The Risks of Not Learning, Part I 2

Penny wise, pound foolish has rarely had so direct a demonstration.

Let’s say that you’re a director at a large food products company. Imagine the chaos that ensues when deep within the bowels of the organization, an HR troll FIRED your right arm, your executive secretary, your “Man Friday” while you were on Christmas holiday, so that a dozen external appointments Wendy made for you, (in the ordinary course of doing what she was hired to do), get wiped from YOUR calendar. Prospects, clients and business partners show up at the security lobby, wondering where you are.

Big mistake. Huge.

Numbers Have No Voice

Financial types are fond of saying things like “numbers don’t lie” which begs the retort, that they don’t tell the truth either, just ask Enron. Numbers depend on ethical people to fairly report them in context, so that the actual life-cycle costs of the business project or event are readily apparent to those in decision-making roles.

Just for fun, let’s run the numbers to find out how this decision-making process stacks up. Because products flow from people, not the other way ’round, this Imaginary Biscuit Manufacturer understands that they need to “invest in their people” to develop:

  • a compelling market presence
  • competitive product features
  • a committed workforce

and all the rest of the Catbert mantra.


So, according to glassdoor and the know­ledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) required to operate effectively at the director level
Director's salary


reflect a market price of: oh, say a cool quarter-million dollars. So it fails on the surface, because $250K strategic decision-making requires a focus that is different from the $40K mid-level detail-tracking. In a pinch, sure people can adapt, but the error is much more significant.

As D. Keith Mano said (more than a lifetime ago for GenY),

It’s an unattractive human truth, but every now and then someone should put it on record: most people are not particularly talented or beautiful or charismatic. Set free to discover “the true self,” very often they find nothing there at all. Men and women who determine “to do their own thing” commonly learn that they have little of note to do. … The bubble-gum tune goes like this: American civilization, through some spiteful, stupid conspiracy, means to thwart self-expression. We are all frustrated painters, explorers, starlets, senators. But there are times when it’s more healthful to be frustrated than to have one’s mediocrity confirmed in the light of common day.

Roles don’t limit people; roles protect them. And, yes, most people need protection; deserve it. … We have, I hold it self-evident, an inalienable right to be unliberated. This nation—another unattractive truth—doesn’t need more personal freedom. The human spirit can be an unruly beast; a little restraint is wholesome. Let people be cherished for what they are, not for some ambiguous thwarted gifts, or for the social responsibilities they default on. ~Newsweek, 8 Sep 1975, p.11

The truth IS unattractive at times, most especially when we honestly appraise our own performance:

One of the most widespread substitutes for morality, especially among intellectuals, is sanctimoniousness.
How do you tell morality from sanctimoniousness? For one thing, morality is hard and sanctimoniousness is easy. Anyone who has succumbed to temptation, and then felt deeply ashamed long afterwards, knows how hard morality can be.…

Long ago, Hamlet said, “Lay not that flattering unction to your soul.” (line 145) But laying flattering unction to one’s soul has become a way of life. ~from a Speech, “MORALITY VS. SANCTIMONIOUSNESS” by Thomas Sowell

Accounting for Intangibles

From an earlier post, regular readers know that I favor Thomas F. Gilbert’s Human Competence. Gilbert demonstrates discrete monitoring of high-skill workers is not only possible, but more effective through blending hard science data, engineering discipline and a deep commitment to valuing people. In a similar vein, Mark Baloga, of Steelcase Research and Business
, suggests the following model for understanding the various facets of dialog:

image: Steelcase

The Screed You’ve Been Waiting For

Stratifying talent is as old as Adam Smith, yet even today, there are myopic minions of mayhem, who look at the so-called “savings” now (this quarter typically) and ignore both the tangible and far-greater intangible costs tomorrow. What happened last Friday whilst on-site at the Imaginary Biscuit Manufacturer is as close as your intrepid reporter has ever come to personally witnessing the effects of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous phrase: “To educate in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

Just to recap: A director’s admin support got sacked without consulting the director herself, so that this very talented woman had “egg on her face” with multiple external appointments. We’ve already demonstrated above that the decision is penny-foolish, yet the loss of trust, of reputation and the inevitable need to acquire another talent typically costs about five times base salary, leading me to the Monty Python solution that those responsible for the sacking should be sacked.

So it fails at the beginning, middle and end of the story.

As I’ve written previously, when a business operates to maximize sustainable value to clients, customers and shareholders, they do so with the clarity of the 1927 General Motors, using financial control systems and management models pioneered by Donaldson Brown, not some worthless wretch, who should, quite frankly have his or her carbon redeployed as a set of tyres!

Commitment to Clarity

Peter Block’s long-standing commitment to clarity and integrity in the consulting relationship has made him nearly universally admired. In designing the Systemkey™ Innovation framework, we echoed the belief that he shares with Henry Mintzberg – that interpersonal connections can never be outsourced, that trust is central to productivity and that dialogue is our most meaningful input. Mintzberg said this more than thirty years ago in his pivotal article on “ Direct Research.”

In his book Stewardship, Peter Block asserts:

What truly matters in our lives is measured through conversation. Our dialogue with customers, employees, peers, and our own hearts is the most powerful source of data about where we stand. Using a survey to ask employees to rate their feelings on a scale from one to ten does not make their answer hard data. We fool ourselves with most of the numbers that we read. Trusting the value of personal connections we make with those we are there to serve is real accountability. ~Stewardship, “Recreating Our Organization Through Stewardship” p. 209

Well, dear reader, that’s all the time I have for this week. We’ll continue this exploration of measuring intangibles in Part II.

Until then, Carpe Diem!


2 thoughts on “The Risks of Not Learning, Part I

  1. Pingback: Why an Engineer should run your HR: Risks of Not Learning, Part II « Matt Weilert's blog

  2. Pingback: Why an Engineer should run your HR: Risks of Not Learning, Part II « Matt Weilert's blog

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