Don’t do ‘Normal’


“Don’t Do Normal”? A bit of a weird title for an article on Employee Engagement, isn’t it? Well yes, it probably is, but I couldn’t think of anything more fitting to call this, my first article in a series of articles which will, hopefully, help you understand more about what Employee Engagement really is and how you influence it, whether you realise it or not.

Personally, I don’t do normal; and those of you who have met and spoken to me will probably already have realised that! Plus, it’s tattooed on the inside of my arm (in Japanese) as a constant reminder to me to always be true to who I am and what I believe in and to treat everyone, regardless of who they are or what they do, with the same honesty and respect that I have treated people the whole of my adult life.

I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of people refer to new “trends” such as “Disruptive HR” and “HR Rebels”, as well as telling you how important “Diversity and Inclusion” are to a successful business, and I will mention some of these things later in this article, but first, I think it’s important to try and explain a bit about who I am, why I am the person I am now, and how being true to myself has always helped me succeed in my career in Reward & Engagement.

Understanding a bit about me and my background will, hopefully, help you understand a bit more about why the ideas I’m going to ask you to try have a really good chance of increasing your people’s engagement with you, their jobs and their Company.

Esprit de Corps

I want to start by taking you back to a much “simpler” time……

It’s 1981, probably before a lot of you were born, and Adam and the Ants, Soft Cell and Shakin’ Stevens were fighting it out at the top of the UK charts.  Meanwhile, somewhere in North Kent, a skinny little 16-year-old was all suited and booted and ready to embark on the biggest adventure of his life. I had been raised in a loving and stable home and been pretty well educated, but having decided that I didn’t want to follow my older Brother into a life of more studying at University, I left school after getting my “O” Levels and was going to follow my passion for music, by “joining up” and training to become a Musician in the Royal Marines Band Service. So, having officially enlisted on the 7th September 1981, at 11 o’clock on the 8th September, along with 30 other wide-eyed musical teens, I swore allegiance to the Crown and my life changed forever.

I’d had friends at school, a couple of whom I still occasionally speak to, but my fellow “sprogs” from 281 Troop were to become more like family than friends. We lived together, trained together, learned together and grew together. We had, and still have a bond between us that’s stronger than almost anything, just because we all shared a desire to play music and, to get paid for playing music all the time, we’d all decided that wearing a uniform was an acceptable trade-off. I don’t think any of us knew what to expect really, but almost all of us made it through the two and a half years of physical, military and musical training, because from day one, we knew that our fellow troopmates were beside us: Helping, supporting, encouraging and laughing every step of the way.

We came from wildly differing backgrounds and, although only an “average” student at school, I quickly became aware that not everyone had had the same, or in some cases any, formal education. I had two caring parents at home waiting for me to visit on leave, but it wasn’t long before I realised that some of my new “family” hadn’t had the same support from their parents, parent or foster home. I’d never really met anyone so different to me before, and now I was spending twenty-four hours a day, every day, with this rag-tag bunch of (not much more than) kids and I loved it!

Helping someone learn some basic Maths and English so that they could pass the required exams to proceed through training, in exchange for them giving up their Saturday mornings to teach me to shoot straight was just “what we did”. We had nothing in common apart from wearing the same uniform, doing the same job and living by the mantra of “Troop, Corps, Country, God”.

And there it was. The first lesson I learned, remembered and adapted into the rest of my life:

Regardless of first impressions, everyone has something that we can learn from them. There will always be situations where you are considered to be the person that people will naturally go to, but there will be as many other situations where you are the one that will need the help and support of others to get through it. If my years as a Royal Marine taught me anything at all, it taught me that, when everything is stripped away, we’re all basically the same. Our individual needs and aspirations may be completely different, but we all have them, and that “diversity” isn’t, and shouldn’t be, just about gender, sexuality and ethnicity. We should encourage true diversity in our businesses: social diversity, educational diversity and physical diversity, as if we always take the “normal” demographic as employees into our businesses, we are missing out on a whole chunk of skills, experience and knowledge that we will not be as successful as we want to be without.

“Openness and Honesty” is our Core Value!

Moving forward a decade or so, we’re now in 1996, and England are just about to kick-off the European Football Championship with a game at Wembley against Switzerland. I think the game ended in a one all draw, but I didn’t watch it, as that was my first day working at Tesco.

Tesco is an enormous Company, so you’d probably think that the people who worked for them felt like they were just nameless payroll numbers; statistics to be reported on and not people who have goals, aspirations or even lives outside work. That was not the case for me though. Whilst I can only talk about my own personal experience, and it may have been down to individual Managers that I was lucky enough to work for, but Tesco gave me the opportunity to develop and decide for myself where I wanted to take my career. Don’t get me wrong, there were and are plenty of people who are happy just doing what they do, and no Company can succeed without these people, but if you do have employees who want to do more, or to “be” more than they are, you should take every opportunity to develop them to learn the skills necessary for their chosen path – allow and encourage them to turn their job into their career.

After a short period working in the Retail side of Tesco, I “switched” to working in a Distribution Centre, when I was soon elected as the Union Representative for the Nightshift: Something I felt honoured to do and believe I did for the right reasons – to ensure that people were treated fairly, equitably and with respect. I proudly represented the Union Members at my Depot at Union/Management Negotiations and represented individual members whenever needed. That wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term though, and, as part of my development, I took advantage of the Management Training available to me, to become one of the Operational Management Team at the Depot. Oddly enough, the number of “issues” on our shift dropped over the time I was looking after the shift there, as I managed people with the same core attitude that I represented them as their Union Rep with. The way I spoke to people and the way I treated them and expected to be treated in return hadn’t changed from being a Rep to being a Manager, and, for me at least, that seemed to work. People may not like to hear things that they don’t agree with, but if they are spoken to with respect and honesty at all times, they will accept what they hear and understand that some decisions have to be made, whether it’s what they like or not.

At this point in my career, I was asked to take up a new position, reporting to the Distribution ER Director, to set up a Reward Team specifically to be responsible for the Reward Strategy within Tesco Distribution. I’d only previously sat opposite the ER team in Union Negotiations, and, if I’m honest, didn’t really know what “Reward” was, but it sounded interesting, so I decided to say “yes” and see what it would be like. It was the best decision I ever made! I have no idea how things would’ve turned out if I hadn’t accepted the new role, but I do know that I wouldn’t have been able to learn what I have or developed my reward experience to the level where I could create something as innovative and special as our Community. I am here writing this article now, and you’re reading it, solely because I was given a chance to do something that someone else thought I’d be good at. If you asked her, Clare, your Community Director, would say the same, as when I first asked her to become involved in the creation of our Community, she really wasn’t sure she was the right person for the role, but together, we have achieved so much in a very short time that I think she now knows it was the right thing to do for both of us!

So why am I telling you about my time at Tesco? Because Tesco had and still has a clearly defined set of Company Values which people genuinely try to live by, professionally, and the key value to me is to be Open and Honest at all times. I believe that I was an honest Union Rep, and an Open Manager, and taking that into every aspect of my personal and professional life has made me more than I would otherwise have been. And everyone can benefit by treating all of their people in the same way. Don’t shy away from the hard conversations, and don’t ignore difficult situations. If you are honest with everyone, including yourself, you will be able to cope with anything and those around you will learn from your attitude, to become more open and honest themselves, leading to a far better atmosphere at work, and a more trusting and engaged workforce. Openness and Honesty truly should be everyone’s core value.

Think Differently

After over a decade with Tesco, in which, I believe, we did a lot to improve the lives of our people, I decided to take everything I’d learned and go out into the world of “interim” management and consulting. Every contract I took was somewhere where I knew my existing skills and experience could make a difference, and at the same time, I could pick up and learn new skills and experiences of different Industries, with the long-term aim of being able to call myself a truly “Total” Reward Professional. I deliberately exposed myself to working with different types of Company: different sizes, Industries and geographies. I took projects concentrating on different “benefits”: Fleet, Recognition, Incentives, Wellbeing, etc. until I was confident enough that I could handle anything that any Company needed me to do, but always kept my own personal values and vision close to my heart and put people at the core of everything I worked on, trying to think about the personal effect of what I did on people rather than just the financial effect for the Company.

If you’ve ever heard me speak, you’ve probably hear me use the “SatNav” analogy, and I’ll apologise right now, but I’m going to use it again, but before I do, I want to refer to some research that was carried out by a large Financial Wellbeing Company in 2018. The research showed that over two thirds of businesses now had a Financial Wellbeing Strategy for their people, but less than one quarter of these Companies had seen any change in their people or their business after implementation of this strategy. The published report didn’t draw any conclusions from this, as they could not explain why there had been such a small effect from something which should have been far more successful and well received by staff. To me, the answer as to why the majority of people’s strategies hadn’t worked is obvious. If you asked Companies “why” they implemented a Financial Wellbeing Strategy, they would probably give you one of three answers: Their competitors have it, their supplier told them they need it, or they believe it’s what they need to do. Only those Companies where implementing this did make a difference would give you the answer which I believe should be the only reason to implement anything – “We spoke to our people and asked what concerned them, and their feedback led us to consider how a Financial Wellbeing Strategy could help them, improve their lives and give them the financial tools and education to make them less worried about money, so they can concentrate on other things that are important to them”. If you don’t know where you want to end up after implementing something, you shouldn’t implement it. After all, you wouldn’t blame the SatNav if you don’t end up in the right place if you didn’t put your destination in first, would you.

Thinking “differently” is not about being different for the sake of it, or deliberately ignoring what other people do. It’s about learning from things that don’t work as much as from things that do and being able to look at everything you do with a different perspective. Think about the effect of what you do from the perspective of being one of your own people. Consider how everything you think might improve your Company would or could improve your people. Involve them, talk to them, listen to them and truly hear what they tell you. For some people, the ability to engage with people and discover what they truly value and need seems to be a natural character trait, but if you don’t think you’re a “natural”, you can still condition yourself to think this way, just by spending more time away from your laptop and spend that time where your people work. If your people are in “specialised” roles, if you can, learn that role – do as much training, with your people, as you can so that you understand what they do, how they do it and what they have to deal with on a day to day basis. By doing this, you’ll very quickly pick up on how your people think: what they value, what they aspire to and what concerns they have, and understanding this is the key to knowing how they are likely to perceive whatever it is you want to change.

This is what “thinking differently” is really about and will prove to be key to the success that you want from everything you do – for your Company and for your people.


Hopefully this short article has given you something to think about and some ideas on how not just doing what everyone else does, or what you’ve always done can help you succeed,  at the same time as improving the lives of all of your people. If you take anything away from reading this, remember these short points and try to consider them at all times:

  • Take your own personal experiences and build on what you’ve learned from others to create ideas.
  • Get to know and understand who you employ, what they do and what they value, and look at everything you do from their perspective and perception.
  • Be honest with yourself and everyone else and be true to your own personal values and vision.
  • Be confident in yourself. If you believe you are doing the right thing for the right reason, tell people and encourage them to want to be part of, and benefit from, your plans for the future of reward within your Company.

Finally, have fun! If you don’t enjoy what you do, then you’re probably not convinced that it’s the right thing to do. Don’t be afraid to be different and don’t be afraid to voice a different opinion to others. As long as you are honest with yourself and true to what you believe in, you will succeed in whatever it is you feel compelled to do.

By Nik Butcher

Employee Engagement

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