Put your phone down for a minute and read this please

December 13, 2014

Yes, I’m talking to you, sitting over there in the corner playing Candy Crush Saga.  Don’t think you haven’t been spotted.

I do feel sorry for Nigel Mills.  Sort of.

I’m willing to bet that the majority of readers of this newsletter have, at some time if not regularly, been bored in a meeting and decided to check their emails.  I would even go as far as to say that a few of you have played games when stuck in a meeting.

One of the problems of the modern world of work is that there are just too many meetings, and they go on far too long.  I was in a meeting this week and the convenor, only half joking, suggested that it would be over and done with a lot more quickly if he removed the chairs.  An idea I’ve heard suggested before and not a bad one.  

We’re obsessed with meetings, and they are usually not efficient.  Think about it.  Eight people in an hour long meeting.  That’s a working day right there, but they are not all working.  OK, there is a value in a group of people sharing ideas and bouncing off each other, but most meetings are not like that.  Most meetings are a series of one to one conversations where people go round the table reporting to the chair on something or other.  Do the rest of the participants really need to be there or can those reports be shared in some other way?  

Yet it’s more than just boredom that drives some people to their mobile phones.

There are many who express their sense of being ignored or undervalued by passive withdrawal, by which I mean they deliberately and obviously detach themselves from the group.  

I’m not saying that Nigel Mills falls into this category.  Maybe he really was bored during the committee session.  Nonetheless, to explain his behaviour as the result of boredom would certainly be the politicians way of handling it.

There can’t be many who would deny that they might find sitting through a tedious hearing as boring, so he’d attract the “he’s only human just like the rest of us” vote. It’s a much better claim to make than “Nobody was interested in what I had to say so I decided to draw attention to myself by playing with my phone”.  That response is only going to result in 60 million citizens clamouring for his resignation as yet another immoral, egotistical MP.

Whatever the real reason, he wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last because many, many meetings are unnecessary wastes of time.

But Candy Crush Saga?  Really?

There are only two types of people in the world.

March 25, 2014

As we all know, there are only two types of people in the world… depending on whatever it is we are talking about.

Actually that’s not true.  In the world of mathematics there are 10 types of people:  those that understand binary maths and those that don’t.

In the world of work there are two types of leader: those that change things and those that keep things as they are.

Leaders who change things are needed when there’s a big problem.  They go in and try to fix the big problem.  Then when they’ve fixed it (or failed to fix it) they leave.  If they have failed to fix it the owners will either appoint someone else to fix the problem, or the organisation will have gone out of existence. When they have fixed the problem they will go and look for another problem to fix elsewhere because they know that they will become bored staying in a place where there’s nothing to fix.

What’s important is that these leaders shouldn’t stay for too long after they have fixed the problem (unless there are other significant problems they can turn their attention to), because if there isn’t another problem for them to fix they’ll probably try to fix stuff that doesn’t need fixing, and then it will break, but because they think they’re fixing something they won’t see the need to fix what they have broken and then the organisation will either go out of existence or they will be fired for being in charge when the thing broke.

If you see what I mean.

Leaders who don’t change things are needed when there aren’t any big problems.  They are very good at keeping things ticking over well.  That’s not to say they are passive people.  They are not.  They are very good at understand the organisation and at spotting when changes in the environment are occurring.  Really good “hand on the tiller” leaders, as I call them, bring in change people (not necessarily leaders) when stuff looks like it might be breaking, so that it gets fixed before it breaks.  When something breaks under a “hand on the tiller” leader the owners blame that leader for breaking the thing, and get rid of them.  Then they have to go and find a change leader to fix whatever it is that has broken.

Because the world of work and industry is changing so rapidly everyone needs to be comfortable with change, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a change leader.  Organisations also need stability and it is the quality of staying calm, not panicking, being able to keep the ship on an even keel through changing times that is why “hand on the tiller” leaders are also important.

So which of the two types of people are you?  Are you the sort of person that fixes things when they have gone wrong (or, potentially when they haven’t gone wrong), or are you the sort of person that keeps the ship on a steady course (or, potentially misses the signs of change that require the introduction of a person who can help you to navigate through choppy seas)?

On Delegation

February 21, 2014

A recent session with an executive coaching client brought up an interesting isight I thought I’d share.

Our conversation revolved around how my client delegates work to his team. Why was it an issue? My client considers himself to be a good delegator, a leader who is keen to develop his team by passing work their way.  So why did he feel busier than ever?

We talked about what he meant by delegation and the tasks he delegated.  It was my client who came up with an elegant way of describing what he was doing and what he should be doing.

What he identified was that he was busy delegating solutions, but not delegating problems.  The result:  he spent his time thinking about the problems and then passed on the tasks to solve those problems.

In so doing my client thought he was empowering his team when in fact he was having the opposite effect.  Delegating solutions takes away all the creative side of problem solving, leaving only the actions to execute.  Team members who are given only tasks to do will improve their execution of those tasks, but they get very little experience dealing with workplace challenges. True delegation requires a transfer of decision making authority.

It’s easy to assume that the failure to delegate is doing everything yourself but that’s not a fine enough distinction.  The failure to delegate is as much about what you delegate as whether you delegate, and what you delegate is not about how many tasks you pass on to team members, but the extent to which you trust the team to come up with effective solutions to your problems.

If you struggle with effective delegation, as opposed to distributing simple tasks around, there’s something you need to work on.

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

November 6, 2013

Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director, often remarks that the key to the success of Team GB cycling over recent years is what he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains”.  These almost unnoticed changes to the way the athletes train eat, rest, as well as the small tweaks to their bikes may not make a marked difference alone, but when combined with many other tiny improvements they do effect significant improvement.

Individually they may seem so marginal as not to warrant the effort required to put into them.  Is it really worthwhile removing a tyre and re-fitting it just because it could be set on the wheel slightly better?  Brailsford would say yes, absolutely. If  the combination of all these tiny improvements means the difference between gold and silver there is no doubt that it is worthwhile.

Are you always going to be the one on the left?

Are you always going to be the one on the left?

The principle is relevant to all areas including job search.  Indeed, especially job search because when going for a job there is only the gold medal.  There is nothing to celebrate when coming second in job applications. Either you get the job or you don’t.

There are many tiny things you can do to make a marginal improvement in your application process.  Here are a handful of ideas.

Networking is the key to increasing your chances of finding a new job because the opportunities to network are almost unlimited whereas the number of jobs advertised is.  So add another networking meeting or event to your weekly job search activity.

Have high quality personal business cards made.  Give them to people.

Be proactive in your relationships with recruiters.  Don’t sit and wait for the phone to ring.  Keep in contact with them but don’t pester them.  Seek their advice about how you can improve your performance in the job market.

At this time of year wear a poppy unless doing so compromises your personal ethics.  It is unlikely to offend anyone, but it will, in a small way, send a positive message about you as a person to the person who is interviewing you.

Phone the recruiter or HR person before applying for any clarification that will help you to construct a better application.

Phone the recruiter or HR person a day after submission to ensure they received it.  Making voice contact will raise you in their awareness and they will feel a tiny bit familiar with you when they see your application.  Obviously don’t pester them or it will have a negative effect.

Read, re-read, and then give your application to someone else who is good at grammar to read over your CV, cover letter and application form.  The third stage is really worthwhile.  You will miss a lot of errors because your brain has learned to ignore them.  Fresh eyes will almost always pick something up you have overlooked.

Plan your journey to the interview carefully and ensure you are early.  Not on time, early.  Be at the reception 5 – 10 minutes before the appointed time, no more.  That might mean sitting in a coffee shop or taking a walk around the block.  No problem, use the time to relax yourself.

Talking of relaxation, if you tend to get anxious learn some simple relaxation techniques.  Don’t be one of those people who always struggles with nerves in interviews.  You don’t have to be that person.  You can learn to control those nerves.

Take extra time with your grooming and think carefully about what you will wear on at the interview.  Make sure all your clothes are properly cleaned and pressed and men, ties go grubby at the knot after a while.  Wear a clean tie or buy a new one.  Polish your shoes. People often think that appearances shouldn’t matter, and maybe they’re right, appearances shouldn’t matter, but they do.  If you want the job, play along.

If you are rejected for the role seek useful feedback.  That means not simply asking “Is there any feedback?”  because that will most likely get you an answer along the lines of “other candidates were more suitable”.  You need to know what you must do to improve your performance next time, so ask for specific feedback:  “What were you looking for that I lacked?”, “What could I have done differently or better?”  “What advice would you give me if I want to succeed next time?”  You won’t always get useful information this way either, but it’s a better way to ask for feedback.

Of course you could look at all these and many other ways of doing things ever so slightly better, and decide that the effort required is not worth the bother, and if you do that you may keep winning the silver medal.

If you’d like to suggest any more tiny improvements people can make please post them up here.

Compromising Positions.

September 23, 2013

I was with a client recently who has parted ways with his former employer under a compromise agreement or, as they are now more palatably known, a settlement agreement.  The subtle change in words suggest something more positively negotiated than a compromise, that has a whiff of reluctance about it. Nonetheless, the outcome is the same, and that outcome usually works for the employer better than for the employee in the long run.

In most cases the reason for the compromise, sorry settlement, is to enable the employer to get rid of someone in circumstances where the employee might other wise have a claim for unfair dismissal for example, where the employee having not performed poorly over a period of time as measured by a performance management programme, or where their role is not being made redundant.


I’ve worked with several people who have agreed to leave an organisation with a generous pay-off (and sometimes a not so generous pay-off) simply because they were at something of a loose end without anything realistic they could do to justify their salary.  Rather than go through a formal redundancy process it’s sometimes easier and more convenient for both parties to agree to part company with an enhanced pay-off.

However, in a small number of cases, the reason is more serious.  It may be that an incident has taken place where the employee has experienced a form of discrimination and rather than drag the employer through a tribunal process, the employer may persuade them (perhaps with good reason) that a quiet settlement would be better for all concerned. Another case I dealt with  concerned an employee not seeing eye to  eye with a newly installed boss (for which read “new boss wanted to bring their own guy in”).  You can see why in such cases  it is important for the employer to draw a line under the affair in order to avoid publicity.

The deal will comprise a pay-off, a nice reference and a gag. The problem for the former employee is that such agreements often lead to curiosity and suspicion and without the ability to explain the circumstances of the departure, the employee may find themselves rejected for another candidate when they apply for another job.  This can be a particular problem at times like these when prospective employers have enough choice of candidates to be able to exclude any that come with unexplained baggage.

Furthermore, it is very unusual for people to leave a job without another to go to when unemployment is high, so people really need to be prepared to answer the question about why they have done so and not assume it will be overlooked. Employees are often on the back foot in such circumstances and this might lead to them agreeing to a deal more rapidly than they ought. With the temptation of a chunky pay-off and a glowingly written reference people often think there’s no downside.  It’s only later on when the restrictions on what they can say start to cause them difficulties.

If you find yourself in this situation take professional advice  to make sure you are thinking about all that needs to be thought about.  Your employer should be prepared to pay for this advice. You also need to be sure you can answer the inevitable interview question – “why did you leave your last job?”  Can you look the interviewer in the eye and give an honest answer?  If not, you haven’t covered well enough what should and shouldn’t be restricted.  Your advisor should be able to help you find a form of words that protect the interests of both parties.  That set of words is critical to your ability to secure a new job so it requires plenty of consideration before you sign the agreement. Remember that you have done nothing wrong and this exercise is for your employers convenience.  Don’t let them make it a future problem for you.

Do you really want to join an Graduate Training Programme?

August 14, 2013

It’s the middle of August and the last thing on your mind will be what happens beyond graduating next summer, but the time will pass quickly and a swift flick through the recruitment pages of the large employers will tell you that they are already planning for their graduate entry intakes.  In October and November you’ll find many of them visiting a university near you, so it’s time to start thinking about whether that’s the way you want to start your career.

Remember to wear this on your first day at work.

Remember to wear this on your first day at work.


Although I’m closer to my Freedom Card than my own student days, I can just about remember the milkround.  I went to one presentation  – CapGemini – and can still feel the suffocating wave of fear that engulfed me like a tsunami as I imagined working alongside these Jehovah’s Witness / Madison Avenue hybrids.  I think their head office is in Stepford.

But that’s me.  You may be different, but do think about it.  Working for a global business offers wonderful opportunities for learning,  development and travel.  If you’re good you will progress because these companies know how to spot and grow talent.  In the same way you’ll quickly find out if you don’t have what it takes to reach the top, but you’ll be given every chance to prove yourself.

If you’re ambitious then I’d say you need to test yourself by trying for one of the graduate trainee schemes, unless you know that you are not cut out for a rigid, rule based, hierarchical corporate existence.

Like me.

The selection process for graduate schemes is long and complicated.  Usually they start with a telephone interview to screen out the majority of candidates not rejected at the initial application stage.  Next is an assessment centre that generally involves psychometric tests (ability, attitudes and personality), some kind of role play to observe you working in a group situation, and an interview.

So what separates the best candidates from the rest?

Clearly they’re looking for the brightest people, but arguably by reaching the interview stage you’ve proved yourself to have cleared that obstacle.  You’re bright enough.  What they’re usually looking for now is potential to progress within the organisation.  What are the qualities required to progress to a high level in the organisation?  The most commonly sought skills are leadership, teamwork, strong communications skills and the ability think quickly and make decisions.

To prepare you need to think about examples that demonstrate these qualities and look for opportunities to talk about them at the interview.

But that’s not all.  It won’t always say it in the information pack but there are other things they’ll be looking for:  integrity and cultural fit for example.

Integrity means don’t hide any skeletons in the closet.  If you got a grade “C” in one of your A levels don’t pretend otherwise.  They will find out and the result will be that they will not feel able to trust you with their clients, or if you found yourself in a difficult situation.  Instead, be open about it and explain what you learned from the experience of under-performing.

Cultural fit seeks to establish if you share the values of the organisation or not?  Arguably you can work this out and answer accordingly, but the personality and attitude tests will reveal the truth about this in most cases so just be yourself and change the game by focusing on getting the interviewer to like you.  If they think you are the sort of person they’d like to work with then you will often do more than is necessary to be seen as a good fit because the reality is that most interviewers don’t know what cultural fit looks like, but they do know if they like someone.

Finally, you need to show enthusiasm.  That means bring some energy into the room.  Smile, look them in the eye, speak clearly and use plenty of vocal intonation.  Be an engaging person and they will picture you doing the same with their clients.  That will impress them.

Why one thousand plus applications isn’t enough.

August 1, 2013

Have you ever noticed that whenever unemployment becomes a news story, some hapless jobseeker is vox-popped delivering a statement along the lines of  “I’ve applied for well over a thousand jobs and I’ve never even had a single reply”?

Someone being vox-popped, but probably not about their jobsearch.  It's just a picture.

Someone being vox-popped, but probably not about their jobsearch. It’s just a picture.

That’s when I start shouting at televisions and radios.  I don’t usually shout at televisions and radios.  I feel that is a pastime that should be reserved for idealistic teenagers.  But the “thousand applications without reply” always gets me.

Have these people never heard of the concept of flogging a dead horse?  How many applications do they need to make before they realise it may be a flawed strategy?

Let’s take a look behind the soundbite.

What do they mean by applications?

When people talk about making a thousand or more job applications what they are saying is that they are going online and hitting a button that sends a standard (or perhaps slightly varied) form to a website.  The website may well have some clever gizmos that look for relevant words and filters out all the applications that don’t include those words.  Those rejected applications go into a black hole, never having  been seen by human eye.  The remainder are then forwarded by the system to a person for the next filtering stage.   Now  you can see why these applicants don’t even get an acknowledgement?

Then why do people continue to follow this fruitless path?

Because it’s easy and it allows them to believe that they are trying very hard and it’s not their fault they can’t get a job.  They can sit at their computer all day long mindlessly firing off these applications that will never been seen, and feel they are doing everything they can, but they are not doing everything they can.  If they were they would give up on things that don’t work and try another method.

I’ve used this blog often enough to talk about networking.  These people are almost certainly doing very little as far as actually meeting potential employers is concerned, yet that would be a great way of emerging from the masses.

They’re almost certainly not adapting their CV or applications in order to emphasise why they are suitable for the role.

They’re almost certainly applying for  jobs for which they have no qualifications, experience or appropriate skills.

It’s no wonder they get nothing back – they’re putting nothing in.

Applying for jobs is anything but a mindless task.  Unfortunately, however, the jobs they are applying for are mindless tasks so it’s no surprise that people don’t understand the need to actually think about their applications.   If they are applying to work in a call centre where the name of the game is numbers and volume, no wonder that’s the approach they take to applying for such a job.

Applying for a thousand jobs isn’t enough.  People need to actually apply themselves.


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