Saturday, 23 March 2013

L Plates

Today is my birthday; it is also the day when cities around the globe are celebrating Earth Hour at 8.30pm.  The movement has become international since its inaugural event in Sydney in 2007.  Earth Hour, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, is an annual event aimed at uniting support for the environment and spreading awareness of  energy usage.  It is seen as a means of expressing a desire for a sustainable and better future for all.  If you want to know more click on  or to see the lights going out in cities around the world try  
How wonderful to know that my special day will involve candles being lit across the globe.

I must confess to waking this morning and thinking “Oh L” – not just because it was 5.30 am (and I needed to get up to drive across England, through vile snow, sleet and strong winds, to fetch my youngest son), but also because today is a milestone birthday for me.  L is the Roman numeral for fifty.  I have had a wonderful half century and I am really looking forward to the years to come.  There is some truth in Confucius' words in the The Analects (or Lun-yii 論語, a slim anthology of memorable epigrams defining the moral code by which Confucius felt every person should live): 

“At 15, I set my heart on learning.  At 30 I know where I stand (my character has been formed). At 40, I have no more doubts, at 50, I know the will of Heaven, at 60 my ears are attuned (i.e. my moral sense is well-developed), at 70, I follow my heart’s desire without crossing the line (without breaking moral principles).” 

Confucius was appointed Minister of Public Security in his home state at the age of 50.  His words “know the will of Heaven” therefore can be interpreted to mean that he now knows the correct way to govern or manage, in accordance with Heaven’s mandate.  However, I suspect that it is broader that that and implies that he knows who he is, is comfortable with his personal values and goals and is able to behave and approach life with confidence.  I can concur with that - I know who I am and what I view as morally right or wrong.  It does not mean that I can and will stop learning, it is simply that I now have a firm foundation on which to ground my thinking and future growth.
Oak tree roots provide a strong foundation and stretch as far below as the tree stands above ground
As I drove on my quinquagenary (an over lengthy way of saying my 50th anniversary!), I contemplated the new number in my life.  In many ways it is an important one.  Here are some facts associated with fifty:

  • mathematically 50 is significant and a number that brains better and faster than mine like to play with.  It is a Harshad number - so it is divisible by the sums of its digits when written in that base.
  • "Harshad" comes from the Sanskrit "Harsa" (meaning Joy) and "Da" (To Give) - so Harshad translates as joy-giver, which doubtles it is for many mathematicians.  As an aside, you might like to know that there are 50 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet.
  • I do like the symmetry of the fact that   1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 + 9 + 7 + 5 + 3 + 1 = 50 and that 50 is the sum of three consecutive squares: 50=(3x3)+(4x4)+(5x5)
  • Did you know that the moon is 50 times smaller than the earth?
  • In the year 50AD the Romans founded Londinium in Britain (and I enjoy living in London today)
  • I pondered the power of fifty as a compelling word in a title, we often have books and programmes about " The Top 50..." and it even wields its power in the name of the book "50 Shades of Grey" – the bonk-buster by EL James, that seemed to hit an erotic chord with so many in 2011 (I suspect that it could as easily be a description of the majority of its readers’ lingerie drawer contents)

  • There is the 50 Moves rule in Chess, that enables a draw
  • The Chinese have long venerated the number and there are fifty sticks, all the same length, that are used in the consultation of the I Ching.  Perhaps I should symbolically cast a reading for my future on this day as doubless to do so would be auspicious!
  • The chemical element Tin has an atomic number of 50 (50 protons and 50 electrons).  Tin is one of the Seven Metals of the Alchemists – famous for trying to turn metal into gold.
An Alchemist in his Workshop,” by David Teniers II, depicts alchemy in the 17th century
  • 50 has strong associations with gold (am I a golden oldie?) – a golden anniversary is the celebration of 50 years and Jason had 50 Argonauts with him when he went on a quest across the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece - a topic I covered in a former post
So many things to ponder in relation to the number 50 and doubtless there are so many other facts I have forgotten, never knew and have yet to learn.

So, returning to Confucius, his Analects are based on the belief that that life should be lived in an ethical manner (he saw politics as an extension of morals - an approach that seems to have been lost by some politicians and civil servants in the corridors of Whitehall, Brussels and Washington) and he founded his principles on the importance of wisdom, self-knowledge, courage and love of one's fellow man.  He argued that virtue should be every individual's supreme goal.  Earth Day is based on a desire for a better future for ourselves and those to come; I am sure Confucius would have approved of the concept and the actions - to be in the dark for a while as a means of gaining longer-lasting light and life.

A bit like attaining knowledge...

So, to L with it – I will never be too old to Learn…

and there is so much more to life than meets the eye.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Black and White

Have you ever tried to get a Macadamia out of its shell?  They are quite literally “a tough nut to crack”, having the hardest casing of all nuts, requiring 300 lbs per square inch to break them.  In addition to the actual kernel, the shells have a hidden surprise, once you finally get into them their inside is smooth and shiny and split into two distinct parts, one portion dark and the other light.  I thought of Macadamia nuts this week, when the Cardinals were locked in the Sistine Chapel during the papal conclave and the world waited for black or white smoke.
Macadamia nuts

Black smoke rising from the Vatican's Sistine Chapel papal chimney 
As the process for the election of a new Pope demonstrates, much of what we do is determined by customs and regulation.  Today I had the pleasure of attending a roundtable discussion hosted by the Training Journal in partnership with learndirect.  It was to consider the report Lord Leitch produced for the UK Government in 2006, outlining what (in his opinion) needed to be done to make the skills of the UK workforce among the best in the world by 2020.  This year marks the midpoint toward that goal and it was sobering to contemplate the progress to date.  In case you have forgotten (or never knew) his proposals, in essence they were for:
·         95% of adults to achieve functional literacy and numeracy

·         More than 90% of adults to be qualified to at least level 2 (i.e. competence that involves the application of knowledge in a significant range of varied work activities, performed in a variety of contexts. Collaboration with others, perhaps through membership of a work group or team, is often a requirement. At British comprehensive schools, Level 2 is equivalent to one GCSE at A*-C )

·         A raising of the average rank of intermediate skills in the adult population from level 2 to level 3

·         More than 40% of adults to be qualified to level 4 and above (level 4 translates as competence that involves the application of knowledge in a broad range of complex, technical or professional work activities performed in a variety of contexts and with a substantial degree of personal responsibility and autonomy. Responsibility for the work of others and the allocation of resources is often present.)

The world has changed a lot since 2006, not least because of the global banking and financial crisis.  Lord Leitch’s aspirations and recommendations in the Review remain admirable, for example for employers to voluntarily commit to train all eligible employees up to level 2 in the workplace.  However, the financial constraints on many UK businesses have meant that they have had other issues to focus on, such as remaining viable in challenging times.  Many organisations have been forced into being quite short-term in outlook over the past few years.

However, this time, when many are unable to commit time and resources to skills training, is perhaps an opportune moment for us to consider the actual skills we need.

The “skills” we are encouraged to develop within the work environment are dependent on rigidly defined stages of attainment, utilised in our education system and prescribed for vocational training purposes.  I do wonder whether some of the hoops we are making people leap through are actually giving them what they need.  When I was at school we were taught to use a slide rule in maths – I’m not sure I could easily solve a problem with one now, but I doubt if I will ever need to.  The advent of sophisticated calculators has made them redundant.  I studied for two years for my A Levels and then had a few hours in which to regurgitate some of the knowledge stored inside me, in response to questions in the exam.  Was my actual capability in applying the knowledge I had being assessed or my ability to remember things?  Google and other search engines mean that I can get information swiftly about almost any topic – my memory is less important than my capacity to find appropriate facts and to apply what I discover to solve actual problems and inform decisions.  In my current work environment I need to be able to plan strategically, budget against the plan, inspire others to work with me to achieve defined objectives and ensure that all that has to be done is attained in a timely and efficient manner.  Is my law degree an obvious indicator of my possessing these skills, except in the most simplistic form of demonstrating that I can devise answers to exam questions and write them down within the time prescribed?

The world moves on and we need to progress with it.  How can we best equip and assess individuals for the actual skills they will need in working life?  I do not dispute the value of literacy and numeracy, but the conventional command and control approach of, for example, reciting the dates of kings and queens by rote seems unnecessary and outdated.  We need to work with schools and educational establishments to explain the skills that are and will be valuable in the workplace.  Futurists say that the future is collaboration and project focused – where and how can we best foster and see these traits demonstrated?  

There isn’t one easy solution – life isn’t black and white and the way of training and assessing the skills required for the future remains, like the Macadamia, a hard nut to crack...
Mr John Waldron cracking Macadamia nuts in Australia 1957
(Photo: People Magazine, State Library of Queensland & John Oxley Library; #7719-0001-0003)
Cracking Macadamia nuts

Sunday, 3 March 2013

People Count

“People Count” was the motto my uncle, Sir Christopher Collett, devised when elected to become Lord Mayor of London for the 800th year of The Mayoralty in 1989.  He was an inspirational, compassionate, humble, intelligent and successful man, across so many spheres – a leading accountant in what became E&Y, a respected City of London dignitary, a commendable ambassador for his profession and country, a tireless charity backer and focused project sponsor who got things done.  He leaves an admirable legacy: throughout his life he worked with others to ensure that objectives were achieved for the benefit of many (including supporting homes for the elderly across the UK, providing community services such as a sports hall and other facilities in his loved Langholm in Scotland, establishing a charity to support young people and rescuing a national monument, Temple Bar by Sir Christopher Wren, that has been returned to a prime location near St Paul’s Cathedral in London).  His choice of slogan was apt – to him, in every way people did count.  Those of us who knew him appreciated what a special man he was.  He died last December and his memorial service was held on Valentine’s Day – a fitting date for a man much loved and who cared so deeply for others.

Temple Bar, gateway designed by Sir Christopher Wren 1669-1672
I am often asked who has influenced me or been my mentor.  I flounder slightly when trying to respond, as I have learned so much from so many.  However, there are a few who stand out.  Having spent considerable time, over the months since his death, contemplating “Uncle Chrissa”, as I called him, I have begun to appreciate how indebted I am to him.  How sad that it is only now that he has gone that I am genuinely beginning to realise how important he was.  I learned some fundamental truths from him – he lived by his values and family always came first.  There is a story I heard at the Guildhall of his missing an important City of London function, to attend an event at his eldest son’s school, the then Lord Mayor summoned him, to berate him for not doing his civic duty, and told him that “The City must always come first”.  My uncle calmly replied that, if that was the case, he would have to resign with immediate effect from his Guild responsibilities and cease being involved in Mansion House matters, as his family would always be his primary priority.  The Mayor, realising that he risked losing a great man’s support, was forced to back down and from that day onwards Chris successfully juggled the various aspects of his life.

Lord Mayor of London's golden coach
We, as a whole, were a close family, indeed my cousins were the nearest I had to siblings for the first decade of my life.  My father and Christopher had met when they did their National Service and formed a strong bond – after they had finished, they took a road trip across Europe on a pair of slightly unreliable motorbikes, then went on to study at Emanuel College Cambridge, where they forged a close group of friends who have lasted them a lifetime.  Christopher met my father’s sister, Anne, and fell in love.  Their marriage is the one I use as my benchmark for how married life should be: loving, supportive, fun and with sufficient mutual respect that either could challenge the other, in a gentle and caring manner, for the benefit of each and those around them.
Emanuel College, Cambridge
We lived on a hill and Christopher and Anne bought a wonderful house that was literally at the bottom of our garden.  I have happy memories of tobogganing, starting from outside my backdoor and whooshing all the way through our garden (with a tricky turn by the bamboo), through the narrow gate, that Chris had created to connect us, onwards down the steep, but straight, path that lead to my cousins’ house.  Nostalgia can induce a golden glow, but these were truly happy times.  Every Christmas my uncle would organise carol singing round our neighbourhood, to raise money for a local old people’s home, and we always ended the evening singing for and with the elderly for whom we were collecting, which all of us loved.  My sons now follow his example and we sing annually, a chance to do something meaningful with friends and to raise money for charities where we live.  Chris knew how to bring joy to others through simple actions and by being thoughtful.

My parents moved to Hong Kong when I was a child, but I had been enrolled in boarding school and so my aunt and uncle became my guardians.  I lived with them at half term and for parts of the holidays.  I was very privileged in that I was a loved member of two families.  Being with Chris I was able to experience what it was like to serve the community through a role in the City of London.  My uncle was a member of the Worshipful Company of Glovers and rose to be Master from 1981-1982, as well as Sheriff for London in 1985, a precursor to becoming Lord Mayor.  Since 1385, when the Court of Common Council stipulated that every future Lord Mayor should “have previously been Sheriff so that he may be tried as to his governance and bounty before he attains to the Estate of Mayor”, the shrieval year of an Aldermanic Sheriff is an obligatory trial run for would-be Lord Mayors of London.  I wonder if the UK or some companies would be better governed if potential PMs, Chancellors or senior executives had to prove their metal in a public role before taking up office.  Chris took his duties seriously and did much to enhance the community in which he served.  He had a knack of getting people to become enthused by his passion, so that, before they fully appreciated it, they had committed to help in a given project or task. I am sure that this is how he succeeded in getting Temple Bar back to London, with the eventual cost being borne by The Corporation of London, even though it was not technically the Corporation’s responsibility.  Chris was Chairman of the Temple Bar Trust from 1993 – 2004 and orchestrated the donation of Temple Bar to the Corporation in 2001.

Sir Christopher Collett, GBE
The pomp and grandeur of City functions was amazing – such beautiful settings, wonderful meals and a joy to be able to see and appreciate parts of London that only a few get to experience.  The sound of the trumpets in the Mansion House lives within me, as does the laughter of the children at the annual Mansion House Children’s Party, a wonderful event primarily for children from underprivileged backgrounds – the annual party was something my uncle remained involved with long after he ceased being an official.  Children loved being with him – he was always relaxed, natural and fun and he clearly enjoyed their company too.  As a teenager I learned skills, such as how to peel a grape at dinner using a knife and fork, and when and how to wear gloves on a formal occasion, talents that I will seldom use, but the reasons behind them and the experiences of doing them were not lost on me.  There is a tradition in The City of an after dinner Loving Cup – a long-established way of showing fealty and sharing a memorable event with others.  The symbolism of guarding colleagues’ backs, whilst they are occupied with a task in hand, has stuck with me. 

Mansion House dinner, City of London
Away from work and The City, Chris taught me how to relax and appreciate the wider world.  Both families used to holiday in Scotland most summers; precious memories of standing thigh-deep in a river, the sky fading from amethyst to dark mushroom, waiting for sea trout at dusk, with the midges swarming around us.  Fresh caught oatmeal-ed trout for breakfast – truly delicious (better than any mansion House dinner).  My uncle and I both learned to dry fly fish in England, with Dermot Wilson on the river Test.  Chris was surprisingly competitive – by challenging me to do better than him, he helped give me confidence and to teach me to persevere.  With him (and also my father, who still has the best cast of any man I know), I gained skills that eventually enabled me to found and run a fly fishing school to finance me through university.  I still find being on a river bank, with bob of a dipper or wagtail in the corner of my eye and the splash of a fish, can stir my soul.  And when I fish I can almost feel Chris with me.

Through his example, my uncle has encouraged me to:

  • be practical;
  • accept the support of those who love me;
  • keep things simple;
  • act according to my principles;
  • enlist support through enthusiasm;
  • care for those with me; and
  • appreciate the wonderful things around me. 

I can be accused of being partisan, however, I know that he was an exceptional man, who himself counted for and contributed so much to so many people.  I am so glad that my sons had a chance to spend a little time with him, before he succumbed to the illness that eventually killed him.  I am so lucky to have had him as a significant influence on me and my life (he died on 2nd December last year and he has left a huge hole for our family, his friends, the communities in which he lived and worked and also the wider arena).  People do count and some count for more than others.