VIVE LE FRENCH CANAL


We just had 10 days in August with one of our closest friends from Australia, celebrating a significant birthday, on a barge in the Marne au Rhin canal, in the north-east part of France. You pick up the barge in Lutzelbourg in the Lorraine region (… and yes, the quiche is great), and have a choice of heading east to Strasbourg or west to Nancy, either destination being about 60 kilometres away. Whilst you could do the return trip in about 2 hours in a car, at a maximum speed of about 6 knots (about 10 kph), and numerous locks to get through, it takes considerably longer in a barge.

On a barge it takes a while to sort out who will do what and when, particularly when you have 3 “skippers” on board, which means that the first few locks are akin to dodgem-cars-on-water. It is always fun to watch the first time renters literally “hit” their first lock as they wrestle with their barge’s sluggish rudder, and the competitiveness of other bargers. We were a bit more experienced (and therefore felt somewhat superior) as Victoria and I had done it a number of times before over the last 35 years.

Cruising the French Canals on a barge was actually how we had discovered, and fallen in love with France in the first place. Over the years we had done trips in Burgundy (Nivernais and Bourgogne canals) and Launguedoc (Canal du Midi).

Burgundy has the best food in France. Every small turn of the canal exposed another chateau, another winery, another small village to explore, another inexpensive but memorable eatery. The Canal du Midi wasn’t quite on par, but we had some of the best fish soup on a 2 week trip from spectacular Carcassonne to Aigues-Mortes (2 ancient walled cities), with two must-see seaside villages along the way, Sete and Meze, which sit on opposite sides of a large lake (l’etang de Thau) by the Mediterranean.

The French have taken Lunch to a whole new level of importance, and on this latest cruise we established the habit of cycling off to an interesting looking restaurant (you can buy great canal and environs information books) for a 2-3 hour food and wine discovery experience each day. The menu of the day which normally has considerable choice tends to be around €12-15, for 4 courses and often includes some house wine, though if you want a Michelin star or two (and France has many) this can increase 3-4 fold. I have to admit that the cycle back to the barge after lunch always seemed somewhat slower than getting there.


The food in Lorraine has its own style and flavour, and as one would expect, quite some Belgian and German influence. I have never been a great fan of German food, and over my years of travel to Germany with SAP cannot really pinpoint any memorable meals other than some reasonable Indian and French in Heidelberg and some passable Italian in Speyer.

I sometimes have cravings for a particular nationality’s food … a spicy Malaysian laksa, some Singaporean black pepper crab, some Japanese sushi, an Indian rogan josh or an Italian penne arrabiata, but I have never woken up thinking that I could kill for a Bratwurst and sauerkraut, so I wasn’t expecting much being so close to the German border. While I am being nasty about German food, I must admit that the Germans do a great breakfast with the world’s best breads, and everything that you would ever want to go beyond that, whereas in France were we live breakfast is a cup of coffee and a cigarette … 2 cigarettes for a big breakfast.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that this German/French/Belgian influence in Lorraine worked really well and we had some memorable meals. One restaurant (Le Clos de la Garenne in Saverne) was so good that we went back for a second time and were not disappointed. There was generally the ubiquitous Bratwurst and chips as well as choucroute (sauerkraut with various pork cuts), but they were easy to bypass.

The area we were in covers cities like Strasbourg, which has to be one of the most attractive in France being surrounded by water and with some of the best medieval architecture that you could hope to see in one place, and Nancy, the home of Emile Galle (1846-1904) with great Art Nouveau and 18th century architecture, and which is going through a major urban renewal, starting with the spectacular Place Stanislas. We even found an incredible Chagall stained glass window in Sarrebourg, a small village along the way.


The Marne au Rhin canal also has its own style with the canal crossing over major roads, a 2 kilometre narrow tunnel to navigate through and an elevator (le plan incline de St Louis/Arzviller) that lifts the barge (with water) about 45 metres and which has replaced 17 locks that used to take a full day to labour through before its construction.


It’s a great way to see the country, and if you want a break which forces you to relax and to be able to keep moving without having to unpack and repack, then barging is perfect, and whilst you are only moving at the pace of a brisk walk, you are active all the time with locks to pass through with their individual peculiarities, lifting bridges, pedalling off to buy the morning croissants or to a restaurant for lunch or cycling off to an interesting site or village.


Europe is crisscrossed with canals and waterways, mainly used for pleasure rather than commerce these days, and it is possible to go from the southwest of France to the Mediterranean and even on to Russia.

It was so much fun that it has even re-opened our discussions on whether it is time to get our own canal boat in France.

HR … POLITE TO POLICE TO PARTNER TO PLAYER

Whenever I speak to a group of HR Professionals, I tend to start with the need for HR organisations to go through a process of change, and I call this transition “Polite to Police to Partner to Player”.

HR people have always tended to be the politest people in the company. You can go to them with any problem or issue, and they will always listen intently and politely. Most of the time they can’t actually help you solve the problem, but at least they won’t be checking their emails over their shoulder every time they get an alert of a new message in their inbox.

portrait of a panel of three interviewers smiling

Some years ago someone decided that HR could also become the protectors of company policies and procedures. Suddenly HR people had to contend with policing for strayers from things like the official paths that covered the travel policy or relocation allowances. Whilst I was running HR at SAP, I tried to give as much of this away to the Finance department as I could get away with. This was not as big an issue as it sounds as generally Finance people love a policing function … it is actually one of the things that makes them want to go in to work in the mornings. It was not that I wanted my HR team to have less to do, but I didn’t want HR to be seen as a “nay-sayer” and a barrier to the business, and this was just one step of many.

Today HR organisations have been positioning themselves as Business Partners. The trend has been to move the administrative roles over to shared-service centres meaning that this frees up the HR professionals to focus on helping the business lines solve their human issues.

Note that I said “human issues” rather than “business issues”, as I have found very few HR people that have a reasonable grasp of the difference. When I ran HR at SAP, I arranged for some bright young HR professionals to do an MBA, based on my belief that this would give them a better understanding of what business issues actually meant. Unfortunately it worked too well. As soon as they finished their MBA they immediately, and successfully, sought roles outside of HR. I am sure that they must exist out there somewhere, but I have still to meet working HR professionals with an MBA.

I have a belief that the role of “Partner” for HR is a reasonable step but it is not enough. I see an HR Partner as being someone who helps to implement a business strategy that has been developed by others. I believe that HR has to become a Player. To me a Player is someone who plays an integral part in developing the strategy, rather than just helping to implement it.

HR should be playing a critical role in helping to develop any business strategy, and I am constantly amazed at the number of companies who seem to not understand that there must be a logical link between any business strategy and the company culture (sum of the behaviours). For example, it makes no sense to develop a strategy based on building a capable partnering strategy, when in the DNA of the organisation is a belief that the only font of knowledge exists with them alone, and that all partners are just lowly versions of themselves, rather than professional, capable, value-add “side-kicks”.

I define culture as “the way we do things around here” and if there is any area of business reality where HR can play a pivotal role, it is in helping line managers to build the culture, to help build required behaviour. If this definition is valid, then it is not hard for HR to become an integral part of helping to set strategic direction, to help channel behaviour and to make a serious contribution to adding measurable value to the business.
Everyone is always telling HR people that they “have to get a seat at the table”, but very few people can actually describe what this actually means. I doubt that most HR people could actually find this mythic table let alone get a seat.

The sooner that HR people can understand that there are “no HR problems” and only “business problems that HR can help managers to resolve”, and the sooner that they can help managers to understand that no one can develop an executable business strategy without understanding whether their people can meet the strategic needs, the sooner HR can sit down with the grownups.

MOVE THEM UP OR MOVE THEM OUT

I have long believed that managers need to always have a “ladder” of their people graded from best to worst performer. This is not just to ensure visibility of the top performers, but also to ensure identification of those that need help. The problem is that most managers find it very easy to work with the people who are doing well, as that generally means easy contact and positive conversations, but find it hard to work with those that are struggling, as that involves some confrontation and considerable effort.

I am not saying that managers should stop having significant focus on their best people, but I am often amazed at how many people don’t actually understand that they are not performing to the expectation of their immediate supervisor until they have their annual performance review at the end of the year, generally too late for remedial actions to be taken.

I believe that the role of a manager is to personally work with whoever is on the bottom rung of the ladder and to focus on helping them to move up. This generally means that the manager will need to expend effort as it involves some coaching, some development and some hand-holding from the manager (and even others) for a while, but this is one of the things that managers are meant to do anyway, even though few actually do so. Once the manager realistically feels that his charge has now moved off the bottom rung, this will then uncover the next person that needs help, and the manager can now shift his focus and efforts to this one. In this way, a manager will develop a team that is continually improving.

Keeping the focus just on the top performers may be easier but doesn’t necessarily achieve much improvement in the team. Moving a hi-performing employee from 100-105% performance is not only harder, but also doesn’t deliver as much benefit to team success as does moving a struggler from say 70-90%. Too many managers leave people sitting on the bottom rung for too long, without remedial action being taken quickly enough and then it becomes too late to do anything to save them.

I have always believed that if you hire people for their strengths then you can’t remove them for their weaknesses until you have made significant effort to help them to overcome these. Only after you have expended this effort jointly, and they are still sitting on the bottom, can you now consider more critical action hence “Move them up or move them out”.

I believe that the same holds true if a manager has a team where all are great performers and are all achieving their goals. There are still significant benefits to be gained by focussing on “moving up” whoever is the least of the hi-performers and keeping the whole process alive.

By “move them out”, I mean initially looking at whether they can be moved out of their current role, and into a role where their strengths can be used to add value to the organisation. If the recruitment process that brought them in to the organisation was well run and stringent, then there is significant chance that they can still be valuable in a different role. Only as a last resort should they be terminated. A “hire ‘em fire ‘em” attitude is too expensive and disruptive to any organisation, and should never be allowed to become a way of compensating for bad management practices.

VIVE LE FRENCH VILLAGE MARKET

Dressed and ready for market day

One of the things that I love about living in France is going to the village markets that take place all around us in every village of any size. Unfortunately our village is too small to have one, the only commerce being a Doctor’s Surgery. We did have a hairdresser for a while but she moved to a larger village about 5 kms down the road, and as we also don’t have a Boulanger (baker) anyway, we don’t really count as a true village. How can you consider yourself an important bourg if you have to walk more than 100 metres to get the morning baguette or croissant, or have the purple hair rinse revived?

Around us are some of the best markets in the region.

Ste Foy La Grande on Saturday morning is considered one of the prettiest in France, and where in summer you hear more English spoken than French. Cadillac, an old walled city, also has a great market on Saturday mornings, and as it is only 10 minutes away from us is somewhere we can catch up with local friends and neighbours. Creon on Wednesdays, Castillon La Bataille (where the last battle of the 100 years war was fought) on Monday mornings, Latresne on Sundays … the list is endless.

It is where you go for the best meats, fish, cheeses, flowers and fresh produce, and where you can get a real feel for French life, and also how life in France is changing over time.


When we first started coming to France about 30 years ago, the stalls were mainly made up of small family farm holders taking their home-grown produce to market. It changed with the seasons, and mum and dad who sat there with their baskets of potatoes one week, would be there with asparagus or tomatoes or plums or honey or jam another.
Today, just like the supermarkets, the stall-holders are mainly retailers whose goods come from all over the world … avocados and oranges from Israel, kiwifruit from New Zealand, bananas from Ecuador and Ivory Coast, and like the rest of the world if it needs any manufacturing it will have come from China.

With the growth of the North African immigrants to France, there has also been a big move towards the availability of African food … kefftas, tajines and couscous stands, as well as the globally ubiquitous trivialities like cheap wooden carvings and leather belts and handbags. These latter can be the most interesting, as in the haste to go to market, many have not been properly tanned, so when you put them away at home it is equivalent to putting a piece of steak in your sock drawer. We know of a few instances where people believed that some mysterious rodent had crawled in and died somewhere in their bedroom, only to realize that their black Prada-look-alike bag had turned green and grown mould.

Despite this the markets are still a wonderful palette of colours and noise and smells and movement, and over the time of living here, we have pinpointed where and when to go for our particular needs. Over the years we had chatted to the stallholders that we regularly frequented, but had always felt that we know them better than they knew us. We were proven wrong when Les Bleus beat the All Blacks during the last rugby world cup. As we did our usual rounds, every single stall holder remembered that we were Kiwis, and went out of their way to good naturedly remind us of our heritage.


The mom and pop stands still exist, though you do have to look for them, and having to wait to be able to buy local food in season, rather than having it shipped in packed in refrigerated containers for all year availability, just gives them a taste intensified by the wait and the expectation. It is worth the wait for local specialities like cepes mushrooms, black Perigord truffles, Gariguette strawberries and asparagus, which all have short seasons, but are taste sensations.

We have our own large vegetable garden (potager) and grow most of our produce ourselves these days, but even if we don’t actually need to buy anything, we can always find an excuse for a market visit at least once a week.

IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME

When I was appointed to the SAP Global Extended Board in 1999, my bosses at the time (the Global CEO and the Board Chairman) approved my title as “CEO Asia Pacific, Board Member SAP-AG”. This was based on the fact that no-one outside of Germany really knew what “Extended Board” meant, and they felt that anyway we had a 12 member Global Board and I was part of it.

When I took over the role of CEO Europe Middle East Africa in 2001, my secretary who was new to SAP, asked me what I wanted on my business cards. I handed her a copy of my Asia Pacific business card and told her to just change Asia Pacific to EMEA and so on … seemed like a simple solution.

That is until she went for printing advice to the PA of my predecessor, who immediately rushed to her boss to have this stopped. It appeared that in the previous 2 years (he and I had been appointed to the Extended Board at the same time), he had had “Member of the Extended Board” on his business cards as compared to “Member of the Board” which is what I had on mine. He seemed to be bothered that somehow my title seemed more senior than the one that he had used.

I pointed out that my business cards had been approved by both the Board Chairman and the CEO of SAP, but this was not acceptable to him, and he kept coming up with numerous reasons why I couldn’t have the cards the way that I had stipulated.

I kept pressing him for the real reason that he opposed it, and under my persistence eventually blurted out “Member of the Extended Board was good enough for me, so it should be good enough for you”.

An interesting thought.

I have come to believe that just as parents needs to believe that one of their responsibilities is to make things easier for their children, so managers need to believe that one of their responsibilities is to make things easier for their successors. It is totally wrong to believe that “What was good enough for me is good enough for who follows me”. It is actually critical for the growth and success of any organisation that everyone in a people responsible position has a strong belief that “What was good enough for me is definitely not good enough for my successors”.

For example I believe that a critical role for every manager is to build and grow the interdependencies across departments and geographies to ensure strong linkages for their team, and thus making the goals of their own team easier to achieve in the future. Another critical role is to grow the skills, knowledge and experiences of their managers and individual contributors so that their ability to perform gets easier every year. In other words, to keep growing their net worth.

I see that being given management responsibility for a team of people is akin to being given a garden to look after that you will ultimately have to pass on to someone else to care for.

You have choices to make.
You can just leave the “garden” alone and hope that nature takes its course, that rain and sunshine comes in the right quantities and at the right time, and that the weeds don’t strangle the flowers.
You could also choose to just do a little bit every once in a while, throw around a bit of manure, mow the grass when it gets really high and pull out the occasional and most obvious of weeds.
Or you could choose to really help to make this garden grow and flourish. You can encourage the best of the growth, add water and fertiliser as needed, weed out the parts that could strangle the good growth and add to the wealth of what exists.

Planting Spring Flowers

Flowers

Just believing that what is good enough now is what will be good enough in the future is unacceptable for a professional manager. Managers should be measured on whether they are net creators of talent for the organisation, whether their area of responsibility grows and develops in line with the changing needs of the organisation, and whether their team becomes more effective in meeting their goals year on year. In other words how well can a manager grow, develop and improve his “garden”, rather than believing that his role is to just keep it alive.

To stay with the gardening theme, I have come across too many managers who use the “mushroom approach” to people management. They keep their people in the dark and occasionally pour a bucket of manure over them.

VIVE LA 35 HOUR WEEK

I’ve never quite understood the concept of the 35 hour week in France and its observance as if it was the 11th commandment.
I do understand that many countries like New Zealand have a traditional 40 hour week, which theoretically is not much different, but what is different is that the French in the main seem to treat this as a physical barrier, rather than a rough approximation. I know from my time in NZ that the focus was on getting the job done, and if that meant working an extra 30-40 minutes or so occasionally it was all just part of the give and take of the job. In France, when we were renovating our house, workers would down tools the minute that they had worked their 35 hours even if they were 80-90% of the way through a particular task.

When you add annual leave and statutory holidays in each country the annual hours worked become even more interesting. According to an OECD study (OECD 2004, OECD in figures) the average annual hours worked in France was 1346 one of the lowest in the developed world. By comparison the average in NZ was 1767, USA 1777, Japan 1828 and Korea topped the chart at a whopping 2390.

We were given an estimate of 18 months for our renovations, and based on the size of the job and the state of the house, this seemed like a long but not unreasonable amount of time. On the morning that work was due to start, we decided that we should go to the house early to show that we would be hands-on with the renovations and to show that we were enthusiastic about the project. We arrived at the property at about 7.30 am and to our amazement there were about 30 people all over the house dismantling the roof, taking down internal walls and beginning work on removing 100 years of grime from the walls. We stayed all day and so did most of the team who left at about 7.00pm. We were even more impressed when the same was true for the next 2 days. I had heard so much from other Anglophones living here about how lazy French workers were, and here they were putting in 12 hour days and proving all these negative French-work-ethic comments to be completely wrong.

When we turned up on the Thursday morning there were only a handful of people on the site, being only the self employed subcontractors as I found out later. The rest of the workers had completed their 35 hours in the first 3 days so were all staying home to watch television (see my comments in “I live to work or I work to live” posted on July 5, 2010). I was now starting to understand that the 18 month time estimate for the project had less to do with the state of the house and work needed, and more to do with the attitude of the workers involved.

I tried different incentives to see if that would speed up the process, but all to no avail, as these were always rejected based on the fact that the renovation team felt that most of the financial incentives would go to the government anyway, and so it eventually took almost 3 years of work before we could physically move in.

Hallway Before

Hallway After

Despite the whole project being so lengthy, and as a result significantly more expensive (you should generally allow about double the purchase price for renovations), I have to say that the quality of the work was excellent. The artisans that we found to do the restoration of a house built in 1802, and badly maintained for over 100 years, were absolute masters. I wish that I could say the same about the plumbers, however this does not fall into the same skills category, and with both properties that we have owned in France this has always been the real weak point in the French crafts armoury.

Salon Before

Salon After

Before coming to live in France, I lived in Singapore and worked in Asia Pacific. I am not at all surprised that Asian countries and India are now taking their rightful place in the world, and seem to be weathering the economic storm better than most. Just based on work ethic alone, how can France that just works 35 hours per week compete with these regions where people just sleep 35 hours per week?

THE THREE ENVELOPES

Just after I was appointed to the role of IT Manager at International Harvester NZ about 40 years ago, a colleague told me a story that highlighted the tenuous nature of management roles.

It involved the removal of a CEO by his board after the company had delivered a number of years of unspectacular performance, and his replacement by a new, younger recruit from their industry.

CEO sign on desk

On his last day, the departing CEO was clearing out his office when the replacement CEO arrived unexpectedly. After exchanging some mild pleasantries along the lines of “no hard feelings” and “it’s not personal”, the new CEO asked his predecessor whether he had any advice to share. The departing CEO handed him 3 numbered envelopes with the instructions that they should be opened in sequence if all else failed.

The new CEO threw himself into his new role. He visited the remotest parts of the company, listened to all opinions from every level of management, spent time with the engineers and on the shop floor, spoke to customers and suppliers, and after 12 months he felt that he had a real understanding of the company and the issues that it faced. His only problem was that he didn’t have a clear idea of what he had to do to bring the company back to competitive strength.

He then remembered the 3 envelopes in his desk drawer and opened the first one. It said “Blame your predecessor”.

He took the advice, and at the next board meeting told the board that after 12 months of in depth study he had come to the conclusion that his predecessor had been the problem, and that to save the company he would now have to go about changing everything that his predecessor had implemented during his tenure. This pleased the board as it supported their decision to remove the previous CEO, so they quickly allocated significant budget and resources to the CEO to effect the changes proposed.

Armed with this mandate, the CEO spent the next year changing every element of the company’s business processes both internally and externally. Unfortunately, even after all these changes, the company’s fortunes had not significantly improved.
Out came envelope number 2. It said “Reorganise”.

Armed with this new strategy, he reported at the next board meeting that now that they had totally changed the way the company worked, the current structure did not fit and that they would now have to go through a total global restructuring. Again the Board was thrilled that their CEO was so dynamic and once again voted him significant budget and resources to effect the changes.

After another 12 months of turmoil, and when things had still not improved, he opened the final envelope. It said “Prepare 3 envelopes”.

CEO sign on desk, close up, man in background

I recently saw a report from Price Waterhouse that said that the average tenure of a global CEO today is about 2.7 years. This means that few CEOs today are ever really tested, as they don’t serve long enough in the role to actually have to live with their decisions, directions and implementations.
I guess that just like art imitating life and vice versa, we have now reached a point in the business world where life actually imitates humour.