Are deeply held convictions your backbone or achilles heel?

In all walks of life, there are people who have deeply held convictions about how the world works, and act accordingly. The business world is no exception. 

Examples I encountered during my career were business leaders that held and acted according to the following convictions:

  • The only way you gain respect by ‘the business’ as a staff department, is by reducing your headcount to the absolute minimum
  • Partnering with other vendors to deliver an integrated solution for clients is unnecessarily complex and has a negative impact on the margin
  • Teams perform at their best if the annual bonus of individual members is linked to individual financial targets 
  • Customizing services for individual clients equals to sub-optimization

Strong convictions usually stem from the successes they brought us in the past. They also tend to become stronger over time: every time we successfully act in accordance with one of our convictions, our inclination to use it in similar situations increases.

Strong convictions offer several advantages

Strong convictions help us to make sense of the world around us and to simplify our decision-making processes. They save us time and effort. When we are confronted with an issue on which we have a strong conviction, our mental muscle memory immediately kicks in to prescribe the decision we need to take.

Another advantage of strong convictions is the potential it offers to persuade others. Because we feel strongly about a topic and have an active ‘personal repository’ of evidence (previous cases in which a particular course of action worked for us), we can speak convincingly to others about it.

Disadvantages

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Three design principles for Leadership Development

In the last three decades, the business world has become more complex than ever before. This complexity is mainly driven by two factors:

  • Globalization – Never before in the history of mankind have materials, capital and people moved faster and more freely across our planet
  • Technology – The amount of data we have at our disposal for decision making is dramatically increasing each year

As a result, our world has become more interconnected and interdependent than ever. A case in point are the supply chain issues businesses experienced in the initial stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This interconnectedness and interdependence has huge implications for the way organizations need to operate, both externally as well as internally.

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How to engrain ethics in your corporate culture? One decision at the time!

Ethics deal with what makes something morally right or wrong.

Almost any sizeable company nowadays has a code of ethics. The main catalysts for these were the corporate scandals in the early 2000s (Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, and others). Also, in the last couple of years having a sense of purpose has become pretty much en vogue.

As a result, every year millions of employees now dutifully complete e-learning modules and sign declarations (‘To the best of my knowledge…’).

If you think about this on a philosophical level, it is actually quite sad. Apparently, companies need to invest millions of dollars each year because a shared understanding of what is morally right or wrong to do on behalf of the company, is not a given.

Obviously, from a pragmatic point of view, companies have no choice but to invest in this type of training. First of all, it helps individuals to avoid taking decisions that can create reputational and compliance-related problems for the company. The second reason is the need to demonstrate institutional compliance to governments, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders.

Limitations of codes of ethics

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How to translate professional integrity in commercial reality? I=QxA!

I always felt sorry for the many famous artists in the Renaissance, who needed to compromise the quality of their work and their artistic integrity, in order to make sure their art suited the requirements of their patrons.

Passion

Because my work provides me with an opportunity to express and develop myself, I have always been passionate about it. I loved studying organizational sociology, business administration, and executive coaching. To this day I enjoy reading business books, magazines, and blogs about the area where people, organizations, and business objectives meet.

As a management consultant, this passion drives me to define and implement the best possible solutions for my clients. I have very clear ideas about what my clients need, and what the ideal solution to satisfy this need should look like.

Unfortunately, most of my clients also have pretty strong ideas about what their needs are, and what their ideal solution should look like…

For this reason, I used to literally cringe when my clients told me they wanted to adapt the recommended solutions I had in mind for them.

Artistic integrity?

I used to find these situations very difficult to deal with because I had the idea that the intrinsic quality of my advice was affected. Not hindered by any sense of false modesty, I compared myself to the aforementioned renaissance artists who needed to compromise their artistic integrity.

This feeling became so strong, that, at a certain moment in my career, I was considering returning an assignment back to my customer, because I felt I could not put enough of my thinking into the product and felt a loss of engagement.

One question

This all changed when I discussed my sentiments regarding a specific project with an executive coach. She patiently listened to my venting, and then asked one question that really hit home to me.

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Leaders should decide if they want to be players or coaches 

Add value to your team, instead of destroying it!

When I had just been appointed in my first proper line management role, I decided to organize an offsite with my team. The purpose of this offsite was to finalize the development of a number of HR policies and processes. 

Around 11 o’clock in the first morning, in a characterless conference room in the basement of the conference center, we completed our first round of brainstorming. When the time came to write up the output of our first session in a flow chart format, I said I wanted to use a specific methodology I had used as a management consultant, and would be happy to do the write-up. 

One of my direct reports looked disappointed, because she wanted to create the flowcharts herself, but a colleague of hers consoled her, and said: ‘Sure, if Dirk knows how to do it and has a strong passion for it, why do we not let him do so?’ The others agreed, and they left the room to leave me to it. 

I spend the next 1.5 hours working on my own in the aforementioned characterless conference room in the basement. When I was ready I went upstairs to look for my team. I found them on the terrace, enjoying the sun, cappuccinos, orange juice, and each other’s company.

Fortunately enough they thought my work was ok… 

Do it yourself?

A lot of leaders frequently want to do the work of their direct reports. They have a variety of reasons for this, including

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For when I am weak, then I am strong – Authentic Self-Confidence

‘We read to know we’re not alone’ said actor Anthony Hopkins, playing the character of author C.S. Lewis, in the movie ‘Shadowlands’. 

People suffering from the imposter syndrome doubt their abilities and feel like a fraud at work.I personally suffered quite a bit from the ‘imposter’ syndrome in the past, and at times experience serious relapses. 

Fortunately, it turns out I am not the only one!

After reading ‘Authentic Self-Confidence’ by Jacqueline Brassey, Nick van Dam and Arjen van Witteloostduijn, I realize I am part of a large community that includes successful (and sometimes well-known) academics, surgeons, management consultants and senior executives.

Lack of Authentic Self-Confidence can lead to sub-optimal performance (e.g. because individuals feel constrained to bring the best version of themselves at work), which can have negative emotional impact on themselves, their families, teams and organizations. Therefore a high-quality publication on this topic is extremely welcome.

There are three reasons why I full-heartedly recommend this book.

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What I learned about business ethics by reading ‘An Ugly Truth’  

I am very interested in decision-making in organizations as well as in social media. This means a book like ‘An Ugly Truth – Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination’, by Frenkel and Kang is a double whammy for me.

The book describes the different scandals Facebook has been involved in in the past couple of years (e.g the Russian interference in US presidential elections, Cambridge Analytica, and the mass murder of Rohingya people in Myanmar). These scandals are well known and well documented in other books. The added value of this book is that it describes the decision-making process of the top leadership of Facebook with regard to these scandals.

What is even more interesting is the link the book makes between the motivation and ethics of the key decision-makers on the one hand and their decisions on the other.

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Why self-managing teams are a hoax

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In short, self management simply means ‘no bosses’. That’s it (Geoff Roberts)

Thinking back on your highschool school days, do you remember the popular child with its entourage deciding which music, movies and influences were in, or out; whose parties everyone wanted to be invited to? Did you also have a bully at school who terrorized the schoolyard with his accomplices, when no supervising adults were around? Perhaps you also remember the importance of being ‘befriended’ with children in the class whose parents had a swimming pool; and I am sure you also had someone in class whose homework you and everybody else wanted to copy. 

YouTube

I thought the concept of self-managing teams had already died a well deserved death, until I recently saw a clip on YouTube. The clip advocates the concept of self-managing teams by comparing the productivity of self-managing teams with the traffic flow through a roundabout. Different scenarios are compared to ensure the most effective flow to cross an intersection: with or without human supervision, with traffic lights and finally with the creation of a roundabout. Spoiler alert: the roundabout wins. Moral of the story is that in the absence of central control participants will self-regulate the responsibility to cross the intersection, and that by doing so productivity and safety will increase.

I am stunned by the enthusiasm for this clip, because I think the parallel between teamwork and crossing an intersection is incredibly weak. I would even go so far as to say it is non-existent. 

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What the workplace in 2021 will look like and what this means for you

2021 will be a very interesting year! If all prognoses are correct, sometime in the next six months we should have developed a grip on COVID19. 

For 2021, I foresee three trends in the workplace. Although none of these trends is initiated by COVID19, the pandemic will definitely act as a catalyst.

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Why do smart people make wrong decisions?

The most important part of leadership is making decisions. Decisions about products and markets to invest in, people to hire and to promote, IT-systems to select, to continue or terminate projects plagued by setbacks, mergers & acquisitions, etc. These decisions determine the success or failure of organizations, projects and individuals. 

Ever since my graduation in the field of Sociology, I have always been very interested in the topic of decision making in organizations. At university, I loved the lectures of Professor Lawler about concepts like bounded rationality. I also loved reading books on this topic, including ‘Essence of Decision’ (about decision making in the Kennedy administration during the Cuban missile crisis) and Barbara W. Tuchman’s classic ‘March of Folly’.

Do we really need another book on this topic?

Against this background, I was a bit concerned when my friend and former PA Consulting Group colleague Wim van Hennekeler, told me that he was writing a book about decision making. This was mainly due to my concern about whether he could possibly add value to the vast body of work that was already published on this topic.

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Pump up the volume: why business books often are too voluminous!

Time-efficient alternatives for reading business books

During my years in college, one of the first rap songs that became extremely popular was ‘Paid in full’ from Eric B & Rakim in the Coldcut mix. Its signature ingredients contained the soundbite ‘Pump up the volume’. 

‘Pump up the volume’ also was the phrase that resounded in my head when I recently read a bestseller from a well-known Harvard Business School professor. The entire book was based on a single concept that could easily have been explained on one single page. Instead, the author used more than 230 pages, which cost me the better part of a Sunday to read.

Why I like reading business books

I like reading business books for four reasons:

  1. To satisfy my intellectual curiosity
  2. To help me to make sense of what I personally observe about the way organizations ‘work’ (or not!)
  3. To enhance my skills 
  4. To keep me ‘current’

Why I am often disappointed after reading them

However, more often than not, I feel reading them is not the most efficient use of my time. The reason why is that (like the example mentioned at the beginning of this post), business books often try to expand ideas and concepts that could be explained in a couple of pages to the size of a book. This almost always means they need to cross the magical border of 200 pages.

I think this phenomenon is caused by the fact that business books mean ‘business’. Although it is not easy to gain insight into the market for business books, creatively extrapolating existing statistics indicate that each year more than tens of millions of business books are sold across the world. Therefore, the market for business books might be around one billion dollar. NB: This estimate excludes the sales of textbooks for higher education.

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What we can learn about change management from Sigmund Freud

One of my core beliefs as a management consultant is that the root cause of why change projects fail is the lack of a clear and convincing business case. In my experience, the vast majority of people are willing to change (even if this change has negative implications for them), as long as they understand the rationale behind the change and have the means (resources) to change.

However, I also have come across a number of people who did not want to change, even when there was a clear need to do so, and they had all the required capabilities and resources at their disposal.

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Mindf*ck: Politics, Psychology and Social Media

In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal shocked the world. It became clear that Cambridge Analytica had used data from tens of million Facebook users, to influence the elections in the US, and the Brexit referendum

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Corporate Social Responsibility starts with your own employees

A couple of days ago my bible app opened with this verse of the day: ‘To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice’ (Proverbs 21:3). 

This text reminded me of the way some companies deal with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Rather than doing the right thing, they do the wrong thing and compensate for this by deploying CSR initiatives. There is even a special term describing this phenomenon: ‘Greenwashing’. In this context, it is no wonder that two professors from IMD (a leading Swiss Business School) published an article in 2018 with the provocative title: ‘Why nobody takes corporate social responsibility seriously’.

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Are you ready for a post Covid-19 world?

The world will fundamentally change in the next decade

Whether you are listening to McKinsey, the IMF or the Economist, all modern-day prophets of doom agree that COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on our society and the economy. This impact will be felt long after this pandemic has passed.

Although I am not an incarnation of Alvin Toffler, the famous futurist and author of ‘Megatrends’, merely by observing the news and talking to clients and colleagues, I see a couple of clear trends and tipping points, which lead me to believe that the ‘new normal’ will look different than the ‘old normal’.

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The Negative Feedback Paradox

Let me start with a confession:I never liked receiving negative feedback, and have spent the largest part of my professional life ignoring it.

I found ignoring negative (or perhaps I should euphemistically say ‘corrective’) feedback to be quite easy. Depending on the situation, I either did not take the person who gave me feedback seriously (‘that is rich – from him?’), comforted myself that the feedback concerned only a minor issue in the grand scheme of my behavior (and that other aspects of my behavior would compensate this), or convinced myself that the person giving me feedback did not understand the context in which I acted the way I did or said the things I said.

It was not until I hit a serious roadblock in my career, that I started to see the fact that systematically ignoring feedback was not necessarily a great idea. 

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The Art of Employee Engagement (Book Review)

Employee engagement is a topic close to my heart. In the past two decades I have designed, managed and implemented the findings of engagement surveys multiple times, and also managed to write an article with my point of view on how to make them ‘work’.

Given my interest in this topic, I was very pleased to receive a copy of ‘The Art of Employee Engagement’ by Marijn Faassen. I read it in one go, because I found it a fascinating read, for a number of reasons:

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Decision making for a new Decade

Every year millions of people around the world make New Year’s resolutions. Given that we are currently starting the 2020’s, we have the exciting opportunity to make resolutions for a whole new decade!

I decided to make mine around decision making. The reason for this was the fact that I had the opportunity to read ‘Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps – How to thrive in complexity’ by Jennifer Garvey Berger during the Christmas vacation.

One of the key notions in this book is that the world has become much more interconnected and therefore more complex. Unfortunately, our decision-making skills are ‘brilliantly designed – for an older, less connected, and more predictable version of the world’. In this context, Jennifer Garvey Berger mentions five mind traps we can find ourselves in, one of them being trapped in ‘Simple stories.

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Building an authentic personal brand starts with ‘why?

Two weeks ago, I was asked to participate in an event about personal branding. The organizer asked me to focus specifically on the link between creating a personal brand and remaining authentic.

Because I have been irritated by the majority of the publications on this topic in the last 5+ years, I was excited to speak about it. Why? Because these articles often suggest people need a partial, or even full, make-over, in order to fit the mold of the specific environment they seek employment in. If that does not feel natural to them, the second piece of advice most publications give them is: ‘Fake it until you make it’.

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