Clinging to the Greasy Pole

I just read an interesting post on great leaders knowing they are imperfect. It is mainly about people who are NOT great leaders, discussing the over-compensation that can result when people feel out of their depth.

I think the truth is that all of us know we have our weaknesses – the issue is whether we have the courage to forgive ourselves for having weaknesses, and having faith in our colleagues to recognize that our strengths far outweigh our weaknesses.

It is a characteristic of many heroes that they are flawed (and this is most clearly portrayed in comic book superheroes, which Hollywood is currently obsessed with). It is their flaws, paradoxically, that makes us love them as it allows us to empathise with them.

It is sad and worrying to see (highly-stressed) managers, having shinned up the greasy pole of promotion, trying not to delegate any responsibilities because any lack of control by them would be a sign of weakness. Once they reach their limits, this has a number of serious consequences:

  • Things get done slowly and badly, as that manager is a key pinch point on everything
  • Some things don’t get done at all
  • A defensive position means positive changes/opportunities are rejected
  • Staff have no opportunity to develop and grow, so the good ones leave
  • The staff that stays switches off their initiative and just turn the handle when they are told to
  • Everything falls apart when that manager gets sick or goes on holiday
  • Their defensiveness is fed by the cordial dislike of their staff

Of course, this manager goes around claiming to be a great hero – single-handedly coping with the inadequacies of their useless team and taking all the credit for any success. They may get promoted for it, but it cannot last forever, and it’s no fun for anyone.

The really great leaders are loved for their human failings, as well as their super-human strengths.

(I’d like to thank Video Arts’ video on coaching (Robert Lindsay, John Cleese and Jan Ravens) which I saw many years ago and which left an indelible impression on me!)

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And talking about learning…

It’s interesting to see this article on the effectiveness of learning 
which indicates that only 25% of learning occurs during a course.

This has been my experience too, hence being a strong advocate of learning on the job, supported by coaching and mentoring.

One small step for a man …

I got a “Thank you” card yesterday from my daughter’s house-mate I had helped. I put him in contact with a company that then offered him an internship for his year in industry (in event management).

As it’s a prestigious company in London, he’s pretty happy (though when he faces the joys of living and working in London, he may be less so) with the prospects it offers. I hope it’s a giant leap for him.

So what was in it for me?

Nothing tangible, nothing financial – just the warm feeling of having helped someone who benefited from it.

There is a downside to trying to help others – they may not want it or appreciate it. Why might that be?

  • Clinical Depression is a real condition that needs treatment
  • Whingeing is the national participation sport of the UK – just read the papers.
  • It’s much easier to feel sad and hard done by than to change your life – change is really hard work and needs help and support

In business, one can try to “pull rank” to insist on some changes, but only if the culture is positive – most of the time it requires deep empathy and influencing skills. Most of all, it requires patience – people sunk in the Slough of Despond are short of the drive, energy and traction needed to get out – you have to help them little by little.

If you have enough money, improve your own life by helping others!

Lessons half forgotten need remembering (before it’s too late)!

Earlier this week I nearly succumbed to breaking my own “Rule 1” – briefly considering being away for part of a crucial business audit.

Fortunately I rallied and came back to decide firmly to “Be There”.  It does highlight how we can all slip from the disciplines that we’ve learned the hard way when the last failure to apply them slips outside the pain memory.

I’ve blogged most of my golden rules before, individually, but I thought now was the time to refresh them, all together:

Rule 1 – Be There!

Rule 2 – Stop blame if humanly possible

Rule 3 – Be easy and rewarding to help

Rule 4 – Don’t RELY on people showing initiative

Rule 5 – When the pressure looks like rising, manage YOUR workload – the 3 Ds

Rule 6 – Keep communicating

Rule 7 – Don’t let your performance in your own role slip because you’re covering for someone else

Rule 8 – Always keep an audit trail for all decisions, and keep up to date with the paperwork

Rule 9 – If there isn’t enough resource, say so! Don’t struggle on in silence

Rule 10 – Never rush the planning!

Rule 0 – Always apply the other rules!!!

I now realize that I need to cover rules 7 – 10; should keep me busy for another week or two.

Just re-reading these has shown that I’m on the slippery slope – I need to apply them to my current assignments before it’s too late!

Soft skills: how to make friends and influence people?

I’ve recently come across a couple of folks who have caused significant levels of challenge due to a common problem:

  • They are so busy transmitting (talking, writing etc) that they don’t receive (listen, read etc)

I know, we all do it to a certain extent, but in business it’s a huge problem and, I suspect, costs the UK £Billions each year in lost effectiveness.

When I was at PA, the taught wisdom was that we have 2 eyes, 2 ears and only one mouth, and therefore we should be receiving 4 times as much as we transmit – completely appropriate for a consultant. We also had lots of training in active listening; stimulating and guiding the client’s own transmission while receiving accurately.

The nuclear technology management programme that I’m currently managing the development of is, I’m told, the first of its type in the world, and so it needs to be a success. Whilst there is plenty of technology in the curriculum, the aim is to develop the skills and ability to manage that technology, and that means managing people.

With 30 years experience, I’m now completely convinced that soft skills are the critical element of management success. Making friends? – perhaps not, as command is a lonely position, the more so when there are hard choices to be made, but influencing people? – indispensable!

Business Processes; the good, the bad and the ugly

I’ve recently had a series of discussions with colleagues, clients and other professionals that I respect, on the subject of business processes. They are all strongly in favour of them, and I know why, they:

  1. systemetise the work flow, making it more predictable and manageable
  2. assist in delivering consistency
  3. encourage the right people to be included in decisions
  4. make it easy to measure performance (and diagnose issues with performance too)
  5. can prevent individuals making serious errors
  6. make training new staff (and handling staff turn-over) relatively straight-forward
  7. allow straight-forward IT automation

and have many other positive aspects that make them ideal for the more straight-forward jobs.

So are they a panacea? Sadly not, as they have serious weaknesses that can compromise more complex types of work. The key issues are that they:

  1. tend to serialize workflows, slowing them down by introducing bottlenecks
  2. become inflexible and over-prescriptive to prevent a small minority abusing the system, preventing justifiable initiative being taken
  3. become over-dependent on IT performance (which is driven by a completely separate budget)
  4. become more complex to handle extreme cases, causing following them to become a chore that is skipped if possible
  5. remove the spirit to think amongst some staff
  6. generate “malicious compliance” amongst other staff
  7. provoke rebellion from a tiny minority
  8. become a strait-jacket that prevents business agility
  9. eventually break when they no longer reflect business needs

People are not machines, and their greatest asset is their versatility and intelligence – watch a plumber at work!

Of course, the greatest free-thinkers of all are the salesmen, so if we can design for salesmen, we’ve cracked it!

A colleague raised a hugely valuable point – what is needed is something that ensures that all aspects are considered, without forcing mindless compliance, while harnessing the best aspects of human behaviour: checklists.

Yes, checklists – so simple, so easy to maintain, yet so powerful – it’s what saved the lives of all  on board US Airways Flight 1549 when it crashed into the Hudson River (Thanks, Neil)!

So how can we get the benefits of checklists in lieu of hard-coded business processes? Redesigning ICT to provide real-time decision support around a checklist front end could do the job nicely. I know it’s very “Mission: Impossible”, but with 4G, Internet-enabled cameras, tablets and mobile comms, we really do have the technology to build a real-time decision-supported salesman!

What do I mean?

I mean that the salesman can collect information from the client that is immediately transferred back to base, where the team (and IT systems) analyse that information and offer up both validated options and further information to gather.

Such technology has been available in a limited way for contact centre staff for many years  as “case-based reasoning” tools, but we need to include the option of expert advice from real people if the sale is valuable.

Most salesmen can cope with the freedom of the checklist – making sure that they have the right information to correctly tick the box in real time would massively improve both sales and sales quality.

And if it works for salesmen, it can work for everyone.

Hold the line

Tomorrow sees a tragic milestone in military history,  Remembrance Sunday a century after the start of the Great War.
There is one miltary maxim, from long before that time, that should guide all teams :’Hold the line!’.

What does that mean?

In the 19th century, the British Army’s standard defence against infantry attack was the ‘Thin Red Line’, just 2 ranks of soldiers (a very thin line indeed) that never-the-less defeated Napoleon, and the Imperial Russian army in the Crimea.

How could a wall just 2 men thick hold back the hammer blow of an assaulting column? Nerve, teamwork and discipline. Time without end, holding the line resulted in victory,  whereas the line breaking led to defeat. What possible relevance does that have for project teams?

Successful projects demand that project teams hold calmly together in adversity,  just like that thin red line. Teams that stick together, fighting for success, win; those that fall apart, fail. The line in France held in the Great War, but broke in 1940;  only the miracle of Dunkirk gave the British team another chance, while the French simply lost.

As I reflect on the death of my great uncle in the trenches during the Kaiserschlag of 1918, one thing stands out:  Hold the line!