The Leadership Conundrum: Doing the Right Thing Takes Effort

In Portugal, Nicole (our youngest) was doing an overnight at Pony Camp. Linda and I had a ‘night off’ and could eat where we wanted to – for a change. Duas Passoes is a recently renovated fish restaurant, affording beautiful sea and sunset views. Having pre-holiday made a vow to ‘eat healthily’, this was my moment to shine. I chose Dorado from the extensive fish menu. It never occurred to me to ask how it would be served…

Full-On: When the fish arrived, I started to work on it. Hey, no-one told me that Dorado have 15,267 bones (something like that anyway). I’m not sure if this would be labeled a gastronomic experience. More like a practice session for an intricate branch of micro-surgery. To make matters worse, I couldn’t remember if Linda understood the subtleties of the Heimlich Manoeuver. After a half bottle of Pino Grigio, I wasn’t confident of a well-executed rescue (assuming she’d want to perform this). I ended up essentially ‘pulping the fish’ into a sort of baby food consistency to avoid choking. The next night, I had a burger,  focusing on conversation rather than evisceration. I know, I know. Philistine.

Management Rewards: It struck me afterwards that the same broad principle applies in management. Most managers want to ‘have the rewards’ but some are not prepared to invest the time to get this. Often they are afraid of the unpopularity of the quest. They look for easy solutions, low hanging fruit, quick fixes – the ‘fast management’ equivalent of fast food. It’s reminiscent of the quip from Charles Handy: “Governments often know what they should do, but not how to get re-elected after doing it” (The Second Curve). But, as managers, we don’t have to get ‘re-elected’ so we can’t use that particular excuse. Most of us have not cultivated what the author Tim Ferriss described as: “Developing  the habit of letting small bad things happen.” (in order to stay focused on BIG issues).

Doing the right thing requires effort. Sometimes very unpopular effort. The best leaders understand the need to install ‘water meters’ and then figure out how to make them work. You can’t select the ‘nice bits’ of your job, pushing the other bits to the side of the plate and ignoring them. Leadership is a package of elements – not all of them palatable. We all enjoy  the ‘fillet of leadership.’ But figuring out how to remove the bones is why we’re paid the big bucks. And that’s what makes our jobs so fantastically interesting. When you tackle the difficult issues, the intellectual and emotional stretch felt is both a frustration and a reward. It presupposes that you’ve ‘chosen’ the right issue from the managerial menu.  In the poem: ‘The Time Before Death’, Kabir offers one great line: “If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think ghosts will do it after?”

Go out there and don’t be afraid. Fillet that fish!


Quick Apology: The last ‘blog communication’ sent was a repeat of an earlier communication. I could blame a technical hitch or some outsource provider – but it was my own fault. Sorry about any confusion caused and thanks for keeping up with the blogs.

True Story: Giving Feedback (Ouch!) My brother Anthony, coaches a junior soccer team in Winnipeg. The main coach, a Scottish guy, is what might be described as a straight shooter. He has tons of experience coaching soccer at all levels. During one team meeting, this young kid wouldn’t stop asking questions. “Can I play up front?”: “We’ll see”; “I could play in the middle”: “We’ll work it out!”; “I used to play at left-full. That would be a good position for me”: The coach, exasperated, said: “Listen kid, someday you are going to go home and all the lights will be out in your house because your parents will have moved and not told you!”

PS Lighter Note: Some Sayings These are the printable versions…

  • If at first you don’t succeed, blame your parents.
  • Money can’t buy happiness. It can, however, rent it.
  • A financial wizard is someone who lives within their income.

Yorkshire Humour: Sticking with the international flavour, how about a couple from Yorkshire…

The Cat: Man from Yorkshire takes his cat to the vet: “Ay up, lad, I need to talk to thee about me cat.”

Vet: “Is it a tom?”

Yorkshireman: “Nay, I’ve browt it with us.”

The Dog: 
A Yorkshireman’s dog dies. As it was a favourite pet he decides to have a gold statue made by a Jeweller to help him remember the dog.

Yorkshireman: “Can tha mek us a gold statue of yon dog?”

 Jeweller: “Do you want it 18 carat?”

Yorkshireman: “No I want it chewin’ a bone yer daft F**K!”

The Chemist: Bloke from Barnsley with piles asks a chemist: “Nah then lad, does tha sell arse cream?”

 Chemist replies: “Yes, Magnum or Cornetto?”

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


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Training Tricks: Keeping Everyone ‘On Board’

Training course participants have become ever-more sophisticated consumers. It’s the ‘MTV’ generation – an expectation of sound & vision, content and entertainment. They want lots of time to catch up on emails; some want to ‘stay connected’ to the Mother Ship at all times – pleading either importance (“You’ve no idea how much pressure I’m under”) or crisis (“If we don’t get this deal over the line, we’ll be wallpapering the factory with P45’s”). It’s tricky to manage. Participants on training programmes are essentially customers and have to be respected. But…having people coming and going can be disruptive – both for them and for others on the course. While there’s no absolute answer to this dilemma – in the past I’ve distributed the following note to new people joining a programme. See what you make of it…

Nxxdxd Vxry Much

Xvxn though my typxwritxr is an old modxl, it works quitx wxll xxcxpt for onx kxy. Thxrx arx 46 kxys that function wxll xnough, but just onx not working makxs thx diffxrxncx.

Somxtimxs it sxxms that training groups arx somxwhat likx my typxwritxr. Not all thx kxys arx functioning propxrly. You may say:

“Wxll, I am only onx pxrson. It won’t makx much diffxrxncx”

 But, you sxx, to bx xffxctivx thx group nxxds thx activx participation of xvxry pxrson.

So, thx nxxt timx you think you arx only onx pxrson and that your xffort is not nxxdxd, rxmxmbxr my old typxwritxr and say to yoursxlf:

“I am a kxy pxrson and am nxxdxd vxry much”

Your Team: You don’t have to be a trainer to use this idea. Perhaps its time to tell your own crew – that everyone needs to ‘get back on the oars’.


PS Lighter Note: What’s for Lunch?

A large organization had recently hired several cannibals. After conducting a lengthy ‘Welcome Aboard’ orientation the Human Resource Director congratulated the cannibals and said, “You are all part of the team now! You get all of the benefits we have discussed and you can enjoy our company cafe free of charge! But please don’t eat any of the other employees.” The cannibals promised they wouldn’t.

After a few weeks the cannibal’s boss seemed very pleased, but also a little worried. She said: “You’re all working very hard, and I’m satisfied with you. However, one of our secretaries has disappeared. Do any of you know what happened to her?”

The cannibals all shook their heads, “No.”

After the boss had left, the leader of the cannibals was a bit angry and said, “Okay, which one of you dummies ate the secretary?” A hand rose hesitantly in admission.

“You fool!” said the Chief: “For weeks we’ve been eating managers and no one noticed anything, but no, you had to go and eat someone important!”

Inspirational Messages for you and your team…

If you do a good job and work hard, you may get a better job… someday.

The light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off due to budget cuts.

Doing a job RIGHT the first time gets the job done. Doing the job WRONG 14 times gives you job security.

Rome didn’t create a great empire by having meetings. They did it by killing all those that opposed them.

We put the “k” in “kwality”.

Teamwork means never having to take all the blame yourself.

Suggested lunchtime conversation with Millennials: “The elevator to success is out-of-order. You will have to take the stairs i.e. one step at a time.”

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


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Working From Home: Upsides & Downsides

Calvin Klein Boxers. Your only man for home workers!

The call from RTE came at 18:00 on Thursday evening. Could I do a ‘slot’ on the following Saturday morning? The Topic: Working from home. In the radio business ‘long-range planning’ extends to about 48 hours – so it’s not unusual to get a last-minute call to action. The industrial relations consultant Dr. Liam Doherty (he’s great fun) argues that the only reason for going on radio is to keep someone else off air. So I said yes – and had to scramble to pull something together.

Not A New idea: Working from home is hardly a revolutionary new idea. The system where Merchants ‘put out’ materials to be worked on in the home was in place for hundreds of years. It changed in the 18th Century when the advent of steam made it economically viable to bring people into central locations (factories) to harness this new power. The banks and insurance companies later ‘aped’ this structure and essentially became the white-collar factories that they are today.

Personal Story: When I started working as a management consultant, we operated from a shared office on Northumberland Road in Ballsbridge. 20+ years ago, consulting was an ‘image business’ and you needed a good address – to make it seem that you weren’t coming up with brilliant ideas in your box bedroom. With the advent of the Internet, people now regularly work from home (or from Starbucks) and customers may actually resent ‘paying the overhead’ on a glamorous city centre office. So, should more people be encouraged to work from home? To come to a reasoned conclusion – you have to weight up the advantages & disadvantages from the employee and the company perspective. Here’s some ideas…

Employee Perspective

Shorter Commuting: Huge savings in time and in money e.g. petrol, wear & tear on a car. Example: A recent commute from Clontarf to Castleknock (about 10 miles) took me 2 hours in the Dublin traffic. That’s a lot of dead time if you had to do this every single day.

Less Stress: Stress is not the absolute amount of work you do – but the sense that you are in control of this. Psychologically, people feel more in control working from home – even for 1 day a week. Being able to run errands e.g. to pop around to the Supermarket – if you need to – decreases stress (and increases productivity).

Dress Code: You can ‘work happily in your dog walking gear’ (albeit some people still like to don the uniform). Less dry-cleaning bills! Less make-up (my lipstick bill has fallen dramatically).

Family Contact: There’s an opportunity to see more of your family e.g. have lunch with your partner. For working women, in particular, it might lower the guilt thermometer (a tiny bit; that needle seems pretty ‘stuck’).

Personal Space: Your home office can have a great layout. Put the copier where you want it, blast out Michael Bublé or fill the walls with pictures of your Granny skydiving. Offices can be noisy places.  In one of the Big 5 legal firms in Dublin – the desks are so close, staff are offered earmuffs to help them work in peace (I’m not joking).

Lower Costs: Commuting costs and food (lunch at €10 per day = €2500 pa = €4K gross). You can probably shave some costs by making your own skinny latte.

Downside for Staff: It’s not all good news. There’s a couple of counter-indicators:

Great Tools: People think that having access to high Internet speeds is only a problem in rural Ireland. A friend recently bought a new house in Rathfarnham and he had to drive to the local pub to get the Internet for almost 6 months. I know, I know. It sounds like a line from Father Ted – but this was actually the case.

Mental Health: Like Chimpanzees, humans enjoy social groupings. Some of our mental health comes from positive interaction with others. My guess is that this applies even more to younger workers who enjoy the social aspects of working. If you already have a solid social circle – e.g. 3 kids and 2 goldfish, then this may not be as important.

Always On: Working from home requires a degree of discipline to avoid some spill-over (a) you are ‘always on’ and never off work – albeit this point can also apply to office workers (b) Some people find it hard to ‘get going’ and keep putting on another wash, or spend the afternoon watching Jeremy Kyle. It’s useful to establish boundaries around this. It might seem a bit harsh, but I never encouraged my kids to come into the office during the day – unless it was something important. The Internet video that went viral (the guy completing the Skype interview in Korea) shows the importance of having boundaries.

Hidden Costs: There can be ‘hidden costs e.g. who’s responsible for computer maintenance and stationary? What about heat and light? Sometimes, people are overjoyed to ‘get the gig at home’ and don’t contract well around this.

Lower Visibility: One BIG (but hidden) downside is that home workers can become ‘invisible.’ They don’t know the inside gossip and opportunities. As a result, they can be by-passed or overlooked. Don’t hide your talent under a bushel!

Employer Perspective: From an employer’s perspective, what’s the skinny? Well – surprise surprise, there are also advantages and disadvantages to be navigated.

Higher Productivity: A recent HBR article found that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than staff in the office —meaning that the employer got almost an extra day a week in productivity. Less distractions. Less sick days + shorter breaks = a win-win solution.

Lower Costs: 70 Square foot per person costs between €4,000 and €16,000 per annum, depending on the office location and fit out. Some companies now use a Hot Desk system where people don’t have individualized spaces but ‘plug and play’ from a free slot – in much the same way as we rent hotel rooms for a single night. By rotating days off, the employer needs less office space and can save significant costs.

It’s Possible: Technology for conference calls is getting better and cheaper. A variety of mobile technologies (laptops, mobile phones) have made this possible. But just because a technology is available, doesn’t mean that people will use it. Some people don’t use Skype – not because of the technology – but because they don’t like looking at a picture of themselves on the screen (before i get a flood of emails – I know you can turn this off).

Staff Retention: People are reluctant to ‘go back’ to a full 9-5 commute. Offering employer differentiation can lead to reduced turnover. While the cost of labour turnover is seldom measured –  substantial recruitment and training lead times represent an enormous cost in some businesses.  In the War for Talent – getting good people can really give you an edge. Working from home – even for part of the week – might just be a lure.

Downside for Employers

Ceding Control: The biggest downside for Managers is learning to let go. There are some Dinosaur Managers who want people at their desk every single day at the crack of dawn. It’s presenteeism. Some years back, I completed a project in Pakistan Railways for the World Bank. Outside one of the offices, I noticed a guy continually pressing the same key on an old-fashioned typewriter. He’d actually worn out one key on the typewriter from ‘false typing’ trying to look busy. The exact same point applies in all companies. Unless they complete a very measurable job e.g. writing X lines of computer code, it’s impossible to fully ‘supervise’ knowledge workers – people with enormous discretion about how they perform their role.  ‘They’re at their desk, therefore I’m in control’ is a nonsense idea.

Lower Innovation: A lot of innovation is driven by team-working and shared spaces/collaboration. Some of this can be planned. Some is ad-hoc and can be lost when people work from home. Arguably, some productivity is driven by competition with peers and this may also be sacrificed (solution: plan central ‘events’ that everyone attends).

Information Security: You have to ensure that the systems being used are data protected e.g. the transfer of emails, access to files by visitors to the home and so on.

Organising Meetings: It can be tricky to line up all the diaries. This is sometimes done through mandatory attendance on particular days e.g. Wednesday.

The Conclusion: Overall, I’m sold on the idea that staff should work from home a couple of days a week where this is possible. Great work can be done in almost any location.   Just recently, I did an excellent job for a client (even if I say so myself) – while sitting in McDonalds in Finglas sipping a skinny latte. The quality of the work is seldom a function of the decor of the office (unless the place is really bad). The upsides of working from home (at least some of the time), far outweigh the downsides. Why not try it on an experimental basis and then make up your own mind.


PS Lighter Notes: From Aidan Cahill: Yearly Dementia Test! (only 4 questions this year). Yep, it’s that time of year again for us to take our annual senior citizen test. Exercise of the brain is as important as exercise of the muscles. As we grow older, it’s important to keep mentally alert. Use it or lose it!

Here’s a very private way to gauge how your memory compares to your last test. Some may think it is too easy, but the ones with memory problems may have difficulty. Take this test to determine if you’re losing it or not. The spaces below are so you don’t see the answers until you’ve answered.

OK, RELAX now, clear your mind and begin.

#1. What do you put in a toaster?


Answer: ‘Bread.’ If you said ‘toast’, just give up now and go do something else. And, try not to hurt yourself.   If you said, bread, go to Question #2.

 #2. Say ‘silk’ ten times. Now spell ‘silk.’ What do cows drink?

Answer: Cows drink water. If you said ‘milk,’ don’t attempt the next question. Your brain is already over-stressed and may even overheat. Content yourself with reading more appropriate literature such as Women’s Weekly or Auto World. However, if you correctly said ‘water’, proceed to Question #3.


# 3. If a red house is made from red bricks and a blue house is made from blue bricks and a pink house is made from pink bricks and a black house is made from black bricks, what is a green house made from?


Answer: Greenhouses are made from glass. If you said ‘green bricks’, why are you still reading this? PLEASE, go and lie down! But, if you said ‘glass,’ go on to Question #4.

# 4. Please do not use a calculator for this, as it would be cheating:

You are driving a bus from New York City to Philadelphia.

In Staten Island, 17 people got on the bus.

In New Brunswick, 6 people get off the bus and 9 people get on.

In Windsor, 2 people get off and 4 get on.

In Trenton, 11 people get off and 16 people get on.

In Bristol, 3 people get off and 5 people get on.

And, in Camden, 6 people get off and 3 get on.

You then arrive at Philadelphia Station.

Without going back to review, how old is the bus driver?

Answer: Oh, for crying out loud! Don’t you remember your own age? It was YOU driving the bus! If you pass this along to your friends, pray they do better than you.

PS: 95% of people fail most of the questions! Sorry for all the spaces. You’d be tempted to cheat otherwise.   If you had fun with this, send it on; I did.

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


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Get some ‘R&R’: Building Routines & Resilience

Build Resilience in yourself and in your Kids!

The Hunt for My Pullover: In Ireland we call them Pullovers or Jumpers.   Preferably made from pure wool, it’s the single best way to keep the damp at bay, during the 9-month weather period (October to June) in Ireland when the major meteorological change is the intensity of the rain.

Purple Rain: On this particular Tuesday, I definitely needed a Pullover. It had been raining steadily for 22 hours. The wind was howling in from somewhere east of St. Petersburg. To make matters worse, I’d forgotten to put the office heat on ‘timer’ and the place was colder than a Polar Bears’ testicle. Chained to the computer to finish a report, I was feeling sorry for myself. Whatever the opposite of a Purple patch is, this was it. Something had to be done. Fast.

No Chocolate: It was mid-way through the Catholic period known as Lent – the 6-week run in to Easter. While no-one in our house is religious, Linda keeps a fasting tradition going as a form of self-discipline – with a complete ban on chocolate during Lent. It’s a hard rule to enforce. For example, I could just put €6 of petrol into the car and have a sneaky Mars bar 7 times a week in the garage during refills. But, that solution seems like hard work. Meanwhile, Linda keeps herself busy – buying multiple Easter Eggs for our kids/her nieces/nephews/mother and stacking them in full view on the Mantelpiece in the ‘good room.’   And, like that Oscar Wilde quip, “I can resist anything except temptation.” On such a gloomy day, I definitely needed a fix.

The Raid: The most important thing when launching a stealth mission is to bear in mind the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shall not get caught.” While this may sound self-congratulatory, it actually required quite a bit of dexterity. Maneuvering my left hand through the tiny gap in the bottom of a Galaxy Easter egg and wriggling out the enclosed packet of Minstrels. A slight bend, but not a single tear in the cardboard box. Result! However, the main problem with chocolate is that it tastes like more. Outside, the rain was lashing down, with not a glimmer of hope. There was nothing else for it – but to go back in again. You have to be brave.  That’s what I always say!

Reflection Time: Answer me this: Have you ever (since you were 7+ years old) eaten a huge Easter Egg in a single sitting, wolfing it down in case anyone entered the room and you’d be caught red-handed? I felt queasy for about 12 hours – the potent combination of an upset stomach intertwined with remorse about being weak-willed. Hey, I’m guessing that your empathy may not be in overdrive right now. Perhaps you are busily recalling the wonderfully evocative phrase: “Serves you f***ing right!”

Managerial Discipline: Great managers, in my experience are highly disciplined. Of course, there’s some genius about – people able to foretell market futures, invent computing languages or come up with something equally exotic. But most managerial careers are built on discipline, not inspiration. Woody Allen said: “80% percent of success is just showing up.I believe it. You start by learning to manage yourself and you eventually lead others. So, how exactly do you ‘manage yourself’?

Routines & Resilience: By developing routine processes and sticking to them. By working hard and ‘trusting that the process will deliver.’ By taking account of what other people say and coming back to them – whether the answer is a Yes or a No. By positive self-talk which doesn’t allow you to be moany, embracing a ‘woe-is-me’ narrative – becoming addicted to your own misery. And by resisting metaphorical Easter Eggs that come in the shape of ‘sick days’, taking it ‘handy’ or otherwise slacking off the rope. William Wallace said: “Every man dies, but not every man truly lives” (I’ll make the working assumption that he meant that to apply to women too). Most of the successful people I’ve bumped up against to date, have two things in common. The first is that they exercise personal discipline. Hard work. Routine. Focus. The second thing is that they don’t buckle when (some) things inevitably go south. They have mastered the art of resilience – by building on previous triumphs (which are like credits in the bank) and by understanding that not everything in life goes swimmingly well. They know that 92% is as good as it gets.

Cast Iron? It’s not a cast-iron success formula. Some people deal with awful health issues, for themselves or close family members. Accidents can ruin lives. And so on. The notion that we have full control is a myth. But the opposite notion – that we have no control – is a much more destructive myth. If you can develop a powerful routine and wrap some personal resilience around that – you are well on the road to success. The bonus point is that you’ll be as happy as a hammer in a nail factory.

Too Late? Perhaps it seems too late to start all this stuff? You might be 30, or 40, or 53 and feel that things haven’t  gone so well to date? May I suggest that you steal shamelessly from the JK Rowling line: “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” 

So, how should you respond when someone says they don’t believe this “You are the CEO of your own life bullshit?”  Tell them (honestly) that you’ve yet to meet a rich cynic!


PS Lighter Note:

Last Will and Testament: Dave Smith is on his deathbed and knows the end is near. His nurse, his wife, his daughter and 2 sons are with him at the hospice in London. He asks for 2 independent witnesses to be present and a camcorder to be in place to record his last wishes. When all is ready he begins to speak:

“My son, Bernard, I want you to take the Mayfair houses.”

“My daughter, Sybil, you take the apartments over in the East end.”

“My son, Jamie, I want you to take the offices over in the City.”

“Sarah, my dear wife, please take all the residential buildings on the banks of the Thames.”

The nurse and witnesses are blown away. He’d seemed like a very ordinary guy and they had no idea of the extent of his holdings. As Dave slips away, the nurse says to his wife:

“Mrs. Smith, my deepest condolences.  Your husband must have been such a hard-working and wonderful man to have accumulated all this property…”

“Property?” she replies.

“The arsehole had a window cleaning round.”

From John Mc Glynn: Marriage is like a deck of cards.  In the beginning all you need is two hearts and a diamond. 
By the end you’ll wish you had a club and a spade!

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

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‘WHEN A NEW MANAGER TAKES CHARGE’: Deciding the Pace of Entry

“I just need to get a handle on this new industry”

Believe it or not, when I was younger I was interested in keeping fit (I still have the body of a 32 year old obese man). Pounding all those roads on long runs, we learned one key lesson. It was critically important to start at the correct pace. For long distances, I normally ran an 8-minute mile and could keep going forever. But if the pace speeded up to, say, 7.5 minutes or slowed to 9 minutes a mile, I flagged and had to quit. The pace had to be exactly right. The same basic point applies to new managers joining an organization.

New Managers: Almost all New Managers suffer from ‘joining anxiety’ and want to do things quickly. I’ve seen many CEO’s who start out like Usain Bolt and run out of steam (you can’t run a 4-minute mile over a long distance). So, how do you decide the correct ‘pace’ of entry? While it’s not an exact science, see what you make of the following story…

Doug Meyer: In North America, a pharmaceutical company manufactured and marketed Consumer Health Products. When the President of the division moved on, the search began for a replacement. Within Colgate-Palmolive Doug Meyer had steadily moved through a classic marketing career and was approached about the job. From his perspective, the job offered a number of distinct benefits:

  • It was a ‘line’ rather than a staff job; Meyer definitely saw himself as a line manager.
  • It offered a ‘turnaround’ challenge. In his own words: “Where’s the fun in taking over a successful company. All you can do is hope not to screw it up.”

In many ways he wasn’t the perfect fit. Meyer had spent all of his working life in Colgate-Palmolive. Within the pharmaceutical industry, 18 years in the same company was deemed negative (‘narrow experience’) rather than positive (company loyalty).

First 100 Days: Meyer, quietly, began to prepare his entry strategy. He knew that ‘maintenance of the status quo’ wasn’t the way forward e.g. a slow ‘evolution’ back into positive numbers followed by incremental business growth. Having observed many new leaders, Myers knew that an ‘everything-that-happened-in-the-past-is-wrong-this-is-the-way-it’s-going-to-be’ stance was a sure-fire method to lose the loyalty of the existing team. He had an informal inventory of ‘entry strategies’ which he had seen work well in the past, including some personal mistakes. A former boss had counseled: “British people are not Americans. Talk softer. Be less blunt. Take it step-by-step.” A stint on the U.K. had taught him that a missionary zeal strategy could be inappropriate; the analytical British stance was superior, or at least a good counter-weight, to his own natural sense of urgency. The dilemma: how to make an entrance which communicated I’ve arrived while at the same time ensuring he don’t upstage the existing players.

The Coalface: He quickly moved into the field – completing store checks in Chicago and Philadelphia with the sales force. It was a long time since the divisional President had spent time doing store checks and the grapevine went into overdrive. The event, in part consciously designed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the sales team, had an immediate impact. One of the senior executives commented: “It sent a great message to the group. It gained Doug instant respect. This guy was listening.”

When Is a Bear Not a Bayer? Prior to Meyers’ appointment, a new commercial for Bayer Aspirin had been developed. The advertisement featured a bear suffering from a headache. On taking a Bayer tablet, happiness was restored! The ‘Bayer on Bear’ theme seemed like particularly clever word play and the marketing group were pumped on the commercial; it just needed sign-off. During the second week in the new job, Meyer was shown the commercial. His instinctive reaction was negative – on the basis that it promoted a happy association with the Bayer name but did little to differentiate the product in terms of efficacy. He now faced a dilemma. Should he throw his support behind a commercial he was personally uncomfortable with in order to show solidarity with his team? Or should he be authentic, state his underlying discomfort and try to work out something different (a commercial is the visual realisation of a concept; if the basic concept is flawed…). As part of his ‘entry strategy’, Meyer had made a conscious decision to support the existing team in what they were doing. In what Meyer described as a ‘get on the train’ philosophy, he decided to support the ‘Bear’ commercial.

A Product Of Our Past: Meyer, the youngest of two brothers, grew up in Scarsdale, Westchester, a thirty minute train ride north of Manhattan. Scarsdale, sometimes labelled ‘the richest town in the U.S.A.’, is not short of high achievers. With an extremely intelligent elder brother and three academic cousins (who lived locally) Meyers’ peer group set the bar high. Surrounded by academic achievers, he found his forte in American Football and Baseball and began to differentiate himself on the basis of physical prowess. Whether to overcome these early peer pressures or as a feature of some innate drive, his early and continuing life was marked by a strong need for achievement. At university he blossomed in economics. College led to graduate school and eventually an M.B.A. (Economics Major). And, this is the part I really like. He achieved this despite dealing with severe dyslexia (which he is quite open about).

Bias For Action: Meyer had a strong belief that failure based on genuine effort is acceptable; if you never fail you never try. One of his stories concerns Babe Ruth, the all time great baseball player. A little known fact is that in 1927, the year that Babe Ruth led the league in Home Runs (a record 60) he also led in strike-outs. The moral of the story was that strike-outs are acceptable – as long as you are ‘swinging the bat’. “I came here to swing the bat. Not having a clue about this business allowed me to swing and miss. The same goes for everyone around here.”  

I watched his progress from a distance. He positioned himself as playing two roles. Firstly, Doug Meyer, the marketer, a participant in discussions; secondly, that of Company President. In the early days people found it difficult to respond to this i.e. to understand which hat he was wearing (the dual role notion caused initial confusion). It was not easy to neatly ‘box’ this guy into a conventional category. When you remove people’s security they focus on C.Y.A. strategies, politicking and endless deliberations of the ‘what ifs’ – the adult equivalent of removing a child’s comfort blanket. In the meantime, the only one focusing on the business is the competition! Creating insecurity is a sure way to deflect the available time onto non-productive issues and Meyer made strong initial efforts to assure people that his job was to restore the business rather than scapegoat past efforts. It was a Masterclass in a positive entry strategy.

Meyer’s third week in office coincided with a strategic planning meeting held in Amelia Island, Florida to set the ‘strategic direction’ for the company. The various elements of the strategic process (mission statement, goal areas, objectives, strategies and action plans) were new to Meyer; the mechanics of the meeting to debate/draft a ‘new framework’ seemed clumsy. It seemed that an inordinate amount of time was spent ‘wordsmithing’ and not enough on bold strokes; the means to achievement (the Strategic Plan) seemed to have become an end in itself. The meeting moved along for a couple of days, with sub-groups painstakingly piecing the elements of the jigsaw together. Although new to the company, Meyer could sense the almost religious zeal with which the Strategic Framework was regarded and was reluctant to be critical of the process. However, inwardly, he felt a growing sense of unease.

In a move which could best be described as ‘part fact, but mostly faith’, Myers announced to a stunned audience that their strategic goal should be to build a half-billion dollar business. This represented an enormous 14% compound growth rate over the 5 year planning period, an outrageous target. Whether due to his enthusiasm, the significance of the $500,000,000 or simply the intense heat of the Florida sun, the figure was embraced by the group. It marked a crucial turning point and the meeting became much more up-beat, positive and optimistic. Within four weeks, the group had developed an ‘upside strategic plan’ of $600 million; the half billion vision had become a ‘floor’ rather than a ‘ceiling’ of achievement.

Bottom Line: Oh to swim close to confident leadership. It’s a thing of beauty. Deciding how you will enter a new role is a surprisingly important moment in time. Don’t underestimate the impact of what you do and say in the early days.


PS Lighter Note: Did you go to a catholic school? Some BIBLICAL REVELATIONS from a Catholic elementary school are listed below. Kids were asked questions about the Old and New Testament. The following statements, written by children, have not been retouched or corrected (incorrect spelling has been left as is.)

  • In the first book of the bible, Guinness, God got tired of creating the world, so he took the Sabbath off.
  • Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark. Noah built an ark, which the animals come on to in pears.
  • Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night.
  • The Jews were a proud people and throughout history they had trouble with unsympathetic Genitals.
  • Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten ammendments.
  • The first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple.
  • The seventh commandment is thou shalt not admit adultery.
  • Moses died before he ever reached Canada.
  • The greatest miracle in the Bible is when Joshua told his son to stand still and he obeyed.
  • The people who followed the Lord were called the 12 decibels.
  • The epistles were the wives of the apostles.
  • Paul cavorted to Christianity. He preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage.
  • Christians have only one spouse. This is called monotony.

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


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Post-Mortems: Are you working in a ‘Learning Organisation’?

Making Mistakes - Post Mortems Needed

Making Mistakes – Post Mortems Needed

Played golf recently with a property developer. He’s a solid bloke who lost all of his money (and a little bit of ours as well) during the fall of the Celtic Tiger. In a dramatic period of boom and bust, Ireland entered our version of the great depression. Jobs lost, houses lost, confidence lost in a ‘Celtic Car Crash’ that witnessed enormous swings in wealth creation and depletion. Everyone has a story of ‘how it all went wrong’ and a strong belief about ‘why it went wrong’. One guy told me he had no money at the start of the Celtic tiger and didn’t lose any money when it ended, stating: It was a good time to be poor.”  But my golf-loving property developer friend wouldn’t claim it as a good time. It’s hard to be positive about losing your family home when you are now living in a small, rented apartment with no immediate end in sight.

Ecomonics & Psychology: In addition to the economics masterclass, the fall of the Celtic Tiger provides a fascinating study in psychology. At least some element of public interest in the ‘bust’ part of the story is driven by misfortune. While the Germans embrace schaudenfreude, the Irish have always had it’s first-cousin, begrudgery. Property developers and their glamorous partners attending €1,000 a plate charity dinners provide photo opportunities and titillation in equal measure. Like to take Rosanna Davidson to Marrakesh? (move to the end of the long queue on the right). But like the bad guys in a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, the Celtic Kings got their comeuppance. Fortunes gambled and lost. Late night visits to the High Court begging for settlement time. The steep fall from ‘Master of the Universe’ to bankruptcy.

Post Mortems: But, can we actually learn anything from what’s happened and avoid the same trip wires in the future? While learning lessons from things that go wrong sounds smart, in practice it’s extremely difficult. Two roadblocks to learning occur during all crisis periods. The reduction of complexity to simplicity quickly followed by the immediate search for the guilty.

The First Law of Crisis = Reduce Complexity: Economics is a complex subject. Financial market liquidity,  G.D.P. ratios and balance of payment deficits may be great lunchtime conversations in the ESRI, but they are beyond the pale for most of us. Faced with complexity, people default to the ‘dummies guide to economics’, reducing everything to a couple of sound-bites (“A handful of greedy bankers ruined it for all of us”). However, in order to understand what actually happened during the Celtic Tiger Era, we need to wrestle with complexity. Economics is akin to medicine i.e. getting the diagnosis right is kind of important.

The Second Law of Crisis = Find Someone to Blame: The second law of crisis could be labelled as ‘finding someone to blame’. Many of us who had additional money to speculate had our ‘snouts in the trough’ during the Celtic Tiger era and part-share the guilt for what happened. But, it’s much simpler if we can hang the blame on one person or one institution. Having a mental picture of ‘Ireland’s Most Wanted’ allows us to swim away from our own role in the show. Of course there’s an important distinction to be made between searching for financial progress (labelled as greed by some commentators), and criminality. I’m not trying to be an apologist for illegal behaviour. Key point: there’s a collective responsibility here; mistakes were not confined to a handful of high-profile individuals – even if we don’t like that analysis.

While reducing complexity and outsourcing blame are psychologically understandable, they ultimately shield us from learning what really went wrong.  In practice the death of the Celtic Tiger had 4 central players. Banks. Developers. Government. Speculators. Let’s consider the role that each played.

The Role of Wealth Creators: In a modern economy, the dual role of Government is to legislate (control) and re-distribute wealth (care). Wealth redistribution creates a just society, in which disadvantaged or economically marginalised groups can share in the bounty. While there are always arguments about the mechanics of wealth re-distribution, this is generally accepted as a primary Government role. However, in order for wealth redistribution to happen, there has to be a group of people who generate wealth. ‘Wealth Creators’ are the engine of the economy. One argument against capitalisation is that too much wealth is concentrated in the hands of too few people. The ‘solution’ (for those holding an alternative political perspective) is to distribute wealth more equally – an  analysis that neatly sidesteps the fact that no model society exists where this has been accomplished. Capitalism, while undoubtedly imperfect, produces the most benefit, for the most people. Margaret Thatcher said: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money to give away.” Within capitalist societies, wealth creators take risks and get rewards. Sometimes the rewards are huge but the downsides are awful. Like losing your home. There were some tragic personal stories, including suicides, as a result of business losses. Love them or hate them, wealth creators are a key ingredient in a successful modern economy. Where a country has boundless natural wealth (like the abundant oil in Norway), encouraging a wealth creating group may not be quite as important. In Ireland, where the only natural resource is people, wealth creation is fundamental to our economic health.

Exposing Those ‘Evil’ Property Developers: It doesn’t make sense to speak about Property Developers as a homogenous group. Like hill walkers or church bell ringers, property developers come in all shapes and sizes. Some have left a positive legacy in terms of quality architecture and infrastructure; others less so. In Ireland, people are really annoyed that ‘they’ have ended up paying for big gambles made by others. The way this narrative unfolds,  heads the property developers won (if the deals worked), tails the taxpayers lost, picking up the tab for stupid decisions made by others. That’s the bar talk. Is it correct? Like all good stories, there’s an element of truth. During the boom years, I worked on a couple of philanthropic projects supported by Property Developers where sustainable jobs were key upsides. But, putting philanthropy and employment to one side, didn’t property developers lead a frenzy of development, pushing individual unit costs sky high – driving the economy so hard that, like an over-inflated bubble, it eventually burst? Laying the blame for this at the door of property developers is a good sound bite and meets the twin ingredients considered earlier i.e. it is simplistic and has a clear Villain! But accusing property developers of being profit-driven is like accusing foxes of being carnivores – it’s the nature of the beast. More importantly, it completely ignores the group with the most important role in regulating the property market – the Government. To say that the banking regulator was ‘asleep at the switch’ does an injustice to the level of brain activity underway when we are sleeping. Comatose might be closer to the mark.  In my General Electric days we used to say: “You can’t send a technician to do an engineers’ job.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Everyone Needs At Least 3 Houses (Don’t They?): To understand this final point, we need to focus on the place where psychology and economics overlap i.e. behavioural economics. Picture the scene. You have arranged a quiet pint in the local with your best buddy Mick O’Neill.

“Any news Mick?” asked casually.

“A few things bubbled up this week. To be honest, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster.”

“Yeah, like what?”

“Well, I’m just back from Dubai. We couldn’t really afford it, but I put a deposit on a stunning waterfront condominium. Our unit won’t be completed for another 24 months. We will ‘flip it’ at that stage and walk away with a 30% upside. That’s my news. Anyway, how did your week go?”

“Ah…okay” (spit out with barely contained jealousy and rage).

During the Celtic Tiger era, many people overstretched, gambling money they couldn’t afford to lose, sometimes buying ‘off-plan’ properties in countries that they’d never even visited (I wasn’t personally aware that Bulgaria was a hotbed of Irish tourism). Following the property price collapse, capital gains and rental incomes fell through the floor. Property ‘speculators’ (people buying a couple of apartments for their pension funds or for their kids) were badly stung. At the ‘bottom of the property ladder’ individual mortgage holders suffered negative equity and some lost their homes. Rising unemployment combined with inflated purchase prices, put these people in a savage pincer movement. If you have no excess financial capacity, when you lose your shirt there is nothing else in the wardrobe to cover your nakedness. While many property developers are broke, few will be homeless – unlike people with less assets who had no safety net. Lester C. Thurow (The Zero Sum Society) suggests that we can’t argue against the intent: “Economic security is to modern man what a castle and a moat were to medieval man.” But, many people lost perspective on the inherent risk and a lot of bad calls were made.

Untangling Complexity is Difficult: Faced with the bewildering task of untangling the above, most people would take to the bed with a migraine. Rather than wrestling intellectually to understand this, it’s easier to scapegoat a couple of individuals. While Government policy is always in the mix (they are ultimately responsible for drawing up the economic masterplan), blaming an identified person is more potent than lashing out at a ‘process’. Much better to have a real-life, flesh and blood person to slander. While property developers/bankers fulfil this role for many, we were all part of a game that seemed (and was) too good to be true. We collectively forgot the key life lesson that happiness is wanting what you have, rather than having what you want. And we drove blindly over the side of an economic cliff that should have been better signposted.

So What Do We Need to Do Now? Having made several poor calls myself, it seems outrageously arrogant to tell anyone else what do to. But a sense of humility never seems to win (“the meek shall inherit the shit”), so here goes. The key lessons are as follows:

  1. Growth Rates: Economic growth of more than 3% p.a. represents ‘overheating’ and needs to be controlled through fiscal and monetary policy.
  1. Wealth Generation: Wealth creators need to be encouraged – by incentives – on the working assumptions that the tax treatment they receive mirrors that of other sections of society.
  1. Political Leaders: Should adjust public spending to the underlying income streams, i.e. not base it on windfall payments. During boom periods there might be a ‘forced savings’ system whereby the Government keep a fixed % of income for rainy days.
  1. Financial Regulation: The capitalist system can only work when there are a series of checks and balances in place. While a balance needs to be found between ‘light touch’ and ‘bureaucracy’, the system cannot be self-managing (the current pendulum swing to ‘over-control’ is choking business growth).

So What? In business organisations the exact same points apply. Post-mortems need to be forensic and quick, laying simple lessons bare. The truth sets us free. If we could learn from the mistakes made during the Celtic Tiger era, the most expensive lesson in Irish history may have been worth the price. But, it’s easier to reduce complexity into bite-sized chunks. At a political level, where people have to get re-elected to hold onto their jobs, that’s not admirable (but it’s perhaps understandable). At an organisation level, where you hold an executive role, it isin’t. Don’t run away from the lessons that can be gleamed from mistakes. Mistakes have the power to turn us into something better (assuming we don’t repeat them). Institutionalise post-mortems in your organisation. Examine the bodies – before you bury them.


PS Lighter Notes: A couple of 1-liners on ‘mistakes’ to go with the this week’s theme…

*A married man should forget his mistakes. There’s no use in two people remembering the same thing.

*Thanks for explaining the word ‘many’ to me. It means a lot.

*I’ve been repeating the same mistakes for so long now, I’m starting to call them traditions.

*If you really want to know about mistakes, ask your parents.

*Turning vegan is a big missed steak.

*Some people learn from the mistakes of others. The rest of us get to play the part of ‘the others’.

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

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Managing Executive Transitions

Enda - the road

Enda – the road

One time Unionist MP for South Down, Enoch Powell, is famous for his so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech delivered in 1968 when he stated: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure…”

The scenario usually plays out as follows. A senior politician makes an error of judgment and gets fired from the front bench. In Ireland, people seldom voluntarily resign over mishaps – they’re normally pushed. The evidence? There are so many examples of political careers ending in failure, it’s difficult to know where to start. One of the more colorful was the British Cabinet Minister David Mellor who famously had an affair with Antonia de Sancha. The relationship, conducted over an intensive 3 months, is probably best remembered for the image of Mellor wearing the Chelsea football gear to ‘score’ in the bedroom, which later turned out to be a fabrication concocted by the celebrity publicist Max Clifford. I prefer the Barcelona strip myself (it can get Messi). Yes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Irish Politicians: In the case of Irish political leaders, the ‘end of reign’ is normally a tad less colorful. Their demise coincides with party members coming to a view that the Dear Leader has ‘overstayed her/his welcome’ and needs to be replaced with someone more electable. Of course, the person who normally disagrees vehemently with this analysis is the leader being deposed. Politicians cling to power with a grip that would make a Silverback Gorilla jealous.

Succession Planning: Is there a parallel to this in the business world? In the best-managed companies, leadership transitions are typically planned and outwardly less traumatic. I’ve had the privilege of working with several retiring Senior Executives and CEO’s, helping them to manage their end-of-career transition and confirm the following: less public doesn’t always mean less painful. The good news is that executives who’ve managed to climb the greasy organization pole are normally financially secure. The mortgage is paid;  money pressures are light or non-existent. Those looking enviously from the sidelines envisage former CEO’s saying goodbye to long hours and hello to the Irish Times over a lunchtime full strength Guinness. It all looks rosy – except to the person facing into what can be a very uncertain chapter in their life.

Final Chapter: While we all experience the normal moans around good health, the final chapter throws up additional worries for former executives. Will I still be a player? (depends on how you define your life goals). Will I still have some influence in my old organization? (forget that: there’s nothing as ex as an ex). Will I be remembered? (yes: normally for about 3 weeks). Will I be able to fully ‘let go’? (you’ll have to – assuming that you want to stay mentally healthy). One CEO I know had more ‘going away parties’ than Elizabeth Taylor had honeymoons. Some years on, he’s still ‘stuck in the past’. Every single conversation leads back to “When I worked in Company X.” It’s sad. If you want to read about managing the final chapter in your life – track down the brilliant Chasing Daylight – subtitled ‘How My forthcoming Death Changed My life’ – by Eugene Kelly. Or you can work with an Executive Coach to help plot the course. Or, God Forbid, even punch in some ‘thinking time’ and DIY. Whatever method you choose, make sure that you plan the next phase of your life before it sneaks up on you. My brother Tony said he recently walked past the bedroom mirror and wondered how a small, baldy, fat guy had broken into his house! I know that feeling.

The Message: Make your executive transition plan-ful.   Don’t end your final chapter with a ‘bitter after-taste’ which can taint a lifetime of success. ‘Walk-the-plank’ voluntarily rather than waiting to be pushed.


Thought for the Week: This anonymous quote struck a chord…“The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.” 

PS Some Lighter notes …

Regular naps prevent old age, especially if you take them while driving.

Retirement is the time in your life when time is no longer money.

Somewhere an elderly lady reads a book on how to use the internet, while a young boy Googles ‘how to read a book.’

A woman came home to find her retired husband waving a rolled up newspaper round his head.

Wife: “What are you doing dear?”  

Husband: “Swatting flies. I got three males and two females”

Wife: “How on Earth do you know which gender they were?” 

Husband: “Easy: three were on the beer, and the other two were on the phone.”

 Question: How do you know you’re old enough to retire?

Answer: Instead of lying about your age, you start bragging about it!

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

Posted in Executive Coaching | 2 Comments