What do the notorious former marketing director of American Apparel, Ryan Holiday, and renowned Dutch reformed theologian Bram van Beek have in common? They both have written a book about the danger of egocentricity.
Blame it on social media – again?
Social media offers endless possibilities to promote ourselves and serve as outlets for our vanity. It enables us to humble brag about our professional achievements on LinkedIn, share evidence of our successful ‘friends & family’ life on Facebook, and demonstrate our cutting-edge lifestyle on Instagram.
However, looking at our current society and world history, it seems we as human beings always have been prone to self-centeredness and self-promotion. Social media therefore merely enables us to express something that is already deeply rooted in us.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 →