Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Problem with Feedback

I have spent much of this week working with the management team of an organisation with a long and proud history of service to the community. One of the key issues we have been confronting relates to the giving and receiving of feedback to younger people. They have been finding that their traditional ways of doing this need changing.

Feedback is interesting. When I play golf I receive feedback on my stroke immediately after the clubhead hits the ball. Of course I can't change anything at that point and the ball will continue on whatever direction and trajectory I have given it, but I am given information that enables me to make decisions as to whether or not I should make some changes. In the workplace there are some situations like that but, in a vast number of instances, it is necessary for other people to provide me with the feedback that will allow me to decide what if any changes in my behaviour are necessary.

The issue then becomes one of how this feedback is given. And this is the issue my client faces.

In the societal approaches of the past, this wasn't really a problem - which doesn't mean that it was done well - because those more senior to you in an organisation were generally heeded some attention when they spoke. Our society had a world view that said if you were older or in a more senior position then you were to receive respect and your authority was not to be questioned.

This is no longer the case.

In today's world it is increasingly clear that respect has to be earned: it is not automatically given. In today's world it is increasingly clear that authority can quickly be lost if the person giving feedback makes a mistake - and the almost instant availability of information by phone or internet makes it almost certain that any such errors will be quickly discovered - and if the person giving feedback isn't respected or hasn't engaged with the people involved then the probability of someone actively seeking out errors is high.

Which means that if, as a supervisor, manager, leader or whatever you need to learn facilitate engagement of people with both the work that they do and with you as a person. Its not easy.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Festina Lente !! (Urgent or Important?)

From my very long ago days of doing Latin at school, I seem to remember the phrase "festina lente" as meaning "hasten slowly" or "more hurry less speed". (I may, of course, be wrong in my recollection and, if I am, I'm sure someone will correct me!!)

I thought of this today because of a couple of events.

First I listened to an interview on Australia's ABC FM radio in which the person being interviewed was telling of his commitment to increasing literacy in third world countries. He explained that, now, they are opening a new library somewhere in a third world country every 4 or 5 hours. An incredible rate given that it is only about 10 years since he first became aware of the issue and committed himself to action. He said that he was an action-orientated person who looked for solutions rather than dwelling on problems. But he also pointed out that from first realising the size of the problem to actually getting things properly moving was about a year. Since then things have grown rapidly. Festina lente !

Second I was approached by someone who is trying to get a new business up and running. She is worried about the need for positive cash flow (aren't we all!!) and has been running around everywhere trying to get business. The result is that she has lost focus on what she really wants to achieve and runs the risk of failing because of confusion regarding priorities. We discussed how taking a step back and refocusing then moving forward in a planned approach would actually help her achieve desired results far more effectively than scattering her energies across a broad range of things.

Its the old question of deciding between "what is urgent" and "what is important". Too often we concentrate on "what is urgent" with the result that "what is important" never gets done and we wind up with time management problems, quality problems, staffing problems, and all the rest.

Part of creating an environment in which everyone can be successful - ie part of leadership - is recognising and applying the need for "festina lente" !

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Return on Investment

On February 12, 2010 a writer in The Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Pascoe made the following statement about the past CEO of Telstra in Australia. In an article entitled "Sol Trujillo was worse than he looked" Pascoe wrote: "When Trujillo and Co departed, it wasn't immediately possible to rank his performance. Parts were obviously bad, parts had promise. By the look of yesterday's interim results, the bits with promise were nowhere near enough to make up for the bad. More hat than cattle, as the saying goes, looking at where Telstra stands 5 years later."

The Sydney Morning Herald's "Good Weekend" of February 13 (p.14) had a similar theme. In an article entitled "Outrageous Fortune", Jane Cadzow points out that in 2003 Sydney University researcher John Shields concluded that the 20 best performing Australian companies paid their CEO's substantially less than did the 20 worst-performing companies. Shields is quoted as saying that "Against three criteria - return on equity, share price change, and change in earnings per share - statistical analysis shows that high executive pay levels actually coincide with a lower bottom line." Shields is quoted as saying that the 2003 research is still broadly true in 2010.

When I talk with Directors and senior executives I hear a lot about for need for measuring return on investment. It is one of the justifications I hear when companies are considering laying off staff or reducing their workforce by using part time workers. We do a lot to measure the return received for work done by lower level echelons on most organisations and the drive for increasing the use of technology is based on the premise that the company will obtain better returns.

Why don't we apply this to the top echelons? If it can be done for the lower levels (and it both can and is) then surely it can and should be applied at the top - including Director remuneration.

For almost 20 years I have been arguing that remuneration at the top should be genuinely performance based. Although the the myth is that this currently happens, the fact of huge bonuses and termination pays being made when the company is going backwards illustrates the discrepancy between myth and fact.

I suggest that the time is right for leaders - Company Directors, Legislators, Regulators, and Owners (shareholders) - to make a stand and insist on measuring return on investment at all levels and paying accordingly. By all means pay huge amounts (well into the $millions) if you believe that is what it takes to get the people you want at the top or anywhere else. I've no argument with that. But pay the bonus components on what happens to the organisation in the subsequent 5 years - especially in the event of a termination pay.

I'm not convinced that there is enough intestinal fortitude around for this to happen. Those executives who actually do provide long-term positive benefit to their companies - ie those who actually do provide a value-added component - have nothing to fear. I suspect its the others who will prevail.

I think that's the point Pascoe is making, too.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Change: How not to do it!!

They were all working as normal when the General Manager walked in. There was very little time for the usual banter before he said" "I'd like to discuss something with you." He went on to tell them of some significant reporting and operational changes that the company would like to make. He told them that he would welcome their suggestions prior to making any final decisions. Then, when he was asked when they could get back together to share their thoughts, he told them that the changes would be introduced within 2 weeks and that any suggestions would need to be made in this meeting and that the meeting would only be for the next 30 minutes. The meeting concluded with him thanking them for their suggestions and telling them that the change as originally shared with them would be operational as scheduled.


No. To my certain knowledge, it happened in a major company in this month of February 2010.

The team has been working on a major upgrade of the IT facilities. There are months of work left before the project is scheduled for completion. They are close knit and put in long hours without additional financial recognition because they are proud of their work and of their company.

Or, at least, they were.

The changes will mean that they lose their direct link to the relevant decision maker and that the new person to whom they will report has no background in IT or understanding of the programming issues involved. She will be unable to help them with technical expertise when they need suggestions or assistance and, with the company's rigid reporting lines, they will be discouraged from going directly to those who are able to provide help.

The entire team is now job hunting - and there is reason to believe that they will all leave the company within the next month or so. The cost to the company is going to be significant in money terms quite apart from the continued customer and supplier disquiet because of the current inadequate IT systems.

Over recent years I have observed two significant change programs that were badly designed and implemented. In both cases the changes were initiated after there were changes at Board level and, in both cases, the company is (or at least was) a well known and very successful one with very good EBIT and dividends. This new example appears to be doomed to the same result as the earlier one - good staff will leave; revenues will drop; EBIT will crash; dividends will become close to non existent; and everyone will be blamed except the change initiators.

These days virtually everyone accepts the reality of and the need for change. Most people do not oppose change "on principle". All that people ask is that there is authenticity and integrity from the change initiators. Don't be seen as manipulative by pretending to discuss change and seek input. Either share information and seek input at an early stage or else let people know that the decisions have been made and stop treating them like recalcitrant children.

There are plenty of resources available to help anyone and any organisation through the change process. No matter what the budget or organisational issue, someone can be found to assist you.

A little professional help at an early stage can save a fortune in later costs.

More information about Doug Long and how I can help you at

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Leadership and Fear

Last weekend it was pouring with rain in Sydney. My son and his mates decided to go on their usual 4WD adventure and, as was to be expected, managed to get at least one of the 4WD's bogged. While they were pulling it out (they always have at least 4 vehicles in their party for safety reasons) another vehicle came up and the guys in it ridiculed them for getting stuck. Noticing that they had no support vehicles, my son and his mates warned the newcomers to be very careful as the conditions were quite dangerous - especially if you had little or no experience and/or were on your own. The newcomers jeered and sped off - this was a new vehicle and they were having fun.

A few minutes later when my son and his mates were restarting their bogged vehicle there was an urgent scream for help over the VHF radio. The newcomers had gone into water and the vehicle was filling rapidly. They were totally bogged, helpless and panicking. When my son's mates reached the accident they found that the doors were locked shut and water inside the car was at the point where possible drowning was a reality. In addition, the driver hadn't known enough to immediately shut off his engine when it went under water and, because there was no snorkel, the turbo charger had ensured there was water throughout the engine. Rescuing the vehicle and occupants was reasonably easy compared with getting the vehicle sufficiently mobile for it to make its way back to the nearest workshop where major repairs could be done. Of course, they had totally voided the vehicle's new car warranty so repairs are going to be very expensive.

I think there's a metaphor here for what sometimes happens in organisations.

There are times when some managers and leaders seem to follow a "crash through or crash" philosophy in relation to achieving results and/or introducing change. When this happens it is not uncommon for those in a hurry to ridicule those who are a little more experienced and/or cautious. The impact on everyone can be extremely traumatic in the event of things going wrong.

Good leaders know that fear can be a positive emotion. It can tell you that things need a bit of consideration before embarking on action. It can enable you to consider alternative ways of attaining your goal. It can lead you to new learning in a very positive way. That's why good leaders generally listen carefully to advice and suggestions from those with more experience.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Leaders look around

Sydney's roads (like those of most other major cities) are usually crowded and there are seldom enough lanes to satisfy drivers trying to get from point A to point B. The problem is compounded when cars are allowed to stop and/or park by the kerb with the result that another traffic lane is taken out of play.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not against the use of cars and I don't oppose parking in shopping precincts (even when it means parking at the side of the road) and I'm not trying to redesign Sydney's roads so that they are wider and can take more traffic. No, my concern is with people who don't seem to pay much attention to the impact their stopped or parked car has on other traffic.

Think about it.

How often do you see a car come to a stop and, with no apparent attention to the traffic, the driver's door opens and, sometimes after what seems to be an eternity, a person slowly alights and does whatever else they intend to do. Sometimes this "whatever else they intend to do" includes opening the passenger door on the same side and allowing children to alight with traffic streaming past. All too often this will involve a parent getting a baby out of a baby capsule or a child out of a safety seat which is a process that takes a fair bit of time - all the while with the door open and endangering both those at the car and passing traffic. In even worse cases the process will be further delayed while the parent attends to their child's needs such as changing a nappy.

I have a lot of understanding of where the parent is coming from - I have 5 children (now all grown up) and 4 grandchildren - but I do not understand why some thought is not paid to the dangers of tending children or allowing passengers to alight under such a dangerous manner. A bit of thought and planning when getting people into the car and/or when reaching one's destination means that dealing with baby or children and allowing passengers to alight can be performed much more safely for everyone when done from the doors of the car closest to the kerb. It just requires a bit of thought and foresight. No "rocket science" involved.

Many leaders in politics, business, religious groups, and society at large seem to have the same "not thinking" attitude when it comes to their operations. Like parents and responsible drivers - most of whom genuinely care for their children's / passengers' safety - either they do things that are inherently dangerous or they allow their people to take risks that could and should be avoided. Elliott Jaques ("Requisite Organization", 1998, Cason Hall & Co) talks about the need for managers and leaders to consider the broader picture as well as the immediate issues being dealt with. In fact he makes the point that if you can't see the bigger picture and deal with things from a broader perspective, you probably shouldn't be in a management or leadership role.

Leaders (even parents and car drivers) need to look around and see the bigger picture.

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