Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Can we save us from ourselves

What do Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have in common?  Eric Schmidt, Executive Chair at Google, identifies them as 'The Gang of Four" and suggests that their collective and competitive efforts will shape the future of the internet.  Schmidt states that Google has a value system that supports free and open internet access and that this value system, supported by the others, is the best thing that can happen to the internet.

Seriously, he said that. See his interview with Charlie Rose on PBS.

Just what are the credentials of this Gang?

Amazon started selling books online in 1995 and while you cannot dispute its retail success (Sales in excess of $70 billion in 2013), there has been a huge human cost to the smaller local retailer.

Apple was a floundering niche computer manufacturer until the unexpected success of the iPod, first introduced in October 2001.  Apple has subsequently grown to become the world's largest company based on stock value.  But its' future remains clouded without the Steve Jobs personality to guide future product development and already it faces serious competition in both its iPhone and iPad product lines.

Facebook is the social media darling of the day.  But even with over 1 billion users, it is already looking for the 'next' in order to remain relevant.  Last week it spent over $16 billion on a company with less than 60 employees simply because it had over 400 million users.

Finally Google, a company which is essentially an online library and reference tool, makes it money from clicks.  That is hardly an awe-inspiring mission statement.

Collectively these companies have about 75 years of corporate life and yet Schmidt has the audacity to believe that they will shape the future of the internet.  I am not sure which frightens me more; the fact that he believes it or the possibility that he is right!

While I do not dispute the concept of  a 'free and open internet', I am troubled by the suggestion that the values and principles of so few may be the guiding light for this evolution.  Any institution that operates without boundaries will inevitably devolve to the lowest common  denominator.  Consequently  a tool intended for good is vulnerable to corruption and more often used for evil. 

If the 'free and open' means that there cannot be any censorship, who decides what is good and what is not?  Do we leave that up to the Gang of Four and their long history of sound judgement? 

I don't profess to have all the answers.  But this much I do know.  The internet has the capacity to be   one of the greatest tools for good that humanity has seen.  Paradoxically, it has an even more grave potential for harm.  Any suggestion that the Gang of Four can make the important value decisions on its future is na├»ve in the extreme. 

The question then becomes '...can we save us from ourselves...' or are we already trapped in this labyrinth, a black hole from which no light can escape.  

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Ethical not mythical

Over the past couple of years SNC Lavalin, one of Canada's pre-eminent companies operating in the international marketplace, has been found to have acted in a corrupt manner.  Charges have been laid against current and former employees for alleged criminal activities in both Canada and abroad - typically relating to bribery.  The company has already agreed to certain sanctions imposed by the World Bank and more penalties are likely to follow.

Beyond the obvious public relations issues that this kind of corporate behaviour elicits, consider some of the deeper implications that are less apparent at first glance.

  1. When any company participates in illegal, immoral or unethical activities - bribery, price fixing, influence peddling etc. - the message to all employees essentially says "we are not good enough to compete on a level playing field".  Whether the indictment is interpreted about the company's products, services, systems or people does not matter.  The message is the medium.  The workplace is poisoned and employees are embarrassed and disheartened by the fact that leadership has such a low opinion of the company's ability to compete.
  2. When these kinds of activities are known internally they establish the standard for acceptable behaviour for all employees.  While the corruption may be played out at the executive level, the bar is set for everyone.  How is anyone held to account for cheating on an expense account; for taking that extra long lunch; for abusing company benefits etc.  When the line of acceptable conduct is blurred at the highest levels, the implications flow to the deepest levels of the company.
  3. What happens to the opinions of key suppliers?  Will they feel that they have been cheated in their negotiations to supply products or services to the company?  Will they want the speculation that they have somehow directly or indirectly supported the activities of the cheater in order to benefit from future sales?  Will they be concerned about the opinion of other companies that they serve and the potential that these firms will not want to be tainted by association? 
  4. Then there is the attitude of other clients whose business with the offender has been conducted above board.  Unfortunately the same potential to be tainted by association must be considered.  It is only natural that the questions will be asked to determine how wide spread the corrupt activities have spread.  This brings an unnecessary and costly focus on others who must assert and defend their innocence.    Furthermore it will dissuade other companies from considering business with the offender simply because of the optics.
SNC Lavalin and others conducting themselves in a like manner often use the time worn argument that others do it or that this is the customary way to conduct business in the particular market.  Effectively they are justifying their actions through the application of situational ethics.  Whether you operate in a local or in a global market those arguments simply don't hold water.  There are no shades of grey, only black and white.  Just a 2+2 always equals 4, right is right and wrong is wrong.  It is not a case of perspectives.

As my title implies, ethics cannot be mythical.  Ethics are not some unicorn or Cyclops or other fantacy of literature.  Ethics are real, measurable and consistent.  And they hold you accountable.

Too often, for the SNC's of the world, ethics have been found difficult and thus left untried without due consideration of the extent of damage that their choices will inflict.  Don't compromise your leadership role by sacrificing that which is easy to build but almost impossible to rebuild.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Fear not!

It seems that the most basic human emotion is that of fear.  For millennia, those in positions of power have used this reality to control their subjects.  Whether that role was as the head of a nation or simply the local tribe, fear was the over-riding means by which control was exerted and leadership was maintained. 

Fear played itself out in various means.  At its' extreme, fear of death motivated people to stay in line.  But fear of being criticized; fear of failure; fear of injury or harm; fear of humiliation or rejection; fear of the unknown; all of these prevented individuals from doing anything that might upset the status quo.  As long as one had the basic necessities of life there was little likelihood that someone would take a risk.  For all intents and purposes, people were paralyzed by fear.  And those in positions of authority used this knowledge to take and retain power.

We would like to think that as we have matured as individuals and as a society that this primal instinct would have subsided. After all, we live in a civilized democracy in which one is essentially free to express themselves and to make educated choices. 

But in truth, fear remains our default response.  This continues to be evident in many levels of leadership.  Those individuals entrusted with authority, acting out of their own fear of failure or rejection, repeatedly use fear as their primary tool to motivate others. In the workplace the fear of death is clearly not an option.  But the fear of termination or the fear of humiliation are almost as effective weapons to control the activities of the employees.  During this period that we call the Great Recession, fear has become an even more effective option because, with the high levels of personal debt, one can simply not risk becoming unemployed.

What a commentary it is when, at a time when we most need to have a positive message, we are instead guided by fear...

At one time in our history, fear was a protective emotion that evoked our flight or fight response to danger.  The adrenalin that our bodies produced spurred a defensive posture for our protection.  But in the absence of danger, fear is an entirely inappropriate response to the challenges we face and it is an especially inappropriate way in which to provide leadership.

Fear does not encourage, it criticizes.  Fear does not produce an environment of safety but one of  dismay.  Fear does not promote creativity, it provokes stagnation.  Fear does not provide hope, it instils hopelessness.  Fear does not free, it paralyzes.  Fear produces only more fear.

We must have leaders who approach each day with joy.  They do not  deny the realities or the challenges that they and their teams face.  But rather than view these as obstacles they look at them as opportunities.  Leaders must inspire by communicating a vision in which all things are possible. 

Imagine reporting to your workplace knowing that your ideas and contributions will be welcomed; where your best efforts are appreciated even when they came up short; where you are supported and encouraged ; and where hope produces more hope. Surely this in the primary objective of every leader!

If you lead, I encourage you to discard fear as an option.  It never was a good idea and today it is even worse. Instead, instill a passion for the opportunity set before you.  If you have a joy towards the goal, your team will join you in a manner that you can never fully appreciate until you try. 

When fear is not an option, neither is failure.


Saturday, 1 February 2014

Lessons from Amish, Inc.

On a recent trip through the US, we stopped at a favourite location in south-east Pennsylvania.  This is an area that has a large Amish population.  These people are as recession proof a group as you can find.  And they are incredibly successful! 

As this was not our first trip to  the area, I decided to take some time and really observe this group in action.  There must be some lessons for us to apply to our daily activities.  Here are the top ten insights that I gleaned.

  1. Be focused.  Do what you do best and do it better than anyone else.  Long ago the Amish decided to be the best farmers and craftsmen that they could be.  Using livestock to pull plows and wagons, they have developed skill sets that have served them well for centuries.  And their yields are outstanding.
  2. Use everyone's talents in the best way.  Not everyone is gifted with the same skills and abilities.  But everyone can contribute something and the Amish are great at delegating responsibilities to the appropriate individuals.
  3. Train and equip before assigning work.  Before anyone is expected to take on a task, the leaders ensure that the individual has the training and tools to do the job properly.  No one is simply thrown into the fire and allowed to fail.
  4. Count the cost before you start.  The Amish do not take on debt.  Before they take on a task - buying more land; building a home or barn - they save the money and are able to pay for everything up front.  In this way there is never a serious concern if the harvest is less than expected.
  5. Be thankful, not entitled.  The community never 'expects' success.  They put in the hours and effort.  There is never a feeling of entitlement when things work out well.  Rather they are thankful and know the same level of effort must be applied the next day, the next month and the next year in order to achieve the results that they  need.
  6. Committed to the leadership.  Within the context of the community there are certain individuals who are nominated into leadership. From them, everyone understands the goals and the importance of their contributions.  Therefore they are committed to the leaders.
  7. Do something that gives you joy.  No one is forced to stay in the community.  At an age of maturity young people are even encouraged to take a year away to experience the broader world.  If they choose to return, it is because the community and the work fulfils brings them joy.
  8. Plan for succession.  Often the most difficult transition in any company is from one leadership group to the next.  The Amish have understood this for hundreds of years and have proven very adept at identifying and preparing the next generation of leaders.  Their results demonstrate the importance that they place on this process.
  9. Grow with a purpose.  With large families the rule and not the exception, the communities outgrow the available space.  As a result, expansion is a planned event.  They also understand that a new community cannot consist of one must be a community.  All the skills needed to support a community are represented in the families that participate in the expansion.  This ensures the greatest likelihood of success.  Nothing is left to chance.
  10. Be moral, ethical and legal.  The Amish operate with a religious imperative and these values are implicit in their operations.  But a lack of religion in your workplace does not mean that these principles should not be intrinsic to the way in which your company operates.  Employees, clients, suppliers and others all respond better when they know that you can be trusted to keep your word and to deal fairly.
Take a look, take a long look, at how Amish Incorporated has managed to outperform all others for almost 300 years.  They may not be the biggest land owners, they don`t drive Mercedes or BMW`s or any other German made vehicle.  Their horses and buggies won`t set land speed records. 
But they are successful, happy and content.  Their formula works and their principles set a fine example.  There`s not a lot wrong with that!