Challenge Upwards. It’s a Must.


It’s a very tough ask, expecting employees at any level to challenge upwards, even when there are important ethical problems to be resolved. Plenty of companies talk the talk, but the reality is that it rarely happens. Think of Enron, NASA before the Columbia shuttle disaster, or Andersen’s and you’ll realise that saying and doing are vastly different. The reality is that massive consequences can happen further down the track.

What happens when you or a team member notice something that’s wrong and you try to point it out? Do you even get as far as raising it with those upstairs?

What are you doing to safeguard the integrity of your organisation? What’s your company doing?

If you’re not sure how to tackle these questions, here’s the best advice I’ve ever found. Click this link:

Over to you, Marshall Goldsmith! 



Is Your Iceberg Melting?

Is your company like this iceberg, seemingly sound but in reality heading for potentially catastrophic failure? Do you want to learn how to shift from complacently sailing towards an inevitable doom, to finding a far more capable, inspiring and sustainable future?

Here’s a great read. John Kotter’s story about a colony of penguins that needs to make big changes can be read in half an hour or so. It includes all the classic challenges – fear of raising the problem, disbelief, resistance, cynicism, and more, balanced by the different kinds of leadership and solutions that can work.

What a great way for true leaders to pick up ideas and inspiration when trying to save or change your organisation! Read it, grab some inspiration and get to work …

Click the image to get your own copy.

Thanks to Jacques-Olivier Perche, Head of Professional Development for the ESF in Hong Kong for suggesting this one!

Short & Sweet: Confusion


Recently I have met many business people who seem to value certainty and predictability. In other words, they hate feeling confused. And they look down on other people who admit they don’t have an answer.

This kind of locked-in thinking is not always healthy.

When I’m certain I know the best way forward, my mind is closed. And I might miss a better alternative. So embrace confusion when it comes along – it means you’re about to learn something new!

I facilitate a process which by turns clarifies and confuses, but leads to great, original decision making. If you can admit you don’t know the best way forward, this might be for you!

Keep bouncing back,



Business in China: The Haier Case Study

Zhang Ruimin 01Photo by Wang Jun Qd


In 1984 Zhang Ruimin stepped up and took over the leadership of the then state-owned appliance maker. Haier was close to bankruptcy. At one stage he had to borrow money to pay his staff. Now it is the world’s largest manufacturer of white goods, with revenue in 2013 of HK$224 billion (roughly AU$37 billion, or GBP19 billion).

Assumptions? China is a one-party communist state, and it has a reputation for discouraging people from thinking ‘out of the box’. Empowerment must be a dirty word. And leadership equates to authoritarian dictatorship.

So … how has Zhang achieved all this?

Let’s take one example, shared by Benjamin Robertson in the South China Morning Post. In 2014 the CEO and chairman warned his staff that 10,000 of its 70,000 strong workforce would lose their jobs. However, outgoing staff would be welcome back if they had a credible business plan. This is part of his long term strategy to turn the company into an ‘entrepreneurial platform’, which reminds me of Ricardo Semler’s radical strategies with Semco in Brazil (‘Maverick!‘ and ‘The Seven Day Weekend‘).

Employees, including senior executives, are expected to be part of product development teams, and pitch ideas to a committee which has the power to allocate start-up capital and resources. And former Haier staff can get company backing, using the Haier platform, while working for themselves. Zhang himself puts it this way: “We now have a lot of entrepreneurs at Haier who don’t work inside the company. Some aren’t interested in joining, preferring to stay outside in society, partner with the company, and use our platform for pioneering work. Those inside the company are also free to leave at any time, and still use the Haier platform for their work, though they would no longer actually work for the company. In the long run, there won’t be any company employees to speak of—only the Haier platform.” [strategy+business, Nov 2014]

Zhang also has a strong focus on quality. Staff still talk about how he handed out sledgehammers so that 76 faulty fridges could be pulped. 

Prof Bill Fischer of IMD Business School in Switzerland  wrote ‘Reinventing Giants‘, an analysis of Haier’s growth. He reports that “The thing we learned from Haier is that if you don’t have strong self-confident leaders at the top, you can never unleash the voices from below, because an unconfident leader is suspicious, threatened by people from below”.

So empowerment, engagement and entrepreneurship are clearly all core values in the company.

Fortune magazine ranks Zhang 22nd in its global list of people for energising their followers and making the world better. Meanwhile he is flattening this huge company to eliminate unnecessary chains of management and to speed up decision making. Decentralisation has gone to the extent that there are now 2,800 “counties”, each with 7 employees or less.

Art Kleiner, editor-in-chief of strategy+business magazine: “Every part of the organization has its own P&L, makes autonomous decisions (including which other parts of Haier to work with), and can reach out independently to customers, potential employees, and collaborators. R&D projects now often reach beyond Haier’s walls to include academics, independent designers, and even competitors. Zhang sees this as a natural evolution for all major companies, particularly those focused on business innovation in the Internet age.” And Haier aims to lead the world in making all of this work.

Zhang Ruimin has built a company without borders, a company without internal or external barriers, where change is now normal.

End users, other companies and even competitors are brought into the product development process. Haier’s expertise is openly shared: Alibaba spent HK$2.8 billion getting Haier to help build out its logistics network.

Where there used to be complete secrecy pending patents, now there is a greater value placed on collaboration to mutual benefit. Haier has a slogan “Forever honest” which means that there is now a culture of transparency.

Zhang again: “Those inside Haier, especially managers, understand that it’s crucial that we adapt to the evolving needs of users and the changing market environment. A few people who have gone from Haier to work for other companies have written to me telling me that the biggest difference between Haier and their new company is Haier’s transparent interpersonal relations. They say that this is unheard of at other companies”.

I contend that resilience is THE competitive advantage for the future, and Haier is a prime example. If you want help with building a resilient organisation staffed by resilient people, get in touch!

Every success,


5 Signs of a Toxic Workplace

When your working atmosphere gets toxic, everything else becomes hard or even impossible to achieve. Today I’m re-posting an article by Janie Smith as I’ve come across far too many toxic workplaces like this. And it can sometimes be easier to turn around than we think. The alternative, if we don’t, is too horrible to contemplate.


Janie quotes behavioural scientist Darren Hill, who picks out these 5 signs:

  1. Passive-aggressive communication is the norm
  2. Lack of discretionary effort
  3. Death by committee
  4. Clock Watching
  5. Lack of quality, shared experiences.

Read more here.

All of these symptoms indicate a lack of engagement – mirrored by, and probably caused by, a lack of leadership. How many are you experiencing? Maybe you’re too busy to change things? Or maybe these problems leave you in practice with too much hard work just to keep the business going.

Some suggestions: it’s time to make your purpose crystal clear and to invest energy in communicating that to your team. It’s time to show zero tolerance for undermining, negative attitudes. It’s time to show lots of appreciation for people who put in the extra mile (or inch) so that they know they, and their efforts, are valued – even if they simply come in with a positive attitude.

If you’re in this chicken and egg situation, give me a call and I’ll happily spend a bit of time getting to the heart of how you might make life a lot easier.

Every success, Hugh

Managing Change: Pure Poetry

This short poem by Portia Nelson is brilliant. It was instrumental, believe it or not, in getting a massive pulp and paper business with 100,000 employees in Indonesia to change its unsustainable deforestation policies. I’ll say more after the poem!

Which of these ‘chapters’ are you experiencing?

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the pavement.

I fall in.

I am lost … I am helpless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the pavement.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I am in the same place.

But, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the pavement.

I see it there.

I still fall in … it’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my own fault.

I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the pavement.

I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.


“An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson (May 27, 1920 – March 6, 2001).

Portia was a cabaret performer way back in the 1950’s, had a part in ‘The Sound of Music’, played the long running role of nanny Mrs Gurney in the US TV series ‘All My Children’, and was also a terrific author and poet. Her book (see the link below) became a mainstay of 12-step self discovery programs.

The Story:

Scott Poynton is an unsung hero. His non-profit organisation, The Forest Trust, has been a highly effective catalyst for managing change, where the United Nations seem to have only been able to dance on the sidelines. An Australian forester, he has helped convince some companies that have been regarded as the epitome of environmental evil by many in the green movement to change their ways. And while a big part is the business case, he is adept at using poetry, imagery and other means to work at a spiritual level with those business leaders.

He sent APP (Asia Pulp & Paper) Portia Nelson’s poem in frustration in 2011, telling their executives that they were stuck in chapter 2. And not long after, they contacted him to say they were ready for change – and that went right up to the Chinese-Indonesian family owners. Now Greenpeace have been signed up as monitors to make sure the company meets its pledges.

How ready for change are you? And your clients?

Read more about Scott Poynton in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29th March, 2014.

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