Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ten golden rules for the new world leaders

  1. Be an opportunist, think not of your country but what you can do for yourself.
  2. Be outrageous and say things you know are not true. The more unbelievable the better.
  3. Don’t have a long-term strategy. If you really must, don’t tell anyone about it. Someone might accuse you of changing your mind.
  4. Run a negative campaign. Badmouth your enemies because the more you call them names the more the names will stick.
  5. Don’t listen to anyone, especially experts. Reject advice from people who might actually have something useful to say or who may have your interests at heart.
  6. Take huge risks and gamble with other people’s futures. Cheer up! It may never happen.
  7. Don’t even think about plan B or C or D…nobody else does.
  8. Have no regard for history. What could you possibly learn from history?
  9. Blame your failures on other people.
  10. Get a terrible haircut. It stops people noticing you have more than one face.

Inspired by a conversation with a fellow #remainer

Friday, 12 February 2016

5 Reasons to See Peter Shaffer's “Five Finger Exercise”

The Harringtons in happier times.
Like Jamie Glover I harbour ‘an admiration bordering on obsession’ for Peter Shaffer’s ‘Five Finger Exercise’. Here’s why:

1) Cannibals in the drawing room
Watching middle class families being beastly to each other can be enormous fun, especially if you sympathise with one family member in particular. When I first saw the play in the 1970s, I imagined I was Clive, the ‘damaged’ but oh so witty and clear seeing son. Now I think I might be stolid Mr Harrington offering unwanted careers advice, or perhaps Mrs Harrington with her plastic gilt complex.

2) The Fifties are baffling for millenials
If the Harringtons are mis-understood, the decade in which they live must be completely baffling for millennials. Unlike the swinging sixties, the strike-bound seventies and the new wave eighties, the fifties are not so easy to label. Five Finger Exercise is valuable because it showcases the aspirations and fashions of the Fifties. One must keep up appearances, get in with the right people, and, above all, avoid making a fool of oneself.

3) The Harringtons look like a model family from a knitting pattern
At the Coronet, the Harringtons are buttoned up in beautiful knitwear, a manly chunky knit for Mr Harrington, the softest cashmere cardigan for Mrs Harrington, and a charcoal grey 'V' neck jumper for their disturbed son Clive. Daily family life in the fifties was often very organised. That’s why the Harrington mère and père spend so much time ordering their children and the tutor up and down the stairs. What matters is getting up on time, eating breakfast, putting on a nice jumper or cardigan, going out and coming back on time, going to bed and starting all over again. When Mr Harrington refuses to eat his kippers for breakfast, you know that the family is close to breakdown.

4) Mothers and sons and fathers and daughters
Families make good drama, and Mrs Harrington and her son Clive spring from a long line of famous Greek, Russian, French and Danish mothers and sons. Jamie Glover notes that the play has much in common with Coward and Rattigan. The Harrington children keep each other amused by acting out gouty colonels and young gels, just as Judith Bliss and her family like to tease their guests by play acting in ‘Hay Fever’. Clive can be as witty as Algernon from ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. “I was a complete success as a baby”, gets one of the biggest laughs.

The New York Times references Cocteau, Chekhov, and The Bacchae. Clive can be as lonely as Konstantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull. The tenderest moment in the ‘The Seagull’ is when Konstantin’s mother dresses his self-inflicted head wound. With this image in mind, it’s unsettling to watch Pamela, the Harrington daughter, kneeling to have her headband tied for her, first by her brother, and later by her father.

5) Sex without love is nothing
There is a lot of sex in ‘Five Finger Exercise’. When Mrs Harrington admires Walter’s hands, it seems she is not just thinking about his piano playing. But, as friend of mine asked, “Does Mrs Harrington really want to seduce Walter?”. I don’t think so. What Mrs Harrington wants is to be loved and appreciated, on her terms. Walter makes his near fatal mistake when he asks Mrs Harrington if “she thinks it’s possible to find a new mother?”. This is not the role Mrs Harrington has chosen for herself. She is the Empress, and she commands her husband to dismiss Walter. Clive probably wants to seduce Walter, but Walter tells him that "sex without love is nothing". It’s one of the many ironies of 'Five Finger Exercise' that Walter, who is the object of so much passion, has the least interest in sex.

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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Relational training and how to get to 'flow'

Waterfall near Sapa, Vietnam

Does it matter what trainers teach?

Over the years I have run training programmes for a wide range of organisations and institutions. Based on my experiences, I’m not sure if it matters what trainers teach as long as the learners can see the relevance of the content, and the style of the training is ‘relational’. I am borrowing the term ‘relational’ from coaching authority Erik de Haan, who says that the quality of the relationship between the coach and the coachee is key to the success of the coaching relationship. For me, the success of a training programme depends of the level of trust I am able to build within the group of learners, and between the group and myself.

Does it matter which methodology trainers follow?

De Haan believes that lessons from psychotherapy can be applied to coaching. When I was trying to decide which coaching methodology to practice, I was immensely reassured to read in de Haan’s book Relational Coaching that “according to the vast mount of experimental data now at our disposal” there is no difference between one psychotherapeutic approach and another. To be effective, de Haan says, coaches need to commit to one coaching approach, and focus on building a working alliance with the person they are coaching.

It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

The same principles apply when I am co-training. I believe the relationship between the trainers and the learners is key to the success of a programme or workshop. ‘Relational’ training helps learners to travel further towards their learning goals, and makes the learning stick. Years ago I went on a course about how to design and deliver participative training for adults. I still have a handout called ‘How to build a co-training relationship’. It contains a list of key questions that co-trainers need to ask each other before they step out in front of a group of adults. Using these questions has helped me to build a number of open, trusting and creative co-training relationships that are at the very heart of what I do.

Relational training and ‘flow’

Co-training, and being relational, is how I think trainers can help learning groups get into a state of ‘flow’. The main characteristics of ‘flow’ as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are:
                Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
                Merging of action and awareness
                A loss of reflective self-consciousness
                A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
                A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
                Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding.[1]

These are the key elements of all my most memorable co-training experiences. There comes a moment in a training programme where the group is totally engaged and involved in what is happening in the present time. At this moment I instinctively know what to say, or whether to stay silent. I feel I have the ‘agency’ to help participants to make sense of what they are experiencing, and to translate what they are seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling into something that has meaning and relevance for them.
For me, this is the most powerful and beneficial learning experience one can have because it is long lasting and transformational. People who have experienced ‘flow’ tend stay connected, and continue to learn and grow together long after the programme is over.

Getting to ‘flow’

How can you help a group to reach a state of ‘flow’? I believe you have to be totally committed to co-training and to working collaboratively. You have to do everything you can to build a working alliance with the participants. I also think you get to flow by demonstrating a combination of opposite behaviours:
                Good planning and being able to depart from the agreed schedule
                Starting where the group are at and encouraging them to push open some mental doors and windows
                Sharing your own experience of the training content and holding your knowledge lightly
                Demonstrating respect for the group, and for your co-trainer, and being able to laugh at yourselves and with the group.

Is relational training a kind of placebo?

Not at all. The point about relational training is that adults will always choose what they want to learn. When you build a working alliance with learners, you encourage and support learners to make meaning for themselves. And for me, this is the most effective way to learn.
[1] From the Handbook of Positive Psychology, C R Snyder, Erik Wright, Oxford University Press, 2001
For more about how I work with groups, please see my main website

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Life imitates art: reflections on a night at the ballet

It began when I met Joyce in Tescos. Joyce reminds me of my mother. White hair, fragile, quietly game. She would not let me carry her shopping. “This street is not as friendly as it was”, Joyce told me. I was glad I had a six pound ticket for the ballet to look forward to.

There is something democratic about a six pound standing ticket. You queue up on the day of the performance, and hope for a miracle. The miracle is that however many people queue, there are nearly always enough tickets. Six pounds do not buy you a clear view of the stage, but at least you get a view.

That night, the show consisted of three one act ballets: something classical with fairies, a premiere based on neuroscience, and something American and droll.

Act One

Just as the lights were going down, an elderly lady accompanied by a young man arrived in a wheelchair. White hair, fragile, quietly game. The curtain went up almost immediately. There was no time for removing outer layers, settling, and so on. So they sat as they were, in rainproof clothing.

The elderly lady leant forward at a slightly disturbing angle. The young man sat bolt upright against a pillar. Something was missing. I wondered if the lady could see the stage? And why was the young man so detached?

Act Two

After the fairies, came the premiere of a ballet to do with mapping connections in the brain. As the dancers interacted on the stage, the lady in the wheelchair started to take off her outer jacket. The young man took no notice. The lady leaned forward in her wheelchair so that her head seemed almost to touch her knees. Slowly, with repeated arm thrusts, she succeeded in pushing her jacket back off her shoulders. It took her a while. As the dancers twisted and turned, my eyes were on the old lady trying to take off her jacket.

Act Three

In the interval, the man standing next to me complained to the house manager that he could not see properly. Why could he not stand where he could see the whole stage? “I came to see the ballet,” he said. As it happens, the space he wanted to occupy was next to my line of vision. The house manager said he would make an exception. The man moved into the space on my left. I shuffled to the right. It was a kind of dance.

The comic ballet then began on the stage. The scene was a piano recital. The dancers played members of an audience hell bent on grabbing the seats with the best view. They sat in front of each other on purpose. Some were asked to move by the front of house staff when they were discovered sitting in the wrong seats. One woman, who had wrapped herself around the grand piano, had her seat pulled literally from beneath her.

It was funny, sad, and so true to life.

The End

Monday, 21 April 2014

Orphaned adverts and disconnects

The No 57 tram stopped here in Frederick Street, Edinburgh.

A friend once told me that one of my biggest strengths as a facilitator is my ability to make connections. I also have a tendency to notice disconnects.

Orphaned Adverts

I can’t help noticing out-of-date adverts on the underground. There are places on the London network where posters for shows that have closed linger on. At the foot of an escalator at Oxford Circus, a touring version of the “The Nutcracker” from a former republic of the Soviet Union, plays on. Did anyone go? Are some adverts doomed never to find an audience?

The British Linen Bank, 141 Princes Street, Edinburgh, 1920s

Banks that were cashed in

Also the crests and names above the doors of former banks, now amalgamated, and - final insult - turned into a Wetherspoons pub, or worse. The National Provincial Bank carved in stone in Piccadilly, London. The British Linen Bank in George Street, Edinburgh. Cheques are no longer accepted here.

Severed from the network

And railway stations severed from the network. The Caledonian Railway terminus on Princes Street Edinburgh, where Queen Elizabeth II and the King of Norway arrived in a train from Leith Central Station in 1962. Aged 9, I watched the royals go by from a window at the West End Branch of the British Linen Bank, now – wait for this – selling tartan souvenirs.

Leith Central Station in 1962

Left by the roadside

And tram stops. In Frederick Street, Edinburgh, a damaged but decorative tram stop from the original network survives at the edge of the kerb. People park their cars beside it. The No 57 tram stopped here. And, by the way, trams are back on Princes Street after 57 years. Why did I notice the tiles, and why does this one stop survive? It’s like the adverts in the underground. The meaning has gone out of its message.

Loss Aversion

Behavioural theorists say that we have a tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. I get a lot of messages from the past. 'See this show!' 'Bank with us!' 'Catch a train!' 'Get on a tram!' It’s not exactly nostalgia. It’s more about noticing connections, and making meaning. My mum always said I was good at noticing things.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you liked this page, you might like to check out my business website which has more content on leadership and learning.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Unscrewed and Unhinged: How I came to develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

The Door in happier times

Smartphones are said to be the cause of growing numbers of people with Obsessive Compulsive disorder (OCD). The cause of my OCD is more sinister.

Feverish Fingers

If you have been to the theatre recently, you will know what I am talking about. The lights in the auditorium go dim, the music begins, and smartphone users rush to update their Facebook status. As the curtain rises, you are surrounded by feverish fingers stabbing at small screens, somehow oblivious to the scene in front of them.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

I am a smartphone user, but my true obsession is the entrance door to the block of flats where I live. I need to keep checking whether or not the door is secure. I have all the characteristics of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I live in constant fear that a flash mob is about to flood into the stairwell, and keep me awake. I suffer from anxiety in the place I call home. Checking to see whether the door is secure brings temporary relief, but each time I hear the door open, the anxiety returns.

How did this happen?

About a year ago I noticed that the upper bolt on the main door had been removed completely. I was a bit flummoxed. Why would anyone do that? Could someone have lost their key, and decided that between having a new key cut, and attacking the door, the latter option was the most convenient? I reported the damage to the landlord, several times. Eventually, a new but less effective bolt was fitted. The original bolt one was made of solid brass. It looked as if it had been there for decades.

A pattern emerges

In no time at all, the Yale lock was unscrewed. I reported this new attack to the landlord. By now I realised that I was up against a persistent saboteur. Each time the door was made secure, someone found another way to stop it closing. I began to think that lack of a key was not the issue. More likely, it had something to do with the stream of late night visitors in the stairwell. That, and the unmistakable smell of cannabis were the signs I had missed, or rather failed to connect. 

Changing the narrative

A different story was emerging and it wasn't a fairy tale. Based on what was happening to the door, I created a new narrative that wasn’t a million miles from ‘Breaking Bad’. Finally, my OCD really kicked in when I woke at 2.00 am to the noise of men shouting, and the sound of something, or someone, being thrown at a wall.

Missing a few screws

I need a cure for my OCD. I want to stop feeling this compulsion to check the door. As doors go, it is a handsome piece of wood that has give good service. It has guarded our little block of flats for a very long time. Possibly it survived the war. Now the door is under attack from an enemy within. Bit by bit its functionality is being destroyed. The bolts are removed, the lock unscrewed, the paint chipped and scratched. Is it the door, or is it me, that is becoming unhinged?

Some people are addicted to checking their Facebook. Me, I just need to go and see if the door is still attached to its frame.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you liked this page, you might like to check out my business website which has more content on leadership and learning.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 A year of transitions

High-five on the farm

January Taking myself to the market
This is a blog about how I made the transition from employed to self employed. According to Dan Pink to sell is human.I took myself to market and I sold! I try to sell myself quietly, and I also notice how other people sell themselves to me. One day, after a meeting with another trainer, I asked myself: “What on earth made you think you would be comfortable working with him?” Crossing him off my list of potential collaborators was disappointing, but inevitable. We were poles apart in terms of values and approach.

February Becoming a coach
February was intense. In order to obtain a coaching qualification, I had to write essays, prepare a presentation, and practice my coaching skills ahead of my final assessment. I spent hours coaching, and being coached. What got me through the exam was the support and encouragement that I received from the tutors, and from my group. What I gained was a renewed curiosity and enthusiasm for learning. Best of all, I saw how I could use Gestalt theory to enhance my approach to experiential leadership training and development.

March It’s not what you know
I saw how teaching models and frameworks out of context just doesn’t work. You need to start where your learners are, and work alongside them. Later I read an article on executive education that included this quote from Roger Martin, Dean Rotman School, Toronto: “Knowledge is of minimum use unless it enables the recipient to take action”. He’s so right.

April Collaboration can be hard
Having convinced myself that the trend in leadership is collaboration, I tried to collaborate with people I know. Wanting to work with someone, and making it happen, however, are two very different things. What do I always say when I am teaching project management to other people? “You need to agree what you are trying to do, how and why, and you need clear roles and responsibilities”. The were various reasons why some of my efforts at collaboration failed to get off the ground. They included not being clear about the target audience, underestimating the need for marketing, not having the right business partner, different working styles and times zones. I should listen to myself more…and try again.

May Dialogue not one way conversations
I treated myself to a leadership programme. It was great not to feel responsible for other people’s learning. What worked best for me were conversations with leaders, when there was real dialogue. What I didn’t like was meetings that were more akin to interviews, where we asked all the questions, without thinking to disclose any information about ourselves. For me, unless everyone in the conversation is willing to disclose and be challenged, there can be no real learning. I was most touched listening to the probation officers, and the ex-offenders, talking about themselves, not in the same room. One of the speakers reminded me of the street-wise police that I met in the job that occupies one line of my CV (See September).

June Stressful but successful
Delivering projects for new clients taught me what consultants really do. Consultants are contracted to deliver agreed outcomes. To do that, they need to be able to manage and support their clients in different ways. At the end of a stressful but successful project, I learned (again) that I have a tendency to imagine problems that do not exist. It all ended happily.

July Black Swans can be positive
A friend of mine recommended me for a job that landed on my desk like a positive ‘Black Swan’: 1) It came out of the blue 2) It had a positive impact on my business and 3) afterwards I created a narrative for myself to explain how it was in fact predictable. If this is randomness, please can I have more of it. And I look forward to returning the favour, because I do believe what goes around, comes around.

August Feeling grounded, the importance of.
I learned that when people are struggling with a task, and are losing confidence in their ability to find a way forward, the most useful thing I can do as a coach / facilitator is to ground them firmly in what they already know. All I have to say is: “What do you know?” I believe people have the answers to their challenges and dilemmas within them, and can be helped to discover them.

September Bridging a gap in my CV
I had dinner with a group of people I last met more than 30 years ago when we all worked at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). I was there for nearly ten years, and yet the MoD occupies one line in my CV. I was nervous. My concern was that we’d spend the whole evening talking about accumulated husbands, wives, children, property and pensions. I was wrong. We talked about office misdemeanours, and that person whose name none of us could remember. And, yes, the revelations were delightful.

October Experiencing a different world
My niece Vicky invited me to spend a day with her in the Scottish Borders, on a farm where she has spent time as a veterinary student. At the end of a single-track road, in a valley, by a stream, we picnic-ed with the farmer and his shepherds. They were tagging sheep, before sending them to market. The fleece on the sheep was creamy and rug like. I felt privileged to be invited into Vicky’s world of sheep, cattle, horses, dogs, and farmers, going about their business.

November goes live
After months of planning and writing, my website went live, and I was glad. The writing of it sometimes felt like a chore, but because of this, I now know what I do, and why.

December Getting a community complex
I got involved in a bid to have a neighbourhood planning forum recognised by the local council. Despite living in the area for almost five years, I didn’t expect to find so much complexity on my doorstep. Of course, doing what I do, I should have known better. My motives for getting involved were not entirely selfless. I wanted to get to know my neighbours. On that score, I think 2014 is going to be another year of transitions.

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