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,


The Danger of Sham Empowerment

How often have you been given a job to do – then got frustrated because the organisation just won’t let you do it the way you know would work best?

Typically, when we delegate a task to someone (or a team), we simply give them responsibility for getting it done. It feels to them that they are being trusted to represent you and your organisation. However, we don’t give them any real clout or authority to shift resources, so that they can make it happen whatever happens. They discover this when they try to use strategies that you wouldn’t use, or when the resources simply aren’t coming through and they can’t do anything about that. Then the ‘power’ turns out to be an illusion.

Instead, we need to do the reverse: give them real authority, but retain responsibility for success or failure. This rarely happens in practice. Too often we give a tokenistic, superficial, false level of empowerment which allows us to stay in control but which achieves nothing.

If I’m still responsible for your performance, I’m going to be motivated to keep in touch with how you’re doing, and will coach and mentor you (not instruct you) so that you do a great job. After all, I’m accountable to my client/boss for this, not you. And you have authority to act, so I don’t need to step in and direct or do things to make it happen.

When people feel empowered and that turns out to be a sham, typically they react by doing one or more of these things:

  • They Get Out 
  • They Get Safe 
  • They Get Even.

If you don’t intend to give real authority to your people, the message is clear: Don’t Pretend That You Are Empowering Them. It’s better to be honest and authentic as people then know where they stand, even if they don’t like it much. If you effectively lie about this, sooner or later you will break their trust and the results will probably be highly damaging, and lasting.

Trust is an essential feature of resilient, sustainable organisations. It takes a lot to build trust, and it can be destroyed in a heartbeat.

Empowerment? Don’t do it if you don’t mean it. Check out my previous post on the 5 features of empowering delegation

Every success, Hugh

The Toxic Leader

In a recent post I discussed the notion of the toxic workplace. Today – it’s the turn of the leaders!

Gabriel Thorn, a US Company Commander, has written a great post (link below) asking what happened to the US army’s decision to eliminate their toxic leaders, recognising the destructive effect such characters have on morale, and how they cause the best to up and leave.

What we have here is classic ‘tank’ behaviour. Tanks simply roll over everything in their path to get the job done as quickly as possible, and rarely even recognise that they are crushing everything indiscriminately.

What can you do if you have to put up with a tank as a leader?

4 choices:

  1. Stay and put up with it;
  2. Vote with your feet and leave;
  3. Change your attitude towards them; or
  4. Change your own behaviour.

Notice that I haven’t suggested that you try to change THEIR behaviour. Put it this way – how often have other people succeeded in changing YOUR behaviour? Really? And with the tank this is frankly almost impossible.

So consider this instead. Your goal is to command their respect. “We’re on the same side”. Don’t counter attack or get defensive – but do interrupt, back track (“I get it that you think this should be finished by now”), target the bottom line (“The way I’m handling this will save us time and money in the future”), fire your shot then negotiate peace with honour.

Keep it simple, don’t be cowed, don’t get emotional. Win respect and even those toxic tanks will by and large leave you in peace.

Gabriel Thorn’s article: Whatever Happened to Eliminating The Toxic Leader?

The tank and other difficult behaviours are beautifully described, with strategies, in this book:

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

As I get older …

I’m one of those guys who is shocked at my relatively advanced stage of life – there’s a young bloke inside wondering “How the hell did that happen?”

As I get older some things are definitely changing. My eyesight and hearing aren’t what they used to be, for one thing. And I’m getting crankier. And it’s about time too.

So be warned, I’m determined not to tolerate crap any more. Crap? Like – when I try to be helpful and it’s turned into a negative (stop getting in the way, you’re not doing it right, etc) being talked to like I’m an idiot, or being made to feel that I have no real value. I don’t deserve that. I don’t think I treat others like that.

When I turn 60 I want to feel loved. If I can have that, then I’d like to feel appreciated and respected. If I can have that, I’d like to keep being stretched, to keep learning, and to be fit (those 3 are down to me). And if I can have some fun, music, ‘craic’ and laughter thrown in along the way, happy days.

How about you? What should you stop tolerating? What will you really want in the next stage of your life, whatever that is?

My Heroes: Fritz Schumacher – Sustainability Royalty

Put up a Sail, and The Wind Will Catch It When It Comes.

Although he died in 1977, Fritz Schumacher’s ideas were way ahead of his time, and continue to inspire my thinking and practice today. He deserves to be known by this and future generations as royalty in the fields of sustainable development – economic, agricultural, organisational, and human. Let me share some of his story and ideas.

Born in Germany, he moved to England in 1930 as a Rhodes Scholar. By the age of 22 he was teaching economics at Columbia University, New York but found theory without practical experience too limiting. So he went into business, farming, and journalism. After the Second World War he was the British economic advisor in Germany, and later went on to introduce (then) radical ideas on how to develop sustainable agriculture and technology in Africa and India. President of the Soil Association (Britain’s largest organic farming organisation), Director of the Scott-Bader company (pathfinders in polymer chemistry and common ownership), founder of the Intermediate Technology Development group, economic advisor to the Coal Board … the list goes on and on.

But above all, he was a man of principle, an amazing and inspiring communicator, and a radical thinker who changed the way we think and act.

His work is best covered in some amazingly readable (and not too long) books, notably “A Guide for the Perplexed”, “Good Work” and “Small is Beautiful – A study of economics as if people mattered”.

An example: Egg production in Africa. In “Good Work” Scumacher tells the story of how the President of Zambia asked for his help. They were trying to develop an economic plan in a very poor country which benefited everyone at every level, with the deceptively important aim of ‘an egg a day for every Zambian’. However egg farmers were distraught as most of their eggs were rotting where they lay as they had no egg trays to take them to market.

So he tracked down the one multinational firm which produced virtually all the egg trays globally, and asked them to build a plant in Lusaka for Zambian farmers. But the company could not conceive of building a plant which produced less than a million units a month, way more than the Zambians needed. And in any case the design was poor and many eggs would break in transit. So he asked a young guy at the Royal College of Art in London to design a better tray, and got it in 6 weeks. And the University of Reading’s engineering department came up with a design for a plant that could produce 2% of the capacity of the then smallest factory, at 2% of the capital cost.

Finally, to show the real beauty of his work: he asked the big multinational to help. They didn’t see this as a threat to their position as ‘the king of egg trays” globally, and were in fact very generous with their know-how in helping the project come to reality.

He wrote: “So I can certainly never feel discouraged. I can’t myself raise the winds that might blow us, or this ship, into a better world. But I can at least put up the sail so that, when the wind comes, I can catch it”.

Long ago he raised our awareness of the folly of over dependence on fossil fuels, of the need to learn things that actually make a difference, and of doing things to human scale so that people are meaningfully engaged. And he explained his ideas by telling stories.

Now that’s something I need to do more of!

Hire Right, Grow Right – the Chipotle Case Study

Executives often say things like “our people are our greatest asset” without much of an idea of what that really means, or how to really find and grow that asset. Here’s a case study that makes it a lot clearer.

Chipotle in the USA have transformed their working culture and have as a result nearly quadrupled their sales in the process since 2005. How? By recruiting, investing in, promoting and rewarding the right people for the right things.

While those factors should be different for every business, the principles should work everywhere.

Want to know more about hiring the right people, and building from within? Ask about my talent management and team building frameworks.

Every success! Hugh

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