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A Strategic Approach to Employer Branding, with Bryan Adams

Bryan Adams, CEO and founder of PH Creative, recently joined Jonathan Westover on an episode of Human Capital Innovations podcast to discuss how to approach employer branding that aligns with your business and attracts and keeps employees that will allow your company to succeed.

Bryan suggests that when it comes to a “... good employer brand, … 99% [of the success of it], is down to aligning with the organization.” If an employee sees a job opportunity that looks like the ideal position for them, and the listing doesn’t describe the job accurately, the employee will simply end up looking elsewhere for a better suited environment for them.


When writing up a job listing, you want to make the job seem ideal to as many people as possible. After we write an idealized version of the job so workers want to apply and hope to get the job. While this is a fairly common strategy, “... you also have to really try to be authentic and genuine.” If a worker is expecting a laid back environment and ends up with a very strict and demanding one, that will be a shock to them. “We’ve all had those experiences … where you just end up working for a jerk boss in a toxic environment, at least at a minimum, one that’s not particularly engaging and one that you want to be at.” When workers experience this, they will most likely search for a job elsewhere.


If you want your company to have good employees who fit the organization, you need to understand that workers “... want to feel needed, valued, wanted, [and have] the opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways. They want to continually develop themselves and do cool things.” When it comes to being an employee friendly employer, you want “... [p]eople [to] understand why they're there, how their contribution matters, and then whether they feel comfortable and they can bring their whole self and they feel like they can belong…. They want to make an impact, and they want to continually learn and grow. They want their leaders, their organization to do what they say they’re going to do….” Bryan notes that “... [b]y and large it does come down to clarity and just setting very clear expectations of who you are and how you’re not.”


You can listen to the full episode at innovativehumancapital.com/podcast, or anywhere you listen to your podcasts, just search “HCI Podcast”.


Read the full transcript below:


Brian Adams. Welcome to the Human Capital innovations Podcast. Thanks, Joe, it's a pleasure to be with you. Today. You're joining us from sunny San Diego. I'm south of Salt Lake City in Utah, and today we're going to be talking about a strategic approach to employer branding that allows you to align your business strategy with attracting and keeping great people in your organization. Really important topic I think very timely and one that most organizational leaders are grappling with, especially when you're talking about tech fields, when you're talking about anything Stem, anything with highly skilled labor, we're really struggling to attract and retain great people. It's all about employee experience. It's all about employer branding. And so we're going to unpack all of that and try to figure out what we can do a little bit better to increase our chances of attracting and retaining a fantastic team. As we get started, I wanted to share Brian's bio with everybody. Brian Adams is the CEO and founder of PH Creative Recognizes, one of the leading employer brand agencies in the world. PH specializes in building world class employer brand EVP and talent engagement strategies for companies such as Apple, American Airlines, British Telecom, and Virgin. Brian is a specialist speaker and a two times bestselling author of Getting Goosebumps in 2015 and Give and Get Employer Branding in 2020. He is considered a prominent employer brand thought leader and his creative, unconventional, and even controversial methodologies are said to regularly change the way people think about employer branding and EVP. His presentation style is energetic, passionate, thought provoking, and interactive. Get ready to join a great conversation between me and Brian today. Brian, again, a pleasure to have you. Anything else you would like to share with me or my audience before we dive on in? No, I think you covered everything there, John. I'm just really happy to be on. So, yeah, thanks for the invite to join you today. Wonderful, wonderful. All right, well, as we get started, I just thought it would be helpful for a little bit more of a background around PH Creative your CEO and founder. So tell us, just walk us through a little bit more of that founding story and then we can get into why this is so important for organizations to be thinking about employer branding. Yeah, so 18 years ago, I started PH, and we were a general marketing, print and digital marketing agency when I first started. I was 26 when I started, and it was a spontaneous decision based on I was in a job that I loved, but I had a boss that I hated and he bawled me out. He shouted at me in front of about 40 people one day, and I just quietly stood up, went home, never went back, and started the company the next day, determined to prove that you could be successful in business without treating people like I was treated. So even though we didn't jump straight into employer branding, it feels like a very apt setting to start off on a journey that then ultimately looks to try and sort of define the employee experience and find what makes a place great. And we exist to help organizations better articulate the employee experience so people can make better career decisions. So it does all seem to go full circle, but we've probably been a specialist employer brand agency for over ten years now. And out of naivety, more than anything, we designed our own approach to employer brand, which turns out it flies in the face of conventional, traditional employer brand methodology. And luckily enough, for us, it works better. So we wrote a book, released the methodology, it's now embraced by the industry and we like to think we've moved it forward because of our approach. And it's, it's it's probably part of our sort of David and Goliath story as well. You know, we we feel like we're an overnight success after 18 years hard work, you know, but certainly the employer brand agencies as the industry has matured. We've been there from the start, you know, so we're lucky enough to work with some of the world's best brands now. Yeah. Well, that's fantastic. And anytime you disrupt an established perspective or an established industry, I think that's really saying something. So I'm excited to really dig into that and understand a little bit more about what you do a little bit differently at PH creative. And you've already articulated, I think, well, just this kind of introduction to why employer branding is important. We've all had those experiences like you had, where you just end up working for a jerk boss in a toxic environment, or at least at a minimum, one that's not particularly engaging and one that you want to be at. But I think we've all had those experiences and we all lament them, and we like to grumble about those experiences to each other. But can we get beyond just the grumbling about it, right? And can we actually be strategic about moving forward and helping our teams and our organizations to actually do better. And I'm convinced that we can do better. And I don't think it's rocket science either. I think we can do better if we just pay attention to some important details and then just try to be consistent at how we're creating the employee experience going forward. Yeah, I think you touched on something there. I think consistency breeds confidence and that confidence over time sort of points towards authenticity as well. And what we say is a good employer brand, the success of it is down to 99%, is down to aligning with the organization. And that's where you get the authenticity and that's where you get a sense of, okay, this all seems to fit together nicely, which is great, but it also opens the door to being able to talk about reality of today and the aspiration of tomorrow whilst remaining authentic. And what we found is an employer brand needs to be something that the leadership buy into as much as the general employees because they're not going to advocate for it, they're not going to fund it, they're not going to take it seriously. And all those things that's a big part of what we do is aligning with the organization as well as doing the research. So it genuinely feels like the employee experience that everybody is familiar with. Yes. And the consistency over time is important as you're trying to walk the walk. Right. So it's not just enough to talk about these espoused values and this is how we want it to be in the future. I mean, that's great. Having stretch goals and reaching for the stars is fantastic. I think people appreciate that. I don't think anyone expects you to be perfect. But you also have to really try to be authentic and genuine and you have to walk the walk as best you can. And when you fall short, you need to acknowledge it, admit it, try to do better as we're trying to do all of that. That really can go a long way in helping people just feel more stable, more comfortable, more like they have their employer, their boss has their back, that they want to see them succeed. They're not just a cog in a machine and being used up and spit out. Right. That's how people want to feel. They want to feel needed, valued, wanted, the opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways. They want to continually develop themselves and do cool things. When we create that kind of environment and we can just do it a little bit better consistently over time, then then we're going to be probably ahead of 90% of the, the organizations out there just due to our consistency and our, our continued effort. Yeah, I think so. And you know, you mentioned values there and values like, you know, it's a staple diet of most organizations now, but the challenge with just values is they're open to interpretation. So if we say we're an organization of integrity. Some people might say, well, okay, we're high integrity, which means at 05:00 I'm going to check out and I'm going to spend time with my kids and I'm going to look after my work life balance with integrity. And that's what it means to me. Somebody else was like, well I haven't finished my work and it needs to be done before tomorrow. So we're an organization based on integrity. So I need to finish that first and put the organization forward. And that's what it means to me to have integrity. So the value add that an EVP and employee value proposition brings is the clarity and confidence around setting expectations. And the conventional approach to employer brand sets the expectations around the strengths, the benefits, and the opportunities. So it's kind of like bragging, like how good we are. So then you become more attractive generally. But what we bring is the other side of that coin. It's a two way value exchange. So we also articulate, hey, here's how you need to show up, here's what you need to be prepared for, here's what you need to invest. These are the capabilities you're going to need to cope, never mind to thrive. And we find if you take that approach, you better set expectations. And when expectations are set and then the consistency you're talking about, John, means that the expectations are met, then people are generally happy in their working environment. They know what the deal is. And then the employer brand over the top of that is where you can galvanize everything together to remind people with three things the sense of purpose, the sense of impact, and the sense of belonging. Because that's what we're all looking for from our career. I mean, it's what we're all looking for in life, frankly. So it's not rocket science here, but it's about understanding those three things and putting a compelling story together so we make sense of it. People understand why they're there, how their contribution matters, and then whether they feel comfortable and they can bring their whole self and they feel like they can belong. And it's actually not harder than that. And you talk a lot about what people want and what they need and you're absolutely spot on, John. And the interesting thing about Gen Z and Millennials is they will now hold an organization and their manager to account. They have that confidence and like, hey, you said this, it's not the case. What's the date? So it makes for a healthier relationship between the employee, the organization and the manager as well. Yeah, I think so too. And I know sometimes Millennials or Gen Z get a little bit of a bad rap about being kind of entitled and whatnot, and maybe there's some truth to that, but I think it has more to do with just the accountability piece. Like you just said, they, they actually have the guts to hold people to account. They're not willing to put up with a toxic environment, with a bad boss. They're not willing to put 1020 years into an organization before they have an opportunity to do something meaningful. They want to make an impact, and they want to continually learn and grow. They want their leaders, their organization to do what they say they're going to do, and they want them to do it. Now, I don't see that as a bad thing. I see that as a healthy thing. Yeah. What it comes down to, I think, is they know their own mind better than any generation before them. And you've got to tip your hat to that. And I also think that the label entitlement is seen in a very negative way, but there are basic rights and basic conditions that everybody are entitled to. And once it goes beyond, then there's a little bit of a gray area, and we all need to make a compromise or whatever. But what we're talking about here is setting expectations with absolute clarity so people can look at that situation and say, yeah, that's for me. I will sign up to that. I know what I'm going to have to give, I know what I'm going to get in return. And I like that deal. Other people will look at the same deal and think, no, that looks like too much work and I'm not getting enough out to justify it. And that's where we're trying to take the industry. So it's not a magnet to attract. It's a smart filter to make better decisions. Yeah. And that starts to get into what you were talking about earlier, where you're really shaping the industry in new ways. Maybe you can unpack that a little bit more for us. What is new in your approach, your perspective on EVP and employer branding that's perhaps a little bit different than how other organizations like yours have worked in the past. Yeah, it's a great question, and the answer is very simple. However, the net result of the answer is quite profound. When we do our research and we go into an organization and we work with a client partner, we're very clear, hey, we're not here just to make you look great. And if the end result is to make the perception of this organization generally more attractive, like, we're not the partner for you, what we will give you is a proposition that ultimately will have the ability to probably repel more people than are compelled towards your company. And you need to be comfortable with that because not everybody is right for your organization. And how we do that is we dive into the harsh realities, the adversities and the challenges that people are finding inside your organization, and we don't just tell the truth about them. And honesty is the best policy we have the opportunity to context, well, why do you put up with that? In fact, not why do you just put up with it. Why does that bring meaning in your work? And usually when we do our research and we find people tell stories of a challenge that they were scared of, a problem that they went to bed worrying about or they didn't know what the solution was or some stretch goals that they didn't know whether it had the capability to sort of get around. It's not the goal, but it is the X marks the spot on the treasure map. If we dig there and we talk about the harsh realities, the adversities, the challenges, and the stuff that's not so great, we find passion, pride, sense of achievement, sense of meaning. We understand how their contribution matters because it's the hard things that bring value. We usually say your brand of difficult is what makes you different. It's also the key to differentiation. If you approach an EVP in that way and you hit those challenges head on. There's some tech companies you mentioned tech companies at the start that they don't have any work life balance whatsoever. Why would you keep that from a talent audience that are definitely going to find it out within weeks of starting? Like Amazon gets a bad rap for not being a particularly warm and fuzzy environment. But for every 100 people who say, oh, I couldn't possibly do that, I will show you five people who absolutely love the working environment of Amazon and what they get from it. The deal is clear. So that's our approach. Unfortunately, that approach is still refreshingly different but the benefit from it has been quite significant in a lot of our global brands that we work with. And now I'm happy to say the likes of Unilever and Disney who have never been a client of ours, are embracing that and reporting back, hey, this is the way to do it. Yeah, that's really cool. And I think it comes back to that alignment you've been talking about over and over and over again. I think everyone recognizes the importance of that alignment. We just usually think about it in terms of the positive side of the equation. I'm in HR, one of the things we talk about is a realistic job preview, right? That's what I'm hearing you say as you're talking about employer branding. You're like, let's not just try to put a spin on it. So we get people in the door because if they show up and it's nothing like they expected, guess what? They're not sticking around. They're going to leave and then they're going to go tell other people that this organization is not what they say they are. They're not genuine or authentic and it's really not the type of experience they described in the whole hiring and onboarding process. That's not a realistic job preview. So be straightforward with people. Just be straightforward. Tell them what the deal is and let people self select in and out. Like Goldman Sachs. They have a reputation for being career makers. You get into Goldman, you put in a couple of years, you can launch and do tons of different things, and that's fantastic. Being in Goldman, though, isn't for everyone. And a lot of people simply wouldn't last more than a couple of years before they're ready to do something else. But that's their employer brand and they're clear about it. They're not trying to pretend that this is for everybody. And they own that. And people appreciate that. They own that. That's what I'm hearing you say and just being able to do that consistently in every organization and being comfortable in your own skin and saying, yeah, we're not for everyone and I'm okay with that. I think that's a big deal. It really is and if you approach this from a strategic way and you reverse engineer what does our employer brand need to be in order to move the organization forward then now everything aligns and the leaders as well as candidates and employees appreciate the deal on the table because Goldman Sachs haven't just made a decision there. We just don't want to be particularly sort of culture focused or nice to our people or all the rest of it. They know that if they are what we call a career catalyst that they're going to get high caliber people who have significant ambition, the energy and drive to put in two of the best years of their career that's going to benefit Goldman Sachs and in good luck to them after that, they're either up or out. And that's the deal. It works for the organization and it works for the individual and it's a very clear choice of what you're signing up for. So you're absolutely right and when you design that at the strategic level when you get to the job preview stuff the job preview is going to be different in marketing, in sales, in operations, in finance and all the rest of it but the architecture, the skeleton, the ingredients will be the same. So now you get a coherent, consistent message across the organization and we can talk about, hey, you need resilience here and you need to be comfortable. That ambiguity is a thing. So if you need structure and a step by step this isn't the place for you. So those can be consistent messages that show up across the organization. It's not just more effective and smarter to get people who are ready for the job at hand. You're also leaning into acknowledgment and appreciation of those that are already there surviving in those conditions and I think that's a big part of the puzzle especially now when retention is massively important to most organizations. Yeah there's all this talk around what's the correct balance between facetoface versus virtual, in person versus distributed teams or some sort of hybrid arrangement? Right. Ultimately I'm not sure it matters all that much. I mean, personally, I know what I like. I prefer some sort of a hybrid approach that allows for a lot of autonomy and flexibility where I can be in person with people when it makes sense but also have the flexibility to do things, you know, work when how I want. Other times that's my preference. But I know other people have different preferences, right. And ultimately, whatever the organization decides, I'm not sure it matters all that much as long as you're clear as to the why behind what your decision is and that becomes part of your employer brand. And so if people don't want to work for you because you're an in office organization, okay, just make sure that's very clear up front, no bait and switch. Don't try to get an engineer to come work for you by suggesting that there might be opportunities for flexibility and working remotely and then trick them and basically say no now you need to come into the office. That's going to piss people off. But just be straightforward and you'll self select people in and out. You can make arguments either way, just be clear up front and as you do that it will make a big difference. People can join the organizations that align with their values and vice versa. You can hire the people that align with yours. Absolutely. And I think the key there is it's not a one and done either the employer brand, the sort of North Star should last I'd like to think three to five years. The EVP, like the proposition on both sides, will change in a fast paced, moving environment as organizations are transitioning. At the moment, you know, typically at the moment we, we recommend a twelve month refresh. It used to be 18 months and the work from work, from home or the office and all the rest of it is an interesting one because if you designed a long term plan around right, everybody wants to work remote. I can guarantee in six months some of those people go, you know what, I actually missed the office and I think we're still in transition so you need that agility in there as well. And the key is people just want to be heard as well the people who are actually already there. So there's a bit of nuance to it but by and large it does come down to clarity and just setting very clear expectations of who you are and who you're not. Yeah. Wonderful. Brian, this has just been a really great conversation. I know there's a lot more we could get into on this but that's why you have some books that are really great. So I would encourage the audience to reach out and to learn more about those. Check out the books. Before we wrap things up for today, I just wanted to give you a chance to share with the audience how they can connect with you, where they can find your books, things like that. And then give us the final word on the topic for today. Yeah, great. Thank you for that, John. So Amazon is the best place to get both the books give and get. Employer branding is the latest one. Phencreative.com is the best place to find out more about what we do and we offer a great Sprint course. There a two to three week intensive employee brand strategy course might be worth checking out. And I'm quite active on LinkedIn. Just search for Brian Adams spelt, like the Canadian singer and PH creative and you'll find me. I think now's the time that employer brand is rising in the priority of most organizations. It's a great time to take a look at it and to start getting buyin from leaders. People are the only competitive advantage left in business and the landscape is changing. So I think it's the time of employer brand which makes me happy. Yeah. Wonderful, Brian. It's really been a pleasure. Again, I encourage my audience to reach out, get connected, find out more about what your organization can do for them, check out the books. And as always, I hope everyone can stay healthy and safe, that you can find meaning and purpose at work each and every day. And I hope you all have a great week.

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