Categories
Change Conflict resolution Culture & Style Leadership Organisational Systems

Something’s Moving in The Garden

‘Daddy, daddy there’s something in the flower pot, come look, please come and look’. Her face radiates up towards me, the blond curls spilling out from under her bright red bobble hat. Her gloves dangle by their strings out of her coat and I see her muddy hands, just a second before she grabs my trouser leg to get me out of my chair.
 
‘Woo, steady, I’m coming’. I fold up my newspaper, try to forget the quiet ten minutes I was having and head out through the patio doors into the cold winter air, realizing immediately I should have put a coat on. My wife is down the garden digging away, throwing weeds behind her. I resist the desire to call out and remind her this is my time and we’d agreed she and Lucy would garden together.   
 
‘Come on daddy, hurry up, this way’ and Lucy, our smart, insistent daughter trots ahead of me. I feel a glow of pride at watching her young confidence and remember the nativity play at school the week before. She is an angel and a junior one at that, with just three words to speak ‘peace and joy’. The hot stuffy hall, full of cameras and phones flashing. A confusing Christmas story full of sharks, zebras, a London post box, six kings and our daughter. There she is….. I see her vividly in her angel dress, her lines delivered slowly with loud perfection, each word which we’d practiced every night before bed after story time. My heart swells at the memory. I know she’ll be on the stage one day.
 
‘Look here, look’ and I peer into an extra large plastic flowerpot sitting on the floor of our small greenhouse, amongst the dry dusty bean canes. It’s the pot I had every intention of putting the Christmas tree in later, once I’d finished the sports pages. A strange animal looks up at me. A long snout, two large nostrils, a crinkled broad back and an even bigger tail, which swishes and cracks against the pot sides making the whole thing jump and vibrate. The eyes dare me to come forward and I am tempted to put my hands in, then change my mind.
 
‘Isn’t it sweet Daddy, can we keep it, please Daddy please’. Lucy jumps up and down on the spot, hopping from one leg to the other with excitement. Then her voice changes.
 
‘There, there calm down little one’ I hear Lucy recite her mothers words with the same intonation and softness and the thing settles, curling up, no longer banging the pot across the greenhouse floor. Before I can stop her, Lucy puts her grubby fingers in and rubs the top of its nose, calming it even more. There is a strange purring sort of noise.
 
‘I wouldn’t do that Lucy, just in case you know. Well it might have teeth’ and I tug at her coat and pull her away.
 
‘No, no Daddy he likes being picked up and cuddled. Look’ and she scoops the alligator looking reptile up in her arms. It flops over her shoulder like a rag doll and his snout hangs down her back, steam puffing out of the nostrils into the cold garden air. ‘He’s a bit too heavy though, can you take him’?
I carefully pick him off Lucy, unpeeling his claws which are sticking in her wooly coat. My hands just pass round the rough scaly body and I gently but firmly put him back in the pot. Except he doesn’t fit anymore and now drapes half in and half out.
 
‘Wow he’s grown’ Sue dumps a load of weeds on the compost and joins us in the greenhouse, watching it settle down, tail and rear end in the pot, the rest slumped over on the ground. First one eye closes then another. The  purring changes to a gentle snore.
 
‘Lucy showed me earlier, it looked like a lizard then, now I’m not so sure. Maybe its escaped from a pet shop or something’. That had been exactly my thought but there isn’t one near us, so my mind goes to the beatnik guy who lives three doors down. He had a snake once, but that was before we had Lucy. Then when he settled down with that new girlfriend, the posh one, I’m pretty sure he got a dog instead.
 
‘I could ask that snake guy at number twenty, or maybe we just phone the RSPCA’. Lucy looks up at me and I explain about the charity that helps sick and lost animals. She nods wisely.
 
‘But we will be able to keep him won’t we?’ and her head tilts upwards. ‘It would be the bestest Christmas present ever’.  Sue and I look at each other. 
 
‘Tell you what let’s have lunch, a boiled egg with soldiers and we’ll decide after. How about that’? I lift her up, swing her onto my shoulders and stride up the garden path, away from what seems like a complicated problem.
 


‘Right mate, what you got then, a baby crocodile the call said. Seems unlikely but we get all sorts of thing to deal with you know’. He’s standing on the door step, his RSPCA uniform not quite fitting, like he’s outgrown it. A beer belly hangs over his belt. He looks competent though, if a bit rough round the edges.
 
‘Okay I’ve got a cat travel cage here and if it’s bigger, this noose will hold it while we deal with it. This sorts out wild dogs, so it should do the job’. I look at the cage then the pole with a circle of rope and decide to not engage in a conversation. I’m not sure either will do, but its getting dark, so I show him through the house into the garden. Two pinpricks of light come from the greenhouse and the purring has turned to a low rumble.
 
 
“Right let’s be having you’ and flicking on his torch the man strides forward across the lawn. The blast of heat and flame shocks us all. Two small jets, like a pair of blowtorches arc towards us, smacking against his boots, charring the laces.
 
“Fireworks mummy’ shrieks Lucy with joy, wriggling to get away from her mum’s hand which is holding her tightly. No one can believe it, but it doesn’t matter because now the greenhouse begins to shake. One by one, with a bang, each pane shatters, sending slivers spinning away. Then the frame begins to twist and buckle, then crashing out of one end is a head and at the other a tail, flicking and crashing against the fence. With one last pop the frame disintegrates, aluminum pings everywhere and there standing in front of us is…
 
‘A dragon Daddy, a dragon, just like those pictures in the book.  Mummy, mummy Father Christmas has brought us a dragon, a real dragon’. Lucy is jumping up and down. My mouth is open. Sue is backing away and the RSPCA drops his alligator noose and runs. The dragon sits back on his haunches and with a soft thud settles down on top of the vegetable patch, his tail moving back and forth. Then it seems to wink at us.
 
‘My brussels, my brussels, my Christmas spuds, the turnips’ is all I can think about, as he then slumps forward, his head crashing down on the patio. He looks lovingly up at us. Warm air from his nose blows across our legs and with a contented sigh he drops off to sleep again.
 
 
 
‘I don’t know what to do, stop asking’. We’ve been round the subject endless times as we watch the dragon through the steamed up glass door.
 
‘Well he doesn’t seem to have grown overnight anyway, that’s a relief. And are you sure it’s a he, it maybe a she. In fact I’m sure it is a she’. Sue looks at me over her coffee cup as we watch Lucy, outside, leaning against the Dragon and patting his skin gently.
 
‘This is either very dangerous, in which case I should rescue my daughter, or I am in the middle of a very strange dream. Perhaps I’ll wake up soon’? I shake my head but nothing changes. Inside, I have an amazing sense of calm, which is crazy given the situation.
 
‘Don’t grab …..’ Too late, Lucy is gently pulling at his eye lashes, intrigued by their length and colour. The dragon doesn’t seem put out at all and closes both eyes, to let her run fingers through and across the black coarse fibres, like running fingers across a piano key board.   
 
‘Now we’re late, got to dash, I’m sure you’ll sort this out before we’re back’ and with a peck on the cheek I grab up my bag and head out.
 
‘Come on Lucy, time to go. Remember it’s dad’s and daughters day, then the party later’. We have this wonderful tradition where on the last day before Christmas, children are invited into the office and we finish with a kids party at lunch time. This is the first year for Lucy. She gives the dragon a kiss and skips over to me.
 
 

There’s a thud as I clip Lucy into her seat, the car rocks slightly then I feel a breath on my shoulder.

‘No, no, get out you beast’, but it’s too late, the Dragon is squashed in the back his head resting between the front seats and immediately the temperature rises and we’re in tropical heat. The frozen windscreen clears instantly and the rubber seal around the edge begins to overheat and smell. I am about to complain, then notice the curling lip and a large set of white sharp teeth emerging. And above, a slow lazy wink of an eye. I carefully and apologetically push the snout to one side, find the gear stick under the folds of rough skin and set off.
 


‘Morning you must be Lucy and you’ve brought your dinosaur too. Well done, just sign here’. I lift and hold her as she slowly writes her name across the visitors pad in large capital letters.
 
‘Its amazing what they can do now isn’t it, looks just like the real thing too’. The security man stares at the dragon.
 
‘And it even smells. What’ll they think of next hey. Look it winks, now that’s smart. Pricey I imagine. Do they do a smaller version at all? Sold out probably by now. Toy of the year is it? Maybe I can get one in the sales in January’? He chatters on, he always does, I mostly nod my head in the mornings, it nearly always seems too early for chatty conversation. Lucy hands him the pen and the security man looks at her name covering twenty of the official visitor signature boxes on the form.
 
‘Right oh guys let’s go and the three of us squash into the lift. I can’t help smiling as we step in. We practice counting the numbers on the panel, with dragon thumping a tail in the floor when Lucy hits ten. The lift is still bouncing up and down as the door slides open at my floor.     
 
Some people look, others don’t even seem to notice, as we walk through the open plan office. At my desk Lucy points at the family photos sitting beside my over flowing in tray, able to name each person, touching her fingers to the glass. Dragon comes close and examines each one, seeming to nod approval. At the same time as he moves, he is inadvertently knocking files and expense reports onto the floor and then swishing them into a muddle with his feet and tail.
 
‘CEO needs you in the Board room now, some sort of emergency’. Jane floats into the room, all competence and smartness. She is organised to the hilt, keeps all the executive team on track, the best assistant I have worked with.
 
‘Hi Lucy, why don’t you come with me for a few minutes? I’ve heard all about you, Daddy has a meeting to go to’. She doesn’t even seem to notice Dragon who begins to hiss as Lucy bursts into tears and hides behind my legs. I watch her stride back to desk, as I tell her ‘I will deal with this and that, sorry Lucy is not good with strangers’.

‘Are you sure, oh all right’ the CEO is muttering, unsure how to handle a child in the boardroom, but Lucy is quietly sitting on my lap tucked in to the table playing with the paper clips on the files in front of us, smiling sweetly. ‘Good old Luc’ I think, ‘come on let’s get old grouch ready for Christmas. Who needs a meeting today of all days’. No one noticed dragon slip under the large mahogany table and the whole room seems to not hear the rumble and notice movements by our feet. I am a bit disconcerted to have hot breath on my thigh as Lucy digs through the sweet jar she’s been given, dropping jelly babies into an open mouth. Each one disappearing with a satisfied smacking noise.       
 
I am sweating, this is a huge mistake, I am under attack. The CEO persists in his interrogation. Others in the team are slipping down in their seats, keeping out of the argument, one or two have tried to help me, but there is no stopping him. It was coming, of course it was. 
 
‘I gave you the chance, gave you resources, listened to your proposals, accepted your part of the business might be different, but look at the results’. He slaps the financial report on the table and his face gets redder and redder as his anger rises. It had been coming, he hates my challenge and now he’s picked up on my emails which he normally ignores. He knows we need to change but meanwhile his shares are losing value and we all know he wanted to cash out and retire this year.
 
I need to fight back, but not with Lucy here and she is looking worried, peering up into my face and holding tightly to my small finger with her left hand. As she reaches into the sweet jar with her other hand, it tips. Before I can reach out, it starts to roll down the length of the table, coloured jelly babies tipping out, red, black, yellow, green. Everyone watches transfixed as it drops off the edge, just as the finance director makes a snatch at the disappearing jar. He leans over to pick up the container, then pulls back fear all over his face.
 
First smoke, then the nose, then the teeth, the eyes, the flashing scales. The front feet haul up onto the Chippendale table, leaving deep scratches in the surface. His body, as he stretches, fills that end of the huge boardroom. His head crashes into the ornate plastered ceiling and his tail knocks the coffee cups off the side cabinet. With a roar of anger the flames and smoke spurt from his nostrils. The heat scorches down the table incinerating reports, note pads, wrecking laptops and phones. The flames destroy the smart organised file in front of the CEO and then with a flick, the last heat blackens his hair and softens his smart royal blue designer glasses, making them droop and distort on his nose.
 
No one moves. The CEO sits there stunned. The left lens on his glasses drops out into the ashes of his papers. Around the table hands go to faces and there are stifled giggles amongst the ‘oh dears’ and ‘that was unfortunate’. I don’t wait, I push back my seat and with Lucy trotting next me and Dragon behind, leave the smouldering room.
 
‘Happy Christmas everyone’ I call over my shoulder. ‘Catch up on all this in the New Year.  Or in case I’m not here, enjoy all that new business coming soon’. In the car park I consider matters.
 
‘Hey Dragon, any chance of a lift home? I think maybe we’ll leave the company car here’ and he bends his head to allow Lucy and I to slip onto his back. We lift off, waving to the warehouse staff as we glide up into the cold clear blue sky.  
 


Post Script

This story came from a conversation with a client recently, about running a small ‘different’ business within a much larger organisation. We chatted about a metaphor when a strange mystical creature appears in a regular well organised, efficient vegetable or flower garden.

And below, just a couple of possible reflective questions for you …….particularly for  those of you who ask  for practical applications, to land this fluffy fable stuff!

– What happens when change arrives and is different from the norm or what was planned or expected – for you yourself or for your business?

– Do you take on a particular approach, attitude, or behaviour when someone is in your vegetable patch, or you are stepping on someone’s prize flower bed?

– Can you see an aspect of yourself in the story? Do you sense a connection with one of the characters? Any messages for you?


Categories
Change Culture & Style Learning

Slippers or Shoes

John settled himself in front of his state of the art computer, running his hand over the mouse watching the curser skip through his emails deleting them rapidly. He whistled as he sipped his cappuccino. Fridays were good days, working from home while everyone else schlepped up the motorway to the office. He wriggled his shoulders in pleasure and turned to the report he needed to write and get to his boss by lunch time. Two coffees and one chocolate biscuit later, time spent stroking the cat who taken up residence on the filing cabinet nearby and two hours closer to his deadline, he felt stuck. The words refused to flow, the issues seemed to elude him, the sheets and diagrams complicating not explaining things more clearly. He tapped his feet on the wooden floor in frustration. The soft thud on the oak planks did nothing to raise his spirits, in fact the sound irritated him. He pushed his ergonomic desk chair backwards and slumped down  running his fingers through his hair.
“Damn Damn, this is supposed to be easy” he muttered to himself. 
Horatio the cat didn’t mind, he leapt gracefully onto John’s lap and rubbed himself up against his face purring softly and deeply.  Twiddling the cat’s ear John sighed and looked down. He saw he was still wearing his cosy slippers, warm comfortable, the old soft leather reassuring and relaxing, a sign he was at home. 

“Why not Horacio, why not, I can wear what I like at home can’t I?” he muttered at the cat. “Do you remember the day I stayed in my pyjamas and almost got caught out by that surprise video conference”.


He smiled to himself, remembering how he’d dashed upstairs grabbed a shirt and had sat through the call, with the camera seeing his head and chest and completely missing his pyjama bottoms. Now he wondered, did what he wore make a difference to how he worked, to how he saw the world, how relaxed or focused he was –  even though it seemed such a small psychological thing to him? Now as he looked down he wondered. Depositing Horatio on the desk, where he promptly lay on the key board sending a spray of random letters and figures across the word document, John pulled off his slippers and went looking for his most comfortable work shoes.


The wall clock ticked round to 1.00 pm, John pressed the send button and watched the email and the attachments leave. Wow, the last ninety minutes had been incredibly productive, the ideas had flowed, the words seeming to literally just appear on the page in front of him.  Even though he said it himself, not a bad report at all. He decided there and then to wear his shoes when working from home. It was a little trick but it had worked, reframing his mind and approach to the business issues. 
Monday morning he was in the office early, it meant he missed the worst of the traffic but it also meant no one noticed the the stuffed plastic bag he brought in with him, alongside his normal briefcase. He laid out the footwear in his office ranging from his best ‘important presentation’ shoes, trainers, loafers, through to those favourite slippers, which looked rather out of place; but then so did the pair of Dr Martins which he still wore out if it was wet, or when he just needed good walking boots sometimes. Jane his PA, ever professional, came in to plan out the day and her eyes swept over the shoes.


“Planning a party later, fancy dress?” she wrinkled her eyes looking at the shoes. John couldn’t help smiling, he knew she had a pile of her own shoes arranged under her desk too, from flats to high heels, although these were never talked about.


“Yup, well no, more an experiment”


“Aha, so which will you wear to the Board meeting later, slippers or Doc Martins?” she teased him gently, already knowing the impact of different clothes and shoes on situations. Wasn’t this blindingly obvious she thought, but maybe not, he was a man after all.


“Okay how about the loafers for the meeting, semi formal, won’t cause a stir, relaxing for you to wear. Maybe creates a picture of you on a sailing yacht, Americas cup that sort of thing”.


So he did wear them, did it make an impact he wasn’t sure, but the meeting went very well and certainly the loafers, the picture of the boat cutting through the water, his mind being relaxed and calm, all seemed to help.


Jane couldn’t stop herself over the next few days, encouraging him to try different shoes in different situations, even creating a mini spread sheet to measure the impact. The Doc Martins were an instant hit with the ops team – the bad news on budgets he presented was accepted reasonably  well – maybe they were mesmerised by the size ten, highly polished, bovver boots. The slippers she noticed got worn in the  lunch break and at times when he needed to recharge and they always went home in the evening and weekends with him, until he bought a second pair. Within a short time, the shoes became company folk law, with people arriving to see John and checking in with Jane on ‘what sort of shoe day was it today’, before entering his office.  The anonymous witty article in the company newsletter John took well too and the regular teasing and banter from his colleagues. Better still he wore the whole variety of hats given to him at the staff Christmas party, selecting just the right one for what ever work he was doing.


He never could be absolutely sure if it was the shoes, the hats or something else which made him more productive, but he found himself promoted the following year.
Grahame Pitts – 9th September 2016

Post Script
This story comes from my own experience and reminded me of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) which was in vogue not so long ago. The need to reframe a problem in a different way, whether with words, 
attitudes, or activities is very important if you are stuck. Enjoy trying something different and remember, it is often the easier and simpler idea, rather than the harder one, which works. I am reminded of the leader who felt his annual appraisals were just ‘form ticking’ and lacked quality and depth. So, he went on walks with every member of his team instead (the sheets were completed later and actually more quickly than normal). Everyone enjoyed themselves.

Happy experiments.  

Categories
Change Culture & Style Leadership New Organisational Systems

The Naked CEO

The alarm shrilled and shook on the bedside cabinet announcing six thirty to John, who groaned and bringing his hand out from under the warm duvet, shut off the noise. He rolled forward to semi upright and yawned, pushing his hands through his hair. His mind gradually stuttered into life, there was something about today, what was it, he couldn’t quite remember. The cat jumped onto his lap and rubbed herself against the bristle of his weekend beard  and then looked at him expectantly. He stretched, put the thoughts to one side and within thirty minutes was showered, dressed, had his sandwiches made and was out of the door and into his car.

“Hi Sandra”, he pushed open the passenger door and she slid in, her perfume wafting across to him. She pushed her bag onto the floor, fastened the seat belt and turned towards him smiling. They had a sort of thing going, a friendly occasional kiss type of relationship. It never seemed to progress but it didn’t stop either and he liked sharing the journey into work and back. Sandra was easy going, relaxed and fun to be around.

“So here it is, today’s the day, bet your looking forward to it” she said, twisting in her seat to get a good look at him. “And you’ve made a special effort, look at you all shaved, smart tie and is that a new suit?” She picked a piece of fluff off his sleeve and then pinched his cheek gently. “You’ll be great, just you see”. John had the strangest feeling of being examined in minute detail, his collar suddenly felt tight and his earlobes started to tingle, which was very disconcerting. He calmed himself down, checked this speed, he could do without another speeding ticket and  drew attention away from himself by joking about the bright blue tights Sandra was wearing. They had a way of being rude to each other while exchanging compliments and Sandra looked great today, well she did every day and her legs especially.
“Morning John, have yourself a good day won’t you” said the overnight security man in reception. Now he was giving him strange looks too, a confident smile but with a lot of respect. Strange, strange and that same feeling of being examined, checked. No matter, he had a lot to do today, a key account to visit and hopefully move the big sale for the quarter one step further on. He bounded the stairs, got to his desk and began checking his emails.

“Hold on there boy, you’re in the wrong place”. His boss was leaning over him, a big grin on his face and now swiftly, was taking over his mouse and closing down his computer. Then he spun him around in his chair and pointed it down the length of the open plan office towards the executive suite.

Now John remembered and he felt slightly sick. It had meant to be a joke, his email chain of witty comments on how easy it must be to be the CEO, anyone could do that job, what does she do all day, etc, etc. He had sent it just to his level, his mates really, but as usual it had been passed on and guess what, the executive team thought it was great idea and perhaps yes actually, someone should have the experience of being the CEO for just one day. So, all their names had gone into the hat and by some quirk his had been drawn out. How could that happen with over a thousand staff he wondered, but it did. He remembered Sandra laughing hysterically on the way home and pretending to be him as the MD handling a meeting. Then his own boss the next day, saying he couldn’t wait to report to him. Two weeks ago it seemed funny, now on a Monday at 8.30 it didn’t.

He walked down the length of the office, everyone looked at him, some made comments, most just stared. Now he felt not just examined but somehow stripped bare, everyone had their eyes on him. And it was as though he could hear they thoughts too, some were reasonable and some just plain rude. Already he could feel the weight of expectations on his shoulders and he didn’t much like it.   Arriving at Rachel’s office he knocked and waited. She was a busy MD, action was her motto, yet she always had time for everyone, although expected good time keeping and good manners. Late, that wouldn’t go down well he thought to himself. He coughed and pushed open the door and stepped into the large room. The clear glass desk framed by the huge circular port hole window looking out onto the busy street was empty, the leather chair still pushed in tight against it.

“Hi John, coffee?”. Rachel was sat on the sofa with the papers spread around her. She looked so relaxed. Normally on a Monday morning she was calling for last weeks sales, comparing against budget, against last year and likely to be just a bit antsy but in good way. She was dressed in jeans too, which was even more strange in contrast to John’s sharp suit.

“Okay the office is yours, I’ll be right here but I’m letting you lead, first meeting at 9.00. Just ask me anything, pull me in at any time, but I’ll try to butt out…. well except with customers of course. Diary’s on the desk. Enjoy ”.

By ten o’clock he was exhausted and to be truthful he couldn’t do much, he kept asking Rachel questions and she stepped in gently leading where necessary. In just that one hour he had growing admiration for her, for the executive team, for their skills, their knowledge, the ability to juggle endless demands, changing priorities. He realised what a tough job being the CEO was. Perhaps he wouldn’t be such a smart arse again.

Over their second coffee, they did a mini review and laughed about what was happening. Rachel seemed to be enjoying the day and for all her bark (and at times he’d been on the receiving end of that) she treated John with care and compassion.

“Okay, ready for the staff briefing” she asked. John looked at her, surely he wasn’t meant to run that. The Monday ‘heads up’ to everyone was a quick fifteen minutes in the atrium behind reception. Three power point slides, maybe a short film clip, sometimes just Q & A. Rachel made it look easy every week, relaxed, calm, very direct and motivating, even if the sales were slipping. He took her hand written briefing notes and noticed his hand shock a little. She just smiled and sipped her coffee.
The noise in the atrium was deafening, not from everyone talking, actually a few whispered to each other, but mostly they just stared. It was the the bombarding thoughts John was picking up. Each person he looks at shoots a different set of thoughts towards him. He feels like he is being blasted by both an extreme heat wave and a gale force wind simultaneously. It almost knocks him backwards and he has to lock his knees to stand upright. He feels his suit being ripped from his body, then his shirt and suddenly he is naked. He hands move involuntarily to his crotch and he tries to cover himself. But the comments keep coming, scorching his skin or making painful pinging nips on the flesh. Some stick too and weigh him down, stopping him speaking and some comments feel as though they have got into his body and are killing it slowly.

“John, John, it’s okay” he can hear a dim voice in the distance, just beyond the roaring, crashing words. “I’m right here” and he turns to see Rachel smiling at him. “Its normal, don’t let it get to you, breathe. Everyone is constantly looking at you as the boss, making judgements, projecting fears and worries on to you, it is normal. Relax, we’ll do this together”.  And they do. Rachel starts and John watches as the thoughts, questions, hopes and doubts of people buzz and fizz around her and which she occasionally swats away. He leads on the sales results and key customer contact this week and the questions flying around almost bury him, although only one or two are asked directly, externally, into the room.

Sandra drives on the way home, he’s exhausted, part elated ‘he’s done it’ and still over whelmed by the sheer voracity of the demands and expectations. Sandra is chatting about cooking him dinner and occasionally touching his hand. He looks at his wrist, sees his shirt and suit still there and realises just what has been happening. Words and thoughts, particularly those unexpressed, can have a powerful impact. After eating he’ll write Rachel a thank you note and try to describe his experience and his admiration for the job she does and all executives do.

Grahame Pitts – March 2016

This story comes from a conversation with David about ‘always being watched, always on display’’ as a CEO and guidance from his own boss, around this in his first MD role. We all project onto others our concerns, hopes, thoughts; even more so to those we perceive as above us, our leaders. Perhaps we are reminded of our parents, or our family background in some way.

We all need to be aware of these unsaid, and sometimes unknown dynamics and all work to address them, regardless of where they are in the organisation and the hierarchy. Then our energy can be fully focused on the opportunities and the issues the business is facing today.

Categories
Change Culture & Style Leadership Talent Management

The Power of Ambition²

The Ambition twins sat side by side on the floor, leaning against the wall in meeting room two. The overflowing waste bin next them reflected the recent lunch meeting, sandwich wrappers, napkins and used coffee cups escaping onto the carpet.

 

Professional Ambition took a deep breath and pulled his jacket around him, leant his head back against the wall and sighed.  “I’m tired, really tired, meetings endless bloody meetings, why are we doing this, day after day? Most people are covering two jobs and  haven’t had a pay rise for two years”. He shut his eyes and sighed again, then in frustration flung his arm out sending the bin across the room, the contents spilling out under the table onto the grey patterned carpet.

 

Personal ambition reached over and took his hand gently in her own, squeezing softly.  “Hey, don’t forget those dreams, don’t give up, we came here to do great work and we still can. Today’s just a bad day, you’ll be back on form tomorrow, you see”.  He looked over to her and she smiled her warmest smile. He saw her strength, it hadn’t diminished over time, if anything it had matured and become more focused and disciplined. He remembered their past results with satisfaction.

 

Their work took place around the world. Whispering, cajoling, encouraging  people to line up personal hopes and goals and professional aspirations and work goals. Sometimes this happened very obviously, was clearly articulated and easily understood. Sometimes it just happened through an ‘ah ah’ moment, a dream or more gently in a quieter thinking moment. Sometimes in a rush, sometimes over time. The twins loved their work and had seen some great results over the years, some great innovations, some much happier and fulfilled people and often both.

 

Now Professional Ambition got to his knees, grabbed the waste bin and pushed the rubbish back in , then with a flourish jumped up and rammed his foot down on top. His foot stuck inside and he shook it vigorously but to no avail. Personal ambition stood up laughing, straightened her jumper, slid her arm through his and marched him from the room. Down the corridor they went, her humming softly, him stumping his foot up and down clanking in rhythm.

 

The CEO and the FD felt them pass as they chatted by the coffee machine in the kitchen, sensed movement in the air and the hint of hope and possibility in the atmosphere. Personal & Professional ambition intended just to leave early for the day, they were nearly at the door, clanking and humming when they both stopped turned and looked backward to John the CEO, stirring sugar into his coffee, looking wistful and a little sad. Both knew there was work left undone, so back they noisily came and joined the pair.

 

“The problem is the lack of ambition, I keep saying it, nothing changes though” exclaimed John as he washed his spoon under the tap.

“It’s been tough, very tough” said the FD, his head in the fridge, searching for fresh milk, his voice muffled and echoing, “Everyone is trying their best but you’re right we have lost something”.  Professional Ambition, now sitting on the counter gently tapping his waste bin against the cupboard door, nodded his head in agreement. “Perhaps we’ve pushed too hard, maybe our lean is too lean”.

 

Personal ambition leaning against the door frame smiled at the three of them in the tiny kitchen together. Geoff, the FD, coming out of the fridge, neatly avoided the swinging bin and poured milk into his cup.   “Lets focus on this at the management conference next week, who knows they might surprise us”.  Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.  John grabbed his files off the counter, took his coffee “Any idea how to do it?”

 

 

“Smart seats these” exclaimed Professional Ambition, as he whizzed round in his smart black leather conference chair. Each spin took in a view of the group coming back in from a gentle stroll. Fresh air after lunch the facilitator described it as and they certainly seemed happy and chatty as they arrived back in the room in pairs. Jane from Marketing seemed particularly vibrant and upbeat and sat down immediately and made some notes on her pad.

 

Personal & Professional Ambition took up position either side of  the CEO, a hand on each shoulder, giving him plenty of support. He felt strong, tired yes, in need of a good holiday, but positive and upbeat too.

“Okay who wants to speak first” asked the facilitator. Everyone looked at each other, the floor, their note pads or anywhere but at John. The silence yawned in front of everyone, the blinds shading the sunlight at the windows clicked quietly in the background. Sitting at table 3, Jane tapped her pencil on her pad and waited, it was her first conference after all, need to be respectful, but no one spoke. Even the usual extroverts had gone quiet. Why she wondered. The walk had been great, her partner on the walk had come up with a great vision and her own ideas, now more fully articulated, were interesting and giving her a real buzz when she thought about them.

 

She didn’t see Personal Ambition walk up to her and whisper in her ear. What she did feel though was a tingle down her spine and an impulse to stand. Her chair screeched as she pushed it backwards, everyone turned to look at her. The words stuck in her throat, her face reddened. Then after a deep breath and a desire to sit back down which didn’t seem possible – something seemed to hold her there – with a rush the sentences  were out, spilling one over each other, as she rushed to share her ideas and vision for her function and the business.

 

John’ s eyes widened, his shoulders relaxed, he smiled. The FD lent forward asked a couple of questions, then lent back in his chair.  Jane sat down with a bump, listened to her heart beating and felt strong, if a bit worried. Had she gone too far? Then the dam burst, now one after another people spoke, ideas poured out from around the room. Even the cynics got swept along. The facilitator raced to record the key detail on the flip charts. One idea built and reinforced another and the shape of the company began to change as the afternoon conversations wove together a new future.

 

Personal and Professional Ambition listened intently too, feeling fulfilled as the pride and personal expectation rose in the room. As the last person came to the end of their story, they moved in front of John and gave a bow and curtsy respectedly and left the room, high fiving each other at the doorway.  John just continued to smile. The future, it was here in this room, tomorrow would be a great day.

 

This story is based on an actual strategic planning meeting which took place on an autumn day last year, involving 40 people across a business coming together  to develop strategy and style. There may have been 42 people but we can’t be sure.

 

Grahame Pitts. July 2012

Categories
Change Culture & Style Leadership Learning Teamwork

Hot, Cold, or Just Watch the Meter

Joanne watched the meter on the wall ticking, the numbers clicking over slowly as she studied and compared them to those on her plan in the folder in front of her, which by now was covered in red marks everywhere. “Come on, come turn over faster’ she muttered willing the numbers to roll forward, knowing though really, if anything, the clicks were even now a little further apart. In frustration, Jo grabbed her chair, climbed up and on to her desk getting to eye level with the meter which blinked happily back at her, making one more click as another sale came in “Move dam you, move’ she said quietly and lent her head against the warm glass surface willing the meter to rotate, which it did to her command and made yet one more shift. She sighed and shut her eyes.

“Ugh um, hello, um, what are you doing up there” said a voice below her and the new Finance Director standing in the doorway, smiled a professional concerned face up to her.

“Something wrong with this machine I think, it might need a service. We worked it too hard last year, now its on a go slow” the CEO replied. Brian liked Jo’s style, it was one of the reasons he’d joined the business, so he wasn’t surprised to see her slumped against the meter, but he was surprised when she ripped it from wall and hurled it down onto the floor where it smashed and parts shot everywhere.

“I’ll come back later shall I” said Brian breathing deeply, wondering if he’d be the next one thrown across the room. It wasn’t so good to know your boss worked out in the gym every morning, lifting weights and had a regular one to one judo class with a black belt teacher.

“No I’m fine” retorted Jo, kicking the plastic case across the room toward him, which he trapped neatly under his foot as it tried to escape from the room. The heat behind him wafted into the office. The both knew the business was working in overdrive to get the sales, you could feel the tension out there, the stickiness of the temperature really too high to be either efficient or effective. Being successful was one thing, maintaining success completely  another. Brian closed the door and as they sat on the soft chairs he put the remains of the box onto the coffee table.

“Never did like that thing anyway, glad it’s gone. Could see it blinking away from my office, so it must have driven you nuts”. Jo smiled, it did sometimes, but mostly she loved seeing the sales coming in and the margins holding up. Still now she’d have to do it by hand for a while, but the numbers were interesting so why not, pencil and paper, or computer, they’d do just as well. The air conditioning kicked in cooling the room and the two of them sat in silence, enjoying the quietness now the ticking was dead. The circulating air calmed them and the buzz of the business outside fell away.

Jo sniffed the cold air. “We need this ourselves you know, we each need some personal air conditioning don’t we”? she mulled, before pouring them both a glass of water. “I love being out there in the heat of the battle, working our way ahead through difficult terrain, finding the next solution. All the regular day to day business stuff, it gives me a real buzz. But you know, maybe our job is different now, we need to be able to manage the two worlds, the heat of the daily battle and the coolness required to think about the future, the market, the changes to our business model”.

“Surely we just balance both” suggested Brian and he got up and opened the door. They both stood in the doorway and felt the blast of heat on one side and the cold on the other. It made logical sense to be right there but it felt confusing, like being on the edge of a weather front. Jo pulled Brian back in the room and shut the door.

“Actually that’s worse, neither one thing nor the other, more a confusing muddle. We need the coolness, the reflective thinking and then we need to be out there driving, pushing, motivating everyone, setting the example”.

“But surely we just have to make the numbers, that’s the important thing and that’s what head office are looking for. You know the score, no if but’s, sorry’s, excuses, make the numbers every quarter, deliver”.

“Agreed, but they don’t dictate how we get there and that’s our role, our choice. Maybe its doing more of what we know works, driving things harder. Or, maybe its about doing things differently because its time to change. That’s our job Brian, to sit in that middle ground, to think well, to think coolly and then to apply it back into the heat of the day. Its hard for anyone to think when the temperatures in the 90’s and you’re being bitten to death by the mosquitos. I do know though, that just waiting for the meter to turn isn’t our job”.

“Okay so let’s agree some cool time for people, not off site navel gazing, but real good clear thinking, creativity, matched with hard sharp analytics, done on a regular basis” mused back Brian “And it’ll be great if we can avoid some of those weather fronts that sweep into our exec meetings sometimes”.

“Yup and what I need to do is to talk about why this it might help and how we’ll do it. Give a good context, get people used to the idea of hot and cold – good, fast paced delivery, with a lot of movement and agility – and also – reflection, planning and challenging the way we do things, whether our plans are right, checking assumptions and mind sets”.

“Right boss, lets start with us, I’ll round the executive team up for an air conditioned moment together at the end of the day. Meanwhile, I’ve some work to do and you know most of these sales figures anyway”. He left another folder on the table, stood for a moment under the central fan, the adjusted his white linen suit and left the room.

Jo smiled and turned to her desk and picked up the phone, it was time to set up a visit to a major customer and then make them the focus for the team meeting at 5.00. As she punched the number in, a beautiful tortoiseshell butterfly fluttered in through the office door on a draft of warm air.

Grahame Pitts

May 2015

 

Postscript

This short story comes from being with a number of leaders who have felt the pressure to constantly maintain success year after year, particularly from a number one position, even though the market has changed dramatically. There is a need to change, but moving from the original source of success is difficult and indeed may be wrong, so clear, cool thinking is important. Some leaders naturally have the gift of ‘cool thinking’ , managing themselves and others well in order to handle these pressures, others find this much harder.

A well known and critical competence for senior leaders, is the ability to move confidently along the spectrum of ‘operations’ to ‘strategy’  and I have noticed over years, the most successful manage this movement well, whether in meetings, in 1.1 conversations, or at planning sessions. Those leaders move from detail to concepts easily and are also able take others on that journey.

Now I notice, the most successful leaders, also have the ability to move between cool, clear reflection and the ability to lead in the heat of battle, inspiring others to deliver more. They are not taken hostage by circumstances and instead use all the skills and leadership in the business to find the right way and the right style to go forward.

References:

Thinking Fast & Slow Thinking – Daniel Kathneman

Hostage at The Table – George Kohlrieser

Who Moved My Cheese – Spencer Johnson

Good to Great – Jim Collins

The Other 90% – Robert Cooper

 

Categories
Change Culture & Style Learning

The Cynical Brothers

The old lorry trundled down the road coughing exhaust fumes, as the driver slammed through the gears to get up the last hill. Written on the side, you could just make out the words through the dirt, dust and grime – ‘The Cynical  Brothers – any job considered, no job too small’  – and riding on the flat bed, resting comfortable on a heap of ballast, sat John whistling to himself, happy to be out in the fresh air.

Inside the cab, Very Cynical changed gear once again revving the engine, as they swung round the corner. His younger  brother, Just a Bit Cynical, meanwhile read the sports in the local newspaper, puffing on a roll up.

“What  a useless football team, we never win anything, sack the manger I reckon” he shouted over the noise and rattle ” I could do a better job than that useless manager”.

“Yea right” retorted Very, “You skipped every PE lesson at school and got banned from the pub team for rugby tackling that guy, remember?”

Just a Bit slumped back in his seat ” Anyway, how did we get this job? A house with a load of doors and no keys, take all the doors off the hinges. Sounds nuts to me. Hope you agreed straight cash. Reckon we drop John off with a crowbar and leave him to it, he can’t muck this one up surely”

John had been with the company for six months and was supposed to be on an apprenticeship but mostly did the jobs the two brothers either found boring, or just plain hard work. Luckily he didn’t mind, particularly if he could be outside and if they let him take his dog too sometimes. The dog right at this moment was standing paws up in the side panel, barking at passing traffic and wagging his tail madly as he swayed with the lorry.

They turned the last corner and there in front if them was the house. “Bloody hell, why all those doors” exclaimed Just a Bit, leaning out of the side window for a better view. The dog, never one to miss an opportunity, lent round and licked him gently on the ear and tried to steal his cap, which irritated Just a Bit and he pushed the wet nose away, but made John laugh as he too looked at the building.

It was the strangest house any of them had seen. An old country mansion but with four doors on each side, then matching windows above. All shut and sealed.

“Well this is a strange one” grunted Very Cynical, pulling into the top of the drive and stopping. “Still, out you get John, take the crowbar and sledgehammer they should do you”.

John jumped down, hoisted the two tools onto his shoulder, climbed  over the five bar gate and set off down the drive whistling. The dog hurtled in and out of the hedgerows, sending birds flying  and setting the feeding rabbits running.

“Tell you what” said Just a Bit “How about we watch him on the first door before we go, have a little wager. I reckon it’ll be over twenty minutes to get it off, there’s no muscle on him. What about you?”. Just a Bit slapped a twenty pound note onto the dash board amongst the receipts, spare nails and yesterdays lunch wrappers. Very matched it with a similar creased and grubby note. “I say ten minutes max”. They both sat back and rolled cigarettes.

John arrived at the house and lent the tools against the first door, the dog on the whistle arrived and sat at his feet after giving the door step a good sniff and having a pee up the drain pipe. John looked at the lorry, guessed what  they were up to and smiled. He’d show them this time and he picked up the sledge hammer balancing it in his hands feeling the weight comfortable and balanced. Then he swung it in an arc bringing maximum momentum onto the first strike on the wood. The large oak door resounded to the boom of his hammer and cracked, splinters flying. He swung again, this time aiming at the lock and with a crash the door flew open, banging back on its hinges. Less than one minute, The Cynical brothers looked at each other, grunted together and pocketed their own bet money.

John though forgot about them, because his mind was in a spin. From beyond  the open door, inside the house, he could hear voices and music and as he peered in expecting darkness, what he saw was pure bright white light. He backed away nervous, yet strangely not scared. The dog wagged his tail and did his ‘I’m interested what’s going on’ bark. John turned and looked up the hill to the lorry. The brothers waved him on to the next door, they clearly didn’t see or hear anything, although he did notice the movement in the cab, as they pulled out their grubby twenty pound notes again and placed their next bet.

John went to next door, which was exactly the same, the same oak panelling, same hinges and handle. He’d got a routine now and this time one blow just under the lock freed the door and it swung open with a dull thud. This time there was more light and more music. By the time he had broken open all four  doors on one side, even the brothers could see light and music, as it pushed out through the doorways.

John stood back and surveyed his work and didn’t notice the man walking past him and heading into the house, nor the woman going in another door further along, waving to him as she did so.  He did though notice the third one and the fourth and fifth. The sixth one said as he strolled past smiling “Best get the rest of the doors open, there are a lot to come in you know”. John went to reply, but the man thrust the sledgehammer into his hand and without thinking, John set off and attacked the other twelve remaining  doors.

As each door opened, more people appeared, some singing gently to themselves, some chatting, coming from all directions, so soon there was a constant stream entering through each entrance. Men, women, young old, different nationalities, some being carried, some looking bewildered, most looking calm, happy and content.

Up the top of the drive the Cynical brothers watched, eyes now out on stalks, not believing what they were seeing. Very rubbed his eyes and Just a Bit tried counting the people and gave up. Instead they watched hundreds of people stream in through the sixteen entrances.

“Where are they all going” said Just a Bit “They’ll never all fit, that house is too small for all those people”. Almost in reply to his comment, the mansion seemed  to heave and move right there in front of them, lifting itself up a couple of feet and moving outward on all sides before dumping itself back down on its foundations with a crash, settling back on the ground.

And still the people came, appearing from all directions, joining the flowing queues going in following the light and the sound. John watched the moving people many laughing, having a good time together. He  saw his dog playing ball with a young woman, as she walked towards the mansion across the old lawn. She beckoned to him and he stepped towards her and they went into the house together. The music volume rose, the party began to start.

With a thunderous crash the mansion took another step outwards and landed right next to the lorry throwing up dirt and dust, choking Very and Just a Bit, who sat transfixed, staring up at the huge brick wall which rose up above and in front of them. The twenty pound notes fluttered to the floor.

The booming music and the blinding light filled the cab and the Cynical brothers disappeared from sight. We think forever!

Grahame Pitts August 2014

Postscript
This story was written in response to a particular difficultly I was facing. It quickly became clear that it seemed to describe something more about learning. The people here may be parts of ourselves in our inner world, or they may be actual other people who come into our lives to support and challenge us. Similarly the Cynical brothers may be imagined or real too and expanding our horizons seems to defeat, or at least reduce their hold over us. 

 

 

Categories
Change Culture & Style Leadership New Teamwork

Groundless Ground

The snow settled on the peak of his all purpose balaclava, as Jack studied his compass in the last light of the day. The worst of the storm was over but he knew more was coming, the air too quiet and too heavy. He shivered and felt his bones and muscles move and complain. The needle wavered, refused to settle. Jack snapped the case shut and admitted to himself the reality – he’d told his team the direction was clear, the compass sure. This was good leadership rhetoric, but he suspected it would hold no more credence, now the food was running low and winter settling in.They’d left with so much hope and expectation. A great adventure had been planned, seeking gold and riches to be found beyond the hills, in a land of plenty, with green fields and bountiful crops. Oh, the talk in the houses and pubs, the hope and desire to find something that didn’t have. Their own lands were barren, the water fetid, dug from wells where the water table was wasting away. So the king had supported Jack taking the very best the kingdom could provide, the elite of all the men and women. Not just the physical best, the brightest brains, the most creative and some of the strangest. People laughed about the strangest and it took all Jack’s communication skills to convince the kings advisors to take those three with him. One, ‘Isof the Demolition’ had just been released from jail for creating a magnificent mega firework, the best ever to explode over the city, which sadly had landed on the chancellor’s roof, burning a large hole in his smartly combed thatched roof.

Those skills though had been very handy when a marauding hill tribe rode into camp one night, screaming, swords waving, slashing tents. By the time Jack had grabbed his gun, pulled back the tent flap, the screams had turned to whimpers as a huge burst of light, sparks, smoke and noise erupted from the camp fire. Isof, sharp, smart, undisciplined, always late for daily inspections but ready with unusual solutions anytime, had thrown a ‘number 4 star burst’ firework (home created, in his girlfriend’s garden shed) onto the smoldering embers. The resulting explosion, removed the helmet of the leading attacker, singed his eyebrows and sent him and his horse hurtling into the darkness. Dust flew around the remaining riders, causing  a sooty smog where no one was sure who was who. One of Jack’s soldiers, making the most of this, jabbed his sword into his best mate who’d just that evening taken a weeks wages off him in a dice game. The next morning they would discover a metre deep hole where the fire had been, which intrigued Isof and scared witless the rest of the troop, who from that point on refused to march next to him, let alone shoulder the sacks he carried.

One attack, one enormous explosion seemed to be enough and no other attackers chanced their luck. Now Jack, wished for a bit of that type of distraction, anything to take his mind off what lay ahead. A good fight, rather than this endless trudging. He looked ahead through the light and steadily falling snow. The track ahead seemed to disappear, which wasn’t surprising really as the edge of the map had also disappeared two days ago. Jasmine his second in command turned the map over at that point and began drawing a new map on the other side, amongst the notes, lists and mullings Jack had been recording over their time on the road. They now had virtually a new map for the cartographers to work with when they got back, including a set of hills named ‘foodllleat’ after a mouth watering list Jack made one evening as he pondered a warm bath, a meal and a good nights sleep when he got back home.

Right now, he could hear the team trudging up the mountain behind him, their voices coming ahead and echoing slightly in the gorge they were climbing through. He could hear Jasmine his number 2, setting time a with an old army marching song. Most joined in, but in between the beats he could hear grumbling and cursing. All Jack’s training told him they needed to stop, turn back, get home before the worst of the winter set in. He knew he was responsible for his men and women, they couldn’t take much more. Yes, they’d been lucky, several cases of foot rot, one flesh wound to a buttock (!) and one burst appendix. One of the creative’s had skills in surgery – Jack couldn’t look –  but Jasmine said it was a miracle and he should be proud of his creative’s as well as his elite soldiers and his strange ones. He was of course but didn’t tell anyone, he didn’t want to appear soft. Now supplies were low, morale was low, but his instinct said they were close, but he knew from reading the history of the kingdom, many had trod similar paths and failed, losing everything.

He stamped his feet, bringing life back to his frozen toes and stepped forward. His right foot found solid ground, his left swinging through found nothing and he tumbled head over heals downwards into a deep snow drift. Snow went into his mouth, up under his jacket, up his trousers legs. His balaclava jammed down over his head, so when he stood up, he staggered around like a madman thinking he had been blinded before realising the problem and wrenching the hat upwards. Up above him, the troop arrived, the singing faltered to stop and he could see them looking left and right for him in the early evening gloom.

‘Down here you numbskulls’ he yelled, just before he slipped again, forcing him to grab frantically at a spindly rowan tree with his right hand, as a slab of ice moved under his feet. He turned and watched the snow slip away down the mountain slope, before dropping away into a blur of nothingness.

‘Stay there boss’ yelled one the team and hauling out a rope, quickly he made an anchor. Within minutes Jack was back on the track. Except now they had a problem, Jack hadn’t slipped off the side of the track. Without realising it, he’d walked off the end. There was no more track, it had simply ended, disappeared, except for a very convenient ledge, one last stop before the slide, drop and likely avalange down into the valley somewhere below them in the snow and mist. There was no way forward, all the team could see ahead were snowflakes and air. Jack tried to hold onto his disappointment, not express his crushing feeling of defeat. All around were cliffs, outcrops, rocky snowy, with no way through not even a sheep track. The gorge had taken them high and direct and now there was only one way to go and that was back.

Jack felt the eyes of everyone on him, looking, seeking his leadership reassurance. He went down on his haunches, a signal for them all to huddle up for a briefing, except this time there would be no brief, he had nothing to say. The team threw off their packs and either crouched down or made seats out of their kit, wanting a rest and a smoke.  They knew the routine from their time together over the months on the road. Everyday always a team talk, a straight honest conversation, where plans made or changed and then on they would go. Jack took a deep breath, this was the worst moment of his career, a moment he thought he would never have to face. His team stared at him, trusting him, waiting for his words of calm which had seen them through so often.

‘Sorry everyone’ he said so quietly, that they had to lean forward to hear him, his words coming out slowly, coated in the cold mist. ‘I think we have lost this one, it is all over, time for the long walk home’. He tried to keep his face calm and relaxed, but everyone saw the tear escape from his eye & roll down his cheek.

The team looked at each other, dragged on cigarettes, pulled scarves tighter and gloves higher, anything other than look at Jack. That is except Isof who was whispering madly to the other two ‘strangests’. The troop were used to this, it was normal and they were strange after all.

‘Cuse me Gov, sorry but you have got to be joking. This has to be the moment you’ve have gone on and on about. All that useless training, stupid scenario planning, budgeting, rationing, yakkty yakkty yak. This is it!’. He would have said more, but his head had now disappeared inside his sack, which made everyone nervous and move away from him. He popped out with a ‘star burst 14’ in his hands.

“You’ll be needing this, only way to see it’ he said winking at the other two strangests, who nodded their heads in agreement.

Jasmine who had been slumped forward feeling exhausted, shot upwards off of her pack. ‘Wait he’s right, this is it, this is it…. groundless ground ….. this is the moment, we’ve found it’ and with that, she did a little hop and clicked her heals together.

‘Groundless ground, groundless ground’ the team mantra began swelling up and around the team. They’d practiced it, talked about, imagined it, listened to the King rant on about it as they left. Never really believing this moment would arrive. As they sang, stamping the rhythm on the icy ground within their boots, they watched Jack’s head come up and a broad smile appear on his face.

The creatives were chattering madly, gesturing, pointing out into the mist. The soldiers looked confused, just Isof took action. He light a star burst and hurled it out into the valley. It spiraled away from them, the touch paper fizzing and turning in the semi darkness. Then it exploded, creating a broad arc of bright white light out in front of them. They all saw it, a barely defined path through thin air, almost just two lines leading away from them. The firework dropped away, the mist and dark closed in again  but everyone was left with the picture inside their minds and across their eyeballs.

‘Okay’ shouted Jack, all the exhaustion gone, ‘Lets go’. He went to the end of the physical path and looked ahead. He could see it he really could. He turned to Jasmine, she could see it too. Groundless ground, that mythical state before something new appears. He’d grown up hearing these stories, hoping it was real, knowing you had to go over this to get to the future. He’d half believed it but here it was. He took a deep breath, went inside to calm himself and rehearsed all the plans for this point – the attitude, the mind set and the strength required. He also listened, as his ancestors whispered good wishes into his ears.

‘Ready’ he cried, ‘Ready’ the return cry came, bouncing back from the echoing mountain and from his own team. ‘Another ‘star burst’ please Isof’. The firework flew upwards, outwards and exploded, Jack stepped forward. The air held him, he seemed to walk on a solid nothingness but as the others came behind the shape of the path appeared under their feet. Then  looking back further, a completely solid path was behind them which Isof, always last, was  stamping on with his feet.

Jack knew what to do, look ahead, be confident, hold the future in his head and he did. Jasmine did too, he could sense her next to him focusing and knowing how to walk on groundless ground. Their team marched powerfully forward in harmony too. He looked ahead, he could just make out something in the distance, some colour, greens, yellows and some distant music coming to his ears. Treasure awaited.

Grahame Pitts. December 2013

I would like to thank David (and further back in our history, Mikki) for the essence of this fable. Groundless ground is a key moment in organisation change and indeed in personal change. There is a reality, a moment or time, when you know you have to move forward, follow and trust the plan and yet there is a real sense of nothing solid to stand on, no tangible results yet. It is literally a stepping into the unknown. Worse still, the sceptics have been waiting for this moment and they start to shout –  to complain about misuse of resources, poor management, impact on morale, the need to pull back, stay in known markets, stick with known products, etc. 

This is a moment of leadership – the ability to not just stand on groundless ground but to walk forward, taking others with you, knowing the ground will form and become solid as you move ahead. You will have seen this in your own experience – as the results firm up, the path ahead becomes clearer. And as those results come then guess what, most of the sceptics will then follow, once the tarmac is laid on the path and the lamp-posts light the way!

Categories
Change Conflict resolution Culture & Style Leadership New

The Crucible

John adjusted his heat reflective goggles, pulled on his steel capped boots and slipped on his worn blackened asbestos gloves. He smiled to himself as he walked into the workshop, past the racks of new raw material, the cooling stand, on past the roaring gas fire reaching up over six feet vertically. The noise boomed around the room. Above the flame and just touching it, sat a huge metal dish. John was reminded of his chemistry lessons at school, with the bunsen burner and the small evaporating bowl that often stood above it. The same principle here he thought, just a much bigger version. He glanced upwards to see the curving slope moving up and away from him, with the safety bar around the outer edge, just in view high up above. Arriving at the steps, he looked over to the doorway. Coming reluctantly into the room were three people, walking awkwardly in their own heat suits. They too began ascending their own set of stairs.John took each step with energy and arrived under a metal shelf supporting the safety bar. Putting one hand out, almost at a full arms length, he curled his fingers around the edge. Remembering all his old  rock climbing skills, with confident ease he swung his leg upwards in a wide arc and his foot hooked over the safety bar. By a graceful pull with his other hand, he flipped himself up and over and found himself in a  wide circular dipping dish, almost the width of a tennis court. At the centre he could see the heat of the fire, fueled by the huge burner underneath, already turning the metal a blue black colour as the crucible heated. Standing near the edge his feet felt warm and cozy, although later he knew they would be almost unbearably hot.Across the dish, he saw the three visitors struggle over the edge themselves. They managed this by pushing, pulling and doing their very best to help each other. One dropped a glove and watched it slide down the curve of the crucible and arriving at the centre, shrivel and burn in the intense heat located there. Trying not to look shocked, he pulled his face into a stoic, confident stare across to John, who in return waved a hand in a warm response. “Hi there, welcome to the crucible, first time hey?” he called across the space. Three heads nodded back, all with a similar smile, unsure, yet confident and determined.

“Take care, stay near the outer edge until you are can gauge the heat. As you can see the centre is very hot. Best avoided, but we may end up there let’s see”. The one handed glove man took a step backwards and went to grip the edge of the crucible. He touched the metal with his bare hand, felt the heat and quickly pulled it away again. “As I said, take care, this is a strange place for new comers, but settle in, get a sense of how everything works and you’ll be fine”.

With that John sat down, using the lip of the dish as a handy seat and pulled his gloves further up his arms. He watched the three of them, slowly orientate themselves. Just standing was difficult, not the heat at this stage, more the angle, dipping both into the centre and off round the curve of the outside edge. This  meant you had to bend one leg to remain upright. He watched as they practiced the gangling walk. It reminded John again of his climbing trips, where the sheep neatly traversed the steep mountain slopes nimble and sure, although four legs seem much easier than two.

“Okay ready for a conversation” called John as he paced confidently down toward the centre, where the red metal was steadily glowing against the remaining black surface. “I’m John, you?.

“I’m Karl” said the one glove man, turning slightly  “and this is Paul and Judy who work for me”.  John raised his hand in welcome to them and pointed at his goggles. “Don’t take them off unless you have too, the heat dries your eyes out real fast and does terrible things to your eye lashes. Seen some people lose the lot and even their eyebrows here!” Paul, looking decidedly alarmed, nodded rapidly, his head bouncing up and down, which made the heat at the  centre of the crucible reflect in his glasses, creating an interesting flashing rainbow effect. Judy just smiled and looked comfortable. She’s been in a crucible or two before thought John, she’ll handle this well.

“So we’re here to talk about change in your unit, your department.  It’s been slow, or non existent and that is why we’ve ended up here. So, time for a different conversation”.

“It’s been fine as far as I’m concerned” retorted Karl. “Good enough, or as good as the rest across the company. We’re all just off budget, have been for 18 months now. If only the guys at head office would get their act together we might get somewhere”.  His face shaped itself into a smug ‘I’ve been here before’ look.  Paul opened his mouth to add something, took a glare and a nudge in the ribs from Karl and bit his lip instead. Judy moved a yard to one side, as she watched John reach into his tunic pocket. In the flash of an eye, the hammer in his hand struck the crucible, sending a ripple of vibration through the whole metal dish. Karl & Paul bouncing forward and slid a metre in towards the centre, Judy who intuitively was ready, stayed braced in the same position.

John  swung the hammer again ready to strike again. “Whooh man, whooh” called Karl now looking distinctly worried, his right boot now just touching the outer ring of the red circle of heat. The sweat dripping from his forehead and nose, landing with a hiss on the metal plate.

There were no more smiles from John, he had a determined look and they all watched as he spoke into a small radio clipped to his lapel. They noticed the roar as the heater beneath their feet rose to another level and they watched the metal in front of them as it went from red to white. John crossed his arms and looked at Karl, who was already back peddling up the slope.

“Sorry Karl, but we need some change, fast change and as team leader it needs to come from you, not Paul or Judy, they follow your example as you know”. Karl looked at his boots gently smoking, the end of one lace already black and grizzled where it had made contact with the metal. Judy reached over to Paul and gently pulled him away up the slope, leaving John & Karl eyeing each other across the swirling heat.

“Okay ready” said John softly and leaning across the white heat pulled Karl towards him. They meet in the centre of the crucible, noses almost touching, an intense conversation taking place as the steam and smoke arose around them, billowing and quickly enveloping them almost completely.

Judy & Paul now back at the lip of the dish, looked down and just  saw the two heads close together, neither now had their goggles on, both only intent on the words being spoken, both ignoring the flames licking around them. Paul now shaking and perspiring gripped Judy’s hand, which she thought very strange, even peculiar, because mostly at work he either ignored her or made irritating stupid or sarcastic comments. Judy took his hand off hers, rather like removing an unwelcome insect and placed it on the crucible lip. He fastened one then two hands tightly on to it and then slid down in an ungainly heap, putting his face on top of his leather gloves. His body heaved and shook and he seemed to diminish in front of her. Judy realized just how pitiful he really seemed, with his smart suits, slick words, strutting style now gone. A part of him had been left in the crucible too.

She patted him on the head “Okay Paul, let’s get down those stairs and get out of these stupid suits. I think Karl may need a stiff drink when he gets out of here. Or maybe, a very long cool glass of water when he we see him next, assuming he does come back of course.”. She smiled at this and without looking back, hopped over the crucible edge and disappeared down the stairs. She’d got things to get done back at the office and customers to call. And change, yes there would be change.

Grahame Pitts – December 2012

This story, or fable, comes out of conversations with leaders in many different organisations. We have often talked together and prepared for a different type of discussion, where a significant shift is required, when the current dialogue is not working. Being willing to be in a crucible seems to be at the centre of this. A place of intense heat where things melt and reform, often emerging differently. In a leadership sense, this may be a change, a movement when things perhaps didn’t seem possible before. The crucible though is not always an easy place to be, as it often gets hot there, particularly in the face of the other person’s strong emotion or indeed our own emotion. We need solid personal & leadership anchor points within us if we are to take ourselves and others into this heat.

The old maxim of ‘change the business one conversation at a time’….. perhaps ought to be “change the business one crucible conversation at a time”!

Categories
Change Culture & Style Leadership Talent Management

The Power of Ambition²

The Ambition twins sat side by side on the floor, leaning against the wall in meeting room two. The overflowing waste bin next them reflected the recent lunch meeting, sandwich wrappers, napkins and used coffee cups escaping onto the carpet.

Professional Ambition took a deep breath and pulled his jacket around him, leant his head back against the wall and sighed.  “I’m tired, really tired, meetings endless bloody meetings, why are we doing this, day after day? Most people are covering two jobs and  haven’t had a pay rise for two years”. He shut his eyes and sighed again, then in frustration flung his arm out sending the bin across the room, the contents spilling out under the table onto the grey patterned carpet.

Personal ambition reached over and took his hand gently in her own, squeezing softly.  “Hey, don’t forget those dreams, don’t give up, we came here to do great work and we still can. Today’s just a bad day, you’ll be back on form tomorrow, you see”.  He looked over to her and she smiled her warmest smile. He saw her strength, it hadn’t diminished over time, if anything it had matured and become more focused and disciplined. He remembered their past results with satisfaction.

Their work took place around the world. Whispering, cajoling, encouraging  people to line up personal hopes and goals and professional aspirations and work goals. Sometimes this happened very obviously, was clearly articulated and easily understood. Sometimes it just happened through an ‘ah ah’ moment, a dream or more gently in a quieter thinking moment. Sometimes in a rush, sometimes over time. The twins loved their work and had seen some great results over the years, some great innovations, some much happier and fulfilled people and often both.

Now Professional Ambition got to his knees, grabbed the waste bin and pushed the rubbish back in , then with a flourish jumped up and rammed his foot down on top. His foot stuck inside and he shook it vigorously but to no avail. Personal ambition stood up laughing, straightened her jumper, slid her arm through his and marched him from the room. Down the corridor they went, her humming softly, him stumping his foot up and down clanking in rhythm.

The CEO and the FD felt them pass as they chatted by the coffee machine in the kitchen, sensed movement in the air and the hint of hope and possibility in the atmosphere. Personal & Professional ambition intended just to leave early for the day, they were nearly at the door, clanking and humming when they both stopped turned and looked backward to John the CEO, stirring sugar into his coffee, looking wistful and a little sad. Both knew there was work left undone, so back they noisily came and joined the pair.

“The problem is the lack of ambition, I keep saying it, nothing changes though” exclaimed John as he washed his spoon under the tap.

“It’s been tough, very tough” said the FD, his head in the fridge, searching for fresh milk, his voice muffled and echoing, “Everyone is trying their best but you’re right we have lost something”.  Professional Ambition, now sitting on the counter gently tapping his waste bin against the cupboard door, nodded his head in agreement. “Perhaps we’ve pushed too hard, maybe our lean is too lean”.

Personal ambition leaning against the door frame smiled at the three of them in the tiny kitchen together. Geoff, the FD, coming out of the fridge, neatly avoided the swinging bin and poured milk into his cup.   “Lets focus on this at the management conference next week, who knows they might surprise us”.  Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.  John grabbed his files off the counter, took his coffee “Any idea how to do it?”

 

“Smart seats these” exclaimed Professional Ambition, as he whizzed round in his smart black leather conference chair. Each spin took in a view of the group coming back in from a gentle stroll. Fresh air after lunch the facilitator described it as and they certainly seemed happy and chatty as they arrived back in the room in pairs. Jane from Marketing seemed particularly vibrant and upbeat and sat down immediately and made some notes on her pad.

Personal & Professional Ambition took up position either side of  the CEO, a hand on each shoulder, giving him plenty of support. He felt strong, tired yes, in need of a good holiday, but positive and upbeat too.

“Okay who wants to speak first” asked the facilitator. Everyone looked at each other, the floor, their note pads or anywhere but at John. The silence yawned in front of everyone, the blinds shading the sunlight at the windows clicked quietly in the background. Sitting at table 3, Jane tapped her pencil on her pad and waited, it was her first conference after all, need to be respectful, but no one spoke. Even the usual extroverts had gone quiet. Why she wondered. The walk had been great, her partner on the walk had come up with a great vision and her own ideas, now more fully articulated, were interesting and giving her a real buzz when she thought about them.

She didn’t see Personal Ambition walk up to her and whisper in her ear. What she did feel though was a tingle down her spine and an impulse to stand. Her chair screeched as she pushed it backwards, everyone turned to look at her. The words stuck in her throat, her face reddened. Then after a deep breath and a desire to sit back down which didn’t seem possible – something seemed to hold her there – with a rush the sentences  were out, spilling one over each other, as she rushed to share her ideas and vision for her function and the business.

John’ s eyes widened, his shoulders relaxed, he smiled. The FD lent forward asked a couple of questions, then lent back in his chair.  Jane sat down with a bump, listened to her heart beating and felt strong, if a bit worried. Had she gone too far? Then the dam burst, now one after another people spoke, ideas poured out from around the room. Even the cynics got swept along. The facilitator raced to record the key detail on the flip charts. One idea built and reinforced another and the shape of the company began to change as the afternoon conversations wove together a new future.

Personal and Professional Ambition listened intently too, feeling fulfilled as the pride and personal expectation rose in the room. As the last person came to the end of their story, they moved in front of John and gave a bow and curtsy respectedly and left the room, high fiving each other at the doorway.  John just continued to smile. The future, it was here in this room, tomorrow would be a great day.

This story is based on an actual strategic planning meeting which took place on an autumn day last year, involving 40 people across a business coming together  to develop strategy and style. There may have been 42 people but we can’t be sure.

Grahame Pitts. July 2012

Categories
Conflict resolution Culture & Style Leadership

Purple Armour

The packaging lay strewn on the floor, cardboard, string, tissue paper  thrown to one side. Carol did a little spin in her office and chuckled to herself.  A good fit, made to her measurements of course, super light weight too, so not heavy at all, some new fangled material but the colour was a faint purple, her favourite. Looking over her shoulder to check the door was shut, she turned around doing another little twirl before dipping back into the box and pulling out the matching boots and gloves.  A warm glow seeped through her as she pulled on each one.

A tap at the door pulled her back. Joanne, her PA, head round the door,  was reminding her of her next meeting,  one of the last before the Christmas break. Carol took one last item from the box and, sliding it under her arm, grabbed her notes and headed out into the corridor. The whole thing made her giggle, but all she showed as she walked along was a relaxed smile.  Then a wave of concern swept over her, she shouldn’t feel like this, today was the executive meeting and normally, no matter how much preparation she did, she felt uneasy. Not that she was alone in this, but no one talked about it, no one dared. George her boss was tough, very tough and as the sales slipped, almost a bully. He wouldn’t describe it as that, ‘demanding’ he called it, but Carol had felt his wrath on more than one occasion and it wasn’t pleasant or necessary. Worse, it had now begun to eat at her self-confidence so that she exposed her normal, sharp, incisive approach less and less nowadays.

Five minutes early for the meeting, Carol took a moment to slip into the toilets  next to the board room. So, here is the big test, she thought as she made final adjustments to her outfit and pulled on the headgear.  The helmet fitted snugly to her head and immediately she felt the warm lining, purple coloured of course, softly against her skin. She raised her hands and pulled the visor down and it clicked softly shut. The world disappeared, she straight away felt protected  and yet she could hear well, much sharper than normal, even the sounds of people chatting next door as they arrived for the meeting.  Carol picked up her folder from the top of the wash basin and glanced at herself in the mirror. A fully uniformed knight looked back, complete with magnificent armour, glowing in the low bathroom light. She nodded, he nodded back mirroring her movements. The light glinted on his suit filling the whole room with a powerful light. Could it be her? Surely not, this was a six foot plus, broad chested person, resplendent in his strength and confidence, a battle strong confident warrior.   They appraised each other over the washbasin, then with a final nod they set off.

Carol walked into the board room and took her usual place beside the company secretary, one of the good guys. Nothing was different. Certainly grumpy George was grumpy, worse really as he’d just had sight of this week’s sales figures and was taking this out on John the operations director. Not a good start. Others were shuffling their papers, looking away, avoiding the obvious conflict at the head of the table. Carol inside her suit felt calm and relaxed, sliding into an observer role, certainly none of the pain spewing out from the gap between George and John affected her. What a relief the armour works she thought, settling comfortably in her chair, enjoying her filter coffee.

John turned his head down the table, a look of desperation on his red strained face, beads of sweat were running down his checks. All eyes were on papers, coffee cups, blackberries, lap tops and not one met his eye in return. Carol didn’t want to either. It was 8.30, the armour was untested, and she didn’t have the strength to take George on, thought she never would now. She felt her hands on her visor, yes it was shut, yes she was safe, she could ride out the storm her feelings protected.

John’s head dropped as no support came from the team. Inside Carol and inside her purple suit of armour a different feeling began to rise, a feeling of anger, indignant anger and a sense of love and care for others in the team and for the business. She tried to push these down, knowing the result would be conflict. Growing up, her mother had always said she had strong views and strong values even as a young kid and said these would both bring her endless joy and plenty of heart ache. Oh dear, her heart was certainly aching here. It wasn’t her battle she tried to say, stay out, John’s a tough cookie he’ll handle it. Even as she thought it she stood up and her armour began to glow and sparkle. Eyes turned to her, a look of surprise from many. She pushed back her chair and with one nimble leap, jumped onto the old boardroom table. Her helmet smashed against the hanging chandelier wafting years of dust out from the light across the room.

The knight towered above the men and women in the room. Cyril, her mate the company secretary, looked across the table and smiled. What he saw was a beautiful pair of crafted steel boots, planted there amongst the coffee cups, glasses and water bottles. He glanced up further to the intricate panels and details of the armour, right up to the helmet gently tapping against the still swinging chandelier. His eyes ran back down and stopped at the sword, not drawn yet but a gloved hand on the hilt, ready for action. With a touch of a affection, he reached out and placed his hand on the metal foot. The boot responded with a slight up turn of the pointed toe and then a tap back down.

George in full flight now saw none of this, his tongue lashing on full volume at John, but he did notice the tremor of the table as Carol walked down it towards him. Team members pulled their papers and coffees hastily out of the way. Geoff from logistics, was a little slow and accidently Carol stood on his phone sending bits flying across the surface. George did though notice the dust and later he would vaguely wonder about where it came from, but what he really noticed and felt there and then, was the large steel, pointy purple boot which placed itself against his chest from belly button to throat, pressing him back and downwards into his fine black leather chair.

The knight stood in front of George looking down, one foot placed squarely on the Minutes of the last meeting, the other planted firmly on the CEO’s chest. George’s eyes grew wider and then even wider, as he watched the jewel encrusted sword being removed from its scabbard. His throat was now dry and not from the two cups of early morning coffee, but from the fear welling up inside of him. He tried to summon up the spittle to speak. He couldn’t, his lips moved, they formed the words yet nothing appeared. Instead it was his turn to sweat and he did. Rivers of it ran down his face, pouring through his hair and soaking down into his collar and creating a tide line across his shirt.

Carol inside her armour looked at him through her visor. The sword slid back into its scabbard. She felt powerful, strong and yet strangely humble, the knight had delivered his message. No more was needed. She turned and walked back down the table, dropped gently to the floor, strode from the room, leaving the door open. Everyone observed her down the length of the executive corridor as she strode toward the lift.  She waved to the office staff, who watched wide eyed and grabbed on to each other, or their desks, in both fear and delight.

The festive holiday for Cyril was a time for smiling and remembering old adventures, both defeats and victories. John mostly slept but came back in January refreshed. George had some nightmares, reflected a great deal, got confused about the dust, but was gentle and loving with his children and grandchildren on Christmas day. For Carol, the world was simply a brighter place, full of new opportunity and promise, waiting to be lived to her own values. And in her wardrobe hung a beautiful purple suit of armour, shimmering in the half light, ready and waiting.