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The Incredible Shrinking Middle Manager: Flat is Back

June 28, 2015
Black MManager The role of the middle manager is one of the more maligned functions within organizations. Whether they’re the opinions of employees, management theorists or pseudo experts vying for attention, it seems that everyone likes to target middle managers as being redundant to organizations. These bouts of revelation come typically during slow economic growth periods, and especially during recessions.

While we’ve been technically out of recession for some six years, middle managers have been taking a shellacking of late. Whether it’s in the public sphere or corporate world, the numbers and percentage of middle managers in companies has been shrinking again, similar to previous slow growth periods.

It’s easy to pick the low-hanging fruit, whether middle managers, supervisors, back-office staff or staff providing direct customer service. Just don’t touch those in senior management positions. Of course there are exceptions in some companies, which take the axe down through the hierarchy.

However, there’s a reticence to negatively affect the lives of those hidden away in the corner ivory tower offices. And in the Government of Canada (and by association, the US Government) the span of control of executives has reached ridiculously low proportions, reminiscent of the traditional 1960s ratio of one manager for six to eight employees. That’s fine for those in supervisory positions, but not in today’s world for middle managers and certainly not for executives.

I just have to think of my 32 year-old son who works for a major bank, where he had during a recent assignment some 45 staff split between two major cities. Weekly air flights was the practice, working on weekends and available for last-minute conference calls was the norm. Federal public servants would go into apoplexy if faced with such demands.

Magnifying Glass What gets lost in the hyperbole is that middle managers–and supervisors–are the interface between senior management and staff. Middle managers are where staff first receive information that’s critical for their work. They’re where staff turn to for consoling, venting frustrations and requesting new career development opportunities.

Middle managers are the buffer and integrator of information that descends from the gods–those at the peak of the organizational pyramid. They decipher the hidden meanings in the correspondence from the top, actively inquiring into the facts.

Middle managers make a critical difference in how organizations function.

Unfortunately, not all companies understand the role of middle management. Yes, having excessive organizational layers is not desirable in today’s turbulent, competitive global economy. Organizations need to be flexible and adaptable. However, the issue is not just one of too many middle managers and supervisors in some situations, it’s more important to look upwards to try to determine how many layers are sandwiched between the middle and the top.

Witness recent cuts made by a number of Canadian companies. Rogers Communications, one of Canada’s telecom power triad, turfed hundreds of managers and 15% of executives. Bell Canada did the same previously, dumping 2,500 management jobs. Wal-Mart Canada eliminated 200 head office jobs, and Tim Horton’s (recently acquired by Burger King) chopped around 40% of its middle management jobs.

According to Statistics Canada, 10.4% of jobs in Canada in 1995 were in middle management. Two decades later that share now stands at 7.8%. In the context of the country’s labor force, which expanded by over a third during this 20 year period, the role and visibility of middle managers in organizations has clearly diminished.

Flat is Back.

Flat Earth Popular in the eighties and nineties, the concept of the flat organizational structure is undergoing a resurgence. U.S. online shoe retailer Zappos nuked all of its management positions this past spring. CEO Tony Hsieh has embraced what’s called a holocracy, in which employees are organized into overlapping circles of responsibilities. This intersection–interconnection–of job roles is supposed to produce more collaboration and better communication. Top management, in the absence of a middle management, conveys its strategic directions, goal setting and planning directly to the worker circles.

Created by Brian Robertson, a holocracy is another participative form of employee involvement in the workplace. In this short TED Talk Robertson provides an illuminating perspective on how organizations can re-organize to achieve better results by enabling employees.

Gen Y (19-34) loves the idea of any organizational design that reduces hierarchy and that gives them more freedom (however one may wish to define it). Gen X (35-49) will approach it trepidatiously, given it is assuming the management mantel from retiring Baby Boomers. And Boomers, notably the younger sub-set (50-59) will shake their heads collectively, muttering “Been there, done that.”

Will holocracy have any staying power? It depends, particularly on the results it produces for companies. The bottom line is regardless of label, these concepts–fads if you prefer–are about top management creating a work environment where people are able to perform to their fullest and, by logic, have the greatest positive impact on the organization’s results.

So let’s stop using middle managers as punching bags, the proxy for senior management lashing out when its ill-thought corporate strategies produce undesirable results. The challenge for top management is to simultaneously keep an eye on the distant horizon, moving the organization towards its vision, while striving to bring the best out of employees in tactical daily operations.

Changing corporate culture is not a tactical exercise. It’s about engaging the hearts and minds of people.

– Jim Taggart

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The Clueless Leading the Clueless: When National Vision and Leadership Matter

June 22, 2015
Harper 1 Leading a nation is a tough job.

National leaders come in all varieties: from the visionary (eg, America’s Franklin D. Roosevelt, Canada’s founding prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald, Great Britain’s Winston Churchill) to the administrator (eg, America’s Jimmy Carter, Canada’s current prime minister Stephen Harper, Germany’s Angela Merkel), to the despot (eg, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada).

And then there’s Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, a self-perceived rock star to his citizens but who clearly is following Machiavelli’s playbook, with some pernicious twists and adaptations. Stay strong, Ukraine!

Canada, as a middle power of 35 million citizens but the second largest country geographically on the planet (second to Russia), used to matter. And that was when it had a smaller population.

Whether it was Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who fought tirelessly against Apartheid in South Africa (coercing US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to support sanctions) or Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson who received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1957 for setting up the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal crisis, Canada has made a significant difference in the world on several occasions.

Unfortunately, the past near quarter century has been a time warp of corrupt government (witness the Liberal Party of Canada under Prime Minister Jean Chretien), impotent government (Chretien’s successor Paul Martin) and, currently, inept government under the iron fist of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

images One common theme has run across the past three federal governments (administrations in American speak): the lack of a focused vision that captures the hearts and minds of Canadians.

If there were ever a time that demanded the attention of Canada’s 35 million citizens, it is now. The exception is World War Two, when a totally different context was set in motion.

Stephen Harper (56 years of age) is one of Canada’s longest serving prime ministers. This may be seen as a major feat, considering how negatively Canadians perceived him when he first came into view as a strongly right wing reformer, the product of an early childhood Toronto upbringing but which was uprooted and shot across Canada to Alberta, to some America’s putative 51st state.

It would be easy to forgive Stephen Harper for his misplaced intentions to remake Canada, considering what must have been a traumatic childhood in Calgary, home to the anachronistic Calgary Stampede. Layer on top a badly bruised Canadian electorate following the never-ending scandals within the federal Liberal Party, under the direction of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and you have a country yearning for the subtle snake-oil messaging of Stephen Harper. It has indeed been a bizarre decade of Canadians turning to one another in wide-eyed exclamation, uttering (children, please close your eyes): “How the fuck did we get to this state?”

Yes, it is rather puzzling.

So let’s take a moment to examine three very different topic areas where the Harper government has fallen flat, showing virtually no leadership, while simultaneously engaging in frequent unethical behavior.

Consumers 1) Consumer Rights and Health:
There has probably never been a situation in Canadian politics where the hyperbole was in such overdrive that the Minister of the Department of Industry was rubbing his legs together in glee, exclaiming how the Harper Government was on the side of consumers and had introduced legislation which would spank the country’s big three telecom companies: Rogers, Bell and Telus. Three year contracts would become toast and Canadians would be the better for it. Two year contracts would be the maximum duration.

Except that someone forgot to send Harper and his Minister of Industry the memo that the telecom companies, despite being allegedly an evil trio, are pretty smart. You do the math. Canadian telecom consumers are no further ahead financially with their wireless plans.

Indeed, in its 2015 Wall Report, Wall Communications Inc. reported that the cost of wireless plans in Canada rose, overall, by three to four times the rate of inflation. And of note, new entrants to the wireless spectrum, some of whom have subsequently exited due to the imposing influence of the big three, had plans 25 to 50% cheaper.

A similar situation, but more serious, is being played out when it comes to federal food inspection. Stephen Harper’s five-year gutting of the public service has decimated frontline operational employees who work to ensure the health and safety of Canadians–every day. The same applies to railway and airline safety inspections, which operate on the basis of industry self-regulation. The catastrophic Lac Megantic oil tanker-laden train explosions on July 6, 2013, in Quebec’s beautiful Eastern Townships, exemplify a federal government that became lax on ensuring rail safety, with disastrous consequences for the many small communities through which freight trains travel daily.

Science and Technology 2) Science, Technology and Innovation
Your faithful correspondent has some measure of knowledge in this arena, having spent three decades with the Government of Canada, the last 10 years with the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology, and subsequently working on manufacturing and innovation competitiveness issues.

Stephen Harper may have a Master’s degree in economics but it’s questionable whether he ever worked in an applied setting. Considering the volatile, unpredictable and global street fight for market share, one could easily conclude that one of the top three priorities of a national government would be strengthening the country’s competitiveness: from human capital (economist jargon for education and skills training) to new technologies research and commercialization to infrastructure enhancements (eg, roads, bridges, airports, internet broadband)

But that’s not Stephen Harper’s world. His world is giving tax breaks to parents whose kids play sports. He lays off federal public servants who are responsible for keeping the workplace, food and railways safe. He wipes out the jobs of federal scientists; those who are lucky to keep their jobs are forbidden to speak to the media, let alone the public.

A few facts on Canada’s slow decline:

• The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2014 report on 144 countries showed Canada slipping further down the competitiveness rung, from 14th to 15th place, the lowest since 2006.

• The respected Conference Board of Canada places Canada 13th out of 16 peer countries on innovation, with the country showing particular weakness in productivity, income per capita, and the quality of its social programs.

• Canada is ranked at 14th place (behind Australia and Indonesia) by Global Firepower (note: nuclear capability is excluded, but such factors as economic health, political/military leadership and limited naval capabilities are taken into consideration).

• The OECD’s 2014 report on mobile broadband subscriptions placed Canada in the bottom third of the 34 member states. Ranking behind Poland, the Czech Republic and Spain is not encouraging news.

• However, some good news: the WEF ranked Canada at 4th place on its human capital index out of 124 countries 2015. It’s not totally bleak.

When faced with persistent questioning from the opposition parties and critical media articles, Harper resorts to his favorite strategy: Crime and Punishment.

Harper uses crime in a misguided attempt to deflect the attention of Canadians from such substantive issues as the country’s international competitiveness ranking, a stubbornly high unemployment rate (especially with youth and indigenous peoples), and Canada’s weak showing in science and technology.

This has a huge impact on Canada’s global competitiveness.

Indeed, Stephen Harper has proven to be a master of the politics of fear. From attempting to paint the image of evil Islamic jihadists (aka terrorists) lurking in the Canadian shadows to a near hysterical response to efforts to legalize medicinal pot to trying to manipulate the public to believe that violent crime is rising across the country (when the opposite has actually occurred), Harper’s reputation has become one of ignoring, or even running away from, tough issues requiring well thought out solutions for the country.

G7 3) Canada’s International Stature
There’s nothing like getting religion. And, oh, how did Stephen Harper get it.

During his first several years in office, he seemed to take exquisite glee in poking China in the eye for its human rights abuses. Ostensibly, this would have seemed to be the appropriate tactic. Poke ‘em, and poke ‘em hard!

But that’s not how international diplomacy typically works–especially with China.

It took Stephen Harper several years to figure that out, but then he seemed to leap to the other end of the spectrum. The point is, it is an art to determine the degree of tension a national leader must exert on a country such as China if the desired result of improved human rights is to be achieved. Harper is in some ways a bit of a bull in a china shop when it comes to international diplomacy.

Witness how he has tried to manipulate the media with respect to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. If Harper thinks that tough talk about Russia’s adventures in Ukraine from wee Canada holds any sway with Putin then it may be time to retract the plate of hash brownies. Vladimir Putin has laughed at US president Barack Obama. He’s met numerous times with Germany’s Angela Merkel (who speaks fluent Russian) but who has made little headway with Putin. However, Harper’s tough talk makes great media headlines in Canada–but nowhere else.

Harper’s “muscular” approach (as labelled by some commentators) to the desperate situations in Syria and Ukraine is more appropriately explained as belligerence. The irony with Harper’s tough talk is that Canada’s defence spending is a mere one percent of GDP; NATO has been urging Canada to boost its spending to two percent to reflect member countries’ average. Since the 2009-10 fiscal year, Harper has steadily cut the defence budget, notably after Canada’s withdrawl from Afghanistan. Layered on top of the defence department’s contraction is a report that is critical of how procurement is being carried out.

So where does that leave Canada’s 35 million people? Not in a very reassuring place, when one takes into the account the dozens of intersecting economic, environmental and geo-political issues that a national leader must address on a daily basis. It is a measure of not just political leadership incompetence but indeed irresponsibility for Prime Minister Harper to continue playing games with the national electorate. There’s too much at stake for Harper and his sycophantic ministers to keep playing the political fire-up-the-electorate’s-emotions game.

It’s now time for visionary leadership guided by a set of principles and ethical behavior.

On October 19, 2015, be sure to vote if you’re eligible. In the last national election of 2011 a mere 61.4% of eligible Canadians turned out to vote, the third lowest turnout in Canadian history.

Make a difference–Vote!

Confederation is a compact, made originally by four provinces but adhered to by all the nine provinces who have entered it, and I submit to the judgment of this house and to the best consideration of its members, that this compact should not be lightly altered.

– Wilfrid Laurier (7th Prime Minister of Canada, July 1896 – October 1911)

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Building Change Adaptability Using the Greiner Maturity Model

June 14, 2015
Iguana Building change adaptability in a turbulent world is a key skill that all of us need to master.

Models, while appearing to many people as boring and immaterial to the real world, do have a very useful role to play in helping us understand better the dynamics of change. In the context of this post, they help explain how leadership can play an integral part in enabling people to become engaged in the workplace. The outcome is greater change adaptability and resilience.

One helpful model is Larry Greiner’s growth curve, consisting of six phases and five dimensions. Greiner developed his growth model to help organizations think about how they’re adapting to a changing external environment. Building a strong change capacity is instrumental to an organization’s evolution and long-term success. His model is depicted below.

Grenier Model Greiner’s sixth phase (added after his model was first developed) involves collaborative partnerships, alliances and mergers as part of the organizational change continuum. Many organizations have not, or will not, reach that level of maturity for a number of reasons, key ones being:

a) the time needed to evolve and to successfully transition to the next phase;
b) the presence of dynamic, visionary leadership that’s capable of taking effective action;
c) an engaged workforce that’s focused on creativity, innovation and doing things differently.

As much as models are important instruments to help organizations position themselves for the future, it’s equally important to descend from the 40,000 foot level to the real organizational world to figure out how to adapt to unrelenting change. Therefore, to make effective use of Greiner’s model a systematic process of individual and collective reflection and inquiry will yield greater impact for organizational improvement.

Understanding the Greiner growth curve provides the necessary foundation for helping frame the conversation in your organization. Refer to the table below which summarizes key aspects of each of the phases, along the first five main categories. These steps are best carried out in teams across the organization, and at all levels. For example, those who are involved in setting the organization’s strategic direction need to contribute to this process; the questions posed below may be incorporated into your next strategic planning process.

Grenier org practices Step One
Collectively reflect about where you and your co-workers see your organization on Greiner’s growth curve. Then ask yourselves:
a) Why are we at this point on the curve?
b) What brought us there?
c) What has our journey been as an organization to reach this point?

Step Two
Think about whether your organization is reaching the end of a stable period of growth and nearing a ‘crisis’ or transition. Some of the signs of ‘crisis’ include:
a) Employees feel that managers and corporate policies are getting in the way of how they them perform their jobs.
b) They feel that they’re not being fairly rewarded for their efforts.
c)Morale is poor, with high turnover and low productivity being the consequence.

Now ask yourself what the transition will mean for you personally, and what it will mean for your team. Will you need to:
1) Explore new ways on how to share leadership among the team’s members?
2) Determine your value-added to the team?
3) Change the way you communicate with others?
4) Adjust how recognition is done for your team?
5) Examine where new market opportunities for your products or services?

Step Three
As part of leaving behind the phase through which your organization has just travelled, engage your team members in the following activities:
a) Plan and take preparatory actions that will make the next transition as smooth as possible for you and your team.
b) Where do you see your organization on the growth curve in the next 12 months?
c) Revisit Greiner’s model for growth again every 6-12 months, and think about how your current stage of growth affects you and others around you.

An additional tool that can be used to assess your organization’s learning capability along the different phases and at the key crisis points is the Learning Organization Assessment (see page 20)

Take time with your team to answer the questions, and then score the answers using the guide. From there, initiate the needed conversations and actions to address where you scored low.
Change is a messy business. It’s not a linear process, nor one that can be easily anticipated.

As Peter Senge, author of the acclaimed The Fifth Discipline, has stated: “Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.”

The key to an organization being capable of making the transition from the old to the new is to create the needed time for individual and team reflection and inquiry. In doing so, this separates those organizations that will continue to grow and evolve in a volatile change environment that does not accept the status quo as the answer.

It’s about being adaptable to change.

There can be no life without change, and to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life.

Theodore Roosevelt

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Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System

June 7, 2015
ConfrontingCapitalism Every so often a respected economist writes a book that’s not just highly readable but that contains analyses and viable solutions to vexing economic and societal problems. Philip Kotler, Professor of International Marketing at Northwestern University, has achieved this. In addition to being known as a marketing guru, he studied economics at the University of Chicago under free market evangelist Milton Friedman, and later at MIT where he earned his Ph.D. under heavy weights Paul Samuelson and Robert Slow.

Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System lays out 14 “shortcomings of capitalism.” Kotler’s approach is almost one of tour guide and provocateur, taking the reader on a journey of eclectic ideas and concepts from some of the world’s biggest thinkers, succinctly presenting them as part of his narrative, but weaving them tightly into each chapter’s theme.

In his introduction he explains why he wrote a book on capitalism, but which, in contrast to most economic-business books on the topic that defend it, Kotler takes issue. This leads to his 14 shortcomings, each of which constitutes a chapter. He also notes that economists have typically ignored the important role that marketing has played in influencing markets, especially since it is a “bedrock” of capitalism.

Kotler clearly explains what capitalism represents. It’s based on a functioning constitutional legal system composed of: a) people having the right to own property, b) their being able to form contracts with others, and c) contracts that are ruled by law. Further, capitalism is enabled by three key entities: legislative, executive and judicial powers (or what are commonly referred to as the three branches of government).

Kotler begins his tour with the persistence of poverty, shifting to income inequality and the pressures facing workers in the next two chapters. He then tackles job creation, the failure of companies covering the social costs of their operations, environmental exploitation and business cycles. He later delves into what he calls “narrow self-interest” and debt burden, concluding the book with chapters on could be called somewhat obscure topics.

Confronting Capitalism is written at the level of the lay person. Kotler has made an effort not to use jardon, or to write in a stilted academic fashion. He wants to reach a wide audience. However, with that laudatory goal comes a book lacking depth. Enumerating 14 shortcomings of capitalism is puzzling, considering that people will not relate to a long list which, one might conclude, could be even longer. Indeed, being a marketing expert one could argue that Kotler should have presented his concepts, ideas and solutions in a more marketable form, one that would help the reader retain the book’s contents more readily.

Kotler While Kotler presents a wide range of data from numerous sources to bolster his arguments, and draws from a multitude of respected individuals from various disciplines, the book maintains a somewhat simplistic tone. Economists, policy wonks, business people and politicians will gain select information and ideas from it. Yet Kotler’s book does have a lot to offer because people will be more likely to read it and, perhaps, explore more deeply some of the issues presented. Contrast Confronting Capitalism to Thomas Piketty’s tomb-like Capital in the 21st Century (one of Kotler’s references), mostly suitable as a showpiece on a coffee table. Few have actually read Piketty’s book.

Kotler’s chapters seven and eight stand out as the book’s true gems: Business Cycles and Economic Instability, and The Dangers of the Narrow Self-Interest. These two chapters are very well done.

In The Dangers of the Narrow Self-Interest, he takes us into Ayn Rand territory to explore the argument for individualism and self-reliance. Rand ‘s two best known books have become the American right-wing’s bible, notably her 1957 book Atlas Shrugged which is based on a society where its most productive citizens reject being subjected to rising government taxation and regulation. Kotler discusses the tension between individualism (liberty) and the best interests of the community and, more largely, society. He ends this overly short chapter on corporate social responsibility.

Workers Under Siege is another excellent chapter. Kotler hits the right emotive buttons by citing familiar statistics. Example: in 2012, the average US household in the bottom 90% of income distribution earned $31,000; in comparison, for the top 1% the average household income was $1.2 million. Kotler holds back from probing further, such as looking into the social costs from allowing a national economy to deteriorate in its income distribution over the past decade.

Yet Kotler does provide some illuminating statistics in his chapter on workers, something that other economists, and the media, have largely ignored: the minimum wage in reference to productivity growth. He explains that 90% of the world’s countries have minimum wage laws, with great variations among them.

“If the U.S. minimum wage had kept pace with the average growth in productivity, it today would be about $17 an hour. But productivity gains have mainly flowed to profits, shareholders, and executives instead of workers. This fact contradicts Milton Friedman’s famous statement that capitalism distributes the fruits of economic progress among all people. It is not true that all boats rise with rising productivity.”

Unemployed That is a bold and compelling assertion by Kotler, which is supported by esteemed economist Paul Krugman and journalist-author Timothy Egan who observe that cities and states that have increased their minimum wages have not lost jobs to other jurisdictions.

Kotler’s albeit brief discussion on the importance of productivity is one of the core points for the reader to retain. More on productivity would have been desirable, such as its vital role in generating wealth for a nation and how it helps sustain a healthy middle class. The same applies to productivity’s cousin innovation, essential to competitiveness at the firm and national economy levels. Yet Kotler fails to delve into the role innovation plays.

On social costs and environmental exploitation (chapters five and six), it’s refreshing that he addressed these two important issues; it would have been preferable to have spent more time examining these two key societal issues. As it is, the topics are treated quickly through a wide angle lens of various contributors to these fields.

On a few occasions Kotler makes some careless editing typos. For example, he states that the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” book was published in 1992. In reality, it was published in 1972. Your correspondent well remembers this concise book as part of his undergrad economics program in the mid-seventies. Hence the importance of strict proofreading of manuscripts.

In all, Confronting Capitalism is a good tour of the inter-connected issues and challenges facing society today and in the coming years. As mentioned, Kotler raises some provocative points which need to be confronted by both government and business. His call to action in the epilogue encourages people to remain optimistic and to become engaged in finding solutions to such intractable problems as poverty, unemployment and income equality.

The fundamental fact of American politics is that we’ve got an alliance between the religious right and the accumulators of great wealth. These are the people who are running things.

– Paul Krugman

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Building Leadership from the Grass Roots

May 31, 2015
Alberta TCH When you think about leadership what first comes to mind?

Do you have images of presidents of big corporations or prominent politicians or four star generals?

Leadership is much more than that. People from all walks of life step up to the plate to take on leadership roles.

For instance, consider some relatively recent bottom-up, grassroots movements where ordinary citizens displayed extraordinary bravery and leadership: the Arab Spring, initiated by a Tunisian street peddler; the Occupy Movement which spread like wildfire across dozens of countries; and the upwell of demonstrations for a livable minimum wage by service sector people across North America.

People rise to the occasion, which has been demonstrated over centuries of human activity. A powerful read is Emile Zola’s book Germinal, set in the 1860s in northern France, where repressed and abused workers fight back through violent protest.

People rise to the occasion in Canada, America, Great Britain, Europe, the Middle East and in many other countries. In this post we’ll look at how leadership is on the move in rural Canada.

Girl and Calf Enter Small Town Heroes, a grassroots initiative started by the United Farmworkers of Alberta (UFA). More on Small Town Heroes in a moment, but first what is the UFA, what does it do and how is it helping to strengthen leadership in rural Alberta?

UFA is one of Canada’s largest co-ops. Founded in 1909, it has grown from one small co-operative to some 120,000 members. The UFA name is a little misleading since its business lines encompass not just agriculture but also construction, outdoor recreation and petroleum. However, despite its broadened business portfolio over time the UFA has continued to keep rural life and values at the centre of its work and activities.

UFA aims to create value for its members and customers by maintaining strong financial performance and by staying relevant to both the needs of producers and the community. And as with any organization, values serve as the foundation upon which the UFA operates. This inspirational video A Life Out Here talks about what it means to live and work in rural Alberta.

It’s about values.

With agriculture being the core of the co-operative’s long history, it supports and partners with numerous initiatives across Western Canada. Examples include Farmfair international, local agricultural and livestock events, and agri-tradeshows and exhibitions. In addition, the UFA partners with Shaw TV to broadcast Farm Fresh, a program aimed at educating Albertans living in urban centres on agriculture and food production topics.

UFA passionately believes that strong leadership is the key to success in rural communities; therefore, growing leaders is an important priority for the organization. Indeed, UFA has a history of supporting leadership development over many years, with Small Town Heroes being its most recent initiative. UFA engages in a number of strategic and effective leadership development initiatives.

Kids shovelling off Truck Youth leadership plays an integral role in the UFA’s community work because they are seen as the key to the future. As members of the co-operative, young people can participate in programs aimed at developing leadership skills.

For example, Alberta’s 4H program exerts a major impact on rural agriculture, with over 7,000 members, 2,400 volunteers and more than a quarter of a million alumni. UFA’s partnership with 4-H includes sponsoring such activities as the Leaders Conference, the Key Leader Program, and Achievement Days. At the heart of UFA’s involvement with Alberta 4-H is investing in the future of the province and specifically the co-operative’s new generation of leaders.

UFA recognizes the importance of volunteering for community and leadership development. Volunteers are the backbone of rural communities, and UFA wants to encourage more people to lead through volunteering. Through its partnership with the World Professional Chuckwagon Association, awards are presented to volunteers who have gone above and beyond, spurring others to give back. By giving visibility to volunteer leaders, UFA encourages more people to step up to the plate and lead.

UFA’s Generations of Support Program, which supports youth, family and agriculture, reflects its commitment to giving back to communities and thanking them for their ongoing support. And with an eye to the future, the Program enables the UFA to contribute to strengthening the viability and long-term sustainability of Alberta’s rural communities.

Over many decades, the UFA has shown extraordinary commitment and leadership to rural Alberta. Yet it has continued to innovate and explore ways to strengthen rural leadership.

Alberta harvesting Created only a few years ago Small Town Heroes acknowledges Alberta’s rural communities and towns and the important role their citizens play in the province’s economy and way of life. In particular, Small Town Heroes identifies those individuals who have contributed significantly to making their community a better place in which to live and work.

Two aspects that are new to this leadership initiative are the introduction of online technology and a participatory nomination and voting process. Specifically, leaders are nominated by their community peers based on four key criteria:

1) See a need and act upon it without seeking praise or financial compensation,
2) Do something significant which was previously thought could never be done,
3) Have a personal vision and a belief that change can happen,
4) Do little things and big things that make an impact on the community that is lasting and memorable.

Peers build support for their candidates with home-videos, testimonials, stories and photos. The nomination process requires followers to identify and articulate candidates’ leadership attributes. Unencumbered by position, power and status, citizens are free to select leaders who put the greater good of their community first. At its core, followership is a choice, based on the leader’s ability to elicit trust, respect and inspiration. Small Town Heroes does a fantastic job of showcasing what exemplary leadership looks like. As a result, it becomes clearer and easier to emulate.

Girl Small Town Heroes has proven to be very effective at clarifying what constitutes rural leadership. In particular, it has used local role models to shine a light on key traits of good leadership, to demonstrate that leadership abounds throughout society at all levels, and to underscore that leadership often rises up from the grassroots. The power behind a collective leadership initiative such as Small Town Heroes lies in its organic nature, transparency and simple format, which can easily be replicated anywhere in Canada and in any sector.

Leadership comes in many forms: young or old, big or small, large city or small town. What’s important is for people to get involved in leading at all levels of society. As we’ve seen strong leadership rises up from the grassroots, whether it’s on the other side of the world or at home in rural Canada.

We’ve been profoundly inept at sharing the windfall of a completely unique level of resources. I’m afraid that 50 years from now, our great-grandchildren will look at what we did with our resources and they’ll rip up our pictures because they’ll be so angry at how we squandered them. Almost no other jurisdiction in the world has done so little with so much.

– Rachel Notley (New NDP Premier of Alberta, and the first woman in that role)

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Are You Finding Your Leadership Voice?

May 24, 2015
Voice Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, including gender and race.

The prevailing myth in much of the Western world, as well as in most developing countries, is that leadership is a man’s game, whether in politics or corporations.

Furthermore, in such countries as Australia, the United States, Canada, Great Britain and France, leaders have tended to be white, tall guys.

Bad habits are hard to break. Eliminating the myth that leadership resides at the top of organizations and bureaucracies, skewed heavily towards men, is a particular challenge.

Great Britain had one notable break with the leadership = males mindset: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Love her or hate her, Thatcher was a polarizing figure during her 12 years as prime minister (1979 – 1990), the longest-serving prime minister in British history and its only female national leader. However, she introduced and saw through important changes in Great Britain, such as thwarting the straggle hold that unions had on government policy and budgets.

Canada’s only experience in its now 148-year history was Conservative Kim Campbell who took over from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984 – 1993) in 1993. Campbell went down to blazing defeat in a national election less than five months later, the consequence of Canadians having soured on Mulroney during his two terms and Campbell’s ineptly run election campaign.

Australia’s first and only prime minister, Julia Gillard, rightly or wrongly, went through a brutal internal fight within her party, in which political knives covered her back. She served from 2010 to 2013.

Voice 3 Halfway around the world, Indira Gandhi was India’s only prime minister, its fourth (1966 – 1977), and who was assassinated on October 31, 1984. Next door in Pakistan, that country’s only female prime minister was Benazir Bhutto, who was elected in 1988 and served until corruption charges forced her from office in 1997. Years later in 2007, she returned from exile in Dubai to be granted amnesty. In December of that year she was assassinated in a car bombing at a political rally. Both Gandhi and Bhutto were strong national leaders who paid the price of being outspoken.

The corporate world has been especially regressive at advancing women into not just senior roles but notably those at the top. In the mighty United States of America, the percentage of women holding CEO positions is an outright embarrassment. The Standard & Poor’s ranking in 2015 shows a paltry 4.6% of women holding the position of CEO. tried to put lipstick on a pig by gleefully stating that the number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 had leaped from 20 to 24 in 2014. This represented a measly 4.8% of all CEOs in 2014.

How about my home country, Canada? I may as well whack my fellow countrymen in the head for not getting it. Canada is not as open a society as the US, and keeping in mind it being a branch plant economy of its southern neighbor, the percentage of women CEOs in corporations is about the same. Add this statistic and the pain gets worse: In 2012 only one woman was on the list of the highest paid CEOs in Canada.

In the single word of former Saturday Night Live comedian Amy Poehler:


And for one final kick in the pants to all of us: The top 100 highest-paid CEOs in Canada now make, on average, $9.2 million—that’s more than 190 times the average Canadian income of $47,358.

But what about where leadership resides within organizations?

Let me provide just one small but powerful example.

I worked in Canada’s federal government for three decades. Two thirds of my career was in a small province on the East Coast (bordering my favorite state of Maine). During my most energizing years in the nineties, where my team of economists and I spent a lot of time meeting with employers, high school career counsellors and giving presentations to the public on careers, I also had the fortune to connect with the real people of a vast federal department. Donna was such a person.

I’d met Donna a few times. She was a programs officer in the small town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick (population 6,000) across the St. Croix River from Calais, Maine. Donna worked in what could be called the employment and unemployment insurance office. Her job was to be out in the community every day, talking to employers, community leaders and the general public. She was outgoing, knowledgeable and totally committed to her work to serve Canadians.

I was in St. Stephen for a presentation to business people and went for coffee with Donna. We were talking about leadership, an area of interest that Donna and I mutually shared. During our conversation, Donna made a comment that has stuck with me for some 20 years: “Jim, when I’m out in the community meeting with people, they see me as the face of the federal government.”

When I think of those words, they cut through all the hype in the leadership-management space. Whether you’re a lowly paid public servant working in a field office or a bank rep in a branch office or a call center agent, YOU are the FACE of that ORGANIZATION.


The big smucks at the top earning the disproportionate bucks, disconnected from reality and who frequently execute poorly conceived corporate strategies, are the ones in dire need of descending from 40,000 feet to ground level.

Combine this with the disrespect that is still prosecuted against women in the workplace and society and you have a recipe for corporate stagnation, defensive management routines against foreign competition and, in the end, impotent leadership. In short, the organization fails, or at least loses market share.

Reflect on these words by thought leader and author Sally Helgesen:

Your voice, your language, help determine your culture. And part of how a corporate culture is defined is how the people who work for an organization use language.

Take a moment to share your thoughts.

Ninety percent of this stuff is just not that serious; we just get crazy about it.

– Ursula Burns (CEO & Chair of Xerox, and first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company)

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.

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One Woman’s Fight to Reform Islam: Heretic

May 18, 2015
Ali1 We often associate the word leadership with politicians (primarily males) or big shot CEOs and entrepreneurs. However, leadership comes in another form: people who aren’t leading an organization but rather a cause. Witness the courageous work of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai in advocating the right for girls to receive an education. Her advocacy almost got her killed by the Pakistani Taliban when she was only 15 years old. Her fight goes on.

Consider Ayaan Hirshi Ali, a Somalian-born woman who was a practicing Muslin for some 20 years, but who later as an adult made an abrupt transformation.

Born in 1960 in Mogadishu, Hirshi Ali’s politically active father, who helped lead the Somalian Revolution, was imprisoned when she was very young. Despite her father’s strong views against female genital mutilation, while he was imprisoned Hirshi Ali’s grandmother had the procedure carried out on her at age five. When he escaped from prison, her father took his family first to Saudi Arabia, and then to Ethiopia and then on to Kenya in 1980.

Hirshi Ali lived a comfortable life in Nairobi, attending a Muslim girl’s school, and when in high school she became involved in a Saudi Arabia funded program to study a more rigorously interpreted version of the Qur’an. She began to wear a hijab, which was not as common as it is today.

In 1992, when her family was living in Germany, she obtained permission to visit them, but then went to the Netherlands where applied for refugee status. She worked at a variety of jobs, including cleaning and translating, then studied at Leiden University where she earned a MSc in political science in 2000.

Hirshi Ali’s interest in human rights and assisting Somalian immigrants propelled her into politics, where she won a seat in the Dutch parliament in 2003. Combined with her revulsion with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and her desire to help those in need prompted her to rethink her commitment to Islam. Her outspoken advocacy resulted in her receiving death threats, thus requiring security from the Dutch government

In May 2006, she resigned her seat because of accusations that she had lied on her 1992 asylum forms. She shortly afterwards accepted a position with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Around that time she married Scottish financial historian (and Harvard professor) Niall Ferguson.

Over the past decade-plus, Ayaan Hirshi Ali has become known globally for her straight forward criticisms of Islam–and not just those prosecuting violence against Muslims and non-Muslims but those who sit on the sidelines and do not engage in confronting their Islamic peers.

heretic-380x500 Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now is her third book (Infidel was her first autobiography).

In a period where political correctness rules in most Western countries (my home country, Canada, is near the top of the list) Hirshi Ali pulls no punches in tackling head on the issues and challenges inherent in Islam. She begins by tracing her own journey, starting in Somalia and ending up in the US. She eloquently explains her decision to leave Islam:

“I left Islam, and I still think it is the best choice for Muslims who feel trapped between the conscience and the demands of Muhammad. However, it is unrealistic to expect a mass exodus from Islam. This fact leads me to think of the possibility of a third option. A choice might have enabled someone like me to remain a believer in the God of my family. A choice that might somehow have reconciled religious faith with the key imperatives of modernity: freedom of conscience, tolerance of difference, equality of the sexes, and an investment in life before death.”

Her clarity in identifying at the outset three “sets” of Muslims is helpful in framing her book.

1) Mecca Muslims: the majority throughout the Muslim world who are loyal and devout but who do not practice violence (based on Muhammad’s early days when he went door-to-door to invite people to accept Allah as their god and that he was his messenger).

2) Medina Muslims: the fundamentalist minority–the “problem”–who seek to impose sharia, Islamic law. In short, this set aims to return Muslims to the 7th Century, reflecting when Muhammad, upon becoming frustrated with his lack of success of converting others to Islam, travelled to Medina, where his mission assumed a political tone.

3) Modifying Muslims: Seen as the dissenters, to whom Hirshi Ali belongs, they’re nevertheless very concerned about the future of Islam. An eclectic set, they include clerics and regular working Muslims. As she puts it bluntly: “In the eyes of the Medina Muslims, we are all heretics, because we had the temerity to challenge the applicability of seventh-century teachings to the twenty-first-century world.”

Hirshi Ali’s goal is to engage the Mecca Muslims. She presents five “theses,” as she calls them, based on five core Islamic concepts which she views as being incompatible with modern society:

1. The Qur’an as being the final word of God and the infallibility of Muhammad as the last divinely inspired messenger;

2. Islam’s emphasis on the afterlife instead of the present;

3. That sharia is the overarching system of law that governs the spiritual and temporal realm;

4. The obligation of Muslims to command right and forbid wrong;

5. The concept of jihad, or holy war.

She believes that the five concepts need to be amended if the Muslim world is to integrate itself into the 21st Century.

Ali2 In the midst of the dissension in the global Muslim community–the Medina, Mecca and reformist (Modifying) Muslims–accompanied by the horrific violence that continues to be perpetrated by a small, yet growing minority, fueled by the emotive-laden media coverage by the West, one person has laid bare the historical issues, yet also presented an agenda of hope: Ayaan Hirshi Ali.

As she states in her concluding chapter:

“The dawn of a Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.”

Ali has done a valuable service to both Islam and the world at large. Read her book. It is painful at times yet compelling and tentatively optimistic.

It leads your correspondent to ask the question:

How many peace marches by Muslims have been held in Canada, the United States or Europe, whose aim is to: a) explicitly denounce ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, b) insist on equal rights for Muslim women and the end of violence towards them in Islamic dominated nations, and c) demand democratic governance by separating the state from Islam?

All I want is an education, and I am afraid of no one.

– Malala Yousafzai

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 2Take a moment to meet Jim.


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