How to bring your people with you

To become the kind of inspiring business that wins friends and fans in the modern world is a team effort. We can’t just bring in a hot shot marketing director and expect them to “do” some great marketing for us – instead we have to make everyone marketers, all working creatively towards a perfectly defined and consistent brand purpose.

However this isn’t easy. Most of the people in your business weren’t hired to think this way. Chances are they are simply looking at their given task within the machine, and rarely raise their head to ask what the point of all this is. If that’s the case, they will perform their given task in a completely generic way (in just the same manner as they did with their former employer probably), and will, with the help of all their colleagues, end up creating a vague and generic business.

Not all businesses have this problem of course. It goes without saying that the interesting companies we mention around here all the time have employees who really believe in what they’re doing. Rather that focusing on them by way of example however, we can look to something a bit more obvious – charities.

Generally speaking everyone who works for a charity is passionate about whatever that charity’s cause is. If you work for, say, Dogs Trust, it’s pretty likely that you like dogs. And this doesn’t just go for the dog-handling roles in that organisation; the secretaries, the accountants, and all other generic roles will probably share that passion. This is because the end result of what this body does – helping dogs – is something that certain people care about, and therefore the business is likely to attract these certain people as employees. This shared passion results in charities having much more coherency and harmony than your average business. It also changes the way the employees actually carry out their jobs, because they are all able to attach their actions to that bigger purpose.

A slightly cheesy, but nonetheless good example of this same principle was at play with the oft-quoted anecdote about what happened when President Kennedy visited the HQ for the Apollo missions. Coming across a janitor sweeping a hallway, he asked “what is it that you do here?”, to which the janitor replied “I’m helping put a man on the moon”. You can bet that this janitor did his “janiting” in a slightly different way than a janitor in a regular office building. He certainly did it with more pride and more focus. The combined effect of his mindset and that of all the other workers do other menial jobs on that project ended up with something pretty impressive. The exact same principle can be brought to bear in any business.

How? How can we get all our employees, regardless of their role, to be as in-tune and engaged as those at Dogs Trust or the Apollo missions? The crucial question here comes in identifying what the true output of the business is, what exactly the point of it all is.

Naturally this can’t be profit. Well, it can be profit, but if that’s the case then you have to accept that this goal will be shared by all your employees, which will result in them orienting themselves around their personal renumeration. If the business is here for cash, then so are its employees. If the business is here for dogs, then the employees will be motivated by that instead. Thus it’s best to define profit as being the reward for a job well done – not the job in and of itself.

The job needs to be defined as the worthwhile thing that the business is on this earth to achieve. A good way of articulating this is the business “purpose”.

The term “purpose” has come to be rather distorted in recent years, since it has become synonymous with “worthiness” rather than being simply worthwhile. This definition is dangerous as it has shut many businesses out, leaving them to think that it’s not the type of business they are. However to be a purposeful business you don’t need to be solving the world’s energy problems, or feeding the homeless – you just need to be achieving something which, if it wasn’t for you, would be missed.

GoPro is an extremely purposeful business, but there is nothing worthy about it. People make sacrifices to work for GoPro in the same way as they would with a charity. At a push, a purpose can even be negative and still work – at least in terms of difference and coherency. This was shown by the brand Death Cigarettes, who promised “we kill you faster” before they were put out of business in a legal dispute. Of course, those involved with the brand weren’t motivated by killing people; instead they were joined by the “punk rock” spirit that such a claim implied.

With such clarity of purpose, an identity is created, one which runs through employees as well as the brand itself.

Most businesses are made of people who bounce from company to company, even industry to industry, with only things like advancement, ease of commute, and a bit of extra cash as their driver. They are passive and reactive, letting circumstances dictate their decisions, rather than any genuine preference. It’s no coincidence that this attitude is mirrored by consumers. If you can’t get the people who work for you to be motivated by what you do, then with the public you’ve got no chance.

Ultimately they’re all people, they all have the same desires, and thus contrary to conventional marketing wisdom all their desires can be answered in the same way – by being a company which is doing something great.

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