Tag Archives: organisational culture

Keeping your best talent: lessons from the school playground

Working, as I do, on two sides of the leadership coin, there’s one thing that intrigues me.

I’ve yet to work with a client organisation in which the most senior leadership cadre complains about having too many talented leaders or aspiring leaders across the organisation.  This remains true even now, in the midst of painful down- (or right-) sizing, when the number of leadership jobs available is diminishing.

It seems that talent is in short supply.

At the same time, working with individual leaders in organisations or at my coaching clinic on a Sunday, I meet men and women who are clearly talented and yet who struggle to find the right next job. (Right now, as a result of these kinds of conversations, I’m recruiting members of a London-based coaching group called Kick start your next career move.  If you know anyone who might be interested, please forward this link to them.)

It seems that people with strong potential don’t always find it easy to find a job in which they can truly shine.

If you read my blog on a regular basis you’ll know that I don’t hold line managers responsible for the careers of their staff.  We all have a primary responsibility to meet our own needs.  Still, if you are a line manager to a talented and aspiring leader, I wonder if you relate to the dilemma faced by your colleagues.

Are you worried that coaching your staff will prepare them for a future in someone else’s organisation?

Learning to hold the reins
Learning to hold the reins

You know how it is.  You’ve made the case for a new member of your team, someone who can take some of the load off your shoulders.  Perhaps it took you a while to ask for help.  Maybe it was a long and painful approval process, so that by the time you get to recruit, you’re almost on your knees.

You advertise the post and get any number of recruits.  Maybe some of them look just right for the post, though your colleagues worry that these well-formed candidates are already ready for the next job and encourage you to take on someone who can benefit from some learning in this post.  You do.

You choose someone with potential and you spend time bringing them up to speed.  For a while, it seems as though you have more work as a result of recruiting them rather than less.  Perhaps you spend six months, eight… maybe even twelve months or eighteen teaching them to hold the reins.

Having delegated all sorts of tasks to your new team member, you’re starting to motor.  You are free now to handle an altogether more strategic agenda.  You enjoy stepping back from the detail to plan your forward path.

And then, just as your plan comes to fruition, they leave.

It may be that this is the reality of your situation.  Perhaps it’s something you worry about even though it hasn’t happened yet.  Is it wise to invest so much in support of members of your team if all it means is that they move on?

Building a learning organisation

In 1999, the UK’s Department for Education funded a major piece of research in order to understand what differentiated the most effective school teachers.  It followed hot on the heals of research into effective school leadership which underpinned the design of a national Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers.

I was working at the time for the Hay Group, which carried out this work.  Although mostly I have worked with client organisations in the private sector, these projects heralded the beginning of my involvement in the education sector.  I was Director of Quality for the conduct and analysis of interviews with teachers across the country, for example, as part of the Hay Group’s research.  After I left the Hay Group, I served for ten years as a regional and then national judge for the Teaching Awards.

One year, it was my privilege to observe a head teacher who, already successful in leading her own school, had taken on the headship of a second school.   The second school was in some difficulty so her remit was to raise standards in the second school whilst maintaining standards in the first.  As others before her had already found out, parents’ fear that standards might drop can make them highly unwilling partners in such an endeavour.

Coaching new skills
Teaching new skills

Nonetheless, the head teacher’s approach was audacious.  She started to make strategic exchanges of personnel between the two schools.  A member of staff in one school would swap places with his or her peer in the other school.  Both would receive coaching and both would work with each other to exchange best practice with the aim of raising standards in both schools.  Hers was essentially a coaching approach.

It worked.

Standards improved across the failing school.  Teachers across both schools reported an enriching experience which had built their awareness of and confidence in their skills.  They improved existing skills and developed new ones.  The head teacher had created what some call a learning organisation, in both schools.  Coaching was woven into the culture and practices of both schools.

What “Miss” knew

What did this head teacher know that made her feel comfortable to take such audacious steps?  Two things.

Firstly, she knew that even without any changes of personnel, the school she was taking on had greater potential than it was currently fulfilling.  She had faith in the people in the new school – faith that they could learn and grow.  She also held the belief that staff in her existing school, already seen as high performers, had the potential to learn and grow.  She set out to make the experience a learning experience for everybody.

So far, so good.  But what about the risk of preparing people for a future in other people’s schools?

In truth, this head teacher positively wanted to prepare people for their next roles, whether or not it was in her school.  You could say that she wanted it because this was a reflection of who she was.  She was, at root, a coaching head teacher.

But in case you are not a coaching leader, you might still want to know why.  What thoughts and attitudes did she have that made her want to coach her staff even whilst knowing they might move on?

This head teacher’s approach was the manifestation of her belief that there are plenty of talented people in the world, people with potential to learn and grow.  She knew that there would always be people coming into her school with potential and with an appetite for learning.  In truth, experience had taught her that creating a learning environment for the adults in her school made the school an attractive place for precisely the kind of people she wanted to recruit – people with aspirations to learn and to work to high standards.  She had no concerns about losing good people because she felt confident of her ability to recruit more good people to the school.

Room to shine

As I draw this posting to a close, I remember that this head teacher’s school shone like a beacon in her area and was heavily over-subscribed.  It attracted parents and their children.  It attracted teaching and non-teaching staff.  What’s more, it attracted applications from precisely the kind of people she wanted to recruit.  I wonder what brand your organisation has in your marketplace, whatever it is.

It’s easy, too, to see that some people also have a personal charisma that makes them shine like a beacon within their organisations and beyond.  These are the people you recruit with confidence, if only you get the chance.

But if you’re not shining as an individual to your current or prospective employers, it doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer.  More likely, it means you don’t know what your talent is or how to describe it.  (If so, please think about joining me to Kick start your next career move.)

And if, as a leader, you want to attract staff who will make a real difference in your organisation, think about recruiting the very people you’d most like to keep, coaching them whilst they’re with you and accepting that, at some stage, they will move on.

The trouble with New Year’s resolutions

Blog Jeju 61


On Friday, 2nd January, I stepped into the office for the first time since Christmas.  I had a small list of priorities, including clearing my desk ready to start the year, some scheduled phone calls and preparing to write this blog.

It seemed to be a good time to reflect on the year just gone and the year ahead.  What did I achieve last year?  What do I want to achieve in the year that has just begun?

If New Year’s resolutions are working for you, there’s probably nothing I can add on this topic.

More often, though, they don’t.

For this reason, I decided to explore the topic in my first blog of 2015.

Does your heart sink at the thought of setting New Year’s resolutions?

Whether you are contemplating making New Year’s resolutions for yourself or setting new goals for your team, you’re probably acutely aware that for many people, the habit of setting New Year’s resolutions can be laced with cynicism and disappointment before the year has even begun.

Maybe you know you need to lose weight or to increase sales across your business.  You said it last year.  You said it the year before.  Saying that you wanted to achieve it did not, though, make it happen.

Perhaps you feel the pressure to come up with new goals.  Maybe you are under pressure to deliver against somebody else’s new goals.  But past experience tells you that knowing the pressure is there has made no difference in practice to the results you and your team have achieved.

To cap it all, the more you focus on what you should be achieving that’s different, the more your heart sinks as you reflect on past failures.

SMART goals – are they any better?

The acronym SMART has become a byword for goal-setting in organisations in recent years.  It didn’t, though, stop one client from complaining about the impossible challenge of setting and achieving team goals.

John (let’s call him John) had been struggling with one particular goal for two years in a row and the need to achieve it was becoming increasingly pressing.  He had checked it for “SMART” and it ticked all the boxes.

Still, they had failed to achieve the goals as agreed in year one.

They had failed to achieve the goals in year two.

Failing to achieve it in year three didn’t seem to be an option.

It seemed to me that we needed to understand why John and his team were failing to achieve their goal before he could make the adjustments that would make the difference.

Two reasons why we fail to turn New Year’s resolutions (and SMART goals) into practice

Let me turn away from John and his team for a moment.  Why, in practice, do we fail to achieve our goals?  I am thinking about our personal goals as well as the goals we set with and for our team.

Reflecting on my own and others’ failures, I notice two key reasons why people don’t achieve their goals or fulfil their New Year’s resolutions.  Firstly, at times, we simply set the wrong goal.  Sometimes, for example, we set a goal for our career and yet fail to take steps to achieve it.  Perhaps it’s a goal that honours the wishes of our family but fails to gladden our heart, for example.  (And yes, many achieve such goals and turn up years later in coaching or therapy clinics, dissatisfied and wondering where to go next).  Perhaps we set a goal for our team which fails to get to the heart of what’s needed or to take account of what’s going on in the marketplace.  (One person I interviewed years ago was charged with a sales goals which was a percentage increase of current sales of a product that was about to become obsolete.  It was clear he wouldn’t achieve his goal and still, he had to fight a hard political battle in his organisation to gain wider recognition of the implications of this change in technology.)

There’s a second reason why we fail to fulfil our New Year’s resolutions or to succeed in meeting a business goal.  Quite simply, we underestimate what it takes to achieve them.  If we know from the beginning what it takes to achieve our goals, we’re probably playing too small a game.  This applies in our personal lives as much as it does in our businesses and organisations.  When I jotted down some of the reasons people don’t fulfil their New Year’s resolutions or their business goals some very human things came up:

  • Lack of commitment:  Have you ever said yes to doing something, only to find that you didn’t, well… do it?  Sometimes we don’t get off the starting blocks because we haven’t really tested for commitment.  This is true when the goal is a personal one – one part of us wants to achieve X, for example, but another part is concerned about the implications.  Across our teams this inner conflict may be replicated many times.
  • Failing to acknowledge the benefits of our current behaviours:  If you want to lose weight and you’re still eating all the foods (or drinking all the drinks) you know you need to give up, it’s because you get something you want from your current habits.  Psychologists call these hidden benefits “secondary gains”.  You may know intellectually that you have some bad habits you want to ditch and still, some part of you is clinging on tight to the same bad habits.  And yes, the same is true across whole organisations.  One organisation I know has repeatedly expressed the aspiration of creating truly equal “win, win” partnerships with suppliers.  At the same time, this organisation has benefited for a long time from seeing itself as stronger and superior to people outside the organisation.  There may be some element of illusion in this aspect of the organisation’s culture and still, it fuels a certain confidence in the marketplace.
  • Failing to identify and overcome barriers to progress:  It’s remarkable how many organisations turn a blind eye to key barriers to progress.  This can extend to using labels (“naysayer”, whinger” etc.) to describe anyone who raises a concern.  At the same time, the self same “naysayers” can be invaluable in highlighting issues that need to be overcome in order to meet a personal or organisational goal.  This failure to face the key challenges involved in achieving a goal can, in turn, lead to another issue which prevents us from achieving our goals;
  • Making too many changes in direction:  Have you ever noticed how team members can greet the goals of the new boss with a quiet resistance?  Conversations round the kettle suggest that he or she will calm down soon and nothing will get done, because who has ever followed through to achieve their goals?  At the same time, I’ve seen organisations invest significant amounts of time and money in a new idea, only to abandon it when it doesn’t go strictly to plan.  It can be painful to face mistakes and to correct them.  Sometimes it’s easier to abandon an idea completely and save face by saying it was a mistake to attempt something in the first place.  Changes in bosses can bring changes in direction.  Even without new people at the top, there can be unhelpful changes in direction before goals are ever met;
  • Timing, timing, timing…  Any number of failed goals are down to timing.  Was it timely to address this goal, or did it need to wait until you’ve addressed something else first?  Were you, your team, your senior colleagues willing to discover just how long it might take to achieve a goal?  Did they value the goal enough to persevere over time?

The reason behind the reason

In his exploration of the reasons he and his team had failed to achieve their main goal, John and his team identified a number of reasons which were both hidden from view and obvious once they had been identified.  It was a painful process for John and for a number of members of his team.

I could stop here.

After all, having identified why they were stuck, he and his team were able to revise their plans to address the key issues and, suddenly, the speed at which they made progress towards the goal they had identified two years early accelerated dramatically.

What had seemed hard suddenly seemed terribly easy.

But one question hit hard as John reflected on this sudden change of pace.  Why was it that such obvious reasons for delays had remained out of view?  And what was it that had suddenly made it possible to identify and discuss – address, even –  the barriers to progress across the team?

John was humble in his response:

“It was so clear that this goal was well within our grasp that every time we met a barrier I felt frustrated with myself or with members of my team.  Why wasn’t one team member doing the things he had promised week after week after week?  Sometimes, frustrated with my own role in the delays, I would give staff a ‘talking to’ and let them know how disappointed I was with them.  I always felt better for doing this, as if I was doing what I should do in my role as leader.  At the same time, I could see heads droop and motivation flounder.  All the frustration in the world, the self-blame, the criticism of my staff… it seemed right and logical but it didn’t make one bit of difference.”

So what did make the difference?

“When we talked about this goal in our coaching, I noticed something about the way you responded.  There was a quality you brought to our discussion which was entirely absent until that point – compassion.  I had been really beating myself up in the days preceding our session.  I was getting ready to do the same with my staff.

“This quality of compassion allowed me to recognise that delays and challenges are perfectly normal.  It also allowed me and my team to explore what was really getting in the way of progress.  It was as if, by taking blame out of the equation, we all became more willing to share our perceptions and to hear each other fully.  Initially, I felt vulnerable doing this and then, because of the lack of blame, I felt safe hearing staff tell me about the issues I had overlooked and about the impact of my approach.”

One afterthought on John’s part particularly struck me:

“I used to think that compassion was the opposite of accountability – a sign of weakness on my part as a leader.  This process has taught me that the opposite is true.  The greater the compassion, the easier it becomes to hold myself and others to account, because we’re not confusing the issues involved with who we are and what we can bring.”IMG_3752

Looking forward with compassion to 2015

Personally, I have a confession to make.

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions this year.

My goals – both personal and business – are anything but SMART.

At the moment, I am feeling my way through a period of considerable personal and professional change.

I have though, like John, learnt the value of compassion.  I have learnt how much more self aware I am when I can explore my desires with compassion.  I have learnt how much I can learn from my own inner resistance and from those who doubt when I can bring compassion to the conversation, for myself and others.  I have learnt how compassion can carry me through times of fear and uncertainty, or lift me up when something goes wrong.

In this moment I am accepting with compassion that I am publishing my first blog posting of 2015 almost a week after I started to write it.  Worse still, I am realising that although I scheduled this posting for 8th January, some glitch means that I’ve discovered, well into the month, that it hasn’t yet been published.

I am also looking back to see what progress I have made in my business and personal life despite the many moments in which I have felt anxious when things have not happened as quickly as I hoped and realising that there’s a much larger picture for me to look at.  From this perspective, I see successes I could never have anticipated and some very human barriers I have overcome.

I am looking forward to whatever life brings in 2015.

I hope you are, too.

PS  The photos are from my visit to a Buddhist temple last year on mainland South Korea.  Buddhism emphasises compassion, which may be why I was drawn to these photos in particular when writing this post.

Recruiting for integrity? Be careful what you wish for!

What is your concept of “integrity”?

Recently, I worked with a client to shape a new competency model for leaders across the organisation.  There was a time when organisations would pay a lot of money for deep research to establish which behaviours marked out their most effective leaders, but this seems to be less fashionable nowadays.  Few organisations have the budget and some find it hard to believe that yesterday’s stars are the right people to meet the very different challenges of today – let alone tomorrow.

No, this was a more pragmatic approach, mining the wisdom of leaders themselves about the core leadership challenges they expect to face in the next 5-10 years, about those people who are handling these challenges most effectively, and about the core behaviours demonstrated by their chosen role models.

One behaviour, integrity, came up as key – and not for the first time.  It seems that, no matter what the challenges of the era, organisations aspire to employ men and women of integrity.

What is “integrity”?
Often, when clients discuss integrity, they think of someone who has clear values and who acts in line with those values.

The person who shows integrity makes promises and keeps them, and acts in ways which are consistent with the values they espouse (some call this “congruity”).  What’s more, they are not easily swayed from their values, even when acting on personal values carries a high risk.  Ideally, the man or woman of integrity speaks up about wrong-doing in the company and challenges poor decisions, with the greater good of the organisation in mind.

Implicit in the concept of integrity is the idea of “good” values – honesty, for example, probity, perhaps.  Clients also associate integrity with wisdom and emotional intelligence, too.

“How,” you may be asking yourself, “could such a person be anything other than an asset?”

Why organisations don’t like integrity in practice
Years ago, I was briefly the colleague of Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer.  She left the organisation I was working for quite suddenly after her partner, David Shayler, hit the news here in the UK after blowing the whistle on some aspect (I do not remember what) of MI5 practice.

Whistle-blowing is just one thing that people do who act with integrity.  In recent history, for example, whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have been talked about around the world. (Read 5 Famous Whistleblowers Who Shaped History to learn more).  But who loves the whistle-blower?  Rarely is it the higher echelons of the organisations whose practices (mal- or otherwise) have been revealed.

There are other reasons why organisations don’t much like integrity in practice.  If you’ve ever been in a meeting, for example, in which one of your colleagues has made the case – repeatedly – for or against some proposal based on a set of personal values that you don’t share, you will know how much time can be lost in circular discussion.  Especially when the individual’s values are out of alignment with the values of an organisation, integrity can be – quite frankly – a real pain in the arse.

There’s something else, too… that integrity without insight, the behavioural flexibility or even the position to influence or persuade can impede progress towards an organisation’s most fundamental goals.  And who judges whether the (wo)man of integrity is appropriately standing his or her ground or (as Jeffrey recently said of Edward Snowden in the New Yorker) a “grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison”?

If you want your leaders to show integrity, and if you want the result to be positive for you or your organisation, there are things you need to get right.

Getting it right when recruiting for integrity
Here are just four things for you to think about before you include “integrity” as a competency in your model of effective leadership:

  • Are you clear about your organisation’s core values?  Integrity can be a hindrance as much as a help if your leaders show integrity in line with values your organisation does not espouse.  Before you look for integrity in your leaders, you need to get clear on the core values of your organisation.  Only then is helpful to understand if your recruits share your values and can embody them in practice as well as espouse them in theory;
  • Integrity is just one behavioural ingredient:  Think carefully about what other behaviours your leader needs in order for integrity to be an asset to your organisation.  Do your leaders show empathy, for example – the ability put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues and to look at things from another point of view?  Do they show judgement – the ability to see the issue under examination in a larger context or to weigh the pros and cons of a particular forward path?  Integrity without empathy or judgement can look like just plain bloody-mindedness;
  • There may be other things besides leadership behaviours:  If your concern is to promote a certain set of values, you need to look beyond the integrity of individual leaders.  Recent scandals in the UK’s NHS, for example, point to a wide range of issues which undermine patient care.  What checks are in place when recruiting new staff?  What training is provided to develop core skills associated with good patient care?  What is the impact on staff of short-staffing or other issues?  The list goes on;
  • It may not be integrity that secures adherence to values:  This is something organisations struggle with and still, when your organisation’s values are clearly outlined and reflected in policies and practices which have been designed to support them, it may not be the integrity of your leaders that keeps people on track.  Instead, it may be other behavioural qualities such as a desire to do well.

And what about you?
I hope this posting has helped you to think through some of the issues that face you if you are thinking of including integrity as a core leadership behaviour in your organisation.

Having said this, I also want to point to something more personal – your own need to live a life of integrity.

This, though, is the stuff of another blog posting.

Are you confident of recruiting the right (wo)man for the job?

In recent years, the relationship of the UK’s banks with the concept of “risk” has been evolving rapidly.

Risk in the banking sector comes in many forms.  Lending risk is perhaps the most obvious.  The collapse of the global economy in 2008, for example, has been widely attributed to a policy in America of offering sub-prime mortgages – essentially, of lending to people who couldn’t possibly repay their debt.  In the UK, the appetite for lending risk in banking has changed dramatically in the intervening years in response to changes in the regulatory environment and an overall move away from an environment of light-touch regulation.

Another prominent area of risk – in banking and other sectors – is the risk of fraud.  I don’t know about you, but I often field e-mails purporting to be from this, that or another well-known high-street bank and urging me to update my security details.  I’m tempted to dismiss them – who on earth would be fooled by such a scam?!  But the fact that they keep on coming suggests that yes, they work.  Of course, this is just one way in which client accounts are accessed fraudulently.  Banks increasingly have to keep abreast of the creativity of crooks.

Periodically, banks also fall prey to the risk of trading by staff beyond authorised limits with the consequential losses.  Another prominent area of risk in banking is in the failure of IT systems.  And, well, the list goes on…

The risk of recruiting the wrong person for the job
There’s a risk that’s spoken of less often, in banking as elsewhere, even though it’s a risk that we take on a regular basis – the risk of recruiting the wrong person for the job.

Maybe you’ve been there yourself.  You interviewed a range of candidates and one or two really stood out as front-runners.  Perhaps they had a track record of experience that was way ahead of their peers.  Perhaps they had worked for all the best organisations.  Perhaps they had had an early success that made them stand out or, simply, impressed you in interview… you made your decision and looked forward to the outcome…

…except that…

…the person who looked so good on paper and who impressed you so much at interview turned out to be someone quite different once his or her feet were under the desk.

If ever you’ve had this experience, you’ll know how painful it can be and how difficult it can be to unravel.  For starters, even if your antennae start to twitch early on, it takes time to realise that yes, you really have got a problem on your hands.  Probably, you’ll want to take action to support the individual you’ve recruited to give him or her the best possible chance to succeed.  Meanwhile the body of evidence starts to grow which tells you you’ve got it wrong.  Some of these can be hard measures –  deadlines or targets that have been missed, for example, or a failure to deliver something (a proposal, a new client, an IT system…) that was promised in interview.  Some of them can be so-called “soft” measures – a failure to engage with key stakeholders, for example, or to set a clear and compelling agenda.

By the time you’ve identified the problem, tried to support the person you’ve recruited in getting up to speed, realised you need to move them into a different job or to sack them, sacked them and recruited a replacement, the consequences can be bruising and include the time lost in moving forward a key agenda, the alienation of employees or key stakeholders, the costs of recruiting a replacement… the list goes on.

Recruiting for competence
As early as 1973, Professor David McClelland wrote a paper entitled Testing for Competence Rather Than for Intelligence which was published in the American Psychologist.  He proposed that a proliferation of aptitude and intelligence tests had created a whole movement in the US which, however, failed effectively to predict actual performance.  Instead of joining his colleagues in pursuit of a general and universal test of individual aptitude, McClelland proposed an alternative;  he looked for ways to test for competency which were rooted in an understanding of the job and of the characteristics and behaviours that actually differentiated high performers.

Ground-breaking at the time, McClelland is widely credited with opening up our deeper understanding of what makes people effective in a wide range of roles and the word “competencies”, which he used in his 1973 paper, is now widely understood.

Widely, but not universally…

Whilst some organisations have made great strides towards recruiting the right (wo)man for the job, mistakes still happen.  Organisations are particularly vulnerable to making mistakes in which people make decisions based on a poor understanding of the job and of it’s essential requirements, a poor understanding of what it takes to succeed in the job, and replacing effective methods of assessing for competency with over-reliance on a person’s career history (as reflected in a CV), on interview methods which fail to get under the skin of a candidate’s actual capability and on “gut feel”.

If you want to recruit effectively, here are just some of the things you need to be thinking about:

  • Do you have a clear and simple job description in place which clarifies the core purpose and essential requirements of the job?  Too many senior recruitments fall at this very first hurdle;
  • Do you understand the competencies that predict success in a given job?  It seems to me that, at the moment, too many behavioural descriptions are “motherhood and apple pie” rather than reflecting any careful observation of (let alone quality research into) what makes people effective in a given role.
  • Do you have an effective method for testing for competency?  Assessment centres are widely used when recruiting for multiple role-holders whilst I use competency-based interviews to assess candidates for senior leadership roles.

I would add that the use of psychometric tests can enhance your recruitment efforts – though they are not, in my view, a substitute for any of the core elements outlined above.

And banking?
We can all look at the banking sector and name senior figures in the industry who were reckless in the extreme in the period which led up to the events of 2008.  They are casting a long shadow over the industry… the mythology of the banking “fat cat” is alive and well and will no doubt be slow to respond to any actual changes in banking behaviour.

My own experience has been a little different.  Assessing candidates for senior roles in UK banks I have met any number of men and women who are concerned to support the success of UK banking, the effective management of risk and a real connection with the customer.

At least in retail banking, that’s you and me.

PS  The photo came from a recent walk along London’s South Bank.  Some of the photos I took on that day will be appearing on my new website – coming soon – at www.learningforlifeconsulting.co.uk

Warning: don’t play with our values!

What do your staff see when they read the Our Values statement on the walls of your organisation?  I wrote this posting for Discuss HR blog where it was published yesterday.

Recently I’ve been in the classroom, as a student.  I took my Hogan certification workshop last month with the aim of gaining accreditation to use the Hogan suite of tests and enjoyed the luxury of soaking up new information and insight.  Since then I’ve been diving deeper into the learning – exploring my results from the Hogan tests and matching them against my own experience, conducting my first feedback sessions, diving into the literature, even correlating Hogan’s research against what I know of David McClelland’s research.  It’s been a ball – albeit one with a serious purpose.

But let me get to my subject, which is not Hogan, though it was prompted by a remark by my trainer that Hogan holds the view that if you want to change organisational culture, you need to change your staff.  And I don’t mean gently invite them to change their values – to adjust the things they hold most dear in order to align their view of what’s important with the new list on the wall of their team area or executive office.  No, I’m talking about recruiting staff whose values correspond to those you want to promote around the organisation.

I was curious about this comment because I know how fashionable it has been during the course of my career for organisations to shape a values statement for a new era.  I also know how such statements can become the object of cynicism as the posters that adorn every wall gradually curl at the edges without any fundamental change.  We need to become more competitive and fleet of foot – let’s put that in a new values statement and see what changes.  If anything.

There’s also the tricky reality that people may do the same things for different reasons.  John in Risk and Control may adhere to the rules because he has strong values around acting with integrity, in line with clear principles.  His colleague Charles may also have a strong nose for risk management, which derives from his interest in making money and his understanding that, in a highly regulated industry, you have to be on the right side of the regulator to maintain your mandate to do business.  Each set of values has its advantages and disadvantages and the fact that a single department or team has diverse people with diverse values in the team also has its advantages and disadvantages as a result.

Of course, the ‘change your values, change your people idea’ can indeed play out in the long term.  Whenever I touch on the subject certain organisations spring to mind – Virgin, for example, Ben and Jerry’s or Pret a Manger.  Googling ‘Virgin values’ I came across the following statement on Virgin’s About Us page:  Virgin believes in making a difference. We stand for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge. We strive to achieve this by empowering our employees to continually deliver an unbeatable customer experience.  I suspect that Virgin’s values statement is, though, the cart rather than the horse – that Richard Branson has, over the years, attracted people with similar values to work with him in a growing range of subsidiary organisations.  First came the embodiment of the values and then came the attempt to capture those values explicitly.

If all your staff share the same values, there can be an ease of working together, a strong brand that naturally emerges and the potential to attract a client base that shares your values – these, for me, are the most obvious advantages of shared values across an organisation.  There can also be risks.  The altruistically motivated organisation, for example, still needs somebody with enough commercial savvy to keep a strong eye on the books though he or she may feel unwelcome and uncomfortable amongst people with different values or have to push hard to engage colleagues in the financial realities of doing good for others.

Either way, a key question that the organisational values programme can overlook is this:  how malleable are people’s basic values and motivations?  To the extent that they are largely stable in most adults, investing in a new set of organisational values to meet the challenges of different times whilst keeping the same staff may well be costly and ineffective.  And if it is, how then can organisations drive those behaviours that are needed in a given era.

Most of all I wonder, what has been your experience in practice?

The perennial problem of change

How many organisations are seeking to make changes right now to meet the challenges of a falling economy (yes, we’re back in recession in the UK), to address problems within organisations, to drive up profits, to seize opportunities…?

Susan Popoola wrote an interesting summary of The Problems With Change Projects in organisations, published on Discuss HR as well as on the Human Resources UK group on LinkedIn.  Discussion is raging on LinkedIn where there are also some interesting links to other resources.

I added my own two penn’orth as a way to give myself a break one day last week.  This is what I said:

Wow! Lots of really great stuff on this discussion! I especially noticed Andy’s assertion that “The business wants the change to happen a.s.a.p, and there’s a lot of energy at the beginning of the change programme which then starts to evaporate when the going gets tough”. 

Is it possible that one of the issues is that people in senior roles get anxious when things look in any way “messy”? If you’re the sponsor of a programme of change there are moments when things are messy and outcomes are uncertain and when you could well be thinking ahead to the personal implications for you if things don’t turn around. In these moments it’s easy to start looking for a scapegoat or for the next great thing.

It’s more challenging (and courageous) to go deep and to ask, just why is this proving so difficult? Especially because this implies being open and willing to learn about our own weaknesses and things we need to do differently. 

I wonder, what’s the culture in your organisation around change?  And how do people respond when things start to go wrong?

Making requests as an aspect of organisational culture

Yesterday I was working from home, as I mostly do on a Monday.  It was a busy day, but not so densely packed that I didn’t have time to take in some fresh air at lunch time.  In fact, I did something that I have recently taken to doing and wandered the length of Lewisham’s market stalls – just two minutes from home – to ask the stall holders if any of them had any waste products that could go into my compost bin.

In recent weeks I have learnt just how willingly the local stall holders give the gift of their green waste which otherwise goes into the immense bins provided by our local council for disposal elsewhere.  Yesterday I even had advice from one stall holder – let us know in the morning or the day before that you’ll be coming to collect and we’ll save it for you.
I would add that, as the recipient of this largesse I am delighted.  It’s not just that I hope, quite soon, to have the best fed worms in the whole of South East London and, in time, a steady supply of compost to improve the soil in my garden.  It’s not even because, until recently, I hadn’t thought to ask.  It’s also because, at a young age, I somehow learnt “not to put people to any trouble” by making a request.  I still have to remind myself that that was then and this is now as part of my preparation for making a request.  And yes, because it’s a request I am learning joyfully to accept a yes or a no.
I know I am not alone.  I invite you to take a moment to ask yourself how often and how openly, you – and others in your organisation – make requests.  And I do mean a request – an open question of someone who might be able to help you and with the option for the person you are asking to respond with a yes or no.  I also invite you to reflect on how willingly you and those you lead own the personal needs that sit behind the request. This is the difference, for example, between saying could we meet at 4pm so that I can get away by 5.30pm to support my partner at home and saying actually, I’m not available at 6pm or maybe even meeting your boss at 6pm and adding it as just one more example to stoke the fire of slow-burning resentment and ill health.
Because yes, there are things that people do to avoid making requests – because to make a request is often to share information about our needs and to open ourselves up to a no and to all the meanings we make of that no.  Making requests can leave us feeling oddly vulnerable, even when we have managed to persuade ourselves that it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
What do we do instead?  Here are just a few examples.  They all come with a price.  Which ones are prevalent in your organisation?
  • Ask a quasi request (“Make sure you check the report before you send it off, will you?”).  The substance of the request is vague, the language is part instruction, part request.  We haven’t asked the person of whom we’re making the request if they can do what we ask;
  • Assume that any half decent member of staff will know what to do and feel angry when they don’t deliver.  (In many organisations staff think this way about their colleagues and even their boss.  In senior leadership roles, we set the tone);
  • Wrap up a request, for example by assigning the need for the request to the organisation rather than honestly reflecting on and sharing our own needs.  Especially when we are in senior roles, this can make it hard for people to say no, though it may lead to all sorts of problems – including a kind of thoughtless obedience or quiet disobedience (yes minister style);
  • Tell ourselves that someone wouldn’t cope or would do their nut (or similar) if we made a request.  This is a great get-out clause – it may be true and, even so, it may mask a more personal reason why we are not making requests.

The approach people have to making requests in your organisation is part of organisational culture and it has significant implications for your organisation’s ability to achieve its aims.  I invite you to a seven-day curiosity exercise – just take time to notice the culture in your organisation around making requests.

Please report back.