Nov 28, 2009

Nov 10, 2009

The little train conductor who couldn't (part 2)

Yesterday, the same thing happened again: I got to the train station (at yet a different time) and the commuter train's passing coincided with the passing of a freight train. We were about twelve, waiting anxiously for the caboose to pass us by. When it finally did, we heard the bell which signaled the departure of the commuter train. Internally, I went "F****** S***!!! Not again!" But this time, the conductor waited until we boarded before the train left.

I'll have to start getting earlier to the train station if I want to live a long life.

Nov 6, 2009

The little train conductor who couldn't

If I have to go downtown during rush hour and I plan to spend the day, I take the train. It's relatively comfortable, it's stress-free, and doesn't take much more time than driving.

The agency in charge of the train service around Montreal, the AMT, has been working hard to get people from the suburbs to leave their car at home (or in the free parking spaces) and to take the train instead. It has worked relatively well, until this year.

Last winter, a couple of the busiest lines had major mechanical problems during winter months, which caused passengers to be stranded on platforms, with plummeting temperatures and blistering winds. Not surprisingly, this has lead to a decline in ridership on the lines that were most affected.

I applaud the AMT's efforts to address the mechanical issues and I hope they are successful. I also hope they will be training their employees.

Today, about 25 other passengers and I were left stranded on the train station's platform, because of a stupid employee. Here is what happened: where I take the train, there are four tracks so at any given time, there could conceivably be four trains present. This morning, at around 7:50, a freight train showed up. At about 7:56, the commuter train pulled in also, but the freight train was still running.

At about 7:57, the last car of the freight train finally pulled away and all 25 would-be passengers ran to the commuter train. The first of the lot was about 20 feet from the train door when the conductor decided to pull away. He just stood on the steps of the car, looked at the helpless people looking at him, and shook his head as if he were powerless to do anything about it.


The previous day, the exact same thing happened, although earlier in the day. However, when we reached the car, the conductor smiled and said: "You were scared, weren't you? When I saw the train I figured I would just wait a bit to give you guys a chance."

So it wasn't that this morning's conductor couldn't wait a few more seconds, it's just that he chose not to. He didn't want to fall behind his schedule so he saved those precious few seconds by pulling away while leaving 25 customers fuming and, who knows, maybe some will lose their jobs because of this.

Some might think: "It's important to keep the train on schedule for the benefit of the other customers." To which I say: "I agree." However, 1) I don't think that a few seconds would have been that big of a deal and 2) the trains periodically run late for other reasons (like people working on the tracks).

As far as I'm concerned, this morning's display was shameful customer service.

Oct 17, 2009

Get Them at Hello: How To Improve Your Hiring Process

On my French blog, I recently wrote about an experience I had when I joined a singing ensemble. (Please, no jokes about my voice!) In a nutshell, I joined the ensemble at the beginning of September and participated in the yearly 3-day camp, which is when we get a good overview of the songs we will be performing at the end of March.

The selection process was typical: I went through an audition where they asked a few questions about me and why I had chosen to join the group. Then they tested my singing abilities, and that was it. A few days later I received the news: out of 30 applicants, I was one of the 12 chosen.

The first time I showed up, many people made it their duty to come and say "Hi" and to welcome me aboard. But it was nothing compared to what happened at the camp. All new "hires" were front and centre of various activities over the course of the weekend. The pinnacle, for me, was when they sat us in the middle of a room, surrounded us and all 70+ veterans sang us a song. That event really made me feel special within the group. And it got me thinking: when was the last time I was welcomed in such a manner? In particular, when has it happened at work?

As a consultant, I don't expect people to make a big deal about my presence. In fact, in many cases, they may resent it. That's fine. But as an employee, expectations are different.  You expect to become part of something special, part of a team; you search for a way to belong. Too often, that part of the work experience is completely forgotten, or neglected.

What is the typical hiring process?
  • Apply for a position that looks and sounds like hundreds of other positions
  • Go through an interview process, which is more or less involved.
  • When you first join the company, you go through the HR process to understand your working conditions.
  • Do your job.
  • Retire.
Can this be improved? Yes it can. And in fact, it should. Studies have shown that when people feel unwelcome or ill-treated in a new job, they are more likely to keep searching for jobs elsewhere. Although I haven't found a study that says so, I believe that there must be some truth to the complementary view: an employee who feels welcome is less likely to bolt after a few short months.

So what can be done to improve the initial impression? Here are a few ideas:
  • Change your job announcements: in fact, write the job postings to match the type or personality you are searching for. You want someone outgoing and dynamic? Make your posting sizzle. You want someone who is detail-oriented and likes solving arduous puzzles? You can say so within your posting also. Having a clear idea of the person you are trying to attract, and writing the job description accordingly will cull many unqualified applicants.
  • Make a big deal out of it: make the new hire feel welcome by making a big deal out of his/her presence. There are many ways to do this, so I won't get into details. Of course, you want to do something that will not make the person feel uncomfortable, otherwise you will get the opposite effect of what you are trying to accomplish. Here is an example of what not to do: A friend of mine was a new hire in a team, and the company was planning a special event one afternoon. However, they needed someone to stay at the office to answer email, take calls, etc. Guess who was asked to stay behind while the others went out and had fun? That was a great opportunity to help a new employee bond and become part of the team, but it was wasted. Shortly thereafter, the new employee left.
  • Make it smooth: it is highly annoying for a new hire to not be able to be effective immediately. Little things like computer accounts that don't work, not having the proper equipment to work with, not having a key to enter and leave work premises, and so on, leave a grating feeling. These things happen, of course, and you may just be unlucky. But if it happens regularly, it's no longer an annoyance: it's a symptom.
  • Mentoring or shadowing: this is a great way to make existing employees feel special also. When someone is hired, assign a mentor to them, or let them choose one. In order for this to be effective, let existing employees know that you want to start a mentoring program. Let people sign up if they want to, don't force it upon them. Then, either assign mentors to new hires on a rotating basis, or, let the new employees become familiar with the people they will be working with and let them choose their mentors after a few weeks.
  • Give them the opportunity to have immediate impact: nothing is more boring than being given a stack of documents to read on your first day on the job, especially if going through that stack can take a week or two. Instead, give new employees the opportunity of feeling useful as soon as possible.
Dr. Guido Quelle, President of Mandat Managementberatung GmbH in Germany, implements many of these elements with new employees. He explains it as follows:
Rookies whom we recruit when they finished their exam at the university get a six-month internal training program. They learn the Mandat-approach, get to know how we use our intellectual property, learn how we approach and develop clients, learn the culture, how to bring value to clients, and they also lead an important internal project.

As soon as possible, we take them with us to clients. There, they learn how we work directly with clients. When they start, they don't have a task, just to observe. We tell our clients, that the colleague is new with us and since we don't have daily rates, they don't pay for him or her sitting there. We always ask the colleague after a meeting what he observed. After a few meetings, the new colleague starts to facilitate meetings, steers sub projects, calls members of the project team in order to make sure that they do what they promised, etc.

The new colleague has a mentor, it's [my managing director] or me. The whole first year is more or less an "assistance" year. During the second year, the colleague gets more and more important tasks. Together with his internal mentor, he prepares himself for leading whole projects. There's always a feedback conversation between the mentor and the consultant after a meeting.
As you can see, the hiring process is not complete until new employees feel that they are part of team. The operative word, here, is feel. Emotions are what make people enjoy their work and makes them stay. As has often been said, you come into a company for the job, but you leave because of the people.  You can increase loyalty and retention of employees, simply by analyzing and adjusting your "welcome" approach.

© 2009 Laurent Duperval, All rights reserved

Oct 9, 2009

Improving GNOME Evolution

I haven't written a tech-only blog entry in a long, long, long time. Well, here goes!

I've been a fairly happy Mozilla Thunderbird user for years. But lately, I've been getting more and more frustrated with it, and I began looking for a new mail client. So far, of all the others I tested, GNOME Evolution is the one that comes closest to what I want. Closest, but not there yet. It's not missing much, and that's what I plan on covering here.

So why would I want to change in the first place? Because I've been having nagging performance issues with Thunderbird. I have a local IMAP setup for my email and periodically, Thunderbird will spike the CPU for no apparent reason. When it does, my system slows down to a crawl. Sometimes the only way I can fix it is by killing the Thunderbird process. I tried the latest Thunderbird 3 beta 4, and although I like a lot of the improvements, performance is worse than the previous version. Hence, Evolution.

I generally like it, and I find performance is better, without the spikes I see in Thunderbird. Here are some of the things I'd like to see improved, many of which are paper cuts:
  • Keyboard shortcuts: I don't like the shortcuts that have been assigned by the Evolution team. Maybe it's because I have been using Thunderbird for so long, but I get frustrated when I try a keyboard shortcut I am used to, but don't get the result I expect. I'd like to be able to configure my own shortcuts, like I can in
  • Automatic filtering: One of the things I like about Thunderbird is the way it starts filtering your email as you type in the search box. You don't have to press Enter to launch the search. Same goes for the address book.
  • Mailbox ordering: Mail accounts are ordered alphabetically. I would rather be able to specify the ordering. Of course, I can specify "dumb" names like 00-FIrst, 01-Second, etc. But that isn't quite what I'm looking for. However, since this is predicatable, it makes it easier to order accounts than it is in Thunderbird. In the latter, you have no control: they appear in the order they were created.
  • Slow reply: Whenever I reply, there is an annoying delay before the reply window appears.
  • Webkit: I know work is being done on this. Webkit is the toolkit used by Google Chrome to display Web pages. HTML display is awful in Evolution, nothing like Thunderbird's ability to do the same.
  • Importing: This one is almost a deal breaker for me. Evolution doesn't import Thunderbird data correctly. I tried importing LDIF, CSV, and ICS but in each case, some of the cards were not imported correctly. I wish Evolution would allow me to specify where to put the content of each imported column, like does when importing into Calc.
  • New vs. Recent: I like the fact that Thunderbird makes a difference between "New" and "Brand New" email. For the latter, it displays a star, while the former has no star. In Evolution, it's difficult to see a difference between new email, and mail that has just come in.
  • Favourite folders: Another TB feature I like. I can specify some folders as favourite folders and only see them in my control panel. There isn't something like this in Evolution.
Well, that's it. I am still hoping that the final (64-bit Linux) build of Thunderbird will fix the performance issues I am experiencing. If not, maybe I'll have to do something I haven't done in years: break out my C coding skills... Yeah, right!

Sep 10, 2009

Twitter: Friend or Foe?

“Social media sites are all the rage today,” says Laurent Duperval, president of Duperval Consulting. “We are still in a learning process, trying to figure out how to use these tools as efficaciously as possible. It is similar to what we went through with email and the Internet.”

Read more here: Twitter: Friend Or Foe?

Aug 13, 2009

Now THAT's customer service!

We bought a Moen faucet about five years ago. Some time ago, one of the pieces of the faucet broke and the handle became loose. We made do for a while, but it eventually bugged me enough that I called the company to order a new part. After asking me a few clarifying questions, the customer service representative who answered identified the piece that was broken and sent it to me... along with another part that, she says, I should change as well.

I was never asked for my receipt. She asked me what year I bought the faucet, not to see if I was still under warranty, but because a few years ago the shape of the piece was changed, and she wanted to make sure I received the right one.

No headache. No hassle. They did not make me feel bad, nor guilty, for calling them. My next faucet will be a Moen.

Jun 22, 2009

May 29, 2009

Five Mistakes To Avoid During a Technical Presentation

... focusing solely on content is not sufficient to keep the audience engaged. You can distinguish yourself from the majority of other speakers by avoiding the same common mistakes.

You can read the rest on
Five Mistakes To Avoid During a Technical Presentation

May 20, 2009

Why people really quit

An interesting article in this morning's Globe and Mail, discussing why people quit their jobs:

The real deal on why people quit

The interesting part of this article is not really why people quit, but the marked disparity between why people quit and why leaders think people quit. This disparity is quite significant because it will always cause companies to compensate incorrectly to keep people aboard.

Hiring costs are as high or higher (200% according to the above article) than keeping an employee aboard. But if companies don't know the real reason why people are leaving, they will keep throwing money at a situation they cannot fix, because they aren't fixing the real problem.

Another item of note: 5/5 top reasons given by employees have to do with the company. 4/5 reasons given by managers have to do with the employee (I am assuming that "insufficient pay" goes both ways, that is, management sees it as an employee issue and employees see it as a management issue). The only one that is common is "lack of opportunity for training and development." So in other words, employees say "I'm leaving because of the company" while companies say "It has very little to do with us."

What to do, then? Here are a few ideas:
  • Exit interviews. I've had a few jobs in my time and when I left, I was never asked why I left. So for the most part, nobody really knows why I left any company, and I suspect this is often the case. I don't think I'm an exception. Thoughts: in your company, are exit interviews mandatory when someone leaves? Are the results taken into account and brought back to the attention of the employee's supervisor? Are results analyzed to determine whether a particular supervisor or department is having trouble keeping its staff? Is the exit interview done by the employee's supervisor or by an impartial party?
  • Leadership development: Leaders aren't born, they are made. Just as anyone learns their trade in order to do his or her job, they need to learn how to be a leader too. Are leaders in a company trained and groomed appropriately? Are they aware of what makes good leaders? Are they coached on how to become a good leader or are they fed to the wolves?
  • Leadership willingness:  I've seen instances of people taking on leadership roles, not because they wanted to but because they felt they had to do it, or their careers would suffer as a result. You can't force someone to become a good leader if they aren't interested in becoming so in the first place. When looking at the leaders in your organization, have they been catapulted in their current position because they were good at what they did previously? Or was it part of their career plan? I've seen many IT professionals, for example, leave a company because they were moved to a management position when all they wanted to do was code.
  • Self-assessment: Few companies will say "we are a bad place to work." Yet according to this article, it is the main reason people leave (leadership, money, bad working environment). How often do organizations assess their claims against their employees' perception? When a company says "Our people are our biggest asset" is that really what their employees believe? Or is it management's wishful thinking?
According to many reports and analysts, we are slowly but surely heading out of this recession. During the 18 months of devastating job losses and stress, have your employees felt that they were operating under stellar leadership? Or will they be heading out in droves once the job market opens up again?

It's not too late to prevent the latter.

May 19, 2009

How Not To Read a Speech

This morning, I attended the funeral of a friend's mother and I had the opportunity to see two speeches, one from a professional and one from a non-professional. The amateur got it right.

The professional (the priest) read his sermon, as well as many other parts of the ceremony. In fact, at times I had the impression that he was on automatic pilot, and was just going through the motions. He made the following mistakes:
  • He rarely looked up. He was very focused on his sheet, reading almost every word and rarely connected with the audience.
  • No vocal intonation. I go to Catholic churches and for the most part, the priests are boring. They all sound the same, display no energy, and no passion. Come on! This is supposed to be your calling in life. This is supposed to be the one thing that makes you happy. At least make it sound that way!
  • He read the script to the letter. At least two or three times, the priest said "he" instead of "she" when speaking of the deceased. I found that highly disrespectful, while also being very impersonal. It gives the impression that he couldn't be bothered to do anything special for this person, that she was just one of many others that pass through his church.
The non-professional read a speech that was written by the daughter of the deceased. This is what she did:
  • She took notes before reading it. I saw her reviewing the text and scribbling something on the sheet. She didn't just get up and read it, at least she was familiar with the text before standing in front of the audience.
  • She spoke slowly, paused, and put some life in her voice. She acted as though she was delivering the message for her friend instead of just reading words on a sheet.
  • She connected and it showed. She took the time to look up between sentences and establishing eye contact with the people in the first row. When I looked around the church, I could see that that crowd reacted much more during her three minute speech than they did for the entire duration of the priest's performance.
I abhor speeches that are read, but sometimes you have no choice but to read a speech. There is a right way, and a wrong way to do it. In this case, don't act like a professional!

May 11, 2009

Because We Can

As I was returning from Rhode Island to Canada on a Friday evening, things were quite different at the border. Normally, you go directly to the Canadian border, answer a couple of questions and on you go. But this time, I saw flashers on the US side, and part of the road was blocked.

I patiently waited in line, wondering what the problem was. When it was finally my turn, a young man asked me for my passport, with authority. He asked me a barrage of questions, barely leaving me enough time to answer one before he blurted the other. I answered diligently and he hand me my passport.

Before leaving, I asked: "I come here often and I've never been stopped like this before. Is it because of the swine flu?"

The young man replied: "No, it's because we can."

I stared.

An older man, who clearly was not as enamoured with his newfound power, explained that it's something they do once in a while, that it was part of their normal field operations.

This morning, I was reading an article in the Globe and Mail about changes in the stores. In the comments section, many people complained that some stores had abysmal service, with clerks who are barely willing to help. Why? Probably because they can, since their employers can't, or won't, do anything about it.

Apr 14, 2009

11 Little-Known Ways to Advance Your Career

"Most people hate any form of public speaking but it is one of the most potent publicity and marketing vehicles available to you..."

Read more:

11 Little-Known Ways to Advance Your Career

Apr 2, 2009

A Manager's Guide to Surviving Layoffs

"...what's a manager to do? Hand wringing and pacing are options, but not good ones. You can hide in your office and hope no one hates you for too long. But, again, this is not really a good option. You could lie and tell everyone that everything is going to be okay, put on a happy face and pretend that the layoffs haven't affected you or the employees left behind, but, again, not a good option, say the experts."


Mar 21, 2009

Is Obama "special?"

This week on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno Obama acted like "one of the boys." During an exchange with Jay Leno, he commented on his performance as a bowler and the conversation went like this:

LENO: Now, are they going to put a basketball -- I imagine the bowling alley has been just burned and closed down.

OBAMA: No, no. I have been practicing all -- (laughter.)

LENO: Really? Really?

OBAMA: I bowled a 129. (Laughter and applause.)

LENO: No, that's very good. Yes. That's very good, Mr. President.

OBAMA: It's like -- it was like Special Olympics, or something. (Laughter.)

LENO: No, that's very good.

OBAMA: No, listen, I'm making progress on the bowling, yes.

Ouch! For a man who is perceived as an excellent communicator, that is a major faux pas. Yet he made amends. On his way back to the White House, his team made him realize that what he had say was pretty stupid and insensitive. Obama agreed, and proceeded to call Timothy Shriver, the chairman of  the Special Olympics committee and apologized. That is more than most people would be willing to do, president or not.

Apologizing is a key part of building and maintaining healthy relationships. Yet, most of use refuse to do so because we feel that it diminishes us. Quite the contrary: it takes a healthy and confident person to apologize.

Shriver said it was a teachable moment, and indeed it was. But rather than dwell on the negative aspects of Obama's mistake, let's look at what he did right:
  • He apologized. Obama did the right thing. He made a mistake, he realized it and he made amends. There isn't much more to say on this.
  • He listened. Members of his team told him he made a mistake. Yet, he listened and accepted their judgement. Too many times, I see leaders who hire people to help them, but refuse to listen. They have made up their minds and are only looking for people to validate their opinions. It doesn't always work like that. In this instance, Obama listened to what others said, and acted accordingly.
  • He gives people power. In a business setting, how often are employees able to go to the boss and tell him or her: "Yo! You messed up, big time!" Evidently, Obama gave enough power to his employees, which enabled them to set him right. Let's not forget that we are dealing with one of the most powerful men in the world, here. What employees find annoying is when they are given a certain responsibility, but no authority to act, or even worse, they are yelled at and criticized when they do the work they were hired to do. It seems as though Obama hasn't fallen for that trap.
  • He acted immediately. Let's face it, Obama could have easily said "Whatever, if these people can't take a joke, that's their problem." But he didn't. When he realized that he had done something stupid, he acted immediately. He could just as easily have dismissed the whole thing as a "minor peccadillo" and went about his business. Instead, he chose to do the right thing.
If anything, Obama proved that he is just as human and stupid as the next guy. Which is a relief, when you consider his robotic demeanour when he reads the teleprompter.

Many cynics might say: "Yeah, well, he just did what his cronies told him to do." Maybe. But the fact remains that an insensitive and boorish individual would have dismissed his team's comments by saying something like: "C'mon, it's just a joke. They can take it." Obama realized that what he did was dumb and insensitive and acted accordingly.

Now, let's see what he does about the American economy.

Mar 13, 2009

Bridging the gap between business and IT

This post was inspired by a recent blog entry.

Many executives feel that IT has no clue about the business. Conversely, many IT professionals feel executives and management don't understand, or care about IT. Unless the systems don't perform as expected.

There is misconception on both sides, which causes frustration, delays, and eventually affects the bottom line. IT objectives and the business objectives need to be aligned in order to narrow that gap, increase productivity, satisfaction, and ultimately, the financials.

Some things to consider:
  • IT does not function in a vacuum: A clear understanding of IT's impact on the client and on the company's bottom line is key. It is management's job to clearly articulate and deliver this message to IT.
  • Clear up communication issues: it takes time and requires openness on the side of IT and management. In particular, being able to formulate dissent or incomprehension (sometimes more than once) without being castigated is key.
  • Eliminate personal agendas: Managers can build such a culture by effectively and regularly conveying the vision of the business to the employees, and showing them how they contribute to that vision.
  • Focus on client satisfaction: the systems, the network, and the processes are not the clients. Is everyone clear on who the clients are, and what it takes to satisfy them?
  • From CYA to teamwork: is the corporate culture one that encourages each person to cover his/her behind, for fear of reprisals? Or is it one which accepts that errors occur, and focuses on providing solutions that prevent such errors from repeating?
Bridging the gap has to focus on individuals as much as procedures and processes. You can put as many processes in place as you want, but if the people who are supposed to use them decide not to, you've invested your time and energy in the wrong place.

Mar 11, 2009

Using web conference software to present

One of my clients uses web conferencing software to present their solutions to potential clients. Some of the things I have noted in their presentations that can help your next webinar or conference:
  • Have many slides that change often. Sameness is your enemy. If people get bored, they will quickly go to their iPhones or their Blackberrys.
  • If you can, use two computers when you present: one as the host, the other to monitor what the audience is seeing. Sometimes there is a lag between what you see and what the audience sees. It's useful to know what your audience is seeing.
  • Practice, practice, practice, to feel at ease with the technology. Nothing feels as amateurish as someone bumbling around, trying to figure out the technology during the delivery.
  • If you are trying to convince someone at the other end, get them emotionally involved and if it is a small group, get them to say something out loud. Limit the number of time you incite them to say no (for example, "Do you have a question?")

Mar 10, 2009

Social networking and business

Many of the social networking sites will eventually become part of the standard work environment. Already, you can see some businesses taking advantage of the instant nature of Twitter. Dell, for example, is using it to expand ins customer service offerings. I have dealt with companies who have used instant messaging as a way to keep people updated on the status of various projects and troubleshooting situations.

I remember when email and the Internet were also a fad that would never take hold. Today in the Globe and Mail, there was an article showing that social media had passed email in overall Internet activity (

I think most businesses are afraid of these tools because the leaders do not use them nor understand them. As younger generations take over, or launch their new companies, these tools will become more entrenched in the overall business processes.

Social networking tools can be seen as a competitive advantage to prospective employees. Sure, in the current economic climate, that may not mean much, but once things improve (and they will) it can be enough to make your best new recruits bolt to another employer offering more bells and whistles.

So how can they be useful, and not become time wasters? The same way the Web managed to be come a useful tool: minimal control processes, accompanied by lots of education.

Mar 8, 2009

Finding fault or getting the best out?

The school system is based on a fault-finding approach, and that typically finds its way in our dealings with other people in business situations. The problem with fault-finding is that it is inherently disheartening.

Nobody's perfect and most people seek to improve their results by improving what they currently do. Fault-finding is focused on the past, and rarely looks to the future. But you can't fix the past, so sticking to fault-finding does not help anything.

Many managers, unfortunately, know how to criticize but aren't necessarily sure how to follow that criticism with steps toward an improved situation. To reach that improved situation, well, you need to know what that situation is!

I remember hearing a speaker ask a crowd of sales people: "Are you ready to bring your business to the next level?" and the crowd roared its approval. He followed that question with this one: "How many of you know what the next level looks like?" Not many hands went up. This is typical of fault-finding; we know what we don't want, but not necessarily what we DO want.

Instead of finding fault and criticizing, it's better to provide feedback. How is feedback different? Feedback is a loop. It's not a monologue but a dialogue. It gives the other person a chance to reply, to push back, to provide his or her opinion when needed. Doing so brings up another issue: ego.

People in leadership positions, but with fragile egos, will not accept pushback. They have difficulty accepting another person's opinion or objections. They won't accept that they could be wrong, so instead of giving someone else the opportunity to debate, they simply close the door to that option. This is the typical attitude of "I'm the boss, just do as I say."

Changing one's away of dealing with subordinates and moving from a coercive model to a cooperative model requires much work on oneself. In order to succeed, you need to have healthy self-esteem, you need to learn not to take things personally, and you need to learn to listen.

Furthermore, you need to focus more on the employee's needs and wants, and finding a way of aligning them with your objectives, instead of forcing the employee to adopt your point of view. You need to demonstrate more empathy. In short, you need to care more about the employee as a person, and not just as another body helping you to attain your goals.

That change is much more difficult to achieve than it seems. So rather than going through the challenges required to change ourselves, we prefer to try and change others... using the same old, ineffective methods.

Feb 23, 2009

Do you speak like Oscar LOSERS?

Every year I watch the Academy Awards to hear the acceptance speeches. And what amazes (and saddens me) every year, is how often the winners act like losers. Many of the winners are people who act for a living, or have been actors in past lives. Furthermore, many of them won earlier this year in other award ceremonies. You can NOT tell me that it hasn't given them the adequate preparation time to give a decent speech.

Now, I have never won a big award like this, so I can imagine that the adrenaline level is extremely high and it probably affects the delivery in unforeseen manners. Still, there are some things that just make some winners seem like LOSERS:
  • Lists and more lists: Some people come on the stage and all they do is read a list of names, without giving much more importance to one or another, adding no personal commentary. This, to me, is similar to someone delivering a presentation and reading the PowerPoint slides during the entire speech. I understand the importance of thanking as many people as possible. However, there needs to be something more than a list of credits. Just a tad of a personal touch.
  • Outpouring of nothing: this is supposed to be a joyous occasion. Some award recipients look like they have been condemned to eternal suffering. No smile, no excitement, nothing. I see many people do that when they stand in front of an audience. An otherwise entertaining and outgoing woman becomes an utter bore. A strong, confident man becomes a meek weakling. All because they may be trying too hard to control their emotions. Yes, you need to keep some emotions in check, but you need not thwart them completely.
  • Surprise, surprise: this year, I didn't hear anyone say: "I wasn't expecting this," nor did I hear "I don't know what to say." So kudos for that. Unless something is absolutely, completely unexpected (one chance out of five is not completely unexpected), there is no reason for these types of comments. You don't apologize for being unprepared.
  • Errring and Uhmming your way though: one "uhm," "ahh," or "err" doesn't kill a speech. But 20 in 45  seconds? Puh-leez! Ok, so maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, yet some bad speeches are made considerably worse by the constant hesitation of the winner. It is a habit that is quite annoying, and even Barack Obama suffers from it (just watch any interview where his speech is unprepared). Getting rid of those annoyances will greatly enhance any speech.
  • Respecting time: there are rules and some people feel their moment in the limelight is more important. I say, if they give you 45 seconds, aim for 35 seconds. It helps you focus your message and, for the audience at home, it makes the show more watchable. Is 45 seconds insufficient for such an important moment? Fine, give them 60, but whatever the amount of time available, award recipients need to respect it. If the people want more time to speak, then they will need to give out fewer awards on air. Always respect the time given for your speech.
  • Saying thank you: this is one thing that everyone does. They show appreciation for the recognition they receive. My belief is that most speeches should end on the words "Thank you" or something to that effect. Of course, sometimes you don't want to end on "Thank you" because it does not fit the final bang you are looking to deliver. However, I disagree with the school of thought that says "You never thank the audience. They should thank you for sharing your wisdom." Hardly. The audience took time out of their lives to listen. Saying thank you is just good form. In no way does it diminish you, or your speech.
You may never be in a situation where thousands of eyes are fixed upon you while millions are watching on television. Yet, you may need to give a speech in front of colleagues, or toast the bride at a wedding, or maybe you will receive an "outstanding service to the company" award. If that ever happens, will you pull it off, or will you end up like a LOSERS?

Feb 18, 2009


I just finished watching an interesting TED 2009 talk by Dr. Barry Schwarz:

Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom

He makes an interesting point that the more regulations and incentives are put in place, the less wise we become. Why? Because these rules encourage us to act without thinking, and to put the onus on the aforementioned rules.

I have seen this often in companies:
  • An IT project that should take about one month, can take two or three because there are so many procedures to follow before doing the actual implementation. The procedures take precedence over the results.
  • Because of rigid communication protocols, employees have no access to their boss's superior unless the boss "introduces them".
  • Customer service is anything but, because management will not let their staff make decisions on their own. Should the client require anything special, employees must refuse ("It's our policy") or have to wait until their supervisor is available so he/she can make any decision.
Alan Weiss says that an effective consultant focuses on outputs rather than inputs. In other words, you must focus on the expected results rather than methodology. If your methodolody or procedures don't help get to the result faster, then you should replace it by something else. That's the right thing to do.

However, too often there may be an excessive amount of time, effort, and resources invested in the wrong things. Cutting funding, changing focus, or eliminating cherished procedures is tantamount to admitting that it was a mistake; this is not something that is palatable, for many reasons.

Wisdom is the ability to make these choices and decisions, not because they are easy or scripted, but rather because they are the right thing to do, at this time. Sometimes, one decision can be wise in one situation and foolish in the next.
  • A sports team fires a coach because the team is not producing results as expected. It's a wise decision if the departure of the coach boosts morale and productivity. It is a foolish decision if the decision was made because "that's what we do when the team isn't working out" or if no noticeable changes occur after the firing.
  • A company lays off employees to save money. It's a wise decision if indeed, it is the best option to assure long-term survival instead of short term profit. It is an unwise decision if it only helps the bottom line for one or two quarters, but doesn't help the company thrive or survive the tough times.
  • Airlines typically will not reimburse or change ticket reservations once they have been made, unless clients pay a premium or a service charge. This can be seen as a wise decision since it helps manage cashflow and helps with staff planning. In an unusual move, JetBlue Airways has decided to reimburse passengers who bought tickets early but have lost their jobs in the interim.
As Dr. Schwarz explains, you aren't born wise, you become wise. And you can only become wise by making decisions that are not taken from a cookie-cutter approach.

I come from an IT background, and I remember the problems I had in certain small firms when we were bidding against larger firms. We often lost the bids, simply because we were the "little guy" and our approach was different. As they said, "You can't be fired for picking IBM or Microsoft."

Sure you can't be fired. But is it the wise thing to do?

Feb 8, 2009

Comics and visual design

I have been reading a lot about visual design, lately, and its impact on communication. While listening to a some TED talks, the following comic strip was mentioned. It is a very(!) large strip. To read it, follow the light blue line:

Pup Ponders the Heat Death of the Universe

Feb 2, 2009

The definition of security

I called to cancel a service I have been using for a couple of years. This is the conversation we had:

Me: Hello, I am calling to cancel my service.

Him: Yes sir, may I have your name please?

Me: Laurent Duperval.

Him: Thank you. Now, to validate that I am speaking to the correct person, can you please give me your email address?

Me: Sure. (I give him my business address)

Him: Thank you, sir. By any chance did you ever have an email which was (he spells out my personal email address).

Me: Yes, and I still use it.

Him: Excellent. Now, let's see what we can do for you...


Jan 23, 2009

Simple, visually pleasing explanations

I discovered a company called Common Craft today. They use a mix of paper, drawings, and video to explain concepts "in plain English." The idea seems simple, but in fact, is rather difficult to do. As I explained elsewhere, distilling your expertise into a language that even a layman can understand is a daunting task, at best. However, the people at Common Craft do it exceptionally well. Here is an example which explains what Twitter is all about:

Simple explanations, visual support that enhances the information and captivates the audience, bite-sized and digestible quickly. That's what great information does. And you don't need PowerPoint!

If you're interested, I also have a Twitter account:

Jan 20, 2009

Obama: a speech for the times, maybe someday for the ages

As I watched the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama, I was in awe of the entire operation. It felt more like a rock concert than an inauguration. The crowd of thousands chanting “Obama! Obama!” waiting to see its hero. Anticipation was palpable. All around the world, people watching, eagerly waiting to hear the first words of the 44th president of the United States of America.

Anyone expecting a rah-rah-rah speech must have been sorely disappointed. This was a down-to-earth, accountability- and responsibility-filled speech. Barack Obama pulled no punches and delivered a rousing, but difficult speech. He did not shy away from the fact that times are difficult and the American people have a lot of work to do, in order to get out of the current mess.

Rating his performance, I would give it a 9.5 on content and 8.5 on delivery.


Obama's delivery was nearly flawless. There were a couple of hesitations, but nothing major. Martin Luther King stumbled slightly also in his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Obama spoke in a deep, soothing voice. He did not move much, he did not rush the speech, he was poised. His tone was conversational. He was at ease and he put his listeners at ease.

His delivery, sing-song at times, reminded me of Martin Luther King as he spoke to a throng of supporters on the Washington DC steps.

So why 8.5, for such a great speaker? Maybe because my expectations were so high. However, there were two elements from his delivery that perturbed me. One was purely mechanical, the other was emotional.

Mechanically: I HATE that teleprompter! He looks like a Bobble Head when he's constantly switching from the left to the right. Furthermore, he does it multiple times in the same sentence. It is hugely annoying. I never recommend that people write out their speech and read it during delivery, but at times I wondered if that wouldn't have been better for him.

He never looked at the camera nor did he look at the crowd. The only time he tried to make contact with his audience was when he thanked George Bush for his service to the nation. At that moment, he briefly turned away from his text but returned to it immediately after.

I am not sure why Obama so heavily relies on his text to deliver his speeches. Is it because he cannot remember it all? Is it a crutch he uses? Or is it the equivalent of PowerPoint in business presentations: a necessary tool that everyone feels the need to use?

He needs to ditch the teleprompter completely, or find a better way to use it because it affects his effectiveness.

Emotionally, I was constantly expecting the Big Explosion. Something outstanding, a defining moment in the speech. There were a few, somehow, they didn't stand out from the rest of the speech. Obama did not put more emphasis on one part of the speech, than another. All of it seemed to be of equal importance. Yet, in most great speeches, there is an emotional nugget that is carried on for generations:

  • We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

  • Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

  • I do not know that woman... oops, no, that's a different speech!

While there are many good moments in the speech (as we will see in the content), he did not use any of the tools that make a speech memorable: alliteration, repetition, the rule of three, just to name a few. That made the speech less appealing emotionally: it's the Moment that really defined the speech.


What was so good about the content? At what is considered a defining moment in America, Obama's words were timeless and deeply rooted in the nation's history. He named no names, he named no nations. His words could be spoken again, almost verbatim, at another time, and they would still have the same power. Words such as:

  • “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. ”

  • “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

  • “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

  • “Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

When analyzing the words, you can see that the speech was inspired by some of the greatest American speakers. One line stuck out for me, one that could have been uttered by John F Kennedy: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

His speech contained beautiful imagery: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

That image is also an excellent example of the inclusive language used by Obama. He has promised to bring people back together, and his words are tailored to that effect:

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

Obama shows that he definitely understands American history, that he knows where the nation needs to be headed, and that he will get it there albeit with the help of friends and “former foes” alike. He shows that he expects hard work, sacrifice, ambition and creativity from everyone, including himself.

His speech needed to get that message across clearly and simply.

It delivered.

Obama's speech: lessons for all speakers

Many preparation and delivery lessons can be gleaned from studying Obama's inaugural speech. Here are just a few:

  • It's OK to be nervous. When Obama first appeared on screen, you could tell from his pursed lips that this wasn't a walk in the park for him. As others before him spoke, he clenched his jaw and often closed his eyes. These are typical behaviours of someone who is a bit nervous before speaking. It took him a while to shake those jitters but they seemed to have disappeared by the time he delivered his speech.
  • Writing is important. You cannot come up with phrases like “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” You can't. This has to be written, rehearsed, and re-written. If you are aiming to deliver a powerful speech, think of writing it out.
  • You can make mistakes. On a couple of occasions, Obama had a slight hesitation in the speech. Notice that he did not apologize, he did not become flustered, he did not lose his composure. He just kept on going. His biggest blunder, though, occurred before the speech when he messed up the words during his swearing in (to his defence, the chief judge messed up first). What did he do? He smiled and kept on going. He will be picked on a bit by the comedians, but that's it.
  • Converse with the audience. There was not a lot of fanfare during his delivery. He did not jump up and down to make a point. He remained poised and calm throughout, as if speaking to more than one million people in his backyard. That helped make it more effective.
  • Don't lie. Obama pulled no punches. To summarize his speech: times are hard, we made errors in the past and everyone is paying for it today. Everyone has some responsibility for the current mess and everyone is going to work together to fix it. This was not your typical rosy, rar-rah-rah, "You can do it!" speech. It was somber and set the tone for what's to come. It won't be fun, but it's got to be done. A great speech will set the tone for the changes to come, but if you lie to the audience it will come back to bite you.
Obama's speech may have longer-lasting impacts on oratory style, but that's for another discussion.

Jan 8, 2009

RCMP leadership

An interesting article this morning about the leadership at the RCMP in Quebec. While I have yet to see the full report, some interesting information emanates from this article:
  • All of the information emanates from the employees. It seems like the researchers did a form of 360-degree evaluation, where they asked all sorts of questions to the employees, in order to get a real portrait of their life at work.
  • Competition for promotion gets in the way of real work. I was asked recently if competition in the workplace was a good idea or not. I think most of the time it is, but there are instances where it is not. For example, if it gets in the way of corporate objectives. Another is if there are limited resources available and too many people are competing for the same resource. With the RCMP, it seems to be the case on both these counts.

    Without knowing how things work internally, it looks like the criteria for success are incorrect. They seem to be pointing to personal victories instead of victories that benefit the whole of the organization. Hence the complaints that "careerism" is favoured.

  • Lack of training for senior officials. This one, unfortunately, is rampant. It isn't something that is specific to the RCMP. Too many senior executives do not have, nor take, the time to properly develop and update their people skills. They often lift their nose at the concept, thinking that the bottom line is the most important part of the business, and that people should just understand this and follow along. Men, especially, are guilty of this.

    What they often fail to realize is that the human aspect of a business is often its most important and costly. Just take a look at what is happening at the Detroit Big Three. Our skills with people are constantly put to the test and what used to work, may not work as well today. In the case of the RCMP, it seems that conflict management does not work properly at all, since there is no crackdown on dubious behaviours.

  • Image polishing at all costs. According to its employees, the RCMP seems more interested in the image it projects than what is really affecting its operations. Managing one's image is fine, but at some point in time, you can no longer tame such a beast. Madoff tried it and failed. Satyam tried and failed. Now the RCMP seems to be failing also. At some point, to re-establish an image, you have to eliminate the previous one. Trying to hide issues at all costs, especially in a government agency, can only bring about charges of lack of transparency.

    I don't advocate full disclosure at all levels. However, given the choice between addressing a serious issue that can portray an unflattering image in the media, and sweeping an issue under the rug in the hope that it will disappear, I recommend the former.

  • Management doesn't listen and doesn't have a clue. Once again, that is not limited to the RCMP. It is amazing how often I will speak to the employees of a client who tell me of all sorts of issues that they see in the company, yet when I speak to the senior executives, they tend to dismiss it as "employees who are never happy." While there is some of that, when the same issues get reported over and over again, by multiple employees of varying responsibility levels, it's time to listen and act.
In another article, the RCMP made a list of resolutions for 2009. Many of them had to do with operations and infrastructure. But if they want to keep on "getting their man", let's they don't forget the human side.

Jan 5, 2009

Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark?

In December I participated in a fun interview: Who Is The Better Entrepreneur: Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark?

Not all of my answers appeared so here are the other answers I provided, but that were not published:

Who would you rather work for?

WayneCorp. I'm not big on munitions. Wayne Enterprises has a social focus which I prefer. I'd rather find different, useful ways to help my fellow man/woman rather than focus on more innovative ways of destroying him/her.

Who had a better strategy for building up his company?

You got me. I need to study their histories better.

However, it's important to know that Wayne Enterprises was already a gigantic operation when Bruce Wayne inherited it. I think that Stark Enterprises was still iin growth mode, though I'm not sure.

The skills needed to manage a mature, centuries-old company are somewhat different than a constantly growing, relatively young company.

And some other comments:

  • Bruce Wayne has one trusted advisor (Alfred) who he listens to periodically. He is willing to admit that he may be wrong and will try to correct the course before disaster strikes. He does more planning than reacting. Tony Stark, on the other hand, trusts himself to make all the right decisions all the time. He will head right into disaster and figure out a way to get out of his mess. Somehow, he always does, but it would be much less of a hassle for him and for his entourage if he took more time to plan ahead. Executives need trusted advisors, and need to listen to them even if they don't agree.
  • Both are highly innovative and resourceful which is essential in a world of rapid change. They both have the ability to act under constant pressure (usually) without a complete breakdown.
  • Both have demons they are constantly battling with (depression, substance abuse, womanizing, etc.) Fortunately for them, the wear and tear on their psyches and bodies are strictly limited to the written page. For any executive, any form of abuse needs to be dealt with and eliminated as much as possible. Executives have a responsibility toward their company, employees and other stakeholders. Substance abuse affects mood and judgment which are critical to effectiveness. Therapy, for both of them, is essential. Many high-powered individuals may not seek help because they feel they are constantly in control and therapy is a sign of weakness. It is actually the opposite: it takes a strong person to admit they need help and cannot do it alone.