Monthly Archives: August 2011

The one where it ends

Or so I thought….

For some reason I was in bed last night thinking of literary opening lines and some of the greats.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“All this happened, more or less.”

“Call me Ishmael”

“Marley was dead to begin with.”

Rather than being from a novel (as the above are) my favourite comes from a play for voices and it is:

“To begin at the beginning”

If I begin at the beginning, this blog started in a hotel room in Asia, in the middle of March of this year when I was in a state of panic regarding recruiting participants for my Masters project and the first post said by September 1st it was get a Masters or bust….

Over the next few days I wrote some follow up posts to help the recruitment process and slowly but surely got engaged with the process of blogging and 34 posts later here we are. September 1st beckons and I am sat in the same hotel this all started in. I fly back tonight and I have some tinkering and tweaking to do on my project dissertation but the back is broken and I WILL hand it on time.

My original plan had been to write this blog until my dissertation was done then end with a swansong post crediting all the people who have helped and supported the process. Then sign off with a ‘thank you very much and good night’

But two things happened which have changed that plan:

  1. I have found this really enjoyable and a great way to get nonsense out of my head and structure some of my more random thought
  2. I failed one of my exams (by an infuriating 3%) so I will NOT be getting a Masters this year and neither am I bust as I get the opportunity to resit next June

Therefore, the blog will continue with the random sharing of my thoughts and occasional rants but in the meantime I still want to credit all the people who have helped and supported my project. So in alphabetical order they are:

  • Kevin Ball
  • Paul Bullock
  • Fran Burnford
  • Alison Chisnell
  • Lily Haines-Gadd
  • Rob Harrison
  • Andy Jones
  • Katie McNab
  • Leighanne Miles
  • Neil Morrison
  • Judy Payne
  • Gillian Symon
  • Charlotte Thom
  • Kirsty Walden
  • Sophie Watson

Thank you all so much for your help in various ways. If you don’t know why you are being thanked ask 🙂

A few collective mentions:

The #ConnectingHR community who have supported this blog and helped spread the word throughout the process

The company in India that turned my transcriptions around in record speed (15 hours of interviews is no mean feat!)

Particularly, the participants of my project, who remain nameless for ethical reasons but if you are reading this, thank you very much and you will be sent a copy of the project once it’s marked

And finally:

To my boss, Sue Malti. She provided both the impetus and funding for me to study and although I have regretted the decision on numerous occasions and I am sure hindsight will soften the blow and if and when I finally achieve a degree it will be a source of considerable pride. Thanks!

P.S. [Kudos and celebrity to anyone who correctly identifies all the opening lines!]


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The one with the $20 auction

OK so it wasn’t strictly $20 it was 100 Yuan but you’ll get the point…

Professor Max Bazerman is a very well credentialed man.  He is Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. His areas of expertise include decision making, ethics and negotiation and he has a publication list that would make even John Grisham blush.

Professor Brazerman’s first lecture on the MBA programme begins with the $20 auction where students can bid to win $20. Of course the bidding starts at $1 and can only go up in whole number increments so you’d figure the most it ever sells for is $20, right? Wrong. It has been sold, I believe, for as high a sum as $204 which having an expertise in ethics the good Professor donates to charity.

If you are anything like me you are likely sat reading this thinking “I’d never fall for anything like that” and you are probably right… but lots of people do and it’s for that reason that I’ve used this mechanic is several workshops including one which I ran today in Guangzhou, China. The workshop looks at amongst other things the nature of internal competition in organizations and how often the drive to succeed in the internal competition distracts from that ALL so important factor…the external competition.

Between my colleagues and I, we have run this workshop several times and I believe our record is somewhere in the region of £80 (and we usually use fake money) but the device is a good one for making the point about how otherwise sensible rational people make often strange decisions in the name of winning.

So this morning I duly got 100 Yuan (about £10) out of my wallet and popped it in an envelope to use at the appropriate moment. When the moment arrived in the workshop a strange thing happened – the auction didn’t work and despite my baiting and goading I only managed to get the team up to 20 Yuan (I had started the bidding at 10!) and was asked the following question:

“Why would we compete with each other? If we nominate one person and all share their costs, can we all share the prize?”

My initial reaction was a forced smile and a response in the affirmative whilst preparing to try and make the learning point without the auction having worked and then I stopped and thought, ‘is this cultural rather than just a group of bright sparks?”. Now I don’t know the answer but it’s been bouncing around in my head ever since.

I wrote a post last week (whilst working in Hong Kong) which shared the Hall’s cultural contexts and a feature of a high context culture (like China) is that identity is rooted in the collective as opposed to low context cultures like the US and the UK where identity is rooted in the individual. Now whether this is due to cultural context, political context or just the foresight of a few bright individuals seeing right through my plan I’m not sure. However, the idea that a group of relatively junior people in our Guangzhou office paid the equivalent of $4 in the $20 auction has made my day, especially when you look at the cost of the MBA programme at Harvard!

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The one with the landlord’s fixtures

At exactly midnight (Hong Kong time) on July 1st 1997, the Last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten sent the following telegram:

“I have relinquished the administration of this government. God Save The Queen. Patten.”

The succinct communication was the last official act of a government that had existed in some form or other for 155 years and with it Great Britain’s “tenancy” of Hong Kong ended and it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China or more correctly The People’s Republic of China. The terms of the SAR were negotiated in the years leading up to 1997 and it’s an arrangement that will last for 50 years at which point it will be subject to review. The return to Chinese rule did not however spark the mass exodus some predicted either of people or money and Hong Kong today is a vibrant multi cultural city-state.

You don’t have to travel far in the city to find relics of the former tenant – whether they are architectural or some classic road names -I can’t imagine Carnarvon Road is named after a Chinese location and Cameron Road is surely ahead of its time? But the interesting impact is on the culture which appears at least on the surface to be a blend of both its significant influences.

I have been very fortunate over the past few years to make several visits to Hong Kong. They have been mostly business (with a little pleasure snuck in) and I have worked with people from our business who have been of either British, Hong Kong-Chinese or Mainland Chinese origin and got to see firsthand some of the differences that manifest themselves as Asia accelerates its position in the global economy and the multi nationals strive to work effectively in the region.

In his 1976 book “Beyond Culture”, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall proposed his concept of cultural context defining the differences between high context and low context cultures. He was an American who’s work had started with native Americans and through working with the Foreign Service had broadened globally and I think I’m right in saying he defined the extremities of communication cultures using Japan and the US as respectively the poles of high context and low context cultures.

Information regarding his definitions is readily available but in summary:

High Context

  • Relationships build slowly
  • Trust depends on connections
  • Identity rooted in the Collective
  • Hierarchical structures
  • Space is communal
  • Time is polychronic
  • Time is a process
  • Change is slow
  • Accuracy is valued


Low Context

  • Relationships build up quickly
  • Trust depends on one’s merit
  • Identity rooted in the individual
  • Egalitarian structures
  • Space is territorial and private
  • Time is monochronic
  • Time is a commodity
  • Change is fast
  • Speed is valued

Given the poles are Japan and the US it is likely no great surprise that fairly close to both those extremes are China and the UK, with the Chinese culture very high context and the UK far lower.

It was during a discussion of these ideas with a group in Shanghai that one of the Senior Managers in the room asked the question “so where does Hong Kong sit?” Being a good facilitator I inwardly panicked and outwardly threw the question back to the room… discussion ensued. The result of the discussion was in their opinion, that Hong Kong sat somewhere you might define as mid context having elements of both high and low and the discussion went further to how the history of Hong Kong might have influenced this.

In reflecting on this on several occasions with various people since that time the idea of mid context seems to have some resonance for people experienced in the region and the observation had been made by several people that rather than having a diluted culture in the middle that Hong Kong has some distinctly high context elements and some distinctly low context elements and that they could possibly correlate to the role of the family (where culture seems far more traditional) and the role of commerce (where the behaviour observed by others has been likened far more to Western cultures).

Given the pace of globalisation, the shifts in economic power, the need for multinational businesses to operate globally and the future of the SAR, it seems that Hong Kong may have some interesting times ahead and with hindsight will the most significant landlord’s fixtures not be the buildings or the road names but the divergent culture born of two significant influences?

Where does all this leave us? Given a lack of significant research it leaves us with some interesting ideas from people who live and work in Asia and personally it leaves me with a desire to further explore this fascinating place which given it’s half past gin o’clock and I am sat in a hotel in Kowloon,  I will do now!



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The one with the grief or the celebration

If I asked you what you knew about Tuckman’s theory of Group Dynamics, you would probably (like me until fairly recently) shrug and look at me with a ‘oh god what’s he read now’ expression. However, if I asked if you’d ever heard the words forming, storming, norming and performing with respect to teams then I imagine I would get a very different reaction.

Bruce Tuckman is to teams what Mr Kipling is to pre-packed cakes – kind of a cornerstone, fundamental kind of ‘brand’. If you are inclined to, there’s a great summary on Wikipedia which you can find here Tuckman. Considering he first published his theory in 1965, I think it says something that it is a) so well known and b) still relevant. It may even have to be considered enduring wisdom…

Some 12 years later, he added a further stage that he termed ‘adjourning’ concerned with completion of the task and the breaking up of the team. The term ‘adjourning’ makes it sound very casual or maybe very processural but it doesn’t sound like something that involves human beings.

It’s fairly obvious (even to someone who works in HR) that we are living in unprecedented times. Over the last 3 ½ years the world has changed and unless you’re a banker (who seem to have bounced back fairly nicely) not likely for the better. I would expect most of you whether directly or through friends have seen the impacts of the economic climate and how it can effect businesses and the inviduals within them.

This brings me back to the 1977 5th stage. The more appropriate term I’ve heard (and I must credit my colleague Charlotte for this) is ‘mourning’ because the teams breaking up I’ve seen are going through a far more human process that simply adjourning something. Whether it’s a triumphal dissolution of a successful team or the team is losing people (which is probably more likely in current circumstances) actually taking the time to reflect on the team, it’s challenges and achievements and allowing yourself and others to make sense of the situation is a powerful but oft overlooked part of  managing the change the individuals are going through.

I have been fortunate not to attend many funerals in my life. I have reached an age where I’m 0 for 4 on Grandparents but fortunately the rest of my immediate family are alive and kicking; although my Dad does seem to be embalming himself in advance! The most difficult of those have been where people’s grief has centred around the loss of an individual, a life cut short or a person central to their general existence and emotional well being. The best, if you can say that of a funeral, have been where it’s been possible to take a step back from the loss and celebrate the life of the individual, how they’ve enriched those around them and usually in my experience have featured the double whammy of alcohol and anecdotes.

The interesting thing about the latter experience is the catharsis it allows, the emotions that are dealt with (in company) and how the overall experience leaves you saddened at the loss but thankful for the experience of knowing the individual. Thinking about this as I write its most like the Irish tradition of the Wake…

Now I’m not suggesting organisations should start throwing piss ups for teams that are breaking up (although I wouldn’t vote against it personally). However, taking the time and giving the support to a team to have that catharsis before throwing them either a) into the next team or b) out the door, may pay dividends both the individuals directly affected but also for the survivors who may be feeling the guilt of not being shown the door.

Therefore I propose a new structure:


*where no one is allowed to drive and the taxis are on expenses



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The one with the riots

For those of you who read this blog regularly you may be surprised that I am writing this as I don’t tend to blog about what is broadly topical and although the context of this blog is the events unfolding at the moment it is the reaction on the news and in social media, that has given me cause to reflect…

The ugly face of civil unrest has shown itself in the UK this week and personally, I am shocked and appalled at what I have seen on television this evening. The idea that the people who are looting and destroying property this evening are doing so in support of a cause seems unrealistic and it appears they are taking advantage of the situation for their own ends.

What happens in the coming days will no doubt captivate the media and the commentators and in the final reckoning it will be not the people who have been victims of these events that will get the attention but the institutions involved. What will be overlooked is the broader ramifications for our country and the focus will be who was to blame. I may be wrong but I would put money on it and I’m not a betting man.

My attitude towards the police is probably similar to a lot of you. I am respectful of them on an individual basis, my interactions with them have been confined to a few incidents involving radar guns and like any significant institution it would be easy to label them as a group when in fact they are a massive organisation but still made up of individuals.

In the coming blame game, it is the senior people who will be held accountable for their perceived failure tonight and that will certainly involve the Home Office and the current government. I read a statistic (don’t ask me where) that over 70% of organisational change initiatives fail and in whilst the current government will be held accountable for their failure to reform or realign the police, in their 15 months in government would it actually be realistic? I am not seeking to excuse the current government or the previous administration. The point I am trying to make is from an organisational perspective trying to change something as large as the police force is a herculean endeavour and while the police remain a political football, kicked from side to side of the House, is it realistic that lasting change will ever be made?

During a private conversation on Twitter this evening, someone remarked that the police should have gone in earlier and also called the army into play. With hindsight they may be correct, but hindsight is 20/20 and no one sees that clearly when something is emerging. Someone, somewhere tonight is accountable. Ultimately it’s David Cameron, but on an operational perspective, someone in a police uniform was captain of the ship tonight. Imagine being that person…talk about a catch 22.

If you make the call too early and go in heavy, you risk escalating an already volatile situation and also put the lives of your people at risk. If you make the call too late and the situation gets out of hand then civilians and property are put at risk. Either way you lose and the fourth estate will hand you a noose, without too much hesitation. Talk about an exercise in decision making…

No doubt that person has faced difficult decisions before, I would hope that to reach a Leadership role they would be well versed. But step back for a moment and ask yourself as an individual, what decision would you have made? It’s easy to be arm chair commentators, but think about the last time you had to make a difficult decision at work…how much did you fret, get angst-ridden and deliberate before you made it? Now imagine doing it with human life and property at risk and the press laying in wait.

The final thing that has been bouncing around my head is what the situation emerging today says about our values as a nation. You can’t move 3 lines in HR press without some mention of company missions and values. We all espouse them with ease and ask the people we work with to live up to them. Often, we include them in performance review and judge people against them. So what are the UK’s values? And how are we doing in our performance review tonight?

I’m now going to bed with the prospect of waking up to the FTSE yet again taking a hammering and hopefully some calm having prevailed in the parts of this country that have seen unrest today.

I don’t really know why I’ve written this. For one reason without writing it I wouldn’t have got to sleep for some time and it’s a definite way to ease the frustration I will undoubtedly feel as the blame game unfolds but mostly I wrote it in the hope that someone somewhere actually thinks about what all this MEANS and from that comes real change…but that may just be me dreaming!


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The one with the books and covers

My brother was talented and dedicated enough to go to Music College when he finished his A-Levels. Anyone who thinks getting into Oxbridge or getting a job is a tough gruelling process, then try and get into one of the top 10 music conservatoires in the world….it’s tough. Following 4 years of study under a world class professor he graduated to flog his wares as a freelance musician in London….it’s tough. He ended up sharing a house with 3 fellow freelance musicians, 2 of whom were seasoned professionals (and seasoned drinkers but that’s another story) and 1 was also a recent graduate who it’s safe to say was fairly enamoured of himself.

He was ‘caught’ on several occasions parading around the house/his room in full evening dress (white tie & tails), admiring his smartness in various mirrors. His bubble was burst somewhat by one of the older lads calling him something far too rude for this blog and adding “it’s just a boiler suit”. When he received in response a quizzical look he added, “If you worked at Kwik Fit, you’d wear a boiler suit but you work in an orchestra so you get to wear that”. He went on to add that the individual should stop being….well, he should stop being a something.

There are some jobs, like orchestral musicians, that have very defined modes of dress and even more jobs that have stipulated uniforms but outside of those is a whole load of ambiguity. I was at a dinner with other HR professionals recently and a senior HR Director was bemoaning the amount of noise and nonsense is caused by the organisation’s dress code; her take on it being “if you’d wear it on a night out or to the beach then don’t wear it to the office”.

Having been told early in my career to ‘dress for the job you want not the job you’ve got’ I’ve fought the temptation to dress like an eccentric billionaire and am decidedly conformist in that I suit and boot. My thinking being that you never feeling uncomfortable being too smart (although being asked if I was a banker by a checkout lady at Waitrose did make me chuckle) and it’s easier to take a tie off, roll up sleeves etc to dress myself down if I am seriously ‘over smart’.

That being said I am not what you define as fashion conscious and had always thought I paid little attention to what people wear. I was wrong. Having reflected recently on several situations I’ve been in I have realised that maybe just on a subconscious level like everyone else I am prone to judging books by covers and in my judgement clothing and what it possibly says about the individual is definitely a component.  So how am I being judged? And do I care?

The reality is that impressions are formed quickly and intuitively we all make them, but was Mark Twain right when he said, “Clothes make the man”? (Although the rest of the quote is “Naked people have little or no influence on society”). Am I any better at my job in a pinstripe suit and double cuffed shirt than I would be in a pair of jeans and a polo shirt? Or does my ‘boiler suit’ just help me feel internally valid to do my job?

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The one with Billy Connolly and Recruitment

Billy Connolly observes in one of his older stand up shows the amazing effect that the British Parliament (and it’s probably true of parliaments everywhere) has on political rhetoric. If memory serves it’s to do with the then headline grabbing issue of pit bull terriers. He describes the passage from the public question of whether we should shot them or castrate them and how this becomes, following a trip through the machinations of Westminster, that people have to register them at the post office…

All the power, energy and possibly value of the original intention is completely lost and what remains is a tiny shadow of its former self.

Now imagine being an applicant for a role in a large business…

Should they hire you to be the architect of their next success, the person to run all of their operations or just make it easy and appoint you as their next CEO?

Well, it seems, following a trip through the machinations of some of the corporate beasts your barnstorming application will be a shadow of its former self. By the time it ducks, weaves and turns through system to the person who is actually hiring, your energy, enthusiasm and passion are likely diminished and maybe, just maybe you’ve got another job.


I am NOT, I repeat NOT, having a pop at internal recruitment teams. I repeat NOT!

So why have I just written that?

Firstly, I have sat in an internal recruitment team and seen first hands the juggling act of managing multiple vacancies, across multiple line managers who all have conflicting priorities.

Secondly, I have been a recruitment consultant (shhhh don’t tell anyone) and tried to represent (yes I use that word) great people into great employers

Thirdly, because I see people time and time again go from the height of enthusiasm to the depths of apathy about a role due to falling victim to the shock absorber.

Finally, and most importantly, businesses need great people. The better the people, the better the business (or I best give up now and go and work behind a bar in the Caribbean)

It strikes me that recruitment in all its guises has become far too much about cost and far less about value. After all that’s easy to measure and you know the old adage ‘if you can measure it, you can improve it’ but what about quality?

The guy I used to work for in recruitment had an aspiration of presenting one CV, to get one interview, to get one hire – it wasn’t a numbers game, it was a carefully considered process to ensure the best person was presented with the least camouflage to distract the person hiring. Let’s face it “the hiring manager” doesn’t give a stuff how cool your ATS is, how many people ‘like’ your Facebook group or how efficiently the tiers on your PSL works – they just want the right person at the right time. Imagine going into an Aston Martin dealership and them telling you how great the truck that delivered the car was – you wouldn’t care (if you were me, you’d be too busy trying to wrestle the keys out of their hands)


If you work in recruitment either internally or externally, I honestly wasn’t having a pop at you, but would ask that you take a moment and reflect on quality and if you have great quality measures then share with your peers – tout suite!

If you are a manager elsewhere in a business, for the sake of the customer (yes the customer) who is the author of that CV you have in front of you, whatever you do, do it quickly

If you are in a more senior position within an organisation, think about the balance of all the effort you put into brand or business marketing, the quality measures in your product or service and the costs of training and development in your business  and then think about how ruthlessly efficient your recruitment service is….is it too ruthless?

A little credit where it’s due:

This post started as an idea after reading a post by @mervyndinnen

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The one where I admit my hypocrisy

Do you consider yourself hypocritical?

In sharing an observation I will confess to you, here and now, I am a hypocrite.

Have you ever read a job advert or a job spec and thought to yourself “I could do that, I haven’t done it before but it’s very like XYZ project” or “that looks really interesting I would love to get my teeth into that” and when you’ve applied for it you were told something along the lines of either

(a)    They were looking for someone who’d done it before

(b)   Yes you’ve done it in X sector but they really want someone with Y sector experience

Now my admission of hypocrisy is having been on the receiving end of versions of both responses above and bemoaned the narrow minded/short sighted/safe playing individual who makes up ‘they’ in those statements, I have said the statements too….I have been ‘they’

*hangs head in shame

In reflecting on this admission, I’ve been thinking about what drove my behaviour. The reasons are numerous but the biggest reason is personal security and it’s akin to the classic statement “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”. In covering my own back I hired the person who was most acceptable to those around me and was in the context of my role, the safest choice. The people I have hired have been fantastic, delivered some awesome work and I am fortunate that none of them ever put me in the position of having to justify why I hired them but I do think about the people I dismissed from the process because they weren’t ‘IBM’

The biggest irony of all of this is I work for someone who takes exceptional risks it appointing people into roles they have not done before or outside of the sector the business operates in. You may ask how I know this and I would answer simply “me”. When I was hired into the company I currently work for I had never worked in the sector before and when 9 months in I was given considerable additional responsibilities it was for something I had never truly done before.

I am safe in praising my boss here firstly, because I have already acknowledged to them the risk they took in appointing me and secondly, because it is unlikely they will ever read this. I will however admit in taking on the initial and latter role it didn’t occur to me for a moment that my boss was spending organisational capital, taking a risk or leaving themselves open to challenge.

In considering my good fortune compared to those I have, in the interest of my own safety, possibly overlooked I do feel a hypocrite.

But am I alone or does anyone else want to try the horsehair shirt?


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