Category Archives: Values

A story of how one CEO delivered instant change

Eye of Man in GlassesThe leaked memo from Barclays boss Antony Jenkins telling 140,000 staff to sign up to a new set of values or leave the company has caused quite a debate among communicators.   Some are uncomfortable with the blunt tone, others are more concerned about imposing values onto people and some say “way to go AJ”.   Personally, I don’t have a problem with the frank tone of the message, which states (to the people who don’t feel they can sign up to the values):  “My message to those people is simple: Barclays is not the place for you. The rules have changed. You won’t feel comfortable at Barclays and, to be frank, we won’t feel comfortable with you as colleagues.”   From a language point of view, it’s clear, strong and refreshingly uncorporate.   And given the context of bad behaviour in the bank up to now, a strong message is the only option.   But will it make a difference?

Back in 1998 I worked for a CEO who faced a similar challenge of bringing about cultural change in a global financial services organisation.   He spent the first six months in the job travelling round and taking a good look at what he had inherited.   He didn’t like what he saw.   He knew that dramatic wholesale change would be required to fix what was an ailing organisation lumbering towards the 21st Century.    He also knew that the organisation was full of fiefdoms and parochial cliques, where ‘knowledge is power’ managers would run the rule as they saw it.   The CEO wanted to pursue an agenda of personal responsibility, customer focus, teamwork, knowledge sharing, trust, collaboration, learning, change agility and tech revolution.    Some chance.    So he decided to bring 365 of the company’s top managers together for an event in Barcelona.    They all turned up, expecting the usual away-day jolly, only to find coloured polo shirts in their hotel room and a request to wear them next day for the first session – blue for Europe, yellow for AsiaPac and red for Americas.   They didn’t fancy this, of course – “how naff” they chorused.    But next day they dutifully gathered in their shirts, looking and sounding mightily uncomfortable.    The stage was very corporate – plain lectern with a logo filled background.    Then on came the CEO, in a suit and tie, and proceeded to embark on a fairly dull PowerPoint review of business performance.

Then, 20 minutes in, something happened.   The CEO interrupted his presentation, looked out at the audience and said:  “You know, when I first took on this job I thought we needed to change by evolution.  I was wrong.  I made a mistake.   What we need is a revolution.”    At that point, the lights went down, and the dry ice came up.  The Beatle’s Revolution began to play (very loudly) and the audience started to revolve (they didn’t know at the time, but their seats had been constructed on top of a giant revolving floor).    As the song played, some of the audience reacted with smiles, others began to clap but most just looked puzzled.    Then, as the floor turned 180 degrees, a new stage opened up in front of them, with new branding, moody lighting and no lectern.   On came the CEO … miked-up and dressed in a polo shirt.   His first words were:  “From now on, we’re not the same company.”

Now why did this happen?   Primarily it was to put a very clear stake in the ground that things were about to change.  There had to be a moment in time when the change started – and that time (as I still remember today) was 9.20am on June 6th 1998.  The time of the revolution.    There had to be this one moment to signal that things would be different from now on.    It could only happen with all the top managers in the room.   Now of course, the excitement died down and the CEO and his colleagues proceeded to set out, over the following three days, how the organisation was going to change and what he expected of his leaders.    But he quite rightly knew that would not be enough.  He knew some were “up for it” but it was obvious that many would go back to their constituencies and carry on as before.     So on the final day, at the farewell lunch, he dropped the bombshell.

At the point where he was expected to say “thanks very much, it’s been great, now have a safe journey home”, he actually said this:   “You know, over these last three days I’ve taken the opportunity to meet every single one of you.  I have looked into the whites of your eyes, and I know that some of you are ready to lead this change.  But I also know that some of you will go back to your part of the organisation and carry on exactly the same as you did before.   Well, to those people, let me just say this.  There are lots of good companies out there who would welcome your knowledge and experience.  So why don’t you go and work for those companies?    If you aren’t prepared to change, there’s no place for you here.”   We called this the “whites of your eyes” speech and it had a tangible impact on the room.   Over the following months, some great role modelling leaders emerged with innovative and inspiring ideas for engaging people.    Many other leaders left the organisation.  The change had begun and it captured the imagination.

So back to Barclays.   Antony Jenkins has just given his “whites of your eyes” speech, so let’s
see what happens next.   For me, the mistake Barclays have made is in their new core values.  They’re useless – respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship.   What does that mean?   As someone pointed out on a forum, Enron had three of these values!    Values shouldn’t be nouns – they should be verbs.  That way they can be actioned and measured.   Show me an organisation who doesn’t believe in integrity, respect, service yada yada.    Success will now lie in how they embed and role model the values, but I can’t help feeling it’s a missed opportunity.    The first punch was with a knuckle duster, the second was with a custard pie.

What happens when values turn bad

Last year I was running a comms workshop with a client.   At one point we started discussing messages and the importance of aligning comms to key strategic themes, values etc (like you do).   Remembering that this particular organisation had ‘innovation’ as one of its global values I put forward the suggestion that they might like to consider ways to bring this value alive through their comms.    Oh dear, it was like I’d killed a kitten.   All went silent.  Eyes looked down.   Feet shuffled nervously.   “Have I said something wrong?” I ventured.   “You just said a dirty word” someone replied.  “We’re tired of hearing about innovation.  It’s all we’ve had drilled into us for the last year.  We’re all sick of it.”   “But it’s one of your corporate values” I said, digging the hole even deeper.   “Yes, but it’s all talk.   All we hear about is how important innovation is but there’s nothing to back it up.   We just aren’t innovative.”   You see, the value had become meaningless.   Worse, it had become a negative rather than a positive influencer.  In this organisation, ‘innovation’ was now a word to be avoided (banned, even) instead of exploited and celebrated.    It was really sad hearing people be so dismissive and cynical about a word that should (in theory) be a core part of their working ethos.   That’s the point of values, right?   But what this tale reinforces is that values can bite back if you don’t look after them, nurture them and personify them.   Having values that you don’t live by – in a tangible way – is like breaking trade descriptions.    I don’t have a stated set of values in my business, but if I did, innovation would be one of them.  I believe in innovation – I seek it out, I strive to apply it in what I do and I like to celebrate it in others.   I’d like to think that I ‘live the value’ in that sense.   Unfortunately, so many organisations pick values that they think look good on their website and on posters, but which they don’t really understand.   They don’t understand that a ‘value without action’ is like a chocolate teapot.   Pointless.   Innovation is a very popular value, but when you speak to people whose organisation preaches the importance of innovation and ask what  happens on the ground to make it real, they are often stuck for an answer.   It sounds great for a company to say it’s innovative, but does it invest in creative capability?  Does it have the structure and processes to manage innovation?  Does it have a culture that encourages and nurtures ideas?  Does it have the collaborative networks to allow innovation to flourish?  Does it have leaders who understand what innovation is and what it requires?   Does it have good communicators?   Does it even know what it’s innovating for?   If you can’t answer these questions, don’t have it as a value.   My experience last year was a profound and insightful lesson in what happens when you preach one thing and do another.  Or do nothing.   Having values that your people don’t believe in is far worse that not having values at all.    Value statements may be all the rage … but if you don’t make them meaningful, rage is what you’ll get.