What we can learn from The Intern about work

October 12, 2015

Hollywood is not great when it comes to portraying the real world of business.  It tends to focus on extreme characters in extreme situations, as you’d expect.  Just occasionally, though, a movie tells a story that most of us with an interest in the world of work can enjoy, and even gain something from.

The Intern is one such film for me.

First of all, I love the idea of senior interns.  This idea taps into my concerns about how experience in the workplace is largely undervalued.  I’ve never heard of this actually happening except, I suppose, in the voluntary sector, but Robert De Niro’s character, Ben, demonstrates exactly what is lost when older employees are written off.  He brings calm and offers wisdom because he’s seen it all before and he’s not overwhelmed by change. To think that when you reach a certain again you are no longer capable of adapting has always seemed ludicrous to me. Some find change easier than others, some embrace it while others resist it, and it doesn’t matter how old you are.

Ben (Robert De Niro) and Jules (Anne Hathaway) learning from each other in The Intern.

Ben (Robert De Niro) and Jules (Anne Hathaway) learning from each other in The Intern.

If you are aware of any senior intern schemes I’d love to hear about it.  Please leave a comment.

Another point made by the film is that it’s not specific technical knowledge that is needed, even in a high-tech business.  Obviously, this depends on the role, but so many times have I read job descriptions asking for industry experience when clearly it is not required. Often it’s used as a tool to reduce the number of applications, but I would argue that it’s a bad way of doing so, because there’s something lost when organisation exclude those from outside their sector.  Inbreeding is not healthy.

However, the really important message I thought the film made was to do with the way women entrepreneurs, and for that we can assume all senior women executives, often feel they are making a sacrifice to fulfil their business dream.  What man would worry over his right to be committed to his work the way Jules (Anne Hathaway) does? The movie asks why women are even in a position where they question their choice to be the hard working mum with the stay-at-home husband.

Finally, another point the film makes that is relevant to everyone at work:  eat well, sleep well, exercise and make time for friends and family. That’s how to ensure you perform at your best at work.

I very much enjoyed The Intern and if none of this has persuaded you to see it, then I’ll just add that there’s a very nice neck massage scene too.

How Uber is breaking through the barrier to entry

October 5, 2015

In the world of business there are two reasons for barriers to entry.  One is to protect the customer, the other to protect the business or livelihoods of owners, employees or practitioners.

There are very good reasons for the first; protecting the customer. In this situation barriers to entry ensure that our limbs are amputated by properly trained and regulated surgeons, for example.

There are less good reasons for the second; protecting livelihoods. Everyone is entitled to make a living, but not to artificially inhibit others from doing so if they are suitably competent.

In the past licensed London taxi drivers were protected by a very strong barrier to entry. “The Knowledge” was a guarantee that when you stepped into a taxi you would be taken to the place you asked to be taken to.  The test was rigorous and notoriously difficult to pass. This also meant that once acquired, a licence to ply ones trade as taxi driver, able to pick up passengers off the street, was a valuable asset and it was rarely abused for fear that a complaint would lead to the licence being revoked. This in itself protected the customer whose safety, it could be argued, was less secure if they used an unlicensed minicab where the driver might be unknown.

London Taxis forming a barrier to entry.

London Taxis forming a barrier to entry.

Minicabs can only pick up passengers when they have been booked in advance.  They cannot tout for business on the street – a great advantage for taxis when someone needs a ride at short notice.

Then came satnav.

With the introduction of this technology one of the key arguments of the taxi driver became obsolete.”The Knowledge” no longer represented a benefit to the consumer.  Now all that riding around London on mopeds and learning archaic test routes was for one thing only – to enable a qualified taxi driver to be hailed down off the street and, with that, to maintain high prices.

Then came Uber.

Uber offers the knowledge (satnav), safety (rigorous identity checking, a record of the journey, and driver training) and speed of response.  True, it’s unlikely that you will pick up an Uber as quickly as a taxi if you are standing on a busy street corner in central London, but for most other trips an Uber car is more responsive than a conventional minicab or a dial-a-taxi services. What is more, they are considerably cheaper than taxis and because of this the taxi drivers’ power is massively reduced.

Taxi drivers are resisting Uber desperately, and they have some powerful political friends who are helping them but they can’t hold back the tide.  The barrier to entry into the business of immediate response private hire has crumbled.

Whether you are setting up a business, launching a new product or going for job interviews it’s critical that you understand what the barriers to entry are or could be.  Starting a business or launching a new product with low or no barriers to entry is risky because it means anyone can easily enter your space and take your customers.

As a prospective employee the concept differs slightly. In this situation the question is “what do I have that makes me the strongest candidate for this role that other candidates perhaps don’t have?”  That could be to do with skills, personality, experience, or knowledge. Whatever it is, make sure the potential employer knows because this represents the barriers that your competitors for the job will need to overcome.

Most important, remember that things change and one day those capabilities that helped you to secure the job may no longer be relevant, so keep moving with the times by developing you skills and knowledge.  For business owners, the innovation that made your product or service better than the competition when you launched may be replicated in some way so you need keep innovating and developing your service to stay ahead of the competition.

In other words, don’t be the old London taxi driver who has suddenly been wrong footed by technology. Be an Uber, offering yourself to the marketplace with a new, better way of solving an old problem.

Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person

September 24, 2015
If you’re not familiar with the names Charlotte Proudman and Alexander Carter-Silk they are the protagonists in the recent Linkedin photo scandal, henceforth to be known, no doubt, as “Stunningate“.

I don’t wish to comment on the politics of the matter.  What interests me here is the way new media is changing the landscape of how society’s norms are influenced and the implications of this for people in the workplace.

Facebook for friends, Linkedin for business is the commonly recognised distinction.  The trouble is that the distinction is being blurred all the time.  It takes a special effort to keep the two separate and it’s not always possible.  I have a number of Linkedin contacts who are also my friends, and I am also a member of some groups on Linkedin which have to do with my outside work interests.  Similarly, Facebook is now keen for businesses to set up pages on their platform and for us to connect with customers and suppliers.

Regardless of how easy it is to keep your business and personal contacts separate using the different platforms, there is, I believe, a more subtle impact:  we have lost a sense of formality in business.  The easy, throwaway method of communication that is encouraged by online activity has broken down some of the barriers that formerly existed between strangers.

It is unthinkable that thirty years ago a request for a networking meeting would have been met with the response that Carter-Silk gave, not simply because there would likely not have been a photograph attached to the request, but because thirty years ago we didn’t live in a society where such over-familiarity was displayed.  That’s not to say he wouldn’t have held sexist attitudes – indeed no doubt sexism was more prevalent in those days.

Social media tricks us into thinking we have closer relationships with people than we actually do, allowing us to talk to them in a much more familiar way.

Only today my son told me about a friend who had been fired from his internship for making a sassy comment to his boss that he intended as friendly.  The young man did not realise his mistake until he was told by HR the reason he was being asked to leave. My suspicion is that he was simply behaving according to the norms of the social media society where everyone is a peer and everyone gets the same version of us.

Social media has eroded the more formal, reserved business relationships that used to exist and that, I feel, is something to lament.  The language, and display, of respect is worth preserving.

Why the best leaders are sometimes the least talented

August 6, 2015

The BBC have made a series of short films, #CEOSecrets, in which they ask Business leaders a very simple question: “What is the advice you wish you’d had when you started out?”

The three most frequently given answers were

a) surround yourself with the right people,

b) network all the time, and

c) get on with it!

The third is certainly true, but a bit trite so I won’t comment on that.

If you’ve known me for a while you will know how important I think networking is.  People who are out of work often find it difficult to network if they haven’t been active networkers during their career,  because they haven’t accumulated much social capital, and this makes it difficult to ask for help. That’s why I always encourage clients to make time to network when they are in work instead of burying themselves completely in the new job.  Networking is part of working. It’s how we become effective at work and is not simply done for personal benefit. If you don’t network you’re not doing your job properly.

The first point also interests me very much.  Of the senior business leaders and business owners I have met, the smart ones are those who openly admit to not knowing everything and who have carefully recruited people with complementary skills to run the show for them.  One even happily talks about bringing in much cleverer people than himself. These people claim not to be smart, but actually they are the smartest. Maybe not in terms of IQ, but certainly in terms of EQ.  In fact I’d argue that emotional intelligence is far more important for a business leader than IQ.

Contrast those leaders with entrepreneurs and senior managers who are either so insecure that they recruit people who will make them look clever, or are such control freaks that they do everything themselves. Either way the organisation will suffer.

Is it easy to be a “smart” leader as I have described?  No, is the short answer.  It takes self-awareness, humility and confidence.

  • Self-awareness to understand where the gaps lie between the capability you have and the capability the organisation needs.
  • Humility to know that it’s impossible to build a substantially sized business on your own.
  • Confidence to know that by doing all this you are not going to be considered a talentless waste of space but instead a leader of talent.

Interestingly for me as a counsellor as well as career coach, humility and confidence grow out of self-awareness.  When people understand themselves to a level at which they can acknowledge and accept their weaknesses, humility follows, and then so does personal confidence. Not only that, but of course knowing your weaknesses is the first step on the journey of managing them.

All of which ties up with another of the pieces of advice given by the CEOs questioned by the BBC:  Learn from your mistakes.

The Greeks: What are they like?

July 4, 2015

I confess that the subject of the global economy is not something that keeps me awake at night. I realise this stuff is important but I don’t feel I’m in a position to do much about it, and so I’d sooner focus my attention on things where I can make a difference.

Inevitably that means worrying about individuals, not countries, or economic / political blocks.
And yet, this Greek business has got me thinking. What might be at the heart of the matter is something to do with national character. Now I’m always very wary of sweeping generalisations about peoples. That seems to me to be where racism starts. On the other hand, a shared culture and history must, to some extent, shape the attitudes of a nation. So what might there be to learn about Greek people that can help us to understand how that country is responding to the current economic crisis?

I opened my copy of the excellent “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands” by Morrison and Conaway. The book presents pen portraits of just about every nation and their people in order to make it easy to do business with those countries. As someone who works with individuals I was naturally interested in what it had to say about how people behave. Here are some points it made about Greek people:

  1. Personal relationships, especially family, are of great importance. If you want to influence a Greek person you are more likely to do so if you have established a strong trusting relationship with them. Therefore, information is processed from a subjective rather than an objective perspective so it is often difficult for them to change their view.
  2. Greek people like structure to provide rules and a moral framework because they are generally keen to avoid uncertainty. On the other hand, they tend to make decisions less on the basis of rules, but following on from the point about subjectivity above, the specific circumstances of the situation at hand.
  3. Greece is a patriarchal society where machismo counts for much.

Following the unfolding story of the Greek debt crisis and how the players are communicating, both within and outside Greece, it’s possible to see these characteristics shaping the discourse.  

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s referendum, commentators from outside Greece will no doubt base their analysis of the result by referencing their own framework of understanding of how the world is.

I’m going to try to understand it from the perspective of how Greek people understand the world to be.

It’s not about the money, money, money.

May 16, 2015

At a panel discussion on the banking industry I attended a few months ago, someone asked if it was possible to attract talent to senior positions without the promise of high, guaranteed bonuses.  A senior HR executive from one of the major corporate banks and an academic both answered, quite confidently,  that they thought it was.  Bonuses, they agreed, could be much less than they currently are and banks would still attract top talent.  The academic even said that talented people are not particularly motivated by money, but by the cut and thrust of deal-making.  They want to be in the thick of big M&A activity.  It’s a myth that the banks need to pay big bucks in order to stop top talent from joining other industries.

I asked why the banks didn’t bring their bonuses to a level that the rest of society would find reasonable. The answer was that none of the big players had the guts to try it.  In other words, they were frightened of losing talent not to other sectors but to each other.  If one bank blinks the talent will not be interested in joining and eventually what talent they have will disappear.  If so, then there’s no question that the only way to deal with the matter is at the industry, if not, governmental level.

It has been proved many times that a strategy based around providing the best possible work experience is a more effective way to retain talent than paying the most.  Indeed it was proved just last week by my friends at Goodman Masson, the finance industry recruiters.  Their staff turnover level is well below 20% in an industry where average turnover exceeds 30%. A four point approach won Goodman Masson the coveted Great Place to Work award for Best Workplace in the medium size business category, and those four points are 1) Giving employees the tools and infrastructure to do their job well, 2) Giving them opportunities to develop professionally, 3) Paying them well and correctly, and 4) Giving them an environment they won’t want to leave. (Click here for the full report).

Note that the third point does not talk about excessively high pay, but it does suggest that Goodman Masson aim to be competitive with pay. They recognise that while remuneration is an important factor in staff retention, it’s not sustainable as the only tool in the box, because all it takes is for a competitor to offer more for the strategy to fall flat on its face. It’s the rest of the package that’s really important because that’s what creates the culture required that stops people wanting to leave.  You will never build engagement by throwing money at your staff.  In fact the more you throw at them the more they understand that you don’t care about them, but that you are simply buying them.  People like to feel loved.

Retention comes from engagement and commitment to the company.  It’s about creating an environment with shared values and where people appreciate that the company cares about them.

Now it may well be the case that bankers are somehow different to everyone else and are only interested in money, but that’s not my experience.  In my experience some bankers are perfectly decent and lovely people, and some are something that rhymes with “bankers”.  In other words, they’re pretty much like anyone else.

Can banks change? That’s not looking likely given that they are still a very long way from understanding that a business can stand for something more in the world than profit.  Goodman Masson stands for caring about its people.  Their priority is not about constantly demanding improved results from their staff. As a result of this employee engagement is high and guess what – performance is constantly on the up.

Twenty-somethings and the World of Work

April 16, 2015
“Can you help my child to move their career forward?” is a question I’m often asked.  My first response is to ask whether it’s the child or the parent who is worried.  It’s usually the parent who, understandably, is concerned that their child should start to climb the career ladder and is able to live independently as soon as possible.

If you’re a parent of one of those twenty-somethings, here are a few thoughts that may help you to manage your concerns.

The first thing to say is that it takes time for some people to decide what they want to do and are best suited to.  Don’t worry if your son or daughter spends the first few years of their working life trying different jobs.  this will help them  to work out where their strengths and interests lie.  Are they better suited to working with the public, a close set of colleagues or largely alone?  Do they like to be moving about or sitting behind a desk?  Can they sell? (I always recommend people try at least one job where they have to sell – it’s excellent training for all areas of work). Do they like the cut and thrust of business, or are they better suited to something that is related to social values?

Think of those first few years as a set of extended paid internships and by the end of it they will know themselves pretty well.  I like to think that in the future there will be far fewer people coming to see me around the age of 40 having realised that they have been unhappy for the best part of twenty years because they entered a career without knowing if it really was right for them.

Secondly,  the world of work is probably very different compared with when you started out.  There’s much less long-term careering nowadays.  The workplace is changing so rapidly that skills needs come and go almost overnight.  I think you’re going to see many more people who enter the job market today end up with upwards of four or five different careers behind them.  By the time they end their working life there’s a chance that some of their early jobs will be as obscure and obsolete to their grandchildren as a lamplighter is to us.  In other words, they might look like they are drifting from one thing to another, but the reality is that this is how many people will work in the future.

Which brings me on to my next thought: I don’t think the current generation entering the workforce think about work in the same way as we and our parents did.  Many are still motivated to achieve in a professional sense.  They are concerned about being able to enjoy a good quality of life and they worry about whether they will ever be able to own a property.   Nonetheless, a career (and life more generally) for the next generation will not be about climbing a ladder, but about gathering a range of fulfilling and challenging experiences.

One final thought.  Your children are going to be a long time working.  Much longer than us.  They are going to live longer, and if they retire at 60 or 65 they’re going to struggle on a pension plan that will need to stretch for perhaps 40 years.  They know that they are probably still going to be fit enough to work into their 80’s and they know they will probably need to.  Is it any wonder they’re not all champing at the bit to get started on their career now? In a sense they are bringing their retirement forward.  Instead of going on cruises at the end of their working life, they’re going to irrigate African villages at the beginning of it.

In conclusion, don’t worry that your child appears not to be engaging in their career they way you might expect them to do.  They are probably looking it through a different lens.  Their world of work is very different to yours, and the way they are approaching it probably looks strange to you, but not to them.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 487 other followers