Monday, 1 December 2008

Your Manager: Would you prefer supportive or effective?
That was the interesting question put last week at a conference that I was speaking at. They were using voting pads and so we got an instant response. There were 2 sessions, each with about 200 people, but the response was pretty much the same: in the morning 71% went for supportive, and in the afternoon 69%, so overall:

Effective: 30%
Supportive 70%

This was in a regulator body in the health sector, where getting a decision right is important. But people's views were clear. What was most important for managers was to be there for them.

As one participant put it "If they are supportive then we will cover their backs and make sure they look effective. If they aren't supportive, then they are on their own."

Now ideally we are both effective and supportive as managers. But which are you most focused on: being supportive or being effective?

Friday, 24 October 2008

Etape 2009 (Tour de France) Route Announced

And its Mont Ventoux in the French Alps. For route and altitude, click through to my cycling blog. If you'd like to join me and Diye in training for it, do contact me at

Monday, 20 October 2008

"How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?"

There is much truth in that old Irish saying, quoted this week by Charles Handy. Or, as the great management guru Peter Drucker said when Charles asked him how he learnt. "By listening", he said, "to myself".

I have always found that I work out my view or understanding of something by talking about it. It gets my brain connections working. And I don't think its just me. The logic is simple. If you want people to work out what they think about something, give them time to talk about it. Break up your presentation with time to talk to your neighbour. It is a very simple technique but one rarely used.

Charles was talking at a brilliant Common Purpose event, organised by the irrepressible Julia Middleton, where a range of leaders gave one hour presentations - giving those of us attending a choice every hour of which to go to. Charles had other pieces of wisdom to share:

  • "In 15 Indian languages there is no word for teach, only for learning."
  • "Great teachers tell stories. That is really all they do."
  • "How can you turn your students into teachers so they really learn?"
  • "Everybody has something good in them"
  • "You need a purpose that is bigger than yourself - a passion. You win people over with the infection of your passion, never by force feeding them."
  • "You need to keep on living vicariously for the triumph of others, taking secret pleasure in their achievements that only you know you have played a part in."

A very wise man, of great humility. I felt lucky to have been able to hear him.

And a very interesting thought from a member of the audience: "If you are not a bit scared about delegating to somebody, then you are not delegating enough." I might come back to that one.

Note to Julia: I know the event was under "Chatham House rules" (confidential) but Charles Handy was kind enough to give me permission to quote him.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Share Your Ideas

"I never try to protect my ideas. I've told every idea I've ever had to as many people as possible", Mike Harris

Mike is one of the UK's most successful serial entrepreneurs, having built 3 billion pound businesses (including the internet bank Egg). And I like that approach.

Mike went on to quote Jeffrey Sachs:
"When you share an idea, it gets bigger"

I was once asked by a journalist how we protect our intellectual property. My response was that we give it away for free on the internet. I was referring to the manuals that are our most concrete product. We do now charge for them (at but it is still true that any IT training company can easily obtain and use all our step-by-step manuals. Or learn the secrets of our training approach, Learner Focused Training.

In contrast I remember attending a session on how to succeed on the internet back in 2000. "First, hire a lawyer" was the advice from one expert. Indeed a survey at the time found that internet entrepreneurs put getting the legals right at the top of their list and customer service at the bottom. Not surprising, perhaps, that most of those companies are not still around.

So if you have a great idea, tell people about it. Get their input get their thoughts, make it bigger, make it better. And one final thought from Mike to cheer us up in these challenging times:

"During recessions, the best ideas happen"

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Facing the Consequences of Your Actions

When I've gone to my bank for financial support, like all small business owners, I have been asked to give personal guarantees and to put my house on the line. As the banks ask for financial support, perhaps they should face the same terms that they give out. Imagine how it would concentrate their minds if they knew they could lose it all.

The government claims to be on the side of small business and the entrepreneur. But its a funny thing that the only people who stand to lose their home if they make a mistake (or often when they don't, but are hit by things outside their control) are small business owners.

Chancellors can be personally responsible for losing billions and not lose a penny. (Lamont's £10 billion lost in the ERM collapse comes to mind as does the £2 billion lost by Gordon Brown in the Tube Lines fiasco.) Bank directors can bring great institutions to their knees and not be penalised. Indeed they hang onto the huge bonuses of past years and, often, get an bonus for departing the sinking ship. Even convicted criminals are unlikely to lose their house.

Only entrepreneurs are told that we should face the consequences of our actions in terms of personal loss.

And, of course, it won't be those responsible who pay the price now. It will be front-line staff who face the sack. It will be small businesses who have the plug pulled by anxious banks. Even as I write there are probably bank managers working out which part of the month is the best time to pull the overdraft to make sure the bank gets its money, and never mind a consequences.

As small business people get together, there is one refrain on which we all agree and on which we all have bitter experience: Never trust a bank.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The True Leader Serves Others First

Broadly there are two models of leadership in our society, the power model and the service model. Sadly the former is dominant, based on achieving power and getting people to do things for you. But there is an alternative approach. The service model is based on supporting others and helping everybody get what they need.

This Autumn we are organising a conference to explore different approaches to leading by putting your people first. I am very excited to be jointly organising this event with the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership.

Leaders Serving People
Conference: 3rd & 4th November 2008
Ambassador Hotel, Euston
Cost: 390 (280 for charities)
More Details
Simply email me on if you are interested in coming.

Speakers include comedian Ruby Wax on emotional intelligence, myself and Cathy Busani from Happy, Ella Heeks of Abel & Cole, Lynn Sedgemore, CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership and Kent Keith from the US Greenleaf Centre.The idea is to fully involve you and give lots of space to discuss, reflect and meet like-minded people. Numbers are limited to around 100 so please book early.

Robert Greenleaf created the concept of Servant Leadership with his essay 'The Servant as Leader', over 30 years ago. You may not have heard of him but his ideas have had wide effect with key management thinkers like Steven Covey, Ken Blanchard and Peter Senge acknowledging him as a key influence.

The concept is simple but challenging. Take your role in your organisation, whether you are Chief Executive, or have no management function. (Everybody can be a leader.) You have probably been brought up to fight your corner and put yourself first. Instead the service model proposes that true leaders listen to others and work out how to support and help them, how to be there for them.

And those organisations that have Servant Leadership at their core, such as SouthWest Airlines in the US, are some of the most successful in the world. To quote from Kent Keith's book The Case for Servant Leadership:"We have to decide. Are we going to grab, or give? Are we going to use people, or help people?"

Which model do you follow: the power model or the service model of leadership?What would you do differently tomorrow if your primary focus was on serving others in your organisation?

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Government Procurement: A Hopeless Mess

The marking of SATs (national exams for children aged 11 and 14) is a national joke with many papers unmarked and some not even collected. These were outsourced for the first time this year but, we are reassured by a government spokesman, all the proper procurement procedure was followed in selecting the company to do it.

This reminds me of the old 19th century verdict on amputations, that “the operation was a success but the patient died”. The fact is that most government procedure is a bureaucratic joke and if it chooses the best supplier it is probably by accident.

Reality check: The process chose the wrong company to mark the SATs papers. Rather than checking if the right boxes were ticked during the process, they should be asking "What is wrong with our procurement system that we cocked up so badly?"

Any of us who have been through government procurement can give some clues. In a recent government tender for IT training, there was just one question on IT training itself and 37 on health & safety (learning about computers being a notoriously dangerous practice).

The bid by Happy Computers was thrown out because the accounts were slightly out of date, a requirement that wasn’t even specified. The fact that a survey by the same body had found Happy to be the most employer-focused provider, and the one most highly regarded by its clients, of any in the UK was apparently irrelevant compared to the 3 month delay in posting accounts.

There clearly need to be formal controls in procurement to stop corruption and to ensure responsible companies are chosen. Would it be so radical to have a process that was simple, that involved minimal paperwork and that focused on the company’s ability to actually do the job?

Monday, 7 July 2008

“Pain is Temporary, Quitting Lasts Forever”

The immortal words of Lance Armstrong capture my state of mind as I struggle up the mighty Tourmalet, at 7,000ft the highest pass in the Pyrenees (over twice the height of any mountain in England). The rain is sleeting down and the temperature is near zero, despite it being July, and I am wondering what possessed me to enter the etape – the public stage of the Tour de France.

The local newspaper is to describe the weather as “apocalyptique” and the conditions as ”Dantesque”. And, unlike the marathon, the battle is not just with yourself. Following behind the cyclists is the ‘broom wagon’, which sweeps you off the street if it catches you. Of the 8,500 starters almost two and a half thousand were eliminated.The Tourmalet is a two hour continual climb to a point twice the height of any mountain in England.

But that is not the end. After an exhilarating but freezing descent through the beautiful Gorge de Luz, there is the 5,000 ft Hautacom to conquer. Eventually I finish the 169 kilometres in 9 hours and 6 minutes, 45 minutes ahead of the wagon and the sense of achievement is overwhelming.I have been training for five months but I realise as I ascend the mountain that it is all about determination.

It reminds me of Lance’s statement that it is not the fittest cyclist who wins the race, but the one who can endure the most pain. His quote that “Pain is Temporary” rings true for me after the ride. But it applies not just to physical endurance but also to any activity where it feels too difficult to carry on. In the short term it can feel easier to quit. But in the long term….

Serious cycling has also taught me the power of the group. Going at 21 mph as part of a ‘peloton’ (a group of cyclists in formation) is easier than 16 mph on your own. This is partly down to science (you need far less power when ‘slipstreaming’ the cyclist in front) but also reminds me of the energy and drive of a group of people working towards a shared goal.

And my thanks to our friends at training company Maynard Leigh. It was their Start the Year event in January that set me on this crazy target. And it reminded me that when you really focus on something – and put in the work – anything is achievable.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Systems not Rules

How Celebrating Football Fans Prove the Point
Tonight my local streets are going wild in celebration. Hundreds of flag waving football fans are blocking the main road and cars are hooting wildly. I live off Green Lanes in Hackney, you see, and Turkey have pulled off a spectacular come-back to qualify for the quarter-finals of the European Championships. Their red-and-white flag is everywhere.

No traffic is moving and I feel especially sorry for the drivers of the 141 and 341 buses, who have now been stuck there for over an hour. There are no cars stuck, apart from those displaying red-and-white flags and participating as they have presumably turned round and found other routes.

But the buses stay there, because they presumably aren't allowed to go anywhere else. It is a classic case of the need for Systems not Rules. A Rule is something that must be followed. A System is the best way we know to achieve something, but it can be changed if you think you've found a better way.

The buses follow a Rule: They must go down a specified route, and are only trained to do that. They can't bend the rule even if the route is blocked. Whereas the actual aim is to get the passengers to their destination. Which certainly isn't happening at the moment.

It may be that the drivers don't have authority to make a change. Or it may be that the route is set in law and even their managers can't authorise a change. Would allowing some autonomy lead to anarchy on the buses? Or would it mean, as now, when the roads are completely blocked they find a solution - as the car drivers have?

Do you have set rules which specify exactly how something must be done. Or do you have a clear aim, with a system to achieve it - and encouragement to find a better way if you can?

Friday, 6 June 2008

Note to Entrepreneurs: Avoid Lawyers
The founder of a new start-up company came to me yesterday for advice. He had lots of exciting ideas for how his company was going to be different but had hit one problem: They were taking extensive advice from lawyers and this seemed to be getting in the way of building the company the way they wanted. The employment contract, for instance, was full of "You must" and "You must not" and undecipherable legalese. He wanted flexible hours and employers able to do what they liked on the internet, but he'd ended up with a contract requiring staff to work 10 to 6 every day, and make no personal use of IT.

My advice was simple: ditch the lawyers. No great business I've ever heard of was built by lawyers. At Happy there was a period of 5 years where we paid a total of 200 Pounds to lawyers, and that included signing a 1 million 5 year contract with the NHS.There are legal requirements you must follow and you must, for instance, give your people employment contracts. But you are far better going to somebody like the Federation of Small Business, who will let you know what the legal requirements are and supply a sample contract, and check yours once you've created it, than any lawyer I know.

Lawyers will come up with 101 things you've got to protect yourself against, so you don't get sued. In reality the best way to ensure you never get sued is to be nice to people (staff, clients, partners). Make sure, even when you have to let somebody go, that you leave them feeling good about themselves. We, for instance, give people 3 months to find a new job if it hasn't worked out at Happy. Its much better to have ex-staff who think you are great (and may hire you into their next company) than bad mouthing you to everybody they meet.

Of course there things you need to be firm on. Our contract is very strict on staff not leaving to join clients of Happy. But keep contracts to a minimum. Our client contracts are effectively one paragraph: this states the price, payment and cancellation terms and says they can claim their money back in full if they are not happy with the service.

So my advice to any entrepreneur: Cut the lawyers and keep the contracts to a minimum. Focus instead on delivering such great service that it never crosses anybody's mind to resort to the contract.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

How to get people to embrace change

One of the most common questions I get, after one of my speeches on creating a great workplace, is "My people are so resistant to change, how do I get them to accept it?". In answer I like to give the story of my friend Marion Janner how she has enabled a remarkable programme of change in the NHS mental health sector.

I saw the effect at first hand when I spoke at her conference last year. Present were 150 staff from mental health hospitals across the country, all enthusiastic and positive about the changes they were introducing to improve the life of their patients.

Example: Changing the Mental Health System
Marion is not an NHS manager and is not even an NHS employee. Her experience was as a 'service user'. In the summer of 2005 she was sectioned and spent a month in a North London mental health hospital. This left her full of ideas of how mental health wards could be made into places that really engage their patients, and therefore better helped their recovery.

She came up with a set of 75 practical, easy to implement ideas, created the term Star Wards for the project and published a guidebook for trusts. These range from patients starting to manage their own medication to having pets on the ward. A recent newsletter reported from a ward arranging design competitions and space hopper races.

18 months after its launch, over half the mental health wards in the country are taking part in Star Wards. What staff, patients, managers, commissioners and regulators have found so heartening is the speed with which small changes are being introduced and having a substantial impact on patients’ experiences. And on staff morale. This creates a virtuous cycle of motivation, energy and creativity.

Now Mental Health Today publishes a 4 page supplement on the project every 2 months, Marion has been praised in a Guardian editorial and was one of 3 finalists in the Daily Telegraph Great Briton awards, (Public Life and Campaigning category). All this because one person, with no ostensible power, had an idea that things could be better.

Contrast this with how the government would have approached such a change. They would have started by attacking the work currently being done (as they have with teachers, police etc), and talk about the number of staff not doing a proper job. They would then prescribe a specific set of actions every trust must follow, set targets, introduce league tables and name and shame those not doing well. And then they would wonder why the changes were not being eagerly embraced.

Change Based on Respect
Marion did not prescribe, she suggested. Reading Marion's newsletters you find examples only of the great work certain wards are doing. There is total respect for the professionals involved. There is no set way of doing it, just a range of ideas to try out with people encouraged to come up with new approaches. (Star Wards II will describe the many great pieces of work going on.)

A core belief at Happy is that people work best when they feel good about themselves. Marion's work is a living embodiment of that, and shows the effect of praise, support and encouragement. Questions for YouMy questions to those who want to get their people to change:
  • Are you seeking to impose the change you want or actively engaging your people in the change?
  • How can you involve your people in deciding what needs to happen?
  • Are you focusing on praising the good developments or criticising the problems that remain?
  • Is it a top-down or bottom-up approach?

It isn't change that people resist, but change imposed from above. I'd love to hear your stories of change. Email me on or ring on 07870 682442

More from Marion:
Here are some of Marion's further thoughts after reading this piece:

“Some of the other things that contribute to Star Wards’ popularity are:
It is a very collaborative project. At ward level, the structure (or lack of one!) is very conducive to patients and staff, and also staff from different professions working together. Nationally, Star Wards’ members not only share resources and ideas but have an ‘open source’ approach, adapting and then sharing each others’ ideas and practical resources, such as benchmarking toolkit is so flexible.

Wards which are already providing excellent services can find or adapt (as well as contribute) complex ideas for improvements. And wards which are functioning at a much more basic level, discover that even very simple ‘innovations’, such as having a ‘film night’ (with a chosen DVD + popcorn) can make a real difference to ward dynamics and culture. It is very visible.

The improvements themselves are all very tangible and because most ward members chose to carry out regular benchmarking exercises against the 75 ideas, everyone can measure and savour the progress.”

(If you would like to contact Marion, drop me an email.)