Friday, 19 August 2016

Raising a Glass to Workers and the Workplace

We live in a troubled world – appalling acts of violence relentlessly haunt the headlines and it is hard not to wonder whether 24/7 media coverage encourages copycat behaviour, adding to the problem. Recent atrocities include:
  • o   A video of a frightened boy in Syria and another, shared on social media, showing the desperate plight of some of the Nigerian school girls abducted in April 2014 by the Islamist group Boko Haram;
  • o   Bombs concealed in plant pots, which maimed and killed in tourist areas in Thailand;
  • o   Dozens of lawyers slaughtered in a suicide attack at a hospital in Quetta, Pakistan;
  • o   Stabbings and machete assaults in Belgium, the UK and Japan;
  • o   Mass deaths and appalling experiences in Syria;
  • o   Violence in Kashmir, Afghanistan and Turkey;
  • o   Political killings in South Africa;
  • o   The murder of an elderly priest at the altar of his church in France; and
  • o   84 slaughtered in the most horrific manner in Nice on Bastille Day, with a further 121 severely injured, 18 of whom are still in intensive care.


I was in France with my family at the time of the Nice attack, although not in Nice itself. Journalists approached us for comments. I don’t wish to dwell on the horror and reasons as to why anyone would decide to massacre so many – the driver in Nice knowingly slaughtered happy people, of all ages, races and religions, out celebrating La Fête Nationale Française. They were looking forward to watching the firework display on the seafront – I remain aghast aghast that a lorry should become a weapon of choice – my son treasured little lorries, they were his favourite toys when a child, always carrying at least one around in his pocket; until last month lorries held for me an innocent charm.


Despite the ghastly news in the press, we had a brilliant family holiday in France and I would like to write a gentle post that touches on the French and their traditional way of life. As many of you know, France is a delightful country.


For our holiday we drove down the west coast, including stopping off at some of the most famous fine wine producing regions of the world – Bordeaux and the Loire. We had a wonderful time – glorious sunshine, excellent food, some superb family outings and memories, beautiful views, and a glass or two of very fine wine. France is famous for its food and drink; both take time and effort to prepare. So, in respect to the French, in this post I’ve decided to share some thoughts on the similarities between running a business and caring for its people, and the traditions of viniculture.


Wine brings to light the hidden secrets of the soul, gives being to our hopes, bids the coward flight, drives dull care away, and teaches new means for the accomplishment of our wishes. ~ Horace


So, this is the first half of a two part series on things that we in non-oenological businesses can learn from the making of fine wine:

Firstly - You need the right environment in order to thrive - the soil in which a vine grows is important. Some grape types like limestone (for example Chardonnay or Malbec); others prefer clay (such as Gewürztraminer and Merlot) - the circle of blue, compact clay around Petrus, on the north east corner of the Pomerol plateau in Bordeaux, results in the most extraordinary rich and concentrated fine red wine; certain varieties grow better in chalk (Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc); or gravel (Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz). 

Old Cabernet Sauvignon vines in gravel
The soil provides minerals that influence the taste - wines produced from grapes grown in clay have less acidity than those from vines grown on sandstone; silica can add a flinty taste to a wine – an example being the much praised Sancerre. 

Sancerre soil
People are like vines, depending on who they are, they thrive better in certain environments as opposed to others and it helps to understand this – some individuals require a degree of disorder to be productive, research shows that mess often helps people be more creative, other may benefit from calm and isolation - an introvert, who needs time to contemplate their world, seldom enjoys being constantly trapped in the midst of a raucous crowd demanding his or her involvement and participation. However, some types of people need vibrant debate and input to help them form ideas - it is hard to collaborate in isolation. There are those who prefer structure, while others work better when given freedom to form their own rules and approaches to producing results. People appreciate being acknowledged and to be motivated, they, they usually need something more inspiring than money. For a person to over-achieve they need to appreciate what is expected of them and to be given the opportunity to shine. Feedback, done well, helps people, teams and organisations to thrive. If you are a manager and leader, you need to understand your people. You have a duty to provide an environment in which they can succeed and be their best selves. Likewise, if you are an individual, perhaps one who is job-hunting, try to comprehend the work environment in which you thrive, as well as the types of people you prefer interacting with to achieve results, as both of these factors will prove important if you want to be content and flourish in your role.


Odd though it may sound, it makes sense not to have things too easy - rich, damp soil does not produce the finest wines, as the grapes grown in lush conditions become plump but are usually tasteless – a harsher, stony environment, often set on a hillside, one which forces the vine to develop deep roots through which to gather a wider variety of nutrients, usually results in a finer wine. 


It was interesting when visiting Remy Martin in Cognac – we were shown a comparison of the soil strata for the fine champagne and champagne areas – the fine champagne had less topsoil. The terroir (as the soil around a vineyard is known) is best when it is apparently inhospitable – often dry and stony. It is notable that a good wine is often produced from a vine that has been deprived of water early in the season, as this encourages the production of grapes rather than leaves. People are the same – often when individuals are asked to describe roles where they have been successful and achieved their best work they describe situations where they have had to overcome obstacles and challenges. In our knowledge-based work environments, research shows that people enjoy roles that demand a degree of effort on their part and where their actions can be seen to produce results, rather than being expected to undertake easy but repetitive tasks that soon lead to boredom. This has proven to be a challenge in the Legal profession where certain client requirements are very similar and can be commoditised. Bright young lawyers become demoralised when asked repeatedly to undertake the same or very similar tasks – there is a place for robots to undertake some of the more mundane aspects of legal drafting. People benefit from a sense of achievement – as spotted by Murray when he defined his system of needs in his Explorations in Personality in 1938.


A good outcome can seldom be produced in isolation – It takes 10 bunches of grapes (on average) to make a bottle of wine. Although a single vine can provide enough grapes to produce the juice required to fill a 75cl bottle (that is 600 to 800 individual grapes, depending on size), it takes more than a single plant to fill a barrel (a barrel contains 300 bottles) or to establish a vineyard. 


Increased complexity requires increased involvement - it takes 9 bottles of wine to create a bottle of eau de vie through distillation. Despite the trend in many Western economies to hark back towards craftsmanship and individuality, most of what we do today requires the involvement and collaboration of a number of people to achieve results. It was Adam Smith who described the division of labour in his Wealth of Nations – using the production of nails as his example – with the assignment of different aspects of the manufacturing process to various individuals to enhance efficiency.  This is still the way of business today - even in a knowledge-based economy labour is divided up, with individuals contributing ideas and collaborating to enable a desirable outcome. Artificial Intelligence and robots are becoming commonplace 

Automated production of glass
It is worth bearing in mind that 47% of current jobs are believed to be able to be automated. Knowledge based working that could be automated includes:


  • Teaching - via on-line content and adaptive learning
  • Accountancy - automated audit and tax calculations/assessment
  • Radiology - for example cancer detection or pregnancy checks
  • Pharmaceutical Research - cognitive creation of potential new drugs via artificial intelligence-based research
  • Medicine - automated diagnosis (
  • Surgery - some could be undertaken by robots, which would overcome certain human failings such as the shaking of a hand when making delicate incisions)
  • Architecture - automated drafting and design
  • Wealth Management - funds analysis and automated trading


Technological advancement does not always seem to reduce people’s workload – instead it often changes the nature of the tasks. This can also be seen in the work on a vineyard: much of the simple processes have been automated, with machines able to pick, sort and de-stalk grapes, 
Interior of a grape de-stemmer
but at the same time new skills are required of the people working at the vineyard, for example to ensure that health and safety requirements are met; that suitable blends are attained with a degree of reliability that will ensure future sales; rather than being produced for local consumption, most fine wines are now marketed and drunk globally – I was surprised to note that the official wine for this year’s Tour de France was produced in Chile (mind you, so were the French wine producers). Not also not sure about the pun for a name, but it does go to prove that, like the world of work, the world of wine is more global in outlook than ever before.


Be mindful of surroundings – Environment is important – wine gains depth and flavour through being stored in suitable barrels (for example Limoges oak that has been heat treated to add woody and subtle complexity) and in an even temperature cellar where the wine can develop without being disturbed. In 1943 the psychologist Maslow outlined his theory of people’s hierarchy of needs, in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation, he later expanded his list during the 1970’s to include cognitive and aesthetic needs. Vines, like humans, have basic requirements – water, sunlight, a suitable location in which to grow and nutrients to sustain them (just like us). However, so long as the fundamental requirements are met, the terroir (the place in which a vine develops) can play the most important role in the creation of a distinctive wine. Environmental factors that affect a crop’s qualities make a difference to the wine produced. For example, the ground in which a vine grows can aid ripening and hence flavour (chalk and sandstone, being white/pale, reflect sunlight upwards from the ground, so that grapes get a double dose of light and warmth (from above and below), this is useful in cooler terrains where, without the extra boost, the grapes would remain hard and astringent. 

Pale gravel in Bordeaux reflecting sunlight and warmth
For an ideal wine, the grower wants the grapes to reach phenolic maturity – that is when the skin, seeds and pulp all achieve ripeness. A ripe grape is sweeter, has less acidity/a higher pH, which softens the tannins and creates a smoother, silkier wine. People are the same – research shows a clear link between access to sunshine and daylight and enhancements in the quality of individuals’ work and health. It is believed that 47% of workplaces in Europe do not provide employees with access to direct daylight. Given that it is now proven that people perform best and are healthier in a location where they have appropriate lighting, good quality air, the ability to change the temperature and humidity, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before we see workers demanding these as a right and taking employers who fail to provide suitable workplaces to court for compensation.


I hope the above observations have inspired your thinking about the ways we work, the second part of the series will be published within the next few days. Perhaps, next time you raise a glass, it will make contemplate the ways of working and the workplaces we have created and see them through a different lens for, as was stated in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

The wine-cup is the little silver well,
Where truth, if truth there be, doth dwell.


Sunday, 29 May 2016

Star Gazing

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”
An apt observation, made by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American philosophical writer.

Work is frequently demanding and can be stressful. However, in my experience, things can usually be made easier through the support and understanding of others. If you raise your head from the silo in which you operate, try to put yourself in colleagues’ shoes (in particular make the effort to consider the struggle of those who work in different areas), and offer to help, you and they are likely to benefit. In the organisation I joined near the end of last year, we are going through a period of significant change and this has to be achieved at pace. During the past six months (that’s how long I’ve been there now) we have designed and run our first employee survey (with a 76% response rate - not bad when most people had been discouraged in the past from voicing their opinions). We wanted to determine the main areas of concern across the business (as well as raising awareness of the good things we need to celebrate and share – we had some world-leading results, for example 83% for being a friendly place to work).
Friendship is important; it has the ability to enhance health and wellbeing – research has shown that being in a strained relationship can extend the time it takes for physical wounds to heal and it can also have an impact on a business’ bottom line - Gallup research shows that employee engagement can be increased by up to 50% when people have a close friend at work, with those individuals with a “best friend” at work being seven times more likely to engage fully in their role, responsibilities and broader environment. 
In January we held a two-day Group conference, open to anyone who wanted to attend, to discuss matters raised and to ask people to become actively involved in enhancing our business and our clients’ experience. Nearly 20% of the company have put themselves forward, to play a role in addition to their day jobs. Each volunteer has stated the areas of required change in which they are interested. The table debate facilitators from the conferences have been brought together as team coordinators and given training in how to project manage, interact with stakeholders, build enthusiasm and maintain their personal resilience. Each change theme has an executive team sponsor (and the sponsor is responsible for an area that is NOT their usual day job – so, for example, the executive championing Reward and Recognition is usually busy with asset management). The executive top team came to meet with their core support groups on the second day of the training and one executive commented to me afterwards that “it was marvellous” but that he felt like he had “entered a parallel universe”. He was energised by their enthusiasm (being honest, much of his and my current day job is grinding hard work) and it gave him greater optimism for the future. He should not have been so surprised. People are social and, provided that they feel supported, they will want to work together to build a better future. Who goes to work with the intention of doing a bad job or wishing to be unhappy?
As some of you know, I am finding life challenging at the moment, and I am happy to confess that it is my friends who are making it bearable. They are my stars. Over the past few weeks, a cherished few have made regular contact with me to check that I’m OK. Their concern and thoughtfulness has humbled me. They haven’t sought me out because they have to, they’ve done it because they care and that is the sign of true friendship. They know that I am juggling difficult things in my home-life, as well as a demanding new job. They have offered to help and to carry some of the load. They can’t cure my mother; support my autistic or troubled sisters; enable my father to recover; be a mother to my sons sitting life-changing exams; mend my car and hold my home together, but they can help me remain resilient and give me advice and encouragement. 
There is truth to the statement “A friend in need is a friend in deed” (please note that it is “in deed” and not “indeed” – a true friend is one who is prepared to act to show it). Some of my friends significantly have gone the extra mile (in one case soon-to-be literally) and offered to put themselves personally out for me – for example, I have pledged to go to Uganda in September as part of Connect HR Africa, but, at present, due to needing physically to care for a number of close relatives scattered across the UK, and hence spending my non-work hours fully utilised, I am failing to find time to fundraise – Doug Shaw, who is neither a confident nor a regular swimmer, has volunteered to undertake a sponsored 2000 metre (so just over a mile) swim at the start of July. Doug, who made friends with me shortly after the death of his father, really appreciates the value of family and empathises with my current struggle. His offer to secure funding for Retrak on my behalf (more details to follow) is extraordinary. Another cherished friend has offered to auction himself (or rather his skills) as a way of raising funds – I am amazed at their generosity.
I am equally amazed, but delighted at the generosity of strangers (and probably some friends) who nominated me for the People Management Power List – the HR Top 20 on social media. The final list was determined from nominees proposed by members of the public from around the world. Over the years that I have been active on social media, I have got to know most of the people on the list and I am honoured, and a little surprised, to be there with them. I am extremely grateful to those who put my name forward, but I am not very comfortable with being seen as a peer of the others on the list – they are an inspirational collection of people and I encourage you to follow them. Each has at some stage over the years inspired, advised or encouraged me. I assure you that my comments are not false modesty (and I am aware of Imposter Syndrome), but I know too well my own frailty and limitations. Perhaps that is where friends come back into this
“We always see our worst selves. Our most vulnerable selves. We need someone else to tell us we’re wrong. Someone we trust.”
David Levithan - author
 Social media has, for many, myself included, provided a route to new friendships. We do not choose our work colleagues; they, like us, are there to do a job. Nor do we choose our family. We cannot choose our followers on social media, but we can select those with whom we wish to connect and communicate. I have a treasured collection of contacts all of whom I know I can call on and whose judgement and advice I trust. It works and, just like in the off-line world, that is because we are prepared to make time for each other. Humans are social creatures and, as Robert Frost’s poem “A Time to Talk” (published in 1920) shows, friendship demands time, respect and the ability to take advantage of moments when offered: 
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, “What is it?”
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
If you make time for friends (both on and offline) then they will make time for you and they will be there when you need them. This post is my way of saying “thank you” to some special people – you know who you are. Just knowing that you are there is making all the difference. You are my stars.
 
“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”
Helen Keller (American deaf & blind humanitarian, author and political activist.)

(At present I am driving 3 hours to and from my mother at least one night each week to take food and provisions, as she cannot cope with on-line deliveries. Each time I stop near her house and gaze at the Milky Way and thank my lucky stars.)

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Time to Plant Trees

“Old men sit in the shade because they planted a tree many years before.” – a traditional Ugandan proverb

In every family there are people who stand out from the crowd – they are the ones to whom the others turn in times of trouble or when needing sage advice. My Uncle Andrew was the pillar and inspiration of his generation. He was an exceptional doctor, with specialist knowledge of tropical diseases, and his working life was devoted to helping the poor of Africa. Have you seen the film, “The Last Kind of Scotland”, much of the story applies to Andrew? Andrew was an engaging, UK-qualified Doctor, with Scottish roots, who went to Uganda to establish world-class healthcare for the people who needed it most. He was much loved and respected – his local name, “Pa Crow”, came about because of his caring observant nature. He was adored by all those who knew him, (but he did not have an affair with Idi Amin’s wife - not least because he preferred men – something punishable by life imprisonment under Uganda’s legislation). As was stated in his obituary in the British Medical Journal, he cared profoundly for the poor and “the rich, if he regarded them in any way as responsible for the plight of the poor, usually received short shrift”). As in the film, my uncle was forced to flee Uganda, under imminent threat of death from Idi Amin’s regime. He was cultured and devoted to continuous learning – his last act, prior to departing Uganda, was the burial of his exceptional library, which included first editions by Sir Richard Burton (the extraordinary Victorian explorer, sexologist and spy) and also his rare collection of Makonde sculptures. The Makonde craftsmen are famous for their “tree of life’ carvings - which show intricately whittled, interconnecting human groups representing unity and continuity. Usually they depict villagers, working together with each other and nature, helping one another, to ensure survival across generations.
In some ways this blog has a similar theme…
Last year I was asked to mentor an amazing young man as part of the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme – the Programme was established to celebrate and support exceptional young people aged 18-29 (drawn from across the Commonwealth) – each and every one of them is making the world a better place. I mentored Edmund who had founded a charity to support refugees, initially in Kenya but now expanded into other locations. One of the ways I was able to help was by introducing him to some of the people in my network who are involved with charities and one of them was Ian Pettigrew, a learning and development guru and trustee of the charity Retrak. Ian is one of the nicest men I know – generous of spirit, highly intelligent and consistently considerate and encouraging. I count him as a friend and over the years we have discussed the work he has been involved in with Retrak - helping street children in various locations in Africa and South America. He told me his dream of inspiring a group of HR professionals to travel to Africa and share their skills and learning with the children, staff and others. That dream has become a reality - a small group has been chosen from those who applied and will be travelling to Kampala in September 2016 under the banner of Connecting HR Africa.  I am proud to be one of that team.
This is not “a jolly” it will be hard work and emotionally and physically demanding. I have operated in Africa, admittedly only for short periods and in a very privileged capacity, and for the past twelve years I have supported a bright Kenyan orphan called Catherine, encouraging her through education and the challenges of transitioning from being a child to an independent adult. Although an orphan, in many ways she was fortunate in that she had a place to live, regular meals and access to an education. Retrak helps those who are often less blessed. There are many reasons why children run away from home – abuse, bereavement, trafficking, desperation, etc. I believe children deserve a decent start in life and that those of us who can should help those who are less fortunate. I also know that problems need to be tackled at their root causes and that one of the reasons that there is a flood of migrants trying to escape Africa is because the problems where they come from are not being resolved. Retrak has an excellent track record of achieving lasting results. The last Retrak annual report, ending December 2014, shows that 96 children were rescued from trafficking, 4,265 street and vulnerable children were provided with help in outreach, placement, and follow up, and 605 children were reunited with families. That is an impressive record.
Part of my commitment to Retrak is to raise £2,000 for the charity. If each of my contacts on Social Media donated £1 I would exceed that amount and between us we would make a real difference. I am asking for your help – no matter how small. I promise that while I am in Uganda I will do my utmost to ensure that every penny counts. I am not requesting support for my travel costs or money for me. All sums donated will go to the charity. If you can help please follow this link to make a donation. 
My uncle Andrew didn’t need to go to Africa – he went because he knew he had skills that could make a difference. In a lesser way I wish to follow in his footsteps. I can never match his brilliance - Andrew was an amazing man in so many ways – although not affluent, he was dazzling – both to look at and in discussion. He was a true renaissance man, well read, cultured, artistic and accomplished (he was also a wonderful cook). He grew up on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group and was close friends with Evelyn Waugh (I often felt he was like a character in Brideshead Revisited); he became a trustee for Lord Berners’ musical legacy; socialised with The Betjemans, HG Wells, Robert (“Mad Boy”) Heber-PercyCoote and the Mitfords. He could have remained in the UK all his life, been a socialite and shone, but he preferred a harder path, to toil where his skills could add value. 
Andrew in Africa
Andrew only returned to the UK when his own health failed him – he contracted TB and was too unwell to work. He was granted an OBE for his services to Africa but had no pension or savings to support him (he had lost his life savings in Uganda), so he lived with his mother and, when she died, he moved to Somerset to be near his sisters (one of whom is my mother). As many of you know, my mother is currently unwell. I suppose part of my wishing to go to Uganda is to complete the circle. Andrew was my godfather as well as my uncle and I would like to do something worthy of his memory. Uncle Andrew died in my mother’s arms whilst she sang to him the lullaby their mother had sung to them as children. 
A picture of Andrew and my mother
He had no offspring of his own, he never married, but he cared. The theme of children and leaving a lasting legacy is strong – like one of his precious Makonde “Tree of Life” carvings, I wish to be part of a community working together to ensure survival and success for the generations to come. 
I would be very grateful for your support.