October 2009


Recessions come and, thankfully, go. The challenge for organisations is that employees and talent don’t echo the tidal shifts in the economy: HR professions enjoy the sand between their toes on holiday like everyone else, but part of their purpose is to ensure that the workplace never becomes beached. Talent management and development is, of course, an eternal issue. Katherine Thomas, Group Talent and Leadership Director at BT, expressed that sentiment in an article in the October 2009 issue on The Grapevine:

Retaining talent is no different in a recession to any other time in the economic cycle – it is simply about focusing on the relevant things and executing these well.”

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Two articles on different aspects of having a sense of proportion: how to generate passion while realising you’re the enabler not the destination, and how to teach ethics at business school – just what is business’ ethical relationship to the world it operates in?

And a bonus cracker – how to be ignored (a useful tip for the time-deprived, but not without its dangers!) (For more snippets from around the web, see the full Crackers list.)

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We’ve been so rude as to say so before, but business – and social attitudes – are not immune to the whims of passing fashion – different tools and techniques come and go (though some remain eternal). The social aspects of business move to a slower rhythm, but there are still fashions. The respectability and social desirability of different jobs come and go: just as golf club membership may now seem a pursuit of the (cough) mature – personal trainers are so much more now – I would imagine that introducing yourself as a ‘bank manager’ at parties in 2009 carries less cachet than it may have done a few years ago. But status matters – not just in and of itself, but because in a world that remains so acutely aware of it, our working status says something important to us in terms of our self-esteem. And if our self-esteem suffers, our work tends to suffer too. So both employees and employers should be paying attention. It seems Harvard’s MBA students are paying attention too.

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[To read our other recent book reviews, including Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, just click here.]

So, my first ever book review.  Michael Heppell’s smooth-covered, cerulean blue paperback was handed to me, with the accompanying task of conveying something meaningful about it. Which, I’ll admit, presented me with a concern:  could I give it a meaningful review?  It wasn’t as though I had identified a pressing need that this book promised to fulfil.  So could I make its intent applicable to me and my life, now?

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National cultures are, as HSBC’s advertising is keen to tell us, highly variable. Baring the soles of your feet may only cause remarks about personal hygiene in the UK, but is a social faux pas in Arabic countries and much of Asia. The things we celebrate – rather than recoil in horror from – are equally variable. Look at late October and early November around the world:  in India, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists celebrate Diwali and the triumph of good over evil, while in the UK we celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. The use of explosives to celebrate the foiling of an early terrorist plot is, perhaps, proof of the great British love of irony (we seem to have abandoned the earlier tradition of cremating an effigy to add to the gaiety of the occasion – perhaps Health & Safety intervened?). In Japan, by contrast, 3 November is National Culture Day (or Bunka-no-hi), a national holiday when the Japanese celebrate their culture and its traditions. Which got me thinking. If a country can celebrate its culture in a national day that brings the community together, why – given how important culture is to employee engagement and to overall morale and performance – can’t organisations?

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“Clothes make the man”, or so they say. Looking at the fashion industry, they make a substantial contribution to a number of women too.  It’s not just a matter of decency either, although the remainder of the well-known quote (from Mark Twain) pointed out that “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” And although many organisations document and police dress codes among their workforces, another quote makes a pertinent riposte to Mr Twain: as Franks Burns said, “Without discipline the Army would just be a bunch of guys wearing the same color clothing.” (Indeed, if you try one or two searches for quotations about clothing, it’s amazing the impact fashion industry has on us: we don’t have much good to say for it.) But how we dress – at least to some of those eyeing us up and down – makes a statement about us, and prepares us for the issue or task at hand. With this in mind (and in full-length mirror), we offer some fashion tips for the 21st century leader, acknowledging the guiding hand of Edward de Bono and the good ladies of the Red Hat Society.

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The traditional model of performance review and appraisal has changed – dare we say – improved over the years. Some organisations, and their HR functions, tend to now see it more as a vehicle for identifying opportunities and areas for development than merely as an occasion for belated rapping knuckles. The importance of providing constructive feedback on a timely basis throughout daily working life, rather than saving up painful surprises for a special occasion, is recognised more widely. But what tricks are we still sorely missing? The impact we have on each other seems to have gone missing somewhere along the line …

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