Most people do not want change; they just want things to get better.

The majority of people would like to have their life improve in some way; to have better health, better family relationships, better friends, a better job, a nicer living environment, be more loved, be slimmer, taller, better looking, less wrinkled, fitter and for most, to have more money.

But very few people seem to be prepared to accept that in order to successfully achieve anything in life, particularly in an ever-changing world, the first requirement is that they change something about what they are doing today.

Author: Felix Burton; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Felix Burton; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) understood that “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

The reality is that this desire to not have to change anything is also true of many companies, particularly during times of success. Strangely, this is true despite the fact that business history is littered with the corporate epitaphs of companies that believed that they didn’t need to change what they were doing, and that all they needed to do was to hope things would get better and then people would just buy more of their products and/or services.

I have two such examples from my own personal career history.

International Harvester (where I worked 1966-1973), who invented a large part of the farm equipment and machinery which is still used today, and who dominated their industry for decades, came to believe that their customers would stay loyal to them even if they stopped investing in R&D. They embarked on a major cost savings programme to improve profitability, and their customers deserted them in droves when smaller competitors appeared who could differentiate themselves, even in small ways, from the then giant.

Author: Joost J. Bakker; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Joost J. Bakker; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

The same is true of Digital Equipment (where I worked from 1997-1984) who dominated large parts of the IT world with their range of minicomputers in the 1970s and 1980s. They would not accept that “people would want a computer on their desk or in the home”, despite the fact that the workstation revolution was happening all around them. (see “Hero to zero in the corner office” posted October 29, 2012).

Despite all the lessons available from history, I too often see this same sort of attitude today in some companies who appear to believe that their survival and success is now mainly dependant on them just being able to get through the current economic crisis. A belief that everything will return to “normal” when the crisis is over, and that this should happen fairly soon, as it has already been going on for 5 years since 2008, so can’t go on forever. Anyway the media do deliver to us the occasional hopeful sign.

Author: Slowking4; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Slowking4; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

However, I believe that this view that we are in a traditional crisis state, that has a beginning and an end, is a complete misunderstanding of the financial situation that the world is in today. I believe that we are going through a more fundamental shift in the economic environment, and that companies who cannot adjust to the new economic realities will not survive, in the same way that in the past we have seen companies die because they did not change to meet fundamental shifts in their industries. (see “Growing a new leg” posted June 20,2010).

In the Western economies we have built national, corporate and personal wealth on a belief in continual growth, and the availability of inexpensive capital to fund our drive for growth. Growth has been the major change agent for everything that was needed for success, and growth could disguise basic weaknesses in any structure whether at a country, corporate or personal level.

At a personal level, as long as we had a job, and our wages went up every year, we could build our future life on debt, as growth would guarantee our ability to manage it all and we could continue to survive and prosper.

Countries and companies were no different. Growth drove taxation to fund country administrations and citizen wealth, and hence loyalty, and growth drove companies’ profits to enable them to continue to drive growth, for business growth was the ultimate goal that forgave most sins and delivered success.

But today, in most countries, most industries and most companies there is neither the ready availability of inexpensive money nor economic growth, and I believe that those that are not fundamentally changing, but are just waiting for these to return, will continue to struggle for survival.

Author: Pictofigo; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Pictofigo; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Today, even if we want to stay the same, we have to make changes to be able to do so, because our only choice is to live within an environment that is driven and changed by others, or to make the changes that enable us to live within an environment that we have helped to create.

Companies that will survive this current revolutionary shift in business fundamentals will not only have to change the way that they manage their finances, but will have to change the way that they compete, find and keep their customers, satisfy their ecosystem, the way that they go to market and the way that they find, recruit, manage, motivate, reward and retain their people.

As is often attributed to Charles Darwin (1809-1892) “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

I have long believed that if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you already have, but I have now come to believe that you will actually keep getting less and less.



I have long believed, written and spoken about the fact that HR organisations need to go through a major transition to be allowed to survive as a business unit, rather than just ending up handling administrative functions in a shared service centre in some low cost country. (see “HR … Polite to Police to Partner to Player” posted August 26, 2010).

Author: indo consultores; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: indo consultores; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have based this belief on the fact that if HR organisations cannot transition from a “run the company” position to a more strategic “change the company” role, they will continue to come under pressure to do more and more with fewer resources, as companies drive hard to cut costs to be able to survive the new economic realities which we all face today. I have therefore felt that becoming an “HR Business Partner” is not enough, as a partner is someone who may be asked to help implement the strategy built by others, but an “HR Player” is someone who is actually an integral part of the creation of the strategy. This ensures that the strategy is built around people, and takes into account critical issues such as ensuring that the strategy is actually supported by, and synchronised with, the corporate culture, and that the skills and competencies needed for strategy execution can be developed and/or acquired.

I have also long believed that a critical element of any corporate success is the commitment to building “management as a profession” rather than just a vocational add-on, which unfortunately tends to be most prevalent in European companies today. A critical part of professional management is an understanding of how to recruit, lead, motivate, develop, challenge, evaluate, reward and inspire your people, in other words those areas of concern that are generally associated with HR.

I had therefore concluded that the stronger and more capable is the management of the company, the less does the company need to be dependent on an HR organisation to identify and take responsibility for human issues.

Hence my belief that for HR the future is to either transition to a more important strategic role, or just stagnate as merely administrators of payroll and personnel records, roles that could easily be outsourced or even taken over by a capable F&A organisation.

However, I recently had the opportunity to hear an exciting young man called Heiko Fischer speak at a conference in Zurich, who made me wonder whether I needed to add another word to my alliteration to make it “Polite to Police to Partner to Player to Perish”, and whether the true ultimate goal of HR is to make itself totally unnecessary, by making management more capable.

Heiko is the founder of Resourceful Humans Consulting and he believes that the word “perish” should apply to our traditional understanding of management as well as to HR. He believes strongly that companies that adopt the principles of resourceful humans can do away with both HR and middle management.

They believe (from their web site) ….

“ … to sustainably produce meaningful contributions for your customers in the 21st century marketplace, a few great leaders are simply not good enough. To succeed in such highly demanding environments you need a critical mass of great people who can all lead and innovate when needed. To that end the RH-Way combines a proven entrepreneurial management mindset with a shared leadership architecture from the Gaming Industry. The Way of Resourceful Humans helps you enable your people’s potential, by relentlessly structuring the enterprise around their desire to produce results.”

Heiko postulates that while we all want to live in a democratic country, we do not translate the core elements of democracy to the way we work, and particularly as companies grow. He believes that the key elements to building companies that can succeed through continuous innovation is firstly to understand that making a profit is necessary for a company to survive, but that contribution to the entire ecosystem of staff, customers, partners and community should be the primary goal, and if successful then profit is one of the valuable by-products.

My simplified interpretation, of his three critical elements (in the space available) are:

Democracy. Note that he does not advocate anarchy nor the abolition of management, but that its function is to create the minimum structure needed for an environment where people can be successful through having a greater say in what they do and how they do it. He sees our current management structures as being like a hamburger where management is the oversize bun, and where the people are what tends to be a very small patty squeezed in between. Heiko feels that modern structures need to be more like a burrito where the wrap is very thin and the major part is the filling.

Author: Pete Souza; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Pete Souza; via Wikimedia Commons

Information. We need to ensure that people are kept informed of what is going on in the company at all times so that they can manage their own behaviour and actions based on what is needed. His belief is that if you give people the chance to work as entrepreneurs within a company environment, they will do so, and they will work towards their own success and therefore that of the business.

Gain sharing. His feel is that the way that we reward people today is all based on management handing out largesse, whereas a more realistic way to reward people, particularly in a networked environment, is to base it on company success, but on value and contribution to the team as viewed by their peers.

Heiko uses the example of the Starship Enterprise of Star Trek. James Kirk is the captain and sets their direction under their broad strategy of going “where no man has gone before”, but doesn’t spend a lot of time telling people what to do, as his team understand their roles and how and when to perform them. On top of that, no-one on the Enterprise has been ever known to pick up a communicator to talk to HR.

Author: McFadden, Strauss, Eddy & Irwin for Desilu Productions; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: McFadden, Strauss, Eddy & Irwin for Desilu Productions; via Wikimedia Commons

I am not yet a total convert to the concepts of “resourceful humans” as seen by Heiko Fischer, though I may not be a long way away. I do believe in simple, flat management structures and am an opponent of complexities such as matrix management (see “Stupid management ideas” posted August 29, 2011). I also believe that skilled management includes being very people focussed, and that many tasks generally seen as belonging to HR really belong with line managers. However, I will need to have some more discussions with Heiko Fischer to decide if I am really ready to add “perish” to my transition list.


The dictionary defines shelf life as “the length of time that foods, beverages, pharmaceutical drugs, chemicals and many other perishable items are given before they are considered to be unsuitable for sale, use or consumption”.

Author: Jü (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Jü (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to “use” it appears that we now need to add humans to this list of perishable items with a shelf life.

I recently came across a series of discussions, amongst senior executives in the IT industry in India, on the shelf life of a techie, and there was general agreement that the current shelf life of a “techie” is about 15 years.

The Times of India led off the reporting of this discussion with:

If you have seen Skyfall, you will doubtless remember the 20-something Q. It’s the first time ever in a James Bond film that Q or the Quartermaster – MI6’s resident tinkerer who creates all the wonderful spy gadgets that Bond uses – is younger than Bond himself, much younger. So when Bond meets Q in Skyfall, he scoffs, “You still have spots (pimples),” to which Q replies, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency.In the world of technology, that’s almost a truism today. Youthful Qs are becoming the norm. Technology is changing so rapidly that older engineers must put in an extraordinary amount of time and effort into new learning and also to unlearn old ones. Otherwise, they are likely to find themselves less relevant.

“The shelf life of a software engineer today is no more than that of a cricketer – about 15 years”, said one of the senior executives of a European technology company with over 4,500 employees in India. “The 20-year-old guys provide me more value than the 35-year-olds do.”

Scary to think that one could be past their “use-by-date” as an individual contributor by the age of 35.

Some companies guide technical professionals towards taking on more managerial responsibilities over time. One Indian Head of HR for a large IT multinational says he “advises employees to map their career graph into a 5-5-5 formula, three blocks of 5 years each. In the first five years, the employee is a technical contributor. In the next five, he or she moves on to become a team leader or an architect, understanding the P&L (profit & loss) requirements of the company. Subsequently, the employee takes on much stronger leadership responsibilities, with technical skills upgrade”.

Great for those who are cut out to be in a management role, but what then happens to those individuals who are brilliant technically but have no desire to move into management. Firstly, there are never enough management roles for everyone, and secondly not everyone is suited to, nor desirous of, taking up the added responsibilities of leading a team. (see “To be or not to be … a manager” posted August 20, 2012).

Author: Wayiran (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Wayiran (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

I have always believed that education is a journey rather than a destination, and I have no doubt in my mind that smart, sharp, young technical specialists can spend the time and energy needed to ensure that they stay up-to-date with changes in technology, even despite the accelerating speed of change.

I also know that most IT companies have courses available that enable technical people to upgrade their skills on an ongoing basis. Infosys, Indian IT giant as just one example, says that they have over 1000 courses that employees can choose from as part of their competence plan, but what hope do people really have if the people leading the major companies have the attitude that that most of their people are heading for the scrap heap at such an early age.

What I find most interesting however, is that very few companies appear to have the same requirements for testing and upgrading the shelf life of their executives, in the same way that they seem to do for their technical people. It appears that once you reach the heady heights of a management role you are generally safe, as long as you keep meeting your goals and don’t actually screw up really badly.

But the reality today is that the global business landscape is changing at much the same rate as the technology that it is built on. The emergence of new BRIC-like nations, new competitors, new business challenges, new business models driven by the internet and social media, changing expectations of the workforce, the upheavals in the economies of most countries creating new “economic realities” (see “Growing a new leg” posted June 20, 2010), means that the management skills and capabilities that were relevant for success 15 years ago (a la techie shelf life) are not necessarily all relevant today.

Author: Chafis; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Chafis; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I found it very telling that one of the Indian executives said “I can’t be just a manager, I have to be technically hands-on. If I have to have a conversation with my CTO, and if I say I don’t understand technology, then there is no conversation.”

More importantly in today’s ever changing business environment, I feel that he should be worrying just as much about being management-relevant as he does about being technically-relevant for his own survival and continued success.

As one of my favourite quotes from Charles Darwin (1809-1882) says so well “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

This is just as true today for managers as it is for technicians.


“So many people out there have no idea what they want to do for a living, but they think that by going on job interviews they’ll magically figure it out.”
Todd Bermont, Dean of The Careers College.

Author: bpsusf; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: bpsusf; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Not so long ago I was asked to do a presentation and chat on “Managing your career, and how to get the most from a life of work” with a bunch of graduates from a number of different universities in Germany. As these were considered to be some of the best of their year, there was little concern amongst them about their ability to find an interested employer, and most of them actually already had job offers.

I started with my standard three rules being:

– Don’t do a job you hate. I find it amazing that many people will work for 5 days doing something that they hate, so that they can “live” for 2 days over the weekend. This means that they can spend about 70% of their life doing something they dislike, just to get the money to keep doing something that they dislike. At least if you do something that you love to do, there is a greater chance that you will do it well, and a greater chance that you will benefit.

– Don’t work for a boss you don’t respect. Your boss will control your entire work life and therefore your chance for success, learning and progress, so you should at least try and work for someone whom you believe is a skilled and capable manager and from whom you can learn.

– Don’t work for a company you can’t be proud of. It is not enough that the company has a good reputation for its products and services, it is also critically important that your values are a fit with the company’s values, and that the company has a high degree of integrity in the business world and in the community at large.

I went on to discuss topics like the importance of finding a mentor, mapping your career steps rather than leaving it to chance, that learning is a lifelong journey rather than a destination etc. etc. the usual stuff that I had been asked to cover by the organisers.

Fortunately I was the last speaker of the day, because while my presentation took just 40 minutes, the planned 20 minutes of Q&A turned into a 2 hour heated discussion. What really surprised me was that their criteria for job selection were mainly based on only 2 elements, being company reputation and the salary/conditions of the job. A few of them even mentioned the reputation for quality of the staff cafeteria as important. Many of those that had job offers had only met the company’s recruiters, being a mix of both external and internal recruitment teams. I told them that I felt that their selection criteria were too limited and that many of them were doing themselves a dis-service, particularly as these were graduates that technology companies in Germany were in competition to recruit.

So we spent some time putting together these 3 rules as a starter for proper job selection. I do not know how many of them followed through on these, but I hope that many did, as I have a strong belief that people join companies but leave managers.

Rule 1: You should not accept any job without having met and interviewed the person who will be your direct supervisor, as that person will have almost total control of your entire working environment, and if you do not fit well with them, as a “newbie” you will have limited choices. If this is not offered, you should ask for it, and if the request is refused, and it may be if they are recruiting large numbers, you should understand that you are being recruited as “cannon fodder”. If granted the interview ask questions like … what they expect of their people, how do they view/handle personal development, how do they measure performance, how do they handle mistakes/failure, are they interested in experimentation, do they mentor anyone and if not why not, how do they define autonomy, how do they handle performance reviews, promotions, pay for performance ?

Author: ThisIsRobsLife; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: ThisIsRobsLife; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Rule 2: Find out every detail about the actual job that you will be doing. Just knowing that you will be writing software or doing customer hot-line support or pre-sales is not enough to understand how you will spend your time, even if you have done something similar in the past. You need to find out what level of freedom will there be, how is the job viewed in the company, are there examples of people who have moved from a similar role to a more senior one, how flexible are working hours, what are the full job requirements beyond the technical job description, what training is available beyond that needed to do the job, is the role part of a team or solitary, and finally can you meet someone who is doing the same job today ?

Rule 3: It is important that you get a strong personal feel for the company culture and values, beyond their market image and beyond the number of “Great place to work” awards that they have won. Such things as how were you handled at reception, what does the environment look like, is it made up of noiseless cubicles, is it all offices, how formal does it feel, how busy do people seem, how quickly do people move about, how happy do people look, what is company policy on such things as children, dogs and family involvement, how do people dress and does it suit your own style ? You should also ask specifically to see where you will actually be working.

Author: lizzielaroo; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: lizzielaroo; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

The important lesson is to arrive at the interview(s) not only strongly prepared to present yourself well to a potential employer, but also seriously well-prepared with the questions for which you need answers, to be able to make an informed decision.

I believe that any worthwhile potential employer should expect you to do this anyway.

“I do not believe that I have had an interview with anybody in twenty-five years in which the person to whom I was talking was not annoyed during the early part of the interview by my asking stupid questions.”
Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.


“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
American President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)

Source: The White House Historical Association; via Wikimedia Commons

Source: The White House Historical Association; via Wikimedia Commons

There are many management myths, the worst ones being around the belief that companies are sufficiently alike that what works in one company can generally be applied to another, meaning that if we can lump together the experiences of a large number of companies, we can come up with general principles that will apply to most.

This mantra does suit some of the large global consulting companies, as it enables them to build a single “methodology de jour” that they can then use as the basis for multiple projects globally. They can then people these projects with less experienced consultants who are nonetheless well trained in the particular methodology being sold at the time, whether it is “Business process re-engineering” or “6-sigma” or some other must-have –ology at the time.

The reality is that as long as people are individually different and unique, so will be the companies that employ them, and successful management will remain individual and unique.

Nevertheless, here are some management myths that do need dispelling.

1. Managers make more money.

This is not necessarily true and definitely not true if one considers the hourly rate. In companies that understand the need for dual career paths, outstanding individual contributors can (and should) earn at least on par with management. When I was a sales manager, I always considered it to be a mark of success if the majority of my sales team earned more than me. The management level that can make significantly more money generally represents a tiny percentage of those in management roles.

Author: Shizhao; CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Shizhao; CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

2. Managers need to be smarter than their team members.

This could never have worked for me, as I always believed that I needed to try and attract people who were smarter than I was. Managers do need to be smart, but smart management involves using the best skills available in the team to get the best results.

3. There is never enough time.

There is always exactly the same amount of time available to everyone being 24 hours, 7 days per week. Yes, managers can tend to work longer hours, but the skill is to make sure that you allocate your time to the tasks that actually belong to you, and that you prioritise your use of the time available to the important rather than just the urgent.

Author: chris 論 (own work); CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: chris 論 (own work); CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

4. Empowerment is all about leaving people alone to manage themselves.

I read this all the time, particularly in relation to the new generation of young people coming into the workforce today, with seemingly strong expectations of autonomy. People need the ability to have some involvement in the areas that affect them, but I believe that everyone, no matter their level of seniority, needs some guidance. As a team leader it is important that you set guidelines for acceptable standards, and then review progress against these.

5. The best managers have MBAs.

There is no question that it doesn’t hurt to be well qualified academically these days, and an MBA is not a bad thing to have on your CV, but formal education is only one component of management skill and capability. I have always seen an MBA as being the equivalent of buying a fishing license as you now can get all the gear and know where to find the river, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will actually be able to catch fish successfully, which takes some practice and experience to do well (see “Business leadership isn’t changing quickly enough” posted October 10, 2011).

via Wikimedia Commons; PD-TEXT permission

via Wikimedia Commons; PD-TEXT permission

6. You can separate leadership and management.

This may be true from an academic viewpoint, and as a topic for a successful book, but when it comes to real life they should not be separated too readily. The skills needed may be somewhat different, but they are so interrelated as to be inseparable. Great leaders tend to be great managers and vice versa (see “Management or Leadership” posted March 7, 2011).

7. Who you know is more important than what you know.

As a manager it is important that you build a network that enables you and your team to have the linkages that are needed for success (see “Third rule of management” posted October 1, 2012), but to believe that this is more important than your track record is nonsensical.

8. Good managers delegate sparingly to ensure retaining quality.

Delegation is an integral part of management, and if you are not delegating effectively you are not managing effectively. Your role as a manger is to set the standards and objectives clearly and then let people get on and do the job, with your guidance. If you want your people to grow and develop you have to give them the chance to do so. I have long believed that “if you give people the opportunity to do great things, then they will do great things”.

9. Managers must treat everyone in their team the same.

Good managers treat everyone in their team differently based on their individual needs, level of competence and abilities. The need is to treat everyone with fairness and respect, remembering that a task that can be a great challenge for a skilled and experienced individual can be an insurmountable barrier to another.

10. Managers need to be tough all the time.

There is no question that managers need to be strong and have a sense of purpose and direction, and an ability to spread commitment and confidence in their team. Good managers are tough externally when it comes to fighting for resources needed for their team or when the team needs protection, but true toughness internally needs to be reserved for managing behaviour, performance and breeches of integrity or honesty, as most of the time a manager needs to be mostly supportive and mentoring.

As said by English novelist Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell (1903-1950) “Myths which are believed in tend to become true.”