Monthly Archives: August 2013

The lost meaning of our (professional) life

First story

Not so long ago, I met a young and intelligent lady working as a student in a big organisation. A Monday morning, she was tasked to review the translation of some official documents. Around 10.30, she was already nearly laying on her keyboard, her head between her hands, whispering that she wanted to be on Friday. Not because she had a special event planned, just because she wanted this week to end.

If you compare her to other students having a holiday job, she was supposed to be lucky as she was actually doing the job she was studying for instead of counting hardware pieces in a store or delivering mail.

At some point we started a discussion and I took the opportunity to ask her:

– What are you gonna do with your life?

– Translator, she answered.

– You are here, doing the job you are preparing yourself to do the rest of your life and after one week, the only thing you can think about is not doing it. Are you sure it is what you want to do with your life?

– It is all I can do!

– Is is what you think or is it what it is? Which evidence do you have?

– None, but I don’t know what else to do!

– Maybe you should figure out that first?

Obviously, it is not the only thing she’s good at and it is not what she really want to do in her life. But somewhere, she became convinced that she had to follow this path and that it was the only one possible. At around 20, she was already in autopilot mode, following a path that is not her but the one her environment offered her.

A few days later she came to me and told me that she will use her time abroad (she was going to study abroad for a few months) to discover what she really wants to do.

 Second story

In a rock festival, I discovered a Belgian New Orleans’ jazz band called Big Noise. The 4 musicians played like if they were possessed or in transe. The drummer was so into it, playing an “infernal swing” that he looked like he was drunk or on drugs. But, evidently, his drug was his pleasure to play. To play music, to play whit friends, with the audience, to have fun, a lot of fun. And the public was seduced, sharing the nearly shamanic transe, powered by the music and the magic of this group sharing the same love for music. From where I stood, at that moment, they had the best job in the world, the one making them happy.

Third story

I discovered recently the new Aaron Sorkin TV show called “The Newsroom”. The series is set behind the scenes at the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) and centers around the team of idealistic journalists working for the news, seeking the truth and aiming to educate their audience. As it was the case before with “West wing”, Sorkin’s wrote again some of the most intelligent scenarios and dialogs ever. I was captivated by the show and found myself excited by each episode. As images of the series where present in my mind the next day, I wondered what was so appealing to me in the show. Obviously, I was probably projecting myself (in the Freudian acceptance of the term) in the show. Something was talking to me. But what? Fortunately, meditation helps a lot to make your mind clear and it became rapidly evident to me that it was the commitment of the characters and their values that was stimulating my soul. These characters are devoted to their work, or, should I say, to their cause. In fact, they don’t work, they do something they believe in it, they live their passion and they stick to their values. They are committed to their life, not someone else’s life.

 Last story

More than a decade ago, I was running a company with my associates and, at the same time, I was coaching young children from 5 to 7 years old to teach them how to swim. Surprisingly, although my daily job was very interesting and I was successful at it, I happen to wait all the week for this moment, on Fridays, when I was in the water, teaching those kids how to float, dive, breath or jump into the water. At first, I tried to ignored this and managed to have so busy weeks that I couldn’t even think about it or anything else than my work and my occupations. Fortunately, at some point, my mind or my body (or both as they are one) found a way to pass the message. And it was clear: something was going wrong in my apparently picture perfect life. Unfortunately, the root cause of this “unhappiness” was not as evident. As I didn’t understood at the time what was laking me unhappy, I started to change nearly all aspects of my life, private and professional. During the process, I was lucky enough, as I often am, to cross the road of wonderful beings that helped me to understand what was missing in my life. At a bit more than 30 years old, I decided to go back studying and found myself on the way to the University to pursue a master in Psychology. It was a very long journey during which I continued to search for the meaning of my life as a sense on “un-achievement” was still haunting my mind. It took me a while, and a lot of these blessed encounters with wonderful people (sometimes through books, sometimes during a very short time or sometimes for a long lasting and beautiful journey) to understand that the meaning of my life was not the goal, the end of the road, but the road itself. I found my direction, my path, my identity as I was able to accept myself as I am, with my paradoxes and my weaknesses as much as with my strengths and my values. I finally understood the true meaning of Steve Jobs saying, in his 2005 Stanford commencement ceremony address: “for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” or the “Carpe Diem” from Dead’s poets society. I discovered my values and found my balance to integrate all aspects of my life. Writing this, even if you are just a few hundred to read it, should it even be only one person, is a part of it. I

 Epilogue

Our society is very good at picturing a way of life and making us believe that we must fit into this scheme. Unfortunately, in some aspects, our society has lost her values, or, to be more accurate, I cannot recognise myself in some of these values and, maybe, you don’t either. As Jiddu Krishnamurti once said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” And unfortunately, our society and most corporations, are so complex that it become difficult to understand what is the goal, the meaning and the role we have to play. And the pace imposed by our “modern” way of life do not often leave time to think about our values, our dreams, our expectations. We must be artists, philosophes or even fools to dare thinking about our purpose, the meaning of our lives or, more simply, what really matters for us, deeply inside. “Stay hungry, stay foolish” was the closing sentence of Jobs’ 2005 speech. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives. We can be foolish too for this commencement. We can demand the meaningful life we deserve. It is often not so far from where we stand. A few centimetres close even. It is not necessary to change everything, we can just change what is not in line with our values, with the direction we want to take.

According to recent studies, people with a purpose in their life, with a meaning, are happier and are also in better physical condition (less stressed). Corporation, society, should think about the meaning of what they do and the meaning of what their people do. If everyone could find a true meaning (money is obviously not one, as such) at what it does for leaving, nobody would have to work anymore, or at least, we would not have to call it labour because it wouldn’t be labourious anymore.

 

Stay foolish!

 

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

Even if you are good at what you do, you may get a job…or not!

Another post that might raise comments from “colleagues” saying “you shouldn’t talk about it” although there is nothing new in this post. It is more a philosophical approach in the sense we try to deconstruct the way we work. Our goal is not to explain that the market is saturated and that it is difficult to find a job, even if you are skilled as, fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be the case, at least from our point of view. The goal of this post is to highlight the facts making difficult for most companies to discriminate (and then hire) really skilled people.

In 1970, George Akerlof, who will receive later in 2001 a Nobel price of economy for his work, wrote one of the most quoted economic articles: “The Market for ‘Lemons’ : Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism. This article explains the effect of assymetry of information on the used car market behaviour. In short, as most buyers are not able to make the difference between a good quality used car and a bad one (called Lemon), the model suppose they are ready to pay 3/4 of the price of the best quality car for all cars (as they cannot make the difference) instead of 3/2 of the price of the car according to its quality (see the Wikipedia article on “Market for Lemons” for more details on the economic model).

In june 2013, in a New York Times interview, Lazlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, revealed that, according to their internal statistical researches (You may imagine how good Google people are at doing statistic) showed that it was very difficult to find a good predicator of an employee performance during interviews. According to Bock : “It’s a complete random mess, except for one guy who was highly predictive because he only interviewed people for a very specialized area, where he happened to be the world’s leading expert“. The only person that was good at hiring specialist was the leading expert in the field.

You may already see where we are going. We work with large organizations employing numberous specialists in IT, risks management, security, business laws, recruitment, marketing, finance, tax, logistic and so on… While talking to a specialist, you might get to the point where he (or she) will state something you cannot (easily) verify (like: “What you ask is impossible” or “This is the best and only viable solution”). Rings a bell? As he’s your specialist and you have to trust him (else, how can you work with him if you don’t), you accept the statement as the truth… until you discover, from another specialist’s mouth or by your own experience, that it is’nt true. You’ve been there before, for sure!

Maybe, at some point, if you have such experience repeating, you might wonder how reliable your specialists are? If you have other specialists in the same field working for you, you might ask them what they think of their colleague (and maybe start doubting how reliable they are if you don’t receive the correct answers – welcome paranoïa). If you don’t have a lot of experts at hand (what is most likely the case as, by definition, experts or specialists are rares and expensives), how can you tell? You might ask to an external party to help you but, most of the time, you will not be better equipped to determine how skilled this third party is and, evenmore, there is a potential conflict of interest as any other independant specialist might be interested in a  mission to replace the presumabely un-skilled specialist you have and fix the issues.

In their excellent and famous book, Rework, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson highlighted the numberous advantages to hire someone only when you have performed his job first. At least, you will become a kind of expert yourself and you will have some clue about the potential candidates for the job. At least, you will be more likely to discover if they try to bullshit you.

Is there no other way to assess how good our specialists are? Yes, of course!  Asking people what they did in the past (and how) and checking their background with previous employers might probably give you more relevant insight. But it is rarely the path followed.

Often, we, people, call other people that are renowned expert or at least that looks like experts. Unfortunately, we are often victims on numerous cognitive biases. One of the first should be the Halo effect. To make it short, our judgement of one person caracteristic will be influenced by a global first impression that we might have deduced from a tiny litlle detail. As an example, if you are not well shaved, I might have the impression that you are a messy person. The halo effect is well known, at least intuitively, by most people. If you go to a job interview, you will likely wear your best suit and ensure it is neat, just to make a good first impression. As multiple experiments like the one from Young, Beier and Beier (1979)1 or Bull & Rumsey (1988)2 showed, we all know how important it is to make a good first impression to get a job.

The halo effect is often based on extrapolation of small details. Nowadays, we could perceived a consultant as more skilled because he has an expensive car (Porsches make good impression not only on women), a lot of recommendation on Linkedin (or even just connections), a nice suit, because he’s tall and fit or even just because he has a louder voice and he displays more facial expressions of agressivity (that is often seen as a sign of authority). Maybe, the simple fact that you read this blog could give you a false impression of our notoriety and skills.

All this facts may sounds confusing but, here comes the link. Let’s take Akerlof’s model and apply it to the expert world, let even narrow this to the area of experts (or senior) consultants for the purpose of the exercise. We can easily presume that there is an effective information assymetry between the buyer (the organization) and the seller (the consultant) as the latter knows much better what he’s capable of than the organization wishing to hire him. Most of the time, organizations are not able to make the difference between a good and a bad expert consultant. Consequently, organization are ready, according to Akerlof’s theory, to pay a certain price for a consultant, whatever his quality is. Let’s call this price the market rate. If a skilled consultant (let give  him a note of 9/10 for his quality) believes his services worth more than the market rate (matching a consultant with a 7,5/10 quality level) because he provides better quality services (better, faster), he might want to raise his rate. Unfortunately for him, as his potential clients (luckily, it will not be the case for all) can not assess his quality, they might just find him too expensive and discard his candidacy. Instead, they might select a less skilled consultant (quality=5/10) with a high opinion of himself that will see and sell himself like a 8/10.

The rate we pay for a consultant might create a halo effect and generate the perception (and our trend to confirm our believes) that the consultant is more skilled, of better quality, than what he is in reality. Unfortunately, the rate of a consultant is not the direct result of his experience and abilities but more of non-relevant factors (for the hiring organization at least) like the markets perception, its capability to sell himself, to bargain, his ego, his reputation, his financial needs and its intermediaries (As you know, more intermediaries mean higher rate as each middle-man will add his margin – often between 10 to 30% – on top of the others). Also, reputation is sometimes assimilated to quality by hiring organization. “Famous” or more visible consultants may ask for higher rates as they are perceived as more qualified (although their reputation is often not based on their intrinsinc qualities but more on their visibility and the halo effect).

Some consultants have sometimes so well understood this principle that they managed to build their own reputation not on the quality of their work but more on their presence and their visibility, thanks to their involvment in organizations, meetings or magazines. They also benefit from the halo effect generated by their more skilled peers in the organisation. Consequently, organizations are often victims of personal marketing.

So, what to do? Use your common sense! Ask specific questions and expect practical answers. As Bock mentionned in his NY Times interview, ask your candidate what did they do during their previous assignments, practically. What where the challenges (so you will at least know what they consider a challenge)? How did they react? Ask them to explain why they did things and why they believe you should make things the same way or another way. When you know your job, you should be able to explain it to a layman. At least, we should expect that from a skilled specialist. If you don’t understand what he tells you, ask again! Don’t assume you are not skilled enough to understand. Too often, bad consultants impersonate experts by using complex and/or meaningless babbling. As you will likely pay the price for a consultant of 7,5 or 8/10 quality, you should expect at least to understand what it does or it is likely that you will get screwed.

If we were not good at what we do, we could get a job because we understand these principles. And, unfortunately, even if we are good at what we do, we might not get a job if we don’t want to play the game, out of respect for our customer, or just because we have better things to do than drinking cocktails and play golf (just for the stereotype) to lobby and build our reputation in another way that just the word of mouth of our customers. But, fortunately, you already knew it, like most of our customers and readers.

You should’nt share this with your “coopetitors” as it might help you if they continue to hire the bad consultant for the price of the good one. This way, the real good one will still work for you.
1Young, D. M., Beier, E. G. and Beier, S. (1979), Beyond Words: Influence of Nonverbal Behavior of Female Job Applicants in the Employment Interview. The Personnel and Guidance Journal, 57: 346–350. doi: 10.1002/j.2164-4918.1979.tb05408.x

2 Bull, R. & Rumsey, N (1988) “The Effects of Facial Appearance in Persuasion, Politics, Employment, and Advertising” in “The Social Psychology of Facial Appearance”, Springer Series in Social Psychology, pp 41-79 http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4612-3782-2_3