“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Irish writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

It is very rare for a great leader to be arrogant. This is usually the style of the weak and insecure rather than those who have a real understanding of who they are and what they want to achieve and how they plan on doing so.

I met a very interesting “old world” style gentleman recently at a dinner party in the house of mutual friends in Bordeaux. He and his wife were visiting the Bordeaux region for 2 weeks of their summer vacation, and seating arrangements at the table (we had a few more men than women that evening) meant that he and I were placed beside each other. We chatted through the evening about Scottish independence, the Pistorius trial, the perilous state of the euro, the Islamic State and a myriad of other topics.

Author: Erik van Leeuwen (bron: Wikipedia); GNU FDL; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Erik van Leeuwen (bron: Wikipedia); GNU FDL; via Wikimedia Commons

They were staying with other mutual friends of ours and we saw them a few more times while they were here. Each time I met him I found out just a little more about the man … he was always interesting to talk to, always well dressed, well spoken, knowledgeable about many topics, political, cultural, current affairs and business. Getting to know him was like peeling away the layers of an onion, my finding out more personal and intimate elements of him, his beliefs, his character, his background and personality, just one layer at a time as we got to know each other.

When I had asked him what field he was in, he had just said that he had an engineering background, but that he had moved into management early in his career. It was only after he had left France to return home that his Bordeaux hosts told me that he was the CEO of one of the UK’s largest companies, that he sat on a number of hi-powered boards and that he was an advisor to the UK government on business and international issues.

His humility bore the hallmark of a great leader. He obviously had a strong understanding of who he was and where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there, and he therefore did not have the need of projecting an image of self-importance. He was a great listener, didn’t pontificate, despite having strong beliefs and values, and spent time telling me stories and interesting anecdotes about some of the wonderful people he had had the privilege to work with during his career.

By Phillip Medhurst  (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By Phillip Medhurst (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Contrast this with a colleague of mine who after attending a senior executive development programme a few years ago now prefaces every second sentence with “When I was at INSEAD …”. He also, within the first five minutes of meeting someone new, will start listing his achievements, including but not limited to the size and splendour of his multiple homes, his collection of luxury cars, the exalted leadership position he now holds, and how the economic survival of Europe rests totally on his shoulders, like Atlas supporting the entire world. There is no subject in the world on which this man does not believe that he is a foremost expert, and he will always have a better understanding of any issue than any other person on this planet. I believe that this attitude of his own self-importance diminishes his position as a leader, and I know that his people also find it hard to cope with his arrogance.

When a person in a leadership position focusses mostly on himself, he has very little left in which he is able to focus on his people. A true leader when discussing successes will spend most of the time telling you about what has been achieved by his people, both individually and collectively, rather than about what he personally has achieved.

I have had several conversations with this person about his personal style, and it seems impossible for me to disabuse him of his belief that he is just exuding confidence (not arrogance), and that this is important to, in his own words, “inspire people to greatness by showing them what he has achieved, and therefore what they can also achieve”. Sadly I believe that this is a situation where one has to seriously ask the question of “Would anyone want to follow him if he didn’t have the title?”

Humility is the sign of great strength rather than of weakness, and is inherently attractive, and all true leaders understand that to be a successful leader they need to be able to attract really great followers.

Great leaders understand that success is driven by passionate people who come together to share a common dream and to achieve common goals and objectives, and will therefore ensure that people are made to feel important, and empowered, and therefore have ownership of what needs to be done. This means letting your people own the successes and outcomes, as well as the responsibilities, for achieving these. The less importance you place on yourself, the more importance you can place on your people.

Author: R. D. Ward; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: R. D. Ward; via Wikimedia Commons

There is no question in my mind that leaders need to exude an air of confidence and need to be able to inspire people about their vision for their team, but confidence has nothing to do with arrogance and self-importance.

True leadership involves convincing people that they have it in themselves to achieve greatness because of who they are and what they can do personally and as a team, and is never about how great is the leader and what s/he can achieve. If you are truly a great leader people will recognise that in you by themselves, by your actions, and when they do so, they will willingly follow you.

The 33rd President of the USA, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) wisely said “You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.”

Uploaded by Scewing; via Wikimedia Commons

Uploaded by Scewing; via Wikimedia Commons



“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”
American actress and sex symbol Mae West (1893-1980)

I was recently involved in sitting in with a Regional Head while he reviewed his direct reports, just so I could get an understanding of how he interacted with his people. As I had just embarked on an executive coaching programme with him (at the request of his CEO), I was keen to see how he would handle these quarterly sessions, as I have long been against the whole idea of formal performance reviews, no matter how regularly they are planned.

Author: Rahulkepapa (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Rahulkepapa (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have long believed that the holding of formal performance reviews does little to actually manage performance, and flies against my strong belief that managers need to manage behaviour rather than manage people (see “People performance pitfalls” posted October 28, 2013)

These particular performance review sessions only reinforced my beliefs, and here are some of the reasons why:

– Neither side was particularly well prepared … I was surprised at how little preparation had been done on either side in readiness for these sessions, apart from some hastily scribbled bullet points, and could only surmise that this was because no-one treated them with a great deal of seriousness, which begged the question as to why they did them at all. The lack of preparation was actually mentioned by nearly all of them, and justified and forgiven because of the “pressures of work” taking priority. If you must do these formal reviews, then serious, studied and thoughtful preparation is key. When I had no choice but to do these, I found that a standard format worked well, and I mostly used the simple one of … Here are the things that I want you to do more of, do less of, stop doing and start doing.

– They tended to discuss business issues rather than how the subordinate was actually addressing them … The major part of the sessions tended to be informal discussions on what was happening in their marketplace, their competition and the global economy rather than how the direct report was performing against specific goals that had been set by their CEO, and cascaded down by the Regional Head, and that were actually documented in the strategic plan, of which I had been given a copy. Executives can chat about these topics whenever they want to do so over a coffee or a cocktail, but a performance review should be about discussing how a person is coping with the tasks that they have been assigned, and what is needed to sustain or improve the situation, and not be just an information sharing session.

By  Grahams Child; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By Grahams Child; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– They spent the major part of the actual review time discussing financial performance … I have yet to meet a surviving executive that comes into any review session without a clear understanding of what are his numbers and his performance against them at that time. This means that spending most of any real review discussion on an analysis of the numbers is the wrong focus. Discussing how the numbers can be improved makes sense, but for example beyond saying “watch your spending”, going through a fine tooth-analysis of why marketing expense is 7% over budget for the quarter is a distraction rather than a benefit to the business. If something doesn’t look good, the only valid question is “What are you doing about it ?”.

– The only time people issues were discussed was with the HR Director … I was surprised at how little discussion was given to people issues, particularly as I believe that people are the only true long-term sustainable competitive advantage. There was a long discussion with the HR Director about attrition, recruitment, engagement, succession and other related HR “issues de jour”, yet strangely none of these topics had been discussed with the line managers. What I also found fascinating was that there was no discussion at all with the HR Head as to his personal actual performance and what benefit HR brought to the business, only about the HR metrics on their dashboard. I felt like standing up and yelling “It’s all about people stupid” but held my tongue and wondered about whether I may have accepted a coaching task equivalent to Hercules having to clean out the stables of Augeas. The reality is that there are no HR problems, there are only business problems, and discussions about people are at the core of performance management in every division and at every level of the business for every executive.

Author:  	Muhammad Rafizeldi (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Muhammad Rafizeldi (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– There were no references back to previous reviews … Interestingly, this company has a highly developed (if somewhat cumbersome) on-line performance management tool, but this was not referred to at any time by either of the parties, and the only recording that was done was some regular scribbling on pads and notebooks that seemed to be ubiquitous in this management team. The whole process to me seemed along schoolboy lines of “Johnny you are trying hard, but I want you to do better”. There is no point in doing any sort of review if one cannot look at a starting reference point and what actions were agreed in the last session. The objective should at the least be to see whether behaviour is changing in a way that will help to meet the objectives. I am not suggesting that the focus should be only historical, as it should rather be on future behaviour, but it is important that one can see whether you are actually making some headway.

– There was no feedback to the boss’s own performance requested, nor given … There was not even a question asked such as “what can I do to help you or to make things better ?”. I believe that any review session has to be bi-directional to be at all worthwhile, as no one does it alone, and the person at the top has the responsibility for the conditions and culture that those below have to work within.

It is worthwhile remembering the words of American statesman and retired 4-star general Colin Powell “Organisation doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavours succeed or fail because of the people involved.”


I recently had the privilege of speaking to a group of young business graduates in London about how to manage their careers. It was an exciting couple of hours for me, and helped to reinforce my belief that every generation is smarter, more exciting and more interesting than the one that it follows.

One of the questions that I was asked was, notwithstanding my three career rules of “never do a job you hate, never work for a boss you can’t respect and never work for a company you can’t be proud of”, which of my jobs did I love the most and why.

It was a hard question to answer, as I loved much about most of them, and learned something from them all, not always in a positive sense, but nevertheless in a way that was important for my understanding of the business world and of people, and therefore critical for my future.

It did however make me think about what for me were the criteria that differentiated a great job from the rest, so here are the elements that were important to me, and which I discussed with my young audience.

Doing something worthwhile … While it was one of the shortest roles that I had (4 years as IT Manager at the North Canterbury Hospital Board in NZ in the early 1970s), it was one of the most satisfying in terms of making a difference. We were pioneers in the truest sense, using technology to develop systems such as ophthalmological testers, biochemical blood testing, patient record keeping, laboratory test management and automated patient admission and discharge. It was not the best paying job that I had in my career, and it was a public sector role which I have always belittled, but it made me realise that it doesn’t hurt if at some time in your career you do something that benefits others more than it benefits yourself.

Getting valid recognition … Getting a pat on the back and a handshake, or however else you define it, when you have done your job well is incredibly important for everyone, no matter how senior one becomes. I loved the 100% Achievers and the President’s clubs (not just for sales people) that I was fortunate to attend, not only for the fact that you got to mingle with some of the highest performers in the company, but also because it enabled you to show your partner that your hard work was being valued. Even after I became the CEO/President who actually hosted the Achievers’ Clubs, I still found these 3 or 4 days of recognising excellence in others to be some of the most satisfying in any of my roles.

AUthor: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge; via Wikimedia Commons

AUthor: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge; via Wikimedia Commons

Being challenged … When I joined DEC in 1977 as a salesman, my territory was the whole of the South island of New Zealand. This meant that as well as selling to commercial IT Bureaux and Corporates, I was also selling to Universities and Laboratories. The former put me in touch with some skilled business people, and the latter with some of the sharpest research minds in the country. Just to be able for me to try to understand what these people were doing, with technology that today would not have enough capability to drive a mobile phone, was a perpetual challenge, and one which made me realise that being forced out of your comfort zone is a privilege rather than an onerous task.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Having great people to work with … When I joined SAP at the end of 1993 it was just starting out on its meteoric rise through the enterprise application market. The company at the time attracted people who wanted to change the world, but who wanted the freedom to do it in their way, something I have called “passionate, driven anarchy”. In my time at SAP I had the opportunity to work with some of the most exciting, crazy, brilliant, innovative people that I have come across in my 45 year career in IT, and many whom I still count as colleagues and close friends today. Working with great people makes it all so much sweeter and so much more worthwhile.

Author: Vladislav Bezrukov; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Vladislav Bezrukov; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Having an awesome mentor … At Sun Microsystems I was fortunate to be asked to head a project on International Account Management, under the watchful eye of Carol Bartz who went on to head Autodesk and Yahoo. She was a tough, seasoned capable executive who helped me to understand the minefields, the networking, and the way one had to approach getting something done in the “collegiate” Sun environment, as well as making me question my own gender biases at that time. Having a skilled, knowledgeable mentor can save you time, energy and effort in achieving your goals, and will drive a critical learning process in your personal development.

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

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

Having a boss to emulate … I have long believed that the main reason that people resign from a company is because they have not been able to build a valid working relationship with their immediate manager (see “People join companies but leave managers” posted April 8, 2013), and having a boss that is a role model in management and leadership beliefs and practices is critical in learning the craft. Skilled management is a true art form (and science) and being able to learn from a master practitioner is the best apprenticeship one can have.

Having the freedom to learn and grow … In the 1960/70s International Harvester was not only a market leader in the manufacture of trucks and farm equipment, but was also a company that was ahead of the pack in the manufacture of future managers. They had a belief in recognising and developing people whom they identified as being potential future leaders for every element of their business. In the early 1970s, and quite some time before I became Head of IT, I was put through a 3 month in-house management development programme to prepare me for a possible future role. I have seen little to rival this in the last 40 years. Finding a company that is prepared to invest in you for the future is a rare and most valuable commodity and an opportunity to learn and grow.

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

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


In my last blog post (see “How to identify a future leader” posted April 21, 2014) I stated that while many companies have implemented some formalised succession planning processes, most of these didn’t really work, as very few achieve the intended goal of a structured, planned successful handover to a recognised and identified successor. A number of readers have asked me to elaborate on why I believe this is the case, so here are some of the major barriers that I believe can get in the way of successful succession planning both at C-level and also with succession at lower management levels.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons


– Boards are generally not good at picking a CEO … I see that many Boards tend to promote and hire in their own image, which is generally by its own nature outdated, and tend to protect the status quo while believing they are driving change. This is also one of the reasons why there are few women in senior CEO roles. Whilst I am not an advocate of quotas for gender equality, I do believe in the need for a level playing field for all.

– There is a belief that if a CEO has done it before s/he can do it again … I believe that if a CEO has done it once before then s/he has proved that they can do it once, so far. I am amazed at the C-level musical chairs played by some very average executives who just keep moving from one company to another, avoiding serious testing. Business conditions change almost daily with shifts in market conditions, technology, go-to-market, competition and regulations, so what someone did yesterday will most likely not work today. A good known internal candidate will generally be a much better bet than an outsider who looks as though he may have “done it before”.

– Horses for courses … Bringing in a “hatchet man” to slash-and-burn and to right-size a company that is struggling, and that has lost its mojo, means finding someone with a particular set of skills in being able to drive a turnaround of an ailing business. However, we should not believe that a turnaround CEO will have the same set of skills that will be needed in a CEO to lead the healing and growth phase. A blood-letter will very rarely be able to morph into a healer. When a board brings in a turnaround CEO, they should identify and start preparing his successor on day one.

By user 4C; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By user 4C; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– The step up to a CEO role from the level below is a massive one … The single-step promotion from Director to a senior VP level is generally not an enormous step, usually involving more of the same but larger, or more of the same but geographically wider. However, the single-step upwards from a VP role to CEO is enormous, and to believe that it can be done without serious preparation is folly. For a starter, the CEO needs to be able to work with a board, large investors, shareholders, the media and financial and industry analysts which all need a new set of skills, together with an even greater focus on culture, values, strategy and flow down execution than in previous lower roles. In some companies the COO, or the occasional brilliant CFO, may find the step up to CEO as being relatively straight forward, but it is a rare Regional or Divisional President who can take this step without serious preparation.


– Who should choose the successor … Generally the manager that the successor will report to will choose the person that he wants in his team. The problem is that in most companies the succession planning process puts that responsibility on selection on the person to be replaced. I have seen too many instances where these selections are not in accord, which is one major reason that analysts believe that only about 30% of promotions are as per the agreed succession plans.

– Sink or swim approach … Very few candidates are bloodied beforehand. I believe that candidates for promotion must be well mentored long term before promotion, and should be developed, grown and tested with a number of challenging assignments that are broader and more complex than their current role, and that carry elements of any potential future role.

Author: 29cm; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: 29cm; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– Most companies develop people for the role they are in … I have no issue with developing the skills of people in a way that ensures that they get better at what they do. The problem is that in most companies training budgets tend to be limited, and few companies allocate the funds needed to train and develop for the future rather than just for the now.

– People are pushed into management … I have come across a large number of companies, particularly in the Tech sector, where people are “pushed” into management roles because of the absence of a valid dual career path that allows individual contributors to grow in value, influence, recognition and reward. When vertical growth is the only option, good people will feel they have no choice but to start climbing despite this not being at what they can excel.

– Talent should be built for the organisation … Succession and hi-potential plans are generally built vertically rather than cross silo, and successful succession planning must work across all boundaries. Decisions on promotions and external recruitment into senior roles needs to be cross-divisional and decisions should be taken inter-departmentally. This would also ensure that promotions came to people who had already proven skills in building cross-silo trust, relationships and co-operation, which are mandatory skills needed in successful senior management.

It is critical to remember that the search, recognition and development of talent for an organisation are critical elements of success. Recognising potential in people is an important skill of any leader and there is little to be gained from unrealised potential.

Author: Chrisrobertsantieau; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Chrisrobertsantieau; via Wikimedia Commons


“In the C-suite, the need to develop and implement a plan for leadership succession is one of the most frequently discussed topics. Yet the overwhelming majority of companies have done little about it.”
Wayne F. Cascio

I have found that most companies today have actually implemented some form of succession planning process, and yet I have found very few which have one that actually achieves what one would expect, being an easy, well-structured handover to a planned, ready successor. Many companies treat succession planning as a “tick-in-the-box-done-that-so-it’s-out-of-the-way” chore for management, and the vast majority of organisations will still tend to go outside to fill vacancies for senior level appointments. The excuse is that the organisation will benefit from “new blood” and hence new ideas.

Author: Purple Slog; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Purple Slog; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have always believed that an internal candidate who has been mentored, developed and prepared, and who may be only a 70%-fit for the role, and who has already proven loyalty, skill, attitude, commitment and success within the company is a seriously better bet to deliver what the company needs than an outsider who may initially look like a 90%-fit on paper.

But it is not easy to recognise the skills, characteristics and personal assets that are needed for leadership, and many companies still make the mistake in believing that it is always the most successful individual contributor who will make the best manager. This means that the most successful salesman is made a sales manager, in the same way that the promotion will go to the largest fee-earning consultant or the most creative product design engineer, often with disastrous results.

This is as true for C-level succession as it is for succession and promotion at lower levels.

Here are ten key characteristics of potential leadership capability that I have tended to look for in internal candidates for possible promotion at any and all levels, and that I believe give at least some basis for recognising future leaders.

They are passionate about the company and what it does … The vast majority of workers see their company as being in a symbiotic relationship with them of work for reward, but there are some who are thrilled to be part of an organisation that ticks all their boxes, and excites them to the point of passion. I have always believed that this “infectious passion” is a key element of true leadership.

Author: Barry Langdon-Lassagne; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

People listen to them and follow their lead … Leaders accumulate followers without needing the position title. People will learn from them and emulate their actions and attitudes, because they know what they are doing, are successful and are inclusive, irrespective of what is written on their business card.

They solve problems … Leaders look for a way to solve problems that get in the way of achieving their own and team goals (see “Managers solve problems” posted March 13, 2013). People who can build solutions to barriers that get in the way of team success are a rare commodity and should be cherished and nurtured.

They love what they do … Great people put massive energy into doing what is needed of them and focus on doing their job well. This doesn’t mean that they have nothing outside of work, as true leaders have well-balanced lives and interests, but it does mean that they will also, when needed, be prepared to give up personal time if there is a critical issue that needs resolution.

They mentor, help, advise and encourage younger team members … Mentoring, advising, teaching and guiding younger and/or newer team members, without being asked to do so, and as a natural extension of their time and efforts, is one of the key indicators of a potential future leader. It doesn’t need a formal HR driven mentoring programme to be able to identify those who do it willingly and as a matter of course.

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

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

They drive change … Most people who appear to do well do so by protecting “the company way”, as this is one of the easiest ways to please management. True leaders drive change, and if you have no-one in your team who questions the status quo it is unlikely that you have a worthwhile successor, or that you will change quickly enough to address an ever changing business environment. ”A person who does not worry about the future will soon have worries about the present.” Ancient Chinese proverb.

They will stand up to you … Management takes courage in many different ways (see “The art of managerial courage” posted March 3, 2014) and those you view as potential future leaders need to be prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, even if it means going up against their boss or the herd. You must allow people with divergent ideas to have a forum to be heard, even if they do not always get their way, but the attitude of “my way or the highway” won’t work.

They can build co-operation … Good leaders know how to build co-operation and get consensus to ensure that everyone needed is involved and committed. One of my key criteria for promotion is to look for people who can attract support readily from those around them. Great salesmen may be those that can do it all on their own, but great sales managers are those that have shown that the pre-sales and support people were always ready to jump to their side in a sales campaign.

They get things done … there are those who can look good and who can “talk the talk” (empty suits) but you need to look out for, nurture and develop those who show a skill for getting things done, who meet their deadlines and who can make things happen.

They don’t play games … Understanding how to get around office politics is a key skillset for anyone in a company (see “A dummy’s guide to office politics” posted May 6, 2013), but those who love to play office politics should be weeded out. Game players who try and get ahead through intrigues are destructive and will drive out good people. Weak managers will promote politicians; great managers get rid of them.

“In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product and profits. Unless you’ve got a good team, you can’t do much with the other two.”
American businessman Lee Iacocca

Author: Ralph Alswang; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Ralph Alswang; via Wikimedia Commons


“Kill my boss ? Do I dare live out the American dream ?”
American actor and writer Dan Castellaneta

Every boss has their own style and their own set of strengths and weaknesses. It is rare to actually find a boss who is perfect and maybe the best that we can hope for is to find a boss who gives us enough direction to know what is expected of us, and enough freedom to enjoy doing it.

Author: ThisIsRobsLife (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: ThisIsRobsLife (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

However, there are some bosses whose weaknesses far outweigh their skills, and who will thus have a detrimental effect on your own career development and prospects, and who will remove any of the joy of being at work.

Here are some “boss types” that you should avoid, and if necessary to move on from … or as Winston Churchill would have said “from whom you should move.” Having just 1 or 2 of these characteristics may be acceptable in most bosses, but having many more suggests that your boss is probably out of his depth, and the sooner you get away from them the better it will be for your own quality of work/life.

Business is war … “The art of war” is an interesting enough book to read and has some valid snippets of advice for managers, but the boss who totally sees “business as war” is as outdated as black and white television. (see “Sun Tzu would go broke today” posted October 3, 2011). Business today is based on a complex web of alliances that go beyond the idea that business success is just based on killing all who oppose you.

Author: FrankWilliams at en.wikipedia; PD-ART permission; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: FrankWilliams at en.wikipedia; PD-ART permission; via Wikimedia Commons

The one minute manager … life is complex, the management of people is even more so, and your boss needs to be smart enough, sophisticated enough and experienced enough to be able to handle the vagaries and subtle nuances of business, and the immense complexities of people. A boss who believes that he can learn enough from reading simplistic views of business life is not smart enough to survive.

The emperor … Some bosses believe that they can never be seen to be wrong and will therefore not brook any disagreement. The boss who believes he is always right, and who will not listen to anyone else, is unlikely to drive innovation and creativity in his team. A capable manager will try and find people who are even smarter than is s/he, and will then show that they have a right to lead by listening to the opinions of his people.

Never their problem … Some managers have an ability to let responsibility for tough issues go right past them “to the keeper” (“to the backstop” for my American readers). No matter what goes wrong, it is never their responsibility and they can always find someone to “blame and shame”. A capable manager understands that if it happens on their watch, and in their team, it is always their responsibility.

Author: Stephen Turner at en.wikipedia; GFDL CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Stephen Turner at en.wikipedia; GFDL CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

No feedback … Good managers give their people constant and timely feedback. It is impossible to work for a boss who doesn’t let you know how you are doing on an ongoing basis (both good and bad). Waiting till the end of the year to find out how you have performed from a historical perspective does little in managing behaviour, and doesn’t allow people to adjust what they are doing to be acceptable.

Captain chaos … Some managers have the uncanny skill of being able to create an incredibly chaotic environment around them. I have even come across managers who will deliberately create crises, which they can then solve, as a way of proving their worth. While flexibility in a work environment is a critical catalyst for creativity, perpetual chaos is totally destructive.

The meeting organiser … I have generally found that the number of meetings and conference calls that a manager arranges is in direct inverse proportion to their skills as an executive (see “Meetings bloody meetings” posted April 18, 2011). The premise is that you have meetings to keep people informed, and to involve them in the decision process, but the reality is that managers who call meetings all the time are just trying to cover themselves in case things go wrong. Managers are paid to make decisions and take calculated risks. Most meetings are a waste of time, effort and energy.

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

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

The bureaucrat … Bureaucrats achieve little in public sector roles, and achieve even less in the private sector business environment. A manager who “does it by the book” and who lives his life totally by the terms and conditions in the “Policies and Procedures” manual will take too long to move, and today inertia is death. Doing the right thing is always more important than doing the thing right, notwithstanding the need for honesty and integrity at all times.

The politician … I hate business politicians (see “A guide to office politics” posted May 6, 2013), though I do accept that being able to manage upwards is a critical skill needed in a manager. However, managers who love listening to and spreading gossip, who love the political intrigues of a Machiavelli and who believe that “who you know and who you can manipulate” is more important than what you do and what you achieve, should be avoided like rabid dogs.

The body-bagger … Business at any cost, no matter how high is the casualty rate, is not good business and I have never tolerated managers who have been successful but have left a trail of “death and destruction” behind them on their road to achieving their goals. Good managers take everyone along with them, no matter how tough is the hill that they are storming.

To really succeed in life you should find something to do that you can really love doing, and if it means working for a boss, rather than yourself, then you need to find one that you can admire and that gives you the opportunity to stay in love with what you do. If you go through life tolerating a bad manager just because he pays you, or just because he scares you, will ultimately destroy your love of life. Find a better management role model.


“The only thing you take with you when you are gone is what you leave behind.”
John Allston (1666-1719).

I find that one of the things that you think about as you get older is whether you will leave anything worthwhile behind after you are gone, particularly when it comes to elements of one’s life (other than children and grandchildren) such as whether after 40+ years of working you have left some sort of legacy in the businesses for which you worked. I accept that it is a bit arrogant to hope that you were able to make a significant enough contribution to have made a real difference to other people’s work lives. I also accept that I am no Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, to pick on two obvious examples, but there is a part of me that would like to feel that I had made a difference to at least some small extent.

Author: World Economic Forum; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: World Economic Forum; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

About 10 years ago, while visiting New York on vacation and after I had recently taken up the role of Global Head of HR at SAP, I was asked whether I would be prepared to do a press interview about my new role. It seemed that my having moved from the post of a Regional CEO at SAP to an HR role was considered to be so unusual as to be mildly newsworthy.

Patrick Kiger, the journalist who interviewed me, was charming and very relaxed and we chatted about topics as diverse as what I believed about HR, the role that I felt I needed to play, my priorities, my background and a 100 other different subjects like the meaning of life, and even the accidental creation by the KGB of an anti-hangover pill.

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

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

The interview subsequently appeared in Workforce on July 30, 2004 and despite a few small typos (such as my finding 100 rather than 1000 different HR programmes underway which we cut to 30, rather than to 300 as was stated in the article) it was fairly accurate.

Just a few days ago, I had a close friend send me the article after she had accidently stumbled upon it whilst trying to find something that I had written in one of my blog posts. I had completely forgotten about this particular interview so it was interesting to reread it, to revisit my thoughts of a decade ago, and to consider whether I had actually managed to achieve the things that I had discussed in the interview. It turned out to be a bit embarrassing to do so.

I have long believed that one of the key measures of successful leadership is whether there is a sustainable legacy left in place after departure. I have met many managers who appeared to be good at holding things together, and who were capable of running a successful operation as long as they were in place, but who left very few long term sustainable initiatives behind them. I consider that there are important measures for true business leadership success beyond just financial health, such as did they build talent for the organisation, did they grow future leaders, did they build a culture based on strong values that could live on after they were gone and did they leave customers and partners who were loyal.

In my own assessment, I felt that I had mostly achieved this in both my roles as Regional CEO for SAP Asia Pacific and later for SAP EMEA, but having revisited this interview, I now wonder whether I had actually managed to do so, in my final full time role before retirement, as SAP Global Head of HR.

In my business management roles, I had always felt that I had left behind a strong management team and that my chosen successor had been ready, and champing at the bit, to take over from me. I had felt that the culture that had been created during my stewardship was one that enabled people to thrive and grow, that engendered passion and commitment from my people, and was one that encouraged calculated experimentation and risk-taking without fear of failure.

Now when I look at that interview in 2004 and at the goals that I had set for myself and for the HR organisation those 10 years ago, unfortunately I cannot say the same things.

When I was asked to step out of business management into the HR role, I was initially very hesitant to do so, but eventually acquiesced because I seriously and honestly believed that I could make a measurable difference.

As an existing board member, I believed that I would be able to position HR into a more strategic role and that we could ensure that people, as well as technology, would be at the forefront of business strategy. I believed that I could build an HR management team that would be seen as adding value to the business and that would be seen as being a “player” in helping to build business success (see “HR … Polite to Police to Partner to Player” posted August 26, 2010).

Author: RickyMartin (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: RickyMartin (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Former American football head coach Bill Parcells set the challenge into words when he said “When asked what I want my legacy to be, I am content at this point to say that it is those who will follow me”.

The reality is that since my retirement from SAP in 2006 no subsequent head of HR has lasted more than 12 months, the role of global HR Head has been vacant for longer than it has been filled, the status of HR has remained one of low strategic value, and HR is still not perceived as being of significant value-add to the business. My planned successor whom I worked with during my 3 year tenure and who, I still believe today, was one of the few true HR professionals capable of doing this job at SAP, was never given the role and subsequently left the company.

If the measurement is as defined by American entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn (1930-2009) when he said “All good men and women must take responsibility to create legacies that will take those that follow to a level we could only imagine”, then I can only conclude that during my tenure as a global head of HR I did not really achieve a great deal (see “HR … Why is no-one listening” posted July 30, 2012).

Author: Ramine5677 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Ramine5677 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Interesting development … A week after I actually wrote this piece for posting on January 13th, SAP announced on January 9th that my original planned successor, after a 3 year absence, would re-join the company as Global Head of HR ( … strange synchronicity !!