We’ve reached that time of year where everyone is just about focussed on the new year ahead, already thinking about their New Year’s resolutions in the hope that this is the year they’ll be able to stick to them longer than a few weeks. We hear the phrase, ‘New year, new me’, as we make promises to ourselves that next year we’re going to try and be a better human, one way or another.
In doing so, do we make our resolutions for the new year too ambitious and, sometimes, too strict? We see it as almost a punishment for over-indulging and enjoying the holidays and yet, most of us don’t stick to our resolutions because we’re too hard on ourselves and we can’t make them a habit. We’re in for another turbulent year ahead in an already hectic world and if we set ourselves completely wild new year’s resolutions, we’ll only add to the chaos in our lives.
Instead of conjuring up really out-there resolutions and then feeling struck down, we should be kinder to ourselves and look at improving what we already know and do. With this in mind, here’s a manageable and sticky approach to New Year’s resolutions and a look into what we could be doing more of next year:
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we learn something new every day. It could be a new piece of technology that we’ve read about in the news, a new way of working that we’ve learnt from a podcast or a new way of thinking we’ve learnt from our friends. The digital resources around us are saturated with new content every day and we need to continue to take advantage of it. As well as continuing to learn new facts, figures and information, we also need to learn more from our mistakes too.
This makes me think about the parallels between Samsung launching its first foldable phone and Greggs launching its first vegan sausage roll a few years back. Samsung, having experienced a string of hardware problems in the past, chose to rush its highly anticipated product to market only to discover that the product was flawed once in the hands of reviewers. Greggs, on the other hand, did well. Whilst it may not have been the first brand to break into the vegan sausage roll market, it executed a campaign that boosted shares by 13%, the best performer on the FTSE 100 at the time.
The difference? Greggs listened and learned from its audience. The spike in veganism and vegan-friendly products over the last couple of years meant that it was the perfect time for Greggs to enter the market. So much so that everyone wanted to taste the new product. That’s where listening and learning can take you.
One of the things I admire about Bill Gates that he talks about in his documentary, Inside Bill’s Brain, is his ‘think weeks’. Twice a year, he’ll spend a week locked away in a secret cabin reading papers on all different kinds of topics, expanding his mind and outlook of the world. When I learned about this, I was in complete admiration and jealous! One of the busiest people in the world still finds time for himself and uses it in a productive way. So, for us, there are really no excuses.
Whilst I’m not suggesting that we all run off to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and read all the Jane Austen novels backwards, we should make the time to read something outside of our daily reading routine. Most of us will probably read the latest headlines, social media updates or newsletters, so why not try exploring a new platform? Maybe find a new subreddit or Forbes columnist, even broadening out to the likes of podcasts and audiobooks to find another way to digest information. Reading and digesting information helps us in many ways whether it’s inspiration for a blog, learning something or just keeping up to date with the world. And we should be doing more if it.
Walk into a gym in January and no doubt it will be heaving with people trying to shave off the pounds after Christmas. Then, in February, it begins to die down because people have stretched themselves too much. Instead of going in at the deep end when it comes to exercise, try making small changes. Remember, we’re not starting new, we’re trying to improve what we already do. That could mean walking to work rather than taking the tube or taking a regular walk round the office to stretch your legs.
Wellness remains a huge trending topic, and everyone has a desire to be healthier, but that doesn’t mean we have to push ourselves or plan to run a marathon. Small changes and switches to our normal routine is enough to clear our mind and start fresh.
More quiet time
With social media and news outlets churning out content every hour of the day, there’s never a quiet moment in comms. That means as comms professionals, we also have little quiet time. Although it’s in our nature to work in fast-paced environments and keep busy, we also need to make time for more quiet moments to avoid complete exhaustion and burnout. That could mean taking ourselves away from the office for a couple of hours or working from a different environment. A quiet environment where you become lost in your own thoughts is important to let creative thinking flow.
More face-to-face time
I knew a headmaster who called any TV a moron’s lantern, but these days the email has become the modern-day mind pollutant. Every time we come back from a long holiday or break; we dread the first day back where we have to sift through the mountain of emails we’ve received. As well as taking up a lot of our time, emails can also be poor at getting our message fully across because we don’t have any audio or visual cues to justify the tone or style of the communication.
Psychology professor, Albert Mehbrain, says that there are three basic elements in face-to-face communications: words, the tone of voice and body language. And according to his study, words account for only 7% of the messages, meaning tone of voice and body language make up 38% and 55% respectively.
So, to really make our message count and mean something, it’s best to meet face to face or at least have a conversation on the phone. An email will only get us so far in terms of communicating and building a relationship so face-to-face time is valuable.
Staying strong in the New Year
We often associate the New Year with starting afresh and whilst it’s good to be ambitious and motivated to do more good things, we should also maintain and do more of the things we enjoy too.
In that case, maybe we should drink more coffee because sometimes, and for all the right reasons, we need that extra burst of energy!
Or maybe we should commit and focus on just one resolution that will last all year.
Here’s wishing all our clients, employees and colleagues in the comms industry a good reprieve from the year that was and happy planning for the New Year!
As revealed in Netflix’s new documentary, ‘White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch’, today’s company is very different from the brand of the 1990s and early 2000s. For more than a decade, Abercrombie and Fitch have been in the process of rebuilding its reputation; this reveals some interesting lessons that we can take away as PR and comms professionals.
In its heyday, Abercrombie & Fitch (Abercrombie) was worth more than $5 billion and had more than 1000 stores worldwide. During this period, the company was led by Mike Jeffries, who once revealed in that now-famous 2006 interview that the company’s marketing strategy was deliberately exclusionary. He only wanted the ‘attractive’, ‘cool kids’ wearing Abercrombie. If we look a little deeper, we see that this was not merely a surface level PR strategy – you want what you can’t have, right? Instead, racist and exclusionary policies were embedded within the company’s culture. While these policies once appeared to benefit Abercrombie, as attitudes changed, they quickly eroded the company’s reputation, which has had a fundamental impact on the business’s long-term growth.
The question is; what can the demise of Abercrombie teach us about the importance of managing your company’s reputation?
As the company’s figurehead, the CEO will always have a significant impact on the reputation of your company – both positive and negative! The former CEO of Abercrombie, Mike Jeffries, who once led the brand’s revival, would ultimately become its biggest liability. Jeffries was known for his bold ideas and commitment to the brand. However, he was also uncompromising, unorthodox, and did not take criticism well.
While Jeffries has long since left the company, Abercrombie is still working to ameliorate the damage caused by his tenure as CEO. Ultimately, Jeffries should not have been left to manage the company for so long. That being said, the current CEO, Fran Horowitz, has been working hard to ensure that the company is accountable for past mistakes. In a statement to CNN, Horowitz said, “we own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership,” adding that the company is now “a place of belonging”.
While the company has a long way to go, the importance of leadership accountability is evident here. Suppose a business fails to hold its leader accountable or recognise when it is time for leadership change. In that case, long-term damage will be inflicted upon the company’s reputation.
As times change, often should a company’s values. Failure to make the necessary changes will eventually impact the reputation of any company. When Jeffries began his tenure as CEO, he built the brand upon racist and discriminatory values. These values quickly began to seep into company culture and policies, hiring practices, and even the designs on the clothes.
In 2003, 8 former employees sued Abercrombie for race and sex discrimination. Without admitting any guilt, the company settled and was required to pay $40 million and sign a decree to change its practices and promote diversity.
For a while, the company continued to get away with its discriminatory practices. However, these days consumers value and expect brands to promote diversity and inclusion. Abercrombie failed to move with the times, which meant that as attitudes changed, the brand became toxic, and their failure to own up to past mistakes came back to haunt them. Companies should continually audit their values and policies to ensure that they are promoting diversity and inclusion and that they are not breaking the law, for that matter!
The demise of Abercrombie from a multi-billion dollar brand to a disgraced clothing company can teach us a few things about managing your company’s reputation:
The past few weeks must have been pretty stormy in the KPMG comms team. KPMG’s ex-chairman, Bill Michael, recently came under fire for making controversial remarks about his employees “playing the victim card” and “moaning” about their circumstances during the lockdown. The comms team reacted fast and the organisation was quick to make changes – and communicate them well! However, it’s unfortunate that most of the damage took place in a matter of days as Michael’s story trial was analysed and scrutinised by the media in no time at all. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done with repairing KPMG’s damaged reputation and the comms teams are more than likely sorting it as we speak, but what would you do if this happened to your organisation?
Of course, this question may feel like nothing more than hypothetical but getting stuck in these kinds of dilemmas isn’t as far away as you may want to believe. It could be something as simple as a video leaking of your CEO or Senior Director saying something in private that goes against the company vision or values. It could be a spokesperson retweeting something without fully understanding the implications. Or even just someone forgetting to change from their social media account to their personal account and tweeting something inappropriate from the company feed. It may seem unlikely, but these things have happened countless times before. Cast your mind back to 2017 when Uber’s founder Travis Kalanic’s argument with a driver was leaked – it cost him his job and a hit to his reputation. We’ve explored this further in our Reputation Shapers guide that you can access here.
There is no doubt that an over-exuberant or insensitive leader somewhere will make mistakes again, and there is so much being written right now about leading with empathy. But, how can you prevent this from happening in the first place and protect your organisation if the heavens open and you find yourself in the middle of a communications storm? Here are three tips to help with weathering the storm:
Take time to train
Just because someone is a good speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to speak to the world. It is so important that senior teams are trained and fully briefed before stepping into the media limelight. And it’s not just about knowing how to speak well with the media, it’s about knowing how to stay on message and communicate appropriately. Similarly, it’s important to know what kind of person they are. Are they likely to lose their temper? Are they stubborn? If so, these things could become an issue and understanding what they may need and supporting them is equally as important.
Remember, it’s not just the media we have to be prepared for. The drama with KPMG stemmed from an internal discussion at a town hall, Uber’s issues arose from a leaked conversation with an employee and countless figureheads have been cancelled on social media for speaking out of turn. Just like the timeless saying goes: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Staying calm in a crisis
Being in a crisis, regardless of the situation, is a stressful ordeal for anyone to face but being prepared for it makes the experience a bit more palatable. With any media-related plans that have even the slightest possibility of turning sour, your comms teams must be prepared for a crisis situation.
If you aren’t prepared and something has come up to bite you, much like the KPMG comms team must have felt recently, the first step is to pause and understand just how damaging this is. Knowing what you are working with will help to rationalise the next steps and understand how much help and support you may need. This can also help to understand how rapid your response should be. Jumping on the issue too soon could make it seem insincere but leaving it too late leaves time for speculation to occur.
Secondly, what is the best way to communicate your response? Is it sending a press release, or holding a press conference? Or even just focusing on one interview to clear the person’s name? Whatever is the best practice for the situation, stick with that and follow it through until the end. Depending on the scenario, actions may be your next step. When looking at KPMG, the cultural lack of awareness might not end with the removal of the chairman but it’s a start – this needs to be followed up with proactive action from the company to get their reputation back on track to prove to their people, clients and the outside world that they are doing things to actively improve these situations.
Finally, ensure you are monitoring the situation and staying on your toes. Just because the news cycle is over, doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you!
Crystal clear communications
The vocabulary we use to communicate is just as important as the way we communicate. An easy way to ensure the right language is used is by accurately preparing for communications – this can be through detailed briefing documents with sections that focus on topics and phrases to actively avoid, or in-person training sessions. Granted, pressure or nerves may get in the way, and that cannot be helped, but giving support and practising should help to avoid potential mishaps.
The only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is saying nothing at all. When faced with a difficult question, it may feel safer to say “no comment” or divert from the question itself but this can be just as damaging. Recently, Matt Hancock came under fire from Piers Morgan on This Morning following the free school meals scandal. Instead of answering the question, Hancock merely recited the “safe” phrases and unsurprisingly, the interview spread like wildfire. Should his comms team have been prepared for this question? Absolutely! But communications can be unpredictable and with the power of social media, one foot in the wrong direction can become a crisis in a matter of minutes.
Getting it right with communications is tough – the world is unpredictable and what grabs people’s attention is changing every day. As comms professionals, we must ensure that we are prepared for all outcomes, good and bad. These tips will help you to prepare your teams and leaders for communications gone bad but sometimes it helps to get an outsider to help. We run workshops and personal coaching programmes that can help with these issues and prevent them before they arise – you can read more about our services and offerings here.
It seems like a lifetime ago that we saw a wave of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ memes sweeping the UK. However, many of the communications from Boris Johnson and the Queen have had a decidedly wartime tone, so it seems fitting to bring them back into the spotlight again.
During the ‘Great Pause’ we’ve ‘Kept Calm’, and now there are mutterings of ‘A Gradual Return’ which won’t be big and won’t be fast. The worst thing that you can do is ‘Carry On’ as you were, and pretend that nothing changed.
Because at the risk of sounding like one of the glib ‘experts’, a lot has changed, and perhaps most importantly, people have changed. On the flip side, change is stressful, and people hate uncertainty, so many communications leaders (and I daresay our PM is included in this group) have been struggling to strike a balance between keeping plans flexible and presenting a stable vision of the future.
So how can (and should) you change your plans and recast your thoughts, being mindful of everything that has happened? It would be wrong of me to offer ‘concrete’ answers, because every single person’s experience will be different, and every organisation has adapted in varying degrees – but at the same time, we’re also conscious that during stressful times, it can be hard to see the big picture, so here are some prompts to help you keep your thinking straight.
Planning from the End
Boris Johnson’s announcement on the 10th of May left a lot of room for manoeuvring, especially if the UK sees a ‘second spike’. However, with the news that some of the technology giants will be working from home until Christmas, it’s fair to say that it’ll be at least Q4 before we see a return to anything resembling what we’d usually call normal.
However, this does give us a firm timeline; marketing and communications staff should plan for a linear return to (a new) normal over this period. Of course, there will be spikes and dips – especially if or when we see another outbreak – but you can plan for that too.
And before you think of what to communicate, it’s important to think of who you’re communicating with. To help keep your thoughts in order, here are a few starters for ten.
Your staff and partners are the single most important group to communicate with, and they will have had a very broad base of experiences during lockdown. From parents caring for children, to new recruits working in small flats, everyone has been managing differently. However, there are a few constants in what they’ll be looking for.
– Clarity: Although government guidance may be less than crystal clear, there’s still time – and a need – to give concise, well-reasoned guidance to staff about working patterns, support during work hours, and an anticipated timeline for any changes. With the furlough scheme potentially extended until September, now is the time to plan how to communicate with staff, as well as making sure that non-furloughed employees understand where they stand, and also feel appreciated.
– Plan from the end: You also need to plan back from the end of the lockdown; as my colleague Charlotte said in her ‘Communicators dealing with Sudden Change’ Playbook, people might not remember what you did, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Were you inspiring, honest and did you treat them fairly? Or were you indecisive, secretive and sneaky? How will your current communication plans make them feel – and how do you need to plan for this? It’s perfectly acceptable to be firm and fair, but do be realistic: you may need a plan for re-hiring if a number of staff decide to leave, for example.
Customers, Prospects and Partners:
Covid-19 will undoubtedly have affected your customers, whether that’s the general public or other businesses. Unless you’re the likes of Zoom or a hand sanitiser manufacturer, experts like Sir Martin Sorrell have advised that you can’t ‘spend [on advertising] your way out of a recession’. Similarly, a number of pieces of research have suggested that whilst consumers don’t want brands to stop advertising during this time, they do want brands to be more sensitive to their needs – in some cases, switching to advice and wellbeing messages, rather than offers and promotions. With that in mind, it’s important to consider:
– New priorities: Many customers will have shifted to what’s truly important – for example, essentials and products that can be used at home, like family technology, loungewear and indoor sports equipment. It’s important to remember that this won’t last forever, but making it easy for customers to find what they need will absolutely be remembered post-Covid.
– Content consumption: Customers may well have changed how they consume content – for example, not many of us are commuting past billboards anymore! At the same time, with general stress levels higher than before, it’s important to be concise, clear, and unless it’s constructive and necessary, not present overly negative views – we’ve all heard them on the news and social channels!
– Reassurance: Many customers, prospects and investors will also want to know that if they’re buying from you – whether it’s products or shares – that you’re a stable provider. What has Covid-19 done to your 3-year plan, for example? Does your company roadmap still feature the key products and services that you promised last year? Is your company financially stable, and what are your ambitions? Staff may be blindsided by these questions during sales or marketing meetings, so it’s important to be prepared for them.
Where do we go now?
Coronavirus has meant a significant rethinking of business plans and processes, but now that a phased return to ‘normal’ is in sight, it’s time for you to keep calm and to get back to planning, working out what your phased return to normal will look like.
And whatever you do, remember our two principles of good communications during Covid-19 – be kind, and remove uncertainty where you can. If your communication ticks these two boxes, you’re safe to proceed, but if not, it might just need a fresh pair of eyes or (better yet) a fresh brain.
We have a wealth of assets that can help you set out your communications plan, whatever the audience. So regardless of the audience and the changes you’ve been through, we’ve got you covered – and if you’d like to discuss further how you can keep calm and carry on (differently) please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s a tired trope; a new set of company values, trotted out by the senior management team at an all-hands meeting and posted up around the office, the corners gently curling over time, extra letters added to certain words by the office joker. Values often smack of ‘do as I do’-ism, with few senior staff paying them little more than lip service after the first week – or worse, being used as a stick to berate employees when they don’t perform well.
Company values are certainly being tested right now; it’s a difficult time for everyone. But why do so many company values fail? And are they worth holding onto at all?
Take a stand
First and foremost, I do believe that company values are worth keeping. I believe that their failure is more often than not a failure of execution, planning and responsibility, rather than an inherent failing in the values themselves.
The USP of a company is something that can and should influence everything that it says and does. For example, as of March 2020, Primark still does not have an online shop. The brand is all about browsing, buying in volume, and the in-store experience. Ikea’s brand experience is all about affordability, the inescapable nature of its store layouts, friendly staff and great meatballs.
If your brand has a USP – and I do hope it does – then values are a natural extension of this. For example, one of Ikea’s values is cost-consciousness. I’d challenge you to tell the difference between a piece of furniture bought from Argos and one bought from Ikea (Billy shelves aside!) – but the experience of going into a store, or even buying on the two websites is radically different. This difference percolates through from a company’s USP, from its strategy, and ultimately, from its people.
And as Ed Catmull, formerly of Pixar, says in his book Creativity Inc, your company will have a culture whether you like it or not; your only choice is whether or not to be involved in setting it!
Company values are no different – your staff will behave as they see fit, and in the ways dictated and demonstrated by their managers, and their managers in turn. The CEO who walked on-stage at an all-hands meeting brandishing a paintball gun (true story!) and told staff “I could shoot you right now, but I don’t need to – you work for me, I own you” says far more about company values than any poster put up by the HR team. Chris Pearse, author of the Broken CEO, says that behaviour trumps values every time, but I’d say this is a point of semantics. Your behaviour is your values – or to get biblical about it ‘faith without works is dead’.
Doing the Right Thing
Values spread from the top, but also from the bottom. So whilst a key part of a successful company values programme is making sure that your leadership team lives and breathes the values, making sure that your HR team is hiring in line with your values is also crucial. After all, it’s a relatively straightforward matter to teach skills to a new hire – it’s much harder to teach the right attitude.
This makes it absolutely key that hiring teams understand the attitudes, behaviours and approaches that candidates have, and making sure that they match what the company stands for. Having to send an employee on a training course is an easy feat – correcting cultural conflict and tension is not.
As well as being desirable traits, a statement of values is essentially a permission document. Like the laws of a country, it gives employees permission to do something – or not to do it. If one of your company values is ‘brave’, for example, then you shouldn’t reprimand staff for trying new things.
Of course, it’s also important to apply a little human common sense to values. There will be times when it’s not appropriate to uphold a particular company value – or times when they conflict in a given situation. It would be all too easy, for example, for our Firefly company values of ‘determined’ and ‘team spirited’ to clash, as we drive each other mad with a fanatical devotion to one challenge or another. Again, those who take values rigidly or as an excuse to beat employees over the head will generally find them not being upheld!
Tying it all up
In short, a good set of values creates an ethos, a feeling, a set of behavioural permissions, similar to a vision and mission statement. We love Showpad’s mantra of being ‘good natured ass kickers’ – and its values reflect this, including humility, simplicity, togetherness and diversity, to name but a few. It’s an expression of company intent.
After all, as I’ve said, there are many companies doing the same thing, making the same thing, offering the same service today. What makes each one stand out is not only its brand, style and reputation, but how its employees conduct themselves. Can you imagine ordering a pristine new iPhone, only to find that it’d been hastily thrown into its box, rather than being the minimalist, joyous un-boxing experience that we all expect today? That’s a matter of staff behaviour – and staff behaviour is a matter of values, whether you choose to get involved in them or not.
If you need help establishing your company values, Firefly runs a series of workshops helping leaders and communications teams in understanding their own history, purpose, vision, mission and values – as well as how to communicate this and ‘walk the talk’. For more information, please contact email@example.com
In the run up to International Women’s Day, it was only too fitting that a few of us Fireflies attended an event hosted by Women of Wearables, a leading global organisation supporting women and diversity, to find out what it’s really like being a woman starting her own tech business.
Four formidable female founders, all in the health- and wellbeing-tech space, took part in a very honest and open panel discussion to share their personal experiences:
The discussions were so relatable, and my colleague Charlotte even admitted to falling in love (professionally, of course) with one of the panellists.
The insight and advice shared can be applied in many different scenarios – it wasn’t just for entrepreneurs or women. So, if you’re like us and enjoy feeding your mind, here’s our key takeaways:
Remember, tech is just the enabler
Contrary to what you may think, the technology is far from the be all and end all. Everyone on the panel unanimously agreed that you mustn’t focus in on the technology itself but start with the problem you’re looking to solve. The technology is just bridging the gap between a need and a service. You need to know what you wish to build before you can then find people who can help you build it.
You will also have to adapt and change the technology as your business grows and evolves, learning through experimenting what does and doesn’t work. But make sure your overall purpose and goal is super clear – and always keep this front of mind.
Don’t fall into the trap of self-doubt
Asked if she could remove one barrier to make her business more successful, Kim’s candid answer was herself! Always pretending that her business was just some small thing she was working on, she was afraid to admit she really wanted it to be a huge success – but that held her back.
For all the panellists, they struggled to identify as women in tech and Kim’s thoughts are far from uncommon. Karen added that more needs to be done to help instil more self-belief in women from a young age. It has to start with education, as well as addressing health issues – both mental and physical – that’s how to help women thrive. Sometimes these problems could be solved or alleviated with something as easy as a simple phone call, but we need to grant that quick access for women.
Share the burden
We all know the phrase no (wo) man is an island, and this couldn’t hold truer than these tech entrepreneurs. You can’t do it on your own (you will just burn out) and building a strong team is key. Electra made the great point that delegating to colleagues and letting them make mistakes is a learning curve for both of you.
For Kim, taking on an advisor was a gamechanger– they were instrumental in helping her to vet investors, set up and prepare for meetings, continuously guiding her through this unknown process. Also tap into that hive mind and try to find business mentors who are from very different fields with varying expertise. As Electra said: never be afraid of being the least knowledgeable person in the room – that’s how you learn!
It also doesn’t have to be experts that you turn to but can be your own family. Kim brought along her husband to an investor meeting (and he was fantastic), and Sam involves her son in helping with her business’ photography. When dedicating so much time to a new venture, there can be associated guilt of the effect on family life but getting them to be a part of it means they will not only be a huge help and support but also excited and fully on board too.
Help others speak up
As well as your supporters, build up your advocates. Sam explained that with her particular product, women were reluctant to speak up about there being a problem – they were just grateful to have anything at all. Through working with those women who did believe in it, she was able to tease out voices of those women who were shy and less confident.
Here, social media was an important and powerful tool for showing there is a choice. You do not have to just settle. Often people do not know there are other possibilities out there or feel that they can pursue them, but advocates are a great means to build up both awareness and confidence.
Most importantly of all: Start now. It’s never going to be perfect and the stars won’t suddenly magically align. And that can be anything – a business, a project or pivoting your strategy. It isn’t easy but take that first step – even if that is just writing your idea down. Once you do, never give up. If you are sure that what you want to do is really needed (and be truly honest with yourself about that), be tenacious. As these women showed, you will start to see the results. Afterall, if you don’t do it, who will?
When you think about successful and well-known leaders in the business world, which words spring to mind? How about strong? Decisive? Innovative? Disruptive? How about wealthy or unscrupulous?
What about ‘kind’? Did that make the top ten – or even the top twenty?
In our experience, kindness is rarely seen as a positive attribute for a leader. Despite an increasingly woke business world, where there’s a growing focus on sustainability and transparency, simple kindness is still often dismissed as a ‘nice to have’ that organisations just can’t afford or don’t prioritise.
Let’s unpack that a bit more, because as a human, there seems to be something wrong here. Why isn’t kindness desirable in the leadership community?
Show me the money!
It’s a really easy question to answer, and unfortunately, it’s not pretty. More often than not, ‘kind’ can be associated with words like ‘nice’, and if we’re being brutally honest, some see kindness as ‘weak’. There’s often an ‘attitude hangover’ from the eighties, nineties and noughties where leaders model themselves on figures like the Wolf of Wall Street or other characters from fast-talking macho TV shows or cultures.
Similarly, there’s often a feeling that kind people get taken for granted or taken advantage of. The anchor of London Real, Brian Rose, puts it neatly “[that] if we hang out with lower status monkeys, we’re going to go down the tube with them” – as if there’s some kind of contagious ‘neediness’ virus that’ll spread from people who need help to those helping them. When you think about it, this barely makes logical sense – if you’re the one giving, you’re not needy by definition.
That said, there’s little doubt that the business world is a tough place; leaders have to make difficult decisions, conduct disciplinary hearings, make people redundant, get the best deal for the organisation, and stay smart. It’s clear to see why the default path for leadership is often being as cut-throat with your employees as you are with your competitors, but it’s not the only way to be.
Is it possible to be kind and a leader?
It’s a horrible experience to lead a round of redundancies or close a facility, but it’s possible to do it with kindness, treating employees with respect, as humans. Your competitors might profit from ‘dirty deals’ for years – but in the age of transparency, they might also be found out. After all, McDonald’s was completely untouched during the ‘horsemeat scandal’ of 2013, despite reporters’ best efforts to dig up dirt.
Similarly, a CEO can be undermined, even destroyed, by a review on Glassdoor or an allegation of misconduct.
Being kind is a long-term investment in your brand. Geoffrey Colon, Head of Brand Studio at Microsoft Advertising, recently gave a talk at CES, where he mentioned that Satya Nadella is encouraging all Microsoft employees to not only think about what they can do, but what they should do. Essentially his line of thinking was that brands can’t ‘just’ do a good job anymore; they have to serve a long-term purpose and solve a real human problem. This means staying relevant – and perhaps more importantly, staying profitable. This is a serious reputational consideration – and from this perspective, establishing kindness as a corporate value makes serious sense.
It doesn’t mean being weak; quite the opposite. Being kind is often having difficult conversations sooner, but in a fashion that treats your employees like human beings.
To give another example, when Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors in 2014, she had to deal with the recalling of over two million cars after issues resulted in the tragic loss of life. Despite the awful circumstances, Barra communicated with a kindness, respect and presence that firmly established her as one of the greatest leaders in industry today. Most of the press articles covering Mary’s statements at the time begin with her opening comments, which express deep sympathy for the victims, before being candid about the root causes of the issues.
Barra took responsibility. She expressed candid regret, and she explained what she would do to not only address the immediate concerns, but also the systemic problems across GM. Her approach was kind, but it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t weak.
But Barra wasn’t only a great leader with the big issues; she reputedly changed GM’s entire dress code from a long-winded document to ‘dress appropriately’, treating staff with the trust and respect to make their own decisions.
None of these policies are the sign of a weak, unsuccessful leader. In fact, under Barra’s leadership, GM’s share price has been consistently higher than prior to her joining. Similarly, even the most bullish of leaders – such as Oren Klaff, who trains leaders to pitch to Venture Capitalists – admits that he can be ‘nice’. Opinionated, of course, strong when he needs to be, but still ‘nice’!
Furthermore, a general change is coming; some leaders who established themselves in earlier decades are learning new values or handing over the reins to younger, more woke generations – but it takes time. However, there is evidence that younger generations are calling out antiquated behaviour more often in the ‘OK Boomer’ movement. Admittedly, this isn’t the kindest way to do it, but nonetheless, evidence that there is a significant generational change coming!
In fairness, many kind leaders do exist in older generations – at Firefly we’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best people in the industry.
Remind me why I should be kind?
There’s really only one reason to be a kind leader: it’s the right thing to do. But if that’s not enough for you, here’s a few other factors to consider.
– According to the University of Warwick, happy people are 12% more productive. In fact, a Google study found that increasing employee support resulted in a 37% rise in employee job satisfaction.
– Satisfied employees stay in their roles, and they work harder. Companies have both ‘character’ reputations (‘do I like you?’) and ‘capability’ reputations (‘are you going to do what you said you’d do?’) and if you erode the former then you’re purely dependent on the latter. This means that people are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when your products and services fail – so it’s beneficial to have a good character reputation.
– Applying kindness to the wider business function and environment pays; funds that specialise in clean energy, water and forestry like Pictet Environmental Opportunities have seen a 50% rise in value in the last four years.
– Customers appreciate kindness – and this attitude comes from the top. Ritz Carlton hotels are famous for small but meaningful acts that drive repeat business – again and again.
– Kindness drives return business, engaging customers – and this brings a 23% higher ‘share of wallet’, compared to competitors, according to Gallup research
Get involved, or get out of the C-suite
Not all leaders choose to actively motivate their staff, instead relying on pay and benefits to do that for them but for those that do, it’s often portrayed as a binary choice between the carrot and the stick. In the twenties, it’s not that simple anymore; after all, while a kind, firm, fair leader can motivate staff, they also empower staff to motivate themselves, supporting them, being an ally and an advocate for them. This falls somewhere between the stick and the carrot. [Ed. A ‘stirrot’? No? A ‘carrick’? I’ll stop.]
Either way, kind leadership is a step forward to a better brand of business, one that is more respectful to its employees, its suppliers and the world at large. And in this politically volatile, economically uncertain age, that’s something that we sorely need.
Calling all comms directors!
The business case for improving and protecting a reputation cuts across an entire organisation. HR takes an interest as it’s important to be seen as a good employer, whilst it is IT’s job to safeguard the organisation’s assets, including, in some part, its reputation. Then you have the obvious departments like marketing and sales where reputation is a key element of their success.
When we (Firefly) talk about reputation, we split this out from brand or branding. We tend to think about ‘brand’ as what an organisation says about itself, whilst reputation is what others think about the organisation. This means that reputations are largely built by the experiences and interactions we hear from others – customers, partners, media, employees, candidates… even the ‘robots’ like Google and Alexa. And it’s our job as communication professionals to influence these experiences and make the most of interactions.
With these multiple influences on your reputation you must ensure you’ve spoken to the right people in the business when creating your communication strategy for 2020. And have you asked the right questions? So, who’s on the list?
Marketing and sales
You’ll have likely worked together with this group as they have the most to gain from having the right reputation. To state the obvious, being known and recognised helps your marketing and sales team boost leads and convert new customers. But they’re a group you must stay close to, and regularly check in with to ensure your communication programme delivers value.
Make sure you ask them:
HR and recruitment
To attract and retain the best people, the reputation of the organisation counts. In fact, pay won’t always sway candidates, as 50% say they wouldn’t work for a company with a bad reputation. Organisations that neglect their reputation as a good employer will risk losing great people. Therefore, what needs to be highlighted is who the organisation is as an employer – what people get from working there, what exciting innovations are happening, what’s the vision and mission of the business.
Make sure you ask them:
Leaders are intrinsically linked to an organisation’s reputation and many stakeholders will want to understand who’s steering the ship. The reputation of the individuals in senior roles will impact the broader reputation of the organisation – in most cases adding strength through the compelling communication of an organisation’s vision, mission and purpose.
Make sure you ask them:
Product and service development
Many teams will be feeling the external pressure to be more sustainable, to be more innovative, essentially to ‘move on’ from the old ways – or simply to continue making better products at a lower cost. For example, products using lots of plastic unnecessarily, or software with a dated user interface will be quickly pushed to one side, and a reputation of being out of touch can quickly develop. Comms and development teams should connect, share customer insights and ensure what’s being communicated aligns to the future trajectory of the organisation. Those in charge of roadmaps will have this insight.
Make sure you ask them:
Security and IT
Unlike the other departments, working with your IT and security team is more about protecting reputation, rather than proactively building a certain reputation. Almost every organisation has been hit by some sort of cyber-attack – some more serious than others, and some with consequences for more than just the organisation itself. This is when security and IT teams link up to comms to ensure the situation is handled correctly and reputational damage is minimised.
Make sure you ask them:
With all this insight and understanding, the communication strategy you create is more likely to serve the whole organisation. It’s especially important to do this exercise when your organisation is going through change – which is pretty much all the time, right?
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