"Frank's skill in asking the right questions is un-mistakable, and is at the core of his leadership philosophy.

The power of these questions cannot be underestimated, especially if you want to lead and not manage."
—John Cave
Westhaven Worldwide Logistics

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“I did it my way.”

So sang the world’s most famous crooner. And so often we hear those words and their equally famous melody at funerals.

But would you really want this as your business epitaph?

All too often, in my view, business leaders and senior managers cling to an unalterable belief that imposition of their way of doing things on their staff is the right way forward. They think that that’s what they’re paid to do.

When it’s not.

They’re paid to find the right way forward for the business for which they are responsible. And the right way forward will emerge from tapping into the reservoir of intelligence about their business and the market in which it operates which resides in among its staff.

Let me give you an example. A newly appointed manager of a small financial services company operating in the agricultural industry could not believe the low interest rates being charged on mortgages. He went round the country telling the land agents through whom much of the company’s business was derived that rates needed to rise.

This switched the land agents off… and a key source of business.

Had that manager bided his time and properly consulted with his management team he would have been more wary. He would have realized that his company was able to offer highly competitive rates because of its low cost infrastructure and that this was a crucial point of differentiation from competitors. And he would have realized the key importance of the land agent sales channel. But he didn’t. Because he knew best.

So, think carefully about your approach. Wouldn’t a better business epitaph be…

“I did it our way”?


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The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But…

Factual accuracy is a concept drummed into us from an early age. Who among us has not at some time or another said to a child, “Now, you must tell the truth.”

It’s a concept that some children will readily adopt. Others, of course, will develop a lifelong attachment to mendacity.

And others will be somewhere in between.

And forgive the pun, but the truth is probably that we all push the definition of truth occasionally. It’s a human trait that’s no doubt prevented a lot of strife in arenas as diverse as international affairs and any family setting.

So why am I banging on about the truth this week?

Well… I heard recently about a Managing Director who insisted that every meeting began with ‘Good news’. So, at the monthly senior management meeting, he would go around his table of Directors demanding an example of good news from them.

“Great”, I hear you say. “Begin the meeting on a positive.”

There’s something in that, of course, but what if I tell you that the company concerned was a division of a Bank.

What if I make the reasonable observation that this obsession with good news was symptomatic of a culture in which executives were afraid to speak out about difficult issues, where the word ‘problem’ was non-pc (you had to say ‘challenge’) and where straight-talking middle and senior managers were passed over for promotion, managed into career cul-de-sacs or worse still, managed out of the business.

It’s the sort of culture where a lot of key influencers could be burying their heads in the sand about issues like sub-prime mortgage arrears and worryingly high bad debt levels. Hiding from the truth.

All of which was a problem, sorry… a challenge.

And none of which was good news for any of us.


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Do Leaders Need Training?

Pass the soap-box because I am about to talk about one of my biggest bête-noires.

At any given time, across the globe, thousands of management hours are being expended on training courses.

Managers are being taught everything from the latest employment law to time management and from strategic planning to corporate and social responsibility.

But how many managers struggle from one day to the next with that most testing of their responsibilities, managing… and in particular, managing people?

The simple answer—plenty. In fact, probably most of them.

I know some managers in a late stage in their careers who reflect, sometimes with surprise as if it’s never occurred to them before, on the fact that they have never attended so much as one training course on the art of people management. It’s as if managing people is something they’re expected to have acquired by osmosis or divine intervention… or simple instinct.

So, back from their time management training, they continue to be worried by Fred, whose negative attitude and undermining asides at departmental meetings consume so much energy (and time).

And fully versed in putting together their strategic plans, they remain distracted by Fiona’s refusal to fulfil the requirements of her job description and reluctance to co-operate with her immediate colleagues and those in other departments.

Which is a shame. Because the collective wisdom of how to deal with these and other perennial management challenges is out there, no doubt already decanted into the right kind of training courses and ready to be shared with all the struggling managers in the world.

Leadership point?

As a top priority, put your struggling managers together with the right training courses.



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Encouragement Or Just Bullshit?

A triple AAA rated market leading UK bank has an interesting approach to staff encouragement.

About five years ago they introduced an appraisal marking system which had the following three overall markings:

Under performed

These proved too few, so ‘Met Plus’ and ‘Met Minus’ were introduced…
Somewhat contradicting the dictionary definition of ‘Met’.

Now, armed with five overall markings, everyone was happy.


You see, alongside this appraisal system, senior managers also introduced a quota system to guide bonus rewarding. The quota system demanded that each marking be given to a percentage of staff in each department.

This included 15% of all staff being marked as ‘under performed’. They were to be placed on a ‘close management’ basis encouraged to move their performance out of the red ‘under performed’ zone and into the black nirvana of Met Minus.

What goes up must come down, of course. As some are ‘promoted’ out of close management, others fall into the trap. The relentless 15% underperformed label ensures that.

A good system?

They would argue so. They’d say it was more a carrot than a stick.

I say it was an orange stick and instead of leading people they were beating them with it.

Are you leading or beating?

A subsequent blog entry will return to the subject of leading people and rewarding them.


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Stop Drowning Your Employees!

Somewhere in your organisation, someone is drowning.

And it’s your fault.

They’re drowning in a raft of new initiatives that you’ve set in motion. They’re drowning in the bureaucracy that’s grown in your organisation over time—unnecessarily complex processes and procedures that have long lost sight of their original reason for being. They’re drowning as they try to achieve the numerous objectives they’ve been set for the year that do not seem to relate to the overall strategic aims of the business that you shared with them at a conference once.

And they’re drowning in a sea of emails, many of them from colleagues in the same room.

…it’s not your fault.
I see!

The raft of new initiatives are there to show shareholders that ‘things are happening’. The complex procedures are there to mitigate risk and ensure compliance. Managers are encouraged to set multiple objectives because ‘we like to keep raising the bar’. And as for emails…well, what better way to communicate?

Listen to yourselves! Your role is about creating a set of working circumstances that make it easy to deliver performance. Make the objectives relevant, straightforward and measurable. And as few as possible. Get in a Quality Control Manager to audit, revise and streamline procedures. Have just one or two at most ‘new initiatives’.

And have e-mail free Fridays.



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The Top 150 Management & Leadership Blogs

Jurgen Appelo informed me, that my blog made his list of The Top 150 Management & Leadership Blogs external

In addition Jurgen added a Twitter external list so one can follow external all these great people and an OPML file external with all the RSS feeds of these blogs.

This list is a great addition to the—unfortunately outdated—Personal Development List.


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Go practice.

Show me a CEO who in her first week doesn’t mention the words ‘culture’ and ‘change’ in a press release or internal memo and I will write to congratulate her personally.

Newly appointed leaders like to talk about changing their business culture because effecting that kind of change sounds like the universal panacea to business challenges that all senior managers look for.

And quite possibly, they are right… they’re just wrong to shout about it because they are probably setting themselves up for failure.

Why? Because culture is a bit of a will o’ the wisp—elusive when trying to pin it down and difficult to define and describe. It’s as much in the atmosphere and professionalism or otherwise exhibited in the Board Room as it is in the middle manager who spends an hour a day smoking outside the front entrance and the junior member of staff who walks by the eyesore piece of litter that he cannot remember discarding the day before.

Culture isn’t changed overnight either. It won’t be sorted in a couple of conferences. Nor will it be sorted our by the ‘core values’ campaign that quickly peters out to be replaced by next year’s initiative.

No. Culture changes are not effected from the top down. They’re effected from the inside out. Identify an individual or group of people or department that exhibits desired behaviours. Encourage these, add to them… grow these people into acknowledged examples of “how we’d like to do things round here“.

Reward them.

Their peers will notice and they will over time adopt the behaviours.

That’s the theory anyway.




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The conventional definition of management is getting work done through people, but real management is developing people through work.
Agha Hasan Abedi


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