The art of being a culture builder: Be Specific

I am off to Guangzhou tomorrow for a very brief session on “being specific.”  One of our friends and a client in in the Economic Development District has a very proactive set of leaders in their supply chain division who have identified three guiding principles.  The problem with guiding principles is that unless we are specific about them then it is as good as not having them at all.

In this case their team has identified three Accountability, Professionalism, and Execution.  For a small experiment take anyone of these three words and ask a group of 5 or more people to define it.  Then ask for them individually to write out three or four things people who display these kinds of principles do.

It won’t matter much if they have similar backgrounds, personality types, or even work together every day.  The reality is that, unless their is a pre-existing definition and accepted list of behavior traits that each person knows by heart, the results will be different… in some cases wildly different.

I once asked a group what kept them from being able to execute effectively.  We started by asking them to define execution.  From a group of 7 people all seven had different definitions.  For some people the idea of execution as they defined it was so unsavory they simply couldn’t buy into their Plant Managers mantra of “execute, execute, execute!”

So if you are a leader and you find that your message isn’t quite getting through maybe it is time to test if you and your counterparts are working from the same framework.  Maybe it is just time to stop being verbal and start getting specific.


Ethnocentrism, Mother Theresa, and You

It is increasingly obvious that being able to function across cultures is a prerequisite competency for anyone, not just leaders.  There are times though that being able to function is simply not enough and you must, because of choices made somewhere in your life, learn to do business in other countries and accordingly in other cultures.  As exciting as that may sound there are times we have to overcome the single biggest barrier we have to doing business, ourselves.

Nearly fifteen years ago a research project was under way in the United States.  The goal was simple, to see how people viewed themselves in comparison to some of the most important names of the times.  The benchmark was to ask respondents how likely they were to go to heaven after they died.  This of course indicates that the respondents did believe in an afterlife, but one would assume that even if they didn’t it would balance by the end of the research.  Researchers then listed out some of the most famous names time including Billy Clinton, Michael Jordan, and Mother Theresa.

Most people (over 80%) indicated that they were likely to get past St. Peter and through the pearly gates.  Slick Willy had about 50% of Americans convinced he would get through, Michael Jordan around 70% and Mother Theresa a solid 79%.  Notice something here?  Taken in aggregate the average US citizen viewed themselves as more likely to get into heaven than Mother Theresa.

So what does this have to do with culture?  Imagine for a moment that you are doing business in a foreign land and you encounter a snag in negotiations.  Let’s take a real life example like the one I ran into this morning.  The client wanted to add additional trainees to a leadership program an increase of 50% more participants than originally discussed.  I kind of think this happens anywhere, not just in training and not just in China.  I believe the world over  it is called “pushing your luck.”

What stuck out is the final line of the e-mail I received, which I quote below:

“There is more chance to cooperate next time with you and your company, anyway hope you could accept I mentioned above.”

According to the Geert Hoffstede Cultural Dimensions what this young man was letting surface in his e-mail is a cultural dimension known as Long Term Orientation.  The Chinese set the benchmark for this traits they actually score over 118 on a 100 point scale.  No Joke.  The irony is that in most every day situations like going to the supermarket my business counter part would never ask for 50% more produce than the price on the bag of already weighed apples, and certainly not in the context of doing more business in the future.  Then again maybe he would…

Let’s look at something from my own life while we think about that… At around the same time that study was going on in the US, I was enrolled in my first physical anthropology course.  I was a Sophomore and really buying into the Socio-Cultural dogma that preached that race was an outdated concept.  There was a lot of data looking at the distribution of physical characteristics to support this idea.  So my professor, a PhD candidate at the time, arranged a simple quiz for us when we started the course.  We were shown a variety of pictures corresponding to blanks and a quiz sheet with the task, “identify their race.”  Like a good socio-cultural anthropologist I cleverly wrote “race is obsolete.” and continued on.  When we got to the end of the quiz another set of pictures came up with the task “identify their nationality or ethnic background.” Being “well traveled” I was all to happy to suggest where these people were likely from based on clothes and physical features.  I was also completely oblivious to the contradiction my answers created.

What had happened was that my conscious mind knew what I believed, and still believe about race.  But my ego and desire to show off my knowledge took over and overrode my “programming.”  The lesson for me?  Well it was a quick lesson about how things weren’t so post-racial, but it also taught me that my gut reaction could lead to a need to show off, but not just me an overwhelming 35%  of my class who did the exact same thing.  In fact everyone who put down that race was obsolete took their best crack at labeling nationality and ethnic background.  It’s almost like our need to provide the correct answers based on surface facts took over.  Most likely because our egos were screaming into our head that we new the answers and that we had to be right, after all this was our chosen major…

The problem for those of us doing business is what to do to reign in our instincts to either

a. take offense

b. give offense

c. put our foot in our mouth

d. all of the above

As it is, this morning while wrangling with my ego, I wrote about three drafts of my e-mail running them by my colleague before I settled on one that hopefully did as little as possible to offend or shove my foot in my mouth.  In the end everything seems to have worked out as the participants have gone back to the terms of the proposal after it was clear that their request seemed out of place given the terms previously outlined.  I also, after reflection, added a comment that should there be future business we would give them some kind of preferred treatment.

So why take this all so seriously?  Mostly because when living away from “home” we have a tendency, no matter how favorably we view our host nation, of thinking our model of doing things is superior.  Like the average citizen on average we begin to think more of our selves than others, like say Mother Theresa or the guy on the other side of that e-mail.  After all our culture is an important part of who we are and for the most part we believe we should like our selves and therefore also our culture. No model of cultural understanding or practice of cultural relativism can begin to replace a bit of humility in the face of adversity.

So the next time you think of singing up for a course that teaches you how other people “think,” consider first if you are ready to put it in the context of how you think and what you are doing to make the most of it.

The Insurance Salesman

Not long ago I posted some of the questions we ask clients who are working out their organizational culture.  Last Thursday I was walking through the questions to review core value choices with a client and I have been toying with one of the questions in my head ever since then…

“Do you believe that those who do not share this core value—those who breach it consistently—simply do not belong in your organization?”

I believe firmly that companies with vibrant cultures will find that employees who cannot live up to certain values, spoken or otherwise, will simply opt out.  This is a brief story of me opting out due to a conflict of unspoken and spoken values.  This is also a story of how I learned that my secret calling is to be an insurance sales man…

I should note that at least twice that I can think of the spoken message about the culture of a company has brought me on board to company while the unspoken message or the addendum later has led me to opt-out.  To kick-off this story let’s just say that in 2008 I joined an orientation session for a company I was considering working for and saw the following lines that were about 75% of their “mission statement”… “(we succeed by) listening to the needs of our clients and developing customised solutions that are immediately practical and improve their effectiveness…”

As I sat there in their training room with a group of incoming account managers and potential trainers (to my knowledge none of these people still work there) I felt like this would be a good match.  Judging from the mission statement and the investment they were willing to make in account managers clearly there were going to be opportunities to grow and provide quality training.  Which meant more money in the bank and of course satisfying work.

Jumping back a couple years before that some of you might remember my going to the US to get my SPIN certification.  Beyond changing my sales style it also altered the way I look at sales.  From my perspective the sales person has an obligation to create a solution to a problem that helps their client improve and be better than they were before.  If the ASTD can argue training hasn’t happened with out learning I would argue value added sales hasn’t happened without positive change.

So I took it upon my self to provide training for free to the Shenzhen sales staff using the SPIN system.  What I found immediately (and I believe is ALWAYS the case) was that they were very uninformed about the products they were selling and the solutions those products could provide.  More importantly they were unable to envision the kinds of problems their client could be facing that these training courses could then remedy.  ie provide compelling value and are “immediately practical and improve (their) effectiveness.”

So I spent a fair amount of time getting these young people to begin to think about the sales process as a method for identifying problems exploring their implications and providing best fit needs.  Now for those of you familiar with sales psychology you will know there are two reasons for this method.  The first and obvious one is that it creates a long term sense of value for a client who can resolve issues and improve their company.  The second and slightly more sinister one, is that this method creates the sense of need to by exposing a sense of “pain” that looking for implications exacerbates in order to provide a compelling psychological push to purchase the solutions that a good SPIN seller gets the client to profess to needing.

The worst case scenario is that of the insurance sales man who gets you to confess how royally screwed you are without any insurance and how much safer your family would be with just a little bit more of the premium insurance package.  “After all isn’t your family worth it?”  People like the US government regularly take this approach.  BTW it doesn’t make them wrong just manipulative.

I like to think that I and others like me are the best case scenario, but let’s be perfectly honest the difference between what I am trained to do and what insurance sales people do is pretty much nil.  The difference is in the values that drive the methodology and the outcomes we want to create.  I like to think that the money comes somewhere after the result in my case.  But hey it’s all just perspective right?

I would say it is actually all about what you think of as valuable.  For the company I was thinking of working with creating value started at the overall happiness of the trainee, since if the trainee was happy the HR supervisor or manager they were working with came across golden and they had effectively met one very important need, “make the decision maker look good.”  The primary need that they were focusing their account managers on was to make that decision maker look good, in affect they were tying job performance not to organizational impact but to one person’s face within the organization.

This company also professed to be in the “edutainment” business.  The skills of trainers were evaluated not by actual impact but by edutainment scores…

So let’s think about this from the perspective of the account manager.  Let’s go back to a time when we were fresh out of college or when we tied our boat to the happiness of another person who was either our supervisor or senior manager.  Let’s imagine that we need to defend our own fragile ego (failure is not an option) and our prime directive is to make “someone look good” are we going to help them see the brutal facts about what is hurting their company?  Are we going to want to put in the hours to make the person whose happiness determines our success feel worried or concerned?  Are we going to ask them take a good hard look at themselves and ask them to feel dissatisfied with the way things are?

I think the answer here is “Hell NO!”

This company further supported that model by giving their sales people product training that consisted of questions like, “which trainers come from the UK?”  “Which trainer studied Mandarin for a summer at such and such university.”  When I pointed out that this kind of training didn’t really help solve problems I was then told…

“John your sales style is like that of an insurance sales man.  Sometimes the client just needs to be recognized for organizing a successful training.”

This mentality impacted their business in several ways from then to now.  Some of them, honestly many of them, were very good for business, this company thrives in China and I wish them well.  However, within about 6 weeks I had opted out and walked away from their organization.  They continue to thrive in their market segment and I continue to thrive in mine.  What we learned though was that their unspoken values made it easy for me to opt-out.  During the economic downturn their values made it easy for a lot of people to opt-out.  As I pointed out the entire group that attended that orientation (about 15 people) all left.  Sales volume is fine there (by there I mean Shanghai and Beijing), employee turnover is less stellar.

The moral of the story.  No one culture is right for everyone.  No one culture is right or wrong and as long as the company stays true to itself and the people who adhere to their culture stay true to each other they will have a head up in the business world.  If your culture is rife with unspoken or conflicting messages expect people to opt-out over time and your turnover to be more than you expected.

So if your turnover is really hurting you and you can see where that is impacting your bottom line I’d like to talk to you about this insurance package I am selling…

The Circle of Excellence

In NLP there is a “simple” technique for creating a positive anchor that let’s you choose to be in a resourceful state when facing problems.  As an independent consultant I often argue the value of surrounding yourself with people who are pretty damn smart and willing to talk about your work.  These are the people who make up your own “circle of excellence.”

From what I can tell the biggest obstacle facing other independent consultants/trainers is that they get stuck doing it on their own.  Whether it be ego or a fear of inherent competition there is not much willingness to talk about current projects, branding ideas, or more importantly what is blocking them from breaking through and being hyper successful.

On Friday I gave a presentation at the German Chamber on how to create employee engagement.  Being perfectly honest this is a presentation that even 1 year ago I would not have had the least idea how to start.  As of this post it is the branding direction that I have chosen for my own business growth.  So what happened that brought about this change in business direction?

Firstly I had, since I left my old company at the end of 2007, needed a new way to talk about my work that separated me from my old work identity while letting me tap into a skill set I had spent nearly five years developing in China at pay rate that would make a share cropper laugh at my poor choice of jobs.  More urgently since I shared last names with my former employer and needed to not be confused in the minds of my clients I needed a way to stand apart.

In brief I ventured into several other companies looking to leverage my skills into other people’s brands and it simply didn’t work.  I am still however, attached to ALTEC one of the oldest training brands in China.  In late 2009 we met with Scott Simmerman a simulation guru from the US who has several simulations that are licensed by ALTEC when he was passing though for a presentation in Hong Kong on Engagement.

In 2010 ALTEC made it’s official move into the realm of engagement.  This was interesting as it gave me a chance to become more familiar with my wife’s work on engagement that she had begun in 2007, including a new version of her Employee Engagement Survey.  By the second half of this year I was moving away from ALTEC but interest in engagement was still growing strong.  I had found my market niche even as ALTEC began to choose a path that will ultimately see them shuttering their doors in less than 2 years when their biz license terminates.

Back to the present and my presentation.  Sino Associates is clearly not founded on any one business idea (think about companies you associate with English training or cross cultural skills) other than it’s own dual platforms.  That said Willbe and I are both adherents to a philosophy of improving management and management systems by focusing on engagement.  So as I sat down to draft the presentation I was presenting ideas that had been introduced to me many sources over the years many of whom are still present in my daily life, or a regular part of my “circle of excellence.”

As an independent service provider that led me to understand certain key points for building your circle.  Find people who:

  1. have their ear to the ground.  Find people who are interested in new ideas and are moving forward.
  2. are able to think in ways you don’t about your old problems.  This of course means they have heard your history and skills and use it as a framework for addressing ideas.
  3. are happiest when they share what they know.  Some people are perpetually wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, they have a compulsion to teach.
  4. have their ego in check and can give and take feedback without being defensive or becoming know-it-alls

If you can find people who fit this description you are on your way.  If you want to maintain this circle there are certain steps you have to be prepared to follow through on:

  1. Bring these people into your world.  If you are like me and you do events and workshops that means taking the initiative to bring these people in on projects.
  2. Work with their ideas.  Actually think about how to apply the thoughts they give you beyond face value and make adjustments to your own work with them there with you
  3. Give them feedback about how their ideas worked out for you.  Be respectful if they don’t work out while identifying would did work and how it can be applied in the future.  Be grateful when they do work and give credit it’s due.

A key part to the Service Provider business platform is in fact giving people a chance to build their own circle of excellence.  It is one of the culture initiative I will be spear heading over the coming years as I believe it is a fundamental part of succeeding as an independent operating and a key part of what drives people away from working for ego driven mid-size firms and into the field as independent providers.

I’ll share how this goes in the future.

Welcome to the Matrix Mr. Collins

Did I mention we have a core team?  We do, it seems, have a core team and we had all of them in the office yesterday at various times as we went about refreshing the Core Ideology and Envisioned future at Sino Associates. For those of you new to these terms they were popularized by business writers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their seminal book Built to Last.

Though Ben informs me that the structure for corporate culture they propose may well have been lifted from another writer and fit over their research.  Arguably that author probably lifted it from another person too as it seems these things are cyclical… Anyway if you want to know a little bit more about the authors of Built to Last you might check, a great website for all things From Good to Great related and for all things from the lesser known co-author.

Collins’s website is a goldmine of reading and articles, while Porras’s can’t get past the home page here in Guangdong. The material we went through is not at all dissimilar to material we use in organizational culture and strategic planing facilitation.  One of the tools we picked up from Collins’s website is an interesting set of checklists to review your initial reactions to a company’s core ideology and envisioned future.  Some of the questions from the “Core Purpose” check list look a little something like this:

  • Do you find this purpose personally inspiring?
  • Can you envision this purpose being as valid 100 years from now as it is today?
  • Does the purpose help you think expansively about the long-term possibilities and range of activities the organization can consider over the next 100 years, beyond its current products, services, markets, industries, and strategies?
  • Does the purpose help you to decide what activities to not pursue, to eliminate from consideration?

Unofficially we also realized that Ben is a gigantic geek when he pontificated if we were jacked into the Matrix would we still care about the values and purpose that inspire us at work?  Despite earning massive geek cred Ben also brought out an interesting dynamic that beyond a “future” sense there is also a sense of dramatic life altering conditions inherent in being plugged into the Matrix.


Wish you took the blue pill right about now huh?


We often ask leadership teams to envision if they would hold true to their values and purpose even if they became a disadvantage or competitive liability.  Imagine for a moment you exist in an environment where knowledge is suddenly available to instantly through a download or maybe a patch to your internal software.  Does a company that exists largely to share expertise and knowledge have much range in these conditions?

After a lot of pontificating and refining we came up with a revised Core Purpose: “To promote entrepreneurial spirit to fulfill individual and organizational potential.”  Being a platform that helps independent trainers and consultants continue to work independently we don’t necessarily promote entrepreneurship which keeps the our market spiraling out of control, but rather the spirit of independent action and being extraordinary at it.  These actions into contribute to the greater potential of organizations and individuals who leverage the service provider.

So if we were in a post-apocalyptic world, but with easy access to information would we still find it essential to help people continue to do what they do best and keep doing it better?  In our case it seems like a no-brainer, absolutely we would.  Would we have to adapt to the way things worked, absolutely we would, but why we would choose to be in business wouldn’t change in virtually any condition.

We did a little brain storming about what values compelled us to work in this industry and under our business platform and we came up with four shared values that mattered to all of us.

  1. Human Connection
  2. Ownership
  3. Fulfillment
  4. Awareness

Could we assume if we were in the future of the Matrix that Ben has introduced to our model these would still be our core values?  Even in the extreme conditions of a post-apocalyptic future they each ring true to us.  We would still want to bring together the experts who form our “Associates” and create new connections between them.  In a post-apocalyptic world like the Matrix this would still remain a foundation for confronting trying times.  We would certainly want to be to be owners of our own destiny and finding a sense of fulfillment doing so.  We would also want our “team” of experts to do so as well.  And in the model posited by the Matrix we would certainly take a stand behind taking the “red pill” and being aware of our real world and taking action to be our best.

As Collins and Porras pointed out more than a decade ago your company’s values should have an intrinsic value that doesn’t need an external justification.  But isn’t nice to know the when the world ends they still matter to you?