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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Community blogger, Doug Shaw

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Doug Shaw has his nine-year-old daughter to thank for coming up with the most appropriate description of his job: “I make work better,” he says.

The clue to how he performs this feat is in the name of his consultancy – ‘What Goes Around’.

Treat staff well and they will treat their employer and its customers well too. Reciprocity – or what goes around comes around – is the secret of staff engagement and a happy workplace, Shaw believes.
 
And one of the ways that organisations can encourage such engagement is simply to talk more. Shaw’s aim is to help leaders rediscover the lost art of conversation by encouraging them to talk and listen to what employees and customers require in order to create a positive and productive work environment.
 
Alongside running his own consultancy, being an ‘unconference’ organiser (more of that later) and public speaking, he is also a respected HRZone blogger.
 
But skip back 20 years, and the 20-something Shaw would probably be very surprised at where his career had taken him – in fact, the idea of a career rather than a job, was still beyond him at that stage.
 
“My early career was peppered with rapid movements from place to place, partly because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he explains.

The low-point was working in a timber yard, which involved plenty of hard-core heavy lifting. “I’m not physically very strong, so I have no good memories of that!” Shaw laughs.

Another wrong-turn was his stint in financial services. This time, the strain was emotional rather than physical, however. In particular, he didn’t like what he perceived as the sector’s secrecy over remuneration: he wanted to be upfront with customers about how he was paid for offering financial advice.

 
The art of listening
 
While it was in no way part of a larger master plan, Shaw acknowledges that his chequered early work experience did teach him to understand what makes people tick and help him to identify that he wanted to work with people.

But his career breakthrough came from an unexpected quarter. He ended up working for a company where his relationship with his boss became so toxic that he resigned with nothing lined up to go to. “That scared the living daylights out of me – and my wife!” Shaw notes wryly.

 
Desperate to find a job quickly, he ended up working at PC World in Croydon as a sales rep. It was a long way from his dream job and he still didn’t feel like he’d found a company to which he fully belonged, but it did (finally) steer him along the right career path.
 
“It connected me with people. I listened to what people wanted and sold well,” Shaw explains.

He was a good salesman, but others sold more. The difference was that the goods that he sold, stayed sold. Returns were almost non-existent, making the profit he brought into the company higher than any of the other bigger-ticket sales people.

 
Shaw’s light-bulb realisation was that simply listening to what people wanted (rather than trying to get a quick sale) was incredibly effective. “I kind of knew it already, but it brought it home to me how beneficial it is and something I’ve tried to practice in everything I do,” he says.

With a clearer idea of where his strengths and interests lay, Shaw joined BT in 1996. His first job was selling pay phones to private sector customers.

 
At that time, motorway service stations had banks of pay phones set up for sales reps calling into the office. It was a fiercely competitive business so his evolving skills in dealing with customers and building good relationships came to the fore.

One of the projects that he got involved in was helping Thomas Cook to set up an internet-enabled contact centre – cutting-edge stuff back then. “It was great fun to be doing something with customers that was new,” Shaw recalls.

But his negotiation and relationship management skills were further strengthened by his next BT posting, working in the wholesale division to support customers such as Vodafone and O2.

 
Employee engagement
 
Working with competitors was naturally challenging at times, but it was also interesting. “I learned a huge amount – it taught me the importance of relationships,” Shaw points out.

Many managers had mastered the ‘walking slowly backwards’ approach to dealing with such customers – in other words, just backing away from any requests.

 
But while Shaw maintains that he wasn’t good at negotiating, he would try to be straightforward and tell people what he could and could not do for them. It was an approach that worked.

A successful year gave him the confidence to realise his growing interest in corporate social responsibility and so he set up a CSR department for his division.

 
One of the initiatives that he was most proud of in this context was a recycling scheme for unused mobile handsets. While such ideas may be run of the mill these days, then it was a huge project that saved BT £3 million.
 
But it proved really difficult to get off the ground because there were a lot stakeholders and groups within BT that didn’t want it to happen. “It taught me about diplomacy,” Shaw says.

His next challenge was leading a change management initiative from an employee engagement perspective within the telco’s global services division – and it is an area he’s still focused on today because, in his opinion, so many companies routinely get it wrong.

 
“The big problem with employee engagement is that it feels like it’s for the benefit of the company rather than the employees,” Shaw notes.

But although he had reached a senior position within BT at this time, he no longer felt satisfied because he was too divorced from customers and others in the company.

 
“I’m afraid one of the big problems about work is the lack of conversations,” Shaw explains. “The hierarchical nature of business fosters misinformation – not intentionally or maliciously – and I began to realise this at BT.”
 
A facilitator
 
He continues: “I was in a relatively senior position and – this will sound more critical that I mean it to be – but I didn’t have respect for the way people got things done around me or the people above me. It was a by-product of being detached from the front-line of the business.”

As a result, in 2009, Shaw made the brave decision to step out “into the economic winter” and in the process “scared the hell out of myself”. The first year was incredibly tough, but he gradually built up a business and a reputation for getting results: helping leaders and their companies to become happier and more productive.

 
One of his key findings, however, was that it is the small things that can make all the difference. For example, Shaw noticed that those firms that provide somewhere for staff to eat together, tend to do well, the implication being that it provides an environment where people can talk – not just to members of their teams, but others too.

By the same token, “management by walking about”, where senior managers leave their offices and go and talk to the people who work for them, can also make a huge difference. Although it may feel odd at first (and the reaction from staff may well be less than hospitable), perseverance will pay off, believes Shaw.

And it is a lesson that HR professionals ideally need to learn too. By proactively spending part of every week working alongside the groups that they support, they become part of the team and not just the person that everyone goes to when they have a problem.

Above all, however, Shaw sees himself as a facilitator. The answers to most problems are already inside people’s heads, he believes – all they need is the right environment and enough confidence to talk about it.

 
One of the ways that he puts this belief into practice is as an ‘unconference’ organiser. Instead of having a predefined agenda with speeches, slides and sponsors, these events are rather less controlled.
 
They have a collaborative format, where people discuss topics suggested by themselves and other attendees. His last unconference in November, which involved both HR practitioners and customer service people, was entitled “Stop doing dumb things” and the aim was to encourage them to talk about customer service and engagement issues.

The methods that Shaw uses (which include music and art) are all designed to get people thinking about things in a different way and to share information in a non-confrontational fashion.

Although organisations are all too often criticised for failing to walk the talk, he believes that the only way that they will even begin walking with any confidence is by talking – actively communicating and listening – with both internal and external customers.

 
And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?
My mum – she encouraged me to be myself first and foremost, to have the courage to admit when I’m wrong and to believe in the karma of what goes around.

 
She also encouraged me to tune into the punk movement, where I became a first class student at the school of The Clash. Their frontman, Joe Strummer, believed that ‘without people, you’re nothing’ and looking back, his beliefs helped shaped my views too.
 
What’s your most hated buzzword?
Capital, as in ‘human capital’. I’m not a huge fan of ‘resource’ either – both terms imply the dehumanisation of work.
 
Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management who believed in the ‘one best way’ to do work, has been dead for almost 100 years and yet still many companies cling to these mechanised beliefs.
 
Joe Strummer said: “It’s time to put the humanity back into the centre of the ring.” I think he’s right. It’s time to re-humanise the workplace.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I’m very fortunate – I love to listen so I’ve benefited from the advice, intentional and otherwise, of many people. I think for me, that advice has culminated in: ‘Flow beats work-life balance. Productive beats busy. Together beats apart. Listening is hugely underrated.’
 
How do you relax?
Spending time in good company – family and friends. I enjoy cooking, being outdoors (I walk a lot, run a bit and cycle sometimes). I’m learning to paint, and I enjoy playing the guitar – and my daughter’s drum kit – when she lets me.
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