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    Cleaning off the bookshelf

    I have been getting a ton of books lately, mostly sent by publishers or PR folks looking for help to spread the word about their latest works and even occasionally to pitch their authors as guests on the HR Happy Hour show.  

    I spent quite a bit of time in the last few days trying to work through some of the growing pile of books that have come in, and since no one (including me) wants to read a week long series of book review posts, I am going to rip off some mini-reviews of the last five books that have been sent my way.


    Get Rid Of The Performance Review - Samuel A. Culbert with Lawrence Rout

    Culbert offers a no-nonsense evisceration of the traditional employee performance review as a one-sided, boss-dominated, ineffective, and emasculating process that serves almost no positive purposes. Rather than take the common position of 'performance reviews themselves don't suck, rather badly done performance reviews are the problem', Culbert recommends their total abolition, to be replaced with what he calls the 'performance preview'. The performance preview stresses looking forward, eliminating barriers to performance, and shared accountability between boss and employee. 

    The Why of Work - Dave Ulrich and Wendy Ulrich

    In 'The Why of Work' Dave and Wendy Ulrich describe the importance of understanding the deeper motivations of employees and by extension organizations in crafting jobs, strategies, and structures that will lead to more meaningful and enduring success. This is a almost a kind of spiritual take on traditional workplace issues like job fit, teamwork, and even performance management. Dave and Wendy attempt to offer proof of the importance of organizations and leaders as 'meaning makers' and not just 'profit makers' and offer a roadmap to build those capabilities. 

    Good reads

    Get A Life Not A Job - Paula Caliguiri

    The most important message in this book is simple - there is no more loyalty between employers and employees, the 'psychological contract' between the two is forever broken, and you and you alone are responsible for your own career trajectory and satisfaction.  Since no one is 'looking out for you' any longer, you have to look out for yourself, and subsequently need to craft a series of what the author refers to as 'career acts', defined as 'simultaneous and stimulating profitable activities'. There are plenty of practical recommendations for discovering motivation, professional development, and personal security.  

    What I did not like about the book is that is comes off a bit elitist ' I teach, I write, I consult, I give paid speeches, see I am living this story', and it also tends to send a message that the things we do for fun and leisure (hobbies, travel, blogging, whatever), now all need to have an element of 'profit' in them, or they really aren't worth pursuing. Maybe in a terrible economy that may be true, but it still is a hard pill to take.

    Multipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter - Liz Wiseman with Greg McKeown

    In 'Multipliers', the central thesis is one that is easy to agree with - some leaders get the best out of their teams, making everyone feel able and willing to contribute their best, while others tend to actually diminish the motivation and capability of the team, mainly due to a relentless pursuit of personal power. I think most of us have encountered leaders and managers on both ends of the 'multiplier/diminisher' continuum, with most people falling somewhere in between.  The book offer some solid advice for managers to better self-evaluate their own behaviors to assess their performance as leaders that need and should strive to 'raise the game' of all the team's performers. 

    Best Book of the Bunch

    The Killer Angels - Michael Shaara

    You know the story of Gettysburg, a devastatingly brutal and important battle in the American Civil War. Perhaps you have seen the movie adaptation of the book.  The Killer Angels puts context and insight into the leaders and men that fought in the battle, one that holds such significance in American military and political history.  A classic book, a fast and compelling read, and lessons that all Americans should understand.

    Well that's it for now, until I get through the next batch of books comes in!

    Note : I did receive free copies of all the above mentioned books.  In exchange I promised nothing - good deal huh?  Seriously, many thanks to the authors and publishers. 






    Realizations on Father's Day

    This Father's Day having just spoke to my Dad on the phone, (we live about 300 miles apart and sadly do not get to visit as often as we should), I realize that I am very lucky to still have him around to talk with.

    Some readers of this blog may remember that my Dad fell extremely ill in the first part of this year, and it was nothing short of remarkable that he came through (after a long fight), and is now home and seemingly his old self again.  But I know there is likely some lingering damage, a person can't undergo such a physical and mental trial and not have after effects.  Ali and Frazier both were never the same after the Thrilla in Manila, despite continuing their careers for some time after.

    But such is life, and for now having Dad with as always on Father's Day is a great feeling.  

    I am not going into the usual section about how dedicated and wise Dad is (and he is), how he always put the family's needs ahead of his own (he did), and how he set a daily example of responsibility, integrity, and care (he did all those things).  

    My standard line I like to use about my Dad is this: By age 25 my Dad had graduated from college, served his country as an officer in a war, gotten married, had two children, landed a professional job, and bought his first house.  My top accomplishment at age 25 was I think I had seen all of the 'Planet of the Apes' movies.

    I think it is easy (at least for me) to fall into the trap of thinking that the world has changed so much, become so fast, complex, nuanced, etc. that 'old school' men (and women) like my Dad, (and possibly yours), are not able to keep up, and not equipped to really help and advise us like they did back in the day. Just like our parents tried to shelter and protect us when we were kids, I think many of us do the same thing today in reverse.

    Who wants to admit to your Dad, who was your hero, especially as an adult that somehow you are failing, or indecisive, or somehow falling short of the standards and examples that they held up for a lifetime?

    There is a strange cycle with our perceptions of our parents. When we are kids we don't think they know anything about us. We become young adults and start having our own families and for a time realize our parents really were on the ball and were right about many (if not most) things. But then we get a bit older (and they do as well), and we start to see them less as trusted advisors, and more as gentle, fragile people that are no longer equipped to grapple with life's complexity.

    But the thing is, this cycle of perception makes no sense, our parents are not the ones that are changing, it is us. 

    If you are lucky enough to have your Dad with you today, I hope you feel blessed. I know I do. And I hope you remember that despite age, illness, or quirks of personality, that Dad is still the hard-working, honest, caring, and wise man he always was.  

    He has never changed.  

    Happy Father's Day to all the Dads.





    The League of Uniform Nomenclature

    All organizations, companies, associations, teams, and even groups of friends have a shared language, terminology, and ways of describing, defining, classifying, and organizing their worlds.

    American football teams and coaches are notorious for their own unique and often complex sets of terminology used to describe standard formations and plays.  A recent article in Sports Illustrated about the progress of Denver Broncos rookie quarterback Tim Tebow's adjustment to professional football emphasizes the complex terminology in the team's offensive schemes. The article notes that even an experienced player coming from a different team has to undergo a process of 're-learning' the new terms and language of the new team.

    This is certainly important, the shared language has to be understood by all eleven members of the team, as the success of a given play is largely incumbent upon each player understanding not only their responsibilities on the play, but also awareness of the other ten player's assignments. In an environment like football, where a premium is placed on consistent and reliable execution of actions and reaction, the shared language is essential.  New players to the team, be they rookies like Tebow, or experienced veterans simply must adopt the language, the 'uniform nomenclature' if you will.

    All workplaces have their shared languages as well.  Anyone who joins a new organization has to spend the first days/weeks/months learning the lingo - terms, definitions, acronyms, etc. Larger organizations may even have an entire manual dedicated to housing all the 'official' definitions and acronyms.  Most onboarding programs spend at least some time making sure that new employees start coming up to speed with the language, as certainly an important influencer of time to productivity is the ability to communicate inside the organization in ways that the organization understands.

    But I wonder if in the rush to explain, to inform, even to indoctrinate people into the organization's shared language that it is easy to go a bit too far, too focus almost entirely on our system, our rules, our process, our methods, and our language.  Sure, it is important that the essential information about the organization structure and essential bits of terminology are shared and understood, but 

    New employees come into the organization with an entire history of their own, and if you lived up to your stated (you know you have stated this somewhere) goals of hiring the best and brightest, then there stands a pretty good chance that there are element of process, organization, and yes even basic nomenclature that are better/faster/smarter than what you have been using all along.

    So perhaps instead of taking the new rookie on the team and handing them the 527 page playbook to memorize before they get a chance to take the field, give them the essentials, and then give them some room, time, and encouragement to contribute to and improve upon the 'uniform nomenclature'. Because if all that was really needed to sustain organizational success was the need to 'learn the language', then you really wouldn't need to hire the best, just the best at memorizing. 






    Total Football and why it is so hard to play

    The World Cup is in full swing and many of the top HR bloggers like Kris Dunn and Paul Hebert have shared some insights on how aspects of the World Cup experience relate back to HR and workplace issues.  Heck, even the HR Happy Hour show this week is doing a special 'World Cup' themed episode.

    When the World Cup comes around I usually look for a few teams to support, aside from the USA (who usually crash out relatively early), and one of the sides that has always been a favorite is Holland (or the Netherlands).  Getting past the relatively minor annoyance of never actually knowing what to call them - is there a difference between 'Holland' and 'The Netherlands' - they are almost always a competitive side, that plays interesting and attacking soccer/football.Johan Cruyff

    The Netherlands have a rich legacy of football success, mainly stemming from the concept of 'Total Football', a style or rather a philosophy of football popularized by the legendary Ajax Amsterdam teams of the early 1970's that was then revolutionary.

    From Wikipedia:

    In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team's intended organizational structure. In this fluid system, no player is fixed in his nominal role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player fixed in his nominal position is the goalkeeper.

    Total Football's tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular his ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them.

    Total Football produced some remarkable results for the Ajax club, as well as spurring a the national side to the World Cup final in 1974 where they were ultimately defeated by West Germany, 2-1.

    The requirements and the philosophical attributes necessary for success at 'Total Football' have resonance today, reflected in the demands that the modern business environment that places on organizations and individuals. 


    Developing such an innovative style of play required a level of creativity from the manager as well as the players.  Devising such a system meant forgetting the traditional methods and the 'that is the way we have always played' mentality that is common, particularly in leaders and organizations that have had success in the past.  To succeed the system required looking forward not backward.  Organizations and leaders often fail to adequately break free from these restraints, and more openly embrace entirely new ways of working and leading.  


    Total Football required not only skilled and capable players, but ones that had adaptable skills. Since at any time in the match a player could move forward into an offensive role, control play in the midfield, or retreat to a defensive position, the system hinged on a set of players with adequate skills in what are traditionally discrete and differentiated roles.  From relatively early in a player's career they are labeled a 'defender' or 'striker'.  The label does focus them for sure, but it also limits them on the field, and for a certain kind of innovative and creative player may also limit their potential.  I think organizations often do the same with employees, (and too many employees allow it), getting labeled into one particular role, and not being afforded the opportunity to adapt, to extend or stretch themselves into new areas or disciplines.  


    In Total Football the manager has to let go of the ideas of traditional control and strict direction to the players of how to play and where on the field to position themselves.  The system developed organically and collaboratively,  it was not down to manager to make every decision.  The manager has to trust that the players have the right set of skills, capability, and understanding of the mission, but after that he must trust that they will perform on the fields.  And the players must trust each other as well.  In the scheme if one player vacates a defensive position to move forward in attack, another player will need to adjust and make sure the overall team defensive responsibilities are met.  Each player is not just responsible for their small set of tasks or ground to cover, they each individually and collectively are accountable for the overall success of the team, winning becomes the shared and only important objective.


    Total Football enjoyed a successful spell in the 1970s in the Netherlands and in the Ajax club, but has largely faded from modern football in the ensuing years.  Why?  It is a hard system to master, requires looking at problems in new ways, demands the most talented players, with leaders that are not afraid to change the status quo, and a level of trust and commitment between management and players, and among players that is very hard to develop.

    The same reasons that hardly anyone plays Total Football anymore are seen in organizations as well.  It is hard to forget the 'way we have always done it' mindset.  It is easy to slot talent in roles, coach them to high performance in those roles, and leave them there for ages.  It is hard for leaders to set a general philosophy and broad parameters of strategy, and them step back to allow employees to exercise their own creativity and judgment.

    I wish someone still played Total Football on a high level.  Trust me, it would drown out the sounds of the Vuvuzelas.





    More than a picture

    While the number of technologies designed for connecting an organization's people to each other, to better facilitate the sharing of knowledge, and to foster an environment of creativity and collaboration seems to increase every week - many organizations and certainly many if not most Human Resources professionals are still struggling to navigate this new, and often unfamiliar territory.

    With larger technology players like IBM and Cisco joining the literally hundreds of simiar sounding solutions on the market for microblogging, blogging, wikis, activity streaming, idea generation, and on and on, I can see an HR professional getting at best frustrated and confused, and at worst completely overwhelmed and defeated.

    You know as an HR pro and a leader that there is inherent value and benefit in the increased connectedness of the workpforce and of the augmented ability to share and create information. But you are at a loss at how to deploy technology to better enable those outcomes.

    Perhaps instead of just trying one new technology after another and running the risk of succumbing to 'shiny object syndrome' or subjecting your team to a lengthy series of too similar exercises, or remaining frozen in place, effectively stuck by the presence of simply too many choices, there are strategies that can be leveraged to try to drive the kinds of behaviors that you know have benefits, while using tools already at your disposal.

    How about the doing something with the ubiquitous and almost certainly boring company profile/corporate identification card picture?  You know the one that you make sure is as close to DMV or Passport Office level uninspiring and instantly forgettable.

    Quick - take a look at the badge of our friend 'Simon' there on the right - I bet that the badge layout, design, and generally 'I have just been booked for wire fraud' look on his face resembles the corporate IDs that many of you are wearing on a chain around your necks right now (or more jauntily on your hip strapped over your belts).

    But what if instead of insisting on the mug shot style photo that has always served the organization so well, you mixed it up a bit. perhaps by letting, or rather encouraging everyone to get a bit more creative in the 'official' portraits for the company directory and ID badges. 

    I recently came across a piece on the Junkculture blog that highlighted photographer Jason Travis' ongoing Persona series or photographs that 'documents hipster Atlantans along with the contents of their Flickr- J.Travismessenger bags, backpacks and clutches to determine "what they deem important in their lives."

    When you take a look at the images, you get some insight into the person beyond just their physical appearance. The inclusion of the ordinary yet important objects they are carrying offers a bit of a glimpse into their interests, hobbies, even their skills and capabilities. The things that people carry with them can shed lght on not only where they are going (or want to go), but also where they have been.  In an organizational context this certainly could translate to projects they worked on in the past, as well as future career goals and aspirations.

    It seems to me this is exactly the kind of information that the modern collaboration technologies or 'internal social networking' platforms are also trying to collect and capture.  Employee interests, skills, past history, friends, and goals and desires for future assignments and learning opportunities. But you as an HR leader have to spend the time, effort, and resources to sort though these many hundred of technologies. 

    In the meantime, perhaps getting more creative with the company directory photo and the official ID badge might just be a good place to start. Instead of the mugshot - think different, whether it lets employees share their favorite sports teams, hobbies, pets, whatever.  Any thing would be an improvement from old Simon, and maybe more employees would actually wear the badges more proudly and not 'forget' them at home so often.