Remembering Hyman Bernard

There is no one else alive who remembers Hyman Bernard, or more accurately, Hyman Ber Schwartz. And I ain’t so young either, and although I have not begun to pack my bags, I feel this is a good time to share what I remember. For those readers who like small short stories with happy endings, this is the time to stop.

Papa Hymie (my grandfather) was the youngest of three children. His brother , Uncle Jack, and his sister, Auntie Ida, lived in the British Mandate of Palestine in Raanana, which they founded. Hymie, born in Hamilton Ontario where his father was a ritual slaughterer, never joined Jack and Ida in Palestine. As a matter of fact, my grandfather was not involved in Judaism or Zionism. (Nor was my father, who was a total atheist).

My grandfather was very much like a character from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath-dirt poor, uneducated, a bit crass. He smoked like a chimney and swore like a trooper. My Dad Phil used to sing me ditties that “I learned from Papa Hymie”.

In the great recession, my grandfather had no money and no food. He left Montreal for a few years to work in the States, so he could send money to my grandmother (Sadie) and my Dad, an only child. My grandfather came back  after the recession as a broken man. In the period when Papa was in the States, my father and grandmother lived with 12 other very poor people in one room, sharing a toilet at the end of the hall for the entire floor. Papa felt guilty and useless for no fault of his own.

When I was born, Papa Hymie used to pick me up and walk me in the stroller on rue Draper. I was told that this was the only thing that made him happy, except smoking.

He worked as a menial clerk in a storeroom at Reitmans, a job he obtained through family connections. Papa got cancer when I was very young and they amputated his leg. I was not told about this, but when I came to visit him at the Jewish General or the Royal Vic (I don’t remember), I noticed that there was only one leg under the blanket, and I was sitting where the other leg should have been.

Papa came home from the hospital, coughed all the time; he was in severe pain. His bother Jack came to visit him from Israel in the late 1950s; those were happy moments. I have learnt that Papa had sent Jack and Ida blankets and food, in 1956, due to severe shortages in the emerging State of Israel.

I was visiting my grandparents one day on 5350 Victoria (corner of Isabella) when Papa could not take the pain any more. I remember him being carried away on a stretcher, and then learning about death for the first time.

For many years, I resented being asked to “bring me my leg”, but not any more. I named my son after him, Amir Haim. And I myself often pardon myself for being gruff and very down to earth, because it runs in the family.

And I do wish I could have known Papa a bit more.

My son- some similarity?

 

 

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The exaggerated importance of people skills

I am no stranger to the domain of “people skills”, having made a good living working in this area all my working life, as well as in my military career.

Every so often, there are hurricane-like winds exalting the importance of people skills. At times, it seems to me that people skills are as important as oxygen or clean water. But they are not.

I want to point out the contexts in which people skills are not all that important to success.

  1. In a shitty job market, the importance of people skills take a beating, because management thinks you should kiss their ass simply for having a job.
  2. When someone has extremely good and rare skill set, it is not all that important  for that person to have people skills.
  3. In cultures which foster subservience and deference, people skills are a nice to have, but things get done anyway.
  4. I do believe that feigned interest in people is far more important than authentic people skills for senior executives. My experience is that very senior managers often have reached the top because they put task before people, set impossible deadlines which stress people beyond belief, and ignore the squawking from below the deck. I belief that people skills often (not always) hinder people from getting to the top.

So are people skills important?  Sometimes yes. But not all of the time. If these skills were all that essential, the marketing of our skills would not be a hellish nightmare.

This having been said, there are specific areas where people skills are absolutely critical, as was pointed out to me by my friend GK in personal correspondence.

“Smaller companies and companies in trouble are usually in a very weak situation with employees, investors, board members, and customers. In these situations, which is a huge percentage of actual situations faced, people skills are critical because the relationships are often all that is between a customer or employee leaving, or a board member going hostile. Of course, stellar results always trump everything, but that is not always under the manager’s or CEO’s control.” (emphasis mine AS)

“In big companies results matter, of course. However, what actually matters more is the perception of results, rather than the results. In a big company, managing P&L and spinning information takes a huge portion of senior manager’s time. The critical people that need to be influenced for this to be successful are not always in the direct line of the hierarchy. They are often finance people, other staff people etc. They will support those they like more than those they hate. Of course, they may support those they fear even more (see Machiavelli), but that may be more short term.” (emphasis mine AS)

To wrap things up, if consultants know how to properly position when and where people skills are important, and avoid preaching people skills as a religious doctrine, marketing the abstraction of soft skills may become easier.

 

 

 

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I’m old enough to remember

Miss Montreal

  1. In grammar school, we needed to stand when the teacher entered the room, and wish her good morning in harmony. “Good morning Miss Scott”. Then our nails and collars were examined.
  2. In grade 3, we were given a nib pen with a bottle of ink, an extra nib and blotting paper.
  3. Spelling correctly was really important. So was handwriting. I even remember being castigated by a British teacher (Mr Blackwell)  that my handwriting was like “a fly out of an inkwell”.
  4. Maurice Duplessis  was premier and would probably never die.
  5. Bad behaviour at school was punished with the strap. 5 were administered for reading girly magazines.
  6. We read the defunct Montreal Star. Pat Pierce, the TV critic, had a patch over her eye.
  7. There was an Alouette truck selling cakes all summer. long You hailed the truck and it pulled over to the side. I loved the chocolate cake with vanilla cream inside. 15 cents.
  8. We all were forced to learn Latin because “it teaches you to think”.
  9. We needed to submit a weekly book report, every single week, all through school. Thankfully, Ms Williamson, the librarian with the memory of an elephant,  had great recommendations.
  10. You arrived at an airport 20 minutes before the flight.  TCA served great food on very short halls.
  11. Bus drivers called out the name of stops in English and French. St James Street-rue St Jacques. Rue de la Montagne, Mountain Street. Terminus, tout le monde descende svp- Last station everyone get out please.
  12. Sometimes we were waved through the Canada US border because the guards on either side did not want to work outside in the cold.
  13. Garland terminus was still in use.
  14. Women could not wear short pants in public because it was illegal in Quebec.
  15. Sex lessons consisted of Mr  Paul Hecht showing us two skeletons and explaining that, 9 months after copulation, a child is born.

Garland Terminus

TCA

 

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A glimmer of hope

On Friday morning, I woke up, walked my dear dog George, ate breakfast, and headed to the beach-a mere  17 minute drive. It was so hot that my car had just started to be comfortable only as I approached the parking attendant, where I was milked 20 shekel (about $7) for parking.

At the beach kiosk, I stocked up on Zero, cold water and an ice coffee, then headed 50 meters to the seashore where a Hebrew speaking Sudanese illegal milked me for another 20 shekel for an umbrella and a chair. I set up shop and started reading my book, Steinbeck`s Grapes of Wrath.

On the right next to me was a large Palestinian family from  Bethlehem!  On my left was a British granny and her family on holiday. The family included the grandmother, a grandchild and his Israeli wife and three Israeli grandchildren. Behind me there was a football game. The players were bellowing to one another in English, Hebrew, some African language, Russian and Arabic.

The sea was calm but there were many people in the water and the lifeguards had their hands full with kids getting lost, people swimming beyond limits and other sundry affairs. The lifeguard used 3 languages, French, Hebrew and Arabic. They were very polite, addressing people with appropriate honorifics.

Granddad with blue hat, move right; Ms Yellow Bathing Suit, hold onto your child with two hands; Uncle, move south`

And the ice cream salesman: Lemon icy prevents pregnancy. Ilana Ilana, buy a cold ice-banana; I am leaving town-buy now or never.

I never lose an opportunity to practice my Arabic, so I wished the people next to me a happy holiday. They offered me some nuts. They also offered the British granny and her family some nuts. The British granny turned out to be Iraqi born, and soon a lively conversation was going on in three languages.

And I felt a surge of joy.

This is what life can look like without leaders. The beach, the water, the nuts, the trilingual dialogue, the football game, the polite lifeguards, the peace of mind that yes, things can be very good.

And if the context is appropriate, there can be more than just cold peace. A rare moment of pure optimism.

 

 

 

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Beware of the ideology of consensus-based decision making

Liz now works as a  senior  sales manager in a company that makes decisions via consensus building, or buy-in. Liz has been with the company for 9 months.

The common practice is to consult all those impacted by a decision for input in order to build full apriori support for the decision and ease its implementation.

The company’s culture frowns on managers and decisions made without buy in. Decision making  takes a while, but it is very rare that people blame one another for poor decisions, because before the decision, everyone has agreed.

Liz ‘s boss wants to take away three of her 3 dedicated presales people in order to transfer them to a new “brand enhancement” group, Liz is dead set against this move and has not budged towards agreement  despite all of her boss’s attempts to get her buy in.

Liz has been very flustered due to the mounting pressure on her to conform to the proposed change; Liz went out to lunch today with Allon, a veteran member of the Israel based team currently spending a month in company HQ, where Liz works.

Over lunch, Allon told Liz that “buy-in” is not the company culture; it is the company’s institutionalized ideology; it’s almost a religion. As in institutionalized religions  there are ceremonies to enforce practices, high priests aka HR who force feed/preach, and tons of deviant behaviour by staff  who don’t want the religion “shoved down their throat”.

Allon told Liz that the most common way to deal with this forced buy-in is “feigned buy-in”.

Liz, who is very straight-forward almost to a fault told Allon that she does not want to feign buy-in and subsequently  lose the three people who run her successful presales effort,

“You don’t need to lose the people, Liz. First you need to feign agreement, Then, ask for “phased implementation”, perhaps one transfer ever six months. And, in the meantime, just re-recruit the resources you need, give them a new title, and keep them focused on presales activity as always”.

Liz asked Allon why the company puts up with this nonsense.

Most organizational ideologies which look like religion as opposed to culture, want things to look good. Under the table, lots of deviance is tolerated to keep up the appearance. “Don’t forget Liz, buy-in here is an orthodox unchallenged religious premise”.

“Ah”, said Liz, ” It’s not a true belief, because true belief doesn’t look like this”.

Both Liz and Allon had learned.

And finally lessons learned-

The use of consensus-based decision making should be contingency based. There are decisions which need to be taken top down.And feigned buy-in is the child of overdosing on the religion/ideology of consensus-based decision making.

Authority, even arbitrary authority, is needed in some cases.

If you ask the author of this blog, authority is often very arbitrary. And some people even prefer it that way.

 

 

 

 

 

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How do organizations function without trust

Trust is a great enabler and meaningful success factor in organizations. But many organizations have low levels of trust, yet perform well or beyond expectations in some cases, at least for the short run.

The goal of this post is to point out how organizations compensate for lack of trust.

  1. Escalation. In lieu of the capability of solving issues between people or functions, things get escalated up to a more senior level. Often, this escalation is done by emails to a large list of people. Eventually, a senior manager puts people out of their misery and makes a call.
  2. Feigned trust. Like  some of the orgasms some of the time, trust can faked. It is often faked by apparent agreement, nicey nicey fuzzy statements and decisions which are ambiguous, like, “we need to address this issue at a higher level some time by the end of the quarter”.
  3. Blaming. Rabid blaming can replace trust, and often does. The root cause of any given issue is not dealt with, so someone or some function gets hanged. For example in software, when release dates between development and marketing are not agreed upon, release managers get fired. Furthermore, this often happens between governments and their  military. The government can claim military incompetency while the army can claim that the “goals of the mission were unclear”. A perusal of most Israeli newspapers will provide ample examples.
  4. Brute force. Coercion and fear can get jobs done. It is not popular to say so, but it’s very very common. Good? NO. Frequent, heavens yes.

So go for building trust yet realize that if it ain’t going to work, there are bypasses which are not wow wow, but they are usable. If this is the case, focus on damage control.

 

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What we do not see in organizations, nevertheless exists

The medical profession are experts in dismissing patients because they cannot see diagnose things which tests don’t pick up on.

Those of us who suffer from back pain have all heard from doctors that “I cannot see anything wrong”. I have a friend who suffers from very sharp pains in her small fingers which drive her to distraction; she has been assured by her MD that she “need not worry because there’s nothing wrong”.

In this post, I want to caution organization consultants about things we may not see when we diagnose an organization which causes us to misdiagnose or miss the point altogether.

Here are a few things I missed because of things I could not see.

  1. Illicit sexual relations between employees. Many years after I had worked with a chef and F&B manager who quarrelled endlessly for no apparent reason, I learnt that  lovers quarrels  were the cause of what I was observing.
  2. Spouse involvement. I worked with a very senior scientist who earned a huge salary. Suddenly he wanted a title that no one in the organization possessed, as well as a BMW. He negotiated himself into a corner and quit upon his requests being turned down. Years later, when we met at a gas station restaurant on the Tel Aviv to Haifa highway, he told me that his wife had been instrumental in his demands because “she thought they were taking advantage of me”.
  3. Mental Illness of a single individual.  Depression is often masked.   Masked depression can manifest itself as excessive conflict between teams due to one depressed individual,  lack of/excessive motivation and  substandard communication.
  4. A horrendous secret. I worked with a company whose product did not work. It was due to “go live” with another year of investment but the three founding scientists (an Indian, Israeli and American) knew that it would not work. The seemingly endless meaningless friction between them was all about how blame would be allocated. This I learnt only after the company disintegrated.

Years of experience have taught me that I don’t know what I don’t know, but I always assume that I don’t have a complete understanding, ever

And the morale of the story is: read Sherlock Holmes, and never strive to understand everything. Because if you try to get everything right, you “explain things away”.

 

 

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Kindness in organizations

I rarely see the term “kindness” used in organizations as a way to describe desired behaviour.

Staff are urged to be engaged, to collaborate, to be transparent, to respect a person’s sexual preference and gender. And not to “flirt, leer or wink”. (Mikado)

Management/leadership shows us the way, removing barriers to execution, hire as per the latest fad de jour, and maintains a work life balance. And if you follow social media, you get about a hundred inconsistent posts an hour how to be a great manager/leader.

But where has simple kindness gone? Simple plain common kindness. I am not going to define, because critics would tear me apart. But I know what it is, and I know it when I don’t see it.

Kindness has nothing to be with being assertive, demanding, delegating or assuming responsibility. (I myself am very goal oriented, yet I consider myself a kind and compassionate human being).

So for those who want to improve organizational life, get back to the basics. Small minuscule kindness can make a world of difference to organizational interaction.

Case One

I was in the US in the summer and there was a cold spell. I had not brought the appropriate clothing from home. The R&D manager drove me to a shop to buy a sweater in the middle of the day, cancelling an important meeting. “I noticed you were shivering”.

Case Two

While waiting in line for food, George speaks to the people who serve him

Case Three

CEO Jeremy ALWAYS closes his  phone during meetings and discussions.

Case Four

Marwan has made a rule for himself that he will never start or end the day without some small talk with his peers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What do organizations forget?

Last week, I discovered a small sum of money that I am entitled to withdraw, given my advanced age, 68.

So I went on line, spent hours and hours filling out forms and uploading documents to forward to the financial institution so they can forward me the funds. Among the documents included was my identity card that states my age.

I then called the call centre to check that all the documents are correct. After 2 hours and twenty minutes, they answered the phone; after a document check I was told that I need to sign a form that I am over 60 years old. However, the form is not available on line. The form will be sent to me by (a very unreliable 3rd world) Israel Post. “But you have my ID card”, I protested. The clerk ignored my comment, then told me that “she understands my anger” and thanked me for calling the call centre.

All of which led to the first thing that organizations forget- 1) common sense.

There are many more things that organization forget.  Here are a few more-

2) How important mediocre people are to success, ie, plain ordinary people who want to do their job as directed, and go home.

3) Luck plays an important role in the success and failure of the company.

4) Organizational culture cannot be changed. Things can be done differently and this may Impact culture over a protracted period of time,  but it is almost impossible to “change culture” by acting on cultural artifacts.

5) The possibility of human stupidity is endless. When you think that you have covered everything, watch out. A common example of this is end endless attempts to “define away” complexity of roles and responsibilities.

6) Diversity is not mainly about skin colour, race, sexual preference, or bathrooms for transgenders. Diversity is mainly is cognitive styles, cultural preferences, and emotional proclivities.

7) The only secret that exists is when two people know something, and one of them is dead. Everyone eventually knows everything.  This includes who earns what and who is fucking whom.

8) Everyone, absolutely everyone, thinks about change ONLY in terms of “what’s in it for me”?

9) There are no mergers, only acquisitions. The acquired companies culture is ultimately decimated.

10) Often, doing a job well requires less people, not more.

 

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On surviving the protracted rule of the right wing

I have never voted for a party that has been elected. For years I have found myself in disagreement with almost every law passed by my (Israeli) government. Religious practices are rammed down our throats; messianic lunacy drives our illegal settlement policy.

Furthermore, the political system is itself is systemically corrupt. The corruption started with the Bolshevik style of the very first generation after Ben Gurion. The right wing under Netanyahu “perfected the system” shamelessly.

The actions of the governments in my country are a deep source of shame for me.

My liberal  American friends and colleagues are now learning to live in a country dominated by “others”. Social media and traditional media are brewing with anti Trump resistance. Polarization and bi partisanship is rabid. Everything appears to be either/or, our way or their way. I have been in such a milieu for over 20 years. So, I want to share with my readers a few tips about how to survive.

1-You need to understand why you are in the minority. You need to stay there, in the minority, for a long time, until you get it. I suggest reading about the philosophical underpinnings of the right. You don’t need to agree with them. But understanding them is a must. I would start with Strangers in the Their Own Land.

2-For those not willing to take the intellectual journey, as to why we are witness to the return of the right,  you can always focus on achieving small things. Small things enable victories. In the last few years, I have focused on Beach Day for Palestinian kids.

3-Read different perspectives about the same problem. I often read Israeli right wing press, left wing press, the Egyptian press, the Saudi press and the Turkish press to develop an understanding of Iran. In other words, stop inhaling your own smoke. It’s worse than living under a leader with whom you disagree.

4-Keep friendships across partisan lines. I have many friends who are more left than me (one state solution) and many friends who are observant (although not messianic). Use friendship as a bridge to understand the internal logic of the other side.

5-Think  about democracy. Are you a democrat until the opposition is in power? Think hard about that. Personally I am struggling because illiberal democracy is not my cup of tea.

6-Also, think about what the real issues are for you . Save your energy for important matters. Personally, I pretty much ignore issues like the rights of transsexuals to choose their toilets, or should the trains run on Saturday. Because trains will not run on Saturday, ever. And the rights of transsexuals to choose their own toilets is a symptom of the agenda-less-ness.

7-Finally, think about if you want to be politically involved or not. Because the time we all have is limited and the “right “is going to be in power for an awfully long time.

8-And finally, stop attacking Trump on his mental condition. Kennedy, Johnson, Lincoln, McKenzie-King, and Churchill all had severe issues of mental health. If Trump bothers you more than Trumpism, you are pissing into the wind. If you don’t know about McKenzie-King, you are missing some wild stuff.

 

 

 

 

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