Saturday, 30 July 2011

Sound Buzzness!

As some of you know, I am a beekeeper – I have two hives in my garden in central London.  I started keeping them for environmental reasons (bee numbers have been in serious decline and over 70% of the world’s crops rely on bees for pollination).  It is true that London honey is exceptionally delicious (due to the wealth of flora in the frequently irrigated gardens, tree-lined streets and parks), but the best benefit I have gained is a deepening in my own understanding of my environment and life at work.  What I did not appreciate, until I had been an apiarist for a while, was quite how much being an urban beekeeper would teach me about life, leadership, good management and focused effort. 

Bees have symbolized society and order for centuries – the ancient Egyptians represented the kingdom of Lower Egypt with a bee (the land was prosperous and industrious around the Nile delta) and they believed that the first bees grew from the tears of the sun god Ra when they landed on the desert sand.  Napoleon I used bees as a motif to symbolize his imperial authority and covered everything, from his carpets to coronation robes, with them.  The Victorians used to use bees as an ideal example of perfect social order – there is a wonderful cartoon by Cruikshank that depicts this with Victoria at the apex of the hive - each individual knowing its role and place within society and doing the best it could for the benefit of all (this certainly applies to the worker bees but is questionable in relation to the idle males, the drones, although perhaps at a time when the aristocracy were are their peak and there were sons waiting for their inheritance (a bit like Prince Charles now) the analogy seemed apt).  

I have gained a deeper understanding of my own environment from observing my bees, my learnings and observations include:

The importance of adopting the right strategic approach through consensual leadership – When some of the hive swarms they will not immediately establish themselves in the first location that they find.  Scouts are sent to determine potential new sites.  Assessors then inspect and rate the proposed locations, until a consensus is reached as to the right place to be.  Once decided, the whole colony works together to establish themselves successfully.  Similarly, near the end of the summer, when there is little likelihood of the hive needing a new queen, it is common for the workers to expel the drones, as they are no longer required to fertilise a queen and are simply an unproductive drain on precious resources.   Bees analyse and respond to the world in which they operate and they do what they must to ensure an optimum existence. 

Growth being good at the correct time – bee numbers increase if there is a healthy active queen – much the same way as business’ grow if they have a healthy realistic strategy that all the workers understand and support and that can be trusted/ relied upon to produce results.  Hive numbers also increase when there is a surplus of raw materials in the world around them that they can turn into desirable produce.  Bees are swift to seize the opportunity to take advantage of circumstances. 

Turnover is a fact of life – departures will result either because the bees swarm and a portion of the hive leave to create a new existence elsewhere; or when there are required reductions in bee numbers (these occur in late summer onwards, when bee numbers decline so that there is a suitable nucleus of bees to carry the colony through the winter, but not so many that the stores won’t support them); or bee numbers will reduce due to external factors; bees are susceptible to disease and attack – every year there seem to be new parasites or diseases that can decimate a hive – it is important to be vigilant and spot early on any signs of abnormality (the building of queen cells predicts a swarming event, varroa mites indicate potential health problems).  Businesses can also suffer from not adapting to change or reading the signs, understanding what’s going on and taking appropriate action.

The value of forward planning – in the Spring, when it is warmer and there are some flowers in bloom, the queen will be encouraged to lay to create the number of bees necessary to support the hive over the summer and autumn (The queen is encouraged to lay and is even instructed as to what sex of egg to deposit within a cell by the shape of the receptacle that has been created by the workers); similarly later in the year, when temperatures drop and the days shorten, the colony numbers will reduce to ensure a good chance of survival over the Winter months. 

The need to be flexible – in the event that the queen dies or disappears, the workers, provided that they have a suitable egg, will create a new queen for the hive out of what would otherwise have been a normal worker.

Internal politics is usually driven by the surrounding environment and the impact of supply and demand – bees are very aware of the conditions within the hive – if things are good and there is plenty of opportunity for two colonies to survive the population will create a new queen and swarm.  If the market conditions are right MBO’s and similar corporate finance activities are likely to occur within a business.  When the queen bee is old or ill and hence not laying well, it is not uncommon for the hive to make a new queen to ensure its ongoing strength and survival – this will result in the death of the former queen.

The importance of focused Personal Development - from the moment they hatch, bees go through an orderly progression of development. When juvenile they saty in the hive and learn to clean cells and undertake operational roles, later, when stronger and more mature they become foragers but even then they have specific roles - some gatehr nectar or pollen, others fetch water to cool teh hive or dilute stores.  Roles are clearly defined, guidance is provided by peers and each bee knows what it should be doing - not a bad template for business.

The need to know your role and to value the contribution of those around you – the Queen has a role, rather than a position of power.  The whole hive is influenced by and supports her, but only for such time as she is fulfilling a valuable purpose (laying eggs).  Similarly, the drones are produced as a requirement for a healthy, fertile queen, once there is no longer a need to make a new queen the drones are expelled from the hive.  Individuality is accepted but only if the function benefits the whole community.

The value of communication – most people have heard of the Waggle Dance – the way in which bees inform other hive members of the location of good nectar and stores.  This is only one of many ways in which bees communicate – the queen exudes pheromones which are passed from bee to bee and bind the members of the hive together with a shared sense of identity (a bit like having a brand identity) and bees communicate possible new sites to the rest of the colony for them to decide on the best location after they have swarmed.

I could provide numerous other analogies, but I am sure you get the message.  There is so much that we can all learn from the things around us and I have learned from my bees – as my youngest son says, it makes sound Buzzness!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Adept Adaption

The chap beside me sitting on the plane to Edinburgh has been with his employer for twenty five years; it is clear from talking with him that he has enjoyed a varied career, undertaking numerous roles in different areas across the business; he is currently in Technology Services.  He is a dying breed – not of people who work in Technology Services, but of people who remain with a single employer until retirement on leaving education.  The pace of change is speeding up and both people and organisations need to adapt to thrive in the new world – for people this will mean acquiring skills and then, when necessary, applying them in a fresh environment.
I’ve been around a bit (so to speak) and I can remember very different, more leisurely times:
·         As a child in London a horse drawn rag and bone cart that made weekly collections from our neighborhood – the end of the horse-drawn era.
·         When I was a teenager I lived in Hong Kong, but was sent to school in the UK.  My flight to and from home took nearly a day and there were three stop-overs to enable the plane to refuel (there wasn’t a non-stop service until 1983). It was usually a glorious, quite lengthy party in the skies.  My eldest son will be spending his newly earned cash on a trip to explore Asia for a month before starting at university – his flight will be direct and will take less than twelve hours – only just enough time for a nap. 
·         The family excitement when my father brought home our first TV (it was black and white with a tiny screen) was immense.  Later my youngest sister was fascinated by the test card of a girl with a clown (she wanted to swap me with her, as she was sure that she would be a nicer sibling than me).  I can’t remember when I last saw a test card amongst the multitude of channels now available.
·         The first computer at my school was so large it filled a room and most pupils were only allowed to gaze at it, in wonder, from outside the door.
·         When I worked in a dealing room I summarized the day’s trades by telex.  Today trading is automated. 

My children would find most of the above bewildering and/or cumbersome.

As the civil rights leader, Ralph Abernathy, said: “The industrial landscape is already littered with remains of once successful companies that could not adapt their strategic vision to altered conditions of competition.”

In some ways the pace of change is being dictated by children and not adults.  For fifty years Barbie reigned supreme as the doll for girls and young teenagers to have.  Barbie’s popularity started to be overcome by Bratz in 2006 - the reason being that Barbie’s makers failed to spot the change in the market.  Barbie originally enabled young girls to have a fantasy mother figure – but by the turn of the Millennium few children were putting their mother on a pedestal.  Eight year olds’ ideals had changed, they wanted to be cool teenagers having fun – enter Bratz, their envisaged idol in plastic for play.  Barbie sales dropped 13% in 2005 and, as yet, have failed to recover – she has not changed with the times.  The influence of the young over older generation can be seen in many ways, witness Mrs. Middleton or Carole Vorderman emulating their daughters’ fashion styles, even down to ensuring matching colours and accessories when out together. Why do a number of us blog – social networking is fun and potentially useful, but is there also an element of not wanting to be out of touch or even of getting old?  A well known Financial Services business has been using newly arrived graduates as “reverse mentors” to help senior executives gain a better understanding of the value of technology and social networking in our fast changing world – the wonders of iPads, Facebook and Twitter, IM, LOL, etc…  The young are now teaching the old how to adapt.  Research shows that as people get older they become more set in their ways and find it harder and more stressful reacclimatizing.  Given the pace of change, as demonstrated even in the experiences of my life, the inability or disinclination to learn new things will prove detrimental to individuals as well as organisations going forward.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I can guarantee that it will be fast-paced, variable and also, for those of us who can adapt and embrace what it has to offer, an awful lot of fun…

Monday, 25 July 2011

Leading Light: Thine Own Self

Leading Light: Thine Own Self: "My eldest son started in paid employment today – a strange feeling both of us: for him it’s his first day of genuine independence and f..."

Thine Own Self

My eldest son started in paid employment today – a strange feeling both of us: for him it’s his first day of genuine independence and for me it’s as though I am losing him a bit, but simultaneously I am proud of him and really want him to succeed.  Life is full of transitions.  I have spent much of the past month advising people who are the cusp of change in their careers.  The more we have talked, the more I seem to find myself telling people that they need to use their knowledge of themselves to help determine the right path for them going forward.  I have also been asked by a number of people how they should write a CV, behave in an interview, be like at meet-the-team sessions, etc...  Without wishing to sound like a hippy, I think Shakespeare’s Polonius in “Hamlet” was right when he said

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Let me explain what I mean… 

I have got to know some amazing people on Twitter and on other sites that enable interactive dialogue – I have discovered through personal experience that social networking works best when there is a connection rather than an impersonal effort to impress and/or sell something.  I have begun to make some genuine friends who as/when I need their help will be there or I for them. 

I was intrigued in particular by the complexity of experience and knowledge consistently tweeted by a contact of mine.  Eventually, once we had both ascertained that there were no untoward expectations on either side, only shared interests and an understanding of ways in which we might be able to help each other, we exchanged emails (it can be frustrating explaining your career and approach in 140 character chunks).  He wrote a two page bio for me, explaining the path he has taken and the things he has had to overcome to become the internationally recognized expert that he is.  

Having worked in recruitment and been MD of an international search business, I have read a huge number of CVs over the years – the majority are sterile, close replicas of each other produced to a standard format that actually tells you very little about the person they describe.  Thanks to technology and search engines they are now written to include  buzzwords that will enable recruiters to easily locate appropriate job-seeking individuals.  A whole industry has sprung up offering to write effective CVs and covering letters that will “ensure a foot in the door” or an interview.  There are candidate screening and recruitment software systems that organisations use to collect and collate information about applicants and employees.  Sure it’s convenient, but all of this is turning us into a homogenised commodity with no individuality .  

The bio I was sent by my contact told me more about him than any conventional CV/resume ever could.  It was honest and personal and I gained an understanding of how he responded to situations and setbacks, how he took advantage of opportunities and the things that are really important to him in his life.  The artisanal craftsmanship that went into his explanation of himself was compelling, brave and humbling.  I don’t think I have ever been so candid when describing myself within the work environment.  I learned a lot and I will follow his example when I try to explain myself to others in the future. 

I suppose I’d better respond to his email now…

Sunday, 24 July 2011


I appreciate that "Leading Light" could be construed as an arrogant name for a personal blog - a bit like calling myself a leading lady, but in fact the choice of handle has quite humble origins. Leading Lights (also known as Range Lights in the US) are light beacons, used in navigation to indicate a safe passage for vessels entering a shallow or dangerous channel; and may also be used for position fixing. At night, the lights are a form of leading path that can be used for safe navigation. The beacons consist of two lights that are separated in distance and elevation, so that when they are aligned, with one above the other, they provide a bearing. These are often illuminated day and night.

At work and in my wider life I am often the person that people turn to in times of trouble or change.  Even when I was at boarding school, I was the one who made sure that there was no evidence when the older girls had sneaked out and over-indulged in the pub.  One day in June, when I was myself in the sixth form, a fellow pupil came and found me as there was "a crisis".  A girl in the year below had been allowed out to an end of school celebration at a local boys' school - whilst there she had partied to excess and then fallen out with her boyfriend.  Depressed and emotional, to the extreme depths that a teenage girl can achieve, she swallowed what pills she and her ex had not consumed earlier in the day and, on return to our school, slashed her wrists.  The girl, who found her, slumped under a bush in the school grounds, had got her back to her house and then put her in a hot bath to wash away the blood - that was when the trouble began.  Seeping veins and hot water are a lethal combination.  Fortunately, the would-be-Samaritan realised what she'd done, drained the bath water and ran to fetch me.  Clearly I wasn't a nurse, but I can keep my head in a crisis.  The mess was appalling, but of much greater concern was the risk to the poor girl's life - even though she had made a pretty feeble attempt at suicide, veins not artery incisions, she was in a very bad way.  I bound up the wrists and staunched the bleeding, but was very concerned by the state she was in.  Despite having made her vomit up much of what was still in her stomach, I could not get her pupils to respond to light from a torch.  I sent a girl to fetch the house mistress, but it transpired that she was not in her flat (she was a tad too pally with the games mistress and it was a beautiful day...), so I took the initiative and, with difficulty, carried the "patient" to the nearby hospital.  This story has a happy ending in that she is still alive and well and is now recognised as a talented and successful artist – all through her own efforts and a burning desire to make something of her life.  Sadly, it was not so good for me - I was expelled for being "out of bounds without permission" (as a known rebel, but with no tangible evidence against me, I suspect that the school had wanted to get rid of me for a while).  It irked me later when the school sent me a letter, congratulating me on university results that they’d seen in the paper; they wished to remind me that I owed my success to them.  People don’t owe success to others – it has to come from themselves. 

I get a real thrill out of seeing individuals overcome what they had perceived as insurmountable obstacles - especially in their careers and personal lives.  Regardless of your educational background or upbringing, if you have the right skills, drive and focus, it is possible to achieve what at first might appear as impossible.  One of the best HR professionals that I know was a secretary to the Head of Risk in a bank and felt that she was trapped in an inescapable linear career, another was a member of the military police - both of these ladies felt that they were inferior/less well qualified than the HR professionals that they saw around them and hence that career was not open to them.  Both are now exemplary in their fields.  I was lucky to meet them, a simple catalyst, the right person in the right place to enable things to happen.  They steered their own paths – I just helped them to see the way...