Archive for December, 2015

Question of Leadership

So, here’s a question for you.

How does a person who comes in to a senior strategic role in a large organisation, where the management and leadership of 40 people is an integral part of his remit have (a) no organisational skills (b) no people skills and (c) no self-awareness?

The second part of my question then has to be:

Why have we let this man run unchecked for 7 years, whilst we haemorrage good people like a gaping wound and see the rapid and sustained decline in customer service?

It was never going to be successful. People work for other people, not organisations. They work for people who get the best from them, show them the way, enhance their lives; who stand back and let their team take the credit, but who step forward to defend them from danger; who understand that life throws things at you when you least expect them, but helps you to roll with the punches so that you keep giving back your best.

And our strategic manager has none of this.

I really like this quote from General Colin Powell of the USA army (later Secretary of State):

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.



bruised ankle Dec 2015 crop

This, my friends, is what a sprained ankle looks like.

A note from the past


Janice sat on her own, perched on a seat in the corner of a poky office, fat, dusty folders on all sides of her workspace like a poorly constructed barricade. The office was slightly too warm, which wasn’t helping her concentration very much as she waded through page after page of work history; the story of Mr David Swale, Lecturer of Engineering at Teacham College. There were nine files. Nine. Unfortunately they were loose-leaf and had not been put together carefully by a dilligent chronographer over the last 15 years.

Janice’s gaze wandered from the transparent, pink-but-yellowing-round-the-edges foolscap sheet of typewritten paper, changing her focus into the middle-distance through the closed window. The heat and moisture inside was making condensation around the edges of the single-pane glass, and in many ways the window in front of her and the paper in her hand did the same thing; they were transparent, but opaque at the same time. She thought for a few minutes about what she knew about Mr Swale. She had met him last week, and heard him give his account of events as he saw them. He was a tall, stocky man in his 50’s with slightly greying hair that was cut very short. He told us of his life in the army as a young, man, of the places he couldn’t tell us he’d been to. Of the transition from Army to civilian life. The Post Traumatic Stress he wouldn’t give details of, the happy times as a teacher, putting all that skill of his back into today’s children – tomorrow’s future. He was plausible, he was nice. He looked her in the eye as he spoke. He was entirely believable. He was quite, quite mad.

Janice went back to her file, and placed the current page near the back of the sheaf of papers on the desk. She picked up the next page and started to read it, but it wasn’t going in. She was thinking about Mr Swale’s colleagues, who had also been interviewed last week. Tim had talked about his own interractions with Dave. The tales of working for the AA or the RAC, or some similar breakdown recovery organisation. The common ground they appeared to share in their backgrounds was uncanny. Clive had told us how Dave had laughed when he found out he’d been in the REME too, and then had become distant and stopped telling his old stories of driving tanks in Northern Ireland. And finally, Al, who had also been ex-military and had smelled a rat the moment he overheard Dave talking to some students about “the old days”. One by one, they’d all come together and started to piece together the information they had of Mr Swale. And nothing had stacked up. Mr Swale – and by the end of it Janice was wondering if even that was his real name – was not the man he seemed to be.

The files were a collection of investigations, complaints and health problems. Pages of memos, letters, notes and records of all the things that Mr Swale had been involved in whilst he worked for EngineTech, a private company that had become part of the College way back in the 90’s, and then his recent 15 year history with Teacham. How had he survived so long without anyone realising there was a problem? Evidently there were problems, or there would never have been so much paper associated with one man over a fairly medium-term career. As Janice read through the pages, she could see how each thing in isolation made few ripples. The odd period of illness, the odd lost temper. A few case of poor judgement and a few more cases where managers and colleagues hadn’t played their part sensibly either. Years and years of wasted time and effort, until now. Finally, someone was putting all the details together in one place, laboriously, painstakingly.

Janice filed the latest memo in the sheaf of papers on the desk, and sighed. She summoned up energy reserves and reached across for the next piece of paper from the file. It was a sheet of good quality headed paper from the College, signed by the Chief Executive at the time, Donald Dibbs. Janice absorbed the content of the two paragraphs, and then went back to the beginning and read them for a second time, just to be sure.

Whilst I have some reservations, particularly in respect of recent information that has come to my attention, I hereby sign off your probation period and accept you as a substantive member of teaching staff.” 

Well. Thought Janice. There we are. If the managers back then had had the courage to tackle the issues in the beginning, we’d have saved countless people being upset and harmed by this man’s lies and anti-social behaviours, NINE files worth of paperwork and countless hundreds of hours of manpower dealing with the fallout from this one man. One man, who took up the time and attention of countless others, and switched the focus from those good, kind people with promising careers, to damage limitation. What an absolute tragedy.

And, not for the first or the last time in her career, there was nothing Janice could do to fix it. All that could be done was to make sure that Mr Swale could exit the organisation as quickly and unceremoniously as possible, and his colleagues had time to heal and move on. No-one would “win” this one. No-one ever “won” in these games. All that could be hoped for was a better outcome than doing nothing.





The Truth is a Story

So, I mentioned earlier how the truth isn’t binary, even though we think that if you haven’t told the truth, then you’ve lied – and although we sort of accept that, we also know that it isn’t as cut-and-dried as that in reality.

For most people, if you witness an event, the facts of the event itself do not crystalise into your memory like data onto a computer disk. They seep into your memory via lots and lots of comparisons with other things you’ve experienced or have knowledge about (which we’ll discuss another day), but also they’re inextricably linked to your emotional responses to witnessing the event and the opinions you have of various occurrances or actions within that event. You absorb the event into your memory somehow (science doesn’t really explain how, and I’m not even going to speculate), but the point is, we don’t ourselves always know what “the truth” of that event was until we start to explain it to a third party. And when we explain, either by writing or talking or signing – we have to think about the event in a special way to be able to tell the story.

If we want our third party to really understand what it was that we saw, we have to do a lot of describing. We have to choose our words carefully to do it justice (more so than ever if we’re using English because there’s such a choice of vocabulary at our disposal), we have to set the scene properly so that when the loud noise (for example) broke the silence, our audience knows exactly how silent the silence before the event was, and how shattering the noise was. And we also need to tell you how the whatever-it-was felt to us, our theories, our speculation, our disbelief, our superlatives or indifference – all of that.

In thinking about how to describe something, and then perhaps getting some feedback on that description from others, the stoy of the truth is moulded and altered. Sometimes we know this is happening, and sometimes we don’t, but when we do, we probably think its because we’re getting better at explaining it, rather than that the story is changing. And in the subsequent re-tellings, we learn from our experiences of telling the story, so it gets modified and altered to make the story more accessible to the next person we tell. Eventually, the story we tell of the truth we saw with our own eyes, is still the truth; after all, we haven’t lied – but is it still the same as before?

Sometimes, particularly when I’m interviewing people about things they know they saw, we have to help them unpick the story that they tell and break it down to the bare factual bones of what they know versus what they assumed, thought, filled in the gaps for, inferred and imperceptibly made truth, that wasn’t. I’m not saying all that other stuff isn’t relevant, I’m just saying that the truth is more complicated than you first think. What’s revealing, is that the interviewee suddenly realises what they thought they knew as fact, might not be as perfect as they themselves believed…. and that is a bit frightening. It makes us feel vulnerable and uncertain and defensive – and that’s understandable. We like to think we know what we saw, but have we just remembered how to tell its story instead?


The Truth – an introduction

The truth is… I spend a lot of time interviewing people about specific events that have happened in the past, and also, events that are going to happen in the future (i.e. people starting new jobs). Over my fairly modest 16 years of doing this, I’ve developed a rich catalogue of observations covering many topics. But one of the most fascinating ones is this idea of “telling the truth”.

The truth, when you say it like that always sounds like a singular, perfect account – and the difference between truth and lie is binary, like flipping a switch : up = truth, down = lie. And yet even a small child knows this is not correct. There are always shades and grades of truth – how else then can we explain that several people witnessing the same event could describe it so differently and yet each be certain of their authority on a matter they witnessed with their own eyes?

I could talk at length, but I won’t right now – you’d only get bored, so I’m going to split my various thoughts into several posts over the next week or so. But the first topics to look at are how storytelling changes the truth and also how our own personal experiences and memories change how we tell the truth about something.

Speak again soon xx

The law of unintended consequences

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s law doesn’t quite work when we’re talking about human interactions, but it is true to say that every action has a consequence. Some consequences are positive and intended, such as when you make an effort to support a project and it is successful. Some consequences are negative and intended, such as when you choose to support one project and piss off the bloke you don’t like with the other project you now don’t have time to support. But sometimes, your good intentions cause other things to happen, and often they do that without you noticing them.

Like the guy who spoke up to his manager when he was threatened with violence by a client. The manager thought he was being efficient and supportive and helpful by laying out to the guy how he needed to gather facts and get witnesses to come forward with evidence before he could do anything about it.

But the guy only heard the absence of “that’s awful, mate – we believe you, let’s make sure we handle this properly.” And the very next day, he started looking for another job. And once you’ve made that decision to look, you’ve already got one foot out the door….