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Leadership Pairing: Connecting the Right Hand to the Left

August 23, 2015
Superman Let’s dispel a myth at the outset: there is NO Superman–or Superwoman. Created in 1933 (1959 for Supergirl), these are fictional characters who have brought fun and enjoyment to the masses over many decades.

The same concept applies to leaders of organizations and mass movements.

No human being has ever proved to be the omnipresent perfect leader, capable of creating a crystal clear strategic vision; captivating and engaging employees, stakeholders or citizens; serving with rock solid integrity devoid of any deviations; precise and transparent communication; empathy and humor; and humbleness.

It’s a pretty tall order. Sure there are plenty of top leaders in business, government and not-for-profit organizations who have been pretty solid and effective. But we’re human beings, each of us bringing our own baggage to the dance–the result of our upbringing, life experiences and education. Yet we still have huge expectations of those at, or near, the top of the pyramid. Whether in public life or running big companies, we demand that top managerial leaders are nothing short of perfect.

thumbnail Henry Mintzberg (pictured), Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has a lengthy background in leadership empirical research. From his PhD dissertation over 35 years ago on what managers actually do in the course of carrying out their daily responsibilities to recent research, Mintzberg has remained focused on studying the practical necessities of managerial leadership.

He’s not one to mince words. The long lists of attributes and characteristics of leaders sparked Mintzberg to assert in a CBC Radio interview: “…Superman’s abilities are modest in comparison. We list everything imaginable.”

The late Peter Drucker, the 20th Century’s pre-eminent management thinker, understood the interrelationship between management and leadership. He didn’t believe that management and leadership could be separated, stating it’s “…nonsense, as much nonsense as separating management from entrepreneurship. Those are part and parcel of the same job. They are different to be sure, but only as different as the right hand from the left or the nose from the mouth. They belong to the same body.”

When we consider the demands placed on top leaders in a volatile and increasingly unpredictable world, it’s easy to understand that the individual at the top of the pyramid benefits from a close second-in-command who complements his or her skills. The attributes of leadership need to be interwoven with those of management–the right hand with the left hand.

I’ve written previously on one of the world’s greatest contemporary innovators: Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City. Musk isn’t the easiest dude to work for. To say he can be a prick would be a complement for this incredibly gifted visionary and hugely impatient CEO and entrepreneur.

Musk’s biggest challenge is to colonize Mars. SpaceX has done spectacularly well in its launches, being the prime supplier of the International Space Station, as well as carrying satellites to geo-synchronous orbit for a variety of organizations. As an acutely impatient visionary, Musk needs someone who fully understands his vision and eccentricities, and who’s able to execute flawlessly on his behalf.

Shotwell Gwynne Shotwell (pictured) doesn’t mince her words. As the Chief Operating Office of SpaceX, she’s on a mission – to Mars. Her boss, Elon Musk, is the most visionary CEO on Planet Earth. Musk is often intolerably difficult and prickly, not only to employees and peers, but experts in the aviation industry, politicians and anyone else who gets in his way.

Shotwell, on the top 100 list of Power Women 2015, graduated from Northwestern University with degrees in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics. She was the seventh employee hired by SpaceX when it was formed in 2002. Previously she was Aerospace Corporation for over 10 years.

Tough and smart as she is, Shotwell also has the ability to bring Musk’s Mars vision from 40,000 feet to ground level to engage and motivate SpaceX employees and new recruits. Her role includes embedding SpaceX’s culture in the hearts and minds of employees, a vital necessity as the company grows larger and competes against aerospace giants. Here she is speaking bluntly to about 100 interns who were brought into the cafeteria (from Ashlee Vance’s book Elon Musk):

“Our competitors are scared shitless of us. The behemoths are going to have to figure out how to get it together and compete. And it is our job to have them die. [In reference to the new Falcon Heavy rocket] Make sure your output is high. If we’re throwing a bunch of shit in your way, you need to be mouthy about it. That’s not a quality that’s widely accepted elsewhere, but it is at SpaceX.

If you hate people and think human extinction is okay, then fuck it. Don’t go to space. If you think it’s worth humans doing some risk management and finding a second place to live, then you should be focused on this issue.

(If you think Shotwell’s cursing is out of line, then don’t go near Musk since he’s a practitioner of the “F” shot.)

The people in the cafeteria loved it, firing intelligent questions at Shotwell.

That’s engagement.

Sandberg Another example of leadership pairing is what I’ll call the odd couple, where the second in command has a longer resume than the organization’s leader. The irony continues as the founder and top dog exhibited for several years acute immaturity and shyness when facing the public and the media. And then there’s the continuing issue of privacy, an elastic concept in the social media world.

Sheryl Sandberg (pictured) has been a vital asset to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Granted, Zuckerberg for the most part has stopped the profuse sweating, unblinking eyes and robotic behavior that became a trademark of his earlier interviews. Sandberg, 45 years of age, is extremely savvy and an excellent communicator. She’s engaging, smart and highly likeable when interviewed. Her COO position and communications skills have enabled her to divert much of the shitstream that has been aimed at Facebook, from the media to privacy commissioners in Canada and other countries.

When it comes to leading large companies, the public continues to maintain an unreasonable reverence and expectation of the top leader. Consider the mercurial Steve Jobs, who, like Elon Musk, was often brutal on employees and those close to him. Jobs had his weaknesses, in addition to his temperament and immaturity, in terms of running Apple. It’s why Tim Cook, current CEO, rose to prominence from when he was hired in 1998.

Cook’s first role with Apple was Senior Vice President for Worldwide Operations. Focused on reducing manufacturing costs and improving efficiencies, he shut down plants and warehouses, outsourcing these activities to contractors. In 2007, Cook was promoted to Chief Operating Officer, subsequently acting as CEO while Jobs was sick, and then assumed the position of CEO in January 2011. Over the past four years, Tim Cook’s performance has been solid, keeping Apple in its role as a major innovator.

Let’s therefore dispel the myth of CEO as Superman or Superwoman, and acknowledge that organizations function best when the right hand and left hand of the best qualities of top leaders are connected.

What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely. From an acting point of view, that’s how I approached the part.

– Christopher Reeve (actor)

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Canada’s Greatest Innovator who never was: Elon Musk’s Innovation Journey

August 16, 2015
Elon Musk He was born on June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa.

His mother was a dietician, his father a mechanical and electrical engineer. A year later his brother, Kimbal, was born, and sister, Tosca, soon afterwards.

Young children are naturally curious, but this youngest exhibited a huge curiosity, often appearing to be in a trance-like state. At first, his parents and the family doctor thought the young lad might be deaf. Tests proved negative.

It was remarkable how a youngster could block out everyone and everything around him while creating his own visual world. He read heavily, hours and hours uninterrupted, soaking up information like a sponge due to his photographic memory.

He built rockets in middle and high school, but was also mercilessly bullied. His best friend was beaten soundly by bullies who told them to stop hanging around with him.

Elon Musk never let the bullying and beatings deter him from his thirst to explore and learn. At age seventeen he left for Canada. Musk was set on changing the world, and he wasn’t going to do that in South Africa. Fortunately for Musk, his mother’s lineage, which traced back to Germany, included Canadian citizenship from her family having lived in the U.S. Midwest and later Saskatchewan, one of the Prairie Provinces (bordered on the south by Montana and North Dakota).

Book This brief recounting of who’s emerging rapidly as one of the world’s greatest contemporary innovators and technology leaders is drawn from Ashlee Vance’s new biography Elon Musk.

Life works in strange ways. Take a fork in the road and new opportunities present themselves. But what about the other fork, or forks? What possibilities could have arisen? We’ll never know. We can speculate, make assumptions and wish fervently that an alternate route had been taken.

In Elon Musk’s case, he left South Africa to avoid being drafted into the apartheid regime’s military. However, he also wanted to go to the U.S. because of its entrepreneurial culture and the huge opportunities to make a difference.

After waiting a year for the Canadian government to process his request for a passport, he finally left, arriving in Montreal to stay with an uncle who, it turned out, was away. That left Musk to stay in a hostel. Within days, he bought a cross-Canada bus ticket and headed for Swift Current, Saskatchewan, the home of his deceased grandfather. Over the subsequent months he worked at a variety of manual jobs in different provinces, with one involving wearing a hazmat suit at a paper mill.

Musk School Not long afterwards, Musk enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. It was around then that Kimbal arrived in Canada to join him. (Musk transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in 1992.)

The two determined brothers researched businesspeople, making cold calls to ask if they could have lunch. One such businessman was Peter Nicholson of the Bank of Nova Scotia who met with them. Nicholson was so impressed with Elon that he became his mentor, offering him an internship at the bank.

One fascinating story in Vance’s book relates to Musk’s incredible ability to see a financial opportunity within a complex setting. At the time, the Bank of Nova Scotia was holding billions of dollars in wobbly debts with developing countries. Musk learned of Brady Bonds, introduced by the U.S. government as a means of backstopping these loans. He calculated that instead of the bank holding a 25 cent on the dollar position (eg, Brazil) that by buying the bonds the bank could double its position to 50 cents.

Musk called Goldman Sachs, and in reply to the trader’s question of how much he wanted to buy he replied, $10 billion. But Musk was met by a flat refusal from the Bank of Nova Scotia after being told to write up a report on the proposal. This is not surprising, given Canadian banks’ propensity for not taking risks. However, this story is illustrative of a $14 an hour intern who saw the possibilities when others couldn’t or were too risk-averse.

Space Elon Musk’s journey into becoming an entrepreneur, from co-founding Pay Pal to Tesla to Solar City to SpaceX is almost fictional. How could one human being have so much vision, drive and commitment to creating new entities for the world? Like Steve Jobs, Musk is extremely demanding, impatient and frequently abusive to employees. Indeed, he appears to be worse than Jobs, a not easy feat. Musk’s married life has been a gong show.

This creates a certain ambivalence in one’s mind: does an entrepreneurial leader have to be such a prick to people in the pursuit of a vision?

In theory, no. But in real life, once you understand the background of the individual, the demanding vision and short timeframes, and the need to shake up people’s mental models on how they confront demanding challenges, then you begin to appreciate people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.

One telling observation comes from Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA (from Vance’s book). She recounts how she spent years fighting to allow private companies to bid on NASA contracts, such as with the International Space Station. She endured death threats, and encountered SpaceX competitors who trashed Elon Musk, making up wild rumors about his family and past life in South Africa. As she states: “…It’s nuts that people would want to vilify Elon. He might say some things that rub people the wrong way, but, at some point, the being nice to everyone thing doesn’t work.”

Elon Musk left Canada after a few years for the United States, the world’s innovation powerhouse. What if he had stayed in Canada to pursue his dreams? What would he be achieving? Would he have felt smothered by government bureaucracy and frustrated by Canada’s risk-averse business community?


Old Phone Witness the catastrophic collapse of Nortel in the early 2000s, a once proud Canadian company dating back to the Northern Electric and Manufacturing Company, created in 1895. Or more recently the fall of Research in Motion, aka Blackberry, led by respected physicist and innovator, Mike Lazaridis.

The Blackberry’s huge success and growth reversed course abruptly as a result of Lazaridis’ and Jim Balsillie’s (who co-led the company) arrogance and refusal to believe that the Apple iPhone and Android devices would shake up the mobile industry. New CEO John Chen has been desperately trying to turn the company around, after thousands of layoffs, to create a more focused enterprise.

These two titans of Canada’s telecom industry, which influenced the world, were responsible for the lion’s share of research and development in that country. Since their demise Canada’s telecom industry has struggled along, trying to keep up with fast-changing developments around the globe.

Setting aside Elon Musk’s eccentricities and darker side, he has been a gift to the United States on the innovation front. Musk needs a large playing field, from access to venture capital to talented people with unique skill sets to a country with a can-do attitude. Canada comes up hugely short on these three key aspects.

Any country that wishes to set itself on the path to wealth creation for its citizens must instill a national sense of excitement for the future, with a clear and compelling vision that engages and motivates people. Yes, education and training, inclusion in the labor market and a business-friendly environment are extremely important. However, the absence of an engaging vision is analogous to tying one’s hand behind the back.

Elon Musk’s gift has been creating that vision for the United States–and indeed the planet–of space travel to Mars, large-scale solar power generation and electric vehicles for the masses. He’s accomplished this in the context of little national political leadership. America is starting to get excited.

What about Canada?

We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay.

— Kevin Hartz (PayPal investor. From Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk)

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It’s About Human Capital, Stupid!

August 9, 2015
James Carville Pithy expressions have a certain appeal. They have staying power, and can be adapted and used effectively in a variety of contexts.

One of your correspondent’s favorites is a three word phrase that has been appropriated by many and used with abandon: “The economy, stupid.” Yes, the contraction “It’s” has been typically inserted at the beginning to make it a proper sentence.

So who’s the genius behind such a succinct statement?

None other than political commentator and former strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign James Carville (pictured). Intended for Clinton’s campaign workers as one of the three key messages on which to focus (the other two dealing with healthcare and change), Carville’s message is so very appropriate for politicians of all stripes and level: municipal, state-provincial and national. If you’re not focused on what’s not just on voters’ minds but also the nation’s strategic issues, than you’re a lost cause as a politician.

Fast forward 23 years to 2015, where Canada has a federal election on October 19,and where the United States is in the throes of a protracted 2016 leadership campaign for both the Republicans (a gong show at best) and Democrats (a supposed coronation for Queen Hillary). It’s definitely not a pretty sight.

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (in power since 2006) clinging to the mantra that Canada has run-away crime (totally false) and a terrorist hiding under every bed (an illusion caused by excessive pot-smoking), virtually zero is being done to looking to the future in terms of developing the country’s capacity in such areas as the applied sciences, advanced technologies and basic research (cut heavily under Harper), which is where innovation resides. It’s a sad–and indeed terrifying–story.

Globalization Your faithful correspondent spent three decades in the public sector, working on such challenging subjects as labor market trends (eg, jobs of the future), global competitiveness of Canadian companies, and developing human capital (economist speak for education and training). If there were ever a time for a country to get its act together when it comes to building its workforce, it is now.

Yet, for the past decade Canada has slept while Stephen Harper has clung to the naïve notion that Canada is an energy superpower; investments in other sectors of the economy are not necessary. For someone with a Master’s degree in economics Stephen Harper has proven to be a bit of a slow learner, notably when it comes to globalization and the interdependency of markets.

And then the price of oil nose-dived, thanks largely to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology advancements in the U.S. and conservation efforts. Your correspondent can picture Harper waking up one morning upon news of the new reality and looking in the mirror, uttering “Holy crap!” Well, Russia’s stoic president Vladimir Putin probably expressed the same thought, considering the mess that country is in; call it what it is–recession.

In the past, politicians have been largely able to get away with taking a short-term view when it comes to government policy. However, the world has become increasingly volatile and unpredictable, in turn demanding longer-term thinking and policies. It will take time to make the transition. But valuable time is lost when effective political action doesn’t materialize, leading to the loss of lost time, the application of ideas and wealth generation.

No national wealth production means no income re-distribution, a hallmark of a civilized and progressive society.

(Note to self: The United States of America is not one to emulate when it comes to the distribution of wealth.)

Learn At the core of developing a country’s long-term competitive capacity is human capital development. That’s economist speak for a nation’s stock (or national capacity) of its population’s education, training, skills, work experiences. The higher the percentage of the population and the greater the depth of the array of skills, the stronger the nation’s human capital stock.

Within a country’s human capital stock is one critically important component: early childhood education. At the heart of developing our children, so that they may grow into well-functioning adults who contribute to a nation’s development, is the concept of Community. By this your correspondent is referring to citizens taking a strong interest in how children are cared for and raised, and their right to receive an equal education, regardless of socio-economic means. Unfortunately, in Canada and the U.S. (especially) early childhood education is a crapshoot for parents of more modest means, but almost assured for the upper middle class.

This is an urgent call for a different style of national leadership, one that looks to the long-term and is willing to take an uncompromising, principled approach to leading a country. It’s a hugely tall order. Politicians live day-to-day, patronizing the electorate, making unrealistic empty promises and running for cover when shit hits the fan. (Read the latter point as hiding behind political aides and civil servants, letting someone else take the fall.)

Mulcair Currently, Canada is in a leadership vacuum. But then so, too, is the United States and a host of other Western, industrialized countries. Canada’s next federal election is set for October 19, 2015. At this point, the leadership pickings are thin; however, your faithful correspondent is impressed with New Democratic Party leader Thomas (Tom) Mulcair, a bilingual Montrealer who served as a cabinet minister in a previous Liberal government in Quebec.

A feisty, articulate trained lawyer of Irish descent, Mulcair seems to get it when it comes to the critical importance of caring for and developing children. It’s about an investment for the future of the country, in contrast to current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who sees issues such as this as a cost, an expense to be cut.

As noted at the outset of this post, there’s a lot at stake for any country that is not paying close attention to human capital development, the building of its human capital stock and, specifically, the learning and growth of its children.

It takes a special type of national leader who gets it and who’s willing to take a principled stand on his or her beliefs and vision for the country. Citizens who elect politicians who engage in short-term thinking, possess fuzzy visions of the future, and make empty promises are only contributing to their country’s eventual slide to obscurity.

Don’t let that happen on October 19.

Get out and vote.

It is not the gifts we’ve received over the years, the technology or superfluous things, but rather the time we have spent together that we remember and cherish.

Loreena McKennitt (Canadian musician)

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Collective Leadership: From the Bottom Up

August 3, 2015
Collective 1 The rapid pace of change around the globe has been widely reported on. No big news here.

Technology is largely responsible for dispersing jobs to far-off countries, improving our physical health and longevity, our being able to travel to destinations in warm climates for vacation, diagnosing and curing medical illnesses, and changing the nature of how work is done in the workplace (getting rid of the drudgery and elevating skill requirements).

The world of geo-politics has been a rollercoaster of non-stop events, from confrontations between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea to Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions to Greece’s continuing financial soap opera.

And then there’s the growing awareness of such critical environmental problems as droughts in America’s southwest and northern Africa, contrasted by rising sea levels on coastal areas around the world.

Yet despite all what’s been happening in just recent years–a mere nanosecond in Earth’s history–one thing has barely budged: the human dimension of leadership–how it’s applied and adapted to a turbulent world of volatile and unrelenting change.

Ridley Recently, your faithful correspondent was re-reading an excellent book from his collection: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolvesby Matt Ridley. A respected author of provocative books on evolution and society, Ridley takes the reader on journey back in time to early civilization.

One comment early in the book caused a light to go on. Ridley talks about “Collective Intelligence.” He uses the examples of the primitive stone axe, created some 500,000 years ago in what is now southern England, and the much later developed computer mouse. Both are man-made. However, the stone axe was made by one individual, while the mouse was made by hundreds of people in several different countries.

As Ridley states: “No single person knows how to make a computer mouse….At some point human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that happened to no other animal.”

But what has happened to leadership? Has it evolved to become more “collective” in our interconnected, complex world? Or has it mostly remained mired in the Frederick Winslow Taylor early 1900 era-thinking of management efficiency of production?

When it comes to the intertwined disciplines of leadership (inspiring and aligning people towards a common purpose) and management (getting work done right and on time) organizations are still for the most part operating with an early 20th Century mindset. Those in appointed management positions confuse this with leadership, the essence of which is founded upon followership. No followers? You’re not a leader.


Water Enter Matt Ridley’s concept of Collective Intelligence. Then apply it to leadership and management. The world is too complex and organizations have become bureaucratic beasts (both government and business), yet depth of understanding and ability have become more important. This creates the contradiction and tension between specialization (aka Taylor) and the emerging skill requirement for integrating disparate cultures, consumer markets and technologies.

This is what leadership in the 21st Century is about: being able to grasp the critical importance of collective intelligence within organizations that are struggling to adapt to constant change. Collective leadership engages everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, being crystal clear on purpose, vision and operating values. In short, collective leadership recognizes that no single person or top management clique has the answer to complex questions, nor the definitive path to organizational success.

Let’s check back in with Matt Ridley, who takes a future-oriented view on collective intelligence towards the end of his book:

“Intelligence will become more and more collective; innovation and order will become more and more bottom-up; work will become more and more specialized, leisure more and more diversified.”

So what does this look like? For example, we’ll see physicians adjusting to their patients becoming increasingly better informed on health issues as a result of their research skills, media sources adapting to how readers and listeners organize their news on demand, and manufacturers responding to consumers’ preferences for customized products.

Ridley’s world is already being realized. This creates a huge call for a new type of leadership guiding public and private organizations. When that leadership arrives is an open question.

Take a moment to share your thoughts.

The Bottom-Up World is to be the great theme of this century.

– Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist)

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Steve Jobs: Leadership through Simplicity in Design

July 26, 2015
Young Steve Jobs So much of what we consumers purchase is based on shoddy workmanship, planned obsolescence and crappy follow-up customer service. Those in corporate leadership positions don’t seem to get it, typically getting cycled in and out of their top jobs for short periods. Screwing up doesn’t seem to matter, including unethical behavior, prompting generous severance packages. These corporate leaders are often not around to witness the full consequences of their inept leadership.

Whether physical products or services, their design usually leaves something to be desired, screaming out the ubiquitous question: “Why can’t you idiots in corporate land design things that work easily?”

Well, there’s one person who understood this early in life, and who lived the simplicity and elegance of design every day: Steve Jobs, who was my age (a few months older). Indeed, when someone your age who’s well known passes away, or dies tragically, you recognize your own imminent mortality, that we’re on Earth for but a nano-second in time. And if you’ve respected that person’s achievements over many years then you feel that the world has lost someone very special.

The first computer I used was an Apple II+ in 1982 when I joined the Government of Canada as an economist. A dual 5 ¼ inch floppy disk drive, three of my co-workers and I shared this state-of-the-art invention, much to the amazement of the rest of the regional office. People ogled the contraption, asking if they could ask the computer a question and if an answer would issue forthwith.

Alas, no.

But it was a very cool machine in its day.

Steve Jobs Steve Jobs, one of the world’s great contemporary innovators, left this planet for another life on October 5, 2011. Prior to his passing and since then a plethora of books have been written about him. While I can’t attest to which books are preferable, I can point to two that are great companions, having read them.

First, there’s Walter Isaacson’s 2011 masterpiece Steve Jobs (and 2013 paperback with epilogue about his death) for those who want more objective detail about his life and times. This authorized biography (600-plus pages and years in the making) sets the bar for informative books on Steve Jobs.

The second book is Steve Jobs Life by Design, which I really enjoyed, largely because of its conciseness–reflecting Jobs’ minimalist approach to design. Author George Beahm, a retired U.S. Army major, bases his book on Jobs’ last lecture at Stanford University’s 114th commencement on June 11, 2005. Check out Jobs’ full address here: How to Live before You Die.

Beahm does a brilliant job at capturing the essence of Steve Jobs, replete with leadership and life lessons, in less than 200 pages. It’s a gem of a book. He also links very nicely to another excellent book that I read several years ago: The Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams by Randy Pausch, delivered on September 18, 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the most watched videos on the web. His succinct book is a must-read.

Elon Musk Now I can hear some out there objecting to what’s been written so far, saying “Steve Jobs was a prick; he treated Apple employees and friends horribly and was in ways a narcissist.”

You’ll get no arguments or excuses from this quarter. Yet, one has only to look at other revered corporate leaders to realize they’re also very prickly, with hugely demanding personalities. Witness Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder and genius, Elon Musk (pictured, and also co-founder of PayPal ). Musk, like Jobs, doesn’t suffer fools. But it’s why people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs achieved such incredible things for the benefit of consumers and society.

So chill out, naysayers.

At his June 11, 2005, commencement address, Steve Jobs made one particularly valuable comment. Young people, then and 10 years later, continue to have a very difficult time in the job market, added to with onerous student loans. Reflect on his words:

Find the work that you love–and then relentlessly pursue it. That’s where you will find your fortune.

At the core of true leadership is the essence of simplicity, the ability to see through complexity, distilling patterns and trends, the inter-connections between ostensibly unrelated events. Top level leadership is not for everyone. Possessing the far-reaching vision to see what’s currently not possible, yet propelling everyone in the organization to move forward in unison at a breathtaking pace, is for the extraordinary individual. Steve Jobs certainly had that unique ability.

Your life is unique, so live it without regrets because you pass this way only once.

– Steve Jobs (Stanford University 2005 commencement address)

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The Race to the Bottom: Absent–Employee Engagement

July 19, 2015
Loblaws strike The corporate world is peculiar. Lots off odd–and corrupt–things occur in companies, large and small, at home and in far corners of the world. When it comes to oddities, sometimes one can distill a certain sense of reasoning and logic. But often we scratch our heads, wondering what the heck is going on?

Your faithful correspondent has seen plenty of weird stuff in his 40 years in the job market. One of the weirder–no, let’s be straight here and call it perverse–practices in the corporate world has been the introduction of top employer awards. These back-scratching, self-serving awards have undermined their initial intent: to recognize and profile companies, regardless of size, that have demonstrated strong leadership in business growth, employee relations, learning and development, and social and environmental responsibility.

In short, these companies aren’t focused on shareholder value growth, a notion that former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch harshly criticized a few years ago. Real top employers operate in a holistic manner. They practice leadership on a daily basis and engage employees at all levels of the organization.

One vital element of being a truly excellent employer is how you treat your employees. And that includes being transparent with your business decisions, corporate strategies, and relations with employees and unions (if present). If you’re not doing this on a daily basis then your company has no right to being part of a top employer ranking.

Yet as just noted there’s weird stuff going on in the corporate world. Witness Loblaws, Canada’s biggest grocery chain, which has won for six consecutive years a top 100 employer award.

Loblaws Strike 2 It defies logic. How can a company that has worked relentlessly at shrinking its workforce and diminishing the role of its unions be included in the contrived top 100 employer ranking? Your correspondent has been a Loblaws customer for over 15 years, though not a willing participant due to Ottawa’s non-competitive grocery market. At your correspondent’s local Loblaws store, the dwindling staff slog on, grim-faced, stocking shelves and responding to customer inquiries, but never initiating with “May I help you find something?”

One of Loblaws’ tactics has been to change the names of its stores, ostensibly as part of rebranding exercises, thus creating new legal entities. The result is employees being faced with new employment conditions, including wages and work hours. Unfortunately, your correspondent witnessed a number of his favorite employees, notably experienced cashiers, leave the company, accepting exit packages offering lump sum payments. The remaining staff appear defeated as they go about their daily work duties.

Recently, 97% of Loblaws workers in Ontario voted to go on strike over several bargaining issues. Days before publishing this post, members of the union representing 12,000 workers at 60 Loblaws stores in Ontario avoided a strike by voting for a six-year contract. Members of locals representing other Loblaws branded stores had yet to hold ratification votes.

Yours truly has made a point to engage many of the employees at his local store in conversation, from cashiers to department stockers. It’s amazing how revealing and honest people are when you show that you’re interested in their plight. Employees detest Loblaws. They detest how they’re treated, how their wages have been manipulated downwards, and how staffing is done at minimal levels, combined with almost everyone in a store being part-time.

Sobeys The problem of strikes, threatened and actual, has plagued Loblaws for years. Largely driven by the fear of the Walmart groceries juggernaut and Target, the latter of which collapsed within two years and left Canada with its tail between its legs. Loblaws has engaged in a race-to-the-bottom of cost-cutting, union-fighting and new supply chain management, which proved to be a disaster a few year ago. The result has been thinly staffed stores, with varying pay rates within stores due to the union issue. The consequence is poor customer service, despite the valiant efforts of many Loblaws employees.

Recently, your correspondent and his wife, Sue, moved a few miles away to new neighborhood. Interestingly, there’s no Loblaws store nearby; instead, there’s a Sobey’s store a few minutes away. One afternoon, shortly after moving in, yours truly visited the Sobeys store, a five minute walk away. Sobeys is Canada’s second largest grocer, based in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, and a grocer not without its own union issues.

The first thing your correspondent noticed when entering the store were employees, many employees, in contrast to Loblaws. When inquiring about supplements to an employee, the fellow explained that he wasn’t all that familiar with them but would find someone who was. Your faithful’s expectation was a Loblaws experience, with no one coming to help. A few minutes later a young pharmacist approached, asking how he could help. He then ushered your surprised correspondent to his office and proceeded to seek more information.

A repeat performance occurred a few days later, but this time with the fellow who managed the grocery part of the store, who had in an earlier visit helped with a question on a product. He made a point of acknowledging your correspondent, saying, “Give it a few weeks and you’ll get to know the store.”

These were mind-altering moments, for never in his years of shopping at Loblaws had staff shown that much interest in his needs. But it doesn’t negate the point that workers in Canada, in this instance grocery employees, face the ongoing downward pressures of corporate cost-cutting. One could ponder what the absence of unions in Loblaws and Sobeys would mean for hourly wage rates, working conditions, benefits and pensions.

It comes down to this: if a company wishes to be legitimately seen by the public and its employees as a top employee then the true test is whether it consistently delivers superb customer service. If you’re doing this as a company then you’re likely treating your employees well.

Whole Foods 1 Let’s quickly check out two innovative grocery companies in the United States as a comparison.

Trader Joe’s, founded in 1958 as Pronto Markets, with a name change in 1967 to its current form (owned since 1979 by a German family trust) sets the bar for customer-focused grocery stores. Your correspondent and his wife visited a Trader Joe’s in 2008 in San Diego while on a trip. It was certainly an eye-opening experience, prompting an email to the company to see if it had any plans to come to Canada. Alas, no.

And witness Whole Foods (pictured above and below), founded in 1980 in Austin, Texas, another hugely successful American grocer that just opened near downtown Ottawa. This required a visit from yours truly to see just what all the fuss is about. Well, it’s certainly not overstated. Our visit was, again, an eye-opening experience, with a big selection of specialty products, reasonable prices and courteous staff. Indeed, a subsequent email was sent to Whole Foods to ask them to consider opening their next store in Ottawa’s west end.

On February 9, 2012, Trader Joe’s followed Whole Foods’ lead and signed an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group based in Immokalee, Florida, recognized for its successful Fair Food campaign.

Whole Foods 2 Big is not always better, regardless of whether a company achieves economies of scale. The problem with big, besides the pointy heads in head office being detached from customers and employees who work the frontlines, is the impact on people–allegedly a company’s most valuable asset–when corporate cost-cutting becomes the focus of its attention and existence.

Competition drives innovation, customer service and value-pricing for consumers. And in the process employees stand a chance of being treated more humanely. Canada’s oligopolistic grocery market is serving no one but shareholders.

It’s time for a change and an end to the race to the bottom.

When you shop pay attention to the work environment. Are the employees attentive, initiating contact with you, and do they smile readily, indicating some measure of happiness with their work? Make a point of engaging them in conversation. Let them know you care about how they’re treated by their employer.

I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.

– Jackie Robinson (Second baseman and first African American to play in the major leagues)

Book CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Discover Your Inner Leader: Reflections to Inspire and Motivate.

Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Jim Grand Manan FBTake a moment to meet Jim.

The Nasty Society: Throwing Away Decades of Progress

July 12, 2015
Globe on Dollars One of the biggest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the gullible Western media and uninitiated public was the alleged benefits of opening markets under the guise of free trade.

British economist David Ricardo’s 200 year-old concept of Comparative Advantage (more accurately it’s about opportunity cost) argued for a country to specialize in a good, or goods, which could be produced more cheaply, leaving other nations to focus on other goods that could be produced at lowest cost. By specializing in a range of goods across countries, the result is the emergence of free trade with reciprocal benefits for all participants.

To appropriate Ricardo’s theory and apply it to a latter 20th Century–and now 21st Century–context is for the foolhardy and the naïve to swallow. Yet that’s precisely what the majority of economists have done, compounding their errors by arguing against Western governments’ stimulus programs post-Great Recession of 2009-10. Brighter lights, such as respected economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman understand the perils of engaging in simplistic arguments concerning free trade and combatting government deficits in an age of intractable high unemployment.

Today’s advocates of Ricardo’s comparative advantage apparently are not aware that “back-in-the-day” (circa 1800) governments were not heavily subsidizing manufacturers (eg, Brazil’s and France’s aircraft industries), or engaging in currency manipulations (ie, China) or union-busting as a means to attract employers (aka Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin). David Ricardo’s simple world 200 years ago didn’t possess the inter-connected issues and numerous unpredictable events that characterize today’s economy and society, not to mention a global trade network of dozens of participants.

Charlie Chaplin Your correspondent worked for the Government of Canada for three decades, mostly as a senior labor market economist, but whose last nine years was with the Department of Industry (cousin to the U.S. Commerce Department). From serving the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Science & Technology to subsequently working on competitiveness and innovation issues, your correspondent was surrounded by those who had drank the Kool-Aid on the marvelous benefits of outsourcing work to far-off countries, under the guise of David Ricardo’s comparative advantage. My contemporaries, and scores of esteemed economists and experts, argued that countries such as the United States, Canada and Great Britain should embrace knowledge jobs (more on that in a moment), leaving dirty manufacturing work and repetitive administrative jobs to developing countries.

During this period (2000-2010) Canada’s manufacturing sector continued to take hit after hit, all the while Canada’s prime ministers and cabinets (Liberal and Conservative) mostly slept.

Now, where is Canada’s economy, and in particular the manufacturing sector?

Going nowhere but backwards.

And of course this links directly to Canada’s persistent unemployment problem.

A lot of hyperbole has been generated by economists, politicians and policy wonks on the fuzzy concept of knowledge workers.

Girl and blackboard Coined by 20th Century management guru Peter Drucker in 1959, the expression knowledge worker took hold in the nineties and 2000s as the offshoring of manufacturing and service sector jobs (eg, data processing, computer programming and call centers) accelerated.

Compounding the pressure on North American workers has been mechanization and automation, improving efficiency and productivity. Indeed, the recent trend of some manufacturing work being repatriated to the United States from China has some people excited. However, this repatriation is accompanied with the qualification of increased automation in manufacturing plants, along with workers being paid less than before jobs were offshored, combined with the decline of unions (notably in the US). The biggest beneficiary of pulling manufacturing jobs out of China has been Mexico, with its proximity to the US (and Canadian) market and possessing a skilled labor force.

The knowledge worker concept is elastic, stretching out as far as one wishes. If you’re not using your hands (specifically, not getting them dirty) but supposedly doing a job that requires some measure of thinking, then you’re eligible to be a knowledge worker.

What gets lost in the discussion on the location of jobs (and their “quality” and associated benefits) is the role of the corporation. Once upon a time, US companies were able to legitimately espouse their patriotism and what they contributed to American society and culture on top of providing good paying jobs. That’s no longer the case. Corporations now have no substantive allegiance to America or Canada or Great Britain or Germany, etc. They’re multi-national entities that are geographically dispersed and that use offshore tax havens to re-direct profits. Maximizing shareholders wealth is the mantra. Interestingly, it was retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch who strongly criticized this short-sighted mindset. Check out this short interview on this topic with Welch.

Containers The genie can’t be put back in the pseudo free trade bottle. In the past few years, much effort has been made by a wide variety of countries to form regional trading blocks, which is in theory anathema to David Ricardo’s concept of free trade. The 19th Century guru, held to high esteem by his following flock of economists, is being undermined by the politics of relationships and convenience. However, Ricardo’s world never conceived of trade sanctions due to nuclear proliferation, human rights abuses or illegal forced occupations of neighboring states.

The geo-political world is rapidly becoming both a complex beast beyond human comprehension and its ability to competently respond effectively. The hard work of Canada’s and America’s founders and settlers, combined with those who worked tirelessly (most of whom were immigrants) to build world class manufacturing industries is now largely forgotten.

What will be the legacy of today’s political and corporate leaders?

Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.

– Elon Musk (Founder of Tesla and SpaceX)

Book CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Discover Your Inner Leader: Reflections to Inspire and Motivate.

Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Jim Grand Manan FBTake a moment to meet Jim.


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