Sunday, 23 June 2019

Take a Good Look at Yourself


I awoke this Saturday morning to news that police had been called to the home of Boris Johnson (the candidate currently in pole position to become the new Prime Minister of the UK) and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, due to their neighbours having concerns over Miss. Symonds’ and Mr Johnson’s safety.  I’m not sure that a private tiff should be headline news or that neighbours should be recording each other and sharing their recordings with the press. However, there is no doubt that the altercation has the potential to damage Boris Johnson’s reputation during his bid to lead the Conservative party. Certainly, the conduct and character of the person holding the highest political role in a country is important. Indeed the character of any leader, either in or outside of politics is significant. I work for a financial services business and we expect honesty and integrity from all our staff, indeed we would not hesitate to dismiss someone whom we discovered was not acting in the best interests of clients, had lied for their own gain and/or whom we found not to be treating colleagues and third parties with appropriate respect and consideration. What we do and how we come across is important and, I for one don’t spend sufficient time considering how I seem to those around me.


My boss gave me some constructive but challenging feedback last week – he told me that some people in the business suspect that I have favourites. That for me, as an HR Director, is a significant cause for concern. It is crucial that I am seen as impartial, fair and interested in everyone. I have given his comments a lot of thought (hence this blog) - it is true that one former colleague of mine from a decade ago, a supplier who agreed to jump ship and come in-house and one person I met via a charity we both support, have joined our team – they were recruited without my involvement, but I can see how people, without my being aware of it, might have felt unintentionally pressurised into offering a job to a person who had my initial recommendation. I am confident that each new member of my team has been able to demonstrate well above average skills, but I can see how their hiring could be misperceived.  I’d like to state that I am hugely proud of the people who were in HR when I arrived. The HR offering has changed significantly for the better and it is entirely down to the team. When I arrived I made a deliberate decision not simply to “replace the bulbs” (despite encouragement to do so from some quarters) – I knew that every person had skills and capabilities that would prove invaluable as we turned the business around. Much better to turn bulbs on and demonstrate that positive change can happen – HR has been at the forefront of much of our business transformation and we take pride in leading by example. I have an amazing team.

I genuinely try to treat everyone with equal consideration, but that does not mean that I shy away from difficult conversations when performance dips or when people do or say things that unsettle others. I appreciate that people don’t like it when I call things out, but it is the right thing to do. I know that there are some who are going through tough times, physically, financially, emotionally and mentally - I am grateful that they have let me know - and I have tried to be supportive and understanding. It did not occur to me that those with whom I was spending less time might feel that they were less valued as a result. In my mind, they were fortunate, in that their lives currently seemed less complicated than their colleagues’ and hence they did not need or want as much attention or reassurance. Each of us is different. Some people like to keep work and home very separate. However, perhaps the problem is me and that I haven’t listened well enough or they have not felt comfortable sharing aspects of their lives or problems with me.


Whilst on the subject of impact and impressions (and this post being somewhat confessional) - at the end of a meeting in my office yesterday a colleague made a joke about the messy state of my desk. I am comfortable working with a collection of papers and objects piled around me (it is a family trait I seem to have inherited from my academic grandfather, who co-invented the iron lung, and my lawyer father who was a recognised leader in his field), but perhaps I should be more mindful of the impression it creates on others. There has been lots of research into working space and tidiness. A survey conducted in 2018 on 2,000 UK based employees showed that 41% of workers believe that an organised space is key to doing a good job, but on the flip side, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs all had messy desks and they seem to have been quite productive. Indeed there is academic research that shows that people are more creative and better at problem solving when they operate within a more cluttered environment.
Mark Twain at his desk
Tidy desks only became expected when the industrial age really started taking hold and Dickensian clerks were being closely watched over. That doesn’t alter the fact that I should be more mindful. Various people at work’s words to me have been a wake up call to contemplate how I am seen by the people I live and work with.

I thoroughly enjoyed a recent trip with a much-loved and perspicacious friend to the National Portrait Gallery. One of the things that we discussed as we wandered through the 19th, 20th and 21st century galleries, all full of famous people, was the impression that each individual had wished to create through their portrait. Did the sitter choose the setting and expression, or did the artist decide that? I suspected that it depended on the sitter – if they were a grand patron or member of royalty they would have more control. What was the choice of lighting (candle or daylight) and why? Why did a number of portraits all share a similar trait (for example a physical one such as ruddy cheeks, perhaps to look like the monarch of the time, or all looking sideways towards the horizon rather than directly confronting the viewer – although many actresses of the same period  seemed to prefer to look you in the eye).
I enjoyed spotting small details that people used to convey messages – the bust of Sir Walter Scott was carefully carved to indicate that he was dressed in plaid and proud of being Scottish.  

James “Jem” Wharton, painted by the Liverpudlian artist William Davies, shows the highly successful boxer at the height of his career – he commenced fighting in 1833 and retired undefeated in 1840. He then ran a tavern in Liverpool as well as being a boxing trainer and promoter. The picture is a very early depiction of boxing gloves and they seem to indicate that Jem had been training before the painting was done, as gloves did not become mandatory in fights until after the adoption of the Queensbury Rules later in the century. 
What looks like a dashing Spanish shawl tied around his waist are in fact the “colours” from his latest victory (we still talk of sportspeople winning their colours – but they no longer wear them tied round their midriffs.) In Jem’s days wearing the colours were an important message, advertising his skill and success. Not all the portraits at the Gallery were intended to convey a meaning, the charming sketch of Jane Austen, done by her sister Cassandra, is just that, a frank family sketch painted simply to depict her likeness. Many have commented on the fact that, with the advent of photography, painted and drawn portraits of everyday people are becoming less common. Most of the 21st century pictures had clearly been commissioned. The picture of the chef, restaurateur and writer Fergus Henderson cradling a suckling pig in his arms was a particular favourite of my companion – it is witty and says so much in such a simple way.  

Fergus Henderson beside his portrait
now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery
Some leaders in business and politics are effective at using items to make a simple statement. I was particularly struck earlier this year by the dignity and compassion displayed by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, following the terrible killings in the mosques in Christchurch. Her wearing a headscarf said so much and was noticed around the world (and indeed her action was followed by many women in New Zealand to demonstrate their solidarity with the Moslem community).


Corporates can make decisions relating to the appearance of their staff that make a statement to the wider community – the mandatory wearing of high heels has been much debated, in contrast, this week Virgin Atlantic announced that it is no longer compulsory for female cabin crew to wear make-up.  Have you considered the subliminal messages provided by what you wear or don’t wear? One area for consideration is colour. There is a considerable amount of research into the psychology of colours and how they affect emotions, perceptions and reactions. Roman Emperors wore Tyrian purple because it made a statement (it was so expensive and difficult to make, relying on the death of at least ten thousands snails per toga).


Influential Puritans in Britain in the 17th Century reportedly wore black – it not only demonstrated that they were pious because they used no colour to adorn themselves, but also told people that they were successful and wealthy,
because a good quality black was hard to produce and hence expensive (the majority of puritans wore brown and indigo). Another aspect of appearance is hair (be it facial or the stuff on top of your head). I remember a bearded colleague once being introduced on his first day as the “soon to be no longer hirsute Mr X” - a clear message from our boss that he was expected to shave. More recently, I notice that Boris Johnston has trimmed his conventionally unruly mop of hair, presumably in a bid to widen his appeal amongst the Conservative electorate. I know that I look a bit wild at the moment, perhaps, now that I am trying to be more self aware, I’d better get my ends trimmed or even a professional bob instead of my flowing mane. What do you think?

When did you last take a good look at yourself?


"Man in the Mirror" - Michael Jackson


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