Author: Robert Tennant

Tackling employee disengagement with a compelling narrative

Workplace satisfaction, or lack of it, has always been a common topic of conversation within organisations around the world – so how does the story you tell as an organisation impact this?

Last year, workforce wellbeing reached a tipping point, with countless studies dubbing an influx of unhappy employees as the perpetrator of what fast became known as ‘The Great Resignation‘ of 2021.

The reasons behind this growing wave of unhappiness cannot be attributed to one factor alone, as an international study by Firstup has shown. Drawing on the experiences of over 23,000 employees from a vast range of organisations globally, it revealed that just 16 per cent felt that their employer need make no changes to improve their employee experience, and a mere 12 per cent felt that their organisation had sufficient boundaries in place to safeguard their work-life balance.

Perhaps most striking of all, over half of employees admitted that they did not feel valued in their role or understood how their role contributes to their organisation’s objectives. This was a point I was keen to focus on when invited by Firstup to take part in a panel discussion held to explore the reasons behind this research in more depth. For me, the statistic highlights why it’s so vital that leadership teams look very carefully at the way they are engaging their people at this time – especially those exploring and implementing new ways of working in this period of pandemic recovery.

In our experience of supporting large and complex organisations through change, businesses struggle to evolve when their people are no longer aligned behind a common purpose, identity, goal and mission – yet this can be overcome with a strong, compelling narrative.  

The power of true alignment 

Leadership teams need to consider, both collectively and as individuals, how aligned they really are around every single element of the journey they are leading the business on.

As a business leader, ask yourself these two key questions:

  • Are you inspiring your people about the journey the organisation is on?
  • As a leadership team are you collectively and individually role-modelling critical behaviours within your organisation?

Compelling context

Having a sense of alignment allows leaders to be influential, visible and really bring their change journey to life in a compelling, human way for all employees. In times of uncertainty and change, humans crave compelling context, transparency and something we can tether ourselves to – all things an aligned narrative supports. 

True connection

Once the narrative is in place, it allows everyone within an organisation from boardroom to shop floor to begin to make both a rational and emotional connection to the change journey they are on. From purpose to strategy to behaviours (and everything in between), it enables individuals to ask themselves and understand ‘what’s my role?’ And, ‘why am I valued in moving this journey forward?’ 

It also allows leaders to build ownership of the strategy to unlock engagement. When everyone, not just the c-suite, understands their role within the bigger picture of their organisation, and feels they can influence what happens next, this enables pace, agility, performance, and opportunity – all the things executive teams crave. It takes bravery for the executive team to share responsibly in this way, but middle managers too can play a crucial role in keeping the momentum by ensuring individuals continue to feel empowered and receive individual recognition for their work.

Despite some stark headlines emerging from this research, there are grounds for optimism and opportunity. Although workplace dissatisfaction appears rife, what leaders should be focusing on is that so too are ideas about how to improve employee experience – if your organisation has a narrative to harness them.

Accelerating ESG strategy – what future story will your organisation create?

There’s no escaping it – environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategy is now a critical part of the boardroom agenda. Among the business leaders working with The Storytellers, we’ve noticed a clear shift in mindset and response too. 

Underlined by the growing climate crisis, and further highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, ESG has gained greater prominence because of how it’s seen by stakeholders and investors as a way to safeguard organisations against future risks to the global economy. It focuses on the areas of business that matter most to employees and, as highlighted in the latest EY Future Consumer Index, provides opportunities for businesses to create value and grow revenues by responding to the trend for sustainable consumption. 

Today, as business leaders around the world also come to terms with the practical implications of the outcomes of the COP26 summit – and the monumental task of decarbonising the global economy – there is a clear need for organisations to quickly turn their ESG strategy into meaningful action. Investors want clarity about the initiatives companies are undertaking, the reporting they are doing, and the returns they will generate. Brands around the world will increasingly be looked at and recognised for their leadership towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and employees are pursuing purpose at work. In short, taking no or limited action will simply become untenable. 

Ahead of us lies one of the biggest changes in mindset and strategy that the world has ever seen – but for businesses to deliver on this at the necessary pace and scale, they will also need to leverage the power of their people to make change happen. Leaders need a powerful narrative to begin to activate a movement within their organisations and around their brands. A narrative that connects people to the reasons for change and helps them to understand their role in achieving these bigger, better ESG outcomes for the benefit of everyone.

Talent and purpose

What ultimately brings us meaning and purpose is contributing to something larger than ourselves. Just like the climate change movement, the workplace is made up of thousands of stories of endeavour and achievement, but also disengagement and failures. Crucially, these stories shape our belief about the organisations we work for and the leaders who guide us. A strong narrative that articulates the collective purpose, the journey an organisation needs to take, and what success looks like, provides a vehicle through which we can play out our own personal ambition. Ultimately, top talent will want to be part of meaningful journeys that they truly connect with.

Turning strategy into action

To move their people from passively understanding the strategy to being compelled to act in service of it – leaders must identify ways to build ownership. People are more likely to take positive action if they feel they’ve helped to create it. Empowering teams and employees to identify ways in which they can contribute to a strategy unleashes great rewards.

Employee engagement and accelerated change

Whatever your views on a “disengagement crisis” one thing is clear –  employees that are inspired by their work are happier, more productive and are more likely to achieve remarkable things. With the scale of change ahead, this is the moment for leaders to challenge themselves – is engagement enough? Our experience shows that if leaders can find a mechanism to unite their people, inspire them and provide a clear plan, they can accelerate change and transform performance.

Brand perception and leadership legacy

Ultimately, leaders and organisations will be judged on this moment. Aside from taking action to benefit or mitigate the reputational risks to their brand, what was their wider response? What was the story of their organisation? How did they approach change and how successful were they in contributing to one of humankind’s greatest challenges?

If ever there was an opportunity to write a story for the ages – this is it.

Why change fails: our top ten

It has widely been reported that 70 per cent of change programmes fail. In a world in which technology, business and market demands are changing faster than ever, this is unacceptable.

A business that is unable to evolve because it’s too deeply entrenched in its existing processes, systems and behaviours may find itself ill-equipped to manage the demands of the future.

We’ve had the privilege of advising leaders from over 180 major organisations around the world. As a result, we’ve recognised a number of patterns that begin to explain why change can be so difficult. Explore them in full by downloading our ebook today.

Webinar: ‘Transformation in Asia’ with Nick Pollard – MD APAC, CFA Institute

The pace of change shows no signs of slowing in Asia. In such a diverse region, with many distinct markets, languages, and cultures, leaders need a special set of skills to adapt to these seismic changes, transform their strategies and embrace transformation.

Recent events including the COVID-19 pandemic have also shaken up developments in an unparalleled way. For the latest episode of our ‘Stories from the C-Suite’ series, I was joined by Nick Pollard, Managing Director, Asia Pacific at CFA Institute, and Tony Williams, Leadership Coach and MD at Hong Kong-based strategic change consultancy Will Exell, to explore this topic further.

Nick is a seasoned wealth management and banking executive. In 2016, he joined CFA Institute, which has over 170,000 CFA charterholders worldwide, and more than 160 local societies. Tony, who advises boards on M&A and business transformation, set up Will Exell after gaining 15 years of experience as a C-Suite HR leader across four financial services companies.

Leading transformation across diverse markets, cultures and operations

A key point Nick stressed early on in the discussion was that due to its sheer size and diversity, while we can talk about Asia Pacific being one region, in a business context, we should never think about it that way.

One example of this was how different countries in the region handled the pandemic, which for leaders working across borders, posed a far wider range of challenges.

The impact of the pandemic and how organisations are adapting

Both Nick and Tony acknowledged that the last 18 months have been incredibly challenging for leaders – however, a common denominator across this diverse region was how to deal with uncertainty. With the focus very much on the ‘here and now’ leaders have had to get to grips with fast, short-term decision making as their businesses either thrived or required action to survive.

Nick described how the financial sector in Hong Kong was very quick to react to the pandemic. Like many Asian cities, where the average size of homes means people live in close quarters, the well-being of staff working from home became an important area of focus and often forced leaders to think outside of the box when it came to finding specific solutions for their teams.

In the last six months, Tony has observed a pivot where leaders have been able to think more strategically and look to a future beyond the pandemic. Although he warned that the recent cost reductions made by many organisations earlier on in the pandemic may not be sustainable in the long term. Therefore, leaders are going to have to find ways to simplify their business.

It was clear to Nick that management boards that had previously invested in technology were better prepared for the pandemic.  According to a CFA Institute research study, ‘Future of Work in Investment Management’, over half of the investment professionals surveyed said remote working has increased their efficiency. Nick said organisations are now starting to think carefully about hard processes for how future roles can be managed both in and away from the office.

Building high-performance cultures in times of crisis

“If you’re somebody who trusts your employees you’ll be able to cope far easier in a crisis,” Tony stated, however, he was equally keen to stress that how leaders react and respond will also depend on their organisational culture, business structure, and their individual personality. A big challenge will always be re-engaging employees after so much change – especially as operating models become more efficient, and sustainable practices and processes continue to be increasingly vital.

“All good leaders should be clear about the purpose of their organisation,” said Nick. He noted that organisations are moving away from purpose being ‘only a tagline’, to underpinning everything about how a business operates.

He also warned that people always remember how organisations engage with their employees during a crisis. Therefore, as we emerge from the pandemic, when it comes to attracting new talent, people will look for stories from existing employees when they decide on their next career move.

Overall, what was clear from our discussion is that leadership during a crisis requires a rounded skill set. “If you don’t have a style where you are focussed on both purpose and people, you will struggle going forward,” Tony concluded.

Gain more insights on Asia

Download our free guide where leaders from across the region, including Paul Baker COO at Genting Resorts and Sam Lau, Chief Executive of Total Loyalty Company, outline the skill set needed to unlock business transformation in Asia.

Unlocking business transformation in Asia

Download the essential skill set for leaders

2020 was a year of rapid and continuous change, and that has continued in 2021. Such explosive change for organisations is truly unprecedented, and having an existing robust company culture has been necessary for businesses not just to stay rooted, but to grow in this challenging environment. 

As the pace of change shows no signs of slowing in Asia, recent events including the COVID19 pandemic have shaken up developments in an unparalleled way.  In such a diverse region, with many distinct markets, languages and cultures, leaders need a special set of skills to adapt to these seismic changes, transform their strategies and embrace transformation. 

Being open-minded to change and successfully leading through it will improve company agility, resilience and future performance. The dangers of resisting or being unprepared for change have been made clear throughout the pandemic: a loss of revenue, customers and employees.

The Storytellers have successfully partnered with strategic change consultancy Will Exell to help drive business transformation programs with major global organisations. Focused on supporting businesses to navigate change in the Asia region, we draw upon our considerable combined international expertise, and a deep immersion in regional business and wider economic and cultural trends through the Will Exell Hong Kong based operation.

In this free guide we share insights from leaders in the region, including Paul Baker COO at Genting Resorts and Sam Lau, Chief Executive of Total Loyalty Company and outline the skill set needed to unlock business transformation.

Fill in the form to download now.

Webinar: ‘Putting people first in a crisis’ with Alex Perry, CEO – Bupa Insurance UK

Recently, we hosted a fascinating webinar with Alex Perry, CEO of Bupa Insurance UK. This highly relevant conversation covered everything from healthcare insurance in these challenging times, to Bupa’s journey through the global pandemic and beyond. You can catch up with the recording by filling in your details on this page.

In our ‘Stories from the C-suite’ series, we talk to CEOs who we believe are expert storytellers about the challenges of leading through change and what the next stage in the journey is for them. Alex had much to say about leading through crisis and how his team has remained united and aligned throughout this time.

Healthcare that is personal, tailored to the individual and family-centric has never been needed more than during the global pandemic of the last six months. And physical and mental health are at the top of both our personal priority lists and those of organisations. In fact, working remotely has shown us just how inextricably linked our home and work lives are, and how integral wellbeing is to our performance at work. Health insurers and providers have had to react, change and innovate faster than ever before to help customers access care when they’ve needed it most. So what we wanted to know was, how do you make this happen across a business of 3,000 people?

We covered questions such as:

  • How did you equip your business with the shock of the pandemic?
  • What does the future of healthcare insurance look like?
  • Will your story evolve as the business and its strategy develops?

To hear Alex’s fascinating insights on these big topics, enter your details to watch the recording today.

‘Winning hearts and minds’: talking to Pano Christou, CEO of Pret A Manger

In the most recent episode in our ‘Stories from the C-suite’ webinar series, we talked to Pano Christou, CEO of Pret A Manger. Pret has been through a lot in the past six months – like many businesses that rely on high-street footfall, it has been severely impacted by COVID-19 and lockdown, having to shut all of its stores back in March. 

Listening to Pano, however, there was no hint at defeat. And as the challenges created by COVID show no sign of slowing down, Pano is ready to face the pandemic head-on. Pret is adjusting to the seismic shifts of the pandemic by staying nimble, flexible and creatively reinventing its brand. This resilience may stem from Pano’s own personal story: he has worked at Pret since the age of 22, slowly working his way up from the shop floor. 

Our conversation with Pano was packed full of fascinating stories. We have identified five key insights from the webinar: 

  1. COVID was the catalyst for three years’ worth of changes that took place in just six months: if anyone had told Pano that Pret would experience three years’ worth of effort in one year, he said he wouldn’t have believed them. However, for Pret, this agility and fast-paced response to the pandemic is one positive out of an immensely challenging situation.
  2. The lifeblood of Pret is its culture of innovation: in the change narrative Pret co-created with us, one objective was to ‘rediscover the sparkle of Pret’. The transformation, which was accelerated by COVID, aims to ensure that this sparkle remains integral to everything Pret does. An example of this is its latest coffee subscription initiative
  3. “Leaders need to inhale stress and exhale serenity.” Pano was firm that he has never been a command and control leader. Rather, he believes people should be given the opportunity to flourish. Completing the Pret story before COVID has helped with this, as the leadership team were aligned on the direction of travel and are able to communicate this to their people. For example, Pano holds a weekly broadcast to Pret branches across the country to keep teams informed and engaged in a difficult time. 
  4. The Pret story is a red thread running through the organisation: the Pret story has served as an anchor, continuing to influence decision-making throughout the business. For example, even though there was a desperate need to reduce costs during lockdown, Pret has not reduced portion sizes. The fundamentals of Pret won’t change, as Pano told us: “when you are driving change through a business you don’t forget where you’ve come from.”
  5. “Hearts and minds.” Engaging the emotional side of people is key to Pano’s leadership. As a big believer in purpose, he wants his teams and colleagues to enjoy an emotional connection to the brand they are part of. And how does he cultivate this connection? By communicating through human stories and making people feel part of the journey Pret is on. He told us that co-creating Pret’s story meant pulling people from every part of the organisation to co-create the narrative – something they hadn’t done in the 37 years since Pret was founded. It resonated so deeply with teams that when the story was shared, many people were in tears. 

Ultimately, Pano sees COVID as an opportunity for Pret. With the Pret story empowering teams to own the part they play, there is a sense of alignment and also optimism for the journey ahead. As working from home continues, Pret is seizing the opportunity to reach out to new areas. Pano finished on a positive note as he described how he sees the future: the business will now be “following the people”, and no longer just the skyscrapers.

To catch-up and find out more about Pano’s story, have a listen to the webinar in full by clicking hereAnd don’t forget to sign up to our next webinar with Alex Perry, CEO of Bupa Insurance UK on 10th November, 13:00 GMT here.

Your story: a framework for progress and action

Over the last few months, our team has been working hard to support Executive teams all over the world. These leaders are facing the momentous challenge of adapting to the immediate and ever-evolving situation. As this adaptation happens and organisations move from short-term crisis management to longer term planning, they are starting to consider how they must now transform to be ready to play their part in the “new normal”.

It’s very clear that Covid-19 will have profound and lasting economic, social and cultural impacts. We’re living in a moment in which businesses need to react quickly, act with empathy and fulfil their purpose in a way that helps society navigate a deeply troubling time. Doing so will also prepare organisations for re-emerging into a very different landscape.

The new stories of change

We’ve certainly heard an abundance of stories from our virtual interactions – acts of compassion, moments of innovation, the sudden removal of barriers and cultural walls. We’ve heard from leaders, amazed at how their people have united to achieve things that would have taken months or even years, in a matter of weeks.

For our clients who are in the process of co-creating a narrative to navigate through these changes, there are some significant realisations. There is now an increasing understanding that this situation is catalysing trends and drivers of change. Many of these trends were already significant drivers of change before Covid-19. The convergence of these trends means businesses will face the task of transformation, evolution, even redefinition, on a quite remarkable scale.

Seizing the opportunity

These transformations will, as ever, tend to focus on certain key areas of challenge or opportunity. Those that are truly meaningful will reconsider the very business model and nature of the business that has been successful to date. What will that business model look like in the face of this level of change?

Those leaders who are now starting to be proactive in preparing their people and organisations for profound, continuous change will emerge ready to tackle the enormous challenges ahead and then seize the opportunities that present themselves.

Leading a movement of change

One of the true tests of leadership in the coming months will be: who are the leaders who can successfully create a movement of change? Who are the leaders who will inspire people to look beyond current limits and define new opportunities? Who are the leaders who will generate unity and collective action in the face of challenge? Momentous change is on its way. These leaders won’t design the organisations of the future – but the teams of people who they inspire to believe and take action absolutely will. Focus on the story your organisation needs to write over the coming months and then turn it into a framework for progress and action.

Three opportunities to unlock pace in your organisation

The Storytellers work with a diverse range of large organisations from multiple sectors. We help businesses leverage their people as a competitive advantage – to engage their teams in a compelling journey and to provide the motivation, means and momentum to drive change. In short, we work with organisations to move more people to do great things.

Our teams thrive on this purpose – it keeps us sharp and enables us to see themes across clients, sectors and geographies. We see on a daily basis the challenges businesses are facing in a world that is experiencing continuous and often unanticipated change.

One of the key themes this year will come as no surprise. Pace. Urgency. Acceleration. If “the pace of change will never be this slow again”1 businesses need their teams and people to be proactive, to innovate ahead of the curve, to make decisions in a smarter, empowered and efficient way. 

Many clients have approached The Storytellers this year because they recognise that to unlock pace in their organisations they need to engage their people in the changes that need to be made. It is no longer enough to show the way and expect others to follow; teams that move at real pace and perform at the highest level have real ownership, purpose and clarity of intent. The way is clear – as is the part everyone can play.

When a business manages to successfully accelerate change they tend to take an integrated approach – there is no silver bullet. Over the years we’ve identified a set of success factors that have resulted in quite incredible transformation stories. Of these success factors there are three which are critical to driving change at pace. They also represent three areas that organisations often either miss altogether or treat as a tick-box exercise:

1. Set compelling context and generate real alignment

In the pursuit of pace many businesses and leaders don’t set context or ensure alignment. It is often seen as an unnecessary “step” in the change process, especially when there is pressure to move quickly. In fact, setting appropriate context brings clarity, vision, purpose and engagement. All absolutely critical ingredients to accelerating change. Ensuring real alignment around the change journey speeds up decision making, builds sponsorship and allows teams to more easily identify blockers and create collaborative solutions. Our experience shows that the use of narrative is one of the quickest ways to reach alignment and a sense of shared ownership. Research has shown that leaders who used a consistent change story to align teams around transformation goals were nearly 4x more likely to be successful.2

2. Build capability to engage rationally and emotionally

Great leaders have the tools and capability to engage their teams in change. Most leaders communicate in a rational manner, aiming to land the essential information. However, leaders who can communicate and connect with people both rationally and emotionally tend to see huge shifts in performance. People are more engaged, motivated to change and willing to shift their mindset in order to adopt new behaviours. This radically reduces the time between people rationally understanding something and actually taking action. We find one of the biggest challenges is the ability of leaders to be influential – to inspire and help their teams through change. Leadership modules that integrate into a narrative-led approach and help leaders spark action at a team level make the change relevant and relatable across functions.

3. Start a movement that generates urgency and builds momentum

As with social change, creating a movement can utilise peer-to-peer influence to spread messages and behaviours from every corner of the business, generating urgency and pace from the bottom as well as the top of an organisation. This needs to be supported by key functions such as Communications, HR and L&D, but it should be people led. Movements need networks and networks need collaboration. The movement needs to be inspiring and accessible for the network to thrive and stimulate positive change. It needs to build energy and momentum by recognising the heroes of the movement – both those activating the change and those responding to the call.