On Incompetence

There I was, all ready with an uplifting, Happy New Year, “things can only get better” post- something to clear away the cobwebs of 2020 and look forward into 2021 with renewed hope and excitement, eyes wide with the freshness of opportunity that only a brand, shiny new year can bring.

Then, like a young faun stumbling into a forest clearing and for the first time seeing the unlimited expanse of the sky above, suddenly I didn’t feel excited and fresh with anticipation; I felt overwhelmed, stunned into inaction by the vastness of the world, by things I couldn’t comprehend much less control, the sudden realisation of my own helplessness weighing heavy. The weight of another national lockdown on my shoulders, shoulders that slumped still further as I sat wondering if I was watching the beginning of the end of Western “civilisation” on 24-hour news from across the pond.

Gill Scott Heron was wrong, it appears – the revolution will be televised. It’ll even be selfied and streamed live on the social media channel of your choice. Who knew it would involve such a lot of milling around?

I’m not going to get into the politics of all this, you’ll be pleased to hear. You’re probably about as interested in my political views as I am in yours, so let’s keep those to ourselves.

But you won’t be amazed to hear that I find myself sitting and considering the idea of ego, self-assuredness, entitlement and narcissism, and how these can so often quite happily co-exist alongside such rank incompetence.

Incompetence on it’s own isn’t the worst thing in the world, and I’m not against it per se – in fact I’m very comfortable with it. We all have it, to some degree or other, in some areas. Either you’re good at something or you’re okay at it or you’re a bit rubbish at it.

The key is knowing which. That’s the really, really important bit. Having the self-awareness and humility to admit to yourself, and to others, when you really don’t know what you’re doing.

If you know you’re crap at something, that’s conscious incompetence, and that’s okay. I happily accept the idea that I’m consciously incompetent at some things. I know what I’m not good at, and I do one of three things about it…

The first (and let’s admit the least mature) is I deride it as being “crap anyway”. Things that fall into this category include golf (can’t play, don’t want to anyway because it’s crap anyway, crap clothers), ice skating (can’t do it, bloody cold, potentially dangerous, crap anyway), DIY generally (waste of time, total crap), and ballroom dancing (I love to dance but I don’t follow steps as I refuse to wear the chains of conformity on any dancefloor. And it’s crap anyway).

Some crap things

The second is a lot more grown up than that, but it also takes a bit more time and effort and energy. Because the next thing I do if I’m not good at something – or not as good as I think I could or should or want to be – is that I work on it, bit by bit, moment by moment, day by day.

In this bucket goes things like being a better human being. Being the best dad or husband I can be. Being a good friend, a good neighbour. Being a good leader, a kind and thoughtful boss. I sometimes ask myself a simple question which gets to the heart of this.., thinking about all the people in my life, in every facet, and asking simply:

If they could choose someone, would they choose you?

Big question, right? But a challenge to get a bit better, every day.

The third thing I do to overcome my conscious incompetence in an area is perhaps the most sensible, and there’s no coincidence that it’s the one that’s proved itself time and time and time again. If I can’t do something, or can’t do it as well as it needs to be done, then I’ll find someone who can.

That sounds obvious with something like DIY – I’m much better getting someone to fix something than mess it up myself first and then pay someone to fix that whilst openly judging me for the horrible mess I’ve made as I make them a cup of incredibly sweet tea.

Perhaps it’s less obvious when we’re talking work stuff. I mean, who wants to openly admit – to themselves, let alone anyone else – that they’re a bit crap at something?

Well, me, actually.

By admitting that to myself and to others I can surround myself with people who can do stuff I can’t do – or who can do it better than I could – and then let them get on with it. In fact my role then becomes very simple. I’m there to make sure they can do their best work. To remove any barriers that might make things harder for them. To make sure they feel valued, and trusted, and supported to do the thing that they’re so good at doing. It’s become maybe the most important thing I can do.

But to do any of these things – perhaps apart from the first – you have to first admit to yourself that you don’t know what you’re doing. And that takes self-awareness and humility in equal measure.

And if you’ve got the opposite – someone with a refusal or inability to know or admit that they don’t know what they’re doing, coupled with self-assuredness, rampant ego, unconstrained entitlement, misplaced confidence… well then we’re in trouble my friend. Especially if they surround themselves with other people like that too.

Not that anyone like that would ever get in charge anywhere. I mean, imagine a situation where your country were run by people like that?! Imagine how poor the decision making would be?

[Sorry I did say I wouldn’t get into the politics didn’t I? Whoops]

Imagine where it could end up.

Happy lockdown to my UK friends, with the hope of an end on the distant horizon.

Love and peace to my US friends, with the knowledge that your wonderful country will come back even stronger.

Happy New Year folks. It’s been quite a trip so far, right?

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.