The Perfect Stranger

In my career I have seen many people struggling to get out of a job what they invest in it. Most of us devote more than time and energy. Our heart and soul goes into it. We breathe our job 24 hours a day.

While we might not exactly radiate pure joy every Monday morning, we chose to pursue this work-life praxis during the best part of our life. It allows most of us to pay the bills, live a normal life and care for the little things in life, like our parents professed. Even if the job is soulless and stifles our very existence, we religiously stick to this pattern as we believe there is no alternative to lead a satisfying, let alone prosperous life.

We dream of more.  More money, to make our life extra-ordinary, more meaning, to quench our soul. We’re convinced that one day, we’ll have a career that not only gives us fulfillment — money, meaning, flow, freedom — but that also has a definitive goal or a clear purpose. Making getting up in the morning a piece of cake.

When we find that job or career, it becomes a big thing. It drives and motivates our life to the point where it defines us. The job or career becomes our identity. We are our job and the job is us. Our dream has become true: we have traded up from money to meaning! Happiness is within our grasp. We have made it. Every second of the day, we’re convinced we’re animating our values in our working life, allowing us to enjoy the little things, as we have the big thing. As we are the big thing. Because the big thing defines the little things.

Is this the dream we need to pursue? Do we need to pursue money and trade it up for meaning?

Rather than hoping to create a harmonious union between the pursuit of money and meaning, we might have better luck trying to combine values with talents. This is not my idea, nor is it recent: Aristotle advised ‘Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.’ Maximizing our talents and holding true to our values makes us great nurses or exceptional gardeners, web designers or shepherds, musicians or waiters. Exploring our talents to address true needs will most likely result in a more fulfilling and harmonious work-life than any other ambition or motivator.

Still I’d like to add something to this. It is a fundamental need of every mammal on this earth. It’s something we do naturally as children. Namely play. Chateaubriand wrote over a century ago that become a master in the art of living, you cannot draw a sharp distinction between work and play, labor and leisure. A master of life hardly knows which is which. He or she simply pursues his or her vision of excellence through whatever he or she is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he or she is working or playing. To themselves, they always appear to be doing both.

Getting up this morning, I decided to play. You’re reading the result. Because in the depths of winter, I finally realize that within me lies an invincible summer. I’m just making sure I’m not a perfect stranger to myself.

 

 

Where innovation is a sin

Working in Central-Africa and Greece, I cannot help but think that the strongest force shaping the future, is the past and that our current thinking about the world of work is hopelessly outdated. The gap in our global village of work has never been as wide, the exclusion of young professionals has never been as big.

In our post-industrial era, we have to revisit our way of thinking about work, its purpose and how it’s organized economically. The digital era over the next few decades will in the West marginalize many jobs to meaningless minimum wage roles or wipe them out altogether while the exodus from the poverty stricken regions on the planet will increasingly continue in force. More than two thirds of the population will not qualify for rewarding roles in the near future. Exclusion looms on all fronts.

You will argue there will be different and exciting roles, that many meaningless roles will be replaced by robots and that we’ll all live in a sort of Silicon Valley, going to work with our pet, dressed in our shorts and favorite T-shirt.

I fear this will be for a minor percentage of the population. Like for those who work at Uber, not drive around for Uber. Our digital economy seems to be a race to the bottom where the winner takes all and the losers are many.

We all appreciate the value of work differently. We all seek a different purpose in work too. One specific value of the many we extract out of work allows us to be part of a social and cultural setting: money. Excluded from the world of work means for many exclusions on other fronts, from the golf club to health care, from recognition to self-respect.

The powers that be are religiously holding on to the world of work as is, portraying their thinking as virtuous in defense of a culture and a set of values. Innovative thinking, anticipating the challenges of the new paradigm of work, is considered a mortal sin. They are hereby ruthlessly condemning future generations to exclusion. Lifelong learning with strong workmanship might cater for the happy few but excluding the majority of people from a purposeful working life is not a viable policy. I call on all concerned to rethink work in its broadest sense. Where a job rewarded is not based on fighting time. Where a job is rewarded on human value creation, not extraction.

In the picture above, sent to me by a dear friend, I see the dichotomy these guardians of culture face. Defending the virtues of the past against an unavoidable future, powered by algorithms and Wi-Fi. Physically recreating a space back in time is what a museum does. People however live in the real world. Nothing however is so difficult as not deceiving oneself (Wittgenstein).

 

The Immigrant Song

In previous blogs, I’ve been more than critical of guru’s claiming a numbered list of thoughts, habits or actions to be the secret formula to success and happiness. You know, the 3 to 10 things you should do to succeed in life, or at least as an entrepreneur or in a job, and why not, in a marriage, relationship or parenting. Don’t get me wrong, there might be some great advice or help in those lists but at best they are fragmented generalizations rarely worth your selective memory space. I dare you to recite any such list you have read in the last 3 months.

Why I am so critical of a numbered list has as much to do with the immeasurable but deeply unfounded disappointment in my former math teachers as with my experience that any perceived reality is far too complex, unique and situational to be reduced to a single number of rules, actions or thoughts.

Anyway, I thought 10 items on a list to be the maximum number palatable for audience and guru’s alike and 3 to be the dummies number. Imagine my luck when I came across Benjamin Hardy’s 35 things you should know before becoming successful, another well-intended contribution to the life-learning internet library. The first 33 suggestions, ranging from popular wisdom to boring platitudes, do not really differ from things you have read a hundred times. Tell me otherwise if you disagree. Reading number 34 left me bemused: The Music You Listen To Determines Your Success In Life. Plenty of you are now thinking you must have been listening to the wrong kind of music at one point in your life. Rest assured, it is never music causing misfortune: it was an iceberg, not the orchestra causing the Titanic to sink. Nor do I think the other 34 statements carry in their own right any more legitimacy to success. Hence I disqualify advice #34. It bothers me though. It suggests there is right and wrong music. Qualifying the latter as Entartete Music is just a step away.

I understand all music acts on its audience and connects to the real world but what charms one individual gives headaches to another. I am totally overwhelmed every time I listen to Ligeti’s Herbst in Warschau while others just hear dark painful ugliness. This short piece of music equals for me the auditory archetype of fall. Not just the season when thousands of leaves fall off a tree but also the fall to their demise of millions of victims of war and genocide. But that is just me: musical meaning remains vague but foremost intensely personal. The last 15 seconds of this piece always send me in a spiral of uncontrolled sorrow and awe for all human suffering. I can very well fathom this doesn’t resonate with you and that you hear something totally different, if not noise.

I have no advice to give you but to stop reading any list claiming any solution to any problem you think you might have, reclaiming valuable time. Time you could spend on listening to music. Your music.

With Syrian fugitives turning into European immigrants , I side with Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki who says: There are days when Led Zeppelin is the only right thing to listen to.

Jazzisms

Organisational structures have been around for as long as man can remember. They exist in all shapes and sizes, ruled by processes, systems, norms and eventually values. All have purpose and people in common: without people, purpose can’t be achieved and without purpose, people underperform and leave.

Whether your organisation is a ‘command and control’ hierarchy or a holacracy, it can’t survive without purpose and people rallying behind it. Add the elements of time, money, competition and bureaucracy and you have in a nutshell all the ingredients of our world of work. Any work.

Until you get to world of jazz. There is no obvious purpose to jazz, nor is there any given organizational framework to produce jazz. Jazz lacks established processes, norms and rules. It is not fulfilling a common human need, there’s little or no money involved, and there’s no competition worthy of the name: everybody plays in everybody’s trio, quartet or quintet. You could argue jazz musicians play to fulfil an inner need or to please or shock the audience. Maybe. Is it art for art’s sake? Is it pure experience? Who knows…I guess every jazz musician has a different drive, let alone values.

Still jazz survives. Not by much bit still. There’s no denying it’s a form of work and it requires some form of organisation to produce this music. Some of you might call it a cult or a religion but I don’t believe jazz musicians are trying to save humanity. There is logic to the madness, more than jazz musicians care to admit.

I believe the world of jazz does one thing exceptionally well. It has downscaled norms, rules, processes and systems to the absolute minimum. There is no room for bureaucracy or conservatism. It has transformed this mind-set into a culture of creativity and innovation, expressed in music. It continues to reinterpret its history without ever repeating the past. It defeats habit by originality. It’s in a constant flux, exploring infinite possibilities with a given set of material, just like today’s organisations do.

Organisations are like homes filled with archaic furniture. Clear some rooms to let creativity in. Jazz has the courage to pursue melodic lines and rhythms that go against the grain of orthodoxy. Organisations have the same capability. If people follow, they have found purpose.

For those of you working in a world without jazz, there’s comfort in the bus stop pictured above. This playful project funded by Awesome Pittsburgh sees a regular bus shelter transformed into Pittsburgh’s Smallest Jazz Club. Located in the city’s cultural district, the immersive bus shelter experience is reinvigorated by a high-quality sound system that plays non-stop music by local non-profit Manchester Craftmen’s Guild Jazz and features images of jazz musicians on the shelter walls.

 

Courage

At the pool in a B&B nipping a local cabernet franc, I listened to a French citizen describe his view of life, France and ultimately Europe. Considering himself an exception as a hard-working entrepreneur, he enumerated all the wrongs of France and then of Europe. None of them worth repeating as you probably heard them all before though I was painfully reminded of one when I tried to buy bread on a Sunday. All the bakeries in the villages I could cycle to were closed. Only to be reminded on Monday that the working week in central France really starts on Tuesday. Anyway, when we debated Europe and its future or demise, his views were straightforward. The EU is failing on all accounts because of its lack of vision, leadership, strategy and execution. In his words, it’s the worst run start-up acting as a mature company: the emphasis is on making the numbers, not taking risks, staying focused on the task at hand with incremental improvement and increased centralization. The EU merely tries to address the financial component while vision, strategy and execution lack. Meanwhile thousands of refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean, Greece is bankrupt, youth unemployment is skyrocketing and Hungary is building a wall. How can anybody in his or her right mind feel good about this?

His disappointment ran deep. He even seemed to be in physical pain when he talked about Europe. He hoped for new courageous leaders, formulating a European vision, addressing youth unemployment through vast projects, getting Greece back on its feet and making Hungary understand it needs to change.

Multiple thoughts ran through my head as he was talking. There’s one I’ll share with you. I could not help but compare corporate organizational cultures with the current political scene: the overall lack of courage, hiding behind a set of numbers, runs through both as a common thread. What bothers me is that in business probably like in politics, the wrong behaviours get rewarded.

In business, the wrong behaviours are those that ensure financial or any other form of success in the short term while giving up on growth and opportunity in the long term. This norm signals to the employees what matters to the company. As a result, the company culture will be risk-averse, stale and driven by fear, crippling the ability to grow and innovate. Non-uniform behaviours like producing a stream of new ideas, questioning current approaches, coming up with original answers and implementing those insights, will be discouraged and unrewarded.

The courage to innovate, to question the status quo, to go after new markets and potentially fail, requires tolerance for conflicting views and a non-hierarchical collaborative working process. What this means for HR is radical. Grooming and rewarding disruption always is.

Courage comes in many forms but it expresses itself always in risk-taking and willingness to experiment. In the words of Thucydides, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

Just like Richard the Lionheart (pictured above) I wish you all the courage to go out and meet what is before you. The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage. Thucydides again.

 

 

If the EU were a company

It’s hard not to write about Greece these days. Over the past 5 years, Greece has not been out of the news. I will not bore you with another political or economic analysis. As one COO always used to say: we are where we are, so let’s move on.

As a Europhile, I can’t really say I’m happy with how the EU is handling the crisis. As an HR professional, let me make the following comparison:

If the EU were a company, shrinking a division’s revenue with 25% (Greece), accumulating losses while obstinately claiming that the non-working strategy will bring positive results in the long run, I’m convinced the Board of the company would have taken action. Removing the leadership team of the company, including the CEO, would have started sometime in year 2. The board would not have stopped there. The divisional leadership, its structure, processes, strategy and people would have been thoroughly reviewed and corrected. Any plan seeking board approval would need to show growth and perspective, no matter what.

I will leave it to you to draw any political or economic conclusions out of this metaphor.

There is however one important leadership lesson I want to draw your attention on.

Successful turnaround stories in companies all over the world share the implementation of a cultural shift. Failing companies need to address their corporate culture first and foremost. Innovation, a willingness to try different strategies and risk-taking are key elements of any positive cultural shift.

Like Greece, the EU needs a cultural shift. It needs to get the EU citizens to embrace adaptability, dialogue and tolerance as a cultural norm. Opposing viewpoints or country-cultures can no longer be a barrier to collaborative success. We need to stop thinking and acting on a national level, lift our head and start thinking on a European one.

Our leaders today sadly fall short on this front. But, unlike in a company, don’t we get the leaders we deserve? Have we not voted for them?

I hereby attach a cartoon by Ilias Makris I found on www.ekathimerini.com published on 10/07/2015

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