Join the dots

Sometimes a company’s website bears little relation to its business purpose. In the third decade of the online age this is disappointing. It suggests that online activity is not central to the enterprise, when it has to be.

Those of us who laboured through the early years of digital faced countless obstacles. For example, the primacy of the IT Department. How amusing it now seems that the people charged with cabling networks, setting up servers and fixing our mice were also given a say in how we went to market. Simply because they were associated with technology. Rather like appointing the person who cleans your birdcage to pilot an airliner – simply though their association with flight.

After the IT department came colleagues who were early adopters of technology. With their enthusiasm for digital watches, PDAs and in due course the much-vaunted Blackberry  (A device that required not just opposable thumbs but superior short-range eyesight). Their opinions about online communication were as welcome as those of the analogue marketer, for whom printed collateral was not a means but an end in itself.

It seems a wonder that we got to First Base: putting up our first websites. Now roundly condemned as ‘brochure ware’ –  a strange descriptor for something that was at once less interesting and less practical than the traditional glossy paper document. But, up went the websites and off went a whole section of the business community, distracted by the need to refresh content and disquieted by not knowing whether anyone was looking at it. Continue reading

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Be the best

I’m often amazed when very established businesses cannot say what they are good at. It’s symptomatic of worrying indecision.

Any business that survives the test of time will develop a range of capabilities. With luck it might even develop a culture – a way of doing things that recognisable both to employees and customers .

But from that list of achievements it pays to select one that your business must be well-known for. Why one, you may ask? Well, communicating more simply costs more money makes it harder for your audience to remember.

Commercial law Firm Skinem and Skapah might  decide to build their reputation on Mergers and Acquisitions experts. This in no way  limits them to clients who want M&A advice. As we all know, if you are good at something in particular, people tend to  impute that you are good at other things too.

Now, coincidentally, the way brands are built is by being very good at something that makes them different from their competitors. Marketers call this Differentiation.  Being highly differentiated means that you are on your way to becoming a niche brand. Being really good at something that a defined group of people would very much like to have. Continue reading

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Let it shine

As every day passes there are fewer places to hide what a former American Vice President called ‘an inconvenient truth’. Al Gore was referring to climate change, but I’d like to put a fresh twist on his adage. It’s time we embraced the need for organisational culture change.

Social media and 24/7 news have created an insatiable demand for content, and the most attractive content is bad news. It’s much hard to be a nation builder; a corporate leader; a fair employer or even a good spouse these days. The truth will out.

Looking at the organisational cultures behind the brands we buy, I see much opportunity for reputational risk. The days when casual workers could be hired and fired daily are almost past. Fighting unfair employment practises used to be territory of the Trade Unions. Now a single employee blows her whistle, and  a virtual picket line assembles.

Consumer rights are coming to the fore. So, if your advertising makes the claim that your margarine is enriched with Vitamin E, you had better be ready to substantiate it. All it takes is one online connection between a consumer and an employee from your production line and suddenly you have reputational damage to contend with. Continue reading

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Open plan. Closed culture

The BBC recently highlighted research revealing that employees in open plan offices spend 73% less time in face to face interactions. Whilst email use increased by over 67%.

That’s no surprise to me. Three decades ago, when I joined the company that later became Diageo, I sat in a large, modern open plan. This state-of-the-art space was occupied by five different departments. Everyone had a desk and cupboard that gave them visual privacy. But the whole office was very quiet. So, while I could concentrate on written work, I found myself very inhibited when it came to making telephone calls. I felt that everyone was listening to every word.

In both previous and subsequent workplaces, I was much happier working in smaller team rooms without partitions. My calls were still overheard, but the teams were homogenous. So, there was togetherness. ‘Banter’ kept us all amused while we worked. Better still, when an outsider came into our space, he made sure he came with purpose. We didn’t welcome idle passers-by.

Fast forward to the present and most of my working week is spent in client company offices. (You cannot hope to change a culture unless you can see, hear and feel it.) Most of them are open plan: a fashion prompted by the legitimate desire to increase interaction and collaboration among workers. Senior managers tend to retain closed offices, generally justified by the need to conduct confidential meetings. Continue reading

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Conservation culture

I’ve just spent time inside a successful conservation business. Surprisingly it wasn’t full of do-gooders. Instead it has harnessed the energy, humanity and collaborative spirit of a very diverse set of people. It has built a unified and positive culture, evident in the attitudes and actions of everyone you meet. From neighbouring villagers, to Game Rangers, to headquarters and tourism staff. Everyone is welcoming, well-informed and, where required to be, professional.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy www.olpejetaconservancy.org is an enormous enterprise that manages 90,000 acres of plains and woodland in the lee of Mount Kenya. It covers the majority of its operating costs from its own commercial revenues. 80% from tourism (attracting over 70,000 visitors per year) and 20%  from agriculture (7,500 head of cattle properly integrated into the conservancy). Fundraising fills the gaps and fuels innovation and expansion. Ol Pejeta handles finance so well that it often acts as a facilitator for investments in other conservation and community projects. In the past year it has helped more than US$1M pass from well-wishers into education and healthcare programmes.

Ol Pejeta has two wildlife protection squads – a National Police Reservist team and a Rhino Patrol Unit. In a Region where far too many people wear uniform and dangle weapons dangerously about their persons, these Rangers are visibly disciplined. They’ve been tested in action against waves of poachers, who target the elephant and rhino under their care.

Ol Pejeta has a wide range of tourism properties and attractions to enhance traditional game viewing experiences. Each of these assets is well designed and constructed, and maintained by employees whose behaviours have been aligned to the mission. Continue reading

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The fake CEO

Have you read about the French company Laboratoires Berden and its charismatic CEO, Eric Dumonpierre? Founded in 1996, the company launched Mutorex, an anti-obesity drug. Dumonpierre rapidly became a star chief executive, winning several awards for corporate social responsibility. He invested in an all-hybrid vehicle fleet; then planted trees all round Paris.  His employees were given paid leave to participate in humanitarian missions; and he instituted a 32-hour workweek. Celebrated at industry conferences and in political forums, he was frequently cited in the media.

But in the mid-2000s his reputation took some hits. Rumours of serious side effects to Mutorex surfaced. An executive committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. One of the philanthropic initiatives was exposed as a front for employing child labour in Asia. Still, by 2009 Dumonpierre had weathered the storms and the company was thriving again.

What’s most incredible about Laboratories Berden and Dumonpierre is not their success or how their reputations recovered from scandal. It’s that neither the company nor its CEO ever existed.

They were created, and kept alive for a decade, by successive classes at HEC Paris, one of the world’s leading MBA course providers. This exercise in corporate reputation management in the Internet age was directed by Professors Ludovic François and Dominique Rouziès. It used two groups of students: one to build up the company and its CEO with false stories; the other to try to tear them down with scandals and fake news. Continue reading

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HR – Hero or Zero

It’s always an inspiration to meet a modern HR professional. The natural developer of talent, with high EQ and a very clear view on the commercial needs of their business. The problem is, you don’t meet many.

Historically this has been part-Nature, part-Nurture. The Human Resources role in Africa began four decades ago with the MD’s Secretary. The early HR Administrator was the person who documented employees, set up interviews for candidates and terminated non performers. Naturally this attracted people who enjoyed process and documentation.

The way they were used by their employers inculcated other behaviours. Managing Directors used them as a buffer between the C-Suite and the employees. Any people issue that required fixing was rapidly passed to the HR Administrator. In the game of Rugby, this kind of move is known as the Hospital Pass, as it usually involves injury.

Business Leaders with poor EQ, or no real interest in human capital, delegated people management almost entirely to this administrative function. Leave entitlements; union negotiations; employment tribunals and disputes. It’s hardly surprising that, over time and as a defense mechanism, the great majority of HR Departments became entirely inward-looking.

Then came the great era of the global professionalisation of human resources. A welcome movement, championing the recruitment, retention and development of human beings as a talent base. This produced, in many places, much more creative and visionary HR leaders. They begin to contribute (on a strategic level) to long term plans to develop human capital. To take an interest in customers, and what the business needed its staff to do for them. Continue reading

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People deliver brands

My Chairman (www.nadertavassoli.com) is fond of telling his CEO pupils, “Brands are promised by advertising by delivered by people.”

He means your employees -whether you have a fintech brand or a fast food restaurant. Your staff deliver on your promises. It’s bigger that: an entire national reputation can be impacted by citizen behaviour. I just read Twitter feed from a Kenyan lady incensed by her treatment from South African conference organisers. Set to attend an African Youth Congress she received a message telling her that if she missed any of the sessions, the organisers would report her to the Immigration Service to ensure her deportation.

Now, no one is arguing that conventions in foreign lands do put temptation in the way of delegates whose bond with their own nationhood is a tad shaky. Nor can we criticise a conference organiser for complying with a legitimate instruction from a Government Agency.

It’s just that there’s a right and a wrong way of communicating this … and that comes down to an individual making a decision. Someone in the Congress organiser’s office has decided that a rather traditional South African way of giving instruction – ‘No, you must’ – is appropriate to promoting an event intended to encourage wider Youth dialogue. Continue reading

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The bureaucratic condition

Working in organisational transformation certainly produces some home truths. The latest for me has been realising  how deeply bureacracy resonates with human beings. I mean as a default behaviour, especially in times of stress.

In employees, stress is routinely caused by not liking your job; not having a purpose; not being properly trained, or emotionally or intellectually equipped for the job. Stress generates resentment, which is vented on colleagues and customers, thwarting brand delivery.

Change programmes also brings stress. Change makes the bravest manager and  the most insouciant Millennial  pause for thought. You can make the change progamme safe. You can get the CEO to champion it. You can ask  the marketing team to communicate it. You can whip the workforce  into a revolutionary frenzy on a teambuilding weekend. But, come the moment to create change, individuals still tend to hold back. Sometimes it’s like watching animals in a zoo ,where the cage doors have been opened …  but not even the Tiger is venturing out. Continue reading

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Broken teams

Building branded businesses takes true collaboration over time. Teamwork is hard to build and easy to lose. Years ago the management guru Tom Peters warned leaders to watch for three warning signs of a broken team:

  1. Constant firefighting in your business. Any leader will tell you the thrill of fixing daily problems quickly palls.
  2. Micromanagement becoming necessary. Deadlines slip, so the leader steps in and imposes tasks and timelines. And guess what? They’re not met either.
  3. Every discussion becomes aggressive or sensitive quickly. Staff become defensive; their stories (reasons for non-completion) become wilder and more impassioned. Fingers point. Then people begin to fall sick.

Nothing much has changed since Peters’ time and it’s unreasonable to expect that it would. Basic human behaviours take a long time to evolve, and each new generation seems to arrive in the workplace without any useful learnings from its predecessor.

But broken teams can be fixed; we do it all the time. It requires a top level decision to acknowledge the problem, and commitment to put it right. Turning the staff to face the customer helps. Continue reading

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