Taking Charge of your Career

I left school in 1980 and got a job in a bank. I didn’t mean to really; it just happened and it wasn’t my fault. Well, I had to apply, obviously, and seem to remember having a chat with the school careers officer who suggested banking was a good idea, but to be honest I don’t think I gave it any more thought than that. What seemed to be important is that I got a job – any job – and that was that. I also seem to remember (it has got lost in the mists of time, rather) the job interview going something like this:

Them: Why do you want this job?

Me: Well it sounded interesting and I am good with numbers. I think. At least, not rubbish.

Them: Congratulations. You’re in. You’ll retire when you’re 65.


I am sure it wasn’t really like that, but it wasn’t far off. I got an interview at the first time of trying, too, and without really trying at all.

I was lucky to be leaving school in that period. It doesn’t work like that now, and it could be argued that it shouldn’t. I got a job that I was not really interested in, wasn’t very good at and it was a rather unfulfilling period of my life – and they got someone who was average at best.

Wind forward another month, and I found myself sitting in front of the local HR Director for my introductory briefing to the world according to VeryBig Bank. “Congratulations”, he said, “Welcome to the family that is VeryBig Bank” (Names have been changed to protect the guilty). “I am here to tell you that you will never have to think about your career again. We will do it for you and it is all mapped out like a spread sheet”. Actually, spread sheets didn’t really exist then but you get the picture.

My point is that this was sold as a positive thing. In return for undivided loyalty (at that time you were not even allowed a bank account anywhere else) and not being too bad at your job, you got job security and a career path decided for you. You didn’t have to think or make hard decisions about which path to follow.

Wind forward another 30 years and things couldn’t be more different. There is no such thing as failsafe job security, it is rare to get a job at the first time of trying and even rarer to be offered a job if you haven’t done your homework.

Perhaps the major change though is in who is responsible. I was made to feel like I was a passive recipient of my future, with no control or accountability; as long as I went through the motions, I would fulfil the destiny presented to me.

Nowadays, it is us more than ever who are responsible. We have had to replace security in our employer with security in our employability; in other words, it is up to us to build the transferable knowledge, skills and abilities to take from one employer to another as the days of sitting in one place being average are gone.

Of course, there are exceptions. But in an ever more competitive job market, with Moore’s Law of computing having an impact on workplace technology (computing power doubling every 18 months or so) and with shifting demographics (more workers from overseas and more workers not simply retiring once they hit 65) the emphasis is on us to take control, decide what we want and to be clear about what we possess as a transferable “portfolio” of skills.

So we are now in charge of our career. Which is both empowering and not a little scary.


Sharpening the saw

I have been fortunate enough to have just had an extremely busy  three months of being commissioned for management training, teambuilding events and coaching work, and am currently coming to the end of almost 30 straight days of 8 hours a day delivery.

I am not complaining. Please don’t feel sorry for me and certainly please don’t stop booking me. Besides, not having a boss means, effectively, that I am doing it to myself so unless I am going to make an official complaint to myself it is probably best to just roll with it.

However, it has led me to musing, usually during the “sorry for the delay to your journey. Badger on the line at West Drayton” on Stephen R. Covey’s 7th habit of Highly Effective people. In this 7th habit, he tells the parable of wood cutter cutting wood, as they tend to do. He has been at it all day, working so hard that he doesn’t notice that his saw has gone blunt and he is getting nowhere. Bizarre. Head down, getting engrossed in the detail of the job and not looking up to see how he is doing and draw breath. Could never happen to us.

Of course, the narratively imperative stranger comes up to him and suggests that he may do better if he sharpens his saw. The inevitable response is “I don’t have time. I’m too busy sawing this tree down”.

Could never happen to us.

Actually, it does. All the time. Sometimes, it takes someone else to tell us before we get it. Probably best if it’s not a stranger in a wood talking about saws, to be honest, but you get the picture. We all need a reboot strategy every now and again. A virtual Ctrl/Alt/Delete to take a step back, ask how we are doing and ask whether we are getting time to breathe.

Taking periodic walks in nature; watching circling Red Kites riding thermals over my garden with a half-full cafetierre (me, not the Kites); playing miserable songs on a guitar. These are some of mine. It’s time to think, to stop the world just for a bit. It can probably turn without us for a while.

Indeed, writing this blog on a sunny day in Greenwich Park after a training session, on an old fashioned bit of wood pulp and pen with not a pixel in sight has sharpened my saw just a little.


What do you do? And does it take someone else to remind you to do it?

Biting the arm that feeds you

I wasn’t going to mention football again. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, you instantly turn off two thirds of your audience. Secondly, I know astonishingly little about the subject, despite now being a famous radio-friendly Psychopundit (see last blog post; A game of two halves).

I am, however, moved to write something about the latest (at the time of writing; no doubt there will be more by the time you read this) incident of a Liverpool player allegedly – my BBC days have never left me – attempting to audition for a part in the next Twilight instalment. I mean, who bites people after they have left the school playground and become an adult? Oh yes, Suarez. Twice now.

The reason I am going off on one here is that this appears to be the theme of my last few weeks. I have run a couple of team events recently where, despite no-one biting anyone, poor behaviour amongst one or two team members has been the reason I have been called in. It is as if I was being commissioned as some omnipotent referee with a universal red card, turning up on a white horse as opposed to a black SEAT. Maybe that was just a cheese-fuelled dream. Anyway, the problem was not so much the appalling behaviour (as opposed to performance) of a couple of team members in these teams; it was more the refusal of senior management to deal with it, to the chagrin and frustration of the team leaders. Or worse – the refusal to allow the team leaders to deal with it. Yes, we talked about appropriate behaviour, and yes, we talked about the possibly career-limiting consequences of head-butting colleagues, but by refusing to be seen to make a stand and address such behaviours, management become weak and ineffective – and worse, are seen to condone it by default.

In the end, I think things did move on. The individuals concerned recognised the impact their behaviour was having on their colleagues and their own career. The team leaders have more confidence and tools in their management toolkit to deal with it if it happens again. But I can’t help the feeling that if senior management and a brave Human Resources department don’t tackle it, not only does nothing change but it becomes part of the culture; “you can get away with anything here because it’s impossible to address it”.

Suarez is Liverpool’s best player. It’s not surprising that the management want him to be a part of the clubs future, as they said in a press release this week. Although they have fined him, some feel that they have failed to condemn the behaviour (not the player, but the behaviour) enough. They have form here; with the same player in fact. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had called him a naughty boy and prevented him from bringing his Ker-Plunk to the last game of the season.  It took the FA in a (it has to be said, increasing) moment of leadership to charge him with violent conduct and ban him for 10 games.

When we become leaders, we should not only be role-modelling the behaviours we wish to see but also reinforcing those behaviours in others and condemning those that we don’t want. It’s what leadership is for. Leadership is about setting an example, being brave and punishing bad behaviour because it is right to do so, even if there is short-term pain in doing so. The result is that those who do choose to behave like adults get to do their jobs free of abuse or teeth marks. If not, the loser often ends up being the brand itself.

Rant over.


Indignant of Berkshire.

A game of two halves

I was fascinated (for any given definition of fascinating) to read in February that Yahoo had banned its employees from working remotely – with the result that several hundred now have to relocate. This seemed, on the face of it, such a retrograde step from such a forward thinking company that it would not have surprised me more if Chelsea had announced that they were keeping a manager for a whole season. (I now feel, after being interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live about how Benitez must be feeling being called an “interim”, that I am an honorary Psychopundit and therefore qualified to make such sweeping football generalisations and in-jokes. It’s a funny old game).

Their rationale was that communication and collaboration are key – aren’t they always? – and people need to work side by side to do this. Now, I spend most of my professional life looking at how teams communicate and collaborate, so I certainly agree – but there is a tension here. I undertake work for a number of Universities who are educating the very people who will pay my pension. They are Generation C; Generation Connected. They have spent their formative years staring at a (insert device of choice) and will expect to be able to work like this after they graduate. When they want. Where they want. It will form part of their psychological contract with their employer because they don’t know any other way. And in the battle for talent, places that provide this type of working will have a distinct advantage.

It is worth pointing out that there are many advantages to organisations in allowing flexibility of working practices, or indeed in having members of your team located elsewhere. Flexible working promotes goodwill with staff, and may be more productive for some people who don’t need the structure of a nine to five office location[1]. This blended working style, or “Martini working[2]”, doesn’t suit everyone, but for many it can lead to higher output and greater job satisfaction. In fact, increasing pressures on organisational space and environmental sustainability concerns are already leading to increased hot-desking and flexible working as the norm, built into the strategic plans of Estates Departments countrywide.

So, this poses many challenges. I agree with Yahoo that often, the best ideas come from the informal corridor chats or in the cafeteria (just like in two-day team-builds where the real work happens in the bar about one third of the way down a bottle of gin). But I am not sure that a ban on working remotely is the answer; surely, they are throwing the search engine out with the bathwater? Managing people who work remotely is just like managing people who are co-located; it’s just harder and you have to turn the communication dials up to 11. So maybe it is better, clearer, tighter management that is needed, not a ban on flexibility.

Yahoo was in the top 50 places to work in 2013. It may not be there much longer.

[1] Or spending two hours every day with their nose stuffed into another commuter’s armpit.

[2] Working “any place, anytime, anywhere,” not with a stiff drink.

Ski Slopes and Learning Curves

I have just come back from skiing. It was my second ever time, the first sorry episode being three years ago. Don’t get me wrong – I had a fabulous time with lovely people on that first occasion. It’s just that the skiing bit wasn’t fabulous. The rest of it was almost but not quite like the Wham video to Last Christmas. Except that it wasn’t Christmas and we were all in our 40s. I remember being just about capable of snow-ploughing down a gradient so slight that a marble wouldn’t roll down it, only to look forlornly at 9 month old babies parallel skiing past me, grinning smugly.

Anyway. This time was different; I still had a great time, with more lovely people, but this time the actual skiing part was part of the fabulousness. Everyone had told me that it was just like riding a bike (I assume they meant that they both hurt when you fall off) and that I would remember how to do it from three years ago. The flaw in this cunning plan was that I couldn’t do it three years ago, so what exactly would I remember?

They were right, however. By the end of the first morning I was back to where I had been after a week last time – and by the end of the day I had actually stopped falling over. I actually remember vividly the Eureka! moment; when the tilt of the ankle, the standing and squatting bits, the weight balance and numerous other things just seemed to happen without thinking. This led me to ponder later that night over a large G&T what was happening; that my muscles were remembering all by themselves, that I wasn’t having to hold all of these seemingly impossible tricks in my pre-frontal cortex (which takes a huge amount of effort and energy) and that instead they were transferring to my basal ganglia, the centre for unconscious competence – a part of the brain, not a Government Quango. Amazing what gin does.

Ski instructors know this, of course. They make you learn a new skill just before you have mastered the last one – and by the time you have almost mastered that one, the first one is there. Firmly in basal ganglia.

There is a lesson here somewhere (At last – Ed). We can sometimes hold ourselves back from learning something because we are not quite ready. Argue for our limitations and sure enough, they are ours. By pushing ourselves just that little bit more, stretching ourselves so we are almost, but not quite out of our comfort zone and breaking seemingly impossible tasks into small chunks, it is amazing what we can master. The gin helped too, to be honest. But by the end of the week, I was confidently trundling, competently if inelegantly, down 5k green and blue slopes, cursing a wasted 50 years of non-skiing activities.

And the winner is . . . not you.

In my last blog just before Christmas, I talked about my book The Psychological Manager being shortlisted for the forthcoming (now outgoing?) Chartered Management Institute Management Book of the Year awards (#Managementgold).

I didn’t win.

I didn’t want to, obviously. It’s the taking part that counts and being shortlisted was quite enough. Honestly. This attitude is, quite frankly, why I would be rubbish on The Apprentice (add to that too old, too grey and just too nice – I’m quoting my wife here, incidentally).

What has pleased me about this whole process, however, is that other people (particularly those lovely judges) felt that I had a point. Many managers, often through a lack of skills, interest or confidence, only actually and actively manage their people once the day job is done. Which never does get done.  So neither does the people management.

Learning this stuff isn’t hard. It just takes knowledge, practice and curiosity; curiosity about your team’s hopes, aspirations, what motivates them and what doesn’t, and ultimately how to get the best out of them so that everyone wins. But before all this comes the attitude that managing people is the day job.

It’s a situation I come up against time and time again; “I would spend more time with my staff but I don’t have enough of it – I’ve got a job to do”. No acknowledgement there of accepting the short-term pain of delegating, mentoring and coaching for the long-term gain of empowerment, sustainability and engagement for them. Funny how those same people seem quite happy to take the managerial pay/grade/status, however.

Just saying.


It’s been a bit of a bizarre month, to be honest with you. Those of you who admit to knowing me or have seen the front page of this website will be aware that I have written a book about how (and why) to have good, honest performance-related conversations with your staff. To be even more honest, it started out as the course notes behind a series of training courses I run on the subject and, as the links and narrative became clear, it took on a life of its own.

I found out this month that it has been shortlisted for a prize. Not just any random old prize (such as “best book by a Berkshire-based grey-haired business psychologist with a badger fixation”) but a proper one; the Chartered Management Institute/British Library/Henley Management College Management Book of the Year. I have to go (“have to” – I’d have beaten their door down with the aforementioned stripy-faced mammal) to the award ceremony at the end of January to see if I have won the “New Manager” section of the award. I already have my best Gwyneth Paltrow-style acceptance speech ready, as well as practiced my “oh well done, you thoroughly deserve it and I’m not bitter at all, no really I mean it” congratulatory smile.

The first newspaper article has now appeared in the local press. Apart from wincing at the opening “Self-published local author, (50)” line, I was somewhat surprised at the angle they took; it was more about the fact that I self-published and therefore little ol’ me has “beaten” the big publishing houses than the fact that the book itself is, in fact, quite interesting. I am beginning to suspect that they may not have read every single page, between you and me.

Post-Olympic bandwagon issue

From reading a veritable smorgasbord of articles, tweets, social media posts and blogs, it appears I am not alone in feeling somewhat bereft in this new Olympics-free existence I find myself in. As someone who tends to watch the England football team lose on penalties as their main spectator sport, I was surprised at how much I, like most others, caught a heavy dose of Olympic fever. I am hoping this explains my decision to pay the equivalent of the Greek national debt for tickets to the Paralympics Closing ceremony, anyway.

I have also read many blogs and the like making the link with organisational performance; some profound and some fairly tenuous (along the lines of “let’s use the Olympics analogy to raise this idea up the organisational flagpole and see which of us salute it whilst humming the company anthem. . . ”). Sort of thing.

The Paralympics, however, took this to a new level and one that shoehorned its way into my consciousness as particularly resonating with my work in and philosophy of individual and team development in organisations. Time and again, watching (the soon to become National Treasure) Clare Balding and others commenting on the superb performances of our Paralympic athletes, I was struck by one idea that could have been taken from the Positive Psychology Handbook of Strengths-based Development, if it actually existed. (Note to self; write one). This oft-repeated assertion went something like this: “technology has enabled many Paralympic athletes to focus purely on what they can do, not what they can’t”.

This is Strengths-based development in glorious red, white and blue Technicolor (other countries are available; Legal Ed). Focus on what you love and are already good at, on what really resonates with your sense of who you are and what you want, and do it as well and as widely as you can. It’s more fun, motivational and empowering than focusing on your development needs. It works, too, and it’s authentic.

Find what aspects of your job, or life, you are fabulous at and, erm, be more fabulous. And if you enjoy it, it ceases to feel like work.

Where is your Banksman?

On my train journey into London I pass the Crossrail construction site just outside Paddington. I have often ruminated on the meaning of the “Where is your Banksman” signs dotted around the site. Not being familiar with the industry and not being convinced by my initial image of besuited financial advisors roaming the tracks in case of ad-hoc pecuniary need, I asked my neighbour who is, luckily, connected with the site.

Now I know what a Banksman is – someone who is your assigned lookout when you are moving heavy equipment – I see this sign everywhere (not, unfortunately, on Sainsbury’s shopping trolleys); it has successfully got past my attentional filters as I have (reasonably) deeply  processed its meaning. What has left me thinking more about Banksmen, however, is the last thing my neighbour said on that matter; “of course, many accidents on site actually involve running over your Banksman”. Hence the sign. I had assumed that it meant you were supposed to get one, not just focus on not hitting one.

It seemed a rather sad irony that the person appointed to help you is apparently the one that put themselves in the most danger. They are not the only ones though. When we are looking out for others, whether professionally through the helping professions or as coaches, colleagues, friends and family, we put ourselves potentially in the way of the heavy equipment of anger, dependency or blame. And yet we usually do it willingly.

Look out for your Banksman!

The Jump

Around 20 years ago, I did one of those parachute jumps for charity. Not necessarily the best way of finding out that you don’t like heights, to be honest, but there you go. Luckily, time has eroded most of the “why doesn’t this plane have a door? And why is someone shouting at me to fall out?” memories, but one sensation I do remember very clearly. Once I had jumped (been pushed?) and the plane had disappeared from over my head, I was left with a period of quiet calm, feeling like I wasn’t really moving at all. There was no sound. The horizon didn’t change. The ground didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and for a while I started to think that I had discovered the cure for gravity.

Anyway, this sensation of suspended animation carried on for quite some time. All of a sudden, however, there was the ground. Rushing up to meet me like a rushing thing. No warning, nothing.

Well, it’s happened again. I have been planning to set up my own Business Psychology consultancy for a couple of years now. Calmly, quietly. No sound and no changing horizon.  Then, all of a sudden, it was here. No warning, nothing. And, like the ground on that parachute jump, it feels rather good.