Seven years

It’s 7 years now since launching New Star Networks (NSN) and I have learned many new things from being in the driving seat of what is an increasingly substantial company.

Here are 7 key learnings that have totally changed my outlook in business.

There’s never just one driving seat in a successful business.. and this is a good thing.

The more drivers you have in your business the more likely your business is to enjoy continuous growth. When others in your business truly get to drive it then the quality of information they can learn from is so much greater; as it is deeply personal and meaningful. In a company like NSN where we have two equal majority shareholders leading the business, continued success has come from making space for the other to excel and to gain support where needed. This in turn has influenced the development of other roles within the business over time.

Ignorance will never be blissful again as a business leader.

Whoever steps forward into a position of leadership from Team leader to Department head through to Company director, information will be the fuel they run their engine on. All the information from around the business is vital in being effective in whatever part of the business you’re in; especially if you want to make a real impact. The best way to stay informed is to communicate regularly and meaningfully with the rest of the business at all levels. Increased awareness of other departmental and individual goals within the business increases the quality of the information you work with. It also enables you to fit it all together quicker and more meaningfully. Ask yourself if there are things in your business that you don’t fully know about and then take some time to reflect on how valuable that information might actually be and how it could help you to be better at what you do.

You can’t save people from their past or future mistakes.

In any business you will see people join and leave for varying reasons. In a successful start-up the loss of a colleague can simply be due to the increasing complexity of the business as it scales up. I have found that when I hire someone, I take on not only the person but also their aspirations; this also includes their own limiting beliefs from their past. One of the things that makes me good at what I do is my capacity for empathy, it also means that I have a tendency to try and help people. It can also mean that there is a temptation to try and prevent them from taking paths that might limit their future potential. The fact is that it’s just not always possible to help people to achieve all of their aspirations during the time they are a part of the business. For some their personal journey needs simply to include more essential things like emotional and financial independence (rather than running a company for example). Seeing this has been helpful in that it shifts the context from facilitating every goal, which is frankly knackering for all parties, to enabling them to go further on from wherever they are currently at. I have found that supporting autonomous decision making and assisting in the development of real skills and capabilities is, generally, the most meaningful impact a conscientious business leader can have.

What got you to where you are won’t get you to where you want to go next.

Whatever energies might have driven you at the start are likely to change somewhere along the line. If it was a chip on the shoulder that helped you take a swing at the next challenging day, then there’s a chance that a measure of success will knock it off. If it’s a financial number that drives you then the day will likely come, if you stick at it, that this number comes up and flips a switch inside you from being compelled to being confused. You can make the number larger, and if that works for you that’s great. I have found that investing my energy in people has been a great driver, but also being honest that I need to invest in myself has been quite an eye opener. In any case, having a purpose beyond your role in the company will help you to do that job a great deal better.

Your failings are where your future capabilities lie untapped.

Tap into them, both on your own and with the help from others. Seek out mentors and sounding boards but don’t miss out on vital feedback from the people you have around you on a day to day basis. Becoming more open to learning from everyone around me has been immensely helpful; regardless of the level within the business people are at they will have perspectives and insights that are truly valuable. In my own life I have steered away from heavily technical information whether it related to technology or to the financial mechanisms usually associated with a Finance Director. In the last seven years I have repeatedly challenged myself in both areas and have been rewarded with powerful insights and a healthier sense of what I am truly capable of.

How we talk to ourselves will impact on how we talk to others.

This is a tricky one and I feel privileged to know about it through my work as a coach. It is best understood by putting yourself in a high-pressure situation and then taking a moment to catch what you say to yourself about how you are doing. The words will be yours and they really do have a direct impact on how you think about what you do next. I invite you to think for a bit longer about the style of how you are speaking to yourself, the number of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ (and ffs’s) and the tone used. Phrases like ‘I’ll never understand that’ or ‘it’s just not something I’m good at’ or perhaps ‘I was never one of the smart ones at school’. Maybe this reminds you of someone you knew earlier in life, maybe you unconsciously absorbed it as a way of handling stressful moments. In any event, if you don’t like the way you are talking to yourself there is a strong chance that others will not like the way you talk to them either. Changing the way that I speak to myself, both when under pressure and in everyday life, has helped me to communicate better with others. This is a vital piece of self-work for anyone in a leadership role.

The best form of leadership is to embody the thing you wish to communicate – and then help others gain an experience of embodying it as well.

Even just phrasing this insight is a work in progress. It gives what I do in NSN more meaning to me than just what is delivered in the P&L or in terms of customer products or service experience. It challenges me to become increasingly more conscious about how I do what I do. It continuously asks what it is that I and others around me do well, what can be done better, and who is best positioned in the moment to take the lead. Actions quite literally speak louder than words and everyone is listening more than we might think. This is at times quite daunting, but the rewards are real and the sense that I am learning at a whole new level is enough to keep driving forward.. hopefully for the next seven years.

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Being Useful

I recently attended an event that focused on the idea and practice of Servant Leadership. I was impressed. It was a decent sized group of adults with a fair mix of men and women. All of them were senior business professionals of one kind or another, and they were all keyed into the idea of Servant Leadership, to one degree or another. What they all seemed to agree on were the 5 main ways of being a Servant Leader:

  1. Be accepting
  2. Be authentic
  3. Be present
  4. Be vulnerable
  5. Be useful

We had 5 tables around the room, and each table took an aspect of being a Servant Leader and discussed it. We all ended up with many points or distinctions that could be made about our chosen aspect. My table had number 5, that of being useful. Below are 6 key elements of being useful as a leader that emerged for us, and my own reflections on each of them:

  1. To create an environment for success
  2. To step forward or back as needed to make the system work
  3. To mine your own talents and transfer capabilities/knowledge
  4. Two questions: How can I help? What do you need?
  5. To ensure that your company’s wider footprint is useful as well
  6. To have a useful vision

The first element seems obvious, and yet so often it is overlooked. It’s almost a given that most businesses are aware of their immediate office environment, lighting, posture supportive chairs etc. The environment that matters the most to me is one where each person within the business nurtures a positive regard for the other. This ultimately creates an environment where you would not want others to have any less of an opportunity in life than you have. The servant leader in this case can be most useful by embodying this themselves.

The second element connects for me, to an insight I had whilst driving my car around busy London roads. I noticed that there were occasions when, even though I absolutely had the right of way, that by not giving way to others I was ignoring the wider issue. That of the build-up of traffic flow leading back into other parts of London; the wider system. Yet if I allowed someone through then it could move, even just a little bit, and others behind me would have an example to follow that was perhaps different from how they had previously thought. This insight has subsequently influenced my approach to leadership in business. Stepping forward or back as per clearly presented needs (or as per my vision of the whole). Simply taking a parcel to the post office or offering support to someone who needs it at whatever level of the business can be the difference that makes the difference, even just a little bit. And even just a little bit of flexibility can be what the system needs to make it flow.

Mining your own talents is a fast track to being vulnerable in front of your colleagues. This is because it is a form of learning. It is where you take unconscious competence and make it explicitly accessible to others. The reward is both in the giving away of the newly tacit knowledge and in the emerging awareness that existing talents and skills can be developed even further and communicated with increasing clarity. The act of transferring capabilities is a step further, in that the information transferred by the leader is even more consciously engaged. The leader is literally living with the ongoing lived development of the person they are working with; making sense of the other persons journey through their eyes as well as they can.

The two questions, how can I help and what do you need are inherently servant like in nature. They are also the very definition of being useful to the person to whom you are asking the questions of. They must of course be balanced within the context of the wider whole, time and degrees of impact in the service of the wider vision. However, there is no getting around the fact that by asking either of these questions you will be getting into the nitty gritty in short order. And what you learn is often very rich. For example, what a person really needs can be quite different from what you think it is, and therefore what might motivate them or enable them to do well can be best discovered by asking them directly what they actually need. Asked alongside the question how can I help? sets the context more firmly within the business environment, focused on their core responsibilities. This question can help a person to feel secure enough to ask for help i.e. training that they might not otherwise feel comfortable to ask for.

Having your company’s wider footprint become useful is a development somewhat of the earlier insights from stepping forward and back. Whether your company has a global or local footprint it will always have a wider impact than the immediate focal points of your business plan. Whilst we can never be fully mindful of the myriad ways in which our companies have an impact further afield, we can always strive to reduce the potential harm to others we might otherwise cause, and to help others to have a better quality of life than they might otherwise have. As is becoming increasingly clear that we live in a deeply interconnected world, our thoughts and deeds have a much stronger chance of impacting on others across the globe. Threats from climate change, viral insights or fake news spread on social media, cyber-attacks/increased security and advances in medicine through internet enabled collaboration across the globe are just a few examples of how whatever we do impacts everyone else, to some degree or other.

Which brings me onto the last element, that of having a useful vision. In this case for me it has a similar essence to having a vision for my company’s wider footprint. Although this vision has grown over time it has always aimed to include as many people as possible, to the degree that I would my own family; within a framework of aligned personal and company goals, meaningful rewards and ongoing personal development. Working together to create meaningful and productive working lives that support and nurture families, futures and the next generations. This vision means that from time to time the more lucrative rewards of business ownership are deferred to some degree. However, in the long term the environment is more sustainable, the people are more motivated and more people can experience a greater quality of life.

The double-edged sword of mindfulness

 

The classic perception of mindfulness is as a relaxing and grounding way of finding our centre and bringing greater attention to our sense of being. It is generally pursued through a variety of meditation approaches, most of which are usually experienced in short order as being quite other than relaxing or grounding. Meditation mats and cushions largely end up in a cupboard, Reiki CD’s in the attic and occasional yoga classes recede into distant memory like the flexibility of youth.

Ironically, people engage in mindfulness more often than they are aware. The main way that people engage in mindfulness is not even meditation. Mindfulness is most often experienced when beginning to learn something. Those first few steps of feeling off balance, falling out of ones’ comfort zone and into an array of confusing new information can turn up the volume and brightness on the world around them. Sometimes overwhelmingly. As a temporary member of the Consciously Incompetent we face our greatest challenge. The challenge to our own sense of self both internally and socially.

In fact, the whole experience is often compounded by the social element; as if the volume and brightness of our discomfort were not already turned up high enough. We unavoidably see our maladaptation multiplied in the eyes others around us. As adults, we must run the gauntlet of potentially being stigmatised, classified as unfit for certain levels of social sign off and approval if we fail in public. Yet at no other time are we so exquisitely attuned to learning. Our senses are never so keen or our processing powers as super-charged as when we are immersed in a learning rich environment. And a learning environment is grounded in failure and crowned on reflection with layers of consolidation and emergent capabilities. Put simply we cannot learn deeply and meaningfully without making mistakes and mistakes, as adults, are socially taboo.

However, it is the deep power of this newly unresolved and confused sense of reality that can help us to open up our mental models and make room for new data. The practice of meditation or mindfulness for most of us can be an exercise in self-torture as it is a pure pathway to heightening our awareness. Anything going on in our psyche at that moment in time will immediately become brighter, louder and generally enhanced in every way possible. Mindfulness therefore is one of the last things a troubled mind should look to for escapism, but entirely the way forward for engaging meaningfully and purposefully with life. No discomfort = no gain.

Therefore the double edged sword of mindfulness is that, as it cuts new ground ahead for us, it also cuts us open in the process. If we are not prepared to be open we will resist most of the new and strange information and experiences that want to rush in and become a part of us. My argument therefore is that the stuff deep inside us, that mindfulness raises so powerfully to the surface, is best dealt with through active learning and using the entirety of our being. It needs a purpose, in order for it to become repurposed within the context of our ongoing personal development. And personal development should always be ongoing.

In particular it is in the processing of our demons through creative endeavours that we knit ourselves larger and more encompassing, such that we are increasingly less frightened by our own shadows. These shadows can be reduced as our attention and our being grow and occupy the dark spaces, and it is from these dark spaces that we draw energy and insight for where we can go and who we can grow into being next. It is in this newly grounded and open space, with all of our demons put to work, that we can luxuriate into the quality of being we generally associate with meditation or mindfulness. As our attention begins to know no reason to flinch back from foreign boundaries our sense of self can know its true radius and in doing so find that there is truly no boundary.

Triggers Broom & My Aikido (reflections on learning and unlearning)

 

Triggers Broom & My Aikido

 

I was recently reminded of a wonderful scene in the TV show Only Fools and Horses. The scene in mind featured the character called Trigger talking about getting an award for having the same broom for 20 years. For those who don’t know the scene this is what happens:

Trigger, Del, Rodders, Sid and Boycie chatting in Sid’s cafe.

Trigger has just been presented with an award for saving the council money.

Trigger: “And that’s what I’ve done. Maintained it for 20 years. This old broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time.”

Sid: “How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?”

Trigger: “There’s the picture. What more proof do you need?” (Trigger proudly shows a photo of his broom to the others).

Whilst this is clearly a gag that derives its humour from the deadpan straight guy persona of Trigger. He clearly identifies so closely with the ‘idea’ of his broom that he doesn’t get that with all the changes he has made to it, it has long since ceased to be the same broom.

Something about this stuck in my mind. It reminded me of what continuous learning feels like. The constant making and unmaking of mind and body over time. Generally experienced as a sense of being continually crap at what you do, triggered by criticism from a mentor or senior, or our own internal voice.

In Aikido, every stage of the way from white belt to black belt is a lot like the process of sketching with a pencil; you start with the broader outlines then work towards finding greater accuracy and a clearer representation of the thing you are working on. It’s all still Aikido and it’s all still you, but with every iteration subtle adjustments are made and newer versions of both you and your Aikido emerge.

Even at the point of achieving a black belt in Aikido the mountain that had been ascended turned out to be a hill with several higher peaks ahead. A year and a bit since my own 1st Dan grading and I am only now starting to get comfortable with being a continually corrected and changing being. I count this as the most tangible and valuable achievement on my Aikido journey to date.

In the areas of my life in business and when training others in the working environment this piece of awareness has really helped. I have had a greater appreciation for how other people experience feedback and why the learning experience is tough at times for everyone.

The main thing is that whilst the broom is always changing, it survives the changes refreshed and ready for the tasks ahead. The key difference for us is that, with every unmaking we are remade with greater potential for mastery and self-knowledge than ever before.

The take away then is that we should be content with the ‘idea’ of our best version of ourselves as being the thing that is continuous even as we let go of our old sketches of our previous selves. Becoming less defensive, and in doing so becoming more open to becoming the very best version of ourselves that we can. At whatever stage of the journey we are at along the way.

About having a Boss

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The other day one of my friends was chatting about something that happened in their workplace. They said something that really jarred in my mind. “My boss was unhappy with our presentation, he didn’t say much but I think I know what we need to fix”. I sat for a moment and tried to work out what was off about what I had just heard. I tried the words on for size and found myself unable to process the word Boss. Which I found interesting. Thinking about the connotations of the word ‘Boss’ it always puts others who are not ‘The Boss’ in a lesser category. This didn’t sit well with me at all. I tried to remember a time when I had ever called anyone my Boss. I failed completely. I have definitely used the term ‘my Manager’ way back when working in a Pub, or in various retail jobs.

As I progressed within the Telecoms universe I would refer to senior people by their titles i.e. our Sales Director or our MD. But never, ever, my Boss. On reflection, I have not been promoted ahead in life by others that often. I have almost always had to create the next step or role for myself. This is probably due to my not supporting someone else’s career advances by sacrificing my own – therefore rendering me useless to certain types of senior managers. Sadly, there are people who love to dine off of the ideas of others, rather than highlighting where they came from. I’ve found that in the entrepreneurial world, if you can make someone else a lot of money and find the right footing to negotiate your reward pathway, then you can still be a bit of a maverick and enjoy progress with support from those ahead of you.

This still doesn’t get to the root of what I think is wrong with the term ‘Boss’. The word just smacks of having seriously passed its sell by date and should have expired already. It pretty much serves a single purpose, to evoke a sense of fear of those that are ‘above’ in those that are ‘below’. It is totally counter-productive of course, as whenever a business environment is run based on fear the employees always do the minimum to keep themselves safe. A ‘Boss’ environment is generally full of arse covering exercises and ends up being a political nightmare; a tremendous waste of energy, human intelligence and creativity.

Whilst someone thinks of you as their Boss, I guarantee you that they are not playing full out, embodying their best version of themselves or giving you the valuable feedback you need to run a successful business. Whilst you use the word Boss yourself, as way of referring to a senior person, you are far more likely to keep your head below the parapet than you think. Keeping your head down only serves one purpose in business – it keeps you down. Perhaps try changing the word Boss to ‘Steve’, or whatever the Senior managers name is?

I have lots of people who are senior to me in their areas of speciality, and better at most of the things I do than I am. And I am intensely grateful to have these people around me. When I refer to them I do not call them ‘Boss’. I just use their name. But I use it with the sincere intention to pay meaningful attention to them and what they have to say. Then, I move on and continue the endless task of being my own Boss; as I have always done whether I owned my own business or not.

Yours faithfully

A. Colleague

Tuppence worth specialist

More Than > The Empowerment Mindset

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One of the classic problems that most people struggle with is that they experience bumps in the road or difficulties in general as being unnecessary or unfair. When we were children so much of the world was handled for us by our primary care-givers, parents etc. At some point in our later teens/early adulthood we went through a time where the bumps that our parents smoothed over now gave us stubbed toes, headaches or even anxiety when we failed to adjust to these changes.

Growing up and growing out of smaller sized clothes as children and teenagers can be a template for the ongoing development of our minds as adults. As we grew larger or taller as children we accepted the feedback and moved to new clothes that would include more of our bodies; failure to do this meant wearing very tight clothes, restricted movement and teasing by our peers.

As adults, our ongoing development is no longer delivered automatically from the inside. Instead we have a choice. We either choose to grow through ongoing acceptance and utilisation of feedback, or we opt to find a level at which to maintain our sense of self, seeking a kind of stability focused more on investing in a ‘steady-normal’ state than a learning one. The steady normal state creates a comfort zone, but ironically it leads us to invest even more energy on not learning anything new.

And comfort zones without ongoing learning always get smaller and smaller, limiting what is possible; painting ourselves into a corner. One reason for not learning anything new is that learning always leads us to change what we believe. If we change our beliefs we are setting ourselves up to change who we are. Most people have invested a lot of energy in being who they are as it is how they have always known how to be safe in the world, how to belong, how to manage their memories, experiences, emotions and relationships with others.

It’s not surprising then that when we have an experience that challenges our sense of identity that we sometimes push back, resist and for some they feel the need to fight it. One thing that is always true when we accept the challenges, bumps, tough feedback as learning experiences is that we become more than both the person we were before the difficult experience and more than the difficult experience itself.

What we become is both what we were and what we learn from the experience. We become whatever we are prepared to receive from the learning experience i.e. resilient, adaptive, confident, capable, stable, flexible and invariably: smarter and wiser. My argument here is that whoever of whatever you think you are right now you are also a part of a much bigger jigsaw puzzle; the awesome and magnificent life that we have been given.

Every new experience is therefore both an opportunity to add new pieces to our existing picture of reality, and also to be included into a much bigger one. And in every moment, by engaging in life in this way, we are always becoming:

More Than.

 

Why the current post-truth era is really a return to pre-truth times

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The current trend for blitzing populations with a confusion of facts and ‘alternative’ fictions through the media has led some to call our current times the ‘post-truth’ era. The sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 have sky rocketed as the intelligentsia on the left and the right struggle to look for insights into how we have come to this place. A rather grey landscape with sporadic media fireworks where we seem to have moved beyond the truth having any meaningful currency. A place where evidence and rationality are merely optional to the masses who feel left behind and betrayed by the political elite. Leaving them exposed to authoritarian leadership due to its promise of bringing immediate and ‘common sense’ change.

It really doesn’t matter if Donald Trump is caught lying as lies are no longer the benchmark to the masses for either proving or discrediting someone’s political stance on public matters. Both sides of the political divide have been smeared and the masses respond no longer to reason, but instead to the highest bidder. Trump is essentially the highest bidder in America so the masses backed him (the majority of the political elite i.e. the electoral college). The same happened in the UK with Brexit. The facts of EU membership didn’t matter to the 52% that voted to leave, what mattered was that only the leave campaign had any extra cash to offer i.e. £350 Million per week plus the cash patriotic Britain Firsters could pocket with fewer EU immigrants (also not a real deliverable with Brexit).

Again, the vote went to the highest bidder. Not to truth, not to facts and definitely not to Reason. We know this as neither of the highest bidders had any intention of paying up when they won their auction. The NHS will not be receiving any additional funding as per the Leave bus campaign, and the cost of managing the trade agreements on every level of contractual negotiation and implementation will overshadow any potential gains from Brexit for at least a decade if not two. Much to the roaring applause of the America Firsters who wanted ‘no brainer’ solutions to complex problems we now have an administration that treats all problems like a nail because it is only skilled in the use of a hammer.

In fact international business travel to the US has recently dropped by almost 4%, federal reserves look set to be spent on building a pointless wall to prevent the flow of mexican immigrants that mostly fly into the US anyway, and there’s been several attempts to take all restraints off the banks that were put in place post the 2008 crisis and subsequent bailouts. Trump has actually already signed enough ultra right-wing executive orders to take America back in time to a place where a civil war was the eventual answer to such a vast political divide. All whilst restarting a war on women’s rights to have the final say about their own bodies through attempts to repeal long standing and hard won abortion legislation.

Trump has even set about installing a theocracy (trying to remove the barriers that prevent the church from funding political campaigns) which is set to cut out most of the gains that the masses have enjoyed from separating Church and State. The largest underlying problem here is that we have not been teaching critical thinking and logic as a standard, core subject in our schools at all ages. We have a couple of generations of voters that have no way of appreciating that their way of life is being undermined, and that it really can be limited to an extraordinary degree. People simply to do not realise that they are dealing with the last gasps of a level of development in mankind that valued the story of their people over the truths that have set them free since the age of the enlightenment.

Every inch of ground thrown into the light by the ubiquity of the products of the rational mind has made it almost impossible for pre-rational “because a book says so” beliefs to grow there. Whole communities based around pre-truth (truth that doesn’t stand up to rational inquiry and evidencing) have increasingly hunkered down inside their own private media, film makers, newspapers and economic circles. Ironically however the reason why we see so much shaming of Brexiters and Trumpers by the ‘left’ is that they lack the critical capability to show the working behind the thinking that has created the current progressive landscape.

Presented with what seems like obvious stupidity and faced with a frustrating inability to defend their world view millennials and ‘lefty’ liberals alike find themselves defending their beliefs so dogmatically it can make them look like fundamentalists. Making it very hard for the average bystander to see any clear moral high ground when calibrating from the emotional content alone, so they stick with what they identify with. Which is a tragedy as these beliefs are actually underpinned by a rationalism that unfolds beautifully if one takes the time to study it so that you can clearly show how being increasingly humanistic in our outlooks only serves to protect all of our interests.

The last 20 years of progress, largely accelerated by the rise the internet and the acceleration of communication, building on the back of globalisation have put the pre-truth communities under immense pressure. The rise in radicalisation amongst the Worlds religious traditions, both in Christianity and Islam most notably has come from the last fight to grasp a hold onto power.  A power that those who have a vested interest in will not consider conceding any further ground as they cannot accept becoming the change that they are seeing in the world. The battle we see before us in the USA right now is not therefore between the left and right, it is between pre-truth and the pursuit of truth itself.

It is not the case, in my view, that religions have no validity or rational voice. There are huge communities within the Worlds religious traditions that continue to pursue the truth above all else, through the vehicles of their particular transformational practices (as can be seen in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism to name just the major traditions). A real pursuit for truth cares only for what we uncover through direct experience that can be shared by all and that includes all of us.

This pursuit is a freedom above all others. Right now there is a battle for this freedom being fought by the last line of defence in the US – the legal system, which is the institutionalisation of rationalised beliefs for a way of life enshrined in the constitution. It is facing its first real attack from a US president since Nixon. If it fails and burns and a theocracy rises in its ashes then it won’t take long before the UK and Europe feels the heat.