Why do some some people surprise us and either shine/fail in a crisis?

Let’s take a look at Anna who works as a cashier is large hardware store in Raanana* Israel. Until the corona crisis broke out, Anna was just one of the gang. She came on time, brought a sandwich from home, ate lunch with her shift buddies, slowed down to punish problematic customers, and gave somewhat more personalized service to the nicer people.

Anna’s academic achievements were always poor; she married the wrong guy and now she regrets it. She reads the newspaper and has her nails done once a month. She has one son and two dogs. Plain Anna.  But now, she shines. Anna is fearless. All her life, she has never known fear.

Ever since corona broke out, Anna works very hard, projects a super positive attitude and serves as an inspiration for her coworkers. Why? Because her fearlessness has given her a clear advantage.  Until now, it  has never counted for much; in the crisis, she shines with a charming resilience.

Anna shows up every day, has a super positive attitude, helps people bag their goods, and carries on friendly conversation with the customers. At lunch she calms down her anxiety-ridden colleagues. Anna has become a leader.

Let’s now look at Alex. Alex is the deputy manager of the hardware store where Anna works. Alex is orderly, highly disciplined, emotionally withdrawn, reserved yet very fair. A bit too fair for the relationship-driven culture of Israeli society.

If someone has a nickname, Alex never uses it. Roberto is Roberto not Bobby; Svetlana remains Svetlana and not Svet;  Anna remains Anna and not Anya.

Until the crisis broke out, the staff obeyed Alex, mildly disliked him and his humourlessness but did what  they were told  because he controlled the “extra hours” budget, with extra hours bagging a 180% premium.

In the crisis, there are no extra hours. As a matter of fact, no one (except Anna) wants to work. Alex’s cold disposition has crippled his ability to control staff. Just yesterday, Alex told Svetlana to take her earphone out, and Svetlana told Alex, in Russian, to carry out a certain sexual activity with his mother. All the cashiers laughed, and started putting in their earphones as well.

In the past, Alex would have fired Svetlana on the spot. Now, finding a cashier is like finding an honest politician;  Alex’s leadership is ruined.

When the context of work changes, the skills which are valued change-and so some people shine and others fall flat on their face.

And thanks to Dr Eva Rimbau for giving me the idea for this post.

 

*Raanana was founded by my grandfathers’ brother and sister-Uncle Jack  and Auntie Ida with the beginning of the British mandate which took over Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

 

 

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Is it possible to offer leaders any meaningful support in this crisis?

The organization development practitioner is not tooled to support managers in a crisis of the present dimensions. As it is, the standard OD practitioner over-relies on outdated values, pre-packaged tool kits and one-size-fits-all products. The present crisis is way  over the head of our profession as it has been degenerated in the past two decades.

Furthermore, the severe cash flow problem of clients will put most OD practitioners out of work almost immediately. The externals will go first, quickly followed by the internals. So a few of us may have something to say, but no one will have money to pay.

And this is a war, not an organizational crisis. The enemy is invisible, but there is as a war going on. Even In civilian organizations, OD is, at best, a luxury.

But OD in the military is not a luxury, because the army is geared for severe crisis. I was lucky enough to serve as an OD consultant in the military, both in peace and in 2 wars. Thus, I do have a few tidbits of advice which I have put together. Here are a few ideas that managers might want to consider.

  1. There is no time to waste.  Control priorities by strong focus and massive de-focus. 
  2. Over-communicate your key messages. Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.
  3. Be aware that some very average people can shine in a crisis. Furthermore, some top performers crack under pressure.
  4. Promise nothing, because you just don’t know. Your credibility is your most important asset.
  5. Be fair, because when this crisis ends, and it will, being fair is what you will be most remembered for.
  6. Encourage short cuts however, don’t throw the rule book down the toilet because an organization can easily spin into chaos. Manage the balance between fast and orderly, re-calibrating the balance constantly..
  7. The more pressure there is, the more important it is to remain calm when addressing others. If you cannot do so, I have no advise for you.
  8. Sideline incompetent people around you as soon as possible, if at all possible.
  9. When in doubt, encourage fierce opposition to the ideas you propose, and once you have made a decision, enforce with heavy hand if necessary,
  10. Never forget the day after. As I mentioned before, when the crisis ends, you will only be as strong as your honesty, integrity and sense of calm that you have projected in these most difficult of days.

 

 

 

 

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A letter from Tel Aviv

Dear readers,

The streets are empty; there is a run-on-food and its derivative, toilet paper, and the present battle against an invisible enemy has struck more fear into peoples’ hearts than the very many missiles which have been lobbed at us from Gaza.

During the many attacks on Israel, the major worry of most Israelis has been “where do I find parking”, even though a warhead may be flying at you. But corona has succeeded in instilling fear where Hamas and Hezbollah failed.

How has this impacted me? Well I am seventy years old, and fit as a fiddle except for back pain which I have had all my life. According to the TV medical experts of which there are many, I am in a threatened target group, not only because of my age, but because I had asthma in the past. Of course, fat people, smokers, alcoholics, drug addicts, workaholics appear to be better off than a fit 70 year old-which says a lot about all the expertise that floats to the service during a crisis.

It’s my experience that the number of experts stands in reverse relation to their ability to solve the problem. The more experts, the fewer solutions. Israel has more Middle East experts than a cow has flies near its butt. Back ache specialists are a dime a dozen-and the conflict is a hundred years old and my back still hurts.

My guess is that mass media’s peddling all this fear will backfire. At one point, people are going to say if everything is so dangerous, I might as well have a good time, get drunk, have sex and a good meal before I am struck down. But of course, media has become a source of entertainment, and this is a great story. I am sure that clap or genital warts have infected more people than corona in the last few months, certainly in Tel Aviv. But that’s not the story de jour.

And if you ask me, the government is peddling fear because as long as the public fears, the anger won’t be turned on the government, which has paid for many ridiculous things over the last decade except for health care. We have promoted Jewish education in the diaspora, financed many religious causes, built illegal settlement, purchased a plane for Netanyahu, developed warheads that can kill a mosquito on a terrorists’ bum in downtown Tehran, but our health care lack sufficient bandwidth. So of course the politicians want the public to fear. It’s working till now, because the Israelis know how to complain, but have yet to turn their complaints into action.

The only thing that really worries me more than choking to death is the breakdown of social order. It’s a matter of weeks until mass poverty takes the spotlight; most people need two salaries to survive. Older people need their savings which are being ravaged. Soon, there will be no economic life left at all. So instead of people dying of corona, they may die in civilian strife. A lot of the solidarity I read about on social media is a lot of hokum. In the end, it will take massive force to maintain law and order when there is no money left. That’s my worry-the breakdown of social order, not coughing and a fever.

So my dear readers, no OD today, just the ramblings of yours truly on yet another day of gruesome isolation.

Be well.

Allon

 

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On “Assuming Ownership” and Culture Basic Assumptions

Business Unit Manager Paul Thibadeau has just come out of a meeting during which CEO Stan let off some steam. “There have been far too many examples of not assuming ownership of customer problems, and as a result, all the turds get piled up on my desk. People take problems that comes their way, and by default, transfer the issue to someone else. Get this ownership issue straightened out. I am not your fucking babysitter!”

Clearly, Paul felt a certain degree of urgency after Stan has expressed his concerns in such a cogent form.

Paul’s business unit sells “value adding extra services” to the company’s major products, medical devices. Paul ‘s unit sells to 1200 clients in all continents.

Paul knows all too well that ownership is being shirked even in his business unit. However, his staff does not have a clue that anything is amiss. Here is what Paul’s direct reports think-

Baharat in Mumbai believes that Paul, being business unit manager, must clarify who owns what, and then his own job will be to carry out Paul’s directives loyally.

Sivan in Tel Aviv believes that she herself owns all problems that come her way, but also expects her own team members to own all issues, even if it means confronting someone in another department who is not doing their job correctly.

Aimi in Japan believes that doing what the customer wants is synonymous with ownership of problems.

Som from Thailand believes that the lack of ownership belongs to HQ for releasing immature products, and she will never express this opinion.

Stephanie from Taipei thinks that Paul Thibadeau should protect her from such pressure and deal with corporate politics on his own, without dragging her into the fray.

Marvin in Australia believes that anyone who assumes ownership gets shafted, and until the company changes its culture things are not going to change.

And US based Nick thinks that planning is chaotic and if “we planned better we would have less ownership issues”.

Paul set up a 20 minute call to “get the ownership issue nailed down”. During the call, Paul repeated Stan’s message. Everyone on the call expressed their willingness to improve, except Marvin and Aimi who fell asleep since it was the middle of the night local time. And true, Sivan did argue with Paul all through the call, but assumed that she would be the first to comply, albeit in a sloppy fashion.

Remember Aesop’s Fables? There is always a moral to the story. In this case, the moral of the story is that “assuming ownership” means different things in different cultures. It may mean obedience, assuming the position of an advocate, following the rules, or doing whatever the customer wants. Thus, the assumption of ownership is so vague and means so many different things, that it is useless to talk about it unless operationalizing “ownership” behaviourally,  factoring in and adapting the relevant cultural assumptions.

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Savouring the memories of my sweet Sadie


“For Pete’s sake” was one of her favourite expressions. And occasionally, “for the love of Mike”. Not exactly the everyday expressions of a Jewish grandmother in 1950’s Montreal, where many of the grandmothers, if they existed at all, spoke Yiddish.

Sadie did not speak anything but English. And I called her Nana Sadie, because she said that it was not appropriate to use the Yiddish word for grandmother, “because we are Canadians”.

Sadie was born in Montreal; apparently her parents did not practice contraception all that often. Her sisters and brother who I remember included Edith and Ruthie who had married two brothers; Old Auntie Annie;  single Auntie Laurie, Uncle Henry from Toronto-and apparently several who had passed away before I knew of them. If I remember properly, there were 9 Weiners.

My father never ever had to remind me to call Sadie. I called her every single day, often several times a day. Regent 33304 was her phone number, which eventually became 733-3304.

Growing up, I loved to “spend the day” with my grandmother. I would take 3 buses (116, 17 and 65), arrive at her home at about 9.00 and stay till about 5 PM when Dad picked me up. We would have lunch at Miss Snowden where I would always order grilled liver and mashed potatoes-followed by vanilla ice cream. After lunch, my grandmother would buy “the American newspaper” (The Mirror), after which we would take the one hour Observation Tram, which started and ended at Queen Mary Road and Decarie. It did not matter how cold it was, or how she felt, if I wanted to take the observation tram, so we did.

Returning to her home, Nana would read the Mirror and have tea. Nana Sadie would watch her 2 favourite series, As the World Turns and At the Edge of Night. I would build towers from two decks of cards. At about 4 PM, we would play a game where she “shoots me” with a play gun and I fall dead within “less than 5 seconds” . We would play this game tens of times, until she asked me “aren’t you tired of dying?”

Sometimes, when I was lucky, Nana would do an imitation of Ethel Merman singing “Dearie”. And if I was extra lucky, she would sing an Al Jolson song, imitating him almost perfectly.

On Friday nights, we always ate at my grandmothers. My grandmother and grandfather were (very) poor, but food was never lacking-including many bottles of Coca Cola, several of which my Auntie Laurie used to “down”  during the meal. (My Dad used to called my Auntie Laurie “Mima”, and I never knew why. It turns out that Mima is Yiddish for Aunt. That was probably the only Yiddish word my Dad knew).

Sadie, having given birth to my Dad, could not give birth again. Sadie had plenty of health issue-horrible arthritis in her hands, poor kidneys, and high blood pressure. Her “medicine chest” looked like a fully stacked pharmacy. I used to ask her if she “remembered to take her pills” and she reminded me that she was “old enough to remember, but thanks for worrying about me”.

Sadie suffered quietly, a trait I did not inherit from her. All during World War Two, she worried about her son, who was a pilot in the RCAF. She suffered her own ill health, as well as the long prolonged cancer of her husband.  And she certainly saw that her only son had a very, very poor marriage. She never complained. She was always warm, and positive, and loving and kind, with a heart  bigger than her minute 5 foot stature.

As my Bar Mitzvah approached, she was very ill, in and out of the Royal Vic, under the supervision of the late Dr Alan Kendall. I wanted to dance with her at my Bar Mitzvah, but those were sad years for me, and I do not remember if I did. I do remember however, that I got a Tape Recorder from Nana Sadie as a gift- a state of the art Phillips. It was the best gift I have ever received, until this day. How egoistic of me that I remember the gift and not whether of not I danced with her.

After I turned 13, the end was close.

Month after month Nana Sadie  lay in Royal Vic, one dialysis after another. One visit she would be fine, the next visit quiet, the next visit  swollen and asleep. Then another dialysis, again and again and again. It was a nightmare, an emotional roller coaster.

One day Dr Kendall said, “this is is the last time”. Yet Sadie held onto life for the longest time, no one really understanding how she was “holding on”. I was not allowed to visit her during the three weeks after her last dialysis. Or was it four?

Pat came into my room and announced curtly that “your grandmother died”. Then she walked out.

The day Sadie was buried, it was very very cold. The burial was delayed for two hours because of the snow and ice. As we all stood by the grave, a viscous  Montreal wind whipped into us. The storm was so strong  that we could hardly see.

My late wife Hadassa  had a personality very much like my grandmother, kind, warm and loving. My daughter Sarai is named after her.

The picture which I am sharing with my readers sits above my desk.

I have never loved anyone more than Nana Sadie; and no one ever loved me as much as she did. Rest in peace Nana Sadie. I am an old man now, but not a day has passed without me thinking of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mergers and Acquisitions-Busting a few Myths

During my long career, I am lucky to have been asked to facilitate 12 major mergers/acquisitions.  Each project lasted between one to five years; nine were successes; two was total failures (I was fired twice)  and one is still far too early judge.

Lots of myths exist in the domain of mergers/acquisition.  Mergers and acquisitions are a nightmare, filled with power struggles and severe anxiety.

The prevalent myths about the boundless opportunities of a merger remind me of the “happy happy fun fun” times promised around holiday time, when families get together, people get depressed , fat and/or drunk and trauma rooms fill up with attempted suicides.

In this brief post, I will share my lessons learned about the fascinating area of organization development in mergers and acquisitions.

  • There are no mergers-just acquisitions. One company becomes dominant and in a Darwinian struggle, the acquired company is partially digested. Even in the best of cases, the acquiring company remains with a case of mild indigestion whilst the acquired company is dominated.
  • It is impossible to take the best of two cultures and form new improved culture. The very claim that this can be done is pure alchemy, fake news and charlatanism. What does occur is a protracted Darwinian struggle between a stronger and a weaker culture which fizzles out about 10 to 15 years later, or when people from legacy companies leave or die.
  • Interpersonal trust is the most important glue that was ever invented. Trust is built in face to face meetings, intensive travel and lots of informal quality time together. Building trust in conference calls or on-line chats is like using a shower curtain as a condom.
  • For about a year, everything is a struggle: budget codes, travel policy, nomenclature, titles-it becomes a fucking bloodbath unless decisions are taken early. The more buy-in and agreement one tries to establish, the longer it takes to make decisions and the worse the fighting becomes. Fast authoritarian decisions taken quickly work best.
  • Managers who cannot build relationships of trust and transparency across geographical borders should be axed if they cannot adjust with 3 months.
  • If things are broken in the senior management team, the merger will fail. The senior management team is where most OD effort is needed.
  • Mergers and acquisitions are very painful for a long time. Expectations must be adjusted accordingly.
  • Cultural differences are important, but far less important than competency of senior management who manage these differences. Too often, poor management will blame cultural differences for problems that management could have solved if more brain power was available.
  • Many people who were competent in their legacy companies become incompetent because their former skills are not scalable or relevant.
  • Due diligence before mergers/acquisitions is highly flawed and tainted.  After the ink has dried, those who lied and/or misrepresented need to be pardoned or removed
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
From Sailing to Byzantium-William Butler Yeats
———
———
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Chairman Mao
———
———
A merger is a nightmare.
Chairman Allon

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How does an organization’s culture change?

Consultants, trainers, change managers and OD consultants do not and cannot change the culture of an organization. I see that as common sense. Yet common sense is not so common.

(As an aside, this morning I read a fascinating article about back pain; if you take 1000 people off the street to give them an MRI-it is impossible for orthopaedic surgeons to predict whose back actually aches. Yet diagnostic tests for back pain are more numerous than cultural change programs).

In this post, I want to share with my readers how an organization’s culture actually changes.

1) External regulation-when the regulator steps in to dictate change, cultures start to change because things must be done differently. Safety and financial regulators are effective culture changers.

2) A one time success changes a culture, often by dumbing the organization down, lowing the level of awareness, or making it overly fat and out of touch with the changing needs of its customers. Similarly as Terry Seamon points out below in his comments, a huge failure can spark cultural change.

3) Massive immigration can change a culture by providing a ready made pool of talent that other global competitors do not have. The newly acquired competitive edge drives rapid growth which changes the culture.

4) Too much cultural socialization as well as an overdose on making values explicit can change company culture by making everyone cynical and lowering the degree of caring people feel towards success. In one company I worked for, the overdose of getting people to “buy into decisions“ caused people to check out.

5) Customers force cultural change on organizations. When I work with Asian facing units as opposed to American or EMEA facing units, the huge impact of the customer on culture is clear. The American clients drive the need for documentation, stability and predictability whilst Asian markets drive down costs, encourage innovation and show tolerance for speed over quality.

What gives with CEOs and cultural change? It is my experience that replacing a CEO is not enough to drive cultural change, unless the CEO has the “tail wind” of an external factor.

And what about consultants, trainers, change managers and OD consultants?  Well, we are midwives, easing pain and nursing things along. Not quite side show Bob, but not the drivers of cultural change. And the more you realize that, the more impact you will have.

 

 

 

 

 

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Does OD respect human differences? Well, it depends

Natalie believes that transparency is foolishness; it betrays human weakness and weak people get screwed. So she always keeps her cards close to her chest. She is seen as non cooperative and “needs some training in communication skills”.

Nir believes that all systems are corrupt and or inefficient, and the only way to be effective is to bypass the system. Nir is labelled a cowboy who needs to be coached on being a game player.

Ngai is certain that emotions need to be hidden at work, especially if there is a conflict. The best way to deal with a conflict is to wait until it goes away, or ignore it so that it does’t get worse. Ngai keeps all her emotions to herself and she has been given feedback on her introversion in team meetings. She was told to “better advocate” her departments agenda.

Anil  believes that his boss should be consulted on any deviation however minor from procedures  otherwise he is showing disrespect. Thus, he often says to his peers that “I need to consult my boss”. Anil is seen as a shirker.

My claim is that OD does not accept or respect any of these deeply cultural-related behaviours since OD efforts will always focus on changing these behaviours. We all agree that conversion therapies for homosexuality are both evil and nonsensical. But there is no agreement that OD’s non acceptance of cultural differences is any better. So yes, OD is the very first not to show respect to more than half of the world population.

 

 

 

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When harmony trumps truth

Truth has many adversaries. Of course nowadays, fake news is the number one public enemy of the truth. Yet fake news is but one of many. 

W Somerset Maugham’s classic The Moon and Sixpence tells of Charles Strickland, for whom beauty is more important than any other human value, truth and integrity included. Thus, the shock value of the novel, both then and now.

Yet truth has another adversary: the preference of harmony in social relations; this presents a huge challenge for fast moving organizations which need to transmit accurate information quickly to get the job done and remain one step ahead of the competitors.

Eddie, VP of Asia based in Taiwan thinks that Sandra, his peer and young US-based  VP of Strategy should not meet with Mr Ocampo.

Mr Ocampo serves as a potential clients’ Manila-based CEO, who known is to be very conservative. Eddie firmly believes that much more harm will come than good from such a meeting.

Yet Sandra asked the CEO (Stan), who told Eddie, to set up a meeting between Sandra and client Ocampo.

When asked by Sandra what messages she should emphasize when she meets with Ocampo, Eddie stated that “your message should be low tone and understated, because of the complex nature of such meetings”. Sandra thanked Eddie for his input and promised to “send you my PPT slide pack for your further comments.”

Eddie is not “afraid “to tell Sandra or Stan the truth. But Eddie thinks that there is no value in doing so. Quite the opposite; Eddie believes that telling Sandra or Stan “the truth”  will destroy harmony and upset the smooth chain of command, which is far more mission critical than any bothersome fact. 

Sandra met with the client in a short and tense meeting, during which the 69 year old Ocampo felt very uncomfortable with 31 year old Sandra. Ocampo also made sure that young Ms Sandra waited one hour and 45 minutes in the waiting room.

Eddie is ok with this. He thinks he has been a good corporate citizen.

Sandra told Stan that “Eddie screwed things up, because he thought I was treading into his territory”. Next month, Eddie to going to a course on Authentic Communication, which has been commissioned by VP HR Gloria Ramsbottom, to enable better alignment between corporate and field organizations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trust me and then I’ll follow the process. Follow the process, then I will trust you

Ethan, the common  boss of Mark (USA) and Eddie (Taiwan), asked me to work with these two highly talented yet chronically uncooperative executives on “better aligning” themselves to get things done without bogging Ethan down.

Mark (Corporate Strategic Account Management) told me that Eddie (Taiwan Sales CEO) refused to enter account information into the SCDB, the sales control data base. Mark emphasized that data entry is not “elective”, and Eddie is in breach of discipline. Eddie, according to Mark, does not follow process- how can I trust that he is not withholding information and other forms of local monkey business”? To Mark’s credit, the SCDB has been extremely useful all over the world, except in South East Asia, China, Russia and Taiwan.

Eddie claims that Mark is hounding him and :”throwing a book of rules at me”, rules with do not make sense because of the manner that deals are done in Taiwan. Eddie told me that he will not waste his time on secretarial duties of data entry, “but if Mark trusts me, he will know everything he needs to know, and more”.

Eddie and Mark have both been coached before, and the coach gave them 3 rules* to follow- which they did not, although they claim they did.

After speaking with Eddie and Mark, I referred back to Ethan who had a hard decision to make-does he want to sell in Taiwan or not? Because if he does, corporate process, not individual behaviour, needs to change.

Ethan dropped the mandated use of the SCDB, Mark received guidance from me on effectively managing Eddie while Eddie consulted with me on what to tell, and not tell, Mark. I back channelled all this information to Ethan, who made all the decisions, using me as a channel.

Project concluded a month ago. Sales in Taiwan flourishing. Mark was moved out of his role, which was split in half, with a dedicated Asia executive being appointed.

 

*3 rules

No surprises. No backstabbing. Consult one another before making decisions.

 

 

 

 

 

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