I have been in the world of work since 1995. Akin to bringing up children, it is quite amazing how time flies!! When I left University all those years ago, I had little idea where my path of employment was going to take me. Today, as the master of my own destiny (a business owner), I often look back at my years as an employee with a real mixture of emotions. We enter the world of employment with our eyes wide open – full of hope, excitement and dreams. Some of us achieve those dreams – others still have a way to go.
I am not a fan of the word ‘employee’ – it is a very traditional, ‘command and control’ descriptor of the people who work for an organisation. When I look back over my years working for others – 17 years to be precise – ‘command and control’ is a pretty consistent theme. Most employees in organisations around the world are in place to fulfil the demands of the ‘leaders’ who ‘run’ the company. In others words, employees (myself included) spend the majority of their time ‘doing what they are told’.
‘Doing what we are told’ is a phenomenon that for many, starts from the minute we enter the world. As children, most of us adhere to the demands of our parents – ‘don’t do this’; ‘you need to do that’ – it is almost as though we are genetically programmed to do what anyone with seniority tells us. Although there are many times when ‘doing what we are told’ might actually be right, if that is all we know how to do, then we become unable to ‘think’. The inability to ‘think’ means that a human being is only able to operate under instruction. Someone who is only able to operate under instruction is only able to fulfil tasks. An organisation that contains people who are only able to fulfil tasks is one that will be unable to adapt to the changing needs of its customers.
Too many businesses exist in an environment where people are not empowered to ‘think’. Their employees operate like automatons – engaged with doing their job, but unlikely to be an advocate of their company and its customers. An organisation that does not empower its people to ‘think’, is very unlikely to be one that wants to listen to what its people (it’s employees) have to say – to gauge, measure and understand how their people feel about the direction the organisation is going in.
Voice of the Employee (VOE) as I call it, is becoming an increasingly important factor in the management of Customer Experience. I say that it is becoming increasingly important – in reality, it always has been, yet it is becoming more consciously prominent for many companies. A core part of any Customer Experience measurement programme, having a measurable understanding of your own people’s ‘perception’ of your ability to deliver the Customer Experience is both a hugely powerful piece of fact as well as a sign to your people that you value their opinion. Knowing whether or not your people would use your products or services themselves; recommend you to others; think you are any good at delivering the Customer Experience; is vitally important information. Asking your people these questions demonstrates how much their opinion is respected. Acting on what they say demonstrates how much it is valued.
Recently, a UK business called Sports Direct decided to take VOE one step further. Accused of not being the most people centric of businesses, the nationwide retailer made the decision to assign a seat at their board table to a representative of their employees. I thought the decision was fascinating. The more I think about it, the more fascinating the decision becomes. Most followers of Jeff Bezos will know about his ‘empty chair’ at the Amazon board table. Representing the Amazon customer, still today, any decision that will affect the customer is ‘pointed’ at the empty chair. The purpose of this is to ensure that the decision makers at Amazon make their decisions considering the effect their decisions will have on the customer. What Sports Direct have made me think is that whilst Amazon are absolutely right to do this, what about the Employee?! As far as I am aware, even Amazon have not had an empty (or populated) chair at their board table to represent the interests, thoughts and opinions of the employee.
So this leads me to the question in the title of this post – ‘would you give your employees a seat at the board table?’. The reaction to the question is often interesting – I have asked it a number of times in recent weeks to ‘leaders’ across the world. The instant reaction is in the negative. ‘It wouldn’t work’; ‘it would be impossible to administer’; ‘that is what the HR director is for’; ‘how ridiculous’. These are genuine responses. Whilst the mechanics of it need thought, is it really such a ridiculous concept? So often the customers voice is not present at the top table, to not have the employee voice either could be a huge missed opportunity – or huge mistake.
To state the blindingly obvious, organisations cannot exist without their customers. To state the even more blindingly obvious, organisations cannot exist without the people who deliver the experience their customers have with them. If we do not continuously capture what customers and our own people THINK, we run the risk of making decisions – both tactical and strategic – that FAIL to meet the needs of either of both of these critical groups of people. Regularly organisations are doing just that. Now and then, organisations FAIL as a result.
That is why I believe that instead of dismissing the idea out of hand, considering dedicating a seat at the board table to a representative of your people is very important. Whether it be an occupied or empty seat is something to be thought through. The ‘empty’ chair principal works brilliantly as a representative of the customer – so why could the same not be so for your own people?
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