Tuesday, January 21, 2014

We may not have a vision, but we have a process for that.

A few days ago someone asked me, "What are the similarities between the two large employers you have worked for - Shell and Philip Morris?" I contemplated for a second. The answer was there instantly. Process.

I'm being facetious here. There are many other things in common: large blue chip companies, both in Fortune 100, both mammothy in decisions, both take good care of people, both with global footprint, both... The list can go on for a while. Yet. The processes that are in place in these two companies take the policy book writing to a totally different level. I guess that any organisation larger than 3 people need to have a process to function (think about toilet paper replenishment in your own family), and processes are the inevitable evil that haunts thousands of corporate workers worldwide.

Processes are not necessarily bad. In the HR field especially. You know how merit increases work, you know how to calculate your annual bonus, you know how learning course registrations get processes and you know what and when will happen if you move house to another country, dragging your expatriate life along. Processes make it easy to Automate/Standardise/Simplify/Eliminate a piece of work that has become a commodity. Processes eliminate the necessity of taking decisions every time something happens: you just know that you need to follow what the manual tells you. And here comes the rub...

Hmmm, the rub comes every time people stop to think. It's easy to hide behind the book and resort to the algorithm of flowcharts and swim lanes that the consultancies pepper so generously the wall space of large corporates (I think it's some sort of morbid pleasure for them to create a flowchart or two in a spare moment between lunch and trip to the airport). These process flows kill the human touch and turn workplace into a machine. Bad. Daniel Pink in Whole New Mind told us about the danger of living by the process and how those process-driven job travel East. This week's editorial in The Economist added technology into the swirl (Coming to an office near you), basically saying: it's not even shipping your jobs East, it's giving it to the machine:

"The effect of today’s technology on tomorrow’s jobs will be immense—and no country is ready for it"

Luckily, the same Economist offers the solution: competitiveness and survival will be dependent on managerial effectiveness and innovation. Music for the ears of any corporate learning officer with a budget. Nightmare for the CEO. Why? Because there is no process for resolving an interpersonal conflict in your team and the best innovative ideas defy flowcharts and occur against all odds in the most unexpected places. Not every company can afford to be a Google or an Apple. Every company can try though. Large organisations with strong and unique corporate cultures are hard to change, but change is there. I see the drive towards collaboration (no process), greater authenticity in leaders (no process) and social learning (no process).

There is a fine line between processes and technocracy. As long they do not weaken your credibility as a strong leader and a thinking human being, they are a great thing. Otherwise - detrimental.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Coaching before hiring: Charity or Being Smart?

A friend of mine has recently gone through the interview process with a well-known management consulting company. My friend is a senior executive in the finance industry and, obviously, a desirable candidate for any large consultancy. To cut the long story short, after rounds of phone and face-to-face interviews with HR, experts and partners, the resolution was that a bit of coaching is needed before a firm offer could be made. Guess what: the consultancy offered an executive coach.

This does not sound like a standard practice to me, but hey - I have never worked for a consultancy before. In my experience, if you like the candidate but there is one or more aspects for improvement, you would hire that person and put together a personalised development plan with internal or external resources. Pre-employment coaching that you invest in yourself - yes. Pre-employment testing - yes. Even pre-employment background checks - regular and known practices. Why would anyone invest in you before hiring?

Surely, looking at it from the perspective of a large business, the case for such practice can be quite strong. Several sources quote quite different figures for the cost of a bad hire (e.g. Investopedia: 1-3 monthly salaries) but that´s for a regular employee. For an executive, I would at least double that, and some experts claim that replacing an executive would cost a company 3-5 yearly salaries. Try this useful tool to make your own calculations:

So, let´s imagine that my friend makes $300 K a year. Costs of replacing an executive (severance package, benefits, new search, loss of productivity, loss of clients, reputations, etc.) - we are talking about figures of $500 K and up. So, when we look at figures of this magnitude, what would investing in 5 sessions with a coach charging $1000 an hour mean? Even 10 2-hour sessions will only bring us to $20K, and I am talking about a good coach, so this estimation is on the high end. The payoff could be tremendous. Apart from boosting the company´s image, if everything goes right and the offer is made, they are getting an executive who is technically sound and who has already been coached in line with the company´s directions. That coach can also provide important information to HR in the form of a coaching report, giving direction of future development. If it does not work, well... The risk of doing it wrong far outweighs the investment.

My initial surprise at this seeming charity turned into appreciation for long-term thinking. They are a top-notch management consultancy after all :)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shiny Coach

Coaching is sexy, coaching is fun. 

There are so many of them, but which one to choose? My problem is that whenever I talk to a coach who wants business from my company, I always get a brilliant performance, which gets me thinking… I want brilliant performance from my executives, should the coaches really shine?

A coach is someone who will be left in the shade. One has to make peace with is idea. If you consent to become a really good coach, you have to resort to the realization that one day, and perhaps very soon, your coachee will outgrow, outperform and out-I-don't-know-what-you, but the reason you are a coach is because you have the knowledge and/or skill but not the potential or talent to be excellent on the large scale of things. That's why the best coaches are high professionals. They coach high potentials how to become their bosses and deliver disproportionate amount of value to the organization. Hence the reason why those high professional coaches are so valuable. They are the backbone, the talent factories, the nurturers; they enjoy watch others grow and progress fast up the ranks. Soon someone will note that these high professionals are so good with young grads, hipos and top talents that what they will be doing for the rest of their careers is this: coaching. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Saying "Goodbye": How or Why

Nobody likes good-byes. At least not when you like someone. In organisations this line might be blurred at times and you would actually be looking forward to seeing someone out and maybe you were the one who has engineered the proverbial sack.

Even if someone is leaving the company at will (like... found a new job or going on an international assignment with the same company), it's still not the same. Even though you are connected and might continue to be working together on projects or virtually, you won't be able to come up to that person's office and offer to grab a coffee just to chat... for no business reason.

It can be worse. You may find out that someone you liked is leaving from an announcement on the intranet. If it was a unilateral desire to part ways, the phrasing is typically around "left to pursue other career opportunities".

So, people leave for whatever reasons. It still does not make it easier to say "goodbye" to them. I have been through many "business breakups" like this, when I knew the reasons, the timelines and the feelings, and I know that it is toughest when you have grown attached. Hence the maxim: don't get too close to anyone who might potentially be fired/find another job/move house/die. Not always practical and virtually impossible unless you are an emotional freezer.

Staying connected to those you like is important for two reasons:

  1. Personal. You feel comfortable around them. They can give good advice. They are going through a tough time: you can help them and in the meantime learn how to handle it. You like them.
  2. Professional. I do not know many people who are fired for underperformance (apart from those whom I fired myself). People leave because they have been ousted by the system, because they lost a political battle with someone who stays in the organisation, because they could not handle a conflict or maybe because they really found a better job - in any case, they possess something that made them stand out - for better or for worse. Staying close to those who stand out and learn from them is a good idea. 

Doing so is trickier. Here are a couple of helpful tips that might help you stay in contact:

  • Plan regular coffees/lunches/theater trips. Nothing better than regularity will help you to kindle the relationship.
  • LinkedIn Profile organizer is a useful little functionality that helps you sort out those contacts who "left to pursue other career opportunities" and have your own strategy of staying connected to those.
  • Don't miss an opportunity to offer them your Facebook friendship if you really feel close.
  • Make sure to get their personal e-mail and send a "what's up" note after a week or two. A personal touch.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sometimes I get really wild career questions...

...and my only reaction would be...

But who am I really to tell someone if it is the right or wrong path to take? Iam not God Almighty and not even a Madame Zingara of sorts. What I can say is what to do and what not to do if you want to get a certain job in a certain company - all based on my personal experiences, network and management books that I have had the misfortune to read up till now.

The only two functions of a Careers Office are

  1. Technical: fine-tune your CV, put some corporate make up and pepper your vocabulary with ten-dollar words so much loved by the recruiters
  2. Emotional: make the candidates believe that they are worth their dream job.
Which function is more important? Both, depending on the candidate. Prognistication is not one of them, so why do career counselors think themselves to be Cassandras and pretend to know what is best for this or that candidate? Beats me all the time.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Are we having fun yet?

Having fun at work is essential, until there is too much of it, but workforce productivity is directly correlated with the amount of fun the employees are having with their colleagues. So, let's have some fun!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

You are an MBA and You Want to Work in Russia?

Russia is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" - Winston Churchill could not have explained it better.

Up until the 80s Russia was behind the "steel curtain", unavailable for foreign investment. The 90s have seen the frenzying madness of the Western invasion and the radical change of the business practices. Back then to grab a piece of the Russian market was easier than stealing a candy form a child - consider just one example: the Production Sharing Agreement of the Sakhalin II project. As the government was regaining its stake and say in the "free" market in the 2000s, foreign investors (including those who helped the country survive the cash-lean 90s) are being gradually ousted either by giving preferential contractual terms to the national companies, by imposing quotas and restrictions (e.g. visas) or by direct attack as in the case when importing of Georgian wines was completely banned. Yet, it's a BRICS country and the market potential is enormous, and having a Russian location on your CV is well-regarded by the international headhunters. If you are young, ambitious, you are not afraid of challenges and multiple setbacks, you want to learn fast and make your career double-quick, Russia is definitely for you. The question is: are you definitely for Russia?

Let's consider two variants: (1) you are Russian and (2) you are not.

For Variant 1, there are also two options: (a) you have got a Russian MBA, you are a United Russia party member and working in Gazprom is the summit of your career aspirations - Russia needs you! You will have no problems whatsoever to get a job and retire happily from the same company having no need to learn English or any other language whatsoever. Option (b) suggests a bleaker future: let's assume that you went abroad to study, you share basic democratic values and you believe that performance and pay must be somehow related. Forget about the Russian companies (for reasons click here) - unless you are extremely adaptable, a good actor and have thickish skin, the system will manage you out… or throw out offhand… you will be luckier in the latter case. Hence, it is the Western or Western-like companies, i.e. those Russian companies that have accepted the international business practices and at least know what a Conflict of Interest or Anti-Corruption legislation are. Off the top of my head, examples of such companies are Yandex, TMK or Kaspersky Lab. These companies combine both: the satisfaction of getting the adequate reward for your ideas and services and being still unspoiled by the corporate dogmas of the process driven blue chips. When it comes to opting for a Russian branch of a large multinational, you already know what you signing up for… with a Russian twist.

Now - suppose you have set your mind on a prospective employer in Russia: it's only a part of the deal. Even though increasingly the workplace flexibility becomes a popular demand item, the Russian labor legislation has not moved an inch yet - read my earlier post on this: the country is not ready. If you are a Gen Y biz whiz expecting to work by your own rules, do spend a could of weeks studying the Labor Code of the country you are potentially going to work in. Add to this a possibility of the authorities not renewing your permit, the cost of living (1st in Europe - check www.numbeo.com), traffic congestion, sky-high salaries, rich cultural life, -35 C in winter, kind but unsmiling people, and boundless business opportunities - and you've got the mix that you need to consider.

Keep in mind that the market requirements for top execs and for recent MBAs or mid-level professionals differ significantly. If only a few years ago merely being a foreigner with some corporate experience would have bought you a one-way Aeroflot ticket to Russia, today this privilege is mostly reserved for the CEO -1/-2 level executives. If you are still on the steep curve of your career, the following requirements are essential:
  • Speak Russian
  • Possess a rare skill (marketing, subsurface engineering and industrial safety are no longer considered rare skills)
  • Be humble about your expatriate roots and conceal well your intentions to revolutionize the way business is done in Russia
Having previous work experience in Russia or in one of the Russian-speaking countries is, of course, desirable, just like education in a Russian educational institution. Skolkovo is the most popular business school in Russia today, but be careful whether their offer aligns itself with your career aspirations. Their executive education programs are stellar and provide you with an invaluable network of contacts, Skolkovo MBA still needs to prove its worth. One important point: many Russian top executives choose Skolkovo primarily for the opportunity to gain contacts - while Executive MBAs elsewhere attract mostly mid-level managers aspiring to proceed to the next level of their careers, in Skolkovo you will be studying in one class with CEOs, VPs of huge Russian corporations and self-made extra successful businessmen. I gave a class on Change Management a month ago to an Exec MBA class, and I should say that the level is there.

  How to get to a Russian company - the scheme is pretty much universal:

  1. Strain your personal connections: even now Russia is more an Aseopian country than Eurasian, so friends and family matter more than rules and papers;
  2. Have a strong network of recruiters and headhunters: the market is hot right now and I have never been refused a personal meeting with a recruiter from any well-known agency if I wished to;
  3. Shortlist your desired future employers, put on your best suit and start visiting their HR departments (with a little bit of LinkedIn preparation and prior phone calls).

  The decision is yours just like choosing the way how you are going to build your career in Russia. Working here is like walking on thin ice: exciting but dangerous. Make sure that you are familiar with Russian history, culture and political life (even if you are a Russian!).

Having started with a British politician, I would like to finish with a verse by a famous Russian poet Fyodor Tuytchev - you decide which you like better… but only after you have really come to know this vast and passionately cold country:

You won't perceive the Russian Land,
You'll fail to measure it with measures.
From common way apart it stands -
You can but trust in Russian treasures.



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