Taking personal responsibility – a too rare leadership quality

gandhi-quoteA few years ago I was asked to produce a high impact presentation on the strengths and opportunities for improvement of the organisation’s leadership capability. The presentation would be used to introduce a facilitated discussion on leadership at their annual global leadership conference.

My solution was to use the global IC network to identify credible, astute, representative spokespersons at all levels below MD who would be prepared to give honest (anonymous) responses on tape to the following three questions:

  1. What characteristics do you look for in a good leader?
  2. How do you think our leadership capability compares with other places you have worked?
  3. What one change would significantly improve leadership in our organisation?

The responses to the first question were illuminating more for what was left out than for the suggested characteristics. A torrent of descriptions covering the spectrum of personal values – honourable, genuine, role model – and the ability to make things happen – inspirational, decisive, effective, but not a single allusion to personal responsibility.

In today’s litigious and over-exposed society, the temptation to avoid commitment and deny responsibility is pervasive, from the top of government and the heads of corporations down. Consequently, when you do encounter an example of personal responsibility, it is so unexpected and remarkable that the amount of goodwill it generates is disproportionate.

I know this from personal experience.

Flying to the UK from Jersey recently I, unusually, booked a case into the hold.  At check-in, the clerk offered to check my carry-on into the hold FOC.  I accepted the offer as I would already be waiting for one case at the other end.  I have no idea what happened to the case but it must have been an extraordinary incident as one corner was completely destroyed and my laptop was damaged beyond repair.

At no time was I told that any valuable items in my hand luggage would not be insured if I checked in the bag. As I had my laptop and my new £400 camera in the case, had I been informed of this condition, I would never have checked it.

EasyJet baggage insurance immediately accepted liability for the case. However, it was only when I made a claim for the contents of the case – an entirely separate claims process – that I found out about the insurance caveat for baggage contents placed in the hold. I was advised to try either

I was incensed and in no mood to follow their advice to pass on what was clearly EasyJet’s liability onto either my travel insurance company or my home and contents insurance company.

Internet searches on customer complaints suggested that it might be productive to write to EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall. An article in The Guardian cited her as one of the CEOs who responded quickly and personally to a test email sent by The Observer.

My own email to Carolyn McCall sent on Monday morning resulted in an email from their Baggage Claims Manager early Tuesday morning with an apology for their previous handling of the issue and an invitation to get in touch for resolution. Having submitted copies of paperwork and evidence I received a phone call the following day with an offer of a very generous cash settlement. It was more than I had expected and has transformed me into a staunch advocate of the airline.

Even though I didn’t receive a personal response from Ms McCall, the speed and quality of the response I did receive supported the point made by Marcus Williamson, founder of ceoemail.com, at the end of The Guardian article:

I find the responsiveness of the chief executive tends to reflect the responsiveness of the company overall. It’s like a barometer – the less responsive the chief exec, the lower the overall customer satisfaction in a company.”

Carolyn McCall gets it. It’s just a shame that more CEOs don’t appear to see this as part of their job description.

Posted in Business Leadership, Corporate Values, High performing companies, Leadership Behaviours, Personal Values, Success factors, Trust | Tagged | Leave a comment

Anticipating the message; I couldn’t have been more wrong


Image credit: Sabbian Paine

Tuning into BBC radio 4 recently, I caught the last few minutes of an episode in a series I had never heard before – The Headline Ballads. From what I heard I understood the programme to be comparing and contrasting the response of two very disparate communities to the trauma of flooding. The piece that made a strong impression were the translated final words of a Bangladeshi woman:

We are doing what we can to help each other. We are digging out the soil so we can raise our houses and live here permanently. We don’t just wait for others to help us. We would rather be doing it ourselves.

The only context I had for this snippet was the half-heard short clip of a Cumbrian woman who was talking when I tuned in. She appeared to be bemoaning the hardship of having to live with the constant threat of being flooded.

From these few snippets, I believed the programme was comparing the resilience, stoicism and self-determination of the Bangladeshi community with the English tendency to believe that someone else is to blame for such misfortune, and someone else – i.e. the Government – is responsible for putting it right.

I was basing this on an impression gained over recent years from the media coverage of UK flooding events in which victims seem to me to be continually looking for someone to blame.  The Government, local councils, builders, insurance companies, all come in for their share of blame or criticism, while the flood victims appear to me to be in a state of suspended animation as they wait for someone else to make things right for them again.

How wrong I was and what a salutary lesson in basic communication principles.

I’d heard only a very small piece of the whole and, based on my interpretation of some of the storyline, I jumped to a conclusion about what the ‘compare and contrast’ exercise was going to reveal.

Yet, as a ‘professional’ communicator, I know that listeners will interpret the same story a multitude of ways based on their own experiences and beliefs. Even those who have been exposed to exactly the same messages will recall it differently as each listener attributes greater or lesser significance to those bits that resonate most strongly with their own situation or understanding. Ensuring that the audience is given the opportunity to assimilate the message in its entirety through consistent repetition and reinforcement is a basic principle of effective communication.

In reality the programme was a much more complex and subtle piece in keeping with the theme of the series in which “…poets and storytellers respond to stories underneath the world news headlines”.

In this episode, the writer and poet, Kamal Kaan begins with the story of his own parents move from Bangladesh to escape the poverty and the floods of their native homeland. His ballad is interwoven with personal testimonies from those who have experienced firsthand the devastation caused by flooding.

The half-heard quote from the Cumbrian flood victim, when heard in full and in the context of the rest of the programme, painted a picture of determined optimism equal to that of the Bangladeshi woman I had so admired. She was most definitely not the whinging stereotype I had erroneously assigned her.

You’ve got to build up an emotional resilience to (the prospect of flooding)….You’ve still got to live your life. You can’t live thinking that every time it rains you’re going to flood because, what kind of life would you have out here in Cumbria. It’s the wettest county in the country. It rains quite a lot!

I’m glad that I took the time to listen in full to an unusual and illuminating programme even if it did shame me to realise how far from the mark my initial assumptions had been. In my business, if I start thinking in stereotypes, I only have myself to blame if none of my messages get through.

Posted in Authentic communication, communication channels, Internal communications, People management / motivation, Story telling, Success factors, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How to make a (good) decision.


I believe I am a decisive person and, having made a decision, I rarely spend time worrying about whether I’ve made the right one.

Whether I make good decisions is a whole different matter.

The last truly big decision I made – to put my career on hold and move to Jersey for an indeterminate period, was life changing but easily made as I was going to spend time with my elderly father whose health was in slow but inevitable decline.

The significant decision before that one was deciding between two job offers. Both had their pros and cons which I had listed to help my decision-making process. The listing process was inconclusive and, in the end, I took the job that was both more challenging and held a greater risk of failure, figuring that it might be my last chance to be offered such a learning opportunity.

You could say that I made the wrong choice as my role was made redundant within a year, whereas the person who took the other role is still happily (I assume) in post three years later.

However, my redundancy led to my taking a short-term contract that, while both interesting and different, was also in a rather frustrating and uncertain work environment. This made me much more open to the idea of a career break and moving to Jersey than if I’d been in a stable, head of department role.

The choice I made did not pan out as I might have hoped in career terms but it undoubtedly gave me a broader range of experience than I would have had in the other role and, indirectly, gave me an irreplaceable year with my father.

I’m now facing another tough decision and have started listing the pros and cons once again. This time round however I have a stronger feeling that whichever choice I make will be the right one.

Have I, at the age of 56, started to believe in fate? Not really. But I do believe that your destiny is yours to decide as long as you keep a focus on the doors that are open to you rather than those that have closed.

Posted in career opportunities, Change, Job search strategies, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ladies, don’t be a purveyor of ‘the deadfish handshake’

dead-fishI’ve been shaking a lot of hands lately. This is primarily because we are in tournament season at my tennis club and etiquette demands that, win, lose, or crash and burn, we end each match with handshakes all round. As I’m playing in two ladies doubles tournaments, that’s a lot of handshakes with a lot of ladies.

Being tennis players, you might expect the handshakes to be on the firm side, so I’m rather disconcerted at how many ‘deadfish handshakes’ – i.e. limp – I’m experiencing. It’s almost unnerving and it does make me (slightly) reassess the characters of the women involved:

– they are healthy, energetic and appear confident.

– two of the three women have just won (most probably, as I’m playing slightly above my
league!) a match so they should be, at least inwardly, cock-a-hoop.

– So what’s with the ‘deadfish’?

Having just experienced another limp handshake, this time in a business environment, I was sufficiently intrigued to look into it further.

An article on this very subject in careeraddict.com from March 2015 made the point rather well:

According to 2014 research by jobsite Monster, hiring managers rank their first impressions of a candidate as the second most important factor when considering whether to employ a candidate, and it takes just over six minutes for a candidate to make an impression.

When asked to give examples of the types of behaviours that create the worst first impressions, in top position was a “limp handshake” (alongside smelling badly, ignorance about the company or the role, arriving late and being high on drugs – just to give you an indication of how unimpressive the wrong handshake is).”

In an item on body language, psychologistworld.com proposed that a limp handshake “….can indicate to someone that you’re not interested in building rapport with them and want to escape the greeting ritual as soon as possible.” Other interpretations are shyness, a lack of confidence or, possibly, a sign of introversion, guilt and general anxiety.

None of these is a characteristic you want to display if you are hoping to impress. It’s a shame that our club etiquette is only to shake hands at the end of the match rather than at the beginning as my confidence would be definitely bolstered if an opponent offered me a ‘deadfish handshake’ at the start.

Having said that….

…. two of my tennis club circle are Japanese ladies. Both, in their own way, are demons on court, and both have what I would call ‘limp’ but, which I now know from my research, are ‘delicate’ handshakes. An article on body language in brighthubeducation.com highlighted that, what is seen as a personable and confident greeting in one culture, may create a less favorable impression in another:

“Delicate handshakes, accompanied with minimal and brief contact, are acceptable in Asian countries; however, a slight bow is a more common greeting. In some African countries, the limp handshake is the thing to do.”

This would explain why, in the case of my Japanese opponents, a delicate handshake is no predictor of feeble performance on court!


Posted in Authentic communication, Culture, first impressions, Success factors | Leave a comment

Is your job still offering you learning opportunities?

Lonely_Planet_Guide_BooksI’ve really enjoyed Michael Robinson’s recent series on BBC Radio 4 in which he’s been exploring the trends and challenges of the UK’s work environment – The New WorkplaceIn the last of the series he invited spokespersons representing different aspects of the world of work to give their views on such questions as:

  • Do we have to get used to a low wage, low skill economy?
  • What is the future for self-employment?
  • Is the idea of a lifelong career outdated?
  • Will trade unions become more relevant to the great majority of workers?

As a warm up session he asked each what was their first paid job and what, if anything, they had learned from it. The responses had the hallmarks of being unrehearsed and, as a result, were fairly uninspiring, but the question rather than the answers did stimulate two streams of thought:

  1. Would I have been any more inspiring if asked about what I’d learned from my first job?
  2. Thinking about my recent jobs or roles, are they still providing me with learning opportunities or has it become a case of SSDD (Same S**t, Different Day)?

I realised that the answer to the first was undoubtedly no as, crafting pithy soundbites to virtually any question requires time and consideration, so any off-the-cuff response is almost inevitably going to be fairly bland.

And am I still learning in the jobs that I do?  The answer to that is best captured by French composer Michel Legrand’s expansion of an Albert Einstein quote:

The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know.

My career path has been opportunistic and unpredictable. The freelance consulting route (which is where I’ve ended up) is not a career path I planned but what it lacks in financial stability it more than compensates in terms of challenge, learning opportunities and personal as well as professional growth. Each role seems to offer more challenges than the last, which is why the Legrand/Einstein quote resonates with me.

We all experience days when our job’s reward / pain equation appears too far on the debit side and begs the question “Is it time to look for something else”? On these days, it’s worth taking 5 minutes to answer the following question: “What was my last learning opportunity in this role”? The answer to that question should either help you to battle on through or give you another reason to re-evaluate your current role.

Can you match the panellists above to the first jobs and learns listed below? (Answers at the bottom.)

The panel of spokespersons:

  1. Frances O’Grady – the General Secretary of the TUC
  2. Justin King – for 10 years the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s
  3. Alison Wolf – Professor of Public Management at Kings College, London who has long specialised in skills and training policy
  4. David Willetts – minister for Universities and Skills in the coalition government and now the Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation – a think tank that aims to improve living standards for people on low and middle incomes.

First paid jobs and learns:

a.   Counting and banking the takings of a local store: making sure it balanced
b.   Worked in a factory in Birmingham in my gap year: how to move even large items of
office furniture by applying a bit of ingenuity
c.    Two jobs – weekend job at a newsagent and kitchen assistant at an Oxford college:
broadened knowledge of the world by reading the papers and, as a kitchen assistant,
joined the union
d.   Paper round: learns: turn up on time and be nice to customers – bigger tips at


1 : c   //   2 : d   //   3 : a   //   4 : b

Posted in 21st century workplace, career opportunities, Employee Engagement, job satisfaction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is the optimum size for an internal comms function?

Project-Management-TriangleI started re-considering this question when I read a LinkedIn status update from my former CommsQuest colleague David Norton who wrote:

It is that time of year again, just had the 3rd meeting this week about Comms budgets for 2016. The good news is that we’re seeing Comms functions get bigger budgets to go with their ever-increasing scope, and interestingly many clients are also looking to recruit new IC specialists next year.

That’s good news for IC practitioners but I find it rather surprising.

It’s true that the companies who have invested in good IC professionals and have experienced first hand the valuable support the function can provide to both the business and the executive team will find ever-increasing opportunities to expand the scope of the function’s activities.  After all, where does employee engagement – a key objective of all my roles over the last several years – start and stop?!

In my view, despite the potential to get involved in a wide range of activities that are ‘urgent’ but perhaps not so ‘important’, the key role of an IC practitioner has largely switched from doing to enabling.  That should require fewer, but more senior/ more influential people in the function.

Let me explain my reasoning.

In the old days the common metric was one IC practitioner to every 1000 employees. By ‘old days’ I mean before the social media revolution forced us to question all the usual communication mores and practices. However for IC to be an effective function in today’s work environment, IC practitioners should be enabling on-going, informed and constructive conversations and knowledge-sharing via a co-ordinated programme of line manager briefings, social media platforms and senior management activities, rather than developing and delivering endless amounts of content.

I recognise that the importance I place on the f2f activities isn’t universally supported. In a recent article by SharePoint and digital consultancy Brightstarr entitled The Five Most Common Mistakes in Internal Communications, number 1 on their list was:

Don’t Be Old Fashioned. Ideas like ‘cascading’ (informing top management, who brief the next level down, etc.) and desk drops have no place in the modern office.”

The article goes on to say: “Dripped down briefings get diluted resulting in the essence of the message getting lost and who needs another piece of paper that will end up in the recycling 0.5 seconds after receiving it? Instead the center piece to a well thought out internal communications strategy should be an employee intranet which allows all employees to view it from everywhere, on any device.”

I agree that the intranet should be positioned as the go-to source for business updates and insights. In my experience, though, this is still an aspiration not a reality for most organisations. Certain groups of employees – millennials for example – are reputed to prefer online comms above any other. However, many (most?) IC campaigns support some type of change initiative that, to be successful, requires the active engagement of employees. I defy any online campaign to be effective at mobilising employees without some direct intervention by line managers to explain the impact on their team/function, plus personal sponsorship at executive team level.

Working with HR, IT and the leadership team, IC can develop a set of organisational competencies that will provide a flexible, readily accessible and trusted communication infrastructure capable of responding quickly and effectively as the occasion requires:

  1. Line manager competency
    Line managers who are capable and confident in their role as key conduits (up and down the organisation) of corporate messaging will enable all employees to understand their role in helping the company achieve its goals.
  2. Social media channels
    The deployment of effective and inclusive social media channels will both facilitate the spread of employee advocacy and engage that section of the employee population for whom this is their preferred means of receiving and sharing information.
  3. Leadership as comms champions
    A leadership team that is a committed, cohesive and trusted participant in the day-to-day communication infrastructure will be well poitioned to mobilise quickly and effectively for the more challenging events.

The Internal Communication and Technology Survey Report jointly produced by Newsweaver and Melcrum in February 2014 revealed that the majority of IC teams continue to work to a ratio of 1 per 500-1000 employees. I guess, as David Norton references, the IC function is having to fulfil its old world obligations as well as respond to the new. At this stage we’re probably all still working out what the optimum size and shape of the function might be.

Posted in Business Leadership, Change, communication channels, Culture, employee advocacy, Employee Engagement, Internal communications, Leadership Behaviours | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I can’t get no satisfaction*

oh yes its freeI recently happened upon a repeat of a programme called The Next Greatest Generation?  broadcast by the BBC in 2013. It was part of the TED Radio Hour, a series originally on America’s NPR, which explores some of the fascinating ideas covered by a range of speakers on the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) stage.  In The Next Greatest Generation? reporter and radio host Guy Raz hears from the ‘Millennials’ – people born between 1981-2000 – searching to define themselves and their generation.

One of the Millennials – Charlie Hoehn – was promoting the concept of ‘free work’. He saw it as a smarter way of building your CV and developing your network than the largely menial and frequently dead-end internship route or the dispiriting cycle of endless job applications.

The premise of Hoehn’s free work concept is to:

  1. focus on the subjects, the people, the businesses that really inspire and interest you
  2. make speculative approaches offering your help, for free, to deliver an identified value-add.

Most entrepreneurs are smart enough to recognise this as a win/win opportunity and free work resulted in Hoehn receiving offers of interesting and paid project work that would otherwise never have come his way.

As Guy Raz was reviewing these TED Talks and talking to the Millennial presenters he came to the inevitable conclusion that money as a career motivator is quite a long way down the priorities list for this generation.

I was interested in Hoehn’s free work promo, particularly as I have recently been told about a rather less positive experience of pro bono work.

Being between roles, with time on his hands and a desire to get to know his local business community, a friend offered his services to a young organisation that is working to develop a specialist capability and community. He was invited to write an engagement strategy and a promotional feature for their website.  The first was quite a tough ask from a standing start but he believed his draft could be developed further by someone more informed without too much effort. The second item he turned around in 24 hours so it would have been a hot-off-the-press news story.

Apart from a grateful acknowledgement of receipt, (received only after he had sent a follow-up enquiry about next steps), he has no idea what happened to either piece.

He told me that he’d enjoyed doing the work and was not unhappy with the outputs. However, with no insight into what, if anything, happened to his work, his job satisfaction and desire to contribute any further to that organisation dwindled to zero.

It did make me think that, if you are not paying for a service or product, perhaps you, almost inevitably, place a low value on it.

In the same way that: “What gets measured, gets done”, it’s also likely that: “Only that which requires payment, is valued”.


*When considering this as a headline for this blog post, I wondered whether I could be sued by The Stones for copyright infringement.  Obviously I could be but I understand that such a suit would be unlikely to succeed.  I found the legal argument around this scenario an interesting read.

Posted in 21st century workplace, career opportunities, Employee Engagement, Millennials, TED Talks | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment