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world of Change2020

IKEA as a change agent?

You can feel it when you first walk into the reception area or the office – you know what I mean. You can feel if this is a place where you want to be, where you would be pleased to come to each day, where you might actually enjoy yourself.

The place in which we spend 40 hours per week (often way in excess of this) can heavily influence our mood, our behaviours and our level of motivation. Research shows that people employed full-time outside of the home spend approximately 33% of their waking hours at their workplace, and exposures to physical conditions at work that can affect physical or mental health are both lengthy and frequent. Unwanted consequences such as reduced capacity to work, increased error rates and absences from work impact us all

While many people accept that the workplace must be inviting, too often we rely on a few very thirsty water lilies, the occasional inspirational poster and adherence to ergonomic standards – well, I think we need more.

Appearance and layout is often the first impression we have of the workplace – it tells us a story about the organisational culture. Workplace design is important from a leadership perspective as building emotional connectivity and strong communication in the workplace aids in the generation of new ideas, promotion of information sharing and encouragement of open and frequent communication.

There is considerable focus within current workplace design trends on building collaborative working environments in order to improve communication, creativity and productivity. In its report The Smart Workplace of 2030, global manufacturer and facilities management company Johnson Controls, state that agile workspaces will be in demand providing a transformable and adaptable working environment. It argues that training, collaboration, socialisation and flexibility are at the core of the working model of the future. As part of its Eco Office the creation and sharing of knowledge drives economic wellbeing and the workplace will become more community oriented with employee villages forming to create workplace communities.

I recently had the good fortune to work with a leadership team who really wanted to rid themselves of beige! They were surrounded by it: carpet, wall paint, desks and chairs – even the air-conditioning vents were beige. A very large, open plan, single floor office environment, which was too large for the number of employees, had the traditional excessively large offices for the very important people, a tiny kitchen with limited dining area, no place to ‘mingle’ or catch up with team mates and the meeting rooms were few and far between (they had all been taken by the enormous offices).

They wanted to change it. They committed to changing it. BUT they had a big problem – budget was a significant limitation. The global business had experienced a downturn in profits and the thought of spending money to make the office feel ‘more inviting’ was a very hard sell indeed.

So the plan was simple. Talk to the employees, find out what they liked, didn’t like, who had a passion and eye for interior design, and ensure the budget came in under the obligatory global approval authority matrix.

Firstly they simply used a storage room which had stock and old furniture in it and turned it into a ‘conversation hub’. They painted it green, bought some basic furniture (which was assembled by an employee with over 35 years service to the business and did not care too much for the ‘fluffy stuff’) and waited for the conversations to start. Initially, people were unsure if they could or should use it, but slowly it became a place to have a meeting (in a lounge chair!), discuss strategies (without a whiteboard!) or get the team together for a weekly catch up (without a seat for everyone!).

Next a trip to IKEA and a few more bits of furniture, more paint and a lamp shade. Some ‘meeting rooms without walls’ were set up, rugs were arranged and music was turned on – the impact of these relatively simple gestures was incredible, you could feel it instantly

There was no brief for the creative team except for the budget – rather an approach of ‘just let them do what they want to do and trust them’.

Building an adaptive and collaborative organisational culture stems from positive employee engagement, and often simple opportunities for communication and personal empowerment can have a profound impact. In this instance it was not so much that there were new chairs and rugs, but the fact that the team were able to actually choose and purchase the furniture – this seemed to be the point where people felt real change was on its way.

Sometimes, change really can be simple – lets not lose sight of that.

Gaining a seat at the table

HR People – have you earned your seat at the table?

We have all heard of the saying ‘gaining a seat at the table’. Recently we have seen this statement attributed to Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and Facebook Chief Operating Officer; but it has often been used in reference to human resource practitioners and the debate around becoming a true business partner in order to be recognised as key contributors at the top level of organisations.

There have been significant advancements in this area and among the ten largest public companies in Australia all but one has their senior HR leader in a prominent role as part of the executive leadership team. Many business leaders recognise that human resource management is not soft and fluffy or transactional and payroll related, but a critical consideration in all aspects of the business operations and that, quite simply, without people a business would not exist.

Despite progress made at the executive level of HR, I think there is a distinction at the middle management and operating level between a HR professional providing advice about HR/IR and people related matters, as opposed to a HR professional being part of strategy development with HR/IR and people matters in mind. HR advice at these levels is often provided ‘when asked’ and, although I don’t doubt the quality of the advice, this positioning as an internal expert does not necessarily lead into a more rounded business focus. Being called upon at moments of crisis such as the analysis of risk in an employment law claim is quite different to analysing business metrics and providing tactical and strategic advice to fellow business leaders.

A true business partner is someone who intricately understands their business, is part of the team who develops the strategy and plans, has clear decision-making accountability and can influence the outcomes of the business. Clearly from a HR perspective they need to be more than an adviser.

Deloitte’s recent research report on Global Capital Trends 2014: Engaging the 21st Century Workforce reported that less than 8 percent of HR leaders have confidence that their teams have the skills needed to meet the challenge of today’s global environment and consistently deliver innovative programs that drive business impact. More broadly, the research found that 42 percent of business leaders believe their HR teams are underperforming or just getting by, compared to the 27 percent who rate HR as excellent or good when assessing HR and talent programs. It argues that to become an effective business partner, HR teams need to develop deeper business acumen, build analytical skills to underwrite their leadership, learn to operate as performance advisors, and develop an understanding of the needs of the 21st-century workforce.

HR professionals who do have a seat at the table and report directly to the CEO or MD are business partners who don’t wait to be asked for input or advice, and nor would their colleagues expect anything different. My experience is that people at the most senior level demonstrate business depth and knowledge equivalent to their peers around the table. However, as you move beyond the executive level of HR there appears to be reluctance at the middle management and operating levels to ‘back themselves’ when considering general business matters – apparently it is safer to remain in a position of adviser or expert about specialist matters, as opposed to delving into solutions which may assist the broader business. As the research above suggests this perpetuates questions around the quality of HR overall and there is less acknowledgement from the business that teams are performing.

I have observed very senior HR people pitch an idea to their leadership team with an idea that sounds good as it will both develop people and help attract and retain talent – we all want that right? But when questions are asked about risk, return on investment or impact on existing plans or projects already operational within the business, their knowledge has been left wanting. Integrating HR knowledge and creativity with the overall business, whether with a one-off idea or a new people program, is a challenge – there needs to be a greater appetite to appreciate the demands of an organisation and how these impact HR service priorities. To overcome perceptions, a change in language is needed across the HR team in order to deliver real added value.

So how do you gain that seat at the table?

  1. Immerse yourself into the strategy – seek to understand the strategy and operational plans, if it doesn’t make sense – ask questions. Develop knowledge across the organisational functions; understand acronyms, metrics and key performance indicators. Become familiar with functional language, ie sales targets, brand values, risk registers, governance protocols, commercial and financial analytics – be a business generalist in the first instance and a HR specialist secondly
  2. Immerse yourself into the leaders – develop a relationship with each member of the executive and senior leadership team, understand their individual concerns, drivers and success indicators. Understand where risks may occur with the leaders style or plans – be proactive and have a plan in place to mitigate risk and optimise opportunities
  3. Immerse yourself into the business – meet as many employees as you can, gain an understanding of the ‘feeling’ of the workplace, develop rapport, ask open questions, encourage ideas and suggestions for improvement – become a familiar face!

The immersion approach means you are rich in information, data, insight and trusting relationships – as a collective, this is powerful. You can develop supporting strategies and plans; pre-empt risks and issues; ‘coach’ the leaders; target communications to the employees; embed constructive behaviours across the business and you can rightly assume your seat at the table!

Manners, Please

This is probably just an opportunity to vent and perhaps it will fall on deaf ears, but I want to encourage the ongoing use of manners in the workplace.

I know that people get busy and that people have different values around the use of the words like ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘I promise’, but I believe there are some fundamentals which must be demonstrated by leaders today. Quite simply, if you say ‘I will get back to you’, show common courtesy and actually do what you say!

Undoubtedly the workplace environment has changed rather dramatically in the past 50 years and continues to do so at pace. Technological advancement, hybrid work teams, matrix management structures have placed layers of complexity on an organisation which were previously inconceivable – let alone the challenges of operating and competing in business. Yet, some things have not changed at all and basic manners are part and parcel of building a successful culture that delivers inspirational leadership and shared accountability.

Social connectivity may be partly shaped by social media but in reality solid, ‘old-fashioned’ relationships are an essential element of workplace communications and leadership. Simple courtesies are how people feel valued and experience personal fulfilment, and they form part of the emotional needs for all generations.

Compassionate leadership is essential to building inspired and productive work teams, where leaders demonstrate respect for their people possessing the ability to put their needs first in order to create real trust and loyalty. However, what of the seemingly increasingly detracting behaviours in the workplace from some leaders? Being late to meetings, leaving meetings early, not saying ‘hello’ to people, keeping phones on during meetings (in full view of others), interrupting without listening to other points of view, not saying thank you, being under-prepared for meetings and making last minute cancellations – these are all stoking the flames for de-motivation and resentment that ultimately reveals itself as low morale and poor productivity.

In her research of 5,600 employees at 77 Australian companies, Dr Christina Boedker of the Australian School of Business found that a critical part of lifting workplace productivity is having a great boss. Her findings showed that great bosses are those who enable workers at all levels of organisational hierarchies to lead change and be the best they possibly can. Notably she found that it is the interpersonal and motivational skills of bosses that prompt staff to exercise discretionary effort.

Simple gestures count. Etiquette must not be forgotten. Good leaders understand these points and make small but significant gestures to let others know they are valued. They stay around for the answer when they ask ‘how are you’, they make eye contact, they smile, they say ‘hello’ and they do not make others feel as though they are too busy to take time to listen.

My issues are probably more so from the perspective of being an external provider as I can’t tell you how many times we have been asked to develop a proposal responding to a challenge or issue. The request more often than not comes from a member of the executive team – individuals equipped to provide a brief, review the response and make a recommendation to their peers regarding acceptance or otherwise of the proposal.

Responding quickly is important in our business as we will allocate time, review available documentation and prioritise the development of the proposal to ensure it reaches the audience as soon as possible (therefore enabling a decision).  Once the proposal is made into its final PDF, it is sent off via email with an encouragement to call if any clarification is required and…? Are those crickets I hear? Not a ‘thank you for the proposal’, not a ‘this is interesting but not quite right’, not a ‘thanks but no thanks’ and not a ‘this is spot on, when do we get started?’ Nothing.

We don’t expect to be successful with every proposal, so getting a ‘thanks but no thanks’ is OK, but getting nothing at all – well to be honest, I think that is just rude.

Basic manners are to acknowledge when someone has done something for you at your request. A courteous reply would be a ‘thank you’ – eight letters which takes less than two seconds to type, but for some people it seems too difficult. (In our case, even when the initial proposal is followed up once, perhaps twice and still the only sound is… crickets).

Our leaders need to demonstrate the behaviour they expect in their teams and culture; if they are too busy to say thank you, then where does that leave us? We often hear about how the schooling system is failing our children with the basic three R’s and how parents need more support than ever to bring up children. Well, let’s not forget about our business leaders – using simple manners goes a long way.

Seniority does not provide an opportunity to forget the basics or be dismissive towards others. In fact, the opposite should be true. If you want people to follow you then you need to inspire others by demonstrating compassion to the people around you. Treat others as you would like to be treated, practice open and transparent communication, be open to two-way discussion and dialogue (including constructive criticism) and make time for others, in spite of the relentless pressures faced across the leadership spectrum.

Please take the time to reflect on this article.

Thank you.

7 Change-Cheaters

Many readers will appreciate that it is often not the subject of a change which presents the greatest challenge; rather the cultural impacts which are likely to occur as a result of the change. Repeated cycles of change have been the norm for many years in Australian businesses, with strong and decisive leadership essential to sustain motivation and focus. Here are my tips for keeping positive and resilient during challenging periods:

  1. Understand the change has a finite timeframe and the feeling of unrest will not last forever.       Most change in organisations involves transitioning to a new situation, whether it be the result of a new structure, process or system. Projects like these may have to factor in initially unforeseen challenges, but this is common in change management and necessitates additional planning – it is generally not a crisis.
  2. Find yourself a ‘buddy’ who is normally a bit upbeat and seems to have a glass half full – spend time listening to the other side of the story. Objectivity is essential during periods of change, particularly difficult times. Talking issues through with others helps to keep things in perspective. A buddy builds a base of trust through which problems can be questioned and emotional responses kept in check.
  3. Keep yourself informed, ask questions, be curious – being informed can help to minimise the negative rumours which will undoubtedly surface during the change. Don’t bury your head in the sand or get overly focused on the minutiae of a situation. Ask questions and seek clarification from your leaders throughout the change process. Take the time to read the communications as they are issued and ensure you attend meetings and gatherings where updates will be shared. Also, if you have a question, the chances are high that your peers also have these questions – it is ok to ask, if not, you will be none the wiser!
  4. Your wellbeing is important – look after yourself so stress is an unlikely visitor. Understand where you derive your personal energy from and ensure that you incorporate this into your daily routine; encourage the same for others.       Work smart, ensuring that you find downtime in order to reflect, as this will help you to sustain the pace.
  5. Make a clear decision to stay away from the ‘black hatters’, avoid the rumours and gossip and make a stance to not become involved in the negativity. Personal accountability at work is essential; be involved in the change process through observation and engagement in order to ensure that you have the facts. Don’t rely on assumptions, rumour and innuendo. Be brave, when you hear the negativity, challenge it!
  6. Get involved in the change – let leaders know that you can play a role (it keeps you informed and it demonstrates keenness to be a part of the future state). The cycle of change is constant, even if a specific project has a finite beginning and end date. Adapting to new circumstances and anticipating future states is part of taking ownership of your role and input to the organisation. Change brings both learning and opportunity in different ways and it can be fulfilling to have shared a journey with others, as well as developing good skills for the future. Nominate yourself for a role in the change program, request an opportunity to be mentored by a change leader or offer to help out where extra arms, legs and ideas are needed.
  7. Simply choose to be positive, honestly, it works – aim to engage with others, work towards a satisfying workplace and recognise that change is a part of what we experience every day. Whatever stage of your career, maintaining a positive mental attitude is paramount to professional and personal success. Work and change go hand-in-hand and as the saying goes, ‘you get what you give’.       Attitude is a choice and it is important to focus on remaining positive. Fighting an inevitable change is exhausting and almost always a waste of time and effort – find the opportunity in the change and make it work for you!

Remember that the world of work has changed so much in 20 years, due to both significant external and internal elements, that we now live in a permanent state of transition – and this actually breeds exciting opportunities for innovation and advancement. Our own experience in this journey takes self-awareness, effort and focus in order to intellectually and personally ensure that we can keep perspective and positivity.

It is your choice how you respond to change!

The Merry-Go-Round of Middle Management

I have a hunch that it is unpopular or perhaps risky to be in a middle management role. When the squeeze is on, the middle layer is often the first to go, and when times are buoyant the accolades and gratitude are aimed at the executive leadership team.

To expand on this point I was recently speaking with a client in the utilities sector and he told me that he is one of 14 direct reports to his manager. “Fourteen!” I exclaimed. He said, “Well it has improved, when I joined he had 21!” I challenged him on this but he was able to take me through the structure role by role and it was clear he was telling the truth. I asked what sort of relationship he had with his leader and he replied “I leave him alone. I am capable and like my autonomy – and he has enough squeaky wheels to deal with!” We then discussed his career ambitions and, while not striving for the top job, he is certainly keen to move beyond his current level. I asked him how he was going to get there – sadly “I have no idea” was the response; “They expect us to be great at our jobs, bring in the projects on time, keep our customers happy and avoid conflict with the subbies – but we are not shown the way in terms of our career path.”

This started me thinking over the challenges of being in middle management. How do you get beyond that level if investment is low? Or what if your role is made redundant and, when you apply for your next role, you are considered still to be middle management as you are yet to perform at senior or executive leadership level?

The phrase ‘war for talent’ has gained much significance during the past 15 years and there has been a tendency to focus on retaining high performers or top executives within this debate. However, recent research has called this into question. In a recent global survey of HR professionals by KPMG 59% of respondents agreed that there was a new war for talent and that war is different than in the past. The research finds that addressing skills shortages is a higher priority now than two years ago – and will become critical in the next two years. It states that skill shortages appear likely to increase as globalisation and competitive pressures take hold across sectors and industries and improving economic conditions spur employees to seek new jobs. Notably the findings reported that there is little evidence that typical ‘war for talent’ practices that focus on high performers actually contribute to improved business performance. Respondents agreed that it was time to turn to new, more holistic strategies for managing talent, with two-thirds of survey saying it is more important to address the talent needs of all employees in the context of the business and its strategy, and just over half agreeing that pursuing high potential talent at the team’s expense puts the business at risk.

In a similar vein to the KPMG research described above, the findings of a 2011 survey by the American Society for Training and Development across 2,000 mid-level managers found that only 11 percent felt well prepared to handle their increased responsibilities and challenges over the next two years.

Much has been written about the challenge of bringing people through the ranks to fulfill executive roles, but these results make it clear that the issue requires deeper analysis of existing views on leadership development. Specifically, at the middle management level has there been enough focused development to instil confidence, belief and ability to be ready for executive roles? I suspect not.

The reality is that it is not so much a question of how much has been invested in development, rather the kind of development that has been provided. Middle managers still need to translate big picture vision into day-to-day practice, so how much has been done to build strategic capability? Equally, has there been a transition from a focus on the execution of middle management responsibilities towards building leadership capability? Leadership is central to all levels of an organisation – it is necessary to embed authenticity and a sense of connection to the overall purpose of a business amongst all those who influence and inspire people.

It has been reported that up to 80 percent of future leaders will come from within organisations. Whilst research suggests a more holistic approach to talent management is needed, there is clearly a question over how this translates to the experiences of middle managers in the current climate – a period of time where building business capability is crucially dependent on the quality of people, especially at this level. To cite the often quoted phrase, what happens if we invest in our people and they leave? Well, what happens if we don’t and they stay?

Here are some other critical reasons for investing in and retaining middle management:

  • They are your successors;
  • They are often the ones with first hand relationships with team members;
  • They have a high level of intellectual property which is often hard to replace;
  • Retaining and developing talent is a lot cheaper than recruiting new and untested talent;
  • Business is becoming more complex, especially in relation to communication and information flow – middle managers have firsthand experience of the impact on employees and how to get key messages across;
  • The are the gateway between strategy and execution: the middle ‘makes it happen’;
  • They are connectors for the culture and translate the vision and values of a business every day;
  • Leadership is required at all times, both good and bad, so there is a need to have a back up to support executives when required;
  • They have ideally had the chance to ‘act up’ and can respond well in a crisis or when unexpected events occur;
  • People are more likely to want to perform when there is investment and recognition; and
  • Loyalty yields results.

As businesses begin to move into a recovery phase the issue of the new war for talent is a key priority. Channel your investment in development across the spectrum of leadership and ensure that all those with accountability for people have the level of mental preparedness and insight that is necessary to provide authentic, practical and motivational guidance. Middle managers are the gateway to delivering strategy and their ability to both understand this journey, and be ready for the step up when ready, is a crucial success factor for long-term business sustainability.

The bravery of Australian small business owners

I have recently been noticing small to medium sized businesses taking some wonderful calculated risks in what is an otherwise subdued economy.

In the last two months I have seen or heard of people setting up or expanding new small and medium sized businesses. This includes overseas offices in Asia, new cafes, restaurants, personal services businesses, professional service businesses and online clothing stores.

These business owners are showing fantastic bravery, often at great and immediate personal cost in terms of finances, health and family.

For big businesses taking big risks has the potential to impact thousands (and sometimes tens of thousands) of working Australians and their families, and broader communities and stakeholders. However, it feels like a long time since I regularly saw the Australian business media full of stories about big expansion, new or innovative products, or partnerships with start-ups. As always there are exceptions such as the recent acquisition of Dovetail, an innovative start-up that provides online collaboration solutions, by accounting software provider MYOB.

Around 95 percent of the 2 million businesses actively trading in Australia in 2011 were small businesses, accounting for almost half of employment in the private non-financial sector and over a third of production. The OECD estimates that SMEs comprise the overwhelming majority of firms in almost all countries, and contribute to at least two thirds of total employment.

The reality is that SMEs will provide the necessary innovation and job creation potential that will drive new economic growth. The question is how do we go about encouraging them?

Clearly access to funding is vital, together with effective mentoring. Funding for start-ups and growing business can be a complex area; investors have different criteria and understanding the different demands is often a huge learning curve. Increasingly funding can be provided through both traditional financial institutions in addition to other routes such as angel investors, venture capitalists, dedicated funds and high net worth individuals. Recently ANZ announced a $2 billion lending pledge to small businesses to provide a boost for the economy and create new jobs, signalling that they recognise the value of SMEs in the business environment.

One of the potential barriers to building more opportunities for SMEs is the need for more proactive communication. It may be that the ideas and the entrepreneurs exist, but they are struggling to get their voices heard. Not only do new media stories provide important portals for promoting new concepts, they document successes and failures providing important lessons for all.

But what about the role of big business in supporting smaller companies? Are there ways we could get big business to provide financial investment into developing new innovations?

I am keen to open a debate in this area and welcome your views.

One of the starting points is to ask ourselves whether we want big business to be more entrepreneurial? If not, then we need to consider how to better support SMEs to grow into big companies. For example, should we encourage internships from big companies to little companies? If we do, then perhaps we should attract people with SME experience into big companies and not just those CVs which include MBAs and other brand names or big corporate entities.

Established companies providing an opportunity for new ideas and products is an exciting area of discussion and I wonder if it is possible to translate the bravery of small business owners into this sector. Or have leaders in our big companies and government corporations lost the art of calculated risk and positive action?

Vicki Daniel

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