Sunday, 23 June 2019

Take a Good Look at Yourself

I awoke this Saturday morning to news that police had been called to the home of Boris Johnson (the candidate currently in pole position to become the new Prime Minister of the UK) and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, due to their neighbours having concerns over Miss. Symonds’ and Mr Johnson’s safety.  I’m not sure that a private tiff should be headline news or that neighbours should be recording each other and sharing their recordings with the press. However, there is no doubt that the altercation has the potential to damage Boris Johnson’s reputation during his bid to lead the Conservative party. Certainly, the conduct and character of the person holding the highest political role in a country is important. Indeed the character of any leader, either in or outside of politics is significant. I work for a financial services business and we expect honesty and integrity from all our staff, indeed we would not hesitate to dismiss someone whom we discovered was not acting in the best interests of clients, had lied for their own gain and/or whom we found not to be treating colleagues and third parties with appropriate respect and consideration. What we do and how we come across is important and, I for one don’t spend sufficient time considering how I seem to those around me.

My boss gave me some constructive but challenging feedback last week – he told me that some people in the business suspect that I have favourites. That for me, as an HR Director, is a significant cause for concern. It is crucial that I am seen as impartial, fair and interested in everyone. I have given his comments a lot of thought (hence this blog) - it is true that one former colleague of mine from a decade ago, a supplier who agreed to jump ship and come in-house and one person I met via a charity we both support, have joined our team – they were recruited without my involvement, but I can see how people, without my being aware of it, might have felt unintentionally pressurised into offering a job to a person who had my initial recommendation. I am confident that each new member of my team has been able to demonstrate well above average skills, but I can see how their hiring could be misperceived.  I’d like to state that I am hugely proud of the people who were in HR when I arrived. The HR offering has changed significantly for the better and it is entirely down to the team. When I arrived I made a deliberate decision not simply to “replace the bulbs” (despite encouragement to do so from some quarters) – I knew that every person had skills and capabilities that would prove invaluable as we turned the business around. Much better to turn bulbs on and demonstrate that positive change can happen – HR has been at the forefront of much of our business transformation and we take pride in leading by example. I have an amazing team.

I genuinely try to treat everyone with equal consideration, but that does not mean that I shy away from difficult conversations when performance dips or when people do or say things that unsettle others. I appreciate that people don’t like it when I call things out, but it is the right thing to do. I know that there are some who are going through tough times, physically, financially, emotionally and mentally - I am grateful that they have let me know - and I have tried to be supportive and understanding. It did not occur to me that those with whom I was spending less time might feel that they were less valued as a result. In my mind, they were fortunate, in that their lives currently seemed less complicated than their colleagues’ and hence they did not need or want as much attention or reassurance. Each of us is different. Some people like to keep work and home very separate. However, perhaps the problem is me and that I haven’t listened well enough or they have not felt comfortable sharing aspects of their lives or problems with me.

Whilst on the subject of impact and impressions (and this post being somewhat confessional) - at the end of a meeting in my office yesterday a colleague made a joke about the messy state of my desk. I am comfortable working with a collection of papers and objects piled around me (it is a family trait I seem to have inherited from my academic grandfather, who co-invented the iron lung, and my lawyer father who was a recognised leader in his field), but perhaps I should be more mindful of the impression it creates on others. There has been lots of research into working space and tidiness. A survey conducted in 2018 on 2,000 UK based employees showed that 41% of workers believe that an organised space is key to doing a good job, but on the flip side, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs all had messy desks and they seem to have been quite productive. Indeed there is academic research that shows that people are more creative and better at problem solving when they operate within a more cluttered environment.
Mark Twain at his desk
Tidy desks only became expected when the industrial age really started taking hold and Dickensian clerks were being closely watched over. That doesn’t alter the fact that I should be more mindful. Various people at work’s words to me have been a wake up call to contemplate how I am seen by the people I live and work with.

I thoroughly enjoyed a recent trip with a much-loved and perspicacious friend to the National Portrait Gallery. One of the things that we discussed as we wandered through the 19th, 20th and 21st century galleries, all full of famous people, was the impression that each individual had wished to create through their portrait. Did the sitter choose the setting and expression, or did the artist decide that? I suspected that it depended on the sitter – if they were a grand patron or member of royalty they would have more control. What was the choice of lighting (candle or daylight) and why? Why did a number of portraits all share a similar trait (for example a physical one such as ruddy cheeks, perhaps to look like the monarch of the time, or all looking sideways towards the horizon rather than directly confronting the viewer – although many actresses of the same period  seemed to prefer to look you in the eye).
I enjoyed spotting small details that people used to convey messages – the bust of Sir Walter Scott was carefully carved to indicate that he was dressed in plaid and proud of being Scottish.  

James “Jem” Wharton, painted by the Liverpudlian artist William Davies, shows the highly successful boxer at the height of his career – he commenced fighting in 1833 and retired undefeated in 1840. He then ran a tavern in Liverpool as well as being a boxing trainer and promoter. The picture is a very early depiction of boxing gloves and they seem to indicate that Jem had been training before the painting was done, as gloves did not become mandatory in fights until after the adoption of the Queensbury Rules later in the century. 
What looks like a dashing Spanish shawl tied around his waist are in fact the “colours” from his latest victory (we still talk of sportspeople winning their colours – but they no longer wear them tied round their midriffs.) In Jem’s days wearing the colours were an important message, advertising his skill and success. Not all the portraits at the Gallery were intended to convey a meaning, the charming sketch of Jane Austen, done by her sister Cassandra, is just that, a frank family sketch painted simply to depict her likeness. Many have commented on the fact that, with the advent of photography, painted and drawn portraits of everyday people are becoming less common. Most of the 21st century pictures had clearly been commissioned. The picture of the chef, restaurateur and writer Fergus Henderson cradling a suckling pig in his arms was a particular favourite of my companion – it is witty and says so much in such a simple way.  

Fergus Henderson beside his portrait
now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery
Some leaders in business and politics are effective at using items to make a simple statement. I was particularly struck earlier this year by the dignity and compassion displayed by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, following the terrible killings in the mosques in Christchurch. Her wearing a headscarf said so much and was noticed around the world (and indeed her action was followed by many women in New Zealand to demonstrate their solidarity with the Moslem community).

Corporates can make decisions relating to the appearance of their staff that make a statement to the wider community – the mandatory wearing of high heels has been much debated, in contrast, this week Virgin Atlantic announced that it is no longer compulsory for female cabin crew to wear make-up.  Have you considered the subliminal messages provided by what you wear or don’t wear? One area for consideration is colour. There is a considerable amount of research into the psychology of colours and how they affect emotions, perceptions and reactions. Roman Emperors wore Tyrian purple because it made a statement (it was so expensive and difficult to make, relying on the death of at least ten thousands snails per toga).

Influential Puritans in Britain in the 17th Century reportedly wore black – it not only demonstrated that they were pious because they used no colour to adorn themselves, but also told people that they were successful and wealthy,
because a good quality black was hard to produce and hence expensive (the majority of puritans wore brown and indigo). Another aspect of appearance is hair (be it facial or the stuff on top of your head). I remember a bearded colleague once being introduced on his first day as the “soon to be no longer hirsute Mr X” - a clear message from our boss that he was expected to shave. More recently, I notice that Boris Johnston has trimmed his conventionally unruly mop of hair, presumably in a bid to widen his appeal amongst the Conservative electorate. I know that I look a bit wild at the moment, perhaps, now that I am trying to be more self aware, I’d better get my ends trimmed or even a professional bob instead of my flowing mane. What do you think?

When did you last take a good look at yourself?

"Man in the Mirror" - Michael Jackson

Sunday, 16 June 2019

A bit more than just the birds and the bees

Life has had a bit of a buzz to it over the past week. I went to the CIPD’s inaugural Festival of Work and had a wonderful time connecting with friends and contacts, putting faces to names and learning about new products and services. I particularly enjoyed hearing Garry Kasparov's thoughts on technology (below shows him speaking beside a picture of his beating  a number of computers simultaneously in 1985 - he famously lost to Deep Blue in 1997 - a moment he now sees as a triumph for humans, rather than his personal loss. He is confident that we have a great future ahead of us thanks to AI and technology.)

I also had the good fortune to attend a splendid garden party at Marlborough House (great fun, despite the rain). We were raising money for Bees For Development - a charity that helps disadvantaged people, living in some of the world’s poorest regions, to lift themselves out of extreme poverty through becoming beekeepers.  There was a fascinating display of traditional hives, these ones are from Africa: a bamboo hive from Uganda and a split cane one from Ethiopia - these would usually be plastered on the outside with a mixture of soil and cow dung and given a grass roof to protect from the rain). 

We were joined by some true Queen Bees of UK society, including Martha Kearney (a patron of the charity), Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall 

and Mary Berry (who was sporting a wonderful jacket covered in embroidered bees). 

Bees have been quite a focus for me.

Last weekend I gave a tour of my beehive to some neighbours, a delightful couple with their equally delightful teenage sons – they had won the viewing as a prize in a local charity auction. The bees behaved beautifully (and they have made some amazing wax constructions inside the hive where there was a gap in the brood box, which made the inspection even more interesting for my guests). 

I enjoyed explaining some of the weird facts about bees – did you know that:
  • the queen can select what sex egg she lays, but that her choice is based on the shape of the cell that the workers bees have made for her;
  • pollen is multi-coloured and so is honey (it all depends on the plant from which it originates);
  • a worker bee will usually live for up to 6 weeks but a queen can live for up to 5 years (it is believed that a bee lives for circa 500 miles of flight – an over-wintering bee, which flies less, can live for a number of months);
  • humans have been using bee products (wax and honey) for over 9,000 years;
  • honey is almost the only food that doesn’t go off and remains in an edible state (so ignore those “best before” labels) – jars of honey have been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs and their contents were found to be still edible;
  • the average bee will make a 12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime; and
  • the male bees (drones) have big eyes, furry backs and no stings (they also do very little to help with the work of the hive but get fed and cared for and are left to do their own thing until its time to buzz off and have sex).
We laughed about the number of similarities between bees and humans. All in all, my guests and I had a good time. However, this is not a post about bees or even their resemblance to people. It is what happened afterwards that made me think…
Drawing of a bee by Dame Judi Dench
one of a number of postcards auctioned at the Bee Garden Party
Late this afternoon, there was a knock on our door – the family had returned with two boxes of eggs as a thank-you gift, as they said that they had had such a good time. How wonderful! The eggs had been laid by their hens (London is more rural than many people think) and there were different types in each box – dinky little Bantam ones and a larger collection, coloured a delicate shade of blue, laid by Araucana hens. It was the eggs that have got my brain whirring and made me decide to blog.

Are chickens eggs any different if they have blue, white or brown shells? Are some better for you than others? Why do yolks vary in colour from deep orange to a pale yellow?

So this is, indirectly, becoming a post about diversity.

What makes you feel you are different? Is there a difference or are appearances deceptive and superficial? Why do we reject and fear people who are different to us? What can we do to overcome stereotypes? Why are some people “hen-pecked”, whilst others like to be dominant and “rule the roost”?

Perhaps we should start with the hens…

The claim that Brown eggs are better for you than white ones is a myth. All hens’ eggs have the potential to be the same in taste and nutritional value, regardless of the colour of their shell. The colour of egg that a hen lays is dictated by the colour of its ear lobe (yes, hens have earlobes – it is a small feather-free area just below the bird’s ear). Hens with white lobes lay white eggs, those with red or brown skinned lobes lay brown eggs.

Many people erroneously believe that brown eggs are more nutritious and/or taste better than white ones. It is true that they usually cost more, but this is primarily due to the fact that the hens that lay them are larger and hence require more food, so their eggs are more expensive to produce. White eggs, due to the smaller size of the birds, are more cost efficient for commercial egg farmers to produce than brown (or indeed blue or green), which is why they are more common in the shops. It is the hens’ diet and the environment where they live that makes the difference as far as nutrition is concerned; for example, hens that roam outdoors produce eggs with 3 to 4 times the vitamin D content of their indoor-reared, restricted counterparts that have no access to direct sunlight. The environment for the hen is important for the quality of the egg, as is the condition of the bird: stressed chickens and older, tired hens or those that are hen-pecked and hence last to get near food lay eggs with thinner shells.

"Dead Hen" by Elizabeth Frink, 1957
I see similarities between egg-laying hens and humans in the workplace (which is not to say that people are battery hens) – like the birds, most workers have little immediate control over their environment (even changing the temperature and air conditioning can prove problematical). I am convinced that every individual has the potential to produce great results – regardless of colour, race, background or size. Like chickens, people deliver better outcomes when they are in a place that they find stress-free, supportive and conducive towards their giving of their best. We each need a situation that suits our physical well-being, with daylight, fresh air, an appropriate ambient temperature for us not to be in discomfort, and adequate space, a workplace where we can perform well without feeling under undue pressure or fearing harassment or bullying from those around us. If you want to know more about how to create a fantastic workplace, I urge you to read Neil Usher’s excellent book: The Elemental Workplace.

Hens with their Young, by Edgar Hunt 1905
Hens, like humans, are not always kind to each other – there’s a reason why we use the phrase “hen-pecked”. It is true that hens have a pecking order with some dominant and others having to play a more submissive role in their community. The term ‘pecking order’ for hens was first coined in 1921 by Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe to describe the hierarchy of flock dynamics and it came into popular usage in the 1930s. A flock in the wild is as strong as its weakest member. There is a dominance hierarchy in many societies and it is closely linked to the survival of the fittest – it serves a useful purpose in that it prevents the need for constant fighting - it ensures that the most dominant in a group can have access to limited resources ahead of the others and thereby maintain health and strength. Hens will peck and drive away an ill or injured member of their flock (a survival trait that has remained as a behaviour amongst domesticated fowl). It is important not to introduce fewer than 2 hens at a time to an existing flock (and even then they need to be kept apart and integrated gently over a period of weeks), unless you wish to risk a bird being literally pecked to death. 

Introducing hens
Humans are unlikely to kill a new colleague; we are not hens – we are rational beings and can control our baser urges. However, we are often unfriendly and unwilling to allow a new employee to socialise with an existing group of friends. It can feel very lonely and isolating joining a new team. Try not to be bird-brained and foul (see what I did there); a little kindness towards others can make a big difference to a new colleague – you never know, you also might make a new friend.

We, like hens, need to be well cared for. It is true that an employer has a duty of care towards the workers. However, we also owe it to ourselves to be careful ourselves. There are things each of us can do to help keep ourselves physically and mentally, including, but not limited to:
  • exercising,
  • eating a balanced diet,
  • sleeping for long enough on a regular basis to enable our bodies and minds to recharge,
  • drinking sufficient water to meet our bodies’ needs,
  • giving ourselves time in an environment that helps with our personal well-being (this could be in a gym, an art gallery, a field or forest or by the sea or near water)
These all help us to remain healthy and productive. Do you make the effort to be kind to yourself?

And finally – time to answer that long-asked question – “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”  The answer is the egg: hard-shelled eggs were laid by reptiles long before chickens came into existence.

We can learn a lot from the birds and the bees.

Ukrainian painted egg