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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Improving leadership capabilities of highly technical people

Over the course of my 40 year career, I am lucky to have been entrusted with upgrading the skills of world class, very highly competent technical people who are not good managers.

“Not good” in an understatement.

Morton solved all problems on his own, belittling his 23 member team. Zehava worked 19 hours a day, proofing reading her proofreaders edits, and generally finding errors! Gordon could not make a clear decision; he was constantly dithering. Jacques gave the same task to 5 people, and ensured they did not know about the others, “to avoid hurting their feelings”.

Generally, these technical experts tend to have several of the following characteristics:

  1. They see only certain types of detail, blind to other types of detail.
  2. They tend to be impatient.
  3. They over-rely on themselves.
  4. They do not understand underlying people/political dynamics until it’s pointed out, and even then, they may not get it.
  5. They troubleshoot well and fail in routine.
  6. They do not communicate effectively with employees or peers, yet senior management is by and large satisfied with their overall skill set.

What is the best idea to work with someone like this?

Well, similar to what historian Prof Uzi Rabi claims about the ‘best idea” to tackle the woes of the Mid East region: “there is no best idea”. There are many leads to follow, some may work for some, but nothing works wonders.

Here is what I have found to be useful.

  1. Acknowledge their expertise. The expertise is who they are. Once they feel you respect them, they listen better.
  2. Show your own expertise. Be an expert, not a facilitator. Experts respect other experts, especially those with a different expertise. This may mean that you need to be more prescriptive than thought-provoking. No big deal.
  3. Let them talk, then ready, aim and fire.  These managers are used to being on top of things; they will assume that YOU don’t understand. Let them  explain, even if they ramble on-then ask for stage time. Aim first. You don’t have too many arrows in your sling before you can be dismissed.
  4. (Over) Use logic when possible; if they do not understand, tell them that you are teaching them a different logic they do not yet understand.
  5. Work with their teams to lessen the expectation for managerial babysitting.
  6. Use their technical analogies, like, “we need a system reboot for the way you get marketing and sales to work together” or, “let’s look at this from a system architect perspective”, or “let’s debug the process”.

Trial and error, no grand theory, lots of patience, and learn to love or leave. It’s not easy. I love it.

 

 

 

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In global organizations, which liberal western values don’t fly?

Highly influenced by works that explain the decline of liberal values, I want to share with my readers five beliefs about organizations that many people in the west assume  to be universal, but which are not shared outside the western world. (I, personally, define myself as a very liberal realist).

First, I want to share reading material which has provided me a view from the inside of the non-liberal mind: Strangers in their own land; Hillbilly Elegy, and The Righteous Mind. These works are essential to understanding the eco systems which have led to the decline of liberal values.

Getting back to organizations, many assumed beliefs held by HQ’s in the western world  are not shared by most employees in Africa, the Mid East and Asia. The following beliefs are not inapplicable outside the western world, there are also grossly parochial.

  1. Openness and authenticity are the desired means of communication.
  2. Empowerment of and delegation to  employees is welcomed by most employees.
  3. Facts need to be disclosed even if they are uncomfortable.
  4. Gender “equality” is something to be valued and striven for. The emphasis is on the use of the word equality.
  5. Leaving an organization for a better job/more pay, is fair and square, as long as contractual obligations are fulfilled. 

In further posts I will elaborate, but for those eager beavers who cannot wait, I will elaborate now on #1.

Full emotional self control, maintaining an exterior veneer of restraint, and total avoidance of making the other feel uncomfortable are far more valued by far more people than the western liberal value of openness and authenticity, which put the individual before the group.

Openness and authenticity are seen in many places as rude, insulting and totally out of place. And this will not change. Ever.

And as far as delegation is concerned, read this.

 

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End-to-end understanding of how the organization works

What is an end to end perspective? What is its value?

Imparting an end- to-end understanding about how an organization operates is one of the most critical skills an employee needs. The marketer looks at the unique  opportunity and market value creation, the system architect looks at the interfaces to client systems, the developer asks how will this can be built and how interesting it will be; finance looks at where the profit is and how to drive costs down and HR looks at how to keep key performers on board and recruit people to do the tasks.

When staff has an deep, empathetic, end to end understanding of how each role sees reality, there is far less friction, less politics, less managerial overhead and a smoother ride, even over stormy seas. 

Yet end to end understanding is rare. In its lieu, escalation to management for decisions that fall between the cracks becomes the norm, bogging the organization down with severe constipation.

Why is an end to end understanding so rare in todays’ organizations?

  1. It is impossible to fully clarify roles and responsibilities due to the pace of business, which calls for role flexibility and inevitable role overlap. Yet there is incomprehensible effort made to define away complexity, creating false expectations that role and process clarity will make things run smoothly. Clearly a false prophecy.
  2. IT has enabled people not only to communicate quickly, but also to deflect responsibility forward and or backward on the work flow process. Huge email threads are needed to solve the simplest of issues as the problem gets passed like a hot potato, with each side attempting to lessen an ever growing workload, which itself stems from far too much communication.
  3. In order to overcome the bad attitudes, politics and ping-ponging, organizations try to recruit good team players and /or do surveys which feed back the issues to management and the troops. But the bad attitude and ping ponging stem from the organization’s IT business processes coupled with the expectation that complexity can be defined away.

How to impart an end to end understanding? 

  1. A cross-mentor  enables people from from one discipline  to train people from another discipline how to look at reality.
  2. Lessons learned using an end to end methodology (which I have developed) enables debugging the organizational work flow, as opposed to only correctly the actual event that went astray.
  3. Buck passing, finger pointing and deflection should be discouraged. People should be enabled to take risks to get the job done, even if risk is involved since people may overstep their role into someone else’s domain.This is very hard to implement in organizations, but it is possible. For example, a check out cashier in a hotel may be empowered to drop charges from a mini bar it the client claims that he did not drink from the minibar. (In this case, the check-out cashier is focusing on creating client satisfaction, not minibar profit.)
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Fake decisions

Der Chef organisiert von Zeit zu Zeit den Betrieb völlig um. Das schadet aber nichts, weil ja alles beim Alten bleibt. ( The boss reorganizes the company from time to time completely. But that does not hurt, because everything stays the same.) 

Kurt Tucholsky, 1924

Plus ça change, plus c’est reste la même chose. (The more things change, the more things remain the same.)

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 1849

 

What’s done cannot be undone.

Lady MacBeth (whilst sleepwalking)

 

Case One

Igor, Hadas, Natalie and Vadim own/manage a very successful niche chartered accounting firm dealing mainly with clients in the media, including celebs and investor-tycoons from all the countries from the FSU, former Soviet Union, especially Georgia.  Despite their success or because of it, severe tensions plague the quartet who constantly argue about issues such as ‘what constitutes a pure billable hour, what is monetary value of maintaining an intense relationship with academia and with senior  clerks from the Ministry of Finance, and how many resources should be allocated to digitalize client interfaces”. There were also less intense disagreements about whether the language in management meetings should be in Russian, Hebrew or English, although this was minor because all partners are fluently trilingual.

An OD intervention was commissioned after Vlad and Hadas had a  horrendous shouting match that the entire staff of 30 heard with furniture in the meeting room having been smashed.

After 6 months of work, agreements between the four were signed and sealed. The consultant was even payed a bonus!

One year later, all agreements had undone themselves.

Decision making by the quartet is paralyzed/severely paralyzed yet business has never been better.

Case Two

Gerald (the son of the chairman of the board) is an excellent technologist and incorrigibly poor R&D manager, with a team of 159 developers many of whom with PhDs, spread all over the world. Following a massive turnover of staff, the chairman commissioned an OD intervention during which Gerald was moved into the role of CTO and Carmella was recruited to manage R&D. Two years later, the chairman retired, Carmella was axed and Gerald returned to run R&D.

Comments

These cases illustrate the return to the status quo ante following what had appeared to be a successful OD intervention. This post will elaborate several reasons why this occurs.

First however, I want to drift off a bit and illustrate that return to status quo ante happens in politics as well. The failed Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestinians fell apart at the seams, making a very bad situation even much worse, just as the ink dried on the signed agreement. Some experts claim that neither side was ready to accept a western compromise force fed onto a Middle East reality where winners take all, and losers loose. (There are many experts in the Middle East who explain failure).

There are several reasons that agreements made during an OD process can fall apart.

  1. The agreements that were made are ahead of their time.
  2. Agreements made are not backed up by a tenable change to the power structure.
  3. The agreements made were made following too rigid a process, which ignored under the water iceberg dynamics.
  4. The consultant was too dominant and the agreements were made with too much imposition.
  5. The agreements were based on apparent agreement.

I believe that because OD is very imperfect, things like this will happen. (I am reminded here of my dentist who used a strong antibiotic when pulling a tooth telling me that only one in a hundred people are impacted by the antibiotic. I was the ONE, and suffered from stomach pain for 6 whole months.)

Partial prevention of return to the status quo ante can be mitigated

1-by slowly phasing out of the OD project over the period of a few months/years, based on the complexity of the changes.

2-Clients can be initially informed/ warned that this phenomenon exists building in the necessary prophylactic awareness.

3. And, most important, when making really big changes, the question of ‘how can this is undone” needs to be addressed in nightmare scenario planning.

 

 

 

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Managing people whose job is not all that meaningful

Let’s be honest. Despite the hype on social media and in magazines, many people have roles which are not all that meaningful, either for them personally or for the organizations for which they work.

Over the last few months in the framework of work,  I have spent hours observing leaders who manage people whose jobs have little meaning. I spent over 24 hours at a car wash, 3 days at a bakery and a 14 hours at a call centre which sells financial products.

I watched people doing the most tedious of jobs who were totally engaged without the use of any measurement matrix or enslaving IT process.

These are the behaviours that I observed which were seen as highly motivating.

  1. Care for the employee. “Get out of the sun, Ahmad.”  “If you are not serving anyone, sit down Natalie”. “After a call like that, take a smoking break, Giselle.”
  2. Laughing AT a client with the employee after the client has been served. “No wonder he is so fat”. “She probably was calling you while sitting in the toilet”. “Rude fucker, I hope he is married to someone he deserves”
  3. Siding with the employee when the client is wrong. “Wait your turn, Bud. He will get to your car in 15 minutes, Stand back and let him work”. “Lady, if you need more time to decide what else to buy, please step aside so that our server can serve the next customer.” “When people hang up on you like that, it’s all about them, not about you.”
  4. Use of informal language. In Hebrew, there is a marked difference between street Hebrew (with some Arabic or Russian swear words thrown in) and a more sophisticated office Hebrew, which would include lots of English words. The use of the street language was seen as  highly motivating.

My major take away from all these hours of observation is that the work itself does not need to be meaningful; it is enough for the work related interactions to be pleasant.

 

 

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