Open Swimming…

I was in the Mid-west again last week. I was attending my final formal Talent Review session of the year. ‘Formal’…since each attendee had opportunity to talk about our people, our strategies and our talent. ‘Final formal’…since we always talk informally about our people and our talent…just not always in a two day face to face meeting. I learned so much. It was so easy to stay engaged. I offered my best ideas and opinions…I took away wonderful ideas and advice.

We experienced stunning early summer weather. Hot, dry, clear blue skies. It was wonderful. It just wasn’t wonderful in Chicago. In Chicago on Wednesday – when I was due to fly home – the weather was ‘horrendous’…my flight was cancelled. It took me an extra day to get home. I was relieved to walk through the door in the end…and delighted that the meetings I had flown to attend had been so useful

I asked lots of questions at our final formal review last week. I normally ask open questions – what do you think about our project strategy? And I avoid closed questions – will you support my proposal for increased capacity? Open questions elicit much more information, lead to much better conversations and discussions, and provide so much more opportunity for me to learn. Closed questions don’t.

I frequently hear leading questions – did you leave early enough to get to Chicago considering that such bad weather was coming? No…and I should have known…I get it.

There is a fourth style – the Can You Swim Questions. So called based on the apocryphal story origin of an individual walking alongside a river with their boss, who turns and enquires – Can You Swim? At that moment you know that whatever your answer, it is simply a precursor to the inevitable – you are about to be pushed in!

The first time anyone described the concept of a ‘Can You Swim question’ my response was to laugh….and then I thought…and then I nodded. I have definitely been asked Can You Swim questions…many times. Questions where it becomes clear – whatever my answer – that the inquisitor is only interested in setting up his or her own next statement.

Worse still…I realised then – as I do now – that I definitely ask Can You Swim questions…in fact I asked CYS questions multiple times last week…every day! In fact I even asked them yesterday when out with friends, and this morning with colleagues by email! And now I don’t know whether to be pleased or embarrassed.

The simple answer would be that overuse of any communication style or technique is never going to be a good idea (embarrassed). On the other hand, there are situations where a Can You Swim question can rapidly open someone’s mind to a different option (pleased).

And in my defence, I always ask ‘open’ Can You Swim questions – How have you got on with your swimming lessons? Which is better…although granted my open CYS question still sets up the inevitable.

On one level work (and life) would always be simpler if we were all more transparent and open in our questions. Well yes. For sure.

In truth though, isn’t the key really nothing to do with the question setter…rather it is all about how the individual being asked the question feels. For example, I was asked a blatant CYS question at the end of last week. I enthusiastically answered yes and I jumped in before being pushed…

Implicit in the original premise of a Can You Swim question is an assumption that being ‘pushed’ into something is always a terrible fate. It may not be – either in the metaphor or in reality.



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Work Friend…

I had a best friend at work well before it became a question asked in engagement surveys – Do You have a Best Friend at Work? Until I was asked that question, I hadn’t ever thought about the concept, but once it was there…it stuck.

There are articles, publications and – likely as not – PhD theses about this question, the intent, the capitals, the specifics of every word. But in my mind it only ever just came down to the fact that a best friend at work would help me, care about me, laugh with (and at) me, and above all would be there for me. Against that backdrop the question immediately made sense – if I could answer with a yes…then I would be in a better place.

I first met one of my best friends at work when she interviewed me for my first global leadership role. I knew of her, but we had never really talked. I recognised quickly in our discussion that we had similar philosophies and beliefs. I enjoyed that interview more than any I had before…or have had since.

The new role I was applying for was specified as having zero direct reports. Whoever was appointed would operate and succeed ‘in the matrix’. Hence the question I found myself being asked…how would I operate and succeed without any direct reports?

I knew this was a likely question, but even so my answer surprised me – ‘I have never thought about it’. Which induced the obvious ‘response…‘really – it seems like it will be key to your success?’ At which point we proceeded to have a great discussion about leadership and supervision…and our friendship was born.

My point really was that I have never believed we should expect anyone to do what we say, suggest or ask just because we are their line supervisor. Most of us try it once in our careers…at which point we rapidly discover that it either doesn’t work at all or that if it just about works once…it never works again!

My follow on was that I believe I have to be able to influence what people do based on the quality of my suggestions and on my ability to communicate. And that if this was true, then – by definition – it does not matter whether an individual reports to me or not. A good idea is just that – a good idea -irrespective of who it comes from. And the same applies to a not so good idea.

If I resort to simply telling someone what to do ‘because I am their boss’ then it’s not at all likely that individual will understand my logic let alone my intent. And it’s inconceivable they will take any useful learning from that moment.

Conversely, if I can understand what they want to do and why, then not only will that help me decide if my suggestion is still valid, but that understanding will also help me if I then decide how, or even whether, I try to influence any actions.

I quickly realised in my interview that that my new best friend at work had a very similar – albeit better articulated – philosophy over leadership. I guess it is often the case that we find ourselves sharing beliefs with our best friends.

In the end, I was appointed into that matrix role and the ‘zero direct reports’ lasted about four weeks – if memory serves – but that was a delightful month. I listened lots and tried to influence…

I haven’t worked with my interviewer best friend for nearly six years…but she still makes me smile and still makes me feel good.



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Frustrated Culture…

We all get frustrated…me as much as anyone else. Good news is that I seldom – if ever – get frustrated with any one. Rather I get frustrated by situations in which I find myself, or by lack of progress or by failure to meet objectives. The list goes on…never people…always situations.

Frustration is a very common emotional response – a feeling we experience when we are unable to do what we want to do, or to achieve what we want to achieve. In many ways frustration is the opposite of satisfaction.

I found myself feeling frustrated last week. We have unique and very exciting opportunities in front of us. We are desperate to achieve and to deliver. But there I was – Tuesday evening – frustrated at our rate of progress. I stood up from my desk and went to make a coffee. I wasn’t thirsty…I just needed a change of scenery.

I watched my coffee brewing…and wondered. I sipped and remembered. Frustrated Optimists. A presentation – six or seven years ago. A business leader who had gone from start up to success in eighteen months. I recalled his key to success was culture! And that he only ever recruited ‘frustrated optimists’ into his team.

Of course he also mentioned the importance of customers, budgets, mission, strategy, leadership…but in his mind his success was based on culture and the people who make up that culture

But frustrated optimists? What did he mean?

I know frustrated. And I know an optimist inherently believes that people and events are good, and that therefore situations will always work out for the best. The opposite is a pessimist – someone who naturally emphasises negative aspects and often expects the worst possible outcome in any situation. So do we get when we combine ‘frustrated’ and ‘optimists’? And why are they so important?

A frustrated optimist has to understand and appreciate the current situation…and has to be convinced there is more that can be done to make progress. Most importantly though, a frustrated optimist always feels compelled to do something to make good things happen and to make things better.

A frustrated optimist is only ever a source of positive energy…can only ever be a positive change agent. Their desire to improve and succeed is both infectious and contagious. They attract and inspire colleagues. A frustrated optimist is hard to describe…but we all know when we see one!

Conversely there are also frustrated pessimists…and we are all good at recognising (and avoiding) frustrated pessimists…

The Leader’s philosophy then was simple: populate your team with as many Frustrated Optimists as possible, empower them and know that that they can only succeed. Have faith that these colleagues will rise up to introduce positive change. They will make good things happen.

Such a culture is hard to describe….but it is wonderful to be part of…smiles, collaborations, engagement, ideas, opportunities. And – almost by definition – a frustrated optimist can have no excuses for failure!

I sat back at my desk with a smile. I chose to define myself as a frustrated optimist and I accept that feeling frustrated can be a good thing. My question was no longer why…but what? What am I going to do to in order to make things happen and to make things better?

I smiled more as I considered our team and started to recognise more and more frustrated optimists in our own organisation. At which point I felt excited and I realised what I really needed to do is to empower our frustrated optimists even more, point them in the right direction and then have that same faith that they will only ever achieve…



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I made three separate trips to London last week. I was in the UK all week and each of my journeys was by train. I do a lot of driving and flying so travelling by train is a pleasant change. Well a change at least.

In my car I am in charge of my own density. I can chose who I sit next to, where I go, and what I listen to. I can enjoy silence and consider things…I can listen to music and sing badly (but privately), or I can talk to almost whoever I chose.

Planes tend to be noisier. More people more close; more control on what I can do, when, who and where; more restriction on where and when I can walk; who sits next to me, when I can eat, and even when I can try to sleep.

Trains seem like a good middle ground – much more freedom than a plane, but much less personal control than a car. I find myself thinking that trains would be great if it wasn’t for all those other people – people I don’t know who decide to talk or sing along or listen loudly or just chose to sit next to me. But then I smile when I realise that most everyone else is probably thinking the exact same thing about me.

I met and spoke with friends, colleagues, friends who are colleagues, colleagues who are friends, clients, clients who are friends, potential clients, partners and potential partners. Just not on my train journeys. All of my value – and fun – happened once I was off my trains.

In many ways and on most days it felt like a nebulous week. But then I thought about what I had learned, and what opportunities I had heard about and had explained to me. At which point it felt much more like a successful week.

In no particular order, I discussed companion and complementary diagnostics; biomarkers and oncology; the pharmaceutical industry and its future; opportunity and careers; consultants and consultancy; Captain America and Leicester City; recruitment and development; sales and relationships; budgets and silos; leaders and leadership; INDs, POCs and NDAs; amongst other things.

I was once asked (at a team question and answer session) whether my working days were like NATO. I was flattered…and smiled; and then my questioner explained – No Action, Talk Only. He wasn’t making a political point…he was asking a personal question. I was engaged…and laughed.

I thought for a moment before answering. ‘Definitely lots of talk’, was my start. It’s true, I spend most of my day talking to people – apart from when I am on trains – on the phone, in person, by video, via instant messaging…

Action though? That was the real question. Before I answered, I explained how much value I put on every conversation or discussion. I listen and consider; I seek opportunity to modify how I think, and look at topics from a different viewpoint. I know what I think…I want to learn from what others believe.

But what about action? That’s easier to answer but harder to see, mainly because I assign the vast majority of actions from any of my discussions to the same person. To me.

The learnings are mine. It’s my view that has been expanded or adjusted. They are my beliefs that have been challenged or altered. So it is my subsequent actions that I have to consider or change.

Most of my actions then, from my week, are underway. Above all I want the results – big or small – to be positive. I want to make a difference.



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Double Maths…

I don’t drink tea…neither hot tea nor iced tea. I (apparently) make a very nice cup of tea but I dislike the smell let alone the taste. Everyone in my family drinks a lot of tea. Just not me.

I do drink coffee. No milk. Just coffee. I gave up milk in my coffee when I was doing my PhD. There was a communal fridge to store milk for the whole lab. There was just never any milk in the fridge. Black coffee was the obvious answer.

Originally my coffee was just instant. But over time I have become hooked on real coffee at home…and everywhere else. And worse still, because I only ever drink it straight – no frothy milk, flavour or sugar – I am far too fussy about which brand I drink. My favourite version is double espresso. Has been, is and will be.

I was on site in the UK all last week. We had a global strategy and training meeting. I attended. I participated. I presented. I socialised. I learned. I drank coffee.

I was struck at the meeting by the emphasis on learning. Getting better at doing what we do, and in some cases what we have been doing for a long time. Sometimes it is too easy to assume we are good at something…or as good as we are going to get. Always a watch out moment for me for sure. If I ever find myself thinking that way – about anything – I immediately resolve to get better…to learn something new. To stretch higher or further.

In one of the breaks in our meeting I wandered over to an independent coffee shop nearby for a change (and for a nicer cup of coffee). And yes – I asked for a double espresso.

As I stood there and drank (they never last long)…I complimented the barista on my coffee, and commented how often my double espressos vary in size. And how that made no sense to me. His answer?

That a double espresso should be the same size as a single espresso but twice the strength, as opposed to the same strength but twice as big. And that not many coffee shops understood this fact…hence the variation I experienced.

I was staggered. And still am. This fact about my favourite coffee (for well over 20 years) had never occurred to me…let alone been explained to me. But it was obvious and explained everything. Despite having drunk double espresso several times a day for many years, and despite even having a mental rank order of coffee brands, I had just learned something brand new that will help me every day…well at least will help me enjoy every day that little bit more.

I told lots of people that story during the week. Some knew. Some didn’t. Many laughed. Some were bemused. A couple even thanked me. I always emphasised how I had learned something new…on a topic of great importance to me, and despite deep and personal expertise built over two decades.

Back in our meeting after my coffee, I listened just that little bit more attentively to everything being said. I wanted to learn. I knew there would be new techniques, ideas, technologies, insights. I was determined to leave with more knowledge than I arrived…as well as more caffeine.

And learn I did. From presentations, from questions, from discussions and from people. About social media in our work, about success in drug discovery, about team work, about our partner’s challenges and about myself.

Learning and getting better is good…essential even. Good news, though, is that new learning can be very impactful…very quickly.



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People Cluster…

What a week! Exciting, engaging and informative. And that was just the neurosurgeon I ended up sitting next to on my flight to the East Coast last Sunday. I normally avoid talking to anyone I don’t know on an aeroplane…especially anyone sitting next to me. I made an exception in this case when he inadvertently started to fast forward the film I was watching after picking up my control handset by mistake!

Wednesday and Thursday were all about people – our annual talent review. My measures of success for a Talent Review are both subjective – the more tired I feel by the end of the week the better the meeting is likely to have been. And objective – new ideas and opportunities that could only have been identified because of that meeting. We achieved the latter…I felt the former.

Our future is our people – they define it, deliver it and delight us in the process. Our role is to help, to recognise and to encourage.

Sunday was my impromptu meeting with my neurosurgeon. Monday and Tuesday I was at a forum with an amazing collection of representatives from academia, Venture Capital funds, Biotechs, Government Institutions, politics and pharma companies. It was an amazing collection of passionate people and I felt privileged to have been invited. It was a superb forum.

I occasionally get opportunity to attend such meetings, and I always find myself engrossed and fully involved. My colleague and I chose seats near the microphones. I took copious notes, but learned even more than that. I found myself thinking and considering…wondering and imagining. And yes I couldn’t resists asking lots of questions.

I was excited because I believe we were the only CRO attendees present…I was noticeable only because I was the attendee with the English accent; at least the only English accent asking questions.

I can’t tell you my questions were any good…let alone any value to the forum, other attendees or to the organisers. I can tell you that I am still thinking about the topics we discussed. Everything was related to the discovery and development of new pharmaceuticals, medical devices and vaccines. Everything was about our industry – in its broadest manifestation – seeking to better help patients and healthcare. Everything was about us being more successful. Everything was about people. About us as people in our industry.

We talked about clusters – groups of similar things or people positioned or occurring closely together. Clusters can happen in regions, and can – and do – equally happen in companies. The implication of a cluster is that the extent of partnering or working together is minimal.

We talked about ecosystems – groups of similar things or people involved in the delivery of a specific product or purpose through both competition and cooperation. Ecosystems in business can happen in regions, and are always aspired to in companies. The implication of an ecosystem is that the extent of partnering and working together is tremendous.

We talked culture – whenever we talk people we are always talking culture. Culture – how things are done around here. What do we celebrate, recognise and reward? How do we handle projects that don’t work? What do leaders role model?

But really we were talking people. I was talking and meeting people all week. I was thinking about people. I was thinking about myself. What I do. What I want to do. How well I am doing. How can I help more? When do I ask and when should I advise? How do I best influence?

I arrived home Friday. Tired…but with my mind full of new ideas…different ideas.

A successful week – subjectively (tired) and objectively (opportunities).



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Significant Review…

I am excited. It is our annual Talent Review next week. I am excited about what I know we will discuss…and I am excited about what I don’t know we will discuss. We have an agenda of course…and a focus – our people. And I know that each section will be great value and very interesting. So I am excited.

But I also know that these are one of the best meetings for unexpected ideas and new opportunities to appear. Thoughts or themes that none of us have considered; that only ever appear because we invest this time – and the time leading up to our review – thinking about our people…our talent…our future.

I have been involved in annual talent reviews for…well for longer than I care to (or can) remember. But they still excite and engage me. The people in any organisation are what make that organisation work. People innovate and interact, partner and perform, define and deliver. Individually and collectively. Our people are our culture…and in many ways, they are our legacy. And so it makes absolute sense that we invest this time – formally – at least once a year. Along with all the other people based activities we are all involved in.

At some point in my past, one of my colleagues introduced me to the concept of Significant Experiences. Within a discussion of how we could better work with our talented people to help them grow and develop more, more broadly, more successfully and more rapidly. Waiting for time to go by – growth by osmosis almost – always felt so passive. And so the idea of us agreeing and achieving Significant Experiences came about.

Like most ideas that excite me, ‘Significant Experiences’ is very simple. For any of us to best grow and develop we need Significant Experiences. Not experiences alone, nor significant moments, or even significant opportunities, but Significant Experiences.

Significant Experiences have to be defined and agreed…along with the need and the opportunity. Immediately this exemplifies that development by Significant Experiences is an active, joint activity. My supervisor and I have to agree together the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ for any Significant Experiences we identify. I can’t do this alone, and neither can my supervisor.

And then there is the discussion of what makes an experience ‘significant’. I checked the dictionary – significant: ‘large enough to be noticed or have an effect’. I particularly like that last piece – large enough have an effect.

But as with a lot of these people discussions, the value is achieved more by considering the impact of the experience than how we describe or delineate it. By definition, our beliefs are developed from our experiences…and our beliefs dictate what actions we take in any given situation.

So a ‘Significant Experience’ then – an experience that is able to change our beliefs.

An example. For years my beliefs about the CRO industry were solely based on my experiences whilst working in a Pharma Company. It was only when I moved to work in a CRO – a Significant Experience – that my beliefs changed (for the better). Similarly, I had opportunity to lead teams locally for years before I had the Significant Experience of leading a global team…and again my beliefs were changed.

Not every Significant Experience has to involve such a large personal change – for example, my beliefs have changed about consultants, and about emerging Biotech, based on my recent experiences of working directly together…something I had not experienced when I was in large pharma.

Experiences significant enough to change our beliefs and thereby to change how we act. That is how – and when – I believe I have developed most.

I am excited…



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