Meaningless Meetings: Stop the Pain

The anguish in the voice of an attendee as he stated ‘…. another meaningless meeting….  ‘ after a meeting made me wonder why we persist with meaningless meetings. In some respects, it appears that the pain of meaningless meetings is amplified particularly if the majority of the other work of attendees is considered meaningful.

What is a meaningless meeting?

Simply put a meeting can be considered as meaningless if meaningful interaction of proposed attendees is not required to achieve the intended outcomes.

Although it is probable that there might not be a universally accepted definition of meaningless meetings, it is likely that they would share some of the following characteristics:

  • Unclear purpose or intended outcome
  • Inappropriate attendees
  • Poorly conducted
  • Collective input is unnecessary
  • Inappropriate agenda
  • Overambitious goals

It seems to me that a key sign of a meaningless meeting is where the discussions at the meeting had no impact on the quality of decisions taken and in some situations led to sub-optimal decisions.

Why are meaningless meetings tolerated?

A key reason why firms struggle to eliminate meaningless meetings is the fact that meetings remain an important and necessary aspect of organisational life. The problem over time is that there has been the blurring of the distinction between meaningful and meaningless meetings and attendees sometimes struggle to recognise any difference and as such there is a tendency to lump all meetings into the ‘waste of time’ basket.

As long as collaboration is required for organisational success, meetings would continue to have a key role to harness the collective contribution of members of the organisation.

Regrettably, it is commonly perceived that attendance at meetings is a necessary evil that should be endured rather than a pleasant aspect of organisational life. Nevertheless, it appears that the attendance at meaningless meetings has become so habitual that despite their benign effect on organisational performance, they still persist.

 

Furthermore, the increasing preference to seek the comfort of collective decision making even though in some situations such as approach is not necessary tends to exacerbate the continued adoption of meaningless meetings.

Transforming meaningless meetings

Transforming meaningless meetings into meaningful meetings could bring significant benefits to a firm including the following:

  • Energise attendees for better productivity inspired by purposeful discussions
  • Foster stronger alignment with shared strategic priorities
  • Timely decisions on the issues that matter most
  • Leverage the appropriate diversity of thinking
  • Foster strong consensus that meetings promote the mutual exchange of valuable insights
  • Foster a continued strong sense of urgency to achieve a firm’s strategic objectives
  • Reinforce a stronger and clearer shared direction of travel
  • Build strong consensus on complex and sensitive issues

The starting point of implementing meaningful meetings should be ensuring that every meeting has a clear well-defined purpose, particularly if the intended purpose can only be effectively achieved through a meeting.

Three critical drivers of more meaningful meetings are as follows:

1. Clear Agenda

A clear agenda provides clarity on the scope of the meeting and should indicate the sequence /relevant priority of issues to be discussed in order to optimise the contribution of attendees. A clear agenda can also clarify the attendees whose attendance is essential.

A clear agenda serves as guard rails to keep the attendees from straying into the dangerous territory of unfocused and irrelevant discussions.

A clear agenda is the planned path that sets the direction of the meeting and facilitate a logical flow through agenda items.

2. Right Attendees

Having the right attendees at a meeting is critical and regularly asking the question with regard to whose attendance is absolutely necessary is a helpful discipline to ensure more meaningful meetings.

Providing the right attendees with sufficient time to prepare in advance of the meeting enables deep consideration and synthesis of a range of issues to underpin robust discussions.

A meaningful meeting in practice is usually a collection of stacked mini-meetings of different types with possibly diverse participants depending on the mix of agenda items.

3. Effective Chair

An effective chair is essential in order to facilitate a constructive, meaningful discussion and to avoid attendees regretting their attendance at the meeting.

An effective chair is able to maintain the delicate balance of extracting opinions from diverse attendees particularly the quieter ones while progressing through agenda items at an appropriate pace.

An effective chair would appropriately encourage healthy conflict and sensitively manage disagreements.

An effective chair also manages the flow of the meeting in accordance with the agreed agenda structure but with sufficient flexibility to appropriately harness the bouncing of ideas during the meeting.

An effective chair would facilitate each agenda item flexibly depending on the intended outcome so that an item requiring a decision may require a different approach to an item focused on generating a range of strategic options or gather ideas.

Time for change 

Now may be the time to stop the pain of meaningless meetings and aspire to implement more meaningful meetings which can help to clarify issues, refine strategic direction and progress delivery of strategic objectives.

Executive pay: Avoid paying more than is necessary

A supporting principle of the UK Corporate Governance Code with regard to executive pay stipulates that boards (through remuneration committees) should avoid paying more than is necessary. While on the face of it, this principle seems relatively straightforward, it appears that some organisations in practice find it challenging judging by the increasing public concern over the recent months. Although the principle is simply stated, it raises a number of challenging questions.

One of those questions is what is meant by necessary pay for executives which raises a number of supplementary questions as follows:

  • Is necessary pay to ensure that executives are appropriately motivated;
  • Is necessary pay to ensure motivation for the short-term or long-term or a proper balance of both?
  • Is necessary pay to ensure that executives are appropriately rewarded for outstanding performance?
  • Is necessary pay to attract and retain talented executives?

Issues of Concern

Some of the commonly cited key issues of concern with regard to executive pay are as follows:

  • Executive pay is poorly linked to organisational performance;
  • Executive pay is excessive and unfair particularly relative to average workers;
  • Executive pay exaggerates the contribution of executives as favourable external factors are downplayed;
  • Executive pay is not sufficiently aligned to promoting the best interests of all key stakeholders.

Special Treatment

It is interesting that the current debate on executive pay does not involve a similar debate on pay for average workers which suggests that there is a key underlying assumption that the basis of paying executives and other workers is fundamentally different. The question is whether such an assumption is valid. Presumably all employees should be paid relative to their perceived contribution to the success of their organisations. If executive pay is intended to drive and reward desired behaviours, why are the behaviours of executives more deserving of greater focus than other employees. Whether the contribution of executives deserves special treatment appears to be a key issue of contention and the corresponding debate on the appropriate degree of separation.

It seems to me that a key difference is that executives have significant control on the destiny of their organisations and ensuring that their contribution is appropriately aligned with the best interests of the shareholders is a key risk which arguably requires appropriate mitigation. The exercise of control of their respective organisations and the consequential wide ranging implications if such control is abused arguably appears to be sufficient justification for differential treatment.

If executive pay is largely informed by the market rate as argued by some why does the same argument not result in an upward pressure in pay for the employees lower than the organisational hierarchy. It may suggest that an inefficient market is in operation for executives as the expected downward pressure on price in a competitive market may be lacking.

External benchmarking of executive pay can be useful to gauge relevant market comparators but it should be used alongside internal benchmarking. Internal benchmarking should seek to sense check whether the relative gap between the lowest paid employees and executives is justifiable particularly as an organisation’s financial results should reflect the outcome of the collective effort of all employees.

Performance Unrelated Pay

The upward trend of executive pay appears to be correlated to the greater focus on ensuring that executive pay is more closely aligned to organisational performance particularly as evidenced by the increased weighting on variable pay in the overall pay package. As stated earlier, paying for performance is not the exclusive reserve of executives but a notable difference is the implied assumption that there is a high risk that the interests of executives and shareholders might be misaligned which is why an increasing proportion of variable pay is perceived to be necessary to mitigate that risk.

While in theory such an approach appears reasonable it creates the unintended consequence of ever increasing executive pay against a backdrop of suppressed pay for average workers which is bizarre if executive pay is to foster better corporate performance for the benefit of all key stakeholders. It appears broadly similar to the captain of the English football premier league champions taking home the championship trophy as a lasting souvenir and the rest of the team left with no medals or souvenirs of their collective victory.

Even if the assumption that executives require special motivation to advance the interests of shareholders is accepted as valid, the question still remains why their motivation is any different from average workers. Perhaps Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might explain some difference in motivation but surely the variance cannot be so significant to tilt the balance of variable pay in favour of executive pay relative to average workers. What could go wrong if executives were paid a reasonable base rate for doing the ‘job’ with the variable element carefully calibrated to incentivise exceptional performance if that could be fairly assessed? I suspect the so called ‘talent’ would not leave the planet.

Although benchmarking of executive pay in the marketplace is a common and important element of determining appropriate pay arrangements for executives.  The associated risks of that approach should be recognised and mitigated particularly when the signals in the marketplace suggest the market for talent is perhaps not operating effectively.

It appears perverse that individual performance targets for executives can be perceived to have been achieved but organisational performance either remains unchanged or deteriotatres.

A key challenge with linking the variable pay of executives with performance targets that aim to further the interests of shareholders is that such performance targets at best provide a partial picture of organisational performance which is further compounded looking through the lens of long-term success. In addition, the achievement of those targets in the short-term might be a trade off with the long-term success of the organisation. Furthermore, the targets which are set to align the interests of executives with those of shareholders perversely could lead to more misalignment of interests.

In order words what looks great today may appear disastrous in five years’ time. Furthermore, combining different performance targets in an attempt to address the partial perspective that each target offers perversely leads to a complex but incomplete picture of organisational performance.

The complexity of a comprehensive assessment of organisational performance which appropriately balances short-term and long-term success provides the conditions to enable executives to selectively control the levers of performance which appear to optimise shareholder value and correspondingly their pay.

Some performance targets utilised inadvertently foster a conflict between leading and lagging indicators that might paint a rosier picture of organisational performance which may benefit executives at present but may be storing up problems for the organisation in the future.

Some performance targets while intended to align the contribution of executives with interests of shareholders because of their inherent limitations could give underserved credit to executives for positive performance that was not of their own making such as favourable external factors out of their control.

Shaky Foundation

Determining the building blocks to achieve the desired outcome of only paying executives what is necessary requires a solid and robust foundation for appropriate executive pay relative to average workers.

The concept of seeking alignment between the interests of shareholders and executives is a noble one but is inherently challenging particularly as the short-term interests and long-term interests of all shareholders are not always aligned. So a system designed to align the interests of executives with the conflicted interests of shareholders is unsurprisingly fraught with difficulties and likely to lead to unsatisfactory outcomes.

It seems to me that the current unease about excessive executive pay arises from a set of arrangements commonly adopted by organisations in order to achieve the primary objectives widely accepted as the key drivers of executive pay which are broadly as follows:

  • To incentivise executives to focus on increasing shareholder value
  • To attract and retain key executive talent

If pursuing these objectives have led to the current governance arrangements and the corresponding perceived public dissatisfaction with the levels of executive pay. It seems appropriate to question whether those objectives are partly to blame.

It seems to me that paying what is necessary is that which incentivises senior executives to protect and advance the best interests of all key stakeholders in the right order.

 

 

Merger of Equals: Stepping Stone or Stumbling Block

It struck recently me that press releases on proposed mergers usually slip in the phrase ‘a merger of equals’. It seems to me that the use of that phrase is perhaps intended to avoid any negative associations with regard to the proposed merger or to avoid the impression that one of the parties is a victim of a takeover or that one of them is the more dominant one. But I wonder whether a mindset of perceived equality is helpful to foster the cultural integration which is necessary to make a merger a success.

In principle, a merger of equals is likely to be friendly and require both parties to be open and willing to seek agreement on key arrangements for control of the new/combined entity. However, the associated complexity of such an approach is likely to prolong the realisation of the benefits of the merger due to the likely reluctance to take tough decisions in order to avoid the disproportionate impact of change on any of the parties.

I often wonder whether there can truly be a merger of equals if one of the parties needs the other organisation much more than the other way round.

The effort to avoid the appearance of dominance by one of the parties could prove counterproductive. It could be argued that the pretence that neither party is dominant could cause more damage to the development of the proposed culture particularly if integrity, honesty and transparency are some of the desired values of the new entity.

It is not clear that adopting a mindset of ‘merger of equals’ is always helpful to resolve the power sharing responsibilities in the proposed new entity. It is questionable whether the customary 50:50 split of the new board and senior executive posts is the best way to leverage the best talents in the new organisation. In some respects, such mergers are doomed to fail if a suboptimal board and top leadership team is created just to foster an appearance of balance.

A key proposed benefit of mergers is to achieve significant synergies which would normally require rationalisation of processes and systems of both organisations. The nagging question is whether a mindset of ‘merger of equals’ is likely to compromise the decision making process arising from turf ways on a number of key decisions. Rather than focusing on making the right decisions for the new entity post the merger, the leaders may become distracted by seeking to achieve an equal split on major issues.

Another question is whether a mindset of ‘merger of equals’ reinforces existing arrangements along the lines of pre-merger organisational boundaries if it is expected that all key aspects of the new organisation would be handled on the basis of equality. There is a risk that the focus of leadership may be distracted as there may be ongoing jockeying for influence to maintain equality on all strategic aspects of the combined organisation.

It seems to me that if a new organisation wishes to enhance their chances of long lasting success following a merger, it should be accepted that it is likely and probably necessary that one of the parties may be more dominant in the new entity.

A key conundrum facing firms contemplating a merger is to determine whether a mindset of ‘merger of equals’ is a stumbling block or stepping stone to achieving effective post-merger integration.

Arrogance: Check your Culture

The recent publication by the Law Society of the summary of multiple failings that contributed to the demise of the Veyo project as reported in Legal Futures is commendable. Whilst the full report has not been released due to commercial sensitivity, the fact that an external review was undertaken as well as the publication of some information is a positive sign of good leadership by the Law Society.

However, despite the multiple failings listed as reported in Legal Futures, I was still curious as to whether these were the primary reasons or perhaps the symptoms of a deeper problem. It is unusual to have that many failings without a corresponding overriding primary driver of those issues.

In the absence of the full report, I am left to deduce or perhaps more accurately to guess by reading between the lines as to the likely primary cause of the failings and my assessment of the multiple failings listed leads me to guess that a culture of arrogance could be a possible factor.

I accept that this appears to be a wild guess but the multiple failings listed seem to infer a lack of competence which in part may be right but surely not the whole picture. My experience of engaging with the Law Society to date indicates that access to wonderful talent has not been a key weakness and where talent was lacking internally there were external providers that were eager to share their expertise with the Law Society on key projects if requested. So, I struggle to accept that the lack of competence was the primary key driver for the failure of Veyo. Hence, my suggestion that a culture of arrogance could have played a part.

In an organisation with a culture of arrogance, it is likely that the following signs may be evident:

  • Rationalising failure during the lifetime of a project or execution of strategic objectives;
  • Ignoring the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ within the organisation that may have better insights about the feasibility, suitability and acceptability of the project;
  • Unwillingness to recognise organisational shortcomings and weaknesses;
  • Tendency to overstate organisational capabilities to deliver intended objectives;
  • Failure to deliver project objectives is usually largely attributed to people that are no longer in the organisation;
  • Understating or failing to recognise the role of the organisational culture in the failure of strategic projects;
  • Blaming the people within the organisation rather than accept responsibility for the possible toxic culture;
  • A mindset that the organisation’s knowledge and ideas are superior (we know better) to others which invariably makes consultation or engagement with ‘inferior’ stakeholders seem redundant or unnecessary;
  • The likelihood and prospects of success is grossly overestimated and interim tale tell signs that things are not going accordingly to plan tend to get ignored;
  • Openness to learning is not considered a critical success factor to ensure achievement of strategic objectives;
  • Overestimating a firm’s ability to diversify successfully into unrelated areas;
  • Inability to distinguish relevant warning signs from unconstructive negative feedback from those who might be resistant to the proposed change;
  • Reluctance to listen to relevant negative feedback from some stakeholders;
  • Jumping to conclusions based on weak assumptions.

I sincerely hope that my hypothesis that a culture of arrogance may have contributed to the unfortunate demise of Veyo is incorrect. Nevertheless, if any of the signs highlighted above are recognisable in your firm. Perhaps it would be prudent to take steps to address the culture before it leads to failure of strategic projects unless the signs are dismissed as not being relevant to your firm.

Building a better talent gym

The next item on the agenda was the strategic risk register which signalled that the board meeting was close to completion. The shuffling of papers by some board members was another indicator that the preparation for departure had already commenced which was unsurprising as the discussion with regard to this item was usually relatively brief.

However, a new board member asked why the implementation of some key projects was going to be further delayed by another six months. The Chief Executive explained that the board is aware of the ongoing difficulty to recruit the relevant key senior executives which has been exacerbated by the current remuneration policy which seeks to match market rates only in exceptional circumstances. The Chair emphasised that the board had accepted the current assessment of the risk and the proposed mitigating actions seemed appropriate.

The new board member was grateful for the context and she was reassured as the risk appears to relate only to attracting key talent (right workers) which suggests that the firm is less concerned about retaining key talent which is encouraging. A moment of silence suddenly transpired and the Chief Executive nervously admitted that the risk register is slightly out of date as the firm recently lost key talent to competitors. Alarmed by this disclosure, the Chair of the Audit committee queried why the risk register is silent on the recent developments with regard to the talent retention risk. The HR director responded that the senior management team recently concluded that the feedback from the exit interviews for those senior executives did not raise any issues of concern. He added that the following comments from the exit interviews did not appear credible:

  • The new employer has a more compelling vision and purpose that goes beyond achieving key financial metrics;
  • The new employer welcomes and celebrates diversity of thought and is more committed to flexible working arrangements;
  • The new employer has a culture that is more focused on the best interests of customers.

A debate ensued as to whether dismissing those comments is appropriate and the danger of the firm’s strategy unravelling if those comments reflect the sentiments of existing staff. The board suggested that a more proactive approach to attracting and retaining key talent should be developed. The Chief Executive reminded the board that many of its competitors are facing the same talent challenge which is increasingly more difficult due to the pace and scale of change in the operating environment.

The ‘quiet’ board member suddenly broke his silence and suggested that the current recruitment crisis is in part due to the firm’s failure to clearly define the right talent taking into account its desired culture informed by its strategic ambitions and underpinned by a deep understanding of its customer needs. He suggested that a rethink of the firm’s talent management strategy is now necessary.

The new board member supported the development of a more proactive approach to attracting and retaining the right talent and such a strategy should aim to address the following key questions:

  • What should we do to build a stronger and more compelling employer brand?
  • What steps should we take to successfully leverage a wider pool of diverse talent?
  • What steps should we take to enhance and foster the right culture (collective and habitual behaviours to get the right things done) which is aligned to the talent that the firm wishes to attract and retain?

The longest serving board member expressed surprise at the proposed approach which seemed like an overreaction to a challenge that is also faced by other similar firms. He was very concerned that the firm appears to be pandering to the diversity bandwagon despite the evidence of the firm’s financial success to date which demonstrates that the lack of diversity is not an issue of concern.

The Chair politely and quickly overlooked those comments and summarised the broader sentiments of the board which concluded that a strategy that appropriately addressed the suggested questions above should be developed in order to enable the firm to attract the right talent for a healthier and sustainable future. In particular, the strategy should enhance the desirability of the firm as a place to develop the careers of the right talent. The Chief Executive slouched on his chair thought the board may be overreacting.  Nevertheless, he would proceed to develop a strategy to make the firm a better gym for the right talent.

Leading Change Effectively -Infographic

The different views from a range of leaders at the recent World Economic Forum at Davos may not have led to global consensus on the key issues but they reinforced the increasing scale and pace of change faced by businesses particularly the cocktail of volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. Leading change is the new normal and the following infographic outlines some tips to help firms to do so effectively.

Winzest-Inforgraphic

 

Mind the Gap: Unconscious Bias

It was an honour to speak at the TM Group conference on ‘Driving and Adapting to Change’ in London in April 2015 and subsequently at some of the regional seminars that concluded on 29 October 2015. One of the key highlights arising from my presentation titled ‘Attracting and Retaining Talent’ was the subsequent discussions with some delegates particularly with regard to firms being more mindful of bias.

It heightened my awareness of the importance of enhancing objectivity in talent management processes in order to address unconscious bias. A key message that appeared to resonate is the fact that everyone is susceptible to unconscious bias which disarms the likely defensiveness that may otherwise be associated with initiatives to promote a more diverse workforce.

Recognising our propensity for unconscious bias is an essential first step to managing unconscious bias effectively.

What is Unconscious Bias?

When we unintentionally automatically make positive or negative judgments about others because of our preferences based on incomplete facts. Consequentially, we unconsciously favour people that are similar to us and overlook others that are different to us with regard to the attraction and retention of talent.

Risks of Unconscious Bias

The risks of unconscious bias should not be underestimated which might include the following:

  • It limits our ability from seeing others that are different from us accurately;
  • It limits our ability from seeing others as individuals rather than primarily as a member of a particular group;
  • It can result in poor decisions particularly in high pressure situations where there are multiple options and swift decisions are required.

Managing Unconscious Bias

A key element of the strategy to manage unconscious bias is the awareness that all of us can be susceptible to unconscious bias. Such awareness does not reinforce a passive approach to diversity or present an excuse for conscious bias but on the contrary it promotes the need for vigilance in hiring and retention decisions.  The awareness of the blind spot of unconscious bias should encourage the embedding of independent ‘second opinions’ in key stages of recruitment and retention decisions.

Some tips that firms may wish to consider to address unconscious bias are as follows:

1. Job Descriptions
The key deliverables of a role should be clearly defined in the job description including the key requirements that a successful candidate should possess. In particular, firms should consider broadening their perspective on what a successful candidate would look like. It is not uncommon for firms to model job descriptions based on predecessors that were successful in the role. Whilst such an approach is appropriate, it is critical that inadvertently there are no unconscious biases in the job description. This is particularly important as job advertisements are based on the job descriptions and any unintended hidden biases may further exacerbate the difficulty of attracting and retaining diverse talent.

A key indicator of the clarity of a job description is the number of key deliverables listed and as a guide between six and eight key deliverables should be appropriate. Likewise, a laundry list of key requirements for a successful candidate might suggest unrealistic expectations and poor definition of the required talent.

One approach to adopt to ensure that the job description has not been defined too narrowly is to involve a colleague or a third party as appropriate that is independent from the business area where the role would operate to obtain a second opinion and enhance objectivity.

2.Short listing  
Proactively enhancing objectivity in selection processes can assist to manage unconscious bias and a key area of focus is the short listing process particularly if external recruitment agencies play a role in filtering candidates.

Some credible commentators have suggested that anonymising application forms and CV’s may address unconscious bias in light of research evidence that indicates that there is a risk that candidates can be treated less favourably based on factors that are not critical to likely success in the role. However, this approach may not be appropriate for all firms particularly as it may be resource intensive and perversely may result in unintended consequences.

Assuming that the key success criteria of a role are properly, clearly and fairly defined, then  it may be feasible to involve someone not directly involved in the hiring department to participate in the short listing process in order to provide a fresh pair of eyes. This could also be an opportunity to introduce a diverse perspective particularly if diversity of the decision makers in the selection process is a key area of development.

3.  Recruitment Agencies
Selection of the right recruitment agencies to participate in the selection processes is a critical success factor to address unconscious bias. Firms should ensure that the agencies that they use have a strong awareness of unconscious bias and that they are vigilant to ensure that they mitigate the negative adverse outcomes of unconscious bias in all their activities.

A key indicator to assess agencies is the profile of candidates that they have successfully sourced for their clients. Agencies that to date have struggled to find diverse talent to support firms that have strong ambitions to have a more diverse workforce particularly at senior levels should be a worrying indicator. This point was highlighted by a friend who was registered at a high profile agency for a senior executive role but was not short listed by them (on an assignment that they managed) but eventually got the job by applying directly to the firm. In that instance, the unconscious bias of the agency potentially could have robbed their client of a talented executive.

4.   Interview Panels
Although interviews are not perfect they are still the most common tool to assess the suitability of potential talent. I am sure with all the big data that it is being collected at present that better tools may arise in the near future to address some of the inherent imperfections in the interview process. In the meantime, there are steps that we can take to optimise hiring decisions. A key starting point is the composition of the selection panel to ensure that it is appropriately balanced and that all panel members are empowered to contribute objectively.

One of the risks with selection panels is the inbuilt hierarchy that may foster group think in selection decisions which is why panel members should have equal status even if they are at different levels within the organisational structure. Furthermore, having someone that is independent from the hiring department on the panel adds another layer of objectivity to ensure that all relevant data is captured and appropriately weighted in the selection interview.

Another critical success factor is the quality and consistency of the questions used to capture data from prospective candidates. It is still surprising that some firms still primarily utilise unstructured questions for interviews and thereafter surprised by the poor selection decisions. Just as it would be unthinkable to hope to obtain actionable insights from customer surveys without any consistent set of questions. Likewise, unstructured interview questions may result in unreliable data to inform selection decisions. The use of consistent well framed questions is a necessary element to achieve reliable and relevant data and thereby reduce the unconscious bias in the selection process.

 

Could raising awareness of unconscious bias take your firm one step closer to achieving its objective of developing a more diverse workforce?

Customer documentation: Eat with your eyes first

A common phrase used by TV chefs is “we eat with our eyes first”. This phrase is usually used to reinforce the importance of presenting the contents on the plate in an appealing and enticing way notwithstanding that the food may be nutritional and tasty.

It seems to me that the same advice is relevant to firms with regard to the presentation of information to customers in the retail legal services market. This was particularly highlighted when I participated as a judge (honoured to have been a judge since the 2013 awards) for the LFS Conveyancing Awards 2015. The judging process included a review of the information presented to customers at the beginning of a conveyancing transaction.

It was evident during the judging process that firms strive to provide information to customers which they are obliged to provide. It is clearly necessary for firms to provide a lot of essential content to customers at the beginning of a transaction in order to inform them, appropriately manage their expectations and to require them to take action to facilitate the ongoing transaction.

Furthermore, some of the information provided is also designed to protect firms in the event that disputes arise in the future whereby documentary evidence of information communicated to customers could be critical in order to avoid adverse outcomes.

Even though the provision of the necessary information at the outset of a transaction may tick the ‘compliance to regulatory obligations’ box, there remains the possibility of missing the opportunity to enhance the customer experience through the presentation of that content in a more user friendly way.

It seems to me that improving the presentation of customer documentation can result in the following benefits:

  • Minimise misunderstanding;
  • Enhance informed engagement of customers;
  • Make it easier to navigate through lengthy documents.

Three tips that firms may consider to improve the presentation of customer documentation is as follows:


1. Organise for the customer
 The information provided should be structured with the customer in mind. Firms need to design the presentation of information taking into account how the customer is most likely to consume the information. So continuing with the food analogy, firms need to avoid presenting the desert before the starter. This would involve organising the information based on the relative priority or significance of the information. In addition, the chunking of related information in appropriate sections should also be a key consideration.

2. Call to action
Firms need to emphasise clearly the information that is a call to action to the customer. The call to action needs to clarify the specific action that the customer is required to take. In addition, firms should aim to clarify the likely timescale and/or sequence of the required action either through appropriate chunking of that information or helpful signposting through the bundle of documents.

3. Enhance visual style
Firms should consider adopting a visually appealing format in order to make it easier for customers to consume the information. For example, adjusting the font in certain aspects of the documentation helps to quickly draw attention to key information.

In addition, the appropriate use of headings and subheadings can help customers to easily navigate through long documents. Using questions that customers are likely to ask as headings could be a helpful way to demystify certain aspects and/or language of the conveyancing process and provide the answers that customers want.

Furthermore, firms should consider an appropriate mix of lists and paragraphs to outline key information. Excessive use of dense paragraphs could deter customers from engaging appropriately with the information. Finally, check that there is sufficient white space in the customer documentation.

Returning to TV chefs, we recognise that there are diverse options to present the same dishes which is a helpful reminder that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the presentation of customer documentation is neither desirable nor appropriate. Firms should therefore not constrain their creativity and innovation in the provision of compliant customer documentation.

5 Signs that Business Leaders may have Abdicated Responsibility for Risk and Compliance

The delegation of risk and compliance responsibilities to nominated officers in legal firms is designed to ensure appropriate organizational focus on regulatory compliance and to enhance accountability for the reasonable and specific discharge of all relevant risk and compliance deliverables. However, whilst the system of delegation was not designed to dilute senior leadership’s ownership of risk and compliance outcomes, it appears that abdicating their responsibility for risk and compliance in some firms is an unintended consequence.

A key challenge with regard to the abdication of the responsibility for risk and compliance is that it is not usually easily evident before a major failure arises from such behavior. Furthermore, the false comfort that arises from delegating a non-revenue activity to others obscures some of warning signs that may indicate that the leadership of risk and compliance is inadequate.

Some of the warning signs to consider include the following:

 1. Absence from agendas

The absence of risk and compliance as a regular agenda item at meetings of the senior leadership team and/or board is a sign of its relative unimportance in a firm. In addition, to receiving regular and structured updates on the performance in this area, it should also be a useful forum to receive briefings on key strategic updates from regulators. Imagine the profile of risk and compliance in a firm if the level of awareness of key risk updates from relevant regulators at senior leadership and/or board level is comparable to the awareness of competitor activity and lateral hires in their market segments.

 2. No budget

The absence of a dedicated budget for risk and compliance activities could be an indicator of its relative unimportance. Specified budget lines tend to indicate those aspects of expenditure that senior leadership wish to pay close attention. If risk and compliance expenditure is hidden under another budget line, then it may suggest that an over spend in this area is not a major concern either because it is very unlikely or the allocated expenditure is negligible.

3. Weak performance management

The common phrase ‘you can only manage what you measure’ is relevant to risk and compliance. The absence of a robust performance review process for risk and compliance activities is a sign that senior leadership is not that bothered about performance in this area. Another common phrase ‘measure what matters’ may also be relevant as the management information pack of performance indicators considered by senior leadership highlights the relative importance of risk and compliance. It is recognized that developing KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) for risk and compliance can be challenging but the effort deployed to iteratively develop them indicates that senior leadership takes it seriously.

4. Selective enforcement

Persistent non compliance with risk and compliance policies by staff that generate the most fees is largely overlooked by senior leadership whilst others are expected to address any non-compliance swiftly. Such selective enforcement of risk and compliance policies is a strong sign that senior leadership are not proactively shaping the right culture and compliance is discretionary for some.

5.  Lone ranger

The role of compliance officers can both be lonely and confusing and the absence of appropriate supervisory arrangements to provide them support and to recognize their contribution is a warning sign that risk and compliance is not that important. Being an ethical monitor and/or critical friend within a firm may on occasion give rise internal conflict. Furthermore, effective compliance officers should constantly be horizon scanning and identifying opportunities to improve performance in alignment with the firm’s strategic ambitions even before the ‘burning platform’ necessitates change within the firm. The absence of appropriate supervisory arrangements may adversely impact the performance and morale of risk and compliance officers.

 

Do you recognize any of these signs in your firm?

In spite of the weather

It was wonderful to be invited to the TM Group Golf event last week and I was looking forward to having fun utilising my raw golf skills (clearly an overstatement). However, the anticipation for the event was dampened on the day when it became evident that it was going to rain all day and I had not prepared for this eventuality. My approach had been to extrapolate that the sunny weather the day before would continue and did not even bother to consult the weather forecast which apparently had accurately predicted torrential rainfall.

I assumed that on arrival the golf event would be postponed but to my utter astonishment discovered that the event was going ahead as planned. What was surprising was the enthusiasm from the remaining participants to proceed in this friendly ‘Ryder cup’ like event in spite of the weather. With gritted teeth I decided to also join my team to participate in the event and although my golf skills were atrocious to say the least, the shared experience of participating in this event in spite of the weather was an enlightening experience. It was evident that the participants were like-minded which could have been a result of the selection process or a fortunate fluke. Undoubtedly, the like-mindedness of the participants was a contributory factor of the shared ‘can do attitude’ in spite of the weather.

A key learning point from the experience was a reminder that groups with shared goals which the members believe in and have psychologically signed up for can thrive despite challenging conditions. In fact in such circumstances, the adverse conditions can sometimes provide the backdrop to develop a narrative that further binds the group to its strategic objectives. It is interesting how various stories during the day about the effects of the rain provided the right balance of humour and resilience which kept me motivated to the end of the day.

The other powerful insight was the positive effects of generosity and coaching to improve performance in teams. I hinted earlier that my golf skills were appalling and this became evident by the many air shots at the 1st hole. But my fellow team mates were incredibly generous and patient and provided me with relevant tips to improve my performance. The coaching by my team mates was so effective that by the 17th hole I was able to hit sweetly and impressively a drive shot in the same ball park area as the others. That experience reiterated the importance of providing effective coaching to underperformers in order to enhance team performance.

Sometimes the pressure to achieve swift results means that underperformers in ‘real work’ situations are not provided improvement strategies that are laced with sufficient generosity, patience and focused coaching. One thing that struck me from the coaching I received was the continued reinforcement of a few basic tips which resulted in a massive improvement in relative terms by the end of the day compared to the embarrassing performance at the 1st hole. However, I recognised that those tips would have been ineffective if I had not been willing to humbly accept them and take action. If an underperformer does not accept that their performance needs to improve and is unwilling to be open to others that are more competent to receive relevant  coaching then improvement efforts are likely to be futile.

Overall, the golf event exceeded my expectations because my golf skills have marginally improved and I gained new leadership perspectives on team work and coaching. For such a wonderful experience, I am extremely grateful to the TM Group and my wonderful team mates (who are anonymous to avoid being tempted to quit their day jobs by Golf agents).