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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Community blogger, John Sylvester


Not everyone always understands John Sylvester.

The problem is that, for most people, being a motivation and employee incentives specialist requires a bit of an explanation as to what it means.
For instance, after struggling to fathom precisely what their dad did for a living, his two sons eventually hit upon the idea of telling their friends that he was a spy.
So now, when he meets new people, Sylvester is often tempted to follow his sons’ example rather than embark on the somewhat longer explanation of what it is he actually does do.
Yet, with employee engagement finally gaining traction in the boardroom, there is a chance that he won’t have to resort to the ‘spy’ tactic or long drawn-out explanations for much longer. “Over the years, there’s been a growing recognition – certainly in the last five – that getting this stuff right makes a difference,” Sylvester says.
Although now executive director at motivation and performance improvement agency, P&MM, as well as a blogger on employee engagement and motivation issues, he became interested in the subject long before it became fashionable.
“I blame my Scots mother, always trying to get something for nothing,” he laughs. “But if you get this motivation stuff right, not only does it bring business benefits, but it also benefits the individual.”
Keeping motivated
Sylvester first officially came across the subject of motivation when studying for his business studies ‘A’ Level. But on doing a business studies degree, the same subject came up again and “it was something that seemed to have such power,” he remembers.
“I’m very, very privileged and do count my blessings that I found something that really interested me and, from that early point, I knew what I wanted to do with my career,” Sylvester acknowledges.

And he was quickly able to put theory into practice after joining performance improvement specialist, Grass Roots, for a year as part of his four-year sandwich degree course. “I joined and had a fantastic year of experience, where I started to learn about the practical side of motivation and incentives,” Sylvester recalls.

On graduating, he joined the company full-time and stayed there for five years before joining P&MM, where he has worked for the last 24. At that point in time, the firm focused on retail travel and had a business-to-business arm that ran conferences and events in order to promote the idea of using travel as a staff incentive.

So Sylvester was brought in to formalise the design, implementation and management of a range of motivation programmes.

By the mid-1990s, however, he became involved in a management buyout, which saw half of the company still concentrate on travel and events, while the other half focused on areas such as motivation, benefits and incentives.

But 24 years is a long time to work for a single company, so just how has Sylvester kept himself motivated during that time? “It’s a real passion, and I have an interest in the subject,” he says. “And after nearly 30 years in the business, I’ve seen a major shift in attitude with employee engagement.”
This shift has been driven primarily by an economic refocus away from manufacturing and onto service-style industries.
Boosting engagement
“Services rely on their key asset, which is their people, so that’s driven change,” Sylvester says. “But the reality is that it feels a bit like a mission to convince businesses to invest in stuff that feels ‘soft and fluffy’. Their view is that people are paid a wage, so why do we need to do anything else?“

But the numbers do stack up, he believes, which is why boardrooms are beginning to wake up to the idea. “The cost of people in service industries is high, the cost of absenteeism is significant, as is the cost of staff turnover,” Sylvester explains. “If you can improve those last two variables, you can drive the bottom line.”

The recession, meanwhile, has led to a shift in focus from customer acquisition to customer retention, which has generated a corresponding shift in attitudes towards employees.

This is not least because it costs about £9,000 to recruit, train and up-skill a replacement when someone leaves, which costs employers a lot of money if staff turnover averages, say, 15%, Sylvester points out.
As a result, it becomes clear that investing in motivation and engagement initiatives to keep key employees happy is far less painful on the pocket.

But Sylvester’s other role at P&MM is to act as its HR director, which means that “I get to practice and experiment on our business.” By testing out the company’s latest ideas about motivation and benefits on its own staff, it gets a better idea of how well a given service works – important when getting it right can be a subtle art.

But Sylvester points out that, while engagement programmes don’t need to cost the earth – saying thank you costs nothing, for example – a more structured approach is required if best management practice is to be encouraged and success is to be sustainable.
“Without a token reward, it starts to wear thin after a while, and if you get rewards that are too high, people look on it as compensation rather than a token. There are subtleties involved,” he concludes.

And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?
Richard Branson. He’s managed to build a large and effective business on the basis of his power-to-the-people-type personality and his vision has worked extremely well.

What’s your most hated buzzword?
It has to be the ‘flexible’ as in flexible benefits. It’s rare that I’ve come across a benefits proposition that is described as being rule-bound and inflexible!

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
The best piece of business advice is: treat every penny that you spend as if it were your own. The other thing that I try to remember is: it’s not what your company can do for you, it’s what you can do for your company. I’m a big believer that individuals should take responsibility and not expect things to be delivered on a plate.

How do you relax?

I have a big garden – four acres. We keep chickens, geese, a dog, and my wife has a horse. Pottering around in the garden keeps me sane.

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