We’re all in this together

Yesterday I was working within a group doing some initial project planning around equality and diversity. We had a discussion around metrics and universally agreed that, while measures of success are important, if the culture is right the data will serve simply to illustrate this, and so the driver should people and behaviour rather than metrics.

It made me think about recent reporting on gender pay gap and ultimately my thoughts on the media furore around #metoo and the like.

When I read media reports I am starting to feel they are encouraging, or at least supporting, a fundamental misunderstanding of what gender pay gap is. Gender pay gap reporting is simply high level data, it is not about equal pay for work of equal value and I am seeing a blurring of the lines in media reporting on the difference between the two.

Gender pay gap reporting is a mechanism to collect data on the difference in pay to males and females within an organisation as a whole. For example, EasyJet have reported a median gender pay gap of 52%. It sounds enormous but it does not mean that EasyJet are paying men and women differently for the same job. It means that men are disproportionately represented in higher paid roles. Is that down to EasyJet being in any way sexist or unfair in their recruitment practices? Not necessarily, and that is for them to identify, but the picture is so much more deep-rooted than that.

Gender pay gap reporting is not about gender pay gap reporting. Yes, it will give some organisations reason to take a long hard look at their practices, but essentially it is a barometer of the state of our nation – it is a measure of culture.

Statistically speaking, culture can be defined by the minimum, maximum and median behaviours of a group of individuals – whether a friendship group, an organisation or an entire country. And so, at this point in time, gender pay gap reporting serves as a baseline. It tells us something about behaviour, and a lot about culture.

It doesn’t tell us that EasyJet, or any other organisation, are not applying good practice or are acting in a sexist manner. What it does tell us is that something is happening within our culture which leads to proportionally more women working in lower paid roles, and there could be a myriad of reasons for that.

I recognise, of course, that this culture forms a small part of a much larger global issue where women are disproportionately affected by injustice, violence and poverty. This post isn’t just about gender, it’s about humanity. I believe that we are at a unique point in our history where channels of communication are open – the ability to speak out, raise awareness, review where we are, and the potential for change is huge.

Positive change relies on a positive and forward-looking response to the current onslaught of data and emotion. Making gender issues all about blame is not conducive to effective change. It is unreasonable and unhelpful to take the view that all men, pitched as some kind of separate species to women, are consciously and aggressively maintaining a culture which represses women. In the same way, it is unreasonable to take the view, at this point in time, that gender pay gap reporting data tells you that individual organisations are sexist. It doesn’t. It is simply a measure which allows us to start to look at our broader culture and understand where we can break down barriers and create a more level playing field.

This current climate is an opportunity to open our eyes and recognise that we are all implicit in our own culture. The way we bring up and educate our children, the way men and women are portrayed in the media currently creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of gender inequality at a broad level.

It may be an idealistic view but movements such as #metoo, #heforshe, and data exercises such as gender pay gap reporting have the potential to open up opportunities to see who we are as a culture and to identify where we want to make changes. If we accept that culture is a product of the behaviour of all its members, then we must also accept that each of our actions has an individual impact on how that culture evolves.

Herein lies the potential for change. Embracing the availability of new information and broad opinion, and adding your own voice where you want it heard, coupled with a positive approach to change will lead to a shift in thinking, and ultimately a shift in culture. We can choose to use the current climate to tear each other down, or as a force for positive change. Take responsibility – the future is in all of our hands. I’m writing this on the day the news of Professor Stephen Hawking’s death has been reported, and so it seems apt to finish with a quote from him – “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”

The bravery of youth

Last week I had my first ever go at public speaking. I’ve delivered plenty of training sessions before but never given a ‘talk’. Not satisfied with just having a go at something new, I picked possibly the hardest audience in existence. Children.

I had accepted the challenge of speaking at a Leadership Summit organised at Spelthorne Council Chambers in Staines by innovative Curriculum Enrichment Leader Stephen Lockyer (@mrlockyer). This was a summit for fifty 7-11 year old students from three different schools. It was a terrifying prospect.

The brief was simple – leadership stories from people outside of the education space. I chose not to tell my own story – frankly, it isn’t that interesting. Instead I reached out to my Linked In network and asked them to answer a single question – ‘what leadership advice would you give your nine-year old self’? Ordinarily when I post something on Linked In it will be read a couple of hundred times, and perhaps one or two people will either like or comment on it. The telling thing for me in this case was that my plea for help was read by over 27,500 people and I had around 150 responses. Amazing. And proof, if it was needed, of how important the next generation are seen to be.

The next challenge was thinking through how to pitch my talk at this age group without being patronising but keeping them engaged and interested in a subject matter that they would have little contextual basis for.

Luckily, the majority of the responses from my Linked In network related to behavioural aspects of leadership, summed up precisely my views on the subject, and gave me something to work with that would be within the realms of experience for the children. I worked this into a number of simple ‘lessons’ and wove a few stories, examples and questions around this.

I had the ‘graveyard shift’ presentation shift, straight after lunch when the kids were starting to tire coupled with being jacked up on lunchtime goodies.  Each of my ‘lessons’ had been written with a question for the young people to get them involved, but didn’t assume that they would engage. But….. I was utterly overwhelmed at how engaged and engaging these children were. They made it very easy for me.


Two things stood out for me when reflecting on the experience:

  1. One of my ‘lessons’ was about being brave, trying new stuff, making your stock response ‘how can I do this’ rather than justifying why you can’t. To start this section I asked for three volunteers. I didn’t tell them what they were volunteering for yet around 90% of hands went straight up. I concluded that children are naturally brave, and left me wondering at what age our instinct for bravery gives in to self-consciousness and the overwhelming feeling that we will be judged on every move we make.
  2. I summarised at the end with an age-old quote that to succeed you need to ‘work hard and be nice to people’. I asked if any of my audience didn’t think they could do this. One young lad told me that he couldn’t because he didn’t want to work hard. The same boy had answered one of my earlier questions with an in-depth description of spending nine hours on his hobby of writing a computer programme. I watched a small light go on in his eyes when I explained that he had already shown me that he could work hard in committing so much time to his hobby, a hobby which could easily be a future job. It was a nice moment.

It was a brilliant experience, hopefully the young people took something away, certainly I have. And the mass intake of breath that happened when I told the group that I had worked in prisons will always make me smile.

What’s wrong with a little trial and error?

I recently embarked on a formal coaching qualification, and it’s hard. The course focuses on pure coaching – where there is no advice given and, as a coach, you strive to avoid any leading questioning or behaviour.

It’s thrown me into a bit of a spin. If you’d asked me three weeks ago how long I’ve been coaching for I’d have told you 10 years plus – it’s what you do when you work in HR. But it is now abundantly clear that it isn’t. All too often there is an end game in HR – whether that is about managing risk or ensuring compliance with policies. When you are pure coaching you have no agenda of your own, other than to coach effectively.

That’s a big ask for me. My mind works naturally towards solutions and that’s tricky to switch off. And so I have become painfully aware every time I offer advice rather than asking a question and it makes me feel that I’m getting it wrong. During coaching practice I find my brain simply shuts down and I can’t find a way forward with the discussion that doesn’t drive the response I think is needed.

As well as learning to coach I am also currently working with my father to refurbish my flat. With a brief training session from a friend I have changed light fittings, light switches and plug sockets in the flat. I have tripped the fuse box on at least four occasions. In fitting the new kitchen (still a work in practice) we have mis-measured things, drilled incorrect holes, caused minor leaks and put things together only to have to take them apart again. 

We have rectified everything, and learnt something, every time. None of these experiences have caused me to lose faith in our ability to complete the work and none of them have given me less confidence to keep trying, see what works, accept that mistakes happen, take a step back and deal with them.

I need to apply this same approach to learning to coach effectively. Not to be too hard on myself, make my current attempts at coaching more pure, rather than absolutely pure. Accept that I will slip into solutions mode, I won’t always be able to fight my natural instinct to advise, and applying a trial and error approach without unnecessary judgement won’t harm anyone and, so long as it drives improvement, will enhance my skills as a coach. 

Let’s talk about anxiety

I’ll admit I didn’t really understand what anxiety was – until I suffered from it, and it knocked me sideways. 

If someone breaks their leg you can see it. You can imagine and understand how it might feel. The patient will be fully aware that it has happened, the symptoms and the treatment will be broadly the same, and recovery will happen over a fairly consistent timeframe.

Not so with anxiety. Ask 100 people about their experience of anxiety, the psychological and physiological effects, and they will give you 100 different answers. In my case I became aware of it through a mild panic attack followed by almost constant nausea, shakiness, tearfulness and lack of sleep. It passed in a few weeks but ocassionally rises to the surface again, when something rattles my stability, showing the same symptoms though generally less severe and passing more quickly. Ask the other 99 people and their experience, identifying their anxiety, how debilitating it is for them, their coping mechanisms, medical intervention, and the period of time it affects them will all be unique to them. 

Almost as importantly, there is an inherent discomfort in talking about anything relating to mental health. To illustrate my point I will say that I wrote this blog two days ago and I have agonised over posting it because of my perceptions, accurate or otherwise, of the potential impact on my reputation and how prospective employers might view me. My anxiety is mild so I can only imagine how hard, and how isolating, it must be for those suffering more acutely.

And therein lies the problem. You can’t see anxiety in any consistent way so it’s difficult to identify from the outside. Equally it’s difficult for someone suffering from anxiety to stick their head above the parapet when they need help. And even if they are aware that they need help, and brave enough to ask for it, they may not know what that help looks like for them. So putting together a ‘one size fits all’ strategy as an employer is extremely challenging.

There is no one answer to this – you can’t put anxiety in a plaster cast for six weeks until it heals, and drugs might manage the symptoms but won’t cure the cause. The best answer we have is awareness and understanding – creating a culture and environment where employees can safely say that they are struggling, and have the ability to shape their support on an individual basis, when they need it, often in a way that means they can still contribute in the workplace.

Absence relating to mental health is on the increase and raising awareness is key. From a purely commercial point of view effective management can reduce costs of absence. More importantly, it’s simple humanity to do the right thing for your employees, show kindness, and enable support. 

I don’t pretend to be saying anything new here, but that’s not what awareness is about. World Mental Health day is on 10th October and the 2017 theme is Mental Health in the Workplace. Why not take the opportunity to review whether your culture and policies encourage accessibility to mental health support, enable open discussion and accept that anyone can be susceptible.

Parents don’t be too kind to your kids….

Do you know which activities spark your creativity and which allow you to focus and plan?

This post starts with a favourite set of lyrics on the source of creativity in Fisher King Blues by the wonderful Frank Turner:

Parents don’t be too kind to your kids,
Or how else will they grow up to be
Louche Parisian sinners or Nashville country singers,
Singing about the terrible things their parents did?
Lovers don’t be sparing with the truth;
Break their hearts if that’s what you must do.
Fill them with remorse, tinged with hope of course,
And let their baser instincts pull them through.

These lyrics have always rung true with me, following the unassailable logic that ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’ and facing difficult circumstances feeds our creative instinct. I imagine that the effect of adversity on creativity is a continuum, rather than a single point where hardship becomes so intense that it unlocks a fundamental ‘eureka’ moment – though of course this may well be the case for some. In other words, adversity doesn’t need to be extreme to be effective, a level of creativity can be sparked by a simple change in circumstances.

I’m a runner and had always felt that long distance runs were serving to give me the space I needed to develop ideas. Over the last couple of weeks I have been fighting a cold. A week ago I felt better and went out for a 16 mile run – the next day felt like I’d been hit by a truck and I was banished from the office to hide in solitude with my germs. As a result I have self-enforced a week off running to recover properly – after a couple of months running four times a week this feels like adversity. During that week I have felt frustrated and restless and have fretted endlessly over the impact on my training plan. However, outside of my need for physical exercise, I’ve also recognised the impact this small disruption has had on my thinking:

  • I’m working on a flat refurbishment project at the moment and also starting to look at where I want to go next with interim work and my consultancy business. While I haven’t been running I have found it difficult to settle into focussing on either of these projects and struggled to develop any of my thoughts into actions. Expecting to be able to use the additional time to progress these projects has simply not come to fruition.
  • But…. I’ve also found that I have come up with new ideas – there seemed to be all sorts of weird and wonderful thoughts bouncing around my head. Most of these relate to creative crafty projects rather than anything particularly constructive but I’ve found myself enjoying how unlocked my brain has felt – even if partly as an excuse for procrastinating over other projects.

Image result for adversity and creativity

So it seems that creativity is inspired by a change in circumstances, some small adversity that destabilises the straight lines in the mind and forces a different way of thinking. But developing those creative ideas beyond a wild notion requires space and stability to focus and plan. It is a reflection I want to develop further. To harness creativity an activity that takes me out of my comfort zone, or disrupts my routine, serves to spark new ideas. I then need to find the opportunity for a good long run to play around with those ideas to formulate a feasible plan.

I do believe that facing adversity and destabilising routines fires inspiration, even a little bit of recklessness, and leads to braver decisions and bigger experiences which, positive or otherwise, inevitably lead to personal development. Each individual’s personal destabilising and stabilising activities will vary but both can be used to consciously channel creativity and focus in the same way. Find yours, and see where it takes you…..

Consolidate this….

Once again I’m drawing parallels between my running and my views on change management and engagement.

I’m training at the moment for my first marathon, Amsterdam marathon in mid-October, and following a 17 week training plan to prepare. Having ramped up my mileage over the last 6 weeks to running around 26 miles a week, this week’s plan had much shorter runs – and a total of just 14 miles run. Its billed as a recovery week and I’ve found it incredibly frustrating, I’ve been restless from only running short distances, I’ve wondered what it adds to my training, and I’ve rebelled twice and run further than I should have. But I recognise now that it has given me the space to recover physically and also forced me to reflect on why I started this and what I want to achieve. My frustration this week has served as a timely reminder of how far I have come in my training and how motivated I am to get that 26 miles under my belt. As a result I’ve ended the week feeling re-energised and ready to step it up over the next two months leading up to race day.

This realisation got me thinking about how the same approach works with other long term projects. Universities traditionally have a reading week, or consolidation week. Granted, most students take the opportunity to take a break, rather than consolidate learning, but the principle is the same – its an opportunity to take a step back, re-establish purpose and come back ready to rock.

So why don’t we see the same approach taken in project management? The simple answer of course is time and resource. Planning in a week to not work on a project is a brave, and potentially expensive strategy. But the opportunity to step away and simply glance at a project out of the corner of your eye carries vast potential to reflect, spot issues that are hard to see when you are in intense delivery mode, re-evaluate progress and engagement, and re-invigorate a team ready to move forward. I’d be willing to bet that, in many cases, it would be well worth the investment to plan in a consolidation week in terms of ongoing focus and drive and, ultimately, quality of delivery. Are you brave enough to try it?


Looking for answers to those elusive questions? Join me a for a free three-hour Street Wisdom mindfulness experience in Birmingham (8th September), Warwick (9th September) or Leamington Spa (10th September). Book your place here

A brief soliloquy on social media……

There is a lot to be said for social media as a tool to keep up to date between meetings. I saw two friends this weekend who I hadn’t seen face-to-face in several years. The vast impact of social media since we originally met at university 21 years ago means that we didn’t need to start with a summary of what each other had been up to since we were last together and could get straight into a good old chinwag. 

But technology shouldn’t and doesn’t replace real conversations and I despair of thinking of a time when that might be the case. Using social media as your only form of communication delivers only what people want you to see, and what they are comfortable for you to see. You lose all the nuance of body language, human response and an interactive two-way discussion.

The same applies in the workplace. Emails are fine to an extent, but only really support transactional work. Have a good look at the context of your work emails – in the vast majority they will be process-driven and/ or governance-related. A flag of a problem, a situation requiring a decision, or confirming decision-making after the event. They can never replace the need for effective debate, sharing views to reach a collaborative and creative solution. To achieve that you will always need people to have the space and the time to have those debates, to reflect on their own responses and develop others ideas.

And so the same applies to your work life as to your ‘real’ life – in our busy world using technology to aid communication certainly makes things more efficient, but nothing really beats finding the time to get together and kick back for a really good natter.