Monday, 30 August 2010

On Authenticity

During the Team Leadership course, the tutor mentioned the management guru idea of "authentic leadership". What did we think that meant? (These courses are a lot like Teacher Training - there's a lot of breaking into groups and discussing things.)

The usual definition is that you're being authentic when you are acting in accordance to your inner, desires, talents and needs, rather than those imposed on you by parents, peers, schools and work. There are all sorts of problems with that definition, starting with how you identify your inner needs, moving on to what happens if meeting those needs involves illegality or gross moral turpitude, and ending somewhere around what you do if you can't make money following your bliss.

It's a tricky idea, and there's no doubt that the management guru who swiped it was indulging in some semantic inflation when he used it. "Authenticity" is a technical term of existentialist philosophy. What the management guru means is "sincerity", "honesty", "independence of mind", and "lack of hypocrisy". Doesn't sound as sexy though. So what is it?

Well, as a start and to borrow an idea from J L Austin, "authenticity" is not a trouser-word: the concept of authenticity doesn't do the work, which is done by the associated negative concepts: fake, false, dissembling, put-on, made-up, forgery, going-through-the-motions and a hundred others. When we say something is authentic, we mean it's not any of the many varieties of fake. Attempts to describe authenticity in positive terms tends to vanish into hand-waving or tautology (such as "being authentic is being real"). So in a way, I rightly had no idea what they were all talking about, because the word has no positive meaning of its own. And a good honest plain English answer that is too.

Then I read a passage in Karl Jaspers' Philosophy of Existence: "what I myself am...always remains a question... My authentic self can never become my possession; it remains my potentiality. If I knew it, I would no longer be it, since I become inwardly aware of myself...only as a task." The last bit is easy: you are not a to-do list, nor the project manager of your life. You are more than that, even if you can't say what more. It was the first bit that was really interesting.

Suppose authenticity consisted in doing U, V, W, X, Y and Z. Suppose that those are well-described actions or dispositions (rather than vague, waffly hand-wavy gestures in words), so that you could learn how to do them. Then you can learn to do them whether you mean it or not. In other words, now you can fake authenticity. Errr, oops. Contradiction. So there must be something about authenticity that can't be well-described, some extra ingredient that can't be said, but only sensed or perhaps judged. Perhaps it's an attitude, a state of mind and a disposition of behaviour. None of which are things you can learn as a trick.

Authenticity isn't about some struggle between you and the rest of the world for the righteousness of your soul. I don't see why you can't be a graduate of Eton-Oxford-McKinsey and authentic at the same time. Nor do I see that being an unemployed dropout from some dysfunctional East London secondary school makes you any automatically authentic. It should be as possible for an accountant to be authentic as for a conceptual artist. It should also be possible to be an authentic asshole as well as an authentic Good Guy.

You are being authentic when you think, feel and act as a subject rather treat yourself as an object. Roughly. Acting like a subject means that your actions and reactions are based on what you need, want and desire, and how you think, feel and intuit at the time. Treating yourself as an object means that you deliberately check and filter your immediate reactions and urges and replace them with ones that will meet the approval of others, or will project or maintain an image of yourself you wish to project. Because you are not a psychopath or a borderline, one of the things you want is that you should not hurt or upset others needlessly: manners and tact are not in-authentic. This is the balancing act of authenticity: too little guard on your responses and you're being tactless and gauche; too much tact and self-management and you're being misleading, opaque and very possibly insincere. Similarly, too little planning and you're living in directionless chaos, too much and you're being your own to-do list. Authenticity is the constant struggle to resist falling into conventional response, managed behaviour and a daily routine on one side, and the chaos of immediate impulse on the other.

Authenticity requires self-knowledge and honesty. This makes it difficult for people who have been raised in dysfunctional families to be authentic, as they simply don't know enough about themselves. It is also difficult for people who have been brought up with grade inflation and politically-correct praise to be authentic, as they have an utterly unrealistic idea of their skills and knowledge.

A wife who feels attracted to a man she meets but does not sleep with him is not being in-authentic: she is keeping her marriage vows. If she denies to herself she wanted to shag him senseless, she's in denial, and denial is never authentic; but if she denies it to her husband, she's being tactful. Good corporate drones live in a state of perpetual bad faith, and the guy in the video store working on his film script crosses the line between hope (authentic) and delusion (inauthentic) hourly. Anyone who takes a job where they have to apply rules and can say "it's not me, it's the job" is as inauthentic as a seven-pound note. And Clairol Balsam Golden Blonde always crosses the line. After all, if you're going to lie about your hair colour, what else are you going to lie about?

Friday, 27 August 2010

Cool Movies

I have a DVD shelf (rather early 2000's, I know) with what I loosely catagorise as “Cool” Movies. Quo Vadis Baby, Ghost Dog, Heat, The Killer Elite, Basquiat, Dinner Rush, The Warriors, Constantine, Love and Human Remains, The Long Goodbye. What is it that makes a movie “cool”? For me?

The protagonist has to live alone but isn't lonely. They have friendships and maybe a relationship that's about sex, but no love and no commitments. And yet they have the possibility and hope, however disappointed by life, of love.

They need to have striking, watchable, intriguing looks – which Angela Baraldi and Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog) have big time. This is Angela Baraldi in the trailer for Quo Vadis Baby.

They live in an edgy district and the place is either a tip (Elliot Gould's flat in The Long Goodbye) or spartan (de Niro's place in Heat). In practice they couldn't possibly afford it on whatever it is they're earning doing whatever it is they're doing. Whatever they are doing, it isn't a regular nine-to-five job: the protagonist of many cool movies is a private investigator. They can handle themselves, but aren't action heroes; they are smart, but not Sherlock Holmes; they are cynical, but for good reason.

The story can't quite make sense, because a cool movie isn't about the story, it's about the atmosphere, it's a way to show us the world of the story. Other than the protagonist, the people are at once individuals and stereotypes. The world doesn't quite make sense either, which is why only the Cool can engage with it and survive. You don't see many normal people in cool movies, except as contrast or to have something bad happen to them a few minutes later. When the protagonist has to visit the straight world, from a supermarket to their families, it is somehow unreal, slightly dishonest, and relies on illusion and dissumlation. In the cool world, people lie for a purpose: in the straight world they do it to stay sane.

The world doesn't quite make sense because our protagonist doesn't have the usual motives: wealth, fame, beautiful lovers, career, knowledge, power or reputation. Nor are they easing some inner demon - Lispeth Salander is not cool. There's an idea of finding a truth, or of living a truth (Ghost Dog, The Killer Elite), of being true to yourself or your vocation (both the protagonists in Heat). It doesn't matter what motivates the Bad Guys, because their actions mean they can't enjoy their success for long, so why would they do it? And there are no normal people with normal motives, except as ghosts in comparison to the vivid Cool People.

What I'm describing, of course, is a Raymond Chandler or a Dashiell Hammett novel, the spiritual forefathers of Jim Jarmusch and Robert Altman.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Job Hunter's Decision Tree

The manager won't get approval to hire anyone.

If they do get approval, it will go to an internal candidate.

If it doesn't go to an internal candidate, it won't be advertised anywhere I see or be handled by any of my agents

If one my agents does call about it, I won't meet the basic criteria.

If I meet the basic criteria and apply, they won't reply.

If they reply, I won't get a first interview.

If I get a first interview, I won't get a second.

If I get the second, they will offer the other guy the job.

If the other guy turns them down, they will cancel the job.

If they don't cancel the job, they will re-organise it away within a month of me joining.

If it still exists a year later, the company will go broke.

If the company doesn't go broke, it will be sold and hundreds of us will be made redundant.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Why You Didn't Get The Job and Other Flannel

The other week a colleague and I interviewed someone for a job in my team - our manager was on holiday. The guy seemed to have a lot going for him, but there was something that said NO to me. It was one of those body-language, facial-expression things. This translates in recruiter-speak as "gut feel" and "not fitting the profile". We have to give him a reason. He had made a remark about being dropped into a role with no support or training and not liking that or appreciating getting a partially-met grading in the role. If he had joined our team, he wouldn't have got any support either. Also, I thought his career didn't quite make sense: why would anyone come from Credit, where the jobs are plentiful and the money reasonable (except at The Bank), into what is basically Sales MI, where the jobs are scarce as hen's teeth? Perhaps my suspicious mind thought that actually he hadn't done too well in each of those jobs and was moving sideways until he found somewhere congenial. I couldn't prove it, but as I write this, I realise that's what I was thinking.

So the reason we gave him was that we had heard his concern about support in a new role and could not offer him what he needed. It wouldn't be fair to drop him into a situation he didn't want to be in. That happens to be true, but the point is, if he hadn't said that, we would have just made something up.

My sister had a second interview for an office manager / accounting manager's job with a small telco whose main investor wanted to sell it on in a couple of years. They really liked her at the first interview, but the second was short and included the words "I think you'd just get bored". Candidates hate hearing this: my reaction is "pay me that and bore me, please!". My sister might have got bored and she might or might not have been able to deal with it, but I suspect it meant something else. This is a telco someone wants to flip. In this market. I suspect that the guy recognised that my sister is too independently-minded to do as she's told and misrepresent the profit as the guy will need to do.

There's a ton of legislation about not discriminating when hiring people, and some of it is right and proper: race, colour, creed, gender, sexual preference - these things should not disqualify you from working at The Bank (though now I look at it, there aren't many Africans working in the finance department, or anywhere. Indians, yes, Chinese, yes, colonials yes. Africans? Not so, any, actually.)  But hiring people is exactly about discriminating, and one of the key discriminants is the kind of person who will do the job effectively in the political and organisational circumstances. An interviewer is not looking for a reason to say NO. They are looking for a reason to say YES. (This does change if they need to hire two gross of call centre operators or Java programmers in a month.) That reason is the elusive "fit". You may have flunked the test or be over-qualified, but that's all just flannel: in the end, they found someone who fit and that was that.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Miscellaneous Stuff Part 215

My nephew didn't get the grades he needed. His coursework was graded A by his tutor and C by the examination board, and he got a D in one of his History essays. A number of the other students at his college were in a similar position, but an appeal makes no difference: entry is determined by the grades on the day. He's made the phone calls. So he's going through clearing and has put in for courses at Essex and Royal Holloway. Damn. I know this happens to thousands of people, but....

The water pressure suddenly went in the house this evening. Thames Water's site tells me it's a power outage at the pumping station - the second one recently. A little further down the page, I found this...

WC1A: Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square
We have started work in the Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square area to remove a large build up of cooking fat from the sewers that can cause nasty blockages and result in flooding if not dealt with.
We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause and will carry this work out during the night time (from 10pm) to prevent traffic disruption.
Work started on 27 June and will take approximately 8 to 10 weeks to complete.
Wha? Cooking fat? This is one of those things you don't think about if you don't work in the industry, I guess.

The scrappy posts are because I'm having an emotion or three. It's so bad I even shared at a local meeting. The issues from this post still haven't gone away. Why would they? Nothing has changed. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Fruity Thursday

My nephew has his A-level results due tomorrow. Three A's and he gets to go to Sheffield to study History. Back-up is Queen Mary College.

The photographers won't be taking pictures of him getting his results at the local FE College. They will be snapping the germ-free fruity eighteen-year olds at whichever Girls' School has let them in this year. And the Daily Telegraph will run the photos on the front page. Call it Fruity Thursday.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Do it with style

Any athlete will tell you that the better your style, the less effort you make for the same result. "Less weight, more style" is a familiar comment from a trainer in a weights room.

Style is not flourishes and flair, it isn’t a gestures and mannerisms. It’s not tricks. Style is doing it smoothly, quickly, efficiently, neatly, with a minimum of fuss, bother and clattering about. It’s also about catching the informed eye, with an understated something special.

You have to practice when the other kids are watching the latest hit TV show or having a great lads or lassies night out; you have to want to be good, not to impress the girls or the boss, but to satisfy yourself. You have to give up fantasising and live in the horrible here-and-now of your actual skills.

The original Zephyr skateboard team surfing and skating every hour they could; Eric Clapton practicing the blues eight hours a day before he was twenty; Kernighan and Ritchie developing the C programming language and showing the world what the phrase "tight code" really meant; fashion designers from Armani to Zoran obsessing over cut, colour and fabric; and every world-class athlete practising every day for hours… face it, style is just geeky.

You have to have taste as well, or you can’t recognise someone else’s good style and learn (or steal) from it. Taste is all a bit tricky: who says my judgement is better than yours? It takes humility to develop taste and it takes knowledge to exercise informed discrimination.

Once you shoot for style, you’re putting your work up to be judged and yourself as a craftsman up for judgement as well. That’s a tough one – especially when there were a hundred kids at university better than you.

That understated something special is going to pass the hoi-polloi right by. Style is for the cognoscenti. It’s undemocratic and elitist. Get over it. The pay-off is that you do more with less effort. Your work shines. You get into heaven because you chose to use the talent and ability you were born with. You get to be a person with an identity because you identified with something enough to be good at it.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Who's a Stakeholder?

I've just finished a two-day course on managing stakeholders run by The Bank - another of its non-prescriptive what-does-it-mean-to-you exercises. The idea of "stakeholders" was introduced in 1963 by the Stanford Research Institute and defined to be "those groups without whom the organisation would cease to exist". It's one of those ideas that works as long as you don't get too close to it. What it can't mean is "anyone who has an interest in what the organisation does", because if the organisation is big enough, that's just about everybody and the idea becomes just about empty.

I'm going to jump to my conclusion here: a stakeholder is anyone who has a legal, economic or other substantial relationship with you or your project and stands to have their life made worse if your project fails. Take the idea of "worse" seriously here. Employees are stakeholders because if the firm fails, they lose their jobs. Customers are sometimes stakeholders, such as when they are holidaymakers with a tour operator (what happens when the operator goes broke?), and sometimes not, if all they buy is a chocolate bar. Not being able to have your favourite chocolate bar does not make your life worse, though it may make it a little less sweet. Some patients in a hospital are stakeholders (if they are in for life-saving operations) and sometimes not (if they are in for cosmetic surgery). We are all, however, stakeholders in the Water and Sewage company - you want to think about how much worse your life is going to get without potable running water and with blocked sewers? Some things don't have any stakeholders at all - like the local car boot sale or the next episode of some cheap reality TV show.

Within a company, who are your stakeholders? Your Line Manager, who will get their ass kicked if you screw up. Maybe their boss as well. How about the people who do the work? If your project fails, what happens to them? Not much, unless they were hired specifically to work on the project and are fired if it's not there anymore. The full-timers still have jobs: failed projects make work for the working man to do as much as successful ones. There may be people waiting for you to finish your project so they can do theirs, but if you fail, they will find another way of getting started. Their lives are a little more difficult, but "more difficult" does not mean "worse". So not them. The suppliers are happy-ish because they still got paid for all that stuff that no-one is going to use now. They may have to find another customer to replace the business the successful project would have given them, but having to find new business doesn't make their life worse, just a little more difficult. If the project was going to provide many new jobs to the area, those people who now won't have those jobs and can't find others, they turn our to be stakeholders.

So what are all the other people who are working on the project and / or looking forward to its success, but whose lives won't end if it fails? In the loose parlance of modern business, these are "stakeholders", but they have nothing at stake, so they aren't. They are what they always were: suppliers, contractors and employees, doing their job. You need to "manage" them: you need them to give you time and perhaps money; you need them to do the work to schedule; you need them to not obstruct you; you need to keep them informed and keep informed by them. You need to stroke egos and keep the high muck-a-mucks informed. You need to do all that stuff, but that's not "managing stakeholders", it's "dealing with the people you need to work with." Or, work, as it's otherwise known.

Does it matter? Yes. Because once you know this is really about "managing the people you need to make your project work", it all gets much more specific and, well, you could almost be prescriptive. It's also because it creates the illusion that everyone depends on everyone else - "we are all stakeholders" - when in fact your project could die a wheezing death and nobody would notice, care or be one jot worse off. Which is what actually happens.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Joy Formidable

So there's this slightly naff ad for a Swedish pear cider (that's what it says) that makes it out to be the drink of choice of all those party people who are so cool you don't even know they're there because they're in clubs you didn't know existed behind doors you didn't know opened. Or something.  It's been playing in the cinemas for a month or more now. I didn't like it at first because it seemed to play on the idea that there's a great time to be had out there if only we knew where - and drinking their cider would help. Mmmmm. Not so much. But there's this band in the ad. And they're playing this song. Which the second time I saw the ad I got (the first time I was just like, oh, indie noise).

Listen to this twice. It's the best track you will hear this year. If you don't agree, give it another try. If you still don't get it, go back to all those English girl faux soul singers.

I get all hot and bothered when I hear it - as I'm playing it now - and not just because guitarist / singer Ritzy Brian is hot. It's been a while since a song did that. Of course I'm getting the mini-album from Amazon.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Those Darn "People Skills"

My reflex answer to "what are your weaknesses" is: a) hiring people and b) "people skills".

Yet the people I have hired over the years have all gone on to do well for themselves. I cheat, of course, because I only hire smart people - it makes my life so much easier. I have had to let people go, and in both cases I believe I did so in a manner that let them keep their self-respect and dignity.

When I'm talking about something with someone, I'm fine, even if it's a "personal" matter like behaviour or even dress. I can do that so indirectly and tactfully they don't even notice - and sometimes I don't realise I've done it until later. As long as there's a thing we're both talking about, I'm fine.

I'm not so good with dealing with people in authority, I tense up the same way I do if someone points a camera at me - and what are the odds of that for an ACoA? I am not good at being polite to people who are supposed to be helping me but clearly don't know enough to help me (most IT help desks and shop assistants): I tend to cut the conversation short. That's not unique to me.

I think I'm bad at dealing with and communicating with people because I know they don't understand me, nor me them, unless we're just exchanging practical information. I read that sharing mutual interests with another human being is supposed to give you a warm glow of belonging: I'll assume you have felt that. I haven't, or if I have then it was so faint I missed it. The thing is, the Normals don't know this about my communications with them: they think they are communicating as if with another Normal. I really should stop worrying about this.

I'm really bad at dealing a bureaucracy that's designed to make my life more difficult for no actual reward - we're talking about a large retail bank here. Its IT and data security would not stop a halfway decent Russian hacker from stripping it of valuable data at the end of a six month stint, but sure as heck stops us doing our jobs. Which is a special case of what my real weakness.

Which is dealing with people who are not actual rogues but are practicing denial, lying, misleading, obfuscating, playing games, or who are insecure in their job, or who aren't quite up to the job and have to hide it or try to bring the job down to something they can manage - to the detriment of my plans and intentions. You can be as mendaciously bureaucratic as you like if it doesn't affect me. Once you mess up my plans, you are no longer a person, but an obstacle, The Problem. You are not with me, so you must be against me, and are therefore The Enemy. You. Personally. No hiding behind job descriptions: a decent person wouldn't do a job like that, so you cannot be a decent person. In the movie Clean and Sober Morgan Freeman gets the line "You know the addict's least favourite word? It's NO". When you become an obstacle, you are saying NO and I can barely contain my anger. My father's first reply was always NO and a boy can get fed up and angry of hearing that after a while. It turns you to that Jesuit thing about being easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

This world is full of such people and I have no patience with them. That's my weakness.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Preliminary Remarks on Denial

Denial is the failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion or to admit it into consciousness, used as a defence mechanism. If you're in denial about something, you know it's true, and you're refusing to admit it to yourself, other people and the relevant authorities, whosoever they may be. Denial is always selfish, and because it is a choice and leads to others becoming confused about how to interpret large chunks of their world correctly, it is always malicious. That malice is often the subject of its own denial: the secrets are held to be harmless or our enforced ignorance was for our own good. Hiding the truth about something that matters to someone else is always bad - though that doesn't mean you should rush into blurting it out any old way and when. You are allowed to hide the truth from your enemies. Your children, your family, your spouse, even your employees, customers, suppliers and stockholders - these are not your (official) enemies. When you hide a truth that is their business from them, you are treating them as if they are (officially) enemies. That is malice and bad faith. The fact that the denier is often themselves the victim of someone or something else does not let them off the hook: the correct way to deal with whatever it is, is to name it, shame it and if need be divorce it, not to fabricate a fairy-tale in which it doesn't exist. Weakness may be a reason, but it is not an excuse.

There are times I think that ordinary people no more listen to the words they hear and use than they do the lyrics of their favourite songs. They hear the sound and the inflections and the subject and that's all they need. They pick up the emotional markers and draw political consequences from that - "manager X thinks that project Y is a good thing, so I shouldn't make rude noises about it to her" - but do not listen to the actual words and draw substantive conclusions - "manager X thinks project Y will help us one jot? hasn't she seen it? I should explain why it sucks".

If you grew up with denial you can't do what normal people do: ignore the lyrics and listen to the song. It isn't that you can't hear the song, it's that you know that a song is just a singer's trick. You can't trust the words, you can't trust the emotional signals around the words, so you trust only the actions. You work backwards from consequences to intentions because you can't trust what anyone says about their motives. You take words at their face value, because that's all you can do, even though you know as a matter of abstract principle that what they said is not what they mean. After a while, you can recognise denial by its very manner of expression. And because you know about the malice behind it, you are upset and insulted, it triggers memories and reactions from way, way back when you were vulnerable and upset. If you grew up around denial, it's hard to handle it when you're an adult.

This is what trips me up time and time again at The Bank. I'm not going to list all the things The Bank's management is in denial about - life is too short and I'll just get upset. And all this has consequences for what I think I'm good and bad at as regards that dreaded phrase "people skills".

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

So How Smart Do I Think I Am?

In the previous posts I described the Dreyfus model of skill levels and explained why experts are not to be found in service industries. I've worked in service industries all my life and it makes me wonder how smart I really am or how much I didn't bother learning because I didn't need to.

So here's my view of myself. I am a proficient problem-solver and decision-maker. Part of that proficiency is learning to use the tools at hand to solve the problem, to produce something that does whatever needs to be done. At work I use Excel and VBA to produce reports off Teradata and Oracle databases not because I think those are the best tools, but because until recently The Bank didn't have anything else. (That's right, one of the largest retail financial companies in human history didn't have SAS or Business Objects as standard analyst's kit. You couldn't make it up.) Those solutions do the job and the job is what I was hired to do. Now that we have SAS and Business Objects, I'll look into using those. I extend my knowledge of what those tools can do and I've tightened up my programming style since reading Code Complete a couple of years ago. Another part of that proficiency is having enough background knowledge of a lot of subjects so that I can pick up and understand what I need, covering subjects from statistical significance tests to buyer psychology.

Am I a proficient VBA programmer and Excel user? Here's where I have a problem. Probably I am, but because I've always worked in service industries where the technical requirements are very low, I've never really been pushed to learn all that I can learn. And I don't learn that stuff for the enjoyment of it - I'm a philosopher and mathematician, not a programmer who goes home and works on open-source. So maybe while I have proficient technique, my knowledge level is only competent.

If I'm a proficient problem-solver and decision-maker, how come I'm, not in management? Because except right at the top, management is not where decisions are made nor problems solved. Most management jobs are mostly administration, reporting, supervision, some light project- and process-management and people-development. A handful offer opportunities for leadership-by-example and even fewer for leadership-by-inspiration. The Bank flatters call centre team group supervisors by sending them on "leadership" courses, but that's just linguistic inflation. You want to make decisions? Seek out the trading floor my son. You want to solve problems? Go into programming, engineering or medicine.

I'm a proficient pricing analyst / manager as well. In a lot of companies, pricing is where a lot of decisions are. Just not in The Bank. The pricing I do is neither insurance nor financial instruments, but that's enough. I don't want to price CDO's thank you. You can't be good at pricing without being competent at management accounting and such related matters.

So at what do I suck?

Monday, 2 August 2010

R I P Tony Peluso

Tony Pelso is the guy who played the guitar solos on The Carpenter's Goodbye to Love and along with Richard Carpenter invented the Big Ballad Guitar Solo. He wasn't the greatest guitarist in the world, but he didn't need to be. He just needed to do this...

In Heaven as I think of it, that's enough to get you in.