Friday, 27 July 2012

Carrying The Flame

Seven years ago I was the Head of Talent, Resourcing and Management Information at Lloyds TSB.  I can remember the mixed responses from colleagues when it was announced that the Group was to be the official Banking and Insurance Partner for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012.  What a lot has happened in seven years…

This past week has been very busy, with demanding meetings in various countries and also much to do outside work.  Yesterday it was with relief that I returned to my primary base in London.  Late in the afternoon I found myself sitting with a colleague, who wanted to discuss her career options.  It was a sweltering day and the office air con was on the blink, so we decided to escape outside to a café and have a cup of tea in the sunshine (how very English!).  As we talked we noticed an increasing crowd of people making their way past us towards Regent Street.  The Olympic Torch Relay was expected at the end of the road where we sat at 17.17.  It would have been churlish to ignore the event – especially as yesterday was the last day of the Torch’s procession across the United Kingdom (only a river-born trip remains ahead for it today, conveying it to the Olympic Stadium and the start of the Games).

At about quarter past we abandoned our cups on the table and went to join the crowds.  There were no barriers to hold people back, but the significant hoard stood in an orderly fashion and shouted and waved as first the sponsors’ convoy made its noisy way past (much yelling, music and waving of pompoms) followed afterwards by the runner holding the flame aloft.  The Torch travelling around the country has captured the imagination of people perhaps more than most of us anticipated.  Yesterday the flame even had an impact on me.

I like the fact that its on-going success has been dependent on one person passing it on to another, having carried it with pride and briefly nurtured/prevented it from being extinguished.  How symbolic and like the conveyance of knowledge and learning in life.  It was good that a wide range of people found themselves responsible for bearing it, even if only for a while – society is made up of diverse individuals, some more privileged than others, but each with their part to play.  We need many people, each making a contribution, to ensure ongoing growth and success. The torch was not with us for long – like a river it needed to keep flowing towards its destination.  Once the moment had passed the crowds gently disbursed, but it was with a fresh outlook that my colleague and I returned to our table and resumed our conversation.  I hope my words of support and encouragement to her helped to shed a little light on the path she chooses to tread going forwards.

We each have an impact on those around us and have a choice as to the impression we leave behind, as well as the manner in which we can inspire and enlighten those who follow. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

A Necklace of Raindrops

Once upon a time there were two little girls, one named Fiona and the other called Kate.  They were not friends, indeed they did not even know of each other, although I suspect they would have become good buddies if they had met.  They grew up in different parts of England and were very fortunate – they genuinely had wonderful childhoods: both loved drawing and making things, Fiona was particularly artistic; Kate had a gang and was good at climbing trees and playing hide and seek; they were happy, healthy little girls and, as the children’s rhyme goes, “when they were good they were very, very good and when they were bad they were horrid”, but had fun.  Best of all, they had parents who loved them dearly, who enjoyed encouraging their girls to be brave and give things a go; they introduced their daughters to the magic of the world and read the most beautiful bedtime stories.

In many ways, this blog is about a story… Unbeknown to each other, Fiona and Kate shared a favourite bedtime book – a selection of short stories, written by Joan Aiken, called “A Necklace of Raindrops”.  The story that follows is true: 

With a soft thud a small cardboard package fell onto the doormat.  During the day it waited undisturbed, until Kate got home from work.  Although tempted, she did not open it immediately, she waited until after the family meal and the TV news had finished, before herding her youngest son up to bed, taking the package up with her.  Although many would think her son too old for bedtime stories, Kate and her boy really enjoyed their quiet time together.  Over the years they had progressed from “Meg and Mog” and Orlando The Marmalade Cat  through “The Wind In The Willows” to more complex books such as “The Old Man and The Sea”, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and “One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich” – each evening a voyage of discovery and discussion for them both.  The teenage boy was looking forward to relaxing with a short story by Saki, instead his mother said that she would tell him a tale…

(With apologies to Joan Aiken), Once upon a time there was “A man called Mr. Jones and” he and “his wife lived near the sea. 0ne stormy night Mr. Jones was in the garden when he saw the holly tree by his gate begin to toss and shake.

A voice cried, Help me! I'm stuck in the tree! Help me, or the storm will go on all night."

Very surprised, Mr. Jones walked down to the tree. In the middle of it was a tall man with a long gray cloak, and a long gray beard, and the brightest eyes you ever saw.

"Who are you?" Mr. Jones said. "What are you doing in my holly tree?"

"I got stuck in it, can't you see? Help me out, or the storm will go on all night. I am the North Wind, and it is my job to blow the storm away."

So Mr. Jones helped the North Wind out of the holly tree. The North Wind's hands were as cold as ice.

"Thank you," said the North Wind. "My cloak is torn, but never mind. You have helped me, so now I will do something for you."

"I don't need anything," Mr. Jones said. "My wife and I have a baby girl, just born, and we are as happy as any two people in the world."

"In that case, said the North Wind, I will be the baby's godfather. My birthday present to her will be this necklace of raindrops."

The North Wind produced from his gray cloak a fine, fine silver chain. On the chain hung three, bright, shining drops.  The wind explained that the baby girl must always wear the beautiful necklace and that the raindrops would not wet her, nor would they come off.  Each year, until her tenth birthday, the North Wind promised to return and provide his goddaughter with a new drop.  Each progressive dewdrop was a gift in itself:

  • the fourth bead would enable the little girl to remain dry, even in the fiercest storm;
  • her fifth would keep her safe from lightening during thunder storms;
  • her sixth raindrop would prevent her from ever being blown away;
  • seven raindrops would enable her to swim the deepest river;
  • her eighth would ensure that she could swim the widest sea;
  • with her ninth drop she would be able to stop the rain by clapping her hands; and
  • her tenth would enable her to start a rainstorm simply by blowing her nose.

In every way a wonderful present from a godfather (as a little girl, when I heard the story, I was enchanted).

The goddaughter, whose name was Laura, took care of her necklace until she was nine.  She was a popular child (and not just because she could stop the rain).  It was not until she went to school, and was forced to remove the necklace by a teacher, that her troubles began.

As I told the above story I could see that my son was both intrigued and a little bemused as to why his mother should be telling him an innocent but seemingly childish fairytale.  I adapted the story to make it more appealing for him.  Our neighbours own a beautiful Burmese cat, called Suki, which sees our house as an extension of her own domain.  At times she climbs through my bedroom window to bid us good morning.  My son is very fond of Suki, so it was simple for me to elaborate on the original tale by explaining that Suki heard Laura’s weeping at the loss of her necklace and felt sorry for her.  In addition, being a cat, Suki was pleased when Laura could stop the rain, as she hated getting her paws wet.  My son and I know that Suki has a particular fascination for the goldfinches that chatter to each other whilst feasting on nigella seeds in the feeder hanging in our bay tree.  Later that day, when eavesdropping on the goldfinches, Suki heard them gossiping about the sparkling treasure that a bigger bird had found and taken back to its brood.  Creeping quietly, the cat moved to within striking distance, leapt and caught a red-faced goldfinch. She threatened to toy and tease the poor shivering creature until lunchtime, unless it explained what had been taken and by whom.  As soon as Suki heard that it was the magpie that had gleaned a glistening ornament to decorate its nest, the cat realised that it must be Laura’s necklace.  With care she climbed up to the untidy cluster of twigs in the birch tree and, carrying it softly in her jaws, Suki transported the necklace back down to earth and took it to Laura.

It was at this moment that I instructed my son to open the package that I had brought up with us.  He was nearly as amazed as I to find inside a fine, fine silver chain with ten crystal drops hanging from it.   It was exquisitely made, beautifully wrapped and sent to me.  If you are interested in Fiona, here is a link to her blog:

I must explain that Fiona is a jeweller whom I have met via Twitter.  Through talking about her craft and inspiration for her work, she and I learned of our mutual love for the story “A Necklace of Raindrops”.  Perhaps it was because of our precious childhood memories, maybe it is due to our having more in common than we know, whatever the reason, we struck a chord with each other – hence the creation and delivery of a symbolic necklace for me.

In the original story, Laura gets her necklace back through the help of creatures, to whom she had shown kindness, and also because she proves herself to be both honest and determined – the final droplet that makes her full quota is one of her tears, caused by sadness at her loss of the necklace and remorse at the disappointment and anger she rouses in her godfather.  Needless to say, all ends well and, in addition to being reunited with her treasure, Laura makes a new friend and also manages to deliver an Arabian country from drought.  I must confess that, given the weather we have been having in the UK recently, I think I’d prefer her to start clapping her hands, rather than blowing her nose (certainly, judging by recent downpours and the time of year, it’s clear she suffers from hay fever!).

Although an innocent tale, the A Necklace of Raindrops’ message holds true for us all, both at work and in our wider lives.  It is a story with many layers of meaning - perhaps more for me than most... I have a beautiful god daughter of my own, called Sophie, and I hope that she will always remain happy, healthy, loved and able to achieve all the things that she is capable of.  Having seen Fiona's necklace, I intend to find some smaller droplets and have two other necklaces made, one as an 80th birthday gift for my mother - to thank her and to celebrate all that we have enjoyed in the past - and the other as a birthday gift for Sophie with my wishes for a wonderful future.

So, to end with a “happily ever after”: I am the proud owner of my own necklace of raindrops.  It is special to me in so many ways: I value it for what it is, for the care with which it was created, but more importantly for why it is; the sight of it makes my son smile when he sees it hanging round my neck (and that makes me smile too) and the gift will be continued when I give my god daughter and my mother necklaces of their own and see them smile; it has enabled me to share some of the delights of my childhood and to create a new tale for the future; it is a tangible example of the power of communication and the value of talking time to connect with and understand others. 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Forked Tongues

“Liar, liar, your pants are on fire” – so goes the childhood chant and, if the words are true, there must be a few bankers, pharmacists, journalists and politicians with hot posteriors at the moment.  Deception does seem to be a predominant theme in many of the current big stories in the media.  I am not going to wade into the rights and wrongs of bankers’ behaviour, nor the honesty and integrity displayed by News International journalists, nor even the conduct of persuasive representatives of GlaxoSmithKline.  Given that the majority of public eyes seem to be focussed on the woes of Spain and the Euro Zone, I must confess that I was tempted to write about the current issues in the Middle East, especially between Syria and Turkey – all is not necessarily as it seems.  The internet is rife with articles speculating as to why a Turkish plane was in Syrian airspace and the possible agendas of various countries with interests in the region. ( is particularly interesting, as it is one of the first to be published by a leading Turkish academic and raises some provocative hypotheses as to what various countries are hoping to achieve through conflict and regime change in the Middle East – the sentences “Other agendas are easy to see.  Saudi Arabia wanted the US to attack Iran during the George W. Bush presidency and ‘cut the head off the snake’” set me thinking – in modern times, why is the snake so often the bad guy?)
Snakes have played an important role in myths and legends from the ancient stories of Hercules strangling serpents whilst still in his cradle to Harry Potter – I suspect that the inspiration for Harry’s ability to speak and understand reptilian language originates from Bulgarian folklore.  There is a story that when a young shepherd saved the daughter of the Snake King (a creature “as big as a century old pine with wings and an enormous head”) the king gave the youth a magical ring, that the serpentine monarch had stored under his tongue, which could fulfil desires and enable humans to understand the language of the animals. 
In Bulgaria snakes were viewed as dangerous and unnatural creatures that lived in a huge cave “in the lower world”.  According to tradition, they would crawl out of their holes on the Day of Annunciation (March 25) and hide again on the Day of the Transfiguration and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in August.  Spring cleaning is a tradition in many parts of the world, but in Bulgaria there is an extra twist – the refuse produced during the ritual cleaning is piled up and set on fire.  All the family are encouraged to jump over the flames – for health and as a protection against snake bites.  It was believed that snakes would try to bite a victim in the heel and hence, by jumping over the smouldering garbage, an individual could smoke their heels, thereby making them harder to bite.  Snakes weren’t always viewed as bringers of harm – if a snake was killed on the day of The Annunciation and its head successfully used as a buried fertilizer for basil or garlic, it was believed that the gardener would gain almost miraculous powers of healing using these herbs. In addition, each home had its own Guardian Snake which the household actually cared for in return for its protection.
Clearly, snakes are not always viewed as evil – many early legends grant them the power of forming life and even making the earth itself – this idea perhaps originating from the snake’s ability to appear to be reborn after sloughing off its old skin.  Tribes in both Africa and Australia have creation myths about a Rainbow Snake that was mother to the creatures on Earth or the provider of water.  In Chinese mythology the woman-headed snake, Nüwa, made the first humans out of clay.  Her initial creations, constructed with care, became the high-class populace from whom the royal line, scholars and aristocracy were descended, as she began to tire; she conserved her energy by simply flicking clay with her tail to form lower-class people.  Ancient Egyptians believed that, before the world as we know it was created, there was a many-coiled serpent named Amduat from whom arose Ra the Sun God to form the world.  Like many ancient people, the Egyptians revered snakes for their healing properties; there are hymns recorded from workmen in Thebes in honour of Mertseger, the snake goddess, thanking her for curing illnesses.  Similarly in Sumerian culture the healing god Ninazu’s son is depicted with a serpent and staff (the image of a snake entwined around a pole, known as the Rod of Asclepius, is still used today as the symbol for a large number of medical organisations including the British Medical Association, the Pakistan Medical Corps and the American Medical Association.  A similar staff is also described in The Bible in The Book of Numbers, chapter 21, verses 6-9, when Moses is instructed to create a rod with a fiery serpent wrapped round it to use to cure the Israelites dying from snake bites).  The Rod of Asclepius, the representation of the ancient Greek God of Healing’s staff, is not to be confused with The Caduceus, the rod carried by Hermes, the messenger of the gods.  Hermes’ baton is represented as having two snakes twined round it and is surmounted with a pair of wings.  Hermes was responsible for commerce and travel, famous for his silver-tongued eloquence and powers of negotiation...perhaps a symbol more appropriate for a purveyor of snake oil than a medical practitioner.
Sadly lies and deception are a recurring aspect of the human condition – from Eve succumbing to the sweet-talked words of the subtle serpent, encouraging her to give Adam the apple in the Garden of Eden, to us in our daily domestic lives.  How many of us haven’t occasionally grunted to indicate that we heard what someone said, when our minds are in fact on other things?  I did it on Sunday afternoon when asked a question during the Andy Murray vs. Roger Federer final at Wimbledon. We tell lies to “make life easier”, but easier for who?  Genuine relationships need to be based on trust and it is hard to trust someone who continually lies to you.  Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth about people not being what they seem springs to mind:
“Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't”

The world seems to be full of people making false or misleading claims.  Often those whom we trust most are exposed as being “snakes in the grass” – hence the public outrage at the recent scandals we have witnessed concerning the media, the police, and our politicians.  Things are often little better within the corporate environment.  The traditional “command and control” approach has relied on a “need to know” mentality, where only a select few are privy to certain information.  This often works upwards as well as downwards – Bob Diamond, as CEO at Barclays, was in a position where he could expect to be privy to all data pertaining to the Bank’s performance, but it is probable that individuals lower in the trading hierarchy felt that there was no need for him to be bothered with the intricate details of their teams’ day-to-day transactions.  Part of the frustration that the self-named 99% have with Big Business is that they are not party to information and feel dominated by the controlling but secretive corporates. 
The world is often easier in the longer term if people cooperate and share information before problems occur.  I spotted a possible problem yesterday when thinking about snakes for this post.  There is a sinuous and attractive lake, named the Serpentine, located in one of Central London’s major parks.  Following its being granted a clean bill of health – well almost, it’s waters were deemed “good and sufficient” as opposed to “excellent” by the European Environment Agency - The Serpentine was announced as the venue for the London Olympic Triathlon swimming, with a slight proviso that this rating could be adversely impacted by severe weather and heavy rain in the lead up to events (The Serpentine is fed by water from the Thames, the main river that runs through London) 

I am sure that most people in the UK are aware of the current weather, as will be those of you who have been following the tennis; it has been foul with many areas suffering severe flooding.  I checked the ten day forecast and it does not bode well for The Serpentine, and hence perhaps for the Triathlon... 
10 Day Details
UV Index
09 July
N/A /13°
Showers Early
From West South West at 16 kmph
10 July
18° /12°
From West South West at 16 kmph
11 July
18° /11°
From West at 23 kmph
12 July
16° /11°
From Southwest at 24 kmph
13 July
17° /13°
From West South West at 18 kmph
14 July
17° /12°
From West at 18 kmph
15 July
18° /12°
From West South West at 18 kmph
16 July
18° /12°
Partly Cloudy
From West South West at 21 kmph
17 July
19° /14°
From West South West at 18 kmph
18 July
19° /14°
Few Showers
From Southwest at 19 kmph

I hope that my sharing of this information is not viewed in a negative light.  On the subject of light, I was fortunate to be invited to a wonderful party in The Gherkin last Thursday – it was full of people from global businesses and it was a pleasure to be able to chat with some of them and to gain their news and views.  It is amazing what people will tell you if you ask them nicely.  Thursday was also the night of the official opening of The Shard (a massive Arab investment towering above the British capital.  At 310 meters, The Shard is Western Europe’s tallest sky scraper).  The event was celebrated with dramatic music and laser light shows.  As I made my way home over London Bridge, I could not but smile at the placard carried by James Bridle.  In many ways it says so much...
Secrecy and the withholding of potentially powerful information is a common theme in both fiction and the real world.  It is regrettable that in many businesses there are still interdepartmental rivalries, where specific data is deliberately withheld from others elsewhere in the organisation.  I worked once in a business where individuals in one part of the firm were banned by their head of department from even setting foot on the floor where a “rival” team were based – this resulted in a significant loss of business and opportunities, to the detriment of all.  HR and Finance are often cited as examples of divisions that should not get along, as, supposedly, one is focused on verifying current performance against forecasted figures and hence is backwards looking and numbers driven, whereas the other is focused on the future, devising what can be done to enhance performance, using tools such as Learning and Development, which are not exact sciences (the tangible prediction of anticipated returns on training and L&D investments are hard to quantify). With such different outlooks, it is easy to see why misunderstandings and even suspicion can arise.  In my own employer I work hard to ensure that there is cross-divisional comprehension and support.  At my team's recent offsite in London, I deliberately included representatives from various departments and areas across the Group, thereby encouraging better understanding and cooperation.  We had a wonderful day, with help from, and Photographic evidence below: 

It is impossible in the modern world to be all-seeing; we need to work together to enable mutual success.