By Wayne Clarke, Founding Partner
Here’s a little story to start us off on this subject. I spent two days with the senior management team of a company, working with them to talk through and develop some new ideas around their corporate culture. We had done a good job, I thought, and had made some excellent progress. It was at this point that the managing director turned to the communications director and said: “Could you make sure you cascade this to everyone as soon as you can, please?”
Now, even had that been a sensible idea, the communications director would have had to possess the writing skills of William Shakespeare to have had any chance at all of condensing our two days of thought, debate and discussion into any kind of ‘cascadable’ document. They would not have had the remotest chance of turning all that work into a communication which would have encompassed even a second of all that hard work, let alone put it into a document which could have enthused a single employee down at the front line of their business.
Of course, it wasn’t a sensible idea. But, let’s be honest now: how many senior teams out there have not been so much in love with their own brilliant suggestions for the way to change their organisation from top to bottom that they haven’t, even just for a moment, applied a reality check before they hit the send button. It’s easy to do, of course, and that’s probably why it keeps on happening, but it’s not the best way to do it.
After all, you’ve just spent a lot of time and effort on that plan. To you it’s the coolest thing on the planet. An effortless set of proposals hammered out by some of the best brains at the top of your business. Why wouldn’t you want to share it with all your employees straight away? But that is precisely why you need to stop right there and think again.
Just because you’ve lovingly crafted it, it doesn’t mean anything. Down on the shop floor (and this is also based on a real story I came across) they are worried about that fluorescent strip lighting in the warehouse that has been blinking on and off like a disco for the past six months. They’re fed up asking for it to be fixed. Now along comes their line manager, who knows about the problem and, as far as they are concerned, has done nothing about it, who is about to gather them around and ‘cascade’ your ‘exciting’ hard work about the new direction for the business. You think they’re going to listen to a single word? You bet your life they’re not.
A couple of things here. First, and most obvious, you need to address the things that matter to those frontline employees before you have any chance of communicating significant cultural change. Secondly, you’re only going to be able to know about the things that really matter if you have some way to connect with them. Connect and you can tap into the fundamental intelligence that they will be only too willing to share if only you’d stop cascading and listen.
But we do listen, you’ll tell me. You point to your regular employee satisfaction survey as evidence of this. Fine. So how many of your surveys have open ended questions? Because of all the questions you ask, those are the most important of all, and I can tell you right now, from years of personal experience, that only 5% of managers read those open ended answers.
Just 5%. That’s an awful lot of flickering lighting, itchy uniforms and poor quality staff lockers which are not being fixed, and until they are fixed those days spent locked away with expensive consultants in hotel rooms are a waste.
Instead of hitting the cascade, here’s an idea. When you’ve done your corporate thinking, get each of the senior team to sit down with a group of front line employees and set aside a half hour or an hour on a regular basis with them for six months. By all means share your thinking with them, but above all listen and have a conversation with them, tap into their knowledge and the intelligence which they have in abundance, if you’d just give them a chance. It will transform your business in a way no conventional ‘cascade’ even could.
Which leads me to one other reflection I’d like to share. We are now in a world where everything your business does can easily be copied by a competitor. The barriers to entry in the world of business have never been lower. You could set up a bank tomorrow with as little as £250,000. What you do is no longer what’s important, but how you do it. The only thing your competitor can’t copy in a successful business are the ideas that drive that business and the people who take those ideas and make them successful. Everything else is up for grabs.
To be one of the leaders, you need to be different. To do that you need good people, and you need good managers to lead those people. While some managers are born to the role, many others find themselves, for whatever reasons, thrust into that position. Many of your frontline managers will be just 20 or 30 years of age. With luck they may have had good managers themselves to learn from. There’s the problem – too much is left to luck and not enough time is dedicated to giving those up and coming managers the training and support they need to do a difficult job well. And increasingly you need them to ensure that your all important cultural strategy is delivered where it matters – right at the frontline.
Two final things to think about…
One, how do you create a successful culture and get employees to be as enthusiastic about it and committed to it as you are?
Second, how can you make sure that the people who have to manage that cultural change have the backing, training and support they need to make it happen?
Fail to address those two questions and you can spend all the days and nights you can handle in expensive hotels arguing the toss over whether to include ‘unlocking the entrepreneurial spirit of frontline staff’ in the final document. Because you’ll be wasting your time if you don’t answer those two vital questions first.
Thoughts, suggestions, feedback or idea’s, we would love to hear from you. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org