The 60s and early 70s: some of my Jerusalem Flats

That  home of mine on Rehov (street) Shemaryahu near the Mandelbaum Gate which used to separate old from new Jerusalem was probably the closest I have ever come to, say, living in Baghdad or Teheran.  Shemaryau was actually an alley, not a street. And that home was actually sort of a room and a half, or even less. It was freezing cold all winter;  a kerosene cart, pulled by a horse, would pass by once every two days. Yael or I would run up and fill up a jerrycan of “solar” for our “fireside”. No, of course we did not have an actual fireside-the old kerosene heaters which often billowed smoke were called “firesides.” It took about 5 matches to lite the wick. And about ten minutes before the heater started to heat.

MANDELBAUM GATE-from wikicommons

Another feature of the Shmaryahu area was the old man who came by everyday yelling “alteh zachen”-which means “old things” or used items in Yiddish. The old man was an Arab-and he did speak some Yiddish, which I certainly don’t. Nor did Yael. She was, and still is, Yemenite.

Hisachon 2/2/2 was a different story all together. Located near the ultra-religious area of Beit vaGan in Jerusalem, Hisachon 2/2/2 was an old fashioned Soviet-like public housing, with each apartment having 3 very small rooms, broken mailboxes at the entrance and an unkempt public domain at the entrance. Unkempt, but clean. Each of the three“blocks” of Hisachon had 4 entrances. I was entrance 2. 2nd floor. Apartment 2. Hence  Hisachon 2/2/2. Hisachon by the way means “savings”. Appropriate, as you can see from the building in the forefront.

Soviet style public housing-Shikun hahisachon 2-from wikicommons

 

I shared that apartment in Hisachon with another soldier, Dany, who was born in Chile. We agreed on everything; the apartment needs to be clean; close the door when there are “guests”. Dany was to become an OD consultant as well. The best part of sharing an apartment with him was the number of books he read. Everything and anything I read, Dany had read before me. I lost all contact with him; he disappeared off the face of the earth. When Dany woke up, I could hear him whistling in the shower. He whistled well but one of his girlfriends smoked.

Stern 12 in Kiryat Yovel, Jerusalem was a royal pain in the ass. The 18 bus left me a 20 minute walk from the apartment, and in the extreme heat, that was no fun. But the 4 room apartment I shared had some interesting characters. Hans was a German student studying Yiddish literature at the Hebrew University. He spoke Hebrew with strongest German accent I ever encountered. Ilan came from an Israeli collective settlement and was almost never there, since he needed to work to finance his studies. And there was a newly married couple; she was American and he was Israeli. They hogged the kitchen and if you ask me, their marriage did not last. When I lived in Stern, I tried to learn Arabic. I spent hours up on the roof of Stern 12 with a small tape listening to Arabic. “Bas isma-wa-id vistarachah” “Just listen and answer in the break”. Yes-it was possible to sit on roof-and I loved to do so.

I had more apartments/rented rooms in Jerusalem. On Rehov Naftali in Baqa with Hadassah which is too painful to write about; in the Bucharim Quarter with a lady flatmate whose name I do not remember, and in Bayit va Gan.

Bucharin Quarter from Wiki

Now Jerusalem is an hour and a half drive from where I live, and thousands of years in the past.

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Backing your staff: a cultural perspective

Joe was supposed to report that the wiring in Station B had been fixed. However, Joe got a call from his wife and forgot to do so. As a result, Station B remained closed for one extra hour, causing a 5000 Euro loss.

Joe’s boss, Garth, told Joe that he had nothing to worry about. Garth sent out a mail saying that “I ordered that Joe wait an hour after the repair to be absolutely sure that there would be no need to close Station B again”.  Garth had backed Joe. 

Ed had far less luck. He showed up to work 20 minutes late, delaying the deployment of new equipment. Ed’s boss, Carmen, castigated Ed in a group Whatsapp for “chronic tardiness”. Carmen had not backed Ed.

Backing is a two edged sword. On one hand, there is an expecation is some cultures for automatic “artiliary cover” for errors and if and when there is an issue to be discussed, dirty linen needs to be washed so that no one else can see. On the other hand, backing can lead to cover up, lying, and constant blaming between groups.

I want here to relate to the cultural expectations around backing. In middle eastern, Asian and African societies, there is an expectation of benevolence from the superior which includes “backing as default”, and in return for that benevolence, there is obediance. In other societies, an expectation for transparency overrides the expecatiotion of “cover fire”, and thus, backing is often less automatic and not as being the default behaviour expected from managers.

In global organizations, backing is more complex. “Let’s take it offline” is a sign of backing, albeit obtuse. “Let me take care of it with HQ” is also a sign of backing. However, “Ned and Wu, I do not plan to babysit this issue, figure out how to deal with it on your own” is backing for Ned, who feels like he is being treated like an adult, and a slap in the face for Wu, who wanted the boss to step in and put Ned in his place, which Wu feels is not Wu’s job.

Here are a few guidelines I have developed for managers pondering what type of backing to provide?

1) Do I want to be consistent, or deal case by case?

2) Do I want to mold my employee’s expectations, or adapt myself to how s/he has been brought up and educated?

3) What behaviour will ensure that I myself am never surprised or lied to?

4) How can I give backing without concealing, and how can I be matter-of-fact without letting down my people?

And a short story to end. I was in Asia in a country that I certainly could not use my Israeli passport to get in. Mr T, the country manager, always backed his local people from the wrath of the Dutch based HQ when there was a policy infringement. I was working with Mr T about how he is (negatively) perceived in HQ. T was certain that if he lessened the backing he gave his people, “I will lose both HQ and my employees. Allon Sir, don’t force me into a lose-lose sitatuation”.

One more interesting insight for those interested in “backing” in China. The CCP (Mao in particular) was known for sending the people closest to him for re-education. Over time, it became clear that he backed almost one. However, when reads Vogel’s  biography of Deng, it is clear that Deng got very special conditions when he was send for re-education in the countryside (as a mechanic.) Btw, I am aware that this paragraph interests almost no one :).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Unbridgable Cultural Differences

I have just finsihed reading the late Michael Zacchea book, The Ragged Edge-a chronicle of the US attempt to set up a new Iraqi Army in which its soldiers are to be oblivious to the cultural divides within “Iraqi” society. Major Zacchea, a marine, was advisor to the 5th Division of the Iraqi army. The book chronicles the failure of this endevour, focusing on the cultural chasm between the Americans and the various Iraqi tribes. The book is a fascinating read for those of us interesting in organizational change and cultural differences.

I worked once with a group of Mexicans and Japanese in a project. The cultural gaps were unbrigable. If people do not share anything whatsoever in common about the meaning of time, attention to detail, approach to problem solving, communication to clients and share at least some understanding of what “respect” is, they cannot work together.

Those who follow chronic conflicts in the Middle East know how important the cultural divides are to making the conflicts unsolvable, as Prof Bernard Lewis pointed out during his entire career.

I have been following the coverage of American media about the war in the Ukraine. I truly believe that there is a cultural lense-distortion which prevents the west from understanding why Russia is at war. These same lense, by the way, threw Mubarak under the train, and encouraged Gorbachev to procede to undo a system without anything else to replace it.

So is dialogue the best way to overcome such differences? Or do good fences make good neighbours. Or both. That is a critical question that OD consultants need to ask themselves. I think that Michael’s book provides an answer. A good one.

 

And thanks to Madelaine Sayko for referring this book to my attention.

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Auntie Mickee aka Miriam Foreman Halpert

 

                                 

Only as I got older did I realize what an effort Auntie Min had made in all those holiday meals she prepared for our family. 

No, it’s not a mistake. Mickee was Min, Mindle, Auntie Ho and many other nicknames that I always invented for the people I love. Although I must admit that many of these family members do not really appreciate these nicknames, and that is an understatement.

My Dad really liked  Pat’s sister and she liked him as well. Dad never had a bad word about her-and my Dad had strong opinions, believe you me. The only thing that Dad ever mentioned about Auntie Mickie is that if you ask her how she is, you get a full health update about her, and everyone she knew.

“Did I tell you that Vera has had bad constipation for a week, and her physician, Dr Uranus, told her than she must take 2 magnesium pills a day.  With water. At 4 PM. Her husband, Mel has heartburn, but only mild”.

Auntie Mickee wrote poetry with great skill. If I remember properly, several of her poems were broadcast on CJAD’s poetry corner, “Put a Poem in the Pot, for Pinkertons”. Pinkertons was, or is, a flower shop. I don’t know if it exists anymore. I have been away from Montreal for 52 years. From my Dad’s balcony, I could see Pinkertons.

When Auntie Mickee used to cook, I would stand in the kitchen and talk to her. She knew about the issues I had with her sister Patricia-Ruth and Auntie Ho used to give me wise counsel, which I ignored.

When Hadassah my wife died, Auntie Mickee came over to be with me at the shiva (mourning period). The trip from Montreal is a very long trip, and very expensive. But she came. Auntie Mickee always gave. She had a heart bigger than life; she loved and gave, and gave and gave. Most important, she was loving and caring. An outstanding amount of goodness-that what my dear Aunt Miriam was all about.

Auntie Mickee called me to say goodbye when she was about to die. I tried to cheer her up, which was so stupid of me, and when I put down the phone, I cried like a baby. Another piece, a most beautiful piece of my memories of Montreal, was about to “slip slide away”.

Miriam Foreman-Halpert was born in Montreal to Harry and Fay Foreman, nee Zack, from London England. Her father owned a gym on rue Cote des Neiges and Sherbrooke. Her mother, Fay Zack-Foreman-Liverman owned a lady’s dress shop called Moleen’s on Queen Mary Road. Miriam had a sister, Pat Foreman, my mother.

 

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A few words about OD in off-shore development centres

Marek “Miki” Cohen was recently appointed as Israeli “site manager” for “Hearit”, a Raleigh NC based company which develops and sells hearing aids which are worn on clothes, not inserted into the ear.

Hearit  had recently purchased “Orhatof”, the Israel based R&D centre where Marek was the Head of New Technologies. And thus it came to pass that Marek became Hearit Israel’s new site leader.

A material engineer by training, Marek found his new role challenging-and contacted a tall, handsome, opinionated Canadian born Israeli consultant to help him “focus on what my job needs to be”. After 3 months of work which consisted of weekly meetings, the following outputs were defined for Marek’s job.

  1. Maintain and augment the level of trust between the Israeli site and HQ. 
  2. Ensure the strategic positioning of Hearit Israel within Hearit Corporation by focusing on high end products, long term retention of talented engineering staff and willingness to take aggressive ‘time to market” committments.
  3.  Relocate Israel-based engineering staff to Raleigh to build senior level relationships in corporate.
  4. Spend one week a month in Raleigh to take part in senior management meetings face to face. 
  5. Build strategic relationships with the CEO to find an effective way to back-channel around the Raleigh based staff who tried to micromanage their Israeli colleagues.

The triggers for OD consulting in off-shore development centres often stem from the appointment of new executives on either side of the ocean, preventive medicine for a new project that needs a high level of cooperation, a breakdown in trust, or crisis with a delayed delivery of a product which causes mutual finger pointing.

Methodology for consulting to such projects are available (gratis) with the author.

 

 

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Misunderstanding Russia-and doing OD with Russian and FSU staff

Vlad is the development manager whose team does both new product development as well as continuous engineering on old product releases.

His team faces brutal deadlines and constant client pressure. The team is presently 3 engineers short-that is, 17 engineers instead of 20. The three missing engineers retired and no one was found to replace them.

Vlad is extremely demanding. He totally caves in to what the CEO asks for, works 14 hours a day, demands the same from his team. He calls people on weekends and holidays. He runs twice a day, taking team members to run with him, discussing work for all 5 kilometers. He talks shop all the time. Just shop. Nothing else. When employees have a personal tragedy or need to take care of an ailing parent, Vlad is extremely compassionate and releases all pressure, even for months at a time.

There is very little turnover in Vlad’s team-although a recent survey commissioned by HR (in Chicago)  shows that his team members are not happy. They ranked their team 2 out of 5 on every parameter. Everyone knows that Vlad’s team is one of the key assets of the company.

An OD consultant (me)  was commissioned to see what can be done to ‘prevent attrition of key employees.’ 

Vlad’s team consists of many Russian born Israelis, a few native born Israelis, 1 Israeli from the FSU, 2 Indians in Bangalore and two Chinese in Cyprus.

Intially I found it difficult to extract information. The Chinese reported that they were very content, ‘just a bit of pressure, that’s all’. The Indians complained about time-zone issues, over which there is almost no control. The Russians and FSU-born Israelis were very suspiscious of me and I managed to extract information only after 3 or 4 months and after the CEO announced that I was hired on a permanent basis.

Years into the project, I have observed that the Russia-born employees have an ambivalent approach of their authoritarian leader. They seem to admire the toughness; they expect their leaders to be extremely demanding to the point of absurdity, and constantly find a way to beat the system. They accept the yolk of authoritarianism, then work around it. 

Let’s take Natalie for example. She accepts all deadlines, however absurd, and reports good progress until one month before delivery. Then she starts to explain the slippage. ‘Allon, if I told Vlad 5 months ago about the delay, he would have worked me to the bone-now, I only have 2 months of hard work’.

Or let’s take Raisa. She is always extremely pessimistic, constantly berating his ‘HALLUCIGENTIC (her word) deadlines. She lowers Vlad’s confidence in her; he labels her as a nay-sayer, and avoids pressuring her. Raisa is one of the best brains Vlad has, her best skills being managing Vlad.

In the past, Vlad consulted his team about how to reduce stress. This consultative style resulted in revolt, and Vlad was seen as ‘becoming soft’. So he reverted quickly to a heavy handed policy vis a vis ‘ making committments. The Chinese developer told me that Vlad’s ‘hundred flower movement lasted a month.

I find myself thinking of my Vlad and my Russians as of late. And I wonder a lot if people without experience in working with Russians understand the resilience of the Russians to adapt themselves to authoritarian leadership, even respecting it, whilst taking care of their own interests to keep safe. And just how much disrespect they have for leaders  who are overly consultative. They like the rules to be clear-you dictate and we evade. So clear. So simple. ‘Vlad never consults us as to how to screw us’, summed up Costa.

My work with this team has been about slowly reducing the number of internal surprises, and establishing a more realistic approach to meeting deadlines in order to better ‘manage the customer’ and reduce ‘misinformation’ during design reviews. Yes, twerks to the system, not making Vlad into Obama.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Doing versus saying in global organizations

There are cultures in which words are just as important as deeds, and perhaps even more important than facts. In these cultures, SAYING can be more valued than DOING.

For example, Mr  Paul Reed has decided to leave the company and spend more time with his family. (Mr Reed was caught dipping his wick in the parking lot)

Or “that was a nice try”. (Not good enough)

Or “I like that idea; it could be useful”. (could be, but probably could not)

True, Shakespeare’s Bassiano pointed out what he saw as the fakeness of mere words-

So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars;
Who, inward search’d, have livers white as milk;

This having been said, words are just words in some cultures. Indeed some cultures see words without action as fake, phoney or dishonest. Words must be reflect reality if they are to be valued.

So words can both reflect and words can and obfuscate the uncomfortable.

Here are a few practical applications: if you ever have to give bad news to people where words are just words, do not sugar coat because the credibility that is lost will be longer lasting than the negative news that you are bearing.
If you ever have to give bad news to people where words must be used to perfume the pig, sweeten the taste and make things look good especially when they are not good, then apply the makeup thick.

Example, four remote locations (Phillipines, Thailand,Holland and Israel) will be merged into one, with all support functions being elimated and services to be provided hereoinin from company HQ in Raleigh, NC. In Israel and Holland, do not sell this change by stressing its economic advantages or the uniformity achieved by economy of scale. Just tell it as it is.

For the Phillipines and Thailand, use of verbal ornament can be rather useful. However, in private discussions, tell it as it is.

 

 

 

 

 

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The moment you understand what you have learnt doesn’t work-The Case of the OD meatball

Therese Duplessis works in the jungle of Brazil. She is a  registered nurse who has volunteered to work at an aids clinic for two years; her clinic services 3 villages very hard hit by aids.

The patients line up starts at 7am, and she hands out the cocktail of pills in the strangest of ways until 9am, at which time she takes a break until blood testing hours begin, from 930 am till 1100 am.

During her first month on the job, Therese would take a stroll during her morning break, coffee in hand, and walk on the paths that surround the clinic. To her surprise, she noticed that all the pills she had dispensed, except the red ones, had been thrown out.

Astute as they come, Therese learnt that the locals were ok with any medicine, as long as it was red. And to add a log to the fire, no medicine could be blue, because blue signified death. Two of the pills she had been  dispensing were blue.

Within a week, Therese was handing out the pills stuffed into a meatball which had been soaked in tomato sauce. Each patient received one red meatball, and downed the meatball in her presence.

Therese noted in an email to her family that “we sure did not learn that in school”.

It’s 2000. I am in Thailand sitting in an executive sales meeting as a facilitator with Javier, who is Head of Far Eastern Revenue Generation for an Israeli software company. Javier is a Cuban-born Canadian with an Israeli wife.

Javier has just asked for sales forecasts for the next quarter from his area VPs. Liang, VP of Key Accounts in South China, told Javier that the next quarter looks great! Then, in a coffee break, Liang told Javier that he would not meet his numbers and sales were way below target. Javier was furious. “Allon, Liang is blowing smoke up my ass”.

Javier told me to give a short talk about the importance of transparency and open communication about “early warning” signals when bad news is possible. I did so, since openness is such a core value in OD.

Liang came up to me at lunch and asked me to have supper with him. After a few (many) drinks, Liang (and Wu who had joined us) told me that he did not understand Javier. “I cannot give Javier bad news in public-that would be so rude; how I can I MAKE HIM LOOK BAD”. Wu added that he did not think that “Mr Javier has a thick face”. (He pronounced Javier as Ah-Wu-ya).

That was it-from that point on, I realized that I need to find my own road, far from the beaten path of traditional OD, to make OD relevant in a global setting.

Like Therese, I started cooking my own sort of meatball. Taste one.

Do you need to cook meatballs? Check here.

 

 

 

 

 

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Consulting a client overwhelmed by difficulties*

Roi (m) is overwhelmed by the issues facing him. His board is asking him to trim down the cost of labour by 14% in 2022, a impossible feat given the fact that he cannot downsize 64% of the people who come from a company acquired 4 years ago.

Roi’s CFO has just threatened to resign unless the recent order he received to replace the external accounting firm is rescinded. This ‘order’ came from a major stakeholder in the board and the Mayor’s office in the city where his firm is located.

To make matter’s worse, 35% of the employees, parents to young kids who have been exposed to the virus, are still in quarantine, many for the umpteenth time.

Materials that have been ordered are stuck in a Chinese /or German harbour, or stranded outside one of Israel’s ports, as port workers, themselves short-staffed, struggle to deal with the load.

Thus, important deliveries to key clients are postponed. Following are a series of comments Roi made to me in our last conversation on Monday, and my comments.

Roi-Allon, we have several processes that are stuck: end-of-year performance reviews; 2023 strategic planning session; end of year lessons learned. This is a nightmare because not only are we way behind, but I would not like to do any of this stuff remote.

Allon-If you decide to ditch any of these plans this year, or “rituals” as I perhaps they might be called, it does not mean you are doing so forever. For example, does it make sense to do a lessons learned with all this shit still happening? Why not go a bit easier on yourself and others? By the way, 2023 strategic planning is nice to have, Roi, but isn’t it better to focus on the urgent now as you are doing-after all, this is a crisis.

Roi-That’s not my role. Everyone is focused on the crisis. I need to see beyond the crisis. You and I do not agree on that; we have discussed that before.

Allon-Roi, we agree on that totally. The challenge is that you cannot do what you think you need to do, because the crisis has totally changed the rules of the game for the meantime. And it’s a long, long, long and mean meantime. And while you think you are think that your plans are “stuck” because of crisis you are dealing with, you actually are very effective. What is not effective is that you believe that you are not doing the right things by firefighting.

Roi-I wonder if speaking to you, old man, is doing the right things. (Laughs and hugs me)

Roi-What about the accounting firm? Should I cave in?

Allon: Roi, for politicians, time is money. This is a political power play. “Feigned agreement” along with  asking for a delay might be a wise choice. After all, you know this city better than me and we both know about how very long-lasting a temporary agreement is in Israel.

Roi-The board is really holding me by the balls.

Allon-Roi, do you think anyone really wants to get rid of you now? The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.

Take aways:

  • 1-It’s a new ballgame with new rules, or no rules.
  • 2-What was was. Irrelevant for the time being.
  • 3-In fog, focus on the next ten meters ahead of your car.
  • 4-You can only do what you can do. Not one iota more.
  • 5-Delaying the decision may become a strategy in crisis.
  • 6-Yes, you can ignore some ridiculous external pressures  because no one really wants you to go.

*Published with agreement with client.

 

 

 

 

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Managerial skills for unchartered waters

..it was the winter of despair.

Charles Dickens- a Tale of Two Cities

 

This is probably one of the most difficult times to manage effectively in recent history. Supply chains are chaotic, much of the work force is in quarantined or about to be quarantined; there are more resignations and loss of knowledge than in the past and doing even easy tasks is much much harder than ever.

I have been very lucky to be blessed with more work than ever. It appears that expertise and experience now count for something.

Over the past year, I have focused my work with managers on a very few  and focused messages-and I want to share them with my readers.

1) Frequent changes of direction are often necessary… yet the more changes in the message, the less the folks will trust you or your messages. So ensure that messages are over-communicated. 

2) “I don’t know” is a real answer, a legitimate answer and probably the fairest answer you can provide in many situations.

3) Manage your managers aggressively, so that they don’t force you to drive your people into the ground with unachievable goals in tough times.  Show appreciation when people do what they can, even if it is not enough.

4) Avoid sloganeering at all costs. Slogans don’t make much sense in regular times, but in difficult times, use of slogans (like “develop customer intimacy)  make you look absurd.

5) Don’t idealize tragedies. Working from home is a bitter necessity; not a religion. There is very little positive that comes from #wfh with 4 kids at home, lack of infrastructure, and Zoom fatigue. Tell it like it is, and don’t perfume  the pig. (Thanks Sherry)

 

 

 

 

 

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