Change Begins With the ‘First Follower’

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Aug 15, 2019

Before I co-founded a company to help HR and people leaders transform their businesses, I was a consumer marketer – both agency and client-side – crafting marketing solutions and digital experiences for some of the world’s most popular brands, such as Airbnb, Coca-Cola, The Home Depot and others.

I’ve seen many a great creative idea with huge potential die a slow, painful death inside the corporate machine. Lack of purpose. Poor communication. Misalignment. Turf wars. Grudges. Politics. The idea becomes a shadow of itself. These are people problems not solved by an expensive plan or new technology.

Worse yet, this misery is felt by every employee involved in the project and bleeds outward until it’s a part of the normal way of work life at the company. It becomes part of the culture.

Unhappy, unproductive employees are not a fluffy problem; it’s very real. It’s a $605 billion problem. That’s the amount that US companies lose every year because people hate their jobs and are actively disengaged, according to Gallup, which also found 66% of Americans are not engaged at work. Globally, the percentage is 85%.

Those are giant problems with massive consequences. Applying some lessons from consumer marketing could help.

Know your employees like you know your consumers

11,000. That’s the number of data points that Alibaba, the big online commerce company, has on every single one of its roughly 600 million consumers. They have that amount of data because they know the number one rule of marketing is that the only sustainable advantage any company can ever have is a superior understanding of the consumer.

How many data points – real data points, not just age, gender, and how many years of company service – do you have on your employees? A hundred? Less?

If you’re trying to drive adoption – maybe you have a new tool, new technology, or new process that you’re wanting people to adopt – you have to listen first. You have to know more about your employees, because that’s where the powerful human insights come from to spark communication ideas that change hearts and minds.

This is a huge deficiency we often encounter when we first go into a company. If you don’t talk to your employees, you can miss that seemingly unimportant cultural truth that will cause any sort of change to fail.

For example, a large global airline I worked with was launching a new app for their hourly employees to swap shifts. The app itself worked great, and the employees were happy. But managers were upset because they used shifts to incentive their employees. Once we understood that insight, we were able to customize our approach for managers.

Lead with story

Here’s a really interesting fact: memories require story. Your brain needs story to code messages chemically. That’s why the logo is always at the end of the TV commercial. As important as the facts of your new product, service, or technology are, they pale in comparison to the efficacy of stories to embed memories in the end-user’s brain.

Bluntly, it’s not about facts. If you go into any sort of employee communication and you start with facts, you’re screwed. You have to lead with story. People have to feel before they’re able to learn. They have to know why, and what’s in it for them.

If you’re trying to change behavior – maybe you want people to operate with a new mindset, you want people to be learning new skills, maybe there’s a new way of working that the company needs to be successful in the future – you have to open the mind to receive the information. You have to inspire with story first.

I promise you this is one of the most important things in marketing. And preferably, it’s a story about them, the employees. People are going to be more interested in stories about them than a story about the company.

Make it about them

Perhaps no other leader better understands the three things that drive job satisfaction better than Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard. He understands that my personal growth, my opportunity to make an impact, and my relationships are what makes people happy at work.

Story matters, but not the company’s story. Sure, that’s fine for investors and stockholders. But only the people’s story matters to the average frontline employee. The truck driver, the gate agent, the call center rep – they only care about their story. Stop trying to inspire your employees with a story that’s simply not relevant or exciting to them.

If you really want to teach something new, you’re really asking them to take the time to learn instead of being with their kids or watching the latest binge-worthy show. You have to tell them what’s in it for them. How does the change help them grow skills or opportunity? How does the change help them make a bigger impact to the consumer, the community, the world? How does it help them foster more meaningful, useful relationships? This is how communications about change are framed at successful companies.

Make managers great

If you’re not familiar with the first follower concept, check out this video.

In short, movements aren’t started by the crazy genius who comes up with the idea. They are started by the first people who follow the crazy genius.

That’s what starts the movement, and it’s because people don’t follow brands and they don’t follow companies. They follow other people. If you’re going to start to build an employee program, you really need to harness the employees who are ready to follow. The advocates. The believers. Ask yourself, “How can we reach these influential employees? What can we give them to start this movement?”

In marketing terms, your first followers are your primary audience. And more often than not, they’re your managers. Mangers are the lynchpin in large scale transformation. They are best positioned to follow first, and they must be empowered. This is the biggest and most important job of HR – make managers great. If you make managers great, everything else falls into place. They’re your number one communications channel. They’re your first followers. They start the movement.

What next?

How do you begin taking the next step to have a more consumer-grade approach to your employee communications and change programs? Just call your CMO. They know these things inherently. That’s their job, and they might be able to help you apply some of those principles in your employee comms. Just ask nicely.

Image by Mabel Amber, still incognito… from Pixabay