Monday, 23 February 2015


We live in a world where being busy is most people’s default position.

A friend of mine told his sons, “if you snooze you lose”. And children have never worked so hard. Five year olds do more homework than I did when I was 11.

And the badge of courage is to seem even busier than you really are. It’s pretty bad anyway isn’t it? You have a shortage of breath, a vile temper, are sleeping badly, getting up early to cram in extra work and really needing that glass of wine in the evening. Somewhere recently I saw this fantastic insight. People are so busy they don’t eat, they “inhale” their food.
So how are you? “So busy I can’t believe it, it’s ridiculous”.

Combine the following: self-pity, stress and a curious sense of pride and satisfaction. Welcome to 2015.
But is it true that everyone’s unusually, mind-numbingly busy or have we all just lost our sense of proportion?
I think Thomas Cromwell was pretty busy apart from being multilingual and seeming to manage what was the Tudor Civil Service pretty well singlehandedly.

Yet in Wolf Hall we see him thinking at least as much as rushing around. And he doesn’t rush anyway. He prowls. Take up prowling - it might change your life.

Anthony Trollope wrote a lot of great novels as well as holding down a huge and successful job in the Civil Service.  They used to call someone who such had a broad portfolio of activities a Renaissance Man.
Stop being stressed, start celebrating. Having a lot to do gets you nearer to changing the world. Being active feeds your brain. Be a Renaissance man not an ungracious moaner. And you know what? It isn’t that bad. Trollope had to learn French and German in a year for his job which makes AS levels look just a bit easy in comparison.

And now for obedience: Thomas Jefferson said: “A little rebellion now and then isn’t a bad thing”. Nor is it - it was only when I started to be a pain in the arse at school arguing, disagreeing with masters, looking for new ideas that my brain started to work.

In most workplaces I’m beginning to detect a lemming-like obedience which worries me a lot (and it’s worrying a lot of CEO’s I know). Here’s Sam Goldwyn’s contribution: “I don’t want yes men around me. I want people who tell me what they think - even if it costs them their jobs.”

I think he was joking. I hope so.

We need to think more, plan better, choose to do what matters and start arguing if something’s being done that’s wrong, illegal or which could be done better.  In a world of great change we need to prowl more, think more and question more. We’ll enjoy our jobs more and we’ll get on better too.  Because few things are worse for everyone’s morale that being a busy sycophant.

Monday, 16 February 2015


I keep on hearing the word “perfect” nowadays. When someone asks me my name and I tell them they tend to say “perfect” as if in awe at my accurately and confidently remembering my own name. Perfect has become the new “great”.

I’m not sure I much like “perfect.”  Seth Godin the management guru and inspirational writer said: “stop trying to be perfect. Be remarkable”.

Remarkable is what a live performance can be.  When, many years ago, I stood just a few feet away from the Kinks playing “You really got me” they did, get me that is, because it was quite remarkable. But it was far from perfect.   Dave Davis was so drunk he could hardly stand and Ray was reviling him. It wasn’t perfect but it was very exciting wondering if rock murder might occur in front of me.

It’s the danger of live performance that provides the frisson of what has been called “the dramatic moment” when the suspension of disbelief is total.  It happened to me in Lewes at a performance of Othello in a hotel when suddenly I found myself almost part of the action arguing about a handkerchief. Rather than grand Shakespearian Tragedy I was embroiled in a domestic.

Life is not perfect. And if it always were perfect how dull we’d find it. I talked to real live Russians and Ukrainians last week at a conference, not the sort you see on TV. All that these smart people wanted was to get on with their lives, better themselves and their prospects, become remarkably successful. Putin and Poroschenko seemed a million miles away from the reality of life I was hearing about.

Nearly all politicians we are told are increasingly aggrieved by the apathy and active dislike the electorate feels towards them (and that includes you too Nigel.)  It’s because they really don’t have our interest at heart at all. They want to do their own thing and create their own perfection. Their persistent criticism of business seems a bit odd.

Business generates wealth, generates opportunities, generates jobs and generates happiness. Not perfect but pretty good.

Innovation is seldom perfect either. The first version of almost everything is slightly defective. Have you ever had a “new improved” mobile phone that wasn’t “new and nearly improved but not quite yet.”  But that striving to improve is what appeals not the perfection. Psychologist Carol Dwek established praise of effort has a much more beneficial effect on recipients than if they are praised for their talent.

On Friday we went to a promenade performance at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Cardinall’s Musick, a group of accomplished singers whose speciality is early English Church music by composers like Tallis and Byrd. And it was remarkable because we were there watching something being created live with all the risks that entails.

Listening and having our hearts and minds moved. Mere perfection would have been plastic and still next to this live experience.

Monday, 9 February 2015


Imagine you were a child and you had two mothers who lived in different countries in neither of which you lived yourself one of whom wanted you to be a musician and the other wanted you to be a long jumper. They called you on the phone from time to time and sent you texts and e-mails. Occasionally you met them at big Mothers of the World meetings or saw them on Skype.

It would be my guess you might end up a bit screwed up.

But this pretty well describes the world in which the modern international executive lives. And as things within their organisation changes he could keep on getting new mothers with different agendas or worse his old mother might be removed in a “Mother Delayering Programme” to be replaced by a Super-Mum who’s located the other side of the world and doesn’t speak the same language as you do.

The reality of course is that most of us are learning new ways of working. Some people I know work mostly from home apart from meetings and travelling. The old concept of clocking in (mentally if not really) to an office where your status was measurable by the square feet of your room and the looks, personality and popularity of your PA and where you focused on your own country as opposed to operating in regional clusters, is over.

But does it really work? Or like that virtually orphaned child with their matrix mums are we creating a world devoid of the real interpersonal management and mothering skills that involve real human contact and seeing the whites of people’s eyes?

An HR Director I talked to last week believes remote and matricised management is causing all the problems that he’s encountering in implementing a big change programme. At Yahoo when a new CEO was appointed she found virtually everyone worked from home. They were all very miffed when she insisted they came in to the office and talked to each other. She patiently explained that the business was in crisis and that the only way she could see them sorting it out was together.

If we really believe that our people are our most precious asset we’d better spend more time with people making them work better.

Increasingly the competitive differentiator is in the quality of people and the service we get from them. If you own a restaurant there’s no point in improving the food if the service is terrible. The Ivy in its good old days was like eating in a good friend’s home where the food was OK but it was the style, service and ambience that made you feel really good.

People are needy. We just are. And it’s the way our bosses mother us and coach us that will make us better at what we do and the company we work for become more successful. Time we spent more time together talking, listening and collaborating.

Monday, 2 February 2015


I recently have gone on about customer service, the lack of it and the need to improve it. I hear no dissent. Tiers of corporate executives are all out there benchmarking and establishing robust measurement processes of their own customer satisfaction.

But what about the complainers - are they always justified and when did that world weary “can’t complain love” disappear from our language? For years I associated this with our putting up with overcooked food and weak tea, an era of laughable cuisine and public sector attitudes to service.

Inflation record 1956 - 2013

It changed in the 1970s. In 1975 inflation was nearly 25% and getting worse. Businesses would merrily inflate their prices twice a year. Britain was a basket case. And customer service hit an all-time low. Thatcher’s wagging finger symbolised the change. And her intolerance towards shabby standards was given daily articulation by the Sun and the Daily Mail.

We created a new generation of people. In Network (1976) Peter Finch playing Howard Beale said:   “I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!'”

This was a time when we were sold the Austin Allegro, Morris Marina and Triumph Dolomite (renamed the Triumph Sodomite by Robert Robinson BBC broadcaster). These were the worst cars ever built (if such a sturdy word as “built” is appropriate.)

A friend of mine claims around this time he had a made-to-measure suit created for him by a Soho tailor. When he first wore it a sleeve came off. The tailor looked at him suspiciously when he went back to ask for an explanation. “You’ve been wearing it haven’t you?”

In those days we didn’t really complain….we prefaced our “observations” with phrase like “I’m sorry to bother you but”…

Last week I saw that Southern Rail had been taken to task for standards of punctuality and heartstrings had been tugged by a “handwritten” letter).

I personally think the service from Southern is remarkably good.  You could argue that they should just put their foot down and overtake or ram the wretched First Capital Connect laggard trains dawdling ahead of them. Or being pessimistic about the timetables they could say “expected arrival time …whenever” and offer free G&Ts to every customer to quieten them.

Things always swing from one extreme to another and I think we’re becoming a nation of complainers quite often without real justification. From the NHS to education to all the institutions there’s an increasing sense of discontent.

Yet the optimist in me wants to shout - things are so much better than they were. All that currently happens is the exception always proves the rule. One botched operation typifies a NHS breakdown, A few late(ish) trains demonstrate the wicked ineptitude of the provider.

Not so. Stop grumbling.