Archive for August, 2013

Culture – the reality versus the myth

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

You may have read about the sad death of Moritz Erhardt, the young intern at Merrill Lynch, who seems to have met his death as a direct result of the pressure cooker environment created by the bank he hoped to join.  They take on about 30 of the brightest and hungriest gradates each year as interns and let them ‘duke it out’ throughout the seven week period in Battle Royale style to see who can survive the process. Polly Courtney, author of ‘Golden Handcuffs’, who also went through this process wrote in the Independent today, wrote:-

“The firm ticked all the boxes on the HR front. We were assigned “buddies”: full-time bankers to whom we could go with any questions or concerns. (Nobody I knew ever approached their “buddy”; bankers didn’t have time for questions.) We attended lectures and talks on the values of the firm (Client Focus, Respect for the Individual, Teamwork, Responsible Citizenship and Integrity) and we were taught the procedure for surfacing concerns. (We found these laughable at the time; with hindsight, they were ludicrous.) The reality was that we had all signed away our right to the statutory working week; for one summer, we were the property of the firm.”

I first came across the concept of company culture in the 90’s when my company was part of the biggest corporate merger ever.  I was astonished at how different the cultures of the two companies were and impressed by their willingness to create a brand new and better one.  That was the start of my personal journey into this work.  Back then we were all taught the importance of values to underpin this culture and how they were meant to guide our decision making.  However, since then, as the vogue as spread, every big company can spout out this kind a stuff but most, like in the above example are nothing more than meaningless platitudes.  If your values don’t guide your behaviour, then they are worse than useless.

They can be hugely powerful tools to build your team and guide your decision making but if you don’t lead by example, if you are seen to not let them guide your actions then forget about them because everyone else will…. and worse, they will be used in evidence against you.

Some times it is good to be a little strange..

Friday, August 23rd, 2013
Bramble Bank Cricket

Yesterday evening I was witness to what I suspect must be a uniquely English piece of lunacy.  Two or three times a year a sand bank known as Bramble Bank appears above the waters of the Solent.  Some time in the 50’s, one sailing club challenged one of its rivals to a a cricket match on the sand there.  Now, every year the two teams assemble in full cricket whites and slog it out.  In typically English style, they take in turns to ‘win’ this encounter.  Their Canute-like struggle against the elements is watched by an armada of small craft, sipping something cold and fizzy.  Last night, in beautiful sunshine we went out to participate in this madness.  Yesterday there was far less sand visible than in the video and it was an even dafter spectacle.

The thing is, it is so easy to conform, and new answers sometimes demand a radical, many would say “stupid” departure from tried and tested wisdom.  Group think is the enemy of change and allowing people to express their individuality is a good way to get the best and most out them.  Google famously allocated 20% of their engineers time to ‘independent projects’ (though I believe they may have change this policy recently.) Sometimes, in the midst of what sounds daft, is a new direction that is worth exploring…

In the words of Noel Coward:-



Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don´t care to, the Chinese wouldn´t dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one
But Englishmen detest-a siesta.
In the Philippines they have lovely screens to protect you from the glare.
In the Malay States, there are hats like plates which the Britishers won’t wear.
At twelve noon the natives swoon and no further work is done,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.


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It’s not about the nail

Monday, August 12th, 2013

If you are a man, then this video will probably make you feel that this is all about you.  You may even laugh… it is very well done.  However, it raises an interesting point.  At work, we very much focus on the facts that are being conveyed.  We listen for them and pay attention to this type of content. However, just like this video, most conversations contain two types of information, what is happening AND how we feel about it.  Men tend to dial into the former and neglect the latter.  At home, this is a bad idea, but there is a cost to ignoring emotional information in the work place.  We need to know how someone feels about something.  Are they excited, scared, bored?  Do they have an objection that they are suppressing, perhaps based on personal values, perhaps because they don’t think it will work, but don’t think you will listen. 

Asking “How do you feel about this?” is NOT the same as asking “What do you think?” and you should always ask both questions and be clear with the other person that you are looking for a different bit of information.  Ignore emotional content at your peril!  

When is a hanky not a hanky?

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

The Guinea worm is a water-borne parasite that used to blight the lives of people 3.5 million living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East people every year.  It leads to people incubating a metre long worm inside their body, which then heads towards the skin, and eventually emerges in a blister.  This process takes a year and is very painful.  As can be seen from the cycle illustrated on the left, the adult, when mature makes for the skin of limbs that will be in the water, that is the legs of the men and the arms of the women.  It surfaces through a painful blister and releases its larvae into the water where they infect the cyclops, which is in turn taken into the next person when they drink… Which is where the hanky comes in, which they use to filter their water. 

The Carter Foundation is now close to eradicating this illness, by, amongst other things, by providing these clothes and encouraging people with blisters to avoid the water.. 

This is a fabulous example not only of practical low-tech problem solving but also seeing potential in something beyond its stated purpose.  Too often we don’t see things (or people) as they are but as we are used to seeing them and that prevents us seeing new potential in them.  A good leader will see something in people that others haven’t and give them a chance to express and develop the talent they have.

Next time you have a problem, try to look beyond and ask “How could this person/object help me resolve this dilemma?”

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

I am, or at least I once was, an accountant, and I always had a slightly jaundiced view of the figures we produced which ‘proved’ a case.  I always felt that you could make figures argue almost any way you chose.  As the following story illustrates, I am not alone in this feeling:-

There once was a business owner who was interviewing people for a division manager position. He decided to select the individual that could answer the question “How much is 2+2?”

The engineer pulled out his slide rule and shuffled it back and forth, and finally announced, “It lies between 3.98 and 4.02“.
The mathematician said, “In two hours I can demonstrate it equals 4 with the following short proof.”
The physicist declared, “It’s in the magnitude of 1×101.”
The logician paused for a long while and then said, “This problem is solvable.”
The social worker said, “I don’t know the answer, but I a glad that we discussed this important question.”
The attorney stated, “In the case of Svenson vs. the State, 2+2 was declared to be 4.”
The trader asked, “Are you buying or selling?”
The accountant looked at the business owner, then got out of his chair, went to see if anyone was listening at the door and shut the curtains. Then he returned to the business owner, leaned across the desk and said in a low voice, “What would you like it to be?”

So that and the fact that Maths was never my strongest suit meant that I am a little sceptical of statistics, but don’t they sound SO convincing..?!  “9 out of 10 women agree that Magicreem made them look 10 years younger” the advert boldly proclaims, Then down below in tiny writing you read that they asked 127 people.

All this preamble to shed a little mathematical backup to my native doubt.  A common example involves the mythical paedophile-spotting device, it hunts down and kills people that it identifies as paedophiles with a 99% success rate and a 99% chance at properly identifying a innocent person correctly. One would assume that if, out of population of 1 million people, 100 of whom are paedophiles the box identifies a person as a paedophile, there is a 99% chance it’s correct. In reality, it’s a lot closer to 1%. The reason being that the box falsely killed 1% of non-paedophile (9,999 people), as well as correctly killing for 99% of real terrorists (99 people).

Facts and data a very important in helping us make good decisions, but there is always room for good old fashion common sense and instinct.