Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Those with spoons will have the soup

We decided recently to refurbish our house so we contacted a labourer who is currently unemployed and looking for work.  He inspected the premises and confirmed that he could carry out the work and the price was agreed.  On the day in question the man failed to turn up or call but a day later he came and reported that he had had to address a personal situation so he apologised and asked for a second chance.  We agreed that he would start in a few days.  On the day in question he turned up two hours late and without tools, offering an excuse as to why he wasn't able to start as agreed.  We contacted another labourer and soon the work got underway.  Labourer number 1 lost the opportunity and is still looking for work. There is a Spanish proverb:  Rey muerto, rey puesto - no one is indispensable!
This scenario highlighted to me the fact that some people miss opportunities due to their state of unpreparedness.  Irrespective of how well you know your craft, if you are consistently unprepared you risk losing out to those who may well be less skilled. If you get spoon you will drink soup is a Jamaican proverb which captures the essence of this sentiment.  Without your tools you may miss out on the spoils.
It is important to keep your lamp oiled for that moment when the groom may enter.  There is no point in scurrying off to get your tools, for when you return the door may be shut; the opportune moment does not wait.  Each of us has been given the same number of hours in the day – ample time to prepare ourselves to take opportunities which often show up unexpectedly.  I recall many years ago I was offered a post in a Spanish-speaking country.  At the time I was not the most senior or the most experienced but I was the most prepared.  I was at the only one available with the required level of Spanish language knowledge to function effectively in that role.  Instead of waiting the usual least three years for such an opportunity I was offered the post after just one year. 
Sometimes we are unaware of the object of our preparation.  "I will prepare and some day my chance will come - Abraham Lincoln. Our trajectory in life is not always obvious - some courses on which we embark simply emerge as we traverse through life.  I recall when I was at post I took the opportunity to study the Portuguese language.  This move was criticised by some who thought it was a silly decision, since the language did not figure among the most popular. Several years later I was head-hunted by a top UK university to lecture Portuguese Translation at the postgraduate level.  Your dreams and aspirations are planted in you; others don’t have to be able to see it.
Preparedness is not only demonstrated in having access to your tools, skills or information but also in being in the right frame of mind.  There is no point in turning up if you are just going through the motions, without motivation or passion.  A lack-lustre approach in a meeting, a limp greeting or a generally unenthusiastic attitude will not gather traction.  Being in the right place at the right time is just half the story; we have to be able to turn up, identify and take opportunities and be able to create a positive impact on the minds of those who are able to make that moment count.
I have seen people turn up to key events without their business cards, or they turn up too late to meet key people.  I have been in the right place at the right time but failed to bring samples of my work for showcasing to potential stakeholders. Sometimes this happens because we think it’s too bulky, heavy or inconvenient; there is a Jamaican proverb that says “horse is not too good to carry its own grass”.  Most people who make it in life have been helped by someone – for no man is an island.  Many of us screw up our elevator pitch because we are unprepared.  We know the value of what we have but we are unprepared to promote it; and since movers and shakers cannot access the information the moment slips by, uneventful.  Preparedness is a natural phenomenon - even animals prepare for winter as they gather their food and dress their abode. 
Many of us spend hours preparing our bodies for the rigours of daily life.  While it is important for us to pay attention to our flesh we are not just a body; we are also mind and spirit.  Any change we experience has to start from within. Preparation helps us focus, to feel worthy and to excel.  There is nothing special in being ordinary; we have to step out of that sphere and venture into the unknown in order to explore our horizons.  Despite our level of preparedness we can fail but that failure will provide key lessons that will place us in good stead for our next adventure.
An attitude of preparedness will position us in the right frame of mind to keep exploring and pushing boundaries which so often place limits on us and hinder our progress.  If we believe that each person has a purpose in life we need to build our capacity to fulfil that purpose.  The African proverb:  tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today sums it up well.
As leaders of organisations we have to ensure that our organisations are fit to access business opportunities that may come our way.  We should continuously pursue professional development training for self and staff; acquire appropriate quality marks which may be required by prospective buyers; and build meaningful relationships that add value, increase competitiveness and give access to bigger contracts, improved supply chains and strategic partnerships. We should attend events to gather key information that is relevant to our industry and get to know who’s who in our unique marketplace.  We should have contingency plans and engage in succession planning.  Disasters (man-made or natural) can strike at any time.  I've heard it said:  It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark.  Perhaps we too should build our arks not only to withstand the tests of time but to chart its course.

Preparedness is a key ingredient in success building.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Cow doesn’t know the use of its tail

I read recently that a dog started to walk on its hind legs after having an accident which resulted in damage to its front legs.  I have seen dogs standing upright while reaching for items but never seen one walking around on its hind legs. 

I thought it interesting that the dog started to walk on its hind legs after finding that its front legs were non-functional.  Could the dog do this before but simply didn’t? Had the front legs not been broken would that dog have learnt to walk on its hind legs?  This situation reminded me of the men and women who participate in the paralympic games, going after gold and often achieving more than when they did when they were fully able-bodied.  I wonder why many paralympians and indeed the dog were not inclined to do the same before they lost the use of their limbs.  Does it suggest that the loss of a limb or the occurrence of misadventure raises the level of consciousness of an individual and forces him/her to be creative and fearless?  Does this explain the phenomenon where people embark on charitable ventures for the wider good after experiencing particularly challenging life-changing situations?

Some may argue: “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” suggesting that if we have two legs why bother to learn to hop.  When I was a child my parents often told me “When others are jumping to two legs you’re better off jumping on one”.  This Jamaican proverb had me seriously perplexed for a number of years until I came to realise its significance- Don’t feel that you have to be like others, there is no there is no shame in being different.  I now realise it can also convey the importance of being resourceful - not feeling that we must have everything in order to be successful in our endeavours.

This story made me realise that we are equipped with what we need to pursue our goals.  Sometimes we look at our situations and we fail to see a way; we find reasons why we can’t, instead of seeing opportunities where we can.  There is a Spanish proverb:  A la ocasion la pintan calva - Strike when the iron is hot. We often wait until our backs are against the wall before we explore our latent talents in order to find solutions. 

If we maintain an open mind and adopt an attitude of gratitude in the presence of opposition, seeing it as a challenge to dig deeper, we will be better able to look into and beyond the opposition and spot the opportunity.  After the storm there is calm and it’s in that still moment that our Eureka shows up.  We can’t keep running; sometimes we have to stop, assess, plan strategy and start again.  We have to be creative in our thinking, embracing a “yes and” attitude instead of a “yes but” one.  Instead of waiting for a better moment or another solution we should explore our options or better still, be the solution.  There is no time like the present. 

When we ignore our innate ability we crave things that we believe we need to solve our problems.  We think that if only we could get this or that all would be well and we would be happy.  Not so long ago we attempted to potty-train our little girl.  She became dry by day quite quickly but we did not believe in our ability to achieve a similar outcome at night.  We were referred to a clinic that specialises in this field but there was a long wait.  While we waited we started the process of waking her up at a certain time of the night.  To our surprise, it worked almost immediately.  By the time we got access to the treatment we no longer needed it.  We had mistakenly assumed that because the child has special needs it was beyond our capability to get her over this hurdle, not realising that we were indeed equipped with the tools we needed.  We learnt not to make unfounded assumptions – the proof of the pudding is in the eating; try it!

There is a Jamaican proverb that says:  when trouble tek man pickney shut fit him (similar to:  any port in a storm) - when our backs are against the wall we find ways of coping; we find solutions, even if they are not ideal.  We shouldn’t wait until we find ourselves in a jam before we start to explore.  We shouldn’t have to lose a leg before we decide to climb a mountain.  In the same way, we don’t have to wait until we suffer misfortune before we embark on a venture that benefits others.  We all possess much  undiscovered, unexplored talent which we haven’t nurtured. 

It is normal to harbour feelings of inadequacy in the face of uncertainty.  Inexperience, doubt and fear often override our confidence and make us feel incapable.  We are born with solutions which may not resemble those employed by others but are nonetheless relevant.  The solutions we enjoy today were first introduced by people who initially had no experience and who would have failed several times.  However they did not allow their enthusiasm, drive and ambition to give way to the fear of failure.  They didn’t give up and thanks to that dogged determination and positive attitude, we enjoy a host of products and services today.

As business people what new, innovative steps are you taking to keep your organisation growing?  Are you tagging along on four legs or are you trying to balance on two?  What would happen if you break a leg, could you still thrive?  What happens if two key staff members resign; would it impact adversely on your competitiveness?  What key skills have you identified in your company that could help to reduce cost and promote job satisfaction?  Very often we have the skills we need under our noses but because we are so far removed from the ground we fail to spot them.  It is fine to have a helicopter view but it is also good to pay attention to details.  We have to respect the competence of our most valuable assets – the people who help us deliver the products and services that keep us in the game.  Involve staff in your decision-making; they understand what customers need and could save you thousands which you may otherwise pay to consultants which often do not have firsthand knowledge and understanding of your marketplace. 

Get to know the use of your “tail” before you lose it. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

Hard work brings true joy

The 2014 World Cup games recently concluded in Brazil.  It was wonderful to see sportsmen at their best, chasing a prize that would demonstrate their superior specialist skills and bring pride to their nations.  As I watched the various matches, I realised that the beautiful game, and indeed other team games offer important lessons, if only we take time to examine the principles:

i) Goal setting – The ultimate aim of a football team is to score more goals than the opponent and in so doing earn the coveted crown.  Teams set goals for different stages in their development – they know where they want to be and when. In life too we have to set goals and take steps to achieve them.  When we go with the flow, life just floats along and as we have no set destination we end up some place some day, doing something with someone.  Though we may have to change the goalposts from time to time it is important to set goals to help us chart our paths to our desired objective.

ii) Targeting – In order to win a game a team needs to hit the target.  Team members are aware of the target and they know that there is an obstacle in the form of a goalkeeper who is blocking that target.  They keep their eyes and minds on the target, never losing sight of it. We too should have targets.  What are you aiming for?  Do you know what you want, why you want it and how you will know when you have achieved it?  What would happen if you don’t hit your target; more importantly, what would happen if you do?  Many of us have learnt to handle failure but struggle with success. We can’t afford to hit our target only to have it slip from our hands, for we weren't prepared for it.

iii) Drive – Irrespective of a team’s position in the league tables, they must have drive.  There is no shortage of takers for the position if a top team loses momentum and its performance slips.  Complacency has no place in the Primer League. In life too we must maintain our drive.  It is normal for one to tire or to lose interest but it is not how many times we fall, but the number of times we get up and get going again.  If you are serious about achieving a goal you have to keep up the momentum.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help if necessary; often the end is imminent though we may not be able to see it. 

iv) Teamwork – Football is a team game; no one individual can make a team successful.  A group of people come together to train, plan and execute; sometimes they win and sometimes they lose.  A successful goal and resulting win is celebrated by all, not just by the individual who was lucky enough to hit the target. In the wider society we have to adopt an attitude of cooperation.  This is not a new concept - countries form economic blocs, corporations merge or form strategic alliances in order to increase their market share, individuals form partnerships and capitalize on each other’s strengths to access bigger contracts. “No man is an island”.

v) Forgiveness – Individuals within a team often make mistakes that may lead to the awarding of a penalty to the competitor; needless to say, the resulting goal sometimes makes the difference between winning and losing.  The team has to put the error behind them, acknowledge their loss as a team and not focus on the individual who made the mistake.  We too have to forgive and not allow ill feelings to fester.  We have to look for the good in the person and not dwell on the offence.  Forgiveness liberates; it is not about the other person being let off the hook, for that person will have to live with the consequences of his actions, forgiven or not.

vi) Celebration of small successes - When a football game is in progress each goal is celebrated, even if there are 90 minutes left to play.  Although the game is not over, the players, their management team and indeed their fans celebrate the successes along the way.  Too often we think that we have to conquer the entire mountain before we are entitled to celebrate. Don’t be pessimistic!  Celebrate the small steps, for the big achievements are made up of smaller (often invisible), consistent actions.  Life is also about the journey, not just the destination.

vii) Time management – Footballers have to turn up at pre-determined times for their practice sessions and they have to commit an agreed amount of time to practising.  Time is a very important factor on the field – matches start at set times and players are expected to play for 90 minutes and extra time if necessary.    Time is a great resource – not one to be wasted.  There are many factors in today’s society that can waste our time if not managed effectively – emails, text, telephone calls, attendance at events, social visits, meetings, traffic etc.  We have to identify the time wasters in our lives and manage them. 

viii) Commitment and dedication – Footballers generally earn significant sums and this has been a popular topic for discussion.  What is often ignored is the level of commitment and dedication that they put into their preparation.  They have to be out of their beds at unsociable hours in wind, rain and sun in order to train with the team.  We too have to be committed and dedicated to whichever endeavour we undertake.  We cannot run away when the going gets rough or when we cannot see the wood for the trees.  We have to develop staying power; if we believe in what we do we’ll stay and see it through.  Aim for sustainability and longevity; if your venture eventually fails, at least you can say that you gave it a fair shot.  Learn your lessons, move on and try not to repeat your mistakes.

ix) Staying calm under pressure - This characteristic is shown particularly when footballers are taking penalties.  There is tremendous pressure and the result of their effort may not reflect their level of skill.  There are many elements in life that put us under pressure – economics, politics, technology; environmental, social and personal factors, among others.  Our ability to remain calm reduces our stress level and strengthens our coping mechanism.  There will always be hills and valleys in our path but we have to look beyond the immediate and recognise that there is always a way, even when we cannot see the way.  Bear in mind that if we fail today “tomorrow is another day.”  The quickest distance between two points is not necessarily via a straight line.  There is a fitting Jamaican proverb:  Shortcut draws blood, long road draws sweat – we have a choice.

x) Resilience – I have never seen a football game where all the players remain on their feet.  Invariably they are knocked over time after time and although they hurt, they get up and in most cases they resume play.  In life we will be hurt sometimes, knocked over - even trampled, we may bleed; however, there is no justification for staying down.  We may be injured but we don’t have to succumb to our injuries; bounce back - look up and get up; don’t give in!

xi) Physical exercise and keeping fit – Footballers have to be fit; they constantly exercise in order to be able to outmanoeuvre and outlast the competition.  While some of us will be overweight, what is important is that we endeavour to keep ourselves healthy to the best of our ability so that we give ourselves the best chance of achieving our goals.  Keeping fit includes avoiding excesses that harm our bodies and make us unfit to achieve our purpose.  It includes getting enough sleep and feeding our mind, body and spirit.

xii) Passion - Those who play football are not only drawn to the high wages and fame – they generally have significant passion for the game.  This is what makes them get out of bed consistently; it keeps them going even after they have made their millions.  They are doing what they love to do and it may not even feel like work.  We too must find the source of our passion.  If we enjoy our work we are more likely to turn up in the rain, wind and snow.  We will be motivated and we will want to do it well.  Passion gives us staying power – makes us tough when the going gets rough.

xiii) Regard for family – After a tournament footballers can often be seen relaxing in exotic places with their significant other.  Good sportsmen spend time with their families; returning to basics for a dose of reality from time to time.  They balance work life with family life, ensuring that neither suffers. Too many families fall apart because individuals within that family fail to make time for others.  They are caught up in their own careers and they think that being able to shower their family with money and expensive gifts will replace quality time.  Ultimately their personal lives get into trouble initiating a vicious cycle as their professional lives start to suffer. Life is about balance – achieve the right balance and your happiness and success will be enhanced.

xiv) Strategy – Even if you don’t know much about football, you are likely to be able to recognise effective strategies on the field when you see it.  The game follows key principles and formations i.e. strategies that the team would have prepared. There is a saying that goes “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.  If you fail to plan a strategy to achieve your goals they will just remain there and become dreams, or may even turn into nightmares.  If you just go with the flow chances are you will wash up anywhere.  While that may work for some people most of us have to put strategies into place in order to survive and thrive. 

xv) Flexibility – Although the team would have planned a particular strategy with their manager, they often have to change, based on the actions of their opponents.  We often see managers substituting players and giving them new instructions on the sidelines.  We may also see a change in strategy after half time if the manager deems this necessary. Footballers have to play in varying climatic conditions – they have to adapt.  In life we too have to be flexible.  Having a strategy is essential but as we do not exist in a vacuum we must bear in mind that the external environment will impact and we may have to change our strategy; we have to be responsive to the actions of other people.

xvi) Positive thinking – Footballers believe they can win every time.  The moment they consider defeat is the moment they are defeated.  They have to believe in themselves and their ability to conquer the opposition, thus satisfying their fans and safeguarding their status. Every change begins in the mind.  Your thoughts lead to your actions and consistent actions become habits.  If you don’t develop a habit of believing in yourself it will be difficult to conquer your mountains, indeed your molehills will start to resemble mountains.  Once you are realistic in your aspirations there is no reason for you to doubt yourself; just use positive affirmations and consider that if it doesn’t work out this too shall pass.

xvii) Perseverance – Footballers have to keep going.  No doubt they tire tremendously after 90 minutes of consistent running, however they block out the pain as far as is possible, keeping at the forefront of their minds the goal they are pursuing. Many of us tire quickly, we have very little staying power and when the going gets rough we retire our projects and move on to something else.  “Rolling stones gather no moss.”  The next project will not necessarily be easier and we may find that the grass is not greener on the other side.  Stick with it - take your project to completion.

xviii) Instinct – Irrespective of the level of the coaching and instructions given to footballers, when they are on the field they are masters of their own destiny.  We often see footballers risk receiving a yellow or a red card in order to prevent the opposition scoring. They have to weigh the consequences of their actions against the risk of a goal being scored.  At that moment intellect is good but instinct is better. We too have to be in tune with our intuition and know when to take actions that will impact our situations.  Our mentors have no access to our gut feelings; we have to be true to ourselves and acknowledge that instinct is an innate quality that aids our decision-making.

xix) Self control – Footballers sometimes get into tussles on the field if they feel they have been disrespected or if their egos have been bruised.  However, for the most part they do exercise self control.  One could argue that their restraint is attributed to the power of the referee’s cards - yellow or red, which could punish them and their teams with disastrous consequences. Self control is a key factor in emotional intelligence - one which enables us to exercise tolerance, understanding, forgiveness and patience.  If we allow others to make us angry and we lose control we give away our power.  If we don’t control our emotions we lose opportunities and close doors that could lead to good places – indeed we harm our chances in life.

xx) Respect – Footballers must show respect for authority.  They will tell you how much they wanted to be in the starting line-up for games but their managers had other ideas.  They are often substituted on the pitch when they feel they have a lot more to give.  They have to respect their manager’s decisions.  Even if they are dropped from the team they still have to be respectful, especially if they hope to be courted by another team. Respect for self and others are key ingredients in personal and professional growth.  Movers and shakers do not like disrespectful people and will not go the extra mile to help even when it costs them nothing.  The Jamaican proverb:  “Manners takes you through the world” conveys this well.

xxi) Professionalism – It must be very painful to lose a game, especially the ones that are deemed important in league tables or which are played on the international stage.  Despite any disappointment or aversion footballers shake the hands of their opponents and they often cheer them at the end. Even when they are suffering an embarrassing defeat they don’t abandon the game.  Whatever we do we should ensure that we adopt a professional approach.  It is tantamount to integrity and these are the factors that make us look good and add value to our repertoire.  Pain is found in every walk of life and although we have the right to hurt, we do not have the right to remain wounded.  As the saying goes:  “Today for you, tomorrow for me”.

xxii) Discipline – Despite what people may think footballers are generally highly self-disciplined.  They have to be careful about what they consume, they have to refrain from certain vices and they have to ensure that they have sufficient rest in order to keep themselves fit for the team. In life we must maintain discipline if we are to co-exist peacefully.  At the very least we have to be tolerant, respect diversity, obey the law and pay taxes.  No one wants to live in a lawless society where our security is compromised because people simply disrespect authority, disobey rules and ignore responsibility.

xxiii) Fearlessness – Watching a penalty shootout is a very tense moment even for those who do not play the game.  Imagine therefore the fear that the penalty taker must feel, aware of the responsibility on his shoulders.   If left unmanaged fear stifles creativity; it stops us from taking risks that could propel us forward and it curtails our drive.   It is a natural phenomenon that we all experience but we have to develop strategies to control it.

xxiv) Money making – Footballers make big money.  They found their purpose, play with passion and earn well from their chosen a career.  They do not waste time in roles that do not pay well and if they are not playing well they are replaced.  We too must find worthwhile opportunities and ensure we are making good use of our time.  While it is fine to be in entry level jobs for a while, the onus is on us to grow professionally so that we can meet our needs and be a blessing to others in due season.

xxv) Work hard, play hard – We have already established that footballers work hard.  They play hard too.  It is not unusual to see photographs of them in the press enjoying themselves in some faraway place with their mates or loved ones.  In our aspiration to acquire the finer things in life we often forget to have fun.  We end up taking work home, working overtime, just to make a few extra bucks to save for a rainy day.  Unfortunately by the time we get around to enjoying our savings many of us find ourselves alone, are ill or may even be dead.  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

xxvi) Patience – There are often debates about whether a manager should be fired after an unsuccessful run or if such a manager should be allowed to complete their intended contractual tenure.  Often it takes a while for success to come; the board, players and fans alike have to exercise patience and allow the team to gel under the manager’s leadership.  Patience is a virtue; too often we give up early because we don’t immediately see the results we are hoping for.  There is a Jamaican saying that explains this phenomenon:  the darkest part of night is when day soon light”.  There will be difficult moments but with patience and hard work we will see the light at the end of the tunnel.

xxvii) Gratitude – Many footballers, indeed many sportsmen will tell you that one of their greatest joys was the fact that they were able to purchase property for their parents.  Many will have assisted their friends and family to set up business, settle debts or purchase items beyond their reach.  We too must not forget our roots; we must reach out to those who helped us in our formative years and those who may have struggled with us before we achieved success.  There is a famous quote that says: be careful how you treat people on your way up because you might meet them again on your way down.

xxviii) Generosity – From time to time we hear of sportsmen who have donated money and resources to individuals.  It could be as simple as purchasing drinks for everyone at a venue or leaving a handsome tip at a restaurant.  They generally do not count their pennies; they focus instead on bringing in the pounds.  In life we too must be generous with our resources.  It doesn't have to be financial help – giving of our time, effort, know-how, physical resources, among others is just as good.  For those of us who do business we must ensure that we negotiate win/win contracts so that all parties feel valued.  There is no need to attach getting to our giving; indeed giving is the seed to your getting.

xxix) Philanthropy – Right across the world there are projects that are set up and/or funded by sportsmen.  Altruism goes beyond one’s immediate social group and extends out to humanity, perhaps building a school, funding a charity, purchasing equipment for a hospital, developing a sport facility within a community.  Human beings must seek to leave a legacy, however small, not only to our family but to the world.  We are bound to support our own children but how many of us help other people’s children? We may not be able to help everyone but surely we can help someone.

xxx) Hard work brings true joy – As we watched the German team go for and achieve glory, one cannot help but cheer, irrespective of our allegiance.  When you listen to their story and see how far they’ve come you recognise how deserving of the title they are. They believed in themselves, worked well as a team, remained calm under pressure, exercised patience, perseverance, professionalism and discipline; conquered their fear, planned their strategy and executed their plan.  At the end of the tournament they returned home to a heroes’ welcome.

The current thinking is that success is not about working harder, but rather, working smarter.  Irrespective of how smart we think we are, we have to put in the hours if we want to achieve our goals.  We have to put measures into place for making money to satisfy our needs and wants.  Hard work still does bring true joy - ask the Germans!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Circumstances Make People

From time to time it is reported in the media that parents are arrested for harming or fatally wounding their children.  It was recently reported in the UK press that a mother killed her three severely disabled children while she was left at home with them, their father being away on holiday with their able-bodied child.  This extremely sad case came as a shock to friends, family, neighbours and the wider society as despite the affliction of the children aged 3-4, the family appeared content.

No doubt the mother, who has been arrested and charged, will come under severe criticism.  As someone who is familiar with the challenges of caring for a disabled person, I can understand the desperation she could have felt.  I wonder how many of those who now point fingers at her offered a helping hand when she needed it most.  How many people reached out and touched her in one way or another, perhaps offering to babysit while she took a break?  Caring for three children under the age of five is no mean feat, a situation made worse by the fact that those children are unable to walk, talk or attend to their personal needs.  Those who know the mother say that she is a respectable woman, never in trouble or caused any trouble.  What went wrong therefore? 
“Man is the creature of circumstances” said Robert Owen - an Eighteenth Century Welsh social reformer and philanthropist. When our backs are against the wall we find ways of bouncing back, provided we are not ready to give up.  The situations in which we find ourselves often dictate the decisions we make and in some cases we make decisions that are contrary to our values.  Some call this phenomenon “survival”; others see it as “going off the rails” and, as in the case of the mother in this text, some call it “snapped”.  Our prisons are packed with people who snapped.

We all find ourselves changing our goal posts as we traverse through life.  Many of us in our early years would have said – “by X time I must have done Y” or when I grow up I will be Z.  As we mature our aspirations shift as environmental factors impact and we realise that our goals are no longer realistic.  There is an African proverb that says: “People are like chameleons – circumstances make them change their colour”. The direction and quality of our lives do not depend   on us alone, for we are but part of a whole.  Our interactions, the people we meet, the challenges we face - and overcome, where we live and a host of other factors impact on the nature and quality of the lives we lead. 

My life experiences have widened my understanding of human behaviour and I recognise that people have varying degrees of strength depending on the circumstances.  The fact that I am strong in the workplace does not mean that I am strong in the home or in a social setting.  Consider the following example: Several years ago I attended a colleague’s wedding reception; we had been waiting for the MC to arrive and as time passed it became increasingly worrying as it appeared that this person would not show up.  I was asked to step in for the MC, an area in which I had neither experience nor passion but I found it difficult to decline, given the circumstances.  Luckily 15 minutes into the programme the MC arrived and the day was saved.  The fact that I was a leader in the workplace led people to believe that I would be a fitting MC at the wedding.  I recognise that I had skills that were transferable and I rose to the occasion (albeit apprehensively), for circumstances make people.  

The fact that we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation can be a blessing in disguise for it is that discomfort which may provide the stimulus to unearth our latent skills and propel us to discover new avenues for development and prosperity.  Had I been so inclined, the wedding scenario could have given birth to talent yet explored and who knows where it could have led.  An uncomfortable situation can ignite a spark and fuel the fire within - triggering innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, growth.  Some people call it luck – being in the right place at the right time; some call it destiny, others see it as simply grasping opportunities that present themselves.  Renowned Motivational Speaker, speech coach and bestselling author Les Brown might have been uncomfortable when he was suddenly thrust into the role of radio DJ (a position he craved) but he excelled in the role and it essentially helped  him to launch his outstanding career.  If we endeavour to bloom where we are planted chances are our circumstances, coupled with a positive attitude will enable us to conquer greater heights.  

On the flip side, there are those who, despite a change of circumstances, do not themselves experience or embrace change.  I have a friend who is currently contemplating divorce because his wife refuses to bury her ghetto mentality, despite moving out of the ghetto.  Seeds placed in the ground can either be planted or buried; we must recognise that we cannot change people who do not want to change.  Circumstances will not “make” everyone!

World economics has impacted heavily in recent years but despite the challenges we can have a positive effect on others if we engage a caring attitude.  We must recognise that people often need help but are too afraid, too shy or too proud to request it.  On the other hand we are overly worried about being rebuffed so we adopt an attitude of apathy in order to protect our hearts.   Don’t be that person who could have helped but didn’t; don’t risk living a life of regrets.  The mother in this story shouldn’t have had to ask for help; from a distance everyone could see that she needed help.  We are too quick to close our eyes and mind our own business when really the human race is a single race and whatever affects one affects all.   That is why foreign aid for development makes sense, provided it is appropriately administered. You can close your eyes as much as you want; you will still see because you don’t need eyes to look within. 

It is said that people living in deprived communities are more prone to committing crime. While we must not use a broad-brush to paint all such people we have to recognise that if people are unable to meet their basic needs they will pursue unconventional ways of providing for their needs; they won’t just go away and neither will their needs!  Provide avenues for those people to earn their keep and chances are they will embrace the opportunities presented and start to contribute meaningfully to society.  Jamaican singer/songwriter – Buju Banton sings:  “Circumstances made me what I am; was I born a violent man?”  We all have the same basic aspirations – adequate food, clothing, shelter, safety/security, access to health care, a decent future for our children. 

In the workplace how do we relate to others?  As leaders of organisations do we choose to close our eyes to the plight of individuals who clearly are struggling but who nonetheless turn up day after day?  Do we explore and implement ways of alleviating their distress?  Too many of us know the right actions to take but fail to take them because of weak leadership or for fear of being accused of double standards.  We meander about like masked ogres – oblivious, or rather insensitive to people’s situations.  The changes we make do not have to be significant – small incremental steps such as introducing flexitime will allow employees more time to prepare their children for school and/or to benefit from reduced travel costs, being able to travel during off peak hours.  Being able to avoid peak hours can also reduce stress levels and boost productivity.   A small action can make a big difference.  There is a Jamaican saying:  When oders a jump pan two leg yuh betta jump on one; (when others are jumping on two legs, you are better off jumping on one) – don’t be afraid to be different; pursue the right course of action, unpopular though it may be.

Look at the bigger picture – caring for people means caring for ourselves for if our employees are consistently unhappy, the safety and security of our workplaces are at risk.  If we negotiate win-lose contracts, they will be unsustainable.  It is always better to care about others for if they are content, we will be too - for contentment is contagious.  If you continually push people into corners where they feel they are unfairly treated they will eventually rebel.

Life is increasingly stressful for many, without regard to their background, belief, financial status, or other defining characteristic.  We don’t know what it takes to push someone over the edge – it’s not always obvious!  Offering a helping hand often costs us nothing but that lowly act could prove invaluable - it could save a life - for circumstances make people.   

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Poor will be Poorer?

I was recently visiting someone in hospital when I encountered a hospital employee – a woman who appeared to be in her late 40s – heading for the toilets with her cleaning equipment. When she emerged she acknowledged me with the words “the poor will be poorer”.  While conversing with her I learnt that her name is Norma and that she has been employed as a cleaner at the hospital for many years.  She indicated that she had always ensured that her work was done to a very high standard but had seen colleagues who had not been so meticulous get promoted ahead of her.  I sensed that she felt frustrated, unrewarded, unappreciated and taken for granted.  We chatted for a while and she left in a somewhat more cheerful mood.

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is a phrase that is used in the context of economic inequality but I realised during our conversation that she was referring to the Bible – Matthew 13:12 – “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” It is unfortunate that that verse is taken out of context for if we read the preceding verses we see that it is a parable referring to seeds falling in different places – on stony ground, among thorns and on good ground.  Did Norma take the parable literally and was therefore bound by its inference, believing that being poor was her fate?  There is a Jamaican proverb that says: “Hard ears pickney nyam rackstone” - who doesn’t hear will feel. Some of us hear but do not listen and eventually face the consequences, while others listen but do not hear because they are so distracted.
Since the encounter I found myself thinking about Norma’s chosen words: “the poor will be poorer”.  It is significant that she stopped there, not mentioning the rich for clearly she has no part with ‘them’.  She cannot imagine herself among the rich so she saw no point in uttering it.   If we do not prepare our minds for increase how will we cope with that increase when it arrives?   Norma drew inspiration from the Bible but how could those biblical references be more encouraging to her?  If her seeds fell on good ground she would appreciate the need to build her repertoire and become the best cleaner there is and widen her horizons.  She would develop the courage and confidence to approach her bosses for promotion or to discuss her professional growth.  She would develop the will to explore avenues for personal development (within or outside the organisation) – applying for higher or lateral positions that will give her more job satisfaction, opportunity for upward mobility and greater rewards, financial and otherwise. 

We all have talents but it is for us to seek ways of showcasing and maximising them.  There is no point throwing them on stony ground and then complaining that they don’t grow. Neither should we let negative influences confuse, hamper or ensnare us; we have to take our future into our own hands.  If we want something we have to work for it or ask for it; we cannot assume that it will be handed to us. The same Bible that Norma reads tells us:  "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7).  Too many of us don’t ask, don’t receive and then blame the world for not giving.  Some years ago I was writing a book and needed some pictures; I tried to purchase them but couldn’t handle the restrictions so I turned to the internet where I found some wonderful pictures.  I asked the various owners if I could use their pictures and every single person said “Yes”.  In the end I had more than I needed and I happily sent copies of the book to those who had obliged.
As I pondered more on Norma’s statement – the poor will be poorer, the thought occurred to me - how can it be that the person who is responsible for maintaining the most important part of the house see herself at the very bottom (no pun intended) of the pecking order.  As far as I see it, the bathroom is the main part of the house for what you can do in the bathroom you cannot do in any other part of the house.  Let’s break it down – the bathroom has a bath where you can sleep if necessary, just place a pillow and some sheets.  The toilet provides a seat with cover which can be used as a chair.  If your bathroom includes a dressing table you can use it as a dining table and it has a sink where you can wash.  You can wash your clothes in the bath and hang them on the rails to dry – the bathroom can replace the laundry room, living room, dining room and in a given moment,   the kitchen – just place a hotplate on the dressing table.  It is improbable that we use our bathrooms in that way but it is certainly possible.  Now turn the tables and let’s see where in our houses we can use in the same way as we use our bathrooms?  I think we would be challenged to identify such a place.
It follows therefore that the bathroom is the key part of the house. If a man’s house is his castle, what can we conclude?  Consider: if the toilets at the castle are out of use and an important event is being planned at the venue it is almost certain that the said event would be cancelled (unless other conveniences can be accessed).  Why does the person who is in charge of the most important part of the castle find herself at the bottom of the pile (again, no pun) - disregarded, disrespected, scoffed at and worse still, lack self esteem?  How can the cleaner be made to understand that she plays a key role?  There is a popular anecdote that goes like this:
The parts of the body were talking, each in turn arguing that they hold the most importance.  The eyes said that without them the body wouldn’t see where it was going, the legs said that without them, no one was going anywhere; the hands said they do the work that bring in the money, and the list goes on.  When it was the anus’ turn, they all laugh and scoffed at it, clearly indicating that it was the least among them.  The bottom took offence and went on strike and hell broke loose.  The eyes started to bulge, the legs weren’t going anywhere, the stomach hurt, hands couldn’t go to work, no one was able to function. They soon realised the importance of the anus and eventually they acknowledged that Mr Anus was indeed the boss.  He went back to work bringing an end to the chaos.
The above correlates with a biblical story (1 Corinthians 12: 12-26) and holds important lessons about the interconnectedness and inter-reliance of our body parts.  We are interdependent - we need each other to survive and no one is better than the other, irrespective of his or her status.  There is an Italian proverb that says: Alla fine del gioco, il re e il pedone tornano nella stessa scatola (Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box). Be humble, respectful and grateful for we are all equal.  “The first will be last” (Matt. 20:27-28) promotes Servanthood for “if anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all”. 
This week one of my students asked me to explain the meaning of the word ‘initiative’.  That is what Norma should show – an attitude that goes beyond the call of duty, is resourceful, creative, identifies problems and proposes solutions; she should make herself invaluable!  If that doesn’t work at least she would have earned a good reference which will position her in good stead to seek more rewarding opportunities.  At the end of the day no one is indispensable and she is not tied to that hospital.  She may have other reasons why she may want to stay – location, fear, resistance to change, apathy, convenience, the work schedule, travel costs, relationships, flexibility, security... the list goes on.  She has to consider all those factors and decide what is important to her.
As managers of organisations, how do we relate to our junior staff?  Do we recognise the value of their contributions to our success and do we create pathways through which they can grow and get an opportunity to shine?  Too often we ignore those who are watering our roots, appealing instead to those who are admiring our leaves.  We should be careful about this and take time to ensure that those who are close to us feel valued and know that they are appreciated.  Seek opportunities to show appreciation – a gift from a business trip, a birthday card, at simple Thank You.   Look around your office and find the Normas that may be there.  Help them discover their talent and show them how they could increase their rewards and enhance their job satisfaction.  Look for opportunities to show gratitude and appreciation; share some of the spoils with your staff. 
Life is a cycle and we don’t know where we will be tomorrow; be nice to people and take no one for granted.  At the end of the day all human beings need the same things to survive (food, clothing shelter) and generally share the same aspirations – safety, belonging, esteem, self actualisation/success.  No man is an island and the sooner we realise it, the better off we all will be.  If we help others to get what they want, we in turn will get what we want.
The poor may get poorer but if they look carefully at what they have in their hands and use it, they may discover that they are not so poor after all.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Self Belief – Key Ingredient in Personal Growth

I run a weekly Employability Skills session for young people aged 18-24 who are preparing to embark on a career. Recently I had a young woman - Emily in my session whose profile revealed that she had completed high school, qualified as a Beauty Therapist and went to university.  When I asked her about her chosen career I learnt that her sole interest was in securing a domestic cleaning job.  She indicated that she had no other aspiration, despite her education, training and employment history.  I found this decision somewhat strange so I probed further.  She mentioned that she had dropped out of university and lost her youth mentoring job some time ago.  She had a number of failures and during this period she was told that she was dyslexic and couldn't excel at anything.  She basically ‘accepted her fate’ and arrived at the conclusion that she would seek employment as a cleaner because she enjoyed cleaning her house.

Before I proceed, I want it to be clear that I have no issue with people who work as domestic cleaners.  Our society needs people who are willing and able to perform a range of jobs in order for us to lead healthy, abundant lives. There is therefore nothing wrong in pursuing a career in cleaning if you are passionate about it and you made the choice yourself.  However, what bothered me about the foregoing situation is the fact that Emily made this decision not on her own accord but under emotional duress.  I realized that deep down there was a burning desire to aim higher but this was being extinguished by fear and the constant echo of words pronounced by others who almost succeeded in crushing this young woman’s spirits.

It cannot be right that one person can destroy the hopes and dreams of another in this way.  There is a popular proverb that says:  if you can’t say good, say nothing.  People should be careful what they say to others, for the tongue can destroy.  Those who have been on the receiving end should consider the Swedish proverb (Ingenting under solen är beständigt) nothing under the sun is lasting; let it go and live your life – treat their words as water on a duck’s back.

In the absence of self belief we can fall into the trap of unwittingly allowing other people to set our goals and limits.  If we have no one to inspire us we risk focusing on our weaknesses and fulfilling the prophecy of those who either lack intelligence or who do not wish us well.   Do not nurture your imperfection - look on what you have, not what you are lacking.  Revisit your successes, learn from your failures but do not dwell on them. We should never allow the words of others to determine our actions or to carve our paths – our lives are for us to live and sometimes others cannot appreciate the routes we take.  In my session I had a very disillusioned young woman who felt that she had no choice but to lead a life based on the dictates of others. There is a Chinese proverb that says: “the person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it”. Unfortunately my student lost focus because of that interruption which dented her aspirations.  She believed the lies told by those who said she couldn't do it and she simply lost her way.

It is up to us to paint our self portrait in a positive, progressive light.  We cannot rise above the person we think we are and if we fail to stand up for something we will sit down for nothing, allowing other people to plan and direct our lives.  Attitude is a chosen position – we can fulfil the wishes of others or we can ignore them and take responsibility for our actions.  Your dream is planted in you, not in the minds of naysayers or people who reign in their little kingdoms created for the execution of dreams. Whatever scar you may have had from your past should not deter you from aspiring to a bright future. 

Sometimes the words of discouragement come from people you love within your family or circle of friends.  I was in a seminar last week and heard the story of a fellow attendee who told the group that someone close to her had made her life hell for the last few years because she had made a mistake.  He simply would not let it go and he used every opportunity to ensure that she didn't forget the incident.  She explained that she was in turmoil inside because although she felt that his actions were wrong she had internalised the pain and it was making her ill.  I told her to set herself free, for no one is entitled to harass another to the extent that she is so disturbed. We have a right to be hurt but there is no reason to remain wounded.  She should put an end to it once and for all and consider what Eleanor Roosevelt said -  Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.  She should stop giving him consent.  

I had to take similar steps in my life - I got to a point where I had to make a decision that I would not allow my mother to upset me anymore. For several years she constantly got on my nerves for reasons beyond my control.  She provided me with all the material things I needed and funded my education but there was no demonstration of love.  As an adult I returned the favour – providing for her as required and ensuring that she was not lacking in any way.  However it came to a point where I had to establish my boundaries in terms of my relationship with her, keeping her out of my personal life and sharing no sensitive information with her.  We shouldn't apologise for protecting our hearts; this may be difficult for some but when you learn to love yourself it is surprisingly easy. 

As leaders of organisations we also have the responsibility to foster self belief in those we manage.  Do we empower our staff, give them autonomy and encourage them to set their own boundaries?  Do we interpret their assertiveness as aggression?  We have to be careful particularly when working with young people as we need to ensure that we play our part in the development of their confidence and growth within our organisations and otherwise.   Life is not a passive experience; if you just go with the flow you will survive but chances are you won’t thrive.  Sometimes we fail but that does not matter, for it is in the face of failure that we appreciate success. Do not use your staff’s failures to embarrass them or crush their spirits.  Develop the ability to make corrections and then let them go; don’t dwell on their mistakes.  Actively look for the good in the individual, nurture it and it will grow.  Help them determine their own future and allow them to explore their creativity.  Make them accountable for their actions as well as their inactions.  

As leaders we too must believe in ourselves – we have to believe in our ability to lead our organisations and believe we can succeed.  Most importantly we have to believe that we are worthy and adequately equipped for the task.  The depth of your belief and the strength of your conviction determine the power of your personality. (Brian Tracy).  If we believe in ourselves as leaders, our staff will believe in and rally behind us, helping our organisations to weather the storms and grow stronger, for the benefit of the whole. 

Self belief leads to self confidence.  If we believe in ourselves we will develop confidence and be able to tap into our innate abilities and unleash our potential.  Never let anyone define your goals; no one can be better at being you, than you yourself.  Be your own man, believe in yourself!