Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A Tale of Two Employers: Your Internal Brand in the Best and Worst of Times

In his Tale of Two Cities (1859), Charles Dickens contrasted France and England during the time of the French Revolution. While the idea of contrasting London and Paris wasn’t unique to Dickens, it’s interesting to see how a value like liberty can resonate so differently in contexts and among people who are, in so many ways, the same. Now, I’m not going to use this space to try my hand at the next great historical fiction, but I’d like to adapt Dickens model—or at least his title—to tell a story more relevant to today’s large organization: a tale of two employers.

Here’s how the story goes. Whether you’re a leader, an independent contributor or line staff at a profit center, if your work at a large company, you have at least two employers hiding under the same internal brand (that is, if you’re lucky enough to have an internal brand). Unlike London and Paris, separated as they are by geography, language, history culture and aristocracy, these two employers share so many of the same attributes that it’s quite easy to miss the important distinctions that divide them.

Your Work
Employer number one—call it “your work”—is the one you keep closest to. Your job is typically defined on your end by the unique (or not so unique) competencies you bring to the table, your boss, manager or leader, your peer group, and your daily activities. Generally, these factors, along with some help from the marketplace and your other employer, define your cash compensation as well as a significant portion of your bonus or incentive pay. Clearly, because it includes both your professional skill set and your daily operating environment, your relationship to your work is fairly intimate, even emotional.

Your Organization
By contrast, employer number two—call it “your organization”—operates at an arm’s length from you. Your organization is defined by the overall organizational mission and values, the strategic direction of senior leadership, and, as a result of these two factors, is generally expressed through HR via policies and procedures, but also—and more importantly—through recruitment positioning, learning, training, benefits, as well as “soft” compensation such as time off, vacation, flex scheduling, and so on. If your relationship to your work is intimate, your relationship to your organization is both more philosophical and more all-encompassing. Your boss, manager or leader may ultimately determine whether you have a good or bad day, but your organization determines how you’ll fare in retirement, how much time you can take off to care for a sick parent, spouse, or child—and quite often, what kind of care you’ll be able to provide them.

Your Brand
To understand why this distinction is so important, we need to add one more element into the mix: your internal brand. If you have one—and you should—it articulates what the organization stands for. It’s complementary to the external brand, but not identical, because while the external brand represents what the organization promises to deliver,* the internal brand messages to the value proposition behind that delivery. If the external brand answers the question “what does the organization do?” the internal brand answers the questions “how and why do we do it?”

Here’s where the tale of two employers gets interesting. Recruiters like to say “recruitment is about getting the front door open; retention is about keeping the back door shut.” This makes good common sense, except the doors are on different buildings. Recruitment efforts typically focus on reasons to join the organization—that is, to join employer number two. But if you look at stats on why people leave, it’s typically because of a bad fit between you and your work—employer number one, be it an unresponsive boss, poor management, problems with your work group, whatever.

What’s the problem with lumping both employers together? The problem is that while it’s generally HR who’s asked to create retention solutions—because retention is, after all, an HR issue—HR typically has limited operational influence. That is, HR controls most of the levers that shape your organization, but it has to get permission to move the dials on your work. So while everyone may agree that operational changes would be a good thing while sitting at the leadership table, there’s a strong likelihood that HR will only be able to change what it actually owns.

Let’s get a bit more specific. Let’s assume key employees are leaving, that we’ve developed consensus that there’s a problem, done our due diligence by conducting exit interviews and qualitative and quantitative research among current employees. If our research indicates employees are being lured away by more generous time policies, better retirement plans—or even better pay, if there’s money and will to address it—HR may be able to do something about it. Now, I don’t want to suggest that HR has no operational impact: if research shows managers lack management skills, for example, HR can create training programs to address issues like this, too. But if the root problem is a misalignment between what the organization says about itself and what’s true about it, HR will need help to effectively address the operational issues that define “your work.”

This is where the need for a resonant, robust internal brand comes into play. Because it messages to what we do and why we do it, the internal brand serves to unify “my work” and “my organization.” Think of the internal brand as a clear light on a dark night: by aligning what we tell the marketplace with what we ourselves believe, a strongly-articulated internal brand helps managers and employees voluntarily align their work with their organization’s mission and values. And that voluntary alignment is a much stronger key to retention success than anything leadership can put in place if the recruitment promise doesn’t receive a payoff in the real day-to-day work experience.

Building that internal brand is a topic for another posting, but I don’t want to close this thought without one really important caveat: an internal brand cannot succeed if it’s just an empty promise. It must reflect the reality of both your work and your organization.

How close to the promise does the payoff need to be? Different industries and different specialties will have different answers. A few years ago, when IT was hot, most IT professionals were well taken care of. Then came mass layoffs and, for lots of IT professionals, anything was better than nothing. Today, in almost every industry, if you work in IT, you’re likely to take anything your employer tells you with a grain of salt. Or two. So even if the promise is “steady employment,” if the payoff is “for now,” that’s going to work, at least until the IT marketplace heats up again. But it’s worth remembering how recently those rules were written, and how expensive good IT hires were just a bit before then. External brand professionals are fond of saying that “branding is the promise you make, while your brand is the promise you keep.” This is true in the long term, but less so from day to day. As consumers, we’re only aware of the brands we experience when we experience them. I might see a hundred Saturn ads before I decide to take a test drive, and until I do, unless I run across other information by chance, the ads are my brand experience. Great or terrible things may happen at Saturn over the two or three years those ads run and I’d never know it: but Saturn’s employees will. While my brand experience can be little more than an occasional drive-by, their experience of Saturn’s internal brand promise is lived every day, on Saturn’s best, proudest day, and on the worst.

The Moral of the Story
So if your internal brand connects your work with your organization, how does this solve operational problems? Simply put, it doesn’t. It can’t. Operational problems can only be fixed by operations. But most people go to work with the right frame of mind. They go to work for one reason: to work. They want to be productive, to contribute, to add value. As the old aphorism says, it’s the pebble in your shoe, not the mountain before you, that slows your progress. Employees: same. Absent underlying problems with the health of the organization—that is, if the equipment works and you can produce widgets—they have the skills, the knowledge, the experience and the dedication to overcome most of the issues that stop them cold today. But only if they know where the organization is going—and if that understanding is shared by the other folks who determine the contours of their work. Earlier, I said that your internal brand was the mechanism by which managers and employees could voluntarily align themselves and their work with the organization’s larger goals and objectives. That’s why a strong internal brand is so important, because it’s the tool—perhaps the only tool—your organization has to strongly influence your work in the best of times—and in the worst of times.

* Yes, I know: external brand positioning is more complicated than simply what the organization delivers; it includes everything the marketplace knows, thinks, believes, understands and misunderstands about the organization. But this is the most relevant aspect of the external brand for my purposes here.

One of the best articles on 'internal branding' that I have read for some time (I have highlighted it on my blog, I hope that you don't mind.)

Treating internal branding and corporate branding together makes absolute sense, and I would add another sub-brand - external employment brand, i.e. what those outside the organisation think working for you would be like. All three should be in alignment. (I have a article on the link on http://resourcingstrategies.blogspot.com/2004/12/linking-corporate-and-employment-brand.html).

If you think about a job as one 'product' that the company offers you can apply many standard marketing techniques to it (your footnote comment on external brand applies for example). There are however many reasons people go to work (just like there are many reasons people choose a particular car). Your reason applies to one segment of any workforce.

The way people 'buy' a job is very similar to how they buy any other very large purchase, such as a house or car.

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