Trust is a 360-degree thing

There’s a tendency to think of trust in up-down terms. And it’s obviously good if the people in a business know they can trust their employers. But a winning culture is one where everyone in a team knows they can trust everyone else in the team: their leaders, their peers, the people they manage.

If you don’t know the person next to you has got your back, you waste a lot of time and energy looking over your shoulder. Which is why it’s good to create an environment where no-one has to do that.

Where people can work from home without worrying that their colleagues think they’re building a new patio.

Where no-one takes credit for somebody else’s work.

Where people can express an honest opinion in a respectful way without worrying that it will impact their career prospects.

It’s surprisingly hard to build an environment like this. But, if you manage it, the benefits are extraordinary.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Information doesn’t filter up very well

There’s an old army story about an officer on the front line who needs to get an important message to his commanders:

‘Send reinforcements; I’m going to advance.’

But the telephone lines have been cut, so the only way to get the message through is to pass it up the line. By the time it gets to headquarters, the urgent message has become:

‘Send three and fourpence; I’m going to a dance.’

It’s almost certainly an apocryphal story, but it makes an important point: the more people a message goes through, the further it’s likely to stray from its real meaning.

Which is why you need to keep the lines of communication from your front-line employees as short as possible. They’re usually best-placed to know what your customers think and how proposed changes will work in reality.

But, if their feedback has to pass through too many layers before it reaches a decision-maker, a lot of its value and meaning will be lost (especially if any of those layers don’t like what it’s saying).

Your job is to make sure the right information flows up as easily as it flows down.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Don’t just listen to the bits you want to hear

In the middle ages, kings used to keep a jester (or ‘fool’) to entertain the court. An unofficial, but essential, part of the fool’s role was to offer contradictory opinions.

Not something many of the king’s courtiers would be brave enough to do, since criticism of an absolute monarch was a quick way to lose your head.

But it didn’t matter so much if the fool said it, because the opinion wouldn’t feel like a threat. It could be laughed off as nonsense – and, if it struck a chord, the king could simply adopt it as his own without any loss of face.

The same principle holds true in any business. The higher up an organisation you go, the more important it is to have someone around you who won’t hesitate to speak truth to power.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

On me ‘ead, son

I’ve never been that bothered about football.

But this article by BBC journalist Guillem Balague about Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa is a fascinating case study in how to go about building a winning culture.

The jury’s still out on whether it will work – at time of writing, Leeds are second in the Championship.

But, if you want to inject some high performance thinking into your organisation, there’s a lot of food for thought right here

 

It’s not about the camera

The word ‘great’ gets used too freely these days. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that Don McCullin is a great photo-journalist.

There’s a retrospective of his work on display in Tate Britain until 6 May. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to go.

The pictures are extraordinarily powerful. As well as the war photography for which he’s best known (Vietnam, Biafra, Cyprus, Northern Ireland), there are poignant, gritty images of life in the industrial Northeast and in London’s East End, where McCullin grew up.

What makes the pictures so powerful is their ability to tell a story. McCullin’s gift is for identifying and capturing small moments that somehow express a much larger truth.

Like the picture above, taken at a protest in Trafalgar Square in the 1960s. Hundreds of photographers were covering the event and they all got plenty of pictures that showed the police and the protesters facing off. But only McCullin got this shot.

That’s partly about being in the right place at the right time, which is certainly one of McCullin’s skills. But it’s mostly about empathy – about being able to look at a scene with the eyes of a human being, rather than the eyes of a technician.

‘I use the camera like I use a toothbrush,’ McCullin once said.  ‘The most important photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same shots. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.’

That’s a pretty good definition of how communication works.

You can have the best technology in the world, the coolest graphics, the funkiest presentation – and none of it will make much difference.

Because what really matters is the story.

 

When efficiency isn’t efficient

I’m always surprised when a healthy business announces mass redundancies.

According to my friends in banking, this is because I’m naïve.

‘The best time to make cuts is when you’re doing well’, they say. ‘It reassures the city that your growth will be sustained, because you’re operating efficiently.’

And, if you judge a business purely in spreadsheet terms, I can see why this would make sense.

The problem is that it doesn’t work like this in real life.

On a spreadsheet, taking 10,000 salaries out of your business is efficient, because it reduces your cost base without reducing your revenue.

Whereas, in real life, taking 10,000 people out of your business means the people who are left feel demotivated, because they know they’re going to have to do more work.

It means all the effort you put into building your ‘employer brand’ will be undermined, because the people who work for you no longer trust you.

And it means the experience your customers have is likely to feel less good, which means they’re less likely to come back, which means your revenue will go down.

In 2008, American academics Charlie Trevor and Anthony Nyberg carried out a massive global study into the effects of downsizing. They found that, on average, a 1% reduction in workforce had the following effects on the employees left behind:

  • 31% increase in people choosing to leave
  • 41% reduction in job satisfaction
  • 36% reduction in commitment

In other words, any cost saving from the downsizing is massively outweighed by the loss of skills, goodwill and productivity that result from it.

The only businesses where it worked were the ones that managed the downsizing in a way that preserved the trust of their employees. By acting fairly, by communicating openly, and by showing them why it was the right thing to do.

In other words, by behaving like human beings.

There’s no function for this on a spreadsheet. But it’s the only way you’ll grow your business sustainably in the long term.

This blog has been adapted from a chapter in Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

Make the numbers make sense

Long before Dick Cheney became famous as the hawkish architect of the Iraq War, he first rose to prominence by putting free market thinking at the heart of the Reagan administration’s economic policy.

It began one day when he was having lunch with an economist named Arthur Laffer, who had an idea about tax that he was keen to promote.

Laffer’s idea was that, beyond a certain point, hiking tax levels is counter-productive, because it prompts people to work less hard and look for ways to avoid paying tax. Whereas lowering taxes encourages people to be more productive and compliant, which means you raise more tax revenue in the long term.

This was not a new idea (Laffer borrowed it from a 14th century Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun), but it was very much contrary to the prevailing thinking at the time and he wasn’t having much luck getting his point across.

Cheney shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I don’t get it. How can you get more money if you charge people less tax?’

Frustrated, Laffer grabbed a napkin and scribbled this sketch on it.

make the numbers make sense

All at once, the penny dropped. Cheney picked up the sketch and used it to reformulate the Republicans’ economic strategy for the next election (which they won by a landslide).

That was the moment when Reaganomics was born, along with all the dreadful yuppy nonsense that went with it.

But let’s ignore the junk bonds, shoulder pads and big hair.

The point is that, if you want people to engage with data, you have to bring it to life – and the best way to do that is with a picture. Which is why infographics have become so popular in recent years.

Apart from anything else, the process of turning complex numerical data into a single image forces you to be simple. It makes you think about the information in the way your audience might think about it. It forces you to delve into the mountain of data and pull out the one key point or pattern that explains exactly why it matters. And it allows you to express it in a way that your audience is likely to grasp.

Because the really important thing to remember about numbers is that they don’t matter. What matters is what the numbers mean.

 

Start with your employees and the rest will follow

Herb Kelleher, who died this month, is widely regarded as one of the greatest CEOs America has ever seen.

Which is odd, because he never set out to run a business at all. He started his working life as a lawyer in New Jersey, before moving to Texas. It was while having dinner one night with a client in San Antonio that the two began discussing an idea for an airline that would help people travel more easily around the vast State.

The business that grew out of this conversation, Southwest Airlines, became the template for every budget airline that followed – as well as a shining example of what you can achieve with a business if you start by thinking about the people who work in it.

Kelleher’s genius was for making things simple and creating a culture where people took themselves lightly, but their jobs seriously.

When recruiting new pilots, he once brought all the prospective candidates together in a hangar on a warm day – and then turned the air conditioning off. An employee came out, apologised for the heat and offered shorts to anyone who wanted them. Some accepted but most, worried about not looking business-like enough, stayed in their shirts, ties and long trousers.

Only the candidates who took the shorts were offered a job. Kelleher wanted people who would be driven by common sense, not protocol – and flexible enough to adapt to unexpected conditions.

Naturally gregarious and charismatic, he once publicly arm-wrestled a rival for the right to use a disputed slogan (he lost, but with such good grace that he was still allowed to use it).

Above all, Kelleher had a gift for inspiring loyalty and dedication from his employees, because they knew with absolute certainty that they were his first priority.

As he once put it:

‘If you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back – and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with your employees and everything else follows from that.’

The gunpowder test

Sailors in Nelson’s navy were entitled to a daily rum ration as part of their pay.

To make sure the rum hadn’t been watered down too much, the crew would test a sample from the barrel by pouring it over gunpowder. This process was called ‘proving’. If the gunpowder failed to ignite, it meant the rum contained too much water.

So the navy carried out experiments to determine the lowest concentration of alcohol at which the gunpowder would still ignite. They calculated it at four parts alcohol to three parts water (57.15% Alcohol by Volume in today’s language).

From then on, rum containing that percentage of alcohol was deemed to be ‘100 proof’, a measure which became the standard benchmark for alcoholic strength in the UK until 1980.

It’s a handy pub quiz fact. It’s also a fascinating example of the value of trust in employee relations.

Because the officers on board knew they could be confident the rum would ignite, they embraced the idea of the proof test and turned it into a public display. Which meant it stopped being a point of contention and mistrust for the crew – and, instead, became a repeated celebration of their employers’ integrity.

The Royal Navy became known for the morale and discipline of its crews and, as a result, their superior skills in seamanship and gunnery. Which allowed the British to defeat even their more powerful enemies, dominate the world’s oceans and establish the largest empire ever seen. All without spending a single penny more than they were contractually obliged to (because their rum rations were as efficient as they could possibly be).

Next time your finance director asks you why it’s worth investing in engagement, you might want to tell them this story.

Why not?

If you were born after 1980, when you hear the name ‘Buzzcocks’, you probably think of a slightly arch musical quiz show on BBC2. (If you were born after 2000, BBC2 was a channel on a thing called television. Google it).

If you grew up in 1970s Britain, on the other hand, there’s a good chance the name will fill you with a warm glow of nostalgia.

Even if you didn’t really like punk, it would have been hard not to be drawn to the infectious energy of the Buzzcocks’ output. Songs like ‘What do I get?’, ‘Orgasm addict’ and ‘Whatever happened to…?’. Ear-worming riffs. Whip-sharp, slightly edgy lyrics. Cocky, confident posturing. All wrapped up with a knowing grin and a three-minute play-length. It was about as close as you get to perfect teenage music.

So today feels like a pretty sad day to me.

Pete Shelley, who died yesterday, was the man who formed and led the Buzzcocks and wrote all their best songs.

He was also a natural entrepreneur, who basically invented the idea of independent record labels.

When the Buzzcocks couldn’t get a deal with one of the big record companies who dominated the industry at the time, Pete talked family and friends into lending the band enough money to start pressing their own vinyl EPs, which they sold in the Virgin record store in Manchester.

20 years before the internet was invented, the Buzzcocks went viral through sheer energy and bloody-minded determination: playing gigs, building an audience, hustling record stores and, eventually, elbowing their way into the mainstream.

Their best-known number – ‘Ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t have)?’ – was a brilliant reinvention of that old pop cliché, the love song.

It was also unusual, at that time, in being written as a love song to another man. While Elton John was coyly getting married to a woman, Pete was quite comfortable talking openly about his bisexuality.

Pete Shelley broke the mould. He made his band successful without any help from the music industry behemoths.

Along the way, he helped to democratise popular music – and pave the way for a much more eclectic and authentic soundtrack to my (and many other peoples’) youths than those behemoths would ever have allowed.

And he did it all with a smile on his face.

So, if you want a template for authenticity, creativity and sheer can-do determination, my advice is to google ‘Buzzcocks’ and keep scrolling down until you get to the band.