October 15, 2008

Why a women-friendly workplace means more than just family-friendly policies

Filed under: HR — Nicola Rowe @ 12:42 pm

We were sitting in a country residence in southern Germany, peer-bonding. It was a spring evening: warm, full of promise. (The Internet bubble had yet to burst.) The conversation turned, as if steered by an invisible hand, to company cars. Ah! The allure of the new. And yet not so new: we had been on our company’s training programme for baby strategists for more than a month, and the topic had yet to lose its lustre. Was a Mercedes better than a BMW? What were the merits of the BMW Series 3 over the Audi A4? (There followed a detailed excursus concerning the position of the armrest.)

Marissa, one of the other five women in our cohort of thirty-six, made eye contact with me. “I’m getting a Golf,” she said with an air of finality. We stood up, and left the table.

So often, companies adopt family-friendly programmes – flexitime, parental leave – in an effort to attract and retain talented women. And those programmes are important. But creating a women-friendly workplace is about much more than that.

Our blue-chip strategy firm, to give it credit, scratched its head over why women made up only 15% of its incoming class. But where it and its industry peers go wrong is in thinking that a good pregnancy policy is enough. It’s not. It’s not even half the battle. For starters, one commonly-cited statistic says that 40% of German women university graduates never have children. That’s two-fifths of the consulting workforce for whom a family policy is irrelevant.

We suffocate at restaurant tables where the air is thick with cigar smoke (according to Cigar Aficionado, women make up less than 5% of cigar smokers, but you’ll see a lot of cigars when consulting managers get together). We care about our Lufthansa Senator cards (hey, if you wanted the last place on the Thursday 19:35 flight to Frankfurt, you’d want those red leather luggage tags as well), but we don’t much mind about whose hood ornament adorns our cars. And a watch? It’s what you use to tell the time. Quite how men manage to get so much conversational mileage out of cars and watches is a mystery to us.

Most women (like most men) left my firm, but we left in greater proportion. As I watched us fly out through the gates of institutional memory, I decided that we were leaving because we had never felt we belonged. In this context, it was interesting to read a recent McKinsey Quarterly article that urged companies to “encourage mentoring and networking, to establish… targets for diversity, and to find ways of creating a better work-life balance”. The first two here are critical: mentoring, because it’s a way for a firm’s senior members to tell junior staff that they matter, and networking because it allows women executives to meet and talk – about anything, but not about topics they have little interest in.

In sum, attracting and retaining women isn’t just about letting them in the door and enabling them to have babies. It’s about creating a less alien environment. The sooner companies learn to do that, the slower the women they hire will be to become part of the past.


October 14, 2008

Does having a fun workplace make business sense?

Filed under: HR — Nicola Rowe @ 4:41 pm

Schluss mit Lustig (loosely, “No more fun!”) demanded the German advertising executive and author Judith Mair von Eichborn six years ago in a book arguing that EQ, flexitime and a culture of trust and fun had no place in the modern workplace.

It was a clarion call in 2002, but it went unheeded even in Ms Mair’s own country: Prussian virtues notwithstanding, the internet boom had left enough of a mark on German culture to make even old-economy firms want to offer their employees an enjoyable working environment. And now, with market indices sliding down around our ears, who would want to deny that work should be fun? Certainly, überguru Tom Peters has been plugging the idea for more than a decade.

While the idea of an enjoyable workplace sounds worthy – praiseworthy, even – should employers pursue it? Does it make business sense, as well as emotional sense?

It turns out it does. Former Harvard Business School Professor David Maister studied 29 firms across more than 15 industries in 15 countries. He concluded that firms scoring in the top 20% of his sample for “commitment, enthusiasm and respect” financially outperformed the average of the other four-fifths by 63%. Firms in the top quintile for employee satisfaction outperformed the other quintiles by 42%; for empowerment, 32%. So getting the atmosphere right at work makes business sense: the soft stuff matters.

Google does not reveal the fate of Mair und Andere, the advertising agency which Ms Mair co-founded and where she worked (in a dark-blue uniform) at the time Schluss mit Lustig was released in 2002. But she published Fake for Real, a discussion about the social conflation of truth and fiction, in 2005. Two books in three years! Might Ms Mair’s diligent application of the pen imply that she is… enjoying herself?

September 16, 2008

The T-Shaped Manager

Filed under: HR,Strategy — Nicola Rowe @ 4:23 am

He sounds an uncomfortable man to be, the T-shaped manager, arms flung out in the embrace of knowledge, crucified uncomfortably for the sake of his firm. 

Coined by the British newspaper The Independent in 1991, the expression “T-shaped manager” refers to a man in a matrix, someone responsible both for a function – marketing, say, or operations – and for the dissemination of knowledge across functional boundaries. The key insight, as Bolko von Oetinger and Morten Hansen, two former BCG authors, make clear, is that knowledge diffuses, not through databases, but primarily through people.

The advantage of the T-shape is thus that it resolves one of the knottiest issues in knowledge management, the difficulty of making tacit knowledge explicit. By treating managers as live vectors for knowledge, the T-shape concept diverts energy from knowledge formalisation to knowledge transmission.

The T-shaped manager is an expert first and foremost: he or she has developed a body of knowledge and skills in a particular function. Functional expertise, the vertical line of the T, is developed first. Only then is it extended – the horizontal bar of the T – across functions in a process that both transmits knowledge from the function and receives information from the other functions with whose representatives the T-shaped manager interacts. 

How does a firm that develops T-shaped managers differ from one which promotes other organisational best practices such as learning circles? The decision to pursue the T-shape should be deliberate. It requires investment both in functional expertise – for no manager can be effective if he or she has nothing to disseminate – and in the skills required for knowledge transmission. These will be twofold: first, the manager will need to understand the wider context of the business beyond his or her function, in order to filter accumulated expertise selectively; secondly, he or she will need sufficient social and didactic skills to work with others and to pass on knowledge. The firm will also need to support knowledge diffusion structurally.

September 15, 2008

The War for Talent, ten years on

Filed under: HR,Strategy — Nicola Rowe @ 5:30 am
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The strategist is an etymological warrior, deriving his or her title from the Greek word for general, and indeed you can often tell a would-be strategist by the copy of Clausewitz or Sun-Tzu in a cubicle drawer. A decade ago this year, the consulting firm McKinsey sounded a different call to arms, heralding a “war for talent” that was to dominate business competition for the next two decades. A glance at the clock tells us we should be right in the thick of it.

 “Attract good people. Keep them.” This is the nub of the war for talent, the battle for what a McKinsey director told Fast Company ten years ago, would be a more important source of competitive advantage than “capital, strategy, or R&D”. That’s a bold claim. Capital was more accessible in 1998 than it is a decade on. Strategy, McKinsey thought gamely, could just be copied. And the half-life of technology was said to be getting shorter all the time. What did this leave? Human resources.

(Note that strategy evidently can’t be copied all that easily. Fortune magazine estimates that McKinsey pulled in over $1 billion in revenues last year. And, as this blog’s last post notes, many biotech applications are still long-lived.)

So is today’s competitive landscape pitted by the war for talent? Sure, companies are looking for top people. Recruiting has been professionalised: assessment centres, whatever you may think of them, are used twice as often now as they were twenty years ago. But even before McKinsey’s placet, CEOs had been proclaiming for years that “our people are our greatest resource”. Whats new under the sun?

The genuine insight in the war for talent – and, as far as this author can tell, it belongs not to McKinsey but to McKinsey’s main competitor – is that top-tier talent isn’t just slightly better than the next tier down. It’s several times better, although no one seems prepared to quantify just how much. A first-class manager has many times the productivity of a merely competent one. And the Street believes this, as you’ll discover if you ask why celebrity CEOs earn hundreds of times the salary of their peons.

Ten years on, McKinsey looks like a Menshevik, a white-hat revolutionary chasing an illusion. This is no longer the roaring economy of the late 1990s. An economic downturn signals a war, not for talent, but for jobs: where talent is concerned, it’s a buyer’s market. As we coast into recession, talent will be hanging on by its fingernails.

September 4, 2008

The art of the recruiting interview: the S-A-O-L rule

Filed under: HR — Nicola Rowe @ 6:39 am

Want to know how potential employees will perform in a new job? Apply the SAO L formula: Situation – Action – Outcome – Learnings to mine their past behaviour and predict how well they will perform with your company.


The first step is to think of a situation you expect the new employee to encounter at your company and match it with a situation in your applicant’s past. Choose one where it’s crucial that your new hire will excel. For example, you might be filling a position involving dealing with dissatisfied customers. That’s your starting situation. Now, look for a similar situation in your interviewee’s past. Using concrete questions, probe to see whether your interviewee has dealt with angry customers in the past. Ask, “Can you describe a situation where…” or “Tell me about a time when you….”. Note that it’s important not to ask hypothetical questions. Never ask “How would you react if…” That doesn’t tell you anything about what the applicant has done in the past: it only tells you how creative his or her imagination is.


Once you’ve lined up a situation to explore, you’ll need to understand what your applicant did. Press the applicant to be as concrete as possible, using phrases like “Tell me specifically what you did”, or “What exactly did you do”. Question the applicant politely but closely until you understand exactly what steps he or she took in the past. What exactly did the applicant do to handle irate customers? You want to finish this step with concrete examples of what happened.


Next, you want to know how effective the applicant was, so you need to make sure you understand what the outcome was. If your applicant tells you that he or she dealt with angry customers by explaining that the fine print on the warranty meant that the company couldn’t provide product support, you’ll want to know whether that was effective. Was the applicant able to meet the challenge? Applicants who were unsuccessful in meeting common challenges in the past are unlikely to be successful in future.


Finally, you want to understand what the applicant learned from his or her experience. For example, your applicant might say, “Initially, I carefully explained the conditions of our warranty to customers and made clear why we couldn’t support products beyond twelve months. But then I realised that satisfied customers often more than made up for the cost of that support in extra business and referrals, so I started to waive that time limit if they were only one or two months past the expiry date.” Establishing what the employee has learned tells you two things. First, it tells you that the employee was able to adapt and meet the challenge successfully. Secondly, it tells you that the applicant is able to take on and respond to feedback – a characteristic which will make him or her a successful employee in your own workplace.


In sum, the rule to remember is this: Past behaviour predicts future behaviour. To know how applicants will perform at your firm, first define a situation that they are likely to encounter, then probe for a similar situation in their past. Next, find out what they did when that situation occurred. Thirdly, discover how effective they were – once you know what they did, ask what happened next. Finally, ask them what they learned from the situation. 

Five ways to reward employees without spending money

Filed under: HR — Nicola Rowe @ 6:28 am
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Want to reward your employees, but lack the budget to splash out on bonuses or raises? Here are five ways to reward your employees effectively without spending a cent.


1. Praise

Often overlooked, praise is the simplest and most effective way to reward individual acts. Praise should be specific. Explain what the employee has specifically done well and why it matters to the company – not just “well done”, but “You did a good job managing Mr. Jackson’s complaint this morning. You’ve just created another satisfied customer who will bring more business to us.” Praise is more effective when it’s delivered in public, so don’t shy from praising your employees in front of others. Remember, though, that individuals aren’t always the right target for praise. If a group has done well, praise the team, not just the leader.


2. Time

Everyone wishes they had an extra hour or two in the day. So why not give a top employee a well-deserved break? “Anna, it’s great that you’ve finished the library job a week early. I’d like you to go home early this afternoon.” If you’re worried about productivity, schedule the time off for Monday morning or Friday afternoon.


3. Events

People relax when they’re out of the office. Getting your employees together for an activity off-site can be a fun way for them to kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labor. It doesn’t have to be bowling: you can go indoor-climbing, play theatersports, or even learn to make sushi together. If you don’t think employees will stump up the cash to go, why not do something free, like a pot-luck picnic in the park? It doesn’t have to cut into work time, either: arrange to get together one evening after work.


4. Services

Liaise with local businesses to see whether you can swap your services for credit. If you’re an accounting business, can you swap a few hours with a style adviser? For the time it takes you to do her taxes, she gives you a set of one-hour sessions. Your employees would probably never think of “getting their colors done”, but they’ll jump at the chance to have a style consultation for free. Or, if fashion isn’t their thing, why not barter services with a local physiotherapist so you can hand out massage vouchers to staff?


5. Status

There’s nothing more galling to an administrative employee than feeling like a cog in a big machine. Next time you make a supplier visit, take your secretary along. They’ll probably enjoy meeting the people they only know from email headers and the telephone. You’ll benefit, too: once she can put faces to names, you’ll find that communications become warmer and more congenial.


In sum, you don’t have to spend money to show your appreciation for your staff. Recognition, unexpected breaks, get-togethers, unusual services and signs of esteem go a lot further toward applauding your employees than a little extra cash. And they’ll thank you for it, too – not just with words, but with increased motivation and more effective work.

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