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Values hold the key to survival in difficult times

This post was written by John Helmer and first appeared on the LINE blog on 24th January 2013.

I’ve read a number of good books recently, two of which were concerned with revolutions of different kinds. Former People by Douglas Smith, charts the massive upheavals of post Tsarist Russia through the experiences of two of the grandest and oldest Russian aristocratic families, the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs, and their travails following the Russian Revolution. It’s a highly evocative and emotional account of colossal social and political change, told through the stories of people dramatically and adversely affected by them.

The second book, Revolutionize Your Customer Experience by Colin Shaw, deals with a revolution on a less cataclysmic human scale perhaps, but one with wide-reaching effects in our current age – the revolution in the business world caused by globalisation and technological change. Here too, an old order seems to have vanished and long-held values are brought into question. Businesses have never had a tougher time finding true, sustainable differentiators in their marketplaces, Shaw argues, than they have today; with few organisations and markets not suffering the effects of commoditisation. Many businesses have gone to the wall as a result.

So what do the two books have in common? On the face of it, very little. But both books deal with change and survival and, for me, there is an interesting parallel to be drawn in the way values turn out to be the key to survival in each case.

Shaw provides a series of case studies that show how successful organisations have avoided the trap of commoditisation by focusing on delivering great customer experiences that generate genuine customer loyalty. It is this loyalty that provides sustainable differentiation and competitive advantage, and thus has enabled them to survive in difficult times. Organisations as varied as hospitals, toy stores, shipping companies and banks have improved their customer experience to increase market share and profitability.

Back in the Soviet era, Smith charts the experiences of how the two ancient families adapted to survive in a world which set out to destroy them. That survival, it turns out, was based on a refocusing on core values. Their pre-revolution life as aristocratic dynasties detached from the cares of ordinary people was unsustainable. Faced with privation, loss and persecution, they concentrated on humbler, more basic priorities such as The Family. They hung onto their stories – their history and heritage – and refocused their values on what was necessary for survival. By doing this they largely avoided the twin evils of extinction on the one hand, and collaboration with a corrupt and murderous regime on the other.

Also on my mind as I read were a couple of interesting seminars I attended towards the end of last year, both run for senior HR and Learning and Development Directors. One of the conversations covered an old chestnut, the ‘battle for talent’. It took on a new and interesting twist with two of the most passionate contributors being senior Directors from companies in emerging markets – one from India and one from China.

For these companies, the battle wasn’t simply about attracting talent at the most senior level. It was a genuine war to attract, and more importantly, retain, quality young talent at all levels in the organisation. In their worlds, brand and/or company loyalty, in the minds of the talent they seek to recruit, is less important than the ability of the company to get them fully competent as quickly as possible. This way the new recruit can reach their maximum earning potential swiftly. If the employer fails to do this, the talent leaves and finds another organisation which will develop them faster. In these emerging markets an additional challenge is faced with the managers of new recruits typically having grown up in an era of scarcity, now having to manage young people who have grown up in an era of plenty. It’s another cultural battle to add into the mix. How do you inspire loyalty to your company among the new intake when their value system is so radically different to your own?

All of the above got me reflecting on the last few years in the world of work, with financial crises, recessions, turbulent market places and a seemingly endless flow of gloomy news. The beginning of 2013 feels different somehow. There have been some good news stories recently, like the one last week from Jaguar Land Rover about creating new jobs, investing in apprenticeship schemes and innovation in the UK, specifically for markets like China and India. IKEA has just reported record profits and has also been given approval by the Indian government to continue their global expansion with 25 new stores planned for the Indian market. And the UK stock market seems to have rallied from it’s stagnation of the past few years. There are less positive stories too of course, but there seem to be some ‘green shoots of optimism’ around, and they’ve been missing for quite a while.

So how does all of the above begin to gel together?

If Shaw is correct, as I believe, in his assertion that businesses can no longer sustainably compete in the arenas of price and quality, then the customer experience really does become the next commercial battleground. This experience affects every touch point between the customer and the organisation’s brand – systems, processes, digital, print and human interventions all count, as does, most importantly, the need for the organisation to make an emotional connection with their customers that will form the basis of a long term relationship with them. The ability of the organisation’s people to deliver this experience is a fundamental part of a successful customer experience strategy. Central to this process are the organisation’s values.

In the face of unrelenting persecution, where basic rights of food, shelter and medical care were actively denied to members of the old Russian aristocracy (and many other groups within Russia), why did so many of these families make the conscious decision to stay? With all of their property and wealth confiscated, arbitrary murders and imprisonment based solely on membership of a social class being a daily occurrence and a state-enforced policy of public humiliation, what made so many of them actually want to remain in Russia? According to Smith, the answer seems to be twofold. Firstly a deep loyalty to Mother Russia, and secondly, a sense that they wanted to be part of what could be a better future for the country, and that by adapting and changing, they could help make this happen.

And from those seminars last year, where multi-generational recruitment and retention were such animated topics of conversation, with members of the baby-boomer generation, Generation X and Generation Y all being actively sought and thrown into mix together, how do organisations respond to the L&D challenges that this cocktail presents? How do they get their people up to speed quickly, at scale and consistently, so that they ‘believe and behave the brand’ and deliver competitive advantage for the organisations that they work for?

Well, I’ve written this blog as a precursor to a piece I have prepared for the February edition of the HeadLINE Newsletter.

The three themes from the above that are most powerful to me in a workplace context are:

  • That even in a turbulent world, people still have strong loyalties to things that they believe in: their values. Focusing in on the core of those values when things get tough can often be the key to survival
  • That emotional experiences are incredibly powerful and the ability to tap into these from a customer perspective does provide organisations with competitive advantage (I believe that the same is also true from the perspective of the employee/employer relationship)
  • That people can and will adapt to change and challenge if they can see a reason to do so and understand how to do this, in terms that are relevant to them

My piece in the February Newsletter is on the subject of Onboarding and seeks to blend these themes together.