Category Archives: Brand & Talent

Mindset matters

Just over a year ago now, I wrote about the vital importance of ‘metaskills’ as an (possibly even the most?) important avenue of intervention if we are to equip young people with the chops to succeed in an ever more complex and rapidly changing world.

A good place to start this post is exactly where I left off last time, with a thought-provoking extract from Marty Neumeier’s excellent book, Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age.

Today we find ourselves caught between two paradigms – the linear, reductionist past and the spiraling, multivalent future. The old world turned on the axis of knowledge and material goods. The new one will turn on the axis of creativity and social responsibility. To cross the gap we’ll need a generation of thinkers and makers who can reframe problems and design surprising, elegant solutions. We’ll need fearless, self-directed learners who embrace adventure. We’ll need teachers, mentors and leaders who understand that mind shaping is world shaping – who give learners the tools they’ll need to continually reinvent their minds in response to future challenges.

If you’re anything like me (and since you’ve found your way to this post, I’m guessing you are) you’ll be nodding in vigorous agreement with everything Marty says.

I mean, think about it…

Kids starting school in 2015 probably won’t retire until 2070. Our education systems are meant to be preparing them for this life ahead, yet we can’t even predict with certainty what the world will look like five years from now. The U.S. Department of Labor apparently estimates that 65% of children currently in grade school will end up in job functions that don’t even exist today. Meanwhile, research by the Oxford Martin School on the future of employment suggests that as many as 50% of current corporate occupations will disappear by 2025 as a result of computerization.

How on earth are we supposed to help our children prepare for, and succeed in, such an unpredictable world? For folks like Marty, education gurus like Sir Ken Robinson, and my friends at the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), the answer is as plain as day…

The secret has to lie in fostering agility, adaptability, and applied knowledge and imagination. That means helping young people to develop typically entrepreneurial skills and behaviours such as initiative and self-direction, communication and collaboration, and creativity and problem solving — fundamentally human characteristics that can help our kids to stay ahead of the ‘robot curve’ (as Marty puts it), to be able to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, to better recognise opportunities, and to remain confident and resilient in the face of challenges.

The teaching of these very sorts of skills and behaviours – fully integrated into the school curriculum – is one of the main reasons my wife and I chose our daughter’s school, and I’m constantly reminded of the difference it can make. Every year, I take part as a judge in the school’s Dragon’s Den-style event (Shark Tank in the US?), where girls as young as six pitch their innovative ideas for new products or services. They never cease to amaze me – not just with the quality of their ideas, but with their confidence, self-assurance and ability to think on their feet – and it seems so obvious that it’s this emotional intelligence, more than their recall of history or trigonometry or whatever, that will stand them in greatest stead in the future.

Cards on the table, this is a fee-paying school and I fully appreciate that these sorts of programs are a luxury not afforded to the vast majority of students. But then that’s precisely why I’m so excited by NFTE’s work on an Entrepreneurial Mindset Index – an emerging methodology for measuring and evaluating the presence of an entrepreneurial mindset among young people and, potentially, to influence policy in such a way that teaching it is given much greater prominence in all our schools.

I’m excited because, IMHO, learning about this stuff shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of a privileged few. Mindset matters. It should be available to everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more, NFTE is hosting an Entrepreneurial Mindset Summit in New York on 27 October. Check it out.

What’s your purpose?

Here’s a little thought experiment, teed up by an extract from Aaron Hurst’s excellent book, The Purpose Economy:

Purpose is a verb

Like so many people, I always thought that gaining purpose in life was about finding my cause. When coaching or mentoring over the years, purpose always seemed to find expression through a noun — immigration, civil rights, education and so on. And yet this never accurately described the many people I knew who worked in jobs that had no ’cause’ but still felt a strong sense of purpose in their work, or who had found purpose working across many causes. What started to become clear to me was that defining personal purpose wasn’t about finding a noun, but instead about finding a verb — an action. It’s not only what you are doing, but how you do it and thereby relate to the world. For example, when we assemble a group of leaders in education, we think they share a purpose, but in fact, they only share a cause. Until they can understand the diversity of purpose in the room, the cause has little hope of moving forward or creating meaningful change.

The distinction between cause and purpose is a valuable one, IMHO, and one that bears closer consideration by all of us. Whether you’re an individual seeking to crystallise how and where you might find greater meaning and fulfilment in your work, or an organisation looking to better articulate your place in the world — why you do what you do, and how the world is a better place for it — it all begins with understanding that purpose is deeply personal.

In other words, purpose activation starts from within. If you want to ignite a passion for purpose among the people around you, be it colleagues or clients — if you want them to feel part of something bigger than themselves — then you sure as hell better be clear about what drives you to get out of bed in the morning and how you try to live that purpose every day through what you do and how you do it.

So to the thought experiment…

If you had to write a personal purpose statement, what would it look like? Taking a cue from Simon Sinek’s ‘golden circle’, how would you go about articulating the why, the how and the what (in that order, remember) of your purpose?

In the spirit of sharing — and deficient though it undoubtedly is, as a first stab at this — here’s how I think mine might read:

My purpose is to make it simple and desirable for business leaders to understand and act upon the power of purpose in their organizations.

Why? Because I’d like my daughter to inherit a better, more sustainable world than my generation has, and I believe that the corporation is the only institution pervasive and powerful enough to make that happen.

How? By persuading leaders with a story of hope and aspiration, not doom and gloom; by demonstrating that shared value – the reconnection of strategy and innovation to serving a higher social purpose – is actually a better way to bigger, more legitimate profit; and by illuminating that, while strategies and business models may come and go, it’s that higher purpose that endures.

What’s my contribution? Insightful, easy-to-digest thought leadership that makes the power of purpose impossible to ignore; and practical support to help organizations uncover and articulate their own enduring sense of purpose – one that grants the potential to survive and thrive over generations.

What’s yours?

Holonomics: the antidote to reductionism?

Come across a word like ‘holonomics’ (evocative as it is of systems thinking) and one might be forgiven for feeling a slight sense of scepticism. Fortunately, Simon and Maria Robinson, authors of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, are very quick to dispel any whiff of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ surrounding their ideas. Holonomic thinking is not a “dogmatic annunciation” of a new methodology or toolkit, but rather a much more subtle and nuanced quest to expand our consciousness.

If all that sounds a tad esoteric, it really isn’t. It’s massively important, because our dominant mode of conceptualising the relationship between ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ is broken – no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Mainstream management and organizational approaches remain largely rooted in the industrial age, where reductionism made perfect sense. Physical tasks could be split into relatively independent parts, each optimised through the division of labour, and ‘reconstituted’ by means of workflow systems. Relationships are framed by the metaphor of ‘business as mechanism’ – a system of discrete parts that fit together as a whole, based on sequential processes and a clear, linear understanding of cause and effect.

Of course there’s only one problem with that. It just isn’t the world we live in any more.

So, what’s the alternative?

Simply put, it’s to view businesses as organisms, not mechanisms – as complex, living, dynamic systems, rather than fixed hierarchical structures. Remove part of a machine and it ceases to function. Take a cutting from a plant, however, and you can grow an entire new plant. As Simon and Maria explain, “There is something fundamentally different about the organization of a plant, whereby the whole is contained within the parts.”

While they certainly aren’t the first (and won’t be the last) to posit the importance of this metaphorical shift, what’s different about holonomics is the ‘both/and’ nature of its expression. The essence of holonomic thinking is to assert neither the primacy of parts over wholes (as per the industrial age paradigm above), nor to do the opposite (a common trap of systems thinking). Rather, in an Opposable Mind sort of way, it’s to hold both the parts and whole in mind at the same time – each part as an authentic expression of the whole, and the whole as an authentic expression of the belonging together of all the parts (no shoe-horns required!).

That the optimum word in all of this should be ‘authentic’ – and that the quality of authenticity becomes ‘known’ through feeling and intuition as much as sensing and thinking – is something that should harbour a natural appeal for anyone making a living in the world of brand and design.

The beauty of the book (at least from my experience of reading it) is that it provides the scientific and philosophical underpinnings for what you always felt to be true, but perhaps couldn’t put your finger on why.

For example, if you want to truly understand what it means to encounter an authentic whole, then you’d be wise to familiarise yourself with phenomenology (the focal point of Part One of the book). Unlike Cartesian philosophy, which rejects the subjective perception of reality as the source of untruth, phenomenology embraces it as inherent to understanding the totality of ‘lived experience’. Of course, this ties in to the well-established notion that brands must speak to our emotions, but it goes much further than that. It illuminates why a truly authentic brand is not some form of artificial construct – a ‘superimposed’ sum of the parts – but rather it is something that ‘comes into being’ through the manner in which we perceive and experience its DNA in each and every part. (As I say In my own book, that’s why literally everything you say and everything you do has the power either to enhance or erode it.)

Likewise, if you want to understand how your organisation really functions (as opposed to how you think it should)  – or if you’re one of those people who still harbours the notion that the environment (biosphere) is a sub-system of the economy (business) – then Part Two of the book is for you. Here, Simon and Maria take us on a guided tour of chaos theory, systems thinking and complexity science, gently nudging us towards the realisation of the nested interdependences between business, society and the environment.

Finally, Part Three seeks to make all this good theoretical stuff more tangible by illustrating evidence of holonomic thinking in practice – from the ‘chaordic’ and ‘latticed’ organisational structures at Visa and Gore Associates to the ‘dynamic way of seeing’ embodied in Toyota’s production system (including an interesting perspective on what caused Toyota to drop the ball a few years back).

If any of that sounds like your cup of tea, then you can take a proper peek inside the book here. While you’re at it, maybe take a look at Marty Neumeier’s Metaskills too – a slightly different, but equally compelling and highly readable guide to developing a ‘higher level of knowing’.

Generation Jobless: How do you make a dent on youth unemployment?

Add together not only those officially classed as ‘unemployed’, but also those who have simply given up looking for work and those who are part of the ‘working poor’ (i.e. earning less than $2/day), and the number of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 without productive employment apparently reaches an eye-watering 600 million.

That’s one in two of the total global population of 15-24 year olds. If they were citizens of a country, it would be the third most populous in the world, behind only China and India.

Gross oversimplification though it is (we are, after all, talking about the product of a major collision of demographics and global economic recession), my inner MBA can’t resist the temptation to categorise possible interventions using the time-honoured 2×2 matrix…

tackling youth unemployment 2x2

Boxes 1 and 2

Looking through the lens of sustaining innovation (improvements within the current paradigm), and seeing youth employment as predominantly a supply-side problem (an insufficiency of appropriate skills), would suggest interventions to improve young people’s readiness for the world of work.

That might include anything and everything from improving access to a quality education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds (creating equity of opportunity), to greater availability of internships and apprenticeships (providing more practical work experience), to better careers advice and guidance on things like CV writing and interview technique (improving chances of converting opportunities).

[A brief aside: equity of opportunity and richer work experience are where initiatives like the Akasa Young Pioneers program – which also happens to be linked to sustainable development – are to be wholeheartedly welcomed and supported, IMHO.]

Viewed as predominantly a demand-side problem (an insufficiency of appropriate jobs) might direct one towards equipping young people with the requisite skills and knowledge to consider setting up their own business, as an alternative to the ‘traditional’ corporate career path.

Indeed, development of a more entrepreneurial mindset might well be a bridge between supply and demand-side views of the problem. As EY Chairman and CEO, Mark Weinberger, alluded to in a recent piece for Forbes, studies suggest that the sorts of skills and behaviours typified by entrepreneurs – e.g. initiative and self-direction, flexibility and adaptability, communication and collaboration, and critical thinking and problem solving – are precisely those that employers currently deem most lacking among millennials.

All of the above are definitely areas where, as Mark says, business can and should be looking to lead and make a tangible contribution. That said…

Boxes 3 and 4

I can’t shake the feeling that the biggest inroads will only be made with systemic change – tackling profound questions like ‘Are we even teaching our kids the right stuff in the first place?’ and ‘Do our tax and economic policies really incentivise job creation?’

Admittedly I’m no expert, but I’ve unsurprisingly found myself nodding in vigorous agreement with a couple of passages that I’d like to share with you, the first of which comes from Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age – yet another outstanding and profoundly thought-provoking book from the brilliant Marty Neumeier (@MARTYneumeier):

“With the exception of language and math basics, the subjects we now teach at school are the wrong subjects. The right subjects – the ones that will matter in the 21st century – are metaskills. Students today should be learning social intelligence, systemic logic, creative thinking, how to make things, how to learn. What we now think of as subjects – sociology, trigonometry, physics, art, psychology and scores of others – should become ‘drill-downs’ from these metaskills – specific disciplines, designed to explore the higher order subjects…

Today we find ourselves caught between two paradigms – the linear, reductionist past and the spiraling, mutli-valent future. The old world turned on the axis of knowledge and material goods. The new one will turn on the axis of creativity and social responsibility. To cross the gap we’ll need a generation of thinkers and makers who can reframe problems and design surprising, elegant solutions. We’ll need fearless, self-directed learners who embrace adventure. We’ll need teachers, mentors and leaders who understand that mind shaping is world shaping – who give learners the tools they’ll need to continually reinvent their minds in response to future challenges.”

The second passage comes from Walter Stahel, founder director of The Product-Life Institute, in a contribution to A New Dynamic: Effective Business in a Circular Economy, published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

“Sustainable taxation should reward desired developments and discourage unwanted effects of activities. In a sustainable economy, taxes on renewable resources, including work – human labour – are counterproductive and should be abandoned. The resulting loss of state revenue could be compensated by taxing the consumption of non-renewable resources in the form of materials and energies, and of undesired wastes and emissions. Such a shift in taxation would reward a circular economy with its low-carbon and low-resource solutions.”

Having always felt that the tax system would provide a far more effective tool to incentivise the right behaviours than the blunt instrument of regulation, that makes intuitive sense to me. What do you think?

Building a better working world: Unilever style

As regular readers will know by now, I have a massive man-crush on Unilever CEO, Paul Polman (and not just because he was kind enough to say something nice about my book!).

Here’s a leader who really gets new-world sustainability – a world in which Corporate Responsibility/Corporate Sustainability (whatever you choose to call it) is indistinguishable from business strategy, based on the knowledge that best prescription for long-term success these days is making a positive social impact on the world.

Among many memorable quotes from a speech of his I attended a few months ago, as part of Hult Business School’s Visionary Speaker series, was his assertion that “I don’t believe that any brand should be there, if it doesn’t serve a purpose that actually makes this a better world.”

For a window into how this translates into action – how Unilever is connecting every one of its brands to a higher social purpose – there’s no better example than this video for Lifebuoy soap (if you haven’t come across this before, I strongly advise you to have hankies at the ready – it’s a tearjerker!):

And here’s a sample of people’s reactions to it — reactions that, I must say, are of precisely the kind that I have every time I watch Gondappa’s story:

What can we learn from this (aside from it being a masterclass in emotive storytelling)?

Three things, I think…

Firstly, terminology. When Unilever uses the word ‘sustainable’, they’re not using it as a synonym for ‘green’ – exclusively about environmental stewardship (although ‘Reducing environmental impact’ is a key area of focus for its Sustainable Living Plan). It’s much bigger than that. It’s about increasing their social impact and, in so doing, creating consumer preference for their brand(s) and increasing the long-term viability and prosperity of their business.

Second, positioning. Note how the Lifebouy brand is explicitly connected to the higher purpose of preventing disease and unnecessary deaths through the simple act of washing hands with soap. Note how it fits neatly under ‘Improving health and wellbeing’ (another – and the first – of their three topline areas of focus). Note, too, how its campaigns to encourage healthy hand-washing habits across schools and villages, in urban and rural communities across Asia, Africa and Latin America, are a logical extension of the Lifebuoy product and its purpose.

Third, the art of creating value through sustainability. Two numbers tell you everything you need to know about how making a relevant and positive social impact on the world creates brand value. As a result of Hindustan Unilever’s campaign in Thesgora, India, the incident rate of diarrhoea has fallen by 86%. And what effect has that, and other similar campaigns, had on the Lifebuoy brand? Underlying sales growth is 18% per annum over the last three years.

‘Nuff said!

Getting under the skin of ‘engagement’

What does it say about a concept when there’s little or no consensus on what it means – even among the folks who are supposedly at the forefront of fostering it? So it is with ‘engagement’…

  • For some, in reality, engagement is little or nothing more than a sexy new wrapper for the same old activity – a slightly more outcomes-focused badge for internal communication.
  • For some it’s more of a process – the alignment of the organisation’s vision, strategy and goals with those of the individuals who make it up.
  • For some it’s a philosophy – a synonym for ‘involvement’ and the desire to bring greater democracy to decision-making in organisations.
  • For others still, it’s pure outcome – an individual psychological state, the sum total of one’s gut feelings about one’s relationship with an organisation (effectively a slightly less crass way of referring to people’s level of intrinsic motivation).

Taking succour from the ambiguity, rather than decrying it, I tend to lean towards the latter definition – not least because seeing engagement as subjective and context-specific serves as an important reminder to ask questions, rather than leap to prescribing solutions (e.g. What does engagement mean to your organisation? What would more of it look like in terms of the business outcomes you seek? What, from the wide range of tools and approaches we could pluck from our arsenal, should we be deploying to support delivery of that outcome?).

Engagement shouldn’t be seen as a one-size-fits-all deal – either in definition or in practice. As anyone with the most rudimentary grasp of behavioural economics or complex adaptive systems will tell you, the chance that human beings (you know – real people with a heartbeat and free will) will respond predictably, en masse, to any given intervention, in the way you intend, is slim to anorexic*.

And yet…

An entire industry has been spawned by the false premise that engagement is a universal ‘thing’ that can be objectively and quantitatively measured – no concessions to context or cultural differences; nor to the fact that, while there is an obvious positive correlation between well-motivated people and corporate performance, the relationship between communication and engagement is far from being directly causative.

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and go so far as to say that communication has little or no direct influence over engagement. The latter, IMHO, is far more shaped by the messages implicit in strategy, systems and culture – the opportunities, as Dan Pink would put it, to build a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose – than it is in any messages explicitly communicated.

When you think about it, this should be obvious. An employee doesn’t start a new employment relationship disengaged; and the extent to which they remain engaged (or become disengaged) over time will never be the product of communication alone. It will be the extent to which those communications are congruent or incongruent with their day-to-day experiences of life in the organisation – the extent to which the promise that Company X will be a great place to realise one’s career aspirations (whatever those may be) is actually matched by reality.

Unpalatable though this appears to be to some died-in-the-wool comms pros, this dictates that you can’t separate comms management from good business management period – having the nous and the chutzpah to get involved in (and, dare I say it, even seek to shape) conversations about strategy, systems, processes, visible leadership behaviours etc. as ‘surface manifestations’ of organisational culture. For, if you don’t, you’ve more or less guaranteed that your beautifully written prose will fly in the face of said reality and, rather than being seen as an authentic reflection of an organisation’s purpose, proposition and positioning, it will instead appear as vacuous rhetoric.

My learned fellow 55-minute guide author, Geoff Barbaro, sums it up thus in a conversation over on the CommScrum LinkedIn group:

“Technology is showing us that networks of individuals hold the power of communication, and networks are no respecters of the employee/customer/stakeholder distinctions. When we talk about [internal comms] or [employee engagement] or whatever, what we are really talking about should be organisational management (or leadership), not stuff that happens within bounded walls.”

Amen to that, Geoff!


* If you doubt the difference between how we think we make decisions and how we actually make them (and you’re based in the UK) check out last night’s Horizon programme on BBC2, featuring two brilliant Daniels – Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning author of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ and Dan Ariely, author of ‘Predictably Irrational’ (both fabulous reads if you can find the time).

Paul Polman: 21st century leader

“If you want to change consumer habits – if you want to connect for change in society – we have to use our brands. And the most challenging thing is to give all your brands a social purpose. I don’t believe that any brand should be there, if it doesn’t serve a purpose that actually makes this a better world.”

In short, according to Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, a company or brand that doesn’t serve a higher social purpose doesn’t deserve to exist.  (Go figure that I should have a massive man-crush on him!)

Those few lines above represent just one of many memorable passages in a speech Polman gave to a rapt audience as part of the Hult Visionary Speaker Series in London a couple of weeks ago – a speech in which he not only touched on, but also clearly exhibited, the habits/characteristics that he believes are essential to successful leadership in 21st century:

  • To be authentic and purpose-driven
  • To be systemic thinkers (able to unravel complexity)
  • To be comfortable with total transparency (no transparency = no trust)
  • To collaborate and forge coalitions (capable of creating tipping points)
  • To have a long-term orientation

Hult has kindly made a video of his speech, and the ensuing Q&A session, available on Youtube. If you can find 90 minutes to spare to watch the whole thing, I really suggest you do. If you’re more strapped for time, maybe try jumping in around 49 minutes.

An aside:

Watching this back again last night, I was reminded of one of the very first pieces I ever posted on this blog – my reactions to a similar keynote address given by Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, to an audience at Ashridge over five years ago.

For me, the similarities are striking.

Both delivered some very stark messages, but did so with great authenticity, humility and humour – a very down-to-earth style that made those messages hit home, without ever feeling ‘preachy’.

Just as Ray was, so Paul seems to be more than happy to get out in front of conventional competitive thinking and take bold action. His abandonment of quarterly reporting is a great example; likewise his comments during the Q&A session on more collaborative businesses models (starting around 1:25:00).

I closed out my post about Ray with the wish that we might find more leaders like him in business and in public life. In Paul Polman, we most certainly have.