Monday 29 February 2016

Think Digital Learning

Ben Emmens
Ben Emmens is a teacher and consultant, specializing in third-world and developing world issues by trying to inject leadership and management skills to create stable, strong institutions.  A former senior staffer at People in Aid, he brings a broad brush of on-the-ground experience to his work with national government international corporations and aid agencies worldwide. Here, he perfects on the uphill struggle to improve management teaching across the developing world.

MCE: We know the world’s a bit of a mess... any thoughts on education as an opportunity to bring more of the world together for a common purpose?

Ben Emmens (BE): ‘Always be learning’ is my motto, and learning has never been more accessible (think digital learning) or more engaging (gamification, the arts, technology) or more affordable (for those who have an internet connection).
When people come together they learn, but it requires first class facilitation and brokering skills, and, in the case of face-to face-learning, it requires access. And most of the fragile or war-torn countries I’m working in to try and broker learning and collaboration have all too real access and connectivity issues. Combine that with an uneven distribution of power (extreme inequality) and fear of change / contentment with how things are, then educators have their work cut out. So a new breed of educators are required with a very diverse skill set.   

MCE:  And at the same time we’re getting buried in a digital overload of mega proportions. What’s your view, Can we learn to switch off and chill out, or has it gone too far for that?

BE: I think platforms such as Slack are innovating with their do not disturb or postpone notification functions but ultimately it requires immense courage on the part of each individual (to switch off) plus the (earned or offered) trust of their manager and directors. This takes us into the realm of organisational culture which as we know is a very difficult thing to change. So  I think that for as long as we have colleagues and managers working across time zones, sending messages at all hours, and expecting instant responses, then all individuals will struggle to switch off.

MCE: There’s another trend – the caring corporation, operating with mindfulness for their employees. Is that a workable, doable model, or does economics get in the way, when the going gets tough?

BE: I think many organisations are realising they need to retain their best people, and that talent shortages are a very real issue. So I am encouraged by the fact that many organisations are taking tangible steps towards flexible working, and towards improving staff care and wellbeing. Some organisations have been able to demonstrate a business case for being more socially and/or environmentally caring and that helps too! Ultimately, treating staff unfairly, or with contempt, and that includes in the supply chain too, is not sustainable in human or financial terms, and we have seen the market ‘punish’ corporations that have supply chain labour issues or that have failed to pay a minimum wage or offer basic benefits.

MCE: Finally, what’s the other work trend you can see emerging? 

BE: It’s getting harder and harder to be geographically mobile as countries tighten immigration laws and entry requirements so whether we like it or not we are having to localise, engage with mono-cultural teams and strengthen local capacity… We’re also having to do much more work remotely / at a distance. 
Add to that the slow automation of more and more lower level jobs and we are likely to see a continued ‘hollowing out’ of the workforce and that will require a different kind of leadership, arguably with more than one specialism and towards that of a more expert generalist... 

Thursday 25 February 2016

Doing Things Differently

Based in the Bay Area of California, Susan Stucky has had a long and varied career as a thinker, consultant and philosopher on how why, where and when people learn - especially at work. As the debate about the future of work rages onwards, we asked for her thoughts on what’s coming next. A “sneaky peek” around tomorrow’s next corner.

MCE: We hear a great deal these days about the need to be creative at work. From your point of view, are we more or less creative in the workplace; are we teaching students how to think creatively?

Susan Stucky  (SS): First. Are we talking about doing things differently - or doing different things; or doing the same thing in different ways; or doing it in different places? Why does it have to be new to be considered creative? Something that is creative in first grade in school isn’t necessarily in sixth grade? Some idea or thing seen as creative at an established firm isn’t at a start-up. 

Isn’t “creativity” just another phrase for "do more with less.” 

Isn’t it just another corporate mandate?  “Be Creative! 

“Here in the Bay Area we talk about innovation more than creativity, so we come down on the side of “new”.  But one important thing to realize is that all so-called new ideas and things are built on existing ideas and things, even if only in opposition to them.  

And that innovation and creativity are actually, fundamentally, social. The lone genius isn’t alone really. He, or she aren’t alone.
Or are we talking about “the creative class” as in the Super Creative Core (innovative, problem-solving) or the Creative Professionals (classic knowledge workers)? 

The Creative Professionals are mainly the ones who did school work well and had connections.  The Super Creative Core are the ones who maybe didn’t do so well in  school, aren’t socially adept necessarily and know people who aren’t afraid of marketing, including themselves. Are we teaching that?  Not really so much. 

But people, including children, are learning it. From the environment around them.  

MCE: California still seems to be the land of “start-ups”.  Is it something “in the air” by the ocean or is it just easier to try and fail.. Are you not a serious player until you’ve failed a few times?

SS: All those myths are bandied about, and it is worth remembering that just because something is a myth e doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Except for the fact that San Francisco is the happening place now and Silicon Valley is now the Bay Area, Anna Lee Saxenian’s conclusions in her 1994 book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 still ring true.  

She called Silicon Valley a protean place — a shape- shifter changing”through patterns "of collaboration and competition”.  The whole Bay area is stuffed, literally stuffed, with people.  Those of us who remember a Palo Alto where you could drive to the city (San Francisco, of course) in under an hour now take public transit.  The freeways have those big white busses ferrying commuters from San Francisco to Silicon Valley (still a lot of jobs there). 

In 1994, the commute used to be the other way around.  More to the point, people still go to work in offices some of the time.   Having lunch is still important and there are oodles of Meet-ups that work like pop-up stores for ideas and networking.   

Most people in your network or someone else’s are really ready and willing to talk with you — I was told they would and they do.  Here, if you offer to meet in person, they will often take you up on it.   After all, they may need to talk to you sometime in the future that’s how the world goes around

MCE: You’ve spent a lot of your career thinking about how people learn. Have we got any better at that. What’s the big barrier?

SS: I’d like to think that corporate training has largely disappeared for one simple reason.  That we have finally realized that formal training does not guarantee that people have learned what is being taught is what they need to learn. 

I’d like to think that the rise of social media means that we understand that learning is fundamentally social. I’d like to think that “open office” plans mean that collaboration will be enhanced.  But the first and third are cost-saving plays primarily. Closeness does not necessarily mean collaboration. 
And the middle one — I’m afraid that social media and social media analytics means it is easier to find people like “us" and ignore people who aren’t like us . It means we find ideas and things that people like us like. 

The good thing is that people like us all over the world now have access to much of what is codified and explicit. 
If they want to know it they will.  But knowing is not the same as doing or putting what you know into practice, especially in a firm or a start-up. 
And the barrier to all that?   The way we think about learning.

MCE: The digital agenda is just “business as usual. Any thoughts on coping with the digital overload that seems to be swamping us like a tsunami? Is there a default “off” switch we need to activate at some point?

SS: Are we talking screen-based living and working?  Personally, I keep hoping that as screens become more distributed, that they will eventually fade into the background.  Kind of like wallpaper.  They can serve to remind us without being “in our faces.  The kind of digital I am worried about is the prevalence of too much information   and so little awareness of the context and implications of it. And that means us too. – All of us wherever we live or work anywhere. 

Monday 22 February 2016

The Skill of Presentation

Susan Huskisson
Susan Huskisson has personally trained some of the world’s top CEOs, giving them the confidence, credentials and charisma to present. She now teaches personal presentation skills to business schools and corporate executives around the globe. Her book “Easy Eloquence” continues to be a bible for would-be presenters for both senior managers and school students. Susan was one of MCE’s key faculty on presentation skills for over three decades.

MCE: Having good presentation skills certainly can give people an “edge” in the career. Why don’t we place more emphasis on this in schools and colleges?

Susan Huskisson (SH): The US educational system places a great deal of emphasis on communication training.  Students have to present from a very early age. Increasingly, European schools are requiring students to learn to present.  I have taught presentation courses in graduate MBA programs in the US and Europe for many years now, and see the number of these training is increasing, especially in Europe. Since people tend to listen to presentations instead of reading reports, the skill to inform and convince verbally will become even more important.
    MCE: The ability to create trust when you speak to an audience, especially your employees or team is hugely important. What’s the key thing to make sure you get right – every time?

    SH: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!  Why would they trust a speaker who clearly does not know who they are addressing? ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL.  

  •    Show the audience you took the time to tailor that presentation for them specially.  

  •     Give them facts, evidence/examples that relate to them. And, of course, be honest. 
  •     Up and open body language tends to make people like and trust us as well. So, make sure the message is targeted for the audience and that the body language has good eye contact, posture, open gestures and an animated face. And don’t forget to walk the talk. Actions can speak louder than words.

    MCE: You must have made thousands of presentations, what for you was the biggest learning experience, and why?
    SH: How important it is to be prepared – but how impressive it is to be able to let go of the preparation and go with the flow instead. Sometimes events are out of our control (no fault of the speaker) and the audience appreciates someone who can deal with the situation with humour and grace.
    MCE:  Great orators seem to be rare these days (their words are instantly forgettable). Who would you put at the top of your list as a man or woman of today (not yesterday) who can reach out and touch people?
    SH: My favorite has always been Billy Graham.  Whether you share his religious beliefs or not, he has an amazing ability to move his audience. He is not dramatic, as many evangelists are, but modulates his voice, uses gestures and animation, and tells great stories that capture and motive his audiences.

    MCE: Finally, we are buried in a tsunami of digital overload. Any thoughts on how to turn off the world – should we even try, or just surrender?  

SH: In terms of digital overload in our everyday lives, we couldn’t turn it off if we wanted to.  But for presentations, I stress to speakers – YOU are the message – not PowerPoint or any other technology or software you may use.  Start with a blank screen and from time to time, blank it again and just TALK to your audience.  Put the projector and screen on the side so that YOU take center stage.  This puts you, the presenter, up front and center (where you should be).  It gives the audience a break from the normal presentation digital overload – and lets you connect with your audience directly.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Getting fired is GOOD for Leaders

It’s strange the things that trigger your ideas and attitudes about leaders. I'd just been on a train to Paris, catching up on a month’s worth of reading (I’m the kind of guy who tears out pages from business mags and newspapers and squirrels them  away to catch up when I have the time). It’s messy, totally non-digital, deeply uncool, but it works for me. Often some of my best ideas come from reading some ink-smudged newspaper clipping months out of date.

In the midst of rapidly skimming through 30 or 40 pieces I’d collected, I was suddenly struck by one thing. Most of what I was reading was about failure, specifically CEOs who’d crashed and burned - usually taking a large slice of that year’s profits in severance settlements with them. “My goodness,” I thought, “there’s an epidemic out here. It’ worse than top-of-the-league soccer managers. CEOs are getting it from all sides, are we learning nothing about squandering all this talent? ”

I was still musing on this accident-prone CEO syndrome when I arrived to meet a client. Well, not a client actually, but hopefully soon to be one. I’ve known him for years. He’s just arrived into the hot seat of a large transportation firm. Lucky to be there, I thought, got fired about six months ago. Messy corporate divorce, but he looks OK – confidently exuding the air of man in charge of his personal destiny.
We shook hands, and I sat down across from his aircraft carrier-sized stripped pine desk. As I opened my folder, all my carefully hoarded clippings I’d been reading on the train, spilled, embarrassingly, to the floor.

“What’s that?” asked my host.

I quickly explained my dinosaur-like way of staying in tune with the times. As it was a very informal meeting, and I’d met him before, I also wished him luck in his new role, boldly referring to his last job and how I hoped it would work out well. He smiled at me. “Well after these last months, I reckon it’s not going to be too bad, at least I know how to play the game now.” He added, “You see I’m qualified. Got the t-shirt, been there done that. “
My host, then went onto describe in fascinating detail how he lost his job, how the forces massed against him had combined to bring him down. Over the next 30 minutes he itemized in detail what had happened, what he learned from each twist and turn and how he had got out clean, certainly richer but a whole lot wiser as well. By the end of it he had come across as a very professional operator, one I’d be happy to vouch for as a man who’d keep his head in any crisis that came along.

Finally, he sat back in his chair and said, “ So you see Rudi, getting fired taught me all I needed to know, to stay on top- it’s been my finishing school my post graduate business degree.  I’ve an MBA from the best school money can buy, a stellar track record, but now I know how to play the game better than anyone else.” He went on, “I Can deal with boards, investors, analysts, the media, over-ambitious lieutenants. None of them concerns me now. Quite frankly, you can’t be a real leader unless you know how to recognize and deal with all those things happening to you every day. Now I know how to build loyalty in my team   (I was just too busy before); avoid the sniping of the financial analysts (never bothered to take them seriously – now I do); ignored the media (I make sure I’m seen, heard and my image is polished like the brass plaque outside our HQ).”

Was taken aback by his words, and his enthusiasm, “ So what about the caring leader,” I asked, “ is it all just a fiction; are we led to believe that a CEO who takes care of his people is THE real leadership model we  should aspire too? “
He stared at me for a good 20 seconds, saying nothing. Then he smiled and finally said, “That’s what the book says that’s what all the management courses preach, but that isn’t real-life. Quite frankly, the reason I’m worth this huge salary they’re paying me is for one thing. I’ve been fired – I survived and I learnt all the lessons better than anyone else.  I have been shot at but now I’m bullet-proof Now when I come to choose my successor I know  where I’ll be looking. “

He got up to leave, shook my hand warmly and opened the door for me. “Walk you down to reception,” he said, got to do my daily tour, keep the people pleased by knowing I look pleased too.”
So is it true, can you really get better as a leader by experiencing the seamy side of corporate existence? My betting is my new friend – and he’s a new client now - has got it right. So, go get fired, learn from it and be the leader you should have been all along!

This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Connect with him via Linkedin. 

Monday 15 February 2016

How to Energize and Stress less

At the start of my career back in the early 1990’s we had assistants to book our flights, support staff to take care of documents, and when we went on business trips, upon return our colleagues would update us on what had happened in our absence. Fast-forward to today, and the picture is quite different. Everyone is self-supporting, multi-tasking, and connected 24/7.

In today’s economic environment individuals and team are under great pressure, expected to perform and meet ever more ambitious goals with the same (or, more often, shrinking) resources.

At the same time the advance of technology means that we are now constantly reachable, checking emails and messaging on multiple platforms, leading to an “always-wired” nervous system unable to relax and wind down.
This situation is clearly not sustainable – both managers and staff often feel overwhelmed and many are at a real risk of burnout.

What, then, would be the solution?

First we must realize that we cannot just spend energy, we also need to renew our energy. We need to stop treating ourselves as machines and start to see ourselves as whole human beings who need nourishment and care in more areas than just the physical body. By taking a holistic look at ourselves and our teams we will become more resilient, more resourceful, and much more productive in the long term.

As Tony Schwarz and Catherine McCarthy already suggested in their 2007 HBR article “Manage Your Energy Not Your Time”, there are four key areas of energy that need to be addressed:

  •  Physical: One’s physical health is not just a private matter – there are many bad habits in the workplace adversely affecting our physical energy levels. As a manager, you could consider standing or walking meetings to keep the energy up (a “sparring walk” instead of coaching conversation, or an “idea hike” instead of a brainstorming in the office, for example) – or at least make sure meetings don’t run over time, and take regular breaks. And why not get healthy fruits and nuts as your next meeting catering, instead of sugary pastries?

  •  Mental: Mental energy is all about focus. As a manager, be clear on the priorities of your team, review the priorities regularly and publicly, and help your people de-prioritize less important tasks – everything cannot be urgent and important! Allow your team members to concentrate on one thing at a time, and lead the way by insisting that in meetings people focus on the meeting (i.e. no devices on the table, mobiles switched off).

  • Emotional: Positive energy leads to better ideas and higher productivity than negative or fearful energy. As a manager, be observant to frame things (for example, organizational changes) positively and draw people’s attention to the benefits and opportunities of new situations. Nothing depletes energy like a toxic complaint circle, especially when it’s focused on things outside your team’s circle of influence! Concentrate on what you can do, not what you can’t. Giving regular (public) praise to people or starting weekly meetings with a round of “good news” are simple ways to bring positive energy to the day.

  •  Spiritual: Spiritual energy comes from doing something for a larger purpose, and doing things that are aligned with your values. As a manager, give people context and remind them of the big picture and overall purpose of the organization. Get people into the “flow” by utilizing their talents in a manner that allows them to do things they excel in, and love to do.

Just like airlines announce in their safety demonstrations that we should first put on our own oxygen masks before helping others, we as managers must first take care of our own balance and well-being, in order to be able to show the way for our teams. There is a lot a manager can do to reduce stress and improve energy in a team, and even small changes in daily habits will have a big impact.

About the author: 

Hanna Summanen is an MCE Associate delivering programs in change management and team leadership. She is also a certified yoga teacher and owner of a popular yoga studio in Brussels.


Monday 8 February 2016

Talented or simply good?

Why do you have a talented person?

I bet you are thinking the answer is obvious? But let’s explore what it really means. In the sports arena, the aim of using a talented player is to make a difference. These are the people who can turn a game from a loss to a victory in the blink of an eye. They make a difference when it really matters most. What is also interesting is that the super players are not visible for all the game. They are often only prominent at points when they see the chance to make an impact. They also take periods of rest during the season, and it is a poor manager who wears down his talented players.
Self-check: How many of your talented people are known for making a difference at a critical time, versus, how many are very good, but not game changers?

Does it matter? Do we define ‘talent’ as ‘very good’, rather than ‘very exceptional’? If so, then many Talent schemes are simply schemes to develop very good people. Necessary, admirable, but ultimately may not produce real game changers. Why? Because the definition of talent becomes diluted. Read on.

So who is talented?

It is also interesting to note that Talent becomes internally benchmarked. I had a chat with an HRD who was proud to say that this year over 20% of the workforce were in the Talent category and top box on their talent grid. She told me that next year they would have even more people into the talent category and HQ is so pleased with them. Having met some of these people, nice as they are, they would not even get a job working for another organization I know, and where the label ‘talent’ is reserved for exceptional people. What this suggests is that ‘average for industry’ becomes internally benchmarked as ‘talented around here’.

This leads to another curious effect. Once you tell people they are talented, they believe it, and then a number of very average people are talking about their talents. They become disillusioned when they are not promoted quickly enough. Yet, often they do not look for other jobs. Why? Perhaps it is a fear of finding out that they are really only average.

Self-check: How many people are pushing for the next level because someone has told them they are talented?

How do you compare your definition of talent?

You will have developed sophisticated competency descriptions and measures to give some sense of science behind your definition of talent. Good. However, in most organizations I can find HRBPs who are confused at the list of ‘Talent’ that a line manager offers up. Many line managers do not have the time, or interest, to read the lengthy competency descriptions. They have too many doubts about people who make a difference in their business unit going unrecognized, whilst other business units with ‘inferior’ people do get recognized. Run a calibration meeting between line managers and ask them to justify their selections; there will be a lot of disagreement over perceptions of who is a talented person. Collaborate with your HRBP friends in another business – you could compare your views of talent.

Self-check: would your Talent Pool be in the talent pool in another organization?

We all know that the challenge will be competing for talented people as much as competing for customers. Be sure that you are clear on what players you sign up; exceptional goal scorers or solid performers? You need both, so know what makes the difference.

About the Author:

Nigel Murphy is director of Portfolio and Capability Development at MCE. He has a background in management in manufacturing, education and training. For the past 10 years he has worked on leadership programmes across the globe. He is interested in the mentoring of new managers and leaders, and leading remote teams of people in today’s globally dispersed businesses.


Tuesday 2 February 2016

Of Mice and Men

VIEWPOINT: A leader sometimes has to choose to be a man or a mouse. Occasionally swallowing your pride and being a mouse is the true sign of wise leadership, says Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, in this tenth in his series of articles for IEDP:There is a good friend of mine I see most weeks. He is a pretty big HR honcho (yes HR still does have people like that). In fact he is in a position to make or break careers. As the so-called ‘global head of people development’ if you, as a pushy career-ladder-climber, work at getting this guy on your side, promotions and rewards and responsibilities will surely flow your way. He is, very low-key BUT very influential; been around a while, cultivating his little patch of next generation leaders – the true high potentials. “They’re going places, this is the future of the organization” he tells me. He is building the next generation of leaders like an assembly line… they are clever, keen and ready to lay down their lives for the next step on the rapidly rusting rung of the corporate success ladder. He says it is fun to watch these people develop and he is very into his job. So when I met him recently for our twice monthly drink and a catch-up, quite out of character, he was not the usual positive kind of person I had come to know.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked half-teasing. “Looks like you mislaid your bonus somewhere?”
“It’s worse than that, he responded, “I just got word that I have to cut 4.3 percent of the headcount by year end.” This sounded crazy to me and I told him so. Two weeks earlier he had been upbeat saying how well the business was doing.
“No choice” he added gloomily, “our main rival announced a four point two cut on headcount this morning. If we don’t match it they’ll hit our share price big time…. The CEO knows what our biggest shareholders think about that.”
“But you’ve spent the last few weeks telling me all about the employee as the brand,” I said, “and what about the millions you’ve invested in new people development, what’s going on?”
 “Very simple,” he said, sadly, “the boss doesn’t dare rock the boat. He can’t afford to, not now. The markets won’t stand for it, they don’t like uncertainty, they want to see a man with a clear vision and solid leadership credentials.”
“But that’s not leadership, that’s copycat knee-jerk reaction,” I countered, with a strong tone of frustration in my voice.  “Where are all the fine words, the pledges to lead from the front. I’ve read the annual report, seems he said all that and more!”
“Simple,” he explained. “The boss wants to look like he’s in total control, that we’re capable of being as lean and mean as our rivals... someone started the musical chairs and we have to play, at least until this self-destruction waltz stops.”
And hereby hangs a tale that any of you would-be leaders need to heed most carefully. No matter how big you are, no matter how well your favourite PR guru has built you up and polished your profile in the best-read business pages, at some point you’ve got to just suck it up. Quite simply, you have a choice as a leader be a man or a mouse. And sadly, ever so often you can’t, realistically, be anything but a mouse. Go with the flow, take it on the chin, swallow your pride, keep the good old share price flying high.
After all, isn’t that the sign of true leadership, making a decision and sticking with it through thick and thin? The truth is, every fibre of your body will say, “we’ll do it my way”. But the facts and history speak for themselves. No matter how great a leader you think you are, you are in a box.... and you will cut, cut, cut - because there is no other action you can take. Your reputation will survive it, the institutional shareholders will praise you and life will go on. In six months’ time as the results come in, no-one will remember that you could have played it very differently. But then, at the end of the day, that is leadership, as we possibly poorly define it - and everybody wants to be a winner and everyone likes one too.
I said as much to my HR pal. He was not talking much. Reflecting, no doubt, on the people he has to move out in the weeks ahead; mentally playing out the “career transition” conversations he was going to be tasked with.
“I saw the CEO in the elevator as I was leaving,” he said, “he didn’t say much. Looked a little shocked, but he’s tough and knows how to deal with this kind of thing.”
I felt I needed to say something; there was a silence that needed to be filled. “He’s done the job he was asked to do, kept the ship upright, navigated the storm safely, that’s what he’s there for. Shame the big plans didn’t quite make it – but, I guess that’s life in the fast lane of leadership. Not too many wounded, a pretty low level body count, could have been worse.”
My HR pal brightened a little at that. “After all he’s still the leader. Could have been worse, he could have tried to beat the trend, then where would we be? We’d have to break in the next CEO, because he wouldn’t have survived if he’d jumped the other way.”
We sat in silence for some minutes, thinking possibly about a scenario of “what might have been.” Then he got to his feet, turned to me. “Got to leave,” he said, “lots to do first thing, we make it official about the cuts first thing tomorrow and I’m sure it’ll keep me busy for weeks.”
This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Connect with him via Linkedin.