Sunday, December 23, 2007

Entering the twilight zone

If you are like me, during the last two months Christmas was just an inconvenient, somewhere in the distant future event. And this year it seemed to creep up on me like it does most years; firstly I spend my time worrying about how I will fit all my work into a shortened timeframe and then all at once I come home to find that Christmas cards from friends and relatives are out numbering invoices and flyers in our letter box. It is then I realize how wonderful it is going to be, to have a few days where, apart from the essential services, everything will stop, forcing me to stop too.

Thus Christmas is my time for re-filling my emotional, physical and even spiritual batteries. So this year, like always, I too will be getting up later, staying in to watch films on TV, calling on friends and family and generally doing nothing of any importance. And yet because everyone else is doing the same, I can do all this without any feeling of guilt. I can relinquish my business responsibilities for personal ones. What joy!

So I suggest we take Kurt’s advice (from his comment on last week’s article ‘Just how important do you think you are’?) and hand over our internet connection keys to our partners and spend a few days doing what it is we should be doing a lot more of during the rest of the year.

So all I need to do now is to wish all my blog readers and commentators “a very happy, peaceful and joyous Christmas”.
I won’t bother wishing anyone any good wishes for 2008 yet, because for now we are in that twilight zone between the two years, in the void where commercial matters are vulgar and totally irrelevant. Wonderful!

Happy Christmas!

PS There will be no blog next week, so the next one will not be until the 6th. – see you in 2008, I am stepping into the twilight zone for a while…

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just how important do you think you really are?

I once heard it said that the ultimate measure of an ‘important’ person is that when they die their death affects the financial stock market. The person telling me this was referring to the circumstance where the variance of the value of the shares of a particular company is so high that it in-turn changes the stock market value world wide (such as the Dow Jones or FTSE). If you are really ‘important’, your death might even influence the exchange rate of a national currency. Of course there are not many of us that are that important (read influential), so the following story / insight might better apply to those of us with a more humble status:

‘The graveyard is full of irreplaceable people’

It was not that many years ago, while I was working on (what was for me and my client) a very important project that mid way through I began to run out of steam. I was tired and suffering from a heavy cold that just would not go away. I was simply ignoring all of Mother Nature’s warnings in the profound belief that keeping the project going at full speed was the only thing that mattered. It was nearly Christmas and my family and children were looking forward to seeing me. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. Once I arrived back in England for the three days I had allocated for family duties, the cold took over and became flu. As a consequence I was forced to spend most of the three days sick in bed recovering. It was then that a wise friend reminded me that ‘The graveyard is full of irreplaceable people’. It is true, so very true.

This year I have seen too many faces I know with the same tired expression that I had, even at times my own, blankly gazing back at me in the mirror. This simply has to stop. There are two fundamental factors that get us to this point:

1. Our ego’s simply ignore the commonsense logic of responsible delegation.
2. Taking on too much in the first place, not being able to say ‘no’

Re: 1. Too often I hear, ‘it’s not that simple, I simply do not have anyone I can delegate to, and if I did it would take longer to explain it to them than simply doing it myself’. Nonsense! Just take a look at really successful people and you will find a common tendency in their ability to delegate. It comes naturally to them.
Re: 2. ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’. This wise saying is true because ‘busy’ people have an uncanny knack of filling their free time with important and useful activities. But what on earth can be more important than spending a little quality time with our loved ones? After all our families and friends are our sponsors, they are often the people who give us the space to do what we do.

So when you find yourself in a frame of mind where you think you momentarily irreplacable, don’t kid yourself. During my career I have seen many irreplaceable people drop dead, only to notice that within days and weeks of their untimely departure their business world is back to normal again. Someone always steps into the vacant position. Often the business realizes that the person’s workload was too much, so they allocate their tasks to a number of profiles. And if you are deliberately trying to make yourself irreplaceable – stop! It’s a dangerous path that will only lead to disappointment and bitterness and no one will love or thank you for it.

Facing our own lack of importance need not be depressing, it simply reminds us that we are not alone on this planet, and that by and large we choose to spend our time the way we do. We simply need to decide if we have the balance right and if spending more time for our inner selves and with others, is not better for us and for them in the long run? After all none of us can be sure how long that is.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

It's just the way it is

From the fiery talk of last week’s blog where the Belgian employer and employee levels of taxation came under attack, this week I want to focus on a more passive subject. Matthijs van der Want’s reflective comment on the article, reminded us of a very important point. No matter how unfortunate the situation might be, people tend to accept their lot and learn how to survive and thrive within it. As Matthijs reminds us, a sales person is still motivated by their bonus even when the government has taken more than half of it away in taxes. They simply accept that taxation is an inevitable fact of life. In my book ‘Making a Difference’ I have a chapter dedicated to coping with the conditions in which we are forced to do business.

From Seoul in South Korea to, Ulm in Germany and on to Brussels and Boston, one needs to adjust to the business environment that surrounds us. The youthful passion for trying to force change, gives way to middle aged acceptance (luckily, otherwise we would have teenagers with little or no experience ripping apart our well proven and solid structures).

However, I digress – the point I want to make is that to be a really top class interim manager you need to be able to quickly adapt to the culture of the environment you find yourself in. If you are working for a Government institution one day and a very dynamic American pyramid sales organization the next, you simply can not expect that you can re-mould the corporate culture to suit your own personal style, beliefs and methodology. After all, isn’t it this that makes interim management so attractive for us freelancers?

On Thursday night I stood in the rain (partly sheltered by the stadium’s canopy) watching Anderlecht play Tottenham Hotspurs in a UEFA championship match. The pitch looked great but in fact it was soaking wet, making ground play risky, slow and unpredictable. For the players there was an increased risk of injury and shots at goal often were sent flying off course by poor contact between foot and ball. I prefer to watch football being played on a dry pitch in cool weather, where the players can perform most efficiently. I also like stadiums that are full with an equal number of supporters from both sides (the jeering interaction can be extremely inventive and stimulating), but this situation occurs very rarely. My host at the match told me that he preferred to play football in the wind and rain, where you are battling against both the elements and the opposing side.

No matter what type of interim management contract we might be engaged on, in order to improve a situation, or ‘fix’ a certain problem, we do have to first of all to accept and then adapt to the general culture we find ourselves in and then move on from there. I call it the ‘Departure Point’. The point when you step into a situation, have your first briefing and are busy making your analysis. The culture is part of your assessment strategy and provides an important part of your future strategy and implementation techniques.

So I will ‘accept’ Belgium’s taxation levels (if only to try and keep my blood pressure at a reasonable level). However, if and when I get a chance to influence the situation, I will step up and express my views, in the vain hope that they might just ‘make a difference’.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Poor Sales Results, Fried Chicken and Taxes!

You might find this title a little fragmented, but I assure you it is justified, please read on…

This week, I was moaning to a colleague about how difficult it is to find talented sales people who really love prospecting for new business. In my time I have interviewed literally hundreds of sales personnel, and when asked if they like cold calling, very few say ‘yes’. At best they might answer that ‘it is an important part of their work’. But I am lucky enough to know someone who actually enjoys cold calling and prospecting (as long as he likes the product or service he is selling). So I am even luckier to be able to have him come and work for one of my companies.

However, my colleague said that he had never met such a person and that in his experience sales people were simply greedy and lazy, only bothering to follow up the sales leads that had been fed to them for products where they could make substantial commission with the absolute minimum of effort. Of course, this is logical from the sales person’s perspective. But if you are a pioneering company, trying to break into new markets, then these kind of sales people should have no place in your organization.

But I can hear you thinking, where does the fried chicken come into the story? Well my colleague worked for a company here in Belgium where the sales team was known to be particularly lazy and the Sales Managers seemed to let them get away with it. He said that all the sales team did was to go up onto the roof of their office and catch the fried chickens flying past them. And if there were no fried chickens flying past, then sorry enough, there was no sales, nothing more could be done and no more effort was needed! When I heard this story I thought, has my normally reliable colleague completely lost his head? Has he been smoking substances that make you see life from a very different angle? The answer was in fact quite mundane: in fact in Belgium there is an expression ‘gebraden kippen in de mond vliegen’ or, in English ‘fried chickens fly directly into your mouth!’, I guess what this means is that if you want to win something, you have to go out and work for it and not to expect a fried chicken to fly directly into your mouth?

Now to the Taxes link: I have been recruiting a marketing assistant this week, and I have been working with my accountants and legal advisors to see if I can find a salary construction that is both good for her (working via incentives) and for my company. Here in Belgium if you pay someone 100Euro, you actually have to pay the state 162Euro and the poor employee gets approximately 50-55. But they also need to be paid 13.92 times per year (they get extra money in the summer and an extra months pay at the end of the year)!

The problem is, if you pay any kind of bonus, it is so heavily taxed, that it is almost not worth receiving. So back to our sales people: If they have to do something they hate (cold calling) and then have to go out and sell a product that needs lots of explaining and convincing, then there is very little financial motivation, if at the end of the sales cycle the government taxes them so much that they only receive about 20% of what their employer actually paid out!

It really is a wonder that so many Belgian’s are employed at all, because once they receive the pittance left over (which they call their Netto salary), when they actually try and spend it, the government takes another 21% from them in VAT!

Today, Belgium still has no government, and I have to say I think these last months without one seem to have gone quite well (it makes me wonder, if one is needed at all?). However, when we finally do get a new Government it would be great if it concentrated on trying to get employee and employer taxation to a level of acceptability, instead of constantly arguing among themselves about which language should be dominant and where!

I was not a fan of Margaret Thatcher, but she did at least free up the British economy by taking away the appalling level of taxation that her previous governments had been piling on employers and employees alike.

Entrepreneurship needs to be matched by creative tax incentive schemes, if our staff have done well, please let us pay them the bonus that they deserve and then let them actually receive it, without bleeding company profitability to death.

So there you have it: Poor Sales Results, Fried Chicken and Taxes!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Are you playing it too safe?

There is a dilemma that nearly every freelancer and interim manager faces once in a while and that is having to take the decision to stay put and play safe or take a risk and try something new.

Anyone who is invoicing an attractive day rate fee to a client and knows that their current contract is likely to be extended and extended, simply because the client finds it convenient to keep them in a freelance position that could just as well be served by an employee, is bound become stale. The problem is that the sure knowledge of a regular income weighed against the uncertainty of something different, is often an all too easy option.

In my opinion, all freelance professionals should take risks with their careers. After 18 months of repetition they owe it to themselves to search for challenges new. Interim Manager’s need to shine and to breathe creativity into their environments. They do this by bringing in their own external focus and point of view and blend it with the culture in which they find themselves. They need to challenge their environments and offer solutions that only an external can offer. To that end, this sometimes means taking risks; trying new challenges that we have not tackled before. Only by taking chances can we get our adrenaline levels to the point where our clients can really benefit from the passion and expertise that we want to deliver.

If you are comfortable where you are and have decided not to take a risk by walking away from a repetitive and un-challenging assignment, then at least enroll for a course at a decent management school. Force yourself to think more creatively and broaden your horizons.

I can think of 5 good reasons why every interim manager should ensure their Continual Professional Development (CPD) is constantly maintained by registering for new challenging courses:

1. The thought processes required, refreshes our brains and prevents us from becoming too narrow minded
2. A well chosen course can allow us to take on assignments that can form the stepping stones to branching off in new directions
3. The interaction between class mates gives us an ideal networking environment
4. The cost is tax deductable
5. A really good course gives us something new to think about and stops us from becoming boring

So I ask you: when did you last go on a CPD course? When did you last take on an assignment that you were not 100% qualified to take on? How long ago did you gamble away an ‘easy option’ for something more risky and challenging? How long ago did you feel the excitement of doing something new, for the first time?

Interim Managers who feel the excitement of being alive, pass that energy on to their colleagues, friends and families. So don’t let yourself become a droid, be an enabler. Better be poor and interesting, rather than rich and dull.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Taking some time out

With the end of the year approaching many of the Bayard Associates (me included) have contracts that expire, so as usual there is a flurry of exercise surrounding considerations with regards to what will happen next year, what contracts are available and what are the best options?

When Associates join The Bayard Partnership, I always advise them to put aside some of their income into a savings account and to use it for taking time out at the end of each contract. Typically, Bayard contracts tend to run for at least 6-12 months. However many of the Bayard Associates have worked for their clients (albeit on different projects) for a number of years. However during the period running up to the end of a contract, the Bayard Associates, like nearly all the freelancers I know, start to worry and take their focus off their client’s problems and concentrate too much on their own future.

Following on from my article last week ‘Who is your Guru?’ I believe that it is essential to take some time out, to let your contract run until it finishes and only then start to look around. This gives you a natural break, letting you refresh your batteries and find new energy and insights.

When your bvba is earning more than 120,000Euro per year, you should be able to afford a couple of weeks off, unwinding, reading books and catching up on updating your life plan: ‘where am I going? Am I happy? What do I want?’ kind of questions. This exercise is easier said than done, but the benefits often result in you having a real choice of opportunities and quite often, even obtaining higher day rates than in the previous year, more than compensating for any revenue lost during your time out. Hopping from one pond into another without taking the time to think before you jump is at best opportunistic and at worst, simply foolish.

Luckily here in mainland Europe, in today’s interim market there is more than enough work for everyone, so we need not worry. In two to three weeks, no one will forget us. All we need to do is to focus on what we want, what we are good at, how can we grow and most important of all; how we can best serve our client and society in general?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Who is your Guru?

If someone were to ask me that question I would most likely answer no one. I am not the guru type, I don’t tend to follow trends too readily and I do not put all my faith in one person. However my life has been filled with mentors, and I have no doubt that I would have progressed further and faster had my arrogance not so often stood in my way.

Over the years, I have noticed a strange tendency among successful people and that is if they don’t follow a ‘guru’ then they very often have a ‘life coach’ or Personal Advisor. The really brilliant ‘life coaches’ are usually to be found very far away and are used to working in a one to many environment (i.e. in an auditorium of hundreds or even thousands of people). They write books and make dvd’s that are sold worldwide.

All this might seem ridiculous to you, but if you think about it logically, it’s only the arrogant or non ambitious people who do not see the need for life coaches and personal advisors. Take the example of a tennis player, no matter how naturally talented they might be, without a coach, they will never truly know their weak points and will certainly not be able to progress very far on a competitive basis. And yet business is far more complex than tennis. For a start there are no fixed rules and business takes place everywhere, not just in a well defined arena. Of course the modern tennis player needs to have PR skills, and legal advisors etc. But they shine on the court, not in a boardroom or a management meeting or across the negotiation table. To add to all this complexity a business person has so many options, which direction to take, career choices: expand or consolidate, raise more capital or sell? All these challenges need to be faced and tackled masterfully. So it is little wonder that successful business people surround themselves not only with their trusty advisors, but also a ‘life coach’ or Personal Advisor or even a guru to whom they refer when needed.

So why is it that we are surprised when we hear that a colleague follows a guru or has a personal advisor? Many of us think of it as absurd or even a sign of weakness. The fact that someone recognizes themselves as inadequate in some way and wants to overcome the issue is, to me, a sign of great strength and determination. In today’s world we need experienced professional advisors, not just friendly amateurs who tell us only what we want to hear, or who have a hidden agenda wrapped in jealousy or some other off the track ambition for us.

I recently met a man who was so impressive, who had achieved so much, so young, that he really blew my socks off. My lunch companion kept in his wallet his own personal mission statement, neatly written on a plasticized piece of paper. On the back he had written down a list of key words that gave his life meaning. Now if you think that is not that impressive, try this: The guy is just a little over thirty, he earns about 300KEuro per year, he recently sold a business he developed for a heap of cash, and he sold it only because it was getting in the way of his future plans. It had served its purpose and cashing it in saved him all the hassle of daily management of teams of staff and suppliers. Before he sold it, however, he realized he was facing some major decisions, so he took some time out to consider them carefully and to put his life into some kind of context. He stopped everything for six weeks, left his wife and family at home and went on an 800km walk across southern France and Spain, with nothing more than a simple rucksack.

Now my lunch companion is not going to become my new guru, but we did decide to turn to one another, when we need professional counseling and I have started reading the book he advised me to read ‘The Monk who sold his Ferrari’ by Robin S. Sharma. The first pages seem very promising; I’ll let you know how I get on.

I am a personal advisor to many people and I believe I have been able to offer my clients solid advice that has very often helped them achieve increased self fulfillment and personal wealth. If you think the idea of a Personal Advisor is daft or unnecessary, then at least take some time out to ask yourself why it is you find the idea so un-attractive?

To repeat my opening question: "Who is your Guru?"

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Dynamic company / Dull company – take your pick…

My wife and I were shopping in our local glass retailer for some new doors for my new office. (I say local, their enormous factory, office and showroom, is a half an hour drive away). This company supplies glass all over the country. But it is old, the personnel look old, even the young ones. The office space is dull. The moment you get a chance to say what you are looking for, you are handed over to someone else. You start off with a normal person and end up talking to an egg plant. It seems that no-one really wants to be bothered to sell you anything, you really have to drag it out of them. We wanted to order two glass doors with frames – not that tricky really, you might imagine?

I guess the reason for this built in empathy could be that the company is making so much money, selling their over-priced glass, and have so many established contracts that couples like us are just a necessary pain in the backside. The weird thing is that everyone knows that, in Belgium, it is the private customers who come in on a Saturday and pay cash that fund the personnel’s bonuses. Because in Belgium cash money is often ‘black money’ and black money is the currency of wining and dining! So one might imagine that the personnel would be doing everything possible to get my wife and I to part with our hard earned cash?

On the way back from the glass store we stopped off at the office of our Landscape architects. The company is young, the personnel too, they seem to have loads of them. But whoever you speak with they all seem pleased to meet you. They are efficient, they come on the day they say they will. They do a little more than was asked for and their prices seem reasonable.

The conclusion from this story and many other observations I have made with similar companies, is that CEO’s form a company, just like departmental heads form a department, and from there a culture grows. In the case of the glass company, 50 years ago it was probably pretty dynamic, but after year on year success it has slowly become complacent. The owner probably does not bother carrying out interviews anymore. The person who does is probably dull and just likes taking on people who will not cause trouble and are not a threat to him or her. And so it goes until one day the owner walks in and notices that his entire staff is as about exciting as a wet day on the Belgian coast.

For the interim manager, a cash rich company with a decreasing profitability and a dull workforce is a really first class challenge. However a young company making loads of mistakes but driven by a passion to serve the customer is much less attractive, these people are generally not ready to listen and what cash they have is already earmarked for one scheme or another! So when it comes to choosing your next client, take your pick!

Monday, October 29, 2007

E-mail is not always as efficient as it should be!

I have often wondered how much e-mail has increased efficiency. But then after about 30 seconds into the exercise I stop and remember the thousands of lost hours of the office typist (pre-word processor), typing and re-typing memos that had been dictated to her by her boss, to be sent to managers who took little or no notice of them.

But last weekend my brother-in-law told me the amazing true story of life in a modern hospital. My brother-in-law works in the technical department ‘Facilities’ as it is sometimes known. He and a colleague had agreed that the only way they could solve the problem they were facing was to shut off the water supply for two hours, while the necessary repair be carried out.

Following the rules of the Hospital an email had to be sent out to the entire workforce informing them of the planned outage. A meeting was set up with those who responded to discuss the impact of the impending outage. 10 people came to the meeting, each representing their department and its interests. The impact analysis debate, including agreement on the best way forward lasted over two hours. The outcome was that buckets of water had to be filled and placed next to every WC. Each department was to have an additional supply of bottled water and every hand basin was to have a 5 litre bottle of water under it for use during the outage.

It took two man days to distribute the water in anticipation. When the outage was over, which lasted 1 hour 35 minutes, the team had to go around the hospital collecting all the buckets and bottles of water. Surprise, surprise, not a single bucket of water was used, neither was the bottled water. During the outage my brother in law’s team received two phone calls asking when the water would be re-connected. Now you might think that being a hospital, this is normal and that perhaps there are important medical machines relying on mains water? But you would be wrong. In this hospital, like all others, machines requiring water have their own sterilized supplies coming from their own sources.

So why all the fuss? Well in the ‘good old days’ before e-mail when the technical team wanted to cut off the water, they just did it. And when people phoned to report that there was no water on their floor, they simply said “Yes, sorry about that but we have a problem down here, we’re fixing it right now please be patient, we are doing all we can”. 45 minutes later everything was back to normal and the technical team were heroes because they repaired the problem! Oh how times have changed…

Personally I love e-mail it’s liberated business and communication beyond all boundaries, but it comes at a cost, just like live news stories and instant stocks and shares prices information.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What’s your Curriculum Vitae worth?

This week, more than many in recent weeks, has been filled with reading, re-writing and advising on CV’s. I guess it shouldn’t do, but it does amaze me just how bad many people’s CV’s are. I have met many talented and quite brilliant people, but when it came to their CV’s you would not recognize almost anything about them, even their photograph’s are often so bad, you would think they belonged to someone else.

If you imagine that you are worth 200KEuro per year, then I think your CV should match your client’s expectations. So what makes a good CV? What is a good CV Worth?

Good CV’s tell a story about a person. They entice the reader into discovering more about the author. Even if the CV might not be a perfect ‘fit’, it should raise enough interest to want a client to meet a candidate anyway. A good CV can make the difference between being pre-selected or not, it gives it’s author the choice between opportunities, it can add at least 20% more to the author’s day rate.

Anyone who has had to review lots of CV’s will tell you that it is a boring job, trying to select from the criteria of a CV only, is very time consuming. Even a strong personal recommendation followed up with a poor CV can often be enough to dissuade a potential client. Last year I had to almost beg a client to see a candidate of mine, knowing he was good but his CV did not do him justice. I said “John, don’t pay the CV any mind, just see him. If you don’t want him after one hour, I’ll buy you an expensive lunch, to compensate for your wasted time.” But this behavior is ridiculous because normally we have all the time in the world to prepare a CV. After all our CV is our passport through our careers. It’s the full length version of our business cards.

I try to always have a full, short and mini CV ready and up to date at all times. Within 15 minutes my full CV is ready to go out the door.

The lay out of a full CV should have your personal contact information at the top (no mention of children’s or pets names please). The contact details should be followed by a very brief (Six lines max) synopsis of who you are and what you are looking for. In short, what added value you can bring to your prospective employer.

Next your CV should have a brief overview of all your major assignments (if you are over 40 or have had many assignments to mention in an overview, just take the last five years). After the overview, your CV needs to cover your employment history in detail. This section should flow nicely and be informative, with each assignment focusing on a different aspect of your skill sets.

Next comes your education, courses, and relevant trainings, then at the end just a little bit about yourself, who you are your hobbies, and perhaps information about your psychometric profile etc.

A note of caution: in some countries/cultures, the use of a photograph on a CV is discouraged. This is to avoid any possible racial discrimination. People can be too easily dissuaded by a photograph and obviously there is a natural bias for a happy, smiling face. But I guess if you want a book-keeper, who will working mainly on their own all day checking account balances, then a Cameron Diaz smile might not be essential?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Contact Points – Running Projects just like Singapore Airlines

This week I was having lunch with one of Belgium’s captains of industry. After we finished talking about our respective books and careers, my lunch companion told me that he had ‘made a difference’ in his organization by taking on board the Singapore Airlines philosophy of ensuring that every contact his team made with their customers was analyzed, scored for effectiveness and then seen how it could be improved. In his case his customers were his companies employees, all X thousands of them, as he is their HR Director. This got me thinking….

If Singapore Airlines have recognized 150 contact points with their customers, from purchasing a ticket to saying goodbye at the destination airport and if they have optimized each one so that it is better than their competitors, then no wonder ‘Singapore Airlines’ is the most appreciated airline in the world. So why don’t I apply it to my projects?

Obvious points of contact are with:

• Potential team members during recruitment
• Team members once recruited (passing in hallways, meetings, lunches, emails, reports, telephone conversations etc)
• Client contacts (sponsors and project board members)
• Project suppliers
• Project financiers etc. etc.

The idea is that one must improve the experience for the receiving party, so much so, that they always come back for more. For recruitment, I have tried to adopt this attitude for a long time. After all when you interview an interesting candidate you want them to choose you and not someone else.

But this idea can be extended and extended until you go mad trying to flatter and please everyone. For example, apparently Singapore Airlines cabin crew have to look after 10 customers each (I guess this only applies to Business and Premier Plus), and each crew member needs to know their customer’s names off by heart. The idea is that the Steward or Stewardess’s first contact points begins with “oh, you must be Harley Lovegrove?, Welcome on board!” They know my name because on the inside of their left palm they have a little list of names of their passengers with their seat numbers – hence the need for the “you must be line” – because I guess often people are sitting in the wrong seat at first! Although this attention to detail gives the passenger the ‘rock star’ feeling, one can not help feeling cheated by it, it’s all a bit false.

However, I am now beginning to re-examine all aspects of my contact points, especially those that I know could be improved. After all the benefits of obtaining loyalty, can be very beneficial, as long as I do not go mad in the process! I just need to find a place where I can buy sticky labels to fix to the palms of my hands. Mind you I’ll need to fix them to the inside of my jacket too ;-)

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Why are there so few women interim managers?

That was the opening question recently posed to me by Erika Racquet, a renowned journalist working for Belgium’s top financial news paper De Tijd. She had read my top ten attributes required of an interim manager and commented that women generally had most of them in abundance, so why were there so few of them?

To share with my blog readers who have not yet read my book, here is the list:

The ten attributes a good interim manager should have are:

1. A strong desire to solve other people’s problems
2. The conviction that they are the best person to solve them
3. Extreme resilience, the ability to bounce back after any setback
4. A high emotional IQ
5. A good memory for faces and names
6. A clear, structured approach to every task
7. A natural ability to plan
8. A strong sense of priorities
9. The knack to sell anything to anyone
10. A willingness to learn from mistakes

I was taken aback by her question. Unlike her, I had not done my research in advance…(it transpired that this has been a re-occurring theme in her interviews for a few years now). I thought for a while and realized that whatever I replied would, or could, be misconstrued and that I was in dangerously hot water. However, I believed the question was seriously posed, and I was hoping that she genuinely wanted to know the answer and not so much my off the cuff opinion. So I gave it my best. The result was a rather weak answer which was on the lines of; ‘I think it is because although women, in general, may be more intuitive and observe the truth and perceive deeper arguments than men, they are more likely to share their observations with a colleague in the hope that their colleague will act on their behalf. i.e. they don’t want to put themselves in a vulnerable position, to make themselves look foolish, just in case they were wrong. Preferring not to stand up and be counted. (Although this last statement can be said of many men).

But since my interview I have been re-thinking the question and indeed, many women have confronted me with regards to my ‘misogynist’ views. I have been re-asking Erika’s question over and over again, and when you think about it, it is not too difficult to invent other questions that lead you in the same direction. For example: “Why are there so few women entrepreneurs?” A senior (female) manager at a client of mine suggested that possibly it could do with the fact that for many (most) women it is purely down to the fact that they don’t feel the need or ambition to become a senior manager or an entrepreneur. While another female project manager I spoke with put it down to the fact that women, in the majority, are not risk takers to the same extent as men.

In defense of my original answer, where I was genuinely trying to get to the nature of the answer, one has to add that no one is promoted to a position of interim manager. Your boss does not walk into your office one day and say “Lovegrove, I want you to be my next interim manager!” Becoming an interim manager, or even an entrepreneur is a life choice.

Interim Managers are (99%) self employed, they are either ex entrepreneurs who have made some cash and do not want the tedious hassle of running the same company day in, day out. Or, they are ex senior managers that have taken (or been given) early retirement who feel they still have some useful business acumen left in them and don’t fancy sitting around at home all day. These people set up their own businesses, they give themselves fancy titles like ‘Managing Director’ and they print some business cards and become interim managers of their own creation. So logically, the fewer the female senior managers and entrepreneurs, the fewer the female interim managers.

At the Bayard Partnership, out of the +/- 20 strong group, we have three female project managers, all of them are really excellent, often out performing their male counterparts at their client side. Each of the three have the potential to progress to becoming interim managers in the classical sense (i.e. stand in directors) but how many of them will remains to be seen. At Bayard, we are always looking for talented female project and interim managers, they are just hard to find, that’s all.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Finding the Hidden Agenda

There are project managers and there are good project managers. But you will also come across, only ever so often, really outstanding project managers. This week I gave a key note speech to the Benelux PMI chapter at their annual event in Rotterdam on the subject of ‘Finding the hidden agenda’. Because it was so warmly accepted I thought I would share with my readers the basic outline of the speech.

My definition of a hidden agenda is:

• Something undisclosed that potentially conflicts with the required outcome
• A plan that you don’t know about…
• A plot that you are unaware of…

The principle is this: If you want to get the most out of a team, then you have to get the most out of all of the individuals who make up that team. You have to have them pull together and form a tight knit group that trust one another and compliment one another with their skills, energy and creativity.

There are thousands of books on motivation and most of us have our own techniques that we try to apply. But the question of the hidden agenda is so often over looked. If you know where each of your team members is going to, what their ideals, visions and dreams are, if you can anticipate what their hidden agendas might be, then (in the best case) you are well on the way to being able to motivate them to producing excellence and (in the worst case) you can see that their hidden agendas may well be on a collision course with your desired outcome and thus can begin to manoeuvre a way to avoid to catastrophe and even to enhance the outcome by finding a way to combine the agendas to compliment one with the other.

I find that hidden agendas are often detected by the following:

1. The simple avoidance of a question
2. When all logical arguments fail to impress
3. A proposal from a sponsor or team member sounds unusually crazy
4. Decisions appear illogical or ‘daft’
5. A lack of interest from those you expect to behave otherwise
6. Abnormal bouts of behavior

Of course there are those people who are generally known to be ‘poker faced’ who are almost impossible to read, but most people (luckily for the PM or IM) are not that good at keeping their hidden agendas hidden. There are times when you simply must though, and experienced interim and project/program managers simply have to, especially in times of:

• Mergers and Acquisitions
• Immanent Downsizing
• Handling cases of suspected corruption or other illegal activities

Mostly I find that hidden agendas are only covering a narrow range of possibilities, such as:

• A fear of rejection, incompetence, or being replaced
• Ambition or greed
• Guilt
• Insecurity

Hidden agendas on a one to one basis are something usually containable, but sometimes one comes across, multiple hidden agendas, even in a single project, a typical case could be:

• The project manager wants to close the project on time to hide some outstanding issues
• The operations director wants to keep the project open to book extra (non project) costs
• Finance director wants to put the project on hold until the next financial year to spread CAPEX without overspending this year’s budget
• Marketing wants to add new features (scope creep) to the project to cover up for departmental failure

In these situations it can be very difficult for an interim manager to resolve, even assuming that the hidden agendas somehow become ‘unhidden’.

In any case the outstanding project and interim managers are those who have very high emotional intelligence and can read people and situations very well, thus uncovering what is hidden and doing so in a subtle way that allows them to manipulate the situation into a direction that they choose.

Of course this subject deserves much more, but this is only my blog, not a thesis or essay, your comments and own experiences are very welcome!

More on my views on the hidden agenda can be found in my book, ‘Making a Difference’ published by Lannoo Campus and available for purchase on line here

Sunday, September 23, 2007

You only get one chance in Interim Management

Some people have been complaining to me that the competition in ‘Making a Difference' is far too tough because you can only submit your advice to the David CEO once! There are some situations in life when you get a second chance (in certain sports for example) but I fail to understand why anyone can imagine that you can listen to someone’s dilemma, read lots of background information and then have the ability to ask an additional question and then expect that if, after a period of time, you are dissatisfied with the advice you gave that you can somehow go back and say ‘sorry David’ I have been thinking about it, the advice I gave you, well I have changed my mind, I think you should do something different!

It’s like a Doctor prescribing an operation and then afterwards saying, ‘oh dear, I think we should have done something different’. I have heard of surgeons amputating the wrong leg, but I can not imagine that trial and error could ever been adopted as a possible way forward.

In life, Interim Managers also only get one chance. The difficulty is that they have to come up with advice that not only makes sense, it also has to be possible to implement and sound attractive to the dominant coalition. That is why the job is so tough!

Obviously the CEO’s dilemma in my book, offers very little information, but the question and answers should give the readers of the blog some additional insight. However the blog readers who have not read all the books nine steps may also be argued as being at a disadvantage.

Tip: The answers to the dilemma that come in early on, are judged less critically as those submitted later in the competition. This is because, as the competition progresses, there is every week more and more information on the situation being published on the blog. The judging panel will be taking this into account.

It might be tough, or even considered unfair by some, but quite frankly, life is like that! When my children were young they sometimes used to complain to me ‘Daddy that’s not fair!’ I always replied ‘You are right, life is not fair and if you go around this planet of ours expecting it to be so, you will always be unhappy and disapointed’. This does not condone cheating, not at all, this does not mean that they should be rude or act antisocially, not at all. All it means is that the challenges that life throws at us, should be seen as just that. Challenges, either we take them on, or we walk away, possibly to return another day, when we are better prepared and in the right frame of mind to deal with them.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What’s the ideal age for an Interim Manager?

“But I was so much older then, I am younger than that now” Bob Dylan

When I was a teenager, I could never quite understand that line from Dylan’s song ‘My Back Pages’, but as I grow older it becomes clearer. In my teens and early twenties I thought I knew everything, there was not much that anyone could teach me. I was not ready to listen. Recently I heard a recruitment manager for VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) talking on the BBC World Service and she was saying that today she is trying to recruit doctors and other professionals in their late 50’s rather than their early 20’s. The reason being that in Africa, as in many continents, people are much more likely to listen to someone older and wiser than themselves. ‘Imagine’, she said ‘the trouble that a young female midwife (who has never had children of her own) might have, trying to persuade a woman older than herself, who probably has already had a few children, the benefits of a particular method of child birth or child after care’. Well, I can tell you that the same is applicable to interim management.

Even if you have been to the very best business school and even if you are rich, with cash ready to invest, you can only speak with theoretical knowledge. A brick layer can explain the relatively simple task of laying bricks. But experience will show you just how tricky it is to make the mortar to the perfect consistency so that it does not fall off the header of the brick before you place it on the wall, let alone have all the qualities that it must have to ensure a good bond for many years to come.

An interim Manager needs a blend of knowledge and experience. He, or she, needs to have witnessed as many as possible differing types of company and business cultures. Or they must stay solely in the narrow experience of a particular kind of company and business sector to which they are very familiar. (I personally believe an interim manager can adapt very quickly to differing industries and sectors but, cultures and environments are much harder to adapt to).

So what is the ideal age for an interim manager? It has to be 50. at 50 you are still young enough to run for the train, to be the first in the office. Your children have almost certainly left home, so working late or in a foreign country is never an issue. At 50 you have enough experience to match it to the scores of management books that you read in your spare time. At 50 you still are very much open to new ideas yet you are old enough to inspire younger people, but not so old that they think you are already dead in the water. At 50 you are still looking for that big assignment, the one that is seemingly impossible but you believe you have the resources to handle. At 50 you have enough friends, business contacts and other resources to be able to get yourself out of any mess. At 50, you are ready to perform on the plateau of the performance graph, not getting better not getting worse. At 50 your memory is still ok and the mild aches and pains you may feel in the morning are still only an inconvenience. By the time everyone else has woken up and eventually arrived in the office, they have disappeared completely.

So why do I write this? Of course it has nothing to do with the fact that my book launch party, roughly coincided with my 50th. birthday, it’s just the culmination of a scientific theory that I have been working on and adapting subtly each year for the past ten years.

If you don’t agree, then you better have a damned good argument ;-)

* The launch Party was for my book ‘Making a Difference’, which was published on 14th. of September 2007

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Mine Your Own Business

A few years back I was working on an assignment for a Belgian company whose slogan was ‘Mine Your Own Business’. I always found it a great slogan as it related directly to their product, catching attention while doing so. The point the company was making was that their tools could help exploit the data within a business. They took product and marketing data and automatically generated, product brochures, price lists, catalogues and other media sets and published them to websites, print ready formats, and CDRoms etc.. It was a great product and they had some impressive clients. But despite all their best efforts, persuading new customers to purchase their licences proved incredibly hard.

There are some things in life I find difficult to understand and one of them is the slow take up of proven technologies that so obviously benefit both business and society (a typical example of this is the incredible length of time it took for the building industry to adapt to using Gyproc plasterboard on a generic scale). I digress…

The point is that this week, while being interviewed in connection with my book, which is only five days away from launch, a red thread emerged that passed through the interviews on how exactly do I make a difference? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that apart from the structured methods and all the tips and trick I suggest in ‘Making a Difference’, it largely comes down to mining the talent at ones disposal.

Far too often I see companies recruit brilliant performers, only to see that within a few months (sometimes even weeks) of their being recruited, they are not deployed for what they were recruited but are pointed in a different direction. Consequently, their real talents gradually become buried, along with their promising CV, deep down in the bottom of the bottom drawer of their bosses filing cabinet.

For example: A young marketing executive, is recruited for their originality, passion and clear thought. Two weeks into their new job their N+2 urgently needs some product sales figures analyzed and put in a presentation which he will give to his board. Because the new recruit is available, she is given the task. She does a really great job, crunching the numbers and displaying them in exactly the way her N+2 wants. She surprises him by the speed of her result and the original way she displays the information, emphasizing the strong points and burying the less attractive ones. Instead of asking himself ‘what else can this person do?’, from that day on, she is seen as the Queen of MS Excel and analytics. Ten months later, when the novelty has worn off, she feels under valued and is looking for a new opportunity.

Successful sports coaches, are forever tweaking their teams, and having them change positions, sometimes playing in one position, sometimes playing in another. They make a mockery of the idiotic saying ‘never change a winning team’. They like to dig out and encourage every piece of hidden talent and build on it. Professional sports players don’t come cheap and nor do the human resources in our businesses.

When I am on an assignment, I am always trying to find the extra depth in people. I try to encourage them to step forward and utilize their skills and ideas. If they don’t fit where they are, I try and move them to somewhere where they do. This is particularly important in Belgium, because the cost of ‘letting people go’ is so hideously expensive that there is no fluidity in the HR market, except for interims and consultants, but they should not be seen as the foundation of a business, or should they?

The company I was referring to in the beginning of this piece was MediaMine nv. Times have changed, and so have they, but you can find out more about them on their website:

Sunday, September 2, 2007

What’s in a question?

In life there are two main kinds of question:
1. A question solely intended to obtain some useful information
2. A question to show off how cleaver or knowledgeable the questioner is.
Professional Interim managers know that the secret to finding the truth lies solely in the quality of the question and not in the ego of the questioner.

This week I was having lunch with the son of a business associate, he was starting out into his professional life and I was trying to offer him some advice and to possibly help him find the best path forward. For someone, such as he, with many options and an abundance of ideas, the first steps can be very tricky to say the least.

During our lunch he was asking me some pretty good questions, but then I began to realize that the questions he was asking were designed to show me how smart and knowledgeable he was. He had obviously been taught all the smart questions and had learned them off by heart, probably thinking up some of his own along the way. The advice I gave him was as follows:

In an interview you should only ask a question if you genuinely want to know the answer. You should never waste a question by trying to show off. In any kind of interview, the interviewer has already read your CV, the selection process has already singled you out as a possible candidate, and you are very likely to be asked many questions that interviewer wants to know your opinion on. Answering questions is the opportunity you are given to show off your knowledge and skills. In many interviews, you only get the chance to ask just one or two questions (prior to the negotiation round) and therefore these need to be thought through very carefully. They are your ace cards and need to be deployed extremely wisely.

The young man in front of me told me that when he was applying for a sales job, he always asked what the unique selling points were of the product or service he had to sell. But I discovered that he was not asking it for the right reason because he was solely relying on one answer with no further qualification.

i.e. if the answer he receives is ‘Quality and reliability’, it tells him nothing unless he knows who the target market is. (If the target market is currently happy with a cheap throw away solution, it might mean that he is going to be working for a company with a fantastic product that is extremely hard to sell because it is too expensive and actually nobody really wants it). Therefore, he needs to ask his question with a second one in mind. Like in Chess, he needs to think at least two or more moves ahead. So, if his follow up question is ‘and how do the USP’s relate to your target market?’ Then he will get all the information he needs, especially when he relates it back to the commission schemes and average earnings of the company’s sales team. In fact he simply needs to tie the two questions together and he probably will launch a whole raft of very useful information from the interviewer that will make his choice of which employer to work for so much easier. Thus his question should be ‘What are the unique selling points of your product and how do they relate to your target market?’

Similarly, questions are beginning to come in on my article about the CEO’s dilemma. Some of them will give the questioner a lot of information. However, unless the questioner genuinely knows what information they are looking for in the first place, then the answer they receive might be disappointing and not help them that much with their recommendation.

I believe more training should be given in schools on the power of asking the right question, rather than an ‘impressive’ one.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Personal Effort - The 80% rule

Three weeks ago I was moaning about all the changes going on around me and my apparent inability to manage them all. Well, yesterday I was at a reception when someone came up to me and asked me how I relaxed? "What do you mean?", I asked. "Well" he said, "with all your activities, projects and all the other stuff I read about you, I wondered how you ever relaxed?" My answer was kind of scary – “I am not sure” I said. “Perhaps by listening to music?” he asked. “Or possibly by riding your motorcycle?” he continued.

Anyway the really interesting part of the conversation came next, when he said, “Harley I use the 80% rule. I only ever work at a maximum of 80% of my personal capacity, this always leaves me with 20% left over.” It was a reception, after all and I like to always remain polite but in an earlier conversation I had learnt that he worked for the Belgian railways, the NMBS.

Railway workers, the whole world over, have never given me the impression of ever having to work that hard, but I might be wrong? I know they certainly did when they were being built, but how are they managed today? I know the quality of service of the Beligan railways never ceases to impress me, they are mostly on time and the carriages are generally very clean and comfortable (compared with the UK) but....

But then I got to thinking… How does he know what his limit is? An Army Sergeant Major will push his recruits to their limits, he knows how much to expect from his soldiers. If one collapses, another will take their place. But how does someone who works for the NMBS know what 80% represents, have they ever been pushed to their limit and beyond? Then I got to thinking; What are my limits?

One of my colleagues said last week that his wife complains that he is always trying to get two days work into one day, from where I am standing, compared to many of his colleagues, I think that most days he manages it.

So if you ever come across the 80% personal effort rule – bin it! Go for 100% every time. This is not just for work, it even applies to leisure and pleasure. And when you finally decide to have some time off for complete relaxation, apply the 100% rule too. Do nothing, absolutely nothing! Feeding yourself (spoon to mouth, glass to lips) dressing, washing, that’s it in my book – nothing more. Perhaps take the effort to select an artist on your MP3 player, but even that I find an exhausting exercise, having to decide Bach or Brahms, Sinatra or Santana.

PS (there is nothing more irritating than people asking for 200%, that really get’s my goat)!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Project Data File Structures – What’s the perfect structure?

I want to design a template file / folder structure that can be used for all and every kind of project. The idea is that for each client or project, a standard file structure will be used. Logically it would have a folder for each stage of the project for example:

Business Requirements
Solution Strategy
Business Case
Solution Design
Development / Implementation
Handover / Go Live

Under each stage there could be all sorts of sub file structures. The idea is to use this folder structure on a special file share software system that allows project colleagues to gain access to the data from wherever they are, regardless of the hardware they are using. It will not be a slow web based system, but a system that gives everyone a ‘local’ copy that synchronizes and updates the central information, seamlessly.

The question I have for my blog readers is: Have you ever used ‘the perfect’ file structure and if you have, have you any tips for me, before it becomes hard coded?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The CEO’s Dilemma

If you are a regular reader of my blog you will almost certainly know by now that on the 14th. of September 2007, my book 'Making a Difference' will finally be launched onto the market. For this week’s blog I have decided to share with you a section from the end of Step 2 in the book ‘The CEO’s Dilemma', exactly as it appears in the book. You may also know that as from the 14th. of September onwards you will be able publish your own solution to the dilemma directly on the book’s website. By doing so you could also win some great prizes, including admission onto the Vlerick Management School’s course ‘Mastering Interim Management’ (worth wore than 4150Euro’s + VAT), or an Acer TravelMate Laptop computer and many other prizes (the website will have more details on or around the 14th.). For now you simply need to know that your answer (or advice, however you like to call it) must not be longer than 500 words.

Because I am in a generous mood, I have one additional bonus for my blog readers: If, when you have read the dilemma, you would like to ask a question directly to either David the CEO, or John the Sales Director, or Peter the Production Director, or Samantha the Marketing Director, or indeed to Matthew the CEO’s bank manager, you may do so by using the comments section of the blog. You will receive an answer….

'The CEO's Dilemma'

David, the CEO of an electric lighting manufacturer, saw that year on year his profitability and sales were falling behind, to the extent that urgent action had to be taken. He was losing market share and at this rate his business would go bankrupt in less than 18 months. So David called his senior managers into his office one by one and asked each of them the same question.

First he asked John, his loyal sales director: “You’ve worked with us for fifteen years, why do you think it is that in the last five years our results have become steadily worse?” The sales manager thought it over and said: “The problem is that the market is changing faster than we are – we have been too slow to adapt. Our range of lighting is far too limited; we need more models, more colors, we need to offer our distributors a complete product range so they don’t look elsewhere. We have to become their sole supplier, so we don’t lose so many deals to outsiders.”

The CEO then called in Peter, the production director, and asked him the question. Peter replied: “The problem is that we have been adding more and more products to our range. We now have so many varieties of every type and color, that our production costs are running too high, because the production runs are too short and uneconomical. The solution is simple: cut all the models that are not selling well and reduce the number of colors and varieties for the others. In short, trim down our catalogue and offer only what is economical to manufacture. We may lose some business, but we’ll become far more profitable.”

Next the CEO called in his youngest board member. “Samantha, as Director responsible for marketing what do you suggest we do to turn around our worsening financial results?” “That‘s easy”, she answered, “Go up market, go direct. We have become too remote, our product range is too narrow and old-fashioned. The production department cripples us by telling us that things can’t be done! Our customers know what they want, we just need to offer it to them at a price they are prepared to pay. So what we should do is shut down our production, source all the lighting products globally, and re-brand them with designer labels endorsed by celebrities. We keep in touch with our end customers by opening showrooms in strategic locations, staffed with trendily dressed lighting consultants, and we cut out the distributors by selling directly on the Internet.”

Lastly the CEO spoke with his bank manager, Matthew. He had known him for twenty years and they had built the business together, the bank having provided the loans for starting up and subsequently met their financing needs, whether for production equipment or new offices. Matthew suggested: “If I were you David, I would complete the modernization program we have so often discussed. After all it’s been more than ten years since you last purchased new machinery. The machines you have are no longer as efficient as they could be. Without new equipment, you can never become as cost-efficient as your Asian competitors.”

The CEO went home for the weekend and reviewed the four basic arguments that his advisors had put forward. Each of them was so confident of his or her approach, that they had all guaranteed sure-fire results. But which way should he turn? He made a single PowerPoint slide summarizing each of the four key arguments. Much to the annoyance of his wife, he pinned it to the wall beside the bed so that he could focus on it before going to sleep. He told her that it could mean life or death to the business, and that the quality of their retirement years depended on it. Although she wanted to help him she could only say: “David, go to sleep. In the morning everything will be much clearer, and you will work it out.” Sure enough, the next morning David woke up and came to a decision.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Coping with Stress – Don’t do as I do, do as I say

There must be thousands of self help books on how best to handle stress, and, in a way, the mere process of reading them is probably therapeutic in itself. But although I, as a manager, am reasonably good at identifying stress in others and to helping them keep a balance, I find it so much harder for myself.

Luckily, for my clients, the times I become stressed are mostly in my private life or when trying to balance work and leisure. An example: I find it so hard to accept that a builder can simply get away with following their own planning and begin working somewhere else, before their work for me is completed, simply disregarding any agreement or promise that may have been made.

During contracts, even running the most intensive and complex projects, I can always find ways of keeping my personal stress levels under control. My first student job (working in a very busy restaurant) taught me that when everything is beginning to pile up and there is no end insight to the chaos, to simply focus on the thought that a calm period is just around the corner. It is there but not yet in view.

Someone once told me that when you are in the middle of a crisis, you should imagine the situation like the passing by of an island on a boat. Soon you will be watching it gradually disappear into the horizon behind you. It is hanging on to the notion that it will pass that often gives us the strength to carry on and to calm our minds sufficiently so that we can think more clearly.

As I say in my book: 'Making a Difference':

‘Observe someone in a stressful situation, such as a live interview or a television
quiz show where everyone can see them make a fool of themselves. If we assume that to qualify they had to pass a series of preliminary selection rounds, why is it that for many contestants, their otherwise quick and sharp brains become so slow and muddled? When posed the question why was Schubert’s 8th Symphony called ‘The Unfinished’? It seems that such a simple question, asked under stressful conditions, can raise all manner of ridiculous answers from otherwise intelligent, well-educated people.

However for some of us, no sooner have we gone through one crisis point we are immediately faced by another and then another. Or even multiple crisis points, all converging at the same time. This is often because we become so accustomed to taking on challenges and solving problems, that we forget that we need to take on less and learn to say ‘no’, once in a while!

You maybe wondering why I raise this subject this week? Well perhaps its because I have the builders in at home, and my peaceful zen inspired living room is looking like a Chinese laundry, there are people drilling holes in the ceiling and dragging water pipes through the bedroom, scope creep has entered the project like never experienced in my professional life, and it’s hot and the ready mix concrete is going hard, while there is still a debate going on as to where the foundations should be!

I think how can this happen to me, after all, I am a professional project manager? But there is nothing you can learn that truly adequately prepares you for handling builders, domestic suppliers and family members that come up with new and ever more challenging projects in ever reducing timelines!

End note:
The good news is, writing this blog has helped a bit, the blood pressure levels are finally receding! Have a good week and don’t let yourself get wound up unnecessarily, especially over things that you simply have no control over (like builders, family demands and the weather) ;-)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Internet Forums – Should we trust them?

Last week I was having lunch with a colleague, when the conversation turned to internet forums. I was moaning about my Blue Tooth car installation and the misery of trying to integrate a Nokia phone’s address book with a ‘Parrot’ Blue Tooth in-car system. My colleague was waxing lyrical about how amazing the forums are and that he had a similar issue and within minutes of logging onto a Parrot forum, he had a fix and a detailed set of instructions as to how to implement the solution. In fact my colleague appeared to use internet forums a great deal for almost everything, it seemed.

Now obviously, obtaining a fix for an in-car system from an internet forum, is not quite the same as questioning the legal position of a Trade Union dispute or other serious dilemma. But the basic question remains, should we always refer to our ‘trusted’ advisors for assistance or should we search the internet forums first? How do we know what is offered is correct? I am beginning to hear people say ‘it must be true, it comes from Wikipedia!’. Well I have always been led to believe that Wikipedia is a website full of unsubstantiated facts and opinions? Although, if I am being strictly honest, I do find myself referring to it from time to time, but only for mostly trivial, less important, non legally binding issues. But now I know that there is a project to start up a Wikipedia like website that will cover European Law, giving advice on outcomes of specific cases right across Europe. Could this kind of forum eventually replace our Lawyers for the day to day matters for which we turn to them?

As interim managers, even if our contracts are strictly ‘best efforts’, we still are responsible for conveying accurate information.

I thought it might be interesting to compile a list of Internet Forums and information sources that are considered useful for Interim and Project Managers, places where we can turn to for accurate information? If you have any nominations, please send them to me.

Footnote: Many years ago (in my late twenties, I remember receiving some advice, over the phone, from a recommended expert. The advice he gave me sounded so plausible and completely solved my problem that I immediately tried to implement it on one of my projects. The mess I got into took a long time to payback. Because the solution on offer sounded so plausible, and the source was recommended by someone from the BBC, I stupidly did not test it out first! So forgive me, if I sound a little skeptical. ‘Once bitten, twice shy’.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Getting the right person for the job – Train drivers and chickens

I have known many managers over the years who, despite working with clear guidelines, were unable to work efficiently because they simply did not delegate enough. And when they did, they often distributed their tasks to the wrong people, resulting in their having to step in later on and pick up the pieces. The worst part is that many of these reluctant delelgatory managers had a relatively high level of employee turnover. And that is a crime, especially in times when resources are hard to come by.

This phenomenon is not only traced back to delegation itself but also, too often, to the recruitment process. Presumably at the interview everyone was happy and looking forward to the future. The manager believed that the new hire sitting before them would succeed where his or her predecessors had failed. The new employee may have thought that this was the turning point where their career was really going to take off. So what went wrong?

Anyone who has kept chickens knows that as long as you feed and water them, they will dutifully lay an egg five or six days a week for the first couple of years. At any time they have up to seven eggs at various stages of development inside them, so if you upset a chicken on Wednesday, you’ll have no egg on the following Tuesday!

I keep chickens in my garden. I have the deepest respect for them as indeed I try to have for all God’s creatures (with the possible exception of wasps). But I wouldn’t consider hiring a chicken to solve my customer’s problems. I might, however, appoint a chicken as a train driver to ensure I get to the office on time every morning. With all due respect to train drivers, the point about their profession is that it requires discipline. If they don’t get to work on time , a whole trainload of passengers won’t either. Once on the train, their work environment is rigid; they can’t choose their destination or even their track. But driving the train requires excellent concentration on a task that can be very monotonous, and they have no co-pilot or a friendly stewardess to bring them coffee. Thus a train driver needs a set of skills and personality traits that many people do not have.

In your project or business, if you need a train driver type of person, you have to make sure not to recruit someone who loves to interact with people and prefers to work in a flexible environment. They might keep it up for a time with the necessary level of motivation and commitment, but at some point they will snap, leaving your train stranded miles from the nearest station.

On the other hand, if you need someone who is creative, who can think on their feet, adapt very quickly and is ready to accept change at short notice, then you won’t want a train driver or post office worker.

There are two common errors in interviewing and negotiation: Firstly, not asking the right questions, and secondly not listening to the answers. You will be astonished how often interviewers forget to ask even the most obvious questions. For this reason, learning to ask even the basic questions such as ‘ what are your real expectations from this job, and, what are your career hopes for the future’? is extremely important – they can give you an indication as to where the candidate is going and whether that might fit within your plans. I always make a list of the questions that I believe need to be asked, and I use it as a guide if the interview gets stuck.

If you ask the right questions, then you at least stand a chance of obtaining the information you require. I have met many too many people who know how to ask all the right questions, but who only actually listen to the answers they want to hear.

Of course the interviewee is going to say whatever they think you want to hear, but by creating the right environment and with the right kind of questioning, you should be able to find out if your interviewee’s agenda is different from your own. If there is no synergy then say so right away, don’t assume you will be able to pull them around. This advice applies more broadly than just to employees and partners; it covers all aspects of business life, such as negotiating deals and prospecting for new clients. It has become an overused expression, but looking for ‘win win’ situations is the best thing to do. Agendas may differ, but if the goal is shared and the proper synergy is in place to make it happen, then go for it.

The unwanted loss of an employee or team member is one of the biggest ‘avoidable’ issues you can have.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

‘Love Thy Colleagues’ - The Importance of Listening

Listening is obviously an essential part of any debate or negotiation. But listening is much more than simply hearing, it implies understanding – and to understand is to be able to begin to build a strategy. The quicker people agree to ‘listen’, the faster they can progress in any debate.

Young children are the worst listeners. ‘No’ is a word they understand very quickly but simply ignore, when it suits them. If they want something they yell or shout, if they don’t get it, they resort to some form of violence or bullying very quickly. Their frustration control levels are very low. Similarly this kind of behavior is also sometimes found in adults who have somewhere learnt that by being aggressive or over assertive they can get their own way. However these adults are very often blocked in middle management in their careers. This is mainly because they are unable to maintain alliances and to retain the really creative and motivated people who work fort hem. They are unable to listen and to appreciate what is in front of them.

In senior management, assertiveness is simply not enough. Contrary to common belief, successful top managers may appear hard and unyielding but they are in fact often among the best negotiators ever. They have learnt that in order to progress and to maintain their position they need to be accepted not only by their fellow management colleagues but also by their staff. Successful managers are instinctive listeners, trying to gleam useful information from wherever it is available. They know that it is important to understand the real situation, to be compassionate - compromising when necessary. They know how to use all the tricks to get their own way, but not at the expense of the important resources around them.

Martin Luther King once said “You should love your enemy, because love is the only thing powerful enough to turn an enemy into a friend”. He understood that even in the depths of oppression and despair, where those around him were full of hatred, that the only hope for America and to resolving the appalling racial prejudices that it harbored – was to go way beyond the issues in front of him and to try and understand exactly where his ‘opponents’ fears and hatred were coming from. He realized that by ‘understanding’, one could begin to sympathize, and that by sympathizing one could learn to live along side their enemies and from there it would be possible to build relationships, respect and even, in time, love.

Now I am not saying you should ‘love’ all your colleagues in business but when you are confronted by someone who is blocking you, bullying or even simply not listening to you, it is important to go beyond the words and rhetoric, to find the hidden agenda and to try understand exactly where the confronting person is coming from. Even if the message or lack of understanding on their part is very disagreeable. By finding the good qualities in our ‘opponents’, by searching for their positive aspects and strong points, instead of focusing on their bad ones, you can begin to sympathize and to find areas of mutual respect and from there on, build bridges and find a path forward.

No one person is bigger than a business; no one person can be effective on their own. The nature of humans is that we need to build alliances, without them we are weak, with them we have power and the ability to make a difference.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Promotion Prospects for Project Managers

This week I have been considering the promotion prospects for many of the project managers I know. If you look at it logically, you could imagine that you would start out as a project assistant, then become a project coordinator and then move on to become a project manager, presumably starting on small projects, responsible for a single team and then working up to a full project manager and then on to program manager.

For the uninitiated the difference between a project manager and a program manager is that a project manager is responsible for a single project (or indeed for a number of individual projects) and a program manager is responsible for a very large project or ‘program’ consisting of multiple projects that are inextricably linked together, combining to form an overall result. For example: if a large company decides to move its corporate head quarters, it is conceivable that they would employ a program manager to ensure that all the sub projects associated with the move are covered: i.e. ICT, HR, Marketing and Communications, legal, Architecture and floor planning, etc. etc. The Program Manager would be responsible for controlling the entire budget and the coordination of all the projects under one corporate banner. (Moving a corporate head office, might seem a simple project, but you may be surprised how difficult it is, largely because not everyone will find the move a good idea). If you have ever had to re-arrange just the floor plan and seating arrangements of a single office, you might be surprised how much of a complex and thankless task it is, so imagine a complete corporate head office!

Back to career prospects, you might assume that after being a program manager you could move onto being an Interim Manager, but here comes the problem. A good project manager needs to be a naturally good organizer. A person with experience in managing and motivating people, and with a thorough grounding in methodology and efficent procedures. A clear thinking person who is able to make decisions and to seize on opportunities. However, a really good Interim Manager needs to have all these qualities but also have a broad range of experience. Not just in managing people, but also in life and business in general.

If you are considering to become an interim manager, turning around small to medium sized companies, it’s no use only having experience in large corporations. On the other hand, if you have only worked for companies of less than 25 people, it seems impossible to take on a significant interim management role for a large corporation, especially if it is on a global level and not a departmental one.

An interim manager needs to have a very broad background of working in, or for, all types of organizations of differing size, industries and sectors. There are some exceptions, for example Banking and retail. However, if you want a varied career as an interim manager taking on all kinds of exciting challenges and not simply standing in for senior managers that have either left or suddenly died, then you need to ensure that you think and act like a CEO. To do that you really need to have been one, at some time or other.

Thus if you are an experienced project manager and want to become an interim manager, then you must ensure that you have the right qualifications and background. You need to try and move away from ‘delivery’ projects to change projects. To projects where the key objective is to change a way of thinking or established behavior. As an interim manager it is you who is giving the advice, it is you who deciding the direction to take. Therefore you are more often than not going to take on accountability on a big scale, so you better be sure, you know what your doing and have a big insurance policy to back you up!

An Interim Manager can become a Project Manager, but the other way round, is very difficult without a great deal of entrepreneurial and broad experience. In the Bayard Partnership we try and create environments where our Associates can grow and see career paths forward, even when it may seem rather unrealistic.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Planning For the Inevitable - Part 2

I am writing this sequel to last week's topic on the flight back from my motor cycle trip around SW Spain.

A number of the 'inevitables' happened as predicted, getting lost, tired, irritable. I immediately recognised the symptoms as 'inevitable' and brought in my predefined strategies. Of course being overheated, lost and tired in a foreign land, where you do not speak the language, is an issue but the remedy is naturally not that difficult. My contingency for such matters, is to recognise the cause (driving too long, a lack of water and an over optimistic ambition to arrive at the pre-defined destination an hour earlier). So all I do is suggest that we pull our bikes over to the side of the road and have a short break. Sitting under a tree to cool off for a while. Taking even a 60 seconds timeout with eyes closed and all thoughts of being lost etc removed form one's consciousness, helps tremendously. A fresh look at the map and a re-confirmation as to the position of the sun, versus the time of day, and very quickly, the correct location can be identified and a new plan made. It's all a question of recognising the symptoms early and reminding yourself of what your pre-defined strategy is for any such predicted event.

In my professional life, I try to do the same. Any experienced manager should anticipate that 'unplanned variances' can (and probably will) occur. This is not to excuse them. Sloppy scope analysis and preparation will always result in an increased amount of 'unforeseens'. But here we are talking more about the 'foreseeable'. The trick is to keep the team focused and together, when they arrive (during the period of uncertainty, and to ensure that your sponsors are only briefed once you have identified the cause and at least two possible remedy plans.

So back to the holiday... Did it achieve it's objectives? Were it's goals accomplished? The answer is an unequivocal 'yes'! ;-)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Planning for the inevitable events in projects

This blog will be published from the middle of a desert in south eastern Spain. I say ‘it will’ because right now I am still in Belgium, completing my last minute planning for a holiday in Spain.

The objective for the holiday is to get away to find some relaxation and inner peace, to live the experience of driving my motorbike through nothingness (or as close as I can get to it in Europe) day after day for ten days. The trip was prepared like any typical project with a scope and milestones etc. and just like other projects, one needs to plan for the inevitable. This is something that I find many managers forget. It can only come out from experience. At the beginning of any project the interim or project manager should sit and consider what ‘inevitables’ they might expect to face.

Right here (on a fast train to Brussels) and right now, I can foresee some inevitables for my holiday. I do not mean the blatantly obvious such as; the need for hotels and meals etc, but more the side effects of the project, such as; at times I may get hopelessly lost, will certainly become overheated, tired and irritable, possibly even bored and most likely sick (headaches, upset stomachs, insect bites, muscle pain etc.). For the medical stuff I have the best contingency plan anyone can have, in that my only travel companion is a fully qualified and highly experienced doctor who just happens to speak very good Spanish.

In business projects it is important to try and anticipate the inevitable and to be sure that only actual unforseens, are just that and not something you could or should have anticipated. For example you should know in advance that there will be moments of extreme anxiety, moments where your client’s happy appreciative face will turn to disappointment or even anger. Your team will become bored (especially when everything is going smoothly) and suppliers will deliver late when they feel that the pressure is easing off. It is these inevitables that are never written down into any plan but yet, if planned for, can make a tremendous difference. (Any parent who has taken young children on a long car journey in the middle of summer will know what planning for the inevitable means).

So now I am busy planning for my inevitables; the hopeless search for a petrol station, a hotel receptionist who has never heard of the name ‘Lovegrove’ and can not remember any booking in my name, or dropping my bike on a remote road somewhere, or possibly a flat tyre. Of course I do not know exactly when and where these things will occur, but they will occur of that I am sure (if not on this holiday, then certainly the next) and when they do I will have a strategy for them. Now I am not suggesting that you can and should plan for everything but because good project managers and interim managers are often very optimistic people they need to take a few ‘sanity checks’ here and there. They need to think ahead and anticipate, without becoming bogged down with contingencies and risk analyses for absolutely everything. Life should be spontaneous, and within this contradiction lies the balance between megalomaniac management and the cool ‘everything’s going to be alright, just chill’ approach. The closer you are to the cool spectrum the more adaptive you can be, but on the other hand, you will need to be adaptive, because the cool approach will ‘ipso facto’ require on the spot constant planning because you will be dealing with the unplanned variances that this type of management brings.

I’ll let you know how it goes! If there is no blog next Monday, it might be that there is one inevitable that I missed….

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dress code for interim & project managers

In the last two weeks I have covered the naming of our private businesses, the types of car we should drive and now I want to finish this lighthearted triptych with what an interim manager should wear. The article below is based for men mainly, because when it comes to what female interim managers should wear, the subject is mighty tricky! (If I pluck up enough courage by the time I make it to the end of the article, I’ll give my opinion on that too)!

Now I am of the belief that all interim managers should wear a white shirt, tie, and a dark suit – good quality, nothing cheap and badly fitting. Quality is everything, like the Audi A6, it needs to be quietly stylish. None of these flashy shiny Italian silk pajama suits that might look great in a yacht club, but frankly silly in a board room in Brussels, or any other European capital for that matter. With a suit, you really should have them tailor made, or at least ensure they fit perfectly. An ill fitting suit is far worse than no suit at all. Find yourself an Asian peripatetic tailor, who will fly over to measure you up twice a year. He will get to know you, your tastes and preferences. Whether you want a custom made mobile phone pocket in your trousers or jacket. He can balance your wishes with your partner’s expectations. It can be very tricky. The great thing about tailor made is that for a little extra fee they will sew your name into the label, very useful after a champagne reception, that somehow drifted on a little longer than expected and the last remaining jacket hanging over the back of the bar room stool is not yours!

Never have colored shirts. First thing in the morning when you are preparing for the day, you should be thinking about the meetings ahead of you, your clients worries and how best to tackle them, not whether this tie goes with that shirt, or whether the trousers you want are back from the dry cleaners or not. I knew of a blind person who always looked great. He was single, and as far as I knew had no one at home to help him out. So how did he do it? Simple, he had his sister label all his clothes with a simple numbering system. As long as the numbers fell into the right sequence, he knew the colors and styles would look good. Stray away from the sequence and he immediately risked ridicule (although, I guess no one would ever be that insensitive)? It’s the same for me, if I stray away from the usual combinations (and if my wife is suitably awake) I am likely to get something like “not going to work today”? or “are you going to work looking like that”? The truth is, she is always right, what might look ok in the dull, tungsten lit bedroom, does not always stand up to the judgment of harsh sunlight.

So here’s the dress code. Always a suit (or at worst, a smart jacket and trousers), white shirt tie, black (or possibly brown shoes, as long as they are not with a grey or black suit). Two clean handkerchiefs, one neatly ironed in the left or right trouser pocket, the other in the right hand pocket of jacket. The one in the jacket, is for unplanned accidents, emotional staff or other unforeseens.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone follows my code. Where I am working now, some project managers, look like they have stepped out of the shower and walked directly into the office! I guess it’s the style, but some of them have hair styles that look like they have been electrocuted. This is normally accompanied with shirts hanging out of their trousers and color combinations and clothing styles that one might like to risk over breakfast on Sunday, or by the pool in a holiday hotel, but never in a situation where your client might expect to take what you say seriously!

Some companies adopt a rule that on Fridays you can (read should) wear ‘casual’ clothes. I hate this. It takes me five times as long to get dressed on a Friday morning than on any other day. I really struggle, trying to select the right combination from a collection of clothes that I inwardly feel were designed for someone else other than me. I guess I am just not interested enough in clothes, I don’t like shopping for them and I don’t like selecting them either. I have a few favorites that I would happily wear every day but that is not acceptable either.

However, I can honestly say that my career began to take off, when I realized that how I dressed and looked had a direct effect on those choosing to do business with me. My idealistic, student notions of ‘people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’ was scrapped and replaced by a brand new look, after some wise advice from someone far older and more successful than me.

Now for women’s clothing. As I write this my hands are shaking out of trepidation at the possible wrath I might face from my female colleagues, especially from the delightful variety of women that I find myself working with! As Robert Palmer sang “you’re a distraction to a man” and so it is for many of us men when confronted by attractive women wearing revealing clothes in the workplace. At a party, or on holiday, revealing clothing can be a very welcome diversion, but in the workplace it simply gets in the way of the message.

There are two ways of looking at the dilemma. Blending in, trying to be seen as equal among men or standing out to be noticed. In my view, if a woman wants to be taken seriously in what she says in a meeting, she needs to use the same tools as men, i.e. to communicate with her eyes, face and hands. She needs to pull her colleagues into her debate. Eye to eye contact is extremely important and this can be difficult if a man’s attention is being constantly drawn in another direction!

I have noticed that most women who have worked their way into higher levels of management, seem to dress in similar ways i.e. roll neck sweaters, or shirts and or jackets with collars that rise very high to just under the chin. This brings the attention directly to their face, which is exactly where they want it during a serious debate.

The English Victorian women with their high collars and long dresses made them look very formidable indeed, and you only have to look at images from the Victoria and Albert museum’s incredible collection of clothes in London to see what I mean. On the other hand there are also women who bring color and life into the board room, that the men’s dull white shits and micky mouse ties, simply can not replace. (By the way male interim managers should never wear comical ties, this is an absolute no, it does not matter who bought it for you)!

Today fashion is so varied that women can, more or less, wear anything, and that is exactly what they do! There is a trend (especially with younger staff) to wear more than one T shirt and jumpers; multiple layers straddled over one another. I find these a distraction because I wonder what the thought process is that goes into the selection of each layer. I am a classical person, I like simple shapes and forms, blouses with jackets and trousers or skirts, clothes that don’t shout out ‘look who I am’ but allow the woman to stand alongside her male companions and be taken seriously as an equal and not an outsider trying to attract attention.

Although in some parts of the world it is getting better, for many women in business, life is still tough in comparison with men. A woman who feels the need to get their male colleagues to take them more seriously should do what I did twenty years ago, step into the mainstream business fashion way of life. They should realize that how you look is how you are perceived, and there is no way around it. At home or on holiday is one thing, work is something different entirely. For female interim and project managers, no jeans, no combat trousers, no gothic beads, no low cut T shirts with, or without, meaningless slogans. In fact nothing too original apart from colors, fabrics and shapes. It may sound dull, but it is what we do as professional managers that matters, not trying to show glimpses of who we prefer to be, outside in our private lives.