Your Employer Brand – What has to change to make it the pumping heart of a business today?

Simon Barrow’s virtual talk to Times of India people management audience in Delhi

Your Employer Brand – What has to change to make it the pumping heart of a business today?

Employer Brand Academy

Thank you for asking me to speak today and let’s hope that the UK/ India relationship benefits from having our first Indian Prime Minister! My purpose is to give you some frank views on change in order to ensure that your employer brand is truly the pumping heart of the organisation. My advice to investment firms has long been to study the people just as carefully as the numbers. I’ll start with some views of the world of work right now, endeavouring to cope with changes vastly more than I have experienced in my business life. I‘ll talk about the implications for leadership, for people management both line management and HR.
The global context towers above our business issues in a way that we cannot ignore when we think about our working lives.

Let’s start with the world of work. I am concerned at the slow return to the office. The latest figures from the City of London are 40% so far which I find depressing and makes me thankful that most of my working life was where I met, worked with and shared experiences and ideas together and formed relationships for the rest of my career. Of course it is perfectly possible to do good work at home but it misses humanity and weakens the sense of loyalty and pride in the organisation, and shared ambition. Furthermore, the tension between loyalty and ambition is a growing issue. Quick story- Back in 2018 I spoke at China’s best employers conference in Chengdu. They asked me to include my comments on a recent paper from Peking University, stating that power was leaving great corporations and being taken by outstanding individuals on their own e.g. Jack Ma of Alibaba. I said I thought that was great news for China because that is the way new businesses emerge, isn’t it? When somebody goes on their own, powered by the thought of changing the market and doing it their way,They challenge the established order and that’s good. That of course was not the answer they wanted. And I was tempted to go further, saying that the question doesn’t just apply to employees, it applies to citizens too. Yes, workers should be able to do their own thing but so should citizens. . Elsewhere, while it is great to have a good job, millions of people are thinking about what they might do as an alternative. They feel freer to choose, to work towards their own future. I suspect working from home is increasing the number of independent businesses.

Next, think now of how a company’s annual report and communications with all audiences has changed. Historically it would have led with financial results, commercial achievements, innovations and plans for growth. Today think what also needs to be said, starting with the broad aims of the company and what it is doing to make the world a better place. What it is doing to make climate change action more dynamic and all the work necessary to make environment, sustainability and governance actions a reality. And that is before getting into diversity, not just gender but race, educational background and nationality. Six months ago I was amazed by the detail which KPMG described its plans to increase the number of senior management who came from lower socio-economic backgrounds from 23% to 30% by 2030. It was about family background not schools.

At this point I want to add an observation I have never made before for which I thank my wife Sheena. It goes beyond the leadership and management of people at work. In addition to our working lives we are now also concerned about our world right now -the great divisions among society, the threats to democracy as well as the growing evidence of climate change. I worry about the world my 11 grandchildren will be living in and their parents too. Who will they turn to, express their views to, support causes they share and win support for essential change? They may contact their politicians local and national, their religious leaders and other interest groups but should they not also expect the leaders of the organizations they work for to play a vital role in representing their people by they too adding their influence and power to the need for change?

So, what are the implications for the people management function, typically described as HR? Never has it faced greater pressures. Given all the above, and in particular as the New York Times reported, a record rise in workers voluntarily leaving their posts, and Microsoft’s survey of 30,000 workers, stating that 41% were considering changing jobs.

Next I worry about the coherence and coordination across the many elements that make up the HR function – payroll, legal, recruitment, assessment and development/ training, organisational development, employee research, performance measurement, including the facts on employee turnover, satisfaction, competition reviews and innovation. All this needs to be part of a coherent review, fundamental to any employer brand, the heart of which is the actual employee experience you offer and that includes every part of the working environment including your colleagues and your leadership. Plus of course the standing of your employer in your own community, your own development, career planning and rewards, Whether you are listened to and your level of trust in your leaders. Recently, the Economist ran a story ‘How bosses snoop on Workers ‘and stated ‘A clear boundary between embracing new technologies on the one hand and protecting workers on the other has still to be drawn’’. And also how your alumni are doing- is the company a spring board? An Academy company? If you cannot demonstrate alumni success why should talented and ambitious people join you?

What can HR learn from what other corporate functions are doing to extend and sharpen the way they which has some pointers for the people management function? Look what is happening to the chief financial officer. According to the Sunday Times, answering the question what are CFOs most worried about?, top of the list is persistent labour shortages, the long-term effects of climate change and high inflation. CFOs are enlarging their sphere of influence which is transforming them into strategic master minds –an ambition for HR?? While their role historically focussed on compliance, reporting and financial management, CFOs also serve as consultants and communicators. Using real time data and analytics they are providing insights into their company’s operations based on people data. The biggest change in the CFO role over the past 5 years has gone from tactical financial management to strategic partner to the CEO. And I note in the list of CFO priorities enhancing ESG reporting and disclosures, and establishing governance and reporting controls on non-financial metrics. What I haven’t seen is the assertion that your people are more important than clients and customers. Certainly true in the businesses I have led.

It isn’t just the rise of the CFO, the Sunday Times has given the same attention the rise of the CIO – Chief Information Officer as high level business advisors. Their transformational and strategic role is now vastly more important than their original functional role. When is HR going to get the same review ?

I now want to focus on some particular challenges which face the people function. The first one is how come so few chief executives come HR? In the UK FTSE 55% of CEOs come from finance with the rest from other functions including marketing, operations, legal and IT. The people function may be represented on an executive committee but no further. However, in March this year I was delighted to read that Tesco in the Republic of Ireland have appointed Natasha Adams, Director of HR, as their new Chief Executive. That is big news because historically it is so rare. I am not alone in pointing this out. Glenn Close in his book “Human Resources Changes the World”, makes the point that HR directors should step up as leaders. Lucy Adams’s book “HR Disrupted: It is time for something different” argues for many changes. How are these contributions being regarded by the Chartered Institute of People Development, the CIPD. Are they reviewing this material? I have got some other concerns which include confidence in using the power of emotion in the way others do?After the Marketing Society’s 2021annual conference, they published a review of significant quotes and here are some of them:

Marketing is about understanding what people want and creating it.

There is no place for awe, intimidation or fear in the workplace, especially when we need to rely on each other in our teams more than ever before.
Rather than looking at the business benefits what if we simply focus on the fact that it is the right thing to do?

People don’t care what you know, they want to know that you care. Now at the heart of that is respect, kindness, decency, experience for each other and our planet.
What stops people management speaking this way? Is it because so much of the HR role is thought to be ensuring rules and regulations are followed and that’s admin, attention to detail and avoiding risk NOT speaking from the heart.

People management must have the ability to influence change on everything that impacts the employment experience and yet much employer brand work is often tucked away in recruitment marketing, working on websites. Interestingly, there are no employer brand management awards in the CIPD awards list. They do exist but they are outside that world and focussed on external branding.

Branding is only part of the EB job and less important than the actual experience you offer. It’s not in the same league as the realities of the job itself. And on that point, we should recognise the massive sensitivities in dealing with human beings at work. Just think about it. Marketing, historically at least, has often been about lifestyle. Employer brand management is fundamentally about the employee experience. That is not lifestyle, it is about life itself. Your security, your income, your future, your identity, your stories, your network and, critically, your own ideas. BUT At different levels in a business there are understandably massive political sensitivities which hamper the directness in the arguments you need to achieve change. Changing matters which effect the customer seem easier than in the world of work where the edginess, sensitivity and politics can make functional and business unit changes so challenging given managers’ perceptions of themselves and their internal reputation. That is what can make HR action so cautious.

How can brand management help us on all this? What was the problem it was created to solve and what can we learn?

It was created 91 years ago, back in 1931. Procter and Gamble were concerned about the level of leadership, coherence and coordination across all the specialist functions that supported sales e.g. research, R&D, production, distribution, finance, operations and personnel. Brand Management led to the term Marketing.
The man who changed all this was a 26 year old from Harvard called Neil McElroy. And he persuaded the board to adopt his concept of brand management i.e. one individual for each brand who lived and breathed that brand and brought coherence and coordination across all the functions by the brand managers ability to influence them. And so it is today, 91 years later.

Incidentally Neil McElroy was going places. At age 42 he became Chief executive of P&G and in the 1950s at the height of the cold war, he entered public service as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State for Defence.

All I have done has been to realise that across the world of work we need the same thinking, the same level of measurement, the same coherence and, vitally, the same intense level of senior management confidence, interest and involvement.

It is the realities of being at work that make up the employment experience you provide. Ben Whitter’s book, “Human Experience at Work”- Drive performance with a people focussed approach to employees’. The management and measurement of that experience should be what employer brand management is all about but too many employer brand people are focussing on communications and recruitment, liaising with their corporate communication colleagues and often, as I said earlier, with their role described as Employer Branding, not brand management itself. The heart of my job as a Colgate product brand manager was rooted in the customer experience –dependent on R&D, production, distribution, pricing, sizing, ease of use and internally margin improvement. All that was what mattered to my senior management when I was a brand manager. I had influence but no power.

The focus for us now is all that that makes up the employment experience you provide, the rapid actions you take and the culture you create. It is that which creates your employer brand. And it is communicated by what your own people say and feel about you. I have said for years you cannot spin your way to an employer brand. Your people know the truth. You have to earn your way there by having the right priorities and taking the right action which will demonstrate the trust and respect and opportunities which create your reputation as place to work.

So, to finish, what are the changes we have to make to get this thinking on board?
1. This thinking must be the basis for senior mgt’s approach i.e. that the management of the employer brand and the employee experience requires the same principles as product brand management ie know every influence on the experience and how it might be improved. Of course advertising and external communications have their role but success in employer brand management means influencing practical and urgent changes as well as future strategic direction necessary to create your reputation as a place to work. That can take determination and courage to change the way the business works and the behaviours of those responsible. Here’s a great quote from Craig Morgans Head of Talent Acquisition at IWG plc There are a few wordswhich resonate with me when it comes to the Employer Brand and how organisations take that message to market, namely authenticity and differentiation. It’s not about pretty pictures and beautifully crafted messages(whilst important), candidates want to understandthe reality of day to day life and the challenges they’ll face. The good the bad and the ugly so to speak

2. Secondly, employer brand management needs to be at the heart of people management, into everything and not as a specialist unit focussed on recruitment and communications. HR itself needs that pumping heart. Massive influence, fervent belief and inspiration. I want to see employer brand management create the force people management has always needed across an organisation but have too often not had it unless that contribution is made irrelevant by a brilliant trusted and inspiring Leader.

3. And that leads me on to the springboard to that role. Many brand managers become senior line managers and CEOs. I mentioned Tesco early. Perhaps it is no surprise that its present chairman, John Allan, was a brand manager at Bristol Myers and the present chief executive Ken Murphy, was a brand manager at Procter and Gamble. And in case you think that was a one off, his predecessor was Dave Lewis who started life as a brand manager at Unilever before moving to Tesco as chief executive. Last year I heard Greg Jackson, Chief Executive of Octopus Energy, an ex P&G brand manager himself, describing his decision to end HR as a function and encouraging his line managers and their 2500 people to do the job of leadership and development with the help of legal and financial support when necessary. I wonder what lessons have been learnt so far?? There are some great people in HR but given the intensity of the changes this function needs a much stronger two-way relationship between people specialists and modern leadership. That’s why HR must be a potential springboard to the top. I want to see the HR world in its new form, proving to be an essential stepping stone to corporate leadership because experience there is an essential part of being a great boss yourself.
That’s it and I hope it’s been helpful. I wish you success in your own employer brand management. Now for discussion.

Simon Barrow

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