Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Merits of Medlars

When we married, my uncle Guy gave us a Jacob Sheep fleece, from his own flock, as a wedding gift.  It many ways it was indicative of the man – understated, practical, unusual (but grounded in tradition), personal, well-presented and an object that came into existence through an individual's dedication, consideration and hard work.   Uncle Guy, who died earlier this month, was an extraordinary man.  A former Captain in the Royal Navy, who was awarded an OBE, he was a talented engineer (a trait inherited by his son Roger), gifted with words (a leagcy to his other son James) and surprisingly creative - basket weaving, tapestry, gardening and cookery.  I should not be surprised at his eye for detail and ability to persevere until a desired outcome was achieved given his hobbies and interests.  On leaving the Navy he worked in engineering - he was excellent at spotting and encouraging talent, enabling people who worked with him to exceed their own expectations.  Outside work he became increasingly interested in rural matters.  He kept sheep dogs (useful, given that he had his small flock of Jacobs), was a true pillar of his local village community as well as the British Legion and he also did much for our family – researching family roots, providing sound advice and leading by example.

Uncle Guy in many ways typifies the people whom we all take for granted – both within work and in the wider community.  If he said he would do something, you knew that he would not let you down.  He was always discreet and dignified – it was not in his nature to be over demonstrative - and often he needed to be asked for his thoughts on a matter if you wanted his valuable in-put.  All too frequently in the work environment we focus on the ones who make the most noise and who demand our attention.  Guy’s death reminds me that we must take time to appreciate those who conscientiously do what is expected of them (and often do more behind the scenes that is not specifically raised).  When you think of the talented people in your organisation, or the ones who stand out from amongst your friends, are they the quiet, efficient ones that you can rely on?  Are they those who avoid self-publicity?  Who are the first names that spring to mind?

Often organisations lean towards promoting individuals with outgoing personality traits for top corporate roles.  However, businesses risk missing out on exceptional knowledge and skills when they overlook employees with more understated styles.  There is huge value to having leaders who can listen to others, consider their ideas and, using this knowledge, improve team performance.  Traditionally extroverts have been more successful at climbing the corporate career ladder – they get themselves noticed and are usually good at directing others and taking control.  According to research undertaken by the University of Minnesota and Baruch College in 2009, 60% of top level executives showed high levels of extroversion.  However, there has been some interesting work undertaken by Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, into the value of introverts in the work place.  She also provides some sound advice to both introverts and extroverts on how to ensure that the best creative ideas and solutions are adopted: .  It's worth reading.

Those of you who know me will appreciate that I am an extrovert.  However, I am fortunate to have some exceptional introverts close to me, both in and outside work, and I know how much value they bring in so many ways.  I am aware that I do not have all the answers, so I have taught myself to seek out the input and comments of others, before making a proposal or decision.  At work we are undertaking our year-end appraisals.  It is time consuming, but, prior to drafting my own reviews on my direct reports’ performances, I am speaking with at least five people for each member of my team, drawn from various levels in the organisation, to glean their observations.  I have learned so much more about them as people (both my HR colleagues and those in other roles in the Group who have shared their thoughts).  By hearing from those whom HR has worked with, I have not only obtained a more rounded view of my team, but also ideas as to how we as a business unit can provide a better experience for our clients.

Often the least anticipated sources offer the most perceptive insights. The quiet team member may have the most extraordinary ideas with the power to transform your business for the better. It also is worth persevering, continuously seeking out and listening to the views of others, to ensure that you have an accurate understanding of what can and should be done.  People are like fruit, each has its own distinct look and flavour.  Some are easily overlooked due to an unprepossessing exterior or the vibrancy of others around them, but they may turn out to be the best of all.

This brings me back to Uncle Guy.  As mentioned earlier, he was excellent at spotting people’s strengths and helping them to achieve their potential, regardless of their backgrounds or apparent handicaps.  He continued this approach in many other areas, most notably his dedication to producing exceptional jams and conserves.  I will end with a piece that was published in 2009 by the Western Morning News on the preserving art of making medlar jelly.  In many ways it says more about Guy than any obituary ever will as it demonstrates his tenacity and drive to achieve the best possible even in the most demanding circumstances:

“The old Royal Navy captain is labouring with the weight of his wickerwork trug in the November storm. The wind is so strong you'd think an 82-year-old maritime man would be battening down the hatches - but Guy Crowden is after a mysterious, magical prize which can only be gleaned in a gale.

Medlars are mysterious because they look and feel totally inedible, and yet they are delicious. They're magical because the dull brown flesh creates one of the most beautiful pink-red products you'll ever see in a jar.

Medlar jelly is the retired navy captain's Holy Grail - he's already made goodness knows how many pounds of it already this autumn, but now the high winds are bringing down the remaining medlars he's been unable to reach.

Soon the glimmering, clear, roseate jelly will be adorning some savoury cut of game or other red meat, like a ruby jewel perched on the edge of a crown.
The Crowden jellies are works of culinary art - a statement which can be authenticated by describing the 82-year-old's kitchen door. Its wooden planks are covered in certificates boasting prizes from his local village produce show that stretch back years.“

If you want long-lasting success you must make best use of your Medlars!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Getting to the Core

Even their names are evocative: Sops-In-Wine, Poor Man’s Profit, Greasy Pippin, Golden Knob – you can almost envisage the apples as I run a roll call of a few traditional varieties.  Apples, more than any other fruit, have played a crucial role in myths and stories over the years.  Not just a source of sustenance, they are usually symbolic - often being used to represent knowledge and worth

  • in Norse mythology they were seen as a divine food, a source of immortality;
  • the Garden of the Hesperides was, according to legend, the Greek goddess Hera’s orchard tended by Atlas’ daughters. The Garden’s produce was guarded by a never-sleeping, hundred-headed dragon named Ladon.  Hercules risked bearing the burden of the world in order to gain a single apple and a golden apple from the Hesperides was given as the prize, to “the fairest” of three jealous goddesses, by Paris.  He was asked to judge between them and, inadvertently, his choice (swayed by the prospect of Love) commenced the Trojan Wars;
  • the familiar story of Adam and Eve uses an apple as the symbol of knowledge and original sin; and
  • given modern technology’s ability to disseminate knowledge with speed and simplicity, the choice of Apple as the name of the globally dominant player in the field carries on the tradition. 
Apples have the power to change the world.  

Sadly, The UK Government is using its power in a way that may change the world of apples.  The proposed minimum price of 40p per unit on alcohol, if introduced, is likely to have a significant impact on an important part of Britain’s heritage, namely the traditional cider industry.  Did you know that, prior to World War Two, every county in England and many regions in Scotland, Ireland and Wales produced cider?  Indeed, Ulster has eighty named apple varieties of its own and can also boast the earliest apple in Europe (found in the late 1990’s in a peat bog in Armagh and carbon dated to circa 1000 BC). 

It's not just apples that are impactful. Blogs can be too.  Please read my following thoughts; “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple.  But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” - George Bernard Shaw

I appreciate that the government’s intention is to reduce the problem of “binge drinking” and the resultant costs incurred by the State and populace; the duty should also bring a much needed stream of revenue at a time when income from other sources is diminishing.  As a senior HR professional, I spend much of my time managing budgets and being concerned about people’s health and well being.  From what I have observed and read, I cannot condone the “binge drinking culture” we are shown in the Media – mainly young people, so drunk that they are incontinent and abusive, who have deliberately imbibed strong, cheap alcohol at speed to become heavily intoxicated.  There is considerable evidence that excessive alcohol consumption in some areas and sectors of society is resulting in a significant drain on the UK’s coffers and support services.  According to a UK Government report:

  • 17 million working days are lost to hangovers and drink related illness each year – at an estimated cost to employers of £6.4 billion.
  • The outlay by the National Health Service for treating alcohol-related illness (according to the report) amounts to £1.7 billion).
  • Alcohol-related crime is estimated to cost at £7.3 billion per annum.
  • Not calculated, but clearly harmful and easily as costly in many ways, is the impact of damaged relationships and communities.

Perhaps I am simply a social idealist, like many, I would like to see the harmful outcomes of alcohol reduced. But, I also wonder whether the spotlight on binge-drinking is largely due to the Media hyping up the subject.  Drinking, especially by young and rowdy adults, has caused concern since Roman times.  Edward the Confessor’s brother, Hardicanute died in 1042 after a drinking party and Edward himself had to contend with drunken brawls in his kingdom.  Prior to modern sanitation, it was often safer to drink beer or cider than water.  The modern medical definition of “binge drinking” is drinking more than twice the recommended daily allowance of alcohol in a single episode (i.e. circa four pints of beer for a man, three for a woman). I have been an occasional binge drinker when a student and sportswoman, as well as at weddings and parties with friends.  I am not a prohibitionist.  I believe in educating and ensuring awareness; only then can you expect people to behave in a responsible manner.

I have a sense of historical déjà vu in relation to the Home Office’s plans: I keep thinking of London at the time of Hogarth and his famous satirical sketch of Beer Street and Gin Lane.

Drunkenness was seen as a major social problem in the 1730’s and the government made several attempts to control its sale, including the Gin Act of 1736, which required retailers to buy a £50 licence (a huge sum in those days) and also increased duty fivefold.  This measure was extremely unpopular and people found ways to get round it, for example selling gin under other names, such as ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’, ‘Strip-Me-Naked’ and ‘Ladies Delight’.  The eighteenth century government’s intervention was unpopular and ineffectual - it was forced to repeal the Act in 1743.  The current proposed approach in 2012, of increasing the level of duty and simultaneously controlling retailers, feels disturbingly similar to that introduced in Hogarth’s time.  I am not convinced that simply increasing the price and restricting sales will solve the current problem.

The Home Office website states that the Government will:

“no longer tolerate those who behave drunkenly and unacceptably in public or those who sell alcohol irresponsibly.”

Making booze more expensive may discourage some people from binge drinking (it may also drive others to make their own – I remember watching and helping friends brewing rice wine in a bath at university to fuel a college party; it is surprisingly easy to do, even if the results aren’t always very palatable). 

The Government’s approach seems unfocused and insensitive.  Rather like applying a plaster to wounds without removing the knife from the baby, the Government is seeking to reduce the acquisition of large quantities of cheap alcohol, rather than analysing why excessive and anti-social behaviours occur and introducing measures that will help members of society cease relying on booze to fleetingly make their lives feel better. 

I may be old fashioned but, in keeping with the subject of this blog, I believe that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, in that prevention is better than cure.  In my role in HR I habitually look for the root of a problem and aim to solve it instead of simply focusing on the symptoms.  I want to effect lasting solutions.  For example repetitive absenteeism in a particular area is often due to the environment rather than the individual – it can be indicative of a poor manager or bullying and harassment in the work place.  Stopping the inappropriate conduct and/or changing people’s attitudes and approaches, which lie at the root of the problem, usually resolves the issue for the benefit of all.

In a former job I was responsible for a number of customer contact centres, two of which fulfilled similar functions – one in Scotland and the other in a seaside town on the south coast of England.  There was a significant “sickness” problem in the English location and the HR team and management tried everything they could think of to address the matter – back to work interviews, managerial training, retaining the services of a nurse to provide confidential counselling and advice.  The problem persisted.  It was only when we looked at a correlation between weather and sickness patterns that the light dawned.  People called in “sick” when the sun shined!  By informing employees that we were aware of the trend, providing managers with weather forecasts and hence prior warning of the risk and raising awareness of the repercussions we finally managed to crack the problem.

A heavy handed and blanket approach can cause more trouble than the difficulty it is designed to address.  The proposed one-size-fits-all duty on alcohol may have some unexpected outcomes, primarily because it does not look at the bigger picture.  It may reduce the acquisition of alcohol by some “binge drinkers” but it is likely to impact the broader community as well.  Many of my family live in the West Country (an informal term for the South Western area of England).  It is a beautiful part of the world with gentle hills, winding streams and fens, stunning coastline, fields and orchards.  Some of the best cider and apple juice in the world are made in the region.  They are quite different from the mass produced fizzy cans of drink that can be bought in urban off licences.  Many of the consumer brand ciders are made from concentrate and taste bland and sugary.  Like fine cheeses or wines, the quality of the ingredients and care in the production in cider show – each apple has it own distinct flavour.  For cider production it is important that the fruit has a high sugar content to aid fermentation and taste comes from the apples, usually from a blend of various cultivars, although there are some excellent single varieties (such as Kingston Black) that can hold their own.  In 1903 The Ashton Research Station categorised cider apples into four main types:

  1. Sweets This group is low in tannins (<0.2%) and acidity (<0.45%).
  2. Sharps This group is high in acidity (>0.45%) and low in tannins (<0.2%). The high acidity, together with that from the bittersharp group, can add 'bite' to the cider.
  3. Bittersweets This group is low in acidity (<0.45%) and high in tannin (>0.2%). The raised levels of tannin, which tastes bitter and is astringent, adds a bitterness to the cider. A certain amount of bitterness is expected in ciders of the West Country Style.
  4. Bittersharps This group is high in both acidity (>0.45%) and tannin (>0.2%).

There is little doubt that doubling the price of traditionally produced cider risks destroying much of the artisanal industry.  A two litre bottle of cider (4.2 per cent alcohol) currently costing £1.89 would rise to £3.36.  That is a huge mark-up and sufficient to discourage consumers.  The traditional cider market is small and local – production is insufficient to satisfy the requirements of the big supermarkets and most rural cider makers don’t have the contacts or time to get their produce into specialist off-licences and retailers.  They rely on local trade.  If the cider is too expensive for the local consumers, many on agricultural wages, they will cease buying.  Without a demand for the product, cider making will diminish and in some areas die out.  Landowners will have no need for redundant cider orchards and the land will be turned to a different purpose.  Once the trees have gone they cannot be replaced, at least not with our rare British varieties – apples types need to grafted, not grown from pips, so a seed bank can’t ensure cider apple tree strains for the future.  The current issue is more than just drink and a quick-fix proposal to reduce undesirable behaviour – the loss of cider and the orchards will permanently impact the British landscape and our legacy to future generations.

We need to preserve our culture.

On the subject of culture, my cousin, James Crowden, the renowned West Country based poet and writer ( ) is passionate about the future of the cider orchards and Britain's culinary tradition (tastes and knowledge he gained from his father, the remarkable Guy Crowden who was featured in  the press for his exceptional country jams and conserves).  James worked for many years at a wonderful cider mill and distillery called Burrow Hill– the work and the drink inspired his words.  I will end with James' poem:–

"Cidermaking – The Forgotten Miracle"

The cider apple is a noble beast,
Not least its rounded shape and form.
Red on white and dressed in green,
Daughter of the crab, pert and sharp.

A bitter little number brought to heel,
And  mounded up in countless yards,
Squeezed tightly, acres’ promise pressed,
Between hefty thighs of oak and elm.

Ripe juice, a mad cascade run off,
And pumped to monstrous vats,
Where potent yeast works unruly magic,
And heady froth ferments in darkened barns.

Weeks and months pass, as days get longer
Each barrel sampled, tapped into,
Deep reservoirs of superstition
Ancient orchards, gnarled citizens revived.

Communion with the Apple God
And passed from hand to hand,
The clear drop that quenches working thirst.
Rebellious, yet subtle and triumphant,

Vivacious and sparkling,
Filled to the brim and sprightly,
A slender glass of liquid gold
That shimmers in the evening light.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

What Khan You See?

A specially commissioned bronze sculpture of Genghis Kahn, by artist Dashi Namdako, has been unveiled in central London.  It has been created to celebrate the 850th anniversary since Genghis Kahn’s birth and will be located at Marble Arch until September. 

Despite London’s vibrant Asian community, it seems an unusual piece to have specifically created.  It shows the great warlord in a contemplative pose astride a remarkable horse (it has a mane that can rival Medusa’s coiffure).  Having spent many years in Asia, I have a genuine interest in Genghis Khan and the impact he has had on the world.  It is impossible to deny his territorial achievements (he ultimately controlled four times the land mass of Alexander the Great’s empire) but he was not “all good”.  Many consider him a psychopath; he reputedly caused the death of 40 million people, there were certainly a large number of bones testifying to the slaughter of his enemies by the time he bequeathed the empire to his son.  There is some striking research from the Carnegie Institute’s Department of Global Ecology which seems to prove that carbon levels plummeted during the time of his empire building and destruction, presumably because only very few people were left alive and sufficiently fit to cultivate land and hence trees established themselves in the place of crops. Researchers estimate nearly 700 million tons of carbon were removed from the atmosphere during the period.

 I can never decide whether Genghis Khan was a ruthless bully who would have benefitted from anger management coaching or if he is an early exemplar of necessary traits for today’s great leaders.  Like all of us, I suspect he displayed a combination of attributes, some good some bad.  He was certainly ruthless, especially in the suppression of his enemies – when Samarkand fell he ordered the inhabitants to evacuate the citadel and assemble on a plain outside the city, where they were all killed and pyramids of severed heads erected as a symbol of his victory.  Genghis Khan stated that

“the greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters”

(you might be interested to know that genetic research seems to prove that Genghis Khan was very good at the latter: he has been identified by Dr Bryan Sykes (the acclaimed Oxford geneticists) as “the most successful alpha male in human history” with over 16 million people able to trace their genetic roots back to him )

More acceptable words than “ruthless” and “brutal” that also apply to Genghis Khan are “tenacity” and “resilience”, both valuable attributes for any leader.  He was certainly tough and determined – his father was poisoned when he was nine, leaving the family destitute. Ghengis (or Temüjin as he was originally called) looked after his mother and four siblings and from nothing became a formidable leader controlling the largest empire attained by any man.  His success can be credited to a combination of initiative, intelligence and skill.  Once he began leading others, he was surprisingly open-minded, especially in respect of religious tolerance and cultural diversity.  He clearly learned how to encourage others to support him in achieving his aims and he inspired immense loyalty.  He was focused and always attuned to his objectives.  As well as protecting his family and creating peace and prosperity across a substantial global region (22% of the earth’s landmass), he desired to establish a lasting legacy, and famously said:

“If my body dies, let my body die, but do not let my country die.”

All of the traits listed in bold above would sit comfortably in a typical inventory from a modern corporate defining the attributes desired in a CEO or other top leader. By way of comparison, here are the top five qualities, as defined by Adam Bryant, a leading business columnist for the New York Times, based on his analysis of 70 top leaders for his book “Corner Office”:

1.       Passionate Curiosity

2.       Battle Hardened Confidence

3.       Team Smarts (meaning that they have good peripheral vision for sensing how people react to one another, as well as being able to work well with people themselves)

4.       A Simple Mindset

5.       Fearlessness

If you want to read more, here is a link to a New York Times article on the subject: 

All five of the above would suit Genghis Khan.  Indeed the warlord’s approach has been proposed as a framework for modern business, in a book entitled, “Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way”, by former dentist Michael Young, (the book won the Diagram prize in 2011 for best, most unusual titled book).  In case you don’t have a copy, I am happy to explain that it offers advice to dentists on how to build a dentistry empire in the manner of the warlord and includes chapters on team building, managing conflict and “planning for disaster”.

Clearly, your opinion of Genghis Khan is based on your own perceptions and values; which probably you will have established during your formative years.  What seems awful or brutal to us now was perhaps viewed as acceptable in a different era.  It is amazing the impact learning can have on how we perceive things.  A BBC Horizon programme admirably demonstrates the impact that learning, especially the acquisition of language, on how we view things.  The following clip is extraordinary on many levels:

Language is one of Man’s most extraordinary achievements – longer lasting and more impactful than empires.  However, I doubt if Samuel Taylor Coleridge was aware, when he wrote about Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, that Asian folklore claims that Genghis Khan (whom Kublai recognized as originator of the Dynesty he headed in China) was buried under a river, which was diverted for this purpose, to make his resting place a secret and mystical spot.  He certainly would not have been aware of the Genghis Khan’s impact on forestation and his counteracting the impact of man’s carbon footprint.  “Kubla Khan” despite being unfinished, due to the Man from Porlock’s unwonted arrival, is still a wonderful piece of evocative poetry that deserves celebration:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”

Monday, 9 April 2012

Best Face Forward

Last night at bedtime, in honour of the season, my youngest son and I read Saki’s short story, “The Easter Egg”.  The English writer, Hector Hugh Munro, known as Saki, was an Edwardian Roald Dahl – able to create exquisitely crafted, often macabre, tales of the unexpected, that frequently satirised the society to which he belonged, as well as touching on themes of broader concern or interest at the time.  Although good, “The Easter Egg” is perhaps not his best, (my favourites are “The Unrest Cure” and “The Lumber Room”  The story does provide a snap shot of a particular period in European history and it tells more than it seems at first glance. 

If you are not familiar with “The Easter Egg”, I suggest you click on the link to read it , as otherwise my following comments may spoil it for you.

The story is about the attempted assassination of a small European country’s monarch and a mother’s acceptance, but disappointment, in her son’s pervasive cowardice, until his sole act of bravery prevents the start of a war, but causes his own demise and the blinding of his parent.  The mother’s physical loss of vision is ironic, given that it is only when her eyesight is gone that she sees things clearly. If find that this is often the case in real life – it takes a dramatic and even potentially damaging experience to enable people to gain a better appreciation and understanding of others or the situation they have been in and the potential for the future.  I have lost count of the number of former colleagues who have said that, with hindsight, being made redundant was a great opportunity for them – although it did not feel so at the time.  

When I was the HR Director for a leading global Law firm, my role became redundant.  Even though I knew it was going to happen (it was impractical at the time for me to relocate to the States and, once the new global Chief People Officer was recruited and he decided to be based in London, there was no need for two “heavy hitters” in Europe) the experience was very bruising.  For many of us, our sense of self worth relies on the image and role we have created for ourselves.  I was perhaps too proud to wish to be instructed by him and hence I left.  It is only now that I can fully appreciate that both the Firm and I needed to move on to benefit from new opportunities.  Without my experiences as the former Head of HR for a global Law firm I would not be as well equipped as I am in my current role, but my time there has now become simply part of the foundation I have on which to build my future.

We are all good at creating an image and environment to match what we feel is expected of us, rather than being realistic and true to ourselves and others.  Look at the profile pictures most of us choose as our “face for the outside world” - full of smiles and smart attire, we want people to see and believe in what we project as everyday us, as opposed to our best side.  Often, however, our “best side” is a disguise.

On Friday I took the boys and a couple of friends to see the excellent thriller “Headhunters”.  I’m not going to ruin the plot by describing scenes and outcomes, but I urge you to go and see it.  Not only is it a first-rate (if somewhat dark and violent) film, but it also appeals to me as an HR professional.  The hero is a top end recruiter, who has such low self esteem that he needs to create an ill-grounded world around him to convince the important people in his life of his value.  Needless to say his subterfuge leads to some very extreme events. He relies on a range of disguises to survive what life throws at him. It is not until he faces reality and is honest with himself (and others) that a brighter future can ensue.