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How did business life become the ‘E’ channel?

It’s really irritating when you realise you’ve been trying to compete in the wrong field. I do a lot of things in my professional life and have three distinct income streams as a result. Each of them is what I call a long-route idea; the revenue never turns up anything like as fast as I would like it to, but it is more sustainable and considered to be more weighty by my chosen audience as a result.

If you know me, the most obvious example is Happy Sandpit, and it is here that I had an epiphany in recent weeks.

For better or for worse, Happy Sandpit is my vehicle for deep research into organisational culture, employee engagement and leadership, and over the three years since it became a full-throttle thing, I believe I have added credible new data, stories and hypothetical test points to that body of information. In 2016, that will accelerate rapidly as we broaden our geographical reach.

One of the best ways of marketing the work is to speak at conferences where there is a broad audience, and in reaching out to those, I have found myself in the middle of the professional speaking world, competing for space on stage with people who clearly have very different goals to my own.

I have no specific criticism of those goals because each to their own and I have to accept they each have a business model. But there is a difference which I have only recently been able to define.

Where I, and certainly many others like me, seek credibility through academic and high-level business channels, many of my competitors consider speaking to be a reality TV show on ‘E’. They make themselves the focus, not their ideas. It’s not about coming up with anything new as it is about a steady stream of selfies. It’s about personality and showbiz razzmatazz rather than thought leadership. It’s about misusing hashtags.

It irritates me that I have taken so long to see it because a fair chunk of my energy this year has gone into trying to find space for the Happy Sandpit research at conferences where showmanship is the greater order of the day. But still, I have to ask: how did business life become the ‘E’ channel?

You can deny the truth but you cannot deny the consequences of denying the truth

Global warming, school shootings, Syrian genocide … they all have one thing in common: our innate ability to pretend things will be okay because we’re going to get around to them one day soon.

Though you may occasionally give in to thoughts that you can bend the universe to your will, it’s usually been my experience that things happen in a fairly predictable way. You can claim that you didn’t know things would go wrong when they do, or that a bad result was just bad luck, but often, unfortunate things happen because you have been simply trying to outrun inevitability using the childlike logic that if you turn your back, maybe it will go away.

Since denialism is a construct to justify inactivity, the consequences of denialism can go completely unchecked for years. You only stop to take care of things when a pin prick has turned into a gaping wound that can no longer be ignored.

The snag is that realism is limiting. You can’t enjoy a bottle of wine if you think of the potential liver damage it may do. You can’t treat yourself to a wide screen TV if you focus on the opportunity cost of not investing the money instead. You can’t get together with the love of your life if you focus on your very real flaws. The cool kids will tell you to just let go and live a little bit because there may not be a tomorrow.

But they’re wrong. There usually is a tomorrow, and in the average life, there are potentially thousands of them. Unless you choose to deny that too (in which case, chapeau), that single truth makes denialism even more limiting than realism. Sooner or later, you’re going to be handed a bill.

Here are four ways to avoid that bill being any bigger than it has to be.

If the experts keep saying it, you should listen

Cigarette packs have carried labels saying ‘this shit will flat out murder you’ for years. Personal finance gurus have regurgitated the same old facts about avoiding credit card debt since credit cards were invented. This stuff isn’t new. You really don’t need to hear it again to know what you should and shouldn’t be doing if you want to avoid a gaping wound.

If it’s on your doorstep, treat it like it’s real

Even if you think the experts are tiresome bores, the next time you have a niggling cough or have to resort to a second credit card to pay the first, you’ll at least have to acknowledge that they have a point. Your gaping wound is acquiring a ‘dead certain’ status if you continue to deny its existence when it has come home to you.

If your gut has an opinion, go with it

Your gut knows. When you feel like what you’re doing is stupid, it probably is. When you feel that you’re not being real about something, you’re probably not. One glass of wine won’t hurt you, but the odds are that when you’re getting into the car after bottle number three, your inner voice will tell you that you probably shouldn’t do that. Usually, it’s right.

If you ever need to convince yourself, abandon it

You can lie to anyone you like, but if you try to lie to yourself, you’ll never get away with it. Never in a million years. If you’ve ever had to spend time trying to convince yourself that what you’re doing is okay, then you already know you’re a truth-denying twit.

Why compromising feels a lot to me like losing

In my early teens, I seriously considered a career in politics. I could see myself running the planet, declaring war on people I didn’t like and commanding all living beings from my secret caviar-filled mountain-top bunker. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable goal.

Some of my aspirations have slightly evolved in the years since, mostly because I have grown to truly despise the notion of being political. It goes without saying that anyone with a functional brain hates politics (if you don’t agree, you need to get that aneurism checked out, stat), yet most people believe it’s good practice to be political, to bite their tongues and (shudder) to compromise.

I’m a pretty compromising guy. I have a happy household where I am the only male in a sea of three females, which could actually make me the definitive master of the art. But mostly when I compromise I do it with honesty. If I don’t want to do something, I’ll say so. It’s worth it for the points, and it pre-empts any later concern about what could be causing my frequent grimaces of pain and self-pity when I end up doing it anyway.

I like to do things for people who I deem to deserve it. And I like deciding who those people are. But lately, that list has been getting shorter. I’d go to the ends of the Earth for my family and close friends and I’d go some considerable (though shorter) distance for many others. But in general, I’m no longer much compelled even to get out of my chair.

The reason, is that I don’t believe human beings are capable of a give-give scenario with relative strangers. In the absence of love or sex or deep emotional involvement, someone is going to be doing more taking than giving. It’s practically a rule.

They say common needs make for strange bedfellows; that there are circumstances under which teaming up with an erstwhile opponent can offer otherwise unattainable benefits. On the surface that may be true, but only if those strange bedfellows have an identical level of dependency on one another’s resources.

Because the snag with compromising is that it doesn’t work in reverse. If I give you something today, in order to keep you happy, I can’t just take it back tomorrow. Look at what happened to Germany between 1945 and 1989 because all the compromising Churchill and Roosevelt did with Stalin didn’t change for one second that he was a total asshole.

In such a relationship, you can’t say everything that is on your mind. You may find yourself having to go with an idea you know to be inferior. And you’re always having to shred your own needs in order to satisfy the other party.

I know my unwillingness to compromise makes me appear unsympathetic. Perhaps arrogant. That’s a pity. I don’t wish to be any of those things. But since, for the most part, you’re asking me to lose by asking me to compromise, I don’t see much upside in it anymore.


Your biggest engagement challenge: you don’t think for yourself

The biggest threat to the survival of your business in the next ten years could be your inability to think for yourself when it comes to matters of culture, and how it drives employee engagement.

In my experience, it’s a typical point of view that organisations that excel in this area are fascinating but risky; circus sideshows that thrill and inspire marvel, but offer nothing in terms of real-world practical example.

We know some of their names because their successes are well documented., Google, and the Virgin companies come immediately to mind. Yet, despite all we know about them, the average company response is to seek safe harbour in old world thinking.

Since, in particular, large organisations naturally gravitate towards bureaucracy, their thinking on how to create change is all too regularly strapped to the glacial-paced processes and policies that should be the targets for change in the first place. Because they’re not learning, trusting or listening organisations, they’re unable to apply those philosophical hallmarks in the pursuit of those aims. It’s the ultimate Catch-22.

We want our people to love their work, their employer, their colleagues and their customers, but the moment they walk through the front door on a Monday morning, it’s 1983 inside. The bosses do the bossing, the workers do the working and there’s a tight blanket of control, however dysfunctional it may have repeatedly been proven to be, tainting the air they breathe. Engagement improvement programmes have the same air flowing through them, lending them the spectre of another short-lived management Mexican Wave, with the appropriate lack of long-term enthusiasm those evoke.

Communication around engagement is steeped in disengaging language. Activities around engagement are unremarkable, albeit shoehorned into a fresh box.

Collectively, corporate South Africa has grown up on the point of view that more analysis always trumps intuitive, swift action. In that belief lies the fundamental challenge to creating great people environments.

The simplest truth is that most companies already know what to do if they dare to think for themselves. You can test responses within your own environment before making wholesale changes, but you don’t need six months of discussion to work out how to get started. If you do, you’re not serious about it.

Work harder, not smarter

I was asked by a junior the other day: how do I get to be like you? Leaving aside the ego-trip that anyone thinks I am successful, I get why they asked the question. In working like I do, I have a constant flurry of (generally) positive activity around me. On top of that, I have two wonderful little girls and an incredible wife, with whom I have created an exciting and rewarding multi-layered existence.

That’s the good stuff. That’s the upside.

The dark side, which people such as my inquisitor don’t see, is that building anything, a company, a relationship … a life … takes tons of constant work. It’s hard. At times, the pressure is immense.

Yet hard work can have a positive compounding effect. Lots of ongoing sales prospecting begins, over time, to yield the sorts of results that make it all look easy. But since the journey is often invisible in the end result, it’s hard sometimes for an onlooker to connect the dots.

The truth about success is actually very basic. When I was in my 20s, I worked long, long hours, often over weekends, always during the week. It wasn’t unusual for me in my late 20s, to be at the office 14 hours per day because I was learning and building and determined to get myself into a position to run my own life.

Over time, I had the knowledge to start projects of my own, and later on, to start companies. But I still work long hours and allow work to bleed into the weekends when it has to.

The junior who asked me the question likes to be done by 16h00, is irked when there might be a work requirement in the evening, and considers weekends to be recovery time from their half-assed work week.

To the question: how do I get to be like you, I only had one answer. You can’t. You won’t. It’s never going to happen. I don’t care if that sounds arrogant.

This business of working smart, not hard (which the junior thinks they do), is a weird one. I think working as hard as I did when I was young, had the curiosity, the energy, nothing whatsoever to lose and not one real sacrifice to make, was precisely working smart.

I think that’s the definition of it. The junior’s perception is that work mustn’t get in the way of life and that finding shortcuts in order to finish early, is working smart, and arguably there’s some logic in that.

But if the purpose of work is just to do some stuff as quickly as possible so that you can pick up a paycheck in order to play, you lack the ability to achieve depth. It’s that depth that is the life force of success.

It doesn’t just land in your lap. Working smart and working hard are the same thing. Anyone who tells you they coasted to success without any effort is full of it.

Why do companies persist with Theory X policy-making?

I’ve had a mixed bag of conversations this week, alternating between organisations I would classify as progressive, by which I mean they have the philosophical chops to be able to move forward, and those that are so steeply mired in a Theory X-based bully culture that they can’t even see why they’re limiting their own way ahead.

I feel so naive at times; I am literally baffled why a group of people would be able to operate for more than a day under the emotional and intellectual strain that some companies slather themselves with so lavishly.

It has been 55 years since professor Douglas McGregor of the MIT Sloan School of Management wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in which he described his Theory X (in which people need to be controlled if they’re to achieve anything at all) and Theory Y (in which people are ambitious and self-motivated and thrive well under a high degree of freedom) hypotheses.

That’s one hell of a long time. Long enough for the ideas to have spread. This was after all, a best-selling book.

But ideas have to fire up a receptive mind if they’re to grow into anything and as I keep discovering, there aren’t enough of those out there.

A large part of the work that we do at Happy Sandpit, my organisational culture consultancy, is helping companies to formulate a set of deep-seated Core Values that fully describe them. Not the total bloody nonsense most companies have on their walls, but Values that are inherent and important and worth defending with blood if necessary.

The process of getting to them is one of uncovering the true philosophical mindset that guides that particular organisation and the quickest way to get to that, because it’s clear that most organisations have no idea how misaligned their words and actions actually are, is to examine the company through the artefact of its policies.

Most company policies are just so much protectionist bullshit they shouldn’t exist at all. They were written into law for that particular company not because they felt they were under siege and needed to protect themselves against threatening behaviour, but because some Theory X-fuelled jerk was given the right to start making amendments.

Enforced laws become habits and over time, Theory X companies watch with perplexity as innovators, free-thinkers, and really talented personnel fail to stick around more than a few months without a ridiculous package of salary and perks to keep them chained down.

But to me the reason is simple. I’ve always been a Theory Y thinker. People are good and want to do good things. Where management of individual transgressors can resolve a problem, there’s no need to create a policy to restrict the movement of the entire group.

It’s a more challenging response, because it means you actually have to do some work in understanding how the individuals that comprise your organisation can play out their best role. And I believe it is as clear as daylight that organisations that do this, are the magnets for real talent.

Is your organisation Theory X or Theory Y? Are you sure? Read the policy book. You could be in for a shock.

The truth behind seminar operators and their confusing degrees of quality

When you sit through a seminar these days, they often contain an upsell to a programme of sorts. Some of them are good and well worth buying into. Some of them, not so much. You can usually tell the difference between them by the way in which they’re sold, however.

For instance, it’s common for the operator of a dodgy scheme to offer you a range of options, calling them Silver, Gold, Platinum and Platinum Plus or variations of those categories. The Silver one is always cheap and nasty and you can ignore that. The Gold one seems okay, but you’re now nervous that you’re not getting what you really want. So you consider the Platinum one, or even the Platinum Plus, and you end up spending more money than you should. You may have seen this sort of thing before and been confused by it, precisely because it is indeed confusing.

In fact, Platinum Plus is all you should ever, ever want, but you should be paying the Silver price for it. Think of it like this: if Steers were to sell burgers the way these guys sell programmes, your options would be the following:

Table for Blog Post

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have to wonder why anyone would want any of the other options when Platinum Plus is the absolute minimum standard I would accept. And should you be paying R200 for the absolute minimum standard? Not on your life.

You’ll see how operators of credible training programmes tend to be a lot less obscure and get to the point. If they’re not, you’re probably being confused for a reason.

Integrity is massively overrated

You may never have heard of Jack MacLean, but during the 1970s and 1980s, through his relentless pursuit of excellence, he became incredibly wealthy. One could say he was in the jewellery business. Perhaps you’d call him an entrepreneur with a very niche set of skills. He didn’t seek praise or celebrity, nor even recognition. In fact he avoided it. He was happy to know that what he was doing was always done to an exceptionally high standard and that his end result was consistent.

Jack MacLean wasn’t a man of integrity in everything he did. He routinely carried a change of clothes in case he was spotted near his work and needed to create a disguise. He carried a police scanner so he could eavesdrop on nearby police cars to make sure he wouldn’t be interrupted while he worked on one of his projects. He needed these, because he was a cat burglar who stole over $133-million in jewels from Florida apartments in a 20-year career.

He never damaged property, using lock picks instead of forced entry. He never resorted to violence. His methods were so meticulous that it often appeared that items that were stolen had simply been misplaced since there was no reason to assume a theft had taken place. In his work, integrity of purpose was a non-negotiable.

55% of all Fortune 500 Companies list ‘Integrity’ as one of their Core Values. In its day, so did Enron. All it really says is that those companies have something in common with a jewel thief, which of course is not at all the point they’re trying to make.

Values such as Integrity are what we at Happy Sandpit call entry-level Values. They’re philosophies that shouldn’t need to be expressed, because without at least a modicum of integrity, you don’t have a business of any worth. In other words, they should be a given. There is absolutely no way you’re ever going to convince me that’s the deepest thing you can reveal about the personality of your business. It doesn’t tell me anything that enables me to differentiate you from anyone else.

And it doesn’t give your employees anything like enough guidance.

Core Values are not things that can be so glibly expressed, and the appearance of words such as integrity is all the evidence that is needed that you haven’t applied the correct measure of thought to what it is that you cherish most dearly. In a personal sense, Values are not chosen, they evolve very individually so that even siblings may have a very different set of inherent philosophies. In an organisational sense, Values are best stitched into the fabric when a limited subset of leaders and super-committed employees agree on what will cause them to lose sleep at night or to throw up their hands in glee.

Having Integrity isn’t one of those things.

5 reasons that elections offer a (fragile) leadership masterclass

Today, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, asked the Queen to dissolve parliament, in preparation for a general election on May 7. Next year, on November 8, Americans will go to the polls to vote in the successor to President Barack Obama. In Nigeria, the elections are underway. Last year in South Africa, we had our own. Elections are a regular fixture on any democratic calendar and they are often painful. But in them, there are lessons for any leader who wishes to understand what really drives engagement, and what turns it away.

If today’s business leaders get one thing consistently wrong, it’s failing to create followers. Since by definition, you cannot lead without someone following you, that makes them hardly leaders at all. It’s the one thing that needs most urgently to be remedied.

Here are five lessons that any leader ought to note:

1. I want to be led by someone likeable.

Politicians, or at least their strategists, understand that in order for people to get behind you, you need to give them points of connection. Call it low-information politicking if you must be disparaging, but there is a very clear reason why the President of the United States gets handed a baseball mitt for a quick game of catch in front of the press photographers, when Air Force One touches down on the tarmac.

There’s a reason why the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom pops into a local pub for a pint when he’s out gathering votes, again for the benefit of the photographers.

Without these moments, those leaders are hard to separate from their wealthy families, top educations and privileged backgrounds, which offer only an embarrassing comparison to that of their would-be electorate. You can take those things out of the headlines however when you share imagery of baseball or beer drinking, and you have something that looks to voters who aren’t doing anything like enough analysis, like something they have in common.

It’s hard to accept for anyone who really cares about the issues, but that sort of thing is critical to the election of most major western politicians. When people think a candidate is one of them, or at least that they share enough common interests to really ‘get’ each other, they’re more at ease giving those candidates their votes.

But let’s be clear about something. Obama really does like baseball. Cameron really does like beer. The importance of those photograph is not to create an unreal perception, but to highlight a humanness that can otherwise be lost in the mist of politicking. They don’t get the opportunity to be mere people very often, so they don’t waste it when they get it.

Being likeable is job number one, and as I write this, there are 20 South African CEOs right off the top of my head, who somehow have utterly failed to grasp that obvious fact.

2. I want to be led by someone who looks and sounds like a winner

No electoral candidate will get anywhere near centre stage if they don’t have the gravitas to seem attractive. It’s not specifically about good looks, but it is about polish and the obvious aura of confidence. That’s a demanding mixture because in most cases, elections are fought on promises about the future, which requires real belief.

People who are committed to a course of action that seems mountainous in its scope, are compelling. Especially when that course of action appears clearly aligned with a greater good.

Speak about the future with conviction, and have solid ideas for how you intend to pull it off, and you tick the confidence box.

Many leaders, and a good number that I know personally, spend their time fidgeting with the small stuff, creating the impression both that they simply lack the vision to pick a point in the future and aim for it, and the confidence to truly put their skills to the test.

3. I want to be led by someone who seems honest

Let’s accept that real honesty is a rare commodity and that a certain amount of ego and self-interest is always going to drive any leadership agenda; nevertheless, there are people who are out on the leading edge, challenging things that are clearly troubling, and those who are obviously pushing an agenda that only serves them and theirs.

Leaders who speak from the heart and add in a dose of measurable sacrifice of their own, score highly with voters for good reason. Those who demonstrate their ability and willingness to do the things that they are asking of others, similarly earn respect.

There is a natural order of things when it comes to effective leadership. Leaders must understand that their role is to gather willing support through deed and action for the things they aim to achieve, which depends on people being able to believe them. You don’t create belief by being contradictory; by saying one thing, but obviously doing another.

4. I want to be led by someone who knows it’s not all about them

Elected public servants in advanced democracies, tend to be frequently reminded by their electorates that their job is to serve. In less advanced democracies, they often make the error of believing they have the right to lord it over a nation full of servants.

That latter mode of thought, is too often the case in corporate structures where leaders don’t run any real risk of being removed by their people.

When democracy works best, a leader is elected with a mandate to achieve the things the electorate has green lighted, because they have at least tacitly approved that leader’s manifesto, by voting for them. Not all leaders get that, and in many cases, it is the elected official’s highly-influenced agenda which has overriding importance.

Corporate leaders must understand that though their position is not subject to the whimsy of elections, their ability to achieve great things is absolutely tied to the will of their people to offer more than the bare minimum. Achieving that has more to do with serving an open agenda than many would care to admit.

5. I want to be led by someone who aims to create magic, not personal comfort

The truest measure of a leader is the quality of the people he or she surrounds themselves with. A great team of people can achieve great things; cronies and friends almost never will.

When leaders are appointed within an organisation, just as when political portfolios are given out following an election, you get the clearest view of all, of just what the next year or two will hold.

I want the credentials of those who are being appointed to speak for themselves. I realise I won’t get the opportunity to vet them personally, but I don’t want to be left feeling that someone has been appointed because they are close enough to the leader’s agenda that they’ll provide comfort and cover. I want those people to be so undeniably right for the position to which they are being appointed, that I can confidently predict oncoming magic.

The bottom line

As a leader, I consider elections to be like master classes of both what to do, and what not to. Usually, the people who win have charisma, believability and a brave agenda. How many CEOs can we say that about, right now? If you want real insight into how it should (and shouldn’t) be done, the lessons that are coming your way are free. Don’t waste them.

Why it’s not only okay for the BBC to sack Clarkson, it’s necessary.

It’s astonishing how many people have come down on the side of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson in the past few weeks, as if he’s an embattled hero being persecuted by his wicked employer. Fans will be fans I suppose, and one thing Clarkson has done is to polarise a very large number of people into communities of those who love him and those who love to hate him.

He wouldn’t much care about that. He’s taken a vast amount of pride over the years in saying whatever he felt, regardless of who it upset, partly one suspects because it’s good for the show’s controversial stance, and partly because he genuinely likes to run his mouth. And there are millions of people who love him for it.

Those people seem to number among them the most vocal proponents of the ‘forgive Jezza’ movement, and from what I can tell, they appear to have hinged their argument on two main ideas: that because he’s the spiritual leader of Top Gear, the show will be nothing without him, and that since that’s just his personality, he should be allowed to get away with things that others may not.

When you strip emotion and fanatical fandom from the argument however and examine the facts, the story is pretty simple. An employee, who had already received several warnings for his behaviour, verbally and then physically assaulted another employee.

In most, if not all organisations, that is a sackable offence.

When you’re such a significant generator of revenue however, it brings with it a host of new dilemmas. Forget his celebrity; were Clarkson the number one sales person for his organisation, the same question would have to be asked: if we lose this guy, we lose a whole chunk of revenue. If we keep him, we compromise a rule which we will struggle forever to enforce in other, similar situations. So what do we do?

Let’s be clear: the BBC did not create this situation. Jeremy Clarkson did. The BBC did not pick this dilemma. Jeremy Clarkson did. The BBC, it seems highly unlikely, would have ever chosen to cause probably fatal damage to one of its most successful products by firing the star, but as an organisation, it didn’t initiate the events that led to it. Jeremy Clarkson did.

So what do you do? I think I’d be joined by 99 out of 100 Fortune 100 CEOs in saying that when it comes to a point of Values like this, you have no option but to fire the star. It’s not only okay; it’s necessary.

I’ll miss you Jeremy Clarkson. But I’ll never blame anyone for your demise, but you.