Customer as King or pawn?

Before my father went into marketing, he was in sales management and took sales training seriously. This was the era of John Cleese training videos and my brothers and I always had the first viewing of the latest comedic masterpiece.

The age-old customer service messages weaved into the entertaining and memorable format were tenets of sound business:

  • The customer is king
  • Don’t make the customer a pawn in your organizational chess game
  • The customer isn’t there for your gratification or to make your life easier
  • Neglect your customer at your peril – the competition is ready to make a move

Fast forward about half a century and those messages are as relevant today; or are they? In a connected world, where customer experience, touch points and reputation are all the rage, how come positive customer experiences remain in the minority (at least in my experience)?

‘Customer Experience’ is visceral before it is digital. Speaking for myself, service and product purchases impact every part of my life – almost all are experiences I would rather not have:

  • I live in an apartment block which over the last 20 years has increased service charges way in excess of inflation while consistently deteriorating the level and type of service and overall experience
  • I attend a gym that has, likewise, over the past 20 years consistently and determinedly destroyed the fitness experience
  • I purchase fresh juices from a well-reputed hygienic chain but got violently ill straight after I consumed the last purchase a few days ago
  • I buy food from a local reputable chain that I suspect is not as fresh and healthy as they claim. (What do you do if you can’t eat the food you buy?!)
  • I use an airline for international travel (the most direct route) that continues to frustrate and annoy
  • I set up an account with a CNN-featured financial transactions company purely on the assurance by the CEO that customers are his number one priority. All went smoothly for 4 months until the transfer fee jumped suddenly from $2.94 to $23.76 for the same amount to the same account.  (I joke not.) A quick cessation to my use of the service ensued, but what about the time I spent setting up the account in the first place…….? How do I recover that lost value?
  • Finally, I’m sure I am not alone in experiencing a spike in blood pressure when purchasing services online….and don’t get me started on Microsoft Office online ‘support’.

And, is it just me, or is there anyone else out there who resents having your computer controlled by an outside entity, stealing your time?

Customer service – all but a dream?

I do wonder: Am I particularly fussy or is it reasonable to assume that I won’t be annoyed, frustrated, poisoned, harmed, over-charged and/or denied the service I was led to believe I purchased? Has life become more complicated and is great customer service simply a thing of a nostalgic past?

Were the previously-described business tenets simply not true and they died a natural and irrelevant death? Or, are they still true, but simply too hard to achieve and therefore conveniently ignored?

There are exceptions which are a pure delight, including:

  • The local Automobile Association, who not only provide a superbly easy online experience but are also a phone call away from personalised – yes, human! – help
  • A local bank (BNZ) whose Digital leader ensures his team regularly spends time talking to people on the street (literally). He was surprised that I was surprised.
  • A local television programme called Fair Go that is celebrating 40 years of broadcast, in an era of rapidly shrinking traditional media. Customers’ rights continue to be publicly defended each week as examples of unfair treatment are investigated and broadcast. Companies respond to this in a number of ways, but for all, it a chance for resolution.
  • A small restaurant in South Africa (called Pasha’s) sells pumpkin-base pizza – a healthy slice of heaven.

It can be done. Every organisation starts out with the best of intentions; no business I have heard of (possibly other than Fawlty Towers) prides itself on poor service.

One-to-one marketing in the digital era?

The digital era is surely one in which one-to-one marketing – what we were told was the competitive edge during the 90s– can at last be actualized. At a time of AI and stretchy sensors, brain implants to control prostheses and driver-less cars, has the time at last arrived for the Customer to ascend the throne?

It seems not. Recently my 90-year old mother was told her phone simply could not support an App she had lost access to. The millennials in the local telecom shop (where she purchases her service) did their best – they phoned colleagues in other branches, tapped into their knowledge database, tried this, that and the other, all to no avail.  Fortunately, mum doesn’t believe that things can’t be done and with her younger (80-year old) friend, simply downloaded it from the App store and her life continues in the manner to which she has become accustomed.(I suggested she offer her tech support services at said shop. I can vouch for her pleasant manner and good old-fashioned common sense.)

Pawn to Bishop

Is it a matter of voting with our feet? If being treated like royalty is a move too far, should we simply refuse to move in directions that suppliers insist we move.

I find myself longing for a time when the business I paid for a service simply did what it claimed, and what I paid for.

Considering markets like India and China, and emerging demographics, I do realise I am a mere speck of dust on the global market chess board and maybe the customer experiences that companies design simply aren’t targeted at me. But I still dream that I am important; that as a customer, I count. (I blame John Cleese for this delusion.)

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Leadership – leading from down under

It is Leadership Week in New Zealand.

How apt. A week when we have welcomed back Emirates Team New Zealand with the oldest sporting trophy – the Auld Mug (a.k.a. The America’s Cup). It is time to consider what leadership is and to draw inspiration from that great New Zealander: Sir Peter Blake.

When asked (back in 1995 when we first won that elusive trophy) what on earth made him think New Zealand could compete for (and actually win) The America’s Cup, Blakie said: “When people say something is impossible, that is when I want to do it.”

There is more to it, of course. Not only have our teams got further on fewer resources than any other winning syndicate, but they have insisted on playing nicely, “sharing our toys” (actual quote from the ‘95 team’s playbook) and building a challenge that “New Zealand can be proud of – to  succeed in all aspects.”

What, then, is leadership? I like to think of it as two aspects – neither to do with a title, function or result:

  • Being the best (as in ‘top of the leader board’ in your field) in all aspects
  • Doing what a situation needs (i.e. what is appropriate in terms of team purpose, team identity, sponsor/fan expectations and future value/sustainability.)

It is simply not our way, nor is it leadership, to win at all costs. That is ‘management’: fixating on results at the expense of all else (even your soul.) That is not inspiring and it simply doesn’t get the best from people or situations.

From thousands of years ago, these words are as relevant today:
”Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. The best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves.” Lao Tzu

The currency of this is reinforced by a CIO article from 1 June: “Innovation and change: When leaders are the problem” by Owen McCall.

“Lack of a ‘21st century leadership’ is hampering innovation across industries today,” he says. Explaining resistance by staff to innovation, he names two erroneous assumptions:

  • Change needs to be imposed on teams from management
  • The best way to create change is through fear

Domination, subjugation, violation – not leadership. Leadership is a state of mind – a way you choose to live. It is bigger than an individual and requires ‘the collective’ to realise it. Back in the 90s, Zinzan Brook said of the Auckland Rugby Team: “I want 15 captains on the field” – everyone ready and able to lead as situationally required.

Leadership is all these things:

  1. Lead thinking to come up with a breakthrough design – having a fraction of the budget of the large syndicates; out-thinking instead of out-spending the rest
  2. Knowing when to go public and when to keep cards close to chest – no one, not even the Team New Zealand cyclists’ families, knew the team had replaced traditional arm grinding with leg grinding
  3. Keeping calm when everything including the kitchen sink is thrown at you – the sense of cool-headedness in the face of ‘Pitbull’ Spithill’s barbs
  4. Aspiring to the very best of what is possible – and even what is not
  5. Seeing setbacks as just part of the extra mile landscape – coming back from a capsize a mere few weeks before the final win
  6. Never giving up – even after the capsize, one of the cyclists was still cycling while suspended sideways in the air!
  7. Paying attention to what seems insignificant – Sir Peter Blake said no matter what your role in the team (even if you are sweeping the floor) it is all part of winning the Cup
  8. Doggedly committed to improvement – chasing 1 second of speed each time they sailed (for years)
  9. Team first – a team-driven campaign; Sir Peter Blake insisted the team make decisions that directly affected them

This is useful as a leadership audit in your organisation:

  1. Does the team lead thinking in its field?
  2. Do you know/does the team know what to communicate, when and how (all things considered) with the wider organisation/host system?
  3. Does the team keep a cool head when others lose theirs?
  4. Are people better when they are together – able to achieve beyond their individual potential – due to their collective commitment, creativity, trust and drive?
  5. Is the team superbly resourceful (able to get things done more effectively and efficiently than others) no matter what obstacles they face?
  6. Is the team motivated by pressure and resistance, to excel?
  7. Does the team know what to pay attention to and what to block out?
  8. Is everyone constantly seeking improvements that will move the team forward?
  9. Does the team have autonomy – is performance really team-driven?

Some organisations (and departments) are manager-driven (he/she pushes things along); others are campaign-driven (a particular deliverable pushes things – and people – along); others are process-driven (precedent pushes things along). Only a few are truly team-driven.

For those of us who followed our America’s Cup team in 2013 – and witnessed them fall from an 8-1 lead to an 8-9 loss – and still kept the faith in the leadership of this team, it has been a particularly awe-inspiring couple of weeks.

When people strive against huge odds for so long, and nothing goes their way; when they struggle for funding and are an inch away from switching off the lights for the last time; when they are pulled day after day back out on the water by a sense of getting the job done …… can you not feel a huge sense of admiration and loyalty?

That is leadership. When you witness it, you want to empty the tank, go to the ends of the earth, leave nothing out on the field. You feel taller, capable of more and obstacles seem to shrink in your path.

Once you develop leadership as a state of being in your organisation, anything is possible.

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Lucy in the sky….

I was struck by an interview with Lucy* a few days ago as she described her work (paying her dues to society) as part of the ground crew setting up for WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance – 17-19 March 2017)

The interviewer said Lucy (who is working off a 100-hour community service sentence) described the WOMAD job as one of the best things she had ever done – full stop.

“You feel like a volunteer just like the other workers. It’s really good……..heaps better than being a criminal. It’s all good, especially because they appreciate it. It makes you feel like you’re doing something, definitely.”

Another offender, Bruce*, said it beats the usual community work. “WOMAD’s fantastic. Yup, it’s a good place to work and you’re doing something so people can enjoy themselves at the weekend. It’s certainly a lot more rewarding than, say, cutting gorse that’s going to grow back anyway.”

There is a lot in common between us and them. Human beings have a bone-deep need to do something of value. Helping others emits ‘good feeling’ neurotransmitters. Having this sense of purpose and value – this ‘feel good’ – takes Lucy to a different place, where the sky really is the limit. Bruce and Lucy are optimistic that this experience will lead to permanent work when the time comes.

For people like Lucy and Bruce things have not exactly been easy, presumably for a variety of reasons. When they do work that has meaning, or simply when there are people who appreciate what they do, they respond with feelings that trigger intrinsic motivators. They feel valued, appreciated and worthwhile. People who feel valued by society tend to do things that are valued by society.

We know from research that workplaces that are positive and optimistic make up to 25% more brain power available. Most organisations would concede that they need all the available brainpower on the payroll to successfully resolve daily work challenges (never mind the increasingly complex challenges of tomorrow).

Managers often complain that people lack initiative and ‘common sense’ but maybe it is simply that they aren’t experiencing a meaningful calling.

For people on the wrong side of the law, work can help them feel ordinary and regular. For people in regular employment, leadership is the intervention that makes the ordinary compelling.

Leaders ensure that people understand the impact of their work, make the links between disconnected parts of the operation, tell stories that keep the ‘romance’ alive and create an environment where people can express their creativity and ingenuity in addressing everyday challenges. This environment is truly the dojo (training hall) for the human mind.

How are you doing as a leader? Use this checklist (inspired by Lucy’s work experience) as a self check. To what extent do you………?

  • Communicate work’s purpose – whom do they impact in what way for what effect?
  • Create an aspirational pull to be the best possible – so people are proud to sign their name to every task
  • Remain accessible and approachable – people want to be important enough to earn quality time with the leader
  • Listen – people want to be heard before they fully invest
  • Challenge people to find ways to get better so they are constantly stimulated and evolving
  • Involve people in co-creating success
  • Engage people in issues to be resolved – complex and dynamic challenges that test their ingenuity, giving them that essential boost of validation when they develop and implement their solutions

This list of what is important to people at work is remarkably consistent across a variety of cultures and sectors – after all, business and work have one thing in common: people. And people are not that different.

With the right leadership and work environment, the sky truly is the limit.

*Lucy and Bruce are names used in the article to protect their real identity.

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All you need is love………

Charles M. Schulz  wrote “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

What’s this to do with business (even if one of the most commercial holidays – Valentine’s Day – is just around the corner)? A lot – all to do with the human brain.

Martin Lindstrom (in Brandwashed, 2011) writes about the typical human response to smart phones using the same associative neural pathways that make “other compulsive behaviours” like gambling so addictive.  Just as with drugs or any other addiction, a person’s conditioned focus on his or her smart phone is driven by the neurotransmitter Dopamine – a natural narcotic. You’re left craving the sight of another message. Experiments show subjects get visual, not just auditory, neural associations when the phone ‘pings’, releasing a flurry of activity in the brain’s insula which is connected to feelings of love and compassion. “It may not be addiction in a medical sense but it is true love.”

These are the same brains that ‘clock in’ to work. While each person is unique, the human brain is remarkably consistent across age and culture in reactions to workplace demands and ‘management’. (The brain structures for pleasure and those for fear and dread are too close for comfort.)  Human drive and achievement really is a matter of chemistry. Is it true love between worker and work…..organisation and employee?  Soul mates? Or just ‘living together’?

Addicted to love

As most drivers of human behaviour are subconscious, logical (rational) management approaches simply don’t work to harness human attachment and activate a complete and whole-hearted brain response – Engagement.

Experts agree that the emotional brain matters most when it comes to human behaviour; many point to neurotransmitters – the ‘chemistry’ of attachment and achievement. Significant too though is the midbrain’s role in super-performance. This core of the human brain is associated with long term memory, mobilising physical response to a threat, love reactions, rituals associated with addiction and a person’s sense of what is MOST important in life; what they pay MOST attention to above all else…..and what will literally activate the formation of SMART neural pathways in pursuit of priority ideals.

Most people would not put themselves at imminent risk of death for mere money but do so in a heartbeat, showing extraordinary strength and inventiveness, for a fundamental belief (or ‘attachment’). Beliefs are held in the heart of the brain and this midbrain system and the right side of the cortex (outer bark) work in remarkably similar ways. (Dr Luiz Machado in The Brain of the Brain. 1992)

The relevance for business owners and boards

Unless employees believe what they do matters (counts in some meaningful way i.e. not to make more money, achieve budget or reduce costs), a fraction of their intelligence and drive (smarts and ticker) is applied.

The corollary is also true: when a human being believes something is fundamentally significant – in a bone-deep way – then, brain reserves (normally unused) are activated. While this latent capacity is being bought with each pay run, it is largely unused….neural inventory getting dusty in the storeroom of the organisational collective brain.

Pick up lines

An organisation’s sense of its purpose ‘speaks’ to that core of the brain that has no words. This part of the brain, without language (words and numbers) responds to an awareness of ‘something’ that can’t quite be described: a concept, idea, sensation, hunch, inkling. It is an urge experienced as an inarticulate ‘knowing’. (Love at first sight?)

To tap into latent human reserves for super-intelligence and drive, communication must involve symbolism, metaphor, visual expression of ideas and other forms of multi-sensory expression with a particular use of semantics. This has the power to activate the organisational ‘mid brain’, and with this, currently unused reserves of intelligence and drive. (Dr Georgi Lozanov in Suggestology and Outlines of Suggetopedy. 1978).

Engaging people fully requires communication that involves:

  • Mid-brain and right brain for purpose (WHY this? WHY now? WHY you? WHY me? and WHAT strategy to achieve this purpose?)
  • Left brain for execution – WHAT now, specifically for me/us, and HOW?

When purpose is appropriately expressed and understood (as a collective effort – ‘decrees’ are viewed with suspicion), a powerful drive is evoked, mobilising latent capability to realise organisational purpose that goes beyond employment contracts, work hours and normal supplier-customer transactions.

When the chemistry’s not right

Costly and frustrating organisation deficiencies hurt for customers, staff, management and suppliers alike:

  • The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing
  • Decisions make no sense and are poorly executed
  • Errors and miscommunication eat into profit
  • Legacy, outdated procedures are protected for apparently no reason
  • Staff feel they are forced to produce work outcomes perceived as impossible

When Love is in the air

Working in sync with the human brain – tapping into all the brains on the payroll – you score:

  • One cohesive team driven by purpose (not controlled by job descriptions)
  • People compelled to create the organisational response that’s needed to fulfil its purpose
  • A high-performance, aspirational, self-correcting culture
  • Smart, simple ways to coordinate effort across an organisation and beyond

That’s worth celebrating with or without chocolate. The gift that keeps on giving.

Posted in B2B (Brain to Brain) communication | 1 Comment

Objection, your Honour!

It’s not altogether surprising people get the words objection and objective confused. Sometimes you hear salespeople refer to overcoming objectives instead of overcoming objections (buyer resistance.) Freudian slip?

Most people find it dehumanising to be handed ‘down’ objectives by people ‘above’. The inherent social and emotional threat of someone in power turns the workplace into a game of gotcha and defensive evasion. Many experience a ‘boss’ as a judge, peering down from on high, examining the evidence to adjudicate a sentence. Neuroscience shows how this depletes resolve, inspiration and innovation.

People tell me how exhausting (even futile) the annual budgeting exercise seems. It makes me think there must be a better way for a collective group of smart people to work out their annual plan for collective success.

Many ‘people above’ try to overcome the inevitable battle of wills by throwing the hot potato to ‘people below’, asking them to set objectives. Almost as bad again, it can feel like a trap – somewhat like an organizational game of thrones.

I vividly recall an ‘aha’ moment when I saw two organizational culture flowcharts contrasting a Vicious Cycle from a Victorious Culture. Words to this effect:

External conditions demand higher performance….

  • people below (suppressed by a legacy of command & control) are stressed, suspicious and mistrustful
  • people above view people below as lacking initiative, drive and commitment
  • people below feel unable to reveal barriers
  • people above attempt to solve problems from above
  • people below feel trapped and overwhelmed
  • people above become impatient with people below
  • people above tighten controls
  • people below become more stressed and performance suffers
  • people above tighten controls………a vicious cycle.

Contrast that with:
External conditions demand higher performance……….

  • people are used to problem solving in collaboration with each other – there is no above and below
  • people open up and brainstorm, finding extra capacity to achieve more
  • people make necessary changes and see results
  • people feel excited at the progress, trust grows and information flows more freely
  • people contribute more and achieve more
  • confidence and capability grow and real gains are made in all areas of the business
  • people make more changes and see results
  • confidence and capability grow and real gains are made in all areas of the business…..a victorious culture.

Getting everyone on the same page begins with an appreciation of how smart people are. Just because you don’t see the genius in ‘people below’ doesn’t mean its not there. In any situation where some have more power than others, people are generally selective about where and how they contribute intelligence. The question is: under what circumstances do people empty the tank for collective success? Ask yourself: What does it take for me to get fully behind any venture, and you will most likely quickly identify what is true for most.

Remember: People own their brain. The ‘boss’ doesn’t own it. They alone are the autonomous director of super performance.
(Adapted from quote in Funky Business by Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell A. Nordström)

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View from the top (Altitude sickness)

For as long as organisations have been exceeding industry benchmarks without traditional hierarchy structures, others have lamented ‘siloed’ organisations, a blame culture and performance failures, while structuring, restructuring and re-restructuring clumsy reporting lines and vertical  hierarchies.

As I have observed the ill-effects of power hierarchies in organisations for decades now, I have regularly pondered this anomaly. As Albert Koopman’s Cashbuild and Ralph Stayer’s Johnsonville Sausage (partnership approaches) were formative in my view of enterprise early in my career, I have been intrigued by the formation of giant industries to research and explain disengagement and ‘presenteeism’.

Oxygen deprivation, I decided, was the explanation for why those ‘up there’ create a structure where typically:

  • Enthusiasm is snuffed out by ‘accidental diminishers’
  • Productivity is suppressed by micro management and incessant (even hourly) checks and reporting
  • Health is seriously (even fatally) compromised by stand over tactics and/or cynical manipulation by those in power
  • Sanity is tested daily
  • Those without ‘formal power’ know it’s most likely the same everywhere so why search for something that makes sense?

Then I came across this research, and it may explain the anomaly. Apparently, even a little bit of power allocated to one in a group leads to obnoxious, entitled and territorial behaviour, and grabbing what they can…….(adults not 3-year olds).

Ring any bells? Researcher Dr Dacher Keltner
has found that people get power by being nice, but when they have power, something happens.

Common power perils (across a range of situations at work or elsewhere) include:

  • Obnoxious grandstanding
  • Flouting common courtesies (e.g. eating with mouth open, spilling everywhere)
  • Taking liberties with others
  • Acting ‘above the law’/in an entitled manner (e.g. charging through a pedestrian crossing when someone is trying to cross)
  • Selective listening, seeing, sensing

Power does corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, it would seem. Whether it be a small dose of power given to a bureaucrat, a leading-hand on a bottling plant, a middle manager or a CEO……………all appear to be susceptible to this altitude sickness.

Dr Keltner points out that political despots move quickly to destroy systems of commentary and scrutiny. (But beware: simply sentencing managers to 360-degree feedback is not the answer.)

The question then becomes: what is the antidote to this condition?

History and industry are strewn with well-known leaders who use their power for good e.g. Abraham Lincoln of whom Thurlow Weed wrote: “He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him.”

The research shows that 40% of the human brain is wired for helpfulness and that those who act collaboratively quickly establish this as a group norm. Kindness and working together are human nature, not territorialism nor in-fighting. This is born out more recently by an increasing number of organisations that function on collaboration, teamwork and partnership such as Spotify. Also check out Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk

It appears the power hierarchy is not necessary, functional nor inexorably linked with success. (Quite the opposite it seems.)

Also significant is that those with power have higher cognitive intelligence while those without have superior social and emotional intelligence. Interesting that the majority of people in an organisation are essentially bonded with others in a similar position – a vast pool of discretionary effort and under-utilised cognitive capacity, apparently related to hyper-vigilance.

Powerlessness has been shown to trigger hyper-vigilance which in turn is linked with everything from a suppressed immune system to shortening of telomeres directly related to aging.

I once advised a CEO to get his people in regularly to give him negative feedback. I think he thought I was kidding. Trusting people that much is a start and you have to start somewhere to get people alongside you in defiance of this outmoded approach that places a manager ‘up there’. Without people ‘plugged in’ alongside you, any power given by title is an illusion.

(For a written summary of ‘The Power Paradox’ YouTube, email me at

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People power reminders

“A cause without committed people gets nowhere and committed people without a unifying cause go nowhere.” Robert Waterman

Some focus on the uniqueness of individuals but I prefer to remind myself about the truth of what all people have in common. Every (normal) human being is driven to make their mark – a significant, positive impact. Put in other ways, people have a need to create, to work autonomously, to problem solve and to make things work better. (Some even link this to evolution to demonstrate how fundamental and powerful this force is.)

Working in alignment with this, ‘people power’ peaks – both intellect and passion. Experts tell us that under these conditions, people even access latent brain reserves. The opposite is also true for people: If they do something only for someone else and/or because the have to, they often:

  • Lose momentum
  • Do the opposite when annoyed
  • Over time, resent unappreciated effort

At the very least, they do not put their heart and soul into it.

Those ‘in charge’ and their ‘charges’ all too frequently end up in a battle of wills. Too often, the resulting waste of people power and collective goodwill depletes what could otherwise be a driving force towards organisational goals. This inevitably occurs when those in power are perceived as:

In response to this people hold back. You may see workarounds, deliberately contrary behaviour, sniping, story telling, gossiping and other work distractions. Presenteeism: there, but not contributing 100% to the common cause.

Most know this about people but few manage in alignment with this and even fewer capitalise on it.

It is good news. It means that people are essentially driven to make something work extraordinarily well and don’t need ‘motivating’. If we don’t tie them up in meaningless procedures that make no sense anymore, breath down their necks, micro manage, find fault with small details and impose a single route to success, we allow the investment of their full brilliance and passion.

Leadership creates the environment in which people can express their unique individualism within the context of collective purpose. This has been expressed in the Lean principle as Freedom within Framework. When we all agree how the critical success factors inter-relate, how we measure success and who we need to impress to stay in business, people make the minute-by-minute calls that get the best possible outcome given each situation’s challenges, constraints and even people quirks. That is the agile intelligence and human connectedness that computers can never bring to any mission.

When people are invested, driven and resolute, it’s pretty hard to fail but you may be surprised at how many managers do things to people and at them instead of with them. Of course great leaders make it look easy while others have no idea of the negative wake they leave and the waste they unwittingly cause. I spend a lot of my time coaxing staff to be understanding when in fact I wonder if they should simply leave. What a waste.

You can influence but never control this power. “Your brain is your own.  Your boss doesn’t own it; nor can any government own it.  You alone are the director of this critical means of production.”  Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell Nordstrom

Leadership ensures people answer to the collective (not the boss) for how their unique contribution fuels the collective (pre-agreed) purpose. Once everyone is agreed, it is then up to each individual to continuously assess their ‘PNPS’ (personal net promoter score). This is how they ensure they add value to ‘the cause’ while staying true to themselves – a win-win.

This says it all: (From 19.50 minutes – approx 22.30 minutes)

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An article entitled: “The two magic words that motivate staff the most” (link below) implores organisations to solve the staff disengagement  issue by saying ‘Thank You’ (and using recognition schemes). This is, in my experience, addressing the wrong issue and could make things worse. Instead, those managers who stop parenting, molly-coddling and pandering to people, approach them as a partner (instead of a master) and say this immediately boosts engagement. This should come as no surprise; as far back as 1937, Napolean Hill wrote that “In the future, the relationship of employer and employee will be more like a partnership……” That has turned out to be wishful thinking. (Perhaps he meant it SHOULD be rather than will be.)

Yes, people when asked (even when not asked) complain that there’s never a thank you and there’s not enough recognition. In the absence of a manager who treats them as equal, values their input and regards them as critical to success, many people doubt their worth, question their value and regress into preoccupation and discontent with their manager’s behaviour and how they are being treated.

Say ‘thank you’, but it doesn’t address the real issue and worse: further embeds an outdated and inappropriate superior/inferior norm resulting in paternalistic benevolence at best and dictatorial arrogance at worst.

People’s need to feel valued is one of the most culturally-consistent phenomena, yet Gallup’s revelation that ‘a bad boss’ is the number 1 reason people leave a job suggests many managers don’t get this. Giving ‘superiors’ a title that reinforces their importance in the pecking order could be the single biggest mistake when it comes to full productivity and a sound return on payroll investment.

Many managers are specialists first and foremost; they have the title manager but do not ‘have staff’ (an unfortunate and demeaning phrase) – they are not in question here. Many more are primarily there to ensure ‘their staff’ (another unfortunate phrase) are productive. Most managers are somewhere in between. Consider the impact when these managers don’t get the people side of their role right and are instrumental in spreading discontent.

Until there is a complete overhaul of structures (Agile methodology in many tech teams has perhaps started this overhaul), managers will be essential to people’s productivity, esteem and connectedness with their ‘employer’. Until we replace ‘managing others’ with a more accurate term reflecting what a business actually needs a manager to do, let’s get real about what ACTUALLY engages people.

Simple: for people to invest their full capability in any role, holding nothing back, the ‘manager’s’ role is to (on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, whichever is appropriate):

  • check in with people – face to face – so each can see the whites of the others’ eyes
  • equip them for tomorrow’s ‘unknown’
  • inform them (only about what they can’t/shouldn’t find out for themselves)
  • challenge them to keep their capability expanding and so they remain value to the collective
  • prompt resourcefulness and teamwork across all functions
  • re-focus people when ‘cross currents’ distract
  • expect extraordinary accomplishments believing in their goodwill and human ingenuity (yet never so that they feel overwhelmed, abandoned and taken advantage of).

More simply put: treat people as adults and admire their inherent ability to make things work better with their commitment and keen thinking. Those managers who don’t ‘have the time’ nor inclination to do this are a significant liability in the workplace.

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1,2,3 Transform

No one delights in things done ‘to them’ or thrown ‘at them’.

While at uni, I remember being horrified at an experiment where pigeons randomly received food pellets or electric shocks when pressing a lever. They ended up displaying behaviours that in human terms we call schizophrenia. (Many employees have a vaguely similar experience in the workplace.)

Change……….transformation…..evolution is in our bones – literally. Why the aversion and resistance to change in our organisations? There is none. The real and profound aversion is to discomfort, threat and being treated dismissively – not to change. (If people were averse to change, no one would buy a lotto ticket!)

It was proven decades ago (Eds Deming’s Total Quality approach) that people thrive when they set iterative change goals – they consistently outperform targets imposed on them.

In my experience, people are naturally enthusiastic about:

  • Contributing their best to make an enterprise succeed
  • Focusing on efficiencies and zero waste
  • Achieving extraordinary results
  • Identifying/implementing iterative improvements (that add up to significant gains)
  • Working up to expectations
  • Learning how things fit together in all aspects of the business/market so they can contribute more meaningfully – “freedom within framework”

All these are deeply embedded in the healthy human being – your insurance for turbulent times.

Embed transformation into your organisation in these ways:

  • Adopt continuous improvement as a modus operandi driven by external indicators and internal self-scrutiny
  • Anticipate (as a collective) what/how you need to change to keep future-fit
  • Run your unit/department/organisation WITH your people – co-lead. They see way more than you do about what could work better, faster, more efficiently, more cheaply with better quality
  • Educate, inform and excite people about your challenges, your constraints and who needs to be impressed to keep them investing or buying
  • Embed rituals of Plan/Act/Review in cycles* that make sense for your operation. At least monthly, take stock of what’s gone well, what hasn’t and why, and what we’ll change from what we’ve learnt (who/how/when) and repeat
    * See article link below – “Secrets behind Graeme Hart’s Success”
  • Pair people up so they’re always cross-referencing how they’re working and what they could be doing from another’s perspective. After an agreed period, swap for cross- fertilisation. (As coach, review with each their notes from their chats – not to ‘check’ but to learn and understand what is actually happening – a reality check.)
  • If people have allocated seats, do what one client does: everyone moves seat six monthly (no “squatters”)

A true story: a coach met with a building company that took 120 days on average to build a house. He asked how they could do it in 10 days. After a few hours (during which they suspended the obvious: ‘It can’t be done’) they had dozens of ideas. He said: ‘Go and do those things.’ They ended up with a 42-day average build. Imagine the impact. (From Rob Nixon’s “Accounting Practices Don’t Add Up”)

Anything’s possible WITH people.


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100% in 2016

During 2015, ‘not a hundy’ was the phrase used for the below-par condition of an All Black (i.e. a Steve Hansen-ism along with the phrase: ‘inconvenient fact’.) ‘Not a hundy’ invariably referred to a physical injury. (It is unlikely an All Black would not be a hundred percent for any other reason.)

While rugby union may be far from the average mind in the blistering heat of February, peak performance is not, as we saw with the New Zealand Sevens’ win at the weekend and with the 2016 work year in full swing.

If you are one of the 97% of NZ businesses that employs fewer than 20 people (with nearly 70% having no employees – MBIE Small Business Sector Report 2014) then chances are you can tell when your business is ‘not a hundy’. In the large majority of businesses employing up to 5 people, there is nowhere to hide. For those with 30, 50 or over a 100 people, below-par performance is not as immediately visible.

World class coaches select players either at their performance peak or who demonstrate peak potential. They are astutely aware when someone is not at their peak or not what the team needs. When it comes to sport, seniority, authority or organisational ‘level’ (title) comes second to performance level. In that setting, what you contribute is permanently on show if not to the public, then to your own team and the high performance coaches and management. Action is usually taken BEFORE under-performance shows up on the scoreboard whether it is by selection, substitution or a change in game strategy.

In larger organisations, where performance level or type does not serve the team well, the drag effect can be masked and/or delayed. Sooner or later, it shows up as one or more of:

  • disruption to performance
  • inefficiency
  • conflict and/or disharmony
  • increased cost
  • delays
  • wastage
  • health & safety (and other) risks
  • lost opportunities
  • results less than potential
  • tied up funds that could be more profitably invested elsewhere

Each time there is a pay run, an organisation purchases a capability – the critical question is: how much of this purchased capability converts to organisational results and the opposite of everything on the above list?

There are three main reasons organisations do not perform to their current potential.

  1. Wrong strategy – both externally and internally, the chosen strategy must match what both environments require for success at this moment in time, and given the particular sector or industry
  2. Wrong people – you have to have the right people thinking and acting in the right way, in the right place at the right time, for success
  3. Wrong approach – the way strategy is implemented and the way people are interacted with has to get the best possible outcome from strategies, people and situations or opportunities.

Personally, I have found that more heads are better than one, so favour a collective approach to strategy and decision making, but whatever approach you use, any one of these areas can be an organisation’s undoing. These three areas are the main culprits of human and financial capital waste. Get them right, and it is hard to fail.

Given that New Zealand is about the size of Sydney – just one city in Australia (yet with the obligations of a sovereign nation) – we cannot afford waste. When you have the right strategy, right people and the right approach in each situation, you have an organisation that hums to potential – a hundy.

We have the scale and track record as a nation to box way above our weight and given the scale of Business New Zealand, anything less than 100% should be quickly visible. As Steve Hansen says,  success is only possible when you pay attention to the ‘inconvenient facts’. Taking the right approach in these areas can rewrite what’s possible.

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