Engaged Friends…

A friend retired from work last week. Mixed emotions really. Delight for him and his family. Gratitude from those who had opportunity to work with him. Despondency for me. I haven’t just lost a friend at work…I have lost a best friend at work.

There was a survey I used to do every year…an engagement survey. One question was whether I had a best friend at work? For years it intrigued me. What does that question mean? Why was it asked in such a precise way? There’s data – of course – on how well this precise question predicts for an engaged workforce…increased retention, enhanced productivity.

But I always found myself questioning the question…why a best friend rather than a friend? Why not a good friend? Or a close friend?

‘Best’ was a very deliberate choice of word. Every time I answered the question, I found myself thinking that little bit more about people I worked with on a regular basis, people I saw often at work and those who I talked to regularly at work. The question always makes me think about friends; about what friendship meant to me. How did I define a best friend?

And the one year, my question questioning introspection was blown away – something surprising happened…something that completely changed my mind about this question! One of my colleagues – someone I had worked with for years – actually made time to let me know that they thought of me as a best friend at work.

That message made my day – at the time I said it made my year. Even now some eight years later, I remember exactly how I felt when I opened that email! I also remember how I promptly decided to do exactly the same thing and told both that friend – and one other – that I had answered yes to that Best Friend at Work question because of my friendship with them.

A best friend at work is special to me. A best friendship based on comparable outlooks and similar values. A friendship based on laughing at the same things, enjoying similar things, being frustrated by much the same events and topics.

I am passionate about my work and what we do together…but who I work with and how I feel about those people and that team is very important to me as well. We all spend more of our day at work than we do at home. I would be sad, surprised or both if we didn’t want and need strong connection with our team members.

What we do and the colleagues I do it with make me feel good and make me proud. But my best friend at work was someone I would go to when I wanted to celebrate or needed to commiserate – both about my life at work and my life at home. I know that without a best friend at work then my work will feel lonelier and inevitably more isolated.

I have lost an attachment to work. I have lost a best friend. But for wonderful reasons I hasten to add. He is still a friend of course. He emailed me the day after he left! He had more ideas and more suggestions he wanted to share.

But it was an email. His personal email address. I read it. I replied. But I knew everything had changed. It wasn’t the same and it won’t be. It can’t be and it shouldn’t be.

Best friends at work have left me before (or I have left them). I am just delighted to have known them in work. So pleased I still know them out of work.



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Team Creations…

I was in the UK last week. No travel after a lot of travel. Time to catch up instead of trying to catch up. Catch up with my family, with my work, with my time zones and with my sleep.

I also caught up with my thinking and planning.  We have a number of exciting projects coming up and one of the decisions we need to make is who to have on the teams. More importantly, what do we want the team to be able to do and deliver and how…and what skill sets do we need…and therefore who.

I have been on many teams – and sometimes I have even had the pleasure of being on a high performing, highly enjoyable, and very successful team. And it is always all of those people on the team who make all of those things true about the team. So what and how and who…whenever we have the chance (or the time) to consider. So I thought.

I recalled a team I once had that contained two very different individuals. One was very good at coming up with different and innovative ideas. She just wasn’t as good at making them a reality. Another was very good at putting ideas into practice…he just wasn’t as good at coming with ideas of what we should do in the first place.

I saw myself as a good coach (not sure why but there we go) and needless to say found myself working with both team members to develop the skill they lacked to complement their respective strengths. Eventually the obvious hit me – in truth my own boss (who was indeed a very good coach) explained the obvious that I was missing. ‘Why don’t you encourage them to work together directly, to focus on their respective strengths, and complement each other?’

Like most good insights, it was blindingly obvious when pointed out to me. Rather than investing all that time and effort on the individuals. I focussed more on the team and how they worked together. And sure enough the idea generator came up with some superb new ideas for us to do…and the implementer partnered with her to ensure that the ideas we selected and advanced were achievable and deliverable.

Better yet, they seemed to learn more from each other by working together than I had been able to coach (by a long way), they relaxed, engaged and enjoyed themselves. And the team was very successful.

Sometime later I came across a different scenario. One team member who was very instinctive and intuitive in their actions. Another who was much more scientific and analytical in assessing options. And sure enough…

…I missed the obvious again. I started down the path of coaching each to be more like the other – convinced (and flawed) in my belief that I could change them both.

The only good news here is that I realised my mistake relatively soon (with a little help from my special relative). And I moved my approach to encouraging them both to work together closely. Looking for how and where they could complement each other in how they approached and solved situations.

My learning then was twofold. The risk of kidding myself that I can change anyone. And secondly the importance and opportunity that manifest when we think about the team rather than just the individuals.

What do we want our team to be able to do and deliver? How do we need the team to work together? What skills and abilities, ways of working and thinking are essential? And then…who are the individuals we invite to join…

…and only then.



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Texan Thursday…

I was in the great state of Texas last week. Great in many senses. Great people. Great trucks. Great scenery. Great size. Great lack of hills. Great hospitality. Many great sights. One great site.

I stayed in two cities – one very large where I was attending a major conference…one much smaller where I was visiting a major facility. I met many friends and colleagues – new and old friends…new and old colleagues – in both cities. Working around my jetlag, I drank a lot of coffee and water all day. I ate too much at the wrong time of day most days. I slept too little at the right time of (Texas) night time. And worked hard to stay alert at the right time of (Texas) day time.

I listened a great deal. I learned an enormous amount. I discussed many things. Some discussions were straightforward and engaging. Others were complex and complicated. It was a standard US travel week…but it was a great week.

Ours is a very good company made exceptional by the people who work there. Yours is a very good company made exceptional by the people who work there. Any Company. Any Conference. Any Site. Any State. Can work…it’s the people who make a difference.

The highlight of my week was the team I met on my last day in Texas – Thursday. They inspired me and engaged me. To a person they are passionate and committed. They care and they believe. I left enthused, excited and energised.

The hardest part of my week was Thursday afternoon – sitting at a Texan international airport with two hours before my connection home to the UK. I knew I had two hours connection…but I also knew I had three hours of work I need to complete before I flew. Two hours where I knew my morning-induced energy would rapidly dissipate. Two hours in which I knew I had to stay focussed on what I had to do…rather than on where I wanted to be or who I would rather be with.

These moments are partly physical fatigue but in main they are mental fatigue. They happen to us all of course – they are neither jet lag nor travel specific…they are simply hard work related. Every emotion is telling you to relax, kick back, enjoy. Every logic and thought has to be to focus, lean in, apply.

In my case on Thursday in Texas – I needed a quiet space. I didn’t need any more distractions and I knew I was going to call people and didn’t want to worry about anyone overhearing. Quiet space in an airport is an oxymoron. I did the best I could…aided by headphones, my back to a corner, and effective positioning of my suitcase and suit carrier.

I did what I had to do in those two hours. I didn’t manage everything I needed to do…but I delivered what was essential. My favoured source of caffeine was nearby which helped. Other than that regular fix I stayed still and stayed focussed. Focussed on what I had to do not what I wanted to do.

I completed files and sent emails. I made calls and texted messages. I don’t think I made any mistakes…maybe everyone was just being nice. I missed one call – I know that team did a great job without me.

I boarded my flight. Sat down and settled in. I kicked back…looking forward to enjoying a film and food on the flight. I allowed myself to relax. Next thing I knew I woke up as we were landing in London.

I felt good. A little confused. Nicely refreshed. Very hungry



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Relative Time…

Time is relative. True. Profound. Not my theory of course. Today is Mother’s Day in the UK. Today is also the day when US and UK time diverges. Daylight Savings Time US started last night. British Summer Time UK doesn’t start for another two weeks. This anything to do with relativity (or relatives) but it is confusing…even in a world organised by electronic calendars on our phones and computers.

I think that the relativity of time becomes apparent when we look back in time. Can it really be a full year since my original relatives – my mum and dad – both passed away? It is. But at times it feels like only yesterday…at other times it feels like another lifetime ago.

Can it really by six years since I took on my current role? Again yes. But again at times it feels like I am a ‘newbie’ and at other times it feels as if I am an ‘old timer’. Six years ago my children were both teenagers at school. One year ago they were holding my hand at funerals telling me it would be OK.

So yes – time is about relatives but time is also relative. But relative to what? I think that time is relative to other events and other people…to activities happening around us.

If you made me sit quietly for two hours…not talking, listening, watching or reading…that two hours would seem like an eternity. Sit me friends, family, music, a film, a book (OK – maybe not a book – my email account more likely)…then those two hours will pass in the blink of an eye.

It is the same two hours in both cases…the difference in how it feels and how I feel is relative to external events, people and actions.

When I think about the twelve months since Mother’s Day last year, how I feel depends on how I think. If I think about moments with my parents, then I miss them – I even feel lost without them. If I think about my family, my wife (on Mother’s Day) and our children, about my sisters and brother and their families (including my eleven day old grandniece)…then I feel happy and proud, loved and excited, and certain.

Proud and excited about what we have done, are doing and will do – together. Happy and loved by them all. And certain in the knowledge that my mum and dad would be so happy and so proud.

When I think about our industry and our work over six years…I am amazed at how much we have done, delivered, achieved, changed, and improved. I smile at the funny times we have experienced and I feel unhappy about the hard times. Do I think we could have done more or changed more…delivered more or changed more rapidly? Yes – but I think we all do…always.

Ours is an amazing industry that can change dramatically. It’s just hard to see that change when we are in the middle…but our partners change, our science changes, our regulators change and we change.

And it’s because of these changes in events and activities and people around us that we can so often feel we that have so much more we want to do and have to do.

My conclusion then? The key to relative time and time relativity? They key is to be 100% present today. To do the absolute best I can do today – whether it is Mother’s Day or any day. To be present with the people I am with. To savour moments and to appreciate people. To enjoy them. To be with them.

To love them…



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Future Back…

Last time (and first time) I went to a physiotherapist was when I had a sore back. He was very good. He told me the muscles up and down my back, shoulders and neck were tight (indeed) and that some of the muscles in my lower back were seized up and that was the cause of my pain. He manipulated the muscles a little – but recommended a massage as being more effective at relaxing back muscles. He also showed me what he described as the best two exercises he knew to both relieve back pain and to avoid future problems.

I was happy and excited. Happy that I felt better after his manipulation and excited that I had a preventative path forward. And then came the punchline – ‘do these exercises twice a day every day and it will help prevent any future recurrence’.

He could see my face of course – and sure enough it was only a split second later that he added – ‘I know…no-one ever does the exercises every day’. No problem I thought to myself – this guy doesn’t know how determined I can be when I set my mind to something – I can do this.

And sure enough I dutifully did both exercises, exactly as demonstrated, twice a day, every day….

…for about 5 days! And then I stopped. My back felt better and something else just seemed like a better option to do with that time.

And sure enough he was right. On a regular but infrequent basis I get the same lower back pain. And when I do, I dutifully do his exercises twice a day…and re-resolve to myself that I will continue to do them every day…even after the pain has gone.

And sure enough…I don’t!

It also turns out that back pain is very common…so much so that whenever I am obviously and painfully struggling, I always get lots of great advice (as well as my fair share of sympathy and mockery). Pilates and yoga are both good, frequent, and as yet never tried suggestions. Lose weight is common – although I am not sure if that is based on sympathy or mockery. 10,000 steps a day is another one I have heard a few times…but that is a very large amount of walking.

No, I am sure; the best advice I have had was the first (and professional) advice – from that friendly physiotherapist – practice his best two exercises twice a day every day.

I am also pretty sure I know why I don’t do these exercises once the pain has gone. There is no obvious reward. If I work out on my bike, then my adrenaline flows, my blood flows, my endorphins flow and I even sweat. I feel tired but I feel good (those endorphins are pretty impressive). If I was to try to lose weight then I have a number of biomarkers to help me…ranging from looking in the mirror through to my weighing scales – again I get reward as I make progress.

Preventative exercises that involve lying on the floor for 10 minutes…not so much. No endorphins, no biomarkers, no feel good factor, no praise, no reward, no gain…no pain -but I wasn’t in pain anyway whilst preventing.

I have tried listening to music whilst I stretch. I have tried setting my phone alarm to remind me. I even booked slots into my daily calendar one time. No go…

…there has to be a better way.

Yesterday I tried something new – I did my daily exercise and went straight into my back stretches as I was cooling down. That worked really well. Yesterday. Today…who knows…

…wish me luck!



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Love Films…

I watch a lot of films. Most of them by myself. On a small screen, in the back of the seat in front of me…on an aeroplane. The one good thing about this viewing mode is that I can watch any film I want without considering anyone else’s views. Amongst the down sides are that it is an individual activity; there is no-one else to talk to about the film; the screen is small; there is no-one to laugh with or discuss with; I can’t even send a text message to my children to ask them to explain the ending.

We watch films at home or on the local big screen. I often watch films again at home to compensate for all those aeroplane downsides…most of all to be able to laugh or cry or discuss with someone else. To connect with someone – someone I love – about a silly or thrilling or funny or moving movie. And we choose which films we think will benefit from the big screen…or from more a larger audience to share the experience with.

Last week I was in the Mid-West of the US and then moved to the East Coast before flying back to the UK. Visiting sites and visiting partners…meeting people and people meetings. I watched three films whilst on planes. I have to think to remember – another downside of the individual activity. I can vividly remember the people and partner meetings. The discussions. The laughter. The occurrences of clarity. The instances of innovation. The connections.

Back home yesterday, we went to the big screen to watch Ladybird. My wife cried. I laughed. My son explained the ending by text. We both enjoyed. We enjoyed together. We connected with each other. We discussed and compared and reminisced on the way home. I wouldn’t have watched alone on a plane. It was a film to watch with someone…to connect with someone. Mother, father, partner, friend, daughter. Someone you like a lot at least…ideally someone you love. Someone you have shared special moments with.

I won’t tell much about the film. As ever, the trailer has one of the best lines from the whole film…but only one of the best lines.

It is a film about connection, about attention, about love. Who knows – these may be one and the same thing. I don’t know. But I do know that we can all seek out and benefit from that feeling that we are connected…that we belong and that we matter.

It has to be why we as children – or our children – will seek attention when probably they/we seek connection or love. It surely is one of the reasons why so much can feel so strange when we lose our parents.

But connection at work is very important. That we belong and that we matter. Some of it is personal – well all of it is personal of course – and some of it is down to others in our organisation.  Do we feel like we belong and that we matter…do the actions of others help us feel like we belong and that we matter?

Someone special I once worked for told me that we don’t need connection all the time…we just often need it first.

Our work is personal. It is what we do. The people we work with personally – inside our organisation or within our partners – are important to us and are an important part of what we do…and why.

I know I enjoy connecting with others. At work…at home. Experiences, moments and stories. Not all of the time. But absolutely some of the time. Contact. Sharing. Listening. Laughing. Learning.

And loving.



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Mind Asking…

I am inquisitive by nature. I like to understand things. I ask questions to understand – to understand thinking, detail, ideas, rationale. I ask questions on topics I think I understand (to increase my understanding) as much as I do on topics I don’t understand (to learn). I ask people lots of questions. I ask myself more. I ask questions to change my thinking…to change my mind.

I only have three rules. I always ask open questions (questions that can’t be answered yes or no) – I am after information not affirmation. I never use discount lines (‘this maybe be a silly question’…’this may be a hard question’) – they tend to distract the recipient. And I never worry.

All of which goes to explain why I am so engaged when I find the answer to something that I have never understood…. even more so if my lack of understanding has been irritating me.

I have strong views on Brexit. But I was irritated by the lack of quality of the 2016 UK referendum. It felt to me like there was no significant debate about any substantive issues. No debate at all. Just soundbites, billboards and commercials. Finger pointing, denying and statements with no facts. It drove me to distraction. I just couldn’t understand it.

I asked lots of people. Eventually I stopped asking myself. I didn’t get any help and couldn’t help myself. Most everyone I spoke to seemed to agree with my observations on the politics (or lack of) – even where we disagreed on the outcome.

Today I am happy. I have increased understanding. I read an article at the end of last week analysing the 2016 US election. It gave me an answer. Based on politics granted, but really based on us. On people. And the answer was obvious. Most good answers are obvious when someone who understands explains them to you.

It is much harder to change someone’s mind than it is to influence something they already believe.

That Brexit referendum then – the objective was to target people who were ‘not sure’ – individuals who were undecided on whether we should stay or leave, but who were anxious about one or two high profile topics. The strategy was to focus on these – more emotional – issues to influence opinion – healthcare, immigration, family, employment. And the approach was emotional – hence the lack of data, depth and rationale. It was all about emotions…from both sides. The goal was only ever to influence thoughts rather than to change minds.

This concept I can relate to. When I believe something it is hard to change my mind. Changing anything – culture, leadership, work, strategy, friends – takes time. Changing what any of us already believe is not easy. Influencing – increasing or decreasing – something we are already thinking is more straightforward.

Back to Brexit – the winner simply had to have more votes than the loser. There wasn’t any requirement for minimum number of voters, or minimum percentage to win. It was first past the post. More votes on your side. Less votes cast against. There was no need for anyone to try to change the mind of those who had strong views either way.

Now I understand. Now I am just disappointed…rather than irritated.

Back to work. Or to life. What does this learning mean? How does it help? Does it help? Maybe it just means I am not as open to learning as I thought I was? Or as open to change as I believed? Maybe I am just seeking affirmation of something I already believe? Maybe we all are?

More questions. Questions are good…

…I am inquisitive by nature.



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