Archives for posts with tag: trust

“Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.”
Billy Wilder

meeting 2

A few years ago, I was attending a meeting which was a few minutes’ drive from my office. Although the roads were quiet, when I arrived I had to park further way from my destination than I had expected. The extra walk meant that I arrived at the meeting, which had started promptly, a couple of minutes late.

Naturally, I apologised for my lateness and explained what had happened as I sat down, thinking little of it. It was only two minutes after all. I was completely taken aback when the chair of the meeting said in an angry voice “Two minutes can cost a life”.

I should explain that he was an ex-military man, and I can understand that being late for a rendez-vous on active service could have very serious consequences. However, not only were no lives going to be lost as a result of my lateness to that meeting; no lives were likely to be lost as a result of anyone there being late to any meeting, ever.

I might have been held up by a phone call to an important customer; I might have been resolving an important safety issue; I don’t remember.  In business we are always having to balance multiple priorities, and I probably made a priority choice that I felt was in the best interests of the company. So first of all, it is always a good idea to understand the reasons for what has happened before criticising.

But just as important is to make the criticism (if there needs to be one) commensurate with the offence and appropriate to the circumstances. Criticising me in a way that might conceivably have been appropriate in the army, but took no account of a completely different context, diminished my respect and left me feeling angry at its irrationality. As a result, at the very least it reduced the value of my contribution to that meeting, while I fumed; it probably had much longer-term consequences for our wider relationship.

Criticism is a dangerous weapon. Used carelessly, the unintended consequences can be serious.

English: Terraced house façades, Montague Stre...

English: Terraced house façades, Montague Street See also 1608624 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll never forget my first serious experience of negotiation.

I was selling my first house, a small, terraced house in a cheap part of the city. I loved it, because it was the first house I had owned, and because I had put a lot of work – and a lot of myself – into it. I had decorated every room; I had refitted the kitchen myself; I had even saved money by installing a central heating system myself to replace electric storage heaters. I was moving to a new area, where I knew housing was going to be a lot more expensive.

I had received an offer to buy my house from a junior colleague at work. Obviously that made things slightly awkward to start with. But I was unprepared for what happened when he asked if he could visit again, with a family friend.

They duly arrived, and I showed them around. The family friend, an older gentleman, was very appreciative, admiring everything I had done, complimenting me on my workmanship, and so on. And then, at the end of the visit, out of the blue, he pitched me a new price, substantially lower than the offer my colleague had previously made. I was caught off guard, but having refused the new price, I felt I had no option but to respond to his questions, starting with what was the lowest price I would accept? He came back with requests to throw in this and that if they agreed to a higher price, and so on. We eventually agreed a deal – which actually was not such a bad deal from my point of view – but I was left feeling bruised.

Looking back, I have to admire the technique. All the praise, all the efforts to make me feel good first, worked a treat, and there was nothing in the negotiation itself that I could criticise. He did a good job for his friend my colleague. So why did I feel bruised?

The one thing that was missing in the exchange was creating an honest expectation. I had been led to expect that the friend was there to give a second opinion: it was my colleague’s first house purchase, just as it had been mine, so understandably he wanted someone else to endorse his judgement. I had not expected that the friend was there to negotiate on his behalf – after all, an offer had already been made. Perhaps I was a bit naïve, but I was caught unprepared; the negotiation had high value for me and I had no experience of handling something like that. I felt I was backed into a corner, and that personal trust had been breached.

So what is the lesson? Don’t just play fair – make sure everyone knows what game you are going to be playing beforehand, especially if personal relationships are involved. Trust is too important, and too hard to rebuild, to risk losing.

Do you have any stories of the importance of trust, and the ease of losing it? Leave your comments below.

“Be real and unashamed. Even of your faults.”
Amy Bloom

“The truth is more important than the facts.”
Frank Lloyd Wright

Fireworks

How often have you found yourself having a conversation, and it gradually dawning on you that the person you are talking to thinks the conversation is about something quite different to what you thought? It happens to us all from time to time, and normally it causes at worst mild embarrassment as one of you says, ‘hang on a minute, I thought we were talking about  x’ and the other looks bemused. Sometimes though, miscommunication can cause real problems.

Perhaps the most common place for miscommunication to lead to problems in the working world is in emails. Maybe the relationship is a bit sticky already, or perhaps the subject is one which might be a bit emotive. You write an email, for example telling someone what you are going to do. Writing the message down gives you a chance to choose the words carefully so that they can’t be misinterpreted, right? Wrong! Within a few microseconds of pressing the ”send” button, you notice that your computer has started to smoke from the heat in the reply that has just clanged into your inbox. You read it – how could they have misunderstood your intentions so wildly? They must be spoiling for a fight! Your emotion finds its way into your reply, and the exchange just escalates.

Why are emails so fraught? First, they are too easy: we dash them off with little thought. For straightforward factual messages that is no problem. The trouble comes when the exchange has some (often unexpected) emotional content. Although they seem like a way of keeping the emotion out, and so appear to be an easy option (especially when we are worried about the reaction and it seems safer to keep our distance), humans are emotional creatures: we don’t often do purely rational. By leaving out the emotional context of the message, which we detect mostly from body language and tone of voice, we take away the very cues which would help the recipient to know whether we meant to be provocative or were just not choosing our words very well. Poorly-chosen words in the context of a friendly tone and an open expression will usually only prompt clarification, but without these, people usually assume the worst.

Here are five tips for minimising the risk, and getting things back on track if necessary:

  • If you think the message might have some emotional content, don’t rely on e-mail if you can possibly avoid it. Start the exchange face-to-face, or at least with a phone call, so that there is an emotional context. Only once the tone has been set should you follow it up with an email.
  • If you didn’t think the message was emotional, but the response appears to be – or even just indicates misunderstanding – never send an email reply. Pick up the phone straight away to clarify, or go and see them if you can.
  • If you have to send an email which you know might be misunderstood, save a draft overnight before sending it, and re-read it in the morning. You have a better chance then of seeing how someone else might mis-interpret your words, and stopping it before it is too late. I rarely find I change nothing the next day!
  • For really sensitive messages which you have to put in writing, ask someone else to check your words before you send them.
  • If an exchange has gone emotional, apologise face to face – even if you don’t think you have anything to apologise for.

Do you have any stories you can share of communications exchanges gone horribly wrong? Please share them below! Fill in the poll even if you have no stories to share!

English: Corporate Governance

English: Corporate Governance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All organisations have to find an appropriate balance between central control and local freedom to act. Governance provides the framework and checks and balances within which this is established and managed. It ensures that the process by which decisions are made is appropriately managed so that overall they can be seen to have been taken in the best interests of the shareholders, taking account of all the demands on the organisation, the risks, and the information available at the time.

 

If several of the following statements are true of your organisation, you may well  benefit from reviewing your governance arrangements.

  • The governance structure (meetings and delegations) does not constitute a simple hierarchy underneath the Board, with clear parent-child relationships and information cascaded up and down the hierarchy

All authority derives from the Board (or equivalent), and no-one has any authority (including the authority to sub-delegate) unless given it explicitly or implicitly by the Board. Consequently all delegations and sub-delegations should form a tree structure with the Board at the top. Any structure which does not follow this rule will create confusion about where authority lies. Decisions and issues for escalation, and reports of lesser decisions taken, should flow up the tree. Policies, strategies, decisions made, etc, should flow down. This is not to say that the structure has to be complicated or bureaucratic – every organisation has to find the balance that is right for it.

  • The governance structure is not clearly documented (e.g. including a consistent set of Terms of Reference), communicated and understood

The governance structure exists to serve the organisation. It can only do this if people in the organisation understand it. Clear documentation that resolves any apparent ambiguities is an essential starting point, but this then needs effective communication.

  • People do not have clear written instructions as to the limits of the authority that they have been given, or these are ignored

This is part of the essential documentation of the structure. Without a clear statement of what they should decide for themselves and what they must refer elsewhere for decision, unhelpful deviations from intentions (in both directions) will occur. In one case senior time is wasted, in the other unintended risks may be taken. Naturally the limits specified need to be appropriate. Compliance must be monitored and enforced.

  • Committees are allowed to approve their own Terms of Reference and/or memberships

In order to ensure that the governance structure retains its integrity, any ‘parent’ body making delegations must retain control of the terms of the delegation. Approving ToRs and committee memberships are the primary ways it can do this. A committee approving its  own ToRs is like someone signing off their own expenses.

  • Governance meetings happen irregularly, or with papers which are poor quality or issued late

Unless meetings are irregular because they are only arranged when needed, irregularity makes it very difficult for those requiring decisions from the meeting to plan. That in turn leads to poor quality or late papers, and so to delayed or riskier decisions.

  • Senior staff are allowed to ignore the rules which apply to others

Governance only works properly if everyone plays by the rules. If the CEO believes it matters, he or she will be willing to set a good example by sticking to the rules themselves, and will expect other people to do the same. If the CEO does not think it matters, and is not willing to do this, it will be very hard to make other people do so.

  • Decisions are often taken late because of papers missing submission dates, inadequate information, wrong attendance, submission to the wrong meeting, unexpected need for escalation, etc

There are many reasons why a decision may be reached later than it was really needed. Sometimes the request may have been made to a meeting which did not have authority for that decision, perhaps because the value was too high, or because the decision was out of scope. Sometimes a critical expert is absent from the meeting. Sometimes the supporting paper does not contain, and the presenter is unable to supply, information the committee regards as essential. Mostly, however, these come down to poor planning, often driven by poor understanding.

 

  • There is a feeling that the governance process is too bureaucratic

If the system has been well-designed, this should be a rare complaint. Most commonly, it occurs for one of two reasons: levels of delegation have been set lower than the people concerned are comfortable with, or there is a reluctance to engage with the hard thinking required to make cases concisely but effectively. If significant, it probably indicates a mismatch – in either direction – in maturity between the staff concerned and the governance arrangements.

Surfer

This post was prompted by Seth Godin’s blog post:

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/06/the-free-rider-benefit.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+typepad%2Fsethsmainblog+%28Seth%27s+Blog%29

Seth talks in his blog about how ‘freeriding’, although usually considered reprehensible, can in some circumstances be a good thing.  In many cases – for example, not paying taxes, not vaccinating children – freeriders who get the benefits of everyone else’s compliance without paying the price themselves are rightly criticised.  However, in other cases, such as using Google, Wikipedia or TripAdvisor, those who pay for their benefits (perhaps through advertising), and so make providing the service worthwhile for the provider, actually benefit more (or even entirely) because of the many ‘freeriders’ who get a smaller benefit but pay nothing. Typically in these cases spread of information and access to new ideas is involved. Why do they work? In part because the information is seen as being unbiased (although of course that appearance can be abused).

Now think about change management. What is change management about? Getting people to willingly accept and even embrace new ideas and ways of doing things as quickly and easily as possible. When management tries to sell a change, there is a natural suspicion that the message is not all it seems, even when, if taken at face value, it appears to be beneficial. It’s like a restaurant review purporting to be independent when it is obviously a paid-for entry. On the other hand, when peers pass on the same idea, an objective judgement seems much more likely. Similar processes to ‘freeriding’ seem to be involved.

So how does ‘good freeriding’ work?  There are three groups of people involved: those who benefit enough to pay, those whose benefits are free – and the facilitator who connects them. That suggests that it may help if the facilitator (change agent) is seen as having some independence, and not simply being one of the managers. Secondly, giving the ‘freeriders’ – those whose environment is being changed – the opportunity to be engaged meaningfully, if they want to be, is likely to help. By analogy, the lesson for those seeking the benefits of change (normally the managers) is that listening well to the people the change affects may well increase the value of the change achieved.

Obviously users of Wikipedia or TripAdvisor are self-selecting, while you cannot opt out of organisational change. Does that undermine the parallels?  What do you think? Leave your comments in the box below.

If you would like to talk about how to deliver a strategic change effectively, please contact me at david@otteryconsulting.co.uk .

“If you wait, all that happens is that you get older.”
Mario Andretti

Board room

I’m on my way to a Board meeting. My job as a Board member is to turn up about once a month for a meeting lasting normally no more than a couple of hours to take the most important decisions the company needs – decisions which are often about complex areas, fraught with operational, commercial, legal and possibly political implications, and often with ambitious managers or other vested interests arguing strongly (but not necessarily objectively) for their preferred outcome. Few of the decisions are black and white, but most carry significant risk for the organisation.

This is a well-managed organisation, so I have received the papers for the meeting  a week in advance, but I have had no chance to seek clarification of anything which is unclear, or to ask for further information. In many organisations, the papers may arrive late, or they may have been poorly written so that the story they tell is incomplete or hard to understand (despite often being very detailed), or both. The Board meeting, with a packed agenda and a timetable to keep to, is my only chance to fill the gaps.

I have years of experience to draw on, but experience can only take me so far. Will I miss an assumption that ought to be challenged, or a risk arising from something I am not familiar with? If that happens, we may make a poor decision, and I will share the responsibility. In some cases – for instance a safety issue – that might have serious consequences for other people. It’s not a happy thought.

What to do about it?

In order for a Board (or any other body) to make good decisions, it has to be in possession of appropriate information. These are some of the rules I have followed when I have set up arrangements to promote effective governance.

Good papers

Good papers tell the story completely and logically, but concisely. They do not assume that the reader knows the background. They build the picture without jumping around, and make clear and well-argued recommendations. They do not confuse with unnecessary detail, but nor do they overlook important aspects. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Provide rules on length, apply (pragmatic) quality control to the papers received, and refuse to include papers if they do not meet minimum requirements (obviously it helps to be able to give advice on how to make them acceptable). You must of course choose a reviewer whose judgements will be respected. This may well result in some painful discussions, but people only learn the hard way.

Timely distribution

If members do not have time to read the papers properly, it does not matter how good they are. If I am a busy Board member, I may need to reserve time in my diary for meeting preparation, and this is a problem if I cannot rely on papers arriving on time. Set submission deadlines which allow for timely and predictable distribution, and enforce them. Again, be prepared for some painful discussions until people learn.

Informal channels

Concise papers and busy Board meetings are never going to allow for deep understanding of context. To overcome this, I have organised
informal sessions immediately preceding Board meetings, over a sandwich lunch if the timing requires. Allocate a couple of hours for just two or three topics; bring in the subject experts, but spend most of the time on discussion. Not all Board members will be able to attend every session, but in my experience not only have they found them hugely valuable in building their wider knowledge of the business, but the opportunity to meet more junior staff has been appreciated all round.

There are many other ways that informal channels could be set up. Different things will work in different organisations. Key to all of them is building trust: allowing Board members to see things “warts and all”, and trusting a wider group of staff to talk to them.

Organisation

To do all of these things effectively, you need to have someone (or in larger organisations a small secretariat team) whose primary objective is to deliver them. This is not glamorous stuff, however important, and it easily gets put to the bottom of the pile without clear leadership.

Finally, remember that nothing will happen unless the importance of this is understood at the very top.  If the CEO does not set an example by sticking to time and quality rules, no one else will.

What have you done to make sure Board members have the right information to make decisions? How have you maintained the quality of Board papers? What other tips do you have? Please leave comments below!