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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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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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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Is there a lack of shame about failing in Israeli organizations?

Case One

Mr A drove the company he managed into a deep hole. His firm is plagued by debt, their market reputation is in the pits and in threat of violent acquisition. “A” steps down “to spend time with his family”; 6 months later, he is at a venture capital firm as a managing partner.

Case Two

As the market share of “Great” plunged and new products failed to catch on, Mr Y cut costs, chopped down the work force and managed the sinking ship until he landed another job at Israel4u, an up and coming start up that just raised 20 million dollars.

These scenarios are not strange exceptions in the Israel market, which is very tolerant of failure. For the outsider, it appears that one can murder ones parents yet ask for clemency because you are an orphan. And indeed it often looks like that.

Here are the main reasons that this happens.

  1. There is a small pool of people from whom talent is drawn, and they know one another. Their relationships stem back to army days or school days, and so each failure has a protective layer, padded by relationship.
  2. In a nation which has a proclivity for taking risks, failure is tolerated.
  3. Unlike Americans who expect leaders to be flawless, impeccable, dedicated husbands, fathers/mother, who do not screw around on the side, Israelis see managers as highly flawed. Most Israelis see themselves as people who know better than the guy in charge. And they get new jobs because “the system is rigged”.
  4. Responsibility is seen as held by a group, so “a system failure” or a מחדל (shortcoming) often takes the place of “one neck one noose”.
  5. Most of the economic news in Israel is biased populism so senior managers are often protected by thick layers of spokespeople and lazy journalists.

And yes, if you are looking for personality accountability, you will need to look hard to find it.  What you will find are resilient managers who may jump back from failure, as well as a thick level of mediocrity  that moved up the ladder because they have the right friends and/or were reasonably performing officers in the armed forces.

Footnote

The younger generation of Israeli entrepreneurs and “startupistim” (start up founders) also often share a military background and close knit relationships with the VC community, where the tolerance for failure is huge.

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Where do YOU pray? היכן אתה מתפלל أين تصلي

“There is beauty in extreme old age”-The Mikado

Every Thursday during the blistering months of July and August, I volunteer for a group known as Min el-Bahar which means “from the sea” in Arabic. Under the auspices of Min El Baher, Palestinian children from the occupied West Bank enjoy a day at the sea, followed by a boat cruise.

For most kids, its the first time at the sea, and their first encounter with Israelis who aren’t soldiers or settlers. The Palestinians are accompanied by either one of their parents, a teacher and at times a male chaperone from their village.

We volunteers stay very close to the kids to ensure their safety, serve them icy-icy, watermelon, and play ball with them in the water. We dance with them, sing, play drums and have a truly wonderful time.

Most of us know enough Arabic to get by, and some of the kids know English as well. Our professional life guard, an Arab Israeli, is perfectly bilingual.

So, I have been playing ball with this group for about half an hour. And joking around. Everyone is laughing. And this fully clad lady asks me as we toss the ball around in a circle, “are you Christian or Muslim”? This part I understand. I tell her “neither. I’m Jewish”.

“No you aren’t”, she semi defies me, in good humour. Then one of her daughters asks me a question in Arabic that I don’t understand. The lifeguard translates for me. “Where do you pray?” I tell the lifeguard that I don’t pray. He translates for them-they are bewildered. Absolutely shocked. As if I told them that I am from Mars.

For a few  seconds, the happiness dissolves. All is quiet. Eyes drop. Contact is lost. Then joy returns as if all is set aside.  All is back to “normal.”

My guess is that both sides have learned. They have learned that some nice people don’t pray. I have learned how far we all have to come before we eventually get to understand one another in this hot and humid, unholy land which no one will truly understand until all assumptions are set aside.

Back to normal

Followed by watermelon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why not to express an opinion

Three years ago, I was working with the Bangkok Office (Sales and Service) for an British/Israeli owned firm.

The focus of our work was the dysfunctional one way flow of communication from HQ to the Thai office.

HQ mandated me with “facilitating a more balanced two way flow of communication, so that initiatives can be discussed and modified”.

The people I interviewed in the Thai office about the information flow were very well educated, with MSc or PhDs in electrical and software engineering. Many of them had worked abroad, in China, Singapore or Japan.

During the course of my discussions, I learnt several reasons why the information flow was so lopsided.

  1. We do express our opinions. However, ever since CFO Meirav (Israeli) disagreed publicly with our manager in a conference call last year about pricing, we keep our opinions to ourselves. It’s better that way.
  2. It is not useful to speak up. HQ provides guidelines and we need to implement. If someone does not agree with the direction, this is natural. In such a case, it is best act professionally and keep private opinions to oneself.
  3. My English is perfect since my father is British and I lived in London until I was 18. So HQ tends to over value my input. To be honest, my colleagues know much more than I do. And if I speak up too much, my colleagues think I am overplaying my language card.
  4. When we are asked our opinion, we are never given enough time to answer. A few seconds after each question, Asia-Pac Manager Simon (British) starts pressuring us to speak up, turning to us one by one.  It is very uncomfortable. If he wanted our opinion, he would wait quietly for us to speak up, like the Japanese did when I worked for them.
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Job descriptions revisited

On social media, job descriptions are treated like dinosaurs: passe, cumbersome and dead.

However, this is not the case. They are alive, kicking  and widely used to recruit, albeit the hype that this is not so.

The truth is that the approach to job descriptions need to undated, revamped and drastically modified in order to be relevant. Their elimination just adds more chaos and anxiety to organizational pathology.

So in this brief post, I want to share a few ideas on how to redesign traditional job descriptions to be more real.

Here are suggested components for Job Description, Next Release.

  1. Where are the areas of overlapping ownership between your job and other jobs?
  2. What are the trade offs which need to be balanced?
  3. What are the major difficulties that you need to face to be accepted  professionally and socially by clients, peers, staff and management?
  4. When push comes to shove, this (x) is what will make what will make your boss happy.
  5. Here are the people and resources we can provide you to learn, and if if it’s not enough, then you need to teach yourself.
  6. We expect you to be “up and running” by a certain date. If it takes less time, great; if it takes much longer, it ain’t gonna work.
  7. Everything I have told you is correct as of today, Tomorrow it may change. If it does, let’s talk about it. Don’t use this job description as a fig leaf, but don’t ignore it. It is a working document, a work in progress.

 

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On communicating well with Israelis/Israel based organizations

Israelis have a unique communication style, and it is not easy to cope if uninitiated. If you interface/interact with an Israel based organization or sub-unit, you may find these tips useful.

This post is compact. I have chosen major five characteristics of their communication style, and suggested  coping strategy.

  • Israelis tend to interrupt one another. When someone talks, airtime is shared. This is due to both impatience and the perceived “right” tribal members have to burst into one another’s words. The only way to deal with this is to join the brawl.

 

  • Israelis argue a lot, about anything, all the time. Argument is seen as an affirmation of commitment. They also change their minds on a dime. I suggest learning the value of this form of discussion-creativity, paradigm smashing and refinement of complexity. Once you see the value, it’s easier to join in. You need to accept strong emotions as a natural part of working with the tribe.

 

  • Israelis may speak Hebrew among themselves when others are in the room, especially on con-calls. It may be because they are arguing , explaining to one another a lost point, or planning a reply. It is fair enough to ask for (demand) an English only rule. There won’t be any push-back.

 

  • Communication appears chaotic. Israelis don’t follow agendas well. They ramble, divert, jump back and forth, and open issues that appear to have been decided. However, there is rhyme and reason to this “apparent chaos”. If you sit back for a few meetings, you will notice that things get done, albeit differently. Observe, appreciate and then join in.

 

  • Israelis communicate best around crisis. Routine gets mangled and pooh poohed away. If you manage to advocate for discussing routine, you won’t be ignored. But you need to advocate, and not meekly. “That is not country for old men.”
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