Branded Culture – Brand Building at the Speed of Trust

  • The essence of changing behaviour is to speak to people’s feelings
  • 10% of Charlie’s time is spent on strategyHe spends 90% of his time focusing on how to engage people to deliver on the strategy
  • Senior Management invests a very significant amount of time to be visible throughout the national Prudential networkThis has a number of benefits:
    • It builds relationships and trust
    • With trust comes a greater willingness among employees to be more open in feedback and discussions with Senior Management
    • Senior Management obtains a first-hand experience of the business – enabling better decisions to be made
  • Appreciation worksRandom (but well thought-through) acts of kindness for all employees have a big impact
  • Charlie talks to employees not in terms of achieving corporate goals, but in terms of what’s in it for them – how we can make their lives better
  • Values are important in building great cultures – starting from recruitment

Professor John Kotter, the Harvard-based leadership and change guru has conducted extensive research into how people and organisations achieve change

In his book, The Heart of Change, he summarised the most important issue in one sentence, “

the core of the matter is always about changing the behaviour of people, and behaviour change happens in highly successful situations by speaking to people’s feelings

There is one CEO in Malaysia who has an instinctive understanding of the importance of feelings as a key building block to a strong brand

His name is Charlie Oropeza, CEO of Prudential Malaysia

Charlie calmly and warmly welcomed me into his office

We built rapport in seconds

My first impressions were that this is a very accessible, down-to-earth CEO

After 90 minutes, I walked away, inspired, feeling that I had spoken to a CEO who embodied much of the best that we read about in text books on how to engage your people to build a successful brand from the inside-out

Behaviour change happens by speaking to people’s feelings 

“I arrived in mid-June, 2009

The company was behind target

I spent time to meet people around the country to learn what was good and not so good about the company,” said Charlie

“I wanted to create a winning spirit, where people would feel good about accomplishing their goals

I set a stretch target of 103% of our target

We exceeded this and achieved 24% growth in that year

I promised to take the top 50 performers to London as a reward, and that is just what we did!” he said

A key role of a leader is to create a winning spirit 

So, far, so good

Set a stretch goal, offer a carrot for performance and let the magic happen

If only it was that simple!

Great brands are built on the foundation of great cultures

A quick tour of some of the most admired companies in the world – Google, SAS, Zappos, Ritz-Carlton, Southwest Airlines – will reveal a common factor: a recognition that employees build the brand and that culture is the number one factor to building a great brand

In short, strong, sustainable brands are built from the inside out

 90% of time spent on engaging people 

Charlie Oropeza does not use the language of “inside-out” branding, nor does he talk about trust

Rather, he just does it

“Ten percent of my time is spent on strategy

I spend the other ninety percent focusing on how we can get our people engaged to deliver on the strategy,” he said

In a world where most leaders are focused on KPIs and profits, it is refreshing to see a leader who is focused on the real fundamentals of the business – creating a culture that will deliver on the brand experience which in turn will generate the profit

Once you set the strategy… the best thing to do is to get among the people 

“Once you set strategy, what do you do?” he asked rhetorically

“The best thing to do is to get among them

” Charlie has a built a senior management culture that “gets among staff” and connects with them to understand the business better

And, in doing so, the senior management builds trust with the organisation

Charlie has found that face-to-face, feet-in-the dirt communication, while time-consuming, has been an effective way to build relationships of trust

He and his team go on quarterly road shows

Last year they visited all 42 branches, spending around 3 hours in each branch

My razor-sharp mathematics calculates that this converts to 3 weeks full time, spent in branches, excluding the travel time around the country

Add to this the visits to many insurance agencies around the country and you will soon appreciate the high priority given by Charlie and his team to keeping their ears to the ground – and staying real in the business

Face to face, feet-in-the-dirt communication is an effective way to build trust 

“In the early days, I focused on three things: where we were, where we are today and where we want to be,” he said

In short, Charlie gave staff and agents context, hope and a common purpose

In addition to the time spent visiting branches, Charlie and the nine members of his Executive Committee each spend one day a year working in operations, e


, the call centre, the mail room, or in a branch

“It gives us a better understanding so that we can make better decisions,” he said

“Staff see that we care about them and it gives them an opportunity to show us how skilled they are

It gives me and my senior team confidence in my staff, and it gives staff confidence in us

” He continued, “But it is not just about cheerleading

Our role as leaders is to set the targets and then to remove the barriers preventing our people from achieving them

We do this by observing and listening

As an example, Charlie was doing “work experience” in a branch

Customers could have their parking tickets stamped (“chopped”) to be validated

But there was only one stamp in the office

This meant that staff would have to continually get up to get the stamp

Charlie asked branch staff, “Why don’t we give all of the service staff a stamp to make it easier for them?” He explained, “When you do this, staff see that you are trying to make their jobs easier, to give them the right tools and processes”

He continued, “When we visit the branches, we look at the staff working conditions

Are they safe? Is it a good working environment? The danger is in seeing it but not doing something about it

This senior leadership team understands the power of leadership visibility 

The senior team spends one day a year working in operations… “Staff see that we care about them…” 

So, let’s summarise so far

The senior leadership team spends well over a month a year understanding the organisation by visiting branches and insurance agencies

They work alongside employees for a day a year

And, by their presence, they recognise the efforts of their employees at the end of each month

This senior leadership team clearly understands what many do not – the power of leadership visibility as a means to build trust

Brand-building open communication 

When Charlie talks to employees and agents, he focuses on what’s in it for them

“I talk to them about how we can make their lives better

We talk about how, if staff and agents work together as a team, then they will achieve more

And if they achieve more, the company will do better

Our people get excited as they can see that there is something in it for them if they achieve their goals

” This is effective and almost counter-intuitive to how most leaders speak

The normal leader would say, “If the company does better, you will do better

” But then again, I was finding out that Charlie was not your normal CEO

First-hand observations help senior management ask better questions 

Focus discussions with staff on what’s in it for them 

Armed with observations and information from their many interactions within the company, Charlie and his senior team are able to ask more relevant and in-depth questions

“If I have concerns, I ask, ‘Hey, I have seen this

What do you think?’”Since Charlie and his team have built trust, there is a greater willingness among staff and agents to be more open in giving their opinions

Charlie is transparent in his communication with staff and agents

“If I see some trends or behaviours that I do not think are good, I will ask them to please stop,” he said

“We often hear that things are not working

I reminded agents how quick they were to complain, but that we rarely heard compliments,” he continued

The impact? “We now get lots of compliments from agents – and we flash them up during our road show and meetings

It’s great to see the big smiles from the relevant staff

Staff are learning that it is okay to disagree in meetings 

Charlie has a monthly meeting with groups of six to eight middle managers

“We talk about anything they want to talk about

They are learning that disagreement is okay

It’s not about them, but, rather, about the organisation

They now feel that they can speak out more and are more confident

in the Executive Committee,” he said

Values help build Prudential culture 

Values play an important role in building the Prudential Malaysia culture

The company has four values – Innovate and Create Opportunities, Demonstrate Care and Understanding, Collaborate, and Deliver Excellence

Prudential has strived to make the values real and tangible, so that staff behaviours will be guided by them

Values alignment plays an important role in the recruitment process 

“When I am interviewing a person for a position, I look at their experience and their values

I see how excited they are when they share their stories that demonstrate how they connect with the values

They can’t fake it,” he said

This behavioural style of interviewing is applied further down the organisation

The company has a well-defined set of metrics in place, relevant to all levels in the organisation

“We have a clear message: not achieving our goals is not acceptable,” he emphasised

And there is an incentive to demonstrate the four values in the workplace: 25% of staff performance evaluations are based on a rating of how well they demonstrated the company values

Well placed incentives build collaboration 

We all know that great teams can create great results

Charlie said, “Last year I told staff that if we achieved our target of RM600m by September, then all staff and agents that met minimum production levels would be paid RM100

We said to staff to work with distribution (insurance agency) staff and agents,” he said

“We then saw behaviour changes – more collaboration, and more referral business from staff to agents,” he continued

Simple incentives can have priceless impacts on teamwork and results 

Prudential Malaysia overshot its target and broke through the RM1billion mark in turnover for the first time ever in December 2010

Teamwork and collaboration played a major role in achieving this

“RM100 is not a lot of money

I think the meaning behind it is what made it priceless

Many employees kept the RM100 as a memento to mark this special achievement,” he said

The power of appreciation 

The end of each month close is a big event for the underwriting staff at Prudential

It inevitably means extra hours

“Staff typically come in on the weekend before the end of the month to settle the final paperwork

We provide lunch and our senior people make it a point of joining and engaging with them,” he said

And, from time to time, the company engages in random (but well thought-through) acts of culture building – like giving a free ice-cream to every employee in the country as a sign of appreciation

Strengthening the Prudential Brand 

So, where is Prudential along its journey? The Executive Team has focused on getting the fundamentals right – building trust, team and the culture – and now it is time to continue along the journey of providing the best customer experience of any insurance company in Malaysia

Charlie explained that there is still much to be done to reach out to customers and to further strengthen our brand in Malaysia

“I never say that we have arrived

We are consistently looking for ways to do things better

I want to make sure that we create a very strong leadership and management team

We need to get the right people with a performance focus

And we need to create the right environment where people feel engaged,” he added



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