Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Reaching New Heights

This is for those who are struggling with change, for individuals with potential (but who may not even realise it), for those who have been told “It’s impossible” and/or who have been derided for their vision and understanding, for people who aren’t sure whether they fit in and those who wish to help any of them, as well as for my children and god-daughter…  It is my last day in South Africa, so it seems apt to tell you a traditional African tale that was told to me while I was here:

It was a hot summer and the frequent afternoon storms were welcome, as they helped to ease the searing heat and dampened down the dust.  However, the violence of the thunder and the flashing tongues of lightening could be terrifying, as indeed they must have been that day, for the cattle and the herd boys returned to the village in haste leaving one calf behind.  The farmer took up his staff and strolled out into the bush to search for the missing animal.  

He hunted in the valley: he looked along the river bed, amongst the reeds and by the stones; he searched in the scrubby undergrowth and by the gnarled trees where the guinea fowl pecked and scraped, almost invisible amongst the dappled shadows; he looked in the dry rustling grass, standing higher than his chest, and then he climbed the rocky mountain, calling and calling for his beast.  He wondered if it had taken shelter from the storm in a deep fracture that cut into the hill side, slicing up towards the summit.  Slowly he climbed, watching and calling.  His attention was caught by a small patch of white on a ledge of rock and, making his way towards it, he was surprised to find a small eagle chick, less than a couple of days old, huddled forlornly by itself, presumably blown from its nest during the storm. The farmer reached out and gently picked it up.  Cradling it to the warmth of his chest, he turned back towards the village and, on his way home he determined to keep the bird and care for it.

As he arrived back at his house, his children ran to greet him and to say that the calf had returned.  Pleased at the news, he gently opened his hands and showed them the fledgling.  They took the eaglet back to their home and placed the young bird with a broody hen that was only too happy to have a small chick to care for.  As the eagle grew it learned the ways of the hens, pecking at scraps and scratching in the dust for tasty beetles and other good things to eat. Although clearly different from the chickens, the eagle seemed happy enough and people from other villages, when they came to trade, used to stare at the strange bird scraping in the dust with the other fowl. 

One of the farmer’s friends, whom he had not seen for a while, came to visit and the two men sat on the step at the door of the house, chatting and watching the world go by.  The friend noticed the strange bird pecking with the hens and said in surprise, “That’s not a chicken it’s an eagle!”

The farmer smiled and said, “That can’t be so…look, it pecks like a chicken, it walks like a chicken, it eats like a chicken, it thinks like a chicken, so it must be a chicken.”

But his friend would not believe him.  “I will prove to you that it’s an eagle.” He said.

“If you wish…you can try to”, nodded the farmer.

Not deterred by the sharp talons and beak, the friend walked over and picked up the bird and then tried to throw it up into the air to make it fly.  It flapped a little in surprise at being caught and handled, but then, seeing the hens docilely pecking, it contentedly landed back on the ground and continued to scratch amongst the chickens, looking for food.

“I told you it was a chicken,” chortled the farmer.

The next morning the friend returned.  “I will prove to you that this is not a chicken but an eagle” he said and he asked one of the farmer’s sons to fetch him a ladder.

The farmer only laughed and again said “It pecks like a chicken, it walks like a chicken, it eats like a chicken, it thinks like a chicken, so it must be a chicken.”

The friend took the large bird under his arm and, with difficulty, climbed with it up the ladder into the branches of a tree that grew beside the hut.  However, no sooner had he released his grasp, with the intention of persuading the bird to fly, than it flapped free from him and landed back amongst the chickens, where it recommenced pecking in the dust.  The farmer and his family all laughed.

However, the very next day, when it was still dark, the farmer’s dogs began barking and the farmer heard a voice calling gently for him outside the hut.  Rising, he found his friend standing outside with a lantern.  “Please give me one more chance to prove that the bird is an eagle, he said.

Are you mad?”asked the farmer.  “It’s not even light yet.”

“Trust me,” said his friend, “I have an idea.  Bring the bird.”

Grudgingly the farmer fetched the large bird from beside the hearth, where it had been roosting comfortably among the chickens.  Wrapping his cloak around him, he followed his friend out into the dark.

“Where are we going?” the farmer asked.

“Back to the mountain, where you found the bird.”

“But it’s dark and the path is steep.  Shouldn’t we go when it’s daylight?”

“No,” replied his friend, “We must take the eagle to see the sun as it rises in the mountains, so that it is inspired to be in the sky, where it belongs.”

The two men went through the valley, crossing the river, passing the reeds, the tree and the long grass.  Tired the heavy bird remained cradled in the farmer’s arms.  The sky was just turning from star sprinkled dark to pale grey as they started climbing the fissure.  They reached the ledge where the chick had been found just as the sky became pearlescent and then tinged with pink.  They could just make out the line of the river winding like a serpent through the grasslands.  The friend relieved the farmer of the burdensome bird and urged him to hurry, as he climbed still higher up the mountain.  The route was steep and treacherous, with narrow ledges and dangerous shale.  Both men were panting as they stepped out onto a flat outcrop and the friend signaled that they could stop.  Close to the summit, the land stretched out below them with the lines of dark forest meeting the grassland of the savannah just visible in the opalescent, pre-dawn light.

The friend gently placed the eagle on a ledge facing the east and began talking to it.

The farmer laughed “Don’t be daft,” he said, “It can only speak chicken.”

The friend ignored him and continued to talk to the bird.  He told it that the sun was coming and that the sun gives life and warmth to all things on earth.

“When you see the sun, Eagle, you must rise with it.  You belong with it up in the sky, not down on the earth.”

And as he was speaking the first golden rays of dawn blazed out over the mountain and the land was flooded with light.

All was still and the big bird remained crouched on the ledge staring ahead at the blazing light rising slowly up into the sky.  Then, the bird leisurely stretched its wings.

Again the friend whispered, “You belong with it up in the sky, not down on the earth, fly Eagle, fly.”

Nothing moved but the bird could feel the air of the updraught from the valley below catching slightly on the underside of its pinions.

Then, very slowly the bird leaned forwards, catching the air beneath its wings and, suddenly, it was off the ledge and soaring out into the air over the land below.  Then it turned in the thermal currents and allowed itself to be swept upwards, rising higher and higher until it was a speck against the blazing backdrop of the sun and then it could be seen no more.

Dare to "fly" and be what you can and should be… 

Thursday, 21 February 2013

We Need To Talk...

This is a repost, but with pictures, of the piece I wrote for the LinkedIn UK HR Group blog http://discusshr.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/we-need-to-talk.html.

Brain fibres enabling communication and neuron connections
At the start of February I attended an inspirational HR-focused event.  It was refreshing to be surrounded by people who had made a conscious choice to be there, who came in their own free time because they shared a genuine interest in the topic and they wanted to learn and be involved.  There was a buzz and a sense of camaraderie, in the way you hope there will be at a learning and awareness session.  My fellow attendees were willing and active participants - honest and authentic.  At the end of the evening there was a mutual conviction that, between us, we can improve the world in which we live and work.  

The event was organised in response to reactions to an extraordinary and powerful online blog post published on 12th January – if you have not read it, I urge you to do so now: http://thehrjuggler.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/day-43-courage/

These courageous words resulted in people around the globe talking and tweeting on the subject of Mental Health in the workplace.  With HR interest rising and numerous individuals asking what they could or should do, it was clear that the dialogue needed to be brought into the off as well as on-line arena.  Alison Chisnell, HR Director at Informa (and host of the blog on which Jon, the author, posted his piece) offered a meeting space.  A number of people worked together at speed to determine the format and experts, including Mind, the NHS and various individuals who have been or are impacted by mental health issues, agreed to be speakers and be involved.  Jon went public at the event and wrote about doing so on https://projectlibero.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/it-starts-with-a-conversation/.  There is a simple and well written blog about the evening that is more eloquent than I on the impact of the evening http://treacletiger.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/start-conversation.html.  I hope that by talking here about my own thoughts on the evening and by sharing some of the recommendations made, that I can encourage you too to think about how you should approach this issue in your workplace and with the organisations and people with whom you do business.

According to ACAS Mental Health problems cost employers in the UK £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1900 .  I suspect that the hidden and non-financial costs have an even more severe impact on work, employees, their friends, families and business.  It is a sad fact that the approach towards Mental Health by the majority of employers is woefully inadequate and the time has come for that to change.  I am not advocating that we form a militant group and campaign, there is an easier solution – to dispel common fears and misconceptions, to remove the stigma and to enable us understand so that we can do the right thing... we simply need to talk.

Despite the fact that one in four of us will suffer Mental Health problems in our lives, there is still a social reticence about admitting to being a victim, and/or living with and supporting someone with Mental Health issues.  It is clear that this reserve is partially rooted in fear.  People don’t know how to start the conversation and they are embarrassed and don’t want to say the wrong thing.  Mental Health is seen by many as a dark and complex issue that, by its very nature, is private and should be hidden from others.  Certainly it is personal – the reasons why people suffer from Mental Health issues are complex and varied and each victim is an individual, so there is no simple, standard approach or treatment.  However, I think we should take a step back and consider ourselves and those we come into contact with. 

Humans are wonderful.  We are sentient and expressive beings – we would all be the poorer for not being able to feel and think about the world around us.  However, there are times when our emotional and mental reactions are overwhelming and uncontrollable and can prevent us from being the person we like and feel we are, or can make us antisocial and potential dangerous (to ourselves or others).  Mental Health is a broad term that encompasses a range of issues such as clinical depression, Bi-polar disorder, anxiety, phobias and Schizophrenia; unlike emotional problems, these cannot be resolved swiftly – they require treatment (often medication and therapy) to control the symptoms and to lessen the impact on the individual and others.  It is probable that a number of Mental Health sufferers are also suffering emotionally and often not just because of their own health but also because of the way in which we, the people they work and interact with, treat them.  The stigma of Mental Health is so strong that people avoid talking about it and hence they exacerbate the problem, because they isolate and alienate individuals who are already suffering.

There is often a fine line between Mental Health and emotional health.  Each one of us is who we are due to the environment in which we have grown up and the circumstances impacting our lives at any moment in time.  I am not naturally tidy, but I have friends who are fastidious; they say it is because of the spotless households in which they lived as children, where even an ornament out of position was viewed as unacceptable – regimented neatness is their comfort zone.   I know others who close in on themselves and cease contributing to discussions whenever voices are raised - they have told me that they were deeply disturbed by arguments between their parents when they were small and that the increased volume of colleagues, enthused or trying to stress a point in an argument, is sufficient to make them feel uncomfortable.  I love films, but potentially I am an embarrassing companion, as I can easily be reduced to a weeping wreck when watching characters show how much they care for each other - I know that this is partially due to my own insecurities, my devotion to my friends and family and my own desire to be loved.  Many parents find news footage depicting suffering children immensely disturbing, because they transpose themselves into the scenario and can imagine how awful they would feel if it was their own offspring.  Each of these people, me included, is reacting emotionally –although emotions can induce some symptoms that are similar to those experienced by a portion of Mental Health sufferers (such as sleeping disorders, anxiety and sadness) these responses tend to be short-term and can be treated and resolved swiftly.  However, many people suffering from Mental Health issues also have to contend with emotional pain, either because of their condition or induced through the reaction of others around them.  Many sufferers feel isolated due to many others’ desire not to bring matters into the open.  By appreciating the impact our emotions have on us, it is perhaps easier to start understanding how others may be feeling.  Empathy is a good step towards trying to support and be helpful.

On a moral and social level we have a responsibility to be considerate towards others.  Even without that, employers have a legal duty of care to employees.    We in HR need to devise strategies to promote well-being and to ensure that we and others are equipped to support when an employee has a problem.   BUT strategies and policies will not solve a problem.  Good managers and colleagues are attuned to those around them – if you know your people and how they are, you can spot when they aren’t themselves.  You must foster a culture of trust and understanding where management and employees are comfortable having non-judgemental and open conversations.   We need people to be able to ask with ease:

                “What do you do to look after your health and well-being? And what can I, your manager, do to help?” 

If managers invest in their people, by talking with them, their team members will in turn be more engaged and committed to their employer.  If employees feel comfortable talking about Mental Health, awareness and understanding will increase and colleagues who are suffering will no longer feel so isolated or ashamed – everyone can be a winner.

Progress won’t happen unless we make an effort.

We have started...come and join us.

As Jon says in his original post: “here’s to 2013 and a change in attitudes...”

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Horse Play

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

I am struck by the fact that a man famous for voicing his need for a horse, when “His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights” (Richard III, William Shakespeare), has been confirmed as the most likely identity for a body buried in a car park in Leicester, UK  http://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/.  At the same time horses in various guises (burgers, lasagne, pies, etc…) seem to have been given to many people who do not want them…well at least not in that form.  You couldn’t make it up! 

Horse & rider at San Bartolome de Pinares, photograph by Daniel Ochoa de Olza, 
Guardian Eyewitness series January 2012
There are numerous lessons for the workplace that can be gleaned from both pieces of news.  Here are five for starters (perhaps an unfortunate choice of phrase):   

1    It’s easy to damage a brand.  The 15th century was a turbulent time, fraught with political and civil unrest.  However, Richard III was a popular monarch; according to David Grummit, a War of the Roses specialist based at the University of Kent, he was "regarded by most of his contemporaries, especially during the 1470s and early '80s, as a paragon of chivalric virtue and an accomplished soldier... in death, Richard was doing nothing more than he had done for most of his life." Despite being unseated from his horse and losing his protective headgear and coronet, he bravely remained fighting on foot, even after being deserted by a number of his followers.  He became the last Plantagenet monarch of England when he died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.  As is usual when a new order commences, the arriving dynasty, in this case the Tudors, need to cement public approval to ensure their future.  Artists, eager to gain patronage and secure their own safety, often stress the benefits of the “new regime”, denigrating the former.  Shakespeare’s demonic depiction of Richard III, as a nephew-killing and physically deformed man, can be considered a powerful piece of propaganda on behalf of the Tudors http://www.richard111.com/richard_iii__shakespeare.htm ; this would have helped the playwright to receive a warm reception with Elizabeth I and her court.  Research into the unearthed body shows that the King neither had a hump nor a withered arm, so the pictures made of him during his lifetime were probably more accurate than perhaps some had thought.  

Richard III circa 1480
There is an interesting book I read as a teenager, called “The Daughter of Time”, written by Josephine Tey (the nom de plume of a respected detective story writer from the middle of the last century, Elizabeth MacIntosh).  The book presents evidence that seems to vindicate Richard III of the murder of his nephews – in the 1950’s this book helped inspire the creation of the Fellowship of the White Boar, an international  society dedicated to clearing Richard’s name.  The organisation was renamed The Richard III Society and has, since the mid fifties, fiercely campaigned to shift public perception of the potentially maligned monarch – it was part of the collaborative group of organisations responsible for the research into the corpse in the car park – along with the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council.  Despite the pro-Richard campaigners, public imagination over the centuries has been captivated by the image of the deformed, wicked uncle who murdered his own nephews in the pursuit of personal ambition – the Tudors gave Richard a compelling, but not attractive, brand. 

As a side note, in my experience it is common practice for a new leader to blame the old regime for issues he/she is trying to overcome (as is so often demonstrated in politics as well as business).  The responsibility for economic woes and tough decisions is often laid on those who came before.

Today, in the horse meat scandal, leading retailers and manufacturers are looking for culprits (other than themselves) and taking expensive measures to protect against the adverse impact of being seen to have lied to their customers/the public, and for not having been in control of produce – Findus plans legal action against its suppliers (despite the obvious damage to their corporate brand, I must confess to smiling at the joke doing the rounds on Twitter about how "staying in with a hot Italian stallion" sounds cooler than "heating up a ready-meal lasagne"); Tesco’s sales losses, due to the crisis, are anticipated to be in excess of £1 million; to mitigate further damage, the retailer has harnessed the power of various media channels to circulate a statement aimed at reassuring customers that it is taking the issue seriously.  Individuals and organisations need to be aware of how they are perceived, both internally and externally, and be seen to be responsive. 

2    Technology is significant.  It would have been impossible to ascertain the identity of either the body or the ingredients of suspect processed food without DNA testing (or "DN Neigh" as Baron Prescott tweeted).  The corpse’s DNA was a close match to that of a known descendant of the King's sister and even miniscule amounts of horse meat can been identified in various products – although in some instances it is clear that no meat other than horse was used in the so-called “beef” processed meals.  Both stories have become international phenomena, in part due to the numerous websites, blogs and social media commentaries.  Without the use of modern technology, neither incident would have become news.  Increasingly, leaders will need to consider the impact of technology, to ensure competitive advantage as well as its ability to enable rapid and effective communication (both planned and unplanned).

3    Evidence based decisions are required to support proposals.  Researchers at the University of Leicester undertook extensive analysis to determine the identity of the corpse http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=mfi6gOX0Nf4#!   The curvature of the spine and the slender frame indicate a physique similar to that described by the contemporaries of King Richard III.  Forensic knowledge was used to determine the cause of death – almost certainly a severe blow to the head with a sharp object, that sliced through the skull, this would be consistent with battle wounds and accounts of the King’s demise.  Regrettably, more and more evidence is coming to light in the “horse meat scandal”, which seems to indicate that inappropriately described ingredients have been used in processed food that has been distributed right across Europe (and that it might have links to known criminal rings, who arbitraged the cheap price of horse meat in Romania against Western European markets, after a change in legislation in Romania resulted in large quantities of horses being killed and the price dropping).  To avoid inappropriate actions and to enable better decisions to be made, organisations need to use all the facts and information available to them to support the decision making process.

4    Honesty is crucial Consumers trust food producers to provide the product as described on its packaging.  Although horse meat is popular as a food in many countries (notably not the UK), that does not excuse retailers and food manufacturers from passing off equine produce as minced beef.  Misled members of the public will avoid producers and retailers whom they know have lied to them.   King Richard III was viewed with mistrust by a number of his subjects, which contributed to his demise - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cd7476e2-7119-11e2-9b5c-00144feab49a.html#axzz2KQsHnpMz

At exactly the same time as the academics were breaking the news to the press about their extraordinary discoveries, another story was unfolding: that of the former UK MP, Chris Huhne, who unexpectedly plead guilty to perverting the course of justice.  Huhne’s persistent lying and willingness to pass the blame for his actions onto others has done much greater harm to his reputation than the fact that he was caught speeding.  He would have been well advised to have heeded Shakespeare’s words in the play, Richard III

                “An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told”.

In these days of Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest and Facebook, word spreads as fast as people can hit the share button and, as former RBS traders and other banks now know, ill advised words and actions are easily uncovered.  Authenticity and honesty are prerequisites of good leaders and employees.
5    People are emotional as well as rational.  As the success and national support of the dressage teams in the Olympics last year testify, the UK is a nation of horse lovers with strong equestrian roots.  Horse meat is not dangerous to eat (unless the animal has been treated with drugs, such as “Bute”, which is potentially harmful to humans); however, many people are repelled at the thought of horses being used as a food.  An innate repugnance at consuming an animal that is loved and admired, combined with a dislike of being deceived (especially by big businesses that are seen as having a huge influence over our lives) results in a powerful combination, inflaming public anger and distrust (the media fanning of the blaze with emotive writing only serves to intensify this reaction).  It is clear that Richard III inspired and still stirs up strong emotions in people.  Some of his defenders are almost evangelical http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgr94xGp1DM and his enemies clearly loathed him - there is evidence that Richard’s body was stabbed and mutilated after his death (e.g. puncture wounds to his buttocks) – this was probably to humiliate his corpse and as an act of retribution.  Similar to the events surrounding Gaddafi’s death in Libya, where his death was slow and his battered body was paraded through the streets, it appears that the mob took advantage of his capture to vent their frustration and anger.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/23/gaddafi-last-words-begged-mercy    A leader should never underestimate the power of emotions.  To inspire people to action, you need to engage on an emotional level as well as presenting a compelling, well reasoned vision.