Discomfort vs Fear

I’ve just hopped off a stage where I was talking about the future of work. The people who had been on before me had talked about being positive about it so I went for a more dystopian view (for a sense of balance and because I’d had a bad commute).

The people before had said that fear dominates the narrative around this stuff and I sort of agree. I don’t want people scared, I think that creates the wrong type of response.

I do, however, want people to feel a bit uncomfortable. Like when you know you should be doing something and you aren’t. Like when you feel you haven’t quite prepped for a meeting or you left the cooker on. I want people to think ‘I need to spend a bit more time on my decision making and its implications. In fact I need to reflect on where I spend my time’.

We mistake driving people through fear with giving them appropriate context that provokes them to choose to move. I remember being at a leadership event years ago and someone saying that the only way you can get anyone to do anything is to create a burning platform. Everyone else in the room had lied to their teams to make things seem more urgent. I think that’s a despicable approach. I think that creates fear, fatigue and destroys trust if you are rumbled. I can’t imagine a more limited approach to leadership that telling lies by default.

Explore problems together. Talk about your concerns. But don’t spread fear. It is possible to have urgency without.

Hope vs faith

Every year my family meets up in Regents Park at the same time, same place. There are a lot of us (my grandparents had 15 children which makes for a lot of cousins…) and so the outside space works for us.

This year it was against the backdrop of Cabinet resignations, Trump protests and a heatwave.

It’s easy to find it difficult to feel positive with all that going on. It’s easy to find the world a little overwhelming.

This year we came across these folk. A group of Spanish friends who seem to meet on an occasional basis to build human pyramids. They had some equipment, but apparently it’s strictly an amateur effort. They just do it for laughs and to build friendships. Or at least that’s what the D’Souza troops that we sent to investigate/interfere came back with. The ‘pyramiders’ had a range of ages and, judging by some very risky wobbling, a range of abilities.

There is a lot of trust working with strangers. It involves – and I think this is an important distinction – hope rather than faith. I was chatting to someone about this last week and I think it’s important if you are leading a team to reflect on the difference. I’ve seen people demand faith – too early and with little substance to make it a fair demand.

I’ve also seen people who are dealers in hope. People who show a possible way forward that gives others something – a vision, confidence or space – that allows them to hope. Things seem possible with them about.

Hope might spring eternal, but keeping enough of it flowing to help people think that the task at hand is achievable… Well, that’s a more useful endeavour than asking for faith.

There are no short cuts. Stick with hope until people have faith that their trust is in the right place.

Why I strongly dislike PowerPoint.

(I hate it, but if I wrote hate in the title someone would contact me and say ‘hate is such a strong word, do you really hate it? In these days of conflict isn’t there enough hate in the world?’ – and I’d hate having to type a polite response to that)


  • Great PowerPoint skillz
  • Awesome transitions
  • Copious use of Smart Art
  • Reading out bullet points to me. Sitting and reading them out to me. Soaking up my precious life

These are a few of my very least favourite things

I wrote yesterday about my first 100 days in role and one of the things I did was let my teams all know that I have reservations about PowerPoint being a default as a method of communication.

Because PowerPoint is all too often shallow thinking in corporate clothes.

Over the years it has become an accepted method of communication in many businesses. Indeed in more than one organisation I’ve heard the words ‘great deck’ as if we were viewing a particularly well appointed ocean liner together.

Here’s some stuff I dislike about it

  • A long deck normally has less detail than a one page piece of writing
  • A long deck will then, on average, give me less useful information than a one pager
  • This means more questions that you have to make up the answers to – as you are giving me less information and I’m left less convinced you have thought this all through
  • If you just write something for me then you don’t have to fuss about with format, transitions, sizing and ‘I don’t know why that box is like that, it wasn’t before’
  • Nobody ever has to work out what keys to hit or what wires to connect or get IT involved when they just have to read a piece of paper
  • Smart art does not equal smart thinking. Your idea fits in a series of arrows? That’s fantastic but the impression of internal logic is not the same as consistent internal logic

I’m sure it’s good for some things. I’m always happy for people to choose from a full range of tools to get the job done – but the job people use it for most often isn’t one it is good for

  • Write a document. Circulate it beforehand. People read faster than you speak. The world saves time. Use your meeting to discuss and explore the ideas instead of just ‘presenting’. I found out Amazon do it this way – so you can even copy a sexy company and pretend that writing a one pager is a sexy new trend
  • Tell me a story. Be brave enough to step away from the slides altogether
  • Scan in your handwritten notes and send me them. Doodle some stuff
  • Grab a whiteboard or flipchart and draw as we go

Do anything except waste my life and deaden my brain via PowerPoint. Bring your ideas to life by being better than the poor default of modern business. PowerPoint is just going through the motions. You are better than that.

And if your response to this is ‘my company loves those decks’ then try standing out by giving them something else to love. And remember

(the face in the middle. That’s the genuine one)

First 100 days

Someone pointed out to me that I’ve had my first 100 days in my new role. Since that number is a purely arbitrary number I thought I’d jot down some working out loud style piffle about stuff I’ve done or should be learning from. I was slightly taken aback to read what I had planned to write in this article at the weekend – as that author had obviously proactively plagiarised me by writing their piece first, but if you choose to read that instead I’ll understand.

Stuff I’ve tried to do.

  • Not be overtly evil. When you first step into a new role people’s desire to spot signals of intent are heightened so I’ve tried to not be evil. It probably hasn’t always worked, but I’ve tried
  • Talk to people about them rather than the work. If I’m going to do good work with people that will be built on trust – so the work needs to follow the building of trust
  • Built shared frameworks/models that we can work to together. We’ve worked on common models and language so when we say a thing we know what we are talking about. Mental shortcuts that show shared understanding
  • Pushed for patience. That’s an odd one but I’m trying to focus people on not what we want to do now but what we want to start building for 5 years time
  • Set some clear markers as to what I will accept and won’t in terms of behaviour
  • Tried to make myself accessible to folk outside my immediate team – their teams, their teams’ teams and people around the organisation
  • Put stuff in buckets – fix, prioritise, investigate. This has helped us categorise work into a useful phased plan. Is it broken? Fix it. Is it one of a number of things we could do? Work out where in priorities. Is it unclear? Investigate it
  • Cold assessment of the facts, warm development of behaviours. I’ve got that up in my office and when people drift into the wrong frame of mind I just point. Now people have started pointing at it when I speak too – which means they trust me enough to tell me off whilst smiling
  • Plan communication and disciplines. Do this to allow time to think and create. If the basics are tight that frees up time for other stuff
  • Balance visible quick wins with less sexy long term stuff
  • Insist on guff free language and no PowerPoint unless that’s the best way of presenting an idea (clue: rarely)
  • Everyone gets a clean slate – as well as anyone can offer anyone a clear slate
  • Data, data, data, evidence. Just pile it up so we are dealing with more than hearsay – we have a bank of stuff we can check assumptions/hypotheses against
  • Try and balance our work between thinking and doing. Doing things that aren’t thought through ends up with subpar results. Just thinking about doing ends up with no results. I prefer good results

Stuff I’m learning from

  • My ability to say ‘no’ is improving. If my heart would sink if I had to do something tomorrow I won’t agree to doing it in 6 months. I’ll just hate it when it comes around
  • An overhang of commitments from my old role means that I have horrible pinch points in terms of time and that impacts my team and my ability to influence internally
  • I had one meeting where I really sucked and was grumpy. Due to the fact people are looking for signals that’s taken some clawing back
  • My ability to manage my own energy isn’t where it needs to be. Getting there, but could do better
  • People treat you differently even if you don’t want them to. That’s annoying but it is what it is. Me saying ‘no’ to something now has implications beyond me just disagreeing. Me suggesting something becomes a clear request
  • Letting go of some work is tough. I’m getting better at shuffling things on…
  • 4 times I’ve booked a day off and ended up working so that has to change. Over time that is the solution to the question ‘How do I make myself stupider through fatigue?’

Anyway, thanks to everyone for putting up with me. I’ll keep trying to get better.

Christmas lights and credit

I worked for an organisation a long time ago that paid the last few thousand pounds needed to meet a city’s fundraising target for lights. We weren’t the biggest donor by a long way but the local press gave us the headline of ‘X steps in to save Christmas’. It’s very easy to value that final step over all of the ones before – when in fact other people may have started the hard work or indeed contributed more.

It’s a very human thing to do. If a football team wins 2-1 the credit goes to the scorer of the last goal – the winner – when we know that if the first goal wasn’t scored nobody would be in a position to score the winner. We weigh the last leg differently.

I went through a period a few years ago of being stalked/contacted by headhunters trying to get me to work for a particular FS firm. My feedback to them was always the same…

That organisation will eat up HR professionals who all do a good job but can’t get it done. It’s just too big. Then one day someone will finally finish the job and get the credit – whilst everyone is forgotten. There will be one person who finishes the job – and the sweat and effort of other people will be ignored. I don’t fancy that.

The next time that you are making a change – or running a project – make sure that you aren’t just putting the final lights on the tree and flipping the switch without recognising how we got there. If you are recognising a team effort then really recognise the team – past and present.

One about pedestals

This will probably be my only World Cup blog. I’ve avoided using a football term in the title to hopefully avoid the accusations of clickbait. My last blog was on what behaviour we excuse due to being far too generous to people with charisma. This is about a similar theme… Generally I think there is a bit we can learn from sport – but if you are listening to a top athlete telling you how to run a business it’s always worth checking how well they’ve run a business – specifically one that isn’t based on them being a former top athlete.

There is a link between star performance and character that is assumed and unhelpful. Following Ronaldo’s hat trick in the opening round of the World Cup there were a number of pictures/videos shown of Ronaldo with two children looking up to him. Those pics were accompanied by text talking about role models and heroes. How important it is for people to have someone to look up to.

Ronaldo had been convicted of tax evasion on that same day and given a two year suspended sentence.

I wouldn’t want my child looking up to him just because he can take a free kick or even because he has a great work ethic.

Football is/was supposed to be a sport of the people, yet here we have one of the world’s richest athletes failing to pay tax and this comes hot on the heels of refusing to acknowledge the contribution of a colleague (Gareth Bale) in winning Real Madrid’s latest trophy. Yet he is still a hero… This is what a hero sounds like…

“Who has the most titles and who has the most goals? The Champions League should change and be called the CR7 Champions League.”

“I have won five and I am the top goalscorer again, so I cannot be sad.”

Ungracious, selfish, uncaring and law breaking. They aren’t typical traits of a good role model – but as long as he can take a good free kick…

We need to be careful with our role models. We need to help others reflect on them too – both in and outside of work. Do people stand in awe of people who are ‘successful’ or think about whether they did it the right way. Understanding the flaws and composition of our role models is as important as anything else.

Pick your friends, fights and role models carefully.

(and I know he does a lot of good work for charity…)

The Goblin King Discount

If you watch the film Labyrinth then you will see David Bowie stealing a baby away and then telling a 15 year old girl that the baby only gets to go back home if she submits to his wishes. Let that one sink in.

I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say

Ah… The romance.

Apparently the film folk are talking about a reboot – but I think we all know that if that overall concept was pitched in isolation for the first time today it wouldn’t get very far. It is, at a base level, creepy. Two doses of ‘child in peril’ isn’t very likable.

However… I dare you not to enjoy Magic Dance

And I dare you not to enjoy David Bowie in this.

Because it’s David Bowie. And that man had a charisma rivalled by few.

My contention is that we let people get away with more if they are charismatic. We let people get away with more if we can frame other elements of their contribution in a more positive way. We don’t see Labyrinth as super creepy because it’s Bowie. We are distracted – and we want to be.

“Oh, that’s just x being x” is a story that’s easier to tell than facing into the problematic nature of the Goblin King. All too often we afford societal and organisational Goblin Kings a mental discount to keep them within our own frail boundaries of acceptability.

Perhaps the Arctic Monkeys articulated this double standard most clearly in A Certain Romance

Well over there, there’s friends of mine
What can I say? I’ve known ’em for a long long time
And yeah they might overstep the line
But I just cannot get angry in the same way

We are human beings. I’m describing human nature. This is a reminder, not a revelation.

But as leaders or working within HR I don’t think we can just allow for the Goblin King Discount these days (if we ever could) and as catchy as their Magic Dance might be.