Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Sprinkled Gold

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the great American chef, author and gastronome Julia Child (celebrated in the blog, book and subsequent film, starring Merly Streep as Julia, “Julie & Julia” ) – I am sure she would approve of my advocating that we all could benefit from adding a pinch of Olympic gold into the recipes of our lives – be it an enhanced attention to detail, the ability to interact and celebrate better with others or developing the stamina and determination to see things through to completion.  

At the risk of sounding like the repetitive echo of many others’ voices, I must confess that the London Olympic Games exceeded my expectations:
·       great atmosphere;
·       stunning venues (I particularly loved the wild flowers and the landscaping in the Olympic Park);
·       magnificent competitors;
·       friendly and not overwhelming crowds;
·       easy transport;
·       well organised (despite some infuriating ticketing issues);
·       an impactful and clever opening ceremony;
·       Thomas Heatherwick’s spectacular and inspired cauldron, with its 204 copper ‘petals’ that became going-home gifts for each of the competing nations (did you know that the UN only recognises 192 nations?);
·       superb sporting events;
·       world records broken; and a
·       rousing musical finale which provided a great introduction to Rio 2016.

I loved seeing and being with people happily united in the simple enjoyment of sport, shared national pride, stunned amazement at awe-inspiring spectacles and elated celebrations. What’s more, despite the current lull, it’s not over - I gather that the 2012 Paralympic Games tickets are selling out fast (it looks as though this will be the first time that all tickets will have been sold since the games were formally founded in 1960) – there will be a new ‘petal’ cauldron burning in the stadium in a fortnight.

Many things can be learned from the UK Olympic and Paralympic events, by both individuals and organisations.  There is no reason why people at work or in environments such as academia cannot love being with others, happily united in the simple enjoyment of achievement, shared pride, amazement at the accomplishments of awe-inspiring colleagues and rightful celebrations when a job is well done and goals attained or exceeded.  We have it within us to be successful and to collaborate (to huge effect) with those around us.  This (rather lengthy) talk, by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, given to employees at Google, provides some interesting insights into why we think, respond and behave in the way that we do, especially when in groups:
It takes faith in our abilities, an understanding of the goals, careful planning, appropriate leadership and support, enablement of individual potentials to be realised (with the right people put in the right roles and given access to the right connections to get things done), perseverance, commitment and the combined will of all involved to succeed in attaining a shared objective.  A sprinkle of luck (such as the weather or wind on the day) can have an impact, but there is much truth in the golfer Gary Player’s comment that
“the more I practice, the luckier I get”.
Successful athletes in all sports practice and practice to enhance their skills.  Mo Farah had a gruelling regime (running 120 miles per week at circa 5.4 minutes per mile, as well as working out in the gym and even running on an underwater treadmill to prevent injury) that lead to his winning two gold medals.
 As Mohammed Ali once said:
"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights." 

One of the reasons the London 2012 Olympics were so successful was the meticulous attention to detail.  All of the events were carefully planned and the forethought showed; even the mascots had perhaps more to them than many of us appreciate.  Although some have commented that they look like extras from the film “Monsters, Inc” and others have unkindly renamed the pair Mandelson and Prescott (a couple of famously feuding former UK Cabinet Ministers) or Pentonville and Wormwood (two renowned Victorian-built London prisons), considerable thought went into their creation.  They are supposedly made from drips of steel formed during the forging of the iron girders that built the Olympic stadium.  Their actual names are Wenlock (after the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock which held a forerunner of the current Olympic Games) and Manderville (after Stoke Mandeville Hospital where, from 1948, British War Veterans competed in the Stoke Mandeville Games, the precursor of the Paralympic Games).  Danny Boyle’s extraordinary Opening Ceremony also exemplifies some of the deep contemplation and preparation that enabled success.  It was intelligent, as well as spectacular, with messages behind every scene (The middle section named Pandemonium – after Milton’s capital of hell in “Paradise Lost” – gave me one of my lasting memories as forged rings glowed and were then raised in a cascade of sparks above the crowds)

The Opening Ceremony enabled the quirky eccentricities of the British personality to be celebrated in addition to highlighting aspects of the history that created the UK that hosted the Games. (Diversity adds to the mix and creates a stronger whole.) 

Throughout the Olympics there were lots of little touches, many of which went unnoticed, that each made a difference (such as the remote control Minis carrying javelins and hammers back and forth to officials during the Athletic events and the care shown by the numerous volunteers one even injured her fingers through high fiving so many visitors).  Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean was an inspired inclusion at the start, but there are some other details that probably did little more than raise a knowing smile in those in the know (for example part of the running track from the 1948 Olympics, also held in London, was buried under the Olympic Park athletics stadium site and the copper petals were completed in secrecy, only days before the start, by craftsmen who did not appreciate what they were for until they saw them on TV as they were used in the Opening Ceremony ).

The host country’s medal tally is impressive and, of course, I am pleased, but I was delighted by many other occurrences, such as when Granada’s runner, Kirani James, stormed to victory in the Men’s 400m - a first ever gold medal for the island; I was personally amused by the fact that there were more people in the Olympic Park as he won than there are in the population of Grenada. The impact of the Games on people across the country has been amazing (the often viewed as grumpy and self-controlled Brits have proven themselves warm, welcoming and passionate – I gather that this trait now will be used to encourage tourists to come to the UK). 

 The past Olympic fortnight has been inspirational and entertaining in so many ways.  I am so glad that I was able to see some events in The Olympic Park and at Greenwich – lifelong memories for me and my sons.  The Games are already living up to their motto and inspiring a generation (well they’ve inspired me at least).  I have made a personal commitment to use some of what I have learned going forward, namely:

·       I will continue to practice my skills, even those I believe I am good at, coming second isn’t good enough
·       Being a creative entrepreneur, I am not a natural completer finisher, so I will make an extra effort going forward to focus on the detail, ensuring successful implementation of plans
·       I will continue to foster and encourage diversity, thereby making a stronger and more appealing operation
·       I will make sure that the little touches are always there, as they can make the difference
·       I will keep an open mind and be prepared for the unexpected (who would have envisaged that a camper van could convert itself into an octopus?).

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Going For Gold

What joyous golden days - not just for the British competitors at the Olympics (although, as a Londoner who took her sons to the Olympic Park on Saturday, watched Murray beat Federer at Wimbledon on Sunday and was a rower in my youth, it has been impossible not to cheer them on as they have added to their ever increasing hoard) but also what a great week at NASA – the photos of the surface of Mars are amazing – a tribute to many years’ hard work.  It is awe-inspiring that we are able to gaze at the surface of another planet. 

Sunrise on Mars is pretty special too: .  When the pioneering astronomer and physicist, Sir Bernard Lovell (who died today), conceived and established the Jodrell Bank Observatory back in the 1957 space travel was little more than a tale in Science Fiction comics.  More than fifty years later, his giant radio telescope is still being used for frontier science.  Many have built upon his knowledge and legacy.  If anything the clever people at NASA deserve a gold medal for what they have achieved, so below is a picture of Mars taken earlier this year using the telescope at Jodrell Bank.

What is it about gold that fascinates and inspires us?  Pre-school children are encouraged to earn “gold stars” for good behaviour and/or notable effort; men have perished seeking the precious metal in remote locations around the world (I was very moved by the plight of the Chinese migrants toiling and living in appalling conditions in Arrowtown during the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, when I visited the town a few years ago); European exploration of the Americas was inspired in part by hopes of finding gold – Aztecs viewed gold as the product of the gods (a literal translation of the Aztec word for gold is “god excrement” - sheds El Dorado, which translates as :the gilded one", in a whole new light); and, long before recorded history, men have used gold to celebrate, honour and worship deities and adorn the most meaningful beings in their society.  Who has not heard of Midas, or the The Golden Calf in Exodus, or the gift of gold given to Christ by the Magi, or the yet-to-become-Lord-Mayor, Dick Whittington, heading to London where the streets were supposedly paved with gold, or indeed the classic Greek and Roman tales such as the legend of Zeus visiting Danae as a shower of gold – resulting in her giving birth to Perseus – and the legend of The Golden Fleece (which may refer to the use of sheep skins to trap gold dust in the swiftly flowing streams feeding into the Black Sea - Jason and his Argonauts were probably treasure seekers)? 

Gold is often believed to possess magical properties (hardly surprising given its sun-like lustre).  Alchemists have been imprisoned and died whilst endeavouring to transform base metal into gold.  Ghana celebrated the Golden Stool of the Asahti.  This stool is the symbol of the collective soul of the Ashanti tribe, one of the major tribes of Ghana.  The stool is believed to have descended from the heavens in about 1700 AD and is a symbol of “political, religious and cultural authority and unity” . Ashanti kings are referred to as 'occupying the Golden Stool', even though the Stool has never been sat upon. It is never permitted to touch the ground and always rests on its side.  Many of us have looked in wonder at the extraordinary gold sarcophagus used for the burial of the boy king, Tutankhamen, in Egypt.  Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, the French archaeologist, remarked on seeing the golden death-mask
“under this golden edifice the sovereign was granted a new lease of life: Tutankhamen was promised immortality by his father Ra, the sun god” 

The Gold Standard – the most common basis for monetary policy, that was in use for centuries, only ceased in Europe on the outbreak of World War I (with America following suite in 1932).  Even today gold plays a vital role in our society: it is a common feature in marriages around the globe (from the giving of simple gold bands symbolising an eternal bond, the use of golden crowns for bride and groom in Orthodox weddings in countries such Romania, Greece and Jordan, to the traditional Indian dowry which, in extremis, provides for a daughter after the wedding – it is interesting to note that, as countries such as India and China have developed, their consumption of gold has increased - in stark contrast to the decline in consumption in so-called developed nations over the same period.  India has the greatest gold jewellery consumption of any nation (a nearly 70% increase from 2009 to 2010 from 442.37 to 745.7 tonnes – almost twice that of China (increasing from 376.96 to 428) whereas consumption in the USA has declined from 150.28 to 128.61 in same period and in the UK from 31.75 to 27.35 – perhaps an interesting reflection of the current gobal economic climate and how different countries are faring).  Gold has often had an impact on a county’s economy - Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire in Africa in the early fourteenth century was famous for his hajj to Mecca in 1324 – reportedly he had so much bullion, which he distributed to people in Cairo whilst on his pilgrimage, that singlehandedly he depressed the price of gold in Egypt for over a decade.  Today, gold remains a valued commodity – more for its uses than as coinage.  We rely on gold to mend our teeth, it plays a vital part in electronics and has helped us explore beyond the earth - semi transparent sheets of finely beaten gold are excellent at reflecting infrared light – hence it is used for shields in visors, heat-resistant suits and spacesuit helmets.

In addition to Irish tales of Leprechaun’s burying pots of Viking gold at the end of the rainbow, there are some delightful fairy tales based on the power of gold. A Hungarian fairy tale relates how a little king and his younger brother retrieve the sun, moon and stars after an age of darkness; the king fights for the moon with a dragon in a golden wood near a golden bridge. A Bulgarian story tells of a shepherd saving the sun from a threatening monster and then calling on the sun's father for a reward. The father's palace was made entirely of gold and the sun's father offered him as much as he could carry. The shepherd, however, preferred a magic horse and rode off to marry the Sea Queen. And in the delightful Romanian fairy tale of Tarandafiru, a princess seeks her long-lost husband with the help of personified days of the week. Mother Wednesday gives her a distaff with which she can spin pure gold, Mother Friday offers a golden bobbin which winds gold thread and Mother Sunday presents her with a golden hen and five chicks which lay six golden eggs. Finally, the princess finds her husband and bears him two golden children. 

It is hard not to be touched by the power of gold.  Its effect has been noticeable in London over the past ten days, not just in the whooping enthusiasm of numerous nations as their champions demonstrate their prowess to win gold medals, but also in the unanticipated golden smiles of the host country’s citizens.  People seem unusually friendly and helpful – even the drivers on the Tube make upbeat announcements as they arrive at each station.  Despite dire warnings that the City’s transport systems would be unable to cope, I have enjoyed the easiest and least crowded journeys to and from work that I have experienced for years.  Fellow passengers make spontaneous and friendly conversation with strangers.  In the past gold was often considered a treasure that could provide a legacy for generations to come.  I hope that we build on this current golden moment, keep our gleaming smiles and hearts of gold and live up to the motto of this year’s Olympics, by inspiring the next generation to go on and achieve great things... a true golden future.


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Perceiving Threats

Please excuse my typing – I allowed myself (through my own stupidity) to get stung by a bee whilst checking the hives yesterday.  My left arm is a third larger than my right and an attractive shade of virgin’s-blush red combined with radiating the heat of a Korean Bibimbap stone-cooking-bowl, which has not added to my physical appeal or capabilities.  My sons tell me that I am an idiot to keep bees when I react badly to stings, but it was my fault: I was clumsy, in a rush and did not treat the colony with due respect, so I shouldn’t complain at an alarmed bee’s response to a perceived threat.  A similar reaction can be perceived in corporate life when employees do not feel that they have been given due consideration and the time necessary for their issues to be understood.  Good leaders need to keep their eyes open and their wits about them to perceive and avoid potential risks. 

There is significant, compelling research to support the claim that the majority of employees leave their employer due to a poor relationship with their boss – like the defending bee (it was doomed to death when it sting me), employees are prepared to sacrifice their role within an established group and their living in order to rectify something that they don’t like and which they feel strongly about.  The Saratoga Institute, considered by many to be the world leader in third-party exit interviews and employee engagement surveys, conducted a survey using data from 19,700 exit interviews and questionnaires, it revealed that 89% of managers believe employees leave for more money.  (It is a very human trait to seek rationale that seems to prove that undesirable outcomes are not attributable to you).  Whereas, in fact, the survey found that 88% of employees leave for reasons other than money.  Ironically, most of the attributed reasons for a good employee’s departure can be laid at the door of management.  The ten most frequently mentioned issues that employees say companies do poorly, which contribute to their desire to leave an employer, are:

Poor management – being supervised by apparently uncaring and unprofessional managers; feeling overworked;  being shown little or no respect; not being listened to; managers putting people in the wrong jobs or ignoring performance issues that impact on others; demand for speed over quality; and a poor manager selection processes.

Lack of career growth and advancement opportunities – people see no perceivable career paths for themselves; job openings are not plainly advertised, nor communicated internally and not filled from within; employees object to blatant favouritism or what they perceive as unfair promotions.

Poor communications – People are aware of issues with communicating, especially top-down and between departments; this is notably problematical after mergers; poor interaction between functions often results in individuals focussing on internal frictions rather than getting on with the job at hand.

Pay – people feel that they are paid under-market or less than their contributions warrant; blatant pay inequities within a team or across divisions/borders grate; slow raises or lack of reward despite results and contribution; apparent favouritism for bonuses/raises; ineffective appraisals.

Lack of recognition – remember even simply saying “thank you” can make a difference

Poor senior leadership – leaders seen to be not listening, asking, or investing in employees; senior leaders seen as unresponsive, aloof or isolated; leaders sending out mixed messages.

Lack of training – non-existent or superficial training provided; no support for new hires, recently appointed managers and no provision of development to enable career progression.

Excessive workload – employees told that they have to do more with less, without knowing why; employers seen to be sacrificing quality and customer service/relationships for numbers.

Lack of tools and resources - insufficient, malfunctioning, outdated, equipment/supplies; overwork without relief or at the least a communicated timeframe for resolution.

Lack of teamwork - poor co-worker cooperation and/or commitment; lack of inter-departmental coordination.

To retain top rate employees you need to provide them with a work environment that inspires, supports and enables them.  In today’s demanding business environment, we all need people who are prepared “to go the extra mile” and, for them to do that, they need to feel motivated and inspired by their environment and what they can achieve. 

On many occasions over the years I have pondered what motivates individuals – none more so than Friday a week ago when I listened to an excellent talk given by Sir Ranulph Feinnes.  I admire his stamina and achievements (he, with two former army colleagues, Oliver Shephard and Charles Burton, was the first man to visit both poles by surface means and to completely cross Antarctica on foot accompanied by Dr Mike Stroud, who took advantage of the opportunity to study the human body under severe stress) however for the main part the challenges he has overcome are not things that appeal to me (I wouldn’t mind finding a lost city buried in the sand - the one he located is purported to be Iram, the City of “the lofty pillars” mentioned in the Quran and located in Oman – it was supposed to have been driven into the sands after its king disregarded prophets’ warnings; but having to amputate digits after over exposure to the elements is low on my list of desired achievements and I cannot even begin to imagine completing seven marathons on seven continents within a seven day period).

When asked what drove him on, Sir Ranulph explained that he did not want to let others down – be it his wife who had compiled an agenda and relied on him to follow it to ensure that he returned home, or colleagues who were waiting with a boat and did not want to become ice-locked during the cold winter months and so needed him to arrive within a specified timeframe or, in moments of extremis, his father and grandfather (both of whom died before he was born) as they have been his inspirational heroes throughout his life and he would not want to fall short of what he imagines to be their expectations of him.  Each of us is driven by different things and an astute employer should be aware of this and communicate accordingly.  A few years ago, Tesco categorised employees into groups and used different incentives to appeal to each section in a bid to ensure maximum engagement – those looking to raise money to travel are not likely to be inspired in the same way as those with ambitious aspirations to be on the Tesco Board or indeed those who came to work in a store because it provides them with a welcome income and opportunity to socialise whilst working with fellow adults, before returning home to look after a family.

As some of the current Olympic themed web pages show (for example the BBC page where, using your height and weight, you can align your body to that of a competing athlete ) the world is made up of diverse individuals.  We each like to be treated with consideration and respect and can turn unpleasant when we don’t like what we perceive is happening to us (a bit like the bee that stung me).  However, the key is often in the perception.  Good leaders ensure that they communicate effectively and frequently with those around them.  This needs to be a two-way dialogue.  If I had been more alert to the bee and its predicament (it became trapped in the folds of my suit sleeve before it stung me) I would not be in my current uncomfortable state.  Did you know that when a bee stings you it releases a pheromone to encourage other bees to sting as well, ideally in the same location (perhaps how the phase making a bee line came about).  I have learned much from the experience and will be more careful and observant in the future.  Please learn from my mistakes... 

It is always wise to prevent a problem before it occurs, rather than having to contend with an escalating problem.