Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to conduct a reference check.

I suggest you don't check references until you're are ready to make an offer to a candidate. This saves staff time and demonstrates your respect for the candidates. After all, you don't know whether their current employer or favorite professor even knows they're looking for a new position. (I personally prefer candidates who tell their employer, but realize this isn't always possible, or even desirable.) In that case, use former supervisors or senior coworkers as references. If the candidates don't want you to contact their current employers, there's always other people who can provide a reference.

Tell all the candidates that you'll check their references before you make any hiring decisions. Business owners often hire applicants because of a well-written resume or a "good feeling" from an interview. No matter how quickly you'd like to get a position filled, always perform this due diligence before you take the hiring step. Otherwise, it's often a case of "hire in haste, repent at leisure."

Ask each applicant to sign a release form permitting you to ask detailed questions of former employers and other references. Make sure the form prevents the applicant from suing you or any former employers based on the information you learn during the reference checks. Without this permission, you may only be able to confirm employment dates, pay rate, and position — information that tells you little about a prospective employee's character. Also, check with your lawyer first, because some kinds of liability can't be waived. Fax a copy of the prospective employee's background check waiver and your personal credentials before you call a prospective employee's references. Many employers fear being sued for defamation if they say anything negative about a former employee. Your fax will ease their fears. Keep in mind that some states now consider employers' comments to be "qualifiedly privileged." That means the employer can't be held liable for the information he or she reveals unless he or she knows it to be false or reckless. If that's true in your state (check with your lawyer), make sure the references know it.

When conducting reference checks, get an overall summary of the candidates' strengths and weaknesses and always ask for specific examples to support generalities and glowing statements. This will reduce exaggeration.

• Ask "Please describe your reporting relationship with the candidate? If none, in what capacity did you observe the candidate's work?"

• Verify basic information such as employment dates, job titles, salary, and types of jobs performed.

• Ask "What was the candidate's reason for leaving?"

• Ask “What motivated or drove the candidate to succeed?”

• Ask “Would you rehire this individual? Why or Why not?”

• Ask “How would you compare this candidate to others you know at the same level?”

• To get an overall summary, ask “How would you rank the candidate's overall performance on a scale of 1 - 10, with 10 being highest? What would it take to move this ranking up a point?”

* Ask "If I describe the position we're hiring for, can you tell me how good a fit you think the candidate would be for that position?"

• Ask "Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to share with me?"

Having a standard format for checking references allows you to easily compare candidates and ensures your managers are asking the "right" questions to make an educated decision before offering candidates a job with your company.

You might also consider conducting a background check on a prospective employee. Not every company does this, and not every position merits it, but it might be appropriate in some cases. Background checks can verify past employment, as well as checking on educational and criminal records. Background checks can also search driving records and financial information such as credit reports, if that kind of information is pertinent to the prospective candidate´s position with your company.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Avoid these common hiring mistakes.

Working mostly with smaller companies these days, I find they usually have weak or nonexistent HR capabilities. Even if employees are valued in a family sort of way, the main concern in hiring is to fill a space and stay out of trouble with the law. Here are some of the most common errors and omissions I encounter. These can all be avoided by following the hiring outline I provided in last week's posts.

• There’s no formally spelled-out hiring procedure so managers all do it differently. Some do it well but most do not. They've had no training in how the company wants its managers to hire in a consistent way.

• Hiring decisions tend to be made on emotions (“I really liked so-and-so”) rather than being fact based. Managers hire in their own image and likeness, mostly hiring people they’ll be comfortable with. Not a great way to bring new and challenging ideas into the company.

• People are hired for what they know, then fired later on for who they are.

• Managers who are rated an 8 on a performance scale of 1 – 10 hire 7s. 7s hire 5s. And so on.

• When a candidate is interviewed by several managers, the criteria aren’t agreed to up front and the results aren’t scored against these criteria. When it’s over, all you’re left with are multiple impressions of the candidate and these are often based on different assessments of what the job entails.

• Position descriptions are seldom developed beforehand to define the skills, capabilities and experience the candidates need to have before they can be hired. Without this, it’s impossible to develop scoring criteria for the interview process. Job descriptions typically list activities, not capabilities.

• References are seldom checked because “since they could be sued, they won’t tell us anything worthwhile anyway.”

Tomorrow, I'll cover more about reference checking. Also what to do if the candidate doesn't work out after being hired.

Are there any other aspect of hiring that are of interest to you?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Piccolo Paradiso, a poem by Harold Norse.

Harold Norse, a San Francisco poet often associated with the Beats, died recently at the age of 92. He was mentor or peer to many of the greatest talents in 20th century American literature, including Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. He earned a bachelor's degree at Brooklyn College in 1938 and a master's from New York University in 1951. His work appeared in many prestigious publications, including Poetry magazine, the Paris Review and Saturday Review.
A pioneer of gay poetry written in plain english, he was called the best poet of his generation by William Carlos Williams. However, Norse never attained the recognition that he and others felt was his due. "I had a big ego," he told the San Francisco Weekly in 2000, "but I always said - and it was a stupid thing that I lived by - 'I won't lift a finger to publicize my work. It has to come from the outside.' So in a way I buried myself."

Piccolo Paradiso by Harold Norse

let the age hang itself! we've had
four marvelous days together
no news reports only music
& no serious discussions

plenty of wine the best
from the islands
falerno & ischian
& lacrima cristi
we've made up
for months
of loneliness
hard work
of 'superiors'

we may not live
very well or long
our mistakes are perhaps too great
to bear correction
at this midpoint
of our lives (you're somewhat younger)
surely too great
to make up for the lengths we go
to hide them

e cosi...that's
how it goes

but at least
we're ahead of the game

we've stolen a march
on the dead the herd

if the return to grayness
sharp tempered weapons
of those who force life
into corners
is more than we can bear
remember this
the wine
the ladder
of stars that climb
vesuvius outside
my window
the waves
banging into smooth
tufa caves

& the opera
as we lay together

Thursday, June 25, 2009

How to score and rank job candidates.

To score and rank the candidates, I recommend using Lou Adler's 10-item checklist using a scale of 1 (weak) to 5 (strong):

1. Energy, drive and initiative.
The key to personal success is to do more than you have to, so look for this quality in every past job. Get examples of initiative and extra effort. Don't assume that an extroverted personality means lots of energy; have the candidates prove it by example, including specific dates, facts, and quantities. Don't ever compromise on this one.

2. Trend of performance over time.
Get detailed examples of the candidates' major accomplishments over the past five years. From this, it's easy to see how they've grown and impacted the companies they've worked for. The ideal candidates have had comparable (not necessarily identical) jobs and are still showing signs of upward growth.

3. Comparability of past accomplishments.
Use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Results-based, and Time-based) objectives to compare the candidates' past accomplishments with the performance objectives of the job to be filled and get anchoring accomplishments for each one.
Be concerned about mismatching - for example, a smart energetic engineer may not be effective as a manager.

4. Experience, education and industry background.
Use this in conjunction with the past accomplishments category. Strong education and experience can sometimes offset a weaker accomplishment rating. Examine experience in the context of the pace, style and standards of performance where the experience took place. Give some extra credit for direct industry experience and education.

5. Problem solving and thinking skills.
Strong candidates need to understand the work, solve job-related problems, and anticipate what needs to be done. Collecting and processing information to make appropriate decisions is important, as is the ability to apply previous knowledge and experience to solving new problems.

6. Overall talent, technical competency and potential.
Score the candidates' ability to grow, develop and take on bigger roles. The top candidates will have a broader focus than the job demands. Search for thinking skills; candidates who see the broader needs of a business beyond their own functional requirements. Being able to learn technical skills is often more important than already having them, unless the job is very technically intensive and requires immediate knowledge.

7. Management and organization.
Have the candidates draw organization charts for the last few positions held. Assign names, titles, and direct and indirect staff size. Compare the size and scope of candidates' responsibilities with your current job needs. Then ask the candidates to describe their most complex team projects to assess their organizational skills.

8. Team leadership.
Team leadership represents the ability to tap into and harness the energy of others - getting them to move in the same direction or to do something they might not want to do. This has two aspects - motivating immediate subordinates and motivating people who work in different departments. Also look for candidates who've personally helped a number of people become more successful and who consistently go out of their way to hire superior people

9. Personality and cultural fit.
Personality is revealed in an individual's accomplishments. Look for flexibility and a pattern of accomplishments in different situations: as a member of a team, as the leader of a team, and as an individual contributor. Categorize the candidates' accomplishments on an ABC scale: "Alone," "Belonging to a team," or "in Charge of the team."

10. Character.
Character is a deep-rooted trait that summarizes a person's integrity, honesty, responsibility, openness, and fairness in dealing with others. Save this topic until the end of the first interview, or wait for the second interview when candidates will be more open and comfortable with their responses. Ask them to explain their personal value system and how they developed it. Find out why they want to change jobs and what aspects of work they find important. Understanding the candidates' value systems allows you to predict how they'll react to various work-related circumstances.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How to ask good interview questions.

Your questions shouldn't offend and should help you establish the applicant's qualifications and prospects for success on the job. Questions about values look to find if there's any cultural misalignment.

1. What are some of the things that make a job really satisfying for you?

2. What three accomplishments do you take the greatest pride in?

3. What's the toughest job you have ever had? How did you handle it?

4. What kind of boss do you work best with?

5. What would your present or former boss say about you? What would he have liked to see you do differently?

6. Tell me about a mistake that you made, either at work or in your personal life, that taught you a significant lesson?

7. Give me an example where you improved yourself over the last three months.

8. Have you ever risked being fired to do what you thought was right? Explain.

9. What values do you admire most in your favorite Company?

10. During a heated disagreement between co-workers, if you could be either a peacemaker or a decision maker, which would you choose and why?

11. Do you have any responsibilities that would conflict with your job attendance or travel requirements?

12. Describe times when you’ve had to juggle several tasks and deadlines at the same time.

13. What work situations have irritated you or made you upset, angry, in the past?

14. Describe a time when you took the initiative to handle something outside your area of responsibility. Why did you decide to do this?

15. Suppose we had a product or service that you felt didn't meet our customers' needs – what would you do about it?

16. What personal agendas do you think you'll satisfy by accepting this position?

17. What’s the best use of your time and talent?

18. What do you wish you had more time to do?

See also some excellent advice from Van A. Thaxton, a HR consultant in San Diego, at


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Does your company use a consistent hiring process?

Bob Spence introduced me to this very effective multi-step hiring process:

1. Spell out the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors desired. This is the "who" criteria, the attributes of the person needed for this job.

2. Next spell out the "what" criteria. Define the job's duties and responsibilities. Identify and include issues like accountability, performance, and cultural or political issues in the company that you need in the person being hired.

3. Then define the capabilities the candidate needs to have before they can be hired.

4. Quantify the interview information not by reading resumes, but by scoring and ranking them.

5. Screen all potential employees first using telephone interviews (see previous posts on how to use phone interviews in recruiting - Sept 17, 2008).

6. Include several behavioral probes about how the candidates have actually performed in the past, not how they think they'll act in the future. For example, ask them; "describe a time in which you were faced with problems and/or stresses which tested your coping skills. What did you do?"

7. Interview only your top candidates on-site.

Following this hiring process may take more time than you’re used to. However, most companies find that they’re spending less time hiring because they aren't hiring as often. They also save lots of money. If you hire a receptionist at $25,000 a year and she doesn't work out, this could cost you a lot more than her salary. Since the receptionist is the first person your customers have contact with, if she offends them so they stop doing business with you, it can cost you a small fortune.

Recruiting is the single most important part of the hiring process. It's not something you do at the end of an interview - it starts the moment you begin the interviewing process. If you can't attract the best people, everything else has been a waste of time. You know you have problems if you're consistently paying too much or if candidates frequently say, "I have to think about it," after receiving an offer. Problems occur because many managers stop interviewing and begin selling as soon as they find someone they like. Once you start selling, you stop learning about the prospective hire.

Recruiting is more about marketing than selling. If you oversell, you tend to over-talk and under-listen. As a result, you'll either lose the best candidates or pay too much for them. As you talk more and the candidates talk less, you lose control of the interview. From that point on, you won't learn anything new about them other than what they want you to know. If you present the job, without pressure, as a significant long-term and exciting opportunity, candidates will want to sell or convince you about their skills and capabilities, instead of you having to sell them.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How to hire great people.

A lot of the problems I find in my consulting and counseling practice are a result of bad hiring practices. And it seems I'm not alone - the bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, is currently working on a book that argues there's a mismatch problem in the way we usually hire people, that we set up qualifications to try and judge how people might perform where what we should be doing is watching them actually perform.
see http://www.newyorker.com/online/video/conference/2008/gladwell

Successful companies marry seasoned talent with people who have fresh perspectives. Many years of experience in an industry can turn out to be a detriment rather than an asset when looking for new ideas. Nanogen’s Chairman Howard Birndorf says, “Look for people who are smarter than you, who both compliment and support your own skills. You need to find people who understand how to take risks, people who aren’t afraid of change, who can go from one day to the next with a big change in either direction without being blown away.” Kevin O’Connor, a co-founder of DoubleClick says, “The thing we most tend to look for in hiring people is intelligence - and athleticism: people who love to compete, who don’t like to lose.”

Look for smart people with a combination of experience, drive, commitment and passion. Getting that mix right is the difference between companies that achieve greatness and those that merely survive, or fail. The new hire’s priority has to be making the company successful, not getting a certain title or a private office. For key hires, it’s also important to meet the prospect's spouse. If they're going to have to live with long days or frequent travel, they need to know about the company and its business plan. Have your current top people take assessment tests - then build the profile that’s worked for you and use it to hire new people - that way, you know what you’re looking for.

Creating a successful company is as much about good people as good technology. Bill Gates says, “It’s important to have someone you totally trust, who is totally committed, who shares your vision, and yet who has a different set of skills and who can also act as a check on your ideas. Some of the ideas you run by him, you know he’s going to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, have you thought about this and that?’ The benefit of sparking off somebody like that is that it not only makes a business more fun, but it leads to a lot of success.”

Hiring good people is like getting married - if you do it right, you don’t have to do it often. If you’re in a situation of excessive risk, hire somebody who has already learned to shave on someone else’s beard. Hire the people you think you’ll need five years from now if everything works out. Hire people who share your vision and agree with your business principles. Make sure these are clear to the people being recruited. Have the best candidates spend time with the people they’re going to be working with. Hire backups for key people; the biggest weakness in smaller companies is a lack of bench strength.

If you want an innovative organization, you need to hire, work with and promote people who make you uncomfortable. You need to understand your own preferences so that you can compliment your weaknesses and exploit your strengths. Never hire or promote in your own image. It’s foolish to replicate your strengths and your weaknesses. If you hire people with the same character qualities that you have, you’ll just end up fighting with them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Poems by Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), the reclusive "Belle of Amherst, lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence. Many of her 1700 poems are about death and dying. She once wrote that "The dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my heart from one, another has come."
Here are a few of her poems:


I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth, -- the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.


Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to excite and attract people.

How can you ask people for their best efforts and their commitment in ways that excite and attract them? Too many of the current ways of asking, instead of exciting and attracting people, bore them, frustrate them, annoy them, make them hostile or resistant, in short, produce the very opposite qualities to those that will make the organization run smoothly. Better performance will be achieved when there’s greater congruence between what’s being asked of a person and what they’re willing and able to give. To develop, motivate and hang on to talent, you’ll have to convince your people they’re working in an environment where they can grow and be enriched. This means redefining what success means for people today. The key is to develop broader jobs, to take away the stigma of the horizontal move, to focus on creating a small-enterprise environment within the context of the larger organization that develops a sense of ownership and entrepreneurship.

According to research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, the activities that give us the most satisfaction in life are those that engage our psychic energy in increasingly complex and challenging tasks. When we are in “flow,” the activity absorbs the body and mind. A true flow experience increases productivity, improves self-esteem, reduces stress, and inspires creativity. We lose our “self,” and order and harmony prevail. Flow experiences lead to the increased complexity in consciousness that’s necessary to evolve the self. This complexity also “provides the energy and direction for some of the most important transformations of technology and culture. Cars and computers, scientific knowledge and religious systems are created more out of a joyous desire to find new challenges and to create order in consciousness than from necessity or a calculation of profit.” Most flow experiences seem to occur when people are working, meeting new challenges that match their skills and interests. The desire to achieve complexity must be shared in order to be effective. Csikzentmihalyi says “We must join together in a community of shared belief about the future.”

As noted in earlier posts, human beings are more social than solitary. Most of us depend on social interaction and position at work for much of our sense of identity and self-worth. This places a lot of emphasis and reliance on external definitions of the self. However, simply relocating our PCs - the weaving looms of the 21st century - to our homes can leave us lonely and isolated in the suburbs.

So it seems best to keep your mind alive and move on when you get blocked or bored. As the poet Tennyson wrote in his poem, Ulysses, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The time to take action is now.

Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, wrote about the role of challenges in creating greatness. He said, “Man achieves civilization as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort.” A sudden crushing defeat in war can be just the impetus a society needs to set its house in order. “People occupying frontier positions, exposed to constant attack, achieve a more brilliant development that their neighbors in more sheltered positions.” However, even when a society has mastered great challenges, such as when the Ottoman Empire reached its fullest expansion, it can sometimes decay because of “a fatal rigidity.” So the areas we fear most, those that tend to develop a fatal rigidity in us, may just be those that hold the greatest promise of transformation.

Humans are intuitive and flexible and each one of us is unique. Most people are more social than solitary. How we view today can make a big difference in what happens tomorrow. “The present,” philosopher Gottfried Leibniz once said, “is pregnant with the future.” Thinking too much about tomorrow can insulate us from the reality of today where the real nature of the future is often shaped. It’s prudent not just to look ahead, but to do our best to make sure what we do in the moment at hand is fruitful as well.

Most people are comfortable with the attitudes they developed and the tools they learned before they were 25-years old. A person’s personality is generally formed rather early and then tends to be relatively stable for life. Although people can and do acquire new skills and knowledge triggering significantly new behaviors, central tendencies such as being extroverted or introverted, for example, are likely to persist. Our first instinct in the face of obstacles is to escape, to go somewhere else where it will hopefully be different. Another alternative is to rebel and intentionally break the rules. To fulfill our potential, we must acknowledge our personal contribution in creating our problems and summon up the courage to act authentically in the face of disapproval.

Being clear about our doubts increases our credibility with others. When you stop getting better, you stop being good. People often act with detachment and deny their feelings as a way of dealing with anxiety. According to Paula Poundstone, the reason adults are always asking children what they want to be when they grow up is because they’re looking for ideas. However, every measure to reduce uncertainties of one kind tends to foster uncertainties of another kind.

In today’s get rich, get successful quick society, people are programmed to believe there must be a right way for everything if only we could lay our hands on it. We're often at our most creative when we're trying to avoid the very changes that creativity offers. Some people’s idea of change when times get tough is, “Doing more is better. Hunch over and pull harder.” But rowing harder doesn’t help if your boat is headed in the wrong direction.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Living in a time-compressed society.

Time compression has become a fact of modern life. The traffic light that takes 30 seconds to change or the computer that takes a minute to boot up or the checkout line where it takes five minutes to buy a week’s groceries all have come to seem interminable delays. Time compression has made us a society of impatient people, anxious always to be “doing” or to receive the benefits of doing NOW. This change in normal required time has profound implications for society in a host of matters. One of the most significant is the implication for our cultural time sense. A cultural time sense reflects the way a society positions itself vis-à-vis the future.

Societies tend to vary in their cultural time sense. For example, a society like Japan’s - one that engages in planning today to position its industry to be competitive in the next century - is clearly a society with a fairly long time horizon. On the other hand, a society like that of the United States - one that’s creating a tremendous national debt and has actually shifted from being a major creditor to being a major debtor nation within a decade - is a society that reflects a much shorter cultural time sense.

Regardless of the fundamental way a society views the future, the time compression reflected by significant decreases in normal required time causes all societies to fight the battle of maintaining a “future focus.” When in so many areas the payoff of actions is immediate - be it mathematical calculation, the speed of long-distance travel, or the rapidity of transcontinental data transmission - it becomes increasingly hard to focus on or engage in activities in which the payoff is years away.

When we are impatient with the little things, it is hard to be patient with the big things. We see this in many areas of contemporary society. Financial markets have been driven by merger activity and derivative trading as a means of creating value. This is in lieu of the old-fashioned way of investing in productive capacity and building a business. Consumers have plunged into debt to enjoy a fling today, often with limited concern for the longer-term consequences of their actions. And Americans have tolerated the creation of massive federal indebtedness and the international erosion of their financial power in the world economy.

In The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism Richard Sennet argues that in our flexible, reengineered economy, we are unmoored from our past, from our neighbours and from ourselves. How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves, living in a society which is impatient and which focuses on the immediate moment? You may not agree with his arguments, but he’ll lead you to new places.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Switching between learning curves.

The great flywheel of habit keeps a lot of companies on the same straight path long after it's become clear that they’ll face tougher times unless they learn to adapt. It takes a great deal of energy, determination and intellectual courage to question the basic purposes of our lives. Yet this is exactly what more and more of us are having to do as the structure of American industry continues to shift, as old careers and opportunities dry up, and as new ones emerge and develop.

Studies show that living organisms have learning curves that are S-shaped. People start with a period of slow orientation followed by rapid acceleration. However, at a certain point, the curve begins to tip downward. So, if a person doesn’t get on a new curve, their success in life is sharply limited. Success gives the illusion that the curve only goes up. It requires reflection and introspection to know otherwise. To be introspective means creating an observation point where you can see the past and the future and then decide what to do next.

This means retreating, withdrawing to reassess, reframing and returning. Individuals are most likely to do this when they see different values and conflicts between themselves and their work or their organization. Face up to it and decide what you can change within the organization and what you have to change for yourself. As Professor Pam Posey points out, transitioning between learning curves (created by plotting results v/s effort) is very tricky to do. “It feels like a free fall zone - it feels like we’re throwing away our progress and going back to ground zero again.”

Tractors left farmers working on their own. The city and factory left people working on their own, surrounded by others working on their own. The world became an army with lines of command driven down through management, government, education, and society. Laws and rules were made like precise mechanical engines. The message was to be a cog. That way, you knew your place. How can we know our place today, when the place itself is only there in passing? No, it's not a time to know your place, but to make your place.

“A man needs a little madness or else he'll never dare to cut the rope and be free” - Zorba the Greek

Friday, June 12, 2009

Important people, poems by Louis Untermeyer.

Louis Untermeyer (1885 - 1977) was an American author, poet, anthologist, and editor. He was born in New York City and was the author or editor of close to 100 books. Many of these are preserved in a special section of the Lilly Library at the Indiana University. In 1956 the Poetry Society of America awarded Untermeyer a Gold Medal. He also served as a Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1961 until 1963. He once expressed his philosophy of life as: “From compromise and things half done, Keep me with stern and stubborn pride; And when at last the fight is won, God, keep me still unsatisfied.”

Important People

Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.

Edward Plantagenet
(Can you imagine it!)
Had owls in his hair,
And he didn't care.

The poet Byron
Was made of iron.
He bragged about it.
But I - I doubt it.

Andrew Jackson
Was Anglo-Saxon;
So, full of beans,
He took New Orleans.

Lord Alfred Tennyson
Lived upon venison -
Not cheap, I fear,
Because venison's deer.

The composer Liszt
Banged the piano with his fist.
That was the way
He liked to play!

Thomas A. Edison
Never took medicine;
So nobody wondered
That he lived to a hundred.

Sir Christopher Wren
Said "I'm having lunch with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing St. Paul's."

Although the Borgias
Were rather gorgeous,
They liked the absurder
Kinds of murder.

Francesca da Rimini
Lived in a chimney
Full of bats in the gloam -
But still, home is home!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Are you a judger or a perceiver?

Two mythical heroes die hard in our culture; the gifted amateur and the born leader. The gifted amateur makes brilliant business decisions with little or no preparation, and his organization does wonderfully well as a result. The born leader succeeds by acting independently of his environment or his followers. Both of these myths help us forget that half of being smart is knowing what you’re dumb at. In the current world, you only need to hesitate in order to fail. Today’s experts are those who can see or find out how things relate to each other, not just the people with the most facts. These experts have value because they can show others what’s significant. Their expertise is less about having content and more about knowing how to help people look.

Constant change carries with it a stiff penalty; constant struggle and uncertainty.
The American Declaration of Independence says, “All experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Swiss pychiatrist Carl Jung wrote that people’s personalities could be described as judgers or perceivers. Judgers take life seriously, are well organized, punctual, and decisive people who like time to plan their work and then work the plan. Perceivers, on the other hand, are more flexible, freewheeling and spontaneous, enjoy the unexpected, and take change in their stride. According to The Center for Application of Psychological Types in Gainesville, Florida, 60% of Americans are judgers. So most Americans are not naturally proactive change seekers or easy adaptors.

People need anchors to hold on to that provide a means for self-definition during periods of turbulence. In the Gnostic gospels, the Gospel of Thomas says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” A preoccupation with problem solving and decision making overdevelops the analytical abilities and leaves the ability to dream and take risks underdeveloped.

Many of our present behaviors and attitudes are ingrained in us by biological and cultural predisposition. The choices we make are influenced by these forces, and only by understanding them can we liberate ourselves and consciously drive our own evolution. So, have no fear of change as such but, on the other hand, don’t embrace it merely for its own sake either. And at all costs, avoid the temptation to combat complexity with complexity.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Executive development in the 21st century.

In the emerging economy, every institution in society - business, government, unions, educational institutions, the media, each of us - has to change. Long-term business strategy can only be planned if each business action has a limited number of predictable outcomes. Most strategies fail, not because they‘re ill-conceived or poorly implemented, but because in today’s world, the outcome of many actions are unpredictable. Tiny events can lead to fundamental changes. A double-glazing company installed patio doors for the editor of a national newspaper. The doors didn’t fit and the company refused to remedy the defect. The editor publicized the situation in his newspaper and his article triggered hundreds of letters from other dissatisfied customers. As a result, the company’s business collapsed.

For much of the 20th century, the workplace was the last bastion of feudalism, a medieval system where each layer of society served the one above it and protected the one below it. Feudalism collapsed with the rise of the nation states because while feudal lords could protect their subjects from roving bands of brigands and marauders, they couldn’t protect then from national armies. Similarly, today’s organizations can no longer protect their employees from global market forces and the lightening speed of technological change. They no longer provide protection and they no longer expect loyalty. There’s little demand for faithful retainers anymore. The most difficult positions to fill are global program managers who coordinate products and services across international subsidiaries. Global companies are searching for ways to develop and grow these people.

Vicky Farrow, who was in charge of executive development at Sun Microsystems, gave the following advice conceerning career self-reliance: “Think of yourself as a business and be clear about your area of expertise. Define your product or service and know who you’re going to sell it to. Understand the value you add for your customers and invest in your own growth. Know where your field of expertise is headed, and be willing to change. Be prepared to start a new business when it looks like your current one is becoming obsolete.”

The new employer-employee contract goes something like this: You’re responsible for your own career. Your employer will help provide you with experience and training that can keep you marketable, but not necessarily give you a job forever. If you work smarter and produce high quality goods and services, in return, the company will give you personal recognition, continuous training, and a good living. For both production workers and professionals, staying competitive is the only real job guarantee in the global economy.

When everything, everywhere happens simultaneously, there’s no clear order or sequence. We're leaving behind many of the human institutions and stable power relationships which gave us security in the past. We're plunging down a river that has no banks to rest on. Returning upstream isn’t an option. You can row hard to stay in the same place, but you’ll eventually go broke there. The future is downstream, like it or not. Change is no longer a choice. As pitcher Nolan Ryan says, “There’s no off-season anymore.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Letting go in order to move forward.

The origin of our political behavior in organizations comes from our dependent relations with our family, how we went about getting what we wanted from our parents and others who had power over us, living as someone said, "in a community of frowning others" who knew what was right or wrong for us. We tend to repeat those strategies of influence for the rest of our lives.

“We sail with a corpse in the cargo,” according to Henrik Ibsen. In his play, Ghosts, Osvald Alving comes home on the brink of dementia, suffering from syphilis inherited from his father. Rather than blaming Oswald’s plight on his dead father, Ibsen suggests that society at large also must share the blame for the poison of its false pieties, its preoccupation with appearances, and its soul-crushing mediocrity. So does his mother for buckling under to bourgeois respectabilities. In the end, the best she can do by her child is to promise to give him a fatal dose of morphine. Ibsen leaves us very much in doubt that she’ll have the heart to do this when the time comes. Ibsen wrote, “I’m coming to believe that all of us are ghosts ... It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers. It’s also the shadows of dead ideas and opinions and convictions. They’re no longer alive, but they grip us against our will.”

In his research on peak performers, Paul Gustavson found that high achievers were primarily people who had a dream, a clear vision of what they wanted to be in the future, and were prepared to work hard to make that dream come true. They were seldom the best or the most naturally talented when they started out. But they found opportunities to support and develop the talents they knew they had, even if others didn’t appreciate them. How many potential Pavarotis or Margaret Meads are alive today, undiscovered and undeveloped?

Transformation of any sort calls for a radical letting go and an openness to the unknown. We can’t advance and grow as long as we’re holding on tight to what no longer works. We have to let go for a new form to emerge. These are the creative moments that build our lives and they can happen at any turning point. During this time, patience is one of our greatest virtues and seeking premature closure is one of our greatest perils.

Monday, June 8, 2009

How to keep your business healthy.

The Chinese say, “The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their correct names.” When focusing on a firm’s purpose, remember that customers don’t want drills; they want holes. Making money isn’t a reason for being in business; rather, it’s a condition for staying in business. Disney’s stated purpose, “to make people happy,” is about reassurance, not theme parks. For the $$ people pay to get into Disneyland, they want experiences that will make them feel good, that will make them hopeful that all will be right with the world. The Auto Club isn’t in the business of running garages even though its employees spend a lot of time dispatching tow trucks for cars with breakdowns. Its core purpose is giving people peace of mind.

Successful companies frame their identity around their core purpose rather than in terms of their products or services. What they stand for is more important and more permanent than what they sell. For example, Motorola initially grew and prospered because it based its identity on “applying technology for the benefit of the public.” It focused its energies not just on what it currently did (making televisions), but on what it could become in the future as well.

As previous posts have illustrated, leading edge companies today are adopting organizations and configurations that few people would have imagined possible ten years ago. Many of these novel arrangements have demonstrated their effectiveness by delivering world-class performance. Behind each of these business breakthroughs is a leadership team that was willing to stretch, improvise and create a supportive atmosphere that integrated beliefs and goals, culture and strategy, and performance and rewards.

In a fast changing world, there’s no permanent “right” way to be organized. In creating organizations for the future, rather than trying to sell people on the answers, it’s more effective to engage them in an investigation where choices about relationships, structures and policies can emerge from a joint search. Involving people directly in discussions about the future is very important because resistance mostly comes when people aren’t able to see themselves in the new state. By taking part in conversations about shaping the future, people get to hear the same things at the same time and can contribute to shaping the outcomes.

Yes, today's world is complicated, fast-moving, uncertain, and unforgiving. As an old man in a pub in Ireland once told me, “If you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on.” In surfing terms, if you’re not making waves, you’re probably not kicking hard enough! “Companies don’t change incrementally. They change in quantum lumps," according to Larry Bossidy. "If you shoot for anything less, you don’t get any change. So aim big. Even if you fall short, you’ll still make a big difference.”

An alliance of partners provides more sources of field intelligence to spot changes in the marketplace. Having partners from different industry backgrounds and corporate cultures provides a diversity of perspectives and ideas for responding to new situations. Part of the dilemma in getting managers and employees excited about change is that, over time, most businesses don’t noticeably change for the worse; they simply fail to change for the better. You need continuous improvement and periodic reinvention to stay healthy.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Touch Me, a poem by Stanley Kunitz.

Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905. He attended Harvard College, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1926 and a master's degree in 1927. He served in the Army in World War II, after a request for conscientious objector status was denied. Following the war, he began teaching, first at Bennington College in Vermont, and later at universities including Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, and the University of Washington.

His honors include the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, Harvard's Centennial Medal, the Levinson Prize, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Shelley Memorial Award. He served for two years as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, was designated State Poet of New York, and a Chancellor Emeritus of The Academy of American Poets. In 2000 he was named United States Poet Laureate.

About his own work, Kunitz has said: “The poem comes in the form of a blessing — ‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”

Touch Me by Stanley Kunitz

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Strategies for uncertain times.

Strategizing today involves examining trends and developments like those mentioned yesterday, then turning them on their heads, and discovering the new opportunities that drop out. Since cars are in the news, remember that when Toyota first introduced Lexus in America, it didn’t just offer higher quality than its competitors at a 40% discount. Rather, Toyota built the car around a thorough review of the whole buying and service world experienced by prospective Lexus buyers. On the basis of that information, Toyota decided to sell Lexus cars through a unique new channel, one structured and managed to make customers feel special and valued. For Toyota, Lexus represented not just another new car, but a whole new way of doing business. As a result, exploding from a standing start in 1989, Lexus quickly outsold both Mercedes and BMW in the North American marketplace. I've owned a Lexus since 1992 and because of the excellent service and performance, I'd never want to own a different brand.

Great strategies are often based on developments outside the organization’s current field of knowledge or where discontinuities in technology, demographics or lifestyles are reshaping industry boundaries. These “white spaces” represent new areas of growth that fall between the cracks because they don’t naturally match the skills and capabilities of existing business units. Lew Platt believed his most important role in strategy formulation at Hewlett-Packard was to build bridges among the company’s various operations. He said, “My role is to encourage discussion of the overlaps and gaps among business strategies, the important areas that are not addressed by the strategies of individual businesses.”

The organizations that built the best sailing ships in the world didn’t learn to build steamships. The people who manufactured horse buggies didn’t build automobiles. Companies miss the future not because they’re stupid but because they’re blind. One of the problems of seeing the world in new ways is that the basic classification scheme built into our common speech and language directs us to observe the things we can readily classify with the names we’re already familiar with. We have a strong tendency to overlook or disregard everything else. So, as the surrounding environment changes, much of the information it generates gets ignored.

In a dynamic world, conventional wisdom is an oxymoron. Long years of experience in an industry can be a detriment rather than an asset. Since paradigms are only useful for a limited time, organizations need to constantly revise the models and ruling metaphors that guide their perceptions. Smart companies change before they have to. Lucky companies scramble and adjust when push comes to shove. The rest disappear.

When executing strategies in uncertain times, much of the route forward may be invisible from the starting point. The only way to see the road ahead is to start moving, because clarity emerges more readily from error than from confusion. Great strategies move organizations in the right direction and are quickly refined through rapid experimentation and adjustment. In a fast changing world, it’s especially important to get new products and services into the marketplace as early as possible rather than waiting to perfect them. Once they hit the market, no one can anticipate where that will lead or whether they’ll succeed or not. In a business environment where progress depends on serendipity and spontaneity, high risk and high rewards go hand-in-hand.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Creating a viable tomorrow.

To make intelligent bets on the future, you have to understand what’s likely to develop in the next five to ten years and this is especially difficult given the present pace of change. The impact of something that grows exponentially is difficult to predict because the short-term consequences are generally less than planned while the long-term consequences are generally much more than expected. As a result, most people overestimate what’s going to happen in the next two to three years and underestimate what’s going to happen in the next decade. As technology becomes more and more of a commodity, an organization’s unique competitive competence has to come from its other capabilities instead.

In high technology companies, the products are complicated, the pressures to innovate are enormous and the people who buy and use products like computer equipment often know as much about how the product works as the people who developed it. As technologies become more complicated and users more sophisticated, customers are no longer the passive recipients of a company’s products but the engines of innovation instead.

In order to leverage developments like these to build sustainable competitive advantage, more and more companies are blowing up old industry models and offering their customers a new and better deal. In the United States, Wal-Mart has done this in retailing and Nucor in steel. Southwest Airlines has reconfigured air travel. The list goes on to include Charles Schwab, Embassy Suites, Federal Express, Gateway 2000 and hundreds more. These upstarts have created new ways of doing business rather than just sticking with the old ways of doing things.

Successful organizations like these make plans to operate simultaneously in three different kinds of futures:

- predictable futures, where information about what’s required is readily available to everyone in the marketplace. Here, it’s virtually impossible to steal a march on the competition for very long, so flawless execution is the key to success.

- uncertain futures, where what’s required can’t be anticipated in advance and adaptability is the key differentiating capability. Here, the name of the game is improvisation, not standardization. One of my clients, describing her company’s strategy says, “We run like mad, and then we change direction.”

- intuitive futures, where what’s required is defined by those who create new business opportunities. Organizations gain sustainable competitive advantage by finding new patterns that connect existing elements in their environment in novel and original ways, or by inventing elements that can be used to create new patterns not previously in effect. Here, innovation and speed win the day.

Successful companies in the future will be simple, small, speedy and strategic, while aspiring to be global, lean, fast and smart. The challenge for most organizations will be to add speed and capability without adding complexity. When creating the organizations of the future, the real voyage of discovery will consist not in seeking out new structures but in seeing the world with new eyes. Great strategies come from understanding what’s happening in the world in new ways.

to be continued......

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More thoughts on GM.

Still thinking about the car industry, it saddens me to learn that Lee Iacocca, the executive who turned Chrysler around in the 1980s, will lose a major part of his pension and a guaranteed life-long company car as part of the fall-out from Chrysler's bankruptcy deal. Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli told a U.S. bankruptcy court that Iacocca's pension would be among the obligations Chrysler wouldn't be paying when it got court approval to sell itself to a "New Chrysler" to be owned by the UAW, the U.S. and Canadian governments and Fiat. Iacocca's retirement was part of a supplemental executive retirement plan including non-IRS qualified pension funds that are therefore subject to bankruptcy. Chrysler is also stopping a program that gave company cars for life to former executives and directors including Iacocca.

Now, back to GM, I believe the key flaw with Obama's plan for the company is that it doesn't address the perniciousness of the traditional corporate and organizational culture at GM and bring in fresh thinkers empowered to make material changes, like Ford has done. This would go against a fatal aspect of GM's culture - its insularity. The Obama plan generally appears to be based on the traditional venture capital model in that it promises the Government will only be a short-term investor and its efforts will be focussed on turning the company around and producing a sizeable return on divestment to the new shareholders (U.S. and Canadian taxpayers).

However, the plan is missing the most critical element of the venture capital model - when a venture capital fund buys a company to turn it around, it places experts and innovators from outside in key management roles and sees that they're empowered to make decisions and effect real change. There's no evidence that the Obama turnaround team has the experience, skills, mandate, authority or even desire to make the sweeping strategic, cultural, and organizational changes required to return GM to viability. This, among other things, makes the current approach unworkable and just creates another black-hole for taxpayer money.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thoughts triggered by GM"s current situation.

Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel prize winning chemist, suggests giving up the Aristotelian notion of past, present and future. He says that the future is truly undetermined and we have to create it as we go. “Time is a creation,” he emphasizes. “The future is just not there.” Prigogine won his Nobel prize in 1977 for his theory of “dissipative structures” which covers all open systems that exchange energy with their environment. Because they’re constantly interacting with the outside world, they’re very sensitive to signals about change. At certain bifurcation points, changes amplify into disturbances so large that the system comes apart - but it then reconfigures itself at a higher, more complex level that’s better able to handle the new conditions.

Prigogine observed that open systems tend to hesitate for a moment at the bifurcation point before assuming their new form. These self-organizing systems can be thought of as more resilient than stable. A dissipative structure can be a chemical solution or a human being or a corporation. But the pattern of change is the same in that disruption is the doorway to transformation.

Prigogine’s way of conceptualizing change - that we’re all shaken up ‘till we fall apart - was also observed 50-years earlier by the famous historian, Arnold Toynbee, who in A Study of History, wrote about the role of challenges in creating greatness. “Man achieves civilization as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort,” says Toynbee. A sudden crushing defeat in war can be just the impetus a society needs to set its house in order. “Peoples occupying frontier positions, exposed to constant attack, achieve a more brilliant development than their neighbors in more sheltered positions.”

However, even when a society has mastered great challenges, such as when the Ottoman Empire reached its fullest expansion, it can sometimes decay because of “a fatal rigidity.” But the areas we fear the most, those that tend to engender in us a fatal rigidity, may just be those that hold the greatest promise of transformation.

In a world of rapid change, we need to consciously reexamine the paradigms and ruling metaphors that guide our perceptions. We tend to automatically use ruling metaphors such as “rule the world” to describe and organize our fundamental relationships. I hope that those charged with reorganizing GM recognize they need to move their metaphors from mechanics to biology, and from control to coexistence.