will become all the rage
This is, surely, a case of the emperor’s new clothes, but ‘advocacy’ is being cited more and more as the end-goal for engagement efforts. The volume of this commentary will increase in 2017. Let’s accept that, forget it rebadges common sense and make the most of the attention the idea generates to help us succeed.

3. We’ll stop generalising about generations
Not really. Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention. We’re bound to see plenty of further surveys and infographics purporting to offer wisdom on the contrasting needs of different generations in the workplace, not least so-called ‘millennials’. Surely finding the overlap between all ages based on attitude, mind-set and behaviour is a more fruitful pursuit? Can’t we all focus more on that?

4. Employer brand will enjoy a renaissance
It’s not about attraction. It’s not about recruitment. It’s not even about retention. It’s about all these and everything else that shapes the experience of current and potential employees, in every area in and around an organisation. We’re going to see this broader and more integrated view take a greater hold in 2017. It will mean communicators and HR need to work together ever-more closely and our organisations will be all the better for it.

5. No-one will know what to do about Brexit
Despite the flood of advice on communicating re: Brexit, our profession does not know any more than anyone else and we may not have any greater insight for much of next year either. There is so much yet to be determined that even the most ardent advocate of ‘what if?’ scenario planning would struggle to cover all the bases. Far better at this stage to focus on what we know and can control, now, and communicate little and often – even if it’s to say the same thing.

6. Email’s not going anywhere
There are so many new and emerging messaging and collaboration tools that it can seem overwhelming. And when we’re uncertain or confused, we default to what we know and trust. So while technological innovations offer exciting opportunities, they aren’t about to expel email from our lives.

7. We’ll be more appy than ever before
Despite prediction no. 6, we’ll continue to embrace more and more apps as a profession. The choice will keep growing, from those designed to help us reach remote workers to ways of enhancing performance management. But we’ll need to remind ourselves that apps aren’t the solution for everything, for ourselves or for our people. Otherwise we’ll lose track of what we’re seeking to achieve and apps will become like the wallpaper on our smartphones.

8. Facebook will help ESNs take root
Workplace by Facebook will spread through the corporate world and signal that Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) have become business tools, not just communication channels. A familiar and intuitive platform, plenty of potential for development, reassurance over security and no ads: a formula that looks set to make Workplace a real success.

9. We’ll still talk about evaluation – but won’t crack it
Is the employee engagement survey dead? Is Net Promoter Score more insightful? Are pop-up questions more effective? Should we employ a blend of many methods? The discussions will continue to ebb and flow, but when it comes down to it, as a profession we still won’t have established evaluation as part of ‘business as usual’. Something that we simply have to address.

10. We’ll stop making predictions…
Ah, but we can’t, can we? We love them and they make for headline-grabbing articles and blog posts. Let’s count the number of ‘top five’ predictions or lists we see next year, shall we? We’ll try and make sure Sweet Comms isn’t too guilty…