Friday, December 20, 2013

Musings on the Business and Romance of Windmills

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Last I was in The Netherlands on client business, and with meetings at Europoort in particular.  The word means gateway to Europe, and is part of the Port of Rotterdam.  En route from there to Amsterdam, I noticed wind turbines lining the highway.  My kind driver Robert noted that Rotterdam housed numerous companies in the oil and gas industry, but I inquired about these wind turbines.  Yes, they do help power these companies' operations.  Europe has impressed me as being advanced with alternative and renewable energy, much more so than the US.  Gasoline there is so expensive, so as to make it cost-prohibitive, I imagine, for many citizens and perhaps for many companies as well.

Then I stumbled onto this comic by Randall Munroe, a guy with unusual, more geeky notions of comics:
I'm just this guy, you know? I'm a CNU graduate with a degree in physics. Before starting xkcd, I worked on robots at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. As of June 2007 I live in Massachusetts. In my spare time I climb things, open strange doors, and go to goth clubs dressed as a frat guy so I can stand around and look terribly uncomfortable. At frat parties I do the same thing, but the other way around.
It is his allusion to Don Quixote, the legendary epitome of chivalry, courtesy of Spanish novelist, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes:
Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, "Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless." 
"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza. 
"Those you see over there," replied his master, "with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length." 
"Take care, sir," cried Sancho. "Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone."
`Tilting at windmills has a decidedly negative connotation.  But in Don Quixote's world, it means the persistence of nobility and the romance of imagination.  So if the things we fear are merely illusory, as psychologists and would-be psychologists quickly lead us to believe, then who better else can we entreat to defend our comfort and peace than Don Quixote?

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I've been to Amsterdam numerous times, en route back-and-forth the US and the Middle East, especially when I was working for an international consulting firm.  The images I associate most were of windmills and tulips.
The evidence at present is that the earliest type of European windmill was the post mill, so named because of the large upright post on which the mill's main structure (the "body" or "buck") is balanced. By mounting the body this way, the mill is able to rotate to face the wind direction; an essential requirement for windmills to operate economically in north-western Europe, where wind directions are variable. The body contains all the milling machinery. The first post mills were of the sunken type, where the post was buried in an earth mound to support it. Later, a wooden support was developed called the trestle. This was often covered over or surrounded by a roundhouse to protect the trestle from the weather and to provide storage space. This type of windmill was the most common in Europe until the nineteenth century, when more powerful tower and smock mills replaced them.
There is great ingenuity in humankind, and windmills are among its longstanding example.  There was little aesthetics to those wind turbines I saw between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, none of the romance, nobility and imagination of windmills of old and chivalry of Don Quixote.  But business often calls far louder for utility and efficiency, instead.  

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Is Jonathan Ive the Real Genius Behind Apple?

Leander Kahney gives us an insight into the challenges of writing a biography on Jonathan Ive.  He didn't interview the design guru directly, but worked diligently to get the views of others - colleagues, teachers and friends - who saw behind the veil.  He comes away with the belief that Apple is more secretive than the National Security Agency.  In an era that is markedly transparent, Apple must be an anachronism.  But persistence pays off for Kahney.

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Apple was flying high at the time, but soon got into trouble after the release of Microsoft's Windows 95, which dramatically reshaped the PC market. Suddenly Apple's relatively expensive machines couldn't compete. The company nearly went out of business until Steve Jobs returned to save it. 
Ive, now in charge of the industrial design group, was about to quit and return to London. Jobs convinced him to stay with a promise that great design would be central to Apple's comeback. It seemed like wishful thinking, but the two embarked on a collaboration that is unparalleled in modern corporate history. Jobs empowered Ive and his design group, turning them into the primary inventors within the company, shaping not just how the products looked, but also how they worked.

Jobs and Ive overturned Apple's engineering culture and made it design centric. Working in an ultra-secret design lab at the heart of Apple's HQ, Ive's design group churned out a string of smash hit products one after the other. The first was the see-through iMac, a candy-coloured machine that launched a thousand lookalike electronics. It was followed by sleek Titanium notebooks and powerful aluminium towers, but it was the iPod that transformed the company. In a few short years, the iPod turned Apple from a small computer company into a huge consumer electronics company.

The more I read about it, the more incredible it was of Steve Jobs to have found the right talent to complement his own, to realize his vision, and to enable his business model.  Perhaps at the end of the day, Jobs was more visionary and influential, than he was innovative or technological.  In particular, Ive strikes me as introverted, perhaps quite willing to conceive and create behind the scenes.  Quite literally behind that thick veil of secrecy that covers Apple.  Another design genius who clamored for the spotlight wouldn't have permitted Jobs to grab it all by his lonesome.

Further still, the more I read about it, the more I think Apple has every opportunity to sustain to renown with which it took the world by storm in the first decade of the century.  When Jobs died two years ago, I expected Apple to keep flying for the foreseeable future, which it did, rising up to the highest market valuated company in the world.  Then it would decline gradually over time, which it also did, judging by its stock performance over the past year or so.  

But if the real genius behind Apple is Ive, then the company that Jobs founded in the 1970s is very much pulsing and breathing.  

Jonathan (`Jony) Ive
Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dyson Innovation, Failures and Parallels

A colleague on Google+ once posted about celebrating failure. I disagreed vehemently with this notion, but wisely tempered my reaction in a comment. We can learn from failure, we can accept the inevitability of it, and we can tolerate the disconcerting experience of it. But celebrate it? I don't think so.

In posting their interview above with James Dyson, Bloomberg takes a nearly similar tact as my colleague in the title - Failure is Better than Success. No, it is not, and Dyson doesn't say it is. Instead, he says that he and his team are used to failure and that failure is fascinating and much more interesting than success.

Dyson is the inventor, designer and businessman behind the company that bears his name. He strikes me as a curious and dissatisfied, patient and persistent, perhaps exacting man. For example, he realized years ago that the vacuum cleaner lost suction over time, as dirt collected in the bag. I often do the vacuuming in our household, and I know to monitor how well the cleaner is actually working and to check the bag periodically.

But what about a cyclone mechanism, instead?

Dyson managed to resize an industrial cyclone, used for collecting sawdust, to a much smaller one for a vacuum cleaner. The idea was straight out of Isaac Newton's laws of motion: An object in motion stayed in motion, and in a certain direction, unless acted upon by another force. Specifically, centrifugal force threw dirt against the wall of the cyclone, from which it fell and collected below. An initial test using a cardboard cyclone worked better than a conventional bag.

The challenge for Steve Wozniak, at the behest of one Steve Jobs, was to design a computer fit for a personal desktop. No small task, I imagine, as the computer in the 1970s worked off mainframes that seemed to dominate any room. Jobs was the business and marketing genius, alongside Wozniak's technical prowess, and the Apple I they arrived at revolutionized computing.

Dyson and Apple were the manifest of two crucial innovative efforts: Their founders dared to take industrial technology, (a) size it down considerably, and (b) make it useful for the everyday, common needs of people.

Dyson demures to specify how many prototypes he and his team created from the initial idea, but apparently it was 5127 between 1979 and 1984. Staggering. During what must've been lean years of inventing, he and his wife lived off her salary as an art teacher. Similarly, as I work at my Theory of Algorithms and The Core Algorithm, and the tough go of making my management consulting firm fly, my wife works two to three jobs to support our daughter and me. I am deeply confident, and more encouraged, that we will be wealthy, as the Dyson family clearly has become.

(c) Patient and persistence, and the inevitable failures, are part-and-parcel of meaningful innovation. Even then, there is no guarantee of success. So this requires an abiding faith, perhaps foolish confidence that success will come, in time. No matter how many failures one has endured, success may be just one step, one prototype, one tweak away.

But (d) such arduous process also requires some sustenance for life or some platform for funds. It is the innovator's dilemma that Clayton Christensen wrote about: Companies are reluctant to invest in anything that they know will fail repeatedly, before it ever becomes a success story. So in the absence of sustenance and platform, innovation simply does not happen. Thank God, then, for women like Mrs. Dyson and my wife! Neither Dyson 30 years ago, nor I in 2013, have the prospects of company backing in the thick of our inventing.

(e) A business model is de rigueur, nevertheless. Dyson managed to persuade the Japanese company Apex to license his vacuum cleaner innovation in 1983. But not only that, it sold rather well in the Japanese market, won a design prize in 1991, and became a status symbol there. Funds gradually allowed Dyson to launch his company and a research center and factory in 1993.

I imagine he hasn't sat on his laurels, and no doubt has kept himself curious, kept at tinkering, and kept drawing fascinating lessons from failure. Failure and success may be the integral yin-and-yang of innovation, but it is the latter we celebrate.

Me, I am mindful of business models, and even in the early stages of work on Theory of Algorithms and The Core Algorithm, I saw how crucial it was to generate revenues from such a heady conceptual framework and a laborious practical application. Right now, I am very grateful to have Kuwait Petroleum Corporation as a consulting client, and perhaps, God willing, they may be, to me, what Apex was to Dyson.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Wise Scott Adams on Senior Management

December 8th 2013
Hard work and ongoing learning aren't just foreign concepts to some top leaders, but also deer-in-the-headlights, dreaded notions.  Dogbert wisely shifts course for the Boss and CEO.  As a management consultant I do not judge leadership appointments or promotions.  There are all sorts of savory and unsavory reasons for these.  Instead, when engaged, I encourage them to work hard and learn as much as they can about the business, people and culture.  So while they may be under-competent now, they can take every opportunity to grow ably into the role.  

December 9th 2013
I remember the former CEO of a company I used to work for, being constantly under stress, it seemed.  In the elevator one time, for example, he looked rather distressed and his eyes downcast, and there was no hello for me.  There were no hellos for quite a few people apparently.  Arrogance and discrimination may have been part of his demeanor, just as with the CEO vis-a-vis Asok.  But I acknowledge the high pressures of top leadership as an underpinning of my former CEO's dismissive habit.

December 10th 2013
Dilbert creator Scott Adams is masterful at capturing the hilarious ironies but unfortunate truths of the workplace.  Do you ever wonder why some companies have difficulty at innovation?  Brainstorming there may actually be a forum for criticizing, dismissing or constraining ideas.  So characters like Dilbert end up tripping over their own shoelaces, in their efforts to do, or not do, what they're told.  

December 11th 2013
Dilbert is plugged-in with the Boss.  Like the Fool in Shakespeare, who is given not just formal license to amuse the King, but also informal license to speak truthfully to him.  In either case, Dilbert knows how to play along: Exactly is an outward validation that his peers are wrong about the Boss, plus a more subtle, inward validation that the Boss is indeed incompetent and annoying.  Because the Boss is exactly that, Dilbert knows that he isn't going to pick up the latter.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Great Leaders Change the Mold!

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I stumble onto this on Forbes - The Best Performing CEOs in the World [Infographic] - and I react with a mixture of curiosity and befuddlement.  On the one hand, the scholarly, geeky part of me wants to say: This speaks to the difference between descriptive and inferential statistics.  Above is an example of the first kind, and an example of how accurate but meaningless some descriptive statistics can be.  Inferential statistics probes more deeply into any phenomenon, and works at shedding meaningful light on it, if only imperfectly or incompletely.

On the other hand, the abiding skeptic in me wonders why a respected publication like Forbes would put forth crap like this.  The conclusion at the bottom of the infographic is actually a good one, and is quite well-stated, except why, for goodness sake, is it in fine print?  Perhaps it serves amusement purposes, and in this regard, it is fine, I suppose.  But I worry that more naive managers end up taking such crap to heart.  

Mikal Belicove, writer of the Forbes article, does report on an important study published in Harvard Business Review this year.  I appreciate the fact that the researchers measured only actual performance data, including shareholder returns.  While it is unfortunate that their report cannot be accessed without an HBR subscription, Yahoo! Finance summarizes it nicely - Harvard Business Review Publishes List of the 100 Best CEOs in the World.

What is a CEO to do, in view of this study, this infographic, and these articles?

Besides smiling demurely or laughing heartily, the CEO ought to study conscientiously and reflect regularly on whatever material makes the most sense for him or her.  But the critical part is (a) to think about this material critically, (b) to adapt it accordingly vis-a-vis purpose, style and situation; and (c) to apply it thoughtfully and monitor it carefully.

Any research study, or popular infographic, is just the beginning.  They are trends and aggregates, which must be translated into, or understood according to, what is inevitably unique about each CEO.  Which make that conclusion, in fine print above, all the more compelling:
Great leaders don't worry about fitting into a mold - they just do what they do best and change the mold!
Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Monday, December 9, 2013

US Presidents Speak About Nelson Mandela

Screen shots from US Presidents on Nelson Mandela.
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
[Nelson Mandela] is laid to rest.
Let the [African] vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet. 
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well. 
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of [the world] bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate; 
Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye. 
Follow, [father], follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice. 
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress. 
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
From In Memory of WB Yeats, by WH Auden, with apologies for my modifications [in brackets].

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Core Algorithm of Innovation

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We are not at a loss for ideas, methods or concepts on innovation, and yet many top leaders still seem to struggle to make it work for their companies.  The following are recent examples of sound, thoughtful advice:

In this interview, Matt Kingdon suggests:
  • Reverse course, and do something different
  • Ask questions that others aren't asking
  • Make your ideas real and practical
  • Battle the corporate machine

Brainstorming vs. Braincalming
In what he describes as braincalming, Mitch Ditkoff suggests that innovative ideas come best during down time: for example, when we're about to sleep or wake up, or when we drive or shower.

Hacking Creativity: Four Ways to Stay Innovative On Your Day-to-Day Grind
Charles Best offers these up:
  • Find a catcher's mitt for great ideas across the organization
  • Study other companies with great ideas
  • Empower the Nerds
  • Expose your team to great thinkers

Which of these, or other ideas, will actually work best for you and your organization?

It's trite to say, but only you and your organization can decide that:  No writer, adviser or guru can do so for you.  So what I offer here is not more innovative ideas, but rather a process for determining and deciding what will actually work for you and your organization.  

Some CEOs may ask a consultant for successful case studies or proof that his or her method works.  I argue that this is the wrong question to ask:  That case or method may have been wildly successful in 10/10 situations, but there is no telling ahead of time that that track record will advance into 11/11 for your particular situation.  Consultants exploit the wrong question by marketing their stuff as:  proven method, scientifically tested, or doctor recommended.  These do not answer the question of:  Will it work for you and your organization?   

So what to do?

Step 1. Begin with the end in mind, and clarify your purpose.

What are you trying to accomplish in your organization?  What are your priorities and objectives, strategies and plans, along with your vision and mission?  Innovation is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  Be sure to keep this distinction clear.  Call it mindset, culture or concept, innovation is simply a way to fulfill your purpose as an organization.  That purpose may be as critical and practical as gaining a competitive edge, or as lofty and ambitious as that of Steve Jobs: Make a dent in the universe.  

Step 2. Walk backwards from there and then, and map the pathways to where you are here and now.

In what I call a complete sweep, What are all the things that you and your organization need to do to realize that end in mind?  In the best possible effort, you must leave no stone unturned.  These factors fall in the following broad categories:
  1. Individual (i.e., you yourself as the CEO)
  2. Organizational (i.e., everything and everyone within your company)
  3. External (i.e., all that is outside your company)
This step is about being honest, true and realistic with yourself and others, particularly in determining what will actually work.  It can be a very difficult step indeed.  If it suits you, by all means read, and watch, and learn from what others have to say, such as those whom I mentioned earlier.  But such reading, watching and learning are not about drawing their lessons learned or even adopting their best practices.  Rather, it's more about considering, weighing, and teasing out what will actually work for your and your organization vis-a-vis your end in mind.

It's possible you will have to modify whatever you learn, that is, to a smaller or a larger extent.  Alternatively, you may decide to dismiss others' ideas, methods or concepts, because, let's say, to your benefit, these things prompted you to come up with your own ideas, methods or concepts.  Moreover, your walk backwards, complete sweep may tell you that tried-and-true, more conventional solutions work perfectly to reach your aims.  In this case, you can keep your thinking mainly inside the box.   

In short, then, any, or all, or none of the above, may work for you.  You arrive at this determination, again, by thinking about and reflecting on these things, in relation to your purpose.  

Step 3. Walk these pathways, and do what you have to do to realize your end in mind.

This final step is obviously about execution, which for many organizations is easier said than done.  So many things have to happen, in order for goals to be achieved, results to be produced, and problems to be solved.  But the success of such an effort hinges, I argue, on well-conducted first and second steps above.  (1) To the extent that you and your organization are crystal clear on what you're all trying to accomplish, and you're on the same page in such clarity; and (2) to the extent you've effectively done the good, hard work of laying the pathways between where you are trying to be and where you are now; (3) then, relatively speaking, you are on easier road with your execution efforts.

Your ability, motivation and energy as a CEO figure prominently, of course, in leading this execution.  In parallel to these, people in your organization  must possess the requisite capabilities and engagement, structure and resources, belief and mission to undertake all the necessary walk-these-pathways efforts.  

The foregoing three steps are that of The Core Algorithm, and Part 4: Achieving Organizational Aims (video narration) offers more details.  I invite you to contact me at, if you'd like to talk about this model vis-a-vis your particular situation.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Golden Nuggets of Wisdom from CEO Richard Bracken

CEO Richard Bracken
The Chairman and retiring CEO of Hospital Corporation of America offers up quite a lot of golden nuggets of wisdom in this interview with McKinsey - Leading in the 21st century: An interview with HCA CEO Richard Bracken.  Let's highlight four of those nuggets as essential ones for leaders across sectors.

A View to the Horizon

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For Bracken, the leadership challenge comes down to getting the balance right between performing in the short term and taking the necessary steps to position his company to cope successfully under multiple possible scenarios in the future.
Wall Street values the company that has a bright future.  Yet, when we get down to brass tacks, Wall Street seems to reward mostly those companies that adopt a short-term focus on results.  For years, Jeff Bezos fought off pressures for Amazon to become profitable, because he was positioning the pioneering online retailer for a strong future.  So while the CEO may feel consigned to walk about the weeds, head down, he or she must keep the distant horizon firmly in view.  

A Small `Umbrella Perspective

Strategic Job and Career Management
Stay focused on delivering in your current position; many otherwise highly capable people are too quick to be thinking about the next promotion. No one likes a team member who is focused on the next opportunity.
I have trained and advised on strategic career management, and echo Bracken's emphasis here.  Managers and professionals see the importance of looking at their careers along a timeline.  More than likely, they will change jobs, and assume a series of them that, I suggested, ought to raise the bar: that is, in terms of responsibilities, knowledge and skills, and of course salary scale.  Yet, I also emphasize that if they don't perform well in their current job, and the build the right relationships now, they won't get to that future they envision.  The small `umbrella perspective, in other words, is just as crucial for strategic career management as the big `umbrella perspective.  

A `No to Yes Men and Women

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It’s common for CEOs to feel surrounded by people who filter negative information. To get unfiltered information, I’ve found that you must spend significant and quality time in the operations environment. I have an advantage that others may lack. Having been with this company for over 30 years, I know a lot of people across the organization. I get important intelligence directly from them. I can assure you I get very candid input. It is these relationships that can drive a better understanding of a new initiative or identify flaws early in the process.
Word was, former CEO of Compaq Eckhard Pfeiffer, well before the acquisition by Hewlett-Packard, increasingly shuttered himself from the rank-and-file and mostly surrounded himself with the sort of people whom Bracken cautioned against.  Similarly I knew of a General Manager who dreaded negative feedback so much that he publicly refused it, and privately hid from it, and left the rest of his staff in a bit of quandary when problems with his leadership arose.  It takes courage, for sure, but a CEO must have at least a segment of his or her leadership team who isn't afraid to say `No and he or she must face the music of something potentially dreadful.  

A Go at the Pivot

Effective leaders ensure that the right team, with the right values, is in place to execute the plan and can pivot appropriately when factors change.
Athletes cannot possibly script or control what a game will demand of them.  So they must train, prepare and strategize to go full-bore in any one direction, and perhaps alter that direction in a matter of split seconds.  It's what they call the ability to `turn on a dime.  Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls seriously injured his right knee, after a serious injury to his left knee, largely because the force he puts on these hallowed joints from explosive moves is large indeed.  It takes serious management conditioning for a CEO to make such pivot, again and again, as necessary.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Disconcerting Disconnect Between HR and Staff

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Kenexa is an IBM company, and as part of their annual Compensation Outlook Survey they asked about HR perceptions on a range of matters affecting people.  Then they compared these perceptions with those of visitors to their consumer website and to world norms in their Employee Engagement database.  The captions for each of the findings in the infographic above are as follow:
  1. 69% of HR professionals thought staff were engaged, while 34% of staff themselves admitted to being engaged.
  2. 81% of HR professionals expected staff to recommend the company to a friend, while 38% of staff actually would.  
  3. 71% of HR professionals felt company benefits were fair, but 48% of staff agreed.  
  4. The numbers on benefits were mirrored on compensation: 53% and 30%.
  5. Finally, 83% of HR professionals surmised that staff planned to say at least another year, and 41% of staff agreed.
These findings are disconcerting, to the say the least.  Kenexa reasoned that poor manager communications were the culprit for the disconnect between HR and staff.  To the extent that they are the key liaison between HR and their staff, then this reasoning makes sense.  

But I wonder about organizational priority and culture: Does senior management view, and thus deploy, HR as its proxy vis-a-vis the staff?  I have had HR colleagues who insist they they represent the staff, but have been reprimanded to say otherwise.  How well regarded is HR to begin with, that is, across sectors of people in the company?  One senior manager pointed out in a group meeting that HR was not a profession and by implication its people were not classified as professionals.  

I wonder, too, how much and well HR takes initiative to understand people, to forge relationships, and to safeguard communication lines.  These findings suggest that they take relatively little and if they do they aren't so effective at it.
This disconnect in the data between HR professionals and employees is not a sign that HR doesn’t fully grasp the effects of decisions on populations or the criticality of thoughtful programs for employees. What we find in this disconnect is that HR has become too distanced from the employee population, leading to a misunderstanding of where the employee mindset is. Consistent communication with employees, in any form that is appropriate for that employee population, is key. Ultimate success lies in proper manager training.  Managers need to be prepared to discuss and promote programs, as well as collect feedback for HR on how
those programs are perceived.
Reference: Employee Attitudes and Engagement.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD