Author Archives: Terry Williams - The Brain-Based Boss

Do You Want Conflict With That?


I was buying my daughter a six-inch chicken sub on italian herb bread, toasted, with cheddar cheese. The ‘sandwich artist’ asked the lady in front of me if she wanted avocado on hers. The lady said, “Yes.” Usually, I’m happy to be the quiet, non-provocative consumer in these situations, especially as I had to get my timing right to pick up two other takeaway types from two other locations on my way home. I noticed the avocado situation because the question is usually accompanied by the statement, “That’d be an extra fifty cents.” Tonight it was not.

Maybe it was because it was Friday night and I was tired and hungry. I’d earlier been on the phone sorting out my own meal choices, wavering between ordering for myself a prawn fu yung or fish and chips so I ordered both. So, clearly, I wasn’t thinking straight. I drew the lady’s attention to the sign which declared, in not small print but not overly big print either, that avocado was an extra fifty cents. I wasn’t actually wearing a Robin Hood hat at the time which would’ve been appropriate. Not only because it would have been avocado-coloured but because I took the side of the little person against the big.

And conflict ensued. Not Syrian scale but more than anyone really needs on a Friday night. And all over fifty cents. But it wasn’t really over fifty cents. There was a principle. I assume there was. I was long gone and they were still trucking. Whether it was innocent or not, the seller needed to advise the buyer of the extra cost for the extra fruit / vegetable. (What the hell is an avocado anyway? I’m guessing fruit. Wikipedia tells me the original meaning of the word translates as ‘testicle.’ That’s probably inappropriate for this article. It’s certainly inappropriate for a sandwich. If you’ve learned nothing else today… )

If you think fifty cents is silly to get into a conflict over, many workplace conflicts arise over much less, certainly much less tangible origins. One of the breakast radio shows even has a recurring bit where people ring in and reveal anonymously specific instances of workplace irritations. In fairness, the radio show hosts took turns revealing their primary gripes with each of their own co-hosts, albeit using one of those voice-disguising apps. I only had the car radio on that station because the kids had left it there. I switched over to Radio New Zealand National like a proper grown-up, only to hear a politician and an interviewer yelling over the top of each other about a topic that wasn’t important and was a deliberately controversal grab for headline-seeking attention. And the media was happy to play along. I turned off the radio preferring to listen to other drivers swear at each other. All this conflict can’t just be over avocados, although the politician in question would probably be suspicious of foreign avocados.

I’d like to go back to my use of the word ‘irritation.’ Sometimes irritants serve a useful purpose in nature. The stone in our shoe that forms a callous toughening us up for the future. Grit in oysters give us pearls. Hecklers make comedians better. (That last one isn’t true and if you ever heckle me when I’m on stage, I’ll throw stones and shoes at you and see if that toughens you up for the future.) I’ll ask people sometimes to list words they associate with conflict and 80%+ of the time, the descriptors are negative. A bit of questioning from me though and people quickly self-discover many positive aspects of conflict. Certainly addressing most conflict situations is better than not dealing with it promptly, assertively and directly, ending up seething with repressed anomosity and venting out to a radio station who really can’t help you and don’t even give you a free CD anymore.

The co-workers at the radio show were bugged by one person adjusting the thermostat, complaining of being tired and being blunt. The recipient of that feedback put on a brave face of laughing it off for the sake of entertainment but I doubt many people would genuinely be that responsive. The answer in the real world lies somewhere inbetween, picking the most critical behaviours and ‘going ugly early.’ Better to deal with a pimple than a volcano. Describe the behaviour, outline the effects it has, state the need for change and specify the preferred behaviour, outline the benefits for all concerned and get some agreement. Then check back in, to keep it on track if change isn’t happening and to reinforce the person if it is.

Psychologists have studied the influence of reciprocity at length in preventing, mitigating and avoiding conflict. Give and take. With the dinner special of two foot-longs for $15, you can bang on as much avo as you like. Let’s talk bacon.






Activity Does Not Equal Productivity


Technology has had an amazing impact on productivity over the years. For example, manufacturing has roared ahead in recent years, especially when you include the manufacturing of tweets.

Sarcasm aside, technology has enabled those with a view to being productive the tools for being so. Equally, technology enables those more into goofing off the tools for doing so. In my own efforts for a work-life balance, computers and networks have allowed me to pack so much more productivity into the hours where I’m capable and inclined to being so. And my goofing off efforts are off the charts. If there were charts for goofing off. Which there aren’t. Who’s going to make them?

There’s also that grey inbetween time where we’re doing stuff that’s not necessarily economically driven but could be worthwhile. Now technology allows us to measure this. Go to a store that sells smartphones and the like – one of the bigger outlets – and you’ll notice a whole aisle dedicated to a type of product that didn’t exist even five years ago. It probably could have but the people marketing the concept had to catch up with the technology. Broadly, they’re called ‘wearables’ and mostly they’re about fitness. The great grand children of the pedometers from the 1990s when all we thought we needed to know was whether we more or less than ten thousand steps a day. They connect via bluetooth to your smartphone, or via wireless broadband to a cloud and monitor and track your pulse, blood pressure and, possibly in the not too distant future, your attitude.

These are consumer items for personal use for customers who care about improving their health and fitness but it cannot be to far before employer apps can be developed. Already GPS apps tied to vehicles increase productivity by making personal love afairs during working hours using company wheels unviable. Patients prone to wandering from institutions are similarly tagged. Call centre workers for years have been tied by electronic umbilicals into measurement systems that assess everything they do and say, and control and record their work, as well as limit their non-work goings-on during work time.

A researcher recently ran a study on how people might interact with robots in the workplace. The robot in question was described as looking like, “the maid from The Jetsons.” (Disturbingly, that was all the reference I needed.) Several variations of the study were conducted, as two human workers worked with the robot on a task to erect a complex construction using building blocks. The most productive scenario was the one where the robot was in charge. The researcher surmised that this was because it was a complex task and most people are happy enough to let someone else make the tough decisions. I can see myself in many future situations rolling my eyes and muttering something like, “#@%* this, let the robot do it.” (I’ve been using Google for most of my parenting tasks for years.)

Until the robot boom comes along, we’ll just have to rely on LinkedIn articles with titles like, ‘Seven Things Successful People Do Before Breakfast’ to get us up to speed on being more productive. (I’m hoping one of the seven things is ‘prepare breakfast.’) I’m not a complete luddite – tablets and smartphones and broadband have let me make tremendous strides in my personal and professional productivity. That said, I still reckon getting our organic brains into an optimal state for work is far and away the first thing we should do if we want a productive day: Have challenging and specific goals and a plan for each day; keep your workspace tidy and organised; sleep properly; take breaks and get away for a lunch break even if it’s quick. Stop consuming sugar.

I visited the Department of Statistics website for some info around productivity in New Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I then went to the Treasury website and found a presentation on productivity. Apparently, New Zealand has been doing better over the past decade than the OECD countries we like to compare ourselves to but only because we were so bad to begin with. It would take another 10 years at our current rate of productivity growth to catch up to the United Kingdom’s, if their productivity didn’t change at all. The presentation’s author from treasury must be an expert on productivity – he produced 146 PowerPoint slides. (I’m assuming it was a ‘he.’ A ‘she’ would’ve done away with half those slides and communicated much the same thing with her eyebrows.)

The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon that makes humans very umcomfortable with unfinished things. A great way to drive yourself productively is to start. Be it that university essay, the kitchen shelves that need putting up or the drafting of that marketing plan at work, just starting is a powerful tool. Well, that’s what I found when I wrote this article fifty minutes from deadline.







Employee Screening: Big Brother Is Watching You


How much employee screening is too much?

It was said back at the height of the cold war, that everyone in East Germany had their own spy. Kind of like a social worker with a bad attitude, even the spies had spies. Trust no one and no one trusted you. Germany reunited in 1990, the spy agency Stasi ceased to be and I guess everyone just got along awkwardly for a while, not talking about stuff. Any child conceived during that time would now be old enough to drink, vote and soon get discounted motor vehicle insurance. It was a while ago. There was no FaceBook. I know, crazy.

Back in 1990, it was probably relatively simple to concoct a CV crammed with generous over-achievements. A Commonwealth Games swimming bronze medal here, a Masters degree there. It was a hassle because there were no word processors and you had to type up multiple copies of your fraudulent qualifications but it was very do-able. And even if prospective employers thought to bother to check, it was no simple matter to do so. No Google. I know, crazy.

It was generally bad luck getting caught out. People would make their lie on their CV, they’d get the job and they’d truck on quite happily and maybe even quite successfully. Then something would happen. Maybe there was an accident or event which caught the media’s attention and in their muckraking they uncovered some facts which revealed the original falsehoods. Look it up in the Dictionary under ‘Icebergs: tips of.’ Or, you’d get invited to speak at a function and discover that a chap in the front row also served in the S.A.S. Afghanistan at the same time and in the same village that you claim to have done, yet he has never heard of you. New Zealand is a small town. Never burn a bridge and keep your lies away from computers and microphones.

As it is with insurance claims, exaggeration was probably more commonplace than outright total fabrication. I know I myself often refer to my DBA as “half an MBA.”

Employers who used executive search consultants were indignant that the mega fees didn’t include a thorough screening to ensure that the new CEO did actually have a law degree from Harvard University’s Rio de Janiero campus.

That was then and this is now. There are internets everywhere. Over half of your prospective employers will search you out on FaceBook, LinkedIn etc and see how that synchronises with what you’ve been claiming about your qualifications, achievements and personal morality and hygiene. I’m surprised the figure is only half. It will certainly grow. There are many websites where you can check out a hotel, movie or restaurant before you go. gives ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ an 8.0 and RoboCop a 6.7. You have the feedback and can make a more informed choice. How long before we get the same feedback aggregating services for us as employees? They already exist for trades people – plumbers, sparkies etc. The wisdom of crowds online. Or the logic of pitchfork-wielding mobs. Tomayto, tomahto.

Screening employees has become quite the industry. I remember Pinkerton as a private detective agency from the movies as much as anything else. They didn’t track down Zorro in the 2005 movie, nor Butch and Sundance, so now they’ve turned their skills to perhaps easier prey – they have an entire division dedicated to employee screening. No disrespect to employees but Zorro was self employed and they do tend to work a lot harder.

There was a local case recently where an unsuccessful job candidate was subsequently successful at convincing a judge to compel the employer to release the CVs of the other applicants. The employees are now screening the employers. I have mixed feelings about this particular case but the principle of 2-way screening is only fair.

Methodical pre-hire screening can significantly reduce poor hires. Drug screening and background checks often filter out the worst hiring mistakes. But really, the worst aren’t the drug addicts, fakers or those with criminal backgrounds. The largest volume are those sneaking by even the sharpest hirers are applicants who lack the skills necessary to do their job or attitude to fit the organisation. Screen by all means but of greater importance is a robust and systemic approach to recruitment generally.

Employees get screened during recruitment for crimes, debts, health and on the veracity of their CVs. Once employed, they can get screened for drugs, stolen goods, whistle-blowing or confidential information. They can even be screened after their employment ends if any restraint of trade type arrangements were made. The common element in all this is a lack of trust. My favourite quote regarding trust came from that cold war era I wrote about earlier. Reagan and Gorbachev were signing nuclear arms reduction treaties and Gorbachev talked about trust. Reagan quipped on what must have been one of his lucid days, “Trust… but verify.”












The Future Of Work (Where Is My Flying Car?)


The future is uncertain and predictions are often wrong. Life is not like the Jetsons, although many bosses act like Mr Spacely.

What will the workforce of the future be like? What will the future be like? If there’s one thing I knew in the past about the future which is now the present, it’s that we were all supposed to have flying cars. Where is my flying car? The problem with crystal ball gazing is that we tend to extrapolate more and slightly better versions of what we already know. Anyone surveyed in 1887 about better personal transport might’ve asked for bigger, stronger or sleeker horses. The concept of an automobile probably didn’t come up and an airborne one certainly didn’t. The same limitations subvert and constrict our predictions about future workforces.

There’ll be robots of course, obviously.

Back in the 1950s, Ford had refitted one of its factories with the first machines as part of a pilot programme to automate the car manufacturing process. The machines didn’t shout, “Run Will Robinson!” nor have any awareness of Asimov’s laws of robotics but they were certainly predecessors of workplace robots. A union chief and a manager who may or may not have been Henry Ford’s grandson were touring the factory. Jokingly the boss quipped how unlikely it would be if any of these robots would ever pay any union dues. The union boss quipped back, not so jokingly, how unlikely it would be if any of these robots would ever buy a car. Point well made sir. That future is now our present.’s proposed airborne drones delivering their packages would mean less drivers and logistics staff. Although, there may be an increase in jobs repairing drones when they’re shot down by teenage boys and more jobs in healthcare when drone rotor blades start injuring customers.

In the future, the truly talented will have more options. They don’t have to work for you. They could work for themselves, work overseas, trade online… They could work for themselves, work overseas, trade online AND work for you at the same time but how engaged would they be with your work? I think the employers who can figure out a simple and effective way of managing those people in that messy network will have some really motivated and talented people making some amazing things happen. Those who let it happen but don’t manage it will have some burnt-out and conflicted zombies on their hands.

So, the future will have robots AND zombies, obviously.

The fortune tellers of carnivals and psychic mediums on television have their little tricks, starting with fuzzy universal generalities then narrowing down as more specific info is fed from naive and subconsciously collusive marks. So too do futurists.

A popular pick for the near future for employers amongst business futurists is the rise of ‘Social HR.’ How can everyone being up to their armpits in social media be leveraged by employers? The seeds of this lay in simple checking of potential employees on the FaceBooks to see what percentage of their time was spent comatose, naked and / or fixating on kittens but, according to the futurists, you’ll need to do more in the future. Next meeting you have, suggest to the team that you mustintegrate social technologies into our recruitment, development and engagement practices!” I’m not entirely sure what that entails but I’ve got you started, I’m sure you and the team can firm up the details. Unless you’re a “digital immigrant” struggling to fit in. 47 percent of Millennials now say a prospective employer’s online reputation matters as much as the job it offers. (A “Millennial” is a “young person.” They are digital natives.”)

If you are talented and you’ve got your online act together, the “Big Data” future means potential employers will be able to find you specifically before you even knew you were looking for a job you didn’t know existed. It’s like how when you change your FaceBook status to single, suddenly the ads change to dating sites and antidepressants. It’ll be the same with jobs except you won’t have to change your status, the cloud will already know. In the future, breakups won’t be “It’s not you, it’s me,” they’ll be, “It’s not us, it’s Google.”

A common form of futurism are those billboards near the sites of prospective construction sites and building developments – artists’ impressions of what it will all look like when it’s finished and no longer a messy, noisy moonscape. In those artist’s impressions, the sun is always shining, the grass couldn’t possibly be greener, the people are all energetically happy consumers and racially and socially diverse. Traffic is perfect and there is plenty of parking. I think the same artists also produce the pictures of hamburgers in the big brand burger outlets. Structurally sound, gigantic and shiny with nary an asymmetric sesame seed to be seen. Your odds of actually receiving a burger that looks like that are the same as me getting my flying car.










The Little Things

car mats

Career Transitioning


Career transitioning is now more the rule than the exception. Maybe the job you’re destined for hasn’t been invented yet?

Valentine’s Day has been and gone and the word “love” was tossed around frivolously, commercially, curiously and genuinely. Many business writers cite the benefits of having workers who “love” to work at your workplace. They do stretch the meaning of the term ‘love’ to a broad definition. By the time they’ve qualified it, we’ve reached the levels of emotion I express when I declare that, “I love pizza!”

Pizza is awesome, I do spend a lot of time with it and I genuinely intend to commit to it for the rest of my life. (Albeit a life possibly shortened by pizza consumption.) Would that level of commitment and emotional connection make me a more productive worker?

There’s certainly lots of research and common sense indicating that people with high levels of emotional connection to their work do make more effort and get more out of what they do. This creates a virtuous circle as that feedback stimulates more effort and so forth. This is where I would make a distinction between people loving their work versus those who love their workplaces. There’s a difference. People who love their work for its own sake, get into that virtuous circle and score that productivity boost for themselves and their employers. People who love their workplaces may or may not. Their connection is with showing up to a place or a group of people. It’s better than hating your workplace but I haven’t seen any substance backing up that loving your workplace makes for significantly greater productivity.

I do love pizza but I’ve been seeing felafels. It’s not pizza, it’s me.

So, in much the same way that I was committed to pizza and am now transitioning to felafels, it is more the norm now than the exception for people once committed to a career to transition to another, sometimes multiple times in a working life. I remember seeing a documentary once about prostitution and one of the workers knowledgeably declaring, “It’s better than working in a bank.”

If Beethoven’s mum hadn’t bought a piano at some stage then maybe Beethoven would’ve ended up as a plumber? Alebit a deaf plumber, which would at least provide a plausible excuse for never returning customers’ calls. That and phones not being invented yet.

A transition is scary but has its upsides, including a fresh perspective. For example, it must be tough for someone who has only ever been a police officer to organise a party. The only parties they ever get to see are crazy, out of control and end up with bottle throwing, baton charges and near rioting. Imagine when they try and organise a surprise birthday party for the Sarge. It’s hard enough to keep it a surprise but it’s quite a hassle to steal, overturn and set fire to a Mazda 3. That’s probably why so many police transition out of their careers.

A Harvard Business School article boasted it could teach you how to ‘explain’ your career transitioning, as if a prospective employer would see on your CV that you’d been a pianist, plumber and cop and that meant you were an unstable gadfly that wouldn’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to be successful as an investment banker. Maybe before the mid-80s, I’d give that prejudice some credence but not today. If anything the reverse is true. Can you really trust someone who’s been in the same job for decades? What’s wrong with them? That said, it was pretty good advice to come up with a “compelling narrative” not so much to justify the transitions but to leverage them as a selling point, celebrating your versatility, ability to learn and need for challenge.

I’ve known people who transitioned from the rat race to the non-profit sector. I don’t know if it worked out for them or not. I’ve tried to ask but they’re too busy being happy and fulfilled. The pre-retirement transition is a classic move. I had a manager at one outfit I worked at in Nelson who clearly had a transition into orcharding planned for when he retired from his management role. He insisted on an office car big enough for “3 bushels of apples.” A forward-thinker if not a subtle man.

I have a sideline as a stand-up comedian and the universal first bit of advice they get when starting out is, “Don’t quit your day job.” This is equally applicable to mid-career, non-comedy transitions. It’s a lot easier to find a new career when you have a job. Or maybe it’ll hold you back if you have a safety net? Cortes the conquistador who conquered the Aztecs famously burned the boats after landing as a motivator to move his soldiers forwards. If I’d been one of his soldiers, I’d have seriously considered transitioning into a career as a boat-builder.











In Business, Does Family Matter?


Families can be great for drama on TV but they are a potentially good or bad mixed bag in the workplace.

One theme of this issue is ‘family matters.’ That sounds like the title of an 80s sitcom where conflict arises after the first act, it seems to have heightened at the end of the 2nd act, yet the dad sorts it all out with some patronising moralising at the end – all with terrible clothes and hair. That’s not the kind of family matters Employment Today is talking about but I think there is a parallel with families in the workplace – especially that 3-act dramatic structure.

In the first act, an entrepreneurial business person through innovation, managed risk-taking and effort establishes a business and gets it through to a moderate level of success. In the 2nd act, the business is passed down to the next generation. Raised in an environment of hard work and sound business thinking, the business is grown and perhaps even transformed into something well beyond even the wildest aspirations of its original founder. And in the 3rd act, the grandson gets busted on meta-amphetamine charges and the only thing higher than himself is his own sense of entitlement.

I gave a series of presentations around the country last year about engaging employees and building teams. One of my suggestions was that it would be better for employees who neither fitted your workplace, nor achieved performance standards, to not be there. This could be achieved by a rigorous recruitment process minimising the chances that they’d arrive in the first place, or a managed process if the lack of fit and performance wasn’t identifiable until it was too late, following all the dotted i’s and all the crossed t’s of the law and due process. The general thrust of my point was that it was better to deal with such situations early before they demotivated others in the team or had other negative flow-on effects. “Go ugly early,” I say. Better to deal with a pimple than a volcano.

People would come up for a chat afterwards and share tales of the ‘rotten apples’ spoiling their barrels. In probably about half of these cases, the employer had a beef with an employee who also happened to be a family member. This muddied the waters somewhat they reckoned when it came to my sage and independent advice to go ugly early and deal with it as soon as possible. I disagreed then and disagree now – it makes it even more important to deal with it right away. This at least lessens the stress to the employer and the inevitable damage to the business and the central familial relationship, plus strains and breaks of other family ties when people take sides. (I think this is how the Hatfields and McCoys started.)

Quite apart from the drama of having to fire a sister-in-law or the irrationality of delaying that action, even if the sister-in-law is an adequate performer some workplaces have nepotism risks. If it’s your business and you can do what you want to, that’s one thing. Remember that episode of ‘Friends’ where Brad Pitt showed up in a cameo role while, in real life, he was married to Jennifer Aniston? Well, that didn’t turn out too well, did it?

The Government has a list of guidelines for employing family members online. (Does anyone else find it concerning that the Government consider themselves experts at employing family members? I meant the New Zealand Government, not the North Korean one.) I like how in their list, they stipulate that they’re referring to people you’re married to, civil unioned with or in a defacto relationship with. (As opposed to a dejour relationship?) They’re very clear to point out that they’re not talking about your ex. You’re fine to employ your ex. I guess New Zealand’s too small.

Accounting firms have similar lists of advice. Many recommend that if your intention is to employ your kids and one day hand over the keys to them, that you should send them out into the big wide world first – to gain different perspectives, experiences and network. Accounting firms recommend this, as do organised crime families and for much the same reason. How much stress did Chris and Adriana cause Tony Soprano? Well, that didn’t turn out too well, did it?

So, family matters might range from inheritances and intergenerational business ownership to employing family members to ‘bring your daughter to work day’ (which is a terrible idea if you own a strip club.)

Employing family members should be treated the same as employing anyone else. The same rules, expectations, support and remuneration should apply. That said, obviously you’d like to groom them for future leadership and you should have a structure in place for this – as indeed you should for any future leaders. The only real difference should be how much worse it is when they forget your birthday morning tea.










Onboarding: All Aboard!


Onboarding is yet another new buzzword, this one for a structured process of welcoming new people to the wild and crazy variables that your workplace has. As sure as Christmas has reindeer, your workplace holds surprises for the unwary.

We are all creatures of our environment. As a species, many of our current social characteristics are a result of our ancestor’s environmental influences. I’m writing this article around Christmas time because I’m dedicated (but mostly because I don’t pay attention to emails about deadlines.) Around Christmas, reindeer feature heavily in cute animal stories on news websites. Apparently, reindeer can’t move and urinate at the same time and are remarkably regular and consistent in how often they stop to do so. In Norway, home of the bulk of the world’s reindeer, there is even a specific term for this approximately six-mile distance – Poronkusema. This literally translates as… well, let’s not literally translate it in a classy publication like Employment Today. But it does illustrate how specific cultures are influenced very specifically by their environment. Eskimos have twenty-seven words for snow sort of thing. (Politicians have forty nine thousand words for absolutely nothing.)

Environmental influence and variation is especially true of our work environments. There may be commonalities but there are also wild variations, many of which are not immediately obvious to newcomers. Sometimes surprises are great, like surprise birthday parties. Sometimes surprises are not great, like paternity tests. An expectation gap between the job you thought you accepted and the job it turns out you actually got is not a good surprise. Regardless of what you call it, there needs to be a deliberate and planned process to manage no-new-job-surprises with specific results in mind.

Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, refers to the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviours to become effective organizational members and insiders. If I googled the term ‘onboarding’ twenty years ago, would I have found even one reference to it? No, I wouldn’t have and not only because Google didn’t exist twenty years ago outside of a CIA laboratory. I don’t care if you call it induction, orientation or create a new term so you can bundle some software with it and sell consulting about it.

Omer Ashik is a seven-foot tall Turkish basketballer who plays in the NBA. He had a good year 2 years ago as a backup centre in Chicago. On the back of that performance, he got a great deal as a starter for Houston and had a decent year. Houston then brought in controversial centre Dwight Howard, famous as an underachieving goof-off, but undeniably very talented. He got the starting job ahead of Ashik. As many of us do when we’re paid $US15,000,000 and don’t get what we want, Ashik packed a sad and demanded to be traded to work elsewhere.

Aware that this wasn’t going to be a great workplace culture, Houston tried to trade Ashik but every other team in the NBA knew that Houston needed to and, so, Houston’s bargaining position was weakened. In the end, they couldn’t get it done and Ashik and Howard and everyone else now have to show up and get along and get the job done. Apart from the million dollar minimum wage, this is actually a fairly common occurrence in normal workplaces. Someone gets a promotion that someone else felt was rightfully theirs and drama ensues. The difference between the NBA and Kevin’s Panelbeaters is that ESPN reports on the NBA and everyone knows what that Houston workplace will be like. No one reports on Kevin’s panelbeaters except perhaps Police 10-7 or Fair Go. Newcomers to the Houston Rockets know what to expect. Newcomers to Kevin’s Panelbeaters do not.

The thing about onboarding and other buzzwords de jour is that they’re usually for big organisations that have the capability and scale to deal with formal systems and such – be they software systems or good old fashioned procedures trying to get a positive and consistent approach to integrating new people. Those organisations have HR departments or whatever they’ll be called in 2014. Most people in New Zealand are employed by small outfits with ten or less people. The boss of Kevin’s Panelbeaters is probably Kevin and he (or she) is the one who will be onboarding any new people. And it’s really simple and critical and it starts well before the new person arrives and before they sign a contract. It starts before the recruitment process. The job needs to be specifically, accurately and honestly defined and described. Maybe Kevin won’t get formal with a typed-up job description, although that wouldn’t hurt. The foundation of ‘no surprises’ is clarity of expectations.

Onboarding is essentially a thorough welcoming process. So, welcome to your new year and welcome to all new employees. Ask yourself what quirky peculiarities your workplace has that your new peeps need to be warned about. What is your equivalent of Poronkusema? And, in case you’ve heard the rumours, no, reindeer urine is not hallucinogenic. My friend Rudolph told me so.







Coaching: Sack The Coach



My understanding of coaching is that it is a bit like art – you may not be able to define it but you know it when you see it. Or was that pornography? Some people try and narrow down its definition by specifying what coaching is not. Coaching is not training, leading, managing, facilitating or mentoring. Training implies that the trainer knows something that the trainee doesn’t know but needs to know and it’s up to the trainer to fix that. Managing is about tasks and things and almost certainly has an actual or implied hierarchy and power imbalance. Leading is about hearts and minds, providing inspiration and motivation to someone, who in the leader’s opinion, requires more motivation but seems to be unable to generate it themselves. Facilitation involves directing or controlling an individual or group. Mentoring demands a relationship between an experienced expert and someone inexperienced and / or inexpert who wants to do or be what the mentor does / is.

A common metaphor for coaching in business is coaching in sport; it’s easy to say that. People get it quickly but it’s not a fitting comparison. Sports coaches are the boss. They’re in charge. They’ve got extensive expertise and experience. More likely than not, they’ve been in the team being coached and after their playing career, they’ve logically moved into coaching. Though not every player has been able to make that transition.

Business coaching or professional development coaching are different. There’s no power imbalance (or there shouldn’t be.) There’s no expertise imbalance. A coach is an independent force there to observe, listen, reflect, probe, prompt. A coach probably doesn’t know the answers or have the direct experience of the issues and opportunities of the person being coached. You need permission to coach. The coach is not in control. The coach need not have all the answers and better not pretend that they do. The coach does need to keep the person being coached honest, focused and aiming at development that is genuinely necessary and attainable.

Most employees, most of the time, will do what they are directly told to do. That’s management and if that is all there was, then managers would have to be omnipresent because that’s the limitation of the command-and-control hierarchical power-based model. The reality is that managers have lots to do and places to be. Tom Peters wasn’t wrong when he said that the true test of your leadership is what happens when you’re not around. (Unless it wasn’t Tom Peters who said that? In which case, it’s me who’s wrong. Leave Tom Peters alone.) The baseline assumption behind coaching is that it’s ongoing, progress is expected, that progress is the responsibility of the person being coached, and the coach is responsible for the coaching process. Ongoing professional development can genuinely benefit from an effective and frequent coaching programme. A Bersin study found that companies with an effective and frequent coaching programme improve their business results by 21 percent as compared to those who never coach.

Can a manager also be an effective coach in an employment context? Sure, why not? They’re doing everything else. Bosses can wear rotating hats with labels like ‘coach’, ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or whatever and that’s probably pragmatic. But, there’s a value especially for coaching in a real and / or [perceived independence, coupled with a perspective and helpful naiveté born of being an outsider. Sometimes, it’s worth hiring someone to do the coaching. (I don’t do much coaching myself. It’s hard work. Genuinely that’ll put me off most things. But I do some coaching. Client companies sometimes ask me to coach after I’ve spoken, facilitated or trained. They like the other things I do, the results I get and just plain like me. ‘Like’ is probably the wrong word. Both the client company and the individuals being coached have to trust and respect the external coach. There have definitely been times where whatever emotion was being directed at me, it wasn’t ‘liking.’)

Coaches are about ‘ask’ not ‘tell’. A coach’s focus is the employee not a task. Coaching is not fixing anyone. Coaching has clear accountability. Coaching can be scheduled but it’s more an ‘as need when needed’ thing. Coaching is about a set of processes, more than it is about a coach. That said, a coaching toolbox is useless, and sometimes dangerous, if operated by someone calling themselves a coach who lacks the wisdom to know when to use which tool. In that regard, coaching is like every single DIY activity I’ve ever done that resulted in a heated towel rail power switch being installed upside down, a door handle going in inside out or a chainsaw that’s now more functional as a doorstop.

Coaching is a journey, like ‘Lord Of The Rings’ was a journey. And like ‘Lord Of The Rings’, not everyone finishes the journey. And if you’ve got giant eagles available for your coaching process, use them right away, not at the end when otherwise all else seems lost. Duh.






Retirement: How Old Is Old?


“In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.” I’d give you the name of the guy who said that (which I do know) because it is a great quote when applied to learning and development. But I’m not going to. It turns out the guy died at the age at 41 in incredibly tragic circumstances that won’t benefit anyone from attention here. Suffice to say that the guy had a problem, a fairly common one, that if addressed early on might have prevented the tragedy. Theoretically. However, in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.

This might be irony. There’s a lot of confusion, if not on the dictionary definition, then certainly on some examples. I sold an ironing board on Trademe. The buyer kept calling it an ‘irony board,’ ironically without a shred of irony. I think we’d all like a functional ‘irony board’ where we can stand and place on it our ipad and share on social media that video where a guy recites a poem about how sad it is that everyone spends so much time on social media, while listening on iTunes to that song by Alannis Morrisette called ‘Ironic’ which at no point ever provides an example of anything that is genuinely ironic, and otherwise generally being contrary to expectations in a wryly amusing way. And it would need to have adjustable heights. Flexibility is very important in an ironing board, as it is for employers responding to demographic changes such as aging in their workforce and workforce marketplace.

The New Zealand workforce is greying, becoming more female, and will stop expanding by about 2030. Older workers will have a profound effect on the labour market as aging will affect the size, characteristics and possibly the productivity of the New Zealand workforce.

How old is old anyway? I heard a supposedly classic hits radio station the other day announcing a classic hit from 2005. 2005 isn’t a classic hit. 2005 is an overdue library book. Maybe that makes me old? The international survey folk looking at workforce demographics vary in their opinions. Some say 40+, some say 45+ but most of the OECD governments reckon 50+. I think being old is something we should opt into, like mailing lists. Don’t arbitrarily assign me to a category because my chronological odometer reaches a certain point. I’m old when I choose to be. That said, when I hit 45, my medical centre sent me an email offering free cholesterol and diabetes tests. There may be no such thing as a free lunch but I’ll take a free check-up any day. I wonder what they’ll give me on my 50th? My teenage son is getting me a free skydive. His heart is in the right place and hopefully my free check-up will conform that mine is too.

For every retired person in 2004, there were 5.5 workers supporting them. In 2050, that ratio will be 2.2:1. I’ll be one of the 1s (cholesterol and diabetes notwithstanding.) I’d like to get to know my 2.2 supporting workers personally. Rather than general tax money going into a general bucket and the Government doling it out as it sees fit, I’d like to personally connect with my providers of retirement income and services. Working-aged me has a picture on my fridge door of the African child I’m supporting for $1.20 a day. Letters arrive now and then advising how my $1.20 is helping build wells and provide school books. In 2050, working Madison and Troy can have a picture of non-working ninety-year-old Terry on their futuristic fridge and I’ll skype them once a month with updates on my hip replacement, an extensive list of wild opinions on a range of seemingly unconnected topics and a consistent complaint that skype and fridges were a lot better back in my day.

New Zealand currently has skill shortages. If that workforce growth slows from 2030, the skills shortages will only get worse. We can add people to the workforce by adding people – increasing the birthrate. That ain’t gonna happen. We can import people – that’s been happening forever and, to an extent, is part of the solution, although one with its own set of additional costs and problems. Or, we can upskill the people we have, including the less young ones.

I grew up on the TV show ‘The Young Ones.’ I was flatting in a student flat as Rik, Neil, Viv and Mike flatted in theirs. When actor and writer Rik Mayall died recently, it reminded me that the young ones, ironically, were in their mid 50s now.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I reckon people are people and people are different. Those with open minds and motivation and the right support, tools, feedback and practice can learn some new tricks, if not all tricks. I reckon that the old dogs who aren’t into learning new tricks probably weren’t so flash at the learning when they were younger dogs either.







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