Saturday, 28 January 2012


I spent an hour today watching my garden from the warmth of the study, recording the numbers and types of birds that I saw.  My best sighting was a Greater Spotted Woodpecker – not a common bird in central London. 

For the past decade I have participated in The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch.  It takes place over a weekend and, if you live in the UK, I urge you to do your bit (you don't have to be a member of the RSPB to do so):

It is the world’s biggest bird survey.  The submissions of sightings from thousands of people like me enables the RSPB to create a “snapshot” of bird numbers across each region of the UK and helps the charity to spot issues and commence action to support declining native bird populations.

I spent the past week at work undertaking a similar activity:  I and other members of the Executive team took part in performance reviews with the senior leadership of each business within the Group.  As well as examining how the operations scored according to pre-agreed performance indicators for the year to date, we considered the business plans and discussed with the company experts the anticipated environment and potential risks and opportunities for their enterprise; taking into account internal and external factors and how they could impact on the operation’s performance and ability to achieve desired outcomes.  I am a fan of scenario planning – envisaging the range of circumstances that might occur and determining how best to steer an appropriate course, so as not to end up like the Costa Concordia.

The Cost Concordia has provided us all with dramatic images and sobering thoughts over the past week.  Listing to its starboard side and posing a significant environmental threat, as well as being the cause of great personal tragedy, it should make us all think.  On a related note, the word “listing” is one of those interesting words in the English language that has a multitude of meanings (as is “career”); “listing" can mean to catalogue, to offer for sale, to incline, to please or indeed its archaic meaning  to listen (indeed the word "listen" derives from "list").  We should take note and listen to the world around us and adapt our behavior accordingly.

The Costa Concordia disaster does not simply provide inspiration for reflection on the global cruise industry (and an illustration that both the international hospitality business and insurance industries are risky operations, with share prices that are likely to remain volatile).  The incident has caused me and many others to contemplate the global shipping industry as a whole.  Did you know that the world’s 16 largest ships produce as much in emissions as all the cars in the world?  Indeed the global shipping industry emits almost twice the carbon dioxide of the airline industry and, if it continues to rise at its current rate, it will have risen by another 75% by 2030.  Clearly, with current concerns related to pollution, the oil industry and global warming, this situation is not sustainable.  Fortunately, there are people, with the necessary knowledge and expertise, who are working to engineer a revolution in global transportation.  One of the most inspiring is the development of green cargo shipping.  A business called Fair Transport has launched a flagship cargo vessel, Tres Hombres that is utilising wind-power to enable the efficient, fast and cost effective transportation of goods.  It has combined modern technology and ancient skills to produce an innovative solution.  The initiative is being fronted by Jorne Langelaan, born into the shipping industry and aware of the issues.  He gave an inspirational TED talk in Amsterdam:

Jorne and his colleagues are an excellent example of the value of innovation.  His commercial shipping company, founded with two friends, is bringing goods around the Caribbean and across the Atlantic, utilising the trade winds, in a modern, high tech., square-rigged schooner that uses solely wind power.  The Tres Hombres is an attractive and effective vessel:

and there are better ships to come – commercial cargo ships such as the 3,ooo ton EcoLiner that will be equipped for container traffic.  Few businesses will succeed in the long term if they are not able to adapt and respond to global problems and change.

HR must play a part in enabling business success.  We must encourage people to be creative and to have the confidence to devise innovative solutions that take advantage of new opportunities and circumstances.  We must discourage people from belittling others’ thoughts and efforts.  When the American athlete, Dick Fosbury, commenced high jumping most elite jumpers used techniques that allowed them to land on their feet, thereby preventing injury (landing surfaces were traditionally sandpits or low piles of matting).  Fosbury pioneered a technique that enabled him to lean into his turn, away from the bar.  This lowered his centre of gravity, prior to knee flexion, and this gave him a longer period for his take-off thrust, as well as proving an easier method for clearing the bar.  It is not surprising that his flop was not a flop - he won a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics and his approach is now the most commonly adopted in the sport. 

Prior to the Olympics, Fosbury was ridiculed for proposing change and for championing a new technique that many saw as unnatural.  Fosbury could not have done what he did unless he had appreciated the opportunities that new technologies and materials could provide.  He was dependent on the advent of deep foam matting, as that gave him the opportunity to safely experiment with fresh approaches to jumping.  More importantly though, he was brave enough to try something new and had the innovative spirit required to realise that there can be better ways to do things.

In these challenging times, I encourage you to take a fresh look at what you do and how you do it.  Analyse and consider different scenarios, to determine the correct way to proceed.  Don’t be afraid to list, taking advantage of all meanings of the word.  May the winds of change lean you in the right direction and enable you to listen to the whispered routes for success.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Developing Dragons

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by dragons.  When I was a child my mother painted a wonderful green, scaly dragon with golden spurs, made of metallic paper, for my party, so that we children could pin-the-tail-on-the-dragon, instead of the conventional donkey.   My father and a close family friend, who was an eminent judge, would often pretend to be dragons and chase us, a squealing brood of excitable kids, round the garden while threatening to catch and eat us.  The terror and exhilaration was intoxicating.  My father also told wonderful stories in which dragons were often central characters – at times frightening and often wise.  Dragons seem to appear in almost all nations’ myths and legends – perhaps a residual memory of the times when dinosaurs once roamed the earth and pterosaurs swooped in the skies, or from peoples’ imaginations and deductions on discovering fossilised bones and remains.   

One of my favourite works of art is by Paolo Uccello and hangs in the National Gallery in London.  

It is believed to have been painted around 1470 and depicts St George on a muscular white horse, armed with a lance, riding to rescue a two dimensional and not very pretty princess (she has the flattest feet I’ve ever seen) from a tyrannosaur-legged but apparently armless, plague-bearing dragon that lived in a cave (that seems to be constructed out of meringue).  It is an interesting painting on many levels and is full of symbolism: St George’s lance perfectly aligns with the eye of the storm above him, thereby indicating that he has been given celestial aid, the white of his mount symbolizes the saint’s purity, the symbolic trinity is evident even in the triangular shape of the dragon with its three-clawed feet.  There is an entertaining poem written by U.A.Fanthorpe inspired by the painting, the final verse of which makes me think about the impact of training and development on performance and those around us.

About twelve years earlier Uccello painted another version of the subject.  There are striking similarities: Saint George appears to be riding the same charger and Uccello uses the geometric fields and vegetation to serve the same purpose of enabling perspective and depth.  However, it is clear that the artist’s work has evolved.  I find it interesting to compare the two paintings and see how the style and approach to the subject has developed over the years.

Development is a natural part of human progression and one of the areas where great leaders, managers and HR professionals can add the most value.  Enabling people to appreciate their strengths and shortcomings and then helping them to build on their abilities or overcome weaknesses, is both rewarding and crucial if an individual or a business wants to grow.  The office beast can be helped to become the soaring dragon of success, taking the business to greater heights.

As well as the development of people and organisations, I take pleasure in etymology, i.e. understanding the origin and derivation of words.  The Latin word “draco” means “dragon”, however, the word “draconian” probably derives from Draco a Greek legislator who is credited with creating the first written legal code enforceable by a court of law.  Some of his laws were very harsh, hence “draconian”, (death was a penalty for even minor offences, according to Plutarch, when challenged, Draco explained that he felt death to be appropriate for the minor offences and regretted that there was no more severe penalty available to punish and discourage crimes such as murder). 

As many of you know, the commencement of the lunar cycle, starting on Monday (23rd January), heralds the beginning of the Chinese New Year.  It will be the Year of the Dragon.  The dragon is the only mythical creature amongst the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.  For the Chinese, dragons are not the terrifying beasts of western tradition but noble and self-assured creatures who are often bringers of good fortune.  In Chinese legend the dragon has the power to foster change and there is widespread belief in its power.  The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei stated last year that he did not expect any major political change in China during 2011, because it was a Rabbit Year.  “The Year of the Dragon is always a big year” he said.  We shall see...  Certainly Eastern astrologers and soothsayers are optimistic for the coming year, because there is no fire in the charts and only a small amount of metal, which is supposed to indicate that this will not be a fiery dragon year and should be smoothly propitious.  Regardless of your confidence in such predictions, it is worth noting that belief can influence the markets that impact us all.  For example, the acquisition of gold is often linked to lunar cycles. 

It is probable that the Chinese property market will be more buoyant in the coming year:  traditionally, Dragon Years are popular years for marriage; to get married you have to buy a house.  It is highly likely that couples will have waited for The Dragon before tying the knot.

The Dragon has long been symbolic in the East.  Traditionally the Chinese believed themselves to be the descendants of the dragon.  Certainly the dragon was the totem of ancient people living around the Yellow River and consequently became the emblem for China.  The first emperor, Huangdi, was supposed to have transformed into a dragon and ascended into heaven as an immortal.  Later the dragon was monopolised by the emperors, who claimed to be the sole true sons of the dragon.  The emperor had the image embroidered onto his robes as a symbol of his power and only he was allowed to wear the imperial five-toed depiction.  Dragons are frequent symbols of supremacy and mastery.  When I lived in Hong Kong I was taught that, according to tradition, carp have the ability to transform themselves into dragons by leaping over the Dragon Gate.  The carp is a tough fish that can resist the strong currents in China’s ancient Yellow River.  The fish clearly demonstrates the attributes of perseverance and determination with the fortitude to leap hurdles and achieve ambitions.  Carp becoming dragons are excellent symbols for man’s own desire to advance and a great reminder to us all to keep trying to improve and to focus on achieving our goals.  I wish you all a great Year of the Dragon.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!   新年快樂 Happy New Year!

PS There are many ways of observing the Year of the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch will be becoming one as the voice of Smaug in The Hobbit); here is a particularly surprising approach from South Korea, where divers have dressed as dragons to celebrate the times ahead

Monday, 16 January 2012

Raising a Glass

The end of the old and the start to a new year is often a quiet period for relaxation and reflection.  That has not been my experience for the past few weeks.  New into role, with still so much to learn about the Group and its people, I have arrived just as business plans and budgets are being finalised.  In addition, I hit the tail end of the global performance appraisal reviews, with some excellent people all wanting ideas on how to become even more effective.  It’s hard to know what you don’t know, but fortunately I am not afraid of asking questions (no matter how dumb they might sound) and I think I am making sense of it all.  

Being The New Girl, I am able to experience first-hand the current approach towards on-boarding and induction.  Some of what we do is exemplary (such as giving new joiners meaningful time with individuals across the Group, thereby helping them to gain a proper understanding of what they do and how people work together and having a peer from a different area acting as a mentor and sounding board to help enhance my understanding of the Group and how we do things).  Like all businesses, there is still room for improvement, but that is why I have joined...

Learning from my current experience as a new leader into a business, I think that most organisations can do much more to help the creation of suitable foundations that will enable swift, positive contributions and ensure on-going success.  In my opinion a new leader should:

  • be given a senior mentor with whom they can discuss and devise an initial plan for their first three months in role;
  • be supported by fellow senior colleagues who are happy to act as sounding boards for proposed longer-term strategic goals - two of the hardest things for a new joiner into the leadership team to comprehend are the internal dynamics and personalities; true leaders and colleagues don't want a damaging failure or time-consuming problem to arise and it is to all the top team's advantage for their new colleague to get up to speed and start contributing as swiftly as possible;
  • be allowed the space and time required to observe and determine an appropriate long-term approach, rather than being pushed into being short-term task and results focused;
  • be given the support and confidence to challenge the "usual ways of doing things round here", so long as they can propose a viable alternative that could prove to be better;
  • be encouraged to envisage desired outcomes and given time to write a plan with milestones of objectives to be achieved during the initial period;
  • after a month with the new employer, the in-coming leader should be asked to share their initial impressions of the business and ways in which the organisation could be enhanced - this is of value to all parties; and
  • be allowed to propose ways that the experience of joining the organisation could be improved to the benefit of others in the future.

Much though I enjoy being the fresh pair of eyes at the executive table, I am aware that the success of my organisation has been built by the people around me.  Since our founding in 1976, an extraordinary combination of individuals have worked across the globe to create the diverse scope of flourishing and mutually supportive businesses that we are today.  Our offering ranges from a philanthropic arm to the provision of significant, in-depth professional advice.  Businesses need to benefit from a combination of the old and the new.  New joiners are able to add to the strengths and understanding of their existing colleagues: introducing fresh thinking and raising awareness of alternative approaches that can enable greater achievements and organisational vigour.   It is through changing and adapting in an appropriate manner that organisations ensure ongoing success.   To get the best out of existing and new employees, businesses need to invest in enabling people to succeed and to provide an environment in which they can thrive.

I am reminded of one of last year’s great oenology events and diving success stories.  In 2010 a group of divers found a number of bottles of Champagne thought to pre-date the French Revolution as part of the contents of a wreck on the Baltic seabed.  Research was undertaken to verify the age and provenance of the wine.  Judging by the bottle shape and the pattern on the cork, it was believed and has now been verified that 47 of the bottles were made by Clicquot (now Veuve Clicquot) between 1839 and 1840.  At the time that Francois Cliquot married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in 1798 the business that he ran was a group of concerns including banking, wool trading and Champagne production.  Francois died in 1805 leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of the group.  It is due to her that the Champagne house changed its name.  She was instrumental in steering the business to significant success, one legacy of which is that it is one of the world’s most famous Champagne houses still operating today.  The discovered bottles of Champagne were apparently on the way to the court of the Russian Czsar in St. Petersburg when they were lost at sea.  A single bottle, of what is agreed to be the world’s oldest drinkable Champagne, was bought at auction last year, as a gift to celebrate the 10th wedding anniversary of a Singaporean restaurateur.  The bottle sold for 30,000 Euros (considerably more than its original asking price when being sold to the Russians).  Here is some more information about it:

A bottle from the same batch was sampled by the divers and experts from the Champagne house.  Taking into account that wine tastes have evolved – popular Champagne in the mid 1880’s was much sweeter than that which appeals to most modern palates – the Clicquot has aged well.  It is very sweet but has a fruity nose (i.e. aroma) with complex dried fruit and tobacco tastes accompanied by small bubbles when sipped.  Great care had to be taken when raising the bottles from their fifty metre resting place, to ensure that they did not suffer from “the bends” and pop their corks due to the decreased pressure at the surface.  Once back on land the corks have been replaced to ensure that the wine’s condition is retained.  I hope I can leave as lasting and wonderful a legacy as La Veuve Cliquot.

Given the right conditions a thing of value, be it a leader of a business or an exclusive bottle of fine wine, can continue to develop and enhance, becoming increasingly interesting and significant. 

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Happy New Year!