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Who Leads The Leaders?

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Studies into the characteristics of highly effective leaders find that ‘vision’ is usually at the top of the list of characteristics. Any individual moving others to sustained and purposeful action would need to be future-facing, goal-setting and inspirational. All that requires an ‘eye on the prize’. There are many leadership phrases using eye-imagery. I’d like to add another: point of view.

A couple of my own recent experiences have hit home to me the power of point of view to stunt or stimulate leadership, to send it in a direction that may turn out in ‘hindsight’ to be right or wrong, better or worse.

I attended a seminar lead by a scientist concerned about ethical leadership in science, specifically designing in ethical considerations  within artificial intelligence systems (AI). The people doing the designing are very public in declaring that ethical filters and values will be designed into the systems. Less overt and public are exactly what ethics are being designed in. It’s stated almost as if ethics are ethics and yours are the same as mine so, as long as the AI has ethics, then we’ll be fine. Ethics are a lot like cheese. The stuff you find acceptable might be offensive to me and a significant minority of people are dairy intolerant.

This scientist was calling for more diverse points of view. A video montage of the scientists making a lot of noise and getting a lot of attention around AI did seem to be entirely of a certain age range, nationality and gender. Ethics are hard enough to get some agreement around within a family of four humans. Once you start bringing robots into the equation, it’s complicated and diverse points of view would help.

I’ve been running a series of diversity workshops for a large and established manufacturing firm, mostly around unconscious bias. The firm for the most part has a great track record with diversity. The workshops are a regular United Nations. However, they are behind the eight-ball on gender diversity. They know this and they’re trying. They know what the AI scientists might be a bit late in realising – the dangers in having a highly homogenous worldview – opportunities lost and threats unrecognised. Their customers are diverse. Their community is diverse. Yet, things historical and structural are hamstringing their efforts to counter the imbalance. In short, women aren’t applying for the jobs or those women don’t exist yet.

Most of the AI online customer service ‘robots’ I’ve seen have been given female personas. I don’t know why this is. Statistically a disproportionate number of human frontline customer service roles are female. Maybe the designers took that into account? What proportion of the designers were male? Does it matter? The newer AIs are now quite adept at recognising emotion in the voices and expressions of their customers and adjusting their responses accordingly.

You’re not designing terminators with emotional intelligence. You’re an employer. Maybe you’ve already got balance and diversity in your workplace overall. But, how is it like at the leadership level? What systems, checks and balances do you have in place, now and for the future that will ensure leaders have, develop or access diverse points of view? If through randomness or statistics, you’ve just ended up with a bunch of leaders in your organisation who are all big fans of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, there’s a real chance that they’re lacking diversity. But, if you’ve got the right systems and tools, they need not act like it. While you and the world are catching up and eventually defeating glass ceilings and velcro floors, your leaders can still make good leadership decisions. Train and coach them. Provide them with tools. What’s important for each organization is to identify the relevant dimensions, measure them, and make that part of how managers are evaluated. If you want diversity of thought, you have to bring in people around leaders who have diverse experiences. In the meantime, you can ask questions to capture and codify those experiences so the leaders you have at the moment can filter their decisions through those different points of view.

One of my catchphrases for the year has been, “The person who asks the questions controls the conversation”. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the relative effectiveness of telling people stuff versus asking questions. I like to call the latter ‘structured curiousity’ ABC – Always Be Curious.

The irony here is back with the topic I started on – AI. Experiments have already been done with people reporting to on-screen AI personas. They’re not perfect but they have two skills many current human leaders lack. They do ask questions and they are capable of recognising emotions and adjusting their actions accordingly. These two skills alone would put them in the top 25% of bosses I’ve ever had.

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The Multi-Generational Workforce: It Takes A Village To Raise A Workforce

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There’s a growing trend, probably originating in some happy, progressive, Scandinavian country, to build retirement villages and early childhood centres next to each other. As well as physical proximity, the organisers of both centres work together to plan cooperative activities so, in a planned and managed way, the people at one end of a lifetime interact meaningfully with people from the other end. Results so far are positive and encouraging. The younglings benefit from the wisdom and experience of their elders, whilst the retirees are re-energised in the presence of youth. This is probably that whole ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ mindset people throw around that we all use to lean on back in our tribal times so the middle people in their peak productive years could go out and hunt, gather and pillage depending on their skillset and testosterone levels.

This synergy born of close physical proximity has a name. It’s called propinquity. Look it up in a dictionary. If you don’t have a dictionary, google where to buy one. (Hint – you could google propinquity directly). Drop it into dinner party conversation. Apparently, studies have been done on effective working relationships and lifelong personal friendships. The studies sought to identify what the drivers of such successful relationships were. It turned out that simply being next to each other at some crucial point in time was the single most influential factor. You’d be amazed at how many best buddy friendships were formed with the person in the chair next to you on the first day of primary school, simply because everyone was seated alphabetically and Craig’s surname also ended in W.

This principle of propinquity comes into play in the workplace, and its potential benefits escalate if managed wisely, when you have a multi-generational workforce. I was MCing an HR conference recently and saw an eye-opening presentation on diversity. There were the obvious cultural and racial declarations and statistics such as Auckland being the 2nd most racially diverse city in the OECD behind Toronto. Quite apart from that was information about age diversity. It’s becoming increasingly normal to have workplaces with five generations of people working there.

I guess if you got a school leaver at sixteen and someone in their 70s, you could probably divide that into five generations. I did chat with someone at that conference who spoke about handing a bunch of letters in pre-sealed and stamped envelopes to their fresh, teen employee and asked if she could post them on her way home. He reports that she just stared at him and asked what he meant. There are actually people in fulltime, adult, paid employment who don’t know what a letter is or how to post one. I had a conversation myself with some other people about analogue clocks and how you can throw the odd young person with a phrase like, “Quarter past”. I’m sure young people are having the same conversations in reverse when we completely misunderstand invitations to, “Netflix and chill”. (Google it if you need to – probably NSFW. Google NSFW if you need to…)

Can New Zealand workplaces generate benefits with multi-generational workforces in the same way that those Scandinavian retirement village / early childhood centre combos do? Just randomly letting it happen and hoping for the best will not garner those benefits, unless by accident. The reason the retirement village / early childhood centre combos work is due to planning and management. It’s deliberate, it’s monitored constantly, and interventions are done as and when required. Some things happen that weren’t anticipated but lessons are learned with structured debriefing processes. Some things are easily anticipated and they’re planned for in a flexible way. For example, the traditional notion of retirement as switching the work switch to ‘off’ and going from fully employed one day to gardening / fishing / recreational vehicle-ing the next day is becoming less clear cut. Smart employers have a range of options and are open to innovative suggestions from those impacted.

Talent may want to cut back a bit and have a transition period, maybe over months or even years, working less hours or days and maybe even cherry-picking projects, whilst still being on-call if their institutional memory suddenly is needed on an ad hoc basis. If they’re truly talented and productive, they’ve probably earned it and it’s probably worth it. But, just because someone is old doesn’t mean they’re wise and just because someone is young doesn’t mean they’re an energetic go-getter. A much more individualised approach to managing personal retirement options and transitions is the way of the future.

While all this is happening to those people at the retirement end of their working lives, bearing witness to it are those starting out or in the middle. How you treat those people isn’t just about those people. It sends a powerful message, positive or negative, to upcoming talent on just how disposable they might end up being themselves.

Not every workplace should have employees bringing in their preschoolers though. Some people really need to focus on their air traffic controlling duties.

 

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Diversity: Survival Of The Most Adaptable

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 I just finished MCing a conference for an industry association of holiday park owners. They were a really down-to-earth group of people who got on really well because they had much in common – as people, not just by virtue of the nature of the work they did. Most were owner-operator couples. For the sake of simplicity, albeit probably not accuracy, let’s say husband and wife teams. They all had serious ‘skin in the game’ with massive personal investments in their businesses and many with significant debt-based investment. Many were carrying on a legacy from generations past of holiday camp ownership and management. Apart from being business owners, their choice of vocation was also very much driven by lifestyle choice with many camps in remote destination locations next to beaches, glaciers, etc. As a result of all this commonality, they got on well, had shared values and common goals, and it was a hell of a final night award dinner party.

Yes, there was commonality but there was by no means homogeneity.

I haven’t got the latest census figures to hand and I’m not gong to rattle off the stats around what proportion of the general population is young / old, male / female, and by whatever other criteria we can be distinguished from each other. My general belief is that it’s helpful if your team can represent the population of customers it serves. If this applied to holiday parks, they’d need to have half of their employees being Aussies. Nevertheless, they were a diverse group, especially on a gender basis, which warrants some applause even today (sadly). As I hosted the awards, I noticed with striking regularity how often a couple would take their prizes, look sheepishly at the microphone as they suddenly realised an acceptance speech was expected, and the woman would step forward (or the guy would step back – hard to tell in that light).

They were super diverse in terms of age too. Some recipients had to be helped up the steps to the stage due to their advanced years, whereas others had to hand a baby across to tablemates so they could stride to the stage. This is where diversity doesn’t need a Government-imposed programme to make people do it because they have to. This group of practical, salt-of-the-earth people know it is necessary to ensure the viability and survival of their industry. Succession, corporate memory and collective innovation are enabled and strengthened when the group has different points of view. Young ones starting out are all keen, scared and focused on surviving, not stuffing up and improving on what they’ve taken on. There seems to be a middle group who have gotten past the death-defying business stage and are consolidating and growing a mini network of parks. And those coming out the other end are thinking about exit strategies, legacies and supporting those coming through whilst maintaining standards. If they were chronologically all the same, there would be a dangerous lack of different perspectives which could dramatically impact their industry’s planning and results. Diversity is a strength in organisms and it is a strength in organisations. Lack of diversity is not just a weakness; it is a threat.

Oddly, they haven’t got a policy or a plan to create something called diversity. It’s just naturally developed and self-maintained over decades. They’re well ahead of the curve as I see it in my travels. In other events I work at and organisations I work in, I see individuals or teams and sometimes leadership deliberately and proactively trying to catalyse and nurture diversity programmes and so forth around gender, age, race, culture, even personality type. Some are doing well and others face entrenched opposition either institutionalised or via inertia, or even sometimes conscious and equally deliberate opposition to anything perceived as ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘affirmative action’. These terms almost carry negative baggage in the eyes of people who deride political correctness as the worst thing to happen to society in the past forty years.

I got into a brief twitter kerfuffle with an American of Indian ancestry who’d carved some infamy by applying as himself to a medical school and being rejected, then reapplying with exactly the same application except adjusted to make himself an African-American who got accepted. He tossed around terms like fairness and merit and I get that. His use of them was fairly selective and self-serving but I get his point. Merit and fairness are nice ideas and sometimes promoting diversity conflicts with those concepts.

An organisation / organism increases its chances of survival and success if it can adapt. Darwin wasn’t about survival of the merit or fairness. He was about survival of the most adaptable. The external society and economy is changing and a strategic, deliberate and proactive  approach to diversity is how smart, future-thinking employers will ensure the survivial and success of their workplace.

 

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Diversity Is Changing

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The thing about reminiscing is that we’re always so sure that we’re clear in our memories of that storied period in our past. Our brain’s memory bits are right next to our brain’s emotional bits so our most vivid memories are often ablaze with emotion of one sort or another. They’re vivid but they’re not necessarily accurate. Memories are not like videos on a shelf in your mind that get replayed exactly over and over again. Memories are reconstructions and are ripe for, and rife with, editorial input, director’s cuts and selective editing. Even if they’re accurate and honest, often they’re memories of perceptions and who knows how accurate our perceptions were at the time? This is all too true of nostalgia for time periods generally, not just personal recollections. How many people in the 60s were really at Woodstock, Vietnam or Martin Luther King’s speech?

People are now nostalgic for the 90s. Me too. I loved working in offices where anyone could smoke anywhere anytime and being powerless to do anything about soaking up all those second-hand carcinogens. (Sorry, ‘pre-loved’ carcinogens.) As a rookie workplace trainer, the 90s were when I first encountered efforts at workplace diversity. [Spoiler alert – this paragraph will finish cynically.] We were developing a training programme for some software that was going to be used in stores throughout a national network of franchisee outlets. The organisation was technically a Government organisation but was one of the most commercially-oriented ones (when it suited.) Accompanying the training was a workbook. We were at the draft stage and the text had all been tested and approved. To dolly it up a bit and appeal to those visual learning types, we were going to add some illustrations. I forget the order of things and who said what but the conclusion was that we needed to be sensitive to the variety of races and cultures in the network of trainees.

Who could have a problem with that? Not me, then or now. What delights me looking back is how that intended sensitivity manifested itself. One option might’ve been to have a range of photographs, perhaps actual images of actual staff from the network, or even stock photos. Photo shoots took time and money so that was abandoned fairly early on. The subsequent debate over stock photos included whether we should include the best diversity photos we could find even if they had African Americans in them as you don’t get a lot of African Americans in Tuatapere. In the end, we were told to get an artist to sketch a group of raceless, genderless, anthromorphised balls to act as the characters in the workbook. We solved the diversity conundrum of the melting pot of humanity by leaving out humans entirely. Easier, cheaper, safer.

Flash forward and we’ve come a long way. No more workplace smoking, rap has hardened up a tad and socks are much less fluorescent. We have a Sky Tower now. Do we still have a diversity conundrum? Or has it become a dilemma? A conundrum is a confusing problem whereas a dilemma is a choice between two equally bad options. Let’s take a management technique from the 90s and call our dilemma / conundrum an opportunity!

Diversity in nature is a strength and a protection. Diversity has an evolutionary purpose of diversity.  If a species of organism was entirely homogenous and they suddenly encountered a potentially fatal virus then the entire species’ survival is at risk. But with diversity within organisms, there is a greater than zero percent chance than some will survive. Organisations and, workplaces, are the same. Homogenous is great for milk, not so great for groups of people. If an executive team is made up entirely of one ilk (let’s pick one at random – white males over fifty) and that organisation encounters a business challenge that they don’t have a frame of reference for, then the organisation’s survival is at risk.

Even for the genuinely cynical – you know, the ones who shriek “political correctness” every time something like diversity gets a mention – would find benefits in a more diverse workforce. The country is more diverse. Your organisations customers / clientbase is more diverse. Even if all you care about is profits or keeping your job, you are more likely to when the decision-makers and the people doing the work more proportionately reflect the people they’re serving.

I regret using the word “ilk” a couple of paragraphs ago. I was in the USA recently and walked into a conversation of parents talking about their feelings towards their teenagers’ choices of boyfriends and girlfriends. I said I did have concerns that maybe mine had chosen the wrong ilk. Two days later, someone finally told me that with my kiwi accent, they thought I’d said “elk” not “ilk.” Yet no one seemed concerned that I had said that my daughter was dating an elk, and not only an elk, but the wrong elk. I guess they weren’t really my friends because friends don’t let friends daughters date moose-like creatures.

 

 

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