Monday, 29 September 2014

"Talk to me..."

We live in a time of constant conflict – as I write the police in Hong Kong are firing rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas on a peaceful protest for democracy. Every time I read or hear the news there is yet another depressing story of aggression and dispute – planes sent to bomb Kobane (as part of the US-led coalition against ISIS); fighting near Baghdad; drug cartels murdering and intimidating innocent citizens in South America; airstrikes in Pakistan; the misery of people inadvertently trapped in war zones around the world, kidnaps, beheadings, victimisation and rape. For a supposedly civilised species, we should be ashamed of ourselves.
Student protester amid clouds of tear gas
Picture taken from Twitter
Things have not changed since Marvin Gaye recorded “What’s Going On?” his subtle protest against the Vietnam War.

or indeed since the early 1590’s when Shakespeare wrote his famous tale of “star-cross’d lovers”. Despite its reputation, Romeo and Juliet is perhaps more about conflict than it is about love. Certainly that is the impression that Mats Ek gives in his modern version of the classic romance. 

I saw Mats Ek’s ballet, Juliet and Romeo on Saturday night and wept; it was the final performance by the Royal Swedish Ballet at Sadler’s Wells in London. I did not cry at the state of Swedish dance, nor was it was the tragedy of a love so powerful that it is worth dying for that reduced to me tears, but the agony of a mother who had lost her son. Despite the modern, thought-provoking set and costumes, the production is visceral, at times brutal, occasionally humorous, but consistently charged with emotion. Juliet is charming, on the cusp of womanhood – a gawky adolescent filled with passion and mood swings. The rival gangs mooch and posture within their stark urban environment and there is little compassion towards others in an unforgiving and hierarchical society. There is some warmth displayed by The Nurse, but she is a rebel, breaking the rules (riding off to fetch Romeo on a Segway) in a bid to gain a piece of happiness for the girl she clearly loves. Her compassion, willingness to cross boundaries and ability to communicate with all types of people mark her out in contrast to the majority of the other characters. Most are self-seeking and oblivious to the harm they cause. Tybalt urinates contemptuously on the corpse of Mercutio, after murdering him. Romeo slays Tybalt, repeatedly stamping on his head until he dies.  There is little compassion or empathy. Perhaps that is why I was so struck by a moving portrayal of maternal devotion. It was Tybalt’s mother, played by Marie Lindqvist, that gripped my heartstrings – the torment of a woman mourning the loss of a treasured son. 

Woman with Dead Child, 1903 etching by Kathe Kollwitz
souce: Wikipedia
Conflict is centred round emotion, but it does not have to be over something huge like national boundaries, political power, the destruction of a way of life or murder; it can be as simple as a fight within a family over a household object or chore. I visited my mother on Friday – it had been her 82nd birthday while I was abroad on business early last week, so her grandsons and I went to spend time with her at the end of the week. 

My mother with her three daughters
Picture taken by Paul Clarke
My youngest sister had generously given my mother a cordless telephone as a birthday gift, but had left it to charge prior to it being ready for use. I received an SMS from my little sister on Friday, delegating the set-up and training on usage to me. I appreciate that sounds simple: not being tied to the phone’s location (on a flight of stairs leading to the kitchen) and being able to take the handset either into the garden or with her when she wants to sit down seems a sensible thing for my mother to be able to do. I could pre-programme numbers of family, friends, her doctor and so forth into the handset, to make it easier for her to call people. Using a cordless phone would help familiarise her with her mobile (which she uses sufficiently infrequently that I have to remind her what buttons to press when making a call each time she sets off on a trip to the hospital). The intention behind my sister’s offering was good - it was expected to enhance my mother’s life. However, that was not how my mother viewed the gift. She likes having her traditional telephone where it is; she is used to its location, its ringtone and is comfortable with dashing to the stairway to answer it. Now that she is older, she has difficulty remembering new processes and the concept of pre-recorded numbers sitting inside her phone seemed impersonal and distasteful – “what’s wrong with my address book, leafing through the pages is so full of memories?” She was worried by the base-station’s cable – there is a shortage of plug sockets in her house and, without an adapter, she feared losing the use of her beloved plug-in radio. Our mother did not like her well-intentioned daughters pushing her around and forcing change. I found myself in the midst of a family conflict.  

The problem could have been avoided if there had been better communication from the outset.
Miner birds chattering
Conflict can occur in almost every area of life. At work it is one of the managerial problems that individuals find most difficult to cope with. Many weak or inexperienced managers are tempted to try to ignore it, but pretending that a problem does not exist will seldom make it go away. Often taking no action to resolve a matter just makes things worse. Distrust, distress and misunderstandings can fester and morph into bigger problems when the initial ill feeling, on which the conflict is founded, is not addressed. When helping their patients, psychologists usually look for the root of a problem, as understanding the cause and tackling its issues is more likely to produce long-term benefits than focusing solely on current symptoms.  Managers would do well to follow their example and to delve a little deeper to understand why team members feel and behave as they do. 
Be mindful of the roots of a problem

Team dynamics can be impacted by many things including: jealousy, insecurity, perceived injustice, fear, alleged disparity in treatment, stress due to heavy or unequal workloads, disputes over time-keeping, invasion of personal space or a range of inter-personal matters. If ignored there is a high probability that performance will drop, factions may develop, formal complaints will be raised and/or talented employees, who can secure alternative employment, will leave.

In my experience, the best way to overcome conflict is by putting yourself into the other party’s shoes, to try to understand their viewpoint. A degree of tolerance and empathy is often all that is required to diffuse a charged situation. Few people come to work with the intention of causing distress and I have never met an employee who actually wants to be unhappy. In addition, many people fail to appreciate that conflict can be turned to advantage, as often it provides a wonderful opportunity for learning and growth. A good leader can leverage conflict for team building and individual development; the ensuing discussions, grounded in divergent thinking, frequently result in innovation and creative solutions. All is takes is effective communication.

Like Mats Ek, twist the expected to produce something fresh, new and invigorating. Ek changed the familiar title of Shakespeare’s play (although Elizabethan documents show that Shakespeare also contemplated twisting the heading so that the lady was named first). The protesters in Hong Kong are requesting a voice, in that they want their opinion to be taken into account when political appointments are made. We all want our issues to be appreciated – this requires communication. I urge you to follow the advice laid down in Marvin Gaye’s song and hear your employee’s plea (in whatever way they are communicating to you) to

“Talk to me.”

The Nurse, who successfully walks the tightrope
of effective communication & empathy in
Mats Ek's Juliet & Romeo

A happy twist!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014


Warning – this post includes spoilers for the film Pulp Fiction.

Why is it so hard at times to find your mojo? I know that I’m not the only one of us who has sat looking at a blank page or the commencement of a project, wondering where to start. Even prior to composing this blog I had to take a deep breath – like bracing myself before a dive into an icy pool – and try to summon some determination and enthusiasm to bring up the goods. It’s not that I don’t like writing; it’s just that all of us occasionally have days when it is hard to feel motivated. The root of the problem is friction between what you know you should do and what you actually feel motivated to achieve.

Fortunately, there are things that you can do to help yourself, as both change and action are influenced by attitude:
  • Think of a reward that you will enjoy once you have started to break the back of the task – a cup of tea? A phone call that you’ve been wanting to make? A walk? Lunch with a friend? A fresh picked plum from the garden? But be careful to remain aware of your reaction towards short and long-term gain.
Drinking Tea, Konstantin Makovsky 1839-1915

  • Act as though you are inspired and engaged – research shows that if you pretend to be happy and motivated – smiling, encouraging others and explaining your plans in a positive and uplifting manner – you often begin to feel the way that you are appearing, because the body releases confidence boosting hormones. 
  • Inspire yourself by looking back on great things that you have done and avoid mistakes by understanding when things have not gone as planned. Think about ways that you have succeeded or failed in completing similar tasks or projects in the past. Can you use the same approach; are there some short cuts to success that might help you or things you should avoid.

  • Try positivity – there are a number of viral challenges circulating round Social Media at the moment, that have their roots in psychology – for example #3Goodthings on Twitter, where people list three occurrences that have made their day enjoyable. If you can, make sure that listing small successes, or the ground that you have gained towards achieving a dreaded task, occurs in your record on a regular basis. 

  • Mix with a different group of people – if those around you are dragging you down, or preventing you from getting on with something important, spend less time with them, so that you don’t become tainted by their attitude and approach. This approach is advocated in sport, but can apply to any aspect of life.
  • Frame your thoughts in a different manner – instead of fretting that “I can’t do it”, change the sentence into “I can do it if…” and fill in the blanks – often that can be sufficient to get you started. As Jimmy Cliff once sang “You Can Get It If You Really Want”.

What is it that makes or prevents people from doing that which they know they should?

On Saturday evening our family watched Pulp Fiction. The film is 20 years old this year, but it still has the ability to surprise, shock and make you think. The longer I ponder the plot and its themes the more I get out of it.

A clever film, it is superficially about the apathy and nihilism of our modern, Western culture, however, the more compelling sub-plots are the personal dilemmas and contrasts between the characters. The distinct segmentation of the film hangs together on the threads of care and duty that individuals bear towards one another. Self-interest and personal preservation are strong motivators for all of the characters, but the film is deeper than that. Two of the three core individuals, namely Butch and Jules, are on journeys of self-discovery from moral corruption to compassion and a degree of spiritual awakening. They are in contrast to Vincent, who is unable to appreciate his need to change. Symbolically he is isolated from others at crucial stages in the plot (deliberately removing himself further from those around him by retiring to the toilet, where he pontificates to himself or immerses himself in the fantasy world of a Modesty Blaise comic). It is this self-isolation that ultimately leads to his demise. In contrast to Jules, Vincent refuses to see any greater meaning to his life, indeed he chooses indulge in a trashy existence, even stealing the dance trophy (as announced in the background on the radio when Butch returns to his flat) and only blowing a kiss to Mia, the nearest he gets to a genuine relationship, once she is no longer looking at him and hence he can avoid the emotional connection with another being.

We in the world of work can learn a lot from Pulp Fiction:
  • People are inspired to do the right things when they have a sense of purpose. The speech that Jules makes at the end, in the diner, (superbly acted by Samuel L. Jackson), is haunting and in contrast to the recited, pseudo biblical sermon that he ritually makes when killing people as a hit-man. The intensity in his eyes as he says "You are the weak and I am the tyranny of evil men, but I’m tryin’…I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” stays with you, and it is this passion that inspires the robbers to depart, leaving the briefcase and thereby enabling Jules to complete his last task for his boss.

  • Accidents will happen (witness poor Marvin) and effort usually is required to clear things up – indeed, sometimes, external assistance is the necessary solution to ensure that a job gets done (Winston Wolfe clearly makes a good living as an efficient “cleaner” and some of my best friends are consultants).  
  • People will do the wrong things when there is friction and discord or if they are frightened (witness the massacre in the flat, especially when Brett’s associate bursts from the bathroom and fires wildly, missing his targets, but creating greater carnage). 

  • Most individuals are self-seeking, but can be encouraged to rise above their base needs, and contribute towards the greater good, if they have a vision that inspires them. Butch’s decision to rescue Marcellus from the rapists is partially self-seeking, in that it provides him with an opportunity to reduce the longer-term danger to himself and his girlfriend, but he also does decide to help a man, who only a short while earlier was seeking to kill him, after a moment of deliberation, because he knows it is the right thing to do. 

  • People are inspired by people, Butch needs the motivation provided by thoughts of his father (symbolised by the gold watch) to encourage him to do the right thing.  

  • There will always be some who are inclined towards anti-social and inappropriate behaviour, be it stealing the office stationary (the equivalent of Mia going through Vince’s pockets to help herself to drugs) or taking advantage of others (clearly the victimisation by the rapists is extreme, but they act as a reminder that bullying and harassment should never be tolerated).

Inspiration can come from almost anywhere – I rediscovered my mojo to write this business-orientated post through what, on the surface, appears to be a film with nothing to do with the world of work. Like in Pulp Fiction, life can appear to be a series of compartmentalised experiences – home, work, time with friends, going to the gym, doing the shopping… but there is always a thread of connection. Traditionally a mojo was attached to its wearer by a thread or cord - a mojo being a small bag, often of red flannel, containing herbs, talismans (such as coins) and charms. It was a common belief, particularly amongst rural African Americans in the 19th century, that a person with a mojo could protect themselves from harm, as well as being able to influence others, for their own advantage.  Although the belief in a mojo's supernatural powers has fallen away, the expressed desire for having a mojo remains in common parlance. It is no longer an object of fear, but a phrase that means we feel inspired and energised to do things. 

I hope you have your mojo with you today and hence possess the drive and motivation to achieve your goals with ease. Part of the magic of a mojo was created through the mixing together of "magic" ingredients - almost like an ointment. It was a way of using the supernatural to lubricate life and make it an easier ride. In that spirit...may your challenges prove surmountable and slip by easily, instead of you being left to traverse the rough potholes and gulp at friction.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Delivering Results

An image that has stuck with me, since my return from India, is two closely entwined trees at a temple bedecked with small yellow babies in cribs.

These infants, made of papier-mâché, were offerings to the gramadevata (local guardian deity) at the temple gate, close to a shrine to Ganesha. The two species of tree represent the masculine and feminine aspects required for life. The offspring-offerings are ritual acts of devotion, to encourage fertility, and were clearly a common occurrence at the temple of Meenakshi Amman in Madurai. While I was there I had a discussion with a couple who, having been married for just over a year, were eager to start a family and hence had come to make an offering to the tree. He worked in IT, as a programmer, and they both spoke good English. Their desire to become parents was almost palpable, as was their belief that by walking round the trees three times and tying a symbolic child in a crib to the branches they were increasing the probability that they would start a family in the near future. I hope they do as, if the planning, passion and preparation they put into praying for a child is any indication, I suspect that they will be devoted and attentive parents.

Even those of us who are not parents give birth to things over the course of our lives – academic results, friendships, a home, memories, completed projects, grudges, a thriving business, our impact on others, artwork and/or visions. Once you have progressed above the basic physiological needs of survival that is what life is all about. I must confess that I am not the outcome I had envisioned for myself – at the age of 12 I was convinced that I would become a barrister, as indeed were most of my family (I was an argumentative little minx) – but I am content with who I am and the influence that I have had on people and the world around me. 

Many of us, as we get older, start to think about what we will leave behind.  This is as true in corporate life as it is elsewhere…leaders want to pass on something worthwhile, which will be valued by those who come after them. Henry Wallace, the former Vice President of the United States, once stated:
“A Liberal knows that the only certainty in this life is change but believes that the change can be directed toward a constructive end.”

Not all leaders are Liberals nor are they all old, but most leaders desire to leave a constructive and positive legacy (although some may see this as “building” something, as opposed to focusing on its durability). To create something meaningful with permanence usually demands either the introduction of necessary change, to safeguard the future, or the creation of something new that will forge history. I have had the privilege of being party to a number of ventures that have helped to change the world, from the growth of derivatives post Big Bang, through the globalisation of professional services and the resourcing industry, to the start of the internet for commerce and connectivity and the development of mobile banking, through to now, where, post The Great Recession, I am helping to shape a new approach towards customer service and understanding, with the provision of wisdom as opposed to simply technical skills, products and information.

Around the start of the new millennium, I found myself swept by fortune into the Dot-Com Boom, the period from 1995 to 2000 when investment capital poured into technology and Internet businesses. I learned more in 4 years than I think I have in the whole of the rest of my career. For example, in 1999, shortly after the birth of my second son, I was asked by a former Chairman to meet one of his clients, as he did not understand their business model and was finding it hard to assist them. He had promised JP Morgan that he would help the founders to get their business off the ground, but he could not understand why they “kept trying to sell him plimsolls” and they spoke a very different language to that of the men of Mayfair with whom he was comfortable. As a new mum, clearly, I “wasn’t busy”, so he asked me to see them, so as to then translate for him. I ambled along to Carnaby Street, with a baby in basket, just expecting a chat but, by the end of the conversation, I was fortunate to be invited to join one of the most notorious Dot-Com start-ups of the period, the high profile e-tailer,

boo became one of the largest European “Dot-Com Bombs” when it went bust and is now used as a case study for many of the world’s leading business schools - an example of how things can go wrong. It is true that the strategic plan was poor, many of the right people were hired at the wrong time and hence added to the burn-rate, there were no KPIs and inadequate reporting, the technology was ahead of its time – it required broadband connections when most people still relied on dial-up - money was spent inappropriately and at times extravagantly, but boo was not all bad. Boo inspired passionate loyalty in its workforce, its people were encouraged to use their creativity and many employees went way beyond what was expected of them, just for the love of their job and the vision – developers created in-house jokes on the site (e.g. Miss boo, the avatar that guided customers around the site, winked at you if you passed your curser over her chest). The company culture was extraordinary, the founders were able to sell their concept to almost everyone they met and I learned the true meaning of employee engagement. To be successful leaders must get people to embrace their vision and encourage individuals to be brave enough to embrace innovation.

I took the lessons I learned from boo, both the good and the bad, to my next role (Global Head of HR and Resourcing at a newly founded global venture capital business, investing in technology start-ups). We, and the start-ups we invested in, were cost-conscious, prudent, had clear strategic and implementation plans, with articulated milestones and budgets. As indeed was the business I subsequently co-founded, which helped to make history by changing retail financial services forever. Unlike boo, neither start-up went to the wall, primarily because I and others applied what we had learned from earlier mistakes and were focused as well as passionate.  

Some of my learning, which I still use today, can be defined as follows… When starting a new project:
  • Be sure you know what you intend to achieve, by when, with whom, the assumptions that have been made in relation to attaining the desired goal (including costs in time, actual man-hours, distractions/diverted attention and effort), and the resources required to ensure success (bear in mind also that you yourself are an important resource and it is crucial, before you start, that you genuinely believe that you can achieve the objective)
  • Spare a moment to think about previous experiences that can help you – have you been involved in something similar in the past, if so, what lessons did you learn/what would you have done differently? Do you know anyone who has achieved a similar goal – can you talk to them and gain some valuable insights from their experiences?
  • Make sure that you have the raw materials and other resources that you require. If you need people to help you, make sure that they are available (and, if necessary, gain permission for their involvement in advance). They need to be as convinced as you that the task can and should be done and that they possess the skills and motivation required to be effective.
  • Write a road map and ensure that people buy-in to both the route and approach that you have planned. In this document you must outline the scope, timeline, milestones, resources and also define any assumptions, dependencies, specific roles or responsibilities. It is sensible to get stakeholder involvement in the production of this, so that all parties feel a degree of ownership and responsibility and commitment.
  • Make sure that the people you will be working with feel the same way as you do about what needs to be done and how it will be achieved.
  • Proactively communicate at all stages of the project (especially to those who are not so actively involved and therefore need to be kept on side and in the loop). Poor communication is a very common reason for project failure.
  • On completion, think about what you have achieved, consider what has gone well and what you could have done better/faster/more efficiently – these learnings could prove useful in the future, especially if a similar situation arises. As Henry Ford once said:
“Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.”
Very few people are comfortable launching themselves into the unknown. Even if you have a good understanding of what you intend to achieve and why, that does not mean that you should not escape a healthy dose of trepidation. Our bodies produce hormones to help us succeed, but the modern world in which we operate is very different from the environment that required our fight-or-flight responses. When embarking on something new, a degree of nerves is normal – indeed many people grow to appreciate that apprehension dreams are an indication that they have progressed into accepting that things will be different going forward. When I was pregnant with my first son I suffered very vivid and disturbing dreams prior to his birth – I did not see these as an omen (probably a good thing given that they featured dead birds), but accepted that it was my mind’s way of coming to terms with the impending change. Having him and his brother are the best things I have done in my life, even better than founding successful businesses and helping individuals and companies to exceed their expectations. However, I appreciate that parenthood is not for everyone.

Which brings me back to the babies in the trees in India. Perhaps you are familiar with the nursery rhyme, Rock-a-bye Baby:
Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

There are two interpretations as to its meaning. The first is a simple observation on parenting – the rhyme is cited as the earliest English nursery rhyme to be produced on American soil; created from a 17th century immigrant’s observations on the Native-American mothers who wove birch-bark pouches or cradles for their babies and suspended them from the branches of trees. The alternate meaning hints at new projects and politics – it was widely believed that King James VII’s son was in fact an infant smuggled into the birthing room to provide a Catholic heir. The blowing wind symbolises the in-coming political force, in the form of King James’ nephew William of Orange in the Netherlands, and the cradle is the House of Stuart that was destined to fall. Regardless of the meaning, there was a footnote to the original version of the rhyme: “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.”

Whatever you decide to create in your life, may you proceed with proper planning, caution and care and hence avoid a tumble.

I wish you every success.

The Miracles - I'll Try Something New, 1962