Learning to swim

I’ve just spent an hour attempting to teach my daughter to swim. I’m not a very good swimming teacher.

Apparently Adrian Moorhouse was coached to Olympic success by a man who couldn’t swim. I can’t manage to coax my daughter out of water wings for more than five minutes.

Whilst attempting to get her to put her head under the water for the 60th time it crossed my mind that I might just be ruining the fun. Maybe all she wants to do is just bob about the pool in water wings? Maybe that is the height of her ambition? Maybe I hadn’t concentrated enough on her own motivations and ambitions? Maybe I wasn’t using all the tricks at my disposal.

So I attempted to create a more appealing vision for her to be part of. I asked her if she wanted to swim without wings and she said yes. I asked her if she wanted to be able to swim underwater like a mermaid and she said yes. I asked her if it would be good to go back to school next week and tell people she could swim without wings and she said yes. I told her that she could have two ice creams if she went under the water (I’m not above such crude tactics) and she said yes.

I had this in the bag.

I asked her to take the wings off and she grinned and refused.

It comes to something when you are pretty sure you could influence an Exec team to do what is needed, but you are foiled by a five year old not wanting to dunk her head under.

There is a lesson there, although the lesson may just be that I’m a bad swimming coach.


Left hand drive and being a new starter

I’m in Lake Garda for a few days, soaking up the sun and reading some books. In an ill advised moment of bravado I decided that I’d brave the Italian roads rather than get a taxi to and from the airport. That was an error of the highest magnitude.

I have never driven in a country where the vehicles are left hand drive or where you drive on the right hand side of the road. I’m not sure how I have got to this point in my life without doing it, but it has never come up.

I have never sworn as often or as loudly (or creatively) as I did this morning, whilst I was winding my way through small Italian villages, expertly maneuvering the car with the all the grace of a drunk and severely traumatised elephant.

I ‘kissed’ the kerb three times and the only saving grace was that I avoided any damage that the rental company would be concerned about.

In many ways joining a new organisation is like the trip I have taken today. You know what you need to do and you know that your skills should be transferable, but everything is that little bit different and harder than you would like. You have to relearn something that you feel should come naturally. You are launched back into conscious incompetence.

  • The environment contains similar component parts to where you were, but still feels alien
  • There is frustration in not being able to operate as effectively before
  • Whilst you are in that period of trying to adapt you have a far greater risk of mistakes than in previous environments
  • Making good judgement calls is harder, because your points of reference are all unfamiliar
  • Unless someone else is made aware that you are new at this they are unlikely to adequately compensate for your issues. They just keep driving/working the way they always have.

I’m hoping the return journey is less eventful. I’m hoping I’m better. I’m hoping I swear less. If I do swear I hope it doesn’t involve badgers this time, I’m not sure why it did last time.

The Elephant Powder Test and HR

A guy is walking down the road and he comes across an old man sprinkling white powder on the road. He walks up to the old man and the conversation goes something like this

What are you doing?
I’m sprinkling elephant dust
What does that do?
It keeps away elephants
But there aren’t any elephants around here…
I know, it’s really good stuff isn’t it?

At the CIPD Northern Area Partnership Conference last week David Clutterbuck talked about HR bling: the activity we cling to that that is appealing but doesn’t add value. It put me in mind of the old man sprinkling elephant dust, confident in the results, but in reality making no difference. Just expending energy, repeating the same activity and assuming success.

In particular Clutterbuck was scathing of current Talent Management processes, giving an overview of the weakness in correlation between key tools and approaches and actual demonstrable business benefit.

I guess the Elephant Powder Test is about how you can validate that what you are doing is making a difference.

There are probably 3 ways to check whether you are passing the test:

  • Stop doing what you are doing and see if anything really changes. For example remove a policy and see if hell really breaks loose…
  • Understand the initial state so clearly so that you can rapidly understand if a pilot of your work is making a difference
  • Look to external sources to validate your approach (just to be clear, this isn’t doing it because everyone else is doing it, this is doing it because there is evidence it is the right thing to do)

So keep your powder dry and have a think about how you can make sure your activity isn’t just chasing off imaginary elephants.

5 Lessons from Yorkshire – #CIPDNAP15

I’m off the to the CIPD Northern Area Partnership Conference today. It’ll be just the second time I’ve been back to York since I moved back ‘down South’ 3 years ago.

I spent 15 years in Yorkshire – learning to love a good pint of bitter, play cricket with a bit more aggression and to be able to mentally plot a route through York’s snickleways that avoided the droves of tourists. I left good friends there and didn’t keep in touch as much as I should, but London is relentless and York seems like another life.

My favourite lessons from those 15 years are things that I think will probably stick with me throughout my career

“You can’t fat the calf by weighing it” – my first HR manager used to say this frequently and as we move towards more of a focus on analytics it is worth remembering that assessing a problem isn’t solving a problem.

“You need to paint them a picture so big that they want to walk into it” – we talk about the importance of vision, but I think some people forget the point isn’t to have it because books tell you that you need it. It’s to give people a desire to travel somewhere new. That’s the trick. That’s why it needs to sound good to your people, not to your leadership team.

There is a ‘good lad’ test – I’m sure that there is an equal ops version of the statement, but I learnt the importance of introductions in Yorkshire. Conversations flowed easily and casually with new people when you were introduced with the all important endorsement “Jim, meet Dave, he’s a good lad, you’ll get on”. If you didn’t get that initial endorsement you were starting from scratch.

Patience helps paceI worked for M&S for a few years at the start of my career. Retail is a great place to learn both business and HR. It is fair to say the average employee at M&S at that time was female and about 55. I basically was treated like a spare son by most of the workforce. If I made a mistake (and I do, frequently) the typical response was ‘bless you, you are a daft one aren’t you?’. Sometimes my hair was affectionately ruffled. It was a fast paced environment with pressure on the whole time – so people were less exacting rather than more with new starters. You don’t always see that, but it helps.

Plain talking works best when you care – I worked with some brutally honest people. People who would “call a spade  a spade”. That was a very Yorkshire thing, there was a big emphasis on it, but it worked for some people and not others. Why? Because tough honest messages delivered with care will gain you respect. Running your mouth off because you feel that you can will lose respect. Tact and truth aren’t opposites.


The Performance Balcony and Informality

Last week I spent some time sitting outside on a balcony chatting with Matt Partovi. Matt is the founder of Culturevist, a community of people so passionate about culture that they’d leave their jobs rather than see theirs compromised. Check them out their events here.

Ostensibly it was a business meeting (because we talked about maybe working together), but it didn’t feel like one because mainly we talked about shared purpose. Matt wants every person to have access to a great culture at work. I’m all about championing better work and working lives (luckily as is my employer). It was time well spent.

In the evening there was a gathering of CIPD employees in our OpenSpace area, an area where members can drop in and work. I was still working when people started having fun and someone asked if I was missing out because I’d spent so long chatting to the guy on the balcony. I guess I was. I guess it looked like I’d interrupted my working day to go and grab some sun with Matt.

I like to think that the time we spend developing trust, relationships, shared things to laugh at and an understanding of what the other person cares about is work. It’s probably more of the foundation of work than most other things. It isn’t a diversion, it is the quickest route to performance. I know you, I trust you, we can work together to do great things.

Everyone benefits. I’ve spent my first weeks in my new role trying to meet as many people as I can. It’s been tiring and manic and confusing, but it has never been anything other than worth it. It has never crossed my mind after meeting someone that I would have liked to have known less about them.

Work happens in the cracks, it happens in the places where you develop trust. It happens in pubs and it happens when you queue for lunch and it happens when someone makes a joke. It happens when you grab five minutes for a coffee and it turns into 60 minutes that you don’t really have – but that the other person needs. All of this counts because relationships count.

And that is why an hour on a balcony with Matt was time well spent.

Rumours, Movie Making and Greatest Achievements

Confounding people’s expectations was a way to maintain integrity – Lindsay Buckingham

About 6 months ago I watched an extended interview with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. It was a both enthralling and awkward hour of TV to watch, as he was asked about the relationship ‘complications’ that dominated the band’s greatest years. Whilst he handled this in a pretty dignified manner it was interesting to hear him get slightly prickly when people described motivations for his writing that he didn’t recognise. Telling a songwriter what they were thinking of when they were writing a song seems to create a certain tension…It’s almost as though retrospectively ascribing motivations to people you don’t know might be fraught with danger.

When Buckingham was asked what his greatest achievement was he said it was his children. The interviewer said that this wasn’t an acceptable answer (apparently only work counts…). He then replied that his greatest achievement, the one he was proudest of, was the album ‘Tusk’ . This seems a strange answer as the preceeding album Rumours sold over 40 million copies. Tusk sold 4 million.

For any of you that struggle with numbers the difference between those two figures is… comfortably more albums than Britney Spears has managed to sell in her entire career. Please note: I had to look that up, I’d like to reassure people I don’t follow Britney Spears albums sales as a hobby.

Tusk was a source of pride for a number of reasons that Buckingham believed mattered more than commercial success, namely

– he asserted more creative control than he had been able to do previously
– he broke away from the expectations of others (expecting Rumours 2) to do something different to what had gone before
– following up the Rumours with a relatively successful album was more of a challenge than writing Rumours (when expectations were low)

I dislike Tusk. There is barely anything on the album that I enjoy (maybe Sara..) and you have to skip forward to their next album, Tango in the Night, before there is anything I’d name as a favourite.

But Lindsay Buckingham saying that his greatest achievements were i) being a father and ii) addressing the challenge of staying creative following success  That is something that I can enjoy. That feels like someone who really has a handle on what success means.

A final point: Buckingham was incredibly aware of his own skill. It was in refining the work of others and providing structure to it, rather than in creating this himself. That’s probably true of a great number of people who are ‘creative’, but it takes some courage to admit you are an aggregator rather than a creator.

He described his work with Fleetwood Mac as being like movie making and I like that idea. Maybe that’s what more organisations need – people committed simply to bringing the best out of the people around them and editing and shaping their work into the best possible form. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

Of course the best thing Buckingham actually did was this piece for National Lampoon’s Vacation. If I could only ever achieve as much…

7 Lessons from The Newsroom

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom‘, despite the fact it is deeply flawed. Maybe I’m drawn to sporadic moments of genius, they seem more fun than the mundane nature of constant genius.

Here are 7 simple lessons drawn from some of the show’s inspired dialogue.

Lesson 1

You don’t need to criticise good people after a mistake. Your job is simply to stop them being too hard on themselves. Time and time again I see bigger damage to overall performance from people’s inability to get over their mistakes than from the initial mistake itself.

Maggie: How come no one’s yelling at me?
Jim: You know how bad you screwed up, right?
Maggie: Yes
Jim: Is there anyone who feels worse than you do?
Maggie: No.
Jim: Then I doubt it’ll ever happen again.

Lesson 2

Learn the difference between what you are doing for people and what you are doing for the business. If you don’t know the difference between people and a business it is explained beautifully here

Mackenzie: What’s the difference between a corporation and a person?
Sloan: Have you ever held a door open for someone?
Mackenzie: Yes.
Sloan: Did you ask them for money first?
Mackenzie: No.
Sloan: That’s the difference.

Lesson 3

Let your good people make interesting mistakes. If people work for you for any period of time they are bound to make errors, help them dodge those deadly bullets

Maggie: that wasn’t what he was actually mad about. The wife of a board member died and Will asked me to send flowers. I wrote on the card, “I’m so sorry about your loss. LOL.
Jim: LOL
Maggie: I thought it meant “lots of love.
Jim: How are you still working here
Maggie: I dodge bullets. Here comes a bullet. Boom! I’m over here. Ping! Here comes another bullet. Boom! I’m over here.

Lesson 4 –

There is an art in effectively managing communication. There is an art in effectively managing change. Just never forget that because you might be able to convince someone of something it doesn’t mean that it is true. That’s a bad test of rightness.

Leona: You have a PR problem because you have an actual problem.

Lesson 5

Despite what I said about lesson 4, being able to rally people and transmit belief remains a useful skill…

Will: How much of what you’re saying do you believe right now?
Charlie: 60%
Will: I thought it was in the mid-80s. You pulled it off.
Charlie: Experience.

Lesson 6

It’s important to isolate failure in part from total failure. Too often we review projects for where we went wrong, ignoring the importance of where we succeeded. Everyone wants to get things 100% right, but someone told me a long time ago that getting 7/10 decisions right is acceptable – and 8 or above is exceptional – and that seems a reasonable rule.

Will: I believe, except for the things we did wrong, we did everything right

Lesson 7

Take time to figure out the stories around you. Every person you see is writing their own story the whole time, every day they are a little bit different – yet too often we see them as fixed. I have no idea what this story is about…

Will: There’s a story about a little kid who keeps shredding paper and his parents take him to all kinds of doctors to get him to stop shredding paper. And finally they take him to the most expensive doctor in the world who turns to the kid and he says, “Kid, if you stop shredding paper, your parents will stop dragging you to doctors.” And the kid turns to his parents and says, “Why didn’t you just say so?
Mac: Well, all right, then
Will: The point of the story is that the kid could make himself happy by just stopping. I think that’s the point. I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure it out

Finally, some thoughts on how quickly you can learn economics from the first series – with some of the laser sharp dialogue that Sorkin does so well