How do you value improving others?

I was talking a while back with the very wise Stefan Stern about the notion of talent and where we place value. One of the things I think we genuinely undervalue is the ability to build or realise capacity/capability in others. The ability to support the development of colleagues or your team to be better. This post is about me not being smart enough to solve something.

Throughout my career I’ve known a top tier within this group – a group of leaders that other people tend to find out by repute. People that folk would move organisation or team to work for them – at times even taking a salary hit compared to what they could get on the open market. Despite the fact these people stand out I often think we fail to recognise their value, all too often focusing on the individual contribution. A person’s performance – for me – should be the net amount the business benefits from their presence. That includes the uplift in the performance of colleagues.

So my half baked idea is to try and create a market for these skills by giving that recognition a market value. I’ve been intrigued by an organisation called Satalia recently that have allowed individuals to set their own salaries. I’m wondering how this would work for choice of manager. I have a few ideas – all flawed – but I’d like to hear better ones (I’m using manager and leader interchangeably below – I’m sure some of you will struggle with that and I’m sorry for your struggles. Stay strong)

i) give people a set amount (similar to benefits) that allows them to bid to work for a manager issues: it takes more funds and there’s no guarantee of an uplift in performance

ii) use a pretend currency to allow people to vote who they would like to work for and then reward the managers accordingly issues: votes might well be cast on popularity rather than capability

iii) give managers a cash bonus for successful promotions from their area issues: it could incentivise the wrong type of behaviour and there is quite often a significant lag in terms of working out if a promotion has worked out and causes of success/failure can be varied

iv) ask people to rate their manager based on how well they support their development issues: it falls foul of the popular vs good issue again

It’s clear that I’m coming up short – well short – but finding a way to value something that is undervalued would be quite a trick. We simply undervalue the importance of managers who are localised talent factories (or finishing schools or any term you prefer). Any ideas? Let me know.

We are moving towards letting people take more control of their development – but the biggest influence on most people’s careers is still the people they get the fortune or misfortune to work for…

Single action bias and HR

In response to uncertain and risky situations, humans have a tendency to focus and simplify their decision making. Individuals responding to a threat are likely to rely on one action, even when it provides only incremental protection or risk reduction and may not be the most effective option.

People often take no further action, presumably because the first one succeeded in reducing their feeling of worry or vulnerability. I’ve seen this happen. This phenomenon is, apparently, called the single action bias Source

(please note I can only find one reference to this, so do your own research if you’d like it to form the basis of your next big life/work decision).

I spent half a day this week taking some colleagues through what I called an ‘Introduction to an Introduction to OD’. We covered some of the intent, some of the terminology and a couple of useful models for helping understand culture and organisations. The most important thing for me to convey was probably the sense of interdependency between different elements of an organisation. If you change an element in isolation it has often unanticipated ramifications. If you fail to think of the system when making a change you will be successful only if lucky.

If you ask someone what change they would like to see in an organisation – and ask them to think what they’d need to do to make that change happen – then one of two things tends to emerge

– they go high level (or vague) with no further support for their position and often stop slightly defeated (‘the culture just needs to change’)

– they go low level (‘we’ll change the process and then people will change their behaviour’)

Their answers often amount to ‘we will do x and y’. Even for desired significant organisational change people often identify just a couple of things to change (often structure or a process) and then stop.

I can understand why.

When you are attempting something significant, maybe something that takes some bravery to deliver, it is easy to think about that one tricky thing is possibly more than can be reasonably expected of you. That bold step can be hard to contemplate in itself.

However it’s rare that anything succeeds in isolation and it’s rare that the thing you change is likely to be the only thing that needs to change to bring improvement. Indeed changing anything in isolation of the broader leadership or environment is often superficial or doomed to fail due to social pressure and expectation trumping your process change.

So keep asking ‘And what else would need to change?’.

Keep asking until you are sick of it.

Keep asking until you have a plan that covers as many elements of the organisation’s make up as possible.

A series of interdependent and supportive moves. A plan so wide ranging that it can’t help but succeed. That’s what you need – not one single action, but the much tougher one coordinated plan.

The Organisational Trailer

The trailer is not the story. The story can’t just be the trailer.

When I was younger you only really saw trailers for most films in the cinema. They were a treat. They tended to be quite short and designed to not give anything away. The concept of the release of a trailer being an ‘event’ is a uniquely modern one – with fans and critics alike examining extended trailers that hint at major plot points or climactic scenes. Indeed the director of the new Star Wars film has actually suggested that fans should consider not watching the trailers at all for fear of spoiling the movie.

The interesting consequence of this level of interest is that, increasingly, the sizzle of the trailer is creating unusual side effects. For instance the trailers for Rogue One and for Justice League both contain scenes which bizarrely aren’t actually in the final movie. You are watching snippets from a film to get you to watch the film that, confusingly, aren’t in that film.

In the case of Suicide Squad rumour has it that so much effort was put into getting the tone of the trailer right that a completely disjointed film was the result. The focus on having funky introductions for a range of characters that would play well in trailers left a fragmented and unfulfilling movie. The problem wasn’t just that the best bits weren’t only shown in the trailer; arguably they were the reason for the rest of the movie being worse.

There is a cautionary tale here about allowing yourself to be distracted from the whole by needing to present parts well. We see it in organisations – and I also see similar from suppliers – that the whizz bang organisational trailer doesn’t match the real end product.

When we buy tech we end up being told that what we saw in the demo isn’t quite in the live version – or not for that price. Indeed I spoke to an organisation recently who have made a massive investment in a system and now feel misled by the reality – despite doing everything sensible in the purchase process. But now they are committed. They bought the ticket and the popcorn and drink and it’s too late to go elsewhere.

When we advertise roles we give them the trailer treatment – snapshots of the awesomeness of working here. Except people aren’t just signing up for the trailer – they are signing up for the Peter Jackson extended version with near infinite extra scenes.

So remember that we are in the business of making movies. Stories that need to command people’s attention over time. Not shallow adverts to fool them into buying.

The trailer is not the story. The story can’t just be the trailer.

Swimming Shorts and Unbeaten Runs

Someone once said to me that you can lower your expectations in different circumstances, but your standards should remain the same. It was during the last recession – and their theory was that at the point you blame the external environment for your performance it is tempting to let all blame fall on that environment: to become expectant of failure and therefore lower standards.

It’s OK to lower the expectations, but not for that to poison your standards. They suggested the only thing you could do was keep your focus on what you expect from people in terms of input – but understand that the output might drop.

They talked about a hotel chain that had in the annual report at the time of the Gulf War a comment that results were perhaps down due to apprehension about travel. That statement remained in there for a decade as it became a locked in excuse for poor delivery. Performance fell because standards were allowed to become informed by lazy expectations.

Manchester City and Celtic football clubs have both recently lost football matches to end long unbeaten runs. The thing is that there is an element of chance in what we do – even if a team is 95% likely not to lose a match you would still expect it to lose 1 in 20. It’s just chance as to when that 1 game in 20 arrives.

Neither club could plan to go a whole season unbeaten – you can only make sure you are preparing to compete as best as you can. I try and set my standards high for my teams – but the expectations can vary. Everybody needs to know what good looks like, but they should also know that sometimes stuff is out of your hands. But your input is always in your control.

It’s too easy to focus on outcome and lose track of what people put in – you can win a football match because you got lucky. You don’t win them consistently without exceptional standards.

I remember seeing Malcolm Gladwell speak years ago and he described the financial crisis like this ‘When the tide goes out you can see who has been swimming without shorts’

Always wear shorts. That’s the standard.


Onboarding is a terrible term. Somewhere someone’s CV has ‘I coined the term ‘onboarding” written on it and they should be proud of getting something into such common usage and slightly apologetic that we use such an odd term to mean ‘make welcome and give support’. I often hear people say they are looking forward to

  • Joining my new company 
  • Making a fresh start
  • Getting to meet my new team
  • Making a start on the work
  • Getting their head around what they need to do

I have never, ever, ever, ever heard anyone say that they were looking forward to being ‘onboarded’. 

But now I’ve had a rant I wanted to thank Ramaa Ramesh for commenting on one of my older blogs. Ramaa pointed out that we don’t often treat people like OUR success depends upon them. It’s a subtle but important mindset that involves more ownership and thinking.

If your success as an organisation is vested in and dependent on the success of your new starters then how would you do things differently? Would you ‘onboard’ them or would you do your level best to work with and support them to ensure that they make a great and productive start to their new role?

Hat tip once again to Tim Harford’s Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy (onboarding wasn’t one of them). 

And yes, I pressed publish on purpose this time. Sorry once again if you are a regular reader. 

What is democratic leadership?

Edmund Burke said that an MP “owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”

In these days of conversation about how democratic an organisation could/should be I think it’s worth considering the above. That democracy isn’t a straight vote on every topic, but the choice of representation – not always possible in organisations. I like Burke’s point that popular and right are not always in alignment – and that the MP/leader has an accountability to do what they believe to be right.

In business, as well as in politics, there is an imbalance in the distribution of information and leaders need conviction as well as the ability to listen. Leading involves decision making and clarity. Leading involves both being being able to resist the wish to be popular AND the humility to understand you are not always right. It’s a tough pair of challenges to reconcile.

In any change there is a requirement of the leader to understand their part in it – what they believe and what they are influencing. How they are bringing the best possible future into a position where it is the most likely. It’s a tricky balance.

Which wins out of right and popular? Which should win? How often do you get to be both together?

My guess is leaders don’t often reflect enough on these trade offs. The best I’ve seen create a trust that the path they advocate is the right one. I imagine that is also their Achilles Heel too. It’s complex.

(inspired by some shares from Karen Teago and this article I randomly ended up on after some clicks…. I don’t normally read The New Statesman)