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Embrace the average.

I loved, loved, loved it when in Meet the Fockers (2004), Gaylord Focker’s parents sex therapist Roz and retiree Bernie (played by Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman) revealed their ‘wall of Gaylord’ displaying all of his lack-lustre ‘achievements’. 

There were no gold medals, no first prizes.  Gaylord, expertly played by Ben Stiller, was clearly an ‘also ran’ and was embarrassed, awkward, and confused by his parents’ unquestioning and unwavering pride in him.  Especially as he was at that very moment failing in his attempts to impress Jack, his rigid and high-performing potential father-in-law, (Robert de Niro, no less), who observed he “didn’t know they made ninth place ribbons”.  His loss I say.  Jack never had to imagine them.  He no doubt came in first place or at least the top three.  That’s privilege that is. 

For the rest of us, it’s reality.  Meanwhile, Bernie tells us it “isn’t about winning or losing, it is about passion.  We just wanted him to love what he is doing.”  Well said that father.  Maybe we should all be more Bernie.  Champions don’t need medals or trophies.  They achieve in life, in championing for other people, or for a good cause. 

That was also one of my take-aways from Marcus Rashford’s book (You Are A Champion).  Champions take the honourable role of caring for those around them, or changing the world for the better, rather than the compliance of measuring against previously set standards or records. 

I wish they gave out prizes at school for absence, defiance, rebellion, innovation – not qualities welcomed at school, (especially some of the secondary schools I have visited).  These qualities are highly desirable in life and at work and should be encouraged not stifled.  For the record, there were no sports prizes in my bedroom – but there were art, class, and year prizes (I brag). 

This can all sit awkwardly with modern twenty-first century life.  And that’s not just a problem, it feels like a conspiracy.  We are all living in stretch-goal-orientated, self-publishing, social-media-filtered, fast-moving, hyphenated-times.  Too much of this frenetic activity is causing us to overlook, underappreciate, or devalue the middle. 

I say embrace the average. That’s the real winning language of champions.

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The don’ts in leadership

I have had the pleasure of writing this column for over six years.  There have been scores of articles all about best practice in leadership and management.  It continues to be a privilege to do so. 

In a change of tack this issue, I’ve ditched the approach of sharing advice on all the good things to do, and instead have decided to focus upon all the bad things to do. If you really want to be the worst boss ever that is. These ideas can really help you by looking at things from a negative perspective – trust me, it works. Be honest, how many of these traits do you recognise? Read it and challenge yourself, please don’t blame yourself, but I urge you to make changes if they need to happen. Here is the leaders’ job description from hell…

First make sure that no decision is allowed to be made without your direct input, even if your view changes like the wind.  One day you want one thing, the next (maybe because you forgot what you said yesterday) you prefer another option.  Don’t allow anyone in the team to decide for themselves at whatever cost.

Never make the mistake of giving feedback whether it is positive or negative.  Stay silent at all times, and keep people speculating.  Force everyone to second guess your body language, or to analyse ‘how’ you said things rather than ‘what’ you said. 

Never miss an opportunity to correct even the smallest mistakes.  I mean, how could someone not notice that misplaced apostrophe anyway?

Always be unreliable when it comes to time management.  Be late, be early, generally never be on time.  Don’t wear a watch.  Bring deadlines forward at a moment’s notice.  Set deadlines, then forget about them – and leave all of that hard work hanging.    Be predictable in your unpredictability. 

Even if you are happy with things make sure there is always something you can express your disappointment about.  Develop a culture where nothing is right. 

Build a barrier around yourself that makes you unapproachable and makes everyone around you think you are too busy to be interested in them or their work.  You are much more important than anything after all.

Create a boundaryless culture and expect everyone else to be the same.  Over share your personal and professional dilemmas.  Ask too much of colleagues, don’t respect their privacy or their private lives or timetables.  Ask them to work early, over the weekend, or when they have booked holidays.  Invade people’s personal and professional spaces at work, online, on social media and on the ‘phone.  Email people at all times of the day and night. 

And never, ever say sorry.  Why should you?

Follow all this advice and you will achieve the status of becoming one of the worst people to work with.  And in reward, you will find plenty of opportunities to be working on your own, and then you can do what you like for a while.  Perhaps not for long though.

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The universe was talking to me today. And I was listening.

Today was Friday.  Work didn’t seem that important for a change.  I didn’t get much done, there was a different rhythm to that of recent days, and I had the benefit of being at home for most of it.  There were other pressing matters.  The first diary date was a visit to the local hospital and their dermatology department.  The result of a GP referral to check-out a couple of moles.  My fault, I had shown them off at my last check-up.  Pretty much the stuff of my age and stage of life.  But, it was my first time of having such an appointment.  I realise I’m at a dangerous age.  And given how surrounded I have been by friends tackling the ‘big C’, there was that natural and understandable niggle, that annoying brain worm, that distracting thought that connected to all sorts of feelings and some dread. 

The appointment was at 10am.  The hospital is a short 10-minute walk away.  So, I had plenty of time to have breakfast and get ready.  Of course, I was ready sooner than I needed to be.  I picked up one of my current books to fill the time.  Sue Townsend’s ‘The public confessions of a middle-aged woman (aged 55¾)’.  I never knew Sue but being a Leicester resident, I often used to see her in M&S, on the train, and in the local curry house.  I stopped reading when the next chapter was entitled ‘Our Hospitals’.  It felt like a sign.  Time to go. 

I picked up my ‘phone, popped in my Air pods, and grabbed my new book.  Off I went, walking in time with the divine sounds of Liza Tarbuck (radio 2), which just happened to be Sister Sledge and ‘We Are Family’.  A classic.  Another sign I pondered. 

After the inevitable confusion of navigating the metropolis that is the hospital, I arrived early at clinic three. I confirmed my COVID-19 status, sanitised my hands, registered, and sat down. I opened the new book, ‘Midpoint, Manhood, Midlife and Prostate Cancer’. So far, the book, seems to be all about the author’s relationship with his prostate and cancer treatment. I am wanting more about the mid-life. I might have to be patient. Pun intended.

But get this, bearing in mind I was sat in the waiting room of clinic three, the opening line, and I kid you not was… “I was sitting alone in examination room three”. The third sign of the day, I thought.

The examination was good.  The outcome was that there was nothing to worry about.  A great result.  I was pleased.  The consultant said it was just old age.  ‘Just’ I thought.  Easy for her to say, given she was in her thirties. She meant no harm. I remained gratefully silent.

I left the clinic, reconnected to Liza, and decided to walk into town to buy bread and have another breakfast – and why not? I went to the café I have visited for over 30 years. A true constant and a real pleasure in my life. I ordered my usual, poached eggs on toast, green tea, and a side of marmalade. Because the second slice of toast after the eggs are gone, deserve such attention! “Sorry, we have stopped serving marmalade” I was advised. Well, that capped it. Sign number four. I had read enough press articles informing me that marmalade was the preserve of older people. And what a day to be confronted with this reality. I did not complain. Next time, I will have marmalade in my bag – made expertly by my dear friend Christine. And no one will stop me from using it!

Another one of those C days.

Today started like any other, it ended with a familiar tale.  Another call from a close friend to let me know they’d had a breast cancer diagnosis.  Thankfully, all my friends and colleagues so far have been lucky enough to survive the ravaging torture that is the necessary treatment.  There’s a little bit of me that wonders when our luck will run out.  And we will lose one of us.  That is a real fear and something to deal with. 

So, these incidents stimulate and prompt many emotional responses, and rational and irrational thoughts.  The familiar pattern of shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance is triggered.  It’s a classic, well documented response.  But the frequency of these cases has enabled a skipping through the first stages and takes me straight into depression and then acceptance (and back again).  It’s just all too miserable and we have no choice but to get on with it. 

But this is all easy for me.  It’s my friends and colleagues that have needed to generate the resolve to battle the big C.  And good on them all for that.  So far, they have all approached it with quiet, accepting and steely strength.  I much admire them for that.  Their responses have been a combination of getting on with things with as much normality or routine as possible.  There have been checks and balances in lifestyles too, ensuring there is less of one thing or another, and perhaps more of something seemingly better for one’s health.  There’s been a bit of life laundry going on as well – getting rid of things or people that they have come to realise aren’t what they want in their future lives.  And understandably there’s been some tidying up of affairs – which is sensible, but it must be a very strange experience – at odds with the ultimate aim of getting through this and surviving to tell the tale.  One of my friends is an out and proud ‘flattie’ as she puts it, after having a double mastectomy, exploring her new body and lifestyle all over social media.  Giving hints and tips to other women. 

Today, my friend was a ‘warrior queen’.  It was a response that matched her character type.  She was pragmatic, practical and planning.  That’s response number one.  She wanted to assure me she would tackle and battle, she would win and it would not get the best of her.  She wants to live.  And she wants things to be all sorted for any event, and for her loved ones to be looked after.  Her concern of the day was that I should not treat her differently and we should be the same as usual – not to wrap her in cotton wool – or to limit expectations of her or how we spend time together.  I will love her whatever; pre- and post-surgery, macrobiotic or vegan or meat eater, teetotal or party woman, hair or no hair, good wig or questionable scarf.  Of course, tomorrow will be another day, and response number two will no doubt be more emotional.  And we predict a pendulumlike ebb and flow of all those emotions and more.  They need to be expected, valued, understood and consciously processed individually and together.  And talked about, asked about, listened to.  It is always a rollercoaster and for that ride, I’m sat in the next seat. 

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Back to the office? What does it mean for equalities in the workplace?

As lockdown shows signs of a sustained downgrading and some behaviours look like they are returning to how things were in 2019, it is time to think about how things have changed and what it means for all of us.

I am particularly interested in the winners and the losers in the office.  By that I mean those that will gain and those that will not.  I know not everyone works in an office 9-5, but a lot do.  And a great deal of those are still working at home full-time, with no plans to allow them to return until well into next year.  Some are occasionally visiting the office, dipping their toes into some sense of normality.  Others have remained there throughout.  There are tensions and anxieties, and obvious worries.  But there’s also great joy at coming back together for the first time in ages.  We are relishing the human company and the sense of a real, more than an online, connection. 

For me, I always worked part-time in the office before COVID-19. Typically making it into the office once or twice a week. The rest of the time was spent on the road, on the train, in clients’ offices and the occasional ‘catch my breath’ working from home day. 2020 was a huge shift for me as it stripped out all that travel and visiting the offices of others. I am basically doing office work five days a week. A mixture of online delivery and writing. To do that, I have balanced being at home with working in my office. At first on my own, and then gradually with more company as some members of the team returned from furlough or doing less working from home themselves.

This weekend, the boss of Aviva insurance (Amanda Blanc) warned women will suffer most if we all go back to the office full-time. She talked about the risks to women’s careers and how these new approaches can also help women. Anyone who has ever worked from home knows the pleasures and the pitfalls. It can be really hard – home can be a lonely place if you live on your own, or the house is empty throughout the day. And there’s lots of distractions and tasks to look after. Well-meaning friendly neighbours think they can pop in anytime for a cuppa, and then there’s all those deliveries, people at the door, builders maybe, the laundry and childcare responsibilities if you have them. It starts to sound like people working from home need a PA and a receptionist. Some of these factors are behind why women are seven times more likely to work part-time than men, there are other reasons too such as inequality and power.

Blanc revealed at the same time it is her intention to work from home for part of the week. Great. But not everyone is afforded the choice or the luxury. And that is a key message in developing these plans, we all need to make sure there is equality in opportunity, and that some colleagues aren’t put at any disadvantages. Consultation and inclusion in the planning and implementation processes will help identify the various considerations for your workforce. As ever, we need to achieve balance – supporting the needs of the business and the employee. Hopefully then, we will all appreciate it when working from home, and make the most of it when we regroup with colleagues in the workplace. We might even look forward to a commute as a special event!

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