Thursday, 30 May 2013

Bringing myself to book

'Bringing myself to book'. Ha. Geddit?

Prompted by Doug Shaw, I've realised I need to update you all on my earlier blog, where I pledged to read three books that I felt would develop me in some way professionally and personally.

Here goes.

Like Doug bravely admits, I failed to read all three books.

I began with When I Die, the story of electioneer Philip Gould's final battle with cancer that eventually led to his death in 2011. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; profoundly moving and not what you'd consider a barrel of laughs, yet there is humour to be found in Gould's matter-of-fact tone, and his positive approach to his terminal illness is inspiring.

I got about a third of the way through Mediating Dangerously before I realised that it wasn't challenging how I'd do things, merely positing ideas that could potentially prove fatal for a mediation session and has been written by authors desperate to challenge the norms because they could. Quite honestly, I wanted my £20 and three days' effort back.
I am yet to get round to Patrick Lencioni's The Advantage, which I will admit to being ridiculously lazy enough to buy as an audiobook. I will do it, but just not... yet.  The timing is screwy.

So, it's more time in the gym for me then.

However, in my quest to cover all three books I discovered something else- as I read When I Die, a distantly-located Facebook friend was also reading it and kindly paused so I could catch up. This enabled me to discuss the book at length with her both online and via telephone, which gave me two things: a broader perspective than my own on the huge themes Gould addresses, and friendship with someone who'd until now really only been an online contact who I'd met once or twice at events neither of us planned or really made the most of. Now, we have what I consider a 'proper' rather than an e-friendship, and it's one I am enjoying greatly.

So in short, of the three books, it was the one about dying that gave me the most joy.

Weird, that.


With thanks to Tori Rosenbaum for use of her photo. 

Retirement- some news

Daniel Barnett has just released a great summary of the fndings of the tribunal hearing Seldon vs. Clarkson Wright & Jakes, with interesting update on whether employers can ever justifiably enforce a retirement age.

I advise clients never to adopt a policy that enforces retirement at a specific age unless they are prepared for a) a big overhaul in the legislation in their favour, b) a lengthy battle to prove that retirement can be objectively justified or c) that their reasons are unquestionably sound in the eyes of any tribunal court that might consider them. It would take a lot of confidence to adopt a policy that flew in the face of the law, though it is an issue worth monitoring and I doubt this will be the last case that sees an employer challenge the law and retire staff on grounds of succession, retention, planning, collegiality or safety.

With the Seldon result, employers should indeed be careful to consider that there's been any big change in the position, and continue to work in like with the legislation that saw the Default Retirement Age scrapped in 2011.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Shared experience

I've been thinking about work experience. Mainly, the type many of us participated in at school. 

When I was 15 I was sent off for two weeks to work in a primary school almost two hours, two whole buses and a bit of a walk away from home. I thought at this stage that I wanted to be a teacher (actually, that's what my school wanted me to do: I had my heart set on journalism or even joining the Police, but as an A levels and University hopeful they had me pegged as an educator of the future.) 

Despite the travelling and uncertainty of why I'd been sent there, I enjoyed the experience, mainly because I was working with six year olds (some say I had finally reached my intellectual level, ha ha) and a class teacher who was clearly dedicated to and cared greatly for the children in her care. 

However, it did make me realise I very definitely didn't want to be a teacher.

My daughter got to do possibly the best work experience anyone could hope for- two weeks working with the crew on a Harry Potter film. Again, due to location and working hours on set, she was out for work by 6am and not home til gone 9pm. She was challenged, put straight on a few things, and her ideas were recognised and rewarded where they added to the team's achievements. She did fiddly, fussy, tedious and essential jobs, loaded cameras, made coffee, ran messages, cleaned trailers and fulfilled some pretty ridiculous and ridiculously basic requests.

She says it was the best two weeks work she's ever done, precisely because it was so difficult at times and she felt what she did mattered.

I was shocked when my 14 year old son came home a while back and said he wasn't able to do work experience because "too many people treated it like a fortnight's dossing about." 

I cast my mind back. Three hours travelling plus 7 hours of wrangling 25 six year olds was not what I'd call 'dossing about.' There's a fundamental lack of respect here for both work experience and those participating in it, and I've taken the issue up with the school, who say they're following new Government directives.

We're hearing so much from Whitehall about youth employment (and more relevantly, unemployment) including some seriously half-baked initatives to get work placements and apprenticeships working properly, and so to float ideas like this is bloody ridiculous. 

Last month, the CIPD asked members in its regular mini-poll: Should compulsory work experience be reintroduced in schools?

A total of 886 people voted, and the results were encouraging. 82.17% said Yes, and only 13.43% replied No. (4.40% were 'Not sure', the indecisive little devils.) 
I am in that 82.17% that would love to see students get out there and show us their potential. Reintroducing work experience would be a great start towards tackling the issue so many businesses raise about the 'appalling lack of skills' in our 'unemployable' young people our education system spews forth year on year, but it has to be positive, varied and challenging experience that isn't two week's photocopying, filing or sweeping up the workshop- and that's down to employers to realise. 
Too many employers don't know what they want until they experience not getting it. They expect candidates who are workplace-ready straight from the classroom, without contributing anything to the process that might see us get closer to that dream. Regular readers may recall this is something I've had plenty to say about in the past. 
But you know, this really matters.
Remember yourself at 14, 17 and 20. You didn't know it all- though you thought you did. You had great ideas- but they often went unvoiced, unheard, undeveloped. You had some terrible ones too, and hopefully someone showed you why before you made too much of a mess. 

You had better things to do than sit in dry meetings endlessly talking about things that could be decided in no time with a more energetic, less process-bound approach.  You didn't see why a two hour talking shop was needed to come to the very conclusion that was staring everyone in the face. It was boring, and it stopped everyone doing more fun stuff.
You needed to be managed, monitored, taught and given a talking to when needed. You needed to know what their expectations were. Your attitudes and behaviours were shaped by people taking time to teach you- encouraging, praising, challenging, criticising and developing you. You were a blank canvas, and the image you present today is one created by experience, choices and events. 

Perhaps our focus should be on delivering the best possible opportunities for the next generation to paint their own masterpiece?

Friday, 24 May 2013

What do we want from leaders?

In Kouzes & Posner's‘The Leadership Challenge’ survey in 2003, people were asked what qualities they most needed in leaders.

The most desirable and essential leadership attributes were surprising, with 63% of respondents saying they needed leaders to be Competent.  Only 63% of people felt their leaders needed to be able to do the job to be successful.

68% of people wanted their leaders to be Inspiring;  over two thirds of them want to feel deeper emotions stirred, to feel the fire in their bellies that a motivational and enlightening leader can instill.

The wish for leaders to be Visionary scored a little higher at 75%, showing that three quarters of those surveyed want to see dynamism in leaders, to see those in positions of power have a dream and keep an eye on the future. This clearly links back to the previous point- how many Visionaries can you think of who weren't also able to Inspire?

Honesty was by far the most desirable quality- a whopping 88% felt people with authority should be straight down the line, fair, open and incorruptible. The need for trust is what drives relationships, whether affairs of the heart of in business. Without trust, nothing else has value.

So ten years on, do we think the results would remain broadly the same? Have the turbulent economic times of the past five years changed what we want in our leaders? Have they changed our own management style?

What do you look for in leaders? What qualities do you feel driven to display as a leader?

What are the best examples of leadership you've witnessed?

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Talent unchained

I was asked yesterday to write an expression of interest for a client who's going for some major works with a client of their own. The brief boiled down to three bullet points:

• your experience in serving our residential and commercial markets
• your company’s business principles or code of conduct
• your financial track record and projected growth

The first part seemed easy, as they've worked with this client for some nine years now and it seemed a matter of listing projects both completed and ongoing.

Then I realised that's what every other company sending in their own statement would do, so I chose five representative samples- projects around the city, one with commercial premises involved, two multi-occupancy properties, a family home, a foreign embassy. I then wrote a little about each project, including whether they'd finished on time and to budget, whether there had been any resident issues on the site and what had been done to resolve them, and what awards each site had won, if any.

The client has a strong belief in doing good business, in working with strong values and a definite vision and purpose. I was part of the team that defined those values and I drive theit strategy in environmental, corporate and social responsibility. I've been introduced to their clients as 'the conscience' of their business, which was one of those moments you want to frame and hang on the wall.

Give all that, the second section almost wrote itself. 

The third section was harder- I sought information from their Financial Director, the fantastic Andy of Azure who helpfully sent me exactly what I needed so I could drop it straight into the piece.

It wasn't until I'd checked it over and sent it to their MD for him to review that it hit me: in doing this, I was being asked to play a major commercial role in their business.

Me. The HR person. An outside agent, being charged with summarising their company so they can pitch for £8m of business.

If I could have high fived myself, I'd have done it and not cared who was looking.

We're told HR has to be relevant and commercial, supporting the overall business aims. So many of us try to do just that on a daily basis. It's really nice when you realise you've succeeded.

A chat with Katharine Duff earlier had us both celebrating breaking beyond the traditional role we fulfill. She has been asked to write a client's blog for them, testament to her ability beyond HR, and we found we were referring to ourselves as 'talent unchained.'

Joking aside, I do feel something's been released here that's uncovered a whole new facet to the Treacletiger/ client relationship.

I may let it run free for a while.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Alastair, our newest recruit

Regular readers will remember the puppy drama that unfolded over Easter week.

So, one pup will be coming to join us at home. Safe to say we've picked the boldest, naughtiest and funniest of the bunch- although come to think of it, I think he picked us in the moment three weeks ago when he sat down in front of me, looked up and wagged his tail.

There really was one heartbeat between "We can't possibly have a dog" and the deal being sealed.

He is a Border Terrier with a Kennel Club name that is long, posh and impossible for me to remember, and so has been known as Alastair Darling since he was born due to his glorious eyebrows. He shall of course be known simply as Alastair, or occasionally "c'mere, pup."

We're very excited to be welcoming him home this weekend, and I can't wait for the first walk in the rain. No, really.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Ask yourself this...

Yesterday I opined that employers should stop making excuses and make a start on boosting employee morale, security and engagement, regardless of their inability to fix the wider issues we face with the economy, social change and so on. 

I also got a little cross over on Twitter that so many businesses aren't bothering to address this issue, leaving themselves exposed and with a potential ticking timebomb of disengagement, stress, ill-health, anxiety, fear and lost talent on their hands.

'Unhappy employees are unproductive employees', I tweeted. It seemed to strike a chord, with two conversations springing from this; one agreeing with my point, and one challenging me on it. 

The challenger stated: "I've got employees who'd rather be elsewhere, but they do their jobs. They're productive."

My response: "And how much more would you get out of them if they weren't resentful of every moment spent in the workplace? How much more would they do and how much better would they be to have around if they liked being there, liked their colleagues and liked you? They're not productive right now."

He came back: "But I get what I need from them. What's wrong with that?"

"Absolutely nothing," I replied, "providing you're happy to get what you need and none of what you'd like."

"Like what?"

"Information. Answers to these questions: 

Who's your talent? Who can step up? Who's the best ambassador for your business? Who'd do your job if- forgive me- you got hit by a bus? How does your Company look to your clients? Does it seem a good place to work? Why should they buy from you? What do competitors think of you? Are they envious because you do something they don't, or is it the other way around? How's your reputation in your market?"

He's gone quiet. I hope he's thinking about this, and has gone in to his workplace today with a different perspective. I also hope that his people have a great day at work, and not just do what's needed.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Doing nothing is no longer an option

The Government's 2012 Skills and Employment Survey is out today and states that British employees are feeling more insecure and stressed out at work than at any time in the last twenty years. That's worrying, but not entirely surprising.

The CIPD has responded to this by putting the responsibility for reversing this trend firmly at the door of businesses. Whilst there is clearly a role for employers to work on engagement, wellbeing and motivation of their people, we must not ignore the external social and economic pressures on workers.

With a reduction in support those on low incomes receive and the increased pressures on all workers with a continuing gloomy economic outlook, instability, uncertainty and anxiety continue to take a toll on us all.

The findings are disappointing, given the Government's 'Engage For Success' initiative and drive to increase employee engagement. Perhaps this shows that Governments are precisely the people who should butt out of this area and leave it to employers and employees to thrash out the details.

Employers can help the situation certainly. Workplace initiatives suited to a business' unique position can help the flow of communication and build positivity and a sense of shared purpose. Developing a more open, positive culture where information is shared and rumours quashed has an incredible impact, but reducing the pressure employees feel at work is only part of the story; until we see an improvement in the position outside the four walls of our workplaces, people will continue to feel anxious, inhibited and cautious. This stifles creativity and has an effect on work performance- unless work is a place where they feel valued and have clarity on what they can do rather than what restrictions they face.

Employers can't fix this overnight, but they should start trying to make a difference.

After all, not being able to do everything is no excuse not to do anything.

Go beyond

I took a call earlier from someone seeking some guidance on managing and motivating an employee, who we'll call D for the purposes of this blog. 

You could feel the frustration as he spoke of initiatives he'd tried and approaches that had failed to generate any response, including the offer of a bonus. "I don't get it- we always do it this way and it's just not worked with her."

He added, "She spends a lot of time researching things and doesn't seem to do much with the information. She's always asking for something more challenging." He went on to say he hadn't had time to focus on D, and give her the time he'd have liked to as he was mired in trying to resolve a point a client of his had raised. He said he felt isolated and lost, struggling to see a way to solve the client's issue, and D's lack of direction wasn't helping.

I sympathised and suggested considering what D's real motivators are, what makes her energised and gets her excited. After a long pause, he replied "Problem solving." 

As a result, he is bringing D in on his awkward project, with the idea that fresh eyes and her skills and love for finding solutions will help him stop feeling so alone with the problem, help him spend more time with her, and help their relationship shift into a place where he understands her drivers better.

It's important to challenge the boundaries of 'what's gone before' sometimes. When the accepted way of doing something isn't working, often it takes initiative to recognise that you've got an individual on your hands who isn't like the others. It takes a brave heart to go beyond what is known and try something new and untested.

Be brave, be focused and be ready to surprise yourself.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Acting up

Today's blog is one of those non-work ones that I am inspired to write now and then. The inspiration for this one came at around 10pm last night as we sat watching a film Steve and I both love- The Damned United. As admirers of both Messrs Clough and Sheen, it's a house favourite.

Watching it, Steve asked "Is this one of the greatest screen performances ever?" It got us talking as to what we think really are the greatest performances committed to celluloid over the years.
Let's start with Michael Sheen as Old Big 'Ead. Why is it genius? For me, he captures the essence of Clough- the drive, the mannerisms, the ability, the hilarious but entirely earned arrogance, the refusal to capitulate to the money men that meant he was the best manager England never had. This scene is often quoted at home whenever anyone needs bringing down to Earth- "You can take all that and put it in the bin... 'cause you cheated."

 Next up is Kevin Spacey's astounding turn in The Usual Suspects, by turns fragile and vulnerable and sly and calculated - but always a compelling storyteller. If you don't know the payoff to this story, make time soon to revel in one of the most finely-crafted tales ever put on film.

One of the ladies next, with Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage. Cruel, disdainful and utterly riveting every time she appears, her creation is one of the most repulsive characters to grace the screen.

Another actress now, with Charlize Theron defying every expectation in 2003's Monster, the story of Aileen Wuornos, 'America's first female serial killer.'Charlize brings the vulnerability to the role that stops it becoming just another biopic and makes it something thought-provoking and hugely important.

How did you convey the nuances and detail of a character silently, in the days before sound? A masterclass from Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box. I recall the first time I saw this and I was hooked- both a schemer and a lost soul... Louise played it to perfection.

Alright, gents. Back to you. If I had to pick one performance from three incredible ones in Jaws (the rubber shark doesn't qualify) it has to be Roy Scheider, as Chief Brody. This is the second finest scene in the movie after the 'scar comparison' moment where Quint trumps them all with his story of the carnage of the USS Indianapolis.

Vincent Cassel is an actor who's come to our attention via his intense performances in La Haine, Black Swan and Trance, but here I choose his portrayal of French criminal mastermind Jaques Mesrine- two films, equally brilliant.

Shall we lighten things up with a story of familial murder and ambition? I think so. My all time favourite film is the masterpiece Kind Hearts and Coronets, ahead of its time and mercifully spared a remake, unlike its stablemate The Ladykillers. On the surface it's genteel. Underneath its comic heart is black as night. Dennis Price's performance is often overshadowed by the multiple roles played by the great Sir Alec Guinness, but Price more than holds his own and is a far more subtle actor than his colleague here.

Well, there's a few that spring to mind. I fully expect (and hope for) cries of "But what about.." and "How could you forget..."

Over to you, then.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Brave, bold business

There are times in business when a case presents itself that leaves all involved assuming there has to be a parting of the ways. It feels like every avenue has been exhausted, but often it's poor management and a lack of understanding what to do about it that leads an employer to fire an employee.

And sometimes, there's a need to be brave and recognise that your personal opinion isn't what matters.

Today I led a disciplinary investigation meeting after five hours sleep and a very emotional evening (curse planning development meetings and why I care about them.) The facts of this case, as they had been presented to us by a manager who left the Company last week, had us all feeling the employee had fallen out of love with the job. She was unreliable, he said. She didn't use her initiative. She was always off sick.

Sitting down with the lady in question, her side was very different. Not only did we get more information on her medical condition, we realised she's been communicating more than we'd been told while she's been off. She hasn't been managed, often left alone with no 'to do' list or direction. She defended her manager. 

We had one truth, and now we had hers. 

To dismiss her would have been grossly unfair and would have put the business in a very difficult position; she is clearly possessed of intelligence, and this needs to be put to work for the business. She comes in on Monday with a fresh outlook and a new personal development plan. This will ensure she is actively managed, coached and trained, and understands the improvements expected of her. She knows she has a say in the matter too, with regular catchup meetings and a request that she flags any issues as they occur before a 'big review' in three months' time.

I am about to put the finishing touches to the plan with her line manager. He's happy that he doesn't have to recruit and train someone from scratch, and while he's cautiously optimistic about real change, he IS optimistic, and determined to prove his own skills in helping turn this situation around.

So my initial worry at 7am that tiredness and a sleep-deprived bad mood would sway my judgment didn't come to pass after all. The need to be calm, impartial, and open minded made itself clear- and I am proud to have responded to the call.

I wish the lady well, and look forward to seeing her achieve and grow in the coming months.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Get it sorted

We've decided to make an offer that we hope will help businesses looking for a step up into the World of people policies and employment relations support.

Just £99 per month for a year will get you:

- Your core policies, including holiday, sickness, disciplinary and grievance, family (including maternity, paternity and adoption), flexible working, and more (we'll even update them for you when changes are needed.)
- A staff handbook tailored for your team
- Twice monthly email updates on employment relations and engagement

To take advantage of this offer contact or call 01372 363 353- and get it sorted once and for all.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

I wish the Queen wrote her own speech

Her Majesty has been to Parliament today for the pomp and circumstance of a State Opening once again. Below I take two key points made in her speech and look at what they mean for employers and employees.

National Insurance

Good news for business- employers will be exempted from the first £2,000 of their National Insurance payments in an effort to create jobs and spur growth. Will it work? Let's hope so.


The latest attempt to curb immigration involves restrictions on access to NHS services (it isn't yet clear at what stage GPs or surgeons will ask to see a patient's passport) and a requirement for landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants or face heavy fines- as employers do now. Speaking of which, plan are afoot to 'substantially increase' the fine imposed on employers who fail to carry out immigration status checks on employees or contractors. It can be £10,000 per worker at present, but no details have yet been set out on what they'd like it to rise to.

Illegal migrants will also be prevented from obtaining driving licences (Can anyone clarify this? I assumed that has been the case anyway as surely applying to DVLA for a licence of any type flags up your presence in the UK...)

The Queen's Speech (written for her by Government) says that an immigration bill would aim to "ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deter those who will not". This is all well and good, but there are many come to Britain (or who already live here including UK citizens) who are willing to work and just cannot secure suitable, long term or meaningful employment. It doesn't mean they won't contribute- just that they are unable to.

There isn't much in the way of changes to employment law (but we've had lots recently, and there is still a raft of changes to come.) Let's keep our fingers crossed that the NI initiative itself proves a good move and helpful to businesses looking to create jobs.

Lastly, how great might it be if the Queen wrote her own speech, telling us what SHE, as our Head of State, would like to see happen in our country? I imagine we'd all be directed to keep corgis. But at least the hats would be fantastic.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Define your values and fly

Values are becoming increasingly important in how a business stands out from the competition. 

Values matter enormously when it comes to defining how they distinguish themselves and win more clients. Offering discounts and delivering on your side of the deal is no longer enough as customers have become increasingly savvy about the kind of businesses they want to support. 

Being keen on price and delivering good customer service are the standards these days- the values of your business is where you can deliver the extras customers look for.

I was interviewed yesterday by Anthony Devine, a senior academic from Northumbria University who lectures in business ethics and governance. He's an engaging and frighteningly insightful chap who is preparing his PhD thesis on the thorny topic of family businesses, and how they are holding their own in turbulent times and handling the issue of non-family members having key decision-making roles.

The interview session lasted just under two hours, and seemed to fly. I was invited to meet Anthony as part of my work with Bastows, a third generation family business founded in Yorkshire some 94 years ago and celebrating their 50th anniversary of working in London this year. Bastows are well positioned to speak on this issue, as they currently have three family members on their Board and five non-family Directors- who actually get to make the big strategic decisions (I should know, I'm one of them.) They're also pretty unusual for a construction company in that they love to share a good story- even if it's not about painting and decorating.

After a fairly brief Q&A, Anthony took me through some ethical scenarios (which I won't reveal here but which were facinating and made me really think about my own ethics) as well as an exercise that required me to lay out 32 cards, each showing a value or attribute in a person or group, in order of personal preference. Card 1 was easy to pick.

Fluffy? Simplistic? Not a bit of it. The pursuit of happiness underpins everything we do, the decisions we make, and the way we impact on those around us. It's essential that happiness sits in a pivotal position to any other values you identify. What's the point of anything if it doesn't make you- and others- happy? The other extreme is for us to seek the avoidance of pain- and surely happiness is a far better thing to aim for?

Your business values don't have to be a framed mission statement on the wall that everyone can recite by heart. In fact they shouldn't be. As in Bastows' case, they can be three simple words- Brave, Harmonious and True- that show the World what they stand for and what it's like to work with and for them. They were created after every person in the team had a say and suggested words. When the final three were defined, people felt connected to them because they recognised their own contributions within. These values live and breathe, are recognised by employees and clients as 'real', and truly inform how they work. 

Much better than a dusty frame hanging ever-so-slightly askew on a wall, no?