He’s a renowned turnaround expert, credited with successfully transforming DHL Express after the 2008 global economic crisis. Media pundits and employees also love him for something else – his love of song. The “singing CEO” Ken Allen, who now heads DHL eCommerce Solutions, talks about how music makes all the difference, even in business strategy.
When he was a young man growing up in Horbury, a small mining town in Yorkshire in the North of England, Ken Allen discovered Northern Soul, a music movement with a heavy beat and fast tempo based on U.S. soul music that was particular to the region.
Dancing to tunes like “Out on the Floor” by Dobie Gray at local clubs, he swiftly took to singing along and using a tune on occasion, be it on a walk with a sweetheart or when making a point to a group of friends. Funny or sweet – Allen had found a way to inject music into conversation when he wanted to make a particular point.
They say you can take the man out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the man. And so, as he moved from the north of England to a career that truly spanned the globe, Ken Allen took the essence of his home county – a humble simplicity, a particular brand of humor and a love of music – added a global twist and created a strategic approach for success.
What does music mean to you?
Emotion – and communication. Music can be very uplifting, can make you energized, calm or focused. It’s also one of the best and simplest ways of communicating with people, across cultures and language barriers. That’s why I’ve introduced music in many of our employee programs, as part of our strategy, and I’ve also sung in front of groups of investors and journalists.
How do you combine music and strategy?
Very simple: In 2010, as our focus shifted from turnaround to success at DHL Express, we created a strategy called “Focus” that just contained four pillars and an underlying foundation of us being the most international company in the world – and one which aspires to be insanely customer centric. We needed to make sure every one of our employees in 220 countries and territories understood this – and we needed to be sure that it was understood by a courier or warehouse worker as much as by a senior manager. That was the only way we could get everyone to move “As One” – something we truly believed to be our key strength. The uniting factor was music. We put a song to each pillar of our strategy and made sure employees across the world knew those songs. They were, for example, sung at town halls and other gatherings.
So, essentially, you’ve used music as a key part of business strategy?
Yes, you could say that. I like to keep things very simple – and music is a simple way of transporting a message to a wide and diverse target audience. So in that sense, it’s a strategic communications element. One needs to carefully calibrate when to use it, though. Obviously, when times are tough, you first need to take a hard look at your business, as we did in 2008-09, for example. Music was what came at the end, as we started to turn around and wanted to ensure that all members of our global team understood where we were headed.
You also used a famous Diana Ross song. Can you tell us more?
Yes indeed – although, as a fan of music, I have to tell you that it was Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye who first sang what would later be the DHL Express theme song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” We first used it in a 1991 ad, and it expresses what DHL is all about. “If you need me, call me. Wherever you are, no matter how far… I’ll be there in a hurry.”
As you need to move with the times, 20 years later we had the song recomposed by renowned producer Paul Epworth, who’s worked with the likes of U2, Adele and Coldplay.
We ran one of the biggest global ad campaigns based on the song that year and produced an app for phones. We also ran internal talent competitions, and our employees and managers across the world often still sing it at internal events. During my time as CEO of DHL Express across Africa, Asia, the Arab world – in fact probably in most of our countries – I had the chance to sing it with people there. It’s simply beautiful. Music unites us all. — Michelle Bach
Published: September 2019
Images: DHL, Getty Images; DHL