Susan's Musings

Just Thinking Out Loud

Uncovering Employee Value via Undercover Bosses

Once in a while I watch the television programme Undercover Boss.  Currently viewing in the UK is Undercover Boss Canada. In many ways the programme is flawed as it simply highlights a lot of what organisations should already be aware of about the way in which their organisations work or not; and the people that work for them. I’m also conscious that it singles out a few of the people that the undercover boss meets whilst undercover and lavishes them with professional and personal rewards. Whilst I’m always pleased for the people receiving these rewards I do increasingly find myself thinking about the rest of the workforce, which may work equally as hard, face equally as challenging personal circumstances and have similar hopes and dreams.  I therefore hope that after the programme the employers work on schemes that provide personal as well as professional support to their entire workforces.

Beyond this though, I enjoy watching the programme because it talks about the hearts and values of people in mainstream workforces. – it highlights the things that are important to them like their families; the challenges they have faced or are facing; their dreams and aspirations and the dedication to and efforts of so many to their jobs.

Recently I watched an episode, which was focused on The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). It very much followed the normal format with the undercover boss in disguise working with employees from different parts of the organisations.  In this case the boss (who happened to be a female) as per the norm shadowed employees on their jobs, gaining insights from them without them knowing who she was. At the end, the key people that the undercover Boss worked directly with were called to the organisation’s Head Office to meet with her. She gave them feedback on the experience inclusive of some of the actions that she was going to take as a result of her experience with them. She then went on to offer them a series of rewards, which leave the employees speechless, in tears or what have you. Ultimately as one employee says – “Being acknowledged is quite humbling”

I won’t go on about the fact that all employees should be acknowledged on such a regular basis that it is the norm and no big deal. I will move on to the case of an employee named Carmen who really stood out for me.

Carmen worked a 10 hours night shift in a bus depot – running around fuelling buses, checking the oil and cleaning around 50 buses each night. She specifically worked nights because she spent time during the day caring for and providing support to elderly relatives inclusive of a mother with health problems.

She probably fits into the category of working poor – those people that work very hard, yet struggle to make ends meet. Some such people have significant formal education, however a significant number such as Carmen less so – she would have liked to continue her education, unfortunately her circumstances until the intervention of the undercover boss did not allow for it.

She falls into the category of people often classified as unskilled, yet as illustrated by the attempts of the undercover boss, the likes of me and probably you with all our skills and capabilities could not do her job. Of people doing her job, she stated “We’re not perfect, we’re not machines, but we’re trying our hardest”.  As such shouldn’t we show greater appreciation of people in what we typically classify as low skilled jobs.

You make ask how? I’d say at one level – in things such as pay and benefits – the difference between minimum wage and living wages i.e. a wage that covers the cost of living.  At another level the way we talk about and refer to people in such jobs – remembering their humanity and input and not referring to them in the condescending manner, which we subconsciously do on many an occasion.  Finally, in the little things we all do and how we behave. In line with this case not leaving litter or food on public transport with the recognition that someone is going to have to clean up our mess.



Susan Popoola runs Conning Towers Ltd, an HR organisation focused on Talent Management and HR Transformation and Engaged For Success a Social Enterprise. She is also the published author of Touching The Heart of Milton Keynes: A Social Perspective and Consequences: Diverse to Mosaic Britain. She is also Winner Women4Africa Author of the Year 2013

Copyright 2013. This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source. Opinions may be generated


Unlocking Charity Giving

I recently read an article by Sunil Bali on an Italian sandwich shop, which faced with the threat of a Giant Supermarket opening next-door ending up sharply increasing their profit within the period of six months.  I believe they attained this contrary result because they offered something of high value to their customers; they had an engaging approach and they remained focused without panicking.

This led me to reflect once more on a telephone call I recently received on behalf of a Charity, which was looking, to raise funds for what I must say is a very good cause. The approach adopted did, however, make me feel very, very uncomfortable.

The Charity in question was offering information on cancer. I provided my details in order to obtain the mentioned information and this led to the above mentioned phone call.

I was asked if I had a few minutes to spare, to which I responded yes. (If talking to them/providing information would be of help to them – why not) I was asked for confirmation of my contact information so that the details could be sent to me.  I confirmed the information required.  I was then asked how much I know about cancer?  That’s a very vague question I responded. The lady proceeded to ask me a few other questions in relation to cancer. To each of my responses she gave me some information.  I began to feel as if I was in school being spoken to by a teacher.

She moved on to ask me whether I knew about recent breakthrough and spoke about a specific breakthrough treatment now being trialed. She went on to speak about how they need support.  She told me she wanted to tell me about 3 ways in which I could support them. She started talking about a direct debit option. Only half listening to her, I waited for her to finish so that I could inform her that I would consider how I would support them once I had, had the opportunity to review the information sent to me. She pointed out that this level of information would not be included in what was sent to me, as they could not afford it as a charity. I told her I’d look at their website.  She asked me if I would commit to making a lower payment by direct debit. I explained to her that I wasn’t saying that I couldn’t help, but I don’t make commitment over the phone/without proper information.  I thought this would be the end of it.

The pressure continued as my discomfort and resolve grew. They could only call me this once she said. With the breakthrough they needed immediate help. It was cheaper to process payments over the phone. There was a cooling off period ………

I pointed out that I was beginning to feel as if I was being harassed by a doorstep salesperson. She still continued not recognizing how comfortable I was or how disengaged I’d become.  Shortly afterwards the call finally ended to my relief. I had not provided any information and now although somewhat put off I’m waiting for the promised from the Charity to see if and how I will support the charity.

It’s sad because the Charity is doing critical work of high value – I recognized that from the conversation. I was totally disengaged and put off by someone trying to do what virtually amounts to bullying.

All in all it reiterates my thinking that Charities will receive support if they have a worthwhile/valuable course.  Critically, however, is to target people that identify with the cause and to ensure that all the people involved with the cause effective serve as ambassadors and communicate with people in a manner that is informative, engaging and compelling.

As with the sandwich shop – the product or service should speak for itself.



P.S. Of possible interest – Conning Towers Ltd.’s Strategy, Skills and Brand Ambassadors programme.

Copyright 2013. This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source. Opinions may be generated

When Potential Comes to Fruition

I listen to American news quite a lot. My favourite news programme is NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.  I like it partly because of what I know about the news reader, Brian Williams who covered New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina long after others had stepped back. More pertinently at the end of each broadcast they have a “Making a Difference” report, which features things that people are doing within the community to resolve problems and make a difference.

I’ve listened to many reports that have inspired me and others that have brought tears to my eyes.  The one that had an indelible impression and stands out most in my mind is one that featured a project run by Usher the singer.  He had set up a project working with young disadvantaged and disengaged young people.  A young man was interviewed. He was asked what made him turn his life around.  He responded, that Usher believed in him until he was forced to believe in himself.

As someone that used to be a youth worker in London, working with young people who came with no sense of purpose and were often transformed like caterpillars to butterflies I can completely identify with this.

Whether engaging on a community level or at an HR level within organisations, my starting point is always that each and every individual has value – of which they can add/apply to their environment.  Sometimes individuals are fully aware of what they have to offer.  The frustration may then arise if they don’t know how to express themselves properly and demonstrate what they have to offer; if they are in the wrong role or if people don’t realise what they have to offer.

Beyond this, there are so many that have capabilities and potential beyond what they are aware of. It’s great when other people recognise this and support individuals to realise their full potential.

I also believe that HR has a key responsibility in this area.  I believe that HR process and systems such as Competency Frameworks, Performance Management processes, Succession Planning programmes and Mentoring schemes are only truly worth while when they help to bring out the best in people and as such enable their employers in return to get the optimal outcomes from them.

Critically, the right systems and processes will never be effective if the individual does the have the wherewithal, the attitude and disciplinary and he/she does not have management that effectively operates the systems and support the individual.  They do say that people do not leave organisations, but rather they leave managers.


Copyright 2012. This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source.

Social Capital in The Workplace

On the soft side of things, talent management within the workplace is important because diverse, mutually respectful, happy teams with shared values perform best. ref: Carol Long, Three Triangles Performance Ltd. This is beneficial for organisations at an individual level, but there is also an economic imperative for effective talent management. I recently read that Brazil now claims to be the fifth largest economy in the world. France is also a threat to Britain’s position. This means that Britain is now moving backwards and is potential ‘just’ the seventh largest economy in the world. Even if Britain has still managed to maintain its position at the moment, where will Britain be positioned in 10 years time if we do not become more strategic in our actions and approach to the management and utilisation of talent?

I believe that we are still in a privileged position where people look up to us and want to work with us or do business with us. There is therefore a need for businesses to create and implement strategies that ensure the effective and efficient development and engagement of the local and global talent offered by all within communities.

At a basic level there is a need for a clear, strategic understanding of where British industry plans to go within the next 5, 10 and even 20 years. Individual businesses both large and small need to have an understanding of where they fit within that plan and what their subsequent strategy to deliver and achieve results is. When we talk about strategy, more often than not, we tend to focus on the operational and financial elements of the business but we tend to play little attention to the people side of things until there is a more immediate need.

I think the shape of the economy and global talent market that is developing means that this must now change and we must start thinking about people management – or to be more specific skills – from a more strategic perspective.

I always advocate for a skills or competency framework approach which highlights both the immediate and future resource requirements of an organisation from a skills basis.

It means that industry can broadcast skills requirements such that the education system is best positioned to prepare individuals with the flexibility to meet actual and potential needs and professions that currently don’t exist but which may exist in the not too distant future. It also enables government to have a more strategic, pragmatic view on immigration so that it is aligned to the country’s needs rather than simply pandering to those who are simply and plainly against immigration with a big full stop. It also enables better planning for jobs that may be best outsourced, with the enablement of processes to prepare and redeploy individuals who will otherwise be rendered redundant by such structural changes.

I believe a skills/competency framework also better enables open engagement with the wider community. Where it is clear to people what the competency requirements to work at different levels within an organisation are, it is more difficult for them to claim that they did not get a job because they were discriminated against for one reason or the other. It also better enables people from within the different British communities to mentor and support people from within their own communities to enable them to develop the skills required to obtain jobs at different levels. In fact, I was impressed to go into a McDonald’s store recently and pick up a little booklet with the basic framework of the different roles within the organisation and requirements to work at each level.

As we are now what is popularly described as a ‘global village’, I believe Britain, with its vast diversity has an advantage as it should be able to use that diversity to effectively interact with and understand different cultures around the world. I believe that British organisations should be mindful of this and look to use this to their advantage.

This, however, will only work if workers also do their part. I believe there are currently too many organisations, especially in retail, where the workforce is highly multicultural but highly segregated. I specifically remember doing some work in one such organisation. I went to their canteen at lunchtime and found that a large proportion of employees sat together with people from the same background as themselves, often speaking in their own language. As highlighted with a recent case involving McDonald’s, you can’t legislate against this, but I don’t believe it is very constructive and would venture to say that it is a poor reflection of multiculturalism where the gains are minimal.

Copyright 2012. This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source.

Managing Staff Through The Tough Times

Managing Staff Through The Tough Times

While there are businesses that may be thriving, the recent recession and its aftermath mean that it’s been a tough few years for a lot of businesses.  If we are to be honest things are likely to remain tough for the next few years as we contend with Government cuts, problems with Europe and what have you. The natural instinct under these circumstances is therefore to knuckle down and focus – expecting those that work for us to do the same thing – grateful that unlike so many others they have work.

The tendency is to put structures and processes in place to ensure that we things work both effectively and efficiently – this is something I highly recommend. I also advice on the need to become more stringent about absences and what staff do within work time – this is something else that most businesses will probably be doing now. Additionally most businesses will also be becoming more focused on targets and expect staff to have the same focus.  All of this is perfectly understandable and logical – after all unless a business is run on volunteers and unpaid interns, the people working with you are being paid to get a job done in what is now a very competitive market.

I do believe, that it is, however, important to remember that just as businesses are going through a tough time, so are a lot of people that work with us.  What with the increased costs of living and the possible unemployment of a partner; close family members and/or friends,  this can all very easily serve to put pressure on those fortunate enough to have a job.  This type of pressure on staff may also be enhanced if you have already had to implement reduced hours or a pay freeze for a few years.

So yes, do expect the best from your people, but also please be a bit sensitive too.  Where possible take the time to understand their circumstances. Allow for a little flexibility within your structures and processes if it will help them without being detrimental to the business.

Fundamentally communicate with them on the position of the business, the plans that you have for the business i.e. the strategy and the logic behind it. Be open to their input and ideas – they may actually be the source of input that makes all the difference to your business.

In balancing the requirements of your business with the needs of your staff, I believe you will attain their crucial support and their vey best through the on going tough times that we are all faced with.

Copyright 2011. This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source. Opinions may be generated

The Importance of Succession Planning

The resignation of Steve Jobs as the CEO of Apple has brought the subject of Succession Planning to the forefront of conversation. The importance of Succession Planning cannot be overemphasis as a key requirement that must be satisfied if organisations are to survive and prosper is that replacement leaders and officials must be available to assume critically important leadership and specialist positions as they become vacant. Many research studies have emphasised the importance of succession planning – primarily at the senior leadership level, but increasing across organisations as the scarcity of crucial skills and ensuring war for talent grows.

Chief Executives and Corporate Boards consistently point to succession as one of their biggest concerns, with a growing recognition that they have the same obligations to protect the human resource asset base for shareholders as they do to protect the balance sheet. This is particularly the case for professional services organisations whose value derives in great measure from the specialist skills and knowledge of their people.

Some of the most compelling reasons for any organisations leadership to seriously considering putting a succession planning process in place are:

  • The continuing survival and prosperity of the organisations depends on having the right professionals and leadership in place
  • Leaving leadership development to chance and hoping that qualified successors can be found either insider or outside of the organisation on short notice when needed may have worked at one time, but the war for talent in the present and future years makes the approach highly risky. There is therefore a need to systematically identify and prepare high-potential candidates for key positions.
  • Middle management is the traditional training ground for leaders. Because of the scarcity and subsequent competition for skills, there is a need for great care to be taken in identifying promising candidates early and to actively cultivate their development. There is otherwise the risk of losing individuals who are high performs in their present job and/or high potentials for future leadership positions.
  • When Succession Planning is left informal and thus unplanned, it can have a number of undesirable consequences. Suspicion about secret lists and shoulder tapping is highly demotivating and at odds with building a high performance culture. There is also the tendency under informal approaches for job incumbents to identify and groom successors in their own image with the potential for limiting the quality of the successor pool.
  • On the other hand, a robust and well understood succession planning program can be very motivating, and a powerful driver of a high performance culture. Such a program will signal to staff that the organisation is an environment where career goals can be mapped out and pursued and where learning and development is encouraged. In short, an environment where people are highly valued.

Copyright 2011. This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source. Opinions may be generated

Zapping Up The Talent

There is a trend in the war for talent – with the rise in tuition fees, some employers have taken to attracting candidates by offering to sponsor their university fees.

Most recent cases of organisations adopting this practice are KPMG and Morrisons. They share this is practice with organisations such as GlaxoSmithKlime, Barclays, Logica, Experian, PWC and Ernest & Young.

Students studying under this schemes are often likely to work part time with their sponsoring organisations whilst studying

Such schemes can be a win win for both employers and students. Employers not only have access to a pool of talent they additionally have an input into their development. Students on the other hand are not only rid of the worries of debts from tuition fees, they are often able to work whilst studying with the assurance of a job when they complete their qualifications.

Those that are set to loose out are organisations that sit by and watch see organisations zap up the talent.

The Future Market by Hashi Syedain. People Management. August 2011
Morrisons offers fee lifeline to 1,000 students, Personnel Today, 15 August 2011

Copyright 2011. This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source. Opinions may be generated

Free Labour – but is it right?

I recently spent a day in meetings in London inclusive of meetings at a multi-national bank and a very small publishing company. During the discussions that ensued, both organisations made reference to the interns that were working with them.

The use of interns is nothing new to me. I was, however, fascinated by the demonstration of the extent to which they are being used within different sizes and types of businesses.

Based on the conversations that I had, I can confidentially say that both of the organisations that I spoke to treat their interns well ensuring that their interns gain real experience from the process. Additionally they pay them a salary or at the very least expenses.

I believe this is right and proper. Unfortunately, however some organisations use interns as cheap labour and don’t even pay expenses. Even if this is not actually illegal due to minimum wage legislation it is unfair. I further believe that organisations treating people this way should be prepared for the fact that their reputations may ultimately be damaged by this.

Copyright 2011. This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source. Opinions may be generated

Value Begets Value

I don’t typically watch Action category movies, but years back I watched the Rambo movies and although I can’t remember much of the story lines there is a particular scene from Rambo II that I have never forgotten.  It’s a scene where Sylvester Stallone a.k.a. Rambo is in a boat with a young Vietnamese lady.

The lady asked Rambo why he was sent on the mission that he was on.  He replied – “because I’m expendable.”  The lady not understanding asked him what expendable means to which he responded – “it’s like someone invites you to a party and you don’t show up, but it doesn’t really matter”.  During a later stage in the film, Rambo was about to embark on a dangerous part of his mission.  As he sets of the lady called out to him and told him “Rambo, you’re not expendable”

The truth is no one should be seen as expendable as every human being is of intrinsic value.  Whether at work, home or play there is a need to understand what individuals unique talents are in order to tap into them.  However, there is additional a more general value that everyone offers that can be tapped into with minimal effort.
I was reminded of this recently when I bumped into an old friend that I hadn’t seen for quite some time.  She told me that she hadn’t been very well and had therefore been compelled to take some time off work.  On the first day that she went back to work she still felt quite drained and so her manager sent her off to see the organisation’s Occupational Psychologist.  It was agreed  that in order to accommodate her, that she should leave work  a couple of hours early over the subsequent few weeks (with full pay) in order to enable her to fully recover.

I also had a conversation with a manager in a school who had an employee in a similar situation.  He allowed her to work from home one day a week in order to prevent her from relapsing.  In many ways these employers were making pragmatic decisions to prevent a situation whereby they ended up with employees who were not able to work to full capacity over extended periods. After all an employee whose health is not 100% is unlikely to be able to work to 100% capacity anyway.  Besides if an employee under such circumstances is to push himself/herself to hard, he/she could end up going of sick again.   Some employers in a similar situations would however, not want to provide their employees with such support for fear that things would be taken for granted.

The truth, however is that for most people just as for my friend, such actions by employers make people feel valued and when they feel that they are valuable to their employers they tend to want to work that much harder to add value to the organisations. Besides which they become the biggest advocates for the organisation.

Susan Popoola
Conning Towers
HR Transformation & Talent Management
Leveraging the Power of People

Copyright 2011 This document is the specific intellectual property of the Conning Towers Consultancy. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source. Opinions may be generated from content obtained from other sources and such content is referenced as appropriate.

Most Inspiring People of 2009

Earlier today I read an article in The Independent entitled Most Inspiring People in 2009 by Johann Hari.  I would like to add a name to that list or really just create my own little list.  The person that I would like to honour as the most inspiring person of 2009 is a lady named Susan Magdalane Boyle from Blackburn – a former industrial town in West Lothian in Scotland.

As there has been so much hype about her, I’m sure you’ve heard of her?  I must confess that I normally find hype of putting, but there’s just something about Susan that can’t be ignored.

Susan had a long held dream that she had been working towards for years.  Without trying to be dramatic, it’s fair to say that Susan endured a lot of ridicule along the way and I’m sure she on many occasions she must have felt like giving up. However, she did not; she continued and literally marched onto the Britain’s Got Talent stage and sang her heart out.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The facts are, however that prior to her history making performance, Susan was what typical everyday person that people typically refer to as a nobody.  However she proved that she is someone.  A message to the world that everyone is someone in their own right.  It’s not to say that everyone should find their way through X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent or the next reality show.  Rather the key is to find and nurture the talent that resides within – whatever it may be, simply being who they were born to be[i].

I therefore choose Susan Boyle as an inspiration because while those on the Independent list are undoubtedly advocates for everyday people, Susan is a direct representative of everyday people.  A true lady, with a sweet demeanour and the true voice of an angel which brings tears to my eyes.  She is truly inspiring and I whole heartedly hope that she continues to shine and inspire.

Copyright 2009 This document is the specific intellectual property of Susan Popoola. Content may not be reused or reproduced without the specific permission of the owner or a reference to the source. Opinions may be generated

[i] Play on the song titled “Who I Was Born to Be” from Susan’s Debut album “I Dreamed A Dream”

About The Author

Susan Popoola

Susan is a Human Resources Capital Optimisation Specialist specialising in areas inclusive of Talent Management with additional interest in a number of other areas inclusive of Education, Community and Social Justice.

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