Underdog

I’m one of those ‘big tournament’ football fans.  I pay scant attention to the beautiful game most of the time – but come  the Euro’s or World Cup and I become an instant expert.

Underdog1In my youth I was a regular as Barnsley FC, never missed a home or away game, but I felt the soul drained out of the game as the money poured in.  So it’s natural that I still root for the plucky underdog, winning by dint of sheer effort and team spirit.

Yes I’m all for the underdog.  But actually as an impartial observer I prefer a bit of excitement and flair, watching 11 defenders dourly defending a 0-0 scoreline soon bores.

And flair and excitement is all right until I have something invested in the game. Then I want the reliability of steady, assured results. Solid and unremarkable keeps my stress levels down. Once I can rely on the result then a bit of flair is welcome, even encouraged, but get the result first.

Last season saw Leicester City win the Premiership.  A lot was written about team spirit and the lack of ego’s.  They worked as a unit and reaped the success.  But I suppose being owned by a Thai businessman who has invested heavily in the infrastructure can’t have hurt.

At the Euro’s Iceland are confounding the pundits.  A nation with a population the size of Coventry, a ridiculously harsh climate and no professional football clubs may yet get through to the knockout stages.  An Icelandic male has a 1 in 2000 chance of making the team.  Talk about plucky underdogs, proudly representing their nation and playing with heart and soul as a team.  But I suspect that a 15 year long programme of investing in all weather pitches and professional coaching has also had a lot to do with it.

Passion alone is not enough and as some of the more established Nations demonstrate neither is talent. Talent has to apply itself to deliver great results. To be successful you need both, along with a third catalysing ingredient – Leadership.  Football knows this well, which is why managers are so regularly hired and fired.  A change of leader changes the culture which changes the results.  For better or worse.

Yes, you need TLC.  Talent, Leadership and Culture.  Invest in the infrastructure and your people to grow Talent.  Invest in Leadership to create and role model the Culture that engages talent and together delivers great results.

And on that basis you’ve always got to fancy the Germans.

“Underdog”

Kill me if you dare, hold my head up everywhere
Keep myself right on this train
I’m the underdog, live my life on a lullaby
Keep myself riding on this train
Keep myself riding on this train

Love in Technicolor sprayed out on walls
Well, I’ve been pounding at the pavement till there’s nothing at all
I got my cloak and dagger in a bar room brawl
See the local loves a fighter, loves a winner to fall

Feels like I’m lost in a moment
I’m always losing to win
Can’t get away from the moment
Seems like it’s time to begin

Kasabian

 

Feel to follow

guiding starA former colleague recently told me that he had spent a little time helping out at Medecin sans Frontiers. He had found it fascinating in terms of the nature of work this incredible organisation does. It put me in mind of another pal who gave up a good (if dull) job as a tax accountant and moved to Uganda to work for a charity. Organisations such as these offer low pay, no benefits and terrible conditions. Yet the level of employee engagement is incredible – it has to be.

Generally people aren’t excited by making money for the businesses owners, so whilst they want their employer to be successful (which gives job security) they ideally want more than that. Giving employees what one of my colleagues calls ‘a guiding star’ is increasingly seen as a vital tool in engaging with staff.

Of course it’s a pretty straightforward task to set out your core purpose in such an environment, there is an obvious ‘greater cause’ that barely needs spelling out. It is this sense of being part of something much bigger and worthwhile that enthuses people. This principle can be applied to any business, although it takes a little more effort.

If we can identify that higher purpose and the good emotions that go with it employees will surely feel to follow.

How was I to ever,
Believe it?
It’s never too late,
Until it’s too late,
And I’ve been stranded,
And I need something.

Now I can see it,
And I can feel it,
I believe it.
Ever since I,
Can remember,
It’s been as nothing.

Until I almost,
Feel to follow.

Feel to Follow – The Maccabees

Summer Holiday

summer_holiday

Richard Branson’s recent announcement that staff at Virgin Airlines can take as much holiday as they like has certainly generated a lot of comment and publicity. It has also divided opinion.

At first glance it seems too good to be true.  Employees have no fixed holiday entitlement.  They have no need to book in advance or seek permission to take time off. Feeling fed up on Friday? Well just take the day off.  Fancy driving an old London bus across France? Take a month off.

Surely there has to be a catch?

The naysayers usually focus on these words in the new policy (the policy that isn’t a policy in the words of Branson) (click for the full article)

It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off, the assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business – or, for that matter, their careers!

They conclude that no one ever feels 100% up to date, and surely that bit about careers is a veiled threat.  So in fact to prove their value staff will take less holiday than before!

Others argue that it is just a publicity stunt, coinciding as it does with yet another Branson book.  I don’t doubt that the release of this policy is well timed. That, for me, just demonstrates Branson’s entrepreneurial spirit rather than detracting from the policy.

I heard someone vehemently arguing that it would only work if everyone was a shareholder or on a big bonus – otherwise they would just bunk off.

I think this entirely misses the point.  Firstly it has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt that incentives do not incentivise performance once we get beyond basic tasks.  Further any staff shareholding or bonus is likely to be relatively small – the impact of my taking extra time off on profits overall is tiny which translates to a meaningless reduction in my cash bonus or share scheme income compared to the ‘value’ of the extra holiday.

The doubters assume that everyone (presumably except themselves?) turns up to work under duress and only does the bare minimum to get paid and avoid being fired.  This is not my experience and I doubt it is yours.  I have never met anyone who set out to do a bad job although I have met many under skilled, badly lead and poorly motivated employees.

We are social creatures and gaining the acceptance and appreciation of the group is hard wired in us.  Most of us want to do a good job.  It is only when poor systems and leaders push us into tasks for which we are ill suited and crush our spirit that we lose this desire.

Netflix are perhaps the most well known business that has this policy.  Netflix understood that in a world where we all check emails wherever and whenever, no one works 9-5.  We carry our offices with us at all times in the form of a smart phone (most of us sleep within arms reach too).  If we don’t expect workers to log every moment they spend working when not in the office why doesn’t it work the other way around?

The expectation is that staff will discuss vacation plans with co-workers and agree time off rather than going through a formal process with a manager.  This allows creative solutions – I’d like Monday mornings off to go to Yoga classes, if Sally covers my Monday morning meeting and Fred covers for her when she takes that extended Christmas vacation to visit relatives in Australia, I’ll cover for Fred in the spring when he needs to leave early to get some marathon training done.

Simple. Creative. Human.

Yet very threatening to managers who are used to position and process creating order.

Branson’s move is simply a first step in self management.   The concept is simply that if the structure gets out of the way the workers will self organise in a highly effective way.  This has been tried and tested by an increasing number of businesses.  With almost invariably positive results.  At Virgin, as the management structure still exists, one assumes that anyone who fails to maintain the expected performance and fulfil their duties will be subject to some form of action. In fully self managing organisations this is dealt with by the workers themselves  – not via an imposed hierarchy.

The challenge for Virgin is allowing the system to develop, ensuring that managers do not try to impose authority and order in other ways.  I will be watching the results of this keenly as I am increasingly seeing signs that such self management is a growing movement that strikes a deep chord within us.

We’re all going on a summer holiday
No more working for a week or two
Fun and laughter on our summer holiday
No more worries for me or you
For a week or two

Summer Holiday – Cliff Richard & The Shadows

Identity

Having dusted my old bike off and headed out for a few short spins recently I was accused of being a mamil (middle aged man in lycra).  It is true.  Form fitting clothing is simply more comfortable, allows ease of movement and does not flap about.

It reminded me that during the Winter Olympics a few months ago that for every high intensity event the uniform is one piece, skin tight, lycra. These established sports and athletes have huge research budgets and so it seems probable that there are advantages to this that extend beyond showing off their impressive physiques. Less drag, ease of movement etc.

But the freestylers wear baggy clothing – one competitor, Henrik Harlaut, had his trousers fall down in competition.  I may be wrong but it seems that these clothes are not simply about performance.

 Sweden's Henrik Harlaut performs jump during men's freestyle skiing slopestyle qualification round at 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor

We humans are highly evolved social animals. In prehistory our survival depended on our being supported and protected by our tribe. it’s no surprise then that we are all keen to show our belonging and to conform to social norms. Being evicted from our chosen tribe isn’t simply a matter of identity it’s one of survival.

Our innate desire to conform is possibly why stereotypes tend to have a degree of validity. It also is a great part of the success of many Brands. A Brand, the marketers will tell you, is the encapsulation of the customer experience. It’s what is promised and delivered. For the consumer a Brand can be a shortcut to an identity, a stereotype if you like. And identity is generally not about individualism it is about belonging.

Dressing in a certain style or wearing a certain Brand makes a statement. In one simple logo a whole raft of information about your ideals can be broadcast.

Marketers exploit this strong desire to belong and it’s very hard for an individual to truly break free. Indeed there is arguably a tribe one can belong to whose central doctrine is ‘not belonging’. This tribe of course has a set of rituals, social norms and a dress code just like any other.

Historically freestyle ski-ing and snowboarding were the choice of the rebels. The free spirits. They showed their individuality by dressing in a baggy, looser style of clothing and that has carried through to those competing at a high level, even if it carries performance penalties.

It will take a real individual to start competing in a suit scientifically designed to enhance performance, rather than ensure belonging. A change of identity from rebel to high performer.  That would take real courage.  A need for authentic leadership perhaps?

Identity
Is the crisis
Can’t you see
Identity identity

When you look in the mirror
Do you see yourself
Do you see yourself
On the t.v. screen
Do you see yourself
In the magazine
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream

X-Ray spex: Identity

So Many Paths

Much has been written, and much more will continue to be written, on the subject of leadership.

There are many differing schools of thought regarding what makes a truly a great leader and new theories constantly emerge. The leader as ‘hero’ is beguiling.  A strong leader with the ability to create a commitment to achieving a visionary future is an attribute that is often seen as differentiating leaders from mere managers.  At their best visionaries rely heavily on their own values, and they invest in people, giving them a sense of purpose and direction but allowing them to decide on the details.  Hierarchy and structure mean little as they make decisions and shape their vision based on their values, beliefs, and sense of identity. They can be extremely satisfying to work with. However there is a major problem with most visionary ‘Hero’ leaders: they tend to ignore the short-term stability and day-to-day functioning of the organisation.  They may also carry too much personal responsibility making them stressed – leading to ineffective decision making.

This makes visionary leaders exciting but risky and in truth most organisations tend to turn to managerial leaders as a more preferable alternative.

Managers need order and stability and want control of all the details. They have little or no personal attachment towards the goals and they may have limited empathy with employees. They control through rewards, punishment, and possibly coercion. Leader/managers are focused on the cost-benefit of actions and will therefore be mostly linked to the short-term financial health of the organization, as reflected in its day-to-day share price. Short-term gains are the result of a least-cost approach, which is likely to stifle investment and might not be good for long-term viability.

And this brings me to my real concern.

I see many businesses hiring a visionary leader, setting the direction and empowering the teams only to lose their nerve after a year or two and put a strong managerial type in place to ensure delivery.  The team, being used to having an open culture and being free to run their own departments, are challenging for the manager/leader to handle .  So those that look like they may not toe the line are rapidly removed and  a cosy ‘yes sir’ culture develops.  As the business runs out of steam the board put in a new visionary leader to create some energy and ideas – she finds the executive team  are too ‘passive’ and replaces them with ‘self starters’ although probably with a good deal more empathy and dignity than a managerial leader would muster.

And so the cycle repeats.

This isn’t great for business and it’s truly terrible for the lives and careers of those who are victims of the changing styles.

Given that none of the above seems ideal, a blend of the two leadership types might prove better.  Not a middle ground but a true combination of both. And there are some examples of great visionary leaders who surround themselves with great managers.  Richard Branson has famously had a succession of strong managers sitting alongside him to great effect.  An individual leader who can combine both approaches would be much more than the sum of the parts.  An alternative approach that is currently gaining ground is that of Stewardship, combining not only the visionary and managerial styles but also adding sustainability to the mix.

It isn’t unthinkable but it is unlikely that many such leaders will naturally emerge without careful nurturing.

Stewardship leadership requires a truly holistic view of the business, it’s stakeholders and the environment it operates in.  Steward leaders are likely to be very self aware, resilient, flexible and liberal.  These are not skills that can simply be taught in a classroom – experiential learning is crucial.  Steward leadership takes real courage and authenticity to move away from the accepted norms of Hero or Manager.

Given that developing the next generation of leaders is the role of the CEO and the CEO is likely to conform to one of the traditional types this poses a real issue.

The best HR Executives are starting to face up to this problem,  others will keep repeating the cycle.

There are so many paths up the mountain
Nobody knows all the ways
There are so many paths up the mountain
And the view from the top is still the same

Little River Band – So Many Paths

Who the F#ck are Arctic Monkeys?

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Last week I watched the Brit awards on television.  For those of you not in the UK this is the UK’s version of the Grammy’s.  Over the years it has morphed from a shambolic industry only affair into a big glitzy evening with a large public audience held at the O2 in London.   Sadly it just isn’t cool.

James Corden as compere gamely plugged away at his script.  Unfortunately it felt like he was reading the autocue and was embarrassed at the awful jokes he was inflicting on us.  A succession of bored looking celebs trooped up to the stage to give and receive awards and read out bland acceptance speeches.  A series of artists performed and some, like the Arctic Monkeys, were very good, but even then the audience reaction seemed muted especially amongst the industry guests.  Presumably they were all struggling with the dilemma that they wanted to make it clear that they were way too cool to enjoy this stuff but not that cool they hadn’t come.

I can remember when music was the single most important thing in the world. Discovering new bands was so exciting.  My favourite bands spoke directly to me, to my very soul, in ways that my parents could never understand.  Music wasn’t just fun, it was important. Where was this passion now? Surely the kids don’t accept this?

Then the Arctic Monkeys won the final award of the night for best album (A.M. and it is a pretty good album too) and despite having had a good go at drinking the bar dry, frontman Alex Turner gave a proper rock star acceptance speech.

I am pretty sure that at that point many viewers were thinking ‘what a pretentious load of drunken rubbish’ but for real fans it was the talking point of the show.  At last here was a rock star speaking to his fans.  Speaking to, and for, a generation in a way that made them feel special and unique.  He wasn’t trying to conform and be nice and safe.

The first time I saw the Arctic Monkeys live they lacked stage presence.  Great music but lacking the swagger of a true rock act.  There is part of the ‘Rock Star’ job description that demands eccentric behaviour, arrogance, pomposity and living a life of excess.  Rather like a promising young employee Alex was more than competent and diligently ticked all the boxes yet lacked a little self belief.  Now he has grown into his role and looks confident.  Alex is no longer just writing great lyrics, he is a proper front man, fully carrying out all aspects of his job description. When I saw them on the last tour they were the real deal.

At the Brit’s Alex was simply doing his job in a way that few of the preceding acts had done.  And it was clear that the problem with the Brit’s was that they fall into an uneasy middle ground: too corporate and nice for Rock and Roll yet too ‘naughty’ to be truly professional.  In short they fail to be authentic in any meaningful way and look like a cynical money making machine.

A few months ago the Arctic Monkeys cancelled a gig at the last minute. When it emerged that the band had been at an awards do the night before and had been seen out very late, conclusions were drawn.

If you want your rock stars to stick it to authority and conform to the job description then you have to expect the consequences.  Bands know that they get paid to perform and cancelling gigs is just not acceptable.  It’s a fine line between the expected mayhem and professionalism and sometimes young bands, like young employees, will slip.

Not Alex though, he knows what parts of his job description are non-negotiable.  It turn’s out he was hospitalised with laryngitis.

I for one am looking forward to more of the authentic Rock Star – roll on Reading Festival. Let’s hope Alex develops enough to be considered for promotion.

We all want someone to shout for 
Yeah, everyone wants somebody to adore 
But your heroes aren’t what they seem 
When you’ve been where we’ve been 
Alex Turner

Who the Fuck are Arctic Monkeys?

Tip that waitress

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It’s been reported  that, yesterday in Illinois, a ‘good samaritan’ having heard three waitresses discussing their daily struggles gave them a $5,000 tip each.  A quick search on the web throws up a number of similar stories of big tips, not for great service but seemingly out of a sense of compassion.

It reminds me of a vignette that years ago I used to illustrate the power of cash incentives.  I asked the audience to think of a typical Saturday night out with friends at a restaurant.  At the end of the meal the waitress presents the bill and may or not be rewarded with a tip.  Then I asked them to imagine that on being seated they put a generous tip in the centre of the table and tell the waitress that this could be his based on how good the service is.  Would the service be better?

Of course most people believe that with such a cash award on the table the service would improve.  And I hoped I’d then get hired to design them a generous incentive scheme.

Unfortunately all the evidence is that incentives don’t work except for the simplest of tasks.  Dan Pink’s Ted Talk is a great starting point in researching this topic.  The plain fact is that except for the simplest of tasks cash incentives are at best neutral and for more complex, creative tasks they hinder productivity.

So in theory a big tip might help if all is going to plan but if something happens that requires a creative solution, the precise time when you need great service, the tip will worsen the experience.

What seems to really motivate us is meaning.  It explains why after writing this I am going to sit and play guitar (badly).  Neither pays but both give me satisfaction and a sense of achievement.  Another Dan, Dan Ariely has a great Ted talk on this subject too.

The great news is that it seems to be very easy to give meaning to work, it mostly comes down to making a few changes and improving management and leadership.

A lot of this is counter intuitive and runs against long held dogma, there will always be those who simply deny the scientific evidence. 

Frequently I get into a debate around this that boils down to ‘if we take away the incentives everyone will be underpaid and so leave and if we simply add the old variable pay into fixed pay then we’ll be potentially increasing costs.’.  Both are serious concerns.    I don’t necessarily advocate taking away all of the ‘incentives’.   We do live in a market economy and undoubtedly, unless the overall package is competitive, businesses will struggle to hire.

Linking pay to the overall well being of the business improves employee engagement, which in turn has a strong correlation with future performance. In my view this is because if we feel involved then we find meaning.  Small acts of recognition such as a thank you or a small gift have an enormous impact on the engagement of workers again because they create ‘meaning’.

I do believe that we should be honest about what the variable pay is for and what it can achieve. Then rework the total package to ensure that there is fair pay, differentiated by long term performance, recognition of a job well done and links to the overall businesses mission.

Therefore modest tips and other forms of recognition from management will improve the overall experience for all diners.

So to conclude I don’t think that bankers are incentivised by their bonuses, the regulators are right when they argue that they distort performance.  I do however think we should recognise the waitress for a job well done.  Tip that waitress.

Bringing your beverage and your late night bite
She remains cheerful, when you’re nasty and tight
Makes change for a 50 in dim candle light
Ignoring the groping hoping you might
Come across with a tip and sympathize with her plight
Tip that waitress

She’s getting her masters, supporting her mom
Amidst the confusion she remains cool and calm
She knows exits in case of a fire or bomb
She knows all the words to the 23rd Psalm
She handles her tray with pnash and aplomb
Her brother’s a Quaker, her dad was in Nam
Tip that waitress

Loudon Wainwright III