Friday, 30 September 2011

What would you do about Carlos Tevez?

The (alleged!) refusal of Manchester City footballer Carlos Tevez to play against Bayern Munich on Tuesday evening has attracted a significant amount of press attention, with a great deal of it focusing on the question of what can be done when such players decide that they are more important than the club itself.

Just to put things in context, Tevez is ranked at No. 7 in the tables of World’s Highest Paid Players, earning an estimated £6.7 million per year. That’s over £128,000 per week to you and me. Gulp.

But does the salary, or even the unquestionable skill of Tevez justify him being a law unto himself?

To answer that. let’s look at the views of another sporting superstar, that of Ethiopian long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie. He’s won two Olympic gold medals at 10,000 metres and also has World Championship titles at that distance. He’s won the Berlin Marathon four times consecutively and also broken more world records than I’ve had hot dinners. (OK, it’s actually only a mere 27, but I’m sure that you get the point)

Interviewed on Radio 4 this week, Gebrselassie was asked how he’d come to be so successful. His response was revealing:
Training, discipline and commitment. I run 160 miles a week. It’s my job.
His answer mirrored that of Jonathan Edwards (whose triple jump world record set in 1995 still stands) when questioned by Michael Parkinson alongside David Beckham. Parkinson asked Edwards if he was jealous of the amount of money Beckham earned in comparison to himself. Edwards responded:
I think that I get paid pretty well for what I do, which is basically to jump into a sandpit. It’s a job.
For some reason, those fortunate enough to enjoy the riches of the world of football seems to have forgotten that they are still in an employment relationship. What they do is a job.

What would you do if an employee refused to obey a reasonable management instruction? You’d discipline then. What did Manchester City Manager Mancini actually ask Tevez to do on Tuesday? To warm up and go on the pitch and knock a ball around. To do his job. So why all the “What Is To Be Done” soul searching?

So here’s a challenge to all you HR professionals out there? What would you do about Tevez?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Motivational Speakers: It's time to get real

If you’re one of the plethora of self-styled motivational speakers who are pestering the world with their mixture of snake oil and psycho-babble, I’ve got some really sad news for you:

There are some problems in the world.

I guess that this won’t be much of a surprise to most of you, but there’s clearly a bunch of people out there who believe that simply adopting the correct positive mental attitude can make the world into a fairytale wonderland full of opportunities, jollity and general loveliness.

Take the guy ("motivational speaker, presenter, comedian") whose website I stumbled across yesterday. With a waggle of his magic finger (he does seem to point at the camera rather a lot) he’ll help you and your organisation overcome the barriers that hold you back from good performance in life, help you stop being miserable (apparently being miserable is much harder work than being happy) and generally “Make Work Your Play” (insert hand drawn smiley face here …)

His clients love him. One of the testimonials reads “he makes life seem like one big adventure with no real problems or obstacles.”

I have two words for purveyors of such nonsense:

Get Real.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve had the privilege of spending time in the West African nations of Niger and Burkina Faso. I’ve met inspiring women who have built up a collective in their village to scrape together just enough food to keep their families alive after the poor harvest. I’ve spoken to the elders of another village where the nutrition and food distribution programme means that infant mortality is gradually improving. I’ve sat in the rain under the corrugated iron roof with the group of women who are involved in a scheme to provide income by buying, rearing and selling goats. Average Gross National Income in their country is £330. They won’t get anywhere near that.

All of them were inspiring individuals, and their clarity of vision, commitment and rugged determination to succeed represents a challenge to all those who meet them.

But anyone who would dare to suggest that a quick dose of positive mental attitude could make their life “seem like one big adventure with no problems or obstacles” is a braver man than I am.

This world has its problems. Some of them are complex and demanding. But the right approach is to work together to tackle them, not to pretend that by adopting a fixed grin and a jolly demeanour they will all disappear and suddenly the world will become a magical wonderland.

Rant over. You may now get back to work. Or play. Guess it all depends on your attitude.

Psychometric Testing, West Africa Style

If you’re planning on travelling to the tiny village of Leba, which is about 50 miles to the north of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, you’ll need to take with you a guide, a translator and a very sturdy four-wheel drive to cope with the total absence of roads.

But once you’re there, you may be fortunate enough to meet the group of 12 women who have established a partnership aimed at improving the village’s harvest of basic foodstuffs, and also attempting to venture out into some very low level rearing of goats. This year, the group’s main focus is on harvesting the sesame crop, to exploit both the seeds and the oil. The group originally got together as result of a church-based literacy programme, and although they don’t currently produce enough to sell, by working together rather than independently, they have realised that participation leads to greater yields of crops.

Membership of the cooperative is a much sought-after honour, as it brings with is not only access to better nutrition, but also increased respect in the community, so some level of selection is required.

I asked the leader of the group how they decided who should be allowed to become a member, and it was clear that even in an environment that is (literally and metaphorically!) thousands of miles away from the concept of psychometric testing, and competency-based assessment, they had established some very clear criteria for acceptance into the group. These were:

Members must be able to demonstrate that they led lives characterised by discipline.

Their definition of “hard-working” is pretty simple; it means someone who doesn’t sleep in in the mornings.

Members of the group receive a small loan to help them get themselves established. To qualify for such a loan, recipients have to be able to point to other innovative practices which they have introduced to improve their livelihoods.

The group functions as a collective, so anyone who has a track record of being argumentative in the village community is unlikely to be accepted.

A stable and well-behaved family life
All of the members of the group are married, with an average of five children each. They have found that in practice, those women who are mothers of settled and well-behaved families are far more able to make a useful contribution to the work of the collective.

So, dear reader of HR Case Studies: would you get onto the shortlist?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No jobs for the boys

Some HR challenges are much bigger than others, and one affecting the West African nation of Niger is definitely towards the problematic end of the spectrum.

As in many countries, the people of Niger generally go to where the work is. A sort of West African response to Norman Tebbitt’s suggestion to Get On Your Bike. The serious level of poverty in Niger means that work is often in very short supply, so particularly for those in the north of the country, until recently the most secure form of employment was to cross the border into Libya and fight alongside those loyal to Colonel Gadaffi.

Unfortunately, shares in Gadaffi plc have recently fallen in value, leading to the workforce being downsized (following extensive consultation with employees, of course). Realising that the climate in Libya is not exactly favourable to those who previously supported Gadaffi, and subsequently having been issued with their P45s, many of the displaced Nigerans have headed south, taking with them a wide range of weaponry, a high degree of frustration, and an increasing level of hunger. Unfortunately their return is coinciding with a potentially failed harvest due to a poor rainy season in many parts of the country.

So, dear HR Professional, what steps do you think that the Minister for Employment in Niger should do to ensure that the returning military personnel are safely absorbed into the community?

You have one hour to answer the question. This question is worth 25 marks. Please write legibly.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Are you working too long?

A question: what made you stop working last night?

For me it was the power supply in the missionary guest house in which I’m staying in Niger cutting out at about 11.00 pm. Being a good Boy Scout, I was prepared for the event, so I grabbed the strategically placed torch and crawled under the mosquito net into bed, and wilted in the heat and darkness.

I guess for most of us, a technological interruption such as a failure in the power supply is a rarity, and therefore we work for as long as we wish, even if that is deep into the night.

But clearly there was a time when (with the possible exception of those with access to industrial supplies of candles!) sunset signified the end of the working day for most people. OK, we have the opportunity to churn out more work, but does an unbounded work day really lead to greater efficiency?

Similarly the working pattern of five days of work followed by two days of leisure is to all intents and purposes a thing of the past. The weekend is dead.

Taking this a step further, for some cultures, the concept of a planting and a harvesting season is still crucial. Visiting Niger this week has brought home to me the seriousness with which the arrival (or lack of it) of the rainy season is greeted. Right now, the rain is bouncing off the roof, and the side roads are almost impassable. But it’s accepted that the rains have arrived too late to save this year’s harvest.

For those of us living in non-agrarian cultures, the concept of seasons is almost meaningless. An interconnected world means that the idea of what the Book of Common Prayer describes as “the fruits of the earth in their season” is quaintly old-fashioned. Strawberries on Christmas day? No problem.

Do all these developments represent progress? I’m not so sure.

What do you think?

(Oh … as if on cue, the lights have gone out again)

If you enjoyed this, you might want to read an earlier blog item: "There is a time for all things"

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Parlez-vous fran├žais?

After participating in a management meeting yesterday afternoon, I thought I’d set you all a little test in understanding management speak.

Exercise One:
How many of the following terms could you explain the meaning of to a colleague:
  • Memorandum of Understanding
  • Orientation Curriculum
  • Ambassadorial Staff
  • Incorporation Documents
  • Ministry of the Interior
  • Company Registration
  • Country Representative
  • Cultural Integration and Adjustment
  • Non-Governmental Organisation
  • Emotional Health
Award yourself one mark for each that you could explain to someone.

How did you do? Above eight and you are clearly set out for a life in the higher echelons of management.
Exercise Two:
Repeat Exercise One, but this time do it in French.

Still score as highly as last time?

If you are like me, your score on Exercise Two will (malheureusement) have been substantially lower than on Exercise One.

The meeting I sat in had six participants: A resident of Niger (whose native tongue is French), An American, a Cameroonian, and three Brits. Guess who were the ones who needed serious help when translating to and from French? No marks (nul points, perhaps) for correctly guessing that it was the Brits (including me, I hasten to add).

Language courses have slipped down the league tables in our school curriculum. Since 2006, there has been a 22% fall in the numbers of teenagers taking a modern foreign language at GCSE. Clearly this means that we are raising a generation of employees who will be unable to communicate in an increasingly global (and therefore multi-lingual) workforce.

Does it matter? As a German colleague of mine once remarked: if you want to buy something from a German, it’s fine that you only speak English. But if you want to sell him something, you need to speak German, and speak it well.

Just a thought: enrolment for adult education classes will be taking place over the next few weeks. French anyone?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

A World Without HR

I doubt if most of the people that I’ve observed so far this week in Niger have heard of HR and, even if they have, it’s not a service that many of them will ever have a need to turn to.

Certainly not those who have cut grass from the edge of the river, and have packaged it up into enormous bundles to sell as animal fodder, sometimes to those whose cattle stroll along the side of the road, occasionally wandering in front of the motorbikes and pedal cycles which weave in and out of the traffic on the rather challenging routes into Niamey city centre.

Certainly not the numerous hawkers who offer you items ranging from low tech hand-made jewellery to hi-tech SIM cards, or the various beggars with a heart-breaking array of disabilities, all of whom seem to have a radar-like ability to spot a visitor from a more wealthy culture. Top marks to all of them for persistence.

With a life expectancy of about 53 years for men and 55 for women (in the UK it’s 78 for men and 82 for women) and a gross national income of just over £200 per head (in the UK it’s 130 times more, at £26,000) clearly Niger is far from the most wealthy country on the planet.

Therefore there’s a great temptation to indulge in the all-too-predictable “Oh, how awful” commentary, focusing on the great disparity between the likes of the UK and a country such as Niger. But perhaps it’s equally pertinent to reflect upon our own circumstances and how they affect our attitudes to others. As a friend remarked to me earlier today, “We do live cosseted lives, don’t we?”

How about taking a break from the online world, where the most passionate debates seem to be about whether HR is afraid of social media, or whether LinkedIn is the best thing since sliced bread, and have a look at what’s happening in the real world?

Open your eyes and have a look around!