Week End…

My weekend is nearly over. Today I took my son back to college. I packed, I drove, I unpacked, I assembled and I helped. Well OK – that last one may not be quite right. I tried to help. In truth he doesn’t need that much help these days. My son impresses me. I am biased I know of course…but I am still impressed.

Yesterday was my wife’s birthday. We were all there – the whole family. She received cards, gifts, cake, candles and a wonderful sung rendition of Happy Birthday. Well OK – that last one may not be quite right. I tried to help with the singing. Suffice it to say my singing was passionate and loud. Actually there isn’t really much else to say about my singing than that.

We took my wife out for a boat ride – punting to be precise – with a guide…in our local city. On the river and canals that pass through and around the town. It was wonderful. Relaxing, peaceful, interesting, fun. And all of those are right. We even discovered some things about the city that we never knew…as well as seeing parts and views we hadn’t seen or experienced before.

It was a superb and relaxing weekend with my family at the end of a week. It is what week ends are supposed to be. Family and/or friends – people you care about and who care about you – relaxation and/or enjoyment. Any weekend. All weekends.

And this weekend in particular. I wanted this weekend to be special of course – it was my wife’s birthday…but I also felt like I needed this weekend to be special. I needed that reminder of the importance of our family and friends. I wanted to recognise the pleasure of their unconditional love and affection. We all need balance not just between our lives in work and our lives out of work…but we also need to balance how much of our time and energy we devote to both.

Last week felt like big news every day…and that was just at work…and Monday was a vacation day in the US! There seemed to be news about people, about roles, about leaders, about change, about challenge and about opportunities. Many weeks include some of this information…some weeks can even feature a little on all of these. It’s not often that any of us get a lot of news about all of these areas in one week.

Whenever a person leaves an organisation I am part of, it always has an impact on me…whether their reasons for leaving are good or not so good…and even more so if the person leaving is someone I know and have worked with…respect and admire.

But I know that people leave. People leave for good reasons, for personal reasons or for business reasons. But people leave. All I can ever do is to wish anyone who leaves the absolute very best. I know from experience that there isn’t often anything I can do to help…but I also know that it isn’t often that anyone leaving ever really needs my help. Good people always find – or create – great opportunities to be both happy and successful…however they chose to define both happiness and success.

And organisations move on. New people, new roles, new leaders…change and challenge and more opportunity. Someone once said that challenge always follows change. I think that’s true. But – more importantly – opportunity always follows challenge.

My weekend is now over. My family are happy. I am happy. I am relaxed and recharged. I am ready. Ready to embrace whatever next week has to offer…

Cheers

Steve

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Distant Vacation…

I am on vacation. I love vacations but I’m not very good at being on vacation. When asked the difference between me being on vacation or me being at work – my answer was ‘wearing shorts’.

That’s not a good answer let alone a funny answer. Fortunately I have got much better than I used to be (at taking vacations rather than humour). Better at switching off (my cell phone) and turning off (my thinking). Time away from work is good for us. Good for our friends, our family and good for our work. Good for our minds and good for our souls.

I used to give back vacation days to my company all the time. Quite a strange concept really when I think about it. I never use to get any additional pay, nor praise, nor promotion. I just worked more days. I don’t now.

The thing about vacations – the obvious and beautiful thing – is that I always feel better, stronger and more able after I have had time off. Insurmountable problems seem straight forward. The unattainable opportunity appears within reach. And the everyday frustration miraculously becomes a daily delight. That confounding conversation morphs into a game changing exchange.

And I am sure distance is crucial to a good holiday. Physical distance to an extent – but more so mental distance. I have to feel a long way away. I have to be distracted. By where I am, who I am with, what we do…and by what I don’t do and where I am not, and who isn’t there. Both literally (who is there next to me) and figuratively (whose emails am I reading and phone calls am I taking).

Not being where we are routinely allows me to think differently and to think different things. Ideas I have supressed or not assessed become obvious. Possibilities I have precluded become realities. Topics, ideas, solutions and opportunities that would never have occurred to me become the norm. But for this to happen I have to be distant. I am out of office. I am not on line. I am off email. My phone rings unanswered…or silently…or both.

The distance concept can sound strange…but it’s true. How often do we say or hear…’I don’t have time to think’? Or ‘I have no space’? Our surroundings can constrain our creativity. When we are too close to something there can just that one way of viewing and thinking. One way of doing or answering.

And then I am away. Waking from that afternoon nap; looking up from that book I promised myself; or turning for home from that long walk – a time when work seems a million miles away — that we suddenly find the answer I’ve needed all along.

A long weekend. A week away. Ten days. It’s not so much the length of time for me – it’s the place. It’s the difference and distance. And for me it’s my family. That unconditional love and simplicity of pleasure that comes from being distant together.

So I have my shorts on. My legs are on display (I know – too much information). We didn’t do anything today. But we did nothing together. We sat with friends. Told stories and listened. Laughed. And laughed some more.

An occasionally I thought. Ideas came to mind. Things to do. Or not. Or change or increase. I did word puzzles and read the news, and chatted about unrelated and different and important topics. I let my mind wander. And then I didn’t.

Guilt is the most useless of all emotions. I am on vacation and vacations are important and are deserved. I have no guilt. Just shorts.

Cheers

Steve

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Friendly Change…

I met up with an ex-colleague who is still a good friend on the East Coast last week. It was a meeting based on opportunity – I was there and so was he. I had a different meeting but that cancelled. I called my friend – a good enough friend to come out at short notice without a problem…or a good enough friend not to tell me that he was disappointed to be my fall-back option!

We met over coffee – some things never change! But it soon became obvious that many things had changed for us both since we last met. Personally and professionally. Children grow up and leave home. Parents grow older and leave. Friends grow apart – well more accurately friends sometimes have to move away, but good friends stay connected and can still meet and enjoy… even at short notice.

By the end of our first coffee, I was in need of a second! So much seemed to have happened to us both in such a short period of time, and to those around us. But our conversation was as much invigorating as it was exhausting. Much of the changes we described were wonderful – full of opportunity, pride and pleasure…amazement and achievement. Who knew?

I guess it’s one of the benefits of every so often taking stock with someone you know and who knows you. Someone you trust and respect. It’s frequently only when we stop and look back that we realise just how far we have come….how well we have done…and how good we feel about where we are.

After my friend had left, I found myself wondering what this all meant. My first answer was obvious – I had to meet up with old friends more often! The second was something my friend had said as he left – something along the lines that everything we had discussed suggested we managed changed well.

Really? Well I know I could have just taken that as a compliment and moved on, but I still had time before my next meeting, and so I sat and thought…

…theoretically I could have experienced more change than others having been around a while. And in theory, more experience of anything can help when it happens again.

But in the end, my conclusion was that this compliment just wasn’t true for me. We all handle change and in truth we all handle change much better than we ever give ourselves credit for.

There aren’t many of us who would say we like change – inevitably it’s easier to identify good things we believe will be worse after change than it is to conceive of anything that will be better. But this isn’t true – either way round. There is always positive unintended consequences of any change…every bit as much as there is potential for negative unintended consequences.

We worry most about change over which we feel we have little control…and we are more relaxed about changes we believe we have instigated. Again though, I just don’t think this is right – likely as not we have less influence over events we believe we have instigated…and we have more control over events around us that we feel are ‘out of our control’. Maybe we should balance how we think and feel with what we know and understand?

I finished my self-analysis and moved onto my next appointment. As well as caffeinated, I felt energised. And I knew why.

It was nothing to do with change agility, or double espressos! I felt energised because I had met with an old and good friend who I hadn’t spoken to in person for at least six years…

Cheers

Steve

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Empowered Entry…

I have a US visa. I am still not 100% certain that this is essential, but I long since decided to follow the advice of our legal/visa experts and – at least in theory – a visa should make my passage through US immigration more straightforward. A good theory. Practice is not always so simple.

Entering the US – much like entering the UK – has recently become much more technology based. Passport scanners, facial recognition, automatic barriers are everywhere. Arriving in the US from the UK is so much simpler and rapid these days…unless you have a US visa that is!

I fly in on a UK airline. Everyone who doesn’t have a visa in their passports strolls in via the automatic machines. Me? I have to stand in line – inevitably a long line – to be inspected by one of the Immigration Officers. It seems anywhere from ironic, through unbelievable all the way to frustrating that I have a US Embassy approved visa and yet I seem to be the one with the long wait and the twenty questions.

I have no choice of course. And I often find myself standing in line waiting to be interviewed for what can feel like hours…on my trip to Boston last week it was ninety minutes. I was so bored…I needed something to do to pass the time.

I decided to see if I could help other UK travellers standing with me. Not many UK travellers actually have US visas, so it seemed unlikely that these fellow Brits where in the right line, and likely they were simply unaware they had the option to stroll through the automatic reader machines.

I smiled at the man standing behind me and asked if he had a US visa. His facial response was more consistent with being asked to lend me his phone, his wallet and his passport! I explained. He didn’t have a visa. I suggested he could leave our long line and use the machines. He was unimpressed and not inclined to move.

Of course I knew that convincing a complete stranger to do something he didn’t want to do wasn’t going to be simple. I couldn’t just empower him to move – he would have to feel empowered. I couldn’t make the decision to switch lines for him – he had to make that call himself. By talking to him in line I was stepping over an unwritten ‘boundary’…let alone offering advice on how to enter the USA!

I tried again. I had time and I was as interested to see what was possible (without causing offence and without security being called). I showed him my US visa. I offered more information about US passport control. I compared our line to the non-existent line at the other end of the Immigration Hall. He was unmoved.

In the end I offered a ‘money back’ guarantee – well more specifically a ‘place back’. If my advice was wrong I would let him re-join our line in front of me. Off he went, through he walked and into the distance he disappeared.  I smiled…and turned to the next person in line behind me.

I have often wondered how possible it is really for us to empower someone. Or is the key more about not disempowering them? From my Immigration experiences it was apparent that clarity over decisions and boundaries are vital. What decisions can be made, when and by whom…and with whose permission?

And we will fail to empower if we define boundaries but then don’t keep to them. And the boundaries themselves are crucial…too narrow or too wide, then they may as well not be there.

Cheers

Steve

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Paris Possibilities…

I have been on many training courses. In all transparency most have happened because someone else has suggested I attend…as opposed to me identifying the opportunity myself. That having been said, it was always me who went, me who engaged and me who learned…whatever the topic.

My training events have covered everything from presentation skills and report writing through stepping up to supervision and career aspiration. And in most every case, even now, I can clearly remember themes and moments, coaches and fellow participants…with great affection.

My ‘training action learning cycle’ is always much the same. I start off somewhere between sceptical and confused…I participate and engage…and I end up educated, converted and a passionate advocate. Every time.

I have done Myers Briggs training some seven or eight times…in different settings and with different teams. Myers Briggs is a ‘personality typing’ process. As a participant, I answer questions individually – questions that indicate how I operate, behave, think and contribute – and then we look together at how our team comes together by sharing, comparing and contrasting our individual styles, approaches and ways of working. Always good, often eye-opening and consistently high added value.

There is one Myers Briggs parameter (out of four)…’Judging or Perceiving’ – one parameter on which my assessment tends to vary every time. In effect this parameter assesses whether I am more organised in how I live and operate – Judging or J in the parlance – or more flexible – Perceiving or P.

My scores always tend to be in the middle of the sliding scale. Everything else is clearer and more obvious. My ‘J’ vs. ‘P’ is right on the edge. And this creates all sorts of interesting and confusing discussions with the experts. ‘Think about your natural approach’ they say ‘rather than your adapted approach’…nope – doesn’t help. ‘If you are walking in a forest do you find yourself looking at the wood or the trees (I know – honestly happened).

Eventually this dilemma was resolved for my by a long-time friend and colleague who asked me a very different question. If you and your family were going for a weekend in Paris would you book a hotel in advance, near tourist sites, restaurants and coffee shops…or would you just get on a plane knowing that it’s Paris and that – come what may – you’ll have a wonderful time.

‘I would research and book of course’ was my immediate reply…’how could anyone do anything else?’ He smiled.

‘I knew that was your answer’ he said. You are so much a ‘J’ – you like to plan and organise’. ‘Me though’ – he added – ‘I could no more do all that planning in advance than I could flap my arms and fly myself to Paris’.

He was a ‘P’…all instincts and flexibility…intuition and adaptability. Very different from me.

And yet we enjoyed working and socialising together. And we were always being asked to work together on teams at work. And we were sometimes very successful…or more accurately we contributed to our team’s successes.

At which point I immediately recognised the value and opportunity provided to me by this particular training course. It wasn’t so much about me, or him, or her, or them…it was about us. What we all brought individually to the team, how we could help ourselves and our project (and our project sponsors) by playing to all of our strengths.

And above all how we could avoid the energy sapping problems that arise when we assume or require that everyone works and thinks in the way we do.

That having been said…our families still haven’t been to Paris together…

Cheers

Steve

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Best Boss…

I experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of Chicago O’Hare airport last week. I am convinced there are maybe four weeks in total in the year when O’Hare is on time, tranquil and friendly. The rest of the year snow storms or thunderstorms change everything.

I was on my way to the mid-west. We had some senior leaders visiting our site and I was involved. Good news is that my O’Hare travels (and travails) were worthwhile. As well as opportunity to engage with our visitors, I was able to meet up in person with lots of other local leaders at all levels.

I always enjoy those sorts of one-to-one meetings. I am always interested in what comes up as themes….similarities in topics and discussions. Sometimes it’s very surprising…other times not so much.

Our people are passionate, engaged and motivated. I always hear passion, see engagement and feel motivation. I always leave with more ideas, greater excitement and different worries…than when I arrived. O’Hare was definitely worthwhile…

Last week I found myself thinking about leaders, supervisors…about bosses. Bosses I have had. I was asked in one meeting if I could recall the best boss I had ever worked for. A different question. A question I hadn’t been asked before.

It took me a while to consider…just about two seconds I would guess! I knew immediately and instinctively. The best boss I have ever had. And I also knew why…immediately.

I knew how I felt at that time. I knew how much I had grown in that time. How much I enjoyed that time.  How cared for I felt. How I learned so much.  I laughed so much. I felt engaged and empowered. I felt I could do, achieve and deliver anything and everything.

That next morning around 4:00am (jet lag is a strange enabler of deeper thinking) I also recognised an additional ‘truth test’ of my best boss answer. I knew I would go anywhere at any time if it involved opportunity to work with my best boss.

This isn’t my test – this is one of the classic philosophies of leadership and supervision….engagement and retention. We leave leaders if we depart rather than companies…and we stay with leaders rather than with companies.

The people we work for make a difference to us – to me…they make all the difference to us. We stay because of who we work with…and we follow if they move.

My best boss had such an impact on me that I knew – in the middle of my early morning workout I knew that my answer would be an unequivocal yes. If I was asked. Anything. Anywhere. Any time.

Perhaps not surprisingly my next thought (still early that morning) was what sort of a boss I am. Once I realised the impact of my best boss on me, it was obvious to consider my impact on others. How well am I able to work out what my team need from me to grow, deliver and enjoy…and just as importantly what they don’t need?

How do I make them feel? How empowered? How engaged? How happy? How much have I learned from my best boss and how much do I manifest that learning?

I know what I want the answer to be, but in truth I am not sure that I know.

But I know how to find out, not least since I know how my best boss found out about what I needed – it’s so easy to ask. And I recognise that my answers were factored into what my best boss already knew and thought…

I want to be a best boss…

Cheers

Steve

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Exceptional Strategy…

I was travelling last Sunday. Not uncommon but not often. I avoid Sunday travel wherever possible. Most of my travel is to the US which means mid-late morning flights from Heathrow. So a Sunday departure inevitably involves a 7:00am pick up from home. Sunday travel is a full day…a full day when I am not at home.

I have used the same airport taxi service for just about the last ten years. I know the owner personally and trust him and his team enough to use them if I ever need a car for my wife, or children or all of us. He is professional, considerate, flexible and responsive. And reliable. I can count the number of times in ten years that he has been late on the fingers of one hand. He has never missed a pick up.

Until last Sunday. 7:00am. I was ready, dressed, packed. Washed and caffeinated. I had said my good byes and was waiting. Waiting. Ten after seven I sent a text message to check. Two minutes later my phone rang. The booking was not in the system. It was confirmed in my calendar. Just not his.

He was as apologetic as he was distraught on the phone. He was on his way now and would be with me in twenty minutes. I was good. It was Sunday morning. Traffic would be between light and non-existent. I knew we would be on time.

It was an exception. As we were driving we worked out what had happened. At least three or four uncommon or rare events coinciding to happen at the same time. Any one of them individual not happening would have prevented the exception. In many ways that is what defines an exception – something or someone that does not follow the normal rules.

Not that it was my decision to make, but I advised against changing his booking process. Redefining strategy based on an exception should always be avoided…in much the same way that defining strategy by exception is never a good idea.

Strategy is most simply a plan of action to achieve an overall aim. Good strategy – like a good overall or long term objective – should stand the test of time. Good strategy simply should not need regular revision. Regular review yes – absolutely. Just not revision.

Revision of strategy should only really happen in light of a change in the overall aim. A bigger goal, shorter time, different goal. Any one of these will often lead to an adjustment in strategy. Similarly any significant change in the environment we are operating – regulations, financials, competition to name just three – can often lead to strategy adjustment. All this is both good and important.

Just not strategy by exception.

Having considered the sequence of events leading to my taxi not being outside at 7:00am last Sunday, I was absolutely certain that scenario would never happen again. No changes were needed to how bookings were made or received or confirmed or checked. It was an exception. And there is no value in changing strategy based on an exception.

Human nature can tell us differently – we feel the need to learn and respond. And intrinsically this is a good motivation. But any learning based on an exception – something that won’t ever happen again – is by definition of little value. Changing strategy based on an exception is at best a bad idea. At worst it can create all sorts of unintended consequences.

Exceptional strategy features clarity in what we are trying to achieve and provides confidence in our plan of action to achieve. Exceptional events should be understood and even enjoyed…nothing else.

Cheers

Steve

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New Zealand…

I should be in New Zealand. I know it’s a long way away and I know that it’s winter there in June. But I should be there. I sort of promised myself four years ago that I would be in New Zealand in 2017. But I am not. I am here. In the UK.

I have never been to New Zealand. Or Australia. I have relatives in Australia. I should go to Australia. Maybe in 2025?

We have a bizarre, historic enterprise over here called the British and Irish Lions. They play rugby union and the concept dates back to 1888. The Lions team is selected from players eligible to play for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  They only play on tour and they only go on tour once every four years.

In 2013 they went to Australia and beat the Australians. I wasn’t there. But I was so excited that as well as buying the T-shirt (which I wore every day last week in the fitness centre whilst on business in the Mid-West), I also sort of promised myself that I would be there for the tour of New Zealand in 2017.  It seemed like an outstanding idea at the time. But in hindsight I should have started planning it then – in 2013…not least since the match tickets are so hard to get hold of.

So here I am, delighted to be home of course over the weekend, but wishing I was in New Zealand. And still wearing my T-shirt (after giving it a wash).

The tour finale is three ‘test matches’ between the Lions and the New Zealand All Blacks – the national team and current world champions. Last weekend the All Blacks won. Yesterday the Lions won. All square going into the last game next Saturday. I will be watching on TV…but I should be there. Next time…2021 in South Africa. I promise. Sort of.

Yesterday’s game was just so exciting. Terrible weather but an amazing spectacle. Everything to play for. If the Lions had lost then they would lose the series and it would all be over. For many of them it was their last opportunity – it is hard to play at that standard for another four years. The pressure must have been immense. It was immense for me and I was sitting on my sofa (in that same T-shirt).

It all came down to the last three minutes – literally. There were three minutes to go and the scores were all square. The Lions were awarded a penalty which if they converted would give them the lead and almost certainly the victory.

The kicker is a professional. I understand that. It is his job to score those match winning points in that match winning situation. But even eleven thousand miles way I could hardly watch as he set up to take that kick at goal. How nervous must he have been?  All that pressure. All that desire. Knowing just how many millions of people were watching him.

He scored. Easily. He looked like he was kicking a ball on the beach with his children. So relaxed. So confident. The Lions won. Onto next week’s decider.

I am still amazed by that composure under pressure. Everything else shielded from his mind and focus. The task at hand. No thing and no one else disturbing his concentration on the challenge in front of him. Confidence and competence. Practice and experience.

We can all find ourselves too often worrying about what others may say or think about us or about what we do.

We should all trust ourselves more. Confidence and competence. Practice and experience.

Cheers

Steve

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