Nothing to say about the new year.

I mean, obviously it’s not that I really have nothing to say. But I don’t have advice for the Doctors I have worked with on leadership. Nor to people who suddenly have to work from home. Nor would I give advice to the self employed who suddenly can’t work at the moment (and for how long?). I might have something to offer those who have lost their jobs as this has happened to me many times.

But I think maybe there could be something different I could draw from the experience we are going through at the moment.

Like most of us I would stand on the pavement outside my house at 8pm on Thursdays and applaud. It became a ritual of a type I have never seen before. I know one friend who was driving back from her long shift as a nurse on Thursday who said it was a real morale boost to see it happening all along her route home. But I am not about to go into some lament about how we used to be a community and maybe how we should return to it. My parents were of the wartime generation and both loathed the sentimentality of looking back to the war as a better time and had no good words for the “we’ll meet again” dirge. So why have I decided to put finger to keyboard and suggest that I have something to say that is worthy of your time?

It is this.

I read this somewhere “When the restrictions are lifted, be careful what you bring back of your old life.”

I think this is an excellent challenge. There is always something interesting to be had from any challenge. Some people interpret this as how they can make the situation work to their advantage but I think there is potential for enormous positivity. So what is it that you are not going to take back into the normal life when you can go out to the pub/shop/holiday? Or go back to work “normally”?

For me, the thing that really hit home was how the isolation in ones home highlighted the need for human connection. Like so many others I am spending my days in conference calls and my leisure time with my immediate family. My family are lovely people but there is something significant missing in my life with the loss of every-day real contact with others. Yes there are some benefits – we are going on walks as a family and my 12 year old comes along without a single protest which will definitely not outlast the quarantine! But I really miss being in a room with different people. I love working with a wide range of people and being friends with people from very different backgrounds and whose work is totally different to my own. I love spending time with lots of different viewpoints, backgrounds, and especially being with people I care about. I don’t think I took this for granted before but I will make sure I savour it even more in future.

We have also discovered something really amazing at my work: we can pull things out of the bag in an incredible way. I won’t give my own examples because I am sure that everyone reading this will know what I mean – it is happening everywhere. Somehow we found that there are vast amounts of expertise, innovation, flexibility, collaboration and optimism that too often gets squeezed out by due process or fear of criticism or just being cautious. We have been forced to go into ways of working we never would have imagined even a few months ago. We have worked through the confines of video calls and messaging to make things work against apparently impossible odds. And I have taken huge inspiration from the students we work with who have also found ways to carry on their studies and even broaden out their interests by learning new skills and becoming resilient to this massive global challenge.

I will take it as my mission to make sure we don’t forget these things and slide back into the old “normal”.

Leadership lessons from a caddish relic

I have learned many a good lesson from people I don’t like very much, and I have come to rather cherish this as a thing. So when I realised I was learning some really great leadership lessons from someone difficult to like, I was inspired to summarise them in this blog. I hope it i of interest to people wanting to improve their leadership qualities.

The person in mind is Lord Mountbatten. Massive figure in the second world war, influential royal, inspirational leader. I will ignore his self-aggrandisement, naked personal ambition, selfishness, relentless self-publicity, disfunctional private life, controversial role in the partitioning of India/Pakistan and rumours of … well anyone interested is encouraged to read “The Mountbattens by Andrew Lownie. But amongst all this, he was without doubt an extraordinarily gifted leader. He inspired lasting affection in those he led and pulled off some remarkable feats. I want to summarise where I believe he got it exactly right and how todays leaders can learn from his example

Personal attention

Early in his career, Mountbatten was made Divisional Officer which is where the ship’s company (ie crew) are allocated an officer probably outside of their chain of command. In some ways it’s a bit like a Personal Tutor at university. Being a DO is something that early career naval officers gain an taste of leading a large group of sailors and can be a challenging post for a young officer. When Mountbatten was given this post, he managed to get hold of the the list of all the 120 sailors in his division and learned all their names before he even joined the ship. He even managed to get hold of information about their backgrounds so when he met them for the first time he was able to make it seem as if he knew them already. So he could, for example ask after a sick mother, a new born baby or whether an injury was healing. Given that many officers in those days were quite remote figures, this was a revelation and immediately won the loyalty of the division and started a pattern of personal attention that he was to follow for his entire career.

Paying attention to the needs of the people he led

This is probably rule one in the Horatio Nelson leadership book – you need to look after your people. It’s something that has been passed down in military lore to this day. I remember when I was a private soldier in the army a rather touching ritual every evening. We squaddies would line up at the cookhouse for our evening meal and when we had all been served and sat down to eat, the duty officer would arrive and walk around asking if the food was OK. And only once they had done that, they would get their food and sit down and eat. OK they ate at a separate table and OK we sometimes took advantage of the situation to say “the only problem is some idiot keeps on asking us if the food is all right”. But the point was made every single day: officers eat last. Nowadays the speaker and author Simon Sinek has made most of his career on this point (see a good Ted Talk he did on the subject) . It is a great thing. But to return to Mountbatten, he always went way beyond that minimum. He would use the knowledge he had about his people to make sure he could do what he can to help them. Perhaps it was easier for him as he had married into vast wealth so there was always a rail ticket he could pay for or a favour a connection could pull. But he did what he could. And that made him stand out amongst his peers – and amongst many who came after. So, it’s great to know your people. But even better to use that knowledge to go above and beyond what you are obliged to do.

Knowing how to leverage his network.

Networking has become known as a skill in its own right. Consultants specialise in training people to do it and good MBAs will include a hefty amount of it. Way before the term even existed, Mountbatten knew how important it was. He was gifted a massive advantage in being born into royalty and then marrying into enormous wealth. But he leveraged these gifts with great skill. He was also completely shameless in asking for what he wanted and given the connections and power he accumulated, he usually got what he asked for. It’s hard to draw direct parallels though because having the sort of connections he had is extremely unusual. But we can learn to use what we have. On a daily basis leaders need to influence rather than instruct and so much of our abilities to achieve results come down to the esteem that others hold us in. So if you are asked to do a piece of work that is slightly outside the norm, the extent to which we are going to deliver the work is whether we are being asked by someone we (a) know and (b) trust. Networking is the way of making sure we have a wide circle of people who know us. The issue of whether we are trusted is vital but the subject of a different blog!

Being technically excellent in everything.

Despite a deserved reputation for partying and taking lavish holidays, Mountbatten was also an extremely hard worker. He had a flair for technology and an obsession for detail. This meant he spent hours working outside normal hours honing his knowledge and even brought in several inventions to do with signals that became adopted as standards across the Royal Navy. Any course he attended he would strive to be top and he frequently was. And he was always on the look out for a new skill to learn. He always stayed at the forefront of technology and became expert in all new systems. He avoided the danger of being known as the boffin though by sticking to the executive branch rather than being known only as a technician. Then as now, the technical expert was often not the one who was promoted or became the leader. I often discuss this with leaders today who have become successful in their specialisms. If you rely only on being known for being a technical expert, you can find your career can plateau. If this is what you want to do, then of course it’s great. But if you have ambitions to move into strategic management, you will need to develop a reputation of expertise beyond your immediate technical specialism. In order to be a strategic leader you will need to master the technology AND know the art of leadership.

And finally…

So these are some lessons I picked up from a leader of the past. He was of his time and controversies followed him as such a huge character would. He tended to bring out extreme responses – love and loathing. But regardless of which camp you are in, I would hold these as being pretty useful ideas for the leader of today.

Leadership is vital in defeat

In a move rather like the moment I left the Church of England or when I switched from PC to Mac, I stopped following rugby nearly 20 years ago when I took the solemn oath of allegiance to Aston Villa Football Club. Little did I know at the time the immense heartbreak this would bring my children who touchingly followed me into this… well it’s not an obsession. But it gets close some times. I have many examples from my Villa experience of defeats and posted an earlier blog about the then Villa Captain Micah Richards showing leadership and courage when things were going very very badly wrong. But mercifully things are generally better at Villa Park so my re-visit to the challenge of defeat on leaders needs to go elsewhere. And to the Rugby World Cup.

It is a matter of record that England lost the final and were comprehensively outplayed. But amongst all the frankly wonderful images and words about South Africa, the one I picked up on is at the top of this blog. It is the England team who have exceeded expectations to arrive at the final only to be found wanting. Disappointing hardly covers it. I guess it is at least at the level I felt when I realised my business – the one I had remortgaged my house against – was not going to work. I would guess that everyone has those sort of events in life. But at this particular very public moment, England captain Owen Farrell has decided to put his own feelings to one side and gather the team around and say something. He didn’t have to. But he did. And I would LOVE to know what he said. My bet was he was thanking everyone for their work, suggesting everyone sits with the crushing feelings of disappointment and then moves on to a new season where they can hopefully one day start to enjoy the game again. Perhaps he said that although rugby is important, it isn’t the only thing and this was only one day in their lives and that one day they would come to appreciate that.

Is this of any relevance to leaders in less public arenas? Well actually I think it is far more important what is said in defeat than in success. To be realistic about the defeat and yet positive about the future. To reinforce what went well whilst owning up to where the failure came from. No blame. But taking responsibility. Balancing accountability without wasting effort accusing others of being the reason for the failure. Thats where the leader can set the tone one way or the other. It is about the leader taking responsibility for their position at the front of the charge. As the one who would either raise the cup in triumph or gather the bloodied team in defeat.

I have learned my most important lessons from failure. And whilst the England rugby team will have a huge amount of regret and disappointment to overcome, in the long run it has the potential to serve them well. I hope the team recuperate and in time, learn the lessons. Oh, and I don’t mean the technical stuff which does of course need to be analysed.

I mean how this moment could well be the making of them as people.

Real team working

So much nonsense talked and written about teams. A whole industry rose and (mercifully) more or less disappeared to do with creating teams using outdoors activities. So often these totally missed the point about teams. It is something of an obsession of mine to cut through crap and find ways that people can work together in ways that are productive but also enhance the lives of people involved. The key thing is to find ways that are meaningful for the whole team so everyone contributes, everyone want the team to succeed beyond their own success.

So why the macho photo?

As a former soldier, I know about some aspects of this having lived it for nearly 10 years. Two things I learned early on were (1) the Royal Marines do teamwork better than anyone and (2) I was nowhere near tough enough to join them. But the fascinating thing to me is that being tough isn’t enough for the marines. What they are after is something else. Something to do with being thoughtful, genuinely working together and stretching everyone. This photo I believe encapsulates this perfectly. Just look at the group in the centre of the shot. They are attempting to run as a squad to break a record. Clearly the man in the middle was struggling and so the others immediately jumped in to help. And look at their facial expressions. It is about determination to get the whole team over the line. They aren’t judging the man who needs help and he is far from giving up.

Now of course very few of us work in places where we have to do this type of physical team activity. But …. look I don’t think I really have to join the dots. What if you worked in a team like this? How much could you all achieve together?

I’ve seen it. I’ve helped organisations achieve it. And I have to tell you it is fantastic for all involved. So many other problems fall away – performance management, disciplinary, retention, stress, illness…. But don’t worry. If you want to know more about how to do this, I won’t make you run like this. Not unless it’s your job!

(thanks for the idea for this from a tweet by ex-Royal Stuart Elms @elmsy1664 . Photo from The Telegraph)

Leadership is sometimes about picking up litter

I was gazing out of the window of one of the lovely cafes we have on campus at the University of Warwick having just finished my lunch. I was finishing my tea and enjoying the view across a sunny path outside with people coming and going. I noticed a Very Senior Person walking briskly past with a file of papers and a purposeful look on her face and I could tell she was off to an executive meeting. Suddenly she stopped, bent down and picked up a piece of paper that had somehow been blown into her path. She walked over to a bin, deposited the offending item and carried on her way. I noticed that she was smiling.

This person I know to be business like, committed and on top of both strategy and detail. But this small action told me more about her than I had learned from the occasional meetings we had had. She was clearly in a hurry but still wanted to deal with this small piece of litter. Nobody was watching and hardly anyone would have even noticed this small piece of litter. But it mattered to her.

Leadership? People talk about role modelling and demonstrating behaviours and this was a perfect example of it. We also talk about what people do when they think nobody is watching. I really don’t think she cared if anyone was watching or not, it was natural. It showed commitment and perhaps a deep attachment to her workplace.

Was it an act of leadership?

Well I now do the same. Not because I think anyone important might be watching but because I realised the effect that small action had on me. Far stronger than any inspiring speech, it showed to me that this person was committed to high standards.

Being a leader is about actions not about position.

When I run leadership modules for students, we usually kick off with an exploration of what is meant by leadership and we always end up with something like “having people who follow you”. And I think in a sense this is right – probably ‘follow’ sounds a bit passive but I am more or less OK with it given that the academic literature on leadership commonly uses the term. However, there is usually then a disagreement about how leadership is similar and/or different to management. It’s an old debate but one that does need to be revisited every now and then. So let me kick off this short debate with this: management is about running things. So if you have to do annual appraisals, arrange shifts, check people’s work, follow up when people are sick and so on, you are a manager. And you also need to motivate, provide direction, stand up for your team. And encourage, set an example and defend your people.

Which of these is management and which is leadership? Actually for the point I am making today I am working from a different angle. I am saying that all of the above are true when you are leading a team and some of it is management and some leadership (and some can be both). But at least some of these tasks are given to you because you are a Line Manager. You may think of yourself as facilitating peoples’ work, supporting them to be the best they can be or making sure they have everything they need to succeed, but you are their boss. And you can never escape this. Not even going for a drink after work, you are still the boss.

If you have no line management responsibility then you are not the boss. In which case, surely you cannot possibly be a leader? Funnily enough I find myself in this position at the moment and I know a lot of others are – we have some sort of professional responsibility but this does not extend to being a boss. But I firmly believe that a large part of my job is to be a leader. I see many professionals with little or no line management responsibilities but who still need to provide direction and be professional. I was having this conversation recently with senior hospital doctors many of whom had little or no line management responsibilities. And yet they had opted to attend a programme that had “leadership” in its title.

I would go further than this and say that anyone can be a leader. There are so many opportunities for everyone to show leadership in their daily life – every time you see a colleague. Every interaction with a person who might come to your organisation (customer, client, patient). All of these small exchanges no matter how fleeting are chances for you to show leadership. It could be the smile and “good morning” or a short chat in the queue for coffee or taking time to ask how someone is after a bereavement. Even people who feel powerless can role model behaviour, has the chance to show how they believe things should be done through their everyday actions.

I have to admit my thinking on this comes directly from my (brief) army service where setting a personal example is in the culture from day one. And whilst not everyone is enamoured of the military way life, I have never seen better examples of this approach since I left. And I think a great example of this is a quote by decorated veteran Brian Wood.

Screen grab from Brian Wood MC talking about leadership as influence.

The trouble with young people today…

OK. I think I know what you expect me to say. Perhaps something about snowflakes. Or maybe wondering why some people talk about an epidemic of mental health issues in the young.

But I’m not.

I was prompted to write this blog after reading advice to senior managers to be mentored by someone under 30. Yes. Not to be a mentor FOR a young person but be mentored BY them. One of the very many delights I find working in a university is that I tend to be surrounded by people far younger than me. This is, for example why I joined Facebook in the early days because I discovered the students had set up a “Fan Page” about me but I could only read what they were saying about me by joining. It means that I know that none of them is remotely interested in Twitter, that there is no point in buying CDs and that watching live TV is only for sports. I am also reminded week by week that these are only superficial differences between the generations. There are some environmental context differences over the years to do with what sort of jobs are available, whether buying a house is a realistic prospect or how wealthy we might feel. But there remains a fundamental truth:

there is no such thing as a generation.

Yes. The industry that springs up periodically claiming a new label for a group of people who only have chronological age in common. This is complete nonsense. There are way more differences between people than between generations. Some insist that the world is changing faster than at any time in our history. Others say there are more pressures on the youth than ever before. And commonly people talk about the snowflake generation. But I am here to tell you there is no evidence whatever that any of this is true. My favourite de-bunking of these myths comes from a surprising source – former head of US Special Forces William H McRaven who said recently “Anyone who calls millennials ‘soft’ has clearly never seen them in a firefight” (full article from Task and Purpose is here) . And that too is my assessment despite mercifully never seen millennials in combat. In the students I meet, I see decency, ambition, drive, compassion, ethics, fun, rigour, intellect, curiosity, commitment. I guess there are some who aren’t like that. But my “generation” had that too. And we had dreadful fashion to contend with and mass unemployment … oops. I just fell into the trap myself for a moment.

I’m sorry to keep a military theme, but there is another great example of this being used by the British Army at the moment in its latest recruitment campaign. In recent years there have been challenges to recruit into the forces which are due to a number of factors about its role in the world, pay, conditions and many veterans leaving sooner than before. The latest advertising campaign has played on this perception of the youth and used these slogans:

There was a predictable backlash against this campaign from populist press and from some retired officers. But the recruitment figures were transformed as the image of the forces was presented in this new way. But surely this is an argument for the existence of generation differences? I would say no. The message was that the press talk about millennials as being somehow lesser than previous generations whereas this campaign quite rightly highlights that you people today are just as capable of serving and having a great experience in the forces as previous ones.

I would recommend thinking about that mentoring idea though. If you are in your forties or fifties and don’t spend much time with the under 30s, I suggest you find ways of doing so. It may remind you of things about yourself you might have forgotten.

Finally, if you haven’t already seen it, Admiral McRaven’s Commencement speech at the University of Texas is one of the best of the genre. Well worth 19 minutes of your time and is online here.

Wet goals

I have just completed a course of swimming lessons which has meant I have improved my swimming for the first time since I left school. And this is a LONG time! At the end of the course, our teacher gave us a small piece of advice: always plan your swimming sessions. Don’t just turn up and start swimming. Have a plan for how many lengths you are going to do, what stroke, what you are practising. Otherwise you will almost certainly end up doing less than you want.

My response to this was to think of all the times I have taught motivation and the importance of goal setting. And how many people told me how useful it had been. And so I found (to my shame) thinking “I know ALL about this. There’s no need to tell me.”.

And then I remembered how I had just turned up to the pool on Tuesday without a plan and had ended up doing less training than I wanted even though I know how important it is to set goals and find ways to make yourself achieve them. Indeed, the reason I am swimming is that I have an event I want to take part in later in the year. So I had set the big goal (a 2.5K open water swim in July). I had then set another (sign up for swimming lessons even though this will make me feel rather uncomfortable). I had even downloaded an app to record the amount of swimming I was doing. But I had stopped there and missed a vitally important step. And my young swimming teacher had reminded me about this and I very nearly missed it.

I am by nature pretty scatty and resist formality (hence choosing to work as an academic I suspect!). But this means I need to remember to be planned and structured about things as it doesn’t come naturally.

I think this sort of thing happens quite a lot, so I wanted to pass on what I have learned here:

  1. Be watchful about complacency. Even when you are regarded as an expert, you need to make sure you are heeding the advice that you would give to others.
  2. Be planned. And if this doesn’t come naturally, remember to watch out for times when you revert to being unplanned.
  3. Surround yourself with people who compliment your skills. Easily the best way I have discovered of achieving this is first check your strengths using this tool.  And then have your team do the same. And think carefully about what that tells you about where your strengths as a group are, where you compliment each other. And where your blind spots might be.
  4. Ask yourself this question right now: what am I learning at the moment? It is a fundamental human motivation to feel we are getting somewhere, that we are growing. And if you aren’t – either at work or outside – then challenge yourself to learn something. Anything!

I have written about how to use strengths in this blog, and if you would like to discuss how I might be able to help your team, do get in touch.

Why most training courses fail

It’s become common for those with training budgets to be asked to justify spend in terms of Return on Investment (RoI). This is on the face of it quite reasonable as all organisations need to be sure that money is being spent wisely. And there are vast sums involved when taking training at a national level – UK government puts the figure at £45Bn or or average £1,700 for every single employee (the research with detailed figures is here). And yet academic research shows time and time again that it is really hard – if not practically impossible – to show exactly what return organisations get from that money. So I want to suggest why it is so hard to get an answer and then suggest what makes training work.

Cost of training

Imagine you have been just promoted and you are going to manage people for the first time. You have been managed all your working life so you have observed how it is done (and how it should not be done!) and this is your start point. But it is sensible for you to be given some training because your job has changed. In fact, employers are obliged to make sure staff have appropriate training for the tasks they are being asked to undertake. So you go on a course with other newly promoted managers. Typically this could be one or two days. You will be presented with ideas, given exercises and perhaps discuss issues with your peers. You might also reflect on your own management style and all in all be given some interesting ideas. This might seem to help you in your job as you have taken some time to think about your new role as manager.

So how do you measure how much monetary value the organisation is going to get from this course? Over time, perhaps you will manage your people better so that fewer of them become disenchanted and leave. There is a cost that can be placed on recruiting a new team member so there is a possibility there. But how can we be sure that someone staying is as a result of the training course? Also, how can we be sure that perhaps it was best that a particular person leaves as perhaps their replacement is more productive?


Valuable training

Returning to the example training course. At the end of the course, you return to work and find two days worth of work piled up and you have to spend your time catching up. There is no time to think further about applying the learning from the course and by the time a lull comes in the work, you have forgotten what you learned. And you may never see the people you were training with again.

This is a very common pattern and it becomes easy to see how learning is lost together with the RoI from the course. It is understandable that staff are released from productive work very reluctantly. But there are ways in which learning can translate from the training room to the workplace.

First, the training must involve the people around the individuals being trained. By this I mean the line manager should discuss what the training is for, what might be gained and how to embed the learning afterwards. The team should be involved through sharing the key points and reflecting on how the manager might be working differently from now on.

Second, the training must involve more than one visit to the training room. The time in between sessions is vital to allow for ideas to sink in, for further reflection to happen and for ideas to form.

Third, include some activity in between sessions. Every one is busy so clearly it is difficult to find time. But the learning will only become habit if there is a chance to try something new in a supported way. Otherwise there is a tendency to revert back to normal behaviour and changes are first put off, and then never actually happen.

Fourth, create a network. When a small group spends intensive training days together, it is wasteful not to use the network for support after the course ends. This can be by as simple a device as a WhatsApp group or email. Sophisticated training might have a web resource to use such as Moodle. but it is easy to set this up – but will only happen with encouragement of the organisers.


  1. Involve managers of the trainees before and after the course.
  2. Even if your budget is only for 2 days, separate these.
  3. Provide a small task between sessions – a question to answer or technique to try.
  4. Ask attendees to share examples of when ideas from the training made a difference.


In these ways, even if you can precisely measure the financial benefit to the organisation, attendees will be consciously aware of the changes they make to their work. And the benefits will become clear to all involved and a culture of learning begins…


Playing to your strengths

When you are trying to improve your abilities at work, you need to find what you are less good at and then work on that.

Actually, no. Recent research has turned this whole idea of personal development on its head showing that it is far more effective to focus on the things that we like doing the most – the things that energise us. And having done so, the work is finding ways to use these strengths to our advantage. Yes we have to acknowledge our weaker spots, but rather than work trying to make these weak spots into strengths (which really doesn’t work!) we should use the things we are best at to counter.

The trouble has been in the past that we are so much better at worrying about our weaknesses than working to our strengths. And yet psychologists have known for a very long time that because we really can’t change our personality it is really very hard to change the limiting things that stem from our personality. So it is far more effective to focus on what you are good at and use those skills to overcome the blind spots.

When I first heard about this approach, I was very sceptical. There is so much nonsense being peddled that tries to make us think that making major changes in our lives are easy. And in my experience these are never what they seem. So I needed to be persuaded. And I absolutely have been. Learning about strengths and becoming qualified to use the Strengthscope tools has completely changed my entire approach to learning and growth. Nowadays my approach to coaching is to establish what energises the client and then work on ways to leverage that. I have seen how this approach can transform working relationships and make people more effective – and happier – at work. Hyperbole? Put it this way, being brought up in a decaying mill town in the north of England means I am cynical by nature and 20 years as an academic makes me demand evidence.

There’s more about the instrument I use here but if you are interested in exploring how it could make a real difference to you and your organisation, do get in touch.