Reflections on talent, culture, leadership and engagement (Strategic HR Magazine)

At a recent conference, I found myself sitting next to the founder of a rapidly growing media company. She was talking to me about the challenges of hiring and retaining graduates. “What is it with millennials?” She said. “They are so impatient, some haven’t even been working for a year and they want to be promoted. In my day, you just put your head down and did your time.”

As I listened to her, it dawned on me that she was, like so many people like her, looking at this all wrong. Now just to be clear I am no expert, but the culture we have at Redington has set us up to be ‘millennial-magnets’. We are a fast growing firm, in pensions and investments. We grew from 60 to 80 employees over the past 12 months, at least half of which came through graduate recruitment.

I explained to her that millennials have grown up in a different world, with different life experiences, and as a result they want different things from work and life. Millennials don’t just want to ‘do work’. They want to have fun, learn continuously, make a contribution, be recognized, have an impact, make a difference and live a meaningful life.

Our new graduates are encouraged to challenge existing processes, to present to the firm, to write blogs, to take responsibility, to conduct independent research and to meet clients. We get to know their passions, goals and ambitions and try to align them with the vision of the firm. Time and again we have found that if you can align individual ambitions with business goals, you create engagement magic.

How did it happen? How did we become a millennial magnet?

Let’s start at the beginning. Almost 10 years ago, our founders, Dawid Konotey-Ahulu and Robert J Gardner left their comfortable investment banking jobs with a dream of “solving the pensions crisis”. They were convinced that the traditional pension consultants’ stronghold on the market was not healthy. They wanted to disrupt the industry using frameworks, technology and tools to help pension fund trustees get smarter about managing risk. Redington Ltd was born in May 2006 and set up shop in Dawid’s attic.

Year by year we have grown the firm from the first few, to more than 80 people we employ today almost 10 years later. Against a backdrop of self-interest, misalignment and outsized profits, Dawid and Rob have sought to do something different. They are driven by a bigger purpose. They care. They are passionate about pensions, maybe even obsessed.

It is this duty of care that drives us fix the pensions crisis. This is what has helps us to tell trustees and their sponsoring employers some harsh truths. This is what motivates us to put all our ideas and research into the public domain, through one of the earliest pension blogs. This is the reason we have encouraged the development of financial education for schools to avoid a future savings/pensions crisis. And it is why we go out of our way to make our research, education and communication clear to understand and action.

We hire people who care. Over the years, we have recruited people from very different backgrounds with diverse experiences and personalities. It is this sense of care is the glue that enables us to maintain significant cognitive diversity within our firm.

Even our clients recognise it. They say “You attract a different type. Redington consultants are a rare combination of very clever but also humble and able to communicate without intimidating. You have a unique group of people and a unique culture.”. Our suppliers recognise it too: “Relative to other clients yours is the most positive culture we have ever seen.”.

Engaging cultures

Culture is something of a dirty word in the savings and investment industry. It is not one that pension funds, advisers and investment firms talk about much. Executive committees spend hours discussing incentive schemes, team structures, titles, reporting lines, risk management and regulation. However, if someone mentions culture, a deafening silence often ensues. It is understandable how this factor is ignored and sidelined, given the analytical, scientific and inherently cynical nature of most market participants.

People often say it is hard to define what (corporate) culture is, let alone know how to influence it and how it affects behaviour. I’ve always believed that culture is not intangible. In my experience, there are plenty of clear, measurable and critical elements of culture that are quite tangible indeed. It is widely recognized that where things have gone wrong in the financial sector, a cultural issue has been at the heart of the problem.

I often say Culture is an unwritten set of rules colleagues tell new joiners – ‘this is how things are done around here’ or ‘we have always done it this way’. Culture is a  set of repeated habits, rituals, narratives and expectations that govern how people do things in organisations, and are based around the inherent values of key decision-makers. Culture is a control system that carries the behavioural norms that must be upheld, and determines the social consequences for those that do not stay within the boundaries.

The psychological contract

When people come to work they implicitly sign a psychological contract with us. It is critical that we understand this and make those expectations and assumptions explicit. Only then can our efforts be deliberate. Only then can we meet their expectations. Only then can we choose to deliver those outcomes. This is key to employee engagement. We need to consciously tie together their need for significance with our need for contribution.

Countless studies have shown how culture and organizational health trump every other indicator of business success. Over and above a company’s operating systems, management systems and asset systems, it is their cultural systems and choice that are hardest to replicate and are therefore the most valuable. From an investor’s perspective culture offers ‘pace’. It means you can retain people, make change and withstand difficulties.

It’s harder to maintain a unique culture as you grow, unless you make it a strategic choice. We are doing exactly that at Redington, in this next chapter of our growth.

We are working hard to make the implicit more explicit. We are defining our values. We are nurturing the right behaviours. We are clarifying non-negotiables. We are communicating the consequences of consistent bad behaviour. We are embedding culture in our hiring and development processes. We are measuring engagement. We are making difficult decisions, with culture at the forefront of our minds.

Professional is the enemy of engagement

The biggest lesson I have learnt over my career is that business is about people (sounds obvious but our industry seems to have lost the ‘personal’ in pursuit of the ‘professional’).

Leadership is about people, marketing is about people and in fact everything is about people. Organisations are just communities of people. People with ambitions. People with hangups and insecurities. People with dreams. People with feelings.

Without tapping into individual passions you just have an ideas box, as empathy is the engine of innovation.

That’s why we should worry about just how de-humanised the organisations in our industry have become. If you want to innovate, you need to be inspired, your colleagues need to be inspired, and ultimately, your clients need to be inspired.

Understanding people

The more we understand people, the more likely it is that we will do great work: from the people we are managing, to the people we are serving; from the people who supply us, to the people who we are persuading.

People are not always rational, people are not one-dimensional, people are not just a number and people are certainly not all the same. We need to understand each person, each tribe and each group, in order to engage, influence, change, manage or inspire.

We need to seek to understand peoples’ dreams and goals, their world views, their boundaries and constraints, their assets and the voice in their heads. We have to be willing to work with people who are different, who have different personalities, who process the world differently and who are imperfect in different ways. This has to be the starting point if we want to tell stories that will grab attention, resonate, unify and mobilise.

I have learnt that success is not from persuading everyone around the table about your point of view but inviting each person to shape, mould and contribute. After all, regardless of how good your idea is, it’s only worth anything if implemented or executed. It will only be adopted, if people have had a chance to contribute or if helps them achieve their personal ambitions.

When we align individual agendas to a common goal, that’s where the magic really happens. That’s when you tap into deep human resources. That’s when people really come alive and bring their best to work.

The long and short of it is – the more we are willing to change ourselves, the more we are willing to listen and understand, the more we can engage employees to work in highly effective teams.

To really lead others we have to start by leading ourselves. We need to cultivate our inner qualities of empathy, forgiveness, compassion, perseverance and higher purpose.

It seems that the more human we are, the more fallible we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more people can relate to us, the more we can understand and engage the humanity in our employees, suppliers and clients.

Final thoughts

We are in the midst of graduate recruitment, I often say to our new joiners that in the first 10 years of your career, you need to map the boundiaries of your potential. You need to stretch, push yourself, try different things, be uncomfortable, ask stupid questions, take risks and push through your fears so that you can figure out what you are capable of.

It is also critical that we learn to manage our emotional and irrational selves, understand our biases and develop tricks and hacks to control our chimp-brain. Our ability to seek out critical feedback, understand ourselves better and actively make changes to our behaviour/mindset is transformational. This is the ultimate indicator of talent.

I think humanising business offers a win/win for the individual and the company. The rewards are better talent retention, cognitive diversity, employee engagement, productivity, innovation and results.


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