Tuesday, 17 November 2015

GUEST BLOG: Five Ways To Run a Great Town Hall Event

Town Hall meetings have become a calendar fixture at many large companies. Although originally based on the idea of New England citizens voicing their thoughts, the term Town Hall is often just another name for traditional, top-down presentations by senior management.

So how can you make your town hall event work better? Here are five ways to get it right.

As presentation experts, we always recommend people to remember A.I.M.

1.    The A in AIM is to know your audience. A big mistake we see is when senior management address employees as if they were investors or customers. These are very different groups that need talking to in different ways. To get it right speak to the condition, interests and concerns of your employees.

2.    What is your Intention? What do you want to get out of the event? Is it a rag-bag collection of parish notices, or is there something specific you want to achieve, for example to launch a new sale drive. If that’s the purpose of the meeting, make sure that your audience knows it and you theme the entire event around it.

3.    Next, you need to decide on your Message (the M in AIM) and make sure that it is the “red thread” running through everything that you say. Be ruthless and get rid of anything from your speech that obscures that message.

Don’t forget that acronym: AIM. Two other recommendations:

4.    Remember that you are there to talk to your colleagues, not to deliver a presentation. Use slides - if you must have them - as visual aids to reinforce your key points. But cut down the words on the screen. If your audience is reading your slides they aren’t listening to you. Perhaps using an image could sum up what you want to say better.

5.    And if you want to get into a dialogue with employees, create an environment for doing that. Any audience in the hundreds doesn’t normally ask many questions. An audience of 20 just might. Would you be better off organising a programme of internal focus groups – or break the session into smaller tables with an interactive element.

Finally, don’t think about Town Hall meetings only as physical events: you can run them just as effectively through virtual means by putting the same principles into practice. In any context, a Town Hall can be a powerful mechanism as part of your wider plans for engaging and equipping employees to play their part in your business. 

Paul Farrow
Partner, Benjamin Ball Associates Ltd

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Why VW should start from the inside out

As if it couldn’t get any worse. Today it’s the reputation of the whole car industry with different manufacturers now potentially implicated in the emissions scandal. Previously we’ve seen commentators sounding the death knell for the diesel engine. And some have gone as far as to use the deception as a proxy for all that’s wrong with capitalism and why (with the help of Mr Corbyn) it’s time for real change.

I’m afraid my take is a little more mundane. We’ve seen plenty of ‘reaching out’ to customers, regulators and other stakeholders, but what about the poor bloody employee? Even if the culture at VW has tacitly supported the manipulation of emissions tests over the past few years, one must assume that for the majority of employees the recent turn of events is as much a surprise to them as to the wider public. 

I have no doubt the internal communication machine has gone into overdrive in trying to keep people, firstly, informed of the facts and current status and, secondly, attempting to communicate some semblance of ‘business as usual’ (even when it patently isn’t).  The new CEO, Matthias Mueller has a crucial role to play, a role that can’t be delegated to others in the executive team. Of course the demands on his time will be significant but if he understands the link between engaged employees and satisfied customers the residue of trust, which I believe still exists with the VW brand, can be harnessed to mutual benefit.

So it’s important for leadership to understand that VW cannot hope to emerge from this crisis without the support and commitment of its people. But there are also more pragmatic reasons for focusing attention internally. A rush to the exits remains a real possibility as disenchanted employees realise the implications of what’s gone on. And what about maintaining a decent influx of talent to sustain the company in the future? The threat to the ‘employer brand’ becomes very real.

Without clear and consistent, responsive and fact-based communication then the (extreme and opposing) scenarios outlined below could become a reality with all the attendant damage it brings. Think about the simple job interview and the potential response of the uninformed manager (it would be more of a surprise if the candidate didn’t ask about current events, even if only in an innocuous way):

"So tell me how you are responding to events surrounding emissions tests?”, (as opposed to “Tell me why on earth I should join an organisation that has been involved in the wilful and organised deceit of both customers and regulators?”).

Potential answer 1:
Good question. I’m glad you asked me that. Of course you do realise it’s been blown up out of all proportion. A little local difficulty with our friends in the US. Before you know it, everyone will have forgotten about it and we’ll back to the business of selling cars. You really don’t need to worry about it. Next question…”

Potential answer 2:
I’m glad you’ve raised this. To tell you the truth I think we’re doomed. No one is telling us what’s going on and every day brings new revelations.  God knows what the people involved thought they were doing. Now everyone is asking why I work for such and organisation.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring.


Tuesday, 9 June 2015

It’s Wright for Sweet Comms and employee engagement

Sweet Comms, the employee engagement consultancy, is delighted to announce a partnership with Nick Wright, formerly Director of Communications at BDO and leader of PR Week’s current in-house team of the year.

The move reunites Nick with Paul Sweetman, former director and head of the employee engagement team at Fishburn Hedges, who set up Sweet Comms in Spring 2014. Nick originally recruited Paul to Fishburn Hedges in 2001 and the pair worked closely together for nearly a decade. Their joint experience includes communication and engagement projects for organisations as diverse as Barclays, BT, National Express, Nestlé, the NHS and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (working with David MacLeod and Nita Clarke on best practice in employee engagement).
“I am delighted to be teaming up with Nick again”, said Paul. “We’ll be picking up where we left off and bringing clients our blend of strategic counsel and hands-on support to help them connect and communicate with their people. We’ve got big plans to help more clients get more from employee engagement than ever before.”
Sweet Comms has built a broad client base in its first year, covering many different sectors and disciplines. With Nick on board, the team will be expanding its reach and helping more clients engage employees with strategy, vision, change and brand values (among other areas). 
“Securing real employee engagement remains a significant challenge for many organisations.” said Nick. “Paul and I want to help clients, whatever their situation or circumstances, make the most of it and improve their organisations. We have complementary skills and experience, a great working relationship and a belief in clear, practical and no-nonsense advice and support. I can’t wait to get started.”

Friday, 20 March 2015

Who holds the power of purpose?

In a recent piece for HR magazine, Cary Cooper says “a sense of purpose has to be ingrained within each member of staff” by “smart leaders” who interact with staff. He concludes by proclaiming that HR directors “need to remember that connecting with employees is the soul of effective engagement”.

There is obvious truth in all of this, but there are also several dangers. Not least in assuming that this type of connection can be forged from the top.
Ultimately, whether we connect with our company’s vision, and develop a sense of shared purpose, is up to us. No leader has the power to create that connection for us. Even the most charismatic individual cannot “ingrain” common purpose within a group of people, and it’s dangerous (and overstating things) to claim that he or she can. It’s up to each of us to make our own connection with it and to imbibe that purpose as our own.

“Smart leaders” (to use Professor Cooper’s phrase) recognise this and create the right conditions for us each to take the final step ourselves. Sure, they set out their stall for the ‘direction of travel’. They ensure there is regular sharing of information about the business and its progress.  And they act as role models for the dialogue that allows individuals to check understanding, ask questions and raise concerns.
However, they go beyond these steps by inviting and supporting us to really get involved in our organisations. They give us opportunities to shape the working world around us, through our ideas, feedback and energy. They nurture a culture that enables us to help create, interpret and propagate the purpose that has evolved has a result.   

Now, more than ever, common purpose evolves from participation in our organisations. Leaders who recognise this will be rewarded with employees who really share common goals and radiate them to colleagues, customers and the communities around them. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Why are we still speaking about 'soft skills'?

The campaign launched last week to promote ‘soft skills’ in the workplace is a laudable initiative. But it’s disappointing that we seem to need it. 

We all know, intuitively, how important such attributes are within teams. If we’re lucky, we’ve been part of groups with respect, integrity, warmth and openness at their core. We’ve experienced – and aided – the communication and collaboration evolving from this blend. We’ve been more engaged, committed and productive as individuals and teams as a result.
On the flip-side, we may have experienced teams where a lack of ‘soft skills’ led to friction, distrust and even open hostility. The impact can be destructive for everyone (and the organisation) involved.

We can all see the importance. So why do we need a campaign to explore and promote such skills? Why aren’t they already valued and cherished?
Well, there are no doubt several factors at play. For a start, the collective name has never been helpful. ‘Soft skills’ suggests these attributes and behaviours are all a bit flaky, a bit touchy-feely, rather than core and crucial aspects of day-to-day business. I think anyone who still holds this view should contact someone who has been involved in the type of destructive environment outlined above to discuss.

A second is that it’s difficult to quantify the precise and direct impact of such skills on performance. And this flies in the face of the apparently unquenchable thirst for measurement within business. If we can’t measure, we can’t prove value. And to circle back to nomenclature, ‘soft skills’ pale in comparison with ‘hard data’.
The new campaign has sought to address these issues head-on by releasing research saying ‘soft skills’ are worth £88 billion to the UK economy (a value that is rising every year). They are seeking to quantify the effect that such skills have on organisations and, by extension, the economy as a while. It will be interesting to see if the campaign seeks to maintain this emphasis on quantification moving forward.

In my view, there must be a balance. We do need to demonstrate impact – of course we do – and we need more rigour than perhaps we have had in the past. My own field of employee engagement is a good example; the range of metrics now being employed is helping practitioners both to identify strengths and weaknesses in methodologies and to make the case for further investment. But in engagement, as with ‘soft skills’ more widely, we must be wary of trying to force out statistics that don’t make sense. It’s not always possible to describe the precise effect of human interaction (or the skills that inform this) on performance in terms of numbers or percentage points. Some degree of assessment and reasoned interpretation will always be required.  And the fact that we can’t create a numerical causal link doesn’t mean ‘soft skills’ don’t have a major impact. 
So I hope the campaign goes well and that as many of us as possible contribute to its consultation. I hope it identifies new ways of nurturing such skills and that, through the ideas it uncovers, the whole area attracts greater and more consistent acclaim. I just believe metrics should be an element of the discussion, not the substance.