Saturday, 4 June 2016

Don't judge a book by its cover

This week I paid a visit to Ms D, an elderly lady who has cerebral palsy.  With the exception of the occasional visit to church she is basically confined to her home.   I endeavour to visit her as often as possible to help with chores and complete the odd task.  As her eyesight is failing she often asks me to read her mail and prepare documentation.  I am not related or obligated to Ms D but it is a joy to be able to carry out this labour of love for someone who needs it. Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth (Muhammad Ali).
During a recent visit Ms D told me about a love affair she had when she was in her 50s.  The gentleman concerned was married and a member of the church.  She spoke with passion about the relationship which lasted several years until his death some 20 years ago. While I enjoyed our chat I was secretly bemused by the fact that Ms D, as disabled and pious as she was, had participated in such a liaison.  I found it difficult to conceive that this lady who has always struggled to walk, lift her arm, comb her hair; with almost incomprehensible speech and other disabilities could attract the attention of an able-bodied man to the point where he had considered divorcing his wife and marrying her. 
I’ve been thinking about our encounter and on reflecting on my behaviour, I realised that I was displaying the same attitudes I endeavour to challenge in society – unfairness and disrespect towards vulnerable and disabled people.  In effect I saw Ms D as someone unable to love and be loved by a man, simply because of her extreme physical disability, totally disregarding the fact that her cognitive capacity is unaffected.  What I failed to realise is that l’habit ne fait pas le moine – French proverb meaning the vestment does not make the monk (don’t judge a book by its cover). Had she been an able-bodied person I would not have found it funny even taking into account the fact that she is a devout Christian.  I think my attitude displayed narrow-mindedness and prejudice.  I disregarded the reality that at the end of the day we all crave the same things - the fact that someone looks different does not mean that they have different needs.  There is an African proverb – hunger is felt by a slave and hunger is felt by a king.  After fulfilling our basic needs everyone wants to be loved and we all have the capacity to love.  Although I did not utter a word or in any way reveal my surprise, my covert reaction to the fact that Ms D had engaged in this relationship was judgemental, mistaken and dishonourable.   Why wouldn’t she be a candidate for an affair?  She’s a woman first and foremost! 
In life we run the risk of wrongly judging our fellow men.  We all have shortcomings, behaviours of which we are not proud lurking in our closets. We see people through spectacles coloured by our own biases birthed from our upbringing, socialisation, and acquired behaviours.  We are influenced by societal norms, expectations and pressures and these, coupled with our personal choices and preferences, make us take actions not because we want to, but because we are afraid of the consequences of our inaction.  We try to fit in, often at the expense of others; becoming involved in bullying and general warped behaviour which in time become our norm.  
I remember watching a documentary on TV which explored people’s attitudes to black men wearing hoods.  It emerged that a black man wearing a hood on a quiet street was perceived as more dangerous than a white man wearing the same garment.  In fact the level of danger, if there is any, is exactly the same.  No one is saying that we should be naive but we should be careful not to stereotype people.  We are well aware of how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot - when we are subjected to jeering, rejection, oppression, sarcasm.  When I was completing my MBA I elected to undertake temporary employment and was assigned to a well-reputed higher education institution in London with responsibility for developing and implementing the staff development programme.  One day I was working late and as I turned a corner to enter my office I was met with the words “Have you brought our coffee?”  Bear in mind that I was dressed in corporate attire and had documents in hand.  A secretary had been expecting refreshments to service a meeting in the office located next to mine.  I did not respond but continued to my office and opened the door with my key.  She was very apologetic when she realised what she had done.  On this occasion she had requested coffee but it could easily have been: “Have you brought the mop?” I had no intention of applying for a permanent job at that institution and after that incident I couldn’t wait to complete my degree and leave.  This happened some 20 years ago but I have not forgotten it - there is a Jamaican saying “it’s not the person who poops in the pathway who remembers it, rather it’s the person who steps into it”. The secretary might not have intended to offend; she was simply unaccustomed to seeing black people fulfilling such roles at the Institute.  Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.  (Hanlon’s razor). This was her norm and she was a victim of her own bigotry.
Last week I went to the local market where I saw some sweet potato that were comparatively expensive but looked much better than the others.  I bought some to make a pudding.  When I started to peel them I was shocked to find that the inside layer of every potato was 70% decayed.  It was disappointing;  I couldn’t imagine that those beautiful potatoes were so unfit for purpose.  Needless to say, I had to abandon my desire for sweet potato pudding and make a coconut cake instead.  Some of us are like those potatoes, beautiful on the outside but ugly on the inside - buy meat you get bone, buy land you get stone (Jamaican proverb); there’s really no perfection in life.
As business people, we have to be careful of judging people based on our personal values and expectations.  We should not deny people opportunities because on the exterior they do not portray the image we perceive as ideal. We have to be careful of giving preferential treatment to those who resemble us most.  Consider, are you fair in your treatment of people or are you swayed by their physical attributes? 
We have to develop behaviours that empower and cultivate attitudes that enable us to take the high road and avoid the temptation to be biased.  Failing that we risk extending that bias into areas such as race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc.  If we are to excel in contemporary business our organisations need people from a broad cross-section of society, not just from our inner circles of like-minded people.  Organisations that promote closed-minded cultures will not withstand the test of time in cosmopolitan, multiethnic cities.  There is no surprise that the Institute I referred to above was struggling with recruiting people from non-white communities; they held several meetings to generate ideas for diversifying the profile of their student body.  We are all richer when we embrace and learn from one another because apart from the few individuals who wish to destroy humanity, at the end of the day we all want the same things.  Man sleeps in a fowl’s nest but fowl nest is not his bed (Jamaican proverb which reminds us that people find solutions to their problems but that does not mean that they do not have higher aspirations.
 I am developing the Pocket Learner educational system which supports individuals who struggle with learning.  Sometimes we look at people and we judge them based on what we think we see, not recognising that each person has aspirations and needs similar to ours.  As clued up as I am, I still found myself judging Ms D based on her disabilities. I am not sure if this can be attributed to normal human behaviour but it is ugly, very ugly.  We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have travelled from the point where they started. (Henry Ward Beecher).
Judging says more about us than about those being judged.  Never judge a book by its cover!

Friday, 27 May 2016

When Silence Isn't Golden

Last week a lady called Rosalinda contacted our office seeking to have a translation done. She emailed the document to us; we acknowledged her request and sent her our procedures.  Shortly afterwards we received a telephone call from Mrs B - Rosalinda’s boss, a solicitor.   She later sent us an email outlining her concerns – words to the effect that she did not agree with a particular condition in the procedures her client had received.  Essentially she wanted us to waive our request for a 50% deposit before the work began.  She added that she would be paying for the translation and would commit to paying the full amount upon receipt of the completed document.

When I saw her communication I was somewhat taken aback.  I noted she had taken the time to let us know that she works for a large well-known, reputable firm which over time had engaged the services of many translators and they had never been asked for a deposit.  She also made it clear that she was a person of integrity and her word would be her honour. 

I am thankful for most things in life and on this occasion I was especially grateful for the training and years of experience I have had in diplomatic service.  I was well aware that I could not document what I actually thought but I knew that I had to balance diplomacy with education. There is a Jamaican proverb that says:  It is not everything that is good to eat that is good to talk.  Some things are better left unsaid but somehow I needed to enter her world and take her into mine. I acknowledged her email and explained that we were not prepared to change our procedures.  I suggested to her that this was an instance when she may be better off accessing her bank of translators who are willing to work in accordance with her requirements.  To my surprise I received a prompt response in a totally different tone - she understood why we had to operate in that manner and she would advise her client accordingly.  In 10 minutes Rosalinda accepted our procedures and made the 50% deposit we had requested.  We processed the document; she settled the remainder and it was dispatched to her as agreed.  She later acknowledged receipt and expressed gratitude for and satisfaction with the service.

So what was all the fuss about?  I have for some time come to the realisation that if you do not stand up for something people will take you down for nothing. I have seen people who sacrifice their souls “for a peaceful life” or for fear of being regarded as aggressive.  Sometimes we have to say NO and not let desperation, fear or other factors rob us of our objectivity.  We should say “Yes” when we are in accord and “No” when we mean no.  William Shakespeare, in Henry IV, said:  Tell the truth and shame the devil.  The aim should not be to hurt the feelings of others but we should not keep quiet just because it’s easier.  We need to establish boundaries which allow us to maintain a clear conscience, knowing that we did what we thought was right, not what was comfortable.  Equally, we need to choose our battles so that we do not find ourselves caught up in unnecessary strife which will adversely impact on our quality of life.  There are moments when it’s better to let go, for the struggle is not worth the reward.

Negotiation is a viable approach in many cases. Considering the scenario above, it could be that Mrs B is accustomed to getting her own way.  She may genuinely have believed that she was entitled to what she demanded based on her past “successes”.  What she requested was not impossible in theory – we do have clients with whom we operate a 30-day payment term.  However, those are longstanding clients who have an account with us.  This was our first encounter with Rosalinda and with Mrs B.  Negotiation entails listening to others and finding win-win solutions.  It requires two-way communication and giving and taking of feedback but ultimately you have to decide the outcome that is acceptable to you and whether the end justifies the means. 

We do not live our lives in a straight line; there are bends and crosses that we have to navigate in order to come out on the other side. I wanted Mrs B and her client to take their troubles and go away but they opted to remain and we were able to work together and achieve a positive outcome for all parties.  There is a Spanish proverb:  De cuerdo y loco todos tenemos un poco - All of us have a little sanity as well as a little craziness within.   We sometimes have to look beyond the weaknesses and find in the person the characteristic we need in order to make progress.  Being able to work with individuals we don’t like is a skill.  It demands goal setting, objective thinking, focus, and a high dose of professionalism which will enable us to keep our eye on the goal while we traverse the challenges we may have to encounter. 

Being assertive does not hurt your character; rather, it upholds your integrity.  I remember in my early working life I was appointed to provide secretarial support to several senior personnel.  I was often at loggerheads with them because over a period of time they had grown accustomed to treating their subordinates without much respect.  I did not set out to be a controversial junior officer but I felt compelled to fight my corner for the values I deemed important.  In the end I sustained far more meaningful relationships with my bosses and I felt a lot more respected than many of my peers who adopted a code of silence.  I realised then that people cannot ill-treat you without your consent. To this day some of my former colleagues are bitter about missed opportunities for further/higher education and promotion because they allowed themselves to be bullied by their then bosses.

How do we as business people demonstrate assertiveness? As business owners we have to check facts and listen to our gut when we are presented with business proposals, opportunities to work in partnership, requests for character references, among others.  We have to take into account a number of variables including reputation, business activities, track record, objectives, etc and be careful not to sacrifice our values for potential profits.  If your company is strategically positioned and has a good reputation there will be no shortage of entities seeking to establish commercial relationships for ‘mutually beneficial’ outcomes.  While it is great to build alliances, bear in mind that not everything is glitters is gold.  Sometimes we have to say NO.

Listening is a very important life skill, an art that many people cannot seem to grasp.  Last week I attended a business show in London’s Excel centre. I met an exhibitor who was promoting her CRM software and having seen my visitors’ card which revealed my position in a training institution she seized her opportunity, explaining how and why her software would be perfect for my company.  I explained that the system would not be a strategic fit for my company model but she would not listen; she had already made up her mind that hers was the ultimate programme that would enhance the operations of my organisation.  She proceeded to outline hypothetical scenarios of how the system would enhance my business – totally out of sync with our operations. Her insistence bordered on aggression - totally unproductive, desperate behaviour. According to the French, Il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre – No one is as deaf as the one who does not want to listen (there are none so blind as those who will not see). I simply allowed her to rant and rave then I said thank you and moved on.  I did not think it was worth my expending further energy on this occasion as the outcome was already clear to me.

As it relates to our personnel we should allow them to have an opinion and avoid cultivating oppressive cultures that hinder open, two-way communication.  We may not like what we hear but we should not feel threatened by the truth.   As managers we have to be candid in our communication with our staff and be emotionally intelligent.  We need to be self-aware, be able to manage our emotions, be motivated, show empathy and develop social skills.  This includes active listening and responding accordingly, whether we are in agreement or not, bearing in mind that we do not all share the same starting point and our values do differ. We then follow up with positive feedback and reflective thinking, recognising that we too consistently learn. 

As effective managers we assume and accept responsibility, recognise and accept our mistakes and apologise when necessary.  We delegate responsibility and empower people, giving them enough autonomy to perform in their roles.  At times we may have to allow our employees to make mistakes ensuring that an appropriate mechanism is in place for learning to be consolidated. We implement fair procedures and are not afraid to pursue a necessary course of action because it is more comfortable to do so.  We have to be assertive, not aggressive.

Contemporary organisations, especially those based in cosmopolitan cities are melting pots of cultures and we are charged with driving productivity in this challenging environment.  We need to ensure that we build learning organisations which offer a range of developmental opportunities across our organisations and which allow our people to be assertive. 

In business silence is not golden.


Friday, 5 February 2016

Horses for Courses

Last week I took my little girl Shari to gymnastics.  We’d been attending weekly for the last 4 weeks and for the most part she has refused to follow the instructions.  Shari has special educational needs so her communication skills are not at the level of her peers.  However, she has a wide vocabulary and does understand the instructions.  It was quite frustrating to watch the trainer - Marie struggle to get her to do the most basic tasks.  Marie offered to seek advice from her manager – a senior gymnastics trainer who specialises in working with children with additional needs, preparing them to participate at the national and international levels.
This week we attended the session and Marie produced feedback based on her conversation with her supervisor.  She had been advised that she should terminate the session the moment the child starts to misbehave.  She said she was surprised and disappointed at the advice given; she really did not feel that it was the appropriate step to take.  We both recognised that based on that advice the session could be concluded after just 5 minutes.  Marie suggested that I joined in the one-to-one session with Shari and see what happens.  I agreed and tried it and  what a difference that made!  She was like a different child... jumping, climbing and lunging about like a pro. 
It is important to respect qualifications and experience but often we have the answers if only we trust our gut.  The experts do not always know better.  There is a Jamaican proverb that says: the wisest man is sometimes a fool - no one has it all together all the time.  When we apply a broadbrush approach to life we run the risk of denying people opportunities, damaging their self esteem and confidence, and the process becomes totally unproductive. 
At ACT - our training company in London we tailor our training programmes, working with individuals, enabling them to be accountable for their personal development.  Sometimes we apply additional incentives and in some cases they are not needed.  Many of our trainees arrive with broken spirits, being unable to find work despite consistently applying, and tired of what they see as Job Centre harassment.  They are not always lazy people – they have hopes and dreams, goals and aspiration like anyone else.  All they need is for someone to listen, to believe in them, help them identify their strengths and carve out an appropriate path.  Progress is primarily mental, not physical.  Once a person has the right mindset and attitude they can make progress. 
As service organisations we need to understand that everyone will not fit into our little boxes.  There are different routes to a destination; indeed there are various types of destinations – not everyone will end up at the same place; the key is to ensure that the chosen route is an interesting and engaging one.  Over the years we have encouraged thousands of people to aspire higher.  We enabled them to access sustainable employment opportunities even when they were unable to read and write English well.  We do that by ensuring that the people we hire to help us have the appropriate soft skills along with the required technical competence to support our trainees.  Further, we ensure that our values are shared and that our culture is appropriate to the business we are operating.  When that happens success is guaranteed and your marketing budget can be halved.
We should never assume that because someone does not take the route to which we are accustomed their value is to be discounted.   Several years ago I was seeking membership of a prestigious translators and interpreters institute .  I had trained for years as a professional Interpreter and Translator in Mexico City and later pursued university studies in Spanish and French, gaining a Masters degree with honours.  When I applied to the institute I was flatly refused; the requirements stated that I had to qualify from a UK institution in order to become a member.  Whatever qualifications I held did not count.  I refused to enroll on a local course and as membership of the institute was important for my career I decided to fight for the right to be a member.  In the end they tested me rigorously and as I passed all the tests they no longer had any credible basis on which to continue to refuse the application.  I am now a senior member and am often invited to co-host their training webinars for new members.  Sometimes we have to fight for what we know we deserve.
Marie is very passionate and skilled in her craft but she lacked self belief and drive.  It took an irrational decision from her manager to stimulate her self esteem and restore that drive.  Now she knows she is good enough.  Not only did she find a workable solution but more importantly she discovered a technique that gave a little girl a chance to dance. She may not hold a degree in gymnastics and she may not have vast experience but she has talent and passion for her chosen field. Too often we think that others are better than we are because they say so, appear so, or because they have papers to show.  Unfortunately academia cannot teach common sense and whatever instruments society may drum up, it cannot be replaced.
Maria has found a marketable solution to a common problem.  This can open doors for her to work with other children who are similarly challenged.  Indeed there is a long waiting list; I’d be the first to give her a recommendation. There is always an opportunity lurking; too many of us get so stuck on problem-solving, we fail to appreciate the prospects begging to be explored.
As business owners and managers we should ask ourselves, are we flexible enough in our approach to managing people?  Do we recognise that they are individuals with unique dispositions, needs and styles? Do we give them space to explore and be creative?  There is a saying:  When Jackass smells corn it gallops -treat people well and they will come through for you.  These are not the days of the well-oiled machine; we need people not only with a pair of hands but with a brain too.  There is consistent change, the workplace is in constant flux; there is always something new to learn.  We cannot assume that our way is the only way. The road to hell is paved with good intentions - while you may think you are protecting your staff by dictating their every move; consider that you may be stifling their creativity.
There are different courses for different horses.

Monday, 11 January 2016

If it’s not dead don’t throw it away

When we started our training organisation 10 years ago we had a student - Paul who had been referred to us by the local Job Centre for mandatory employability skills training.  He was reluctant to attend but he knew that his welfare payments would be severed if he failed to show.  Paul was in his forties and had spent 25 years in prison.  It was clear that he was convinced that no one could help him and he had a seriously negative attitude. He had no work history but we helped him to develop a CV and slowly he started to trust the staff.  It was immediately apparent that he was very intelligent and had a lot to offer.  He completed the three-month programme and although he did not find work at the end of it, his attitude and self-belief significantly improved.  Four years later I bumped into Paul in the local area and he was a changed man.  He gloated that he was working in a pharmacy and was pursuing studies in Pharmacy.  He expressed his gratitude for the help we had provided and indicated that he was now looking forward to completing his studies and progressing in the workplace.

What does it take for someone to change their life and to embark on a different course?  Often it begins with someone believing in them and encouraging them.  We showed Paul unconditional love – not judging him or treating him differently because of his checkered past. To this day we do not know what crime he committed because we did not focus on that. What we saw was an individual who needed help, even if he did not know or acknowledge it at the time.  We recognised his value and helped him to appreciate that value.  We allowed him to be, tailoring a programme that allowed him the flexibility he needed to make the transition.  When he fell short we avoided punitive measures prescribed by others.  We recognised where he was in his life and we adapted our procedures to suit.  In life things are not always how we want them to be or how they should be.  Sometimes 60% is enough for if insist on perfection we risk losing the whole.

We do not choose our lives – our life chooses us.  We are born into families, cultures, communities – we didn’t choose.  Some of us are born with medical conditions – we didn’t choose.  A few months ago I received a third international award for the Pocket Learner – an educational development system that enables parents, carers, teachers and others to educate children, particularly those deemed slow learners or those diagnosed with special educational needs.  The Pocket Learner arose from frustration with my daughter’s lack of progress at school.  She has special needs and I was not convinced that the school was adequately providing for her educational development. I embarked on a programme at home helping her to build her vocabulary and learn to read.  I was shocked to see how well she responded!  Now my life is dedicated to helping her thrive and at the same time building a system whereby others with circumstances similar to hers can be empowered.  I did not choose my life; it chose me.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Spanish island of Lanzarote.  I recall the tour guide saying that the island was built on volcanic ash from eruptions which took place over a number of years during the 1730s. The resort still encounters constant drying winds and to combat this they have taken measures to protect their flora including the building of curved walls to protect their grape vines.  With its expanse of white buildings set against the black soil and creative protective agricultural infrastructure Lanzarote is one of the most beautiful places I have seen.  Life thrives even in volcanic ash.

Sometimes we are faced with situations which we think have come to destroy us.  We automatically regard them as setbacks when indeed they are setups.  They are there to strengthen us, build our resilience and prepare us to impact. It’s only after those moments when we crash and burn that we can rise from the ashes.  Those are the moments that we learn the most from; the ones that give us experience that we can use to teach others and save them from unnecessary pain.  The pressures of life often squeeze us but just like a tube that produces more when it is put under pressure, so we too are forced to produce when pressure is applied – it is not there to kill us but rather to bring out the best in us.
Had we given up on Paul all those years ago he might not now be looking forward to a career in Pharmacy. He had been scarred but he still had life and thus hope.  Had I buried myself in self-pity and fail to recognise that my daughter could be helped the Pocket Learner would not have evolved.  Had the authorities decided to abandon Lanzarote, the island would not have become such a wonderful destination for people like me who seek a getaway from time to time.  If it’s not dead don’t throw it away - Behind every dark cloud there is a silver lining. 

As business owners we often find ourselves on the brink, tempted to throw in the towel.  We are hit by internal and external factors that impact adversely on our organisations. A few years ago we experienced a recession and many of us despaired, indeed many did not survive.  Those who survived had to dig deeper, become more creative, productive, strategic, resilient.  Our organisations were not dead so we did not “throw them away”.  Our character grows when we are challenged.  When no one or nothing is challenging us we can become complacent and just saunter along, finding comfort in mediocrity.  We have to develop mindsets that see problems as opportunities, questions as invitations.  We have to be the change we want to see in the world (Mahatma Gandhi); not go with the flow but direct the flow. Those of us in positions of influence should take the opportunity to teach and consistently learn. It is through learning that we are able to teach, through aspiration that we are able to inspire; through giving that we are able to receive.   


We should not be afraid to make mistakes for everyone who is successful has experienced failure.  We should treat them as mere bumps in the road, growth indicators, lessons of life.  When we get off the fence we may trip, fall and even bleed but in the process we build value and even if we fail to achieve our ultimate goals we build our capacity to contribute to humanity by sharing our experiences, passing on valuable and perhaps invaluable information.  Every one of us has something to offer; some may have 1 talent, others - 5 and some may even have 10.  It’s not the number of skills we have that matters; rather, it’s what we do with them.  Where we start doesn’t matter, what counts is where we end up and the distance travelled.  Never give up on anyone; indeed don’t give up on yourself and if it’s not dead don’t throw it away.