What a month!

There’s been so much going on recently that I’ve been neglecting my blog.

It’s only now that I am sitting on the bus traveling home that I have had a bit of time to digest everything and I’ve realized how exciting life is at the moment.

I’ve been completely inspired by so many things recently.

Here’s what’s been going on:

  • Meaning Conference was AMAZING
  • I’ve been working on a (top secret) plan for a new initiative, which I can release very soon….
  • I’ve been on a journey to bring mindfulness into the workplace, I’ve been lucky enough to be trained by World Class mindfulness gurus, who were founders of the once secret Jedi Warrior Training program for the U.S. army, Joel & Michelle Levey, I’ve me and had some amazing conversations with people on a similar journey, and I’ve published a whitepaper on mindfulness approaches to change, leadership & innovation which is also going to be published by Melrcum next week
  • I delivered a new type of workshop around a new model of leadership with my colleague, Danielle Sheerin, for PR Week which seemed to go down really well
  • I’ve had been inspired by conversations with people who are designing a new type of business fit for a VUCA World. Plans include demolishing decision-making completely, and mapping energy to create a decentralised organisation
  • I’ve been uninspired and re-inspired by green dots
  • I’ve been through an almost life-changing Clear Ideas Process with Very Clear Ideas man Charlie Davis
  • I had training on complex systems thinking which changed my whole perspective on leadership
  • I received some great news from my previous apprentice
  • I’ve experienced Tom Nixon’s radical business school pilot

I’ll be writing some posts on all of the above over the next few weeks, and I’ll include the links above as it happens.


What does it really mean to be a democratic business?

NixonMcInnes, where I work, is one of the top democratic companies in the world, recognised by WorldBlu.

My understanding of this has changed, and it’s only starting to become clear what this actually means in practice.

Although we’ve always known that being democratic is the right way of doing business, it hasn’t always been easy.

For us, in the past, it has meant that everyone has had a say on everything. This brings up some frustrating memories – evenings spent debating minor details of the annual budget with 20 people is not a good use of time.


Our WorldBlu award

So what does it mean?

WorldBlu has 10 principles it says every democratic organisation should live by:

  1. A clear purpose and vision

We’ve just become super clear on this at NM. Our purpose is to create meaning in business. In our case, since becoming clear on this, it’s meant that everyone in the organisation has had the clarity required to be free to do whatever they want, as long as it is serving this purpose.

Personally, my challenge has been around shifting my mindset and behaviours from putting profit first in everything I do, to prioritising making this purpose real above anything else.

In practice, this has been very difficult for me because it goes against everything I’ve traditionally been taught about business. This will only truly ever work if the leaders of the business believe and do it. And that’s what has helped me in my transition.

  1. Transparency

This is the bit I believe we’ve always done well, but perhaps we haven’t always been very good at understanding why we do it.

Open book accounting, knowing everyone’s salaries and having whole team strategy meetings, are just some ways we’ve been able to practice transparency.

In practice this means understanding why we do what we do and being fully open so that everyone is able to have a greater understanding of what the company requires and how each individual can help accordingly.

  1. Dialogue and listening

If you’re going to be open & transparent then you need to be able to give and take feedback. The idea is to create new meaning and connections so that everybody can work together to serve the purpose.

  1. Fairness and dignity

For me this goes hand in hand with point 3 – listening and dialogue has to occur through the entire organisation to be truly meaningful. Treating everybody as equals builds trust, confidence and happiness.

When I first joined NixonMcInnes as an intern I was genuinely shocked to see how interested everybody was in my opinion. But it makes total sense now – everyone has a perspective and everyone can add value.

  1. Accountability

This has been a point of tension at NM in the past.

The idea that everyone had to have a say in absolutely everything we did made it extremely difficult to be clear about who was accountable for what.

Now we’re in the process of solving this issue by being super clear about who owns an initiative. At NM we see different initiatives as ‘circles’. Each circle sits within our over-arching purpose and has an owner – the source of the idea initiative (for more info on ‘source’ read this). This means that this person owns that initiative, because they hold the vision, so it’s down to them to recruit people in to help and ultimately have complete creative authority over it.

This is still in progress at NM, but currently is working out pretty well for empowering those with ideas to serve the purpose and creating fulfilment – one of our values.

  1. Individual and collective

We are all at NM to serve its purpose so we all need to be fully bought into it. At an individual level though we all have our own purpose.

We’ve been working with Charlie Davis, Very Clear Ideas & NM Associate, to define our company purpose, which ultimately starts with the source (founder, Tom Nixon), but we’ve also been encouraged to find our own sense of purpose. It’s when these two things align that beautiful things will happen. And the overlap between these two things is the sweet spot.

  1. Choice

We are now actively encouraged to ‘follow the energy’ at work. Just the other day I sat down with my coach and MD, Max StJohn, and we came up with a list of all the things I enjoy doing at work. Then we made a list of all the things I don’t like doing. He pointed at the ‘stuff I don’t like doing’ column and said “stop doing this now”. It’s been completely removed from my job role!

When I tell other people this story, they immediately think of the negative impact it might have on the company – “what if no one wants to do the same thing that’s crucial to the company?” is the question I normally hear. But how could it be so crucial to the company if no one wants to do it? What’s the point in doing it if there’s no drive behind it? The job will be badly done and we won’t be living our values – to be fulfilled, and to have complete autonomy.

  1. Integrity

We’ve now really started to change things up with the way we hire. We only want to hire people who really believe in our purpose and our values because that’s what and how we want to deliver.

  1. Decentralisation

Again, I think this was something we hadn’t got quite right in the past. Now we have a clearer understanding of control – it sits within the source of the initiative. So, although we have decentralised control, control still exists.

This means, instead of having everything open to everyone all the time, we have four stages, or operating models – just like the different options on a Google doc (another Very Clear Idea from Charlie):

  1. Private – protecting it so that it can grow
  2. View – sharing but not asking for input
  3. Comment – inviting feedback and input
  4. Edit – designing it together

10. Reflect and evaluation

Leading and developing is crucial to success. We practice feedback to each other but also give space for the whole team to talk about what we feel is working, or flag if something needs to change.

I really buy into these 10 principles and, although I’m still figuring lots of this stuff out, it’s becoming much clearer.

Democracy isn’t just about involving everyone all the time, it’s about creating freedom by having clear lines of accountability and giving everyone an equal opportunity to input and make decisions that will affect them.


Using a gap year to boost your career prospects – Guardian Live Chat

Today I was asked to contribute as a panel expert on a live chat for the Guardian on the subject of ‘Using a gap year to boost your career prospects‘.

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I accepted, delighted at the subject area and really felt like I had a lot to say – I’ve recently blogged about how my recent sabbatical adventures helped me to unlock my potential in my personal and professional life.

I’ve document some of the highlights from the Q&A below – mainly for future reference but thought it might be interesting for others too.

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Reconnecting with purpose in 300 seconds

Last night I spoke at 300 Seconds Brighton – an event to empower more women in the digital community to do public speaking.

I haven’t done a lot of public speaking before so thought it would be a good opportunity to practice.

I had originally intended to talk about social media. However, as my talk evolved, it became much less about this and I realised that what I was actually talking about goes beyond digital marketing, although the thinking can still be applied to this.

So, I threw the rule book out and delivered this talk anyway.

I talked about a world where businesses reconnect with their true purpose and start delivering meaningful work, connect with its people and become more profitable as a result.

I’ve written the story I told below and embedded the slides here. Enjoy!

Genuine fake watches

I’m going to start with a story about three masons…

A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done. A third mason was hammering at his block diligently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I… am building a cathedral!

The three men in the story all started out to achieve the same thing. They all had a sense of purpose. But that been forgotten about and they became disengage with their work.

But what if they all remembered what they had set out to do?

What if we could hold up a mirror and show them what the man saw as he came across each of them?

This story is about more than just masons. It’s about most employees, politicians, NGO’s, CEO’s of massive global conglomerates….

I’m talking about what could happen if businesses remembered that they weren’t just there to chip away at rocks and build walls, but that actually they’re there for a bigger purpose – to build magnificent cathedrals (to inspire people, to support communities and even, to save lives).

I’m talking about a world where businesses want to look at the bigger picture, reconnect with their true purpose and deliver meaningful work.

Because otherwise, it manifests itself in other ways.

Starting with why

Simon Sinek (author of a book called ‘start with why’) makes a case for businesses to start with why and then align everything it does to this.

This is very unusual in the business world – usually businesses know what they do and how they do it, but not why.Those companies that start with why, and then go onto the how and what are really special.

Let’s take Apple as an example. Apple is just a computer company. Yet they have such a loyal following. Even when things go wrong, customers actually start defending them.

Simon Sinek says this is because, unlike other computer companies, they think, act and communicate starting with Why. What they do and how they do it just then prove what they believe. Apple’s Why, their higher purpose, is to challenge the status quo, to think differently. The way they do this is to make products that are beautifully designed and user friendly. They just happen to make computers. This belief attracts a following that also believes in challenging the status quo and doing things differently. Their following is because people are connected to what Apple believes first, and to what they do second.

Looking at the evidence, it’s hard not to argue that companies starting with why also have a huge competitive advantage, especially right now.

“Companies with an authentic purpose do 1025% better than the S&P 500”

This is a stat from a book, called ‘firms of endearment’, which outlines how world class companies profit from passion and purpose.

It builds on something that goes back to a fundamental need within us all – the need to feel a deeper meaning, a deeper connection to things.

This is where authenticity comes into it.

Authentic brands

Authenticity is when what you say and what you do is equal to what you believe. So being an authentic business means presenting who you really are through what you do. For companies with a real sense of purpose, this will be very easy. But for others, it’s a struggle.

Some companies like to copy what has worked for a company they admire – like copying Apple’s aesthetic when designing their products. Many companies will simply just tell customers what they want to hear – with the hope that people will trust them more if they say those things.

And that’s when problems occur.

A good example of a brand being unauthentic is from KFC. It’s an example which Simon Sinek would call ‘purpose-washing’:

“Buy a half a gallon of soda for $2.99 and a buck goes to juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation”

Obviously we all know KFC is bad for us and full of sugar, but here they are aligning themselves with Junior Diabetes Research Foundation. They’re not being authentic because what they’re doing here contradicts with their whole business model. This is just an act to reach out to customers and show that they care about this stuff – when it’s obvious they don’t.

But this isn’t unusual and whether it’s something this obvious or not, it happens all the time.

But wouldn’t it be awesome if these companies actually delivered on their purpose? And actually were truly authentic?

Wouldn’t it be awesome if businesses moved from doing things like the KFC example above, to doing things that actually serve people’s real needs and deliver on their own purpose.

Metrobank are a good example of this. They have based their entire business around outstanding customer service and their aim is to create fans not customers – and they’re certainly walking the walk – their entire services are based around the customers need and built for convenience.

I think their reviews speak for themselves – and it just goes to show – even a bank can get this right!

Customers are getting smarter

… and they’re seeing through the bullshit.

A few interactions with a company will help reveal if they’re branding is simply saying what they think will appeal to us, rather than what they actually think.

Building cathedrals

And this is why I believe most businesses today need to take a step back from breaking the rocks in front of them and start remembering that they are actually building cathedrals. Because they need to reconnect to their purpose, their ‘why’, and start aligning their behaviours to it.

Happiness at work

Business is all about people.

Yet, this is normally forgotten about. It’s not unusual for people to believe that the person who comes into work is different to the person at home. The idea that the ‘work you’ does not have emotions, or at least definitely shouldn’t express them.

But we’re beginning to realise that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this. We’re beginning to recognise that by allowing people to be themselves, by encouraging people to bring their whole selves to work, they will be happier and more productive. It’s all a bit too obvious though, isn’t it?

I love this quote from Jenni Lloyd, which sums it up perfectly:

Why can’t we bring all of the things we’ve got, to work? What does it mean for those businesses if all they’ve got access to is our hands? But not really to our brains and our best ideas and not really to our hearts where our passion is?

So, the next step is to change the systems and processes which we have built with this false perception at the heart. And it has to start with the individual. That’s where effective change always starts.

It’s worth mentioning that this blog post has been spurred on because I’ve just returned from a 3 month sabbatical, backpacking around South East Asia. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But instead of leaving NixonMcInnes, I found a way that met both our needs. I found a way to do something I really wanted to do and I feel even more engaged and happy working for NM.

Whilst I was away, I was thinking about I want out of life. I’ve always been very ambitious, but at that moment I found something that I realised was even more important to me – Fun, happiness.

A very happy moment for me

A very happy moment for me during my travels – feeling the fear and doing it anyway

I’ve always had a lot of fun doing what I do and I’m lucky to be at a company who invests so much into the happiness of the team. But, I think I personally had got bogged down and forgotten how important it is to have fun and be happy at work.

So, before returning to work, I made a promise to myself – to have more fun at work. I know from personal experience that I am better at my job when I’m happy. It makes me less stressed and bucket loads more productive.

I shared my promise with my team and they invited me to help them stick to this as well. So, I took this happiness at work survey and created a happiness action plan.

Here are the 5 things I’ve found to be most successful so far:

  1. Writing down in my notepad everyday “How can I make today great?” and then writing down three ways I can achieve it
  2. Taking advantage of flexible working and working wherever suits my mood e.g. from my garden when the sun is shining
  3. Spending more time with colleagues e.g. inviting people to lunch or just simply by making more of an effort to ask people how they’re doing
  4. Working at a slower pace and building in more breaks for thinking and creativity
  5. Sitting in different places around the office and swapping desks. This is surprisingly effective!

What works for you? I’d love to hear some other tips!

What I learned at The Story

I went to The Story a few days ago. Here, Meg Rossoff talked about what makes a good story and it’s something that really resonated with me. This isn’t a particularly well written blog post but I wanted to document the concept.

80395377_c52cb50d2d_bPhoto courtesy of bozo_z_clown

Meg told us a story about horse riding and in particular, dressage, which is a relatively new hobby for Meg.

In this story, Meg was beginning to feel frustrated because people kept advising her that she needed more ‘throughness’ – but she had no idea what this meant.

It is, in fact, a term in equestrianism which, according to wikipedia:

“is often compared to a circuit of energy between horse and rider: the rider’s leg aids encourage energetic movement in the hindquarters, which push the back upward, which in turn allows for connection with the front end and the bit, and the connection felt in the bit transmits a feeling of energetic movement back to the rider’s hands.”

One day, as Meg was riding through the countryside with her friend, her horse got spooked and threw her onto the ground. Meg turned to her friend and commented on the dog which had jumped out of the bushes and spooked the horse. But “there was no dog” replied her friend.

Perhaps, Meg thought, she had just achieved ‘throughness’ with her horse and seen the dog because the horse had seen the dog in his mind.

It’s probably worth talking a little bit about horses here. My friend and NM associate, Karen Gartside, works with horses and business leaders in America. According to Karen, horses have a particular sense. The way she explains it is similar to that feeling you get when you’re in a crowded room and you know someone in the crowd is there too but you can also sort of ‘feel’ their presence. For horses, this sensation can be felt over a couple of miles. This explains why horses get spooked a lot of the time and that standing next to a horse, for them, can actually feel like you’re right in their face. This is why you have to hold yourself properly and have a certain level of self-confidence when being near a horse. It is for this reason that Karen says you can tell a lot about a person by the way a horse behaves around them. And this is (my very simplified understanding of) what Karen does with teams and leaders.

Meg concludes that it is this ‘throughness’ which is the difference between a good rider and a bad one. And the same goes for stories and their writers.

It is this which makes a good story really powerful because it will appeal to a deeper part of us and our emotions. And, as two more speakers from The Story, Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard says, “the only truth is emotional truth”.

The paradox of structure in business

Several decades ago, there was a wide belief that school playgrounds should not have fences because they would inhibit children’s creative play and sense of freedom.

Someone conducted an experiment to prove this*. But surprisingly, the opposite was true.

In this experiment, there were two playgrounds – one of these had a fence around it and the other one did not.

When a group of children were let into the fenceless playground, the children used a limited space and stuck together right in the center of the playground. Yet, when they were let into the fenced playground, the children used the entire space.

In this example, the physical structure paradoxically created a sense of freedom.

Photo by zendt66

Photo by Zendt66

This is the same in business too.

I recently took part in a systems thinking workshop.

As part of this workshop, we were given a role. We were either ‘tops’, ‘middles’, ‘bottoms’ or ‘customers’ – representing different stakeholders of an organisation.

In teams (tops, middles, bottoms) we were given a brief, a day (represented by 12 minutes) and an area of the room.

What was really interesting was, as the ‘day’ played out, most of the ‘bottoms’ were becoming frustrated because of the lack of direction from the ‘middles’ and ‘tops’. They hadn’t been given enough boundaries and this translated into a lack of understanding and knowledge to get on with the task in hand.

What was interesting was that not all of the ‘bottoms’ felt like this and some of them had thrived from the freedom they felt to get on with things in their own way and style.

This is because people have different creative styles.

The key, for any leader, is to create ‘gates’ in structures, to allow people to choose the structure that is right for them.

This can mean making the physical and emotional structures more flexible. It’s no coincidence that most creative agencies have open offices, lots of big whiteboards and encourage flexible working hours.

But there’s also something a bit deeper at stake here. It’s about giving people a purpose to work towards and a set of values to work by, and letting them do the rest, in their way.

*Source: Coursera – Creativity, Innovation and Change