Virtual meetings

While the current crisis restricts our movements, we can learn new business behaviours to help us now and in the future. First on my list is mastery of the video call: something many of us do poorly. Remember video calls when you couldn’t see or hear colleagues properly, when no one knew when to talk or shut up; when no one was clear on what was agreed? Let’s now decide to win at video calls. 

Begin with the right environment. Take a video call in a place where you can draw boundaries-  the simplest being a shut door. Point your web camera at a blank wall, away from common areas like kitchen or hallway. Ensure you are well lit or you’ll look like a criminal informant trying to preserve anonymity. Side lighting is best, and make sure there’s no window behind you. Look directly at the camera you are using, not a monitor off to the side. Bandwidth may slow down in many neighbourhoods. 

Test video and audio by calling a friend at the start of the day -that also reduces social disconnection!  We all now realise how sensitive microphones are, so do what you can to stop dogs barking and kids chattering. Make sure you are connected to the call, and have set up your earphones and camera correctly at least 5 minutes before the start. Mute your mic and camera as a default. 

Wear appropriate clothing. It’s tempting to wear a smart top and sloppy bottoms, but what if you have to get up suddenly? Dress as you would for work.

The most empowering thing about the present situation is anyone can become an effective meeting Chairperson, if they wish. Colleagues are crying out for someone to bring order to video calls. ‘Carpe diem’ and go back to the basics of good meetings.

First have an agenda and a record. Set both up on one shared document before the call. Then appoint a ‘secretary’ to type the record as the meeting progresses. 

Chair should run the meeting at a brisk pace. When there is a gap, people start wandering off.  Check comprehension and consensus frequently. Use phrases like ‘So, we’ve all agreed a daily CRM update is vital, and Yvonne will action that. Correct?”

Encourage participants to signal when they wish to talk. Verbally, by saying something like “Hi it’s Jim, with a question.”  Or hold up a hand, so Chair can cue them in. 

Coach colleagues to ‘be bright, be brief, and be gone’. People must think about making their point in the fewest possible words. Chair can politely stop people repeating themselves: “Thanks Sam, that point is well made.”

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Time to be kind

So, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. A health crisis that needs to be understood and requires new and disciplined behaviours from all. An economic crisis on an unprecedented scale. Most of all, a threat to the way society is organised and human beings engage.

All evidence suggests the crisis will pass. The questions are ‘what damage will it do?’ and ‘what shape will families, businesses and institutions be in on the other side?’

In the coming weeks, I’ll provide thoughts on how employers and brand owners can best face the current challenges. But let’s begin with the importance of humanity; because we are fortunate to live on the African continent, where social cohesion remains strong (at this time). In a modern Western city, individuals may pass away unnoticed. Here in Africa, despite the restrictions we will have to endure, the desire to remain connected to family, friends, and colleagues will remain strong. But we will need to constantly remind ourselves to be kind.

Employers should be kind and patient to staff who are adjusting to the strange and distracting environment of home working. And even kinder to staff who are being sent on compulsory leave, sometimes unpaid, or being released from employment. These fellow human beings and their families will be very anxious, and rightly so. All their previous certainties, however fragile, are being swept away. 

Brands, and the people responsible for them, should be as kind and generous to customers as possible. The market remembers how brands behave in crises: customers will quickly abandon their loyalty to unkind brands. Carrefour supermarkets have displayed in their stores a written commitment not to increase prices during the crisis. Lufthansa has promised that, when flights resume, any air ticket can be rebooked without charge and the value can even be applied to a flight to a different destination. They even pledge a 50 Euro rebooking incentive for when the time comes … as it surely will. 

Some banks are dropping charges and thinking about advantageous rates – but we’re still waiting for one admirable bank to make a grand gesture to customers that helps to change perceptions of the whole category for the better. Real Estate firms will shortly face refusal to pay rent for empty premises. Which will be the first brand kind (and smart)  enough to offer a rent amnesty? 

And small businesses will need to hold loyal customers close. Take a personal interest in their wellbeing; deliver when they cannot collect and not be greedy on pricing. 

Unlike some Nairobi Matatu touts yesterday, who were charging fellow Kenyans a 500% premium on fares.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Tech transformation

Every month, when I meet our Amalgam Leadership Class, the hottest curriculum area is Digital Transformation. We learn how to revolutionise supply chain, reduce leakage and suck data from customer interactions. But the biggest lesson is that success in digital transformation is impossible without culture transformation.

Give your CTO free rein to buy hardware and software. But, if you don’t decide in advance the new staff behaviours you wish to develop,  that investment will be wasted. Behaviors like anticipatory customer service, faster collaboration, and smarter decision-making.

Last week, as a customer, I have had one great experience of digital transformation, and two bad ones. 

Looking online for a supplier of bathroom lighting, I browsed a number of ‘brochureware’ websites without discovering anything helpful. Then I hit a site that deployed a ‘bot’ to talk to me. Within 90 seconds I discovered they had a range of solutions within my budget. I logged off and, 60 seconds later, I received a personal email from a human being, welcoming my custom and giving me directions to the shop. He even told me they were shutting for 4 hours the next day for a funeral. A super blend of  technology and humanity. Next week, I shall go to that shop and buy.

Here’s one of the bad ones. I had occasion to revisit a leading building supplies outlet to return a defective product. I did so with a sense of dread because it’s one of those businesses that was set up for trade customers and their attitude is ‘the customer is trying to get one over on us.’ So, when you collect your purchases, they open every box and show you them, so you can confirm the pieces are there. Trouble is, after looking at your fourth towel rail, your attention can wander. Mine did, and I didn’t notice that an essential piece was missing from the back of the product. Mea Culpa. 

In fairness, the customer-facing staff did not say ‘no, we won’t replace it’. But they were not empowered to make a decision, so they escalated the problem to ‘the Manager.’ So I sat there for 90 minutes, initially in good heart. At my fifth progress enquiry I was told that the Manager was reviewing the CCTV footage of my collection experience to determine how this deficiency could have happened. 

Deciding that this was not a good use of my time, or his, I sought him out. Face to face he remembered that I was a customer, and immediately replaced the item. His words were ‘Better we sort you out, before we sort ourselves out.’  

How very true, Sir.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Rethinking workspace

Diligent Executives in Africa take an interest in the kind of workspaces they provide for employees. They wrangle about the pros and cons of open-plan offices. They challenge IT to make virtual meetings easier. They engage employee committees on areas for rest and food. They compete with each other on who gets which private office.

This marks a positive evolution. The previous ‘Lions of Business’ generation focused only on how the look and feel of the workspace projected their own self-image. Real or imagined.

More entrepreneurial businesses in Africa are opting for shared working spaces. Many are incubated in such environments, which tend to be cheaper and are certainly more sociable than formal offices. 

 Employee attitudes towards workplaces are also changing as people express the need for more flexible ways of working. Two hours in Nairobi’s chaotic traffic is stimulus enough for most staff to ask why they need to be tied to the 8-5 routine of yesteryear. 

Work-life integration is now becoming something people look for from employers, so offering a workspace that enables this is important to attracting and retaining talent. Millennials, in particular, expect more from their work environment. According to a recent UK study by KPMG, 69% of Millennials would trade other benefits for a better workspace. 

WeWork is an American commercial property company that began life providing shared workspaces for technology startups. Now they say: ‘WeWork is no longer only for co-working and startups. As people increasingly demand flexibility and enterprises crave more simplicity and agility on a global scale, large companies are embracing shared-space solutions that enable them to grow faster.”

In its first ten years, WeWork developed the insight that “employees perform best when they’re engaged and have the opportunity to connect on a human level”. So the company designs workspaces that encourage collaboration and interaction through innovation. Technology powers its network. Members are able to turn everyday frustrations like booking conference rooms and checking in guests into easy and painless experiences. WeWork’s members now range from large enterprises like banks to sole traders like designers, writers, and app developers. They benefit from being part of the WeWork community, and their employees enjoy access to discounted health insurance and gym memberships, special events and an internal social network for professional development.

30% of the Fortune 500 are now members and many say it has helped them enter new markets. But WeWork’s journey hasn’t been smooth – they lost US$2bn in 2018. In January 2020 co-founder McKelvey said the strategy to save WeWork is to slow down expansion and focus on the product.

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“Succession” is the name of a superbly dark TV series on HBO, that caricatures a powerful business family’s failure to empower to the next generation. Here in Africa we know all about that. The most prolonged and troublesome successions occur in family enterprises. Families here are large, so their issues are complex. And in most cases the patriarch says he wants to let go but just can’t bring himself to do it. Perhaps when we have more matriarchal leaders, we’ll do better.

Timely succession planning can ensure the smooth transition of power and continued success of any organisation. But the biggest challenge today is time.

Traditionally, developing a succession plan seemed a distant concern for a CEO. There was time in hand. Time to assess competitor threats and future market trends. Time to take soundings at Board level. Time to develop candidates. Or time to procrastinate – to put succession into the ‘too difficult for now’ pile.

Then, in the 3rd Industrial Revolution, business cycles began to speed up. Electronics and IT began to automate business processes. Innovation surges made companies vulnerable to obsolescence. Succession requirements became immediate. When Steve Jobs first left Apple, the business nearly went bust. The company was the manifestation of its leader and unplanned change threatened catastrophe.

In the 4th Industrial Revolution we’re now seeing a collision of even shorter timescales with an employee base whose attitude towards job tenure is equally short term. In other words, succession may be needed tomorrow, but when you look inside the business, fewer people have been around for long enough to qualify. Clearly, we need to evolve a more agile approach.

The Forbes Coaching Council says that the key to creating an agile company is to incentivise senior executives to mentor and develop their direct reports. The word incentivise is important; too many companies rely on executives doing what they should do, and end up being disappointed. This mentoring should happen in every division or department, and the CEO should be aware of the breath of resource being developed. Even better, he should champion the programme and play an enabling role by creating new positions, collaborative opportunities and challenging projects to grow leadership candidates. In this way, succession planning becomes part of the culture.

Today, neither the HR Department or the Talent Committee has the luxury of developing a five- or ten-year succession plan. Talented individuals are acutely aware of the demand for their skills and, when workplace conditions or the associated rewards become unattractive, they will simply move to a more progressive organisation

Succession planning should start on the CEO’s first day in post.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside


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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

Posted in African Business, African Leadership, African marketing, Behaviour change, Brand Marketing, Brand Reputation, Branded behaviours, Chris Harrison Africa, Corporate Social Responsibility, Crisis Management, Culture change, Direct marketing, Human Relations, Internal brand, Market Research, Social Media, The Brand Inside | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment