Accessing the Political Skills of Potential Job Candidates

We all know how hard it is to access the compatibility of candidates for a job. Tests, interviews, graphologists, peer interviews: we have all had to eat our humble pie after massive errors of judgement.

I have been way off many times and I am not kind to myself after I miss. But thankfully, my clients are nicer to me than I am to myself because I try to do my best to innovate in order to improve.

One of the factors that I try to access in each interview is the level of political savvy that a potential client has, since more often than not, it is the organizational politics that plays a critical role in the adjustment of the candidate. There are a lot of organizations which don’t test for political skills, especially organizations that are very political. The army and family businesses are a good example, as are large and older organizations.

I will provide some examples of how I try to access political skills.

  • For a family organization

The CEO, your boss, is extremely dominating. Furthermore, some of his critical decisions are made in haste. The CEO’s mother wants to speak to you next week. She is the former chairwoman and founder. What are your thoughts? Plans? Fears in any? Describe your approach.

  • For an engineering job at a senior level

You have been asked to submit a budget to present to the Board which covers 60% of what you actually need. Your boss has told you that the budget submission is a political act, and later on down the line, he will allocate “whatever is necessary”. How will you react to your boss’s request?

  • For a business development role for hi-tech

You are about to meet with new investors who may be interested in injecting money into the company for which you work. You have been thinking of jumping ship because the next  product releases are 1) too buggy and 2) too late; you are pretty negative about where your company is heading. You know that these investors will really bad mouth you if you mis-represent, but you need to stay put until you get a new job (which is not easy) because of your mortgage payments. What’s your plan?

These are just a few of the many examples I have developed.

Try doing so next time you are fishing for a candidate. It may add just a bit more of validity in the perilous process of predicting success.

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Organizational Stupidity

Andy Borovitz’s book Profiles in Ignorance documents the increasing degree of stupidity in the political domain, documenting such figures as W Bush, Quayle, Reagan, Pailin and Trump.

Phenomenally funny book. And it got me thinking about stupidity in organizations.

But first and to be fair, the book is one sided.  There are other examples of ignorance BOTH sides of the political scale, such as Kerry’s middle east policy, knocking off Senor Kaddafi, and Carter’s total misreading of Iran as a island of stability just before the old Shah was disposed.

It appears that stupidity is not limited to one side. In organizations, this is doubly true. At face value, organizations have become more sophisticated over time. Augmented by computing power, easier financing terms and a manpower pool from the global economy, vast knowledge about the market, organizations should have become much smarter. But this has not happened.*

Organizations’ increasing stupidity is often fueled by the innovations that they have adopted. In this post, I want to point out examples of organizational stupidity all based on my experience and observation. 

1-Your customer base and our technology acquisition.
We have a great technology but a weak customer base. You have a strong customer base but your technology is weak. So, let’s create synergy by acquisition and sell our technology to your customer base.

And I ask, how stupid do you have to be to know that this seemingly simple plan almost never works, because of all of the personal, political and technical issues involved?

2-ERPs
Enterprise resource planning certainly solved a huge set of issues (speed, compliance, built-in siloism) only to create a shitload of new problems, such as the elimination of common sense, lack of flexibility, process Nazism, and a thriving blaming culture fuelled by constant escalation of issues to senior management to solve problems fueling by these very “integrated” processes.

Sounds stupid? It certainly is, unless you understand that all innovations solve certain problems and create others.

3-Spokesmen and Perfuming Pigs
In an attempt to deal with image problems stemming from the intrusive role of the media, organizations began to view “looking better” as much more important than becoming better. This lofty goal was delegated to the spokesperson, and or course, often times this fueled lack of trust on the part of the consumer, as well as the process of “hiding” information from and by the spokesperson.

Can you really sell a 20 Euro ticket from Barcelona to Rome, or a 15 Euro ticket between London and Dublin or an 8 Euro trip between Cairo and Entebbe whilst providing good service? Can airports handle the inevitable havoc as the serfs and hoards start to wander almost freely? Of course they can’t, but by perfuming the pig, organizations appear to be “cruisin’ for a bruise” and/or digging their own grave.

4-Shadow work
Organizations seem to believe that you work for them. And thus, they download their jobs to their consumers (shadow work), generally via phone support which is often almost impossible to reach. Try installing a new router on your own, or transitioning to fiber optics; try assembling a water filter every six months.
Shadow work denigrates the reputation of companies, results in huge turn over in call centers, and to a lack of customer loyalty.

5-Constant Reorgs

In another post, I have spelt out the stupidity of constant reorganizations.

And back to stupidity, becoming media savvy probably has created politicians who know how to “look good” as opposed to being compatible to the job. And constant innovation and the need to be fast and flexibile have created new organizational configurations, riddled with stupidity.

……………………………………………………..

*Today’s organizations remind me of great boxers with a powerful punch on one hand, like Floyd Patterson or Amir Khan or Vladimir Klitchko, yet with a glass chin- meaning critical weaknesses that leave them exposed to being knocked out in well fell swoop.

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When an OD intervention is stuck

OD interventions are not physics.

It is difficult to predict when an intervention will have sufficient traction to drive change only to slow down, unravel itself back to square one, or even suddenly regress only to be worse than it was in the beginning.

In this post, I want to provide a few guidelines (about what can be done when things get stuck)  that I follow myself and also suggest to the people I supervise.

  1. Defocus. Instead of working on one or two directions, try several directions, all at the same time. This will enable to work with what you have. Remember, organizations can be very unpredictable.
  2. Use the “stuck in a snowbank” routine. Well, I’d better explain. I learnt to drive in Quebec during January’s severe winters. When stuck in snow, you can move you steering wheel slightly to the right and left, then go slowly back and forward, then back and forward, rocking your way out. So, applied to organizational development, this would mean: look at your mandate, widen it or narrow it down, and/or don’t apply constant pressure in the same direction. Or, push forward and allow things to regress, then go forward again and again, and back, until there is change.
  3. Look for hidden agendas. Who is benefitting by the lack of progress? Is someone in HR trying to replace you as a vendor? Is the CFO trying to cut down costs? Is your client just stringing along with you to please his boss.
  4. And never think about you. Change is not about your success, but rather the success of the organization. If you want faster change to make yourself look good, you are in the wrong business. So when things get rough, don’t make stupid mistakes and get thrown out in a futile attempts to look good.

 

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Suggested emphases for Organization Improvement in 2023

Yeah, I know. 2023 plans have already been put in place and signed off on. What can I do?

Perhaps I am not the Speedy Gonzales that I used to be.  

Nevertheless, a bit late,  here is a list of things that I will continue to look at closely in my diagnostic work in this coming year.

  • To what degree has digitalization negatively impacted interface with the customer base and what is the recovery strategy for this?
  • What types of skills are to be lost with the introduction of artificial intelligence of different sorts? Has there been appropriate risk mitigation?
  • For which organizational weaknesses do the “product heroes” compensate? What plans are in place if these heroes jump ship?
  • Where has common sense been eliminated by process Nazism? How is it possible to restore the rule of common sense in such situations? And as US-based consultant Peter Altschul has added more about common sense in personal correspondance, “what is the relationship between common sense and policy? How do the two influence each other? To what extent is common sense connected with culture?”
  • How can in house communication and trust be improved by making sure that electronic communication is not used to blame or transfer hot potatoes?
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The problem with transparency as a corporate value

Yes, lots of firms have Transparency as one of the core values embedded on their flag.

But what is embedded on the company flag is very often what companies have a great deal of problems accomplishing. So instead of doing it, they subscribe to values like Transparency mainly as a symbolic gesture and/or as an esposed (as opposed to actual) religion.

Transparency as a core value is extremely problematic for several reasons which I will point out in this post. If you are a reader based in the west and doing business in the west, read this anyway because it may apply to you.

  • Many companies misrepresent their capabilities during the sales process. Subsequently, they misrepresent expected timetables. Upon delivery, the client can be surprised or unhappy about what was delivered, yet keeps on buying because of the temporary advantage that the product delivers. IF A COMPANY IS NOT TRANSPARENT WITH ITS CLIENTS, THERE IS ZERO CHANCE FOR INTERNAL TRANSPARENCY.
  • In many parts of Asia (especially China and Taiwan), Russia & the FSU as well as the Middle East, Transparency is often seen as a bizarre western quirk. The common approach is “why share knowledge i.e, power? Why give others an advantage? Why expose weaknesses? Transparency will enable HQ to fu-k us! Or other development sites will take our knowledge away”.
  • Being Transparent is indeed is often being stupid for the nerd in the trenches: you get more work; you get more pressure; you are more vulnerable. Not strangely, HR is the function which most often promulgates Transparency because it is easier to manipulate the staff when their guards are down all hyped up by transparency (and authenticity).

Now don’t get me wrong. Transparency is a great enabler of better management and healthier organizations. Ah-ma-ma (a Hebrew slang for “but what”), it is often resisted (justifiably) and not always REALLY beneficial for the interface with the client.

Example:

It’s September and there is a deadline which is impossible to meet in December. If I am transparent, I will voice my opinion immediately and will be worked to the bone from now on. If I surface my “concerns” in December just before the deadline, I will have just a few days/weeks of pressure and the delivery will be rescheduled.

Okay, so you have reached this far and and think, “he’s crazy, of course I want my organization to support and celebrate Transparency.”  Just to make sure, take this small test:

  1. Do you support the idea that staff share one another’s salaries, perks and bonuses with one another?
  2. Is your engineering department free to discuss all the products’ shortcomings with clients, and provide a realistic timeframe for them to be fixed?
  3. Are you willing to diviludge what are the real reasons why highly incompetent people retain their job, even during the most severe downsizing?
  4. Is Supply Chain mandated to negotiate the contracting services so ensure that ALL vendors (not just strategic ones) makes a fair profit AND get paid on time with no lame excuses? Again I emphasize, all vendors.
  5. If you do not give out salary increases when the going is bad, do you compensate when the going is good? Or do you have a bullshit excuse when the going is good as well?

Now, do the math.

 

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Let’s look at leadership close up for a minute

Let’s look at leadership carefully for a moment.

I have worked with several leaders in my career who should never have succeeded.

Kim could not make a decision to save his life. He dithered and dilly dallied and hemmed and hawed. He told everyone what they wanted to hear and when he finally made a decision, he did what he wanted in a clandestine manner, only to be caught red handed. Kim bet on one technology that turned out to be a smashing success, which made him and his team very rich. History was rewritten to make him into a hero and management guru.

Saul was extremely loquacious, and not the brightest lightbulb. His English was mediocre, at best. He spent hours and hours talking to his team members, one on one, to ensure that they were on board with his decisions, which he never made. Saul was a sports fan and often chewed off the ears of his staff with long monologues about what this or that player “should have done”. In a bad year when 3 of the released products failed to produce desired results, Saul managed to sell the unhappy customers new (undeveloped) products which saved the revenue stream of his company. Saul also managed to raise a huge amount of money even when his investors were bombarded with bad news about client dissatisfaction. Saul, like Kim, was reframed as a Churchill.

Allan is rude; he cannot listen more than a minute before he loses his patience. He knows how to do everyone’s job better than they do. He bullies employees and he makes sexist jokes. His personal assistants last no more than 6 months. Allan, faced with a quickly changing job market place, imported labour from abroad solving “a lack of skills” shortage. He scrapped an IT project which was diverting management attention and focused the company on “3 major wins”, as opposed to 50 small projects. He stabilized the product road map. Allan is also a Churchill like figure.

Of course, some leaders look great even though they are /may not be great. While I despise the Russian aggression and Russian leadership, certainly I do not think that Zalensky is a good leader. He provoked, he teased without a risk analysis, he bet the farm on western support and so on and so forth. And yes, he is a great actor, even better than Reagan. But what about the results? Ukraine is in ruins-no electricity, no water, nada. But Zalensky? He wears a nice green habit, and inspires his people;  even more, he inspires western liberals. His present stature makes Churchill into Mickey Mouse.

What do we really know about leadership?

 

Kim, Saul and Allan are thought to be great leaders.

All over the world, people vote for right wing leaders who give them “meaning” and a “sense of belonging”, not proper governance.

Depressed people used to be dipped in ice water. That was the state of the art cure. In another époque, they were paraded to be shamed out of their depression. Now it’s all about serotonin. And ketamine. What do we really know about depression?

Or leadership. Very little.

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Working remote and “do me a favour”

Horrid bureacracies with their rigid processes that cannot factor in common sense often have several workarounds, aka shortcuts.

Managers often allow breaking the rules (that they themselves are asked to enforce); furthermore people in the trenches do each other favours, especially in cultures where relationships are more valued that process. China, Israel, Holland and Taiwan  serve as  good examples.

Noam has been called to the campus at 2 AM to repair an extremely complex valve. He arrives at the campus without his security card, which is in his wife’s car! The gate does not open. He honks furiously. The guard who does not know Noam refuses to open the gate. But Noam knows the other guard sitting in the control room, because they have often had supper together when Noam does the night shift. Noam calls his friend in the control room who lets him in, against every single security policy.

Things like this happen every single day, greasing the idiocy that bureaucracy creates. But not when people work remote: I have not measured that, but I have worked extensively with organizations in which remote workers refuse to bend rules for people that they do not know, and wfh has created lots of opportunities to hide  common sense in a rule book or create buck-passing.

Any organization that wants to promote wfh, which is a very positive thing, need to promote “common sense” that stems from the power of relationships.

 

 

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Four buses; many worlds

I had to take four buses to get from my home in Ville St Laurent to McGill University. 25 cents for the whole trip. Payment was made in cash into a simple receptacle, where the driver could see the quarter that you dropped in. The driver would take a look, flip a button, and the quarter would be swallowed up below the receptacle.

The 90 minute voyage started with a short walk to the rue St Louis stop, where I waited for the 116. The bus came once every 20 minutes; there were never many passengers. The driver, in a uniform of the Montreal Transportation Corporation, generally said “bonjour; I always said bonjour. “Two solitudes” meet.

Next to the driver was a sign en francais and English: “Safe Driving Requires Full Attention. Please do not talk to me”. Some drivers & passengers talked; most did not.

The 116 passed Alexis Nihon and weaved its way past Parc Houde (where Fat Guy* cleaned the ice)  and Aubin, until Decarie Boulevard, opposite the Post Office, where I got off and crossed over to wait for the 17, with my crumpled paper transfer in my glove.

Make no mistake, it was often cold. The stop for the 17 (also known as Cartierville) was opposite a Woolworth’s and on the bitterest of days (20 below), I would step inside Woolworth’s, along with other passengers. The ladies of Woolworth’s (in those days, it was ok to say that) had absolutely no problem with that; the adversity of the bitter cold was a common enemy.

For many years, the 17 Cartierville was a street car. The first step up onto the 17 was steep, even for me albeit I have always been very tall. It was especially hard for Lillian, who had had a back operation and was in a cast. We never discussed that, or the fact that she had no mother. Trudy also never had a mother, but she never took the 17. Maxine and Fay also had lost their mother. They were never on line 17 either. Showing my transfer to the driver, I never looked for a seat as it was always standing room only until Garland Terminal; the 17 was packed. French and English speakers; students and lower middle class heading downtown. At Garland, the driver cried out: “terminus, tout le monde descend s’il vous plait”.

Then there was a hot chocolate inside Garland Terminal, and off to the 65. The 65 started at Garland, so I always got a seat. However, it quickly filled up and more often than not; I gave up my seat to a senior citizen, who was probably much younger than I am today. But those were different days.

The 65, also called Cote des Neiges, passed thru Snowdon, turning left on Queen Mary Road and headed downtown. It passed my late grandmother Sadie’s apartment building on Victoria; she has died a few years earlier and my heart was still broken. I often looked her apartment building as the 65 roared by, uphill passing by L’Oratoire St-Joseph/St Joseph Church. Then we passed Pinkerton’s Flower Shop, the graveyard on Mount Royal, and plunged down Cote des Neiges to rue Sherbrooke. There I waited for the 4, also called Sherbrooke, right outside the Medical Arts building where my grandfather Harry had had a gym where he trained boxers, including my Uncle Al.

Sherbrooke at Cote des Neiges was real Montreal: classy, clean, and the wind plus cold smacked me into my then pimpled face. I had real bad acne until I started taking tetracycline during year 2 at McGill. Oh yes, on Sherbrooke was the Academic Bookshop, which had every book under the sun, all in one huge pile, sky high. And the owner, who smoked, did not speak one word of English: just French with a Parisien accent.

It was a short drive to McGill on the 4 and in the summer I walked; as a matter of fact when I wore my Air Canada mechanics coat which Phil (my Dad) got for me from his partner Hank, I also walked to McGill along rue Sherbrooke  in the winter. What a coat!  When I took line 4, it dropped me off at McGill at the Ritz Carlton Stop.

I then threw away my transfer.

4 buses to cross thru three worlds: Ville St Laurent; Montreal; academia.

When I finished McGill at age 19, I took a much longer trip from which I was never to return. 

  • pronounced gee
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Myths of Centralization and Decentralization

Both centralization and decentralization processes have their myths and misunderstandings.

In this short post, I shall share my experience in facilitating hundreds of such transitions.

  • It is not either or. When you centralize certain components, others must be decentralized. And the opposite. Example: When you decentralize reimbursement policy, it is wise to centalize control. When you centalize travel policy, you need to decentralize discretion-based exceptions.
  • Prolonged centralization does not lead to more control. Eventually, it can lead to lack of control. People will learn the weakness of the centralized system, and eventually beat it. 
  • Decentralization and centralization are not ideologies. They are the pendulum of a clock that over time go back and forth, to compensate for the weakness that each state creates.
  • Centralization and decentralization can co-exist for the same function. You can decentralize Purchasing in some geographies and centralize in others, depending on the amount of corruption.
  • You cannot decentralize something that does not exist and hope that things get better. It is best to decentralize things that work well, and hope that they get better.

 

 

 

 

 

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Micro-aggressions of managers

I will give 5 examples of behaviours which managers exhibit that constitute micro aggressions towards their teams and/or organizations. I define micro-aggression in an organizational context as indirect, subtle and manipulative discrimination against members of a less powerful (groups of) employees.

I will discuss in brief examples of interventions in such situations.

1) Give an identical task to more than once person, each person being unaware of the other’s involvement.

2) Oversimplify the difficultly of tasks and then question why progress is so slow.

3) Set a certain goal to please a client which is totally undoable, and then apply immense pressure to get it done, finally putting the blame on one of the subordinates whose political skills are nil.

4) Evade problems by just another reorganization, postponing the real problems until the reorg stabilizes.

5) Obfuscating of issues with flowery words such as “complex issue” or “challenging few months”, when complex means that the product does not work and challenging means poor cash flow so no bonuses.

Skilled consultants should have several arrows in their quiver in such situations. These arrows include making the subtext explicit, constant questioning, paradoxical intervention and pointing out the secondary benefit to the manager of using such manipulations.

Example: CEO Jim initiated reorganization because of siloism which Jim himself promotes. I asked Jim if he thinks the reorg will include brain transplants to teach his teams how to coordinate among themselves just to spite him.

Example: CEO Howard asked 3 different engineers to re-write the product life cycle. I questioned the CEO why he didn’t just pay $50000 to a consultant, and dictate the process that he wants. 

Example: CEO John appoints Gregory as his CFO. John himself was the CFO and was promoted to CEO; Gregory was his deputy CFO. John constantly tells Gregory that Sales Recognition is very inaccurate and “I had no problem with that when I was CFO”. John fails to point out that Sales were sky high in his time as CFO, but not so as present. I questioned John why he had not maintained the Sales Recognition portfolio for himself, as “you managed to make the best of bad situation so skillfully.”

Example: CEO Yuri told Support Manager Hana that the next few months would be a challenge. (The challenge is that the new product is dead on arrival). I told Yuri that the challenge could be easily rectified if the clients were replaced. And yes, he was very angry.

But then again, if you don’t like the heat in consulting, get out of the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

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