The future of work

Last Friday I celebrated with the first Graduating Class of the  Amalgam Leadership Programme Throughout their year, this class has pursued four learning themes – leadership, finance, marketing and technological transformation. And the most common theme that has emerged in all the teaching and discussion has been the importance of mastering the emotional dimension in business. Of being as strong at EQ as you are at  IQ.

So, how does that square with the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence in the workplace? Will we emotional humans soon be irrelevant?

The latest Microsoft UK research, Maximising the AI Opportunity, shows ‘a staggering 68 percent of HR professionals believe automating routine tasks will create more time for meaningful work’.  

So, what truly matters remains your people and how you select and develop them for roles as yet unimagined. Whatever come to face in the future world of work, soft skills like human empathy and judgement will become even more valuable to them. 

The ability to collaborate freely in dispersed teams; to shape customer experience ahead of demand. The judgement required to take the risk without looking for direction in historic data trends. These are all things that humans and only humans can do.

In Africa, we are beginning to see the HR Manager evolve into something altogether more useful – the HR Business Partner. Our most forward-thinking companies are acknowledging that the way Human Resource and Talent Managers have been kept out of the commercial conversation is wrong.  

HR needs to be included in the top table discussion. Helping leaders transform internal cultures world of work, developing innovative ways of learning that keep pace with (or better still, outrun)  rapid business change. There’s already a mountain of evidence to show that most Digital Transformation failures occur because employees haven’t been properly prepared for a truly technology-enabled environment.

Recently I had to make a medical insurance claim. The Relationship Manager at my brokerage was excited to tell me that I could now apply for claims more easily using a smart new  App created by the underwriter. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It took several weeks just to log in. Human record keepers had not updated my email address in the depths of the system. 

When the claim was submitted, I waited again.  Then I realised that the Relationship Manager was using new technology to avoid doing her old job. In fact, she assumed that I would do it for her, through the magic of technology.

 Finally, the only way to resolve the claim was a face-to-face meeting!

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Empty corporations

As business develops in Africa, many of us are reconsidering the ways in which organisations should be structured and run. As a rule, enterprises that achieve growth beyond the SME level look to copy historical models from overseas. These models originated in the British Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and became codified during the boom in large scale manufacture in 20th century America. They are about controlling physical labour and utilise the contract as the principal way of formalising human cooperation.

Managers and employees are seen as a group of individuals, who find it convenient to do business with each other, and indeed with customers and suppliers.  There is no collective interest, only a coincidence of individual interests. The organisation is managed through command and control, framed by targets and incentives. This ‘nexus of contracts’ approach treats the corporation as an empty shell. 

In 2008 the global financial crisis provided a shocking revelation of the weakness of empty corporations. The financial institutions that had done most to promote ‘shareholder value’ actually had little cohesion as organisations. Low levels of trust and cooperation within these institutions were low; individual gain was the real motivator. Businesses that made nothing but money were torn apart by the greed of their own employees.  

A different view of corporate culture was proposed in Edith Penrose’s Theory of the Growth of the Firm published in 1959.  ‘All the evidence we have indicates that the growth of a firm is connected with attempts of a particular group of human beings to do something together’. 

Anyone who has worked in an organisation knows that human motivations are complicated. We see colleagues for whom money is the overwhelmingly dominant motivation, who are primarily self-interested and opportunistic. But we all know that they are somehow defective as human beings, and that should make them unsuitable for leadership or senior management positions in complex organisations.  The financial sector decided not only to accommodate but to attract such people. And, over time, they have been markedly unsuccessful in creating value within the organisations themselves.

It’s a truism worth repeating that most people benefit from social interactions with colleagues and want to take pride in the company they work for and the jobs they do. There’s plenty of evidence to show that job satisfaction plays a major part in what makes human beings happy. 

The cultural context of Africa, with its strong sense of community, coupled with the future need to encourage more intellectual than physical labour, suggests that a more social approach to the organisation might soon be needed here.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Staff Turnover

Modern African company boards include staff retention on their dashboards. Diligent company directors look for underlying trends and often read high employee turnover as a red flag – a sign that not all is well inside the business.

But what is a high level off turnover? Is the Millennial generation rocking the boat so hard that unprecedented numbers of staff are going overboard? You’d be surprised to hear that the data says not. 

While there’s little sharing of employee retention information in Africa, elsewhere in the world it’s widely available. US-based Pew Research recently compared what percentage of 18-35-year-olds stayed with their employer for 13 months or more. 63% of Millennials chose to do so in 2016 compared with 60% of Generation X in 2000. Hardly a seismic shift.

The UK’s Institute of Employment Studies, believes the core labour market has stayed “remarkably stable”, even if certain “bits around the margins” are less secure than they were. Their data shows that the average time spent in a job was 7.9 years in 1994, moving to 8.2 years today, partly due to an ageing workforce. The Institute says: “There’s a persistent narrative that job tenure is more fleeting, but the data doesn’t bear that out. And while 30 years ago a UK graduate might have found a position to match their qualifications after taking one or two jobs, today it is more likely to be their third or fourth.” 

Workforce culture specialist O.C. Tanner Institute’s 2018 Global Culture Report says that creating a positive employee experience is no longer about providing a job for life. Instead it’s about ensuring that each individual feels a sense of purpose and is offered suitable opportunities to achieve success.

 “If you ask people why they’ve changed jobs, they won’t say it was for money or a promotion. These days they have a deeper appreciation of what a positive workplace looks like and are no longer afraid to say what they want; so they’re not less loyal, they’re just more demanding.”

While new attitudes may have come from the Millennial generation, they’ve now permeated the age range. Staff members, irrespective of generation, now expect more from employers. From my experience inside African businesses, I can confirm that this change is happening here too.

Our more progressive Human Resources departments are starting to realise that retaining employees for the sake of it is a false economy. The leadership and management challenge has now shifted: it’s more about keeping people engaged, so they provide value while they’re with you and then become brand advocates when they leave.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Interesting Leaders

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is important in business. Whether it’s in the ability of a Brand Manager to shape an emotionally relevant promise for an audience. In the skill of a Financial Manager in developing coaching relationships with colleagues. Or in the traits of a successful CEO, who uses her humanity to gather support from employees. For more on EQ, try Dr. Travis Bradberry’s bestselling book ‘Emotional Intelligence 2.0’.

We follow people who attract our interest on many levels.  They tell exciting stories and they seem to lead unusual lives. But what exactly makes them so captivating?

It’s probably curiosity more than anything else. An interesting person is always excited about exploring the world, and this energy seems to radiate outwards. On a  simple level, I taught my children a technique that works whether you are sitting with a man with a PhD in Accountancy or a grandmother who has lived through a century of history. Ask questions. That will demonstrate interest, kick-start empathy and you might just learn something. 

Some people are naturally interesting, but my psychologist friends tell me there are ways you can practice to be more engaging. Here are a few to try: 

Try new things. Interesting people do what interests them. The very act of seeking new experiences also happens to be great for your mood, and people who are happy are far more interesting to be around than gloomy ones.

Learn and share. Albert Einstein kept a sense of wonder throughout his life that made him continue to ask questions about the world. He was also really good at sharing. Interesting people feel out their conversational partners to see what sparks their interest. Einstein didn’t try to share everything he had done with everyone he met.  

Have passion. Dr. Jane Goodall left her home in England and moved to Tanzania at age 26 to study chimpanzees. It became her life’s work, and Goodall has devoted herself fully to her cause while inspiring many others to do the same. Interesting people don’t just have interests; they have passions, and they devote themselves completely.

Dial down your ego. An egomaniac is always posturing, never interesting. Always worrying about how they’ll come across. Oprah Winfrey says, “Learn to leave your ego at the door and start checking your gut instead. Every right decision I’ve made has come from my gut. And every wrong decision I’ve ever made was a result of me not listening to the greater voice within myself.” 

Maintain your difference. Interesting people often have preferences that don’t fit the norm. Billionaire Warren Buffett still lives in the modest house he bought in 1958 for $31,500. 

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Job titles

When I investigate the culture of a company, one of the first things I look at is how jobs are ordered and titled. I’ve become quite keen on the organogram, using it as a map to see how easily I can navigate the interior and understand the intended relationships between employees. Many organograms look clear as I start off down the path, but become misleading the further in I go.

This signals a gap between what Management and HR would like the organisational structure to be, and what it really is. Excused by the phrase, “this is the structure we’re working towards.” Which means that Management hasn’t found a way to exit or repurpose an individual who doesn’t fit – either for skill or attitude. 

Of the two, skills lack is easier to address – with a willing employee. But what do you do when someone who manifestly dislikes their job, puts no effort into collaborating with colleagues or lacks respect for the Leadership? The best treatment is to give them a clear redirect on the required behaviour change, and a short timescale within which to achieve it.

The worst way – to address either the skills or attitude gap – is to change the employee’s job title. It’s a ‘fudge’ that never works. At best the Manager is happy to have been seen to take action, and the employee is relieved to still be in work. But, like a sugar rush, the positive effect is soon replaced with demoralisation on both sides. I know, because equal numbers of people tell me “I should have found another job at that point” and “We should have exited her immediately”.

The impact on the organogram is clear. Its value is undermined by a peppering of non-tiles or half titles:

  • Deputy Sales Officer
  • Senior PR Executive
  • Temporary Assistant Plant Manager
  • Director of Office Services

In most of these, the qualification in the title is the giveaway. The inappropriate use of the title Director signals Management panic. And now there’s a further filter being applied with the arrival of ‘funky’ titles from the world of tech-based start-ups:

  • Customer Ninja 
  • Sales Stormtrooper
  • Chief Happiness Officer

In fairness, little of this nonsense has yet impacted companies in African. Just as well, because we’ve already got plenty of clearing up to do!

The reality is that flawed structures and false titles are dishonest. They create confusion and conflict, and they leave residual bad feeling. When coupled with an illogical remuneration policy, they represent an emotional time-bomb inside the organisation. 

It takes real courage, a sense of fairness and a gritty persistence to properly address the problem.  So, clearly, this must be a Leadership responsibility

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa

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A sense of ownership

I wonder if you can guess the most common complaint I receive from CEO’s about the attitude of their staff?

‘Why can’t my employees act like owners?’

This  ranks top over many other popular choices, which include ‘Why am I the Company Reminder Officer?’ and ‘Why would anyone steal from us?’

The answer to all three questions obviously lies in the level of engagement a CEO produces in his employees. And in Africa this level is depressingly low. We are adept at building hierarchies, adjusting organograms and sending all-staff memos. We’re just not much good at getting our employees’ attention, and holding on to it.

Employees rarely act like owners because they aren’t owners. So, it is unrealistic to expect discretionary effort from your staff unless you have consciously built a culture that develops talent and recognises contribution. 

But I’m delighted to say that many enterprises on this Continent are making an emotionally intelligent effort to get to grips with organisational culture. In this they receive help from an unexpected quarter: the much maligned Millennial. It turns out that the people HR struggles most to understand are actually the key to creating culture transformation. 

My star enterprise of the month is a client of mine, but what they have just created was not of my doing. It is a game-changing idea, and the thought that has gone into its careful design is truly admirable. 

Last week, all over Africa, a Kenyan-headquartered business actually managed to give all its employees a true sense of ownership. DPO Group, Africa’s largest Secure Payments Provider, launched its Employee Stock Option Programme to loud applause from all staff. It was based on the declared premise that the business will, within a defined time period, achieve a Liquidity Event. This is defined as the moment when the real owners of the business realise the value they have been creating – either through a sale, a listing or some other eventuality.

At that point, every employee will receive a life-changing amount of cash, calculated on their seniority and length of service. And, to seal the deal, each employee has been given a legal letter determining their payout (which will be updated whenever they are promoted). The mechanism is brilliant in its simplicity and categorically does not involve offloading a load of share certificates, which employees are then unable to trade or liquidate.

So, in one fell swoop, a modern Africa enterprise has made a gesture that rewards loyalty and prowess in every employee, not just a chosen few. Bravo DPO!

Chris Harrison’s book ‘Marketing Medicine’ is now available from Text Book Centre.

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Workplace Wellness

Today, there are so many aspects of Human Resource management that we never had to consider before. Not because HR Managers weren’t thinking about them. But because of the way we in Africa had decided to structure and run our businesses. 

We favoured hierarchies. We respected old age and male gender. We believed staff were there to be managed, not led. Our leaders favoured despotism over democracy. This ‘kind of’ worked, because there were far fewer salaried jobs in Africa than there were millions of people hungry for them. 

Now old habits need to be broken. In the modern workplace getting real productivity out of employees is a two-way street. A collaboration, not a coercion. A dialogue, not a diktat.

We live in consumer societies where the customer is very quick to pick up on a lack of alignment between what your business promises and the ability of your staff to deliver it. 

If you are an employer, consider how your people might respond to these four questions:

  • Do you enjoy what you do at work, and understand how your contribution makes a difference?
  • Do you feel part of a team, where you are valued and respected?
  • Do you feel secure in your job? Does it give you financial reassurance?
  • Do you feel concerned about your health? Can you properly balance work and leisure time?

The last question talks to Wellness. As a change practitioner, I should tell you that the most productive transformations we are making inside company cultures revolve around it. In this we are guided by psychologists. But our interventions aren’t clinical. We educate staff about poor sleep, anxiety and depression. We suggest strategies to improve their lot, and encourage managers to be watchful for symptoms of stress. We use meditation to recharge energy levels during the working day.  We work to adjust shift patterns, to rebalance Management’s priorities to favour productivity over dumb attendance.

The first impact we see is on staff happiness. The simple fact that an employer is prepared to consider your Wellbeing gives any employee a morale boost. 

The second impact is on socialisation. When people begin to take an interest in each other as human beings again. When they feel they have permission to spend time with family and to go out with friends after work instead of scurrying home to hide. These two changes then begin to improve work ethic and productivity. With hope restored, employees can direct genuine enthusiasm both towards routine work and to development projects. 

Ergo, the enterprise begins to get more done. And, perhaps most important of all, customers begin to notice a difference.

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The Achilles Heel of any organisational culture is communication. I work inside local, regional and continental businesses – and my diagnostic interventions highlight this time and again. 

This seems strange when you consider the exponential growth of channels now open to employers and their employees. Whatsapp, Yapster, Live Chat, Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom etc. Part of the problem is remembering where you spoke to whom, and about what!

On the plus side, we are no longer reliant on the hateful medium of email. I chose that adjective deliberately because I observe the misery that email creates in the lives of employees. Unless we are superlative writers, acutely aware of tonality, our emails can be counterproductive. Whether using capitals for emphasis or profane language to intimidate (you’d be surprised how often I see both), or you simply write for yourself rather than the recipient. 

Another missing element in modern employee communication is the ability to persuade the recipient. Almost all internal communication is ‘For information’. Once the writer has pressed the send key they can metaphorically brush their hands and move on to the next task. They think: ‘ I have told them. So now they know.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Staff are already overloaded with messages 24 hours a day through multiple channels. So they just don’t notice.

‘For information’ no longer works. So now we must work on persuasion. Taking a few moments to lay out a simple case that makes sense to the recipient and inspires the right emotional response. Using this combination of logic and relevant emotion is not new to us. We use it daily in our family relationships. We are unconsciously adept at communicating in different ways to children, spouses, siblings and seniors.  We know what works with whom, because we are interested in what the recipient receives, and the response that it motivates. We also know that in 8 conversations out of 10 it is emotion that wins the day. 

But in the working environment, it seems that addressing bigger audiences persuasively requires too much of an effort. We don’t know how to care enough about bigger groups, how to demonstrate sufficient interest in our recipients to make internal communications relevant. We don’t consider their state of mind, their workload, or the time of day they’ll receive our message.

Ironically, successful brands have been working on relevance for more than 100 years. Understanding mass audiences and finding ways to make messages persuasive and motivating for them. Marketers don’t just say ‘For Information’ because they know their message will be ignored. Internal communicators could learn about persuasion from their Marketing colleagues.

Chris Harrison’s book ‘Marketing Medicine’ is now available from Text Book Centre.

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Experience not Service

Customer experience has become the new marketing. It influences brand perceptions and impacts business performance just as strongly as traditional Marketing once did. As my Chairman, Professor Nader Tavassoli reminds us: “Brands are promised by advertising but delivered by people.’

If you work in Insurance, you know this already. Easy claim settlement is your most powerful marketing tool.

Global research shows us that a good customer experience makes a person 

five times more likely to recommend a company and purchase in the future. In modern African businesses, Net Promoter scores (customer willingness to recommend) and Customer Effort scores must now part of every Marketer’s proof of efficacy, and should be regularly reviewed at Board level.

Customer Experience is now so important  that it has earned its own acronym (CX). And while I decry the use of acronyms, when it comes to customers I support the use of the word ‘Experience’ over the more traditional ‘Service’. Service is something that is taught and learned by rote. It’s prescribed, and when you prescribe something the best you can ever hope for is that employees do what you told them to. That’s why HR teams mistakenly invest in training to teach service skills. How much better it is to promote an attitude that encourages staff to see things from the customer point of view. And to build a culture that enables them to design their own innovations in daily customer interaction.

Customers are individuals, and the best way to engage them is to do so on a human level. Sure, you can set parameters for this. But in a modern business you should also try to find ways to release the power of individual staff members. 

I learned some great lessons in customer experience when we brought Virgin Atlantic to East Africa. Regular airline passengers to Europe certainly miss them today, and yearn for more vigorous airline competition on Customer Experience. While I appreciate that only a limited group of people fly internationally, Virgin Atlantic’s approach could be applied to any business. Virgin always divides Customer Experience into three levels:

Brilliant Basics – doing the expected, better than your competitors.

Magic Touches – using creativity to add memorable moments (the first airline to offer you an ice cream in the middle of a long flight).

Game Changers – using innovation to deliver something that no-one else does (door- to-door limousine transfer for Business Class passengers).

Segmenting CX delivery like this also makes it easier to deploy your more imaginative people where they can make the most impact on your customers. Leaving the less gifted to concentrate on delivering the basics … brilliantly.

Chris Harrison’s book ‘Marketing Medicine’ is available on Amazon

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