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Podcast Episode 111: how to effectively listen to what employees mean rather than what they say with Bryan Adams

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Bryan Adams is the CEO and founder of Ph.Creative, recognized as one of the leading employer brand agencies in the world with clients such as Apple, American Airlines, , and Blizzard Entertainment.

Bryan is author of Give & Get Employer Branding: Repel the Many and Compel the Few with Impact, Purpose and Belonging

He is global employer brand expert and his creative, unconventional and even controversial methodologies are said to regularly change the way people think about employer branding and Employee Value Proposition (EVP)

I love Bryan’s three Cs – culture, career catalyst and citizenship

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Give & Get Employer Branding: Repel the Many and Compel the Few with Impact, Purpose and Belonging




In this episode of Deep Listening – Impact beyond words, we hear from Bryan Adams, a global employer brand expert, and his creative and unconventional, even controversial methodologies are said to regularly change the way people think about their employer brand.


Bryan is the CEO and founder of Ph.Creative, recognized as the leading employer brand agency in the world, with clients like Apple, American Express, Blizzard, and Microsoft. Bryan is the author of Give & Get Employer Branding: Repel the Many and Compel the Few with Impact, Purpose and Belonging. In our conversation with Bryan, he explores in depth the three Cs of organizational culture, career catalyst, and citizenship. Let’s listen to Bryan.


What’s the cost of not listening?

Bryan (01:12):

When I look back on an 18-year career running a business, first 10 years include a little bit of naivety, arrogance and a whole host of mistakes that I’ve made that could have easily been avoided had I have listened, listened with empathy, listened to understand. For me personally, the cost of not listening is about 10 years.


Over the years I’ve lost a number of clients, but they didn’t make a big hoo-ha about it. They didn’t stamp the feet, they didn’t complain and all of this kind of stuff, give me feedback, and usually they just quietly disappear. When I reflect on that, it can only be that we just failed to listen and see the world through their eyes and listen with empathy and seek to understand. So it’s very difficult to quantify the cost of not listening, and all you can do is look forward and take it into your business with experience going forward.

Oscar (02:21):

When you think about it from an employer’s point of view, what’s the cost of not listening for employers?

Bryan (02:28):

The work it takes, the effort it takes to really understand your collective people, it’s actually getting harder because it’s more complex. The risk of not being relevant, the risk of being tone-deaf, the risk of your message not landing even with good intent, is so high at the moment because I think our audience, our talent audience, they’re smart, you could argue that’s always been the case. But I think now people are more attuned into what matters most to them personally, and there’s more a conviction, and there’s more a social acceptance to actually do something about that and put your needs and your family needs and wants best.


It’s very difficult to balance a culture, an intentional, strategic, organized culture without listening, because everything can change in an instant. Even when we’ve looked at organizations that have had to make mass layoffs and gone through difficult times through COVID, my biggest learning point and what I’ve listened to and what I’ve seen is the organizations that do that with great empathy and compassion and dignity and respect for their people, the sentiment of their brand, their brand equity has actually gone up, and that is all down to listening and understanding and finding empathy and compassion and putting your people first.

Oscar (04:05):

One of the stories I’ve heard you talk about is an engineer connecting the employee value proposition to his family.

Bryan (04:13):

Whenever we go into an organization, our job is to really seek to understand and dig and find those stories that illustrate what really resonates with people. Then we dig and dig and dig until we can get to the meaning and the true motivation of people. Then we can start to join the dots.


One of our goals actually when we run a workshop, is we try and get to personal stories until the people visibly get emotional and that’s when we know we’ve got some good stuff. We were working with a major airline and we walked into a room full of big, burly engineers. It was all men and it was quite an intimidating room to walk into because they’d been pulled off the shop floor fixing planes and improving the safety of planes, keeping them in the air. Quite an important job.


They weren’t quite sure why they were there, which wasn’t a great start. Then we jumped straight into, “Tell us why you like working here.” We were hit with a reaction of, “Well, actually we don’t.” It was quite collective, it was quite resounding and it was quite sharp. Then the air felt cold and it was a really interesting start to a workshop like none other I’ve seen before. It was very difficult to get these people to open up.


We dug a little bit more and it’s like, “Well, why don’t you like working here?” And they said, “Working under the conditions of two unions. Our job is changing all the time. Sometimes we’re asked to train people, contractors who we know are going to take our full-time jobs from us in the future. It’s a hostile environment and it’s very difficult. All the time we’re expected to do a job with no margin of error whatsoever. It’s a high skilled role and we feel under-resourced and completely underappreciated.”


So, one of the goals of employer brand is reminding people why they find value in their career. So at this point I was almost at a loss as to where we could take it. We dug and we didn’t give up. We finally asked a question, “So why do you stay?” And eventually, thankfully, somebody told a story of where he grew up the household didn’t have electricity, they had a horse and cart rather than a car, and it was a tough upbringing.


But in one generation his son was about to graduate from Harvard and he was extremely proud of that. He put it all down to this. When his son was studying history, Roman history, he was able to fly him and stand him in the middle of the Colosseum so he could feel what it was like and he could see and experience Italian culture.


When he was studying geography, he actually trekked in the Himalayas and he was looking up at Mount Everest and they have pictures and memories that’ll never leave either of them. The reason that was made possible is working for this major airline they were afforded the privilege of being able to fly anywhere in the world completely for free. So it gave opportunity to add a rich value of experience to his whole family and he attributed it, that very thing, to that’s what made his son the man he is today. It was a light bulb moment, and actually, it was quite a watershed moment as well, because then that opened up the room and people started to share the real value that they got from their career.


It wasn’t them making more money and it wasn’t them getting a title or a promotion. It was what they could afford to their family and the far-reaching benefits that made a real tangible difference in their life.


Without really listening and navigating through a difficult conversation to find some thread of value, we couldn’t have unlocked the magic that was inside that organization. Sure enough, when we did explore and do research in full other aspects of that major airline, we found rich stories of what the benefits of being part of that team brought to each other. Very different stories, but they all added up to the same things. We were able to find commonality there, and it was a magical moment in the project.

Oscar (08:34):

It takes great courage to listen for what’s not said, to stay in that moment. You talked about the room and the tension in the room was something that was very noticeable for you. Along with the courage to listen to what’s unsaid requires the investment not only of financial resources, but the investment of time to set up a workshop to listen like that. Many employers do this funky thing called the employee engagement survey, and I tell people to stop doing them until they actually action what they’ve said in the last couple. How do you balance between collecting information at scale through tools like that versus the workshop? How do you balance your listening, Bryan?

Bryan (09:34):

We always say that data tells you what, but people tell you why. Data points are interesting, but quite often they’re the X marks the spot on the map, it’s not the treasure or the gold. The key is to understand where to dig and how to explore and be curious to find the meaning behind some of the surface quantitative results. We always start with that level of research, but digging and digging and speaking to individuals and sometimes trying to do the on scale level, it’s the only way to get to the truth. It’s not just listening to one person’s perspective, it’s asking the same questions across an organization sometimes, because quite often part of our job to get to the real truth and something that means something to a collective, we have to try and do the unscalable, listening to individuals from across the organization.


But without that, what we’ve found is there’s a real danger of listening to one layer of a story. But what that does is it doesn’t differentiate between perception versus reality. So to really get a well-rounded view of the truth, we need the context around those stories and then we need to validate as well. We need to then listen to the leaders of the organization and understand, okay, so if there’s a perception of this, what might be behind that? What is your talent audience not aware of that maybe you are that can add more rich layers of context?


It can get quite three-dimensional quite quickly. We look for the market view, we look for the employee view and the leadership view, and only by interrogating those things can we find a solution that adds up to something that feels authentic and representative, as well as being carefully balanced with the aspirations and the intentions of where the organization is going to go in the future, which is really important. Otherwise, it’s not valuable to the organization and it’s not authentic for very long. There’s a few layers of listening and understanding and putting those pieces together very carefully in order to get something that adds up to value for the organization.

Oscar (12:05):

The value is huge when you’re going through those three dimensions, and we talk a lot about how do you listen to context through backstories in our Deep Listening Ambassadors Community. Equally, there’s a time to stop listening. There’s a time where you’ve got enough stories. What judgments do you make about when to stop listening, Bryan?

Bryan (12:32):

Essentially for us, from a research perspective, it’s when we’re not finding any new signals or data points or we’re finding what we found before is simply being validated and we need to then move to distillation to start interpreting the difference between the data we’ve collected and the insight it can give us. Actually, Oscar, some of the magic that comes from the strategy we create isn’t from the data we collect, it’s from how we join the dots and how we then innovate. It’s not just reflecting the reality, and that’s always an interesting step in our process.

Oscar (13:17):

How does an employer know where they should be heading?

Bryan (13:22):

Around 2010, Microsoft came to us and they had their [Employee Value Proposition] EVP and their employer brand, it was developed in the US, and they said to us, “Look, we’ve got this problem.


Our employer brand is strong in the US, but when we take it to other countries, it just doesn’t land at all. Can you help us?”


What they had to offer, a very broad range of talent audience, and quite often, rather than just putting your proposition out there, you first have to tackle those misconceptions and how you’re perceived. So typically we start with a North Star of, “Okay, what does your reputation as an employer need to be to best serve your organization and to be the most relevant to your talent audience? How do we solve for that?”


There’s a process we go through called the three Cs.


The first is culture, which is synonymous with employer brands. What do you think of the employee experience day to day? How does it make you feel? Companies like HubSpot do a fantastic job at how do people feel and what do they think of the employee experience.


The second is career catalysts. When we think of organizations like Amazon, on the softest, warm and fuzziest of organizations to go and work for, they have a reputation for being a place to accelerate your career.


Then the third C, which used to be a distant third and now arguably is in the number one spot, is this idea of citizenship. People are looking for evidence of citizenship in their next career move. Organizations that have a conviction to leave the world a better place.


So when we think about Patagonia, who have recently published, they gave their entire organization into a trust. All their profits go into a trust. The earth is their only stakeholder. They’re being very, very clear and explicit with their intentional North Star of their organization, which is 100% citizenship.


So if you have a North Star like that, that’s how to bring brand consistency, and to remove any misconception of what type of organization you might find. Obviously most organizations are a mixture of all of those three Cs, but there’s always one driving force.


Amazon are the world’s largest employer, and they’ve come under fire late for the wages that they pay in the distribution centers. There’s also scathing reviews all over the internet. It’s usually true for most large organizations by the way, because who’s ever written a review which is straight down the middle? Usually there is a big emotional driver to leave a review. Either it’s a one star or it’s a five star and there’s very few in the middle. But with every working culture that we’ve ever witnessed, it’s not about good or bad, because you show me any harsh environment, any employee experience that has a negative perception, then I will show you somebody who finds meaning, finds purpose, impact, belonging, and is thriving in those conditions.


When you look at Amazon, it’s a very high performance culture. If you can survive and cope and get any semblance of promotion or if you can prove a successful project, there is significant evidence that your career will accelerate faster than most places because they reward performance and results and that’s just the type of place it is. They’re clear about that, and you have to applaud the clarity and simplicity that they brought around that strategy, because you simply cannot argue that it works for them.


Now, that’s not for everybody. That’s an environment that some people will say, “I just couldn’t cope with that. It’s just completely against everything I stand for.” That’s okay. This isn’t good or bad, this is just about a match or not. There’s organizations out there that because they think they understand what a talent audience wants, they say one thing, but then they join and find another. This goes full circle back to listening to the marketplace and taking the time to really understand the internal motivators and drivers of your talent audience, and having the conviction to stand by the culture that you have, or the conviction to change what you have because you want something else. It’s a very dangerous place is to live in the middle and try and market to a talent audience and just be shiny and attractive on the outside and something different on the inside.


Amazon own who they are. They have a huge global workforce with people who thrive. You’ve got to applaud that. Amazon do that incredibly well. Employer brand isn’t about being perceived as the most attractive or the best employer. It’s about clarity and simplicity of setting expectations. If you start there as a foundation, then you will build a very intentional culture.

Oscar (19:11):

Reminds me of Colin and Michael. I said, “What do you love about working at Amazon?”


And he said to me, “Oscar, you know what I love? If you’re the last person in the office, you take the light bulb out of the fridge. That’s to save money on the electricity.”


I said to Colin, who’d left Amazon, “Colin, why did you leave Amazon?” He said, “Let me tell you what I hate about Amazon. If you are the last person to leave, you’re expected to take the light bulb out of the fridge.” I think that sums up the fact that Amazon own their culture and are very clear about their culture, and because they have conviction, they’re going to attract more Michaels than Colins.

Bryan (20:01):

That’s exactly it, and the key is understanding whether you are an organization for Michael or an organization for Colin. Having the clarity and confidence to have very open conversations much earlier than after somebody joins, because you owe it to that candidate audience so they can make a better decision for their career, and you owe it to the company because that’s how to streamline a culture, a meaningful culture that adds up to something special.

Oscar (20:37):

I wonder what you took away from Bryan’s stories or the three Cs. If you would like to go into the draw for three copies of Bryan’s book, Give & Get Employer Branding, email with the subject line, three Cs.


Tell me what you took away from Bryan’s conversation in that email.


What I took away from Bryan’s conversation today, number one, Bryan’s honest reflection. His authenticity when I asked, “What’s the cost of not listening?” He was quite honest saying, “Might have been a decade of work.”


My second takeaway is how Bryan and his team listened to the stats and the stories. He says that data tells you the what, people tell you the why. I really enjoyed how Bryan and his team listen in what he says, a completely unscalable way, and they listened to the deep, deep, deep backstories until they discover what it means for the employee, for the organization, and for their North Star.


I’ll never forget the story of the airline engineer and what it meant for him to be able to take his son to a Roman Colosseum or to the Himalayan Mountains to learn about geography and history.


I admire Bryan’s patience and his tenacity for digging for the stories in the really uncomfortable tension he described in that room full of engineers. In that moment, he was able to move from what was the story, to what does the story mean to the organization and for the employee. This is a great example of level five listening, listening to meaning and listening for meaning.


I’m Oscar Trimboli, and along with the Deep Listening Ambassador Community, we’re on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners in the workplace, and you’ve given us the greatest gift of all, you’ve listened to us. Thanks for listening.


What have you noticed about how I’m listening?

Bryan (23:09):

It’s very intentional and it’s very apparent. Yeah, it’s quite refreshing actually, because I do quite a lot of these and usually it’s like that DJ effect, where it’s like, “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” but actually somebody’s waiting for me to finish, to ask the next question that they’ve already decided on. But to see a question flow from an answer, it’s also very evident that you have to listen, and that’s always appreciated.

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