Pale, male, and pissed off at being called stale

Today is my birthday and so, according to tradition, a higher number is now my age.

I am now unequivocally middle-aged, almost certainly closer to the grave than the cradle, but I don’t mind too much. I like being middle-aged, it suits my personality: being young was fun, for sure, but it was a chore compared to the don’t-mess-with-me-I’m-over-50 vibe that comes with the middle-age gig.

This is not just me making the best of the unavoidable march of time.

I have come to appreciate that the best things in life: good conversation, good wine, good books, are not so available in the noisy discotheques of my youth where I anxiously tried to fit in and appear attractive to women. Now I can relax and enjoy the conversation, the wine and the books and not get all antsy about looking idiotic dancing to Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” at the Chocolate Factory.

This, according to the phrase coined by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin in 1992, makes me “pale, male, and stale”: a self-deprecating description cooked up by a middle-aged white man to make the point that filling your top jobs with middle-aged white men, year after year, is a myopic leadership strategy.

Goldin didn’t describe the individuals as “stale”, just the organisation’s leadership as a whole, but the “stale” tag has become a synonym for “middle-aged” when used in conjunction with “pale” (meaning white) and “male” (meaning man).

This is a bit annoying.

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Equal treatment doesn’t always lead to equal outcomes

As a Leeds United fan, I was horrified to see a tweet by the club contributing to the online abuse directed at football pundit Karen Carney.

Carney had expressed the oft-repeated view that Leeds might not be able to keep going with their fast-paced game throughout the whole season.

She went on to opine that, in the previous season, the Covid-lockdown break had insulated the team from burnout by allowing them time to recharge their batteries and come back to the last ten games full of renewed vigour: “I actually think they got promoted because of Covid in terms of it giving them a bit of respite. I don’t know if they’d have got up if they didn’t have that break,” she said, with ex-Leeds striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink nodding along beside her.

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Leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship

(This is the first in several posts about authentic leadership)

How can I be an authentic leader?

This is probably the question I get asked more than any other on leadership development programmes.

How can I adopt all these leadership behaviours you’re telling me about, act motivated when I feel deflated, pretend to support positions and decisions I don’t agree with, and at the same time call myself an “authentic” leader?

The thing is, it’s the wrong question to ask because “authenticity” isn’t the point.

Leaders who worry about being “authentic” are putting themselves in the centre and forgetting that leadership isn’t about them: leadership is about influencing and inspiring other people (other people who are our social equals and who shouldn’t have to put up with our crap) to do something.

The day you become a leader, it becomes about them

Jack Welch

Or to put it in a potentially brilliant (or potentially confusing) way: leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship.

So “authentic” is only good if it helps us influence and inspire others, it’s not necessarily good in itself.

In Venn diagram form:

This means that Person A is a poor leader despite being authentic.

They are unprofessional, quite possibly self-indulgent, and as they mistakenly seem to think we have to put with aspects of their “authentic self” which are unhelpful to leadership.

They are probably mistakenly thinking they are the star of the show and that leadership is all about them.

This approach might have some success when leading a cult, especially when backed up with a high level of competence (Steve Jobs maybe?), but it’s at best clumsy and exclusive (Donald Trump maybe?), most usually it’s ineffective and disrespectful.

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Extreme meta-training: the importance of size

A good training session doesn’t just lump participants into groups willy-nilly, driven by nothing more than the group size and the facilitator’s ability to divide numbers in their head. Splitting participants into groups is a well-thought-through process of considering the objective of the activity and the dynamics needed to make it tick.

Here is an imagined example, a training session using different group sizes to discuss using different group sizes in training sessions: extreme meta-training!

Imagined Example

The facilitator says: Split into fours and discuss on a flip-chart the advantage of being in a group of four

Why is this better than a three or a pair?

Why is it usually better than a five or a six?

Rather than bore the crap out of each other by reading out your flip-charts to people who aren’t really listening, a more bearable alternative is:

Just tell us one thing – the thing you thought was most useful or interesting and let’s discuss it a bit … what do the other groups think?

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Management essentials: three ways for managers to build trust

If you want to succeed as a manager, you need to build relationships of trust with your team.

If they don’t trust you, nothing else matters: nothing you do will land right, the extra-mile won’t be run, the box won’t get thought outside of, no one will be saluting what you run up the flagpole … in short, creativity and motivation will drag sluggishly along the floor no matter how much cake you bring in on a Friday.

In fact, if our untrustworthy manager brought in cake on a Friday, what would you think?

You’d probably assume some sneaky ulterior motive, that they were trying to ingratiate themselves or bribe you with superficial treats … although obviously you’d still eat the cake, just to be polite.

If you’ve ever had a manager you didn’t trust, you won’t need much persuading on this point.

Saying you need trust in the team will seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious – and I’d agree with you, so imagine my surprise when someone once interrupted me to say:

We don’t have the luxury of building trusting relationships, we need people to get on with it and deliver

Someone on a management training course once (yes, seriously)

Hands up who wants to work for this person?

Thought not.

So, I am disappointed I need to do this, but I will start with three reasons why building trust is worthwhile, before going on to share three things you need to do to build trust in your teams.

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Three ways to learn from experience (or how to deal with idiots)

If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you
If you’re determined to learn, no one can stop you

Zig Ziglar

I am assuming if you’re reading this, you like Ziglar’s quote above, and are already convinced of two things:

  • That being good at learning is an important skill; and
  • That you can learn new stuff, despite however many years you may have accumulated

On the first point, in our fast-changing world of immense complexity, the ability to capture the right learning from our experience is more and more important – and we don’t just learn from experience automatically; it’s a skill.

The difference between someone with ten years experience and someone who has one year’s experience ten times, is that the first person learnt from that experience.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn

Alvin Toffler

On the second point, it used to be thought that our abilities and talents were static after the age of about seven: this is the fixed mindset.

There is some truth to this, it gets harder to learn as you get older because the neural pathways are hewn more and more clearly into the grey matter, but research has shown that not only are our brains more plastic than previously thought, but that learning new stuff makes our brains even less fixed and more able to learn (the growth mindset)!

This means not only can we learn new tricks, but learning new tricks stops our brains from growing old!

The quickest way to become an old dog is to stop learning new tricks

John Rooney

I have written about the importance of a growth mindset here.

To build on those assumptions, I want to share three tools I find useful for being a better experiential learner.

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Lifelong learning: the ultimate anti-ageing technique

Oscar Wilde said youth was wasted on the young.

Or maybe it was George Bernard Shaw, I don’t know.

The point being that young people don’t take full advantage of all that youth offers, all too easily squandering it, supposing it will last forever.

Do we “older” people do the same?

Do we squander the wisdom that comes with age because we stop being willing to learn? Do we close our minds, lose our humility, and consider ourselves the finished article, unable to be improved upon?

If so, maybe it’s because of a fixed mindset.

Did you ever learn that your brain develops most during a critical period in childhood – before the age of seven – and then doesn’t change much after that?

I did.

I remember bits of my seventh birthday quite well. It was an important day in my calendar, but I didn’t realise just how important. Had I known that from that moment on my destiny would be hardwired into my brain like footsteps set in concrete, I might have taken it all a lot more seriously.

There is a photo of me wearing my brand new “I am 7” badge, in my tiny boxroom bedroom, surrounded by clutter and friends. I am smiling, I have thick National Health specs perched on my nose and a big gap in my front teeth, but I am a seven-year-old kid so I still look OK.

That cute little scamp had no idea that his personality was now fixed and the limits on his intelligence were now set. He was ignorant to the fact that from this point on learning would be much more difficult, every change a mental struggle.

At least that was the prevailing wisdom: we develop a “static brain” early in life that establishes the structure of the grey matter, and so defines (limits) our personality, talents, and abilities for evermore.

Fortunately for me, and to a lesser extent the rest of the human race, this bleak picture turned out to be incomplete. Around the time I was blowing out my seven candles and listening to my new Showaddywaddy elpee, neuroscientists were changing their views about the plasticity of the brain.

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The soon-to-be-famous Four Cornerstones model of management

Management comes with power, and with power comes responsibility.

Leaders may create the organisational climate, but managers make the weather. This is why it is the manager who is most often cited as the biggest single factor in employee satisfaction and engagement, and the biggest reason people leave their jobs.

A lot of this is due to a poor relationship and a lack of recognition for the effort employees make and the outcomes they achieve. Too few managers spend time building that relationship or taking sufficient interest to understand what their team is doing.

There are good reasons for this.

A lot of managers are expected to do a “day job” on which they are measured, then do some management too, as if it were a minor little add-on extra like being the Fire Warden or agreeing to be on the rota to empty the dishwasher on a weekly basis.

It isn’t.

Management is a serious responsibility that takes time, and if you’re unwilling or unable to invest that time, then please don’t be a manager.

The impact you can have if you don’t take it seriously is enormous. Not just on the organisation in terms of the lost opportunities from the mediocre performances of most of the people you manage, but on the individuals themselves in terms of their happiness, wellbeing and career opportunities.

The starting place is always respect.

This isn’t an American TV drama where the boss gets to shout at the interns, this is real life where managers must treat the people they manage with exactly the same level of respect as they treat everyone else.

This isn’t a teacher-pupil relationship, or a parent-child relationship, it’s a professional relationship between adults.

The manager has more responsibility, and gets to make decisions and provide feedback – there is an undeniable power dynamic in play – but managers don’t get their blood replaced with the blue royal sort, nor get given a crown when they are handed the keys to management, and treating their team with anything other than respect is unacceptable.

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If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way

We should be careful of the curse of quotes.

A good quote is a dangerous thing, its pithy cleverness can suggest a lot more wisdom than is actually present.

This is a danger much amplified by social media.

A superficial clever-sounding meme can spread like a pandemic before a much wiser nuanced opinion has got its shoes on.

To paraphrase Dan Dennett’s brilliant word deepity*, I call these truthities: “a claim that appears true because it is so brilliantly phrased, but is in fact false or misleading”

On that positive note, I present below a list of quotes that I believe are true, wise and inspiring about the world of learning:

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Don’t flick switches if you don’t know what they do

The first proper piece of career advice I got was from my Father just before I started my first job.

I was 16 years old, and about to start working as a glass-collector in the local golf club where my Father was an active member.

The Bar Steward, Mr Jones, was a notoriously abrasive man, and I think my Father sensed trouble. Mr Jones was hard work, but he wasn’t the only one: I was an awkward argumentative know-all with all the social skills of a wasp at a picnic.

To him, and to most people I suspect, I looked like I was aloof or arrogant, but actually it was more about my lack of self-confidence and my social clumsiness. My personality is the sort that doesn’t do small talk and doesn’t crave human company for the sake of it, and this means it’s all too easy for me to stumble, as a bull may stumble its way through a china shop, when faced with uncomfortable social settings.

Switchflicking

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Getting Squithy with it: what can we learn from Asquith?

This blog isn’t just about contemporary leaders, it also looks back at history, and what we can learn from leaders in the past.

I find this especially interesting – partly for the hell of it, my geekiness extends beyond politics into history (and other things, but let’s keep the focus tight) – and also because I believe that although we may be doomed to repeat history, we should at least try to only repeat the good stuff.

Herbert Henry Asquith is an interesting character.

A long-serving PM, largely overlooked because he was shoved out the way by the more glamorous and extrovert David Lloyd-George – but actually Asquith served longer, was far more respected and liked, was successful for most of his time in the top job, and – perhaps most importantly – is the only PM we’ve ever had from my hometown of Leeds.

He was a successful Home Secretary under the Earl of Rosebery and then Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and was the inevitable choice for PM when Campbell-Bannerman fell ill and died in office.

In fact he was the inevitable choice when Campbell-Bannerman succeeded in 1906 – there was an effort to kick CB upstairs into the Lords and let Asquith take over immediately, but his respect for the party leader led him to patiently wait his turn.

How did he become the undisputed obvious choice, and then such a dominant and confident figure for almost two decades?

And then, how did he lose it all, getting out-outmaneuvered by Lloyd-George and abandoned by his Conservative coalition partners?

I’m going to look at five things he got right, and then three things he got wrong that contributed to his downfall.

230px-Herbert_Henry_Asquith

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The romance of travel … (not a thing)

The romance was beaten out of travel many years ago.

I am not so naïve as to expect tearful relatives waving me off with their handkerchiefs every time I jump on a train, but nor am I ever quite prepared for just how functional the experience has become.

To make matters worse, my journey began on a bus.

Don’t judge me. This was because the train journey from Ferrol to A Coruña takes nearly two hours (the bus is 40 minutes), and the timetable was constructed by people who don’t understand the need for sleep or sleek connections. I would have had to get up absurdly early and be left with a good couple of hours of dawdling in A Coruña station, two things I didn’t want to happen to me …  so I got the bus.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_466

I walked through the Ferrol Bus Station concourse, past the closed ticket offices, and past the closed shops and down the steps to the platforms.

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Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory by Neil Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I now understand more about complexity theory, but am less interested in it.

I had hoped that this would be about complexity in human organisations, with examples linked to the workplace, exploring issues such as change management, systems thinking, and game theory … but oh no, there was none of that!

Fair enough, it doesn’t have to be laser-focussed on my own interests, but I grew weary of repeated examples of traffic systems and stock exchanges, and even when the theories are applied to things I care about – like whether to go out to a crowded bar or not – the theory felt lifeless in the hands of such lame examples. It felt like it was over-complicating simple decision-making for the fun of doing so – and hey, I love over-complicating things, so you’d think this would be right up my street, but it felt less like a useful tool for understanding the world, and more like an odd academic plaything of little practical value.

I know that’s not the case.

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The end of May: why Theresa May was a rubbish leader

It’s harsh to say that Theresa May has been the worst Prime Minister in my lifetime, but it’s also true.

It’s not fair, because she is also the Prime Minister who got handed the most difficult gig since World War II.

In more benign circumstances she might have outshone the likes of John Major or Alec Douglas-Home or Ted Heath or Jim Callaghan … but we’ll never know, because she got handed a burning platform of toxic crap by a fractured party, and was expected to lead a divided nation through a potentially disastrous policy that she had opposed.

Would Anthony Eden or Harold Wilson or Gordon Brown have done any better?

Theresa May

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L&D evaluation: I wouldn’t start from here

This article builds on L&D is not about training courses, it’s about improving workplace performance

In the L&D business, evaluation is the step in the process that gets done least well.

It is the poor relation, the neglected tail-end-Charlie at the end of the cycle that feels more like a box-ticky obligation than a critical cog in the machine.

I think this is dangerous.

If we are unable to provide a professional set of results to justify the investment made in our services, we are doomed to be stuck on the periphery.

This leads to what Charles Jennings calls the “Conspiracy of convenience” where everyone is happy that the training happened and the ragtag of MI measures and happy sheet smiley faces confirm that the box was ticked properly.

As a socially-awkward INTP, I am never quite sure when I am being super clever and when I am being hyperbolic, so please tell me to calm down if this is over the top, but I believe that showing senior leaders a jumble of unimportant graphs and expecting a pat on the head is infantilising the profession, reinforcing the idea that we are not central to the organisation’s success.

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It’s not about training, it’s about performance

Learning and development exists to improve workplace performance through learning.

L&D is there to help people get better at their jobs.

It wasn’t always thought of as having such a broad scope.

It used to be called Training, and it was only about delivering training sessions. The people at the front of the room were often called Instructors; their job was to be a font of knowledge – an expert in a specific content area – and to walk people through activities designed to transfer that knowledge.

This is a familiar model based on the schoolroom – and as most of us know through bitter experience, the “sage on the stage” model is not an efficient or effective way of transferring knowledge from one human to another.

Most of us recognise the wisdom in Mark Twain’s pithy quote …

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education

… especially since the development of the Internet that has brought so much knowledge (and nonsense) to our fingertips. I have learnt far more from a couple of hours on Wikipedia or YouTube than I did in several years of schooling, with the added advantage of not being beaten up by the big boys who didn’t appreciate my thick glasses and cheeky know-all wit.

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Airline personality disorder

Is it anthropomorphism when we relate to a branded organization as if it were human?

An airline is not an inanimate object or an animal, it’s a human construct, branded like crazy to spark our emotional brain – to make us feel loyalty and affection – so we are less rational when making purchasing decisions. So it is human, in a sense.

Some airlines do this brilliantly, notably Southwest (who I’ve never flown with), Virgin Atlantic, and Norwegian who are doing this brilliantly at the low-cost end of the market – and, although controversial, I think Iberia are getting much better that this.

TAP

The idea of making your brand mean something as a way to increase customer loyalty is not a groundbreaking game-changing disruptive idea. It is a trusty rock-solid foundation stone in the building of a service organization, yet so many airlines seem to aspire to have all the personality of the local bus service, thinking that having a plane and a bag of nuts is enough.

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Amtrak v Greyhound: an experiential study

We got on the train, right at the very back.

Everyone else travelling south from New York’s Penn Station seemed to know exactly which track the train was going to arrive on. By the time they announced it would be Track 14, the queues for the escalators were already long and wide; one heading south, the other north, the two meeting in a ragged mess in the middle of the station concourse.

We took advantage of the disorder to gently merge into the line, and ended up taking the north escalator down to the platform, hence ending up at the back of the south-bound train.

We lumbered our cases on board, and started looking for seats. Our tickets said we had reserved seats, but when I had questioned which seats they might be, I had been told it was a free-for-all.

This is a very loose way of using the word “reserved”.

The train had arrived about 30 minutes late from Boston, and by the time it jerked its way out of Penn Station, it was still 30 minutes late.

Amtrak-logo_jpg_475x310_q85

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Contracting in Learning and Development

In the podcast The secrets of accelerated learning; create the right environment with Krystyna Gadd, we talked about the process of “contracting” in training sessions and other learning and development activities.

I haven’t found a definitive definition of exactly what contracting is in this context, indeed the word doesn’t seem to even exist!

The best I could do was this from Dictionary.com, as a definition for “contract”:

[noun, adjective, verb 15–17, 21, 22 kon-trakt; verb kuh n-trakt]
 
1. an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified

So, we can assume “contracting” is the act of doing that.

A reasonably good definition is this one from FacingHistory.org where they discuss various teaching strategies:

Contracting is the process of openly discussing with your students expectations about how classroom members will treat each other

I might change the words a bit for adult L&D, and include “… and agreeing” after the word “discussing”, but I think it’s good enough.

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The End of Asquith: The Downing Street Coup – December 1916 by Michael Byrne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this hot on the heels of Asquith’s biography (by Roy Jenkins) because I was in the mood, and because I thought it’d help me get to grips with what happened when Lloyd George barged in and took over.

It is a fictionalised account, so it mainly reads like a novel, and Byrne does a pretty decent job to keep it going considering there isn’t really enough going on to justify a novel, and we already know the ending.

It leans a lot on Jenkins’s biography, but is more critical of Asquith than Jenkins was. In this book you understand a lot more the negative side of his premiership. You see the mix of respect and frustration felt by his colleagues – respect for the man, his skills and his achievements, frustration at his drinking, distractions (female), laziness (or maybe his half-hearted commitment is a better way of saying it), and most of all his consensual approach to government by committee which was too slow and cumbersome for the needs of wartime.

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