Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Secret Sauce Is Continual Coaching (Guest Blog)

So there I was reading an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review (You May Not Need Big Data After All) discussing the importance of data and how to use it effectively. 

The main thrust, as you may have guessed from the title, is that companies could spend huge amounts of time, money and effort identifying and analysing the enormous sources of data they now have access to, in order to generate benefit...but they would be better off simply using the data they already have more effectively.

The article was landing really well with me – and made me think of young Mark Ellis here – when it changed tack, making me want to leap out of my chair and shout ‘HURRAH’.

Here’s the longer quote:

‘It might seem that a combination of well-defined expectations, performance data, and clearly articulated business rules would be sufficient to help people make evidence-based decisions on a daily basis. Not so! The secret sauce is continual coaching aimed at improving the performance of every individual.’

Having grown up with a penchant for finance I always found it easiest to reach for the data. It took me a while to realise that there’s a people part to the equation. (If I did not have a penchant for finance, that might have read ‘there’s a people part to the answer’).

How often do we learn that the company executives or the department heads have studied the data and identified the new metrics or the new goals that will generate nirvana? The new goals are rolled out, hopefully through some form of scorecard system to help everyone track the changes (although often only at the very highest levels in the organisation and probably with dull spreadsheets) and then the leadership turns its attention to the next task. I know I was guilty of this. 

Surprisingly the desired results don’t happen.

It reminds me of the time in one company when thousands of hours were spent calculating and recording evidence to prove the fantastic improvements in productivity that had been targeted across the region. The operational teams were ecstatic. The FD meanwhile pointed out that overall profit had not changed!! Like squeezing on one side of a balloon whilst the other side rises, somehow all the savings had been mysteriously spent somewhere else. (Possibly on the time spent creating rules, applying definitions and filling out spreadsheets adding it all up!).

If you need people to change their behaviours, if you want the culture to change, you cannot simply state a new series of goals and measures and expect it to work. If the manager of a football club told the team they had a new target of winning all games 3-0, but made no other changes, why would you expect success?

We seem to have a belief system in the corporate world that if we hire good people they can work the rest out for themselves. Going further with the football analogy, it would be like Man Utd buying the top 11 players in the world and sending them out to play without any discussion (coaching) on what to do together and how to do it. (Okay, I can hear someone saying that’s what appears to have happened in the recent game against Sunderland, but you know what I mean!) 

The secret sauce is coaching.

I am a coach working with all levels of management, so naturally I love these words. However, the words can be used more broadly in the sense of ‘support’. We need to provide employees with the time and space to understand what the new metrics mean to them, how it impacts on their daily activities and what changes make most sense for them within the wider corporate vision. We need a continual feedback loop. Coaching enables the people to identify the best way forward to achieve the new goal whilst still achieving what’s right for the organisation overall - Avoiding the effect of squeezing that balloon. 

So, the next time you are seeking to create changes across your organisation or the next time you receive a new set of metrics and goals ‘from above’, demand that you and your colleagues are given the time and support to identify and understand what’s happening. Try coaching...the secret sauce!

Phil Renshaw is a highly skilled executive coach with a lifetime of experience in international banking and finance - you can find out more about Circulus (and Phil) by clicking here.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Five Really Great Culture Articles

"Could you recommend some good articles on culture?" is a question I get asked a lot.......here are my five current favourites.

1. "Lessons We Can All Learn From Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh

Arguably Tony Hsieh started it all,  he is legendary in this field for starting the first truly great culture experiment with Zappo's. I've been fortunate enough to spend time in Vegas with the team - and pretty much everything you read is true (big thank you to the amazing Christa Foley and her team for putting up with me). 

This article from Jeffrey Hollender is as good a summary as you'll ever find.

Don't be put off by the number of slides. Dharmesh and his team are doing amazing work putting culture front and centre of everything they do. Click through and I challenge you NOT to be moved by the power of this presentation - if you don't read this and then think seriously about your own culture, then there's something wrong with you.

3. Culture Gobbledegook. I'm being self indulgent with this one, but a friends son asked me for some help with his degree (yes, corporate culture IS taken that seriously) and I published some of our correspondence. I think it's a good "what's it all about" post.

4. Jack Welch of GE

One of the most compelling culture statements ever. "Never tolerate brilliant jerks" came from a Netflix slideshare from 2009.  Take some time to go through it (later) - but the focus on that single message is critical. In all companies I work with, the most resistance to change is found in retraining, or removing the brilliant jerks. Read this from Jack Welch about culture, and then the quote below:

“Everybody in America,” Welch said, “not just Goldman Sachs, has got to pay attention to the culture as much as the numbers. Great cultures deliver great numbers. Great numbers don’t deliver great cultures. So when you’re measuring people, you’ve got to have a set of behaviors, whether they be, like, treat people like the way you’d like to be treated yourself, treat customers the way you would want to be treated, whether it be speed, whether it be trying your best to promote them. You measure performance against that, against your performance in numbers. You put people on quadrants.

  • One quadrant is great culture/great numbers. Onward and upward for these people.
  • Another quadrant is bad numbers/bad culture. Bad news. Easy. Get them out.
  • The third quadrant is good culture/tough numbers. Give them another chance. They buy into what you’re doing. They might have a family problem. Give them a shot.
  • The one the kills companies is the fourth quadrant—the horse’s ass, the one who has cultural problems and good numbers. The CEO says, given them one more quarter and the problem will be fixed.”

5. Fish! By Lundin, Paul & Christenson

There can be confusion about the difference between employee engagement and corporate culture. Both are interrelated, but if you want to learn about the basics of engagement I suggest you pick up Fish! and read it. My short review here. It is a highly effective blueprint for owning your own levels of happiness and engagement at work.


That's it - I hope you feel inspired to go and grab the corporate culture beast by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Remember it all starts with YOU. Go forth and make a difference in your company today.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Employee Opinion Surveys and Trust

Fact: Lack of trust causes employee opinion surveys to fail.

Employees do not trust that the process is anonymous, or trust that actions will be taken based on their responses. This leads to low participation and insipid results.

Listening to employee voice is a critical part of any culture transformation and employee engagement program - so getting this part right is crucial. As with any data source you need to focus on getting the very best quality.

I was once told by a concerned employee that the company recorded all keystrokes,  so responses could not be anonymous. He went on to explain that all negative or controversial comments within the survey were decoded and traced back to the originator using this method. For those done outside the company firewall, trackers were in the computer, and if you used your own computer you could still be traced using language and pattern recognition. 

My jaw dropped - I figured the guy had read WAY too many spy novels.

I asked him how anyone would have the time and resource to do this, and why it would be a priority for the company? Surely it would be easier just to ignore the comment than employ a team of covert black ops tech guys in the basement. He just smiled at me, and told me that he knew people who had been fired for being honest on the survey.

I gave up.

At another company, I was asked about the anonymity problem and invited a number of worried people to a meeting to discuss it.

I sat with the administrator of the survey and walked everyone through the process of invitation, collection, summarisation and distribution - in an effort to spread the message through the company that these things were genuinely anonymous.

Email adresses for participants were entered into the system - which then distributed questionnaires automatically (in this case to around eleven thousand people). As each was completed, the results were stored and the email reminders stopped. We showed the database record which clearly had no email address contained, just a unique number.

Concern number 1 - that the the number could be associated with the end user.....it couldn't, but people genuinely thought that a single response would be worth tracking back through the system and decoding for the originator.

The results were then all summarised, and presented in a report to each manager with more than 6 respondents in their organisation.

Concern number 2 - how can this be done without the individual names in the system? Easily, as the original submission came back, the managers name was added to each. At the end of the process, all managers with less than ten responses had their name removed.

Then reports were distributed by organisational hierarchy to each manager to share with their team.

Concern number 3 - my manager will be able to work out from my response who it is. Well, they may guess, but experience has shown me that more often than not they guess wrong.

Concern number 4 - I know that the CEO/Top Managment/My boss get to see the names...... No they don't.

Concern number 5 - The system records date and time of entry, so checking that against the office door entry log will help narrow it down. What? Really - who has the time and how would that help?

You have to accept that there will always be a few who don't trust the system. Especially if the delivery of the end results is flawed (managers yelling at teams who all gave negative opinions, managers singling out people the think left the only negative opinion, managers not bothering to communicate at all, and so on). 

But lack of action is the fastest way to kill any kind of value, trust and participation.

Think about it. People went to a lot of time and trouble to enter information into the survey. This may have been five minutes of time, it may have been thirty minutes - but it was a choice to commit.

Then nothing happens. No visible decisions are made, no changes occur. 

So here's my advice. Please do not run an employee opinion survey if you don't intend to take action at the end (even if it's difficult or uncomfortable to do).

Then when you take action, make sure you tie it back to the survey and let people know.

If you don't take action on a particular area, make sure you communicate your reasons.

Because you only get one shot. Next year participation will be lower, the content will be bland, and you will be wasting your time. It will cost you a lot for a worthless document that will further damage trust.

Side note: 

I  wish we could do away with anonymity completely in surveys, but I have only worked with a  handful of companies who can do this effectively - and they work really hard to ensure trust and comfort with direct communication. 

At one such company I  saw a comment that said "The CEO should be fired, because he is a liar - as evidenced by these three things..." The CEO looked at the comments, agreed with what was said and picked up the phone to the employee to explain. 

What a great company to work for.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Disempowerment Culture

Disempowerment: The reduction of the power, authority, importance or influence that individuals (or groups of organised persons) have to make their own choices and decisions to shape their own lives.

A news story in the UK caught my attention last week - promoted by the shadow Education Secretary (Tristram Hunt) as a new idea for improving the performance of schools. There's a news story from the BBC here,  but the short version was as follows:

"Lots of teachers are rubbish at their jobs, so we should have independent tests for them every two years and fire the ones that don't pass."

Tristram observes that teachers should have the same professional standing as lawyers and doctors, they should pursue continual professional development to become the best possible teacher, and that they should be passionate and motivated about their subject. 

Let's focus on the effect such a statement has on any workforce, and how an assessment plan of this type would likely work out.

First of all, the story draws attention to the fact that teachers do not have the same standing as lawyers and doctors. (In the past this was certainly so, with equivalent salaries and respect - but times have moved on, and now teachers are woefully underpaid).

It then expresses the opinion that many teachers do not want to be the best they can be, are not passionate about their subjects and do not continue their professional development. 

The proposed solution? Add another layer of bureaucracy (and cost) by creating a new central department to create examinations and then test all teachers. Then if they do not pass, fire them.

(Hey teachers, are you feeling good about yourself yet?)


Stop for a moment and consider the effect this would have in your workplace. 

If an external, uninvited and unwanted consultant came into your building today and tested every person to see what they had learned in the last year or so, then assessed their passion for the role, and then fired those that didn't make the grade - how would your performance be affected?

I would suggest that you will spend time preparing for the test, and not doing your job. I'd also suggest that you would think twice about joining an organisation that did this, and I would imagine that you'd feel pretty angry about the process.

But what about your manager? The role of a manager is to arrange their staff in the most effective way; to mentor and coach where needed, discipline as appropriate and deliver the best results for the company. 

In this system, you don't get to control your own staffing - nor does anyone else in your company. So why bother? The best you can do is coach your staff for the test - but you are not empowered to make any decisions that truly matter.


The people working at your company are trying to do their jobs well. No matter what the level of the employee they are trying to the best possible job within the constraints you set. 

Nobody comes to work to be mediocre. But if you promote a culture which continuously reinforces a lack of trust, you will drive your employees to behave poorly, remove their ability to innovate and devalue their contributions to your organisation.

If your goal is to promote a culture of continuous learning and self-improvement, provide the opportunity to so in practical ways. Make time and resource available - reward that behaviour with compensation and recognition. 

Should you wish for more demonstrable and visible passion, then provide the opportunity for those interested to take acting and improvisation classes to help engage those around them.

If you want people to work more effectively and be better engaged - let them do their job, listen to them, support their needs. Trust that they will perform to the best of their ability if you give them the chance.

A longer description of the proposed policy is here in Tristrams' own words. He talks at greater length about making space for learning, especially in under performing schools which have less time for professional development.