Thursday, 25 October 2012

When Potential Comes to Fruition

It was Apple Day on Saturday and, as part of the celebrations, I found myself standing in an idyllic English orchard sipping freshly pressed juice.   A lot of planning had gone into the day – a seated brass ensemble (including a sousaphone) played cheering music, the drink literally flowed,
traditional apple press
food was spread on tables under the fruit-laden trees, piles of apple varieties decorated the yard, the speeches were entertaining and informative, a painting of England’s oldest cider maker (Frank Nash, who has been making cider for 87 years) was unveiled, libations were poured on apple tree roots in the hope of a good year to come, toasts, tastings and laughter abounded.
Oldest English cider maker, Frank Nash, and his portrait
The glorious reds, greens and gold of the apples, the rousing music, the sights, smells and sounds reminded me of a Renaissance fairground.  How apt, given that this blog is part of the HR blog carnival that is being orchestrated by Sukh Pabial ( )  - By way of an explanation, a number of UK HR bloggers (a loose term for people who write around the subject of people and work) have each written a piece and between us we offer a selection, with the hope that there is something to appeal to everyone.  So, “roll up, roll up, come and sample my wares...” 

Vincenco Campi's The Fruit Seller c1580

In the Somerset orchard where I stood on Saturday, there were over 40 apple varieties and a lumbering pig, chomping the fallen fruit, forged a determined course through the trees, neither looking to left nor right.  In many ways, we need to adopt a similar approach if we wish to see potential (be it aspirations, latent capability, plans or goals) come to fruition.
Burrow Hill pig
I mentioned that Apple Day reminded me of the old-style fairs of the Renaissance period.  The day had an almost sixteenth century air to it, with colourful characters, swigging from flagons of cider whilst enjoying the spectacle and livestock wandering free.  At times I felt like a character painted into the side of a magnificent painting – observing, but at the same time being an integral part of the overall scene.   An artist frequently credited with being the greatest and most influential of the Renaissance age was Michelangelo (or Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, to give him his full name).  So great was his reputation during his lifetime (he was often called Il Divino - “the divine one”) that he became the first Western artist to have a biography published whilst still alive (indeed he had two).  There are some delightful examples of Michelangelo including himself in a painting, as a character on the periphery.  However, one that makes me smile (despite the subject matter being gruesome) is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where he has depicted himself as a head in profile, being carried on a platter by Old Testament heroine Judith, after she had decapitated the  Assyrian general Holofernes.
Michelangelo self portrait (disguised as Holofernes)
There is much that we can learn from Michelangelo when considering “potential coming to fruition”.  You might be interested to know that, despite adorning the Sistine Chapel and producing some of the most famous paintings in the world, he believed that architecture and sculpture were higher forms of art than mere painting. He was ambitious and encouraged others to be so:
”The greater danger for most of us lies in not setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving the mark” Michelangelo

Sistine Chapel
Those of us who wish to produce results should follow his example.  When planning to achieve goals, a person needs to appreciate the ultimate objective they are aiming to attain and the manner in which they will do so. Michelangelo was adept at envisaging the end result:

          “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”          -        Michelangelo
Do you know what you want to achieve?
Angel carved by Michelangelo
Michelangelo knew how to plan to produce an impactful work of art; anyone with an ambition must determine the actions required to reach the desired outcome:
“A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.” - Michelangelo
Hands of God and Adam painted by Michelangelo
 “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo
His work is wonderful – look at the carving in the below detail from The Pieta – it is easy to forget that the flesh and fabric have been hand carved from unforgiving marble.  What is also amazing is that he produced it when he was only twenty four.  Michelangelo was not afraid of arduous work, trial, learning from failure and practice; nothing can substitute for hard graft when trying to achieve a goal. 

Detail of Michelangelo's Pieta

The concept of grafting seems to bring me back to the orchards...  In renaissance times a popular fruit grown in orchards was the quince.  The first record of quince trees in the UK was in 1275, when Edward I planted four at the Tower of London, although the fruit are mentioned as ingredients in recipes from the 13th century onwards.  In the medieval and renaissance periods, raw fruit was thought to be bad for people, so it was customary for fruit to be cooked.  Today we opt more for raw fruit and hence apples and pears have become the orchard fruit of choice.  Nowadays quinces are seldom seen for sale in Britain and America, except in specialist markets, but they remain common in parts of the Mediterranean and Middle East.  The quince is a rare fruit with a key place in folklore and tradition.  It was probably the original “apple” of Adam and Eve fame, as the plant originates from the Caucasus region, where the Garden of Eden was supposedly located – the word was mistranslated from quince to apple due to an etymological similarity of words.  Greek mythology claims that the quince was a gift from Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and it was customary to toss quinces into bridal chariots.  This custom continued into Roman times with quinces being a symbolic gift from a suitor, signifying true love and commitment (much like red roses are in our modern world – it is interesting to note that quinces and roses are closely related) and even today in rural areas it is customary for a bride to eat a quince before retiring to the nuptial bed. 

Fruiting quince tree, Roman mural, House of Livia 30-20 BC

Compared to most other fruits, the quince is relatively high in pectin (a natural gelling agent that enables jams and jellies to thicken and set) hence it has traditionally been used as an ingredient in preserves – the Portugese word for quince (marmelo) evolved over time into “marmalade”.  When I was in Crete earlier this summer, I enjoyed exquisite quince compotes with natural Greek yoghurt and, in many parts of Europe, it is traditionally served as a firm paste, called membrillo (Spanish), cotognata (Italian), or, as alluded to above, marmelada (Portugese), which is delicious with cheese.

The quince can be used as an evocative metaphor demonstrating how potential can come to fruition.  In the main quinces are disgusting when eaten raw – despite exuding an appealing, almost tropical, guava like smell (that hints at its potential).  The skin is tough and waxy, although easily bruised, and often, before it ripens, it is covered in a slight downy bloom like the soft fluff of an adolescent’s beard – not really something you’d want to eat.  The flesh is unpleasantly astringent and surprisingly hard – sufficiently so to make you spit out a bitter mouthful after attempting a bite.  It is only if you know what it can taste like, are prepared to make the required effort to achieve that delectable result and want to undertake the difficult task of peeling the damn thing, that through your efforts you will see its potential actually come to fruition.  Once cooked, which can take hours, the quince miraculously transforms into a succulent delicacy – with a blushing, pale-rosy hue and a delicately perfumed taste

The quince has a short season (October to December) so, if you are tempted to sample them, I urge you to grasp the opportunity.  Let me know if you do and whether, in your opinion, their potential reached fruition... if not just bear them in mind as inspiration on your journey to help yourself and others to see the fruition of potential and plans.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Not To Be Sniffed At!

I’ve been fighting off a foul lurgi (as The Goons would have called it) for the past four weeks.  Currently I can hardly speak and I make a sound like a mouse when I try to cough.  Not an ideal week in which to speak at a conference.  However, the occasion itself was a great success (thank goodness for microphones).  For the first and probably only time in my life I was able to open with “The voice of women has often not been heard and tonight will be no exception...” not an observation on the quality of my fellow speakers, who were excellent, but a reflection on my predicament. I’m grateful to Michael Carty of Xpert HR for the inspiration ( The event, put on by the Strategic HR Network and hosted by Penna, was about “Unlocking Female Talent”.  I was one of five who spoke about our personal experiences, the out-dated, current and emerging approaches to support women, (and our opinions as to what seems to work and what detracts from) creating an environment in which to encourage high performing women at all levels in organisations. 

We covered everything from psychology and unconscious bias, to ways of fostering women's careers, (including: training, the need for good managers, appreciating what women require from work and what motivates them, what puts them - and people from certain other sectors of society - off from wanting to be a member of the C-Suite and/or senior management, the value of networks (especially the advantages of establishing them in conjunction with other organisations, thereby enabling unfettered discussions), mentoring, the significance of role models, the importance of sharing success stories, demographics, flexible and agile working approaches and the necessity for listening).  What we said seemed well received and the public questions, with the Chair and audience’s agreement, ran on long after the end of the session.

I found myself in the role of the elder spokeswoman, who had lived through many approaches and had been a victim of uninspiring career advice at school.  I stressed that society has a huge impact on the women within it (when 17, I was told I should be a nurse, teacher, secretary or shepherdess – I suppose in a way that I am all four now, but not in the way that my school intended).  When I was leaving school, women were not expected or encouraged to go into senior levels of business, even those of us with strong academic results, who had secured places at university. It was in contrast to the observations from one contributor, who had grown up outside the UK - she had two highly skilled grandmothers (both engineers, working in challenging industrial environments), they were not considered exceptional, despite being female, as many other women followed similar career paths.  It was not until the speaker came to the UK that she realised that in some countries doors are closed to some because of the culture in which they reside. 

It is easy to forget the impact that society can have.  I suspect that one of the main reasons why so few women spoke out over the six decade period, during which Jimmy Savile was allegedly taking advantage of them, was because of the way in which UK culture functioned at the time.  I was one of a few women working in a dealing room in The City in the mid eighties and regularly was told to wear a short skirt when we had clients coming to visit.  My father was a lawyer and I used to meet him in the renowned bar, El Vino’s, in Fleet Street – women not wearing skirts were often turned away and they were not able to buy drinks at the bar (a man had to do that for them).  At the end of the 1980s, when in recruitment, I was regularly propositioned by male clients, who seemed to think that a no-strings physical relationship should be provided as part of the service.  I didn’t complain – I probably should have done so - I felt that to speak out would only make my life more difficult, as to others it was “only a bit of fun”.   

These days a surprisingly high proportion of workers will “throw a sickie” (i.e. take a day or longer of unauthorised absence, claiming illness) in order to have a bit of fun.  Despite the impact that this type of behaviour can have on the business, in many Western nations it is accepted (indeed it is almost expected) that employees will be absent at times, without authorisation.  Employment experts in the UK refer to what call thay call “national sickie day” – analysis of attendance patterns over a number of years has singled out the first Monday in February as the worst day of the year for absenteeism in Britain, due to post-Christmas gloom, little sunlight/short days and low morale, partially attributable to the length of time until the next official public holiday.  Having “a duvet day” (taking unauthorised time off whilst claiming illness) is not just a British malaise.

European and Asian based employees might be interested to know that it is common for US employment contracts to include a certain number of approved “personal absence” days.  In the USA there are two traditional absence policy approaches; the most traditional distinguishes between excused and unexcused absences.  Under such policies, employees are provided with a set number of sick days (frequently three days in every ninety day period) and a set number of vacation days (usually around ten days per annum).  Workers who are absent from work after exhausting their sick days are required to use vacation days.  Absences that take place after both sick and vacation days have been exhausted are subject to disciplinary action.  The second policy (sometimes called a “no-fault” approach), permits each employee a specified number of absences annually (either days or occurrences – when multiple days of continuous absence are counted as a single occurrence – this policy does not consider the reason for the employee’s absence), but, as with the traditional approach, once the permitted days or occurrences have been used the employee is potentially subject to disciplinary action.

In Europe, the number of days of permitted absence and paid vacation is seldom linked to a specified number of occurrences of personal or unauthorised absences; hence the American approach is often seen as strange.  However, once employees outside the USA become aware of the policy of “personal absence days”, the apparently small number of days’ vacation in most American employment contracts doesn’t seem so ungenerous.  It is common in Europe for an employee to have at least twenty days permitted vacation per annum, but lengthy medical or dental visits are often expected to be taken from these days. 

Although the occasional unauthorised day off costs businesses, in many ways long-term sickness is more expensive both for companies and the state.  The publication earlier this year by the UK’s Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), looking into long-term sickness absence (i.e. sick leave for periods lasting more than six months), is the first of its kind to assess the cost of long-term sickness – in the Public Sector the bill apparently hits £3.4 billion per annum.  It is claimed that the problem costs the average company with more than 500 employees £620,000 a year (mainly due to the length of time that most organizations provide full pay to an absent employee followed by a further period on half pay with no contribution from the individual, as well as additional costs incurred through the provision and training of replacement staff).

Perhaps we should be focusing more on prevention.

Trying to reduce illness, that can have an adverse impact on production, is not a novel concept. My mother used to lecture me and my siblings to cover our mouths when coughing or sneezing.  Being a “War Baby”, I suspect that she was inspired by this 1943 British Ministry of Information newsreel trailer intended to persuade people to use a handkerchief.

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases!

So I have a dilemma, given how grotty I am, will I be leading by example by going to work and “soldiering on” or is it more responsible to stay away until I am less likely to infect others?  How much will my decision be made as a result of the society and culture in which I live?  All in all, it’s not an issue to be sniffed at...

Monday, 8 October 2012

Dead Ahead

Every person dies twice – once when they draw their final breath and once when their name is spoken for the last time.   A small number of self-sufficient or friendless people die as the person that others talk and think of before they cease to exist in the flesh.  Some people live on long after their deaths – Cleopatra, Pythagoras, Pocahontas, Confucius, Mumtaz Mahal, Sir Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs – just by mentioning them to you I am helping perpetuate their existence.

It is hardly surprising that death and our demise play such prominent parts in human contemplation – death is the one certainty for each of us when we are born.  It is said that on victory parades ancient Roman generals would have their slaves whisper to them the words “Memento mori” (which translates as “Remember you will die”), to prevent them succumbing to “hubris” (i.e. a shameful delusional pride and arrogance based on an over estimation of their worth).  The achievement of an objective (such as the Roman general’s victory in battle) is not the end of the road.  Over the centuries, death has frequently been depicted as a means of encouraging people to live a worthwhile life.  Impact full images are used, contrasting a subject’s worldly status against the equality of all men once in their graves.  From the fifteenth century onwards it was fashionable for wealthy European aristocrats to be depicted in elaborate carvings and/or pictures, including on their tombs, as aged or decaying corpses, surrounded by fine clothes, castles and artefacts, their grim countenances or bones a stark reminder to others of the vanity of earthly riches, with the intention of encouraging people into leaving a positive legacy (and in the hope of the subject earning a place in heaven) through their actions.  Symbolism, such as wilting flowers dropping their petals, hourglasses and distaffs (representing the soon-to-be severed thread of life), is typical as a means of reinforcing the message.
 Both in art and in the human psyche, there is often a linkage between death and time, although few pieces are quite as strikingly macabre as this 19th century watch.

Usually death is used to nudge us into appreciating the need to do the things that we know we should and can do, before it is too late.

As it is with people, and their reputation, so it is with concepts and ideas – if they are not discussed and considered on a regular basis they become moribund.  I have in the past used this blog as a platform from which to raise my concerns about the manner in which performance is managed in many organisations.  Performance management and appraisals must not sink to being seen as a chore, with a manager’s observations reluctantly recorded once a year.  Objectives and responsibilities need to be real; a lioness on the savannah does not require a piece of paper to remind her, when she spots a wildebeest, that she is hunting to feed the pride, so it is with us, we should appreciate throughout the year what is expected of us, what we and others need to do, by when and what good looks like.  A performance discussion, whether for good or poor performance, should never come as a surprise, neither to the manager nor the employee.

Total surprises are seldom a good thing in business.  What leading CFO would ever say to the shareholders at an AGM “we had a record breaking year” without being able to justify the figures and explain what occurred to make the year so good?  It is always sensible to analyse performance and build on strengths.  I am often amazed at how difficult people in the commercial environment find performance discussions.  Professional athletes and sports players always want to assess how they have performed, to determine what they can do to improve.  They are not insulted when their coach proposes ways in which they might be able to shave a millisecond off their time or increase their ability to catch, throw, run, pull or hit.  So why at work are people so reticent to give or receive feedback?

I suspect that there are two main reasons:
  1. one is the unwillingness of an individual to be seen as falling short of what is required (in these challenging economic times, when many organisations are looking to reduce costs - which could result in redundancies - people are loathe to stand out as “being seen to be lacking”;
  2. the second is closely linked to the first, if an employee works in an environment where they feel under threat, or where there is a “blame culture”, the prospect of being told that “you could do better” makes people feel very exposed; they believe for example that they might suffer diminished rewards, peer pressure, victimisation and bullying, in addition to potentially losing their job.
 What a sad reflection on many employers that their members of staff are made to feel this way.  In life we improve by practicing and experimenting.  Businesses need to grow and develop as the world in which they operate changes, if the people within them are not encouraged to learn and transform the organisation’s long term success will be limited.
I have immense respect for Danny Kalman at Panasonic – I remember when we first met he was in mainstream HR as the Director for Europe, responsible for determining strategy and enabling required change (he is now the Director of Global Talent Management).  He was always mindful of Panasonic’s long term vision.  Listening to Danny talk it was (and still is) impossible not to be struck by his description of the vision and values of Panasonic, what is written on the website today echoes his comments of over a decade ago
he and all other management view themselves as custodians for the generations to come and hence there is fervent desire to do the right thing for the future – to have a sustainable business that endeavours to enhance the world and the experiences of people in it.  Panasonic has a number of businesses within the highly competitive field of consumer electronics – it is crucial for the on-going success of the corporation that it is seen to be at the forefront of innovative design and technology.  Its envisaged future relies on having people now who can enable that onward drive.

There is a quote doing the rounds on the Internet at the moment that has struck a chord with me:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the man who never reads lives only one.”

It comes from the fantasy novel “A Dance with Dragons” written by George R. R. Martin.  I have always enjoyed reading and have lived others’ lives vicariously through good novels.  I have also learned new commercial approaches and discovered what competitors are doing by perusing the press and business publications.  The better informed we are the better equipped we become to cope with the challenges and changes that confront us.
Without even trying, each of us starts life as a record breaker.  Even if only for a fraction of a second, we each have been the youngest human on earth.  During our lives we have the opportunity to do amazing things and to influence and help others to achieve even greater heights.  To do so we need to be:
  • tuned to what is needed;
  • appropriately informed; and
  • aware of what we can and must learn to do.
All of us need honest and supportive feedback to help us become better at what we do and we owe it to others to care for them in the way in which we ourselves would like to be treated.  The space to experiment and propose new ideas and ways of doing things is the area in which our world can be transformed.  Those of us who succeed in changing people’s lives (ideally for the better), creating a legacy (preferably a positive one) and making an impact on those around them, are the ones who will continue to break records and live on long after final breaths have been exhaled.