Reinvent relationships

Running a business during pandemic restrictions is tough. Your staff tell you no one has money, so sales are down. Staff productivity is down too. But the worst thing you can do is to do nothing.

Now is the time to reshape your relationship with customers. Focussing employees on this task will give them something fresh to think about and success will create opportunities for recognition and reward. 

Business leaders cannot effect this kind of change top-down. Their role is to set the vision. It needs to be bold and simple. I like  the ambition to change customer experience from transactional (next-time brand loyalty) to relationship (lifetime brand loyalty). 

Start a cross-disciplinary team to review what your brand promises customers. Form another group to plot the customer journey. Drawing a timeline that shows how your business touches the customer – from initial impressions created by advertising, to sales and customer service, through to delivery and settlement. Bring the two groups together to identify gaps between promise and delivery.

In my experience, two pain points are common. The first is the disconnect between what the sales team promised and the delivery team is capable of doing. The second is the way payment collection is handled (by a finance team otherwise uninvolved in the conversation). Both of these can easily turn customers from repeat purchasers to one-time sales.

Most employees feel that following set procedures properly will fix any problem. That poor internal communication between colleagues is all that prevents success. How many times have you heard the excuse ‘sorry, there was a communications breakdown’?

But they’re wrong. The only thing to focus on is ‘how we’re making the customer feel’. In reality, customers will put up with any number of functional issues, but the moment they feel let down or ignored they  just won’t come back.

Many businesses are using this difficult period to drive two parallel agendas. The first is to protect the business. But, to be honest, most of us took those actions three months ago. The second is about creating innovation that benefits the customer and changes the way they feel about the brand. 
Online ordering and home delivery is changing the way many of us feel about retail and hospitality brands we thought we knew. The best of these innovations involve both functional and emotional improvements. Kenya’s most famous producer of chicken is reshaping brand relevance and likeability with a home delivery service, initially for Greater Nairobi. doesn’t just deliver chicken efficiently  to your doorstep efficiently. It’s backed by a former telesales operation, repurposed to create a better emotional experience. Marketing effort has also been flipped – from traditional broadcast to more intimate social media groups.

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Check engagement

At work, there’s an unexpected dividend from the current pandemic. Bosses and workers are talking. Forced together to seek solutions to daily issues they’ve never faced before. 

We’re busy conducting employee engagement surveys, as prudent leadrs check the pulse of the workforce more frequently than ever before. For some companies, investing in clever and capable employee engagement apps like or before the current crisis have made this easier. When you are ‘always on ’with your workforce you build a dynamic internal discussion – conditioning people to respond more openly to specific enquiries when you need them to. 

Engagement apps provide a better solution to employee communications than having Whatsapp groups – breeding grounds for miscommunication and indeed unrest. With an app the messaging is primarily one-way, but you can then decide how best to solicit responses. Single questions, quizzes, mini-surveys and compliance checking (where the employee has to confirm they have read and understood the message).

Another unexpected dividend comes in the nature of the responses we are seeing. Staff and unions are genuinely appreciative of employers who have taken steps to protect their health and income during these difficult times. Pragmatic about just how well and how long businesses in distress can cushion their staff.  We are seeing some sensible, open feedback.

We’re also gathering ideas for creating more productive workplaces in future. There’s a great deal of candour about how unproductive traditional workplaces and their habits can be. I’ve noted the wonderful term ‘presenteeism’ being used to describe cultures where the primary expectation is for staff to just be around, regardless of contribution. 

When you ask the three golden questions – what should we do more of, less of, or stop doing – you garner a wealth of actionable information. Ten years ago, employee research (often foolishly named staff satisfaction surveys) usually produced a long list of complaints about wages, benefits and allowances. These were reviewed at senior executive level – often with much eye rolling and snorting – before being returned to the poor old HR department for (in)action. 

These days, many employees are helping to change the discussion by prioritising the need for recognition over reward. The importance of being able to speak up and make a contribution to the business, rather than mutely carrying out the stream of directives issued from above.

They are also more open about the ability and impartiality of the supervisors and managers placed over them. Staff today are far less willing to put up with discrimination of any kind. Expect some forthright conversations in the coming years – organisations will be all the better for it.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside



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Change the Chemistry

Most organisational change comes from the top. A senior executive notices a gap or opportunity. She decides to initiate a project and form a team, because the change will require effort that is beyond the norm. If she is wise, she creates a group drawn from different departments because of the diverse skills or perspectives she hopes they will bring. If she is well-organised, she writes a project brief that ‘starts with the end in mind’. This helps her team to visualise the desired result, even if they don’t yet know how to get there. Finally she sets a framework of deadlines and milestones so she can track progress. Then she moves on to another aspect of her busy working life.

And it’s at this point that inertia begins to set in. When the door closes, and the project team finds itself on its own with a big task to tackle.  This has a significant  impact globally, with as few as 2.5% of companies claiming to be able to complete projects to 100% satisfaction.

One reason for this is that while people may bring new skills and perspectives to a project team, they also bring established ways of working. To overcome this, I always coach that there are two kinds of innovation required in any change project. The first is the project itself and its deliverables. The second is using the project to change the way we work. And that is the first question any team should ask itself when the door closes and the project management clock starts ticking.

Projects offer colleagues the chance to throw off behaviours that create boredom and inertia. If meeting every Thursday doesn’t work for you, change it. If your Gantt chart becomes an end, rather than a means to an end, abandon it. 

Project collaboration should  feel exciting and fun. Something that causes a chemical reaction in the participants. So here are three brain chemicals you should know about. 

Dopamine creates that small happy feeling you get when someone tells you you made a good point.  It doesn’t last long, but if the team is getting lots of little Dopamine hits, it makes work go smoothly. Oxytocin is called the hugging drug, released when you embrace a colleague. Not popular in pandemic times, but we’ll need to find an alternative. 

And feeling a sense of accomplishment means we’re experiencing the effects of Serotonin. It motivates leaders to excel and encourages followers to contribute fully. 

I’m sure you can see the link. Reward and recognition, in small but regular doses, can create the right chemistry for project success.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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What new normal?

People have begun to talk about the ‘new normal’. We all need to focus on a post-pandemic future in an optimistic way. But it’s already becoming a tiresome cliche and, worse than that, I doubt that the new normal will be very different from the old.

You see, human behaviour is driven by the need to survive. The primary function of the human brain is to keep us alive, and it does that by recognising patterns in our surroundings. If sitting in the top left chair in the boardroom meant I survived a gruelling meeting yesterday, guess what? I’m going to take that same chair tomorrow.

There’s much to admire in what Governments around the world – with the exception of Tanzania – have done to try to protect their citizens. Much of it has been wrong, as history will tell us. But,what would you have done, put in a position of national responsibility?

However the human truth is that, as soon as protective measures ease, even the most compliant citizens will go back to the behaviours of before. 

So it will be in the world of work, unless those of us still fortunate to be employed make a deliberate effort to change. And I’m addressing employees as much as leaders because one thing COVID-19 has temporarily opened up is two-way communication inside African businesses. Top down has had to meet bottom up. So, seize the opportunity to table suggestions.

Those of us who work in offices have always known that corporate culture was pretty unproductive. So many peculiar routines and habits. Meetings for meetings sake. Colleagues escaping the workplace or hiding from supervisors like oversized schoolkids! Intrigues, affairs and distractions of every kind.

One thing we’ve learned from remote working is to focus on outcomes, not attendance. Many of us have got better at being on time for calls, and delivering on deadlines. In Trays have been cleared, and projects closed off. It hasn’t all been fun, but perhaps we can take some of that extra productivity and job satisfaction forward.

And what about the traditional department – the basic organisational unit of the Industrial Revolution? After 220 years, don’t you think it merits a rethink? How about smaller teams grouped around customer needs rather than traditional siloes? Team meetings twice a week, with a team ethos that makes colleagues responsible to one another for the work they complete in between? 

And what about distributing authority more widely? Only last week I worked with a divisional team who realised this had to happen if they were ever going to resolve customer problems completely. Radical thinking on work culture?  You bet. Now is the time for it.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside



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The future of learning

Africa places huge value on formal education. Knowledge has created power and stimulated economic growth. We put a great deal of effort – and money – behind pushing the young population of this continent through as much education as they can take. In Kenya and Uganda we’re now the 4th generation of parents funding tertiary education. 

The current pandemic has exposed us to the realities of education in ways we never would have imagined. Through the Internet we are now embroiled in everything from preschool playgroups to university tutorials. We’ve all become teaching assistants. We see inspirational online classes and we see stuff that makes us wonder what we are paying for. Plus we get real-time feedback from the participants, without waiting for dinner time to exchange opinions. Zoom is creating an awakening about just how substandard and overpriced education can be at every level. So, what will the future hold for education and how will customers and consumers influence that?

Scott Galloway, who teaches marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, believes the pandemic has opened the door for the technological transformation of higher education. The future, he says,  will entail partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities: MIT@Google, iStanford and HarvardxFacebook, for example.

 These will allow universities to dramatically expand enrollment by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, value perceptions of which will dramatically alter the higher education landscape. Galloway predicts hundreds of brick-and-mortar universities will go bust and those that remain will only educate the children of the richest families.

Coronavirus is forcing American parents to take a hard look at the $51,000 college tuition fees they’re spending. Galloway says, half-jokingly: “Even wealthy people just can’t swallow the jagged pill of tuition if it doesn’t involve sending their kids away for four years. Wait, my kid’s going to be home most of the year? Staring at a computer screen?” 

At the same time, the future holds the prospect of more people than ever gaining access to higher education, albeit one that is delivered mostly over the internet. Big tech partnerships could extend opportunities to millions of people. But they will undermine the humanity of the face-to face system of learning that has evolved since the European Renaissance.

There’s educational certification and then there’s the life experience of going to university. If the experience part disappears, the degrees awarded may reduce in value as we all realise it’s not the same to be a graduate if you never went to campus. 

This might be a great time for school-leavers to take a gap year. If only they could travel.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.

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Talented Teams

Goodness, what lessons we’re all learning about teamwork these days. We may have heard some of them before, at Company teambuilding days. And then promptly forgotten them, -the moment we returned to work. Others – such as taking a personal interest in the wellbeing of colleagues – we’ve been encouraged to put aside as Africans emulate hard-nosed western management styles.

Many leaders are rightly asking themselves whether they have the right teams in place. For some, this is a cold analysis of productivity divided by cost of employment. For others, it’s more important to work out why certain team members aren’t a good fit. In spite of established HR policies and administrative requirements … or perhaps because of them!

Last week I was leading a discussion at, specifically focused on the need for leaders to make a more inspirational contribution to their company’s recruitment process. Many of our class members (drawn from over a dozen business sectors) talked animatedly about how Human Resource practices often prevent them from finding and hiring the right candidates. Examples as simple and silly as candidates with 4 years’ relevant experience instead of the specified 5 being excluded from shortlists. And as complex as having to argue the case for creative people for the entertainment industry in the face of stone-walling over the lack of formal qualifications.

Perhaps the greatest contribution any leader can make to getting the right people on the team is to set the tone for the search. I coach leaders to pen a short paragraph on the purpose and culture of their company – to serve as the initial inspiration for the recruitment brief. The more personal they make it, the more likely they are to attract like-minded people.

The explorer, Ernest Shackleton, is reputed to have stimulated recruitment for his 1907 Nimrod Antarctic Expedition with a newspaper advertisement which read:

‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.’

There was nothing in there about qualifications or previous experience. Shackleton was hiring for attitude. In a way, he had written a simple psychometric test. For people who were attracted to risk, and for whom recognition was the ultimate reward.

The expedition never reached the South Pole, although they did record the southernmost latitude ever reached. But they were trapped on the ice for 22 months and had to perform extraordinary feats of teamwork and physical endurance to escape. As the motivational speaker Simon Sinek observes, ‘the fact that nobody died confirms that Shackleton had built the right team’.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.

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Role Play

Many of us are using the current crisis to find ways to work better. Pinpointing the habitual actions we should drop. Learning to seize the day instead of procrastinating. Being more selective about the talent we hire, and more considered in how we nurture it. In this spirit of self-improvement, the way we assign titles and values to certain roles might be worth re-examining. 

Veteran workplace guru Charles Handy last week penned a fundamental challenge to Managers. Writing  in the UK magazine Management Today magazine, he claimed: “we’ve been seduced by the curse of efficiency”. Then went on to explain that good managers can be hopeless leaders, and predict the “disintegration of everything we’re used to”.

Handy is controversial. But if ever there was a time to reconsider the accepted role of Managers, it’s now. Management has always been respectable. Managers have people who work for them. They create goals and control risks; build systems and prescribe processes. In doing so, they define the status quo. Very often they go on to champion it and frustrate attempts at change.

Being a leader is riskier:  putting your money where your mouth is. Creating a vision, and gathering followers. Stimulating change and inspiring other people. Managers tend to be copies but leaders are unique. 

Today we need more leadership and less management. Even before the crisis, digital transformation was unravelling the traditional fabric of work. Moving us from groups of people working closely together and under direct supervision to more remote, often outsourced and (hopefully) collaborative models. Handy says we now face the prospect of a working world ‘beyond Management’.

One level below the Manager debate, I‘m beginning to question the role of Supervisor. This position –  above Employee and below Manager -provides the first opportunity to show leadership. Once a Manager has given instruction, good Supervisors make decisions about how best to carry it out… through the combined efforts of self and colleagues. 

But that opportunity is not always seized. Instead, many Supervisors like to enjoy the benefits of being one step above former colleagues. The small increase in pay and the chance to boss others about. Especially the ones they don’t like. 

But they don’t try very hard to better themselves.

Recently I saw two completely contrasting interpretations of the role of Supervisor. It occurred during an investigation into a nearly catastrophic failure in customer experience delivery. Two supervisors were culpable. One admitted his error and took responsibility. The other claimed it was not his fault as he was supervising others and they had made the mistake. Can you guess which Supervisor kept his job?

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.

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Embrace Change

While we’re all being as prudent as we can in our private lives (wearing masks, queuing responsibly, avoiding groups) many of us are also learning that we can take more risks in business.

I don’t mean indulging silly enthusiasms or leaping onto the newest post-Covid future trend. What I’m noticing is an increasing acceptance that we no longer need to do business the way we used to. All those tiresome habits we and our companies practised for years are getting a thorough shakedown. We’re all asking ourselves: “Do we really need to keep doing things that way?”

Elon Musk may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but some of the changes he is making in his three businesses are actually sensible and pragmatic. In a recent letter to all employees, he urged them to ‘pick common sense as your guide’ to making work easier. Then he gave a number of specific behavioural expectations. Here are the best four:

“Nix big meetings. Get out of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.”

“Ditch frequent meetings too. Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter.”

“Leave a meeting if you’re not contributing. Drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”

“Drop the jargon. Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software or processes at Tesla. Anything that requires an explanation, inhibits communication.”

Musk’s simple adjustments are evolutionary. By contrast, NYU Stern’s Professor of Marketing, Scott Galloway, preaches revolution to his Brand Strategy students. His three pillars of crisis management are:

  1. The top guy/gal takes responsibility.
  2. Acknowledge the issue.
  3. Overcorrect.

The word overcorrect would normally ring alarms bells, but today we are seeing Governments doing exactly that – and often being criticised for it.

But Galloway cites a World Health Organisation expert: “If you need to be right before you move, you’ll never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. The problem right now is everyone is afraid of making a mistake.” In a commercial example from 1982, Gallow recalls how Johnson & Johnson deliberately overreacted to a crisis: “They didn’t say the poisoning of the Tylenol bottles in Midwest America was an isolated incident. They cleared all the shelves of Tylenol across North America. Was it an overreaction? Yes. Did it assure the health of the public and restore the credibility of the company? Yes and yes.”

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Remain productive

Most of us are now beginning the sixth week of disrupted working. In Kenya, the Government has prudently extended existing restrictions on social distancing for another three weeks. Most businesses are planning for until July. So, by any measure, this new reality is going to be with us for some time to come.

Reviewing the progress of companies I support, it’s easy to see that the best-led enterprises have made the changes required for business continuity and prioritised the wellbeing of employees. The reason (correctly) that without employee alignment a speedy return to normal operations will not be possible.

I have been hugely impressed by the compassion shown by forward-thinking executive teams. Not simply doing their utmost to preserve employee incomes, but going out of their way to communicate in a way we haven’t seen before.

However, I am beginning to see some unhelpful employee behaviours creeping in at this stage. Some staff members are using the situation to give less effort to their work. To blame poor communications and home distractions. To drop out of group conversations and team projects.

This is not what we need at a time when, as one of our client CEOs says: ‘We need to fight for every shilling of revenue.’ There are customers to be re-engaged, technology-enabled processes to be introduced and costs to be managed. And the best-led businesses are already giving employees the opportunity to work in future-focused projects.

So, on behalf of the leaders of well-run businesses, I’d like to suggest that it’s every employee’s duty to demonstrate his or her worth. To be professional and step up to the challenge. To support bosses and colleagues.

Former US President John F Kennedy was famous for the challenge he gave his fellow Americans during his inaugural address (reminding them of the value of civic action): “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask instead what you can do for your country.” 

If you are an employee of a well-led company, you should be asking yourself the same question about your contribution to the common good.

One way of deciding what to contribute involves a pen and a piece of paper (using a pen improves cognitive ability).  Divide the paper in half down the middle. On the left side (typically the side of logic) list the actions you must do to sustain your position, department, and company. The daily, weekly, and monthly duties required of you. It will do you no harm to remember the basics. 

The right side of the paper gives you the opportunity to be creative. List here the new contributions you want to make, Think about the ‘old’ ways of doing things that surround your normal work. Decide what you want to change. Be bold, you may not get another opportunity like this. Then engage your managers and colleagues. The process will do you, and them, the world of good!

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Remain Upbeat

As we soldier on through the current situation, it’s interesting to contrast the attitudes I see in the different businesses I engage in. You may be surprised to hear that overall they are positive, as good people and well-run companies seek dividends from COVID-19.

I do see, in some traditional companies, a tendency to report the downside without looking for the upside. I sat in an executive video meeting last week and felt I was on the deck of the Titanic, with the ship’s officers only reporting the inexorable rate of sinking. That did nobody any good, so I’m now coaching them to look for and share positive news as well.

And there is plenty of it, coming from so many sectors that I have to conclude we should take heart. Our leadership programme (now meeting on video bi-monthly) makes a point of beginning with a good news round up. Here are the themes that emerged last week.

Family & fitness. Everyone is enjoying more home time. Families are tighter. Parents are supporting online schooling efforts. More importantly, they are enjoying playing and talking with their kids. Most are sleeping better, and taking time to exercise and eat sensibly.

Essentialism. We are making do with less. Realising what is important, and where costs can be cut. Identifying gaps in products and services; staff behaviours and procedures. Many reported that remote working seems more efficient, with more project close-offs than usual.

Business activity.  To contrast my Titanic experience, a number of sectors report business continuing at normal or slightly reduced levels. That came from manufacturing and, surprising, floriculture. The latter report that though demand is lower, prices are higher.

Future focus. Businesses that have acted to protect staff, liquidity and capacity are now moving into the ‘Plan Ahead’ phase. Much involving fast-tracking automation and digitisation – supported by customers who are now prepared to take up new initiatives. But I’m encouraged to see that the human dimension is firmly on the agenda. Tackling failings in customer experience that have been allowed to remain ‘the way we do things around here’. Adjusting to a future of remote and shift working that will improve work-life balance and (I hope) reduce future rush hour jams. Engaging staff in a more genuine way (noting how well staff have reacted to current changes, and benefits coming from open collaboration with labour unions).

Companies who discuss the ‘glass half-full, rather than half-empty’ are more likely to prosper after COVID-19. Because business is a collaborative human activity. And human beings are way more emotional than they are rational.

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