Finding Your Passion: Is there a ‘Magic Formula?’

Chances are that the topic of ‘discovering your passion in life’ is not new to you.  It’s a common phrase that people toss about. The connotation is that this will be unveiled to us in some way. Like that apple which hit Isaac Newton just before he articulated the laws of gravity, our passion will ‘hit us on the head’ sometime when we least expect it.  I’m not convinced.

Not Passive: Dave Isay, founder of a company called StoryCorps, also takes issue with the idea that ‘finding your calling’ is passive: “When people have found their calling, they’ve made tough decisions and sacrifices in order to do the work they were meant to do.”  You don’t ‘find’ your calling — you have to fight for it. And it’s worth it. “People who’ve found their calling have a fire about them,”says Isay, the winner of the 2015 TED Prize. “They’re the people who are dying to get up in the morning and go do their work.”

Common Pattern:  After a decade of listening to personal interviews, Isay noticed similarities in how people discovered their calling. He’s collected dozens of these stories and detailed these in his book: Callings: The Purpose and Passion of WorkHere’s a summary of the insights…

  1. Venn Diagram: Your calling lies at the intersection of a Venn diagram (3 overlapping circles): doing something you’re good at; feeling appreciated; believing your work is making people’s lives better. “When those three things line up, it’s like lightning,” Isay says. A central point is that you don’t have to be a surgeon to feel that you have a calling; think of the barman who talks to customers and makes them feel important. How do you find this overlap? “You … shut out all the chatter of what your friends are telling you to do, what your parents are telling you to do, what society is telling you to do … and just go to that quiet place inside you that knows the truth.” (or find a good career coach to help you navigate this).
  2. Difficult Experiences: Your calling sometimes emerges from difficult experiences. What lurks in that quiet place will be a defining experience — sometimes a painful one. Isay points to an interview with a 24-year-old teacher Ayodeji Ogunniyi. “He was studying to be a doctor when his father was murdered. He realized that what he was really meant to do was be a teacher,” says Isay. “… every time he walks into a classroom, his father is walking in with him.” The theme of people turning their toughest experiences into a new path runs throughout the book. Having an experience that reminds you of your mortality can certainly be a clarifying event in people’s lives.
  3. Ruffle Feathers: Big changes often take courage. Another story featured is about Wendell Scott, who became the first African-American NASCAR driver in 1952, and kept on driving despite threats against his life. A new beginning sometimes starts with taking a stand against a status quo that simply isn’t acceptable, and dedicating your life to changing it. There are a number of not-for-profit organizations in Ireland that ‘fit’ with this idea of people challenging conventional wisdom (To Russia with Love and Suicide Awareness are two organizations that spring to mind).
  4. External Nudge: Sometimes, other people nudge you toward your calling. Sharon Long had worked odd jobs most of her life. As Isay tells it: Her daughter was going to college. As the bursar was helping them with financial aid forms, she said quietly: “I wish I could’ve gone to college.” The bursar responded, “It’s not too late”and she enrolled in forensic anthropology. The advisor had suggested because he thought it was the easiest science course, “The minute she sat in that class, it was boom — this is what she was meant to do.” I remember a very similar experience myself – the first time I’d ever heard the phrase – Motivation Theory and knew immediately that I wanted to really learn about what makes people tick.
  5. Hard Slog: The ‘finding your calling’ phrase makes it sound like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow; you find it, then the story’s over. But, it’s what happens after identifying your calling that really matters. “Understanding what your calling is — that’s very different than the blood, sweat and tears of actually doing it,” he says. It may require going back to school, apprenticing or starting a brand new organization. Unless your calling can be labelled ‘Winning the Lotto’ – it normally requires hard work.
  6. Old Dogs: An interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive finding was that age is irrelevant. Isay found his calling when he was 21 and interviewed a man who’d been part of the Stonewall riots. “The minute I hit record, I knew that being a journalist and interviewing people was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” he says. But collecting stories for the book reminded him that a calling can be discovered at any age. The book includes an interview with someone who knew they wanted to be an NBA referee at age 15, and another who worked as an accountant for 30 years before discovering his passion for food. “Doing the work you’re meant to do is one of the most satisfying, remarkable experiences that a person can have,” says Isay. The Message: never give up.
  7. Smaller Paycheck: Work that you are passionate about doesn’t always come with a big paycheck. Some of the stories are about people who left high-paying jobs for roles that pay less but are more satisfying. Stories about making as much money as you can sit alongside others where people pursued a dream of working very hard to live with integrity.

Finding your passion is certainly a big life question.  Are you there yet?


PS Lighter Notes

Q:  Love music? What’s the difference between a Musician and a Pizza?

A: A Pizza can feed a family of 4!

A husband and wife drove for miles in silence after a terrible argument in which neither would budge.  The husband pointed to a mule in a pasture.  “Relative of yours?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “By marriage.”

A doctor and his wife were having a huge argument at breakfast.  “You aren’t so good in bed either!” he shouted and stormed off to work.  By midmorning, he decided he’d better make amends and phoned home.  After many rings, his wife picked up the phone.

“What took you so long to answer?”

 “I was in bed.”

“What were you doing in bed this late?”

“Getting a second opinion.”

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


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What’s My Line? The ‘trick’ to securing an Executive Senior Role

About a Zillion years ago, there was an old radio programme called ‘What’s My Line?’ Participants would introduce themselves and the panel would have to guess their job. It was good fun. People with unusual jobs would be invited onto the programme.  The trick was for the listeners to guess the person’s job before the panel did.

New Game: A reverse version of this game is now played out in almost all senior level appointments. In the current mode, people who are applying for jobs have to guess exactly what the job is about and convince a panel of interviewers they are on the money. In most cases, successful interviewing is not about telling your history– it’s about predicting your future (sometimes, in an industry or an organization which you have zero experience of).

How does it Work? Picture the scene. You’ve applied for a senior level role in an external company.  You’ve got through the screening interview with the headhunters and overcame the psychometric tests. Phew! Then you get a letter informing you that you have to do a 10-minute presentation about ‘what you’d do in the first 100 days in the new role.’  After briefly considering abandoning the entire process, you settle down and start to think about your pitch.

Playing Safe: One possibility is to play safe. There are tons of books about how to manage the first 100 days – and they mostly offer the following formula. 1stmonth = get to know the business e.g. spend time in the field. 2nd month = consolidate your thinking;  sort Shark from Minnow issues into some logical hierarchy.  3rd month = build a change plan, socialize this internally and get people on board. So far, so boring.   Selling that process at an interview is about as riveting as talking about the decline of mass attendance with your local Parish Priest.  The conversation needs more bite.

What’s my Role?  On face value the question about your future role looks deceptively simply. It’s anything but. Understanding your new role presupposes that you have invested enough time in researching the organization to identify the BIG issues. Then you need to ‘take a punt’ about what you will bring to the party.  Can you answer (succinctly) exactly what you want to achieve in the role?  Will it be a strong focus on customer service?  Will you tackle employee engagement?  Do you intend to lower costs, eradicating every single piece of fat in the organizations’ processes? Or perhaps you’ll major on business growth? And please don’t say = “I intend to do all of the above” because that’s bullshit.

Personal Branding: A couple of year’s back I was contacted by a politician to help with a re-election campaign in Dublin. Intrigued by the contact (I’ve never been directly involved in politics) I went along to the initial meeting.  Having explained my lack of knowledge, the person reassured me that I’d been contacted to help ‘craft a compelling message.’  The candidate understood politics; my job was communications. So, I asked the person to tell me what they stood for – the issues they were passionate about. The reply: “The issues are driven by constituents.  What I want isn’t important. My job is to reflect the issues in the area that I represent.”

On face value that sounds quite democratic. But, as I know the geographical area quite well, I wondered how he intended to bridge very diverse local issues (this suburb of Dublin is mixed – with a swathe of Local Government housing sitting almost ‘next door’ to some of the most expensive real estate in Ireland).  So, I tried again to push for the BIG issues that he felt passionate about e.g. taxation, crime, homelessness and so on.  It’s fair to say that the conversation took a difficult turn at this point as I was ‘reminded’ that the job was to reflect the issues local people wanted to ‘fix’. About 20 minutes into the conversation I announced: “I think I have a really good slogan for your campaign.” 

I could see that my new political friend was impressed with my speed of thinking – so I just laid it out straight:“Vote for me. I’ll improve everything.”  My new BFF didn’t think that was funny. Neither did I.  We agreed to disagree and parted company.  It was probably the shortest political career in history. I didn’t want to work with someone who had no idea what they stood for (that’s a political, not a moral judgement).

Back to Real Life:

Q: So, how do you make a successful pitch at an interview – when you are not fully sure of the facts?

A: You have to demonstrate enough knowledge about the industry/organization to convince the interviewers that you are a serious candidate and you didn’t just ‘rock up’ for the coffee and free scones.

How? There’s 2 approaches and (depending on what exactly you have been asked to do) you can use both.  The first is to ‘codify’ exactly what you’ve done in the past.

Example A: I recently worked with a senior HR Director applying for a new role.  It was a big job and the candidate had an excellent track record.  But, by his own admission, he was poor at telling his story.  So, we crafted an A2 page – with 10 headings (Organization Development, Culture, Performance Management, Talent Acquisition and so on).  Under each heading we codified his expertise.   When the final output was desktop published – he began to look like the world-class candidate that he is. You need to tell your story – just tell it brilliantly well.

Example B: An internal candidate was making a ‘pitch’ for the CEO role.  So we tackled 4 key questions: (a) the organization context – what other companies are in a similar space– highlighting some mission overlap/confusion (b) what are the key internal challenges  – staff turnover, underfunding and so on (c) what are the key ‘resolution’ projects that need to be undertaken (d) the skills (and development needs) that specific candidate brought to the table (suggest: Skip your ‘Superman’ complex).  We ‘packaged’ all of the above into a very neat ‘booklet’ which he gave to the interviewers.

Low Arrogance: I’m continually amazed at the arrogance of some executives.  They show up for interview knowing very little about the organization. They expect the interviewers to have done all the legwork (“Did you look up my LinkedIn profile?”), hoping that their greatness will be uncovered.  They need to learn a lesson about marketing from the great Lord Leverhume (founder of Lever Brothers).  More than 100 years old, this poem is still potent:

“He who whispers down a well

About the goods he has to sell

Will never make as many dollars

As he who climbs a tree and hollers.”

Want a BIG job? Get cracking on the homework and packaging! Because you will need both.


PS For a couple of reasons I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to stop writing blogs. You are not ‘off the hook’ just yet. I’ve a couple of ideas to work on over the next month or so and then we will say goodbye to this particular Chapter.  Will explain the rationale in more detail – just wanted to give you a heads up.  Thanks for keeping up  –  it was a great buzz seeing so many people reading this stuff. I will shortly be publishing 2 books of the ‘best blogs’ – will provide the details shortly. 

PPS Lighter Notes: Some interview-related Tweets:

‘I murder drifters and use their hair to make little dolls. Oh, you meant at work! Sorry about that. My biggest weakness is probably that I’m a perfectionist.’

‘I hate when the other guy goes for a handshake and I go for an open-mouth kiss and oh great now I probably didn’t get this job.’

Interviewer: So tell me why you want this job.

Me: I have no money and I prefer when I have money.


HR: What’s your best asset?

Me: I have an excellent memory.

HR: Give me an example.

Me: Of what?


Interviewer: ‘So where do you see yourself in 5 years time?’

Me: ‘My biggest weakness? Probably not listening properly.’


DOG: I think that job interview went really well! Then looks in mirror and sees ear was inside-out the whole time.  “Son of a bitch!”

For our USA Audience…

Mama bear and Papa bear are getting a divorce. The judge asks baby bear, “Who do you want to live with?”

Baby bear says, “ I don’t want to live with mama bear. She beats me”

Judge says, “Okay, so you want to live with papa bear?”

Baby bear says, “No, he beats me too!”

Judge (frustrated at this point), “Well then, who do you want to live with?”

Baby bear: “I want to live with the Chicago Bears! They never beat anybody”

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

Posted in Career Coaching | 3 Comments

What’s the recipe for a Perfect holiday?

Get ready for the Christmas Break

Should you use your holidays for a well-earned break or use the opportunity for continuous improvement? For me the question poses a false dichotomy as the two ideas combine perfectly.

Getting Bored: I don’t know about you, but I can only take so much downtime. Pinot Grigot coupled with grilled sardines is a solid lunchtime combination – up to a point. But, alongside this, I normally feel the need to keep sharpening the saw. In the words of one client: “I like to earn my lazy.”

New Ideas? Last year, I packed 3 ‘heavier’ books, alongside the usual mix of sex and violence literature and lugged it all through the airport. Must be some sort of a Catholic guilt thing. What did I learn? The heavier reading material was OK only; old wine in new bottles, nothing too insightful.  Missing the inspiration from the Gurus, I decided to try some reflection time. Long solitary walks and structured thinking about what’s working well and what’s not, both in business and in life generally. But I don’t do reflection particularly well. I’m more of s figure-it-out-as-I-do it type.  It’s often said that extroverts have to ‘talk it’ to think it (introverts do all this ‘heavy lifting’ inside their heads). Then I came across a quote from Thomas Szasz, which struck a chord. “People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates.” In other words, looking for yourself actually requires active experimentation. For some people this comes from ‘reflection’ while others (like myself) learn-by-doing.

Staying Focused: On most holidays, I get up early and write for at least an hour. Linda and the kids are generally asleep, so I’m not disturbing anyone. That early productivity then gives me a clear shot at the day and a crystal clear conscience to do absolutely nothing and horse into those sardines mentioned earlier. Or watch the British Open Golf Tournament for hours on end – lying on the sofa, snuggled up tightly beside my best friend (the remote control).  Writing has a twofold benefit (a)it sorts out the confusion in my mind about particular topics and (b) It helps with differentiation. Forget the line about rats in cities; no matter where you go, you are never more than 10 feet from a management consultant! So, writing is a marketingstrategy, an attempt to stand out from the crowd.

Self-Esteem: But, plugging away on books and blogs has another, hidden benefit. For most of us, the well of self-esteem needs to be continually topped up. Like physical fitness, confidence needs to be maintained. In my case writing ‘new stuff’ helps me to feel good about myself. It’s not just an antidote to the boredom of 24 hours with absolutely nothing to do. Creating something new helps me to feel that I’m continually learning and haven’t (yet) given up on exploring how organizations work and how best to survive them.

So there you have it, my recipe for a perfect holiday. All you have to do now is to figure out what works for you.

Central Point: Don’t assume that this automatically means doing nothing.


PS Lighter Note: Island Holiday

Guy goes into a travel agent and says: “I want to book a holiday.”

Travel Agent:“And, where would you like to go Sir?”

Customer replies: “I want to go to Majorca” (pronounced Ma-Jork-Ah)

The travel agent smiles and says:   “That’s actually Majorca” (May-Ork-Ah). “In Spanish, you don’t pronounce the ‘J’.  Anyway, when would you like to go?”

He replies: “Une or Uly.”

One Liners for your next meeting…

I thought I’d forgotten how to play Tetris, but once I started all the pieces seemed to fall into place.

My wife said she’s leaving me because I’m obsessed with Batman. What a Joker.

My wife told me I was immature and needed to grow up…guess who’s not allowed in my tree house?

Only read on if you are intellectually inclined (courtesy of Craig Varden in the US)….

ANNUAL NEOLOGISM CONTEST: The Washington Post published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternative meanings for common words. The winners:

  • Coffee (N.), the person upon whom one coughs.
  • Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
  • Abdicate (V.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
  • Willy-nilly (Adj.), impotent.
  • Gargoyle (N.), olive-flavored mouthwash.
  • Flatulence (N.) emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.
  • Balderdash (N.), a rapidly receding hairline.
  • Rectitude (N.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.
  • Pokemon (N), a Rastafarian proctologist.
  • Frisbeetarianism (N.), (back by popular demand): The belief that,when you die, your Soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.
  • Circumvent (N.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

The Washington Post also asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. This year’s winners:

  • Bozone (N.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.
  • Foreploy (V): Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.
  • Cashtration (N.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.
  • Giraffiti (N): Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
  • Sarchasm (N): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.
  • Inoculatte (V): To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
  • Hipatitis (N): Terminal coolness.
  • Glibido (V): All talk and no action.
  • Ignoranus (N): A person who’s both stupid and an asshole

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

Posted in Executive Coaching, Positive Psychology | Leave a comment

Workplace Romances: How should you respond?

It will happen. Figure out your ‘stance’ on this in advance

You may already know this, but there are approximately 2.3 million cattle in the Irish beef herd and about 1.7 million dairy cows.  So, if you live in Ireland, there’s a really good chance that you will (at some point in your life) have seen a cow. No big deal. Based on my experience – I would argue that there’s an even better chance that you will have experienced a workplace romance. And, this is a big deal.

Not New: When Ruth Meehan completed a Masters in DCU, she choose an interesting topic – workplace romances. I had the privilege of reading her thesis. Turns out that this issue has been perplexing organisations, participants and co-workers for millennia. Parking morality, legal issues (e.g. sexual harassment claims), organisational justice (equality, colleagues perceptions of fairness, favouritism) and productivity (distraction from responsibilities) all come into play. Yet, despite the dilemmas posed, workplace romances seem to be on the increase. One comprehensive U.S. Survey found that approximately 40% of people had engaged in a workplace romance, while U.K. research highlighted that more than 70% of survey participants had a similar experience (to the best of my knowledge, no similar survey data exists in Ireland; we can only guess the numbers). One thing is for sure – the phenomenon of workplace romance is not going away anytime soon.

Influencing Forces: A number of social, economic and cultural factors influence this. The increased number of women in the workforce; blurring of male/female stereotyped roles; longer working hours; changing societal norms whereby sexual activity/behaviour is more widely accepted outside of the traditional partnership/marriage model. But, what ‘triggers’ this? Why do people look over that office divider and mentally say maybe? It turns out that there are a number of potential motives for getting involved with someone at work:

Love: Sincere/true love, companionship, seeking a spouse/long-term partner. With more people spending more time at work, it’s not that surprising that people use the office or the factory as their primary ‘hunting ground.’

Ego: Seeking excitement, adventure, sexual experience and ego satisfaction. Life can be a bit boring. Unless, of course, you are in the middle of an office romance! Turns out that finding a good place to hide a 2nd mobile phone isn’t boring at all!

Job: Seeking advancement/progression, job security, increased influence, financial rewards, easier work. Sometimes referred to as ‘Sleeping to Success.’

Staying Stum: Understandably, most participants try to keep workplace romances private, but many fail. One researcher (Mainiero), supporting the premise that participants are reluctant to make their relationship public, argues that the decision to maintain secrecy may not be discretionary. A violation of workplace norms regarding appropriate distance or intimacy often provides indications to co-workers of a deviance (Robinson & Bennett, 1995) from the ‘normal’ professional relationship. Co-workers are often highly sensitive to even the slightest change in behaviour. When I worked for General Electric, one senior Executive from the USA had an affair with a secretary in Dublin. He was married. She was single. He was mid 40’s. She was in her early 20’s (while I normally do some research for this Blog, in this specific case I didn’t actually check their Birth Certificates). How did we know they were having an affair? In the canteen, the Executive used to take off his shoes and rub his stockinged feet up along her leg under the table. Given that the canteen was normally packed with people during the break times, we didn’t need a Doctorate in Psychology to figure that one out.  Another couple (they were both married to other people) arrived into work each day in the same car.  Horray for car pooling? Well, perhaps, if they lived in the same area. One of them commuted from North County Dublin and the other one lived in Blackrock (South Dublin).  Like all managerial behaviour, the standard caveat applies. Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t like to see reported on the front page of the Irish Times. It’s a tough hurdle to meet at all time.

Relationship Fallout: There have been a number of ‘high profile’ cases in Ireland around workplace romances. It’s important here to distinguish between workplace romances and sexual harassment – albeit there might be a thin line between both – depending on the respective positions held by both parties. In one well publicized case, the CEO of a major utility was fired for sexual harassment of a subordinate. Because of his role, his ‘employability’ in Ireland was compromised and he was advised to seek work overseas (which he did). Most affairs are easy to start but more difficult to end – so there’s a lot of caution needed at the Christmas Party (and every other time of the year too).  While being attracted to someone is fundamentally human, it can carry a high price tag.

Organization Tolerance: Some organizations are more tolerant of this than others. For example, some years ago I visited 2 Jesuit Universities in the US to meet their senior teams during a project I was working on at that time. On the flight home, trying to make sense of a million pages of notes, one theme stood out above everything else; ‘moral turpitude.’ Having an affair with a junior member of staff or any contact with students was an instantly dismissible offence in both organizations.  Contrast that stance with a closer to home example. I met a HR Director who worked with a large multinational.  It was well known internally that the Managing Director was having an affair with his PA and with the Marketing Manager (at the same time). He’d also had a fling with a Polish office cleaner (note to self: ‘buy more Red Bull’). The HR Manager (whom I was coaching) was concerned that during the ‘rollout’ of a Corporate Values Programme, this behaviour would tarnish the company reputation. He asked: “What should I do?” After batting the issue back and forth a number of times, we came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to confront the MD with the contradictions between the ‘espoused values’ of the organization (dignity/respect for people and so on) and his personal behaviour. I didn’t attend the meeting but was reliably told that his response to the HR Manager was as follows: “You should try to get out and about a bit more yourself.”  He did – visiting headhunters to look for a new job.

Counterproductive Workplace Behaviours: Spector and Fox (2002) list a range of potentially destructive and detrimental acts that hurt colleagues and organizations. Aggression, hostility, theft, sabotage and so on seem to push ‘having a fling’ well down the totem pole of offences. But it depends on the organization context.  Without being moralistic, some good advice is as follows.  If you are of a mind to have an office romance, make sure it’s with someone from another office. There’s too much riding on this!


PS Lighter Notes: Let’s stay with the theme…

Golf Balls: A woman was tidying her husband’s dresser when she found 3 golf balls and a box with $2000 in it. She waited for him to come home from the golf course to ask him why these things were hidden in his drawer.

The husband said:  “I’m sorry I hid this from you but the truth is every time I cheated on you over the last 30 years I put a golf ball in the drawer.”

The wife was very upset at first but after thinking about it said: “I suppose 3 times in 30 years is really not that bad! Oh by the way what’s the $2000 for?”

The husband replied: “Every time I got a dozen balls I sold them.”

Pearly Gates: It got crowded in heaven. So, for one day only it was decided to accept people who had had a really bad day on the day they died. St. Peter was standing at the gates and said to the first man: “Tell me about the day you died.”

The man said, “Oh, it was awful. I was sure my wife was having an affair, so I came home early to catch her. I searched all over the apartment but couldn’t find him anywhere. So I went out onto the balcony, we live on the 25th floor, and found this man hanging over the edge by his fingertips. I went inside, got a hammer, and started hitting his hands. He fell, but landed in some bushes. So, I got the refrigerator and pushed it over the balcony and it crushed him. The strain of the act gave me a heart attack, and I died.”

St. Peter couldn’t deny that this was a pretty bad day. Since it was a crime of passion, he let the man in. He then asked the next man in line about the day he died.

“Well, Sir, it was awful,” said the second man. “I was doing aerobics on the balcony of my 26th floor apartment when I twisted my ankle and slipped over the edge. I managed to grab the balcony of the apartment below, but some maniac came out and started pounding on my fingers with a hammer. Luckily I landed in some bushes. But, then the guy dropped a refrigerator on me!”

St. Peter chuckled, let him into heaven and decided he was really starting to enjoy this interviewing job.

“Tell me about the day you died?” he said to the third man in line.

“OK, picture this. You are naked and hiding inside a refrigerator…”

Night Out: “Last night a Hypnotist convinced me that I was a soft, malleable metal with an Atomic number of eighty-two.  I’m easily lead”

Doctor:  “Mrs A, let’s have a look at your results!”

Patient:  “Excuse Me! My name isn’t Mrs A”

Doctor:  “OK, I have some bad news then. You have MRSA”

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

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The 6 Million Euro Man (or Woman): Sourcing Superior Talent

The cost of a ‘wrong hire’ can be enormous

Each time you hire a new employee you potentially spend several million Euro. For example, a candidate currently earning €100,000 per year will cost your company about 6 million Euro over a 30 year working career when fully loaded employment costs and inflation are rolled up.   In constructing a Capital Acquisitions Request for a piece of equipment that cost say €50,000, you’d spend a considerable amount of time completing a cost: benefit analysis.  Yet when it comes to candidate selection, many managers are ill prepared to make a decision which impacts an organization to a much greater extent. Is there some ‘magic formula’ that can help reduce the inherent risk in hiring a plonker? Well… here’s a couple of ideas that have stood the test of time.

Big Idea #1: Targeted Selection: Selection interviewing is a notoriously subjective process.  A substantial body of research has indicated the reliability rate (the likelihood that two skilled interviewers will judge a candidate’s ability in the same manner) to be less than 50%. That statistic is made worse by the fact that almost everyone thinks they are a wonderful ‘judge of character’, God’s gift to psychology.

Overcoming the ‘Halo’: Candidates with highly developed interpersonal skills are particularly difficult to assess. A well-dressed candidate, who offers a warm handshake, speaks eloquently and maintains good eye contact makes a positive initial impression. Unfortunately, these traits may have nothing whatsoever to do with the skillset required for superior on-the-job- performance (albeit they are excellent traits for confidence tricksters and sociopaths – in terms of ‘gaining entry’). What’s needed is a systematic way to overcome that ‘halo effect.’

Targeted Selection: Targeting selection derives its name from the fact that interviewers ‘target’ specific competencies and focus on these.  It’s based on a fairly simple premise. The best indicator of what someone will do in the future is what they’ve done in the past. The process is designed to reduce subjectivity by focusing on actual (rather than potential) performance.  How does it work? Having identified the key competencies required for successful performance, the interviewer tests the candidates’ experience in those areas. The focus is on demonstrated performance. While people can spoof about theoretical possibilities – they usually find it much harder to lie about what they’ve actually done in the past.

Achievements Focus: Targeted selection drills into what a candidate has actually achieved in the past not on what they say they will do in the future. If a candidate has consistently performed well in a particular area and can demonstrate this, that’s the best indicator of future performance.  If the candidate has consistently underperformed in a particular area, that’s also hugely valuable information.

Big Idea #2: Competencies Tool: This isn’t really a ‘separate idea’ – more of a build on Targeted Selection. Case Example: One of our pharmaceutical clients decided to develop a systematic way to assess internal and external candidates for the role of Site Leader. We were tasked with developing a systematic method (that they could continually reuse) to select high-end talent.

The Approach: A competency can be defined as a distinct skill or ability to complete a task successfully.  Goal: Identify the ‘Core Competencies’ associated with success in the position of Site Leader. In addition to defining the core skills, we needed a simple way to measure these – with existing staff and for people interviewing from outside the company.

Competency Tool: The Competency Tool idea is based on a simple premise. Managerial jobs can be subdivided into 3 key areas:

(1) Thinking Skills: The knowledge requirements for the position and the intellectual ability to make decisions/solve problems that typically arise e.g. chemical engineering.

(2) Doing Skills: The functional skills needed to fully satisfy the position requirements e.g. public speaking.

(3) Relationship Skills: The ability to successfully interact with people to the extent required by the particular position e.g. employee engagement.

A Competency Tool allows key decisions on selection and promotion to be based on objective criteria.  Looking at the most successful people in Site Leader roles across that client company – we identified the ‘success requirements’ in this job.  Of course, there’s still an element of individual personality to be taken into account.  While no system is 100% objective – having this ‘guideline’ considerably reduces the subjectivity of decision-making in the selection process.

External Hiring:  Most organisations understand that it’s critically important to attract and retain the best available talent.  Stated another way,  every open position offers an opportunity to put a world-class candidate in place. So far, so boring!  But, here’s the kicker. Having a Competencies Tool maximises your chance of actually doing this. While the approach isn’t foolproof  (there’s no guarantee that you will source Wonder Woman) it’s better than relying on your ‘marvellous gut instinct.’ Much better.

Taking a Punt: But, what if a candidate has never been exposed to a particular area deemed critical for the post on offer?  How do you make a judgment on future potential if there’s no evidence to go on?  Can I suggest a broad ‘rule of ‘thumb’ as follows: If the candidate has demonstrated excellent previous skills in at least 75% of the essential job requirements they are worth a hiring risk. If they can demonstrate less than 75% of essential job requirements, the ‘risk’ element becomes unacceptably high.  Taking this approach you will, at times,  ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’ and miss potentially excellent candidates.  But it will ensure that entry barriers are kept high and you will spend less time in Lawyers offices working out the best way to get rid of them.

Big Idea #3: Assessing Candidate Motivation: Under this heading the key question is:  “Why does the candidate wish to apply for this position?”  One way to ‘test’ this is to ask the candidate four direct questions.

  1. Why have you applied for this particular role?
  2. Why do you wish to leave your current position/company?
  3. Does this job (geographical location, travelling requirement etc.) fit with the non-work aspect of your life i.e. family circumstances, relationships, hobbies and so on?
  4. How does this position align with your longer-term career goals?

Big Idea #4: Make the Interview Work: Most candidates are nervous.  The best way to overcome this is to start interviews on a warm note and to get the candidate talking as soon as possible.  The candidate usually has his/her ‘story’ prepared and wants to tell it.  Long introductions about your organisation’s history/values/direction usually serve to make a candidate even more nervous and should be held until the end of the interview.  It’s a mistake to give too much detail at the front end of an interview. Astute candidates will look for ‘signals’ and tailor their answers to what they think you require.

Process Control: An interview isn’t an informal meeting; it’s a directed discussion. Your job is to keep the process on track.  Focus on the ‘key competencies’ and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the fact that someone has run 5 Iron-Man races or bungee jumped all over South East Asia (even if you secretly wish you could have done all of that).

Hiring the best available talent is a key skill. Elbert Hubbard suggests: “There is something rare, something finer, something much more scarce than ability.  It’s the ability to recognize ability.”  Don’t short-change the process just because you believe that you have some sort of  ‘6th sense’ about people.   Just remember the often-quoted response when someone’s neighbour or work colleague turns out to be a serial killer i.e. “He seemed so normal.”  Now, on that thought, have a good week.


PS Story of the Week: Played golf with Fintan from Belgrove Motors and he related the following true tale. His daughter is a Primary School Teacher in Ballymun, Dublin. When the kids were asked to tell their ‘weekly news’, one of them mentioned that her pet Hamster had escaped from its cage and was missing for 3 days.

The family heard some scratching beneath the fridge. Following a Herculean effort,  the Dad managed to extract the Hamster from under a giant American Fridge and put it back into the cage.  But the Hamster seemed very nervous. It was cowering against one side of the cage, shivering,  and couldn’t be enticed to move or even to eat when presented with morsels of its favourite food. So, they took him to the vet.  Turns out that the Hamster had swallowed a Fridge Magnet and was literally ‘stuck’ to the side of the cage.  Apparently, he’s doing well again now and is fully recovered.

Pet Jokes & One-Liners…. (stocking fillers for the T-Break) 

Q: Did you hear about the law firm with the most intimidating lawyers?

A: It’s filled with liti-gators.

Q: What do you call a hamster with 3 legs?

A: Hamputee.

Q: What do alligators call human children?

A: Appetizers.

“My husband is a self-harmer. He eats his own cooking.”

Q: What happens if you get addicted to Rehab?

I love reunions. They’re Old School!

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

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If At First You Don’t succeed…Then quit

Consider re-writing your success software

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”  W. C. Fields

The flight to Faro was particularly bumpy. High above the Bay of Biscay we were bouncing around like a table tennis ball in a Jacuzzi. At one point I was tempted to email the Bacardi factory in Cuba and ask them to put on a 3rdshift. By the time this plane landed, the worldwide stock of rum would be well down!

Flash Cards: To take my mind off dying, I was busily reading flash cards – trying to master Portuguese phrases beyond  ‘Bom Dia’ (Good Day). It had been a long and brutal slog. Night classes in Marino and Clontarf for 3 years. Practice lunches with other learners, wrestling with masculine and feminine nouns over skinny lattes. Twisting your tongue around the Russian-sounding pronunciations.

Keep Going: I definitely wasn’t enjoying it but was determined not to quit. Something about giving up communicates ‘loser’ and I’m programmed to follow through. Incorrectly programmed in this case. So, what were the ‘facts’? I definitely wasn’t enjoying learning this language. I never use it. Where we go in Portugal (the Algarve) almost everyone speaks English. So, other than reading some road signs and being polite/respectful about the local culture – this had no practical usefulness.   But, I started and was determined to finish, on some pre-recorded mission to succeed. For what? To impress who? Because, when I really thought about it, that was the psychological payoff. Impress the hell out of someone because I could read the menu in Portuguese. Converse with a local waitress around the fact that the weather was exceptionally hot or say ‘good afternoon’ at the correct time of the day. Oh, take a bow!

Throw it Out: In thinking about some of this old ‘programmed stuff’ about being successful, I realized that it was written for me in childhood. Most of it had served me well. But it was now time to grow up. To decide what I wanted to do. To disallow my life being steered by ‘train tracks’ about stickability that were laid when I was a teenager.

Take Control: It’s the same for all of us.  We are in charge now and can do what we want. If that’s learning something new – great.  Like that Bon Jovi song that I’ve wanted to sing for ages but can’t seem to find the time to learn properly. Now you’re talking. Move over Portuguese. From now on, I’m doing stuff I want to do.


PS Lighter Notes…

Resignation Letter:“I’m quitting to pursue my dream of not working here”

Q:What’s the difference between the 1960’s and the 2000’s?

A: In the 2000’s, a guy goes into a chemist shop and shouts, “Give me a box of condoms!” … and whispers to the shop assistant: “Oh, and slip in a packet of cigarettes, too.”

Q: Why did the can crusher quit his job?

A: Because it was soda pressing.

I should have known I’d never last as a deep-sea diving instructor. I’m no good under pressure.

OCD Sufferers. Their days are numbered.

Past, Present and Future walked into a bar. It was tense!

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

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HR’s Role in Building High Performance Organizations

Ensuring HR adds real Value

Back in my GE days, the Finance Director was skeptical about the merits of the HR function which he labeled the‘Health and Happiness Department.’ He honestly didn’t believe that HR added any value. It was part of his worldview that social science was basically bullshit, totally un-provable. It was a great put down.  Despite his misapprehensions about the function, I liked the guy and subsequently came to be more confident about HR’s role in building High-Performance Organizations.

Phone Call: We were recently involved in an interesting project in Galway which reminded me of that GE story. The project started when I phoned a senior HR Director, congratulating him for winning a high-profile award at the end of the previous year. He was (naturally enough) in good form. The business was making money, the HR team had ‘clicked’ into place and the relationship with the Chief Executive and broader executive team was upbeat. “That’s the problem”  he said. “Everything is going so well, I don’t know what are we going to do next.”

Our Encore: This issue (it might be labeled: ‘what will we do for an encore?’) is a dilemma for all successful HR Departments. When there are big ‘presenting issues’ in an organization it’s relatively easy to ride in on a white horse, complete your diagnosis and ‘fix’ the place. Visible problem solving is an obvious way to prove your worth to the business. But what do you do when there are no obvious problems to be sorted?

Winning the Peace: Paul Vickery of I.B.M. fame, had earlier described this syndrome as follows: “A lot of HR people are good during the war but not as able in peacetime.” Schooled on a diet of constant firefighting, some HR Managers become ‘fix-it’ junkies and don’t have a good understanding of their role when the presenting issues are not jutting above the waterline.  “Hey, I’ve just thought of a great idea”, my contact continued during our phone conversation. “Why don’t you take some time to figure it out and come back to me with a list of possible ways forward.”

What ‘To Do’ when things aren’t broken

So, what do you do when there’s nothing obvious to be done? How do you add additional value in an organization that’s performing extremely well? The challengein this case was to take an award-winning HR function and improve their impact on organisational performance.There are several broad approaches – and in a short blog post it’s only possible to provide a ‘flavour’ of these.[1] A summary of respective approaches is detailed in the following table.



Option 1

Strategic HR Plan

Develop a robust HR Plan — superior to anything done historically — that addresses real business issues. There are a number of sub-possibilities here (e.g. focus on increasing customer service, cost reduction, speed, etc.)

Take HR specialists off-site for 1-2 days, work them through a defined agenda to tackle these issues before going ‘public’ with the outcome internally

Option 2

Ask the customer

Devise a semi-structured interview format and ask the customers what they want from you. Discover the critical needs of the top team and ‘fix’ these

It’s normally some combination of remedial (tactical) fixes and longer-term development options

Option 3


Decide which key areas you are particularly interested in

Spend time (phone/net/in person) benchmarking the best in class sites in Ireland and internationally

Option 4

Executive Teambuilding

Take the top team through a robust strategy/personal planning session. There are several possibilities e.g. (a) ‘hard’ agenda that focuses on core business issues versus (b) a ‘soft’ agenda that focuses on the interpersonal issues among the senior team
Option 5

Engage the Troops

Review a range of mechanisms that drive up participation/employee voice levels

Ask: how well are we currently tapping into this key resource?

Option 6

Superb Management

Goal: Best management team in the industry & within the company worldwide

Put together a world-class programme of offerings and development processes: underlying goal = develop ‘self sufficiency’ in this group

Option 7

Play with rewards

Build a system that drives performance upwards (reward systems are often under-used in driving performance).

Introduce new/fun/novel reward mechanisms to drive specific outcomes/changes

Option 8

Organisational Audit

Conduct a robust organisation audit (not limited to HR function) & confront the organisation with this

Present data to management team in a ‘health-check’ meeting


The Genius is in the details. Making the options work in practice

Making a significant performance contribution to an organization requires a detailed understanding of the specific operating environment. You need to assess what will work (and what won’t) in the real world.  But the central point remains.  Even when you are doing a fantastic job there’s always room for improvement. Apply the Nike slogan ‘There is no finish line’to the HR function.

In this we can usefully take a lesson from the sports professionals. After the tournaments are over, when the cameras have been switched off for the night and the crowds have ‘hit the bar’, the golf professionals go to the driving range or to the practice bunkers – trying to perfect aspects of their game. The ‘top players’ constantly notch up their game to keep themselves sharp. As HR professionals, should we do any less?



Lighter Notes:

 A HR manager was knocked down (tragically) by a bus and was killed. Her soul arrived at the Pearly Gates, where St. Peter welcomed her. “Before you get settled in”he said, “…we have a little problem. We’ve never had a HR manager make it this far before and we’re not really sure what to do with you.

“Oh, I see,”said the woman, “Can’t you just let me in?”

“I’d like to,” said St. Peter, “But I have higher orders. We’re instructed to let you have a day in hell and a day in heaven, and then you can choose where you’d like to go for all eternity.”

“I think I’d prefer heaven”, said the woman.

“Sorry, but we have rules…” at which point St. Peter put the HR Manager into the downward bound elevator.

As the doors opened in Hell she stepped out onto a beautiful golf course. Around her were many friends, past fellow executives, all smartly dressed, happy, and cheering for her. They ran up and kissed her on both cheeks, and talked about old times. They played a perfect round of golf and afterwards went to the country club where she enjoyed a superb steak and lobster dinner. She met the Devil (who was actually rather nice) and she had a wonderful night telling jokes and dancing.

Before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everyone shook her hand and waved goodbye as she stepped into the elevator. The elevator went back up to heaven where St. Peter was waiting for her.

“Now it’s time to spend a day in heaven,”he said. So she spent the next 24 hours lounging around on clouds, playing the harp and singing; enjoyable but a bit boring. At the day’s end St. Peter returned.

“So,”he said, “You’ve spent a day in hell and you’ve spent a day in heaven. You must choose between the two.”

The woman thought for a second and replied: “Well, heaven is certainly lovely, but I actually had a better time in hell. I choose Hell.”

St. Peter took her to the elevator again and she went back down. When the doors of the elevator opened she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. She saw her friends dressed in rags, picking up rubbish and putting it into old sacks. The Devil approached and put his arm around her.

“I don’t understand,”stuttered the HR manager, “The other day I was here, and there was a golf course and a country club. We ate lobster, and we danced and had a wonderful time.”

The Devil looked at her and smiled:

“Yesterday we were recruiting. Today you’re staff.”

Good One-Liners:

“You can’t fix crazy. All you can do is document it.” 

“I need to make a Pencil drawing of Shakespeare for my art exam. 2B or not 2B? 

“I’ve been trying to teach my dog to dance but he’s useless. He’s got 2 left feet”

“I was doing some decorating, so I took out my step-ladder. I don’t get on well with my real ladder.”

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

[1]For a more detailed discussion of this route see ‘Turbo-Charging the HR Function’, Paul Mooney Ph.D., CIPD, ISBN # 0-85292-896-3.

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