Thursday, 25 August 2011

Fostering Frogs

Recently I attended a team developmental off-site.  The dress code was Business Casual and it was interesting to observe the chosen attire of members of the group – for the main part we were conservatively clothed (perhaps in subconscious recognition of the tough economic climate and environment in which we operate), but I noticed that two of my male colleagues were wearing splendid socks.  One chap had frogs crawling up his ankles and the other had lively, but quite subtle, multicolour stripes running vertically from his heels up the back of his legs, like vibrant seams on a 1940’s siren’s silk stockings.  In a confidential moment I mentioned the frogs to their wearer.  He confessed that he would not sport them in the office, on a normal work day, as he did not wish to risk being considered unacceptably unusual.  However, he felt that it was appropriate for him to let colleagues see this demonstration of his more creative side during a developmental session off campus.  It seems to me a shame that work often encourages individuals to hide or suppress aspects of themselves that might in fact prove valuable. 
Almost every organisation at present is going through significant change, to do so calls for determination and drive from employees. 

The Change Formula is a good explanation of what is required to effect change:

C = V + D + S


C = Change

V =  The Pull Factor; a clear Vision of the future and how things could be

D = The Push Factor; sufficient Dissatisfaction with the way things are and

S = A clear and achievable first Step in the new direction

However, I also believe that Change requires creativity, innovation and a degree of courage to enable it to successfully stick.  As a result it is concerning that an intelligent man should feel the need to hide his true self behind a uniform, when the very aspects of himself that he is trying to conceal are perhaps those which would be of greatest value going forward.  To thrive in our increasingly complex business environment, organisations need to foster diversity – not just in sex, race and creed but more importantly in variety of thought, knowledge and skills.  Few armies have relied on a single type of weapon to ensure military success – military leaders appreciate that different equipment is needed for soldiers to cope in diverse situations – a drone reconnaissance plane isn’t of much help in hand-to-hand combat, neither is a dagger when determining enemy positions a few miles away (unless it’s to pinpoint the places on the map).

Diversity is expressed in many ways and at times it is simply a question of reading the signs (such as noticing the socks). 

When I worked as a dealer in The City, I was conventionally dressed (usually a dark suit and a sober blouse), as was expected on the Trading Floor.  However, I had a penchant for unusual stockings – I was particularly fond of a vibrant green pair embellished with thistles (which I wore in homage to my Scottish ancestry).  My manager strongly disapproved and would take me aside and harangue me, for what he saw as inappropriate attire.  I was unable or unwilling to see what he found so offensive, especially since it was a time when exuberant ties were the norm and many of my male colleagues were wearing colourful strips of cloth around their necks that, frankly, even I could see were offensive – nubile women and copulating couples did not seem to me to be suitable images for the workplace.  It galled me that the boys were never criticised, they were seen as daring and exemplifying the fact that “you needed guts to be a successful dealer”. Even now I dislike the double standard.  My manager’s attitude tells me more about him than he perhaps realised, with hindsight, his opinion were sexist and founded on a very narrow view of how the world and his trading floor in particular should operate.  In his defence, he did not come from an environment where creativity or innovation was valued – he wanted his dealing desk to operate like clockwork and for there to be minimal risks, and hence there was no room for challenge or change.

How the world has moved on – whenever I sit, enjoying a drink with friends, in the Royal Exchange opposite the Bank of England in The City of London, I remember the multi coloured jackets of the LIFFE Floor traders.  My former manager had started his career on the floor – yelling and signalling deals with his hands.  Nowadays most transactions occur electronically on virtual exchanges, deals are often computer generated and occurring at such speed that it is hard for a human to follow them.  My manager did not move with the times and, hardly surprisingly, he is no longer a leading name in the Markets.  However, there were others colleagues working with me who anticipated the changes to come and acquired the necessary skills prior to their becoming common place – they are the ones who have proved adaptable and remain as significant success stories.
Going forward we will need to be ever more alert to the world in which we operate and be able to devise innovative approaches that provide us with a unique advantage over our rivals.  In theory we all have access to the same data and technology systems; it is how we use our knowledge that will make the difference between success and failure.  We need to value those individuals who are prepared to think differently, to challenge and improve on the way of doing things.  

When I lived in Hong Kong a friend of the family ran a factory that made and sold wigs, as the years passed he saw his sales decline.  Rather than trying to hang on to a slowly failing business, he analysed the trends and behaviours evidenced in the world around him.  Then he spotted an opportunity and opted to take the brave route forward.  He called all his staff to a meeting and told them that the factory was closing.  His statement was met with shock and distress – not least because he was known as a fair and supportive employer.  He then told his employees that, if they trusted him and were patient, there would be employment opportunities for them with him at the factory in nine months time.  Many of his staff took short term temporary work to tide them over and they came back to the factory at the end of the period, expecting to resume making wigs.  To their surprise the wig factory had been totally changed.  In the months while they had been away the building was stripped bare and re-fitted with new machinery.  It was no longer equipped to be a wig factory, but had state-of-the-art catering apparatus to make and package Chinese soups.  Today his soup is exported around the world and is bought and eaten with relish by the ever increasing Chinese communities who want a taste of home.  He was brave and innovative and has reaped the rewards.

Forward thinking leaders need to be creative and supportive.  None of us have all the answers but, if we work together and encourage and foster appropriate change, we can and will thrive.  New opportunities will not be realised unless employees are comfortable that their creativity and ability to devise innovative but commercially grounded solutions are appreciated.  We, as employers, will also need to learn to be tolerant and supportive – to let people gain new knowledge from their mistakes.  It is practically impossible to change and evolve without making the occasional error – indeed it is often by learning from slip-ups and analysing resultant data that the most powerful solutions and ideas are conceived.  For the probability of enabling a viable future, my money is on the man with the frogs on his ankles to be most likely to make the required leaps forward.

Saturday, 20 August 2011


The rioting may have abated in the UK (the clear-up is well underway with encouraging messages composed on hoardings to console local communities, certain banks offering significant interest free loans to help small businesses to get back on their feet and publicly expressed disgust at the perpetrators of the devastation and damage; firm sentences are being passed on those who were involved  - four year jail sentences being given to people who incited others to loot and pillage, even when their called-for riots failed to occur),  but turmoil continues in many spheres.  The stock markets are plunging, various countries in the Middle East and Africa seem increasingly unstable, and there is expressed dissatisfaction with governmental control in many regions (I am bemused by the rush away from Equities into Government Bonds on the Financial Markets, when there is such vocal discontent and lack of confidence being voiced against various governments’ abilities to get their fiscal affairs in order).

These are stressful times.

Stress is one of the primary causes of issues for employers in our modern, demanding and fast-paced world.  It distracts people from the things they should be doing, results in carelessness, accidents, sickness and absenteeism and is the frequent root of bullying and harassment claims in the workplace, effecting Grievance/Employment Tribunal proceedings and attrition.  I’m sure we all know some of the symptoms of stress: that constant internal gnawing of worry, like a rat nibbling at your insides; insomnia – lying awake fretting while others sleep; and sudden surges of all-consuming panic bursting through you like water forced through a bore hole.  It is worth remembering that

"The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it." - Eckhart Tolle
My household was stressful on Thursday.  It was the day in England and Wales that the results were given for A Levels and Pre-U’s (a new type of exam deemed more rigorous and intellectually stretching than conventional A Levels).  My 18 year old son took both types of exam this summer and a place at his chosen university was conditional on his results.  He was up at 8.00 am (unusually early for him during the holidays) and, within quarter of an hour, was trying to log onto the UCAS website to see if he had secured a place at Imperial to read Computer Sciences – one of the top courses in the world.  However, despite being a “Techie”, he was unable to access the UCAS Tracking system (I did enjoy his ironic Facebook status update offering to try to restore it) – neither were thousands of other would-be-students able to get onto the site.  It was down for almost four hours, unable to cope with the deluge of hits.  The mounting stress amongst the aspiring undergraduates was almost palpable – frantic instant messages on Facebook and Twitter, urgent phone calls seeking clarification and support, consoling discussions with working parents and friends (I dread to think of the cost that the resultant distraction had on many employees’ performance and hence their employers’ bottom lines – no wonder the Financial Markets were in turmoil!!) – Individuals were desperately trying to confirm that they were not unique in being unable to access the site.  Despite knowing that this year there were a record number of applicants (it is the last year in England and Wales before a significant increase in student fees), UCAS had failed to prepare for the onslaught – they underestimated the number of people trying to log onto their system by a third, no wonder the site could not cope.

For those of you who are interested, my son finally discovered that, despite having excellent results (two A*s, an A, a one-mark-off an A and a b for his A/S), he had not been granted a place at Imperial - as you can imagine, at this stage the domestic stress levels increased further in London SW9.  I would not have been surprised to have seen the house physically lifted by the swirling cyclone of emotional commotion, like Dorothy and Toto being carried by the twister in The Wizard of Oz.  He was shocked and dismayed, as indeed were many of his friends who found themselves in similar circumstances. Looking on the University Clearing site, there were places to read Nursing at Kings College London or Law in Edinburgh, but they were not subjects that he had hoped to study.   I did what I could to coach him into devising a solution. I am so proud of him - he pulled himself round much faster than I think I would have done in the same situation. On a professional level, it was fascinating to observe.  In a very short space of time, he went through various stages of The Change Curve:

·       DISBELIEF (at his predicament);

·       DESPONDENCY (when he felt that his future had been ruined);

·       ANGER (when he realized that others with less good grades had secured their places and it seemed unfair and also in frustration at being unable to get the information he needed);

·       INTRIGUE (once he started taking action to improve his situation);

·       CONCERN (that he would be unable to find the right solution);

·       TENTATIVE OPTIMISM (when he managed to speak with the right person at a top university that was keen to have him);

·       ACCEPTANCE (at first he was not jubilant, despite being offered a confirmed place at a leading university, ranked in the top 30 in the world for his chosen subject, that boasts 23 Nobel Prize winners – 6 of whom are currently in residence teaching and researching); and ultimately

·       CONFIDENCE (Things have worked out OK for him.  He regained his positive attitude and enthusiasm once he realised he had found a place that is right for him, in an environment that will be suitably stretching and enjoyable)

He has accepted a place at Manchester and, being a doting mother, I think they are lucky to have him.

Two of the biggest learnings for me from the experience are the importance of preparation and the impact of communication.  Much of the angst could have been reduced if UCAS had anticipated the tsunami of hits to the site and hence ensured that it could cope (the results date had been known for months).  My son and his peers should have devised back-up-plans in the event that their preferred options did not materialise – in effect a Disaster Recovery Plan.  We had given this some thought but, with hindsight, there is more that we could have done, such as having pre-prepared contact numbers and emails rather than having to locate them under stress on the day.

I was surprised at the varying levels of communication – the support group that fellow students gave to each other through social media was heart-warming – at one stage my son was in simultaneous instant message discussions with over a dozen individuals.  People did what they could to encourage and advise each other (not unlike the messages now written on the post riot hoardings).  A contact on Twitter tweeted me to say that the Admissions Department at Hull, who were clearly aware of the UCAS site problems, had been very helpful by phone.  Regrettably, my son was not so lucky, when he called Imperial, they refused to discuss anything by telephone, so he remained in suspense, waiting for UCAS to resume their service so that he could discover whether he had a place – this lost him many hours of resolving the matter and added considerable to the stress.  Organisations should be sensitive and responsive, mindful of the circumstances that prompt individuals to reach out to them – if information could have been provided verbally the number of online hits to the UCAS site could have been reduced and the site might have resumed sooner which would have benefitted a large number of people.  

I was surprised to discover that my tweets asking what others were doing in similar situations ended up on Channel 4 News.  Based on the issues that I and others raised, educational experts provided sensible advice on the programme, which I hope has enabled others to resolve their own predicaments. How times have changed and thank goodness for the technology that has enhanced our ability to communicate swiftly and with effect.  Perhaps my son will be able to make his own contribution to enhancing communication technology as part of his studies at Manchester.  It would be good for something positive to be born from the turmoil and stress.

I’d like to wish all this year’s school leavers every success in what they have opted to do going forward.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Leading Light: Categorical Reasoning

Leading Light: Categorical Reasoning: "A huge white tom cat walked purposefully past the postman and into my house, as I opened the door to sign for a delivery. I’ve never see..."

Categorical Reasoning

A huge white tom cat walked purposefully past the postman and into my house, as I opened the door to sign for a delivery.   I’ve never seen it before.   It is a striking creature, with one green and one blue eye, a nose bent like a boxer’s and vast paws.  From the moment it arrived it behaved as though it has always lived here – it settled for a snooze in an armchair, climbed onto my son’s lap as he was playing on the PS3 (much to my son’s distress as it lost him a game, although the grateful feline purrs perhaps made up for this) and affectionately entwined itself round my ankles when it saw me open the fridge.  It got me to thinking about behaviour, the signs we give off and the impact we can have on others…

Like the cat, we can create a good first impression (firm handshake (but not too firm), appropriate eye contact, respect for personal space, etc…).  I am mindful of the fact that I am quite a strong and colourful character, who enjoys playing with words, and hence I need to take care not to overwhelm people on first meeting, or indeed in any meeting.  Also it is all too easy to assume that others share your values, approach and outlook.  I have an ongoing debate with my mother who is a keen naturalist and assumes that everyone else should feel as passionately as she does about the countryside.  She was horrified when some new arrivals to her village ripped out the old hawthorn hedge that surrounded their property and planted laurels.  I suspect that they did it because they live beside a busy road and they want privacy – once grown the laurels will provide a year-round screen.  There is no indication from their home or garden that they are concerned about local flora, fauna or conservation.  Neither my mother nor I have actually asked them why they have replaced their old hedge.  

It is worth taking time to get to know a person and to understand what motivates and inspires them – you can then determine the most effective manner in which to communicate with them.  Often, the reason that a person expresses a different viewpoint from your own is because they have a different agenda or objectives or they are privy to information that you are not yet aware of.  It is important to make decisions based on facts rather than opinions.  To win someone round to your way of thinking you usually need to have an appreciation of their beliefs and outlook.   Despite the current arguments doing the rounds on the internet, claiming that President Obama’s popularity is declining due to his consistently altering his approach and policies, I am firmly of the belief that people should not be afraid of changing their minds, provided that there is sufficient factual evidence to justify doing so.  As Leonardo da Vinci stated:

               “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

Critical thinking is a key leadership skill. Effective leaders must be able to determine what is pertinent information and hence make sound judgements, basing their decisions and actions on the evidence available.  It is important to be able to distinguish between facts, opinions and assumptions.

·         Facts are hard evidence

·         Opinions are personal, subjective statements based on individual beliefs

·         Assumptions are suppositions or ideas that provide explanations for circumstances in which all of the facts are not available or have yet to be determined – they are often based on meanings or interpretations that a person gives to the data available. 

The Ladder of Inference, defined in the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, 1994, is a useful illustration of the thinking process required to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder and are shown below:

1      Observable Data & Experiences (as a video recorder might capture it)
2      I select Data from what I observe
3      I add Meanings (cultural and personal)
4      I make Assumptions based on meanings I add
5      I draw Conclusions
6      I adopt Beliefs about the world
7      I take Actions based on my beliefs

NB Stages 2-6 are “the reflexive loop” (i.e. our beliefs affect what data we select next time)
Source: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, 1994

Most of the time, we make decisions without analysing how we get to them.  Dr. David Starkey’s extraordinary remarks during BBC2’s Newsnight on 12th August illustrate my point.  A number of the statements that he made were subjective observations (e.g. “the problem is that the whites have become black” and “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man.  If you turn the screen off so that you are listening to him on radio you would think he was white”).  To be fair to Dr. Starkey, he was trying to comment on the choice of language and the gang culture that is demonstrated by some parts of society, however, the observations perhaps tell us more about Mr. Starkey’s own attitudes than shed light on the reasons behind last week’s riots.   

It is useful to apply The Ladder, even retrospectively, to determine whether a business decision has been properly thought through.  It can enable you to get back to actual facts and determine appropriate actions based on reality without skipping steps in the reasoning process.

As the American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, 

                “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts”

The white cat, having scrounged a piece of ham and some strokes, has now gone, leaving only a few white hairs to remind us of him.  It is easy to assume that he was a benign visitor gracing us with his presence, but his actions could just as easily be seen as those of a manipulative parasite.  I have given you the facts; you can draw your own conclusions...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

After The Storm

It’s August and, as demonstrated by the absence of politicians when the flash violence, rioting and looting commenced in cities across England at the start of the week, many people are away on holiday.  I returned yesterday from some blissful days in Somerset, full of smiles and memories tinged with a warm glow (or perhaps that was the local cider).  Driving into London was sobering.  Boarded up windows and burnt out shop fronts lined the road to Lavender Hill – evidence of the thuggish behaviour that was demonstrated earlier in the week.  It was interesting to note that the bookshops hadn’t been touched (perhaps the looters only use e-books – they clearly like trainers and TVs).

At the start of the week I thought I would write a blog on the repercussions of mob mentality – something often seen inside organisations, as well as having been demonstrated on the streets of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Enfield, etc…  We have all been in situations where in a one-to-one discussion or within a fairly intimate environment, a person will voice a particular opinion but, when surrounded by others, they will change their tune to fit in with the broader consensus, so as to be seen to support the actions and outcome that others desire.  A striking example of this is related to the Challenger disaster.  The failure of an O-ring seal was determined to be the cause of the Space Shuttle tragedy on January 28, 1986.  A leading engineer, Roger Boisjoly, voiced concerns that the O-rings would not function as required in cold weather conditions.  When the matter was discussed in a larger group, he demurred under pressure from the wider team for the launch to go ahead.  It is easier to run with the herd than be viewed as difficult, unsupportive or different.  Much of the blame for the disaster was placed on NASA’s organizational culture and decision making processes.  We are not always good at enabling the voice of reason or the quieter/less eloquent speakers to be heard.  It is too easy to go along with others’ ideas and actions, especially if their proposals are seen as being more exciting and potentially rewarding or when the risk of not concurring could make an individual unpopular or perhaps even be personally damaging.  I actually want this blog to reflect the power and importance of individuals.

This morning I went to the funeral of a wonderful lady who dared to be different and seldom hesitated in voicing her opinions.  My friend Morag Young was 86 and had been battling with cancer for a number of years.  Born in Glasgow in 1925, her family emigrated to South Africa when she was five.  She was a pioneer in so many ways: undaunted at being a woman in a man’s world, she attained impressive academic qualifications from Rhodes University, before commencing in business.  She always claimed that her life’s achievements were grounded on her education.  (She has left a legacy to fund South African scholars to study at Glasgow University, so I hope a number of people will follow in her footsteps).  Fiercely bright and feisty, even at the end, she managed to secure operational roles in organisations across the African continent, worked as an anchor woman during the early years of TV and she was an inspiring journalist.  She made the most of the opportunities that life presented and was always a challenging but supportive friend.  It was inspiring talking to people at her wake, each of whom had stories of battles that Morag had won against the odds.  Even when raddled with cancer she was standing up for the underdog and fighting for what she saw as right – combating racial inequality, questioning politicians and businessmen and encouraging learning.  The best friends and team members are those who will challenge and speak out to ensure that the correct decisions are made.

With apologies to Robert Burns for changing the gender, his words are an apt epitaph for Morag:

An honest woman here lies at rest,
As e'er God with His image blest:
The friend of man, the friend of truth,
The friend of age, the guide of youth:
Few hearts like hers - with virtue warm'd,
Few heads with knowledge so inform'd:
If there's another world, she lives in bliss;
If there is none, she made the best of this.

Not only is there turbulence on the streets of England, but also there is turmoil in the financial markets across the globe.  The world currently is a frightening place and we are all being buffeted by the storms.  Now is the time when each of us needs to have the strength to do and say what is right.  I found it heart warming that Twitter and other Social Media sites were being used for good as well as evil earlier this week.  The mobilisation of local communities to clear up after the riots, the messages of encouragement and concern and offers of assistance from strangers around the globe all contributed to what is now a calmer end to the week.  I would like to thank all of you who have been brave enough to speak out or act.  Little by little we can improve our environments. 

We all need to make the best of the world that we find ourselves in and to be brave enough to say and do the right thing.