Caribbean Interviews

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I am in the process of conceiving a Caribbean Thought Leader Interview series to be placed on some different places — CaribHRForum.com and on this blog for example.

I would be looking for managers, executives, consultants, speakers — anyone from around the region with a unique point of view that can be shared in an interesting, informal way.

Who are some people from around the region that you would be interested in hearing from?

Francis

Jack Welch at Recent B’dos Conference

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Recently, Jack Welch, Dennis O’Brien of Digicel and Arthur Lok Jak of Neal and Massy presented at the Caribbean International Leadership Summit in Barbados.

What is remarkable is that there were over 200 attendees to the two day event, each paying some US$1800 per person.

This clearly shows me that there is an appetite for this kind of event here in the region, and that CEOs are willing to invest the time and money to hear top quality information.

It is also great to see that the audios and PDF files from the top presentations are available for download from the website.

Kudos to those who had the vision to bring this together, and I am only sorry that I missed it.

Creating a Bad Culture pt 2

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Here is a continuation of the list of things I would do to create a really bad corporate culture, if I were the CEO.

  1. Create a Culture of Fear
    I would fire people at will and without warning, showing people who is in charge. I’d do my best to humiliate others wherever possible so that even the smallest challenges to my leadership are quashed. The “Art of War” would be my friend.
  2. Make it Clear Personal Money is Paramount
    I would casually mention in conversation that my main priority is my retirement, and how I plan to fund it. People would hear from me they they should be doing the same, if they know what is good for them.
  3. Blame the Customer
    I’d make the message plain — if customers don’t want to do business with us, then they should go elsewhere, as it is their “right.” They’d need to know they are wrong for asking more than we are prepared to give them.
  4. Focus on the Short Term
    I would waste no time on developing fancy vision statements and the like. After all, no-one can predict what will happen with much accuracy in the future. Instead, I’d gear people to short-term results and meeting the goals that will make me look good to the board. My job would be to motivate people using money and personal gain wherever possible, forcing them to compete with each other
  5. Keep Around Non-Performers
    While I would fire at will, I’d make sure to keep around some employees who are mediocre – after all, we can’t ALL be stars, can we? I’d move them from job to job, to keep them and everyone else happy in the short term. Making employees happy and comfortable on a day-to-day basis, without any sense of sacrifice, would be critical to getting them to like me.

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It’s interesting, but I was surprised when I made this list how easy it was to create. Changing culture is easy to do badly, or inadvertently. My clients are often surprised at the degree
of fallout they experience when they do something dumb (i.e. against their self interests.)

It is much harder to do everything right, and unfortunately, building a great culture requires a leadership performance that is not perfect, but sets the limit of the change by the weakest area visible to others.

For example, a manager might be a good leader in most respects, but a bad listener. Guess which characteristic will have the greatest impact?

Managers and executives need to be working on themselves all the time, as the bar is constantly being raised by those around them. Success only breeds higher expectations and greater challenges.

Creating a Bad Culture pt 1

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People talk about how hard it is to change a corporation’s culture, but I have started to think that they are wrong, in part. I think it’s easy to change corporate culture if one wants to make it worse.

Let us imagine a newly appointed CEO, who is really intent on screwing up the culture. Where would he start?

  1. Complain about everything
    If I were that CEO, I would start by complaining to anyone who will listen about anything that I think needs to change. If I were skillful, I would make sure that no-one could see what I was doing.

    I would complain about things that can’t change, like things in the past, or taxes. I would make sure that I pointed the finger at other people, blaming them for anything that didn’t go right.

    I would conceal how much I enjoy complaining, and pretend that I really wanted things to change.

  2. Listen to Complainers
    I would also encourage others to complain to me. They would be able to commiserate as much as they want, and I would listen and add my two cents worth. I know they would be blaming others, and I would agree with them all.

    I would promote the people who are the really big complainers, and support them in passing on responsibility to others. I would have no problem as they justify their poor performance.

    After work, I’d support long sessions over drinks while we all spend some more time wishing that things are different.

  3. Break Promises
    I’d make public promises and simply never bring them up again if they are never met. It would be a case of selective amnesia.
  4. Communicates Infrequently and Irrelevantly
    I would rarely speak to groups of employees. I would also never encourage a Q&A and use a script wherever possible. I’d avoid speaking about the issues that people care about the most, unless I have really good news.
  5. Never Let Them See you Sweat
    I’d be sure to communicate confidence and capability at ALL times. No matter what uncertainties or doubts I may have, I’d never show them, and learn to hide my true feelings (the better to build trust in my leadership.)

To be continued…

Creating a Vision

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It occurred to me today that many vision statements leave people unmoved.

At the same time, we all know of visions statements that were inspiring when they were said — such as “A man on the moon by the end of the decade.”

What was it that made this statement so very inspiring? Was it the clarity? Was it the fact that JFK said it? Was it the fact that it was measurable? Or is it because it was time-based?

I think these are all important, but I also think that there is a reason why a company’s goal of “being number one in it’s industry by 2010″leaves most who are listening stone cold.

It has nothing to do with the words, and everything to do with those who are listening.

Behind JFK’s goal, or Bill Gates’ (a micro-computer on every desktop) is an implicit understanding that the vision would not be realised in the normal course of events.

In other words, it was understood that a man had never walked on the moon before, and that there was not a micro-computer sitting on anyone’s desk at the moment those visions were spoken.

This tension between today’s reality and the vision being stated made it inspiring. If there were no tension between the statement and today’s reality, it would be useless.

Or, if the gap between today’s reality and the vision were not well understood, it would be toothless.

The management of this tension is essentially what management and leadership are all about. Executives do their companies a great disservice when they slip into “how great we already are” talk and start to claim that the vision is already being accomplished, or has already been accomplished. In effect, they destroy what little tension might exist in the listening of their employees.

Keeping this tension alive takes great discipline, and is the key to provoking excellence and extraordinary effort. Without it, employees are unconsciously being encouraged to merely seek the path of least resistance. Mediocre results are the guaranteed outcome.

P.S.

(Many years ago, I read a book “The Path of Least Resistance” that I can only now understand in hindsight. The author’s name is Robert Fritz.)

Caribbean Employees are Exceptionally Sensitive

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This is a problem I haven’t solved, but I think that by stating it clearly, it might help me to understand how to think about a solution.

Do Caribbean managers have only one of two choices?

Should they be nice (in which case employees run all over them) or should they be harsh (and thereby lose the trust and loyalty of those from whom they most need it)?

Is the set of choices available really as limited as this suggests?

Swinging the Pendulum of Change

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I am listening to Lou Gerstner’s book – “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” and am struck by the similarity between his account of his leadership and IBM, and that of every other CEO-turns-around-company book I have ever read.

This is not to say that the recording is boring, which it is not. It’s just that there is a common plot behind each of his stories.

In the same way that all operas have 3 parts (I think) and all cricket matches revolve around batting and bowling, I have come to believe all successful turnaround CEOs basically have the same story to tell.

In essence, all companies that are unsuccessful fail because a gap develops between them and their customers. Often, the gap is created when what they have always done successfully stops working.

At a very basic level, the company could just “stop doing it.” With simple changes, this is easy enough to do.

However, for complex changes involving hundreds or thousands of people who are entrenched in decade-long practices, the insight that change needs to happen is only the first step. What is much harder to bring about is the large-scale change in thinking that each individual must undergo – a change that cannot be forced into happen with carrots and sticks.

Instead, it must be articulated repeatedly until people are able to convince themselves.

To perform this kind of miracle, CEOs need to be able to identify the frameworks that underly the weak positions that companies fall into.

Imagine that the culture of a company as a huge collection of pendulums. Each swings very slowly from one extreme position to another. Each pathway is distinct from the other. Only a subset can be seen clearly at any given time.

What do the pendulums represent?

Each pendulum describes a particular dimension of awareness.

For example, some companies are market-driven while others are driven by innovation. Neither position is absolutely better, but it IS possible for a company to get stuck in one extreme or the other without knowing it.
Some of the other extremes include :

  • ethnically monolithic vs. diverse
  • revenue vs. expense driven
  • centralized vs. decentralized
  • diversification of products vs. consolidation
  • faster processes vs. quality processes
  • incentive pay vs. base pay
  • individual vs. group measurements
  • reengineering vs. process improvement
  • job security vs. talent turnover
  • focus on strengths vs. focus on weaknesses
  • strategy vs. tactics
  • vision vs. execution

In his book, Gerstner mentions that the quote most attributed to him is the one in which he said “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.”

Basically, he was saying that the company had gone too far in the direction of visioning, and that, for the time being, it needed to swing the pendulum back to the more practical matters of doing business on a day to day basis.

It is the job of every CEO (and every manager) to swing pendulums.

However, based on experience and training, no 2 managers are the same – they “see” different pendulums. There is, after all, some truth to the notion that if you give a man a hammer, he is likely to see every problem as a collection of nails.

A manager will always attempt to solve a business problem by looking at the pendulums that he can see most clearly. Indeed, he must.

It is also the job of CEOs to point out, and distinguish new pendulums for the executives and employees in a company, so that they can see what he/she sees. Without this ability, a CEO is stuck trying to change a company on their own, and are unlikely to be successful.

Surviving an Acquisition

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In the news these past few weeks there have been some significant announcements related to acquisitions across the Caribbean region.

One major acquisition that was announced for the first time was that of Neal and Massy’s takeover of BS&T — Barbados’ biggest company.

Also in the news is the announcement that the principals of DB&G (which was acquired by Scotiabank) are leaving the company at the end of June.

Although the LIAT/Caribbean Star merger has not been in the news of late, the sale has still not been completed, although it has been scheduled to happen on June 15th.

The common factor between all three actions is that they were all announced as “mergers of equals.”

The result?

They are actually turning out to be acquisitions, and not mergers.

Lest anyone think that this is a strange occurrence, history is littered with examples of announced mergers that turned out to actually be acquisitions, including AOL-TimeWarner, Daimler-Chrysler, HewlettPackard/Compaq and Sports Authority/Gart.

The fact is that executives almost always start out using merger language in public, unless the takeover is hostile. In fact, they are undergoing acquisitions, especially with respect to the corporate cultures.

It is not too hard to tell who the cultural winner is — the executives of the company being acquired usually don’t last very long.

In a Framework article entitled “Merger of Equals? Equal Shmequal!” by Amie Devero, she argued that a merger is not possible, in cultural terms. (The article can be downloaded by sending email to fwc-equals@aweber.com.) Also, the recent April 2007 Harvard Business Review article entitled Human Due Diligence makes the point that companies often fail to recognize the “cultural acquirer” when undertaking these activities, to their detriment.

While these questions are certainly of issue to shareholders, it is the employees that bear the brunt of initial miscommunication.

They hear talk of “a merger of equals” “nothing will change,” “no layoffs, ” “business as usual” and “the same management will continue.” Given the public track record of mergers to date, they have every reason to be concerned.

Why?

When senior management insists that a merger of equals is underway it may be good for shareholders to hear and believe that the executives between the two companies are planning to harmoniously co-exist in some way. However, it is often a misleading statement for employees.

History shows that employees are much safer believing that a merger actually means that

  • each and every job function will be examined for possible overlaps, and that it is likely that at least some jobs will disappear
  • one company will be culturally dominant over the other
  • one set of executives will remain, while the other will depart
  • there will be major changes and new order will make itself known over time (after all, isn’t that the point of the exercise?)

This is not to say that these are bad outcomes — often they are the best things that can happen to the new, combined company. In the free market of management styles and approaches, let the best company and management team prevail.

However, the problem stems from the fact that most executives in both companies start out by mis-leading their people.

In the very way they announce the “merger” their own people can detect the lie.

It’s a little like a bad version of the Brady Bunch — each parent tell their children that a marriage is about to happen to join two families together, and… “by the way… in case you kids were wondering… nothing will change.”

Executives the world over leading acquisitions persist in painting an ultra-rosy picture of the future for their employees. Their inauthenticity is palpable.

It seems that often, they buy into their own “story,” an even in the colossal failures like AOL-TimeWarner and Daimler-Chrysler, they seem to be able to maintain a scary insistence that all is well, even when everyone in the real world knows that it is not.

What can executives do differently?

In a prior blog I wrote about what I called “High Tone Managers.” These managers focus on being relentlessly positive, to the point that their employees come to distrust everything they say because they are the ones saying it.

An executive leading an acquisition would do much better by being authentic and saying some version of the following, if true:

  • we are about to undergo a very difficult change
  • this is a friendly acquisition (if it is)
  • the odds are against us being successful
  • we think the risk is worth it
  • the culture that we intend to create will hopefully take the best of both companies
  • some jobs will be retrenched, but we are hoping that no people will be forced to leave the company
  • the reasons we are doing this is ….
  • it will take all of us working together to pull it off

The point here is that an acquisition is a shock, and that people will go through the changes they need to go through in order to adapt to it. It is not unlike the 5 phases of grief a survivor journeys through upon the death of a loved one, as defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

Employees need to be helped to go through these stages as quickly as possible, en masse. Their feelings at each point must be validated, acknowledged and given room to live, if even for an instant.

If executives do their job well, employees can be like soldiers rallying to a cause that is greater than themselves.

However, if the job is done poorly, as it usually is, the result is that employees feel like victims who need to protect themselves from something terrible, that their own parents are inflicting upon them for their own benefit.

In Caribbean companies, the employee mood doesn’t get much worse than this.

Taking the Hard Road

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Managers (and parents) have the very difficult job of leading others, but are often amazed when others do not take their advice.

The obvious and most frequent response is to blame those who refuse to take the coaching for their attitude, laziness and lack of discipline.

Yet, it is the rare manager who takes Gandhi seriously: “If you want to change the world, become the first change.”

In a culture change initiative, for example, mangers come up with a list of new “values” that they continually exhort their employees to follow. They repeat them in speeches, create colorful posters and pass out lists of values to be displayed prominently in each cubicle.

When the lackadaisical results are realized, it is the brave manager who is willing to discover what was wrong in their approach, rather than to seek fault in others.

The good news is that the brave manager who sincerely asks these questions and shares the process they are engaged in openly with their employees is demonstrating some powerful behaviours.

  1. They are showing the importance of being willing to struggle openly in living the values
  2. They are teaching the process of living the values, rather than the process of “talking about” the values
  3. They are demonstrating courage by showing their weaknesses, rather than demonstrating arrogance by showing their “strength” in living the values.

If authenticity is the currency used to build trust, then the managers who demonstrate these behaviours are more likely to be followed by their employees, and are more likely to engage in the challenge of living by a new set of values. This is a powerful place to start, albeit infrequently observed.

Getting Rid of the Perfect Executive

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Getting Rid of the Perfect Executive?

Well, maybe that would be unwise.

It is probably a better idea to get rid of the executive who somehow thinks or acts like he is perfect, because of the damage he does to those around him.

So goes the thinking I happened upon in two separate Harvard Business Review articles (I am wading through a pile of my unread back issues.)

One article is entitled “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” and was written in February 2007 and was co-authored by Peter Senge. The other is called Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer and was written back in November of 2003.

The basic idea I took away is that the executive’s job is too complex to pretend that any one person can figure it all out. Also, the more an executive defends the idea that they have figured it all out, the more difficult they make it for the people around them to be authentic, and therefore effective.

As the author the second article, David Gray, puts it, “… few of us would dare to cultivate a healthy ignorance, or nescience, within our own fields of endeavor, where we often take pride in what we purport to know.”

Here in the Caribbean region, we have been steeped in the school of all-knowing leadership, from Backra (the all-powerful slave-owner) to modern day CEO’s, parents, principals, priests, dons and politicians. Those in power like it that way. So do those who are not.

That is, until the person in power fails spectacularly (like the majority of our politicians) and it starts to become painfully obvious that the messiah’s manifesto and message aren’t enough to make a drop of difference.

This very old, colonial, British style is long outdated in Britain, but it lives on in the colonies, and especially those in management in our institutions. It is stale, stiff and dull, but it still gives some vague psychological comfort… kind of what it’s like to hang out with your grandfather.

The only thing is that at some point you must grow up, because your grandfather probably did not move with the times (mine had trouble believing that man had actually landed on the moon.)

Managers and executives must reach for a style that is authentic. With respect to publicly expressing feelings and emotions, this is a tall order for most of our region’s executives who probably aren’t too used to “sharing” in private, let alone before strangers.

However, the pace at which human information is growing might allow most executives to be authentic about their growing inability to know everything.

That would be a start.