Ethics and Company Culture

…the bankers of course deserve their [fair share of the blame] too, but it’s not healthy for us to continually berate them, not all bankers are bad. You might never hear a banker say “I’m just building up some money so I can build a state of the art homeless shelter where tramps can live in peace, safety and comfort”. But then you’d probably never hear a doctor say that either. The bankers that got us into this mess deserve to be attacked but banking on the whole is still vital to the UK economy and not all bankers are evil. Those who have been tasked with sorting out the mess deserve our support…. I don’t know who people expect to be running RBS these days – Alan Titchmarsh?

Finally some balanced commentary. Where did I get this from? Well it’s a transcript from Friday Night Comedy on BBC Radio 4. Yes Matt Forde a comedian commentating on the state of banking.

He said “not all bankers are evil”; and yet as story after story breaks of improper deals, questionable morals and shoddy treatment of customers it’s easy to doubt it. In the week of Matt Forde’s riff we’d seen the latest “exposé” from Greg Smith who denounced the corporate culture of Goldman Sachs.

But I remained convinced that not all bankers are evil; I should add a disclaimer here – I work for a bank, although not as a banker. We’ve had plenty of mud thrown at us over the last few years – not all of it justified – and the company has changed. It’s more humble and more straight-forward, I know it’s not easy to see that from the outside, but it’s very evident from the inside.

I recently downloaded a copy of “Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right” and when I read chapter 8 “Mabel Yu and the Vanguard Group” a lot of what I’d been thinking fell into place. (There’s an HBR article summarising this)

Mabel Yu was not the most experienced, highly expert financial analyst in the world. But she asked a lot of questions, the right questions, and when she didn’t get satisfactory answers she refused to invest. Her decision meant that the company she worked for, Vanguard, did not buy mortgage related bonds despite their AAA rating. The managed to steer around the whole sub-prime mess, and preserved value for its clients in a time when the sharemarket was diving.

What is clear from the book is that although Mabel Yu is unusual in making the right call amongst the thousands of analysts around the world her behaviour is “business as usual” for Vanguard. Their company values are taken seriously;

  • Every employee is taught that “it is a privilege and an awesome responsibility to be entrusted with the financial hopes and dreams of its customers”.
  • There is a strong recommendations that analysts and portfolio managers do not invest in financial products they do not fully understand
  • Vanguard promotes the view that “one person can make a difference”

These three values in particular meant that Mabel Yu felt responsible to the clients who were trusting the company with their money, motivated to fully understand the products being offered, and ultimately able to state her concerns and advise the company not to invest.

It wasn’t the first time the companies analysis was “off-trend” but ultimately proved correct; in the early 2000s the company had resisted the temptation of the technology bubble – because Vanguard does not aim to “time” the market for short term gains.

With that corporate culture set out – with the customer focus, the expectation of professionalism, and the faith that you can make a difference – it was easy for Mabel Yu to dissent, and dissent was the right decision for the clients and the company.

So how do you build that? It starts at the top. As a result of the publicity her managers expressed pride in her work, but commented there were other similar examples in the company that had not made it to the media, emphasising how normal thorough analysis and dissent are at Vanguard. The company hires for ethical attitudes, and sets out a company culture and investment practices that support that culture.

In another telling example of the frugality of the company John Bogle, the company’s founder, took Mabel Yu to lunch to thank her for her work on the mortgage backed bonds. He used the $5 reward voucher system they use to commemorate birthdays and successes within the company.


Enchantment; The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions

Guy Kawasaki

I read this book ages ago, and liked it enough to buy a copy for one of my team  – and not just because I hoped he’d get to chapter 11 “How to Enchant your Boss”. It’s the usual combination of advice, examples and personal stories – and the content goes right to the end, unlike a great many business books which seem to only have three chapters of real content and then 10 chapters of repeats.

As I look through my copy now there are notes in the margins, a sign that I’ve either got something out of the book or been highly irritated by the author for some reason (or both). In the chapter titled “How to use push technology” Kawasaki says, in relation to tools like Twitter;

Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume people are honest, smart, and decent – not dishonest, stupid, and conflicted. Don’t lose your civility when you communicate digitally. And assume everything you do is public and permanent, so  you are leaving fingerprints for anyone to see forever.

In the margin next to it I’ve written “Social Media Policy 101”, and it is the basic philosophy behind the social media guidelines we’ve just written for our company.

Kawasaki emphasises the importance of telling stories rather than giving data (although data has its place) or listing features/benefits. He walks the talk; the book is liberally sprinkled with personal stories illustrating his point – my favourite being Stephen J. Cannell’s story in the sub-chapter “suck it up”. Cannell was the creator/co-creator of a number of high rating TV shows, and he reports on a discussion about weak scripts he had with James Garner who said that when a weak script comes down he figures its the best the writing department could do in that week, and that it was up to the acting department to step up. What a pro. It’s an attitude we should all use – assuming our colleagues have done the best they can at the time with what they have, and step up our own game. (Garner went on to comment that Cannell had never sent him two bad scripts in a row).

Enchantment” is an easy read, with ideas presented in a way that you can taste the inspiration or dive into something a bit more practical. Its focus is the softer side of change management – but deeper, about building the capability in yourself and your team to adapt, to build a better business.

And if you need proof that crowdsourcing can work read the “coverphon” at the back on how the cover got designed.

cover image from Amazon

Ignore Everybody

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.36.50Ignore Everybody; And 39 Other Keys to Creativity

Hugh MacLeod

Hugh MacLeod is most famous for his GapingVoid cartoons, a mixture of optimism, cynicism, humour and philosphy. This book, a version of which can be downloaded from ChangeThis, encapsulates his thoughts on being creative. He takes particular joy in pointing out the counter-intuitive, although somehow once he’s said it I end up thinking it was obvious.

I’ve dipped into the book, rather than read it cover to cover. Each chapter is a “lesson”, written in fairly direct tones but with plenty of humour and examples. And of course there are the wonderful cartoons – all drawn on blank business cards.

The content is aimed at people being creative for a living, although rule 8 is ‘keep your day job’, but there’s plenty of inspiration and advice here for those of us just wanting to spice up our day jobs with a dash of creativity. Even if you think you’re not creative, the charm and wit of this book might convince you otherwise.

Hugh MacLeod’s quirky point of view.

Wake up your brain

Caffeine for the Creative Mind
Stefan Mumaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.40.08“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” says the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland. And pushing our brain into the realms of the impossible is just what “Caffeine for the Creative Mind” is all about.

It’s sub-titled “250 exercises to wake up your brain” and there are some great and original exercises in the book. For example;

“Draw a pictogram that describes each of these six words; Pressure, Delirious, Lucky, Suspense, Dangerous and Joyful. Use only four straight lines and a circle for each one…”

My pictogram for “Pressure” is shown left, which is the one I found easiest to imagine. Dangerous came out looking a lot like the symbol for mars and it’s pretty hard to distinguish between delirious and joyful when I draw them. But it struck me as a fun concept to remove writer’s block as well as waking up my brain.

Some of the exercises involve building something, some are about writing, some are reminders of games once played in school (or at strange parties) such as Mad Libs.

The book is sprinkled with interviews from some creative types; artists, writers, entrepreneurs offering wit and inspiration for those days where exercising your brain is just too much.

It’s a good book, a rich source of fun challenges to wake up your brain. Now if only I could think of an animal with a number in its name.


Drive; The surprising truth about what motivates us

Daniel Pink

It’s not money.

Or rather above a fair wage paying more won’t get more creativity or better “right brained” work out of us, in fact our performance may go down.

This wasn’t entirely surprising, I’ve known for a long time that what motivates me to go to work and try harder is not the salary but the opportunities to learn, to make things better, and to solve problems. I’m sure other people have a similar pattern of motivation, and yet our whole management system is based on the idea of paying for performance.

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.43.09Pink draws on a lot of behaviourial research and concludes that not only does increasing the reward have no effect on our motivation, it can decrease the performance. Rewards work when they’re connected to routine or mechanical work, but as soon as the work has an element of cognitive skill rewards destroy performance. There is, it seems, a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

So what does motivate people in the creative and cognitive realms?

  • Mastery; gaining skill or knowledge, “the desire to get better and better at something that matters”
  • Autonomy; being in control how we work, “the freedom to great work is valuable”
  • Purpose; working towards a larger goal or wider good, “those who work in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more

Pink finishes the book by offering 9 strategies for individuals to get into “Drive” motivation from asking yourself “Was I better today than yesterday?” to taking a year long sabbatical to recharge and learn. He also offers 9 strategies to take your team or organisation into “Drive”, including using “now that” rather than “if then” rewards so that your team gets a reward as a celebration for achieving something, rather than holding out a reward on condition of something being achieved.

It’s a good read, full of ideas and humour, thought-provoking, practical and well written. He’s also a good speaker, and talked about some of the ideas behind “Drive” at TED, here’s the clip.

What the Dog Saw

What the Dog Saw

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has a talent for finding off-beat subjects to write about. He then draws from such diverse sources in his research that his books are always thought-provoking, this collection of essays is no exception.

For me the most interesting articles were on the talent myth and open secrets.

The talent myth focuses on the concept propagated by McKinsey, and exemplified by Enron, that a successful company should be obsessed with talent acquisition and promotion. The concept is summarised in a quote from an un-named GE executive “Don’t be afraid to promote starts without specifically relevant experience, seemingly over their heads.” It’s a seductive extension of the idea that great leaders are born out of difficulty or struggle. This idea is born out by research in a book I’m currently reading called Leading for a Lifetime by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, who refer to a “crucible” where leaders go through a trial that pushes crystalises their identity as leaders. In the company I work in there is talk of “stretch assignments” designed to give those identified a crucible type experience.

But when taken to extremes the result is Enron, where the needs and wants of those people recruited as stars supersede those of customers or any consideration of potential profit. He cites specific examples where Enron employees were able to take businesses in a new direction because they wanted to – and quotes Jeffrey Skilling “If lots of employees are flocking to a new business unit that’s a good sign that the opportunity is a good one…”. It seems breathtakingly stupid now, but perhaps that’s just the benefit of hindsight.

The chapter on open secrets looks again at Enron, pointing out that much of what was later found to be wrong with the company was always public information(pdf) – starting with the discrepancy between the theoretical profits earned vs the filings with the tax department. Gladwell’s point here is that it’s often not a lack of information that hampers our understanding of a complex situation, it’s the volume of information and the high “noise to signal ratio” of the information. It has applications to today’s financial crisis, and to the “war” on terrorism. If the intelligence community receives a tip off and does not act it can seem as though they’re not doing their job when something does go wrong. The problem isn’t receiving the information the problem is filtering and analysing the information to decide which tip-off is credible and relates to a real threat. It’s the modern day equivalent of a needle in a haystack, and it goes some way to explain why Abdulmutallab (The Christmas Bomber) was able to get a visa to the US and travel there despite a credible warning from his father.

He also takes a hard look at the sales pitch, hair dye and dog psychology. In each essay he combines analysis and anecdote to give the reader a great picture of his argument along with some evidence to back it up. The hair dye story pits the marketing of Clairol (“does she or doesn’t she”) vs L’Oreal (“because you’re worth it”) and interweaves it with the development of feminism and a growth in confidence in women. It’s a fun and interesting read.

image books via pixabay

Yes We Did

Yes We Did; An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand,
By Rahaf Harfoush

It’s an inside look from an insider – Rahaf Harfoush worked on the campaign for the sixty days leading up to the election.

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.46.27It’s a good read, written in a fresh engaging style, with a mixture of detail on what was done, anecdotes, profiles and takeaways or lessons learnt. The online fundraising created by the community was incredible and the motivation of the teams inspiring. There’s a fair amount that can be applied to business.

  • Centre your whole campaign on a hub site – in this case “MyBO“, for companies it will be your corporate or business site.
  • Integrate online and offline – the online platforms had a strong call to action, call electors, organise events and so on, in companies there is often a big split between what is developed online and the on the ground reality.
  • Make small asks of your community – the campaign asked for donations of $5 or for people to make 5 calls. Making the threshold for useful involvement so low meant millions could – and did – become involved. All the online tools were developed with the same philosophy.
  • Straight talking will win fans – the example given was where the online community did not agree with the approach taken by (then) Senator Obama. He acknowledged their concerns but stuck to his decision. It earned respect.
  • Consistency is important – consistent design, approach, tone of voice pull the diverse social media platforms into a coherent whole.
  • Content – highly relevant, timely and short
  • Measure and improve – and keep measuring and improving!

The lesson from the last section on frustrations of working from the inside now that Barack Obama is elected and subject to higher security rules and bureaucracy involvement. The lesson is don’t let the bureaucracy of technology get in the way  – something I struggle with and I’m sure it holds for most companies.

I’m sure that there will be more case studies written, with more depth, but having a first hand take on the campaign makes it all the more inspiring. I want to send a copy to all my colleagues.


Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.48.23Buy-ology; How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy Is Wrong
By Martin Lindstrom

Buy-ology takes a scientific look at our decision-making process around buying, in a series of tests they examine the connection between advertising and sound, advertising and religion, advertising and sex. It comes up with some interesting conclusions.

The research was done using fMRI and SST, two brain scanning techniques that have been used to “map” brain activity to show which parts of the brain are active on specific tasks and in response to specific stimuli. Work has already been done on which areas of the brain are linked to various emotions and Linsdstrom connects that research to our reactions to various advertisements to examine whether warnings on smoking packets work (no), whether adverstising/shopping gives us anything like a religious experience in terms of brain chemistry (yes). And other critical marketing questions such as product placement.

Does product placement work? Are we more likely to buy a certain product when we see it on screen in a movie or tv programme. Well no and yes. Let’s take the no part of the story first. Continue reading “Buy-ology”

The Art of Possibility

The Art of Possibility

Rosamund Stone Zander, Benjamin Zander

This book is about choosing a mindset of abundance and possibility and then making that real with specific practices. Examples are given from the music world where Benjamin Zander is a conductor and teacher, and from the world of business where Rosamund Zander is a leadership coach.

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.52.18One of the practices discussed is “Giving an A” and it’s best explained in the words of one of his students;

In Taiwan I was Number 68 out of 70 student. I come to Boston and Mr. Zander say I am an A. Very confusing. I walk about, three weeks, very confused. I am Number 68 but Mr Zander says I am an A student…I am Number 68 but Mr Zander says I am an A student… One day I discover much happier A than Number 68. So I decide I am A.

What the student had discovered was that frameworks of measurement are all invented. With that in mind you might as well choose a framework that gives you energy for greater creativity. If as a leader you begin with the assumption that your team have an A you will interpret any poor performance differently, you will begin by asking yourself “did I convey what was needed well enough?” then asking the person what they need to perform at the right level. That has to be a more productive conversation than assuming the fault lies with your team member. It opens up a world of possibility.

The other practices involve lightening up, listening to your inner central voice, being a contribution and perhaps most importantly “being the board”.

Being the board is really about taking on the responsibility for changing your own way of framing a problem. This allows you to “turn all your attention to what you want to see happen, with none paid to what you need to win, or fight, or fix”.

The book is 20% practical steps, 40% wisdom, 30% vision, with a dose of 10% humour to keep you reading. There are some very honest and touching stories in the book that will resonate with even cynical readers.

I learnt from it and have gone back to it several times for another dose of inspiration from time to time.


Size does matter: Kindle gets bigger

Amazon launched a new kindle last week, bigger and better than before. The bigger screen size will improve readability and graphics display, but it’s not just the size of the device that’s grown.

The selection of content has also grown; It was launched with 90,000 books, had 230,000 in February and now has around 275,000. It’s also become a favourite way to get newspapers with significant partnerships developed with New York Times, Washingtion Post and the Boston Globe. Partnerships textbook publishers and pilots with universities will also help sales – not to mention the state of student’s backs.

But perhaps the most dramatic change of all is in the sales figures. Where there is a Kindle version 35% of purchasers choose it.

I can see all the reasons for using an electronic book reader – and here I should point out that as I’m in Europe Kindle is not available so my experience is limited to using a Sony reader in a Waterstone’s store. It’s small, portable and you can store a lot of content on it. With the wireless delivery you can pick up newspapers at the moment of publication without leaving your home. There’s some discussion about it making life easier for those who need to carry a lot of documents – this argument I don’t buy, Kindle doesn’t let you work on the documents and I don’t think it offers any advantage over having a laptop and a passable internet connection.

CM200905_kindle2.pngI just don’t like it.

I love reading, I love books. I like the feel of them, I don’t even care if they’re old or new. I grew up with them and have always lived with books. A house without books isn’t a home, it’s a hotel room.

I suspect this might be the piece of technology that reveals my inner luddite.

images kindle via pixabay, book from darwinbell via flickr