Corporate values & reality

The Global Financial Crisis (#GFC) has shown that some of our ‘greatest’ companies were no more than fraudsters at worst and incompetent at best.

This made me think about all the corporate value statements that I’ve seen over the years and what they really mean. And it also made me ask how can we see through the stated values to see the real values enacted as behaviour in a particular company?

For a university assignment a few years ago I took a copy of the Enron corporate values from their 1998 annual report. They are nice values. I would be happy to have a company that used values like these to drive their behaviour. But clearly there was a vast disconnect between the published values and acceptable behaviour in Enron.

I wonder how many companies are like Enron – all squeaky clean on the outside, but rotten on the inside? So many companies are turning out to be whited sepulchres to use a biblical turn of phrase.

But how does someone like me, who is outside the company, get to see the real corporate behaviour? What are the warning signs for ordinary people? How can we trust companies with our lives, our money and our families?

More on this later …

Enron’s 1998 Annual Report, “Our Values”:
RESPECT: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here.

INTEGRITY: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, we won’t do it.

COMMUNICATION: We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another…and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

EXCELLENCE: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

Source: Yale (opens Word document)

Society, mindset & resilience – Part 1

Over the past week I’ve travelled to Boulder CO and San Francisco meeting people for business and also taking the opportunity to meet some Twitter people IRL. It has been interesting to discuss some of the cultural differences between my home (Australia) and the US.

Two moments of clarity occurred in discussions over lunch yesterday with IdaRose and dinner last night with Valerie.

From my perspective Australia takes a more collectivist or mutual aid approach – which seems to arise from our harsh climate, challenging geography and foundation as a series of penal colonies. This is a nation that sees it as right and proper to provide social security safety nets for the sick, poor and unemployed. It also is a nation that increasingly seeks government support for the private individual.

Australia is also the home of the tall poppy syndrome, where individuals who are seen as getting above the mass are brought down to the same level as everyone else. This is what makes us feel all weird at the idea of building a personal brand. There are strong cultural values that make personal branding uncomfortable.

I’m thinking about this in the context of John Robb‘s ideas of resilient communities. I wonder if these cultural norms in Australia are likely to make our society more resilient in difficult times?

More on this later …

Web startups & venture capital

Is it just me, or is there an air of desperation whenever web startups are talking to venture capitalists (VCs) at events? I’m not talking about the formal meetings with VCs, rather about those informal meetings over coffee or in the breaks.

Was interesting to sit there at Le Web 08 and watch people lining up for an informal chat with the VCs. What has been interesting is the obvious tension in the startup folks as they wait. The tension is palpable.

I’m not sure that this kind of desperation makes for a healthy relationship. We know that in personal relationships where one person is more desperate for the relationship than the other it often tends to be dysfunctional.

People in startups are passionate about their product, that’s why they are doing it. But they’re not often exactly clear eyed on the commercial potential of their product.

More than anything this dance reminds me of dating. And dating is where people try to attract the other person by being or seeming to be what they are looking for. But for investment purposes surely we need a less subjective approach? But then I question if truly objective means of assessment are possible or valid.

Had dinner with some entrepreneur buddies in Paris recently. They reported that they’d checked out approximately 40 startups for investment potential. Of those only 4 had demonstrated any real potential in their view.

This made me think that we need to find better ways to assess the potential of startups. We also need better ways to assess different startups against each other – so we can decide for one or against the other.

I’m very interested to hear about formalised assessment methods for startups and venture capital investment so please let me know of any.

Is Social Media Still Serious Business? Part 3

In the business arena social media will continue to enable the agile enterprise. Social media provides businesses with the ability to build relationships. This will continue, with many organisations using social media to assist in the area of new product development – crowdsourcing new features as with recent examples by Dell, Asus, and Pepsi.

Businesses need to take the time to understand how technology can benefit their organisation and to partner with genuine experts rather than seeking out generalist agencies that often do not have a broad understand of the technology milieu. 2009 will see business continue to blur the distinction between online and offline marketing as they focus more on customer segmentation, saliency and laser focused delivery.

There has been no significant improvement in how we interact with devices since the mouse or touch screen. Over the next few years we will see a move away from textual interfaces and towards newer kinds of interfaces, such as Microsoft Surface. We could see the replacement of the traditional keyboard and mouse to innovative designs that allow for greater freedom and flexibility.

A key enabler of this innovation includes increased use of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), which offer cross platform interoperability across PC, TV and mobile devices. This includes traditional AJAX approaches to development, but also increasingly use of products like Adobe AIR, Microsoft Silverlight, and Sun JavaFX. The focus will be on increased ease of use and cross platform operability. An important challenge that will need to be addressed is data portability, and several industry initiatives are already under way.

Social media does have a future, and it is moving us towards shared experiences online via many different devices. It is going to change the way we watch television or shop. We live in a connected society now and we are moving towards a hyperconnected society enabled by social computing.

Is Social Media Still Serious Business? Part 2

Over the next few years we are likely to see the continued integration and convergence of devices, media and channels, with users taking technology with them wherever they go, instead of being tied down to the immovable PC at home or the office. The term mobile will have a greater meaning and we can expect to see integrated wearable technology available in daily life. Already there are Nike Plus and Adidas adiStar Fusion running shoes that deliver data on distance and pace via an iPod.

The recent link between Seesmic and the BBC is another great example of these changes. The BBC is asking people to share their thoughts and opinions on issues of the day via Seesmic and the material may then be published either on BBC online or on BBC television. User created video is about to experience substantial growth and the change the face of social media as we currently know it.

We are moving from a one-way video publication model of YouTube to the conversational model as evidenced in Seesmic.

Soon we will be able to do many of the social activities that are now only possible with close physical proximity via social media. For example, women often approach shopping as a social activity where they can share opinions and advice as part of the shopping experience.

Growth in social applications that enable this, such as search and shopping, are already here. My Virtual Model ™ has just launched a new visual search application. Users search visually for outfits and put them on their customised virtual model, share them with friends, ask for their opinions, and put the model against different backdrops. They can then purchase the outfits online.

Thus social computing enables us to adopt real life social modes of being in an online context. This makes the next generation of social uses interesting to contemplate. It also makes monetization and commercial adoption critical.

More on this later …

Is Social Media Still Serious Business? Part 1

Social media is being woven into the fabric of our daily lives almost without us noticing. Most mainstream news sites now have user comments and voting, and they embed video that we can share.

Sites like Facebook and MySpace are going mainstream; even parents are getting involved so as to interact with their children. Business networking sites like LinkedIn and Xing are providing useful ways to connect for business purposes. These sites are using web 2.0 style social computing features to drive user engagement.

Presently there are more that 100 million websites according to Netcraft and many of them now incorporate social media and web 2.0 elements.

There are a couple of important things to note before we consider technology. Firstly, human beings are inherently social creatures and we formed social networks for generations without the benefit of any technology apart from language. Secondly, the speed of technological change means that much of our opinion of what is important today will be proved wrong, possibly even a few months from now.

Technology is evolving fast. For example six months ago most people thought twittering was something done by birds. But 2008 saw micro blogging via Twitter become widely recognised as an innovative social media platform.

In 2009 it is likely that video micro blogging and point of view video will begin to take off as our social media becomes even more personal. Some of the new platforms make it easier than ever before for ordinary people to participate, for example Seesmic enables anyone with a webcam and microphone to participate in video blogging.

More on this later …

Impressive recent conference – eLearning08

I’ve been to a lot of conferences but one of the most impressive in terms of logistics and use of social media was eLearning08.

Held at the Roundhouse at University of NSW in Sydney this conference was for RTOs (registered training organisations) who are working to embed e-learning as a key aspect of their business strategy.

The format of the conference was interactive, as well as providing traditional keynotes and panel sessions. This participation model was particularly effective and great discussion and active knowledge sharing was obvious.

The organisers of this conference did a great job. The logistics were superb, the wifi reliable, the food yummy, and the active participation was great.

I learned a great deal from seeing the presentations of the various training organisation’s project results. Many of the RTO presentations were really inspiring stories and are worth catching up with here.

Some of the social computing tools that were integrated into the conference included the following, some as demonstrations and others as social media and broadcasting:
FlickR tools
Online image editors
Using blogger
Digital Storytelling
Recording audio

Top 10 Habits of Bad Managers

In recent years the idea of good management has become somewhat unfashionable. Instead, writers and researchers have focused on leadership. This has led to a serious dearth of good management in our organisations. Thus, while managers are poncing about being ‘leaders’, our businesses and our people are suffering from plain old-fashioned bad management. These bad management habits can be disastrous, not only for the staff, but also for customers and the company over the long term. It is hard to run a good customer service organisation when there is a lack of good management habits. Bad management habits can even impact badly on the bottom line.

Many managers exhibit behaviours in the workplace that they would not display in any other place (such as at home). We must ask ourselves why this is so. Why does it seem okay to behave at work in ways we would not consider as appropriate in any other environment? For example, rarely do we see someone being discourteous to others in a social situation. So why does it seem appropriate in the workplace? Why is there incongruence in behaviour between work, home and social situations?

Each of the habits listed below can be seen either alone or in combination in many workplaces today. These habits create stress for both the manager and their staff, and this is often passed on to customers as well. The tragedy is that this is unnecessary suffering. Many of these habits exist in complexes thus a manager who has poor communication may also; as a result, have no trust in staff because they do not always carry out instructions ‘properly’. Or a manager who is disorganised may also be indecisive. A few simple remedies can be effected to make life much better, and these are discussed below.

The top 10 bad habits managers can exhibit are:

  1. Bullying
  2. Poor Communication
  3. No Trust
  4. Disorganisation and Indecision
  5. Not ‘Walking the Talk’
  6. Discourtesy
  7. Politics and Inequity
  8. Avoidance
  9. Pride
  10. Lying

Bad Management Habits
It might be argued that I am merely expressing a value judgement, and that these subjective ideas of what constitutes ‘bad’ management are not universal. This is very likely true, however, I can attest based upon personal experience that workplaces avoiding the practices outlined below function at a higher level of productivity and have less staff turnover than others. They are also a more pleasant place to spend time – after all we spend more time at work than with family or friends.

Bullying can range from verbal to physical, and it always has the threat of violence inherent in it. I have worked in organisations with very serious bullying problems. Generally the bullying is either acted out explicitly by managers down the chain of command or at very least tolerated at all levels of senior management. Very rarely is bullying seen only at the lower levels of the workplace. The critical thing to note is that bullying puts all staff, not just those who are being directly bullied, into a state of fear.

Once a person is in that state they are not able to be positive or creative. Thus bullying is perhaps the most demotivating, demoralising and debilitating of all the bad habits.

Poor Communication
This category includes those managers who fail to provide feedback on staff performance including praise and constructive criticism, that discipline subordinates openly, or who are unable to effectively communicate task requirements or who falsely assume that subordinates understand their requirements. It also includes managers who do not know how to communicate the importance of good process in the organisation to optimal functioning, and managers who do not know how to listen to their people.

No Trust
When managers demonstrate that they do not trust their employees this often becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Managers who fail to trust employees to do good work, or allow them the latitude to accept increasingly more difficult tasks are a roadblock to employee growth and good performance. This lack of confidence leads to a reluctance to delegate on behalf of managers, which in turn may lead to employees withdrawing their involvement from the workplace. Another symptom of this is the manager who micro manages staff and completely disempowers them.

Disorganisation and Indecision
Reactive managers, who run from crisis to crisis, or who are constantly reacting to crisis, rather than being proactive are viewed as ineffective by employees. This type of behaviour puts significant amounts of stress on both the manager and their staff, and ultimately upon their customers. This type of manager rarely works with their people to identify the root cause of the problem and solving that, instead they continually treat the symptoms.

Part of a manager’s job is to make decisions; this is one of the reasons that they earn more money than other staff. Managers who are either afraid to accept responsibility or are afraid of the consequences of decision making are viewed as ineffectual by employees.

Not ‘Walking the Talk’
There is nothing more demoralising for staff to see a manager who has all the best rhetoric in the world about the corporate values, but who does not act out those same values. Managers who fail to model appropriate behaviour in the workplace make it difficult for employees to maintain these same high standards even when they want to. If managers want staff to act in certain ways then they must first model the desired behaviours.

Managers who fail to treat employees as human beings by offering simple courtesies can completely destabilise an entire department, and sometimes an entire company. At one workplace I saw a manager who did not greet their staff when arriving each morning. The staff were outraged by this behaviour and spent many hours of valuable work time discussing this lack of courtesy. The manager remained completely unaware of this serious drain on productivity. While the staff found themselves ill-disposed to work harder at the request of this manager. When managers do not treat employees with common dignity and respect their staff often see this type behaviour as acceptable. The staff then start to act discourteously to each other, thus setting up a chain reaction. Again, the bad habit is passed from the manager to the staff and then ultimately the customers suffer.

Politics and Inequity
Work place ‘politics’ which are engendered or fostered by managers is demotivating and disruptive to employees. Unequal treatment of employees is especially demoralising, people see this unfairness and react against it.

Many managers with this habit will do anything to duck out of dealing with the difficult issue. Generally these issues are related to people and performance management, which are almost universally problematic for managers to deal with. Managers who are unwilling to confront issues and who avoid difficult conversations and situations generally just make the issue harder to deal with in the future.

There are managers who will not admit that they do not know something, who do not ask questions, or attempt to bluff their way through a situations, or base decisions on something they know new very little about. This habit is about pride. In my experience, managers with this habit are also prone to avoidance.

Many managers lie to people in the workplace. Rarely is this the result of a sociopathy, instead it is often associated with avoidance of difficult issues – for example, reluctance to impart bad news. It could be the ‘social’ type of lie, such as not answering truthfully when asked a difficult question, or more serious such as not telling someone why they missed out on a promotion.

It is important to note that this is different to withholding information. Managers are often privy to information that cannot be shared with staff for various reasons. However, instead of lying when asked about such information, it is better so simply advise that it is not possible to disclose information about that issue at present.

Remedies for Bad Management Habits
The remedies for these bad management habits are simple. Managers should:

  • Reflect on their behaviour to check if there is congruence between their behaviour in non-work and work situations. If there is incongruence then this needs to be explored.
  • Check if their behaviour at work models the corporate values and their own personal values.
  • Ask people for honest feedback on their behaviour and management style (NB: if you have been a bully it is likely nobody will tell you the truth because they are scared of you).
  • If senior managers see other managers exhibiting these behaviours then they should counsel them and help them to change their behaviours in a positive way (here the idea is that of manager as coach) – call people on bad behaviour, if you let it happen on your watch you are complicit.
  • Stop avoiding difficult issues, just get on with it – if you deal with the issue early it is often easier to resolve than after a delay (often it is good to get some support from inside the organisation, HR or another manager may be able to provide both support and useful ideas on how to manage the situation).
  • Be courteous to everyone, even if this does not come naturally at first, over time it becomes a habit.
  • Just tell the truth, or if speaking the truth openly is not appropriate say that you are unable to comment on the matter (this makes life much simpler).

Most of these remedies are focused on aligning personal non-work behaviours and values with those demonstrated in the workplace. It is up to senior management within organisations to analyse themselves to see if they exhibit these bad habits, and they must also speak out when they see these bad habits in colleagues and staff. These behaviours are only common because we accept them. For example, if a senior manager notices another manager throwing things at their staff; it is likely that they would ask the manager to stop that behaviour. It should be no different if the senior manager sees someone bullying a staff member. Too often senior managers avoid confronting these bad habits and they multiply across all levels of the organisation.

These remedies may sound hard to do or unnecessary, however I have found that if you adopt them life becomes simpler and less stressful. Work should not be an unpleasant place; it should be a place of passion and commitment to common goals. It is the responsibility of management to make the workplace productive and efficient, and the bad habits listed above do not help in that regard. Remember the old saying “the fish rots from the head”. Each person holding management responsibility ought to reflect upon their own behaviour so as to ensure that their behaviour is congruent with personal and corporate values.

Note: I do not claim immunity from bad management behaviour. But I do try to reflect and improve based on experience and feedback. A big thank-you to all the people who have given me feedback over the years. It has helped me grow as a person and as a professional and you have my gratitude.