Saturday, 31 March 2012

Bud Burst

I love this time of year – “burgeoning bud-burst” as my mother calls it.  Bud Burst is the correct terminology, as used in a viniculture, often with connected festivals to celebrate the awakening of the vines and the wine to come, and there is the well established Project BudBurst in America, launched in 2007 by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which involves citizens, teachers and scientists recording the budding, leafing and blooming of various trees and plants thereby creating an annual phenological database that can be used to determine the impact of climate change   

In my garden tiny green handkerchiefs of leaves are pushing their way out of the fig buds (they are certainly too small to hide the private parts of anything bigger than a vole) and the bay tree is laden with flowers that hum with contented bees; the drive to visit my mother in Somerset last week was glorious with the ash trees in flower, the grass on the verges as green as fresh pea puree and the hedgerow trees tinged with a hint of vibrant green on their still distinct branches.

The daffodils in my central London garden are almost over, but the countryside was awash with them – one of my happiest memories is of skipping though an ocean of daffodils as a mad act of celebration with my youngest when he broke up from junior school for the last time.

For many Spring brings a heightened awareness of things that could and should be done. It’s hard not to think of Mole in Chapter One of Kenneth Graham’s “The Wind In The Willows” undertaking his spring cleaning until the lure of the great outdoors becomes too much:
“ his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said `Bother!' and `O blow!' and also `Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat...
...The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.”

Like Mole, friends I haven’t heard from for ages are emerging, sending texts and suggesting that we meet up.  You can almost feel the sap rising.  At work we are doing our own form of Spring Cleaning, finalising budgets and business plans prior to the start of the new financial and business year.  Life is full of plans and optimism.

I am a natural networker – I like hearing what people have to say and helping, if I can, by providing useful contacts or at times further complicating a matter by contributing my own “two pennies worth” of ideas.  Recently I made contact via Twitter with a CEO who is trying to recruit two new non-executive directors for his Board.  In an ideal world, he would like to enhance the diversity of the current Board’s make-up.  His business provides support for a diverse community within a specified area of London and he feels that he can better appreciate his customers’ issues and provide what they need if his top team have a breadth of knowledge, skills and experience to draw upon.  On the advice of a recruitment firm, he ran an expensive advertisement in the Sunday Times.  He was disappointed when not a single woman responded to his advertisement.  He tweeted his surprise and that is how he and I first came into contact.

His plight has set me thinking: why did he get such a poor response to the piece he placed in The Sunday Times?  Has the readership profile changed?  Given the kind of individuals he would like to attract, I am mildly surprised that he was advised to advertise in the Sunday Times as opposed to The Guardian.  However, in my opinion, he would have done better to notify people of the opportunity using Social Media.  I have had some fantastic experiences using Twitter and LinkedIn over the past six months.  I have found excellent candidates for roles, had training and development and global mobility experts recommended to me in areas where my contacts are limited and been given advice and warnings about products that I have been considering.  I am in the process of planning a team off-site and will be using a business called Trainers Kitbag,, which I first became familiar with via contacts on Twitter, to help facilitate a team-building day.

The longer days and rising sap have clearly got to me, as I am excited by the future and the opportunities that are out there for the taking.  I have been in my new job for three months now and most of what I had planned to achieve in my first 90 days has been attained.  I have built a foundation on which to build a great future for me, my team and the Group.  Like the buds bursting, there is growth and an attractive future ahead...

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Richer than I

We all have them, indeed we wouldn’t be here without them; today is Mothering Sunday in the UK, so here are a few thoughts on mothers and their role in families and societies over the years.  Mothers and their fertility have been valued since time immemorial.  The earliest known sculpture is a six centimetres high, 35,000 year-old figure of a woman carved out of mammoth tusk, found in the Hohle Fells cave in south-west Germany.  She may not comply with modern concepts of beauty (indeed she’d never make it down a cat walk) but, despite her size, she has presence and personality and is clearly a treasured and fertile female.

A bit like the Hohle Fells “Venus”, my mother is a diminutive, but fine figure of a woman and has survived some rough experiences.  I love her: she’s great company, highly intelligent (much more so than she credits herself as being), knowledgeable, a little eccentric (who else would store a bat in her freezer, beside the peas, until such time as she could show it to children at the local primary school) and I am so proud of her (she has recently been given the all-clear after a worrying battle with cancer).  I will always be indebted to her for the moral compass that she embedded in me as a child, as well as for the way that she has introduced me to many of the best things in life:

  • the ability to feel loved and to love;
  • an appreciation of Nature and the world around us;
  • an interest in Art and Architecture;
  • an appetite for exceptional food and drink;
  • an admiration for craftsmanship and attention to detail;
  • the ability to value individuality;
  • the skill of empathising with others, regardless of race, culture or creed;
  • a capacity to laugh and see the human side in most scenarios;
  • the joy of spotting the unexpected and noticing the small things;
  • a love of learning and exploration; and
  • the knowledge that someone truly cares for me and mine.

I wish I had been more aware and supportive when younger.  I remember an awful day in Hong Kong when the family knew we were returning to England.  My mother was responsible for the move and contacted various removal firms for quotes; one (a well-known name) was significantly cheaper but promised to provide as good a service as its competitors.  My mother arranged for them to pack-up and ship the contents of our family home.  The workers duly arrived, took everything off shelves and out of cupboards, dismantled furniture and, once the house was at maximum chaos stage, announced that they were leaving.  My mother was horrified, especially when one of the men told my mother that they had been specifically instructed to make things as unpleasant as possible.  She called the boss of the firm and asked what was going on.  He confirmed that he had ordered the workers to make a mess and leave, as revenge for the affair my father was having with his wife.  My mother was deeply distressed – she was unaware of my father’s alleged infidelity.  I remember a Chinese friend felt compelled to feed my mother an infusion of boiled bees to calm her – apparently a traditional treatment for shock.  My mother was exemplary, she did not share her distress with her children, but she still knew that she had to get us and our things back to the UK.  She bravely telephoned again and appealed to the man.  On the basis of her clearly being an innocent victim, perhaps even more hurt than he himself, he ordered the workers to return and finish the job.  I have always admired my mother’s bravery and the way in which she focused on what needed to be done to support her children. 

Numerous myths and legends abound depicting maternal devotion: One of the earliest is Rhea (mother to the Ancient Greek gods) who swapped her recently born son, Zeus, with a swaddled rock to prevent his father from eating him, despite knowing that to do so would probably cause her husband’s demise.  The ancient Egyptians revered certain animals because of their notable nurturing of their offspring (for example the cow, the vulture and the lioness) and hence the Egyptian mother goddesses, such as Hathor, Nekhbet and Bast, appear with the heads of these creatures in many stories in which they succour and care for the weak.   Demeter, the Greek mother goddess, responsible for the harvest, mourns her abducted daughter, Persephone, neglecting her godly duties in her distress, and thereby causing the barren season of the year. The Inca goddess Pachamama was renamed and supplanted by the Christian Virgin Mary by the Spanish conquistadors, due to their similarities in maternal devotion (although Pachamama, like the Virgin Mary, is still worshiped today).  In many global beliefs an earth mother is seen as the personification of Mother Nature who looks after mankind, one of her many children.  She is a treasured allegory for people around the globe who wanted to feel cared for and protected.

It’s no wonder that the pelican was used as a symbol of devotion in Art from the Middle Ages onwards.  It was widely believed that it demonstrated extraordinary maternal commitment and a keen sense of duty.  According to legend, “the pelican in its piety” plucked at its own breast to cause blood to run and sustain its children.  It is probable that this concept derives from the manner in which it feeds its young from the pouch in its bill, which could result in it getting a messy front or appearing to be bleeding (due to the internal colouring of the pouch against its white chest).  Clearly many medieval artists hadn’t seen an actual pelican as it is often depicted it as having a fierce hawk’s beak to tear at itself.

Clearly, not all mothers are wonderful, some mothers are immune to the charms of their off spring and/or are neglectful or at worst abusive - Joan Crawford and Katherine Mansfield spring to mind.  However, as a mother, I am often in awe at the strength of maternal instinct and devotion.  Women’s tendency to self-sacrifice for the benefit of their young, even for non-blood related children, is commonplace.  These traits are also typical in the animal kingdom.  I recently read of a tigress in Thailand who became so despondent at the death of its cubs that zoo keepers feared it would pine until it wasted away.  In desperation they decided to replace the cubs with surrogate offspring.  Some piglets were sourced and wrapped in tiger cub pelts to reduce the risk of rejection (or worse). She made a great recovery.  The below picture speaks for itself:

There is no doubt that motherhood is a driving force and one of the aspects of life that have been celebrated since long before history began.  It is clear from the headlines in newspapers and the plots of soap operas that the role of mothers remains a topic of public interest and concern.  I love being a mother – the G-L boys have given me such joy and through them I have seen and experienced the world in a new way.

I know that I am blessed.  As well as being a mother with amazing sons, I have a wonderful, loving mother whose example is one I can only aspire to.  She has given me and my sisters so much.  Her grace and dignity, even in times of stress (as demonstrated by her serene and stoic resolve as I escorted her to have her wedding ring cut from her finger), are traits I hope, should the need ever arise, I can match.  She has encouraged and supported me and my siblings to become fulfilled, independent adults with the strength to stand by our values.  Thanks to her I have the drive to continue to learn and grow, building on the foundations that she has put in place.  I can empathise with Strickland Gillilan's words in his poem:

“You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be –
I had a mother who read to me.”

Sunday, 11 March 2012

What Goes Around...

One of the best things about living where I do is that, despite being in the centre of London, we are a genuine community.  I don’t just know my immediate neighbours, I am on first name terms with many people in the area and I can recognise almost everyone by sight.  This is partially because we make an effort to do things together.  A case in point is the annual Revolving Dinner.

This is a fun, fund-raising event for which local people buy tickets, with the proceeds supporting neighbourhood charities.  It is always fancy dress (this year’s topical theme, as you can see from the above hand crafted ticket, was The Olympics).  The attendees all meet at an initial venue, where we draw a piece of paper from a hat which informs us as to which hosting house we should go to for the starter, then on to another for the main course and a third for dessert.  I love the surreal vision provided annually of people in diverse costumes trying to locate the right home for the next stage of their meal.  This year the streets round me were filled with ancient Greeks, medal-winning athletes, dope testers, team mascots, flaming torches, security guards, builders and numerous other characters cheerfully waving and chatting as they passed one another.

The evening works because of the people involved.  We are a community because we are prepared to make an effort for those around us, rather than existing in self-centred isolation.  Later this year we will hold our annual Festival, at which local residents will play in a concert, gardens will be opened for viewing, a fete will be held with games for local children and we will get the chance to chat together over a barbeque lunch and a traditional British tea.  I know I am lucky to live where I do, but I also know that we make our own luck.  Even without the fun of a Revolving Dinner, there is truth to the phrase “what goes around comes around”.

A friend of mine, a vibrant divorcee who is bringing up two great children on her own, was recently bemoaning the fact that it takes more than a sole person to raise a child: “The trouble is that we are not supposed to bring up children by ourselves. It's a labour-intensive job, and it takes a combination of partner / family / friends to be actively involved.  I think it might take a community to bring up a child”.  Her comments, made on a social media site, resulted in a flood of reminiscences from others about growing up in supportive neighbourhoods, where people knew each other by name and hence there was respect and understanding, as well as a helping adult hand to put you back on your bike when you fell off aged ten.  A supposedly Nigerian originated African phrase, brought into Western usage by Hillary Clinton who used it as a title for her book, expresses the same sentiments, “it takes a village to raise a child”.  Much, however, depends on how you view the capabilities and values of the village!

For the main part, we are responsible for our own environments.  The atmosphere in a neighbourhood and the culture of an organisation are created by the people within it.  Many businesses are beginning to contemplate the benefits they can reap through collaboration, reciprocity, trust and embracing ethical approaches, rather than focusing predominantly on wealth creation for shareholders.  Robert Putnam, the political scientist and professor of public policy at Harvard University defined buildings, plant and equipment as Physical Capital; people skills, knowledge and experience as Human Capital; and social networks and norms of trust and reciprocity as Social Capital.  In his article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, published in the Journal of Democracy, Professor Putnam pointed out that many traditional social, civic and fraternal organisations – typified by bowling leagues – had suffered massive declines in membership, while the actual number of people bowling had signifivantly increased.  He went on to write a book on Social Capital (“Better Together”, published in 2003) in which he differentiated between Bonding Capital (which occurs when people socialise with others like themselves: same race, same age, same religion, etc...) and Bridging Capital (where people forge links and understanding with others who are dissimilar to themselves).  

Until recently, many academics and HR professionals have focused on the attitudes and behaviours that differentiate generations within the workplace (e.g. Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers and Y-ers); the emphasis has been on the dissimilarities, as opposed to the ways in which Bridging Capital occurs.  Benefits and Engagement strategies and methods of communication have been devised, intended to appeal to specific generational types. 

The tide now seems to be turning, as we try to encourage trust and collaboration.  There are numerous areas of similarity that can cause links and bonds between the generations.  For example a 19 year old parent of a toddler may have more in common with a 40 year old parent of a toddler, than perhaps another 19 year old who is single and out socialising most evenings.  Some organisations have been working to enable better collaboration and cooperation between generations.  A leading global financial services business has introduced “reverse mentoring”, with recently joined graduates being paired with members of the top leadership team, with a view to the new-joiners teaching the C-suite about Facebook, Twitter and other forms of Social Media.  The trainees themselves have gained a better awareness of the business and its drivers.  Both parties have benefitted from the experience and bonds have been created that have enhanced business performance and mutual appreciation and understanding. 

Most conflicts arise due to a perception of unfair treatment and/or as a result of misunderstanding.  If we segregate ourselves from the broader community it is easy to grow to mistrust others who seem different and therefore “strange”.  Another organisation that is working hard to develop more inclusive approaches that enable better business is  ITV, the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster.  It needs to produce content that appeals to as wide an audience as possible, as its revenues mainly depend on the ability to attract advertising revenue.  ITV has introduced some innovative methods to ensure that the issues around diversity are appreciated by its employees.  Regional News Teams have attended road-shows that emphasise diversity as a business imperative.  They are encouraged to compare the make-up of their teams with those of the wider communities in which they operate.  They are then shown video clips of people who are not regular viewers of ITV’s news output and made to consider why these people are not viewers, before developing measurable action plans for the following twelve months covering both onscreen and workplace initiatives.

If you are not inclusive, it is hard to justify your wishing to be included

As its Latin roots com and laborare suggest, the basic meaning of collaboration is “to work together”.  The reason my neighbourhood is such a great place to live is because most of us who live here are prepared to make an effort to enhance the area for the benefit of all.  I know that if I help those around me, they will put themselves out for me and/or share their expertise when I need it.  One of the charities the Revolving Dinner supported is a local project to create a safe and enjoyable playground and garden area for the use of local children and all of us who live here.  The space was originally housing, but a V1 rocket fell on the area in 1944, killing 11 people.  Over time the derelict patch became a site for drug usage and prostitution.  By turning it into a space for children and the wider community, we have enhanced our surroundings.  By revolving we have produced roundabouts and smiles.  Since the creation of the dedicated play area and attractive community space, our small area of London has seen crime rates decline.  Enhancing cross cultural and generational appreciation and enabling interaction has enabled us to make our neighbourhood a better place.  

Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Queen is Dead

The week started and closed with my contemplating, in very different ways, the importance of leadership.  Yesterday I, with some good friends, went to see two major exhibitions that are currently on in London – “Scott’s Last Expedition” at the Natural History Museum (which provides a multi-faceted insight into the lives and, in some instances, deaths of the early polar explorers), followed by “The Heart of the Great Alone” at The Queen’s Gallery beside Buckingham Palace – where are displayed some of the most extraordinary photographs and memorabilia from the Royal Collection.  In particular the haunting selection of photographs taken by Herbert Ponting, the first official photographer to participate in a polar excursion - who escorted Scott for the first part of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition and taught both Scott and his men how to use a camera to record events after he had gone - which are so well constructed and powerful, with a luminosity that enables the viewer almost to feel that he is breathing in the icy air, that it is impossible not to be in awe of the photographer’s skills, especially given the equipment available at the time and the inclement environment. 

Both exhibitions are intended to commemorate the centenary of Scott’s tragic expedition, as well as providing a better understanding of the reality of polar exploration of the time.  The amazing achievements and hardships of the men are breathtaking, but I am most struck by the power of leadership and its ability to inspire others to endure suffering and to achieve outstanding feats in the most horrendous circumstances (including deliberately allowing themselves to die in a noble attempt to preserve Scott’s and their colleagues’ lives). 

Was Scott a good leader?  Even now, a hundred years on, he is a controversial figure – he can be viewed as a heroic figure who moved his men to accomplish extraordinary feats or else he can be seen as a misguided man who almost knowingly lead others to their deaths, partially due to his miscalculation of risks (the diet for the sledging party that tried to reach The Pole was insufficient to support men for more than a very brief period and the weather was significantly harsher than had been anticipated and yet the party still went forth) and partially due his overwhelming desire to achieve the national glory of being the first to reach the South Pole at almost any cost.  There is no doubt that Scott inspired his men – when it was clear that he and four others were almost certainly dead, Edward Atkinson, the man left in charge of Base Camp, chose to seek out Scott’s party rather than looking for another group of men, the Northern Party, who were also missing and who had a greater likelihood of survival.  The degree of Scott’s personal culpability remains controversial but his final writings have the ability to inspire, even a century on, partially due to the humanity that shines out from his words:

“Surely misfortune could scarcely have exceeded this last blow. We arrived within 11 miles of our old One Ton Camp with fuel for one hot meal and food for two days. For four days we have been unable to leave the tent - the gale howling about us. We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly cared for.
Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.”

The death of Scott and his companions reminds me slightly of an incident I have experienced and witnessed closer to home.  I am an urban bee keeper with two hives in my central London garden.  The queen bee in one of my hives has died over the winter.  The workers that supported her have remained, but without a queen their deaths and the death of the colony are inevitable.

Despite the imminent demise of one of my hives, I am proud to be part of the global effort to restore bee populations – we need them: approximately one third of what we eat is pollinated by bees.  In the UK it is estimated that bees contribute around £200 million per year to the UK economy, through pollination.  The British Beekeepers Association has estimated that if we humans were to take over the role of pollination from bees in the UK, it would require a workforce of 30 million.  There are areas of the world where humans now have to undertake pollination by hand, rather than being able to rely on bees and other natural pollinators.  Sichuan Province in China is a case in point – it has been an excellent pear producing region for over 3,000 years, however when people there decided to expand pear production in the 1980s they felt the need to reduce insect pests that could damage the crop.   The excessive use of pesticides has killed off all the natural pollinators (including the bees).  Pears need to be cross pollinated to crop well.  So now the Chinese villagers are forced to climb through the trees each spring, dabbing individual blossoms with a brush made of chicken feathers, which has been pre-dipped into pollen, that they carry with them in plastic bottles. 

We need to learn from Scott’s mistakes, make a better assessment of risks and consequently take appropriate actions before we cause our own demise.  It is up to the leaders amongst us to be prepared to stand back from the day-to-day tasks and determine the route required to accomplish desired outcomes.  Positive results will only be achieved if the right action is devised and taken.  The pollinating insects will return to Sichuan, if pesticides are only used judiciously, and the current damage can be reversed.  I can use the strength of the remaining hive to create a new colony and a fresh start for the other.  Man’s ability to learn from mistakes, to plan and to inspire others to act must be the secret of our future success.