Welcome to Management Culture...

A random walk through management theory with the occasional intercultural critique.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mid-level Leadership

Being a mid-level leader is “important but difficult!” This is according to a leadership research report recently publicized (March 2014) by PDI Ninth House “Mid-Level Leaders Are Key to Strategy Execution.” The report defines mid-level leaders as those who “manage other managers or a business function, and are accountable for growing revenue or managing costs” and goes on to say “they must influence both upward and downward... Although they often are invisible within the organization, their efforts have a direct impact on an organization’s results.” So given this difficult job, how can mid-level leaders succeed in their role? The report clarifies some key points.
Here are the key success factors for effective mid-level leadership along with further considerations “et alors”.
Mid-level Leadership
The success of mid-level leaders mainly depends on being able to lead through others. Whilst most mid-level leaders show above-average intelligence, that in itself is not a leadership differentiator; rather it is their ability to learn which distinguishes them. In the context of learning and self-awareness, the three key factors to success have been identified as follows:
1.       Factors common at all levels of leadership
Three competencies are critically important for all leaders: Drive for Results (i.e. relating the business to the strategy and wanting to deliver); Execution (actually getting the job done, not just starting it); and Analysis/Judgment (in other words, making good decisions).
2.       Factors particular to mid-level Leadership
The key is: “people skills.” Skills such as Influence, Engagement/Inspiration, Talent Management, and Relationship Management are all critical at this level. This builds on and assumes that Execution is achieved but in a way, Execution is becoming more dependent on people skills.
At a lower level, Execution might have been achieved through technical skills but with little regard to people; now it is all about people: influencing inside and outside the organization without recourse to direct authority; and actually motivating people – something that managers often overlook.
3.       Customer Focus
Whilst communication skills are most important for “first-level” leaders and it is assumed that mid-level Leaders will have this skill; the research of approx. 5000 leaders found that “customer focus skills” is the most important differentiator for mid-level leaders.
The rationale is that “customer focus skills” emerge as essential for mid-level leaders because they are “vital to driving execution by aligning diverse teams around the common ground of customer needs.”
Et alors
It could be argued that anyone who has a boss and a subordinate is a mid-level manager; and that what distinguishes a mid-level manager from a mid-level leader is not the “Execution” part, but the “people skills” part. Engaging, motivating, developing are all aspects of leadership. So one thing is the “level” of leadership, but the other is the leadership per se. Similarly with “customer focus”, the executive who is going to succeed in the organization is the one who starts to look outside the organization and not just inside. Knowing your customer can change your whole perspective on what you do and how you deliver – something not to be overlooked!
The report also looks at the “other” side of leadership – what characteristics are most commonly found in mid-level leaders which might derail their progress, all of which are worth noting here as something to avoid: “1/ Excessive attention to detail, which hinders the big-picture view and leads to spending too much time on one task before moving on; 2/ Avoidance/passive-aggressive behavior, which interferes with resolving problems and conflicts; and 3/ Micromanaging, which not only interferes with delegating, but once work is delegated, may be very demotivating because people redo the work.” It is important to not only focus on the success factors, but also focus on how to avoid these “failure” factors…

Thursday, March 20, 2014


As a leader, how do you motivate people? This is a perennial question of leadership and the starting point is that even in a commercial environment the one thing that is not a motivator is money. Dan Pink addresses this in the RSA Animate video “Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us” (see YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc). His review focuses on the use of bonuses in organisations and finds that they only work “as they should do” when they are applied to “routine mechanical tasks”; however when the task requires “even rudimentary cognitive skills”, bonuses do not work: in fact, larger rewards lead to poorer performance! He then goes on to cite various studies which show that there are three main things that actually motivate us.

Here’s how to motivate people followed by further considerations (“et alors”):


According to the author who synthesises a multitude of studies, there are three main “drivers” that motivate people:


This is our desire to be self-directed. The point here is that “conventional” management is typically about compliance; however if you want better engagement (which leads to better performance), then “self-directed” has been proven to be better. If you want people to achieve, the idea is that you “get out of their way…”


This is our desire to getter better at doing things. The argument here is that when the tasks are technically sophisticated and accordingly require highly skilled persons to perform them, the motivation will be the desire to get better at doing it. This extends to people working for free (e.g. Wikipedia) and even providing services for free (e.g. Linux).


A sense of purpose is perhaps the key driver! The author asserts most of us are “purpose maximisers, not just profit maximisers” and that the organisations that have a clear sense of purpose tend to “flourish” not least because they attract the “best talent.” An example is Skype whose goal is to be “disruptive but in the cause of making the world a better place.”

Et alors

The 11 minute video is very well presented and provides a good summary of a lot of studies into motivation. There is an overlap with some of the key schools of psychology when it comes to motivation: the need for achievement (which links with both “mastery” and “autonomy”); and the need for purpose (c.f. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”). A key motivator which does not feature above is the need for affiliation (in other words the need to be included in a group or otherwise to be liked). What about money itself – one thing is bonuses, but what about salaries? The author asserts that the best thing to do with money to pay enough to “take the issue off the table.” This goes back to Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation where there are “motivator” and “hygiene” factors. The former can motivate positively whereas hygiene factors motivate negatively if they are not present.

Back to bonuses: I presented the video at a seminar last week to a group of leaders, one of whom was a senior trader working in a commodities business. After the screening, I was therefore interested to hear his opinion about money and bonuses as a motivator. He had two interesting insights. Firstly, trading appears to be a different context because profit can be a purpose and the business itself is about making money so it’s difficult to “take the issue off the table”; secondly, for traders, the reward can never be large enough! But here we get into a different type of motivator, potentially not a very positive one: greed! Evidently there are other motivators but Dan Pink has managed to capture three drivers that seem to work for the collective good in organisations: leaders should take note!


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Managing Worry

Articles written in the “business” press about “how to” cope with stress tend to be split into two general categories: one type focuses on the physical effects of stress – how there is good stress and bad stress, but to ensure you get the correct balance you need to eat well, avoid toxins (alcohol, tobacco etc), exercise more and sleep well; and the other type tends to focus on the psychological aspects of stress – how you think and feel, what your interpersonal relationships are like, the context of your work environment etc, with the general message that greater awareness leads to greater control (and therefore less stress). Instead of “how to” deal with stress, what about the causes of stress? They are often overlooked and so I was pleased to see in the HBR “Pocket Mentor” series a chapter about managing worry – a major cause of stress (Hallowell, “Managing Stress – Expert Solutions to Everyday Challenges”, 2007).
Here’s how to manage worry (and therefore reduce stress) along with further implications (“et alors”).
Managing Worry
Worry is a major source of stress but according to the author, it can be easily overcome using a simple three-step plan. Whenever you start worrying about something:
Don’t ignore the worry; rather confront it and in particular, name it!  By defining the problem, you can already start to “put it in perspective” and reduce the worry!
Next, you need to think constructively about the problem. Challenge your assumptions – have you taken any shortcuts in your diagnosis? Correct errors in logic (talk it through with someone) and develop alternative hypotheses.
Replace toxic worry with “effective action”. The idea here is that worrying is only negative – replacing that with “doing something about it” (if possible) will help; but to do so, you need to plan!
Wise worry leads to fact gathering; toxic worry just “exaggerates and misrepresents reality.” Make a plan to address your worries; but also make sure you have structure in your personal organisation: according to the author, “anti-anxiety agents” include lists, reminders, schedules and agendas!
There are only two key options here. Either, having isolated your worry and having taken steps to gather facts, you can now take direct action: change (yourself), connect or confront (others).
Or, “let it go”! Sometimes, your analysis of the worry will lead you to the conclusion that it is not worth time worrying about. If the matter is beyond your control or influence, you have to let the worry go. “Blow it away and start a new project, read a different book, walk another path…”
Et alors
The “evaluate” stage is critical and there is some good advice here: if the worry (and/or anxiety) is so strong that you are not thinking straight, you actually need to take time to think straight! Putting things in perspective can be achieved by both focusing and brainstorming to see exactly what the worry is. All well and good; however what about “planning” and “remediating”? Firstly, the “remediation” step might be best considered in conjunction with the “evaluation” step – from the outset it would be wise to consider what aspects of the “worry” you can influence or control and accordingly focus where you can actually have an impact. “Planning” might be described an “analyzing” in this context – a thorough review of the facts and context can probably help in any worrisome situation.
From a cultural point of view, the author appears to suggest steps which might work well for Americans in America, but perhaps not for everyone else anywhere else. Planning can cause as much stress to some people as worrying: some personality types and some cultures prefer to “live in the moment” and “go with the flow” (without any recourse to planning). Similarly, the call to “action” might be readily embraced by persons and cultures that have a preference for “extroversion” rather than “introversion” (with the associated inward-focused contemplation and reflection). Finally, the perspective seems to be very “individualistic” with the one person taking control not only for themselves but for the environment around them – perhaps not the starting point for a more “collectivist” culture. Anyway, not to worry!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Building Smart Trust

There is a business case for trust which does not need much explanation: business requires trust; and if there is no trust, business might not even be possible. However trust in business cannot just be “blind” trust – as the proverb goes, leaders should perhaps “trust but verify.” This is what Covey et al. address in their book “Smart Trust” (Free Press, 2012). For the authors, “smart” trust is the defining skill that transforms managers into leaders. The principle theme of the book is how to build “smart” trust to both be more effective in business and more effective as a leader.
Here’s how to lead with trust along with further considerations (“et alors”).
Building Smart Trust
The authors identify five key steps to building “smart” trust:
Choose to believe in trust
Belief is founded on “instincts” which encourage us to believe that we are 1/ worthy of trust; 2/ that most people can be trusted; and 3/ that extending trust is a better way to lead.
Start with yourself
Behave with trust – start with your own actions! It will be easier for people to trust you if you are seen as honest, straightforward, dependable, and genuinely concerned about their welfare.
Assume the positive
Assume positive intent in others! The authors cite the advice of Goethe: “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you will help them to become what they were capable of being.”
Do what you say you’ll do
Declare your intent and fulfill your promises! Doing what you say you are going to do is a “global standard” in building trust which transcends cultures.
Take the lead
Lead the way by trusting but verifying! Don’t be gullible (high “propensity to trust” but “low analysis”); rather show “judgment” (high “propensity to trust” and “high analysis”).
Building this “smart” trust can have an enormous impact on employee engagement (think: leadership) and business (think: commercial relations). When did someone last trust you and what effect did that have? Now give that trust to others (but also do your homework)!
Et alors
A recent missive about trust in organizations (from Berkshire Consultancy Limited) stated that “because trust is a perception, it is often a hidden variable that is difficult to understand, measure and improve…” In international organizations, it is difficult to even define a single and common definition, let alone measure it! The Covey book seems to be positioned in the context of North American contemporary culture that might be argued to be neither “high” nor “low” trust but in fact somewhere in between the two. The proposal of the book is to build “smart” trust – something applicable for both “high” and “low” trust cultures; but by focusing on “giving” trust, the steps tend to suggest a move towards “high” (or at least higher) trust culture.
“Low” trust cultures might not be comfortable in “giving” trust. In such a culture, trust has to be earned: the starting point is that there is no trust and it has to be accumulated (which is in contrast to the “high” trust cultures where trust is already given: the starting point is that there is full trust that is there to be lost). If you think you are in a “low” trust culture, then the steps might be more difficult to achieve as “giving” trust might be an unusual and potentially unilateral event. Nevertheless, as a leader, you will always have the potential to create your own culture for your followers and so if you wish to build “smart” trust, there is nothing to stop you “giving”! In any culture, “starting with yourself” and “doing what you say you will do” can only help build trust which can only help engagement and commerce!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Better Time Management

You might hear yourself saying that you are “too busy to get all your work done!” Almost a paradox, this is the common plight of today’s “knowledge-worker”. So, how do you make yourself less busy so that you can concentrate on the work that matters? Birkinshaw and Cohen studied this question and published their results in the HBR article “Make Time for the Work That Matters” (September 2013). They found that most knowledge workers spend their time managing up, down or across whilst also managing externally and also performing desk work. Generally, not much adjustment could be found to managing up, down or externally; however on average, up to 20% of a knowledge-worker’s week could be saved by reviewing their time spent on “desk-based work” and “managing across.”

Here’s how to better manage your time followed by further considerations (“et alors”).

Better Time Management

From their research the authors found that “desk-based work” and “managing across” were considered not only time consuming, but low value-added and often tedious. So why is this work being done? Mostly because of being “entangled in a web of commitments from which it can be painful to extricate ourselves.” Addressing this root cause, the authors propose a five-point plan to better manage your time:

Identify low-value tasks

Look at your daily activities and decide which ones are not important to you or your firm. Then consider whether they are relatively easy to drop, delegate or redesign. For those that match these two criteria, you have “targets.”

Drop, Delegate or Redesign

Drop “quick kills” (those activities which you can stop immediately with no negative effects); delegate “opportunities” (activities which may be of more value to your team members); or redesign processes (which may require investment, but will save time in the long-term).

Off-load tasks

Caught in the belief that if you want something done properly you should do it yourself? Actually most knowledge-workers can delegate a further 2-20% of their work “with no decline in their productivity or their team’s.” Besides team engagement improving, you save time!

Allocate freed-up time

A common trap is to save time and then just have it fill up with more “desk-based” and “managing across” work. To be effective, determine how best to allocate the time that you have saved! Just make a simple note of 2 or 3 things that you can (now) do and make sure you do them!

Commit to your plan

Share your plan with a mentor, your boss or a colleague. Explain why you are dropping, delegating, redesigning or “off-loading” certain activities. By making a promise to others, a public commitment will help you from returning to bad habits.

Et alors

It is important to remember that the focus is on “desk-based work” and “managing across” activities. You will probably be already spending an appropriate amount of time managing up, down and externally and these tasks will normally be difficult to rearrange. What might happen when applying the five-step plan is that you end up spending more time managing down, but there should be a positive pay-off to this! In the research, the authors found that there was another category of work that hardly anyone had time to save from because they did not do enough of it to start with: that was the “training and development” of staff. Executives in this particular study only spent on average 1% of their time on talent development. Evidently there is a trade-off between short and long-term time management, but if you are too busy to get your work done, you might want to consider stopping and instead developing your team so that you can effectively start delegating, redesigning and off-loading!

Friday, February 14, 2014

From Corporate Strategy to Corporate Theory

In the corporate environment, strategy is often synonymous with “sustainable competitive advantage”. Strategic analysis is about discovering and targeting attractive markets and then forming “positions” which can be occupied and defended; however Todd Zenger points out that “equity markets are full of companies with powerful positions and sluggish stock prices.” In “What is the Theory of Your Firm?” (June 2013 HBR) he asserts that companies should focus less on competitive advantage and more on growth that continues to create value. To do so he suggests considering what is your corporate theory – a reference point to organize assets, activities and resources in order to create value.

Here’s how to move from Corporate Strategy to Corporate Theory followed by further considerations (“et alors”).

From Corporate Strategy to Corporate Theory

The “occupy and defend a position” of corporate strategy should be reconsidered by instead focusing on a corporate theory whereby there is a “rulebook” (and/or a toolkit) for creating value. A good corporate theory requires three strategic “sights” which are:


There must be good foresight about the industry’s future. Beliefs and expectations need to be fully “articulated”, but they need to be balanced: neither too generic nor too specific; and well communicated but still a unique offer. (Think Apple 1997-2011.)

Foresight highlights domains in which to search for cross-sight.


Corporate insight is needed to identify which unique internal capabilities (rare, distinctive and valuable) can optimize the future. If competing companies own identical assets and resources and replicate or surpass your activities, then your foresight might be undermined.

Insight focuses the search for foresight and cross-sight.


Cross-sight is the key to see which assets can be configured to create value. Identifying “complementarities” is necessary to create value by assembling (or buying) assets that can be combined with existing ones to create value. (Think Disney…)

Cross-sight reveals valuable complementarities, highlighting the domain of foresight.

Et alors

In the article by Zenger, two words are often repeated: consistency and coherence. This is potentially what differentiates corporate strategy from corporate theory. The theory is upstream of the strategy and if well defined should mean that your subsequent strategies are coherent and consistent. The example of Disney is cited as a success story in the article. Disney had a good theory which was coherent and consistent (the foresight of fantasy family entertainment, the insight that design and animations were their key offers and cross-sight of combinations between parks, films, tv, comics and merchandise etc..). So even though it looked like they were diversifying, they were in fact coherent and consistent with their “theory”.  Any deviation from this tends to result in less success whether that is corporate failure (e.g. AT&T) or underperforming share price due to lack of growth prospects (e.g. Walmart). To have a theory, ask how you consistently and coherently create value!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Making Human Resources Decisions

When decision making concerns human resources, the stakes might be higher than other resource allocation decisions: simply put, there are people involved. An investment decision might involve a certain level of risk and if it goes “badly”, there are consequences, but people move on; however for human resources decisions (e.g. regarding performance improvement, potential development or career choices) then the risk might be considered higher because if it goes “badly”, the person involved will potentially have to carry the consequences for the rest of their lives. Considering this, Korte, in “Biases in Decision Making and Implications for Human Resources Development”, (in Advances in Developing Human Resources, Vol. 5, Nov. 2003, pp. 440-457) researched and concluded on how to optimise decision-making in such an HR context.

Here’s how to make effective HR decisions followed by further implications (“et alors”):

Making Human Resources Decisions

Decision making in the HR context is “a complex process rife with social and political agendas, individual biases and rapidly changing relationships… the decision-making process must include an explicit examination and challenge of the assumptions and biases underpinning the process and a prescription to mitigate the stifling effects of these orientations.” Korte accordingly recommends five optimising processes for decision making in HR:

Bias Analysis

Identify, assess and challenge the orientations and underlying assumptions of the decision-makers.

This is sub-optimal if the assumptions and orientations of the team are “glossed over.”

Information Gathering

Challenge the information gathering process to overcome biases from 1/ visibility, 2/ timing, 3/ limits of understanding, 4/expectations, 5/ comparisons and 6/experience. Do not settle on a definition of the problem or solution until as late as possible in the process.

This is sub-optimal if the sources of information are based on 1/ experience, 2/visible sources and 3/ preferred sources.

Information Processing

Challenge the information analysis process to overcome biases from 1/ inconsistency, 2/conservation, 3/miscalculation, 4/inertia, 5/overconfidence and 6/ anchoring. Explain reasons for processing information and justify the reasons based on the data.

This is sub-optimal if data is analysed 1/ with inconsistent use of criteria, 2/ to support preferences, 3/ with overconfidence on biased data.

Information Response

Enlist several non-aligned sources for reality checks of analysis, definitions and solutions. Attend to the perceptions, expectations and impulses of the stakeholders throughout the process.

This is sub-optimal if you unduly hope for the best and overestimate the degree of control or the ability to fix things later.

General Problem-solving

Consider that the problem can never be completely defined or completely resolved. Avoid the impulse to act early in the process (unless to just as a test of ideas and solutions).

This is sub-optimal if you just focus on a single definition of the problem and the solution or if you follow a linear, mechanistic problem-solving process.

Et alors

That is quite a lot of things to take into consideration all at once; however the points are worthy of consideration if only because the stakes are high when making HR decisions! One of the key messages is to overcome biases in the early stages of the decision-making process; however, these assumptions, orientations and biases might be cultural. Whilst people consider that they are making optimal decisions, in fact, there are underlying cultural references that are (usually) implicit in the assumptions being made by people in arriving at their decision. This might be expedient where the whole context is mono-cultural: “collective programming” or “shortcuts” might be the very definition of culture with the benefit of expediency; however what about in a multi-cultural context? Then there might be a challenge as all the parties in the process might not consider the process (or the solution) to be optimal as it would only be so in one culture or the other (but not both).

So is there an intercultural solution (for example for career management systems in a multicultural organisation)? Potentially not! I have concluded from my research into intercultural leadership that cross-cultural understanding and trans-cultural leadership are possible and feasible when the stakes are not too high and/or the situation is not “personal”. When however, there are individuals involved (such as in decisions relating to HR) and when the stakes are increased because they relate to important human conditions such as love, conflict, power or wealth, then each respective culture tends to revert-to-type. In such cases, cross-cultural understanding tends to evaporate! So overcoming biases etc. in a mono-culture is one thing; whereas it is quite another challenge to overcome biases etc. in a multicultural context when there are “human resources” at stake!