Sunday, August 31, 2014

Do Consumers Allow Themselves to be Ripped-Off?

Through the centuries we’ve had various significant era’s from the industrial age to the tech age; but will history look back on this time and consider it the rip-off age. Has the focus on profits and profit maximisation been the green light to take unfair advantage and rip-off customers?
The energy sector has been criticised for many years for not passing on the benefits they gain from drops in global energy prices; especially when as an industry they are so quick to pass on increases in energy prices. Though there has been a lot of talk about this sector taking advantage of their customers by not passing on price decreases – it has never gone beyond talk, and customers haven’t taken up the challenge of taking on these supposedly ‘untouchable’ companies.
An article in the Daily Mail on 14th July highlighted how “Ofgem has announced that the Competition and Marketing Authority in the UK will investigate the energy market to establish if major players are taking advantage of price movements to unfairly boost profits”; and the same article also highlighted how “complaints about energy companies are at a record level in the UK amid growing anger over inaccurate bills.”
The insurance sector is guilty of reducing insurance cover, leaving consumers far less covered than a few years ago and worse still paying more for this reduced cover.
The banking sector seems to have hit the headlines on a regular basis for breaking some kind of rule to maximise their profitability and now current account customers could be paying over the odds for their overdrafts, a recent in-depth study revealed in July. In the UK the Competition and Marketing Authority recommended a full inquiry amid concerns that consumers are finding it hard to compare costs, thereby stifling competition.
It’s not just the leadership of organisations in various industry sectors that are at fault - as consumers have been aware of their treatment for years and have not had the courage of their convictions to stand up and take the fight to companies that rip them off. Possibly strategically these ‘bad’ organisations have worn the ‘fight’ of their consumers down over time, to the extent there is wide spread apathy from consumers who have no energy to take any action – believing there’s nothing they can do – so they just put up with the constant abuse by certain sectors, telling themselves that this is just the way it is.
This of course is just a green light for some organisations to continue with their poor business practices – since their customers just keep coming back for more.
Governments are also to blame for not taking a much firmer stance on many issues where consumers are clearly being taken advantage of for organisational profit – remembering that many of the executives of these firms participate in share schemes where they make money on top of their bonuses from these ‘shady’ practices.
With the consumer base being so apathetic to challenge big corporates, these sectors will continue to operate with impunity; because it’s become part of the business culture of these sectors and is sadly an expectation of shareholders. So it will take more than talk to bring some form of ethical fairness to strategies that focus on ripping off the customer in front of their eyes.
What’s unique about these industries is the majority of people believe their behaviour is unfair to downright criminal and yet nothing is done to rectify the situation and protect the consumer. Even those reading this far will be feeling apathetic to the situation and it’s a lot worse for the older generation – where we’re actually asking the elderly to be street smart and business savvy which is just so unreasonable.
Nothing is likely to change until consumers start standing up for their rights and using their group consumer power to force ethical change – until this happens, consumers will continue to moan amongst themselves – but nothing will actually change until they make a stand.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

How Often Do You Laugh at Work?

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Maybe it’s an age thing for me now, but not a day goes by when I don’t have at least one really great laugh at work with colleagues – sometimes I suppose it might be defined more as just a giggle and other times I find myself crying with laughter and it makes me feel great. It’s like a shot of adrenaline, as afterwards I seem to feel more relaxed, am more focused and have loads more energy.
Over the years I’ve worked in cultures that embraced laughter within their ranks and you can feel the energy as you walk around their offices – employees just seem to smile more. Then I’ve walked the corridors of those more ‘stuffy’ organisations where ‘fun’ and ‘laughter’ aren’t traits that are associated with ‘hard’, ‘productive’ work in the minds of their leaders.
Jacquelyn Smith wrote in Forbes how “tasteful humor is a key to success at work, but there’s a good chance your co-workers aren’t cracking jokes or packaging information with wit on a regular basis and your office could probably stand to have a little more fun.”
An international research team at Oxford University found that when people laugh hard, the kind that leaves them almost physically exhausted with tears in their eyes, the human body triggers the release of endorphins that help reduce the feeling of pain and promote feelings of general wellbeing. So the next time the project team you’re leading hits what feels like an insurmountable obstacle, find something funny about the situation and then laugh your way to figuring out a creative solution.
There’s no doubt that laughter helps break down barriers and helps build relationships – other employees are more likely to engage with you if you have a sense of humor as you make communication easier.
Michael Kerr, an international business speaker, president of Humor at Work, and author of The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank (Dec. 2013), says that “dozens of surveys suggest that humor can be at least one of the keys to success. A Robert Half International survey, for instance, found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Another study by Bell Leadership Institute found that the two most desirable traits in leaders were a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor.”
Some of the reasons why laughter is a positive trait in the workplace include;
People will enjoy working with you;
Humor is a potent stress buster;
It is humanizing and it puts others at ease;
It helps build trust; and
Helps break down barriers;
It boosts morale;
It creates a positive working culture;
People who use humor tend to be more approachable;
Humor can allow your company to stand out; and
It can increase productivity.
Laughter should be part of the culture – but if it’s not, then often it’s not easy for employees to start a ‘new’ trend especially if they are a new employee; youngster or someone focused on their career – where they can feel very self-conscious about trying to bring a sense of humor into the work place, especially where there is an atmosphere of ‘stuffy’ leadership.
Leaders who can’t have fun and laugh, and that includes laughing at themselves, are either so caught up in the power of the role they just can’t see how demotivating their style is or simply don’t know how to deal with people having fun. Leopards don’t change their spots don’t expect these types of leaders to read this article and start laughing and bringing fun into the workplace – if you want to change their leadership style it will take a lot of time. But from a positive perspective do be aware that there are organisations where laughter and fun are part of the very fabric of their organisational culture and where their employees are much more productive and innovative than their stuffy counterparts.
Smith, J. (2013). 10 reasons why humor is a key to success at work. Forbes, 3 May, on-line.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Let's Talk About Leadership?

Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind highlight in a 2012 HBR article that “the command-and-control approach to management has in recent years become less and less viable. Globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership. What will take the place of that model? Part of the answer lies in how leaders manage communication within their organizations - that is, how they handle the flow of information to, from, and among their employees. Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.”
Groysberg and Slind mention that “smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high. Furthermore, they initiate practices and foster cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility throughout their organizations. Chief among the benefits of this approach is that it allows a large or growing company to function like a small one. By talking with employees, rather than simply issuing orders, leaders can retain or recapture some of the qualities -operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment - that enable start-ups to outperform better-established rivals.”
Yet one has to ask if this is ‘nice to have’ theory or if it is really happening in the work place? It’s strange, as over the last 20 years I must have asked over 5,000 employees at various levels and across all business sectors – “what makes a great leader” – and you know what, 99% of them know the attributes of a great leader, the problem always comes in the application.
Leaders know that ‘communication’ and ‘people conversations’ are vital to optimise an employee’s motivation, innovation and performance – yet for some reason that has been identified yet; most leaders are constantly bad at having these conversations.
Groysberg and Slind highlight how “personal conversation flourishes to the degree that the participants stay close to each other, figuratively as well as literally. Organizational conversation, similarly, requires leaders to minimize the distances - institutional, attitudinal, and sometimes spatial - that typically separate them from their employees. Where conversational intimacy prevails, those with decision-making authority seek and earn the trust (and hence the careful attention) of those who work under that authority. They do so by cultivating the art of listening to people at all levels of the organization and by learning to speak with employees directly and authentically. Physical proximity between leaders and employees isn’t always feasible. Nor is it essential. What is essential is mental or emotional proximity. Conversationally adept leaders step down from their corporate perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their people.”
It was Stephen Covey in his 7 Habits Programme who recognized that the trick to highly effective communication was learning to listen with the intent to understand and not with the intent to reply. It’s a simple philosophy and one that most people embrace as ‘correct’ – and yet again in the workplace you still find leaders who know a principle is right, yet fail to apply it on a daily basis.
Finally Groysberg and Slind conclude that “this intimacy distinguishes organizational conversation from long-standard forms of corporate communication. It shifts the focus from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas. It’s less corporate in tone and more casual. And it’s less about issuing and taking orders than about asking and answering questions.
Conversational intimacy can become manifest in various ways - among them gaining trust, listening well, and getting personal. Where there is no trust, there can be no intimacy. For all practical purposes, the reverse is true as well. No one will dive into a heartfelt exchange of views with someone who seems to have a hidden agenda or a hostile manner, and any discussion that does unfold between two people will be rewarding and substantive only to the extent that each person can take the other at face value.”
Although the command and control approach to leadership might be less viable in today’s global economy it appears that the ‘mail’ to most leaders got conveniently lost in cyberspace; since ‘trust’ is a trait many leaders simply don’t know how to garner. Where there is a constant contradiction between leaders demanding that their employees both trust and respect them, without making an attempt to earn it first.
If you’re a leader then the simplest way to more effective leadership and building a culture that includes trust is through regular, open two-way communication – it’s as simple as that – the more ‘people conversations’ you have the more optimal your results will be.
Groysberg, B. and Slind, M. (2012). Leadership is a Conversation. Harvard Business Review. July. [on-line:]

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What Should the Minimum Working Age Be?

A recent article in The Times by Rhys Blakely highlights how “Bolivia has caused anger among human rights advocates after legalising child labour from the age of 10. Supporters of the move, signed in to law in July 2014, say that lowering the minimum working age from 14 merely acknowledges a reality. Many poor families in Bolivia have no choice but for children to work, and backers say the new laws offer safeguards.”
There is a natural reaction in ‘the West’ to equate child labour to sweatshops – where a sweatshop is defined as a factory or workshop, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions. Many workplaces through history have been crowded, dangerous, low-paying and without job security; but the concept of a sweatshop originated between 1830 and 1850 as a specific type of workshop in which a certain type of middleman, the sweater, directed others in garment making under arduous conditions and where child labour laws were often violated.
Yet at the other extreme if we look at some teenage Internet millionaires from the West, they all started their ‘careers’ as kids – Nick D’Aloisio, Cameron Johnson, Adam Hilderth, Juliette Brindak, Ashley Qualls, John Maggenis, Adam Horwitz, Jon Koon, Tyler Dikman, for example.
Where Nick D’Aloisio started using computers at 9 and writing apps at 12; Cameron Johnson was 5 when he started selling vegetables to neighbours and was 9 when he started his first business ‘Cheers and Tears’; Juliette Brindak was just 10 when she came up with ‘Miss O and friends’; and Tyler Dikman was selling lemonade at 5, making $22 an hour and at 10 was making $74 an hour and even started investing in stocks.
So is it the age that’s the problem or the type of work and experience that is the real crux of the problem? The Bolivian situation is ‘meant’ to be a win-win for both parties – and though these youngsters aren’t likely to be Internet millionaires is some work experience at a young age better than none at all?
In the US the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets 14 as the minimum age for most non-agricultural work. However, at any age, youth may deliver newspapers; perform in radio, television, movie, or theatrical productions; work in businesses owned by their parents (except in mining, manufacturing or hazardous jobs); and perform babysitting or perform minor chores around a private home.
The US legislation is mirrored in many Western countries where in today’s social media and reality driven world there are a host of parents trying to get their kids accepted as ‘child stars’ of some kind or another – be it in movies, music, anything. And one wonders which is worse – a child in the West being ‘forced’ into audition after audition; or the 10 year old in Bolivia?
The new law in Bolivia stipulates that “ten year olds will be able to work as long as they are under parental supervision and also if they attend school. Twelve year olds may be contracted to work for other than their parents.” The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, who worked as a boy herding llamas, has backed the new working age.
Opponents of the new law argue that people who start work as children obtain less education, followed by lower earnings as adults – and they are then likely to send their children to work, perpetuating the cycle.
So in the 21st Century should we be looking at age – or the working conditions and opportunities for the child – and when we are critical of countries like Bolivia are we sure that our home countries have got the ‘recipe’ right for our own ‘home-grown’ children.
There are more child celebrities and entrepreneurs than ever before in the West, and though this is great for them – I don’t think the jury has reached a verdict on the impact on other young children; and whether this has a negative influence on a child’s perception of work and reality.
Some may argue that a 10 year old in Bolivia is more ‘aware’ of their own environment and the opportunities than many of their counterparts in the West – so what is the answer and how should one define a minimum working age?
Blakely, R. (2014). Bolivia law allows children to work from the age of 10. The Times, Saturday 19th July, p.44.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What’s the Best Way to Keep Your Career Moving Forward?

With pay increases in line with the consumer price index being the exception rather than the rule in the first part of the 21st Century, many people, especially those starting out on their careers don’t seem to have given much thought to medium and long term career goals.
It seems to be more about getting a job with decent pay and trying to keep that job; ideally with a large corporate that ‘supposedly’ offers more job security, greater benefits and a ‘sniff’ at some form of career development and advancement.
There seems to be little correlation between career goals and career decisions; where career goals are considered more like ‘dreams’ and aren’t believed to be achievable unless one is ‘just lucky’ and either in the right place at the right time or happen to bump into 'someone’ that can help you achieve your ‘dream job’.
David Lax, who’s the editorial board member of ‘Negotiation’, advises you to begin by taking a broad approach to employment. “Most people err by focusing too much on salary and not enough on career satisfaction, says Lax. As a result, many people end up in stable, well-paying jobs that they don’t like very much.
Exploring alternative paths through research, career coaching, classes, or volunteer work can give you psychological bargaining power in negotiations involving your current job. Even finding out that you don’t want to walk away any time soon can help you recommit and reengage,” (p.1).
You’ll find many authors suggesting that to get noticed you offer to help more; to take on more and to show more empathy for your boss and their stresses. But this statement only works in a healthy organisational climate – there are plenty of managers out there that would love to have employees willing to take on more and show real empathy for their predicament, as they would then take full advantage of your charity and you would get nothing more in return – except the potential for disciplinary action when you start to realise you’re being used and pulling back on giving all the extra help.
It’s an extremely sad reflection on how cynical many managers have become – that extra effort does not equate to appreciation and career development opportunities.
Not everyone achieves their career ambitions and to be brutally honest it’s probably the exception rather than the rule. First you have to have a realistic expectation of your ‘dream’, which means you have to understand what the ‘dream’ is, what it entails, and what skills and experience you’ll need at a minimum to have a chance of success.
Second you need to do the research to understand whether your dream career path is something you have to ‘qualify’ in – i.e. have specific academic achievements, as required for most professions, for example – and whether it’s best to have these qualifications early in your career or whether it’s a career you can ‘train’ for much later in life.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, identify and develop ‘real’ relationships with key ‘stakeholders’ that can support your career. This doesn’t mean pestering some professor on linkedin; or becoming an annoying supporter of a business professional – it means spending time identifying who are the people that can help you achieve your dream and then building honest relationships with them, most likely over a lengthy period of time. These relationships cannot be ‘fair weather’ relationships where you only contact people when you want something and must be genuine if you want to optimise your future potential in a particular field.
Fourthly, you need to learn to be patient. As much as it’s the exception that people genuinely achieve their career goals, it is even more rare to achieve those goals within your desired time frame – where more often than not, you take two steps forwards, one step back, two steps forward again and so on; as you compete for your place in your chosen field.
Finally ‘going’ for your career dream will always have some form of risks associated with it – whether it’s short-term financial constraints; or a lengthy commitment to an education path with no guarantees at the end of the day; or having to move around organisations to get the experience you need – whatever the ‘journey’ it will have risks and you need to be honest with yourself and your family (if you have one), in respect of what will be involved and any ‘hardships’ that will have to be endured.
But if you are fully committed to a career dream and you have your feet firmly on the ground in respect of what’s going to be involved then the next bit is to just enjoy the journey – as “it’s better to have tried and failed; than never to have tried at all” – whatever happens you’ll have a story to tell and you will have lived your dream.