The majority of the media outpourings of “news” seemingly unashamedly rate the entertainment factor of an item highly. This manifests as both the choice of items to run and the frame in which they are set.

Witness Julia Gillard’s announcement of an election date and a series of direction setting announcements about the future of taxation benefits and spending in general, descending into a discourse of a Twitter-led discussion on her new glasses.

Two ministers resign after the announcement, to clear the way for their replacements to get their feet solidly underneath the ministerial tables before the election, is reframed as “Cabinet in Chaos”. I suppose the alliteration has a nice ring to it.

But there is nothing about what the history of their replacements might say about possible changes in direction or in values affecting their new ministries. There is no analysis of soon to be Minister Dreyfus and his thoughts on the tobacco lobby. Nothing, just a headline.

Managing by Headlines

Unfortunately, I see this trait of only being concerned about the headline mirrored in the leadership and management of many organisations.

What I mean by this trait in business is that managers are too shallow in their analysis, and in their acceptance of accountability and therefore in their decision making.

It is apparent, at least to me, in many key areas of running a business. Here, I describe three of many observations of the headline being more important than the substance.


In many organisations, recruitment, despite well intentioned and well written processes, descends into a beauty contest at the interview. Objective assessment of actual skills, knowledge and attitude give way to an assessment that praises their positive attitude and good personality.

I am a huge advocate of hiring on attitude and the capability and capacity to learn skills and knowledge, but the assessments I talk about never seriously test attitude.

Rather, it tests how much the interviewer likes their personality on display at the interview. The interviews are shallow and often, so are the careers of those hired that way.


Too many organisations confuse a set of tactics for a strategy.

As an example, from his public pronouncements, Gerry Harvey has never ever had an eCommerce strategy worth talking about. There has been, publicly at least, a period of disdain exclaiming how little is sold over the Internet in their industry to now a series of public whinges about the GST status of imports below a threshold. Other retailers get it and understand that the Internet does not just provide the means to purchase goods. Other retailers have a strategy for the Internet. They either determine how to use its functionality to help customers through their buying journey or, if that does not make sense, they provide services the Internet cannot. They make choices based on analysis.

The simplest way I can describe strategy is the decision between two good choices taking into account the external environment and the internal strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and internal and external threats. Yes, I know. It’s the good old SWOT analysis. Surely everyone knows how to do that?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. It’s the most often used analytical tool I find used in a shallow way. You can add a litany of models to that list. PESTLE, Porter’s Five Forces, Directional Policy Matrix, SMART Goals, Competency Frameworks and many more are used in a shallow manner to create a headline for a set of PowerPoint slides.

They should provide the backbone for the analysis that, combined with the Vision, Mission and appetite for risk, inform the criteria by which to decide between two good choices. But in most cases, they don’t.

Managing People

If I excuse myself from thinking about the impact that poor recruitment and poor strategic decision making has on the management of people, it is only because the range of errors and omissions made in the management of people by the way of shallow thinking is so vast, I don’t want to clutter my head too much by adding more.

It would be good if Human Resource Management, Learning and Development, Internal Communications and Change Management were professions like Engineering or Analytical Science or Law. There would be a set of rules and past experiences which give lie to the truth of how to manage people. There purports to be. Business bookshelves abound with analysis and models that – if followed – will give a desired result. Unfortunately, my experience is that these missives are written to create a headline and used by “practitioners”, at only the headline level.

Take Daniel Goleman’s popularisation of emotional intelligence and that it can explain 90% of people’s future success. If you don’t believe me that this is headline grabbing poppycock, then just Google the original researchers, John Mayer and Peter Salovey, and their attempts to reign in the wild claims made about emotional intelligence predictive power.

I am quite enamoured by what emotional intelligence can tell us about a person. The science resonates with me. I do get put off however, by its use as a recruitment tool from a very shallow analysis, for example.

Too often, I find the miracle expectation of the use of models in managing people acknowledged as being misplaced after the damage is done and a dysfunctional workforce exists. I find this shallowness permeates all the managing people functions of most organisations I have known. Occasionally, I come across self-aware and inquisitive people. People who do not resort to the dust cover of a book for their inspiration.

Rather, they seek advice from many sources and think deeply about cause and effect, about blockers and motivators and about the detail of the human resource strategy and aligning it to the corporate strategy. They think about how to actually get the stakeholders who have power to feel, think and then do what is necessary to execute the human resource and corporate strategies. They also know they will make errors of judgement and assiduously measure outcomes and adjust their tactics appropriately.

In summary

Most of the media has succumbed to the headline over substance, rather than the headline alerting the reader to the substance. I fear in the world of generalists that real skills, knowledge and attitude required to manage an organisation are being given over to headline thinking and poor execution, not in all cases, but in too many cases.