Brand and leadership behaviours

Brand strategy isn’t only about changing external market perceptions, it’s also an effective way to change internal behaviours – especially those of high-performing fee-earners who are otherwise resistant to change.

A brand-led approach can create shared momentum towards changing behaviours that are holding a firm back — without the inherent disruption and conflict of so-called ‘change management’ programmes.

People are complex, sometimes contradictory, often irrational and always wary of change.

The times, they are a-changing

Organisational change management is all the rage at the moment, driven by external, pandemic-induced, market shifts and internal needs to innovate quickly to survive and thrive.

However, management consultants — who are generally logical, rational, data-driven types — tend to see the world of work through their models and spreadsheets. They believe in the power of data to shine a light on the path to behavioural enlightenment; “as you can see from this chart, if you all do X then you’ll make more money and be happy.” If only real people worked like that.

One of the biggest challenges to changing behaviours in an elite professional services firm is endemic imposter syndrome.

Most leaders of professional service firms already have a pretty good idea what changes in behaviours among the firm’s partners and other senior managers would increase effectiveness, profitability and service to clients.

Most partners and senior managers in the firm also know this.

However, changing individual behaviours for the collective greater good in professional service firms is notoriously hard.

That’s because people are involved, and people are complex, sometimes contradictory, often irrational and always wary of change.

One of the biggest challenges to changing behaviours in an elite professional services firm is endemic imposter syndrome.

Many of the most productive and smart people think that they have somehow managed to sneak under the radar; they’ve avoided being found out as someone who knows nothing and is incompetent. So, they fear — against all the evidence of their career progress thus-far — that by raising themselves to the challenge of new behaviours they might also increase the chances of being ‘discovered’ as an imposter.

Before you can turn to leadership behaviour change, you first have to define the brand ambition and strategy for the firm.

A good story, well told

The magic of branding, as an alternative approach to changing leadership behaviours, is that it uses the power of narrative and storytelling to articulate and identify the specific changes needed, and then the power of collective appreciation of the brand strategy to engage and motivate people to act. So, more carrot than stick.

Before you can turn to brand-led leadership behaviour change, you first have to define the brand ambition and strategy for the firm.

That’s a critical step, of course, and covered extensively in other articles I’ve written. But, for the sake of focusing this one, let’s assume that you’ve already done that.

Then, turning to the partners and senior managers it’s not such a big deal to say, “We all agree that this is where we want to go and where we think we can go with our firm’s strategy and brand. This brand promise that we’ve defined for our clients involves a degree of stretch, and so we need to change some behaviours to achieve it — to be ‘at our best’ more of the time than we are today.”

Firms can’t change human nature, but they can work with it.

Walk in their shoes

Now, I don’t want to sound naive about it. These people are not kindergarten children. They are sophisticated professionals who are already behaving in an ‘optimal’ way, just that it’s an optimal way from their perspective.

There could be systemic issues that need addressing to remove genuine obstacles and hopefully produce incentives for individuals to change their attitudes and behaviours. Comp is the obvious one — no point asking people to act collectively if they are paid individually, or asking them to collaborate across geographic borders if they are assessed and measured on what happens within those borders.

Sounds obvious, but I’m no longer surprised when I hear from individual partners of a firm the equivalent of “our system doesn’t reward collaboration.”

A partner thinks, “I have a choice. Carry on focusing on my local/individual revenue target, that has been stamped on my forehead by the management committee, or take a risk by devoting more time and focus to these new things that may or may not work, and almost certainly won’t produce tangible results that show my personal contribution.” “So, yes like a good citizen I will help out, but only once I’ve hit my annual targets — so on about December the 30th maybe!”

Firms can’t change human nature, but they can work with it. Reassure people, be conscious of the rhetoric emerging from the centre about tangible targets and revenues, which can loom large compared with relatively intangible and even potentially inconsequential behaviours.

The difference between brand-led change and traditional change management is the ability to express compelling ideas that engage hearts and minds

Clear as a bell

What you need to do is think hard and honestly about the behavioural issues that stand between you and the brand ambition — being ‘at your best’ more of the time — and then carving out a handful (3-5) behavioural themes that articulate the challenge.

These should be articulated in language that is as clear and unambiguous as possible. “We have an obligation to dissent” (McKinsey), “We have no room for those who put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the firm and its clients” (Goldman Sachs). “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” (Ritz Carlton, a different kind of service business but lovely). “We don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company” (Apple).

The difference between brand-led change and traditional change management is the ability to express compelling ideas that engage hearts and minds – beyond the purely rational. The McKinsey example illustrates this as well as any.

Imagine hearing this as a young recruit. It’s unexpected and quite challenging, but at the same time, it’s absolutely crystal clear and gives the recruit a sense of permission to live up to it. Just from the language. When you read this you think ‘they must really mean it because they’ve chosen to express it in such an unambiguous way’.

If instead, McKinsey had said something like “We encourage candour” instead of “We have an obligation to dissent” you’d be forgiven for wondering whether this was just a bland statement on the website or a genuine call to action. So language – and the concepts that language conveys – is everything, but if you’ve already nailed a strong overall brand strategy you should be halfway there already.

However it’s done, the ambition is the same; to link these brand-led leadership behaviours to strategy

Off the page

Then, once these 3-5 brand-led leadership behaviour themes are agreed and you’ve found the most compelling language to capture them, it’s time to get them out there in the organisational bloodstream.

Before the pandemic quashed them, face-to-face annual retreats were perfect arenas to use brand-led behaviours as a stimulus for leadership conversations. These days it might be more effective to introduce them into smaller practice group strategy sessions that are more manageable on Zoom.

However it’s done, the ambition is the same; to link these brand-led leadership behaviours to strategy and help leaders of teams see them as enablers to achievement – rather than yet another performance hurdle for them to attempt to jump.

So, next time the topic of those lagging partner behaviours comes up on your management committee agenda, turn to your CMO for a change, for her thoughts.

End


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's leading strategic consultancy specialising in brand-led transformation for knowledge-led businesses.