The Barnacle & The Whale

If you are a fan of the majestic creatures that grace our oceans (unfortunately in declining numbers), then chances are you probably heard of the crustacean creatures that latch on to them, for a full-board free ride.
Whales are avid of plankton, and Barnacles are filter-eaters that relish on this meal. This match made in heaven seems totally logical, the whale in all its grandeur is able to carry up to 500Kgs of barnacles on its skin without batting an eyelid, the plankton in return, occasionally offers a layer of protection of some sort in times of conflict, and acts as the first line of defense for incoming blows.

Whale Covered in Barnacles

Scientists define the relationship as Obligate Commensalism, neither Symbiosis where both organism benefit, neither Parasitism where one specie benefits at the expense of another.
This is mainly because the whale is rarely harmed (except by some drag and an occasional infection) and the barnacle is always taken into feeding territory by its host where it lives happily basking in its own irrelevance. It is worth mentioning that barnacles species are picky about the whale species they associate with and never cross from one specie to another (trust me I googled it).
When a barnacle is detached from a whale, it will often undergo necrosis and die, which is a key point in the analogy I am getting to.

Let's say Whales are the big investors, the capital holders, the cigar-wielding, yacht-owning, panel-speaking faces we have been bombarded with day after day, under the guise of "Making Lebanon Great Again" through Entrepreneurship (yeah yeah yeah) and all the smoke and mirrors that come with this hype. If so, then those of you with trained eyes will have probably noticed the barnacles that are always stuck on the skin of those whales.  The brisk-applauding, elbow-rubbing, hyper-dynamic, porte-paroling minions that always tell you what you need to do to succeed.

While human barnacles share the lack of backbone with their crustacean namesakes, they often stand-out in their unique capacity to detach from their current host and navigate spontaneously into a new one that promises to drive them into Paradise City. where the plankton is green and the sums are pretty...big.

"So what's your point?" I hear you ask already with the arrogant stance of a Lebanese who has been told that their mom's Tabbouleh is not that tasty.
I am not sure what my point is really. Perhaps I just love cetaceans and maybe I do agree with what you're thinking: "No, we cannot all be whales".
That is indeed often a unique genetically-bound situation, but you don't have to be a barnacle either!
If you think about it, after all, there are plenty of fish in the sea...


No, Privilege Is Not Inspirational !

Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

We all know what "privilege" is, those of us who are not able to define it in words, have felt it or seen it at least once in their life, unless, of course, you are the privileged one, then chances are you think everybody has it easy the same way you do, and you feel like you should always tell people that their dreams at the grasp of their hand and all they need to do is reach out and grab them.

It's a fact of life that some of us are born having won the geographic lottery or the genetic lottery or just the plain old lottery and I am perfectly fine with that. After all, like the song goes: "it takes every kind of people, to make the world go around".
I come from a blue collar family, and while growing up, I did not need too much effort to quickly grasp the complex yet straightforward circumstances that made it easier for our more privileged peers to cruise all the way to success a highway paved just for them.
I even drew you a diagram if you are curious enough  (and if that still doesn't help here's an excellent illustration done by Toby Morris).

More recently, all I seem to see around me is a sprout of inspirational con artists shoveling so much bullshit down the throats of youth in an institutionalized manner under the guises of Entrepreneurship, Mentoring, Fast tracking, Accelerating and Incubating.

So here are a few things you need to keep in mind whenever you see a Linkedin/Facebook/Twitter (et al) posts inviting you to come get inspired by someone:

  • Most of the so-called successful (local) entrepreneurs you see around you come from wealthy and privileged families. They can afford to bootstrap their company while pursuing the "passion that makes them jump out of bed every morning" because their personal lives are secure in the knowledge that in the worst case scenario, family is going to bail them out.
  • The names you see on billboards of workshops often held on beanbags in venues intentionally made to look like shelters from the 1980s and promising insights into success are mostly 2nd or 3rd generation heirs to successful businesses. They will tell you perhaps what they do in their daily life to maintain their success but they can never tell you how to get there, simply because "there" is where they have always been.
  • The friendly patrons of young ideas that swarm the panels at all the regional conferences are simply businessmen. They may talk a sweet game and tell you all the things you want to hear but make no mistake they are here because they see an opportunity to grow their capital, that opportunity is you and your desire to pull in long hours for free. They could care less how their money doubles or how you repay that guaranteed loan if your business fails. So treat them as business partners not as Angels! #btw do you know who else started off as an angel?
  • When it comes to peers or youngsters from your same generation, who always brag about their first business they made and sold as a teenager and which was a blast, the rule of thumb here is this, if you have never heard of that company and how successful it was, then it was not. The cookie shop, the beads creations and the e-man2ouche are just adolescent dreams paid by mom and dad so you actually play entrepreneur instead of tennis (especially if you have zero game) and so you  don't get into trouble hanging with the wrong crowd in the real world.
No, privileged people flaunting their skills is not inspirational. What's inspirational are the various creative and ingenious ways that a manual laborer, a craftsman or a small-time shop owner can come up with to make ends meet, to pay for their kids' school, or to settle a tax imposed by a state, that much like all the organizers of all those conferences, only feels inspired by the achievements of the privileged while trampling on the average joe.

In the midst of all the self-congratulatory crowds who always hang out at the same events, all know each other, and all attribute prizes to each other, there is a very fine line that you need to walk where you balance your expectations with your income, your family situation and the desire you have deep down to change your current situation, or simply... not.

Remember, you are not obliged to be a millionaire just because everyone says you do. You are not obliged to change the world because a picture of a blurred landscape with nice typography instructed you to do so.

Your only obligation is to yourself, your only obligation is to be happy and content in the life you lead, in spite of all the naysayers and the yes-men, and to know that one day you can look back and say "screw that shit, this is just fine and I am feeling good"


GroupThink: It's Not You, It's Them!

Original Photo by David Pacey
I dare you, I double dare you...(no, not to "say What one more time") but to say that you were never coerced into agreeing with a decision that a group of friends or coworkers came up with, in spite of your reticence, just out of desire to fit in.

In these times where work ethics, and personal relationships have grown into a mushy pile of political correctness, touchy-feely soul-crunching-heart-wrenching "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" emotional sensitivity, the biggest victim to  such practices has been undoubtedly critical thinking.

A critical thinker in any entity or group is the thorn in the side of the applauding masses. In the quest for cohesiveness among groups in meetings, in decision making processes, or most business processes, people have simply chosen the easy way out by choosing to agree with the majority and shunning any disagreeing opinion as just not the right fit to the group, or the weird one, or the annoying one.

Those of you who are fans of classical movies can recognize this pattern of behavior in the iconic "12 Angry Men", where Henry Fonda's character raises the ire of his co-jurors for disagreeing with a fast"guilty" verdict which could cost a man his life. I highly recommend the film for its artistic value and for the takeaway it brings to this subject and will refrain from giving away any more details.

Located somewhere between Peer-Pressure and Dictatorship, GroupThink is defined as "a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome."

Interestingly enough, this opens up the door for unscrupulous manipulators who know their way around this phenomenon to position key players who would subscribe to their agenda and alter the collective consciousness of the others through passive intimidation.

So what happens exactly when, in a business context,  the primary goal of a group member becomes to achieve group satisfaction rather than to find a truly successful decision based on their own expertise and point of view?

Summary Illustration of GroupThink Dynamics

In a real life example from my various consultancy projects, someone in a position of power was systematically trying to introduce into their company, in various open vacancies, an array of people with whom he has personal ties. He had already a core team of "groupies" around him that bullied everyone else into signing up into their way of doing things (regardless of how correct or NOT it was).

The meetings I attended with these individuals were always plagued by the same pattern of behavior. The inner circle persons to this influential individual would always advance an idea or an agenda or a solution and the rest would systematically fall in line. While there might have been some debate and [constructive] discussions at first, as more groupies were added to the team, the dissenting opinions were less outspoken and tended to agree faster with all the nonsense advanced by the others.

Naturally, the quality of work suffered and was obvious in several key opportunities being lost. To an external observer this was an inescapable truth but to the applauding masses, everything was just peachy.

As these dynamics tend to destabilize work and create problems it's a must for oversight bodies and individuals such as the HR department, or a highly placed manager to detect such anomalies and introduce remedies that work aim to mitigate and eventually eliminate this tendency.

Dissenting opinions are not troublesome, they are a healthy to critical thinking, managers should be always willing to listen to these opinions regardless of who is advancing them. Even someone who is being negative because they are unhappy can bring about important wake-up calls to the sleep-walking corporate environment.
An idea would be to assign always in each project a devil's advocate whose job would be to poke holes at the presented idea. Such divergent thinking when incorporated into the companies processes and procedures allows for early trouble-shooting and anticipatory measures rather than after-the-fact fire-fighting.

So, if you occasionally [often] feel you are a nuisance to colleagues who all seems to flow in unique harmony [think The Blue Danube - 1939 MGM Cartoon ] simply because you present a different point of view, keep your chin up,  it's probably not you, it's them!


How Essential Is Employee Engagement For Your Brand?

On Friday, I was asked to tag along to visit several dealerships in a hunt for a new car. Having grown up around cars in my late father's car repair shop, my entourage believe that I bring added insight to the matter, a misconception I maintain thanks to Google and the internet.

When we set out on our grand tour, my companion told me beforehand which brand dealerships they had visited and which car had ranked more points in in the quest for it to be The One.

As we hopped from one dealership to another, met with their salespeople, discussed the various vehicles specs and budgets and eventually had our own post review discussion, it dawned on me that there was a close correlation between some specific wording used by the salespeople and how we perceived the brand from our angle as customers.
Out of 5 dealerships we visited I noticed the following:

  • 3 dealerships left us unimpressed, one of which was completely unpleasant
  • 2 dealerships were great, one of which was really excellent.

I am not going to mention which is which because this is not the point of this piece and because there are enough people on blogs whoring themselves out to brands. What I will mention though is the common denominator among the 3 dealerships which offered the most disappointing experience. During our visit to each of those, we naturally asked a lot of questions about the exhibited vehicles, their features, the lack of certain options and models and whether they might be bringing those into the local market. In retrospect, I noticed that in each case the salesperson would refer to his own dealership  as "they". To be clear, they did not refer to the brand but to the local dealership (management)
  • They chose not to include these options in the car
  • They chose not to bring this model to Lebanon
  • They decided to raise the price
  • They prefer not to sell this...

This was aggravated by a more detached body language that made us feel that the salespeople just wanted to be done with answering the questions in order to go take a break.
Compared to the two locations where we had a good experience, this inferred a major disconnect between management and its employees. In both locations that made it to the final selection lists, salespeople distinguished themselves by:
  • A more upbeat demeanor: they would immediately notice a new client walking in, greet promptly and engage in helpful but non intrusive discussion.
  • They ALWAYS talked about their offerings and vehicles by using "WE":
    • We have the best rated vehicles
    • We have superior after sales
    • We have the best deal in this range of vehicles
This forced me to do some introspection about my own behavior in various instances of jobs, associations and activities that I had been a part of. I can safely say that the correlation applied also to me.  The best example I can give is my past experience in the Telecom sector:
  • While working with Cellis (FTML) one of the first two mobile operators in Lebanon, my speech always used the "We" form.
  • When Cellis was substituted by what is now Alfa and the plethora of companies that have subsequently managed this brand name ("managed" being an overstatement here), myself and several of my colleagues drifted slowly but surely to using "They" when referring to the company even while we still worked there.
In essence, no matter how deep business owners, management teams or any person in charge of  brands choose to bury their heads in the sands of "employees are here to slave for me", at some point they need to wake up to the smell of disgruntled staff passively sabotaging the business just by their demeanor and body language (to begin with).
The only time a business can carry on not giving a damn about it's employees and not suffer the consequences is when it is monopolizing a sector (and we know all about that in Lebanon).

It goes beyond any doubt that whatever you seed internally in terms of employee engagement will surely trickle down to you customers. It won't matter how many discounts you do, how many offers you release, your brand will be always associated with the resentment emanating from your customer-facing staff.
Good luck getting rid of that stench!