Courage; find it and use it…

The Badger was recently asked ‘What was the most courageous thing you saw someone do during your career?’ The person asking expected an answer that related to someone making an operational, delivery, or business decision that turned out right even though most were sceptical.  The Badger’s answer, however, was somewhat different. It related to a young researcher presenting a paper to a few hundred academics in a large auditorium at a national conference.  

Courage is that mental strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty. Everyone has it, although we often do not appreciate this as we go about our work and life routines. The Badger has seen many demonstrate enormous courage when dealing with business and project delivery situations over the years, and leaders and managers, of course, often encounter situations that require courage to navigate. Nothing the Badger saw, however, surpassed the courage shown by the young researcher presenting their paper at this conference.

The Badger, himself a young researcher at the time, had presented his own scientific paper at the conference and had returned to his auditorium seat to listen to the remaining presentations of the session. As a young presenter made their way to the lectern to give the final paper before lunch, everyone in the audience immediately sensed that something was not right. The young presenter’s entire body was physically shaking. The chairperson asked if everything was okay. The presenter nodded a confirmation and started their presentation.  

From their quivering voice, disjoint delivery, long pauses, and deep breaths between sentences, the whole auditorium realised that they were witnessing a person overwhelmed with nerves. The disjointed flow of words, long embarrassing pauses, and visible shaking continued through the entire presentation. It was uncomfortable to watch, and the presenter’s discomfort rather than the content of their paper became the centre of everyone’s attention. At the end of the presentation, the presenter stood, shaking and silent, in anticipation of questions.  The Badger felt he was witnessing extraordinary courage, and so did the entire audience who erupted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation!

The Badger was at the same table as the presenter for lunch, and conversation inevitably turned to their nervousness. They explained that it was their first time presenting to such a large audience, that public speaking of any kind had never been their forte, and that they had forced themselves to present at the conference because they felt they needed to overcome their public speaking fears to have a successful career in scientific research.  They were shocked by the standing ovation but also elated that it signalled support and encouragement from the scientific community. The researcher went on to become a world expert in their field!

Courage is something we all have deep inside. If you want to achieve your full potential, then find it and liberate it, and the world can be your oyster…

Meetings and muppets…

One of the Badger’s bosses from years ago sadly died recently, taken way too soon by COVID-19. On hearing the news, a memory of his boss chairing a large meeting of business and functional leaders quickly came to the fore. The Badger’s boss, someone whose external visage – shall we say – masked an intellect and capability that was second to none, tired of the vacuous hand waving and grand-standing of one of the meeting attendees and interjected with ‘I’m beginning to wonder what muppet appointed you when I hear rubbish like this’. The hand waver immediately responded with ‘Actually, it was you that appointed me!’  The Badger’s boss gave a wry smile and said, ‘Well I must have had a Fozzie Bear moment, which is something I will rectify if you continue being the Swedish Chef’. Everyone giggled and the meeting got back on track.

Later that day, over small talk at a coffee point, the Badger’s boss playfully told him that everyone in meetings considers themselves to be better and more deserving than others present, and that one or more of the attendees are muppets! The boss went on to say that people also sit there wondering how someone less capable than themselves could have been appointed to an important position. The boss advised the Badger to remember these points when attending meetings, to consciously learn about human behaviour, and to use this understanding for advantage whenever you can.

The Badger has indeed sat through meetings over the years wondering how he could be surrounded by muppets and how they could have got to where they were in their careers with such obvious flaws!  Many of you have probably done the same. In the real world of organisations, of course, it is not always about how good you are at your job, your knowledge, or your experience that gets you into a key position, it is often how you play internal politics, who you know, and  how much energy you put into looking good rather than doing a good job. This can be very frustrating, but it is a fact of life and also of human behaviour.  

The Badger’s boss imparted one final point of wisdom before leaving the coffee point, namely, that if you are sitting in a meeting thinking that others are muppets and undeserving of their position, then you must remember that they are thinking exactly the same about you!  The boss looked the Badger in the eye, grinned broadly, and said, ‘In meetings, your career, and life, you need to manage the muppets before they manage you’.  The boss, in an action not dissimilar to the Swedish Chef, then poured coffee down the front of their suit jacket!  The Badger will remember them not only for their wisdom and sound advice, but also because they were never a muppet.  

If you can’t stand the heat…

The young Badger’s first assignments in the IT industry involved technical work and software development. Much was learned, and this fuelled an appetite for advancement and greater challenges, one of which was becoming a ‘divisional coordinator’ helping a Divisional Manager run every aspect of their line of business. This role significantly enhanced the Badger’s understanding of human nature, and the motivations and behaviours of those who get things done in an organisation.

Every fortnight the Divisional Manager and the Badger attended fortnightly operational reviews with the former’s boss, the Group Manager responsible for multiple Divisions.  These were uncompromisingly direct meeting! As a youngster, the Badger found sitting next to his boss as they were verbally chastised and interrogated about every minor issue an uncomfortable experience, even though the Badger’s boss took it in their stride.  

After one particularly vociferous and harsh session that involved raised voices,  the Divisional Manager took the young Badger to a local tea-room for a debrief.  Over tea and cake, the Badger asked why his boss stayed so calm in the face of these verbal whippings. He smiled, said it was because he understood his boss, and went on to make the following points:

  1. Leaders and managers are paid to make things happen. They had to be demanding or nothing would happen. Running any enterprise requires tough and demanding people to achieve real outcomes. Remember, a business is not a democracy.  
  2. Humans are not exempt from ‘the survival of the fittest’ inDarwin’s theory of evolution. People have different personalities and temperaments, but everyone has a hurtful streak. Successful leaders learn about  human behaviour and how to handle those they interface with using techniques appropriate to their strengths, weaknesses, and temperament. Sometimes it’s necessary to be ruthlessly brutal because some people require that to get the message!
  3. Remember the ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ mantra from school days because if you let being called names hurt you then whoever is calling you the names wins! Leaders never dwell on this. Instead, they stay focused on their job.  

The Badger was reminded of the above while watching a popular UK television series that has the public voting for a member of a group of minor celebrities to undergo an ordeal. The public had consistently voted for the same frightened individual and in doing so neatly illustrated the innate human capacity to pick on the perceived weakest in any group. Interestingly, it also illustrated that if the picked-on individual faced up to their demons then they won out and public attention focused elsewhere!   

Human nature hasn’t really changed over the decades. It’s as true today as it’s ever been that you need to toughen up to succeed in any environment.  President Harry S. Truman’s words from 75 years ago are still apt…’If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.

So you think you’re not biased? Think again…

All organisations have policies and processes for recruiting people from the external market into vacant roles and candidates typically meet their prospective employer for an ‘interview’ at some stage, even with today’s technology. Those doing the interviewing tend to be well-trained by their employers, which was certainly true for the Badger who has interviewed many people for roles at all levels of seniority and some of these were sessions never to be forgotten!

Many years ago, the Badger interviewed a series of candidates to project manage and lead the overall delivery of a major IT contract with a new client. One candidate was of a lady whose CV showed six roles with impressive titles at four different companies in the previous three years. The interview proved memorable. She was ten minutes late, made no attempt to apologise, and immediately launched into how perfect she was for the role as soon as she was seated. Hmm, not a great start, but the Badger quickly took control and focused on what needed to be explored.   

It transpired that the impressive titles on her CV covered mainly administrative project support functions rather than overall delivery leadership. It also transpired that she had moved companies four times in three years because she was ‘under-appreciated and didn’t fit’.  But it wasn’t any of this that made the meeting, it was what she said afterwards as the Badger politely escorted her back to reception.  She asked if she would have a second interview and whether was she in the running for the role. The Badger said no politely on both counts. The lady glared and said, ‘It’s because you are biased against women, isn’t it?’  Taken aback for a second, the Badger replied – truthfully – ‘No. It’s because when I asked you to describe the traditional system delivery lifecycle and a number of the key risk points in it, you couldn’t’.  The lady stormed off!

This sticks in the memory because it triggered the Badger to improve his awareness and knowledge of bias and the effect it has on one’s own behaviour and that of others.  It made the Badger really appreciate that everyone has in-built ‘unconscious bias’, and that knowing this, and the fact that it’s easier to see it in others than it is to see it in yourself, helps you make better decisions.  There’s some informative ‘unconscious bias’ articles  here, here, here and here.

Ever since the interview with the lady, two related things have been raised in the Badger’s consciousness.  The first is to use your training when interviewing and be aware of ‘unconscious bias’ when making your decision.  The second is not to be fazed if someone accuses you of being biased, because it’s a fact of human existence that your accuser has their own in-built bias too!

An 88 year-old’s take on tech during pandemic lockdown…

It’s been tough for the elderly during the pandemic, especially if they live alone in their own homes and relatives live a long way away. Good neighbours, community volunteers, and some of the tech that younger people take for granted have been a big help, provided, of course, the elder in question wants to embrace the support.

A local acquaintance is 88 years old and has lived in the same house since the 1960s. They have lived there alone since their partner died 25 years ago. They suffer from arthritis which is progressively limiting what they can do. They are proudly independent, stoic, and keep their old house spotless. Before the pandemic, they frequently used public transport, did their own shopping, met friends for coffee at a local daycentre, and regularly attended their church. None of this now happens but they don’t complain about how difficult it is for elders who are not in care homes, don’t get visits from carers, and who have families that live too far away to provide anything other than telephone contact. Television is their primary source of company. They do not have a mobile phone, broadband, or social media. Their landline telephone – with a 30-year-old handset – is their lifeline to the outside world.

The Badger’s been keeping a watchful eye and doing their shopping, just like many citizens everywhere during the pandemic. Once a week we have a long, face to face, socially distanced chat that clearly lifts their spirits. This week they asked the Badger about video calls because they had heard about them on television, and their distant family wants them to accept having an easy to use video facility for the elderly put in their home. The Badger promptly used his smartphone and WhatsApp to show them  how easy video are to make in practice.

They marvelled at what’s possible, but immediately said they didn’t want ‘that kind of technology’ in the house or in their life! Asked why not, they gave two reasons. The first was ‘it’s too complicated to learn at my age’, but the second really took the Badger by surprise. From watching television and listening to the radio, they have decided that the internet, social media, and smart tech are responsible for most of the strife in the world. They don’t want anything that causes strife in their life!

They elaborated by saying that every generation has a nemesis, and that the impact of rampant smart tech will be the younger generation’s nemesis in times to come. The Badger was quietly impressed! How many of us will be able to formulate and articulate such an insightful view on reaching the ripe old age of 88? Will tech have overtaken our capacity for independent thought by then? Hmm…

The 6 Cs – Control, Care, Commerce, Community, Consumption & Communications

Long days of pandemic-related lockdown do strange things to your thoughts. We obviously think about our personal circumstances and fears, but simple things can trigger thoughts that can take you to unexpected conclusions. The Badger, for example, has noticed that simple observations trigger thoughts that meander to a conclusion that barely relates to the observation itself, as illustrated below.

The Badger recently noticed his wife’s growing irritation with mainstream TV News. She increasingly asserts ‘TV News has more dinner party chat dressed as analysis, complainers and people with an axe to grind, spin, and scaremongering speculation than straightforward factual news.’ Hmm. ‘A Story’ is what drives journalists, which in today’s instant communication era suggests that no TV broadcasters, print or social media/internet platforms can really provide reliable, factual, spin-free news.

Anyway, that’s a digression, because observing the wife’s rising irritation triggered the Badger to think about what he would do if he were leader of a country when the current crisis has abated! The Badger cogitated under a fruit tree in full blossom over a couple of cups of coffee. The answer – to initiate an independent ‘lessons learned’ review to identify improvements and inform the country’s future policies and direction – soon emerged.

The review would cover six pillars:

  •  Control – What improvements in command, control and logistics mechanisms are needed to be better prepared for this type of future crisis?
  • Care – What are the lessons for the country health and social care system and how can weaknesses be addressed in an economically viable way?
  • Commerce – What are the economic and operational lessons for Public Services and Business? What do these mean for future workforce planning, productivity, business activities, financial prudence, and supply chain policy?
  • Community – How has the crisis changed social attitudes, behaviours and the priorities and demands of the general public? How has the public mood changed regarding nationalism versus internationalism and globalisation? How does this compare between demographics and with other countries?
  • Consumption – What have consumers and businesses learned about what their demand for goods, commodities, and services has on life, the climate, the environment, and sustainability? What impact will greater consumer enlightenment have on country priorities and wealth?
  • Communications – What lessons emerge from crisis communication direct from government to the general public? What can change to reduce misinformation in printed, broadcast, and internet-based media, and on social media platforms? How have public attitudes to regulation and privacy changed due to the pandemic?

Tech crosses all 6 pillars. It has mostly been a saviour in this crisis, especially when you realise that if this pandemic had happened 10 to 15 years ago when tech was less mature, the impact on our lives would have been orders of magnitude worse.

So, there you have it. A simple observation can trigger an unexpected train of thought. Fortunately, the Badger’s not a country leader. One thing’s certain, however. The world has changed and things really can’t be same as they were. Our leaders must know that?

Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise…

If you’ve ever been asked to take on the responsibility for fixing a failing project, programme, or service delivery that’s causing serious relationship, financial, reputation or business difficulties, then you’ll know that when you take the reins lots of people will tell you about the bad things, who’s to blame, and what should have happened but didn’t. You’ll also know that far fewer people will tell you about the good things, the good people, and their good ideas to improve matters. There are always good things! They are, however, swamped by a fog of grumbles, complaints, politics and blame narratives! An experienced leader knows about this imbalance and ensures that ‘balance is restored’ by putting the right people with the right attitude in the right place to turn failure into success. After all, it’s a fully committed, positive and aligned team that really turns things around, not the person at the top!

Have you ever wondered why people tend to complain, blame, and exude negativity more than praise and positivity? The answer lies in the physiological wiring of the brain. Put simply, the emotional part of the brain processes ‘bad events’ whereas the rational part processes ‘good events. The former works much faster than the latter, which means we assign fault and blame quickly and frequently but think long and hard before giving praise. Fascinating stuff!

What triggered the Badger to think about this? Two recent events that made the Badger feel that today’s tech-dependent society has lost all sense of balance, objectivity, and community. Both events related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first was a conversation with friends that concluded that ‘Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise’ and negativity has pervaded every facet of journalism, the broadcast media, and social media, and that ‘blame and complain’ has more noticeably become the norm in society as digital tech has boomed over the last twenty years.

The second was in the local supermarket whose shelves and frozen food cabinets were largely empty due to panic buying. Behind the Badger at the checkout, two people proudly crowed about how they had each bought two extra freezers online ‘just in case’, They then bitterly complained to a store worker about the empty shelves and blamed the supermarket chain for incompetence. They then blamed a different local supermarket chain for not having what they wanted either, and the UK and Chinese governments for letting all this happen!

The checkout operator winked. ’I think it’s just the way their brains work. One has a cough so you might not want to serve them’, the Badger said in response. The checkout queue fell silent! The Badger left the store certain that it’s time for our tech-centric society to concentrate more on praise and positivity than blame and complain. That would, however, require a rewiring of our brains.

‘Swagger’ – A qualitative indicator of an organisation’s future.

Last week the Badger was caught on the hop by a final year undergraduate who asked the following. What made you join the company you worked for? Was it what they did, their values,  their website or their glossy brochures? Was it a promise of fast career progression? Was it to get a respected name on your CV? Was it the money? Was it desperation and anywhere would do? Or was it because you were impressed by the ‘swagger’ of the people you encountered in the recruitment process?

The Badger, very sensibly, paused to think before answering. The Badger considered a simplistic answer, something like ‘there were many reasons why the Badger accepted the formal job offer when it arrived’. But, in truth, what made the Badger to join the company he worked for was very straightforward. Every person encountered in the recruitment process was extraordinarily passionate about the work they did. Their energy, ‘can do’ and ‘always up for a challenge’ attitude was palpable and infectious. They had ‘swagger’. Not the arrogant ’Jack-the-lad, I’m important’ type, but the type that quietly radiates confidence, optimism, professionalism, trust and an ‘action speaks louder than words’ attitude to challenges. So, the Badger responded accordingly.

The follow-up question was ‘In the same circumstances, would you make the same decision today as you did then’? The answer was ‘Yes’. The small IT company the Badger joined had a growing, second-to-none, reputation for building and delivering challenging and complex software and systems. It persevered when faced with problems and delivered when most competitors would throw in the towel and engage the lawyers. The company didn’t have high profile in the media. It’s unique selling point (USP) was essentially the ‘swagger’ of its loyal, highly capable people who did what they said they would do. Clients liked that commitment, and the ‘swagger’ of the company’s people underpinned the company’s ‘does difficult things and always delivers’ reputation.

The company eventually grew into a multi-national corporate, and the ‘swagger’ of its people inevitably changed. Bureaucracy started to constrain behaviour and attitude, and ‘swagger’ became diluted as a trickle of people leaving for pastures new became a perpetual operational dynamic. People became less delivery focused,  more political, and their willingness to make excuses rather than deliver results became more noticeable. The company’s mojo and USP suffered as a result! So, if you’re interested in early warning signs that the organisation you work for is slowly losing its mojo, then don’t look at your executive leaders, look at how the ‘swagger’ of the people around you is changing. The ‘swagger’ of people is the qualitative barometer of your organisation’s future prospects. Oh, and if feel your own ‘swagger’ is on the wane, then just remember there’s a big wide world out there full of opportunity to drive it back up to new peaks…

‘Stench’ – a virtual fragrance for the festive season?

If you work for an organisation that takes the development of its people seriously then you’ll have attended courses with elements that sensitise you to the importance of body language when engaging with others. The Badger was first sensitised to this when attending two short courses in quick succession many years ago. The first course covered interviewing and recruiting new graduates, and the second covered leading software and system development teams. Both featured personal interaction sessions that were videoed and critiqued by the trainers and other attendees – a very effective way of learning about the powerful signals our body language conveys. Since then, and with many other courses under the belt, the Badger has been in many situations where controlling one’s body language and watching that of others has helped to convert difficult circumstances into acceptable outcomes.

People have been communicating with each other for millennia. We are conditioned by our heritage to know that the best communication happens when we are physically face to face so that we can hear what’s said and simultaneously see the physical nuances of those in the same room. Modern technology, however, encourages instant communication that is devoid of a contextual body language component. Email’s a good example. How many times have you sent an email that’s been misinterpreted when read by recipients? More times than we all care to admit. The body language component is missing from the words.

Another example is the recent Elon Musk v Vernon Unsworth court case relating to comments made on Twitter. A jury found in favour of Mr Musk. His offending Tweets were judged to be essentially ‘playground insults’ rather than real defamatory insults. The Badger has no opinion on the right or wrong of this finding, that’s a matter for the courts, but isn’t it somewhat sad that the finding seems to legitimise trading hurtful insults using modern social media platforms like Twitter? Surely this isn’t good for society? ‘Playground insults’ normally take place in a real playground where words are said with body language visible. Surely if it’s okay to trade ‘playground insults’ using Twitter, then that’s clear evidence that civilisation is crumbling into an anarchistic morass?

After the Musk ruling, one of the Badger’s friends commented – admittedly after more mulled wine than prudent – that Twitter should invent a virtual fragrance called ‘Stench’ for anyone who wants to make playground insults using its platform over the forthcoming festive season. The Badger laughed, because the amusing and playful intent was clear in their words and body language. We laughed again when we decided that ‘playground insults’ should stay in a real playground and not be traded in the virtual world. Why? Because ‘playground fisticuffs’ are a much cheaper and more effective way of resolving playground disputes than resorting to lawyers. Oh, and finally, in case you’re wondering, for the avoidance of doubt and all that, none of this is intended to insult anyone or any organisation!