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A Chance Meeting

He had an idea. He felt it was very exciting because it was different and could even be important. But he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t talk to other people about it because he had learned that when he told them about it, they saw little in it for themselves, but a lot in it for him.

Many of them just cut him down, directly or through faint praise, explaining how they could see that it wouldn’t work even if he couldn’t. That left him feeling silly.

Even worse were the few who saw his idea and encouraged him, but they were no closer to knowing what to do about it than he was, so that left him feeling bad too. Smart enough to think up something, but not smart enough to know what to do about it, huh?

One day, by chance, he found himself in the company of another man on a journey.

After a while, this man asked him what his interests were. He was too shy to give a truthful answer, muttering abstractions and generalities that didn’t mean much. Doing otherwise always ended badly.

But on this occasion the other man seemed able to read his hesitancy and be interested in what lay behind it. He gently persisted with his question as though he desired to learn something of his travelling companion. It was almost as if he was saying: ‘This is our opportunity. The Universe is large, but will still be richer for what we can make of this time. There is nothing to fear’.

Eventually he caved in. He told his companion his idea showing the excitement he felt as he talked about it. The companion listened intently then asked some questions to make sure he had understood what he had heard. Then he commented on how important and valuable the idea was, but agreed it was hard to see what to do.

They travelled in silence for a short distance then the other said: ‘You have been thinking about this for a long time. You must have ideas about how it can be done. I’d very much like to hear, if you are willing to reveal them.’

At this he became very nervous again because the words he had to speak sounded ridiculous from such as himself, who had never moved in the circles of making such lofty things happen. But again it was as if the other man ecould read this and gently drew him out.

And as the ideas poured out of him and were met with approval rather than ridicule, his confidence grew and he spoke with greater clarity and force. His companion grew more and more impressed and started to share the sense of excitement.

They were nearing their destination. The companion said: ‘You knew all the time how to proceed and now you have laid it out. I know people who would be pleased to support you. If you would allow it, tell me your name and I will arrange for them to contact you.’

He said: “They just call me EM”.

The companion said: “Doesn’t that mean Everyman in your language? It’s funny, that’s what they call me too. Lot of us about aren’t there?”

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How to become the home of smartphones (or anything else)

Someone from a large mobile phone company asked the following question the other day: “What would make Vodafone the home of smartphones?” It’s a question I hear pretty often – I heard it as: “how do we become leaders in such-and-such new technology”?

I posted this reply. I thought you might enjoy it:

Hi Tom, here’s an answer:

Step 1 – Radically redefine the purpose of your company. Maximising stake-holder value is never going to work – because it will never inspire the company’s employees. And to become a leader a company has to have inspired employees. Replace that purpose with another one – to serve your customers and increase the well-being of the employees.

[I used the words stakeholder-value and then half-regretted it. I really meant shareholder-value, because “stakeholders” often will already include customers and staff. I only half-regret it though because I also think that stakeholder-value is often really code for shareholder-value. What is needed is a real re-think of purpose and a change of emphasis – not just fancy word-smithing.]

Step 2 – Change the way the company is structured. Employees will never be happy or inspired in a workplace where a few people at the top wield all the power and earn 20 times more than the customer-facing employees.

In the old days power was concentrated in the hands of the unions and the “bosses”. Nowadays it’s usually just the “bosses”.

Employees, like all of us, need fairness, transparency and a sense of being able to make a difference through what they do. They need to feel they have a fair share of the power.

Step 3 – Change the focus of the company so that it is focussed on what customers want, not what shareholders, or even just the employees, want.

You’re looking for a win-win – a solution where customers get what they want, and employees get what they want – but more as a by-product of pleasing customers.

To find this everyone in the company needs to learn new skills – to learn how to talk to customers in new ways, to really listen and understand them.

Then, having understood what customers want, change the company so that it gives customers what they want.

Customers, for example, don’t want to be shuffled around from department to department. They want to speak to someone who is knowledgeable and can help them with all the problems they may have: billing, contracts, hardware, software, network issues and so on.

This may require reorganising into different groups that stick with clients for a long-time. Customers want personal and meaningful relationships – not call-centre queues.

Giving clients what they want isn’t rocket-science. Once you realise that what they want isn’t rocket-science either. Customers want what all human beings want: respect, honesty, trusting relationships and so on.

This approach will, I believe, lead to leadership and success for your company – in smart phones and anything else you turn your hands to. Customers will become happier and more loyal, revenues and profitability will rise, the company will be able to pay everyone better, and train and support everyone better.

Is this vision hopelessly naïve? Well, there are companies out there doing this already if you look, which suggests that even if I am assuming things can get better, I am not the only one; there are others out there who believe it and are proving it every day.

The biggest problem that these successful progressive companies seem to have is being killed off by their success. They get good at all of the above, and other bigger companies buy them and destroy them and their culture.

So if you embark on this journey a fourth step (or maybe it should be step zero) is to choose a set of managers who really buy into all this and won’t sell you down the river later on. I’d recommend exploring employee share ownership as a way of ensuring you can hang on to your rights.

And, finally, what do you do if you are the single employee in a corporation of a hundred thousand who reads this and believes it? How on earth can you start to make this happen, alone?

The answer is simple actually: start with you.

Firstly, think or feel your way into this stuff – is it better than what you have right now?

Secondly, if so, decide to make it happen. Commit to not giving up at the first hurdle.

Thirdly, seek allies – in your company or else where. Use social networks – that’s what they’re for.

Fourthly, learn those new skills of communication and start doing the customer service bit with your existing customers. This will prove to the cynics and skeptics that this can work. That customer happiness and loyalty rise.

By the way, this probably won’t lead immediately to better profitability because your company structure may still be wrong – remember all those powerful, top-level high-earning employees for example?

Fifthly, keep going, just for the hell of it. Keep flexible, adapt when you need to.

At the very least, you can trust that this approach will:

  • make you happier
  • earn you allies
  • build your reputation

It may attract better offers and opportunities.

And remember that this is an unstoppable trend anyway. Wherever you look you’ll see these kinds of changes taking place as our economies mature. As this trend rolls out, you’ll be caught up in it anyway.

So why not take the first step yourself?


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The need to please

I have a strong need for acceptance.

Whenever I have done personality tests I have always been grateful for the kind psychologist’s desire to cast the most positive light on this aspect of my personality. Words like “introverted”, “extremely sensitive” and “would enjoy working one-on-one with others” could, of course, be written in a less positive way: that I fear rejection and have a deep-rooted need to please others.

But hold on. Rejection is something we all suffer from, isn’t it? And haven’t I heard it said that the sales person’s greatest skill is overcoming rejection? That confuses me a little because sales people always seem to me to be so focussed on their relationships – perhaps paradoxically they also have a very high need for acceptance, but show it differently from me?

My personally preferred route would be to avoid human contact a lot of the time, and avoid rejection at all costs.

But, in business, that isn’t always possible. And over the course of my working life I have probably done quite a lot of selling. Several things have made it possible for me.

Firstly, major bits of reframing. I see selling not as the activity of using my charm and personality to win someone over to my point of view. Rather I have learnt to see it as a qualification exercise: one where I simply ask questions to find out if this person desires whatever I have to sell.

I see selling as helping. After all that is how I sometimes experience being sold to. If I need something and a helpful salesperson gently guides me to the product I want, in the right size and the right colour; and gently removes my fears – about what I’ll do if I change my mind later, for example – I am a happy customer.

And I have learnt to see the word “no“, or indeed any other word which signifies the conversation is not heading in my chosen direction, with great curiosity. “What on earth do they mean by that?”, I ask myself. “What are you really trying to say?”. I have built my curiosity muscle – and if I use it often the conversation may take another, sometimes quite unexpected turn.

Essential to all of these is reducing the emotional burden behind the thoughts. I am a fan of cognitive behavioural therapy and actually enjoy the process of trying to reframe my thinking around the harder areas of my life. But I know that if there is deep-seated emotion still sitting around in me while I try to see the world differently, reframing will have only limited success.

Awareness is, for me, the most powerful way to lessen that emotional burden. Gradually, over time, inch-by-inch I think I am becoming stronger, and more able to deal with my need for acceptance; and this seems well correlated with my growing awareness of it.

And finally to action: Testing my beliefs to destruction seems to give me the ultimate proof I need to make real progress. Each time I find myself in a sales situation, and I practice “helping”, I practice asking those questions, and I practice just sitting with those difficult feelings, I seem to get just a little bit stronger.

I break my old habits and I forge new, more appropriate ones. That’s how it seems to go for me. What about you?


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What if…?

You’ve probably guessed by now that I am obsessed by the big questions. Questions like “what’s it all for?”, “why are we doing this?” and so on.

I came across a great paper the other day by the late Donella Meadows on leverage points for changing real world systems. I’d heartily recommend it – you can find it here on the Force for Good website. It suggests that one of the best ways to effect change is to focus on the paradigm – the set of assumptions – out of which the system and its goals emerges.

Our basic human paradigms seem to include fear and love – either we fear for ourselves and close down our efforts to help others. Or we put others ahead of ourselves and give as much as we can to them. There are other important assumptions I am sure, but thinking like this made me wonder again what the basic purpose of business is.

What if….?

What if our purpose individually, and in groups, and even in whole generations was different from how it sometimes seems to be?

What if our purpose was quite simple and pure, and simply expressed: what if each of us, in each generation, made it our goal to leave a better world for the next generation?

We can debate that, but I’d rather just list some of the things that I think we would then do if we made that our goal. Sometimes I find it easier to accept a goal if I understand what I’d have to do to achieve it.

So if each of us, each business, each society and each generation had as our primary goal leaving the world a bit better for the next generation, then:

  • First and foremost, we’d work to get our own physical and psychological needs met. I think it’s helpful to distinguish between the two – yes, we all need food, shelter and good relationships. But do we all need a fancy lifestyle to prove our inherent worth? In this new world, that is what education would be for – teaching individuals to get their own needs met.
  • We’d seek to understand the world we live in and what is good and not so good about it. We’d try and understand how it worked and what the results created are. Clear vision would show a mixed bag, I think. Plenty of joy, happiness, hope and inspiration. But also much unnecessary pain and grief, and, of course, threats to our very survival from climate change, poverty, and various forms of careless destruction.
  • We’d seek to understand our own gifts and contribution and apply them. And we’d seek out, promote and support leaders who had the skills and vision to move us as a whole generation towards creating a better world for our children.
  • We’d all work together to reduce local and global problems, and make things better – critically, in sustainable ways. We’d seek to understand the leverage points – the best ways to make positive changes happen with as little effort as possible. And we’d make sure the improvements we make are here to last – after all we won’t always be around to keep things on track.
  • We’d celebrate our successes and reward individuals and groups that achieved things that helped move us towards this eventual goal.
  • We’d have to keep on learning as we did all this. Because the world doesn’t stay still. We’d need to be always open to new ways of doing things, and we’d innovate constantly. And we’d find ways to argue with each other constructively about the best solutions, avoiding the petty debates that slow us down and make us ineffective.

Our businesses would be designed to help us create this better world. We’d build strong businesses that were profitable and met our current needs. But we’d give up a little of our selfishness. And instead we’d all live and work in the knowledge that everything we did was helping those people who have yet to come.


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Love is all you need

Since Tim Sanders wrote the best seller “Love is the Killer App” (published in 2002) the word love has crept ever more widely into business usage.

But what is love? And what does it really mean in a business context?

People have been writing about love since …, well, since writing began, I’m sure. There’s even the beginning of a psychological literature on the subject, although perhaps not quite as much as you’d expect for such an important subject.

I don’t really know for sure what love is, but I want to offer an opinion and maybe start a discussion.

In my view, we’re definitely not talking about “falling in love”, that thing that appears at the start of a relationship, but quickly fades. Steve Jobs and John Sculley fell in love – at first they could see no faults in one another; but they quickly fell out of love too, and came to see each other in very different ways.

Yes, we are talking about giving, and caring for others, along the lines of Sanders’ book. But critically not in a co-dependent way. Co-dependency is where two people feed each off each other; where they get their own needs met from the other.

Sometimes supplier-client relationships are like that: there’s an imbalance of power – often the need for money is exploited by one party. Sometimes it’s more subtle than that: maybe the supplier has a lot of knowledge but simply needs to be heard. He or she may end up virtually giving away what they have.

So, for me, true love, “inter-dependent love”, is where both parties already have ways to get all their needs met. And where they are aware of their needs and choose for them to be met, at least partially, through a business relationship. Where they commit to the relationship, despite the inevitable short-term ups and downs, because they believe in the long-term mutual value.

Their awareness of their needs means they know how to stop the relationship swinging into co-dependency – in other words they can walk away when they need to, if the relationship becomes abusive.

This all requires “adult” behaviour, straight talking and agreement to work together symbiotically. For the best of both individuals, and as a pair. In the best relationships, both also choose to give a little more than they may take – to put money into the shared “bank” rather than always take it out.

This is all fairly simple to understand. But, boy, is it difficult to do.

Certainly, in my business life, there have been times when I have confused “falling in love” with love. Often with a project, and sometimes with a business partner.

There have also been times when I have not been aware enough of my own needs to be able to sit on them when I needed to. To be able to stop them driving my behaviour. Sometimes it’s been as simple as not being able to say “no”.

And I haven’t always had the skills to confront my business partners when I or the relationship needed it, in a way that protects and enhances the relationship rather than making it worse.

Many professionals, and not just those in the caring professions, do achieve this level of client love, I’m sure. In fact, maybe that’s what it really means to be a professional? To be always able to act in the best interest of your customer or client. Even if it hurts.

But wouldn’t it be great if more business relationships were built on this basis? Our businesses would have truly amazing customer service. Really fruitful account management. Great client relationships, and more successful, more profitable business partnerships all round.


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Why some people are more equal than others

I have recently been reading a great little book: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The title explains a lot of it. People living in more equal societies (they don’t say “equal”) do better on a number of important measures. And this is not just for poor people, which I guess is what a lot of us would imagine. It’s apparently true in general, including for the wealthier people amongst us.

We’re talking about rich countries here – ranging from the least equal: the US, the UK, Portugal and Singapore to the most equal, such as Japan, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Austria, Germany and so on.

The measures, and a big part of the book is the statistics and other evidence to support the case, include those on physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, violence, teenage-births, and child well-being.

I guess these are all things, all of us, including the wealthy, would like to improve.

You can read more and join the campaign for change at the Equality Trust website. But something else that really interested was the link to climate change.

The authors suggest that in order to make climate change policies stick, it’s probably also essential that we increase levels of equality in our societies.

The logic of this is that inequality leads to envy and envy drives consumption. It’s a scary thought that even if heavier carbon taxes are introduced and we deploy ever more efficient energy technology, envy amongst individuals may still drive increasing consumption.

Keeping up with the Joneses could still make us go and buy that new car, or go for that ever flashier holiday, whatever the environmental cost.

But what could I do personally to help reduce inequality?

Well, one simple idea is to give your money away. Philosopher Peter Singer’s suggestion on a percentage that we all give away to the developing world seems very reasonable. It’s a sliding scale – the wealthier your are – the more you give.

This has a benefit to the developing world, and, if you are one of the wealthier ones in the country you live in, will also help to reduce the inequality gap.

And secondly, promoting employee ownership seems a very good idea. This clearly helps with inequality, reducing the differential between highly paid “top team” employees and those on the front-line. And in my view, will also help with company performance as more people take more responsibility for the results they generate.