Leadership: saying “yes” when you really want to say “no”?

My nephew David is an inspiring young man.  In his late teens he quit college and set up his own graphics design business with a friend.  2 years later they sold up and he decided to go it alone whilst travelling the world.  He rocks up wherever he fancies (San Diego, Oslo, Lisbon…) and gets on with building wesbites and designing stuff for his global client base.  Why wouldn’t you?

I know  a lot of people who wish they’d had the courage to say yes to that sort of thing much earlier in their lives.  Living their dreams and finding out what life has to offer outside the confines of their comfort zone.

He is currently building an online business which, funnily enough, is going to be called “Saying Yes”.  Its aim will be to inspire other (typically younger) people to say yes to opportunities when they come across them.  He’ll do that by posting stories from people who have done just that, in which they’ll describe the moment and the impact it had on them.

He contacted me the other day, and asked me to share my “Yes” example with him.  I wasn’t sure which one to share, as several sprang to mind.  The day I said yes to conducting a private concert for the Queen Mother, when I had never conducted a choir before.  The day I said yes to running a fundraising campaign at school which aimed to raise enough to buy two grand pianos ( I was 16 at the time.  We got our two pianos).

Yours truly at the machine in question

Yours truly at the machine in question

I decided to share the story of the day I said yes to applying for an organ scholarship to Oxford, when in my heart of hearts I didn’t think I stood a hope in hell of winning it.   I was developing as an all round musician, and at the time was having weekly music lessons in piano, organ, clarinet, saxophone and singing. I was too much or a generalist, I felt, and did not have the specialist skills I needed.


I found the organ difficult, especially the baroque repertoire which required precision and meticulous practice.  I am not a precise or meticulous person, and whilst I love Bach’s music, it scares me a bit playing it.

The thing is, the person who suggested this was doable believed in me.  Alastair Sampson taught the organ at Eton, and had the business of helping his pupils to win Oxbridge scholarships down to a fine art.  When he retired they gathered all of his scholarship winning pupils together for a reunion.  There were more than thirty of us, 8 of whom were organ scholars at King’s College Cambridge – the gold medal if you will of these musical Olympics.  He knew how to bring out the best in his pupils, and believed in their potential.  There was no doubt in his mind that we should be doing this, and so I trusted him.

So we agreed my show piece for the audition.  This was “Final” by Cesar Franck.  This was an ambitious choice, because it starts with a three page pedal solo, as you can see in this video.  Playing the organ with just your feet takes some courage:  get it note perfect and you win extra points.  Mess it up and you have got off to the worst possible start.


I put the practice in, to the extent that my legs used to ache at the end of a day, and I even got blisters on a very awkward part of the anatomy.  Organ benches are made of wood.

On the day it went well, much to my relief, and a couple of days later I got the call from Balliol College, Oxford, offering me the scholarship.  No one was more suprised than me, but Alastair of course wasn’t.  He never doubted it.

I learnt a whole lot from that life changing experience.  Most importantly I learnt the effect of having someone believe in your potential.  In my experience most people have far more potential than they realise, and it’s people like Alastair who we need to help unlock it.

Maybe David’s website will help people to see their potental better, by learning from others who have said Yes to challenges at critical moments in their lives.  I hope so.

If you have said Yes to something and you think your story could help inspire others, please let me know and I’ll put you onto David.

Meanwhile, just to show that we can also overcome weaknesses by sheer hard work, here’s an informal video of me playing some Bach in our local church.

Posted in Leadership Skills, Life Skills, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Inspirational Leadership: what’s the story?

Great leaders tell great stories.

typewritter1Stories engage people, are easy to pass on, are easy to remember,  and – crucially – they appeal to the part of the brain where we make our decisions.  If you want something to get done, appeal to an emotion of some sort.

And if you want to appeal to emotion, try telling a story.

I was running a leadership programme this week, and the theme for the afternoon was story telling.  Normally I give people time to prepare to tell us a story by inviting them to bring an object of personal significance to the event, and to think about how they are going to explain it to us.  This week I decided to take the exercise to a new level.

I asked people to be prepared to tell us a story about something they found challenging as a teenager.

The results were startling.  Bear in mind this was a group of people who did not work together all the time, were of differing status within the function (we had people with not only their boss but their boss’ boss in the room), and who I would say were largely untrusting of each other.  I was quite ready to pull the plug on the activity halfway through if they failed to engage with it (which I thought was distinctly possible).

Instead the complete opposite happened.  One of the most senior people in the room started us off by telling us about the day her parents told her and her sister they were getting divorced, and how she chose to stay (much to his surprise) with her father rather than live with her sister and mother.  The opening sentence of the next one was “As a teenager I was destined to be a delinquent.”  Then someone described how hard she was finding it seeing her marriage fall apart.

And so it continued.  There were tears as well as (thankfully) applause and laughter.  The impact on the group was tangible.  People had chosen to be vulnerable with their story, and as a result others responded by showing trust and mutual respect.  I felt I saw a team form before my eyes.  One of the most cynical people in the room (used to be a consultant – they’re the worst!) summed it up for all of us:

“In just two minutes I have completely reformed my opinion of someone.  I had no idea that storytelling could have that effect.”

The great thing about storytelling is that it doesn’t need to take extra time.  Changing the way we communicate can in fact save time, because once you have connected with people and established trust you don’t have to work so hard convincing them to do stuff.  You’ll get productivity gains too, as they’ll become engaged with what you are trying to achieve.

Try weaving it into the way you connect with people.  Add a story to your next presentation.  Open up with it when you are selling something to someone you don’t know.  Invite your team to tell their stories.  Allow some time for it in your meetings.

If you’re struggling with how to structure your story (sometimes Beginning, Middle, End is all you need, by the way), here’s one I made earlier.  It’s based on the structure of all fairy tales, and most of Walt Disney’s famous films.

Give it a go, and tell me a story at some point to let me know how you get on.













Photo:  Jorge Marquez

Posted in Communication, Leadership Skills | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Ping! Another email to read? Think again!

I meet enough frazzled business people to know that email and unproductive meetings are the two biggest time wasters in the workplace.  Of the two, email is easily the most damaging, because it is the source of so much stress.  Irrelevant, poorly run meetings are at least a chance for a breather – a cup of coffee and time to tune out and think about what’s for dinner.  Time for some R&R?  Easy – organise yourself a meeting!

Dysfunctional meetings. Tool 1: getting people to shut up.No, email is the one to watch out for.  People let it overwhelm them, to the extent that they never stop checking them.  Because having a clear inbox is for so many of us a sign that we are on top of things, we never get off the hamster wheel:


According to research quoted by Jocelyn Glei in her new book “Unsubscribe:  How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction and Get Real Work Done”, there is a clear link between spending time on email and stress.  “In other words”, says Glei, “the more frequently we check our email, the more frazzled we feel.”

So here are 5 tips to help you to not become another member of the email victims club:

  1.  Don’t check them so often.  Durrrr.  If you check them every 3 minutes, (apparently we check them 77 times a day), try doing it once every hour.  Then move to 4 times per day and so on.  You will be able to concentrate on what you are doing (it takes 64 seconds to get back into what you were doing, so when you add yet another spam email to your block sender folder, it costs you over one minute).  You will discover that the really urgent emails turn into phone calls, less urgent ones are fine with a less immediate response, and the time wasting ones you can kill off in bursts of email slashing and burning on the train home from work.
  2. Turn off notifications.  Put the gadget out of sight and out of mind.  Turn off Outlook when you’re not using it.  Turn the screen away.  Turn off the pings.  YOU decide when to allow it to intrude, not the other way round.
  3. Manage expectations.  Tell your colleagues you only look at email 4 times per day.  If they really need a response, pick up the phone or come and talk to you (just like the good old days).
  4. Use the technology.  Some emails don’t need your attention now, but they will need it later.  Use Outlook Calendar or some other app to file the email in the appropriate date and time for when you do need to deal with it.
  5. Reduce the noise.  Download “Unsubscribe for Gmail” app (free, iTunes) and it lets you unsubscribe with one quick swipe.  Joyous!

Email is never going to go away, and it is always going to exercise an inappropriate amount of influence in our lives.  We can however manage it better and reduce its impact.

What techniques do you use to help you cope?


You may have noticed I haven’t blogged for a while.  My father died 6 weeks ago, and truth be told it rather dampened my blogging mojo.  Normal service more or less resumed now.

jim-cropeJim was a prisoner of war in Japan for over 2 years during WW2, and he became a member of the Far East Prisoners of War club (FEPOW).  This organisation’s motto is:

“To keep going the spirit that kept us going.”

I find that inspiring, as did Jim, who fought amazingly hard right to the end.  He shrugged off bereavement, loss of limbs, hospital visits and Lord knows what else, where many others would I think have succumbed.

You proved the point, Dad.  Now you can rest.




Posted in Life Skills, Time Management | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Why you and your colleagues don’t trust your manager.

“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.”

So suggests Georgina Kenyon in an excellent article on BBC Capital.  She goes on to talk about how lack of trust leads to fear, which leads to employees feeling they have to show their face at work, even though flexible working is so easily available to all of us because the technology is there.

She comes to an arresting conclusion:

Georgina_Kenyon“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.”

Gulp.  She said it, not me.

This level of fear in the workplace leads to employees turning into children.  They find it hard to have the courage to ask for time off or to negotiate flexible hours.  In summary, it leads to conflict avoidance, about which I’ve written before.  It inhibits collaboration, and leads to what Phyllis Moen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota in the US, calls the ‘mother, may I’ problem.  Not quite at the level of asking to go to the toilet, but not far off it.

This subject of “Child” behaviour crops up reguarly on the leadership courses I run.  I often ask managers what percentage of people in their teams they would characterise as having a fundamentally Child ego state.  The answer is usually at least 20%.  This strikes me as probably conservative, with the figure in reality being much higher.

Who shall we hold responsible for this?  Is it all about the technology, which is inhibiting us from having meaningful relationships at work (or anywhere, for that matter)?  Is it managers’ fault for allowing fear to breed, and not spending enough time with their employees so that trust has time to develop?  Or should we blame the employees for allowing themselves to avoid the important discussions and telling themselves they have no power to influence change?

It’s probably all three.  I think we agree on several things here:

  • This is here to stay.  It can only get worse.  The technology isn’t about to uninvent itself.
  • Managers need some help.  They need to recognise the fear issue and know how to go about dealing with it.  Enabling them to hold genuinely Adult conversations with their team members would be a good start.
  • Employees need some help too.  They need to see that “flexible working”, “team collaboration” and other such fine concepts are more than catch phrases:  the organisation has to model these behaviours from the top and live and breath them every day.  Employees need to step up and not allow themselves to be ground down into submission.

What is your experience of trust and fear levels where you work?  How does this compare with 5 years ago?  How do you see it progressing?  Do please share your experience using the comments tab.


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Is this why Introverts hate working in the office?

Forget free food, forget our preference for natural light:  what we workers want is not be interrupted all the time.

The ability to focus on work without interruption is employees’ top priority, according to an Oxford Economics survey of 600 employees and 600 executives.  Forbes magazine’s Katie Sola has three helpful suggestions to allow us to cope with this noisy environment:



1. Buy some noise cancelling headphones (Beware – these may be expensive)

2.  Play the right sort of music. (Instrumental, apparently.  And there was me thinking Led Zeppelin helped me to get my productivity up)

3.  Go outside more.  (Yeah, right.  I don’t have time to buy a sandwich, let alone step  away from my desk to eat it.  Since when do I get time to go outside?)

As you may have detected, I have my sceptical hat on today.  I think the people who prefer to work uninterrupted are the Introverts in life.  As roughly half the human population has a preference for Introversion, this is a significant proportion, admittedly.  These are people who prefer to think deeply about things, who prefer their own company to that of others, and whose creativity is best accessed in a quiet environment.  It’s a preference for sticking with questions and nibbling at them over time, and getting energy from within rather than from other people and external stimuli.

(For more on the world of Introversion, read Susan Cain‘s superb book “Quiet:  the power of the intoverted mind in a world that can’t stop talking.”)

HOWEVER, what about the Extraverts?  We’re the ones who prefer working with other people , who are stimulated by interaction with other humans, and whose best ideas are stimulated not by quiet reflection but by discussion, debate, brainstorms and all that jazz.  People like me, in fact.  There are lots of us.

I used to work in an open plan office along with about a dozen other training consultants.  Most of us were Extraverts.  We used to come into the office in order to re-energise after yet another business trip to some far off place, sitting in our lonely hotel rooms at night and in our ecomony seat long haul flights.  For us the open plan office was like a playground.  I had a desk sitting directly opposite another, and we set up a ping pong net across the middle to give us some extra energy.  Extraverts like variety, and many of them crave interruptions (my ENFP Myers Briggs profile – common amongst trainers, is sometimes known as the Butterfly profile).

Now that I am self employed I work from home in an office all by myself.  I might not see any other humans for hours at a time.  Thankfully the dog keeps me company, but he’s asleep most of the time.  Do I get bored?  Yes.  Do I find it hard to stick at stuff?  Yes.  Do I get stuck?  Often.  Am I more productive than when I worked surrounded by other people?  Definitely not.

I have a theory I’d like to put to you:  if you are an Extravert and you had a choice you would choose to work surrounded by other people.  If you’re an Introvert you’d choose not to.  If you don’t know which of these you are, let me know and I’ll help you to find out.  But if you do know, could you help me to validate my theory with a quick comment please?  Am I right, and has the Oxford Economics Survey accidentally researched an Introverted sample?

Or, as is more likely, am I completely wide of the mark and jumping to conclusions?  If so, it’s probably because I’m bored and needed to write a Blog for something to do.

AsleepNow Ross, how about a game of table tennis?



Posted in Personality types | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Why more and more women choose self-employment

This week’s Blog is written by Vicki Marinker, whom I have known for several years since running a training programme at the recruitment firm where she was working.  

Lifestyle Maven profile photo

Vicki is a partner in Comms Leaders, specialists in corporate communications recruitment.  She also writes a lifestyle blog at www.lifestylemaven.co.uk, where she shares her passion for, amongst other things, food, beauty, fashion and personal development.  

She stepped into the self employed world comparatively recently, so this article comes from the heart.  

She is in dispair and isolation

Self-employed people, they’re everywhere. Opening up boutiques, or industriously working on laptops in coffee shops, or beavering away in their home offices. Of course, they had always been there, but I’d been safely tucked away in my office, busily not noticing them.

Each new chapter in our lives opens our eyes to behaviours that were always there, but went unnoticed.

Little did I realise how many 40-something women are self-employed until I left corporate life myself. I estimate that half of the working mums in my sons’ classes at school are either self-employed, or have their own businesses and employ staff.

At the beginning of 2016, the self-employed accounted for 15% of the UK population, That’s 4.6million people.

There are many successful, happy, fulfilled women among them who aren’t interested in climbing the greasy corporate pole anymore.

I am singling out women here, because the majority of the self-employed people I happen to know are women. But it is a growing phenomenon.

Why is that? What is it that happens to women in their 30s and 40s that makes them leave the fertile land of employment and plough their own furrow?

It is true that the change often comes after women have children, but childcare isn’t the main motivation for women leaving their jobs. I didn’t leave my last company until my eldest son was eight. Many of my friends returned to work straight after their maternity leave, like me, determined to slot right back into corporate life, just as ambitious to succeed as before.

After a couple of years, that desire to reach the boardroom dwindled – it just didn’t seem like such an attractive option anymore. It wasn’t about work/life balance, it was more a case of wanting to be more authentic, make my own decisions and be in control of my own destiny.

Corporate culture vs authenticity

Men and women are wired differently. We have a different approach to communicating and making decisions. Studies show that women have a higher EQ – emotional intelligence, take fewer risks and place higher emphasis on communication skills than men. These characteristics are under-valued in large organisations, even by those run by women. Michael talks about this in a guest blog on my website here.

Appraisals and personal development plans are ultimately about achieving the next level in the hierarchy. And in order to reach that goal, one has to demonstrate, among other things, better ‘leadership’ skills.

That just doesn’t feel authentic to many women. I once won an award for being ‘most inspiring mentor’ – that’s where I felt I had strength, in encouraging people – not in managing large teams or dictating strategy. But that wasn’t really part of the company’s grand plan.

I began to find the structure within which I worked stifling. Rather than beating a path to the boardroom door, I started to retreat from it, asking for less responsibility and fewer people to manage.

Women do have a choice – they can either learn more ‘masculine’ skills to compete for the top jobs; be content where they are, using the skills they have; or they can make a leap of faith into a new way of working, that allows them to be authentic and make their own choices.

The pay and opportunity gap

Two executives – one male, one female – started their jobs with the same company at around the same time. They were given the same opportunities and responsibilities for several years and both thrived. Until the woman announced she was pregnant. At that point the woman was taken off the leadership development programme because, she was told she was ‘going on sabbatical and effectively leaving the business for a while’. That happened. The CEO who made that decision was a woman.

Some bosses beat the ambition out of us.

Family commitments change our priorities

According to The Guardian, women are, in the main, responsible for the majority of the childcare and household chores despite our best efforts to achieve parity.

After a long day at the office, sometimes followed by an evening of networking, I’d come home to make dinner, put on the washing, spend some time with the kids. The hubster does his fair share too, don’t get me wrong, but I can guarantee he has never woken up in the middle of the night in a panic to put the drying machine on.

I know several women who work for international companies who expect them to dial into conference calls with their counterparts in Melbourne and New York at 11pm, and turn up to work bright and breezy at 8am the next day. That timetable isn’t sustainable when one child is teething and the other is waking with night terrors.

Never did my family commitments interfere with my corporate job. I worked four days a week and was the top biller in the company. But there was this constant nagging feeling that I wasn’t giving 100% to either work or family. The move towards equality (because we’re not there yet) means that we have a lot on our plates and not enough time.

Now I’m very disciplined with my time – there is clear separation. I don’t do household chores during working hours, but because I don’t commute anymore, I can do those things while the kids are eating their breakfast or dinner. I have several hours available to me that weren’t before.

The internet entrepreneur

The internet has brought so many new opportunities for all sorts of one-woman businesses. A whole category of enterprises only exist because of the internet – such as web designers, bloggers, virtual assistants; while others are able to expand their businesses through web-based marketing and sales. Start-ups don’t need a huge investment to get going. In the case of our recruitment business, we already owned laptops, had a well-established network to tap into and just needed to buy a software package and mobile phones.

There are so many reasons, and opportunities, for leaving corporate life, it’s no surprise there are so many self-employed women in the UK.

My fifth decade(eek!) has brought with it a confidence to make scary decisions. I wish I had made the move away from employment in my 30s but I wasn’t mentally ready for it then. The self-employed women I know are confident. They are leaders. They just don’t want to lead in the confines of a corporate hierarchy.

Self-employment allows women to be authentic, take back some time and freedom and create a life that includes work, rather than trying to fit a life around work.



Posted in Life Skills, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments