Author Archive

Career stalling? Need a boost? It is all about technique

Tuesday, April 9th, 2024

Misty Raney Bilodeau is one of the stars of Homestead Rescue, a very snackable Discovery Channel makeover show.

The twist for this version of the tried and trusted format is that the Raney family turn up at the homes of Americans who have moved off grid.  They have left the modern world and are living in the wilderness, trying, and failing to make a success of man versus nature.   The families fall victim to predators (bears, coyotes, wildcats); the weather (snow, tornadoes, desert conditions); and their own idiocy (building a home in front of a collapsing mountain, buying a property with no water, or with contaminated water, with no source of food or ending up having to travel 100s miles to earn money to sustain their supposed bucolic aspirations).

The Raney family, long term Alaskan Homesteaders, arrive to rescue them.  Marty, the patriarch, with his casual disregard for health and safety and love of a JCB digger and a nifty turn of phrase.  Matt, the son, eager to get the family trained in shooting at predators with rifles or bows.  And Misty, the epitome of strong femininity and resourcefulness.  She normally sorts out the food problems with an inventive approach to animal welfare and growing vegetables.

Without too much exaggeration, after you watch a couple of episodes, you will probably agree that Misty should be the next president.  She’s open, warm, inspirational, practical, resourceful, inventive, and empathetic.

However desperate the situation is, Misty will come up with a solution.  As she once said: “You can grow food anywhere, it is all about technique”.

She frequently repurposes apparent junk into greenhouses that can successfully grow food. In one episode she rebuilds a school bus into a fertile hothouse.

In another episode she adapts the fertisilation system for crops of acquaponics, using water from fish ponds to fertilise crops, to “duckquaponics”, to create a real breakthrough on a homestead with little water, lots of ducks and an arid garden. 

Misty empowers the food growers and care givers in the families she helps (who are predominantly women) by giving them techniques for growth.  To get Misty to help, you do however need to live on a Homestead.   For those of us that haven’t embraced that lifestyle there is another way to get tips and techniques for growth at work.

As March 2024 marks another International Women’s Day that has seen little progress in terms of lessening the gender disparity globally, we all need to make efforts to be inclusive and equitable. Understanding and sharing techniques, and pragmatic strategies for success at work are a crucial part of this.  The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business is a best selling book that I wrote with Kathryn Jacob OBE, published in 2012.  It contains many solutions that will help grow women’s careers, just as Misty has techniques to grow gardens.

The book is designed to answer a range of frequent and common issues, issues that many of us have sleepless nights over, from: Do you worry that you’re getting less than your fair share at work?; to do you worry about what people think of you?; do you take the steps you should to progress your career?; Are you sometimes overlooked? Do you ever take things personally?; to do you have any difficult relationships at work? And do you know how to back down?

For one woman we interviewed for the book, the solution to feeling overlooked, lay in changing the language she was using for making suggestions: It is easy to mistake a rejection of your suggestion as a rejection of the idea. Of course it is. Frequently you may find that the rejection is a rejection of the format of the idea, not of the content of that idea. The format of any suggestion is as important as the idea itself. In this instance “Sara” bounced back from an outright rejection by using a football analogy. It is so simple, but it was just luck that she arrived at it. Before you take an idea to your boss, your client, or your team, think about the very simplest way that you can explain it. Find out what they’re passionate about – it might be sport, it might be art, it might be education. Use the language of their passion to explain your thinking.

Misty maintains that she can grow food anywhere under any conditions, we think that you can grow your career under most conditions, but sometimes you have to try new techniques and strategies to change the circumstances around you at work to grow your career.

How best to get what you want: Hard or Soft power?

Tuesday, March 19th, 2024

If you have to choose between having hard or soft power, which should you go for?

In 1919 the British Empire was at its largest.  It covered a quarter of the land mass of the world, and ruled over a fifth of the population.  This was hard power, command and control, and it has mostly and thankfully been dismantled. 

They used to say that the sun never set on the empire.  To quote Shane McGowan “It is now deep in darkness”.  But there is an aspect of Britishness which still is pre-eminent around the world.  In terms of soft power, UK is still one of the top nations in the world.  In fact, in 2023 the United Kingdom was second only to the USA in the Brand Finance soft power index.

So, what constitutes soft power?  It is the ability to persuade rather than coerce.  It involves bringing people over to your camp through appeal and attraction, and shared experiences and values. 

Hard power is a military invasion. Economic sanctions are hard power. In contrast, soft power is persuasion, without recourse to force.

The UK’s continued appearance at the top of the rankings must these days has less to do with politics and more to do with traditions like a good cup of tea, and culture, music, movies, tv and sport.  These days the sun never sets on a Manchester football team fan, an Ed Sheeran fan or a “Whovian.”   Hard power gave us Land of Hope and Glory, soft power is a host of global hits from Stairway to Heaven to Harry Styles ‘ As it was” with influential British artists like Oasis, The Beatles, Adele, Elton John and The Rolling Stones.

Diane Coutu, director of client communications at Banyan Family Business Advisors, explains in HBR: “In essence, power is nothing more than the ability to affect others to get what you want, and that requires a set of tools. Some of these are tools of coercion or payment, or hard power, and some are tools of attraction, or soft power. For individuals, charisma (emotional appeal), vision, and communication are key soft-power skills; for nations, soft power is embodied in their culture, values, and legitimate policies.”

You’ve got the choice of chasing soft or hard power in your career.  Clearly the best leaders combine both, using soft skills to win people around them over to hard, sometimes tough, decisions.

Unless you chase hard power it can mean that you are overlooked for promotion.  If you don’t prioritise climbing the career ladder, if you focus on the work, or the happiness of your team mates then other people might be pushing for that next step to the top and you may get overlooked.

Alternatively, if you are all about climbing the career ladder you could be shocked at how little power you actually have when you do get promoted.  There can be a pit of despond that recently promoted directors fall into when they discover that a much longed for career boost means more responsibility and little actual gain in status. It can take time to process the real meaning of leadership status.  And wow betide those that forget the mantra to be nice to those when you are on the way up, as you might someday meet them on the way down.

Hard power gives status, people to command, divisions to restructure, expenses to sign off and assistants perhaps to get your dry cleaning.  Soft power will win more people over to your point of view. It depends what you want most of course but going by the British Empire it’s soft power that has more longevity and better tunes.

What can we learn from Ronnie the Rocket about winning?

Monday, March 4th, 2024

Ronnie O’Sullivan is unlike other legendary sports people in a number of ways.

First of all, he’s got huge longevity: he is the only snooker player to have won the world championship as both the youngest, and now the oldest player.

Secondly, at the same time as being on top of the modern game, in some ways he is traditional. He won’t switch chalks. Most snooker players use the TAOM chalk which apparently reduces friction better. Ronnie has stuck with the old Triangle chalk. It certainly doesn’t seem to be holding him back from being both one of the most successful and the most entertaining players.

Thirdly, he says frequently that he does not care about winning at all costs. Although his rivals talk about him as a legend, he must annoy them. He often talks about the fact that he really doesn’t care about winning, only about playing well.

And yet time and again, he wins.

Fourthly, when he plays badly, which he acknowledges that he does reasonably frequently, his competitor seems to drop their game too. Ronnie will then apologise for “dragging the other player down to his level”. Ronnie then recovers his game and beats the opponent. It is like a weird version of the “Tiger Woods effect” whereby the presence of a superstar in a tournament has statistically been shown to diminish the performance of the other contenders. Weird because in the Tiger Wood instance this was because he was playing so well. Not, to quote Ronnie, “dragging the other player down to my level”.

In January 2024 Ronnie won his 8th Masters Final and the World Grand Prix. But he told his public that its not winning that matters to him as much as playing well.

In an interview with ITV Sport on January 17th 2024, Ronnie said this:

“Its nice winning tournaments, you know, but the biggest worry for me is that I’m not really comfortable, or I don’t feel that I’m playing with confidence – to do with cueing and stuff like that. I know I’ve won tournaments but I’m still not really happy with my game, which is more important that winning tournaments to me…… it’s been surprising, I don’t know where it (winning) has come from. Maybe cos its not the most important thing for me. The most important thing is I want to play well. I’d rather play well and get beaten than play badly and win.”

Now clearly Ronnie likes to win (as he has stated before). No champion is averse to winning. But caring about how you do it as well as what the outcome can indeed drive more longevity and better job satisfaction in the long run.

Winning at any price can drive short term benefits in our sector, but winning at the wrong price may mean under resourcing an account, failing to have anything other than a transactional relationship and can be harmful for the work and the outcomes for clients and businesses.

Teams suffer under a pressure to win at any price. We are all human and usually we are motivated by doing our best work. Compromise might be pragmatic, but if it is the only option time and again, then its not the most motivating way to win.

A boss once told me, “don’t worry about winning the pitch and double guessing what you think people want to hear. Focus on what we think is right and showing up as our best version of the ourselves”. It was inspiring, it took the pressure off, it made me want to win even more (and in fact we did win.)

Winning matters, but so too does being your best self at work, doing beautiful work and delivering true breakthroughs. Putting the latter first, may help you come first more often.

For love or money? What is professionalism?

Monday, February 19th, 2024

Nick Dunlap made golfing history in January 2024 when he won The American Express PGA Tour.  He is the first amateur to win a PGA Tour event in 33 years.  The prize money for the event is £1.5m.  However, because he is an amateur golfer (Dunlap is a university student), he doesn’t get to win any of the money.

In a 2019 episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld takes his friend and guest, fellow comedian Mario Joyner to the barber.  Jerry insists that Mario’s beard needs trimming.  Leaving aside the strain that this might put on any relationship (if your friend’s hirsute style troubles you would you book them into a hairdresser, and if you did would they still be your friend?), the sincerity of Seinfeld’s horror at Joyner’s unfettered beard is clearly authentic.

Post barber, situation resolved (though the difference seems marginal), Seinfeld points out that he thinks it is much better, and that there are some things that need to be carried out by professionals.  And this takes the pair into a familiar (to regular viewers of the show), rant about how comedy is only the business of professionals, and amateurs telling jokes fills them with horror.

But doing something because you love it, the original definition of amateur (from the latin amare – to love), requires a passion for the subject that could transcend simply doing something for money, clearly evidenced in Dunlap’s golfing victory. 

Most bloggers will be doing it for the love of getting their point of view out there.  I don’t get paid for this blog – it doesn’t mean that I don’t consider myself a professional blogger, and care about every word, every semi colon, and the cadence of each sentence. 

The scientist and heiress Miriam Rothschild spent years compiling a four volume catalogue of fleas, published in the 1950s.  She had come under accusations in a field almost exclusively populated by men, of being a dilettante.  She instead used the term amateur with pride.  According to Natalie Livingstone, the author of Women of Rothschild, it was Miriam’s “expert amateurism that allowed her to follow her broad interests, work across subdisciplines, imbue her work with her love of literature and philosophy, and avoid the increasing specialism she observed taking place”.  Miriam was a huge success in her field, she served as the first woman trustee at the Natural History Museum and was awarded an honorary doctorate of science by Oxford University and was a visiting professor at the Royal Free Hospital.  Read between the lines and her amateur status allowed her to break the glass wall of men dominated institutions, and the freedom to explore her own judgement for the benefit of science.

What does being a professional mean?  In the world of sport, being a professional means getting paid for what you do.  Is that the only criteria?  Or is there a level of professionalism that requires more than just a salary?  My first job was selling shoes in Dolcis in Brent Cross.  I don’t think the lavish salary (for a 14 year old, (with double time for bank holidays and a bonus for selling Scotchguard)), made me a professional. 

My colleague Rob Meldrum, head of creative futures at EMX, spoke recently to his team about a collective ambition to make “the best work of our lives”. 

This ambition, together with the expertise and persistence, are what characterises professionalism.  And it is what I’d want from a barber / hairdresser.  What any client would want I think.  And what keeps me loving my job.

A good boss is a servant leader

Tuesday, February 6th, 2024

Happy 2024.

As the old year turns into the new year there are often added pressures.

Where it is acceptable to move a meeting from June to July or from October to November, moving a meeting from one year to another seems much more epic, and rude, so maybe the last weeks of the year have been especially fraught with added pressure to squeeze catch ups in?

For organisations with calendar reporting there is all the busyness of finalizing year-end figures, and crystalising business plans for the next 12 months.

Then there are awards, the new season is also starting with Campaign Media Deadlines in January.

Is your boss putting pressure on you to get stuff done at an even higher rate of agility than usual?

Bosses increasingly see the benefits of being in the office together and want to see you there.  So, getting you physically in the office is an overriding agenda too, which can be an added pressure to a difficult work life balance for some.

Bosses shouldn’t be adding pressure of course.  That isn’t the role.  A great leader will be working as hard as possible to alleviate pressure and find hacks to make your work simpler and less hassle.

Our popular culture doesn’t reflect this does it.  It’s locked into a 20th century, even Victorian, notion of the boss as tyrant, making unreasonable demands and not caring about anything more than the results. 

From the wonderful Sylvie in Emily in Paris to the iconic Katharine Parker played by Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, to 9 to 5, The Office and Horrible Bosses and all stations in between there are a myriad of caricatures of rubbish managers.

And where are the good bosses on screen? Few and far between.

In our best-selling book (with Kathryn Jacob), The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, one of our anonymous interviewees told us about the need to ask your boss for help, not to assume that they just expected you to Just Do It.

She told us that she had taken a big promotion but felt really out of her depth. In fact, she confided that after her first few weeks she was completely miserable, not sleeping properly and she felt like she was

letting her new boss down badly.  She had found out that she wasn’t superwoman.  Well, nor are any of us.  What she needed to do was ask her boss for help.  Because her boss wanted her to succeed.  Of course, he did, he’d promoted her, and her failing was only going to cause him more problems. 

This is true of everyone.  Always remember that your boss needs you.  But they might not know, unless they are mind readers, what you need from them.

In an ideal world your boss would prioritise your welfare.  In Agile ways of working (of which I am a huge believer) the notion of the Servant Leader is pre-eminent.  The role of the team leader is simple, to control workflow to make sure it is realistically manageable, and to remove barriers from your path.  And the daily standup and transparent KanBan ensure that the leader can do this.

Not everyone works in this way of course.  Your barriers or difficulties might not be clear to your manager, and remember they have their own problems, and pressure.

So, take time to communicate what you need from your boss.  Manage your manager and try to manage your team better than Sigourney.