Struggling to keep your team happy? Take stock of your team culture and internal brand

by | 25 March, 2022

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A conversation with Larry Mayers

Perhaps the fastest way to chase away your highest performers and best candidates is to get the dynamics of internal reputation all wrong. Within a large organisation, where people don’t all know each other, you need your teams to have a strong reputation within the organisation, so people can trust and collaborate with each other, even without personal relationships.

Individual reputation management matters too, when it comes to hiring, managing, and promoting your staff. Individuals can do a lot to manage their own reputation to support their careers, while HR and hiring managers need to pay attention to the capabilities of their team.

Finally, we have the internal reputation of the whole company – or what we might more commonly call organisational culture. If there’s a mismatch between the stated culture, the brand, vs what people experience, that’s a huge potential risk for those in charge of keeping teams staffed.

To help our valued customers, HR, C-level execs, and managers at all levels to navigate these challenges, I recently sat down with Larry Mayers, to mine his expertise for advice and guidance.

Larry is an organisational psychologist who has been working in leadership development organisational development for about the last 25 years, in a variety of different organisations.

Over the last 10 years, his primary area of focus has been in aviation working with organisations from airlines themselves to manufacturers, to finance companies like Avolon, airlines; a whole range of aviation. His chief task has been to get the people right in the organisation, particularly at the executive level.

Larry Mayers

1. Avoiding dysfunction through poor team reputation

One of the most common places we can feel the pain of poor reputation management is when collaboration between teams starts to break down. As a company grows, it reaches a stage where there are hundreds of staff who all have different functions, who work in different location. People need to work together effectively, but they don’t have the opportunity to get to know every single other person in the organisation. Trust is essential, and the stronger each team’s reputation within the organisation, the easier they will be to trust.

Larry explains, “Someone might say “We can’t trust communications, they never get anything, right. We might as well do it ourselves.” Or alternatively, they could say “We can partner with communications because they really understand our business and we can work with them”.”

With a positive reputation, the communications team are much better able to collaborate with other departments and perform their function efficiently.

Larry goes on, “In aviation, there are some additional challenges. People are often not located in the same time zone, the same culture, the same language. So, building up that brand becomes more difficult because teams and individuals may never meet, even over the phone, because they’re on opposite sides of the world.

“This dynamic is intensified because, whether it’s an airline, a leasing company, or a manufacturing company, all the organisations make a mixed use of direct employees and outsourcing. Sometimes you don’t even know the person or the office, you might only know the organisation who has the contract.” At that level, all you know about the organisation is their reputation.

With this level of complexity, a strong reputation, where people know you to be effective, reliable, and transparent, is ever more essential. “How people understand you and how people rely on you to do stuff becomes the important thing and organisations, that are in aviation, that reputation is held in people’s minds about you.”

How to support your teams to maintain a positive reputation

Now we’re clear on the risks and complexities, I asked Larry how leaders can coach their staff and team leads to handle their reputation well. “You’ve got to put in some effort! If you want people to think that you’re conscientious, you need to plant the seed in their mind. What others think of you is your responsibility. As always, moments of brilliance and moments of disaster are when you get remembered. Everything in between gets forgotten. The way you navigate those is what really counts.”

You can think about your team’s internal reputation a bit like its brand. Just like your company has an external reputation, or a brand, that is carefully managed, so too your teams can have a reputation external to themselves, but within your company. “Branding requires constant work whether it’s individual or organisational. Failure to do that leads to demise. If we take a retail example – Woolworths. Pick ‘n’ Mix was the only brand that they had, and they never changed with the times!” It’s important then that your managers and teams are always adapting to the needs of the whole organisation. If they become known for one small part of their overall range of functions, that then causes a problem where people don’t trust them, or don’t know to go to them for anything else.

Larry explains that “brand confusion is also problematic. In the last year or so of British Midlands, they decided to do this funny experiment, which I knew was a disaster from the moment they launched it. They decided on the same plane to have low cost and full-fare seats. If you had a brown headrest, you got a drink included. If you had a blue one, you had to pay for a drink, but you might be sitting next to each other. One person gets offered a gin and tonic. And to the other you say, that’ll be £5.50. And it led to complete brand confusion. Passengers had no idea what they were getting, and it just became a mess.

“The same thing can happen in an organisational setting if teams are putting out mixed messages. Is this team an effective partner or are they looking after their own interests? Your internal brand requires constant revision clarification. You have to make it clear who you are, or the team, or the organisation, in concentric circles. It doesn’t really matter which level you’re it, it’s the same principle for them all, and it requires work.”

What about when it goes seriously wrong

Where serious or more systemic difficulties have developed, sometimes individual coaching and managerial support might not be enough. Larry explains, “That then becomes a piece for organisational development, perhaps bringing in external expertise. It’s important to find out the underlying problem that’s causing that difficulty. For example, one of the classic structural errors in sales divisions is rewarding staff with an individual bonus structure when you want them to work as a team. That’s not going to work, because it puts staff in competition. In another case, it might be a lack of trust between people, where one employee or team doesn’t believe the other is competent in their job.

“When you understand the root cause of that difficulty, you can work out the solution. For the first case, it might be a different bonus structure. For the second case, you need to help people see each other’s skills and competencies. You could always use the old Swiss watch analogy – it’s important to work out which cog is out of gear, and then you can work out how to replace it.”

2. The overlap between individual reputation management, and expertise in hiring or managing staff

If we’re thinking about things, for a moment, from the perspective of an individual contributor, or a manager or any staff member really within the organisation, it’s always in your own interest to be cultivating a positive reputation within your organisation. “Being competent and ensuring that nothing goes wrong in your own job leads to being seen as conscientious or dependable or reliable in your role, but that also might serve to limit your progression. Expanding other people’s view of what your brand is becomes important for career growth,” Larry explains.

“It’s important for a person to differentiate themselves from their specific job function if they want to progress. In some cases, that can cause tension within team relationships, and between group effectiveness and individual progression. A skilled person knows how to read that and keeps on changing the whole time. They move from the “I” to the “We” in a very subtle and continuous way, saying for example “We can help you with that because I’ve had experience with this before.” It really is a skill because people that do that too much come across a little bit slippery.” As a manager, you can help, however, by recognising your team members for their individual contributions, as well as what they get done collaboratively.

On the other hand, Larry says, “People who do that too little can get forgotten. It’s particularly important when people want to move across or move up. If people only view you as a communications person, you’ll be stuck in that role for the rest of your life.

“You have to think first, “how do I create a broader business mindset,” or a HR mindset or legal mindset, or whatever your ambition is – and then how do you create that awareness in someone else’s mind about yourself?” As a manager, supporting your staff to build a broader reputation can sometimes feel counterproductive. Surely if you encourage everyone on your team to be seen to have great potential and cross-departmental skills and expertise, then that makes it easier for them to leave! On the other hand, if you discourage this, you can have a team of people who are stuck, and eventually stagnate, and leave for other roles anyway, when they feel the need to progress.

Reputation matters when you’re taking references

That brings us round to the question of how an individual’s reputation can affect hiring and onboarding them into your team. To start with, it’s important to understand people properly during the recruitment process. The fastest way to learn about their reputation at their current (or former) company is to ask when taking a reference. When we do this at Horizon, we always ask “How is the candidate perceived within the business?” or “How are they perceived by their clients?” Ideally, we like to dig in and ask how that varies from their manager to their peers, and the people that they manage, and so on. Of course, references are always going to speak positively, so it’s always telling when people gloss over responding to that. You have to interpret the silence.

The candidates who we hire who are most successful often start strong. They introduce themselves to everyone in the company, they develop internal relationships with people and that’s always seen very positively. Screening for these types of people can really help to ensure you’re getting the right people in.

When we are placing candidates who’re transferring departments, as well as organisations, we screen carefully for those transferable skills. If they come from MRO or airline or that sort of thing, my team and I can see clearly that this person’s got the skills that they require for example in a leasing firm, but it’s just dressed up in something that’s slightly different.  But it can be an uphill battle to persuade hiring managers to take them on, because they can’t immediately see how it might work.

In smaller leasing firms, it’s understandable that you might need someone who can “plug and play.” With a bigger organisation, there’s often much less justification for stopping someone from coming in and transferring those skills across – when there’s a bit more time and flexibility for you to let them.

From his experience in organisations, Larry has seen that internal moves can be challenging due to preconceptions, based on your internal reputation. “People have type-cast you as “the person from legal” so they don’t think you can do anything else. They only see you as the type you’ve always been and nothing on either side of it. That means sometimes if people want to change roles or change function, it might be easier to move companies.”

Really, there’s a mix of experiences with both internal and external moves, where people are changing job functions. It usually takes a lot of work, and that depends on the person that’s doing the hiring. If the hiring manager has got an open mind and a creative view on these things, then they can see the value.

Based on our experience with leasing firms, there are so many people who’ve moved from legal to commercial because they know the contracts, they know the clients, they know all they need to. When they change function, they’re still using all that knowledge and those skills, they’re just taking on a more proactive approach to marketing and business development. It’s the same with technical people. Technical experts can move into a marketing role and excel there, because they know the asset and they can have that nuanced discussion with the client. Someone else on the team, if they’ve come from within marketing or even through legal, or elsewhere, might not have the knowledge for that. Hiring a mix of people into the team is beneficial. Whether or not that happens depends on a hiring manager being open-minded instead.

Onboard new hires in the right way to set the right expectations

So that’s what to consider when bringing someone new into your team, or organisation. Once they’re hired, you then need to onboard them and help them integrate into the team. “One of the realities when hiring is that managers tend to make an assessment on a person’s history. So, they introduce new hires as the person we got from British Airways or from CBC, or wherever it is, and that becomes their reputation.”

Is there a better way to go about it? Larry suggests, “it’s important to work out the person’s potential, and that’s where professional advice, like executive search or organisational development can help. It means moving the conversation away from their history to what they could do, and where can we push them. A much better thing to work out and then prioritise are skills like “this person is good with ambiguous data,” or “this person can interrogate information and turn chaos into clarity.” That becomes a statement of potential rather than a historical statement. Hiring managers and individuals can both contribute to this, but sometimes neither of them has that skill of seeing or communicating potential, which is sometimes why you need to have someone external to help move the conversation from what they have done to what they can do.”

3. Managing the reputation of the company internally

Of course, working relationships with individual staff are key to how a staff member will view your company, but not all. The other key piece is the organisational culture and how that meets their expectations.

Larry shared a personal story from working at BA, which shows how internal culture can reflect the company’s external brand. “If we were 60 seconds late for work, we were late. Because take-off slots at Heathrow are 60 seconds long, so if you miss your slot, you’re late. That was a way of inculcating a culture of punctuality. In a similar vein there are stories of Michael O’Leary pulling out people’s mobile phone chargers in Ryanair offices saying, “This is not yours. You’re not paying for it. Don’t take it,” to inculcate that frugality of Ryanair where you pay for everything that you get.”

Trouble begins where there’s a mismatch. So often, when we ask people why they’re leaving somewhere, it is a cultural mismatch, where things are not what they expected. They expected one thing, maybe even told to expect it, but the reality is different.

Larry explains, “It goes awry when the stated culture is not a lived culture. Lots of organisations have a stated culture like “We treat each other with respect,” or “we work as a team” but then they stab each other in the back or act in an isolationist way. And that’s where there’s a disconnect. With Ryanair, by reputation it has this specific culture. So, when people are hired, they decide if they’re happy with that – people buy into a culture, buy into an external perception. If it doesn’t match, there’s a bit of a disaster, you feel cheated.”

“I think BA is a very good case to show how brand maintenance is important. Once you’ve lost your brand, it’s tough to get it back and BA has inflicted so much brand damage on themselves. They’re now going to have to spend millions to recover it. Internally it’s a disaster as well because people have an emotional connection to work. Once you have damaged that emotional connection as BA have done with their cabin crew, it’s tough to get it back. People stop trusting you, and that’s tough.”

Concluding remarks

We can see at all levels that reputational management is important. If you’re having trouble with managing the internal relationships of your teams, support from Larry or other experts in organisational development can be helpful. If you’re looking to better integrate new hires into your team, or even to broaden the scope of who you hire, then an executive search firm like Horizon can really help you to see the potential in candidates and in the staff you bring on board.

Larry left me with this final thought. “I don’t think it matters which concentric circle we’re talking about, whether is individuals, or teams or organisations. People don’t place enough importance and therefore don’t spend enough time on how they are seen by others in an organisation or in industry. Doing more of that is likely to lead to more success.”

Hire interns in aircraft leasing

If you’re keen to find out more about hiring your own interns through the ISTAT portal, you can click through find the details on the ISTAT Foundation website.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done on the committee, and I look forward to seeing it develop and grow more and to being able to place these stars of the future in senior and executive roles!