Friday, June 30, 2020

Building Trust

Trust is an essential basis for a productive, satisfying and fun business environment. Suspicion corrodes working relationships and undermines people’s confidence in themselves and their colleagues. Leaders need to offer trust, since the only way to prove whether others are trustworthy or not is by experience. Organizational leaders have nearly all the power, so it’s usually up to them to set the ball rolling. Trust is always a gift. As a leader, you need to be the one who begins the giving process.

What does it take to initiate a process of trust? Courage, certainly, and the willingness to take a risk. Employees who have been denied trust, maybe for years, don’t find it easy to accept responsibility in an instant. You’ll need to help them rebuild their confidence in themselves. You’ll probably have to deal with more than few cynics as well: people who claim to approve the idea of trust, yet constantly find reasons why it shouldn’t be this person, in this circumstance, at this time.

Risks versus Rewards
There are always risks involved in offering trust. Some people—very few, in my experience—will consciously abuse your trust. If so, you may also need the courage and wisdom to refuse to allow the actions of a tiny minority to shape the way you deal with everyone. Others may stumble and betray your trust without intending to. You need to be willing to show them mercy and provide help, not instant condemnation. It’s easy to focus primarily on the negative possibilities: the people who will not live up to the trust placed in them. In reality, the potential for positive outcomes is high enough to tilt the balance of advantage that way.

The results of trust abused are obvious. You find yourself blamed for being “naive” and “too soft.” You suffer a loss of credibility and political standing. You may have to deal with a problem you didn’t expect, or try to reverse losses that might have been avoided by putting less trust in others.

But what are the risks on the other side: The risks of creating a culture marked by chronic lack of trust? Those risks include:
  • A culture of obsessive secrecy, so important information is not shared and unnecessary mistakes are common.
  • An organization where all significant decisions, particularly financial ones, must be referred upwards, clogging senior management time and slowing progress to a snail's pace.
  • A “silo” organization, with little or no sharing of information between departments, so the wheel is regularly re-invented.
  • Internal competitiveness that swamps efforts at co-operation and takes attention away from competing in the marketplace.
  • Growing numbers of “in groups” and cliques that wreck communication and distract the organization through excessive political partisanship.
  • Resulting strong class consciousness between “insiders” and the rest.
  • A culture of protecting your butt first and getting results or serving the customer last.
  • Staff who are paid to do jobs they don’t do fully, because their bosses don’t trust them, so do the work themselves instead.

Saving Time
Building trust takes time, but far less than is wasted by needing to check every significant piece of work and do more work yourself than makes any sense. Part of the deluge of work swamping leaders is due to lack of trust in their subordinates. Delegation no longer seems an option.

The more time leaders spend with their people, the more likely they’ll feel they can trust them. It’s human nature to be somewhat suspicious of those we don’t know very well. You can’t guarantee that giving your staff more time will always increase mutual feelings of trust, but it’s bound to help. A little time invested in this way can save a lot of time later, when staff truly do what they are supposed to do, and take much of the burden of routine work away from those in more senior positions.

There’s a bonus to creating trust. When your staff trust you, they will look out for you. Many a leader has been saved from bad mistakes—and not a few political ambushes by rivals—because of timely warnings by alert subordinates.

Whom Do You Value?
Trusting someone is essential to valuing them. Imagine saying to someone, “I truly value your contribution to our team . . . but I don’t actually trust you.” There’s no value without trust. That goes for customers as much as employees. All those fine words and positive feelings about valuing the customer are destroyed in an instant by a single instance where the customer realizes he or she isn’t trusted. Exactly the same happens with employees. The message is quickly spread that nobody is really valued by the organization, save those in the charmed circle at the top.

Command-and-control executives display little or no trust towards anyone other then themselves and their chosen cronies. This exacerbates the “us” versus “them” attitudes that mistrust produces. Add to this the “audit mentality” that prevails in many businesses, and you have an attitude that those not found to be untrustworthy have simply been too clever to get caught (yet). The “audit mentality” usually defines most financial decision as significant and require them to be referred to one of a handful of officers given the authority to spend money. If you can’t trust managers to spend a few hundred dollars wisely, what can you trust them to do?

Slow Down!
Speed and haste undermine trust. Many leaders don’t intend to suggest a lack of trust in their people, but that is how their actions are interpreted. There isn’t time to explain or coach, so they do the job themselves instead. With maybe only a few moments to make a decision, it seems obvious the leader should do it—there isn’t time to risk making a mistake. That’s isn’t how it will look to the staff, whether it’s true or not. Staff will believe the leader does the work herself because she doesn’t trust them to do it properly.“She’s a control freak,” they’ll tell one another. “She makes every decision of any importance. Oh, she says it’s because of time pressures, but the real reason is she thinks we’re all dummies. She doesn’t even trust us to make the decisions that are crucial to our work.”

Don’t risk it. Even the “losses” caused by a few genuinely untrustworthy people, and the inevitable frailties of human nature, are minor compared with the damage leaders do when they choose to withhold their trust from the people who work for them. Too many organizations today are wasting money and resources by failing to use the full creative abilities and commitment of their people. Chronic mistrust soon shows on the bottom line.

It’s not just true that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. If you treat people as untrustworthy through assumed incompetence, low motivation or downright dishonesty, that’s exactly what you’ll get. When you treat employees as feckless dummies, all the good ones will leave, while the rest behave exactly as you seem to expect. A leader without the courage to trust people is as much use as any coward in a fire fight.

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Thursday, June 29, 2020

Please Vote for the Slow Leadership Manifesto at

You may already be aware of ChangeThis: It’s a site that publishes 15-20 page PDF “manifestos” on topics of interest to people who think about their world. To be able to publish a manifesto on ChangeThis, you must first submit a proposal. Visitors to the site then have the opportunity to vote on the manifestos they would most like to see written. Those with the highest number of votes are the ones chosen for publication.

Slow Leadership has submitted a proposal to publish a manifesto. You can find it here. Please go to the site and vote for us! That’s the only way to make sure the manifesto is published.

Thanks. We need your help on this one.
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Sunday, June 25, 2020

Business Fundamentalism Revisited

To maintain a realistic viewpoint, the relationship between evidence and belief should always be a balanced one. Too much doubt leads to cynicism and the unwillingness to believe anything, even when the evidence for it is strong. Too much dogmatic belief, despite weak or non-existent evidence, leads to fundamentalism: the unwavering attachment to a single point of view regardless of all evidence to the contrary.

In organizations, business fundamentalism often enforces its own version of political correctness. No one must question established ways of thinking or making decisions, even if the evidence against them is overwhelming. If they do, severe, if informal, sanctions may be brought against them. Those who do not subscribe to the approaches the rest deem to be “practical,” “tried and true,” “time tested,” and “down to earth,” are excluded from consideration for promotion and may be let go when opportunity presents itself. Whenever this happens, business fundamentalism destroys creativity, blocks needed change and keeps everyone’s thinking stuck on rigid paths. It doesn’t matter whether the acknowledged basis of fundamentalism is experience or some management theory of past or present. What matters is that it denies the possibility of other ideas or outlooks and ignores all contrary evidence. It places faith in the place where open inquiry should be and makes it clear that new ideas are not welcome.

Much of today’s management practice is fundamentalist, denying even the possibility that rigidly economic, spreadsheet logic could be inadequate to current and future needs. That’s one reason for all the rush and hurry. Keeping people constantly busy is a great way to stop them having time to think or ask awkward questions. Another powerful tool in the fundamentalist arsenal is the tough-sounding sound bite. Attempts to question management orthodoxy are labeled “soft,” “unrealistic” or “theoretical.” By grabbing the supposed high ground of experience and practicality, the fundamentalist conservatives of the organizational world have infected even business schools, who now churn out cloned MBAs with heads already filled with pre-set answers in place of people taught to question fully before giving their belief to any theory or statement, however widely accepted.

We should all slow down, ignore the dogmas of the fundamentalists, and subject every piece of management lore and theory to close examination. The truth has nothing to fear from such a process. Only the weak assumptions people cling to for comfort will be swept away. The problem with business fundamentalism is not so much that it is wrong, but that it is rigid and static. After all, if you already know all the answers, why bother to consider any more questions?

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Friday, June 23, 2020

An Inconvenient Truth

On Wednesday, I went to see Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” If it’s screening in your area and you haven’t seen it yet, you should certainly go. It’s a revelation, showing how one man with passion and a Mac can tell a compelling story that leaves you angry, frightened, inspired and hungry for more. At the end of the film, our local movie theater too erupted in spontaneous applause.

What struck me was the way Mr. Gore presents his case for taking global warming seriously and acting on the warnings before it’s too late. He doesn’t offer it as a political or a scientific issue, let alone an economic one (though he shows how global warming will likely destroy so much wealth it’s terrifying). He puts it forward as a moral issue. Something we should deal with because doing so is morally and ethically right, whatever the other arguments in favor.

That’s also true of creating slower, more humane and civilized attitudes to leadership and running organizations. It’s a moral and ethical choice. We can choose greed over good, as many organizations do today. But if that’s what we do, we must accept the consequences. People and nations don’t thrive when they try to ignore what they know is right. It goes against the grain and causes internal dissonance. You can do it, but only by making the effort to keep your mind tight shut to reality and your anxieties locked inside. That’s no way to live or manage a workplace. Over time, the effort produces disease and misery in individuals and social unrest in communities and societies. By then, it’s too late.

The consequences of global warming are so clear it seems incredible that politicians still manage to ignore them in favor of quick profits from the old habits of encouraging unrestricted energy usage, sales of gas guzzlers and pumping oil as fast as possible. The consequences of short-term, profit-obsessed, command-and-control leadership as just as clear: more stress, more dissatisfaction with work, more burnout, more family break-ups and loss of communities.

Al Gore shows how curbing global warming will likely create more jobs and more wealth than our current way of ignoring environmental pollution. I’ve tried to show in these posts how returning to slower, more humane ways of managing a business are likely to produce higher returns through more creative thinking, smarter approaches and better quality products and services. But, at bottom, the case for Slow Leadership is a moral one: treating staff more humanely and restoring dignity to the workplace is simply the right thing to do, whatever the consequences might be.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2020

Business Fundamentalism, One-track Minds and Magic Bullets

Many organizations, and the executives who direct them, suffer from one-track minds: the condition of having a single idea and clinging to it, no matter what. Usually, the idea comes from one of three sources: what the people in charge are most comfortable with, what they think they do best, or what they believe got them where they are today. Whatever the source, the idea is seductive precisely because it seems to have stood the test of practical application. What this attitude leads to is “business fundamentalism”—an attitude as dangerous as the religious and political fundamentalism that inspires terrorists.

The proofs of practical application that business fundamentalists thrust on anyone who questions their faith will have taken place at another time and in another context, maybe far different than current circumstances. Yet these organizations and executives ignore everything that does not fit with their beliefs. They warp today’s reality to match their expectations, often with predictably harmful outcomes. Their faith must not be questioned, whatever the cost. To allow doubt is to undermine their belief in themselves and the revealed truths they have built their careers on.

The same is true of executives fixated on following what is touted—usually by expensive consultants—as “industry best practice.” These ideas are often themselves questionable—best practice is usually whatever some admired company claims it did, regardless of whether that actually contributed to its success. Even if it was the best approach once, the same considerations apply as with all other kinds of business fundamentalism. How long ago was this? Were the circumstances at that time closely similar to today’s context? Are there any significant differences likely to rule out achieving the same success as in the past? It’s also worth checking just how successful these past events were. Organizations, like people, are not immune from talking up their successes and quietly ignoring the negative aspects.

“Magic Bullets”
One of the most powerful contributors to management fundamentalism is the belief in—and search for—“magic bullets.” Magic bullets are techniques or actions that appear to promise quick, painless and certain success. Many are based on copying what is believed to have worked in the past. Others are derived from techniques made popular by academics or gurus. What all have in common is strong face validity, based on stories of their use in practical circumstances. Indeed, many popular management books consist of nothing but examples of past successes, linked to magic bullet generalizations about what caused them.

It doesn’t take long for the authors to discover the companies they so loudly proclaim to be examples of unparalleled excellence have feet of clay. In many cases, organizations featured in such books swiftly exhibit decline, embarrassment and collapse, the magic bullet techniques derived from their former success seem to be immune from criticism. It’s as if people focus only on the earlier “proofs” of practical application, and ignore what happened later. Such selective attention, focusing on what supports belief and ignoring what might undermine it, is typical of fundamentalism. People believe in panaceas because they want to believe, even if subsequent evidence suggest their faith is misplaced.

Tom Hanks’ character in the movie You’ve Got Mail kept saying “It’s not personal, it’s business” whenever he was caught in some dubious business dealing. But what happens at work is intensely personal for the people employed there, especially if it’s going to result in lay-offs, extra work, lower benefits or outsourcing of jobs overseas.

Today’s fundamentalist magic bullets include all of the above, plus an approach to leadership based on arrogance, groupthink, pride, egotism and an unfailing belief in the company’s own PR propaganda. The supposed practical proof that such approaches actually work is all based in the past, sometimes in organizations that no longer exist, or in the repetition of similar ideas throughout the media. But saying something is true, even many times, does not make it so—unless you studiously ignore any contrary evidence and focus only of examples that seem to support your case.

Political Attitudes
Management thinking has become politicized, like so much else in today’s world. To espouse the conventional, conservative, macho management faith is seen as proof of holding correct attitudes: of being a practical manager, a “go-getter” and someone with his or her feet on the ground. To question these beliefs is suspect. It marks you out as a dangerous liberal, an intellectual or an idealist: someone who is infected with unsuitable thoughts and a tendency to “lose touch with business reality.”

In fact, the real idealists and impractical dreamers are those who preserve a narrow, rigidly “correct” outlook based only on the views of people like themselves. We’ve heard and seen all too many examples of the horrific impact of fundamentalists on the world today. Many organizations too are being run by strict fundamentalists, only these hold grimly to fixed business beliefs, not religious ones. All fundamentalists are people with one-track minds. We should be as suspicious of the management variety as we are of those who hold political or religious beliefs that threaten our wider freedoms.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2020

Trusting People When You Can't See Them

Research from Inter-Tel in Great Britain, reported in the Glasgow Herald, shows once again that fine words—or even fine policies—on flexible working falter in the face of people’s belief that they’ll be punished if they opt for a better work/life balance:
Nearly 60% of office workers believe that requests to work more flexibly by those without children could have a negative impact on their career prospects. Many also believe that making a request for a more flexible work/life balance could be interpreted as being "a poor team player or too laid back".
The same article also points to a significant mistrust problem, saying that 40% of those questioned didn’t think their employer would trust them to work as well at home as they would in an office environment. When this type of attitude is prevalent, it must have a cause. I suspect many employers don’t trust their employees in any situation where they can’t be directly supervised.

In Victorian times, office workers sat in rows of desks in huge rooms, with the supervisor at the head of the room on a raised dais, so he (it was almost always he) could make sure everyone was working all the time. Not much trust there. Todays means may be different, but the intention—and the supervisory attitude—is the same. Employees will not work unless watched closely or made subject to stringent quotas and constant reporting in. That’s the “control” in command-and-control management. It’s there because the bosses don’t trust their staff.

Where there’s no trust between people, there can be no positive relationships. Trust is central to any kind of civilized approach to life and work. But you can’t create it in an instant. Trust needs TIME. Today’s speed-obsessed, macho management styles rarely produce much in the way of trusting relationships, which is why they do more to increase stress and pressure than lessen either.

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Monday, June 19, 2020

Mistrust and Trust

I have said before that I think trust is essential both to Slow Leadership and to a civilized workplace. You have only to read a newspaper, or follow the national and international news, to reach the conclusion that trust is a scarce commodity today in public and commercial life. This lack sets up a negative cycle that produces many of the ills that afflict business and society throughout the developed world.

Imagine a workplace where mistrust is the natural starting point. Since leaders do not trust their subordinates, they feel that they need to control their activities closely. When they delegate work, it will be accompanied by close instructions and followed up by equally close supervision. It’s unlikely that the subordinate will be given any information beyond what is essential to complete their specific tasks. Nor will he or she be permitted to make independent decisions on anything of importance, even if it closely affects their own job.

When bosses don’t trust subordinates to make decisions, they make the decisions themselves. How does this feel to the subordinate? Will he or she feel a valued and important member of the team? Isn’t if far more likely to produce feelings of impotence? If you see key choices about what you’re told is your personal area of responsibility being made by someone else, what can it tell you except that you are judged to be too incompetent, or too untrustworthy, to make them yourself?

Employees who feel impotent and devalued are quickly alienated from the organization of which they’re a part. No amount of fine words about “people are our greatest asset” will change this. Faced with a choice between believing what they hear or what they experience, people trust their experience every time. What they know is that there’s a group of people similar to themselves (“us”), who are treated as having little value beyond their ability to follow orders passed down from above (by “them”).

The inevitable result is to create sharp divisions and heighten feelings of mistrust. Executives stereotype their subordinates, treating them much like awkward, disaffected and difficult teenagers. The employees view their bosses like domineering parents, always ready to interfere with sharp criticism and harsh injunctions to do as they’re told. Bosses believe subordinates have no ideas or sense of initiative, rarely considering the possibility that their actions have convinced staff neither are wanted. Employees are convinced that their leaders are power-crazed martinets, who enjoy nothing better than making themselves look good at other people’s expense. In such an environment, mistrust grows steadily. The negative cycle continues without end.

It does not have to be like this. Let’s consider the alternative: a workplace where trust is seen as essential to good management and good business.

Leaders who hold themselves open to trust are quick to delegate. What’s more, they delegate fully and include decisions of real importance, believing it’s their job to help coach their subordinates to the point where they’re fully capable of handling just about all the decisions that most closely affect their jobs. Decisions are always shared, even where the leaders still makes the final determination.

As a result, people experience being valued and trusted. They know they’re important to the organization, because that’s how they’re treated. They know they’re valuable. And when bosses—and organizations—value their people, employees naturally value them. They feel part of the success of the business because that’s what they know they are—by direct, personal experience, not fine words in some annual report or PR handout. They become part of a community of value. It’s entirely natural that people who feel this way want to do their very best for that community, and contribute not just their labor but their ideas, their creativity, their determination and their commitment far beyond what is written in their contracts.

People who are deeply involved in an enterprise will not willingly see it fail. People who value others find themselves highly valued. Those who trust others are trusted in return. You cannot purchase the results of this cycle of mutual trust, no matter how high the salaries you offer. You cannot produce it by any means save trusting in trust itself and in its power to transform the most superficially unlikely people into colleagues whose contribution will amaze you.

The cycle of mistrust produces outcomes that swiftly reduce the workplace to somewhere people tolerate only so long as they fear unemployment, or can extract material rewards they cannot find elsewhere. The cycle of trust creates the kind of organization where people happily work to their full capacity, sometimes for monetary rewards below those they could find in other jobs. As a leader, it’s your choice which you will make happen.

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Friday, June 16, 2020

Defining A Civilized Workplace

There’s a well-known story of a famous Jewish scholar, Rabbi Hillel, who was challenged to define Judaism while standing on one leg. What he said can just as easily apply to what it takes to create a civilized workplace:
Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. All the rest is commentary.

—Rabbi Hillel

Would executives be so keen to cut costs by sacking people, if they considered how it might feel to be sacked themselves—without, of course, their elaborate golden parachutes? Would they take such a macho attitude to management if they suffered it in return?

Actually, I fear the answer is “yes.” Top executives have typically experienced a macho, winner-takes-all culture most of their working lives. They work excessive hours as a matter of course, which is perhaps why they feel no pangs of conscience at inflicting the same hours on people below them. The notion that what’s good for me is good for you—or, in this case, you must suffer what I suffered—accounts for much of the callous treatment meted out to people in organizations. Like military recruits subjected to cruel “hazing” rituals, those inflicting the harm are doing only what was done to them before. Since they reached the top, they don't question the route they took.

Besides, what you have learned to value pretty much makes you what you are. People rarely do anything that they don’t believe is somehow in their own best interests. These macho leaders probably believe the power-driven culture they grew up in was both natural and good for them. It certainly formed many of their values: the fixation on achievement that causes them to subordinate everything to feeding their egos; the blind belief in competition and it’s accompanying terror of finding themselves outside the winners’ circle; the obsession with speed and decisive action to prove their corporate virility; and the permanent focus on using quick results to build a political power base.

Our society has a bias towards valuing money and power, so it’s no surprise that ambitious people are willing to sacrifice health, relationships and other people’s welfare to gain them. Those whose rewards include stock options have a built-in incentive to drive the organization’s share price ever higher, which usually means taking any opportunity to boost reported profits. Putting an excessive value on power makes leaders into tyrants. Over-valuing money creates a climate of greed and dishonesty. Lust for recognition fuels the actions of corporate prima donnas.

How does this relate to creating a civilized workplace? As long as the majority place a higher value on material wealth than living a civilized life, they’ll choose actions that sacrifice living well in favor of making more money. The same goes for those who want power, status or constant massaging of their egos. In other aspects of our lives, we take steps to limit this phenomenon, if not to eradicate it totally. We have laws to curb fraudsters, punish power-crazed gangsters who terrorize whole neighborhoods, check corrupt politicians and generally limit people from exercising their urges in ways that harm others. Despite public adulation of celebrities, there’s still some sense of disgust when egos get out of hand. It’s only in the workplace that anti-social behavior is regularly applauded.

We won't get civilized workplaces until those in power choose civilized values over greed, power-mania and feathering their own nests: values like trust, honesty, creativity, concern for others and fair dealing. Workplace values always reflect the day-to-day choices of those in positions of power. Ignore what the top dogs say or write. Look at the culture they’ve created and you’ll see their values displayed in full view. A civilized workplace depends on civilized leaders, just as a barbaric, profit-obsessed sweat-shop is produced by leaders of the opposite nature. You are what you value, and that applies to organizations as much as individuals.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2020

Time for Innovation

Haste, pressure, anxiety, tension and overwork are powerful enemies of any type of creativity or innovation. Paradoxically, the more hard-pressed people are, the less able they become to find new and creative ways to solve their problems. Instead, they fall back on old, well-understood ways of coping, even if they know these answers are no longer good enough.

All the hard work and excessive hours in the world won’t produce a single creative idea. For that you need time and leisure to think and play around with part-formed notions. Time to “waste” on approaches that don’t work out, but are later revealed to be essential steps on the way to the right answer. You can crack the whip and drive people to spend more time on the telephone or make more visits to clients and prospects. You can cut the head-count and force those who remain to take on extra responsibilities. But no amount of pressure or threats can force anyone to have a single creative idea. Like people who panic in examinations, minds go blank and nothing appears save the most banal and conventional thoughts.

There’s an optimum level of stimulus for inducing creativity. No pressure at all can leave people lethargic and uninterested. Too much renders them exhausted and unable to think. What’s needed is just the right amount of urgency and interest to stir the creative juices and get brains moving on new paths, but still leave sufficient “slack” time for imagination to flower. Perhaps that’s why so many organizations in the developed world are facing a crisis of falling competitiveness. The flow of creative ideas that made America and European business into world-beating enterprises seems to have shifted elsewhere. Some are even outsourcing their research and development departments to countries that are seen to be more creative as well as cheaper.

Finding the best point of balance between under and over-stimulation needs care and attention to reach and to maintain. It means setting the pace just right to keep people on their toes, without overloading them when they need time to think. But that’s what Slow Leadership is about: setting the right tempo and rejecting today’s thoughtless obsession with going faster and working harder for the sake of tired assumptions about how organizations work.

To spark innovation,slow down, find the point of balance between need for results and space to think, and hold things there long enough to allow minds to work freely. Above all, reduce the pressure and level of distractions. No one can follow a creative idea and deal with constant phone calls, e-mails, demands for information and threats for not “meeting the numbers” at the same time. It’s a plain choice: more innovation or longer hours and greater short-term output. You cannot have both.

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Monday, June 12, 2020

Going into Debt

You’ve had a tough week in a tough month. Work is piling up and there’s more pressure than ever to “make the numbers” and save the CEO’s butt at the end of the quarter. To cap it all, a problem has landed on your desk that could affect several of your best customers and lower sales dramatically until it’s fixed. What do you do?

For tens of thousands of managers, the answer is to take on more “debt.” What many, maybe most, will do in a situation like the one I described is find a shortcut; a quick fix that will deal with the immediate situation and get things back on track. It doesn’t solve the underlying problem, but it works as a piece of duct tape to patch it over temporarily. These managers have taken on a debt: a debt in terms of unpaid time and care owed to running their operation correctly. They probably fully intend to go back and redeem the debt to proper management, when they have time to deal with the problem fully. But intentions are not actions. Given the constant pressures most are under, the chance of them paying off their debt is remote.

So it goes on, with shortcut after shortcut and quick fix after quick fix. Debt after debt is taken on and few are redeemed. In time, the debt owed to sorting problems out correctly piles up into a mountain that’s unstable and could come crashing down at any moment. The managers know it’s there. The sight of it looming over them only adds to their pressures and anxieties. Still they go on incurring more debts, because it seems there’s no other way.

Taking on debts you can’t repay is a short route to bankruptcy. Organizations that encourage, even force, managers to pile up debts in the form of unstable workarounds, obsolete technology and unfulfilled promises to employees are on the same path. In the holy name of short-term expediency they’re mortgaging their longer-term ability to survive.

Bankruptcy is the same whether its financial, intellectual or a total collapse of organizational systems. It’s the end of the road, when all debts fall due and there’s nothing to pay them with. Organizations can sometimes find a buyer, but individuals have only the options of burnout, resignation or dismissal. It is worth the risk?

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Saturday, June 10, 2020

An Announcement

This is to let you all know that my latest book will be published in the Fall. I’ll let you know exactly when nearer the time. At the moment, I’m deep in the process of the final edit.

The title (unless it gets changed at the last moment) is “Slow Leadership: How to Make Your Workplace Civilized.” The book’s aimed at anyone who has any kind of position of leadership in an organization, whether their status comes from formal authority, expertise or long experience.

As a “taster”, here are a few brief passages:
Hundreds of thousands of intelligent, educated, professional leaders are coping with working lives filled with stress and anxiety—hours of work and levels of effort our forefathers would have seen as appropriate only for those engaged in the most menial kinds of work. We have experienced unprecedented material progress, but it has come with working lives that are sliding steadily backward towards drudgery and exhaustion.

If you believe it’s time to do something to redress the balance between material success and personal burnout, this book is for you. It will show you how to create a more civilized future for your workplace by getting back to the idea that work should be enjoyable as well as productive—and that your job as a leader is establishing ways of working that lead to high-quality, creative, and deeply satisfying jobs, not simply chasing figures on a balance sheet.

Today’s typical workplace is wildly unbalanced in the direction of the most assertive, action-oriented, shortest-term demands of “macho management.” Shareholders have lost sight of the need for business leaders to practice patience and restraint. By demanding stronger financial results in less time, they have driven out patient reflection on the best course to follow, in favor of off-the-shelf shortcuts and a never-ending series of quick fixes. It’s as if each day, someone fires a starting gun that sends a million action-obsessed managers scrambling frantically toward goals that few of them have chosen and even fewer understand. The magical “bottom line” gleams in the distance, while Wall Street investors goad managers forward, ever ready to sacrifice anyone who doesn’t fit in the current plan for pursuit of short-term financial rewards. How many people will suffer and fail along the way? How many will be compelled to sacrifice their home lives, health, and sanity to the cause of corporate growth? It seems that those in charge of the “big picture” simply don’t care about the effects on individuals.
Slow Leadership offers ways to recivilize the workplace, to step away from today’s unhealthy trend toward action at all costs, and to reject greater material wealth if it comes with a lesser quality of working or home life attached as a non-optional extra. It opposes thoughtless pressure for unbalanced, overassertive styles of management, especially those that equate good leadership with success in achieving good short-term results. That equation is the equivalent of defining a good diet as fast food—an endless supply of burgers, fries and sodas—simply because fast food is quick, simple and cheap: it achieves short-term objectives.

True leadership is the art of finding the right way forward, not just for today but for as far ahead as you can reasonably see. It’s not an activity that can be reduced to simplistic rules of thumb and numbered “to-do” lists. Leaders establish a future for themselves, their organizations, and everyone who works there. They need to take their time and get it right.

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Friday, June 09, 2020

Management Double-Speak

A friend of mine, who’s an executive coach, sent me this example of macho management in action. It’s an exchange of messages between a professional employee and his or her manager, and it took place in one of America’s largest technological organizations.

I have seen the original messages, but will only summarize them here, for obvious reasons of confidentiality.

It began when the employee inquired, rather tentatively, when the requirement for one hour per day of “obligatory overtime” would end, saying it had been in place for six months. (The term “obligatory overtime” is, of course, a prime example of double-speak. Managerial and professional staff are not paid by the hour. No extra salary is earned if they work longer than is specified in their contracts. In this case, as in many others, what “obligatory overtime” means is working without pay.)

The manager’s reply is distinctly huffy, beginning by stating the exact date on which the policy began and pointing out that it had been in place for slightly less than the six months claimed. The tone is “I can see you’re a whiner, but you can’t even get your facts straight.” The reply next refers to “workplace metrics,” whatever this may mean, as the basis for the actual time to be worked (what happened to peoples’ employment contracts?), and states that it is company policy to require staff to work regular overtime to meet “business needs.” This, at last, is clear. It seems that company has decreed its employees must do unpaid work whenever it decides they should. It’s not called that, of course, and the reference to “business needs” is obviously there to imply the company’s wishes — and profits — have nothing to do with their decision.

Still, our manager clearly feels this upstart questioner hasn’t been sufficiently put in his or her place and launches into a justification, pointing out that five hours per week of “obligatory overtime” isn’t “too much” and is well within company policy guidelines. It clearly doesn’t strike him or her as odd that a company should establish guidelines for how much compulsory unpaid working time is too much. How much unpaid work could any company demand? My guess is as much as it thinks it can get away with, which in this case seems to be more than five hours each week.

Next comes the manager’s clinching point: this five hours is “not even close” to the average for the industry. It seems our original questioner ought to be grateful to an enlightened employer for requiring less unpaid working time than the industry average. Think about it. If five hours is “not even close” to the average, the average must be, say, eight or ten or more hours per week. And, for that to be the average, there must be companies demanding maybe fifteen hours or more unpaid working hours. Our manager, however, clearly sees this as unremarkable. My guess is that the manager’s paid for a thirty-five hour week and probably does fifty or sixty hours, so hasn’t any sympathy for anyone who wants to work less time. I doubt whether he or she ever wonders if giving an employer upwards of fifteen hours of unpaid work each week is fair. It’s “the norm in the industry.” How fine for these corporations to have established an expectation that they’ll pay for only part of the time people must work.

We aren’t quite finished. The final part of the manager’s reply points out that the requirement for extra work was put in place because “customers’ needs weren’t being dealt with,” and there was “unmanaged workload.” The reply then ends by thanking the employee for raising the point and assuming, rather smugly, it has now been dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction.

Let’s look at this final part. If there was “unmanaged workload” and “customers’ needs weren’t being dealt with,” whose problem was that? Surely the manager’s, who is there to see the work is done. If there’s too much work for the staff to handle — as seems to be the case here — you need more staff. But extra people cost money and eat into corporate profits. The answer? Force the staff you have to work longer hours — without pay — by instituting “obligatory overtime.”

This sad little scenario is being repeated in hundreds of businesses and other organizations every day, the inevitable outcome of convincing people they should be grateful to have a job at all. The worst aspect of it is the ease with which executives have convinced their employees it’s normal business practice. There have always been occasions when a crisis has caused employers to ask for extra effort. My guess is most people give it willingly, especially to an organization they value. When did this free expression of support and loyalty turn into an expectation, then something that organizations can enforce through policies on “obligatory overtime?”

Am I alone in thinking there’s something very sick and uncivilized at work here?

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Wednesday, June 07, 2020

Getting Your Numbers Right

It’s good to see that Harvard Business Briefing is proffering some good advice on how not to be deceived by statistics and the numerical indicators so loved by today’s conventional leaders. It seems to me, however, that they’ve partly missed the point. It isn’t just that statistics are so widely misunderstood and misused. The real problem is the worship of quantification, and the accompanying belief that what can be quantified is, in some way, superior to what cannot.

Mathematics has become an essential tool in the more glamorous sciences like physics and astrophysics. Maybe because of that, it’s seen as uniquely “scientific,” at least in the popular mind. Or perhaps the culprit is the computer, which can handle numerical information in any amount, but is totally unable to process qualitative information. Either way, the result is the deification of numbers. Only the other day, I heard a corporate executive tell a radio reporter their company was well managed because: “we’ve been able to quantify our management approach.”

Mathematics is a language, albeit a uniquely rigorous and logical one. It’s a way of expressing relationships between things in ways that are far more precise than words can offer. Still, it remains a language: a tool to think with. Whatever can be quantified can be processed with mathematical and statistical tools. Used properly, this can reveal profound insights. Used childishly, which is how many companies use it, it’s like a three-year old declaiming Shakespeare: profound thinking reduced to gibberish.

Reality consists of some things that are quantifiable and many others that are not. Beauty, truth, goodness, honesty and joy are qualitative factors. They cannot be reduced to numbers. Nor can trust, service, satisfaction and loyalty. You can impose a numerical look to, say, customer satisfaction by means of a survey, but the outcome is never more than broadly approximate. Who knows whether all the people who rate your service 3 out of 5 mean the same thing? Or whether a rating of 2 or 4 is significantly different? Or whether the average rating from the survey means anything useful at all?

The lure of quantifiable approaches is based more on spurious simplicity, speed and the ability to avoid the tedious parts of number crunching by using computers. Numbers and quantitative indicators should never be seen as more than a starting point for inquiry that adds qualitative data to the mix. Making decisions for the purpose of changing a numerical indicator alone is plain dumb. You might as well ignore the road and the other traffic and drive with the sole intention of keeping rigidly to the speed limit.

Paradoxically, in the days when the numbers had to be calculated on paper, these approaches might have been more useful. At least doing the calculation personally forced people to look more closely at the data. Nowadays, the answer appears in a few nanoseconds and no one looks at what went into it or why.

Wise managers don’t reject quantifiable data, buy they don’t trust it either. They use it to spark questions and suggest areas for inquiry. It has no greater validity than purely qualitative data. Often it has less, if the data the calculations are based on is itself questionable. Many corporate numbers are Fool’s Gold. There are no numerically-based short-cuts to good leadership, as there are no other short-cuts to good leadership either. Good leadership takes time, careful thought and a deeply questioning state of mind; which probably accounts for its rarity in the typical “grab ’n go” organization.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2020

This is it!

I can’t resist sharing with you this wonderful quote I found today, courtesy of Srikumar Rao’s great book: “Are You Ready to Succeed? Unconventional Strategies to Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life.” I think it sums up the thinking behind Slow Leadership perfectly. It seems I got to the idea many years after Woodrow Wilson.
We are not here merely to earn a living and to create value for our shareholders. We are here to enrich the world and make it a finer place to live. We will impoverish ourselves if we fail to do so.

—Woodrow Wilson

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Monday, June 05, 2020

Business Killers

Poor business leadership styles
It amazes me that more businesses don’t realize how much conventional leadership and management styles are holding them back. They’re like someone in a car with their left foot on the brake and their right foot pressing the gas pedal. The engine — the people in the business and all the business systems — is revving flat out, but they’re getting nowhere fast. After a while, all those extra revs lead to burnout and collapse. If they’d only take their foot off the brake, they would be able to achieve so much more with far less effort. Instead, they drive their people harder and harder. Extra effort cannot make up for a lousy style of management, but no one seems to have time to stop and question what’s going on.

Look at the options above. The “quick-fix” mentality seems to offer fast results for little effort. In reality, it simply postpones the problem. Sometimes it adds its own extra sources of later difficulty as well. And where leaders resort to dictatorial, driven styles of management, can you blame the good people for voting with their feet? There’s only so much anyone can take of finding whatever you do, it’s never enough.

Short-term, results-driven businesses may have some immediate success, but few survive very long. Whether they’re swallowed by a rival, or simply collapse under the pressure of trying to meet Wall Street’s stupid expectations, they’re like shrews or hummingbirds: Nature’s high-speed, short-life creations. Both the bird and the shrew conduct their lives at a frantic pace, but neither lives much more than 12 months as a result. Elephants are slow and live for many decades. Giant tortoises are even slower and live for centuries. There seems to be some inevitable link between the pace of life and its length.

Of course, if all you want as a business owner or leader is to make a quick buck and get out fast (more likely many millions of quick bucks in some of today’s corporations), building a business for the long-term will have no appeal. That’s why there’s been a spate of corporations sinking to cheap and nasty tricks to ensure success — until they’re found out. True excellence isn’t a flower for one day only; it’s something that lasts. Trickery and dubious ethics may fool people for a while, but nothing that’s great was ever produced by smoke and mirrors. As Jim Collins writes in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't:
[There is an] …extra dimension that helped elevate their company to the elite status of an enduring great company, a vital dimension for making the transition from good to great to built to last. That extra dimension is a guiding philosophy or a “core ideology,” which consists of core values and a core purpose (reason for being beyond just making money). These resemble the principles in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) — never perfectly followed, but always present as an inspiring standard and an answer to the question of why it is important we exist.
Civilized organizations produce civilized workplaces. Civilized leaders produce civilized organizations. Civilization is always under attack from the forces of barbarism. If we want it to survive, we need to come to its defense.

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Friday, June 02, 2020

Start-up Sanity

A little while ago, I tried to explain why I think working hard is often necessary for small business owners and those with a start-up, but no guarantee of business success. Maybe that sounded like cold comfort, but it’s better to face reality early than avoid half killing yourself with overwork in what proves to be a lost cause. Most owners of small businesses work really, really hard. If they fail, it’s much more likely to be due to a poor business concept, inadequate financial backing, or sheer bad luck than lack of effort on their part.

So what can you do as a small business owner or entrepreneur to keep sane and balance the effort needed with some down-time and a civilized way of working. Here are some ideas.
  1. Burnout is caused by a feeling of a gap between effort and reward: working flat out and getting nothing (or too little) back. You can avoid this by being realistic about two things: your expectations about reward and your beliefs about what your hard work deserves. Feeling you deserve success won’t bring it closer. It will only increase your sense of depression and demotivation if it doesn’t come when and how you think it should.

  2. Be rigorous about setting boundaries. Decide how much of your life it’s sensible to devote to work and don’t give it any more. Don’t give in to superstition or the belief hard work alone will turn the tide in your favor. Don’t allow your dreams and ambitions to sweep you away into 20 hour days and seven day weeks. Hard work is necessary — sometimes — but it doesn't need to be continual.

  3. Avoid perfectionism. Many entrepreneurs are perfectionists. That’s why they want their own business: no one else does it right. But perfectionists are often terrible leaders — hard on themselves and on everyone else. You may be willing to ruin your relationships and health in your eagerness to succeed, but you have no right to force that option on others. Try it and they’ll vote with their feet, leaving you even more overworked and less likely to make it.

  4. Set and keep to rational priorities. Small business owners often see everything as important and urgent. Their business is so much a part of their every waking thought, they lose their sense of proportion and can no longer see the wider picture. Like setting boundaries, setting and keeping to sensible priorities is key to maintaining sanity.

  5. Use your brain, not just your ability to slog away. The businesses that succeed do so because they have something the other guys don’t have: some spark of creativity, a different approach, an idea whose time has come. However hard you work, a dull “me too” business has a poor chance of making it. But you won’t find clever new ideas in an exhausted mind. Creativity and burnout can’t exist in the same head.

  6. It’s fine to be self-centered. It’s your business. You can do what you want with it. The more you focus on creating a business that deals with genuine needs — yours — the more likely you are to find customers with similar needs. What’s most personal is often most universal.

  7. Many entrepreneurs try to grow too fast. They see a glittering future ahead and are in a tearing hurry to get there. Slow down. Remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare. You don’t want to be like a marathon runner who sprints as hard as possible in the first ten miles, only to collapse long before the finish line. Pace yourself.

  8. Stay fit and agile. Few things turn out as you expect. However good your business plan, the chances are you’ll have to make unexpected and rapid changes of direction. If you’re exhausted, frazzled and losing motivation to lack of sleep and hurt looks from family and friends, chances are you’ll be about as agile as a block of wood.

What would it be like to run a startup without a diet of 18 hour, bleary-eyed, junk-food-fueled days? Or caffeine-hyped, sleepless, tossing-and-turning nights that tempt your loved one to thoughts of leaving?

For a start, it would be a lot more fun and just as likely — maybe even more likely — to succeed. You can’t give of your best if you’re exhausted. Customers won’t forgive bad service or silly mistakes just because you’ve been working so hard you can barely keep your eyes open. In the end, if the only way you can keep a business afloat is by mortgaging your health and happiness for years to come, you need to stop and ask yourself if it’s worth it.

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Thursday, June 01, 2020

Thoughtful Words about Leadership

The Times newspaper of London, noting the conviction of executives like Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling of Enron and Bernie Ebbers at Worldcom, has an interesting article about how people get to the top. Here’s an extract:
Chief executives will often know little about what their board members get up to, and next to nothing about what happens at the grassroots. This is not because they are stupid, but because they are human. In a sense, Lay and Ebbers were ruined by the cult of leadership, propagated by countless business books, that will have previously served them so well. The mythology held that those who ran successful companies were vested with a rare insight and knowledge. This is great for the ego, and helps to fend off those who covet your job, but quite inconvenient when you are standing in the dock telling all and sundry that you didn’t have a clue.
The writer, David Bolchover, points out that top executives are more likely to get their jobs through luck, patronage or political maneuvering that through any outstanding business acumen. I’m not trying to denigrate genuinely able leaders, but most top executives today aren’t as smart as the prevailing cult of leadership claims. It’s a common fallacy that one person’s leadership ability can reliably change an organization. It has happened — there are amazing people who have changed the world — but it’s extremely rare. We remember such people because there are so few of them. Most of our leaders are simply human beings like the rest of us, doing the best they can without possessing any unusual abilities.

It’s this cult of “the all-powerful leader” that’s responsible for so many CEOs being fired after a short time in the job. They’re unable to live up to the shareholders’ wildly inflated expectations. Crazy CEO salaries are driven by the same idiocy. Shareholders convince themselves it’s worth paying millions to one person because they expect that person, virtually unaided, to transform their investment.

Power is seductive. Top people love having it — and want to hang on to it as long as they can. As Dan Bobinski writes:
Just like political leaders, many business leaders also fear losing their power. When that fear is coupled with an addiction to power it's only a short step to begin manipulating the checks and balances that are meant to keep things above board. … The lesson to learn is that people in authority can become blind to their own weaknesses. In his book Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes, Sydney Finkelstein says that fallen leaders “are almost always remarkably intelligent and usually have terrific track records.” Bottom line, if you are in a position of power, you are not immune from the seductive dangers of addiction. Make sure you have a good set of checks and balances. Be accountable to more than one person. Make it one of your personal goals to be intellectually honest with yourself - and with a close group of others who will hold you accountable.
Since the way to win and keep power is to foster the false cult of the heroic, all-conquering leader, it’s not surprising business executives willingly cooperate with it. They encourage their PR people to get them worshiping interviews on TV or in the business media. They write books extolling their amazing business acumen — even, like the top guy at Raytheon, plagiarizing the content and passing it off as their own.

Maybe it’s time to get back a sense of proportion and accept that even the leaders of huge corporations could use a little humility. After all, recognizing your weaknesses and staying clear of them is the first step to lowering the number of mistake you’ll make. Nor can anyone be a civilized leader if they’re obsessed with furthering their own self-image.

As Peter Drucker wrote:
No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.

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