maandag 21 januari 2013

The Key Component in Leadership Communication

Let's face it, I am no brilliant spokesman. Would you put me in front of a crowd, unprepared, with ten minutes to express my inner thoughts, you will likely find me stuttering and stumbling over words. I do not use clever phrases or catchy buzzwords. I do not have a radio voice, gentle and pleasant. I lack charisma, let alone radiate any level of seniority with my presence.

Being raised in an environment of debate, my rhetoric excels in defensive, absolute statements but seldom succeeds to express understanding and compassion. I often catch myself using words that enlarge differences rather than bring people together. But what if I had a dream to share, one that people would want to share and follow? A vision of a better world, so compelling, that it requires hundreds, thousands or maybe even millions of people to achieve? Will they be inspired by it or distracted by the clumsy way how I would tell them the story?

I have always believed a leader needs to be able to communicate, and communicate well. But when I say 'communicate', I actually mean to connect and resonate ideas. Has the message been well-received? Was the other party understood? To this day, I have been indecisive about whether a leader has to be good with words as well. I know that it is about making things understandable and relevant, but does that involve persuasive speech? Are people following a vision or the visionary? Or always both?

History has given us a fair share of charismatic leaders. Political, ideological, religious, artistic or business leaders with the power to persuade. Some of them had brilliant ideas beyond their own desires, others were clearly more narcissistic and self-serving though equally praised. But history has also proven that many would follow the dreams and directions of visionaries who would not say much and did not enjoy public presence to the point of being shy. And then there is the phenomenon of critical mass, people following an idea because so many others have already went before them, basically trusting other people's judgement. So what is the key component of leadership communication?

I will probably disappoint a lot of readers now when I say I do not have a straightforward answer for you. What I do know is that what has touched me in many of these communications: PASSION. A leader could wrap up words in gold for that matter, but if the words fail to show any true passion it would certainly fail to capture me, regardless how eloquently phrased. Over the years with my employer, I have had the privilege to give lectures about several HR topics in our internal management trainings. What I have noticed is that my own interest in the topic was a measure for the appreciation the participants would give to me. I could even see myself real-time losing connection with a group of students over subjects that lack my interest.

Knowing that passion is the key to connect with people, you may want to rethink your own passion for the ideas that you need to communicate as a leader to your community. It could very well be that you do not find great passion for every idea within. But as your wider vision probably thrives on an assembly of smaller ideas, find that other passionate person in your environment who can get people energized about that specific one. And give that person ownership over that part of the story.

Leadership communication is for me not about the wrapping, but the gift within. What say you?

donderdag 10 januari 2013

Bullshit Management

Today I would like to share my book review of Bullshit Management: Return to the essence of organisations by Jos Verveen (The Hague, Academic Service, 2011). Why more than a year after publishing? Well, the simple answer is that I have just recently started this blog, but I really feel this book deserves your attention.

Bullshit Management busts the ubiquitous myth that investing in management pays off. It reads unfettered criticism, disputing any proof of a scientific blue print for success, even questioning well-established theories of Taylor and Mayo. Moreover: due to all these models, methods and terminologies, more and more organisation are losing sight of their essence. This book calls for abandonment of management and urges organisations to take matters into own hands again. While products and services prove distinctive quality of organisations, the best way to organize is unprecedented for as well. According to Verveen, you would anyhow not need a management book for that.

Paradoxically, whereas the writer critically questions the usefulness of models, theories, systems, structures and terminologies, his book went management book besteller in The Netherlands. To my knowledge there is no English edition yet, so my Anglo-Saxon followers unfortunately have to settle for this post, for now.

The Essence of an Organisation
I recently came across the following Tweets:
"Business is about creating value. Making money is just a pleasant sideproduct."
"Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done."

These are just two posts of many that I have seen and read, instigating critical review of management as a concept. Verveen builds his case around experiences he has gathered during his former career as business consultant. In his book, he claims that business management is characterised by continuous efficiency reviews whilst overlooking the essence of an organisation, which does not equal 'managing'.

"The essence of an organisation stands far from the goal of business management which is profit maximisation by increasing the productivity. The essence has therefore also nothing to do with finding an optimal strategy to obtain high productivity. Neither does the essence equal the effort of designing the organisation in the most efficient way to implement that strategy. An organisation has not originated, grown and survived due to management, but only by holding on to its core essence. Each step away from this essence opens the door for building an organisational 'house of cards' which needs management, a lot of management, to keep it straight. A house increasingly filled with people questioning themselves what it exactly is they are doing there."

A Vicious Circle
Recent U.S. gun control debates somewhat got me drawing a parallel between gun lobbyists and management disciples. They both claim to have the solution for a problem what according to others is the root problem in itself. And both advocate for even more of it when the soup hits the fan. Of course the impact of guns cannot be compared with that of management, though in the wrong hands, both can have dramatic social consequences.

If not already by the title of this post, then surely at this point in the text I must have upset some business school graduates. For some, management is a religion. But let me just ask those readers the following then:

According to you, what motivates people to work?
Certainly not management, right?

And according to you, what makes people engage to dreams bigger than their own?
I suspect few would answer 'management' here as well.

Lastly, according to you, what keeps people focused on creating value?

Yet with any sign that motivation, purpose or focus is lacking, we immediately seek to gain control by management. The irony is that management distracts people further from what should give them motivation, purpose or focus, perpetually clouding the essence of the organisation. A vicious circle indeed.

Return to The Essence
The solution this book offers to break the circle is quite obviously to seek that essence again. To stop organising work around peripherals and to start organising it around that what truly matters, what we feel will create value. His case continues even deeper by arguing that management and its goals, productivity and profitability, have poisoned our economies, and some businesses may find that there is actually no value in what they produce.

Verveen envisions a society that revolves around an economy with equal distribution of scarce resources in which true enterpreneurs and professionals bring genuine value while following their actual talents (see also The War for Talent Hoax). A Dutch politician has recently disputed that the current crisis could be solved with economical growth, arguing that economical growth is in fact the cause of this crisis. Maybe the crisis will lead us to a world closer to Verveen's vision...

My lessons learnt from this book: There is no blue print for success, but hard work, common sense and the ambition to bring genuine value will likely give you a head start on your competition.

For those (Dutch readers) who have read it, feel free to leave your review in the comments below. For the others, you can find Jos Verveen (@josverveen) on Twitter and ask him personally to publish an English translation.

vrijdag 4 januari 2013

When Good Turns Bad

What do you say to a friend who is helping you move furniture and accidentally breaks your late grandfather's self-constructed wooden chair? Or to your dad who 'knows how to fix the plumbing' but causes water damage to your kitchen?

The noble helpers
This is more commonly occurring than one would think. You will find people in many different occasions and settings in your private or professional life who are willing to take on more than called for. They either volunteer to the task or feel obliged for any given reason. Though their intentions are ninety-nine per cent of the time good, the outcome of their efforts are not always. Sometimes to the extent that these have even caused more harm in the end. But what do you say to these noble helpers? Do you confront them with their poor performance? Or do you thank them and silently regret having accepted their help?

I remember an incident, back when I was fifteen. Our family had just moved to a new area where our newly built house shared a front yard with our next-door neighbours. When the neighbour offered to build a pergola in it that would cover both halves, my parents accepted his offer, feeling somewhat relieved for having one decoration worry less. Shortly after the man finished, my dad walked over to his place to borrow his tools to tilt one of the posts that he considered off plumb. You can guess what happened next. Exactly. The neighbour was offended and felt unrecognised for the hard work he had done. And although they made peace shortly after, they never became close friends in the years following. But what was my dad supposed to do? Leave the post tilted as it was?

The institutionally empowered
Leaders can run into similar situations in professional life with people volunteering for worker's representation or supervisory boards. They may have been chosen for a particular expertise such as HR, Finance or IT, but eventually confronted with, or better yet, responsible for making decisions on a broader scope. It requires them to have an opinion about issues in a field, far from their expertise and without any business acumen. And before you know it your front yard is full with tilted posts. Only this time tilting them plumb is going to cost money, a lot of money.

Since they have been mandated to hold leadership accountable, leaders will find themselves often in a catch twenty-two. They have made a deliberate choice with ample thought, by cross-organisational collaboration and with support of various professionals, whilst having carefully weighted pros and cons. Relaying these to an institutionally empowered group to rebalance, may cause them to emphasize some pros or cons over others in order to 'tilt' to what was already considered as best outcome. An outcome they are eventually held accountable for by other stakeholders.

A propos, you obviously do not need to master something to have an opinion about it. Think of the thousands of coaches in a sports stadium each Sunday. Or millions of voters in election period. And who has never seen a TV talent show without having cast a vote on their favourite talent? Having an opinion is easy. Making a difference with it however, proves quite tough.

The ones driven by fear
This dilemma has really been puzzling me for a while now. You will find plenty of books, blogs and whatsoever to guide the advice-giver, but what about the advice-taker? How should he or she deal with good intended, but bad advice? In particular when such advice is binding.

When I find myself confronted with a limited sphere of information processing around me, my response is to question it. When someone makes a statement which seems to be proceeding along the crystallized lines of post assumptive thought, I ask “why?” or “what is really being said here?” I try to understand their thinking process and present them with mine. Explain to them in a non-judgmental way why I think their perspective is ‘tilted’. Evidence that this helps break through impasse is not inconclusive, but it at least gives me a better understanding of people’s motivation, quite often driven by fear.

Smart advice-givers will ask questions and listen first. Those who do not, are likely trapped in thinking they have to present you with the final answer. Though procedural-wise this may be true, I bet they are not waiting for a front yard full of tilted posts in the end.

As I am in it to learn, I would really like to hear from you how you deal with good intended bad advice.