Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Sweet Taste of Success

I had the pleasure of attending the Redbrook Dining Club’s latest event at the weekend.  It was an excellent evening that, as the guest speaker, Baroness Pitkeathley, commented, in many ways illustrated the best of what a community can achieve and exemplifies David Cameron’s aspirations for the Big Society (her comments, not mine, and she is a Labour peer).  The mixed backgrounds and interests of the attendees (ranging from a contemplative, prize-chrysanthemum-winning shepherd to an eloquent former Attorney General), were almost as diverse as the ingredients for the excellent meal.  The innovative chef at the pub had pulled out all the stops and created a banquet inspired by popular dishes from the 17th Century.  She had sourced local ingredients and provided a descriptive menu explaining the origins and inspiration behind the meal.  She utilised the best that was available and exceeded her diners’ expectations.  In both the meal and the company, there was a harmony in the mix and variety.

Redbrook is a small village on the banks of the Wye.  It once had a thriving world class industry, a tin plate works, and a railway station to its name – both are gone, but much of the village spirit and pride remains.  In the old days Redbrook station was renowned for its decorative flowers (especially its roses) and often won awards (if horticultural skills are hereditary, that might partially explain the shepherd’s wonderful chrysanthemums).  Redbrook is still winning awards – the village has just won a prize for the best children’s play ground and much of the night’s conversation centred round the most apt way to reinvest the prize money, so that a wide range of people within the community could benefit.  Given that Baroness Pitkeathley was once a social worker, before founding the Carers National Association (now renamed Carers UK), it was hardly surprising that she had some interesting thoughts on how to involve all members of the village from the very young to the old.  She is right.  Society is fragmented and we are not good at mixing across boundaries – be that of age, culture or creed.  We need to make efforts to do so.

Enabling diversity is one of a leader’s and HR’s biggest challenges.  As we struggle to cope with the demands of the current economic and environmental situation, it is important for us not to simply repeat and perpetuate the practices of the past.  It is clear that some of the approaches encouraged over the past decades have resulted in the issues that we now confront today, for example:–

·         our dependence on carbon-based fuel without planning for the future or combating pollution;
·         the creation of complex financial derivatives that are only understood by a few (combined with automated trading) that can result in the lurches we have seen in the financial markets;
·         the current failure to provide a good education for all, regardless of background or location, so that our best can lead the world in the future;
·         irresponsible approaches towards debt (both at an individual and national level);
·         a lack of respect and disjointed relationships with other members of society, other nations and authority - resulting in civil unrest. 

We live in a complex world at every level.  To make it even more complicated, demographics are changing globally and organisations need to predict and ensure that they are able to provide the services that their future customers want and need.  To do so, increasingly we must be able to interpret data, predict and plan for the future.

The squirrels are driving me mad in the garden – they are digging up the grass and depositing walnuts wherever they can.  I appreciate that they are laying down stores in case we have a harsh winter, but they are ruining my lawn!  We need to be brighter than the squirrels and, when we plan and prepare for the future; we must anticipate the impact we will have on others, as well as the potential benefits to ourselves.  It has been so warm (until the past couple of days) that my bees have been as active as the squirrels. They are flying to and from the hives, panniers of pale ivy pollen on their thighs, and they are working hard to increase the amount of stores being laid down to enable them to thrive.  Unlike the squirrels, the bees work together for the best outcome for their community, even when occasionally that may be to the detriment of a few individual bees.  They don’t deliberately discriminate against specific members of their society; they are driven to behave in a manner that will ensure the on-going survival of the hive.  By way of an illustration, now that there is no requirement for a new queen to be fertilised until the Spring, the male drones have been kicked out of the hive (as they are currently unnecessary mouths to feed).  To humans this can seem brutal but it is a pragmatic approach to ensure their continued existence.

We too need to be pragmatic.  We are rational (compared to squirrels and bees) and we have great opportunities to achieve outcomes together - both at work and in our wider communities.  We have to be savvy, think about the bigger picture and how what we do impacts upon it.  We must learn to collaborate, for the best outcomes for the majority, and ensure that we adopt sustainable approaches that take into account anticipated change.  Redbrook is a great microcosm of what could and should be achieved at larger levels.  Despite significant differences, the village community are aware and supportive of each other and they work to attain long-lasting outcomes, improving the lives of numerous people who live in the area.  It is possible to adopt the same constructive approach at a corporate, national and international level.  Like the bees, we each need to accept our responsibilities, as part of a larger community, and work together to ensure that we can enjoy the ongoing sweet taste of success.  

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Roots and Wings

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…to leave the world a better place…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.  This is to have succeeded.”  - Ralph Waldo Emerson (American Poet, Lecturer and Essayist 1803-1882)

The above is one of my favourite quotes and it also summarises some of the wonderful experiences I was given when I spoke to pupils aged 11 and 12 at a school in West Sussex, England.

When everyone seems to be complaining about their lot, or expressing apprehension about the future, it was a delight and a privilege to spend a couple of hours with a group of optimistic and inquisitive school children.  I was invited to speak to them as part of a triumvirate of orators (namely a bishop representing Spiritual Leadership, an army colonel on behalf of Military Leadership and myself as the voice of Business).  I am fortunate to be invited to speak at a number of conferences and events during each year, but I must confess that few have had me so nervous beforehand – I knew that this was the first experience that most of these children would have of a person explaining aspects of business (a topic most of them anticipated to be boring) and that I was an ambassador for the adult world.  Unlike regular conference attendees, these pupils were not jaded, they had not heard what I had to say before, and I wanted to leave them with a lasting impression of the power of good leadership and its value within a commercial environment.  I also knew that, if I got my message wrong, I could potentially put them off business for life.

My eldest son was down from university for Reading Week (not something I had in my day) and he agreed to escort me.  He found hitherto undiscovered skills with a flip chart and was great at bridging the age gap and putting the children at their ease.  After a lifetime of challenging me, he was good at encouraging others to speak out and argue against me.  We kicked off with a group warm-up exercise that enhanced individual awareness and also made everyone think about the traits required to lead.  I then asked the children to call out words that they thought described a leader – as I expected, they came up with a list of attributes (as opposed to skills or knowledge).  With the exception of “cunning”, most words were descriptive of a person who is open, honest and inspirational. I believe that Leadership is rooted in personal attitudes and approaches and that these need to be based on values.  For these to work within a business context, an individual leader’s values need to resonate with those of his/her employer.  Without any guidance from me, it was clear that the pupils instinctively felt the same way.  There followed a debate over whether leaders are born or can be made, with passionate arguments voiced from the floor.  The children were happy for me to test their thinking and we had a great discussion.  I was concerned that they thought that “diligent study and following the prescribed route to the top” was the only route, so I then held a short quiz.  See if you can guess the identity of each of these embryonic but now well known leaders (DM me on Twitter (@kategl), message me on LinkedIn or Facebook or simply drop me an email and I will give you the answers): 

1.   Born to mixed nationality parents, she moved around the UK as a child, while her father relocated to various areas in the South West to secure work.  Her mother died when this person was in her mid twenties.  She was devastated and fled England.  She found a job in Portugal, where she met a man, married and had a daughter within eighteen months of arrival.  The marriage lasted barely a year.  She returned to the UK, without her former husband, but, being jobless with a small child and unable to secure work, she relied on state welfare support.  Her situation caused her to sink into depression and she become suicidal.

2.   Born in the East End of London, he was the youngest of four children – his childhood nickname was “Mopsy” due to his thick, unruly hair.  His father was a tailor, his mother didn’t work and money was tight for the family.  He made some extra cash by boiling and selling beetroot on a stall in a market.  He left school at sixteen.  Worked briefly in the Civil Service before leaving to “do his own thing” selling car aerials and other goods from a van (that he bought with his £100 life savings).

3.   Of mixed race parentage (his parents married when his mother was already pregnant with him), his parents divorced when he was three.  His mother remarried an Indonesian student and the family relocated to Indonesia when he was six.  He lived in Indonesia until he was eleven, when he returned to his birthplace to live with and be raised by his grandparents.  As a way of escaping who he was, when a teenager he started drinking alcohol and using marijuana and cocaine – not something he does anymore.

4.   Born to an unwed student, he was put up for adoption and, much to his biological mother’s concern, was taken in by a modest couple who had started work straight after school rather than studying for degrees. Initially he did badly at school until inspired by an exceptional teacher who bribed him into learning with sweets and money.  As a child he loved making self-assembly kits.  His first business was illegal – a device to defraud phone companies, which he and a friend sold to students.  After school he went to college but dropped out after a couple of months.  He became interested in eastern mysticism and fasting (a habit he continued as he grew older) and occasionally used drugs such as LSD.  Broke, he got work with a video games company.  According to his supervisor, he was often rude and un-washed, so he was transferred onto the night shift.  He started a company with his best friend.  It was successful for a while within a niche market.  After initial growth the business began to lose direction and, after losing a power struggle with the directors of the business, he had to leave.

5.   Born to wealthy parents (his father was a successful barrister and his mother a former airline hostess), he is dyslexic and was beaten at prep school for not being able to read.  He was sent to boarding school aged thirteen.  After a couple of years he was expelled for going out of school at night with the headmaster’s daughter, but eventually he was allowed to return.  He was not an accomplished student (although a good sportsman), but he was popular and had ideas on how he could make money (his parents refused to fund these “hare-brained schemes”, but he got some of their friends, including my father, to give him money to get his initial ideas off the ground).  After the first two ventures his headmaster commented “Congratulations! I predict you will either go to prison or become a millionaire”.   He was quite wild (taking drugs and partying heavily) and thought you should do what you could to succeed.  As a result he was imprisoned for a short period of time for tax evasion.

To stop my audience from thinking that a troubled start is required for success, we moved on to consider the Leadership Pipeline, as defined by Ram Charan and Stephen Trotter – looking at the personal skills required to progress from managing yourself to running an enterprise.  The suggestions and enthusiasm from my audience was infectious and the talk flowed.  We all enjoyed the discussion and there was a natural progression of the conversation into looking at modern working practices (moving “from hierarchies to wire-archies”) and the differences between management and leadership.  At the end there was a torrent of questions and eventually I had to call time. 

I have never spoken at a conference or event before where I have subsequently received a letter from each attendee saying what they liked and learned from my presentation – the questions have continued by post and I am in the process of responding.  I was and am inspired by the children’s enthusiasm and the genuine interest they showed in what I had to say.  They reminded me that it is good to have your thinking challenged and that it can lead to better understanding; they also reminded me that life can and should be enjoyable.  We all had a great time and I probably learned more from them and their attitudes than perhaps they gained from me.  I have tried to furnish them with an understanding of the drivers behind successful businesses, what is needed to be a good leader and to inspire them for potential roles in business in the future.  I hope some of what we talked about sticks.  As the American journalist, Hodding Carter once wrote

“There are two lasting bequests that we can give our children; one is roots and the other is wings”.

Judging from what they have said and written to me, I am sure that they all have wonderful futures ahead of them.  

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Bangs and Whimpers

My father disapproves of today’s celebrations in the UK.  He went to school at St Peter’s in York, as, many years ago, did another young man called Guy Fawkes.  In my father’s opinion, it is pretty poor show to burn an old boy (even if it is only an effigy of him on top of a bonfire) and hence he does not encourage the blazing fire and fireworks which are traditional for so many in the UK on 5th November.  Given the unpopularity of so many politicians and leaders at the moment and the ongoing struggles and fight for democracy in countries across the globe, there is something quite ironic about the bonfires and fireworks that will be lit across the UK, in memory of the Gunpowder Plot and the failure to blow up parliament and King James 1 at the State Opening of England’s Parliament ceremony in 1605.  This is the time of year when it almost seems alright to celebrate terrorism.  Over the centuries we have frequently demonstrated a delight in the salacious details and gory destruction of others. I found the front-page pictures and mobile phone footage of the death of Muammar Gaddafi disgusting – even contemptible criminals and dictators deserve a degree of dignity in death.  The photos and video that were shown shamed the people who had stood and filmed, whilst others clearly committed vile acts, and the press who felt they were fit for public viewing.

I did state that, after my somewhat down-beat post earlier this month, I would try to write something more cheerful.  Given that many of my readers are from the HR community, here is a topical (and HR related) joke to bring a slight smile and to return to the topic of today’s celebrations:
I met a chap in the pub last night and he told me that up until yesterday he was working as a member of a firework display team.  Unfortunately he set some off in the wrong sequence and his boss sacked him on the spot.  He told me he thought it was bang out of order!
There are always two sides to every argument.

As a result, I feel a degree of sympathy for the Greek Prime Minister – although  it is more than foolish to make a proposal that could destroy the hard work, support and efforts of others and have a severe knock-on effect on your neighbours (holding a referendum to determine the Greek people’s attitude towards the EU and the required austerity measures would take too long for the proposed assistance offered to be able to take effect within the required timescales) - I do think that George Papandreo had good intentions when he proposed the referendum.  Enabling public consideration and support for major actions that will impact on people's quality of life has to be the right approach (and he was upholding Greece's place as the Father of Democracy).  He just hadn't thought it through and he would have benefited from consulting with others.  His inclusive approach may yet prove his downfall, as he only secured his tiny majority in the vote of no confidence in him by promising to commence talks with the opposition to establish a power-sharing government to implement the Euro-zone bail-out.  Greece may as yet have to pull out of the Euro (as my son says “Trust the Greeks to make a Drachma out of a crisis”).

There are so many damp squibs and potentially explosive situations across the globe at present; we hardly need to celebrate Bonfire Night.  But I love the glitter and excitement of fireworks and, despite my father’s potential disapproval, I will be standing in a friend’s garden at dusk, eating a sausage with my eyes raised to the sky.  As the great Oscar Wilde once said:

“We are all the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

PS  I would like to make a brief plea to those of you who live outside London and will be celebrating Bonfire Night tonight, please check your bonfire before lighting it – piles of leaves and sticks are a preferred location for hedgehogs and, although I am told that they are delicious roasted, their numbers are in such dreadful decline that we need to do all we can to aid their conservation.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Through The Eyes Of Children

Research out this week states that almost half of Britons think young people are angry, violent and abusive, with one in four thinking troubled children are beyond help by the age of 10. Anne Marie Carrie, the Chief Executive of children's charity Branardo's, who commissioned the study, said it was "depressing that so many people were ready to give up on children" and that "it is a sad truth that those children who come across as angry and abusive have sadly often been scarred by their upbringing".   

Working with people as I do, I’ve come across a number of adults who are angry, at the very least verbally aggressive and often abusive at work.  They are usually the ones who are exceptional in certain spheres (this is a main theme of films such as “The Devil Wears Prada”, ”Swimming with Sharks”, “Wall Street” and “Working Girl”) and senior leaders and shareholders often turn a blind eye to the antisocial behavior whilst the business is able to benefit from the strengths and/or income generation.  On getting to know these “difficult” individuals, I have usually discovered that issues in their past have impacted on their behavior and interactions with others today.

  •  A boss picking on his/her secretary may be off-loading his or her own stress in the same manner that he/she has seen their parents do to each other when they were a child.
  •  A very bright individual may, on finding colleagues slow to comprehend a proposal, replicate the frustration they felt at school when other pupils were slow to grasp concepts and hence held the class back, by becoming sarcastic or verbally venting their annoyance.
  •  Increasing pressure to produce results in a worsening economic environment can make managers resort to bullying tactics to force results out of their teams, because they fear for their own job security if targets are not met and they remember their father or mother losing their job in the 1970’s or 1980’s.

Frequently there are specific scenarios that trigger antisocial responses.  Almost without exception, these people are intelligent individuals who would condemn the behavior if described to them or demonstrated by others.  Our own self-awareness often overlooks our short-comings when under pressure.  However, I have found that, provided that the person is made aware of the need for change and wants to interact better with others, it is possible for them to learn what ignites their less-than-desirable responses and to amend their approach and manner. Careful and sensitive coaching can often resolve matters to the benefit of all.  In these times of leaner teams and having to do more with less, it is important to ensure that employees are engaged – shouting at them seldom achieves this.  After the frequent rounds of redundancies that many organizations have been through, it is usually valuable employees who have been retained.  There are still great opportunities for talented individuals so they can leave – don’t forget that research shows that most people choose to leave their jobs because of their manager or the behavior of other individuals, not because of their role. A Chartered Management Institute report found that 47% of respondents left their job because they felt that they were badly managed and 49% of employees claimed that they would be prepared to have their pay cut if it meant working with a better manager.

Pay is a contentious issue at the moment.  The Income Data Services (IDS) claim, that pay packages for the top executives of FTSE 100 companies have risen 49% in the last year, has made a lot of heads shake in disbelief.  People are camping outside St Paul’s in the City of London to protest, amongst other things, at the inequality of remuneration and particularly against the excess that is perceived to exist within the Square Mile.  However, it is worth getting the situation in perspective, I have worked in Financial Services – the majority of employees, even in the big investment banks, are not on astronomical, multi-million salaries and, judging by business performance to date, only a few people will be given bonuses this year.  The media fans the flames of discontent and people often get the wrong end of the stick.  I know of retail bank clerks and cashiers who have been jeered at by members of the public because of their assumed salaries and bonuses – many of these people earn circa £1,000 per month before tax.  With rising inflation they are finding life as tough as the rest of us.  In my opinion, it is good that increasingly pay is being linked to performance (be that individual or for senior leaders based on overall business performance) – we need successful companies to resolve some of the current economic problems and recognizing and rewarding performance is the right thing to do (although, as mentioned above, it is often personal recognition and acknowledgement by a manager that means more to an employee than a small sum of money).  Performance related pay, that encourages appropriate behavior and business growth, should be a key to enabling economic recovery and I for one support it.  Times are tough, in response to the IDS report, the Institute of Directors has pointed out that the majority of “business decision making individuals in the UK have not experienced major salary inflation” (the average increase is 2%).  We have to be responsible and lead by example.

Another worrying report that came out today, produced by the Work Foundation for the Private Equity Foundation, echoes the Barnardo’s findings.  Neil Lee, the author, states that there are shockingly high numbers of young people across the UK (in some areas almost 25%) who are not in education, employment or training (they are known as known as Neets).  In Grimsby, Doncaster, Warrington and Wigan, nearly a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds are Neet.  In a further nine cities in England and Wales, drop-out rates for youngsters are about one in five (this is true for parts of London).  I believe that high Neet levels are one of the UK's most serious social problems.  The children and young people of today are the foundation for the future.
"For a young person, being out of education, employment or training can have major ramifications, including long-term reductions in wages and increased chances of unemployment later in life, as well as social or psychological problems arising as a result of sustained unemployment."

I had the privilege of speaking to pupils in a school on Tuesday about Leadership in Business.  Clearly the 11 and 12 year olds I was with are not Neets, but what they had to say was interesting (I will produce another blog on the contrasts and similarities between Business, Spiritual and Military leadership). At the start of the session I asked the pupils to think of someone they know who is successful in business (many of them proposed Alan Sugar, Richard Branson or Steve Jobs) and then to suggest a word that describes what enables that person to be successful.  It was noticeable that all the words proposed were attitudinal characteristics, not skills, knowledge or experience.  In their opinion leaders need to be inspirational, passionate and proactive.  However, the second word to be shouted out was “cunning” – I was surprised, as to me the word has slightly anti-social connotations full of artful subtlety and deceptive behaviour, and hence I encouraged a discussion of the various attributes.  From their own observations (primarily seen through the media’s lens) the children had determined that many leaders were dependant on their ability to outwit and trick others in order to succeed.  If we teach our children that deception and trickery are the roads to success, and that that is how they will achieve rewards and recognition as an adult, I fear for the future.