How organizations are damaged by personal vendettas

A particular purchasing order was not processed by procurement, because information was missing. Every time the person submitting the order corrected it, and every time procurement claimed the necessary information was still missing. The problem continued for weeks, and still the order wasn’t processed. HR got involved, and found out the person from procurement had applied for a role in the other department six months ago, but had been rejected. Nothing could be proven, but it looked like the person from procurement deliberately sabotaged the purchasing order by deleted information from it.

After working with a client for over a decade, a supplier was kicked out of the door. The suppliers’ director learned his account manager had broken off a relationship with a person at the receiving department at the client. This person made sure the supplier was replaced, even though it meant his organization had to go through a series of acceptance tests to be able to change to a new supplier.

An assistant felt her superior treated her too arrogantly. Subsequently, she didn’t pass important information on to him. It made him look stupid and disinterested towards others. Several similar incidents followed, in the end leading to a discontinuation of the manager’s contract.

There are several lessons to be learned. One could say, always treat someone with respect, to ensure this won’t happen. And although that is really good advice anyway, it’s not the main problem in the cases above.

Sometimes, people go after a colleague, or sometimes a whole organization, with a vengeance. They feel wronged, and want to get even. They misuse their power to play out their revenge. Instead of using normal strategies to solve a painful situation, their desire to hurt someone makes them lose sight of the bigger picture. Or worse, they just don’t care about hurting a lot of other people (or a whole organization) in the process.

Such people are poison for any organization. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you shouldn’t meddle in their personal disputes. People who don’t care how much they hurt the organization, and just focus on soothing their own hurt ego, will eventually stop your organization in its tracks. They cause hiccups in processes, radiate negative energy, and cause others to spend a lot of time on repairing or working around the damage they cause. Take your role, protect your organization and people, and show everyone such behavior is not acceptable.

How to save money (and avoid implementing expensive, useless solutions)

In a multinational, the CEO found it hard to make different country organizations share resources with each other. If one country had a shortage, the country manager would rather buy additional equipment, or hire new employees, instead of asking others to pitch in. And even if the country manager would ask another, he would get evasive answers and end up with nothing. The CEO felt the downtime for equipment, and indirect hours for employees, could be optimized, if they would just share more with each other.

The CEO decided to buy a fancy planning system. The selection of a system, customizing it, filling it with data, and training people, took two years (instead of the foreseen one year). But then the CEO happily leaned back, looking forward to the increase in profitability due to lower downtime for equipment and personnel.

After half a year, the numbers had not improved. The CEO questioned his country managers. Why were they still not sharing?

Some of them complained: “We have loaned equipment to another country, but we didn’t get it back on the promised date, and had to disappoint one of our own clients. So now we don’t share our precious resources anymore”. Others said: “Well, we want to share, but you see, customs and other legal hurdles are just making it impossible to exchange resources”. A third group lamented: “We love the idea, but still, when we ask for resources, no one is willing to share” (and they had perfectly plausible excuses why they hadn’t been able to loan their own resources to others).

The CEO hired an additional person to oversee the planning system, and force country managers to share. After another six months, figures had slightly improved. But the person left exhausted and frustrated, as she had to fight everyone, every day, for little benefits. Soon, the numbers went back to what they were before.

Several organizations struggle with the same problem. Rationally, the idea of sharing makes sense. But if you face such a problem, you need to investigate the real problem first. In this case, it wasn’t the lack of a system that was holding people back. The real causes were:

  • The lack in willingness to share one’s own valuable resources with others. Fears such as: what if my important client suddenly asks me for this equipment? What if my people don’t want to go to another country? Or when I’d rather keep them to myself?
  • The lack of trust that their colleagues would give them their best. What if I ask for someone else’s people, and I get the bad ones, that endanger my relation with my client? Or when I get equipment that is broken down? Who is going to pay for the additional cost of letting the employees travel, or for repairing broken equipment?
  • The CEO not pushing for what he really wanted: lower costs for the same amount of profit. This was a fairly entrepreneurial organization. Once the country managers understood the CEO wanted a higher usage of the equipment and personnel to increase profit, they worked harder to get extra projects, especially in otherwise quiet periods, to show they really needed their equipment and people themselves. And when pushed for lower costs, they did start to share the expensive, rarely used resources, as they didn’t want to defend those high costs on their balance sheet anyway.

There are numerous similar examples. Systems, or procedures, or models are implemented, meant to solve problems that have to do with behavior of people. Before you implement a solution, make sure you have a good understanding of the real underlying problems. Then come up with solutions that address the behavior you want to change, instead of allowing such evasive behaviors.

How observing others can train you more effectively than most leadership training can

Previously, I posted “Anyone can create a good leader (more effectively than most leadership training can)”. It was about the importance of reinforcing positive leadership behaviors you see around you.

This time I’d like to emphasize what we can learn every day from leadership examples around us. From positive examples, as described in the previous post, but also from (at first) seemingly random examples.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a group in the restaurant of a hotel. The person who paid, added a tip on the credit card slip in the appropriate slot. When the waitress returned the credit card, she said: “The tip you added won’t go to the hotel staff. So I didn’t charge you for it…” We left the restaurant stunned.

Apparently, she preferred us to keep the money instead of paying it to the hotel. She probably thought: if the hotel owner doesn’t allow the staff to earn a bit extra for work well done, what is the point of a customer paying extra? And indeed, we meant the tip to go to the personnel, and not end up in the hotel owner’s pocket. However, although we appreciated her honesty, it left us with a strange impression of the place. How does this hotel treat it’s employees? Why does this employee feel more sympathetic to the customer than to her boss, so much so, that she gives money back to the customer?

Of course we don’t know the whole story. There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation why the staff is not paid their tips (maybe their base salary is much higher than restaurants in the neighborhood, or they get compensated another way). Whatever the situation is, the personnel clearly isn’t happy. This has an effect on being able to attract and retain good staff. It also has an effect on customers. A customer’s impression is quite important in an industry based on service. And this didn’t leave a great impression.

When you are a manager, you don’t want your employees to behave like that. Of course, you can’t always be their most favorite and popular person. But you certainly don’t want to turn your employees against the company.

Turn situations like this into questions about your own team. What are your people telling customers? What kind of impression does the company want to give customers? And if there’s a discrepancy, what is the cause? Are your people committed to the organization, and want to boost it forward? Or are they just earning their money, while frantically looking for other, more interesting, opportunities?

Understand what is happening in your team, and why it is happening. And address issues when they arise.

And keep your eyes peeled, as interesting leadership lessons like these come along every day.

Do you put your people first, or the organization?

In my experience, the majority of leaders fall into two categories:

  • the ones that put their people first
  • and the ones that put their unit (organization, department) first.

It’s a chicken and egg situation: should you first take care of the employees (who can then take care of the organization), or of the organization (which can then take care of the employees)?

The first group believes a leader should ensure people are motivated and happy. They can come across as soft. While debating an important decision they might say things like ‘I want people to agree’. Or ‘This decision should impact people in a positive way’. They strongly believe people are at their best when their motivation is intrinsic, and they enjoy coming to work.

It might seem to others they believe the workplace should be a free-for-all just-do-what-you-like happy space. But that is not the case. Their basic believe is that the organization wouldn’t exist without its people, and motivated, fulfilled employees make a better and more profitable organization. In order to achieve this, the organization sometimes has to make sacrifices for the people. With good pay and secondary benefits, but also with molding a job to someone’s strengths, or giving people leeway when they need it. They are convinced that as a result, the organization will benefit as well.

The second group believes the organization and results should come first. Their basic believe is that the people wouldn’t be there if the organization didn’t do well. So instead of the organization having to make sacrifices for the people, they feel employees have to make sacrifices for the organization. They strongly believe the organization needs to thrive and can then take care of its people.

They can come across as tough, because they might say things like ‘X will have to do this job whether he likes it or not, because it is best for the organization’, or ‘We first and foremost need to deliver, no matter what it takes.’ Most of them do not believe results are so important that all other values should take a back seat, but they do believe that the best way to take care of your people is to focus on keeping the organization healthy and doing well.

Although I belong to the first group, I can see where the second group comes from. More importantly, I’m convinced the two groups need each other. People have different perspectives, and we should value that. If one group prevails, it leads to a singular culture and tunnel vision. Marrying the two beliefs often leads to meaningful discussions from a broad perspective, and better outcomes. Yes, you’ll have heated debates and deep-rooted differences of opinion. But it is needed for a well-balanced organization.

For a healthy, balanced approach, ask yourself:

  • Which category do you belong to?
  • And your colleagues?
  • Do you personally allow for others to share their vision, and to ensure a balanced approach in your organization?

Anyone can create a good leader (more effectively than most leadership training can)

“Ladies and gentlemen. I am the captain of this flight, and I would like to inform you about our departure.” A wave of sighs and apprehension ripples through the hundreds of people, forming a line, about to board the aircraft. “As the airport of our destination has delays due to bad weather, I have decided to not let you board yet, until traffic control can give us a more precise time window for departure. I am very sorry, I apologize, and in thirty minutes I will come back to you with more information.” He then walked around through the crowd, and checked whether people had additional questions.

I love to see an unexpected example of great leadership in everyday life. With those few lines, the captain:

  • showed he wasn’t afraid to stand in front of a crowd to give a bad message;
  • took responsibility (“I decided not to board yet”), in order to divert potential angry passengers away from his colleagues, towards himself;
  • was clear about what information he did and didn’t have, and when people could expect additional information.

The situation had the potential to become messy. Nobody likes an unexpected, unintended change to their plans. And frustrated, often tired, passengers can get angry quickly if they feel they’re not helped immediately and adequately. But because this KLM captain was brave enough to face the crowd head-on, in a courteous manner, he defused a potential explosive situation, and protected his crew.

Another example.

“I am proud to start as the new director of this great school. My ideal is for parents and teachers to work together, to not only educate, but raise your children in the best way. We all need to responsibly interact with each other, with this goal in mind. That said, I will not accept the way one teacher was trashed last year by several parents in the class whatsapp group. In case you disagree with a teacher, please talk to the teacher directly, or to me. And I also expect every parent to stop a whatsapp thread that’s being disrespectful or downright damaging to anyone. Please, let’s work together to make this school and it’s culture a great environment for your children to grow up in, and look up to for guidance.”

With this, the director:

  • addressed the most important purpose of his job: to educate children attending the school – not only to teach them math and history and grammar, but also to raise them to become responsible and respectful citizens;
  • stood up for his teachers;
  • made clear what he expected of parents, as nowadays parents seem very vocal about their expectations of schools and what they feel they and their children are entitled to – but are sometimes less aware of their own duties playing a part of creating a good school environment.

Both stood up for their people (invoking my immediate admiration), communicated information well, and addressed their audience respectfully, clearly, and adequately.

I’m happy, every time I encounter great leadership like that. For them. For the people they are responsible for. For passengers, or parents, or clients. And for me, because it’s heartwarming to see many real-life examples of great leadership.

Some of you might say: that’s their damned job! Well, yes. They handled it the way any captain and any school director should. But we all have experiences where they didn’t, so we know excellent leadership behaviors aren’t that common. With bad examples we are usually quick to express our disapproval and criticism. So why wouldn’t we equally express our appreciation of good ones?

As HR manager, I’ve seen how important positive feedback is in someone’s development. Positive feedback makes people do more of what they did. It teaches them what behavior works well, in a more effective way than most leadership training can. Once I realized this, I tried to let people know I appreciated them. Not only professionally, but also in the day-to-day examples as above. I let them know why they were great by telling them, or sending an email, or just by giving them a quick thumbs-up. I want them to know someone appreciates them for doing a great job. And hopefully it gives them the encouragement that anyone needs, no matter how good they are, to keep up their good work.

If you want to see more great examples of leadership around you, start giving positive encouragement when you like what someone does. Let them know. Make their day. Be part of improving the level of leadership everywhere around us; one compliment at a time.

How to (wrongly) implement a big culture change

A mid-sized international organization had not been growing for about a decade, despite significant market growth in their area. They stayed behind compared to several competitors, who had increased both in size as well as profits. After a few years of internal fights about who would take over the helm from the retiring owner, a new, strong leader was appointed.

He dutifully followed an unwritten rule that many newly appointed leaders seem to like to: he initiated a culture change. Although often an unnecessary step a new leader takes to demonstrate his strength and vision, for this particular organization it was actually needed and long overdue.

I’m not a big fan of grand overhauls of organizations, but this one had become a dinosaur and really needed to get fast-tracked into a modern, functional organization. In previous years they had turned a blind eye to underperformance, tolerated a high attrition rates among staff and an equally high attrition rate for clients, and accepted stagnating or even declining turnovers.

Energetically, the new top manager overhauled the performance management system. He implemented stricter defined targets, with a closer follow-up routine, and a stronger link to pay. The gap with the previous approach intentionally was big. Leaders know the new approach always gets softened down the line, and have to take care that the organization does not just infuse the old culture with minor new elements. So he created a big shockwave through the organization, aiming for real cultural change.

Fast forward to one year later.

The new buzz words, introduced to symbolize the culture change, were used everywhere. So changes must have happened, right? But upon closer look, people just used the new language while stubbornly sustaining a continuation of the old culture.

What went wrong?

  1. The company had a strong preference for leaders rising through the ranks. In itself, I am a very big fan of developing your own. But when you want a significant culture change, you have to choose leaders who will support it. That can be done by people in your own organization, but usually not the ones that were put on the succession planning by the previous senior managers, in the old culture setting. You are more likely to find them in a corner of the organization, as they didn’t quite fit in and established management tried to isolate them. In this case, the newly appointed leaders had already been infected by the disease the organization needed to get rid of.
  2. They hired new employees fitting the new requirements, and drilled them from the beginning to become advocates of the new culture. They hoped the new people would soon be more successful than the existing, change-resisting stagnant employees. And change the company culture from bottom-up. They didn’t reckon with the force of socialization: new employees, who are in the minority and dependent on their bosses and co-workers, will adapt soon to the current ways of working of an organization. When they started they saw a different culture than they were promised when they were hired, but they adapted in order to survive.
  3. They made exceptions when applying the new rigorous performance management. They claimed the performance targets were purely based on meritocracy, however for certain individuals targets were adjusted or compensated for unclear reasons. Soon people felt the system was rigged, or at least tilted. In addition, most of the non-performers, who happened to come out of the same cohorts as the new leadership, were still condoned. The message new employees got, was that underperformance was only addressed with people the current leaders hadn’t bonded with yet.

What could the new leader have done differently, in order to achieve the desired cultural change?

In the few cases where a drastic culture change is necessary, it needs to be implemented drastically. There is no room for condoning old-culture behavior. Once an exception is made, the message people get is that the culture change will be watered down. The new leaders (the level below top management) have to be fully on board. And, most importantly, there can’t be tolerance of underperformance, especially not from the ‘old’ crowd.

A drastic culture change takes a lot of energy. Once you start to make allowances for old-culture behavior, the change won’t happen, and you might as well not have put any energy in it at all.  You have to go for it all the way.

The high-performing, high-risk, high-potential

Almost all organizations hope to spot their talents early, to develop their future leaders. Much is written about how to make high-potential development successful, as the return on investment of such programs is questionable.

But what about the risk of successfully developing high-potentials?

I’ve seen more failures than successes with high-potential development programs. Everyone is happy when they find that rare jewel: highly intelligent, extremely driven, excellent social skills, strong focus, highly adaptive to changes, charges into difficult situations head-on. The one that sees opportunities where others don’t, is not afraid to go out of her comfort zone where others safely stay within, excitedly takes on new challenges and acquires new skills along the way.

The one person that made me realize high-potentials can be high risk, was exactly like that. The organization happily provided him with challenging assignments and new opportunities, rotating him through jobs every one or two years. Very quick, but necessary when you’re grooming a CEO for a big multinational. You want them to move up ranks quickly enough to reach CEO level somewhere before they’re sixty.

This suited the high-potential as well. His desire to be challenged was met through assignments in different types of jobs, quick career moves through several management layers, working out of several locations.

After time, a tricky pattern emerged. Even if such a high-potential didn’t start out as adrenaline junkie, ten or fifteen years of quick career moves and constant new challenges effectively made him one. He needed challenges, bigger ones every time, with little time in between. He didn’t merely survive well under pressure, but needed stressful circumstances to be at his best. He actively was seeking exciting experiences.

For a long time, the organization could provide that through new career moves. But once the high-potential-turned-top-manager reached the highest ranks, the promotion speed inevitably slowed down. With only two or three steps to go to the top job, positions weren’t always available when he was ready for it. Besides, (boards of) organizations prefer people to stay for a few years in the more senior jobs to build substance.

By now, this person was wired to get a quick succession of adrenaline rushes through new challenges. After two years in a new role, he got bored and created challenges himself. For example by shaking up the organization by designing a reorganization for which there was no clear need. By seeking changes in his private life. By exploring several risky behaviors, in his quest for new challenges.

At this point, the revered high-potential became a liability. Top management is now faced with a dilemma: he can undoubtedly do the top job, but will he bring himself, and the company, down? Or will he be able to curb his adrenaline seeking behavior and bring the company to new heights?

It will be interesting to see what happens. I sincerely hope he makes it to the top job, as he’s probably the best, most intelligent and likeable leader I’ve witnessed up close. But I also fiercely hope he has at least one or two people around him who are aware of the risk, and will actively work with him to ensure he doesn’t venture onto unnecessary risky paths.

How to reduce the time spent on meetings

Meetings are a necessary part of everyone’s working life. Whether it’s with clients, suppliers, colleagues, bosses, unions, policy makers: we all need to have meetings to work together, come to decisions, or share information. In many organizations, meetings have become the main way for people to interact with each other.

Several studies show that people spend 30-50% of their time in meetings, and consider at least a quarter of them a waste of time. To address this waste, many books, tools, checklists, and trainings have been  conceived on how to conduct effective meetings. Often, they are about how to hold an effective meeting. Sometimes they also deal with the most important questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this meeting? Is the topic really important?
  2. Is a meeting the right way to address this topic, or can it be done by one or two people on their own?
  3. Who are the people that absolutely need to be involved? (and skip the rest)

Yes, I am stating the obvious. It is not revolutionary at all. Everybody knows this, and agrees with it. So why are the number and length of meetings not reduced? What is the underlying human behavior?

Several years ago, I was in a meeting where the management team discussed the color of the carpet of the new building. As I didn’t feel strongly about the topic, I removed myself from the heated debate. Looking around the boardroom, I wondered whether these men and women had imagined doing this when they were in their late teens, early twenties. Had they pictured themselves in a stale meeting room, passionately discussing the color of the new carpet?

I guess not.

At that time, would they have believed that in their forties they would spend more than half an hour deciding whether it should be a light or a dark shade of blue?

Again, probably not.

So, what happened to them along the way? What had changed, that twenty five years later, they were heatedly defending their take on the color of the carpet? Why was it so hard for them to realize, before or during the meeting, that this was not the most effective use of their time?

Because many people always have an opinion, together with the natural urge to share it. Especially in response to hearing someone else’s opinion. Take politicians, doctors, teachers and the like. A few decades ago, they were put on a pedestal, and very few people would question their professional decisions. Nowadays, we all feel we can question everyone, every time, everywhere.

In general that’s a good thing. We should not doggedly follow others, just because they are considered the expert. But we also don’t need to voice, or even have, an opinion on everything, always. Whether it’s about politics, other people’s lives, or the color of the carpet.

The good news: the reduction of the number and length of meetings lies in our direct power. Just by asking ourselves whether we can add value. We should realize that deciding on the shade of blue for the carpet is not adding value in any way. And then remove ourselves from that discussion, and be content with the outcome.

Next time when you’re having a meeting, really ask yourself the three questions above. Determine whether you and the other participants really can add value by having the meeting, or whether you’re just deciding on the color of the carpet.

Job ads for women: A cynic’s alternative

We all know job ads are like real estate ads: you have to master the skill to read between the jubilant lines. At best, job ads paint just a slightly rosy picture of an organization and the advertised role. At worst, the current job holders don’t recognize their daily reality at all in the job ad.

For women this is even more true. After a while we learn that the reality in many organizations is not only different from the job ad, it is also different from what our male colleagues experience.

To demonstrate, here are some cynical (but more realistic) alternatives for job ads aimed at female candidates.

Okay, there are many organizations where not all of the above apply. Still, in almost every organization a few of these are happening every day.

Let’s have a good laugh about this exaggerated job ad – then get to work to identify what still is true in our daily environment, and work together towards a truly equal workplace.

Choose your HR person wisely

I love being in HR. For me, it is the sweetest spot in an organization. Okay, sometimes I am a tiny bit cynical about all we encounter on a daily basis, but still, I wouldn’t want to be in any other profession. Every day you work with people: the most intriguing, the most varied, the most flexible and the most important resources an organization has.

You might say: I don’t feel like the most valued resource when I talk to my HR person. I realize many people have mixed experiences with HR. But I’d like you to think of HR as the person(s) in the best position to help you move on in your career. Yes, also when you didn’t get that promotion, or that training you desired.

A good HR person broadens your view of the world. For example when you feel misunderstood, by your boss, or by headquarters, or by your subordinates. HR can share with you a holistic view of how other people see you. There’s an enormous value in hearing that kind of feedback. Don’t be afraid of it, don’t see it as criticism. Often your HR person is the messenger, who summarizes the broad base of information she has access to. By clarifying how others perceive you, you can see the causality of your intentions, your behavior, and the effect it ultimately has on your surroundings. This can help you improve, and achieve the impact you want to have on others.

A good HR person feels the responsibility for co-creating the foundation of a good environment for all employees. They hope to see someone developing greatly after finding them a suitable training. Or to witness a troublesome team turning into a tightknit focused team after a good intervention.

If you happen to be in the position to be able to choose an HR person, you want someone who helps you with all HR issues that come up. That involves a lot of routine tasks, for which knowledge and experience is important. But to choose the right person, that’s not enough. In fact, there is just one thing you really need to know. What is their motivation? You know you have the right person when you see they are genuinely interested in people, and feel rewarded in seeing other people develop.

Some choose HR for other reasons: they thought it would get them the quickest career; their girlfriend, brother or parent was in HR as well and it seemed an okay job; or they tried other areas of business for a while and now want an “easy” job. I’ve heard all of these for real. Usually from HR people that weren’t successful, and that had very little credit in their organization. This group isn’t genuinely interested in people. They won’t deliver the same results as the people who see HR as a calling.

So next time you recruit for HR, make sure you find out whether they are really interested in people. If not, they won’t give you the added value that HR can be.