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?


The clock ticked through to 2.30 and Mark wriggled in his seat. The spare chairs around the conference table in his office sat empty, the coffee and the water fresh, with ten cups and nine glasses neatly arranged. He sighed, drank his own water and stood up.

“Any sign of anyone Jodie” he called as he checked through his IPad for messages and emails.

“No, sorry all looks pretty busy out there” she replied, while squinting down through the  broad open plan office. “To be fair it is one of those days and we do have that major client in”. Mark knew that and he understood the importance of this customer, he was in the round up and sign off later in the afternoon.

“Okay, no problem, but perhaps I’ll take stroll and see who I bump into” and he set off out of the executive suite, heading firstly to the marketing department who he intuitively felt more comfortable with. Fifteen minutes later his mood hadn’t improved. People were polite, engaging, some were clearly overwhelmed by having him stop by their desks, others interested, chatted amiably about the business. No one though seemed able, or willing to engage him in debate. He knew he had a bit of an abrasive style and he found social interactions a pain, so when the exec team suggested an open hour each week it had seemed like a great idea. Now he wasn’t so sure. He wanted fierce debate, challenge, honesty about the style of the business, ideas for the future. Yes, the weekly open meeting and his conversations had been some of that, but more about pay, conditions, toilets, the canteen. He was now seriously considering delegating the whole thing to HR.

He stalked off through operations and into finance asking questions and generally causing alarm and discomfort. He could see people slipping out from their desks and heading to the corridor, filling the toilets, creating queues at the coffee docks. Perhaps if one of his directors had been around they could have bridged the gap, but all the senior management were tied up. So, after getting one word answers from one of the IT analysts he headed downstairs to facilities. He had no interest in these things but he’d heard about Jim, head of maintenance, yet he never came to any meeting what so ever. Well he should and he would now. Mark banged his way through several safety doors, heading deeper into the bowels of the office. Past store rooms, skirting the central  heating boiler room, past a desk shoved up against the corridor wall and finally into what looked like the main electrical source centre. Large leads snaked across the walls into boxes, each marked and coloured ,acting as junction points and there laying on the floor two large leads waiting to be connected. Mark ever inquisitive went over to the large thick black cables, picked the two connectors up and looked carefully at the pins and sockets.

“Whoa there boy, slow down, don’t you be putting them together just yet” and a large gnarled, muscly hand lent over and took one wire away from him. “Just doing some work on that circuit so best not plug it in right now, we’re still running tests” said Jim, who knew exactly who Mark was and made no effort to treat him as the CEO.

Mark wasn’t used to having things taken away and later wouldn’t quite be able to recall why he did what he did next. Maybe frustration, or just plain curiosity, his mother and father always said it would get him into big trouble one day. Jim, when he told his mates in the pub later chuckling over a beer, would call it arrogance and stupidity. Yes he did, he really did, he grabbed back the two connectors and rammed one into another. The room exploded into light, a blue haze shot around them both, Mark’s feet lifted off the floor, his body vibrated and pulsed as the high energy current pulsed through him, pushing his hair up on end and his eyes bulging in their sockets. Jim momentarily stunned by seeing his boss illuminated, shaking and seeming to gurgle slightly, leapt into action launching himself across the room and slamming the main fuses off. Even without the power, Mark seemed to vibrate, his hands gripped the connectors with his fingers rigid around the plastic fittings. Jim prised his fingers free and guided him to a chair.

“Steady boss, steady, that was a real bolter you just took there, just sit for a moment. Do you need me to get the a first aider down?” Mark sucked in big lungfuls of air, ran his fingers through his upright hair, closed his eyes and then laughed.

“Now that’s what I call power, real power, you feel it right in your heart” and he thumped his chest “Power really does vibrate. Woo hoo, give me more”.

“Man, you are one crazy nut case” replied Jim looking at him “Who really enjoys being almost killed?”
“It isn’t that, it’s just real, that’s what power is” Mark sucked in more air. “Jim honestly that’s what it’s like in my job, but it’s so difficult to describe and I’ve just experienced it” and again he touched his chest. “Power at a senior level is just like that and if you don’t take care it is dangerous, yet fun, fun, fun”.

“Yea right and abusive too” retorted Jim “Some of you guys are just plain bullies, throwing your weight around”, including you he thought to himself.

“Yes, including me, I need to learn how to stop myself jumping in, bossing people about. And see,  I’m pretty good at guessing what you are thinking, so just say it from now on, tell it to me straight”. Jim nodded his head, shook his head, laughed and reaching into his lunch bag, pulled out his coffee flask. He added two large sugars to both drinks and watched Mark uncurl his fingers, crack his knuckles, take the coffee and swallow it in two large gulps. Jim sensing the opportunity lent over and eyeballed his boss, which was tricky as one pupil was massive dilated while the other had shrunk to a pin prick of blackness.

“You know you could take more of us with you, if you just thought about that power you have as executives. I’m used to electrical power, you felt it just know, you need to be professional, assess the risks and manage it well. I reckon management power is similar, not to be abused or mistreated but real important to get things done. Just take care how you use it”.

“Well maybe, hum well let me think” muttered David staring back, he’s eyes gradually normalising and returning to their normal green brown colour. He pulled himself out of the chair, put his mug down, shook Jim’s hand and with a slight stagger left the basement.

There’s nothing so grand as a story and this one whipped round the building. The meeting room was packed  at the next open hour, even Jim was there. The conversation was varied, soft and relaxed at times and sometime spiky and demanding. Mark mostly listened, interjecting occasionally and in the quieter moments, reflected on power and how a shock occasionally was a good wake up call.

Grahame Pitts – 21st September 2016

Post Script
Power is an interesting thing, we all need it and must use it. Yet applied without care and attention it can rapidly damage others and ourselves. So, thinking and reflecting about your power is important, in particular, being willing to try different approaches in different situations. How flexible are you with your personal or positional power? As a leader, are you aware of the impact of your power, does anything need to change?

Take a look  at the latest HBR Research on this in the article ‘Managing Yourself – Don’t Let Power Corrupt You’ in the October 2106 edition (page112) or down load it on

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.

Lights & Baubles

The cold in the air was keen and sharp and finding its way deep into the knuckles of Asrim the archer. It seeped into his back muscles as he stood poised on the highest peak of the mountain. His bicep ached as he stood tall and proud with the arrow cocked on the bow, taut to its fullest extent, carrying on the feathers the royal crescent of his majesty. The priests with a last mournful wail, completed their prayers and supplications and a mighty roar began to swell and grow amongst the crowd packed together watching and waiting. The king stepped forward dressed in his finest silks and wools and turning to his people in his deep resonate voice declared “with all God’s speed and peace to our fellow men may this arrow find its true mark”. The drums rolled and the king touched Asrim on the shoulder. Asrim released the arrow, the fingers of his right hand rolling over the string letting the arrow away on its flight. The arrow shot away from the mountain, through the cold iridescent blue sky, streaking towards it target carrying behind it a narrow golden thread which zinged and whistled as it uncoiled from the basket on the battlement.

As Asrim’s arrow shot forward so did two others, each carrying their kings crescent, each loosed by the best archer on their mountain. The eagle soaring and watching from on high, saw and witnessed the three arrows connecting three mountains and three kingdoms together. Asrim looking up and spying the bird reeling, took heart from the symbol and stood tall and waited. The incoming arrow seeking its mark, whistled through the air arching in towards Asrim driving into the ground in front of him, piercing a full foot into the ground, a few lengths of the golden thread pooling beside it. The roar of the crowd intensified as Asrim moved and in one powerful movement reached forward and pulled the arrow from the earth, holding it aloft for all to see and acknowledge.

Now the work began and with only seven days to the winter solstice, the kings master craftsmen set to. They hauled in the thread and a stronger golden rope followed, they called to their glass blowers for the baubles and lanterns. Each individual glass masterpiece was carried carefully to the mountain top by the family maker with his sons and daughters. A trail of beauty, each was more magnificent than the last, the light panels flickered and shimmered just from the sun light alone. The powerful wicks were assembled and installed and slowly the great lanterns began to stretch out across the valley to the next mountain. Three magnificent strings of light began to appear over time, as the craftsmen worked on through the day and night. People in the valleys and on the mountain sides looked in awe at the growing and expanding floating carnival above their heads.

Everyday each king came to inspect the work, staying as darkness crept across the valleys and lanterns were lit. The simplicity and beauty, a spectacular sight to be enjoyed and admired by all. However, each king was just a little bit envious of the other and spotting something unusual on another string of lights demanded more and better for their own. The glass blowers furnaces had never worked so hard, the designs had never been so intricate and dazzling as more and more lanterns were added to the strings. Years later they would say it was like the strings on the necklace of a beautiful goddess, the greatest ever seen.

It was a cold dawn morning and Jasper the master engineer was worried. No one was listening to him. He’d done and redone his calculations and looked at the mighty fixings on the mountain top holding the winding mechanisms for the lantern strings. He too admired the beauty, the ever expanding, drooping, overlapping runs of baubles and lanterns in every different colour and sheen. It would hold just, he knew that , but next year a new mechanism would be required and he had in his mind a picture of how that might look. Meanwhile, he hoped all would be well. He took one last tug on the master anchor rope and turned  for home. It was the solstice day and he had still to buy his family their gifts.

The feasting had begun in each and every house and high above and around them the great lanterns hung. The light from each string was so bright; it hid the moon and cast a great glow across the valley floors. The north wind began to blow, slowly at first and then increasing, bringing flutterings of snow and ice in the air. High up on the mountain the fixings unattended began to strain and heave. No one was interested though, tucked up in their houses in the warmth. And each king, sitting high up in their castle, looked out at the magnificence of their creations and felt powerful and strong.

Jasper felt uncomfortable, perhaps it was just indigestion after such a large meal. He pushed back his chair, walked across the room and opened his door. The wind whistled in around him, the cat who had considered an evening stroll and had padded after him, turned, lifted her tail and sped back to sit by the fire. High above him the lights rattled and shook, one or two began to go out. Even higher, the stanchions on the winding mechanisms began to flex and strain. With a pop first one then two bolts shot from their fixings sending a winding mechanism lurging to one side.  The line of lights sagged and dropped several feet, seemed to stop, then with a great bang, first one set then another and finally all three plunged, as the lines gave way and the lights hurtled to the valley floor.

They say that the kings leant their lesson, the next year there were less lights and baubles, smaller, better designed and safer; but both Asrim the archer and Jasper the engineer could already see the envy growing and kings are kings after all.

Grahame Pitts – December 2009

Across the Talent Pool

“If you want your child to be brilliant read them fairy stories. If you want your child to be a genius, read them more fairy stories” – Albert Einstein

Evidence suggests that the ability of leaders to tell stories can be a key ingredient for business success. Why? Because those power point presentations are simply not enough. A story reaches deeper into us, connecting with those profound archetypes found in legends and fairy tales across the centuries. Telling fairy stories is not normally an activity associated with management, but our good leaders do just that. Listen carefully at the next planning meeting. If you leave motivated, then the presenter has probably used metaphors, personal experience and stories to tap into that much deeper and more personal space within you. Rather than relying solely on passing information to your rational mind he or she has touched the part of you that resonates with enduring myths and tales told since the dawn of time. There is an inordinate amount of wisdom contained in stories – and a deep understanding about the human condition, and indeed the organisational condition – that links into the very heart of true leadership. Joseph Campbell, the great authority on the story writing, takes us through the essential stages of any great myth: including preparing for the journey; setting out; meeting and fending off danger; achieving success; and eventually returning triumphant. We have all listened to stories, told our children more than a few, or watched great films with a similar approach at the core and, yes, we do apply those frameworks to successful business lives.

So, if you are all sitting comfortably, a short story to take us into our subject here …

Strolling through the woods on a warm sunny day a young man came upon a beautiful pool. Clear and translucent, it had attracted a crowd of visitors. Across the water, no more than 50 metres away, the crowd became animated, chattering, fingers repeatedly pointing at the water where movement stirred, breaking the surface of the water, colours appearing at the surface, flashing in the sunlight. It was exhilarating, bustling; excitement pulsing through the crowd. People strained to spot the beautiful fish lured by the floating bait, and nets began to appear. A beautiful koi carp was lifted from the water and placed in a holding tank.

It all seemed important and significant, yet for some reason the young man wasn’t drawn to that side of the pool. Instead he walked over to a different part, overgrown, a fallen log in the water, sunshine struggling to penetrate the canopy of trees. There was no noise here except the sounds and smells of nature; very different yet somehow more real. Sitting down on the bank, leaning against a tree, the young man felt relaxed and sensed a connection to something bigger and broader than himself.

Looking into the dark, still water he saw no more bright, translucent fish. Instead, other fish swam gently beside the bank. Solid brown carp, all shapes and sizes, young and old, appeared and disappeared, occasionally coming to the surface to catch an insect. Though not as pretty, nor probably as valuable, as their koi cousins, these fish were in other ways just as important. Certainly they were part of the whole pool, part of all the fish in the lake.

The young man sat watching and wondered, why was no one interested in these fish? They looked graceful,strong, sure, solid, and they brought a calmness and a reassurance to him as they swam in the cool water. Was it their colour, where they lived in the pool, or perhaps their size? It did not make sense to him.

Across the pool the people had gone. Little remained of their fishing trip, bar some litter, trampled grass and muddy footprints. Over this side of the pool the fish continued to swim and as he watched there seemed more of those strong brown carp everywhere.

For the future success of our organisations we have to select key people with the ability to drive the business forward. We have to make choices; the life blood of business is at stake. The quality, the integrity, the capability of our people is central to everything we do. So, we rightly spend money and huge amounts of time and energy to secure the right people.

Yet many organisations bemoan the lack of quality leaders coming through. There is too much change and not enough resource, so the identified high performers are often stretched to breaking point and beyond. The talent pool seems fished out, but do we look at the other side of the pool? What about those other key people who, year in year out, bring regular good results? They are not always quite so confident, outspoken, perhaps. Initially they may be reluctant to articulate change and take others with them. Yet, in their own way, they do just that. Projects are delivered, budgets met. Yet somehow these people slip through the talent net. Perhaps many of them actually choose to do just that, preferring the tangibles of operational delivery to the expectations and the exposure of the corporate development dance.

Are we missing something here? Why don’t we invest in these people? Why are they in some way forgotten, passed by in the rush, and often neglected? Our organisations are changing. We can no longer rely on the few ‘galacticos’ to see us through; we need everyone, all the talent we have available. Hierarchical structures are no longer as effective as they used to be. Much of the work is now accomplished through matrix approaches or info rmal networks. That means involving everyone, both the highly talented and those who always keep the ‘wheels on the bus’, enabling the business to keep moving forward, mile by mile.

What would happen if we targeted resource and development at these people? How much potential is available but untapped? This must be worth investigating. At a minimum we motivate those people, but better still, we might just find the tipping point for major change. A change that might build more success over the long term because it is deeply rooted in the organisational culture and lived by the people; a legacy that they can proudly pass on to their successors.

So, we’ve told you a story and shared a paradigm around talent that we think needs to change – no longer relying on the selected few, but seeing more in the potential of many. The koi are important … but so are the carp!

Returning to our original theme, leaders please do tell us your stories. Share your highs and lows with us – engage us completely. We don’t only want well trained, honed, glossy professionals. Yes, those skills are essential, but as important, is the journey that has shaped you, the dragons you have met and slain, the princes and princesses you have rescued. The tough times, the good times: these are the essence of business life. Your stories can and will take the performance of others to a new level.


The Holiday Drainpipes

When I was a child our annual holiday was always to the same place. It is a trip now so short as to be a afternoon run out, but then it was a huge undertaking (or so it seemed to me as a child) and on the roads of the late 1950’s and 60’s, a journey several hours in duration.

Our holiday home was on the seafront, although the beach and sea were hidden by a large sea wall. It was a wooden chalet, on stilts to prevent flooding on the highest tide days. Ever present was the smell of sun, damp, food, sun tan lotion, activity and people. I can still remember, after all these years, lying awake at night listening to the combination of late night strollers and the lapping sea.

It was both exciting and boring. The fun of getting to the beach, building sand castles, braving the cold sea, fishing for crabs and facing the waves as they leapt the sea wall at high tide was something I waited for all year. Great experiences. And then the time with my mother’s extended family, all in different chalets nearby. All of them nice, all caring and all very grown up. They did adult things, like talking, relaxing. Time away from work meant not rushing, not being stressed. As one of the few sons in the extended family, I guess I was naturally a bit different from the flocks of girls, sisters, cousins, and so sometimes found myself alone, entertaining myself.

Even at that young age I liked to know how things worked and a house on stilts meant exploring underneath. What to someone else was a mass of pipes, wires, connections and junctions, to me was a fascinating puzzle to solve. Why was it laid out like this? What went where and why? So, alongside the usual daily holiday routine, I discovered how my house worked.

One of my aunties found this hilarious. What was I doing scrabbling around down there? What a funny boy I was! What was so interesting about how the piping worked? I was good material for her light-hearted jokes and banter.

I sometimes wonder about those summer adventures. Maybe with other guidance I might have ended up as an architect or something in building design. I certainly love buildings and good structural design. As it was, I went toward furniture design, and later into management training and organisation change. Now I find myself looking hard at organisations, seeking to understand how things get done, why the processes are performed the way they are. It doesn’t feel a million miles from lying on my back in the cool summer sand studying those pipes and wires.

And I still get humoured, ‘just accept it, that’s the way it works round here’. The DNA and the organisation design – ‘the piping’ – of the business can be archaic, leaky and uneconomical, but ‘it works, so let’s not look there and certainly not change it; too expensive, other things are a priority’. Dripping taps are not a real problem. Yet the best leaders do just that. They look, they poke about, they pull pipes apart and reconnect them in different ways. They are willing, interested and demanding about how the business functions; they put as much attention internally, as externally to customers and the market place. Many organisations I work with find this difficult, often handing responsibility for major internal change to external ‘experts’. I hasten caution here, not because that expertise is not important, but because a review of organisation design or process, and the potential impact on the company culture, the DNA, remains the responsibility of the executive leaders.

Many leaders find it hard to find time, and some may lack inclination, to look at the pipes and wiring of their business. Perhaps they fear a need to strip the lot out and start again. Perhaps though, just lying in the cool sand looking will be enough. It’s amazing what you can spot and potentially rearrange for efficiency and effectiveness, when you take the time to look.

Do leaders create the culture, or does the culture create leaders?

I have always held a fundamental view that the role and responsibility of leaders is to set the tone, the style, the culture of the organisation. After all, they have power, influence and the drive to set standards and pace. Therefore it seems logical to see them as the roots of the overall company culture. Yet systems, processes, bonus structures, etc can have equally as much impact, if not more, than the behaviour of senior individuals.

Suppose we accept this, then perhaps company culture is created by the overall business approach and process. Established over time, in the DNA of the business, culture is both about the current approach and the threads of a long and plaited history. Often leadership is accepted, encouraged, suppressed, or moulded in a particular way. Unspoken and often very different from the espoused values, many people take their leadership capability home, or at least outside of the work environment onto committees, charities or councils. Though not intentional I am sure, unless we are deliberate about how our culture works – how things are achieved, what reaps rewards – then the real potential of leadership within an organisation is lost.

I hear people say – “it’s so frustrating trying to get others to listen and take action, perhaps it’s that way in all organisations”, “I’ve given up trying to do things differently, it’s all about the short term, what we know, what we do today”. It is not normally the intention of senior leaders to engender such reactions, but when it happens there are three likely outcomes. One: the culture remains static. Actually it is worse than that, because the culture begins to atrophy and the conversations of frustration and anger we often hear cement this. Two: potential leaders go underground, doing their best to bring about change surreptiously and quietly at the edges. Or three: aspiring leaders become impatient, ‘up sticks’ and leave.

I reminded of a story from one of my clients who, to mark an excellent year, brought his large team together to present the results and celebrate. Unable to find a suitable venue, he became creative and hired a marquee which was erected on the company campus. People loved this approach. However, his boss did not see it in the same way and made that clear when he arrived at the meeting. Where did that leave my client? Somewhat confused. Why wasn’t he being celebrated for his creativity and determination? They were stated company values after all! Breaking the whole situation down later, we could see that this was about a reality of his organisation and within that, a choice about his leadership. The culture wasn’t quite ready for his different approach. But how much should he ‘dampen down’ in response? Soundings have been encouraging – people respect and like his style, but perhaps the overall culture is not yet pliable enough for the change he can bring. Particularly as they are generally successful working in the current style.

So who sits in this ‘gap’ between the current and future cultures? Let’s not expect our senior leaders to do it. After all, they are invested in the success they have already created. And let’s not expect too much of our next generation of leaders when the existing culture does not give out those subtle but vital signals, that a new approach is not only okay but supported. Like all of us, those inspiring leaders have bills, mortgages and excellent reasons to ‘back off’ at critical times. I think this ‘gap’ needs to be filled by HR. In the story of the marquee, the senior HR director came to speak at the meeting and fully endorsed the approach. Often though, HR can inadvertently take the operational support role, appearing somewhat opaque on key cultural issues. Yet this is perhaps one of their key points of leadership – to help people to connect together, to understand, to demand more of the business in engendering the change it purports to need. And as importantly, orientating and building the key organisation & people processes to support a new direction or approach.

Culture is slippery. It is difficult to grasp, to accurately articulate the reality and to make that change. Leadership is more obvious, possibly easier to deal with – or at least to see. But perhaps if we focused more on company culture and business process, then style and more good leadership would follow – a virtuous cycle worth pursuing?

PS He ran the marquee event again recently and yet again the 600 attending loved it!


The ball of string. How does it all unravel never to be the same again?

Reading my Sunday newspaper recently I was caught by an article about the Chairwoman of HP. She was being investigated for using a private detective inside the organisation to winkle out the person who leaked strategic information in the company. How the mighty fall! Not so long ago HP was seen as a model of virtue and ethical behaviour. I imagine the founders would turn in their graves at where the company has now arrived. Was it the merger? Was it the insatiable needs of the market? Was it the move away from the founding fathers’ values? Or was it simply the drive to achieve those business targets and, by default, those large leadership bonuses?

I have a friend, here in the village, who has spent most of his career working for HP. He used to talk of the great family events, the picnics, the film days. Now it is about the latest round of redundancies, which are happening every six months. Yes, he survives. Yes, he’ll probably be well rewarded when the great machine finally scythes through his department. But where has that great company gone? How can the picture change so quickly?

I know I can be smart on the outside, I don’t have the pressures of maintaining the share price, fighting off competition – who may be more quick footed, more innovative, smarter. But HP are not the only ones in this situation. Many large organisations, and from my experience smaller ones too, come to a point where ethics and performance seem to move from being pretty happy bedfellows and end up smashing into one another. Performance normally wins – ‘pull forward the orders from next year, inflate the sales figures, massage the profit numbers’. Is it wrong? Probably not … well maybe, but certainly somewhere in there that line gets crossed. And you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a meeting – a conversation – around which a major behaviour change, and ultimately a cultural shift, begins to swing. Dramatic yes, but how does a great culture disappear? We know the research – Good to Great, First Break All the Rules, etc. We know the benefit of a great culture and indeed a great brand … it works.

But what about the impact of poor leadership and poor decision making? Where can, and does, that lead us?

I wonder about that proverbial line in the sand. Where is the line in your leadership? I know it is tough; it might cost you your job to refuse to cross it, or to be the one to push beyond it. The scythe can quickly turn and take you down too. But maybe that is the leadership choice we have to face. We all enjoy the visions, the planning and delivery of those plans, the bonuses, the ‘off sites’, the great sales conferences (I’m currently listening to a great ‘pump upper, make those sales’ piece of music which I got from a client conference), but are we also willing to pay the price?

As Joseph Campbell the writer says, in any adventure there will be moments of testing and trial. When they will come we don’t know, and indeed often they do not come head on and so can catch us unaware. But how we deal with these tests will in some form reset and may even define our leadership. Crucibles have a way of resting the materials in them. So the question I am thinking about right now is: do we want to come to the end of the journey knowing we talked the talk and indeed walked the walk, or not?

Did you put the dustbins out?

Have you ever sat in a meeting knowing that something important was being overlooked, or wanting to give your opinion on something but feeling inhibited lest your view seems petty or out of place? Recently, a simple domestic oversight set me wondering to what extent all of us are constrained by anxieties about how others might perceive us.

The lift doors slid open and I stepped out into the reception of a major global organisation. Business entrances are always interesting to me, they say so much about a business and how it operates. This one was designer organised: stylish, precise, clean and highly efficient. My badge had already been printed for me and the receptionist was polite and helpful. I sat down, picked up the Financial Times and relaxed; I was early. My mind wandered … something was missing. Something from the agenda for my meeting? Something at a later meeting?

No, I realised it was dustbin day at home and I’d left without putting out the bin out. Just an irritating domestic issue; I should have done it last night, but hadn’t. No problem though. I’d call home. My wife works from home, so she would catch the dustmen.

I dived into my briefcase, grabbed my phone and switched it on. The start-up tones reverberated around the reception area; a few heads turned. I looked up and saw people looking at me – all well dressed, smart suits, intelligent conversation going on. I suddenly felt shy and inadequate. Everyone was listening to me and I was about to ask my wife to put out the dustbin, when in my mind they were all busy talking about share prices, acquisitions, major business issues, not the trivia of normal life! My inner voice went on a rampage … they, of course, did not struggle with the normal domestic issues I seemed to fight with; they looked together, calm, composed, and the sort of leaders we all could trust … their dustbins were organized!

… I never did make the dustbin call. My appointment arrived and I was whisked up in the internal lift to the seventeenth floor. However, on the journey home it did set me thinking. Why was I so bothered about making that call? Was it my shyness, my perceived lack of organization, when all about me looked organized, serene, ‘together’ and way beyond the minor issues I was struggling with that morning? Was it simply a learning experience for me about being myself; being confident and relaxed regardless of the situation, the size of the issue, or the public arenas I might find myself in?

Maybe, but perhaps there was something else too. Just perhaps, the scenario that morning reflected what got said or not said in that particular organization. Were ‘dustbin’ conversations allowed, or were they viewed in some way as too trivial, unacceptable in the hallowed halls of large business? Was the same true of other information: was there knowledge, awareness, key data this company needed but people felt somehow unable to share it?

How do people air their concerns? Who listens and how is the information treated? Could something that might be perceived as trivia, or not important at that time, be the unsaid point that creates a fault line that runs right through a company? Is this some part of the Enron, Anderson or Parmalat puzzle?

How do things become hidden in a company, and what are the spoken and unspoken rules? Or is it just embarrassment and lack of social skills that prevents some subjects from being aired? It seems to fit with many of the ethical issues facing large companies. Standing out against the current thinking, mind set, culture and accepted practice can be difficult and sometimes threatening. It is tough to be the one to raise the flag and speak out; it is far easier to do so with wisdom after the event, but clearly not helpful then.

A week later I’m in the reception of another major global business, antenna up. It’s a male security guard: this doesn’t bode well if my hypothesis from last week is correct. Yet the atmosphere is relaxed, open. Maintenance men mix with visitors, friendly conversation and banter is exchanged. In the lift with the CEO’s PA, I talk of my last reception experience – ‘Ah well’ she says, ‘it wasn’t always like it is here. Now we want the company to be open and everyone to share their views and concerns’. Oh, I mull as the lift doors open, how I wish it had been today that my dustbins needed putting out!