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I’ve not blogged here for a very. very long time, sorry. I’ve been busy. Well, to be honest, I have recently been busy trying to be busy, having had a couple of months job searching recently.

Yes, job searching. Looking for work, putting myself in the virtual shop window, being my own marketeer, pimping out my knowledge, skills and experience to a generally uncaring and unwelcoming world.

Now, in a couple of recent assignments I’ve been on the other side of that equation, having managed the recruitment process for some restructures. I have been the one finessing the adverts, reviewing the CVs, chasing the leadership for their views and ensuring there were pens, paper and water in the interview room.

I’ve recruited in the past, usually as a line manager bringing people into my team, but these were much more full-on in terms of the workload. There was a lot to do – a lot of organisation and logistics and, in these days of outsourced HR functions, most of it was on me. Very early on in the  first recruitment project, which was about bringing in a senior leadership team into a new organisation, a very nice chap from the recruitment agency said, almost in passing, “Remember, it’s all about the candidate experience.”

That sounded like good advice. After all, the candidate is effectively the customer of the employer brand, and what brand doesn’t want their customers to have a good experience?

Well, yes, I can think of a few, but usually I think this bad experience is created by ignorance or omission rather than a concerted effort to create a bad experience. Take my broadband provider. I live somewhere which has not yet had its tin-can-on-a-string network upgraded to fancy new fibre. As such, none of the competition will bother trying to flog their alternative to us because the infrastructure is no good. So the existing provider can charge us full whack and put off upgrading us, as we can’t go anywhere else. Nobody is sitting in a bunker somewhere with their finger over the “Slow Down the Broadband” button waiting for my daughter to start the livestream of her favourite YouTuber, but from the end user, the effect is the same – “Dad, why isn’t YouTube working?”

So, candidate experience. Makes sense. After all, what happens if you interview three people, find they are all pretty good, but one just shades it. You offer the role to candidate A, but they don’t work out. That means you need to turn to Candidate B, so you’d better make sure their experience was a positive one, otherwise they aren’t going to be too receptive when the call comes in asking them if they want the job after all.

With this in mind, I endeavoured to ensure the candidate experience was the best it could be. I would chase the recruitment agency to make sure they kept the candidates in formed at every stage – make sure the candidate knows what was happening and, when nothing was happening, why not, and when it would be happening.

I made sure every candidate got feedback, even if it was just a paragraph thanking them for their interest but letting them know that unfortunately their knowledge skills and experience were not as good a fit and others who had applied for the role. If there was any specific feedback, such as how their CV was written, I would try and get that in.

I constantly chased line managers to make sure they reviewed CVs, reviewed feedback, had everything they needed for the interviews, followed up the interviews to review and ensure we had the right offer.

Things didn’t always go to plan – one time a role was withdrawn at the last minute and the recruitment agency failed to let the candidate know the interview had been cancelled. I just made sure I was there in person to apologise and explain when they turned up. Or the time the line manager got so hung up on the scoring process used in the interview they would not make a decision, despite knowing which candidate of two they wanted. They dithered so long they lost both. Both times were despite my best efforts, but both times I did all I could to keep people informed as best I could.

Candidate experience is important. So I will relate my experience as a candidate recently. I had a call one day from a firm asking if I would be interested in helping them out as an associate. I then had a telephone interview, followed by a face-to-face in London (with associated £200+ train fare), followed by another telephone interview. All went well, and before and after each point I had a call from the person who had originally called me to let me know what was going on and how they felt things were doing. I got the gig, only for the budget to be pulled. Hey ho, it happens, goes with the territory,  but it was generally a positive experience because I was kept informed and got some useful feedback.

Another experience: another call from an agency, long chat on the phone and another phone followed by face to face in London. In the meantime had another agency call and another interview was put in, thankfully on the same day, so my outlay on train fares was minimised. Had both interviews, felt they went well, rang the agencies back to let them know, then heard… nothing. For a couple of days, then a week. So I chased. Dropped an email, got a quick call saying they would be having a meeting in the next day or so, and they’d let me know. At time of writing it has been six weeks and one day since the interviews and no further feedback. This experience? Not so good. Clearly I didn’t get the job, but a quick mail to say thanks for the interest and a couple of thoughts on why I wasn’t right for them would have been appreciated.

So, have a think. If you are recruiting, think about how you create the best possible candidate experience. Think about what feedback you can give, how you can offer some constructive advice on how they might do better next time, because next time they may be exactly the right person for another vacancy and, if they are, you will stand a much better chance of bagging them.

And more widely, have a think about how you can create the best possible experience for others. If you are a line manager, how dow you create the best possible experience for your team? For your customers? For people going through change? For people leaving and organisation? In every case, the experience can be influenced by your actions (or lack thereof) – so think it through. How do you create that best possible experience?

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My last blog seemed to get quite a bit of traffic, and some people were kind enough to get in touch and tell me how much they enjoyed it, and how true to life it was.

The blog was a spoof look forward at the year to come, with various misadventures caused to various teams around the office. Clearly people did find the situations familiar and so, but way of flogging a dead horse one more time I’d take a look at a couple  of the things I raised and share a bit more about them, and have a think about the possible cultural causes of such ostensibly ineffective behaviour.

In my experience, such behaviours tend to be symptoms of deeper lying cultural issues, and these will need addressing if the behaviours are going to be changed.

First up – and this seems most topical as the snow falls outside my window as I typo this – the manager who demanded everyone came in to the office in heavy snow under pain of disciplinary action. This really happened to me many, many years ago when I worked in local newspapers in Lancashire – I was the editor of a local newspaper website having come from a journalistic background. (You didn’t think this seamless and breathless prose just happens did you? This is a learned and ancient craft, I’ll have you know).

Any road up, one winter the weather was particularly bad, making the roads especially in the hills of Lancashire treacherous at best and impassable in many cases. I was getting ready for work and checking the radio for the latest update on the weather, and learned that my usual route to work was closed due to the snow. There were other routes, but this would have entailed much longer drive on congested roads, and being late in for work. I glanced to my laptop back where my steam-powered, three-tonne, four-inch screen Mac Powerbook sat, it’s dial-up modem just asking to be fired up. I duly did so, typing an email to my line manager as the whirring, boinging and cracking noises went on for about 10 minutes. Once online I was about to send the email when one popped into my inbox, forwarded by my aforementioned manager, from the MD saying that everyone MUST (and yes, capitals were indeed used) come into the office. Working from home, it said, was ABSOLUTELY not an option.

Now, as you can tell from the picture I have just painted with words, technology was very much in its infancy in the industry in those days, but I could, just about, work from home using my dial-up connection to log in and edit stories and FTP them onto the web server. I could also log off and ring people up using my landline if need be (I didn’t, at that time, have a mobile phone. In my last role I had three). Similarly the other journalists could operate by phone – most spent most of their working day on the phone in the office anyway, as could the ad reps. But no, we had to come in, come hell, high water or heavy snow.

I negotiated a compromise whereby I walked to a nearer office and logged in there, but most others struggled in and got in late. They lost an edition, and goodness knows how mush was lost in ad revenue on the day by everyone spending most of their day attempting to struggle in rather than actually working.

The cause? This was good old fashioned management by fear – not (just) frightening the employees by the management, but more management by those who are frightened. Frightened that they don’t really know what they are doing, and scared to be found out and sacked by their own managers (who are in a similar state of fear). There is an institutional lack of confidence and this shuts down effective communication and leads to bad decisions being made – because the last time a bad decision was made no-one challenged it, no-one looked into the impact it had on people, profits, productivity or any of those other good things that organisational effective can be measured by. No-one challenges because everyone is frightened – the underling is scared of the consequences of challenge (they will be shouted at, their career will suffer) and the overlord is scared of being uncovered as being incompetent and unfit for the lofty role they now occupy.

I’ve known quite  a few managers of this ilk in my time, and worked for a few as well. None of them I would, for a moment, describe as a leader, they were managers by title only. Underlying this was the belief that this was the only way to manage – there was no development, no-one learned anything (other than “this is how we have always done it around here”), and change was incredibly difficult to enact. To this day, some two and a half decades later, I still see managers like this (and may share some more stories in coming blogs, as cautionary tales), despite all the advances that have been made in leadership development since those benighted times. Hey ho.

The other thing touched upon in the last blog was the project plan lovingly crafted by the Project Management Office for weeks and weeks only for it to be sent back by a colour blind CIO. This not only exemplifies the cultural problem of perfectionism – when people refuse to let something go until it is absolutely right, thereby extending deadlines, frustrating colleagues and customers and running the risk of instant obsolescence – but also the lack of some very basic stakeholder management.

I fell could of this very thing once – I spent weeks carrying out a series of cultural diagnostic exercises in two organisations that were about to merge. I produced a detailed report and a set if slides outlying the key issues as I saw them – similarities, differences and (most interesting) the things that looked like similarities but were in fact differences. This I presented to the newly-installed leadership team of the newly merged organisation at their first ever away day. It went down really well, until the CIO took me quietly to one side and said “Just a minor thing, but you’ve done the pictures in red and blue, and I can’t see red or blue, they’re all just grey”.

I apologised and he was very classy about it – didn’t make a fuss or try and undermine what was otherwise a very successful session. But, since then, whenever I’m asked to produce a slide deck or some such for anyone I do ask if there is any such requirements I need to be aware of beforehand. It’s basic stuff, but very easy to forget in the heat of the battle.

So, have a think. When you lead are you driven by fear? An, if you are, how do you think that impacts others? And think too of people’s needs, think what your stakeholders need from you. You may have thought of a great way to present something, that will resonate and excite and scintillate but think, for a moment, what if one of the group you are presenting too can’t see your fancy graphs or hear the sound effects you’ve added.

So it is, for those of us following the Gregorian calendar, January, the beginning of a new year. And for anyone who read my last blog post only to find some nicely illustrated but essentially dull stats, I thought I would attempt to make up for it with a look forward to what will be happening in the coming year – the one the cool kids are already calling 2015.

Firstly, this blog and its author are based in the United Kingdom, so the next (pauses and counts on fingers – trickier than you think while typing) four months will be an unholy and unsightly squabble between grown-ups over who should run the country. It hasn’t started in inspiring form, with the two main parties offering a choice of cuts or austerity. Or the other way round. It’s difficult to tell.

Either way, it won’t be edifying and won’t be of much help. So, enough politics, and thoughts of what the year will mean to those in the world of work this coming year:

January

Everyone comes back to work after a festive break. The employment tribunals resulting from that event at the work Christmas party starts in earnest.  One of the non-execs asks how the strategy document is going on, forcing someone to actually start writing it. Programme and Project Management Offices are set up across the land, and GANTT charts are started in earnest. Many are colour coded.

February

Weather happens, and the British infrastructure fails utterly to deal with it. On one particularly snow-filled day, in a business based in a town surrounded by hills and pretty much cut off from the rest of civilisation the MD decrees that anyone not coming into work will be subject to disciplinary proceedings, even those with the ability to work from home. Employee engagement levels at that workplace remain at zero. (True story, btw). In the PMOs, the debate about which colours are used on the GANTT charts to represent which projects enters its seventh week, and a special sub-committee is formed.

March

Expense forms pile up across the land as finance departments realise they need to get the books cooked finalised for audit. Several cases of spreadsheet palsy are reported, bringing an already teetering NHS Accident and Emergency service to its knees. Sufferers sit, rocking slightly in their chairs, hugging their knees, muttering about who the macros hadn’t copied across to the next spreadsheet, and weep at the lack of conditional formatting options. The HR department, having finished the last of the Christmas party tribunals, finally gets round to reviewing the employee survey results from last September. In the PMO, the use of cerise for the Finance Workstream is finally agreed, as long as the Capital Spending and Estates Programme can be chartreuse.

April

in the private sector, fears over the profit warnings in the annual accounts lead to a spate of CV polishing. In the public sector, fears of swingeing cuts following the forthcoming election results in a spate of CV polishing. In Accrington, Lancashire, Josiah Arkwright and Nephews, the last surviving manufacturers of CV Polish in the UK goes under, inundated by orders they cannot fulfil, and a lack of raw materials. Tragically, none of their staff can polish their own CVs, and can only get jobs in high street moneylenders. HR have finished reviewing the employee survey results and realise engagement levels have fallen by 10 percentage points. No-one wants to tell the board. In the PMO, the GANTT charts are baselined and ready to go, with seventeen full colour copies printed off on glossy paper for the Programme Board’s first meeting. Their first decision is to split the Capital Spending and Estates Programme into two separate workstream and ask for a new plan.

May

Election fever fails to grasp anyone, with the whole country thoroughly fed up with a series of ostensible adults having spent the  past months in a series of increasingly petulant spats causing children in infant school playgrounds to look away, embarrassed and slightly ashamed. No-one votes, and the party leaders agree to decide the election by playing a round-robin conkers tournament. None of them know where to get conkers in May, and a series of parliamentary committees are set up to investigate, In HR, the department is in meltdown after the CEO collared a junior member of the employee engagement team in the lift and asked them about the survey results, only trying to be conversational, to be honest. The team member, weakened by an extended juice diet they began in January, lets the cat out of the bag, The HR Director is summoned to present results to the board immediately, and every member of the C-suite demands an urgent people plan to improve engagement levels. In the PMO, the committee to colour in the new work streams has had to be put on hold as the PMO staff are seconded to prepare GANTT charts for the new people plans, as no-one on HR can use MS Project.

June

The first draft of the people plans are finalised and presented to the exec team. The item is pushed to the ends of their bi-weekly meeting, and falls of the agenda due to a lengthy discussion over which biscuits to have at their meetings. A special biscuit sub-committee is set up, and the people plans deferred until next month. In HR, the business partners have all gone on course to learn how to use MS Project, only to realise they went on the same course last year, but hadn’t needed to use it and had forgotten everything. The PMO baselines version 2.0 of the plan, but when the plan is printed out the colours of the Capital Spending Programme and Estates Workstream are too similar, and they have to start again.

July

The exec team hold a special away day at a chain hotel off the M6 to consider the results of the employee survey and the people plans drafted so far. The day begins with a lengthy discussion of where are you going on your holidays, followed by a heated debate on the proposals from the biscuit sub-committee. The CFO and CIO have to be physically pulled apart in an argument over whether Jaffa Cakes can actually form part of the sub-comittee’s purview. Eventually the people plans are agreed without any changes, as they have run out of time to go through them. The Strategy Director asks the HRD to ensure they are aligned fully to the company strategic plan. The HRD passes this on to the Head of Employee Engagement, unconsciously as an act of revenge for the conversation one of their team had with the CEO back in May. In the PMO, a new plan is baselined and sent out electronically, but the CIO’s PA rings to say that the CIO is red-green colour blind, and asks for one where the IT programmes are all done in shades of orange. The Head of PMO takes up base jumping as a form of relaxation, as yoga and meditation just aren’t cutting it any more.

August

Nothing happens, even though no-one is actually away for more than two weeks, but no-one will make a decision until another person is back from Florida, by which time they are in Fuerteventura. in HR, the Head of Employee Engagement tries to get approval for the supplier for the next employee survey, due in September, but the HRD is on a retreat in a monastery on a tiny Greek island accessible only by fishing boat and donkey.  In the PMO, the IT programmes have multiplied so much that they have used up every Pantone reference between 87 and 184.

September

The employee survey takes place, preceded by a huge poster campaign encouraging everyone to have their say and blogs from the CEO explaining how they can’t change things if they don’t have their say. the workforce, still riding their wave of apathy from May, refuse to complete their surveys, pointing out that they haven’t even seen the results from last time, let alone see any changes as a result. The Head of Employee Engagement and their team spend 27 hours over a weekend filling in more than 15,000 surveys online, only for someone at the supplier to point out that (a) only one survey is allowed through the system from any one IP address so only four have counted and (b) there are only 8,000 people at the company anyway. In the PMO, the annual plan has been approved by the CIO and is baselined again. All work streams are now nine months late and the timescales are reviewed to turn them all green before the report can go to the programme board.

October

The CEO has been playing golf with the CEO of a major competitor who have just been shortlisted as one of the grooviest places to work in a Sunday colour supplement, and emails the HRD from the ninth tee to demand they are on the same shortlist. The HRD calls the Head of Employee Engagement, but they are camping in the Lake District (having put off their summer holidays to get the survey sorted) and have dropped their BlackBerry in a beck where it was eaten by a pike. By the time they get back to the office the entire HR department has been trying to organise the visit of the survey company, but the CEO is not available of the mandatory interview as they are on a course at Harvard Business School on selling off the company’s shoes and leasing them back over a five year amortisation. In the PMO, timescales for the plans have been re-drawn, and the project objectives revised so they can be delivered by December. The IT programme activity line, which started out as a re-platforming of the company’s mainframe, now consists of “Go to PC World and get screen protectors for all the directors’ iPads”, until the procurement team see it and explain that PC World are not a preferred supplier.

November

The HRD and Head of Marketing and PR have got married after a whirlwind romance. They spent many hours together after the unfortunate hostage incident involving the Head of PMO and the Procurement Team in the PC accessories aisle of PoundWorld. It lasted for four days until the Police realised the “gun” was, in fact, a novelty Nintendo Wii controller from the electronic gifts aisle. While the happy couple are on honeymoon, the Head of Employee Engagement drafts an intranet bulletin on the employee survey results but fails to get it signed off due to unavailability of senior management. The new head of PMO doesn’t like GANTT charts and asks for all the plans to be resubmitted using the software they used at their last job, which only works on Linux machines.

December

The senior leadership team get Christmas bonuses after another year where they have reached their strategic goals (as revised) and go skiing. The HRD and Head of Marketing and PR have split up following an incident at the Marketing department’s Christmas party which went viral on YouTube before the Crown Prosecution Service successfully got a high court injunction to have it taken down and potentially used in evidence in future criminal proceedings. The Head of Employee Engagement is the most senior member of staff in on Christmas eve and signs off the headline on the employee survey and gets it published at 9:30pm on Christmas Eve night. No-one reads it. In the PMO. all programmes are wound up after an attempt to procure a Linux machine fails because “the forms weren’t filled in properly”. In preparation for the 2016 planning cycle, a member of the PMO patents 18 new shades of Orange.

Have a thoughtful and fun 2015, everyone.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 680 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 11 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

In the last blog of this year I wanted to wish all my readers a very enjoyable relaxing and, hopefully, thoughtful time as 2014 draws to a close and flips over the first page of a new calendar.

For me, the most significant day at this time of year has just gone by – the winter solstice, the shortest day, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, at least. It is an ancient significance, the day when the sun stops retreating and the slow return of spring begins. The fact that so many ancient monuments align to the solstice dawn shows how significant this turning point was for our ancestors.

For others, my children not least, the more significant day will come in a few days when they will, depending on their personal conduct throughout the year, find a gift or two beneath the tree that currently looms over our front room. Others still will celebrate or mark whatever their personal belief system or tradition dictates in the way they wish.

But for me, the key day is the solstice. It’s not a religious thing, it’s not a question of faith or belief, it is the thing at this time of year which is an empirical and actual fact – the earth spins around the sun, and begins the shift which puts the hemisphere in which I live towards the sun again, creating the longest night or shortest day.

For me, the solstice is a symbol of both constancy and of change – it happens every year, you can set your astronomical clock by it, or even build a stone circle/temple/henge to align to it. But is also says that the darkness that had been increasing over the past months will now begin to recede, the days will get longer, the nights shorter.

It says to me that while people crave constancy, they also live with and not only cope with change, but also celebrate it. Clearly the solstice was marked in ancient times, and the festival has been adapted and adopted by various religions, traditions and societies until it has become what it is today.

Many can find this time of year depressing, and I too, had a moment a few weeks ago when there seemed to be nothing but supermarket adverts on the television, and the whole commercialisation and crassness of the capitalist model that urges unrestrained spending (and the necessary consumer debt that goes with this) to ensure the retail sector can continue for the other three quarters of the financial year brought a wistful melancholy to my soul. That melancholy turned to anger when one shop sought to trivialise and demean the memory of the millions killed in the first world war to flog a few more chocolates, but that is a rant for another blog, and another time.

Not wanting to be to Scrooge-like, I reflected, I thought on things, I considered the wonder that is the midwinter, the constancy and the change, and my mood shifted and I too found myself turning back towards the light.

So now I prepare to join the feast when the days are darkest, when the night is longest, to mark a time of festival, of lights and food and gifts and celebration that, to me, speaks to the optimism which is the very heart of the human  experience. The days may be dark, but things will get better, things will change, the light will return.

Now, the day after the solstice, I write this seasonal blog and urge any of you kind enough to read to consider what this time of year means to you. A soulless commercial necessity? A time to celebrate the supernatural? A poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket? The birth of a special child? A time to light a specific number of candles? A turning point, a time to look forward, a time to celebrate the darkness, because without the darkness how could we see the light?

Very whatever, one and all.

My last blog had a heartening amount of response, with a few people nice enough to share their own thoughts and experiences of issues with companies avoiding asking their people what they think. Thanks to all of you who took the trouble, and everyone seemed to agree that the excuses leaders come up with to avoid surveys are not helpful.

Any road up, in said blog I said I would come back and talk in a bit more detail about the excuses people came up with – number one was “we know what they think anyway” – i.e. there’s no point asking because we know what people think about working here.

I said then that any team leader who is surprised by their survey results isn’t leading properly – and felt that this did deserve a bit more thought.

Now I could launch into an epistemological essay on the nature of knowledge, but maybe that’s better left to Freddie Ayer, who is better versed in such things than I. Instead, I’ll share some of my own experience learning about leadership and what I think leaders should know about their people.

Leadership, for me, starts with knowing yourself. What your values are, what motivates you, what makes you do what you do, what is important to you. Knowing this gives you the ammunition you need to act authentically – act in line with your own values.

If you are struggling with this try this simple exercise: ask yourself “what is important to me” – when you get an answer, ask yourself “what does this give me”. Keep asking, until you keep coming back to the same answer. I’ve don’t this with people dozens of times, and it usually comes down to a real, core value, like fulfilment, or security or safety.

Incidentally, and this occurred to me when watching a cavalcade of Xmas adverts on the telly this week, the core message of which seemed to be “acquiring stuff will make you happy”. Not once, when doing this exercise with a vastly different array of people, has anyone had a core value of needing stuff or acquisition. I would posit from this that the Xmas telly ads are lying, and acquiring stuff doesn’t, in fact, make you happy. But that maybe for a completely different blog…

Anyway, back to leadership. Leaders who know themselves, know how they tick, act authentically and in line with their own personal values. They make decisions based on these values, and act in a way that aligns to their core being.

The next trick is to know their people. Understand what is important to them, what makes them tick, how to motivate them. Some people, for instance, may be driven by an external sense of themselves – what matters to them is how others see them, and getting approval and support from others will be important to motivate them.

Other people get their sense of self internally, and you motivate them by giving them opportunities to of things which feel good about themselves – many such people are motivated by things like the satisfaction of them doing the best job they could possibly have done, so need autonomy and opportunities to do things for themselves.

Knowing how your people tick will clearly equip you with the tools to lead that team – you will know how to treat people within your team, what they need to perform and what will stop them performing.

One of my earliest leadership roles was as a news editor in a local newspaper, which basically involved giving reporters their assignments. One reporter, who, to be fair, wanted to be a sports reporter and had a massive sense of entitlement, sadly unmatched by his capability, collared me once and told me i was big unfair. “You treat different reporters differently,” he said. “It’s not fair.”

The core of his complaint was that I’d sent him to do a vox pop – standing out in the cold collaring members of the public to ask their opinion on some great topic of the day, such as the number, depth and muddiness of puddles in the open market. Another reporter, our budding John Motson noted, was not asked to do vox pops. Ever.

Said other reporter was the local government reporter, who spent several evening a week cultivating contacts with the local council, tapping up trade union leaders, talking to political activists, getting under the skin of local politics and coming up with some really good stories about deals done to get budgets passed and the like. Not the most interesting work but, in my humble, pretty important to democracy – local newspapers, in fact, at their most valuable and purposeful. What our local government chap was no good at all was getting members of the public to give them a quick sound bite about puddles and transforming this into a fun two-page spread with photos of lots of local people.

So, I didn’t ask him to do vox pops because his time was better spent doing things he was good at. Our friend the budding sports reporter could do a passable vox pop, but wouldn’t be able to schmooze a shop steward to get the skinny on bids for the housing maintenance contract any more than fly to the moon. So he got asked to do what he could do, rather than being set up to fail.

I wasn’t a very good leader in this first job, i had no training or development, no coaching or mentoring and I pretty much made it up as I went along. I didn’t really understand my own motivation and values, but what I learned very quickly was that treating people all the same did not work and was not fair – a lesson that has stood me in good stead throughout my career and in life in general.

Knowing your team, then, is important, nay vital to being a leader of that team. Which is why I said, as I did way back at the beginning of this blog, that any leader of a team who is surprised when they get their results isn’t doing their jobs properly.

This clearly applies to teams, groups of up to 15 or so – any more and it becomes difficult to be a team. As your organisation gets bigger then it gets trickier to understand what matters to people. In large organisations (anything 250 upwards) then you’ll start to get the bad news filters coming into play – levels within an organisation that hide the bad news from the troops so as not to cause alarm and hide mistakes or disgruntlement from senior leaders for fear of being thought incompetent or unfit.

This is why employee surveys are vital – they bypass the bad news filters. Senior leaders who are told by operational/middle management that all is good, everyone is happy, get a very necessary shock when they find out only 12% of their staff are engaged.

In my experience it is unusual for senior leaders to know if people are unhappy – they may assume they are unhappy, and act accordingly, but that’s not the same as knowing – and, more importantly, if they are making assumptions that people are unhappy they are also making assumptions as to why they are unhappy. If they act accordingly, then they are acting on two assumptions, which is two too many.

No senior leader act based on assumptions about their income stream or sales or costs – they would make decisions based on data. Why do they act on assumptions about their people, when they can find out what’s really happening so easily?

So, have a think. Do you know yourself? What are your core values? Do you know your team’s values? Does your boss know yours? Do your senior leaders know how people are feeling in their organisation, or are they assuming based on the information they have to hand? Knowledge, as someone (Francis Bacon, apparently) said, is power. And it’s only knowledge if you actually know it.

I was chatting with an old colleague the other day, they being from the comms side of things, and we discussed, among other things, difficulties we had experienced getting organisations to put out employee surveys.
Actually doing employees surveys is now so par for the course I’m amazed when I come across organisations that are still afraid to ask, but it seems that sometimes leaders just don’t think it’s the right time. My chum and I went through a few of the excuses we had come up against over the years – there were a few, but here’s the top 5:

  • We know what they think anyway
  • Everyone is miserable so why bother asking
  • Money’s tight, this is a nice to have not a necessity
  • We’re going through too much change, so no point asking until things get settled
  • It’s just an excuse for people to have a whinge

Let’s have a look at these in detail, shall we?

“We know what they think anyway” Really? Really? Everyone in the whole organisation? Hmmm… Now, I always say that if a team leader is surprised by the survey results for their team, then they aren’t really leading that team, but that’s for another blog, another time.

But if you’re the CEO or other senior leader in any organisation of more than, say 50 or so people, then chances are you aren’t close enough to people to really know what they say. And, chances are, if you are, and you do go out and about, visiting the troops and ask people how things are, they might, when  put on the spot, tell you what they think you want to hear. An anonymous survey may give them chance to say what they really feel, which may be something different.

“Everyone is miserable so why bother asking” A classic “how do you know if you don’t ask”. I worked with an organisation who took this approach once, and I worked with a group of change champions across the business, speaking to them on a pretty regular basis on how things were; the picture was far more mixed than senior leaders thought. What came through, after a bit of digging, was that lots of people were very role engaged – they loved doing their job, got a lot of fulfilment from it, took meaning and satisfaction from doing their best and doing it well – and where they had the autonomy and authority to do those jobs, they were very happy. What they lacked, on the whole, was engagement with the organisation as a whole.

Even if you think you know that everyone is unhappy, and they are, it’s handy to have that in writing, with evidence, so that you can do something about it. After all, aa survey shouldn’t just tell you how people are feeling, it should give you some insight into why they are feeling that way. Again, we can discuss further in another blog.

“Money’s tight, this is a nice to have not a necessity” I know the recession is over and things are on the up – but I’m not sure that is really felt out there in the big wide world, you know? Anyway, money is tight, especially in the public sector, and likely to remain so, so this excuse will be in favour for a while to come. What I say is, can you afford not to? Disengaged employees are more likely to cost your organisation a lot more in absence, lack of productivity, poor quality work, mistakes etc than the cost of a basic survey – for some facts, check this. Bottom line for your bottom line: engagement = mo’ money.

“We’re going through too much change, so no point asking until things get settled”. Two things: (a) when aren’t you going through change and (b) that is exactly the time you need to know how people are thinking and feeling: the success (or failure) of the change depends on it, believe me. Again, another blog (in fact, I feel a series coming on…) for more, but if people aren’t engaged with the change, it’s unlikely to deliver the benefits you hope to get.

“It’s just an excuse for people to have a whinge” Guess what? They’re going to whinge anyway, probably at home, down the pub, at the water cooler, to their colleagues; why not give them a platform to do so, and then do something about it. That way, they might stop whinging.

I may revisit these excuses in more detail and real life examples in future blogs, but, in the mean time, have a think: are you putting off your staff survey? If so, why? If you have another excuse, let me know and I’ll explain why that’s a bad idea too…

This is, generally, a blog about the world of work, employee engagement, organisational culture, that kind of malarkey. This time, though, I wanted to get a bit political, a bit philosophical, expand my horizons and parameters, and comment on wider issues. Bear with me.
The media has been much exercised recently by the activities of Mr Nigel Farage and his merry band of xenophobes, and said coverage has vexed me and, in my humble, dragged the political debate in a very unpleasant and dangerous direction.
Now, I’m not an economist, indeed, I am very much a subscriber to the opinion that if you took all the economists in the world and lined them up they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion. But it does seem, from my limited knowledge, that most of the arguments put forward by opponents of UKIP for staying with the EU and promoting free movement of labour within it, and supporting the benefits of immigration, are generally based on sound economic facts and practice. Take this article, for example, which was written by someone altogether better qualified than I to put forward facts and the like.
The arguments on the other side – stop immigration, leave the EU seems to build down to “I don’t like Johnny Foreigner, and I definitely don’t like being old what to do by him”.
In my experience of the world of work, which I have set myself as an expert on, I haver always found that diversity is a strength – certainly in teams. I have also found that organisations that serve communities (and all of them, really, do) fare far better when their own demographic make-up reflects that of those communities they serve. One only has to look at a brief history of policing in London (or Manchester, or pretty much anywhere in the UK) to get a sense of the truth of that, but I found it was also the case for selling insurance, for example.
Why is this? Again, reflecting on my own experience, its to do with empathy, and its importance in developing relationships.
One time I was in charge of the employee survey for and organisation. Among the many pieces of insight I gathered from hours slaving over dusty spreadsheets was that transgender colleagues were significantly less engaged than other colleagues. Now I am the least diverse person going – white, male, middle class, educated, married with two children, and was, at the time, in a team, incidentally, that was also very lacking in diversity. Of a dozen people, 11 were women, white, agreed between 28ish and 42ish, straight. There was little insight from within the team as to why transgender people were less engaged.
We did, however, within the organisation have a very active and switched on LBGT group, so I took my insight to them, to see if they could shed any light. They had no reports of bullying or discrimination from this group, but they did reach out and get some further insight to share with the diversity team. As I recall, there wasn’t a specific single issue, but the very act of reaching out, listening, and acting did make a difference to people.
The organisation won awards from gay rights groups as an employer of choice, and that made us in HR feel very good about ourselves. That was until a colleague was applying for a mortgage with his civil partner and discovered that the form had no box to tick for civl partnership – meaning he couldn’t progress with his application. We got the form changed, but that wasn’t the point – part of the organisation won awards for its stand on LGBT rights but another just didn’t even consider the needs of that group when putting a simple form together. Turned out that the department which won the awards had a demographic profile closer to the community it was serving than the one that failed to put the civil partnership option on the mortgage form; there was the empathy needed to serve that community properly, that the less diverse part of the organisation lacked.
My point, I guess, is that diversity is a strength, it is an asset, and that works for teams, businesses and countries.
I often challenge people who say multiculturalism has failed, or is a bad idea, to join me for lunch at the market food court in Manchester’s Arndale Centre – it is a panoply of great food from around the world, featuring the finest veggie burritos I have ever tasted served by a man who will not accept your custom if you can’t pronounce “chipotle” correctly. Next to them, a Vietnamese street food store, across from them Polish sausages and drinks, alongside a Cypriot stall with kebabs, salads and mezes, around the corner there’s even a real ale bar for Mr Farage to get a pint – though I’ll have a nice Eastern European imported pilsner, myself, thank you.
Isolationism will also be bad for the world of work; even that bastion of left wing thought the CBI is warning that if the UK leaves the EU, then many major businesses will in turn leave the UK in order to stay in the single market. Not good news for the world of work in the UK, and, believe me, it is extremely difficult to engage employees if you have to let them all go because your office is moving to Frankfurt or your factory to Spain.
So, have a think. Reflect on the current debate. Is your business doing well? if so, is this despite immigration and the EU, or because of it? If it’s doing badly, same question. I doubt the answer will be so one dimensional, and thus it is for the benefits and ills of our society; this is not a single issue nation; our problems cannot be solved by a single solution any more than our successes can be more widely shared. To say so is disingenuous at best, and, to be frank, bloody stupid.

network_blog
So you want to change things in your organisation; how to go about it? One thing I’ve found can help is getting a group of people across the organisation to form a network of change agents – but how do you go about that?
This isn’t revolutionary – John Kotter in his seminal work on change talks of the coalition of the willing, but that, to me, was more about senior stakeholders leading the change. And, to be honest, having any kind of coalition given the political landscape in the UK at the moment maybe isn’t the best way to sell anything to people, but I digress.
What I’m on about it much less top-down and more democratic, more classless, more about the enablement and engagement than the leading.
Ideally, what you have is a number of people embedded throughout the organisation. These won’t necessarily be senior people, but they will need to be trusted, influential and credible – they will need to able to represent their colleagues, act as a confidant and a communication channel, sharing information out in their part of the business and, just as importantly, making sure the issues and questions and worries and stuff that people across the organisation is fed back to the change team and the people leading the business.
So, first you do need to start with the leadership team and make sure they are on board and do enable the group to do what it is you need them to do; if your leadership team needs to control everything then you’re going to struggle.
I remember one organisation where I pulled together a network of change agents to support a pretty major transformational change. I knew that there had been a similar network in a previous piece of change, so I thought a good start would be to reach out to those people and see what happened last time, and see how willing they may be have another go – a couple of simple questions, nobody signed up to do anything other than answer an email.
Within minutes of the email going out – literally less than ten minutes after clicking send – two emails came to me from a couple of senior people which essentially said “How dare you talk directly to my people, I need to know everything that’s going on”.
There are two things going on here:

  • These leaders are clearly very control-minded and see external interference as a threat
  • The people under them are so conditioned to that control that they immediately defer to that control rather than answer a perfectly straightforward and reasonable question

Clearly this suggests some deeply-held cultural issues are at play in this organisation, which need to be addressed if anything is going to change in this organisation and also that empowerment that you need for the network to actually work.
How we do this is something for another blog another time, but does show, yet again, the importance of understanding the cultural issues at play when you try and change any organisation.
Back to our network of change agents and how to go about that. I’d start with defining what you want these people to be – you can use various names to describe them, change champions, comms reps, etc, but they are, in essence, change agents: people who facilitate and enable change within an organisation.
This can be as simple as making sure that key messages have gone out and questions are fed back for answers; it can be far more complex and involve them taking on actual change delivery, doing the work of the project team, but you need to agree what it is they will be doing and get everyone signed up to that early doors.
One way to do this is to pul together a role profile or job description – if your organisation has a standard template for jobs then use that, it helps give credibility, in my humble.
Next, recruit. Engage stakeholders across the business, let them know what kind of person you are after, and see who they come up with. Advertise – get the job description out there, ask for expressions of interest; then meet them – not necessarily a formal interview but a chat would be handy to see if they have what’s needed.
Choose who you want, and get them together. Like any job, you need some kind of remuneration, and for the change agents there are a few rewards you can offer them – the chance to network is a key one, align with personal and/or professional development. If you can also throw in a few events which involve some celebratory element, even a nice buffet or a trip out somewhere, all the better.
Anyway, get them together, preferably in one place. Get a senior stakeholder (the more senior the better and a CEO is ideal, otherwise the sponsor for the change) along to engage them in the change, and thank them for their time, and give them the empowerment they need to get the job done.
Chat through in general terms what you’d like to get from the network – then ask them how best to achieve that. Don’t tell them what to do, get them to come up with what they want to do: giving them some ownership, make them stakeholders in their own success.
Then set them off, make sure they do what they signed up to do, keep them in regular touch and use them as you need. In one organisation, I held weekly conference calls with a standing agenda item of a change readiness questionnaire – handy stuff when planning change to know how ready different bits of the organisation are for that change; it can also help track the impact of communication around change – if you have a series of change roadshows and change readiness scores don’t shift, then maybe you need to review your approach.(In fact, in this organisation, a series of meetings about a particular bit of change impacting a level of management in the organisation actually saw change readiness scores go down, which gave us food for thought).
Managing the network is very important – as is continually reviewing the membership and how well it is meeting the needs of the organisation. Often the people who add a great deal of value at the start of a piece of change may not be right for the embedding of that change into business as usual. Check who’s active, and who isn’t. And ask anyone who isn’t, why – what’s stopping them doing what they said they would do. Change things around as well, revisit the job description, see how well your engagement strategies are working out, and react to the feedback you get.
This continual review is the key to success with this kind of network; one of the most successful ones I worked with was tasked with helping pull two businesses together following a merger. Over time the membership and the focus of the group changed significantly, from a focal point for integration at the beginning to very active group of change agents embedding change across the business.
To sum up – get buy in, recruit, get them to agree what they’re doing, review continually and don’t be afraid to change things around when you need to.
So, have a think: what needs changing in your organisation? Could a network of change agents help? What could they do to help? Is your organisation culturally ready and able to have a network like this, or will your cultural issues stymie it before it can deliver any value?

Recently I worked with a client (as ever with this blog, anonymity is assured) and much of my time was taken up with discussing personal development – mainly because hardly anybody on the client side did.

Well, not strictly true, part of the organisation trained people and they frequently discussed development but it was usually professional development. And it was not really discussed internally. Whenever it was discussed whether regarding internal people or external client organisations, there was a mantra that tended to come through, and that mantra was:

development = course

Now I have been on quite a few courses in my time, and I haven’t learned how to do anything on any of them. Not one. Not to say that these courses weren’t any good, no, some of them were excellent – a couple actually life-changing. But I didn’t learn how to do a damn thing until I went away and applied the things the course had told me about in real life.

Take one example many of us will be familiar with – driving lessons – they gave me information I needed to know to pass my driving test, but I only learned to drive after going out practicing with someone who was really really good at driving and then trying to do what they told me. My family, who are on the receiving end of much of my driving will tell you that this is very much a work in progress to this day – but at least I passed my test first time.

Similarly, when I worked in Financial Services, I had to do an online course every year on Fraud and Money Laundering legislation. I passed every single course, never needed to do a single re-take, but I doubt I could tell you much now about money laundering that I didn’t learn from watching Richard Pryor in Superman 3

Now, I am aware that people learn in different ways, or at least have differing preferences for how they learn stuff, but in my experience most people actually learn to do by doing – what the folks in white coats might call experiential learning.

One person I worked with quite closely at the client was a perfect example. We had some diagnostic work to do to try and uncover some particularly thorny cultural issues within the organisation, and I suggested a critical incident review might be just the ticket. “Oh yes, I learned to do that on a course,” said my client-side chum.

“Splendid,” I said. “When do you want to do it?”

“Oh I can’t do one,” they replied. “I’ve never done one. I just did the course.”

They had been doing lots of courses over the years and had an impressive armoury or knowledge and a portfolio full of certificates, but they had very little experience of trying to apply that knowledge in the real world – and that is the very nub of the problem with the aforementioned organisational mantra: development = course is wrong.

Development actually = course + experience of using the knowledge imparted on the course in actual real life situations. In fact, you can simplify it further:

Development = doing stuff until you get good at it.

In a previous organisation I worked with, they promoted a 70/20/10 model of learning and development, with 70% done on the job while working every day, 20% through mentoring and coaching, usually by a peer or line manager, and 10% at most actual classroom learning. We found that when it was adopted not only was it more effective than the previous approach (development = course) it was also a lot, lot cheaper. And people liked learning that way – satisfaction levels with their learning and development improved as a result.

I went away and crunched some numbers for my chum client side to help them put together a business case for a new approach – unfortunately, they couldn’t make the meeting – they were away on a course.