Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Makes a Job Enjoyable?

What makes a job enjoyable and how many people actually get up every morning to go to a job they enjoy? The thought, for some, may be of money - but money in itself is unlikely to make a job enjoyable (though it may ease the pain).

In the Sunday Times dated 21st August, John Harlow wrote an article describing how in the next twelve weeks, a US government agency will make the first decisions, about flying mankind to the nearest inhabitable planet and whether we leave the solar system in giant tankers or personal ‘space yachts’, in deep sleep or frozen embryos.

Does this sound like an enjoyable and exciting job?

The government department called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Dapra) will seek to draw up ground rules for exploration and colonisation of worlds beyond the solar system. Depra is not ‘science fiction’ and is currently testing driverless cars in the Californian dessert, remote-controlled mechanical insects for crowd surveillance and thought-activated prosthetic arms.

One of the people who is employed for Depra is Regina Dugan, a Director, who will oversee the first meeting to define the first steps towards this interstellar adventure. At first this may seem an adventurous and exciting job, taking away the day-to-day monotony that many employees endure. Yet the decisions that have to be made go way beyond science, and include the missions destination, the legal ramifications, the sociological impact and the philosophical issues. Questions like ‘who should travel – should it be a small team of scientists or a cross-section of humanity.’ What about religion, law and order etc – and do we want them to represent a current fixed vision of humanity or to be free to create something else out there?

This is likely to be a thankless task – as it will be impossible to please ‘all the people’ that will have an opinion. Though appearing exciting, this could well be a highly stressful job and not that enjoyable at all. It’s the kind of job that looks exciting on the surface but where you are being set-up to disappoint the masses (who will need someone to blame) and you will never actually know the results of your decision – good or bad.

It seems to be human nature to look at other peoples job’s and feel envy for the excitement, adventure and challenges the job appears to offer – yet what we see on the surface, can often hide the real day-to-day role and accountabilities that truly define the job in totality.

Defining enjoyment in the work environment can prove problematic, unless one can fully empathise with the whole business environment and understand ones day to day responsibilities in respect to ‘the whole’. It’s in this area that some managers lose the plot - by not ensuring that all their employees understand the importance of their role and how their contribution, however minor they may perceive it, adds to and supports organisational success.

An organisation should be a cohesive unit of individual parts, which through effective strategy and leadership, work like a well oiled machine to optimise the organisations performance and ensure continuous improvement and sustainable growth. Any one of these individual ‘parts’ that is not working, as one, with the rest of the organisation will guarantee a sub-optimal solution – which in itself will impact the potential ‘cash’ that is available to be ‘shared’ by the organisation, whether as salary increases, bonuses, or both.

Management could do a lot more to make the less than attractive jobs more enjoyable to those employed in these roles. It’s a simple fact that though the job might not pay much, might not require university degrees and doesn’t in itself hold great responsibility – someone has to do it, and a motivated employee is much more productive than a demotivated one.

Simply put, your organisation won’t function without them – regardless of how many qualifications and years of experience your executive team has – so be smart, and try to make all jobs in your organisation enjoyable to do – you’ll be surprised by the positive impact on performance.


Harlow, J. (2011). Stock up your fridge, ET – we’re coming to stay. The Sunday Times, 21st August, p.7.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Makes a Good Boss in Unsettling Times?

In an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, Robert Sutton wrote that “when people – independent of personality – wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules that others are expected to follow don’t apply to them. To make matters worse, many bosses suffer a related form of power poisoning: They believe that they are aware of every important development in the organization (even when they are remarkably ignorant of key facts). This affliction is called “the fallacy of centrality” – the assumption that because one holds a central position, one automatically knows everything necessary to exercise effective leadership,” (p.44).

But does this mean that everyone who has any form of organisational power thinks like that – and does it also mean that they are unable to control their ‘power thoughts’ over the needs for effective leadership - for if so, we are in for a rocky ride in the leadership dimension….Fortunately not, as there are good bosses who respond to the needs of their people in unsettling times.

Sutton highlights how followers devote immense energy to watching, interpreting, and worrying about even the smallest and most innocent moves their superiors make. This is something we’ve long known about animals; studies of baboon troops show that the typical member glances at the alpha male every 20 or 30 seconds to see what he is doing. And although people don’t check what their boss is doing two or three times a minute, this tendency is well documented in human groups, too. As the psychologist Susan Fiske puts it, “Attention is directed up the hierarchy. Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa.” (p.45). Related studies also show that when people down the pecking order feel threatened by their superiors, they become distracted from their work. They redirect their efforts to trying to figure out what is going on and to coping with their fear and anxiety – perhaps searching the web for insight or huddling with their peers to gossip, complain, and exchange emotional support. As a result, performance suffers.

The importance of predictability in people’s lives is hard to overstate, and has been demonstrated in numerous studies. The most famous is Martin Seligman’s research on the signal/ safety hypothesis. Seligman observed that when a stressful event can be predicted, the absence of a stressful event can also be predicted. Thus a person knows when he or she need not maintain a state of vigilance or anxiety. Seligman cites the function of air-raid sirens during the bombing of London in World War II. They were so reliable a signal that people felt free to go about their business when the sirens were silent. The hypothesis was bolstered by studies in which some animals and not others were given a warning in advance of a shock. Those that were never warned lived in a constant state of anxiety. (p.45)

During overwhelming times, a good boss finds ways to keep up a drumbeat of accomplishments, however minor. The organizational theorist Karl Weick shows in his classic article “Small Wins” that when an obstacle is framed as too big, too complex, or too difficult, people are overwhelmed and freeze in their tracks. Yet when the same challenge is broken down into less daunting components, people proceed with confidence to overcome it. (p.48)

Compassion can and does take many forms. At its heart it is as simple as adopting the other person’s point of view, understanding his anxiety, and making a sincere effort to soothe it. (p.48) Compassion is most important when it helps people retain their dignity. (p.49)

Bosses who increase predictability, understanding, control, and compassion for their people will allow employees to accomplish the most in a time of anxiety – and will earn their deep loyalty. A manager who provides all four will be perceived as “having people’s backs.” That’s a good phrase to keep in mind when you know your people are feeling vulnerable, because it will inform all your actions, big and small. (p.49)

So are you a Good Boss and are you being responsible in terms of what your people may lack the most in unsettling times: predictability, understanding, control, and compassion.


Sutton, R. I. (2009). How to Be a GOOD BOSS in a Bad Economy. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87 Issue 6, p.42-50.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What Do Shareholders Really Want?

In a 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review, Roger Martin asks the question “have shareholders actually been better off since they displaced managers as the centre of the business universe? The simple answer is no. From 1933 to the end of 1976, when they were allegedly playing second fiddle to professional management, shareholders of the S&P 500 earned compound annual returns of 7.6%. From 1977 to the end of 2008, they did considerably worse – earning real returns of 5.9% a year. If you modify the start and end dates of the two periods, you can produce performance numbers that are at parity, but there’s no sign that shareholders benefited more when their interests were put first and foremost,” (p.60).

One may be asking why Martin is looking at these specific years and that is because modern capitalism can be broken down into two major areas, the first, managerial capitalism, began in 1932 and was defined by the radical notion that firms ought to have professional management. This period is noted for the famous work by Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means who published their paper entitled “The Modern Corporation and Private Property”, which stated that management should be divorced from ownership.

Then in 1976, the second era of modern capitalism started, when managerial capitalism was strongly criticised by Michael Jensen and William Meckling in their paper entitled “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behaviour, Agency Costs and ownership Structure. This paper, which Martin highlights has become the most-cited academic paper of all time, argued that “owners were getting short changed from professional managers, who enhanced their own financial well-being rather than that of the shareholders. Stating that managers were squandering corporate and social resources to feather their own nests,” (p.60).

There seems to be a lot of criticism about ‘fat cat’ organisations and their ‘greedy shareholders’ – but how true are these comments in reality. Many institutional shareholders are responsible for pension funds and similar investment vehicles. These portfolio’s aren’t short-term in nature, in fact far from it, these institutional investors are looking for long-term sustainable results – and short-term gains followed by a big loss doesn’t instil confidence in these investors.

Also similar to customer theory, many individual shareholders have unrealistic expectations in respect of investment returns – some are looking for a quick profit for themselves with little concern for the long term interests of the organisation. Wanting to get in and get out with a quick profit – where in this instance the focus of the investor is purely self-interest.

So why is it that companies that don’t focus on maximising shareholder value deliver such impressive returns? Because, says Martin, their CEO’s are free to concentrate on building the real business, rather than managing shareholder expectations. Martin’s article highlights how, back in 1997, just after the IPO, Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry, made a rule that any manager who talked about the share price at work had to buy a doughnut for every person in the company. In 2001, the COO mentioned RIM’s surging stock price and was subsequently actioned with buying 800 doughnuts for the employees - apparently he had to make special arrangements to have that many made and delivered. Either way there hasn’t been a recorded infraction of the rule since then, (Martin, R, 2010, p.64).

What organisations want are shareholders who seek an investment that is in the interests of both parties and not the shareholder that has only their self-interest at heart, especially if it’s short term self-interest. These short-term focused investors will never optimise sustainable organisational performance, which is more likely to give greater returns over the long haul and will have little interest in strategies that optimise anything beyond this years returns. A short-sighted view that is likely to lead to long term disaster.

As Martin concludes “managers like profits as much as shareholders do, because the more profits the firm makes, the more money is available to pay managers. In other words, the need for a healthy share price is a natural constraint on any objective you set. Making it the prime objective, however, creates the temptation to trade long-term gains in operations-driven value for temporary gains in expectation-driven value,” (p.65).


Martin, R. (2010). The Age of Customer Capitalism. The Harvard Business Review. Vol. 88, Issue 1, p.58-65.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Are First World Leaders Above the Law?

I overheard a young boy ask his mother for more pocket money the other day. When she explained that she couldn’t afford to give him more, I heard the young man say “but Mum, can’t you just raise your debt ceiling?”

If a Financial Director managed an organisations finances like some first world governments have managed there’s – not only would the individual be fired, but they would also face criminal prosecution and most likely jail time. Are political leaders above the law and if so, aren’t they then exactly the same as the dictators we abhor and vindicate around the world.

First world citizens are beginning to look like puppets, being the easiest bunch of people to be pushed around and dictated to by the very people they ‘democratically’ vote in to power every few years. In the West we have been taught to expect Third World countries to need financial assistance on an annual basis as they try to ‘build their economies’ in order to be able to compete with the First World masters of economic ‘best practice’. But First World countries are showing themselves to be fraudsters when it comes to financial management – and while their own finances get into deeper and deeper trouble, they are still prepared to spend money they don’t even have on an odd war here or to support another country there – with apparently no one to answer or account to. That can’t be right and can’t be democratic, surely?

I have often heard criticism of today’s younger generation for not being responsible – often as a general comment, rather than anything specific – but who’s showing them how to act responsibly. Can we really blame this generation for not being financially astute, when all a country has to do when they need more cash or get into financial trouble is simply to raise their debt ceiling and borrow more cash. What a life – wouldn’t it be great if we could all do that?

Daily, First World countries are seeing an increase in individuals and families suffering from poverty - being made homeless and needing food donations – yet many of these countries are prepared to spend money beyond their shores for no immediate benefit – while leaving their own citizens to suffer. Until you’ve been homeless you can’t underestimate the negative impact this has on individuals and families - the shame, the desperation, the sadness – which can even lead to the ‘head of the household’ committing suicide, as the stresses just become too unbearable.

Many of the political ‘policy makers’ within our First World community sit in their fancy private clubs, sipping their 50 year old whiskies making decisions, with no semblance of understanding of the impact their ‘simple’ decisions have on the lives of the very people they have been put in ‘power’ to help and support.

As much as there appears to be a lot of debate and criticism of the lack of good and effective leadership in business around the world, we actually need these less than perfect business leaders to help gather citizen support to hold their political leaders to account and if necessary to prosecute them as well. These indefensible arrogant and self absorbed politicians need to be held responsible for their actions – since through their decisions, they set the very foundation for their countries organisations to be successful in the global business market, where they can create ‘real’ wealth and employment opportunities.

There still appears to be a dreadful colonial arrogance to political leadership in the First World that can only have a negative impact on the optimal development of our future leaders across all spheres of human interaction. It’s time only true experienced professionals were allowed to lead nations and develop countries….