Friday, 8 August 2014

The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age - Book Review

The Alliance is a remarkably concise management book that  has some simple concepts and well-thought-out advice about managing talent in a competitive economy. At its heart is an argument for a new relationship between employers and employees. The traditional model of lifetime employment that was fostered in the relatively stable economy of the 1950s and 1960s was replaced in the 1970s and 1980s by a view that increasingly saw employees and jobs as a short-term commodity.  The consequence of 'increased shareholder value' was a breakdown trust between employers and employees, The consequence of firms shedding labour at the first sign of trouble is that employee loyalty is at an all-time low. The present state of affairs is not good for employers because employees leave mid-project; or for employees because there is no longer job security. [The only winners are the head-hunters]. The new model advocated in The Alliance is a 'middle way' between the two previous approaches:

The Alliance believes that there needs to be greater transparency and openness between what employers and employees about what they want from their working relationship:
"The business work needs a new employee framework that facilitates mutual trust, mutual investment and mutual benefit."  (p.7)  "In an alliance, the manager can speak openly and honestly about the investment the company is willing to make in the employee and what it expects in return. The employee can speak openly and honestly about the type of growth he seeks (skills, experiences, and the like) and what he will invest in the company in return by way of effort and commitment. Both sides set clear expectations." (p.9)
The authors use the analogy of a military 'tour of duty'.  Employers need employees who sign up for a 'tour of duty' whereby firms have a flexible workforce but with workers who are committed to seeing the latest project through to its end; and employees have experiences which will develop them professionally. At the end of a 'tour' there is scope for employers and employees to commit to another tour, or to part company knowing that it had been profitable for both sides.
A second dimension of this new relationship between employers and employees relates to the importance of developing and leveraging personal networks. Networks have always had an important part to play in business, but in the connected social media age, these have become one of the greatest assets both collectively of firms and of individuals. Both firms and employees through their relationship develop the brand: firms develop the company brand and employees   their own 'personal brand'. The authors argue for a symbiotic relationship, whereby the firm encourages the individual to develop their personal professional network, which in turn can help the organisation develop and flourish. This may be through bringing in business, opening up new markets, by providing the firm with 'non-public' sector/ market information, or by helping with offering solutions to challenges.  
The final aspect of the new relationship is the importance of a professional alumni network whereby the firm keeps in touch with former employees after they have move on to a new post. Lifelong employment might be a thing of the past but a lifelong relationship might be a reasonable expectation for those who complete a successful tour of duty. This alumni group can provide useful support for the firm in a number of ways, including a source of recruitment, making recommendations to others who are thinking of joining the firm and acting as critical friends.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Squaring the Circle - The Greatest Educational Challenge

"One of the greatest challenges facing leading schools in this country is how best to prepare you, young people, for what is an increasingly competitive market place for top jobs. To some extent it was ever thus, but the difference between your generation and that of those of us who are parents is that you are competing in a truly global marketplace. You are not just competing with the best in the UK – you are competing with the best in the world. There are more A* and outstanding pupils in China than there are pupils in Britain, so if you are going to be the movers and shakers of the next generation then you will need to raise your game.
It is not so much “Berko’s Got talent” or even “Britain’s Got talent” – but it’s “The World’s Got Talent”. How will you compete? And how will your education here at Berkhamsted prepare you for that world? Britain has long since abandoned any pretence of having an economy based on making things. As Richard Sykes of Imperial College, formerly Chief Executive of Glaxo-Wellcome puts it:
 'We can’t compete against the manpower of India and China: we have to use our brains.' 
"Independent Schools like Berkhamsted have a long and distinguished history in producing world-class leaders in their various fields and they have an important role to play if UK PLC is going to remain competitive on the international stage. In the global employment market, you have a number of advantages – you are native speakers of the new global language and you have relatively cheap and easy access to some of the best universities in the world, but this is not enough – you need more – you need world-class schooling.

"The problem that we face in schools is that there is a growing dislocation between the standard school curriculum and the world of work. I believe that the exam system is the greatest obstruction to preparing young people for the world of work because it is completely out of kilter with what people actually do in the workplace. At no point in any job do people ever work alone, in silence, without technology or collaboration; and no one ever writes a handwritten essay. 
"Changes in working patterns and the increasing use of technology in business combined with subtle shift in our A-level system are making this dislocation even greater. In the past somebody who had a bit of flair could write an essay and be given an ‘A’ for it even if it was not the approach the examiner expected, because they had written it in an interesting way. But in recent years exam boards have tried to automate their marking processes and that approach has been drummed out of the system because examiners do onscreen marking with a checklist of all the key words which need to be there. The consequence is that we are coming up with a generation of people who are very accurate and don't make mistakes, but who also don't take risks. 
"So, at a forward-looking school like Berkhamsted we have to try to square the circle: we need to teach young people to pass examinations so that they can get the grades to gain places at top universities to have the start that we want them all to have in life; but we also need to nurture young people who can think for themselves, who are creative, who can solve problems, who can think out of the box, who can be an effective part of a team, who have passions and interests, who make connections, who are articulate, who are good with people, who have a sense of community and of service; and who, above all, develop the values that will enable them to make a difference in the world.

"Education is about so much more than passing examinations. It is not about cribs and shortcuts. It is about broadening the mind. It is about making connections. It is about abandoning the motorway and taking the scenic route. It is about making discoveries. It is about a deeper understanding that comes from really knowing something well. It is about kicking around ideas with like-minded people. It is about taking yourself out of your comfort zone. It is about taking risks. It is about taking time. I am not arguing this out of a romantic view of how education was in the past. I believe that these things are important for individuals and for us as a nation. Britain’s traditions in the creative arts, in science and innovation have been fed by an education system has led the world. Schools like these and our top universities have led the world by teaching young people to “think”. If all that teachers do is to teach to the exam, and if all pupils do is to learn what they need to know to pass the exam, then we are failing to educate. If we fail to educate, we will lose the Nation’s greatest asset. That is how we square the circle – that is the Berkhamsted vision for Education."

Part of my address at the Berkhamsted School Speech Day on Thursday 3rd July, 2014

Friday, 20 June 2014

Independent Schools, Elite Sport and University Entrance

Letter to the Daily Telegraph
Published Saturday 21st June 2014



Sir,
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, argues that a disproportionate number of independent school pupils represent Britain at elite sport. So what do we do? Do we have quotas of state pupils who represent GB at the Olympics or England at Rugby? No of course we don't. We aspire to bring sport in the maintained sector up to standard of sport in independent schools.
Independent schools also provide a disproportionate number of pupils to Oxford and Cambridge and Russell Group universities, so why is Offa seeking to impose a system of quotas? Why not try to raise academic standards amongst the most able in state schools?
Both TeamGB and UKplc need the best proven talent to compete on a global stage and quotas aren't going to help - a broader talent base will.

Mark S Steed
Principal, Berkhamsted School
Berkhamsted, Herts

Monday, 9 June 2014

Soapbox: The exam system is seriously hindering efforts to prepare young people for the workplace.

Testing young people's ability to work alone in silence without access to technology is outdated and irrelevant, the Principal of Berkhamsted School tells Rachel Bridge
The present British examination system is seriously hindering efforts by schools to prepare young people for the workplace, says Mark Steed, Principal of Berkhamsted School, a highly regarded independent school in Hertfordshire. It stifles the very qualities that British businesses need and urgently needs reforming, he said. Steed said: "The exam system is the biggest obstruction to preparing young people for the world of work because it is completely out of kilter with what people actually do in the workplace. At no point in any job do people ever work alone, in silence, without technology or collaboration. And handwritten essays are just not something that anyone produces in the workplace."
The exam system is completely out of kilter with how people work in the workplace, says Mark Steed 
He said that while teachers have been quick to respond to the changing needs of the workplace by introducing technology and collaboration into the classroom, their ability to do more is being seriously inhibited by the need to prepare young people for exams which bear no resemblance to the way the workplace actually operates. He said: "Education is embracing new technologies at an extremely fast rate.
Teachers are using laptops and iPads and tablet devices in lessons and they are encouraging students to work collaboratively through software such as Google Docs. But the problem is that we have still got a 19th century examination system which involves sitting in rows in silence without technology or collaboration."
Steed warned that the present examination system also inhibits creativity and flair, the very things that we as a society should be encouraging in young people - not just for their personal development, but because they help drive the economy forward.
He said: "In recent years exam boards have tried to automate their marking processes so we have ended up with tick box marking of A levels. In the past somebody who had a bit of flair could write an essay and be given an A for it even if it was not the approach the examiner expected, because they had written it in an interesting way." "But that has now been drummed out of the exam system because examiners do onscreen marking with a checklist of all the key words which need to be there. The consequence is that we are coming up with a generation of people who are very accurate and don't make mistakes, but who also don't take risks."
He added: "The competitive advantage of Britain as a nation is based around problem solving and creativity but the exam system at the moment mitigates against both of those things. It punishes people who are creative or quirky or whose answers aren't the exact ones on the sheet. That means teachers end up having to rein in students' creativity and problem solving skills in order to prepare them to sit these exams."
Steed called on the government to urgently overhaul the examination system so that it rewards rather than stifles qualities needed in the workplace, saying: "We need an exam system that encourages creativity, and rewards students who come up with nonstandard answers. Creativity is one of the UK's great strengths - we produce brilliant designers and scientists, engineers and architects and we have some of the most creative and best problem solvers in the world. But unless we sort out the exam system we are in danger of losing that."

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The key to Leadership is having time on the ball


Any soccer fan will testify that a world class footballer in his pomp is a delight to behold. The likes of Pele, Ronaldo, Messi and David Beckham look as if they have all the time in the world to weigh up their next move, pass or shoot. They evaluate the field of play in an instant, consider their options and select from their fully honed repertoire precisely how they are going to optimise the impact of what they choose to do next. These people give confidence to the players around them, they create opportunities, they draw pressure away from others and they dictate how the game is going to be played. They are masters of their craft - they are in control. So what is it that that makes these players so special? One factor is that they have "time on the ball".

These principles also apply to leaders and to the organisations that they run. Inspirational leaders, too, have "time on the ball". They are able to take the pressure, give confidence to those around them, create opportunities for their team, and read and control the game. These are leadership qualities to which we should aspire.

Pele, Ronaldo, Messi, Beckham et al are not always in the thick of the action - often unseen, they work hard off the ball, never shirk the crucial tackle when it matters, but never forget that their true role is to run the game and create space for others.

Great leaders have time for people at every level of their organisation. Realising that their staff are the most valuable resource, they give of their time - they make people feel special and valued. They have "time on the ball". "Time on the ball" comes from a clear vision and a confidence in dealing with the challenge ahead.

But this does not just apply to leaders, it can apply to leadership teams, indeed to everyone in an organisation. Like the great Brazilian World Cup winning side of 1970, organisations, too, can have "time on the ball". "Time on the ball" allows the team to achieve reach its goal. Enjoy!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

When choosing a school look for the skyscrapers

Great cities can be recognised by their skylines.
Some cities are dominated by ancient domes and spires testament to centuries of culture and learning; other more recent new-comers compete through ever taller and imaginative iconic structures; and truly great cities combine the two with a juxtaposition of history and an ever evolving modernity. 
However, on the ground, modern cities tend to be increasingly similar: shopping malls and business districts have a similar feel whether in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur or Toronto or Sydney. Life in one world city can be a very similar experience as life in another. 
In many ways schools are like cities. On the ground they all do very similar things: lessons take place, young people excel in music, drama, sport and adventurous activities; trips and visits go out both near and far. Some schools have long and distinguished histories and have the buildings to match, whilst others are forward-looking and have new technology and infrastructure to dazzle. So how to choose between them? 
Top independent schools, like world cities, have skyscrapers: areas of particular strength that define their skyline. These are areas where a school would consider itself making a distinctive contribution, areas where perhaps it puts a greater proportion of its resources than its peers. School skyscrapers are usually built on the foundations of long-standing tradition and expertise. So when choosing a school, consider the skyscrapers and ask yourself, 'Will the school in question provide my son or daughter the best possible opportunities to thrive, develop his/ her talents and, above all, to see new horizons?'

Monday, 21 April 2014

Accelerate XLR8 - John Kotter - Book Review

In his latest book, Harvard Business School Professor, John Kotter, argues that established hierarchical managerial structures do not provide the agility for organisations to respond sufficiently quickly to take advantages of the narrow windows of opportunity that present themselves. Kotter's solution is that firms should re-organise themselves to be able to cope with the demands of an increasingly changing world. In particular, firms should augment their their hierarchical structures with a network comprised of volunteers drawn from a range of levels and divisions within the organisation. Thus the firm would have a dual-operating system with the hierarchical structure providing day-to-day reliable management and the network providing agile strategic leadership. Kotter believes that this structure existed in most firms at a much earlier stage of their evolution.

The following YouTube clip provides an excellent summary of the Kotter's main arguments:


At the heart of Kotter's argument is the concept of the "Big Opportunity":
A Big Opportunity is something that can potentially lead to significant outcomes if the possibility is exploited well enough and fast enough.  . . .  A Big Opportunity is not a "vision" . . .
A Big Opportunity is also not any form of "strategy" or "strategic initiative."  pp.133-36
In order to make the shift to a dual-operating system Kotter believes that it is necessary to develop and maintain "a strong sense of urgency".  (Here there is an echo of Kotter's previous work on Leading Change - see review of Our Iceberg is Melting.)
Urgency in the sense that I am using the word here, means that significant numbers of people wake up each morning and have, somewhere in their heads and hearts, a compelling desire to do something to move the organisation towards a big strategic opportunity.  p.112 
This was a very thought-provoking read and the advantages of the dual-operating structure are clear. It was easy to see what "B" looks like, but the practicalities of how to make the transition from an established hierarchical structure to a dual-operating system were less clear. Kotter endeavours to share his experiences of working with a number of firms who have successfully moved to this model; however, I found that the case studies given in the book are so generalised that I was left wanting more detail about how each organisation had managed to make what is undoubtedly a difficult step towards the new structure.

Links
http://www.kotterinternational.com/our-principles/accelerate

Monday, 14 April 2014

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell - Book Review

Malcolm Gladwell has developed a proven formula for writing international bestsellers: once again, he gives us a book which provides yet more insights into modern society through sharing the fruits of academic research and anecdotes from sociological and psychological study.
At the heart of Gladwell's argument in David and Goliath is a view that power has its limitations. The 'Goliaths' of this world can dominate when the fight is on their terms; how ever if the 'Davids' go about engaging battle in an unconventional way, then there is no reason why the odds should not be in favour of the seeming underdog. Throughout the book, Gladwell works out this thesis in two distinct ways:
  1. First, Gladwell introduces the reader to the concept of the 'Inverted U'. Economists are familiar with this phenomenon: as organisations grow larger, then they benefit from 'economies of scale' (they have increased efficiency, specialisation of job roles and purchasing power); however if an organisation gets too big then 'diseconomies of scale' kick in (the organisation is too big to manage, there are problems of shared vision or internal communication. Gladwell applies this argument to Governments or to large Corporate organisations and demonstrates that unconventional people and approaches can have a greater impact in these circumstances.
  2. Secondly, he argues that apparent natural disadvantages (disability, being an outsider, being unconventional) can often become strengths. It is often the unconventional outsider, who has nothing to lose, who is the true agent of change and progress. This is perhaps best summed up by George Bernard Shaw's observation:
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Gladwell characteristically focuses on a few key case studies to illustrate his thesis: 
  • the basketball coach who achieved great success with his relatively inexperienced and unskilled team by defying convention by playing full-court press for the whole of the game;
  • the phenomenon that having too much wealth can make parenting even more difficult than the norm;
  • the phenomenon that less academically able students who are top at lesser universities do better than their theoretical betters who are in the bottom stream at top Ivy League schools;
  • that the Impressionists changed the world's perception of modern art by defying convention and striking out on their own setting up a rival to the Salon exhibition;
  • that a disproportionate number of dyslexics make it to the top in commerce by developing other important skills sets to compensate for their problems with literacy;
  • the consultant on the children's Leukemia ward, who because of the hardships that he had faced growing up, thought little of putting his young patients through pain in order to find a cure for their condition;
  • the reasons why the British Army failed to control the Roman Catholic population in Northern Ireland; and
  • how Martin Luther-King succeeded in winning over the Nation to his cause through manipulating the Press.
Gladwell is a supreme story-teller who is able to carry the reader with him through his sheer narrative ability. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening chapter where he takes the biblical story of David and Goliath and, at the end of his narrative, leaves the reader in no doubt that the odds were stacked to such an extent in Shepherd-boy's favour that the Philistine Champion literally didn't have a chance. However, if we take the book as a whole, Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath has only a superficial coherence and it is disappointing that he doesn't really explore his central theme of the limitations of power in anything other than an anecdotal way. Then again, perhaps a balanced argument sits outside the "Gladwell-genre". It remains, nevertheless, a most enjoyable romp - and one not to be missed.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Last Foundling by Tom H. Mackenzie - Book Review

The Last Foundling is not the sort of book that I'd ever pick out in Waterstones, but fortunately social attitude and human interest stories are a particular interest of my partner, hence it found its way onto our holiday reading list. It caught my eye because the book is set, for the most part, in Berkhamsted and unveils a chapter of the town's history with which I was previously unaware.  
It follows the parallel stories of a mother, Jean, and her child. It tells how Jean was forced to give up her son in 1939 to the Foundling Hospital, because, as an unmarried mother, she was unable to support him. She expresses her anguish in having to give up her child and charts her hopes and aspirations to be reunited with him once more.
The heart of the book is Tom's account of his upbringing: how, once removed from his birth mother and given a new name and identity, he was placed in a safe and happy foster home for his early years, from which he was torn away to be placed in the Foundling Hospital in Berkhamsted just before his fifth birthday.
The original Foundling Hospital had been established in Bloomsbury by Thomas Coram and received its first foundlings in 1741. It moved to a purpose-built school in Berkhamsted in 1935 only to close in 1954. The buildings are now used by Ashlyns School.  No doubt the intentions of the Founder and the Foundling Hospital staff were otherwise, but Tom Mackenzie describes a cold, loveless, institutional existence; the brutality of the dormitories; and the scrapes into which he got with the various families who were kind and brave enough to take him in during the vacations.
Written throughout in the first person, the unemotional, matter-of-fact style of the book powerfully conveys the detachment and lack of belonging that clearly characterised the author's upbringing. There is no bitterness or blame here - just the mature reflections of an old man looking back on how this institutional unloving childhood shaped the adult that he became. Above all the book explores the theme of the importance of family life in defining who we truly are: the account of a foundling childhood devoid of affection or family can only draw out in the reader a deeper appreciation of those who provided love and a stable home for those of us who were lucky enough to have both.