Rubbish in, rubbish out, or so the saying goes, so its hardly surprising that the success of a business revolves to a large extent on the way you treat your employees.

It’s not rocket science of course, happy customer-facing staff have always been acknowledged as the key to good customer relationships, but if you step back and take in the bigger picture the impact of employee relations is about more than the point-of-sale

An important focus of my Brand Discovery programme and where it mainly differs from the way other consultancies see the brand development process, is in how you share the objectives, vision and values of a business with employees. Since I was old enough to recognise how these things work its been clear to me that the efficiency with which an organisation brings its brand to life is pretty well entirely dependent on the relationship it has with its employees in every area and at every level of their business. Employees who enthusiastically embrace the business objectives, values and philosophy will pull together to produce products and services that make customers love their brand. Had I been in any doubt though I’m sure my thoughts would have been focussed by the experience of working in the Middle East.

Here the relationship between employers, who are mostly owners of businesses, and employees and even consultants at all levels is often dysfunctional.  This is mostly a cultural thing and it is unsurprisingly most noticeable in Saudi Arabia, which is culturally and socially one of the most remote of the Arab states from the rest of the world.

Here, seniority within an organisation is not conditional on capability. You might think that this is the case where you work, but for all kinds of historical reasons there are people here who find themselves owners of sizeable businesses through no personal merit, many of whom wouldn’t command even a junior management role in a Western organisation.  Yet, ownership of a business is frequently considered synonymous with superiority in every regard and owners impose a clear hierarchy, especially within their business where even Westerners are not considered their equal. As an employee, whatever your status, you are expected to do as the business owners wish, regardless of how illogical or ill-advised that may be. You may be the expert, but they make the decisions and to disagree is considered disloyal.

Imagine how this plays out in a brand-building scenario. Employees, particularly those further down the food chain, which includes a retailer’s critical customer-facing staff, are considered dispensable and the relationship is antagonistic, to say the least.  Rarely does either party respects the other. The owner resorts to monarchical management and the employee won’t put him-or-herself out in the least to help the employer or the business. There’s clearly no scope in this relationship for building a brand.

It is against this backdrop that I read the announcement that the UK’s Iceland supermarket chain had been voted “The best big company to work for in 2014”, a title that they also acquired two years ago.

Iceland’s Chef Executive, Malcolm Walker commented “We have always lived by the principle that happy staff make happy customers, and happy customers put cash in the till”, which is most enlightened and great to hear. Stories like this remind me of an article by David Kelly of The Fast Company in which, way back in 2011 he extolled the merits of “Designing Curious Employees” or Time Magazine’s “Curious Capitalist” interview from 2008 with John Mackey founder of Whole Food Markets and Kip Tindell who set up Container Store when they both underlined how essential it is to share your visions and values with your employees.

There is simply no future in a business with a monarchical culture. It will never deliver what it should and it won’t respond quickly enough to change. So next time you are working up to a sales conference or presentation to employees you would be well advised to ensure, at the very least, that it includes more invitations to contribute than instructions on how to think and behave.

Phil Darby
March 7, 2014

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