1000 RUBLES FOR EVERYONE

I never cease to be amazed and mainly delighted by small adventures that are part of my life in France… this whole esprit of “Equalite, Egalite, Fraternite” that is meant to be at the foundation of French social mores.

Some time ago I planted 80 bay trees along my fence line, and someone came along during the night and took exactly 40 of them, being a lesson for me in Egalite, I guess.
It reminded me of a story my late father used to tell, when asked why he had decided to get out of Russia in 1945.

My father had been in the Polish army when Germany invaded in 1939, and had ended up crossing over the border into Russia and fighting as part of the Russian Army during World War ll. After the war ended, he collected the family from Magnitogorsk in the Ural Mountains where they had spent the duration of the War, and by December 1945 had managed to get official papers that enabled them to return to Poland. Fortunately the family didn’t stop there for long, but managed to somehow make its way to Paris (it took 2 years as it was mainly on foot), and from there we emigrated from France to Australia in 1951.
Many people used to ask my father why he had wanted to leave Russia at all, as just after the war it was seen a Worker’s Paradise, and my father was a humble shoemaker, and therefore should have felt right at home there.
He always replied that he had dutifully gone along to a meeting of the Communist Party, and the speaker there had said that if they took all the money in the World and divided it up evenly, every person would get 1000 Rubles. My father thus knew that it was time to leave Russia as he had 2000.

I guess that to keep the cosmic balance, as my father actually had twice the planned global allocation, I was meant to have only 40 bay trees. They are flourishing nicely, as I hope are their twins out somewhere in this Haven of Egalite.

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VIVE LA FRANCE

The French Unions have called for National Strikes in response to the Government’s announcement that it will raise the official pensionable retirement age in France from 60 to 62.

This could be the first real test of the Sarkozy Government and its resolve to drive through needed reforms to ensure that France doesn’t implode economically. So far the Sarkozy Government and the Unions have been nervously circling each other without any real attempt to test the others “stomach” for an all out confrontation.

In Australia the qualifying pensionable age is 65 phasing to 67 by 2017, in Germany it has recently been raised from 65 to 67, in New Zealand it is 65 but with pressure to move to 67, as just some examples where there appears to at least be an acceptance that falling birth rates and ageing populations demand critical changes.

It is heavily supported by changing life expectancies, which in France have risen from an average for both sexes of 68 in 1950  to 80.7 in 2005 (Gilles Pison, Population and Societies 410, INED March 2005). At the same time, by comparison, Australia’s has similarly risen to 81.2, Germany to 79.4 and New Zealand to 81.2 (Figures from United Nations statistics (2005-2010).

It does appear that moving France’s retirement age to 62 is in reality a very minimal step considering the situation with retirement conditions in the rest of the world.

The notion that what is past is past and that this generation needs to ensure that we live up to our responsibilities rather than to just pass the problems on to the next generation does not appear to sit well with French Unionists. There is an attitude that as others have benefitted from easier conditions in the past, so now it is their turn to benefit in the same way, and to hell with the consequences… someone else can clean up the mess. I see this as being exactly the sort of selfish, “I’m all right Jacques” attitude that could flush this country down the gurgler.

It is obvious that we cannot continue with the excesses of the past, as these were totally unsustainable. The French Budget Deficit is estimated this year to be at least 5.6% of GDP, which is well beyond the EU ruling of less than 3%, and even higher than Greece (which has just crashed) at 3.7%. Even the UK, who have at least admitted that they are in a “parlous” state at 4.6%, have started to take measures to address the issues with an austerity budget, and serious clampdowns on public sector spending.

Strikes in France appear to be one of the main National Sports, and with France having been knocked out of the World Cup, there appears to be little else to satisfy the sporting hunger.

What I find most amazing is that in France only about 10% of all employees are actually Union members, whereas even Australia and New Zealand are over 20% (OECD Figures, from EIRO in France), so ultimately they represent only a very small percentage of the French population. It is therefore madness that in the past, successive French Governments have backed down on needed reforms whenever the Paris crowds took to the streets in opposition.

Most French people I know are hard working, responsible people who understand that France, like most other countries, has to rein in the excesses of the past, and that there will be a price that we will all, jointly have to pay.

The Sarkozy Team was voted into power in the belief that they would “have the balls” (quote from Christine Lagarde, French Minister of Finance in a BBC Interview 24th June 2010) to execute these reforms that were needed to bring France back to economic health.

For the sake of my adopted country, I dearly hope that the French Voters and Christine Lagarde were right.

MICE THAT ROAR

I have to be the first to admit that I had no idea that New Zealand actually had a National Football (soccer to me) team called the “All Whites”, nor that they had actually qualified for the World Cup in South Africa.

When a friend told me these facts, I suggested to him that he must be kidding, and that he should go and check his facts.

Victoria and I decided that we couldn’t bear to watch their first game against Slovakia, as it was sure to be a bit of a slaughter, and we couldn’t bear to watch a NZ National Team getting beaten so badly. As you can imagine, being All Black Rugby fans, we have gotten used to NZ Football Teams giving a decent account of themselves, even if they do seem intent on embarrassing us every four years at the Rugby World Cup.

We were amazed, but delighted and proud, to learn that they had actually drawn 1-1 with Slovakia.

We decided that we would actually watch their game against Italy despite the fact that together with the rest of the world, we believed that this would be a humiliating defeat by the reigning World Champions.

When the “All Whites” took the lead in the first half we just couldn’t believe it. Our screams and gyrations were so violent that all our dogs ran whimpering from the room. To then hold Italy to a 1-1 draw was an incredibly awe inspiring performance.

It was the same with Switzerland’s 1-0 win over Spain, and with South Africa’s 2-1 defeat of France.

It reinforced the fact that in the right circumstance, with the right attitude and commitment, even Mice can Roar.

GROWING A NEW LEG

I was in Belgrade, Serbia, recently to speak at a conference of Business people.

On the way in from the Airport to my hotel, I asked the young driver as to whether he felt that things had improved or worsened since my last trip to Belgrade a year earlier. He said that he felt that things had gotten worse, but that it was all going to be all right soon, as the Government had said that things would get better next year.

It seems that all around the world, people are waiting for the Economic Crisis to end, and for things to get better sometime next year.

I think that it is time that we stopped talking about this Financial Crisis as though it was something that was about to end, and started talking about the New Economic Reality instead, as I believe that this environment of economic restraint, of uncertainty and of regular market heaving surprises will be with us for a long time.

Companies (and individuals) who sit around waiting for things to get better are a lot like a man with one leg sitting around waiting for it to grow back … it just isn’t going to happen !

A man with one leg needs to get on with living. He can go out and get a prosthetic leg and get on with his life. It will not be the same as before, and he will need to make some adjustments, but it can still be a good and worthwhile life. In the same way, I believe that Companies need to get on and learn to live within the new Economic Environment in which we now find ourselves. It will not be the same as before, as obviously that was unsustainable, but it can still be a worthwhile existence.

Waiting for “the Government” or the “Central Bank” or some other external body to make the Business Environment better doesn’t make any more sense than the man with one leg waiting to develop lizard-like qualities so that he can regenerate a limb.

The success of the Companies and Organisations that we are part of depends totally on the ability to adjust our business models and our thinking to the new realities, and the sooner we can make these adjustments the more successful we will be.

If by some fluke of chance Governments and Central banks do work out some way of making things better for us all, we should just take this as an added bonus, rather than something that we were all depending on.

TEACHING OLD DOGS NEW TRICKS

I have been regularly surprised about how many Managers I come across who believe that a valid Management approach is to look for people to do something wrong and then to help them correct it. I surmise that this satisfies two basic urges that these managers must have. The first one is that it gives them a chance to prove that they are more skilled than their subordinate, and therefore justify their elevated position, and secondly it gives them a chance to show that they have retained the Vocational skills that made them the brilliant “engineer” that they were in the first place. For many this helps to overcome the worry that being just a “manager” is not enough.

I have always believed that this is totally the wrong approach, and I am reminded of a friend of mine in New Zealand who went through a rather messy divorce. After the departure of his wife and son, he realized that he was rather lonely and decided that he should get a puppy to keep him company during the evenings and weekends.

Unfortunately the puppy got into the habit of peeing on the floor of his bedroom.  Being a skilled “Engineer”, and seeing a problem that needed solving, he attacked this problem with incredible zeal. Every time that he found a puddle of pee, he would grab the puppy by the scruff of the neck, drag it into the bedroom, rub its nose in the pee, slap it on the rump with a piece of rolled up newspaper, and throw the puppy out of the window. ( he had a one story house so no need to call the SPCA). He could justify this approach by rationalizing that he had shown the puppy the problem (pee on the floor), had administered the resulting punishment (slap), and had shown the solution (do it outside).

After about 10 days of this the puppy started going into the bedroom, peeing on the floor and jumping out the window.

The problem with this approach to problem solving is that the puppy obviously understood the process. It was just trying to cut out the bits that it didn’t like …. It didn’t like having its nose rubbed in the pee nor being slapped with the newspaper.

People are no different.

When we make mistakes, none of us particularly like having our noses rubbed in it, neither do we like being punished for it.

As a result, when Managers take this approach to problem solving, the result is that people take the same approach as the puppy… they start to cut out the bits that they don’t like, such as being caught, reprimanded and punished, which means that mistakes often get hidden rather than being made visible and resolved jointly.

The way to train a newly acquired puppy to pee where you want it to, means that you have to dedicate at least the first weekend to training the puppy on what is expected. You do this by taking the puppy out to the required dog loo every 30 minutes or so, and waiting for the puppy to pee. When it does (and they do a lot), you praise it lavishly, and at the same time give it a command as it does the job. It will very quickly associate the praise and fuss with doing the job in the right way, in the right place, and very quickly the command (like “busy, busy, busy” which we use with our five dogs) becomes the suggestion to the dog that it is time it went outside and relieved itself. The early positive re-enforcement of the behavior that is required, quickly gets established as the pattern of behavior that should be followed.

In this respect, people are not very different.

You can achieve a lot more as a Manager by looking for your people to do something right, and then reinforcing that behavior with praise and reward, than by waiting for the mistakes. I understand that there are times when the mistakes need to be addressed, but if the culture of positive re-enforcement is the predominant one in the group, the need to occasionally address the problems becomes easier to deal with and has less negative impact on the group’s ability to work openly and well together.

THE AGEING PROCESS

We recently spent 3 weeks in Canada skiing with a daughter and 2 grand-daughters (aged 5 and 3). We were at Sun Peaks which is about an hour’s flight from Vancouver, and whilst the mountains, snow and skiing conditions were outstanding, the food in the village was absolutely appalling. It was a mix of the worst of American fast foods, and overpriced menus executed by underskilled cooks in a small number of restaurants. We survived mainly on a diet of eggs (dining at home) or chicken wings (eating out). We did have a well equipped kitchen in our condo, but Sun Peaks doesn’t run to a supermarket, and the local general store mainly stocks the frozen versions of what the restaurants had to offer being frozen pizza, frozen hamburgers, frozen chicken parts and so on.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that Sun Peaks seems to be staffed mainly by Australians, we did manage to meet quite a few Canadians, including a fun bunch of Guys from Salmon Arms, who let us share their lunch table in a bar at the foot of the main chair. We found Canadians to be friendly, polite and enthusiastic ambassadors for their country, being ready to talk about how wonderful everything was, and in particular how fantastic had been the Vancouver Winter Olympics. We had 4 days in Vancouver, 2 days on either side of the Sun Peaks trip, and it seems like it would be a wonderful place to live.

A positive aspect for me at Sun Peaks was that they had great discounts for Seniors, being those of us aged over 65. I got 50% discounts on my lift tickets, ski rentals and a number of activities that were available … we even got to “mush” our own 6-huskie dog sled, which was a real highlight of our trip.

What bothered me was that no one ever asked me for proof of age, and whilst I would like to put this down to Canadian politeness, I doubt that this was the real reason.

I have now realized that being 65 is not a problem, as I still seem to be able to do whatever I want to do, though some things not quite as often. I am still skiing, I still go walking in the French Alps in summer, I have started taking horse-riding lessons, I am still business-active, I can still spend a full day building a post and rail fence, and despite joints starting to make their presence known, I seem to be able to cope with everything that I could do when I was younger.

What really does bother me is looking 65 … that’s much harder to cope with.

Hello!

I never cease to be amazed and delighted by small adventures that are part of my life and would like to share, at least some of them, with you. Whether you are looking for professional, management advice, or just curious to find out the pleasures and hurdles of an (almost) retired executive life in France, you are welcome to read my blog.