30 -50 and employed? How much are you hurting?

I’m planning to write a business book this year . I’ve been mulling on it for far too long, and every year that goes by it seems to me that the case for the book gets more compelling. In this article I’d like to do a wee bit of research in an attempt to validate the book’s proposition.

Over nearly 20 years I have spent thousands of days in training rooms around the world with people who are what I shall call loosely mid-career.  They share with me and each other how they feel about their job, their career, their frustrations and challenges, and how they see the future.

squeezedIt’s a bit of a bleak picture, to be honest.  They are hurting, and in many cases either don’t know what to do about it, or don’t feel able to make a change. You might say they feel stuck.

Even more depressingly, many of them have lost sight of the fact that they are hurting.  They have fallen asleep at the wheel, and don’t recognise it.  They are plodding down a path waiting for something to happen.  Meanwhile their families are growing up, their skills become less useful and they become less personally marketable.  The clock is ticking.

Where are they hurting?  It’s a pretty long list, but let me try and summarise.  This is not going to make for easy reading I suspect.

  1.  Low levels of trust, borne out of weak relationships, borne out of lack of time and budget to build those relationships.  Where people don’t trust each other they can’t collaborate, and if they can’t collaborate they can’t survive in a complex matrix based working environment.  Work/life balance is an outdated concept.  There is now a grim acceptance that there is never going to be a balance, and instead organisations talk about “Work/life integration.”  Your work is going to intrude on your personal life, and you need to have the ability to deal with that without moaning.

2.  Insecurity and fear are endemic.  The fears are numerous, but the main one is fear of becoming irrelevant and falling behind technically.  As the millennials start to overtake them, deploying new skills and attitudes which are seen as more current, the 30-somethings fear not being seen as adding enough value.  If cuts are going to be made, they could be next.

3.  The “more with less” mantra has ground away for too many years, so that there is no meat left on the bone.  Starved of resources, and yet still being asked to increase productivity, the mid-career manager has nowhere left to turn.  The pressure continues to bear down from above, whilst the people in their teams are looking to them for more support.  This truly is the “squeezed middle”, and it is the hardest job in the world.

4.  Outdated, cumbersome and irrelevant processes and procedures are overwhelming them.  On average these people only spend 2 days per week doing value add activity.  The rest is sucked away by time wasting meetings, an incessant barrage of email and other noise and trying to pick their way through the almost impenetrable fog of “tools” so they can get stuff done.  A few years ago they had the energy to try and fix all this.  Having been hit on the head a few times and told to get back in their box, it’s easier to shut up and get on with it.  If you stick your head out you will be seen as being difficult and this will be held against you.

5.  They have been exposed to a directive style of management for so long that deep down many of these talented individuals have turned into Children.  In essence they are waiting to be told what to do next, and have given up being proactive.  Coaching is rare, and where it does take place the preferred style is Directing, so that it is more akin to on the job training – a very different dynamic which fails to develop them the way it could.

The result is an exhausted, frustrated and under-achieving middle layer.  The annual Gallup Employee Engagement survey continues to report 70% or so of employees not actively engaged in the business they work in.  They are capable of so much more.

How much of this list can you relate to?  Have I somehow over 20 years just got unlucky with the people I have been working with?  Have I picked up a severely distorted impression of how things are out there these days?

If so please do challenge me.  I know there are plenty of examples of where my list does not apply, but I am confident that there is a pattern here, and am doing my best to call it objectively.

What’s your experience?  Please do comment.

Image source:  step4success

Posted in Life Skills, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

THE definitive list of ways to handle questions. (Or is it?)

I’ve blogged before about the options you have when someone asks you a question.  These are particularly handy when you’re making a presentation, although they come in handy when being interviewed as well.  Politicians use them all the time.

nervous-presenterSince I wrote my original article I have come across a few more, which I thought I’d share today.

They are what you might call more advanced options, and may require some practice and careful use.

Just to remind you, here are the basic 5:


  1. Answer it.  Use only when you know the answer, are confident no one else in the audience knows, and it’s a useful and relevant question which you have time for.
  2. Deflect it. Give it to someone else:  “What do other people think?”, accompanied by a sweeping hand gesture around the whole audience.  Use this when you don’t know the answer, or want to involve the audience.
  3. Reflect it. Give it back to the questioner.  A good device for letting an expert show off (that’s why she asked the question in the first place, so if you allow her to show off she doesn’t need to any more).  Also great for handling stupid or cynical questions (they soon stop asking these once they know you are going to give them back).
  4. Defer it. Tell them you’re going to cove that later.  This leaves you in control and saves time.
  5. Scope it. Take it offline.  Do this for specialist questions, or those that are irrelevant or you don’t have time for.  Also those it suits you not to deal with publicly.

And now for the more advanced versions:

  1. Ignore it. Pretend you didn’t hear.  Just keep going, and hope they go away.  Use this one very carefully as it can aggravate the audience.  Politicians use it all the time.  It’s a great one for cynical questions, and if nothing else leaves you in control.  For a while at least.
  2. Answer a different question. Use the question to tell them something that you want them to hear.  Useful if the question is awkward, or you don’t want to (or can’t) answer it.
  3. Tell them they are asking the wrong question. I love this one.  It requires a high degree of confidence to pull it off, but if you do you can win the admiration of the audience.  “That’s not the question you should be asking me.  What you should be asking is…..”  It works off the premise that the audience doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, whereas you do, so it’s hard for them to argue with you on this.

Please note that of these 8 options, only one involves you answering it!

Most people feel obliged to give a quickfire response, which has to be 100% correct, otherwise people will think they did a useless job.  This is of course nonsense, as you could never know everything about anything, so why bother?  Be happy that the answer is often sitting within the audience anyway, and you are allowed to not know the answer.

My final tip:  whatever you do, DO NOT ask people to keep questions until the end.  If I have a question 10 minutes in because I do not understand something, and you tell me I have to wait until the end, I am now out and wasting my time.  This technique is used by weak presenters who are scared of questions, and they hope to keep going until it’s too late for questions.  Allow them in throughout:  they energise, they help people to understand and clarify, and make into a more interactive session, and less of a presentation.  You can relax and ditch your self imposed Presentation Nerves.  Everybody wins!

When you’ve dealt with the question go back to your agenda and break eye contact with the questioner: you don’t want them thinking they can hog the whole show.

There may well be some more question handling options.  If you can think of any, do please share.

Posted in Presentation Skills | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

7 steps to build Trust

I know it’s a bit early to call it, but I reckon one of the hot topics for 2017 is going to be Trust.  I guess that’s not surprising, given what’s going on in the US, Russia and elsewhere.  I’ve noticed a big increase in the number of online articles on this subject, so thought I’d wade in with my take on it.

It’s quite easy to let ourselves worry about this. On the macro level we can worry that Trump is going to do what he said he would.  Or we can worry that he won’t, in which case we also worry about him.

Horrible Boss #1

Horrible Boss #1

But how about at work?  How are the trust levels around you?  Do you see things getting worse?

Is it as bad as Georgina Kenyon makes out in her article “There’s no such thing as flexible work.”?


“….the propensity for email, texting and quick-type apps has led us to forget some of our people skills, including distinguishing the nuances of language and meaning, fostering of a feeling of belonging among groups of people, and knowing our bosses and colleagues well enough to have confidence that others will pull their weight. That, in turn, has diminished implicit and earned trust among the people we work with.”

What do you make of this statement:

“No matter how much a work rock star you might be, your manager does not trust you. Your colleagues do not trust your manager. And, truth be told, you probably don’t trust most of your colleagues or your boss, either.”

Do you recognise that, or is she wildly overstating it?

Trust is the platform on which high performance teams are built.  It lies at the heart of Win/Win, and thus is an essential component in collaboration.  It’s what you need to build first before you dig into the details in a negotiation.  If you successfully build trust you can afford to trip up over the details, because trust is more important than anything else.

Let’s assume we all get the point:  this is not rocket science. Less obvious perhaps is HOW we go about building it.  Here are my thoughts:

  • Building Trust involves taking risk.  One of the best ways to do it is to display openness:  giving away some information (perhaps saying how you really feel about the situation).  If the other party is cynical it may take advantage of this information rather than reciprocating with a piece of openness from their side.  Making the first Trusting move involves risk – so be open with something which is not too high stakes.  You can move towards the riskier stuff once you know you are on a path towards Trust.
  • Be aware that building Trust requires both Courage and Creativity.  I need to be the first to put the gun down and have the presence of mind to get creative (possibly by asking a question.  “What are the options here?”  might be a good one.)
  • Building Trust takes time, which is possibly one of the reasons why it is being eroded so much, as we have even less time now than before.  You may need to plan how you can make the time available to build that crucial relationship.
  • It’s hard to build Trust without physically being with the other person.  Yet another factor in the erosion of Trust in the workplace.  If you do not know (because you can’t see the whites of their eyes) what the other person thinks of your proposal, it’s hard to trust them.  If you can’t physically be with them, try the next best thing:  speak to them online with the video switched ON!!!  (Yes, I know it means you will have to put some clothes on for the call.  Sorry about that.)
  • Building Trust requires us to be humans, and to get to know each others as humans.  Try putting some of the human stuff on your meeting agendas.  Give time for feedback, acknowledgement, celebration.  Let people check in with any personal news they want to share before you dive into the agenda.  Try eating a meal together, or even better, preparing it.
  • Think about your management style, and see what happens if you switch from performance management to performance coaching.  Ken Blanchard has an excellent short video on this.  If your team feels that instead of judging their performance you are supporting it, the dynamic changes and they can open up and be more real with you.

  • Finally, be reliable.  Do what you say you are going to do.  Make commitments on small things you know you can deliver.  Once you establish a pattern of reliability, your reputation for trustworthiness will build.

How have you gone about building trust in your team?  What’s the first thing you could do to build it?

Please share any ideas you have or ways of building trust which have worked for you.



Image © Warner Brothers


Posted in Leadership Skills, Negotiations | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A CV with difference

One of the joys of blogging and following others’ blogs is the unexpected inspiration you receive when you least expect it.

This morning in my inbox was an article from David Kanigan, whose Live and Learn blog I heartily recommend, as he has this effect on me regularly.  He had created a list of things that make him happy, each of them one letter longer than the previous.

It’s such a simple idea, and yet so telling.  This list of 30 or so items gives an insight into David as a person that you would never get from reading his CV.

It strikes me that this could become a new template for job applications.  Instead of the usual 2 page set of boring achievements and overblown jargon- ridden personal statements, we could require applicants to fill in something along these lines.  .

Perhaps we might call it a “Love tree CV”?

It gives an insight into personal values, beliefs and preferences, which as we all know are far better indicators of likely job performance than previous achievements.  It’s informal and therefore more revealing.  You could even interview someone using this as a structure.

“Tell more, Michael, about what Cathedrals mean to you.”  Straight to the heart of it:  what going away to be a full time boarder at choir school at the age of 8 meant to me.

Who not also use it to help build relationships within a team?  Have everyone share theirs and let people ask each other questions about it.

I had great fun doing mine.  I allowed myself 30 minutes only.  Would have liked longer to tinker with different fonts, colour maybe.  Here it is:








J S Bach


Pink Floyd



Vintage Port


Greek Islands

Inspector Morse

Adnams’ Broadside

Westminster Abbey

Roast Beef for lunch

Dartmoor granite walls

Roaring logs fires in pubs

Cropwell Bishop Blue Stilton

Kingfishers on the River Teign

Lagavulin in a crystal glass tumbler

Winter Evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral


I’d love to see yours.  Please share!

Note:  the L at the top of the tree stands for Learning.

Posted in Life Skills | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Manager versus Leader. Confused?

Last week I coached an experienced sales professional as part of the follow up on a Leadership course he attended.  We were getting along fine, finding much to agree on over how dysfunctional the human race is becoming, the immigration crisis etc., and then he said something which threw me a bit.

“Now that I don’t have a team of people reporting to me, I don’t see myself as a leader.”

I didn’t see that one coming.  As you can imagine, that comment gave us plenty more to talk about.

It has got me wondering, though, how many others are confused about the difference between leading and managing people.  Do you have to have a team reporting to you before you can describe yourself as a leader?

In my view, certainly not.  I think that once you can walk and talk you can be a leader, and in fact can think of numerous examples of leadership by young people.  I used to teach the clarinet and saxophone, and many of my pupils were starters, ie age 8 or so.  There was the boy who so enjoyed learning that he encouraged his younger brother to make a start by learning the recorder.  The one who was honest enough to say he would rather learn the guitar, thus challenging his parents’ vision of what a good use of teenage spare time consists of.

You can read ten books on leadership and get ten different definitions of it, but one which works for me is that a leader is someone who inspires others to follow.   (A useful definition of a manager, by contrast, is someone who is paid to execute on a plan.)  If you take that leadership definition, then you start to see it all around you.  Recent seasonal examples you may have seen could include:


  • the person who helped the younger people with their Christmas presents before opening their own (coaching, self management, empathy)


  • the person who went without item x at the dinner table in order to ensure that the guests had what they wanted (self management, selflessness)
  • the person who suggested the party game because she saw that others were bored, even though she would have been happier reading her book ( situational awareness, selflessness).

Anyone can be a leader, and it is something you earn rather than have awarded to you.

Coming back to where I started this article:  is it at all significant that a 53 year old experienced, intelligent and high performing professional in a technology company should be confused about what leadership is?  Is it another worrying sign of what is happening in society, ie that we are losing sight of the basics?

I know I bang this drum far too often, and the start of a new year is not the best time to be fostering doom and gloom.  However, on the positive side, we can all do something about this.

My call to action, if I may, is to urge you, dear reader, to treat 2017 as a back to basics year. Let’s put more emphasis on doing the basics right:  building connections between people, helping them to find meaning in what they do, and doing our part as leaders to fight the incoming technological tide with some emotional intelligence and some dignity.

My warmest wishes to you and your families for peace, health and happiness.

Image credit:  Savethestudent.org

Posted in Leadership Skills, Management Skills | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Procrastination and Preferences

Last Saturday I had dinner with a couple who have moved into the village recently.  They have a bitch working cocker spaniel who has become our dog Ross’ girlfriend, so we already have plenty to talk about.  Ben is a doctor, and we found ourselves talking about Myers Briggs – a subject I rarely raise at the dinner table as it tends to generate dirty looks from my wife.

Ben and I were comparing our profiles, as you do in these situations.  He is ENTJ and I’m ENFP.

“Ah, you’re a P.  That makes you a procrastinator I presume?” he said.

As it happens, he was right, and we went on to compare notes about my open-ended preferably non-deadline-driven P world versus his deadline-focussed, measured and mapped out ideal J world.

As a thank you for dinner he sent me a link to a TED talk I’d not seen before by Tim Urban.  It’s called “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator”, and the talk delivers exactly what you might expect it would – a brilliant summary of how a procrastinator works.

I particularly liked the way he visualised this type of brain for us.  I recognise it in myself.


The instant gratification monkey is the voice in your head which is able to find reasons for not doing the thing you planned to, and jumping into something (anything in fact) which will give us more short term satisfaction (or so the monkey has us believe).

It causes us to run up against deadlines in a state of stress because we do not allow enough time to do the job properly.

The message in Tim’s TED Talk is an excellent one:  if you are a procrastinator you learn that the thing which gets you to do something is called a deadline.  As you approach one of these, your guardian angel, which he calls The Panic Monster, suddenly wakes up, and galvanises you into action though a lot of screaming in your head.


Procrastinators gradually learn that the way to lead a slightly more orderly life is to set deadlines for themselves.  (Or, as in my case, marry someone who will do it for them).

Here’s his point:  the really important things we want to do with our lives (have children, set up my own business, get fit) tend not to have deadlines set against them.  As a result, unless we a good at goal and objective setting, the procrastinator can drift through life waiting for things to happen, and not achieving their full potential.  I certainly wasted 10 years in corporate land in that mode, and should have set up my own business 10 years before I got round to it.

To ram home his point, he put up his final slide in the talk:  a square populated by a large number of little squares (4680 of them, to be precise).  That is a way of representing a 90 year life measured in weekly boxes.  Imagine how many of those boxes you have already filled in (possibly not particularly productively).  The rest lie ahead, but when they’re gone, you’re gone.  Think about it.

My daughter has recently decided to resign her job in a leading London PR agency to take a 3 month sabbatical in India, during which she intends to take stock and have a long, slow think about how she wants to productively use her remaining squares.  She’s so much braver than me, who also at 27 was on a career path in large corporate world which I was not enjoying particularly, and where I was procrastinating on doing something proactive to change my situation.

I got lucky:  8 years later (400 boxes down the toilet, as it were), I got made redundant, so they stopped my procrastination for me.  I woke up with a jolt and sorted myself out.

Moral:  if you are a procrastinator, recognise your important ambitions in life (it helps if you write them down), and work out how to set some short term goals which will get you started out towards achieving them.  Remember the Chinese proverb:  the longest journey starts with one small step.

This is my final message of the year, and it feels like a good moment to ask you to consider a big question over the next few days, when you may find you have more time on your hands than usual.

Are you procrastinating on something important, and if you are, what is it going to take to get you to wake up?

It might be an external force of some sort, but the chances are this can only come from you.

What are you waiting for?




Posted in Change, Life Skills | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments