Sunday, 25 September 2011

Shouting At The Rain

I had a weird dream last night about the Minotaur – half man half beast rampaging its way through the dark and complex labyrinth of tunnels under the palace of Knossos.  Remnants of the dream have lingered – betrayal, loss, omissions and subterfuge – it could be a metaphor for the current troubles in Greece, the Eurozone and the world as a whole (or perhaps it was simply too much cheese for supper!).  So this morning, whilst regaining my perspective, I reminded myself of the Greek legend and found elements I had forgotten – when Theseus comes to Crete to kill the monster and hence prevent the on-going sacrificial deaths of Athenian maids and youths, both of King Minos’ daughters fall in love with him.  Ariadne, the elder, is well-remembered for supposedly helping Theseus through the maze by giving him a ball of twine to follow to retrace his steps.  On his return to mainland Greece, Theseus abandons Ariadne on the Island of Naxos and returns home with her sister, Phaedra, who subsequently becomes his wife.  I had forgotten that prior to his departure, Theseus had promised his father that, if he survived the ordeals in Crete, he would fly white sails on his ship to indicate that he was safely returning on board.  His omission caused his father so much distress from the thought that his son had died, that it drove him to suicide prior to the ship reaching harbour.  It is both a Greek tragedy and also an illustration of the fact that Man is slow to learn, often inconsiderate and clearly has not changed much over the centuries.

We need to find a way of learning from our mistakes and the errors of others, or else, as Rob Jones, the leading L&D expert, once said to me, we are simply
shouting at the rain when we should be finding an umbrella”.
Rob’s neat phrase states a lot – it emphasises the fact that it is up to each individual to take responsible action when in a difficult situation and it stresses the futility of words when deeds are needed.  Churchill made a similar point in a speech to the House of Commons on 12 November 1936, as clouds darkened over Europe:
“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.
We in business are familiar with cause and effect – cunning Reward strategies and incentive schemes are devised that rely on the rationale behind the theory, as indeed are innovative training and development programmes and ways of attracting customers.  The big retailers have become so proficient at predicting shopping trends through cause and effect that within hours of a forecast barbeque provisions are available in the aisles as sunny weather is predicted and the number of soups and comfort foods on the shelves increase when the temperature drops.  It is this basic consumerism of Western Society and similar expectations now occurring in the Developing World that has got us into the current global predicament.  Each of us has contributed in a way.  We search for credit cards, mortgages and loans with the lowest APR of interest rate, we expect a return on our investments be it the deposit rate in our savings account or a growing pension pot – it is not surprising that banks were prepared to take significant risks with the money they held, as they were (and indeed still are) under pressure to provide what their customers demand, as well as covering their own overheads and providing a return for shareholders.

Few of us think when we buy beans or asparagus in the shops about the environmental costs of getting these goods to us.  In addition to the air-miles required to deliver out-of-season produce to demanding consumers, the actual cultivation of these vegetables, often grown in countries such as Kenya or Peru, can take its toll on the local environment (agricultural irrigation in Kenya has had a significant impact on water levels in lakes such as Naivasha, the primary fresh water resource for a significant local community, as has the leaching of chemicals into the local water system).  However, there is a contrasting argument to the carbon footprint of food production – countries such as Kenya or Peru tend to rely on manual labour rather than tractors and hence have a less heavy carbon footprint in production terms, and nurturing the crops provides much needed work/income for local people.  In addition, at certain times of the year it is better to buy imported goods than locally produced ones.  We, the consumer, expect year-round availability of the goods that we like, for example apples.  If UK apples are to be provided throughout the year they would need to be stored in refrigerated units – the impact of ten months’ refrigerated storage is greater than the carbon footprint impact off flying in Gala apples from New Zealand.   However, all of the above illustrations miss the point – the cause of the problem is the consumer demand for out-of-season produce, rather than the carbon footprint, which is an effect.  If we were content to eat what is in season and wait for the availability of once a year of crops such as asparagus, we could have a much more positive impact on the environment.

As some of you know, my eldest son has just returned from travelling in Asia, prior to commencing at university (yes I am aware of the carbon footprint created by his trip).  While he was in Laos he visited an amazing waterfall out in the rainforest near Luang Prabang – a beautiful spot for a secluded swim if you happen to be in the area.  Just near the falls is an enclosure, a sanctuary for rescued Sun Bears.  They are wonderful creatures – a bit like the children’s book character Paddington - but dark, their pelt is almost black, with a golden crescent in the fur across their chests.  The Sun bear is one of the most endangers bears.  They are hunted for their gallbladders, which are used in Asian medicine, and their meat is popular.  Much of their rainforest habitat has been destroyed by logging and farming and the logging roads provide easy access for hunters.  War and military action in the region has also destroyed the land on which they live and has equipped would-be hunters with guns.  Little is known about the Sun Bear and its role in the eco system, but there is no doubt that Man’s actions have caused the rapid decline in its numbers over recent years.  The ultimate impact of their loss has yet to be seen.

The cause and effect see-saw is visible in so many of our current predicaments – economic, social, political and environmental.  We seem to lurch from crisis to crisis, with increasingly briefer periods of apparent calm and plenty in between.  As our numbers increase and our ability to communicate swiftly around the globe enhances, the lulls between the crises get shorter – this may be in part due to viral reactions such as have recently been seen in dealing rooms around the globe, as well as the speed with which the Media can transmit information – there is more than a little truth in the phrase that “When America sneezes the world catches a cold”.  Prior to the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, the impact we had on the world around us was sustainable – there were only about 500 million people on the earth in 1650.  The Industrial Revolution and development of Science and Technology, especially of Medicine, together with the colonisation of new lands has led to a terrifying population explosion, reaching 1,000 million in the mid nineteenth century, 2,000 million at the beginning of the twentieth century and over 5,000 million now.  Clearly, if we continue to expand in numbers at this rate we will be the cause of our own demise when there is insufficient land, food and water to sustain us.

Some tough decisions will need to be made very soon to ensure that there is a stable future ahead of us, not just in the Financial Markets but in the wider world in which we exist.  There are bulls and bears in many forms that need to be taken into account.  We must become smarter at understanding the effects of our actions and be prepared to take steps to stop the causes of harm and imbalance.  As my mother, daughter of the man who co-invented the Iron Lung, keeps telling me “prevention is better than cure”.  At the risk of sounding radical, we cannot rely solely on our politicians to do the right thing, even if we have elected them.  It is clear from recent history that many politicians are driven by matters other than their citizens’ best interests.  Each of us has to be accountable and prepared to act to resolve the issues around us.  Only if we take responsibility for the things within our remit can we ensure a positive future for ourselves and the generations to come.  There is no point yelling; we know what action we have to take in our own lives to shelter from the rain.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Dance of The Seven Veils

There is no doubt that we are existing within the confines of the Chinese curse – we live in “interesting times”.  The global economy is in turmoil: S&P’s downgrading of Italy’s sovereign debt from A+ to A is likely to further fuel the crisis in the Eurozone; it’s commonly agreed amongst the experts that Greece may still default; French Banks are badly exposed to other nations’ debt;  Ireland Portugal and Spain are still struggling; the IMF has slashed forecasts for UK and US economies (the UK is predicted to grow 0.4 less at just 1.1% this year and 0.7 less at 1.6% in 2012 and the prediction for the US has been cut by  0.6 to 0.7%); and there is talk of strikes (even by tennis players!) and further rioting.  It is hardly surprising that senior leaders in organizations of all sizes are concerned.

Regrettably senior leadership’s fear and behaviours often trickle down through an organisation, with more junior employees mimicking their seniors – I was talking to an experienced project manager only this morning, she is tired of the fact that decisions are continually being changed and revoked, so that what she thought were her priorities last Monday had been changed at least four times by Thursday and she knows that what she is currently supposed to be doing will have altered again before the end of this week.  She hates the fact that she is not getting anything done and questions the value of having her working on certain projects until a firm decision has been made as to the required actions and outcomes.  The vacillation she is experiencing is often a result of individuals not wishing to be blamed if a decision proves to be wrong.  The manifestation of a fear or blame culture.  There is an argument that a degree of fear is healthy in business, as it stops employees from becoming complacent.  However, in my opinion, fear cultures are damaging for all involved.  There are seven ways in which fear commonly is obvious in the work place:

1              As individuals feel their own livelihoods to be threatened, there is usually a marked upturn in distrust and backstabbing – the less pleasant sides of human nature become apparent – personal preservation at the expense of others - with only the foolish or naïve being prepared to speak out or challenge.

2              There is usually an increase in gossip, as backstabbing rumours are spread – partially by innocent individuals who are simply seeking clarification as to what is going on, but also by employees with a personal agenda, who wish to strengthen their own position.  It is common for gossip to occur in a clandestine manner, with individuals choosing to communicate with one another away from the main areas where colleagues work (hence the water-cooler and coffee dispenser discussions) or else by using individual technology – a lot of texts and emails are sent to personal accounts and mobiles, but seldom much in writing on company systems.

3              People become preoccupied with internal issues and how they themselves are perceived, rather than focusing on the external environment, the business and customer needs.  This is an ideal setting in which brown nosed yes-men and yes-women can thrive.  When times are tough it is tempting for frightened leaders to surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear.  These leaders, who like the rest of us are only human, find comfort in self-affirming statements, which are often easier to listen to than the truth.

4              Indecision is a common trait in fearful environments.  It is hard to know what the right course of action is and hence from the top downwards individuals try to avoid making commitments and decisions that could backfire on them.  This explains my friend the project manager’s predicament – the sponsors of her projects are frightened and finding it hard to determine the best course of action in the current turbulent business environment.

5              There is often a noticeable increase in secrecy – information is on a “needs to know” basis and hence collaboration is diminished and many opportunities missed.  Often the reason for secrecy is rooted in a desire not to cause unsettling concern.  However, we live in an age when we are used to getting information swiftly and easily (usually at the touch of a button) – there are few things worse for an employee than finding out about a decision or situation through the media or others, rather than being told about it, after the decision has been made or an event has occurred, by their managers.

6              Recruitment becomes increasingly cautious when people are fearful – candidates with industry experience are selected over those with drive and creativity as they are an easier decision to justify should things not turn out well.

7              As times get tougher, most organisations become increasingly preoccupied with numbers – the desire to control and cut costs in the short term can override other more strategic decisions and long term goals.  The bottom line becomes increasingly important; with the “What” as opposed to the “How” targets are achieved being applauded.  Clearly, there is an argument that if a business cannot survive in the short term it has no long term future to aspire to, but if an organisation wants a successful future it will need to provide an environment in which people want to work and stay.  If it fails to do this, valued employees will leave as soon as a preferable opportunity comes along.

I believe leaders need to be risk astute as opposed to simply risk averse.  Many of the seven behaviours described above demonstrate a fear of change and hence a reversion to familiar behaviours and actions rather than embracing the opportunities that change can bring.  It was Einstein who said that insanity is


doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Fear in the workplace hinders personal, team and organisational performance.  The root of fear is primarily a dread of change - humans have an in-built and natural desire for stability, but stasis is often a false security - organisations and people who cannot adapt as their surroundings change will die out.  people need to be resilient, flexible, and responsive to the now so as to create a strong future.

Many of us are afraid of making mistakes and fear failure, as opposed to being simply resistant to change.  But, some of the most successful individuals the world has seen knew that they would need to fail to succeed.  When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he tried over 2000 experiments before he got it to work.  A reporter interviewed him and asked how it felt to fail so many times.  He said, "I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2000-step process."  Another, perhaps even more remarkable, example is Wilma Rudolph, who was the twentieth of twenty two children. She was born prematurely and her survival was doubtful. When she was four years old she contracted double pneumonia and scarlet fever, which left her with a paralysed left leg. When she was nine, the metal leg brace she had been dependent on was removed and she began to walk without it.  By thirteen she had developed a distinctive, rhythmic walk, which doctors said was a miracle. That same year she decided to become a runner. She entered a race and came in last. For the next few years every race she entered, she lost. Everyone told her to quit, but she kept on running. One day she won a race. Then she won another. From then on she won every race she entered.  Eventually this extraordinary girl, who was told she would never walk again, went on to win three Olympic gold medals and was considered to be “the fastest woman in the world” for much of the 1960s.

People who are prepared to fail are the ones who ultimately succeed (as opposed to those who are too scared to try) – sometimes it is necessary to make mistakes to finally get to the right outcome or to reach a better result than that which was originally envisaged.

We all have an identity that we show to the world – a friend on Twitter recently blogged about how he felt as though he had lost a part of his sense of self-worth and identity when he ceased being employed.  I can empathise with him – when I was on maternity leave, although proud and devoted to my sons, I felt that I had lost a part of myself by no longer having a job other than motherhood.  Many entrepreneurs who have stepped out of corporate life to set up on their own businesses have commented to me that the biggest hurdle they often had to overcome was their sense of self-worth and identity prior to making a name for themselves.  People feel comfortable as part of the herd and it takes guts to stand out from the crowd.  However, it is the brave individuals who want to make a difference who enable success.  We each need to be aware of who we are and what we wish to achieve.  Even in times of adversity there are great opportunities for the purposeful and brave to grasp.  The following link shows some excellent, creative and unusual business cards belonging to people not afraid to stand out from the crowd:

Rather than dancing behind the veils of fear and blame, be yourself, know yourself and be aware of the messages you are giving out.

Friday, 9 September 2011

In Memoriam - 9/11

On September 11th a decade ago I was on jury service, in the former Middlesex Guildhall which had become the County Magistrates’ Court, opposite the Houses of Parliament (the building is now the Supreme Court of the UK).  We “Twelve Good Men” – four women and eight men actually – had been assigned to a complicated fraud case and we were immured, out of contact with the world, from the moment we entered the court until the time when we were allowed to retire to our jury room for refreshments and discussion.  We dozen were drawn from an remarkable cross section of society including a student, a housewife, a trader from one of the leading investment banks, an electrician, the head of a Caribbean style Steel Band, the Maitre d’ for the top restaurant of a London Five Star hotel and a fascinating lady responsible for running a charity that provided support to military heroes.  Given the obvious skills and capabilities of the group, I was both surprised and honoured when elected Foreman. 

Over the preceding days we had got to know each other well and, having discovered that the food in the canteen was either sweaty and unappetising (wrapped in cling film) or of dubious culinary appeal, we commenced a rota of bringing refreshments for ourselves to our jury room. The Maitre d’ bought in some excellent tea, some of us enjoyed baking and others brought milk, sugar or juice.  I quite enjoyed braving Security’s good-humoured teasing each morning, armed with a home-cooked cake, some freshly made sandwiches or a box of biscuits in my bag.  It became a standing joke with the staff that the jurors from Court Four were running a restaurant and/or having a party in the Jurors’ Room - when they knew that we were in our room, ushers and other court employees would pop in to glean a cookie and a cup of tea.  We developed a genuine sense of camaraderie, sharing parts of our lives with each other and forging friendships that, for some of us, have lasted until today.  The case we were involved in was complex, resulting in heated discussions between us and requests for clarification or evidence.  We came at the issues from all angles and respected each other’s input – if it had been a team offsite/development session the facilitator would have been proud of us!  It was an odd experience, a bit like stepping out of life for a while.  We existed in our own isolated bubble centred round the issues of our case, fellowship in our jury room and the drama in court.  We had a prosecuting barrister who had stepped straight out of the pages of Rumpole, even down to his red cashmere socks and natty waistcoat, the judge was elderly and learned and the defence lawyer was a feisty Asian lady still earning her spurs.

On the morning of the 11th September we had some major witnesses and complex evidence to attend to.  During a brief break at lunchtime, where we adjourned to our room, the student expressed concern over the anticipated cost of living at university and the Steel Band master made some quick calls to confirm the details for providing the music for a wedding at the weekend.  We filed back into the court for the afternoon session and tried to concentrate on the complex information that was being presented to us.  At teatime we were allowed a break, so adjourned back to our room.

Those of us who had them switched on our mobiles – the trader and I were the first to get a connection and voice messages and SMS texts started flooding through.  I opened my first message, which simply stated that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York.  I did not take on board the meaning and clicked to the next, while a rapid stream of texts, each announced with a swift bleep, started downloading to my mobile.  The same was happening to others.  The intrusive and urgent electronic beeping was noticeable in the intimate surroundings of our room – everyone with a phone had received a number of messages.  The Trader spoke a text aloud; it was the same as mine - that a plane had flown into the Twin Towers - and then he read out a second, stating that the second Tower had also been hit.  Neither he nor I comprehended what we were reading.  He even asked me what I thought the punch line might be, as he presumed that it had to be a wind-up, and inquired as to whether I had received anything explaining the choice of subject (in his defence, this was a time when jokes were often pinged over the airways, especially by those in The City, and they were frequently quite dark in subject and humour).  Then the penny dropped – it was not a sick joke, it was real, there had been a horrific terrorist attack on New York.  Everyone in the Jury Room had been listening to our conversation and/or reading texts of their own with similar content.  We suddenly all fell silent in shared horror and recognition of what had happened on the “other side of The Pond”.   

The housewife, who did not have a phone, asked us to give details what had happened – it was clear, from the little information that we had, that a significant disaster had occurred in America, resulting in or caused by planes flying into both of the Twin Towers in New York, an attack on The Pentagon and there also seemed to be a plane that had crashed in the countryside.  We had no TV or radio in our little room, our only contact with the outside world was through a few mobile phones and text messages.  We were all confused and concerned.  The trader called his dealing room, only to discover that all trading on Wall Street had been stopped, airports had been closed around the world and the awful details of what had happened while we were in court were confirmed.  Like an old fashioned news reader, he relayed the information as it was spoken to him and we listened in shocked silence to his words.  

Our tea break had not happened until well after the atrocities had occurred, but because we had been cocooned within the serious concentration of the court room, we were in total ignorance of the things happening in the wider world.  It felt strange to find out so much later than everyone else; we had not watched in shared horror as images of the planes hitting the towers and the dramatic collapse of the buildings (clearly resulting in significant loss of life) were shown on screens around the globe.  The intimacy of hearing and imagining, sharing with my fellow jurors the shock, dismay and bewilderment as to what had caused the appalling incidents was a powerful and moving experience.  We knew each other’s personalities and values slightly from having spent so many days together and the scope of our reactions was thought provoking – responses echoed those of the wider British society and ranged from intense anger (the Electrician), deep shock (the Steel Drummer and the Student), fear of similar attacks occurring in London (most of us – this was tinged with self-interest as our location, opposite the Houses of Parliament, seemed a fitting target for making a dramatic terrorist statement), apprehension at the potential impact on international relations and global business (the Trader and the Maitre d’) and sorrow combined with despair at the awful way in which people treat their fellow men (the military charity expert, the housewife and myself).

I am often brought to a mental halt by man’s inhumanity to man.  On a number of occasions, my husband has had to suffer me sobbing at the Rambert Dance Company’s production of Ghost Dances – a moving tribute to victims of oppression in South America, accompanied by bewitching Andean folk music.  The current behavior of the regime in Syria towards members of the general public is shocking, as was the treatment of the Egyptian people by their national police earlier this year (the image of people being slaughtered whilst trying to cross the bridge to Tahrir Square still haunts my memory).  There are a number of iconic images that remain with us as powerful illustrations of our worst atrocities – e.g. the young naked girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc,  fleeing from a village in Vietnam after a napalm attack; the unknown rebel standing bravely in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, Hugh van Es’ photo of an unfeasible number of terrified people crowding onto the roof of a building to escape Saigon by helicopter and the collapsing Twin Towers with the glowing fireball of jet fuel and billowing smoke – these are all carried with us as part of our collective image bank and tinge our attitude towards the world.  There are some positive things that have come out of the Twin Towers footage – it has enabled architectural and aviation experts to learn more about how buildings behave and collapse after impact and hence to modify and improve their designs.  But for the main part, what happened on September 11th 2001 has made the world a darker place.

We were a more sombre group of jurymen going forward.  A final, significant memory for me of that week was on the Friday 14th September 2001 when there was a three minute silence held across the UK for the victims of the Tuesday attack.  Our court was overlooking Parliament Square – normally busy with traffic, animated tourists and noisy pedestrians.  The eerie silence that descended over the area for the three minute period (we observed it in our court, respectfully standing) was extraordinary.  For a brief moment the world seemed to stop and all we could do was think about what had happened, feel sympathy for the victims and their families and wonder what the future might hold.

The rushing crowds have returned to our streets – busy commuters stride past the latest horrific headlines on the Evening Standard bill boards beside the news stands – apparently oblivious to the horrors going on in Libya and Afghanistan.  We still live in a troubled world and I am not sure that we have learned much from the occurrences of a decade ago.  It is too easy to slip back into a comfortable rut.  Terrorism is inherently related to fear.  The fear of disruption, disorder, a change to our world as we know it, a descent into loss and chaos.  In the work place, most issues that I have had to resolve have arisen or been aggravated by fear and misunderstanding. 

“To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”  ~Bertrand Russell

It is up to us to remember, learn and see if we can enhance our existence by teaching ourselves (it has to start with us) and then those around us and the people with whom we interact to value diversity and overcome the fear we naturally have of the different and the unknown.  We need to forge relationships and understanding that will enable a happier and safer environment for future generations.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Soup To Nuts

In the warm glow of yesterday’s sunset (perhaps the last rain-free evening for a while), I watched a squirrel dash across the road outside my house with what looked like a green Ping-Pong ball in its mouth.  It’s that time of the year again…the beautiful walnut tree in my neighbour’s garden is laden with a heavy crop and the squirrels come from miles around to strip the nuts and bury them as provision against potentially tough times ahead. 

I can’t help but feel that the current economic uncertainty is having a similar effect on people – many fear a double dip in the markets, a collapse in property prices, a decline in public services and increased social unrest.  Certainly there are indicators that things are not going to be easy, in no particular order, I have been made anxious by the following over the past two days:

  • retail sales being down (weak consumer confidence and inflation both named as primary causes)
  • plummeting share prices around the globe
  • mortgage application numbers decreasing (hardly surprising given that a UK  couple on average earnings would currently take over 20 years to get the average deposit required on a two bedroom home),
  • sharpest fall in new orders for the UK construction industry since 1980
  • jobs market in the US stalling
  •  famine and climate change ongoing and increasing in Africa and other parts of the world
  •  revolutions and civil unrest across the Middle East, Africa and Asia
  • corruption in the Media
  • the International Monetary Fund approving a further €1.4bn (£1.2bn) payout to Ireland on Friday as part of a wider European bailout
  • significant increase in the number of dogs being abandoned by their owners (up 13% from this time last year) primarily “due cost of upkeep”
  •  US government pursuing a significant number of international banks to try to recoup monies lost during the financial crash of 2008 (the repercussions of this could be wide and deep if others feel they too should/can be compensated)
  •  leading French Fashion houses currently valued higher than certain French banks (Hermès is deemed to be worth more than Société Générale)
  • harsh and unusual weather conditions
  •  concerns over the Euro zone intensifying. 

It’s a foul sounding soup of issues - enough to turn anyone's stomach.

However, I have great faith in people to cope and thrive in difficult times.  With a combination of resilience and focus it is possible to achieve great things.  This was brought home to me when I went to the Dirt exhibition – at the Wellcome Trust’s galleries opposite Euston last week.  I was surprised, but delighted, to find a significant part of the exhibition focused on the Glasgow Royal Infirmary under Joseph Lister’s direction from 1861 onwards.  My paternal grandmother was a farmer’s daughter, brought up outside Ayr near Glasgow in Scotland.  She qualified as a nurse and worked at The Infirmary for a while.  I know firsthand how keen she was on hygiene – no doubt a habit learned in Scotland and a credit to Joseph Lister.  Responsible for the new surgery block, Lister noted that about half of his patients died from septicaemia and blood poisoning.  It was almost safer not to go to be treated in hospital in those times.  Rather than accepting the situation, Lister undertook focused research to reduce the death rate.  He read Louis Pasteur’s paper on rotting and fermentation caused by micro-organisms and then experimented to find ways to prevent sepsis. This experimentation lead to using carbolic acid to disinfect instruments and hands before and after surgery. My grandmother was a huge fan of carbolic soap and even now, two decades after her death, the distinctive smell brings back memories to me.  Lister's methods were picked up around the world and he is now considered "the father of modern antisepsis" – a great legacy.

Another impressive legacy forged in tough times is Marks and Spencer.  The business was founded in 1884, when a Russian emigrant, Michael Marks established a penny bazaar stall in Leeds.  He wanted to expand his business and so partnered with an English cashier called Tom Spencer to open a couple of shops.  (Ironically my grandmother married an Englishman and, after living in the Middle East for a few years, they moved to near Leeds and she was friendly with the Marks family).  Mr. Mark’s son, Simon, ran the business after both founders’ deaths early last century.  He was brave and innovative.  During the 1930’s he commissioned a lady called Flora Solomon (a fellow Russian and also the mother of the founder of Amnesty International) to set up an employee welfare service (the forerunner of today’s HR).  Under Solomon’s direction Marks & Spencer provided a range of services to employees of the firm, including subsidized medical care, pensions and camping holidays.  The company was influential in inspiring the British Welfare State and healthcare provision.  Marks & Spencer kept abreast of technological advances at the time (e.g. synthetic materials) and opened their own research laboratory to scientifically test and develop new fabrics in 1934.  They were also attuned to the social and economic environment.  In 1935 a series of café bars were opened which providing inexpensive, well produced, nutritious mass catering (very popular during the time of food rationing as was the self service approach which they introduced just after World War Two).

There are numerous other examples I could cite of businesses and individuals thriving in what appear to be times of adversity.  Paxton and Whitfield, famously mentioned by Winston Churchill, who said ‘A gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield.’, being a case in point – since its founding in 1742, as a cheese stall in Aldwych market, the business has kept abreast of the times and customer demands.  (Even moving away from pure cheese purveying in the 1930’s and 1940’s to become a more general grocery shop, during rationing).  More recently, the business has been at the forefront of market changes and innovation: championing traditional artisan cheese makers from rural Britain and being one of the first cheese companies to establish a website.  The company is now a trio of shops and an e-tailing business that is going from strength to strength. 

It is important that we don’t let the current environment spook us or scare us into inactivity.  The turmoil economically, politically, ecologically and socially does seem a disturbing and distasteful soup.  However freezing or ceasing from focusing on the goals ahead would be foolish, as would not reappraising objectives in case there are new opportunities to be seized or better options than those we initially devised.  Like the squirrels harvesting the nuts, there is sense in being prudent and planning for the future.  I am sure that we all would like to leave a legacy that is as strong, supportive and inspiring as a walnut tree.