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.


So you’re thinking of starting a new business?

First appeared in ‘Home Business’ (Australia)


So, you’re thinking of starting a new business?

First the doom and gloom;

the statistics – Some figures suggest that 93% of craft businesses fail in their first year, and of the 7% that survive only half of those will make it past 5 years;

the money – There is every likelihood of you not having a regular salary for a few tears;

the time – There will be occasions, especially early on, when you will be exhausted having worked a 100 hour week.

On the positive side however you are your own boss. Really, you are your own boss. There’s no-one telling you what to do, when to work, when to take holidays, when to go home.

Seems a good deal to me.

So what do you need to do that could help you survive? There are a number of steps you need to go through before you start selling and recouping some of your outlay. These steps are the planning stage and are vital. A great many businesses that fail ignore these steps and jump straight into the action – the ‘doing’ stage and regret it. It’s understandable but it is a mistake – be patient. So, do the planning and thinking first, before things go wrong. There is a good deal of financial and legal help out there available to you. There are articles on business plans, cost benefit analyses, market strategies, cash flow matrices, etc. all freely available. These articles are written by far more qualified people than me. My advice would be to read them if that’s your style and try to relate them to your business on the most practical level you can. If there is something you really can’t do – the financial or legal implications of starting a business springs to mind – get the best advice you can afford.

What I’ll be looking at are the personal implications for you. Psychologically you need to be strong and determined. You need to be confident and determined. This will not always be as straightforward as it seems. There will be times when you’re tired, broke, fed up. These are the times when you really need to be sure of a few things;


Number one – You need an idea. It’s not enough to want to do ‘something’. You need an idea and you really need to believe in it yourself. This will be a large part of your life for a long time so if you have any serious doubts about it early on – have a rethink. Do a little research on your idea. Find out about competitors, opportunities. Get some information on a range of aspects. Talk to people. Carry out some basic research. However, it’s important not to get too bogged down in the detail. One of the traits of successful entrepreneurs is their ability not to over-analyse. They are frequently confident enough to go for something before all the results are in. What helps a great deal though is their ability to adapt their ideas, stay flexible and keep constantly alert.


This is the key to setting up your business. You need a strong set of values and beliefs. To help this you should sit down and ask yourself a few very difficult questions;

Vision – What would success look like? Where would you like to be in 3 years time? What are the values you have? What won’t you compromise on?

Why do you want to run your own business?

What are you go at?

What aren’t you good at?

What are you like when things aren’t going well?

Have you people who can help you?


You need to be clear about exactly what business you are in and everything about your business. I was amazed recently to hear a leading figure for McDonald’s stating that McDonald were in the retail business. On further thought I realised that if people stopped buying McDonald’s meals tomorrow they would still survive. Their restaurants are all placed in extremely marketable locations.

Parker Pens had a meeting a number of years ago when they were trying to compete with cheap pens and realised they weren’t in the ‘pen business’ at all. They understood that their main competition wasn’t Bic but bracelets. Think about it. When did you last buy, or receive a Parker pen. I would guess it was some kind of gift, or present. Realising this totally transformed parker Pen’s mindset. Instead of trying to cut costs to compete withy cheap pens they spent more and added nice boxes, ribbons and marketing to help their products compete in the gift business. What business are you in?

If you know what business you’re in you should know who your customers will be shouldn’t you? Use this fun exercise with any trusted colleagues to gain some interesting insights;

Write the name of any customers, or potential customers on post-it notes. These customers can be grouped however you want to; “Mr. Smith”, “students”, “men with spare money who like football”, “ex-criminals who eat chicken” , etc.. List them in whatever way makes this real to you.

The next stage is to draw a simple 2 by 2 matrix with INTEREST (HIGH to LOW) on the Y axis and DISPOSABLE INCOME (LOW to HIGH) on the X axis.

You’ll then have 4 areas:





Now place the postits in the relevant sections. This part of the exercise, in itself often reveals some interesting insights as you discuss where certain groups of customers, or potential customers, sit.

Having completed this focus on the right hand side of the grid. These are the people with the money. The people who are highly interested and have a high disposable income should be customers already – if they’re not then make sure they are tomorrow.

Then focus on the group with high disposable income who are not interested. What would it take to interest these people? Do they know about you? Where do they go? What do you need to do to get them to hear about your product?

On the other side of the grid take notice of these people and keep them informed – especially the group with a low disposable income – who knows they may get money soon, but don’t spend too much time and resource on them. You simply can’t afford to.

This simple, fun process should help you target your marketing. One other point – you need to repeat this process regularly – people move and new customers emerge – it’s very useful.


So, on the one hand it’s hard work, incredibly risky, guaranteed sleepless nights for little money – certainly in the beginning. On the other hand you haven’t got a boss. Still seems a great idea to me.

When Projects don’t happen, or Stakeholder Analysis meets the Pareto Principle

First appeared in ‘CEO Refresher’ (U.S.A.)

So, you’ve spent six months on a project. You’ve developed it perfectly. It’s neat, clearly labelled, signed off. It looks great on paper. So why isn’t anything happening?

Get together half a dozen or so colleagues and run this simple exercise.

Look at your key stakeholders. In terms of this project who are they? Write the name of each one on a post-it. They could be the press, your senior management team, the staff, whoever. Jot all the groups or individuals who have a stake in your project on a separate postit note. There may well be differences of opinion in your team as to who the key stakeholders are. If that’s the case my guess is that everyone’s right and include all of them.

Draw the following grid on a flipchart.



| (Section A) (Section B)




| (Section C) (Section D)



LOW ———- commitment ————–> HIGH

Look at each postit in turn. How would you assess that stakeholder’s influence and commitment? For instance if the HR Department has a high influence in the success of the project, but a low commitment to the project they would be placed in Section A.

Plot these stakeholders – discuss – disagree – why do you see it differently from others? There will be some valuable lessons here for you. Take some notes.

Finally you’ll have some agreement. No doubt you’ll have stakeholders scattered throughout the grid. Now comes the fun part.

Look at the stakeholders in Sections C and D. Take each postit off the chart, crumple it into a ball and throw it away. Unless you have unlimited resources – chuck these postits away – really. And forget about them until the next time you run this exercise. Really! You have not the time or energy to deal with these groups. So remove them from your mind.

Next, look at Section B – high in influence and high in commitment – leave them alone. Keep them sweet yes – but again, you can’t afford to expend your energy on these people. They are basically OK. They’re on your side. Don’t upset them!

You’ve Section A left. These are your targets. Go for them in a big way. Develop strategies to move them into Section B. Look after them. Talk to them – ask them what their concerns are. Address these problems. This is where 80% of your effort must come.

The Interview and the job – a 4 part series

First appeared in ‘Career Times’ (Hong Kong.)

In a short series of articles I’ll take you through some of the techniques and skills required to interview, be interviewed and handle that first day in a new post once you’ve passed the interview.

The first part looks at a technique used to give some structure to the interview and some………….


Behavioural interviewing is based on the belief that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The best way to gauge if a person is going to perform well in a new job is to look at the way they have performed in their current and previous posts. I agree. How could you not? Especially when you look at the alternatives;

Alternative approach – stress

“The stress interview sorts the wheat from the chaff. Put people in a stressful interview and you’ll see what they’re like in a stressful job”. Oh yes. That’ll work then. Why not pull a gun on them and be done with.

A friend of mine was once asked how he would deal with someone who had raped his sister. This was for a job at the bank. The idea, I believe was to try and establish how he would react under stress.

He replied; “Well hypothetically I would put this fact out of my mind. I would treat each occasion as objectively as possible not allowing my feelings to impair my judgement. I would make no assumptions. I would attempt to love and respect this person as an individual. I would try to understand where they were coming from. I would treat each situation on its own merits…” You get the point. You ask hypothetical questions you get hypothetical answers. You put people under stress at an interview they react like they would if they were put under stress at an interview. It doesn’t translate to life outside the interview room.

Focus on the job. Ask questions about the work people are likely to be doing. Don’t ask hypothetical questions or you’ll get hypothetical answers

So what can you do? Well if you have to conduct an interview then do it properly. Tell candidates what’s going to happen. Tell them what areas you’ll be discussing. Tell them how long they’ve got. Don’t surprise people. If there’s a position as a System’s Analyst – ask them questions about that. You wouldn’t interview a nanny for your children and ask them questions on thermo-nuclear dynamics would you? Would you? Yet people get asked some odd things? I was asked how I would resolve the miner’s strike when I first applied for a computer programmer’s job. Other stories abound about “killer questions” – “Do fish feel pain?” was a classic some time ago. “If a mother and a baby were drowning and you could only save one, which would you choose” I was asked a very long time ago. With a little more life experience my answer now would seem to be along the following lines;


“Neither – then they’d both die?”


“That’s stupid!”

“Well you started it”

No trick questions. Focus on the skills necessary to carry out the post. Be honest with people and show them respect- the interview is about them, not you

Look at the skills required for the job, look at the candidates – match them up. Choose the candidate who’s the best fit. The older I get the easier (some parts of) life gets. I know this is easier said than done. I agree, but it’s a lot easier than playing some convoluted game that only interview panel members know the rules to.

Match the skills for the job with the skills the interviewee has

It all starts a long time before the interview. Way before the advert goes out. As soon as there’s a thought about a job being available it begins. Define the job. Spell out the skills needed. Advertise these. Send out application forms that are helpful to this process, please. Ask candidates to supply examples they have gathered of them displaying the skills. Don’t ask for a set of six skills and send a form out that relates to other skills – “It’s our standard form” Personnel will say. Argue. Disagree. Refuse. Send out forms related to the job -it will save you so much grief in the long run.

Evaluate the forms matching the evidence (past behaviours) against the job (current criteria). At the interview you should merely have to fill in the gaps, or build on the examples, or (with any luck) choose between well-qualified candidates.

Approach the task strategically from day one. Focus on the skills required for the job and gear everything towards that

It’s as simple as that. It seems so easy it almost feels like cheating I know. Once you’ve established this system though the real skill comes in the interviewing – translating what they say to match with the job. More on that next time……..


In the last article I looked at the basic structure for the behavioural interviewing approach. If you recall the main premise of this was that the best predictor of future performance was past behaviour. I.e. if you’ve demonstrated proven management skills in the past the chances are you will be able to perform at that level in the next job. It sounds easy however life has a way of making things complicated. Which is why you need….



The first part, unsurprisingly, is all about preparation. It’s such a management cliché that preparation is everything. It’s not – you have to have skills as well, as I’ll deal with later – but preparation certainly makes the job a great deal easier.

The relationship between board members is vital.

One aspect of the preparation that doesn’t get enough attention is the relationship between board members. In many Organisations it’s felt that you can put any three experienced people on an interview panel and it will automatically work. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like that; people are a bit like me and you – we’re odd – we have likes, dislikes, and different ways of working, different styles. Board members do not, necessarily have to like each other, although this does help. What is important however is that they all have the same focus – selecting the best candidate for the job. They mustn’t be in the game of scoring points, showing off, proving how clever they are or any of that egoistically nonsense. We’ve all seen that and it doesn’t help anyone. The first interview I was ever involved in was conducted with a senior manager who had to a ninety second preamble to each question explaining, well basically, how experienced an clever he was. He annoyed me, the chair and every candidate – yet as he had ‘always’ interviewed trainee managers no-one had the skill / intelligence / courage to tell him.

Agree a system

An important role of the board team is to agree on a system of questioning. They need to divide the competence areas they are looking at and take responsibility for assessing their particular area. This part is usually straightforward. There is another – less straightforward aspect which is concerned with how board members work with each other.

Agree how you’ll work together

The board members should agree a set of values. These values are rarely spoken but seem to evolve as the interviewing process evolves. The values should be aligned to the focus – selecting the best candidate for the job. In real terms this means a great deal of trust and respect between board members. It means that there is an implicit agreement that one interviewer can use the majority of the time allocated to deal with one particular area because they feel it’s vital. It means that one interviewer can (skilfully) interrupt another interviewer if they feel the question hasn’t been dealt with clearly, or there is still some ambiguity. This requires a mature approach and real honest discussion between board members. As you know this doesn’t always happen. I’ve sat on boards where people have sulked for hours because they believed another member had “stolen” all their questions.

The interview

As I say if you’ve carried out all the preparation the interview is a lot easier – but still incredibly difficult.

There is a great many theories around about first impressions. They vary in the amount of time people make a decision (somewhere between 10 seconds and 3 minutes, seems to be accepted) but this is important. Studies concerned with interview suggest that interviewers frequently decide very early on if a candidate is suitable or not and spend the rest of the interview confirming their initial impression. This is a danger to be aware of. Another potential danger is for the interviewer to choose the candidate who’s most like them. Being aware of this helps reduce the risk of this, as does having different personalities on the board.

The key aspects to behavioural interviewing however are asking the right questions and listening to the replies.

Throughout the interview the interviewers has to get as much evidence as they can about the candidate’s previous experience. Let’s look at a vital aspect- listening. You have to concentrate so intently – you’ll feel absolutely worn out at the end of each day.

The reason you’re so tired is the listening. This listening really takes it out of you. It is hard to listen – especially in an interview. Lots of things can get in the way; disagreeing for example – an interview isn’t really an occasion to have a debate with the candidate about your preferred method of approaching some controversial issue – You’re there to evaluate their approach, how they communicate, how they meet the criteria, etc.. So unless they say something so radically off the wall then try not to let it get in the way.

Thinking will also stop you listening. I don’t mean the sensible thinking about what’s being said and assessing the candidate – I’m more concerned with the thinking as you look out of the window and wonder” I wonder what time I’ll be home tonight”, or, especially for newer interviewers, thinking about the next question. Anticipating where they’re going with the answer will get in the way too.

What helps the listening process immensely is being able to totally focus on the interviewee and give them your full attention. Paraphrasing and summarising will help with this. It allows you to control the interview and once it becomes automatic for you it allows you time to think about that next question.

Paraphrasing is just about repeating the essence of what the interviewer has said in your own words. As you do this it highlights any gaps. You can then ask to fill in those gaps.

On vital aspect is to look at the other person as much as you sensibly, can. Look for the discrepancy between what they are saying and their body language. A lot has been written about body language but for me it boils down to the words matching the body. Sometimes you just know when these don’t match. The truly skilled interviewers learn to acknowledge this inconsistency and check it out. It may not be true – there may well be a great reason they’re folding their arms in a ‘defensive’ manner – they may just be cold. Don’t ignore these signals



Last time we looked at some of the skills needed when interviewing. This time we’ll put you on the other side of the table. These are some of the things you need to think about when you want to land that big job.

Getting experience of interviewing other people is a great asset here. The more you interview the easier it is to be interviewed. You know what people want and you can concentrate on trying to give them exactly what they need.

There are some practical measures you can take that should help;


Firstly find out as much as you possibly can about the job. Find out about the Organisation you’re going to work for (if it is a move outside your current post). Find out about the people who will be interviewing you. If it’s an internal promotion this will be easier. Nevertheless find out as much as you can about them – what are their particular pet projects at the moment. There’s no guarantee this will crop up at the interview but it certainly won’t do you any harm to find out that one of the people interviewing you is working on a project concerning pensions. You may well start looking at pensions in a bit more detail.

Study the paperwork

Look carefully at all the paperwork. When you submit a CV or application form keep a copy of that. Keep a copy of the job description and any other paperwork related to it. You know that the people interviewing you only have this information about you. So, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself “If I were reading this what questions would I ask?” Where are the gaps? What are the strengths? What stands out on the form? If you’ve worked for a year in a betting office in England (as I did) you know they are going to ask about that so be prepared. Be sure that you know your application form or CV inside out and can explain anything you’ve written down. Work through it line by line if necessary and think of one example to back up each quality you describe. If you’ve said that you’re a sensitive manager but focused on getting results then show it. Think of an example where you’ve had to demonstrate your sensitivity. Prepare for someone asking that question. Also think of an example when you’ve had to focus on results. It’s what you would do if you were interviewing isn’t it? – look for evidence to back up the paperwork. Give the interviewers what they want. In most companies people are looking for good candidates they can trust to do a good job. Interview boards rarely look ‘off the wall’ radical thinking individuals – there are exceptions of course – they tend to come up with a group decision that is frequently very conservative. This “groupthink” can be very dangerous in that all members of a group will tend to look for a unanimous decision on candidates rather than taking a chance. As the person being interviewed you need to be aware of this and ‘safe and controlled’ seems to be the best approach.

You will know all the basic practical details – arrive on time, dress appropriately, etc. so let’s look at some ‘advanced’ scenarios.

A new theory for preparation

There is an interesting theory going around about preparing yourself mentally for interviews or examinations. The theory states that you should prepare for the interview at the same time of the day for several days in advance. The theory being that your body becomes accustomed to ‘turning on’ at that particular time. I’ve yet to see some evidence of the success or otherwise, but it’s certainly an interesting theory. Try it.


However, even prepared yourself as well as you can, will still give you the odd surprise. Recent trends in progressive Organisations go beyond the standard skills, behavioural techniques I’ve described. Yes, you’ve still got to get past this aspect but (and I suspect it’s linked to the ‘groupthink’ scenarios organisations are increasingly looking for something new to challenge you at an interview.

This could be an ‘off-the-wall’ question along the lines of “What is your philosophy of life?” The idea is for you to demonstrate how well you think on your feet.

So what do you do? The first think you do is to take a deep breathe and don’t panic. You can even acknowledge that that has taken you by surprise, if it has. Take a few seconds to consider your answer then answer the question as honestly as you can.

Be yourself

Another technique is to take the candidate to lunch to see how they interact with others in a social setting. You can’t really prepare for the unexpected. All you can do is to expect the unexpected and to deal with each situation as honestly and authentically as you can. Candidates often try to give the interviewers the answers they think the interviewers want to hear. More often than not interviewers want to hear about the candidates’ beliefs and opinions. At the end of the day it’s surely better to fail an interview by being yourself that to fail it because you were trying to be someone else.

Next time we’ll assume you’ve got the position and then the real test comes – meeting your new team, colleagues for the first time…..



You’ve got through the interview after great preparation, watching out for those surprises and being honest. So now you’ve landed the job. Maybe it’s your first managerial job and you’ve finally got real-life problems (or people as we call them) to deal with. You’ve got staff. They’re older than you. They’re wiser than you. They know far more about the Organisation than you. They may even be resentful that someone as young as you have landed the job they wanted. But you want to do a good job, so you’ll learn.


The learning comes well before the first day – before the interview even. You’ve prepared for the interview, learnt a lot about the Organisation now you’ve got the job. So, you learn even more. If you’re new to the Organisation it’s more difficult, in some ways. It’s more difficult to find out about individuals – who you’re working for, with and against but on the other hand you can approach it with an open mind. If you’re from outside or inside find out as much as you can. Find out as much as you can about the culture, the customers, the employees. Find out about your team – personalities, problems, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses. Ask fellow managers. I know the information will be second hand. Treat it as that. You’ll have your own opinions in a few weeks anyway. Use it for what it is – other peoples’ perceptions.

Identify the key people

Try to find out who the real key players are. I don’t mean the people who look as though they have the power from Organisation charts I mean the real key players. Many years ago I was training to be a teacher. The best advice I ever had was from the final lecture. The lecturer, a world-wise owl, asked us;

“Who do you think is the most important person in a school?”

“The headmaster or headmistress”, we sang in unison.

“Not usually”, he answered “The key people are often the caretakers. They have a lot of power and control. So do secretaries and deputy head teachers. Keep on the good side of these” were his final words of advice.”

In an office it’s frequently Personal Assistants. Keep on the right side of these and you find you’ll be able to get that quick meeting with the bosses that others can’t.

Be honest

Think carefully about what you want from the job. Spend some time thinking about you. What do you want from this experience? What’s your vision for the next six months, two years, ten years? Get it clear in your own mind. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests that the clearer it is to you the more likely it is to happen. If you don’t know where you’re going how on earth do you expect your team to know?

People will be looking to you to set the standard. If you spend three hours in work a day surfing the ‘net you’ll have serious credibility issues reprimanding someone for doing the same. During your first few months in the post you’ve got to display zero-tolerance. If someone breaks the rules you need to address it. You cannot let things go. Your staff will test you, and look to see how far they can push you. Not in any malicious way (hopefully) but because they’re human and so are you and they need to learn about you – your style, your values.

Symbolic gestures

This is also a great time for making symbolic gestures. These needn’t be huge, life changing decisions but people will be looking to you to do something – that’s why you were hired. As a newcomer it is perfect for you to spot things. You can, and must ask those naive questions such as “Why do you do that like that?” and listen to the answers. If the answers are “We’ve always done it this way” then this is a great chance for you to change it – if it could be done better. The early decisions you make will have an enormous effect on your reputation for a long time. Be aware of this and use the first few weeks, months carefully.

Get the balance right

However painful it may be you, you are the boss. You make that final decision. It’s especially difficult if you’ve been promoted from within the team and have to manage colleagues but… well that’s the job. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t socialise with your staff. There is a school of thought that feels it’s not the done think to socialise with your staff. I’ve known some of these people and as soon as they were promoted they stopped socialising with people they had socialised with for years. The reasons given were along the lines of;”I don’t want to get close in case I have to discipline them”. I sometimes wonder if these people make their children eat in a separate room at home for the same reason. Get the balance right.

It’s all about people

The quality of the work the team produces is directly related to the quality of the relationships within that team. As the leader you are responsible for this happening. How? By doing everything you need to. People are different – get to know what makes them tick. You do this by talking and listening – a lot of listening. Talk to your people everyday. Every morning talk to a good number, if not all of them. Listen when they tell you about their kids, their cats, their football team. If you’re uncomfortable doing this, well that’s unfortunate. This is a skill you need to learn. It’s as much a part of your job as managing the finances.

Painless Strategic Management for Busy Managers

First appeared in ‘Better Business (U.K.)

I am making an assumption based on some experience and a good deal of hearsay about busy managers. My assumption is that a large proportion of you think strategic management is something that happens in books or with IBM or some other large Organisation.

“Not for me, thank you very much.”

Now, don’t worry I’m not going to bore you senseless with a long article on cost benefit analysis, TQM or force field analysis. I want to try to give you some practical (fun, even) ideas to help you have more control of the business and move your business forward.

Firstly a question; “What business are you in?”
Sounds a fairly innocuous question doesn’t it? But maybe it’s not so simple.

Look at the example of Parker pens. Parker pens have had a great name and reputation since their beginning in 1888. Yet somehow by the mid 1980s they were in crisis. Over the past nine decades Parker pens had survived wars, cheap imports, ballpoint pens, roller ball pens, etc. .
Now, in a period of relative calm they were in disarray. They were losing money despite a large range of initiatives. The approach that had evolved was one of competing in foreign markets and neglecting their traditional markets. So, a strategic meeting was arranged and there was one item on the agenda; “What market are we in?”. Answering this question transformed their business.

Someone asked the question; “When did you last receive a Parker pen?”. Ask yourself that question. I guess, like most of us you’ll have a similar response to the people at the meeting; birthday present, Christmas present, presentation – a reward of some sort. Parker Pens finally worked out that they were in the gift business. They were not in the market of competing with cheap pens, etc. This insight transformed their business. Instead of continually cutting cost and quality they spent more on quality and marketing. They redesigned and repackaged their products. They increased their advertising budget by 60%. They raised their prices and began to target the “style-conscious and affluent sector.” Despite a world recession Parker pens increased its turnover by almost 50% in the last half of the decade.

So now – which business are you in? The gift business? The everyday business?
What are your markets? The luxury end of the business? The exclusive market?

If you really think you know who your customers are and what they want that’s really good. This next part of the exercise is the fun part. You’re allowed to day-dream, be a little creative, let your imagination run away with you. This works really well if there are a couple of you to bounce ideas off each other. Now think about who your customers could be? Who are your potential customers? List as many ‘types’ of people you can think of that are interested in your products. Don’t worry that they haven’t any money, or live in Australiaor anything. Just list your potential customers.

This list could include individuals – Mr Jones, groups – students, farmers, “businessmen with no time”, or even Organisations – “Marks and Spencer”, “Harrods”, The Clergy..

You should have quite a nice list. Now write alongside each entry why they don’t buy from you at present – “no money” perhaps, “no time to talk to them “, “never heard of me”

Now have a look at those reasons and for each reason see if there’s something you can control or influence that would make them customers. Influence could mean anything you could possibly do to influence them – from sending them an email to arranging a thirty minute selling meeting with them. If there is (and remember we’re still in non-practical thinking mode here) then just put a tick alongside the customer.

Now look at the list. One of the reasons for doing this is to show how much control you actually do have when trying to win more customers. This shows that you have some control or influence over many, many aspects of your business.

Now it’s finally time to get real and practical. Look at the list and identify one or two potential customers or groups of potential customers who would have a significant impact on your business if they became customers. Highlight those. Think carefully about what you can do to win those people over. Don’t worry too much about the timescale. You’ve already identified that you can have some influence – just flesh
that out. If possible talk to people about ideas. Identify something you can do that will kick start the process. Trust me even if nothing happens you’ll feel better about it.

Go back to the list and identify some very simple, easy (hopefully cheap, or even free) things you can do that will give you a ‘quick win’. Something you can do tomorrow that will have an effect. It may be that you just change your pricing strategy. Whatever you decide to do, do it immediately. This action will give you more energy to move onto the next target customers. Once you get some impetus it’s hard to stop – just like a snowball.

A quick word on pricing. Sellers are often ‘afraid’ of price. They’re afraid that if something’s too expensive no-one will buy. Well that may be true but there’s a similar problem if the price is too low. There is a great story about a business woman who was selling jewellery and it wasn’t going to well. The story goes that she was with her bank manager and realised she’d have to do something so she phones her assistant to reduce the prices. The following day she goes to the shop
and sees her assistant beaming.
“Great strategy we’ve sold lots more jewellery”
“Yes but what’s it cost us?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I told you to half the amount”
“I thought you said “Add a nought. “so I did and we’ve sold lots more.”

It’s probably an apocryphal tale, but it does make a point. People don’t always want the cheapest they can get. If something is well made, unique, people want to pay for it. I’ve worked with people who have said “Oh I couldn’t ask that for it – I know how much it cost to make.”I would doubt if anyone really does – once you’ve taken in the cost of everything, your time, the articles that don’t sell, the hours of
paperwork it’s impossible to know the price. One tip someone told me was to look at the finished article and ask yourself how much you’d pay for it if you knew little about the cost of producing it. That’s would be a good starting point for your pricing.

So you’ve done a stakeholder analysis and looking at pricing strategy -maybe this strategy business isn’t as frightening as it sounds.

Truth, Power and Equality of Opportunities

First appeared in ‘Better Business (U.K.)

‘When in doubt, tell the truth. When not in doubt, tell the truth.’

A simple phrase I picked up on a training course a few years ago has helped me to solve so many problems. You don’t believe me? Try it.

Simple. Easy. Brilliant. Use it as the staple answer for many managerial problems and concerns.

One definition of a manager is that you have staff to manage. If you have staff, you have problems. It goes with the territory. Don’t be surprised. It’s like doctors complaining that they only get to meet sick people – it’s going to happen. Your staff will have problems and they will want you to help. Those 13 short words can really help – ‘When in doubt, tell the truth. When not in doubt, tell the truth’.

How often have you been in a situation, perhaps a meeting, where, for some reason or another, you aren’t sure what’s really going on? Can you recall how frustrating that is for you sitting there trying to look as if you know what’s happening? Try this approach. Tell the truth.

The first time I run this experiment was at a very senior manager’s meeting. The very senior manager was talking about our bid for Investors in People. I had no idea where she was going with the discussion.

I took a deep breath. Then another.

“Irena. Excuse me for interrupting but I have no idea where you are going with this.”

The whole room took a sharp intake of breath.

“Neither have I come to think of it”.

The room laughed, slightly too loudly.

This works incredibly well with all sorts of problems especially personal problems, especially managerial problems. There’s the standard problem that gets asked, in one shape or form, at many interviews; “What would you do if a member of your staff has B.O.?” This type of problem arises all too frequently in life. Someone has a problem, perhaps their work is slipping, they need to change jobs, any number of situations. Try this approach. Ask yourself how you feel about the situation. More often than not I guess you feel uncomfortable, nervous. Address the problem;

“Ken, can I have a word? I feel really uncomfortable doing this but I feel I’ve got to let you know – You obviously haven’t recognised it yourself but I think you’ve got B.O.”. Then wait, listen and keep explaining until they understand. You may not be loved, initially, but I bet you’ll be respected far more than if you’d ignored it and they’d found out another way.

Tell the truth – as it honestly appears to you. There are many types of truth and you can only tell the truth as you see it. Let my explain. If your watch stops and someone asks you the time and you get it wrong – you’re not lying are you? You’re telling the truth as you see it.

This concept of truth is linked to power. There’s a certain power that comes from telling the truth.

A typical training course:

“What do I do if my boss keeps interrupting me and I can’t get my work done.”

“Tell her, “You keep interrupting me and I can’t get my work done.””

“But I feel really awkward about telling her – she’s my boss.”

“Tell her, “I feel really awkward about this as you’re my boss but you keep interrupting me and I can’t get my work done.”


“What do you think will happen?”

“Probably nothing.”

It’s that simple.

There are a number of success stories. Often it’s the smallest things that make a difference. I was training a group of Personal Assistants and one of them was very worried about telling her boss that she wanted to change the layout of the office. It was becoming really stressful for her. She spent a great deal of time complaining to other Personal Assistants, anyone that would listen in fact. She felt her boss would hate it and get furious. We discussed it, acted it out and eventually she decided she’d deal with him. Two days later I got a call – the office had already been changed – it worked out that he hated it as well and didn’t say anything as he felt she would resist. The amount of time and effort that was saved just by this was incredible.

It’s an excellent tool. Use it wisely. Use it honestly. It could help cut through the corporate code that all large organisations use. And there is a lot of corporate code. Having been on the interviewing end of many promotion boards I’ve seen so many reports about saints. Virtually every candidate has never done a bad thing in their life, according to their managers. They’ve never done a bad deed. Never had an evil thought. Then they walk into the room. Please…

After a while you spend all your time looking through the reports looking for secret code words. One secret word is ‘usually’. Alan is usually calm and even -tempered. This translates to Alan has psychopathic tendencies. Rebecca usually responds well to customers, particularly on the telephone. This means Rebecca can lose it on the phone now and again.

Angela is sociable would be code for Angela can be loud and a party animal and may have the odd Monday morning off work with a hangover.

It would be so refreshing to read “Fred is an ace worker in all aspects apart from figure work. He’s useless. He couldn’t add up 2 numbers to save his life.

I’d promote him and keep him well away from the Accounts Department.

On a recent equal opportunities seminar the question came up about managers feeling unable to help. After some discussion the problems were really in the managers’ heads. They were afraid of getting it wrong, afraid of upsetting someone. Having run a number of events with disabled staff and having worked through similar concerns with people with disabilities this approach works extremely well. My advice is – tell the truth. People tend to treat people with respect. They trust peoples’ intentions. If someone makes a mistake but their intention is to be helpful most people will forgive them. If you are unfortunate enough to ask a partially sighted person why they can’t read the signs (as I have) you’re far more likely to get a huge laugh rather than an embarrassed silence.

The question arose: “If you see someone in a wheelchair struggling to open a heavy door, what do you say?”

“Say, excuse me I can see that you’re in a wheelchair struggling to open that heavy door, do you need some help?””

It’s so simple. So easy. So do it.

Unshouldering the Burden

First appeared in ‘CIO’ (U.K.)

“The trouble with companies is, the more staff there

are the less personal responsibility there is.”


The CEO of an organisation asks all the department heads to send any spare resources back to the centre to fund one particular vital project. Two weeks later the CIO has a meeting with a divisional director in an operations team.

“That looks like a sensible project. Maybe we can do something with it next quarter,” says the CIO.

“Why not now?” enquires the divisional director.

“All the spare resource has gone back to the centre. I won’t have any money until the next quarter.”

“Don’t worry about the money,” says the director conspiratorially. “I’ve some tucked away.”

Now I’m sure this would not happen in your organisation. Well, I’m fairly sure unless you work in an organisation of more than 150 people. This is a sort of magic number for companies. It seems that communication problems and hidden agendas emerge far more obviously when there are over 150 employees – give or take a few.

Once that organisation grows and splits into various silos the problems multiply dramatically. A tension develops for managers between the aims of the organisation as a whole and running their own part of the business.

Busy Doing Nothing

I worked in a large public company where one business area recruited 100 staff for a particular project that ended up being postponed for six months. These extra staff were contracted for a year and were just sitting around doing next to nothing. The head of the department announced to the rest of the organisation: “Sorry I screwed up. I’ve 100 staff spare who would like them?”

“How much would these staff cost me?” asked one of the managers.

“Nothing. We’ve arranged to pay them from my budget so they wouldn’t cost you a penny.”

“Where will they sit?”

“I’m sure we can work that out.”

“Who will they report to?”

“Er… I’m not sure yet”

“Forget it. Seems more trouble than it’s worth.”

This silo mentality is a huge blockage in organisations. There is a real problem breaking the walls down. The more established the company the tougher the walls. It gets to the stage where each silo is almost a self-contained unit. While there are benefits here (operating as a small business, good communications within the area, sense of pride in the team), there are huge disadvantages as well. The problems of communication across areas and sharing resources that people have heavily outweigh the advantages. It becomes rare to loan people out or move people. Budgets are guarded. The ‘centre’ becomes the enemy.

“As more people join the group the less effort people put in”

For instance, toward the end of the financial year, large organisations tend to look at budgets for specific areas. I’ve worked in departments that would have a spending frenzy in March.

When asked why they were going crazy buying far more paper clips and pens than they could ever use it was explained that if they didn’t spend their allocated budget then it would be cut next year. When asked why they didn’t explain this to the finance section I was given the ‘you don’t know how it works around here’ look.

Diffusion of responsibility

It seems that the values at the centre don’t apply to the departments. There is the ‘they’re not our values’ mentality. This isn’t necessarily just about a silo mentality. There is a problem with values. They sound good. No one would argue with them but how far would people actually go to uphold them.

In recent years there has been a spate of organisations where the values seem to have been ignored by everyone. Enron, Parmalat, Shell and I guess, for some, this is to do with a ‘silo mentality’. But for me there’s another factor here. It’s been identified as ‘social loafing’.

Try this experiment when there are a dozen or so people in a room. Get one person to clap as loud as they can. Then get two people to repeat this. Then four, then eight. What you should see if you produced a graph of people versus noise is a straight line. In fact what you see is a gentle curve. As more people join the group the less effort people put in.

The values in organisations are susceptible to social loafing I would guess. ‘I thought someone else would do it’ is a common response to missed targets and values. Add this to a silo mentality and there are real problems.