Jeff Bezos – an Amazonian chief

With my last blog “Warren Buffett – Not your average billionaire”, I kicked off a series of posts we are dedicating to some of the most successful leaders of our time.

There has been a lot of media coverage lately regarding the imminent launch of an Australian branch of – the world’s biggest online retailer. Not surprisingly, the talk of them setting up shop here has sent local retailers into a spin.

Given its power to disrupt markets and change the way the world shops, I thought it would be timely to take a look at the founder, Chairman and CEO of this tech giant – Jeff Bezos.

Worth an estimated $72.7 billion, Bezos is painted by biographers as part dreamer, part quantitative analyst. As a teenager he imagined himself becoming an astronaut but instead went on to major in computer science at Princeton, before putting his skills to use on Wall Street. In 1994, despite having a successful career and a six-figure salary, he left Wall Street behind to create, a start-up retail business in the emerging and largely uncharted world wide web.

Jeff Bezos quickly proved himself a ‘wunderkind’ with great instincts. He survived the bust of the late 1990’s and continued building Amazon on the back of his own ingenuity, self confidence, and propensity to think big.

Jeff Bezos

Think like the Chief

As he transitioned from a start-up boss into a leader of tens of thousands of people working across multiple businesses, Bezos became renowned for demanding nothing short of excellence from everyone around him. His expectations are captured in Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, and it is said that those who do best at Amazon are those who have internalised these principles and think like Jeff. And when they don’t meet his exacting standards, Bezos doesn’t mince words. For your horror (or amusement) I have included some examples of brutal one-liners that have been attributed to him

  1. “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”
  2. “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”
  3. “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  4. [After reviewing the annual plan from the supply chain team] “I guess supply chain isn’t doing anything interesting next year.”
  5. [After an engineer’s presentation] “Why are you wasting my life?”

Survival of the fittest

Under Bezos’s direction, Amazon is reported to ‘manage out’ a certain percentage of its work force annually, with leaders required to rank staff and dismiss the least effective performers. [1]

Bezos has been accused by critics of lacking empathy and treating workers as expendable resources, but he has also never hidden the fact his priority is and always has been to create value for the customer.

Cohesion – the enemy of innovation?

A questioning and analytical atmosphere is characteristic of Amazon’s culture. Bezos expects his leaders to openly disagree and argue their perspectives, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make them may feel. [1] To this end, Amazon were early adaptors of an agile feedback system they call the “Anytime Feedback Tool” that enables staff to receive real time input from colleagues who have something to say about their work.

At Cognology we know from our own research that team sizes are expanding and companies are striving to find ways to facilitate greater connection, collaboration and sharing of ideas. In this respect, Amazon seems like a bit of an anomaly. Bezos is famous for his two pizza rule: no team should be larger than can be fed with two large pizzas. Bezos believes that smaller teams guard against groupthink and promote innovation. He has also suggested that cross-team communication can be disastrous for innovation as agreement between teams can limit the creative tension required for new ideas. [2]

Keeping his fingers on the pulse

Sharing his time across various ventures, Bezos cannot physically be present for every key decision Amazon makes. Being a number cruncher at heart, he puts his faith in the company’s enormous data resources and analytics, and expects leaders to use metrics to make almost every important decision.

But Bezos doesn’t just rely on cold hard data. The entrepreneur is also said to regularly scan random customer emails for feedback and complaints. And when an email is forwarded to a leader accompanied by a simple “?” from Jeff, the recipient knows to act. [3]

The heart of a Warrior

Adventure and discovery appear to be in Jeff Bezos’s very DNA. However, his passion for progress goes far beyond selfish interests or the financial benefit of shareholders. Bezos seems driven by a self-imposed higher calling to advance the welfare and development of the whole human race. His vision for the future has compelled him to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to a number of ambitious yet noble ventures like carbonless energy, advancements in neuroscience, and Blue Origin – an enterprise aimed at making space travel accessible to millions of people so that they may one day live and work in space.

Leadership involves choices. Jeff Bezos understands that to be truly great, you must be prepared to make choices that are neither popular nor easy. Without apology Jeff challenges his people to use their gifts, follow their convictions, and walk the path less travelled.

It is perhaps unfortunate that we get many of our insights into business leaders through the media, who (let’s face it) have a tendency to emphasise the sensational aspects of a story. Bezos has certainly received his share of bad press in recent years and if you believe the anecdotes of former staff who claim bad experiences, Amazon is a tough place to work. But given Bezos’s accomplishments and endeavours I can’t help but wonder how balanced the narrative has been.

I watch with interest for if and when comes to our shores.


  1. B. Stone, 10 10 2013. [Online]. Available:
  2. D. Baer, 18 03 2014. [Online]. Available:
  3. R. Sanghani, 15 10 2013. [Online]. Available:
  4. Jeff Bezos image by Yolo0906 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

How do you know you are ready to be a leader?

Jon Windust

There are two elements to this answer.

One is the desire to be a leader.  The other is possessing some of the skills needed to be a leader.

The motivation to be a leader can come from a number of places.  The desire to collaborate with a group of people is a good starting point, but not enough on its own. Couple with a drive to help people, pass on your knowledge/experience and influence people to be able to achieve more and you have a good starting point.  Later as you encounter tough problems, you’ll know whether you want to stay a leader.

Next are the technical skills needed to be a leader.  A survey of over 300K people identified 7 key skills needed:

  1. Inspires and motivates others
  2. Displays high integrity and honesty
  3. Solves problems and analyzes issues
  4. Drives for results
  5. Communicates powerfully and prolifically
  6. Collaborates and promotes teamwork
  7. Builds relationships

You need a number of these skills and be on the way to developing the others.

A friend wanted to be a school teacher.  Luckily, early on in her training she experienced a classroom environment and her first real introduction to teaching.  This experience provided her with the insight to know that teaching wasn’t for her.  Getting early experience in leadership can be equally valuable in helping you answer the question.

Warren Buffett – Not your average billionaire

This blog will be the first in a series of posts profiling some of today’s most successful business leaders. Each leader is recognised as a trailblazer in their own right; entrepreneurs and visionaries who have dared to challenge the status quo and write their own rules.

This series will explore their different leadership styles and approaches and look at how this has shaped their success.

I decided to kick off with a name you might recognise as being one of the wealthiest and most business savvy people on the planet.

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett is the creator and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company with interests in the likes of Apple, Costco and Coca Cola. [1]

Buffett has been a regular on the Forbes 400 Richest People in America list since 1982, and in 2008 was officially crowned the richest person in the world with a fortune of $62 billion.

Warren Buffett is the stuff of legends and has a cult-like following of investors that hang on his every word. But for me, it is not so much his financial prowess that I’m interested in, but rather how his distinctive leadership style has contributed to his celebrated status in the world of business.

Laissez Faire Management Style

Numerous books and articles written about Warren Buffett refer to his laissez-faire approach to management. A French term, laissez-faire loosely translates to “let them do” -basically let people do as they choose. This label seems fair given what I have come to learn about Buffett’s hands-off approach.

When Buffett buys a business, he leaves the managers alone to run the company the way they would have had he not bought them. Unlike other CEO’s, he doesn’t seek to exert control through traditional corporate plans or strategic meetings, and generally only communicates through his annual letter to the board. [2]

So how has Warren Buffett managed to successfully build an empire with assets worth $621 billion [3] whilst all the time remaining at arms length?

Adapting the Situation to Suit the Leader

Perhaps the secret lies in the corporate culture and operating environment he has carefully cultivated over the last four decades.

Engaging Top Talent
Warren Buffett has been quoted as telling his children “If you want to soar like an eagle in life, you can’t be flocking with the turkeys”. His personal philosophy is to surround yourself with good people whose behaviour is better than yours so that they inspire and challenge you. When hiring managers, Buffett looks for integrity, intelligence, and energy. [4]

Autonomy and Accountability
It stands to reason then that by choosing highly motivated and capable leadership, Buffett has been able to entrust his businesses to the stewardship of others. Handing over full autonomy is fundamental to the way Buffett operates. [2] (For more on the benefits and challenges of autonomy see A Sensible Discussion about Autonomy)

Meaningful Communication
Though Buffett’s communication with his people may be infrequent, his words have impact. He showers praise on the people who work for him in his annual letters but is also generous with advice. He breaks down complex financial concepts in a way that anybody can understand him.

Values-Driven Culture
In Part II of my blog Aligning People I discussed how a group united by values will achieve far more than one that’s driven by other agendas. Interestingly, Buffett only acquires well-led, profitable companies that share his values. He believes that a values-driven culture translates to strong business performance and credits a strong culture with the ability to attract and retain outstanding employees. [5]

If you want to soar like an eagle in life, you can’t be flocking with the turkeys

Authentic Leadership – Living the Values, Walking the Talk.

An ‘aha’ moment for me in my research into Warren Buffett was when I realised that the values he pursues in business he practises in all aspects of his life.


Berkshire Hathaway only acquires firms with low debt and strict cost control. This reflects Buffett himself who is renowned for his frugal nature. He still lives in the same house he purchased in 1958 for $32,500 and drives himself to work everyday. [6]

Hard Work and Discipline

Lawrence A Cunningham in his book Berkshire Beyond Buffett wrote that,
“Buffett’s own success has been built through hard work, discipline, a no-nonsense acquisition strategy and unwavering adherence to core values”. [2]

Buffett demands the same level of discipline and commitment from his leaders. He asks only that they stay true to their core business and values. In other words, he expects them to keep doing what they know how to do and to do it well. No more, no less. [2]

Integrity and Humility

Cognology has found extensive evidence to suggest that integrity is a key attribute of exceptional leaders. Buffett is passionate about maintaining a reputation for doing the right thing and instructs his leaders to “zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation.” [7]

Buffett is admired for the humble manner in which he openly admits his failures and his willingness to share the lessons he has learnt. In turn he encourages his business leaders to “face up immediately to bad news” and not let problems fester. [7]

But Warren Buffett is not as warm and cuddly as he might seem. He has shown that he is also a man prepared to deal with any leader that has breached what he holds sacred. A Buffett biographer once noted that “when a leader violates corporate values or generates reputational damage, the axe falls swiftly.” [2]

Letting Go

At 87, Warren Buffett has no plans to retire. People will remember Buffett for his extraordinary ability to pick good investments. But in truth, a lot of his success has been due to his ability to identify talent and retain top performers for the long term.

His leadership style has been shaped by his own personality: his honesty, his integrity, his humility, and his other deeply ingrained values. He has succeeded in demonstrating that you don’t have to maintain tight control over your people to do well in business. Success can in fact come from letting go – so long as you have laid the right groundwork to begin with.


  1. CNBC, [Online]. Available:
  2. L. A. Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffett : The Enduring Value of Values, Columbia University Press, 2014.
  3. Market Watch, “,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed 09 03 2017].
  4. Vintage Value Investing, [Online]. Available:
  5. L. A. Cunningham, “The Philosophy of Warren E. Buffett,” The New York Times, 05 02 2015.
  6. A. Mohr, “,” 22 07 2016. [Online]. Available:
  7. W. Buffett, “,” 31 12 2014. [Online]. Available:

Disrupting Human Resources

Warmest thoughts and best wishes for a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year.

Happy holidays from CognologyKaren, Brad, Jon and Louise of Cognology

Disrupting Human Resources

This isn’t a new topic. Everyone from world famous entrepreneurs to the guy on the street has an opinion on Human Resources – and they’re rarely flattering.

We’ve all read articles arguing that the industry needs to change and, with 2017 dawning, I think now is the time to put words into action. As a HR professional – and the CEO of a HR Technology company that itself needs HR management – I thought I’d share my somewhat unique perspective on the subject.

Disrupting HR

Why does HR need to change?

Before we get down and dirty with what needs to change, let’s take a moment to consider why we need change.

Less than a year ago, The Australian reported that the average time it took to fill a vacant position had topped a record-breaking 68 days, and they estimated that those vacancies were costing AU$558 million per ASX100 company¹. The authors championed a shake up, citing a problem with recruitment as a clear indication that HR needs to change.

I agree that these numbers indicate a problem worth fixing but, to my mind, they hint at a bigger issue; HR is still widely viewed as a compliance and admin department.

Yes, Human Resources didn’t walk into the workplace fully grown – it started life as the Personnel Department, an administrative team that managed everything concerning the workforce at a human level – but it’s grown beyond that.

We know good Human Resource management practices address skills gaps, increase engagement, reduce churn, and improve job satisfaction². This fact was acknowledged by Ram Charan (the bestselling author and advisor) back in 2014, when he argued that we needed a complete overhaul and a new structure. That particular article may have caused quite a stir, but the message wasn’t a new one. Industry leaders including John Boudreau, Mark Herbert, and Carol Anderson have been calling for a change for years.

And the reason we need a shake up, the problem that’s plaguing our industry? HR departments often lack skilled team members and the wider respect of the organisation (Edward Lawler once shared an anecdote about a manager who not-so-fondly referred to his colleagues in HR as the ‘Business Prevention Unit’). So, unless we disrupt Human Resources and turn it on its head, we’re going to struggle to effect real change and improve organisational efficiency.

Strategic Human Resource Management

That’s not to say that we haven’t made strides in the right direction. The last few years have seen Strategic Human Resource Management (SHRM) take a step closer to the top table, aligning HR practices with organisational strategy and growth initiatives.

But the fact that only 5% of HR professionals feel their department is seen as a strategic partner within their organisation⁴ proves that there’s more than a few problems with SHRM. Which is where I come in.

Disrupting Human Resources

I have a plan to disrupt Human Resources, and it involves a two-pronged attack:

  1. Move administration and legal responsibilities away from HR.
  2. Replace HR with a Business Performance Group.

I’m not the first to argue for removing the administrative, compliance, or legal aspects of HR to other organisational groups. In 2015, Edward Lawler suggested splitting the department in two: administrators on one side, highly skilled analysts with a keen strategic understanding of the business on the other. I would go even further though, and say surely it’s more efficient to remove administrative responsibilities altogether?

Disrupting HR infographic

Lean Methodology

Because efficiency is key and, when it comes to streamlining HR and repurposing it to drive organisational growth, there’s a lot to be learned from the manufacturing world.

Many of you will be familiar with Toyota’s ‘Lean Methodology’³, a process that focuses on optimising the customer experience while minimising waste. ‘Lean’ organisations work at peak efficiency, creating more value with fewer resources. They understand what the customer values and continually innovate and refine their processes to enhance customer experience. The end goal? To deliver maximum value with no waste.

This is the function HR should perform within an organisation. We should be data driven and strategically focused, responsible for identifying the most efficient processes to deliver on organisational goals.

The Business Performance Group (BPG)

The real disruption in my idea stems from the Business Performance Group (BPG). This completely new organisational unit will replace the HR department in much the same way that Human Resources replaced Personnel.

The idea for this group came from thinking about the HR function and what I want from it as a business owner. Those of you who caught my blog post on work and happiness won’t be surprised to discover that, for me and my business, performance and happiness are at the top of my list.

I want a business that performs because I’m committed to creating the best talent management technology for my customers. I need performance to achieve that.

I also want the people who work with me to be happy. As I see it, we nailed survival a long time ago (for most of the world at least). Today, working is more a group effort to progress, innovate, and improve each other’s lives. So work should really make us happy.

The Aim of BPG

So, with an objective to optimise efficiency and deliver on organisational goals, the BPG has three key responsibilities:

  1. Identify ways to improve performance and happiness.
  2. Implement improvements and manage change.
  3. Advise the organisation on people management.

The BPG will not be a department of ill-equipped administrators. It will be a highly productive, results driven team made up of experts from specialist fields.

The first specialty is leadership, which is critical to performance and something most organisations are failing miserably at. In fact, 70% of leaders say they carry out regular performance conversations, but only 56% of their employees agree⁴.

BPG leadership experts will address this disconnect, spearheading individual development, coaching, and mentoring programs. An apprenticeship approach to management training will provide a strong leadership succession strategy, something only 14% of businesses feel they currently have⁴.

Analysts and productivity experts will also feature highly in the BPG. Supported by data scientists, they will be responsible for assessing current processes, uncovering improvements, and managing change. This team will enhance efficiency and identify future trends – a critical performance metric we undervalue as a nation. Don’t believe me? Employers in Italy, Japan, and China all cite a ‘global mindset’ as one of the most important skills a new hire can possess, while Australian employers view the same trait as the least important to long-term business success⁴. Who do you think is right?

Learning and Development specialists will form the third pillar of the BPG, and their work will support the initiatives of the rest of the team. Data driven, these guys will provide learning opportunities to the workforce, efficiently addressing skills gaps before they hinder organisational growth, and ensuring all learning is relevant to the workplace. That may sound extraneous to a highly efficient, lean organisation but, by 2020, one third of the skills we see as core today will have changed⁴. Businesses that intend to keep pace will need to prioritise education.


Of course, the BPG isn’t going to walk in and solve every problem overnight. This is a team of analysts, and they’ll require data to assess value.

I propose borrowing a stalwart of the Silicon Valley design process (after all, their performance management techniques were worth stealing); split testing. It’s the same approach the folks in marketing call A/B testing, and it simply involves testing two competing strategies alongside each other to see which performs best.

Companies like Google have gained real value from split testing at a product level, and I firmly believe the approach could work well at an organisational level as well. The BPG could split test everything from training methods to customer enquiry responses, creating in the process a business that performs at optimum efficiency and a HR alternative that delivers quantifiable results and adds real value to your organisation.

To Sum Up…

Until we as business owners and managers recognise that the value of Human Resources goes far beyond recruitment and administration, we’ll never unlock the full potential of our employees, our businesses, and our markets. HR doesn’t need a revamp, it needs disruption.


¹Haywood, 2016. Companies wasting millions on hiring. The Australian (Business Review).

²Kehoe and Wright, 2010. The impact of high performance human resource practices on employees’ attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Management. 39 (2). pp. 366-391.

³Teich et al., 2013. Lean management – the journey from Toyota to healthcare. Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal. 4 (2).

⁴Mercer, 2016. Futureproofing HR: Bridging the gap between employees and employers. Mercer.

⁵WorkplaceInfo, 2016. Got a bad reputation? It’s going to cost you. WorkplaceInfo.

Management Mistakes 101: Training Tomorrow’s Leaders

Picture this; you’re a fresh-faced leader just getting to grips with your new role. Your main bugbear? One team member who is underperforming. It doesn’t matter how many SMART goals you set and performance conversations you have, over the next few months this individual fails to pull their socks up. To an experienced leader, this is a manageable problem with an obvious solution but, to a new manager, it’s terrifying.

You have no more tricks left up your sleeve, and it feels like the only option available is to terminate. Now, it might be that termination is a valid approach – even rigorous coaching has its limits – but having the confidence to know you’ve done everything you can and are justified in pulling the trigger is far beyond the experience of most new leaders. So, how do we as experienced managers ensure that those still finding their feet have the tools they need to succeed?

Training new Leaders

The head in the sand solution

We all have a tendency to opt for the easy option, and that means avoiding confrontation or tricky situations. With an underperformer and an inexperienced manager, this approach typically leads to the invention of a ‘special project’, something to keep the lacklustre colleague occupied and limit the damage they can do to team productivity. Of course, there is one other option; do nothing – and silently resent the underperformer’s presence while you do.

Neither option is conducive to the long-term success of the team, the organisation, or a developing manager. In fact, feeling powerless to improve the situation can turn new leaders into cynical, passive-aggressive, or sarcastic managers. It should come as no surprise that all these traits have a significant impact on employee morale, engagement, and productivity¹.

The unprofessional approach

Sarcasm, cynicism, and passive-aggression are all avoidance behaviours, and they’re the go-to reaction for many of us when we become overwhelmed. Needless to say, they have no place in a manager-employee relationship. Not only are they detrimental to organisational productivity¹, but they’ve also been shown to negatively impact employee engagement and job satisfaction, and increase burnout². Hardly surprising – it’s harder to trust sarcastic, cynical, or passive-aggressive leaders, many of whom will avoid giving direct critiques of work and actionable feedback³. Put simply; employees don’t know where they stand with these types of managers.

Of course, instilling the need to avoid such behaviours in a new manager is only part of the problem. Your developing leader might be able to rise above the annoyance caused by an underachiever, but what about the rest of their team? Passive-aggression is just as detrimental in a team as a leader. At an organisational level, it can slow decision making and stall execution, at a team level it hinders communication and productivity. For individuals, it causes unnecessary stress⁴.

New managers are responsible for the entire team, and they need to have the confidence to address issues like this and the skill to foster productive conflict before their first day on the job.

From theory to practice

“There is nothing so easy to learn as experience and nothing so hard to apply.”

-Josh Billings, American Humorist

Learning management theory is easy, it’s translating all those strategies into the real world that can be tricky. Those of you who caught my article on promoting high performers will know that I’m firmly of the opinion learning to become a manager takes time and practice. I’m all for an apprenticeship approach.

Letting individuals grow into management roles and develop their skills by managing freelancers or overseeing important projects means we create fewer frustrated or overwhelmed new leaders. Without an approach like the one I’m advocating, potentially good managers can be undone by the challenges of practicing leadership.

Making a manager

An apprenticeship approach requires a serious commitment to coaching and training. Budding managers need to understand just how important their role is to the long-term success of the organisation. It’s up to them to align, motivate, and inspire their teams, and they’ll need a whole new set of skills to achieve that:

  • Communication. Gone are the days of off hand comments to colleagues. New managers need to be mindful of what they are saying and the impact their opinions can have on a team. Good communication is critical to many productivity initiatives, especially delivering employee feedback, and new leaders need to learn how to win the trust and respect of their team.
  • Delegation. One of the biggest challenges for a new manager is recognising the difference between delivering results at a team level as opposed to as an individual. New leaders no longer have complete control over an outcome, and if they don’t have the support and experience to delegate, the urge to micro-manage may become too hard to fight.
  • Critical Thinking: Not a widely used skill in junior roles, many new managers need time to learn how to think strategically and identify the most productive workflows for their team. All the theory in the world won’t help them with this one; it’s a skill only experience can teach.

To sum up…

Managers – the good ones at least – are not made overnight. As senior leaders, it’s up to us to mentor promising individuals. This means creating opportunities for potential managers to lead long before they take on an official management role, and continuing to mentor and support new managers to ensure they have the support they need to excel as leaders.

What was your experience of junior management? Did you ever wish you’d had more training and support?


¹Kessler et al., 2013. Leadership, interpersonal conflict and counterproductive work behaviour: An examination of stressor-strain process. [Abstract]. International Association for Conflict Management. 6 (3). pp. 180-190.
²Leary et al., 2013. The relationship among dysfunctional leadership dispositions, employee engagement, job satisfaction and burnout. [Abstract]. The Psychologist-Manager Journal. 16 (2). pp 112-130.
³Jones, 2012. 5 signs of passive-aggressive management: why it kills employee motivation and how to deal. Brazen.
⁴Davey, 2016. Reduce passive aggressive behaviour on your team. Harvard Business Review.

Promoting High Performers to their First Leadership Role

What does promotion mean to you? A step up the ladder, expanding your skill set, a pay rise? At some point, promotion is likely to mean a move to a management position. When hiring for management roles, senior leaders typically gravitate towards high performers, assuming those who have mastered their current role are the perfect choice for leadership. In reality, great workers don’t always make great managers, and turning your high performers into spectacular leaders requires more than a promotion.

The Challenges Facing New Leaders

New managers have to stop focusing on their own performance and become an inspiration to others, delivering results at a team or even organisational level. For many, this involves developing an entirely new skill set.

Australian Managers leadership survey

Motivation and Alignment

The ability to influence, motivate, and inspire a team is essential for managerial success¹. Without it, poor performance, disengaged individuals, and low staff retention are the inevitable result.

Managers play a pivotal role in ensuring employees are invested in their work, aligned with organisational objectives, and productive². If new managers have no understanding of employee engagement, top-down communication, or alignment strategy, they lack the tools to get the best out of their team

Need a refresher on aligning employees to organisational goals? Check out my article, Aligning People P2: The Role of the Manager.


Delivering feedback is no easy task, it’s a skill that took many of us years to master. Imagine how much more nerve-racking it is evaluating individuals who were recently peers?

With potential trust issues to navigate, little experience of goal setting or managing different personality types, providing actionable feedback is a potential minefield for new managers.

Looking for tips to master performance conversations? Check out my article on the psychology behind workplace feedback.


Tasked with succeeding at a team level, new managers have no individual control over their goals for possibly the first time in their careers. For high performers used to exceeding expectations, the desire to micro-manage is a difficult one to fight³.

Those that are comfortable delegating have yet more problems to face. With no previous management experience – and in some cases knowledge of their team – judging attainable goals and knowing which individuals are capable of delivering autonomously is all but impossible.

Planning and Organising

Critical thinking is crucial to managerial success¹, but it is not a skill that’s common in junior roles. Suddenly required to establish priorities, streamline workflows and think autonomously, many new managers struggle to identify the best strategy for success at a team level. Without these skills, new managers often feel as though they are underperforming, leading to poor team productivity at best and, at worst, an exodus of high performers.

How to Promote to Leadership

A leadership role is completely different to any other. Creating confident, able managers begins long before promotion.


Individuals with the possibility of promotion are more engaged and committed to their employer⁴. Providing management training is a great way to reward high performers, encourage loyalty, and increase managerial competency. In fact, those given developmental assignments before promotion have been shown to make much better leaders in the long run⁵.

Training can take many forms. Those of you who caught my article on managing freelancers will know I’m a big fan of facilitated learning. By providing employees with the opportunity to take on new responsibilities, you give them the freedom to develop their skills organically, solving problems and adjusting their strategy to create an approach that works for them.

Of course, self-learning has its limits, and there are situations where having someone with experience on-hand to offer advice is invaluable. Assigning a mentor to help an individual develop their managerial skills is a great way to ensure they are ready when the time comes to take on a leadership role.

Mentors are facilitators rather than instructors. They provide advice and guidance, but it is the mentee who takes responsibility for the outcome. Encouraging future managers to own a solution boosts their confidence, promotes critical thinking and encourages high performers to move from an individual ‘what do I need to accomplish’ mentality to a wider, team perspective.


Exposing potential managers to leadership situations means that, when they do make the jump, they have a thorough understanding of what is expected of them. It also gives individuals the opportunity to identify which skills they need to work on and where their strengths lie.

Enabling promising candidates to shadow other leaders is one of the best ways to deliver this perspective. Placing them in departments outside of their own offers a number of other advantages, broadening individual understanding of wider organisational goals and strengthening interdepartmental relationships.

Providing cover during a leader’s absence is another way for potential managers to hone their skills and gain much needed experience.


Open discussions of employees’ long-term goals, strengths and weaknesses feature highly in all the best performance management systems. If, with experience of management, individuals are still keen to move up, then place them in a team leader or junior management role. If, however, an individual decides leadership is not suited to them, help them expand their role to make the best use of their strengths and skills.

Don’t forget, even with the appropriate groundwork, a promotion does not create a leader. New managers need ongoing coaching and development from senior staff to help them succeed in their new roles⁵. Check out my article on the seven skills all exceptional leaders need for an in-depth look at what it takes to make a manager.

To Sum Up…

Leadership is not a natural progression; it takes time, training, and support to turn high performers into fantastic managers.

What did your career progression look like? Feel free to share your experiences, I’d love to hear your take on management training and progression.


¹Muller and Turner, 2010. Leadership competency profiles of successful project
managers. International Journal of Project Management, 28. pp. 437- 448.

²Cartwright and Holmes, 2006. The meaning of work: the challenge of regaining employee engagement and reducing cynicism. Human Resource Management Review, 16. pp. 199 – 208.

³White, 2010. The micro-management disease: symptoms, diagnosis and cure. Public Personnel Management, 39 (1).

⁴Kosteas, 2011. Job satisfaction and promotions. Cleveland State University (Thesis).

⁵Dragoni et al., 2009. Understanding managerial development: integrating developmental assignments, learning orientation, and access to developmental opportunities in predicting managerial competencies. Academy of Management Journal, 52 (4), pp. 731-743.

Clinton vs. Trump: Two Alternative Approaches to People Management

From FBI investigations to opinion polls and some unfortunate word choices, American Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are filling the column inches and keeping the world’s media on its toes. One article caught my attention last month and sparked more than a little curiosity about how they each run their campaigns. I’m not talking about the merchandise-laden tour buses and charged debates, but the experts, aids, and volunteers bustling about behind the scenes.

In 2012, Ann Marie Habershaw – the COO behind Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign –  revealed that hiring practices among staffers were, at best, ad hoc. She was responding to a Tweet from Nathaniel Koloc, then CEO of recruitment firm Rework. She told him that department heads often make hiring decisions on the fly, and campaigns are inevitably run by friends of friends and talent sourced through word-of-mouth.

As though to prove her point, three years later, Habershaw mentioned Koloc to Clinton’s deputy COO, who called to offer him the position of Director of Talent Acquisition and Development on the Hillary for America campaign. That makes Clinton’s outfit the first major political campaign to have a role dedicated to people management and talent sourcing¹. An interesting move, don’t you think?

Which got me thinking, what can we learn about people management from these two very different candidates?


25 seconds in, learning from criticism. 3.29, expressing her opinion and identifying problems without micromanaging the solution. 5 mins in, importance of compromise for progress.

Team and Hiring Style

The first female nominee is known for her close inner-circle. Many of the major players on her staff have been with her since she was First Lady, and she has retained a number of employees from her time at the State Department – not to mention some notable names from both husband Bill’s and President Obama’s campaigns².

This tried and tested team have proven they can handle anything a Presidential election might throw at them, but Hillary has also future-proofed her staff. Her established team is joined by new hires with more contemporary skill sets, like Marlon Marshall, who is known for his alternative approach and willingness to operate contrary to established Washington precedent². Interestingly, it’s an attitude mirrored by campaign manager Robby Mook, who worked with Clinton on her 2008 campaign.


The thousands of work emails now available to the public reveal a lot about Clinton’s character and how it translates to her management style.

Performance-oriented Clinton is happy to circumvent time consuming, official procedures when she judges them irrelevant. For example, when waiting to receive a statement which lacked any sensitive information but had been classified top secret, she instructed the sender to simply email it directly (and against protocol), ensuring the document was available there and then without delay.³

“Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.”4

Source: Huffington Post

Management Style

There may be no better way to define Clinton’s management style than with her own phrase, ‘smart power’. It encapsulates the need to learn and adapt to new situations in pursuit of the best possible outcome⁵. A practice reflected in her team, who embody a mixture of experienced and unconventional thinking.

Throughout her public career, Clinton has championed training and skills development.

In a primary debate in 2007, she advised against contracting out government jobs, an expansion of her 2006 idea to form a ‘public service academy’. Much like a military academy, this theoretical institute would train civil servants for free in exchange for a set number of years work. It’s a management approach that offers benefits at both an individual and organisational level, the organisation in this case being the USA⁶.

Defining Principles

  • Compromising
  • Manages to strengths
  • Performance orientated


On being detail orientated (1 min 32 in), 2.50 attitude to employee performance.

Team and Hiring Style

The Republican nominee launched his bid for The Oval with a very small team. Including long-time advisors Roger Stone and Corey Lewandowski, his initial staff had little political experience and were later joined by communications and foreign policy teams that, again, consisted of strategists and consultants with little or no experience in the political arena⁷. Trump opted for those he knew and trusted from his years in industry rather than new faces or unknown experts.

However, as the election gained momentum, Trump’s hiring policy changed in response to the developing needs of the campaign. Established political consultant Paul Manafort came on board, bringing with him over 30 years experience in presidential politics. At the same time, those in Trump’s team with political backgrounds were promoted, and the campaign strategy took on a more traditional approach, with Manafort introducing teleprompters and speechwriters⁷.


Intuitively driven, Trump is not a manager bound to the status quo. He is known to base his hiring decisions on gut reactions, and places greater emphasis on potential than experience.⁸ It’s a focus reflected in his initial campaign team, picked for their skills rather than their experience in the political world.

“Management is an art that is very important to me. Having leadership skills and employees that love their work is one of the great joys of life.”

Source: Sullivan and Costa, 2016. In campaign chaos, Trump shows his management style. The Washington Post.

Management Style

As a manager, Trump has high expectations. He leads by example, working around the clock and expecting his employees to do the same⁸. He also cultivates a competitive environment, actively encouraging rivalries even amongst high-level employees like Manafort and Lewandowski⁹ (those of you looking for another approach to aligning employees with organisational outcomes might want to check out my recent article, Aligning People: A Leader’s Greatest Challenge).

Trump has a well-founded belief in his abilities, appears very resilient to criticism, and is confident that his approach is the best.ⁱ⁰ He doesn’t delegate big decisions and takes personal responsibility for the outcome of projects in all fields⁹. It’s an exhausting style of management, and not one many could successfully emulate, but it is fantastic for achieving huge successes and is the reason he can deliver on projects that would be unattainable to other managers.

The best example of this is his campaign, which has taken him from a candidate with no elected experience –– not even running experience – to a nominee; a victory that has only been achieved by a handful of men, most notably Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft¹¹. In the light of this success, his claim that he is a quick learner¹² seems well founded; and clearly he expects the same from those around him. When the campaign hit a snag in March, it was Lewandowski who hired Manafort and his company of politically savvy aids to put it back on track¹³, demonstrating a penchant for agile learning in Team Trump, with senior staff continually assessing performance, identifying missteps, and adjusting their strategy in response.

Defining Principles

  • Intuitive
  • Hierarchical
  • Performance orientated

To sum up…

Trump’s experience in industry and Clinton’s decades in Washington have created two very different managers with two very different approaches, but they both have two values in common: performance and agile learning. Only time will tell which management style is the best suited to the political arena but I, for one, cannot wait to see the outcome.

What are your thoughts on these two approaches? How would they translate to your organisation?


¹Krueger, 2016. How the Hillary Clinton campaign built a staff as diverse as America. Fast Company.
² Anon. 2016. Hillary Clinton presidential campaign staff and advisors, 2016.Ballotpedia.
³ Klapper and Lee, 2016.What we learned from 52,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails. PBS.
⁴ Sanghoe, 2015. 5 important leadership lessons from Hillary Clinton. Huffington Post.
⁵ Shambaugh, 2010. Leadership secrets of Hillary Clinton. Forbes.
⁶Katz, 2015. What a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean for the federal workforce. Government Executive.
⁷ Anon. 2016. Donald Trump presidential campaign staff and advisors, 2016. Ballotpedia.
⁸Kruse, 2016. The executive Mr Trump. Politico Magazine.
⁹Sullivan and Costa, 2016. In campaign chaos, Trump shows his management style. The Washington Post.
ⁱ⁰Gaskell, 2016. 4 Leadership lessons from Trump. Forbes.
¹¹Raunch, 2015. Amateurs in the Oval Office. The Atlantic.
¹²Dickerson, 2016. How fast does Donald Trump learn? CBS News.
¹³Moussa and Newberry, 2016. What we can learn from Donald Trump’s campaign reboot. London School of Economics (US Centre).

Aligning People: A Leader’s Greatest Challenge

Part I: Understanding the Obstacles

Aligning people

Today’s working environment is an entirely different beast to any that’s gone before. We have more generations in the workforce and a greater focus on life choices, travel and experience. Personal status is no longer determined by job role, and it’s vogue to hate work.

Add to that our (relatively) recent economic woes and the uncertainty of the job market, and it’s little wonder alignment is a thorn in the side of leaders up and down the country. So, what are the alignment challenges facing leaders, and how can we overcome them?

1. Mind The Generation Gap

For the first time in history, we have multiple generations in the workforce. Millennials are working alongside Generation X’s and more than a few hierarchical Baby Boomers, many nearing retirement age. In this one-size-fits-one environment, any approach to alignment must consider the motivations and needs of each of these groups.

Baby Boomers

These guys are work oriented. They are motivated by wealth and rank, define success by hours logged, and believe in working their way up the corporate ladder. Baby Boomers are committed to their organisation and often serve long tenures in one company2. Most significantly for business, they actively avoid confrontation and will often prioritise process over results3.

Generation X

In direct contrast to the generation above them, Xs favour a ‘hands off’ management approach. Technologically literate, this group have an aversion to risk, can be sceptical of management and are happy to consider lateral progression over the traditional ‘upwards’ promotion².

Caught between progressive Millennials and traditional Baby Boomers, Gen X is a useful workforce intermediary. Baby Boomers labelled them ‘slackers’, in reality, they are the pioneers of the work-life balance4. Most telling of all, their flexibility and excellent communication skills mean that both Baby Boomers and Millennials consider this group the best at generating revenue and managing teams1.


Now the dominant generation in the workforce1, Millennials boast technical skills that surpass either of the generations before them. They distrust bureaucracy, hop willingly between jobs, and will sacrifice income for a better work-life balance2. Digital natives, they expect instant access to learning and information — a point of contention between this group and Baby Boomers, who respect the traditional, ‘top-down’ distribution of information1.

Millennials infographic

2. Everyone Hates Work, Right?

We’ve seen a huge change in social attitudes to the workplace over the last 30 years. Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, more and more Australians are working from home, and a whopping 38% of Millennials work freelance. But that isn’t the only change.

TV shows regularly depict the soul-crushing tedium of the 9-5 (think Simpsons and The Office), while the internet is littered with ‘Happy Friday’ memes designed to reinforce the monotony of working life. Pop culture has painted such a negative view of work that it’s now commonplace to hate your job. With the world telling us to live for the weekend and endure the week, leaders are facing an uphill struggle to convince employees they have an essential role to play in a rewarding environment.

3. Money, Money, Money

Independent and relatively wealthy, Generation Xs can afford to pursue career changes. They are flexible enough to think laterally, and will likely avoid or leave roles they don’t enjoy. At the other end of the scale, Millennials are less financially secure and display a greater level of flexibility, with many freelancing alongside their day jobs. Unlike Baby Boomers, both generations are less financially reliant on a single employer, and require more than simply a paycheque to commit long-term.

This, coupled with the disruption introduced by innovative technologies and the turbulence of the financial market, has served to decrease the average employee tenure6. Workers no longer commit entire careers to one organisation, and many will hold roles in multiple industries before they retire7. A reaction to boom and bust cycles, and the resulting redundancies, mergers and acquisitions, these behaviours mean that alignment strategies must be robust enough to handle staff turnover while addressing underlying issues surrounding engagement and productivity.

4. You’re How Old?!

Baby Boomers were hit hardest by the recession, experiencing the most redundancies, pay cuts and investment losses. The resulting financial insecurity will mean many continue to work long after retirement age5.

While a longer tenure benefits employers — we retain essential skills and knowledge — it poses a significant threat to engagement. Working beyond retirement can result in an (understandable) negativity towards work. As the workplace becomes more Millennial orientated, and the first Generation Zs make an appearance, ensuring Baby Boomers feel included and valued will present one of the biggest challenges for alignment.

Millennials value mentors infographic

To Sum Up…

Aligning every worker to a broader organisational purpose offers advantages across the board. But alignment is a target that’s becoming increasingly difficult to hit, with workplace disruption making aligning employees to organisational goals more challenging than ever. Luckily, we have the answers to meeting these challenges in Part II. Stay tuned!



1Bursch. 2014. Managing the multigenerational workplace. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

2Dowd-Higgins. 2013. How to play together in the multi-generational sandbox at work. Huffington Post.

3Murphy. 2007. Leading a Multigenerational Workforce. AARP.

4American Management Association. 2014. Leading the four generations at work. AMA

5Laham. 2015. Peace, love and no retirement in sight: why so many baby boomers must keep working.Huffington Post.

6Bidwell. 2013. What happened to long-term employment? The role of worker power and environmental turbulence in explaining declines in worker tenure. Organization Science

7PWC. 2014. Millennials at work: reshaping the workplace. PWC.

A Sensible Discussion about Autonomy

Organisations continue to look at increasing the autonomy of competent employees to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy or enable greater personal discretion over when, where and how they perform their role. In both instances, measurable improvements are expected in employee alignment with organisational goals and an individual’s productivity.

Autonomy has its benefits and challenges and so in this article, I’ll use independent research and my leadership experience of over 20 years to discuss a sensible approach to autonomy.

A sensible discussion about Autonomy

What is Autonomy?

Simply put, autonomy is allowing staff to determine what actions should be taken and when, and where and how they produce their work.

In a recent blog, Work and Happiness[1], I described how happiness in the workplace depends on employees feeling a sense of purpose, community, and respect as a valuable and contributing member of their organisation.

Companies that empower their staff experience greater employee engagement and increased performance against goals and key performance indicators as a direct result of employees feeling a greater sense of ownership and accountability. In contrast, people with little freedom in how they perform their role can become disengaged, and companies can see productivity and job satisfaction suffer.

Is Autonomy on the Rise?

All indications show empowerment is an essential ingredient in creating and maintaining a productive and rewarding workplace: but is it increasing? According to AON’s 2015 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report,[2] “The overall work experience is deteriorating – particularly regarding enablement, autonomy, and the sense of accomplishment.”

AON’s survey analyses many factors that directly affect employee engagement including autonomy. In both the US and Europe, their data show drops in autonomy between 5% and 6% between 2013 and 2014. In Australia, autonomy increased by 3% over the same period. So what can Australian employers do to continue that trend and reap the benefits of this valuable management tool?

When and Where Autonomy Works

For some occupations, autonomy can be limited. A retail employee may have discretion in the manner in which they greet their customers, but you certainly won’t be letting them take their cash drawer home at night to balance and reconcile.

In contrast someone in product development who designs new or improves existing products or services could have flexibility regarding how they go about those processes. They can use their discretion on where and how to focus their efforts rather than following a set of strictly-defined instructions or workflow models.


The most important factor to consider when determining autonomy is the experience and level of competency in the role. Competency levels define a level of skill and mastery. Low skill and mastery mean less autonomy and more direction: more skill and mastery mean less direction and more autonomy.

Determining how and where to provide autonomy requires careful consideration. In addition to the dictates of the position, autonomy is highly dependent on the employee’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

Experience and level of competency


Benefit or Detriment?

Can autonomy work in your firm? Research indicates that autonomy works best in stable organisations, where employees can perform their function with a high level of independence.

Organisations may fear that an autonomous employee pool will result in lower productivity, but a recent study shows the opposite may be true. A survey[3] by Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, and Co-Director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, followed a group of employees at China’s Ctrip, one of the country’s largest travel agents. Staff members were given the option to work their call center jobs from home. The surprising results: compared to the control group who stayed in the office, the productivity of the Work from Home Group increased by 13 percent and attrition was 50 percent lower than their work-in-the-office counterparts. The ability to simply control “where” the work was performed had a positive effect on employee performance as well as retention.

Implementing Autonomy

Shifting to a more autonomous structure can be challenging, particularly where there are a long-established hierarchy and strictly defined roles. Structural change can cause individuals to feel their level of responsibility or status is being eroded, particularly if those under their direction are being granted more independence.

Empathize with those managers, certainly, but explain that as autonomy increases across the organisation, the control they relinquish could lead to greater independence for themselves. Most managerial staff have the responsibility to perform their tasks in addition to directing others. With less need to micromanage staff, their ability to focus on their productivity can increase. Communicating openly about why change is happening and how it aligns with organisational goals is paramount.

Don’t assume all employees want greater autonomy: for some autonomy may result in deeper engagement and better performance in their role. Others may not enjoy the additional responsibility or may believe they lack appropriate skills.

Considerations when Implementing Autonomy

When introducing greater autonomy, I suggest a holistic approach: a necessary organisational support including learning and development should be provided.

Employee performance and comfort should be reviewed throughout the process as it unfolds. If adjustments are necessary, they can be incremental and easier to manage than an entire revamping or dismissal of the program. The key is to monitor how the process rolls out at each phase, so corrections can be made before they become problematic.

Conversely, if autonomy is not successful, there must be consideration given to rescinding this benefit if needed. Any reduction should be managed carefully. The employee must be given the reason for the shift with a high level of sensitivity. If autonomy is not successful because of business-related factors, rather than negative performance, candor and transparency are key to retaining productivity in the wake of removing autonomy.


Employee autonomy can be a double-edged sword. Too little can lead to staff members who feel their talents are unrecognized, their capabilities are minimized, and they are being micromanaged. Frustration and disengagement can result which invariably cause lower productivity. Too much autonomy can translate into an organisation that is highly busy but low on productivity. And, as non-directed employees work against each other, rather than moving in the same direction, anarchy can be the result.

Using autonomy responsibly, by role, competency, and skill level requires thoughtful consideration to reap the maximum benefits. For roles that require greater independence, I believe it’s imperative that learning needs be considered when increasing autonomy, along with well-defined expectations in place for the employee.

A careful review of the benefits to the company and the employee must be monitored on an ongoing basis, and thoughtful consideration must occur when removing or reducing autonomy if needed.

A prosperous balance can lie in an individualized mix of both empowerment and traditional management styles. Using autonomy successfully is a result of being aware of the needs of the company and the employee, and assuring that the level of independence enhances, rather than diminishes, engagement and productivity.


  1. Cognology, 2016 Work and Happiness
  1. Aon/Hewitt, 2015 Trends in Global  Employee Engagement
  1. Roberts and Bloom, 2016 A Working from Home Experiment Shows High Performers Like It Better