Why Leadership Development should be a C-suite topic

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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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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The power of clarity in a very noisy world

Three things to avoid if you want to make sure people understand you

‘This is a very noisy world, so we have to be very clear what we want them to know about us’

Steve Jobs

In 1920 Vladimir Lenin already recognized the power of controlling the printing press. A century later, in today’s social media world, the real battle ground is our everyday language.

Language is the ultimate tool to inspire people to take action. Unfortunately, we frequently squander its impact by making three mistakes:

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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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Why leadership has become more difficult and why this matters

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. 

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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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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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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Walking the talk

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.

Congruence between ideals and personal life

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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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What Nietzsche, Jung and Sinatra have in common

20190603 Cover NJS Autenticity

The importance of authenticity in the workplace

Dale Carnegie on steroids

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).

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When do you need to think different?

By Dirk Verburg

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