Power talk!

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Words can be powerful. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in Belgium, where I’m on the hunt for a new assignment. It’s proving challenging, but not because I lack the expert skills and experience of a transformation professional. Pas du tout!

In this tiny country, being trilingual is the norm. There are even secondary school education programmes where scientific subjects are taught in English, history in French and Maths in Dutch. Geweldig! I’ll wager good money that the average Belgian teenager speaks English and Dutch better than their UK counterparts.

It may sound like a cliche but Britons are the worst at learning other languages. In a recent survey by ESOL, 62% of people in the UK speak only English, and only 38% can make themselves understood in another tongue. Compare this to the 56% of Europeans who speak one other language, and the 28% who speak two! Half of EU citizens can hold a conversation in English.

At my level of seniority English is usually the business language of choice. Still, I feel at a disadvantage if I cannot express myself in fluent Dutch or French. I spent 6 months learning Dutch and practicing it as often as I can. It’s not perfect, but after 2 years I can describe what I do and how I do it and I’ve got to the point where Flemish Belgians do not switch automatically to English when they hear me speak, though they do make fun of my accent. I’m following an evening class in photography and make presentations in Dutch, so ‘ik spreek nederlands’. French is another story.

All of this has got me thinking about how important language is. Of course it’s possible to create cross-cultural rapport without the benefit of bilingualism, but somehow putting yourself in someone else’s shoes by being able to communicate in more than one language goes a long way – both personally and professionally. Shared vocabulary makes for greater connection, which is much needed in the digital echo-chamber we call work.

A-Z of Interim. X is for … X-factor

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I’m not sure who actually said ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ – the more things change, the more they stay the same – but they were definitely onto something.

Although organisations can vary wildly in terms of structure, process and culture, when it comes to implementing business change, the challenge remains the same.  How do you create lasting transformation?

Is there an ‘x-factor’ that elevates transformation programmes, creating lasting benefits and sustainable change?

As an interim who uses her expertise to build and lead change programs with staying power, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’!  Successful change arises from a combination of factors rather than a single, elusive element.

Here’s what I know:

Do, don’t delegate:  You don’t delegate change.  Transformation only happens when you establish clear ownership and commitment to change across all levels of the organisation. Savvy leaders do this by modelling authentic behaviours which provide the foundation for change. They create a compelling narrative which acts as a lynchpin, connecting individuals and teams to the change.

Stay focused: The road to transformation is long, and it’s no place for monkey mind!  It can be all too easy for leaders to get distracted by short term results – a.k.a. the next shiny thing on their corporate agenda – instead of staying the course. To get the prize, keep your eyes on a prioritised set of changes, and make sure you have assigned clear accountability for specific actions during implementation.

It’s not a part-time, pastime: I’m called in when things transformational have tanked. Sometimes it’s because the fanfare surrounding the initial announcement of change has faded. Often it’s because the people responsible for implementation have not been properly engaged. Very often it’s because change is considered something you can do on top of your day job. Erm, no… Successful transformation relies on sufficient resources and capability to implement change.  Have the right people, doing the right things. Hire in capability, if needed, but don’t forget to coach and support your own teams so they can build their transformation muscles.

Bend and stretch: External events and corporate disasters can derail even the most meticulously planned transformation, so make sure you bake in a degree of flexibility, should you need to adjust or re-calibrate your plans. Change sticks in places where it can be sustained, so craft plans that are practical and results oriented. Your chances of success will improve exponentially.

 

 

A-Z of Interim: U is for…Unexpected

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Image: Lisa Bondesio | 2019

It’s always good when you get the ‘Miracle Fish’ in your Christmas Cracker!  Place the cellophane fish in your palm, and its movements will indicate your fortune.  Spoiler alert! If the fish is motionless, it is a dead one! Great party trick, but not so great for helping you navigate the unexpected…

Unexpectedness, is definitely something to be expected in today’s workplace. Whether you work as an interim or not. For instance, 2018 for me was a year where a fantastic new client and assignment came out of left field, thanks to a personal recommendation from one of my Linked-In network.  I’d like to say this was expected. A carefully plotted opportunity as a result of meticulous networking and a solid business plan. Nope. It was the right thing at the right time. Unexpected but good!

2018 was also the year where another personal recommendation led to a complete waste of my time and effort.  An unscrupulous potential client who shall remain nameless, but who will not be forgiven for assuming that 1) I work for free… and 2) it’s okay to steal someone’s ideas and pass them off as your own. I’d like to say this was expected. That I trusted my gut like I should have, and said ‘no thanks’ at the outset of the conversation. Nope. I thought they would behave professionally. They didn’t. Unexpected, and bad business karma besides!

Both these occurrences have me thinking about the best way to flourish in times of great uncertainty. If you choose to work for yourself, you do choose a path less travelled. Less secure. Less certain. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you crave 9-5 and a regular pay-cheque until you reach a pensionable age. In that case, this probably isn’t the blog post for you!

Of course, there are some things you can do to mitigate the vagaries of living in an age of unexpectedness.  Here are my top tips:

Don’t take it personally.  Unless you yourself have done something hugely unprofessional (see paragraph 3, above) – losing out on an opportunity, having projects stalled, cancelled or just generally petering out is actually not about you. Trust me, it’s not. It’s usually about stuff you cannot control, so don’t waste time and valuable energy ruminating over what went wrong or why the other candidate was better qualified.  Chalk it up to experience, learn and move on!

See the unexpected as an opportunity to do something different, differently. Even the most skilled professionals experience a cosmic butt-kicking at least once in their career. Whether it’s a long period prospecting for new assignments without pay-off, or a change in the direction of your assignment which means you and the client must part ways gracefully. Be graceful. Accept the challenge. Shift your mental gears and figure out a new way of dealing with the circumstances. P.S. There is always a way!

Action is the antidote to despair. Comfort zones are great, but nothing much grows there.  In other words, don’t let discomfort keep you from continuing to move forward. Bad days, just like good days come and go. Of course, there will be times when – of necessity – you will need to pause and reflect, but camping out in a spiral of doom isn’t really the way to feel motivated. Keep taking action, because sooner or later opportunity – cunningly disguised as the unexpected – comes knocking.

Create your own safety net. Well-being is no longer in the realms of the touchy-feely. It’s a weapon against the unknown.  Your safety net could be financial – as in a 6-month cash buffer. Personal – as in a good network of colleagues or family who can support you. Physical – as in a hobby that gets you out of your head and into the fresh air!  All of the above? Or something else entirely.  Whatever it looks like for you, make sure you have one!

Fortune telling fish, or not…I’m looking forward to 2019. My wish for you is that it brings good clients, great work and even better achievements.  Happy New Year!

A-Z of Interim: O is for…Opportunity

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Image: Ronstik | Dreamstime.com

 

It was all supposed to be going so swimmingly…

2016 brought a new assignment, a wedding (my own) and a cross-channel commute home. It also brought additional stress and a severe case of shingles as my immune system finally called time on the frenetic interim lifestyle.

I said ‘sayonara’ to the assignment.  November was spent lying in a darkened room channelling a look that was somewhere between The Terminator and a deranged raccoon on account of the red eyes and anti-itch powder. Not exactly client-facing!  

Fellow workaholics will realise that enforced bed rest is not my thing. Neither is being ill. But this was an entirely different matter. There was no option but to endure, and no way to see an upside. Upside-down more likely!  And yet…there is always an opportunity to learn from the circumstances you find yourself in.

Henry Ford said it best. ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently’. As the meds kicked in and my convalescence wore on, I had ample opportunity to think.  Which is why I am spending the first quarter of 2017 acclimatising to a new culture (Belgium), learning a new language (Dutch) and looking to base my business (and my assignments) closer to home.

As interims, one of our superpowers has to be that we can craft opportunity out of a piece of string and some sticky tape. That’s called change management.  Being flexible and open to changing circumstances means we can course correct when we need to. That’s called being entrepreneurial. And finally…knowing when to pause and when to act. Well, that’s commonly known as having Plan B. 

How do you define opportunity?  How do you deal with failure?  Answers and comments via the blog, please…

I is for…Interim

© Vlue | Dreamstime.com - Rubiks Cube On Open Book PhotoIf you’ve been checking out my twitter feed, you will know that I recently had the extraordinary pleasure of being awarded ‘UK Interim of the Year 2014’.  Apart from abject surprise (I was in a shortlist of 20 accomplished nominees), followed by very real excitement (I won, I won!) it’s now back to reality. Still, I’ve spent the last few days thinking hard about what makes an interim.

I’ve been doing this now for almost 7 years, and while I’m always honoured if clients ask me to go permanent, interim is a deliberate choice. It gives me flexibility, the opportunity to work with multiple organisations and – assignments allowing – a fairly decent income bar the odd tax bill!  However, it’s not for everyone, so if you are considering this as a career path, here’s my advice:

1. Look before you leap!

It can be tempting to think of interim as a ‘stop gap’ when facing redundancy, or a change of scene if you are bored with your current employment. Resist the urge! Interim Management is a well developed discipline and it’s not for dilettantes. It can be very rewarding, but it can also be demanding, demoralising and difficult. Career interims are used to having gaps between assignment, and while such breaks may be necessary – see my post ‘H is for Holiday’  –  you need to be prepared to work hard to secure that elusive first assignment. And the second… and the one after that. You get the picture!  You also need a sufficient financial cushion to allow for bench time, especially if you are trying to establish yourself.

2. Be in the know!

It’s worth talking to interim providers, and those in the know. Here in the UK,  providers such as Alium Partners  and industry bodies like the Institute of Interim Management (IMA) offer courses on how to market yourself and what to consider when becoming an interim. Remember, when you become self employed, you will need an accountant to help you navigate the IR35 legislation, you will most certainly need professional indemnity insurance, and you definitely need marketing or web expertise.  Unless you are a super human with high capability in all these areas, you will have to invest in outside help. Getting your teenager to help you with twitter doesn’t count!

3. Expect the unexpected!

As an interim, the only constant is change.  Be prepared for client briefs to be vague.  For golden opportunities to be less than shiny close-up. For the assignment of your dreams to vanish because the sponsor leaves the organisation or they get bought by someone else who doesn’t see the need for interim. You will be expected to be problem solver, multi-tasker, and therapist on the Monday you start.  Tuesday you will be expected to make and take the decisions that no one else wants to… Hours can be long and clients can be fractious. You will have to meet organisational resistance with persistence, stakeholder cynicism with compassion. And you will always need to know when to exit the building.  I know, it’s sounding like the North Face already!

However, like many interims out there, for me the positive aspects almost always outweigh the negative. Being an interim means you can be an objective guide, helping management navigate knotty organisational problems. You bring experience of multiple organisations and specialist skills to companies who genuinely need your help.  And you get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made a real difference.

 

 

The rise of the chameleon…why adaptation matters in organisations

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What do Chameleons, Stick Insects and Squid have in common?  They are all creatures that change colour depending on their surroundings, enemies, temperature or mood. In the natural world this ability is known as signalling, and has evolved as an evolutionary means to communicate or camouflage.

You are probably wondering what bearing this has on the modern business habitat?

Well, it may not be a jungle out there, but to survive – and thrive – corporate leaders and managers need to be comfortable with change.  Adaptability is key.  The financial pages are littered with stories of organisations who were looking the other way when the winds of change blew in.  In 2009, UK retailer Woolworths went bust after 100 years of trading history. 30,000 people lost their jobs. While there are many reasons for the decline, the contributing fail factor was a lack of focus on their core retail strengths (you could buy anything and everything) and an inability to respond fast enough to inclement market conditions. In these credit-crunching times it any wonder that these premises are now occupied by discount retailers such as Poundland – squarely aimed at budget-constrained consumers?

Savvy organisations recognise that change is a constant – and are able to respond to their environment.  Super-savvy organisations actually build this type of reflex into their strategy.  I’m reminded of the latest TV campaign for Amazon, who claim they ‘make the revolutionary, routine’– the premise being that innovating for change is the new normal.  For such businesses, change is not merely something that happens, but something  that the leaders of these organisations actively shape.

Sharks may be the ultimate predator, but their corporate repertoire is somewhat limited. Far better to be a chameleon. Not only can they change their spots in 20 seconds flat, they can focus on two objects at the same time. They also catch prey at about 30 thousandths of a second. Now that’s what I call a reflex! Managerial mimicry, anyone?

What do you think?  Can being a corporate chameleon help you adapt? Comments on the blog, please.

The ‘C’ word…

Organisations are a lot like families.  They have history, they have memory, and they have personality.  And yes, in some organisations- like families – you find the odd, mad relative sequestered in the boardroom!

All of these attributes are what make up the behaviours, attitudes and culture of a company. In short, ‘the way things are done’ – or not done – depending on the organisational culture.  You ignore this at your peril.  Culture isn’t just the preserve of multinational organisations, it impacts the start-up as well as the SME. Like brand, culture is one of those intangible organisational assets – tricky to quantify, but something that will hit your bottom line if you get it wrong.

In the corporate world, many mergers fail, not because the deal is bad, but because insufficient cultural due diligence has been undertaken.  I’m sure you are familiar with post-merger cultural change programmes where the acquiring leadership bring on the bling – extolling the virtue of the shiny, new strategy and how it will magically meld the cultures, distilling the best of both, and so doing transform the business.  And I’m equally sure you have seen those people at the back of the room mentally giving the new leadership a two-fingered salute as they carry on doing what they’ve always done!

Culture can be an enabler to transformative change, or it can be an impermeable barrier.  Does this make cultural change a pipe-dream? Not necessarily. Jack Welch famously transformed GE, by fundamentally shifting the way employees thought and acted.  Although there are critics of this approach – he wasn’t called ‘Neutron Jack’ for nothing – GE’s business transformation succeeded because it was rooted in cultural change.  Stuart Rose, erstwhile CEO of Marks & Spencer is credited with re-energising the business – not simply making it more profitable, but capturing a young, more fashionable customer base.  He refocused the business by recalibrating the culture.

Really great organisational cultures can enhance employee productivity, strengthen talent retention and grow customer revenues.  Toxic cultures by contrast, corrode organisational confidence, haemorrhage talent, and alienate clients.  How so? Well, culture determines organisational priority – in other words, the way things are done will tell you a lot about what is considered important by the people who work for and with you.  Is it any surprise that performance-driven cultures place great emphasis on margin, acquisition and growth, while innovation-loving start-ups prize creativity and quirk?

To my mind, the determining factor in successful cultural change pivots on two fundamental axes. Leadership.  Leadership behaviour.  Do the words of the CEO match his or her deeds?  There are many hackneyed phrases to describe this, but if your leadership isn’t 110% behind the change in ‘everything they do’ it simply won’t happen.  If leadership lack the necessary pair to make tough decisions (and let’s face it, in a merger situation, some people will adapt to the new world order, and some will need to exit the building) then at best, you will have a hybrid culture – not one thing or the other.  Finally, if there are no consequences for non-compliance – in other words, counter-cultural behaviour is tolerated by leadership – don’t expect to make lasting change.

Ghandi once said that ‘a nation’s culture resides in the hearts and soul of its people.’ This holds just as true for organisations.  Real organisational change is based on cultural shifts that create corporate soul. Change the culture, transform the company.

So, what do you think?  Does culture matter? Comments on the blog please.