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.



Charles’ law

Is the business world similar to the natural one? Is it Darwin all over? Will more than 99% of the companies become extinct, just like the more than 5 billion species that ever lived on earth?

I hear you say no, not at all as most companies adapt and transform to survive. My memory tells me otherwise. I for one and probably you have worked in companies where transformation programs promised deep and fundamental change, just to realize 6 months later that the more things had changed, the more they had stayed the same. Changes in these companies become a cyclical phenomenon, whereby everybody ducks and holds on to their chair, till the winds of change quiet down, only to resurrect with the arrival of a new leader and the circus starts again.

So, if companies transform and survive, how do they do it?

Let’s first look at some traditional mistakes companies who fail to transform succumb.

The most common mistake companies make is changing the players without changing the context. True, you will have players that perform a little better and companies can even stumble upon the proverbial hero who manages to perfect the P&L. True, profit might increase marginally, shareholders might be happy for a day but nothing beyond the quarter has changed. For ninety-nine percent of the workforce, the change goes unnoticed, in their day-to-day job and in its financial and other recognition. Next quarter’s challenge is this quarter’s challenge: just add or subtract a couple of percentages. These companies burn CEO’s, CFOs, etc. and never get to the right team composition, etc. They believe companies are a one-man show and it only takes a great leader to transform a company.

The second most common illusion companies entertain is the belief that a different structure is required as a foundation and guarantee for fundamental change. These companies are likely to reorganize every so often, balancing between centralization and decentralization, hierarchical and flat structures, etc. These changes are nothing more than variations on a theme. I like to compare any traditional company structure to a maze. Replacing one maze with another might bring some temporal relief but is soon to reveal itself as another maze. Employees are very creative on how to overcome the challenges any maze brings but can’t escape the reality of living in a labyrinth. These companies burn so much internal energy that the customer becomes a necessary evil.

The third fallacy relies on the speed and depth of culture change. Based on the premise that great leadership drives different and performant behavior, culture change becomes a given and success automatically follows, right?  This usually is the case in pockets of the company but then you hit the wall of what one former executive I worked with called ‘the middle management permafrost’. Two or three levels down, where reality kicks in and the customer comes into play, changing the way things are done takes iterative improvement cycles, making change a step-by-step process, with minimal impact and hard to notice.  And 20 years on, the same culture is still around.

So, is change a fairy tale? Are most companies just rearranging the deckchairs on their proverbial Titanic? Why aren’t they imitating the successful newcomers on the block?

Let’s look at these young, fast-moving dynamic start-ups who rushed past the $1 billion revenue mark in no time. Latest count stands at 152 private such companies, with Uber coming 1st worth $68 billion (valuation in June 2016). Do they not dramatically change the world of work? Are these not the companies that have overcome the maze problem by organizing as networks, have they not overcome the management problem by giving associates the liberty to work when, where and how they prefer and have they not installed a great and performing culture of work? Isn’t that the fundamental change these companies like Airbnb bring?  or a company like WeWork, who’s raison d’être is ‘workspace, community, and services for a global network of creators’? Have they not changed the game?

I would argue not. Reading Petervan’s blog on ‘cogs in networks’, in which he wonders whether humans are becoming cogs in networks, just like the drivers for Uber, whereby extracting value from the network for the sole benefit of the monopoly results in squeezing the single driver, I see a 19th century industrial organization at work, where associates work ungodly hours for a meager compensation while the shareholder turns into a mogul. I would argue most newly formed companies, who are nothing but a platform, echo the 19th century organizational mentality and have not brought any change at all. These organizations have certainly not brought more humanity to work nor are they defining the future of work. On the contrary, we’re back in the age of monopolies and 19th century capitalism.

So if the newcomers are old school, then what? How do traditional companies adapt and survive?

In my view, successful fundamental transformation only occurs when a new market reality allows a stakeholder, primarily the customer, to impose a drastic power shift on all stakeholders of a company, forcing the company to fight for its survival. Today’s new market reality is mostly, if not only, driven by technology in one form or another.  When the company stakeholders do not accept the power shift in time, as in 99% of the cases, the company in its current setting doesn’t survive.  When they do, the company might survive but in the process will have to undergo a metamorphosis similar to a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Change only happens if it is the only option for all stakeholders. If not, it is purely cosmetic, trendy, superficial and serving a political purpose.

So, who is changing the world again?




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.

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 published on 10/07/2015