Monthly Archives: July 2011

The one with a game changer on entrepreneurs

There are some very smart people around….and thanks to the joy of the internet (specifically YouTube and Twitter in this case) we get quick and easy access to their thinking. Not that trawling through indexes in a reference library isn’t fun of course, but it’s a lot more time consuming!

The specific smart people I am referring to in this post are Marc Ventresca and Grant McCracken . The first is on staff at Said Business School in Oxford and the second is on staff at MIT as well as writing books & blogs.

Ventresca ran a session at the recent TEDx in Oxford, the subject of which was Entrepreneurs and it was through McCracken’s blog on HBR that I came to see this session on YouTube. For those who want more than my perceptions, it’s linked here.

The beauty of a TED talk is they are punchy. 20 minutes maximum and given the diversity of the audience rarely rely on a great deal of in-depth knowledge of the specific area. Ventresca opens his by asking people to reflect on the word entrepreneur and what it has come to mean. He goes on to give what has evolved into the mainstream perception of entrepreneurs, the way it has been ‘captured’ – those who take big risk for big reward, those who are endlessly persistent, those who do things no one else will do and those who are free from the bounds of convention.

Given this is TED the audience was likely littered with real entrepreneurs and he makes the point that often these people are not particularly interested in risk but are in fact passionate and persistent and achieve things in the worlds they are already in. Stop there for a moment…

This is where I got really excited (sad I know) because actually to me what he was describing was not just entrepreneurs but more importantly to me, given the context of my research and reading, he was describing corporate entrepreneurs. Not the maverick celebrity special few, but a definition and understanding that could apply to people within organisations.

The phrase he used that was particularly resonant was, “start with what they have at hand” to “turn what they have in hand to something more” but most resonantly for the consideration of corporate entrepreneurs “they do something in the world they’re in”.

The phrase he used is “System Builder” and he uses various examples to illustrate this but he summarises a system builder with these 3 comments:

  • They understand the elements around them
  • They combine those elements to generate new value
  • They do this by taking heterogeneous elements and assembling them

It’s in these 3 things that I started to think about the differences between corporate entrepreneurs and other successful business managers. I would imagine every successful manager understands the elements around them but the two things that maybe distinguish entrepreneurs is firstly the ability (or creativity in its broadest sense) to combine them but also the ability to recognise the potential in the difference between the (heterogeneous) elements.

Also, given how hard people seem to find it to recognise or admit they are entrepreneurial, without being in a start up or small business situation, this definition could be very powerful in helping increase the identification of relevant individuals within organisations, the growth of venturing within businesses and a return to economic prosperity…but I may be taking this a little far!

I do like smart people….a lot. Now I’m going back to reading more of them

N.B. Any errors in the transcription from the YouTube clip are mine and apologies in advance to Dr Ventresca if I’ve taken his words in vain!!




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The one with a rant about business partners

 Back in the days when I did my CIPD qualification (a long time ago – the best grade in GCSE was still an A and newspaper retained Investigators were still going through bins) the phrase everyone was espousing was “HR as a business partner”. You may have heard it….

In studying models of HR practice the few that stuck in my mind (in fact I think I learned them by rote for a potential essay question) were by Tyson & Fell and Storey.

Tyson & Fell

In their 1986 book “Evaluating the Personnel Function” Tyson & Fell likened the different forms of personnel function to roles on a construction site like this:

“(i) The clerk of works – all authority for action is vested in line managers. HR policies are formed or created after the actions that led to the need. Policies are not integral to the business and are short term and ad hoc. Authority is vested in line managers and HR activities are largely routine – employment and day-to-day administration.

(ii) The contracts manager – policies are well established, often implicit, with a heavy industrial relations emphasis, possibly derived from an employers association. The HR department will use fairly sophisticated systems, especially in the field of employee relations. The HR manager is likely to be a professional or very experienced in industrial relations. He or she will not be on the board and, although having some authority to ‘police’ the implementation of policies, acts mainly in an interpretative, not a creative or innovative, role.

(iii) The architect – explicit HR policies exist as part of the corporate strategy. Human resource planning and development are important concepts and a long-term view is taken. Systems tend to be sophisticated. The head of the HR function is probably on the board and his or her power is derived from professionalism and perceived contribution to the business.”


Storey was one of the first ‘two by two’ models I ever understood (far too many have come since but that’s a whole other post) and his model looks something like this…


Look kind of familiar? It will do because lo and behold 5 years later, what appeared but this…..


Yes the mother lode of Dave Ulrich and the phrase “HR as a business partner” was born (and 27,000 fairies died). Don’t get me wrong I am not one of the Ulrich haters but like any model it should be taken in context and not taken completely literally. For what it’s worth my view on models? They provoke thinking to consider what you are currently doing differently. They are not a recipe book to be ‘cooked’ verbatim.

This brings us to my point…. “HR as a business partner”. If you stick HR business partner into any job board you will get loads of adverts with a huge range of salaries doing a whole range of things at a vast range of levels. It had become a catch all job title but are any of them truly business partnering?

If you talk to someone who runs a small business and they talk about their business partner I doubt they talk about someone who polices them, tells them what they are doing wrong and runs their payroll. That is what their office manager or in some cases their book keeper does. Their business partner will have skin in the game. Their business partner will be vested in the business (usually financially) and will be to some degree, depending on the partnership, accountable for the results of the enterprise. How many HR business partners could claim that?

I truly believe (otherwise I would be doing something else) that HR can have a powerful role in the business. That positioned correctly, invested in properly and filled with courageous and knowledgeable practitioners, the HR department can be a true business partner (in the way described above). But can we please please stop kidding ourselves that we are anywhere close. Rather than focussing on the rhetoric and coolest new model, can we start working to make some of those already in existence effective….please!


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The one with a battle not a war

For at least the past decade discussion has abounded about the war for talent. When I first interviewed for an HR job a friend who is a Senior HR practitioner told me to avoid using the phrase as it would sound like meaningless jargon. I followed her advice then (and got the job) but continue to see the phrase in print (online and offline) and featuring on many conference programmes.

It appears with my limited perspective that the biggest focus in the war for talent, or least in the discussions I see is the acquisition of talent (recruitment in normal language). Whilst ensuring an organisation hires great people is absolutely key in ensuring the health and effectiveness of the organisation – it is only a battle, it is NOT the war.

The other major battle is termed by some talent development (Learning & Development in my language but to my Dad I work in training) and I promise this post isn’t another one all about L&D. But it is about Talent, and what seems to now be termed talent mapping/planning (succession planning in old skool language)

In the past few weeks I have been talking to people in several different contexts about my views on talent. When the subject of succession planning rears its head, as it inevitably does, it amazes me how much focus is given firstly to the operation of the exercise (the project management elements) and secondly the administration of the process (the tools or system used). What appears to be given little attention is the actual content of said plan…

What largely seems to happen is that line managers are asked to assess their teams and fill in some form of document or chart with an indication of what roles that individual will do in a specified amount of time. Now I accept there are some organisations that do this very well but it appears most do something rudimentary.

So let’s have a look at the pitfalls associated with a basic or rudimentary process:

  • It’s largely based on the subjective opinion of the line management
  • The investment in objective measurement of either performance or potential is often limited
  • It is often married to a evolving or flawed performance management system
  • The balance between current performance and individual potential often skews to assessment being made on performance
  • It often doesn’t consider options wider than the current function an individual is working in
  • It is often subjugated to ‘business as usual’ and becomes a compliance exercise rather than attention being paid to individual and organisational potential

This list could go on and on and as previously stated isn’t a view on the best practice that exists in some organisations but my perception on what happens in some organisations that maybe haven’t seen (or been influenced to) the value of investing in their succession plan.

Views abound on many parts of this subject and an interesting view from the other side of the fence can be found in this post  from Katie McNab.

People don’t appear on a balance sheet. If they did you would have to depreciate them, give information on their expected life span and what investments are being made to ensure that life is achieved or exceeded. Whilst a machine in a factory receives planned and preventative maintenance and effort is put into the next generation of upgrades, additions, capacity extensions and ensuring that machine runs as efficiently as possible. Due to the lack of objective (and for that read financial) measures around people it appears they don’t receive the level of attention they would benefit from.

So why did I write this? Firstly because the thought has been bouncing around my head but probably more to ask that the next time you hear/use the phrase the war for talent you think about all the battles on all the fronts and how important your existing employees are to the future success of your business.

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The one where I scare myself on purpose

So you all remember the Baz Luhrmann song “Everybody’s free to wear sunscreen”? The one that starts “Ladies & Gentlemen of the class of ’97, wear sunscreen”. Good.

Awesome, isn’t it?

The words are taken from a column published in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 by Mary Schmich and there is a line that is very relevant to what follows…

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Now aside from looking in the mirror first thing in the morning my day to day life is not what you would call scary. I am not a soldier on patrol, a surgeon performing ground breaking operations, a homeless person scared of not having the means to eat or a fireman running into a burning building… I work in L&D. On the scary scale my life gets to challenging regularly but not often scary.

So with this in mind on Saturday I attended an Improvisation Workshop. 12 random people in a venue in South East London all having volunteered to spend the best part of a day jumping off a cliff…or so it felt.

My reasons for being there were various and included:

  1. Checking it out as an approach to use in the organisation
  2. Improve my personal ability to “think on my feet” and advocate this for my team
  3. I am not very good at turning down a dare
  4. Do one thing every day that scares you

Without going through everything we did I have to say it was a blast.

Firstly, it was a really great bunch of very supportive people who, without individual ego, wanted everyone else to get as much from it as possible. Secondly, apart from being supportive they were a really interesting bunch which made lunch full of interesting conversation. Thirdly and for me most importantly, I faced my fear and really really really enjoyed it.

The control freak in me had a bad day. When you don’t know what’s coming next and there are very few rules of engagement, thinking through the situation and tailoring what you express in all forms of communication, verbal and non-verbal, is very difficult. The result of this was the voice in my head wasn’t a happy camper and spent most of the day yelling – but I wasn’t listening…for once.

The guy who ran the whole thing is called John Cremer (and I’ve stuck his details below) and I was fortunate enough to meet him when we were fellow participants on a training course recently. John is by trade an improviser. He uses the tools and skills of improvisation in both business and non-business settings. In a business context he does conferences, public speaking, team events but primarily uses his abilities to help people understand how they can be more creative. He’s also a pain as he sent me an e-mail with the details of the workshop with only a few words and a link. The few words were, “I dare you”…

His rules for improvising are short and simple (and he doesn’t give a handout!!) and they are:

  1. Listen
  2. Say yes
  3. Commit

The first one is simple. I am really not going to talk about active listening, focussing on others etc etc etc here – promise.

The say yes thing probably needs a little further explanation. This isn’t a Danny Wallace “Yes Man” type of say yes. This is more an “accept what you are given” and rather than saying “yes, but…” to it (which reduces options and feels negative to the other person) say “yes, and…” to it and open up more options through the collaboration between the individuals.

The final point – commit, in simple terms is ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’ and the best bit is its improvisation so you can’t get it wrong. When this was discussed on Saturday it made me think of this blog by Neil Morrison which highlights how often people stay within their functional boxes and don’t get in there, instead sitting on the sidelines watching the business go by…

Despite spending the first hour with blood pressure  that would have made a physician blush the day was great and I am considering having a go at further workshops but not just  yet…

The main thing I’ve come away with is a distinct impression that the rules for improvisation that John professes could be very interesting when applied more broadly but given the constraints and politics of organisations how many people would really apply them?

As for something scary for today….well that’s easy. I am going to try and make my departmental budget balance!

P.S. Picture the scene, man sat on chair, woman stands at his shoulder. There are 11 people watching… One of those watching says “and your first line is ‘don’t leave me’” GO!

John Cremer

Work stuff:               


Non-work stuff:     


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The one where you don’t get what you want

For those of you who know me, you may well know that I do a weekly show on a hospital radio station near to my home. It’s every Sunday night and I have the privilege of doing it with a couple of friends so it’s generally a great laugh and a fabulous way to end the weekend. The show has a dedicated Facebook group which allows people listening on line to take part in and comment on the show. The tone is light hearted and a fair amount of ummmm Michael is extracted often at my expense. It’s great!

A few of our loyal listeners are more than happy to express their opinions about the music played and in turn request something more to their taste and on occasion we relent and play near enough what they ask for. In the early part of the show last night such an occasion arose and I said, on air “Well you can please some of the people, some of the time but not all of the people all of the time” (nods to Abe Lincoln) but added “but in our case often none of the people, none of the time” or words to that effect. The comment was off the cuff and we quickly moved on…but it got me to thinking….

In the course of my Masters degree and in my job the training cycle comes up. You know? The classic cycle – Establish Need, Design, Deliver, Evaluate. Yes, that one.

And if you read the books on establishing needs in training you’ll often see the phrase “training needs analysis” coupled with suggestions around collecting training needs through personal development planning process. It is often suggested this is coupled with appraisal so short falls in objective attainment are tackled through personal development plan. Robert’s your father’s brother – job done. Or is it?

The low hanging fruit (20 points at lingo bingo) of the problem with this approach is that apart from the administrative burden of such a process or the technology investment to make it easy, what you end up with is a disparate list of randomly decided “development needs” which, and let’s be honest here, have usually been talked through for 7 minutes at the end of an appraisal. Trying to then develop a coherent development programme that tackles all of them in a corporate setting with numerous conflicting priorities becomes an exercise in futility. So what ends up happening is those with most overlap get tackled and a smorgasbord of random workshops gets cobbled together…

The bigger problem (hard to reach fruit?!) of the problem with this approach is that what you are collating (because there’s little or no verification in this process) is a list of wants… Not needs!

In the few instances I have been either a participant or managed this process the gap between what people want and what potentially they could need is at best wide at worst gulf like and what seems to happen is a list filled with those classic “performance game changers” (coughs loudly) like ‘Finance for Non-Finance Managers’, ‘Time Management’, ‘Presentation Skills’ and ‘Project Management’ appears. That’s not to say those are not important topics. Indeed our finance team would attest to my need to attend at least two of them BUT are they the things that are actually going to shift organisational performance?

So where is this going? I am NOT saying that if you are part of or responsible for this type of process that you should NOT ask for or provide the things you/they want. Not saying that. What I am saying is that whatever your role in understanding the development needs of an organisation, take a step back and ask yourself a question…something along the lines of “what knowledge, skills & behaviours are going to significantly change our business performance?”, maybe ask around, talk to some people at different levels and perspectives in the organisation and then sense check it with what has come before and the challenges that lie ahead. I imagine that your answers to that question will be as informative if not more so than a drawn out information collection process. I also imagine that the answer to the question won’t be finance for non-finance managers!

And writing this has given me an idea of a track to play next week – The Rolling Stones “You can’t always get what you want” 😉


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The one where it’s in your name

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Actually about a year ago in an office about 20 miles from where I am sat, I had a problem with my laptop at work. I had just returned from an overseas trip and it apparently was no longer “part of the domain”. Being a well schooled user of corporate IT I checked the network cable and switched it off and back on again and nothing… At the time I was 25 minutes away from a 1 to 1 with my boss, my phone was ringing and in a delegatory moment I asked our team administrator if she would mind calling IT and asking them to sort it out. In the following minutes whilst on another call I heard the following “but don’t you know who it’s for?” and my blood ran cold.

I like our IT team, they have a real customer service mentality, care about their metrics and deal with everyone fairly and with equity, and so the idea that our well meaning administrator was trying to using the (somewhat questionable) power of my job title to get this sorted really bothered me.

A wise man once said (actually it’s a supplier who was informally coaching me at the time) that every time you refer to your boss or a senior person when discussing a decision or course of action that what you are signalling to the other person is a) I don’t have any power or influence here and b) I am using their proxy to drive this course of action. This really bothered me also. Both in a professional sense but also in terms of my personal pride and view of myself in that organisation. It made me stop and reflect how many times I had opened a sentence with “I’ve been speaking to Clare and…” or “Clare and I have discussed this and…” thus signalling I was the monkey and Clare was the organ grinder.

I wrote a while ago about the different forms of power (blog here) and whilst hierarchical power works, in light of this comment from my coach it always felt to me like admitting defeat “I can’t win this argument on logic or reason so I’m just going to use rank”

So park me and the reflections for a moment and consider this:

How many times do people you work with in your organisation making emphatic reference to a senior person when trying to make a point?

Stop and think about it…

It’s a lot isn’t it?

Having asked myself the same question some time ago I embarked on a piece of informal research (or as some may call it – trying to get my own way) when something I was trying to achieve was thwarted or struck down with a ‘senior person reference’ and my findings showed there were roughly four realities behind the ‘senior person reference’:

1. The senior person was against my course of action and had empowered a member of their team to manage this with me

2. The senior person had asked some questions around the course of action and wanted to explore it more to understand the purpose. This had been misunderstood as not wanting it and the misunderstanding was driving the subsequent conversation

3. The senior person had made a cursory comment about the course of action but their team member had a strong view which was being backed by the cursory comment.

4. The senior person had no view, had not been part of the discussion and could go either way on the issue

Fortunately for our organisation (although not necessarily for my objectives!) the majority of the references fell into item number 1 and required a trip to the drawing board. However on the odd occasion that the others on the list snuck out, it was very interesting to try and resolve the issue and also understand the dynamics that were driving the behaviour.

So I will leave you with a few questions, which if this gets commented on are actual questions, if it doesn’t then of course I completely intended them to be rhetorical:

How often and how severely have you come up against numbers 2, 3 & 4?

What are the context/behaviours you think may drive that?

And finally, what is being done in your name? (that’s definitely rhetorical!)


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