I spent a significant part of my working life developing leaders in organizations. What strikes me is that during COVID-19 the demand for this type of work has not decreased; if anything, the demand for leadership development has increased. That is remarkable. During the financial crisis in 2007-2008, for instance, most companies tried to save money, and one of the first things they considered was decreasing the out-of-pocket costs associated with these, and other kind of developmental activities.
Recently I was asked why companies continue to invest in the quality of their leadership at all levels of the organizations, despite the economic uncertainty they are facing.
In my opinion, the reason is that companies have come to realize the growing importance of the quality of leadership at all levels of the organization. I believe that this is a good thing, especially because leadership roles have become more demanding in the last couple of decades, not only for senior leaders, but also for first, and second-level leaders in organizations.
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.
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:
To satisfy my intellectual curiosity
To help me to make sense of what I personally observe about the way organizations ‘work’ (or not!)
To enhance my skills
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.
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’.
I always felt a deep respect for people who take personal risks in daring to confront oppression in a peaceful manner. Names like Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov spring to mind.
This Easter I especially think of German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who was executed 75 years ago because of his active resistance against the German Nazi regime at that time.
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.
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:
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!
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.
In the 1970s and 1980s, authenticity and self-development in the workplace were considered to be important by many middle and senior managers in the Western world. Perhaps too important: organizations were sometimes seen as narcissistic vehicles for self-development, instead of entities that should serve the interests of their shareholders and/or other stakeholders.
This orientation changed dramatically in the first half of the 1990s. Two popular business books that were published during that time perfectly illustrate this change. The first one was ‘Valuation’ (1990), a book written by Copeland, Koller and Murrin (three McKinsey consultants), the second one ‘Emotional intelligence’ by David Goleman (1995).
One of the most inspirational videos I have ever seen is the Apple commercial ‘Think Different’. This video shows footage of several leaders from the worlds of business, arts, politics, sports and science, such as Richard Branson, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali and Mahatma Ghandi. The key message of the commercial is that these people were able to change the world, because they were thinking differently. The suggestion is, of course, that people who purchase Apple products also ‘Think Different’.
The ability to ‘Think different’ is extremely important, but unfortunately not something that comes ‘naturally’ to us as human beings. There are several reasons for this. The most important ones are our ‘Bounded Rationality’, reliance on ‘Heuristics’ and ‘Theory-Induced Blindness’.Continue reading →