Categories
Change Leadership Learning Teamwork

Spinning Plates

“Where do you want em boss? Some pretty ones here, not just those plain old white ones we seem to have hundreds of them”. Harry, the facilities manager, added the plates to the pile by the door of the CEO’s office, smiled at what he saw, felt slightly confused about it all, then picked up the old boxes and headed back to the warehouse. Caroline heard him, waved but hadn’t time to stop, too much going on. Life had been manic since the promotion, a whirlwind of meetings, decisions, financial information. She grabbed another plate and with one flick of her wrist positioned the crockery on the stick and neatly organised it, along with the others spinning around her.
 
Some in the office thought it was an art installation, others thought it was a new keep fit regime, some thought Caroline had shares in a homeware factory. It was though, they all agreed, an amazing sight. Endless plates spun in the sunlight, the canes supporting them wiggling and bending as they held the centre of gravity. And better still, was the skill and grace that Caroline had, in moving quickly and confidently between them, giving some an additional twist to keep the plates spinning. She hummed to herself, occasionally doing  a light jig, as she went about her work.
 
The plates spun in her office, out in the open plan office and now in service centre too. She had to pay special attention there, as phone calls to customers were key and any plates crashing to the floor would have been disastrous. Roger the service manager had taken to giving the most wobbly plates a spin. He knew what spinning plates was like, he’d had years of experience himself and now when he thought Caroline wasn’t looking, he lifted one or two plates from their poles and hid them in a cupboard.
 
“A head office plate has just arrived”  called Jane the PA, through the maze of sticks around her. Caroline turned her head and sure enough Jane was just taking a large hand painted plate from a jiffy bag and holding it out to her.
 
“Okay, wait, wait, let’s just clear a space and we’ll get it going” and between them they shifted the other plates around a little. Then with one huge throw of her arm and with Debbie, the FD who’d just arrived holding the stick, the plate began to spin. Everyone held their breath, the plate twisted , slipped on the pole with a screech, but with the combined energy of Jane, Debbie and Caroline working together and wiggling the stick, they got it centred and it began to spin and whirr in the air.
 
Even though she said it herself, not bad and provided she didn’t take a lunch break, stayed late and came in at weekends, it seemed to be working. Which was why, as she sipped quickly at her cold coffee, she didn’t appreciate Geoff the HR Director’s quiet reflective comment.
 
“Have you noticed how some of the plates seem more interesting than others”.

She muttered under her breath at the interruption but made herself stop and look around. He was right, some did seem more colourful and almost cried out for more space to spin in.  Caroline walked about under the plates looking up at them carefully, finding herself attracted to certain designs, shapes and sizes. Not all were huge by any means. Of course the head office one was, they all knew it had to be there and needed constant spinning. Jane brought her another coffee as she studied the plates and as she sipped and munched her favourite chocolate biscuit, she considered each one. Then she made a decision and sometimes alone, sometimes in consultation with her executive team (who had been summoned to look at the plates), she began to pull some out, neatly taking each unwanted plate and pole and putting it  aside. First the small side plates, then the white ordinary dinner plates and as they went, her heart lifted a little. Harry was hastily summoned and he repacked boxes and placed them on his trolley.  She ignored the coughs, the taps on the office door, the muttered comments “that was my plate, it’s very important in my department you know”, “wrong call you’ll regret that” and went about her work. Soon there were a just a few beautiful plates spinning and beside each one a director stood, occasionally wiggling the stick. Caroline walked around them all, checking they had the right ones, moving at the right speed, adding a twist to a pole now and then and watching as each plate seemed to change and grow in the sunlight. To her amazement one or two slowly turned into a golden colour, with beautiful embossing appearing around the edges and now these plates almost seemed to spin by themselves.
 
“Well would you look at that” said Geoff and pointed to the head office plate. It still spun rapidly but now it was smaller, not quite such a  bright colour, seeming almost to draw less attention. The executive team laughed together, as they watched the FD niftily reposition this plate near the golden ones and there, they continued to spin very happily together.
 
The white plates were later used on the ‘smash the crockery’ stall at the next family fun day. Roger owned up to the plates stored in his cupboard and his judgement was shown to  be pretty good, apart from one small plate which had some interesting swirls of colour in the design. This one, some senior managers kept spinning and they found it was a potential winner for the budget next year.  Caroline got home early some days, leaving others spinning plates, but knowing when to intervene, using her energy and her skills wisely. And it made her smile when visitors to the business asked to see the plates, particularly the golden ones. Sometimes she showed them, at other times she just talked about confidentiality and went about her business with a spring in her step. Head office seemed pretty satisfied too.
 
 
Grahame Pitts
October 2015

Postscript: 
From previous newsletters, I have been given feedback to ‘please anchor the fable with some practical challenge, to take it back to my business’  So, in the spirit of this, a couple of questions below. However, knowing we all see different reflections in stories, from ‘ah ah’ to ‘bah what nonsense’ (keep telling me Nigel), your own thoughts and reactions are fundamental, so trust them ahead of my prompts. Enjoy your leadership thinking and analysis, then follow your energy to go and deliver the results you want.

1. How many plates are you spinning? Are there a few high value ones which require more attention than others?
2. Who in your team needs to be attending to which plate? Where and how do you need to delegate and what do you need to do to ensure those plates become rich in colour, or even gold?   
3. Where do you need show courage? Is there one plate that needs your particular attention? 

4. Where else in the organisation are there plates, perhaps hidden, which need finding and spinning?

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 Leadership Teamwork

Efficiencies don’t Rule the Waves

The Dark Prince whispered in The Butchers ear, as they listened to the rhythmic creaking of the oars in the galleon, his warm management accent sing songing into the first mate’s brain, alerting it to potential savings deep inside the ship.

“There, hear it? The slap of an extra blade in the water, I reckon we can do without that oar, third back from the left, unnecessary I’d say, what do you think?”

The Butcher tilted his head to one side, his shining bald palette glistening in the full sun high overhead. He concentrated hard, the furrows on his brow crinkled together, his left eye squeezed shut as he pushed his nose forward to sniff the air.

“You might be right there, maybe we can double up on two and four, although we need to take car: we’ve been running regularly on 24 hour rotating work patterns for months now, so the guys will be tired, mistakes happen.”

The Dark Prince ran his fingers through his beautifully brylcreamed moustache, expertly twitching up the two ends into elegant points.

“You’re right, of course, but the Admiral will have our guts for garters (and he loves his garters they both knew) when we next come into harbour. He said we were over crewed, wouldn’t listen when we talked about the size of the jobs we were doing; always available to head out anytime; needing a full crew ready to go”.

The Butcher nodded, glancing at the map then easing the tiller slightly to the west. His mind slipped back over their years of their working together, coming into the service as apprentices; believing back then in the purpose of what they were doing; transporting messages across the empire; feeling they were part of something important. Those were great times: the great voyages; the different people they’d encountered, friendly and unfriendly; the open cheque book; fun times on expense accounts. Now those good times were all a distant memory. Although it was difficult to pinpoint a moment of change, it just seemed to have somehow sneaked up on them bit by bit without them knowing. Now the old camaraderie had gone, the crew were with them just about, but there were mutterings, complaints being passed up, nothing extra given when the shifts changed over, none of the old bantering. Certainly no fun across the ranks.

“Decision taken, bring up Oarsman 3,” snapped The Dark Prince, as he flicked dust from his uniform jacket, buttoned up his shirt and straightened his tie, ready to deliver the bad news.

Oarsman 3 down in the belly of the ship was exhausted, he knew his timing was out, all down the line he could hear grumbling as others tried to keep a regular rhythm. No one wanted to blame him, they tried to cover but when the normal steady beat stammered, they knew they lost power and each time it took more energy to recover.

“Go and get 3B out of bed he’ll have to take over early today,” shouted Oarsman 6, always the natural leader of the rowers on this shift. The cabin boy grabbed back his water can that he’d been passing along the line of sweating rowers and turned to head down the stairs to the ranks of sleeping men, tossing and turning on hammocks on the floor below. He crashed straight into the stomach of The Butcher coming along the narrow passageway and was tossed lightly aside, into the ranks of the rowers, as he struggled down the dark enclosed deck toward the front of the boat.

The Butcher grabbed Oarsman 3 and attempted to haul him out of his seat, but he just shrieked with pain as his feet still under the straining bar refused to follow his body.

“Out you, out!” Screamed the Butcher, whacking 3 around the head as he struggled to free himself, and together they crashed back down the narrow gap between the rowers to the hatchway and upwards to the sunlight.

On deck, the boat had almost come to a halt; the oars on the left side of the ship now out of line with some pointing skywards where The Butcher had knocked into the rowers. Those on the right hand side were still moving but slower now, keeping a rhythm, the combined movement making the boat move slowly in a wide circle. Stumbling up through the hatches came the off-duty crew, complaining, swearing, yawning as they marshaled in ragged lines on the deck. Then came the on-duty crew, sweaty, blinking in the fierce sunlight, shaking stiffened legs and stretching arms and backs.

“Attention!” shouted The Butcher, attempting to bring them all into disciplined lines ready to witness the yet another efficiency saving. The Black Prince snapped his feet together, put his arms behind his back and smiled his slightly masochistic smile as Oarsman 3 was brought in front of him. They all knew the routine – a quiet word from management then over the side you went, an old oar followed, you were given a little help after all, company policy. Some made it back to shore, some didn’t, but they all knew the routine and the management speech: “it was necessary for the benefit of the whole ship, for the whole crew, for the rest of us to keep our jobs; it’s nothing personal, men.”

Except this time, the plan didn’t work. Just as The Black Prince lent forward to begin his well rehearsed speech, pulling his jacket sleeves up to reveal his new gold cufflinks bought with a recent quarterly efficiency bonus, a murmur began to swell across the massed lines of the crew. The Butcher screwed his face up, shutting an eye in his usual style, sweeping the decks to see who was talking. It seemed to be somewhere at the back. No the front. Or was it the new recruits? The women? (Who accepted them on board anyway, he’d never agreed with that policy although they could pull an oar as good as any of the men and better technically too. So, he kept his mouth shut), the section heads? The freelancers? Where was the ring leader? Now all the lips were moving, all softly chanting together, “No, No, No”, and then, as The Dark Prince raised his hand to silence them, (and of course with every expectation of beginning his own management speech) the chant rose to a thunderous roar, now accompanied by stamping feet (all in time of course, the whole crew had learnt the skill of efficiency and good use of effort).

Number 3 oarsman squashed between the roar of his buddies behind him and the ever increasing irritation and concern of management in front of him, stared at The Dark Prince as his eyes bulged, his face went bright red with rage and he roared his anger at the crew. His spittle rained over Number 3 who was frozen to the spot, stunned by the deafening noise bounding in on him from all sides. The Butcher, meanwhile, sensing the situation was spiraling out of control pulled his dog whip from its holster. This was largely ceremonial and he hadn’t used it professionally in years but its appearance enraged the crew, who at seeing it surged forward causing the Dark Prince, The Butcher and the other managers to back up against the foredeck then onto the rear gunwale. The angry “no, no, no” now turned to a gleeful “jump, jump, jump” and to add insult to injury the crew began a well rehearsed dance throwing their hands in the air and pointing at their leaders. Now old oars were passed forward out of the storage lockers, hand over hand over the heads of the crew and tossed one after another into the sea.

Without a command the crew pressed forward. Oarsman 3 found himself pressed up against the shiny buttons on the jacket of the Dark Prince and he smelt the mixture of expensive after shave lotion mixed with brylcream. The Dark Prince in return was the closest he’d ever been to a crew member and he didn’t like the sweat and slightly unpleasant smell tickling his nose.

All this was a side issue though, because the crew had the momentum and still shouting “jump, jump, jump” pushed forward. The junior managers went first, tipped over the side, more oars following them into the water. Oarsman 3 felt a hand grasp the back of his tunic, pulling him back as the pressure from the crowd behind grew. The Dark Prince teetered on the edge of the deck alarm now showing on his face, along with a thin trickle of perspiration running down his left cheek. Oarsman 3 reached out, getting hold of one shiny brass button on the Captains blazer, and for a moment this held them together. They both watched, eyes transfixed, as the cotton stretched out between them seeming to hold for an instance and then, with a pop, the button and jacket parted. Accompanied by one last roar and a manic swiveling of his arms, the Dark Prince toppled from the deck, spiraling through the air, his dark blue uniform and brylcreamed moustache appearing and disappearing in the sunlight, before he hit the sea with a splash.

The Butcher, smarter by far, had leapt for the mast and now dangled mid ship above the stamping crew. Oarsman 6 held up his hand and the crowd went silent. The anger had gone out of them and now their eyes moved between the Butcher on his perch, looking rather like a giant parrot, bull whip hanging loosely in his hand, and the Dark Prince and the management team in the sea below, splashing and swimming as they organised the oars into a raft.

“Hey Butcher, what’s up, not about to take flight are you?” the crew laughed and jeered. Again, Number 6 held his hand aloft, and the crew softened.

“Tell you what, we’ll do you a deal Butcher boy, how about you become the Captain, we reckon we could work with you. But you go back to how you used to be, using all our skills, involve us in the decision making. And, you face up to the Admiral and sort this efficiency nonsense out. Do that and we won’t make you swim for it. What do you think?”

“Yea come on!” shouted some of the crew, mostly the older ones who knew Butcher from other times, and had been part of some great offshore and onshore exploits with him in his younger days. “We know you’re a good guy really, come on, step up and show us.”

The Butcher looking down at them felt a sense of relief waft over him, and then, a second later a feeling of hope, which was helped by seeing the Dark Prince who was shaking his fist up at them and cursing up at them all. Maybe, he thought, they could do it differently, he’d always wanted to captain his own boat. They’d have to concoct a good story, but it might just work. Ultimately he knew the Admiral believed in the right things, even if he went about them in completely the wrong way. He’d listen he felt sure. He wanted smart bright things at the top running the boats now and he craved success that was for sure. And, perhaps Number 6 would make a good first mate, the crew would respect that decision and he’d seen his leadership skills at work often enough. He drew the old bull whip up, curling it into loops, and flung it out to sea, just missing the Dark Prince who let out an expletive toward the Butcher which completely confirmed his decision. Seconds later he was on the deck, ready to negotiate a new way forward, although he knew there was a lot of listening to do first.

Later, in years to come at the officer training school, they would talk about this moment and how it changed the style of the navy forever. How crews were motivated and developed and led differently from that moment on. They would also talk in the bar at night of how successful the boat had been and how the brutal Butcher returned to being a great leader, leading endless campaigns and delivering the Admiral great success (and a top navy award at the end of his career). They also mentioned that Oarsman 6 got his own boat two years later and men and women queued up to work with him. Oarsman 3, who never was much good at rowing, became a galley cook, eventually retiring and setting up a fish restaurant. Occasionally he was visited by a man who looked remarkably like the Dark Prince, or may it was just a similar blue jacket with a missing button that stirred a memory for ex-Oarsman 3.

Grahame Pitts

December 2014

After writing this story and while still reflecting on a question of ‘efficiency savings only take us so far and sometimes nowhere’, I picked up two classic Harvard Business Review articles both of which resonated with this question – ‘Leadership in a Permanent Crisis’ and ‘Discovering Your Authentic Leadership’. These put this fable into a more practical context, with good case studies and sound research. I hope you enjoy these articles too.

 

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.

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The Canoe Trip

The warm evening air cooled as it met the surface of the river, the rings made by the fish rising barely disturbing the water as the sun started to slip beneath the horizon. The three young men stood on the bank looking at the current flowing by. Two were slightly bored, one happy. “No problem here ” said Clive “Straight forward until you get to that point down there. “Where” I asked  already feeling the fear begin to well up inside of me. “Just a dink left then right, keep your canoe steady and you are through” said Chris leaning back on the tree, relaxed and as usual eloquent and clear.

Here we were a free day tomorrow, no work at the outdoor pursuits centre, so the three of us off canoeing together. Clive, Chief Instructor, strong muscular, losing hair on top already. A diamond shaped body, all shoulders, slips away in the bottom half, just as well or he wouldn’t fit into that sleek canoe of his. Chris, Assistant Chief Instructor, large afro hair spilling over his shoulders, London accent, down to earth, very capable. And of course me, how did I end up teaching outdoor pursuits, who knows. I loved climbing myself and caving, but  had an ambivalence to canoeing, well probably water in general. Not much of a swimmer, can survive I think, I hope. We climb back into the rusty van. I’m thinking I can handle this, only one tricky bit on the route we’ve chosen, and I’m guessing their thinking, not much excitement here, routine practice drill. Oh well. I settle back on the grubby plastic seat as Chris drives us to the pub as the rain begins to spatter on the windscreen.

The driving rain wakes me up, its already seeping through the rotten window, pooling on the shelf. I move my three books to a safer spot and look out. Yesterdays beautiful day is a memory as the rain shoots up the valley and batters into the house. Huge puddles have already forming in the field and the vehicles in the car park have a running stream through the middle. I relax, breath, make a deep sigh and pull the bedclothes over my head. I know it’s off, too much rain. As I relax, just thinking about chapter of the new novel bought in Swansea last week, they both bang on the door together. A triumphant wallop which rattles the already loose door. “Come on let’s go, its looking great out there”. Can’t I just duck out, I think, let them have their moment. But it doesn’t work like that here, we test ourselves, train ourselves, even on days off. So an hour later we’re loading canoes up onto the roof of the bus, the rain sliding down my forearms and running right down to my shoulders before soaking into my shirt.

Brian’s here now, our chef and sort of centre organiser. He’s a good cook but also has cook mood swings. Last week he spent over the budget on some new plants to put around the centre. For twenty four hours we admired our new greenery, then someone left the door open and in came the two goats. They ate each plant down to a stork, then made their way into the office and ate all the papers on the notice board, leaving a tide line of ragged paper where they could just reach. Brian hit a rage, at the goats, at us for someone leaving the door open and went on the booze for twenty four hours. We’re family so its fine and there’s no group in, so we cobble meals together for a day or so.

Brian’s our driver for the day, he’s on a high. Well he would be, all he’s doing is driving. He’s in the van now, while we struggle with tying notes in the rain. We climb aboard, the rain thunders on the roof, there’s one fine singing chef, two smiling Chris and Clive cheshire cats rubbing at windows and pointing out changes the rain is making to the landscape and me, crumbled down in the plastic seat feeling sorry for myself.

It’s no better after half an hour when we arrive at the drop off point. Except what is different is the river. It’s gone from a clear, slow moving, gentle gliding pool to a raging, brown, frothy, rushing malestream. The chef looks frightened, I am frightened and Clive and Chris’s eyes light up. “Let’s go” they shout and almost fall out of the doors in their hurry to be on the water. My heart is beating, breathe I say to myself, it’s only water, you’re with the two best canoeists you know, it’ll be fine. I push myself off my safe plastic seat, squeeze Brian’s shoulder, he gives me the thumbs up and I’m out in the rain.

On the river we go, its moving fast. We know the drill though and Clive’s shouting through the rain “usual stuff, follow me, Chris bring up the rear”. We’re swept along, touching paddles in the water to maintain direction. I’m wondering how long it would take to get us down to the estuary at this speed. We’re only doing two miles though, so it’ll be a quick trip at this rate. I see Brian speeding along the road, the van flashing occasionally through the trees, he’s getting ahead to the pull out point.  I’m okay, I might even be enjoying myself, the slap of the paddles on the water, watching the occasional log outpace us, a wave to the morose heron perched on the stump.

We sweep round the corner heading to the only difficult bit. Where is it?  We see only waves, big waves, the dink right dink left has disappeared, there is no dink at all. I hear Clive mutter ahead of me, then turn his head and shout “paddle, paddle, paddle like fuck”. I do, we all do, the blades drive into the water, we’re pacing into the waves now, no way back, already the waves are building. Bang as the boats rise on the up, bang on the waves as we crash on the down side. My arms are aching already, I glance to my left, Chris is hit by a rogue wave and he’s over. Roll Chris roll, can he do it in this water, he’s a master at it normally. I  look ahead, where’s Clive, he’s over too, I see his canoe upside down, the end of his blade swishing out of the water as he fights to get upright. “Fuck, Fuck, paddle, paddle, fuck, fuck, paddle, paddle” I shout as I hit the now defunct double dink. Up the wave, there’s no top it must be 10 feet tall, down “paddle, paddle, fuck fuck”. The nose of the canoe dives into the water, my shoulders heave, the muscles screaming as I haul forward through the next wave. Water everywhere, can’t see, it’s brown it’s in my mouth, poring over me. The paddle stops working, there’s no air to lift in, I try anyway. Then I’m out, still swirling my paddle like crazy, still shouting my mantra “paddle, paddle, fuck, fuck”.

I hear the cheering before I see him. Brian is up on the swing bridge ahead, right in the middle, leaning over whooping “that a boy, yea man, whoo, whoo, whoo” . I want to raise my hand, do a clenged fist or something, but my hands are clamped to the grips on the paddle, white, my knuckles locked in place. I sweep down towards him, he’s hopping on one foot doing a jig still whooping and clapping and then I’m under the bridge and gone “cool he shouts, “cool”

Clive found me fifteen minutes later, my arms wrapped around a tree at the side of the river. He was white, I was white, I was shaking, everything shaking, wanting to be sick, wanting out of the boat. “I thought you’d drowned” he said quietly as Chris swept in behind him, doing a smart stop at the river bank.  I shook my head, hugged my tree and smiled, we all smiled.