Work must drain the life-force out of your body – mustn’t it?

11 10 2010

I sat in a room with a group of colleagues today, as we reviewed the results of a very simple online test. The test in question was out of a book and wasn’t even pretending to be psychometrically robust, but it did throw up some interesting results. The most significant of these was that 10 out of the 12 people in the room scored highest on preferring being outdoors to just about anything else.

Why this was so interesting was simply because any researcher studying how we actually all spent our working weeks would have required psychic powers to guess that so many of us had this powerful preference for being outdoors. Such a researcher would have been more likely to guess that sitting at a desk and putting in the hours was the highest good in our personal economies.

I am not for a moment suggesting that all people want to be outdoors – that just happened to be the strong preference for this group – nor that their job responsibilities could allow them to spend all their time away from their desks. But it is significant that very many of us, whatever our preferences, seem to take little or no account of them in designing our working week. As one of my colleagues said, “just getting outside and walking up this downtown street for 5 minutes is enough to clear my head”.

So why don’t we take more account of what keeps us clear-headed and motivated? Or do we believe the lie that work is meant to be demoralising and energy-sapping? Here are two questions to ask yourself – and then your colleagues:

1) to what extent do I design my work around what keeps me engaged and energised?

2) to what extent can I actually articulate my motivations and preferences clearly enough to make  1) a possibility?


The human face of risk

4 10 2010

Attending a CXO briefing on risk this Weds, can see everything on the agenda except the rather fundamental one of the human factor. After all, better locks simply force the evolution of better picklocks, so technological and systems solutions will never, of themselves, solve the problem.

So what is the human factor in risk? There is criminality. There is incompetence. And there is one more…

Someone who is already dishonest, simply needs to be identified and removed from the business. Of course, you had better be sure that you are not asking anyone to be dishonest for the business. The person who is dishonest for the business has no reason not to turn their dishonesty against the business some day. If you require someone to be dishonest as part of their job, then frankly I wouldn’t trust you either!

But to matters that an Operating System for Talent can deal with, it is possible, at least to an extent, to manage risk by understanding people better. I emphatically don’t mean that we can help you identify the potential criminals in your midst. Rather, most of us have some needs and potential stress responses which if not understood and managed can lead us to cross a line. The line might be defined in terms of “meeting social and moral expectations”. Once that line is crossed, all bets are off as to whether a person’s integrity will remain intact. A short blog isn’t the place to write a dissertation on this, but look at most corporate criminals and you will find, not a career criminal, but a reasonably decent person who at some point either felt unappreciated or undervalued or taken advantage of and whose behaviour thereafter was justified in their own mind – and criminal in everyone else’s. Good leaders and managers understand what matters to their people enough that their people shouldn’t ever get near that line; or if they do, it should be clear to everyone that this is happening.

Second, incompetence. Most incompetence is not absolute but situational. Understand where a person will shine and make sure they work in that context. Don’t promote (or hire) them into a context where they will only display incompetence. Incompotence and risk are in a direct relationship.

Lastly, risk comes with… your strengths. What are you best at? It may well be the thing that takes you down. For example, I am hardly the first person to notice that Toyota’s greatest strength – continuous improvement powered by line workers empowered to identify and fix problems – has become its “achilles’ heel”. Too many solutions arrived at at the coal face without some overarching intelligent view means the global picture starts to blur; how do these changes – these undoubted improvements – impact the system as a whole? I would be the last to suggest Toyota should be dropping kaizen (as if they ever would!); but they will doubtless have been learning some lessons to mitigate the risk inherent in their great strength.

And that is  the issue: not strength per se, but unmoderated, unbalanced strength. You can only safely play to your strengths when there are one or two people around with very different, complementary strengths. In risk terms, assembling a team comprising the brightest minds on the planet in a particular field, and who all see exactly the same world out there is about as risky as it gets. Go figure.

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.

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!