Everyone who ever worked in a large organization, can probably relate to at least one of the following examples of conflicts that regularly occur in organizations:
A sales leader wants to close a deal with a low margin to meet her targets and to safeguard the relationship with the customer. The product manager does not want to sign off on the deal, because she wants to protect the margin of the product in the longer term
A business leader wants to hire a star performer working for another company, and is prepared to pay her more than the maximum of the corporate salary band for these types of roles. The HR Business Partner tries to prevent this because he does not want to create a precedent that can create upward pressure on the salary costs of the company
The head of a shared service department wants to hire an independent contractor for a project for USD 1.200 a day. The Purchasing department forces him to work with a consultant from a well-established firm on the preferred supplier list, for a fee rate that is 3 times as high as the one of the independent contractor
These, and other types of conflicts, seem to be an inevitable part of life in large organizations. The question is: why we have those types of conflicts, and if and how we can prevent them?
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.
Something I struggled with for a long time is chronic neck and shoulder pain when working with my computer. For the largest part of my life, I sat behind my computer like the hunchback of Notre Dame.
Well meant ergonomic advice, a standing desk, and using the mouse with my left hand only gave temporary relief.
The only thing that solves the problem structurally is going to the gym.
The problem is that I experienced being in the gym as exciting as watching grass grow. Besides, I always took the words of the apostle Paul “For bodily exercise profiteth little” (1 Tim 4:8) perhaps a little too close to heart.
If getting back in shape is part of your past summer holiday intentions – here are three things that got me back in the gym earlier this year!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
‘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.
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.
The invention of the printing press proved to be a pivotal point in the development of our society because it enabled the dissemination of ideas and information at an unprecedented pace. It is unlikely that, without the printing press, the Reformation in the 16th century would have had such a huge impact, so quickly.
In the 20th century, radio and television increased the speed of information even more. It is likely that the public opinion about the war in Vietnam (the first television war) changed significantly as a result of the coverage of this war on television.
Social media emerges
No wonder that many governments tried to control these media, either in the form of censorship, or by creating monopolies for news dissemination (e.g in the former Soviet Union).
At the end of the 1990s, social media platforms started to emerge, disrupting the traditional media landscape of newspaper, radio, and television organizations.
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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’.
I am a big fan of LinkedIn. Since I joined the platform 12.5 years ago, it has proved to be an incredible source of connections and information, as well as a great platform to publish my ideas. As a matter of fact, I like the platform so much, that I took a premium subscription a couple of years ago.
In order to celebrate this jubilee, I decided to publish my personal wishlist with features I wished LinkedIn would implement. I wish LinkedIn would enable me to:
‘Noblesse oblige’: if you offer branded products or services, ensure your pricing model enables you to maintain the loyalty of your clients by offering a ‘hassle-free’ after-sales experience.
In both the B2C, as well as in the B2B world, there are usually three reasons why people buy branded products and services, instead of generic ones:
1. Unique features
The first two aspects can usually be evaluated before the purchasing process. The third one, however, is mostly experienced only after the initial purchasing process has been completed, and therein lies the problem…
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).
For many business leaders, their day in the office resembles drinking from a fire hose. Not only do they need to attend a large number of meetings (often back to back), they are also hit with a continuous stream of ad-hoc questions from their staff, peers, customers, and line managers which require their attention and action.
A couple of years ago I started to get really worried about my personal effectiveness. Despite the outrageous number of hours I spent at work, I found it increasingly difficult to complete my tasks and finish my projects.
In order to address this, I decided to analyze my workload to find out what I could do to change this.
Why I consider ‘Lost and Founder’ by Rand Fishkin to be a must read
At the beginning of my career, I managed a high profile ERP project. A couple of weeks before the go-live deadline, the customer introduced completely new requirements but did not want to shift the deadline. Needless to say, this significantly compromised the amount of time available for testing, something every available textbook warns one about. However, due to a combination of intimidating behavior of the customer, my own unwarranted optimism and lack of experience, I agreed to implement these new requirements and limit the amount of time available for testing. A decision which resulted in a rather ‘volatile’ go-live scenario which was highly visible for everyone in the company…
It is common wisdom that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. If anything, success has a tendency to make us complacent, whereas mistakes force us to take a step back, reflect on why our actions and behaviors did not work out as planned, and stimulate us to make changes in the way we approach opportunities and challenges.
When reading social media postings, business magazines and consulting firms reports, it is easy to get the impression that the number one problem organizations are wrestling with is incorporating millennials in the workplace. However, there is strong evidence that the orientation of millennials does not differ from previous generations at all.
The way the market for talent works is frustrating for all parties: both for corporate recruiters as well as for candidates. In order to change this, corporate recruiters should start acting as marketers that know their product and their customers.
The number one problem most corporate recruiters complain about nowadays is application overload. Thanks to LinkedIn and other Internet-based recruiting channels, candidates can ‘shoot at anything that moves’, i.e. submit their CV’s to apply for any opportunity that remotely interests them. As a result, processing applications is experienced as by corporate recruiters as ‘drinking from a fire hose’.
Leaders need to do three things in order to set clear priorities for their organisations
By Dirk Verburg
Most executives I know are extremely busy. It seems they always have more things to do than they have actually time for. This is probably the reason why articles, books, websites and software packages claiming to offer personal productivity solutions are more popular than ever.
Time Management Tools have a limited effect…
No matter how different these solutions are, they all have one thing in common: they force choices. Whether it is the Eisenhower Matrix, Frank Covey’s Time Matrix or Dave Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ philosophy, they all force choices between things that need to be done and things that could be done.
Many people try to implement some or all of these tools and techniques in order to try to balance their time with the items on their to-do list. However, most of them remain structurally overloaded. They continue to have more ‘need to do’ actions on their to-do list than they have time for.
In the last couple of years it is extremely fashionable to bash annual performance reviews. A number of companies are publicly apologizing for the fact that they had them in first place, wondering aloud why they could ever have been so stupid, and demonstrate their remorse by publicly joining the ranks of the enlightened ones: those companies that abolished their annual performance review process.
In this context it is important to raise two questions, namely what the purpose of the annual performance review actually is and why it should be abolished.
Critical self-reflection is difficult to acquire, but extremely important for leaders
By Dirk Verburg
For several reasons I love reading autobiographies of leaders in business and politics. The first reason is plain curiosity: the possibility to take a look behind the stage of well-known events. The second reason is because these autobiographies provide a unique opportunity to understand decision making processes from the perspective of the decision makers. Why did they take certain decisions in specific situations? Were they aware of certain developments? From whom did they obtain advice? What was the role of important stakeholders? etc. Continue reading →
Talent management originates from the late 1960s. Since then the business environment has changed dramatically. However, talent management practices in a number of organizations have not been adapted to cope effectively with these changes. This makes these organizations vulnerable to disruptions in their environment. Talent managers should therefore do three things to ensure their businesses have the necessary adaptive and innovative capabilities to cope with disruptions.
By Dirk Verburg
Almost 50 years ago, in 1968, Paul S. Ostrowski published an article with the title “Prerequisites for Effective Succession Planning”. This article is often seen as the starting point for Talent Management. The business environment at that time looked completely different from today:
The importance of the EU is increasing, but its continuity is threatened by the actions and behaviours of its own leaders
By Dirk Verburg
European cooperation is now more important now than ever
To state the obvious: we are living in a VUCA world, a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The world order as we know it seems to be threatened by multiple problems, including (in arbitrary order): the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, the geo-political ambitions of China, wavering loyalty of the current US president regarding NATO, Climate Change, the Refugee crisis, the rise of populism in Western Democracies and Muslim extremism, to name but a few.
Given the nature and scale of these challenges, European countries have a far better chance to achieve a successful outcome if they deal with these challenges jointly, rather than individually.
EU politicians are ignoring warning signals about the lack of support of the EU by their votersContinue reading →
Ever since the industrial revolution, large corporations have played an important role in our society. Due to the globalization in the past decades, their influence is continuously increasing.
At the same time it seems that the number of scandals caused by these large organizations is growing as well. Established names, such as Barclays, Siemens, Wells Fargo, Ahold, VW, BP, Shell, Worldcomm, Tyco, Enron, Olympus, Arthur Anderson, E&Y, the BBC and many others, have all experienced scandals, and some no longer exist as a result.
What complicates this situation even is that governments and other institutions (e.g. regulators and ‘independent’ accounting firms) do not seem to be able to control, or at least monitor, the way companies in the private sector are operating. Continue reading →
How you can prevent pursuing the wrong role and what you can do if you find yourself in one.
No – this is not the title of yet another ‘Trump-bashing’ article, but a genuine empathetic feeling I have for Donald Trump. I already suspected for a long time what Donald Trump recently admitted, namely that he finds the job of being president of the US harder than he expected. The reason I feel sorry for Donald Trump is that I think he might have made a mistake a lot of us are prone to. It is the mistake of applying for a prestigious job, without a proper vision as to what the actual content might be and without honestly reflecting whether this content plays to our strengths and will keep us engaged in the future.
Despite the importance of employee engagement, more and more organizations decide to cancel their employee engagement surveys due to a perceived lack of ROI. Leaders can make engagement surveys work however, by applying three simple principles.Continue reading →
Why a sense of belonging is crucial for a healthy corporate culture
By Dirk Verburg
According to Professor of Psychology Kip Williams, the human race ows its success to the fact that we learned to collaborate in groups. We learned that through organizing ourselves in tribes, we hugely increased our chances to survive in a hostile environment. The tribe enabled us to protect ourselves from wild animals, other tribes and food shortages.
The prospect of people who were being ‘ostracized’ (forced to leave the tribe) looked bleak. In pre-historic times, ostracism did not only result in social, but also in a certain physical death. People, who were kicked out of their ‘tribe’ and left to their own devices, were doomed to die, because they could not defend themselves effectively against predators, other tribes and could no longer collect sufficient food.
Because of the latent fears of ostracism that human beings have, managing human behavior by using this threat requires surprisingly little effort. Setting an example by ostracizing just a handful of individuals in a visible manner is enough to instill a sense of fear in a complete community.Continue reading →