Swimming Shorts and Unbeaten Runs

Someone once said to me that you can lower your expectations in different circumstances, but your standards should remain the same. It was during the last recession – and their theory was that at the point you blame the external environment for your performance it is tempting to let all blame fall on that environment: to become expectant of failure and therefore lower standards.

It’s OK to lower the expectations, but not for that to poison your standards. They suggested the only thing you could do was keep your focus on what you expect from people in terms of input – but understand that the output might drop.

They talked about a hotel chain that had in the annual report at the time of the Gulf War a comment that results were perhaps down due to apprehension about travel. That statement remained in there for a decade as it became a locked in excuse for poor delivery. Performance fell because standards were allowed to become informed by lazy expectations.

Manchester City and Celtic football clubs have both recently lost football matches to end long unbeaten runs. The thing is that there is an element of chance in what we do – even if a team is 95% likely not to lose a match you would still expect it to lose 1 in 20. It’s just chance as to when that 1 game in 20 arrives.

Neither club could plan to go a whole season unbeaten – you can only make sure you are preparing to compete as best as you can. I try and set my standards high for my teams – but the expectations can vary. Everybody needs to know what good looks like, but they should also know that sometimes stuff is out of your hands. But your input is always in your control.

It’s too easy to focus on outcome and lose track of what people put in – you can win a football match because you got lucky. You don’t win them consistently without exceptional standards.

I remember seeing Malcolm Gladwell speak years ago and he described the financial crisis like this ‘When the tide goes out you can see who has been swimming without shorts’

Always wear shorts. That’s the standard.



Onboarding is a terrible term. Somewhere someone’s CV has ‘I coined the term ‘onboarding” written on it and they should be proud of getting something into such common usage and slightly apologetic that we use such an odd term to mean ‘make welcome and give support’. I often hear people say they are looking forward to

  • Joining my new company 
  • Making a fresh start
  • Getting to meet my new team
  • Making a start on the work
  • Getting their head around what they need to do

I have never, ever, ever, ever heard anyone say that they were looking forward to being ‘onboarded’. 

But now I’ve had a rant I wanted to thank Ramaa Ramesh for commenting on one of my older blogs. Ramaa pointed out that we don’t often treat people like OUR success depends upon them. It’s a subtle but important mindset that involves more ownership and thinking.

If your success as an organisation is vested in and dependent on the success of your new starters then how would you do things differently? Would you ‘onboard’ them or would you do your level best to work with and support them to ensure that they make a great and productive start to their new role?

Hat tip once again to Tim Harford’s Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy (onboarding wasn’t one of them). 

And yes, I pressed publish on purpose this time. Sorry once again if you are a regular reader. 

What is democratic leadership?

Edmund Burke said that an MP “owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”

In these days of conversation about how democratic an organisation could/should be I think it’s worth considering the above. That democracy isn’t a straight vote on every topic, but the choice of representation – not always possible in organisations. I like Burke’s point that popular and right are not always in alignment – and that the MP/leader has an accountability to do what they believe to be right.

In business, as well as in politics, there is an imbalance in the distribution of information and leaders need conviction as well as the ability to listen. Leading involves decision making and clarity. Leading involves both being being able to resist the wish to be popular AND the humility to understand you are not always right. It’s a tough pair of challenges to reconcile.

In any change there is a requirement of the leader to understand their part in it – what they believe and what they are influencing. How they are bringing the best possible future into a position where it is the most likely. It’s a tricky balance.

Which wins out of right and popular? Which should win? How often do you get to be both together?

My guess is leaders don’t often reflect enough on these trade offs. The best I’ve seen create a trust that the path they advocate is the right one. I imagine that is also their Achilles Heel too. It’s complex.

(inspired by some shares from Karen Teago and this article I randomly ended up on after some clicks…. I don’t normally read The New Statesman)

My job – come and get it

For the last (almost two years) I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to head up the CIPD’s relationship with our branch network and with our Council. Our branch network is one of the world’s biggest communities of HR and people development practitioners. It’s a remarkable thing. It runs over 1000 events each year and supports everything from policy development to mentoring. It’s our biggest face to face channel and like anything else we do is constantly evolving to improve its support for the profession. People give their time for free and they deserve our support and recognition.

My job is up for grabs.

I have a wonderful team (please note: if you are in this team and reading this blog I’d like you to get back to work and don’t get cocky) and we have ambitious plans to further improve support for the community we serve. We have built up some real momentum over the past couple of years and Council (which represents each branch and is part of our governance structure) is supportive and ready for change. There is a great job here for someone to take on and make my time here a grubby footnote in history, which I’d love to see.

In this role you’d also be supporting the London branches (we have 7) which represent well over 20000 of our membership. Again, we’ve made progress together, but your job would be to come in and be much better than me.

There are challenges – we have over 50 branches and supporting that geographical distribution is tricky and we have over 900 volunteers and that’s complex in terms of relationships and expectations. I’m busy and I make lots of compromises and lots of decisions I make will be received differently by very different groups. We need to make it a truly modern network, supported by technology but with people at its heart.

If you are interested you can find the official overview on this link. It’s been an honour to work with such an inspiring group of people. It would be good to find someone who would like to support and inspire them in turn. If I can help with any insight then please get in touch, otherwise please share (or apply).


Why did I take the job? Because it’s a massive part of the train set. It’s the biggest face to face channel for my own profession and everything we make better there makes it better for the profession. That was too attractive not to spend some time influencing. And I got to influence some other things at the CIPD too. We don’t need another me, the job could be done in a host of ways. We just need someone better than me – because our volunteers and the profession deserve constant improvement from their professional body.

PPS when moving on from a role I always think of my favourite Dilbert.

L&D, specialism and accessibility

I love the L&D profession. I know great people doing great work in enabling organisations and people to flourish. I also lament, at times, the profession’s ability to progress its own thinking and activity and a reliance on outmoded methodologies or thinking.

I say ‘lament’ because I don’t think in the time I’ve been involved in the sector I’ve met anyone that I didn’t want to do a good job, but there are things that set apart some of the best folk I’ve come across

Openness to challenge – they are willing to be proved wrong and change their approach and thinking when they get new information. They learn

Critical thinking – it is linked to the above but they poke and prod at ideas and information from different angles. They seek out new information to challenge their thinking and they use logic, rather than just emotion. Importantly they balance their own experiences and external research/evidence.

Breadth of ambition – they want people and organisations to do well. They understand what the organisation they support needs to do to succeed at a level beyond what happens in traditional chalk and talk

A feel for people – they normally can relate to people and get them to open up. They want to help and they find ways to do so – either at an individual or organisational level

They make the complex simple – they don’t use technical or new funky terms to create an aura of credibility. They want to be accessible and relatable to create credibility through results. There’s a depth of knowledge, but it surfaces in accessible forms.

They aren’t all on Twitter/social media – I love Twitter, I learn from people on there the whole time, there is a really good community there. But I know people delivering great results who either hate it or have only a passing interest in it. To anyone saying that you can’t do a good job in this line of work unless you are active on social media I simply say ‘bunkum’

Bravery – they are brave enough to explore, to challenge and to be wrong. Often they aren’t wrong. I’m all for this narrative about failure being occasionally acceptable, but it is still supposed to lead to success (last time I checked)

They love lists – if you have reached this far you might just be brilliant.

What else would need to change…

I’m on a flight to Aberdeen to chat to some folk about the future of work. I’ve just read a piece by Tim Harford in the on board magazine about how we ignore less glamorous inventions in favour of exciting and more obviously revolutionary technology. Barbed wire and shopping containers. We undervalue the change those things have allowed. It’s very inconvenient to read this as I’m off to talk about technology driven change.

One of his final points is that we need to ask of any new invention ‘what else would need to change to enable this to have impact?’. There is no doubt that some of the things I’ll be talking about today not only will drive change, but need change to take place for them to be a success. All too often we think of technology as the solution to problems – without thinking about how it works for us and how best to work with it.

Sometimes what needs to change is the way we work. Sometimes what needs to change is a process. Sometimes it is thinking.

As a thought experiment imagine you thought of people as technology (I promise not to call them human capital). If you were introducing people into work for the first time them what would we need to change to enable them to be a success?

If we focused on people as the source of competitive advantage rather than waiting for technology then how would we support them?

It’s probably a false choice. It is the two together. But our greatest creation is arguably the next generation of shapers of work and technology – what are we doing to get the best out of them?