Forget employees. Think ambassadors.

Imagine it’s three years from today. And you’re really happy—your employees are truly engaged in the direction of the organisation, staff churn defies the industry average and employees are now advocates—using the most powerful tool in HR, word of mouth, to drive recruitment of outstanding talent.

Let’s face it, the best companies in the world don’t have employees, they have flag wavers, ambassadors and advocates. And it’s not because they have funky bean bags or free snacks. It’s because they believe in the organisation: its direction, its vision, its plans for their future. And that belief can’t be bought. But it can be nurtured.

And yet, here you are watching decisions get made in the same old way, having to fight tooth and nail to justify the budget to implement basic good practice, let alone be one of the pioneering organisations that puts talent at the centre of its growth strategy. Watching the same old habits creep around when the world seems to be moving on.

You’ve seen the future. You want to be right there in the middle of it. How are you going to start turning the big oil tanker that is your organisation and point it in the direction that you want it to go?

First off, you’ll need to maintain that socially-attuned, employee-centric mindset that positions you as a HR leader or talent specialist, but now you’ll also have to calculate like an economist, campaign like a politician, inspire like a motivational speaker, and persuade like a marketer. Sounds easy doesn’t it?

Let’s start with some principles: some rules to live by, to help guide the decisions that must be made to help make that future a reality.

01. Measure twice, cut once.

This is one of the most basic and still most neglected areas of employer branding and HR-driven programmes, so although it’s not the most exciting of principles it needs to top the list. Measuring your impact is almost worth as much effort as the activity itself!

If you aren’t given clearly defined metrics, task yourself or the team working with you with defining what success looks like both in numbers and outcomes. Establish where you are at now and where you want to go. Do a satisfaction survey, start a new promoter score, ask for employee ideas, make friends with the CFO to see how much churn is costing the business or just lurk around the coffee machine if you have to, just go get those numbers!

Let’s be honest, there are some dinosaurs out there (you know who they are!) that still believe that HR is the fluffy department and all the arguments in the world won’t convince them. But numbers will. Hard numbers that can’t be ignored, and good numbers that show your progress.

Establish where you are at now and where you want to go.

02. Engagement is a process, not an outcome.

Engagement is one of those catch-all words that means everything and nothing. It is often used to describe some wooly end-state i.e. ‘we need more engagement’. If you’ve followed principle one and gotten on top of the data, you can raise your eyes to heaven smugly when ‘engagement’ comes up in conversation, as you can now define what success looks like in real terms.

Incorporating the action of engagement into how you achieve your results however is important. Employees, as we of all people know, are the major stakeholder in the culture and environment you are trying to create, so they have to be consulted, involved and ultimately empowered to create the change you want to achieve. From open employee forums to private feedback channels there’s a scale of activities you can do to bring the wider population into the decisions that affect them. Co-creation ultimately leads to greater buy-in which will compound the results you plan to achieve. Monthly town halls, micro-surveys, water cooler meet-ups—it really doesn’t matter. The reality is that when people start being consulted and listened to you’ll see the atmosphere shift immediately.

Engagement is one of those catch-all words that means everything and nothing.

03. A little self-awareness goes a long way.

Let’s face it, we can all shy away from negative sentiment and only focus on our positives, or worse, if we don’t have any actual positives, our positive intentions. How many times has your organisation said ‘We don’t want our people saying anything bad about us on social’? The harsh reality is that people will criticise your organisation in person or on their personal channels, so rather than creating a forum where there is an open conversation (like what happens on Glassdoor every day where you have zero control) you shut down the conversation, forcing it elsewhere. Not a good move.

Businesses are like people, they do good things and bad things, and the businesses that succeed admit they’re not perfect but that they’re motivated to change.

People are cynical, especially when they can hide behind anonymity. But it can be particularly thorny in the world of employer branding where you are circling social issues like diversity, gender equality and mental health. So internal or external campaigns that are self-congratulatory or just off-key can be disastrous. We saw the backlash for Pepsi's recent ad featuring Kendall Jenner where they ‘creatively’ reappropriated serious social movements to promote their flagship product. Because carbonated beverages have long been recognised as an essential part of every social activist’s toolkit!

It’s not just the big consumer brands that can get it so wrong. We all need to demonstrate self-awareness and visibly hold ourselves accountable to improve in whatever small ways or time-frame is reasonable. This is what will win the long-term respect of existing and future employees. If there’s a social wave you want to have a voice in, the voice needs to come from an honest place; it needs to state where you actually are as well as where you want to go. It needs to make clear why it’s important as an organisation you improve, and ask for your colleagues’ help and support in it. If you genuinely invite employees to participate, you’ll create a stampede.

We all need to demonstrate self-awareness and visibly hold ourselves accountable to improve.

04. Make the right thing make sense.

Participation in social issues is now almost as basic as paying employees their salary. Many of the largest employers have giving back as one of their fundamental values, so much so that for many employees it’s becoming a hygiene factor. This realisation is coming hard and fast for many large organisations and the result is a scramble to hodgepodge together some outward-facing CSR activities dictated by popular demand.

Multiple studies have shown that CSR activities which have been designed purely to improve employee productivity or employer brand are in fact damaging to employee sentiment. Everyone from the top of the organisation to the bottom needs to understand why they support the initiatives they do. Check out Patagonia for a company that seamlessly intertwines its product, culture and CSR activities into something so strong it transcends any corporate PR strategy. Stories told around a CSR strategy which has genuine buy-in and understanding from inside the organisation have the power to play a major role in shaping your public image and ultimately preference from potential candidates and retention of existing employees.

A good social strategy should be created with as much intention as a new product or service. Choosing the ways in which we give back or how you support your employees giving back needs to be closely linked to the organisation’s value system and embedded in the day-to-day lives of employees.

Everyone from the top of the organisation to the bottom needs to understand why they support the initiatives
they do.

05. The day of the solo artist is over.

Imagine you were going for a job in your current organisation and you wanted to find out what they stood for. Who would you listen to more closely… the CEO or someone just like you that already works there?

The hierarchy is flipping; what was traditionally the arena of a charismatic CEO or a prolific senior executive is now the territory of the mass of unknown employees. They are who we trust to tell us about an organisation’s real values.

Just look to the likes of Uber to clarify in your mind the power of the unknown employee in determining the public’s perception of a company: when one female staff member, Susan Fowler, instigated the unseating of a famous Silicon Valley CEO by simply leveraging her own public voice on a personal blog.

But it’s not about attempting to block employees from telling negative stories. How are you empowering them to tell the positive ones? How are you encouraging them? Are you giving them the language, the assets, the stories they need to celebrate where they work? From our experience most people actually want to be positive about their workplace, most of the time they just lack the permission or tools to do so.

What was traditionally the arena of a charismatic CEO or a prolific senior executive is now the territory of the mass of unknown employees.

06. You can't see the label from inside the jar.

In a world of ‘We need 20 data analysts next week!!!!’ it can be hard to take a step back and look at the wider world. What are the best companies in the world doing? What are our competitors for talent doing? In a world of easy mobility these aren’t just the people we should be inspired by, these are the people that are stealing our talent.

Of course, it’s natural to get knotted up in the mechanics of your existing processes, but it is more important than ever for HR to bring an external perspective and vision to the table. Only when looking outside your day-to-day will you find the precedents for the change you want to see in your own organisation. Take the time to read blogs, attend workshops and events outside of HR, take creative inspiration from the best. In our experience the gap between where you are now and the best in the world can be smaller than you think. And remember if you are the fulcrum for change, you’ll need the space to think and be inspired. So you can inspire others to come on the journey with you.

It is more important than ever for HR to bring an external perspective and vision to the table.

07. Use stories as tools of influence.

HR is evolving to be a critical player in shaping the future of organisations. No longer just managing the ways things are, HR now has a role in envisioning how things should be. The tricky thing about vision is that you yourself often see it the clearest. The most important thing is to get other people to see it too. And to do that you need to sell it.

To sell it you need to tell a story, not just explain and rationalise.

The best stories are human ones, ones that we can relate to and that connect with our emotions. No matter how clinical, non-emotive, politically-minded a gatekeeper may seem, no one is immune to the transformative effects of an emotive story.

There are literally hundreds of amazing stories amongst your people. Getting people out of their work environment and talking about themselves will unearth them. And once you know them, you can celebrate them, share them and leverage them to support change.

No one is immune to the transformative effects of an emotive story.

08. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

This isn’t a quick fix project. Or a band-aid over short-term hiring needs. And staying the course when all around you are questioning the results is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Altering an established process or way of thinking for a more sustainable long-term future is what will make you stand out in memories. So jump into the future and start winding yourself back. What shifts are you going to have made in the organisation? Dramatically move the needle on diversity? Reduce employee churn? Create a platform for genuine internal communication? Break that giant goal into smaller activities and work streams, that way everything you focus your energy on is in service to that bigger picture and you will achieve more meaningful change, not just hire more candidates into an organisation that may not even nurture them. Prioritise sustainable futures over short-term gains.

So let’s jump forward into the future again. Not the future of HR, but your future self three years from now. Have you a stockpile of high-quality prospective candidates in your funnel?

Are your employees growing and staying in the organisation because they feel fulfilled and listened to?

Most importantly, are they your biggest advocates? Acting like their own walking, talking marketing campaigns for your organisation? This is a future we can all buy into.

Let’s not kid ourselves, it won’t be easy. But when the data tells you a change is underway, when engagement isn’t a programme but the start of a habit, when celebrations of success start small but become increasingly louder you’ll know it’s working.

You’ll know… that the HR revolution was real. It just needed you to start it.

Prioritise sustainable futures over short-term gains.

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