Article: Listen to employees to build a culture of innovation: Interview with Martin Cowie, Chief People Officer, OMD Australia


Listen to employees to build a culture of innovation: Interview with Martin Cowie, Chief People Officer, OMD Australia

In this exclusive interaction with Martin Cowie, Chief People Officer at OMD Australia and Professional Coach, he reflects upon the new world of possibilities by a cultural transition towards an innovative-first attitude.
Listen to employees to build a culture of innovation: Interview with Martin Cowie, Chief People Officer, OMD Australia

It’s an extraordinary time for innovation. Technological change and industry disruption seem to be accelerating. And digital information networks are linking individuals, organizations, and nations as never before. With uncertainty surrounding us, we all need mechanisms and a culture that encourages embracing new technologies, kindles the passion for knowledge, and eases barriers to creativity and serendipitous advances.

Increasing consumer expectations, the influx of competitors, and the reduction in margins are forcing organizations to rethink their current business models and sources of revenue. Innovation is a proven path to differentiation and competitiveness and the manufacturing industry needs to gear up for the new world of possibilities by a cultural transition towards an innovative-first attitude.

In this conversation with Martin Cowie, a media veteran with extensive experience of 36 years in the industry, and most recently, leading the people and culture of OMD Australia for 9 years, we delve upon the theme, “Cultural transition towards an innovative-first attitude”.

Despite no prior experience in HR, Martin took a step towards joining OMD as Chief People Officer and he feels that it is the best decision he took. He feels HR is an interesting space to be in as the function is moving from compliance and policies-driven function to a function that is ready to make a difference in the business and innovate with various initiatives and programs for building the right culture, employee engagement, experience, and their development which have a direct impact on the success of the business. 

Q: What does a culture of innovation mean in the current context of work and how do you see it shaping up for the future of work?

It has been 12-13 years that we have been constantly ranked in the Top 50 Great Places to Work awards. Last year, we were ranked #7, thereby maintaining the consistency of staying at the top of the Great Place to Work spot! Our success has been built on what I call constant innovation in the people space. The world we live in is changing at a rapid speed and hence, organizations would need to be more adaptive to these changes which means – ditching older policies and procedures, and more importantly,  listening and being more open to our employees' feelings to stay ahead of the game.

I feel listening is foundational to setting up a culture of innovation as innovation isn’t restricted to leadership or knowledge workers, but can come from anywhere or anyone. There is no second-guessing the fact that leadership has all the answers.

As a company, we feel new ideas and perspectives can come from anywhere irrespective of the role, experience, or hierarchy – it is a cultural norm for us. It is imperative to set up processes or programs that empower each one in the company with the opportunity to be heard. 

We do a lot of surveys with our employees to make sure they are heard and we communicate back to them about what we have heard, acknowledged, and as a next step what we are planning to do next to improve and innovate. 

Q: How can you create a culture where innovation thrives?

I feel everyone will probably say this can be done by focusing on the company’s vision, ambition, and values and that is absolutely true. However, to make innovation thrive, it is important to gauge the performance of your initiatives, programs, or process improvements. At OMD, we judge innovation based on metrics – it’s not innovation for the sake of it. We research, analyze data and information, and exploit these insights to come up with innovative ideas, and products. Advertising today is not just about drawing on a whiteboard but mining data and analyzing the audience. Gone are the days when people in advertising came up with marketing ideas, implemented them, and left it to the creativity of the campaign to attract customers. Today, the practice has become evidence-based. Not only advertising but today the right decision is the one that is evidence and data-backed.

Q: What are the key capabilities and mindset required to embrace a culture of innovation?

First, there needs to be an immense amount of clarity in leadership on what the organization wants, what is its vision and values, and lastly what they seek from teams to support that organizational need and vision. This would help people to seek out the right attitude and mindset to support the business growth.

Second, as we talk about the right mindset and behaviors, leaders must walk the talk. They just cannot simply deliver a speech on the nice things to do, they need to showcase those behaviors, accept when they are wrong, and offer a forum to enable people to share and be heard.

Lastly, accountability is another important behavior that would play an imperative role in embracing a culture of innovation. Accountability is not just about keeping promises or paying attention to what matters. It's about assuming stewardship of important business challenges and being held responsible for results. It empowers our people to experiment and come up with newer ideas and innovations.

Q: How do you build teams which are dedicated to reinforcing cultural values that echo innovation?

We don’t just employ ‘blue-sky thinking’ type people, and hence, obviously, people have to undergo a lot of training to make someone as innovative as they compete. We have invested a lot into skilling and training and a lot of it is being led internally. We call it our own design programs which are on how to go about designing great solutions that are innovative for our clients. Further, we also focus on softer skills which we call 4Cs–Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication Skills. The skilling program at OMD  also acknowledges the fact that everyone should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and hence, undergo personality profiling to help people focus on their weaknesses and leveraging their strengths. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we started to work remotely, this paved the way for managers to be trained as coaches that can help their teams to stay motivated, engaged, and enable them to collaborate in the best possible way, thereby maintaining the great employee-employer relationship. This is also important in context to building a culture of innovation where the managers act as enablers to motivate their team members to continuously innovate, think out-of-the-box, and don’t hesitate to share their ideas and suggestions to embrace cultural values that echo innovation.

Concluding the discussion, Martin also reflected upon how the pandemic brought HR to the forefront by shifting HR from being a service-delivery organization to becoming the center of innovation. He said that HR is making and in the future will continue to make a crucial decision in almost every aspect of work – well-being & safety, remote working planning & logistic, technology implementation, employee engagement & experience, and also the responsibility of future-proofing the workplace. He says it is also upon HR to build a culture that echoes innovation that would help organizations thrive in the crisis.

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Topics: Culture, Employee Engagement, Leadership, #DigitalCultureReset, #HybridWorkplace

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