Sunday, 29 September 2013


I was ten, when in September 1973 two stations in central London were targeted by terrorist bombers, injuring 13 people and bringing chaos and fear to the capital. I lived with my parents and two small sisters in a leafy South West London suburb  - an idyllic and privileged location and upbringing.  My father was a talented lawyer and recently appointed Recorder (meaning that he was expected to sit as a judge for 3-6 weeks of the year).  It was in his legal capacity that he found himself overseeing trials of terrorist suspects and as a consequence his name was placed on that of potential targets.

On a balmy autumn evening in September ’73 my parents and I were sitting having supper with our recently arrived au pair.  My mother had suffered a very difficult birth (requiring significant surgery) for the arrival of my youngest sister, born in March, and hence an extra pair of hands were useful in looking after the family and home.  We talked about the horrors that were besetting London and other parts of the UK and Ireland and, almost as an aside, my father told us to be careful.  Little did we know how prophetic his words would be...

The following day, when he had gone to work and my mother was out shopping the telephone rang.  As the au pair’s English was still embryonic, I answered it.

“There’s a bomb in your house, you’ve five minutes to get out.”

The words chilled me and I tried to get the caller to explain, but they simply repeated the statement and then hung up.  I ran up the stairs shouting a warning and lifted my 6 month old sister from her cot.  With her in my arms and tears streaming down my cheeks I ran to the sitting room, where my three your old sister and the au pair were watching Play School on TV.

BBC's Play School
My middle sister's favourite
“Get out of the house, get out of the house, there’s a bomb.” I kept crying.

The au pair thought I was joking - a game prompted by the supper-time discussion with my parents the previous evening. It was only when I stood screaming at her to leave the house, while I cried uncontrollably, the baby in my arms, outside on the lawn, that she realised I was serious.  I lead her and my sister to my aunt’s house and it was from there that the police were called.  My mother returned to find the abandoned house being examined by bomb disposal experts.  I was never informed as to what happened thereafter.  I can only presume that the call was a hoax.  How cruel to terrorise a ten year old with such a horrific statement - my voice was clearly that of a child.

The experience had a fundamental impact on me.  I learned from that day that people are not always precious nor respected by others and that age is not a factor in how others will behave.  An adult can be less responsible than a ten year old and certainly more unkind.

I mentor a wonderful schoolgirl in Kenya called Catherine.  She goes to school in Nairobi and, since the storming of the Westgate shopping centre a week ago, with the resultant devastating deaths and destruction, my heart has gone out to her and the people of Kenya.  I do not claim to be a theologist, but I have read the Quran and I cannot find passages within it that condone indiscriminate slaughter, especially the killing of children.  It was an undeniable fact that the shopping mall on a Saturday would be full of children out with their parents and friends - there aren’t many other family-friendly and universally enticing places to go.  Over the past twenty years Kenya has progressed from a place where only basic goods were available to a consumer’s delight, but this development is limited and so people tend to congregate in certain locations at the weekends.  In the malls it is possible to buy the latest products that you would expect to find in America, Europe or affluent Asia and therein lies part of the problem.  I suspect the real issue is a clash of cultures and a reaction against rapid change and the imbalances between communities across the continent.  Kenya is one of Africa’s fastest developing economies with a burgeoning middle class.  Much of Sub-Saharan Africa is still almost medieval in the way its societies are structured and people behave - feudal tribes and groups compete for power and territory, with local rather than central control.  Countries such as the Congo, Somalia and South Sudan are dominated by men with guns who extort, rape and terrorise with little to stop them.   I have been told that after nearly 20 years of fighting to run Somalia, the Shabab had finally decided that their dream was impossible and hence were turning to more extremist measures.   What is perhaps most alarming is the manner in which the attack was carried out - not a simple, single bomb but a ruthless group of individuals determined to kill, who actually seemed to target the young and most defenceless. 

Parallels can be drawn to bullying within workplaces and organisations.  Once co-ordinated groups start operating together, to hurt and marginalise a particular individual or set of people, the impact can be devastating.  Cyber bullying has been in the headlines for much of the past few months - the focused, ruthless action of a few destroying the lives of their victims, but similar behaviour can also occur in the physical environment at work.  I have in the past joined organisations where a long-standing group of employees, who were close friends and who had been in their roles for many years, turned on the new hires who were bringing fresh ideas and enhanced approaches - partially because they were afraid of change and a destruction of the status quo.  Often there is a ring-leader who is able to encourage others into behaving in an unsuitable manner.  They know where their victims are to be found and will usually try to hurt and deter them without drawing attention to themselves.  Clearly, these people are not armed with guns and resorting to indiscriminate killing, but even so their behaviour can destroy others’ lives. It is up to all of us to remain watchful and to react when something does not look or feel quite right.  Much better to raise the alarm, even if later to discover that it is a false concern, than not to react at all and for something awful to occur.

Walking out of my house, forty years ago, with my infant sister in my arms and tears running down my face, helped to set my moral compass.  I will always stand against terror in its many forms - life’s too precious not to.  Please join me. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Three Men in a Boat having a Cracking Time

What an odd language English is - “career” can describe when a person has been in an occupation for a significant period, during which time they have had opportunities to develop and progress, focusing on a vocational direction and enjoying a sense of purpose at work; “career” can also refer to something that swerves in an uncontrolled manner.  I know various people in high profile roles, some of whom claim to have got there through focus and dedication, whilst others have confess to having simply accepted opportunities as/when they have arisen.  Of course, one could argue that favourable circumstances would not arise unless an individual deserved them and hence perhaps subconsciously our careers are more under control than we believe them to be.  I suspect that part of the trick is being able to spot an opportunity when it presents itself, as well as knowing the direction in which you wish to go.  This short clip sort of demonstrates what I mean...

Anther peculiar English phrase is “cracking up” - it can be used to signify an individual’s collapse under severe pressure,  
Extraordinary body painting by artist
Johannes Stoetter
but “cracking up” is also used to describe a person succumbing to humour by laughing, almost to the point of crying, and being unable to stop themselves from doing so.  

However, if the joke that is promised proves not to be all that it’s “cracked up to be”, it is unlikely that they will laugh at all.  Fragmented narratives and missing punch-lines (due to cracked delivery?) can quite ruin a good story.  Did you know that “crack” comes from the Middle English “crak” meaning an enthusiastic, loud conversation (that is often boastful) - hence the expression “What’s the Crack?”, meaning "what’s the news or gossip?".  Which brings me to the point of this post -  I want to spread the word about an extraordinary venture that is underway as I type...
An Englishman, a Dutchman and a Brazilian are in a boat with a hole in it, rowing the second longest river on Earth – sounds like the start to a bad joke, but this is a much more enthralling story.  I first met Dr Mark de Rond when he presented to some of my firm’s global top talent at a bespoke leadership development programme, run with the Judge Business School, at Cambridge.  Mark is a social anthropologist and performance specialist with expert knowledge in the fields of teamsmanship, high achievement, collaboration and inter-dependence.  He believes in physically living with his research subjects (groups of exceptional people including elite rowers and combat surgeons).  Mark teamed up with Anton Wright, Head Coach and Boatman for Clare College, Cambridge and Coach for the University Lightweights.  Initially both men thought that the simple venture of rowing together down the Amazon (which in itself would be a world record making first) would be a personally enlightening experience, teaching them both about how they respond to and interact with another human when there is nobody else on whom to depend for a number of weeks.  They also knew that the row would provide them each with a significant period for self-reflection.
However, the adventure to date has given them much more to contemplate and proved that they possess skills, hidden depths and personal reserves beyond those they were anticipating needing.  The record attempt has been fraught with frustrations:
  • Peruvian customs impounded the boat for almost a month – thereby delaying the start of the row.  Mark and Anton are due back in Cambridge to resume their “day jobs” and hence delay is potentially a disaster;

  • the shipping agent filed incorrect documentation, thus risking the food and medication for the trip being impounded;

  • the boat was protected during its voyage from the UK by old car tyres (for which there was no import approval) this nearly resulted in the trip having to be cancelled;

  • with time running out, Mark and Anton had to locate an additional crew member, without whom there would be no hope of achieving the record in the remaining time available.  The crew now includes Murilo Reis – whom Mark has described as mentally tough, unafraid and experienced.  Murilo is a warrior and a passionate environmentalist, owner of a jungle reserve, who loves and understands the Amazon region.  There are many benefits to having a local, Spanish-speaking member of the crew – Other than for the fact that Mark and Anton did not know him a month ago, I am mildly surprised that he wasn’t part of the initial plan;

  • Mark and Anton had a 6 week timetable – 9 days to get to the border (now to be achieved in 5), 16 days to reach Manaus (now reduced to 10) and instead of 18 days only 15 to cover the final stretch – only time will tell if this is possible; and

  • the boat was damaged whist in storage and, despite attempts to mend it, resulting in further delays, the men are now rowing a leaking vessel and they have many miles to go.

The manner in which they responded to each new challenge is a case study in resilience, endurance, prioritisation, dedication, the importance of remaining out-come focused and responsive planning.  At times each member of the team has supported and enabled the others to succeed and thrive.  They are very different men, but their strength lies in their diversity and united determination.  We in business would do well to learn from the manner in which they have coped, effectively overcoming the hurdles confronting them.  

They have made a great start.  The best site on which to follow the journey is Voyage Manager (who have provided the tracking equipment for the expedition):

It is fascinating watching the progress of the little boat through the sinuous paths of the Amazon - you can tell how wet the region is as, at times, the craft seems to be ploughing through land towards its destination.  Some of the Twitter updates are magical - this morning (still darkest night for them) the boat was surrounded by a pod of pink dolphins, swimming in escort under a sky of uncountable stars. 

I urge you to follow the adventure.  There are fantastic tweets on Twitter via @RowtheAmazon and a great website with an entertaining blog.

I am learning much about myself simply through my reactions to their voyage and there is no doubt that all three men will gain a considerable amount from the adventure, as will Leonard Cheshire Disability (the charity for whom they are rowing).  It is seldom that members of the public can witness a unique piece of anthropological research and actually participate (if even only to a small extent) by providing support and contact from the rest of the world.  I know that the crew would appreciate hearing from you either through tweets or by comments on their blog.

It is an amazing story and all I can say to them is “crack on and not just for the sake of your careers”.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Sounds Familiar

“God chooses our family, thank God we choose our friends” - or so the saying goes.  I spent the week before last in Wales, with my sons and husband, visiting my father and his wife.  Despite the challenges of multi-generational expectations, I find it hard to concur with the statement.  I do confess to a few clashes over ideas as to what would be fun - the grandparents requested that we bring collapsible picnic chairs and go to see an outdoor production of Shakespeare, whilst the boys wanted to take laptops and could probably have kept themselves happily entertained indoors for most of the time, without speaking to the rest of us.  As it was we all laughed at The Comedy of Errors and the laptops proved invaluable when determining the best ways of cooking an ostrich egg – a good piece of collaborative catering that resulted in a delicious lunch.  My relatives are a diverse crowd, including farm labourers, doctors, inventors, entrepreneurs, coffee shop waitresses, former Scrumpy smugglers, book binders, chefs, IT geeks, artisan craftsmen, Olympic standard athletes, high powered academics, members of the armed forces, an eminent poet, horticulturalists, inspirational figures from commerce and industry, leading lawyers, parents and civic/City dignitaries - that’s part of what makes my family interesting.  Being quite different from most of them, I am the first to admit that I might not wish to spend all my time in their company, but that does not stop me from appreciating who they are and what they do/have done and really enjoying the discussions that we have when we are together.  In addition, it is reassuring to know that, somewhere in the family, there is someone with expertise and knowledge that I can call upon, should the need arise.

The Addams Family

In many ways, employees in a company resemble members of a large family.  There are a mixture of personalities, ages and skills all drawn together under the banner of a single name (in this case the business as opposed to a surname or links through blood and marriage).  It is improbable that all employees will feel and think the same way, but that does not prevent them from being able to respect and value one another for their diversity and the talents and experience they bring to work. 

Arthur Devis
The John Bacon Family
Families vary greatly around the globe - often as a result of local culture, customs and ways of living.  Research (such as the ecocultural framework devised by John W. Berry in the 1970’s) shows that typically agricultural communities encourage patriarchal, large families, in which it is conventional for deference to be shown to elders and where the repetitive labour, required for producing food and goods to enable communal living, can be shared.  Children are encouraged to be compliant, responsible, obedient and respectful.  In contrast, in hunting and hunter-gatherer communities, an individual who is an expert at sourcing food is revered for their skill.   The offspring in these groups tend to be taught to be independent, achievement-orientated and self-reliant.  These latter societies are often comprised of small nuclear families (partially because of the need to be easily mobile and also to enhance the chance of survival in lean times).  It was the advent of the industrial age that resulted in a shift in these traditional groups within society.  As people moved to cities to seek work in factories they resumed living in small nuclear groupings, usually two generational – hence the predominance of this type of family structure in Western Europe, America and Canada.  In addition, in many societies in both the East and West, shifts from an agriculturally dominant to an industrial system, during the 19th/20th centuries, resulted in an increasing number of children (including girls) attending secondary education and university/college.  It is a proven fact that, after qualifying, few graduates choose to return to work on their family farms; hence the emerging change in society (not just in the West) towards nuclear families is being reinforced through education.

I am reading a fascinating book at the moment, The Journey of Martin Nadaud, a life in turbulent times, by Gillian Tindall - a fascinating study of life in rural France in the mid-nineteenth century, plotting the true story of a migrant stone mason who becomes a leading French revolutionary and a Member of Parliament, before fleeing into exile to England, establishing himself in a new life but eventually returning in triumph to France.  At the time of Nadaud’s youth it was expected that the young masons would enter into arranged marriages with village girls from the farming communities from where the men originated from; their masonic income, earned in Paris, where they were away for up to two years at a time, supplementing the meagre agricultural returns of the rural homestead.  The women would remain on the land, tending fields, animals and children.  A tough way to sustain a marriage.  It was the advent of enhanced education within the community, specifically reading, that changed the habits of centuries and resulted in couples moving together to live and work away from their family and roots.
Modern media, especially television and film, has exposed most people in the world to the US style nuclear family (comprising parents and their immediate children) and the more recent adaptions on this theme - step families following divorce and remarriage and single parent or single sex parents - are becoming increasingly common and accepted.  Sit-coms such as Hannah Montana (in which a father tries to raise the family after the mother’s death) are widely viewed around the world and same sex parenting amongst celebrities such as Elton John and David Furnish are covered globally. The NatCen of Social Research in the UK released its annual British Social Attitudes Report on 10th September 2013, which suggests that Britain has become significantly more tolerant of same-sex relationships, with 22% declaring them “always wrong”, compared with 64% in 1987 (  Families are changing, in 1970 the U.S. Census Bureau reported 19% of households as being “nonfamily” (i.e. unmarried and unrelated people sharing living spaces, cohabiting couples and people living alone) vs. family (i.e. two or more people living together who are related through marriage, birth or adoption) in 2007 this number had changed to 32%.

Nuclear Family by Travis Pitts
As an aside, if you are interested in Nuclear families and their homes, this link might be of interest (!)

The family has and will continue to change, as will public attitudes.  Given the amount of time that people spend within the work environment, it is hardly surprising that work is a place where a high proportion of relationships and ultimately families commence.  According to Vault, in a survey of 2083 US workers run in 2011, 59% of respondents said they had dated a person they had met at work. Barack and Michelle Obama commenced their relationship at a Chicago law firm in 1989, when he was a summer associate and she was his supervisor. undertook a survey last year (asking 7,780 people in America who were full-time workers who were neither self-employed nor worked for the government) in which 38% of workers said they had dated a co-worker at least once in their careers and 31% said office romance lead to marriage.  As collaboration, cross-border working and globalisation increase, societies and groups will continue to intermingle and mix - exchanging ideas and goods but simultaneously developing relationships, many of which will blossom into more than just working colleagues.  In the past mixed-race relationships have been viewed with disdain, hostility and sanction.  Marriage practices in certain countries and communities have evolved to preserve religious and ethnic groups and clans. I had drinks last night with a chap whose grandfather was physically barricaded out of the Welsh town in which his sweetheart (and ultimately wife) lived, because he was of a different nationality.  I have a great uncle who, being Greek, was viewed almost as an object of curiosity, despite being much loved by my fairly conventional Yorkshire relatives.  What was seen as strange yesterday is now viewed as the norm; society continues adapting and as it does so opportunities to meet and develop relationships with others from around the globe increase.

All organisations, not just multi-national conglomerates, need to be able to support and encourage a broad range of employees.  As societies change, so must the working places within them, so that they too can benefit from and support the diversity of employees that are reflective of their communities.  HR needs to keep abreast of demographic and economic trends, anticipating and creating appropriate environments in which people can thrive.  My family would be greatly diminished if its diversity was reduced and the same applies to my employer.  Change is a constant – new creations, unanticipated as well as predicted demises and a flow of fresh unions and collaboration – this applies as much to businesses as it does to people in outside work relationships and is something we should all be familiar with.