Do you want dirty or clean consulting?

Do you want dirty or clean consulting?

We went to sit in the garden to drink wine and chat.  Her sister scurried about the kitchen as we talked, the smell of simmering spices drifting on the breeze.

 I hadn’t seen her for nine years - my time in Australia detaching me from her life of high-end consulting in Europe. A couple of years prior, she’d been approached by a previous client to become Head of Projects - her dream job - so she’d quit her VP role at a major consultancy and thrown herself into it. That’s what we chatted about.

And she hated it. Oh, how she hated it.  

20-odd years before, she’d cut her consulting teeth on a project for this company. It had made her career. She had revolutionised the service offering, producing a system that enabled employees to contribute to the design of the working environment in a dynamic, ongoing way in direct response to their customers’ needs.

If the core customer was a hurried and hassled office worker, design around their behaviours. If a suburban housewife, then around hers. If a high-end executive … you get the picture.

The result of the system was spectacular. Employees were engaged, the bottom line improved, and profits rose. Even better, because the design varied from branch to branch, competitors couldn’t copy it. They couldn’t find a pattern to copy, because the ideas were contextually unique.

Long story short, she became the blue-eyed girl of the consultancy and started on a stellar career.

But it was now different. Her previous client had been through the wringer, all its competitive advantages thrown away. So they hired her back to recreate the magic. But she couldn’t. I asked her why.

She was very precise in her answer. When she was the consultant on the project, she refused to advise until she knew what she was advising on. She would work a night with the night-shift, spend a day with the truckers, work the warehouse, visit different branches and speak to white and blue collar workers about their experiences. She never assumed she could make a good call without knowing how it would impact jobs across the company.

But she couldn’t do it anymore, for two reasons.

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Employee Experience: Why the Future of Work Starts Today

Employee Experience: Why the Future of Work Starts Today

In May 2017, I was privileged to be able to present at Australia's first ever Employee Experience Conference, hosted by PwC in their wonderful new premises in Barangaroo, Sydney.

The below is what I took away from the event.

From the C-Suite of a Big Four Firm

To have an idea book-ended by arguments from a Chief Economics Officer and a Chief Creative Officer was fascinating. Different perspectives. Similar conclusions.

The Chief Economics Officer: The economics were in-your-face brutal. Traditional powerhouse economies (the G7 / G20) are being caught up and overtaken by emerging economies. All signs are that the key indicators of economic health in many of the G20 countries are beginning to flatline. He predicted that talented people will start draining out of these countries and go to where the emerging money and interesting new work is.

The data is obviously worrying leaders. There was a great degree of pessimism about the chances of serious growth in all major English-speaking economies. Likewise, there was evidence that people didn’t believe their leaders were capable of comprehending and delivering the technologies necessary for becoming more competitive in such a world.

Except for Australia! Australian leaders are confident they can deliver growth - despite being seen by their employees as the least capable of comprehending and delivering new technologies of all leaders in the English-speaking world. That’s some disconnect!

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Creating a Culture of Leadership

Creating a Culture of Leadership

What is leadership? And how can we create a culture of leadership? Two core questions in today's volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment.

I'm going to borrow Hudson's definition of leadership to answer question one. Partly because Crissa Sumner's blog inspired this article. And partly because she's working in Australia (as am I) and Australia needs to start taking this question seriously. But that does not stop it being relevant elsewhere. For Crissa, leaders are:

"driven, with an appetite to learn and grow; courageous and resilient in the face of uncertainty and change; mentally flexible and able to make sense of disparate and conflicting information; decisive in ambiguous circumstances; and capable of connecting with a diverse range of stakeholders and inspiring a shared sense of purpose."

It's a good definition. She argues that the contemporary organisation needs to develop a culture in which all employees can exhibit such qualities.

Read her post. It's excellent from a talent management / I/O Psychology perspective. But it leaves us slightly short from an organisational design one. What exactly is a culture of leadership? And how do we go about creating one?

These are difficult questions.

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Culture eats strategy for breakfast! Doesn't it?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast! Doesn't it?

Peter Drucker once said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast". Or maybe it was lunch? Perhaps even dinner?

It is, or course, apocryphal. Ducker never said it. It has been repeatedly misattributed to him for years. The only person we know for sure that wrote it was Mark Fields, of the Ford Motor Company, in 2006. Because he stuck it on his office wall and people saw it there. 

But what does it mean? Was it relevant when Drucker supposedly said it? And is it still relevant now?

Answering these questions is important. To explain why it's important, I'd like to turn to Jeffrey Rothfeder's incisive article on the Volkswagon scandal. In it, while paraphrased slightly, he writes:

For decades, Volkswagen has practiced a management style that imposes rigid goals and punishes middle- and lower-level employees who are unable to keep up with the pace. Executives formulate bold strategic objectives and timelines, with little input from others. Rank-and-file employees, pressured by the expectations placed on them, try to deliver at all costs. Intimidation at every level, which creates a borderline, or sometimes over the borderline, unethical culture.

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How Apple's Think Different Transformed The World

How Apple's Think Different Transformed The World

In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. And launched what became a world-famous advertising campaign. Think Different. Below are the original words:

The Original Think Different Text

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

- Apple, "Think Different" campaign, 1997-2001

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Is This The World of Work We Created? What Did We Do It For?

Is This The World of Work We Created? What Did We Do It For?

The guard blew his whistle. "Stand clear of the doors." Just as one more person hurtled down the stairs to make his train. Squeezed in. Caused the doors to slide back open. The whistle and announcement again. And finally underway.

Another commute into the city. Over 30 degrees outside. Hotter in. The air conditioning wheezing out a trickle of cool relief.  Neon lights almost impotent against flickering smart screens. iPhones, iPads, Androids, Kindles. Some reading. Some watching. Some texting. The odd person slumped uncomfortably against the window, getting a few more minutes sleep. 

Schoolkids chattering. Random inanities mixed with fearful excitement about upcoming exams. One couple, wedged together in the aisle, arranging evening activities. Who's leaving work early to pick up the kids. Who's cooking. Who has to work until ten.

And so on. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Every city in the developed world. 

What are we doing it for? Scurrying around like important ants late for a dropped sugar cube. Does it make us happy? Do we do worthwhile things? 

The State of Work

I'm regularly invited to lectures, seminars, presentations and meetings about the current state of work. Voraciously consumed media on the same. This is what I repeatedly hear:

  • 86% believe there is a leadership crisis
  • 75% of employees say their boss is the worst part of their job
  • 65% say they’d take a new boss over a pay rise
  • 70% of projects fail or come in significantly over budget
  • 90% of startups fail
  • 85% of employees are disengaged
  • 66% of change fails
  • 66% of millennials are looking for a new job
  • 50% employees want to change their job

So, it seems for 50-90% of us, work sucks.

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Playing Tennis with Rock Stars

Playing Tennis with Rock Stars

When I left academia, I was immediately offered a role in a mining company. With barely two nickels to rub together, I accepted. Not knowing that I was going to be spending a lot of time on the other side of the continent. And Australia is big. Very big. So, 3,938.1 km and a 41-hour drive. Or a 5-hour flight. 

My role was to shut down the company's Perth offices. Now, being surrounded by people who've just been made redundant doesn't bring many dinner offers. And I was going to be in Perth a lot. So, assuming my evenings would be lonely, I wrote to a few tennis clubs to see if I could get a social hit. A year and a half later, I'm still waiting on a reply. From any or all of them. 

There will now be a quick segue into something else. But this will become relevant. I promise. Trust me. 

My Tennis Club

Being on an international Ph.D. scholarship is not all it's made out to be. Want cocktail parties with glamorous people. Tuxedo dinners. To sail through the harbour. Then don't do a Ph.D. It's hard. And lonely. And, thanks to Australian visa and my university regulations, you can only work for ten hours per week. Which means how many companies are interested in employing you? At less than a shift and a half availability per week? Somewhere between none and a big fat zero. So, it's isolating. 

To stay sane and do something practical, I got involved with managing my local tennis club. As with many tennis clubs in Australia, it was in a perilous state. Declining playing numbers. Crumbling facilities. Frustration and apathy in the membership. The oldest licensed sports club in Australia, it was very close to shutting its doors for good. 

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Zombies & Dragons

Zombies & Dragons

I'd like to take you back to the early Eighties. Specifically, Eighties TV. The stories of the rich and powerful. Dallas and Dynasty. The Ewings and the Carringtons. JR and Bobby. Blake and Alexis. The luxury. The trappings of power. The money. The women. The affairs. The decadence. 

Why are long-dead Eighties TV shows relevant to LinkedIn and the themes I blog about? The death of organisational culture? The decline of management thought?Failed change? The decadence of organisational life? And the irony, cynicism and sarcasm of the workplace?

Because, at the same time these shows were being made, management thought was experiencing a frenzy of newfound enthusiasm. The birth of the strong culture movement. A massive outpouring of promises made in the name of the high-tech way of life. A new era, new work organizations, a new man and woman. Huge profits, futuristic innovation, humane working environments, and happy, productive workers. 

We were shown images of utopia. Given promises of an organisational society without discontents. Shown a "you can have it all" world that fulfils dreams. And releases us from limited opportunity. All captured by TV through big hair, large shoulder pads, glittery dresses and Stetson hats. 

"So what", you might ask. I know we are all used to the seriousness of management and organisation being transmitted with numbers. Via statistics. Charts. Tables. Cognitive science. Organisational psychology. And other such serious scientific disciplines. What have Dallas and Dynasty got to do with all of this? 

We forget that organisations are collections of humans interacting with each other. And that human action and interaction have been captured by other disciplines during the centuries. Art, literature, drama, music. And TV shows. That reveal underlying, subconscious themes that concern us all.  

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Is this the Future of Leadership?

Is this the Future of Leadership?

What makes one leader sustainably great whereas another is only temporarily great, one moment a god amongst mortals, the next, like Icarus, hurtling back to the ground, his wings scorched and blackened by the sun, hoping the landing isn't too hard?

As with all questions about greatness, the answer to the second part of the question (why does a once great man fall?) is the easier. 

Reason One: The smartest leaders tend to get self-dazzled by their previous successes and end up in a myopic wonderland, feeling invulnerably magnificent in their sycophantic towers of luxury (as discussed by Dr. Travis Bradberry here and wonderfully illustrated in The Big Short, as detailed here).

Reason Two: If you become concerned and speak freely about what you see happening, you risk losing your head (as analysed by the Harvard Business Review here)

Reason Three: Because of problems one and two, irony, cynicism, sarcasm, mockery and ridicule manifest in the workforce as they are the only way to safely express what you are thinking about the increasingly obvious shortcomings of the powerful (as discussed by me, here). 

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