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Guest Blogger

by Nicholas Brice

Like many people, I’ve felt inspired by the team spirit and performances of the Denmark and England football teams at Euro 2020 – on and off the pitch. Both groups of young men seem to have found a deeper pulse and raised their games to a new level. They may not have won the ultimate prize but they all came out as winners in other ways. What struck me is their genuine concern for each other. And in England’s case, the tenacious maintenance of their dropping of the knee ritual was a potent signal of their steadfast devotion to inclusivity and equality.

For me that was something to admire and feel encouraged by.

Another management buzzword?

Popular management buzzwords such as having purpose and values can fall short of really defining what was happening in these groups of young men. They can easily become part of an overly rational approach to identifying levers that managers can pull to try to make a better return for investors. This is not to say investor return is not a priority of course. It must be for any business.

Business leaders are always looking for practical solutions that will help them nail their objectives. Of course, as consultants we want to offer relevant solutions with research to back them up to help. However, when we look at what it really takes to elevate the complex eco-system that is a team to an altogether higher level of functioning, it’s not something that fits so easily into a bottle of snake oil. The leaders I’ve met who do achieve this kind of impact are a different breed. They often start from a very different place to what the others do and set about the task in a much more fundamentally human way.

What is team and organisational soul?

What I’ve learnt from seeing the Denmark and England teams develop into two of the most successful teams in the Euro2020 competition is that we’re dealing with a complex, human challenge, not a simple technical ‘fix’. A well-used example is the comparison of the technical solution to a heart attack with the more adaptive, human solutions. A patient may get a stent fitted to open a clogged artery. But preventing it happening again takes a more wide-ranging adaptation of more complex lifestyle factors such as rest, emotional mastery, workload and work style, nutrition and relaxation.

I’ve enjoyed working on some extraordinarily successful culture change programmes in the past 30 years. I’ve also seen other efforts that, if I’m honest, were only going through the motions. Often leaders just try to copy what others have done but without the same heart and soul-level commitment to taking people on a journey unique to their situation. And only a few are sustaining the magnificent work they did years later under new leadership.

I’d also include as examples worth noting Unipart Group, Toyota and my local (now Premier League) football club in Brighton. Yes, football again!

A theatre team with soul?

COVID notwithstanding, I would like to also include my annual Edinburgh Festival production The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show too. For 14 years, teams of performers have delivered 5-star press- acclaimed, award-winning, sell-out productions of collections of short plays. The events are menus of short plays served up with coffee, croissants and strawberries…at 10.30 in the morning!

In 2019, this was the top selling show in a major Pleasance Theatre venue for the entire month in a near 300-seat venue. The show has evolved to be so much more than just a stage performance. It’s evolved into an end-to-end experience of a warm meeting and greeting by the performers with a plate of strawberries and a programme, a friendly and upbeat breakfast service, an area to chat with others, inspiring short play performances and a positive ‘see you next time’ at the door from the performers as people leave.

We see many people come back again and again as a result, and they bring their friends.

“I’m a huge fan. I go to Edinburgh every year and the Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show is always a highlight. The plays have made me think, made me laugh and sent me away on a high for the rest of the day.”

Is soul a management ‘lever’?

All the organisations and teams I’ve mentioned have created something special in their chosen markets. They’ve done this by standing for and expressing something deeper than the normal business agenda. Their focus has included firmly placing a positive, people-centric culture at the heart of the business strategy. This strategy has been pivotal to their success.

“I find with our clients in the US, I can’t use the word soul. It turns people off. So, I use the word mood instead…”

A leading US people and organisation development consultant told me this when I interviewed him about soul. Mood? The same as soul? This may be one of the reasons Joe Biden made restoring the soul of America his successful election pledge in a country where profit is paramount in how business leaders think and behave.

“My dad used to have an expression – ‘It is the lucky person who gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what they are about to do, and thinks it still matters.’” Joe Biden, US President

But there are many organisations who do take initiatives to connect with the deeper human agenda. One UK client said to me recently:

“We’re rolling out new purpose, values and mindset soon. I’m not sure soul fits with our language. Although I like the idea.”

The key is not the language of course. Will your ‘values, purpose and mindset rollout’ truly ignite the heart and soul of the people in the organisation? How are the leaders championing these principles? Is the effort for real, or simply the latest corporate initiative? Have you taught people that this initiative, like others, will fade when its owner moves on? Are you going to create and sustain a visceral, living ethos across the entire business over time that inspires people to tackle the challenges ahead with talent and energy?

What is the research telling us we need to do?

A recent McKinsey study shows us the impact of meeting two key criteria – BOTH, an organisational alignment to purpose and values, AND a full personal connection at the individual level.​​ The research involved one thousand people working for organisations who had a clear expressed purpose. It revealed that only forty-four percent of employees reported the organisation met both criteria. That’s less than half the workforce.

A whacking thirty-two percent felt neither was true. The remaining twenty-four percent either didn’t feel personally connected or reported that their leaders were not living the principles.

Worse still, in the disconnected group:

  • Forty-one percent of employees were willing to stay in their role.
  • Twenty percent felt fully engaged.
  • Forty-five percent were willing to advocate​ on behalf of their employer.

Compare this to the fully connected group where:

  • Eighty-seven percent were willing to stay.
  • Seventy-seven percent of employees felt fully engaged.
  • Ninety-three percent were happy to advocate on behalf of their employer.

The role of the team leader

If we want our businesses to survive and thrive in the modern, uncertain, challenging and often hybrid workplace, people will need strong leadership and a culture of belonging and shared endeavour. This will require much more than technical quick fixes. We will need to develop teams with real heart and human soul. This will require an investment in the time and effort to develop and maintain this quality. Do you have these capabilities in your leaders, teams and organisation to lead in a way that creates and demonstrates a powerful connection to the heart and soul of the organisation?

One of the big lessons from COVID has been the capacity of people to get on board and change at speed when they are committed. We all had to change. Fast. No question. And, as a side effect, humanity resurfaced over and above bottom-line considerations. People were voluntarily offering to support each other and adapt to each other’s needs. Leaders invested in mental health support for people. Many doubled their efforts to support and to communicate much more intentionally.

Online and In-person communication

Symptomatic of this, our online Speaker Coaching programme has been the most in demand programme since lockdown began in organisations that recognised a need to up their game. Leaders need to be able to create clarity and unity of purpose, often virtually. Being able to do this well has never been more mission-critical given the uncertain times we live and work in.

The key learning from these examples for me is that engaging this ‘extra gear’ has not been the outcome of a single tactic. It has been a result of a ‘perfect storm’ in the absence of a better, more positive word, of certain conditions and responses.

The birth of team soul

Denmark’s loss of Christian Eriksen to a sudden and shocking heart failure; England’s defiant honouring of ‘taking the knee’ even in a climate of booing and shaming.

Unipart Group’s emergence in the 80’s and 90’s from some of the darkest and most painful periods of UK industrial history in Cowley, Oxford to become a truly world class example of a modern organisation.

This was done in part by cultivating real employee ownership through share schemes and a series of inclusive and interactive events aimed at building engagement. And John Neill was not an invisible autocrat. He personally attended and spoke at most of the events I presented. John is still in place as guardian of the Unipart Way – a much, much better way than the old British Leyland Parts Division and has recently contributed to our Business Soul Research programme.

He also continues to lead from the front by delivering key cultural inputs inside the Unipart ‘U’ – their internal university.

Change for the good or better

Toyota’s culture was shaped by the austerity of the 2nd World War and years following in Japan. At their core, they stand for continuous improvement (kaizen: to change for the good or better) of quality, reliability and durability while reducing costs. They also fully respect and value the intellectual capabilities of all their people in contributing to these living values in concrete ways.

These principles lie at the heart of a steady but relentless climb over the post war years to overtake Ford and GM as number one car company in the world.

Brighton’s football club are on an 11-year journey from the basic 8,000 seat Withdean stadium to sell out the 33,000-seat state of the art Amex stadium, progressing through three divisions to becoming a benchmark today of modern stadium leadership under Paul Barber and Tony Bloom. I was honoured to be invited to work with the board, leaders and staff to help co-create and go on to embed a culture around a clear, human performance ethos.

And they have gone on to live this ethos from top to bottom, refreshing and refining it year on year.

“Reaching the Premier League will not mean changing our values.” Paul Barber, CEO and Deputy Chairman, Brighton & Hove Albion FC (Evening Argus, 2017)

From page to stage

And even my theatre show, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, was born out of a group of amateur actors, directors and producers taking the only slot they could get in a tiny Edinburgh venue. ‘amateur’ stands for doing things for the love, not second rate! Too late to be in the programme we all devoted ourselves to a daily street flyering effort to tempt an audience off the street and into a theatre at 10.30 in the morning!

It cost us all a load of money and sweat to put these shows on, as in its early years it was a big loss maker. It still is a highlight of an experience for all of us. Working with real heart and soul is like that.

The team’s total and voluntary commitment to being great friends and teammates AND producing inspiring theatre, helped develop an ethos that has supported our growth ever since.

This has included national TV and radio appearances, awards, 5-star press acclaim year on year and tours to Australia and Finland.

How can you create soul in a team?

The ethos of our Bite-Size productions is based on three core principles in descending order of priority:

  1. To be great team-mates and friends
  2. To create theatre of the highest professional standards
  3. To make money

So, how do we build a team or organisation with soul? The first consideration often ignored is… that you already have one. And the key is what condition it’s in. Is it nourishing and uplifting, or draining, un-co-operative, ego-driven and even noxious? Is it lived by everyone? What is the gold in your current ways of being and acting? What do you need to do more of, less of, or start doing?

At the time of writing, England last week lost out in the final on penalties. We had beaten Denmark by the narrowest of margins in the semi-final – it could so easily have been them in the final.

Inspired to write…

What inspired me to write this blog was a letter published by a man called David Taylor to Gareth Southgate. David is British citizen of Asian descent who wanted to thank Gareth and the England team for their refusal to be cowed by the booing and even criticism from government ministers over their dropping the knee gesture in their support for equality and inclusion.

David writes about how he has never felt totally at home as a UK citizen. Seeing the England team’s tenacious defiance in the face of racism and oppression, he felt personally affected by it. This excerpt gets the sentiment across I think:

“I write to say thank you for the great success you have had with the football. I write to say thank you for doing something much greater than you perhaps intended. Something far more important than football.

Your leadership has created a very special moment in history. I have read many stories, more eloquent than mine, of people who have finally felt at home, to understand what it is to be English, to begin to feel whole, to be complete. This is what you have done. I have known nothing like it in my lifetime.

I write to say thank you for me. I have these feelings too. A knowing of myself that I did not even realise was lost until these last few days.”

If you’d like a copy of the whole letter, please email me using the address at the bottom. It’s an inspiring piece.

What does create team soul?

But this is how team soul is created and sustained. How does a leader create a living eco-system that inspires the best from everyone involved? Denmark and England, Unipart, Toyota, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, your organisation?

  • A clear and worthwhile challenge that unites and galvanises
  • Inclusivity and respect
  • Real support
  • Leadership for everyone: ‘we’re all in this together’
  • Clear principles and high moral standards
  • A focus on creating social value…for all stakeholders: team members, customers, suppliers, the community, and the planet…and the investors!
  • And, most important, leaders who communicates and behave with real integrity, devotion, and humility – who have their peoples’ backs.

A good starter for ten? Well, these are seven to start with. I’m sure you might add others you’ve experienced.

Next steps for you

This past year, I’ve interviewed 70 CEO’s, executives, leaders, owners and professionals of all ages and cultural backgrounds to see what they felt about soul. 100% knew what it was, 100% also saw it as relating to business and 100% stated business soul as becoming increasingly important moving forward.

Earlier this year we conducted a feedback forum where we shared the findings and collected further insights into the priorities ahead. We then created an E-Guide with the main findings.

I’m happy to share a FREE copy of The Business Soul Forum E-Guide with you and a no obligation 30-minute consultation. We can chat about your challenges and some ideas about how you might tackle them.

Do get in touch to book a session and I can also share the full copy of David’s letter to Gareth Southgate that he published last week.

nick@soulcorporations.com or +44(0)7778-356954.

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