Tag Archives: ecology of organisation

Keeping your best talent: lessons from the school playground

Working, as I do, on two sides of the leadership coin, there’s one thing that intrigues me.

I’ve yet to work with a client organisation in which the most senior leadership cadre complains about having too many talented leaders or aspiring leaders across the organisation.  This remains true even now, in the midst of painful down- (or right-) sizing, when the number of leadership jobs available is diminishing.

It seems that talent is in short supply.

At the same time, working with individual leaders in organisations or at my coaching clinic on a Sunday, I meet men and women who are clearly talented and yet who struggle to find the right next job. (Right now, as a result of these kinds of conversations, I’m recruiting members of a London-based coaching group called Kick start your next career move.  If you know anyone who might be interested, please forward this link to them.)

It seems that people with strong potential don’t always find it easy to find a job in which they can truly shine.

If you read my blog on a regular basis you’ll know that I don’t hold line managers responsible for the careers of their staff.  We all have a primary responsibility to meet our own needs.  Still, if you are a line manager to a talented and aspiring leader, I wonder if you relate to the dilemma faced by your colleagues.

Are you worried that coaching your staff will prepare them for a future in someone else’s organisation?

Learning to hold the reins
Learning to hold the reins

You know how it is.  You’ve made the case for a new member of your team, someone who can take some of the load off your shoulders.  Perhaps it took you a while to ask for help.  Maybe it was a long and painful approval process, so that by the time you get to recruit, you’re almost on your knees.

You advertise the post and get any number of recruits.  Maybe some of them look just right for the post, though your colleagues worry that these well-formed candidates are already ready for the next job and encourage you to take on someone who can benefit from some learning in this post.  You do.

You choose someone with potential and you spend time bringing them up to speed.  For a while, it seems as though you have more work as a result of recruiting them rather than less.  Perhaps you spend six months, eight… maybe even twelve months or eighteen teaching them to hold the reins.

Having delegated all sorts of tasks to your new team member, you’re starting to motor.  You are free now to handle an altogether more strategic agenda.  You enjoy stepping back from the detail to plan your forward path.

And then, just as your plan comes to fruition, they leave.

It may be that this is the reality of your situation.  Perhaps it’s something you worry about even though it hasn’t happened yet.  Is it wise to invest so much in support of members of your team if all it means is that they move on?

Building a learning organisation

In 1999, the UK’s Department for Education funded a major piece of research in order to understand what differentiated the most effective school teachers.  It followed hot on the heals of research into effective school leadership which underpinned the design of a national Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers.

I was working at the time for the Hay Group, which carried out this work.  Although mostly I have worked with client organisations in the private sector, these projects heralded the beginning of my involvement in the education sector.  I was Director of Quality for the conduct and analysis of interviews with teachers across the country, for example, as part of the Hay Group’s research.  After I left the Hay Group, I served for ten years as a regional and then national judge for the Teaching Awards.

One year, it was my privilege to observe a head teacher who, already successful in leading her own school, had taken on the headship of a second school.   The second school was in some difficulty so her remit was to raise standards in the second school whilst maintaining standards in the first.  As others before her had already found out, parents’ fear that standards might drop can make them highly unwilling partners in such an endeavour.

Coaching new skills
Teaching new skills

Nonetheless, the head teacher’s approach was audacious.  She started to make strategic exchanges of personnel between the two schools.  A member of staff in one school would swap places with his or her peer in the other school.  Both would receive coaching and both would work with each other to exchange best practice with the aim of raising standards in both schools.  Hers was essentially a coaching approach.

It worked.

Standards improved across the failing school.  Teachers across both schools reported an enriching experience which had built their awareness of and confidence in their skills.  They improved existing skills and developed new ones.  The head teacher had created what some call a learning organisation, in both schools.  Coaching was woven into the culture and practices of both schools.

What “Miss” knew

What did this head teacher know that made her feel comfortable to take such audacious steps?  Two things.

Firstly, she knew that even without any changes of personnel, the school she was taking on had greater potential than it was currently fulfilling.  She had faith in the people in the new school – faith that they could learn and grow.  She also held the belief that staff in her existing school, already seen as high performers, had the potential to learn and grow.  She set out to make the experience a learning experience for everybody.

So far, so good.  But what about the risk of preparing people for a future in other people’s schools?

In truth, this head teacher positively wanted to prepare people for their next roles, whether or not it was in her school.  You could say that she wanted it because this was a reflection of who she was.  She was, at root, a coaching head teacher.

But in case you are not a coaching leader, you might still want to know why.  What thoughts and attitudes did she have that made her want to coach her staff even whilst knowing they might move on?

This head teacher’s approach was the manifestation of her belief that there are plenty of talented people in the world, people with potential to learn and grow.  She knew that there would always be people coming into her school with potential and with an appetite for learning.  In truth, experience had taught her that creating a learning environment for the adults in her school made the school an attractive place for precisely the kind of people she wanted to recruit – people with aspirations to learn and to work to high standards.  She had no concerns about losing good people because she felt confident of her ability to recruit more good people to the school.

Room to shine

As I draw this posting to a close, I remember that this head teacher’s school shone like a beacon in her area and was heavily over-subscribed.  It attracted parents and their children.  It attracted teaching and non-teaching staff.  What’s more, it attracted applications from precisely the kind of people she wanted to recruit.  I wonder what brand your organisation has in your marketplace, whatever it is.

It’s easy, too, to see that some people also have a personal charisma that makes them shine like a beacon within their organisations and beyond.  These are the people you recruit with confidence, if only you get the chance.

But if you’re not shining as an individual to your current or prospective employers, it doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer.  More likely, it means you don’t know what your talent is or how to describe it.  (If so, please think about joining me to Kick start your next career move.)

And if, as a leader, you want to attract staff who will make a real difference in your organisation, think about recruiting the very people you’d most like to keep, coaching them whilst they’re with you and accepting that, at some stage, they will move on.

Concerned about staff behaviour? Check your systems


My clients have been expressing some envy in recent days on conference calls and coaching calls knowing that, in the midst of a heatwave, I have been working from home.  I am indeed glad to be able to dress casually – no suit, no make-up – in my home office.

It’s also true that, for the solopreneur, life away from work can be an extension of life at work.  In the last few days I have been thinking – as a client, as a woman with a hobby (more about that later), as the manager of a home, as a service provider – about systems.

When your work descends into chaos

Have you ever found yourself – whether at work or at home – overwhelmed?

It could be that you have more e-mail correspondence than you know how to handle. Or you have an overwhelming amount of physical material – from stock to stationery, from filing to furniture – to organise.

Maybe the number of tasks that are piling up, waiting to be done later is slowly growing.  You know that “done later” increasingly means “won’t get done at all”.  It wouldn’t be so bad if it also meant, “will be filed, shredded, put in a place where they belong” rather than “will create clutter, chaos, confusion”.

It’s not just that you, or your team, or even your organisation, is not getting certain things done.  It’s not only that there are consequences for your business (unhappy clients, for example, or unpaid bills).

No.  In addition, your failure to address a growing problem begins the process of institutionalising an inefficiency, a failure of service, or some other problem for the longer term.  Over time, it also creates a built-in failure of thinking, innovation, problem solving as thinking descends into a fog as a result of the mess you’re in.

Ahem…  I know


It may surprise you to know that the sink in my garden is at the heart of several systems in my life and not all to do with gardening.

In the last eighteen months, for example, I have taken up a bit of a hobby – buying and selling china, ceramics, pottery… items of beauty. On eBay, I go under the name of arabesque1963 and, increasingly, I recognise that this gentle pastime – the occasional visit to Greenwich Auction House, mooching round the market at Lee Green, letting go of items that no longer please me in my home and replacing them with things that do – is (albeit on a small scale) a fully fledged business and presents the same challenges as any other business.

Now, I don’t want to turn this posting into a rave review of eBay, though I do have reason to be grateful for the work that has gone into supporting me as both buyer and seller at their end.  Only recently, for example, I received a parcel as a buyer in which three out of four items were broken.  The person who sold them to me was kind enough to refund the money I had spent but many aspects of their communication were wholly unsatisfactory, including the feedback they left on my profile.  I contacted eBay who took the view that yes, this was in breach of their trust and safety policies and removed it.

As a seller on eBay I have been evolving systems.  I have standard terms and conditions, for example, which I use to create each listing I make of new items for sale.  I am making a practice of including a rather beautiful mouse when I take photos of items for sale – this creates an identity for my eBay brand and attracts attention and comment.  (No, the mouse is not for sale).  I have a few places where I take these photos, including the garden sink.  I always include a thank you note which is often the subject of comment when buyers leave feedback.


Frankly, even after twelve years at the helm of Learning for Life Consulting, I have to say there’s no better education that I can think of in the art and science of business.  I know, for example, that I can make more profit when I buy large lots rather than individual items or that I can make better use of my time if I group items together to create an offering worth a certain amount of money.  I know, too, that if I were doing this to make a living I would need to think much less about my love of a good mooch and much more about income targets, how best to meet them and how best to maximise profit whilst minimising my investment of time.  (I’m guessing that I hardly need to point out that wrapping breakable items takes care and time).

Systems alert!  It’s easy to mistake a systems error for a failure by your team

My experience of eBay has reminded me of times in my business when things start to go wrong.

Right now, for example, I am grappling with a particular challenge – where to store items which have yet to be sold.  The truth is, I am buying more quickly than I am selling.  Where can I create enough space to store my stock so it’s not in the way?

In the meantime, well… it is in the way.

I remember a similar stage in running Learning for Life Consulting when I didn’t know where to find paperwork and client files, because I hadn’t yet created a storage system that worked.  And when I had created a storage system that worked, I still needed to use it – to put existing files in their rightful place, to keep them up to date, to create a new file for each new client.

It took me a while to clock something that businesses face every day – the risk of blaming staff for your failure to create a system, because what you see is the unhelpful behaviour rather than the absence of a system.  Worst still, it may be your clients, rather than you, who are complaining about the unhelpful behaviour of your staff.  Organisations are particularly vulnerable at times of change or growth or even when they face a problem and lack a system to deal promptly and effectively with client complaints.

Recently, I experienced this from the client end.  I was dealing with an organisation that provides services I have been used to buying over the years and I wasn’t happy.  The organisation was offering an attractive package… but failing to deliver.  I had to remind them of the promises they’d made me.  I asked about one small thing and was greeted with, well “what’s it got to do with me?”  I wasn’t impressed. It was enough to make me reflect on the standards I expected and to realise that, well, this small organisation is still muddling through at a time when they need to set clear standards and work out how they will deliver against those standards… every time.

It especially highlighted to me that they are trying to compete with some of the “big boys” in their industry but haven’t yet worked out what made those boys “big”.

What systems are you lacking in your organisation?

I am still working on a system that works for my eBay hobby and realising that, in the eyes of anyone who buys from me, it’s no hobby – I am providing a service and creating expectations.

What about you? I invite you to think about those areas of your business that – on a large or small scale – are chaotic.  In what corners of your business do you feel most frustrated with your staff?  What complaints do you most often hear from clients? These things are all clues that you need to look at your systems.

Preparing for longer working lives: time for a revolution in the way we work?

Every few weeks I write a blog posting for Discuss HR.  The posting below will be published today:

Recently Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, who have both served alongside Sir Alan Sugar in the BBC’s Apprentice, explored what it might take for people to continue working into their 70s in The Town That Never Retired.  I found myself wondering to what extent the HR profession is at the vanguard of shaping a way of working in the future which reflects the life expectancy of modern British men and women.

I confess that, for purely personal reasons, I have long been interested in the question of what happens as people get older.  Not surprisingly, my interest starts at home:  I was just 18 when my parents retired, my father aged 70 and my mother aged 51.  My mother, who had always managed home and family as well as working alongside my father on the farm, continued to thrive whilst my father struggled to adapt.  Years later, when he was well into his 80s or maybe even 90s, my father continued to make references to his contribution to the family as a farmer, as if his sense of identity was still vested in his bygone work.  My mother, on the other hand, continued to bring up her children, looked after her parents in their old age and then my father in his.  She has been a church warden for many years, organised an annual concert for 25 years, still organises the bookstall in the monthly village market and even – now aged 81 – continues to cook for the “old folk” at the village lunch club.

As an amateur singer I have also had cause to be aware of just how well some people thrive well into their old age.  I sang under the baton of Leonard Bernstein until he died in 1990, aged 72.  In 1997, I was deprived of the opportunity to sing under the baton of Sir Georg Solti when he died shortly before a concert, aged 85.  I am pleased to say that Sir Colin Davis continues to delight in his 85th year.

But what about corporate Britain?  Some employers have long since cottoned on to the value of older employees.  As early as 2001 The Grocer ran an article entitled Asda and Sainsbury take a positive view of older workers.  The article highlights how, in response to the then government’s Age Positive Campaign, Sainsbury “now offers arrangements which allow older staff to reduce the hours they spend at work gradually, and a new pension plan which allows staff to contribute until they are aged 75”.  In my own local Sainsbury it was Norma, who must be about 70 years old, who served me a few months back on the day that snow had caused travel chaos and staff were still struggling to get in.  I value the older staff in my local supermarket because they have an ease in interacting with people of all ages and experience of using the products they sell – which is sometimes obviously lacking amongst the “youngsters”.

As I sit and muse I realise I do have a vision, albeit barely considered, of a way of working which takes far greater account of the needs of workers and the natural rhythms of life.  For young people there might be opportunities to work longer hours to earn that elusive mortgage deposit.  For parents there might be opportunities to work less and spend more time with children.  For older people there might be opportunities to work shorter hours whilst still making a valuable and valued contribution in the workplace (and, yes, earning a living).  Perhaps, in time, there will be a degree of choice throughout our careers which supports employees in contributing to their place of work and to their family.  To put it another way, the more we need people to work well into their 60s, 70s and 80s, the more we need to design ways of working throughout people’s careers that support health, fulfilment and longevity.  We also need to do our research – one interesting fact from The Town That Never Retired is that research shows, in a way that may be counter-intuitive, that employment prospects for young people are better when older people work longer.

As you’ve no doubt already discovered, I don’t have all the answers, but rather want to ask the questions.  My main question to you is this:  as an HR professional, how far ahead are you looking and how do you envisage the future for the older people of this country?

Sustaining a long career

On Tuesday I went with my niece, Rebecca Nesbit, to a talk on Climate Change.  The talk was by Professor Elinor Ostrom, whose extensive credentials are too long to be listed here but can be found on Wikidepia and elsewhere.  After the talk, Rebecca and I shared what we’d taken away from Ostrom’s presentation.  Rebecca presents a brief summary on her blog of what she took away, under the heading Climate change thoughts from a Nobel Laureate.

I confess that, throughout the talk, I was both listening to the content of Professor Ostrom’s talk and reflecting on Professor Ostrom herself.  Born in 1933, she is still professionally active at the age of 78 and a thoughtful and clearly highly intelligent woman.  I am used to singing under the baton of men who are still conducting at a mature age – I sang with Leonard Bernstein shortly before he died, my opportunity to sing with Georg Solti was snatched away when he died just before a concert, I have enjoyed singing under the baton of Sir Colin Davis for a number of years.  (As it happens, Sir Colin has conducted three generations of my family throughout his career).

So much for the men.  It’s largely outside my experience to meet women who are still professionally active in their late 70s and into their 80s.  I hasten to add that it’s not that they’re not active.  My mother, aged 81, is a legend throughout her local community and across my family for her full portfolio of activities, from the domestic (managing her household, tending her allotment, looking after her youngest grandson etc.) to the community and charitable activities (with long service as a church warden, running the bookstall at the village Saturday market, cooking for the old folks – yes, really! – at the village lunch club, and much more besides).  I still remember Mum’s plans to keep the bookstall books in the attic of her new home when she moved 6 years ago.  Needless to say, as a family, we were quick to discourage her.

So, Professor Ostrom was striking to me as an example of someone who maintains an active professional life well into her third age.  This is not new – there have always been people who do this.  At the same time, our context is such that – it seems to me – the significance of this has changed.  On the same day that I heard Ostrom speak I read (in the Metro I think) of predictions that one third of children born in the UK today will live to be 100 years old.  It seems to me that, with this statistic in mind,  the things we’re currently doing to adapt (changes in pensions, changes in employment legislation) may prove to be wholly inadequate.

Is it possible that we need to radically re-think our approach to work?  This is such an enormous topic that I am struggling to put my arms (or perhaps my metaphorical pen) around it.  Here are just three possible implications:

  • That we need to think much more holistically about the relationship between things we currently view as separate – work, unemployment and retirement.  We need to exercise more judgement based on accurate assessment of the facts and less judgement (as in “condemnation”) based on dogma in order to reshape the way we view the role of work in society;  
  • That we need to re-think our chief measures of success at work and what we want our work to deliver.  Perhaps we need to prioritise sustainability over profit, thinking about how our organisations can contribute to society over time rather than focusing narrowly on “shareholder value”.  (I’m guessing we would make this transition more easily if only we could develop a deeper understanding of the role of money in our lives – what is it we want money to do for us?  For money is never an end in itself and always a means to an end).  Equally, perhaps we need work to deliver people who are not only productive at work but also motivated, resourceful and healthy long after their careers have finished;
  • That we need to plan for careers that span as many as 70 years and which are adapted to our age and stage at each step along the way.  Already, levels of workplace stress and absent-from-work illness suggest we are not doing enough organise work in ways which enrich the lives of workers as much as it contributes to bottom-line profits and other business outcomes.  And the more we plan for a longer career, the more we need to sign up for enjoyment at work – it’s hard to sustain the view that we’re “saving for an enjoyable retirement” when retirement is 50, 60, even 70 years away.

I’d welcome your thoughts and ideas.  What are you doing to adapt to a longer career for you and your staff?

Reflecting on A Simpler Way

It’s Tuesday afternoon as I write and I find myself reflecting on the cycles of nature and how they play out in our work.

Last week, for example, I was at home on Monday, as I usually am, coaching by phone.  The weather was so glorious that I had breakfast in the garden before starting my work.  Later I enjoyed lunch outside in the shade.  I notice how being in nature settles me so that I feel more grounded.  Later in the week the sunshine was followed by rain and a different rhythm to my schedule though the afterglow of a sunny day was with me for several days.

This week, I’m still tired after a demanding weekend.  I was all lined up for a meeting this afternoon, cancelled at short notice.  I get to write this blog posting and to catch up with other tasks.  My body is calling out for sleep… sleep…

The industrial era made machines of us all.  The introduction of mechanisation gave a steady rhythm to manufacturing work and we organised ourselves around the machines that served us.  It was important to start on time, finish on time:  important because the machines needed our care and attention to do their job.

How does this play out in our post-industrial society?  There is a risk that we organise ourselves around needs that no longer exist, measuring our contribution by the number of hours we work.  Anne Wilson Schaef, author of  The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover up, Pick up the Pieces, Please the Boss, and Perpetuate Sick Organizations, sees this as a symptom of addiction in organisations and outside of our collective conscious awareness.  Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week:  Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich, is an advocate for a different way of life and so are Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers who, in their book A Simpler Way, draw parallels with nature to invite us to a life that is less arduous and more delightful.

When we check in with our own rhythms as well as the rhythms of nature we know that there are times when we are raring to go and times when we need rest and restoration.  When we check in with the rhythms of our work we know there are times we need to go flat out to meet a deadline and times when such effort is not needed.  How often, though, do we act from this conscious awareness?  How often do we work hard because, somehow, it’s the done thing, looks good, scores points with the boss… even when, deep down, we know it’s costing us and even know it brings no benefit in terms of the quantity or quality of our output.

I wonder, how do you respond to Wheatley’s and Kellner-Rogers’ call to a life that is less arduous and more delightful?