Phil Whiteley is a respected author who has written books around the subject of change, people management and performance. Back in the day during his time as a journalist on Personnel Today, Frazer and I actually worked on the same team.
In what I regard as a prescient book ‘Unshrink’ – published in 2003 before the smart technology revolution, he lays out the argument that organisations, processes, structures and bureaucracy have made us smaller. Phil has recently published ‘New normal radical shift’ which is a book that outlines the change and I talked to him about the issue of change and success.
With digital technology dominating our world, are people still important?
“In short yes of course! There is a direct relationship with people performance and business success. Companies that treat their people best, perform best. The problem is that companies that attempt to implement a people strategy don’t always commit fully and therefore it doesn’t work that well. I really believe that people management isn’t a part of the business, it is the other way around - business is a part of people management. The organisations that understand this best outperform the others.
So since the recession in 2008, the continued rise in importance of financial control and measurement has done something to restrict companies with regards people strategy?
“To some extent yes. But cost is not just a line on a spreadsheet, it is actually a behavioural thing. It is a false accuracy because you are not looking at true economies. Haig Nalbantian is a famous economist in the USA – he makes the point that expense is not cost. A company can make money by increasing expense because it may result in increased loyalty and commitment. Measurement is important of course – but because the expense is given paramount place – if they want to cut cost, a company is likely to reduce investing in the tools that help the sales person succeed. Marketing and travel. However you are not necessarily saving costs because you may lose your best salesmen who feels he cannot do his job properly. So the management time taken to replace them could be huge and this means you lose access to a customer base, and you may be gifting this resource to a competitor.”
So change is not all down to economic factors?
“The defining change is cultural and societal as we move away from how we used to do things. The recession did gift us the opportunity to change and recalibrate and to some extent I think this is occurring. New business start-ups and entrepreneurs are helping to define the new economy and they have a pretty good grasp on how to lead people and create products for a changing economy. They have to do so to survive and grow. So it is good that the old models have been challenged. Prior to the crash in 2008, we relied on math models about what happened. Quant jocks could measure and analyse. However the same people had miscalculated horrendously and the mathematic models didn’t factor in the negative potential of human folly. The behaviour of highly competitive alpha males isn’t that predictable. Spurred on by a competitive culture they made huge mistakes through hubris. This proves a point that bad things can happen when too many alpha people work in the one sector”!
So a mix of people is important?
“Yes a mix of all types of people as well as right and left brain people is really important along with a culture that supports, motivates and encourages. I interview a lot of entrepreneurs and they build teams and they are not solo type people. They identify the best people and they keep to their business model – they are like a team captain in a sport – a lot of gifted entrepreneurs can and do understand how to do it. The image of a dictatorial Alan Sugar or Donald Trump type of entrepreneur is incredibly old fashioned. This type of leadership is actually very limiting these days.
I whilst I wouldn’t want to idealise Google (but I was on the editorial team on The Parliamentary Report on Management in 2014, which took evidence on Google’s and others’ approach to management) I know that they do try to identify people managers and have an algorithm to understand their people as well as their technology – making it cool and funky. These organisation are and always will be more influential than Alan Sugar. Google is regularly best company to work for accolade and very healthy organisation to be part of.”
So understanding people is really important then?
“Yes! Psychology is cool now. There is this thing called the ‘Fear Index’ in the markets, and a much greater understanding of the influence of human emotions on markets and organizations. It is all about psychology and how we as individuals and groups think and operate. The recession has helped us to raise the issue of people higher up on the agenda.
But merely looking at some of the world’s most famous success stories with leadership isn’t always that helpful in my opinion. We can also learn from failure. With leadership when there is success there tends to be an assumption that everything you do is right – when you fail it is deemed that everything is wrong and that everything you did therefore must have been wrong.
That isn’t helpful. It is quite likely the entrepreneur did many things right but the idea itself simply didn’t gain traction entirely due to this, but also due to factors out of the entrepreneur’s control. So being tough as an entrepreneur is important as failure is an important stepping stone. In fact one of the successful entrepreneur’s key traits is resilience. If they have an initiative that doesn’t work they are not bothered about it. They simply try something different. They recognise that a lot of success is simply about luck because it is so hard to predict what will be successful. People will often buy something if it is popular, not because it is actually really good. So success stories aren’t always that helpful especially if the stars happen to align and a product sky rockets with success due to factors the entrepreneur could not control. Then the stuff of legends are born. I believe people are the key ingredient to success. That, creativity, hard work, leadership and a healthy dose of good fortune.”
How do you recruit the right people?
“It is a good question because your people are always central and they need to be doing the right role, so hiring correctly in the first place is crucial. However some engineering focused businesses may miss this out as it is the ‘soft stuff’ so it is perceived as a side issue. The approach for people management for high tech and for creative design must be the same.
Why? Because people are people. They are very emotional whether they are nuclear engineers or marketing directors, they want to feel fulfilled and valued. Of course money is important and it is dangerous to neglect it. A good reward and fairness is important but after a certain point it is not the sole thing. Fulfilment and being part of something greater than themselves is really important.
Phil’s latest book is called, ‘New Normal Radical Shift’ covers how and what has changed in the past 10 years and what the world may look like in the future. He has kindly offered a hefty discount to all InPrint Blog Readers.