In this article, Lucy Mowatt speaks to Harry Harris, Director at SwarmBe about content marketing and internal communications.
This article is a transcript of Episode 1 of the Content Conversations podcast. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity. Listen to the podcast here ↓↓↓
Lucy Mowatt: Hi, Harry. Thanks for agreeing to be on the Content Conversations podcast. Great to see you. Can I just ask you to introduce yourself for the audience if they don’t know who you are and what it is you do?
Harry Harris: My name’s Harry and I’m Chief Commercial Officer for Swarm Group, Swarm Apprenticeships and I’m also a director at SwarmBe, which is a recruitment, training and coaching, mentoring company.
LM: I know when we spoke in the past, you’ve mentioned that you help with retention rates and post-placement support. What does that tend to look like?
HH: Like I say, we discover people rather than recruit them. One of the big things now is that it’s not just about recruitment or discovering [people], it’s about what happens to that person once they’re in that business. How do you retain them? Not only just keep them there, but give them purpose within what they do, and allow them to help you grow as a business.
LM: How much does culture and internal communications play into that?
HH: It’s probably as important as it gets.
The cultural side of any business comes from one place and one place only. It’s the owner or senior leader, or senior leadership team. And it filters around through the rest of the team.
There are instances where the culture has been formed from the bottom up, but that’s incredibly rare, especially if those at the top of that business don’t want a cultural change.
It is the core of the business. It is everything that the business is, everything it shows to the outside world, and everything that’s communicated within the business. It informs the strategic direction. It informs how everybody aligns with their strategic direction. And it also allows that company to show that to the rest of the world.
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LM: And what would you recommend for those business leaders? How would they go about starting to create a culture?
HH: Culture should be there in the first instance. I mean, especially in the new world, [now] that we are moving into in the 21st Century business environment.
Through the ages, we’ve always looked at the bottom line. I’m a huge believer in the triple bottom line. People, planet, profit. There’s nothing wrong with profit; profit allows you to do other great stuff. But we’re moving into an era where there are so many challenges that we face and so many opportunities, [we have] to look at those challenges and say: ‘Okay, what can we do as business to solve those?’
I’m a huge believer in the triple bottom line. People, planet, profit.
Now culture sits at the top of that, because that normally comes from a passion for solving a problem, which is why, I think, we’ve seen a real increase in social enterprises and community interest companies, of which Swarm Apprenticeships itself is one. It was built from a passion and that passion is still the very core of our culture.
So everything we do comes in line with that really. It guides us on the decisions that we make; who we attract into offices to help us; who we deal with sometimes.
Culture as an overriding, single entity is at the very core of everything that you do.
LM: How would you then recommend maybe communicating that if you’re taking someone on or you’re taking on an apprentice? How do you communicate that culture when they join? Or once they’ve been enrolled for six months?
HH: When we look at that culture, I like the word ‘why’. ‘Why’ has become very much tied into the terminology of business and I speak a lot about why.
Why, as a company, do you do what you do? What’s at that very core of what you do? Why do you get up in the morning? How do you communicate that ‘why’ not only to those that you are looking to sell to? Why do you do what you do and how do you attract people [who align with that why] in to work with you?
For us, that’s key. And it’s not about just finding people with skills and behaviours, it’s about aligning with their internal compass really. How do you align their why with yours? How do you communicate that both externally and internally?
If somebody isn’t aligned with what you do, they’re [only] there to earn you money. If they’re and they’re aligned with your why, not only do they earn your money – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but they also then help drive you forward in what you do. They have a purpose and a belief in what you do.
LM: And do you think that they need to have a strategy? So we’re talking about internal communications as part of a marketing and content marketing strategy, would you need an internal comms strategy to make sure you’re reinforcing your communications and your culture?
HH: The way I look at it is, external communication is how you [communicate] with your potential marketplace. It is no different to your internal communication systems.
It is about aligning everybody with what you do. And at the end of the day, the people that you work with, who work within your business, are the people who are going to be facing, or coming face-to-face, with your clients.
They have to communicate that ‘why’ to your clients. And not only do that have to communicate it, but they have to believe it. Because if they believe it – totally believe it – they’re going to communicate that a lot of different ways than if they just paying lip-service to somebody.
So internal communication has all the same hallmarks really. First of all, it’s about getting the people in who actually align with what you believe, and then making sure that you keep that communication going. You keep that message there because we all go through tough times as businesses.
Sometimes that can be daily, especially in the world we live in at the moment. When times are tough, that ‘why’ will carry you through. When you communicate that internally and just remind people of why they’re sitting there doing what they’re doing, or why they’re out there talking to that client, [the] purpose [becomes much bigger] than just seeing that bottom line grow. That’s where internal communication becomes really important.
When you’re a small business, it’s very easy because you’re almost face-to-face with your people every day. As you grow or have remote teams, that is slightly more challenging.
Here we have a newsletter, but we make sure that we communicate at least weekly with our remote team. That’s a phone call; that’s normally just saying: ‘Hi, how’re things going? What can we help you with? Are you okay?’ And that’s not just within the business, that’s them personally as well. ‘What can we do to help you? Is there anything you need to do?’ And that’s the of one of the ways that we communicate in here.
I’ve just become a licenced motivational map practitioner, which is a great way of finding out what’s going on within the motivation of that person. It’s very good at finding out if there’s a blip. It’s not just about saying that there’s a blip, it’s about opening up a channel of communication with that person. Saying ‘Let’s have a talk about this. Is everything okay here? We’ve noticed that this area is not where you were six months ago.’ It really is about caring about that person within your business. That communication is probably, for me, the most important thing you can do.
LM: So if you were a small business would you recommend that you have those check-ins regularly with your team?
HH: Without a shadow of a doubt. It’s funny, we do 12-monthly appraisals don’t we? And those appraisals have gone through all kinds [of things]; sit there with a manager or we’re sitting the senior person. 360-appraisals are very popular now and there’s nothing wrong with those; it wasn’t just about sitting there with your managers, it was about your peer group around you. Even your customers and how they perceived you to be. And once again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t really get to the core. And it’s still very external, rather than actually getting to the point with that person.
It is about how everybody perceives you to be, rather than what you’re actually feeling. An appraisal should be an ongoing process anyway, not just once every 12 months.
And once again it returns to senior people being open as well. There’s nothing worse than a senior leader or a manager that is always right. Who never exposes a weakness. I call that 1980s management. I still see it all the time, unfortunately. One of our passions is to try and get a better understanding of management systems and open management.
There’s nothing worse than a senior leader or a manager that is always right.
You’re human beings. We’re all human. And we all make mistakes and we all have our weaknesses and problems. By being human we can show people that we work with that we are just people.
LM: Actually that’s something that I’ve read many times with business-to-business marketing; yes, it is to business, but at the end of that business is another person. And so whether you’re talking internally or you’re talking externally, ultimately, people are what you’re communicating with; you’re not communicating with a faceless entity.
HH: It’s all about people. We are human beings but […] in the world of business […] we can take that human element out slightly.
We expose human elements, […] weaknesses, and then we don’t do anything about it. Say somebody gets fired; it’s probably because they’ve been human. Which then causes them to actually cover up the real person underneath, which leads to all kinds of other things like mental health problems.
We have huge problems in the UK with days being lost by the workforce through stress [and] mental health problems and a lot of that is because we wear our work face. And then we have our face. Now, actually, we have a huge belief here that they are one and the same. You are what you are. From that we pick out what you’re good at what; what lights your fire, what you have a passion for.
It goes back to what we were originally saying: that when you’re looking to find the right person, it’s about how they align what you believe. Do their beliefs align with your beliefs? If they do, then you tend not to have those kinds of problems because you’re much more open.
LM: And beyond the face-to-face or the phone calls are there any other methods? You briefly mentioned that you do a newsletter. Do you have like an intranet or would you recommend any investments in tech to help?
HH: We use Google Hangouts. Even though we are remote and away, you still get that face to face. For me, communication-wise, face-to-face [is better] because you’re reading that person. You’re having a much better human connection.
We are group-connected entities. We like to see each other. Most communication is nonverbal and we sometimes forget that. So it’s about reading that person’s face, it’s about their body movements, about what they do, how they do it, and subconsciously we pick that up. We may not even notice that consciously. But we can get a very good feeling. […] If I was to take one word, it would be ‘feeling’ because we are feeling beings. It’s not about what we do sometimes, but it’s always about how we feel.
And on the communication side of things, again, a really good question we ask is: ‘How you feeling?’ You don’t say: ‘How are you working?’ And that gives you much better insight [into how they’re doing]. So if you are working with a remote team and you get the chance to actually see them face to face, even just on a screen, you’re still getting that facial interaction.
LM: True. And there are always too many emails going around. There are so many articles about how many emails we’re getting every day.
HH: So much that it’s actually become an ecological problem. Which was a really interesting article, because even I hadn’t thought about that.
LM: Are you referring to the news story about how energy is used when sending an email?
HH: Yes, it’s the heat radiating off those of those centres. We send a lot of emails, which a lot of the time are just pointless.
[Regarding email,] I talk a lot about context. You always see the world through your own contextual viewpoint, which is built up from everything that’s happened since you first became conscious really, and how we view the world as individuals. Even though there may be some similarities, we all have our own contextual viewpoint of the world. So when we write an email we will always write that, or will always read that, from our own context – and that includes the kind of day you’re having. In the morning, you might read an email completely differently than you might read it later on in the afternoon. You may have had a bad day. Or you might have such a good day that even if somebody’s written a terrible email to you that you just brush it off. Email communication is great because it’s very efficient. On the actual communication side, for me, it’s probably as inefficient as you can probably get.
LM: And I’m thinking about sort of group emails I’ve had in bigger companies… How impersonal those are from an employee perspective.
HH: It is impersonal. Again this goes back, I think, very much to the belief in what you do within that business and that disconnect you can sometimes get between senior management and those who are, perhaps, not seen to be within their realm.
Once again we can talk about the hierarchical structure. I always say our structure here is so flat we’re almost underground. Because actually, everybody has an important role to play, and also their ideas are always taken on board.
The other thing, […] and recruitment can really miss this, is the other skills that people may have. [As a result] we pigeon hole them into a role. But the thing is, if you can get under their skin you could find that could run a sports team. They could be part of a chess club. They could be all sorts of things. You could have a strategic thinker, that you would never think of as a strategic thinker because you just see their work face. Or they run a sports club, as I said. [They could be great at] Teamwork [because] they are really good at spotting weaknesses and strengths within teams. But you never look at that. And email communication would never pick that up in a month of Sundays. Whereas if you were just having a just a real conversation…
Once again we’re talking about management and having real conversations. Conversations that aren’t just about work; nipping in and out. It’s about getting to actually really know [employees].
That’s a lot easier when you’ve got a small workforce. But as you grow it’s about handing empowerment down to your leadership teams and passing that on about having proper conversations. You know, reading people’s feelings because if somebody is having a bad day, it has an effect on the business as well as that person. And you need to look after that person because if you’re looking off that person, you’re looking after your business.
LM: And the team around them, I suppose, if you have demoralised staff…
HH: Disengaged. That’s what they call it these days. That’s the new kind of word we use: ‘engagement within the workforce’ and being people being ‘disengaged’.
I’ve heard some horrendous stats lately that 25% of the UK workforce is so disengaged it’s actually toxic.
LM: That’s pretty shocking. I guess that ultimately costs business, either through sick days or recruitment because you’re having to replace people?
HH: Yeah. And also it costs them through the fact you’ve got somebody sitting at their desk who is not even going to what they’re doing, they’re not giving it their best; they’re looking at the clock waiting for four, or whatever time they leave off. And how are they dealing with, whether it’s B2B or B2C, how are they dealing with that person they’re dealing with? What communication are they giving? Once again, even if it’s a phone call, subconsciously, the person at the other end of the phone will pick iy up.
LM: Things like intonations in speech and attention to detail? Things like that?
HH: Yeah, exactly. By really looking after people, you’re really looking after the business. Because the business is the people.
LM: From the top down, looking at it from a bigger business’ perspective is, it’s about empowering those line managers and leaders underneath. So while there may be a consistent message, you’re trusting them to know their team and how to communicate updates from that point.
HH: Yeah. We see a lot of accidental managers. We’ve all seen accidental managers over the years. We’ve all been victims of an accidental manager, and some of us have probably been accidental managers. Once again, it’s about giving good training.
It’s about investing in not just saying to somebody ‘Well you’re really good at what you do, I’m gonna make you a manager’. Actually, what you’ve probably done is taken them away from something they enjoy and something they are good at and put them into an area where they’re completely out of their comfort zone. So, what do they do next? They’re not going to be the best they can be. So it’s great to recognise somebody and make them into a supervisor or manager. All you’ve got to do is sit beside them and give them the proper training to go with that and the support.
Turn them from just not just managers but into leaders.
LM: That’s a real distinction.
HH: I always have the 80:20 rule in mind. It says 80% of your time as a manager is actually leading; 20% is management. It’s about being able to switch between those two seamlessly without even knowing it. That makes a really good manager – and spotting situations.
LM: I totally agree. We’ve all been involved in those sorts of scenarios. And again, I think it comes back to values that are set out the beginning – and reinforcing those values for your managers – so your managers know your business’s goals and passions and values, and whether they documented somewhere, which I think all businesses should do. What’s your opinion on that one?
HH: Everybody within Swarm is very aware of what our values are, and we all communicate those values as a team. Because as a team we believe in those values and we all have our different contextual viewpoint of what they are.
And as for writing them down, yeah absolutely. You know, communicating that not just to the outside world, but to the inside world, and then having the right people to align with that so it’s not just lip service; it really is a full commitment to what you’re doing.
And then when people perhaps to move away, allowing them the freedom to go and explore something else. Because there may always be a time with people where they go ‘Okay, I’ve kind of done that now; I’ve discovered other things and I want to move on.’
That’s about giving them the freedom to go, ‘We’ll help you with that’. We’ve done that. I’ve seen other companies do that as well actually; it’s becoming more prevalent, which is really good. If somebody goes away, you don’t know where they’re going and what that relationship then leads to in other places.
LM: I suppose it’s about having the confidence in your employees to have an honest and open conversation so they feel they feel valued and able to that conversation with you about growth and progression, and where it leads.
HH: It’s about having confidence in yourself. Certainly, [it’s about] managers having the confidence […] in themselves to allow people to go sometimes. And also to not over-manage people; not give them such a hard time that they that leave for a different reason than actually becoming something greater than they are right now.
LM: That then leads me to my final question: how can you tell if it’s working? I suppose your advocacy and retention rates go up within the business.
HH: Well, the retention rates will go up, which is great for the bottom line because you’re not having to re-employee, which is on average is about, I think about 200[%] what it costs to bring them in. It’ll have an impact on the bottom line.
If you’re not spending out and you’ve got people engaged that may bring more work in, then your bottom line is going to grow. It’s about having a happy workforce and that’s a really simplistic way of putting it. I do a lot of work with new businesses and business leaders and one of the questions I always ask is, ‘What makes you happy?’
I talk about 80 summers. On average, we’ll probably get 80 summers as people. I’m not being morbid, but we are finite beings. And for me, over that period of 80 summers, why would you want to do things that make you miserable? I look at it that we really have one goal and that’s to be happy. In whatever way, shape or form that is. Some people are happy for all kinds of different reasons, but we spend such a lot of time in our businesses or working with, or for, a business. If you’re unhappy within that period why would you want to do that? How is that going to affect you?
It goes back to that worldview and the mental health area. If you’re unhappy for perhaps 8 hours a day, five days a week, of course, you’re going to have real problems.
I think it’s a responsibility on us all to just go ‘Are we happy with what we’re doing?’ And if we’re not happy with what we’re doing, what can we do to make us happy?
And that sounds really simplistic, but for me, that’s the way I look at the world. What am I doing? Am I happy doing that? Yeah, absolutely, at the moment. I wake up and think: ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good; I’m pretty happy.’ ‘How can we make other people happy?’
When we look at the people in our business are they slumped over, or are they engaged with what we’re doing? And I don’t expect people to be engaged all the time; I’m not that naïve. Even my rose-tinted glasses don’t stretch that far. And then there are times within all parts of life when things are just not going well. But it’s about then having the support and having somebody to sit down and go ‘Why is that? How can I help?’ That’s a really, amazingly powerful question: ‘How can I help?’ ‘What can we do to just help as a team, not just individuals?’
LM: And that requires communication between all members of that team…
HH: It requires honesty. And the big one for me – the really big one – is trust. Do your employees trust you? What can do you do to allow them to trust you? And I think that, once again, comes completely from that vision, completely from that open, honest, ‘this is what I believe’, ‘this is what we stand for as a business’. If you’re engaged and work with us then we’ll build the trust to do that.
LM: And one final question, if people want to find out more about SwarmBe where can they find out more?
LM: Great, thanks for your time, Harry. Thank you.