Monday, January 26, 2009

The challenge is on!

In case you missed it, the government blogosphere is welcoming a new member.

Yes Doug, I have noticed the blurb, and I will happily take it as an open challenge to improve my own performance! ;-) It will actually give me some extra motivation. After all, isn’t that what fellow bloggers are for?

Speaking of which, Mike Kujawski had a post this morning about Kaplan University’s latest ad. Coincidentally, I wanted to use another Kaplan U ad for my panel on talent management last week in Montreal.

When I pitched the idea of what I wanted to do with the ad to some of my friends, they advised me not to do it, because they doubted the crowd of senior executives would get it. However, they thought the readership of this blog would probably "get it".

So here’s the idea. Watch the ad, and then imagine a slightly different context: the DM comes to talk about talent management to a group of employees, and makes the following speech (adapted from the ad):

“We stand before you today to apologize. The system has failed you. We have failed you.

We have failed to help you share your talent with the PS and the PS needs your talent more than ever.

Yet it is being wasted everyday by management practices steeped in tradition and old ideas. It's time for a new tradition.

It's time to realize talent isn't just about the “best and brightest”. It's about everyone.

It’s time we learn from you and refrain from telling you what you ought to think and do, because we don’t always know what’s best.

It's time to rewrite the rules of talent management, to unleash your talent rather than contain it.

It's time to adapt the way we manage talent to your needs rather than forcing you to adapt to how we manage talent.

It's time for a different kind of talent management.

It's your time.”

Inspiring or cheesy? You decide! ;-)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Staffing and Job Fit

Last week I was invited to be part of a panel on talent management at a meeting gathering over 300 senior executives from my (undisclosed) department. By my sides were Jocelyne Cormier (Visiting Director General, Canada Public Service Agency) and Julie Cirillo (Vice-President, Talent Management and Organizational Development, Rio Tinto Alcan), which made me the "insider", and the only non-EX on the panel.

Of all my remarks, the one that received the most attention was the one about my organization systematically staffing all its vacancies internally in less than three weeks for nearly the past two years. I guess the word hasn't gone around yet. :-(

Since I am on the topic of staffing, here's a list of interesting blog postings I have come across on staffing:

Also, two more links related to my last post:

Friday, January 16, 2009

The State of HR

As I was recently noting down some great quotes from various blogs, articles and research papers I’ve come across on the topic of HR, I started ordering these quotes logically to develop an argument. When it was done, I was so pleased with the result that I decided to share these quotes here, as it flows so well you'd almost think this was an actual post. Call it a "mix made out of text"!

Keep in mind that with the exception of the few bits and pieces in [square brackets], all the content of this posting has been written by other people, and the source are indicated in brackets. Full credit to them! In fact, I highly encourage you to read the sources of these quotes in their entirety.


Human resource (HR) groups, perhaps more so than any other business unit, are constantly challenged to play a more strategic role in the organization, but only in a cost-effective manner, while simultaneously continuing to perform a broad range of transactional activities. While human resources as manifested in finding, attracting and keeping key talent, for example, is certainly strategic, the bulk of a typical HR group’s centers on more mundane activities like processing payroll and administering benefit plans. These tasks are necessary and important but in themselves not strategic. Balancing strategic ambitions with the need and desire to achieve operational excellence is a perpetual HR challenge. Several unassailable factors are contributing to the need for western organizations to improve their strategic HR capabilities. These include aging workforces and shifting demographics in many western countries (i.e., less workers), sub par and in some cases broken educational systems (i.e., less capable workers), and the rise of global competition, which means western firms are no longer always the leaders in their markets. Current economic conditions make this situation more acute. (Source)

When change comes, the organizational fabric is stretched and gaps begin to appear. Gaps are opportunities for someone to step in and make a difference in the way the fabric is rewoven. […] What can HR do about it? On the one hand, not much. For those of us committed to running kindergartens rather than being strategic business contributors absolutely nothing will change. (Source)

[On the other hand],“I would think the need [for strategic HR] is exacerbated by the economy,” Lepeak said. “Organizations are in turmoil, some of them are on the edge of bankruptcy, executives are being pushed out. How do you recruit new talent when you’ve got a tarnished image, or keep from losing all your best people? How do you keep productivity up? You should be looking to HR to help address these problems, and to put in changes that can keep them from happening again in the future.”

Though HR leaders have made progress in becoming strategic players, most still see executives’ lack of understanding of HR as an impediment to progress. Seventy-eight percent either somewhat or totally agreed that making HR more strategic would require “a significant change in the mind-set of executives and business unit leaders.”

Lepeak said that although shortsighted executives are part of the problem, much of the responsibility lies with HR departments themselves.

“The HR people may feel that executives see them just as a back office group that runs the payroll, and they may complain that they’re not being offered a seat at the table,” Lepeak said. “But sitting back and waiting for the opportunity isn’t a good idea. In most cases, if you step up and show value, you’re going to be invited in, not pushed back. If you’ve never taken the initiative, it’s kind of your own fault.” (Source)

“Of real concern is HR’s apparent lack of readiness to meet their top challenges over the next three years.” […] “Failure to change may threaten the very existence of organizations, forcing executives in those companies to remove responsibility for human capital management from HR.” (Source)

HR would seem to be unaware of its own shortcomings. 70% of those who working in HR stated that their profession is either respected or highly respected within their organization, while only half of those not working in HR – 36% - felt the same way. Furthermore, 33% of non-HR respondents felt that HR is inconsequential, unimportant, or not even on the radar within their organization.

Troubling statistics to say the least…

Much of the negative sentiment towards HR, I have to believe, is due to the fundamental lack of business acumen within the HR function. HR typically isn't fluent in the language of business and this makes it difficult for it to be seen as an equal to other organizational functions such as finance, operations, sales, or marketing.

To be honest, it isn't all HR's fault… it was brought up this way. For decades HR (i.e. Personnel) served mainly as internal record keepers for all the paper work that goes along with having employees. For the longest time this was fine as the US was predominately a manufacturing economy that relied on unskilled workers to perform basic manufacturing tasks. However, as the US has evolved into a knowledge economy the needs of HR have evolved as well. Sure, all the prior duties (recordkeeping, compliance, payroll, etc.) of HR are still important, but the game has changed and HR is now being asked to serve as trusted advisers and consultants to the leaders within an organization.

Clearly, this has caught HR off guard. Many HR pros are being put in a position where a thorough understanding of their organization's business model is needed to be able to leverage the HR function to add value to the bottom line. Unfortunately, many of these individuals have never held positions outside of HR and don't fully comprehend how their organization utilizes its resources to create value and earn a profit.

[…] As most people initially enter HR in an administrative role this knowledge and potential isn't fully engaged and eventually turns into a rusty saw that hasn't been used in years. It is usually at this point that the rusty saw is called upon to fell a large forest of trees. (Source)

[HR people] pursue standardization and uniformity in the face of a workforce that is heterogeneous and complex. [...] In its drive for bureaucratic "fairness," HR is actually threatening the reputation, and so the effectiveness, of the company's finance professionals.

The urge for one-size-fits-all, says one professor who studies the field, "is partly about compliance, but mostly because it's just easier." Bureaucrats everywhere abhor exceptions -- not just because they open up the company to charges of bias but because they require more than rote solutions. They're time-consuming and expensive to manage. Make one exception, HR fears, and the floodgates will open.

There's a contradiction here, of course: Making exceptions should be exactly what human resources does, all the time -- not because it's nice for employees, but because it drives the business. Employers keep their best people by acknowledging and rewarding their distinctive performance, not by treating them the same as everyone else. [...]

Instead, human-resources departments benchmark salaries, function by function and job by job, against industry standards, keeping pay -- even that of the stars -- within a narrow band determined by competitors. They bounce performance appraisals back to managers who rate their employees too highly, unwilling to acknowledge accomplishments that would merit much more than the 4% company-wide increase. (Source)


For more on the future challenges of HR, I recommend these readings:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Facing Facebook

-->I pride myself in working for one of the federal public service’s great organizations (bonus point if you can find which one... just don't mention it here). So far I have been relatively careful about not discussing on this blog issues that were too close to me, i.e. directly related to my official work duties (note: what I do with regards to PS Renewal is not part of my “official work duties”).
Today, I have decided to cross that line and share a positive story which will hopefully be beneficial to - and reproduced by - other organizations. (Place your bets now: will I get in trouble for this or not?)

On December 23rd, 2008, just before the holidays, we sent an email to all our staff (close to 200 people – 95% of whom are law enforcement officers). The purpose of the communication was twofold:
  1. Provide direction with regards to the use of social networking websites (Facebook in particular);
  2. Educate employees about the implications of using social networking websites, as ordinary citizens, public servants, and especially law enforcement officers (who are perhaps under closer scrutiny than any other public servants).
In providing direction to staff, we wanted to fill the void that currently exists around the use of social networking websites such as Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, blogs, etc. More importantly, we didn’t want do like so many departments and agencies that blocked employee access to Facebook after the mini-scandal at CBSA (similar incidents have also been traced all around the world, in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors).

Our position was simple: we believe our employees can be trusted to behave properly, if only given the information and guidance necessary to exercise good judgment. What follows is an abstract from the email we sent to staff (complete document is available on GCPEDIA):

“As public servants, we spend much of our time at work. Our job is a big part of our life. Many of us are extremely proud of what we do and want to share it with friends and relatives using social networking sites like Facebook. But as public servants, we also have a duty to Canadians, and this is the reason why we are bound to uphold the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service.


With this communication, I don’t want to discourage employees from using social networking websites, quite the contrary. We are increasingly asked to build partnerships and develop relationships with stakeholders. As we all know, the best relationships are not exclusively professional. It is only natural to expect that these relationships may ultimately grow on social networking websites, such as Facebook.


If we make appropriate use of social networking websites and lead by example, I can see us setting a precedent […]. We could show that not only is it okay for employees to use social networking websites, but it can actually make the program more effective.

In the meantime, I invite you to share your comments, reactions, and suggestions with your supervisors. We probably don't have answers to all your questions, but if there is a need we will create a working group to take a closer look at the implications of the use of social networking websites by employees. Thank you for your cooperation”

We attached to the email a document detailing some of the implications of using social networking websites, focusing on the “grey areas” and highlighting the unique implications for law enforcement officers.

There are three things I particularly like about his email:
  • First, we stated clearly we trust employees to behave appropriately – a sharp contrast with many trends I have observed in the public service, especially since the Gomery inquiry.
  • Second, we told our employees it was okay to be a public servant and use social networking websites – yes, you are actually permitted to do both!
  • Third, we left the door opened and went as far as suggesting that if used well, social networking websites may even support the delivery of the program (now that’s a heretic thought!).
But the real beauty of this communication to staff is found in the last paragraph, where we acknowledge that as managers of the organization, we don’t have all the answers, and we rely on our employees (i.e. those who actually use social networking websites) to help us shed light on those issues. Talk about humility! Is this possible? Public service managers admitting they don’t know? And furthermore, who invite employees to participate in the development of the solution? “Is this really a public service organization?”, you may be wondering…

Admittedly, I was a bit worried about what would be the reaction from our employees to this "progressive approach". A few people later told me that for 15 minutes, this was the topic of discussion in all our offices across the Pacific region... Some employees wasted no time in identifying additional implications we had not originally considered, others were providing suggestions on how to clarify the direction given to staff and ensure appropriate use of websites, others were surprised it took us so long to issue this communication to staff, etc. I couldn’t believe it. It was the world was upside-down!

I keep saying it: public service excellence begins with the excellence of its employees.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Review: "Tribes" by Seth Godin

This weekend I just finished reading Seth Godin’s latest book, "Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us". It was... hum… interesting…

First, it is almost perplexing to see how a book can lack the qualities of so many other books. Although the content flows well, there's no real structure to it (actually, Godin is the first to admit this shortcoming!). I found the arguments supporting the ideas of the author rather sparse and often weak. And while it is very easy (and quick) to read, I wouldn't say it is particularly well written – it feels more like the transcript of a speech or the kind of stuff you’d find on my blog ;-)

Second, I loved some of Godin’s ideas as much as I disagree with others. For instance, I am fundamentally at odds with his view of management and managers (but I will reserve further comments on this topic for my next big paper which will focus on management and leadership).

By contrast, I find his message about tribes timely, powerful and well in-line with what some federal public servants are trying to do with PS Renewal. In fact, I could draw many parallels between what he says and my own experience. Much of what Godin talks about is similar to some of the messages I've been trying to communicate through my writing and presentations.

For example, he discusses encountering thousands of people who shared with him ideas (as I told in one of last week’s posts) and argues that there is no shortage of ideas out there. "Ordinary folks can dream up remarkable stuff fairly easily", he points out. He then explains that unfortunately, only a fraction of these ideas ever come to life.

The reason, he believes, is fear: “The only thing holding you back is your own fear. Not easy to admit, but essential to understand.” My favourite quote in the entire book is his paraphrasing of the Peter Principle: “In every organization everyone rises to the level at which they become paralyzed with fear.” So true!

Godin cleverly states that people do not fear failure as much as they fear criticism. As he says, “fear of failure is actually overrated as an excuse”, but "fear of criticism is a powerful deterrent because the criticism doesn't actually have to occur for the fear to set in.”

Towards the end of the book, Godin offers a few tips to start your own micromovement, such as publishing a manifesto!

Verdict: “Tribes” is not a great book, but one with an important message nonetheless. As an alternative, it seems you can download the audiobook for free.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Bragging Rights

I have a couple of Google Alerts programmed to warn me about mentions of my blog on the Web (check it out if you are not familiar with this neat feature).

Today I was amazed to discover someone had listed "Contrarian Thinking" as part of her "100 leading blogs on leadership"! I'm honoured since nearly all of my favourite blogs also made the list.

Speaking of which... I have been keeping track of a few dozens blogs on management and leadership for the past year, going through all the posts since their creation. In total, I estimate I have covered well over 20,000 posts.

I've been diligently keeping track of the posts I considered to be "superior". I have a list of about 350 of them, which I plan to group by topics and share with readers over the next few months. This should prove useful to many.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

In response to the comments...

As I alluded to in an earlier post, one criticism I have received repeatedly concerning my "Bottom-Up Change" presentation is that it is a bit short on examples and not practical enough.

The critics are right!

Although I didn't anticipate that the need for practicality would be an expectation or need from the audience when I originally developed the presentation, I consciously limited the use of specific examples. Part of the reason is that my intent was to provoke a desire to change, more than providing solutions.

But another reason has to do with the inherent difficulty of using specific examples and/or making things practical in a 45 minute presentation. The challenge is to meet the three criteria that make the core message effective, namely:
  • General: if you want to reach the entire audience, the application of your ideas must be broad enough so that everyone can relate to them;
  • Simple: in a keynote presentation, communication is mostly one-way (as opposed to a group discussion or a dialogue). Since feedback loop is minimal and opportunities to clarify ideas limited, it is best to keep the message very simple in order to ensure it is well understood as it is communicated.
  • Accurate: Whatever idea you are communicating, you want it to be correct, complete, and you hope it will meet the needs and expectations of each person in the audience.
As you can imagine, it can be pretty difficult to meet these three criteria in a short presentation. Most of the time, you must do some kind of trade-off and sacrifice one criterion and go with one of the following combinations:
  • General and Simple: You communicate a message that will be meaningful to all and can easily be communicated clearly and concisely. This also means the idea you communicate may be partial or incomplete, or may not be customized to the specific situation each person in the audience encounters.
  • Simple and Accurate: If you frame the issue you want to address very narrowly, it becomes possible to make the message accurate and yet easy to understand. Obviously, the application of the message will likely be limited to similar type situations, which in turn may not be relevant to everyone in the audience.
  • General and Accurate: In order to meet the specific needs and expectations of everyone in the room and make the message relevant to all, you will likely have to spend time articulating each argument or scenario in greater detail. Ultimately, it may make the messaging much more complex, unless the issue you're discussing is very narrowly defined.
I personally find the last combination the most difficult to achieve in a keynote presentation. I find it even more challenging during question periods, because very often a person in the audience will ask a question stemming from a very specific situation he or she is experiencing, which warrants and "accurate" response (i.e. correct, complete and relevant). But here's the difficulty: since I don't have all the background on the specific situation, it is hard to be accurate in my answer. Furthermore, assuming my answer is accurate given the person's needs and expectations, there is a low probability it will be equally accurate for the rest of the audience.

So there you have it, and that's why my "Bottom-Up Change" presentation is a bit short on practicality and examples.

For the second presentation I have developed - "Living Renewal: How to Turn An Organization Around in 1000 days" - I have taken a different approach. From the outset I compromise on the general application of what I have to say by specifically telling the story of organizational renewal experience in my Directorate. The upside is that it is highly practical and I give a lot of specific examples of things we did, tools we used, etc. The downside is that I know many people in the audience will listen the presentation, recognize we've done a good job, but leave feeling empty-handed because the practices I describe are either too specific or can't really be applied in their organization. Once again, I made a choice when I designed the presentation, and I know it won’t please everyone.

On a positive note, and regardless of the approach I take, these presentations are always followed by multiple and highly productive one-on-one conversations with people from the audience. And that's when I realize that the presentation is almost just a pretext to allow these conversations to take place!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

There's something happening here

During the Holidays I came across "A Leader's Manifesto" by Kelley Eskridge. I recommend it to those who have enjoyed "An Inconvenient Renewal", as there are many similarities between the two documents. You will also find plenty more manifestos on the ChangeThis website.

I would love to see more of these manifestos being released by public servants. It would be a great complement to the work of the guys at CPSRenewal and my own. Actually, I would argue that we need more people to join in and provide active support through unique contributions of their own. We need a diversity of ideas.

Following my presentations at the MTP Conference and CSPS' Armchair Discussions last month, I have received quite a few emails. About half of them were from public servants who wanted to share a good idea with me. That in itself is a good news. But then, a good portion of them would go on to suggest that I would be the perfect person to kick-start the idea and make it "real".

While I find the suggestion flattering, it also indicates me that while my message may be well received, it is not entirely understood. When I talk about things like courage and the need to speak up and do something, I am implying that it is our duty! Not just mine, Nick's or Mike's!

That being said, if there is one thing I have learned through my involvement and participation in various PS Renewal committees, it is that the request is rarely the true need. More often than not, we must look beyond one's request to uncover the real need that is not being met.

For instance, I have heard many young public servants demand the creation of formal mentorship programs. The vast majority of managers simply nod in approval, and once in a while, launch such a program, with mixed results. But only a minority of managers actually take the time to ask the young public servant why they're making such a request. When they do, they are able to uncover the real reason behind the request to create mentorship programs. In this particular case, the real reason is usually twofold: 1) new hires lack meaningful guidance in the public service; and 2) they don't have any role model in their immediate work environment. But that doesn't necessarily warrants the creation of mentorship programs. Mentorship programs are just one way to address the need, but there are many (less formal!) options as well.

I think it's the same thing with the people who suggest I should implement their good ideas. There must be some unmet need behind their request, but what it is ain't exactly clear. If you have thoughts, please share them.

Monday, January 05, 2009

New Year’s Resolution

Hi everyone,

I’m back from hibernation (Vancouver has received an unusual amount of snow this year – very odd given that I had seen only 2 mm of snow during my first winter here, three years ago!).

I’d like to kick-off the year with a post that might lead some people (and organizations) to take a few resolutions for 2009: the results to my poll the low participation rate to PS Renewal-related websites.

(Click on the image for the full size graph)

Based on the results, it looks like the 24 respondent were very honest in their assessment. The top three reasons for low participation are:
  1. People are afraid of getting in trouble if they write something on those sites (54%);
  2. People don't take the time to comment and provide input (46%);
  3. Learned helplessness (38%).
So tell me: how can these three reasons be mitigated, both individually and at the organizational level? Now make it a New Year’s Resolution!

It is interesting to see how the wording of the question influences the results. A few months ago, I had conducted another poll where I asked: “How do you feel about discussing the public service of Canada and/or PS Renewal on websites, blogs, discussion forums, Facebook, etc.?” 75% of the respondents claimed to be comfortable discussing PS Renewal on the Web, which left me a bit perplexed given the low participation.

In my latest poll, 54% of the respondents said one of the reason for the low participation on PS Renewal-related websites is that “people” (not them) “are afraid of getting in trouble if they write something on those sites”. Hum…

As for my own resolutions, I plan (oooh! bad sign already!) to post more articles in 2009. I have quite a few somewhat “controversial” postings in the works, and lots of interesting links to share. I’m also working on my next “big” paper, as I have indicated previously, which will be on the topic of management and leadership.

If I have any wish for 2009, it is to get more comments on my blog!

P.S.: If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend you check out "Scheming Virtuously", Nick and Mike enlightening paper. It reminds me a lot of Bob Chartier's work, and it is in a way the missing piece to my presentation on "Bottom-Up Change" (see Sean's comment on the lack of concrete example, which is a criticism I have received a few times before regarding this presentation).