Behaviour is the Cornerstone of Strategy Execution


A story

That night I decided to have a steak with French fries and salad. Add a delicious (expensive) glass of wine and the meal was complete. I ate my steak and left my salad for last. But when I started my salad, I found a long black hair. So I stopped and called the waiter. Here’s what happened.
Me: Waiter, there’s a hair in my salad.
Waiter: It’s not mine.
Me: It’s not mine either.
Waiter: I’ll take it back to the kitchen.
—- After a couple of minutes the waiter returned
Waiter: I’ve checked and the hair does not belong to anyone in the kitchen.
Me: So what am I supposed to do with that information?
— The waiter apoligizes and goes to talk to the restaurant manager. Then he comes back.
Waiter: We’re sorry about this. The house offers you a glass of wine. And it’s an expensive glass too!
— I was happy about the glass of wine and looked forward to it. But then the waiter brought the bill – just like that – and gave it to me without saying a word. The glass of wine that I already had was deducted from the bill.

What we can learn from an everyday Situation

This is an everyday situation. A hair in your food, it can happen. And when it happend, the customer experience is not necessarily destroyed. It depends on how the person facing the customer responds to the situation. In this case he handled the situation badly on two occasions. I was not happy and will not return.
How an employee handles a customer depends on many factors. Competences and attitudes play a role. Social intelligence, flexibility, initiative, creativity, … all of these help to improve the customer experience. But there’s also context: apparently the waiter did not have the freedom to make a decision and make an offer to compensate.
So before we put the entire load on the individual employee, we need to check the context where people work.

20,000,000 chances to mess up

In service we have as many chances to create positive customer experiences as there are interactions. A retailer that has 20,000,000 customers who visit one of the physical shops, has 20,000,000 chances to do well or do badly.
And the same goes for digital customer experiences. Every time I use my bank app, I can have a positive experience or a negative one. And of course I can be delighted (in NPS terms that would mean that I give a score of 9 or 10 on 10) or not.

Confirmation of Strategy

The thing is that these experiences are a result of a strategy and its execution. Every time there is an encounter (a touchpoint) between customers and the service provider we can confirm, reinforce or weaken the strategy. And we know what customers do when they have a consistently bad experience or when experiences are inconsistent.
So when you enter a shop, a restaurant, a bank, … you could ask yourself what the strategy is. And maybe the answer to this question will tell you why you go there in the first place. But here’s the thing. It’s the behaviour of people that will determine the answer to that question. Even when the strategy is discounts or product excellence, there is no tolerance anymore for bad behaviour.

Behaviour should be consistent with the strategy at all times. Without this, any strategy will fail.

In the case of the story, the waiter seemed to be untrained and unprepared. His clumsiness got worse as he came back with useless information. He apologised very late and gave a solution I did not need. The fact that he responded in a transactional way, by trying to buy my satisfaction instead of giving me a better experience made it worse. So maybe the waiter is in the wrong profession, and lacks the talent to be in service. Or maybe the manager does not create the right context for people to behave properly. Either way, the behaviour was inconsistent with a customer-oriented strategy which a hospitality usually is.

Customers the Day After Tomorrow

Customers The Day After Tomorrow
The future of strategy is a strategy fully focussed on customers. In traditional strategic thinking there were three choices: either you focussed on being the product champion, the king of costs or the servant to a customer. Today customers want to be the king. Their expectations have risen and that is because of the digital (r)evolution.

The Day After Tomorrow

In his latest book, Steven Van Belleghem writes about the Customers – The Day after Tomorrow. To fully understand the title you must know that this is a book that follows the book by Peter Hinssen, The Day After Tomorrow. This book describes the innovations that organisations face and how they have cope to stay relevant in this VUCA world. One of the basic ideas is that most organisations are so immersed in dealing with the challenges of today and cleaning up the shit of yesterday, there is no time to prepare tomorrow let alone the day after tomorrow. If we want to prepare for the future and be able to create value in the future, we must be prepared for the further future, even when that future is uncertain.
Customers – The Day after Tomorrow describes how to attract customers in a world of artificial intelligence, bots and automation. It’s especially artificial intelligence that will contribute to a customer driven organisation, next to an efficient process, a customer-driven culture and a feedback-driven management.

Artificial Intelligence for Customers

AI will enable organisations to provide “magical” experiences to customers through sensors, data-analytics,invisible robots, machine learning and ubiquitous wifi. These technologies will automate the daily life, offer faster than real-time service and achieve hyper-personalisation.
When I was reading this, I was asking myself the question: do we really want this? But the issue is that it’s already there. And the question is not so much about how we will implement these technologies, but how we are going to deal with them. And two elements are important: trust and ethics.


According to Van Belleghem we will be willing to outsource certain aspects of our lives to machines. The only condition is that the technology must function well. And so in the beginning, people will remain cautious. Once they see that it works (and the early bugs are gone) people tend to embrace technologies. Artificial Intelligence will be so present in our lives that we will trust those machines more than we will trust other human beings.
For some this might be scary. Especially when machines get into unsupervised learning. Unsupervised learning occurs when computers analyse large amounts of data without having a clear focus at the start. So it looks for patterns. When the devices of Amazon and Google not only respond to oral commands but also listen to conversations and learn from them, this is clearly unsupervised learning as opposed to supervised learning.
Organisations can benefit from these technologies to influence buyers through personalisation based on data patterns it has obtained through various channels. Spooky? It already happens. Algorithms decide on what we get to see on social media and through advertising channels. Artificial Intelligence will make advertising less interrupting but more immersed in an overall experience. Van Belleghem talks about weapons of mass influence. And he shifts the focus from resisting artificial intelligence, to embracing it and deciding on how we will deal with it. He also states that the current privacy discussion is not the right one. It’s not about cookies and commercialisation, it’s about how artificial intelligence will change our lives.


I believe that ethics will be one of the most important fields in the future. How we will deal with the possibilities of technology in a digital world is a necessary debate. And I am glad that Van Belleghem does not avoid this debate in his book. This makes the book valuable. It’s not a glorification of the blessings of new technologies. I read that in his book too. But he also gives enough handles to think about the progress.

It’s not about technology. It’s about how we deal with it.

A Wake-up Call

This book is ideal for people who want to know how to use technologies to stay relevant for customers in a changing world. To many it might be a wake-up call as it gives a concentrated view on things. But Van Belleghem visited hundreds of companies to write this book. And through this book you can discover a world of opportunities, and become aware of the risks. The debate is not about the technology. It’s about how we deal with it.
Recommended by

Van Belleghem, Steven.
Customers. The Day After Tomorrow.
Tielt, Lannoo
ISBN 978 90 825 4224 0

Bad Leadership Comes With a Cost

The cost of bad leadership is tremendous. So Should we invest in leadership education or is it just hopeless? @dducheyne argues that we should change our view on leadership.


Recently, I did a keynote with Leaders in Mind in Düsseldorf. I talked about sustainable leadership. I asked the audience what % of leaders actually met expectations. The % that I got from the people present was frighteningly low. Someone even said only one out of 100 were up to standard. There seems to be a lot of bad leadership around.
In VUCA times we need leadership  to respond quickly to changes. But we seem to have been unable to build lasting leadership. In a recent HR conference I attended, participants reported their fatigue, their disappointment and their fatalism. Pfeffer rightly says that most leaders do not display humanistic behaviour and are selfish. And indeed, to climb the corporate ladder you need to play the system and follow the unwritten rules of the political culture. To beat them, you need to become one of them.
This sounds like dispair. Should we then stop working to improve leadership? What is the point of leadership education? Or should we even replace leadership with something else? What could that be?

Let’s not be naive

Leaders have to do many things. First, they have to steer towards results. Second they have to support people so that they are able and willing to go for these results. Third, they have to make sure that the organisation is sustainable, future proof. And lastly, they need to survive the many political games, disruptions.
I mainly talk about two Ss, supporting people through sustainable leadership. But I know we should not neglect the steering and the surviving. Bad quality of leadership arises when the focus lies on only one of them, especially surviving. If that happens the objective of leadership becomes self-centred. And this is what often happens in politics. Politicians are tempted not to take the right decisions, but the decisions that get them re-elected.

bad leadership
4 functions for leadership (the colours have no meaning)

The message is: leaders should focus on all 4 and adapt their leadership actions according to the situation at hand. Someone who works in a highly political or even toxic environment can create optimal conditions in their own team (downwards) but might need to engage in survival mode when dealing with the board. The biggest challenge is then to make sure that the one behaviour (survival) does not jeopardise other behaviours. Leaders who find themselves under pressure might take short-cuts that are harmful.
That’s why sustainable leadership is important. Leaders should be aware of the effect that pressures, expectations, power, etc. have on the quality of their leadership and on their own character. Again, we should not be naïve about leadership in a volatile context, but we should not stop trying to move forward.
If leadership is not based on human characteristics such as empathy, fairness, kindness, reciprocity and the courage to be human in an unfortunately dehumanized world, it will not be sustainable. Someone made the remark that she experienced this kind of leadership in a start-up organisation, but not in the bigger corporation where she came from.

If leadership is not based on human characteristics such as empathy, fairness, kindness, reciprocity and the courage to be human in an unfortunately dehumanized world, it will not be sustainable.

The Cost of Bad Leadership is High

I have seen many bad examples of leadership behaviour. But I also have seen good ones. And when I talk about good or bad, I am not talking about morals. I am talking about the impact a leader has on their environment. Only a few leaders seem to reach a balanced kind of leadership. Nevertheless improving the overall quality of leadership Is important. Because the cost of bad leadership is very high.
The entire audience agreed to that. We cannot even imagine how much damage bad leaders cause. The cost in terms of demotivation, attrition, silent acts of sabotage … is tremendous. Bad leadership creates a toxic culture, hurts people, destroys trust and goodwill, and damages the reputation of the organisation.
Not all of this has a direct monetary value. But it’s clear that bad leadership is a big problem for the viability or sustainability of an organisation.

(Bad) Leadership in its Context

The surprising thing is that people who display bad leadership can be successful. They can thrive in a context that favours one element of leadership over the other. Some organisations do not mind a leadership approach that is less supportive, as long as results are achieved.
Sustainable leadership implies however that the results are future-oriented and that all stakeholders are served. Organisations that continue to favour results over people, and short-term over the long-term might get in trouble. People are looking for a context where they like to work. If that context is characterised by bad leadership, people will leave and will spread the world.
In times of talent scarcity there is practical interest of being human, next to a moral dimension. Bad leadership comes with a cost, and this might be enough to inspire organisations to invest (more) in the quality of leadership.
This will require a different way of dealing with leadership education. I will deal with this in a next blog.



sustainable leadership

In my book on “Sustainable Leadership” I explain what sustainable leadership is and how leaders could protect themselves from negative contextual influences. Leaders should base their leadership on sustainable sources, not on unsustainable sources like power, position, pressure or popularity.

Ecosystem Thinking: why is it so difficult?

After Nike, Apple, Google, Amazon …

Ever since Nike, Apple, Google and Amazon started integrating their products and services into their ecosystems, companies want to copy the model and build their own. But it’s harder than they think. The companies that I mentioned have been building their ecosystem brick by brick, or should I say click-by-click since decades.
And not everything they’ve done was successful. Over the years they have discovered and perfected the way they “surround” their customers with their offer.

The Power of an Ecosystem

An ecosystem is a fully functionally integrated user experience. Devices and services combine into one incredibly relevant experience. And that experience is not pushed on them through intrusive and annoying advertising, but through experience. As the services are so embedded in the lives of the customers, using them feels natural.
And that’s the power of an ecosystem: customers do not want to leave it, because leaving it would diminish the value of the experience. Once you have started with Apple, you are likely to buy another Apple device to take advantage of the App Store, iTunes, IOS, iCloud. Why would you leave it and buy an Android Phone?
Ecosystems are also captive because they create value for their customers that goes beyond the simple usage of a device. They create contexts that allow customers to get access to services in various ways and to experience a seamless integration.
The key to ecosystem thinking is functional integration. Simply put, this is about adding new functions (devices) and integrating them into a customer experience.
Most companies do not own an ecosystem. They can be a part of it, but they have failed to integrate their own products into a captive system. Most companies have added services, without combining them. That strategy determines the customer experience: a series of interchangeable and commoditized product to which there is no emotional or functional adherence.


And when starting an ecosystem, there are no quick fixes. Many organisations underestimate the difficulty of designing, building and maintaining an ecosystem approach. Here’s why.
A first mistake that many companies make is mistaking an ecosystem with an organisation model. An ecosystem is not an organisation. It is not a structure.
The second mistake is that organisations want to introduce the ecosystem idea without thinking it through. Ecosystems are about customer experience. And that means that organisations need to change all bad habits, old ways, … and that the design of services and all that entails needs to breathe the customer.
The third mistake is that organisations are paralysed by the shit of yesterday (an expression I borrow from Peter Hinssen). Legacy systems are clouding the future of Banking, Payroll, Insurances, Tourism, … By holding on to the legacy for too long – maybe for good reasons that have nothing to do with the customer – the idea of fully integrated ecosystems becomes impossible. If this happens, organisations look at the customer through the lens of old technology and old ways of doing things. The customer has however other expectations. And other rights.
Then, a next mistake is that too many organisations do not think about customer experience in the first place. They have an introverted view of the purpose of the organisation, where the customer does not play the first fiddle.
The fifth mistake is that there is an incompatibility between the ecosystem idea and the organisational culture. Ecosystems can thrive when both innovation and agility go hand in hand. But to have this, organisations need to foster autonomy, creativity, trust. The prime directive is to think for the customer first. If every employee, freelancer or person who works with the company would be convinced  and empowered to act upon this conviction, the ecosystem idea can work.
And the last mistake is that organisations underestimate the urgency. The big players are increasingly integrating new functionality into their ecosystem (Apple Pay, Amazon buying WholeFoods, …). And new agile players are eating away the market of the established organisations . So there is no time to waste.
Looking at the agenda of most organisations, it seems that they are still thinking in old models and paradigms. How important is experience in contrast to efficiency? How often do boards talk about the customer? How much of the budget is given to customer relevant projects?

The Era of the Customer

2018 is the year of the customer, we might think. Well probably, it’s more like we are in the century of the customer. Let’s not forget that an organisation derives its relevance from the service it gives to its customers, patients, citizens, … Organisations who do not have this notion in their DNA are today’s dinosaurs. Tomorrow they will be extinct. Thinking of products and services as a part of a customer-oriented ecosystem can enable organisations to take a leap forward.
And I know that leadership, organisational design, people strategies should all be directed towards the purpose of the organisation: the customer. An organisation exists only because (and if) it enables someone to work, play, live, heal, succeed, survive, thrive, flourish, …
Let’s make this work in 2018.
David Ducheyne

Building the Next Organisation

This article is an end-of-the-year reflection about the future of organisations and the future labour market. I wish everyone who reads this the very best for 2018, a year that will be disruptive.
By clicking on the pictures you can read more on 

The Future of Work is Hybrid and Agile.

The ideal career

Not so long ago the ideal career was stable, with a fixed employment contract. Leaving an organisation was something that people should avoid at all cost. Changing a career orientation is something that was not done either.

Because changing jobs is a risk. And risks were considered to be bad. Why throw away the certainty and comfort of a job and risk an adventure? The psychology of loss is so powerful in career decisions.
Inspire of all the fuzz about new forms of employment, to most people this is still the most preferred employment status.

An Industrial Definition of Work and Organisation

This model of work started in the early industrial era, when people left the countryside to go work in the factories in the cities. They gave up their status of independent (home) worker to become salaried. By doing this they gained certainty and lost the responsibility to “hunt” for work.
The organisation became bureaucratic: hierarchy, top-down decisions, division of labour, command-and-control. And it has worked reasonably for a long time. Why? Because the environment was reasonably stable and predictable. Technological evolution was linearly progressive and took long. There were no surprises.
But there was a downside to this kind of organization. These organisations dehumanised work. People needed to adapt to the work and fit in. And moreover they needed to follow the lines others set out for them. People were seen as one of the input factors, Human Resources. And once the input and throughput were under control, output was guaranteed.

Times are a-changing: the World is VUCA-D.

Today many organisations, not to say most, still follow that model. But the context has changed dramatically. Demographic shifts (longevity, migration, talent scarcity) and Digital Disruption change the way we need to look at work.
Today organisations cannot offer any certainty. The world has become VUCA-D, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and digital. Organisations cannot know what will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. They can assume, they can guess, they can think in scenarios. But in general, we are very bad at predicting the future.
Yet, organisations need to be prepared for the unpreparable. And a long-term employment relationship does not provide the right answer to that versatility: not for organisations, and not for people either. People tend to fall asleep in a long-term employment relationship. The pampering by organisations stops them from thinking about their future, their plan B.
I always ask people what their plan B is, even when they just start. And the problem is often that they do have a plan B, that is fixed employment, but they do not have a plan A. Sometimes potential needs a push.

The Assignment Economy: A Matter of Exploitation?

We are moving towards an assignment economy. Sometimes this is called the gig-economy. Like musicians go from concert (gig) to concert, workers of the future might go from assignment to assignment. The sequence of assignments might occur within an organization or between organisations. To some this reeks of exploitation because people might not acquire any rights and might find themselves in a precarious situation.
That of course is the challenge. When Uber, Deliveroo and others enter a market, they challenge the status quo. They operate outside established rules and gain a competitive advantage because they have freed themselves from the burden of legacy rules, many of which are simply bad habits.
It’s not because they challenge the rules that they are wrong or right. The good thing is that when they challenge the status quo, a discussion can take place. A new framework can come out of the friction between old and new. And it’s up to us to decide how we can construct that new framework: what kind of flexibility and what kind of protection should we install? That is a discussion on the level of the whole society. The design of a new labour market that enables individuals, organisations and industries to remain or become competitive and that enables sufficient protection for those who are without assignment, that is the real challenge.

The design of a new labour market that enables individuals, organisations and industries to remain or become competitive and that enables sufficient protection for those who are without assignment, that is the real challenge.

The Assignment Economy: A Matter of Empowerment

So the changing nature of our economy and the changing nature of our organizations has an impact on employment and work. There will be a growing number of people who have no fixed relationship with an organization. And also within organisations the relationship with employees is changing.
As organisations need to be more agile (speed, flexibility), employees need to become agile too. And the way to do that is to give people more autonomy, a sense of purpose and the competencies to cope with that uncertainty. Empowerment not only mean giving people more freedom, it also means giving people more energy and a framework that both leaves space to take decisions and gives enough support to have a sense of direction. Empowerment entails also responsibilities!

The Next Organisation

Next organisations will have a small core of employed people (who might own the company too), enlarged by a talent cloud, a group of independent professionals that can help an organization to achieve its purpose. There are different kinds of relationships from fixed, to long-term flexible, to short-term with people that form the talent base. The talent cloud is quite diverse and enables organisations to shift gears fast and accomplish flexible goals.
There might be parts of that organisation that still are in factory mode and governed the industrial way. But this ambidexterity is extremely difficult to organise, so companies with different speeds within, will tend to split up.
And organisations will not stand alone. They will be networked, not around a supply chain, but around a customer and a purpose. And so will people. The traditional hierarchy will probably not disappear completely, but will change and become less dominant. A different kind of leadership will be needed, one that allows for people to take decisions autonomously. I have called that sustainable leadership in my book.

The battle between trust and control

It’s clear that these organisations will have to develop a sense of purpose, but also a sense of trust. Without trust these organisations cannot succeed. Today there is a lot of discussion about self-organisation, autonomous teams, empowerment and the liberated or empowered enterprise.
And at the same time we have never had so many control mechanisms in place. Discipline, authority, compliance, CCTV … it’s all there. There’s a battle going on between control (cost to reduce risk), and trust (a risk that enhances agility). There is never 0% control and never 100% trust. But 0% trust and 100% control would be at least as catastrophic. Of course it should not be a battle, but a quest for balance as trust and control are not mutually exclusive as long as the control is meaningful to those who are subjected to it.

New Organisational Practices

These are the organizational practices that need to be reviewed:

  1. How will we decide? Top-down or more participative? This is the question about autonomy, empowerment and distribution of decisional power.
  2. How will we coordinate? Centrally or decentrally? This is the question about steering, follow-up, hierarchy.
  3. Who determines what we do and how it’s done? Who determines goals? How will we evaluate? This is again a question about empowerment whereas people who are close to the customer will define how the business is run.
  4. How will we motivate people in both the core and the talent cloud? How will we unite them around the common purpose? This is the question about identification even when people are working on assignments. This is the challenge of building rapid trust within temporary teams.
  5. To what extent can someone take decisions about how a job is done? This is the question of customisation.


One way to tackle the future challenges in that new labour market is to customize work. In 2011 I said that we’d need a kind of iHR, an HR policy that takes individual characteristics as starting point, instead of taking rules and procedures as framework.
Of course we need to do both. But customisation is about adapting the work (context) to the individual. By doing that we will enable people to work longer and with more motivation. And through customisation, organisations can become agile.
Don’t forget that the essence of HR is to make sure that people are able and willing to perform sustainably. And as careers become more hybrid and flexible, other solutions are needed to lake sure that this happens. The old way of dealing with people within organisations will no longer suffice.

The Return of Ethics

In all this, ethics will become more important. Ethics is about dealing with others according to some values. These values steer behaviour. And so if we could build organisations that inspire to act ethically, we are half way. Ethical behaviour reduces the need for control, supports decision-making, reduces the risk of fraud, allows people to do the right thing, …

A new Labour Market: from exploitation to empowerment?

To many the new labour market seems a return to the past, when home-workers had to find their assignments and where the customer decided whether or not to pay for the work done. The direct and individual relationship between worker and customer lead to a relationship based on reputation, quality of work. This gave rise to exploitation, precarity and aleatory decisions.
The best way to avoid precarity is to work on both the individual level and on the regulation of the labour market.

The Next Labour Market

The current labour market has many defects too. It is in itself imperfect as it is not as inclusive as we would like it to be, or because there is too much distance between the world of work and the world of education.

So if we talk about the labour market of the day after tomorrow, we are still faced with the situation of today that needs to be resolved.
There will be fixed employment. Yes. But that fixed employment will be limited in the time, either because the contract says so, or because the employer will need different skills, or because the employee wants a change. So we need to prepare for that.
I strongly believe that the idea of flexicurity as guiding principle could work. We give people not the job security they want, but the employment security. By focussing on sustainable employability we can make people less dependent from the dynamics of the labour market.

The Next Individual

The concept of sustainable employability must be guiding for how we approach the individual. Sustainable employability means that a person is prepared (willing and able) to work in the future. Being employable is good for the organisation, for the employee and for society. Whatever the employment status (employee, freelance, self-employed), it’s important for everyone to develop one’s own employability. Only then, the assignment economy and the related labour market will not be a problem.

Joint responsibility

But given the current imperfections of the labour market, we still need to take steps to develop this notion and to integrate all stakeholders in an active approach of sustainable employability: the education system, the employers, the employees, the unions, the government, …
The assignment economy does not have to become a problem. If we are able to build the next labour market, next organisations and help the next individual to rise.
Thank you for reading until the end. If you appreciate this free content, please like and share it. It’s my way of giving back what I have learned to my own network

Downshifting: Managing the S-Shaped Curve of Learning

This blog is about downshifting, the practice of taking a step down to relaunch one’s career or learning. It’s a difficult part of a long career.

The Piano Player

When I studied the piano, a long time ago, I had several times the experience of reaching a “plateau”. Suddenly I did not progress anymore. This happens a lot and certainly not only in the world of music. Also athletes, artists, business people and everyone who is executing a human activity and wants to become good at it.
Back to the piano. Someone who starts to play the piano, can get to a certain level very fast. They can play simple tunes, with two hands. But to leave the level of the simple tunes and go to the first simple pieces of classical composers, they need to put effort into it. And even with the effort, it’s possible that there is no significant progression? How come?

We can answer this question by looking at learning as increasing performance (or ability) over time. This is sometimes called the S-shaped curve of learning.

The S-Shaped Curve

The Theory of the S-Shaped curve (a sigmoid) of human growth states that learning occurs in certain phases. When learning a skill, people usually start at level 0. They will first start out slowly. They they enter a phase of fast progression. They add skills and the progress is exponential. At a certain moment progress gets at speed there is a steady evolution, followed by a period of slower evolution. To finally reach the top of the evolution. This is the “plateau”, the experience that growth is over.
S-Shaped Curve
This is an interesting moment because there are 3 options:

  • one can maintain the level of performance at the current level (maintain)
  • one can regress (fall)
  • one can find a new S-shaped Curve, which means that the exponential growth starts all over again (reboot).

When a piano player reaches the level of stagnation, it is even kind of risky to continue practicing. It is not unlikely that the techniques will be spoiled by sloppiness. That’s the free fall moment. And once the technique has become less pure or disciplined, it’s very difficult to unlearn. Doing more of the same is not always the best idea. At first people become better at it, but after a while they can stop learning or learning some bad habits. And we all know what that means.
This so called sigmoid growth curve has been used to explain many dynamic processes, like innovation, learning, …It’s only one of the possible descriptions of a learning curve. It has been observed in many instances of learning, like language acquisition. Even when this is an ideal model of learning, it’s interesting to consider this model when thinking about careers or even life-span development. .

How to Relaunch Growth?

So, once on a plateau, the piano player should find new ways of progressing to get into another S-Shaped Curve. There are many options:

  1. change the instrument.
  2. do a master class with another teacher.
  3. change the music, find new exercises and pieces.
  4. unlearn bad habits, find new techniques and get feedback on them.
  5. change the teacher.
  6. stop playing and find another instrument.

Some of these are drastic, others are more feasible. But there is always a sense of downshifting. Downshifting is the act of leaving known territory to learn new things. It requires that people abandon their job, their role, their status, their accumulated prerogatives. Downshifting is a painful process that many people avoid.
The French call it “reculer pour mieux sauter”. 
You could compare it to shifting gears when your car is climbing a slope. You have to shift down in order to conquer the mountain.

You have to shift down in order to conquer the mountain.


We are all like a piano player. At a certain moment we find ourselves at a level of stagnation. And then we need to decide what to do.

  • Shall we try and maintain our level of competence? That is risky, because it’s likely that we will be overtaken by changes which will make our competencies obsolete anyway. It’s important to understand why we do this.
  • Shall we allow ourselves to fall down? That’s a recipe for failure.
  • Shall we try and relaunch ourselves into a new phase of development. That’s the only way to succeed. But this requires career disruption and downshifting.

Downshifting is always painful. Like I have described in another blog, people stay in a job for the wrong reasons. Even when people are aware that the job is no longer suited, they stay, for convenience, for comfort, for the money, out of fear. The psychology of loss (I know what I have, but don’t know what I’ll get) plays an important role.
We should get rid of the idea that a career should be linear and continuous. If we are to prolong our careers (as we live longer), we need to build in disruptions, moments of dowshifting. A plateau is always an opportunity to learn, to progress and to develop one’s employability. It’s not by doing the same over and over, that people will develop employability in the long run.

Future Self

As downshifting is so hard to do, people need to develop a concept of what their future will or might be, an attractive concept of themselves in the future. Alternatively one could also develop a disastrous concept of the future: if I don’t change I will end up …
Building a future self is extremely difficult. People are usually unable to do so. But it helps to think in scenarios. What if I stay in this job? What could I do if my employer goes bankrupt? What is my alternative? Can I develop skills that are transferable to other industries, jobs, activities? What do I want to do when I retire? Do I have a plan B? What happens when I stay?
As it is very difficult for people to see themselves in the future, there are very few disruptions in careers. And even less moments of downshifting. People tend do to the same, more of the same, or the same but better. But as we live longer, more of the same is not the right strategy. The risk is that the same will not exist anymore.
I can only advise people to change regularly. It’s the only option to stay agile and versatile. Mobility within the organisation or between organisations or roles is a good thing. It avoids reaching a plateau. It launches growth and enables people to use their potential. But when that plateau is reached anyway, we should take heed.
For people who are in a mono-job career like medical doctors, teachers, nurses, police officers, … it’s more difficult to imagine a different future. They have invested heavily in studies to become what they are today. But even in these positions there are possibilities: changing the employer, changing the country, adding something new, retraining, going for managerial responsibilities, … There is always something that is possible to make sure you can reboot the s-shaped curve and to avoid falling down.

Downshifting helps to avoid falling down.


The Power of Social Technologies in Business.

This is a blog inspired by the book “Social Technologies in Business” by Isabel De Clercq.
Social Technologies

Two Questions

  1. Imagine an organization where people can say whatever they want, when they want and to whom they want. Freedom of speech put to the extreme. Would you want that?
  2. Imagine an organisation where people share their ideas, know what is expected, think outside of the box, help one another, volunteer, take ownership. Would you want that?

Put like this, too many leaders would say no to the first question, but they would say yes to the second question. Why is that?
The 2nd question focuses on value-creation. It describes an organization that is full of engaged people who are able and willing to do more than the minimum. Everybody would benefit from that: the customers, management, the shareholders, the employees themselves. This would be a healthy, agile and customer-driven organization.
The first question focuses on what is needed to reach that. If people are to behave like in scenario 2, we have to accept that the context is safe enough for them to express their ideas appropriately. This means that leaders of organisation would accept that not all leadership would originate from those who have been designated managerial roles. It also means that there is room for dissent, debate, disagreement, conflict. And it means that people receive sufficient autonomy to act, experiment, decide.
It’s often like this that we are interested to have something (question 2), but that we are reluctant to travel the road to reach it (question 1). And sometimes this is because leaders do not know how.
Social technologies offer ways to organise the debate as described in question 1 to reach the state as described in question 2. To me, social Technologies are a game changer. These technologies offer a (digital) context that shapes behaviour. They can change the social fabric of an organizations and thus also its culture. But like most drastic changes, it does not come easily. It’s not enough to install social technologies (a technological intervention). It takes much more. Introducing social technologies is part of a more general change of cultural, one that is not to be taken too lightly.

What do Social Technologies Do?

In het book Isabel De Clercq says that

1. Digital subverts Hierarchy. Digital is a rebellious act against command-and-control systems.
2. Social Technology accelerates digitalisation

I agree with the second statement. Introducing social technologies makes digital part of the work environment. It’s probably the most effective way to change the way people work together, and by extension work with customers.
Isabel calls digital the Renaissance of Work,  a rebellious act. I would not go that far. We must not forget that social technologies are implemented after a decision of management. Of course people already work with social technologies outside of work. Most people are on one of these social media platforms: Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and these social technologies are invading business life as well. But installing Yammer or Chatter or any other enterprise technology is still a decision.
I have witnessed early versions of social technologies: Lotus Notes, bulletin boards, interactive intranets, … I have witnessed the introduction of Yammer in both a top-down and a bottom-up way. The Bottom-up way  was indeed a rebellious act by someone who saw the potential of Yammer – before is was acquired by Microsoft – and so he just launched it. The uptake was fast. Within a month or two 75% of employees were on Yammer. And then it died. There were hardly discussions, people lost interest. Like is the case with social technologies outside work, most people did not take part. They observed. And when asked why they did not participate and  contribute, they often said they did not have the time or worse, that they did not trust management or were not allowed.
The top-down relaunch a couple of years later was different. Yammer became the official platform for work, in combination with Skype and the O365 Suite. It was a decision by management to do that. Only when management wants social technologies to take foot in an organisation, the introduction will be successful.  So why would management want to do that, when social technologies “undermine” hierarchy?

The Power of Social Technologies

I am a heavy user of social media. People ask me where I find the time to be present on social media. Many people think it’s a waste of time and that it is too time-consuming. Yes, I use social media and have done that for more than 13 years. It has given me insights, information, knowledge, connections. I often meet people on twitter or linked before I meet them in real life.

Social technologies make life easier. They make life more connected. They create opportunities.

And if that’s the case in the outside world, why would it not be the case for the inside world?
Social technologies help an organisation to become more agile, to connect people without hierarchical intervention. They reduce silo thinking. They create opportunities for collaboration, for creative exchange, co-creation.
The condition for this is that organisations go all the way. And that’s a matter of leadership.

A Matter of Leadership

In the past (and for some still today), organisations and their leaders did not trust social media. They closed down the digital gates and did not allow employees to go on social media. People who needed access (recruiters, marketers, …) had to ask permission. And they were monitored. This shows the distorted view organisations and leaders have/had about the utility of social technology. But it also shows the distorted views they have of their employees. If the basic attitude towards people working in the organisation is one of distrust, social technologies are bound to fail.
The introduction of social technologies is a leap of faith. Even when you are convinced that social technologies add value, you never know in advance how and if it will work. It requires an unconditional trust in people that they will do the right thing. And we know that there will be people who will abuse the possibilities of social technology. But the 2% untrustworthy people should not influence a decision of which the 98% and the organisation as a whole could benefit.
The introduction of social technologies is a mater of leadership. It both requires leadership to do so and it will influence the very nature of leadership. Social technologies will help to “reduce” leadership to its right proportions. It will help leaders to focus on essentials: not on control, but on enabling people to excel. Not on coördination, but on organization and even exploiting the wisdom of the internal crowds. It will help leaders to focus on results, and not on repetitive, administrative tasks. It will leverage leadership within organisations.
But it requires leadership to change leadership. As it requires leadership to give people the autonomy they need and deserve.

Social technologies do not replace the need for leadership. They change the nature of leadership.

About the Book

The book social technologies in business can help you to decide how you want to use these technologies in organizations. Like Isabel I believe very much in the power of social technologies to change and improve organizations, enhance collaboration, improve agility. I also believe that using social technologies is beneficiary for the person, the employer and the corporate brand of organisations.

Social Technologies

Isabel De Clercq, 2017
Social Technologies in Business
Brugge, Die Keure
EAN: 9782874034534

# Metoo and Leadership

# Metoo

In the past weeks there has been a tidal wave of disclosure about people abusing their power. The # metoo movement has helped people, men and women alike, to come forward and share their experiences with the world. It’s a widespread problem in the political, cultural and business world. In short, everywhere there is power the risk of abuse exists.
Langer Research conducted a survey in the USA to assess the dimension of the problem. They concluded that 33 million American women feel harassed and 14 million have experiences of abuse. These figures are shocking. And before we say that this is about America and not about us, I think we should stop this reflexion. 95% of women report that nothing happened to stop that behaviour. And that’s because it’s also about power.

How Does Power Work?

Power is always unevenly distributed. If everybody would have the same power, it would not be an issue. John Rawls discussed in his “Theory of Justice” about the hypothetical situation that all “resources” are equally distributed and that people do not know about possible differences. He also argues that a difference or inequality is only acceptable as when it is beneficiary to those who have less.
We can apply this to the topic of power.

As power is unevenly distributed, it should only be used when those who have less power can benefit from it.

In the sexual harassment cases, this is clearly not the case. People with power uses it to impose their sexual drive upon others who find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. It’s difficult because this use of power functions through fear.
People who find themselves in such a situation feel that they cannot do anything against it, out of fear of losing something. The person in power controls access to many other things: access to resources, access to career opportunities, access to an income, access to violence … So people tend to choose between the benefit of going against the unacceptable behaviour and the cost of doing so.

No heroes

The benefits of resisting or exposing such behaviour are clear: dignity, self-esteem, protection of others, justice, … These are all long-term and high-level principles. The costs are usually direct and of a short-term nature: no job, damaged reputation, no income, becoming an outcast, violence. And that’s why many people do not come out. The cost is too high. They do not want to be a hero (as they know where most heroes end).
A very peculiar aspect of such a situation is that people tend to believe the ones in power more easily. People who claim justice are often blamed and shamed. Did they say no? Were they clear enough? Did they provoke the behaviour? What were they wearing? What were they doing there in the first place? Are they not exaggerating? Was it that bad? This adds to the feeling of loss.
In the end people who would like to expose an abuse of power, know where they are today: in a bad situation. But they do not know what their fate will be once they come out. So they decide to move on and do nothing. So this psychological mechanism helps people to stay in power and continue their behaviour. And people in power who abuse their power know that it works this way.

Power is needed (?)

Power is in itself not a bad thing. Leaders need it to survive, to progress, to open doors. It’s not the power itself that is a problem, it’s how people use it.
In Schindler’s list there is a scene which stuck with me. When the cruel camp director Amon got drunk, Schindler tried to implant another idea about power in his head. True power is about not using it. Of course you can argue on how Schindler phrases it – power is not killing when you have every justification to kill – but I think it’s true: not using power is powerful.

Power as Source for Leadership

Power is never a sustainable source of leadership. To keep power, you have to do everything to avoid others from developing their own power. If power is based on access to information, the one in power needs to withhold information from others. And, if competence is the source of power, the one with power needs to stop people from developing themselves. If fear is the basis of power, the powerful need to make sure that people are scared. None of these outcomes and levers are future-oriented or sustainable.
When leaders use power with the sole purpose of maintaining it, power becomes a threat to the well-being, the prosperity and the future of people. This kind of power abuse leads to all sorts of obnoxious behaviours. And the thing is that people in power feel they are entitled to these behaviours. They think it’s normal to do indecent proposals, to use the company’s or country’s assets for their own purposes. And they think it’s normal to eliminate competition on the power field.
Let’s not be naïve, people have always used power both for positive and negative purposes. There are a lot of power games going on in organizations. Sometimes the use of power is beneficial, very often it’s not. But we agree that when leaders use their power to (sexually) harass others, it is surely not acceptable.

Harassment destroys one’s identity. People feel dehumanized. Treated unfairly. Damaged.


And here comes leadership. When a leader knows or notices that someone in power abuses their power, they should step in. The first directive is to always protect the ones who have less power. In that way leaders can use their power to the benefit of someone in particular and to the benefit of the experience of many others. Abuse of power should always be stopped. Leaders who tolerate such behaviours lose their own credibility and make it difficult for people to continue working. Tolerating such behaviour destroys trust. It creates an unsafe environment.
But you might think that a leader will always do that. But leaders also work in a context. They are just as sensitive to power arguments as any other person. Maybe the abusing person has more power? Maybe the leader has power struggles and cannot handle yet another problem. Maybe the abusing person is an excellent professional with a track record? Maybe … As you see, these are all excuses. But these are around. And when leaders are in doubt to act, they should think of this: if there is one time a leader should intervene, it’s on that moment when someone is in trouble because of someone abusing power.

House of Cards

Leaders are as good as the worst behaviour they tolerate.

And of course there’s a lot of manipulation. We all know of cases where someone who does not perform well, uses the (legal) protection of the harassment complaint to save themselves. But then we should have faith in the outcome of the inquiry. This is what I propose as procedure when there is one case.

  1. Protect the weaker person.
  2. Freeze the situation. Make sure nothing can happen that aggravates the situation.
  3. Conduct a thorough inquiry, done by a neutral professional. Give everybody the chance to a fair chance to give their sides.
  4. Share the outcome of the inquiry with both parties
  5. Come to a conclusion and take action.

Of course, step 5 is the most difficult. As there are always two sides to a story, leaders must come to a conclusion. This is what has recently happened with the actor Kevin Spacey. After people came forward, Netflix has stopped all collaboration with him. Not an easy decision. The same has happened in Belgium with Bart De Pauw. Another example are the recent resignations from the British government. Organizations cannot afford to work with people who exhibit that kind of behaviour. And as it often happens, these public figures have less chances for a fair trial because the stakes are high. Of course these decisions are also and maybe even primarily about reputation.


But think of this. How many people in the world suffer every day because people abuse their power? And how many people have to suffer because their leaders do not wish to intervene in such cases and become accomplice to the situation. People deserve a leadership that is courageous enough to serve and protect. And that’s what power should be used for in the first place. Only then people will have a full trust in their leadership.
There will be always behaviour like this. It’s part of humanity. But fighting against it is a sign of civilisation and culture. So it’s not because we have predatory behaviour in our genes, that we need not deal with it.

Alternative for Leadership

The # metoo wave shows also that social technologies have the potential to become a source of power as counterweight for traditional sources of power. Like this they are an alternative to leadership. Collective action shows that personal power can be outweighed. But we know that these sources of power are very fragile, they don’t last too long. However, the # metoo hashtag has given many people the courage to step forward and do something about this situation. And somehow this is remarkable.
People who still use their power in inappropriate ways and leaders who tolerate or endorse this behaviour, should take this as a sign. It’s time to clean up and truly adhere to the often espoused values of trust, respect and fairness. If not, leadership and culture are like of a house of cards. They will blown away by one single example of bad behaviour followed by popular outcry. The discrepancy between words and actions is no longer acceptable.

Make sure there is no real reason for someone to use the # metoo hashtag.

And here’s the thing. If you only intervene after a # metoo action has occurred, you are too late. So, Reputation is the shadow of character. Work on the latter and you will not need to work on the former. And this is a plea for better leadership, as alternative to weak leadership.

Potential Needs a Push


Human Potential

What is human potential? We don’t know. You could say that potential is that what is possible. Or that what is not impossible. But with that not much has been said. We like to see potential as an innate quality. And like every quality, potential is limited. It’s hardly ever zero, meaning that all people have the potential to be someone, to create something, to relate to something.
Should we give a more concrete definition? Let’s try. Potential is the maximum level of functioning someone theoretically could reach based on their physical and mental qualities. In my definition, it’s a theoretical level of functioning.

A Push

Do you know people who were so promising but never got anywhere? We all do. They seem to have squandered their potential. And some do that out of personal choice, whilst others seem to have missed the opportunities needed to develop their potential.
But potential requires energy to develop. A rock on the top of a mountain has the potential to develop kinetic energy. It’s the gravity that causes it. But as long as nobody gives the rock a push, the potential is not utilised.
Unlike a rock, people can push themselves and exploit their own potential. People can stretch their potential by going beyond what other people believe they are capable of. But it requires discipline and effort. Nobody will excel in sports without discipline.
A coach once said that discipline is good for us, effort is not. Discipline reduces the need to put effort in something. If you exercise regularly (discipline), you wil not have to put extra effort in losing weight later. The effort compensates the lack of discipline. Of course discipline requires some effort too, mostly in the form of sacrifice. You invest time in one challenging thing (running a marathon), which means you cannot spend time on something easier (hanging out with friends).

Not alone

We like to think that we are responsible for our own destiny and so too many people think they are responsible for their own development. But even with the willpower to invest time and effort in exploiting one’s potential, most people cannot do it alone. The social (or motivational) context will shape the motivation. An athlete has parents, friends, peers, coaches to help. In an organization, the motivational context is shaped by the leader, the peers and the team members.
To develop this motivational context, leaders need to understand what people need. We all have this need to feel competent, to have autonomy and to feel a sense of purpose or belonging. In a safe and trusting context like this, people will be able to learn, experiment, make mistakes. They do not have to fear punishment when making a mistake. As they develop their competence, they will also be able to take on more responsibilities. A lack of autonomy would kill this drive. People who grow, outgrow limited spaces. The space they have must grow together with them. If not, they will find other spaces that fit.
A sense of belonging and purpose seems to be vital to developing potential. Children learn to walk and ride their bike because there’s a purpose. That purpose might be to be able to pick up things, carry toys, move faster, open doors. Or the purpose might be the parental satisfaction. If you have children, you might remember what you did when the child took its first step. You applauded, you cheered, you cried. Imagine that a leader would do that every time a member of the team would achieve a next level of competence and performance, thus developing potential further?

What you can do.

This is what you can do as a leader:

  • Build knowledge about basic psychological needs of people and how you can influence motivation.
  • Create a context that is safe enough for people to experiment.
  • Scan continuously for (hidden) potential. People will sculpt their job to the potential they have.
  • Challenge people by giving them difficult assignments too early, and be available to help. Explore the limits. Check people’s resilience.
  • Hire people because of their (suspected) future potential. And start developing as of day 1.
  • Don’t mind if someone with potential is hard to handle. Engage in debate and discussions.
  • Applaud achievement and progress. Praise people when they go beyond what they were able to do yesterday.
  • Be available to discuss progress (give feedback), values, purpose and to offer help during difficult moments.
  • Make sure people learn things they want to learn or because it’s meaningful, not because you ask them to.
  • Never put a lid on potential development. You harm the person and you harm your organization.
  • Encourage people to leave your organization if and when the context you can offer does no longer offer opportunities for growth.

Potential needs a push to develop. And that push comes from within but most certainly also comes from others.

When Governance Becomes Terror: the Chief Discipline Officer

chief discipline officer

Chief Discipline Officer

A friend of mine works in an organization that went through a merger. Or was it an acquisition? Anyway, the new organization brought also a new function: the chief discipline officer. I had never heard of that function or job title before.
So I had to look it up. And this is what I found. Most of the times the title is Chief Discipline and Conduct Officer. And many of these jobs are in emerging countries as part of a UN peacekeeping missions. As I understand it, the Chief Discipline Officer must detect and react to behaviour that does not comply to values and rules. There is always a trio of prevention, enforcement and remedial.
Indeed, there are awful incidents with soldiers abroad: bullying, rape, torture, … And it’s clear that misconduct can undermine the very credibility of a mission. In such an environment exemplary behaviour is of the essence.


So let’s we zap back to corporate life. What does a Chief Discipline Officer do? And why does that role even exist?
The Chief Discipline Officer that I heard about seemed to only look for error, deviation, non-compliance. He seemed to focus on punishment as way of remedial, and not on prevention or correction. It became a blaming game.
Like with the soldiers abroad, people who misbehave within an organization pose a problem. But should it be left to a separate function to keep up good behaviour? Or should it not be the leader who makes sure that people behave according to the defined framework? And if we have audit, compliance officers, why would we need chief conduct officers?


So governance becomes terror when people abuse the power that  is inherent to the function. And the problem of power is that it can only be maintained by either keeping the other weak, or by increasing its intensity. If information is the basis of power, it can only be maintained by not sharing information. When knowledge is the basis, people can only keep it when they withhold knowledge from others. And by keeping people less competent. If it’s about pressure, people need to exert pressure on others and probably increase it over time. And what if the power comes from terrorising people, scaring them and threatening them with disciplinary action, dismissal? Would that work? Would it create enough fear to sustainably steer behaviour in the desired direction?
The abuse of power by a chief discipline officer is in itself a problem. What do people do when controls are such that people experience them as terror?

  • they can leave;
  • they can adapt;
  • they can develop strategies to mislead governance;
  • they can laugh at the absurdity of the role. Fear evaporates through humour. So does power.

Power is something strange. It’s valuable when it is not used. And it’s not because the incumbent has the power attached to the role, that he will get the authority needed to properly execute the role. On the contrary, When governance becomes terror, it loses its value.


The only way to make governance, including a role like the chief discipline officer, work is through trust. If people can trust those who govern, they will respect them. More, at that point governance gets the authority it deserves and needs. But trust is not gained by imposing, blaming and punishing. It is gained by explaining, respecting, helping. And whenever disciplinary action is appropriate, it requires an execution that is as much as possible respectful.
And maybe we should not imitate what’s needed in a sensitive and often hazardous peace keeping mission to corporate life. Come on.