Diversity Works


Diversity works. I know this from personal experience, I’ve always sought to hire people from a range of backgrounds. I know I don’t have all the skills needed in my team so there’s no point hiring more of me. To be specific I’m not great at fine detail; I can go through massive ugly spreadsheets but it’s not my strength. I hire people into my team who have those skills and I value them – partly because I admire the skills and partly because I’m so grateful. In addition for me it’s more fun to hear about Romanian culture, Spanish idioms and Turkish cuisine over lunch than all Dutch stories.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. McKinsey’s research reports a “diversity dividend” of 15% for companies that are gender diverse, and a rocking 35% for companies with ethnic diversity. Correlation does not equate to causation; it may be that high performing companies choose diverse workforces and executive teams rather than diverse teams causing improved performance.

Harvard Business Review unpacks behaviours around diversity a little further and reports on some behaviours that point to diverse teams being smarter. Apparently diverse teams focus more on facts, which contributes to better decision making. Diversity also contributes to innovation.

The studies mentioned so far focus on gender and cultural diversity, but we should look at other personal characteristics such as national origin, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability/disability. I’ve also heard one argument that the NASA team responsible for the first moon landing was more diverse than today’s team; back then there weren’t specialised astronautical studies programmes so the team was the best they could find from a range of fields. Which suggests we should be open to different training and work experience backgrounds (when the role allows it; don’t hire a plumber to a medical team!)

Global PillageFor a very light-hearted look at diversity, in fact an experiment in diversity, listen to the Global Pillage podcast. Each episode takes on a theme and opens with contestants identifying the ways they are diverse – gay, transgender, brown, immigrant, multi-lingual, vegan, left-handed all get a mention. The format is then a quiz between two teams of two people, with the audience able to give their answer. Spoiler alert; the audience (a bigger and presumably more diverse group) usually wins.

To get a more diverse team you have to change how you hire and how you work. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Writing the vacancy notice
    Use gender neutral words, define the role in human language, state your diversity policy (don’t have one? write one). More tips here.
  2. Place the vacancy where it will be visible to diverse groups
    Look for publications, online communities and organisations associated with a range of groups. Reach out to Women in Tech groups for example.
  3. Interviewing across cultures
    Take some time to understand what cultural differences might exist between you and your interviewees. Habits of eye-contact may differ, some cultures show more deference which may seem like a weakness through an anglo-saxon filter.
  4. Flexible working environment
    Are you ready to accommodate someone with disability needs? What about someone who observes Ramadan? Or who celebrates Easter a week later than your company does? Are you able to allow people flexible hours and working from home options? The more you can answer “yes” to these hypotheticals the easier it will be to hire a diverse team.
  5. Culture of inclusion
    It’s not enough to just hire a cast of diverse colleagues, you need a workplace culture that is inclusive – where, as a colleague put it, “everyone can be their best selves”. The more widespread this is, the better. But you can have it in place in your own team, after all, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I’ve lived in several different countries, I’ve learnt several languages, my influences are from different sources. For me diversity is an important part of the work environment and yet from the outside I appear to be of the majority. Maybe diversity practices are good for us all.


Image: WOCinTech Chat  |  WOCinTech  | CC BY 2.0 


Tips for your job interview

interviewThe basics of interview technique are pretty well covered; arrive on time, dress appropriately for the job, research the company, don’t take calls during the interview (wait – people need to be told that?).  These are the things that you need to get right to stay in the running for the job. I’ve just been through a round of recruiting and found a great person to hire. Here are some of the things candidates did that made them stand out.

  1. Show Some Personality
    In how you dress, how you speak, how you behave, and in the stories you tell.
    One of the questions we asked related to working with people resistant to change.  Most people gave a textbook answer about change management. The stand out answer was from the person who began “It cost me a lot of pizza” with a laugh.
  2. Be Enthusiastic
    About the company, the role, what you can bring to it, what it can bring you.This goes beyond research the company, find a way to connect something personal or from your work history to the company. And for goodness sake know which products or services you use. We asked everyone we interviewed what products they had in their home from our company – I didn’t have a predefined “perfect answer” for this, but the guy who recalled seeing an old radio from our company at his grandfather’s house scored bonus points for showing some knowledge of the company’s legacy
  3. Interview the Company
    Think of an interview as a date in that both sides need to learn about each other – you both need to know that this is a relationship worth pursuing. I was at an all day interview a while ago, half way through the day I realised that this was not the right company for me. Frankly it was a relief when they turned me down. Ask questions about work expectations, career advancement, company  values by all means. But ask more, ask your future boss how she (or he) likes to work, ask about the company’s most recent success, ask how they correct mistakes. As about the ambitions of the company, the department and the team you’ll be joining. You’ll learn more about whether this is a match for you from those answers.

You’re going to spend a lot of time with the company working with the people there, it needs to be a match.

Tweet: Go beyond a professional confidence – Dare to be yourself (http://ctt.ec/423yc+) #jobinterview

As the candidates had been screened based on their CVs and an initial phone interview the people I met were all strong candidates. Following the interviews there were several I would have been happy to bring on board, and one outstanding candidate who starts next month.

The candidates who stood out in the interviews I’ve conducted in the last six weeks showed something beyond a professional confidence – they dared to be themselves.

Image; Beast of a Job Interview / Mike Licht / CC BY 2.0



Employee Engagement

parkerWhat is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is often cited as a contributing factor to improved company results, and Kevin Kruse defines it as;

Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.

Engaged employees will go to extra lengths to do their job and serve the business and the customers. Kruse cites examples of people choosing to work overtime without being asked because the work needed to be finished. Essentially they’ll care for the company and its customers.

What’s in it for employees?

If you’re engaged at work you feel pride in your work, in the company you work for, a loyalty to the company. You’re likely to have more intrinsic motivation; a sense of purpose, a willingness to take responsibility, and a desire to learn.

What’s in it for companies?

Engaged employees are seen to be more productive, more service oriented, and better for the profits of the company. It’s so important to companies that they put considerable, and growing effort, into measuring engagement year on year. There is criticism on how it’s measured, but large companies still find value in measuring it.

What do the cynics say?

It’s a term that is an easy target of cynics, some label it as a new name for employee satisfaction, or teamwork. Others consider it a measure of window dressing to make the company look good. It’s often connected to “manager speak” as in this brilliant Dilbert cartoon.

Can you have too much employee engagement?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points to a dark side of employee engagement, reminding readers that engagement is a means to an end – companies pursue it for the productivity results. He also points out that it’s dangerous to expect higher performance to automatically come from higher engagement, managers should instead focus on developing performance at a higher level.

So much for the company perspective, what about for individuals? I believe that in some cases burnout is the direct result of excessive employee engagement. I’ve seen more than one highly professional, highly motivated, engaged employee take on levels of responsibility beyond their capacity, when the company failed to notice – and failed to support them – burnout was the awful outcome.

Can companies build employee engagement?

A friend whose work in internal communications I admire has suggested that engagement is something intrinsic to the person and not dependent on the company. I think there’s some truth in that but I’m not quite so pessimistic. I think you can destroy engagement or you can build it up.

I would like to see a change in how we talk about engagement, the conversation now centres on expectations on the employee and benefits to a company.

Instead I propose that we recognise that the contract between an employee and a company is about the exchange of money for skills and time. That agreement must be a fair exchange. Beyond that it’s up to a company to earn the engagement of all employees by how they treat their staff.

So next time people talk about “building employee engagement”, suggest a switch to “earning employee engagement” and go on from there. It’s a one word change but the approach is completely different.

Hacking Your Education

I loved school/university, it was great for me because I have weird academic sponge for a brain. It’s not always a great experience for everyone, and for some students it gets in the way of their learning.

Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege, is one of those students. With his parents’ permission he quit school at 12 and started educating himself. He talked about it at The Next Web Conference.

He’s concludes that “we can’t teach the skills for tomorrow based on the schooling techniques of yesterday”.

He’s not the only one to come to that conclusion, it’s exactly why Jame Welton started Coder Dojo which is an after school club that helps kids learn to code (over four hundred Dojos in 43 countries). And it’s part of the thinking behind Sugata Mitra‘s SOLEs and child-driven education.

He’s right about the economics of university as well, The Economist analysed the cost and benefit of university education in the US. They found that the cost of education per student has increased at five times the rate of inflation, while salaries have remained static (in dollar equivalents). In addition they cast doubts on the quality of the education citing federal research that found literacy levels in those with a college education declined from 1992 to 2003.

There is still value in that degree, without it your job opportunities are very limited. Many jobs that once required no formal qualifications, or perhaps a short vocational course, no hire degree candidates. That’s the Catch-22; a degree now proves you’re good enough for a job that doesn’t need a degree.

Initiatives like Uncollege and Coder Dojo are great, and they start to address the shortcomings of our current education system – that gap between what students need to learn and what teachers are able to teach. They also point to a more “apprenticeship” type of training, where the formal classroom training is limited and the real learning is on the job and under the eye of a Master. This is still somewhat the model used for the world’s best chefs; they are known by who they have worked with – not where they studied.

But they don’t necessarily cover that need for certification. There’s another option working to solve that; MOOCs, (Massive Open Online Course). There are a number of credible organisations providing courses online, Coursera is probably the biggest. I worked with eLearning for about five years, and it’s great to see the technology is finally catching up with the dream.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 18.14.34

 The old model of school | university or tertiary training | work | retirement is being eroded. If our formal education isn’t preparing us for work effectively, our work is requiring us to learn and to keep learning, and given the changes in my financial fortunes I won’t ever retire in the sense my parents used.

So what does the future hold? That concept of lifelong learning is going to become increasingly important, we’re going to need

  • on-the-job short courses – almost instant education – to support us at work
  • anywhere/anytime courses for deeper knowledge and personal development
  • a buffet of courses, a lot of jobs need a range of skills and knowledge to balance a depth of expertise, sometimes referred to as T-shaped
  • a balance between solo study, online collaboration, and real life interaction in our training

And we’re all going to need an appetite to learn more, the ‘growth mindset’ that Dale Stephens mentions. But this all means that my niece and nephews, now at the beginning of their education, may begin their careers without sinking four years into classroom lectures.

Image: MOOC Poster / Mathieu Plourde/ CC BY 2.0

Greener Fields

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 10.42.01 AMIt’s something I could see coming, and it will ultimately be positive for me but it’s still a weird emotional shock to know that I am being made redundant.

As of 1 December I have no job after almost 14 years with this company.

I’ve done some amazing projects including;

  • started the enterprise-wide learning system the company now uses
  • relaunched our corporate internet site (twice)
  • managed or overseen the publication of more than 30 quarterly results
  • rolled out a re-branding for the company’s internet presence
  • improved the intranet search
  • implemented intranet statistics
  • launched an enterprise social network that I’m proud to say is delivering value to ING
  • started the corporate twitter account
  • wrote the first social media guidelines for the company
  • developed a guide on domain name acquisition
  • handled the launch of new global top level domains such as .euro and .mobi

Obviously I didn’t do all of that alone, I have had a great team to work with, a team of digital experts who are not only complete professionals but are also a lot of fun to work with. Together we’ve created some simple traditions that make work enjoyable – including “Bad Music Friday” implemented with the help of an Angry Bird speaker. I’m really proud of all we’ve achieved, and I have some happy memories of working in a truly collaborative team. Creating this team feels like my best achievement.

And now, following a restructuring of our department it all comes to an end. The team I’ve led will be split into two, and there is no role for me in the new structure. This is partly a consequence of a general “down-sizing” of our company headquarters, which was totally foreseeable given that the company is now half the size that it was when I joined.

Being made redundant sounds really scary, but it can also open doors. In fact I might feel more scared if it wasn’t for a conversation I had back in 2009 in an earlier redundancy round. I went to see a colleague who had been made redundant to say how sorry I was to hear the news he answered by taking me into the photo copier room and closing the door and saying something like;

I’ve brought you in here because I need to be sensitive to other colleagues in the team who have also lost their jobs – I don’t want to be too happy in front of them! I’m so happy with this decision, it gives me the opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do without a big financial risk.

He now runs his own consultancy in an area that perfectly aligns his expertise and his passions. It’s a success story, and while not all redundancy stories have such happy outcomes it’s a reminder to me that by seeing this as an opportunity I can steer a better course for myself.

So what are my plans?

I am giving myself a sabbatical, beginning with a course on Digital strategy in December. The rest of December is for reading, creativity, writing and resting. In January and February I will work on a small writing project to do with the implementation of Enterprise Social Networks.

I feel positive and excited about my future, but sad to leave my wonderful team. I am proud of the things I was able to achieve and grateful for the opportunities I had and all that I learnt. I am incredibly thankful to all those colleagues who have been so kind in their comments and messages over the last weeks – it has made it both harder and easier to leave.

And now for the next chapter…

Image green wheat field / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hire Slowly; Fire Quickly

That’s a direct quote from Loren Becker from Zappos, speaking at the International Social Media and PR Summit here in Amsterdam.

20130523-204841.jpgHire Slowly

Zappos’ hiring process includes multiple meetings, including informal meetings with groups of colleagues. Part of the company culture includes socialising together so for them it’s important to know that new hires are good to socialise with.

There were some tweets of concern; seeing this as a step too far into the person’s private time, and perhaps disturbing the work/life balance. But I think most people on the hiring side of the equation have a similar test; we’re all looking for “fit”, will this new person work well in our team, and fit the company’s culture.

Maybe the Zappos approach is too extreme for your company, how about the beer test? I recommended this to a colleague who was recruiting a while ago. When you’re interviewing someone ask yourself “on a random evening after work would I have a beer with this guy?” He applied the test, the answer was “no”, and he hired anyway on the basis that he rarely goes for drinks after work so it didn’t matter. But it’s not whether you will actually have that beer, it’s how you feel about doing it. By the way, in his case the hire was a mistake.

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 11.01.30 AMFire Quickly

If you know you’ve made a mistake hiring someone, fire them quickly.

This is easier to put into effect in the US where the principle of “at-will employment” is used, and harder in Europe where there is a stronger social contract between the employer and the employee. But that’s all the more reason to hire slowly, and to use a probation period. It’s important to communicate with the new hire what you expect in the probation period and to make a fair assessment before taking the step to fire someone.

If you don’t take steps to fire someone who doesn’t perform or who really does not fit the culture (I’m not talking quirky, but major behaviour difference) it’s a drain on the team. They see that low performance is tolerated which reduces their motivation, they can also find it difficult to cope with the different behaviour. A highly co-operative team may absorb a highly competitive colleague – until on a bad day she shouts demands at a junior colleague.

So fire quickly, remove what will otherwise become a festering problem in your team. but the best way to avoid having to fire someone, is to hire slowly.

Snail snail /Aleksandar Cocek/ CC BY-SA 2.0
Cheetah Cheetah Run 4 /Gary Eyring/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

7 Signs You’re in the Wrong Job

This is based on an older post, but I wanted to update it a little and play with slideshare at the same time. It’s been fun, but I think there may be too much text there. What do you think?


I’ve realised this doesn’t look so good on an iPad, but if you go to the original presentation in slideshare it looks fantastic.

How old is your social media manager?

budding social media manager

budding social media manager?

There are a whole new series of job titles evolving in the online world. One of those is “Social Media Manager”. It’s a role that didn’t exist when I was at university the second time. And let’s not talk about the the first time I was at university – the internet hadn’t been invented and our essays were hand-written, double-spaced and came back red-inked.

Does that mean I am unfit for the role of Social Media Manager? Well according to Cathryn Sloan, yes. Merely being over 25 disqualifies me from the role, because the under-25s grew up with social media therefore they’re better at it.

The key is that we learned to use social media socially before professionally, rather than vice versa or simultaneously. After all, it is called social media; the seemingly obvious importance of incorporating comforting social aspects into professional usage seems to go over several companies’ heads. To many people in the generations above us, Facebook and Twitter are just the latest ways of getting messages out there to the public, that also happen to be the best.

I think her argument has merit, so much so that the the person in my team with the most “social media” in her job is in her twenties. She’s finding ways for our content to become more social, working to consolidate our Linkedin presence, and coaching subject matter experts on using Social Media.

However I expect a lot more from a social media manager than knowledge of social media, to be valuable they must also;

  • understand our brand
  • know our company culture
  • know our products and services
  • be able to sustain a campaign
  • understand privacy constraints
  • know the regulations concerning the financial services industry (and ours is not the only highly regulated industry)
  • know our customers.

The last one is absolutely crucial, and the one where the “I grew up with facebook” logic is most likely to fail, for the very simple reason that our customers are not all 25-year-old new graduates who grew up on social media sites.

If I were hiring for a social media team the younger-than-25 new graduates might get hired at a junior level to help the content experts develop their content in a social direction. But Cathryn Sloane, with her B.A. in creative nonfiction writing, is probably underqualified.

Likeable came up with a list of 5 qualities of a great social media manager, it would be a rare 21-year-old who fulfilled them all (I certainly didn’t). Which is not to say that 21-year-olds should not be hired in social media roles. Just that for most companies the right approach in their communications or marketing or social media teams is going to be a mix of expertise. Some people with a deep knowledge of the company, balanced by some new people with a fresh outlook. The infectious enthusiasm of young people, balanced by more senior people who can see a wider context.

So by all means hire some under-25s into social media roles, you’ll benefit from their fresh take on things and their high comfort level with social media. It seems obvious and logical – but it’s not an SEO rated headline.

Image Toddler Tantrum! – GET BACK!! /f1uffster (Jeanie)/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Those Difficult Conversations

HR processes to protect people from unscrupulous companies. They are perhaps less good at protecting good companies from unscrupulous employees, reflecting the imbalance of power.

I recently heard of a jaw-dropping case of abuse by an employee at a small company. By small I mean fewer than 5 people on the pay roll and a number of volunteers. They manage (among other things) a venue.

A woman, lets call her Angie (because that was not her name), was hired as office manager, her duties included being at the venue every weekday morning from 9 – 1pm, taking calls, answering emails, handling invoices, organising delivery of supplies. Pretty easy number.

For a long time the company director noticed that Angie was not fulfilling her duties. She didn’t seem to be as available as expected during her work hours, work didn’t seem to be done in the time allotted. The director started to suspect that Anglie wasn’t as honest and reliable as she portrayed, but had no evidence to back this up.

So the company director started to manage the performance, she sat down with Angie and in a long and difficult conversation went through all the things expected of Angie during the week; including very specific expectations on availability during the hours she was hired for. Perfect response; as a manager you need to set clear goals together, explain the improvement you need to see, and set a timeline for that improvement to happen. It’s effective feedback for the employee – Angie, and if things do not improve you have taken the first step in a long HR process to address Angie’s contract.

Well it turns out that the reason Angie was not performing her duties is that she has a business of her own. No problem with that in principle but Angie was using work time and work resources to run this business.

This all came to light when the company director turned up for an unannounced visit at the venue and found that Angie was busy with two clients for her own business, and was ignoring the phones and two potential clients who had visited the venue.

Which set the stage for difficult conversation #2; addressing flagrant misconduct.

The director calmly stated that Angie had acted in breach of her contract, and they would now have to address that breach.

Angie became defensive saying “you shouldn’t have come to the office unannounced.”

Some people need a reality check.

So how can you handle such difficult discussions when they are sprung on you?

  • stay calm
  • focus on facts – the agreements made and the actual breach
  • use the “stuck record” technique, repeating your point clearly
  • do not react to any remarks from the employee that might be designed to provoke
  • do not rush to a decision, use language such as “address the breach of contract” to give yourself time to decide on a fair action and involve HR or other parties as needed

If the case is so serious that you think firing is the next step here’s a great step by step guide from Guy Kawasaki, I particularly like his last step.

In this case Angie lost her temper and threatened to resign, to which the director very cleverly responded “you have that choice”, and accepted a written resignation the following day.

image A Difficult Conversation /Timothy Valentine/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Who can use social media?

Who can use social media in your company’s name; everyone? only the PR team? trained and certified employees?

I was listening to Carla Buzasi talk about the launch of Huffington Post UK at the Ragan Social Media and PR Summit, Huffington Post uses bloggers and takes them seriously. They trawl through blogs, comments on their own site and twitter looking for potential writers for the site, they’ll link to a story on another source openly. It’s a change in the usual business model for news providers and it seems to be working.

In her presentation Carla Buzasi mentioned that BBC has a policy that you can only use social media on behalf of the company if they’ve already been using twitter for at least two months. My first reaction was that this seems reasonable. But the world at “Huff Post” is different, their approach is to tell people to “get in there and start”.

Cool you think, how brave. But here comes the kicker.

Buzasi went on to mention that in a job interview she’d asked the applicant whether she had any experience in social media – and ended the interview when the answer was no. So the people she’s hired are already social media savvy.

The BBC on the other hand has an established pool of employees, many of whom have no experience in social media. So a two month practice period is a low threshold to get people started. Similarly Dell uses a structured approach of providing policies, training and certification for its employees.

Who’s right? Well, they both are. If you’re a small company, with the luxury of hiring people with strong social media/comms skills the policy free (Buzasi mentioned “Don’t be an idiot” as being the extent of theirs) and go for it approach will work. If you’ve got a pool of employees who are experts in their own field then the approach used by BBC, Dell and others at the conference of building policies and training and working to build the expertise in the company makes far more sense.

image from kexino via flickr