Happy People x Strong Culture = Profit

Published 20.11.2016

This may be hackneyed territory, but it never ceases to amaze me how important people are to the success, financial health, quality of product and service and the ultimate trajectory of any business and brand.

Over the last few weeks, I have had a number of discussions with owners of mature businesses and start-ups alike (both agencies and brands) and the biggest and most complex topic of conversation is always the human one.

I hear some amazing things about the way talent is being unlocked, nurtured and mentored. I see some bright young things, with brilliant ideas that are changing the world. Challenging convention. Tearing up the rule book. And building tomorrow’s next big thing. It’s amazing. It’s a joy. These are businesses that grow. And profit. Places that people smile. Where teams are engaged, committed and productive. These are companies that value their people. Doing their best for them. And getting the best from them. They have a positive and powerful culture.

Then there’s ‘the others’.

The others? The businesses (agencies included) and brands that have blockages to success. That can’t innovate. Can’t keep up. They can’t change. They lose share. Can’t build sustainable profits. Can’t breed loyalty – staff or customer’s. They are unable to innovate from within. They hang on to the past. They won’t change. They get left behind.

They’re the same businesses that communicate badly with their teams. They have weak cultures. That don’t breed a positive culture of learning, opportunity, excitement, innovation and commitment. They are often myopic with their view of their own business. They are bound by the chains of yesterday. And either frightened or blind to the opportunities of tomorrow.

There seems to me to be a terrifying link between the latter group, the others and ultimate business failure. While business is good, it’s easy to ignore the importance of culture. But when things go bad, it’s often too late.

The difference is usually down to the attitudes of very few people in any business. Often they’re senior managers or the board itself. Narrow thinking is something that flows through a business from the top. It’s the top that set the culture for the business. It’s only there that change can begin.

I’m not going to get overly ‘right on’ about this. I myself can be a really hard manager. I’ve made mistakes. Many. But I care about people. And I know that they have wonderful ideas and I would be remiss not to listen to them. And without them and their hard work, commitment and support, I can achieve very little. No man is an island. Success is a collective effort. A team event. Always.

In my experience, happy people who are engaged with the business and have a sense of purpose do better work – caring more about what they do, who they do it with and who they do it for. And as an owner of a business, why would you want it any other way?

Better work and customer experiences lead neatly to better (more sustainable) profits. Not sometimes. But always. The same way that happy customers lead to increased retention, loyalty and recommendation. In other words, a more sustainable business.

Does this mean then that ‘happy’ equals ‘profit’? Put simply, yes!

Not pink fluffy cloud Care Bear happy. But challenged, engaged, rewarded, developed, cared-for, informed, listened too, valued and involved type happy. The kind of happy where people look forward to Monday mornings. Where they accept the challenges presented to them. Where they’re not scared to fail or fall over. Where they share a single purpose and work hard to deliver the ambitions of the business and the promises of the brand.

Branson beautifully put it that (paraphrasing) you should “train people to leave, and treat them to stay”. I couldn’t agree more. And if (when) they do leave – treat them well and with respect. People have a wonderful habit of coming back, if what they left feels somewhat like ‘home’. We all know that the grass if often less green than it looks.

Quoting another of my favourite business idols, Ogilvy said “we should always employ people better than ourselves – so we become a company of giants”. But I still managers hiring poorly because they are frightened of hiring superior talent or being challenged themselves. It’s mad. I always recommend hiring the best people you can. In fact, hire people you cannot afford. It rarely goes wrong.

When I am consulting the first place to look for positive change is in the team. That may of course include those that seek the change itself – managers and owners are not excluded from the changes process. No-one is perfect. I’ve got a thousand and one weaknesses and defects of my own. People are the agents of change, or the barriers themselves.

But whether you’re dealing with the C-suite or graduate recruits, I encourage every business I consult with to remember – we aren’t dealing with robots. It’s people. Humans. Who are inherently good. But often, don’t have the confidence, training, support or platform to change and improve.

We’re all just people. With lives outside of work. With fears. Hopes. Dreams. Insecurities. Defects. Strengths. Weaknesses. Often fighting battles that others cannot see.

Understanding this is vital. Especially when approaching change. Treating people with empathy, care and respect – both upwards and downwards – gets you further faster. Again, that’s not about being fluffy. I don’t do fluffy. Fluffy doesn’t pay the bills.

It’s just about understanding that in businesses that are based on people – those people need to be managed well in order for the business to flourish. For them to personally flourish. Which is one in the same in the end. Flourishing means the business will do better. Because, yes. Happiness equals profit.

Personally, I’ve not always got everything right with people in the workplace myself. Far from it. I’ve learnt from my mistakes as well as from my successes. At times, I was a terrible employee before I ran my own businesses.

But the longer I’ve been in business – no, actually the older I’ve got and more mistakes I have made and the more I understand myself as a human, not just a leader, entrepreneur or employer– the more I understand the importance of people.

A contact once said to me ‘you have one life, you have to work, so why not enjoy it’. Beautifully put. I do believe the workplace is a competitive place – it should be. That’s ok. Business is competitive. Certainly adland is not for the feint-hearted. But an agency, or any business in fact, can also allowed to be a great place to work.

Places where people collectively come together to deliver a businesses vision, helping each other along the way, sharing their successes. And that’s a culture that has to be built and nurtured. From the top down.

Here are my Top 10 quick wins for agency leaders and brand owners alike to get more from the teams and culture:

  1. Manage by walkabout – don’t hide behind email and other people. Get in front of your team, talk to them, get to know them, share your knowledge, help them realise their potential.
  2. Communicate regularly and openly – one-to-ones, all-business presentations, team meetings they all drive communication and community in a business.
  3. Be honest and be human – politics have no place in business. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you’re not happy, tell people. If you are impressed by someone, celebrate them. I was once told never to apologise if you make a mistake when you lead people. Absolute tosh.
  4. Be clear – set tasks, expectations and priorities clearly, make it easy for people to understand what you want. Keep things simple.
  5. Be strong – it’s great to have empathy, but weakness has no place in business. Sometimes you have to make tough calls, but if you’re doing each of the above, when you have to make those calls, you’ll be surprised how many people will support you.
  6. Keep your promises – never over-promise. Never break those you make.
  7. Don’t rush decisions – ever head that phrase ‘speed kills’, it’s true with decision making too.
  8. Listen – you don’t know everything. Take on feedback and opinion. Trade in facts only – never assumption. Approach everything with an open mind.
  9. Help people to succeed – and your own success will follow.
  10. Trust your gut – without fail, every time I fail to listen to my gut, things have gone wrong.

And here are 10 of my least favourite behaviours in a business that create a negative culture:

  1. Bullying – it comes in many forms. It’s not always obvious. But it’s always abhorrent.
  2. Isms – making decisions on race, gender, orientation or other ism is absolutely unacceptable in the work place. Talent and ability come in every shape and size.
  3. “They work for me” or “my team” – I hate this. I have never said “They work for me” – ever. Only ever, “we work together” or “We’re part of the team” – self-promotion in this form is pretty ugly and shows massive insecurity.
  4. I don’t have time – I’ve been guilty of this. Make time. If your team need too much of your time, there’s usually a bigger leadership problem to address. Give your reports time for one-to-ones, team meetings, feedback – it’s critical for their personal development and for the forward momentum of the business.
  5. Not my problem – everything is everyone’s problem in business.
  6. Blaming – there’s always someone ultimately responsible for a problem in business, but it’s amazing how many people contribute to every mistake.
  7. Gossip – the pastime of the small-minded. I have no time for it.
  8. Assumption – it’s name of the mother of all f#@k ups.
  9. Rigidity – the world changes fast, everyone has to keep pace themselves or trust those that can.
  10. A lack of care – businesses are built on people. And those people aren’t there to be juiced and discarded.

People really are amazing. Incredible. Respect them. Care. Take them with you. Encourage them. Help them realise their potential. Give them the space to succeed. Help them to help you. You’ll go further. Much, much further.

And your journey will be so much more enjoyable.

An important closing thought – I have always prescribed to a very simple philosophy in business… and it’s even made it into my staff handbooks. Fire arseholes. Yes, it’s really been in my staff handbook. Every single one.

You see, arseholes take up too much time and energy. Every once in a while you find that no matter how well you treat someone, or how much you help them – they’re just an arsehole – and you can’t change them. Only life can. So, move on. Cut them loose. Fast.

There’s something to be said for that old adage: Hire slowly and fire quickly. I’ve never had the opportunity to hire slowly. But I’ve made the mistake of not firing quick enough.

I say all this from an informed perspective. I was an arsehole myself a couple of times early on in my career. It’s the fact that I was cut loose, and honest with myself, that helped me learn and grow.

One of my favourite bosses once said to me “Talent is hard to manage… but be careful, not all hard to manage people are talented.” Mike Lawton, of Lawton Communications.

He also told me to “manage by walkabout” – not by email. One of the best lessons I’ve ever been given in business. And I got my very important habit of sharing and giving copies of books, insights and articles with my team from him too. I didn’t work with him long, I was too busy being an arsehole. But he had a huge impact on me. Great guy.