Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Just say ‘yes’

The end of the year is the time that many of us are thinking about how we can improve ourselves in the future, how we can have more fun or be more effective. The space between the two years, that seems to come from nowhere, gives us ample time to consider ourselves both in the present and in the future. And so it was on Christmas eve, while driving to the butcher to collect a six kilo Turkey, I heard an interview on the radio with a very natural and enthusiastic sounding person – the interviewee was telling how a simple piece of advice had changed his life.

His girlfriend had left him a while ago and his life had changed in a way that he hadn’t expected. He became insular, staying at home, turning down invitations and avoiding unnecessary social contact. Until one day a friend told him that he should ‘say yes more’. He said “it’s not good for you to stay in so much”. The interviewee thought about it for a while and decided to take his friends advice literally. He also considered that ‘just say yes’ would make a good title for a self help book, and so it was that he decided to give the advice a try.

He started to say ‘yes’ to literally everything; Yes to buying a secondhand car he didn’t need, yes to learning Flemish, yes to invitations to parties and yes to offers of daring and adventure and even yes to mundane activities. And all the while he documented his experiences and set about writing his book.
Several months later the phone rang, on the other end of the line was a film producer (apparently the maker of the Harry Potter movies) – “I have read your book” he said, “very interesting – I think a broader public would be interested in it, may I make a movie of it?” Of course the answer was ‘yes’. I don’t know the name of the interviewee or the exact title of his book but I do know that Jim Carey is playing in the movie and his ex girl friend in real life is being played by a famous actress.

The moral of the story is pretty obvious I guess but I thought it worth pondering for a while. Especially while considering ones New Year resolutions and how to stick to them. However, in my case, I am going to do the opposite. In 2007 and 2008 I said ‘yes’ to too many people with the result that I overstretched myself. In 2009, I am going to concentrate on what I know and do best, in environments where I have influence, in situations where I can be most effective. And, if I can have some fun at the same time, then so be it. My five year strategy plan is going well and all I want to do in the difficult months ahead is to try and keep it all on course.

So here’s wishing all my readers a very happy new year and a successful 2009!

Best wishes,

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


In London and New York the taxi drivers have a reputation for offering advice, even when it is uncalled for. Ask them anything you like; politics, a topical moral issue, business, football or even show business and they’ll give you their opinion. What’s more they’ll often back it up with “I had that Gordon Brown (or any other name that fits) in the back of my cab the other day and you know what he told me?......”

So let me introduce you to Sonia. Sonia is my pedicurist. (I have a toe that regularly causes me aggravation and once every few months needs her attention). I went to her this week, I hadn’t seen her since the funeral of her husband back in the Summer. Sonia is a positive soul and just like taxi drivers, she always has something to say. And so it was of no surprise that during my treatment Sonia took it upon her self to give me some advice for 2009. She told me that the number nine is a very solitary number and that because in 2009 it is accompanied by two zeros only enhances that fact. According to Sonia 2009 is going to be a very difficult year. “It will be a time to look forward” she said. “It will be an individual journey for everyone. Don’t look back, the past is the past and is not the same as now, what applied yesterday does not apply any more. When people look backwards, they tend to fall over. Don’t be afraid, find your own path, your journey will be enriching and from it you will enrich the lives of others.”

When Sonia says something, it’s a bit like listening to the advice of a wise aunt. You know you have to stay polite and to listen and yet, almost annoyingly, there is something to be taken from what she says. I know better now than to question – my cynical brain goes into standby mode and I accept what I hear as an uncompromised view on things – a message driven from spirituality, rather than logic. After all what do we business leaders, politicians, lawyers, and teachers know any more than Sonia about the future? If we are all as clever as we like to think we are, how come we are where we are and not in some other place or situation?

In less than half an hour, I had received treatment for my toe, nutrition for my head and a hot cup of coffee, and all for less than twenty Euros! Despite the icy steps that lead down from her door, I left with a new spring in my step, feeling confident and ready to face anything that comes my way.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No time to think

Everyone has a unique place where they tend to get their inspiration from. For some it is in the bath, for others it maybe walking the dog. ‘Ureka’ moments are precious and yet they are the creative solutions that allow us to offer real value.

Senior managers and interim managers are paid to be creative, they are not expected to be operational. And yet so many of us find ourselves going from one information download session (otherwise commonly known as meetings) to another without space between to reflect, and to process high quality inspirational thoughts and creative solutions.

Walking the dog is fine for one problem, but if you have attended five meetings in one day (or more), walking the dog may only solve one of them. As a result our meetings tend to get longer to allow us to think the issue through. The result being that they turn into inefficient brainstorming sessions, without the chance to mull over the the potential consequences of decisions taken.

Of course there are executives that have teams around them that prepare perfectly for meetings, that have already thought all the issues through and are just presenting to senior management in order to share their findings and to obtain approval. In my experience, however, these situations are rare.

Yesterday I went from giving one interview to another, with a two and a half hour investment pitch and an advertising campaign purchase meeting in-between. Decisions were made and the world is still turning but this is not ideal. I know it is not trendy to slow down but in this case I believe less is more.

If we are not taking the time out to contemplate potential opportunities and risks, then at least we should have members of our team doing so. The only question remaining is – ‘Do we trust them and their judgment sufficiently?’

Tip: if you drive home from work everyday with the radio on, or spend the time on the phone extending the day – perhaps once a week you should switch everything off and spend the time reflecting on conversations of the day (this is assuming you are good at multi-tasking and are driving along a boring motorway, not in a busy city).

I am off for my bath,


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Outside of your comfort zone?

Everyone has experienced a time when they stepped out of their comfort zone: perhaps turning a wrong corner in a foreign city, walking into unknown territory. The effect is immediate; heart rate increases, adrenaline runs high and suddenly all our sensory receptors are processing massive amounts of information, looking for creative exits. This is also true in business.

In the good times, we have a natural tendency to cruise into our comfort zones, we switch to ‘cruise control’ and make boardroom statements such as; “let’s stick to what we know”, “is this idea really our core business?”.

The week before last I wrote about utilizing resources and this blog leads on from there in as much as in difficult times we need creative solutions to complex issues. My personal view is that we must ensure that our teams are not staying in their comfort zones, they need to be stimulated into facing new challenges, rather than idle their hours contemplating internal politics and possible outcomes.

In recruitment, my message to our customers is not to study CV’s for new interim assignments by looking for exact matches. Exact matches are very likely to fail – simply because you will be recruiting someone into their own comfort zone. What is more, they are likely to pass their day driving you and your team mad by endlessly saying things like: “in my previous company we did it like this” or “in my previous company we did it like that”. They are likely to get bored too quickly and maintain a narrow vision of the solution. Exact matches should not be considered 'a safe bet'.

My advice is to give a clear brief of the problem you are trying to solve and describe the type of person you think you need to solve it. Look for a character match first and only then look for a knowledge fit. An applicant that is stepping into something new, that has the right emotional and intellectual capabilities, is likely to work far harder and to keep their eyes wide open, simply because they are outside their normal comfort zone. They are very likely to act cautiously but keep all their options open. They will be forced to adopt a creative approach and to look to solve the issue in innovative ways. What is more, they are more likely to take their new responsibilities very seriously, relying on all their resources, not just their own opinion. In my experience, even the fixed employees that surround them are less likely to feel threatened because the interim manager will not be continuously manifesting themselves as ‘experts’.

I do have a caveat however: There is a difference between stepping out of one’s comfort zone’ and drifting too far from the shore. But as long as you can judge the distance and make the necessary provisions – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Times like these are very good to consider creative internal re-shuffles too.

Have a good week,


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Missing Chapter

If you have read my book ‘Making a Difference’ you will know about my nine step approach to complex business problem solving. You will also know that I cover ‘soft' issues such as managing people, personal development, and decision making. In a meeting last week with a senior manager of the University of Antwerp Management School I was introduced to an absolutely fascinating book by Adam Kahane called ‘Solving Tough Problems’. If I am not being too egotistical, this book could be considered the missing chapter of my book.

Adam Kahane has worked on some of the toughest problems in the world; from mediating South Africa’s transition away from apartheid, to Colombia during the civil war, the collapse of Argentina, The Basque Country, Northern Ireland and much more. The techniques that Adam suggests are very radical to many, require serious reflection and careful thought as to how they can be brought effectively into the work place.

Being a Quaker, I am familiar with some of Adam’s techniques and I even use them in my daily business life. In my book, in the section on decision making, you will find parallels to Adam’s work but Adam’s experience takes us to a whole new level of conflict. He has written the book that I would like to have written – I recommend it to everyone, it is not long, it is easy to read and is cheaper than mine ;-)!

Solving Tough Problems is written by Adam Kahane and is published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The two really good things about a recession

The advantage of being the ‘old man of the firm’ is that you’ve seen it all before. The only disadvantage is that you can fool yourself into believing that you have seen it all before. In my experience, each recession and economic crisis are unalike and therefore as with antibiotics, you will probably need a similar but different remedy to pull you out of what appears to be the same symptoms as earlier.

Back to the subject, two good things about a recession. The first good thing about a recession is that everyone that faces economic uncertainty is, sooner or later, forced to face a familiar word with a new definition: ‘Resourcefulness’.

Everyday in business someone mentions ‘resources’ (usually complaining that they do not have enough) but in times of serious economic downturn ‘Resourcefulness’ becomes the key to survival. Only the very poor in our society see no difference between good times and bad times, they have to be 100% resourceful all of the time, simply to survive.

If the key elements of resources are: People, Cash, Buildings, Machines (tools) and Infrastructure etc. then being resourceful obviously means making the most of what you have. But my tip is to make the most of what you don’t have. And I do not mean stealing! Let me explain…

Imagine you only have one sales person for a very big area. In times of economic crisis you will probably regret not having employed that extra person when times were good. Your one sales person makes on average 5 sales visits per day – but who to call on, who in these difficult times is still spending money? Of course she should have a good idea, but she is only one person in a very large area.

The resourceful company sales director thinks on their feet and looks for a solution. One trick I have used very effectively is to look to my suppliers for help. The photo copier sales person. Take them out for lunch, pay for the meal. The big copier companies train their sales teams very well. In recession times they only retain the best and because their world is so competitive, they tend to cover their geographical area better than anyone else. Their sales people know exactly who is buying who isn’t. Which company car parks are full with new cars and which aren’t. Tell your photocopier sales person about your company get them interested, give them your target profile and very soon you’ll be repaid with some very useful information. Of course it is best if you let your sales person have this idea so that they can take the credit – a lead they find is always followed up hotter than one of yours and it is they that will have to make friends with copier sales person in the long-run.

So being resourceful in everything we do is great because we kick out what is not working, find creative solutions to previously ignored in-efficiencies and generate new hope.

If being Resourceful is one of the great things about a recession the second is that (in my experience) recessions do not last forever and the companies that have been the most resourceful all the way through, come out the strongest afterwards.

Tip for the week, prepare a lecture on resourcefulness, inspire those around you to be resourceful, identify resources that you didn’t even know you had and begin to use them well.

Have a good week,

Monday, November 10, 2008

On line Groups – What is the point?

Last week I found myself with a couple of unexpected hours free and started to sign up to a few ‘LinkedIn’ groups. No doubt many of my contacts received a weekly update informing them of my joining Vlerick Alumni, just as I received notification that an ex-colleague called Eric has updated his profile by submitting a new photograph?!

I can see the point in groups, especially if their membership includes people who might be interesting to consult with. But what will keep them as members? Many are bound to unsubscribe simply due to the potential banality of their content. (It reminds me of the early 80’s when everyone seemed to be purchasing CB radios, the problem was the airwaves soon became filled with people who, having hooked up to an elaborate communication network, found themselves with absolutely nothing to contribute – but, however, contribute they did!) What a successful group needs is content and a raison d'ĂȘtre – I see that Belgium’s ‘Data News’ LinkedIn group, has no content at all – which is rather strange considering it was put together by publishers!

With the rapid rise of e-networking tools, it is for sure that there will be a backlash. I don’t know if you have come across Ecadamy or not but they offer a paying networking group called ‘BlackStar’ that costs 105EUR per month to subscribe to, now why on earth would anyone want to sign up to that?!

Groucho Marx once said: "I would never join any club that would accept me as a member. If we substitute club for LinkedIn Group then we have an interesting debate : (see what a bunch of psychologists can discuss about it, and join in the debate if you want? ;-) Link

End note: By the way I posted a question on the LinkedIn Vlerick Alumni group forum and must admit, found the response very satisfactory indeed – the only point was I didn’t realize anyone had responded until I found them by accident. I guess there must be a tag somewhere that needs activating?! Have a safe week,


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Listen to good advice – but don’t follow it…

You might find this piece of advice a bit strange, especially coming from me, perhaps some explanation is called for?

When I was younger, when people came to me for advice, I listened for a while and then told them what I thought. Sometimes my enquirers would smile and say encouraging words along the lines of “thanks that’s great advice, just what I needed to hear.” If I happened to meet my enquirer again sometime later, more often than not, it was pretty obvious that my advice had not worked.

If someone gives you advice and you find yourself saying “Wow, that’s so obvious, why hadn’t I thought of it before?” Then don’t trust the advice – it probably is too simple. Listen to it, play it over again in your head, test it, ask others what they think – but whatever you do, do not follow it blindly – your advisor can not possibly know the complexity that surrounds your issues, unless they know you better than you do?

The reasons we ask for advice are many fold. The next time you find yourself asking for advice, stop and ask yourself these two questions first: ‘Why am I asking this person for advice?’ And ‘Once I receive my answer how will it help me solve my problem?’.

Let’s consider five common reasons why we ask for advice:

1. Because we are too lazy to work it out for ourselves
2. Because we like the personal attention we receive
3. Because we think wise people can solve anything
4. Because we are too close to the issue to think and act rationally
5. Because we like to have confirmed what we already know

I often ask others for advice, mostly my wife:
“Does this jacket go with these trousers?”
“Do you find this blog too long?”
“Should I see a doctor about my back?”
“If I mentioned it to her, do you think she would understand?”
“Is it worth cutting the grass, I am sure it is going to rain?”

Ok, so my requests for advice are pretty crass but think about it, mostly we ask for advice in the hope that our advisor will tell us something that we want to hear – to reconfirm our own beliefs. So when we hear what we want to hear we like it even more when we consider our advisor to be as wise as can be.

If we truly desire advice to solve a problem, especially a business problem (which by their very nature are often complex), it is mostly because of reason number 4: Because we are too close to the issue to think and act rationally. In this case, it is most likely, that unless we brief our advisor for at least 200 hours or more, the chances are they will be guessing at a solution. That is why, if you have a serious problem, it really is best to go through at least the first four steps of my nine step methodology for solving problems, before asking someone outside for advice:

Step 1: What is the real problem?
(Understanding and defining the current situation – separating the symptoms from the root causes)
Step 2: How did I (or the business) get to where I am today?
(Looking at the past to understand how the current situation came about)
Step 3: Cash, Culture and Competence
(Assessing the resources at our disposal)
Step 4: What are my (or the business’) aspirations?
(Understanding our long term desires and/or the long term objectives of the business, to be sure any solution will be in line with them).

These four steps take some effort and talking them through with others who know us, can help - but asking for advice as what to do (Step 5 Decision Time) – is something best done on your own. However! Once you have made a decision, it always a very good idea to share it with others for their opinion, if the majority of those you speak with disagree with you, then think twice and ask yourself again – “why have I decided on this solution?” - before you act upon it (especially if our actions will impact on others).

Remember, there is a big difference for asking for advice when one is lost, than asking for advice to confirm where we are. A powerful leader has only one councellor (advisor) for each topic, but many colleagues with whom to debate. There is a difference.

If you’re looking for advice, my door is always open, have a good week ;-)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

“The end is nigh!”

When I was a teenager, working for my first summer holiday job in central London, there was an old man that used to walk up and down Oxford Street with a big placard with the words “The end is Nigh”. At 16 I laughed his prediction away, wondering what the scam was, what motivated him to make such a fool of himself.

However, 35 years later, with all the chaos that has hit the stock and financial markets, it is not surprising that among the thousands of articles one can read on the subject, there are many doom and gloom stories that sound very plausible: ‘Melt down’, ‘worse than the Wall Street crash’ and so forth. As I mentioned in my previous blog on the subject, ‘Crisis what Crisis?’ everyone seems to have an opinion, which is, of course, normal. But I am getting very concerned that many business people are missing the point entirely.

It is not important whether you believe everything will blow over within a few months or if the world's economy will not recover from this for a very long time. The important thing is that responsible business leaders must start to make serious contingency plans. Surviving is about adapting your strategy based upon realistic possibilities and not on blindly following what you think the outcome will be. A business is not something that should be gambled based solely upon what the CEO believes will happen.

Every business leader (regardless if they are running a small family business or a giant multi-national) has responsibilities towards their shareholders, employees, suppliers and customers – and these need to be taken very seriously indeed. Therefore I suggest the following:

DO NOT panic those around you BUT do:
1. Stop talking about how bad or ok things are going to be
2. Set up an analysis project – give it a name.
3. Agree at least three possible economic (short to medium term) scenarios from OK to complete disaster
4. Draw up a risk analysis for your business for each scenario
5. Adapt your current strategy plan for each scenario
6. Set clear economic/performance KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) for each scenario that will clearly indicate when you need to begin implementing your strategy for each scenario
7. Have your project endorsed by your board, expert shareholders or advisory board – whichever is most suitable for your situation

What I am suggesting here is about anticipation and managing the situation as best you can. For example: imagine that you are in the retail business and you believe that revenues will start dropping (if they have not done so already) - at which point are you going to take action? When will you actually begin to look at alternative ways of shifting inventory, or closing down outlets and laying off staff?

Business people like to complain about politicians not doing enough forward thinking and planning – but to be honest I have the feeling that many business leaders are simply following a ‘lets wait and see’ scenario. By making clear plans and looking at the impact on the cash flow and credit liquidity etc. now, we will be able to make much better decisions later on.

I have been in situations like this before, but not ever as bad as it ‘appears’ to be right now. I know that when things get really bad, people start panicking and take bad and irrational decisions. In the quiet before the storm, we need to separate emotion from action and make plans for both our businesses and our families. And, if the storm missus us completely, then at least we can feel comfortable knowing that we had a contingency plan in place, had it been necessary.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting going into minute detail and pulling your staff off their daily tasks to panic about things they have no control over. All I am saying is: if, for example, your sales team are currently putting all their energy in a direction that you think is not likely to be effective in three months time, then maybe it is better to divert them into a more profitable direction sooner rather than later?

If your radar is telling you there is likely to be an iceberg ahead, then you need to begin now to decide how best you business can steer around it, once it appears. For some it is already getting rather too late.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Working one level lower than you should be?

I was talking with a colleague this week that was trying to comfort himself for not getting a position of interim General Manager because (according to the selectors) the position would have stretched him too much.

Apparently there is a much applied theory that it is best to recruit interim managers one level lower than their highest career position ever. The idea being that the client does not want to take any risks. If this is true then there is little hope for career growth the moment you give up employee status! Logically this makes no sense to me on any grounds (even the risk aversion argument does not really apply). Some points:

1. It is true that many employees, at one stage in their career are promoted to one level higher than they should be. Thus I guess when they are booted out (given ‘early retirement’) that they can/should only be offered assignments one rung lower as a freelancer?
2. An interim Manager who does well on one assignment and is given more responsibility – eg starts as COO and gets promoted to CEO during an assignment, would then only be able to be a COO again in his or her next assignment?
3. As we get older we will always be promoted downwards until we became cleaners!

Point 3 is not so unusual – perhaps not a cleaner, but I know a senior executive of a big multi-national who worked for many years in the city of London and yet chucked it all in to be a ‘messenger boy’ at the age of 55. He spent his days (rain or shine) walking the streets delivering important documents and cheques by hand to clients and banks. etc. When asked why? He explained that he had no stress, enjoyed the bustle and beauty of the city, and kept fit into the bargain. I know a previous international banker that drives a delivery van to wherever it is needed. Perhaps soon there will be many ex bankers asking us if we want a side dish with our big Mac’s – but I imagine that we will not see this for a few months yet. Trickle down takes a while…

So the question this week is – at what level are you? The trouble for me is, I like being a COO, sometimes even the CEO – but I really love being a program manager, or even a change manager and even an everyday project manager. The only important point for me is to have a real challenge. One that is tough and needs all my skills ingenuity and management to drive a team to deliver against all odds. When the gauntlet of complex problem solving is laid before me – I simply can not resist it.

So my advice is, especially if you are between assignments or jobs. Think about the best job you ever had and be honest with yourself by asking (assuming you can survive on the lower fee) just how far would you be prepared to drop to find your optimal level? It is worth considering – especially before someone considers it for you!

Have a good week – stay positive and remember: Focus on your strengths and not your weaknesses (unless you can fix them in a relatively short timeframe).


Monday, October 13, 2008

"And the winner is…."

The message this week is not to underestimate your personnel – how well do you know their capabilities, I guess not half as much as you might think?

On Wednesday the 8th. the final of the CEO’s dilemma (the competition that has been running in my book for the last thirteen months) was staged in a well known theatre in downtown Brussels. More than 200 people turned up on the night to witness the event.

"And the winner" was (much to his surprise) Chris Peeters. Chris was an outsider from the start, he had no interim management experience, he had never tackled a company restructuring, or managed a significant change project for a company in trouble. Yet his arguments were clear and were well thought through. Although the interviewing board of directors found holes in his reasoning, his coolness and clarity of thought on the night, plus his pleasant disposition – made him their unanimous choice.

But had you looked at Chris’ CV beforehand and compared it with those of many of the other contestants - you could be forgiven for not giving him a chance in hell. This is how, and why, so many companies go wrong. They simply do not know the true value of the personnel they have working right under their noses. You can not judge someone by only looking at their past, as seen by them and portrayed on a piece of paper called a CV. You need to give them opportunities to express what they are capable of and to at least share, in a non confrontational way, their ambitions. What’s more many people do not have concrete ambitions and need to be inspired to awaken to anywhere near their full potential.

Back to the competition: The CEO’s dilemma, the final event, the problem posed and indeed all the answers from the finalists (and a few other entrants) are all published on the Making a Difference website The Competition.

If you submitted an answer but were not selected for the final – thank you for your support, there will be more competitions coming in the future, so please enter again next time. Who knows you might be up against Chris!

A last note: Congratulations to all the finalists and thanks again to the excellent board of directors: Jules Noten, Cor Loots, Tamara Gielen, Raf Moons and Chris Van der Schueren. And also to the sponsors: Vlerick Management School, Fibiz Partners, Blackberry, LannooCampus , Magnus Wine and of course to my partners from The Bayard Partnership. Thank you everyone!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Is it possible to have a large company with a motivated workforce?

This question was posed to me during a recent reunion of a few employees of a small Belgian software company that was sold off to a large multi-national a few years back. We were debating why it was that our little company had been so successful and how come we were all so motivated to work for it?

My explanation was that we were ‘David versus Goliath’. I proposed that what motivated us was the excitement of us having a few brilliant engineers working together, competing against a massive US team employed by a very large American Multi-national. Even though the odds were stacked against us, we managed to produce a better product, far quicker and obviously far more efficiently every single time. Despite all the struggles we had, we shared a common vision and each of us knew the part we had to play in order to achieve it.

Like many reunions, all of the ex-employees looked back at their 'Eonic days' as being special and the company as being the best they had ever worked for. But then the notion was raised that it is impossible to have a truly motivated workforce in a large company. I immediately disagreed and said it was possible, just as long as the company had a very clear mission and that the senior management teams found ways of engaging all their staff into the common goal, with everyone apreciating the responsibility they each have for their own role and their own part of the complex puzzle.

The question is: Does such a company exist? And where is it, what is its name?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Crisis what crisis? Everyone’s become so boring…

Regular readers will know that my blogs are (more often than not) either inspired by a situation I encountered or by the people I have met during the previous week. But in the last few days my business acquaintances have become so boring. It’s not that they themselves are boring, it’s just that the enormity of what is happening in the world’s financial markets is so overwhelming that everything else seems to shade into trivia and insignificance.

Of course, if I switch the conversation to the crisis (which isn’t difficult) then everyone, including myself, wakes up and has an opinion. But the whole thing is very bizarre. Here in Brussels, now that two of the household name banks are in deep trouble, people are beginning to feel a sense of doom. However, I get the feeling that they are either trying to ignore it (like a family embarrassment) or are simply refusing to believe that it will have any effect on them.

The quote of the week for me comes from BBC 4’s, ‘News Quiz’ radio program when contributor Jeremy Hardy quoted John McCain “This is no time for politics” – well excuse me, if ever there was a time for politics, it is now! With the apparent collapse of capitalism (albeit temporary – one hopes) in the US, one might imagine that it is time for the politicians to do what they are paid for? It’s weird how the word ‘politics’ has been so much over used by business people that it now has come to mean, ‘plotting’ and ‘underhandedness’, when according to the English Chambers dictionary it actually means ‘the art or science of government’.

The whole scene reminds me of the image I have of Pompeii at the moment of Versuvius’ eruption – in a modern context you can imagine Mum and Dad and their two children in the car park of Delhaize supermarket loading ready made meals into the trunk of their Porche Caynne.

Everyone is an expert but no one knows for sure what to do – and those with the loudest voices are often taken to be the wise ones, until someone in a quiet voice calmly suggests a total other alternative that spins your imagination into another unwelcome direction.

I train my teams to think out of the box and to be creative but this advice is not given for crisis situations that have been predicted and when there is a well thought through risk analysis strategy that has been painstakingly prepared and tested beforehand. Or am I wrong? Was today’s situation so completely unpredictable, were there no warning signs at all? In ICT we are trained to ask the big ‘what if’ questions and to build complete solution scenarios for them, so I find it kind of weird that the US politicians have no such risk strategy prepared and in place, especially as there are ample previous examples of similar situations, albeit on a smaller scale?

Hopefully next week everything will be back to normal, and my blog will be back on the topic of everyday management issues? I just hadn’t thought that risk strategies might end up being one of them?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Interim Managers: How much is your agent taking as their cut?

I was having a meeting with a seasoned interim manager this week and he was very interested to work with The Bayard Partnership because he could see that we had all the advantages he was looking for, but did not take as big a margin as our competitors. This got me thinking – what is the average cut that most suppliers of interim management assignments take?

One of our interviewee’s previous suppliers said “You have two thirds of what the client pays us and we take a third”. This might sound reasonable but when you see it as a mark up, it comes out at more than 40%. So the real question should be: Is the +/-400EUR per day mark up (in his case) to the agency good value for money or not? One can presume that the agency's clients must think so, otherwise they would look for other alternatives of hunting for their interim managers? Or is it simply accepted as a necessary downside due to the fact that looking for the right interim manager is very time consuming and risky? Perhaps interim managers are also a little to blame as they are too busy on their assignments to do the necessary networking to be sure of finding enough assignments directly?

In these days of litigations and uncertainty, most customers do not want to have direct contracts with their interim managers, but there are many exceptions. Reviewing contracts, discussing small changes to terms and conditions etc. takes up far too much time on both sides. Hence a well written template agreement saves time and gives a certain degree of protection. But if they could, one would imagine that the end customer would like to see as much of that 40% in their own bank account.

As we move forward into evermore turbulent days, the need for interim managers will only increase and it will be the free market that will eventually decide the correct up lift. However, in the meantime – how much percentage are you currently paying to your agent/supplier and do you find it too much?

Monday, September 15, 2008

How to Survive a Recession

With the recessionary storms gathering pace, this week I am offering my advice, based upon hard earned experience of having endured two previous recessions, (one in the 90's in the UK and the '.com crisis', ten years later). To aid focusing on the key issues, I have constructed a framework of four ‘A’s’to explain the survival process: Anticipation, Analysis, Action and Attitude. (But first the introduction):

I find it incredible how many financial advisors and so called 'experts' are saying how unpredictable the current recession was, it is as if there was no warning. Anyone who has lived for more than forty five years either in the UK or the US should at least be thinking ‘I wonder how much longer this property boom can last’?

Every eighteen years or so, the banks get into difficulty and new regulations are brought in to ensure that ‘nothing like this can ever happen again’. I admit, this time its on a much bigger scale, but the principles remain the same. The bottom line is, in the financial world, the traders and low level decision makers are only looking at the situation immediately infront of them, at their daily, weekly and monthly performance figures. Little wonder that things go wrong when the deals they make effect the long term strategies of the businesses they invest in. This time, like the last, it is the ordinary mortgage lender that felt the hit first and, in turn become the catalyst that drove the current economic downturn. But having said all this, it is time to get to the point and to our area as business leaders where we have some influence.

A yachtsman sailing solo around the world knows only too well that the beautiful balmy day he is enjoying, relaxing in the sunshine on the deck, can not and will not last forever. Take a look around his yacht and you will see water tight hatch doors slid into the open position and everything he needs to weather a mighty storm, neatly tucked away, just out of sight but within easy reach. In the galley are tins and tins of provisions that every sailor hopes that he or she will never have to eat.

For the last decade or so, year on year giant loses are announced in the automobile industry and one wonders how these losses are sustained? The answer lies mainly in provisions. Just like the yachtsman, companies with the desire to survive, put aside, in the profitable years, a provision (upon which they are prepared to pay corporation tax), in order to bank for a rainy day. The amazing thing is – why don’t more companies do this and especially small ones? One theory I have is that accountants are so focused on guiding companies to reduce their taxation liabilities that the owner conveniently interpret this as ‘it’s better to spend every dollar you earn than ‘give away’ tax to the taxman. The result is one finds oneself surrounded with useless acquisitions that if truth be known add little or no value to the core business.

Currently there is a 4% downturn in the retail industry and everyone is running around like headless chickens acting like it’s the end of the world. If your business cannot sustain a 4% downturn for a short period, then you might as well ask yourself how is this possible? Some say that shareholders are to blame, wanting every cent possible as a return – but this is not the only story. The trouble is when things are going well we make out it is down to our wonderful leadership and of course when things are going badly, we make out that it is obviously down to ‘the recession’ and we spend our days trying to identify other companies in a similar position to comfort and justify to ourselves that we are not the only ones in trouble!

So what are the four A’s for surviving a recession? (the first might be too late for many, but don't be downhearted and read on anyway)

• Ensure you have sufficient cash reserves to weather it out (anticipate a sustained downturn, a period of no profit and or moderate losses, for at least 24 months).
• Look for the warning signs, trust your logic and instincts – (eighteen years of unbridled growth and massive house price inflation, should be a good start).
• Compare bad years with good years - Ask your accountant for a copy of the financial results for the last ten years (If your company does not go back that far, ask for the results of the best year so far) compare the results with now, check for the good year:
o Who were your clients?
o Why did they choose you?
o What service or products were you supplying?
o Where did the profit come from?
o What has changed since then?
o Who are you core customers today?
o Which customers are the profitable ones?
o Why are you spending energy on non profitable activities (ego tasks)?
o How much longer will your cash flow last if you carry on with the burn rate you currently have?
• Ensure that you react quickly. Like the yachtsman, batten down the hatches in time, don’t hang around on deck pontificating, better be safe than sorry.
o Cut back on all surplus expenditure
o Cancel all purchases that are not signed and/or not 100% linked to your core business
o Cancel all non comitted business deals that are not profitable and could eat up valuable cash reserves
• Look up the word ‘prudent’ and learn the definition off by heart, get your staff to do the same
• Increase your networking activities, do it with a purpose. Go back to the basics: remember your elevator pitch from the good old days. Adjust the words, change the context, if need be, but retain the original focus and passion.
• Do not panic into making ill thought through marketing decisions
o Avoid sudden changes of direction. (Brainstorming crazy new business saving ideas are probably the very actions that will kill you, if they are ever implemented)
• Extend your credit lines before you need them extending.
• If your luck turns with one good deal, never think your problems have gone away
• Prioritize your payments, pay only those that simply must be paid and hold back on all the others for as long as you reasonably can.
• Focus your energy on what you do best and encourage your staff to do likewise
• Try to remain positive but keep an air of realism
• Consider bringing in an interim manager to do a 30 day quick scan of your business to find the areas for improvement that you might have missed – there can be no ‘holy cows’ here.
• Sell assets that are surplus to requirements, but find the right buyer and do not under value them, no matter what the ‘experts’ say, most are out to rip you off and probably have a buyer in mind and will make the margin that could have saved your business
• Do not sell the tools of your trade, without them you are finished
• Make sure your cash reserves are in a safe place where they can be located quickly and without interference
• Try to remain positive but keep an air of realism
• Politeness, clear thinking, discipline and control are the four most important attributes you need to get through.
• Never say die unless the balance sheet tells you too and then get out in time

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Home working – Money for Nothing?

Not since 1764 and the invention of Hargreaves Spinning Jenny, has there been a more important tool for home working than a PC connected to the internet. As more and more companies elect to encourage a proportion of their staff to work from home, the question of management and motivation becomes evermore important. With the Spinning Jenny it was quite simple, the company delivered the machine to the home worker and each week raw material was delivered and the spun product was collected. This simple machine was one of the fundamental enablers of the rapid growth of the British economy in the 18th. Century. (Look above the door at the Bank of England and you will find that the symbol carved in stone is that of a sheep and not a bar of gold as might be expected).

This week I witnessed the dramatic proof of how complex managing and motivating PC based home workers can be. If the home worker has a measurable job, such as, typing handwritten addresses into an online database, then there is no major worry – especially if they are paid by the number of addresses completed. On the other hand, if their work is more complex or involves a variety of actions that are hard to measure – then the trouble begins.

The case that was brought to my attention was of a young professional woman who was offered a part-time (five hours per day) job working from home. The job was well paid and involved carrying out research and writing up findings and preparing white papers and reports. Everything was fine at first but very soon she became depressed because each week she would send off her weekly report and case notes, only to fail to receive any acknowledgement back. The complete lack of ‘management’ meant effectively that she rapidly became de-motivated. Each day she did less and less, until it came to the point that she did almost nothing at all, apart from hanging around at home on the off chance that her boss would call her with a special request.

Now this is an extreme example, and one might say easily fixed – but the interesting point is that you might think that being paid to stay at home to do nothing would be the perfect job (according to most tabloid newspapers it is what millions of people are doing by choice every day). But the reality is far off. In the case of our professional she became so desperate that she resigned and is now looking for a new job.

It is obvious that us humans need a purpose in life, that we need discipline and encouragement to keep us from becoming depressed or going insane. But home working is an exponentially growing phenomenon and the complexities of motivating and managing remote workers demands a complete new set of rules.

For a start, the simple question of trust emerges – how do I know, for example, if my PA (who works from her home) is busy or simply lasing around on the sofa watching daytime TV? How do I know if she is working efficiently or allowing herself to get heavily involved in a minor detail that, in an office, would get detected and set aside very quickly?

Sure you can use Skype and call each other at regular intervals, but the question of trust and self motivation always comes back. There are some pretty neat software tools such as ‘softactivity’ that allow you to monitor the number of mouse movements and key strokes and applications accessed etc. – but what does that tell us?

I am a manager that likes to walk around the office floor everyday, and observe and listen, picking up minor issues, long before they become important. Motivating teams to have fun and to deliver to the maximum without breaking down is one of the secrets of my success.

Now, to put the record straight, I am very satisfied with the work my PA does, but the nature of the working relationship means that we need to speak with one another at least two to three times per day, if not more. However, this means that the usual management ratio of one to six is rather difficult to maintain over a long period of time, especially if the manager has a pile of work to do themselves, which is more often than not the case.

Over time, I am sure many management books and seminars will be written on the subject of motivating remote employees. But until we have adjusted and mastered the art of remote management, the best solution for self employed home workers is in the form of an online task agency such as 'Pajama Nation'. This amazing concept allows the home worker to review each day jobs that need doing and they have to bid to win them. Just like at Amazon and E-bay, suppliers are awarded satisfaction points for the quality of the work delivered. A whole new world of variety is open for those that do not need the physical company of others to motivate them. After all why sit in a traffic jam burning up precious energy and hours of your life, when staying at home can be even more rewarding? Money for nothing it isn’t but I guess it is as close as it can ever be?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Why change the habit of a lifetime?

Yesterday, when I am usually writing my blog, I was discussing with friends about an urgent need for change. And yet, by pure coincidence, today (while working on a project for one of my clients) I came across the three following statements:

“Faced with changing one’s mind, or proving that there is no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” – Lao Tzu

The interesting thing about these statements is that they apply equally to our private lives as in business. If everything is perfect then change is the last thing we need. However if things are really bad, most of us find it still too hard to change. My aunt often used to say “better the devil you know than the devil you do not know”. Well, what nonsense is that?

There is a really great line in a Steely Dan song:

“like a castle in its corner, in a medieval game, I foresee terrible trouble and I stay here just the same”. You might want to criticize the forced imagery but the truth the line conveys is extraordinary.

In business, everyday I am confronted by people that would like to change and improve things but somehow find the risk and the effort too much to keep them motivated to go through with the necessary action. But this is exactly where the interim manager must assist. It is our ‘duty’ to inspire, motivate and cajole people to rise to a higher level, to adapt to new environments and to grasp the challenges of what is out there to be won.

Really good interim managers, set out a plan and a strategy for change and do not rest until those around them see it and sign up to the program. Having achieved this first goal, the remainder of the assignment becomes operational – important, but none the less, not so enthralling.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Nothing but Fun

This year I have been too busy with my projects to follow the Olympics, however there is one name that keeps being mentioned on the radio: Michael Phelps. I didn’t even know his name before the Olympics but I find it simply amazing that he has achieved so much.

In business, when we are confronted with what appears to be insurmountable problems, the energy needed to tackle the complexity is often too much for many people to handle alone.

Someone asked me today if I thought their team was of sufficient quality to achieve the objective ahead of them. My reply was simply: You do not always need to have the very best around you. Most businesses don’t even get 50% of efficency out of the teams they employ. Companies that attain an average 80%, or more, can achieve incredible things. The most important points being:

1. Know your team, understand what everyone is capable of and utilize them wisely. Forget what they are doing right now and create a new page for each and everyone of them. You might find that some maybe optimally deployed but I am sure that the majority will not be.
2. Learn how to motivate each and every team player and make the time to keep them motivated.
3. Install belief, sell a vision that everyone can believe in and you will be amazed how much can be done by so few.

As Michael Phelps put it: "Nothing is impossible”. “With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it takes is an imagination, and that's something I learned and something that helped me”. “It's been nothing but an upwards roller-coaster and it's been nothing but fun."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Kaizen - Myth or useful Methodology?

Anyone who has worked for Toyota will know the meaning of this word. According to Wikipedia, it is Japanese for ‘change for the better’ or ‘improvement’. In fact it is now becoming mostly used to mean ‘continual improvement’.

The Japanese have an interesting approach to management, where (in principle) no one goes home until everyone has completed their work for the day. The result being that managers are blamed if their employees are over worked or over stressed – a balance being considered as always best. And so it is that the application of Kaizen, in the workplace, becomes a daily task and can be seen as much more than just the application of improvements to productivity.

I was reminded of Kaizen this week because I am busy struggling with the reality of finding a way of not only applying it into a company, but also I want to see if I can even apply it to myself!

One of the Bayard Partnership’s clients has an extremely complex supply chain and end to end business process flow. If the results are bad in November, the real root causes maybe down to errors considered as unimportant that occurred many months earlier. If I may offer an analogy: it is not until we actually see the great icebergs melting that we begin to believe that global warming might actually be a problem.

Until now the global warming argument has always been (very conveniently) centered around, 'if what is causing it has anything to do with human behavior?'. Yet right now the symptoms are becoming so severe that they are forcing us to look much deeper into its possible real causes and to finally begin to tackle the complexity of the problem in such a way as to eventually find solutions.

The question for both the Bayard Partnership's client and the World is – is it too late? Or will the continuing irrelevant, sidestepping questioning and fault blaming only deliver short term solution strategies, rather than tackle the core issues?

As evidence of surface level, side stepping, arguments: only last week we heard Senator McCain make fun of Senator Obama because he said that if Americans checked their tire pressures more regularly and had their car engines tuned for efficiency, the amount of oil that McCain wants to drill out of an important world nature site would not in reality be needed.

If anyone has experience in effectively implementing Kaizen techniques into companies apathetic for change, then please feel free to share them with me and my blog readers…

Have a good week,


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Falling Revenues – The challenge for the interim manager

Any interim manager will know just how difficult it can be turning around a company with falling revenues. Often what we first detect as 'the problem' turns out as only a symptom. Long lasting solutions (if they exist) mostly involve a multi-faceted approach, incorporating all or many of the company's departments. This week, I thought you might be interested to know about a group of companies in the UK that were suffering from falling revenues?

Ten years ago the majority of English homes had direct water supplies, meaning that the water companies ran their pipes to the houses without placing any kind of measuring device in-between. This meant that consumers could effectively use as much water as they liked, and all for a fixed fee.

This might come as a surprise to many readers but the UK (especially in the South) often suffers from droughts. Bearing this in mind, the water companies wanted to avoid waste and ensure a constant supply, even in the driest months. Very much against the wishes of their customers the water companies persuaded the UK Government and Ofwat (the independent watch dog that the government introduced to protect the consumer at the time the water companies were de-nationalized) to enforce the use of water meters.

The result of the introduction of meters was exactly what the water companies wanted, a down-turn in the use of mains water. The sale of water buts and underground tanks, dramatically increased and the English, like their southern climate European neighbors, became a nation of water re-cyclers. The net result was predictable - the water companies began to suffer from a loss of revenue.

Unlike in any ‘normal’ kind of business the water companies did not need to introduce serious cost saving initiatives, or look for creative ways of generating added value or introduce new services etc. In short, they did not need interim managers to step in to help. No, in their case, all they did was increase the price of water! Their customers were powerless and had no choice but to pay the dramatically increased prices. Where else could they purchase their drinking water? Ofwat did nothing but stand back and approve the increases.

I am a free thinking man, I like to embrace enterprise and competition but (in my opinion) the de-nationalization of the supply of drinking water, in the UK, has done nothing to enhance the lives of the consumer or businesses.

In August 2007, I gave my readers the chance to tackle a really complex business problem, with the objective of comparing their approach to that of others and possibly even winning a prize or two. I launched the ‘Solving the CEO’s dilemma’ competition, which was due to stop at the end of July but has now been extended for an additional four weeks to the 31st. of August 2008. If you want to find out more and have a go at solving a revenue issue click here: 'The CEO's Dilemma'

Monday, July 28, 2008

What price customer service?

I am on holiday this week so I thought I would just share with you a shortened account of a conversation I had last week.

I was having a breakfast meeting, in an hotel in Brussels, with a Bayard Associate when the conversation turned (again) to the incredible cost of employing staff in Belgium and the extortionate level of taxation and social security that has to be paid over and above the actual salary.

I commented to my breakfast companion that it is amazing how the major hotels (across the globe) seem to be getting away with employing illegal immigrants in a way that smaller companies could never do. His reply was:
“But Harley, speaking on behalf of the hotel, our hotel does not employ illegal immigrants; the staff you might be referring to are representatives of an international workforce who come to Brussels on an international training program, and all this to improve your level of enjoyment and comfort while staying with our hotel!”
“is that true?” I asked,
“No” he replied, “I just made it up”
“You could have fooled me”, I replied “it sounds just like the plausible nonsense that one might read in the hotel information brochure.”

So that’s it, no more illegal immigrant workers, from now on everyone is on international training programs, and why not? Who give’s a dam who does what and where? Most business people want a global economy and freedom to work and travel where they like.

I, for one, would like to see are more international training program employees, so that, when I am having breakfast in an hotel, I can simply place my breakfast order with a waitress (or waiter) who will then have the courtessy of briniging it to me at my table, without my having to wander around trying to find it for myself. Is this really too much to ask? In some four and five star hotels they do not even bother bringing tea and coffee to your table anymore!

I am fed up with having to do everything myself, ‘self banking’, self breakfast’, I just don’t see the point! Who benefits? I do not see any real evidence of reduced bank charges or hotel bills as a result? Go to a cheap Bed & Breakfast hotel in the UK and you will pay a fraction of the price of a four star hotel (often with exactly the same amenities) but have the added benefit of a really sumptuous breakfast, served at your table, by a friendly and sympathetic employee. If the only way giant hotel chains can do this is by employing a few extra Asian or East European trainees, then so much the better. I might even be tempted to learn to order breakfast in a few additional languages, to make the exchange of information a little more fun and reliable!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Avoiding Disappointment

It is holiday weekend here in Belgium (today, Monday, is a national feast day to celebrate the formation of Belgium). Usually it is a day of pageantry; of kings and politicians. This year is special however; because after several failed attempts to form a government, Belgium’s national political structure is in crisis. As if to match the empty feeling of the political vacuum, the weather is cold and damp making even the most optimistic of people depressed.

In keeping with this national malaise, last night at a family BBQ (held indoors due to the treacherous weather) we discussed the variance age has on our outlook on life. Comparing how it is from the eyes of our elderly relatives to that of their children and their children’s children. The result was a general acceptance that even with old age there is still much room for optimism and making plans, busying ourselves with activities that give our lives meaning. (As John Lennon aptly put it “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans”).

However, I do not think that anyone has put it better than Mark Twain “'Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do”. With this wisdom, I have decided to enjoy my national feast day to the full, and not to slip back into completing business plans and dealing with unanswered e-mails. Today I am going to spend what little of it I have left, lazing around and achieving absolutely nothing.

Tomorrow the sun will shine, Godot will come, and I will be full of new energy ready to take on challenges that give my life meaning.

If you are reading this in a warm and sunny climate, in a country with a long and deep seated sense of history, with political stability and optimism, then I can understand if you think “what is Harley on about this week?” If not, I know you will not need any explanation of how bad weather can determine our prevailing mood?

Have a good week,


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Creativity in the workplace – who needs it?

What do successful leading edge technology and high end fashion apparel companies have in common? Answer: The need for creativity.

I need some help here because there is a difficult compromise that is hard to identify.

For both the above mentioned types of companies to perform, they need highly original designers to come up with stunning new ideas year in, year out. They also need extremely creative marketing people to find new ways of targeting and attracting their public. The problem is that by encouraging highly creative working environments, the net result can be that everyone ends up trying to be creative and having their own say, even on matters that are obviously way outside their area of expertise and responsibility.

In the good old days companies used to have an ‘ideas box’. (This was usually strategically placed by the exit to the canteen). The assumption was that during the lunch break, employees would eagerly discuss business opportunities and exciting new ideas would be materialize. The employees would then scribble them down on a napkin and, as if by magic, wonderful things would emerge such as: a whole new product range, or, a new way to assess staff performance that everyone would agree with and support.

In reality, after three months, the only thing you were likely to find in the ideas box would be a very old sandwich, a cigarette butt and, just possibly, a badly written request for a longer lunch break!

When I punch in an equation into my desktop calculator, I do not want it to be creative, so why is it that we encourage all our staff to think and behave in this way? Being ‘creative’ (= questioning the way our bosses and colleagues in other departments do their work) is obviously more fun than carrying out the tasks we are expected to perform to justify our take home pay. But I see it far too often. In some companies 'creativity' is like a contagious disease. So much so, that they become extremely inefficient.

After listening to 'creative' ideas we far too often feel depressed, simply because even in the unlikely event that the idea might be a good one, we instinctively know that it has no chance in hell in getting through.

I gave a training course last week on assigning tasks to people. The course also included modules on ‘finding peoples’ hidden agendas’ and ‘motivation’. What came to the surface is that a good manager needs to be extremely creative in the way they motivate people to take on and execute tasks, especially tasks that come in as extras on top of their normal workload.

As an interim manager, I make it my duty to realize genuine improvements, no matter who suggested them, and I do this by finding ways of empowering people to make a difference to the environment they find themselves in. However, I firmly believe that for a company to become really succesful, every manager should be encouraged to focus their creative energies on motivating others to do what they are best at (this sadly, too often, has very little to do with the job they currently have). In this way, companies become far more efficient and much more fun places to be in. We all know that when we are motivated to deliver, the hours fly by and we find more time to laugh and be creative in the way we solve the problems confronting us.

Most companies start out with good intentions by promoting creativity in the work place, but often end up in a negative spiral of criticism and general apathy. One of the secrets of good management is to listen to others and be receptive for new ideas, but listening is not the same as encouraging the moaning of wise amateurs that have no intent of trying influence real change. You can detect these people easily because they normally come out with statements like “If I were running that department, I would… (the word ‘would’ is usually followed with a radical idea that has obviously not been thought through, such as:’ fire half the staff and send the other half off for re-habilitation’, or ‘show them that financial control is not about knowing the numbers’).

Have a good week!


Sunday, July 6, 2008

"Why?" Is the most important question

In the past few weeks I have been surrounded by a bunch of people all wanting to implement change projects. This, in itself, is not unusual because I am currently the Change Manager for an international client with its eyes set on improvement. However what is surprising me is that many of the young managers are not asking the most basic of questions. ‘Why’

Here’s the scenario, they start off by coming to me with a problem, typically something like this:
“Jane in Purchasing won’t take me seriously”
“And why is that?” I ask
“Because she’s too busy” is the reply.
(It’s at this point that I put on my two year old questioning head, simply repeating one word: Why?)
“And why is she too busy?”
“Because she’s got too much work”
“and Why has she got too much work?”
“Because she can’t say no, I guess”
“And why can she not say no?” I continue.

This line of questioning continues for a few more minutes until my enquirer begins to get irritated by the level of detail, but the result is something like this:

“OK, so you have a problem. You are going to Jane for help, knowing that she is overworked and stressed out. You know that she is someone that can not say no to management, that she is not as efficient as she could be and her workload simply makes it worse. You are getting frustrated because she will not set aside some time for you to consider seriously a proposal you want to make to her, the result of which she fears is going to give her even more work? And you are junior to her?” - And you want me to solve this?’

“Yes’ is his reply…

I think for a minute. The one thing I am missing is, what is the change being proposed? After some lengthy explanation, which nearly sends me to sleep, trying to follow the complexity of it, I interrupt and recommence with my ‘why’ questioning.

“But why do you want to improve the efficiency of the purchasing process?”
“Why do you want to speed up decision making?”
“Why do you want to etc.…”

The end result is that after the in depth questioning, my enquirer understands that the result of the proposed change is in fact that there could be a significant reduction in unnecessary company overhead costs and what’s more without too much risk and fuss. I then ask him who else in the organization would be interested in the savings, and then he understands what I have been driving at the whole time.

In change management it is essential to understand exactly what the objective is of a proposed change, not at the implementation level but at one level below increasing shareholder value. Once you know this, you simply need to use your findings as the angle to draw attention to your crusade.


Purchasing process improvement Objective (as announced to senior management):
‘I want to reduce 0,5MEUR unnecessary company expenditure off the overhead budget per year.’
This can be achieved by xyz…
Additional benefits are: improved company / supplier relationships, better deployment of employee resources, lower carbon emission footprint.

All this is not magic, it’s simply having the strength to ask the most important, yet, irritating question of all, ‘Why?’

Sunday, June 29, 2008

There’s no success like failure

Anyone who knows the Bob Dylan song ‘Love minus zero, no limit’ will know that the following line is ‘and yet failure is no success at all’.

While the officials are handing out runner up medals to the German football team this evening, the Germans can take some solace in Dylan’s words. But what the words really mean to me is that in order to be successful you need to make mistakes and even fail along the way. In order to fail you have at least had to try, and it is mostly through failure that we learn and progress.

Last week I was coaching some company employees in the fine art of project management and people motivation, in the classroom things were going well but the real problem was that some of them were struggling with the fact that their managers were not giving them the space they needed to do their job. When talking to the managers in question I found a genuine desire not to expose the new PM’s to making mistakes in front of senior management.

Giving people just enough room to make mistakes but not so much that they hang themselves is tricky at the best of times. The tendency to step in too soon is difficult to resist, so much so that I found myself doing it on Monday when a colleague asked for my opinion and received the solution instead.

As the Spanish nation celebrates this evening, it is worthwhile for the Germans to contemplate upon the fact that the Spanish jubilation is born from the tears and disappointments they have suffered for the last decades, always coming so close but not achieving the expected result.

It’s a wise coach that can stay on the side line and watch their team fail, knowing all too well, that even if they could somehow step onto the pitch and win it for them, the team would not appreciate it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The downside of growing too fast

If your career is racing upwards, at a pace much faster than everyone you know, be happy, but only be happy for now. People, who only ever take the lift, never appreciate how high they have climbed until it is too late. There is something to be said for stepping back once in a while and standing still to take a look around, you might even enjoy it.

Taking the stairs instead of the lift, is not only good for your physical health and for the environment, it forces you to take notice of the small details. Ironically, people who are ‘fast tracked’, often come undone just at the point when they feel that their experience is matching the level to which their superiors have placed them.

When I look at careers spread over a period of twenty years or so, many of the high fliers who started out so strong, end up falling behind their slower running mates. And when they fall, then they tend to fall far and hard. An optimistic CEO who sees something special in a young recruit and brings them too soon into the board room, can only defend them from jealous board members for as long as the young executive comes up with brilliant ideas and the CEO is able to deflect the barrage of resistance thrown at him or her.

I write this because recently I have seen a few people very close to burn out and a letter from an old friend described the failures of a number of people that I knew to be once brilliant.

I knew someone who wanted to be a Vice President of his multi-national company within ten years of his joining the firm, something that no one else had ever achieved. And although his career went from strength to strength, the VP title only came after fifteen years and not ten, and probably not a day too soon.

In life, taking risks and learning new skills are the two things that keep ambitious people energized, but it is essential to always feel comfortable in your chair. It is not a good idea to have to deal with personal insecurity at a time when cool judgment is needed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Team, what team?

This week I was asked the question whether a team must have a common vision. My answer was clear. A team without a shared objective was merely a collection of individuals. For a team to really be considered a team it must have the following:

1. A common objective (clear in the mind of everyone)
2. A structure from which every team player knows their role and responsibilities
3. A method of measuring success, on both an individual and group level
4. A set of commonly accepted rules

If your team does not have this, then do not be surprised if individuals are not performing as team players.

In my book Making a Difference (Maak het Verschil) I suggest the use of a job description template for everyone in the team. (You can download it for free from the book's website). But this week while setting up a new project I noticed a gaping hole in it (the project's objective)and made the necessary changes. From now on all my function descriptions will include the following sections:

1. The Name of the Project (and/or department)
2. The Function Title
3. The objective of the project (short two line description)
4. The Function description (short three line summary)
5. The place of the function holder in the team (who they report to)
6. The authorities of the function holder (direct & indirect reports + other authorities)
7. The Responsibilities of the Function Holder
8. The measure by which they are to be assessed (Key Performance Indicators)
9. The required qualifications and experience
10. The required Personal characteristics
11. The signatures of the Functional holder, Project Manager and Program director

You might find this ‘over the top’ but I assure you that completing function descriptions is relatively quick and it forces you to think through what is required and why. By linking them together the PM can ensure that they have all the right resources for the project and that they eliminate function overlap and confusion in general. (So much time is wasted discussing who will do what and why and when and how). Making a clear structure allows the team members to do the creative work by focusing on the things that matter.

By ensuring you select the right people for each of the functions, you can ensure the success of your project, even before it begins. So, as long as you keep your teams focused and motivated - and also ensure that everyone understands the dependency that they have on each other - then you can be confident that you will have a real ‘Team’.

However you must regularly check to see if everyone still has the true Project Objective in their hearts and minds (that which is written in the job descriptions) and not some other mutation that they find more convenient!

Creating, building and managing a really focused and driven team is one of the most exhilarating privileges that a manager can ever experience in their professional career.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Accepting Criticism

It is a strange but an understandable phenomenon that most of us find taking criticism so hard. Mankind progresses by means of open minded observation and learning from its mistakes, and yet, at a personal level, taking criticism is often such a painful experience that we do everything in our powers to avoid it.

When someone criticizes us, our first reaction is to see it as some kind of attack, a direct challenge on who we are, on our competence. And yet criticism gives us the chance to question and improve, and by improving we become better and therefore more valuable in both our business and private lives.

Look around you and check your own friends, family and colleagues. Which of them are actively seeking feedback and criticism and moving forward with their lives, and which of them are standing still unwilling to improve and move on?

Because constructive criticism is a gift we should always say ‘thank you’ to the person who gave it to us (even if it is a day or so later). We should do this for two reasons: One, because the giver is the one putting themselves out and is therefore taking all the risks, and two, we are the real benefactors at the end of the day.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Terrible at Remembering Names?

On Thursday I took part in a charity ‘community day’. The group of people I was working with were all employees of one of my clients. Our task was to clear a very overgrown garden that would be used by blind people as a place where they can meet, work together and have fun. Anyway, keeping a long story short, at the beginning of the day we were introduced to one another, ‘hello I am Harley, what’s your name?’ kind of thing (a nightmare for anyone with a bad memory for names). During this exercise, I was amazed by the fact that so many people seemed to be able to remember the names of the thirty people they were introduced to. (Sometimes I even forget the name of one person I am introduced to immediately after they have told me)! My wife says it is because I am lazy. I believe that it is because my brain is not programmed sufficiently well for this kind of activity.

Over they years I have noticed that men tend to be worse than women, so it was a great relief when I got speaking with a women (sorry I have forgotten her name) from Germany who also admitted to having exactly the same problem as me. The difference between me and her is that her theory (excuse, as my wife would put it) is much better than mine. She said that her bad memory for names was because that when she is introduced to someone for the first time, she concentrates very much on their appearance; their face, clothes, the way they stand, the timbre of their voice etc. In fact she does this in so much detail that the name she has just been given is not stored at all.

I once worked for a boss who’s memory for names was even worse than mine. I had found him three good candidates for a new position in the company. Unfortunately on the day that his chosen candidate arrived in reception to begin his first day of work, the boss came rushing into my office asking “What’s that guy doing in reception”?
“What do you mean, I asked”?
“I didn’t select that guy, I wanted Michael, you know - the guy with the ginger hair! oh my God this guy won’t do at all, get rid of him”!
My boss had remembered the names of the person he interviewed incorrectly and selected the wrong one! From that day onwards all candidates had their photographs taken on the day of their interview, to be absolutely sure that the right one began with the company! In life there is always someone that has what you have, but worse!

Tip 1: When it is very important to remember someone’s name, take the first observation that you make about them and link it to something negative. For example, if you are introduced to someone called Jane and she is very thin, then try and remember her as ‘fat - Jane’. Or, if the man you meet is obviously nervous, you could try remembering him as ‘cool hand - John’. The next time you meet them you will find you will remember their nick name first and their real name will spring into your mind a split second later (hopefully)!
Tip 2: If you forget someone’s name and it is very important you can always say to them “I am sorry I have forgotten your name”. Nine times out of ten they will reply with their first name, if so, you can simply add: “No, sorry what I meant to say is that I have forgotten your family name”. They will obviously give it to you and then you have them both, all you need then is an excuse to turn your back and to write it down before you forget again. This trick is a little dishonest, but it has worked for me on many occasions!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Lewis Hamilton and the Business simulator

Ron Denis, the boss of the formula 1 McLaren team described Lewis Hamilton, the 22 year old racing driver, as “A strategist with the guts to take risks”. He went on to say “Confidence is often coupled with arrogance, but there isn’t an ounce of arrogance in Lewis”. When you consider these words, the synergy with business acumen becomes crystal clear. But the real story for me is the amazing truth that in his first year of F1 racing, Lewis Hamilton very nearly won the world title. Now, in his second season, he is currently standing in third place with his old team mate Alonso way down at number 9.

I have been told that Lewis is of the first generation drivers brought up with race simulators, and although I can believe that these machines must have helped him, it surely must be his experience in Karting (since a boy of 11) that perfected his craft, or am I wrong?

The question, for me is: can we apply the same techniques in business? Perhaps we could persuade Unilever or Sir Richard Branson, or even Sir Alan Sugar to put together a consortium of investors to finance the building of a business simulator, where young aspiring eleven year olds can sit for hours everyday, perfecting the craft of business plan creation,, market positioning, deal negotiation and sales techniques. In fact all the facets that brilliant CEO’s need but take years of experience to acquire? Such a machine would eliminate the loss of real cash by blistering mistakes. Thinking about it, on a slightly more mundane level, perhaps we could even have a simulator for Project Managers, possibly sponsored by Cap Gemini and Accenture?

The day of the simulator is here, it must only be a matter of time before we see MBA students sitting in them, desperately trying to obtain years of experience within a summer semester.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

How Do You Make God Laugh?

I was asked this question by a Jewish Rabbi a very long time ago and still the ramifications of it linger on, nearly thirty years later.

I can attempt to answer the question by asking a second one, ‘What is the difference between the song ‘Born to be Wild’ by Mars Bonfire (made famous by the band Steppenwolf) and the great B Minor Mass from J.S. Bach?’ There are a number of obvious answers, the first being length: Steppenwolf’s song takes only 2 minutes fifty five seconds to perform and the B Minor mass very much longer. The B Minor Mass has a (necessarily) complex structure; Born to be Wild does not. But the real difference is that one represents unbridled adventure and the other duty and sense of purpose. But both portray the very passion of life in their deepest forms.

Our lives are a necessary balance between three key items; pure fun (‘feel good’ actions), work and responsibility. The trouble is that too often we long to try to combine all three. The result being that we become dissatisfied and ineffective in all of them.

Project Managers need structure to be able to plot the tasks that need to be performed in order to achieve the goals that combine together to reach the overall objective of their projects. In most cases, the more understanding of the structure they and their project team have, the better. Like the B Minor Mass, it is the structure that guides and enables their creativity, giving it form and meaning. (Give a child a massive sheet of paper and twenty different colored pens, twenty tubes of paint with differing sized brushes and ask them to draw whatever they like, and then give the same child a small sheet of writing paper and two colored pens and ask them to draw a picture of happiness. Observe which result is the most creative and which gives the child the most pleasure).
For most teenagers the important things in life are all driven by passion and are necessarily short lived; parties, concerts, one night stands, friendships. Therefore, a song that simply bursts life and passion and fires the brain with an incredible desire for something more than what their parents have, need only last a few minutes.

In the spirit of ‘Born to be Wild’ an entrepreneur may start a new business, a new adventure. An adventure is exciting, it is always new and unknown, it nearly always involves risks and that drives the adrenaline. But without structure and planning adventures quickly become dull and too difficult, and more often than not fail. Over time we find the necessary balance between adventure and project management, and we learn to separate the two, keeping just enough controlled energy and passion over to make our work as much fun as it can be.

So what is the answer to the Rabbi’s question; ‘How do you Make God Laugh?’
Answer: ‘You tell him your plans’.

Monday, April 28, 2008

How much willpower does an interim manager need?

Sometimes, when I am driving through a new initiative and need to lobby a pathway for the subsequent change management and project teams to flatten out and widen even further, I ask myself why am I doing this? What can start out as a good idea can become a nightmare, especially if the change is big and the lobbying needs to start at the very top and work its way down. At these moments I tend to go back to the project charter and remind myself of why the project was set up in the first place and what needs to be done. The project charter becomes like a religious reference book, a document to return to, to digest and to reflect upon a given situation. But a project charter is not a religious work, its authors are not divine, it is (presumably) a document that contains the method and reasons for increasing shareholder value in some way or another, either in the long or short term.

If it can be considered that it is willpower that drives interim managers, and to a large extent it is true (many interim manager’s profiles reveal people that like to make an impact on their environments, and to do this they need a great deal of willpower), then willpower becomes the energy source that drives them and their desire to influence their environment becomes the motivator.

On a corporate level bringing about change is relatively easy for those professionals with the right skills and experience. However with change on a personal level, everything becomes so much harder. Motivating oneself to change is never easy. We begin with the best intent and motivation, telling ourselves that this time it will be different, but so often we fall back into our old ways. In his book ‘The Monk who sold his Ferrari’, Robin S. Sharma gives the reader all the tools to bring about significant personal change and growth.

I said in my blog ‘Who is Your Guru?’ back in November 2007 that I would report back on this book, it has taken me much longer than planned because I have been unsure about it. On the one hand, its meaning is good but Sharma tends to repeat the same concept in too many different ways and thereby adds unnecessary complexity and it becomes a little tedious. In fact, I think that if his book was half its length then it would become an even bigger international best seller than it already is.

If you are seriously looking to change your life in any significant way, I can recommend Sharma’s book, even if you only adopt one suggestion, it can be enough to justify the purchase and the investment of reading it. (I quite like the idea of dedicating at least 10 minutes per day looking at an object in detail). When I was a student, it was my pint of beer, today its something else. But Sharma’s style might not be to your liking. It is rather mystical and you are always aware that it is a story beyond belief.

Being the pragmatic person that I am, in my book I suggest some exercises to discover just who you really are and how to set about creating map a new path or ‘life map’ forward for yourself. However, what is becoming more and more obvious to me is that although we maybe very good at reading other people and motivating them to change, when it comes to ourselves it is very unlikely that a book on its own could ever do it, not even mine!

So when Robin Sharma mentions “Willpower gives you the energy to act. …..It gives you the control to live the life you imagined rather than accepting the life you have”, you will need to remember that you first have to understand your past and establish an environment in which you will be able find the energy to change into the person you would more like to be, to have the career that you would more like to have. To do what you want, without feeling guilty or a burden upon others.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Business Intelligence (BI) – An analogy

This week I sat down to write a short piece to illustrate exactly what Business Intelligence (BI) is. A colleague of mine needed something to support a presentation he had to give to his directors. What I wanted to achieve was to create a lasting image of what BI is, how it can be useful and why it is absolutely needed in order to out smart the competition by seizing on opportunities that only knowledgeable and responsive companies have. So I wrote this story (in fact I wrote it a long while ago to explain something completely different to a bunch of investors, it worked then so hopefully it will work tomorrow in its new context)!

Imagine you are a fighter pilot in a state of the art F16. You are flying high over enemy territory when suddenly there is a blip on your radar screen. Your on board computer systems tell you that the blip is most likely another aircraft. Business intelligence is knowing whether the pilot of the detected aircraft is an enemy or a friend, before he even knows you are in the sky.

Today, most companies (without sophisticated Business Intelligence systems) can see a blip on their radar screen and, after some deliberation, can detect if the blip is another aircraft and if it is from their own squadron. But when it is not one of theirs, then they can not be sure about anything. The aircraft can be enemy or friendly (from another geographic location). Thus for companies with inadequate BI systems, fast global decisions can be risky and flawed. Quite simply their Chief of Staff (CEO) and Wing commanders can not see the complete global picture in front of them, and any picture they might have will most likely not take into account all of their assets, resources and opportunities.

To win in a competitive market place companies need to be able to detect enemy aircraft before they even leave the ground. This might sound like a dream but good (well integrated) global Business intelligence systems can give this kind of advantage.

Thus for me business intelligence is knowing what information you need to have and why you need to have it. It is no use simply gathering data on every measurable event. You need to know what matters and what does not. And then you need to know what you are going to do with the knowledge, once you have it. Far too much time and money is wasted by middle management collecting data to prove that their departments are running smoothly.

The best BI systems integrate external events with internal events and allow company managers to create opportunities by making intelligent decisions, based on real data. A classic utterance from a manager from an under performing company without good BI: ‘If only I had known that there was a shortage of my product in that geographic region, I could have shifted my overstocked product there and sold it at full list, instead of dumping it at a knock down price in the market where it was originally sent to!’

Interim managers need to be aware about BI, what it can do and how to implement it. It is a lot more than just a Balanced Score Card feeding results into an Excel spreadsheet.

As T.S. Eliot wrote “After such knowledge, what forgiveness” This can mean anything depending on how you interpret it, but to me it means ‘how can we excuse ourselves for the fact that we did not know better, and the mess we made because of it?’

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Interim Manager and the ‘Ringo Star phenomenon’

Someone once told me that although Ringo Star was technically not necessarily the best choice of drummer for The Beatles, his contribution to the group was certainly as important as any of the other individual members. The reasoning behind this seemingly crazy point of view is that Ringo Star was the Beatle who kept the group emotionally together. He was the one who lightened up the situation when the others were arguing or pulling in different directions. In short, he kept them together for as long as it was possible for any mortal. For him the groups' collective performance was the prime concern.
The question this week is – do you have a Ringo Star in your board of directors or management group and is he, or she, the person that binds the group of individuals into a team? If so what other qualities does he, or she have, perhaps their talents are a little hidden but are there none the less? It’s worth thinking about, before making purely rational decisions when it comes to re-structuring…

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Perfect E-mail

This weekend I have been taking advantage of the good weather by spending some time working in my garden instead of in front of my computer screen. The decision left me with very little time to write this week’s blog. Ironically though, the lack of time became my source of inspiration.

Recently a business colleague told me the expression “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” He told me that he thought Blaise Pascal had said it. But subsequent research has shown that actually Mark Twain, Voltaire, Ciscero and even T.S. Elliot are all attributed for saying it. (I like to think it was T.S. Elliot because anyone who knows me well will tell you that I am a fan of the poet and indeed he can say so much with such few words, although it can take a while (read ‘a life time’) trying to work out what he actually means.

‘The perfect e-mail’ should be short and to the point. It should be clear without ambiguity, polite and have the result on the reader that was intended by the writer. (So many man hours are lost by making excuses for rushed e-mails which can be avoided by getting them right in the first place).

The trick to e-mail writing is to begin by typing the objective in a maximum of one or two words, such as; to amuse, to inform, to castigate, to motivate etc.. Once this is done write your message as fast as you possibly can. When it is finished, do not re-read it. Stop and switch your attention to something else for at least half an hour. After a suitable pause, re-read your mail with your hands behind your back. After re-reading it, delete all the words you possibly can without destroying the meaning. Ask yourself if it is still in line with the objective.

A big mistake in e-mails is to try and bring two subjects into one mail. Inevitably people reply to one of the subjects but (annoyingly) completely forget the other. It is far better to send two short e-mails, each with their own subject.

E-mails are not suitable as long documents (these are best left as attachments). If the attachment contains important information, paraphrase it in just a few words in the e-mail so the reader sees why he or she should read the attachment.

So, the next time someone sends you a long, boring and irrelevant e-mail you can send them a link to this blog and perhaps they will get the message? To make it easy for you, below you will find a draft text which you can simply cut and paste into your reply. (I wonder how long it will be before someone sends it back to me)!

Thank you for your e-mail, unfortunately I did not have sufficient time to give it the attention it possibly deserved. However to assist you with future correspondence I would like to refer you to an article (see link below) that I think you might find helpful?

Kind regards
(add name here)