The Chinese curse “You should be forced to live in interesting times” was very true for 2011, shaping up as one of the more disruptive and uncertain 12 month periods since the last World War, and I felt that I would be remiss if I did not finish my blog posts for 2011 without a fond look at some of the major “fault lines” that we are going to have to live with and solve.

The Arab Spring which was welcomed by the Western powers as a cry for democracy and the removal of dictatorships is quickly turning into more of a winter woe as their version of democracy takes power away from the dictators and hands it all over to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is violently opposed to the west in every way.

Logo Muslim Brotherhood; via Wikimedia Commons

The euro continues flirting with disaster as it becomes increasingly obvious to the rest of the world that every solution that is mooted is akin to putting a bandaid on a severed limb. At the same time some European countries have been giving up democracy and handing over control to the bankers who helped to create the problems in the first place.

The US Dollar and English Pound are not faring much better and to be able to just keep the lights on, governments will need to print more money just to pay basic commitments like pensions and public sector salaries, leading to out of control inflation rates in major currencies.

Iran moves steadily towards achieving nuclear weaponry making the Israelis increasingly nervous, with some justification, and Turkey and Iran are rattling scimitars as to who should lead the Arab world, which is interesting as neither nation is truly Arab.

The US continues to polarize as does China, both countries growing the divide between the haves and have-nots, and at the same time still rewarding those that work out how to get rich at the expense of everyone else.

We continued to pollute and spent our energies arguing about whether man was at fault for global warming or whether it was just part of some natural cycle, instead of joining forces to work out what could be done about it.

All in all we created an interesting year for ourselves.

Christmas is a good time for all of us, irrespective of our religious beliefs, to think about the fact that we have created this parlous state of affairs through our own stupidity and greed.

The dictators that we helped to overthrow in 2011 are the same ones we supported, traded with, courted and sold weapons to earlier on.

Author: Ricardo Stuckert/PR; via Wikimedia Commons

The death of the major western currencies we allowed by letting the bankers decide on how we should lead our lives, despite the fact that most of us knew that it was rarely the most intelligent of our generation that went to work for the banks.

Goldman Sachs Headquarters; via Wikimedia Commons

We let nations rush towards the “we got the bomb” club till we reached that point in the Tom Lehrer 1965 song “Who’s next?”, when he wrote “I’ll try and stay serene and calm when Alabama gets the bomb”. At the same time we continued to vote into power people who should not have been allowed to run a “fish and chip” shop let alone run a country.

We allowed all this to happen and we are the only ones who can fix it all.

It’s time we all got off our well-padded, designer-jeaned, liposucked backsides and took responsibility and control back from the politicians and bankers and hate-mongers.

I don’t know yet how we can do this, but I do know that do it we must, and I am going to try and work out what part I have to play in this for the sake of my children and grand-children.

In the words of Dr. Seuss

“You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own and you know what you know.
And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

I wish you all a wonderful time over the holiday season with those you love, and best wishes for a 2012 full of personal success and the true wonders of life.

I plan to spend most of the next month deep in skiable snow with friends from Australia and with our kids and grandkids, just to remind myself about what really matters and why we need to protect it.

Author: Wuhazet - Henryk Żychowski; via Wikimedia Commons



Putting the right people in the right place is a critical skill of any manager and yet for many this is a serious weakness, resulting in them regularly putting people into roles where they can’t succeed. Not only is this an expensive mistake to make, but it can be highly disruptive to the team and the organisation.

Here are the most common recruitment mistakes that I have seen.

1. Overlooking internal candidates too quickly.

A key role of any capable manager is to ensure that they develop some strong successors, yet in most large companies about 70% of management positions are filled from outside. This not only shows that many managers do not do workable succession planning, either from a fear of competition or because they just don’t have the skills needed to build the next generation of leadership (See “Characteristics of a Successful Manager” posted July 18, 2011).

Author: Colin Smith; via Wikimedia Commons

This “grass is greener” need to often look outside, can demoralise existing employees who rightly believe that they should be given the opportunities to advance their own careers. Rarely does someone come into a new role, from any direction, being 100% competent. Even the most brilliant, well experienced and capable external hires will need the time to come to grips with basic drivers like understanding the culture, identifying the land-mines and sacred cows and mastering the informal networks that enable things to get done. I have found that an existing employee who has been with the company long enough to be “blooded”, and who may be a good 70% fit for promotion is in many cases a better solution that an external candidate who may appear to be a 90% fit. The problem is that we tend to be more aware of the gaps in skills/knowledge of an internal candidate than being able identify them in an external one, so we favour the external option.

Author: Robert R. McRill; via Wikimedia Commons

2. Looking for someone who has done this exact same job before.

Many managers (and professional recruiters) tend to look for candidates who are currently in exactly the same role to be filled, in the same industry, generally at a competitor. There is no question that past proven behaviour in a similar role is a reasonable indicator of future behaviour, but only if nothing is ever going to change, which is not true in the business world. Successful recruiting needs to take into account some new and differing elements that candidates can bring to the role. For SAP to just fill roles by poaching from Oracle and vice versa does little to drive innovation and creativity, and ultimately is just another version of musical chairs.

3. Hiring in one’s own image.

Many managers recruit by looking in their own “rose-tinted” mirror. The belief is that “I have been successful in this company doing things this way, so anyone who looks, thinks and smells like me will therefore also be successful”. It creates a team of clones that do everything in the way that their manager would do them, and who therefore question little and change nothing. I believe that it is important for the health, and ultimately the success, of any organisation that there is a group of people with a common goal, but with varying ideas, styles and opinions, and not just a group of leader look-alikes. It is important that you have at least a few “crazies” in your team, who do question things, have a way of looking differently at situations, and are capable of creative thought. It is unfortunate that creative people are viewed with suspicion and dread by most managers, as If you always do what you have always done you will always get what you already have.

4. Believing that smart, well educated people can do anything and everything.
They can’t !!!
One senior executive who I worked with continually kept putting really well-educated, loyal, technically brilliant, incredibly intelligent people that he really liked, into senior management roles for which they were totally unprepared and unsuited. He was then surprised that, despite his support and protection, most ultimately failed and had to be replaced, and in many cases pushed out of the company. It meant that by putting people into positions for which they had not been groomed and prepared, not only did he screw up key elements of his organisation, he also kept losing really great people who could have added significant benefit in the right roles. It may be true that really smart people, with the right characteristics, can do most things, but it is unlikely that they can do everything well immediately, and demands of the business world can rarely wait for them to ultimately work it all out.

Author: Uri Rosenheck (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

5. Believing that professional recruiters will always give you what you need.

Professional recruiters whether internal or external will only give you the best of what they have on their books, or what they can find through their network, rather than what you may actually need. Add to this the reality that very few managers can adequately define and describe to them what it is that they actually need, beyond handing over an HR prepared and fairly standard job description for the vacancy. You therefore end up hiring the best of the candidates that are available to you at that time. It’s just like democracy at work. You get to vote for the best candidate that the party machines have put in front of you from a small and generally unimpressive bunch, which is why we end up with politicians with about as much real value as a toothpick (see “We get the leaders we deserve” posted February 2, 2011). A far better solution, particularly if going externally, is to involve as many people at the right level in your company in the search. The odds are that they will know of people who would be strong candidates, and they would tend to recommend people that they would welcome, and be proud of having found for the company.

You always need to dig deeper and work harder to find the right person to fill a critical slot. It should never be done with haste or without adequate thought and investigation.

As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist and author says

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”


Noted French writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) said “Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them.”

via Wikimedia Commons (United States public domain)

Many managers find it uncomfortable to give negative feedback or to criticise one of their team, but it is a key part of a manager’s responsibilities if s/he is to ensure that unwanted behaviour does not become seen as being acceptable.

Before launching in to a formal session of “constructive criticism” the manager must ask himself whether it is really necessary because it is a serious departure from what is acceptable, or is just a minor blip in normal behaviour. Perpetual need for negative feedback with the same individual means that more serious action may be needed, or if needed regularly to many of the team members it suggests that there are deeper issues with what values have been established as acceptable in the group. It is far better to work on having your team members buy into the values and culture (sum of behaviours), than to spend a great deal of your time chastising your people.

via Wikimedia Commons/United States public domain

If negative feedback on behaviour is needed, it is important that it is done as close as possible to the occurrence if it is to have any real impact, but it must be handled and delivered in a way that ensures it is effective in driving behavioural change and does not demotivate the receiver. It must be specific and relevant as if you are too tough, emotions and resentment will over-ride common sense and hence learning, and if too vague the message will not be understood.

Here are some ways to help handle it.

1. Make sure you have all the facts before giving your feedback.

There is nothing more demotivating to a subordinate than to have you rush in with negative feedback if you are not 100% sure of the real facts. It not only undermines your position of authority, as your team member can divert discussion by correcting you, but also questions your thoroughness as a manager by being seen to act on misinformation. Ask questions not only about what actually happened, but also what the person was trying to accomplish by their actions and therefore why did they act the way that they did. Remember that you will be giving “constructive criticism” of the actual behaviour that you do not want to see repeated, rather than of the individual.

2. Make sure that they accept ownership.

You must ensure that they understand what happened and that they have ownership of the situation before giving your feedback. If they do not accept that they were at fault, or if they blame it on factors outside their control, you will have little chance of getting them to accept that they will need to change their behaviour in the future.You need to focus them down to their own actual actions and accept the results. You should also not try and “sugar coat” the situation by telling them how wonderful they are despite this slip. You are there to be specific about this instance and not about their past performances, and the oft recommended style of “You are a really punctual person, but you need to shower more than once a week” is only for weak beginners.

3. Don’t state the obvious.

If the subordinate states that s/he knows that he messed up in this instance, there is not much point going on about the fact that s/he did so. It is better to be able to discuss why it happened and what caused the “lapse” rather than harping on about the error. Smart people actually do know when they make mistakes, and your job as a manager is to make sure that they learn from them and don’t repeat them. Continuing to beat them around the head after they have truly acknowledged their transgression has a diminishing return, so you should move on as soon as you see that they fully understand why the behaviour is unacceptable.

4. Praise can be public but criticism cannot.

Berating someone in front of others is generally more negative on the manager than on the employee. It suggests that you either cannot control yourself or that you struggle with confronting someone in a one-on-one situation. You must privately ask the person to come to your office and have the behavioural adjustment conversation behind closed doors. Sticking your head out of your office door into an open plan area and screaming “John get your arse in here immediately” won’t cut it, as you want them to focus on the message that you deliver, rather than on the embarrassment that you are handing out.

5. With criticism, one size doesn’t fit all.

You have to know the person, and understand how they will take criticism before you start. The highly sensitive and more junior staff will need to be handled differently than the tougher and more experienced ones. It is important that you remember that your goal is to stop unwanted behaviour rather than to just berate someone for their faults. You are trying to build a person’s usefulness and not stifle their creativity, rather than get them to a point where they are scared of making a mistake and therefore will not try anything new ever again.

As Winston Churchill (1874-1965) said

“Criticism may not be agreeable but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Author: Birtish Government; via Wikimedia Commons