The Starbucks Paradox

The future of work.  Increasingly written about, talked about, tweeted and infographiced. The bandwagon effect is in full flow.  The early adopters have come and spoken at conferences and gone.  The laggards are quickly catching up.

There are plenty of clichés about the future of work, but one thing is certain: a change is coming.

I’ve heard it called the hollowing out of the labour market.

I’ve heard it called the hourglass effect.

I’ve heard it described as a void between the people who matter and the people who don’t.

Well paid highly specialised knowledge work at the top.  Low paid low value work at the bottom.  And nothing much else in between.

So goes the theory.

But like the saying goes, the future is already here, it is just evenly distributed*.  Zero hours contracts, low paid work, reducing employment rights, high youth unemployment.  These problems are already very much in evidence.

There are huge implications for HR and for people management in this definitely maybe future labour market.  We might just find ourselves with a strange tension.  The manager of the knowledge worker versus the manager of the traditional worker, living in a parallel universe, opposite extremes.  A completely new management gap.  If the predictions hold true, we are left with more unknowns than knowns.  A whole host of implications not just for managers and leaders, but the methods, processes and HR practices that support them.

Can all people managers and all employees embrace the potential of the future of work, or just a lucky few?  Will others be left behind, repeating the management models and methods of the past?  A Coffice for some and Taylorism for everyone else?  Will it ever be possible to switch from working or managing at the bottom of the gap to the top?  What will this mean for the skills and jobs mismatch, and the (sorry) so called war for talent?

Are we ready?  Are we heck.

There is a future of work, coffee shop paradox.

If you are a knowledge worker at the top of this future labour market, you can work in a Starbucks**.  Pitch up anywhere with a Wifi connection and a power source for your tablet.  Work is a thing that you do not a place that you go. Just saying no to the 9-5 thing, sitting in an office thing.  Coffee and cake. The crowd and the cloud.

And if you find yourself at the bottom of the hourglass shaped labour market, you too can work in a Starbucks.

Only you will be the one serving the skinny lattes.



*William Gibson said it first. Although Peter Cheese is fond of saying it too. 
**Or any other coffee shop chain. Take your pick. Personally I prefer Costa. 
 Additional note – after I published this post I found out that the title has already been used by David D’Souza.  Which means I have probably committed subconscious plagiarism.  Sorry David.

Present and Incorrect

It’s thirty seven and a half hours per week.  Monday to Friday, nine until five with half an hour for lunch.  It’s important that you are here on time every morning.  At 9.00am precisely.  And I don’t mean walking in the door at nine or making a cup of coffee, but coat off and logged on and ready to go.  I’m less concerned if you stay behind after 5pm of course, that’s up to  you.  Your lunch break is 12-12.30.  Please make sure that you stick to that timeslot so that I know where you are if I need anything and I can manage other people’s expectations.  The business needs to know when people will be available.  I do like to see you at your desk.  Visibility is important.  You should be aware that I can see your screen from my office, so I will be able to see if you are on one of those social media sites.  That isn’t work, so keep it for after hours please. When it comes to the dentist or the doctors, make sure that you book the appointment at the end of the day, and please make the time up within the same week.  Personal calls and emails should be limited to official breaks.  Working from home?  I know people just want to watch Homes Under the Hammer.   It doesn’t work for this sort of job you know.  And if you are not here in the office, then I can’t assess what you are doing and the contribution you make. If it’s the Nativity play or parent’s evening, then it is best if you take half a day’s annual leave.  I can’t set a precedent because then everyone else will want it and I won’t be able to say no to anyone else.  What is really important is how long you are at your desk.  Then when it comes around to your annual performance appraisal I will know you have been working hard or not.

Won’t I?

Right Here, Right Now

I’ve recently completed a course in mindfulness. It was all about the individual, the personal self, but for me the organisational parallel was significant.

Because mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. The now.

Now. A place that many organisations, and the people within them, don’t often play.

Caught between the future and the past, the present sometimes doesn’t get a look in.

Instead, we oscillate between yesterday and tomorrow.

Organisations have plans. Missions and visions. A strategy, designed to take us somewhere at some upcoming point. PowerPoint slides with a bullet pointed future. Agendas for the next meeting, minutes from the last.

We have archives and filing cabinets, stuff kept just in case. Last year’s employee engagement survey. Old marketing material from campaigns gone by. Personnel files from employees long since left. Archives stuffed full with ancient files filled with ancient paper. The way we have always done it around here. Remnants of the past. Ghosts.

Last year’s achievements, next year’s SMART objectives. Past, future.

There is a value in recognising your past and appreciating where you have come from. There is equally a need to look forward, plan how to get there, and communicate the journey along the way.

But there is also a value in right now. Today. This minute. The now thing in mindfulness means leaving the past where it is, and not polluting the present with it. But instead we go to meetings, loaded up with our own agendas, judgements and opinions, full of our very own we’ve tried that and we’ve always done it like this.

And when we are physically present, we aren’t always right there, right now. Completely present in the moment. Culturally, many organisations are operating at full speed. Urgency, everywhere. Back to back all day, lunch at the desk, get it done by COB, coffee on the run. One eye on the clock, the iPhone, the email. Addicted to busy.

What mindfulness has taught me is the power of pausing, breathing and being more aware of the moment. Not personally, but with the people I work with, in the place that I spend my day. Noticing what’s going on, how people are feeling, what is happening under the surface.

Because often do we really spend time talking to the people who work with us, for us, about how they feel right now? What’s going on for them, beyond the superficial, transactional hi how are yous and have a nice weekends? How often do we really just stop, check in, take note? Instead of rushing through the commute, the meeting, the day, the week.

As my colleagues would confirm, I’m often heard saying that we are, where we are. There’s no point lamenting how we got to the present, as long as we learn along the way. Don’t look backwards because we aren’t going that way. And just like we can’t change the past, we also can’t predict the future with any real accuracy. We can only really influence this moment.

So make it a good one.

The Unreasonable Man

The concept of the reasonable man runs through English law. He is the ordinary, average guy within the system.

The concept of the reasonable man grounds us. It focuses our thinking. Provides us a standard. He is not a real person, he is an idea. Of how we should behave, the standards we should follow, the care we should take. The hypothetical person beyond the case law and the statutes and the judgements. A good citizen.

The reasonable man has many roles.

He stands by our side when we enter into a contract. He listens in to our conversation, and if we forget to agree a term, if he thinks it’s so obvious that we really meant to include it, then the term is implied all the same.

He sits next to us on the bus. In negligence cases, the reasonable man is considered to be of reasonable education and intelligence, but a nondescript man, just sitting at the back of the bus, representing your everyday sort of chap on his way to work.

Within the law, we ask ourself what the reasonable man would do, think, understand. We even have the concept of a reasonable employer too.

The reasonable man is average. The reasonable man thinks what most people think. The reasonable man stands for consensus. He is realistic, sensible, practical. Doing the done thing, the expected, accepted thing.

In organisations, we are often reasonable. Terribly so. We follow the rules, both written and unwritten. We quickly learn the standards, and how to behave, fit in. What is reasonable, at our place.

We like reasonable people. Reasonable people are safe. You know what you are going to get. If you were described as reasonable, you would probably be just fine with that.

Unreasonable on the other hand, is different. Not quite so appealing. Most people would not wish to be called unreasonable.

Exceeding reasonable limits.
Refusing to listen to reason.
Not in accordance with practical realities.
Inappropriate attitudes or behaviours.

All of these are dictionary definitions of unreasonable.

In organisations, we have our own version of this reasonable man on the Clapham Omnibus. He sits beside us every day, invisible but powerful. From him we learn the way that we do thing around here. Silently he conducts the orchestra of reasonableness.

I recently came across this quote from George Bernard Shaw. ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

Look again at those definitions of unreasonable, and ask just one simple question.

Who decides?

Exceeding someone’s idea of reasonable limits.
Refusing to listen to someone’s idea of reason.
Ignoring someone’s idea of practicality, the way to behave.

It is unreasonable, or is it nonconformist?
Unreasonable, or simply refusing to stick to the party line?
Unreasonable, or entrepreneur, leader, change agent?
Unreasonable, or progressive?

One person’s unreasonableness is another’s visionary.

Sometimes, reasonable is good.

But not always.

Reasonable can be safe.
Reasonable can be limiting.
Reasonable can be cautious.
Reasonable can be accepting what we have always done.
Reasonable can be the same as everyone else.

The reasonable man can sometimes be a pain in the arse.

Today, I’m feeling unreasonable. Are you?

Do what you’ve always done

Performance reviews don’t work.
Engagement survey’s don’t either.
Money doesn’t motivate.
Lots of training doesn’t deliver lasting change, because half of it is forgotten as people walk out of the room.
Corporate values are rarely lived and breathed but instead stuck on walls and websites.
[Add your own known known here].

I saw yet another article recently, about the perils of the performance review. It repeated plenty of similar articles I’ve read before, and even written myself. And what started to rattle around my head was this question. How come we know the theory, but don’t or can’t make the change we want to see?

We talk about it, blog about it, even joke about it. The problems with a lot of the people stuff that we usually do are well defined and understood. Often, we even know the solution too.

But instead of actually making change, we just do what we have always done and get what we have always got. And sometimes when it doesn’t work we just do more of it only harder. And repeat.

What is it exactly, about people and organisations, that keeps us stuck in old patterns of thinking and behaviour? What keeps us doing the same old same old even when we have the choice and the power? What is really stopping us? For every Zappos and Netflix that is ignoring or down right stomping on all people things traditional, there is a whole bunch of us sitting in our offices, doing stuff that we don’t really believe in and know doesn’t work. Even when we secretly know how to do it differently. Better.

It might be the definition of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. But I’d say it is the standard default setting for many organisations, and a fair few HR departments too.

So what stops us taking action? There are plenty of possible reasons.

Someone said that we should so we did.
We don’t know what else to do.
It’s too hard.
We don’t have the ability to influence the decision to change.
If it ain’t all that broke, why fix it?
Everyone else is doing it.
It is still accepted best practice.
We are the lone voice, at our place.

Cognitive inertia explains much. Beliefs are sticky. They endure. We rely on the familiar assumptions, the familiar ways of doing things, even when the evidence to support them no longer exists. We find it hard to update our thinking, to do something new, even when the situation or the context changes.

Sometimes, in HR, we have fought so hard for this people stuff, fought to get them on the agenda or taken seriously, we just can’t give them up. The emotion, the effort, has all been invested. We have sunk the cost so we might as well carry on regardless.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely talks about loss aversion. He argues that we naturally focus more on what we lose than what we gain in any bargain. We would rather avoid a loss than make a gain, because losses are painful. He calls it the pain of paying; it arises when you must give up anything you own, no matter what the value. He ran experiments that showed how people sometimes took an illogical decision to avoid the hurt of a loss. According to Ariely, this is why we finish a book that we’ve paid for even if we are not enjoying it, or rarely get up and leave a film in the middle even if it we are finding it boring.

Whether we are big fans of any particular process or policy or people stuff, we own it. So maybe this is part of why we can’t or don’t give it up, even when we know that we should.

Or maybe we just don’t know what to do instead of the thing that we’ve always done.

I know that some people are working hard to make changes at their place, and are trying really hard to break patterns. This post is not intended to be a criticism of anyone, just a reflection of how hard it can be to break through, to change the accepted so called best practice. How strong the ties are that bind us to the accepted ways of doing things.

When a company does throw away the rule book, we all get a little excited. We read about them, debate about them, listen to them speak at conferences. Sometimes we jump on their bandwagon, use them to get a different conversation started.

Doing something different demands much of us. To be brave. To take a small step. To break a rule, challenge a convention. To give something up. To be prepared to fail. To move beyond acknowledging the problem to taking action. Or, as I read recently, someone to put on their big girl (or boy) pants and lead.

Could that be you?

172.3 Things Great Leaders Do Before Breakfast

They tell me that starting a blog with a number would get me loads of hits. So I thought I’d try it. Is the number big enough do you think? To get me lots of traffic, plenty of shares and retweets?

Because that’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it?

I’m assuming so. Because the excess of stuff like this sure as hell ain’t helping anyone do the day job.

Lists abound. How to be a great leader, how to be an authentic leader, how to be the bestest ever leader. 5 things, 5 more things, even 10 totally different things. New models new badges new bandwagons. Different definitions on a daily basis.

It’s just LinkedIn like fodder.

So tell me this. When did you last read an article like this and go out and do something different? When did you last read something of this nature and found it was truly memorable? Or did you just scan it, share it, move on to the next one?

Stop the timeline I want to get off.

The lists aren’t helping. We are not helping people. It is not changing anything, improving anything, adding to the debate.

It is time to call this stuff for what it is.

Largely twaddle.

Note, this post was sitting in drafts when Julie Drybrough published this post, which is well worth a read:

hrgem for tile

Get your fluffy on

One of the best things about social media is the way that idea leads to idea. How you can see a tweet, a blog post, or even a song (see this rather awesomesauce one from Doug Shaw and Neil Usher), how someone can take one of your own blog posts and build on your thoughts and lead to you having more thoughts. This happened to me at the weekend, and lead to some thoughts about the very fundamentals of Human Resources. Check out this excellent post from Christopher DeMers, which sparked my thoughts here.

What struck me was this. That in the race for the seat at the table, the desire to prove our strategic worth, the need to find the elusive people stuff return on investment, we’ve lost something. In our desire to leave the personnel welfare tag behind, to be more than transactional, more than a service function, we have embraced clinical language, rebadged old ideas, jumped on bandwagons and just maybe, occasionally, forgotten who we are and what we are all about. What we stand for. And we’ve lost something, something important.

We’ve become embarrassed to argue for good people stuff for the sake of good people stuff, without some measure of proof for the bottom line, lest we are seen as uncommercial. Or heaven forbid, that we might be labelled pink and fluffy.

We talk of human resources and human capital. We turned how people feel about where they work into a percentage score. We argue for engagement because there’s revenue growth in it, allegedly. I could go on.

Just maybe, we’ve lost some of the human side of human resources. It’s not cool to be fluffy. It’s not cool to have how something makes people feel as the starting point for your people stuff.

I’m always arguing for simplicity in what we do. For chucking out your HR chintz. I’m always talking about doing good people stuff in my tweets and blogs.

And now I have realised something.

I’m pink, I’m fluffy and I’m proud.

Whatever comes next for our profession, whatever is to come in the future of work, let us put the human of human resources at the forefront. Let’s start with how it makes you feel.

In the shadow

I’ve blogged before on leadership shadow. The idea that leaders cast shadows across organisations through their behaviour, their actions, their language. How the shadow gives clues as about how to fit in and how to get on. Employees look to their leaders to learn what is okay around here, and the shadow is the quiet answer to a subtle question.

But what about the HR shadow? How does that cast across the organisation and influence its culture?

The wording in the offer letter.
The clauses in the contract of employment.
The tone of voice of the employment policies.
The language in the standard letters.
The forms that need to be filled in.
The choice of communication method.
The speed of your response.
The advice you give.
The rules you create.
The processes. Oh the processes.
How much you tell, rather than guide. How much you restrict rather than empower.
The approachability. The availability. The overall visibility.
The smile on your face.

Put aside for just one moment all those thoughts of strategic value add activity. The engagement initiatives, leadership programmes, total reward package and all the shiny shiny. Important they may all be. But it is the little stuff that makes up your shadow. It’s the little things that matter. The everyday interactions. The words you write, the tone you use, the way you make people feel, how easy you are to engage with, talk to.

I saw someone tweet recently that HR should stop organising the Christmas party. Why? Someone has got to do it, and I’m not so precious about losing my seat at the table that it can’t be me. At my place we organise the Christmas party, and the football tournament, the charity events. If it is people stuff, I’m in. I’m all for human, human resources. This is the shadow I strive for. In HR we have the power to set the tone, change the tone; an opportunity that isn’t so available to some of our corporate colleagues. We can actually choose what it feels like, to be in our shade. And just maybe, we can lead the way, be the change.

So what does your HR shadow say about you, at your place? Is it dark?

The sum of its parts

I saw a presentation recently on employer brand. How to create one, improve one, communicate one.

I’m not so convinced on the create point. Because you have one already. You can’t create something that already exists. Whether you understand it or actively manage it is a different thing entirely. You can’t create something that already is, but you can build on it, refine it, influence it, make it come alive.

Employer branding is just the latest terminology for something that is simple at heart. It is your story. It is the reason why people get out of bed in the morning rather than ringing in sick. It is the reason why people should come and work for you and your place rather than the place down the road. It is why, when other companies are offering the same sort of salary and the same sort of benefits for the same sort of role, your employees choose you and stay with you.

They say personal brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room. I think of employer brand as what people say about you down the pub.

You don’t own your employer brand, your people do. You can’t seek to entirely control your employer brand, because much of it is out of your hands. It is made up of many parts, some of which are capable of influence and some that are not.

Employer brand is your story, history, culture, people, context. Customers, products, services. Beliefs, anecdotes, politics, principles. It is what it is really like to work at your place every day, beyond the job advert, Glassdoor comments, corporate website. It is what you do and who you are. Employer brand is the sum of all of these parts. And greater than them, too.

When interviewing for a new recruit, it’s not unusual to ask a variant on the ‘why should we hire you?’ question. Employer brand is the answer to the opposite question. Why someone should choose your place, stay at your place, over all the other places?

Like Simon Sinek says, it starts with why. And your employer brand is your articulation of that why.

Can you explain your employer brand? Can you explain why your place? Can you do it in the length of a tweet?

You don’t need a fancy brand consultancy and a mahoosive project. You just need to listen, explain, express. Tell your story.

I work here because [fill in the gap as applicable].

A little more inspiration?

At the weekend I went to the hairdressers, a place where I’m often found amongst the world of the weekly women’s magazine. I usually grab a good handful from reception on the way in and work my way through half a dozen or so whilst sat in the chair.

And as I reached the end of this month’s selection, something occurred to me about what I had been reading. Or rather, what I hadn’t.

Diet plans and guaranteed weight loss tips. Clothes, shoes, handbags and haircuts. The latest fashions the latest lipstick the latest hair care product that will Change. Your. Life. Creams and potions, botched up surgery, giving birth when you didn’t know you were pregnant. Duped by a toyboy just looking for a visa. The latest beachwear essentials. What’s on in the soaps this week!

And not one single article on work. Nothing on education or careers. Not even a frothy ‘how to deal with your horrible boss’ or ‘hot new suits for the office’ type piece.

In one magazine there was advice on almost everything. A doctor for your embarrassing body problem, a relationship advisor for your tricky boyfriend problem, even a financial advisor for your cash flow problem. But no one talking about work or careers. Not a single thing that implied women were interested in anything but how we look and what we eat and who we are dating.

It is sometimes said that newspapers and magazines simply reflect back what their readers want to read. What they already think and care about. Maybe it’s more profitable that way. And I am sure that they do plenty of research into their target market, and understand just want their readership want to see, week after week. They know exactly what makes their publications sell and that seems to be lipstick over livelihood.

But pick up one of these magazines as a young women and there is nothing to inspire you or to aspire to. No role models. No stimulus.. Where are the articles on work, on careers? Where is the ambition?

Maybe I’m taking this all a little too seriously. Maybe this is just about what I want to read. Maybe, next month, I should just take along my copy of People Management instead and be done with it.

But all the same, it made me slightly sad.

Is there any point in hoping for a little something more, or even highlighting the issue? Would these magazines see the benefit of including an article on developing your career, or how to get the job of your dreams, feature the story of an awesome, inspirational business woman, if it’s not what their readers want to read?

Or maybe, given the opportunity, their readers would like to read this stuff. Could be, would be, engaged in a little more career stuff. I am very much hoping that it’s not just me.

I’d like a little more inspiration, if you please.

Red Deckchairs

I’ve blogged before the about things I learned from my Father about work and leadership.

When I changed jobs a little while back, he gave me some advice. He told me to leave my deckchairs at home.

It’s a leadership story of his that I quite like, and it goes a little like this.

I’ve got a red deckchair. When I go to the seaside I take my red deckchair with me. I’ve had it for years and I like it. It is comfortable to sit in. When I get to the seaside, I take it to my favourite spot; I set it up and there I sit. I strongly advise you don’t try and sit in my deckchair for it is mine and I like it. One day, I went to a different seaside. I took that deckchair with me. I tucked it under my arm, I got it out and put it right up, even though all the other deckchairs at that seaside were blue. I don’t like blue deckchairs. So I suggested that everyone else put away their blue deckchairs. Because I want them to have red ones. I pushed and persuaded and persisted until everyone else had a red deckchair too.

I think he is talking about habit, and the comfort of having things just how we like them, just how we are used to them. I think he is talking about how easy it is to turn up somewhere new and set up your red deckchairs, and sod the existing blue ones, without even realising it. I think he is also talking about imposing and impatience. About not listening. About the arrogance of the I know best.

Maybe when you turn up somewhere new, those blue deckchairs that you find there are old. Maybe those blue deckchairs are broken. Perhaps a red one would be better. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the blue deckchairs are just right, for that place. Maybe what’s needed is a mixture of the two, or a whole new colour. Later. When you have assessed. When you have considered, listened, learned.

Do you have a red deckchair?

Is it comfortable?

Myths and Assumptions.

Let’s face it. As careers go, HR doesn’t always get a good rap. I am always particularly amused when I see HR represented on the television; we are rarely portrayed in the best of lights.

So here are my favourite myths and assumptions about the HR profession and the people working within it.

We are all process freaks

We want to write a process and policy for everything, right up to and including going to the toilet.

We spend a lot of time worrying about our seat at the table

And are desperate to be seen as a strategic and credible profession, as good as all the other business functions. Sigh.

We can’t do maths

Actually I can’t. Budgets do my head in. But that doesn’t mean that I represent all. Check out a post on the subject here from Simon Jones which caused much debate.

We are all pink and fluffy

Enough said…..

We always have a clipboard

We certainly do when a fictional HR lady (for they are usually female) appears on tv. They are often dreadfully bossy types who have very important things written on said clipboard, things that must be ticked off at all costs.

There is of course a serious side to this. I’ve noticed how we also perpetuate these myths about ourselves. I was at a conference recently where there were plenty of references and jokes about the process stuff. Maybe that isn’t so helpful. Beware labelling theory. Labelling theory suggests that the behaviour of individuals can be influenced by the labels that are applied to them. I am playing fast and loose with a complex theory here, which focuses primarily on deviance. However, there is a central point in labelling theory in which it notes that when a particular label is applied to an individual, it can gain more prominence than other descriptors for them. So a man who steals becomes a thief, even though he may also be a father, a Christian, an IT analyst. Labelling theory also considers the extent to which when a label is given, the individual to whom it applies may demonstrate more of the behaviour, as well as the impact upon people when they feel that a label cannot be shaken – they give up and live up to it.

Why do these myths and labels arise? There are plenty of reasons. However, there is one that concerns me above others. Consider the availability heuristic. This is a fancy term for the way in which our brains, when asked to recall something or make a decision, will take the quickest route based on the easiest information available. This is usually our most prominent or recent experience over logic or evidence. So if the only HR people you have ever met are clipboard waving, pink jumper wearing, maths failing, policy salivating women who are carrying around their own chair in case there isn’t one for them in the boardroom, then chances are that will be your view of the entire profession.

On reflection, perhaps ‘pink and fluffy’ isn’t so funny, after all.

We must challenge the myths, the assumptions and the stereotypes. Challenge what we know to be untrue. Let HR lead the way.


Never Mind the Buzzwords

If you’ve read my blog before, you will know I get a little frustrated about how often we find ourselves making simple concepts difficult and generally jumping on the latest bandwagon or shiny new thing.

Lately, I am seeing more links and articles, books, books and checklists on authentic leadership. The concept has been around for a while I know, but there’s been plenty in my timeline of late.

There is plenty of information available tell you how to be an authentic leader. A quick Google search will give you a multiplicity of definitions for the term. Apparently it is all about being real, genuine, honest, open, true to yourself and your values. It is all about building trust.

One of the suggested explanations for what authentic leadership means, talks about bringing your true self to work. I like to think that I bring my real self to work every day: heck, I have a One Direction calendar up in the office. But what if my real, true, genuine self, underneath it all, authentic self looks a bit like this:

I will never get round to doing your performance reviews
I will sit on your expenses form and holiday requests for weeks
I will never get round to returning your calls or responding to your emails
I value a big fat pay cheque
I need lots of ego stroking
It’s all about me!

Because the problem with authenticity as a concept, is that it does not necessarily mean good. You be authentic and crap, all at the same time.

I’m not suggesting good leadership isn’t important. Of course it is. But we need more terminology, more checklists, more buzzwords, more versions of the same and new wine in old bottles like we need a hole in the head.

There is however one part of the dictionary definition of authentic that does feel right to me when it comes to leadership. Not a copy. Just like I’ve blogged before. Take that HR thing, that work thing, that leadership thing, and define it for yourself, where you are. Take the learning, the insights, the good examples, and make it your own.

So, can’t we just focus on making management and leadership better, and never mind the buzzwords?

And some more thoughts on the subject from Doug Shaw here.

Dream on, dreamer?

Does anyone remember the ‘Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’? If you don’t, it was a 1970s TV series that chronicled the frustrations of work and life felt by Reggie, who eventually, tired of corporate life, faked his own death, only to miss the life he had lead and come back to it by pretending to be someone else.

There is a section in one episode in which, talking to his cat, Reggie chronicles his day; a day that is the same as every other day. It went a little like this (made a little more modern, of course).

Get up
Go to toilet
Check twitter feed
Check emails
Clean teeth
Take a shower
Get dressed
Eat breakfast
Drink coffee
Get in the car
Drive to work
Park in the car park
Walk into the office
Power up the laptop and insert the password
Make a cup of coffee
Do emails
Go to meetings
Do more emails
Check twitter feed
Have another cup of coffee
Do conference calls
Eat lunch
More calls, and emails, and meetings, and emails, and calls, and meetings
Have a cup of coffee
Get to 5pm.
Turn off laptop
Get in car
Drive home
Get out of car
Check emails that have arrived since I left the office
And so on.

I read an article recently that talked about making work enjoyable. It argued that one of the key ways in which work is made meaningful is that it is also enjoyable.

We talk all the time, in HR, about employee engagement. It is holiest of grails. Meaningful work, enjoyable work, engaging work.

But do you know what? Some people hate work.

For some people the working day is just something to be borne. Get up, go to work, get through the day, get paid. And I don’t just mean people that haven’t found the right niche. People who haven’t got the right leadership. People who haven’t got a voice. People who the company haven’t reached yet.

Some jobs are bloody tough.
Some jobs are bloody boring.
Some jobs don’t allow for people to make their own decisions or determine how their day goes, or even when they go to the toilet.
Some jobs are done in unpleasant working environments.
Some jobs are really badly rewarded.
Some jobs are so far from meaningful, engaging, autonomous, enjoyable as to make meaningful, enjoyable work a largely irrelevant concept.

Where are these people in the debate, today? We can talk about changing, disrupting, evolving, challenging work and working environments all we like. But it is a much easier debate in some areas, industries, companies, job types, than others. So much of what I read or hear discussed about improving work, is exciting, interesting, shiny. But it is sometimes so far away from the reality of the day to day for many people and organisations.

I don’t pretend to have the answer to the question that I am posing. Maybe the answer is to do everything we can do engage those people, to make all work as meaningful and enjoyable and engaging as possible. To make work better, for everyone, wherever they are, or whatever they do.

But there is just a little bit of me, that wonders. Are we dreaming?


The Bandwagon Effect


It goes something like this.

There is a shiny new exciting thing
Being done only by the sexy, exciting few.
We collectively ‘ooooh’.
It becomes the stuff of conferences speeches, case studies, webinars.
The bandwagon builds. We all want it. It is just what we have been waiting for.
It becomes imitated, mainstreamed, best practiced.
You can’t not have it. Otherwise, like, what are you doing?
A few people raise a few questions, suggest a few flaws.
Experts abound. Gurus offer to help you understand it, implement it, embed it.
It gets a conference all of its own.
Everyone adds it to their LinkedIn skills profile.
We’ve all seen it. It’s all over Twitter, LinkedIn, Slideshare.
Links and shares abound.
It starts to become a bit boring.
The critique starts in earnest. Then come the jokes.
Erm hello, are you still doing that? It is so yesterday….
And then look! Here is a new, shiny, exiting thing.
I’ll have that, instead.

Recognise anything?

The term bandwagon, in the way that we tend to use it in every day speech originates from American politics. According to the font of all knowledge (Wikipedia) it was first used in 1848 when a popular circus clown used his bandwagon and its music to gain attention for his political campaign. As he gained success with his method, other politicians all wanted a seat on his bandwagon. The negative association that the phrase came to embody arose as, when he became more popular, others wanted a seat on the bandwagon just for the sake of it, without really understanding what they were aligning themselves to or associating with.

We now use the phrase to refer to a type of groupthink. The general rule is that the more people come to believe in something, do something, join something, the more likely it is that others will then do so. The probability of adoption in increases, as everyone hops on the bandwagon. What we don’t always stop to do, is consider the evidence. Understand the why. Understand if it works for us. We all want the shiny thing. We all want to associate ourselves with the best, the winners, the cool kids on the block.

Jumping on the latest HR bandwagon? I am guilty as charged. Are you?

Choices and Changes


One of my favourite books is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and I read it every Christmastime. I love the simplicity of the stories central message; that any one individual can make a choice to change their life, totally, completely.

I’m sure that you know the story. Ebeneezer Scrooge was an unpleasant individual. He had devoted his life to the pursuit of wealth, the worship of Mammon. Once he set forth upon his path, this life view dominated everything. Activities that distracted from his quest were considered nonsense, frivolous, humbug. His love of money allowed him to justify ruthless, disgreeable behaviour, allowed him to act without any compassion or care for others. He was utterly unaware of how he was both despised and pitied by those who came into conact with him.

Although few of us are as disagreeable as Scrooge, it is however extraordinarily easy for us to become as stuck as he was. Trapped in a behaviour and a mindset. As a coach and a mediator, I have often heard people say ‘that is just who I am’ or ‘this is the way that I do things’. Often, these discussions start with people in very fixed positions. Inflexible, unwilling to consider compromise or change. They have a viewpoint, and they are sticking with it.

It is dangerous for us to think that we cannot change. It can lead us to make decisions, take particular paths and behave in certain ways, without sufficient consideration. It can be a justification, an excuse, a defence. It limits us.

Scrooge was given the chance to change his outlook. Through being confronted with the shadows of his past, his present, and his possible future, he was given the opportunity to step back, to sit outside himself and look on, to reframe and rethink. The ghosts that visited him challenged him and forced him to face his true self. He made a choice, to change.

This is what we do when we coach. We ask people to reflect, to stand back, to consider. We ask them to think about why they do things a certain way and to consider other options. As coaches we encourage self awareness. We present that opportunity of choice, of change, of new. We aim to make people resourceful so they are able to make those changes, those choices.

When I am coaching, I often ask this question: ‘if you don’t do this, what will happen?’ Scrooge saw the answer to this. He would die alone, unmourned. unsung. Few of us fortunately have such an extreme probability.

One of the most wonderful gifts we have is our ability to change ourselves, to start anew. Whilst there obviously is much about our lives that we that cannot, we are in control of our views, our attitudes and our beliefs. Our approach to the very life that we are living. We have choices. Change is possible.

Don’t like something about your day, your job, your path, this plan? Take control and make changes, make choices. Because you can. ‘If the courses be departed from, the ends will change. The shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled.’

Merry Christmas!

This thing, leadership

Not seen as often as we would like, the real leader. Much mentioned. Described in detail. In the classrooms, the course, the books, the blogs the magazine specials. The top 10 leadership qualities. Leading for the future. The authentic leader. Lessons in leadership. Leadership for dummies. The laws of leadership. 10 things great leaders do before breakfast.

We’ve read the books, been on the course, and got the t-shirt. You could spend your life reading leadership books, frameworks, checklists. Trying out the new approaches, the latest thinking, the recent best seller. Scratch the surface and so many are just dresing up the same old wine in new bottles. But despite the plethora of information, the investments made, so many people, so many organisations, are still getting it so wrong.

People who think they can, think they do, think they are. People who pretend. Read a book, tick a box. Read a list, check it off. Got a problem im your company? We will send people on a two day course, of course!

We all want good leadership in our organisations. We certainly spend enough time talking about it, spending money on courses to deliver it. But do we know what it really means, to us, where we are, in our own organisation, day to day?

If the strived for true leader turns up tomorrow, at your place, would you know it, recognise it, feel it? How would you know you had got it, anyway?

I hear talk of leadership, everywhere. It is the ‘thing’. The term is so overused I barely know what it means anymore. No one can seem to agree on its definition, what the qualities are, how you show it, how you live it, which type is best. But then again, if we did, the books would stop selling. The links would stop circulating.

I do know that the answer isn’t in a top ten list. I do know that I can’t put it in a checklist and tell people to follow it. I do know that a quick course isn’t a cure all. Leadership isn’t universal, it is contextual. What it means to me, to my organisation, my industry, the people I work with, is different to you and yours. So define it for you and your place.

Create your own leadership list.

Doing Good People Stuff

Big budget stuff

Big Company stuff

Shiny fancy new stuff

I want it now stuff

Gameificationmindfulnessauthenticleadershipenterprisesocialnetworkscollaborationbigdatafutureofwork stuff

So much new stuff, cool stuff, change your company tomorrow stuff.

I want it all stuff.

Attend a conference, dive into your twitter feed, follow some links, view a webinar, read a blog. Everywhere you look, something new, interesting, shiny, exciting. People stuff, HR stuff, workplace stuff. Things I want to try, to launch, to implement.

But it’s I can’t have it now stuff, can’t afford it stuff. It’s also won’t work here stuff, not the right time stuff.

It is easy to be swept away with new ideas. Easy to be despondent because you can’t do it all, have it all, today, tomorrow, right now. But you don’t need it all. Because at the heart of it, all you need is good people stuff. Little things, small changes, taking just one step. Improving what you do in your organisation, for your organisation, every day. The smallest HR team, the smallest HR budget, can still make a massive difference, even if you can’t do the big and fancy, new and shiny, everything the others do.

Let HR lead the way.

Dreams of the Disengaged

I wish it was Friday.
I wish it was home time, lunchtime, cigarette break time, anytime but work time.
I wish my boss would give me a break, cut me some slack, just leave me be.
I wish I could shut the door.
I wish I had some holidays left.
I wish I could win the lottery.
I wish I could resign, retire, run the hell away from here.
I wish the phone would stop ringing, the email would stop pinging.
I wish I didn’t have to talk to him, sit next to him, listen to him.
I wish I didn’t have to go to this meeting, this conference, this call.
I wish someone would turn down the bloody air conditioning.
I wish someone knew my name, knew something, anything about me.
I wish someone would say thank you, just once.
I wish someone would listen to me, just ocassionally.

I wish, I wish.
I wish, away.

Another post about HR Bashing

I saw a tweet from Sukh Pabial a couple of days ago, that got me thinking. I went to reply to him, and then realised it was significantly more than 140. Here is his tweet.

He posed a question, which sent me off on a tangent. The reference was to the recent raft of blogs, articles and discussions on HR bashing. I may have even written one myself.

There are a lot of discussions about HR bashing; doing it, defending it, damning it. Others criticising the profession, HR people doing it to ourselves. The subject touches a nerve in us, makes us tetchy and defensive, and I know why. Because just like many HR professionals, I’ve had to justify my own existence, my profession’s existence, the contribution we make. Often and repeatedly.

For many of us, defending HR is the reality. Justifying what we do, who we are, why we are. For every enlightened company doing good people stuff, innovative stuff, engaging stuff, there is a HR practitioner banging their head against a brick wall. Making the case for their own profession, their own contribution, their own job. A practitioner toiling away in an organisation that just doesn’t give a shit about its people. Or, as is often the case, pretends to give a shit in the recruitment advertisement, the employee handbook, the values statement, the induction material – but scratch the surface and the centre does not hold.

I know this to be the case because I have been there. I talk to other HR people that have been there, and some who still are. This is their daily reality.

I remember early in my HR career. I was stand-alone HR in a warehouse environment. Every day was a battle. A battle against the culture, a battle against my peers on the management team, a battle against my own self trying to uphold my values and beliefs in the face of constant criticism and belittling of my contribution.

Two incidents stand out. One was when an employee developed a health condition (covered under the then DDA). There was a perfectly acceptable adjustment we could make that would have had minimal impact on the business. I was sworn at for even suggesting we might do such a thing. I fought for the individual by going up the chain of command, but I suffered for it, afterwards. The other incident was a naïve attempt by me at Christmastime to do something nice for the employees. Just a Christmas meal in the canteen was my suggestion. The Operations Director said to me, in the middle of an open plan office: ‘They get a Christmas present. They get two f***ing days off. Christmas Day and Boxing Day.’

I voted with my feet, and took a role where I didn’t need to make the case, every day, that treating people in the right way, was the right thing.

I know people like to point to the evidence to support the function. I’ve personally never liked using statistics to make a case for HR. I know there is plenty of evidence out there that links engagement to the bottom line. Links good people stuff to business performance. But I’ve always felt that if you have to do that, to use that, then you have already partly lost the battle. If I have to provide some sort of objective justification to treat people properly, then I’m saying the wrong things, or maybe just talking to the wrong people.

There is no easy answer to this situation. Not everyone has the luxury of changing jobs. One person on their own trying to change ingrained beliefs about an entire profession is going to have a hard road. Waving a bunch of statistics about why people stuff is important just isn’t going to cut it in many organisations.

Most HR people I know are passionate about their craft. They want to make a difference. They want to do good people stuff. And that’s why we get angry about generic, sweeping criticisms that stereotype us all.

But today, my sympathy is with those HR professionals that are trying hard in the face of indifference and disdain. Those that feel like they are banging their heads on a brick wall, but are still getting up and going on all the same. My message to them is to carry on doing your good people stuff; you are making more of a difference than you might think. I know that the guy who needed the reasonable adjustment still remembers me, ten years on, even if the management team does not.

And one day, the right company, the right boss, the right role will come along and you will nail it.

As for those who don’t have to deal with HR bashing internally, let’s do what Sukh said: lead with positive purpose.