Create space for open and honest communication. If you sense people are unhappy personally or professionally, create space for open and honest communication to address issues rather than let resentment build. People might say they’re happy when they actually are not, so leaders must have empathy and compassion not to accept the first answer that “everything is fine” and instead push to understand the issue and let employees know that you care about them.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Bryan Adams.
Bryan Adams is the CEO and founder of Ph.Creative, a global employer branding agency. He is a prominent employer brand thought leader, podcaster, speaker, and author of “Give & Get Employer Branding.” Ph.Creative has built world-class employer brands and talent engagement strategies for companies like Apple, Entain, and American Airlines.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I founded Ph.Creative in 2004. I knew I always wanted to start my own business one day, but I was also determined to prove that companies could be successful without having previous management experience. As a generalist digital marketing agency, we initially had several clients in the recruitment space, so it made sense to transition into the employer branding space. It made us look at the difference between marketing for consumers and marketing for assisting careers. I knew there were many more opportunities to add value and make a difference in that space, so it was easy to pivot.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My most interesting story might turn into an embarrassing one. The story that comes to mind involves a very important meeting with many big brands very early in my career; I had to make a presentation in front of all of these people. People at this event included editors from The New York Times, a senior leader from NASA, a senior leader from NATO, and many large corporate banks.
To combat my fear of public speaking, I bought myself a brand new Hugo Boss suit to make myself feel good. I thought of this suit as a suit of armor that gave me confidence. Moments before the big double doors opened to our event hall to start the proceedings, I bent down to pick something up, and the backside of my pants completely shredded.
I panicked. I went to the bathroom with a roll of Sellotape and a staple gun, proceeded to try and patch my trousers back up, went back into the room, and sat down to entertain the nine people at the table with me that I was hosting. The whole time I thought, “I’ve got staples stuck in my backside. At some point, I’ve got to stand up and walk to the front of this room.”
At the end of the dinner, I stood up to walk over and give my presentation. That’s when I realized that the Sellotape and the staples preferred the seat rather than my pants, creating a massive hole in the backside of my trousers before presenting in front of people. It was early in my career, so I didn’t have the life experience to make light of it or offer an explanation. I just went bright red and pretended it didn’t happen, but it was possibly the worst experience of my business career.
This incident taught me that there’s no suit of armor, clothing, or anything that can give you confidence. The only confidence you need is the expertise you bring and the preparation you’ve done to stand in that moment and deliver your message.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working on several exciting projects because we’re lucky to work with global brands. These projects usually bring tough challenges that require research, insights, and creative execution that put us in a fortunate position to be learning from our client partners constantly.
The best part is that we’ve been able to try projects we hadn’t tried before the pandemic started, which allowed us to keep pushing that boundary in many different ways. We’ve made games, escape rooms, and films all designed to communicate the sentiment of belonging to a certain company. The world is quite different than it was two years ago, and I think we’re going to see the results pay off when a number of these new projects come out.
One example is that we created a five-minute animated film for AstraZeneca to get hiring managers to be more considerate of candidates and understand how it feels to be a candidate applying for a job at AstraZeneca. We also created an online ezine for VF, which is the company behind The North Face, Vans, and Timberland. The ezine is an experiential branded digital magazine that talks about VF’s employer brand. I love these two examples as they show the different ways our clients are willing to share what they have to offer from an employment perspective.
Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
It doesn’t necessarily surprise me that this number is high. The first reason is that organizations are polling their employees more than ever. The second reason is people are no longer putting up with the status quo of working at a company where they’re not appreciated. During the Great Resignation — or what I like to call the Great Epiphany — people are realizing that there are different options, different ways to spend their day, and opportunities to spend more time with their families.
As things continue to change, for better or worse, there’s a natural misalignment on what makes people happy. The current reality is that people evaluate their situation and find that their current employment situation isn’t what they want to do anymore. This epiphany also comes with the fact that people are acknowledging their self-worth and wanting to go to organizations that offer more appreciation, money, benefits, and flexibility.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
A. Company Productivity: From my experience, unhappy employees are unmotivated employees; therefore, productivity will decrease. Employee productivity is one of the first signs business leaders notice when there are issues with employee happiness. To combat this, company leaders need to set expectations within their employee value proposition because it has a huge bearing on whether people are happy at work. Another tactic is for business leaders to clearly state their company’s vision to allow employees to feel passion, pride, and purpose behind their work. Employees want their priorities and perspective to align with the vision and purpose of the company to believe they have a future career path with the organization.
B. Company Profitability: Similarly to motivation, when companies have an unhappy workforce, leaders will see a reduction in innovative thinking and strategy among their employees — causing profitability to decrease. Business leaders might find that employees will continue to do their jobs to the best of their ability, but they might not go the extra mile they once did. To address this, business leaders should increase collaboration opportunities across the team to spark innovation and encourage creativity in the workplace. This exercise can remind folks to think of new and exciting ideas they want to execute that encourage motivation to complete the project.
C. Employee Health and Well-Being: With employee health and well-being, there is a lot of evidence suggesting a correlation between happiness, mental health, and physical health. As the COVID-19 crisis further brought the mental health crisis to light, many employers finally realized they had to address mental health and burnout in the workplace. Studies demonstrate that happier and healthier people are more productive and more likely to do their best work to improve profitability at the company.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
- Check-in more frequently with direct reports. Managers and executives should make a habit of checking in with their employees. Whether it’s a simple Slack check-in to see how their day is going or a weekly 1:1 meeting, your employees should hear from you outside of their performance reviews. This check-in helps them know what is going on in the department or company to see where their responsibilities fit into the larger picture, helping them align with the larger vision.
- Encourage employees to connect and talk with each other. As a manager and executive, it’s important to encourage collaboration to connect with other team members — especially remotely — to help employees feel like they belong.
- Be more transparent in what is going on in the organization. When employees feel like they can trust their managers and the leadership team, they will believe in the vision and purpose of the company.
- Enhance reward and recognition to more structure. As a leader in your company, it’s crucial to understand what motivates your team from a career progression perspective to tailor their employee experience to be something they value and are willing to work toward. Not everyone wants to become a manager one day, so it’s helpful to determine what their career path looks like and how they wish to receive recognition for their hard work.
- Create space for open and honest communication. If you sense people are unhappy personally or professionally, create space for open and honest communication to address issues rather than let resentment build. People might say they’re happy when they actually are not, so leaders must have empathy and compassion not to accept the first answer that “everything is fine” and instead push to understand the issue and let employees know that you care about them.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture.” What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
I believe in the concept of “Shadow of the Leader.” Leading by example might sound cliché, but it’s incredibly effective. Whatever your goal, you need to commit to a plan and be transparent and consistent with that goal. Leaders need to be smart about achieving this goal by having a multipronged strategy that empowers employees to continuously contribute ideas, see evidence of their commitment, and communicate gradual progress or setbacks.
For example, say you want increased diversity in your company, such as having more women in a department. You have to set an example by promoting a female leader to lead that department to attract more women to the role. This concept applies to other aspects of diversity such as race, disability, and age. By leading by example and being transparent about your intentions, it clarifies how employees can contribute to the conversation. It allows you to share the burden of that change to help make a fundamental shift in the difference between setting an aspiration goal versus taking the initiative on an issue within the company.
Another way to make a broader change is by being honest about the vulnerability of the company’s current state. When leaders take responsibility for the company’s current realities and put them in context through employee testimonials or stories, it will compel some employees to stay if they see their values aligned with the plan you have to make changes and improve. Other times, this method might repel current employees to leave the company or prevent job candidates from applying to work for you. Either way, your employees and job candidates will appreciate the transparency to help them decide what is best for them and their career path.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I like to give people a reputation to live up to, where I want to be clear about what I expect or require. Then, I let people construct their plan, strategy, and tactics of how they’re going to get there. My task in that position is to be the cheerleader and commit to knocking anything that gets in their way. I love nothing more than to be surprised and delighted by excellent work, progress, and results. I like to be surprised by those things that can only happen if you give people the breathing space to go and do great work.
The difference between leadership and management is that I show somebody where I want them to end up, get out of their way, and let them figure out how to do it. I don’t micromanage and tell them exactly how they’re going to achieve something.
For example, we have a SaaS product at Ph.Creative that is possibly one of the best career website platforms used by many global brands. This platform exists because more than 10 years ago, I challenged the developer on my team to build something flexible enough for designers to do whatever they want and efficient enough for our clients to be self-sufficient. He built a content management system that enabled our designers to design however they like, meaning it can embrace a full employer brand rather than be driven by templates.
The result is that big aspects are born out of being transparent with a challenge and then letting experts in this space execute the tasks themselves. It has nothing to do with me — apart from setting a challenge at the start and then watching great people do great work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m most grateful to the horrible boss who made me quit my job as a designer at a magazine when I was 25. On March 29, 2004, he approached my desk with horrible coffee breath and screamed at me in front of my colleagues. At the moment, I was too shocked to react.
Once he finished yelling, I collected my things, went home, and knew I was never going back to work there. To this day, I’m incredibly grateful for his arrogance and inappropriate behavior — it was a defining moment in my life that encouraged me to start my own business.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At Ph.Creative, we’ve found a great way to do employer branding that is more authentic and valuable to the candidate. Instead of keeping it a competitive advantage to our agency to win more clients, Charlotte Marshall and I published the book, “Give & Get Employer Branding: Repel the Many and Compel the Few with Impact, Purpose and Belonging.” Our company vision is for everyone to love their job, and that’s because we want more companies to better educate and inform people about what it’s like to work for a company before they join. We hope that by publishing the book and giving away the principles, we can improve the employee experience for everyone.
As our reputation and reach have grown, we’ve inched closer to our vision. We believe that if we can help some of the world’s largest employers better articulate and justify their employee experience, candidates and employees will make better-informed career decisions that will result in more happy and productive people and companies. The closer we get to this vision, the more goodness we’re bringing to the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” — Ferris Bueller.
I’ve been at the agency for 17 years. I started here in my mid-20s, and now I’m approaching my mid-40s. I’ve found that life moves pretty quickly, so I try to stop and look around now and again. It’s important to me now to go to the ends of the Earth to be there for family events that matter.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve worked with Linda Cruz many times, and people have called her a cross between Indiana Jones and Mother Teresa. She’s one of the foremost humanitarians globally, and she has several major initiatives. For my movement, I would like to take the essence of those initiatives by replacing the narcissism of social media with getting people excited about humanitarian work. I’d love to teach kids how good it can feel to give to others rather than receive. I would support Linda in her vision and get people high on humanity — I think the world is ready for it.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!