Sticky middle slows business

Just when you thought you had enough problems dealing with Millennials in your organisation, here comes another demographic that requires your attention.Treacle tin

Tim Gould, Editor of HR Morning once said: “I’ve been promoted to middle management. I never thought I’d sink so low”.  

He was talking about people who spend years aspiring to reach a middle management position and end up staying there.

Middle management grows like Topsy inside organisations of any size. By the time your business has reached its first decade they become numerically significant. Soon they are sufficiently established in their habits to justify the descriptor ‘the treacle layer’. Named after the sticky uncrystallised syrup that’s a by-product of the sugar refining process.

Middle Managers should contribute to your organisation in three ways: Continue reading

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Customer experience drives results.

We’re already halfway through the year and one encouraging trend in the region is the number of companies who are taking steps to improve customer experience. I wouldn’t say they are in the hundred, but very definitely in the tens. The numbers aren’t important, what matters is the emergence of a new intent.Southwest meme

Customer experience is not what your customer service centre delivers. Customer service centres exist to address failures in customer experience. If I have to visit another telemarketing centre I may let out a little scream. All those poor people lashed to their terminals, trying to address customers’ fundamental lack of understanding; disappointment and outrage. That’s no way to live; and it’s no way for a brand to act.

If we all hired the right people to deliver our brand promises; life would become a lot easier. Yes, they would need to be equipped and empowered, but that is the easy part. Finding people with the right attitude is the challenge. This is not about adding HR processes, but about making them on-brand; from attracting talent, interviewing, inducting, developing, and rewarding. In practice, talent management in our region is typically off-brand in the sense that it’s entirely generic.

Southwest Airlines, the leading US low cost carrier is often cited as a glorious example of getting the people dimension right. Before telling you about it, I checked out their annual reports for the last five years just to make sure this wasn’t a consultant’s confection. It isn’t.

Southwest decided on a very clear winning ambition*: to be the highest-profit airline in America by delivering the highest employee and customer satisfaction.

(* A winning ambition is like a Mission Statement, only more interesting).

So, they put employees first, because they know that human engagement is the primary differentiator in a service business. Their brand promise is simple – it’s cheap and cheerful. And while cheap differentiates them from flagship carriers, it does not differentiate them from other low-cost carriers such as Jet Blue. All their innovations around keeping prices low have been copied. But what has not been copied in an authentic way is the cheerfulness their people bring to the job. Continue reading

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Manage Millennials for success.

We’re continuing to examine the current culture clash in the workplace. Over the past 2 weeks we’ve indulged the Millennial point of view and given the employers’ perspective. This week I want to suggest three simple actions that you as a leader can take to turn your organisation away from head-on internal conflict. These are based on very recent experience of reshaping company cultures in East Africa. herding cats

First up, East African Millennials don’t reject structure, they crave it. They want to feel part of a collaborative team with an open dialogue. Supplement your company’s vertical hierarchy with a transverse structure. Do this by looking at the middle of your company and organising those people into cross-disciplinary groups (the closest analogy is the traditional project team). Give these groups tasks to create new capabilities or to solve long-established problems in your business. Challenge them with solving ‘how can we market our brand better’ or ‘how should we redesign our training and development programme.’ Help them to define an agenda, and make them report directly to you on a regular basis for feedback, constructive criticism and support in removing obstacles to their progress. Make sure that they are publicly recognised for their achievements – Millennials put self-worth ahead of remuneration.

Secondly, capitalise on the informal leaders that emerge from your transverse structure. Those bright sparks whose ideas crack the problems. The determined souls who use persuasion rather than coercion to generate a positive group dynamic. The showmen and women who can dramatise a concept; bringing it to life in a way that generates enthusiasm in others. You should be looking to identify and promote young people with high levels of EQ and IQ. When you find them, set out a clear development path for them. Millennials need to see where their career is going and they want to know exactly what they must do to get there. Millennials await their next challenge – so make sure you look them in the eye; give them that challenge and tell them you believe in them. The results can be spectacular. Continue reading

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Employers vs Millennials

We’re examining the culture clash in the workplace. Last week we indulged the Millennials’ point of view; this week we’ll give an employers’ perspective. Next week we’ll suggest some pragmatic actions.dont panic

It’s clear that the social contract that existed between business management and workers has been broken by the simultaneous arrival two conflicting perspectives.  ‘No more jobs for life’ from management struggling to free their enterprises from the burden of employee tenure without performance payback. And ‘self before company’ from employees who define satisfaction and success in a very different way.

In between these stands the rump of the HR community, defenders of the status quo. Armed with the HR Manual. Employment Law and a variety of outdated performance management models, many of them are scrambling for relevance in management meetings. . More and more HR departments are sending up the Millenial distress flare. But fewer have innovated solutions to the crisis. The CEO of a huge regional security company summed it up for me last week with his firm assertion that: “HR advises, Management decides.”

But, in the face of change, should business leaders and their HR teams throw every aspect of people management out of the window? I don’t think so; there is time to assess and evolve. Especially here in East Africa where 1 in 6 young Kenyans, and closer to 1 in 20 young Ugandans and Tanzanians are unemployed. Continue reading

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Millennial Matters

Goodness, there’s a lot of talk about the Millennial generation (18-35’s) in the workplace. And arguably too much credence being given to management needing to change its style in response.Millennials will outnumber

I’m giving the matter some thought over the next few weeks, and I suspect I will be looking for ways for leadership to push back. But after listening to a podcast from the young American comedian Alex Edelmann, I thought I’d begin with the Millennials’ point of view.

Edelmann began by raising the case of Trail King Industries in Mitchell, South Dakota. The boss, Bruce Yackley, has gone head to head with the Millennial mindset, accusing young workers of being lazy and venal. Last year he recruited an additional 280 young workers for blue collar jobs in his plants. By December 279 had left his employment. (Why the one remainer stayed is not covered in the flurry of print and social media comment that followed).

Yackley sees no reason to change his leadership style or adjust his management approach. He sees Millennials as lightweights, sloping off to change jobs whenever they feel slighted. Continue reading

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Bridging another divide

Econsultancy’s latest report ‘The future of HR in the digital age’, finds that HR teams in many global organisations are repositioning themselves to be more customer centric. Making sure the actions they take in hiring, retaining and developing human capital are aligned to delivering a better customer experience.Bridge

That’s an interesting trend, and one that has yet to take hold in East Africa. Here the HR profession is more administrative than commercial. One of the reasons why so few HR people achieve Board appointments.

Parallel to this positive trend in HR, the wider world is seeing an increasing number of marketers becoming involved in culture development. They clearly understand that the promises they make to the market must be delivered by people. And the best way to achieve that is to shape a culture with a set of signature behaviours that reflect the brand. So, the brand begins to guide ‘the way we do things around here’.

Simultaneously HR people are opening their eyes to commercial impact and marketers to the importance of employees as an audience. When these two agendas eventually align (at some time in the future) I can predict that we won’t need customer service departments. How marvellous will that be? For our customers, in particular.

Last week I had to contact a customer services representative at my mobile phone company. My bill showed a current amount due which was correct. However, over on the right-hand end of the aged debt summary I was surprised to note a figure of nearly US$10,000 owed by me for over 120 days! I knew this to be incorrect, and my customer service rep. confirmed it. ‘Just ignore the bill,’ she said. Continue reading

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The non-completion challenge

As I move around inside East African enterprises one thing is becoming increasingly clear. Both employees and employers are frustrated by their failure to complete tasks. I’m not talking about assignments that overrun on time or budget, but about projects that never get executed. There are more and more of them; and it must be having a detrimental effect on business.incomplete puzzle

Let’s look at this from the employees’ point of view. If you go to work for any reason other than receiving your pay, non-completion is going to affect your morale. Most of us want to make progress, and the Millennial generation in particular places great value on receiving recognition for its contribution. Interestingly the employee engagement studies I review do not equate recognition to remuneration. The two are distinct and separate.

Employees’ ability to complete tasks is directly affected by organisational culture. If that encourages prioritisation; applauds productive relationships across disciplines; and is rigorous in redeploying staff members who are in the wrong job – then completion is easier. But if the culture is one of always pursuing new initiatives; overloading teams with demands for pointless innovation; and abandoning projects mid-term – then fatigue soon sets in.

Employers and their Board members also find non-completion intensely frustrating. Their task is to set direction and enable management to pursue it. Imagine how they feel when repeated reviews produce the same one-word progress report: “Ongoing”. Continue reading

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Workplaces need better design

In the 1980’s the American management professor Edgar Schein developed an organisational model to make culture more visible within a company. He highlighted the importance of artefacts and symbols that colour the appearance of the organisation. Visible elements such as logos, architecture, structure, processes and corporate clothing. Recognisable both to staff and to external parties.

Office layout GPS

In the modern business world, workplace design is largely influenced by architects. The best of these understand the impact of the visual upon the behaviours of staff. Interior designers also take a hand, but in my experience their personal creative tastes come too much into play. This may be what you need if you are at loss to decorate your own home; but it’s hardly business-like.

The biggest culprit in inappropriate workspace design tends to be the business owner. They often lack objectivity, and many use the opportunity to enhance their self-image. Some espouse ethnic art and crafts; just as South Africa did in the few short, hopeful years that followed the end of Apartheid. Or they replicate the look and feel of international offices they have visited. Then we have the self-made man with his huge photographic self-portrait, rendered on canvas and framed in gilt.

None of these flights of fancy help your employees to feel better about their workplace; and their impact on visitors is rarely what you would wish. Continue reading

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Have banks abandoned business?

In 2014 Ernst & Young released the results of a global study they had conducted into the nature of customer experience in banks. In our region, they reported that more than half of the banking customers in Kenya cited bad experiences when transacting – compared to a third of the global sample. The report cited problems with bedding in new technologies at a rapid rate, creating technical hitches for customers.unnamed

Many of us would now say that online banking and its associated technology has become more robust. But talking to colleagues in business, it’s still evident that banking experiences are far from ideal. The issue today seems not to be the technology, but the human interface. Service realities just don’t meet the promises made.

For many banking brands, the situation looks worse than mere advertising hyperbole. Bankers no longer seem interested in facilitating business activity through timely access to funding or to financial instruments.

In Kenya, the situation has definitely worsened since the President took the step of capping interest rates in 2016. To be honest, who could blame him for enacting such a measure when his own Central Bank Governor had made repeated requests for bankers to moderate their expectations of yield when dealing with an impoverished population and a constrained private sector?

Since the legislation was passed banks have made it increasingly clear to customers that they are only interested in business on their terms. They don’t state this overtly; but it is evident in the behaviour of their staff.

Two examples regularly cited are credit card and overdrafts. Continue reading

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CEO confidence

I have an appetite for market research. Sometimes it tells you things you don’t know; always it prompts you to reflect. The latest study to pop into my inbox has been a Business Confidence Survey, sampling 90 business leaders in the region, produced by TIFA research.confidence pic

There was an interesting assessment of CEO optimism, broken down by major business sector, which showed ICT and Energy players to be more buoyant. Tourism CEO confidence was only average. Perhaps not surprising from a sector regularly assailed by misfortunes not of its own making. Least optimistic were bankers and transporters. The first facing tighter regulation (in Kenya at least) and the latter wondering how to contend with the imminent opening of the Standard Gauge Railway. More CEO’s think increased capital expenditure is on the cards; less are open to increased hiring.

This made me ponder the broader context of CEO confidence. Being a leader is lonely, and there is still little support for the new CEO who has been promoted for merit in his own discipline and now faces the challenge of being a better generalist.

A dipstick study of my own, among 30 clients, revealed that CEO’s of all ages and backgrounds really need the opportunity to ‘catch up’. They cite inadequate understanding of financial reporting; of how marketing works; of how to encourage a positive work culture. Recruitment seems hit and miss for many, and how best to develop talent too. This comes with a poignant realisation that they themselves could have been better developed for leadership. Most CEO’s simply want a better understanding of what’s happening in the market; who is who in the zoo; and which suppliers to rely on. Continue reading

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