Simple-Minded Delegation

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Recently, my mother told her gardener, Lincoln, that she wanted him to do a certain job in her yard. He dutifully began to work on it, while she went out.

An hour later, my father returned and decided to ask him to stop what he was doing, and start something else. Lincoln refused, mumbling something about “This is what the Madame wanted.” My father was not amused, and Lincoln would only relent when my mother returned and confirmed my father’s request.

Add in the fact that Lincoln probably didn’t have more than a primary school education, and was pretty simple minded and you might have some pretty idiosyncratic behaviour.

Yet, in a meeting at an insurance company the other day, they described the exact same behaviour from a worker receiving instructions from 2 different managers. Perhaps Lincoln’s behaviour was not so odd after all.

Where does this come from? Is it a vestige of slavery days, and a plantation mentality? Is it a good thing? What point was he trying to make, if any?

Is it the case that he was just too simple to be able to handle conflicting instructions?

Is there some way to harness his commitment in a positive way?

I’m open to ideas here.

Advice from a Giant

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George Phillip was a quiet giant of Jamaican industry, and his recent passing away was a blow to most who knew him.

I had the chance to interview him for our recent study “The Trinidadian Executive in Jamaica” before he passed away, and he was generous and insightful — so much so that he was someone I wanted to do an audio interview with, until I heard the news. He was the most successful Trinidadian executive to work in Jamaica.

One unverified piece of advice he was known to give had to do with terminating Jamaicans. He said something to the effect that when one is terminating Jamaicans, one needs to go an extra mile.

“Johnson, as you know we are doing some downsizing and unfortunately your name has come up as someone to let go. As part of your separation, you are due to receive $X for each year of service. However, to help ease the transition we have decided to give you an extra $Z, just to acknowledge the work you have done in the company and to help make things easier.”

His point was that that little extra step is critical in leaving a Jamaican worker feeling respected.

George was right on the money — what we Jamaicans call brawta (a little extra) goes a long, long way.

During my interview with Douglas Orane at HRMAJ, he mentioned a study that was done at the U.S. Embassy. It showed that the Americans complained that Jamaicans were too casual, always late, etc. The Jamaicans had one complaint — Americans were rude, never said hello or good morning and left them feeling disrespected.

Whether this is a true story or not is to be discovered, but I am sure George would agree with the finding.

Email is Easy to Write (and Mis-Read)

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Here’s an interesting article that all Caribbean professionals should read, because there is a lot to learn from professionals in other countries who have spent more time using and abusing email.

Here is an excerpt:

[…]e-mail generally increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication.

One reason for this is that we tend to misinterpret positive e-mail messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended. Even jokes are rated as less funny by recipients than by senders.

We fail to realize this largely because of egocentricity, according to a 2005 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Sitting alone in a cubicle or basement writing e-mail, the sender internally “hears” emotional overtones, though none of these cues will be sensed by the recipient.

Read carefully!

Networking Issue 2.0: Overcoming Fear

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Awhile back I wrote about a willingness to have my ideas stolen and used.

I was reminded of how unreasonable a stand this is in a conversation with a friend of mine who expressed an interest in becoming a consultant. My basic advice was that it was indeed difficult to do well in the profession, but not for the reasons most outsiders think.

The difficulty is related to a question I am asked frequently — how do you market yourself?

Consultants are best known for some area of perceived expertise. When a consultant has really done good work at branding themselves, their name beco
mes synonymous with a field. For example, the name McKinsey & Co. immediately evokes the word strategy, and the phrase “strategy consulting” immediately evokes the name of McKinsey (among others).

However, the association is more than a function of mere advertising, marketing and promotion. These short-cuts just do not work in isolation, and hardly work when the link to be created involves ideas, concepts or thinking — such as “strategy.”

Instead, this kind of relationship takes time to create, and does not come from a billboard. What gets formed over time is an increasingly strong connection between the listening public and the intellectual heart of the firm, consultant or individual.

Intellectual Heart
When a client looks to a consultant for assistance, the implicit assumption is that they are looking to spend their dollars on expertise or knowledge that is uncommon, and specialized. Consultants that provide an average service in every respect will only be hired to do things like fill in manpower shortages. At the highest end, consultants can make themselves unique by developing expertise in the eyes of their clients. This can be done by developing a bundle of 2 things — Questions and Answers.

Marketing
Developing this bundle, and making it available to prospects is the essential marketing a consultant should do. This bundle is the consultant’s Intellectual Heart.

Picture a possible client CEO. She stays awake at nights in her home in Kingstown, St. Vincent, wondering about a new executive that she is thinking of hiring from Chicago. He comes highly recommended, but she wonders about the cultural difference between him – an African American – and the workers in her company.

Will he fit in? How can she prepare him, and her workers, for this very new relationship?

She starts to look for professional help.

The first firm she calls (a large multinational) lets her know that they can find someone in their network of 10,000 consultants world-wide who has done work in this area, and they could fly them in to assist. The person would not have direct experience of Caribbean culture, and might be quite expensive. She is not satisfied with the idea of bringing in another outsider (probably not Black) whose very presence would introduce a new dimension. She mentally puts them on hold.

Next, she calls a solo consultant who assures her that he can do this kind of work. While he sounds quite willing, it sounds to her as if this is the first time he is considering the issue seriously. He can sense the opportunity, but she thinks that he will say anything he can to get the business. When she presses him on the issue, he gives no evidence that he has done any more thinking than she has. His website is vague, and does not mention the topic, even in passing.

On her third attempt she strikes gold. The third company, was referred to her by a friend who happened to hear the CEO mention the topic in passing in a speech to a local Rotary Club. She calls and finds him honest in telling her that they have completed no actual projects in this area.

In fact, all they have been doing for 2 years is thinking about the issue, and what they think companies should do to overcome it. They freely admit that the field is not very well developed.

However, when she listens to them talk about the challenge she is facing, she can hear a distance between where she is and they are in thinking. It almost seems as if they are 2 years ahead. She visits their company website and downloads a white paper on the subject. A short search of their blogs shows some how their thinking has evolved in the past few months. An entertaining recording of an interview of an African American and his Jamaican subordinate tells her that she is right to be concerned.

It is not too hard to see why the CEO would chose the third company in this fictitious example. She was easily able find a place for herself in the Intellectual Heart of the company.

When people ask me how I market my own firm, I find it quite difficult to explain that I want to be like the third firm above. In fact, when I recommend that they consider doing some things along the same lines, what I get back is derision – “You must be mad!” This was the response of my friend who originally shared the interest in becoming a consultant.

Following the retort, often I hear a story from them along the following lines… “I once put my ideas in a proposal, and the client turned around and stole them, implementing them without paying me a cent!”

This reasoning, although widely shared and often repeated, is deeply flawed. Beyond the fact that it is based in a paradigm of fear and scarcity, the ultimate results are the most damning.

Essentially, a consultant who seeks to be successful must become known for their ideas. However, if the fear expressed above is to be believed, the effect is to limit the consultant from ever being seen as a source of ideas. The consultant who tries to save or even worse, protect their ideas will never write a white paper, author a blog, become a columnist, publish a book or give a decent speech. The fear that this thinking generates is enough to stop any bright consultant from becoming recognized, and ever discovering its Intellectual Heart. The same is true for for knowledge professionals in any field, at the individual level.

Over time, I have come to believe that ideas are not mine to own. Instead, they come from the Universe/God, and I am like a television set, transmitting these ideas into the world. If someone uses them, good for them. If not, I don’t care.

I prefer for them to be picked up and used by others, rather than ignored. I prefer to put them out in the world rather than to die with them bouncing around in my private thought-box (i.e. brain.)

After all, my experience has been that the more I write, the more I receive to write. The more ideas I express in writing or speaking, the more I receive.

When I slow down my writing, they come more slowly.

I am therefore quite willing to have my ideas “stolen,” and I see it as the only path to becoming a firm known for having an Intellectual Heart.

The same applies to professionals — there are those who are invisible in their profession, and do not stand out in any way from the sea of mediocrity around them. Then there are those who have the courage to share their ideas, along with the criticism, “stealing” and risks that are involved.

The difficulty in becoming an effective consultant has to do with courage — developing the guts to not just share ideas and thinking, but to invest time in developing them in a serious way, in the face of the existential risk that it might all amount to nothing.

That, I think, is a heck of a surprise to a would-be consultant.

CAP: Having a Powerful Dialogue

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One of the results from the study that was not so surprising was data that we collected that showed that of the different elements of the acquisition communication plans, the most fruitful was the 2-way dialogue with employees. Interestingly, a similar international study done in mostly first world countries showed that this dialogue was much less important (some 25% less agreement as to its usefulness.)

In the absence of trusted information in these acquisitions, we observed that employees had a tremendous capacity to manufacture rumours that quickly became ““fact”” in the minds of a critical number of workers. The effectiveness of 2-way dialogues to correct rumours and address anxieties cannot be under-estimated, and at the same the risks are considerable.

The CEO of one of one firm’’s clients invited several small groups of employees to attend informal breakfasts, at which he invited them to “say anything”. People began to open up over time, until his irritation at their complaints began to grow, until one morning he retorted “Don’t you ever have anything good to say?” in response to one woman’s poignant observation. That was the final informal breakfast he conducted.

The risks of an authentic dialogue are considerable, which is why CEOs and other executives are notably reluctant to conduct them. They can get messy, and in an acquisition situation there is often considerable anxiety. This can get translated into feelings of anger and upset, and most CEO’’s are not well trained to deal with groups of people under these circumstances. This is especially true in acquisitions, when the acquiring executives are usually elated at their financial success in landing the deal, while the employees in the target company could not feel differently.

In the Caribbean, our observation has been that more often than not in public dialogues, CEOs devolve into a kind of parental role, while their employees display varying degrees of child-like behaviour. Dialogues can then become unproductive, looking more like monologues, as the CEO plays the role of someone who can remove the anxiety, when in fact he cannot –– it is inherent in the circumstances and in her people’’s reactions to it.

However, CEOs can be trained to conduct these dialogues effectively, through a combination of personal development (many have ego-issues that only become amplified in public settings) and video-based feedback.

At that point, the dialogues become transformational, and employees and CEOs become more connected than anyone thought possible. This can occur even when the CEO has no hard information to share, but is just able to face his/her employees concerns directly, listening carefully to what is being said and leaving his/her employees with an experience of “we’ve been heard.”

While these sessions can be conducted as Q&A’s, at some point a CEO can develop his skill to go further than just answer questions, which is the most basic level of public dialogue. He can actually take the role of leading difficult conversations that distinguish new principles that can be used to run the company at higher level. While there are very few CEOs that are this well trained, the few that I have worked with who are, consistently generate considerable loyalty and motivation by engaging openly and publicly with his/her employees.

In acquisitions, this skill is invaluable.


"Being Positive" — A recipe for failure

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It used to be that the advice given to a new manager to “be positive” was good advice.

In fact, there was a time when movies used to be all about good things, and rarely attempted to get into the nitty-gritty underside of everyday life.

However, times have changed, and someone who attempts to “focus on the positive” is regarded with a well-earned sense of suspicion. This suspicion deepens, and eventually hardens into cynicism when times get difficult. Why is this?

Well, when the chips are down people who try to focus on the positive exclusively, eventually come to be seen as dangerous, because they tend to ignore reality in their attempt to be upbeat. And today’s followers, whether it be in politics, corporations or sports are more tuned in than ever into the nitty-gritty reality of life.

Blame television, the movies, video games, the news media… whatever. I prefer to think that there is an unwillingness to overlook the raw unvarnished truth, and that that is a sign of maturity and growing consciousness that I can see at work here in the Caribbean.

The message that is hard to swallow here is that the truth that people hunger to hear the most from leaders is not how a situation is a mess (although that may be true). Instead, they want to hear from the leader where they realize that they have contributed to the mess themselves, and have now had some kind of insight from which they can glean some hope.

This degree of authenticity is fast becoming the new currency of leadership.

Some are seemingly rich in it — Oprah’s apology after defending the author James Frey’s lies comes to mind.

Others are poor — George Bush’s inability to be able to remember any mistakes he has made on several public occasions comes to mind. PJ Patterson’s insistence on “solid achievements” in areas of minor interest, and inability to take responsibility for failures also comes to mind.

The psychologist Carl Jung said “Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”

I would add to that and say that the harder a public figure tries to look good, the worse they look. Why? The tactic that most use is to try to find ways emphasize their good sides and play down their bad (i.e. shadow).

However, a leader that plays down his bad size as bluntly as Bush and PJ do only seem to drive up the suspicion of those listening that they are either

  1. hiding the fact that they know they have major failures
  2. are unaware of the fact that they have major failures

As we enter 2006, and as people increasingly insist on “Keeping it Real” this style of leadership is sounding more and more hollow.

The leaders of the future will not only know that they have a shadow, but they will have the courage to openly talk about it. The more they talk about it, the more people will recognize themselves and be able to relate to the leader, and if the leader can show that they have found a way beyond their shadow, that will inspire people more than any “positive talk” can.

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Business Week published an interesting article related to this topic available here.

Using Video to See the Man in the Mirror

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Recently, I committed to co-writing a chapter for publication on a technique my firm has been using to work with senior managers in one world-wide company, and also a well-known Caribbean conglomerate. The training technique is one that can be high-risk for the person leading the session, as it involves delivering live feedback in a public session and encouraging other participants to do the same. At the same time, participants have reported that they are able to give and receive more real-time feedback than they ever have before, and some actually demonstrate the new skills they have learned during the training.

As a precursor to writing my portion of the final paper, I thought I ‘d express my thoughts in this blog, as a way of saying a few things about how the process works.
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One of the principles used in our training is to make training as real as possible for those with whom we are intervening. “Making it real” entails doing as little “theorizing”as possible, and engendering as much truthful confrontation as possible, while directing the confrontation towards action-based commitments. In short, we provoke “Action, Not Ah Bag Ah Mout” in the hope that practice will make perfect, rather than further explanations and rationales.

The area that we focus on in this training is that of Critical Confrontations, and the specific training we have the most experience with is in training managers to engage in effective feedback conversations with their employees.

Most training in feedback involves at the least some mention of the principles on how to best frame the right words. These principles are reasonably well known, and there are several excellent texts that describe the “right” approach to use. In most of our training sessions with executives, the majority have been exposed to these ideas prior to the sessions themselves. Furthermore, most training has evolved to the point where each participant is given an opportunity to practice these principles, usually using generic examples.

In our work with Caribbean executives, we have adapted an approach that was first pioneered by a colleague of mine, Grady McGonagill, and perfected at several international companies. In this approach, the following process is followed.

The Training Process

Before the training starts, up to 10 customized cases are developed based on the client’s culture, needs and kind of business. Many are based on actual events, or issues that involve some emotional content.

  1. Participants are divided into groups of 4-6 for training periods of 5-7 hours each
  2. Cases are selected depending on the group being trained
  3. A curriculum is developed to address the training needs, focusing on demonstrable behaviours rather than vague nostrums (such as “be positive”)
  4. At the start of the training itself, the theoretical principles of good feedback are shared
  5. Dyads are formed to give each participant an opportunity to play the role of Manager and Subordinate, and the Manager is given the choice of cases to work on
  6. Managers and Subordinates are given written one-page scenarios that describe the case and their role in the situation
  7. A 5-10 minute interaction between the Manager and Subordinate is video-taped without interruption
  8. The tape is reviewed by the group, and stopped frequently to give the group an opportunity to coach the Manager on his/her “performance”
  9. The Subordinate provides direct evidence of the experience
  10. The group looks for opportunities to deepen the theoretical principles of good feedback
  11. The group continues until every member has had an opportunity to play the role of Manager and Subordinate

New Elements

The following training elements are included in this training that are normally not included in this kind of training:

  • cases built on real-life issues
  • giving public feedback in real-time from the participants and the facilitator, using the principles bring learned
  • using a recorded video-tape as an impartial and factual basis for feedback (rather than memory)
  • asking the Subordinate to share their emotional state at different points
  • using recorded behaviour to “prove” that the principles work, demonstrate how difficult they are to use effectively, and to refine the group’s understanding
  • offering multiple opportunities for trainees to use the coaching being given on the spot in a repeat “performance”

These elements are quite difficult to incorporate effectively and precisely, as the facilitator must be seamlessly competent in a variety of disciplines, not the least of which is the ability to operate and trouble-shoot video-recording equipment.

Results
The public goals of the workshop are quite modest, yet it regularly accomplishes much more than advertised. Trainees are often able to demonstrate a solid progression of increasingly skilled behaviours during the few hours of the training, and are able to receive and use the coaching given from the group to make immediate changes. The knowledge that they increase their effectiveness that quickly in a difficult area some focused practice and coaching is one of the tremendous benefits, even for observers of the process. Anyone can improve, given the right conditions in which to do so.

An Article that Resonates

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A recent article published in Business Week caught my attention. It is entitled “The Secret of Oprah’s Success” and deals with some of the principles of communication that has made Oprah successful.

I found that the article echoes much of what we have been working on in our firm in terms of the kind of communication that is most likely to connect with employees.

One of the books that stuck with me when written years ago, although it is quite outdated, is called “You Are the Message”. The premise was that the best way to communicate was to be authentic, and this article (and the principles we work with) have only built on that idea.

The article is an important one, and makes me think that I should get the book, and this may be the first that actually builds on what Ailes wrote back in the early 1990’s.

Management, Caribbean Style

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Working here in the Caribbean sometimes has an “Alice in Wonderland” feel to it.

That feeling returned when I read the recent reports of two SuperPlus employees being beaten by their managers.

Here are the relevant links to the story:

http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/1
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/2
http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/3
http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/4

Apparently, two employees were caught stealing liquor from the store in Mandeville. They were taken by a group of managers (and including at least one senior manager) to the home of one of the managers. They were bound up, and brutally beaten with a pickaxe and even bitten by a dog.

A demonstration ensued, during which placards were displayed calling for “justice.”

In response, the CEO of SuperPlus, Wayne Chen, (whose younger brother’s home is alleged to be the scene of the crime) responded with the following, from the Gleaner:

Yesterday, Wayne Chen, CEO of Super Plus Food Stores, described the alleged beatings as “unfortunate and regrettable”. In a statement, he said: “Super Plus Food Stores, as standard policy, treats with utmost importance, the welfare and well-being of its employees. The organisation does not condone, encourage or engage in any form of abuse of its employees.”

Mr. Chen promised that Super Plus would cooperate fully with the police to ensure the swift resolution of the matter. He added: “Super Plus Food Stores has a long history of excellent employee/management relations. Depending on the outcome of these investigations, Super Plus Food Stores will do what is necessary to ensure that its substantial record of employee development and welfare is maintained.”

As of today, the SuperPlus website: www.superplusfoods.com has no mention of the incident, and nothing has been said publicly of the incident by the CEO (that I can find). This chain is the largest of its kind in Jamaica with almost 40 branches.

There is a lot that can be said about this, including the non-reaction of the company’s owners, and how best to respond to crises such as this. The text-book answer given by the CEO was as insensitive and remote as those given by other CEO’s in a similar position at Enron, Ford or Arthur Andersen. The lack of further public communication speaks volumes.

One can only imagine the impact on the workers, who in true Jamaican style, have taken to the streets in protest. While this may not ever have happened in Trinidad or Barbados, the response was predictably quick, and angry and featured a call for justice.

There is nothing like a perceived injustice to get Jamaicans riled up, and into the streets with placards, taking industrial action and forming unions. A few years ago, a well-liked Vice President at Cable and Wireless was fired and this was quickly followed by a demonstration and the usual placards. He was not unionized, but the feeling to right an injustice is a strong one.

In the case of SuperPlus, I imagine that the CEO is scrambling to find a suitable way to respond. Unfortunately, in our Caribbean society, inertia can cause us to return to business as usual in an instant, just because it is the path of least resistance. After all, what does produce have to do with an employee beating?

In fact, the prevalence of vigilante justice and mob-beating in Jamaica makes me think that there may be many who are sympathetic to the “managerial beaters” and support what they did. Down the street on Constant Spring Road, I can just make out a spot where a man was killed by a mob after throwing acid on a female worker at the Tax Office one morning. It all happened about 50 yards from the police station up the road, and several of her co-workers apparently were involved.

On the other hand, we have the employees of SuperPlus, who I imagine are traumatized. I don’t know what kind of management intervention to make in a case like this, but I am sure that working at SuperPlus will never be the same again.