Tag Archives: culture

The one with the golden skirts

One of my early posts on this blog was about women and it was reflecting on how through the courses of researching an essay I was writing had found some information that influenced my thinking on the gender debate. I said at the time I worked in an organisation that was 80% women which is now untrue (infrastructure and engineering are still largely male dominated) but also said I knew some fabulous women who had been very successful in breaking the glass ceiling. That is still very true and in fact this post follows conversations with two of them who I am fortunate enough to work with on an almost daily basis.

The organisation I work in is what’s known as a meta-organisation in that it’s an organisation made up of several different partner organisations. One of those partners is currently striving to formulate new strategy on how they will approach improving their diversity and inclusivity. In the course of formulating they have taken some meetings with various management consultants who have shared research and statistics on the current state of play and efforts that other organisations are making to address the same challenge. It’s not new news but lets term it current affairs – the stats were up to date.

The comment that one of my colleagues made which has been bouncing around my head ever since made a very interesting observation. The point she made was (and I’m paraphrasing) that the organisations that have naturally arrived at having a gender balanced board don’t perform better because of the women on the board but because they have cultures that are open and inclusive so the best people are appointed to the board irrespective of gender. They are successful not because of a difference of thinking around the board table (or at least not JUST because of that) but because their cultures are open and meritocratic.

Fast forward 24 hours and I am discussing this comment with my boss and talking about its impact on my thinking with relation to what could be termed the positive discriminatory efforts of some (most notably the Norwegians) and she introduced me to the phrase ‘golden skirts’. Women who are imported into senior roles to ensure a particular business are ‘meeting their quota’ and are seen to have gender balanced boards. Does their presence make a difference to the organisation? Who knows? But in re-reading my earlier post I can’t say my reluctance to jump into positive discrimination will truly solve the problem or truly empower women to take a more leading roles in some of our largest corporations.

I was fortunate enough to attend the recent CIPD Annual Conference and the opening keynote was delivered by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones (they of “Why should anyone by lead by you?” fame) and their topic was ‘Creating the best workplace on Earth’ and referred to an article they had published recently in the Harvard Business Review. Reactions to the session were mixed (someone described it as a marmite session) but it landed well for me with one point they made creating the most resonance – a point of difference you may call it!!

They had created an acronym for their best workplace DREAMS (you can read more about it in the article) and a little shoehorning aside it worked. The D in their case stood for Difference and in their best workplace check list they offered these statements:

  • I’m the same person at home as I am at work.
  • I feel comfortable being myself.
  • We’re all encouraged to express our differences.
  • People who think differently from most do well here.
  • Passion is encouraged, even when it leads to conflict.
  • More than one type of person fits in here.

I can’t help but think that Diversity has become something of a 4 letter word consigned to ‘also ran’ status on the HR agenda and does seem, at times, to focus on one element of diversity over another (and in doing so self-defeating its desire to be inclusive). It does seem that a discussion about difference would be far more empowering for organisations – let me be me and rather than alienating those who don’t fit into one of the boxes; it could create an opportunity for everyone to feel included in a discussion that could build a better culture and workplace (and of deliver better results). It would challenge the way we (the HR profession) work as it would challenge some of the norms of recruitment and development to name two.

Rather than writing policies that create opportunity for resentment or make people afraid to act  it seems to me the best opportunity organisations have is to examine their cultures for what excludes and turn that into a force for inclusion not for creating labels or clubs. Let’s celebrate difference and let positively intended people explore it – they may make mistakes but in a great culture they’ll learn, not be punished.



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The one with the bullet proof toolkit

I recently took part in a workshop involving a group of senior managers working through their feedback from an external culture survey and audit. The day started with the group’s leader reminding them of the process they had been through, what had happened since the survey itself took place and how the scores had been compiled. All good so far.

It then moved on to one of their number going through the details of the response rates, the scoring and how their benchmarking within a comparison group had taken place and finally lead up to them being rated within the comparison group.

I must confess a wry smile as the group spent at least 10 minutes focused on how better management of the process and increasing the response rate could improve their score and reflect an improvement on the position they had achieved. The manager leading this session did well to discuss the options but kept them coming back to rather than trying to game manage the process would they not be better placed to consider the result they had achieved and what that ACTUALLY meant for their organisation.

It was at this point that he revealed a piece of information that had immediate and profound significance to me but the impact didn’t appear to hit home with the group for some time. The piece of information was that the final score achieved was based on two elements: the first was the survey results and the second a third party assessment of tools and processes that impact the culture and people of the organisation.

Why should this have profound significance you may ask? (Go on then…..ask). Well it turned out that  they had received significant commendation for the audit of tools and process. The overall score had been moderated down by the results of the survey. Yes….that’s right. The tools are great but it’s in the adoption and application of the tools that the opportunity for improvement exists!

There it was – in black and white…externally validated and bench-marked…no one could look at HR, OD, Comms or similar and challenge the toolkit, this was actual data that showed the focus needed to be not on reinventing, refitting or changing the wheel but actually was just about managing and leading the organisation using the fabulous toolkit provided.

It was about 40 minutes later that someone vocalised this penny drop and an uncomfortable silence enveloped the room…followed by a display of challenge, support and a commitment to improve that wasn’t about finger pointing, fad chasing or rolling out initiatives it was just about a group of very capable managers and leaders taking ownership.

5 hours later we went to the pub 🙂


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The one with the fixed term contract

It’s all over, an estimated $2billion spent, no resident of Ohio gone without a handshake and the American public (well those of them in swing states really) have chosen to re-elect President Obama. From an election that was touted as too close to call his victory would seem emphatic (at final count I think it was 332 to 206 in the electoral college) but by Friday the news cycle had moved on to the budget crisis looming and his need to make deals with Congress.

At some point on Thursday I had a thought (which I shared via Twitter) which went something along the lines of ‘Obama has just won the last job he’ll ever do and there’s nothing else to run for. Let’s hope he goes for it now’. And I meant it, he has probably the most high profile fixed term contract on earth and come 2016 he’s a lame duck (probably a year before that but you know what I mean).

I don’t know what drives a man like Barack Obama but some of his fears since the heady days of ‘Yes we can’ must have been about re-election, the idea he would be a one term President. But that fear has gone now. He’s got the 2nd term.

I have at times in my career observed leaders in various organisations acting like 1st term Presidents spending far too much time focused on winning the 2nd term rather than leading the organisation – what do I mean? Their drive for self-preservation means they play it safe, they don’t challenge the things that need challenging and in doing so create a cycle of behaviour that actually precipitates the very outcome they are so focused on preventing – they get ousted.

With the joy of human behaviour being so varied and diverse there is of course no single driver for how we behave but my belief is that fear is one hell of a great motivator and I believe organisations that can build structures and cultures that support courage, that invite challenge and have the difficult conversation and vanquish elephants on tables and everywhere else will be more successful.

How do you go about doing that? Now that’s the $64,000 question and I think it comes down to the specifics of the organisation and the context in which they operate. I have had some random (bar located) conversations regarding what it may take but for my money it comes down to (drum roll please) leadership and realising that as a leader you are there to engender vision, support decision making and be ultimately accountable but you don’t have all the answers and it’s only in asking the right questions and allowing people to answer them honestly that your team/division/directorate/organisation will improve and succeed.

Anyway, well done Mr Obama and to Mr Romney – well played. I had the pleasure of an amusing conversation with Laurie Ruettimann on Thursday night and I think we’ve already agreed that it’ll be Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush (because it seems only Republicans called Bush win general elections) in 2016 so you can save all the money, adverts, rallies etc. and just crack on!!

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The one where I’m now in the family

Last November I wrote a post entitled ‘The one where it’s in the family’ where I expressed my frustration with what appeared, at least to me, the closed-minded thinking of some people about considering hiring people who had worked outside their industry. At the time people shared some interesting points of view and at the very least it made me feel better.

Now 6 months later I sit here learning to be part of a new ‘family’ lead by people who have done what I hoped more people would that is hired someone from outside their industry and actually made a point of welcoming the outside point of view. That’s all well and good – I am loving my job and the people I work with are being very supportive in sharing the industry specifics I will need to be effective.  However, it got me thinking about the behaviour one needs to exhibit in order to firstly deliver the role but more importantly make the risk those hiring took pay back and bring the ‘non-industry insight’ to bear.

So far the list is only five items long but here goes:

1. Be comfortable looking stupid

There are loads of things you don’t know that you will need to know. Asking means admitting you don’t know and that’s OK. Don’t let the fear of looking stupid or being the one person who doesn’t know stop you asking. The most powerful impact could be in asking a question about something that everyone takes for granted but a fresh pair of eyes that can see differently – it could be a game changer.

2. Share but don’t drone…

Count to yourself how many times you start a sentence with “When I worked for X” or “When I worked in Y”. Using your previous experience and providing some validation to an observation is essential but be aware of the risk of switching people off or worse have them actively whingeing about all the ‘company X’ stories

3. Don’t let specifics drown your perceptions

Yes each industry or sector has a lot of specifics and part of being able to deliver a role will be understanding those specifics but largely speaking people are people and don’t let the specifics drown out or cloud your perceptions – they are probably right.

4. Some people will defend with specifics

If people around you feel threatened either by your role or a new person in the environment they may use the specifics to try and defend a position or even to challenge your validity. That’s OK. Let them defend, understand their defence, don’t swing at the pitch but use this to build your understanding of the organisation and the individual

5. Take the time

Not knowing stuff is OK (according to my therapist!!) and whilst we all want to feel confident and part of things it’s OK to take time to understand the organisation, it’s culture, it’s people and it’s secret language. Don’t beat yourself up or let your lack of instant understand damage your confidence – take the time.

So 3 weeks done and my security pass hasn’t been revoked yet. If anyone has anything ideas of things to add to this post I would be grateful because sitting and writing it has been as much about me focussing on what I need to do as sharing any insight I may have and with that I will leave you to a new week and kick off week 4 and learn several new three letter acronyms!


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The one to identify with

As part of a variety of workshops and team days I have regularly asked the question “what team are you in?” The answers are diverse and range from “team <individual’s name>” to their functional team to the particular country team or the entire organisation. It’s an interesting question and to me speaks to the individual’s perception of their role, maybe their motivation, their esteem in the organisation and what network they see themselves as part of.

Identity is one of those things that is present on all parts of our lives. Think back to the school yard – everyone was in gangs that were identified by a characteristic usually involving sport or social status (or is it technology now?). When you start working there are labels like the new starter, the graduate, the temp. As much as people seem to like labelling others (i.e. she’s an employee of X) it is more pertinent to the individual as to what label they choose to accept – how and what they identify with.

In his 2001 book Haslam describes organisational identity as akin to a psychological bond between the employer and the employee and Ashforth & Mael describe it as “the perception of oneness with or belonginess to the organization”. Haslam goes on to suggest that individuals who identify with their organisations see themselves as members and see the organisations values as aligned to their own either on a conscious cognitive level or a more emotional “pride” level. Employees who identify with their organisations will work longer for the greater good, often involving individual sacrifice and are more intrinsically motivated to deliver increased performance.

Different organisations treat this topic very differently. From recruitment and induction through to values workshops, employee surveys, town hall meetings etc etc etc, how organisations try to manage this and measure it is a topic much bigger than a) this post and b) my interest currently, but it does seem to me that at times we are skirting around the central tenant and looking at the superficial, do people actually feel like they belong to your organisation or is it just a transactional relationship?

I was having a conversation with a pal of mine at the weekend. She is an executive in a fairly large business and was talking about the commercial challenges they are facing at the moment. She went on to say that the senior team (of which she is part) have spent 9 months searching for the silver bullet and have finally realised it’s not one thing but a series of smaller things combined that will change their fortunes.

I am not suggesting for a moment that the topic of organisational identity is a) as straightforward as presented here or b) a silver bullet for organisations BUT it needs to be part of the discussion. The next time you have the opportunity ask some people which team they are in and why they think that, I’m not suggesting it will immediately change your fortunes but I would lay a sizeable bet it will be an interesting conversation.

P.S. What team are you in???



I wrote this post over the weekend and had done a little tweaking and nuancing (not nearly enough I’m sure) but then had a conversation with another friend who’s son has just started playing rugby at a local club (under 7s – VERY competitive) and the conversation strayed onto the World Cup. Having watched my team (Wales) but up a valiant but eventually unsuccessful performance against the reigning world champions, South Africa, I have the silver bullet (!!). All employees to wear rugby jerseys – not one of the 30 odd men appearing on that pitch yesterday were in any doubt as to their identity or what team they were in…



Ashforth, B., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management

Review, 14(1), 20–39.

Haslam, S. A. (2001). Psychology in organizations. The social identity approach. London: Sage


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The one with the $20 auction

OK so it wasn’t strictly $20 it was 100 Yuan but you’ll get the point…

Professor Max Bazerman is a very well credentialed man.  He is Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. His areas of expertise include decision making, ethics and negotiation and he has a publication list that would make even John Grisham blush.

Professor Brazerman’s first lecture on the MBA programme begins with the $20 auction where students can bid to win $20. Of course the bidding starts at $1 and can only go up in whole number increments so you’d figure the most it ever sells for is $20, right? Wrong. It has been sold, I believe, for as high a sum as $204 which having an expertise in ethics the good Professor donates to charity.

If you are anything like me you are likely sat reading this thinking “I’d never fall for anything like that” and you are probably right… but lots of people do and it’s for that reason that I’ve used this mechanic is several workshops including one which I ran today in Guangzhou, China. The workshop looks at amongst other things the nature of internal competition in organizations and how often the drive to succeed in the internal competition distracts from that ALL so important factor…the external competition.

Between my colleagues and I, we have run this workshop several times and I believe our record is somewhere in the region of £80 (and we usually use fake money) but the device is a good one for making the point about how otherwise sensible rational people make often strange decisions in the name of winning.

So this morning I duly got 100 Yuan (about £10) out of my wallet and popped it in an envelope to use at the appropriate moment. When the moment arrived in the workshop a strange thing happened – the auction didn’t work and despite my baiting and goading I only managed to get the team up to 20 Yuan (I had started the bidding at 10!) and was asked the following question:

“Why would we compete with each other? If we nominate one person and all share their costs, can we all share the prize?”

My initial reaction was a forced smile and a response in the affirmative whilst preparing to try and make the learning point without the auction having worked and then I stopped and thought, ‘is this cultural rather than just a group of bright sparks?”. Now I don’t know the answer but it’s been bouncing around in my head ever since.

I wrote a post last week (whilst working in Hong Kong) which shared the Hall’s cultural contexts and a feature of a high context culture (like China) is that identity is rooted in the collective as opposed to low context cultures like the US and the UK where identity is rooted in the individual. Now whether this is due to cultural context, political context or just the foresight of a few bright individuals seeing right through my plan I’m not sure. However, the idea that a group of relatively junior people in our Guangzhou office paid the equivalent of $4 in the $20 auction has made my day, especially when you look at the cost of the MBA programme at Harvard!

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The one with the landlord’s fixtures

At exactly midnight (Hong Kong time) on July 1st 1997, the Last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten sent the following telegram:

“I have relinquished the administration of this government. God Save The Queen. Patten.”

The succinct communication was the last official act of a government that had existed in some form or other for 155 years and with it Great Britain’s “tenancy” of Hong Kong ended and it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China or more correctly The People’s Republic of China. The terms of the SAR were negotiated in the years leading up to 1997 and it’s an arrangement that will last for 50 years at which point it will be subject to review. The return to Chinese rule did not however spark the mass exodus some predicted either of people or money and Hong Kong today is a vibrant multi cultural city-state.

You don’t have to travel far in the city to find relics of the former tenant – whether they are architectural or some classic road names -I can’t imagine Carnarvon Road is named after a Chinese location and Cameron Road is surely ahead of its time? But the interesting impact is on the culture which appears at least on the surface to be a blend of both its significant influences.

I have been very fortunate over the past few years to make several visits to Hong Kong. They have been mostly business (with a little pleasure snuck in) and I have worked with people from our business who have been of either British, Hong Kong-Chinese or Mainland Chinese origin and got to see firsthand some of the differences that manifest themselves as Asia accelerates its position in the global economy and the multi nationals strive to work effectively in the region.

In his 1976 book “Beyond Culture”, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall proposed his concept of cultural context defining the differences between high context and low context cultures. He was an American who’s work had started with native Americans and through working with the Foreign Service had broadened globally and I think I’m right in saying he defined the extremities of communication cultures using Japan and the US as respectively the poles of high context and low context cultures.

Information regarding his definitions is readily available but in summary:

High Context

  • Relationships build slowly
  • Trust depends on connections
  • Identity rooted in the Collective
  • Hierarchical structures
  • Space is communal
  • Time is polychronic
  • Time is a process
  • Change is slow
  • Accuracy is valued


Low Context

  • Relationships build up quickly
  • Trust depends on one’s merit
  • Identity rooted in the individual
  • Egalitarian structures
  • Space is territorial and private
  • Time is monochronic
  • Time is a commodity
  • Change is fast
  • Speed is valued

Given the poles are Japan and the US it is likely no great surprise that fairly close to both those extremes are China and the UK, with the Chinese culture very high context and the UK far lower.

It was during a discussion of these ideas with a group in Shanghai that one of the Senior Managers in the room asked the question “so where does Hong Kong sit?” Being a good facilitator I inwardly panicked and outwardly threw the question back to the room… discussion ensued. The result of the discussion was in their opinion, that Hong Kong sat somewhere you might define as mid context having elements of both high and low and the discussion went further to how the history of Hong Kong might have influenced this.

In reflecting on this on several occasions with various people since that time the idea of mid context seems to have some resonance for people experienced in the region and the observation had been made by several people that rather than having a diluted culture in the middle that Hong Kong has some distinctly high context elements and some distinctly low context elements and that they could possibly correlate to the role of the family (where culture seems far more traditional) and the role of commerce (where the behaviour observed by others has been likened far more to Western cultures).

Given the pace of globalisation, the shifts in economic power, the need for multinational businesses to operate globally and the future of the SAR, it seems that Hong Kong may have some interesting times ahead and with hindsight will the most significant landlord’s fixtures not be the buildings or the road names but the divergent culture born of two significant influences?

Where does all this leave us? Given a lack of significant research it leaves us with some interesting ideas from people who live and work in Asia and personally it leaves me with a desire to further explore this fascinating place which given it’s half past gin o’clock and I am sat in a hotel in Kowloon,  I will do now!



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