It was the wrong job to begin with


Recruitment is oh, so mythified, mystified, it sometimes feels scary. It is certainly not seen as a science and shows no sign of being one, even though the likes of Google try to correct that with the introduction of Big Data, the new XXIst century magic (Asimov had it right since the 1940s in the Foundation series). And while countless papers have been devoted to major topics such as ‘recruiting demonstrated ability, not demonstrated likeness’, or ‘why we all suck at recruiting while we totally believe the opposite…

No, seriously, I’m great! But the others? Hm. Well, now that you’re raising the point… Not so much. Yeah, the others are the problem, trust me. Me? I’m good. Really. Look, I really know people. I read them. I’m good with them. Plus I have this killer interview question… yadayadayada” (sounds familiar?)

… very few have actually looked beyond the traditional subject of execution inefficiencies and into the flaws of the system itself, questioning its alignment with its purpose.

Working in a BRIC country where attrition is extremely high – that will be the subject of the next article – I witnessed a number of issues that can actually be extended to the largest number of countries around the world, magnified to an extreme, and are quite well summed up by this:

The candidate applied to the wrong job to begin with.

Very much like one of the key messages of the movie “Synecdoche, New York“, the end is often built into the beginning. And the main cause is that despite all advice from literatures, experts, corporate policies and propaganda, positions and candidates are both very much handled like commodities by all parties. It sometimes even sound ominous how under that light slogans such “war for talents” – after McKinsey’s book of the same name – resound like doctrines followed by countries invading others in order to put their hands on natural resources. McK’s book is no different actually: tapping into a restricted resource pool, one must deploy a constantly evolving, aggressive arsenal.

How so? Mostly because of efficiency reasons: the cost of reaching out to a hiring manager, as well as that of getting a candidate in the hot interview seat, has been constantly trimmed and (short-term) productivity sought out. Let’s examine both sides of the market. Note: this considers recruitment on a quantitative standpoint and is thus more easily applicable to what is sadly called “mass-recruitment” (another commodity pointer):

  • Candidates most of the time do not know why they applied. They hardly did their homework – particularly true in BRIC’s and emerging countries in general – and mostly consider a trade-off between their current position, and the opportunity the position you are offering represents. For that reason, it is often unclear why they left their previous jobs and a few underlying motives might be found:
    • “the unicorn did not show up” as it is beautifully explained by Waitbutwhy.com‘s Tim Urban in a delicious post on Gen Y. Your candidate was not seen as special as she thinks she is in her previous employment. Warning, as this may also be a sign of non-performing employees who keep switching because “that’s not their fault so they’ll go somewhere they’ll be appreciated for who they really are”
    • They have the feeling their peers are better off, and they want to get back into the race. See above: same difference really.
    • The market allows it because it is full of lousy recruiters anyway, and we get the applicants we deserve, now don’t we.
    • They took their previous job for the wrong reason already!
    • They have little understanding as to what matters to them: a brand, pay, title, friends in the place, recommendation? Bah. It’ll always be time to change jobs anyway if that does not work out.
    • Your job was the first line of the first page on mewantjobnow.com. Congratulations, you probably paid to be more commoditized. More on this, someday…
    • They are not looking for a new job rather than running away from the old one. Beyond the unicorn, there might be very legitimate considerations such as social norms or financial needs to respect. Food has to be put on the table. In some countries, a young lady worth the name does not marry an unemployed young man. Mama wants to kick Junior out of the house now he’s turned 28.
  • Recruiters have a vested interest to fill positions fast. In most organizations they are structured in the fashion of an outsourced party (eg: service center reporting to HR) mandated by ‘clients’ called “the business” ie. hiring managers. Business pressures as anyone would a supplier, often referring to a need for “better results” meaning in fact “faster” or “cheaper”. They therefore bear part of the responsibility: “cheap” only works short-term and has costly impacts in the long run. Thus, not only do interests of the applicant and the recruiter not coincide, but the interests of the recruiter, sometimes under pressure of the ‘client’, often conflict with that of the company as a whole:
  • Recruiter’s view is by definition short-term: please the God of KPI’s by offering Him the lowest possible Time-To-Recruit (TTR). This is best served by a fire-and-forget attitude: fill the position and move on to the next. candidates’ interest is exactly the opposite: this is just the beginning of the show, which may last for years. Hence a severe asymmetry in the value of the outcome for each party, and in the quality of the commitment. It’s a salesperson paid to rush you into signing as fast as possible a contract in which you’ll have to commit your time, habits, what to say and do, with whom to have lunch, the time you wake up in the morning and come back home at night for an unlimited duration… Now you’ll never look at recruitment agencies in the same way ever again.
  • Living beings have a natural bias: if something seems to work, we stick to it. If a mass job board works at getting me CVs, it’ll do. Whether these CVs are here for the wrong reasons, or are on every other organization’s desks matters little: there are plenty! Relying on a restricted number of sources or too obvious channels is a comfortable way to achieve an average job (read average as “same as everyone else” = this way of recruiting does not create a difference. Commodity)
  • Either party lacks sufficient empathy to really put themselves into the other’s shoes. The other party does not get the best advice regarding the best questions to ask oneself. This is particularly true when recruiters are junior staff, as this is often the case in emerging countries. In Russia for example, recruitment is often seen as the entry point to an HR career. Yes: people are our best assets, that’s the upstream of our talent supply chain is left to our least experienced staff!
  • Let’s not start on job specifications / description. This is usually a terrible shopping list mixing traits the former incumbent was lacking and the manager would like to see while half are useless anyway, won’t be tested during the recruitment process and are meaningless (“excellent presentation skills”? Does it stand for such horrors like “ethnically pure”, “looks like Jeeves”, “deliver speeches like Dustin Hoffman” or “great table manners”? And have you ever not answered because you thought you did not have “excellent presentation skills?”)

Bottom line: since interests diverge, recruitments are botched more often than anything. Still, this is one of the most critical supply chain processes of a firm. Is there a positive way out of this? Certainly. While it will be difficult to educate an opportunity-prone side of the market – the applicants, although let’s not give up too fast on them, still – solutions arise if we consider re-aligning interests.

To this end, recruiters need to be re-installed into a longer-term perspective. There are ways to do this such as being incentivized on performance ratings of the new hires’ first year so as to balance Time-To-Recruit, but also clearly help the candidate to actively assess what the job implies and whether this is the right fit for her. Such a pre-talent management work is time-consuming, but less so with good candidates than with the other ones, not to mention the good it does to the firm, and the fantastic impression it will leave. Finally, in the emerging countries, another item may be used: attrition rate of the recruits, by recruiter. The list does not stop here.

Balancing short-term aims with longer term, more major big-picture stakes for the firm, recruiters will more easily align their efforts with that of their ‘clients’. That will also bring them even closer to the latter, and that, for sure, can only help.

Posted in Fire that guy, The acid test | Leave a comment

When I hear the word Culture… or is it HR?


Funny how often HR is associated with “Culture”. A number of vacancy ads, of job descriptions related to HR positions refer to the matter as if these guys had some secret insight as to how culture is done. Changed. Imprinted. Engraved. Scorched into every employee’s DNA forever. Ok, let’s give a new spin to the expression ‘employee branding‘!

Here are three real examples (organisations’ names have been changed though):

  1. “The HR Director will be responsible for launching and building a formal Human Resources Department at Enslave Co. He or she will be responsible for all human resource related functions including culture development, recruiting, compensation and benefits[…]”
  2. “The selected individual will be able to lead cultural change, build internal business partnerships, and provide coaching to develop others, challenge the status quo and offer creative solutions to business issues.”
  3. “The Responsibilities:    Hire, retain and fire personnel,  Conduct personnel evaluation,  Develop and manage professional development programs, Develop corporate culture,  Coordinate activities of administration managers team”

Those are three different companies from three different countries, different continents. One could suspect the third one is a bit lost in translation although it is originally written in English. But this particular third item, my favorite, exemplifies the issue: the HR person is in charge of hiring / firing, evaluate personnel, manage administration and develop corp culture…

The hiring / firing is disconcerting: certainly one should always think about the exit clause before entering a contractual partnership, but the thought of firing implies improperly hiring from the start. Sure it happens but… see where this is going? Not really the optimistic scenario. Then we have the ‘evaluate personnel’ bit, certainly the most puzzling. I hope I am getting this one wrong: it is rather a managerial task to assess one’s team. Manage admin is standard: contracts, maybe some payroll items, medical coverage, labour relations… And just how corp culture can be developed in this context, by HR,  remains a question mark.

It is perhaps necessary to define culture a minute, which I previously did there. Culture becomes by definition what we do, paraphrasing Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle: “we are what we repeatedly do, excellence is not an act but a habit” (the original quote being: “virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”).

Let’s consider the following: employees of a supermarket can buy their lunch in the store, and pay at the cash register like regular customers do. They have a habit of cutting through the line and squeeze their purchase in between two customers, or even make their fellow employee cashier interrupt what she’s doing with a customer in order to take care of their own items, before she then resumes her task. Now it may be ok for one employee. How about a whole shift turning up at the same time because they are on the clock?

The supermarket advertises its “customer first” policy, but employees grossly and repeatedly violate it in the field. What are the solutions available to the manager: hire a HR person entitled to “develop the corporate culture”? HR will then step in and say employees should not do this. But shift managers tell their teams to overlook the instruction because of time, or do little to enforce the policy because they have other issues or can’t always look… Would HR have the staff’s attention, then?

Dumb HR will dock employees even, brewing resentment. Smart HR will sell an organization change to management, maybe a specific cash register or time-slots booked for that purpose, or better, remove the problem altogether by providing standard lunches at an agreed fee in a dedicated room.

But HR will not really develop culture, just solve or remove a problem that hurts the relationship with the customer and should not have happened in the first place. It is obvious that without the company’s or the staff’s management, things could not happen as direct managers have the attention of the staff more than the HR reps, always (what could be the role of managers in this company where HR evaluate personnel by the way?)

The best that HR can do is advise and implement, but certainly not develop or be in charge of the cultural aspect of a company. This is typically a leader’s role – not that HR means lack of leadership! – since culture is what we do, and we do what’s acceptable, that is, what the norms, our peers, our environment dictate. Culture always come from the top, failure to consider this would actually result in cultural issues and strip leaders of their responsibility – actually, they’d become “bosses” which in itself somehow defines a corporate culture… The best HR people can only advise about it, and support implementation. Now, boy can they advise if they are only a little bit smart!

But other than that, to paraphrase a sentence from Hanns Johst that remind us of darker times: if I hear the word ‘culture’ in the same sentence as the word ‘HR’, let’s reach for our (contractual) gun. What’s the phone number of that HR person who hires / fires?

Posted in Hell is paved with good intentions, Sounded like a good idea at the time..., That is culture for you | Leave a comment

That poker curve


Guess what: the main obstacle against changes that are so dearly desired in any firm is the leadership team itself, the very same team in charge of ensuring the company evolves and keeps up with its time. Let’s explore that gratuitously provocative thought together for a minute.

Not so long ago, I was discussing with managers complaining that their new shareholders – their firm had just got sold – had not released and renewed the management board. It was clear that at least a good half of them had no future in the new group, their heads now against the proverbial glass ceiling, invisible yet so concrete. Be it because of cultural misfit or absence of what it’d take to go further (eg: proficiency in the foreign language of the shareholding company or simply potential), being acquired had not added any extra possible rung on their very ladder. So what would be their incentive to actually support and help the integration in the new group since they were at the top of what they would get? After all, it could only be downhill from there!

One often heard complain from the file and rank is that executives’ doings are difficult to understand, that top managers don’t do the right thing or move too slow. While “average” employees themselves (are there such people?) feel little ability to have an impact on the organization, they also tend to fantasize on the power of the senior management: sorry guys, it is highly constrained by a political web of antagonizing influences.

To better understand this, who is this typical senior manager we are talking about? The higher the animal in the corporate food chain, the more evolutionary abilities and survival skills it has demonstrated. Those may be a higher delivery rate, a faultless loyalty to the right people, only being at the right place and time, or a strong diplomatic sense (as in: sometimes it pays to be not the best choice but just the most acceptable compromise). But come what may, our specimen has always been close to the finally validated decisions. Climbing that far into the decision tree is no random feat.

It therefore takes hard work and luck (choose your own mix) to get there and each Boardroom hides a body count somewhere to attest it. Using a strategy metaphor, one could say that obviously, the senior management market in a firm has high barriers to entry. Staying there takes efforts as it requires maintaining one’s place in a fine balance of powers, to ensure the continuity of the equilibrium. Exiting it is significantly easier.

This certainly explains why senior managers are often so risk-averse. In other words, one could draw a curve against the following two axes: level of position in the organization, and risk appetite. The result would be something gamblers know probably quite well, and so do people with big bonuses: it is easier to go all in having nothing but just few chips to lose, but bets tend to become exponentially cautious the more the “player” has accumulated.Thatpokercurve

It is in all good gangster movies: that scene in which a poor soul has lost almost everything and is ready to gamble his shirt, his house or his kids’ college money in the hope to be back in the black. He is ready to go for ever greater wagers for comparatively ever diminishing returns. Alternatively, Dan Ariely in his quite enjoyable book “The upsides of irrationality” described how subjects experience an increasing fear in an experiment designed to make them carry out simple yet challenging tasks against prizes amounting to weeks or months of average pay. Although the point differs slightly (his subject is “do higher incentives bring higher performance” and his conclusion is worth the read), what would it be if they had to actually not gain, but lose this money depending on decisions they made!

So there we are: a delicate balance to maintain to ensure one’s position, a lot to lose and a little to gain, that’s all it takes to keep a status quo. While motivation can be described as the hope to gain something by performing given actions, then motivation of senior executives in front of a requested change is something to be ascertained closely as said executive may eventually prove the main obstacle for that change.

This proves particularly acute when managers sense they have reached their highest possible role in an organization. A few applications:

  • It holds true for managers who sense their current position is the highest they’ll get. They may tend to play more and more controlling and conservative just so as to not endanger themselves. Certainly something to think of prior to changing a organization in order to prevent the action of detrimental agents to the change.
  • Think also of the impact in the case of a merger / acquisition with managers of the target, for instance: after all, what have they got to earn that they don’t already have and that’d be worth the risk? They have evolved in, and proved particularly fit for, a given culture. This culture is about to change: why should they play against the environment they learnt to play with and master, particularly if they feel there is little room for them in the new, bigger picture?

 Bottom line: here is a paradox in which managers who bloomed in a company culture and eventually reached a certain ceiling, may potentially oppose changes profitable for the firm if they feel these changes will threaten their assets. Beware poker players who collected too many chips at the gambling table, for they will play it too safe for themselves so as to protect their painfully gained treasure! They may use a number of tools available to them in that respect, be it their knowledge of that culture, or not making expected decisions benefiting the evolution of the firm to favor positive shorter term outcomes for them but detrimental to the company in the longer run (another case of agency / principal relationship).

 The difficulty here is to assess two elements: the incentive that may set these executives in motion in a positive way for the organization on the one hand. On the other, significantly harder: understand in what level of comfort these executives are and what representation of their own potential they have, along whether or not they feel up to new challenges. Since good leadership is managing by example, there might be a few lessons to derive on one’s corporate culture from that leadership test, that is if a leader does not feel up to take on a new challenge so as to protect his own position.

Posted in 2001: a leadership odyssey, That is culture for you | Leave a comment

But you promised!


Leading by example is often discussed in these pages, considering how important one’s image is as a management tool. It is as simple as that: firms may creatively invent as many incentive management systems, policies, rules, organization charts and models as they want, the only thing that remains as the end of the day is the way their leaders act and the examples they show.

As a comparison, no matter how large the family, how rich the neighborhood, how smartly designed the house plan or the parents keep repeating, it is what they will do, tolerate or punish that will mostly shape the kids’ behavior. If you have ever told your kids several times to go tidy their rooms or do their homework or eat properly but haven’t ever done anything about it, you know what we’re talking about! You’re just background noise.

As my great-aunt, 95 and former CEO puts it: “example comes from above”. No need for a Harvard MBA, a 5-year-old will teach you the concept!

Now that example is established as a management tool, it is safe to infer it conveys promises. An easy one: “if you do like me you will be like me. If I am authority, you will be authority”. And we all know we recruit and promote who resembles us…

Firms are interrelations. Interrelations are implicit and explicit promises. Explicit: I work for you, you pay me for my work at the end of the week or month. Implicit: if I conform to the company norms, I will be well perceived with a positive impact on my career. If I play by the rules, I have more chances to win, but that also means I expect a fair game. If the game is not fair, why stick to the rules? And then… why spend time and money on defining rules?

How does that fit your company culture? Fair or not fair?

These promises are internal – amongst employees – and external – with customers, suppliers etc. All firms are thus nothing more than a set of promises. Some of the external ones are subtle and often not well controlled by the firm, which mixes up what it would like to promise, and what it actually does.

Advertising is a strong case of such misalignment, sometimes accidental, sometimes less. Washing powder is a typical example of the latter: who really believes that my wife will be as happy as women seem to be in detergent ads? Probably if I start doing the laundry she will, but that won’t be because I use a specific P&G or & Unilever product. Consumers have therefore learned to decipher such messages, thus severely undermining the power of promises a lot of commodity firms were making them.

Well, guess what: firms do that all the time, even those trying to be smart. Actually, maybe those trying to be smart are the worse… A few examples? Do your vacancy ads say something like “We have tough challenges to offer. Are you up to them?” or “we offer the best projects, great careers and an opportunity to develop yourself in an international environment” or something along these lines? Like… “Join the best!” Nice. You are just like everyone else then, commodity. Do your interview processes cover questions like “where do you see yourself in 5 years” or “what are your main drawbacks?” Same.

Not only did you just hint you were hardly able to distinguish one applicant from the other (such questions are useless and interviewers are usually unable to answer them themselves. I know, I systematically ask them back. Great fun), but you also blended yourself into the mist of all the other faceless companies which asked the same applicant the same questions. Let’s just hope you did not invest too much in your ads, or any other parts of your recruitment process, in order to try to make yourself notice because that investment was just wasted. You made promises then did not hold to them. Worse than no promise at all.

Another example comes from a practice I see sometimes, related to the merit increase processes. Most companies run such a process on a yearly basis. But in firms with a low employee turnover and long mean service time, managers increase employees every other employee every other year in order to ensure every one receives a significant increase at least every two years. In other words, salaries are not increased because employees performed – or not only – but because they did not receive any increase the previous year.

When asked, managers answer that due to the low turnover, the length of service and seniority are long and employees often show a high compa-ratio (employee’s salary divided by the mean for such type of job). It is then fun to consider the fact that if only performing employees were increased, then turnover would probably be higher because some of the non-performing employees would move on to other firms to seek the acknowledgment they probably think they deserve, or catch up with the market rates. In other words: a low turnover generates an increase policy which calls for a low turnover.
Firms are promises.

A good, structured approach when facing issues or looking for improvement would then be to list down and analyze the promises yours makes, and whether or not it is keeping its word. With a trap: there is always a chance the promises you make are the ones you would like to keep, yet don’t for some reason. The second level of analysis becomes then: would you like to really keep it, what keeps you away from it, and are you eventually ready to make the change so that you are finally deliver your commitment?

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Monkey see, monkey do.


Greek philosophers often opposed culture to nature, stating that culture was a transformation of, or differentiation from, nature. The cooked vs. the raw if you will. I had started discussing the matter in A K.P.I. Culture., it is time to dig in the matter further.

Let’s pay tribute and simply define culture as “the way one does things”. We all often come across different definitions of the word. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

•    Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture
•    An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
•    The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group

My personal understanding is that the third definition is superfluous, it is merely an application of the second one to an organization, while the first one is just the second one pushed to the extreme. We could even simplify what is left:

•    An integrated pattern of behavior

(that may possibly depend upon the capacity for social learning).

Why so? Because behavior is driven by knowledge and belief, and social learning depends heavily on symbolic thought. There can also be culture without social interaction. I may adopt a specific behavioral pattern A out of fear while I live alone in the jungle…

A few examples to support our new definition: I eat you because I know it will stop my hunger. Or because I will acquire your strength. Or because the head of the tribe does so or orders me to do so. And I go to the office every morning for about the same reasons, actually…

After such a boring introduction, let’s apply our new knowledge to Corporatia.

I often say culture comes from the top and is auto-filtering. There are many cracks culture seeps through, often non considered as such.

Imagine a business in which the new boss, appointed by the respected CEO, calls her team members by their last name, including publicly and in front of them. “Smith, you’ll need to come and see me, bring Johnson and McArthur along”. Quite soon said team members will start calling each other by their last names, too, be it as a joke or mimicry.

Let us say that this boss is also very keen on details and does not emphasize the big picture with her reports. Always dotting the I’s, barring the t’s, changing the color schemes, asking for documents, presentations, setting the directions… Fairly soon, her direct reports will start behaving in the same fashion with their teams so as to save their own energy and shelter from the leader’s wrath. If the boss is impatient and sends reminders every 3 hours, possibly reshuffling priorities even, then the direct reports will pass this pressure along to their teams.
All three examples illustrate the “culture comes from the top” part. One can easily imagine, for instance, what would happen if the boss were not to allow mistakes

But auto-filtering? Soon managers who, as true knowledge workers, fancy to have their autonomy rather than execute will show their discontent and leave; others more prone to execution will stay, or be promoted since they give satisfaction, no question asked. Vacancies will need filling: capacity of applicants to execute will be probed. And if a bad job at selecting the good grunts is done, the new joiners will anyways not feel too happy and leave soon.

From that we can infer that the longer a boss at the helm of a team, the more obvious his or her cultural traits and trade-offs.

Nowadays systems, such as processes, sets of values, communication, organizational decisions… are as many tools that help expand this picture to wider organizations. In other words, leaders make their teams. If they complain about them, they complain about their management style. As I answered to a manager who recently shouted me “I don’t want to hire internally, they are no good”, “either you hire them this way, or you make them this way. Which will it be?”

The saying is true: managers have the teams they deserve. And it is certainly not new. Just watch the Planet of the Apes movies (1968 – 1973): monkey see, monkey do.

Posted in That is culture for you | 1 Comment

Lefties do it better


Imagine a company coming up one day, somewhat lost with say 6 or 7 products to introduce to the market, suffering from internal struggles as to which product should be focused on. It’s a very competitive market and they are number two. The leader has been steadily keeping its market share for a while but is losing its edge. However, it is known that they are going for a new launch in about 6 months; only no one knows whether it is going to be a new product, a 2.0 of their bestseller or maybe a whole range.

Our challenger then just decides they have got 6 months to take the market over. But how? In the most rational fashion, yet one not so common these days.

First, they advertise to everyone: “on a certain day, you will be able to choose which of our products deserve to live!”
Second, they go to meet their audience – not just their customers, also their nay-sayers – and present them the products, all their characteristics and features, totally openly and publicly.
Third, they put the products on a stand and ask their audience: for a symbolic Euro, you get to decide for the one which we will take to market and in a way, for the future of our company and the industry.
And finally, they stick to their word and only launch the one the audience selected.

That company got millions of people to elect the product they wanted. The campaign itself was a huge success. But here is the best part:

6 months: one would have thought the company was short of time, surely?  The campaign to design and select the product was the only thing the market was talking about for months, making the final product hugely known and taking the incumbent by surprise. It was the best advertising results they could get.

Internal struggles: the company was short of resources then? Instead of scattering their resources on several efforts, they could get all their means focused on one product, without any dissidence since the market had pointed an incontrovertible finger towards what it was ready to pay for. Total internal alignment to the service of that product!

The company was short of money? Here is pure genius at work. By asking the audience to pay a very minimal, symbolic fee of one Euro (or one Ruble, or one Dollar) in exchange of the right to vote, our challenger escaped a common bias of questionnaires, one which consists of people answering their honest-to-god-truth about what they would do in a given situation, but they probably won’t once facing said situation in real life. (eg: “an old lady gets mugged by a youngster 20 pounds lighter than you. What do you do?” Answer: “I’ll go”. Fact: “I hope I can pass by without being noticed”. Or worse, I pull out my phone cam)

In other words with that tiny, symbolic cost and barrier, they get people to commit. Voters do commit, this commitment costs them so it becomes dear to them: they will stick to it, more than if they did not have to pay at all. There is a larger commitment gap between 0 and 1 dollar than there is between 1 and 5 dollars. On the launch day, if these voters need such a product, they will come and buy the one they voted for and now even feel closer to (“hey, I made it happen!”).

But the company also made this campaign cash-flow positive before the product was even launch. Having people vote for the product they wanted, not only did the company focus on the relevant effort, saved time in lengthy internal resource allocation discussions and meetings, but ended up richer than they were prior to the campaign.

Alignment, focus, trust of the audience, better known, richer, and sure to present their best alternative to the incumbent.  Who wouldn’t  want to be in that position before, say, a presidential election if they were the candidate?

What I describe above is precisely what the Socialist Party did in France. In order to select their candidate, the left-wing just ran a business-school textbook marketing operation they could teach in a MBA, jointly designing a product with their potential customers – and their opponents: they could vote, too – putting a totally disorganized party right in marching order in less than 6 months and making money out of the process while increasing loyalty – that is, decreasing abstention. I am not taking side, but one must admit: on that very occasion, lefties did it better.

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The ultimate leadership development lesson


Leadership and development are the cornucopia of business publications’ clichés. Running dry for the next issue? Why not talk about yet another leadership guru, or development survey or “best practice”? This is the business equivalent of the “6-pond diet before this summer” paper in some press.

Hm. Couldn’t resist. Here’s mine.

So let us be practical: just like any good diet, leadership and talent development are usually plain common sense. Which thanks to Mark Twain we know is not that common, really.

In the Acid Test series, I would like to offer one that is fun to bring in discussions with managers: “have you groomed your successor yet?” That might bring an awkward silence. See for yourself!

Why is that? Of course, the first thing that springs to their minds is “am I closer to the door than to a promotion?” which is often exactly the problem (it being the first thought). But it is not the core of the issue.

A good business leader is a lazy person. A manager is someone who has a team and a budget to achieve a goal. The more the team is proactive, self-confident, clear and well aligned about the right things to do, the closer the goal. That takes a good deal of autonomy. The best team is actually the one doing the right thing without having to check with the boss every minute whether they are heading in the right direction. The boss is therefore rather free of that task.

So what does that mean? It is the team that can do without controlling management for a while because everyone is a fraction of the boss, somehow, thanks to the latter sharing guidance and making sure everyone is clear about it, and supportive of the goal.

The only additional thing they need to become the boss is assertiveness which comes from understanding the priorities and the big picture. What is well understood being easy to explain, the ability to enlist people – that’s making them understand what they can gain from working with you (a cause, a clear goal, autonomy, development… name it) – becomes an easier task. And that is what bosses need to work on with their teams.

A number of team leaders I have met suffer from the “I am The Man” syndrome – gender equity tip: works with ladies, too. It is an affliction which, consciously or not, leads managers to think that :

      • They are, for some reason, just the person – and the only one – for the job
      • Some prerogatives are truly theirs and not to be shared or let others into (often: “I decide for the strategy and the priorities. And I won’t always share my conclusions beyond what I think you need to know”. Note how that differs from “what you need to know”).
      • Everyone in the team is certainly nice, but they are not quite there yet (and they’ll hardly be)
      • They were not really conscious they had to do it (happens more often than you think!)

In other words: knowledge being power, let’s retain some, sometimes even in good faith or without paying attention. In the process, let’s undermine the team’s ability to think and act. But also, let’s prevent the rise of someone who could eventually step up and be a successor. Not only will that endanger the talent pipe line of the company, but that will contribute to keeping of the manager in his or her current position rather than freeing him, or her, for the next move upwards with the reputation of being a talent developer. Or alternatively put, a leader. Now who wouldn’t want this and why will always be a source of wonder…

But I am talking, and talking… Let’s talk about you. Have you groomed your successor yet?

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