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.

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