Employee Engagement

Employee engagement’s not something we thought much about a decade ago. Employee satisfaction was the focus then, and HR departments were tasked with measuring it. And then dealing with the aftermath!

How times have changed. Blame it on the Millennial generation if you must; but it’s more the case that a great realisation has dawned. Staff are no longer nameless components, tasked with annual performance targets and reviewed once a year.

Today their contribution to business performance is quickly felt in the ways they deal with customers and partners. What they tin turn feel can be instantly transmitted to a wider market through social media. So, one unsatisfactory call or meeting can become a real reputation issue. In the past week alone, I have unsatisfactory customer experiences from banks and mobile networks – sectors reputed to invest the most in ‘customer service training’.

Global researcher Gallup reports that only 19% of employees worldwide are actively engaged, so there’s work to do. I haven’t come across reliable date for Africa, but in South Africa the latest research shows only 9% of staff are engaged. It’s more shocking to realise that means 91% are not performing to their full potential. 

Engagement happens when employees understand where they fit into the enterprise, enjoy association with the organisational brand and see a value in staying around. It helps if they understand the purpose of the organisation – which is never simply to make a profit. One question I like to ask is ‘how do employees explain to friends and family why they work here’.

So, how should you begin to get a handle on the situation in your company? In the age of metrics, it is right that we benchmark, then take action, then measure again. But traditional employee surveys often fail to give you any concrete information. Staff generally report what they think you want to hear. Unless a recent crisis in the business allows them to vent their true feelings.

 I’m beginning to favour discussion groups over surveys, but they require careful moderation. The issue is trust. How can we make it safe for employees to share opinions? Using external researchers can help, but staff always suspect that the HR police will know exactly who said what, and then exact retribution. 

Staff response levels can be significantly improved if you first mobilise a network of influencers down through the organisation. Staffer who believe that their colleagues should contribute their thoughts, and can reassure them about safety. It takes time and effort, but doing this recently we achieved a 90% response rate from a workforce (most of whom do not work online). 

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside


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Long Or Short Termism?

Flying to Dar this week, I overheard two Kenyan executives discussing the challenges they were facing. It was a familiar story – the last trading year (however strong) lay firmly in the past. The pressure was on to win in 2020; to make the commitment promised late in 2019.  The fixation on the coming 12-month period was such that one of the two, who was preparing to on-board a new team member in April had told his candidate ‘don’t worry about 2020, it’s not your year. You’ll be judged on 2021.’ 

But we all know that businesses, and company cultures, don’t work in 12 month cycles. That’s simply an artificial creation designed to help us account for our progress. Instead companies represent a continuum in which development, adjustment, success and failure happen in their own sweet time. So, with leadership teams increasingly tasked with meeting both long-term and short-term stakeholder demands, how best to keep a balance?

Recent news from the UK Institute of Directors (IOD) reveals that Chief Executives are increasingly finding themselves having to meet conflicting demands from different breeds of shareholders. Some investors seek short-term opportunities in favourable sectors where they will hold their ownership for less than a year before cashing out. Others look to the Chief Executive to implement a long-term strategy that ensures corporate viability for the longer term, increasing the company’s value at the expense of regular dividends. 

“The key is to communicate to the market the time horizon of your business case and try to attract the kind of investors that share your vision,” says Stephen Martin, Director General of the IOD.

As investment in Africa grows in scale and variety, we’re also facing these challenges here. Businesses need to negotiate priorities, which can lead to heated discussions in the boardroom, as the CEOs strategy view can be at odds with Directors’ governance objectives or revenue priorities.

Recent years have seen institutional investors (pension funds; asset managers) campaign for CEOs to move away from shorter-term targets in favour of longer-term sustainability. As far back as 2017, the Investor Association, which represents mainstream fund managers, warned in its Long-Term Reporting Guidance: “Reporting that is concentrated on short-term performance … can inadvertently embed an inappropriate short-term focus in management decision-making.” 

IOD reports that 65% of CEO’s say short term pressure has increased over the past 5 years. 55% of those without a strong long-term culture say their company would delay strategic initiatives in order to hit quarterly targets

One solution is to focus on long-term brand goals, but pick short-term wins along the way that keep levels of employee energy and shareholder enthusiasm high.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside


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When the whistle blows

Those working in highly regulated sectors are already aware of the risk of litigation if an employee blows the whistle. However, international statistics show that most whistleblowers choose to report misconduct internally before approaching a regulator. So, senior managers’ decisions about how to handle such complaints can make the difference between an issue that can be handled internally and one that leads to formal investigation. 

Many big enterprises on this Continent have written and adopted whistleblower policies. They have set up helplines or other channels as safe vectors for employee complaint. I’m not sure these are any better than the traditional Complaints Box which, when opened, usually revealed crude notes and sweetie papers. But the intention is correct, as is the writing into HR policies the rights of employees to declare corporate misconduct.

But that’s only a part solution. What should you do when a real live whistle is blown? What drills should you put in place, and which responsibilities need to be defined before this happens? I’ve taken the time to research best practice. So, here are 5 sensible steps to consider:

1.Conduct Triage

As in an A&E Department, the first step is to assess the nature and severity of the complaint. Potential impact will depend on the financial, legal, and reputational risk to the Company; and the credibility of the complaint.

2. Decide who will investigate 

Once potential impact has been assessed, determine whether it should be investigated by the Company or by an external resource. Is there a need for independence? If senior management are implicated in the complaint, the Company should generally engage outside counsel to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. 

3. Respond to the whistleblower

The overriding goal for your first communication is to reassure the whistleblower they can trust the Company to handle the matter properly. Encourage the whistleblower to provide detailed information; ask questions for clarification; and try to remove emotion from the equation. 

4. Inform colleagues

Deciding whom internally to inform is fraught with difficulty. Certain employees may need to know, to ensure the Company fulfills its legal obligations. But wider disclosure could compromise the investigation. Remember Companies also have an obligation to ensure no form of reprisal is taken against whistleblowers. .

5. Inform third parties

This is often overlooked in the panic to keep things ‘under wraps’. But timely reporting to relevant third parties might avoid negative consequences in the future. For example, allegations of misconduct that could have a material impact on financial statements should be disclosed to the Company’s auditor. 

So, in summary, It’s not enough to have a policy. Your team must know what to do when that whistle does indeed blow.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside


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Onboarding challenges

The activity we used to call induction is now widely referred to as onboarding. It remains  a crucial part of the hiring process, challenging our HR professionals to integrate new employees into the business as quickly as possible. At The Brand Inside we recommend that each new hire be onboarded within their first 30 days. Beyond that point, the opportunity diminishes and informal onboarding (from colleagues) takes over. This usually means that established bad habits are passed on the next generation. 

 A positive onboarding experience can enhance an employee’s long-term productivity and their attitude towards the company, as well as increase the likelihood they will succeed in their role. I like to focus on the 4C’s of successful onboarding:

  • Culture – how we do things around here
  • Clarity of Role – defining individual job and performance expectations
  • Compliance – clear guidelines on relevant standards and policies
  • Connections – building the internal network you need to support your success

With Millennials already making up half the workforce, digital employee onboarding is no longer an optional extra, but something expected in a modern workplace. Millennials want their work experiences to match the standard of the digital products they’re accustomed to use in their daily lives. And modern employers want to use interactive technology to deliver more standardised onboarding experience to every new  joiner.

But an analogue approach to onboarding prevails in Africa. Trying to blend easily-outdated presentations delivered by time-poor managers, with varying types of ‘sit by me’ departmental visits. So there’s a great opportunity for African business to use technology to leap the gap (as we have done in so many fields of business and public administration).

Most organisations approach onboarding with a one-size-fits-all solution, dealing with employees of all seniority levels in the same way. However, we know that Millennial and Generation Z employees favour automated experiences that give them the feeling the onboarding process has been personalised to their needs, with engaging and relevant content.

As with so many aspects of digital transformation, technology is not the problem. There are plenty of off-the-shelf software solutions and employee engagement App choices. The problem is creativity. We simply don’t have the resources to dramatise truly engaging content. Arguably we never had it in Human Resources, because our analogue professionals were trained to write policy documents. The pinnacle of their achievement: to produce a hard copy HR manual. Exhausting to compile: never truly finished. And almost universally ignored by anyone except those who drafted it.

Now’s the time to find creative people, who specialise in internal communications and not advertising, to help us to address this challenge.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside 


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Change of purpose

Someone recently amused me with a story about a new CEO  taking post. She began with a short handover meeting with her predecessor. Short because all her predecessor did was to give her three sealed envelopes. “Take these” he said, “and when things become difficult, just open an envelope.”

The new CEO set about her job, learning the business and deciding what she would like to achieve in her first 100 days. At day 60 she became concerned about the progress she was making, so she opened the first envelope. In it was a note which read “Blame your predecessor.” 

As this was just the advice she needed, she followed it, and all went well for a while. But, six months later, she again became concerned, so she opened the second envelope and read “Restructure the company.” As this was already on her mind, she went ahead and planned a far-reaching reorganisation, then began to implement it. As the year ended, she began to wonder whether she had done the right thing, so decided to open the final envelope. The note inside read “Prepare three envelopes.”

Taking over a new leadership position is always challenging, and not least because everyone associated with the enterprise is carefully watching your progress. Trying to work out how your direction will impact 1. them personally and 2. The business. It’s a time when frequent and unequivocal communication is needed. Any ambivalence will lead to misinterpretation. Right now, I’m working to resolve this inside a large business that has acquired two competitors. The intention is to maintain all three brands, because each has a specific market and role. But the default position of employees in each of the companies is “we’re going to be merged, so our jobs are at stake.”

One action that a new leader really should take is to set a Winning Ambition for his region, company, division or department. Something that is clear, ambitious and actionable. A winning ambition statement often uses words like: “to be the best at …”, “to be the fastest growing…”, “to be the first choice for …”

This communicates a purpose and signals that ‘business as usual’ won’t be happening. Unless of course, you choose to reaffirm the existing ambition.

A clear ambition also helps to frame the other questions that must be answered. Next would be “Where will we play?” – defining the kinds of business you choose to do… and those you choose not to do.

These questions may be answered by the leader alone, but are better debated within a small team, whose participation is critical to future success. 

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside 


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Tone and manner

Last weekend we launched the latest year group in our leadership programme www.amalgamleadership.com. As usual, we asked participants to focus on their life and career journeys so far. We get them to identify moments that have mattered along the way and use that to open their minds to the importance of emotion in business. Whether in building brands; shaping customer experiences or inspiring subordinates.

Under the curriculum ‘Leading Others’ we explored the behaviours that get the best out of us, and the worst. The things employees do that trigger behavioural reactions in leaders. Like always having to be reminded about deadlines. Practising upward delegation. And ‘telling stories’ rather than reporting progress accurately.

One of our participants told us she likes subordinates to ‘be bright, be brief and be gone’. We thought that could be a great mantra. But, upon reflection, we realised that the target audience might find that demoralising. It’s important to consider any communication from the point of view of the recipient. Reception beats transmission any day.

Before that session, I had been working down in Cape Town. This produced a number of other insights on the importance of choosing the right tone and manner in internal office conversations. Three days in the company of one of the most senior technology teams on the Continent revealed that they used humour and teasing to lubricate their departmental conversations. The problem was that not everyone found that funny. More importantly, criticising the performance of senior colleagues (and ending with a laugh) does nothing to reduce the sting. In fact, it creates resentment that festers. And that produces problems for the future, as people like to get their own back eventually.

On my way home, I boarded my flight and noted a soberly dressed young man across the aisle. I later discerned from his demeanour and conversation that he was a junior member of an audit team, en route to give some company or other bad news. Just before the doors closed an older, better dressed version of this man came aboard and took the seat in front of him. From his brusque greeting it was clear that he was senior – probably an Audit Partner. Before he strapped himself in he turned to his subordinate with a crocodile smile and said: ‘I want to thank you for sitting behind me. Now I know I can fully recline my seat without any problem.”

They both laughed, but not is the same way. It was clear that the boss was reminding the employee that he could squash him whenever he felt like it.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside 


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The future of work

Last Friday I celebrated with the first Graduating Class of the  Amalgam Leadership Programme www.amalgamleadership.com. 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!

Posted in African Business, African Leadership, African marketing, Behaviour change, Brand Marketing, Branded behaviours, Chris Harrison Africa, Culture change, Internal brand, Market Research, Marketing Strategy, The Brand Inside | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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