Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Succouring Serendipity

Don’t you love it when life seems to smile upon you and unexpected events and outcomes provide pleasant opportunities and experiences?  As is often said “Serendipity is a wonderful thing”, but we have strayed slightly from the word’s original meaning.  The first noted use of “Serendipity” in the English language was by Horace Walpole in a letter to the American educational reformer, Horace Mann, in which he states that he formed the word from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip” whose heroes

“were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.

The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) and literally translates as “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island”.  According to Walpole’s definition, Serendipity is not pure fortuitous chance – it also requires a person to spot an opportunity and, through their wisdom as well as happenstance, to enable success or a pleasant outcome.

In January 2007, after gale force winds and severe waves damaged her hull, flooding the engine room, the MSC Napoli was deliberately grounded in Lyme Bay off the south coast of Britain; the weather conditions and list of the ship being too extreme to tow her to a suitable port.  Her twenty six man crew was rescued and the Napoli was left to the mercy of the elements.  The storms continued and the ship began to break up, relinquishing her cargo into the waves.  Some of the Napoli’s load was washed ashore at Branscombe. Local people rushed to the beach to scavenge the flotsam.  The cargo consisted of goods bound for Africa, including Allier oak barrels on their way to South Africa for aging some of the finest wines.  These barrels were packed with a consignment of Zulu bibles into containers and hence were protected from the sea water and floated to the beach undamaged and untainted.  Julian Temperley, the founder of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company, saw the barrels drifting shore-wards in television news pictures and, spotting a possible opportunity, travelled to the beach.  With permission from the Receiver of Wrecks the shipwrecked barrels were salvaged and now have been used to mature a Single Cask Ten Year Old Cider Brandy, named “Shipwreck”. 

I had the pleasure of celebrating Apple Day last Saturday at Burrow Hill, the home of Somerset Cider Brandy.  I sipped Shipwreck under the apple trees and pondered how fortuitous it was that Julian had spotted the opportunity.  Shipwreck is fantastic, with the potent apple spirit smoothed by the oak of the barrels into a subtle and evocative drink.  Apple Day, contrary to its sound, is not a memorial to Steve Jobs and his products, although he was mentioned on Saturday, but a glorious celebration of the variety and richness around us, initiated by the conservation group Common Ground.  A primary driver behind Apple Day is the opportunity to enjoy local seasonal produce and to celebrate some of the unique foodstuffs available in certain areas.  In linking particular apples with their place of origin, Common Ground hoped that orchards they came from would be recognised and conserved for their contribution to local distinctiveness, including the rich diversity of wildlife they support.  Common Ground used the symbol of the apple to indicate the physical, cultural and genetic diversity that we should not allow to be lost in our age of standardization and mass production. 

I believe that we should apply a similar approach to our commercial concerns.  We all have access to the same IT systems, data and infrastructure.  It is what we, the people in a business, do with the information available to us and how we behave (both individually and as teams) that makes the difference.  In these challenging economic times, it is those of us who can operate more efficiently, collaboratively or in a manner that makes us stand out from the crowd that will be ensure success.  Organisations need to ensure customer loyalty and satisfaction by offering unique, outstanding and valued skills or products. Don’t succumb to the temptation simply to follow the heard – although you might blend into the surroundings, you won’t be exceptional and bland mediocrity, perpetuating the mistakes of the past is unlikely to result in long-term, sustainable success.  Organisations and the individuals in them need the drive to succeed and the vision, skills, resilience and tenacity to thrive and adapt as circumstances require.
Returning to where I started, with Serendipity in the land of lions, I would like to close with some thoughts on Dr. David Livingstone, the legendary nineteenth century explorer.  Many people know that he had a famous encounter with a lion during his early days as a medical missionary in Kolobeng in South Africa.  It crunched his left arm (indeed it was the mangled and misshapen mend of this fracture that enabled identification of his body, when it was brought back to the UK).  What is not so generally known is that his life was saved following the attack, partially by Mebalwe, a local African whom Livingstone himself had prepared and trained to be able to cope in such a situation, and partially as a result of necessary medication, specifically paid for by a Scottish benefactress. It could be claimed that she, by preserving Livingstone’s life and making it possible for him to remain in Africa for a further thirty years, should be credited with enabling the celebrated Victorian medical missionary and anti-slavery champion to achieve all he did.  However, it is easier to argue that Livingstone, once recovered, made his own good fortune in Africa.  It is noteworthy that Livingstone did not conduct himself in a manner similar to most other explorers and missionaries of the time – he travelled light, without soldiers and support, and hence was not viewed as a threat by the chiefs in the areas through which he travelled.  It was only when funded to oversee significant manned-expeditions, and hence expected by his sponsors to be accompanied by swathes of retinue, that some of his explorations foundered.  Dr. Livingstone was most successful relying on his own skills, approach and abilities.  He was self-aware and appreciated the attributes required to be exceptional in his field.  His is an amazing rags-to-riches story of dedication and perseverance.  His famous words “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward” should be an inspiration to us all.     

Monday, 17 October 2011


Once, when I was working in recruitment, I interviewed a confident, good looking Aussie guy who was keen to get a role in a US investment bank in Canary Wharf.  We had an interesting discussion and, at the end, I asked him for his passport and certificates that verified his qualifications, so that I could make copies.  He handed them over and I left to make the required duplicates for our files. He was unlucky, or I was fortunate, as, perhaps unbeknown to him, I had met with a chap with the same surname to discuss a work opportunity the previous week and taken copies of his credentials.  I was struck by the similarity in name and looks and wondered if they were brothers.  Also, there was something about the smooth talking charmer, in the room I had just left, that didn’t feel quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Instead of going to the photocopier, I went to the hard copy files and looked up what turned out to be his brother’s qualifications – the number on both certificates, theoretically proving that the named individual was a qualified accountant, was identical.  Looking closely, I could make that an excellent copy of the older fellow’s certificate had been tampered with to make a convincing certificate for the younger sibling.  Needless to say, the silver-tongued Aussie with the fake documentation was not recommended by me to the bank in Canary Wharf, nor by my firm for any role.

However, although it is said that “honesty is the best policy”, clearly, in addition to my antipodean contact mentioned above, a number of businesses and individuals have not been following the approach: much to some members of the public's disgust, Tesco’s “Big Price Drop” has come after the retailer ramped up the prices of many specified goods for a brief period of time before the promotion commenced – for example Tesco’s own Brand Fruit & Nut Muesli cost £1.28 on August 16th, rose to £1.89 on August 23rd to finally drop to £1.75 on September 26th.  There is also concern amongst consumers that the “Big Price Drop” occurred at the same time as an announcement was made of a reduction in Clubcard rewards points for shoppers (people believe that one has been used to pay for the other).  It feels a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul and that the store thought customers too stupid to notice.  In Tesco’s defense, the retailer has suffered its worst sales results with profits dropping by 10% in the last quarter - perhaps that could justify the reduction of reward points which are a bonus rather than a right.  The manipulation of costs to create a favourable impression is more questionable.

In another example, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship publication, the Wall Street Journal, is about to be investigated, due to allegations that sales figures were artificially boosted.  My printing and publishing contacts tell me that this might be the nail that secures Murdoch’s coffin.  From the evidence it is easy to presume that both News International and Tesco’s seem to subscribe to Plato’s view that “honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty”, but I am of the opinion that after centuries of reflecting the commercial reality of business, the opinion is finally becoming out dated.

The corporate and political scandals of recent years (and indeed of more recent occurrences) have undermined public trust – part of the reason that individuals are camping out by St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, burning police vehicles in Rome and setting up tents to occupy Wall Street, is to protest against perceived dishonest conduct and to demand a better and more supportive future.  People expect openness and honesty and, with the advent of technology, it is quite easy to find out and publish information that exposes lies and deceptions.  People have had enough of being kept in the dark and paying hidden charges.  They will seek out counterparties with whom they feel comfortable doing business.  Honesty is important – relationships are based on trust.  As Franklin D. Roosevelt so eloquently put it:

“Confidence…thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance.  Without them it cannot live.”

I spent this morning discussing Sustainability with a leading strategist for a household-name-business.  We both agreed that a key element of future business will be collaboration, especially within close communities.  For collaboration to work there needs to be open dialogue and trust.

It is hard to work or live with others without honesty. But even honesty can be damaging. I believe that The Governor of The Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, was being honest when he expressed his opinion that “this is the most serious financial crisis we have seen at least since the 1930’s, if not ever”.  I also believe that his words have added to the fear and concern both in the Media and the markets, potentially making a bad situation worse.  It is important to be aware of the impact your words may have on others.  My cousin really brought this home to me when we went on a family outing to a beautiful Georgian stately home, which was open for the day near him.  He has two super young sons, there is a three year age difference between them and they are bright and inquisitive.  At the house, all visitors above a certain age needed to buy a ticket to get inside, but children under six could go free.  The attendant selling tickets asked my cousin how many tickets he needed and he replied that as one boy was just six he would require a ticket, although his brother was exempt.  The ticket salesman expressed amazement that my cousin had incurred an unnecessary expense, as he would not have questioned the age of the older boy, and would have let him in for free.  My cousin explained that that was not the point – the boys would have known.  Being honest says more than just the words that are spoken; it is a reflection on you and for maximum impact remember, it’s not just what you say or do, it’s the way that you say and do it. Or, as Ella Fitzgerald sang:

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Cracking It

Much to my amazement my son sent me a card recently (an unusual occurrence as he is an email sort of fellow, if he bothers to make contact at all) – the message on the card was a version of Groucho Marx’s quote:

“Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light”.

I’m not sure if I should be flattered, because he thinks I am open to ideas and/or can guide and illuminate others, or concerned that he sees his mother as deranged.

The connotation of something being cracked seems to imply that it is damaged.  However, it is often from potentially damaging and difficult circumstances that we can learn the most.  Being able to grasp opportunity and understanding from apparent adversity is a blessing.  I was at a wonderful dinner last night to celebrate the start of Chocolate Week in the UK.  Eight of us sat round our table, enjoying an amazing dinner – I’ve never eaten lamb with capers, anchovy and chocolate before, but it was delicious - and I was struck by the success that a number of the diners had achieved, despite unusual or difficult starts:

  • ·         One is a co-founder of the Grenada Chocolate Company Ltd., which was established in 1999, to create an organic cocoa farmers' and chocolate-makers' cooperative.  He is an Engineering degree drop-out from NYC, the son of Eastern European immigrants to The States.  He arrived in Grenada with little cash and lived for a decade in a simple bamboo hut that he created in the rainforest.  He is creative, good at devising economical and practical solutions and cares passionately about the world in which he operates.  His latest venture is linked to Sustainability – he has teamed up with some innovative Dutchmen and will be delivering consignments of the cooperative’s cocoa and chocolate both to the USA and Europe on wind powered, commercial cargo boats, taking advantage of the Trade Winds – a pioneering and environmentally responsible approach that has not happened for more than a century.  With modern technology it is now possible to have commercially viable sea-born delivery and, as traditional fuel becomes increasingly expensive, damaging and scarce, wind, tide and solar will have to be the way of the future.
  • ·         Another inspirational dining companion is the daughter of Chinese émigrés to New York – her parents worked in menial roles in restaurants and call centres to earn the money to educate their daughters.   She studied in Hong Kong and at a leading Ivy League university, before securing a role as a trader on Wall Street.  Despite being highly successful, she had a passion for chocolate and wanted a job that would satisfy her on many levels.  She followed her dreams and, after a stint at INSEAD, she has transferred her skills into becoming a powerful strategic thinker and is working with our hosts to evaluate all aspects of one the UK’s most eminent artisanal chocolate producers.

Both of these individuals broke away from what was expected of them, to do what they knew was right for their own satisfaction and success.  It is often necessary to break away from long accustomed behaviours and attitudes in order to improve. Sometimes it only takes a small shift in thinking or presentation to make a significant difference. 

Over the past week the papers and screens have been full of memorials to Steve Jobs – an inspirational man who both built and later resuscitated an extraordinary global business – not always the pioneer, but consistently an innovator who improved on others’ concepts to create a desirable product and hence dominated the market (e.g. the iPod after Sony’s Walkman initial breakthrough, the iPhone following Nokia’s dominance of the mobile phone market for the decade before its release and the iPad after various tablets and think pads had failed to excite the public).  Not only did/does Apple provide products that meet consumers’ desires, usually before they have even articulated what they want, but the service approach for direct customers is exemplary (from experience, it’s not so good through an intermediary).  Steve Jobs did the initial voiceover for the first “Crazy Ones” ad in 1997, which was devised as part of the “Think Different” advertising campaign. The words he says are as follows:

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently.  They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo.  You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.  About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things.  They push the human race forward.  While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.  Because the people, who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” 

If you’d like to hear Steve Jobs speaking these words, here’s the link:

Later, the actual advert used slightly different wording, but the message remains the same.  It is those who dare to be different, who are able to be creative and who follow their own instincts that are most likely to bring about positive change.  We live in a time when change is required more than ever – socially, economically, environmentally, politically, etc...  It concerns me that organisations are increasingly retreating into their comfort zones, especially in areas such as recruitment or the selection of individuals for redundancy.  People are screened out because they are not seen as an obvious fit.  People without degrees are deselected for an opportunity without even a discussion to see what they might be able to offer (Steve Jobs had no degree, nor does Richard Branson nor my Grenadian Cocoa Cooperative founder described above).  People who have not worked in a specific industry are considered inappropriate for a role in a new sector because the recruitment firm advertising the role has “received applications from candidates whose experience more closely match their client's specific requirements”.  We are missing out on individuals who can bring a fresh pair of eyes and perhaps improve things.  Part of the reason that a number of businesses are not coping well in these difficult times is because, as the reality of the bottom line confronts them, they are reverting to type and focusing on what they have always done or trying to encourage actions that have proved successful in the past.   The world is changing.  Much of what we did in the last century has resulted in some of the issues that we are now trying to combat.  I am not convinced that perpetuating the old approaches will provide a secure route to success and sustainable business.  We need to encourage “the crazy ones” who have the vision and drive to change things.

We are facing problems that have never been confronted before.  The fact that many are of our own making does not mean that we should not try to crack them.

Be the one brave enough to stand out and make a difference or support those who can.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Plane Talking

A parliament of rooks assembled in the fig tree at the bottom of my garden this morning.  They were a noisy bunch.  Like Italian litigators, they seemed to home in on the most fragile looking of the group, looking for ways to destabilise them, with one bird clearly dominant and inciting the rest to intensify their actions against the weakling.  They seemed to be doing it for sport.  It is all too easy to see human characteristics in the natural world around us.  However, even discounting the desire to anthropomorphise them, we are not dissimilar to birds: we migrate to easier locations when times turn tough – witness the well known UK names, both organisations and individuals, who are now based in Switzerland; we are territorial (often evidenced in Company politics and neighbourly disputes); some of us have strong nesting instincts; others have cuckoo-like tendencies (leaving the work  of ensuring their legacy to hardworking colleagues), we can make astounding music (I am listening to some exultant choral music as I write this); etc... I could go on for a whole blog on the subject.  However, I want to consider one aspect - Socialising.

Many birds are social – this can be for self-protection, there is often safety in numbers. I have worked in organisations with fear and blame cultures, where there is a tendency to try to hide amongst colleagues, in the hope of not being singled out.  This amazing YouTube clip shows starlings in flight – they almost seem choreographed into an exuberant twilight dance, but in fact their swarming is an effective way of enhancing individual security from predators such as hawks:

Most of us feel safer walking in a group down a dark alley at night, as opposed to being the sole pedestrian making our way through a rough neighbourhood.  There are more productive sides to being social than simply increasing personal safety.  Over the past few months I have worked for an organisation that has locations across the UK and beyond.  I have undertaken significant travel (usually flying – how like a bird I am).  Probably sometimes to the horror of my fellow passengers, especially those stuck beside me, I have taken advantage of the opportunity to chat with a huge number of people as I have jetted across the UK.  I have been:

·         fortunate in that I was there at the right time to provide support and advice to some who needed it;
·         able to introduced individuals to others working on similar matters in different organisations, thereby enabling all to gain a greater understanding and better outcomes;
·         inspired by a fellow passengers’ experiences, and hence expanded my own proposals, by building in new ideas (into strategic plans and White Papers) that were ignited in me through talking to others;
·         told confidential information about people and business strategies (we all need to be careful about what we say to whom!);
·         able to add to my list of experts and contacts across a wide range of sectors and disciplines;
·         told some wonderful jokes and anecdotes;
·         fortunate in meeting people with shared areas of interest and greater expertise than I, who have been able to help me with my concepts and work; and
·         given potential leads and contacts which will be beneficial in the next stage in my career.

One of the things that really make people stand apart from other creatures on the planet is our ability to communicate effectively.  Admittedly, one of the things that also make us stand out on the planet is our inability at times to communicate effectively, resulting in war, confusion and distress.  However, I think language is wonderful; I have a passion for words and their effect.  I know that I am fortunate in that I don’t mind speaking with people (in fact I really enjoy doing so) – which is odd given how painfully shy I was as a child.  I am now firmly of the opinion that if you don’t make the effort to talk with people you’ll never reap the benefits that are available.  It strikes me as amazing how little individuals in one part of a business speak to those in another division - often even when they work in the shared space of an open plan office; cross divisional communication is not encouraged.  I know that I am unusual in that, when I hold monthly team meetings, I frequently include a representative from a number of other business areas (such as Finance, Marketing, IT or Customer Relationship Managers), so that both my team and they can gain a better understanding of what is occurring across the organisation and can share priorities, find ways of collaborating and enhance co-operation.  My chatting to people on aeroplanes and in airports takes this desire to understand and make connections to the next level.

Social Media is a relatively hot topic in most of the big corporates, as well as in the Media, at the moment.  Most of us are still figuring out what role it should play in our lives and businesses.  Clearly I am a fan, given the networks I am involved in (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ to name but a few).  I have met new people through a number of Social Media routes over the past six months.  This blog has resulted in people approaching me.  I have established genuine friendships through Twitter and similar social networking sites, where I now know individuals both on and offline.  One of the most memorable and enjoyable ways of broadening my contacts and horizons occurred last week.  I spent a balmy day on a narrow boat travelling along the Regent’s Canal in London.  We started from Limehouse Basin and made our way through numerous locks, before mooring at Camden.  The canal-side vistas were wonderful and so too was the sense of camaraderie.  Glenn Le Santo, the captain and owner of the boat (as well as being a respected journalist, talented artist and Social Media expert) was brave or foolhardy, in that he tweeted for crew and four of us were recruited on a first-come-first-served basis.  He had only met one of us before.  The five of us were deliciously different, but had a shared sense of purpose and openness to meeting and sharing experiences with others.  As we got to know each other we also discovered that we perhaps had more in common than at first appeared.  I had met one fellow crew member, for perhaps four minutes, at a tweetup earlier this year.  I was delighted to discover that he was coming on board – he is considerate, highly entertaining, artistic, adventurous and has had a breadth of experience that makes him a delight to talk with (he also picked up the skills of opening locks swiftly and was an excellent and patient tutor).  The other three were new acquaintances for me, but I soon discovered that they too were gems.  One, a calm yoga specialist, who looks ridiculously younger than her age, was candid about experiences that she and her children had been through that helped me put some of my own issues into perspective.  The remaining individual had taken advantage of being made redundant to establish his own business, focusing on Social Media, and it was a pleasure to hear his success story in these difficult times.  Once we arrived at Camden a steady flow of Twitter contacts, attracted by the #FMSB hashtag on Twitter, came and joined us on the tow path for a chat.  Again, I met new and diverse people, some of whom I am now in regular contact with.  It will be good to watch and help their businesses flourish.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of being social – whether on a plane, a canal bank or via the internet and mobile connectivity that is available to us now.  I am sure there’s a good reason why the symbol for twitter is a bluebird – it’s a great reminder that at times it pays to be bird-brained.