Hangin’ with the Next Jenneration.

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In the 1992 movie Scent of a Woman the main protagonists Slade and Charlie played by Al Pacino and a young Chris O’Donnell form an unlikely bond breaching their significant age and life experience gap. Each ultimately learns from one another. It wasn’t always thus. In times gone by the young learnt from the old – the basis of modern universities was established on the basis of learning from a master. The modern day apprenticeship system still holds strictly to this concept. About the time of the VCR remote control (Google it if you are a Millennial) the pendulum moved ever so slightly to the younger generation as the early shoots of being ‘tech savvy’ started to emerge. Nowadays it is as though the younger generation, our Millennials and those coming up behind them, have the knowledge and the older generations seek their advice in some strange real life version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Not experienced that feeling yet? Try queuing at the Apple shop to get some issue with your iphone sorted and you know exactly what I mean!

The digital/social media generation are becoming much more influential. No recent issue brought this into harsh relief more than the news I caught on Bloomberg that a single message on Twitter by celebrity Kylie Jenner of the Jenner-Kardashian clan helped erase US$1.5bn off the market value of the Snapchat parent company. She didn’t tweet out by saying she had looked at the Snapchat fundamentals and thought it is over-valued, or their downstream growth forecasts are exaggerated, or anything of that ilk. She in fact said:

‘sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me…ugh this is so sad.’

Bloomberg went on to write ‘Whether it’s the demands of her newfound motherhood, or the recent app redesign, the testament drew similar replies from her 24.5 million followers. Wall Street analysts too have begun to notice, citing recent user engagement trends noticed since the platform’s redesign.’

In other words this next-in line generation of leaders, celebrities and opinion formers are starting to impact on the market. When a random tweet by a person, whose only claim to fame is infamy (and oodles of social media followers – 24.5m), can shift the market it is maybe time those of us who have responsibility for investment portfolios, both big and small, wake up and take notice.

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So I tried to do something very difficult – I tried to channel my inner Millennial. I asked Siri ‘how can I behave like a Millennial?  Not surprising perhaps – and in typical Millennial style – Siri just flicked me to some random websites with features like ‘Don’t Act Your Age, Act Like a Millennial: 5 Lessons to Leverage’ Realising I might have to dig deeper I gathered my Apple products around me – my iphone, Apple watch, ipad, ipad Pro, Apple TV latest generation and Macbook looking for inspiration. Still nothing. Then it dawned on me – if I could take one of the worst performing shares in the portfolio I manage and look at the company, not through the eyes of a seasoned investor, but with beginner’s eyes – in other words using mindfulness -I might just be able to morph my thinking to that of a Millennial. That’s just what I did and the results were profound!

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iSentia are a media analysis company. Remember the old Media Monitors? Well that is now iSentia. It has a current market cap of $241m (total number of shares by current share price). With headquarters in Sydney it has five offices in Australia, two in New Zealand, two in China, one in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Manilla, Bangkok, Jakarta, Ho Chi Min City, Seoul and Taipei. It was founded by Neville Jeffries in 1982, its background in the sale and publication of classified advertising and clipping services. Jeffries died in 2007 and it has grown pretty aggressively through acquisition ever since. At least seven I counted since 2006. Slipping out of Millennial mode for a second, any good business school course looking at M&A activity will tell you how difficult they are to manage and to derive true value from. Wesfarmers acquisition of Homebase in the UK, for example, (the subject of my previous blog) is testament to that fact. The share price of iSentia has fallen 50% in the last 12 months….enough said!

OK Millennial beanie now squarely back on. So what’s the first thing that greets me when I interface with iSentia through its shop window to the world – its webpage?  Keep in the back of your mind that this is a media intelligence and data technology company. You might expect the bar to be set quite high. The David Jones Christmas window looks a tad better than your local newsagent for example. Same principle. Well prepared to be totally underwhelmed. The opening page that is meant to entice a ’click through’ and further engagement leaves me cold. I get no sense of connection here. The font looks like Arial and the logo looks like the work of a year four student just learning cut and paste for the first time. Not an auspicious start. I’m a tenacious Millennial (a rare breed!) so I push on. Oh before I do a lesson from old school marketing 101. The key factor here should be not what you do but why you do it. It’s called your proposition. It must be up front and centre. It’s simple stuff – get the eyeball owner to ask a very basic business question – how can iSentia help me? They haven’t worked this out yet. The homepage below is what you get. Not a USP in sight!

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The ‘Our news’ is always a good place to click-through to. But wait there’s no news here. To get news updates I have to scroll to the bottom of the page below the fold in the website menu area to find a link called ‘newsroom’. It would appear that the latest real iSentia story relates to September 2017. Hey I’m a Millennial, we need to be fed more often than this. Surely something exciting has happened to the company (aside from its inglorious decline) since then?

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Just a personal thing but I dislike photostock photos which headline web pages. What you don’t have enough money to bring a photographer in to do a real job? Surely a company involved in media would get this more than most? Also why do I see this same person pretty much headlining the top of every tab page? It’s as though the budget for stock photos wasn’t big enough to get different pictures.  If iSentia is trying to present a multi-national look and feel there is no sense of the diversity of their workforce. Big oversight. OK let’s dive down into Australia. Not very promising…the font’s changed and it has a completely different look….physician heal thyself! It looks like internet 1.0 in here. Uninspiring and cluttered. Still no USP. More of the same ‘What We Do’, ‘Who We Are’ etc.

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Ah… I see a ‘Careers’ tab. This might be interesting. When you are in the tech and media intelligence space you must compete hard for talent. I’m special so what can you do to entice me to commit to you? Not much if you look at the screen shot above. A strange blend of pictures from photostock to what looks like a somewhat awkward smartphone photo taken at the rear of a bus…let’s hope it doesn’t reverse or some of the top talent will need replacing.  I’m assuming the tuxedo isn’t de rigueur for the office either – not even for dress down Friday!

Ok last shot let’s go to where the big boys are (and I’m using the word boy advisedly) – the Boardroom. I’m a Millennial so I’ll admit I’m not there yet…perhaps in six to eight months… Four dudes and a woman. Font’s different again of course but the most striking thing is the Chairman’s photo is different from the others as though an afterthought. Doesn’t inspire confidence. You guys are in the media business where looks are everything. At least get a corporate look ffs. As for the C-suite read above but only more so. One last attempt to dredge some value here I might click the ESG Report for October 2016 under the Corporate Governance headline. Oh no that entire page and all its hyperlinks are broken. I feel an emoji coming on….

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You could argue that iSentia is too busy getting on with business and turning around their ailing fortunes to spend money, time and effort on the store front. If Kylie Jenner has taught us anything it is we need to pay attention to style and detail. Millennials have their own way of looking at things and when they act the market can shift. It’s time to take off the beanie and loosen the top knot and settle back into my Boomer body…well almost. I’m not ready to give up the sneakers just yet – they are real comfortable. Rad man!

 

Going South with Wes farmers

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It’s not like me to do a purely business blog as my regular readers will know. But hey it’s a new year so let’s break with tradition. In a rare moment of foresight in 2016 I spoke to our brokers about our holdings in Wesfarmers (one of Australia’s best performing publicly listed companies) when I heard they were contemplating a foray into the UK DIY market. I don’t profess to be much of an analyst, but having spent literally years of my life in DIY stores in both the UK and Australia I can say I am something of an end-user expert in both markets. On hearing of Wesfarmers ‘ambitious’ plans for Bunnings in the UK I put our brokers on watch. When it was confirmed, a sell order went in.

News recently of the write-down of the UK division of Bunnings (a Wesfarmers subsidiary) finally vindicates my position. I’m ok, but by no means could you call me  a savvy investor, but I spotted the problem when very few others did not. Certainly Fairfax media didn’t (publishers of the Australian Financial Review). I wrote an email to Michael Smith of the AFR on this very topic in January 2016 and got the response back that then CEO Goyder is ‘notoriously conservative  with acquisitions…and I tend to think they have done their homework..’

Turns out they hadn’t. This had me thinking about cricket and our recent Ashes win over the ‘Poms’. At first glance there may be few parallels between cricket and retailing but let me argue the counter-point. In cricket barely any nation wins away from home. Pitches are prepared (doctored – is that too harsh?) for home players who exploit their superior local knowledge. Same is true for retailing. Local retailers know local markets and consumer patterns best. While the drive to do DIY might be a universal one, the patterns of buyer behaviour vary nation by nation. To think you could supplant your Australian based stores ‘lock stock and barrel’ into an already well serviced market thousands of miles away is folly.

What troubles me as an investor is that this now pretty apparent folly went unnoticed or unchecked,  begging  the question about what layers of defense were breached permitting this foolhardy decision to slip through the the keeper as it were! Firstly the proposal must have gone to the Wesfarmers Board. How on earth the proposal could have been given the green light by this august body of men and women with decades of experience in the business world between them is beyond me, and I suspect millions of Australian superannuation holders who each have a stake in Wesfarmers performing well. Wesfarmers has a Board of nine and by no means could you call this lot ‘knuckle heads’ despite making a ‘knuckle head’ decision that wiped squillions ( well in excess of $1bn) off the value of the business. I can only speak for my company but that would have me at home on seek.com.

Every Board of repute, and certainly my little old Board, has an enterprise risk management framework which is a risk blueprint for how the unhappy bedfellows of opportunity, safety and  compliance can get along. Nestled in this lengthy tome will be a couple of key nuggets – risk appetite and risk tolerance. By all accounts these were not considered at Wesfarmers and it alarms me as to why not. It would appear that this fundamental tenet of governance (governance 101), whereby the Board has a pre-determined risk appetite and this informs decision making, was absent. To have entered the UK DIY market against the strength of B&Q in a country in the northern hemisphere known around the world as a nation of shopkeepers beggars belief. To get that through surely their risk appetite was set at ‘we’ll give anything a crack’.

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There are a couple of possible reasons why the Directors (representing us as shareholders no less) were asleep at the wheel. The first place to look is neuroscience. Aside from ‘group think’ which most people are familiar with, there are a number of other strategic decision making traps that I would assume the Directors are cognisant of and  have strategies to ensure don’t arise. If optimism bias arose how was this checked? Did the Directors all wear the de Bono black hat on the UK Bunnings expansion idea? If so they can’t have worn them for long.  Did they snap shut the window of realism too soon because each Director thought that the others must know better if they were all speaking for the motion – a  phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance. This is social psychology 101 which was exactly where I learnt it. Was there, what Karl Weick of the University of Michigan calls, consensual neglect? Or diffusion of responsibility perhaps? These are smart people. There are at least 16 Bachelor and Masters degrees in the mix according to their profiles (with the exception of Tony Howarth  AO who doesn’t include his qualifications). Come to mention it there are three Directors with Australia Awards (two AOs and an AM).  So I think I would be doing a disservice to them even suggesting that they don’t know this neuroscience and psychology stuff.

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There must be another reason. That took me to the Wesfarmers website and the Directors’ own profiles and I think I might just know how this so called ‘debacle’ (AFR 9 Feb) came about. A quick glance there will show that this is a very busy group of individuals. In fact their corporate governance must occupy much of their working lives and beyond. A rather startling fact for me was that between them they share 45 Directorships, or roles I would equate with being a Director and 11 Chair roles. Take out one performer who seems to have a light, but you might consider appropriate workload, and the average Board/advisory involvement rounds to 7 each! The US Glass Lewis Policy has a limit of 5. Rules of thumb around this in Australia seem hard to find but I recall Governance Australia saying once that three was a maximum figure and only two if you had a Chair’s role. Well under the Wesfarmers average.

I would have thought the cognitive capacity to consider and properly evaluate complex proposals brought to the Board table is diminished by the complexity and involvement in other governance activities. Putting the obvious question of potential conflicts of interest aside, it is hard to understand how the right amount of fresh thinking time can be devoted to complex, time consuming tasks that can impact the lives of everyday Australians when pulled in so many different directions at once. By the way there is a legal duty under the Corporations Act 2011 to certain obligations and fiduciary duties apply.

If Wesfarmers is to get this right and get their ‘swagger back’ (a la Andrew Formica) a good place to start might be delayering the amount of distraction that the Directors, whom we entrust as Shareholders to do what’s right by the Company, have in their governance portfolios. Let’s be honest we all want Wesfarmers heading north not south. Oops that’s what got them in trouble to begin with!

 

Cleaning Up Our Act

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Three years ago today Adelle lost her life; brutally murdered by an estranged partner who had been stalking her online and in person in the lead-up to the tragic event. Mother of two she was ordinary and exceptional in equal measure. She was also for some time my Personal Assistant and then an administrator in a quite remarkably creative and uplifting workplace before I left to pursue other opportunities. In such a happy place where imagination reigned supreme her light shone brightly.

Today I announce that while it has taken me three years to do something meaningful I am in the process of establishing a social enterprise for women who have suffered domestic, family and intimate partner violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is a business designed to provide empowerment back to the lives of those who have been made to feel weak and disempowered through the action of physical, mental and sexual violence – most often by those they know intimately.

Like any social enterprise it will start slowly and in a small way – the scale is important to allow those who participate in it to flourish as they determine it, best fitting their needs and the needs of their customers. It doesn’t need an overly strong hand on the tiller but we will be around to mentor and provide advice and guidance to give it the best possible chance of success.

So what is it? It is a cleaning company owned, managed and run by women for whom violence has been part of their reality. It is hoped that once it is up and running it can scale and offer opportunities for many who wish some financial independence and work in a business model free from ‘Weinstein worries’. ‘Ah women cleaning’ might be your reaction thinking that it reinforces some sort of misogynistic stereotype. We don’t think so and here’s why.  Cleaning offers the opportunity of flexibility for its workforce. For us, we don’t particularly care when the work is done, just that the place is clean. Those delivering the service can tailor when they do the job to fit around parenting responsibilities, appointments with their lawyer and court appearances as required etc.

There is a lot of work to be done to get it underway. Policies, procedures, selection, training, social media and other marketing to get lined up. Books need to be in place and all the other hard work that is standard before an enterprise hits the streets. We are there to lend a hand and I’m hoping other businesses will lend a hand too. Very shortly we will be starting to crowd source some of the capital costs of getting this venture off the ground. We hope you can help there too. Every small donation will have a huge multiplier effect.

So what has this got to do with business? Well quite a lot I think. Leadership in the realm of business cannot be solely isolated to the confines of business operating hours. I’ve blogged about this before; particularly given the distrust the public has in our institutions. Sometimes you need to give back in a way where others get to bask in the glory and benefit from the fruits of their own hard work. It was reassuring to read an article in the Australian Financial Review this week (6th of February) lamenting the decline of the public’s trust in organisations but noting that CEO’s have risen up the trust scale. The role taken by Alan Joyce of Qantas over the marriage equality issue was a shining example they pointed to. If Joycey can do it so can others and many do!

Taking on a social enterprise in a workplace that might otherwise be commercially focused can be highly affirming and demonstrate that when we pull together we can achieve remarkable things. Lessons learned and achievements in one area easily permeate to other business areas making the workforce more motivated and focused -two essential elements in managing an enterprise. In fact longstanding and respected CEO Andrew Formica commenting on the recent calamitous foray of Wesfarmers into the UK DIY market is quoted as saying that Wesfarmers failed management 101 by not engaging with their workforce. What better engagement than getting your teams to work on a common cause for good.

Sometimes there are issues that as business people – particularly male champions of change – we cannot ignore. With one woman dying each week from domestic violence in Australia and a hospitalisation every three hours it is right and proper that we make a stand in the workplace.

Wouldn’t it be great to see women invigorated, in control and feeling whole again, as if touched by the ‘magic’ that Adelle generated around the office seemingly without effort. You too can help make this happen. If you want to know how to help, email me though my LinkedIn page www.linkedin.com/in/phil-diver-a052575/

 

Woo Woo – the Mindfulness Train is Leaving the Station

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I attended the Mindfulness Leadership Forum in Sydney recently put on by The Wake Up Project. It’s my third time in three years so what has me going back out of free will to this and enjoying it? And why is it so much more appealing than the dirge of say attending the Green Cities Conference which I have to, to keep my CPD points up? There’s a few reasons and I thought it might be worth exploring these, especially if you are a conference organiser.

Firstly it is a good feeling to be at the leading edge of something. When things are developing fast (and mindfulness leadership is one of those things) then conferences are a sure fire way of finding out what is going on and in what direction sideways thinking is taking us. In my experience there are nuggets in them there tangent ‘hills’. Where the industry is more mature there are very few ways to present fresh approaches. Oftentimes in such cases the speakers are doing less startling stuff than you are.

Secondly and on the topic of speakers, the mindfulness ‘mob’ seem to be really top quality folk not only in their insights but the way they conduct themselves. They do not appear to have been in the ‘in crowd’ at school unlike many other conferences where there is a definite feeling that the popular kids ‘get the guernsey’. There is often a cookie cutter approach to the speakers with the insights shared being of a low value. Contrast this with the Mindfulness Conference where attendees appear to be somewhat in a rapture and pens are scribbling in the groovy provided note pads at some abandon. The authenticity, depth of shared experience and the baring of souls is what sets this group apart.

It could be easy to think from outside that the speakers are down from Byron Bay for a day or too and the attendees are sociology graduates who have joined a not for profit organisation. Quite the contrary. The attendees at the Mindful Leadership Forum are a mixed bunch but with so much in common; a sense that there is a better way to run organisations and that in using mindfulness and presence there is actually a formula for more successful companies. And they would pretty much be right. A survey of successful CEOs in the US recently found that they all meditated. What might surprise you is the Companies that send their people to this conference are the big banks, big pharma, big insurance, government, local government, lawyers, accountants, Virgin Australia and some NFPs too. The list goes on, but word is getting out: mindfulness works.

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To give a flavour of who spoke in Sydney there was Lawrence Levy (ex Pixar and Steve Jobs collaborator), neuroscientist and New York Times bestseller Dr Heidi Hanna, Britta Baumann head of C2C at eBay Australia, Richard Mogg from the Australian Army, Michele Bousquet head of Org Dev at GoPro in the US, Leisa Trestour Global HR lead for Accenture, Olly Bridge head of health and well being at Medibank.  In terms of putting on the conference, the advisory team draws from persons high up in the following companies – Novartis, Commonwealth Bank, Toyota Financial Services, Atlassian, Herbert Smith Freehills, Optus, Suncorp, Smiling Minds, Australian Unity and  Westpac. If it looks like I’m labouring the point I guess I am. This is not Mike’s Hemp Emporium or the NSW Buddhist Congress being represented here, although I am sure there were hemp enthusiasts and Buddhist practitioners in the audience! This is mainstream Australia advocating for something currently outer mainstream to come into the light.

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Jono Fisher

A hallmark of how Jono Fisher, CEO of The Wake Up Project organises the conference is that there is mindfulness in the way the speakers have been brought together and how they interact. Most conferences I have been to the speakers pass likes ships in the night and often their presentations will cut across one another content wise. Not so for the Mindful Leadership Forum because the speakers have a get together a day prior to the Conference to build rapport and share their hopes and wishes for their own presentation and for the audience. The respect built is mutual and I am sure the bonds established in this short time are often lasting, further cementing business and personal relationships built on the common thread of mindfulness.

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Chip Richards

The final standout is the way the day is MC’d. This time round it was Chip Richards, Creative Director of UPLIFT.  Unlike your run of the mill conference with a starchy introduction of the speaker read hurriedly off a cue card, Chip and MCs before him create a narrative using their own experiences, interwoven with insights from each presentation, linking, highlighting and bringing together the day as a sum greater than its parts. A rare thing but easily done if you take a mindfulness approach. If the day is about sharing honestly and authentically to advance mindful leadership, why wouldn’t you put the audience right at the centre of your thinking. As a pretty avid conference attender over the years seldom have I seen this done with such aplomb. In fact only The Design Conference comes close.

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Heidi Hanna

We know that there are over 6,000 peer reviewed academic articles that point to the value of mindfulness practice for personal health and well-being and overall improvement in company culture and performance. As the concept of mindfulness and a focus on holistic well-being becomes more mainstream in the workplace so too will we see an uplift in creativity, productivity and stress reduced workers. Meditation as a core component of mindfulness builds resilience, boosts emotional intelligence, enhances creativity, improves your relationships and helps you focus according to Emma Seppala in Harvard Business Review (Dec 2015).   Fulfillment at work will become within reach for many rather than a vaguely ill-defined concept sitting impossibly high on a Maslow pyramid.

The challenge for The Wake Up team is to keep the content constantly evolving and the audience engaged as mindfulness and presence become more de rigueur. With my past experience to go by I have no reason to believe they will not rise to the occasion. Mindfully of course.

Iran from Weinstein

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For cute top marks…for safety….err not so sure

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve got back from my holiday to Iran which is enough time for reflection….Last week I was reading in the newspaper, which stated through some kind of vox pop (18,000 people), that Iran was the most despised country in the world; even below North Korea. This was the work of Global Scan commissioned by the BBC. It got me thinking about the whole nature of perception and the rubbish some people put down in writing. That quite possibly applies to me from time to time as well of course.

We are told by those who presume to know that we are all publishers and it’s true the internet has given us a wonderful ability to get our views across if not heard. Except of course if you live in Iran where the internet is restricted and the means to create a digitally-based groundswell to effect change is pretty much non-existent. The problem with us each being a publisher, or citizen journalist, in our own right is the presumption that our opinion may actually be equal or equivalent to someone else’s. Clearly this is not the case. The voice of an experienced and reasoned virologist should be regarded as better than some ideologically non-trained anti-vaxer, for example.  So we should take with a pinch of salt all those people espousing a negative opinion of Iran unless they have actually been there.

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Isfahan…put it on your list of must-see cities

I’m here to put the record straight about a few things – based on actual experience (albeit as a tourist). Iran is a complex, fascinating, challenging, beautiful, safe and beguiling country. Persia after all is the cradle of civilisation and a place where cultures, people and ideas have fermented a heady mix of religious, political and artistic thought. It still does. According to the BBC in 2014, 810 year old mystic and dervish Rumi is the best-selling poet in America – today! Even Deepak Chopra has published a translation of his love poems. This is a country with a deep sense of itself, great pride and like every country I have ever visited, they love their children and want what’s best for them.

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Perhaps the recipe isn’t so secret now?

A couple of the measures I use to judge a country when travelling are how welcoming are its people and how safe do I feel? This is where it gets interesting because in my experience, which is not insubstantial, Iran scores number one of any country I have visited including New Zealand (where the people are known to be friendly – All Blacks aside!). Reading various travel sites prior to going, I was prepared to some extent for the welcoming people but the reception we received in large cities, towns and small villages exceeded even my raised expectations. This was in sharp contrast to discussions with Australians who were bemused at our decision to travel there and quips about being kidnapped were frequent. The extreme disparity between the perception and reality was marked. So how does this come about? It must surely be through the media and politicians, most notably in the US and Israel, who see Iran as a threat. As to safety – well I would rather walk Tehran at midnight than Washington DC, both of which I have done!

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Scratching the surface of the geo-politics and you see that the issue is the West’s fixation with oil-producing monarchy Saudi Arabia (open disclosure here I used to work there). To understand the tension between Saudi Arabia (located in Arabia) and Iran (located in Persia), requires a history lesson that time and word count cannot permit. The schism between Catholic and Protestant (which coincidentally occurred when Martin Luther struck his 95 theses (demands) on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg 500 years ago this week), pales by comparison when compared to the Sunni-Shia split which dates back to the time of the prophets death in 632CE. Needless to say we aren’t going to see a resolution to that any time soon. Until such time as Saudi Arabia and Iran, who both believe they protect the righteous path of Islam, can make good then the West will forever portray Iran in a certain light as they continue to hook themselves to the bandwagon of Saudi Arabia. Perhaps as we become less fossil-fuel dependent  negative attitudes to Iran might dissipate.

One of the most frequently asked questions upon my return is what about the lot of Iranian women? It is as if people can’t wait to say ‘aha’ when you say that for women in Iran there is still some way to go for them to achieve the status that many of them would wish, or the standards that women in the West enjoy. Despite the fact however that they must dress modestly and cover their hair, they do dominate the numbers of entries to their Universities. In fact in latest figures in Australia according to Sarah Martin in The Australian in terms of graduation the gender split in Australia is 51% women and 49% men. Well done us! The gender split for Iran is 40% to 60%. Not bad you might reflect? Well that’s 40% men and 60% women according to Michael Axworthy, a historian from Exeter University in the UK. Perceptions versus reality…

That said I have to say there was a major event while I was in Iran which did underline the way women are treated. It was disturbing and would indicate that there is more work to be done. Perhaps we were right in our ill-informed perception after all? You be the judge. There was a case of a man using his power to harass, bully and cajole women into having sex. In many cases rape has been alleged. Not just a few, but many by all accounts. Perhaps it is not surprising in a country where men dominate and women are repressed? Once again, where religion is the under-pinning moral and judicial authority, this kind of double standard is not unexpected in a regime we, if the polls are to be believed, deeply distrust. Well the name of the accused is  none other than Harvey Weinstein.

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I actually took this photo!

Next time we read the results of a poll where opinions are freely offered, it is worth asking how well informed were the respondents and what was the motivation for the questions in the first place? This ability we now have to express opinion based on little or no experience makes us all vulnerable in our communities and also our workplaces. ‘Let’s not engage with that group they are trouble’ or ‘let’s not do business with Iran it’s trouble’ are examples where misinformation stymies community and business growth. Next time I’m grilled as to what I did when stopped in the street and asked for my opinion on a subject I have no knowledge of, I’d like to be able to report that Iran!

 

On the Face of It…

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I’m off on holidays very soon to Iran. When I tell people this it has been pretty much the same response -why Iran? To understand the turmoil in the world today I think you need to have a deeper appreciation of religious tension. To understand the complexity of the conflict in Syria, or the ‘below the radar’ horrors of Yemen you need an appreciation of the schism that is Sunni versus Shia. Whereas the world’s Muslim population is around 85% Sunni, Iran is 95% Shia.

Given its location along the silk road between East and West, Iran (Persia) has been at the centre of the development of civilisation. As a result Iran is generously endowed with UN World Heritage sites, in fact more per capita than any other country. Its historical religious connections are immense including the early foundations of Christianity, the Ishmalis and the pre-Christian ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. I found myself with a connection to the Ishmalis who were protection by much feared assassins. I once considered working for the Aga Khan Network (the spiritual leader of the Ishmalis) in Kenya.

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What perhaps has perturbed people most about my upcoming trip is the fact that my travelling partner, my wife, will have to wear certain dress particularly head covering. These discussions were a not infrequent topic in the lunch room when our Queensland Senator, Pauline Hanson, the leader of the One Nation political party, decided to make a point and wore a burqa into the Senate. As you might expect this sparked off a whole debate about whether women should be allowed to wear this full face covering in public.

At times people have commented to me that my wife should not have to be subjected to wearing the burqa and they wouldn’t travel under such circumstances. Actually my wife will not be wearing a burqa she will wear, when necessary, a hijab. Different thing altogether. The clothing of Muslim women appears to be such a polarising aspect in society. In fact if you think about it there is a much greater emphasis on female clothing than men’s the whole world over. In recent days Labour (and opposition) leader running in the New Zealand national election has been asked what ‘outfit’ (clothes) she will be wearing in a to be televised debate with the Prime Minister. To further illustrate my point Channel 9 morning TV host Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit for a year without fail and it wasn’t commented on once. His female colleague Lisa Wilkinson continues to endure comments about what she is wearing on a regular basis.

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While comments about women’s attire might be ubiquitous there are undertones to comments made about the clothing worn by Muslim women that don’t exist outside of this religious community. What should be widely understood, but clearly isn’t, is that the dress reflects local customs and culture much more than religious dictates. I think it is beholden on managers to be across the nuances of such things as part of what I would describe as their Cultural Quotient. Good managers are aware of cultural mores especially when they have an ethnically diverse workforce.

My blogs are primarily aimed to provoke reflection not preach/teach but on this topic it might be worth just re-stating some of the issues of female attire worn by Muslim women to inform the debate around the water cooler. The birthplace of Islam is Saudi Arabia and those who most strictly interpret the Quran are the Wahabis (who strictly speaking are a minority but influential sect of Islam). They see their role as purifying the religion and have a very austere approach to matters of life and worship. This is perhaps understandable given it took root amongst desert dwelling Bedouin. The life of the Bedouin is, by its very nature, an austere one and where women’s garb has a certain practicality outside of its religious undertones. So the first learning point is that dress for women is based on geography and culture more than just a literal reading of the Quran or Haddiths. Put simply, because I am neither a Muslim nor an Islamic scholar, the Quran requires a woman to cover her head and bosom. Contention remains over the degree of covering and different countries and cultures have different customs. One thing is clear – not all dress is the same.

When Pauline Hanson of the One Nation Party wore the burqa into the Senate she was not making a point with respect to all Muslim women, but primarily those who hail from Afghanistan. The list below, while not exhaustive gives a flavor of the diversity of dress worn within the Muslim world.

Arabian peninsular – Abaya which is black and involves covering from head to toe. The head covering component is often a shayla. At one end there is a small opening for the eyes and gloves may be worn (black) to hide the flesh. At the other end of the spectrum the head is covered by a separate veil showing quite a bit of hair and wrapped loosely underneath the neck, full face showing. In my experience both extremes and everything in between exist in Saudi Arabia with no real issue. If you think the abaya doesn’t afford much in the way of fashion license for Arab women Google ‘Dubai Style Abaya’.

Persia – Chador which is more like a house coat held together by the hands in black or other colour. Quite often it reveals brightly colored ‘western’ clothing including jeans underneath. The degree to which the hair is covered varies greatly. The face is almost always visible. A hijab which is a scarf that covers the hair may also be worn rather than a scarf.

Afghanistan – Burqa which is from head to toe with a mesh panel to enable some vision. It is generally blue but can be black. No face is seen.

Jordan – Kaftans often have detailed embroidery on the neck sleeve and hem. The headscarf associated with this is the asba which is cloth wrapped around the head like a wheel then draped in a decorative fashion.

Palestine – A heavily embroidered cross-stitched material is worn by Palestinian women. The complexity and structure of the embroidery will vary depending on the town or village from which the person comes.

Turkey – Jilbab which is like an overcoat buttoned down the middle. They can be quite snug fitting showing a sense of style. A silk scarf tied beneath the chin is quite often the head covering of choice.

Indonesia/Malaysia – Dupatta which is a long scarf draped across the head and shoulders often paired with matching garments.

Morocco – Jalabiya is a robe with a pointed hood often has a belt, or string enabling shape to be given to the garment.

There’s lots more too, with variations within regions and between countries. It’s a rich tapestry and funnily enough tapestry is often involved!

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The final thing to remember is that modest dress and head covering is not the preserve of Muslim women. In fact were you to visit areas in Pennsylvania in the US you would encounter Amish women wearing quite severe head-covering bonnets. Mennonite women, Catholic nuns, Irish and Spanish Catholic women, orthodox Jewish women, Sikhs, Hindus, Taoist and Buddhist nuns and Eastern orthodox women, for example, all wear some form of head covering.

The key issue is whether the woman wearing their particular dress and/or head covering is comfortable doing so and whether we can park our conscious or unconscious bias for long enough to interact with them in an authentic, equitable and compassionate way. Knowing the cultural nuances of your workplace and community, and appreciating the richness that diversity imparts, is a necessary part of our managerial and leadership toolkit. It’s also a great elevator answer for why I’m heading to Iran in a few days’ time.

 

 

 

 

A Marriage of Inconvenience? Pinning Your Company’s Colours to the Rainbow Mast

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In Australia we are a few weeks off voting in a postal poll that will ultimately decide whether marriage equality will be voted on in Parliament. For a range of reasons, our self-proclaimed ‘fair-go’ culture hasn’t thus far extended to same sex couples who want to commit to their relationship publicly. I can’t recall in recent memory an issue that has so divided politics and (yet to be fully tested) so not really divided the public. Time will tell if my latter assumption here is correct.

As I have blogged about previously, in many cases the corporate world is stepping in where governments have faltered. The adoption of the Paris Climate Accord in the US by big corporates, when Trump pulled out, being the most salient example. And so it is with the marriage equality debate. A large number of companies have publicly expressed their support for marriage equality and this has been recognised by the large logo wall that appears on the http://www.australianmarriageequality.org   website. There are many big names there aside from the obvious like Qantas and Telstra who have made the media when they came out in support. These companies are making a stand and good on them.

Those regular readers of my blog can easily divine that I am in favour of same sex marriage and, to me, other common sense public policy initiatives like support for the LGBTIQQ community. Making our workplaces more welcoming can never reduce productivity or make it harder to attract and retain ‘talent’. A diverse workplace is one of the key ways I believe to establish a great culture and help raise the understanding of all staff. The fact is that as humans we exhibit so many similarities that bind us and that the differences, though often outrageously amplified, are small and at the end of the day quite trivial.

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So it might be surprising to some that apart from my own publicly professed support of marriage equality I haven’t rushed to sign-up to show my support for same sex marriage wearing my corporate hat. It’s not that I have made up my mind to deliberately keep a low profile, it’s more I am still reflecting on the what role or right I have, as leader, to endeavour to promote a long-held ambition through wearing my corporate hat. I’m not there yet. Who knows perhaps in wiring this blog I will reach some conclusion?

In my head the argument goes something like this. A top manager of a company, being the CEO, might take a socially-ethical decision (to them) and decide to promote marriage equality. S/he may do it to reflect the diversity that exists within their workplace. In reality, such a decision is likely to be more of a ‘captain’s call’. What if some of the workforce is against marriage equality? If the naysayers are right there are many in the workplace who believe the sanctity of marriage should be reserved for the union of man and a woman; a number of whom who keep this view to themselves for not wanting to be out-of-step.

Where the CEO raises the flag for the ‘yes’ campaign, that CEO has made a judgment call and must be prepared to stand by it. The argument could also be made that CEO’s need to be principled and authentic and stand by these principles. Lord knows the corporate world has seen precious little truly principled management over the years, especially in the lead up to the GFC. Some might add that the apparent ‘blind-eye’ shown by the CBA over suspicious money transactions is a case in point that principles are held in check in favour of greed even today. So on balance as a CEO, ‘go with the Captain’s call’ my head says on this one.

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But what of the CEO as a leader? If we take a leaf out of the Handbook for Servant Leader written by Robert Greenleaf (wordplay intended). His credo is:

“Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”

It might well be argued that a servant leader, caring for people, might take soundings of those s/he leads and reflect the organizational viewpoint as a democratic output. It might be possible that in full humility a pro-YES CEO leader might reflect a pro-NO viewpoint to the world. On the face of it this may not be a huge thing but it does go to what is the nature of organisations and into organisational theory. Is the corporation merely a legal entity defined by contracts? Is it the sum of its parts including the hopes and aspirations of its individual workers, or does it exist as a fluid culture that shifts each time a new person joins its ranks? In some ways organisations are trinities incorporating all three. As leader we need to acknowledge how organic the organisation is and given this, how much more complex it is. It’s too simplistic for the figurehead just to be able to stand up and speak on its behalf without consideration of these other layers.

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So where has this reflection got me? I think I’m happy to be pro marriage equality without having to use the vehicle of my company to make the point. I don’t judge those who do. For the likes of Alan Joyce of Qantas his leadership is around a form of activism and I respect him totally for that. But for me it is almost too easy to stand bestride my company’s brand to make the argument. It would be unfeeling. Hopefully my brand that stands alongside, but separate to, my company’s is enough to show my authenticity on this topic.

Where leaders do need to be mindful after Nov 7 – the day of the vote – is that a degree of healing, empathy and consideration will be needed. Some will feel hurt and some elated. Finding a way to focus team members on positives and what we all have in common, aside from individual and organisational goals, will call upon the special skills of managers and leaders. It’s about re-building coalitions in the workplace – a marriage of minds as it were! We can all say yes to that.

 

The Stickability Elasticity of the Digital Brain

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One of my favourite episodes of Seinfeld is called The Strike where the 12 year long  industrial action at Kramer’s employer, H&H Bagels, ends. My favourite moment though is Elaine getting upset at having given a fake phone number to a guy she dubs ‘Denim Vest’ written hurriedly on her submarine sandwich loyalty card. She finds to her dismay that she was at the point of getting her ‘free’ subway and goes on a futile hunt to get the card back, even though she actually doesn’t like the food there. It’s also a classic for introducing the audience to Festivus and the concept of a ‘two-face’.

The notion of hanging on way beyond when you should let go is something I have been contemplating lately. I have also been reflecting on the lack of patience at holding on in there. These two things might seem, at first glance, contradictory but I think they co-exist quite happily in our lives at the moment – which is not really a good thing.  Digital media is making this more prevalent.

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While driving home the other night I put I played iphone music through my car’s Bluetooth. Bear in mind this is a selection of my favourite artists. I flicked endlessly from one song to the other on shuffle seldom hearing a song the whole way through. Having the ability to shuffle and flick forward at the touch of a button on my steering wheel is both a bonus and a drawback. Now, if the song doesn’t ‘capture’ me in the first few bars it gets flicked until some tune appeals. If that song starts to meander, especially through a bridge (the song not the engineering variety) then it too gets the flick. It doesn’t matter if it’s Springsteen, Dylan, Morrison, the Beatles or the Doors you’re only getting a nano-second to get me hooked. Convenience and massive catalogue are now two weapons in my listening arsenal.

I’ve become very fickle with little patience to stick with a song to see how it builds. In the analogue days of LPs, to move a song on meant getting up and going to the turntable. This built up a certain patience with the song and made the musical listening experience much more rewarding and certainly much less frenetic. The other ‘beauty’ of the analogue experience was that you were ‘stuck’ with the artist for the entire side if you decided the trip to the turntable from the bean bag was just too big an effort. In the listening, the concept of an album being curated became something to reflect on. Why was ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ placed next after ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band for instance? Now the curating of song list is done by a pretty clumpy Apple shuffle program. The more tools I have to flit around, the more I am prone to use them.

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That very same evening I sat down to watch Netflix and put on House of Cards as we have been busily watching episodes on an every other night basis. I found myself watching it, not for enjoyment – as a piece of TV it lost its way after season one and went inexorably downhill from there – but to get to the end. It was my viewing equivalent of Elaine’s submarine sandwich loyalty card. I found myself sticking to something I should have bailed from long before.

It would appear we suffer simultaneously from attention and curatorial deficit disorder. Once something has got its hook in you it’s hard to unshackle yourself. I think it has to do with the fact that to be hooked in the beginning takes some effort, so if the TV show for example was capable of doing that, it is worth the extra loyalty. Many a program has tripped me up in this respect. Orange is the New Black is one, but surely the most striking example would be Season 3 of The Fall. That’s hours of my life I will never get back.

While that may seem frivolous, it is time I could be devoting elsewhere. It also, on reflection, makes you think about what you haven’t seen because your attention deficit meant you didn’t get hooked to start with. This is where my daughter, counter-intuitively a Gen Y, comes in handy. She insists I sit through a show again even when on occasions I have bailed before the end of the first episode. Breaking Bad, Making a Murderer and The Keepers being striking examples of my initial lack of appreciation. These have been moments of TV gold – definitely worth the perseverance.

This cognitive re-orientation, partly driven by the digital nature of services nowadays, compared to the softer warmer analogue of days gone by, is something we need to recognise and take seriously. It is having a profound impact on our lives and we need to at least acknowledge this. In the world of work we are told that we all need a brand and a narrative that is immediately going to ‘grab’ the audience. Web pages now need to have something that compels the eyeball to click-through. At work we get over 1,0000 unique visits to our website each month. Our click-through rate sits at a pretty dismal 10%. That is, on reaching our webpage, only 100 of the 1,000 visitors choose to click and move forward to find out more about us. This lack of stickability manifests itself in all sorts of situations in the workplace. For example when I’m interviewing someone, my digitally manic brain is searching for the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ bias in my judgment of them as a potential employee, now in seconds rather than minutes.

When someone starts a job, our tolerance of their learning curve in our company may be quite limited. The speed of climbing a learning curve is only partly associated with how good they are. The other component is the time it takes for the full range of complex experiences with which you can judge a worker’s competency, to arise naturally in the workplace. Maybe we should consider what impacts our recently digitised minds are having on the hiring, inducting and firing process? Perhaps we are judging our new employees too early and harshly and keeping hold of our long-serving staff for familiarity reasons for too long? We need to slow down and have moments that can quieten the manic brain. Equipping ourselves with the means to combat the negative impacts of our VUCA world is now an essential tool in a worker’s toolbox.

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Just something to ponder as we get impacted by Netflix, MP3 music and convenience that strips fidelity from our lives. Ever wondered why people’s homes in science fiction movies seem austere and sterile? Digital is a much colder experience. Oh there is one exception – that’s in The Handmaid’s Tale on SBS On Demand. That is one TV show I am sticking with…for the time being at least!

What We Can Learn From Emirates Team New Zealand

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With Emirates Team NZ taking out a resounding victory to secure the Auld Mug once again, we can learn important messages that can be applied to the world of business:

1) Size doesn’t always matter. NZ had the smallest budget but used cohesion and focus to overcome the disadvantage of not having endless dollars to splash around.

2) Innovation is essential. The NZ team introduced innovations as a disruptor challenging many of the ‘givens’ in yachting.

3) Learn from past failures but keep them in the past. NZ squandered their lead in the last America’s Cup in San Francisco needing only one race to win. Rather than letting this become a ‘hoodoo’ they used this as a motivator but never let it weigh them down.

4) Come back from adversity stronger and wiser. When their boat totalled itself during the Louis Vutton Challenger Series they picked themselves up from near disaster and re-grouped. The repairs and new equipment made the boat faster.

5) Old heads are not always needed. The hero of the NZ team, Peter Burling, aged 26, was in his first America’s Cup. In fact only one of the crew had been there before. When you are good enough, you are old enough. Sometimes we need to rely on talent that is not encumbered by reasons why things can’t be done.

6) Don’t listen to the knockers. Commentators were saying that Emirates Team NZ would struggle because Burling couldn’t win a start. Burling won 7 starts out of 9 against the world’s greatest starter Jimmy Spithill.

7) Know what you are doing. Every team member knew their job so there was no ‘chatter’ on board. Clearly defined roles allowed team members to concentrate on their part in the overall whole.

8) Use technology to your advantage. The Kiwis used technology including ‘playstation’ controls and wearables  to monitor key information to give them the edge.

9) Continuously improve. Despite winning race after race Emirates Team NZ went back to the sheds each day to see how they could improve for the following day. Even if it was just a few seconds they learnt incrementally.

10) Celebrate with humility. Despite it being a long-held ambition to re-capture the Cup, when they won the Kiwis kept the celebration in perspective. In this game, as in business, you are only as good as the last goal you kicked. Longevity is the absolute yardstick of success.

With the America’s Cup, the world’s oldest sporting competition, now in the Southern Hemisphere, it is an opportunity for countries such as Australia and New Zealand to demonstrate to the world that we can be world-beaters. Innovation, focus and continuous improvement are the key ingredients to success.

Wonder Women – fighting for those who cannot see the complexity for themsleves

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My daughter has been staying with us for a week and as a committed feminist has used her time somewhat mischievously to wind-up her brother. As an alpha male who is five years her junior he hasn’t accrued the wisdom yet to know that winning an argument is not the “be all and end all” in life. In fact it’s an argument that doesn’t find any middle ground given they are both coming at the issue from diametrically opposed positions. Seldom have I heard the words misogynist and misanthropist used so often in discussion/argument.  Life, and therefore the workplace, also contain persons for whom there are widely different perspectives. Gender politics is at play each and every day and is probably getting more heated.

Airing different perspectives and being open to hearing another’s viewpoint is important in a mature and welcoming workplace. The same applies in friendships, communities and families. There can be a fine line between tolerance for the sake of maintaining the status quo or keeping the tone light and calling out every issue you disagree with. This may come down to losing a friendship if you call someone out for a view you find that doesn’t accord with your own. It might be the “I’m not a racist” racist remark, the “I’m not homophobic” homophobic remark,  the”I’m not sexist” sexist remark, or the “I’m not Islamaphobic” islamaphobic remark. Tolerance of such statements can be tacit consent and soft encouragement. Calling it out possibly risks straining and ending a relationship whereas staying connected offers the opportunity, by example, to change behaviours; admittedly over a longer period of time. Seeing the perspective of the other party, regardless of avoiding appeasement, is an essential ingredient to being mindful and having a robust EQ.

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We were given some free movie tickets lately and chose to see Wonder Woman. Sensing that a scantily clad superhero might provoke a response e.g. objectification of women, stereotyping etc.I thought I would do some homework. It did strike me that Wonder Woman as a character sits in elevated company with Superman and Batman etc but would be quite lonely if she wanted to swap stories about gender equality. There aren’t any other top-tier female superheros from the Marvel or DC Comics stable. Imagine my surprise though to find that the feminist credentials behind Wonder Woman are actually quite substantial.

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The comics were written by a reasonably famous American psychologist, William Marston, using the nom-de-plume Charles Moulton, who, coincidentally invented the lie detector. Might explain Wonder Woman’s truth lasso! His inspiration for the character was Margaret Sanger a pioneering feminist and acknowledged founder of the modern birth control movement. Sanger just happened to be the aunt of Marston’s parnter in a rather bohemian polyamorist relationship. He had the opportunity to observe her close up. It’s not quite that simple though because Marston also had an interest in BDSM and ‘pinup girls’ which might explain why Wonder Woman is dressed like she’s on the way to a Fetlife convention inspired by a Vargas centre-fold. Life is appears is much more complex than binary polarised viewpoints.

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As it happens Wonder Woman is an easy watch. Armed with the knowledge I had gained from hearing a podcast featuring Jill Lepore who has written the seminal work The Secret History of Wonder Woman I found it layered in ways that your traditional DC or Marvel fare isn’t. Most super heroes have a vulnerability e.g Superman and kryptonite. For Wonder Woman it is chains. Chained she is helpless so the comics and the movie see her bound and totally helpless. Each time she breaks free she is emancipating – the chains being a metaphor for breaking free from society’s constraints. Each time she is bound Marston gets to explore his fetish.

The reversal of roles in the comics and the movie are plain to see. The damsel in distress is none other than Chris Pine (aka Captain Kirk) and he must die and not her. It’s him that calls at her door at night and not vice versa. She saves the day single-handed. The men well are just a bit like wallpaper in the background. Their parts are not fleshed out to any degree, kind of like many female roles in male-oriented movies. Director Patty Jenkins is having a field day turning gender stereotypes on their head except maybe the key one and where women today are still complaining – equal pay.

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Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman received a reportedly pitiful $300,000 for the part. Even if this is explained away by producers saying that’s what all leads get on their first franchise offering, you would have thought someone had the presence of mind to flip things on the head for this movie. After all this is wonder woman. We all know Wonder Women in our personal lives, communities and workplaces. My daughter is a wonder woman and will do great things. Unfortunately she will encounter men in her career who will hold her back or pigeon hole her not allowing her to grow. Fortunately there will be those who will see her potential and allow her to shine. At the end of the day no-one’s flame glows brighter by extinguishing another’s. The same might be said for snuffing out someone else’s argument. If we are to get on, we all need to realise that the world, like Marston’s life, is full of complexity, contradiction and compromise.