Fighting fires

When I was a kid, I watched my father [hi Dad!] walk into a burning building. I was maybe 8 I guess? Our house backed onto a farm and (so the tale goes) some local kids had been smoking in the barn in the evening and it caught fire. Next to the barn was a little cottage where an old lady lived, with a load of cats – like a dozen or something – and she had refused to leave the cottage before all of them were found and she couldn’t find one and “what if it’s still in the house??!!”…

My dad wouldn’t claim to be “brave”, I don’t think. I imagine he’d consider himself much too sensible for daft ideas like that [he reads The Times, for crying out loud] but on that evening [probably with an “oh for fuck’s sake” under his breath if I know him] he walked into the burning cottage to ‘convince’ the lady she really should think about making her way out of the building sometime soon if turning into a roast old lady wasn’t in her immediate life plans.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that he came out, jostling the old lady in front of him. You’ll be delighted to know that all the cats had, of course, left the cottage some time before, because as we all know cats only care about themselves. My old man [who, come to think of it, would have been younger then then I am now: what a mind fuck that is!] was coughing and his face was black from the smoke and soot and my mum was really cross with him which at the time I thought seemed a bit unfair, because, you know, he was a bloody hero and all that.

And then the fire brigade turned up and we got to watch them putting the fire out, and it was very late and very exciting and I think I got to wear a fireman’s hat [although I might have imagined that because I’ve watched too much TV in my life and that’s the kind of thing that happens in a montage at the end of a TV program about a fire isn’t it?].

My fake memory

Up to now, I haven’t had the opportunity to save an old lady from a burning building [although I did have my bravery tested once – perhaps one for another time!] but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had fires to put out in my own way over the years. Oh no!

Because that’s what leaders have to do, right? Solving problems, making things better, fixing things. Filling gaps, plugging holes, and “putting out fires” [See what I did there?].

To be honest, I’ve never really liked the phrase “fire-fighting” when talking about work problems. It feels too reactive to me, like you’re forced to jump from the hottest, most urgent thing to the next, constantly on edge, constantly turning to find something else threatening to burn out of control. And so I think the phrase actually makes things worse, somehow.  But I do get the association of course.

Because we know that, left unattended, problems are more likely get bigger and less easy to deal with, just like a fire, until they’re totally unmanageable. And because we know deep within us, through thousands of years of generations upon generations from our earliest times on our planet, that fire has huge power and fearsome energy. Not just in what it does – how it destroys all in its path – but in what it does to us as people.

Just like our ancestors before us, we’re drawn towards fire. It’s deep within us to fan it or fight it, and so all too often we find ourselves simply gazing into it, transfixed, lost in its dancing light.

Nature’s cimena

And just like fire jumping from tree to tree and house to house, the closest possible proximity in which we’re forced to work in our overstuffed offices mean than even the smallest spark can catch, and grow and draw people in to fan or fight or stand and gaze once again.

But as much as we are mesmerised by fire, no matter how wondrous and fearful we find it, what we tend to forget is that the following day the ashes hold only a memory of the fire that once was, and hold no one’s interest for more than a fleeting moment before the winds of time disperse them.  Every fire that ever was ended up as ash in the wind.

And so perhaps one positive thing that I’ve experienced through the maelstrom of Bloody 2020™ is that the forced virtual nature of work has meant that when problems do arise there’s more space for consideration.

I don’t mean there’s more time, of course; not when the line between home and work has completely blurred to the point that it’s not actually visible any more, and I’m working earlier and later than I have in many years because it’s not like I’m going anywhere, and yes it’s getting physically and emotionally exhausting, as the stark sharp split between the imitation intimacy of a video call and the silence when it ends is jarring in a way that as simple, social animals we were never designed to be able to comprehend so we feel somehow empty in the moment, like we’re mourning the human connection that felt so real just a few moments before… [shit, sorry, where was I?]

No, I mean that there’s more physical and emotional space between us – space between the trees, if you like, so fires don’t spread so inexorably. With a watchful eye, some even die out all on their own.

Because with that space, people can consider their actions and consider what they might have done differently. The shared experience of lockdown and everything that’s gone with it means there’s more space for considering what someone else might be going through as well.

And so it seems people find it harder to hold a grudge from afar. People realise that they miss each other, individually and as the office buzz in the background as they work.

Starved of the oxygen of incidental interaction, disagreements become distant, irritations become irrelevant, niggles become nothing. And thus the flames of conflict are dampened, free to fizzle out naturally, quietly, simply.

There’s a lovely quotation I saw recently from a French writer/Aristocrat which goes:

L’absence est à l’amour ce qu’est au feu le vent. Il éteint le petit, il allume le grand.

Roger de Bussy-Rabutin

Which (as I’m sure you know) means:

Absence is to love what the wind is to fire: it extinguishes the small, it inflames the big.

I think that’s true, not just of romantic love but also of the companionship we all miss from our working relationships. The wind of absence has made the ones that were important to us before even more important now.

But perhaps the very same wind can blow out a lot of little fires of little inconsequential problems, too.

All without a fire-fighter to be seen…

A post-office world?

When my wife [hi Sarah!] and I made the decision to move out of South East London [big up big up Crystal Palace massive] three years back, I planned to work from home for “at least” a day a week. I was going from a 45-minute commute to one which would take an hour and a half, and anyway it’s not like I actually need to be physically ‘in the office’ every day…

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Most weeks I was in every day, with perhaps a day working from home every couple of weeks. And when I did, I made it very clear what I would be working on…

Because tradition states that work is something that was done… well… at work. And everyone knows that all this newfangled “working from home” nonsense really just means dossing around doing nothing. No way that someone could be as productive from home, or that they could really be trusted to do their work instead of drifting off and playing computer games or watching daytime TV.

“Oh yeah right working from home mate yeah? Like nice one yeah?!”

Of course I knew that wasn’t the case: if anything I tended to work longer hours, with less distractions, fewer interruptions and less breaks than I did at the office. Without my friendly neighbourhood Finance Director [hi Jonny!] sitting next to me ready to wander off and grab a coffee, I was smashing through my to-do-list at quite a pace.

In fact, if I had organised a bunch of things to put on my WHF to-do-list which might have taken me a whole day to get done in the office, I might even find that I was through it by early afternoon and freeing up time to get to some of the important stuff that often got bumped by the urgent stuff.

But I always felt I had to check in with people too to prove I wasn’t off doing what I thought people might think I was doing instead of work. Call it “virtual presenteeism” if you like – an email, a text, just to say “I am still here, and I am still working”.

And I was also conscious that it was all very well for me to be working from home, because I’m in the privileged position of being the boss of the agency and thus a) largely setting my own work timetable and b) having no one to tell me what to do or where to be (in London, anyway!). Not so easy if you’re the Account Manager with the client on the phone all day, or the Planner with a creative team to brief…

Within a matter of days, lockdown meant that “WFH” was the norm. And soon everyone showed that they can work just as hard, just as effectively, just as productively from wherever their laptop was set up.

We’ve still had some issues – of course we have. The blurring of lines between work space and home space has meant that hours become blurred too; sometimes too much. I still have the occasional twitch which pushes me into digital presenteeism… now using Teams or WhatsApp as much as the other channels I used to use. “Video calls” where instead of a load of faces it’s just a sea of initials or avatars made everything feel very cold and unnatural [luckily we’ve pulled ourselves up on this and have made a real effort over recent weeks – it’s made a massive difference].

Stolen from my cousin Nick’s post [hi mate!]

And I’ve written recently about the lack of opportunity for ad hoc, in person, informal learning from colleagues and co-workers which I found so valuable in my formative years.

So there’s stuff to fix, but surely the stigma around working from home will have been the one victim of this virus that we can be positive about?

Hmm. I’m not sure.

When our office spaces are back to something like normality, will the assumption return that work is done “at work”? If we don’t need to work from home, wouldn’t it just be better if most of the people were in one place most of the time?

I think there are various truths about this whole thing that we’re going to need to reconsider, and possibly reconcile, over the coming weeks and months…

  1. There is no substitute for personal, face-to-face interaction. None.
  2. I would not have the relationships that I have with the people with whom I work had I not spent a lot of time with them in the same place [specifically “the office”, in case you’re wondering].
  3. Building an organisational culture without being physically together as a group would be really, really difficult. Not impossible, but tough.
  4. A strong organisational culture makes a company more resilient to a crisis, with shared values acting as the strongest foundation for honest, genuine working relationships.
  5. Some people have been more productive working virtually, with associated benefits in their mental wellbeing and emotional and physical energy
  6. Some people have found working virtually incredibly difficult, with the blurred lines between work and home feeling both draining and isolating at the same time.
  7. Some people will work like a dog no matter where you put them.
  8. Some people will do as little as possible no matter how much faith you put in them.
  9. Virtual hugs are not as good as actual hugs. Especially from me, as I am a world-class hugger [N.B. this is not my personal opinion – I have a full trophy room to prove it].
  10. It’s all about trust.

Yeah I know, I funnelled you into that last one. But it really is.

And so before you do anything else, assume positive intent. I know it’s obvious, and I know it’s not always easy. But it’s also surprisingly uplifting.

Assume that people are trustworthy. That they care about their work and their colleagues. That they want to do a good job, every day.

That they trust you to do the same.

Let’s all assume that we’re all doing our best, unless specifically proven otherwise, and a lot of this “new normal” [aaaarrrrgggghhh that phrase again] planning will be a lot easier. Start with trust and we can crack on making a new kind of totally flexible working – flexible around you as an individual with specific requirements and specific responsibilities, in all parts of your life, like never before – really work. For all of us.

From Lockdown to Learning

My two young boys went back to school today. For the first time since March, I am in my home without the noise of one or other of them going about their day. It’s been very quiet, and may take a little getting used to. But they’re off, happy to be amongst friends again. Happy to be back to a place they can learn.

And soon enough, other parts of life may well start to change, as we begin to emerge from our self-isolated work cocoons and converge on the physical space that once seemed so crucial to our lives. “THE OFFICE” had such a gravitational pull for so many reasons and held such importance and such reverence as “the place where we work”. But will that place still have the same pull now some of our old certainties about how and where we work have been unlearned?

For some, release from the horror of the daily commute from the suburbs to the epicentre of our biggest cities has been financially and emotionally liberating. For others, time to work and think without the distractions of an open plan battery farm of desks has meant a more productive, more focussed working day. And for others, more time at home has allowed them to experience a greater connection into family life than ever.

And then…

For some, the need for social stimulus coupled with the ubiquitous but still unnatural video calls has meant that working days are both lonely and tiring at the same time. For others, the lack of ad hoc interactions has actually made work more difficult, more complex, and more formalised than it would ideally be. And for others, a lack of suitable structured workspace in shared accommodation has blurred the line between work and non-work way too much.

All of these are real for those who experience them. Just as you and I have experienced some of them in the last few months.

Before I go on, I’ve talked about being conscious of my privilege on these pages before. And so I realise very keenly that my experience of all this is privileged too, because of where I am in my life, my career and my home situation.

For this next bit you can delete as appropriate…

Like many in their early/mid/late-40s, my wife/husband/life partner/pets and I decided to give up the hustle and bustle of South-East/South-West/South/West/North/East London/other major conurbation a few/couple of years back and move out to Kent/Hertfordshire/Surrey/Other home counties/Scotland. As a result we got a slightly/quite a bit/much bigger house with the space to make working from home quite pleasant/bearable/a magical Nirvana.

Some else’s perfect home set-up

Don’t get me wrong, lockdown has been super weird for me, as it has for you. But I’ve not been doing video calls from my bedroom in a shared house. I have some space to think, and to divide between work-life and home-life. I can even wander into my garden on a call. And quite apart from the practicalities of space, I’m also very aware of the more intangible things that I’m not missing out on, which others might be…

Imagine, if you will, a much younger man than the one I am today. Less beard, smaller clothes sizes. New to office life. Keen, confident; with potential but very raw. Someone in need of guidance; of people who believe in him to unlock that potential and pull him up on things when needed.

Would young Mr B [you guessed right, that young man was indeed me] have prospered working from home, from his messy bedroom in a shared house one the edge of Brixton? On video calls (which, let’s be honest, would have seemed like sci-fi back in 2000) which offer an odd kind of pseudo-contact followed by sudden quiet isolation?

Honestly, I don’t think so. 

At the earliest time, I was very fortunate to have some amazing people around me from whom I absorbed ideas, attitudes and skills. Seeing how people like Mike Walker approached a problem; how Melissa de Lusignan helped to solve it. How Elise Shepherd handled herself in a crisis; how Tara Page handled the clients. From that point on I’ve been surrounded by remarkable creative talent, passionate culture building, enlightened strategic thinking, and dedicated client management.

The person I was 20 years ago when I started in the world of advertising agencies needed to experience all of these things to learn. Hell, I still do, and have continued to learn from people right through – at all levels of seniority.

None if it is formal training or coaching, but informal watching, listening, questioning. Logging silently that next time I should maybe not do this but do that instead. Picking up a turn of phrase; a tone of voice.

Incidental coaching. Accidental learning. Essential education.

The office isn’t important. We’ve shown over the last 6 months that human connection between us can survive a lack of human contact. It’s not about the physical space we occupy, but more about the place we hold in each other’s minds, and yes, even hearts. I’ve long believed that the strongest organisations are those that really aim to build genuine, authentic, honest, human connections and this year has, I believe, continued to prove that belief to be true.

But for those early in their careers, the office is a place of learning that cannot be underestimated or effectively recreated in a virtual world.

And so as I look at the weeks and months to come, I must consider not only my own needs, based on my new experience of work, but also the needs of the younger me. As a leader, I have a responsibility to ensure whatever working world we create is one in which our young talent – the future of our agency and industry – have the opportunity to absorb, to learn, and to thrive, just as I did.

As I do, I have a feeling I’ll probably learn a few new things for myself, too.

Double Down

My wife’s grandfather [not he from my earlier story – her other one. She’s lucky enough to have both grandfathers and one grandmother still around to drop a good amount of wisdom] once told me a story – possibly apocryphal, but no less of a story for that. As with all great stories, the subject was something each of us have a connection with in our own, unique way, which transcends time and connects us back to a place where we were more innocent… more carefree… more elemental.

Yes that’s right, we’re talking about ice cream.

The story went something like this…

It’s the mid-1970s, and in the small seaside town just down from the Garw Valley where the family lived in South Wales are two ice cream parlours. And in the ice cream trade, times are tough.

Because this isn’t the glitter-filled shiny 1970s of disco, platforms and Space Hoppers, this is the grey 1970s of economic struggle in underpaid mining communities, toiling to make ends meet between the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent.  Times are tough for everyone, but tougher still when you’re selling something as intrinsically non-essential as ice-cream.

The 1970s in South Wales

So, with ice-cream quite a way down on the priority list, one of the ice-cream parlours decides to do the prudent thing.

They cut back a bit.

They cut back on their local advertising. They put off the paint job they were going to do. They even start using some cheaper suppliers for the ice cream ingredients. Individually all small things, which people probably won’t notice, or perhaps even forgive as a ‘sign of the times’.

Except…

The other ice-cream parlour has another idea.

They double down.

They don’t advertise less, they advertise more. They do up the front of the parlour, repaint the chairs and tables out front and get some umbrellas in case of the sun or (because this is South Wales, remember) the rain. They source even better ingredients for their ice cream, from local suppliers wherever possible.

At every opportunity, they recommit to the service of their customers; double down on what an ice cream parlour should all be about. If it’s going to be an occasional treat, then let’s make it the best experience it can be.

You know the rest, of course. Only one of the parlours survived the tough times and came out the other side.

Now I’m very aware that this story is almost too perfect – like a fable almost. But hey, let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story, right? [Did I mention I work in advertising?]

Times are tough, right now. We’re going into probably the biggest recession in living memory, with unemployment sky-high and well-known companies adding to the lay-offs every week. We may not have a 3-day week – if anything, working from home has blurred the lines of work & home more than ever – but make no mistake, this is going to be tougher than anything most of us have experienced.

And on top of our economic outlook, we’re right in the middle of a social shift too. Something that sparked from what we saw in Central Park and Minneapolis and enflamed in Bristol and London and every other part of the world. It’s not the first time the world has been rocked and shocked by racial inequality – even by police brutality – but this time does feel different.

Perhaps it’s because for the first time we’ve all had a shared collective experience of lockdown and isolation and fear, that now that’s translated into a shared collective determination to make a change in the world? Perhaps it’s just because it’s all been there, shot on shaky iPhone, for us all to see, our heads shaking slowly in disbelief? Perhaps it’s just because without the daily commute there’s more time and headspace for the daily trawl through the daily news? Wherever it comes from, this feels like a time of change.

Tough times. Uncertain times. No idea of what the times to come will look like.

So what are you going to do about it? Play it safe, or double down?

Double down comes from Blackjack – after seeing what you’ve got in your first 2 cards, you can double your bet and get one more card, so you have twice the money on the table and thus twice the winnings (if you do win, of course). Based on what’s in front of you, you can make a decision to take more risk with potentially a higher reward.

Apparently this is when to “Double Down” in Blackjack, but please bear in mind I know nothing about gambling apart from the fact that “the house always wins” (which I guess is the only one I really need to know in order to know I don’t want to know anything more about gambling)

And so in common parlance it’s taken to mean “to engage in risky behaviour, especially when one is already in a dangerous situation” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

But who decides what is “risky”? Perhaps now, like in South Wales in the 1970s, the risk lies in shadows: doubting, worried, holding back. Perhaps by doubling down on an idea, a belief, a course of action you believe in… perhaps this is about conviction and commitment; resilience and resolve. 

That’s an illusion of risk – something that seems risky or even reckless to the people on the outside, but only because they don’t know what you know, what you believe, how you feel, or how deep your commitment goes.

Consider what you have committed to – as an individual, as a group of people, as a company – and have no doubt that this is the time to recommit, to go even further and deeper.

If you have committed to being part of a group – whether that’s at work or outside – then this is the time to really, really be a part of that group. Give more of yourself. Be open, and brave, and authentically yourself, and get more out of it than you ever thought you could.

If you’ve committed to being a caring, thoughtful, open and honest leader or manager… go further. Push yourself to care more than you expected you’d have to – more than the people who work alongside you would have ever expected from you.

If you’ve committed to the belief that that culture and values can really mean something for your business, then recommit to that culture and those values being the most solid foundation possible for whatever you build out of the situation we’re in.

Times may be tough, difficult, strange, “unprecedented”. But it’s precisely because of that uncertainty that this is the time to work out what you really care about, what you really believe in, and double down. Go out and be the ice cream parlour with the fancy paint job and the delicious flavours, and the pride of knowing that you refused to go down without a fight.

Now, who wants to double down on a double cone 99 with sprinkles and raspberry sauce? I’m buying.

Now, more than ever…

Now, more than ever, in these difficult times, we are all in this together. In such uncertain times, we have to reset normal, be well, and now, more than ever, find a new normal. Because now, more than ever, we must stay strong and stay safe in what are (in case you missed it) unprecedented times. We’re here for you.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been drowning in cliché: soundbites that may have started with sincerity but seem less so every time you hear them, especially when they’re espoused by billionaire CEOs or massive multinationals. All trying to show they have heart, soul, and that most ethereal, most zeitgeist of brand essentials… a PURPOSE.

My colleague, collaborator and [dare I say it?] bloody good chum and all round top chap [ooh that was a little more than expected!] Mr Oliver Caporn wrote a blog recently (which you can find here – he’s very good) about how every single piece of consumer advertising is following the same exact formula (check out the film that proves this point here) and how actually, in searching for a way to show “purpose” when no one wants ads that say “buy more stuff”, consumer brands have actually ended up looking and sounding a lot like brands in healthcare used to look and sound (before they got a bit more sophisticated and less samey).

but now, more than ever, in these uncertain times etc etc

Working in healthcare marketing, as Olly and I do, the ‘purpose’ bit is a lot more simple as you might imagine, even in these difficult times. Our clients make things that, one way or another, are designed to help people. Whether that’s by developing drugs that actually save or prolong or otherwise change the lives of patients, or by creating cutting edge materials, products and services that enable laboratories to do some good science [did I ever mention I don’t have a science background?] they’re all there to do good, to help, to improve lives.

[I’m not going to deep into the “big pharma” argument here, but just to cover it off quickly: I’ve worked for the pharmaceutical industry in some capacity for the last 20-odd years and the vast, vast majority of people I’ve met have been genuinely committed to improving the lives of patients, not the bank balances of investors. I’m sure there are exceptions, and I’m sure some companies are better than others, and I know some mistakes have been made over the years… but I get a little tired of the negative press that pharma always, always fail to effectively counter. If you want to slag someone off, try cigarette or weapons manufacturers. Or Über of course – if you’re not sure why, listen to this podcast.]

So from a brand perspective, I think we probably know a good deal more about what purpose is all about, and how to talk about very general positive intentions without getting quite so generic and seeming so self-serving.

Which, of course, is precisely where the big consumer brands end up. Because as much as they want to be authentic, and say something nice, no one really gives a fuck if “Big Multinational Brand X have been here for you for X number of years and are still here for you, now more than ever, in these trying times”.

It’s self-serving because it’s just a desperate attempt to say something, to stay relevant when you’re just not.

“But we’re Nike – we need to have a POV about these unprecedented times”.

No. No, you don’t.

No one is buying new trainers, because we’re trying to survive a global pandemic. [Even me. And I bloody love trainers.]

And trust me, now, more than ever, no one is looking to huge multinational corporations for moral support.

But the desire to be relevant? That I do get. Because there’s no question that being an inclusive, emotional business leader in these crazy times is really, really weird.

How can you lead people anywhere if you don’t see them? Do people even really need leadership if that leader can’t really do anything practical to make things different or better? A leader can’t home school your kids, or sort your wi-fi, or get you to see your parents.

So what’s the purpose of leadership in these difficult times?

Well, it starts with showing the desire to double down on the things that can actually carry an organisation through such unprecedented times – intangible, uncountable and often overlooked things like shared values, belonging, togetherness.

Sometimes all this stuff gets called the “soft measures”. And it’s true, none of these pay the bills on their own. But when we come out of the far end of this [and rest assured, this too shall pass] trust me when I say that it’ll be the organisations with a clear sense of collective strength that do the best.

And the leaders who can come out of this into a new normal with the emotional integrity of the group perhaps even stronger than when they went in? Well, that would be something special.

With that aim in mind, it becomes crucial to really embrace the juxtapositions that are inherent in the concept of emotional leadership. To show resilience alongside vulnerability. To balance total honesty with credible optimism and hope. To be the cheerleader and the counsellor. To pull people together, and to push them on.

And, to do all that with an openness, transparency and authenticity that’s so obvious that it doesn’t matter if a couple of clichés get dropped in now and then because there’s purpose behind them.

None of this is about being in an office. It’s about enabling and then truly being part of something that doesn’t have to have a physical home, a neural network of people disparate in geography but united in their determination and connected by their values.

Soft measures my arse – these things are as solid as the big, brash, barren buildings we once made our way to every day.

People don’t need leadership per se, they need genuine, honest connections with other people. The leader is just there to help make that a possibility, a shared passion and a collective aim, and then get out of the way and let things happen.

That’s leadership with purpose, and that’s relevant not just in these unprecedented times, but always. The constant drive to be building something that doesn’t just exist in a building.

Hmm, that’s kind of catchy. Perhaps I might do an ad myself. I’m sure Nike are waiting to hear that now, more than ever, I’m here for them.

[Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.]

Forged In Crisis

Nothing will ever be the same again. How we think about ourselves, our families, our friends. How we connect, how we work. What we value, whom we value. What we’re prepared to sacrifice or forego, and what fulfils a basic need.

This will be how our time is remembered. Everything will be pre- or post- in a way that we can’t comprehend and could never have imagined. Any more than people living in the 1920s and 1930s could have imagined their time would be talked about as “between the wars”. [Imagine the dread, if they had known – that after the devastation of “The Great War” as they knew it, there was another to come…]

With such a seismic shift, and a world economy that will take years to recover, the business decisions we make will also change. Businesses that have just hung on will find the road ahead a tough and bumpy one. Even seemingly strong organisations may find that their customers have moved on, priorities changed. Jobs that seemed “essential” in their own way before may simply cease to exist.

Across our country we are already seeing that small businesses are really struggling. The independent coffee shop which may not ever open their doors again, the small theatre, the local pub.

And even the big boys will creak, across the board. Of course we’ll lose a couple of high street stores which were holding on by their fingertips anyway; maybe an airline or two won’t make it back. But every business will be affected. There will be unemployment – already we see people who used to walk down the aisles of intercontinental aeroplanes stacking shelves in the aisles of the local supermarket.

It doesn’t feel like a time for trying something new, for innovation. Certainly not a time for risk. It’s a fact of life that, in times of financial struggle, many companies – big and small – will be tempted, encouraged, mandated even, to “play safe until things settle down”.

Let’s go with what we know. Don’t rock the boat. Low risk, yeah?

In this context, is there time or space to be thinking about this diversity stuff? Really, shouldn’t we just come back to that when things are a little more settled?

Especially when it was kind of hard to practically implement anyway…

And we’ve all done the unconscious bias training and had those rainbow flags up for Pride month…

Hmm…

In her book Forged In Crisis [it’s very good, I’d read it if I were you] Harvard history professor, Nancy Koehn, describes crisis as a “crucible” for courageous leadership in turbulent times, where the means may be flexible but the end has more dedication and determination than ever. Great leaders are born from necessity in a crisis.

And innovation is born from crisis and tension too. The Renaissance (French for “re-birth”, of course), an explosion of art, literature, and learning across Europe, came out of the crucible of a culturally barren and brutally war-torn Middle Ages. The incredible advanced of the second half of the last century came, in part at least, out of the crucible of a world decimated by two wars.

Our world is shaped by its crises. Always has been. Ask the dinosaurs.

Perhaps in a world where everything is new and different and nothing will ever be the same again… perhaps that’s actually somewhere that we need new thinking, new ideas? New ways of solving new problems?

So in this context, isn’t the real risk in trying to recreate the old? In reverting to what used to work, what used to make sense, before everything changed?

When everything is up in the air, the ability to adapt to ambiguity is the most precious quality we can hope to find. Innovation isn’t about sameness, it’s about newness – new thinking, new outlooks, new ideas. You don’t get that by trying to recreate, reverting to conservative, non-inclusive, type. You get that by embracing inclusive thinking, creating the environment for a diversity of ideas to flourish.

We all know that it’s difficult to make room for diverse thinking – it takes time, and effort, and active decisions, and it often comes down to committed individuals driving initiatives on their own time, crowd-sourcing/funding their activities, using their own energy.

So this is a time that those committed individuals should look to assemble like-minded people around them, to connect, convince and then collaborate in new ways. To lead us out from this crucible.

A clever dude with a beard* once said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change

*Sir Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species, 1859

Responsive to change, eh?

Hmm.

Feels like right now we might actually need a bunch of people with different ways of seeing the world to help shape a new world, doesn’t it?

Now, dear leader… go and lead.

Time flies

We all know the feeling of time just flying past. Every year, around September, offices all over the world are filled with conversations about how they can’t believe that it’s September already and hasn’t the year gone quickly and it’ll be Autumn/Spring soon (deleted as geographically appropriate).

And I know I’m not alone feeling like this January went way beyond 31 days. When asked, a friend of mine claimed it was the 87th of January with everyone around giving a “I know, right?” sigh or tut or roll of the eyes.

A meeting about the timeline for a project which seems to go on FOR EVER.

That same project a month later when there’s suddenly a week to go and where the hell did all the time go?

And it’s something we’ve all experienced since we were kids – the extra half an hour before bed that goes by in a split second; the car journey where it feels like you’re going to get to bloody Greenland before you get to the next motorway junction on the way to the Highlands of Scotland from Cheshire when your dad piled you into the Vauxhall Carlton before dawn to “beat the traffic” [sorry got carried away for a second there].

So how come we all still have an unshakeable certainty in the “fact” that time is this constant, steady, objectively measurable thing? When every single one of us has personally experienced something different to that? It’s the exact opposite of faith – rather than believing in something we can’t prove, here we are disbelieving something we have personal proof of, in our own lives…

I know that according to Einstein time is relative (see here for proof that he was actually right) but I’m talking about a more personal relativity here – time being related to an individual’s own experience of a situation.

[By the way, I do believe that one day people look back at our beliefs about constant, linear time with as much derision as we look at the idea of the flat Earth – as something that people used to believe before we knew more and left such fantasies behind us… wait, what? Seriously?? Oh. Oh dear.]

And here’s the thing – my experience of time isn’t the same as yours. Your hour isn’t the same as mine. It depends on what we’re doing. That’s true even if we’re in the same room.

If I find the subject fascinating and wide-reaching and challenging, then the time we’ve got to talk about it goes way too fast. If you’re thinking it’s all bullshit and you’ve got something more important to be doing, then you can’t believe we haven’t ended yet.

It all related to a single, human truth – something that defines every interaction we have with the world in which we live and the people within it:

Perception is reality.

If I think it’s difficult, it’s difficult for me. The fact that you get it really easily doesn’t change that (and you telling me that really doesn’t help!)

If I think it’s hot in here, I’m hot. The fact that you are cold doesn’t change that.

[If anything, it probably reflects that I’ve spent the last twenty-odd years surrounding myself in a protective layer of fat just in case I fall into the North Sea. Always prepared, that’s me.]

If I think it’s boring, then I’m bored. The fact that you think it’s interesting doesn’t change that

And lo and behold if I’m not silently judging you for not thinking it’s boring when it clearly is because that’s my perception and [all together now]…

Perception is reality

I’m not sure that’s getting us anywhere. So let’s rewind, shall we?

Instead of accepting our own, personal perception as the only reality, how about accepting that everyone has their own perception. Their own reality.

Then how about considering what someone else’s perception might be? Trying to see the things from their perspective, understanding their view of the world?

You have to stop for a moment. It’s not always easy to take a step back from your own reality. It’s not always easy, and it takes a good deal of imagination.

But that’s the start. The start of of connection, of empathy, and ultimately of trust. It’s the start of inclusive thinking, and seeking out diverse perspectives on the world. Not less challenge, but more.

So here’s a call to action for you.

Think of a conflict you’re in at the moment. Find that person and take a minute to ask them to share their perception of the world – without judgement. Accept that, for them, that perception is 100% real and, to them, 100% right. Then share your own.

I can’t promise that it’ll solve things in a minute. But I can promise that it’ll open up a much better conversation than the one you were (or more likely weren’t) having.

And I reckon that’s worth a minute of anyone’s time, right?

Time To Talk Day: my anxiety

Today is Time To Talk day in the UK. It’s part of the Time To Change campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) which aims to change the way people think and act about mental health problem, led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

It does what it says on the tin really – a day where people are encouraged to be more open about their own mental health, talk about the mental health of others and try, piece by piece, to remove the stigma that exists around mental health issues. At home and at work.

I’ve always been able to handle a lot of stress. Even when things are kicking off, I can get through okay. Maybe a bit tetchy with people at work, snappy or grumpy (or just plain exhausted) at home, perhaps lose a bit of sleep here and there. Still able to have a joke and a laugh, just maybe a little unpredictable I guess. I’m sure I’m like a lot of people in that when I’ve got a lot on it’s tough to turn off or relax, especially when you’re going through all the possible scenarios in your head and they get worse each time you do it! Nothing a couple of glasses of wine before bed won’t help eh?

Yup. That’s been me, for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes it takes something big to change the way you see the world. A birth, a death. Perhaps love.  For me it was a little post on Facebook whilst on a business trip somewhere in Germany.

A little context…

For a good few months, I’d been rolling through the mantra at the top – I’m fine, just got a lot on, nothing I can’t handle, etc etc, you know the drill.  I was almost snapped out of that one morning early last year.  I’d woken up in the middle of the night, work stuff rattling through my head like an old train, unable to get back to sleep and getting more annoyed about the fact that I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about work and all that. So rather than wrestling with the bed clothes and waking my wife I decided to just quietly get up, get dressed in the dark, and go to work. 

I live about 90 minutes from the office door to desk, and I was at that desk by about half 6. God knows what time I woke up originally, but by mid-afternoon I was grumpy as hell and dead on my feet.  I got home that evening and my wife asked me what time I’d left and I’d explained the night time scenario. I could see her worried face and tried to reassure her.

“I’m not stressed out, I just can’t stop thinking about things and I’m finding it hard to sleep”.

To which she quite rightly replied: “that is stress, you idiot”.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll have a think about that.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m sitting on a perfectly on-time, quiet and non-rattling train going through the German countryside, alongside a colleague and [dare I say it] friend [yes I dare]. It’s the end of a long day and I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed, wondering why I’m friends with people on Facebook with whom I’m not actually friends in real life, and wondering if I should just immediately unfriend anyone who uses #hashtags on Facebook post (#holiday #celebrate #blessed #lovemylife) when I come across this…

It’s like I’ve been slapped in the face.

I read the list again. I can tick off maybe a dozen of these without thinking about it. Another handful if I do.

I turn to my amigo/co-worker and show him.

“This is me”, I say.

Those words, on that train, were the start of a journey of my own. The very first step was admitting to myself that being really, really good at dealing with lots of stress whilst simultaneously hiding it isn’t the superpower that I thought it was. 

In fact, it’s bloody Kryptonite.

Left unacknowledged, unspoken and undercover, that stress can damage everything I hold dear – my work, my family and ultimately my life.

I won’t bore you with the details of precisely what happened next, but the first step for me was talking. Talking to colleagues, friends, my wife [hey honey – how’s your day going?], then my GP, then a counsellor. Then back to my GP and since the beginning of last year I’ve been on some medication which I’ve found really helps.

[By the way, it’s still a massive deal to “admit” that I’m on medication to help with my anxiety, because of some weird stigma and shame that exists about it. Perhaps I’ll unpack that in a separate post…]

Nearly 2 years on I’m a lot more content, more calm, more connected with the world around me, with myself and with my emotions than I ever thought possible. Sure, I still get nervous about things, and I still get pissed off about things – I’m human, not superhuman, remember? – but I know I’ll never confuse a superpower with Kryptonite so easily again.

And every single person I’ve told has been totally supportive. Just like I would be if it were the other way round. Turns out quite a few people feel the same. I know, right?

So over time, I’ve started talking about it more openly with my agency friends and family too. Because if I can show that I struggle sometimes, it makes it “okay to not be okay” and, hopefully, we can support each other through all the stressful times with a bit more honesty and vulnerability.

And I know I’m still on the journey I started that day, and that I probably always will be. That’s okay. That’s my decision and something I’m proud of, in a weird way.

But what I will say is this:

If you’re reading any of this thinking “fuck, that’s me”, then this is your slap in the face. From me to you.

You’re welcome.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Remember that the very first step is to talk.

And given that it’s #TimeToTalk day, maybe that’s something you might consider doing today?

Talk to someone who cares about you – a friend, a partner, a colleague – and you’ll find that they will be just as kind and thoughtful as you would be if they came to you.

Best of luck, and please, do take care of yourself.

The Four Conversations

And so it came pass that on Friday of last week I went to the PM [Pharmaceutical Marketing] Society Awards 2020 – the biggest annual awards show for my bit of the industry, where clients and agencies come together at a posh London hotel, dampen their Dry January, listen to the celeb compère and comedy turn who’ve been booked for the afternoon and then wander round catching up with former colleagues and co-workers. 

And the winner is…

This is an event I’ve been going to for twenty years [more on the seismic generational shift of that in a future blog!], but this is the first time when there’s been an explicit focus in my job, my title and my role, on inclusivity and diversity… and the first time since I’ve been writing this blog and sharing my thoughts out into the world. Perhaps unsurprising then, that all of this became the focus of so many conversations I had in the day.

What was surprising was the kind of conversations – or more accurately, the themes those conversations fell into. Four clear, distinct themes, with four distinct groups.

I’ll call them The Supporter, The Convert, The Cynic, and The Conspirator. Let me introduce you to them… and the four conversations that came with them…

The Supporter Conversation

This was heart-warming. A diverse mix of people – in age, race, background and gender – who were kind enough to tell me that they had seen what I’ve been doing and wanted to offer me their encouragement and support. Some I knew well, some less so. But all passionate and enthusiastic and earnest, and many saying that they had been reading some of this stuff over the last couple of months.

Every time I spoke to a Supporter I had a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation full of determination about the future. Without fail, they made my day better.

The Convert Conversation

Not sure if the nomenclature is quite right, but The Convert is part of a group of people whom I’ve known for a while, since we were in less inclusive, less forward-thinking times and organisations. When we were led by the generation before us, some of whom held beliefs and exhibited behaviours then which would be totally unacceptable and inappropriate now.

The Convert Conversations were about what life used to be like. Men and women, we talked about our past lives with bewilderment really – the stuff we saw or heard but didn’t say anything. About how much we should judge our younger selves for not doing or saying more at the time. How we had grown and learnt and how we would do things now we had the opportunity.

Again, they were good conversations. Mutually supportive and full of care for each other. Full of optimism too about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The Cynic Conversation

This one I’ve come across before. Usually male (although in my experience not exclusively), and usually a little older (although again not exclusively), and usually someone I don’t really know that well. Or perhaps thinks they know me better than they actually do…

The Cynic Conversation usually starts with a “I’ve seen you doing all this diversity stuff…?” type of non-question, and from there it develops into them saying how inclusivity is a “very clever move”, or a “good thing to align yourself with”, or good for my “personal brand”. All with a nod and a wink, like getting into this was all part of a career master plan. Perhaps something I’m interested in, but more for self-serving reasons than anything else. Distrustful and disparaging.

This, I find, is the bloody difficult part of being an “ally” – particularly one who is the “Default Man” (from Grayson Perry’s book I mentioned in a previous blog). Usually it’s people who are from a minority group who are interested in minority groups, right? So there must be an angle I’m working… an ulterior motive. Right?

I know this is a conversation that’s going nowhere because it’s not for me to convert The Cynic. But it is an opportunity for me to reaffirm my beliefs. I know why I’m passionate about this – personally and for my agency – and inclusive, authentic and vulnerable leadership is where I’m going anyway.

The Co-Conspirator Conversation

The Conspirator (or to be precise, The Mistaken Would-Be Co-Conspirator) exclusively male, exclusively white, usually a little older (but not necessarily), usually someone I used to work with in some capacity and who (usually a few of drinks in, when the alcohol has thinned the blood just enough) feel they can put a sweaty arm round the neck, pull me in and say something like:

“What’s all this diversity crap about? What a load of old bollocks eh? I suppose we all have to do it now don’t we? But bloody hell, everyone’s a minority nowadays aren’t they – except us white middle-aged men?! Can’t say anything to anyone now with all this political correctness stuff – I guess you haven’t got a choice eh? But we know what’s really important, don’t we? Anyway see you later yeah?”

Like I’m going to agree. Agree that it’s all just a show. That I’m playing the game whilst thinking the opposite. I mean, who the hell would do that?

And even if they did, would they write a bloody blog about it every week to double down on the deception??

I never say anything in this one. I’m not there as part of a conversation, I’m there as a leaning post. I’m not sure anything I could say would make a blind bit of difference. Perhaps in time I’ll find the right words, but right now all I’ve got is “why don’t you just fuck off?” and I’m not sure that level of confrontation is a good look in front of the whole industry. So I just wait for the end, and let them barrel off somewhere else.

It’s a mixed bag, I think you’ll agree! 

From the life-affirming and motivating, the forward-looking and hopeful to the saddening and infuriating, the downright annoying and prickly. The whole spectrum of ideas in one afternoon, in a posh hotel somewhere in London.

But do you want to know the good part?

There were a hell of a lot more Supporters and Converts than anything else. Only a couple of Cynics, and about the same of Conspirator. Much more positive energy than anything else. And that wouldn’t have been the case even three years ago, let alone twenty.

Yes, we are moving forward. Yes there’s a long way to go on all this, and yes, sometimes it feels like things are moving glacially slowly. But we are moving forward.

Thanks for reading. Let’s crack on shall we?

The more you know…

Diversity. Inclusivity. Intersectionality. So much to get your head round (especially from the perspective of being The Man – see previous blog), and just when you think you’ve got your head round one bit you realise that while you were playing catch up everything wasn’t just standing still waiting for you and now the conversation has already moved on; the language is different.

Like walking up a mountain and thinking that at long last you’re reaching the summit only to see even higher hazy hilltops climbing into the clouds, there’s a distinct sense that the more you know, the more you realise how little you know.

Weirdly it can sometimes actually feel quite ex-clusive. Especially when you’re really trying to do and say the right thing: both because it’s important to say the right thing for all the good reasons and because you want to show you’re someone who knows what the right thing is to say.

And as I’ve got deeper and deeper into a world of inclusivity, I’ve found that there are things that only D&I ‘novices’ say, which the vanguard might even scoff at. You quite often hear something along the lines of “it’s not about concept X anymore, it’s all about concept Y” – and I’m pretty much always thinking “I’ve only just worked out what I think about concept X, and I’ve never even heard of concept Y”.

As an example, I always thought that getting people to understand their own biases seemed like a good thing, but increasingly I find myself in conversations where the ubiquitous “unconscious bias training” is derided for being “Diversity 101” – the thing that corporations do to say they’ve done something. Or in the (approximate!) words of Ruth Hunt, erstwhile CEO of Stonewall, it’s where people can realise they’re a little bit racist but it’s not their fault…

Not everyone would agree with that of course, but when you haven’t quite worked out what you think about it yet it’s easy to feel… well, uneasy. Like you should know what you think, about everything, even if it’s constantly metamorphosing into the next thing…

And of course the discourse around Diversity & Inclusion isn’t standing still either.

Diversity is the thing we all understand, but that’s just facts and numbers – how diverse an organisation is can be measured today. And when it’s Diversity 101, all too often it’s just visual. We’ve all seen diversity used tokenistically in corporate communications (if you didn’t last time, check out Diverse-ish – it really sums this up perfectly).

Inclusivity is more forward-looking: a mindset, a set of choices and decisions and associated actions and behaviours. Because of that increasingly you can start to see the initials D&I flip places to I&D, where a focus on building an inclusive culture comes first so that the diversity that it drives has a chance to thrive the right environment.

But even with the seismic shift from D&I to I&D (so innovative Phil, you must be very proud on how you picked up on that one) I’m still constantly feeling that I’m behind the curve. Or certainly a curve.

It’s not a comfortable feeling really. Perhaps if I were a different person it might be too uncomfortable – to constantly being shown my own ignorance; constantly learning more about how little I know. Constantly seeing another peak loom into view…

What I have learnt, is actually what keeps me climbing.

I’ve learnt that everyone is on their own journey or understanding. Some are a little further on, have read a little more or had to challenge their initial thinking a little more deeply, but nobody is at the summit, looking down.

From that point it becomes clear that it’s really about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Because knowledge is less important than inquisitiveness; pretending you’ve considered all the possible angles and thus have all the answers is less authentic than discussing your ignorance and asking all the searching questions.

And authenticity is everything.

Who am I to argue?

And so it turns out knowing nothing is the first step in any journey of discovery.

Who knew?