MY MAIN PERSONAL LESSONS LEARNED IN 2013

Whenever I am given an opportunity to talk to a group of young people about managing their career, I always tell them that it is important to be able to update their CV annually with what they can do now that they couldn’t do 12 months ago, or what they know now that they didn’t know a year ago.

I see no reason why this advice about continuous learning should be limited just to the young, so here are 5 key things that I learned in 2013.

1. You are never too old to unlearn and relearn … In my first job as a salesman in 1977 at DEC, I sold PDP11/70 minicomputers to accounting companies to set up on-line data processing bureaux for their clients. When all the hype started about “the cloud” my first reaction was “same old same old”, and that it was just another recycling of bureaux services under an updated sexier name. Yes and no. The fact is that it is a small “yes” and a large “no”, and as the companies I am involved with tend to be cloud based businesses, I had to forget my past experiences and relearn all about on-demand, subscription based services in this new world. It has been a rewarding experience.

Author: 百楽兎; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: 百楽兎; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


2. The time it takes to go from expert to dinosaur is rapidly diminishing … It took me about 30 years in IT before I realised that to stay totally current with technology trends would take more time than I had available to me while also trying to run a business. Today the valuable useable period for a software engineer is estimated to be about 10 years and rapidly dropping (see “Moving at the speed of shelf life” posted April 15, 2013). People are becoming more technology savvy as time passes, but we are also changing technology at a pace that makes it harder for people to keep up, no matter what is their age. At a time that we are telling people that they will need to work well into their seventies, we are simultaneously rapidy shortening their shelf life.

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

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


3. Not all close friendships are forever … Some friends become an integral part of your life and will be so forever, no matter how much time elapses between seeing each other. Some other friendships, even if extremely close at the time, just run their course and eventually you drift apart completely. I have realised that quirks and eccentricities that can be attractive, charming and endearing in friends when young, can become so pronounced as they age that they become intolerable. One close friend of 30 years would keep a running commentary going about the shortcomings of every other driver on the road. A bit annoying at times, but mostly quite amusing. In his late 60s this has now morphed into the most uncontrollable and violent road rage, that had him chasing another car, which had unknowingly pulled in front of him, at high speed through a busy city, just so he could pull alongside and scream abuse and profanities at the hapless driver. Unfortunately I was in the car with him at the time. I told him that he really needed to get some serious help, and haven’t heard from him since.

Author: John; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: John; via Wikimedia Commons


4. When it comes to health there is no one size fits all … I have friends who are forever telling me about the latest Peruvian mountain grass powder that can slow down the ageing process, and that it must work because it actually makes you gag when drinking, particularly as you have to mix it with virgin yak urine to augment its efficacy. Others extol the virtues of this year’s hottest fitness guru who has designed an exercise regime that means you only have to exercise for 30 seconds a day, as long as that time is spent running up a sand dune, holding your breath with a heavy weight tied to your testicles. The reality is that you just have to determine what works for you and make it a part of your normal activities, and just disregard all the “gurus-du-jour”. What works is everything in moderation except for vegetables, friends and laughter and the need to get up off your butt every day to do something that is fun to do and that gets your heart and lungs working. My walking around the paddocks for 45 minutes every day, with a shovel and wheelbarrow, picking up horse poo, seems to work well for me.

Health

5. You become a composite of the people you mix with … I am amazed at how quickly we become like the people around us. I have even found that having lived in France for about 10 years I have become more of a pessimist, talk about lessons one can learn from history and that I am even considering the possible benefits of the 35 hour week ( … not quite). But the reality is that if you spend time with negative people you will become just like them in a short time, so you should keep away from them. I don’t mean that you should spend all your time with Americans, who are the most optimistic people in the world and who can wax lyrical even about a death in the family, but it does change your sense of the joys of life if you mix with people who are full of love, life, humour and fun.

6. Great customer service is rare and awe-inspiring when you get it … I am not a great fan of Apple or Steve Jobs (see “Are fools or fanatics the problem” posted April 23, 2012), still carrying a Blackberry and using a Windows based laptop. I do however have an ipad, which my wife gave me as a Xmas present some years ago. Based on how slow is our internet connection in the small village in the French countryside where we live, I have never been able to upgrade the OS. I eventually decided that I needed to do something about this and that the best way to do this would be to go and camp in the Apple store and use their in-store wifi. From the minute that I walked into the store in Bordeaux city I was embraced in a cocoon of expertise, support and assistance that I have possibly never experienced before in my life. Rather than just letting me camp in a corner and do my own thing, a young Apple person insisted on helping me through it all eventually spending an hour helping me through the entire process, for no charge and no reward other than the fact that she was there to help. I may have to rethink my view of Apple, though not necessarily of its founder.

I have long found that the things that are the most important in life are the things that you learn after you think you already know it all.

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BAD MANAGEMENT HABITS YOU NEED TO BREAK

As well as general bad habits that need to be stopped (see “Bad work habits you need to break” posted August 1, 2011), there are many bad habits specific to those in management roles that also need to be broken.

Here are 10 of my favourites.

1. Not keeping learning

Many managers have an attitude that learning is something that they had to do along the way and that can be stopped now that they have reached a senior role. No matter how many things you are actually doing right as a manager, there are no limits to what you can learn about the complex art of leading and motivating people. There is no end state of management Nirvana, which once reached puts you in a state of management grace… it is one long journey of learning that never ends, and the better that you become the more you realise how much more there is to learn.

Author: Kalogator (own work); via Wikimedia Commons


2. Letting the financials get out of control

As a manager you cannot allow the responsibilities for financial management of your area to just pass over to your senior financial officer. His role is to keep you aware of the situation and proffer advice when needed, but ultimate responsibility for managing the financial state and balance of the business must rest with the senior business manager. When your business area is performing below its revenue budget (whether you are a CEO or a first level sales manager), you cannot just hope that things will pick up, as “Hope is never a strategy”. You must put definitive plans in place to remedy the situation from both a revenue (if possible) and cost (always possible) situation. After all, delivering on commitments is what you as a manager are being paid to do.

Author: LibertyUSArocks (own work); via Wikimedia Commons; Data source: http://www.treasurydirect.gov/NP/BPDLogin?application=np


3. Forgetting about your customers

I have long argued that whist most companies declare that “The customer is #1” (See ”The 3 great business lies” posted August 2, 2010), the customer rarely makes it into the “Top 10”. As a manager it is critical that you are always focussed on your customers’ needs, both externally and internally. This is particularly true when working in a fast changing industry where customer expectations are continually changing. If in doubt just look at the IT sector where many once high flyers have gone the way of the Dodo because they focussed on their internal brilliance and forgot about keeping their eye on what were their customers changing needs and expectations.

Author: iag (own work); via Wikimedia Commons


4. Needing to always be right

Good managers don’t always have to be right and don’t have to come out on top in every discussion.
The reason that you recruit great people is to let great ideas, other than just your own, flourish.
The role of a manager is to encourage people to be creative and innovative in their thinking, which is not possible if they are always being over-ridden by their immediate supervisor. There are even times when a clever manager will let his people run with their “lesser” idea in the knowledge that they will be more committed to its outcome when they have pride of ownership.

5. Covering your arse

Skilled managers understand that one of their critical requirements is to take calculated risk and accept that when you are pushing boundaries, not everything will work out as planned or expected. Be prepared to learn from your mistakes and ensure that the successes outweigh them. Only weak managers go out there in half-hearted attempts to drive change as they will do this with arse-covering dilution.

6. Playing politics

Understand the politics and where the minefields are, but stay out of taking sides in the political gangs and back-stabbing that goes on in most companies. Don’t tolerate politicians in your own area of responsibility, as playing politics is the refuge of those that generally have less skill and capability than that needed in the position they are trying to gain.
As Ernest Benn (British publisher 1875-1954) said “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy”.

7. Not helping others

Prioritising personal self-interest is not a characteristic of a capable manager, so just worrying about yourself and your own career and forgetting that your role is to help everyone in your team to be successful will ultimately work against you. Helping others should not be limited to just your own people but extends to all your linkages in the company where your actions, and those of your team, can make it easier for others to achieve their goals.

8. Not protecting and fighting for your people

Unfortunately “crap” always flows downhill and you cannot develop the habit of getting out of the way when it does. You must protect your people from unwanted and unnecessary load from all sides as well as removing barriers to make it easier for them to do their jobs. In the same way, you should take the flak from above for your people … their actions are ultimately your responsibility.

9. Being openly and publicly critical

You set the standards in your team and you set the attitudes about the company. Being openly critical of other managers or whingeing about other departments will encourage your people to do the same and will build their dissatisfaction with those around them and ultimately the entire company. Get into the habit of trying to help resolve these problems rather than just openly complaining about them.

10. Believing in only annual performance reviews

Performance reviews are not only about establishing and discussing outcomes of performance against set goals and objectives as they are a critical way to manage behaviour. This means that every interaction that you have with your people is a way of re-enforcing needed behaviours. It is imperative that behavioural issues are addressed as they happen, rather than waiting for a formal review process at year end, as feedback is important on an on-going basis.

Remember that bad habits are like a comfortable bed, being very easy to get into but very hard to get out of.

WE NEED TO MAKE MORE MISTAKES

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.“

THIRD SECRET OF SUCCESS

Being able to update your resume (curriculum vitae) every year is an important part of success.

I am not suggesting that you update it and put it out on the street, just that you need to be able to update the contents every year, and that you should also set up a formal process, and allocate time, to make this happen. (See “Second Secret of Time Management” posted 30/9/2010).

You have to ask yourself “What do I know today that I didn’t know a year ago, what can I do today that I couldn’t do a year ago or what can I do measurably better today than I could do a year ago ?”

If you can’t answer positively to at least one part of this question, then you have not only just wasted a year of personal growth, but you have actually gone backwards, as those that you compete with may not have let the time pass so unproductively.

I am not just talking about competition as being the sole concern of those that are seeking to climb the corporate ladder, but I am including all elements of business, politics, study and life in general.
It is just as true for a corporate executive, a wine maker in Bordeaux or an MBA student, and it also holds true for retirees, despite their supposed non-compete status.

As the Rolling Stones say “And time waits for no one and it won’t wait for me”.

I also believe that you do need to do this personal review as a formal process, as just doing it whilst you drive to work, or navigate your tractor through the vines, makes it too easy to gloss over details and so delude yourself into believing that you have actually achieved a year of personal growth. A formal process implies that not only will you need to list these “upgrades” to your skills and/or knowledge, but that you will also be able to document evidence that these upgrades have actually occurred.

I find that it also helps to seek outside confirmation from for example peers, subordinates and superiors (in a work context), or partners and friends (in a personal context) that they have also seen visible evidence of these changes, and would be prepared to sign off (if asked) on the changes in your resume.

It’s also not enough just to list a promotion, as climbing a rung on the corporate ladder is not in itself a sure sign that you have actually advanced your skills or knowledge in the last 12 months, only that you have been chosen as the best of what is available in the selection process.

Some promotions are more an indication of the lack of skill of the promoters rather than a sure sign of skills in the one promoted. In the latter half of the 20th century, the IT industry grew massively each year, and became a breeding ground for promotions of the “most visibly able” rather than the “truly capable”, as in many companies the growth in the number of management positions to fill was greater than the growth in skilled candidates. It was only towards the end of the 1900’s that tough times showed that many had titles that far exceeded their true abilities, skills and experience to actually effectively fill the role.

These are generally the people who are first to go when culling processes start, and we should have learned by now that in this century the regular corporate cull has become a fact of life.
True learning and skills development, and putting this knowledge to use, is not only a key element in corporate life preservation, but is also what makes life more interesting and worthwhile.

The Olympic motto in Latin is “Citius, Altius, Fortius” which translates to “Higher, Faster, Stronger ”.
To this we should add “Acutulior” which means “cleverer”.

Seoul Olympics, group of runners racing, focus on legs

SECOND SECRET OF SUCCESS

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Alvin Toffler

I am often amazed that so many people seem to not understand that learning is a journey and not a destination.

You should never stop learning, whether it is for new skills or new ideas, and you need to be prepared to adjust both elements as the world changes around you. It is also important these days to differentiate between information and knowledge, and to understand that information may be interesting for conversations at dinner parties but little else if not applied, and that knowledge that is not translated to actions has little value, as knowing what to do is less important than actually doing what we know.

Too many people seem to believe that there are distinct stages in their lives, with very little overlap:

  • Ages 1-25 “Learning” phase (School and University)
  • 25-65 “Doing” phase through working (25-55 in France … see “Vive l’avantage” posted 27 Sept 2010)
  • 65-85+ “Resting” phase (for many the “TV watching” phase … see “Vive la France” posted 25 June 2010)

    Two men and woman sitting on sofa, watching television

There is a pervasive attitude amongst many senior, well educated people that once they have graduated with their PhDs and MBAs that they are now past their learning phase and that from now on they will just absorb anything extra by osmosis as they just go about doing things. I have always seen early formal education mainly as a way to learn how to learn, and as acquiring a “hunting license” in the job market. However, just because you have a license to do something doesn’t actually mean that you will get the opportunity to actually do it, nor does it mean that you already have the skills to do it well. In most cases these skills need to be developed and honed over a lifetime before they can be well deployed. To become proficient, learning and practice must continue forever whether formal, on the job, through coaching and mentoring, reading and trying, and failing sometimes just to not get too overconfident. (See “First Secret of Success” posted on 16.09.2010).

This belief that they already know enough tends to be truer of people in management roles, as individual contributors, such as engineers, at least have an understanding that their science keeps changing with each new breakthrough in their field. Managers have to go through this same process of learning, as the science of management changes with the changing expectations of each generation. Management styles of “command and control” may have worked with my father’s generation, but already didn’t work with mine, and certainly don’t work with today’s generation who see a much more collaborative style of management with much more involvement in things like job definition and measurement. (See “Quality of Management for the Future” posted 02/09/2010).

It is our ability to continually redefine ourselves as the world changes around us at an ever more rapid rate that will define our ability to keep on succeeding.

As Charles Darwin so succinctly puts it “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor is it the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

I have less problem convincing younger people of this, but am amazed at how many board members of major companies resist ongoing training, some even seeing this need for further learning as being a visible show of weakness to subordinates. It may be acceptable to have a noted university professor come in and talk to the board on some related subject as this can be seen more as an intellectual exercise rather than a learning one, but I have found significant resistance when I have suggested that a corporate board could do with some serious training on, for example, how to function effectively as a board.

At least I am fortunate that in my retirement I get to mix with lots of younger people. I could not imagine a more terrifying existence than having to spend all my time just with people my own age, as I have long believed that it’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts.