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Archive for January, 2008

Recruiting Leaders: Nothing to do with carefully weighted competencies

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

There are a huge number of vacancies at the executive leadership level in museums around the world. There is no guarantee that they will be filled in a sensible manner.

In a commentary on Business on the BBC World Service in January 2008, Lucy Kellaway, a columnist for the Financial Times, recounted her experiences spending a day with Korn Ferry pretending to be a headhunter. “I raced around London in taxis, sat in on interviews and drew up lists. When it was time to go home, I asked the woman I had been shadowing if she would give me a job. No, she replied after an indecently short pause. The main problem with me, she said, was that I said what I thought.”

Acknowledging that Finding the right person for the right job is more important than most things, and anyone who can do it deserves not only a place in heaven (or similar) but also the thwacking great fee they extract for their efforts”, Kellaway went on to describe how one large executive search firm provides their clients, amongst other things, with a “Leadership Advantage Toolkit ” to assist them to define the kind of person they are seeking. “Included were 66 characteristics that might be desirable in a leader, including “dealing with paradox” and “organisational agility” to be rated according to “mission critical”, “important” and so on.

“This is a low trick. It is about making clients think they are buying rigour in the hope this will make them less likely to protest when presented with the inevitably disappointing shortlist of candidates.”

Kellaway says, “In fact headhunting is both simple and difficult. The theory is simple: there are good managers and not-so-good ones. Alas, most are fairly mediocre, as managing isn’t easy. Choosing the good ones has nothing at all to do with 66 carefully weighted competencies: it is more a matter of finding three. The ability to think, the ability to act, and (most important) the ability to get others to act.”

Recruitment of leaders often is still being conducted in a formulaic and unthinking fashion. The vast majority of us pay the price of that. Taking on board what Kellaway so succinctly says, we can also observe that the appropriate way to go about recruitment is fairly clear. People like Fernandez Araoz, Warren Bennis and Nitin Nohria spell it out. Appointment of people to leadership positions is amongst the most important task of all employers, as Jim Collins points out.

It is the rigmarole of bureaucratic rules, the gobbledegook of recruitiment consultants and, most of all, the failure of boards and department heads to carefully think through what they want the person to do and what the appointee is actually likely to do that gets us into a mess.

There is potential for a mess at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with the impending departure of Phillipe de Montebello, about whom there are very many recent articles. Then there is the Smithsonian Secretaryship. If the recent history of appointments to that position and the very recent comments about the Smithsonian being made by people like Senator Diane Feinstein are anything to go by we could well end up with more confusions or worse. We should watch it all with interest

Generalisations and Transformations

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

In seeking to understand complex issues, we need rich data sets, not broad generalisations. So says Bill Lewis, founding director of McKinsey Global Institute, just a few years ago in “The Power of Productivity” (McKinsey Quarterly 2004 number 2).

Lewis asserts that the consensuses about economics at the end of the Second World War and at the fall of the Soviet Union have proved wrong. These consensuses at the end of the Second World War concerned infrastructure, technology, education and health care. After the fall of the Soviet Union the consensuses focused on inflation, price control, privatisation and corporate governance. In both cases it was believed resolution of these issues would advance economies, in particular the economies of poorer countries. In considering these “failures” Lewis draws an analogy with astronomy and cosmology.

The problem was, according to Lewis, that the consensuses were grounded in an analysis of economies at the aggregate level. That was like trying to learn about the physical universe by using only the telescopes of astronomy. Most real understanding in physics, however, has actually come from studying the interaction of the tiniest particles in the universe. In economics, Lewis says, it is necessary to understand why individual companies operate as they do, not national data sets and complex econometric tools that yield qualified answers at best.

Lewis proceeds to analyze some of the productivity data from around the world, drawing some challenging conclusions, particularly that economic growth principally flows from competition, not from education or technology or better governance and so on. The data which Lewis analyses comes from studies by the McKinsey Global Institute of individual companies.


Of more specific interest are two articles in the McKinsey Quarterly in 2006 dealing with change management and managing organizational performance on the basis of evidence. Both are topics which I have previously dealt with. Both articles contain information of relevance to museums. (There are also interesting conclusions in a number of papers in the 2007 issues of the McKinsey Quarterly and these will be summarized in a forthcoming post.)

The McKinsey studies show that the most successful transformations of business performance occur when executives mobilize and sustain energy within their organizations and communicate their objectives clearly and creatively.

Strong organizational performance is really fueled not by isolated interventions but by a combination of three or four carefully selected complementary ones, what McKinsey calls management “practices”. Managers, according to McKinsey researchers, should concentrate most of their energy on a small number of practices that, introduced together, typically produces the best results. Doing more doesn’t add much value and involves disproportionate, not to mention wasted, effort.

Many executives struggle to design structures, create reporting relationships, and develop evaluation systems that make people accountable—in other words, that require them to take responsibility for the results of the business. However “companies seeking to improve in this area are much more likely to succeed if they concentrate on giving individuals clear roles rather than resorting to other options, such as consequence management.”

“… executives who set broad, stretching aspirations that are meaningful to their employees have a better chance of achieving the outcome they want than do executives who resort to conventional, dominant, or detailed top-down leadership… the best way to promote high-performance behavior in organizations is to emphasize openness and trust among employees.”


There is an important point relevant to these findings. It is that if we are going to be concerned about understanding the workings of individual enterprises and we are gong to demand management based on evidence, as indeed we should, then the ongoing dominance of what is called New Public Management (NPM), needs to be more than seriously questioned. NPM seeks to have public activity decreased and, if at all, exercised according to business principles of efficiency. It is based on the belief that all human behaviour is motivated by self-interest and, specifically, profit maximization. Governments pursuing NPM have failed to deliver a more effective state better serving the citizenry, they have failed the accountability test! One of the bases of NPM is self-interest. Self interest was one of the three key themes of eighteenth century Scottish moral philosopher and pioneering political economist Adam Smith. But this term is used in the context of NPM in a way quite different from that in which Adam Smith employed it in his treatise, “The Wealth of Nations“.

The reaction to the run down in services, the decline in infrastructure and the perceived problems of the State’s infrastructure which we see in many western industrialised countries outside continental Europe, derives, it is asserted, from the failure of the bureaucracy to function effectively and of politicians to correct the failures. This affects the majority of museums as well as arts and heritage organizations. The translation of the best of business practice to nonprofits, not the translation of the profit-making motive of business, has been a central theme in the pages of this site.

Making government more businesslike has simply involved a set of assertions, not any real understanding. That is not the approach Atul Gawande, award-winning professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, surgeon and author, took in exploring what makes a good doctor and how hospitals can be improved. Gawande says, “I would love to know who really are the best in the kinds of operations I do, who had the lowest complication rates, the highest survival rates? And if I knew that, I would go and watch them and I’d learn from them”.

The problems with NPM and the mistranslation of Adam Smith’s work will be taken up in a forthcoming short note.

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Visual Velcro and Interpretation in the Museum

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

In an article in the November/December 2007 issue of Museum News published by the American Association of Museums (p 57-62, 68-73) entitled “Visual Velcro: Hooking the Visitor”, Peter Samis, associate curator of interpretation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) develops a very interesting metaphor to describe the way visitors to museums engage with art. The article contains an excellent summary of the latest thinking about interpretation, especially the use of electronic devices such as audio guides, PDA’s and mobile phones.

A Velcro patch (originally inspired by a burr caught in dog fur or velvet’s fuzzy surface) consists of a strip of tiny loops. Samis asks us to imagine that the visual impression an artwork creates is like Velcro. Unless “it has a hook that can fit into one of the loops on your specific Long Term Memory (LTM) “patch,” it will glide right by and be forever forgotten. If there is something in the artwork, however, that strikes you—a figure, a vivid color, a bodily sensation resulting from the artwork’s massive or minuscule scale, a memory trigger or implied narrative connection—then we can say that artwork has “Visual Velcro.” It has hooked into your cognitive structure and stands a chance of remaining in your memory.”

Samis goes on to summarize how technologies can help the hooks of artworks engage with the loops of our LTM. It is well understood that interpretive plans have to acknowledge not just who the visitors are – their identity – in terms of background and entrance narratives. In using the increasingly common analog and digital devices it is essential to understand what each kind of device delivers and what the visitor expects. (As he says in his concluding comments, this does not mean that text on the wall is not useful.)

Samis sets out to answer the questions about state-of –the-art interpretation, to what end various devices would be used, how visitors respond and how the visiting experience can be augmented most meaningfully and at the same time least intrusively. Very interesting examples are given from many different art museums. According to Samis, the watchword in planning would be “Design for Experience, Not for Hardware”.

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Lessons from the wider world of Organizational Development

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

If Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman can learn something about a major theory of physics from watching the way plates thrown across a university refectory wobble, why wouldn’t climbing Mount Everest and the problems in the paediatric cardiac surgery program of the Bristol Royal Infirmary potentially give us useful insights into our own organizations?

Three areas of research seem to me to be of particular interest: leadership, governance and organizational development. Existing parts of this site deal with these areas.

The papers dealt with in this post and related page concern organizational development, the way organizations work, what does and what does not effect and affect change and the progress toward outcomes which advance the organization and the people in it. They include some of the more important research papers published in the last 10 years.

In the translation from a previous version of the site to the present one, certain changes occur inevitably and sometimes losses. Unless one is very vigilant, these may go unnoticed. So it is with these important references about organizational change which I have frequently quoted in published papers.

Although the list was completed in 2003, some of the articles are of long-term importance. The articles deal with issues such as lessons learned from climbing Mount Everest – and the accidents that can happen in such a high risk pursuit – and how hospitals work. These are included because of my abiding belief that useful lessons are to be found in all kinds of unusual places. After all, if Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman can learn something about a major theory of physics from watching the way plates thrown across a university refectory wobble, why wouldn’t climbing Mount Everest and the problems in the paediatric cardiac surgery program of the Bristol Royal Infirmary potentially give us useful insights into our own organizations.

I especially commend the papers by Nitin Nohria, William Joyce & Bruce Roberson on successful change, by Karl E Weick & Kathleen M. Sutcliffe on a major problem at he Bristol Royal Infirmary, by Dan Lovallo & Daniel Kahneman on the effect optimism has on executive judgement, Robert Chapman Wood & Gary Hamel on innovative approaches to grant giving in the World Bank, by Lynda Gratton & Sumantra Ghoshal on the way conversations influence people’s attitudes and behaviours and, of all things, a critique of transaction cost analysis by the wonderful (late) Sumantra Ghoshal and Peter Moran: anything but boring, this paper actually demolishes much of the favoured basis of governance theory and practice.

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