Hello! It’s good to be back. I’ve not blogged for far too long, but work and circumstances have prevented me – now I have a bit of time on my hands I will try and get a few blogs out before my hands have the time wiped off them again.
Anyway, I have recently finished working with a number of organisations who shall, as ever, remain nameless, but have given me sackloads of grist for my blogging mill, and I will be sharing some of the many lessons I have learned along the way.
Lesson the first takes me to an expression I have heard many times in my career, normally when working in an HR setting:

The cobbler’s children have no shoes

In essence this means that people are so busy telling everyone else what to do that they never do it themselves. In HR this often means personnel records aren’t kept up to date, or appraisals don’t happen as often as they should.
I recently came across an organisation where this was the case on an institutional level. Everyone was a cobbler, and none of their kids had appropriate footwear. No need here for detail, but generally the organisation taught other organisations to do stuff – but there was remarkably little evidence of said stuff happening with their own people.
I won’t go into the whys and wherefores of this particular organisation, there were any number of reasons why this was the case and I may look at some of these reasons in future blogs. What I will discuss in this blog is the inherent danger of having this situation develop.
I have blogged before about the importance of authenticity – here, for example – and the heart of authenticity is doing what you say. It’s not enough to talk, you have to walk it too.
So, if you are going out and about and teaching other teams how to do leadership, then your leaders better be pretty good at what they do. If you are ensuring that everyone has up to date performance development plans then the plans for the people in your department had better be fit for purpose, up to date and delivering what they say they should.
If that isn’t the case then you are not being authentic, and that is not a sustainable position. To say one thing and do another is a psychologically, philosophically, existentially untenable. Check this if you don’t believe me.
But, on a more practical point of view, there is also the PR factor – if everyone else finds out, then where is the motivation for them to do what you say? “If you don’t do it, why should I?” Why indeed?
There has recently been some kerfuffle in the press about Sainsbury’s the supermarket, when someone put an internal poster up in the window where the customers could see it. The poster exhorted staff to persuade customers to spend an extra 50p when they were in store – check it out.
If you are a supermarket in the middle of a massive price war with customers flocking to lower-cost competition in droves, when every advert you put out is how “good food costs less” at your particular shop, then telling those self same customers you are training your staff to try and screw more dosh out of them every time they pop in for a bag of humbugs and some cat food is really going to stick in those customer’s collective craw. It is the very opposite of authentic behaviour, it is disingenuous, hypocritical (and speaks very clearly to the eternal contradiction at the dark heart of the neoliberal assertion of the capitalist paradigm, although I’ll maybe save further thoughts on that for another blog).
If HR is going around the business saying “this is how you recognise good performance” while nobody within the HR department ever gets recognised for their performance (good, bad or indifferent) and the business finds out, you are effectively putting a poster in your virtual window saying “HR: making people do stuff they don’t really need to do”.
If you’re an organisation that tells its customers that doing X is the best thing to do, while not doing X themselves, then what does the poster in their window say?
Have a think: if you are a leader in HR, how good is your leadership? How up to date are the records for your people? Are your development plans in place, fit for purpose and delivering more effective performance? If not, why not? And what would the people you are telling to lead, record and develop think if they knew?

Blog. I find myself busy these days, and so reduced to mini-blogs I can knock out in a hurry on the train home.

This week I have been reflecting on the benefits of a good performance development process in an organisation and why it helps everyone to have a development plan.

I’ve been reading a lot of competency frameworks and performance and professional development policies, systems and processes recently and a lot seem to feel only people at the lower end of performance spectrum should have a plan in place. I disagree.

One of the best line managers I ever worked for insisted everyone in his team had a development plan in place, especially his highest performers (like me, obv). What’s more, he used every one to one meeting as an opportunity to discuss the plan, to refine it and amend it as required. It was truly a living document, and when it came to end of year discussion time there was plenty of evidence to justify the rating, along with a platform for the next year’s plan to be built on.

No box ticking and back of an envelope scribbles before the leadership team review of the grades for us, just high quality development conversations and, on the back of that, some really strong development for everyone in the team, turning the lower performers into achievers and really stretching the best performers to even greater heights.

Have a think. Who has a performance plan in your team? Everyone? Just the poorer performers? Or no-one at all? If it’s either of the other two, then how do you develop? What guides you? Have a think.

Well, he’d hold the stake, wouldn’t he? Does that make him a stakeholder? This week’s fun size blog thinks about stakeholders, and what on earth you do with them.
Any change programme, any employee engagement strategy, any piece of organisational development, you are going to have stakeholders, and you are going to have to manage them. So this mini-blog is by way of a quick guide to stakeholder management, insofar as I’ve managed to make it work.
As with many things in life, begin with the questions: who, what, where, why, when and how. Thusly:

  • who are our stakeholders?
  • what do we need them for? (RACI helps here – what do they do? Are they responsible for something, or are they accountable? Do we consult them? Or merely inform?)
  • where are they – in the organisational structure (or outside?) or physically (in case you have to go and meet them)
  • why do we need to engage with them? What value do they add? (If you can’t answer that last question, then have a really good think about whether they actually are stakeholders, or well-meaning busybodies)
  • when do we need to engage them? At what point on the critical path will the value they add be of the most, well, value?
  • how do we engage them? Face to face? Via a contact? By email? At a meeting?
  • So, ask this at the start. Think of everyone. Put them on a piece of paper, and list those questions. It may even help.
    Have a think. What value so your stakeholders add? Do they add value? If they don’t, are they really stakeholders? Or are they just Jonathan Harkers, along for the ride?

    In recent blogs I have touched on internal communication and its importance in getting employee engagement. Today I’m about to start work on a big change programme looking after both those things, so I felt it appropriate to have a think about communication and change.
    The most fun I’ve had in a job has been when I’ve been tasked with engaging people with change. I’m not a keep things the way they are kind of guy. My motto is: “If it ain’t broke, break it. The worst that could happen is that it makes a nice tinkly noise as it shatters into a thousand tiny pieces.”
    Change is all around us, friends, life is, in fact, a process of ceaseless change peculiar to organic matter (as I once said in a philosophy essay, much to the bemusement of my tutor). Change is what makes us people and without change we would still be a set of single-cell organisms lolling in a pool of brackish water.
    (Apologies, at this point, to any creationists or intelligent design fans reading who are upset at this evocation of evolution, but you aren’t really my core demographic).
    Anyway, change is necessary, and, although it is not always good, it isn’t going anywhere unless I’m completely misreading the second law of thermodynamics. In business, as in life and closed systems, change is always necessary; markets change, products change, customer needs and wants and expectations all change, and anyone looking to meet those needs, wants and expectations better change to be able to meet them, or the business side of things isn’t going to last too long.
    So businesses must change, and that means people working in those organisations are going to have to change as well. At the very least, they will have to do things differently, or do different things.
    That said, change is undertaken in order to deliver benefits to the business, and those benefits are likely to be achieved in a more sustainable way if people not only change what they do, but how they do it, that is change their behaviours. This takes a bit of doing.
    There’s a bit more to it than issuing a new flow chart on how to do a new process or just installing some new software in everyone’s PC. To change behaviours you need really effective communication, and that means sharing information with people and then having a conversation with them to ensure that they have understood the information you have shared, and that they are willing and able to play their part in the change you are asking them to undertake.
    Communication is always a change activity. After communication happens things are different. At the very minimum, levels of knowledge have increased, but it can and should be a lot more profound than that. So what should you share? The usual – what, when, where, how and, most importantly, why. What is changing? When is it happening? Where about in the organisation? How will things change? Why are they changing?
    This last one is the key to get buy-in from people in change, as you need to make the why a reason for them, as an individual, to change. I remember one big change programme I worked on and they key kick-off comms was a video of the CEO telling everyone in the business what the programme was all about – a big modernisation programme, affecting everyone in the business, over the next couple of years.
    Why? Because the business wouldn’t last the next couple of years unless something was done to turn it around. The classic burning platform “why”. Amusingly, the first time we showed the video to the wider senior leadership team (top 100 or so people in the business) the sound went off half way through.
    The CEO went on speaking, silently for what seemed like hours while I ran around frantically back stage trying to get the sound back on. I did, eventually, just as the CEO was intoning the words “job losses”. You couldn’t have timed it better.
    I digress, but the heart of the message was “it’s this or oblivion”; however, “we’re doomed” isn’t the most engaging message and very quickly we reframed the message around building a new business, constructive, forward-looking and forward-thinking and far more engaging for people.
    They why became “because I want to be part of this new business”, a message that ran through every single piece of communication ever issued by anyone in the programme. Building a new business was through it all like letters in Blackpool rock.
    You see, once you have your why you need to ensure that all communication of it is consistent and authentic; if you say you are building a new business then you better damn well build one. And build one we did, a leaner, fitter, more engaged organisation, better set to meet the needs, wants and expectations of modern customers, with a more effective culture and new behavioural norms across the piece. Then we merged it with another bit of the business and had to start all over again.
    Change, see. It doesn’t stop, not ever. So the key thing from this is having that core message – why we are doing this, framing it in a positive and forward-looking way and then delivering that message consistently and authentically in every piece of communication you undertake. Simple.
    So have a think. Change is almost inevitably happening somewhere in your business. Are you communicating about it? What are you communicating about it? And do your people. Really and truly understand why these changes are happening? Have a think.


    In this blog I have written, not for the first time, about the vital importance of authenticity. This was also a key facet of the 20th Century school of philosophy known as existentialism, about which I have blogged before.
    Albert Camus, born 100 years ago last week, was very close to Jean-Paul Sartre, the godfather of existentialism, but wasn’t himself an existentialist. He was an absurdist, a world view he expounded magnificently in his novels, notably The Outsider, The Plague and The Fall. He also wrote a couple of philosophical essays, The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.
    This latter work I would commend eagerly and heartily to anyone engaged in trying to make change happen in a large organisation. I have returned to it frequently when things were getting tough in the many change programmes I’ve worked on over the years, and find the closing thoughts a great comfort.
    In Greek legend, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill all day, only for it to fall back down again every night. I can’t imagine many project and programme managers who cannot empathise. But think, then, on the final words of Camus: “The struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
    Happy birthday, Albert.

    Innovation has been much in my thoughts recently. In fact, someone asked me about it this morning, and I recently attended a briefing on how to help small businesses become more innovative.

    There is a wealth of material online about innovation and how to do it, but I thought I could give some thought to a couple of things – the role of employee engagement in innovation (and vice versa) and what a culture of innovation might be.

    Firstly, engagement and innovation. Let’s go to first principles about what engagement is, and see what that can teach us about innovation, eh?

    I use a couple of  models to describe engagement which have worked pretty well over the years. One I borrowed with pride from Macey and Schneider, from a study they did for the Journal of Industrial and Organisational Psychology a few years back (why not take a look here, get your academic groove on). They had reviewed much of the existing research on engagement and posited a three-stage model, thusly:

    • Trait engagement – people needed a mindset by which they would become engaged
    • State engagement – people needed to be in an environment whereby their emotional state was one of engagement
    • Behavioural engagement – people with the right trait in the right state then behave as engaged employees

    Let’s have a think about just one of these aspects – trait engagement. This requires the individual to be conscientious, proactive and to possess an autotelic personality. No, look it up.

    OK, so autotelic means doing something for intrinsic reward – for the sake of doing it, rather than for an extrinsic reward (such as money). Now my knowledge of psychology is probably on a par with most non-psychologists who ply their trade in this area, but I would guess that an innovative personality is likely to be proactive, conscientious and like to do stuff for the sake of doing something interesting – in other words, someone with the traits of an engaged employee.

    Moving on to state, this is where people feel committed, proud, happy and enthusiastic (state positive affectivity is the technical term), they feel involved and empowered with a sense of purpose. Again, these are the kind of feelings I would expect an innovator to have; if I had no interest in the future of the organisation and I don’t want to be there, I’m not likely to want to think of something new to make the company more successful, am I? 

    So people with the right traits in the right state will display the behaviours of the engaged employee – things like going above and beyond your role, being proactive and adaptive – fostering change for the benefit of the organisation. Which, to me, is a pretty good description of innovation.

    So you are way more likely to get innovation from your people if they are engaged. But what about the other way around? Does working in an innovative organisation make you engaged?

    A quick look at those great places to work lists that are all over th’interweb will throw up the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, those kind of places. Not exclusively, but most of the brands where engagement is high tend to be associated with innovation. Two great examples, which I would advise anyone interested in this field to research in bit more detail are Semco and Gore.

    What males many of these companies stand out as great places to work are their levels of employee engagement, and, according to the fine people at Engage for Success only 3% of disengaged people come up with ideas to improve things at work, compared to nearly two-thirds of engaged employees. Great places to work more often than not have the kind of culture which fosters innovation.

    Which brings us to the second bit promised all that time ago in the second paragraph, creating a culture of innovation.  This could take a while, and you’ve already ploughed through a lot already, so we’ll save most of it for another blog.

    What I will share is my key question when finding out if an organisation has an innovative culture – I ask “what happens when someone makes a mistake?”

    If the answer is “the person who made the mistake gets shouted at” or “we try and find someone to blame” or “we try and cover it up so the boss doesn’t find out” then I get an inkling that the culture is not one where innovation shines. 

    If the answer is along the lines of “we look at it, we find out why it went wrong and we change things for the better next time” then you are more likely to be in that innovation zone.

    So your task for this week it to ask that question: what happens around your workplace when someone makes a mistake? And what does that answer tell you about how innovative a workplace you are in? Have a think.

    My last couple of blogs have been about communication, it’s part in creating employee engagement, and how sometimes, despite the best efforts of internal communicators everywhere, it doesn’t actually happen.

    In this blog I will expound on the process that, for me, lies at the heart of any kind of communication, and ways that organisations manage to put obstacles or traps in the way that the process can work.

    To start, an anecdote. I was at a workshop last week for people who want to work with businesses to help them become more innovative. We were doing a brainstorming  type activity and people had used the time to wander off and grab a drink (or make room for another one) and I found myself alone in the room with the workshop leader.

    “You know, I do prefer to brainstorm on my own,” I told him. “It means I don’t have to waste time telling everyone else why they’re wrong.”

    This clearly was meant tongue in cheek, but there is a kernel of truth to it; when I brainstorm I find it easier to run through things internally and then bounce pretty well-rounded ideas off others. It may be because Jung was right after all and my introvert personality energises from within, it might be because I’m an arrogant know-all, but hey, you’re reading this, so what does that say about you?

    Anyway, other people I know prefer to brainstorm communally, feeding off ideas of others to help theirs grow. Maybe because they are extraverts, maybe they lack confidence in their own ideas and abilities?

    Either way, the process will become a co-operative one at some point, and ideas will need to be shared, discussed and developed, and will (almost) always become better for it. Something new will be created, and creativity and doing something new lies at the very heart of effective communication, in my humble.

    This is not to say that you need a new channel every time, or a different social media strategy for every announcement; it can (and in most cases) should be about the message, and that will in turn define the medium (or media) through which the message can be shared, feedback can be gathered and the conversation facilitated.

    Unless, that is, the co-operation ceases to be co-operative and the process falls into one of several traps, such as…

    1. We’ll do it my way

    When working with others to produce anything, I think it best to share and build through dialogue. I find, however, that people with strong views about how to go about things, and dialogue gets replaced by a debate, with one side trying to argue for their approach, and against the other approach. This can be a real issue for an central business partnering team working with a particular part of the business who know what they like, and like what they know.

    I have had many such conversations with local managers in my time, when I suddenly realise that rather than being in a meeting to create something fit for purpose I am, figuratively, on the other side of a debating chamber and having to defend my own views which are being attacked by the opposition (ie the person I am actually there to help). 

    How to get out of this? Reframe things, sidetrack, take a break, do something else for a bit, distraction and misdirection, and then come back at it in a different way.

    2. We tried that before, and it didn’t work

    I can’t think of another phrase that I have heard in a workplace that incenses me more than this. It’s worse even than “you weren’t successful in that application”, or “yes, I’m afraid it is infectious”. It sounds like an expression of strength and knowledge. “Oh you silly thing, we know better than you what will work or not, thank you.” What it is, in fact, is an admission of failure and lack of imagination. It is the final redoubt of the traditionalist, sticking cravenly to the tried and trusted and denying the necessity of change.

    It’s a phrase which sits alongside its cousin “That may be all right for them, but it wouldn’t work for us” as if evolution had taken a different path for that very specific bit of humanity. It is not even trying, and there is nothing worse than that. Thomas Edison (a chap of who I am by no means a fan_ was, so legend has it, told by someone that in coming up with 10,000 non-working designs for the light bulb, that he had failed 10,000 times. His response was that he had, in fact, discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb. Not for Edison “we tried it before and it didn’t work”. No, he tried it and found a way for it not to work, and then tried again. Another 9,999 times.

    When someone first said that to me, I told them that they might not be able to make it work, but I might. And do you know what? I did.

    3. That’s great, we’ll absolutely do that. Definitely. Now thanks, and off you go

    This is where lip-service is paid to your ideas, and then you are sent away and things carry on just as they were. This is often at the heart of the failure to communicate I discussed in my last blog. We say that things will change, but we aren’t comfortable or capable with change and so we’ll just carry on with the status quo.

    The thing is, communication is a process that results in change, and the status quo won’t do the job. Something has to be different.

    How do you avoid this? The trick here is how you contract up front. You need to get buy in that something new will happen before you start and you need to ensure that commitment up front. In the big bad world of business that usually means someone more important than the people you need to implement things has to agree to it, and tell them to do it. Just try and do it in an inclusive and co-operative way.

    4. Thinking outside the box (but inside the real box, which is just a bit bigger)

    This is when people pit on their creative hat, do some blue sky thinking, say nothing is off the table, and then stick to what they know has worked in the past and will do everything to close down anything truly creative and ground-breaking. It’s a more disingenuous form of lip service than saying you will and not doing it, basically. I’ve seen it in thinking sessions, where people reach into what they know and then fall into a passive-aggressive defence of it (ie a subtler version of the debate).

    How do you avoid this? Car parking is one technique. At the outset, just get everyone’s tried and tested, pet ways of doing it out in the open and pop them in a car park. When they come back to them later in the session (and they will, they can’t help themselves) you can just park it back up, and remind them that we would only go with new ways of doing things this time around.  

    These are just a handful of obstacles, and doubtless you will have encountered others (and if you have, please do share), so have a think. You need to communicate something. You need to think of a way to do it. How do you go about it? What (or who) gets ion your way? Does the process fall into a trap?



    In my last blog I expounded some of my thoughts on the links between internal communication and employee engagement – and how they were indeed linked but were in no way synonymous. 

    This time I have some further thoughts on these two subjects – and the dangers posed to the latter by the former not being done properly.

    Some time ago I was working with local management in a big department on their engagement levels. The engagement levels weren’t where they could or should have been, and we were mining the data to make sense of things.

    One area which caused the leadership team much consternation were the feelings of people in the department about communications. “We do communicate,” they said. “We do it all the time.”

    Well the data didn’t agree, with scores on the employee survey on the quality, frequency etc of communication being pretty poor. I had a look at this, and at the verbatim comments on this area, and also reviewed what had happened in the months leading up to the survey.

    To be fair, there had been activity of a communicational nature. Blogs had been published. Headlines had been loaded onto intranets. Briefing documents had been issued to managers and these, in turn, had been passed onto the people in the department. Information, in short, had been given to people.

    What had not happened, however, was any communication. There had been a one-way, top-down attempt to send information, but there had not been any attempt to test understanding of the information. 

    No matter how well crafted a blog, no matter how expertly drafted an intranet article, there is no guarantee that when it is read it will be understood in the way that was originally intended.

    An example – no names, no pack drill. I recall reading a blog by a chief exec which told that a member of the senior management team was recovering after a serious illness and had managed a few holes of golf. In the context he intended, this was a good news story about a generally popular member of the organisation getting better. 

    I spoke to a member of staff about the blog who said something along the lines of “I can just imagine what my boss would say if I played golf when I was on sick leave…”

    In other words, what was intended in terms of understanding wasn’t what landed – there had been a failure to communicate.

    Going back to our local management team: I spoke to staff in the area, to try and get a deeper understanding of the issues. Briefings, which were intended by the internal comms team to be shared at a team meeting with a Q&A session at the end tended to be emailed out to teams. Further investigation showed a real lack of confidence among line managers to deliver the briefings, so they just weren’t delivering what they were intended to do.

    Likewise, whenever staff had responded to issues raised in the blogs or intranet headlines, there had been no acknowledgement, let alone response, and people pretty quickly gave up trying to give feedback.

    The solution? Some training sessions for line managers on leading discussions, some high-visibility responses to questions raised on the intranet, and kicking off some sessions with senior managers where they sat down with people and had a discussion about the business, how they were contributing to the success and what issues people had on the shop floor.

    Nothing too demanding or too difficult, but ultimately transformational in terms of how communication was perceived in this part of the business, and this, in turn, contributed toward improved levels of engagement.

    To sum up:

    • Top-down information transmission is not communication
    • Communication is always two-way
    • Once you’ve given information out, you need to check understanding
    • Don’t assume what you mean is what people will get

    So, have a think about how you communicate in your business. How do you make it two-way? What feedback loops have you put in place? How do receivers of information become transmitters? How do you help leaders listen? Have a think.


    This week I have been mostly thinking about communication, and specifically the business of internal communication in a business, and what it means to employee engagement.

    Now you may say to me “really? You need to get a life” and I would find it hard to argue with you, but things like this are my stock in trade, my business, and so I do tend to dwell on them.

    What prompted this was a few things; I am wont to peruse LInkedIn, that fine resource for all professionals and have noticed quite a lot of jobs advertised as “employee engagement manager”, had a look and seen what they are after is an internal comms manager. I have also seen a few discussions along the lines of “are employee engagement and internal communications the same thing?”. Stuff like that gets me thinking. (To be honest, pretty much anything gets me thinking, I’ve one of those minds; I spend hours trying to find ways of stopping it, and have just passed level 125 on Candy Crush. I even watch ITV unironically sometimes).

    Anyway, I have thought and I will now foist the general burblings out onto th’internet, by way of this blog.

    Firstly, I will address the s. When I first got a job as an internal communications manager, that was my job title: internal communications manager. With an s. I had a conversation with the boss, went along these lines.

    Me: “I want to change my job title.”

    Boss: “You can’t do that, you need to go through HR and I’ll have to fill out forms and stuff.”

    Me: “I only want to drop the s”

    Boss: <makes Scooby Doo noise>

    Me: “Communications (with an s) is about channels and mechanisms and tech. It’s not even the medium, it’s the stuff that makes the medium work. We should be about communication.”

    Boss: “What the badgery flip are you on about, Lewis?”

    Me: “Communication is a process of emotional and psychological change enabled by and exchange of information; it’s not merely the transmission of information from one source to an audience, for which the use of the word ‘communications’ (with an s) in my job title is but a semiotic tag.”

    Boss: “Fair enough. Do I have to fill in any forms?”

    He didn’t, we just changed it on the structure charts.

    Anyway, the minutes it took me to find that sound clip will not have been in vain if my point has been made: communications is about technology and making the media work; communication is a two-way exchange which creates something new. Yes? Yes.

    And so, is it the same as employee engagement? Well, in my personal opinion, no. Engagement is psychological state on the part of employees, which evidences itself in behavioural outcomes; if people are engaged those outcomes will be positive ones for both employer and employee – greater productivity, creativity, absorption in work, better customer service, less absenteeism, loyalty and exemplifying the brand, etc etc etc.

    If the state is negative you get negative outcomes – absenteeism (or, even worse, its beguiling but mindless cousin presenteeism), low levels of energy, lack of ownership, etc etc etc

    As such, communication (no s) is an input – it is something that needs to be done, and done well, in order to create the positive state of mind required to get those positive behaviours, but it is not, in and of itself, engagement.

    And here is the crux: communication needs to be effective and two-way in order for that positive state to be achieved. Leaders need to communicate effectively; this means that issuing a memo won’t cut it. 

    I recall in my early days in the world of work internal communication from senior management came in the form of the “Chief General Manager’s Briefing”. This was a printed piece of paper stuck on noticeboards and usually contained the latest regulation issued by the regulatory body. People tended not to engage with it. It wasn’t communication.

    The move to intranets and social media won’t change things, though, if the things posted there are effectively just the Chief General Manager’s Briefing in digital form. 

    What is needed is for leaders to speak, and to listen, and to show they have listened – not just by giving an answer but by changing things in response to what they have heard and then communicating what has changed and why. The last step is hugely important, I call it closing the loop, and it is often forgotten.

    Without it, you don’t create that positive state, because the point of communication is not just to inform, but to give the employee the chance to listen and be listened to; people need to feel they are listened to, that they matter, and when they feel this, they feel good. Hence, engagement.

    So, have a think about your communication. Is it communications, or communication? Is it a memo (albeit a tweet or a blog or a speech or a town hall meeting) or is it a conversation?

    I’ll be rambling on about communication, the channels, the medium v the message and all that in the next few blogs. Book now to avoid disappointment.

    By the way, anyone know why I chose the header I chose? Fans of Paul Newman (and, quite possibly, Guns and Roses) send me a virtual postcard…


    SPOILER ALERT: In this blog I will bang on about Breaking Bad, which is a television show. If you haven’t seen it, go away and watch it, all of it, and then come back and read this. Off you go.

    Right. Last week the best TV show ever in the history of all television came to an end, when the final episode of Breaking Bad was broadcast, to the delight of myself and fans across the world.

    A week on, and I can assume that those of you who want to have watched it have now done so, and I can safely give away the ending, and also share some of the lessons that I feel Breaking Bad can offer to those of us in this crazy world of work and business and that.

    Now Breaking Bad is about Walter White, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Stuck on a teacher’s pay and having to moonlight in a car wash, he decides to build up a little nest egg for his family to live off once he’s gone by cooking and selling crystal meth.

    Before we go on, I must emphasise that I in no way condone the manufacture or selling of illegal drugs, but I do feel Walter’s various adventures, and those of his family and co-workers can give us valuable insight that we can take back to the workplace.

    Firstly, Walt is a man with a vision, a vision that he pursues, well, really quite ruthlessly, what with all the murder and bombing. And again, can I emphasise very strongly that I do not advocate in any way murdering or bombing in the world of work. It is very rarely called for, and really not the done thing. Even when dealing with the finance department.

    So Walt is a man with a vision, and that vision is summed up by his credo: “Respect the chemistry”. During the series we find out that Walt was a star student, a genius at crystalology (or whatever, I did an arts degree, I can’t be expected to know the technical terms). He even started a company called Gray Matter (sic, it’s American, you see) which is now a multi-billion dollar business, although Walt left early on under mysterious circumstances. He uses this genius to develop an incredibly pure product, which proves incredibly popular.

    So lesson one: keep true to your vision. Respect the chemistry, or whatever it is that you and your organisation do that you are great at, hold to that vision. For a prime example check out Season 3 episode 10 – “Fly”- which, apart from being as about as perfect a piece of television drama as you could possibly hope to see, will give you some insight into the lengths which Walt will go to in order to respect the chemistry.

    Now, when Walt starts out he obviously knows a lot about chemistry, but less so about the world of drug dealing. He is out with his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, on a bust when he sees a former pupil, Jesse Pinkman, legging it from the scene. Jesse is a small-time meth cook, but producing an inferior product, and Walt uses Jesse’s contacts to get himself into the demi-monde of the drug scene.

    Walt and Jesse’s relationship has its ups and downs, and for me is an excellent case study on what can go wrong in a line manager relationship. Fairly early on in their relationship, Walt asks Jesse to get hold of some plastic containers so they can dissolve the bodies of some drug dealers they have gassed in the caravanette they were using as a meth lab. Like you do.

    Jesse fails to follow the instructions, and uses the bath instead, with hilarious and extremely unpleasant consequences. What happened here was a failure on Walt’s part to understand Jesse and deal with him accordingly. He issues clear instructions, but doesn’t set out the scenario clearly. He doesn’t provide the motivation, i.e. “get the right plastic otherwise the bath will melt through the floor and we will end up mopping up dissolved drug dealer off your kitchen floor” is a more compelling reason for Jesse to get the right container than just the bald instruction.

    In the same way, many managers in a work setting can issue instructions – “do this” without providing the context and reason for it – “do this because…” – and try and link this to your vision and purpose. So next time a manager in your business tells someone to do something, make sure they have provided the context – what is the dissolved drug dealer on the kitchen floor in your workplace?

    Over time Walt develops a far more mentoring relationship with Jesse, and they become a far more effective team, and Jesse becomes a more effective meth cook, being able to replicate the recipe. There are ups and downs – Walt allows Jesse’s girlfriend to die, Jesse turns Walt in to his brother-in-law the DEA agent, and all the unpleasantness with the Aryan Nation gangsters, but, with all mentor/mentee relationships you have to expect ups and downs.

    The lesson for me is that if you help someone develop, bring themselves on, you will be a more effective manager.

    Over time Walt’s business grows, firstly by accessing the distribution network of Gus Fring, who uses a chain of chicken restaurants. Los Pollos Hermanos, as cover for his smuggling operation. Gus himself has some great lessons for leadership. He epitomises the leader as servant, coming across, initially, as humble and gentle and wanting to serve, with an admirable customer focus.

    But Gus gives us another important lesson for those of us in business. He starts out a young immigrant from Chile, with his own protege, a young chemist who has developed a new method to cook meth. He goes to a Mexican drug cartel to get support, and they do it (although they do, to be fair, shoot his protege in cold blood, which is unlikely to be the outcome of a meeting with your average high street bank’s business manager, in my experience).

    However, when it is time for Gus to move on from the cartel in order for him to take his business in the direction he needs, he cuts his ties and won’t allow sentimentality or false loyalty to hold him back. A bold and decisive move, and one that enables Gus to take his business forward. Admittedly his tactic of serving tequila laced with poison to the cartel’s bosses may be a tad more extreme than many in business will go, but again, it is a great example of taking the steps you need to move your business forward.

    Walt, too, can make bold decisions and make a successful move into new markets. Now you would be best advised to go down the route of market research, testing, piloting and then launching, rather than the blowing up your enemy in an old people’s home and using a ruthless corporate ice-maiden to flog your drugs in the Czech republic route that Walt took, but the lesson is the same – understand what’s right for your business and take action to move it forward.

    I could go on, so rich is the seam to be mined here, but I will end with three classic pieces of branding which Breaking Bad can, once again, teach us all.

    First up is Walt’s ever so slightly dubious lawyer, Saul Goodman. Here is a marketing genius, with his landmark office (above a shopping mall) and his motto – “better call Saul”. Take a look here at the genius in action. And what this man doesn’t know about branding? Well, his real name is McGill but he changed it because he thought people would be more ready to trust a Jewish lawyer than an Irish one. Like I said, genius.

    Secondly we have Los Pollos Hermanos – the Chicken Brothers – Gus Fring’s successful chain of fried chicken restaurants. They have a special recipe which appeals to their target demographic (research, you see) and a great brand which is re-enforced by their advertising, and a great little logo. But most of all it is the customer-centric ethic, driven from the top by Gus himself, which sets them apart. Gus works from his restaurants and works behind the counter, he really understands what life is like for the people on the front line and he knows all about the importance of delivering on your brand though your people. And how to distribute drugs.

    Finally there is Walt himself, Walt knows that in the cut and thrust of the business world, a mild-mannered and unsuccessful red-haired moustachioed chemistry teacher called Walter just isn’t going to embody his vision and his product. Enter, instead, bald, goatee-bearded badass-hat-and-sunglasses-wearing Heisenberg, a man so bad that his picture appears in Mexican shrines to be prayed to by assassins. The lesson is never be afraid to reinvent, to align your brand to your vision and your product, and deliver against it relentlessly.

    In the end, Walt can look back on pride on what he has achieved, and leaves the business a genuinely happy man. He has rebuilt his relationship with his protege, and ensured his vision and product remained his – he even manages to deliver on his initial purpose – to provide for his family after he has gone. Who amongst us would not wish to leave our respective businesses feeling the same way?

    Although, admittedly, probably without a bullet in your abdomen.

    In previous blogs I have discussed the meaning of Organisational Development and associated fields of which I have a passing interest.

    When I talk to people about what I do they often say “So that’s kind of like HR?” And I usually reply that no, it’s not the same thing as HR – I usually describe OD as standing alongside HR (although there are compelling arguments that HR is actually part of OD; I have worked in an OD department where my team, which looked after organisational culture, was alongside the HR department, with a separate Learning and Development Programme and then the Strategy team. Interesting.)

    Any road up, what I do isn’t HR but it fits nicely alongside HR. So what, then, is HR? My snappy and pat answer for this is simple: it’s getting the right people in the right place doing the right things in the right way within an organisation. Simple, so let’s see how complicated it actually is. And how OD is intertwined with the whole process.

    The right people: you need people with the right skills, sure, but in my book it’s more important they have the right attitude and the right mindset, because it’s easier to teach skills than to change someone’s personality. This involves recruitment, but it also involves attraction – to get the right people you need to attract them in the first place, which means your employer branding needs to be coherent and authentic. I’ve discussed employer branding before, and will again, but the key thing for this blog is to ensure that the experience a candidate has during attraction, recruitment and on-boarding reconcile with their experience once they are in and on the job.

    The right place: this is where we come to “the other OD” – organisational design. I have worked with many practitioners of this Dark Art, although I cannot and would not claim to be an expert. However, that will never prevent me from having an opinion, and in my humble one, Org Design is all about ensuring your structures, reporting lines, are aligned to the strategic aims of the organisation. As such is needs to be fleet of foot and fluid, keeping up with any shifts in strategy as the organisation develops, alongside the market in which the business is operating. 

    It’s worth reflecting here, I think, that reporting lines are extremely important; not as lines of control, but as lines of communication; no matter how sophisticated your formal comms channels, line managers are still, for my money, the most important and influential comms channel in any organisation – and, as such, somewhere where it is vital you have the right people.

    The right things – this covers the whole piece from role design to L&D to reward, recognition, competency frameworks and half of the whole appraisal process. As with the organisational structure, you need to make sure that roles are clearly and explicitly aligned to the organisational strategy – and are similarly fluid. It’s really important that the people doing things in your business know they are the things that are going to help the business achieve its objectives and fulfil its purpose. And it’s just as important that they are the right things.

    The right way – this brings us to the second part of appraisal – how people are doing things – and this is the key grey area between HR and (my) OD – behaviours are an aspect of and, indeed, an output of the organisational culture, as I have discussed several times before. Your appraisal system should recognise and reward the right behaviours, just as much as the things they do.

    I recall a story told me by one of the best leaders I ever worked with, who rose through the ranks of a call centre to become customer services director. He would often share with pride the fact that he sacked the most successful sales performer he had in his team because of how they achieved that success – alongside sales came bullying, intimidation and putting themselves before the team. Said customer service also fought to have behavioural measures alone on appraisals and targets. A truly great leader.

    Anyway, that is the quick summary of what HR does, and it also needs the enabling functions – the Employee Relations team to ensure that the fluid structures and roles are changed effectively; the reward and payroll and systems and records teams to make sure that the right people really are in the right place and ensure that when they do the right things in the right way they are accurately compensated and recorded for posterity.

    Clearly OD (and L&D) has an impact and input to every part of this model; culture, engagement levels and leadership all feed directly into to employer brand and how aligned it is with the actual experience of working in the organisation; culture equally defines how comfortable a fit those “right” people are.

    Role profiles and competency frameworks are also key cultural artefacts – they are things that demonstrate what the culture is in an organisation; having  effective OD expertise and input can help an HR team align these to the values that you want to have within the organisation.

    Reward strategies, HR policies and even payroll operation also benefit, in my experience, in having that clarity on what the organisation is here to do that also lies at the heart of OD. One of the best conversations I ever had in work began with “Why do I need to know what we sell, I work in HR”, and went on to see a series of lightbulb moments with the person who said it, and with the other members of their team.

    So have a think. Do you have the right people, in the right place doing the right things in the right place? Can your HR team deliver that? What else can help? Have a think.