Earning your story: A conversation with Nigel Miller

“Our goal at Edelman,” says Nigel Miller, the firm’s Chief HR Officer, “is to help our clients tell engaging stories, stories that stakeholders are naturally attracted to. It’s not about making people buy your message, or even forcing them to see it, it’s about earning your story through trust, authenticity and a genuine commitment to the truth.”

We spoke with Nigel about his journey to Edelman, his experience of reviving an historic brewery in Canada and his views on hiring, burnout, and leadership.

Nigel’s key takeaways

  • Line management training among the best practical ways of preventing burnout in the workplace. You can talk all you want about wellness, but without engaged, committed management, workplace stress will remain a problem. 

  • Good leaders understand their natural leadership style. Do you lead better through workshops or one-on-ones, for instance? Or are you an introverted leader? 

  • Company culture describes how things get done. How do your most important decisions reflect your values? And what sort of behavior gets rewarded? 

  • Celebrate “lollipop moments” in the office: Acts of everyday leadership should be encouraged and rewarded. 

What attracted you to HR? And have you always been drawn to communications?

I began my career as a communications consultant in Canada, before working in the US and Internationally, so you could say that storytelling has been a mainstay throughout. While I was working for one of Edelman’s competitors, I was hired by my client, Labatt, who are a big Canadian beer company who subsequently became part of AB-InBev. This was an exciting period for me as I helped lead the massive culture change and transformation at what had suddenly become the world’s biggest beer company. It was also my first direct exposure to Edelman, who we hired to help us on this journey.

It was this experience that started my full-on transition from communications to HR leadership, probably with the realization that my greatest passion was around employee engagement and aligning a global team behind a common vision and sense of purpose.

Edelman, in many respects, brought me back to my roots. It’s the business that I love and really understand from the ground up. I’m very proud of the work we do for our clients, and supporting it from an HR perspective is an unbelievable coming together of my two main professional interests: compelling communication and inspiring people to be their best.

What attributes do you look for when hiring?

One of the core things that I look for is a passion for knowledge, an innate sense of curiosity. When I’m interviewing someone straight out of university I’ll often ask them to tell me what they learned – what did they take away from the experience? Often I’ll get a fairly rote answer, like “I studied maths or I studied economics. But that’s not what I’m after. It’s fairly easy to see what they studied by reading their CV.”

Perhaps they had a part-time job at a pizza shop, or perhaps they worked in a bar where they had to deal with difficult customers. This is the sort of real-life experience that I’m interested in. It’s important that we have people who have a passion for learning and knowledge because we need people who can pass this onto their clients. A good consultant is a curious consultant.

By the time I get to interview candidates they’ve already passed the checkpoints that determine whether they’ll be any good in the role, so it’s our job to ask those deeper questions to see if they’ve got the right cultural fit. Do they have the drive to be successful? Can they inspire others? Are they collaborative? Are they resilient?

It’s been true wherever I’ve worked: resilience is a must. Change is a constant so your ability to thrive when things are in flux has a big impact on whether you succeed or not. We want people who are up for the challenge and who can stay calm under pressure and think clearly in situations of high stress. And we look for people who are willing to work hard; this doesn’t mean you need to work long hours, but you need to work hard.

What’s your approach to wellness at Edelman? And how do you manage burnout?

It’s something that every organisation is grappling with right now because there are so many external forces creating stress. Given that Edelman can’t necessarily do anything about this, we have to think carefully about what we can do in the workplace to help our teams manage their workload.

Line management training is the best practical way of reducing stress levels. Most people find dealing with a bad manager the most stressful part of their job.

“To put it the other way, people tend to work harder and more effectively when their boss respects them and cares about their welfare. When people understand their role clearly, when they know how they add value and what good looks like in their role, they perform to the best of their abilities.”

There’s nothing worse than having employees who go home not knowing whether they’ve done a good job. It sounds so fundamental and obvious, but it’s a key to managing against burnout.

What makes a good manager? And what does Edelman’s line manager training look like?

The line manager training is something that we’ve adapted recently to help managers understand their own own intuitive leadership styles. It may sound airy-fairy but it’s actually really important for our leaders to understand what their intuition leads them to do. How do I assess people? What’s my unconscious bias? And what are the intuitions and natural inclinations of my team members? These are the sorts of things that we’re interested in helping our leaders explore, and we do this through DISC training.

We want to make sure that our managers are first and foremost good leaders. But what does this actually mean? It comes down to making expectations clear, giving your team the space for creativity and collaboration, and genuinely caring for them. I’m still surprised if leaders don’t prioritize the time to have quality conversations with their team to listen to how people are doing, how they’re managing their work life balance. It’s not always about assigning work – it’s about drawing out their best work and their best selves.

What’s been your best learning experience?

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to lead a big project tasked with restoring the oldest brewery in Canada. On a lovely site on the historic Halifax waterfront, the Alexander Keith’s Brewery became, as result of this project, the oldest working brewing operation in the country and in many ways a shrine for the legendary brand.

At the time, I didn’t have much experience at influencing across multiple functions, so I had to quickly learn. From liaising with the finance department and the board to secure funding to working with public officials to make sure we could pull off the renovation in keeping with city bylaws, I was constantly having to work with different business functions to get the job done.

As a team we were able to build something special, and to this day I’m still proud of our work together. That’s why I always tell young people to search out projects that will allow you to grow into the role.

What would you include on your learning playlist?

When I was at InBev, I had the good fortune of getting to know Jim Collins well. I’m a big believer in fact-based reasoning and he’s the sort of guy who does a lot of research before writing his books. The funny thing is that his two most famous books Good to Great  and Built to Last  were written in the wrong order. Where Good to Great looks at how organisations can go from being good organisations to sustainably great ones, Built to Last explores how you get there in the first place.

The insights are simple yet powerful, and I particularly like the time devoted to company culture. Analogies such as getting the right people on the bus and in the right seat are great reminders that you can’t get where you want to if you don’t invest properly in your people. Another book, an oldie but a goodie, is called The Power of Full Engagement  by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. If you’re interested in age-old principles on well-being, then Loehr and Schwartz are your go-to-guys. The main thrust of the book is that human beings have a vast reserve of energy, but that you can’t just tap into it automatically; there are times when you need to take time out in whatever form that’s best for you so that you can restore energy and be at your best. A book that I often give to people at the start of their careers is Who Moved my Cheese, a quick read on how to adapt to change. It’s all about how to find a way around corners and see opportunity in change.

And in terms of talks, I like a Ted Talk on the idea of “lollipop moments”. It’’s a talk that I’ve used frequently to motivate teams. Like virtually every Ted speaker, Drew Dudley’s a beautiful storyteller. He recounts a moment in college that he gave a lollipop to a girl who had just arrived at university, and it helped her get over her initial fears of settling in. From this analogy he has a call to action for more people to embrace their lollipop moments and find their own unique ways to lead effectively. From the movies, among my favourite “speeches” is Al Pacino’s halftime pep talk in Any Given Sunday. It’s among the great actor’s finest moments, but also a reminder of the importance of trust and common purpose within teams.

How do you build a compelling company culture?

Culture is a frequently used word, but for us it describes how things get done: it’s not the what but the how. The first thing to do, then, is articulate what’s important in how you do things. If that manifests itself in a set of values then you’ve got to work really hard to make sure that they’re values that you fully believe in. Make them clear, visible, foundational. As you move forward as a company, you should always refer back to them.

But you may not know how to bring your values to life, and you wouldn’t be alone. Stories are obviously a great way to do this, so think about how you can use narrative to capture real-life examples of your values in action. Ultimately, the most important thing is that your senior people live your values; they need to be role models. What non-negotiable values will people see reflected in the actions of your senior team?

Then it comes down to decision making. How do your most important decisions reflect your values? And what sort of behaviour is rewarded? The worst thing you can have here is contradiction: it’s no good saying one thing and then brushing your words aside by doing something else.

Your values can even express themselves in the physical layout of your office. When I was at AB-InBev we were conscious that our office plan had to reflect our drive to make it a transparent, open place to work, so thinking about the visible manifestation of our culture was an important consideration. It should be abundantly clear where you stand.

In short

Nigel Miller’s commitment to driving change through storytelling has seen him continually rewrite his own story. From helping drinks giants like Coke and AB-InBev streamline their communications to helping Edelman unearth and retain the next generation of corporate storytellers, the narrative arc of Nigel’s career is united only by a desire to connect people, place and culture.