Our A-Z of Insights and Advice from 2017

David Wells
Dec 29, 2017

We have learned a lot about the world of work in 2017. As the year comes to a close, we have compiled an alphabetical list of our top (often provocative) insights and advice. Season’s greetings to all our readers and clients and an instructive new year.


Authenticity. ‘Just be yourself?’ Actually, this can be very bad advice. No-one wants an authentic ego-maniac, for example. Rather, stay true to your values, not to the way you behave, and adopt different styles for different situations. Authenticity cannot help you if you are in an unsuitable role; neither can pretending to be what you are not.


Brexit. Britain’s departure from the EU may provide an opportunity for companies to rethink their entire approach to employment including: new technology and robotics; skills training and apprenticeships; productivity and the living wage; gender pay equality, and much more.


Cybersecurity. Protecting your IT is not about making machines work better. It is about preventing your people doing mindless things with computers, wittingly or otherwise. After all, some 90% of cyber-attacks occur because computer users are busy and naïve—a dangerous combination.


Disengagement. Do big companies deflate energy and commitment? Research suggests that workers become less engaged as a company gets larger and is lowest in firms with more than 5000 staff, where too many turn up, do little and achieve less.


Ethics. It’s not easy to embed ethical decision-making that supports high performance. But the following might help. Create psychological safety so staff aren’t afraid to ‘speak truth to power.’ Constantly remind employees of the company’s true purpose and values. Perhaps appoint an ethical ‘devil’s advocate’ to pose the hard questions.


(US) First. President Trump’s aversion to multilateralism is undermining the credibility of international trading systems such as NAFTA and WTO without offering viable alternatives. Global brands and investors may now retrench to established markets in stable trade blocs.


Geopolitical risk. Risk is back on the corporate agenda. Companies can prepare by examining their value chain for vulnerable ‘single points of failure.’ Since these can bring down an entire operation, consider how you would plan for that, rather than trying to assess the chances of a particular political disaster occurring.


HR analytics. In their enthusiasm for analytics, HR executives often fail to ask whether their discoveries are even commercially relevant. Instead of trying to predict, for example, when a key employee might leave, resources might be better spent reducing dependence on a specific individual. The hype around HR analytics seems overblown.


Intrapreneurs. If companies are to innovate successfully they may have to seek out their ‘hidden entrepreneurs’. One way is to create ‘leadership circles’ i.e. egalitarian discussion groups of employees from across the firm to discuss the company’s future in a free and non-judgemental way.


Joyless nation. Unhappiness at work may be a management problem; or it could just reflect a national decline as in the US. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the measured happiness level of millions of Americans has plummeted. In the 2016 presidential election, Mr Trump won the 20 unhappiest states in the US, almost all in the rust belt or deep south.


Knowledge workers. Could a robot do your job? There’s no room for complacency or fear. White-collar executives will still be needed for non-analytical tasks such as questioning, hypothesising and synthesising. Individual departments may deploy data, models and intelligent systems, but firms will still need empathetic generalists to see the big picture.


Looks matter. Does the way you look help you rise to the top? Women and ethnic minorities are woefully under-represented in the boardrooms of public companies. So are short, ugly men with high-pitched voices. Yet great entrepreneurs come in all shapes, heights and creeds. What does this discrepancy suggest about ‘looking the part?’


Mental health. Employee mental health is one of today’s greatest corporate challenges. Yet it is often met with ignorance, denial and cluelessness. From crippling anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder, staff can suffer impaired concentration, reduced decision-making ability, and irritability with clients and colleagues. The cost to business? An estimated 1.2% of GDP.


Natural managers. ‘True managers are born not made,’ they say. One can’t train someone to want to manage others. Instead, companies should focus on identifying and selecting those who aspire to such roles, while also providing non-managerial career paths for those who prefer to work alone.


Ownership. Modern companies claim to want authentic, innovative and engaged employees. But ‘accountability’ pressures often create the opposite. Companies should first encourage a sense of ownership by making staff feel their interests and actions—not just the financial rewards—are bound up in a project’s outcome.


Pay. Three simple tests can determine whether a CEO deserves his high pay.  First, can his output be measured with any degree of precision; second, can the company’s success be clearly attributed to his performance; and third, is he really the only person who could have delivered this success?


Quick wins. If you have to manage a far-flung office how can you get the most from your remote team during rare and brief visits? First, schedule time to hear their concerns. Second, consider what messages your behaviour sends out. And third, be useful—on-the-spot help boosts morale and enhances your reputation.


Recruitment. How to overcome bias when hiring? The problem is that those charged with the task of making things fairer don’t recognise their own biases. But AI and data management, computer simulations, image-recognition tests and transparent scoring can counter decisions based on ignorance, arrogance or vested interests.


Storytelling. Businesses are harnessing the power of stories to engage customers and employees, align staff with strategy, communicate change, and even humanise a faceless corporation. Your organisation will have hundreds of hidden stories to capture and share. Pick one that inspires you, keep it simple and human, and motivate audiences to act.


Team spirit. It’s possible to measure and manage team spirit. Indicators of good atmospherics include: team members who listen and talk in equal measure and who face one another in meetings. Small changes, such as reorganising office seating, lengthening lunch tables to welcome newcomers, and preparing meals together, can make a big difference.


Unproductive meetings. Most office meeting could probably benefit from some basic rules. Like: start and finish on time; explain the meeting’s aims; ask attendees to prepare thoughts in advance; limit attendance to those who must be there; encourage reticent staff to speak out; constrain those who talk too much; and watch out for too much agreement. Not hard!


Virtual reality. We live in an age of distraction. Consider virtual reality, often touted as an effective learning tool. Its value lies not just in creating a believable practice world but in eliminating real-world distractions. Executives can learn a speech three times faster with VR because it commands undivided attention. But will we come to depend on VR when learning?


WalkingWalking meetings may sound eccentric, but they help you destress, improve employee engagement and break down hierarchy. The absence of eye contact encourages candid talk and honest feedback, and is good for solving problems. But it is less effective when disciplining or sacking staff. So keep it relaxed and don’t stray too far from the office.


X-factor. A great speech can inspire your audience. You don’t need to reach the oratorical heights of a Barack Obama, but a few rhetorical devices, some authentic personal stories and several cues to action might just create a loyal following.


Y-Generation (or millennials) can bring fresh ideas to an organisation, but they are often said to come with a sense of entitlement irrespective of their inexperience. Companies should devise new challenges for their younger charges every couple of years. Similar things are, of course, now being said about generation Z.


Zzzzz. For too many leaders, working late signifies great stamina and productivity. But this creates a big danger: sleep deprivation. This is estimated to cost US companies more than $400bn annually. A sleep-deprived brain is unable to memorise and function at its peak and can lead to cancer and Alzheimer’s. So a final message from FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance…

***…Have a truly restful holiday! ***

David Wells

Writer and communications consultant