Sunday, 25 December 2011

And the greatest of them all is..... PEACE!

In the West the month of December witnesses the biggest celebration of the year – Christmas.  This is a period when the birth of Christ is remembered, a time when people reflect - a peaceful time.

2011 was a challenging year across the world as we battled with fallouts from the failings of the banking system, terrorism, wars, rising oil prices and subsequent higher cost of living.  How then can we be at peace in this mire of trouble, uncertainty and hardships?  Consciously or not, everyone desires, and deserves to have peace.  For when we have peace we have everything else that is important.  It is difficult to be at peace if we don’t have enough food, or if we can’t clothe our children or if we have no place to sleep.  Indeed being at peace assumes that at least our basic needs are being met and that we have enough love, joy and goodness in our lives.  It assumes that we do not live in constant fear, desperation or despair. But how can we experience inner peace if we are constantly facing challenges, tribulations and trials; when we are consistently worried or anxious; when our very survival is threatened?

Peace of mind does not occur by accident; it takes no notice of the material things that we may have accumulated.  There is an African Proverb that says: Peace is costly but it is worth the expense.  How true!  Inner peace is not bought or sold, negotiated or bartered.  It exists because you consciously evoke it.  You decide to be at peace by choosing what you focus on.  I wouldn’t be so cynical to say that we can be at peace at all times, for it is natural for man to worry, for all sorts of reasons.  But often we invite chaos into our lives via our very thoughts, robbing ourselves of our inner peace. 

This year I lost 4 members of my family – an aunt, an uncle, a cousin and my sister-in-law.  Was I at peace throughout 2011?  Yes, most of the time.  Was I happy when they died?  No, but I was at peace.  Too often we confuse peace with happiness.  Peace is a fruit of the spirit, happiness is not.

As we reflect on the successes or failures of our business ventures in 2011, we should ask ourselves - are we at peace in our businesses?  Do we treat our customers, partners and other stakeholders fairly and with respect? Do we deliver on our promises?  Do we handle conflict to the best of our ability?  Do we treat our staff well?  Are we fair with our family?  Do we spend time with our children?   Are we harbouring resentment or failing to forgive?

As we move into 2012 let us let go a little.  After all, the world won’t fall over if we run a bit late or if we have to cancel an appointment because one of our children needs us.  Choose what you focus on!  Too often we anticipate a bad outcome.  Look at the bright side, chances are, it will never happen.  See the glass as half full.  One of the observations I made in 2011 was that the people who are busiest are the ones who have the least disposable funds.  I have a few friends who are always busy in meetings or scurrying around but they are never able to afford anything extra.  They can find no time in their busy schedules to visit a loved one or to listen to a friend or to further a worthy cause.  They spend most of their time running their business or rather, their business running them.  We all go through hard times in business but if you are always tired, or have no time for a social life or are unable to meet your basic needs then perhaps you need to alter your focus, for you could be beating a dead horse.  People like those deny themselves of inner peace. 

I am not a fan of New Year resolutions but one of the commitments I made at the beginning of 2011 was that I was going to widen my bank of friends by being in the presence of more positive and progressive people.  I am pleased to say that I accomplished that feat for I met many wonderful, ambitious and progressive people in 2011 and I made a few friends.  It is important to make time for people and to ‘hang’ with positive people from whom you can learn and be inspired.  It doesn’t mean that they will bring you peace, for it is you who must choose the subject of your focus.  But it will help you to widen your repertoire and worry less about the struggles of life.  They will encourage you to find solutions instead of focusing on problems.  You, in turn must help others and thus complete the cycle to achieve inner peace; perhaps the peace that surpasses all understanding, the peace that remains with you despite the chaos that may exist around you.

I take the opportunity to wish you a wonderful, prosperous and peaceful 2012.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Look the part!

Recently a friend has been talking to me about her frustrations at work.  She is a very intelligent person, well educated and very knowledgeable but she is having problems managing staff and relating to colleagues in her new role.  During our recent encounter she appeared to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  
When I looked at my friend I realised that one of the possible reasons why she is not being taken seriously in her managerial role is because she does not look the part.  No doubt she has the technical competence but she fails to inspire confidence and respect, because although her personal hygiene is unquestionable she does not dress well and her hairstyle is usually quite ordinary.  Her outfits are quite drab and when she tries to spruce up her style she wears short dresses which do not suit her.  She wears no makeup or jewellery and while she is entitled to that decision, it does not help her situation.  She often travels with plastic bags and it is quite normal for her to go shopping on her way to or from work.  She works in a blue chip company situated in a posh area of town.
Indeed there are other factors that could be impacting on her work environment – resistance to change, racism, low morale, working conditions, staff relations, organisational culture - a myriad of possibilities.  Without the ability to examine the work context I am unable to proffer a more accurate diagnosis.  What I do know is that people are more likely to support someone who looks good. In my tenure at the Foreign Ministry I was always proud of my bosses as they invariably looked the part.  Now that I am on the other side of the fence I endeavour to lead by example. There is a Jamaican proverb that says:  “A brown man’s wife eats cockroach in the corner while she saves her money to buy silk dresses.”  Image is important, even if you are starving! 
It is more difficult to contend with oneself than with the world (Kurdish proverb).   It is easy for us to blame others but sometimes we need to reflect and try to see what the world sees. These are not the days when brains rule; indeed I am not sure those days ever existed.  Brains are important but also of importance is the person’s image – charisma, mode of dress, personality, manner of speech, body language, demeanor, the confidence they exude.  Even if they are not truly confident, they must appear confident. 
Some time ago I was commissioned to interpret for the BBC.  They were interviewing the accomplished Cuban Band Buena Vista Social Club who was visiting the UK.  This was with live cameras and I was unsure whether I would understand the Cuban accent, especially since the group consisted of elderly people in their 80s and 90s.  I had never been to Cuba and I felt really unsure of myself.  So how did I do it?  I told myself that I deserved the opportunity and reminded myself that I had trained and qualified for it and that I was as good as anyone else. I convinced myself that I was confident.  I must have been shaking like a leaf before the event but no one could tell.  My affirmations worked - once the session started, it flowed and I absolutely enjoyed the experience.  "What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve" (Napoleon Hill).
The image of a business is just as important.  People do not want to deal with organisations that portray a negative image.  Many opportunities in business will not be offered to organisations that appear unprofessional.  Is your business image consistent?  What is the quality of your stationery?  What is the protocol for answering your phones?  What’s your company’s dress code?  Does your website look professional and  does it match your company logo and stationery?  How effective is your branding?  Start up companies often make the mistake of either going overboard – investing heavily in glossy marketing material or going to the other extreme of using cheap-looking materials.  It is important to strike the right balance and to avoid investing in material that will soon be outdated, while being aware of your costs and the image you portray. 
Your business image is also impacted by the “friends” you keep – the people you partner with, their track record, their values.  “Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are” says another popular proverb.  If you align your organisation with one that has a bad reputation you will be prone to developing that reputation yourself.  Be selective of the business deals you accept and remember that image is important.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

When it rains, it pours!

My friends may have noticed that I have not posted a blog for some time and for this I do apologise.  In the last month I buried two members of my family and I simply wasn’t inspired to write.  My uncle was very active in planning his sister’s funeral, only to die one week later.  This situation made me think about life itself - how we can be cruising along, oblivious of what lays ahead, yet our lives can change in an instant. 

In business the same obtains.  We can be working to grow our business when suddenly a key contractor goes into administration with thousands of pounds outstanding to us.  What happens if around the same time we experience some dramatic natural disaster which our insurance doesn’t cover or a piece of legislation is passed that impacts adversely on our company?  (Example: the banning of smoking in pubs.) 

It is not unheard of for businesses to go through phases when everything seems to be going wrong.  To deal with this occurrence some organisations seek to diversify, some scale down their operations, others implement strategies to increase their market share and sadly some curl up and die.  I dare not say the strong survive or the weak give up for who am I to judge.  People have their respective pain thresholds and while some will find it easier to take their own lives than to face the music, others will pick themselves up and keep going. There is an interesting Ghanaian proverb that says: “If things are getting easier, maybe you're headed downhill.” Perhaps we should always expect challenges and put in place buffers and contingency measures. 

In life we encounter many challenges; indeed challenges litter our path – we start school, study, sit exams, apply for jobs, go for interviews, fail interviews, work with people, juggle work and family life, go through illnesses – the list goes on.  We learn to cope with the demands of an ever-changing world and develop skills that we pass on to generations.  In the normal scheme of things, it is a complete cycle, we enter the world basically helpless and leave almost the same way, thus “once a man, twice a child”. 

Business too has its fair share of challenges.  As business people we go through recessions, we encounter excessive regulation and bureaucracy; we experience environmental and social pressures; we have competition not only in our vicinity but on an international scale; we meet upon gate-keepers bent on keeping us out; we encounter bad attitudes and the list goes on.  How do we respond to these situations? There is no panacea; it comes down to our human capital (if we are able to hold on to them) -  how we deploy them; how  motivated they are to go the extra mile when required;  how well they are treated;  how valued, included and responsible they feel towards the company; how empowered to be creative they are.

What matters is not what befalls us but how we respond; how we rise, dust ourselves off, learn and get going again.  Take counsel from the Spanish proverb: Las cosas suelen empeorar antes de mejorar (it gets worse before it gets better).  The Jamaicans say: “the darkest part of night is when day soon light”.  We go through difficult phases but there is usually a light at the end of the tunnel, if only we can muster up the patience and perseverance to make it through the darkness.

The French has a proverb that says: Le miel est doux, mais I'abeille pique (Honey is sweet, but bees sting).  What can we learn from this?  No one said life was easy! The path to success is not smooth; there will be moments of desperation, perhaps extreme adversity. We cannot change the external environment but we can change our strategy.  What we cannot cure, we endure.  In those moments when everything seems to be going wrong, we must draw on our inner strength and on the strength of others.  Too often we try to cope alone when all we need to do is ask for help.  A problem shared is a problem halved.

When it rains it pours, so let’s start selling umbrellas!  Remember, it’s not what befalls us but how we respond to the situation that’s important.  

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Let it go!

Today I want to talk about forgiveness.  I met with my friend Rob today and as we got chatting he told me about an incident where a friend had hurt his feelings and he had now written her off and cut her off for life.  I challenged him on his thinking and it led me to document my thoughts.  What if that were to happen to me each time I offended someone; would I have any friends or family left?  I don’t think so. We are often too quick to condemn others, to write them off because of some small mistake.  We need to remember that we are not perfect ourselves.

"Forgiveness is not an occasional act: it is an attitude" (Dr Martin Luther King, Jr).  We are not photocopies of each other; we will hurt each other from time to time.  Do we not want to be forgiven?  Forgiveness – the willingness to let go of pain, resentment, bitterness and anger – is the beginning of a healing process.  Often those who caused the pain are long gone, oblivious or uncaring of the effects of their actions.  The healing therefore takes place in the person who has the strength to forgive and move on.  This healing is holistic – mind, body and soul; for our thoughts, bodies and behaviour are all interconnected and in they in turn affect our soul.  Nothing dries sooner than tears (Latin proverb). Life has enough hills to climb; we do not need any more baggage.   A refusal to forgive can lead to hatred and “hatred has no medicine” (Ghanian proverb). It eats at your body and soul.

What role does forgiveness play in business?  Throughout my study of business I have never encountered any theory that explored corporate error.  Is there no place for mistake and forgiveness in business?  Sure there is!  Do you not forgive your co-worker who fails miserably in pitching for an important contract or a boss who makes bad decisions?  In one of my previous roles I was working with a senior colleague who totally lost focus and started to neglect the business because of a dangerous romantic liaison.  He was totally blind to the fact that this was hurting the business badly.  Consequently, the business struggled and eventually failed, resulting in the loss of employment to several people.  Did I forgive my colleague?  No one should deny that it hurts tremendously when things like that happen and people deal with those situations differently, taking more or less time as necessary.  I can’t deny the fact that for a while I felt disgusted at my colleague’s behaviour and blamed him for the chaos that ensued but I engaged with him and eventually forgave his actions and we are still friends today.  The act of forgiving demands immense courage  It is freely given to people, whether they deserve it or not.  It is not mere words but bold actions that support and bring meaning to those words.

In the workplace it is particularly important to forgive.  Your employee may be late because of a host of issues unknown to you:  domestic abuse, childcare issues, basic needs, lack of key resources or support.    Sometimes our reality is so far removed from the experience of the other person that we simply cannot appreciate the challenges. The Jamaican proverb “A stone at the bottom of the river doesn’t know how hot it is at the surface” encapsulates it well – if you are not au fait with a situation, you cannot truly understand the dynamics.  Chances are there is a lot going on that is impacting on that person’s behaviour.  If you are affected, express your concerns and offer assistance where possible. 

Forgiveness in organisations is also important because customers, clients, suppliers and other stakeholders can suspect discord within the company and may not want to do business with you.  Allowing ‘bad blood’ to fester will adversely impact on the company image, staff morale, production levels and ultimately, revenue.   

You may find it difficult to forgive.  I’ll tell you what works for me:  I focus on the good times.  I think about moments when that person was good to me in some small way and I recall the good qualities of the person (we all have some!).  I focus on the positive and it becomes bigger and bigger until the negative is insignificant.  I’ll give you a personal example: one evening, several years ago my partner and I were robbed by armed men as we returned from a stroll.  The men were particularly threatening with their long guns and knives.  They took our stuff, tied up my partner and commanded him not to move.  They then disappeared as fast as they had emerged.  We both dashed for home.  My relatives were enraged when they heard what had happened.  I, however, had a different mindset - I was pleased that I was not physically scarred.  I forgave them instantly concluding that I did not know their reality – why they embarked on such an action – but I was happy to have my life.  It might have been divine intervention or it could be a case of “cats and dogs don't have the same luck” (Jamaican proverb).  As far as I was concerned they had the power to kill and maim and they chose not to use it.  Not many people in such situations live to tell the tale.  Needless to say, my family thought I had lost my mind but to this day I hold that view.

The ability to forgive says a lot about us.  It shows our maturity, sensibility and humanity.  It appreciates diversity and promotes tolerance, personal growth and emotional development.  We learn to forgive ourselves for our own failures; we learn the significance of an apology.  It helps us to rise above the blame culture and find solutions. There is a Spanish proverb Haz el bien, y no mires a quién - Do what is right, not what will gain approval. 

Just let it go!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Great Opportunity, But No Thanks!


It is normal for a business to go through challenging times, brought about by factors such as changes in the external environment, and entrepreneurs can find themselves struggling to keep their heads above water.  When this happens, it is particularly exciting to be presented with a new business venture, often involving working in partnership with someone or some other business.  Not only does this instil confidence in the mind of the entrepreneur but it also appears to present a lifeline to a business wading through muddy waters. Why then should entrepreneurs consider turning down such opportunities?

Too often we feel compelled to entertain business opportunities that do not truly fit our culture, conflict with our values, or evoke niggling feelings that it is not right for us.  Business people who feel that they are in desperate situations often consider desperate measures which can ultimately be detrimental to the achievement of their long term goals.  There are many examples of partnerships that go bad and an equal number that work out really well.  Indeed I am one who advocates partnership working, for “two heads are better than one” and “one hand cannot clap”.  But if the person proposing to partner with you is of dubious character or has values that conflict with yours, are you not setting yourself up for a headache?  Indeed the headache could become the least of your worries should things turn sour.

In our daily lives we chose our friends.  How different is it in business?  If your business is your “baby” conceived and delivered to the world by you, why wouldn’t you care who befriends your child?  There is an African proverb that says “show me your friend and I will show you your character” (others say “show me your friend and I will tell you who you are”).  If you associate with an individual who has a bad reputation, will you not be perceived in a similar light?  The French say:  Bonne renommée vaut mieux que ceinture dorée. (A good name is worth more than a golden belt) which basically means:  your reputation is more important than riches.  The Jamaicans are more dramatic in their rendition - they say:  If you lie with dogs you rise with flea”.

In business you really do need to choose carefully the organisations with which you choose to partner.  Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ when it doesn’t feel right.  There may be synergies to be obtained by partnering for after all “good friends are better than pocket money” (Jamaican proverb) and “To be without a friend is to be poor indeed (Tanzanian proverb).  Indeed these liaisons may be mutually beneficial; just follow your intuition.  You may choose to analyse the partnership considering factors such as:  the potential benefits to both parties, a weakness that the partner could help to alleviate, the skills lacking in your organisation, competencies and contacts the partner has that could prove advantageous to you and importantly, their reputation.  Could this be genuinely a win-win situation?

There is an old Chinese Proverb that says: “If you stand straight, do not fear a crooked shadow”.  If however, the person partnering with you does not stand straight, you do have to fear that crooked shadow.  The French gives us: A l'oeuvre, on connaît l'ouvrier (A carpenter is known by his chips).  What do your chips look like now and what would they look like under the proposed partnership? How important is your image to you?   What are your values and how far are you prepared to go?

I’ll give the last word to the Chinese who say “Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend's forehead”.  Well, if the partnership goes bad you may find yourself doing just that; then you’ll stand to lose everything. 

Not every opportunity is a great opportunity!

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

This British proverb reminds us that in order for us to achieve our objectives in life, we have to venture out and take risks.  Far too often our skills and talents remain latent for fear of failure, rejection or disappointment.  Too often we allow those who dare not take positive steps to stop us in our tracks and block our path to greatness.  We worry about losing the little we have, not realising that once released the seeds are sown to be harvested in due course.

This is how I see it:  There is no perfection in life; indeed life is packed with uncertainty and the onus is on us to make sense out of the chaos of the universe and carve out a niche for our own comfortable existence. Sitting on the fence and waiting is not an option.  In the words of the 26th President of the USA Theodore Roosevelt:  "Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure...than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

Fear stifles creativity.  There is an old Spanish proverb Con esperanza no se come” which translates [sitting around] in hope will not put food on the table.  It is far better to step out in faith and do the work, considering that the opposite of success is not necessarily failure but lessons of life that prepare us for the rest of the way.  Since “there is no such thing as a free lunch” we should never be tempted by those who would like us to believe that there are easy ways to access large sums of money. It is surprising to see how many people are conned day after day by those who choose to make a career out of scamming.  The Jamaican proverb puts it well: “If yuh waah good, yuh nose haffi run” (If you want good your nose has to run) which basically means, you have to work for what you want. There is no such thing as something for nothing.  Even if it’s from your parents with their unconditional love for you, they want your respect and they also want to know that you will make good use of their gifts.

If you believe in yourself, you are well on your way.  If you don’t believe in yourself, how do you expect others to believe in you?  Are you prepared to put the work in?  Remember, there is no free lunch.  Are you willing to continuously improve your knowledge and skills?  We should all continue to pursue personal and professional development opportunities by attending seminars, networking events, self directed learning and other available media, for it makes us more informed and thus more competitive, and we know not when those skills will be called into action.

What the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve (Napoleon Hill).  Do you think it? Do you believe it?  So why can’t you do it? If we want to succeed we have to take action.  Doing half the work eg, building a website and then waiting for sales to increase is not the way to go.  Once we decide on a course of action we need to develop the right mindset and persistence to counter those who will no doubt undermine our efforts with their negative vibes.  Do not be afraid to make mistakes but be afraid to make the same mistake twice.  Get some good company to support you when the road gets rough:  like-minded people who can share your vision and help you on your journey.  And when the money comes remember the Latin proverb: Money should be mastered, not served.