Sunday, 11 December 2011

My Gem of a Week

I am a week into my new role and I still feel as though I have stepped into a different world – each organization has its own lingo, customs, history and, as a traveller in a new land, I need to learn the ropes as fast as I can.  The best way I know to acclimatise and gain my bearings is to talk to people and, as a result, I have taken part in an intensive session of back-to-back meetings in various countries and cities over the past five days.  Like many Groups we have large operational centres of excellence and smaller offices that provide specialist skills. The more I see, the more I am amazed at the breadth and depth of experience we have within the business – it has exceeded my expectations. Mind you the combined calibre and complexity will keep me on my toes.

I am writing this on the plane, flying back from visiting some of my new colleagues who are based in Switzerland.  Needless to say, now that Advent is in full swing, the Swiss towns and villages are festooned with decorations.  Glittering Christmas trees sparkle in town squares, cascades of twinkling lights drip from bare branches in the avenues and festive stalls, like fancy-dressed Wendy Houses, sell Glüwein, fresh roasted chestnut, cheese and chocolates to the passing public.

I love Christmas – the sparkle, the smiles and generosity.  To an extent my new job is proving to be a bit like Christmas – people are friendly and supportive (the smiles), they have been very generous with their time – especially as we are currently determining next year’s budgets, finalising annual appraisals and agreeing objectives for 2012 and beyond.  The world is a challenging place for all and I know that I am expected to provide “the sparkles” going forward:–

  • ·       helping further polish some excellent leaders;
  • ·       anticipating the direction and needs of the business and, with that knowledge, devising appropriate approaches to ensure that our gem-like employees can achieve their true potential; and
  • ·       providing an environment and setting in which diverse people can shine helping our customers.

Some of the best things that sparkle are hard, for example diamonds.  For centuries diamonds have been seen, in almost every culture, as a symbol of clarity, stability, ascension and wisdom.  It was Daniel Defoe who likened a man’s spirit to a diamond – although initially appearing dull, with polish and effort the inner lustre can be encouraged to shine.  Traditionally diamonds were only worn by men – and were frequently embedded into breastplates and helmets to act as supernatural charms, as well as providing physical protection.  It is not surprising that the word diamond comes from the ancient Greek “Adamas” meaning the unconquerable.  Diamonds have often been the subject of disputes and/or used to finance wars (Queen Elizabeth I pawned the famous Sancy Diamond, which can now be viewed in The Louvre, to finance a Dutch war against Spain and, despite his belief in its protective powers, this same diamond failed to save Charles I when he carried it as his talisman during the English Civil War).  

Most objects of any value tend to cause trouble (look at the recent debates in Europe over the Eurozone resulting in David Cameron’s decision to use the UK’s veto as a means of protecting The City and country’s financial institutions); wars occur over land, oil, water or whatever we value at a given time.  People fight over possessions, money and material goods - divorce illustrates this and the divorce rate in the UK is rising, it is currently at a 4.9% increase since 2009.  This increase is being credited in part to the economic impact of the recession, which is putting financial pressure on couples. We live in difficult times and need to find ways to refocus ourselves.  Sonja Henie once said that “Jewellery takes people’s minds off your wrinkles”, I actually think that wrinkles and hence experience are to be valued and that gems are there to enhance rather than divert.

Robert Ludlum once said:

 “The most precious jewels are not made of stone, but of flesh”

and, as the Chinese say, 

             “a gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials”.  

They are right.  It is crucial in these demanding times that organisations and individuals make the required effort to improve. 

Change is often uncomfortable; frequently the transition from the past to the future does not prove easy, as people struggle with devising and learning to do things in a different way.  

  • The irony is not lost on me that, as profits shrink and organisations look for ways to reduce costs, the Training budget is frequently one of the first things to be cut.  How can people learn to do something in a new and better way, thereby enhancing their employer’s performance, without an investment (in money, time and managerial support) to enable effective change?  
  • Since 2008 there are few businesses that have not been forced to make people redundant.  It concerns me that, despite legislation and employment law regulating the manner in which redundancies have to be handled, it is frequently the individuals who are prepared to stand out and propose improvements in approaches and methodology who are the ones who are selected to go, because they “don’t fit” and are “disruptive”.  We need disruptive people to improve on the ways we have done things in the past and to ensure our futures. 
  • Humans usually learn new ways of doing things and improve their performance through trial and error (think of a baby learning to walk – there are frequent tumbles and bumps until the required technique is perfected).  Despite this, when the business environment is tough, many organisations become increasingly intolerant of error.  To foster business improvement we need to shift our attitudes so that a degree of error is tolerated.  Provided that people learn from their mistakes and apply their learnings, errors need to be accepted, so that change can occur.  The number and degree of errors and potential losses can be controlled by good management and effective training.

One of my objectives for next year is to enable enhanced performance across the Group.  To do so we will be bolstering our training and L&D functions.  Benjamin Franklin once said that “there are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond and to know one’s self”.  I need to help people understand their strengths and weaknesses; to build on what they are good at and the things they enjoy doing that add value.  I am considering using a new tool: htt:// that enables people to better understand how others see them and to compare these views to their own self-perceptions.  Your comments on the site and ways in which it can be improved would be much appreciated.  I think it can be utilised in a variety of ways to improve individual, team and business performance.

Returning to my theme of jewels, in numerous cultures around the world diamonds were believed to be fragments of the stars.  I would like to leave you with the thought that it is in dark times that the stars shine best. 

 I’m pleased to say that, given the gems that surround me, I am optimistic for the future.


  1. My background is BPR/LEAN/productivity improvement and when hitting recessions I've seen first hand the tendency to eradicate such people, who may seem disruptive, is (also or primarily) because they are just headcount. The inadequacies of accounting systems don't seem to realise these people save money, cut waste and think outside of the box and are not a real cost.

    When and if any manager including HR embraces such people, who often cannot be pigeonholed as they may be creative scanners see (Barbara Sher), we may find ourselves back on a more productive footing when manufacturing and producing in the UK. And that's a serious issue

  2. Dear Katherine, thank you for your comments and honesty. It is very easy when told to reduce costs to focus on headcount rather than desired outcomes. We need to be more blue line, rather than read line focused and do what is going to provide long term value for our businesses. You are right to raise what is a very serious issue.