As businesses continue adapting to new workplace environments, shifting employee attitudes, and the repercussions of the Great Resignation, recruitment and retention challenges are front and center for nearly every business owner. Kelly O’Keefe, founding and managing partner at Brand Federation, and Laura Bowser, managing director of Fahrenheit Advisors’ Human Capital Consulting Practice, sat down recently to discuss how an organization’s brand and culture can facilitate – or hinder – overcoming these workplace factors. Watch this short video for a preview and read part one of this two-part Q&A below.
Q: WHICH IS HARDER RIGHT NOW FOR COMPANIES: RECRUITMENT OR RETENTION
LAURA: Retention was right there with recruitment, but with people getting nervous about a recession, they’re not jumping jobs as quickly. And while there is still turnover, recruitment is more challenging because there are more open jobs than available talent. Getting people in the door is a little bit harder than keeping them. That’s what I’m seeing.
KELLY: The way I look at the world, recruiting is more challenging today, but retention is always more important. Retention means you’re keeping the people you want to keep, people who understand how to do their jobs well, work well on the team, exemplify your culture, that the customer likes, and have institutional knowledge. A recruit doesn’t have any of those things. So, if you have people who work out and know what they’re doing, you want to keep that person every time.
LAURA: I agree. It’s the retention piece people should be more worried about. People aren’t because it often means looking in the mirror and asking: “What did I do wrong to lose that employee?” Answering that is harder than offering someone a cool package or doubling their compensation. Those actions skip the question altogether and avoid dealing with the hard work of culture change the answers may point to.
Q: WHAT ARE SOME WARNING SIGNS THAT CULTURE OR BRAND IS NEGATIVELY IMPACTING BUSINESS?
KELLY: There are at least three leading indicators: the loss of talented people, client attrition, and losing the ability to control pricing. For example, if your attrition is usually 10 percent and it rises to 15 or 20, that’s an indicator that something’s not right. Look also at the need to price aggressively. You have, let’s say, a bottle of water, and somebody else has a bottle of water. If you cannot price your bottle of water at 3 or 4, or 5 cents more than the other guy, then your brand has no value. Brand value should translate to economic power. So pricing power or price elasticity is one of the big three indicators — losing people, losing customers, and losing the ability to control pricing.
LAURA: The only difference from a culture standpoint is the compensation of employees. If you have to double your compensation, triple your compensation, to get a person in the door, you have a culture issue. You should be able to say, “Hey, this is what the job is and what the market value is,” and they’re excited to come work for you.
KELLY: It can be a little harder for young people to determine if you have a problem. That may seem counterintuitive, but young people, even in good times, don’t stay with you for ten years anymore. They’re staying for 1 or 2 or 3, and it’s not a big deal anymore to job-hop. Most of them crack the code that they can get a 4 percent annual increase if they stay, and they can get 15 or 20 if they hop to another level. And they’re leaving to take advantage of that. A lot of turnover among young people isn’t necessarily the indicator that we think it is.
Q: HOW MUCH OF BRAND AND CULTURE IS ENGINEERED, AND HOW MUCH IS ORGANIC?
KELLY: The art of brand strategy isn’t an art of invention. It’s the art of peeling back the onion to find the truth inside an organization. What truth is working well for them and has been a source of strength for them? And then what are the obstacles, the things that are getting in the way of them being even more successful with that. I think it’s probably 80 percent extraction of what’s going on and 20 percent invention or improvement. Brands never work for organizations that try to be something they are not.
LAURA: There are different approaches, models, and ways to explore brand and culture. It boils down to being authentic. Don’t just try to chase that shiny thing you see succeeding elsewhere. I see that in culture work a lot, too. If it’s not who you are, even if it’s cool and you see someone becoming super-successful with it, don’t chase it. If it doesn’t align with your values, you can’t force it.
Q: HOW ARE REMOTE AND HYBRID TRENDS IMPACTING BRAND AND CULTURE?
LAURA: It’s an interesting time to discuss culture and brand because many organizations struggle with remote and hybrid work. It’s this weird world: “I demand flexibility to work here, and yet I’m complaining because the culture isn’t what it used to be.” How do we navigate that? Culture and brand must account for flexibility and what it means to be flexible, but still align with and maintain organizational values. Many aren’t getting it right yet, and there’s no playbook.
Mid-size organizations are struggling the most right now with the flexibility conversation around brand and culture. Large organizations already had hybrid remote work —and they have money they can throw at fires. The small guys can pivot at the drop of a hat. There is a struggle in the middle market because they don’t know how to have structure and flexibility simultaneously when the cash is not endless. So, the conversation there is: If you have a strong culture, how do you keep it going with this flexibility, and what does that mean? And if you don’t have a strong culture, now is a great time to figure out how to leverage the momentum in changing the culture and brand.
KELLY: I love that. And I especially love that second point. Everything has changed, and we face new realities. Some are challenging, some are good — and many are both simultaneously. If you’ve been trying to migrate your culture for a while, and it’s been difficult, this does permit you to do that.
Brand Federation was built around a remote work culture. We’ve worked at not only creating an environment where we work remotely and we work with people, but we’ve built, over time, excellent ways of making sure we don’t lose the human connection and culture in that kind of a work environment — which you have to be deliberate about, or you will lose it. It can’t be just business. You’ve got to replicate the water cooler conversations in the Zoom world.
Kelly O'Keefe is a respected brand strategist known for his corporate, community and nonprofit work. He is formerly a professor and chair of the creative brand management program at the VCU Brandcenter — a master's program for advertising, branding, and creative problem-solving at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business. He’s an inductee in the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame, a former Richmond Ad Person of the Year, as well as Virginia Entrepreneur of the Year; and he has been a strategic brand advisor to corporate clients like Capital One, Carmax, GE, ESPN, Walmart, Dominion Energy, UPS, and many other leading organizations.
As Fahrenheit’s Human Capital Practice Leader, Laura Bowser addresses the HR strategies and pitfalls of creating a work environment that generates innovation, productivity, and inclusiveness—talking about the real, hard choices that business leaders must make, and how to communicate those decisions to boards, executive teams, and employees. Laura has a passion for creating more culturally inclusive and equitable workplaces.
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