Never Obvious…

I find myself in many situations. Exciting, confusing, enjoyable or disconcerting situations. Fortunately I am seldom in any sort of threatening situation. Worrying or frustrating is as bad as it gets. Good news of course. And lots of time I find myself in good situations. Even better news.

Sometimes I can influence a specific scenario. More often than not I can’t. And even when I believe I have influence, or – dare I say it control – I am only ever kidding myself. Stuff happens. Stuff happens to us, around us, or even because of us. Stuff happens…it’s how we handle it that makes a difference.

Based on this then, there are two scenarios I find most significant…or at least where I find it most important to stop and think. Actually that’s it really. Stop and think. That would probably be my simplest and most significant action in most situations.

The first situation – good, bad or anywhere in between – is that situation where things just doesn’t make sense. Where we can’t understand how it happened; how we found ourselves here. When something makes no sense…my first thought has to be that I am missing something. Something else is going on that I do not understand, cannot see, or have not been told.

This scenario is very common. There is much I do not understand, and it is fair enough that I am not told everything about every situation I find myself in. It could be that the information I am missing is confidential…or else it could simply be that no-one had chance or opportunity to tell me.

The ‘cannot see’ could be aspects that are just obvious to everyone else – something they are aware of that I am missing – or could be hidden from my view. Either way I am missing a crucial factor that would help explain what is going on.

The next step though becomes clear. I have to try to find out what I am missing. I ask questions. Of anyone and everyone. Specific questions – why is this happening? Have you seen this before? Or more general – what am I missing? What does this mean? My goal is always the same – to increase my understanding (to fill in gaps over what I am missing as much as I can) before I decide what I will do next, or suggest what we could do next.

The second situation is when I find myself absolutely certain that I know what is happening, what it means and what we need to do next. Again, these scenarios could be good, bad, or middling. It doesn’t matter. Whenever I find myself feeling that sure…that confident…I always stop and think before I act.

This scenario is based on experience and self-analysis. I find myself in many situations – the likelihood that I will be that certain about what is going in many (or any) is just low. Most situations we experience have many factors and components. Some we see and some we miss. So I stop and I think.

I look around. I ask questions. I check in with people. Friends, family, colleagues – I people I trust. What am I missing? Do you see this the same as me. Maybe not as many people or as much questioning. But enough. Enough to confirm (or deny). Occasionally I am right. Sometimes I am right to an extent. And often I am just wrong.

Situations that make no sense…or situations that make too much sense. They are my watch out moments. Moments to step back, pause, breathe deeply, and consider. Moments to ask for help and support before I act.



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Thinking Father…

It is Father’s Day today. And I miss my dad.

Becoming a father was the most incredible, most wonderful and – at times – most scary thing ever. My children impress me and amaze me. They inspire me and fill me with enthusiasm and optimism. On Father’s Day. Every day.

When I think about my dad, I recognize who I am and where I came from. The words Father’s Day conjure up strong and vivid memories. Of him picking me up when I fell down. Of us playing cricket in the summer and soccer in the winter. Of him standing by me when I was playing. Encouraging and advising. Of him reading my chemistry homework and asking me what I thought it meant (I had no idea). Of him asking me what choices I was going to make at school…and enquiring which subjects I enjoyed most. Of him standing next to me when we bought our first car. And of him coming home from work early when I couldn’t make it start the next day. Of him being there for me. Always. Just not now…not anymore.

He came to visit on the day each of our children were born. He was there for our marriage and both of their christenings. He was there with his love. He came to every house we ever rented or bought…the day we moved in. With his love and with his bag of tools.

He was there for me. I am lucky. I am proud. And I remember.

My dad was a scientist. My choices at school were all science. My choices since school have all been science. My own children have made their own choices and they have not chosen science. They could have chosen science – they are both excellent at science. I don’t know if I encouraged them too well (to make their own choices)…or if I just put them off science. Either way they delight and inspire me. Impress and amaze me. My father – their grandfather – loved them so much…as they did him.

I can see my dad – and myself – in them both and in me. It’s like watching a home movie and listening to an audio recording. I know I am so like my father but yet I am also so different. I have had such different experiences at such a different time. My father was a child during and after the war. I wasn’t. I was brought up by my father and my mother. He wasn’t.

Even though my dad and mum both passed away this Spring, I still think about them…and wonder what they would do…or what they would say. I love them both just as much. I miss them both so much. In many ways it’s as if they are still there for me…it’s just that they aren’t.

I used to talk to my dad about family, work and travel, about rugby and about me. I miss his advice. His encouragement. Him listening. I miss him. On Father’s Day. Every day.

But I know he taught me what it means to be a dad. To be important to my children. Today, and tomorrow. Next week and next year….to be there for them. To love them unconditionally. To encourage them when they need encouragement; to offer advice if they need advice. To hold their hand when they need a hand to hold. As they grow. As they experience. As they express themselves. And as they make their own choices in life. I want to be important to them.

I love being a father. I love my father. I miss my dad.



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Simple Lines…

For each of the last two big political decisions made by the UK I was not there. This is more coincidental than it is conspiratorial I hasten to add. It is true that I missed both the Brexit referendum and last week’s general election in person since I was travelling in the US for business…but it is also true that postal voting is a great idea! Maybe inevitable is a better description than coincidental.

I have also stopped predicting outcomes of big political decisions…whether they are in the UK, the US or anywhere else for that matter. This is not big loss – I don’t think I was ever any good anyway at making political predictions in the first place – but I have stopped nevertheless.

I was certain I knew what would happen in Brexit…and last November in the US, and last week in the UK. Now I am certain I have no idea. I have opinions and preferences but I have zero predictive capability.

In reality this is no surprise. There are many topics associated with our work in which I have a great deal of experience (and even some level of knowledge and understanding)…and yet I would be lying if I said I could tell you what will happen next. So how or why would I expect to be able to predict outcomes in national or international politics?

I thought about all this last week…and not just for the obvious reasons. I was in the US meeting with colleagues on the East Coast – we were discussing strategy…where we are, where we want to get to and how do we get there. Lots of opinions, ideas and options. Much debate and discussion. Passion, conviction, disagreement and teamwork. Strategy requires a vision of the future, but it also requires that future to be achievable and compelling.

A compelling vision does not have to be guaranteed – but it does have to be engaging, exciting, and alluring…maybe just out of reach. A future I feel compelled to want to touch…achieve…be part of…help deliver.

And hence that juxtaposition with politics. A similarity in wanting to predict the future with some degree of confidence. That and the fact that every other conversation I was involved in last week seemed to feature some or all of the following words Comey, May, Trump, Corbyn, Senate, Parliament…at least once if not four times a day!

Someone once said that the public in general prefer a simple lie over a complicated truth. Seems right to me. Maybe for business (as opposed to politics) we should to include one extra letter – we prefer a simple line over a complicated truth.

Predicting the future…or even just predicting what happens next, or how to change what happens next…is complicated. If it was simple then we would all do it all the time. We operate, live, vote and participate in complicated and interdependent systems and situations.  Any action has multiple outcomes. We all know that. There are seldom simple answers. We all know this.

And yet simple answers are what we like. We all do. In work, at home, with friends and with families.

Last week – and the work done in advance – required us all to engage in detail and to consider what we wanted, needed and expected. This is not easy but it is important. And it benefits from seeking, hearing and understanding different views and experiences from different people.

We make decisions – strategy is making decisions.

And the more informed our decisions, the more engaged and involved we are…the more we influence what happens next, and the more we create our own compelling future….



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Intentional Actions…

I did a lot of driving last week. It was a holiday weekend in the US and the UK and we had decided to go and visit our son at college. After a fantastic weekend, I drove north to our UK site for an afternoon of excellent meetings, and then later that same day I drove further north to visit a site we used to own but now work with.  More outstanding meetings. I then drove home. I also did a lot of sitting in traffic – nothing significant – just volume on the roads…just not moving.

When I’m driving by myself and not on telephone calls, I listen to the radio. I used to rely on radio for traffic updates, but now the GPS systems are so good and quick it’s not necessary. I listen to talk radio. Sport, politics, business, arts- shows where opinionated listeners call in to offer views to even more opinionated hosts. Hosts whose role seems to be to shout down anyone who dares to disagree with their monologues.

In short spells, these shows are often entertaining if not particularly enlightening. Tuesday morning was all politics (hard to imagine I know…but true). Blood pressures were rising; insults were flowing; good manners were in little evidence. And all of a sudden the discussion paused. It was time for Thought for the Day. Who knew? Calm and reflection (and no interruptions) in the midst of frantic discussions. I listened and waited.

‘We confuse intent and action in ways that seldom help, frequently misjudge and often frustrate’ was the opening statement. I was intrigued. I liked both the simplicity of the observation, but also the necessity to consider the words. The presenter was right – I do mix intent and action. I needed more.

‘We judge others on their actions and ourselves on our intent.’ Wow – so that really helped me. We assess our own performance based on our intention and yet for others we consider only their actions. Do I do that? Do we? I think we do…I know I do.

It was intriguing to consider how often and how much we judge ourselves based on our intentions. By definition we always know and understand our intent…both for anything thing we do and just as much for actions we don’t do. Conversely for others we tend to only see and experience their actions…since by default we do not know their intention.

So I can assess myself based on my intent very easily…whereas for others my simplest path is to assess based on their actions alone.

The intrinsic risk of an imbalance becomes obvious. Our intentions are always positive…but the impact of our actions is unfortunately not guaranteed to be so good. Even the best of us can inadvertently say or do things that have negative or unexpected outcomes.

Moreover, we can have as much of an issue with actions we plan but don’t take. I know all actions I plan are based on positive intent – and so my self-assessment will always be good – but if I don’t implement and follow through then I am guaranteed zero impact or benefit.

So what resolution or advice was offered? Well in truth advice wasn’t much on offer. The segment was thought for the day after all…and it did make me think.

After another hour in slow moving traffic, I landed on two actions for my day based on my newfound insight.  First was to seek to explain and understand intent behind actions – mine or others. Second to avoid my own ‘intent but no action’ scenarios.

Oh yes…and to follow the traffic advice of my GPS next time…



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Talented Views…

I have attended many talent and succession planning meetings over the years. And even so, they are still one of the highlights – if not the highlight – of my year (at work at least). So far this year I have participated in three…and I still have one more to go.

Most meetings I attend have much intrinsic value in the work we do to prepare. For talent meetings we think about our people in great detail before we arrive. And often we even talk with those individuals before we go and represent them – and our thoughts and ideas of them – in the review.

Some meetings I attend have significant added value from the discussions themselves. This is not always the case…but it is always the case with reviews of people…of talent. I love talent reviews.

What’s not to love? I have chance to talk about our people, what we are trying to do with, for and together…and I get to hear about other talented individuals across our larger teams.

There is always value describing someone – saying the words out loud. Recounting their amazing strengths and exciting opportunities – to peers and colleagues. That process alone helps me…encourages and enables me…to think differently and about different ideas and suggestions I can offer or try to create.

But the real value comes from everyone else in the room. It’s the reflections and insights from those peers and colleagues…what they observe. By definition these observations are based on much less exposure and inevitably tend to be more intuitive or instinctive. But this is where real learning can be acquired.

Feedback (what we have been seen to have done) and feed-forward (what we could do differently or more successfully next time) is nearly always subjective…but nearly always high value. Feedback is not always easy to hear – after all, virtually anything we chose to do in a given situation is because we want a positive outcome. Hearing from someone else that there was something better or simpler or just different we could have done…

But feedback can open up our blind spots. Things we didn’t know about ourselves…or even things we didn’t know we didn’t know about ourselves. What’s not to love?

Learning anything we don’t know is a good thing. Learning something about ourselves and our actions we didn’t know or realise…can be an amazing and very impactful experience!

All of which helps explain why I enjoy and benefit from talent reviews so much. And not just for the benefit of the amazing talent we have but for us…for me.

I used to find myself worrying during our talent reviews that somewhere else – in a meeting I wasn’t in – someone else would be talking about me. What would they say? Wouldn’t it be better if I was there to explain? But I have learned to be excited. Interested. Impatient. What did they say? How can I learn? What can I do more of? What can I do less of? How can I help more? Add more value? Not slow things down?

Talent reviews are a rare opportunity for us all. I hear and think and learn about observations and insights from others about individuals in my team. People I care about. People I want to try to help to be more happy, better recognised and rewarded, and more successful.

Anything new or different or changing or re-enforcing I can glean from what I say, I am told or I hear…is always going to be good.

Last week’s talent review…like any view we see or are shown of our people – was hard work, great fun and high value.



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Selling Sales…

Washington DC. I have been there several times…but up until last week the closest I have been to seeing any famous site was from the airplane window coming into land at Reagan airport. Three visits – best I can remember – staying at three different hotels. And that was it.

I was in DC again last week. And found myself inside another hotel. Same name. Same room (it seemed). More modern fitness centre. Unimproved, unimpressive (and tasteless) coffee machine in room.

I was attending our Spring Sales meeting. Splitting my time between the meeting itself, phone calls, and teleconferences.

This week in DC was different though. This week I saw and was inspired. I saw monuments and memorials – monuments to individuals and memorials to armies. The scale and the significance just hits you. I was surprised how moving and evocative I found our evening guided tour.

I was due to talk with our sales team on the first morning. I know most of them very well. There are always new members though. A great opportunity for me to put faces to names…and maybe for them as well.

But what to say? And how to say it? Always the same questions. There’s such a temptation in these situations to focus on our goals, progress to goals, benefits of hitting goals. It’s an easy presentation to prepare and to give. The slides are just charts and numbers…peaks and troughs. The messages are clear enough. It can feel satisfying to do.

But I always struggle with whether this approach works. How well does just reminding any team – let alone a team as driven, motivated and committed as our sales force – about their goals and objectives help, let alone make a difference?

I knew I wanted to do something different. I decided as I travelled, and through my early morning jet lag. I wanted to remind them how driven, motivated and committed they are – individually and collectively. How skilled, able and supported they are. How inspiring they are to me…and how certain I am in their ability to seize opportunities and solve problems, to help our teams and our sponsors…every day, week, month, quarter…and year!

I only had two slides. I wanted to tell some stories. I wanted to share – rather than just communicate – my message of trust and of confidence.

I showed an old black and white picture of a couple. A couple in love. A couple just starting off on their life together sixty plus years ago. I talked about what we learn from our parents…and what we inherit. I told a couple of stories about that special couple. They were personal to me, common to us all, and reflected in our team. Experiences and beliefs…beliefs that drive us without us realising and empower us without us knowing. I felt proud to share that special picture, surprised I was sharing my personal stories, but inspired by the faces in the room.

My second picture was easier – less moving for me, but still inspiring to me. A screen shot from a film I had watched on my flight over. A film about three mathematicians in the 1960s involved in the space race. Three mathematicians who persevered, achieved and succeeded individually, collectively and as part of a team, despite facing immense challenges.

There are always reasons why we cannot achieve more, or shouldn’t try again. Giving up is easy. But that’s not who we are, let alone who we want to be. That’s not the people I was with last week. Any more than it’s the people I am with next week…

Same town. Different pictures. Similar messages.



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Recycled Stories…

I am a learner. Not saying I am a good learner…or even a quick learner. But I do learn eventually. I look to learn from what works well (most fun) and from what works not so well (most value). I like to get better and to grow. I dislike staying the same. I vehemently hate ever making the same mistake twice.

It matters not whether I am looking to learn at work or at home. The key is to learn. The good news is that we are all the same. We all learn from our own experiences. Not so well from someone else’s…but still.

It is inherently more complicated when we learn from someone else – learning being when we change our actions based on what someone else says. Not many of us just do what someone tells us to do – outside of the military we are just not good at taking orders. ‘Take this action because I am your boss’…‘or because I am your Dad’…nah – not so much.

And that is the mistake we make – whether consciously or subconsciously – we try to change outcomes by telling others what to do. Best case? Even if it works once it will only work again if we are able to tell someone what to do every time. There is no learning…only obedience.

This all came to mind yesterday. I had used my 5-year work anniversary gift to buy an exercise bike. It was sat there in a big heavy box. I was looking at it…thinking…planning. And there was my wife looking at me looking at the box. She was worrying.

I don’t realise of course…I was focused. And the she told me her story. Her story of watching me putting together anything that came in a flat pack box. How long it takes. How much I sweat…and swear! And how at the very end I always tell her that it only really worked when I started to just follow the instructions!

She was more subtle than that of course. She started by asking me how good the instructions were. What they suggested I needed, should do and where.

She knows me very well. And of course it worked. I set about following the assembly instructions to the letter. It was done and ready in minutes (maybe tens of minutes).

As I sat there pedalling I found myself thinking again (and sweating but not swearing) about how my wife had changed my actions based on her experience. I had learned from her. But she had not told me what to do. She had told me her story – the story of her experience.

And that was – as always – such a helpful set of learning. Both immediate value – exercise bike up and riding in record time; and future value – we can learn from each other very well if we share our stories. When we share our experiences and how our experiences changed what we believe and how they changed our actions.

The more engaging the story. The more amusing, impactful (and short) the stories we tell each other…the more the learning and the more the benefit.

And storytelling works just as well insides and outside of work. The stories tend to have to be punchier and more obviously relevant inside work. But storytelling works. And value and importance are bigger, important and impactful at times of change and challenge.

Times when we all want and need better decisions and outcomes…times when we can be tempted to act more unilaterally…times when we all need to learn more from each other.

Times for more stories



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