Integrity must be the new message from the top, says Sants

October 13, 2010

At the risk of infuriating Andrew Marr, I intend to commit my thoughts to a blog on the subject of corporate ethics. No, this is not my rumination on a firm with headquarters in Chelmsford, but on the thorny issue of business integrity.

Gekko says that greed is good and now it's legal

Gordon Gekko is back in British filmhouses in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps with Michael Douglas reprising the role of the unprincipled slash and burn moneyman.

In the new film we see an unrepentant Gekko in the days of boom before the recent banking bust celebrating the fact that “greed is good and now it seems it’s legal”. According to the film’s director Oliver Stone, individuals like Gekko have passed their date stamp, sharp suited dinosaurs who have been replaced by the major banks and the hedge funds: “They are the big players now…the money’s too big.”

With impeccable timing, in the same week of the film’s UK release, Hector Sants, chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, addressed the issue of corporate culture and ethics in a Mansion House conference speech, and how in the banking industry a company’s value system was critical in shaping the behaviours and judgments of its people.

Management, he said, had a critical role in determining the culture of an organisation and setting the direction and tone of a company so that employees made the right decisions. He then posed some questions that should be asked about ones firm:

  • Do management model good behaviour, i.e. make their values ‘live’?
  • Do management articulate a clearly understandable strategy?
  • Do management offer guidance and training to assist in good decision-making – for example, on ensuring the fair treatment of customers and effective risk management?
  • Do management incentivise good behaviour and deter poor behaviour and how?
  • Do management encourage the required diversity to facilitate challenge to ‘group-think’?
  • Do management articulate their vision of the right culture? (Linking the brand of the institution and its culture)

These questions should not be asked as part of a box-ticking exercise; the company culture must “ring true and be consistent with what the firm does”.

This is not always the case, he said. Some of the causes of the recent crisis were rooted in the behaviours of firms and organisational cultures. And, worryingly, some senior managers had evidently failed to learn the lessons and were repeating their mistakes as if in defiance of Einstein’s definition of insanity (doing the same thing again and again in expectation of a different result).

Companies that fail to act with integrity and to ensure good behaviour is part of the lifeblood of their organisation face regulation, he warned. He could have added that they might also find themselves the subject of Mr Stone’s next cinematic opus.


Virgin: Happy to be different

November 21, 2009

Virgin companies pride themselves on being different: thinking differently, acting differently and encouraging individuality among their people. The equation is a simple one – happy people equal delighted customers.

But it’s not just the company that thinks it’s doing something special. Virgin Media was recognised recently at the VMA Internal Communications Showcase Awards for its approach in encouraging people in all parts of the business to have their say and for taking notice of what was said. As someone working in internal communications, I wanted to understand a little more about how Virgin Media achieved this success. How do Virgin Media walk the talk?

For Alexandra Smith, Head of Internal Communications at Virgin Media, ‘people engagement’ is not corporate wrapping paper or tokenism, it is a core part of who Virgin is and is wired into the company’s DNA.

Virgin Media“Wherever we can, we ensure that our people are able to contribute their views and influence opinion,” says Alexandra. “The strategy is based around treating people as adults, meaning that they take responsibility for what they say and respect other people’s views. Very few of our channels are anonymous, so people have to stand up for what they say if challenged. Openness and honesty is part of the Virgin culture.”
Virgin Media has designed a number of tools to connect with and build networks among its approximate 15,000 workforce spread across a number of sites and in the field who are engaged in a range of activities (e.g. call centres, customer services, sales and technicians). So people can comment on every story on the company’s intranet, post questions and air their views. There are discussion forums and a wiki tool for people to build content that is relevant to their part of the organisation.

The leadership team is put on the spot using regular live online Q&A sessions and at roadshow events, and a voicemail and text system keeps field staff in the loop about hot topics and enables them to leave a response to information messages and rate how useful they found them.

The use of Twitter is encouraged to build employee communities and foster collaborative working while a series of ‘summits’ allow employees working in the company’s different product areas to share best practice or just simply get work issues off their chest.
Reaction among Virgin Media people to greater empowerment has, in the main, been enthusiastically positive. One member of staff said: “I would like to say I am impressed that you have listened and acted positively on the feedback. Excellent.” While another effused: “OMG! We were listened to 🙂 Good stuff!”

While Virgin’s open and people-focused culture has been a factor in the success of this approach, Alexandra admits that there have been challenges along the way and there remain pockets of resistance in the organisation.

“Just because we’re a Virgin company doesn’t mean it’s been easy and there’s a lot of education still to do at all levels in the company. But the benefits of doing it are clear and there is a strong business case for all companies to engage in new and interesting ways with their employees.”

Employees challenge the technology status quo

November 2, 2009

The growth in the use of new technologies and social networking sites in the workplace offers the opportunity for more effective working but poses business risks for firms that fail to prepare for the changes.

These are the conclusions of a recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit Power to the People? Managing the technology democracy in the workplace.

The report sponsored by Trend Micro suggests that “employees are challenging the technology status quo” in their organisations by demanding greater freedom to use new technologies, personal accounts and applications to work in innovative ways.

The established order – centralised management by the IT department – has been undermined by the growth of mobile devices which allow, for instance, employees to get round company bans on the use of blogs and social networking sites while at work.

And while such changes have been gradual, the trend is set to increase due to the arrival of Generation Y (the “millennials” born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s) into middle management positions and the rise of home and teleworking.

Opinion is divided among the 390 executives from seven European countries questioned on whether greater technology liberty in the workplace was a good or bad thing. More than 40 per cent believe business benefits will accrue in the form of better grassroots innovation and higher morale and engagement. But many companies see the trend as potentially damaging to productivity and a threat to security.

Realistic or reactionary, such a view is likely to be rendered obsolete in the future. Companies, like it or not, will need to train their employees in new technologies, set out clear governance and manage risks where they exist.

To read the report click here.

When’s best for you?

October 29, 2009

Beginning or the end of the day? Over lunch or short and sharp with a coffee? The question is what is the optimum time for a work meeting? And the answer, a new study reveals, is 3pm on Tuesday.

This time is considered a diary “sweet spot” when employees are available, motivated and feeling engaged.

Most people don’t like early Mondays for meetings – this is a time for checking emails and girding oneself for the week ahead. And late in the day and the end of the week is a no, no as employees are beginning to clock watch or already planning their weekends.

Surprisingly perhaps the survey by the online scheduling service When Is Good showed that people were prepared to work over lunch, but availability peaks at 3pm.

Choosing the ‘ideal’ time for a meeting might seem like an unfamiliar luxury to time-starved managers who wish that the great creator had included more hours and days in Microsoft Outlook.

However, beware meetings for their own sake: “A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”

Smile like you mean it

July 28, 2009

Customer service is an essential part of the modern consumer experience. A helpful manner and welcoming smile can transform a routine trip to the supermarket or call to a service provider’s contact centre.

But how do you get employees to provide service with a smile?

A friend of mine who worked for an estate agent would stick fluorescent yellow smile stickers to office phones as a prompt for employees when calling clients. Now a train operator in Japan has gone one better by installing cameras into the workplace to see whether employees pass the smile test.

Before heading out for the day to meet the public, staff are invited to sit in front of a computerised scanner to check that they are disporting an appropriately sunny expression.

Employee Mitsue Endo speaking to the BBC said the computerised smile scanner helped her develop “a natural smile”. The pictures suggested otherwise, but anyone asked to maintain a rictus grin for a significant period of time while simultaneously helping commuters negotiate the busy Japanese rail system deserves our understanding.

You have to admire Japanese ingenuity. This after all was the country that saw Tama the tortoiseshell cat appointed ‘super station master’ to turn around the fortunes of a loss-making rail company.

And while I leave you to consider whether a grin checker could be transferred across to other professions (funeral directors and business receivers? No. Dentists? Yes), I am contacting my local train operator, First Capital Connect, to enquire whether or not its lachrymose members of staff would benefit from a happy ‘cam’. I’ve even thought of a snappy slogan: Travel with us, it’s smiles better!