Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Keeping it real

I missed out yesterday on something that's rapidly becoming a Monday morning tradition: a face to face meeting with a friend, colleague or associate where we both have the chance to chew the fat on work, life and all that's somewhere in between.

A few weeks ago I met up with Rich the legal journo; then it was Paul the consultant, and yesterday should have been Annie the PR-turned-lawyer. In this age of electronic communication, there's all too little time to stop, pause for breath and have a good old chat about what's happening in our world, and seemingly less opportunity to have those outside-the-office talks face to face.

Back when I started work in the mid-80s it was all so different. At Which?, we were regular lunchers en masse as a team, often frequenting the pubs around Charing Cross and then the lower reaches of Camden. Later when I worked agency side, we lunched in the pub most days, and certainly on a Friday, not a lot got done in the afternoon. In between times, I worked in the age of the business lunch where I was either hosting business feeds or being a guest of a supplier or my peers just about every week. And we weren't like the French: lunchtime was a time to sort out business issues over a pint; to be creative and come up with great solutions. There was a great bond, working as a team but in a social situation - far better than the forced team-building so loved by big business in the 90s.

And for me, it was the mid to late 90s when everything changed. As email really took over as the medium of convenience, and as intranets and the first clunky collaborative working tools replaced phone conversations and meetings, the culture of informal face to face contact went out the window.

As we worked longer (though not necessarily more effectively), the social lunch - especially with alcohol - became increasingly frowned upon to the point of being a total non-starter. And as social media have emerged, the urge even to meet people face to face has been seen too often as too much of a time waster.

I hold the opposite view. I can achieve far more meaningful contact in one face to face meeting than in any chain of tweets, emails and blog posts. Today it's far too easy to feel we know peers and colleagues because we follow them on Twitter or are friends on Facebook. The reality is that we may have a far wider framework of acquaintances, but we can't ever really get to know these people if all we're doing is conducting a keyboard or touchscreen relationship.

By nature, I'm a pretty anti-social networker: it's easy to hide behind the keyboard, harder to get out and spend the time really engaging, face to face. I'm trying to break my bad habits - even if it's more likely to be in Costa than in the pub.

Anyway, last time i went into my local, a pint cost £3.75. Even if I wanted to get drunk in work time now, I couldn't afford to. That's a sobering thought.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Apparently, there's a fear among many senior leaders of adopting social media within their organisations as it will lead to a loss of power. Hierarchical business structures ensure that power is always at a higher level - and the real power resides in the Boardroom. Therefore, the thinking goes, if you democratise communication, you'll democratise decision making and those who sit in the Corporate Suite will be disempowered.

Frankly, that's a right old load of tosh and misses both the benefit of connecting people across your organisation and the real truth that no business is a democracy.

I'll leave the social media analysts to argue the first point. My limited, but pragmatic, understanding is that great ideas don't just happen at the top of any organisation. Therefore, if social media provides new tools to improve organisational effectiveness; to open up conversations among communities of interest within organisations and to make better ideas travel through the right parts of the organisation quicker - involving all the right people along the way - then why should any executives fear them?

As for turning businesses into democracies - tosh and double tosh. Isn't that where great leadership comes in? Great leadership isn't command and control. It's not sitting divorced from the organisation, reading the balance sheet and declaiming what should be done.

Today, more than ever, as most organisations take the first steps to economic recovery, it's all about being at one with the heartbeat of the organisation. It's still about all the traditional stuff of understanding your market, your stakeholders and the wider business environment and charting a path to deliver success. It's about having the right strategy to thrive and the cash, processes and technology to make it happen. But it's all about PEOPLE. It's how you bring them onside, involve them in making their working world better and tap into their expertise to make a better business outcome for everyone involved in the organisation.

The nub is that you don't have to know it all or do it all: the best leaders are those who can tap into the consciousness of the organisation and make the kind of decisions that enhance engagement AND improve business performance. That's real leadership.

Social media are tools that can help that happen. So why on earth should any organisational leaders be afraid of them?

Monday, February 08, 2010

What's in a name?...Or, do the terms we use limit us more than they should

Much of my life at the moment is involved in aspects of employee engagement as I try and get myself around some of the knotty problems organisations are involved in as the economy all too slowly emerges from recession.

The problems are pretty-much common to all: keeping the best performers; continuing to drive productivity; growing market share; attracting the right people.....and for those already there, doing more with less.

For my clients at least, a return to profitable business doesn't mean a return to the business costs of pre-2008. Their internal teams are leaner, budgets are meaner but the expectation of success is as high as ever.

The great thing is that many more organisations than before have realised that the best way to deliver on high productivity demands is by having an engaged organisation. The Macleod report defines this as being underpinned by four enablers:

  • Leadership
  • Engaging Managers
  • Voice and
  • Integrity.

I agree that they're all absolutely vital yet feel they're very difficult to achieve if we continue to use the term 'employee engagement'. I can see why it's used - not least the fact that it's been the common currency term among communicators and HR people for a number of years.

But thereby lies the problem. It's a term used almost as a throw-away by business leaders and given to HR or Comms (or often a combination of both) as a transactional task to deliver. The assumption is that with the right 'corporate hygiene' and internal comms we will draw everyone into the business to deliver far more than the 'competency' people are recruited for.

But MacLeod - and anyone with any sense would see that engagement has to begin at the top. While boards may be beholden to shareholders and analysts, only they can set the tone for the organisation: only they can create the environment and role model the behaviours that set the tone for the whole organisation. They must be engaged more than anyone else in the organisation. Employee engagement implies a top-down, traditional structure and some kind of paternalistic benevolence from the top.

But engaged organisations aren't like that. My definition of engagement is simple: it's creating the right culture to keep your best people longest. That means having the right behaviours, beliefs and ways of working to ensure that everyone knows what their role is within the organisation and are confident to give of their best in delivering on expectations. But it goes further: it's about creating an environment where everyone works collectively to drive the business forward - that means having leaders at all levels who listen, lean and apply great thinking irrespective of the thinker's job title.

Talking to David MacLeod last week, we agreed that colleague engagement is probably a better term. However, that's still a little limiting to me as to my mind it still implies a group of people who work directly within the organisation. But businesses, government departments, charities and any other functional community tends to have tentacles winding out in all sorts of directions that remain within that community.What about the contractors? What about the outsourced functions working in your building? What about those suppliers you work with every day, without whom your job could not be done? Aren't these all a part of the community that needs to be engaged to drive the organisation forward? Shouldn't we be investing in the tools to bring these quasi-internal stakeholders on board too? Surely it's by embracing this wider community that we'll achieve real engagement.

So what to call it? A large part of me wants just 'engagement' - but possibly that's too vague a term. Business engagement's a possible: but doesn't that exclude the public and third sectors?

At the moment, the best I can come up with is organisational engagement - still a mouthful but a more encompassing, less one-way and less top-down term. But does it have legs?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Engaging conversations

Some days in this job lift the spirits - and yesterday was one of them. It was a day of good conversations moving several fronts forward.

Two of the best conversations were with Leon Benjamin and David Macleod. I'm still mulling over what they had to say, and much will end up as a magazine feature so this blog isn't the right place to pre-empt that piece. However, each played into the employee engagement conversation with both style and insight.

Leon Benjamin has long argued the case for social media inside the company - his own blog distills it here. During our conversation he made several telling points that struck home with me: most around the fear and insecurity of the current crop of business leaders and managers who draw power from hierarchy, and are afraid of losing that power through the non-hierarchical building force of social networking. Leon argues that old-style leaders gain and maintain their power from the top of the organisation: the Board makes the decisions; the rest of us implement them. Real leaders, by contrast, draw their power from the bottom: they're prepared to share; prepared to listen to and learn from anyone in the organisation who can help it thrive. His view is that this braver style of leadership will emerge - ever more so as Gen Y becomes more established in management structures. The conversations in business will change as social media technology usurps more traditional channels. The days of command and control management are numbered: hierarchical structures aren't going to collapse yet, but the foundations are already shifting.

It was a pleasure too to speak to David MacLeod about employee engagement. We discussed whether it's even the right term since the stakeholders affected range wider than a strict definition of 'employee' but also because employee engagement reflects a hierarchical 'us and them' approach that's at odds with the truly collaborative, involved, shared environment that a truly engaged organisation must be. Colleague engagement seems a better term - but employee engagement was used for the report since it's the common currency term within its own community of interest.

I questioned David on whether he was 'preaching to the converted' as most of the events he and his colleagues have been speaking at have been organised by HR and comms people for HR and comms people rather than those who need to adopt and champion EE - organisational leaders. He agreed - but countered that they're now working hard to get on the right platforms to hit those leaders with a more analytical bent who clearly aren't buying in to the whole concept of EE quite so easily.

We talked about 'what next?' following the review too. The completion of phase 1 will be the launch of a raft of EE material through BIS in March; but the really interesting part for David is phase 2: making it happen. I agree with him strongly that there's no magic bullet for EE. There's no one-size-fits-all solution that automatically creates the right attitudes and behaviours that will deliver the right outcomes. Every situation is contextual and the set of requirements that will deliver engagement in organisation A may be quite different from those that will bring engagement to life in organisation B. So, it's eating the elephant one bit at a time - there'll be a similarity of flavour, but the texture will be very different with every bite you take.

What's clear is that Leaders are pivotal. EE can't be created, sustained and nourished from a comms or HR function somewhere in the middle of the organisation. It has to be embraced and actively championed from the top and at all the points of influence throughout the community. It isn't a task - it's a more complex set of beliefs and attitudes that values people as much more than a cost on the balance sheet.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

MacLeod - preaching to the converted?

I'm interviewing David MacLeod this afternoon. He's the lead author of the Government's Employee Engagement review - Engaging for Success published last year. While I'd read about the report before this morning - I hadn't really dug into the document. So I sat down after breakfast and have ploughed through the whole 157 pages since then.

I'm impressed by the weight of evidence MacLeod and his team have pulled together - great case studies, not just from the largest, best-resourced organisations, but from a good number of SMEs too. What's it's lacking is context: it states that the UK lags behind in terms of employee engagement, but doesn't show what other countries are doing better and or even where in the world employee engagement is already being seen to make a quantifiable difference to business on a more widespread basis.

However, two questions are burning on my lips - what happens next? And, isn't the report simply preaching to the converted.

I may be wrong, and happy for the author to correct me, but all the briefings I've heard about on the report have been aimed at HR people and communicators. But we're already bought in: we're doing the do, striving to make engagement the way of life in our organisations. The laggards seem to be at Board level: CEOs and primarily CFOs. I haven't seen much evidence of them being directly targeted as the key stakeholders in this report.

That could well be because the report is weak on just how leaders can deliver the cultural change necessary to create employee engagement. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence in the report - but it's not a toolkit for action - and the call to action is frankly weak.

So my second question is 'what next?' - The review aims to open up the debate, bring resources together and challenge organisations to respond. I'd love to know from the author just what that response has been.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Jan 2009 v Jan 2010 - there is a difference

So we're now into the second month of 2010. We're officially out of recession and my CiB colleagues (or the Xchange team anyway), say that the only way the organisational communications market can move is up. I hope that's the case, though I've yet to see the fragile optimism translate into money in the bank.

But looking back on January - with the perspective of a whole day - I can already see that the month was quite a different proposition from its partner in 2009. I have been a lot busier than at this time last year, and while this isn't reflected in a poor billing month, there's definitely more reason to feel positive.

If I look at my January calendar I can see that barring a couple of snowed-out days, I was engaged in the dark arts of communication on every work day. I'd love to say it was all day every day: it wasn't. I'd love to say it was all fee-earning stuff: it wasn't.

In January 2009, I waited for the anticipated surge that has happened every year since I started Leapfrog in 2000. It never came. This year I didn't expect it. I had a few small pieces of work carrying over from December, and have completed or brought these close to completion over the last few weeks. Bits of billing have gone in, some more will happen over the next week, and more small tactical pieces of work have come my way. Not the much-needed 'big project', but all good stuff, and all a real step forward from this time last year.

What's been different from 2009 is the number of conversations I've had about upcoming work of all varieties, and the number of pieces of work - of all hues - that I've been asked to quote for. Not everything has been rosy, but the overall feel is that the market's finally beginning to move.

On the downside for me, I had some facilitation work that I hoped would lead to a larger piece of change comms work. My piece of the jigsaw went well - but the team made a crucial decision that day to run the project from Switzerland rather than the UK. It's the right decision and means they can resource the comms internally. It was tough to miss out on the work, but I hope the client saw enough in me to consider using me in the future. Certainly they were very positive about the planning/facilitation I did for them.

The upside is a number of conversations about work opportunities - some for ad-hoc support, others for the more encompassing 'big project'. These conversations just weren't happening 12 months ago. I've spent a significant amount of time putting pitch material together and the vibe feels a lot better than last year. While much of the quality work remains in-house, there's a bit more budget around, and certainly more appetite for communication as a means to prepare organisations for the upswing.

I now feel I'm on the runway, wheels rolling. It's a much better feeling than last year when I, and too many of my peers, were stuck in a snowdrift.