Powered by Love – What nimble companies thrive on

What makes a company a place where love rules? Where people love to work and customers love to shop. A company that sends out concentric circles of happiness and well-being and thus also finds a place in the heart of society at large? And why would this be relevant?

It is relevant because a company that is powered by the “energy of love” is a company that is highly adaptable, masters complexity with aplomb and thus stands a good chance of being around for a while. Why? Because in the presence of love and trust, all communication interfaces – i.e. the headspaces where different people meet and where complexity happens – are highly functional. As a consequence, collaboration is smooth, decision making becomes easier and more skilful, innovation can flourish and, yes, it’s also good for the bottom line. By the way: If you feel uncomfortable with the word “love” in a business context, you might just as well talk about trust, respect, tolerance, appreciation, kindness, or generosity. It’s all the same energy.

Let me tell you a little story about such a place and how it feels. In January, I spent time at a medium-sized bakery on a German island. I had met the entrepreneur on a crazy train ride. We got talking, and I took an immediate interest in his company. Because here was an entrepreneur who, a few years ago, had set out to transform his business: “You know, Sabine, I could have probably amassed several pieces of real estate and other assets in my lifetime. But what would I leave behind? Exhausted human beings. So at some point I asked myself: ‘How about, some day, I’d be looking back on a whole lot of happy people? Wouldn’t that be a legacy to be proud of?’”. I guess, it can’t get any more straightforward when it comes to “purpose statements”.

The Magic Ingredients

We eventually agreed that I would come to visit. What did I find? Well, I found an extremely well energized place. Even at 3 o’clock at night in the bakery, the buzz could be felt. Wherever I went – be it the bakery, the office or the shops – I met friendly, relaxed human beings who were pretty much self-organized. Collaboration was so effortless, that it hardly needed any verbal communication. This was particularly true in the bakery. The moves and actions were so nimble that in spite of the incredible speed with which everything happened (because boy, once the dough is ready, you got to get going) it looked like a ballet performance to me. Everything in synch. Such smoothness is achieved when people know each other well, trust their colleagues, know exactly what to do and are trusted to do it. So trust and freedom, based on a general belief in the goodness of people, are essential ingredients of the magic “love potion”.

This trust and freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility. Quality control, for example, happens everywhere – in the baking process, at the oven, in the preparation of snacks, by the delivery drivers and in the shops. Everyone takes pride in the products and makes sure that only the best bread, rolls, cakes and pastry making it to the customers. No “leaders” or managers are needed to make this happen. It happens, because people love what they do and want to make their customers happy. The fact, that most customers have been regulars forever, speaks for itself.

Respect, appreciation and generosity are other magic ingredients of a “happy people company”. This is expressed in decent salaries being paid to everyone – including apprentices and seasonal helpers. In additional benefits beyond the obvious, such as a company car that is available for all employees on the mainland (so that employees do not have to pay for car transfer on the ferry), or affordable and appealing accommodation, free bikes and free events for seasonal workers. Communal areas are airy and welcoming, and there is even a room for smokers, so that they don’t have to hang around in the cold. Also, all the teams receive a budget every year that they can spend on team activities according to their liking. They can also save it up over a couple of years, to help fund more lavish outings.

Concentric Circles of Happiness

And beyond the operational, there is the personal: such as when one new employee who moved to the island could not afford the deposit for the new flat and hardly had any furniture to speak off: Her boss did not hesitate to provide a guarantee to the landlord, and all the colleagues got together to find her some furniture.

All of this adds up to concentric circles of happiness rippling from the company – to friends and family of the employees, the wider island community and seasonal customers, who often spread these circles to the mainland in the form of bread and cake they take home at the end of their vacation. I guess, that’s the ultimate definition of Corporate Social Responsibility.

No Carrots or Sticks

The absence of things is just as meaningful as their presence. For instance, there is not much classic “leadership” and no internal competition going on.  Major changes – such as the massive reduction of the product range during covid times, repricing against the backdrop of inflation or the purchase of big machinery – can be suggested by any employee and are discussed with everyone concerned. Even when the final decision is taken by the owner, it is thoroughly informed by a wide variety of perspectives. Other decisions, such as smaller product range changes or adhoc changes to work schedules, are routinely made between team members directly. Former rankings, comparing the turnover of the different shops, were abolished. Also, there are no individual bonuses or incentives, or other carrots and sticks.

The Power to Heal Thyself

Does this mean that life is always hunky-dory on the island? No. Actually, the owner mentioned that they were having a bit of a problem with communication recently, and could I help? I was happy to, but, really, there was not much “consulting-around” to do. I analysed the situation, pointed out the “block” I found in the otherwise effective flow of communication and suggested measures to dissolve it. I have no doubt that this healthy and well-functioning organism will get back on track by itself after this “micro-invasive” intervention. Because there is no fear in the system that would stand in the way of change. One of the employees put it quite succinctly: „Here, change is not a cause for concern or anxiety. I trust, that we will always find a solution that makes sense for me as well.“

It is thus no surprise that I was myself filled with the most beautiful energy when I sat on the ferry on my way back. With a big, happy smile on my face and a good supply of yummy bread and cake in my backpack. Taking a concentric circle of happiness to the mainland.

© Sabine Breit

Client Centricity and Chatbots – Innovation or Anathema?

I never use chatbots unless I absolutely have to. At best, I find them useless, at worst a nuisance.

Recently, however, I was forced to use a chatbot which, at first, I found surprisingly useful and efficient. Until I didn‘t.

My relationship with that particular specimen, let’s call it Marvin, began when my evening flight from Frankfurt to Berlin was cancelled due to operational shortcomings in connection with weather happening as forecast. After having spent 1.5 hours in the parking position just to be told to offboard eventually,  I was initially quite impressed that, before I had even left the plane, Marvin pro-actively suggested a rescheduled flight and also promised to find me a hotel. Now, there was never a follow-up on that hotel  offer, which I did not mind, because friends were happy to let me crash. Also, I was not interested in the rescheduled flight offered for the next morning as it would not have brought me to Berlin on time. Thus, I tried to politely refuse Marvin‘s rescheduling offer.

This is where our relationship turned sour. Because Marvin would not accept „no“ for an answer. After some searching, I found an option for just claiming a refund. However, that link routed me straight be back to Marvin, who insisted on rescheduling me. After I stubbornly insisted on the refund, Marvin lost its temper and just went ahead and checked me in. Bammm, take that, bitch!

By then, it was close to midnight, it was cold and I was on my way to my final resting place for that night. So, in my utter desperation, I called the hotline. On the other end, a friendly lady based in Manila picked up the receiver, checked me out of that blasted flight and arranged for my refund within a few minutes. Marvin, mate, should you still be out there: No hard feelings! I hope, you did not get your algorithm in a twist about this. I know it was just  the way you were programmed.

Where the algorithm branches off

Which gets us right to the heart of the matter: The way that chatbot functioned gave me a pretty good idea of the true purpose and culture of the company that had it programmed: While I initially thought, Marvin’s purpose was to help me solve a problem fast and conveniently,  it turned out that its prime purpose was to help the company solve its problem fast and conveniently – i.e. not having to pay a refund . Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes, these problems and interests naturally overlap, as they did in the first step, when fast rescheduling was offered. After that, however, the algorithm obviously branched off in the direction of the company. One might say that this is a legitimate course of action. It sure is. But it is not “client-centric”.

How far do you want to go?

A company that feels  the calling of client-centricity might thus want to ask itself an honest question before venturing out on that exciting path: How far do we want to go?

Where does the  algorithm branch off? Perhaps at the point where Marvin lost it, i.e. where staying customer focused would have lost the carrier real money. Or, taking another classic use case,  where staying customer focused would mean dealing appropriately with angry clients instead of channeling them into the cost efficient death spiral of chatbots and unmanned hotline-loops. It’s a bit like in a romantic relationship: At what point do the flowers stop coming? Do you only give it your all until the question is popped and answered in the affirmative, or do you keep making an effort to keep things enjoyable for both partners in the long term? Does customer focus end when a purchase is made, or are complaints handled with the same attention and dedication? Is the primary use of chatbots  and any other tools and services, such as hotlines etc., about the convenience of the company in dealing with clients or is it about the convenience of the client in dealing with the company? It can be both in many cases, but sometimes it can’t. And the latter are the moments when your real attitude shows.

Do you have client-centricity in you?

Let’s assume you really want to go all in on customer-centricity. Then, the next question would be: Do you have this in you? Does your company have it in it to serve and do so joyfully, or would you much rather like to rule and dictate?  Is the energy in your organization geared towards service in every possible way? Does it flow towards  those beautiful employees who are your face to the clients? Are they properly skilled and supported? Do backoffice functions understand that the lovely colleagues in the front office are their clients, whom they must serve as joyfully as the sales team takes care of external clients? Are suppliers treated like they are a valued part of the “cosmos of serving” or is their life energy squeezed out of them?

When it comes to the design of any customer facing tools such as chatbots, a central question would be: who are the human beings behind these tools and how much of their personality and mindset is reflected in them?  How much do these beautiful people understand about the various contexts of use? How much do they know about the clientele using it? How much do they care about the client? Is “client centricity” something that features in their job description? Is it relevant for their pay or their job satisfaction?

Is your culture geared to it?

In the last analysis, these questions lead us straight to the culture or general atmosphere human beings operate in. What are the real priorities – i.e. the mantras that are hammered in monthly or weekly in calls or sales meetings – and what are the priorities flaunted in Sunday speeches? Do these match, or do they compete with or are even in conflict with one another? Does the general atmosphere in the company allow for the sales team to open up all their reception channels joyfully to their clients or is their attention distracted by fear inducers, such as “ambitious” sales targets? Where do clients really rank in the overall order of things? Are they really more important than efficiency, cost saving, profits,  ratings, league tables or the mood of the capital market? Does the company truly value the “people persons“ and their skills i.e. those employees who are the actual faces to the clients, or does it suggest to them that any old chatbot could do their jobs just as well?

Depending on how far a company is willing to go in its effort to extend Tender Love And Care to all their clients, for better or worse, it might be really client centric or still stuck in client targeting, which is the opposite of being client centric. While client centricity is a wholistic exercise of  two-way-communication across all stages, levels and touch-points of a client relationship, customer targeting is a one-way, data-driven highway used for getting stuff out. While customer targeting is about getting messages across, client centricity is about listening closely and responding appropriately. While client targeting is about optimizing AI to get customers handled efficiently, client centricity is about helping employees (aka True Intelligence) to be more perceptive of clients’ needs and wants, wherever they are in the company. Tools can have a place helping employees to do exactly that.

Like the beautiful lady in Manila, who understood the exhaustion and despair of a fellow human being and just used her skills and tech to help.

(c) Sabine Breit

Treasuring the “permafrost” – how seeing middle management with different eyes can gives us a fresh view on the “new world of work”

The men and women that form the midriff of a company are often derided as the “permafrost”. In German they are called “die Lehmschicht” – a stratum of clay in the middle of a company hierarchy that is pretty much impermeable. Nothing gets through. Any flow of information gets stuck.

I think this is thoroughly unfair. Yes, things do get stuck in this part of the hierarchy. And yes, this is frustrating, and it does create risks. But let’s have a quick look at what the men and women in the middle are asked to do on a daily basis in order to keep the flow of information, and thus operations, alive.

The Janes and James Bonds of company communication

Firstly, they are supposed to communicate effectively in both directions along the vertical communication axis – rationally and emotionally. Vis-à-vis senior management, they are to act as knowledgeable advisors, sparring partners and reliable relay stations – forwarding any relevant information and signals that they get from “lower echelons”. In the other direction, they are to convincingly transport and interpret instructions and objectives from senior management and make sure that they are adhered to. Sometimes against their own better judgement. At the same time, they are expected to lead their own reports, making sure they do not only do their jobs properly but also get the space and opportunity to grow and develop.

Additionally, apart from managing, leading and being a role model, they are to effectively contribute to the flow of information in lateral communication relationships, cooperating with colleagues from different silos and areas of expertise, or with external parties. In an international corporation, they are supposed to pull all of that off in more than one language.

Oh yes, and of course they will also have to show that they are mightily interested in building a career and climbing the corporate ladder further, which will require quite a bit of inner dialogue and soul searching, not to mention the odd domestic dialogue on who will drive the kids where and when. And all of this – including upskilling exercises – has to be slotted into or around a 50-60 hour working week.

To master all of that equally well and stay healthy, the “middle people” need a humongous vocabulary, preferably in more than one language, superhuman linguistic skills – verbal and written – , Buddha-like equanimity and empathy, permanent situational presence, and a continuous “observer‘s mind”, i.e. the ability to view things from a meta position at any time. Just to mention a few of the skills required.

So, you might want to take a deep breath and ask yourself whether these men and women are really the permafrost or rather the Jane and James Bonds of company communication.

Building the New World of Work from the middle

None of us is born with all the skills and capacities that are required to master all of that smoothly and flawlessly on a daily basis. Most of us do not learn any or much of this in school or at university. I thus have enormous respect for anyone in such a position who shows up every day and does her level best.

Instead of complaining about the seemingly impermeable middle layer, companies would thus be well advised to think about how they can support these men and women in navigating through the company matrix. These efforts would, of course, include everyone who is responsible for designing “the world of work”, but also every single employee above or below the “company equator”.

On both sides of the equator it would, for example, be helpful to work on one’s listening skills as well as the ability to express oneself clearly, or on asking questions instead of making assumptions about what could have been meant. Thus, the people in the middle (as well as anybody else) would be less in the dark when trying to understand and deal with the expectations and needs around them. This would save the entire company an enormous amount of energy. It would also help to prevent risks associated with assumptions and communication “misfires”.

Those who are tasked with designing the world of work, in which capacity whatsoever, might want to think about the skills and support middle managers really need in order to navigate through the communication maze of a complex (international) organization with aplomb. The kaleidoscope of possible support and upskilling measures must of course also fit your company set-up and culture. However, designing them with a focus on making the flow of information smooth and easy is a good starting point.

Going the Full Monty

All the more so, if you think about solving the “permafrost” problem by doing away with some layers of hierarchy – usually somewhere in the middle. Because eliminating a layer of hierarchy does not eliminate the communication complexity the “middle people” have to deal with today. It just shifts it to a different layer. And actually, eliminating a layer might increase your complexity-related risks here and there. Because in doing so, you reshuffle the interfaces between those in the remaining layers, who, for various reasons, might be even less well equipped to effectively communicate with each other.

Now, if you think about going the full monty and flattening the corporate hierarchy down to, say, self-steering teams, the communication complexity burdening the middle managers today will then have to be mastered by every single employee. After all, no matter how much you streamline your hierarchy, the buck will still eventually have to stop somewhere and someone will have to make decisions and be accountable. The more “democratic” decision-making becomes, the more it will be based on negotiations, agreements, and an effective dialogue and knowledge transfer between various experts, irrespective of any rank. A workforce that is not able and enabled to constructively engage in such decision-making processes will not be able to navigate, let alone thrive, in a “self-steering” world.

So, finding ways and means to give love and support to the men and women in the middle is not only the human thing to do, it is also a perfect training ground for a new world of work, which, in the final analysis, is about a new way of cooperating and dealing with each other.

© Sabine Breit

Vapour Speak – how verbal hot air can make organizations sweat

Diversity, Sustainability, Narrative, Value Proposition, Value Add, Talent, Greenwashing, Purpose, Culture, Momentum, Impact, to align, to map, to leverage, to mobilize, to champion, to drive, to disrupt, efficient, innovative, agile, equitable, inclusive, mindful…

The list is not exhaustive, and I am fairly certain that many of you have your own favourite buzzwords that are used so randomly that they can feature nicely in a good round of BS-Bingo.

Vapour Speak – a verbal fog around our brains

Don’t get me wrong: all, or at least many, of these words can have meaning, and some concepts are very close to my heart. The problem  is, when they feature in something for which I have coined the term „Vapour Speak“, i. e. a way of expressing oneself that produces a lot of hot air which befuddles our poor brains into believing that we are communicating effectively and getting things done. It’s a bit like verbal junk food – easily gobbled up, but with hardly any nutritional value. And if you consume too much of it, it might clog your vessels and sap your energy .

Here is the basic recipe: you take a handful of buzzwords of our times or your bubble, connect them with rather non-descript verbs, and garnish it with a few fluffy adjectives. Let’s take THE buzzword of our times: Sustainability! Making copious and determined use of the „S-word“ and associated buzzwords in your corporate communication gives you a lot of mileage with the general public.

Consider this quote: „Sustainable Corporate Management, which alongside strategic development, pays particular attention to the Group’s social responsibility as well as the needs of its employees, customers, investors and suppliers, and all those groups associated with the company, consequently plays an increasingly significant role in upholding stakeholder value, as well as the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR).“

All the right buzzwords in all the right places. Would you buy shares of that company? Many did. It’s from the Wirecard Annual Report for 2018 (page 43).

Nothing to see here – buzzwords as signals

Apart from Mr. Braun’s Steve-Jobs-lookalike-black-turtleneck, gobbledygook wrapped in Vapour Speak is a factor that, in my humble opinion, contributed in no small measure to people believing that everything was hunky-dory in the state of Denmark (or rather Aschheim). So much so, that many did not even start asking questions after the Financial Times put it right in front of their eyes black on white. Such is the power of the buzzword.

Why? Because these buzzwords become signals – just like the black turtleneck. Or expensive shoes,  a prestigious watch, a degree from a certain university, a corporate title, or whatever inspires trust in your world. If a message is filled with the right buzzwords, the recipients of the message are more inclined to believe that there is nothing to worry about. You find the Wirecard buzzwords in just about any Annual Financial Statements or other corporate communication of respectable companies. They signal reliability, integrity, etc..  So reading them is a bit like a ticking-the-box-exercise: once we have nodded in approval often enough before our mind’s eye, we nod off. We stop listening or reading deeply or asking questions. Complexity has been seemingly reduced, and our brains go to rest.

Let’s leave the realm of criminal relevance and look at the more mundane daily production of verbal hot air and its effects .

What’s the damage?

Uniform minds
Vapour Speak is at least conducive to if not instrumental in creating a uniformity of thinking. We do not only use language to express our thoughts and feelings, we also use it to form them.  Truly “agile” minds need a vast vocabulary of terms and concepts to be able to deal with the complexity of life, to think the hitherto unthinkable, the radically new. Vapour Speak does the exact opposite – it limits linguistic versatility and thus the humus of creative, unusual thought. Uniform minds don’t give you a competitive edge.

Numbed minds
Vapour speak also numbs minds. If you go back to the beginning of this piece, you will find that all these words are abstract concepts. There is no life force in abstract, strangely „disembodied“ terms that carry no emotional energy .  If you asked a child to draw “sustainability”, it would be lost. Things we cannot picture are things we cannot grasp. And things our hearts and brains cannot grasp will hardly energize us into decisive action.

Puzzled minds
Abstract concepts are a wide open invitation to something that is called „inference“. Bascially, it means that every recipient of a message comes up with her own interpretation and assumptions. This interpretation will then form the basis of her actions or inactions. Just think about team members who receive the same message but interpret it differently, act differently, and are then mightily suprised that they „were not on the same page“ and the project is running way behind schedule. Or imagine a Board member who is told by management that the problem of corruption/pollution/human rights violations etc. is being “addressed”. If she interprets the word „addressed“ as „will be solved and not happen again”and thus assumes – reasonably or unreasonably so – that she was appropriately informed, she will certainly see no necessity for any further action. If the speaker actually meant “we are buying bigger brooms and bigger carpets so we can sweep matters out of sight”, the company might end up in a pickle. Now, this can happen with all types of message, but it is less likely if people express themselves in such concrete terms that there is less room for interpretation.

All in all, these factors do not bode well for a happy and prosperous corporate future. Because in the long term, fogginess drains people of their energy. People wandering in a fog will not take courageous steps. Also, things that are not put in concrete terms hardly trigger any concrete responsibility.

Why do people use this lingo?

If Vapour Speak can have these effects, why do people use it? Let’s look at some of the reasons, though I doubt that most of this really happens consciously:

First and foremost, because everybody else does it. It’s a phenomenon that I have been observing for at least 10 years, if not more. In the meantime, it has become omnipresent – especially in the corporate world. Perhaps one of the strongest motivations of human beings is to belong. Vapour Speak helps you to do exactly that.  When you use that lingo, you immediately signal that you are part of the tribe. Also, you certainly gain popularity by not overusing the time and attention span of your colleagues and managers.  By using the known signal words in conversations, presentations or reports you make it easy for them to tick the boxes, nod, and carry on with their lives – or the next item on their overflowing “to do” list.

Also, Vapour Speak is easy to produce. In a complex world, it is a temporary tonic for our overloaded brains (even though it drains us in the long term). It’s basically a „no-brainer“ in every possible respect.  After a while, you can produce and internalize it like on auto-pilot. Have you noticed as well that people have come to speak incredibly fast? There have always been supersonic speakers. Nowadays though, presenting at speeds that are above the processing capacity of most mortals, seems to have become the norm rather than the exception. Unless you are one of the superbrains, who really can think and speak that fast, this is only possible if you use some sort of pre-fabricated macros you have repeated so often that you no longer need to think before spitting out sentences like: „the value proposition of our agile, valued-add plattform leverages our inclusive, purpose-driven transformation agenda that will mobilize a sustainable and diverse culture“. It’s a bit like an NLP-algorithm that plays dice with words.

Furthermore, you will not stand out and are on the safe side. If you push out the right signals with conviction at 180 beats per minute, it is unlikely that anyone will ask you what your „value proposition“ is about, what “mobilize” and “align” mean exactly, or what is actually diverse about a workforce, that uses the same approx. 1197.57 words to express itself. This is especially true in companies where the lingo of choice (usually English) is not your native language. In this case, you can take refuge in these buzzwords. Even if they do not allow you to express what you actually want to say, they are a safe haven. A necessary mechanism of self protection, if the company does not provided proper support for multilingualism.

What to do?

If you want to live in a company of independent minds that are wide awake, communicate clearly, and act with prudence and courage in order to keep the company buzzing with vitality, you might want to watch out for Vapour Speak. 

If it has already become widespread, the veil of Vapour Speak is difficult to pierce, because people have become so used to it. Still, let’s just look at a few general measures that could disperse the fog and keep it at bay:

Do something about the root causes
If people use Vapour Speak to be part of the tribe, feel safe or “reduce” complexity for their overburdened minds, you might want to find different ways to create a sense of belonging and security and to help them deal with complexity.

Make yourself and others aware of it
Firstly, if you are in a leadership position, try to avoid Vapour Speak yourself.  Not being immune to that lingo myself, I know that this requires a bit of effort. But it’s worth it. Because often, the buzzwords that the top brass feeds into the corporate stream of consciousness are the most widespread and sticky – because, who does not want to sound like the C-Suite? Then make your people aware  of it using the information channels and formats that best suit your firm.

Ask questions
No matter where you are in your company, make it a habit to let that hot air out of Vapour Speak by asking questions. Kindly, but persistently. Ask about the concrete substance of lofty terms or for real life examples, so that you can understand fully and do your job properly. Rest assured, you are usually not the only one who is puzzled, and others will be grateful for the intrepid mind that dares to ask the question.

Take your time
Whenever you are confronted with a suspicious accumulation of buzzwords and their accessories, slow down and take your time to try and really understand the meaning. But beware: working out your brain in all this hot air can be a sweaty and nerve-racking exercise. It might be helpful, though,  if you try translating a foggy sentence into your own words (i. e. the way you speak outside of the office) and/or into your native language. Go about it like a professional human translator – read the sentence, try to understand  what it really means, and then render it in your own words. If it still does not make sense – start asking questions.

And here’s a promise: Whatever you do to rediscover the beauty of meaningful language – the experience will be as enjoyable and nourishing as a beautiful, home-cooked meal.

© Sabine Breit