Sunday, 30 June 2013

Under the Weather

Despite the heading, this is not a post about health or well-being.  It is inspired by my getting fog-bound in Jersey on Friday afternoon (a bizarre occurrence given the blazing sunshine elsewhere in western Europe this weekend).  

The experience itself was like a farcical B-movie, where you knew at each stage what was going to happen, but were helpless to prevent the ensuing catastrophes.  My mid afternoon flight was initially delayed because the plane coming to collect us was unable to land and hence was diverted to Southampton until such time as the fog lifted.  Slowly, during the course of the afternoon passengers for both mine and other flights came and joined me in the airport lounge, much of human life was there: 

  • a nurse trying to get back to the UK in time for her shift at Southampton Hospital;
  • a worried daughter desperate to see her mother (just diagnosed with cancer);
  • a girlfriend keen to fly to Bristol to join her boyfriend and friends at Glastonbury; 
  • a wife’s birthday treat - being taken by her husband to enjoy centre court tickets at Wimbledon on Saturday;
  • grandparents-to-be hoping to reach Gloucester in time for an imminent arrival;
  • a man off on vacation, salmon fishing in Russia (clearly his longed-for treat for the year), provided that he made his connecting flight;
  • a delightful retired couple, who had enjoyed a week’s holiday on the Island, but who now were each looking forward to a cup of tea in their favourite mugs and a good night’s sleep in their own beds;
  • a small group of bankers and businessmen en route to their homes in Guernsey, after busy weeks in Paris and New York; and
  • me, trying to get home to be with my family, after a productive week with my team (it was our annual offsite, followed by two days with technical colleagues to decide our priorities and scope the enhanced  IT system we need to support us).

I am in no way a weather girl, but, back in the airport and looking out of the window, it was clear from the swirling tendrils of mist, (or rather, looking out of the window it was not clear, due to the swirling tendrils of mist), we had a problem.  Like an Agatha Christie murder mystery, slowly each flight was killed off.  The two Bristol-bound aircraft were initially amalgamated into a single journey on “a larger plane” - although where it was to materialise from was not clear, (the lady trying to get to Glastonbury retained her spark of hope) - before being cancelled at half six (her crushing disappointment was almost palpable).  The gentlemen bankers, trying to get home to Guernsey, spotted the problem before most of us (they were veterans of island weather) and they surreptitiously departed to secure places on the ferry that was due to leave for Guernsey at 8.00pm.  The tennis fans (a headhunter and his wife) also demonstrated their superior knowledge by hot-footing it to the ferry terminal to catch the overnight ship to Plymouth, which I subsequently learned docks at 6.30 am and hence would allow them sufficient time to reach Wimbledon.  Neither party shared their knowledge or plans with other beleaguered travellers - they simply grasped the opportunity and departed.  I only know because I was sent a message by one of them, shortly before their ferry docked, to tell me what they’d done and the headhunter emailed me just after 9.00 pm.  On being told about "the great escape", some less charitable than myself, observed to me that, you can always rely on bankers and recruitment specialists to look after their own interests before considering others.  I just wish I’d had their knowledge and foresight and then perhaps a few more could have reached the UK early on Saturday.  The worried woman with the sick mother would have appreciated knowing about the opportunity to take alternative transport; she could have done with the support.  Like the Glastonbury idealist, I clung to the hope that the airline would deliver what they cheerfully stated was probable - the plane in Southampton making the crossing and delivering us to London that night.  

Most of the scheduled flights were initially delayed for one or two hours before being reclassified as cancelled.  On being told that they would not be flying, groups of frustrated travellers were lead to Duty Free to return their purchases, before being notified of the date and time of the next flight available to them.  The nurse managed to locate a colleague able to take on her shift and so decided to return to her family and take up a different shift schedule.  The grand-parents-to-be opted for as soon a flight as they could get.  In many ways the most adversely impacted was the fisherman.  No tight lines for him.  He remained calm, but was clearly upset - by failing to get to the UK, he had missed his connecting flight to Russia, the earliest flight available was on Sunday and by then he would be unable to get to his destination in time to enjoy his vacation.  If only he had taken the Portsmouth ferry his situation might have been different.

We, the London City Airport flight, were the last to be cancelled, long after the other passengers had departed (and, when doing so, claiming the few remaining Saturday flights and hotel rooms).  The airport was closing as we, a motley crew, paraded through Duty Free and on to the desk to make fresh arrangements and/or to hear our proposed fates.  I was late leaving the departure lounge, as I had by this stage anticipated the likely situation to come.  Swiftly I made contact with a friend who was able to book me onto a flight online for Saturday morning, whilst I  and the others were being marched through the deserted departure hall.  There my forethought and good fortune ran out - I called the hotel I had been staying at, expecting them to welcome me back, only to discover that it was already full, as were four others I knew of in St Helier.  I had been talking with the retired couple earlier and, by chance, found them again behind me in the queue.  As they had been on the island for a holiday and not for business, their hotel, in a secluded spot away from the commercial bustle, was not full - they had already called and reserved a room.  They gave me the number and I too was in luck.  

The process of securing a flight off the island was chaotic.  The airline offered all impacted passenegers flights on Sunday but no accommodation or compensation prior to then.  Last October an EU court judgement clarified the rights of passengers to claim compensation and be provided with accommodation, if their flights are delayed by three or more hours, under EC Regulation 261/2004.  However, Jersey is not part of the EU and hence the airlines are not subject to the ruling.  The best flights offered in lieu of the ones cancelled were late on Sunday - two days later.  No hotels or rooms were provided at all.  

None of us, who had yet to secure alternative flights, wished to lose what was potentially the only flight available to us (the majority of direct flights on Saturday and early Sunday having already been taken by earlier casualties), but at the same time people were being forced to use whatever means they could to make other arrangements in the short time available before the desk closed.  By the time my elderly companions and I reached the check-in desk to accept what was offered, book an alternative flight or request a refund, all the obvious flights were full.  The process was very strange - the airline did not suggest flights, despite having access to technology available to inform them, we were made to guess at flights and, if successful in naming one were then made to wait for agonising minutes whilst the airline staff assessed availability of seats.  It was one of the most disorganised experiences I have endured for a while.  

As you know, I had already secured my flight but the elderly couple with me were not as fortunate (and had no access to a useful friend miles away who could make a reservation on-line).  I am pleased to report that I was able to return the favour of the hotel room, by notifying them of a flight that most passengers were unaware of, as it only operates in the summer months.  I have recently been running a leadership development programme in Cambridge and when making arrangement for attendees had noticed that there was a direct flight between Jersey and Cambridge for a few months of the year.  Fortuitously, the couple lived just outside Cambridge and the flight, being unknown to many would-be-travellers, was not full.  We were a happy trio who toasted our good fortune, when we reached our destination for the night.  We had a wonderful fresh crab and Jersey Royal supper to celebrate.

I have learned much from the experience.  Just watching how people responded to the situation we found ourselves in was a lesson in human interactions and drivers and the same behaviours can be observed every day at work, namely:
  • optimism in an outcome, that a simple assessment of the evidence available would prove to be unfounded;
  • self interest, potentially to the detriment of the greater good;
  • the need to keep abreast of developments or risk failure;
  • the benefits of collaboration;
  • the value of technology; and
  • the pleasure to be gained from working together to achieve a goal and celebrating afterwards.

I wish you all a wonderful week ahead...I'm off to Jersey again on Wednesday.  I hope the weather is good.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Difficult Discussions

I often wonder why people in the corporate environment are so sensitive about feedback.  If we were athletes or sportsmen, we would welcome suggestions as to how we can enhance our performance.  However, many employees find “constructive criticism” difficult – in tough economic times it can make individuals feel that their position is insecure, the resultant worry reducing their contribution further  and potentially having a knock on effect on others.  When the market starts picking up, it is your disengaged employees (good performers as well as bad) who will be the first to take up opportunities elsewhere.

We all know that performance reviews are a crucial part of modern corporate life – if people don’t know how they are doing, how can they improve?  Without effective key performance indicators (KPIs) how can we measure how well employees and the business are doing and ensure that everything is on track?  Data is becoming increasingly important, but it is crucial to remember that the employees who make a business succeed are people and not just numbers in a spreadsheet or a formula.  Even when having “difficult conversations” – such as informing an employee that they have not met required levels of performance or behaviour, you should take care to be calm, professional and informative.  Here are a dozen simple actions and approaches that can make a meeting easier for both parties:

  • Don’t delegate the discussion to someone else, if you are nervous or feel that having a witness is necessary, bring a colleague or member of HR but let the employee know that you are doing so;
  • Come prepared and hold the meeting in a suitable place with no distractions or interruptions;
  • Remain calm – for any professional manager this discussion should be about their team member’s performance and should never disintegrate into a character assassination nor be used as an opportunity to humiliate someone;
  • Have facts to hand to substantiate your comments (such as the mutually agreed objectives and specific examples of where performance and results have fallen short);
  • Remember that performance = ability x motivation;
  • Determine whether the person is capable of doing what is expected - do they have the aptitude, training and necessary resources?;
  • It is easy to ask someone whether they have what they need to do a job;their answer (and the way they say it) will probably tell you much of what you need to know about their approach, frustrations and attitude.  The simple fact that you have asked for their input may go a long way towards resolving a problem, because you have signalled that you are interested and prepared to help;
  • Be willing to listen to the other person’s point of view – there may be facts and circumstances that you are unaware of;
  • If they cite external factors as the reason for poor performance, look into their claims; sometimes people find it easier to blame others before admitting to their own weaknesses, but if they are correct there may be other issues that also need to be resolved;
  • Verify whether they are willing to make the required effort to do the job well and, if not, find out why not;
  • Don’t wait until the meeting to inform an employee that you are disappointed with their contribution – a good manager has regular discussions with their team members and both parties should know how things are going at any stage of the year; and
  • Remember to comment on the things a person has done well, in addition to discussing the areas for improvement – if you leave some of these points until near the end of the meeting both parties are more likely to leave in a positive frame of mind.
Remember this dozen
People usually respond better to praise than criticism – Aesop’s fable of the Sun and the North Wind competing to get the traveller to remove his cloak has a sound moral message.  Gentle warmth towards others will often achieve results faster than harsh words and hostility. 

Increasingly work is becoming less repetitive task orientated and is requiring individuals to use their initiative and knowledge to achieve complicated and sophisticated outcomes.  Incentivising performance is a conventional way of encouraging people to perform as required.  However, rewards do not have to be financial (indeed, money is often not the most effective motivator 

as demonstrated in Daniel Pink’s excellent talk at the RSA (one of my favourite RSA Animates):

Simple praise, granting autonomy, staying in touch throughout the year, being interested and saying thank you for work well done, can often achieve more, through motivating and engaging an individual, than a manager will ever do through demoralising criticism in the annual review.

So here's to "getting better" at treating people like people and hence getting the best out of them (with thanks to the Beatles).

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Sweet Rebel

Very occasionally in life you meet someone whom you know is extraordinary, who genuinely has an impact on the world around him or her and can be seen to be making making history, for me, Mott Green was such a man.  Mott was born in 1966 and grew up in New York and Oregon.  His real name was David Friedman and he came from an impressive academic and professional family descended from Russian Jewish immigrants - his father a respected physician, his uncle a genuine rocket scientist, young David was expected to follow in the family tradition of landing a well-paid and respectable job after graduating.  Mott was highly intelligent and could have succeeded in almost any field he chose, he was also a rebel and he found his cause...
Mott fell in love with Grenada and its people, it is where he chose to live, but he is probably best known for being a chocolate anarchist on both the local and global stage.  Much is said in modern business circles about the value of being disruptive, we espouse the value of being “Punk" in approach or “hacking” to amend and enhance the existing system - certainly, innovation and creative solutions require what can feel like significant change.  However, for many this is simply tinkering with the engine and not a from-the-bottom-up redesign.  

By training Mott was an engineer and he seemed almost at his most comfortable building things (from brave concepts to tangible, working objects to achieve his objectives).  He was clearly happiest when challenging convention and bettering the status quo.   Knowing him as I did, I can vouch for his being a passionate visionary with extraordinary drive and tenacity.  His enthusiasm was infectious and he had a wicked sense of humour.  This short video (a trailer for the wonderful film "Nothing Like Chocolate", in which he played a starring role) will give you a taste of the man, his values, extraordinary abilities and achievements:   He had charm which concealed a core of steel, but he also showed immense compassion to those who needed it and invariably stood for what he saw as right, be that :

  • helping a rural farming community;
  • making a stand against discrimination and abuse (including child slave labour);
  • speaking out against the global exploitation that is the model for the majority of the chocolate industry; 
  • taking action against climate change;
  • building an award winning factory with his bare hands;  and 
  • doing more to reduce the carbon footprint of his business than any other entrepreneur I know.  

He was, in every way, inspirational.  He rewrote the rules and enabled value to be added at the source.  He made me laugh, he made me think and over the past couple of days he has made me cry.  He died unexpectedly at the weekend - electrocuted whilst mending some kit (not the in the factory, which is, I am pleased to say, continuing to produce its exceptional chocolate).  I and many others mourn his loss, but we should also celebrate an amazing life.  I know few who could do what he has done and the legacy he has created speaks for itself - it is an inspiration to all who wish to improve the world.  

Nyran taking wet beans out of cocoa pods in Grenada
Mott discovered his love for chocolate as a 15 year old boy, when accompanying his father to Grenada on a visit to the medical school.  Mott became fascinated by the fat pods encasing plump beans; the harvested crop, hulled and separated from the white pulp inside the pods, lying in piles, like russet brown pebbles, to dry in the Caribbean sunshine; the dapple of light through the leaves in the rainforest, where the cocoa plants grew; the pods hanging like Chinese lanterns and the taste of the fresh white pulp that surrounds the beans - sweet with a slight citrus tang (like passion fruit) - the raw beans themselves almost unpleasantly astringent, nothing like the processed chocolate that he knew from New York.

Cocoa pods
He was swift to realise that, although most of the beans are grown in the southern hemisphere, the majority of chocolate producers are located in the northern hemisphere, where there is a lucrative market for the luxury product.  Confectioners and other industrialists bought cocoa (often harvested by child labour), imported it, processed it into chocolate and were able to make a significant mark-up.  Mott noticed first hand the inequalities within the industry. A few years later, on returning to Grenada (have dropped out of university and spending some time in a commune), after living in the rain forrest for a while, he decided to settle on the island.  

The Grenadian rainforest
Inspired by the disparity in the cocoa trade, he dedicated his life to enabling production of world-class chocolate, from bean to bar, in the location where the cocoa grows.  In 1999 Mott founded the Grenada Chocolate Factory, with two friends.  He literally built a chocolate factory, welding pieces and using salvage to make machines based on designs from the 1900's (when there were more small artisanal chocolatiers in Europe), but powered by solar energy, to achieve his dream.  If you wish to know more about how chocolate is produced in a small Grenadian factory, here is the process:

Edmond roasting cocoa beans, Grenada Chocolate Factory
He slept in a small store area of the factory and worked tirelessly to establish the operation on the island.  He encouraged local farmers to join his cooperative, paying them and him the same wage and taught them how to produce world class crops without resorting to harmful pesticides or environmentally damaging fertilisers.   One of the things that made Mott stand out from other cocoa producers and chocolate makers was his determination to be “green”, ethical and fair.  He declined to sign up to Fair Trade, as he felt that the approach of shipping produce to processors in wealthier countries, for them to capitalise on its value was unjust.  Instead he taught the local farmers how to enhance their crops and trained people from the island to produce high calibre chocolate (despite the problems of doing so in such a hot and humid climate).  
Kimon moulding chocolate bars, Grenada Chocolate Factory
Last year he took this one stage further and, using the power of the Trade Winds, he brought his bars of chocolate to consumers in Europe on a sailing ship.  This year he arranged to reduce the carbon footprint of his chocolate even further, by having the bars collected off the boat and delivered across Holland by cyclists.  I am so sad knowing that he will not see this dream become a reality when the ship makes land in less than a fortnight  You can read the poignant last post on Mott’s blog:

Mott, standing by the moored Tres Hombres
prior to delivering chocolate by wind power to Europe
His dreams have become a reality, he has made a better world and enhanced life for many (myself included).  We should all take inspiration from him and what he has achieved.  If you have a dream and the willingness to pursue it with tireless determination, it is amazing what can be done.

This wonderful song, co-written by Mott, celebrating the cocoa bean and the ethical production of chocolate, seems to me a fitting epitaph and ending for this post...  Please listen and smile in recognition of a wonderful man.

Cocoa pods - grown in Grenada and used for making chocolate