Never too early to start…

29 09 2010

Having spent large amounts of time with professionals in their 30s, 40s and even 50s who feel they have somehow “missed their path in life” or ended up in the wrong job, the question arises, “how can a person know what the right path would look like – and how early could they know that?”

Working with personality, there are some things we know aren’t really settled (or set in stone) until a person reaches “full socialisation”, typically in their early to mid 20s or at the point when they leave home. (Don’t laugh; psychometricians are revising upwards the age of full socialisation as the age of leaving home rises, in the West at least.)

However, there are other factors which do seem to be pretty stable even from early teenage years and which, very helpfully, do have a huge bearing on future job fit and satisfaction. Two areas in particular are significant here: 1) what activities will motivate and engage the person; and 2) what support from or interaction with other people they are most in need of.

The problem, as ever with personality, is getting at these factors. Most career tools deployed in the (many – we have moved a lot) schools my own children have attended are at best lamentable. By that I mean they simply ask the respondent what they think they would like to do – and then repeat back to them what they said. The problem with this approach is that it is primarily measuring their well-socialised response to things (i.e. what do you think you should say in this situation), and the problem with that is a) we just said that socialisation doesn’t normal settle down until about a decade after these tools are typically deployed and b) even for adults, socialised responses are a very poor guide to actual motivations and needs – which are the key elements in job fit.

Which is why we developed hoozyu™  ( The toolset we use with corporate and professional clients has a unique way of accessing and measuring motivation and needs in even the very young (we restrict this to 14 and above); hoozyu™ is just a wrapper around a subset of those tools, appropriate to that age group. It doesn’t set out to tell anyone what they should be doing, but it does allow someone to recognise early that they are more motivated by working with systems and order than with how things look or why things work a certain way (or vice versa); and it helps them to understand whether up front people management and interaction is more their thing than scribbling creative ideas on a a napkin.

When you are trying to work out what path in life to take, and whether to be an accountant or a designer or a doctor or a retail manager or a consultant, that information is solid gold.

I try not to quote Dilbert too often, but…

24 09 2010

The CEO, the Goldfish and the water

20 09 2010

When I was first doing a lot of work around international management and cross-cultural working, a phrase that often cropped up was “your own culture is like water to a Goldfish – you can’t see it until you are out of it”.

Something similar affects CEOs and other organisational leaders with respect to their own perspectives. Leaders at this level, especially entrepreneurial ones, often express things in quite visceral ways: “I don’t know what is wrong with what you are saying – I just know it is wrong”. Many times this “instinctive” response may be “right on the money”; other times it can be problematic or even dangerous. For example…

One reason organisations crash and burn just at the point where long-term success and dominance seems a certainty is that too many senior hiring decisions come down to the CEO’s instinct, rather than objective data; and the problem with that is that CEOs who don’t fully understand their own perspectives – the  invisible bowl of water in which they swim – too often hire people who reflect exactly the same set of perspectives. What was once the magic ingredient of success becomes the deadly potion of disaster. Perhaps surprisingly, the CEO’s unique mix of gifting and perspective may only fully function for the good of the organisation when it IS unique, and she or he is surrounded by people with different and complementary perspectives.

How to build such a team is a valid and non-trivial question. But the first step is for the CEO to actually see and understand the “water” around them – the perspectives through which they view the world. That shouldn’t lead to them discounting their perspective on things – far from it – but it will allow them to frame what they are seeing correctly. And it doesn’t have to be complex.

For example, “I think such and such, but then I am always projecting us 10 years into the future; you are much more operational in your perpective than I am, so tell me again why you think this will cause us problems in Q3 this year.” Or “I think this opportunity is too good to pass up, but you are our systems thinker, so help me understand why this might affect other things we have committed to doing.”

But how do you see the water when you are a Goldfish? You just need a perspective that analyses the water and then puts it in context for you. OS4Talent can do that for CEOs – without anyone needing to get wet!

Social Coping Mechanisms and the Reluctant Manager

13 09 2010

Most of us have had the experience of presenting a brilliant opportunity to a highly-regarded performer (whether manager or technical specialist), only to have them – inexplicably – turn the opportunity down. Often they don’t even pretend to give it consideration. We are left feeling half-witted and possibly inclined to reevaluate their intelligence in the same direction. What is going on?

There are a number of possible drivers for this kind of behaviour, but just to mention one: social coping mechanisms.

Beneath all the professional skill and interpersonal confidence or warmth, other things are going on in all of us. Some people – typically the generally optimistic, glass-half-full kind of people – have plentiful inner resources for coping with difficult situations, novelty and so on. As a result, they tend to be positive about flux in their social networks (not talking specifically about Web2.0 and Facebook here – I mean the people with whom they interact personally on a day to day basis). New people come, old people go – that’s fine. By extension, you can offer them an exciting new opportunity on a different floor, or a different country, and that is fine for them; they will leave one set of relationships behind and form new ones. And all the while they will cope with the stressful aspects of life by means of their inner reserves.

There are other people – the glass is 125ml of unfiltered tap-water type realists who, while not quite as gong ho as the first group, get through life by recognising some of it is tough and they just need to deal with it. They may not embrace change in social setting quite so readily but if a move is the right thing to do, off they go.

Which brings us to the third group, which may include that person who turned you down on the plum assignment without even the courtesy of reflection. Somewhat more inclined to see the half-emptiness of the glass, these are people for whom their immediate social context, including friends, close colleagues and other regular relationships, is the key element in their ability (and unconscious strategy) to cope with stress and the vicissitudes of life. Does this make them less good people or poorer performers? No, not at all; and in the example I suggested at the start of this blog, the whole point is that they are often top performers, ripe for a promotion or other strategic move. So what then?

Simply this: don’t expect that everyone will see a “great opportunity” the way you do. If you recognise that this factor – “if I move I lose my social network and then what happens to me” – may be in play (and it can be measured very accurately if you prefer science to guesswork), then you will have to think creatively if you want to see this person move up or across the organisation. Is there some way they can take their current team (or key peers) with them? Can they do the new role based out of the same location as at present, or even the same office? Endless possibilities.

But don’t compound an error by writing that star performer off.

Cherished Core Value? Or Flimsy Excuse?

9 09 2010

I was going to write something about putting sacred cows on the barbeque, but realised this was inappropriate not just because of its potential to offend those for whom “sacred cow” isn’t just a handy metaphor, but also speaking as someone who has lost 23kg in the past 15 months by following a plant-based (and entirely cow-free) diet. (Read The China Study by Colin Campbell and visit John McDougall’s site to find out more).

So I am stuck for a punchy metaphor but here is the thing: I keep running into cherished core values in organisations which have in fact become their excuse for poor performance, failure to change, bizarre structures, failure to confront, etc etc etc.

So – how do you work out when (sorry – can’t help myself) that hitherto cherished core value should actually be tossed on the barbeque?

It is not that hard if you go back to basics. “What is our mission and who do we serve?” When that is clear, simply look at the “core value” in question in the cold light of day and ask yourselves, “how does [core value] help us AS AN ORGANISATION to deliver on our mission to the people we serve?” Arrive at anything less than “this positively and practically helps us to deliver on the mission to the people we serve, far outweighing any downside” (with concrete examples of both the pluses and minuses) and you should be pouring lighter fluid on the charcoal briquettes.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about “our people matter” or similar here. If you have that as a core value – and you act consistently upon it – that will help to deliver any mission you care to name. How you act on that core value does of course matter;  “our people matter so we never confront them or never make any changes to the location of their cheese” is doubletalk that will ultimately doom your people and your organisation!

Everyone is in Customer Service

8 09 2010

…But possibly not everyone should be. Some of us are fundamentally unsuited to interfacing with customers directly, even though we may do a great job on their behalf. I still remember a company of whom I was a customer answering my query by simply forwarding the internal reply they had received from their programmer. This may have saved them time but lost them huge amounts of goodwill – the programmer had not understood the real question and had been pretty offensive in his dismissal of it and me!

This is a huge issue in situations where culture needs to change (hold on – I thought you said that was impossible last time? No, I said there are no instant answers short of firing all your people and starting again). If our new (or old) CEO decides that the organisation’s service culture needs to change, what is she or he to do?

It is good to make sure everyone knows that what they do impacts the customer – whoever they are and whatever their role. But it is even better to identify who your customer service stars are, analyse what makes them great – and then work like mad to reproduce that over and over again.

But how? 20% of your results will come from getting the stars to mentor those who have the wiring to be stars but are not yet for whatever reason. 80% of your results will come from deliberately hiring people who match the star profile. Fundamentally, you may be able to teach old dogs the occasional new trick; but you can’t teach dachshunds (new or old) to do back flips. So go hire new dogs of the yappy agile back-flip persuasion and knock yourself – and your customers – out.

You know you want to!