Privilege and the Old Boy Network

If anyone ever had cause to wonder whether privilege still opens doors in the UK, whether those born with the proverbial silver spoon still get all the best opportunities, then here’s the evidence.

London Evening Standard – Nine UK Schools Produce Country’s Most Powerful People

As the article suggests, a great deal of thought and energy has gone in over many years to improving equality of opportunity, to ensure that education can level the field and create social mobility. However, the article appears to show that whatever effect there has been is woefully little.

It still matters a great deal where you went to school ….. and who with!

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Dinosaurs in the Classroom

This isn’t the article i intended to write on the blog. That’s still half written, so i’ll save it for another day. Instead, I saw something that got me so hot under the collar that i felt the need to get some stuff off my chest.

First, a bit of background about what’s made me mad.

Over 30 years ago, I was a young man fresh out of college and early in my first career as a private banker. I was excited and thrilled to be out in the professional world at last, ready to build my career. However, I had already had a few months to realise that all was not necessarily well in the world of work and that there were many sharp rocks in the water that could harm a career or harm the idea that all the people working in an organisation are strongest when they all align and pool their best efforts in a common direction. A couple of short stories will illustrate.

Initially, I had to rotate through all the departments of our bank – to understand the work done by each department and begin to build my technical knowledge. I started in the wills, trusts and estates department, full of dusty ledgers and ruled by arcane sets of rules on double entry bookkeeping. Maybe work that entails whole days rifling through the personal possessions of people who’ve just died does something to the inhabitants after a while. After a few weeks I was given a task to collate the records of a large collection of share certificates. Some were for defunct and bankrupt companies, some had been taken over, in some cases the shares had been split many times. It was technical and time consuming work that required great accuracy. I was new, i wanted to learn and i threw myself in to it heart and soul. Extra hours, skipped lunch breaks – I was in the zone. When I’d finished I checked and double checked my work before taking it to the desk of the supervisor.

He opened up the ledger, looked it over for a while and then told me he’d get back to me. Three days later he called me to his desk. He didn’t invite me to sit, pushed his glasses down his nose and peered over the top at me. “Hmm. Interesting.”
My heart lurched. I’d been so careful in the work, had taken such care. Had I made a mistake?
“Wellllll, it’s all correct, as far as it goes ……………. but this isn’t the way we do it here.”
“But is the information accurate, correct and understandable?”
“Yes, Mark. But, you need to understand, this isn’t the way we do it around here.”

All my pride in that piece of work just washed away like someone had pulled out a big plug. I struggled to understand how a piece of work could be right, accurate, clear and yet ……… all wrong because it wasn’t laid out according to some hidden, secret, set of protocols. needless to say, I was made to lay the information out in exactly the way required. my enthusiasm and sense of ownership had gone and somewhere I was cautioned to limit my inclination to use initiative and innovate.

man-holding-his-head-with-hands_1154-47

In the following weeks I picked myself up, renewed my energy and decided to be positive and optimistic, putting this experience down more to the individual I was reporting to than the system as a whole. I threw myself back in to my work with new energy.

A few weeks went by. I will never forget a particular Friday when i took some time out to go to lunch with a couple of my colleagues. As i was coming back in to the building I suddenly felt a tug on my elbow. A much older colleague with whom I’d had little dealings asked/ told me to step in to a meeting room. As I entered, I recalled that someone had pointed him out to me as ‘the union rep.

“Mark, I needed to talk to you on a very important matter.” He looked stern. “It’s come to our attention that you’ve been working late, taking work home and doing extra projects for the management. It must stop immediately. You’re setting a bad example, management will start expecting it of everyone and we can’t have that.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor I figured out how I wanted to respond. I won’t write exactly what i said here, but the gist was that I told him to mind his own business and that I would thank him not to infringe on my rights to choose how i approached my career.

There is a little side note to that story. About 5 years later I bumped into said Union Man at a company event. By that time I’d undergone a few promotions, moved jobs and offices, done a secondment in the Channel Islands and was generally moving forward in my career pretty rapidly. He, on the other hand, still sat in the same office, doing the same job at the same grade and was known to be full of bitterness towards the company that he considered had failed to recognise his talents! My only hope at the time was that he wasn’t getting to pour his poison in the ears of any other young, keen and ambitious employees.

I’ve always chosen to live (and work) according to the spirit of the famous poem ‘Invictus’, by William Ernest Henley;

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

We are none of us helpless and we hold our fate in our hands. I also find common cause with writers like Cal Newport, Seth Godin, Simon Sinek and Adam Grant;

Cal Newport – So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Stop worrying about what you feel like doing (and what the world owes you) and instead, start creating something meaningful and then give it to the world. Cal really delivers with this one.”
–Seth Godin, author, Linchpin

Adam Grant – Give and Take 

Simon Sinek – Leaders Eat Last

These writers all have in common that they are considered to be Twenty First Century thinkers and writers, espousing the right ideas for those who want to succeed in a rapidly changing and demanding environment.

I well remember after i left banking in the late 1990s that as I worked to change my career I started to evaluate where I wanted to work. Without ties, the world was open to me. In some ways, the decision was made for me when people started talking genuinely and seriously about legislation that would, by law, limit the working week. As though, somehow, in some sort of socialist Lala Land it was going to be mandated that nobody must have ambition, nobody must make effort to rise above anyone else, nobody should gain or benefit from the fruit of their own labour. This was all the motivation I needed to set out on an international venture that has now stretched for close to 19 years.

Young people today are growing up in a very different world to the one that I grew up in. It’s way more global, more connected, faster paced and requires a greater level of continuous learning (and unlearning) . This is exactly the kind of world that Newport, Godin, Sinek and Grant are pointing towards. This makes two things very clear to me;

a) When adults say of lifelong learning things like, “I make a particular point of learning from everyone around me,” you’re listening to someone who’s fudging it. Lifelong learning means real learning, not just the lazy practice of kidding yourself that because you spend time around others you’re absorbing their knowledge and wisdom by osmosis. If that was true, we should give every kid in school and A grade when they pass out – just because they showed up and spent time around others.

It also, though, doesn’t necessarily mean the frenzied pursuit of more and more bits of paper. Certificates that say you attended some programme of learning don’t necessarily represent a good fit with the knowledge you need at the time. The best learning to meet the needs of an ever evolving life is the learning that can be gathered through a self-generated and evolving curriculum based upon personal interest, opportunities and circumstances.

b) And this one is the real bee that got under my bonnet and inspired me to park the other article i was writing – people like Union Man shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Twenty First Century children or their teachers. Their toxic line in mediocrity is so unhealthy that it has no place.

What do i mean – here’s an article published in TES that had me almost frothing at the mouth;

TES – Teachers Shouldn’t be Expected to Work For Free

This article seems to start off on the subject of school/ education funding. However, suddenly it veers off in to a rabid attack on school leaders in a style that would have been worthy of a protege of my Union Man from 30 years ago.

According to the writer, every time a teacher is offered an opportunity to learn, to grow, to expand their skills in to new areas their first response should be, “Not until you tell me what’s in it for me.”

This is how we prepare and motivate teachers to lead a new generation towards fulfilling their potential, grabbing opportunities in the global economy. Do the world’s great creators, artists, designers, idea generators ask, “Can I get away without doing this extra half an hour of effort?” or “Tell me what I’m getting paid before I put in this effort.”

This is the way educators in Britain will condemn another generation of young people to live stunted and denuded lives, wondering why they’re not better off than their parents’ generation, wondering why all the money and jobs seem to be flowing elsewhere, why Asian economies are so buoyant while theirs remains so anemic.

If the writer needs extra time to watch Great British Bake Off, rather than supporting a generation of children to get the best possible education that is his prerogative. But I wish he’d keep it to himself

 

Leaders Don’t Do Simple

Alibaba CEO Jack Ma: If You Want Your Life to Be Simple, Don’t Be the Leader – inc-asean.com

http://inc-asean.com/the-inc-life/alibaba-ceo-jack-ma-if-you-want-your-life-to-be-simple-dont-be-the-leader/

Are Work Habits Ruining Your Productivity?

http://m.fastcompany.com/3051473/are-work-habits-ruining-your-productivity?utm_source=mailchimp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=fast-company-daily-newsletter&position=6&partner=newsletter&campaign_date=09242015

Changing Our Approach to Work

After the business barons got out of hand exploiting their workers with unhealthily long work shifts in awful conditions, the 8-hour shift came as good news and was almost luxurious for many. It went on to become embedded in the mentality of working people having been fought for and hard won. There was a slogan used by the campaigners that went, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!”

It’s held firm for a long time now, and been exported to every corner of the world. But, in so many ways it just plain doesn’t work any more. Here, this informative and entertaining article from Forbes highlights just some of those reasons – and suggests what could work so much more effectively for us.

Forbes – Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work

While reading this I became aware of my own personal hangups that don’t make such changes easy. Early in my professional working life, it was the late 1980’s and i was working in a bank where there were a lot of very traditional and ‘set in their ways’ people. I had had many part time jobs during my student days and always worked hard. Here, suddenly, I was faced with an environment within which it was more important to be seen working and ‘busy’ than to actually get work done or achieve outcomes.

One of my biggest shocks was when i watched a senior gentleman who had just returned from his annual vacation labour for two whole days making lists of all the correspondence and work that had arrived on his desk during the two weeks he was away before he wrote a single letter in response or made a single phone call. It even troubled me that, in his absence, all work related to his clients was simply added to a growing pile on his desk. there was no comprehension that our responsibility was to meet needs of clients/ customers (and that a person’s holiday was an inadequate reason for them to go without service!)

There were time clocks in the office where each employee had to insert a plastic key that would then cause it to show how much time you had worked over the month. Some of the laziest and most unproductive people in the office used to show the highest numbers of hours at the end of every month! Figure that one out. There were all sorts of games and scams people could play. I really didn’t want to join in. In fact, far from playing the game, I got in to trouble after i’d been there about 6 months and to be spoken to sternly by the union representative. He informed me that it had been brought to his attention that I had been taking on ‘extra projects’ for managers and taking work home in the evenings and at weekends. This was to stop immediately!

I ignored the union rep and reminded him a few years later when I had been promoted a number of times and he still sat doing the same job as before. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown at that time for my decision to strike out from my home country and head to the East, where attitudes to work and time tend to be rather different. i haven’t looked back really – in fact, this year I’ve moved further East!

I still suffer from guilt. We are all well aware of the ability for office workers to ‘guilt’ those who seem to be slacking if they have a personal or casual conversation in the workplace, or come a little later than others, regardless of work done, output achieved etc. I’ll even guilt myself for walking in half an hour after others, even though I know that I sat down and did two or three hours of great quality work that I’m proud of the evening before at home.

There’s one area where I do disagree with the advice in the Forbes article. I think when one is in the state of ‘Flow’ identified by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi the need for breaks every hour melts away. Certainly, for me personally, the clock stops mattering when i’m in my groove like that. To force myself to take a break would actually be an annoyance, would break the flow and make me less productive. That doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

It’s not just the time issue that needs major rethinking in our approaches to work. it’s also how we behave in our offices, how we organise them and how we make them places where people can actually get work of real quality done. These problems are well brought out in this TED talk;

Going back to my early working life, eventually i became a manager after a few years, in charge of an office with about 14 people working (or, I worried, too often not working), interrupting each other continuously. When i brought this up as an issue, people were shocked. I suggested a plan whereby anyone could put up a little flag at the front of their desk (we were entirely open plan). This flag meant, don’t interrupt this person. You couldn’t keep the flag for more than an hour at a time or for more than 2 hours in a single day. People didn’t like this. When the next ‘upward appraisal’ session came around they gave me a bad mark and complained i was making myself inaccessible. The truth was, it was vitally important to them to maintain the status quo. Concentrated, uninterrupted work time would mean we’d have to show some good work. Worse, it meant that you couldn’t impulsively go and stretch your legs whilst dumping some ‘upward delegation’ on your boss.

I’m writing this in the evening, sitting in my home with beautiful classical music playing in the background – Bach, if anyone’s interested. I worked at home all day today and didn’t even leave the house. I got real work done. Work that was important and matters. And, I probably achieved more in my work today than I had in the last week. i didn’t watch TV or waste my time. I did do some exercises and take a shower in the afternoon when I felt my work flagging. That left me ‘good to go’ for a few more hours afterwards.

So, why do i feel guilty?

 

From McKinsey: What CEOs are reading

What CEOs are reading – http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/leadership/what-ceos-are-reading

Leaders of some of the world’s biggest organizations reveal which books will keep them occupied in the coming months.

Sent from the McKinsey Insights App
Available in the App Store (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id674902075?mt=8) and Play Store (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mckinsey.mckinseyinsights)

The Men Who Made Us Thin

The first of four episodes of a documentary series that I believe should be made essential viewing for every schoolchild and teacher.

You watch these programmes and you will perfectly understand my strong resistance to accepting sponsorship money from food companies for activities and events in schools (especially those associated with sports and fitness).

There is a strong need to fight back against the message sold by the food companies – if you exercise it won’t matter what your eating habits are.  Exercise is good for us and positive for our health overall,  but it’s benefits should not be overstated as a panacea or a justification for bad eating habits.

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