2 short articles on interviewing

of course I love you

1. Interviewing – First Love

“Not surprisingly, interview specialists have found it extraordinarily difficult to persuade most employers to adopt the structured interview. It just doesn’t feel right. For most of us, hiring someone is essentially a romantic process, in which the job interview functions as a desexualized version of a date. We are looking for someone with whom we have certain chemistry, even if the coupling that results ends in tears and the pursuer and the pursued turn out to have nothing in common. We want the unlimited promise of a love affair. The structured interview, by contrast, seems to offer only the dry logic and practicality of an arranged marriage. “ – Malcolm Gladwell (‘The New-Boy Network’)

*****

2. Interviewing – First Contact

Log on to the internet and google “interview” and “first impressions” and you will come up with over a million matches. The vast, vast, vast majority of the results are practically identical. To save time I’ll précis this information for you;

“Turn up at the right address, on time. Wear clothes. Don’t be late. Bring a firm handshake. Don’t kill any of the interviewers and smile.”

Paradoxically when interviewers are being trained there is almost as much advice telling them to ignore first impressions. It goes by a range of names; self-fulfilling prophecy, stereotyping, horns and halo effect (of which more later), interview-enhancing behaviour, etc. yet they all amount to more or less the same thing. This is the basic advice that has been handed down by interviewer trainer to interview consultant to interviewing facilitator from generation to generation and pretty much consists of the following;

Research indicates that interviewers decide which interviewee will get the job within the first X minutes and then spend the rest of the interview confirming their initial analysis; i.e. if they like the candidate they ask easy questions and treat the responses more favourably. Or, if they take a dislike to the candidate they will ask difficult questions and look less favourably on their answers. As interviewers you must fight against this, and remain totally objective.

(The value of X is any possible single integer – depending on age, laziness, of trainer.)

 

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Executive Stress

First appeared in ‘Financial World’ (UK)
From the late 1920s stress has been defined as a “fight or flight” reaction to a threat, or a perceived threat. This definition by Walter Cannon now appears to be incomplete and research also suggests that the order is wrong.

Jeffrey Gray, amongst others ethologists, redefines the onset of stress as having three distinct stages – freeze, flight and only then fight.

The initial stage, “the freeze response”, is described as a state of hyper-vigilance (being on guard, watchful, or hyper-alert). This “stop, look, and listen” stage is associated with fear. Ethological research has demonstrated that prey that remain “frozen” during a threat are more likely to avoid detection.

Following this initial freeze response, the next response in the sequence is an attempt to get away from the danger. Once that option has been exhausted, there is an attempt to fight. These reactions always occur in this order.

These observations within the animal world are still thought to apply to humans as a hangover from primitive times. When we get into stressful situations the body automatically carries out a number of functions:

  • Firstly it discharges large amounts of adrenalin into the blood stream.
  • It shuts down the digestive system to allow an increased blood flow to the muscles.
  • It thickens the blood so that if the organism is cut, the blood will clot quickly.
  • These chemicals stay in the body and cause the symptoms we associate with stress these days – upset stomach, palpitations, heart disease, depression, etc.

Today a modern financial executive is more likely to encounter stress with a last minute presentation to the board, rather than being attacked by a wild animal. Yet the same stages are involved. We’ve all experienced the freeze response – or denial response, as some psychologists interpret the threat. It takes the form of: “Why me?” This is followed by the flight option. This can be quite tempting at the time, and occasionally the stress is so bad that flight – physically or emotionally – is the only way out.

However, more often than not the final option kicks in. This inevitably manifests itself as the “challenge”. The CFO has to respond as rationally and calmly as possible whilst the adrenaline builds up. Once or twice this is good. However, over a number of months, or years, it can eventually cause headaches, ulcers, etc as well as potential psychological and behavioural problems – depression, sleeplessness, etc.

The timing of stress is different from executive to executive. Graham Beasant, director of Finance and Corporate Resources at theUK’s Central Office of Information (COI), feels stress for him has an almost seasonal element: “I feel more pressure from April to June due to the end of the financial year and the preparation of COI’s annual report. During this time there are deadlines placed on COI by Parliament, the public and auditors.”

Maurice Phillips, finance director, Southdown Housing Association identified different aspects of the job as having more stress: “If you have a chance to work in finance then you will realise that most finance jobs are very busy in any organisation and stress comes with the nature of the work. The higher you go the more demanding and stressful the job becomes.”

Stress isn’t all bad though – we need some stress in our lives in order to perform – those last minute energy rushes to meet a deadline, the adrenaline that gives you the ability to see sharper, hear more and react quicker when placed in uncomfortable situations. We need stress – without it life would be incredibly boring. On the positive side stress is a source of motivation and a necessary component to survival. But it’s this excessive or prolonged stress that inevitably takes a toll on health.

A recent development in the study of stress links to control – the less control people have over their lives the more stress they tend to have. In terms of management within organisations, occupational psychologist Cary Cooper says: “Senior managers have ‘a sense of control’ … they feel they’re involved in decision-making. Research over the last couple of decades has shown that people who feel they have no control, no autonomy over the job they do in the workplace are likely to get a stress-related illness.”

How much control, as employers and managers do we have over these factors? Quite a bit, it would seem. Many of these factors relate to job design and communicating expectations – these are probably within the control of managers. Some organisations seem to take these factors very seriously indeed and many have introduced schemes for managing stress amongst their workforce.

Patricia Galloway

200bwpatgalloway.jpgDr Patricia Galloway has recently completed her term as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). She is the first woman in the organization’s 152 year history to hold that office.

She has been appointed by President Bush to the National Science Board. The Board is composed of 24 part-time members, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They are selected on the basis of their eminence in basic, medical, or social sciences, engineering, agriculture, education, research management or public affairs. Dr. Galloway has been appointed for a six-year term.

She is CEO and CFO of the Nielsen-Wurster Group. The Group, was founded in New York City in 1976 by Chris Nielsen. It is a 150-person construction management company with offices at 345 Wall Street. She became president of Nielsen-Wurster in 1999, and was appointed CEO in 2001, when Chris Nielsen, whom she married 20 years ago, stepped down. Pat had joined the firm in 1981 and has taken on consulting projects that took her all over the world – 84 countries, and counting;

Pat on her first job assignment;
“My first job assignment was as a tunnel inspector on a deep rock tunnel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was the first woman to serve as a tunnel inspector on this project, which was a wastewater treatment project. At the pre-construction meeting with the contractor, the older Italian male owner of the company pointed at me and said, “That woman will not be allowed in my tunnel!” My project manager just calmly responded that he would gladly award the project to the next lowest bidder the next day. I was mortified and could not believe that someone would not allow me to work because I was female!”

On working for Nielsen-Wurster;
“At Nielsen-Wurster they throw you off a pier and if you swim, they let you swim as far as you can. I have been fortunate to work on the Panama Canal, the Xianghli dam in China, the City Link Toll Road in Melbourne Australia, the Tsing Ma Bridge in Hong Kong, a multi-purpose irrigation project in Northern Lugon in the Philippines, and the Kuala Lumpur Malaysian International Airport.”

On her life outside work:
I have four stepdaughters and a wonderful Border collie dog named Rings, who travels with me everywhere I go domestically. You might ask how I can fly everywhere with my dog. Well, I have my own plane! In fact, I am President of a women-owned enterprise called Unionville Aviation. We own two planes that are mostly used for business travel with my company, as well as charter flights. We employ a full time pilot, but my husband and I are also private pilots.

I interviewed her in April 2007

Q. What situations cause you the most stress?
It can be stressful when there are lots of deadlines, lots of quality issues. I usually have a very busy schedule with high quality, tight deadlines – it can get very stressful.

Q: How do you cope at these times?
I’m lucky in that I really do love what I’m doing. I could imagine I would feel a lot more stressed doing a different job. My Work life balance is important. I enjoy my time off.
For instance, I had a very busy, stressful period a number of weeks ago. It was very difficult but I took the whole weekend off and never touched the computer once. I came back on Monday more refreshed and more effective than ever.

Q. What support mechanisms have you?
I have a very understanding husband who knows the business, the pressures. I also have a dog that doesn’t. It’s very important to have people to talk to.

Q. What support is there for employees in your Organisation?
This is similar to how I manage my stress. We have an open door policy – all employees are welcome to talk to me. There is a mentoring scheme within the organisation – “an open ear” for all employees. It’s important that people have a system of release. Everyone needs to be able to vent.

Q. Is there different stresses for your different roles within the Company?
I am the Financial Executive as well as a CEO. I find the finance aspect extremely stressful. Managing money is a very stressful item as you always have to watch the bottom line. You need to make sure you’re constantly on top of things with invoices etc…
An added burden for CFOs is facing a lot of questions from the board, shareholders who want to know why things can’t be done better, cheaper, etc..

Q. Is there a time when you’ve been under more than your usual amount of stress?
A few years ago I became the first female president of ACSE and found it very rewarding but very stressful. I had little control over engagements, travel, expert witness testimony, etc.. It was a fixed term appointment and I was relieved at the end of the period to return to my ‘normal’ stressed CFO and CEO role. I probably had more travel, more deadlines to meet but I felt calmer as I had more control of my schedule. It was a great opportunity as president but for me was a more stressful.

Q. Any final thoughts on stress and control?
I feel stress and control go hand in hand. I can imagine that it would be very stressful for executive directors of public companies. They would have less control and more stress.

Ellen Langer

200bwellenlanger.jpgEllen Langer is a modern day Renaissance Woman. Originally a researcher and psychologist she has developed into a writer and, most recently, a painter. In recent years her two prominent work directions have been several books looking at ‘mindfulness’ and her painting. She is incredibly non-precious about the world of art – “All it takes to become an artist, is to start doing art”

Mindfulness, as a concept has been a large part of her life. The original book, ‘Mindfulness’ was published in 1989 and ‘The Power of Mindful Learning’ in 1997. There are 2 more books on the subject in preparation ‘Mindfulness and Health’, and ‘Mindfulness at Work’. Mindfulness has become a feature of her life as I noticed the word cropping up on a number of occasions in the interview and even by email where she concludes with “Mindfully, Ellen”

Her description of how she started painting is below the interview.

I interviewed her in May 2007

Q. What are you up to at present?
I’m in the process of writing a new book. I tend to write in the mornings. This is however, somewhat of a loose rule.

Q. What are your thoughts of work / life balance?
I don’t really draw a distinction between working and not working. Being mindful means that your work is part of your life. If you’re enjoying work it doesn’t seem like work. Perhaps if there’s one question you can ask someone to see if they’re working mindfully it’s “Do you need a vacation?” If they are working mindfully they are engaged in what they’re doing and enjoying it. I’ve referred to it as ‘The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.

Q. Recently you’ve achieved some recognition as an artist – being shown in 3 galleries I believe. I’ve seen some of your work and it looks as though you’re having fun.
If someone had told me 6 years and one day ago that I would be an artist I really wouldn’t have believed them. Then I started painted and I really started to enjoy it. I was interested in whether you could be mindfully creative. Research on other areas of the arts indicates that people are. People in orchestras enjoy themselves more when they are mindfully engaged in what they’re doing. It’s very exciting for me and there’s a final output. It is fun.

Q. I’m curious as to people’s perceptions of Wales. What thoughts have you on Wales?
Interesting I’ve thought about this when you mention it in your email. I have no stereotypes of Wales at all. It’s on the list of places I would like to visit.

Q. I hear there’s a film in the offering perhaps involving Jennifer Aniston?
Yes, and that is progressing well. It’s a very exciting project.

Q. How would you classify yourself these days? What would you say your occupation is on your passport?
I wouldn’t like to classify myself as one thing. I would like to think that I integrate my life as a psychologist, researcher, writer, and artist. I’m in a good position. I can experience something and then do some research to see if others also experience this.

Q. Do you plan for the future?
Not really. I would disagree with much of business literature on this point. I feel that I’m guided by goal and routine, rather they being governed by goal and routine. I pride myself in being ‘present’.

***

How I spent my summer vacation – Ellen Langer
I have a house on Cape Cod where I spend my summers. The plan each day is always the same: tennis in the morning, lunch with friends, and writing before the evening’s activities. But rarely do I follow the plan. And last summer turned out even more different than I had imagined. On the way, I found a side of myself that took me by surprise.

The day it began, I was walking down the street and ran into a friend, an artist. We exchanged pleasantries and then she asked what the day held for me. To my surprise, I said I was thinking of talking up painting. I don’t know why I said this. I’ve hardly ever thought about painting my entire life.

Being a supportive friend, she rushed me to her studio and gave me a few small canvases. I considered taking only one, thinking it would be enough. She insisted that I take five, because as she put it, “It shouldn’t be too precious.”

Coincidentally, that afternoon I had to deliver a book to another friend. He is a talented artist, as is his wife. She and I have never exchanged more than a few greetings, so when I saw her that day I couldn’t think of anything to say, except: “I’m thinking of taking up painting.” This became my “what you say to a painter” dialogue. She replied, “That’s great. Now get yourself a large canvas and just do it. Don’t evaluate yourself. Just do it.” Aside from the canvas size, the advice was the same.

A few days later I bought a few tubes of acrylic paint and a couple of inexpensive brushes. I didn’t paint, I just “got ready.” I left the Cape to visit a friend in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. While there, I found a wooden shingle and started to draw on it. The drawing was of a village, soft of a Vietnamese village. (You have to understand I wasn’t one of those kids in school who could draw.)

I took two more shingles back to Cape Cod, and on one I painted a girl on a horse racing through the woods. I liked it, yet I was afraid to show it to anyone. At the same time I felt compelled to show it to someone, anyone, who could tell me if it was any good. I chose the woman in the art supply store who I didn’t know. When I walked in the store, I showed her the shingle and asked if she thought I should paint this or something else. She said it was great, but I didn’t know whether she meant it or not.

I know now that no matter what she said, I would have found a way to see my effort as good rather than bad, because doing the painting was enormous fun. Still, it’s hard to ignore what others think. Then a student friend of mine visited. We painted. (As a child, she did well in art.) She reminded me of what I teach in class about the context-dependent nature of evaluation, and she joked and embarrassed me into just enjoying the act of painting.

Then the backhanded compliments started. A very close friend of mine saw my first creation and said, “They’re never as good as the first.” I don’t think she meant to be unsupportive, and in fact, I took the comment as a compliment. Why the first may actually be the best is worth some thought. I was fully present for the event, I didn’t judge it while I painted, and I didn’t mindlessly follow rules–I couldn’t, I didn’t know any. If the first effort is engaged mindfully like mine was, then it might be better than any subsequent attempt–that is, if those that followed were indeed more scripted or planned.

I bought a few more canvases and on one I painted a horse that appeared gleeful as he kicked his back heels together. A friend saw it and told me that a horse couldn’t do that. I told him I was new to painting, not to physiognomy. It was interesting. If people saw the painting in a gallery, they would have assumed each brush stroke was intentional. For my painting, the assumption was error, not intention.

When I got up every morning, I loved seeing the painting of the horse. I didn’t know if it was because I painted it or because of its content. And so I painted another horse. This one appeared content even though he stood on both sides of a fence. I was oblivious to his being in this position while I was painting. The activity was mindful to be sure, and I loved every minute.

There is a gallery in town that has a painting of a horse. It’s very good and very pricey. People have made comparisons. “Have you seen the painting of the horse on Commercial Street? Your horse reminds me of that one.” I like my painting more and more, but I’m still trying to figure out how the two paintings differ. Another friend, also an artist, prefers my horse. I can’t believe it. I’m thrilled. I still don’t know the underlying ways in which they are different, but now I have the courage to find out.

It seemed that people were impressed with how productive I was. So I painted and painted. In a month’s time I had 25 canvases. I couldn’t be sure if they were any good, but I knew there were a lot of them. The feedback was very good, but I could discount it if I were so inclined. There were people who said the paintings were good because I painted them; and there were people who said the paintings weren’t good because I painted them.

I moved on to portraying people. Now the psychological significance was overwhelming. I painted a friend and myself sitting in chairs by a window. This was the first painting that had “real” objects. The chairs were real and I put us in them. I set out to paint the two of us sitting, reading and enjoying the morning. When I stepped back to look at the painting, I realized it was true to form. The floor was slanted toward her, and as always she was trying to read while I was busy talking to her–book in hand, not to eye.

I painted all summer, loving every minute. My efforts were unscripted and I was unaware of the rules. I don’t evaluate the paintings; I just involve myself fully. One doesn’t need any artistic talent for that. After the painting is finished, I analyze it, questioning the psychological significance of the content, style and color. Thus, painting provides an opportunity for engagement and self-awareness.

Some people confuse my enthusiasm for an evaluation. I share my painting nonetheless because this engagement brings me enjoyment, which is readily available to anyone willing to let the process itself take over. Take a risk and find a new passion. It makes you mindful, teaches you about yourself and, perhaps most important, could be enormous fun.

Michael Bencsik

200bwmichaelbencsik.jpgMichael Bencsik has dealt with more stress than most CFOs;
‘As Michael Bencsik CPA prepared for his sixth Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race in December 1998, he was reasonably comfortable with his crew and surroundings. Climbing aboard the AFR Midnight Rambler on Boxing Day, Bencsik, accompanied by six fellow crew members, was excited about the challenge ahead. Within three days, his life had changed forever. On a 35ft yacht, Bencsik – along with most of the fleet – was completely unprepared for the swell and winds that developed in what turned out to be a disastrous race, when only 44 out of the 115 starting yachts finished. Six competitors died.

‘It was terrifying,’ says Bencsik, “There were 60ft seas and 80-knot winds, which sounded like screaming. It was ferocious on top of the boat, but inside was no better, as it felt like you were inside a drum. All you could hear was crashing waves, and you were thrown from side to side. Everything below was damp and wet.’

Battling through the horrendous conditions, the AFR Midnight Rambler sailed through to win the Tattersalls Trophy for finishing first under the international measurement system (IMS) handicap. It is still the smallest yacht to win the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race since 1998. ‘We were excited by the win but that was somewhat tempered by finding out the full extent of what had happened,’ Bencsik recalls. ‘It was a shock.’’

Michael Bencsik is currently Chief Financial Officer of HSBC Bank Australia. He joined HSBC in 1999 as Financial Controller. Prior to this he has worked in various finance roles within Westpac Banking Corporation and TSB Banking Group in the United Kingdom. His interests are still Ocean racing (14 Sydney Hobart Races), Rugby Union and family.

I interviewed him in April 2007

Q. Do you feel there is more or less pressure placed on you as you have progressed in the HSBC?
In my role as CFO HSBC, you tend to have a broad commercial understanding that brings together all the parts of the bank and have the knowledge of the whole value chain. There is an element of increased ‘positive’ stress where you are in a senior position to effect change within the bank. It comes from the increased responsibility place by the Board and shareholders in managing the financial stewardship of the organisation and balancing this with the expectation from staff that they look to you with confidence that you are able to provide the proper leadership, guidance and communication. At more senior levels in the bank, it is perhaps the soft or people skills which emerge as becoming more important than the hard technical ones.

Turnover at the CEO and CFO level is on the rise because more and more Boards and shareholders are enforcing greater accountability over the success or failure of a strategy on the senior management team who have the responsibility for implementing it. This is perhaps where elements of ‘negative’ stress emerge.

Q. Would you agree, in general, that the more control you have over your environment, the less stress you have?
One of the constants in a CFO role is change which is increasing in pace, depth and breadth. Working within a global bank and managing customers and businesses across geographic boundaries produces various risks and opportunities. I tend to have less stress where I am familiar with the cause and effect levers within my immediate local environment. As HSBC is a global organisation, my matrix reporting lines into London, Hong Kong and the US increasingly give rise to changes in the level of stress myself and the team experience particularly where you are dealing with novel, ambiguous or complex information. Being effective in navigating the political landscape of the global business environment and having time to appreciate the cultural subtleties and nuances when working across countries with your internal peers, helps reduce stress. In addition, reporting to the CEO increases a CFO’s control over his environment because we are in direct communication with the ultimate influencer over the company, the CEO.

One of the constants in a CFO role is change which is increasing in pace, depth and breadth. Working within a global bank and managing customers and businesses across geographic boundaries produces various risks and opportunities. I tend to have less stress where I am familiar with the cause and effect levers within my immediate local environment. As HSBC is a global organisation, my matrix reporting lines into London, Hong Kong and the US increasingly give rise to changes in the level of stress myself and the team experience particularly where you are dealing with novel, ambiguous or complex information. Being effective in navigating the political landscape of the global business environment and having time to appreciate the cultural subtleties and nuances when working across countries with your internal peers, helps reduce stress. In addition, reporting to the CEO increases a CFO’s control over his environment because we are in direct communication with the ultimate influencer over the company, the CEO.

Q. In the role as a financial executive how does stress affect you?
It tends to have a positive impact on my work ethic because it encourages me to perhaps work harder to achieve the desired outcome. I believe that to be an effective CFO, stress is an important enabler as it tends to set a performance expectation level to staff to raise the level of their output.

Q. What mechanisms does your Organisation have for dealing with stress?
Employee Assistance Program – confidential external consultant where employees can go to seek independent advice whether on a work related or personal issue;
Staff are able to take 5 days personal or family leave if required outside of the normal annual leave and sick leave entitlement;
Ability to purchase an additional week’s annual leave on top of the minimum annual 4 week entitlement;
Adequate management training programs focused at managing stress;
Mentoring programme – senior staff mentoring up and coming managers
Flexible working hours policy – to assist staff with family requirements e.g. staggered working hours or part time work for certain staff;
Work behaviours manual – defined set of rules on how we expect staff to act;
Creating a culture of a supportive team environment – accessibility to senior management to voice concerns;
Employee attitude survey – independent yearly survey enabling staff to confidentially provide feedback;
Focus groups – facilitated by human resources to give to teams in customer groups time to provide feedback and reflection to each other about what is working, what is not working.

Q. On a personal level how do you deal with stress?
I have a range of outside interests which help me to balance stress and work.
It is easy with my job to be on call 24 hrs a day, so I switch off my blackberry on weekends and spend quality time with my wife and kids and friends.

I undertake a lot of sailing namely ocean racing with a crew of 10 or a 40 ft yacht, and have competed in 14 Sydney Hobart yacht races including winning the tragic 1998 Sydney Hobart on handicap and other divisional wins and placings. I currently race with a crew of ten on a 40 foot racing yacht which given the inherent weather conditions is a different form of stress! Sailing is my passion but has indirect benefits for self development, decision making, goal setting, teamwork and leadership that can be applied to a corporate environment. Our team for example is being used as a case study for a leadership training program being developed in the USA.

I am on the Board of a CFO mentoring company FEI Australia. I am one of a handful of CFOs which mentor rising young financial executives, typically in their mid-30s, who may be potential CFOs of the future. The Mentoring role enables me to give something back to other finance staff in providing a forum for sharing my own experiences including career mistakes etc with up and coming executives
I am on the Board and treasurer of a children’s charity Barnardos Australia. It provides a greater appreciation of my own circumstances. The role also helps expand my management skills as a director of an independent board and furthers my interest in Children welfare in promoting the general level of work and support the organisation provides in the community.

The above helps me with dilute any stress as it gives the ability to appreciate diversity of opinion and look at options from different points of view. By exercising soft and hard skills learned in a professional workplace to a different environment I feel more empowered and motivated as you are doing what you are interested in. It also provides a sense of perspective in work matters to issues outside of work.

Q. Are there any thoughts, insights, examples you could give me that would help me understand stress and your role better?
Generally the stress surrounding my role is balancing the competing needs of the business in my professional capacity and that of my personal life. In particular, I strive to provide a value adding role to assist the business by navigating and managing the areas of the business through the challenges of being part of a global orientated bank whilst at the same time ensuring that my staff have a meaningful and fulfilling career through meeting their development needs.

The CFO role I have is quite diverse and constantly challenging. An element of stress is positive in driving that edge of performance and ensuring that I am able to raise the level of performance of myself and that of my team.

There are three key areas which I generally seek to attain in managing stress:
Time balance between work and non work activities;
Involvement balance of the psychological involvement in, or commitment to work and non work activities;
Satisfaction balance obtained by myself in participating in certain activities.

There is no optimal equilibrium between the above areas as balance needs to be considered from multiple perspectives which are specific only to me. Trade-off between competing priorities is inevitable.

Steven Forrest

200bwstevenforrest.jpgSteven Forrest is the author of several astrological bestsellers: THE INNER SKY, THE CHANGING SKY, THE BOOK OF PLUTO, THE NIGHT SPEAKS, MEASURING THE NIGHT (with Jeffrey Wolf Green), SKYMATES, Volumes One and Two (with Jodie Forrest), and the mystery novel, STALKING ANUBIS. His work has been translated into a dozen languages, most recently Romanian.

Sting calls Steven’s work “as intelligent and cogent as it is poetic.”

DELL HOROSCOPE describes him as “not only a premier astrologer, but also a wise man.”

Callie Khouri, screenplay writer of ‘Thelma and Louise’, praises his “humour, insight, poetry, and astute, articulate observations of human nature.”

Rob Brezny, in his popular Real Astrology column simply calls him “the most brilliant astrologer alive.”

Steve lives in Chapel Hill with his wife, Jodie Forrest and two tyrannical felines.

I interviewed him in April 2007

Q. How relevant is technology to astrology today?
The grey-haired among us still know how to cast charts by hand, using tables and mathematics, but I think it’s fair to say that 98% of us in the western world have become utterly dependent on our computers. I used to spend about five hours a week simply doing the arithmetic. It’s a relief to be able to focus on the deeper, more creative aspect of the work now. I have no nostalgia for the “good old days” at all.

Q. How has this developed over the years?
Obviously, the user interface has become slicker and easier. There has also been a proliferation of new techniques due to so much of the process becoming streamlined. People are freer to experiment and create.

Q. What are the benefits / disadvantages of this?
I personally think that there has been some over-complicating of the Field. People are swimming in so many options that there has been attrition in terms of the deeper integrative, intuitive “art” of astrology. I think medicine would be a good analogy – with all the specialization and technology, we’ve kind of lost the idea of personal relationship with a physician who knows you as an individual. It’s similar in some ways in my field, although not nearly as extreme.

Q. How would you describe your relationship with technology?
Totally dependent, moderately enthusiastic, happy to remain a couple years behind the cutting edge.

Q. Any final thoughts?
In the old days, when people had to know the math behind a chart, they would often catch silly mistakes more easily — such as someone born at noon, but the chart shows the Sun below the horizon. Now, with less understanding of the actual astronomy and more dependency on the machine to do the thinking, such errors are often not noticed.

Executive Stress

First appeared in ‘Financial World’ (UK)

From the late 1920s stress has been defined as a “fight or flight” reaction to a threat, or a perceived threat.

This definition by Walter Cannon now appears to be incomplete and research also suggests that the order is wrong.

Jeffrey Gray, amongst others ethologists, redefines the onset of stress as having three distinct stages – freeze, flight and only then fight.

The initial stage, “the freeze response”, is described as a state of hyper-vigilance (being on guard, watchful, or hyper-alert). This “stop, look, and listen” stage is associated with fear. Ethological research has demonstrated that prey that remain “frozen” during a threat are more likely to avoid detection.

Following this initial freeze response, the next response in the sequence is an attempt to get away from the danger. Once that option has been exhausted, there is an attempt to fight. These reactions always occur in this order.

These observations within the animal world are still thought to apply to humans as a hangover from primitive times. When we get into stressful situations the body automatically carries out a number of functions:

Firstly it discharges large amounts of adrenalin into the blood stream.

It shuts down the digestive system to allow an increased blood flow to the muscles.

It thickens the blood so that if the organism is cut, the blood will clot quickly.

These chemicals stay in the body and cause the symptoms we associate with stress these days – upset stomach, palpitations, heart disease, depression, etc.

Today a modern financial executive is more likely to encounter stress with a last minute presentation to the board, rather than being attacked by a wild animal. Yet the same stages are involved. We’ve all experienced the freeze response – or denial response, as some psychologists interpret the threat. It takes the form of: “Why me?” This is followed by the flight option. This can be quite tempting at the time, and occasionally the stress is so bad that flight – physically or emotionally – is the only way out.

However, more often than not the final option kicks in. This inevitably manifests itself as the “challenge”. The CFO has to respond as rationally and calmly as possible whilst the adrenaline builds up. Once or twice this is good. However, over a number of months, or years, it can eventually cause headaches, ulcers, etc as well as potential psychological and behavioural problems – depression, sleeplessness, etc.

The timing of stress is different from executive to executive. Graham Beasant, director of Finance and Corporate Resources at theUK’s Central Office of Information (COI), feels stress for him has an almost seasonal element: “I feel more pressure from April to June due to the end of the financial year and the preparation of COI’s annual report. During this time there are deadlines placed on COI by Parliament, the public and auditors.”

Maurice Phillips, finance director, Southdown Housing Association identified different aspects of the job as having more stress: “If you have a chance to work in finance then you will realise that most finance jobs are very busy in any organisation and stress comes with the nature of the work. The higher you go the more demanding and stressful the job becomes.”

Stress isn’t all bad though – we need some stress in our lives in order to perform – those last minute energy rushes to meet a deadline, the adrenaline that gives you the ability to see sharper, hear more and react quicker when placed in uncomfortable situations. We need stress – without it life would be incredibly boring. On the positive side stress is a source of motivation and a necessary component to survival. But it’s this excessive or prolonged stress that inevitably takes a toll on health.

A recent development in the study of stress links to control – the less control people have over their lives the more stress they tend to have. In terms of management within organisations, occupational psychologist Cary Cooper says: “Senior managers have ‘a sense of control’ … they feel they’re involved in decision-making. Research over the last couple of decades has shown that people who feel they have no control, no autonomy over the job they do in the workplace are likely to get a stress-related illness.”

How much control, as employers and managers do we have over these factors? Quite a bit, it would seem. Many of these factors relate to job design and communicating expectations – these are probably within the control of managers. Some organisations seem to take these factors very seriously indeed and many have introduced schemes for managing stress amongst their workforce.