Bereavement Counselling: When should you seek support?

Seeking support is a sign of mental health – not weakness

“Bereavement is a powerful word for our reactions to the overwhelming way death attacks us in the loss of a spouse, a child or another loved one”. Kennedy & Charles

The loss of a loved one causes a broad range of reactions. In the aftermath of loss, people often find it difficult to sleep, have a decreased appetite and lowered energy. Feelings of anger, depression and loneliness are common. Sometimes nothing seems to bring joy into a person’s life with bereavement being likened to “an iceberg between the shoulder blades.” (When Death Comes – Mary Oliver). The intensity of feeling can be much worse on particular days. While it’s both confusing and disorientating, most people ‘work through’ this phase and eventually come to reconcile themselves with the loss.

Restoring Balance: Some people have difficulty in resolving grief and finding a balance in their life, adjusting to life without a loved one. For these individuals, Bereavement Counselling can help. With professional support, they are given the time and space to mourn and to imagine and plan life without the person who died. While the loss is recognised, clients are aided in bringing their grief to an effective resolution, moving into the next chapter. Paradoxically, some people feel that ‘moving on’ is somehow disrespectful. They become stuck and almost punish themselves with a continual sense of regret for what might have been. Others endlessly rehearse the last interaction (which may have been negative) and berate themselves for a single moment in what was often a lifetime of interactions.

Best Timing: “When should Bereavement Counselling happen?” is a common question. Most Counsellors suggest leaving space for the natural grieving process to take place and typically don’t see clients until six months has elapsed following a bereavement. The timeframe isn’t set in stone. Some individuals are so traumatised by the death of a loved one, that an earlier intervention is required. The sudden death of a child or a life partner can lead people to quickly seek help and General Practitioners often recommend that a patient talks to a counseling professional if they sense that additional support is needed. Sometimes, a family member sets the train in motion or the person themself feels they need to do something and seeks support.

Does it Work? Even when the death of a loved one is expected, there can be a sense of unreality, that the person is no longer there. As the client begins to talk and explore the loss, that sense of unreality becomes real and easier to cope with. Without meaning to, family members who may themselves be struggling with the loss, can block the expression of grief with comments like: “Why are you torturing yourself by going over this again and again?” which can stall or even prolong the grieving process. Bereavement Counselling allows the client to express their pain and sense of loss. The goal is to move at their pace, eventually reaching a place where they find an ability to live with the loss and begin to move forward.

Bereavement impacts each of us. Don’t be afraid to look for support when you need it. Understanding when you need help is a sign of mental strength, not weakness.


PS Lighter Note: Subject: Tesco Car Park Scam. Now, you’d need a smile after that topic. And, who better than Kevin Griffin to supply this tonic…

Please BE WARNED! Over the last month I have become a victim of a clever ‘Eastern European’ scam whilst out shopping. Simply dropping into a Tesco supermarket for a bit of shopping turned out to be quite an experience. Don’t be naive enough to think it couldn’t happen to you or your friends! Here’s how the scam works:

Two very good-looking 20-23 year-old girls of eastern European origin come over to your car as  you are packing your shopping into the boot. They both start cleaning your windscreen. When you thank them and offer them a tip, they’ll say ‘No’ and instead they ask you for a lift to another supermarket, in my case, Lidl. You agree and they both get in the back seat.

On the way there, they start undressing, until both are completely naked. When you pull over to remonstrate, one of them climbs into the front seat and  starts crawling into your lap and kissing you while the other one steals your wallet!

I had my wallet stolen on October 4th, 9th, 10th and the 15th. Also November 1st, 4th, 6th, 9th and 10th and twice yesterday. So please warn all the older men you know to be on the lookout for this scam.

The best times seem to be just before lunch and about 4:30 in the afternoon.

Happy Shopping!

P.S. Aldi have cheap wallets on sale for €1.99 each but Lidl wallets are €1.75 and look better!

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.

Posted in Executive Coaching | Leave a comment

Excellent Performance From People: Follow the ‘10 Commandments!’

We know how to manage people (for thousands of years)

Improving organizational performance by leveraging Human Resources has been a hot topic since God was a boy. Every year hundreds of titles are published around this subject. Yet most executives, suffering from information overload, have little hope of wading through the sheer volume of data. Wouldn’t it be really great if someone ‘summarized’ this stuff and made it simple? Here goes…

1st Commandment: Let people in on the BIG picture

The creation of organizational purpose is the first key managerial task. Simply stated, people need to feel that their organization ‘stands for’ something and what they do makes a difference. The underpinning thesis is simple. Most people look for purpose in their lives; if they cannot find it in work they find some external activity and place their energies elsewhere. At a societal level, the fall off in the practice of formal religion has left a ‘purpose gap’ in many peoples lives. High performance organizations’ manage to tap into this potential energy. A growing body of research suggests that an extra 30+% of effort is available. The even better news is that it’s free for those who have the managerial nous to go after it! Does everyone need a ‘higher order purpose’? While it’s difficult to generalize, there’s good evidence to suggest the following: While most of us initially focus on ‘paying the mortgage’, once this is achieved we need a higher order purpose to get into 5th gear. Paying the bills requires compliant behaviour but is not energising (for senior staff, the bills are paid by Tuesday anyway — you have to give them something to focus on for the rest of the week). To get top gear performance, organizations’ need to move beyond hygiene factors. Example: The St. Vincent de Paul Society in Ireland manage to mobilise 10,000 unpaid volunteers, 52 weeks each year and have managed to do this for the past 180 years. How? By having a noble purpose. Other organizations’ have to work harder to create a compelling purpose (some adopt emotionally loaded external causes). Letting people in on the BIG picture and convincing them of its merits converts your staff from stone-cutters to cathedral builders.

2nd Commandment: Set Crystal Clear Goalposts (then get off the pitch)

Once the BIG Picture has been clarified, people need to know their ‘role in the show’. Am I the goalkeeper or the centre forward? Ambiguity around personal goals, leads to anxiety, misplaced effort and lost productivity. Crystal clear goalposts are the building blocks of high performance. So, ‘how do you establish the correct ‘bar height? Do we look at the concept of being ‘best-in-locality’ (the best menswear shop in Grafton Street), best-in-class (the best menswear shop in the world) or ‘World-Class’ (an unmatched provider of customer service)? The answer here is often determined by your starting point (where you are today). Once the goals are crystal clear, good managers then get off the pitch.

Every Saturday morning, swarms of amateur soccer players descend on St Anne’s Park in Clontarf. On the touchline, the managers incite the players to deliver high performance. The role of these managers is to create self-sufficiency in the players; even where the players are performing poorly, the managers seldom don a jersey and take to the field. In too many business organizations’, managers misunderstand their role and try to be player/manager. The best companies set clear goalposts for people with adequate control mechanisms to monitor performance. Then they get off the pitch.

3rd Commandment: Turbo Charge your Organization with Project Teams

It‘s difficult to find a current management magazine which doesn’t make reference to the ‘wisdom’ of teamworking. From the early concept of Quality Circles (circa 1970) to more recent experimentation with self–direction, teamworking can positively affect morale, innovation and productivity. While the evidence to support the benefits of teamworking is impressive, it raises a puzzling question; why do so few organizations’ use teams? Ed Lawler   (University of Southern California) suggests an answer: “Teams are the Ferraris of work design. They’re high performance, but high maintenance.”   In practice teamworking is difficult to maintain. Full team–based organizations’ are complex social systems. To survive, they require significant support including rewards that reinforce teamwork, an effective meeting/communications structure and a supportive culture. While most references to teamworking mention the upsides, few dwell on the downsides — the significant level of energy that needs to be invested to make this work.

Turbo-Charged Project Teams: The development ‘Turbo–charged’ Project Teams offers a mechanism to get the benefits of teamworking while avoiding the constraints — the organizational equivalent of ice cream without calories! Project teams differ from work teams in that they are set up to tackle a specific problem or difficulty. The team remains in existence for as long as the problem remains; when the problem is solved, the team disbands. By their nature, project teams are focused and become ‘turbo-charged’ e.g. move to high performance levels quickly. This structure offers three specific benefits:

Bolted On: Given that project teams are ‘bolted on’ to the existing organization architecture, they don’t need a cultural shift to support them.

Fast Performance: ‘Turbo–charged’ project teams perform quickly.

Safe Experiment: The short shelf–life of project teams provides a safe mechanism for organizations’ to experiment with the concept of full team–based working.

4th Commandment: Let Everyone Wear a White Coat

In my first ‘real’ job (car seat manufacturing), all of the employees wore colour coded uniforms. The ‘workers’ (like myself) wore blue overalls; the foremen had brown coats; the supervisors were kitted out in white; the management sported double-breasted suits (the fashion at that time). This ordered hierarchy was an efficient way to denote ‘who did what’. Yet, while it had the benefit of clarity, it was based on an underlying (mistaken) assumption that the workforce could be divided into two camps— the inspired (who wore suits/white/brown) and the perspired (who wore blue). As one of the perspired, I had first-hand experience of that philosophy in action; it was demeaning and counter-productive (people found ways to beat the control systems in place, including an elaborate way of climbing over the 10 foot high back wall to ‘escape’ the monotony). Today successful organizations’ have overthrown that false division of labour and let everyone (metaphorically) wear white coats. They recognise that giving up control in a narrow sense allows them to gain control in a broader sense. Giving people influence (e.g. over the quality of the product or service they deliver) lies at the root of building spirit, morale and commitment. Reducing traditional controls, shifting the location of decision-making and getting people ‘stitched into’ the process (collectively called empowerment) are key tools. Those shop floor workers ‘hands’ are attached to a useful brain. Ceding control to the line is a key departure from past management practice. In manufacturing plants, it’s possible to have 700 Quality Control Inspectors (read as employees), rather than 2 Quality Control ‘policemen.’ Exactly the same point applies in the ‘back-offices’ of white-collar organizations’. During a school play in Belgrove Junior school in Clontarf, the most talented kids got the lead parts (Ugly Sisters etc.). My kid was in the chorus line (reflecting the general talent level in our family). She sang: “We’re in the chorus, we stand in a row. We all have talent — in case you don’t know”! It’s not just the lead players who need to be switched on, but every single cast member. Let everyone ‘wear a white coat’.

5th Commandment: Unchain the Right hand side of the Brain

Ask 100 people “In what profession do you need to be creative?” and 90%+ will tell you ‘Advertising’, ‘Marketing’ & ‘R&D’. Yet creativity is as necessary in the dustbin collection arena of Dublin City Council as it is in the Nassau Space Agency. All organizations’ are in business to satisfy a customer need — creating and delivering quality products or services. The smartest organizations’ recognise this as a never ending goal i.e. “There is no finish line”. In some cultures this is a given e.g. the concept of Kaizan from Japan; in others, managers need to ‘socially engineer’ this culture and develop appropriate reward systems to support. The best organizations’ release oil gushers of creativity and high performance. Example: We worked with a client company (120 employees) in the financial services sector. Using a creative technique from the world of advertising, the group managed to generate 4000+ ideas for customer service improvement (4,000 is not a typo) in a single-day session. These ideas were subsequently ranked with circa 7% (the A+ ideas) being implemented. Systematically communicating the outcome to staff who participated — guaranteed that people were switched on for the ‘next round’. Bottom Line: Senior Management don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.

Pre-planning Creativity: One of the key lessons about creativity in organizations’ is that it is not something which ‘just happens’. It’s actually consciously planned. At first glance this idea seems contradictory. Can a ‘creative process’ be pre-planned? Yes it can. Top companies are better at innovating, not because they hire more innovative people, but because they are better organized to be innovative. Through a range of ‘shake the tree’ events, they systematically produce crop after crop of new ideas. Many people will already be familiar with the system in operation at 3M where people are allowed to devote 15% of their time and budget to any project that they wish. This institutionalized lawlessness (internally known as ‘bootlegging’) would not be tolerated in most organizations’. Continuous improvement is key to the ongoing success of high-performance organizations’. Rosabeth Moss Kanter said “the only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to learn faster that your competitors.” Great organization leaders unchain the right hand side of the brain of their employees. Do you?

6th Commandment: People will embrace change if they construct it

Successful organizations’ have an ability to constantly introduce changes in work practices, procedures and products. In the best-managed companies, change is not viewed as the equivalent of a visit to the Dentist for root canal work! Involvement of people in the planning of change is a key factor in the acceptance of this. I never tire of saying that the first principal in psychology is: “People don’t resist their own ideas”. It’s not so much that people resist change; they resist being changed. Sometimes they resist it because they don’t believe that the specific actions proposed are necessary. Yet underneath this ‘rational’ resistance, people are often reluctant to embrace fundamental structural shifts because they feel disenfranchised; it’s not ‘theirs’. To label this as ‘getting people to buy in’ is somewhat trite. It does not do justice to what is a deep psychological need — putting a personal stamp on important life events. The most effective change managers distinguish between controlling people and controlling results. In the USA, Dwight Eisenhower used to demonstrate the art of leadership with a piece of string. He’d put it on the table and say: “Pull it, and it will follow you anywhere you wish. Push it, and it’ll go nowhere at all.”

Example: The offices in one of our client companies needed to be rearranged with people moving between floors. While people had ‘more room’ under the new arrangement (desk space, floor space, filing etc.), the level of grumbling was high. Complaints ranged from the lack of ventilation, to distance from the coffee machine. During a second move the company employed a different strategy. The new office layout was posted on a huge ‘blow-up’ and left in the middle of the old floor for 1 month. During this time employees could comment on the suggested layout and several minor modifications were made. The second move was a resounding success, with the virtual absence of ‘moaning’ about the new locations. The message is simple but not simplistic. Take the time to stitch people into the change process at the front end or take the trouble (and twice the time) to fire-fight this later. Caveat: Participation in input doesn’t imply equity in decision-making. Managers make the final call (unless you are running a Kibbutz).

7th Commandment: Become an Ambiguity Sponge

In a world where change is the only certainty, a key dilemma for managers is to predict the future. As Mark Twain said “I was delighted to be able to answer quickly. I said I don’t know”. Great managers act as an ‘Ambiguity Sponge’, soaking up the concerns and the normal uncertainties of business life while providing a safe space for employees to work. There are two elements to the provision of short-term certainty.

Communication = Religion: The first is to communicate, communicate, communicate. Mostly face to face (avoid lobbing ‘hand grenades’ into the email system; use this to confirm information already communicated). Some managers are fearful of communication when there is an element of uncertainty: ‘we don’t have all the answers.’ It’s a mistake. In an information vacuum, ‘answers’ will be provided by the grapevine or by a third party organization. Let’s assume that you can’t answer the question “What will we do if the FDA don’t approve our new drug for killing all known dog fleas?” You then address this issue: “This is what we need you to do to make a difference in the next 3— 4 weeks”.

Worst Case: In counselling, a technique sometimes deployed is to ask the client to envisage the worst-case scenario: “If your kids all decided to move to Argentina tomorrow, what would happen then?” (for some, this might be a cause for great celebration). A similar technique can be used to good effect in managing. Where there’s a ‘felt threat’ to income or job security (however distant) the best companies address this up front (“In the unlikely event of a redundancy situation occurring, this is the way it will be handled…”). Having the courage to confront the issue openly — and laying out a plan to resolve the ‘worst case’ — allows people to let go of the uncertainty and focus on the day job. Providing short-term certainty, by acting as a sponge for ambiguity, is a key managerial task.

8th Commandment : Expect ‘A’? Then reward ‘A’

A fundamental management principle = what you reward is what gets delivered. It sounds simple. Devise a reward system that reinforces what you want to achieve. The problem here is that ‘what’s actually being rewarded’ in an organization is sometimes difficult to define. A couple of years back my then 6 year old daughter had a recurring problem. Each evening, about 1 hour after she went to bed, she would complain of stomach pains. Over a 2-month period this necessitated two trips to the local GP, one night-time GP house-call and one ‘midnighter’ to Temple Street Children’s hospital. Frustrated (because there were no obvious physiological symptoms), we tried the positive reinforcement route. Trouble-free nights were rewarded with a packet of popcorn the next day (technically seen as ‘sweets’ and highly regarded). Within 1 week the problem magically went away (watch this space for the next installment: “How we weaned her off the popcorn”).

Many organizations’ are the commercial equivalent of ‘bad parents’. They   reward (heap attention on) inappropriate behaviour like those pretend stomach cramps. The best-managed organizations’ have an explicit scorecard of high performance standards (both outputs and managerial behaviour) which they measure and directly reward. In the worst managed organizations’, rewards are based on a combination of perceived performance and personal lobbying (when asked to detail the ‘criteria for success’ in one client company, a manager replied “Get a timer on the light switch in your office and make it look like you’re working late every night”). The best companies communicate what’s important and measure/reward this. Don’t let the cynics win!

9th Commandment: Count the Score at the end of the Match

Keeping score and giving feedback on results seems so self evident that we could almost omit it as a key principle in managing people. Almost. Staying close to the business ensures that results are never too far off track and avoids an end of the year ‘crop failure’ which can so easily occur in businesses where the ‘score’ is not explicit (e.g. try to measure embedded value in the pensions industry). The best-managed companies understand that there are critical and non-critical performance measures. They have mechanisms to capture this information, distil it into lay language and graphically transmit this to the staff.

Critical Performance: When driving to work there are a couple of key car performance measures.

  1. What speed is the car travelling?
  2. Do I have enough fuel to get to the destination?

While there is a myriad of additional information (car tyre pressures, outside air temperature), it’s not core. You need a scorecard to differentiate core from non-core information and constantly communicate this to staff. Poorly managed companies either try to overcompensate by measuring and recording everything or leave an information vacuum (when we conduct audits, staff often feel that the company is making ‘fabulous profits’). The source for information in some companies is through the Trade Unions, with managers delegating this vital ingredient of their role to shop stewards or full-time officials. Feedback acts as a self-correcting mechanism. Empowered with the correct information, employees will find ways to ‘fix’ performance deviations. What’s needed is a ‘dashboard’ that’s understandable and accessible. Trade off the potential loss of commercially sensitive information against the positives of employee support and performance. Here’s the skinny. Count the score at the end of the game and tell the players. Simple, isn’t it?

10th Commandment” Celebrate the Success (“Pump up the volume”)

Most people want to be appreciated for their contribution. Yet, the concept of ‘celebrating success’ for many managers seems somehow ‘over the top’. In contrast, we have little problem using the psychology of reinforcement outside of work. I observed a ‘hard nosed’ manager becoming ecstatic about a simple line drawing of a house completed by his 5 year old son (the kid was no budding Picasso). The ‘artist’ was dragged to the newsagent and rewarded with a MAGNUM (€2.50 for those of you not in the know about these ‘health foods’). Several weeks later I mentioned this to him as an example of positive reinforcement.

“That’s different, he’s only a kid”

“Why is it different?”

“People at work get paid to do what they’re told”

“And do you want them to be highly productive?”

“Of course” (somewhat more tentatively)

“Then why don’t you recognise it when they achieve something significant?”

“They wouldn’t like it — it’s embarrassing”

“For you or for them?”

“Look, all this being Mr. Nice is not my style. I call a spade a spade. That’s the way I am.”

The best-managed companies understand that ‘attention – only when I screw up’ is a big source of dissatisfaction. They actively create heroes and champions. They make the extraordinary ordinary, highlighting small success stories around cost improvement and customer service. They look for ways to celebrate success and pump up the volume. They don’t fear disturbing 50-year-old pay relativities to which poorly performing companies are held hostage. They even make work fun (spread the word).

Conclusion: A manager is defined as “someone who gets her/his work done through others”. How? You can put a human face on this by asking the simple question “how do I like to be managed?” and applying the answers to people who work for you. Leading people requires the ability to generate high levels of energy, to focus that energy on selected goals and to sustain enthusiasm through the ‘white water’ of normal business life. Done well, it can unlock phenomenal performance. A combination of technology, better-educated workers and sophisticated systems for getting-work-done have made the old ‘just-tell-them-what-to-do’ style of management obsolete. The ‘10 Commandments’ detailed above offers a checklist for you to test current practices. The prize for getting it right may be no less than the very survival of your organization.


PS Lighter Note: Lets go completely ‘non-PC’ this week. Do you agree? Thanks to Kevin Griffen…

Q: What’s the difference between a boyfriend and husband?

A: 45 minutes.

Q: How do you get a sweet little 80-year-old lady to say the F….. Word?

A: Get another sweet little 80-year-old lady to yell *BINGO*!

From Aidan Cahill: In today’s business world the MARKETING issue can be confusing.
People continually ask for a simple explanation of ‘Marketing.’
 Well, your prayers have been answered…

  • You’re a woman and you see a handsome guy at a party. You go up to 
him and say, “I’m fantastic in bed.”

 That’s Direct Marketing.

  • You’re at a party with a bunch of friends and see a handsome guy.
One of your friends goes up to him and, pointing at you, says,
“She’s fantastic in bed.”

 That’s Advertising.
  • You see a handsome guy at a party. You go up to him and get his
telephone number. The next day you call and say, “Hi, I’m fantastic
 in bed.”

 That’s Telemarketing.
  • You see a guy at a party; you straighten your dress. You walk up
to him and pour him a drink. You say, “May I?” and reach up to
straighten his tie, brushing your breast lightly against his arm 
and then say, “By the way, I’m fantastic in bed.”

 That’s Public Relations.
  • You’re at a party and see a handsome guy. He walks up to you and
says, “I hear you’re fantastic in bed.”

 That’s Brand Recognition.
  • You’re at a party and see a handsome guy. He fancies you, but you 
talk him into going home with your friend.

 That’s a Sales Rep.
  • Your friend can’t satisfy him so he calls you.

 That’s Tech Support.
  • You’re on your way to a party when you realize that there could be
handsome men in all these houses you’re passing. So you climb onto
the roof of one situated towards the center and shout at the top of 
your lungs, “I’m fantastic in bed!”

 That’s Facebook.
  • You are at a party; this attractive older man walks up to you and 
grabs your ass.

That’s Donald Trump.
  • You didn’t mind it at the time. But twenty years later your attorney decides
 you were offended and you are awarded a major settlement.

 That’s America !

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.

Posted in Effective Leadership | 2 Comments

Skip Engagment: Run ‘attitude adjustment’ sessions (starting with yourself).

Leaders Role: It’s OK to demand high performance

I suppose it was only a matter of time until my musical talent was discovered. Perhaps a more realistic telling of the tale was that I’d blagged my way into a paying gig (€200) for an afternoon session in the Hollybrook Hotel in Clontarf. Brian Kennedy (a real musician) would be my sidekick. The problem: Brian was arriving from Portugal on Friday, lunchtime. Playing on Sunday, gave us a day and a half for rehearsal. We went into overdrive.

Music Stuff: Here’s the science. We had to figure out how the hotel’s Public Address system worked (and integrate our own gear). A 3-hour ‘gig’ translates as about 40 songs which had to be agreed and then individually worked out. When you play solo – you can do what you want. But playing alongside someone else requires being in sync. Introductions, chord sequences, riffs and endings have to be bang on. Because we had no real idea who’d be in the audience, we needed a range of material (blues, pop, ballads). Then we had to ‘transpose’ (change the musical key) of several songs – to suit either Brian’s or my voice. Alongside this, I was trying to figure out the correct harmonica keys (my latest obsession) to accompany Brian’s blues stuff. Are you getting tired already? It took hours and hours and hours and hours. By the time we’d divvied up that €200, we were probably paid about €4 an hour, half the rate earned in Burger King.

Strong Deadline: Brian is normally busy and ‘hard to get.’ I was feeling a bit guilty as this gig was eating up a huge chunk of time. When I asked if he resented the hours, he replied: “People are paying to listen. It’s their night out. We give this 120%.” We were certainly engaged – putting huge effort into getting it right – for less than the minimum wage. Some of this was probably driven by a common fear e.g. ‘avoiding screwing up in public and looking like a prat.’  For sure, that was part of it. We were definitely alive during the preparation and performance. Good news: the night went well and the preparation (broadly speaking) paid off.

High Versus Low Engagement: Professional managers are paid to secure high output performance from others. The currently fashionable way to do this (and management trends are a ‘fashion item’) is to secure employee engagement. On face value what’s not to like about this idea? We are bombarded with the idea that ‘high engagement’ delivers happy staff who, in turn, ‘mind’ customers. It’s a win: win. But how then do we explain ‘high productivity’ in environments that are typically low engagement? The Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is a legendary tough leader. One of his quotes: “You can work long, hard or smart, but at you can’t choose two out of three.” In 2017, first quarter revenues for Amazon rose 23% to $35.7 billion. Amazon ranks as Number 2 on Fortune’s list of most admired organizations and on LinkedIn’s US Top Companies list. So, is there a disconnect between niceness and financial performance? I’m constrained here in telling the full story, but the highest performing multi-national I’ve ever worked with probably had the lowest employee engagement scores ever measured. While this is sometimes explained away as ‘bullying people’ into short-term performance, the link is not as straightforward as you might think.

Answer Driven: Some of this confusion is consultant driven. Consultant’s are great at coming up with solutions, sometimes to problems that don’t exist. The usual way to describe this is ‘selling.’ Who doesn’t want their company to be a ‘great place to work?’ Lets have a quick show of hands. Who wants a competitor company to be winning ‘engagement awards’ with Black-Tie photo opportunities?  Who doesn’t love odd-shaped pieces of Galway Crystal displayed prominently in the reception area? But is lack of engagement a real problem? Well, it’s hard to argue against this because no one knows what it really means. One report (MacLeod) came up with more than 50 definitions of engagement. So, lets’ spin the question a different way. Does high-engagement actually lead to high-performance? The answer is: it depends. Some elite organizations that are difficult to get into (e.g. Goldman Sachs) are extremely difficult to work for. On the Investment Banking side, new recruits regularly work 80+ hours each week (my nephew often slept under his desk or in a conference room in New York). If you were using a ‘typical’ engagement instrument to measure these practices, the scores would fall through the floor. The disconnect is that, at the same time, the Goldman Sachs performance was going through the roof! So, it’s difficult to talk about ‘Engagement’ as a concept – when most people can’t agree what this term means. Employee engagement has become a sort-of ‘snake oil’ (a formula which supposedly cures all organization ills). Engagement is used as a proxy for productivity – as if the two terms were interchangeable.  They aren’t!  Consider the following story….

Attitude Adjustment: When I worked with GE, a new Site Leader was appointed to a factory in Coolock. He was ex-military (US Airforce) and ‘donned the garb’, wearing leather boots and an aviators jacket. Most days he started work at 4:30am and left at 15:00. So, he was somewhat eccentric in both dress code and working hours. Every month he held management meetings to check progress on a complex plant start-up. The official title of those meetings were the ‘Attitude Adjustment Sessions.’ There was no quarter, taken or given. You ponied up, detailed your performance in the previous month and (hopefully) survived until the next month. Somewhat brutal, it was perhaps the most authentic performance review sessions I’ve even witnessed. Contrast that with some of the ‘high engagement’ organizations that I’ve worked in. Arguably, the not-for-profit sector, is the worst offender here. Many times I’ve seen the process (“everyone has to have an input”) getting elevated above outputs (‘results pay the bills’). In other words, it’s possible to have very high levels of engagement and very low levels of organisation performance.

High Performance:  So lets go back to some basics. In developing any high performance organization, there are two fundamental questions  (1) What is the mission/purpose of this organization? Is this clear? Can this be described in an emotionally compelling way? (2) How well are we performing against this mission? Techniques (like employee engagement) are subsidiary to these BIG questions i.e. everything else is noise.

Employee engagement is a means to an end – not an end in itself. Some low-performance organisations should skip engagement and start running ‘attitude adjustment’ sessions to drive performance.  Perhaps start with yourself by asking: “Am I over-delivering in this job? Am I giving this ‘gig’ 120%? And, as a leader, am I making this same demand on others?

Like skinny jeans, the engagement fashion trend will eventually move on. Perhaps we are already seeing the signs of this in the emergence of the ‘healthy organisation’ (with a focus on fitness and food).  Here’s an idea. Forget the ‘trends’. Focus on performance.

Have a good one.


PS Lighter Notes (this week Menu is fairly ‘mild’).

 Last week, I went to see my Doctor. He wasn’t well.

My father was a comedian. I was his first joke.

Q: What was the first thing Adam said to Eve?

A: Stand back -I don’t know how big this thing is going to get!

WHO DREAMS THESE UP?   Why, a Lexophile of course!

  • How does Moses make tea? Hebrews it.
  • Venison for dinner again?   Oh deer!
  • A cartoonist was found dead in his home.  Details are sketchy.
  • Haunted French pancakes give me the crêpes.
  • England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.
  • They told me I had type-A blood, but it was a Typo.
  • I changed my iPhone’s name to Titanic. It’s syncing now.
  • Jokes about German sausage are the Wurst.
  • I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. He says he can stop any time.
  • I did a theatrical performance about puns.  It was a play on words.
  • Why were the Indians in America first?  They had reservations.
  • I dropped out of communism class because of lousy Marx.
  • Velcro – what a rip off!
  • Don’t worry about old age; it doesn’t last.

Waiter, Waiter: I was in a cafe and I ordered the beef burger. The waiter came back and told me there’s no beef burger. So I ordered the steak burger. He came back. No steak. I tried the corned beef hash. He was clearly getting frustration from the kitchen because he shouted at me:

There’s no F in beef (that’s how it sounded).

Q: How can a waiter not know how to spell beef?

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.

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How to Grow Old Disgracefully (and guilt free)

Grow Old Disgracefully









Here’s the question. At what age should you stop celebrating birthdays? Perhaps when the candles cost more than the cake? In May, I was 60 and went a bit crazy. Golfing outings in Wicklow with the regular 4-ball. Followed by 3 days with 9 musicians on 2 boats, navigating the Shannon, testing the outer limits of sleep deprivation and alcohol poisoning (confirmation: there’s no ‘closing time’ in Roscommon). Family trips to Canada and Portugal. Both official and surprise birthday parties. More new shirts than in a Penney’s Winter sale. A Travel guitar added to the collection. And on and on and on in what began to feel uncomfortably numb — a contradictory pull between gratefulness for the effort invested (by everyone else) and a feeling that there was too much fuss and materialism.

Vote Hedonism? So where does celebration end and indulgence kick in? How many musical instruments do you need, before thoughts turn to homelessness or some other social issue? At what point do you stop wanting new stuff and start enjoying old stuff? The root of the question is easy enough to trace. It’s Catholicism and the liberal sprinkling of guilt that underpins this particular religion. Growing up, we were informed that ‘It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.’ From memory, we heard that line about 42,337 times. As children, we took these stories literally, and honestly believed that it was somehow ‘wrong’ to be successful (I definitely should have been a Protestant). The irony that the institutional Catholic Church was itself massively wealthy, somehow got lost in the debate. I’ve now come to the view that my ‘indulgence’ does not steal from others. It’s a false dichotomy. On a political level, I subscribe to the Gary McGann school of thought. He argued (IBEC conference, 2016) that before wealth can be distributed, it first has to be created. But is this just a rationalization for selfishness? A thin veneer of justification to overcome guilt and make me feel good?

Creating Boundaries: In navigating this contradiction (coming to terms with modest success versus feeling a need to contribute), my personal recipe is as follows. Tandem Consulting offers a fixed amount of unpaid time to not-for-profit organizations. I also do some individual coaching outside of my immediate (middle-class) circle and give a fixed amount of money each year to specific charities. With that system firmly in place, I then buy as many golf shirts and guitars as I want. The good news is that they arrive with a special ‘guilt free’ packaging.

Useless Emotion: Guilt is the most useless of all emotions. It’s drains energy. It evaporates the feel-good factor when you do something for yourself or your immediate family. In the worst-case scenarios, it can create mental torment. And, here’s the kicker. It adds zero value. G is for giving, not guilt. Consider the following 2-step process. First, draw a boundary line around what, if anything, you want to contribute (time/money), something that feels comfortable and you can live with. Second, assuming that you deliver on the commitments made, consign guilt to the wastebasket of history. It should become something that ‘used’ to bother you. Past tense.

Now, be careful with that cork. Opening champagne can be dangerous.


Ps Lighter Notes

Vet Visit: Guy goes to the doctor carrying a Rottweiler and says: “He got sick this morning. I just gave him his normal feed and he’s been like this, completely lethargic all day.”

The vet takes the dog in his arms and says:

“I’ll have to put him down.”

“Jesus, why?”

“He’s too heavy.”

 Doctor Visit: Guy goes to the doctor and says: “This is a bit embarrassing.” The doctor replies that he’s seen all sorts and there is no need to be embarrassed.

 “Well, I don’t quite know what it is, but I seem to have a terrible smell all of the time. I shower twice a day and I’ve used every personal hygiene product on the market. Nothing’s working.”

Doc says: “Hymm. Tell me what you do for a living.”

Patient Says: “I’m an Elephant Bunger.”  

Doc: “I don’t really know what that job entails.”

Patient: “I’ve worked for Duffy’s Circus for 5 years. It’s not widely known that elephants have a ‘loose bowel.’ So, before each show I have to ‘insert a bung’ to stop them destroying the arena. Then, immediately after each show, I have to remove the bung. It can all get a bit messy.”

Doc: “Well, this is hardly a complex diagnosis. It’s simple. That’s where the smell is coming from. You will just have to leave that job.”

Patient: “WHAT! And give up show business” 

From Ger Coey: “Watched a program last night on how ships were built. It was riveting.”

On Getting Old….

 “One of the hardest decisions to make in life is when to start your sixties.” Zsa Zsa Gabor

“I recently turned 60. Practically, a third of my life is over.” Woody Allen

“One day when I was 45, I went into the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. When I came out, I was 68.” Thora Hird

“The greatest advantage of having babies in your 60’s is that you can both be in nappies at the same time.” Sue Kolinsky

“I’m at an age where my back goes out more than I do.” Phyllis Diller

“My mother is over 60 but she still doesn’t need glasses. Drinks right from the bottle.” Zero Mostel

“When you get to 60, you lose interest in sex, your friends drift away and your children ignore you. There are other advantages too.” Richard Needham

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


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Organisation Change: You need to drill below the surface

Changing Culture: It’s more than a ‘Lick of New Paint’

It was a beautiful morning in the IFSC. The temperature reading in the car was a glorious 24 degrees (there might be some form of in-built thermostat in Irish people that makes 24 almost perfect). I walked along the river, then across the Sean O’Casey bridge. Right on queue, an enormous Seal was basking in the sun – sitting on one of the stanchions. I was half expecting someone to roller skate over the bridge, moving to the soundtrack of Beautiful Day from U2. A local coffee shop served up a smooth latte. Historically, coffee of this quality was only available in Rome. Dubliners now discuss coffee with the same reverent tones that my father discussed Guinness. A little later, I attended an event at the National Convention Centre, the epitome of architectural confidence about the future of the country.

When I was growing up, my first cousins lived in Sherriff Street. Despite the fact that I’m from a corporation estate in Cabra, we were afraid to visit. Sherriff Street was a no go and no hope area, drug addled, the off-campus section of Mountjoy Prison. Now it has some beautiful architecture. The social housing projects and the general environment are a testament to what can be achieved with good urban planning. We tend to forget the achievements of the Celtic tiger era (there were many) and even some upsides in the recession which followed…

Superior Value: We developed a new focus on value for money. Some of the Celtic Tiger arrogance abated (as exhibited by restaurants and plumbers).  We’ve had to relearn that stinging customers is a pyrrhic victory.

Customer Service: When the market tipped the scales at circa 50% of the former business volume, consultants came to understand who pays the bills. If you’re not ‘easy to do business with’, you are not in business. Pin-Stripe types who formerly sold hope are now signing on at Hatch 22 at the local employment office. You get asked back if projects deliver real value. The consultants who survived morphed into ‘resultants’. Long may it continue.

So, the Celtic Tiger has left us with some good stuff (e.g. the road to Galway) and some bad stuff (Ghost Estates). And the fall of the Celtic Tiger has reminded us of some old stuff including courtesy, the joy in having a good job and of doing quality work.

Social Re-Generation: But, to go back to the Sherriff Street story. It’s relatively easy to make physical changes to an area (assuming that you have the finances). However, it’s much more difficult to bring about social change. So, while the North Inner City is physically very different, a range of social problems still plague the area. In case you believe that the ‘class system’ in Ireland is a thing of the past, how about the latest wave of parties which are very much a working-class phenomenon. First it was Tupperware. Then Make-up parties. Then Ann Summers for a more risqué evening. The latest is Tattoo parties. Come along, have a few beers and leave with the name of your dead granddad emblazoned across your collarbone. Now, that’s what you call a night to remember.

Real Change: Organisation change follows a somewhat similar trajectory. For sure, you can re-write the Customer Charter or modify the manufacturing process. But to make real progress, you need to think about changing the culture – and not just the outward elements like the new apartments in Sherriff Street. You can’t steer a car by replacing the wing mirrors. Real change, requires swimming into the deep end of the pool. That’s why so many ‘organisation change’ projects don’t deliver sustained change. Like the Garda Reserve Force, organization change projects often produce lots of heated debate – but very little on-the-ground change. The ‘existing’ way of doing things presents a powerful pull to do nothing.

The trick is to understand the difference between surface and deep change and to know what levers to pull. Now, there’s a thought! Have a good one!


PS Mea Culpa! The priest joke (last blog) might have been a bit too close to the edge for some readers. I’m not deliberately trying to cause offence – just trying to lighten up your day. Just for this blog only – I’ve decided to chicken -out and go fully ‘PC’ on the jokes. Don’t worry – normal service will be resumed shortly!

PPS: Lighter Moment

Q: What have Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln got in common?

A: They were all born on major American holidays!

Dog Day Afternoon: Last week I brought the kids to the Zoo – but they only had one animal, a tiny dog. I think it was a ‘Shih Tsu.’

2 Left Feet: Did you hear about the guy who had 2 left feet and went to the beach? He bought himself a pair of flip-flips!

2 More Minutes? The attached clip about growing up in Dublin is worth a look…

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.

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Plotting Your Career Success: Ladders Versus Expanders

Career Races are mostly run in a Zig-Zag Line

The last time I met Ray Gamell was about 3 years ago in Abu Dhabi. I was passing through the city on a different mission and called to see him for a chat about Ethihad Airways. I’ve admired Ray for many years and was doubly delighted when he was recently announced as the interim CEO of the airline, having been promoted from the role of HR Director. Ray demonstrated leadership from his earliest days in the Irish Army, in Intel, Ulster Bank and, more recently, in the Middle East. It’s nice to see the Good Guys winning (at least sometimes).

Formal Apprenticeship: Contrast that with a conversation last week with another excellent HR practitioner. A new HR Director had been appointed – an internal promotion, but someone from outside the function. My lunch-buddy was making the point that this just wouldn’t happen in finance or marketing. His thesis: people ‘serve an apprenticeship’ within a function and get rewarded by seizing the top spot on the functional ladder at some point. Accountants eventually become Financial Comptrollers, then Finance Directors and so on. But was he correct? Should you stay within your own discipline or ‘jump across and do something else?

Pfizer Leadership: For the past 3 years, Cathy Buffini and I have been working with the senior engineers across Pfizer globally. There’s no ‘parish pump politics’ at play here. It’s definitely not about who you know. It’s not even about what you know. It’s all about what you deliver. As part of this engagement, we’ve interviewed a range of senior executives (engineers and others) about their careers – the good, the bad and the ugly. What worked. What didn’t. Tripwires that could have been avoided. Key Point: So many of the engineers ‘crossed-over’ into other functions (Manufacturing, Quality, HR) that we lost count. And they also moved internationally. In other words, they were expanders (moving sideways as parallel opportunites presented) – not ladderers (waiting for the next more senior position in engineering to open up). The route up the corporate mountain is often a zig-zag climb, seldom a straight line.

Your Career: In thinking about your own career, you might do well to consider the ultimate destination, sometimes referred to as the ‘step after next.’ Like playing chess, you need to think two or even three moves ahead (in the corporate world, the pieces move around the chessboard suprisingly quickly). Every year (for the past 6 years) MERC Partners publish an ‘Executive Expectations’ survey which always makes for interesting reading. In the latest (2017) survey 59% of executives stated they were much more open to switching roles. People are starting to ‘get it.’

One Caveat: But, there’s one thing to be mindful of. According to Sir William Osler (a Canadian physician,  one of the icons of modern medicine): “The best way to take care of tomorrow, is to do today’s job superbly well.” Even if your current role is somewhat modest and falls short of being a dream job, you need to over-deliver on this. Career success is the ability to manage a dual-timeframe. Planning for tomorrow – while making sure that you deliver today. My personal belief is that the ‘best time to apply for a job – is one year before it’s advertised.’ In other words, you apply for a promotional role, in advance, by delivering a brilliant performance on the job you hold today.

Alternative Strategy: Of course, you can always pursue an alternative strategy. You can tell your boss: “I’m underperforming in my current role, because it doesn’t really suit me. But hey, as soon as I get promoted I will ‘over-perform’ in the new (more interesting, more complex, better paid) role.”  Good luck with making that sale!

Get Wide: In thinking about the future, don’t just see tomorrow as a linear expansion from what you studied or where you are today. Don’t allow a study choice you made as a teenager, set the boundaries on your life. There’s a world of career possibility out there. Go ‘wide’ and grab it.


PS Lighter Notes: This week’s offerings are from Larry McGivern (look away now if you are of a nervous disposition!).


If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,

If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,

If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,

If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,

If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,

If you can conquer tension without medical help,

If you can relax without alcohol,

If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,

Then You Are Probably The Family Dog!


A heavy-set girl served me in McDonald’s at lunchtime.  She said: ‘Sorry about the wait’.

I said: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll find a way to lose it eventually’.


A 10-year-old Irish boy stands crying at the side of the road.  A man passing asks:

‘What’s wrong, lad?’

The boy says: ‘Me ma died this morning.’

‘Oh bejaysus,’ the man says.  ‘Do you want me to call Father O’Reilly?’

The boy replies: ‘No thanks mister. Sex is the last thing on my mind at the moment.’

Air Stewardess (from Aidan Cahill):  The blonde flight attendant saw a suspicious looking couple on board, so she reported it to the Captain immediately.

“Sir, I think we have a case of human trafficking! There is a very
pretty, hot  female passenger on board, who looks quite
frightened. The man she is with is fat and looks like a
lecher, very sullen, mean and dangerous!”

The captain responds: “Patricia, I’ve told you this before. This is Air Force One…”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.



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Here – Kitty, Kitty: Tell me what you are great at!

“Would you like to share my lunch?”

It was one of those nights. A combination of music, fun and a large drop of alcohol had ‘opened up the emotional pores.’   We were flying without wings. Eventually, the conversation turned to the maddest/most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done (and would be happy to share). As the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohan said: most people have a public life, a private life and a secret life! (these high heels are killing me).

Isle of Man: One of the group told the following story. Some years back, he’d attended the Isle of Man TT races, the biggest biking event in the calendar. He’d travelled to the venue in a large camper van – which just happened to have a ‘half-door’ – similar to an old farmhouse you’d see in rural Ireland. They parked up at the side of a main thoroughfare. As the night was balmy, the ‘half-door’ was left open to let in air. But, this was misconstrued. People kept calling over to the Caravan asking for a menu, looking for late night food. So, in a moment of inspiration, they opened two tins of Kitty Cat (food for his cat in Dublin was stored in the caravan) and they fed the masses. Apparently, the cat food went down a ‘bomb’ (they suggested that it was an old Turkish Kebab recipe). People complimented them on the unique flavour and the fact that they were distributing free food! So outrageous, it’s actually funny.

Your Biggest Secret: In kicking off that conversation about the ‘maddest night in history’, I was inspired by a great talent. Irv Yalom is perhaps the world’s best-known psychotherapist. Yalom has conducted an experiment in 14 different countries asking his patients: “What’s the one thing that you would not want this group to know about you?”

Faced with this question, most people immediately think of some drunken escapade (like the Cat food story) or some sexual indiscretion. But, when you discount those one-off stories, the issue that stands head and shoulders above everything else is as follows: ‘I wouldn’t like this group to know that I’m not as confident as they think I am.’ In other words, a red thread of insecurity is hard wired into most of us – across all cultures.   At times, almost everyone feels insecure and unsure – despite our (sometimes) outward bravado. For some, it’s a constant dread. It’s as if the air leaks out of our ‘confidence tyre’ and continually needs to be pumped up.

Building Confidence: In the executive coaching world this issue continually resurfaces. I meet executives who, by implication, are smart enough to get into senior roles. Many have 2 kids, 3 cars and 4 houses. Most have more degrees than a thermometer. But what do they want to talk about? Deficiencies. Things they are ‘brutal’ at. Where they’ve screwed up. And so on. I have to work hard to remind them that their success brought them into the room in the first place. We focus on what’s working really well, alongside what’s broken. In the great song W.O.L.D. (about a regretful DJ), Harry Chapin sings:

“Sometimes I get this crazy dream to just drive off in my car

But you can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are”

In other words, we ‘carry the world inside our head’ – regardless of where we live or our external circumstances. In terms of building happiness, gaining confidence is Job #1. This is not narcissism or false bravado. It’s about building an inner security, a quiet self-belief. And, here’s the bonus. If you acquire this, you have a good chance of passing on confidence to your kids through role modeling.If confidence is on your worry agenda, do something to fix it.

Some people are so busy rescuing others, that they don’t look after themselves. In your mission to ‘save the world’, working on yourself is an excellent starting point. As they say in the airline safety demonstrations: Put your own mask on first.


Ps Lighter Notes: Eclectic mix of stuff today… from the pen of Aidan Cahill (look away now if you are sensitive…) 

A Woman’s Dog is Drowning in the Sea. A passing German Dwarf

dives in, pulls out the Dog, resuscitates it & saves its life.

“Are you a Little Vet?” Asked the Woman

“A Little Vet?” said the German Dwarf. “I’m f**king soaked”!

Blond Jokes (Brunettes secretly love them): A blonde gets a job as a teacher. She notices a boy in the field standing alone, while all the other kids are running around having fun. She takes pity on him and wanders across the yard.

‘You ok?’ she says.

‘Yep.’ he says.

‘You can go and play with the other kids you know.’ she says.

‘It’s best I stay here.’ he says.

‘Why?’ says the blonde.

The boy says: ‘Because, I’m the goalie’

Tim O Neill suggested the following Oxymoron’s…

  • Clearly misunderstood
  • Exact estimate
  • Small crowd
  • Pretty ugly
  • Only choice
  • Act naturally
  • Found missing
  • Fully empty
  • Seriously funny
  • Original copies
  • Happily married (that’s his personal favourite)

 From Cillian Mooney (there’s hope for that lad yet!).

 Wife says to her Programmer husband: “Go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, buy a dozen.” The husband returned with 12 loaves of bread.

 My friend said to me: “What rhymes with Orange?” I replied: “No, it doesn’t.”

“I told my girlfriend she drew her eyebrows too high. She seemed surprised.”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.

Posted in Building Confidence | Leave a comment