Your culture is your brand

A decade ago business culture was safe from public scrutiny. Unless you ran a service business with millions of customers, what went on in your own corridors stayed there.  Thousands of silent triumphs and defeats, assassinations and coups, benevolences and crimes locked up behind your shiny corporate exterior.

Today the glass ceiling has a glass floor, and windows too. The world is looking in. Social media changed everything. Employees expose their working environments. Customers turn off sales taps.  Bad behaviours destroy brands.

Reference Harvey Weinstein, the Australian Cricket team, the Russian Federation and Oxfam over the past few months. Globally the whole Aid sector now finds itself in a perilous position.  Already under competitive threat from the big audit firms, who claim to offer safer and more businesslike handling of donor funding, and a commitment to objective measurement of impact. Now overlay the brand impact of behaviours ranging from preferment to financial corruption to sexual misconduct. Aid brands are in a pot that’s boiling over. Have they noticed? Continue reading

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Fear inhibits growth

Last week I caught up with an old friend who leads a financial PR business in China. We fell to reminiscing about corporate life in multinationals, and it didn’t take long for the old discontent to resurface (he’s still harness, while I’ve thrown the traces). We both worked for decades in businesses that promotes themselves as creative. Yet internally ‘It’s all about the idea’ changed into ‘it’s all about the money.’

The truth is, in most major businesses globally it is all about the money. But the reality is that shareholder value is compromised when you squeeze the human energy out of your enterprise.

I see it in my work with companies around our region. On average, at the ten-year mark even the most entrepreneurial companies begin to darken on the inside. Anxiety about future growth or client retention or public profile seeps into the organisation from the top down. As it permeates, anxiety turns to fear.

Left unaddressed, fear breeds fear. And when you are fearful a strange thing happens inside your brain. Your evolved brain, and in particularly your frontal cortex, switches itself off in favour of older parts of the brain that are all about survival. You’ll know if this is happening to you at work because you’ll find you can’t remember things or articulate properly. You feel a burdensome weight that makes the slightest task onerous. Like trying to write an email with a sofa balancing on your shoulders. Continue reading

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Are you CEO material?

It’s never too soon to begin thinking about the future of your career, especially if you intend to lead a business one day. But surprisingly few people take time to consider the skills they will need when they become the Chief Executive Officer. This is a pity, because the knowledge and experiences that carry you to the doorstep of senior opportunity are going to be vocational-, or discipline- specific. You may be a great Production Manager, Finance Director or Head of Operations. But you’ll have spent your working life looking down at the detail, because that’s what your own boss has expected from you.

But when he or she’s no longer there, looking up for the first time can be a daunting experience. A little like reaching the bridge of a ship and seeing its true situation, rather than the circumstances you imagined from the comfort of the engine room.

So, it makes sense to develop a broader perspective long before your name is flagged for promotion. Taking an interest in the business results; understanding competitor positioning; assessing the strengths and weaknesses of company culture.

You’ll also need to develop your own leadership attributes. These can’t be taught, but they can be encouraged through appropriate mentoring.

Gwen Moran is a business writer who has been awarded for influencing small businesses, but what she says about leadership attributes applies to emerging seniors in major corporates too. Continue reading

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Mind your language

We live and work in a region that uses language well. East Africans are not by nature profane people. Cursing in the workplace is frowned upon. Western expatriates are often surprised to discover that swearing at staff doesn’t work here. It shuts people down.

Our Advertising Standards apparatus is rarely challenged on matters of taste.  So, when something vulgar appears in the public domain, it stands out more than it would on another Continent.

Currently the insurance company GA is having a general accident with its latest billboard campaign. In one execution I have seen, a photograph shows a man walking along using his mobile phone and about to fall down an open manhole. The headline exclaims:   S*!t Happens!  And the intended takeout from the ad is of course that if S*!t Happens to you, you’ll be fine if you have paid your premium to GA. There are several issues here:

Firstly, what kind of brand needs to swear to attract your attention? What would you say about a person who behaved in this way?  Perhaps I am being too prudish. Maybe I should loosen up because after all its “only advertising” and the brand is just “having fun”. But if this is a deliberate piece of brand communication, someone at GA must have written in the brief: “tone: jocular, have a bit of a laugh.”  I doubt that somehow. Continue reading

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Control is the enemy of culture

When I worked in advertising, cleverer people than I were preoccupied with setting higher aspirations for our global company. One genius came up with the line’ good is the enemy of great.’ By which he meant that we who were satisfied with good performance would never excel. He had a point, but no ear for language.

The idea that our dearest beliefs may prevent us from achieving our ambitions has always stuck in my head. Recently it resurfaced when Price Waterhouse Coopers released a study on institutionalised corruption in Kenyan business. The big news, said PwC, is that the big bosses are no longer the biggest thieves. Nor, they added, must we heap further opprobrium on Millennials, the young generation that’s already the whipping boy for employer woes.

The rotten rump of corruption, says PwC, is Kenyan middle management. That’s not going to win PwC any new friends, but it does open a wider discussion. If the very people you rely on to manage the day-to-day operations of your business are devoting time and energy to defrauding it, what should you do?

In this situation, the natural inclination of business leaders is to impose control. PwC itself recommends that checks and balances be redoubled. Well they would say that, wouldn’t they? They’re accountants.

But the very people they expect to implement sustainable control once the leadership has moved on to the next crisis will be … middle management.

You see, when your most trusted employees have no qualms about stealing from you, that isn’t a control issue. It marks the collapse of your organisational culture. Continue reading

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Segment your clients

Today I want to talk to people who describe their activities as business-to-business. People like me who think of themselves as serving clients rather than customers.

When you offer a professional service, it is very important to segment your customers in terms of the benefit they bring to your business in exchange for the effort they demand.

The benefits to your business obviously include revenue potential; the value of retainer income; future growth opportunities; potential for positive case studies and of course referral.

Balancing those we have the physical and emotional stresses that client relationships impose on your business. Demands for attention; wrangles over pricing; collecting money; abusive behaviour; reputational damage and corruption.

All these conditions exist, but you’re unlikely to find them all in a single client relationship. Especially if there is mutual trust at the highest level.

Bertie Forbes, the Dundonian business writer who went on to found Forbes magazine was perceptive man. In this particular context, he once wrote: “If you don’t drive your business, you will be driven out of business.” Continue reading

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Workplaces often don’t work

Last week I read that the glamorous Apple head office (Apple Park in Cupertino, California) has an unusual Health & Safety issue. The futuristic circular space – designed to encourage openness and collaboration – is largely made of glass.  But employees keep walking into walls, closed doors. So much so, that they have had to find an analogue solution by sticking Post-it notes to high impact areas!

In fairness, Apple Park’s facilities more than compensate for the occasional bent nose. With a wellness centre, seven cafés, and acres of landscaped parkland filled with jogging and cycle trails. I’ll bet many of you wish you worked in such an environment.

However, California isn’t Africa, and some ideas don’t always work across cultures. Take the idea of open plan offices, for example. In our region, I can tell you that they aren’t as popular as some bosses think. And that is because open plan only works if employees feel safe and confident at work.

If the culture is hostile; if the management style is threatening; if the leadership team are bullies; then open plan is counterproductive. Employees feel exposed and become acutely sensitive to potential threats, both real and imaginary. That’s why people walk away to make difficult or sensitive calls. Why they seek out unused meeting rooms to get some quiet work done. Does that happen in your workplace? Continue reading

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Stress – the office bug that undermines your brand culture.

I’m delighted to welcome regular contributions to this blog from Dr.Yolande Coombes, one of the very few Rapid Transformational Therapists in Africa and a trusted colleague at The Brand Inside.

I expect you’ve noticed the colds and stomach bugs that pass around your office, but something much more contagious and damaging to your business is being passed around; and it goes by the name of ‘stress’.

Stress shouldn’t be thought of lightly; it’s the common thread in a host of diseases from heart attacks, strokes and cancer to diabetes, hypertension and depression.  Stress can exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of.  That’s why stress is directly affecting the performance of your business.

A study of organisations listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange demonstrated a high correlation between stress and corporate performance.  We also know that EU countries lose Euros 136 billion annually from stress-related loss of productivity and sick leave. In the US this rises to between $200 and $300 billion annually when you include productivity loss, staff turnover and compensation claims.  Research also shows that stress in a business contributes to at least 60% of workplace accidents and 30% of worker mistakes.

So how do you know if the people around you are stressed?  Just look for irritability, lack of concentration, anger, poor self-esteem, depression and anxiety.   Low motivation, low job satisfaction and organisational commitment are all highly correlated with stress.  Employees under high levels of stress cost 40% more than the average worker, and stress may also contribute to increased instances of unethical behaviour, like lying to customers or taking shortcuts on work tasks. Continue reading

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No Trust in the Workplace

Some years ago, I traveled to Dubai on business, and visited our local Ad Agency offices. Like many commercial concerns in the Gulf, it was run by Lebanese and staffed with expatriates. From Australian creatives to Filipino computer operators; I doubt a single Arab worked there. But the MD’s office would have shamed a Bedouin chief for the lushness of its carpets and the spangle of its daggers and coffee pots. All it lacked was a hooded falcon.

The MD sat behind a large, gilded desk and expounded on the market and his client base. After a while I noticed he was illuminated from underneath, and enquired as to the reason for this effect. He beckoned me around the desk and gleefully showed me a bank of small TV screens, each one feeding live images of his employees at their various workstations. He could not trust his staff to be diligent, and this was the best way for him to influence their conduct. I took it as an aberrant attitude from an unreal world.

Fast forward to the present, when you may be surprised to hear that surveillance is becoming a feature of the East African workplace. Perhaps it always has been, with hidden overseers and peepholes, but now technology is making it pervasive. Here are two examples from conversations of the past week: Continue reading

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What’s in a name?

CEO behaviour directly impacts brand health. That’s why it’s prudent to prevent your leader’s personal brand becoming bigger than the company’s. To be fair, this hasn’t happened too frequently in our region. I can count the examples on the fingers of one hand. But, as our economies grow and CEO smugness swells in proportion, we will see more companies getting into trouble this way.

A salutory lesson is showing at the moment at a cinema near you, featuring The Weinstein Company. Last year, Hollywood staggered when the film studio’s eponymous co-founder Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual abuse by more than 80 women. As you’ll have read, the stories are varied but the accusations range from inappropriate behaviour to sexual harassment and rape. It’s also clear that Weinstein represented an extreme version of the wider CEO culture in Hollywood, where wealth and power have encouraged a sense of impunity since the early 1930’s.

The studio has lost film opportunities, stars and filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (now caught up in a toxic news story of his own). No doubt the Board and Shareholders are in the midst of a ‘something must be done’ conversation, and it‘s evident that the whole company culture must be revamped. That’s the big job facing the studio’s new leader who is now, of course, a woman. Maria Contreras-Sweet has been quick to announce that the new Weinstein Company will have private breastfeeding rooms, three free meals a day, and will promote a more open and inclusive work environment. Frankly my dear, I’m not sure anyone gives a damn. What is needed is root canal work, not cosmetic dentistry.

In fairness, Contreras-Sweet is also interviewing ‘many powerful women’ in Hollywood to populate the new Board of Directors. And, perhaps most importantly, she will also be changing the of The Weinstein Company to something less…Weinstein-y. This is a no-brainer. They’re not going to be able to take new films to market under that banner. Continue reading

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