Author: Jen

Writer & Divorce Coach

Talent Planning, Chef Style

I’m excited to announce that Engage the Fox: A Business Fable about Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team, is now available for preorders. I cannot wait to share the story of Thaddeus P. Fox and how he saved The Toad Hollow Gazette.

Recently, I was interviewed about talent planning by search consultant, Nancy Massey. I’ll share my comments in this reprint from The Headhunter Chronicles. I apologize that the chef discussed is not a vegan but I think the message is still relevant to readers of The Gazette.


In the movie Chef, Chef Carl Casper is a talented but hot-headed chef who threatens to leave restaurant-owner Riva high and dry on one of the most important nights of the year. Riva is calm as he thinks he has a competent sous chef and line cook who can step into the void. While Riva is by no means an ideal manager (it’s never good when one of your key employees regularly sleeps in his car) common kitchen hierarchy, known as brigade de cuisine, means that there are always a couple of understudies who can help out if a key contributor leaves.

5c637500-a7e8-11e3-b2bb-b940b4e3c814_chef_sxsw_gsSource: Merrick Morton/Open Road /via/

Even if you do not employ temperamental chefs, it’s smart have have a talent management strategy in place. Over the last six years, the baby boomers have started to retire. According to a US survey released earlier this year, 21% of employees plan to change jobs in 2014. Employers should be prepared to rehire almost a quarter of their workforce this year just to preserve the status quo (those in growth mode will have even greater hiring needs.)

Many employers are reactive when it comes to staffing: they do not think about hiring until someone quits or a skills deficiency causes a problem (these are the clients who call me asking if I can have someone hired within a couple of hours.) As a recruiter, I love the challenge but the trouble with this approach is that you are starting out behind the eight ball — the cubicle is empty, the skills deficiency is obvious, the client has nobody to call — and you need to fill the role as quickly as possible. You don’t have the luxury to think about who the best hire would be and so simply try to hire someone who most closely represents the last person who filled that position. Each new hire represents an opportunity to make organizational change and having a talent plan in place can help you optimize the recruiting process.

We asked Jen Lawrence of Process Design Consultants about the key components of a talent management strategy and turn the blog over to her…


Hello there. Thanks for this opportunity to share my views on strategic hiring. While it is often a huge inconvenience and expense when an employee quits or retires, it is also a wonderful opportunity. Every time a position becomes available, you have the opportunity to rethink the role. The natural reaction to a resignation is to find an exact replacement as quickly as possible so you don’t disrupt the status quo. In some commodity-like roles (think outbound telemarketers who follow a tight script) hiring a immediate replacement is exactly what you want to do. In more senior positions, however, chances are you want to disrupt the status quo as each new hire represents the opportunity to more closely match your talent pool to your company’s current and future goals.

For example, when a company is in start-up mode it might need lots of employees with a strong lead generation capability whereas when the company matures it might need to add people who can manage the order pipeline and mine existing relationships. A company that once had an engineering competency might have morphed into one with strength in technology and therefore might need to shift the hiring profile to reflect the company’s new direction. Perhaps a company is expanding into a new geographic market and needs people who speak other languages. Or your vertical manager might need less of a focus on oil and gas and more on alternative sources of energy. If you don’t have a talent plan in place that aligns people with your overall strategy, you might miss out on an opportunity to move your organization closer to its vision through your hiring practice.

I’ll keep with the Chef theme to illustrate my point. Think of your company as a cake and your people as the ingredients that make the cake a success or a failure. A good cake is the result of mixing together the right ingredients in the correct amounts and then baking it at the right temperature. You don’t just randomly start throwing sugar and butter and eggs into the oven: you need some sort of plan.

First, you need an overall vision for your cake. Is this cake for a bachelor party or a five year-old girl’s princess-themed birthday party? Each requires a very different kind of cake. How many people does this cake need to feed? In this case, our vision is that we want to bake a cake that will dazzle a group of 15 princess-crazy party-goers.You want to see the face of the birthday girl light up as you carry the cake to the table. What is the vision for your company? Are you a luxury hotel chain where the care and comfort of your guests is your focus? Are you a company that brings the latest technology to the masses? Who are you? What do you bring to your customers? Why do your employees get out of bed in the morning?

Once you have a vision, you need to figure out a strategy that will bring that vision to life. If you want to dazzle pre-school princesses, look is probably more important than taste. You might do some market research to discover that sweet and sugary is popular among the Dora set. You are going to need a big fancy cake, preferably with a lot of glitter. Subtle flourless chocolate cakes need not apply. What strategy is going to bring your corporate vision to life? Are you the low-cost provider or do you provide white glove service with a smile? If you are the low cost provider, you need to manage your margins and your volume. How are you going to do that?

Now that you have a general idea of the type of cake you require, you need to make some concrete plans. You research “fancy princess cakes” on Pinterest and decide on the pink glitter castle cake. Perhaps there are detailed instructions for decorating the cake but no recipe for the cake itself. You know that you will need a stable base for the heavy fondant icing and glitter. You ask around and get a recipe that has worked for other people’s castle cakes. You now know what ingredients you need. Once you have a clearly defined vision and strategy and start to think about action planning, you are ready to think about the skill sets you need to make your vision come to life. These are your ingredients: you need someone who is great at managing an international supply chain; you need someone who is excellent at negotiating vendor terms; or you need the best concierge in Paris to look after your guests’ needs.

Now you can source the ingredients to make your cake. How full is your pantry? If you have been minding the kitchen you should have the basics in place. Hopefully your have an oven and some bowls and a spoon. Perhaps there is some flour around. And some butter. If you are new to baking or things have changed (perhaps you used to avoid sweets entirely) you may need to bring in a lot of new resources. In the leadership and development world, we call this a talent audit. What skills do you have? What skills do you still need? Who can you train? Who must you hire?

Perhaps your pantry is full and you only need vanilla extract. If you have vanilla beans and vodka on hand, you can make your own (think of this as employee development) Otherwise, you will need to go outside to source the vanilla extract. What type of vanilla extract do you need? How important is this vanilla extract to the success of your cake? Do you need the organic, hand-blended variety in the fancy glass bottle or is the generic label variety alright? (And as an aside, if you need the organic, hand-blended variety in the fancy glass bottle, you might want to hire a recruiter like Nancy to help you with that!) What is your budget? Does your local store have stock on hand? Are you willing to bring in the vanilla extract from another town? Your needs will dictate the sourcing strategy. Generic vanilla — such as the type required for our sugar-soaked princess cake — can be found quite easily. The fancy stuff requires a trip to a speciality store. A line manager should work with a recruiter (internal or third party) to draw up a list of specific skill requirements for the new role. It’s tempting to simply use the existing job description but if you want to maximize this hiring opportunity it makes sense to think about exactly what skills you need today and in the future.

So there you have it. That’s talent planning. It’s looking at where you want to go as an organization and figure out how your people are going to take you there. You need to train and develop the people you have and add in new talent whenever you need to. When you break it down into smaller steps, building a great organization through people is, well, a piece of cake…



Book Review: Think Like a Freak.



I loved this book. No, scratch that. I LOVED this book. Authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explore how the iconoclastic approach to data revealed in Freakonomics can improve the way we think. As they write, “This book steps out of the shadows and tries to offer some advice that may occasionally be useful, whether you are interested in minor lifehacks or major global reforms.” I have to admit that I became biased in favour of this book when I saw the early reference to Philip Tetlock, who I have loved ever since his piece, Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs (with apologies to the Publisher of this fine newspaper, of course…) But I will try to write an open-minded review.

Before researching this book, the authors naturally saw the world through the rational lenses of economics and statistics and were curious to find out why so many decisions seem illogical. The books starts by reviewing the thinking process of a soccer player who is about to make a critical penalty kick in the championship game of the World Cup. The authors turn to the data about penalty kicks to see where the player should direct the ball to maximize his chance of success. They then look at where he is most likely to aim the ball. “While a penalty kick aimed at the centre of the goal is significantly more likely to succeed, only 17% of kicks are aimed there. Why so few?”

The authors realize that the decision cannot be made based on statistics alone as the rational side of the brain is forced to contend with the emotional side. This is not, of course, new information. Back in about 370 BC, Plato was writing about the tug between the intellect and the heart. More recently, Jonathan Haidt wrote about the struggle between the rider (the rational brain) and the elephant (the emotional brain) in The Happiness Hypothesis. What makes Think Like a Freak so good is that the authors breathe life into this oft-explored slice of neuroscience through the art of storytelling, like the example about the soccer game. True, kicking a ball dead centre towards the goalie is statistically more likely to result in a goal. But if the goalie does manage to stop the ball kicked right to him, the kicker looks like a bit of an idiot (“Why’d you kick it righ’ to ‘im?” the hooligans in the stands will shout.) As the authors write, “Aiming towards the centre has a better chance of success, but aiming towards the corner is less risky to his own reputation.” And, as they go on to describe, humans (and, in our experience, animals) are rather more interested in “protecting our own reputation rather than promoting the collective good” in spite of claiming otherwise.  Therefore, most goalies take the riskier corner kick that is less likely to be successful but has the tried-my-very-best optics for the crowd.

In order to think like a Freak, the authors say that we need to be aware of, and overcome, some of the general biases that mess with our ability to think well. None of these ideas are original (I discuss a number of these issues in my soon-to-be-released book, Engage the Fox) but the authors’ gift resides in their ability to tell a memorable story. Instead of boring the reader silly with talk of confirmation biases and herd mentality and the gap between revealed and declared preferences, they walk us through memorable examples such as how the Smile Train charity raises funds by not asking for money, why Zappos offers new employees $2000 to quit, and why rocker David Lee Roth insists on a candy bowl containing no brown M&Ms.

This book will appeal to the business reader (our favourite line is “just because you are at the office is no reason to stop thinking”) and any reader interested in improving the way they think. Levitt and Dubner are not afraid to make bold suggestions such as why one should regularly say “I don’t know” and the benefits of being a quitter. They describe why it’s good to act like a kid as “there is no correlation between appearing to be serious  and actually being good at what you do. In fact, an argument can be made that the opposite is true.” Phew! That observation alone is worth the price of the book. The authors find wisdom in the most interesting places, such as studying why kids are better at seeing through magic tricks than adults: “by seeing things  from a literally new angle, you can sometimes gain an edge in solving a problem.”

One of the most powerful sections in the book covers the art of persuading someone to change his or her mind. The authors are not optimistic: “As hard as it is to think creatively about problems and come up with solutions…it is even harder to persuade people who do not wish to be persuaded.” They dissect a $1 billion anti-drug campaign that not only did not turn people off drugs, but possibly made drug use appear more appealing. They then outline the most useful strategies for getting others to change their opinions (hint: don’t start campaigning with the so-called smartest guys in the room, but not for the reason you think.) In keeping with their Freak perspective, they show how pointing out the flaws in your own arguments is one of the most effective ways to convince people you are right.

Not surprisingly, the authors find that the most effective way to change someone’s mind is to tell them a compelling story. And this is, of course, the heart of the book’s success. All three of the books in the Freakonomics series sing because memorable stories illustrate potent theories. At the end of this book, the authors, firmly embracing the idea that it’s OK to quit, threaten that this is their last book in this series. I hope that this is not, in fact, the case. The authors succeed in bringing thinking to life which, as a fox-like thinker, is something I take quite seriously. Hopefully the early success of this book will convince the authors to do more work in the field.






The Best of Leadercast 2014

First, there is some exciting news on the book front. I received a copy of the final draft of Engage the Fox, which will be published in October 2014! I am looking forward to telling the behind the scenes story of Thaddeus P. Fox and The Toad Hollow Gazette.

IMG_4894 On May 14, I had the pleasure of attending a simulcast of Leadercast 2014. For anyone who has not attended a Leadercast, it’s a day that features a broad range of speakers including Desmond Tutu, Laura Schroff, Malcolm Gladwell, Dr Henry Cloud, Andy Stanley, Simon Sinek, Bill McDermott, Laura Bush and others. The broadcast site is in Atlanta and there are 746 remote sites across 21 countries. In the past, Leadercast was geared towards a mainly Christian audience but they have shifted the audience to people interested in leadership in general. The only mention of religion came from Braveheart writer Randall Wallace who seemed to assume a Christian audience and, while entertaining, he did not seem to be as on message as the others. Leadercast focuses on Beyond You leadership and reinforced the emerging idea that the old way of making decisions focused solely on profit is not working anymore. In a study they commissioned from The Barna Group, they found that only 1 in 5 employers think they have a good leader and poor leadership is the reason most of them will leave their jobs. Too many companies kick down whereas good leaders put their teams first: “Let them rest, while you dig your boots in the mud and carry on,” a Leadercast video implored. Beyond You Leadership recognizes that it’s far better to grow legacy companies that will make a difference over the long term rather than to lurch from quarter to quarter. Here were some of the highlights of the day: Andy Stanley. Stanley is the lead pastor of North Point Church, but don’t let that put you off. He’s a heck of a leadership expert and his Leadercast talk was entirely secular in nature. He is very quotable and here are some of my favourites:

Beyond You leaders fearlessly and selflessly empower leaders around them as well as those coming along behind them. Beyond You leaders make as few decisions as possible and empower other people to make decisions. Beyond You leaders load people their influence and ask others, “What can I do to help?” Beyond You leaders empty their cups. Ask yourself what talents can you give away to bring up the next generation of leaders. If your leadership isn’t all about you, it will live beyond you.

Dr Henry Cloud. Dr Henry Cloud is a clinical psychologist who counsels CEOs about leadership. He has written some excellent books on setting boundaries both in and out of the workplace. I have started reading Boundaries for Leaders, which promises to be an excellent book about effective leadership. He emphasizes that leaders lead people: real human beings with brains and hearts and lives. He said, “The human heart, above all else, wants to be known and understood.” Leaders who understand this will have teams who are happy to follow them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The most delightful speaker was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His laugh was absolutely infectious. He spoke about the leadership qualities of his good friend Nelson Mandela. I loved these particular quotes:

Imagine a world where leaders … had a pure motive of doing what’s right and improving the lives of all. A person is a person through other persons. You are you because of others.

Laura Schroff. Laura Schroff was the most moving of all the speakers. She wrote The Invisible Thread, the story of how her decision, as a young sales executive, to treat an 11-year old panhandler to lunch changed both their lives. She talked about personal leadership and how making transformational change does not always have involve grand gestures. My favourite quotes from her speech were as follows:

All we have to do is open up our eyes and heart to see the opportunity to help our lives and others. We can teach people to be kind, but we must live by example.

Malcolm Gladwell.  I was most looking forward to Gladwell’s speech as his newest book, David and Goliath, talks about unlikely leaders who push through hardships and climb seemingly insurmountable obstacles. His talk focused on why people follow certain leaders. “The real reason people follow leaders is that they perceive that authority to be legitimate,” he said. People won’t follow a leader simply because of a job title. “Unless you enact authority in a way that is fair, respectful and trustworthy, people won’t follow your lead,” he said. Bill McDermott. McDermott runs SAP’s US operations. While his leadership style seemed a little more old school than the others (consistent with SAP’s reputation) he was an entertaining speaker. My favourite quotes were:

Everyone is so busy telling everybody what to do, they forget to listen.

The first thing that has to change is the headset about what’s possible.

Have an audacious, bold dream for who you are and what you mean to this world.

Simon Sinek. My favourite speaker was Simon Sinek, who wrote Start With Why and is a popular TED talk speaker. He defines leadership as “the daily practice of putting others before ourselves.” He talked about the golden circle where you start with asking the question Why. Rather than asking what do we want to sell, ask why are we in business? Why do people want to do business with us? Why do our employees want to come to work? Once the why is established, figuring how to do this and what products and services to offer is easy. I’ll be offering a review of his book shortly. Here are some of my favourite quotes from his talk:

Leadership is neither a rank nor a title: it’s a choice. Give employees the opportunity to be the leaders they wish they had. Leadership is a responsibility, not a rank. Military leaders eat last. Don’t refer to head counts, refer to heart counts. Are you going to reduce the number of hearts in your organization to balance your books? Leaders will sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. Take responsibility for your actions at the time you commit your actions, not when you get caught.

Next year, Leadercast is taking place on May 8, 2015. If you are interested in leadership, you may wish to consider it for your calendar.

Storytelling to Make Your Case

A little while ago, I had a chance to review a number of business cases that people had submitted as part of a workshop. This was not a theoretical exercise: students submitted real requests to initiate a major project or task with the idea that after their cases were critiqued, they could submit them to their managers or departments or boards. All of the cases were well written: the analysis was sound, risks were contemplated, ROI was calculated, and all of the alternatives were discussed. Some business cases, however, were more compelling than others.

The difference between preparing a good business case and a great business case lies in one’s ability to compel people to embrace the change proposed. After I read each case, I’d ask myself if I felt change was needed. If not, then no matter how solid the analysis that followed, the case simply did not sing and in the real world would have less chance of being approved.

John Kotter, in his change model, discusses how most people shy away from change and try to find reasons to preserve the status quo. He discusses the need to create a burning platform to outline the reasons that the status quo is no longer viable.  In order to encourage change, it is important to engage both the hearts and the minds of the powers that be. One of the most effective ways of addressing the intellect and the emotions is to tell a good story. People who need to convince people to do things on a regular basis – politicians, lawyers, marketers, CEOs – know that storytelling is a powerful tool. As Robert McAfee Brown wrote, “storytelling speaks as no other mode of communication can do.”

Good leaders are often very effective storytellers. One of the videos that makes the rounds from time to time is Steve Jobs’s speech to Stanford’s graduating class. He tells three very simple stories about his upbringing, his career, and his illness to illustrate his point that in order to succeed in life you must stay open to all of the changes life throws one’s way. Recently, Stephen Elop’s burning platform memo to Nokia employees painted a very clear picture that change (in this case embracing Windows 7) was needed in order to survive. There is much debate as to whether Elop’s strategy was sound, but his case certainly was compelling.

From a creative writing perspective, good storytelling basically boils down to mapping out the following four things:

1) Who is the story about? As an example, Homer’s Odyssey is about a Greek soldier, Odysseus, who has been away from home for 10 years fighting the Trojan War.

2) What does he want? What is his motivation? Odysseus wants to get home to his family in Ithaca.

3) What obstacles are in his way? Mythological bad guys: Calypso, Poseidon, Sirens, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis…

4) What are the consequences if he fails? Odysseus’s son will be killed and long-suffering wife Penelope will have to marry one of the circling suitors wishing to take over his kingdom.

This marries nicely with the way a business case is laid out:

1) Who are the stakeholders? Who will be impacted by the change? Who will benefit most?

2) What changes do they want? This is a chance to outline the changes being proposed.

3) What are the impediments to change? This addresses that change will be hard — maybe not Scylla and Charybdis hard, but hard nonetheless.

4) What happens if change does not happen? This is an opportunity to discuss that burning platform, to outline what will happen to sales, profits, market share, or the stock price if change does not happen. If this change is personal, it’s even more compelling.

Llewellyn Powers wrote that “A trembling in the bones may carry a more convincing testimony than the dry, documented deductions of the brain.” While not every business case has to carry the same emotional weight as a good book or movie, if it is created with slightly more passion and energy than a standard wireless contract, there is a significantly better chance it will be approved.

Coaching the New Hire

Companies will often hire a business coach for long-term employees in order to prepare them for their next challenges within the organization. Fewer organizations consider coaching recent hires, even though it’s an optimal time to engage a coach’s skills.

Joining a new company is a high-stress time for most people. A new company has a new set of rules, a different corporate culture, and a completely different cast of characters. Often a new hire has been recruited from a good job where she was recognized for her contribution within the firm and had a certain degree of job security; change feels scary. Even if a new hire was not thrilled with his past job and was actively looking for a change, there is comfort with “the devil you know.” While some companies have a formal onboarding program to help ease a new hire into the role, many, including most start-ups, do not. Even those companies that have a formal orientation process tend to focus on explaining the policies and procedures contained in the employee handbook rather than addressing what a new hire wants to know: details about the specific role, the makeup of the team, the resources available, and the immediate performance expectations. Often the hiring manager is too busy to properly welcome a new hire and, even if one does not run into The Office‘s Michael Scott (“Listen, why don’t we just leave that position vacant? Truth be told, I think I thrive under the lack of accountability”) or Dwight Schrute (“Hazing is a fun way to show a new employee that she is not welcome or liked”), peers and subordinates do not always have the time or inclination to help acclimatize a new team member. This can all lead to stress for a new employee.

While a moderate level of stress is good for productivity, the Yerkes-Dodson model shown below illustrates that too much stress has a negative effect on the ability to perform the type of complex tasks expected of a mid- to high-level employee.



Stress in the workplace consists of relationship tension (the tension that comes from working with others: call it office politics) and the tension of the task itself (managing complexity.) Typically, when an employee has a high level of task stress in their job, a good manager can help offset it by easing relationship tension. In the days before a tight deadline, a manager might bring in lunch, give more praise, or help offload less critical tasks so the employee’s tension levels allow for peak performance (the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve) without tipping over into burnout. With a new employee, however, both the task and the relationship areas are stressed as she comes up to speed on the job requirements and tries to integrate into the organization.

There is a real risk that a new employee will be too stressed to be productive, which can lead to increased relationship tension with a hiring manager who expected the new employee to immediately improve results. The mismatch in expectations can cause conflict and lead to an early exit. According to PwC Saratoga’s Human Capital Effectiveness Report 2013/14, 22% of hires, or one in five employees, leave within their first year. When a new hire does not work out, there is an associated financial loss of half to five times that employee’s salary (comprised of search fees, potential negligent hiring suits, wasted training costs, wasted interview time, and productivity loss from disruption and negative morale.) Plus, the company is still faced with the skills gap they were trying to address in the first place

A coach can be brought in early in the process to help an employee integrate into the new organization. A coach can work as a bridge between the new employee and their team, ironing out any integration pains before they grow into major problems. A coach has dedicated time to spend with the new hire and does not have the bias or agenda of a peer. A coach has the skills to help an employee with task stress (through teaching critical thinking, project management and process improvement skills) and relationship stress (through improving a new hire’s relationships with his manager, team and customers.) There is no perfect hire but a business coach can ensure that a good hire can integrate as quickly into a company as possible and begin to focus on their role and results.

Lessons from The Lego Movie

The LEGO Movie is a delight for kids but it is equally delightful for adults (unless you like a lot of screaming in the background; try to see it in one of those 18+ mini-theatres where they show opera simulcasts and serve beer at your seat.) For all of the post-modernists in the room, it’s delightfully meta and highly ironic (an anti-business movie produced by a US$4 billion toy company – snort.) The script is tight, the voice acting is great, and there are lots of pop culture references spanning the last three decades. It’s good fun.

The movie also offers a number of lessons for business leaders about leadership, teamwork, and the important balance between vision and execution. ** Mild spoilers ahead if you are serious about watching the film for plot. **



The movie’s protagonist is Emmett, the prototypical Everyhuman. Emmett is driven by rules and routine, literally following his manual, Instructions to Fit In, Have Everybody Like You, and Always be Happy. He is indistinguishable from anyone else: he goes to work (he is, of course, a builder), watches the water cooler favourite “Where are My Pants?” on TV, and sings along to the number one song, Everything is Awesome. I haven’t seen that much cheerful uniformity since I interviewed for a job with a packaged goods company after completing my business degree.

One day at work, he accidently finds the Piece of Resistance that, according to a prophesy, marks him as The Special: “the most talented, most interesting, most special person in the universe.” He is the one who is to lead a group of Master Builders to overthrow Lord Business, who has threatened to destroy the world. The Master Builders are charged with coming up with creative solutions to life’s problems. The problem is, Emmett’s life has been so prescribed that he not use to thinking. Note this exchange with Master Builder Vetruvius and Lucy.

Vitruvius: We are entering your mind.

Emmet: What?

Lucy: I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought.

Emmet: That’s not true. Introducing, the double decker couch so everyone could watch TV together and be buddies.

Lucy: That’s literally the dumbest thing I ever heard.

Vitruvius: Let me handle this. That idea is just the worst.

The Master Builders “including but not limited to Superman, Wonder Woman, The Mermaid, Green Ninja, 1980s Something Space Guy, Michelangelo [the painter], Michelangelo [the teenage mutant ninja turtle], and the 2002 NBA All-Stars” are life’s visionaries. They are creative, natural leaders to whom people look in times of rapid change. I fully expected that Emmett would rise to the role and become some sort of LEGO-building Steve Jobs. But that’s where the movie surprises and is closer to business reality. While the Master Builders are smart and creative, they are not able to outwit Lord Business who seems one step ahead of them in anticipating their weapons. The group is in despair as they think that Emmett lacks the building savvy to save them. Emmett, however, is not to be underestimated.

Emmett: What does he [Lord Business] never expect Master Builders to do? … Follow instructions. You are so creative…but you don’t work together.

How often in business does a visionary swoop in to save the day, overlooking the work of long-term employees who have been living and breathing the company’s issues for years. So sure are visionaries in their own abilities, that sometimes they will not partner with other senior members of the team. Good leaders and managers bring about results through people. And a leader needs other people to execute her ideas, no matter how brilliant she might be. Unless people are engaged and committed to the plan (it helps if they are part of the planning process) they will not be excited about bringing any ideas to fruition. While cool ideas might get the media excited, a more effective business strategy might be to have highly engaged workers focus on something a little more tried and true. (1980s spaceship anyone?)

Beware The Borg

Once upon a time there was a group of like-minded people who worked for a major bank. They worked well together, went out for lunch together often, and even their mannerisms were alike. Other groups remarked on their cohesiveness, referring to them (in their less-kind moments) as The Borg, in reference to a group of Cyborgs on Star Trek who, basically, shared a brain.

For a long time, theirs was the group of choice. They had more deal flow, they got bigger bonuses, and they seemed to have so much darned fun. Even the most misanthropic among us looked upon The Borg with a degree of envy, as they seemed to lack the competition and infighting that plagued the other groups.

The last time I’d been struck by such cohesive gang was when I was interviewing with the consumer packaged goods companies right out of school. At one such company, I was taken out for lunch by a happy bunch who spent the hour telling me how they loved working together so much that they also chose to be friends outside of work. They ate lunch together, played ultimate frisbee, and a number of them had even decided to get married. If one of the senior category managers had not waxed on at length about his personal dream of seeing the entire population in diapers (even though his category was baby goods, it still put me off) I might have signed on.

Back at The Borg, trouble was brewing, however. While all of that togetherness made for a tight-knit and happy group, it was also contributing to some fairly significant groupthink.  Groupthink is more likely to occur among groups of people who — no surprise here — think the same way. When there is little diversity of thought, there tends to be little conflict, and people tend to get along really, really well. It makes for a lovely place to work until the wheels fall off. In the case of The Borg, the wheels fell off in a fairly significant way. The group was involved in asset securitization and packaging up, among other things, CDOs. The Borg had morphed into The Big Short.

Now we are not blaming that one little group for the entire financial market collapse of 2008, but a closed culture can often result in blind spots. It is interesting that whenever there is a highly dysfunctional entity, people often remark on how strong the corporate culture was (think of Tyco’s culture of pushing the envelope or the investment banking culture of attempting to offload risk.) Yes-men are rewarded, naysayers are not tolerated, and the very thing that can make companies strong — clear goals and an aligned workforce — can also derail them. Dissent and conflict are not comfortable, but they are necessary for organizations that want to think through issues critically. It’s good to have a few foxes around to point out when the emperor has no clothes.

I’m not suggesting that we fill our companies with iconoclasts — a clear, cohesive culture is an effective way of getting things done — but I am suggesting that whenever we see evidence of The Borg forming, it makes sense to add in some new blood, to recruit a different type of candidate, or to shuffle the  deck chairs a bit.

Middle Leadership

John Kotter has focused much of his career on distinguishing between leadership and management. He wrote a terrific piece for HBR that talks about how many are still using the two terms interchangeably. When they do differentiate between leadership and management, it tends to be along hierarchical lines: leaders are the folks at the top and managers are those in the middle. It’s why the term “middle leadership” is not as popular as middle management. But organizations should have middle leaders and lower leaders too. For an organization to succeed, they need leaders throughout.

To go back to Kotter’s helpful definitions: managers are people who manage the processes that keep an organization running well. They plan and budget. They decide how to assign the resources at their disposal. They execute the plan, monitor the progress, and put controls in place to make sure that risks are minimized. Then they analyze the results. Leaders are different. Whereas managers focus on historical and present results, leaders are future-focused. Leaders try to look into the future to see if and how that strategy needs to shift to stay competitive.

Leaders need to create a vision of the future and communicate that vision to everyone within the organization. They must motivate and inspire people to buy in to that vision. Without change, organizations eventually die and leaders are the people who make necessary change happen.But that vision does not have come only from the top. A branch plant can have a vision. A department can have a vision. A project team can have a vision. In fact, if the only driver of change is someone at the very top who makes 100 times the salary of the average employee, it will be hard to get everyone on board. The trickle down theory does not work for organizations particularly well: energy must be infused at all levels for change efforts to persist. If there are leaders at all levels of the organization who have bought into their own version of the vision and can encourage their teams to buy into it too, change is much less painful and more likely to stick.

The nice thing is, leadership can be cultivated at all levels. A leader can be the front line retail manager who knows when a staff member can go off script to satisfy a customer. A leader can be a sales manager who eases his team through a territory reorganization. A leader can be a project manager who has to expand the project’s scope. Companies are smart to recognize and reward leadership talent at all levels rather than limiting the practice of leadership to  the executive suite.

Book Review: Daniel Pink’s Drive


I read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,  after hearing author Daniel Pink speak. He’s a terrific speaker; if you get a chance to hear him, do. In his book, Pink looks at how companies motivate their people and how people are best motivated. Pink helpfully boils his book’s content down to a tweetable precis: “Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose.”

According to Pink, there are two types of motivation: Type X, which is fueled by extrinsic rewards such as a bonus or stock options, and Type I, which is fueled by intrinsic desires: “the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.”  While Pink feels that today’s business environment requires the type of engagement that can only be achieved through intrinsic motivation, he makes it clear that the findings in the book are by no means new. In 1949, behavioural psychologist Henry Harlow observed monkeys doing puzzles, not because they received a reward, but because the completion of the puzzle seemed to be inherently satisfying. Just as Victor Vroom, Lyman Porter, and Edward Lawler observed in their Expectancy Theory models,  people are motivated to behave in a certain way based on expected outcomes: intrinsic outcomes being particularly powerful.  As Napoleon observed, “There are two levers for moving men — interest and fear.” Stock options, extended vacation time, and company cars are not as effective as providing the means for genuinely satisfying work.

Where Pink (a former speechwriter for Al Gore, among other things) excels is in bringing some fairly dry managerial and behavioural theory to life. He frequently references the motivational practises of companies like Google, Zappos, and Netflix to make his point. He is a very entertaining writer as well, offering up such gems as: “We know that human beings are not merely smaller, slower, better-smelling donkeys trudging after that day’s carrot.” (Sorry to any donkey readers for the human prejudice!) His writing style is not unlike that of Malcolm Gladwell, which makes for an interesting read.

One of the key takeaways from the book is the importance of creating a purpose for your organization that is greater than simply increasing shareholder value. As it turns out, the goal of profit maximization gets very few people out of bed in the morning, even if there is a nice bonus to be had at the end of the year: “the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice — doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.”

Pink discusses the rise of “for-benefit” organizations such as Mozilla (the creator of the Firefox browser) and talks about “purpose maximization” rather than a focus strictly on profit. Shared purpose can bring together a group of employees in a way that no forced off-site team-building exercise can. As Pink notes, “Real challenges are far more invigorating than controlled leisure.” Pink writes: “A considerable body of research shows that individuals are far more engaged when they’re pursuing goals they had a hand in creating. So bring employees into the process. They could surprise you: People often have higher aims than the ones you assign them.” Purpose-driven work has the positive side-effect of creating happy and engaged employees who naturally take care of the bottom line. 

Not all organizations will embrace automatically the idea of giving their employees autonomy, or focusing on anything other than the third-quarter earnings call. Pink writes that one has to be strategic — dare we say fox-like? — in order to introduce some of these concepts into the workplace. When dealing with an old-school organization, it pays to be “strategically subversive.”  Pink describes how most of the innovative practices described in the book began the same way:

One smart person couldn’t take it any longer and decided to bend the rules or play the game in a slightly different way. She didn’t make a big announcement about it. Nor did she ask permission. She just took that initial — usually subversive — step. If things failed, she didn’t say a word. If things worked out, she told others. That’s how organizational change often begins — through strategic subversion by people frustrated with the status quo.

He urges us to start small, making small shifts in how we work. He comes from the “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” school of thought and urges us to “play with boundaries” rather than play within them. The fox most whole-heartedly approves.

In his book, Pink provides a solid foundation of motivational theory that he grounds by providing many examples of how great companies have implemented the theory with real-world success. For anyone involved in change efforts or growth initiatives, or anyone simply wanting to have more fun at work and in life, Drive is a compelling read.