I watched the world’s top golfers play in the prestigious PGA tournament over the last 4 days. This is one of the top 4 prizes in world golf and a massive achievement for the overall winner.  Winning a “major” is a vital brick in the career of the world’s top golfers.

I want golf and not football as a values system for life.

Dustin Johnson was leading coming into the last of 72 holes and needed only a four shot par to win.  His first shot ended out in the area where a large crowd was gathered.  His second shot was from a rough scrub area in a sandy patch.  He touched the ground with his club before making his swing and striking the ball.  He ended the hole with 5 shots.  This left him in a tie for first place with two other golfers.  He still had a chance to win one of golf’s great prizes (and a lot of money).  As he waited, a rules official approached him and told him that the second shot that he hit from the sandy patch had infringed upon the rules.  After reviewing the situation, Dustin Johnson took out his eraser, rubbed out the 5 he had scored on hole 18 and wrote in the number 7 – in one self-regulated moment taking away his dream of victory.

I was struck by a massive disconnect between the attitude of the players in golf’s “world cup” and the recent FIFA football world cup in South Africa.

The world’s children grow up looking for role models that drive their developing value systems and aspirations and ideas of what a good life looks like.  I believe that sports stars attitudes translate directly into children’s beliefs about what is appropriate behaviour in life.

The French football team were a particularly pathetic example of poor attitude, cheating being ok, laziness and lack of respect for everyone else: countrymen, coaches and the referees.  The team should not have been there in the first place having beaten the Irish in a game where Thierry Henry handled the ball into the Irish goal net in plain view of all the world’s video cameras – but not the game’s referee.  When the referee gave the goal there was uproar from the Irish team.  Thierry and his mates in the post-match interviews did not deny that their victory was a victory of blatant cheating.  Every Irish and French boy watched this.  Every Irish and French boy saw what the football authorities think is ok – if the cheating is undetected by the referee then it is ok.

The world’s most talented football players spend a lot of time falling over without being touched and arguing with the referee over each and every decision.

Once at the world cup, the french team truly delivered a performance that embarassed every french person that I know.  Nicolas Anelka, the captain had a poor attitude in training and was sanctioned by the coach.  He publicly insulted the coach.  He was taken out of the team and sent home.  The rest of the team went on strike and didn’t show up to practice.  The coach refused to shake hands with coaches from other teams believing that they had insulted him.  All in all, a ten out of ten score for pathetic performance. (French team world cup summary on BBC)   The French president was so insulted by this group of fools representing their country that he called them in for a meeting to explain themselves.  Two were sanctioned for sex with an underage girl about a week later.

We are currently in a global financial crisis brought upon by banks doing what they could get away with (like the French football team) rather than what they knew to be right (like the golfers).  I often hear the claim that we need more regulation.  Football won’t change by putting 2 referees on the field.  It will only change when the culture of football rejects cheating and ostracizes those that regularly cheat.

The financial services answer is not more regulation – it is about making sure that the 10, 11 and 12 year old children growing up today see more sports stars with the attitude of Dustin Johnson than Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka and when bankers celebrate great client service (that was the point of them wasn’t it) rather than publish lists of how much money each dealmaker has scraped together.  Goldman Sachs looks more like french football than US golf.  I hope that the generation of 10 year olds of today forget about Thierry Henry and remember Dustin Johnson – and 20 to 30 years from now, when they are running Goldman Sachs – they will live with some basic values (not asking for charity; just not lying, not cheating and not stealing) – rather than defining “not illegal” as their operating boundary.

I have a page of notes in my notebook about asking questions.  In the spirit of breaking the mold of my blogging, I will dump it here unedited…  and a bit of commentary and James Joyce style flow of consciousness thinking to follow.

  • The best answer is a question.
  • Ask question = control power, help other learn.
  • Getting to an answer is easy, asking the right question is the challenge.
  • You don’t change your life by changing the answers, you change your life by asking new questions.  Change “what am I here for?” to “how can I best serve those around me?”  This immediately shifts the line of the answers.
  • “Nobody knows as much as everybody.”

And so to flow…

Steve Shapiro, my mentor at Accenture, has a nice story on his TEDx speech at NASA recently.  He talks of a situation familiar to many.  Can you remember the last time you lost your keys?  You searched.  You began in the obvious spots. Friends provided the wonderful advice “Where did you last have them? They’ll probably be there.”  You search.  In frustration you look in all sorts of places.  Eventually you find them.  The relief is palpable.  The same friend asks “Where did you find them?”  You answer “You know, it was strange.  I found them in the last place that I looked for them.”.

This is the danger of knowing the answer, of expertise, of experience.  We stop when we find the keys.  We stop when we find the first viable solution.  We stop when we get to good enough.  We don’t go on and come up with 10 more solutions that might actually be extraordinary.  I believe that forcing myself into the habit of almost always responding with a question might just allow me to get beyond the spot where I left the keys, the first viable solution.
Image credit: 37signals

“Don’t ask questions unless you genuinely want to know the answer.” Gary Cohen

Gary Cohen on a post on the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation website gives six ways to improve the way you ask. I like “don’t ask questions unless you genuinely want to know the answer.”  This can be a challenge.

John Baldoni in the Harvard Business Review writes a post Learn to Ask Better Questions. He offers 4 ways to improve your questions be curious, be open-ended, be engaged and dig deeper.

Another entrepreneurial friend of mine, Jonathan Davis of Hire Better told me how a mentor of his explained “problems rise to the level that they are allowed to rise”.  “Don’t provide the answer if your co-worker is responsible for the decision.”  In Jonathan’s company they have a fun way of returning responsibility to the person: “That’s your monkey”.

Problems are Like Monkeys

An employee approached Jonathan recently “would you have a quick look at my proposal.  I don’t know whether the client wants X”.  Before Jonathan could respond, the person saw his little wink and said “I know, its my monkey…  I just…  You are right…  it is my monkey.”  It is so difficult in these moments not to provide an answer when you feel you know the answer…  it is much more valuable to give a question that allows the person to grow.

Jonathan tells me that the US military has changed its command philosophy recently.  Gone are the days of 27 step process plans.  They have left details plans and moved to communicating why and how and letting juniors solve the what.  I’ll give an example of this idea:

If you give a friend directions to your house “turn left, third right, second left, straight through 3 traffic lights, past the big tree, left and first house on the right” – if they hit roadworks and have to divert, they are lost.  If you say “head north to the river, find the metal bridge and our house is the third one back on the south side” – they still have a chance of reaching your house even if there are roadworks, changes in road layout.  The first set of instructions are correct but highly brittle.  The role of the leader is to point out Everest, give some limits in terms of acceptable behaviour and values and then ask the junior officers to get there.  This is much more robust and allows the organisation to deal with changes in the environment.

The biographers of Rockerfeller often quoted people reporting that in meetings he would sit and not say anything.  Many times he would appear to not be listening.  However when he did speak, it was always a question that would break the status quo of the discussion and bring out new viewpoints on a challenge.  The same is reported of Michael Dell.  He doesn’t speak much in meetings, but when he does it is almost always a question.

As a business school professor I teach by asking questions, but I don’t teach the students how to ask the right questions.  Verne Harnish said “we are all good at finding the answer to a question – the best leaders help find the right questions”.

Who asks good questions?  What does a good question look like?

I just watched Michael Feiner, a professor at Columbia Business school, on Authors@Google.  He talked about leadership.

Jack Stack, author of the great game of business says that there are two disciplines needed in a company: optimization and innovation.  I think that these overlap with the skills of management and leadership.  Management is about predictability and order, about planning and using resources to meet the plans These are skills of optimization.  Innovation would require leadership.

Leadership is three main things.  It is about:

  1. Establishing direction
  2. Building Alliances and Coalitions
  3. Motivating and Inspiring

How to do that?  Michael says that leadership is managing relationships. Managing relationships is one to one activity, 90% is bellow the surface – activity that is not visible.

How do you lead people to excel?  Here are Michael’s laws of leaders who lead people to excel:

  1. Law of Expectation – Pygmalion effect.  People live up to what you believe them capable of.
  2. Law of Intimacy – know people, what excites them, what frustrates them, passions
  3. Law of Building a Cathedral – connect the work to meaning (Laying Bricks or Building Cathedrals)
  4. Law of Personal Commitment – be available, respond
  5. Law of Accountability – targets matter, disciplined action is required
  6. Law of Pull vs Push – allow others to influence you (“help me understand why you feel that way?”)
  7. Law of The Mirror – a problem needs 2 people – (“what am I doing to contribute to this problem?”)
  8. Law of Winning Championships – none of us is better than all of us
  9. Law of Healthy Conflicts – dialogue, debate and disagreement necessary for growth
  10. Law of Leading bosses – Intellectual courage
  11. Law of Values based leadership – WYHA 2 WYHB (Move from “What You Have Achieved” to “What You Have Become”).

 The video is here (on the blog).

Have a great week.

I listened to Warren Rustand speak on Leadership to the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation event in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia last week.  Warren is a man who has fit the experiences of several lifetimes into his own – he has been in public service, in academia, involved in not-for-profits and has been chairman or CEO of 17 organisations.

He spoke of the seven blunders of the world, a handwritten note by Gandhi that he gave to his grandson Arun on their final day together, not too long before his assassination. These seven blunders are the roots of violence.

  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Knowledge without character
  • Commerce without morality
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice
  • Politics without principle

     An eighth was added by Ghandhi’s grandson:

    • Rights without Responsiblities.

    Number eight underlies the rest of Gandhi’s “blunders”. 

    The message from Warren’s session on leadership was that life comes with responsibilities.  If I see the future clearer than those around me, then I have a responsibility.  If I feel more confident about the situation, then I have a responsibility.  If I know more than those around me, then I have a responsibility.  If I have a comfortable life, a roof over my head and food on my table, then I also have responsibilities. 

    Scary. I can’t choose to opt out.

      Should we focus on the ends to improve the means or focus on the means to improve the ends?

      4088806261_14a21c7dec
      Excellent people or excellent systems?  Photo Credit: kevin dooley

      On Monday I spent a couple of hours at IESE in a research seminar where Harvard Professor Julie Battiliana presented her research on professional and organisational identity in two Bolivian commercial microfinance institutions.

      BancoSol and Banco los Andes were both created in the early nineties in order to provide financial services to a large group of people that had never had access to banking services before.  They both target urban and rural poor who have no fungible collateral and need to borrow amounts under $1,000 to improve their incomes.

      When these organisations were started, they both faced an important foundational question: Who do we hire?  Who can sell our loans, evaluate customer capacity to repay, define terms, approve loans and (most challenging) collect on loans in arrears?

      BancoSol: Hiring Talent

      BancoSol took a strategy of hiring existing talent – they hired existing loan officers from commercial banks alongside social workers from existing NGOs.  The bankers would bring financial expertise and the social workers would bring the right attitudes towards the mission to assist poor who had no previous access to bank finance.  The employee induction and early training focussed around mission and values.  The CEO would regularly remind staff that they were doing “the most important work in Bolivia”.

      Banco los Andes: Build Strong Systems

      Banco los Andes bank took a very different strategy – they hired new graduates direct from college and put them through extensive process training.  The focus of the training was on following a strict process.

      A loan officer in commercial microfinance is a tough job – it requires the ability to be “caring but firm”. A typical day in the life of a Bolivian microfinance loan officer would be as follows:

      • Morning – (marketing) spend time in local markets making contact with stall keepers and traders
      • Afternoon – (sales) visit specific people in their place of work or home
      • Late afternoon – (collections) visit customers whose loans were in arrears
      • Evening – (review, approve) in the office preparing and approving paperwork

      One of these organisations became a great success and its company policies and procedures have become the basis for most of the world’s commercial microfinance organisations today.  The other had to make major structural changes and was stuck with intractable group identity conflicts.

      Which Strategy Succeeded?

      Banco los Andes with its strategy of hiring new graduates and training them intensively in operations was the success.  The intense focus on quality of execution allowed a pride and shared identity to arise in the staff of Banco los Andes.

      BancoSol never reconciled the bankers and the social workers and had two groups who identified more with “banker” or “social worker” than BancoSol.  The bankers thought the social workers were unprofessional “idiots” who didn’t understand commercial reality. The social workers thought the bankers lacked an ability to deal with customers as people.

      Building Systems

      My reflections as I sat and listened to this discussion about tension in organisations, professional vs organisational identity was that it is excellence in our work that allows true meaning and shared purpose to arise.  It is not enough as a leader to give nice speeches about mission and vision – there must be a relentless unwillingness to accept anything less than excellent execution.  It is not enough to sit in the tower and think, there must be a systematic getting out into the world and ensuring that processes are correct, quality is high and people are being held accountable for their goals.

      I came across the concept of Personal Branding via the blog of Dan Schwabel about 6 months ago and have been a regular reader of his blog.  Some ideas have been percolating up through my unconsciousness and drifted into consciousness during a day skiing with my friend Javi. (Thanks to Ana, Piero and friends for inspiring the early morning start and a fine dinner in Andorra).

      The concept we discussed is that it does not matter how hard you work or how brilliant you are, but how others perceive your work or your brilliance.

      There are two types of people in the world:

      • Category One: this person works really hard and achieves a lot – but bosses and peers say, “yeah, but that was an easy client” “yeah, but he had an easy project”.  Category one people never really get the credit for the work that they are doing.
      • Category Two: this person works just as hard and achieves a lot – and bosses and peers say, “he always turns things around” “We knew that he would make the difference”. Category two tends to get more credit than is really due from those around them.

      I was lucky back in 1995 to begin my career with Accenture working on a project at Nationwide Buiding Society with the best manager that I have had.  Michael was a humble, smart and innovative consultant and I spent the first two years of my career working directly for him on a range of exciting, leading-edge projects at Shell, Nat West and the Labour party (pre-power).  He knew how to get the best out of me and keep me engaged and running at 95% (he was great at recognising somebody who was “coasting along” at 60-70% of their potential and saying “you are capable of better than this”; see David Maister on professionalism in Professional Services Firms).

      Due to his coaching and unwillingness to take anything but my best, I was rated the highest possible rating upon my promotion to consultant. The next 7 years at Accenture, I had it easy because when I showed up on a project, the senior Accenture people would say “you guys are lucky to get this guy, he is a ‘band one'”.  If the team that I was on did well, the senior people would say “great that we put Conor in there”. If the team I was on did poorly, the senior people would say “the objectives were unclear” “the project was over ambitious”.  It was like my own guardian angel.  I was incredibly lucky. I had done nothing to seek out a guardian angel, but found that I did have one. (It was also unfair many times when I was not at my best and was receiving credit for some Category One’s hard work).

      My reflections and discussions on the ski slope with Javi (who has great experience in Bain and Banco Santander) were that:

      • The first few months in a new company matter more than any other time in your career
      • The first boss really matter (each time you change company)
      • You can only switch from Category One to Category Two by changing company. It is almost imposible to re-position yourself once you have been “branded”.
      • The more senior we get, the less we can leave this personal branding process to chance

      Do you have a strategy to manage your personal brand? What can you do in the first 90 days? What type of boss would be your best first boss in each new company?  Are you currently in Category One or Category Two?  If you are in Category One when will you change job?

      Most days are much the same. However, great changes in our world don’t come from normal days – they are driven by the extreme events, the outliers.  Something like 70% of all the drops in the US stock exchanges are due to 6 particular days of extreme share price drops. The course of my own life has not been a steady journey along a clearly defined route…  4 or 5 key days, 3 or 4 chance meetings – this is what has shaped the most important contents of my life so far and the trajectory for the future.  This blog post has been inspired by my reading of Nassim Taleb’s book “The Black Swan: The impact of the Highly Improbable“.

      I read the biography of Eisenhower in 2002 when I was studying for my MBA.  Dwight D. Eisenhower was the lowest ranked of his whole West Point class at the age of 42.  He had been passed over for promotion to Colonel twice and was now based on the island of Guam, in the middle of nowhere, and he did not get along with his boss.  Acording to his son, he was trying on pairs of jeans and getting used to the idea of civilian life. 

      On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese navy bombed the US Pacific Fleet based in Pearl Harbour, definitively bringing the US into the second world war. General George C Marshall coordinated the US response to the Japanese attack.  I recall reading that over the next 3 days, Marshall invited many generals, strategists, politicians so that he could brief them and then ask “how do you recomend we respond?” 

      One of Marshall’s administrative staff had been on a West Point course on military strategy led by Eisenhower. In a total cooincidence, Eisenhower was passing through Hawaii on his way to the US.  The guy on the administrative staff told Marshall that a certain general had not shown up for his appointment – and suggested that Marshall spend some time with Eisenhower instead. Marshall said ok and Eisenhower was shown in.  Marshall briefed Eisenhower on the Japanese bombing and asked “how do you recomend we respond?”.  Eisenhower’s response was “give me these 4 guys and 24 hours and I will give you my answer.” 

      The next day Eisenhower described to Marshall his plan, covering logistical response, political response, military response, communications response…  and Marshall said “Good.  Now do it.”  Eisenhower was promoted on the spot and given command.  This moment led to his appointment as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. His plans and execution allowed the allies to win the war. In 1953, he was elected President of the United States and won a second term in 1956.

      If Eisenhower had not been passing through the island of Hawaii on 8th December 1941, how would his life have turned out?  Who would have been the 34th President of the United States?  What would Dwight D. Eisenhower have accomplished in civilian life?  A factory supervisor?  Maybe a middle manager at GE?  Or is destiny so powerful that he would have found a route to Presidency through another path?  (I seriously doubt it).

      According to Taleb in “The Black Swan”, the human mind suffers from three ailments when it comes to looking back and understanding history, or even the events that shape our own personal history:

      1. The illusion of understanding:  Plato, Newton, many scientists have discovered simple rules that predict the way the universe works.  I have a preference for simple formulae that predict behaviour. I love to generalise from my experience. The world is more complicated (or random) than the simple models we would like to use. Nando Parrado talks about the biggest decision in his life being the choice of seat 9B on an airplane 36 years ago (see my previous post on Nando Parrado here).
      2. The distortion of hindsight: we underplay luck in our analysis of the past.  We seek hindsight validation of why Google is number 1, why Starbucks has 14,000 stores and another Seattle coffee shop is still just that, why one person becomes rich whilst another becomes poor – and we latch on to the simple models that we then try to generalise and apply. Each case of success is due to a massive quantity of luck (well discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”), combined with some decent input ingredients (that are well worthy of study and copy).
      3. The overvaluation of authoritive people: they know lots about the past… but the future is not going to be just like the past – yet we shut down our brains and listen blindly when “the expert” walks into the room. They are the type of people who would say that there is no such thing as a purple cow. You will not see what you are not looking for, especially if you do not believe that it could exist. (watch this 60 sec video first – and tell me how many passes of the basketball are completed by the white team).

      So, if prediction of the future is impossible, should we close down business schools, history courses, cancel company strategy planning sessions? 

      I would say “no way”. 

      I love a quote of Winston Churchill on planning: “The plan isn’t worth the paper it is written on; however, the process of planning is priceless”.  We don’t have plans because they necessarily turn out just so – we have plans so that a team of people have shared goals, ideas and passions.  They may exceed their plan or fail miserably in following their plan – but the fact that they work together as a team is important.  The chances of success without a goal is very low. The chances of success with a goal and a bit of luck are greater.

      My other conclusion is that the worst thing that business schools can create are “experts”.  If a professor runs a class as if they and they alone have the answer then we are failing. If an MBA comes out feeling that he or she is an “expert” then we have failed.  If they come out with integrity, ideas, the ability to inspire, motivate and work well with other people, perserverance…  then we have succeeded.

      My final question… how do I get more luck?  Happy Christmas and I wish you all a healthy, happy and fun 2010.

      6 Reasons to Start Blogging Now

      “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret” Jim Rohn

      1. tumblr_md61xbK0PS1ri87d2o1_500Clarity of Thinking – It will force you to become a better thinker and get clear on your beliefs. It will force you to read to gather material. It will force you to read critically as you ask “why?” “why not?” “why does she say that?” “is that really the answer?”
      2. Tom Peter says so – Tom Peters says “If you are not blogging, you are an idiot.” (here)  He is a guru. It must be true.
      3. Be Somebody – You have a much better answer for “what do you do?” “I am a writer”.  You are no longer a passive observer of life, you now participate in the creation of content and ideas. 5 years from now people will invite you to speak. 10 years from now you will have written enough material for a good book. 20 years from now your kids will think you were once smart.
      4. Fame – It is better than a diary. You might get some admiration and affirmation.
      5. Save Time – You can save time (in future) – if people regularly ask you similar questions, write your answers up in a blog post and refer people there.
      6. It is free and easy.
        1. Free: I use WordPress.
        2. Easy: One of the best starter guides is from Penelope Trunk. I must her reiterate her point on avoiding perfection (no typos).  Force yourself to hit publish after 30-45 minutes no matter what. Perfection is the enemy of creation. If you have a really bad error, just re-publish. Otherwise, let your users tell you and engage more.

      1 reason why you should not create a blog:

      1. You will not make money from a blog.  Do not spend time reading “get rich quick” “teeth whitening” “best affiliate program” offers. You will create the blog and overcome procrastination only if you write about something about which you care lots and want to learn more.

      A final note. Jim Rohn passed away last friday.  He was a great American philosopher. Out of his many great sayings, I will leave you with one: “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret”.

      Further Reading on How to Blog


      I was priviledged to attend a small gathering to listen to Ken Blanchard and then join him for lunch this week thanks to Alberto Cabezas (co-founder of Claction online marketing) and the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation.  Ken Blanchard is the author of “The One Minute Manager” a simple but brilliant story about management that has sold over 13 million copies worldwide.

      Ken’s talk covered a whole range of stories from his life. He is clearly a keen observer of life and people.  After some wonderful stories from his life, Ken said “well I suppose you would like to know what the role of a Leader in the current uncertain times might be?”.

      3 Things Leaders Do in Times of Crisis

      Ken said that there are three parts to leading well in uncertain times:

      1. Be a Bearer of Hope (Focus attention on the good stuff)
      2. Treat people as Business Partners (If you are losing sleep over the numbers, make sure everybody is losing sleep over the numbers)
      3. Have a Servant Leadership heart (who’s in charge? customer or supervisor? – it should be the customer at the top of the pyramid)

      I will not cover what he talked about around the details of these three areas – much of this can be found by searching for Ken Blanchard (on Google, YouTube or Bing).

      I listened to Ken going through the roles of a leader, the type of behaviours that a leader can carry through…

      My question to Ken was what happens when, as a leader, you wake up one morning and think “I’m tired. I’ve been a bearer of hope, I’ve pushed, I’ve communicated…  but today I’m tired…  it’s somebody else’s turn to push today… to be the motor today.  What do you recommend?  What do you do to keep strong as a leader?”

      Ken’s answer was “Solitude.  Begin the day slowly”.

      Start the Day Slowly

      In my case, the alarm goes off, I jump up head downstairs, put coffee on, cereal in a bowl, TV on, check email and messages on my Iphone…  and straight into the problems and crisis of the day.

      When Ken’s alarm clock goes off in the morning, he wakes up.  He sits on the side of his bed with his hands, palms down, resting on his legs.  He takes a few minutes to listen to what thoughts are passing through his head, what worries him, what his body is telling him.  After 10 minutes of listening to himself, he turns his hands over, palms up, and reflects on what he wants to be grateful for at the end of the day.  The hustle of the bustle of the day still takes its toll, but starting the day slowly gives him the strength to do what he knows is right.

      (This morning I had big plans to start the day slowly, but hit snooze and ended up in a rush… tomorrow for sure I will get my slow start)