Book Review: Talk, Inc.

Trust is an essential element of leadership, but how exactly do we build that trust as leaders? Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind propose just that in their book, Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders use Conversation to Power their Organizations. It’s one of the best books I have read on “how” to embark on the journey of trust-building in organizations. It doesn’t settle for wordy but useless statements like “leaders should generate trust in their followers”. Rather, it provides numerous examples–from a number of cultures and industries–of what leaders are doing to embrace conversations in their organizations. These authentic conversations help to build the trust needed for organizations to thrive.

The authors present numerous ideas from mostly non-mainstream companies–many of which I hadn’t heard of before. I found this refreshing as they didn’t recycle the same old ideas (do we really ever need another commentary on GE’s work-out program?).. They interviewed leaders of a few Indian companies as well, presenting an intriguing cultural perspective that is important for us to understand as our organizations continue to globalize.

Groysberg and Slind argue that there has been a significant shift in organizations in recent years. Leaders simply cannot delegate communications to professional communicators. They must adopt organizational communication as their responsibility, not someone else’s. This shift has occurred for five main reasons (see page 7):
1. Economic Change – As workplaces become more knowledge-based, organizations must find more sophisticated ways to communicate.
2. Organizational Change – As organizations become flatter, all directions of communication (lateral, bottom-up etc.) are as important as top-down communication.
3. Global Change – Workforces are becoming more culturally diverse, and this is forcing organizations to adapt their communication amidst these cultural dynamics.
4. Generational Change – Millenials are infiltrating leadership positions and are expecting leaders to communicate directly with them.
5. Technological Change – Various technologies (including social media) are allowing direct access to the source, and enabling leaders to communicate in different ways to employees.

I have reached similar conclusions in my own research and still believe HR Leaders need to take on the social aspects of their organization. I believe that corporate communications functions in most organizations will become integrated into HR Departments (if they haven’t already), as organizations learn to understand and value the power of the collective voice of their employees. Talk, Inc. gives us numerous examples of “How” organizations are doing this, and I highly recommend it for any leader pondering a change effort in his/her organization. I also recommend it for any leader taking an a new leadership challenge. This book will give you the tools needed to better understand the intricate social and communication fabric of your organization.

Note: I purchased this book myself and have no affiliation with the authors or the publisher.

Book Review: Culture Connection

Culture is important. That’s the conclusion of many resources on organizational culture. But does any leader actually argue that culture is not important? The real problem is “how” to develop an effective culture. Marty Parker attempts to tackle this “how” question in his book, Culture Connection: How Developing a Winning Culture Will Give Your Organization a Competitive Advantage. This book is written about ten Canadian companies, who recently won the “10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures” award. To gather his research, Parker interviewed senior leaders from each of these companies, and then compiled his findings into this book.

Parker’s organization found that 85% of companies indicated that cultural fit is more important than necessary skills when hiring a new employee. I am sure every leader could back this statistic up with their own story of hiring an under-skilled person who blossomed into a star, because s/he was the ‘right’ fit. I am also sure every leader could tell another story of a highly skilled person who failed miserably because s/he did not fit the culture. Parker explains why this fit is important and how many companies attempt to find that fit. For example, Four Seasons Hotels puts candidates through five separate interviews. Other companies are integrating their HR and Marketing departments because they see their culture as being synonymous with their brand (I have noticed this emerging trend in my own research as well).

What I appreciated the most about this book is that Parker resisted the urge to stuff culture into a Maxwell-ian “Three Keys to Fixing Your Culture” type summary. Generating a culture is an art, not a science. Parker seems to understand that, but also provides practical advice to leaders. He gives tangible (and quotable) evidence of what real companies are doing. He does not write from an impractical Ivory Tower. Rather, he writes about what these companies are doing, and provides readers with a loose framework on how to strengthen/bolster their own culture. For example, consider this quote from Ferio Pugliese (Vice President of People and Culture at Westjet):

Although skills, knowledge, and abilities are very important to do the job, they’re not the success factors that are going to drive your value proposition and your culture…It’s the value fit. I can have the smartest guy in the world, he can be the best pilot, the best flight attendant, but if he doesn’t fit the value proposition of wanting to help…then that doesn’t match our brand.

Parker’s book is full of anecdotal gems like that.

While the companies Parker studies are mostly Canadian, almost all of them operate globally. His findings will apply to many organizations. He makes an important contribution to work on organizational culture through this book. It was a great read, and I would highly recommend it to any leader looking for a framework to understanding his/her own culture, and to any HR leader tasked with being the culture leader in the organization.

Note: I purchased this book myself and have no affiliation with the author.

Parker, M. (2012). Culture connection: How developing a winning culture will give your organization a competitive advantage. New York: McGraw Hill.

Book Review: Rapid Realignment

Alignment is one of those intuitive things that is easy to write about but much harder to practice. Of course HR, Finance, Communications, Operations, and Sales should be aligned towards the same goals/directions. No one is going to argue they should not be. But many organizations are full of silo-ed departments that are not aligned, and that creates numerous difficulties for them as these departments pull the organization in varied directions simultaneously. George Labovitz and Victor Rosansky recently published a book specifically on the subject of realignment. In Rapid Realignment: How to Quickly Integrate People, Processes, and Strategy for Unbeatable Performance, Labovitz and Rosansky build on their previous best-selling work and provide many practical ways for leaders to realign their organizations.

The book is broad in scope, and touches on numerous organizational issues such as social media, continuous quality improvement, culture, employee engagement, strategic planning and many more. Each of the aforementioned topics could be a book in themselves, and that broad scope dilutes its usefulness a bit. The authors do cite a number of case study stories, and I loved those. These short anecdotal stories bolster their thoughts and research by providing pragmatic examples of continuous alignment. I just wish they would have expanded those more as we could have learned much from the alignment efforts of the companies they researched.

I especially enjoyed the social media chapter and their thoughts on how companies can bolster their vertical and horizontal alignment by harnessing the power of social media. It was a thought-provoking, engaging, and well-written chapter on the subject. They did not just rehash what we already know about social media and provided some depth to the ongoing conversation of what organizations should actually do with these advancing social technologies. A leader can’t simply decree “Thou shalt align” to his organization and expect it to magically align. Rather, leaders must engage in continuous conversations throughout the organization. Social media has given leaders powerful tools to do that more effectively, but t has also made organizational communication more slippery to understand. The examples they cite from WalMart and PWC really help readers understand how some companies are using social media technology to align their organizations.

Overall, I did enjoy the book, and it is an extremely useful tool for a leader to align his or her strategies. Advanced leaders may read this and then look for more detailed or deeper information on specific topics to further bolster those strategies. That is fine, since we have to start from somewhere. Labovitz and Rosansky provide that starting point and definitely provide a useful contribution to the literature on alignment.

Note: I have no affiliation with the authors and purchased this book myself.

Labovitz, G. & Rosansky, V. (2012). Rapid Realignment: How to Quickly Integrate People, Processes, and Strategy for Unbeatable Performance. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Book Review: The One-Week Job Project

After finishing university, Sean Aiken embarked on a tour of North America working one job per week for 52 weeks. The One Week Job Project describes his journey over that year and what it’s like to work at 52 different companies. I heard Sean speak a few weeks ago, and loved his stories and ideas. You can learn more about his project here. It’s a great read, and subtly brings us back to the question all of us–leaders and followers–face at some point in our lives: what will my job mean in the end?

This book encapsulates Millennials more than any other book I have read. It describes a typical Millennial’s life journey and overt desire to find our passion, no matter what that passion pays us. It is like an anthem of this generation. Not that all Millennials will work one job a week like Aiken did, but they will strive for meaning in what they do choose to do. Bruce Tulgan uses the term “tapestry” to describe the Millennials career paths, where they want to paint a picture, or create a beautiful work of art with their lives, rather than just climb a corporate ladder to nowhere. Aikens’s book describes that journey, but also previews an intriguing twist with the Millennials: they might actually inspire other generations to question “why” and give up pointless quests for status amidst the rat race as well.

From a leadership perspective, this book is a great reminder that the people I lead have dreams and ambitions. We easily lose sight of that as leaders. In a perfect world, those dreams coincide with their job. But many times, they don’t. Why should I be surprised if they leave my leadership if I don’t care about that meaning? Aiken also gives us numerous examples of how new employees often get treated by companies. If you are an HR leader, this is an especially great book to read to help you understand the mindset of a new employee starting at your company. The little things do matter.

Our followers will not be content with mundane and pointless jobs with no meaning or direction. They see life as being too short to put up with ridiculous demands by leaders. Those domineering leaders will eventually run out of followers willing to put up with them, and they will not be able to compensate for their leadership ineptitude by throwing money at people. 21st century followers will laugh and quit when that happens, rather than stay and be miserable. That will change our workplaces substantially.

I loved this book. Aiken’s writing style reminds me a lot of Donald Miller, and he does a great job of telling the story of his 52 week adventure. Through these stories, he becomes an inadvertent leadership philosopher. It may be a stretch to add it to your leadership bookshelf, but I loved it, and would highly recommend it to anyone feeling a bit restless in your current job. You will soon realize that you are not alone, and many people feel that restlessness. Few of us will create an adventure like Aiken did, but you might be inspired by Aiken’s adventure. As leaders, we might also inspire our followers to find their passion too.

Note: I have no connection to the author or publisher. I did hear Sean speak in person in March 2012. All attendees at this event were given a free copy of the book.

Book Review: Pension Ponzi

Pensions. Bring that up at a party and watch everyone’s eyes glaze over. It really is more exciting to talk about paint drying than about pensions and actuarial tables, but bear with me. Pension Ponzi by Bill Tufts and Lee Fairbanks is actually a mostly interesting book.

The book is actually about two core issues: public sector pensions and public sector salaries. The issues are intertwined, but actually are two different issues in my mind. Tufts and Fairbanks combine them and rant about both issues throughout the book, and repeat themselves many times in doing so. The book specifically analyzes the Canadian public sector pension and compensation system, but as far as I can tell, the issues apply to other countries as well.

The authors cite many examples–which I do appreciate–but make a crucial error in stating over and over that public sector wages are too high, without adequate comparative data. What is a police officer (or fire fighter, or military officer) worth? How exactly do you compare those jobs to any other profession to determine their profession. Simply stating they get paid too much or too little only works when you compare the salaries. The tough question is what do you compare them to?

Unfortunately, the authors don’t make any attempt to compare public sector wages to private sector counterparts. For example, they laud CEO salaries in Canadian government as being too high. But are they really? Maybe they are, maybe not. What is the CEO of a Billion dollar organization worth? In the private sector, s/he might be paid millions of dollars. So is $XXX,000 too much in the public sector? I don’t know. Maybe it is, but to simply say a salary is too high implies a comparison, and you must present the other side of the comparison to complete the argument. The authors don’t do so unfortunately.

Pensions are complicated and the authors to a pretty good job of explaining the issues and why they believe most pensions are in dire straights. Baby Boomers are living longer than expected. There are not enough Gen Xers and Millennials working to support the retired Baby Boomers. The market is volatile. All of these have created a perfect storm that may see many of our pensions go bankrupt without substantial changes to our system.

What does this have to do with leadership you ask? The pension issue is not merely an economical issue; it really is a leadership issue. Public sector leaders, corporate leaders and union leaders must all step up and address the simple fact that our public pensions may not last as they are currently structured. The pension issue has been at the centre of recent bailouts of GM, Chrysler and other major corporations. It is a major issue in government-union clashes in Wisconsin, California, and many other locales. Tufts and Fairbanks unfairly lay most of the blame for pension unsustainability solely on unions, but it takes two parties to negotiate. That can’t be forgotten. Political and governmental leaders must take both a short and long-sighted approach to this issue. Few leaders are able to do this, and ones that do may become the most important and influential leaders in the next couple decades. The pension issue will not go away quietly.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It’s funny at times, wanders off track at others, but overall, addresses a mundane topic in an interesting way. They are very biased in their disdain for unions, but do raise many interesting facts and history about labour relations in Canada. I wish they spent more than 11 pages proposing solutions, but that may not have been their purpose in this book anyways. The book succeeds in bringing a complicated issue into everyday language, and out of obscurity and complicated language. It is an intriguing book for any leaders looking to reward their employees today but who also want to create a long-term sustainable future for the next generation of employees. Their (my) retirement future depends on those choices.

Disclosure: I paid full price for this book and have no connection to the authors. I also work in the Canadian public sector and contribute to a public sector pension.

Tufts, B. and Fairbanks, L. (2011). Pension ponzi: How Canada’s public sector unions are bankrupting Canada’s health care, education and your retirement. Mississauga, ON: John Wiley & Sons.

Book Review: Millennials into Leadership

How will the Millennials lead? That question will directly impact organizations over the next few years, as the Millennials move into more impacting leadership positions. The oldest Millennial is 31 now, and we will see them become Executives in established organizations very shortly. Will that change leadership as we know it?

Lisa Orrell attempts to tackle this question in Millennials into Leadership: The Ultimate Guide for Gen Y’s Aspiring to be Effective, Respected, Young Leaders at Work. This is one of the first books I know of that tackles the intriguing question of “how will Millennials lead?” rather than “how should I lead Millennials?” Orrell is first out of the gate here and she provides a good start to helping us understand this question. Orrell presents a sort of handbook for up and coming Millennials looking to become leaders. It doubles as an introduction ot Millennials by other leaders looking to further understand them.

Chapter 4 is the best part of the book. Orrell integrates a list created by Ryan Healy that describes “20 Ways Millennials will Change the Workforce” This list is poignant, intriguing and probably correct in most areas. This chapter alone is worth purchasing the book and Healy/Orrell do a great job of describing the profound workplace changes we may very well see in the future.

You will like this book if you like John Maxwell-ian styles of writing. If you believe aspects of leadership can be summed up in “23 Key Differences…” (can there really be 23 ‘keys’?), “7 Ironclad Attributes”… (ironclad, really?), and “4 steps…”, then you might like this book. I think many of those Maxwell type lists are oversimplifications of complex issues, and aren’t really that useful to the average leader. Orrell overuses them throughout the book, and oversimplifies some issus by doing so. Nearly every chapter in this book is written using a variation of these lists. But keep in mind I have written/sold exactly zero books. Maxwell has sold Millions. So take my opinion for what it’s worth.

I do think there are better books written that tackle the Millennial topic. Check out Tulgan, Alsop, or Tapscott for a start. I suspect this book is most useful when used in conjunction with one of Orrell’s seminars, rather than an independent source of information. We will see more in-depth books written on this subject in the future, but Orrell makes an invaluable introductory contribution to the growing literature on the Millennial generation; a subject that will impact all of our organizations over the next few years.

Note: I purchased this book myself to review and have no connection to the author or publisher.

Book Review: UnMarketing. Stop Marketing. Start Engaging.

First off, I am definitely not qualified to review a book on social media. I’m still learning a lot, make lots of mistakes and am still trying to figure it out along with everyone else. So I’m approaching this review from the perspective of a business leader looking to learn more about how best to embark into online social networking endeavours. And UnMarketing: Stop Marketing. Start Engaging is well worth the read

Scott Stratten has a witty, sarcastic and self-depreciating writing style. His anecdotes, statistics, and witty footnotes are part Donald Miller and part Malcolm Gladwell. The cover of UnMarketing even caught my eye. Anyone who blatantly makes up fake praise (one review is from the “famous author who hasn’t read this book”), for his own marketing book has to have something interesting to say, which is why I bought it.

On the way to work every day, I pass a hair salon with a cheap billboard out front that says “become our fan on Facebook”. Ummm, why the heck would I do that? (it’s a boring drive, and I do wonder that every time I see it). Stratten explains why marketing strategies like that are useless, but most importantly, gives real life stories of how companies have successfully journeyed into the world of online social media.

Stratten repeatedly emphasizes that social media is a reciprocal agreement between people. It can’t be faked. It has to be genuine…just like leadership does. Strip the marketing terms out of this book, and you have a great core of advice on how leaders successfully network themselves within organizations. This networking is necessary, and requires genuine, authentic time invested by the leader. Relationships can’t be outsourced or delegated, no matter how hard leaders try. Your employees are already talking about your company on Facebook, or at the local pub. Why not find a way to harness that energy, learn from them, and better your company? Stratten shows you how to do that using the plethora of tools available in 2011, but also helps readers deepen their understanding of the relationships involved in/through social media.

Most of all, Stratten lives his stuff. I always get amused by people who promote themselves as social media “experts” but only have 39 Twitter followers and a pre-1995 website for their company. Social media isn’t something you can read about. To call yourself a true expert, you have to live it and have something credible to say. Stratten gets that. He has successfully done everything he writes about in this book, and that gives him a lot of credibility in my mind.

I highly recommend this book for any business leader looking at ways to better use his marketing dollars, and who wants to build a stronger social fabric within his/her organization.