Margaret Harrison: Lead with your story
Like most businesses, Our HR Company has a mantra – a philosophy by which it defines itself. For Our HR Company this philosophy is to connect employees with their employer’s business journey and overall corporate strategy. Jonathan Jackson speaks with Our
Business First speaks with Our HR Company Managing Director Margaret Harrison about how to put strategy into action.
Our HR Company was established 13 years ago and is led by Margaret Harrison, who before consulting in change management at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers and the RACV, was a lecturer at the Australian Catholic University.
“I started my life as an academic at the Australian Catholic University, and after being there for many years, I was asked to be part the inaugural Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. After that I couldn’t get my head around going back into a lecture room, so I decided to move into the business world.”
It is a modest explanation of the lead up to starting Our HR Company. When you look at her CV, clearly Margaret had some influence with major organisations. We have mentioned PwC and RACV, but there was also the role as Human Resources Director at adidas Australia to consider.
“One of the attractions to HR for me was to make things happen. I started Our HR Company to help businesses put the right people in the right jobs, and also to help managers manage their people well.”
Underpinning this, and something that Margaret has had throughout her career, is an unwavering belief that the fundamental advantage an organisation has is its people.
Our HR Company’s Story methodology developed after many years consulting in business strategy and delivering management training in large organisations.
“Working with clients the likes of Crown, ANZ, IOOF, Wynn Macau, Save the Children, Russell Athletic among others, we could see how managers were struggling to get results, because of a lack of clear direction from the senior manage- ment team. There were continual discussions in training sessions about conflicting directions from their leaders and how they hampered clarity of direction. That in turn hampers productivity.”
From that insight, over a couple of years Our HR Company developed a unique way of helping businesses implement their strategy with a methodology which delivers one clear, concise message to everyone throughout the business. “Understanding we are all engaged by great stories, we based our methodology on turning a company’s strategy into a Story to engage everyone both rationally and emotionally to the journey the business is on. Stories are also strong drivers of human behaviour and our habits, beliefs, attitudes and culture are formed as a result of the stories we tell.”
Despite the disparity in businesses who have used Our HR Company’s services, there are some common challenges that arise when dealing with CEOs, although these challenges may not be overly apparent.
“The most common challenge is keeping the message simple,” Margaret says. “In our experience there are too many muddled messages floating around organisations, ones that are too complicated and usually delivered using tedious PowerPoint presentations.
“A clear and concise company Story gives everyone an immediate and compelling way to process the messages.”
“I can remember being in one large organisation in a strategy delivery meeting and everybody was interested while the CEO was speaking. Immediately the CEO’s
slides went on, people started looking at their phones, reading work they brought with them, and their absolute concentration was not on the CEO and the message.”
Margaret says another challenge organisations have is an unaligned leadership team. An unaligned team delivers the strategy message through their own interpretation of the message and then passes that down to their teams. The message becomes diluted and convoluted as it goes down through the organisation.
Furthermore, long-term cynical employees are also a challenge to any new strategy.
“They’re the dinosaurs of the organisation and everyone has a story about them,” Margaret says.
“It’s important to communicate the new direction in an innovative way using simple words (no managerial speak), pictures and animations to connect everyone, including long-term employees, and bring them on board. This group of employees really needs special attention because they can sink a strategy quite quickly. Our Story methodology has been extremely successful in getting everyone involved and committed to a new direction.”
Anywhere from 61% to 73% of companies struggle to implement their strategy. This can be due to cost, implementing a strategy for strategy’s sake when there is no compelling need, and sometimes due to CEOs who won’t implement what a project team or consultancy has recommended because they don’t like the results.
“The CEO of one of our leading retail organisations showed me ten years of strategies developed by different consultancies all sitting in a cupboard in his office. It was a very long cupboard! None of the strategies had been implemented because they were too hard and too complicated and the CEO confided in me that he and former CEOs had hardly been involved in the development at all, which is really quite interesting.”
This not only says a lot about the CEOs, but also the strategies developed.
For a strategy to work, Margaret says the CEO and senior executive team have to be totally committed and involved in the strategy development, but then most importantly, follow up with the same commitment and enthusiasm when implementing the strategy.
“The other thing is that middle and junior managers and everyone in the organisation need to know their leaders are united and committed to success, and that they’re all traveling in the same direction. They want to know that the CEO and executive team are in charge, that they have control. Then they feel free to actually do their work and know they are contributing to the end result. They happily become engaged and work enthusiastically.
In the opposite case there is a feeling of uncertainty.
“I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘They haven’t got a clue what they’re doing’. That’s an example of why it’s a big challenge for CEOs to get their strategy right. When there’s a new strategy or there’s a change happening, lower level managers need to know how to deliver the strategic direction and the messages. They also have to be given the tools to do so. One of the things we pride ourselves on is having the tools to help people implement the strategy way down to the last person on the organisational chart, so to speak.”
Our HR Company specialises in implementing change in an engaging and effective way. Their program is designed to ensure that a CEO delivers the strategic message in a committed and inspiring way.
They have to be a change leader and clearly tell their Story. People want to hear their Story!
“Simply, all people want to know who’s in charge of the change and they also want to know that if the Board says there’s a new direction or change that the management team and the senior management team have accountability for making it happen – that they will be held accountable. Messages about change have to touch each person within the business.
“I’d say the importance of people engagement is often overlooked in times of change. Engagement can’t happen overnight, especially if there’s low morale in an organisation. Engagement is directly linked to being connected to where the organisation is going. Knowing that your manager has control and is also connected to the same direction of the business, is how we help organisations through our methodology.”
As we have touched on, not all change is successful and for various reasons. Academic Ken Blanchard says up to 70% of change initiatives fail.
“He’s amazing,” Margaret says. “He says that people’s natural resistance to change is a major factor and even in this fast-paced world we’re living in, people still resist change. Often there’s a lack of understanding of the business case because it’s been communicated poorly and there’s inability to achieve buy-in. People want information. They want hard cold facts and realities and honesty in telling everyone what the change will involve – it is asking people to change behaviours in a way that makes sense and not just change for change’s sake.”
“A key point that Blanchard makes right throughout his writings and speeches is the alignment of the leadership team. He’s definite about that point.”
And that is the angle from which Our HR Company comes from; to align everyone’s agenda and priorities so that a message is delivered clearly and then acted upon.
“If members of a leadership team tell conflicting stories and each member tells their own version, strategy or change message, it’s doomed to fail. This is why we’ve made aligning the leadership team a key milestone in our methodology. It’s one of the first things we do. We hold them accountable to each other, not to us, not to the CEO, but to each other, so that when they start telling gobbledygook around messages and around strategy direction to their teams, they can be called out on it. It’s wonderful seeing up to 20 people in a senior management teams together in a room and they all get it and they all commit to it publicly. It’s a very strong message. The strategy will very rarely fail after you’ve got that commitment.”
The CEO of a large government instrumentality was delighted to see the senior management team aligned after this process. “Before we started the process of developing Our Story, the executive team were divided – they didn’t trust each other nor did they share information. Historically silos had been built between divisions
and the alignment process led to changes in the way people worked. Senior managers were energised and initiated working groups across departments to share information and staff. The energy and enterprise was demonstrable.”
It is important for businesses implementing a new strategy or direction in any part of the organisation to relay their stories in a clear, concise, and attractive way.
“People need to know where the business has been and where it is going. What are the key challenges the business is facing, and what do they need to do individually and as a team to make it successful?”
As each business is different, Our HR Company takes a bespoke approach. Margaret says the company’s greatest skill is in listening to a CEO’s needs, whilst asking appropriate questions and listening to and deducing the answers.
“In our process we actually ask the same questions to the different people in the leadership team to gain a very quick and clear understanding of who’s on the CEO’s bus and who isn’t quite there. Unless you have them all on the same bus, you’re not going to make anything happen. It’s quite amazing how many different versions of the same strategy are told in these sessions.”
It is from there that Our HR Company develops the theme of the Company’s Story, clears away the cobwebs and builds a clear and concise version of where each client wants to go.
“Each intervention, each part of our methodology is linked to the client specific needs.”
Margaret’s academic background has been invaluable to this journey as her understanding of how people learn has been vital to the methodology implemented. Her understanding of how tools should be used has also been invaluable and now as she looks back to the journey her own business has taken, and why it has been successful she says her biggest achievements have come via her clients’ successes and one client in particular.
“One of our clients has had huge success. The turnover of managers dropped from 80% in the year prior to the introduction of their story, to 5% after two years. Can you imagine if 80% of your management team is turning over each year, it’s pretty diabolical. They were an organisation that couldn’t attract any applications for job vacancies, and now they don’t need to advertise. People come to them, so in their own area they’re wellknown for being a fantastic organisation, they’re all on the same bus and they’re all going in the same direction. They will at any time accredit our story telling methodology for making that happen.”
Margaret is proud of the story she has developed for Our HR Company and those she has created for others and like any good story, she wants it to linger and continue to make an impression.