Viewpoint: An interview with David Ferrabee
David Ferrabee is Director at Able and How, a management consultancy that helps organisations deliver successful change. He has worked with global clients including Shell, GSK, RBS, Coca-Cola Enterprises, ITV and more.
We sent Vicki along to meet David, to discuss what skills are needed for a career in change and employee engagement, as well as whether organisations are responsible for their employees’ happiness.
Vicki: Why are change and business transformation so important in today’s world? Why do we hear so much about them?
David: Change is constant in business – it may be a cliché, but it’s true. Large businesses in the US used to have an average lifespan of 60 years. Now it’s more like 16. Look at huge companies like Viacom and AOL – major corporations are now lasting less than a generation. That really brings home the idea that change is happening at a rapid pace. The shape and structure of organisations has changed so much in just a few years, that many traditional jobs don’t exist anymore. Obviously new jobs are evolving, but people need to be more adaptable than ever.
Vicki: How does that impact on the world of internal communication?
David: More than ever, communication professionals need to understand business: how does it make and lose money; what is keeping the CEO awake at night; and how does communication impact on all of those things. So many people end up falling into this career by taking an arts degree and thinking if they can write, they can communicate. Of course writing is an essential part of the job – as it is in so many professions – but developing their understanding of what’s going on in the business is the path to adding real value.
Vicki: What do you think is the best route to developing business knowledge?
David: Ask a lot of questions. Open up your field of vision to find people all across your organisation and mine them for information. Whether it’s just a friendly chat over coffee, or a formal series of interviews, you need to nurture your curiosity. I’m interested in hiring people who are curious, but put off by those who say they know things for sure. It’s important to be open to other people’s opinions. We have a saying at Able and How that you should have as many epiphanies a day as you possibly can.
Vicki: Comms Leaders is often asked to find specialists in change communication, particularly on an interim basis. Clients see this as a distinct niche skill, and will ask us to search for interims with very specific experience such as HR change, IT change etc. Do you agree with that approach, or do you think all generalist communicators should be able to handle change?
David: My view is that there is a general misunderstanding of the way change works in organisations. I’m glad that you still see a need for specialists, because often we see the people sponsoring change comms roles within organisations, are just looking for people to update their PowerPoint slides, which is not what modern communication is about at all.
A proper change role requires organisational change capability, business and project management understanding. Unfortunately, and I speak as someone who grew up in the communication profession, there is a massive hole in the resumes of most comms people. Our consultants understand how projects work, can sit in a PMO and know what’s going on.
Our original recruitment plan was to hire communicators and teach them business and programme management skills. In fact we’ve taken on several consultants who have programme management or business delivery experience and taught them how to put together a communication strategy and advise leadership teams.
Vicki: How important is a degree in communication or PR when you’re hiring?
David: I’m more interested in taking on people with a broad education, who have displayed an interest in the world outside of that faculty. Emotional intelligence is important as well as good writing skills and a flair for dealing with people sensitively and diplomatically.
Vicki: Why do so many change programmes fail?
David: It’s all down to accountability. A large number of the FTSE100 CFOs we’ve interviewed don’t even count the savings or costings for change programmes in their budgets. Programmes fail when no one is held accountable – by which I mean personally evaluated and rewarded for delivering change successfully.
Vicki: In that case, do you think the CEO should have ultimate accountability for large-scale business transformation?
David: It doesn’t necessarily need to be the CEO, but the most senior executive with responsibility for the change, needs to be held accountable.
Vicki: What do you see in your crystal ball for 2017?
David: I don’t predict any monumental changes from a business perspective. Brexit is big on the agenda at the moment, but there are cycles of economic and political change every five years. I think more important is the move towards organisations being less physically concentrated in one place. Teams will become more dispersed, working remotely and using technology to make them more agile. With that lack of co-location, organisations will need to get better at breaking down and reforming teams. Change professionals should be able to put in place the technology, systems and processes to allow that to happen.
Vicki: Will agile working make employee engagement more challenging?
David: The skills that are useful when you’re walking across the hallway, are the same as the skills needed when your team is halfway across the world. We need to prioritise cultural sensitivity, be open to new ways of working and listen more. I don’t think we value listening skills in this country as much as we should.
Vicki: Do you think it’s important that employees are happy at work?
David: If you look at research into happiness versus business performance, there is almost no correlation. Happy cows don’t make better butter. I think it’s more important to concentrate on the positive correlation between being positively challenged at work and business success.
If you ask people if they’re doing a good job, 100% will say yes. Yet in the same survey, only half of the people you ask will claim to understand the business strategy. So you can think you’re doing something really well, that has no connection to what the business is trying to achieve, which is shocking.
People come into work, to work. We have an obligation to give people work to do that matches their skills, allows them to develop and be successful and allows the business to move forward towards its goals. Connecting an individual’s skills to the business is the most important element.
If I, as a business owner, invested more time trying to make my employees happy, I wouldn’t have a successful business. Making ourselves responsible for other people’s happiness is a millstone around our necks. However, making ourselves responsible for other people’s success and giving them the tools to grow accomplished careers, that’s a whole different matter.