Sunday, 20 May 2012

Strong Shoulders

How often do we stop and consider the things that have happened that enable us to be successful now and in the future?  I’ve had a busy week full of collecting data, collating analysis, contemplating how best to depict findings and, as the days passed, gaining an increasing appreciation of the experienced members of the team, who have provided me with a well-informed foundation of knowledge on which to base my observations.  As well as completing the annual appraisal analysis (both of business performance and individual contributions), I was fortunate in doing some great stuff outside work.  I saw some excellent contemporary dance, met up with contacts with whom I made plans for the future and I also was able to spend some time relaxing with my family.

In a strange way there were themes that wove between all these aspects of my week that, only now, I begin to appreciate, having had time to consider and reflect.

The dance I saw was at Sadler’s Wells; it comprised an evening of four pieces by the Rambert Dance Company, one of which was the iconic “L’Après-midi d’un faune”.  It was devised by Nijinsky and has been performed by Rambert since 1931.  Marie Rambert herself joined the Ballet Russes for a year in 1912 and saw Njinsky dance the title role.  Watching this week’s performance was like witnessing a Grecian urn coming to life, even down to the dancers’ feet remaining parallel to the stage’s edge so that they appeared as figures in profile, like an ancient Greek drawing.  The last piece of the night, “What Wild Ecstacy”, was commissioned to celebrate “L’Après-midi d’un faune”, which is in its centenary year.  The title of the new dance is derived from Keat’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

                “What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?
     What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?
     What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstacy?

            (John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, 1819)

It was interesting to observe a piece that had its roots in another, although a sensual and bacchanalian eroticism hangs over both dances, they are very different.

Despite being of different generations and sexes, my eldest son and I physically resemble one another.  You can imagine our surprise when, out sampling a local hostelry, a fellow diner came over to our table and congratulated my son on choosing an older girlfriend whom he could learn from.  I enjoy exploring new experiences with my son, but not in the way that our companion was thinking.  However, his words got me pondering.  I’m not sure we are very good at learning from our “elders and betters”.  Modern Western society is heavily based on the impact of the individual, without often taking into account the contribution of the team.  Our Media eulogises diva singers, footballers, “reality” stars and politicians and yet each of these people would not be able to achieve all they do without the entourage of individuals with whom they work.  Most of them, when asked at events such as award ceremonies, admit to having been inspired by someone in their youth and acknowledge the work of the people around them.  However the reports in the press the following day focus on the individual winners and the other names are forgotten.

Almost without exception Human achievements are built on the skills of others.  Many are uncomfortable in acknowledging that their successes are derivative, based on the knowledge of earlier contributors.   However, Sir Isaac Newton’s words on the side of the UK two pound coin hold true, we can credit our accomplishments to “standing on the shoulders of giants”.  We need the foundation of earlier capabilities on which to build our own input.  With this in mind, I worry at the current high levels of youth unemployment, not just in the UK but in many countries of the world.  The young need to learn from those who can teach them, otherwise skills will be lost.  Recent statistics published by the Organisation for economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that youth unemployment reached a rate of 17.1% in March of this year, more than twice the unemployment rate affecting the broader population.  More than one in five young people in the labour market are unemployed in Sweden, France, Poland, Ireland, Italy and the UK.

I can’t help but note that the countries with the highest unemployment figures, depicted in the above chart of May 2012 from MoneyGame, have all suffered civil wars within living memory.  As inflation continues to rise and living becomes more difficult, social unease is likely to increase.  The riots experienced in England last August could be indicative of what’s to come, as was argued by Michael Carty in the sobering XpertHR blog of 4 January this year:

Although the prospect of society in turmoil is not something I relish, I am actually more concerned by the longer term impact of the situation we find ourselves in.  A couple of years ago I visited Laos.  It is an exquisite, land-locked country set between Vietnam, China, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. 

Laos has the unfortunate notoriety of being, on a per capita basis, the most heavily bombed country in history (as a result of the Vietnam War-era bombings from 1964-1973).  Laos suffered its own civil war after the US involvement in Vietnam was over and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed in December 1975.  At this time non-communist papers were closed and there followed a significant purge of the police, civil service, army and certain sectors of the populace.  Thousands of people were dispatched to remote parts of the bomb-strewn country for “re-education”.  Large numbers of accomplished professionals and academics fled Laos and skilled craftsmen hid their talents, disposed of their tools and took up other employment, fearing reprisals for having provided “unnecessary luxuries”.  The drain of knowledge and the loss of traditional skills continue to impoverish the country today.  I spoke to a silver smith trying to restore some of the ancient treasures and artefacts in the temples at the Unesco World Heritage site of Luang Prabang.  He told me, with much sadness, that many of the skills and techniques that had been lost; the trained artisans had died before they could pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

We need to have both the young and the old in our organisations to ensure that knowledge and skills are developed. 

Many of the Hmong hill-tribe people in Laos still live in tightly knit remote communities.  They have been persecuted for their involvement with the US against the communists during the Vietnam War ( ) and hence have done their best to avoid contact with the authorities.  Their deliberate insularity and adherence to their traditional approaches has resulted in many cultural skills being maintained.  Elders are respected and they take care to ensure the transference of knowledge to the next generation.  They know that the future success and survival of their people depends on it.

We too need to nurture the new generations and value and use the knowledge of our elders.  We must ensure that effective succession planning is in place to preserve what has been achieved and to provide a strong platform for future growth.  In my opinion, one of the ways of achieving this would be through embracing proper apprenticeships as is done in countries such as Switzerland and Germany.  Many UK businesses have taken advantage of government funding available to support apprenticeships, but, rather than bringing in and training new employees, the money has been spent on enabling existing employees to acquire recognised qualifications.  I’m all in favour of learning and development (I should be in my line of work).  We are being short-sighted if we don’t nurture our future.  The young, the employees after we have gone, are the legacy we must enhance.  We need to offer strong shoulders on which they can stand.


  1. Kate, I enjoyed the scope and range of your post.

    I recently attended a discussion on career development where a member of the audience related how a colleague told her that, being over 50, she should forget about career development and just focus on onto holding her job. Pretty shocking, but I wonder if this type of attitude is common?

    In addition to continuing to develop in other ways, your post highlights the important role that people with experience have in mentoring and coaching others. Do you think this is recognised in organisations at the moment?

    It's 90 years since the civil war in Ireland (where I'm writing from), so as you mention still within living memory. Let's hope we don't go there again!


  2. I agree that it is shocking that many Western businesses see people aged 50 and over as being near the end of their use and hence no longer appropriate to develop. I fear that it's not just an issue for personal growth and learning for employees, this attitude also results in discrimination against older candidates during recruitment.

    I once persuaded Mike, a friend of mine whom I encouraged to change career into a different industry in his late 40's, to give a talk at the Recruitment Society in London on this subject. In his 50's he became a very successful senior leader in a different sphere. He relished the opportunity to develop and enhance himself, others and the business. The ability to grow lies within and can happen at any time, regardless of age, provided that others don't stamp on its tender shoots.

    I lived in Asia for a while and the attitude if different there. My father is in his 80's and is still working as a highly respected lawyer in Hong Kong. He is valued for his ability to brings knowledge and experience to resolve matters. When the economy took a nosedive in 2007, it was noticeable that the attitude changed slightly in Western businesses as experience and insight suddenly increased in value - many of the younger managers and employees (who had been vaunted as the rising stars and future of the business) had never experienced difficult financial times. The wise ones sought out the people with experience and their collaboration produced more considered and well-rounded approaches as well as great learning for both parties.