VIVE LA TRUFFE (Truffle)

When we first started coming to France for holidays over 30 years ago, we had already heard about truffles but had never had the chance to try them. These sought after fungi, described in France as “diamonds of the kitchen” are a serious delicacy in Europe, especially in Spain, France and Italy. Most truffle hunters use pigs to sniff them out, but they then have to wrestle the pig for the truffle, so there has been a recent shift to using trained dogs for truffle hunting as unlike pigs, dogs don’t find the truffle to be an irresistible treat, When these little nuggets can retail in London at over £2000 per kg, they are too precious to become pig fodder.

Victoria and I first tried truffles at an Italian restaurant in London called La Famiglia. She had ordered a relatively standard entrée, and I had decided that I would try the angel-hair pasta with truffles. My first mouthful made me understand immediately what the fuss was all about … it was a taste sensation that was almost indescribable in its subtle intensity. I offered Victoria a taste, and her reaction was similar to mine, so much so that when I tried to take my depleted entree back I seriously worried about her stabbing me with her fork as I reached across the table. Despite the fact that we had mains still to come, we ordered more of this truffle delight. We could have sat there for the rest of the night focused on depleting their truffle supply.

When we moved to France, we knew that we would have to go to a truffle market and get one for ourselves, so last winter we packed up early one freezing cold morning and drove for over 2 hours to a little village called Saint Alvere in Perigord, which has a weekly truffle market during the months of December to February. As the market was due to start at 10.00am, we had to leave home at 7.30am just to make sure that we would be there on time.

We arrived to find about 100 people milling around a small building (about 20 X 10 metres) waiting for the doors to open.

When they did open at 10.00am we surged in with the crowd and started moving around amidst the French elbow-as-a-weapon mob checking out the truffles on offer on about 10 small trestle tables covered in white paper. The variety was enormous from small grayish nuggets to large black gleaming aristocrats, varying in price from €800-1300 per kg., depending on quality, shape, size and, I guess, smell, and had all been graded and priced beforehand … no haggling or negotiations (taking away some of the fun I thought).

At about 10.05 we realized that if we didn’t buy something quickly we would miss out, as the makeshift trestle tables were clearing quickly, so spying a remaining truffle about the size of a smallish nectarine, we handed over € 80 and received our black prize. By 10.10 it was all over, and we were back outside in the cold clutching our truffle in a little cellophane bag. After taking 2 hours to get there, the whole event had taken 10 minutes, and now we were facing a two hour drive back home.

We spied a small brasserie in the central square and decided that we may as well have a cup of coffee before heading back home. As we sat there nursing our coffee and moaning about the 2 hour drive still ahead, a noisy group arrived and deposited themselves down at the next table. Within minutes they were tucking into fresh truffle omelets and large glasses of red wine… the smell alone was enough to make us drool.

We quickly ordered the same and as we sat there at 10.30 in the morning having a truffle omelet breakfast with fresh baguette and a bottle of red wine, we realized that you just have to love a country where this is an accepted possibility of life. We were only driven out by the arrival of the lunch time crowd. The long drive home didn’t seem so bad after all.

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VIVE… series

An Arthur Lowe character called Potter once said “I love everything French except the French”, and I have to admit that there are times when I know what he meant, as for a foreigner living in France, it can be a real love-hate relationship.
Fortunately, most of the time, it is a real delight for us, and as our language skills improve and we become more and more a part of the local community, life here becomes ever more attractive and enchanting.
The posts headed “Vive … “ are my attempt to describe both sides of life in France for an expat.
I welcome similar stories from my friends living here.

CONGRATULATIONS … YOU’RE A HIGH POTENTIAL … HERE IS YOUR TATTOO

Ever since Jack Welch told the world something along the lines of “ … look after the top 10% because they create the magic ..”, every company has put some effort into implementing a “High Potential” or “Top Talent” programme (Pesto effect ?), that attempts to recognize people that are not just top performers and achievers in the company, but also to identify those that have the potential to go further, to do more, maybe even to get to the top.

In most of the “HiPo” programmes that I have seen, this is akin to placing a brand on the forehead of the anointed. It is a title conferred on an individual that he will openly wear and parade brazenly in his work arena. Some companies even go as far as to have the title printed on the individual’s business cards and I have seen one company that handed out a lapel pin to the appointees.

How wrong can you get?

Firstly, as this honour is generally limited to about 2% of the employee population, managers now have to explain to the other 98% that they have lesser or limited or no (?) potential at all compared to the chosen 2%. Not an easy job for any manager, and incredibly de-motivating for those that have worked hard, and who have achieved the goals set for them. Managers must remember that whilst they may have for example 20% Top Performers of which only about 10% may be Hi Potential, there are still another 80% who keep the business going, and merit attention. When managers talk about “talent” it should cover all their people not just the few at the top.

The other issue is that you have now set expectations in this chosen 2% of “wunderkind” that something momentous is now due to happen to them, like an imminent promotion.

I worked with one company that had an employee population of about 60.000 and a manager population of about 6.000. Their employee turnover was relatively low at about 4%, so no more than about 240 managers would depart annually (both voluntary and involuntary). At 2%, HiPos numbered about 1.200, so it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that even if the company was in high growth (which was pretty average for their industry), there were just not going to be enough management jobs opening up to meet these expectations. What was interesting was that the departure rate of HiPos was about treble that of general staff, so the HiPo programme, which had been specifically designed to retain the talent, was actually driving a lot of them away, because of unmet expectations that had been set in the minds of these smart, ambitious people. If you can’t meet these expectations, they will find someone else who can, and they do.

Managers cannot afford to turn the high potentials into a club of the chosen people.

I believe that this will make the programme have as many drawbacks as advantages.

Don’t misunderstand me … I am not saying that programmes that recognise hi potentials should not exist, I am just against their implementation as an exclusive club and the term “High Potential” becoming a title, with all its attendant expectations of what should happen to those branded as being superior.

I have always believed that what a manager should say to those that he does consider of high potential is along the following lines:

“I am delighted with your performance for the following reasons ….. (enunciate them). I believe that you have exhibited potential beyond your current role, and therefore in support of that I, as your manager, will ensure that you have the opportunity for personal development and growth while you are in my team, so that if a more senior/interesting/challenging/rewarding role should become available in the future somewhere in our organisation, you will be better prepared to be able to compete for it.”

No commitments beyond the fact that you as his manager are prepared to spend your own time, effort and energy to help him further his development in whatever direction you jointly decide is needed. This makes his development programme a personal one, jointly owned with his manager, rather than an obligation from the company, and enables the manager to allocate some measurable and challenging tasks/projects that will enable the individual to grow and develop and also to be tested.

As a responsible manager you will ensure that all your direct reports will be going through some training and development during the year anyway, as one of your critical goals is to improve the skills and value of all your people, so no-one has specifically been openly elevated above his peers.

The fact that you believe that you have some individuals in your organisation that merit development and investment beyond the norm can be advised upwards, but without fanfare, without the badges and without the attendant over setting of expectations.

People of high potential are a valuable resource and should be nurtured and developed and given every chance to progress, and Jack was right when he said that they can “ … create the magic …”.

It is just unfortunate that too many companies have rushed into their HiPo programmes, maybe because of the “Pesto Effect” driving HR to be able to tick another box, without any real understanding of their people and the land mines that they have sown for themselves.

HR … THE PESTO EFFECT

A number of people have asked me to write of my experiences running a company internal HR department after 40 years in business roles. When I was first asked whether I would do this, rather than retiring, I felt that it was a bit like asking Attila the Hun to look after the Vestal Virgins. I have to admit that it was probably the hardest job that I ever had, the two years being both challenging and frustrating, and it changed and molded many of the views that I have about people and about management.
I have therefore decided to do a series of regular pieces on HR … this is the first one.

I’ve never had a lot of time for “camp followers”… people who seem to flit through a seemingly infinite list of momentary passions. For the manically fit it can move from tai-chi to yoga to step aerobics to spinning to whatever is the latest craze to come out of body obsessed California. It’s not the changes themselves that I object to, as I understand that it is important to not get bored with the latest exercise regime as one is then more likely to stick with it. What I do object to is the religious fervor with which every new “answer to life” is greeted, the passion that the adherents build, and that they then feel the need to convince everyone else around them that this is the answer to all things wonderful in life … at least for this week.

It’s not true just for the exercise nuts. I’ve seen it with friends who went through EST, gestalt therapy, past life regression, polarity and on and on towards some Nirvana like state just over the next emotional mountain.

I have also seen it with people in HR departments. In my 2 years as Global Head of HR at SAP I often wondered whether there was some sort of global consciousness that swept across the HR world with the speed of a pandemic, as there always seemed to be the latest passion that was sweeping through the HR Community as the answer to the people related ills in organisations.

I decided to call this the “Pesto Effect”.

Ten years ago no-one had heard of pesto, and then suddenly it was everywhere. You could go to any restaurant anywhere in the world and the odds were that pesto would be somewhere on the menu.
I even saw a hot dog seller in New York who had a sign saying “Mustard, Ketchup, Pesto”.

One of the bibles of the global HR community is the “Conference Board Report”. It publishes the latest information on what are the priorities that are being addressed by HR departments around the world supposedly gleaned from their vast legion of subscribers. During my tenure it seemed to follow a sequence along the lines of “Shared Services”, then “Succession Planning”, then “Engagement”, then “Talent Management”, with a new area of priority seeming to come to the top every year, this being considered the priority HR problem that needed immediate addressing.

I have often wondered, along the lines of the chicken and egg question, about what came first.

Did the Conference Board Report canvas all their subscribers and decide that this was the “priority de jour”, or did they decide that this would be the focus of their own research for a particular year, and let the Pesto effect sweep this around the world turning it into reality ?

It does seem surprising to me that there should be this common people need in most companies at about the same time. I would have expected that each company would have its own distinct issues based on its maturity, culture, management skills, market position and a 100 other pressures that should drive an HR organisation to focus on helping management solve issues that are specific to the business needs at the time, as a way of HR adding measurable value to the Company.

Until HR professionals start to understand that there are no such things as “HR problems”, only business problems that HR needs to help management to resolve, they will continue to be relegated to non strategic, non priority positions in their companies.

I find this disappointing as I believe that whilst “Our people are our greatest asset”, or similar worded clichés, appear in every corporate mission and vision statement, it is generally untrue, and I still believe that people are the only true, sustainable competitive advantage that a company can build.

Products and services can give short term market advantage, but can be copied or bettered in an ever shortening timeline. Having people in an organisation that are committed, engaged and passionate about their company is the true wealth in a company, and HR organizations have a pivotal role to play in this being achieved.

GYMNASTICS AND BUSINESS

Some time ago I was surprised to learn that in gymnastics competitions at global levels such as the Olympics, achieving a “perfect score” for a perfectly executed routine in any of the disciplines, needs more than just the perfection of the routine itself.

The judges hold back a small percentage of the overall score in search of 3 extra elements. Whilst these in themselves are not a huge part of the overall score, for these world class athletes they can mean the difference between just a great score and actually winning the gold medal.

The 3 elements are Risk, Originality and Virtuosity.

Risk …The athletes generally train 8 hours per day, 7 days a week for 4 years to get to the Olympics after a lifetime of preparation. The judges want to see that they are prepared to take a calculated (not crazy) risk in their routine, to go for the Gold.

Originality … The judges are always on the lookout for something new in the routine.
For many years the “iron cross” on the rings was a part of every gymnast’s repertoire.
At the London Olympics in 1948, one of the competitors became the first person to do it upside down (inverted cross), and he would have received the bonus for originality. Since then it became a standard, and expected, part of every competitor’s routine, and does not attract any bonus points.

Virtuosity … The judges look for at least one element in every routine, whether it is a mount or a tumble or whatever, where they could consider that the athlete would be amongst the best in the world in that particular element, before they would award this bonus in the overall score.

It became quickly obvious to me that these 3 criteria are just as critical in the business world, and I have included an element of these in my performance reviews over the years.

Calculated risk is a critical element of business success not only at the organizational but also at the personal level, whether it is standing up to one’s boss, or speaking up for your beliefs against a generally popular decision, or choosing one particular direction from a vast choice and sticking with it to a successful conclusion, and I have always sought and encouraged this level of bravery. A manager has to ensure that he can have some “crazy” people in his team who are prepared to question things and thus drive change, if allowed. Too many people take the safer route, which involves keeping ones head below the parapet, not questioning decisions taken, joining any stampedes and keeping away from taking individual and measureable risks. I believe that this is one reason why so many companies have built cultures of continual meetings. The justification is usually that it drives greater involvement, but the reality is that it is generally done for covering ones tracks. If the resultant team outcome is successful, everyone can lay claim to the decision. If it is a failure everyone can blend back into the safety and anonymity of the herd.

Originality, not just in product or service innovations, but also in how and what we do to address business need, are today more critical than ever, especially the “how”. How we build successful and loyal relationships within our ecosystem of customers, partners and suppliers. How we establish ourselves as an integral part of the community. How we build commitment and engagement with our own staff. Some years ago, to gain some competitive advantage, it was just about enough to develop an innovative step change in your product. In the automotive sector, for example, it could then take your competitors years to be able to catch up. With today’s technologies, product advantage even with the patent madness we have created, can generally only be measured in months. The “how” you do things is much harder for your competitors to emulate. What we did yesterday to be successful will not work today, and what we do today will be unlikely to work tomorrow. If we don’t keep changing we become predictable, and being predictable makes us competitively vulnerable.

Virtuosity in the Olympic gymnastics involves the judges looking for athletes to be amongst the best in the world. This ability to hire the best in the world is significantly harder in a business context, as most companies tend to hire the best that is available to them at the time, and this will depend heavily on how they go about targeting the pool that they will get to choose from. I worked with one company that believed that they were hiring the brightest and the best that were keen to be part of changing the world. When we surveyed the previous year’s intake, we found that the majority of them had joined for safety reasons, which was exactly the public image portrayed by this company. We quickly had to separate the recruitment image from the overall global company image to try and appeal to the needed would-be world changers.

I have never expected people to be the best in the world, but I have always expected and believed that, irrespective of their role, they owed it to themselves to be the best that they could be.

MANAGING YOUR CAREER

I have found that most people do very little to manage their own careers.

The majority of people seem to work their way through their jobs with varying degrees of skill and commitment, and wait for opportunities to present themselves, then pick the ones that they consider to be the best out of what is on offer. It is therefore no great surprise that many people seem to have much to complain about in their present role, whatever it is.

I believe that it is critical that you plan out your career much more proactively, by looking up in the organization at people that you admire, and at the roles that you seriously believe that you would want to have, and work a career and development plan that supports your ability to move along that trajectory. Of course it is mandatory that you have the required capabilities, or can develop them, so it helps to be personally honest in this assessment.
I have met a lot of people who could tell me that in the future they wanted to be a CEO for example, but who had little or no idea of the steps that they would need to take to get there, neither the upward movements needed nor the personal development plan to build the commensurate skills. These sort of career aspirations are just based on hope, and hope is never a strategy.

It is also critical that you find a good mentor. Most people wait (and hope) for the company to appoint one which I believe to be totally wrong. It is better to pick someone you admire and respect that is on your trajectory, and approach them directly. Very few senior executives are personally approached by younger people and asked to be their mentors. Most of them too wait for the system to appoint their mentees, and I am sure that both sides would prefer to make their own choices, rather than have someone in HR, for example, make these decisions for them.

To make this approach you must be well prepared and be able to articulate your case, your reasoning, and also, critically, why it would be important and beneficial to the mentor, as well as the benefits to the company. You should also have a plan of what you intend to do, and what you will need from the mentor. In other words you will need to sell yourself, and nothing makes a sale easier than being prepared and understanding the needs of the buyer (mentor), as well as a good understanding of the product (you).

I have also found that there are 3 Golden rules that are the starting point for at least managing the enjoyment and fulfillment of what you are doing, and therefore at least creating the potential for some success in your career. These are:

1. Never do a job you hate.
2. Never work for a boss you can’t respect.
3. Never work for a company you can’t be proud of.

I am constantly amazed by the number of people I come across who hate what they do, but do it anyway. If you do a job that you hate, there is a really good chance that you won’t do it well anyway, so it is unlikely that you will get moved out of it to something more interesting and exciting. It often boils down to money. People will tolerate a job they dislike because it pays more than what they would really like to do.
However, I believe that if you can do something that you really love, not only will it make your life more worthwhile, but if you do it really well, there is a good strong chance that the money and rewards will come anyway. I am particularly dismayed by the number of people I come across in management roles that would have preferred to have stayed in the role of an individual contributor, but moved into management to get more money, more influence, more prestige. I regularly have to spend time with companies that I work with, helping them to build dual career paths to overcome this lack of opportunity for great professionals.

I have been fortunate in my career over the last 40+ years to have worked for some outstanding managers, and I have not stuck very long in a role where my immediate supervisor was not someone that I could look up to and respect. From surveys done regularly, it appears that the vast majority of people change jobs because they haven’t been able to build a solid working relationship with their immediate boss. It is not surprising, as your immediate supervisor is the one who basically decides what you do, whom you do it with, how you are measured, how you are rewarded, how you are developed and what opportunities are presented to you. In other words they control your entire work future, so it makes no sense to stay with someone who sees that future as being very limited.

Lastly, you have to ask yourself whether you would readily try to entice people that you know, admire and respect to come and join the company that you work for, and whether you talk about your employer with enthusiasm and excitement to your friends and family. One of my personal tests was always whether I was prepared to wear my employer’s logo on my chest on one of the many T- and Polo shirts that IT companies love to hand out.

I recently noticed that Air France staff have stopped wearing name tags, and that this is now voluntary rather than mandatory. This suggests to me that many (if not most) are actually not very proud of their job nor their company. When I questioned one staff member about this, she told me that management had advised them that if people had complaints they could complain about the company and not the individuals. This appalls me as I have always believed that companies are really just the sum of their individuals. No wonder that it is such a lackluster company when it comes to customer service.
These days, if I need help from someone in Air France, I always seek out someone with a name tag.
At least I then have a reasonable chance of talking to someone who actually “does give a damn” about their job, their company and hopefully about me as a customer.

DO SOMETHING EVERY YEAR THAT SCARES YOU

I had the opportunity recently to meet with a group of 50 young graduates from a new Masters Course in Germany that combined Business Management with Technology. These were the Top-50 students from varying universities around Germany, and I had been asked to talk to them about “How to manage your career”.

I found it to be an exciting session, as these were bright, articulate, outspoken young people and the 2 hours I had been allocated passed too quickly.
During my lecture one of the things that I told them was that I felt that it was important that “… every year you should do something new that scares you…”.

I was referring to things like public speaking, and mentioned that it didn’t need to be at a high level of terror, like when your wife says “Does my bum look big in these trousers?”, which strikes mind-numbing panic into any married man, but more along the lines of the things that we avoid because they make us uncomfortable.

I have always believed that if you do face these challenges over and over again (and learn something from them each time), they eventually become a skill and you can move on to the next one, thereby adding new skills regularly to your repertoire.

I used as an example the absolute mess I made of my first public speech back in 1967 when I was asked to address the Humanist Society in Christchurch, New Zealand, as their after dinner speaker. I was so nervous that instead of my heavily prepared and mirror-rehearsed 45 minutes, being 10 minute introduction, 30 minute main body, and 5 minute closure on the topic of “Looking for a Humanist or in search of polite literature”, I went straight from my introduction to my close, making the entire speech last less than 15 minutes, with very little to carry it in terms of content.
To try and recover, I then did a 30 minute answer to the first question that was asked of me from the floor, at least not wasting all the research I had done in preparation. I had quite a few surprised people chat to me after the dinner, who all felt that the speech was a bit ho-hum, but what an interesting (if long winded) answer to a fairly innocuous question from the floor.

Over 40 years and hundreds of speeches later, I am a lot more comfortable with the act of public speaking, and have not made that same mistake again … I have however made lots of different ones and still do, and each mistake teaches me something different about speaking to an audience and about myself.

I still however get nervous before every speech that I give, and I believe that this is critical to ensure that my energy levels stay high during the presentation. The nervousness tends to go with my opening sentence, to be replaced with the excitement of the moment, and I have always believed that if the day comes when I am not nervous as I walk on stage, then that is the day that I should stop doing it.

During the Q&A session at the end of my workshop with these German graduates, one of them asked me “Just out of Interest, what are you now doing that scares you?”. I had to think about it for a few moments, and then had to admit that since I had retired from SAP in June of 2006, I hadn’t really done anything that had particularly scared me, and whilst I had done many new things with many new people and new companies, I hadn’t really tackled anything even mildly scary. This really bothered me.

I have decided that this need to stick with what we find extremely familiar is something that just accelerates the ageing process, and for me, this needed to be overcome. I am now, at the age of 65, taking horse riding lessons. Whilst my wife is an extremely keen horsewoman, and we have 3 horses on the property (Patrick, Bella and Atos), I have never been on a horse again since my first unfortunate, frightening and only riding experience with a horse called Diablo in Tahiti in 1979, when a romantic ride along the beach at sunset with my bride to be turned into a nightmare for me, and a source of over 30 years of merriment for my wife.

I am still finding it a scary experience, but I believe that with time and effort I will at least be able to accompany my horse enthusiast wife for a wander through the vineyards that surround us where we live in France, even if I never actually get to gallop across the plains.