Posts Tagged ‘experience’

Damon Oldcorn berates the entrenched ageism of the IT industry.
empowerment

The word ’empower’ is used a lot these days to describe a company’s ability to meet change by giving authority to the people at the sharp end. Words like this always seem to be touted around by public relations people, nothing too detailed of course, just some well concocted statements to mark some occasion or other. So the poor workers on the shop floor (as it used to be known) are going to be empowered. I do hope someone has told them about this new era of decision-making and accountability.

As you know, global organisations and our own high technology firms have thinned down their company structures, partly because of economic pressures, partly with the introduction of newer technology. Companies emerge with a streamlined look, not much middle, a flat top and a flat bottom. The idea behind the structure is that the strategic decisions made at the flat top can be whizzed to the troops at the flat bottom for them to implement tactically, making ever more accountable decisions as they go. Great in theory, but not so great in practice if you’re the 45-year-old who had to be removed to make way for this new wave.

Most of the companies I come into contact with, many in the computer and communications industry, have not trained the executives at the flat top in the new-age skills needed to compensate for this rapid change in business strategy. So as you can imagine it is extremely unlikely that they have got round to the training needs of the flat bottom to help them adapt to the new demands of this empowerment process. The question is, can the executives at the flat top grasp the new-age skills for this tremendously taxing change? I mean this change is major league, so not to be treated lightly.

sensitivityTo achieve corporate excellence today, the executive will have to have many facets in their management kit-bag: creative insight, sensitivity, vision, versatility, focus and patience (to mention just a few). Let’s focus on sensitivity for a moment ( a word not often heard in this rough, tough, high technology market). If, in the final analysis, people are an organisation’s greatest asset, then the new type manager must understand how to bind them together in a culture, wherein they feel truly motivated in the pursuit of higher goals. Face to face communication, ongoing training and development, creative incentive programmes and job security all display the sort of sensitivity that nurtures strong cultures.

Every strong culture and in this case the empowered culture derives from management sensitivity. Without it employees feel unmotivated, under-utilised,even exploited. It only takes a flick through the online job bulletin boards to see how we treat our employees. The turnover of staff, both junior and senior, is as fast and furious as ever, and there is a common pattern to people moving on. A majority when asked why they changed companies, would reply that they were not managed or spoken to in a professional manner. What a waste of time and money for all concerned. Let’s see some action to design companies so that empowerment is a balanced reality between decision-making, accountability, training and management support.

jin-tt-vs-nospringchicken-flatTo return to a point I touched on earlier, ageism, there seems to be an unwritten law in this industry that says because we keep inventing shiny, new products and services, that we must always have shiny, new younger staff as well. The number of over-45s who seem to get sidelined is amazing. What happens? Is it self-perpetuating because we have younger senior executives or younger recruitment staff? Are they unsure of their industry skills or even political ground to keep on older and more experienced staff than themselves. The older executive does not lose his or her ability to make decisions, to contribute creatively and energetically. Let’s not keep falling into the trap of discarding experience, if the industry is to mature it needs that stability.

The number of young executives I see looking for answers to basic business questions (on any online industry forum) that got answered  a long time ago concerns me. It’s not their fault, who have they got to learn from if the older mentor figures keep disappearing? There has to be a process of regeneration, a cycle where experienced professionals, grounded in business skills, impart their knowledge to the next set of executives. Who else will do it? The major company training schools seem to have diminished, or if not, focus too often on technology orientated product courses. You can only learn so much from self-help business books or company sponsored MBA courses.

Day to-day business sense has to be learned on the job, from people you respect and want to emulate. You can’t just hand out senior management positions to young executives before they are able to cope with the pressures that surround these demanding roles. So let’s match the investment that is made in the technology with investment in the long-term skills and care of our people at what ever stage of their careers, young or older.

Equally applicable to Business, Brexit or POTUS.

orange

Roger Fisher and William Ury (Harvard 1981) tell the story of two sisters arguing over an orange. After some discussion they agree to divide the orange in half, an apparently wise and fair solution. One sister then peels her half and eats the fruit, while the other peels her half, throws away the fruit and uses the peel to make a cake. What appeared to be a wise solution – namely a 50-50 division of the orange was certainly fair, but not very wise. If only the sisters had paid less attention to their positions (how much of the orange each was asking for) and more to their interests (why each wanted the orange) they could have reached an agreement which allowed both to obtain everything they wanted.

Instead of analysing negotiation as a confrontation between two adversaries (each of whom is determined to get as much as possible, while surrendering little or nothing on the way), the ‘Principles of Problem solving’ approach calls for greater collaboration. Each side seeks to do as well as possible for itself, but views the other party not as an adversary but as a potential collaborator. The objective is to find ways to advance one’s self-interest while also leaving room for the other side to do the same. This calls for negotiators to move from statements of position to an analysis of underlying interests.

Exponents of this approach to negotiations argue that opportunities for joint gain result when negotiators are able to metaphorically swing their chairs round so that, instead of facing each other, they are side by side, instead of confronting each other, they jointly confront the problem that challenges both. People negotiate with each other all the time – wives with husbands, managers with workers, nations with other nations. Yet despite the fact that it is a path of everyday life, it is only in recent decades that we have begun to study negotiation systematically. To be sure, not all conflicts are amenable to this joint problem solving approach, many are, however.

Others remain better suited to the more traditional concession-making process, alluded to earlier, in which negotiations begin at extreme opening demands, then slowly shift from these in order to reach some sort of mutually acceptable agreement. Although these two methods of thinking about negotiations would appear to rest on different assumptions about the nature of the process, they are actually very much alike in one key aspect. Both points of view are best suited to the kind of negotiation that takes place between parties of equal power. Whether it is two sisters, or two super-powers, as long as neither party has the power to impose agreement on the other, and parties acknowledge their interdependence, there is room and opportunity for negotiation.

But what happens when power is not equally divided between the parties, when one side has far more power than the other, when one side is far less dependent on reaching a negotiated settlement than the other? As Jeff Rubin and Jeswald Salacuse (Harvard 1990) point out, if two nations are engaged in a water rights dispute concerning a river, and one nation sits upstream of the other, why should the upstream party agree to negotiate, rather than simply decide unilaterally to do exactly as it pleases? In turn, what does the party with low relative power do to persuade its upstream counterpart to come to the negotiating table?

vietnam

It is usually assumed that success in negotiations is merely a matter of power and that the company with less power is always at the mercy of the company with more power. Yet the history of international relations is filled with examples of large states which failed to force small states to do their bidding (eg the US and Vietnam, the USSR and Afghanistan). These examples raise the question of whether results in such negotiations are not just a matter of power, but also of strategies and tactics.

It is said that everyone loves an underdog, that the skilled negotiator should be able to turn this phenomenon to his or her advantage, that often the seemingly weak are far more powerful than they realise, and that the powerful may be far weaker than is commonly supposed. Well no method can guarantee success if all the leverage lies on the other side. The most any method of negotiation can do is to meet the two objectives: to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and to help you to make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement satisfies your interests as well as possible.

So is there a measure for agreements that will help you to achieve these aims? Yes there is – develop your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). The relative negotiating power of parties depends primarily upon how attractive to each is the option of not reaching agreement. Generating BATNAs requires three distinct operations.

  • Inventing a list of actions you might conceivably take if no agreement is reached;
  • Improving some of the more promising ideas and constructing them into practical alternatives;
  • Selecting tentatively the one option that seems best;

Having gone through this effort, you now have a BATNA. Judge every offer against it, having a good BATNA can help you negotiate on the merits. Apply knowledge, time, money, people, connections and wits into devising the best solution for you, independent of the other sides assent.

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Drug of Choice Pic

Aged nine it did not take a lot of time for boredom to set in when out on a fishing trip on the Lough Mourne with my father. The patience required for the trout to bite alluded me at the time, in what now looking back, was a beautiful wooded setting close to my home town of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland. I was drawn back to those times recently when out on one of my frequent dog walks. I was watching Briar, my six month old Springer spaniel puppy running free among the woods on the Wiltshire plain set above the beautiful Vale of Pewsey.

I was wondering when was the last time I had felt as energetic and wanting to run at that pace for the sheer joy and hell of it? Then I thought back to those fishing trips where I would disappear away from the water’s edge and head up into the dense woods. Just as Briar the puppy had been doing, inventing games in my head to play on my own. One of them was running full on, as I thought at the time, like Hawkeye in the “Last of the Mohicans”. Full of fun and health, just running and skipping between the trees for the sheer love of it. Lost in a world of my own, seemingly on a different plane, losing contact with the ground at points through the speed and agility of movement.

In my late teens I would feel that lightness and almost floating sensation again when I moved to England to train and play Badminton at a semi- professional International level. That occasional feeling in a game, both of all the long hard hours of training mentally and physically coming together in one sublime set of movement and strokes. That ability to glide across the court, jump to new heights to smash the shuttle with effortless ease, creating an adrenalin buzz that would last many hours and take a long time to come down from.

Fleeting times that these were, I would not have missed them for the world; surely this was a type of drug, not just an endorphin rush, but my own private little narcotic. After sport at that level of fitness as many top class sports people will attest, the drop down after you stop playing at that level can be hard. To substitute that sensation or moment is a challenge and one that most never do replace and have to live with that acceptance. I can see here where the temptation of taking a drug might creep in to sustain that level of feeling and performance for just a little bit longer.

Luckily in my late thirties it came to me again. This time as an entrepreneur, a different type of full on existence, some say 24/7 in the whirl of building a technology start-up in the Dotcom era. Based in Silicon Valley California, seven weeks there and 3 weeks back in the UK for over 2 years, a full on adrenalin spree, pushing what turned out to be a successful company into the global market. Again the theme of competition, but less about fitness and more about resilience of mind and body.  Pushing harder than other killer players to win. When you do, the euphoria engulfs and surrounds you again on a very similar level, that floating feeling comes back.

I say luckily, but as I often say to young entrepreneurs starting out on the start-up path having built five companies myself over 25 years. There is only one certainty, at the end of the run you will be sat in a corner exhausted and in tears. This will be because you have either just sold the company and won the game, or alternatively and more likely have lost the lot. Coming back from both scenarios is equally challenging, just different, surprisingly.

As I enter my sixtieth year, I have returned to the badminton after 22 years retired from playing, never having been on a court in anger in all that time. I was not setting out to recapture that feeling of exhilaration again, that would be foolish. But I had been back to the gym for the best part of two years and strangely as I saw it, was as fit as I probably had been in a decade. I had promised myself I would return to the badminton one day when I could play it socially and not mind losing or at least not mind as much as I used to. I had thought after my sixtieth birthday, having gained my senior railcard would be the considered time. But prompted by my current fitness and also thinking you never know what is round the next corner, I signed up for the winter season.

I was out drinking recently with a friend of mine in London; we were coming up the steep escalator at the Angel Tube station. Now I am giving him ten years but we were both moving at pace and we were chatting away as we do about a range of topical subjects. I enquired about his health, a throwaway line as I make it seem, but I am always keen to know my friends and their families are OK. Especially male friends who as we know rarely visit the doctor until too late and are hesitant about discussing these areas.

Anyway, I think he was surprised, but used the term robust to describe how he felt and I thought yes that is the word, as we get a little further down the track, we need to feel robust and able to deal with the hustle and bustle of today’s fast changing world. Those of us lucky enough to have good health and this does seem to be the luck of the draw, should relish that particular high. I have just been reading “The Triumphs of experience” by George E Vaillant this is the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken. The bottom line there being that our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become even more fulfilling than before.

This of course goes against conventional thinking, that in particular, men get set in their ways “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. But this ability to reinvent oneself at any age is there and needed given modern demands of innovation and the technological impact on our lives. Those moments of joy, ecstasies, floating whatever way we wish to describe them, are all possible throughout life. I am certainly looking forward to creating more magic, using my own drug of choice on the next stage of life’s adventure.

stock-footage-breaking-egg-into-bowl-slow-motion

In the technology world that we play in there is a tendency for the teams we manage to be on the young side. That in itself is cause for caution in how we treat them, as often they are not fully formed yet as people. I know this will go against the grain of the US vendor numbers led system, in which the turnover of people is seen as part of the competitive machine. Now that is not to say there are not some really good cultures to be found in that setting but on the whole from my experience it is more about the company than the person in most cases.

From the time in my late twenties when I really had enough experience under my belt to handle most situations in management, it was clear to me that people are fragile in their early to mid twenties and easily broken if not treated carefully. In the hyper competitive sales world it is easy to crush people with a careless word or line that is ill thought. You don’t in most cases even remember saying it, while they the recipient ponder and agonise about the meaning and implications for days. Communication that is clear as to the message and well thought out is imperative, even more so if it is constructive criticism of performance rather than praise. But even in the positive role it is very important to balance the messages so that the team member can gauge what is real and not real and can understand the level they are at.

This does not negate you being demanding of performance or driving hard in a competitive race to win against the opposition. The team say 20 strong are all going to have growing pains inside and outside the business, and they will bring them with them to work. So you have to manage in the round, walking the talk, a bit like the old factory foreman that knew their people intimately from being close to them on the factory floor and out of work as well. Some management can be learned in books and on courses but the handling of people comes from learning mostly on the job, being sensitive to changes in mood and temperature on the shop floor so to speak is one of the great skills.

Often body language rather than what the team member is saying will be a stronger clue to the mood of the moment. People nodding, head down and eyes averted may not be gaining the acceptance of whatever you are trying to put across, no matter the verbal protests that they are. Reinforcement of messages is always needed remember they are not you, perhaps they need more time to assimilate, but when they do, blossom off the back of it. Others will have little patience for the message being laboured, quicker on the uptake, but maybe less prepared when implementing.

That is the joy of management it is so diverse, if they were a bunch of robots with no feelings they could get a machine to manage them, not you. That is why to get a team or a start-up company purring on all cylinders is one of the great things to achieve in life, just like any sports team that is flying at the top of their game. But it is a responsibility that has to be taken seriously, in the high stress environments we operate in, you have their lives in the palm of your hand and that should never be discounted lightly.

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I was at a recent event out in the sticks from London for a change, technology based and all about the future of a particular layer of mobile development. Something that might affect all of us in the future and as I looked round the room I was struck by the fact that 90% + people there were over forty if not fifty years old. It made me think, is it true that when it comes to the big moves in the game the decisions and politics that shape our world at that level are still made by older grey men?

The magazines and blogs would have us believe that the movers and shakers of the technology world at this time are all young men and women reinventing that world and beginning to control the levers of power in that setting. In small numbers that might well be right and hopefully that will continue to grow as it is a healthy platform to build on. But from many years of negotiating deals on a global basis, it has always been clear to me that when the big decisions are to be taken it seems to return to a table with either one powerful older man or a board of older males, very rarely women to make the final sign off.

Now it is not for me in this piece to fight the cause for this to change, rather it is to accept at this point that this might be the status quo and how to deal with it. When I talk to founding teams of growth companies most of the time there is a certain naivety about who or what they are going to have to deal with over the coming years. They want to do deals, partner and expand internationally but seem to be leaving it to trust that the people that they have to engage with will be similar in thought to themselves. Now this might be true for a limited number of cases within that shiny new circle of emerging players, but when you look into who they will have to deal with on a regular basis as they scale that certainly changes.

That optimism and idealistic approach that has galvanised their companies and belief that others across the table are there to help them grow will be shattered at some point. As they continue to underestimate the nature of big business and a set of long-established rules for playing in that pool, increasing numbers will find their ambition blunted. Well we won’t deal with these people or type of companies I hear them say, well good luck with that, given when you trace back the lines of power to the centre how much control of markets these people have.

A better strategy would be to wise up to the reality of global business, learn the rules fast and begin to accept that not everyone has their company’s best interests at heart when working closely with them, internal or external. Numerous up and coming companies over the years blast out major PR announcements about global deals with big names either in direct sales or joint venture plays. Only for me to discover as I do when generally picking up the pieces afterwards, that the majority of the margin created has stayed with and will continue to stay with the big name player involved. This cannot always be avoided, this is real life and the pressures from larger players can be enormous, but it does not need to be the norm if handled with the right knowledge, attitude and experience on board.