The recession has taught many companies that agility, to face both upturns and downturns, is a key differentiator. Agility is becoming increasingly important for both customers and employees, and these groups share the same view: that with fantastic execution, agility becomes a differentiator.
Building that differentiator requires a shared vision of the future. This shared vision, again applicable to both customers and employees, can manifest itself as internal advocacy of the company's brand. Building an internal understanding of the brand, as companies are increasingly starting to understand, is vital if employees are to be led on the journey that the company will take, rather than be forced into travelling it.
Brand advocacy is core to the future of any business, according to John Smythe. Smythe is one of the UK's leading thinkers in employee engagement.
Facilitating advocacy - and creating a positive workforce with a shared vision - cannot be undertaken by diktat. It requires an open working environment. Companies must start to consider how their internal processes and systems encourage expression, diversity, and the freedom to create and share ideas. Successful companies need to have cultures which are engaged; a system of self-government; and senses of disciplines, direction, democracy, and liberty, where, according to Smythe, “there is trust by the leaders in the workforce, and vice versa.”
Smythe gives an example of Google as a company with such an “engaged culture”, and one would indeed imagine Google to be a natural leader in these fields. However, he also gives the example of Gore-Tex, a company with deeper - and more industrial - roots. Gore-Tex also needs to be at the top of its game in a highly competitive market, and its diverse workforce clearly benefit from alignment behind the brand, what it does, and the benefit that the product offers to consumers.
Another positive example of a larger, more established company, is Goldman Sachs. According to Smythe, Goldman's culture has helped to build a highly conversational, highly-motivated workforce, with a very personal style of management. The trade-off is that such an environment can be quite brutal, which comes with the territory of needing to be process-driven, as investment banking lends itself to be - particularly under greater regulation mechanisms driven by the recession.
Companies often only get this half-right, and attempt to build behaviours into employees without the brand values backing them up, which provide context and support. BAA is cited as an example of this half-right approach: “There is no sense of service ethos, and it's a machine.” Smythe's view is that a customer-centric approach is admirable, but must travel through the DNA of the organisation to deliver a fully engaged, motivated, and committed workforce, whether facing the customer or not.
People and process
Smythe sees the way in which brand becomes manifest, as being a choice of two concepts.
The first concept is that brand is simply an expression of business strategy. “Corporate leadership needs to grasp that [brand] doesn't just happen in marketing.”
The second concept is that people are an expression of the brand. Smythe's example is of hotel chain IHC, which provides employees with a “checklist” of the types of customer interaction that employees will expect to experience. This ensures that the brand effortlessly flows from its customer-facing employees into all of its touchpoints. The result is that employees are “being themselves” - as, in this sector, it's all about the right balance of personality and “polite intrusion”. To customers, this delivers a friendly, attentive, personal service, which is far from false; after all, no business wants its employees to appear to be just acting.
Therefore, leaders must recognise either concept as being a conscious choice, understand what their “line of sight” is within the business, and then understand their role within it. Smythe's choice is that brand should either be an expression of strategy, or a contextualised expression of people.
Although it is a choice, there are fundamental points relevant to either concept. To make either effective, companies need to instill relevant brand concepts within every member of staff, infuse the brand into every direct and indirect touchpoint, and address the differences in experience across its external and internal customer base.
For brand to be an expression of people or strategy, the workplace needs to be “intellectually healthy”. A culture of internal democracy must operate within it, as should “good engagement" - a sufficient level of trust between employees and the employer.
The alternative of this environment is centralisation. Corporate cultures with little discretion to contribute – featuring process-driven, automated roles and functions, and no de facto internal communications – augment a related theory: that the social role is becoming centralised. Smythe compares this configuration to modern aircraft, where the aeroplane “knows” where it is going, but the pilot controls have been removed.
Obviously, organisational culture varies hugely. Sectors with a high number of customer touchpoints, such as retail, inherently have a more relationship-oriented culture, as the brand often becomes the obvious “glue” that unites disparate groups under one umbrella. As Smythe suggests, “If you have people for a short time, you have to internalise the brand.”
The “empowerment debate” in the 1990s really kick-started a re-examination of the concept of of job security: what it is, and what it looks like, to employees. For many, security and loyalty were paramount, and an unwritten contract was in place between employer and employee to this effect. In most institutions, according to Smythe, this has now broken down, with the mass withdrawl of final salary pensions being a good example of this breakdown. This relationship has also changed through the changing nature of social ties in wider society outside of the workplace.
Delivering leadership through democracy
The Quaker founders of Cadbury adopted a value of employee welfare from the inception of the company. In an industrialised century, this increasingly became the exception to the rule. Smythe is now starting to see something similar from an increasing range of leaders: the re-consideration of the relationship between employee and leader. Who is serving who?
“Over a century later [than Cadbury], what I am seeing is individual leaders – not just the CEO – consider why they govern”.
In this re-consideration, leaders are re-addressing not just this relationship, but also their own role. Leaders can be developed, with Smythe suggesting two paths.
The first is to consider what the decision-making approach or style is, when it comes to dealing with crises. After all, crises are all about personal decision-making. The recession has built the reputation of some leaders, but destroyed others.
The second is to simply refine or develop a personal style, based on an index of 14 types developed by Smythe, including Sniper, Flirt, Arbiter, and Visionary. Although content can be drowned in such performance, an awareness and suitability of performance style can be developed to overcome this initial oversight.
Another of these 14 role types is the
court jester. This type can satirise, and bring out the lunacy – in an authentic way. Perhaps less suitable to leaders than to those elsewhere in the business, good consultants can undertake this role, identifying blockers and patterns which can be overcome. (The bad consultant is simply obsequious.) The court jester plays a valuable role, one which has recently gained a fresh approach within more creative organisations, such as the Chief Creative Insurgent
role at US group MDC Partners.
Ron Heifetz at the Harvard School of Politics has talked about a requirement for leaders to step off the dancefloor – where employee activity takes place - onto the balcony, and observe the dance.
Leaders have an opportunity to deliver a new context, and a new partnership with employees, within a shared understanding of what the brand means to them, and their customers.
They have an opportunity to change the music.