Thursday, 31 October 2013

Be Fruitful

Last week I found myself as Key Note speaker at the Financial Services HR Leaders’ Strategy Meeting 2013 in London - a first for me, as having damaged my hip, I had to speak to whilst sitting down.  I hope people didn't think I was being rude.  I am indebted to a fellow Human Resources Director, who unexpectedly had to pull out of the conference, not only for the opportunity but also for his title: What does “strengthen your core, innovate your business” mean for HR in Financial Services?  Given that today is Halloween, a day on which apple bobbing is a traditional pastime, I thought I’d swiftly share with you the points I covered in my talk, many of which centred on fruit and fruitful approaches.

As you know, I firmly believe that you reap what you sow.  When I was at school, there was a girl in my class called Sarah.  For some reason, Sarah really irritated one member of staff and I remember this teacher yelling at Sarah
“You are rotten, rotten to the core.” 

This is a shocking thing to shout at anyone, but potentially a devastating statement for a young girl hitting puberty.  Sarah was shocked and hurt and spent much time mulling the phrase over.  Eventually she decided that, if she was already a lost cause there was little point in trying to be an obedient and studious pupil.  Sarah became a rebel and, to my mind, her decision can be traced back to the expectations expressed of her and they way that she was spoken to.  Admittedly, there are occasions when telling an individual that they are potentially doomed to be a failure can drive their behaviour the other way.  My father’s office was next that of the father of a boy who was seen as different, a troublesome handful at school.  His headmaster told him that

“You will either go to prison or become a millionaire”

The father was so exasperated by his son’s conduct that it fell to family friends, such as my father, to give the lad funds to establish a small magazine (initially a school publication) that grew into a national student magazine with interviews with Mick Jagger and John Lennon, and which was the first entrepreneurial success for young Richard Branson.  Some people need a challenge to spur them on.  Much depends on how you react to the way you are perceived by others.

As Marcellus famously says to Horatio in Hamlet, there is

“Something rotten in the state of Denmark”

And one could claim a similar opinion towards the state of Banking.  Certainly, Financial Services as a whole have not been well perceived since the Financial Markets crisis of 2007-2009 and it is not hard to see why.  The wasp-like Media has feasted on a glut of issues, including:

  1.  UBS being accused of concealing assets
  2.  RBS, HSBC, Standard Chartered and others allegedly involved in money laundering
  3.  J.P. Morgan Chase - $7 Billion trading mishap and more recent problems
  4.  Barclays settles re Libor rate rigging
  5.  Anglo Irish Bank directors recorded planning to deceive regulators
  6.  ING named for aiding illicit Iranian and Cuban transactions
  7.  Capital One accused of deceiving customers
  8.  Occupy Wall Street
  9.  Mis-selling of insurance by retail banks & credit card providers
  10. 80% of the world’s 26 banking and finance unions have cited stress as a major problem for their members – UNI survey 16 Oct 2013
  11. Huge pressure on staff - since 2008 the big 4 banks have cut around 180,000 jobs 

Financial Services’ reputation has been badly damaged, as Casio says to Iago in Othello:

“Oh I have lost my reputation I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial.”

The only thing that can restore the institutions’ reputations and the trust of their customers and clients is the conduct of the people who work within them.  People working in Financial Services must do what is right.  As Douglas Adams once said:

“To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.”

HR’s area of expertise is people and hence now is the time when HR should shine.

To be taken seriously, HR needs to prove itself to be commercially astute and have the strength to stand up for what is right and in the long-term, sustainable interests of the industry, as opposed to caving in to short-term greed and personal gain.  I have mentioned before the situation with the pear orchards in Sichuan where it was believed that a greater commercial harvest could be reaped by eliminating insects that damaged the fruit.  Powerful insecticides were utilised that destroyed all insects – now, due to the lack of pollinators, men have to climb the trees and pollinate the blossom by hand.  HR needs to speak out and address the shortcomings in strategic plans and proposed behaviours.

HR needs to be brave and when necessary make the hard decisions – all orchards are enhanced by judicious pruning.

There is much to be said for focusing on core business activities when times are tough.  Some topical examples include:

  • Twitter, which is concentrating on its mobile offering going forward as that is where it anticipates most customer usage in the years ahead
  • Burberry which has turned itself around by strengthening its core retail offering thereby producing 17% growth – it as also interesting to note that Apple launched its latest handset on the Burberry catwalk – an indication perhaps of closer connections to come.

Apple, of course, has traditionally been hailed for its focus on innovation. Collaboration and Innovation are two key buzzwords being used to explain the anticipated success of leading businesses going forwards.  When done well, innovation can be the key to success much like the appeal of the unusual citrus tree below (clever grafting has enabled grapefruit, oranges, limes, lemons and clementines to be harvested simultaneously).

But you need to take care not to overdo it.  This apple tree has 250 varieties of apple but the man who created it can no longer name or remember each type without assistance.

Over the past year I have worked hard with fellow executives to introduce some innovative approaches and roles within my own employer.  We know and are proud of the fact that we provide a unique offering for our clients based on understanding and trust.  HR has earned its place and has a voice that is listened to when considering our strategic direction and drivers for success.  I urge you to look at your offering and business model, truly understand what your clients value and work to ensure, through relationships based on integrity, that both you and they can thrive.  It is HR’s role to ensure that the businesses we work for and the employees within them are well organised, flourishing and fruitful.  Like the honeybee, HR can bring a little sweetness to the world.

Fruit trees at Highgrove House

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Frail Strands

“...the strands that connect us are frail, so don’t hang great weights on slender wires...” - John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

This time a week ago I was sitting in a wheelchair in Accident & Emergency, waiting for doctors to determine how much damage I had done to myself in a car accident.  Like many, I was not in the habit of wearing a seat belt in the back of a London Black Cab (London traffic is so slow - what’s the point?  The rear of a traditional taxi feels like a secure bubble of safety away from the bustle outside, so it is easy not to appreciate the need to belt up.  Most of my friends don’t bother...)  Let me be a lesson to you.  I learned the hard way, after an ignominious period spent trapped, with my nose pressed to the floor of the cab, unable to lift myself as I had lost the use of my legs - I did find some forgotten objects under the front seat, including a large grey cash box and some spare change, but that was small consolation to either the driver or myself.  The cabby was brilliant, once we had realised that I was in no state to make the meeting I was en route to attend, he bought me some water (I was in shock and felt sick), he drove me to hospital (ironically one of the ones where I am a Governor), he found the wheelchair and wheeled me to A&E, he would have stayed with me too if my son had not come to be with me.  With hindsight, there was much value to being a “mystery shopper” in the hospital; I can honestly say, with one exception, I was enormously impressed by the attitude and care shown to me and to other patients by all the staff I met.

I spent a while in “Triage”, the area where the severity of each patient’s condition is determined, so that treatment can be prioritised (demands on the UK health service are such that not everyone can be treated immediately).  

Triage as a concept commenced during the Napoleonic Wars (the word comes from the French trier - to separate or sift) and French doctors used the approach in World War I, dividing casualties into:
  • Those who will probably live, regardless of what care they receive
  • Those who will probably die, regardless of what care they receive
  • Those for whom swift care might make a positive difference.

In corporates we often apply a similar approach to people and their performance.  We focus on the employees who are not perfect and see if we can make them better.  There are many articles exposing the fact that managers usually concentrate their efforts on individuals who make the most noise and those who demand immediate attention, as well as on the people where they feel that it is possible to produce a positive outcome for all parties.  We usually ignore the good performers, presuming that, because they are doing what is asked of them, they are happy.

I think most businesses would benefit from spending a bit longer considering how they treat their good performers, especially when they are allowing others to get away with sub-standard work and attitudes.  Increasingly I am of the opinion that it is crucial for organisations to think more about the impact that their demands have on those they value and the others in their teams.  It is common practice in most organisations for managers to rely on a chosen few, who have proven themselves capable of producing good work, even ignoring others who might also be good performers, because there is a degree of comfort in asking someone to do something and knowing that the task will be done on time and to the standard required.  The people being overlooked often complain that they are not developing required skills and hence are being denied career progression, but we seldom think of the impact our continuous demands have on the few doing the work.

People are frail and it is easier to hurt them than you might think.  Employers would do well to realise that it only takes one final small thing to change an individual’s attitude from being flattered that they are relied upon to feeling overwhelmed by their bosses’ demands and becoming disgruntled, believing that everything is dumped on them, when they can see others around them not under similar pressure.  What was once acceptable is no longer OK.  Nobody likes to feel that they are being taken advantage of.  

“Organisations need talented people a lot more than talented people need organisations.” - Dan Pink, said at the HR Tech Europe Conference in Amsterdam last week

Engagement Surveys seldom offer sufficient granularity for managers to know whether their best performers are inspired by their work or disengaged (I am only aware of one piece of recent research that looked at the link between individual performance and employee engagement - Leadership IQ’s survey released in April 2013 - rather worryingly, it showed that in 42% of the companies studied low performers were more engaged than medium or high performers  If a company MD or CEO was told that the firm’s top clients were unhappy and planning to take their business elsewhere, as a matter of urgency, they would go and talk with them to sort matters out, as they are too valuable to lose.  Leaders need to make a similar effort to speak with and provide an environment that will retain top employees.  Over the years I have chatted with rising stars in a wide variety of organisations and many have told me that they do not aspire to the life they see others higher up the tree experiencing.  Long hours, lengthy periods away from family and loved ones, little consideration from the top downwards and not even a “thank you” for the sacrifices made - it’s no wonder that rising stars find a “toxic” culture unappealing.  An environment that forces top performing employees to have to choose between having a life or a successful career will not encourage those following in their footsteps to wish to stay.   Increasingly people, especially the good ones, have a choice. 

It is a human reaction, when confronted with a tight deadline to turn to a reliable high performing employee in the team for support.  However, this can become a dangerous dependency, which results in the top performer being put under unnecessary, repetitive stress, leading to disengagement and potential burn out.  Employers need to break the cycle that constantly puts pressure on star performers.  In our incessantly demanding, technologically connected world, it is unrealistic, as well as inconsiderate, to expect a few always to work excessive hours and to be on constant call.  What is required is a sustainable approach, one that ensures long term success instead of short term delivery.  This was highlighted in the Towers Watson research of November 2012 

The success route to ensuring retention of star employees is outstanding management from authentic and empathetically intelligent leaders.  It is usually the little, irritating day-to-day factors that make a person want to leave a company (and top of this list is poor and inconsiderate management); in the same way it is the small things that can make all the difference and encourage a person to stay.  A genuine thank you, indicating that you really understand an individual and what they have done (perhaps refer to what you know they have missed outside work to help you) - it shows how well you know them and what makes them tick.  You could suggest, before they ask, that they come in late on the morning that their child is performing in the school assembly, as a gesture to make up for the extra hours they have put in, or offer them an afternoon off or early departure, so that they can go to a gig or see a show.  Can you arrange for them to meet someone whom they respect and admire?  A get well card, phone call or flowers when they are off sick is a nice personal touch which shows you care.  Let them know that you are aware of the hours they put in.  Discuss their work load and seek their suggestions as to whom they think could benefit from learning to do certain tasks, so that the workload is better shared and the team can operate more as a unit.

As I know to my own cost, I tore the ligament in my left hip in the accident last Friday, people are fragile, but a little care goes a long way towards making things feel better.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Time Gentlemen Please

I’ve had a very busy fortnight and at times wished I owned a Time-Turner, like the one used by the character Hermione Granger in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, it would have enabled me to be in two places at once.  As it was, between Thursday and Monday last weekend, I drove over 1,000 miles, went to an uplifting concert, escorted my mother to hospital for a significant operation, produced meals for my sisters and aunt, drove across England, (collecting my father en route) to attend a splendid dinner in Cambridge in celebration of 30 years since my matriculation, chatted with precious friends until 3.00 am, breakfasted with old Hong Kong hands who remembered my father from when he was Attorney General, dashed to London for lunch with my in-laws and then drove my youngest son back to his school, before continuing on to Somerset to resume my nursing duties.  At every stage I was reminded of how precious time is and the importance of relishing each moment.

Dinner for the Matriculants of '83
Queens' College Cambridge
Certain seconds stand out like gems on a tiara:

Cambridge Lovers' Knot Tiara
owned by UK Royal Family
  • the look in my mother’s eye as she waited, afraid, on the trolley before being given anaesthetic and wheeled into theatre; 
  • the feisty glint that returned when, back in the ward, her consultant came to tell her how pleased he was with the operation’s outcome; 
  • sitting beside her bed, each of us using an ear bud, listening to the illicit recording of The Sixteen that I had made while we heard them perform in Wells Cathedral the night before she was admitted to hospital (I also bought the CD but had insufficient time to upload it, so I am sure I’ll be excused - their sublime singing kept two women calm) - her grandsons would have been proud of her - not only was she listening to music, but also she was embracing technology (a first for her), reading the first chapter of Wolf Hall on a screen;
  • my father’s laughter as he and I struggled to close his case before commencing our drive;
  • tying his bow tie for him as it was proving troublesome - it was the tie he had worn at Cambridge when he was a student, a symbolic item in so many ways - my father lived abroad when I was a student and my parents’ marriage was becoming irreparably broken at the time, so he did not share my student days with me and, although he has memories of attending a graduation ceremony which he believes was mine, it was that of my step sister Jemima - “tying the knot”, so to speak, forged a symbolic bond between us;
  • thirty years late, it was magical to share something with a very special man.  We had lunch at Fitzbillies (just a cake shop when each of us were students), walked together to Queens’  - my college is a coffer full of architectural gems including a true Tudor long gallery, where we had drinks with the President and members of the college; we crossed the Mathematical Bridge hand-in-hand and we both enjoyed chatting with my contemporaries over dinner in the William Morris restored Medieval Hall;
  • seeing Daddy, his face alight with pleasure, sharing memories with people who knew and love Hong Kong;
  • the glow of love in my mother-in-law’s face as she watched the four men she adores most in the world having lunch with her; 
  • seeing the same look on my mother’s face the following day when surrounded by her daughters and sister; and
  • the lip-licking anticipation and sighs of satisfaction when my bottomless-pit-of-a-hungry-schoolboy son shared a delectable Chinese meal with me and the grin he gave when we finished. 

The above list are all personal moments special to me.  I have no doubt that you too have memorable instances that stand out from the past week or year.  The thing that struck me most was how important it is to appreciate the “now” when we have it, rather than worrying about what is to come or fretting about the past.  That brings me to the kernel of this post - the value of effective time management - both at work and at home.

Research has shown that the average person at work gets one interruption every eight minutes, which is circa seven an hour, equalling 50-60 per day.  Most interruptions last five minutes, so it follows that a typical person spends half their working day responding to interruptions.  It is also worth noting that 44% of interruptions are claimed to be self-created by the person whose work is being interrupted.  When asked people have admitted that 3/4 of the interruptions they respond to are of little significance, so most of us waste three hours each working day on stuff that is of little value (  In addition, it usually takes a person on average 23 minutes to become as immersed in a matter as they were prior to the interruption.  That’s a lot of wasted time every day.  There are no simple solutions, other than being more self disciplined and removing distractions when you really need to focus (time to turn off Twitter, email, texts and the phone with all its addictive apps - I wonder how many human hours have been spent on Candy Crush).

One trick that might help free up some time is enhancing your reading rate.  The average reading speed is circa 200 words per minute.  The typical working person reads for two hours per day.  Speed reading courses can improve an individual’s reading rate to 400 words per minute - that could find you an extra hour per day.  However, we don’t make things easy for ourselves - research has demonstrated that 100 characters per line is the ideal length for on-line speed reading, but that is not what people like to have on their screen.  Despite reading longer lines lengths (100 characters per line) faster, people prefer short or medium line lengths (45 to 72 characters per line).

Perhaps the best approach is simply to ensure that we enjoy what we are doing and hence  are less likely to look for ways to distract ourselves from the task in hand.  When an action is meaningful (such as putting surgical stockings on elderly legs prior to an operation) it is no longer a trial nor a chore; the reasons behind doing something menial or tedious give that task value and purpose and there is a huge sense of satisfaction when it is achieved.  As I know from some of the occurrences in my eventful week, there is little better than having a good laugh - the surgical stockings reduced both my mother and I to tears as we struggled to get them on to her frail legs - fitting a camel through the eye of a needle seemed like an easy job compared to getting teal blue compression stockings over her ankles and up to her knees.  Laughter is proven to lower levels of stress hormones and strengthen the immune system.  Perhaps that’s why compression socks are tricky...its hard not to laugh when struggling with them.  Six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day.  Adults only laugh 15 to 100 times a day.  How sad that the majority of us lose a habit that clearly is beneficial.  By openly enjoying what we do and sharing that pleasure with others, we could make work and our broader lives an even better experience.  Treasure what you have, while you have it, as Van Morrison sings in the following song, “Precious Time is slipping away.”