Thursday, December 06, 2012

Consulting on a project? Know when it's time to let go.

I've just published this on But as there's still traffic coming through this site, I thought it was worth cross-posting here.

All good things must come to an end. As I write this, I’m printing out a final project report on something I’ve been involved in for the best part of two years now. Later today I’ll also make the call to end my paid relationship with a start-up that began in January. It’s time to move on from both pieces of work – but the parting in each case is actually quite emotional.

In the case of the start-up, it’s a simple decision to make. I’ve been on a very small retainer from the time a friendship group decided they may have a business idea through all the travails of setting up the business to the early months of its operation. Over the months I’ve been one of a number of sounding boards for them – occasionally taking a more active role as they’ve articulated their business plan and marketing plan within it. But now the business is up and running well. At this stage I have nothing of real value to bring to the operation. When it grows, I’d be delighted to get back on board, but at the moment, I’m a cost the founders can do without. It’s time for me to step back and watch this baby fly.

The other project is very different: a big corporate change programme in a division of a multi-national. I can well remember going to the first pre-planning meeting. ostensibly as a facilitator primed to ensure those attending filled all those blank pieces of paper stuck to the walls. Within weeks my role had changed from neutral facilitation to being part of the start-up team. Those 60-hour+ weeks flew by but we soon had a brilliant PM on board and a structure that ensured communication was an enabler working across all the activity streams – not an additional stream merely publicising decisions after the event. Engagement became the bedrock of the programme. The initial person leading this didn’t work out and I briefly stepped in to hold the fort. Our second engagement lead has been brilliant and much of my role has been as her back-up, coach and critical friend. But now the roll-out is complete. While there are a few months of sweep-up still to complete, the core project team is moving on. My time is done, and while this one will hit in the wallet, I want to go out with those involved thinking well of me.

I learned that lesson while working with Orange several years ago. After seven months of an intense project setting up a new b2b division, I sat down with the PM. The management team was in place. The nine countries involved were all on board; ways of working were nailed; we had our comms framework and activity plan and I’d helped them recruit a very able comms manager. For several weeks she’d been calling the shots, but I was still giving three days a week to the project. The PM asked me to carry out one simple task: to chart my perception of my cost v value. He did the same. For the first five months for both of us, value far outweighed cost – after two to three months my value to the project was at a real high. It had plateaued in months three to five, and then as the change settled down, I had it gradually tailing off. For the PM that tail off was much sharper and had reached a point for him where cost had overtaken value. I couldn’t argue with him: it was time to move on.

I had built an emotional attachment to the business and would have been happy to continue with them, but my client took a totally pragmatic view. While I offered something they couldn’t do internally, I was welcome and settling the monthly invoice was no problem. But when they’d built that capability in-house, there was no need for an outsider.

Now, on every project where I’m involved, I keep a mental chart of that cost v value – and when I feel the lines are going to cross, I know it’s time to ease away.

Monday, December 03, 2012

New monday Musing on

My professional alter-ego has just blogged on about the importance of alignment to engagement. Check it out here .

Friday, November 30, 2012

Time for a professional migration

Since I first started blogging in 2005, this site has been home for everything from my professional insights; gripes about the world of work and the ups and downs of running a microbusiness to bits about my family, my sporting interests, my academic sidelines and even my 15 minutes of fame as a TV quiz contestant.

That's not exactly a great deal of focus...

While I'm sure I'll continue to blog here, I'm moving my professional presence to my new site insideleapfrog. The idea behind insideleapfrog is to create a community site around organisational engagement, sharing insights and opinion and generally keeping a stronger work-focus than the occasional ramblings on here.

If you like the new site (or if you don't) please let me know. You can also follow my new business-related tweets at @leapfroginsider.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Business development is not a process of instant gratification

My hunt for new projects has started reasonably well. One new client meeting this week and discussions with two existing clients on new work: all good, all positive - but nothing yet that will make up for this month's shortfall in income. What's great though is that people want to talk to me about applying some of my wider skills - not just what they've engaged me to tackle in the past. If I can provide a wider offering, it even opens up the opportunity to bring in other people from my network - and one bit of back scratching has, from past experience, led to others.

A few years ago when work for all microbusinesses was really hard to find and doubly painful to lose, I would have been more than a tad panicky by now with projects finishing and no clear pipeline to replace them. In fact, post-credit crunch, I remember being in precisely that situation and wondering where my next mortgage payment was going to come from.

But that's the nature of operating near the end of the food chain. At least now I have a little bit of contingency in the bank and I have some ongoing work although it's a bit linear. . What I don't have right at this moment though is the buzz of three or four on-going projects that I can move on piece by piece, day by day and week by week.

Famine or Feast

Operating at this level, you will only succeed if you recognise that this is a world of famine and feast. I've been really fortunate to have three flat out months and seven reasonable ones this year - so one flat one doesn't hurt too much other than making me twitchy. But the key to a flat month is getting out and making sure that future months are more positive. December's always tricky as client focus can get lost in the run up to Christmas - but my last two Festive periods have actually been busy. With January, it's important to get on the front foot and tie up the work before Christmas. That's what I'm doing now: setting dates in the diary and nudging the talks about talks into firm decisions.

It's a game of patience - it's not my style to be too pushy, but nor can I wait in hope. Meanwhile, I've started work on the new version of my web presence - nothing as flash as the new ArtHaus site for which I've provided the content - but something a bit more professional than this ramble through my last seven years of business. Not too many organisational communicators have blogged for seven years - I have, but it's time for a refresh.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Available now - and open to offers.

It's that time of year when marketing, corporate communication and HR teams start reining in their budgets. That's not good for me as I'm reaching the end of a couple of projects that have kept me very well occupied through much of the year. As my billable time has dropped off I've filled up large chunks of the last fortnight pushing the PhD forward - interesting research and fun to do...but it doesn't pay the mortgage.

I'm in the market for new projects now - and while in the past I've been lucky enough to have a steady flow of clients heading in my direction, the fact that many of my long-term clients have moved out of in-house roles coupled with an influx of new talent into the market in which I operate mean I have to get out there and get my face and talents known again.

With budgets tight and a clamp-down on putting out work externally at two of my regular clients, I realise it's high time I started marketing myself again - and alsohave become painfully aware from a couple of recent conversations that it's an area I've been pretty lax on over the past few years.

The result is that few clients or contacts know me for the range of skills I offer - some know me as a trainer; others as a writer and editor; others still as primarily a facilitator and one is convinced I'm just a high-cost strategist without the skills to carry my plans through to implementation (how VERY far from the truth!!).

So, I've started writing my personal pitch again - just one step in a process that will also see me relaunch my online presence over the coming weeks, separating out my 'Leapfrog' presence from all those other areas of my life - children, sport and university in particular that have probably diluted my net rep and obscured my talents.

I'd almost prefer that someone else wrote my profile - I suppose that's what recommendations on LinkedIn are for - but even there, the recommendations I have tend to be for shades of my work, not the full rainbow. I actually find it uncomfortable shouting about myself, but realise that if I don't, the best work will simply pass me by.

So, step one as suggested by a long-term former colleague and client who said: "Sum yourself up in a page - but write in the third person as if you were describing someone else".

It reads:
Mark Shanahan

Mark has built a wealth of engagement experience through senior agency and in-house roles in the financial, hotels, telecoms, FMCG and manufacturing sectors. He has two decades of experience  in driving engagement in major change programmes in both private and public environment. His career includes a number of appointments and projects with an international remit and has been focused on building communication as an enabler of engagement from an add-on to a core skill in major organisations.

Strategic and tactical experience
Mark has been involved in a wide range of assignments. In recent years he has:

-        Designed and implemented a world-wide engagement strategy to support major change in one of the world’s leading hotel groups

-        Introduced and implemented an engagement framework into a new division of a leading telecommunications company – aligning Europe-wide communication to the direct needs of the business; building relationships with other business divisions and recruiting a manager to take up the reins in-house

-        Devised and implemented an engagement strategy to enable the seamless integration of a new acquisition into a major banking group

-        Facilitated the introduction of performance management into a major broadcaster

-        Managed communication, on an interim basis, for a major brewer as it was integrated into a larger drinks business

-        Audited communication in a large NHS Trust and then built a change plan to help unite a diverse and disparate workforce

-        Managed employee communication around a major job creation and relocation programme

-        Researched and produced a major national report for a recruitment group on workforce issues in the economic downturn

-        Facilitated  ‘state of the industry’ workshops nationally and internationally for senior finance and IT audiences

-        Devised and delivered bespoke training programmes for both new-entry and senior organisational communicators
-    Produced a social media toolkit for an organisation moving from a top-down channel approach to employee communications to a matrix view harnessing the possibilities of SharePoint 2010.
Management experience 

Mark has wide experience of managing in-house and virtual  communication teams, but has a particular strength in working with existing teams (from the front line to the Board) across a wide range of industries to build their communication expertise and confidence. His ‘can-do’ attitude and willingness to muck in and make things happen regularly marks him out as a seamless addition to clients’ management team.

Other qualifications and experience

Mark holds an MA in International Relations and a BA (Hons) in English. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Internal Communication and currently is working towards a PhD.            
It's a work in progress and I'd welcome feedback, but it's intended to move the perception of me away from being just a copywriter and editor. I love editorial work and have written more than 200 published corporate pieces this year - but it's just one string to my bow! I hope that highlighting my wider experience will open up one or two discussions that may lead to interesting projects where I can use different aspects of the knowledge and expertise I've gained working with some fantastic people in great (and not so great) organisations over the years.
The next step is to launch my new website, working with my son Rory who's a true digital native. With a bit of prodding, that will go live by the end of the month.
Over two decades I've built up probably as much organisational engagement knowledge as anyone in the field right now - but have shared it person to person and group to group. That has to change: and I guess the change starts now.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Warning: Christmas is cancelled

Back in the late 90s I worked for a major hotel company. It had its good aspects, but one of the deciding factors in making me realise I was in the wrong place was the CEO's decision to cancel Christmas.

'What? Cancel Christmas in a hotel company? Surely that way madness lies!' I hear you say. Of course, our CEO didn't cancel the customers' Christmas - just the one for staff which happens, traditionally, in the darkest days of January, when hotels are at their quietest.

Working in a hotel in the run-up to Christmas is punishing. Head Office staff were expected to pitch in, so while my efforts out in the hotel estate were brief and less than impressive, I did get to see the routine that saw staff regularly starting their days at 5.30am and finishing by pouring the last of the night's party goers into taxis at 3am the following morning.

Throughout December, staff worked regular 14-16 hour days with departmental and duty managers in particular often working near round the clock for three or four days at a stretch with probably no more than three days off across the whole month. It's a grinding schedule, but hotel folk are used to it.

There's quite a bit of pleasure to be derived from seeing other people enjoy themselves. But more so, there was always the knowledge of a decent bonus to be had at the end of the year, and the opportunity to plan and deliver one heck of a staff party once the tinsel and trimmings had been taken down at the end of the festive period.

Staff Christmases were the talk of the business. These often two-day blow-outs were legendary. In many locations the hotel would close to the public while the staff let off steam at parties that had been planned for months and dreamt of all year - and would be delivered thanks to the generosity of the corporate pocket.

But in my second year running internal comms for this 250-hotel strong group, there was no chance to 'party like it's 1999' (even though it was!) because, in mid December, the CEO decided we all needed to tighten our belts.

The Millennium had seemed the perfect opportunity for the business to make money. Lavish events were planned across the business to tempt in punters - and the sales team, optimistic to a fault, pitched these parties at pretty precipitous prices. The revenue forecast looked impressive - but the actual conversion of glossy brochures into hard cash was rather less so. 1998-99 had been quite a tough year economically. Corporates seemed less prepared to shell out on Millennium parties than our Sales Director anticipated, and many people seemed undecided on whether to celebrate Christmas or New Year in their local hotel (or indeed one of the flagship venues). Too many were opting for neither.

Almost unheard of, but many of our hotels decided to close for New Year - the demand simply wasn't there. Instead of the expected boost to revenue, most hotels were failing to hit their targets. True, they were just as busy in the run-up to Christmas with party nights, office 'do's and the regular Christmas lunch trade. Most were also steady over Christmas Day and Boxing Day, but their expected revenue delivery was about 20% above 1998 - and the lack of New Year bookings over the Millennium meant that such forecasting was way too optimistic.

The decision to premium-price Millennium events was seen as coming from senior management, yet the CEO's decision was that everyone in the business would take a hit. Bonuses were cancelled for everyone at management level, while the planned staff events due for mid-January were cut completely. It was an irony that the decisions were conveyed to me by my boss from a management 'away weekend' at the Forte Village in Sardinia.

I had to go away and write a message for hotel managers to cascade to their teams explaining that due to us missing our targets, it wasn't feasible to hold staff parties in January 2000. This was an across-the-board decision despite the fact that a number of hotels across the organisation had met their targets and some indeed had waiting lists for events - including top-priced Millennium celebrations.

I was one of many middle-ranking employees who fed back reservations to the top team over the next 24 hours. Post-New year celebrations were a tradition in the business - it was wrong to cancel them. Staff out in the hotels were working as hard as ever in the run-up to Christmas and this announcement could even damage business further. This was hitting those people who generated revenue for the business excessively, especially as it had been Head Office dogmatism that had led to the relative failure to sell the Millennium effectively. And, one size fits all would go down especially badly with the venues and teams that were operating successfully.

But, the message went out and was received every bit as badly as we anticipated. For all my wordsmithery, and days spent preparing General Managers for what was due to hit, this really was polishing a turd. Hotel management teams - the people who really drive success in any hotel business - were massively demotivated. The end of year bonus really mattered to them and all felt they'd been tarnished by the faults of a few (and the 'few' were generally in the Head Office sales operation). More junior staff felt cheated. Their bargain with management included the big January blow-out. Just two weeks before Christmas, a very remote management had reneged.

From a senior management perspective, this probably seemed like a quick and efficient means of reducing costs and emphasising the 'we're all in this together' impact of missing sales targets. But it came across as an ill-thought-out move: a knee-jerk reaction which simply didn't consider the consequences of lowered morale and lost engagement.

Could I and my colleagues have done more to change the senior management decision? Even now, more than a decade on, I think not. The top team had physically and metally taken themselves away from the business and were focused much more on managing upwards - militating their failure in the eyes of the conglomerate board above them, than turning a failed sales strategy around through the efforts of the 45,000 people who felt penalised across the business.

Mentally at that point I was in the departure lounge. I no longer felt enthused to give my discretionary effort for a management team I felt to be wholly out of touch with the core of the business. I also felt more than ever that IC was merely a tactical tool for this particular business rather than at the heart of its engagement strategy. In fact, I failed to see any engagement strategy.

Two days before Christmas, my boss, a board director, took us for lunch at the Waldorf. The reception from the hotel team was professional but frosty. I often wondered if they'd taken the opportunity to spit in the soup. My boss was oblivious. Her complete lack of empathy simply highlighted the class structure which operated in the Boardroom. They could do what they liked - somehow they saw themselves as being above the busines, while the rest of the business had to pay the price. Indeed, for my boss there was a complete disconnect between cancelling all our hotels' staff celebrations and splashing out on her platinum corporate card for a slap-up lunch for her own team.

Over the coming months, those who could get out of the business did.  The knee-jerk reaction to the Millennium sales failure was the biggest own-goal this business managed over a two-year period of mismanagement. Shortly afterwards it was broken up and sold off. Most of the hotels remain, but under different brands. Doubtless, many shrewd and successful hotel GMs still remember the catastrophic consequence of a CEO cancelling Christmas.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Freelance Rules #15 - Stay on top of your game

I'm not sure whether this entry counts as a warm-up to the writing I need to complete today or just a displacement activity. I'll tell myself it's the former but it's probably the latter. In fact, my last 90 minutes since I turned on the PC has largely been displacement. I've chased a couple of late payments (when am I not chasing money?); I've set up a meeting in London on Monday to make my day there more valuable and I've done some pretty basic but necessary admin. And all the time, what I should really be doing remains looming on the side of the desk - a 16 page brief for training materials that need  to be completed today.

Think about that: a 16-page brief (with five supporting documents) for an e-learning script that will probably come out around 2000 words.

Much of my time, I'm really engaged by the projects I get involved in. Working to discover the barriers to youth employment has been fascinating; a series of recent case studies around sustainable cultivation in Asia and Africa has opened my eyes to the issues facing small farmers in the developing world; and even helping two very different organisations relaunch their intranets on the SharePoint 2010 platform has been something I've been really able to get my teeth into.


But one of the first things any half-decent freelancer must become acutely aware of is that not every piece of work will be quite so fascinating. Some will present no challenge; others may be on the edges of your skill-set and you might wonder why some other projects have come your way at all. But, as long as the piece of work is within your capability to deliver, you will succeed as a freelancer only if you pay the same care and attention to the piece as something you're passionate about.

You will only get the repeat business that's the lifeblood of freelancing, and only see your name spread positively beyond your direct clients if you bring the same professionalism to the most mundane and boring project as you do to those that really make your heart sing.

I spent much of Wednesday on my particular elephant in the room. My client knows I was reluctant to take it on (I consider creating e-learning materials a very particular skill and it's an area I don't usually get involved in.). But she convinced me that this particular scripting piece within a far bigger project was actually both within my skillset and that she considered me the best person for the job. Flattery really can work.

So, on Wednesday I got my head around the brief and read through all the source material. While I'm fairly neutral on the subject matter, it was frankly hard to get enthused by a series of dry, academic, analytical reports that provide my base material.

Still, I got my material in order, started prioritising what my client sees as the key points and began constructing my argument - essentially my script narrative. I'm about two fifths in now and the job so far is competent, workmanlike and solid. It hasn't yet come to life.


At some point today, drafting the remaining script sections I hope it will come to life. I hope that something clicks and I suddenly get the inspiration that will draw this together as a cohesive whole rather than a series of separate sub-arguments. I can feel the links bubbling just under the surface, but that sustaining narrative hasn't yet percolated to the front of my mind. Often when I'm writing, be it a plan or a script or a piece of editorial, that idea will be there from the start - that makes the end product so much quicker and easier to produce. But sometimes, as with this piece, it's a bit of a grind. It may well be that in three or four hours when I have all the components assembled, I'll look at it and see what I've missed so far.

What I do know is that I have to get a piece that I'm proud of over to my client by end of play today. Anything less lets me down, lets her down and will not fulfil the brief for her internal clients. This may not be my favourite piece of work this month, but it has to stand tall alongside everything else I'm involved in.

I've actually written myself into a better mood for completing the assignment. Now to ensure that the mood lifts a dry subject into a cohesive script - better still if I find that spark that will make it compelling.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Anatomy of a migraine

Last night, about 8pm, I'd just finished dinner, filled the dishwasher and walked into the living room. My daughters were washing the evening's pots and they just sounded abnormally loud. I flicked on the lamp and turned on the TV. As the screen filled with the Sky menu, my eyes started flickering. Within seconds, bright colours started dancing in front of right eye and my ears started to ache. For what I reckon is about the eighth time in my life, I was heading into a migraine.

The lights that signify my 'aura' the stage before my head really begins to throb are beautiful and strange. I can only describe it as the equivalent to having a blob of Vaseline over my right eyeball. Directly in front of me is opaque, but the right edge is a slightly jagged curve of thin lines of beautiful bright colours - red, blue and yellow. It lasts anything up to an hour and I can still see a shadow of it this morning.

With experience of past episodes I knew what works for me to make dealing with a migraine bearable. While the pain never really hits until the 'colours' die down, I knew that within minutes I'd be hardly able to string a sentence together, and shortly afterwards would not be able to unscramble my brain to read, write or even cope with bright lights or sounds. We had just one migraine relief tablet in the house. I took it, knowing it wouldn't make the pain go away, but would take the edge off it.

I headed for bed, and turned the radio on quietly understanding I wouldn't sleep while I worked through the worst of  the pain phase. That kicked in after half an hour or so. It's difficult to describe to anyone who doesn't suffer from migraines but it builds up almost like a wave - in my case, generally over my right eye. I remember hearing Everton score a goal and, while the radio remained on and untouched, the next thing I heard was the summing-up at the end of the game. For something over an hour, my brain had not been able to cope with anything more than the pain.

In the past, I've tried to work through a migraine and once, in one of the most stupid decisions of my life, decided to drive home from Swindon to Oxford when I experienced the first flickers that presage an episode. Needless to say, half way up the A420 I wasn't really seeing anything much. God knows how I got home without killing myself or anyone else.

By about 11pm last night, the worst of the pain was passing. I was able to tolerate both light and to make sense (or what passes for sense for me normally) when talking to Jacquie. I got a drink and fell exhausted into bed. I didn't sleep well, and the dull ache in my head coupled with a stiff and achy neck saw me through the night.

This morning, the migraine's still playing around the edges of my senses. Light still hurts a bit; everything smells a bit funny (I can only describe it as: smells a bit 'more'); reading's tough and my head and neck still ache. My balance is a bit off, as if I've recently been on a ship, and I wouldn't say my cognitive skills are completely back in line as yet.  It has taken rather longer than usual to write this, and I'm sure spell-check will have a field day when I run through what I've written.

Migraines are horribly debilitating. I'm very glad mine are very few and generally quite short. They're very different to the headache you get from driving all day or staring at a computer screen for too long. I can now deal with mine reasonably well, but know I'll be sluggish for the rest of today.

I have every sympathy for others who have to deal with this condition - when the migraine's real, it totally takes over.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Happy Monkey

One of my early jobs when Leapfrog kicked off was to support the roll-out of a SAP upgrade for an FMCG company. All that stakeholders wanted to know was:

  • Why do we need it?
  • Will it work?
  • When will it affect what I do?
  • What will I need to do differently?
However, the project comms before I joined the team consisted of vast PowerPoint presentations detailing every aspect of the size of the drill - rather than the benefits of the hole in the wall.

When pitching for the work, I made it very clear how little value I saw in PowerPoint as a communication tool. From a communicators' viewpoint, it's a pig to edit and update, while from the receiver's viewpoint, it is too often densely packed with facts, charts and drawings that appeal to the project office but are as useful as a chocolate teapot to anyone else.

My heart rather dropped when on day 1 I was sent a 70-slide deck on the aims of the programme; 56 slides on the activity plan; a further 44 slides summarising the last week's activities and just four slides on stakeholder impacts. The balance was very wrong. My predecessor's practise was to send the weekly project update, unedited, to a vast stakeholder list. I could see there was next to no feedback, but a team meeting also made it clear that the workstream leaders were having a tough time getting any kind of traction with the directors and team leaders they needed to buy into the change.

My first task was to prepare the next weekly update: I spent the next two days receiving sub-decks from the workstream leaders, while moving from brief meeting to even briefer meeting with the stakeholder base to get their wish list for our comms. It was clear that the project was on track in terms of the technical stuff, but the business felt it was being done to them, not with them.

I sent the project director my first weekly comms deck. It was one slide: a picture of a happy monkey - ok; it was an orangutan, which isn't a monkey, but you get my drift.

I sort of expected a small explosion, but he appeared beside my desk with a smirk on his face. "Okay," he said. "I can't send this, but explain your reasoning." My response was simple. Too many people were getting too much data that was useless for them. At this stage, all most people needed to know was that the project was on track and everyone was happy. A smaller group needed much more engagement (and this was long before engagement was part of our common vocabulary). They didn't need a big fat deck, but did need personal contact; someone to listen to their needs, to understand their business challenges and to explain how this new implementation would make things better - and what they needed to do.

The five minute chat became a two-hour conversation with more and more project members joining in. By the end, I more or less had our comms strategy - I just needed to write it up: and not as a PowerPoint.

That week, we put out a two page comms update. Page one was a Happy Monkey. Page two, my compromise: six green traffic lights with a bullet under each on achievements and next steps. It was still too busy - but getting towards a workable dashboard. In addition, the workstream leads had a lot more meetings in their diaries.

Over the coming weeks, we moved from exclusively push-comms to an intranet site supported by far more targeted people-led proactive engagement. Our home page over the course of the project featured a selection of happy monkeys, a couple of sad ones and a couple best described as 'quizzical'.

The first question in every Monday's project round-up became "Happy Monkey?", and it also became a greeting every time team members were in meetings in the business.

It was a bit daft and a bit stupid but somehow made a pretty dry project more human. The roll-out happened on time and in budget - as it may well have done even if the comms had still been driven by gargantuan PowerPoints. However, the spirit around it seemed more buoyant - users fed in their own Happy Monkey stories and we definitely broke down barriers. Our comms were by no means perfect but at least we weren't continually having to feed the PowerPoint monster. The Happy Monkey helped.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Master of the Universe crashes to earth

Bob Diamond joined Barclays in 1996: so did I. That's pretty much the only point where our careers coincided. He headed into Barclays de Zoete Wedd to add oomph to a rather moribund investment banking offering, while I spent two years in a change team reshaping Group Planning, Operations and Technology. By the end of 1998 he was heading up Barclays Capital, the streamlined successor to BZW, while I was packing my bags and heading to my next change project - Forte's 'Commitment to Excellence'.

Being in a completely different division to Bob Diamond, I had little exposure to him. I attended a couple of staff conferences that he spoke at; he came to one group communicators meeting that I was part of and he was a 'client' during a couple of our Y2K (remember that?) presentations.

He was smooth, incredibly assured - and the people I knew who'd inherited him as a boss were scared of him. He brought in a raft of new people, new methods and new ways of working. The slightly clubbable BZW disappeared; replaced by a harder edge. He made money for the bank: lots of it. And the investors loved him.

I next crossed Barclays' path in about 2005, when asked to work on a project in Barclaycard. I'd known the cards business quite well during my spell in the operations side of the bank. Barclaycard was the industry leader in the UK - first into many markets and with an enviable customer base. But it faced the problem that many pioneers have to live with: younger, nimbler competitors were coming into the market and chipping away at Barclaycard's dominance. Good customers were defecting and that presented a huge issue for Barclaycard. They were the cash cow for the Group and suddenly that cash wasn't quite so forthcoming. Barclaycard had prided itself on never having to take on risky business, but now they were having to trawl the murkier card waters, offering cards to customers who never before would have fitted the profile, and having to work harder to claw back bad debt and make money from interest on outstanding borrowings.

It was a time when the business had reissued its Values - the usual stuff: we put our customers at the heart of everything we do; we value our staff felt 'motherhood and apple pie'. I was brought in on the back of the staff survey as morale had dipped. The view of the HR team was that they needed some communication to get staff back on board and feeling more positive.

For me, the next few weeks were a culture shock. Barclaycard had changed a lot between 1998 and 2005. The management team was very different with a strong BarCap presence and even stronger BarCap mentality.  What was most noticeable was the divide between the long-serving, generally more junior staff and those managers parachuted in from elsewhere in the business or recruited to fit the new mould.

Generalising, for those who'd grown up in the Northampton HQ, the values mattered; customers mattered; relationships across the business mattered. For the new breed, profit mattered. End of.

Having spent several weeks interviewing around three dozen people (on both sides of an increasingly obvious divide), for my diagnostic, I fed back my findings to HR as preparation for presenting a plan to the Barclaycard Board. My simple conclusion was that no amount of tactical communication would change anything at this stage. Quite simply, the management culture bore no relation to the espoused Values. All the nice words about customers and colleagues were just posters on the wall.

The real work needed to be about deep cultural change - to move management into a more truly customer and employee-focused mode of operation or, more likely, to move staff towards the emerging management model.

My 'killer' line was on values and had been given to me by a senior Barclaycard exec in the interviews. He'd said: "Those values on the wall mean nothing. If I was really to sum us up I'd say: 'We're short-termist; a bunch of hard-nosed bastards who are ruthless on costs and entirely focused on delivering our profit targets. No-one stands in our way."

I told my clients that there was no benefit whatsoever in running a series of events with supporting whistles and bells advocating a set of values that the senior management team clearly weren't living and had no intention of buying into.  They'd be better off being honest and putting the 'short-termist bastards' message on the walls.

I never got to present to the Barclaycard Board (and was never invited to become a diplomat) but did get to send my report to the CEO - Gary Hoffman (who's currently being touted as a potential replacement for Bob Diamond.). I have no idea if he ever read it, since the comms project was quietly cancelled soon afterwards.

I've subsequently done work for the European retail banking business and enjoyed the experience much more. But what struck me most thinking back to my 2005 involvement was how BarCap's tentacles were stretching out, creating a culture where the ruthless pursuit of profit - no matter who was struck down along the way - had become endemic in large chunks of the bank.

Yesterday, Bob Diamond delivered a long and seemingly passionate promise of intent to staff a triumph of corporate communication at odds with corporate actuality. But he was too late.

The culture he has created in the bank has come back to bite him. There's a point where greed is no longer good - even to investors. Bob Diamond has gone because of one thing: shareholder value. Rather than boosting the share price, his association with Barclays caused it to plunge. However good an operator you are, as soon as that happens, you're out. End of.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Freelance Rules #14 - keep juggling

Looking back on the actuality of my last few weeks against the 'plan' highlights the reality of freelance life - and shows why you need to be the consummate juggler to succeed in this game.

Looking at my white board, I - theoretically - had three key projects on the go in June. One was a sensitive piece of change comms; one a piece of work around an intranet launch  and the third was a series of magazine articles. Each had been costed, planned and scheduled - there would be crossovers, but no significant clashes.

The reality of June was: the 'sensitive' piece happened pretty much to plan. It attracted no external coverage and landed as well as it could internally. I was then involved in a second change announcement for a different client. This time my unexpected involvement was sideways-on. I was called in late in the day and the brief was 'organic'. At first, I was about as helpful as a chocolate teapot. My second input was more useful and by the end of last week I felt I was providing something of value to the client. As ever, it would have been great to be in earlier - but that's not the way it works for freelancers.

The intranet piece is suffering from classic delays. I've crafted my small cog in the wheel, but some of the bigger cogs have jammed. It's a great client who has allowed me to bill all my planned time up front, despite the larger project potentially having ground to a halt 'til the other side of the summer holidays.  After a sustained few days of effort, I've been thumb twiddling on this one for a week or so. Not my fault; not my client's fault - but technical troubles further into the guts of the project means there's no point in us progressing further quite yet. In my early days as a freelancer I'd have got quite worked up about this. Now I try not to worry about things outside my control - and just work on the stuff in front of me.

The magazine 'stuff' has worked as so many magazines do - interviews have been rescheduled; contacts have changed (or disappeared) and I've had to find new angles and new contributing voices. But that's the beauty of a magazine: it evolves and reshapes as it moves from an editorial plan to the finished product. So far, the client seems happy though we're still lacking a couple of pieces and the  deadline is approaching at high speed.

So what has actually happened over the past few weeks is some periods of intense focus - head down on one project and motoring full speed at it at the expense of everything (and everyone) around. Other times have been a juggle between clients and competing pieces of work - and other stretches - a day, two and even three days - have been barren with little opportunity to progress.  Everything on my white board will be completed - plus a couple of other small but important tasks....and a client pitch; two proposals; invoicing and other admin - oh, and my annual review on my PhD.

I'm not an elegant juggler - but the balls are still in the air. But, if you like regularity in your job, and struggle when deadlines compete and work lurches off piste, then freelancing - at least in my line of work - may not be for you.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ripples on the industrial/academic nexus

For the past 27 years, after leaving university first time round, I've worked in journalism and latterly, organisational communication. For the past five years I've been back in academia; collecting an MA and working towards a PhD. For the past two I've been teaching in a university history department - part-time and on a short contract basis. This year in particular, my module has proved popular. The feedback has been good and students have become very engaged in the subject.

I've been able to bring all my experience of corporate communications to bear on designing and delivering my lectures and seminars. There's a huge parallel with the kind of training I've done for years in industry and the facilitation work I've done with corporate and industry leaders over the last decade.

It helps too that I'm the father to teenagers not far short in age of the young adults I've been teaching. I'm beginning to understand their on-line linked up world where the old style of lecturing from my first university experience simply wouldn't cut it any more.

So, my lectures are bracketed with music chosen to have some relevance to the topic. I use You Tube and other video sources extensively to bring to life the people and events we're covering. Much of the seminar work is based around primary sources - and generally I prefer the students to find and introduce at least some of those sources.

It's a first year group, and as well as getting a good grounding in the subject, I want them to get enjoyment from our Thursday afternoons together and come out feeling they want to learn more - to scrape beneath the surface view. I don't claim that my sessions cover all the bases; I don't claim that they give more than a partial view - and at times I'll deliberately go out on an extreme to drive home a point. But I want the students to leave the lecture room sufficiently engaged with the subject to go and find out more: to read deeply and get the full story - if only to disprove the line I've taken.

In the UK system of little contact time and much space left for private study, it's all I can do. I'm not yet a great teacher and still have a huge amount to learn. But finally, I think I've found my metier. This student engagement in subjects I'm passionate about is what I do best. I hope I can always work it alongside my engagement work.

My approach in attempting to connect the students to the subject matter through some side-on angles isn't revolutionary - indeed I'm aping the best of my experience through my Masters. Where I am perhaps hard wired slightly differently is in bringing my experience of the world beyond academia to bear from lecture one term one in making students think beyond their three or four years of academic study to the harsh working world that will be waiting for them in a couple of years' time.

I want them to immerse themselves in their subject: to begin to think as historians and to move beyond the narrative I can share with them to question why things turned out as they did. But equally, I want to help them develop good habits: to turn up on time; to participate in class; to be generous in sharing views; to accept and deal with constructive criticism; to organise their thoughts cogently and present them coherently, on time and within the expected standards. That may sound like a no-brainer, but it's not the case for a number of reasons.

On the student side, they've come through a school system designed to enable them to get the right grades in exams. That means spoon-fed learning, narrow-cast around fulfilling exam criteria. Having only 10 hours contact time with staff at university per week; being asked to research subjects without a feeding spoon; and simply being away from home for the first time is perhaps a bigger ask of students than ever before.

And on the staff side, frankly the system has become too lax and simply doesn't demand sufficient discipline from students. We don't make lectures and seminars compulsory and equally don't have enough support in place to help those sinking students learn to swim. The latter point comes in part from a lack of funding; the former is merely a hangover from more freewheeling liberal approaches that first permeated campuses a generation ago. Yes, we have to respect that our students are adults who choose to be on our course. But my view is that many don't arrive from school with sufficient structure in place to make the right decisions on their own. At first year level, I'd make contact time compulsory. It builds good practice that won't just carry through their study time, but will be invaluable in landing and keeping a job after graduation.

It's at this point that my 'day job' and academic life collides most. For over a year I've been working on Adecco's Unlocking Britain's Potential initiative. This is looking at why Britain's workforce isn't as effective as it could be - and one of the key findings is that young workers simply aren't ready for the world of work, whether they emerge from education at 16, 18 or in the early 20s. Of course, it's a huge generalisation, but the majority of the employers I spoke to during the research spoke about the issues they have both with managing young people's expectations (the 'entitled' generation was a recurring theme), and instilling the discipline and loyalty necessary for that young person to be a productive and contributing member of the organisation.

Industry blames the education system for not producing the 'finished work-ready goods', while the education sector bemoans the lack of industry support - from shaping curricula to offering the work placements through education that will open young people's eyes to the reality of work. They're both right, and I hope UBP will help cement some of the links that are clearly lacking.

For me though, one of the most disconcerting aspects of the past two years has been the disconnect in what academia is, and should be, about. For me, teaching the next generation and opening their minds so that they can make the bridge into a career is the vital aspect. I put everything of myself into that part of university life - yet it actually counts for nothing on my PhD.

While internal student satisfaction and, increasingly the National Student Survey play a part in grading the department and attracting students, our funding is based on the quality of published research - written by academics for academics and largely read by three old men and a dog. Teaching is secondary and lecturers are recruited into the department on the basis of the the funding their research will attract. There's a fundamental dichotomy here. True, some great researchers are also great teachers but it's by no means always the case. At the moment, great teaching doesn't attract funding and so there's little incentive for departments to recruit staff members who will make the student experience truly memorable. If it happens now, it's by luck not judgement.

The next generation is not attracted to study in our institutions by the scholarly articles we publish (ok, I've only published one...and a review) but will increasingly be attracted by the electronic word-of-mouth of social media - the views of current students - and by tracking where our graduates end up in their working lives. We are not an end in ourselves. For the next generation of students, employability will be far more a pressing reason to choose or reject a department than the research interests of the faculty.

So where am I heading with this? Well, I'm beginning to draw my conclusions. In brief, they are:

  • Providing funding to departments only on the basis of research devalues the teaching experience and is unsustainable in a new era of growing student choice
  • Students want good teaching and more informed contact time - most don't give a toss about the department's reputation for scholarly research
  • The university experience has to add another layer: subject specialist excellence has to remain at the forefront, but especially in non-vocational subjects, there needs to be a far greater emphasis on supporting students across the transition from school to university and then from university into work
  • Industry/university partnerships are not a dirty concept - they will become ever-more essential and need to break out of the narrow confines of law firm - law department and 'big four' - business school and embrace all departments and all types of industrial and commercial organisation
  • Teaching experience and skill should be a measured and rewarded aspect of PhD study for any researcher contemplating an academic career
  • We need to instill greater discipline in students at university level - not to do so is bad for everyone.
As liberal in thought and voting practice, my views surprise even me. Cripes, I'll be advocating 'Victorian Values' next....

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

i/O, B&C Connections and more

I've written a lot of content for Adecco recently. Much of it has been for their revamped client magazine which is now being issued in a number of versions tailored to their brands. First off the deck is i/O - produced for the technology recruitment brand: Modis.

The magazine is being produced in both a print format for those brands where people still like a physical publication and an e-version, while some brands are strictly electronic. I'll link to more versions as I get hold of them.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Generation IT 2012

The report I compiled for Modis on if and how the UK can become an instigator of future technological revolutions is now available to download here. I'm facilitating round-table events in London on March 8th; Manchester on March 20th and Edinburgh on March 27th for senior IT professionals to take the conversation forward. If you're interested in taking part, please let me know and I'll put you in touch with the organisers.

Key points are:

  • IT is moving ever more from back-office to the business driver
  • In some organisations, IT is the business
  • The CIO is increasingly a business role
  • Hybrid business/technical skills are most in demand
  • Technical specialisms still matter: but what makes the big difference is their marriage with analytical skills, a business understanding and great communication
  • IT is a great contributor to unlocking Britain's potential - the focus has to be on training, education and innovation.
I'd welcome any feedback on the report.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Unlocking Britain's Potential

The Research Report I wrote for Adecco - Unlocking Britain's Potential  - was launched at the end of their Conference on employability and unlocking the 'Lost Workforce' at the Grosvenor Square Marriott in London on Tuesday. It was an absorbing event and I hope it, plus the report, really does spark some action to bring educators, employers and government together. You can download the report here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Freelance Rules #13 - Don't get discouraged

Friday was terrible: five interviews lined up for a magazine that's already running late. Of those five, I landed just one. One guy was on holiday - I interrupted his boarding at Stansted Airport - one bumped me for a more important meeting and two just weren't on the end of the phone when they said they would be. I also spent far too much of the day (indeed of the week) chasing payments for work completed last November while also dealing with lost emails and a conference clash.

It was a horrible day summing up all it can be when you're a microbusiness on the margins of importance to those I was trying to connect with. But sometimes that's just the nature of the beast when you're freelancing.

In this case, my client hasn't prioritised the project I'm working on, and getting support from within his business has been painful. It's not his fault: the project's a new area for him and he's being asked to do more with less as the downturn continues to bite. I'm just glad the magazine is still running. In terms of the interviewees, an almost cold call from an organisation they know for something other than as a commentator on business issues is never going to outrank their day to day tasks.

Yes - interviews could have been set up earlier; we could have had a stronger brief on client requirements and and there could just have been more client oomph behind the project. But, we are where we are and the task of the freelancer is to make the best of it. Come the end of last Friday I just had to park what occurred during the day and prepare for a better Monday.

Today didn't start brilliantly to be honest - but not for immediate work reasons. I've been bumped off a flight in the US in April which rather mucks up some well-crafted travel plans, and then I found out I'd missed out on the ballot for England v South Africa tickets this summer. So, not the nicest first two emails to greet me.

But, since then, things have looked up. One client has paid me; I've conducted three useful interviews for the magazine and have another one lined up this afternoon. The magazine isn't quite where I'd want it to be, but thanks to the persistence of my co-freelancer and myself, and some energy from the client, it's getting there.

As microbusinesses we tend to work in a little bubble and it's too easy to let high dudgeon rise when our best-laid plans are derailed further up the supply chain. But if you want to keep pulling in the jobs, there's no point acting like a prima donna. Sometimes the only way to operate is just to plough on: to take in a huge breath, count to ten and focus on what you can do - not on the aspects of the project outside your control.

Expending all your energy on issues where you have little or no influence will lead only to further discouragement.  That way madness lies!