When Sheila Parry (pictured right) founded theblueballroom in 2001, the internal communication’s world wasn’t completely cloudless. “At the time, organisations were very hierarchical; much more than today. The big divide between what a company was saying on the outside and what it was like to work inside struck me.”
There was no hint, either, of communication being seeing as the oil in the engine. “There were a lot a people who used to talk about internal branding. But, they didn’t actually know what they meant.”
There was the promise of a job, and the reality of a job. “There were good leaders and managers, good storytelling, products and brands. Yet, not enough was done internally.”
For Parry, it became a personal mission: although she started her career in advertising “I always wanted to work with companies in helping their staff feel and be part of their organisation.”
And, that is what she has done by building and leading her agency in the last 14 years.
Still today, when she announces to the world the appointment of Kate Shanks as the new Managing Director of theblueballroom, Parry’s commitment to employee engagement and improving organisational life is predominant.
Changes since 2001
Parry has reasons for looking back and seeing a sea of changes. Today, companies have realised that they cannot overlook the importance of their employees. “Most organisations have started to recognise that their business success relies on the efforts of their people; staff are not only the biggest assets but also the biggest investment.”
Whatever the imperatives at work, the rise of social media has accelerated the change that was already happening in our society. Pre-Internet, Parry did certainly network with people she met at University, at work and at events. She could form her opinions on whether a company was standing up for their values or not. “Somehow I managed to have my networks.”
But, “there was neither Facebook, nor LinkedIn nor the other virtual networks.”
Digital technology has speeded up the ability to be aware of what is happening somewhere else, giving people a voice. “Now, you can see what people think of working at a company; employees can publish their thoughts on real-time on sites such as Glassdoor or on their personal accounts. In the past, we did not have such an ability to self-publish and share.”
Some of the best leaders have realised that they will have to treat their staff with respect and empowerment if they want their business to succeed. One of them is founder of Virgin Group Richard Branson, whom Parry greatly admires.”Almost everybody follows him on social media; millions of people buy his books; hundreds of individuals listen to what he says. But, only a few people actually follow up with actions on what he says about leadership.”
Parry talks about flexibility, seeing people as individuals, and not as numbers. “Asking employees to be truly entrepreneurial within the organisation and represent the brand. And giving people a second chance when they have made mistakes.”
Indeed, Branson has been championing those values for years. And, Parry thinks that Virgin Group “lives those principles more closely than any other organisation that we could name.”
Surely, there is only one Branson. But fortunately, other leaders, both in and beyond the public eye, seem finally to understand that it comes down to respect. For Parry, good entrepreneurs treat staff as people. “Employees are not an amorphous group of ‘talent’, ‘resources’, ‘brainpower’, and all the words that companies use to define their workforce, which makes you think that they are inanimate. Employees are individuals with brains, hearts and feelings; they are not a block that a leader can move from a place to another.”
Freedom within a network
Full marks for flexibility, but caution is advised in assessing the type of freedom given to staff. For example, within health and safety. “Take transportation companies such as airlines. One of their biggest requirements is to ensure the safety of their passengers. There will be some specific rules for staff to follow; operational procedures that guide people to behave in a way that doesn’t leave much room for personality.”
While health and safety is such an important hygiene factor of an operational environment, Parry believes that “efficiency and productivity will not come with rules. They will come with people doing things in a different way, in a novel way, in a creative way.”
Perhaps, the word we need today is ‘guidelines’ rather than rules in its strictest sense. “Generation Y keeps away from the word ‘rules’ – it is about finding a way around it.”
On the positive side, Parry’s observation is a reflection of something deeper about working for an organisation: having a clear sense of the direction of the business and wanting to embrace it.
“If you can join a company that has a purpose where you can tie in your personal mission and desire, then you are at the beginning of a good time at work.”
So, employees can still have freedom and initiative within standards.
The world of work is changing. It is truly right that an agency that wants to help companies move forward should also have new blood, ideas and approaches. Kate Shanks, who has been supporting Parry for the last three years, will become theblueballroom official Managing Director in September. Parry will step down into her new role as Chairman.
“Kate and the new team will be in touch with today’s world; they will think and do things differently than in the past. The agency will be more proactive, constantly evolving and developing new offers.”
Being bolder is also in the agenda. Parry talks about the need of the agency to be seen more. “On our new site you will find the two fundamental concepts that define what we do, how we think and how we work.” One is the Pride Model; the other one is Connected Culture. Those principles guide theblueballroom’s approach to employee engagement and the digital workplace.
While today those principles are published on the site, “in the past we would have talked about them behind closed doors, just in clients’ meetings. We would have taken that knowledge and thoughts to the clients and not shout about them.”
Perhaps, it was an oversight or just a lesson to learn from. It was actually a client that volunteered the fact that people from outside could have never realised the value that the agency could offer. “One of our values is actually to be bold; and we have to be bolder,” remarks Parry. “The agency needs to be more visible and better understood. This is another thing that Kate will be able to bring.”
The future story and trends
thefuturestory is a sort of brand that the agency has created for spotting the important trends that are affecting the workplace. Plus, their impact on people management and communications.
Not surprisingly, there is technology. “We have always to have technology on our radar – our ability to know more, access more and being more connected.”
But, there is more to cover with thefuturestory. For example, diversity and age disparity. “The fact that people are going to live longer is going to have a huge impact on society and our welfare state. Not just in the UK, but globally. We need to comprehend what work is going to be like when you have all those different generations together.”
Another important trend that the agency is exploring is around a business ability to reinvent itself in order to survive, which is not an easy task. “You can be clever and stop to think about how you can disrupt yourself to move forward. But, actually doing it is hard.”
Sometimes the change requires a new re-thinking of roles and people in the business. “Employee retention is great, as a target; but what about striving for employees’ injection of new energy? You need a network of people around you who challenge you with novel ideas.”
Indeed, having the courage to execute is always difficult; particularly when it comes to ‘cannibalise’ yourself.
But, perhaps, Parry is in the right position to make those remarks as she is leaving her leading role inside the company that she found and always loved. Yet, the transformation happening to the theblueballroom looks exciting: “Every organisation has a story; every company has a future story. We will keep thinking through new challenges and reinventing ourselves just as we are helping other organisations to think and work through theirs.”