Right, I’m off then …

View onto the Zambezi river

©1994 Christian Velten


Holiday season. A couple of weeks ago, we had a nice team coffee, and among other things we were discussing our accessibility during vacation … not if but how everybody would be available during vacation.

Honestly spoken, I was completely shocked. It was very clear for me that having a frequent look at my mails or being available for being called would never allow me truly enjoying my vacation and achieving the core objective of any vacation to – believe it or not – intentionally disconnect from work and recharge. For good reason more and more companies today even ban the use of corporate mail if not smartphone during recreational holiday.

Vice versa, I produced incredulous amazement by stating that I was going to spend my vacation without my company smartphone or any other connection to business communication channels. As I am doing for many years and many vacations now.

But how do I smartly manage being off for 2-3 weeks without caring for business email and phone?

Those are the rules I am following with each single vacation for many years now …

  1. Accept your replaceability
  2. Have substitutes
  3. Pre-notify about your coming absence
  4. Have a significant OOO notification
  5. Have your OOO notification one day earlier and one additional day after
  6. No meetings scheduled on last and first day
  7. Have a private phone
  8. Enjoy your return

No one is irreplaceable

The first step is a simple but difficult lesson. Some colleagues seem to think that the world would stop turning without them, at least that business would completely break down. I am afraid to say: this actually is a fatal illusion! No one is really irreplaceable. Or in other words, having your business depending on the availability of single individuals would be extremely bad management. What do you think would happen if you would have to undergo a major surgery including being placed in an artificial coma for 2-3 weeks? Would your team stop working and the business crash? I don’t really think so. And if this situation can be managed, why can’t an ordinary vacation absence be equally? Or are you really missing this competence?

Accept that you are factually replaceable, and enjoy the pleasure of this knowledge.

Have substitutes

I mean, shouldn’t you generally have clearly assigned substitutes in place? You as a team member as well as you as a team leader. Sorry for my frankness, but wouldn’t not having substitutes for your function and responsibilities intentionally jeopardize business continuity and be completely irresponsible? So, you anyhow should have a clear and communicated set of substitution rules in place. This makes everybody’s life easier, not only in vacation times.

Pre-notify about your coming absence

Dropping a kind of “forewarning” 1.5-2 weeks before a longer leave has been proven highly effective in taking pressure out of the situation. I started this measure many years ago as an independent entrepreneur, early informing all clients, team members, project contributors, collaborators and external agencies. So, basically anyone who might depend on me or may have urgent need for support. This prenotification is not only telling about my absence, but also that in case anything urgent should be done or would be needed before, one can drop me a note up to 3 days before my leave, giving me some time to care for late things. This approach always was highly appreciated and resulted in extremely positive feedback, esp. by clients.

My learning has been, that not the absence or unavailability is the issue, but missing information and the perception of being left alone. So, proactively show that you care.

Have a significant OOO notification

Amongst us, “I am OOO.” is not really a very significant out-of-office notification. OK, it is very clear, simple, and provides at least the key message. But joking apart, I personally prefer to provide few additional information, which support the receiver with what he can expect when and by who. Still short, clear and simple. So, I typically provide the earliest day people an expect me to come back to them again, my substitution rules, and a nice wording to not accidentally leave people being peeved off when realizing that I am enjoying my vacation while they need to work hard.

Have your OOO notification one day earlier and one additional day after

OK, it might be a mistake disclosing this ‘secret’ now. At least this might show me who of my appreciated colleagues is actually reading this blog attentively. So, just between ourselves: I generally have my out-of-office notification activated on my last day before my leave already and also on the first day I am back in office. This takes a lot of pressure from the last and first working days surrounding my vacation. I keep control which things are urgent enough to additionally put on my pile on the last day, and I keep control over the first day of my return, esp. creating a buffer for coping with piled up emails. And for my team mates I am anyhow available in the office for late urgent stuff.

No meetings scheduled on last and first day

Same as before. A very simple and efficient measure allowing you to smoothly fade out – fade in. It is in your hands.

Have a private phone

It is about reducing temptation and opportunities. I never take my corporate phone nor my laptop along me for vacation. Clear rule, easy to follow. Taking your laptop with you gives you the illusion of being fully productive everywhere … but you are not. And all the things you actually can do … typically can wait if you are honest to yourself. Certainly I want to be reachable (by my family and friends) and read my (private) mails, so I have a private smartphone and do not mix up things.

Enjoy your return

After your return, enjoy that not everything might have worked as smoothly as people are used to, that they are happy that you are back, and that you have been missed. I mean, come on, this is perfect … you can look forward coming back to office. Could really be worse.

Finally, I would like to share a personal piece of experience with you. In more than 20 years of working life, about ten of those running my own business with being the key contact for all clients, there has not been a single situation where my short-term action was really needed. A proactive absence management assumed.

Honestly spoken, for many years I was fatally wrong in thinking that my general availability would be vital. And it took me some time to learn that (at least felt) being approachable and indispensable during vacation with your family and kids is just an unmasking sign of bad (self-)management.

Fortunately, there is always room for development …


My motto for 2017

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-44), French pilot and writer


Of course yearning alone is not enough.

You certainly need quality wood, good tools, clear allocation of tasks, a plan and much more.

And yes, unfortunately I also know more than enough ‘hot-air guns’ in leadership positions, who contribute great visions (= yearnings) … but that has been it.

I would like to talk about myself instead. In the past, I realized that sometimes I got lost in bits and pieces of strategic or project planning and management during workaday’s life. This simply happens when you are working quite intensively and focused. I am sure you know what I mean.

The issue is that then the big picture easily gets lost. But this big picture is really important. It actually is the destination, the purpose of everything being done! Not adhering perfectly to the project plan or KPIs. Those are just resources and tools … but in daily routine they sometimes end in themselves. Neither the wood is the destination, nor is the ship. The destination is being able going out to sea and sailing to other places.

It is about motivation. To take along people, employees and colleagues. To not just let them settle tasks. But to actively include them in an exciting, promising and joint journey.


For me, Saint-Exupéry’s “yearning” is anticipation, joy, enthusiasm and identification. I am deeply convinced that this kind of “yearning” does not only yield in settling required tasks …

… but to jointly deliver superior achievements and true innovation. More than the best project plan ever could do.

The true reason why younger candidates are favored

If you challenge an existing preference for hiring younger workers over e.g. “best agers” (50+), you get a series of arguments which initially sound somehow reasonable.

  • Younger candidates have more energy and higher productivity.
  • Younger candidates bring along more recent expert knowledge due to their contemporary professional training/university education … and thereby deliver higher quality.
  • Younger candidates are cheaper.
  • Younger candidates are less resistent to change.
  • In an aging society it is more future-oriented to hire younger candidates and develop them internally on the long-term.

As non-involved I can dare to say: all those are dumb stereotypes … if not lies!


The “younger is more productive” myth

It has been repeatedly investigated and proven hat “best agers” on average do show at least a similar productivity and level of achievements while typically being more efficient and delivering higher quality. No more to say.


The “younger is cheaper” myth

Is it? I would like to challenge this assertion by stating that the average “best ager” achieves more with less energy and in less time. He compensates youthful freshness with experience and beneficial learnings from the past. So, I dare to say that a complete and honest calculation will give at least the same if not lower costs for the “best ager”.

And by the way, cheap or valuable, you always get what you pay for!


The “younger provides better knowledge” myth

Yes, sure, the expert knowledge a mid-20s university leaver brings along is more recent. But …

  1. By whom did they get it? From “best agers” being their trainer/teacher, am I right or am I wrong?
  2. Blank knowledge from professional training or university is by far not enough for real life success and best practice. “Best agers” typically provide expert knowledge plus experiences from years of daily working including highly valuable experiences and learnings the youngster simply miss. The overall level of current and real-life knowledge is much higher with the “best ager”.

And by the way, it is impertinent to generally insinuate that older colleagues do not continuously develop their expert knowledge to the state-of-the-art level.


The “seniors are more resistant to change” myth

To my observation, more senior colleagues are not above average resistant to change but in many cases even drive it. And I was involved in quite a few change projects/processes. No, senior colleagues do more dare speaking up for stupid changes and dumb implementations … where many  youngsters just follow like sheep. For me this level of commitment by senior colleagues never has been a bug but a feature. And in most cases it was highly beneficial for the whole change project.


The “younger provides more long-term benefit” myth

Especially the more promising youngsters have a much higher tendency to switch their job if not the company due to career aspirations. Exception proves the rule and there are certainly companies which do a proper good job in developing and keeping their staff. But I dare to say that many companies will benefit longer from a hired “best ager” staying 10-15 years than of a “±30 ager” leaving for the next career step after 3-4 years.


The true reason

I think there is another important point which is typically less mentioned but more influencing the preference for younger candidates within a hiring process.

Younger workers are much easier to influence and to manipulate. They challenge instructions and decisions by their line manager (who is also their hiring manager) much less. And just to avoid any misunderstanding: to my opinion this is bad, at least with  advanced, innovative, forward-thinking companies. But unfortunately there is a fatal correlation between leader quality and the tendency to hire team members which are better qualified than oneself.

“Best agers” are not more difficult to lead. But they are more resistant to bad leadership. So they are less likely hired by bad leaders who cannot stand to be constructively challenged.

Check it! Just watch the leaders in your own working environment. Which of them would you rate as better leaders and which as worse? And what is the average team age of the better … and what the average team age of the poor leaders? *

You see, what I mean!

* OK, and please kindly ignore any constitutional bias, e.g. by type of job or team where the average age is unavoidably lower. 

Leaving 2015 positively

2015 has been a good year!

It might not appear as such on the first view. And unfortunately there are always enough “devaluators” who are first and foremost fixated on crises and conflicts.

But a lot of positive and good things happened in 2015 which are worth to look back on. In the German newspaper DIE ZEIT (#52, 23.12.2015) Hannes Soltau, Merlind Theile and Doreen Borsutzki published a remarkable collection of facts.

In 2015 …

  • more people worldwide had access to drinking water
    (91% vs. 77% in 1990)
  • the average life span worldwide increased
    (71 years vs. 65.3 years in 1990)
  • the number of starving people worldwide decreased
    (-17% since 2004)
  • the infant mortality worldwide decreased
    (more than halved since 1990)
  • we had substantially less traffic deaths in Germany
    (2/3 less since 1991)
  • we had less school dropouts in Germany
    (5,6% vs. 9,6% in 2001)

Certainly, 2015 was also a year full of tragic events and fatal developments. But not only. Fading out the good limits the view.

I myself gladly and gratefully look back on 2015. For me personally, it has been a very good year … and the world has had worse before.

Why doesn’t anyone tell him …?

post20141107A zur deutschen Versionnew division head is in town. And he (or she) wants to share his vision and plans with the team members in subordinate departments and business units. First of all, a fair approach.

So, the new boss arranges a “townhall”, which is .. how should I say … a mix of collective self-congratulation, motivational speaker show, and blatant puffery. Actually, the intended purpose is to reduce need for the new boss to deal with each subordinate individually but rather polish off all at once.

Making a digression. Back to the topic …

Well, said new division head stands in front of the audience, perhaps something between 300 and 400 subordinates, and talks about his plans. He mentions that in the past quite a few things had been done quite well already, and that he appreciates those efforts and the great expertise of the teams and people … but that there certainly is room for improvement and optimization. He presents his new master plan, laid out for 5-6 years, at last solving all issues of the division, and which will be the ultimate solution for a prospering future of the enterprise. Goes without saying that the plan crucially includes a reorganisation.

There is just one problem: he (or she) is the 3rd new division head in 5 years already. And the majority of colleagues sitting in the audience have repeatedly heard exactly the same speech. This is still very much present, it hasn’t even reached long-term memory yet. And those colleagues sit on their chairs, listen to the presentation, and think: “What a speechifier! In 2 years max you will been gone again. And then the next one jumps in, and retells the same, that he now knows how it really works. And your master plan is going to be history like all the other big master plans before.”

Summary: Actually the new division head just now makes a fool of himself.

Is that really necessary? Why did nobody appropriately prepare and brief him? Who the heck coaches middle managers such amateurishly? It almost appears as would someone simply follow a checklist … a rather goony one by the way.

An honest and down-to-earth announcement gaining respect and appreciation by associates rather would sound like this  …

“Hi everybody! I am the new boss, and I also cannot turn water to wine! We are going to spend the next 2 years together, perhaps even a bit less. Let’s make the best out of it! So that at the end all of us are able to show some smaller or bigger but nice achievements and progresses, without any unneeded collateral damages.”

From Builders and Maintainers

zur deutschen VersionI so far met basically three types of human characters within – esp. larger – companies: Builders, Maintainers and Destroyers.


post20130120Building is their passion. They are restless. The status quo never is good enough. After the implementation is before the implementation.

Builders are thinking forward, innovatively and constructively. They see changes as tools for improvement and development. But they set a high value on a well-founded and provable rational for any changes needed as part of their overall plan.

Builders know that for being successful they have to convince others (like Maintainers) and bring them in. They are usually quite clever in positively influencing people, and they can be very inspiring and motivating for others. On the other side of the coin, Builders can be quickly frustrated by resistance to – in their view – obvious room for improvement. E.g., Builders have the tendency to underestimate the importance of politics, esp. when going beyond factual businesslike objectives. If they fail it is often due to a outflanking by games at work.

Beyond that, Builders will always be strong drivers of innovation and development.


Maintainers merge into ensuring stability and consistency … of processes, services, tools, etc. They can do the same set of tasks over and over again, day after day, year after year. Continuity is their mission. As a convenient side effect, Maintainers are extremely good in identifying deviations and threads.

So, Maintainers love the status quo. But they are not just resistant to changes, a common misunderstanding and complete misinterpretation. Factually, they just insist on a well-founded and convincing justification for a change. What is actually a fair approach!

Factually, Maintainers are the backbone of most companies, ensuring business continuity. They bring overeager Builders back to earth, and steadily mop up behind Destroyers.


The dilemma of Destroyers is that most of them are deeply convinced they would be Builders. So, a mismatch between self- and external perception is definitely an issue with Destroyers.

Well, basically they are right. Building often needs changes, and changes sometimes also need destruction. But they make 2 major – to my opinion – mistakes. First, they are biased and fixated on change. And second, they generally mistake change with destruction.

Many Destroyers follow the illusion that the event of a change itself would be good. They are disciples of change. In their thinking it boosts organizational creativity and evolution. The origin of this misconception is an outdated and wrong sociological interpretation of the biological evolution paradigm. On top, Destroyers often undervalue the importance of sound change management – not in proclamation but in implementation. Then, destruction is not an intrinsic consequence of the change but of bad (or no true) change management.

“Chopper managers” are typical Destroyers. So, you don’t know “chopper managers”? I am sure you do!  “Chopper managers” are hopping from one position to the other, like tourist doing a helicopter sightseeing tour. They simply fly in (whencesoever), make a lot of wind when landing, create a maximum of confusion, and fly out again soon enough before they need to face the outcomes or take responsibility for long-term consequences.

Unfortunately, Destroyers have the highest impact in many companies, giving Builders and Maintainers a hard time.

So, what are you?!

I found myself without doubt having a very strong Builder component. I love to develop, to implement and to provide new solutions. I can also be a Maintainer … for a while. But sooner or later this stops satisfying me, and I start looking for opportunities to do some “building” and improvement at least within my proximate range. I am also open to destruction, but I insist on well-founded and convincing rational as well as sound change management. And I absolutely hate destruction of a so-called “running system” without true need, or doing a change just for its own sake.

Altogether, it looks like that I seem to be a Builder, with a secondary Maintainer facet, and only constructive Destroyer qualities.

Builder, Maintainer or Destroyer … what are you?

Warning: Harvard Business Review may cause depression

Do you know that experience? You are reading the latest “Harvard Management Review” (HBR), and sooner or later you are reached by a melancholic mood.

Because you simply realize that – regarding recent management methods – there seems to be such a huge gap between aspiration and everyday reality.  On the one hand you are reading in HBR how things should be, or at least could be … and in real-life you have to stand the complete opposite. This can really get you down. So, a warning notice on HBR saying something like “Reading this journal may cause depression” could really be no bad idea.

OK, of course even in HBR all that glitters is not gold. There are also articles containing complete rubbish. Ultimately, HBR is no bible but a kind of discussion platform on new ideas and approaches. Some of it even being quite theoretical. And not everything reported for having worked in one branch of business or a particular company can be generalized.

But … I need to honestly admit that a lot of stories I read in HBR really convince me, because they obviously make sense. My particular interest is with articles on leadership. And there I regularly find a lot of extremely good and inspiring stuff written – at least to my opinion. Out of the practice and for the practice. Solutions which are often already proven to be successful, and always put into showcases.

However, something is obviously going wrong. Either not really all people who preen themselves on being regular HBR consumers actually read the HBR articles. Or the read is somewhere getting lost on the way to the brain. Or it is in a spontaneous amnesia instantly forgotten again. I really have no other explanation for the observation why so many managers behave such contrary to the state-of-the-art methods published in HBR. By the way, I experienced something similar with management trainings. The complete antagonism between leadership methods learned in a training … and real-life behavior. Does this not sound unfamiliar to you? Do not expect me to be able to provide an explanation, please. I am still searching for myself. As mentioned before, spontaneous retrograde amnesia is my hottest favorite so far.

But what can I do? Well, I can start with myself, that I don’t follow – intended or not – the same behavior. Reading HBR and not making anything out of it anyhow is inefficient and unproductive. This would be beneath a smart and successful manager. Beyond that many approaches you can read there just work. So, I am having a true benefit by not being just a HBR reader but a HBR implementer. Yes, it is a good cause to permanently work on yourself. To again and again self-critically challenge your own leadership practice. To learn from others. To change your own habits if being needful. Not just to read and to vaunt that, but to “digest” and implement. To actively develop yourself further.

Therefore, I would like to propose a new warning notice for “consuming” HBR: “Warning: Reading this journals may cause changed managing habits and personal development!” And subsequently result in more success. Your choice!