We live in a fast-paced world, where the only constant seems to be change itself. Messages of the latest and greatest scheme or product or idea bombard our senses daily, imploring us forward, towards "progress". Yet in some quarters change actually occurs very slowly—at glacial speeds even—despite the best intentions of enthusiastic advocates. The corporate boardroom is one such quarter.
I've been reading Making it Happen, Sir John Harvey-Jones' reflections on leadership. Harvey-Jones, a successful British businessman and industrialist, was perhaps best known for leadership of British firm ICI, culminating in his chairmanship from 1982 to 1987. His insights are timeless, because they continue to be relevant today, 26 years after they were first written. To illustrate the point, here is a selection of salient comments that Harvey-Jones made about boards in 1988:
Do any of these points sound familiar? They should do, because they still characterise the behaviours and attributes of many boards in 2014. Why have boards not embraced the same enthusiasm for change and improvement as has been demonstrated elsewhere in the business community? It's high-time boards took stock.
InternetNZ's new vision was published today (posted here). It left me totally flabbergasted and completely cold, to the point that I wondered whether the people responsible for it actually understand their own business. The "vision" is about as inspirational as "a better world through better roads", or better telecommunications or better power distribution for that matter.
Or have I missed something?
The production of silver bullets—panaceas—is a growth industry. New books, all claiming to contain "the" answer, appear in the bookstores almost daily. Sadly, many are far more self-indulgent than helpful to the reader. Yet we lap them up, as we search for ways to be more effective in our professional and personal lives.
I've become a bit jaundiced by the self-help gravy-train of late, however one of the books from my summer reading list has restored my faith somewhat: History Lessons: what business and management can learn from the great leaders of history. Jonathan Gifford, the author, asserts that there is no one model leadership model or kind of leader that can hope to be effective in all situations. Leadership is a complex phenomenon, and different attributes need to come to the fore in different situations. What a breath of fresh air.
Gifford identifies eight skills and abilities that represent many of the essential things that any leader should be able to do and—ideally—be good at. He uses great leaders from history (not all of whom will be well known in the Western world) to illustrate his points.
The book is easy to read. I commend it as a great investment, to aspiring and established leaders. But be warmed: it will make you think about your current leadership situation.
Last week, I explored the difference between an advisor and a consultant. The question stimulated a strong response (thank you!), thus this encore. The difference between a researcher and a consultant might seem to be more clear cut. Most of us think of researchers as those boffins that inhabit our learning institutions, whereas consultants are typically suited and found in business environments. Does that make them completely different beasts? Consider this:
At this level, the roles appear to be very similar, so are the two terms simply two different names for a very similar activity? Possibly, but I don't think so. A key difference between the roles is emphasis. A consultant is most interested in practice, and good consultants use theory to contribute to their work. In contrast, a researcher is most interested in theory (be it testing theories or developing new ones), and good researchers use data from practice to inform their work (testing theories or developing new theory).
The roles are different, but they are closely coupled. Given this, why do so many consultants look down their noses at academic researchers (and vice versa)?
The NACD's annual missive, of the burning issues likely to light up the corporate governance firmament in 2014, has just been published. The article, which claims to provide a comprehensive assessment of what's on the board director's horizon, makes interesting reading—as much for its omissions as its inclusions. Sadly, the reportedly burning issues, which were "gleaned from interviews with directors and corporate governance leaders", are historical, defensive or operational in nature.
I have no doubt the reported issues are the ones that were on the top of director's minds when they were interviewed. They are important, and need to be dealt with. However, the omission of issues that can make a difference to company performance is very revealing. Boards are responsible for optimising company performance in accordance with the shareholder's wishes. If the published list is any indicator, few boards will spend much time actually looking ahead in 2014 to issues that matter, like strategy, boardroom performance and accountability.
The question that drops out of this discussion is a tough one: Why do shareholders continue to appoint directors and accept boards that spend the bulk of their time looking backward?
I had a fantastic meeting with my PhD supervisor earlier this week, to review my approach to the research methodology chapter of my thesis. When we stopped for some lunch and a walk outside, James showed me two articles from the 19 October 2013 issue of The Economist. They blew my mind. Entitled How science goes wrong and Trouble at the lab, the articles outlined how much of the so-called scientific research conducted by academics is actually a load of rubbish. For example:
The examples and supporting narrative floored me—it was sobering reading. The points about how research is conducted, how research articles are reviewed and, most importantly, how research is funded (the funding mechanisms drives the behaviours) were enlightening. The lingering question in my mind, having dwelt on these articles over the last two days, is this: just what research can we accept then? The answer probably lies in the maxim recorded in the first sentence of the 'goes wrong' article: 'trust, but verify'.
The exercise was a timely and helpful wakeup call for my own efforts, to ensure my work is 'good science'. Thank you James.
Periodically, I'm asked whether I'm an advisor or a consultant. For many years now, the answer I've provided has been 'advisor', often in an effort to avoid the stigma commonly associated with 'consultant'. (Consultants are the guys that borrow your watch to tell you the time, right?) However, as I've studied the English language more closely in the last couple of years, I've become much more comfortable with the term 'consultant', because it most accurately describes who I am and what I do. Let me explain.
Generally speaking (although perhaps somewhat simplistically):
While my priority as a pracademic is to think broadly about corporate governance and strategy in order to discover possibilities and pursue options, my clients are most interested in solutions to problems they face today – recommendations and answers – which fits nicely with my instinct to understand and solve problems.
Now your turn: Are you an advisor or a consultant?
I have written about failures of governance in the local government sector several times over the last six months or so. Hubris appears to be a common thread, whereby political agendas, grandstanding and various hobby-horse schemes get in the way of sound strategic and fiscal management—to the detriment of our cities and communities. It's a bit sad really.
You can imagine my surprise then, to read this article on the living wage proposal recently adopted by Wellington City Council. It is one of the most coherent arguments that I have heard from a serving councillor in a very long time. Amongst other points, Councillor Young admitted that the decision process amounted to a failure of governance. Well done, Nicola Young. Hopefully your colleagues will read your article, see the sense in it and reverse their recent decision – but that may require the consumption of some humble pie, and the intervention of a higher power, like the ballot box, I suspect.
The first couple of weeks of January are usually a fairly laid-back affair in New Zealand. As a population, we tend to 'get away' after the hustle and bustle of Christmas. We camp, we get out on the water, we hike, we read, and we share each other's company over food and drink. Corporate offices and factories are usually fairly quiet, with skeletal staff keeping things ticking over until things get underway again, usually in the second or third week or the year.
One of my habits during the summer break is to think about the year ahead, to get a sense of where my priorities should lie. When I get back to my desk (6 January this year), I write my ideas down, make some choices and load important dates and deadlines into my diary.
This year the decision process was easy: my doctorate is the priority. Here's a snapshot of how my year is shaping up at this stage:
What does 2014 hold for you?
Many things have contributed to the United States becoming a great and influential nation over the last sixty years—the taking of risks foremost amongst them. However, the same opportunism that motivated Rosa Parks, JFK and Martin Luther King (and others) in the 1950s and 1960s has precipitated a litigious, mistrusting society in more recent times.
Misguided opportunism, encouraged by a self-serving legal 'industry', has led to some crazy claims and quite outrageous reparations, the most recent of which is reported here. While safety is important, the imposition of huge payouts for what are, in effect, accidents is counterproductive. Enquiring minds and innovative dispositions—so necessary to the creation of new knowledge, the discovery of new technologies and, closer to home, the formation of strong and robust communities—are stifled when a legalistic, rules-based culture gains the upper hand.
It's no wonder that America's claim of being the greatest nation on earth is under threat.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.