Sunday, 27 April 2014

Free Bird

A little earlier this year a well-known and respected HRD commented that consultants and contractors do not have the same “skin in the game” as permanent employees and hence do not put in as much effort as their established colleagues. Although I think I understand the logic behind his statement, and perhaps I am just lucky, my experience of self-employed individuals during the past year has been the exact opposite. Without exception, the itinerant and contract members of the team have put in as much thought and effort as their permanently employed co-workers.  Indeed, without their help we would not have achieved significant, desired and beneficial change across the organisation where I work.

Last week the Independent published an article entitled “Is this the death of the traditional employee?” It highlighted some significant changes that have occurred within the UK since 2010, one striking fact is that according to data released and celebrated by the coalition government, 2/5 of all new jobs have arisen as a result of a significant growth in self-employed workers. 15% of the UK workforce (circa 4.5 million people) are now freelance workers. The article goes on to ponder whether these people have been forced into self-employment (perhaps as an alternative to retirement, having been made redundant following the economic collapse in 2008, or because of a loss of income support but still needing to provide for themselves and perhaps a family).  Similar points about the rise in the self-employed sector are made by Barrie Hopson, the co-author, with Katie Ledger, of “And What Do You Do?: 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career”, on his blog.

Many hats are required for a successful portfolio career
I am aware of the issues for many people on zero-hour contracts (as indeed are many more of us, now that Ed Miliband is planning to use it as his calling card to persuade the Scots to remain united with England and Wales).

A better blogger than I, Rick, who writes Flip Chart Fairy Tales, has been raising the matter of self-employment and the poverty trap for over a year now – if you want data on the subject read his recent post on the self-employed – the nouveau pauvre. I don’t in anyway wish to seem to be supporting the increasing divide between the affluent and the poor.  It is a matter of concern that the median self-employed annual salary is only £12,000 per annum. The Independent’s piece questioned whether, as the employment market picks-up, these people will seek permanent employment.  Perhaps the recruitment firms, or the websites such as LinkedIn, Monster and Jobsite are best placed to answer that, as they will see the number of job seekers in relation to opportunities. However, in my experience, the people who are self-employed and currently working with me (and who admittedly are not on incomes of £12,000) have no desire to resume employment with a single business.

Rich/Poor Divide
King George V driving to Epsom Derby, 1920 

with a beggar running beside his carriage
I like the fact that I can bring in particular expertise, such as an artist and corporate observer or a great coach and L&D expert, or a truly smart OD specialist, as and when I need them, but that I don’t have talented individuals, on my payroll but not using their specialist skills, when an internal requirement is not there. Talking with the freelancers I work with, they love the variety of multiple challenges that their choice of career provides and they find the diversity of projects and organisations enjoyable. I learn from them and they gain skills from doing stuff for my organisation. We all have fun and it is rewarding. I am fussy and believe in working with people I like and respect and whom I know will do things better than I could. When I returned to work following maternity leave I only did so after I had hired a nanny who was significantly better at looking after children than I was. I apply a similar approach to hiring self-employed specialists.

I am probably the biggest winner from the arrangement. In a fortnight’s time I am co-facilitating an industry leading Leadership Development programme in conjunction with the Professional Services team at Judge Business School of Cambridge University.  In addition to the academics, I have brought together a number of experts – how lucky am I to be able to assemble a dream team with complimentary skills? Doing things like this in real life beats any fantasy football game and I learn from and thrive on the diversity of thinking and approach.

Super heroes - a dream team
In some ways, I am a good example of a portfolio careerist.  However, I started enjoying the benefits of variety long before the term came into common parlance. The author Erin Albert who wrote “Plan C: The Full-Time Employee and Part-Time Entrepreneur” says that individuals who are trying to decide whether they should stick to working for a sole employer or to become a freelance entrepreneur should look at the patterns of their earlier life and what they enjoy/have been successful at doing, especially when at college or university.  I deliberately immersed myself in a broad gamut of areas when a student, from acting, debating, rowing, painting, cooking, rugby, academic studies, running a fly fishing school, belonging to societies, organising balls and charity events, socialising, holding down a job and I was vice chair of the JCR and president of the Law society, as well as being captain of the first boat for my college. I have always been fond of personal freedom and variety it brings.

Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynrd

Much of the secret of success is being able to understand yourself and to appreciate what you enjoy and are good at.  As well as capability and desire, you need a degree of self-discipline and focus and possess the skills of a juggler, to hold down multiple roles. 

Marc Chagall, The Juggler (1943)
If you are unsure as to the kind of environment that suits you best and what you should look for from your work environment, this simple quiz might aid your thinking.

In my career, I have been so fortunate to date, in that I have been able to cross successfully between different roles and sectors. I am a lawyer who has worked as a derivatives dealer within the financial markets, before deciding that I find people more interesting than numbers or contracts (although I can do both). I have worked in corporate psychology and founded and lead successful businesses, before moving into HR. Everything I have done has added to my knowledge and skills and I bring bits together to help me solve problems every day (both at work and in my broader life). My Twitter self-description of being a “creative connector” applies to how I work, as well as to the opportunities I am able to provide by connecting people I know.

Variety is the spice of life
Spices in the market in Marrakech, Morocco 
How fortunate I am. I thank you for being the people I interact with and with whom I have done and I am able to do interesting and varied things. If I can help you or if you need someone to bounce ideas off, I would be delighted to hear from you.

I'm Lucky - Live performance by Joan Armatrading

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Happy Thoughts

Recent research at Harvard and also by teams at the University of Warwick has shown that happiness makes people more successful  - even simple acts such as the provision of fresh fruit or chocolates have been proven to enhance employees’ wellbeing and contentment.  Given the amount of chocolate I have enjoyed over the Easter weekend, I should have a very successful few days ahead, even if the eggs were not a gift from my employer.  It is interesting how employee wellbeing is increasingly becoming a topic of note, both within HR circles and in the wider community; I was called by a journalist last week and asked my opinions on current approaches towards increasing employee happiness as a means of combatting stress and enhancing productivity.

Increasingly there is evidence that happiness has a positive impact on the bottom line – it seems logical that happy employees are less likely to
  • go off sick (especially with stress-related illnesses),
  • seek new jobs
  • be worn down by the demands of their environment.

Hence costs such as turnover and fees for contract staff to provide temporary support can be influenced or controlled, but there is more compelling evidence that happiness can have a direct impact on financial results. Investment funds, such as the Parnassus Workplace Fund, with portfolios specifically made up of organisations with reputations for treating their employees with respect and those which are seen as “best places to work” in publicly listed surveys, are outperforming the markets by more than 4% per annum.

There is scientific evidence that business performance is influenced by individuals’ mind-sets.  For example, resilience has been proven to be a key success factor, especially in retail environments where interaction with the public can be stressful and demanding. When I and a team of researchers assessed the best and least effective cashiers at one of Europe’s top retail banks, it became clear that the ability to re-centre emotionally and hence to approach each encounter afresh (rather than with dread following a difficult customer interaction) was a highly desirable attribute, so much so that we significantly altered the recruitment processes to screen and select for resilience.  Resilience is now seen as an important trait in leadership and required Emotional Intelligence (EI). Data is growing that supports the correlation between EI in leaders and business results – studies undertaken in 1998 by renowned academic McClelland, into the divisional heads of a global food and beverage company, showed that leaders with strong EI competencies outperformed yearly revenue targets by 15-20% and leaders with weak EI under-performed by a similar margin.
The resilience of Nature
Burt’s Bees (a business established in Maine in the 1980s, creating candles, and which has grown into a globally recognised provider of personal care products containing beeswax) is an interesting example of a successful concern that has focused on happiness and goodwill to ensure its prosperity.  Given that it refers to its business model as operating for “The Greater Good”, perhaps it should not be surprising that in 2010, when it was decided that the time was right for global expansion, the CEO, John Replogle, made a conscious effort to focus on his employees’ and managers’ wellbeing.  He sent daily emails praising individuals, he reminded managers to talk to their teams about the firm’s values and he brought in an external expert to facilitate a three-hour session on happiness in the middle of the expansion programme. A member of the senior team subsequently commented that Replole’s

"emphasis on fostering positive leadership kept his managers engaged and cohesive as they successfully made the transition to a global company."

In my experience most CEOs and senior leaders tend to increase the pressure on others during big projects and times of change – for example by sending out emails demanding information in very short time scales, making unexpected and changing demands regardless of other business pressures (or else appearing to vanish into a vacuum and not communicating at all as they themselves are distracted by unusual pressures), thereby adding to the stress of their reports and employees. These leadership traits were observed by Daniel Goleman, when researching his EI-Based Theory of Performance.  He noted that the key leadership styles and their impact on others are as below:

Leadership Style
EI Competencies
Impact On Climate
When Appropriate
Drive to achieve; initiative, emotional self-control
Strongly negative
Immediate compliance
In a crisis, to kick-start a turnaround, or with problem employees.
Self-confidence; empathy; change catalyst
Most strongly positive
Mobilize others to follow a vision.
When change requires a new vision, or when a clear direction is needed.
Empathy, building bonds; conflict management
Highly positive
Create harmony
To heal rifts in a team or to motivate during stressful times.
Collaboration; team leadership; communication
Highly positive
Build commitment through participation.
To build buy-in or consensus, or to get valuable input from employees.
Conscientiousness; drive to achieve; initiative
Highly negative
Perform tasks to a high standard.
To get quick results from a highly motivated and competent team.
Developing others; empathy; emotional self-awareness
Highly positive
Build strengths for the future.
To help an employee improve performance or develop long-term strengths.

Two traits typically drive the emotional climate within business downward – Coercion and Pacesetting – especially when over-used.  Both of these approaches exacerbate the pressure and stress on others.  Neuroscience is increasingly proving that stress makes people’s brains work in certain ways, for example by reducing their capacity to make rational decisions, especially when trying to perform multiple tasks. Good leaders are beginning to realise the importance of reducing the stress and increasing the wellbeing of their people – with better outcomes for all concerned.
Judgement of Paris by Joachim Wtewael, 1615
I wonder if the stress of selecting the most beautiful goddess in chaotic surroundings impacted his judgement
It is possible to help ourselves become happier and to enhance our own wellbeing.  Almost two years ago I attended an excellent conference on Positive Psychology, designed and run by L&D specialist Sukhvinder Pabial – all too often I and others go to an event, find it interesting but then use little of the learning going forwards. However, since Sukh’s session, I have tried every day to list three good things that I have enjoyed over the past 24 hours – I often post these on social media as a public statement of gratitude and to connect with those whom I know who do the same (research shows that the human need for social interaction is powerful and that simple acts of recognition and acknowledgement benefit both the recipient and the person making the statement). 
I have noticed, as the months have gone by, that I have become more content in myself and the world in which I live. I am making good progress at work too. Success is seldom achieved in isolation and I am truly grateful for the support of others – colleagues, family and friends.

A meaningful “Thank you” is good for you and for the person to whom you say it.   In recent years an increasing body of evidence is emerging that proves the link between gratitude and wellbeing.  It takes little effort to say thanks but, in the rush of modern life, it is easy to omit doing so. I challenge you today to say “thank you” – surprise yourself and someone else by doing it!  I am sure that it will make you and them happier and might make you both more productive.

I must head off to work now… I might take some chocolate in for colleagues in the office.

Belated Happy Easter!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Here's Looking At You

Constructive criticism is a good thing and, even when said in jest there is often a grain of truth behind a person’s comments.  Last week the inimitable David D’Souza said that my Leading Light posts are “samey” – he was commenting on the range of topics I tend to combine together, but then, rather than encouraging me to stick to a simple subject, he challenged me to write a post using a selection of topics of his own choosing. So here goes…

Constructive criticism
Before I start, I must confess that I am useless at saying “No” to a challenge and I also would like to make David’s life a little nicer than it has been of late – not just due of the broadband problems he has suffered when moving house, but because he recently underwent an operation on his eyes and has been forced, like a Marvel comic villain, to wander the streets of London in a pair of sinister dark glasses (he reminded me slightly of Dr Octopus, minus the fused bionic arms, although, like the Doctor, he is super-smart and seems to have tentacles reaching into a lot of things).  David’s laser eye surgery has been amazing and, like any good super hero, he now has better than 20/20 vision.
Doc Ock - from the film Spider-Man 2 
My father also suffered from poor eyesight – he didn’t realise, until he was nearly ten, that most people can distinguish the individual leaves on trees.  Once he had been prescribed spectacles, he proved to have excellent hand to eye co-ordination and became a fine cricketer, indeed he played for the Yorkshire under-19s. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to effect a significant change – in my father’s case it was a perceptive doctor who enabled enlightenment. I suspect that one of the reasons why I find the Learning and Development side of HR particularly rewarding is because of its ability to nurture desired change, with at times remarkable results.

Leaves on the trees
Individual transformation usually requires a personal commitment to breaking ingrained habits and to doing things in a different way.  Evolution is slower. Did you know that our eyes probably originated with the jellyfish – the oldest multi-organ animal, but not necessarily creatures that many people associate with sight, or think of as ancestors?  Initially it was thought that the ability for vision must have developed in complex “higher animals” - all of which share a gene, Pax-6, which is a “master regulator” of optical development.  Jellyfish do not have Pax-6 but they do have Pax-a and Pax-b – research by Hiroshi Suga at the University of Basel has found that it is possible to encourage the development of eyes in other species by inserting jellyfish Pax genes.  This seems to indicate that the foundations of vision for us all lie within these gelatinous creatures.  Although many jellyfish have little more than light-sensitive indentations, there are some with highly elaborate eyes (for example box jellyfish that can see colours and navigate around mangrove swamps and the Root-arm Medusa, Cladonema Radiatum, which has developed eyes above each of its “arms”, which can focus light onto a retina - creatures with genuine 360-degree vision)

Root-arm Medusa with eye indicated
The origins of things are often deeper than would appear at first sight (an appropriate thought in relation to an ancient marine creature).  The eminent French philosopher (frequently referred to as the father of modern philosophy) and exceptional mathematician, René Descartes, also made a significant contribution to our understanding of sight. In his work “Discourse on Method”, published in 1637, he outlines his approach for using analysis to reduce any problem to its fundamental parts and from which to then construct solutions. In the appendix, “Dioptrics”, he utilised this methodology to assess the problem of designing optical instruments.  To do so he commenced by defining light and the workings of the human eye – in the course of the former he articulated the law of refraction – thereby observing it independently from the studies of Willebrord Snellius, the scholar most frequently credited with the discovery (known as Snell’s Law), although in fact it was first stated in a manuscript by the Persian mathematician and physicist Ibn Sahi in 984.  Descartes’ appendix proceeds to consider what methods and tools could best be used to enhance eyesight.  It was the contemplation of lens shapes that resulted in his conclusion that a hyperbolic lens is best for use in focusing light, for example in telescopes.  He proceeds to design a machine capable of making them.  It is much easier to create a spherical lens than a hyperbolic one – the shape of two objects rubbed against each other gradually becomes a sphere with a spherical hollow to match.  Many of the greatest minds of the seventeenth century occupied themselves with devising ways to create hyperbolic lenses (Sir Christopher Wren submitted a paper on the subject to the Royal Society that resulted in international debate) and to this day their production has remained complex – hence their seldom being used in anything other than specialist equipment and machines that require accuracy such as copiers.

This gives the equation for a hyperbolic surface. The focal point 
can be determined to an extremely high degree of precision
Whilst writing this I wondered how the usage of hyperbolic, to mean something that is exaggerated or enlarged beyond what is reasonable, came about – it is a contrasting concept to the accurate, light-focusing lens.  A swift search has informed me that the adjective comes from the Greek huperbolē, meaning excess - the word literally translates as “throw above”.  This definition makes sense if you imagine throwing a ball to a companion, but, instead of aiming to within their area of reach, you toss it high above their head, resulting in an excessive throw – being avid sportsmen, this is what the Greeks considered the equivalent of making over exuberant statements and exaggerated claims.  One chap good with a ball (and considered to be an almost deity by many – indeed it is his bearded face that was used by the Monty Python team as the animated depiction of God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was WG Grace – the West Country Victorian GP who is often described as the father of cricket. 

WG Grace as "God" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail 
There is indeed much hyperbole written about him, but as with criticism, so in excessive praise there are often grains of truth.  Jim Swanton, the most influential cricket writer of the 19th century commented:
“There never was such a hero: not even, I think, Don Bradman. Physically so unalike, these two men at the peak of cricket fame had two qualities in common: great determination and great strength of character.”
Which brings us back to heroes, famous for their determination and great strength of character.  The last topic given to me to include in this post was “Kung Fu Spiderman movies of the 1970s”.  You might think that this is a subject beyond my experience, but I must confess to being thrilled to reacquaint myself.  In 1978 my father was appointed the Attorney General of Hong Kong and we as a family moved to live in Asia.  It was an exciting time and Hong Kong itself was on the cusp of dramatic expansion.  One of the areas of growth was the film industry; I mentioned in a previous post that Sir Run Run Shaw invited me to the premier screening of Blade Runner. Hong Kong was a rising global centre for martial arts films, with Jacky Chan as the recognised international star. Not all the films were great, many of the releases were filmed for Cantonese or Mandarin speaking audiences and then badly dubbed into English – resulting in hilarious voiceovers of fighters asking their opponents if they could handle their “tiger style”, calling each other Monkey or Crane or imploring masters to defend temples and be prepared to die for the honour of the monks. I used to watch these martial art films in episodes on TV with my little sisters – a treasured memory before I was banished back to the UK to go to boarding school miles from my family. One that stuck in my mind was “The Chinese Web”, a 2-hour special starring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. I am pretty certain that I saw it initially in Hong Kong in 1979, before its global release by Columbia Pictures in 1980, during which it was renamed “Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge”.

On watching this again, I was transported right back to my childhood and the amazing sights I saw and the experiences we enjoyed when we first moved to Hong Kong.  Like good tourists, soon after arriving we went to the Jumbo Restaurant – the location where then sampans pick Spider-Man out of the water. My first proper job was in Central in a building with a view of Jardine House (the office block in the film with the circular windows – it was and is affectionately known as “The House of a Thousand Arseholes”).  Watching this was like stepping into the Tardis and arriving back in my youth – Hong Kong has changed almost beyond recognition since 1979, but to me its essence of what it is and will always be to me is captured in this film.

Poster for the 1980 Film Release of The Chinese Web, renamed The Dragon's Revenge
Dear David – I am truly grateful for the challenge you set me – I had forgotten my father’s link with cricket, until you asked me to write about W.G. Grace. I have watched your bravery post op and agonised that I have encouraged you to work on-screen for longer than has been good for your health.  Seeing you observing things clearly (IRL as well as in business) makes me smile – there is so much to amaze, amuse and wonder at around us. I have enjoyed learning more about the evolution of sight from jellyfish, through Descartes’ studies to fighting super heroes endowed with exceptional vision following a radioactive spider bites.  But for me the highlight was being reunited with “The Dragon’s Challenge”.  Unwittingly, you gave me my youth and made me see things in a different way.  Thank you! “Here’s looking at you…”

"I Can See For Miles" was recorded for The Who's 1967 album 'The Who Sell Out.' 
(other than the infidelity aspect, it seems and apt song to end with)