Theodore Roosevelt said “The man who makes no mistakes usually does not make anything.”

Theodore Roosevelt; Author: Pach Brothers (photography studio), via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that we are not making enough mistakes and as a result are holding back creativity and innovation, particularly in large companies.

As children we tend to learn by making mistakes. When we first learn to ride a bike, it is a very rare child that climbs on the first time and pedals off into the sunset. We learn that if we pedal too slowly we will fall, if we lean too much to the left or too far to the right we also fall and so on, and it is with some trial and error that we all become bike riders. It is very rare that parents start off by telling their children that bike riding is complex and difficult to do and that no mistakes are allowed on the way to proficiency.

Author: Werner100359 (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

I therefore find it strange that many companies have forgotten that this trial and error is at the heart of the learning process that drives competence at a task or skill.
Many companies have such strong and protected cultures that induction programmes tend to result in “This is the way we do things here (acceptable behaviour) and woe-betide anyone who does anything else”, so thatmany inductees come away with the belief that it would be foolish and career limiting to try something new or do something differently. I have always believed that if we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we already have, and innovation and creativity will not flourish.
More critically, this is not only true for junior employees.

Recent studies by Cornell University have shown that whilst most CEOs say that creativity is critical for senior leadership, the perceptions that are generally held are that there is a clash between “creative people” and “effective leaders”. Creative people are seen as risky and unpredictable whereas leaders are meant to remove uncertainty and uphold the norms of the group.

As Edward de Bono points out “The problem leaders have with creativity is two-fold. If you yourself have done very well with the existing modes of thinking, why should you encourage others to learn further modes? But if you live in innocent ignorance of the other modes of thinking, how can you be anything but complacent about thinking?”

Edward de Bono; Author: David Davies from Birmingham, UK; via Wikimedia Commons

What this means is that managers get promoted because they have shown that they have the ability to protect the status quo, but when they get to senior leadership roles they are now expected to show creativity and innovation, skills that they did not learn along the way, and that they have mistrusted in their climb up the corporate ladder. Yet in turbulent times, one key to survival is the ability to take a different view of situations, barriers, opportunities, competition etc. in ways that relate to turbulence and unpredictability in the market, something few CEOs can do.

In a study of 1500 Global CEOs carried out by IBM in 2010,to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world, creativity was seen as being even more critical than rigor, management discipline, integrity and vision, and this alone may explain why most of the CEOs surveyed doubted their abilities to lead their businesses through these complex times.

To be creative means taking calculated risks, and means not being scared of regularly being wrong and tripping up. I have always believed that if you try 10 new things and 7 of them work well, you are generally well ahead of your competition. In the same way that we encourage our children to try new things and not worry if they fall over or make mistakes along the way, for any company to be successful it is critical that we encourage this same sense of adventure and experimentation in our employees, or we will not build organisations and leadership that have the creativity to survive the complexity, uncertainty and volatility that exist today and that will continue to grow in the future.

Too many companies seem to believe that creativity and innovation are driven by genius. That if we hire the brightest and best that can be found, they will come up with all that is new and that is needed for success. Peter Drucker has always pointed out that having genius is a good starting point, but that it is not enough (see post on Innovation posted October 4, 2010.). To drive innovation and creativity you need to build an environment where people are not scared to try new things, to voice divergent opinions, and are not scared to make honest mistakes on their road to learning and success.

We are just not making enough mistakes as adult business people, and until we are prepared to take a similar approach to learning as we did when we were children, and are prepared to build companies where mistakes are seen as part of the learning process on the path to competence, we will not drive creativity and innovation well enough for business survival and success.

As Hugh White (1773-1840) US Politician said “When you make a mistake, don’t look back at it for long. Take the reason of the thing into your mind and then look forward. Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.“



I have written before about emails being an incredible time stealer (see “Fifth Secret of Time Management” posted November 11, 2010), but having recently had a question asked by a friend on Facebook on how many emails people were handling daily, I felt it needed some more comment.

Source: User:MG via Wikimedia Commons; Licence: GFDL

When I was still working at SAP, I would generally have to deal with between 250-350 emails per day, which was an incredible burden, even when I followed all the rules of email management. I would regularly ask people to not cc me on emails, as if I wasn’t considered critical to be a direct recipient, I would be unlikely to just need to know. At one stage I even tried to get SAP to ban the “reply all” button just to try and bring this email number down, as I knew that I was not the only person in the company being drowned in email.

I found that everything that I did to try and minimise my email traffic afforded me just a short and only temporary respite, and within a short time the numbers rocketed up again. Even with the availability of reasonable filters, I found it hard to bring the numbers down, and I felt that handling emails had become a major part of my job description, despite the fact that it was not something I was being evaluated on and measured against.

Author: Aqw96 (own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I now, in semi-retirement, tend towards 50-100 emails per day, which is still more than I need but is much more manageable.

I still follow all my own rules, as in “Fifth Secret”. I only look at emails about 3 times per day, believing that by giving myself a fixed time to do them each time, I am a lot more succinct and bloody minded in their handling. I rarely touch them till about 10.00 am when I have had a chance to do the important and/or creative things for the first few hours of the day, as I know that most of the emails that I receive will result in my doing things for someone else.

But this ad hoc Facebook survey which showed that most senior business people are still in the range of over 250+ emails per day has made me wonder about whether today’s business communications styles, which are meant to make everyone more knowledgeable about what is happening, are actually creating an environment where business is harder to conduct because of overload and time wasting.

Assuming that the average email takes even just 30-40 seconds to process and respond to, at 200+ emails per day this equates to a minimum of about 2 hours per day on email management or about 25% of actual available time. If meetings then take up about 40% of available time of which 50% is wasted (see “Meetings Bloody Meetings” posted 18 April, 2010), this means that most executives and professionals have only about 1/2 of their time to plan, manage and execute on what is needed to effectively run their business or role, which is ultimately what they will be measured against.

I understand that these are a relatively simplistic set of calculations, but even if I am out by a factor of 100%, it is still pretty scary.

A study by the University of Michigan showed that executives spent about 50% of their time doing their core job, and about 50% on other non-core roles which included Team, Career, Innovator and Organisation roles, and that successful executives in high performing companies actually spend significantly more time on the non-core roles than those in lesser performing companies. But if one now removes the time wasted through emails (25%) and wasted meeting time (20%), and executives then have only 50% of their real time available, which parts of their role suffer the most? I believe that this time pressure forces most executives to focus the time that they do have available on their core role, and what suffers is their planning, innovation, peer teamwork, work for the overall corporation and time spent on their personal learning and growth, all functions which the University of Michigan study shows are critical for both individual and company success.

Apple iPhone 3G(left) and Samsung Blackjack II(right); Author: whalesalad via Wikimedia Commons

I find it no wonder that many senior people I meet and work with find it hard to balance their lives, working in excess of 60-80 hours per week just to keep up. I am not a great believer in the whole work/life balance obsession per se, but I am a believer in the fact that most executives and senior professionals could work significantly less, and be significantly more successful, if they could get better control of their time, and managing emails (and meetings) is a great place to start for considerable return.
Too many people now define their importance and personal worth based on how many emails they get, based on a twist to Descartes famous line becoming “I get email, therefore I am.”


“A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”
James T Kirk Captain of the Enterprise

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” talks about the 10,000 hours that are needed to become an expert at something (see “First Secret of Success” posted September 16, 2010). If this is the case then anyone who has worked in a corporate environment for more than about 5 years must already be an expert in attending meetings. Note that I said expert in “attending” rather than “conducting” meetings.

Board Meeting; Author: Areyn (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

According to an MCI Conferencing white paper called “Meetings in America”, most US Professionals attend over 60 meetings per month, and research has shown that over 50% of the time spent in these is actually wasted. I am sure that European statistics are not very different.

Even if one assumes that the average meeting time is as low as one hour, and they are usually longer, this means that in an average working month most professionals are spending the equivalent of about 8 days in meetings of which 4 days (or 20% of the monthly time available) is wasted. I believe that this number is much higher and may even be growing. Add to this the fact that most professionals at all levels are drowning in emails, it means that one would be lucky to escape with only 50% wasted time in an average work day.

If meetings take up so much time, and most professionals complain about the effectiveness of meetings in their organisations, why do we persist with so many meetings and why have they become such an integral part of most company cultures?

I believe that there are 4 major reasons.

1. Meetings are used to try and overcome poor information sharing processes.

It is critical that ways are found to communicate information without getting people in the same room or on the same conference call. There is now such a plethora of tools available to enable the creation of 24/7 information sharing processes that the need for physical meetings to share information should be an exception. Too many meetings involve people sharing hundreds of Powerpoints about what they have done in the past. Meetings to present historical actions to large groups of people achieve little for the business, and are generally used only to justify the existence of the presenters.

2. Meetings are used to try and overcome the lack of clear decision making processes.

It is better to determine whether you have workable decision making processes in your team, rather than to have meetings to try and define or achieve needed decisions. Clear objectives and delegation should allow those that are most effected to make decisions that are within their area of responsibility, and informing those that need to know, instead of indulging in endless group discussions.

Parliamentary party meeting in European Parliament; Author: Björn Laczay; via Wikimedia Commons

3. Meetings are used to cover up inadequate management skill.

This occurs when the objective is to “look busy” rather than to “get on with the job”. I have found that the weakest of managers tend towards calling the most meetings. This is because many managers focus more on busy-ness rather than business, and calling endless meetings is just another way to overcome the fact that the manager does not know what he should be doing in his role.

4. Fear of failure pushes people towards collective decisions (and therefore shared blame) if things don’t work out as planned.

Too many times meetings are called so that one person does not have to take the risk of making a tough decision that can then be directly attributed to him/her. Pushing the decision to a collective one in an open meeting, enables everyone to run for cover if the decision turns out to be wrong, and even enables everyone to personally take credit if the collective decision turns out to be a good one.

The problem with meetings as a decision making tool is that committees generally make decisions based on compromise, which means that it is rare that a specific person takes personal responsibility and commitment for ensuring that the decision taken will work, as there is rarely individual ownership of any group decision, and it is a rare team that has built the culture of collective decision ownership (See “I hate Compromise” posted September 6, 2010).

The 62nd General Assembly of the United Nations; Source: Agência Brasil; Author: Marcello Casal JR/ABr; via Wikimedia Commons

Meetings can be important to ensure that everyone is “on the same page” and in those instances where it is critical to get the buy-in of those involved, and should only be attended by people who have a serious stake in the decision and the outcome. Meetings should not be used as a cover-up for inadequacies in the people nor the culture in the team, division or company, as these are just time stealers.
To be effective, meetings need to have critical development, planning and preparation done beforehand to ensure that the intent, the behaviours and the desired outcomes expected are all well prepared, understood, agreed and committed to by all attendees.

As John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) American/Canadian economist said …
“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”


For visitors to France it can be quite exciting to visit a French supermarket, not because you will find anything different on the shelves than you would find in East Cheam or Footscray for example, but because everything will be in a foreign language, in a different and confusing layout and because shopping behaviour varies wherever you go.

By Le grand Cricri (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Globalisation has ensured that we can buy the same can of peeled tomatoes in every supermarket in the world and the difference between “tomato” and “tomate” would only fool the most dim-witted of travellers. What is different in every country is the etiquette involved once you are inside, as this does vary considerably as you cross national boundaries, and France has some unique elements of supermarket etiquette that are worth knowing. Here are some that I have found critical to understand.

1. In villages in the French countryside, the correct dress for a supermarket visit is shapeless smocks for women and bright blue overalls for men.
Berets are not mandatory but appreciated. It also helps if the smocks and overalls have never been washed since purchased a decade earlier, and carry evidence of all meals in that time.

2. Never brush your teeth or wear deodorant when going to the supermarket, but ensure that you stop a lot of people and ask directions to the cheese counter.
The French love visitors who have immersed themselves in the local culture and statistics show that the average French villager uses only one tube of toothpaste and two bars of soap annually.

3. Disregard signs that say that the special checkout lane is only for people with less than 10 articles, as this is just intended to keep out foreigners who believe what is written on signs.
There is no limit for locals, particularly those who are buying the monthly supplies for their entire village, and can’t actually see over the top of their laden trolley.

© Copyright Keith Evans (http://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/6337); licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

4. Always cut out all the discount vouchers in the junk mail in letterboxes that you have come across in your travels, and present all these to the checkout clerk even if they have no relevance to what you have purchased or the store that you are in at the time.
It will be easier for the checkout clerk to sort through them and hand back those that are not to her liking. Keep these for future visits.

5. Never accept that your discount vouchers are out of date.
The dates are just there to test your resolve, so you should dispute all that are rejected for being past their use by date. You should use the argument that they keep selling things that are past their use by date so why should they not accept discount vouchers that are past theirs.

6. Supermarkets prefer payment is small coins rather than notes, credit cards or cheques.
The French Government has decided that this will increase numeracy skills as you stand at the checkout and count out all your small coins. If you lose count, don’t feel bad about the queue which has built up behind you, just shrug your shoulders in the French way and start again. You will find that people behind you will offer advice in loud voices but this is just the locals encouraging you to keep improving your counting skills, so take your time and get it right.

By Olybrius (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

7. Make sure that you sign up for all supermarket loyalty cards (Carte de Fidelite) as these ensure great benefits for regular customers, and you will be given a diverse choice of rewards as thanks for your purchases.
These can include a 1 kilometre credit on any SNCF French rail trip for every € 1000 spent, or inclusion in a nationwide weekly raffle draw for a set of 6 steak knives with a serrated edge that will never need sharpening (even with French steak).

8. The speed limit in French supermarket car parks is 100 kilometres per hour and, as this is strictly policed, this limit should be observed at all times, and should only be exceeded when in active competition for the same car space with another serious contender. You may also disregard all the one way direction arrows painted on the ground.

9. The way to shop and check-out in France is changing.
The traditional method of collecting all your goods and proceeding to the checkout counter in one movement has been dying out. The new method in this electronic age is to collect half your required items and proceed to the checkout counter. Once the checkout clerk starts scanning your purchases, you are now free to make numerous forays back into the shelves for the other half of the items on your shopping list. This method is called multi-tasking and you will be admired by other customers for your modern ways.

10. There are many small supermarkets in the French countryside called “8 a huit”.
This name would suggest that they are open from 8.00 am-8.00 pm providing 12 hours of continuous daily service to the public. The reality is that the name has actually nothing at all to do with opening times, but is a reference to 7.52 pm when the owner will go to bed. Deducting lunch times, coffee breaks, closure for phone calls, running out of stock, family visits and the need to watch all interesting TV programmes they will be open roughly 12 hours in any week, but when and for how long is always at the discretion of the owner.

By Gordito1869 (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

You should also remember that the person in front of you at the check-out counter will have all the delicacies that you couldn’t find and those that you didn’t even know that the supermarket carried. Offer to help them unload their trolley, and just surreptitiously slip anything that looks good into your own.


There are lots of self-styled experts who write about how to get a promotion, like Penelope Trunk (See “How to get promoted” posted April 4, 2011), but many of these tend towards either “Kissing up” to your boss, or blatant self-promotion to all the others that matter in the decision process. If you do work for a company where these are the decision criteria for promotion, it may be time to change your employer. I believe that promotions should be earned, rather than bought, so herewith my top-10 hints for actually earning a promotion.

1. Look to the future but keep focussed on doing the best job possible in your current role.

It is great to have an eye on the future, but to be seen as promotable you have to show that you can do your current job extremely well. This doesn’t mean that you should not ask for more responsibilities, but only after you have shown that you can perform at the current role to the highest standards. Offering to mentor more junior staff members will position you well, and acting as a mentor will also be a good learning experience for you if looking for a future role in management.

2. Find a good mentor for yourself.

Recent studies have shown that the majority of promotions are given to those that have a mentor higher up in the company. Not only is this helpful in getting the right career advice and direction, but it also helps to have someone higher up the ladder, who has confidence in you, singing your praises and supporting your growth as an individual.

3. Learn to network, not just to get connected, but to find out what is going on in different parts of the company and what challenges they are facing.

One of the critical skills shortages in most companies is “general management” capabilities and knowledge, as most people tend to rarely step out of their bounded vertical silos of work. The more knowledge you have of what is happening across the business the more valuable you will be.

By User:Wykis; via Wikimedia Commons

4. Establish a strong relationship with your boss in a business context not as friends.

Being openly friends with your boss can actually count against you when promotions are being decided as s/he will try to prove that s/he is making a solid business decision rather than just “promoting a pal”, and may therefore judge you more harshly than other contenders. You should try and build a relationship with your boss that is one of openness and trust and that shows you are someone that can be relied on to do whatever it takes for the benefit of the company and your team, particularly in tough times.

5. Understand what got you to where you are today.

Can you leverage on the skills that got you here and are these the skills that can help to get you to the next level? You also need to understand the weaknesses that you may exhibit and that would get in the way of a promotion. Your boss can help with this, as it is part of their job to do so for all direct reports. Develop a plan to hone the strengths and overcome the weaknesses through training, development and/or assignments that would strengthen your position in competing for a promotion. Discuss and agree the plan with your boss to get his buy-in and then work the plan with regular reviews with your boss to discuss and agree progress.

6. Show passion, energy and commitment to the company, division and team.

I do not mean just “toe the company line”, but a true enthusiasm for what is happening and what needs to be done. Be prepared to volunteer for assignments that are needed to solve business problems, as this is one critical skill in successful managers, or that look at building future direction, as this is another.

7. Be a serious team player, and where appropriate take a leadership role in the team.

I have rarely promoted my top salesman to the role of a sales manager, as I have seen too many instances where this resulted in losing the best revenue generator and gaining a bad manager. Instead I have looked for a successful salesman that has gained the respect of those around him (including customers), and who has the ability to pull together a team to, for example, go after and win a major deal. The question I always ask is “Would people follow this person if they didn’t have the title”. Being an “untitled” team leader is a great indication of having at least some of the basic elements for promotion.

Teamwork, a sculpture by David Wynne, 1958; Photographed by Oosoom on 19 September 2006; via Wikimedia Commons

8. Learn skills that are critical for the organisation’s success, and which are in short supply.

I have always believed that it is critical that you are able to update your CV every year. (See “Third secret of success” posted October 21, 2010). You need to be able to ask yourself “What can I do today that I couldn’t do a year ago, or what do I know today that I didn’t know a year ago?”, and if you can’t answer positively to this question, you have probably set back your prospects of promotion. Your boss and your mentor should both be able to help you with identifying where to best direct your efforts. Always remember that learning is a journey not a destination, no matter how senior you become.

9. Don’t be a clock watcher.

Those who complain about work-life balance rarely get promoted. When there is a job to be done, you need to show that you are someone that can be relied on to get it done, particularly when under time pressure or when times are tough. Base your work hours on those of your boss if he is someone you respect and admire. If he is lazy, work harder than he does. Believe me that it will be noticed.

By Jorge Barrios (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

10. Always act professionally in everything you do.

Dress like the job you want more than the job you are doing, disregarding idiosyncrasies such as dress-down days. Do not indulge in inappropriate humour in the workplace and treat all people with respect, irrespective of their position in the company. Keep out of office politics and rumour mills as these never benefit anyone, and are the refuge of the incompetent. Work to become a thought leader with actions like accepting speaking engagements, involvement in work groups and the writing of white-papers.

Promotions are not a given in anyone’s career and in good companies need to be planned for, fought for and earned.

As Henry L. Doherty (American businessman 1870-1939) said “Plenty of men can do good work for a spurt and with immediate promotion in mind, but for promotion you want a man in whom good work has become a habit”.


Most people believe that the best way to get promoted is to work hard, show creativity, do a great job, don’t get involved in politics and support those around and under you to show that you have leadership skills.

Unfortunately, according to some “experts”, this now appears to be not true.

American career advisor Penelope Trunk has written a piece posted on BNET on “Managing Up” (in French loosely translated to “Baiser les culs” or “Arse kissing”) that covers this area in such a simplistic way that I felt it needed more clarification and expansion. As I have some strong views on this topic of career management (see “Managing your Career “ posted July 14, 2010), I have decided that I should build and continue on her theme with some advice for those that wish to climb the corporate ladder.

So, with thanks to Penelope Trunk, and continuing in her image, herewith my golden rules for getting a promotion.

1. Never do anything different or creative.

Whilst senior executives pay lip service to the need for creativity, it is something that they do not trust and which makes them suspicious and nervous. It is better if you do everything exactly the same as your boss, even if you consider him incompetent and incapable of doing his job … he is, after all, the boss, so must be right. Dress like him, speak like him and work like him. He does not realise that he is incompetent and so believes that everything that he does is exactly the right thing to do, so if he sees you as a reflection of himself he will be more likely to believe that you are the right person for everything that is wonderful in the world.

2. Be nice to everyone, especially your boss, and smile a lot, but be careful that you do not overdo this as you will be classified as the company village idiot.

Penelope says “… there is no better way to ensure a good performance review if you are well liked by your boss …”. The best way to do this is to find out the things that your boss loves most in life such as Rolex watches, expensive wines (like 1961 Margaux) and silver Montblanc pens, and leave these little thoughtful gifts on their desk in the weeks leading up to your performance review. If your boss accepts these you have nothing to fear. Note that this is unnecessary if you follow rule 5 below.

By Gilbert LE MOIGNE, Source: Collection particulière; via Wikimedia Commons

Montblanc Sterling Silver biro and pencil by ElinorD; via Wikimedia Commons

3. Only do work that contributes to your boss’s success rather than to your own.

Penelope says “If you do lots of work but it’s all outside the parameters of your boss’s goals, your boss won’t notice.” So rather than do your own job, let your boss know that you are prepared to help by doing everything that they find tedious. Offer to answer their phone and emails, help them meet their deadlines, write their tweets, do their monthly reports, clean their shoes and press their shirts. This will mean that you will have little time to do the job that you are actually being paid for, but you will become a critical success element for your boss and they will remember this when it comes to performance review time. However, don’t become totally indispensible as they will never let you leave this critical role in their own support and success structure, so any thoughts of promoting you will be off the table.

4. Penelope says “Don’t wait for your performance review to fight for a raise”.

She points out that you need to find out who are all the influencers and decision makers on the subject of your raise and that you need to “… be managing all of them …” making sure that they love you before performance review time as by then “… it’s too late to ingratiate yourself…”. She is 100% right, as kissing corporate backsides takes time and effort. One needs to develop the right lip-pursing techniques, the ability to breathe through your ears, a proper look of subservient adoration and the development of protective callouses on your knees to be able to do this effectively, and this takes years of perseverance and practice.

Author: Cheselden, William, 1688-1752; via Wikimedia Commons

5. If all else fails, get incriminating photographs of your boss in as may compromising positions as possible.
Take him/her out and get them drunk, and take photos when they do anything embarrassing. Buy “professional temporary partners” for them and secretly videotape their indiscretions. When it comes to your performance review let them have a small preview sample of your evidence. It is a very brave boss that will give a bad review to, or pass over for promotion, a well prepared blackmailer in favour of a hard working competent colleague.

Penelope’s most critical advice is that your boss “… doesn’t actually care about your goals per se…”. (This is important advice as your boss is the one that set them in the first place, proving that he is obviously the CEO’s son-in-law and as dim-witted as a cabbage). Her advice is that you show your boss that you are prepared to keep shifting your goals at will to support his goals, and thus the goals of the company. If you do this all the time, it will become impossible to measure your performance at any time, and will mean that your boss will have to give you a high grading just to cover up his confusion about what it is that you actually do.

However, if your initial allocated goals were so immaterial and meaninglessthat they can be changed at the whim of your boss’s daily bio-rhythms and the winds, you should have realised by now that you were never actually considered to be any part at all of the success of your company, your division or your boss and you should therefore prepare your CV, get it out in the marketplace and find somewhere else to work, preferably in a company where no-one has ever heard of Penelope Trunk.