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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Learning 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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Not the best year of my life … continued

I woke up feeling better.

The pain in my upper left back seems to have subsided at last. I had assumed it was a muscle strain from playing softball but it was hanging around for a lot longer that it should, making me think it too was cancer.

I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.

I drove into work to get my laptop so I could work from home for the next couple of days. It was odd seeing the people there, buzzing around their normal days in their cancer-free bodies.

Everything looked slightly different, like I had a filter in front of my eyes. The world felt a bit further way, and the sounds echoed more, as if I’d moved into an extra dimension that only I knew about.

I was going to be in and out of work for the next couple of days, and would be quite distracted, so I sent a couple of emails to tell people I’d be available on and off until Wednesday. My boss smelled a rat and said as much in her reply, and so I decided to level with her so she could think about how it might impact my commitments over the following weeks.

Continue reading “Not the best year of my life … continued”

Getting a cancer diagnosis

They say the day you get the diagnosis is the day the bottom falls out of your world, but that didn’t happen to me.

It didn’t feel like I’d fallen off a cliff edge, into a sickly battle for my very survival; it felt like I’d been handed a memo containing a useful piece of information.

This was probably more due to the skill of the doctor rather than my stoic emotional control. She was warm, but also professional and precise, so much so that I didn’t feel anything other than gratitude for her having found it, and curiosity about what happens next.

“We found a tumour,” she said, debriefing me on the colonoscopy results.

“A tumour?” I answered, impressively calm, “Do we know if it’s benign or malignant?” expecting her to say that she didn’t know and that they would need to do a biopsy.

“I’m pretty certain it’s malignant, although of course we’ll need to check”

I nodded as she explained the next two tests they needed to do, and then how my treatment protocol would be decided.

“We meet on Thursdays,” she explained, “we have a board of doctors who decide. It’s most likely to be radiotherapy at first, maybe some chemo, so we can shrink it before we attempt surgery”

I nodded and thought it all sounded like a bit of a bother, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

As we left the Doctor’s office I had said the word “cancer” out loud, just to see if it broke the spell, but I still felt calm. I joked that I had the bad luck to get cancer of the arse, not a cool manly cancer like cancer of the muscles, or cancer of the chiselled brow – no, I get a tumour up my rectum.

If there was one thing I was going to do during this whole cancer debacle, it was to try to handle it in the sort of way that people would talk about with awe afterwards. They’d say things like “he never lost his sense of humour” and perhaps even use the word “brave”, but I am getting ahead of myself.

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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.


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.


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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, 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 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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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more. Not my words, but the words of the current President of the US, obviously a bit of an expert in the revered abolitionist.

This book is an account of Douglass’s life as a slave, and then as a free man, written by Douglass himself. As you’d expect for a book written around 1850, it reads a bit old-fashioned today, but it’s no chore to get through. It’s fairly short and to the point and is written quite fluently.

It describes a life that it is barely imaginable: twenty-plus years a slave, most of it fairly lucky by slavery standards, but he still had his fair share of physical abuse as well as the constant mental torture of being the property of another with no choice about his own life, and no hope for emancipation.


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Asquith by Roy Jenkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I never got why Asquith was so consistently overlooked as a national figure.

If anyone ever talks about great Liberal Prime Ministers it’s always Gladstone this and Lloyd George that, poor old Squithy never gets a look-in.

As one of the few figures of consequence to actually come from Leeds, we should be bloody well talking him up, not letting Lloyd George overshadow him.

This biography is a bit old-fashioned and shallow. It’s good, and readable, and tells the story with minimal focus on childhood, and maximum focus on his time in Number 10, which is the right balance (reading about other people’s childhoods is almost as boring as reading about other people’s dreams).


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When people have nothing left to learn

You know when you get asked a question and then three hours later you think of the answer you should have said?

Frustrating, isn’t it?

It drives me nuts.

Not to the point where I want to go on a furious rampage through the city streets, more like I want to write a terse LinkedIn post. Each to their own …

It happened the other day when I was being interviewed for TLDChat about L&D, change management and leadership development. I was asked about what to do when you’ve got a room full of leaders and you get one who thinks they already know everything and have nothing left to learn.

If this happens in real life, I’d know what to do … much as I enjoy working with open-minded professionals who love learning, when you do this sort of thing a lot, you kind of like (in small doses) the awkward buggers who make it harder. I wouldn’t want a room full of them, and would tire if they persisted for the whole session, but now and again it’s fun to test your wits against the tougher cookies.

What I said during the interview was fine, but it was incomplete and vague.

It would be misleading to suggest there’s a secret one-size-fits-all formula that always works, and it is correct that it’s a judgement call where you need to flexibly apply soft skills honed through years of thorny experience, but there is some solid ground beneath our feet here, and there are a series of steps you can take that will increase the likelihood of you being effective.

So this is what I wish I’d said …

Continue reading “When people have nothing left to learn”

The importance of knowing where the brakes are

I took a bike from my hotel in Stockholm ride to the office.

This was chiefly because I have an injured foot and the 20-minute walk wasn’t going to help it any, but also because I am envious of people who get to commute by bicycle, so I thought I’d pretend to be one of those people.

I haven’t ridden a bike since about 1997 when a friend bought a new bike and gave me his rusty old one. I rode it back to my flat, struggling along, the warped frame trapping the wheels so the stupid thing slowed to a halt even going down hills. I propped it up by the steps next to my house, and ran upstairs to get something: that was the last I saw of it.

The ride to work was uneventful. I didn’t feel comfortable going too fast, it was an old clanger of a contraption, and I was wearing a suit and was without a helmet, so I took it slow; I was not keen to arrive at work with torn clothing and visible bruising.


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Stuff I wish I’d know years ago: five top tips for interviewing people

I just spent a day interviewing people.

There is a reason Julie Andrews didn’t include running a recruitment campaign in her list of favourite things: compared to raindrops on roses and/or whiskers on kittens, interviewing people can be a real chore.

This is a problem because it’s also one of the most important things we ever do … and yet so few people do it well.

If we get it wrong we might miss out on great talent, but more importantly we might employ someone who ends up costing us a huge amount of energy and cash, and damages the motivation and performance of others in the organisation.

This is the main reason running “Interview Skills” workshops is one of my favourites. It’s such an important topic and has lovely clear positive tangible outcomes (I hear loads of great stories from previous participants about interviews they’ve run after the workshop, and how they’ve ended up making different – better – decisions as a consequence).

One of the things participants like is that it has a few solid tips and techniques that can make such a big difference.

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Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very good book, but more than that, a very interesting and inspiring subject – much more so than I realised.

Two things in particular: first he was someone whose politics were remarkably similar to my own; and second he had the concept of living life to the full, “a life well lived,” which is something I never quite worked out for myself, but aspire to.

I remember Roy Jenkins from my own childhood. Not very well, but I knew who he was. I clearly remember the SDP and thought he was the stuffy old one who looked a bit out of place next to the glamour of the much younger David Owen and David Steel. Later when I studied politics properly, he cropped up as a big name in Harold Wilson’s first period in office (Home Secretary, then Chancellor), but I didn’t know the detail, and he seemed to peak way back in the sixties, and then wander off to Europe before returning to split Labour and melt away into obscurity.


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If you’ve missed a flight recently, you’re not spending enough time in airports

In this post I tackle three big issues facing the frequent flyer.

A lot of the advice for the business traveller is based on three assumptions: speed is king, you need to keep working all the time, and you don’t need clean pyjamas.

I disagree; I’m not that kind of traveller.

We work incredibly hard most of the time, have lengthy commutes, and often return to a busy house with a long list of responsibilities. Travel is an opportunity to take care of ourselves, to have some peace and quiet, to meditate, to escape the hurly-burly senseless busy-ness of most of our working days.

So don’t feel the need to spend every waking second of travel on your laptop working at breakneck speed, use the peace and solitude to reflect and take a step back.

Early or late?

If you haven’t missed a flight recently, you’re spending too much time in airports

(Dr Jordan Ellenberg)

I don’t agree; I’m not that kind of traveller.

Ellenberg says that I could be doing something better with my time rather than idling it away in an airport terminal, that the “opportunity cost” of my arriving early is subtracting from all this productive stuff I would have been doing otherwise.

Well, Dr E, there are some mighty big assumptions in there.

If I waited until the last minute to get to the airport I wouldn’t be doing anything productive, I’d be standing around, glancing at my watch, and anxiously thinking about needing to get to the airport. At least if I’m already there I can relax and read and drink coffee, which is all I really want to do anyway.


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Who are you going to believe, me or your lying brain?

Hi I’m John, and I’m biased.

I am not the only one. You are too.

In fact all human beings are born with a set of biases and mental shortcuts that help us survive and deal with the world around us.

In the past such biases were vital to survival.

We didn’t need to worry about being fair and inclusive when we were living in caves; we were more concerned with finding the next woolly mammoth and avoiding being eaten by lions.

Issues such as creating a diverse community were way down our priority list.

Back then, if we automatically feared the unknown person from the outsider tribe down the road, at worst we’d lose out on what could have been a beautiful friendship. If we got it wrong the other way around, including someone dangerous in our group, then we’d have likely lost our heads – literally – and evolution favours people with heads … ergo survivors are more likely to be suspicious of strangers.

The issue of bias goes beyond how we jump to conclusions about other people.

It includes how we approach all kinds of incoming information, especially that which contradicts what we think is true – again, evolving on the savanna didn’t equip us to distinguish the good data wheat from the misleading chaff; instead it left us transfixed by shiny objects and distracted by movement.

This was important functionality back in the day when it was vital to spot unexpected movement in the bushes – but times have changed, and being distracted by a TV screen when someone’s trying to talk to you is now more a bug than a feature, reducing our ability to perform, not enhancing it.

Now that we live and work in a multicultural global environment we need to broaden our vision beyond our own narrow bias-filled perspectives if we want to make good decisions.

This isn’t easy.

In fact a lot of biases will persist even if you are aware of them and intellectually believe they are wrong … but we can only manage what we’re aware of, and whilst we cannot rid ourselves of these hardwired shortcuts, we can change our behaviour to move beyond them.

I discussed all this (and more) in a recent Trainer Tools podcast with Paul Tizzard, and talked through a workshop I have delivered on the subject – including my favourite ever illusion:

In the picture above, squares A and B are actually the same colour.

Continue reading “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying brain?”

Making training effective: closing the habit gap

Training has a success rate of 1%

This means that of the total potential value (TPV) that could be added to the organisation if all the skills and knowledge of the training course were implemented consistently and to a high standard, only 1% is realised.

In other words: rV (realised value) is equal to 1% of TPV (total possible value).

OK, I just made that up.

Not just the numbers, I also made up the concept of rV and TPV.

None of it came from any form of evaluation or research, I just pulled it out the air – but they sound true, and that’s good enough for me to construct the following argument.

There are three internal factors that get in the way of learning leading to improved performance. For the first two, I borrow from Blanchard and Hersey model of “Situational Leadership”, the other is from observation and from Peter Senge’s rubber-band analogy about habitual behaviour.

  • Motivation (do they want to do it)
  • Confidence (do they feel they are able to do it)
  • Habit (do they default to other behaviours – do they remember to do it)

There are also three external factors, but I’m not including those here for fear of this post turning into a tome – but for completeness they are culture, management, and opportunity.

Training is concerned primarily with closing knowledge gaps, and to an extent addressing skills gaps – at least giving the learner a start on closing the skills gap.

Training can influence the motivation gap, and by encouraging action planning, coaching and practice, it can begin to tackle the confidence and even habit gap, but it’s that pesky habit gap that’s the big stumbling block.

(See here for a great podcast on action planning and other learning implementation strategies)

The Habit Gap

A habit is the default response, it’s the six-lane neurological pathway that cuts through our brain, it’s the road you travel on autopilot because you don’t notice the poorly-maintained rabbit paths snaking off to the side, paths that could lead anywhere.

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Travel broadens the waistline

It’s a fairly long way to Vilnius from Spain.

You have to go via Warsaw or Helsinki or even Moscow, but Moscow involves a transit visa, and it means flying over Vilnius in order to come right back again, several hours later. Such graceless inefficiency offends me.

And … if there is one cast-iron rule of travel it is this: never take a route that requires a visa unless you have absolutely no choice.

I could have gone via London or Amsterdam. These options were somewhere north of 27 hours each way. My computer presented them anyway, with a straight face, as if I might seriously consider them.

No sense of the ridiculous – one of the many problems with Windows 10.


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The standard you walk past is the standard you accept

The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept

This great quote – attributed to Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison (a senior officer in the Australian Army) – was first said to me by Dan Pruce, a speaker on one of our leadership development programmes.

Dan’s story went something like this:

Every day I walked past a scruffy old hedge.

The hedge ran along the side of one of our office buildings, our gardener was responsible for giving it an occasional trim. I supposed that because the public rarely saw it, it had tumbled down the priority list, and got little attention.

It annoyed me, but it wasn’t my priority either, and I didn’t really think of it as something under my sphere of influence. It took me a while before I realised I could do something about it.

So I put aside my reservations about being seen to be wasting time on an unimportant issue, and ignored my inner voice shouting at me to stop being annoying, and I met the gardener and asked that the hedge be maintained to a higher standard.

It was a small thing, but from that moment on I never walked past something I thought wasn’t good enough.

Odd for a story about topiary to be so meaningful, but the central message was clear: if you’re a leader, and you don’t challenge it, that means it’s OK.

Continue reading “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”