Can you cope with surprises?

I must confess that I’ve never been too fond of February.  And I don’t think I’m alone.  It usually feels like the world is in waiting, with the weather and the news also conspiring to make us feel a bit low.  I’m told that 31st January is the peak day for people to hand in their notice so that also turns February into limbo-time if you’re waiting for that bright new start. 

However, this year has taken me by surprise.  I’m not in limbo, I’m frantically busy and it will probably be mid-March before I have time to blink.  Yesterday I had to apologise to a potential new client that I could not accommodate the date he wanted in my diary.  That’s a disappointment.

I’m sure you know I’m not going to be moaning about being in this happy position.  I had an inkling back in the autumn when a few things were being pre-booked but the extent of the additional work has taken me a bit by surprise – a very good surprise, of course. The result of all this is that I am relying on meticulous planning, self-discipline and organisation to make everything fit.  More about that in a future blog.

So, let me ask a question.  Have you ever thought about how you cope with surprises at work and at home – and let’s not forget that they can be good news or ones that make us not quite so happy.  What makes you able to cope with anything that is thrown at you with grace and without coming apart at the seams (well not in public at least)?

There are a range of professionalism attitudes and qualities which come into play to help you: self-confidence, politeness, adaptability, professional maturity, responsiveness, responsibility, to name but a few.  Time and experience can help us to acquire and implement these qualities but there are a great many which combine to ensure that we exhibit professionalism in every situation. 

So, what if you are in the early stages of your career or have reached some sort of career decision point and need a guide or road map to help you move in the right direction?  That might be a cue to think about the very definite benefits of finding a mentor who can be there to listen to your questions and to support you in working out the next best step.  

And sometimes we need shortcuts to absorb the right knowledge at exactly the right moment.  So, because I can’t think of anything more important for anyone in the workplace, I’d like to help you to identify and utilise every quality you need to implement your workplace professionalism and ensure that those surprises don’t make your life difficult.  Just click through and use this special code - TREATU2017 to get an 80% discount on the online course, the ABC of Professionalism.  I’m here to help if you get stuck or want to talk things through. 

And as for February, perhaps I should begin to expect more not less happy surprises in the future – time will tell!


OMG! Why didn't you tell me?

Here’s an awkward question for you.

How does your organisation react to known issues which recur on a regular basis? Not an easy question to answer, is it?  So, just to be really difficult, here are a couple more for you to consider:

How long does it take to acknowledge that there is a problem?

How long does it take to decide to deal with it?

Does your organisation prefer to do nothing and hope it will go away?

Do you have a quick look and decide the ‘fix’ is too difficult or too expensive?

Or do you take the time to really understand what is happening, why it is occurring and have a robust conversation about how to deal with it and, more importantly, prevent it happening again?

We’d all like to think that the last option is the one we would choose but a great many organisations put up with the discomfort because they believe it is either going to be too hard or too messy.  

In one of the places I worked when I was newly married there was a fairly unremarkable office chair.  Not particularly comfortable, not particularly smart or tatty.  It was OK for my day’s work.  But it had a reputation and new occupants never learned about a so-called ‘jinx’ until a particular event occurred.  No-one was ever given a heads-up or advance warning, people just watched and waited.  And that, as you will see, was a little unfair.

Some months later I was settled into a really enjoyable role and making it my own, enhancing services and innovating as I went.  Then I discovered that I was pregnant.  Not surprising you might say for a young married woman.  However, it wasn’t exactly in the plan at that point so I wasn’t looking forward to explaining the situation to my boss.  His response absolutely astounded me.  Don’t worry about it, he said with a smile, the last four people who have used that chair have all become pregnant.  And everyone else in the department started chuckling and saying they wondered how long it would take for the chair to do its work.  Excuse me???

Leaving aside the amusement value for my work fellows, with hindsight my story raises an important question about what organisations know collectively and how much is passed on as accepted behaviour during induction processes.  My visits to a wide variety of organisations these days seem to indicate that ‘known issues’ are often tolerated for quite long periods – even the old wives’ tales.

Now the most important aspects of any induction process are to tell people what to expect and how to behave when working for your organisation. Keeping secrets from them is not, therefore, going to do anyone any favours.  You might say that folklore isn’t covered by a formal induction process and that may be so but unless and until a new employee understands the organisation’s culture and ways of working, they are going to find it hard to fit in and/or do their job effectively.

From the organisation’s side, it makes sense to aim to prevent losing staff for foreseeable reasons.  After all, you have to invest in bringing them up to speed until such time as they become useful parts of the team. It also makes absolute sense to ensure that there is consistency in inductions for all levels of staff – give or take the context and content of the role. 

What other things are foreseeable if they happen time and again? 

Perhaps knowing that the work relations in a particular department continue to be poor.  This can cause real headaches.  But there is always more than one way to tackle something of this nature.  There may be a single cause or perhaps the staff are uncomfortable because of the dynamics between the team members or because the personality or work traits of the person in charge of the department leave something to be desired.

Or are you receiving lots of complaints relating to a particular activity or service you provide?  Have you taken a long hard look at the process from the consumer end, how are they being treated, how long are they waiting, are you communicating well enough, is the final product worth waiting for?

If you know you have a problem in a particular area, why wouldn’t you expend some energy to fix it or change something which will eliminate the issue, i.e. get rid of the ‘jinxed’ chair? 

Not all organisations are good at being so objective.

This is where a fresh and unbiased pair of eyes can help.  Asking someone who doesn’t know the organisation’s history can be a distinct advantage by being totally objective.

It can be awkward to face up to problems which have been around for a while.  So if you would like to discuss any of these ideas further or need assistance with finding a way forward, then do contact me.  It’s probably not going to be as difficult as you think.

I wish I was a little egg ....

Way back in the Dark Ages (top years of primary school actually) I had a wonderful English teacher.  Her name was Mrs Howse and her lessons were a joy.  She had a way of making her point by making us laugh and sharing her wonder at the way language could help us understand different and often deeper concepts.  Obviously, I didn’t get that back then but I do so appreciate it now.  I have loved this magical little ditty ever since she taught it to us:

‘I wish I was a little egg

Way up in a tree

Sitting in my little nest

As rotten as could be.

I wish that you would come along

And stand beneath that tree

And I would up and burst myself

And cover thee with me.’

-          Anon

She used to recite the last couple of lines with absolute relish and we would howl with laughter every time so it really stuck.  Somehow in the middle of all this she would convey the truth – that we can’t always do what we would really like to do because it might have repercussions for us personally, however good it felt at the time.  She was a very wise woman.

There have been times in the last year when I have been forcibly reminded of this poem and its associated life lesson.  So, I offer it here in the hope that it will raise a smile and you find it useful as you go through your working day and then find yourself able to laugh at the provocations, not fall into the reaction trap.

In terms of professionalism or personal integrity, it’s hard to express that doing what you want to do at any moment has consequences, whether you have cause to react or not.  Every personal decision has repercussions and, if we react to provocation in a way that diminishes us, then we are forever changed – and not for the better.  If we make bad or wrong decisions, they can diminish us personally and in the eyes of those around us. So, when the provocation strikes – and it inevitably will – the best route is to try to take a deep breath and pause or count to 5 or whatever you do to give yourself that essential moment to think clearly about your next action.  You won’t regret it.  I still shudder when I think back to an incident many years ago, when I reacted angrily to extreme provocation in the workplace and I regret it to this day.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Over the years, I have searched in vain for the poem's author but have been unable to find one. Perhaps Mrs Howse wrote it herself or maybe you know differently.  If so, I'd love to hear from you. 

Ask them ‘Why?’

A recurring theme in organisations I’ve been working with lately is how to deal with the challenges posed in keeping board members on track and on message.

Try this illuminating exercise.  Take a minute to mentally review all your current and previous board members.  Can you identify one particular characteristic that they might share, the one common denominator which brought them onto your board in the first place?  I’d be willing to bet that in the majority of cases it will be their passion for their profession, their cause or for your organisation in representing that one thing that is so important to them. 

So, they choose to become involved in the hope of doing some good or, perhaps, encouraging what they see as necessary changes.  Once they are embarked as working board members, the challenge for any organisation is to maintain that passion and to channel it for everyone’s benefit.

Unfortunately, the reasons they got involved in the first place can, over time, be heavily outweighed by the demands of the role if the extent of their responsibilities or the expected commitment becomes blurred in some way.  That blurring can take many forms but frequent examples include:

·         Lack of clarity in what precisely they are being asked to contribute

·         Lack of clarity in their precise role and responsibilities

·         No exact definition of how much time they are being asked to contribute

·         Lack of clarity in where authority for any and all decisions is held

·         Regularly asking board members to carry out operational tasks or roles because staff resource is too low.

These excessive or unclear demands on board member time and personal resource, coupled with fuzzy expectations, can leave them uneasy or unsure of what they should actually be doing.  This can, of course, lead to misconceptions and miscommunications and, at worst, a view that someone is interfering inappropriately.  Just to offer a word of caution – ‘negative passion’ can be expressed in destructive ways. If an individual feels stymied or frustrated then the results can be unpredictable but are often the exact opposite of what you really want to be happening.

So do you believe that your board still has balance or have things become skewed in some way?  It can be a very uneasy feeling if you believe that you are not getting the best out of your board.  So here is something simple for you to try, either next time your board meets or perhaps as an offsite exercise.

Ask them why they remain on the board and why they are still happy to offer their time and commitment.

This might also be a good time to remind them about their official role and responsibilities and ensure that they have sufficient training to deliver against expectations - from both your and their perspectives. 

These exercises can provide some interesting daylight moments. Finding someone who is involved for unexpected reasons could explain any difficult ‘politics’ that the board might be experiencing; or why a particular individual never turns up or doesn’t read board papers in advance of meetings. If this clarity doesn’t provide sufficient impetus for improvement then you might consider performance reviews – but that’s for another day.

Either way, you will have a great opportunity to express how extremely grateful you are for their continuing contribution.   A little appreciation goes a long way.

If you would like to discuss any of these ideas further or need assistance with implementation, then do contact me.  I’d love to help.

New ways to spot old problems (or what a baguette tells us about professionalism)

Some people think professionalism is a very obscure subject.  What does it mean, why is it relevant, how can it help my career?

By far the best way to understand its value and meaning is to take a look at how people behave in a variety of circumstances, both at work and in their personal lives, and to reflect on whether their behaviours lead us to make some assumptions about them.  Are they people you would trust, would they be likely to complete work on time, would they consider others' feelings in a difficult situation?

Consider the following real-life scenario;

Two colleagues decide to take their lunch break together after working together all morning.  Following a swift discussion about the dismal weather they decide to go to the local coffee shop as it is quite close by.  One guy buys a filled baguette but no drink while the other has coffee and a sandwich.  They sit facing each other at a table with four seats.  Baguette guy wolfs his lunch down in a very few bites while the other guy takes his time with his sandwich and leisurely waits for his coffee to cool down.  Not a word has been exchanged.  As soon as he has finished eating, baguette guy gets out his iPhone and proceeds to work on his messages without looking up or interrupting himself or acknowledging the other guy's presence in any way.  15 minutes go by.  Coffee guy is now looking around and indulging in a spot of people watching as if sitting at the table on his own.  When he finishes his lunch he also gets out his phone, glances at it briefly and puts it away.  They leave together, discussing work issues.

What do you make of this scene?  If they were colleagues of yours or you were their boss then what conclusions might you draw about the behaviour of each and what, if anything, might you be tempted to do as a result of what you have seen?

Case studies and stories from real-life give us some eye-opening information to work with as a means to unpack the huge variety of characteristics and attitudes which combine in each and every one of us.  Are you displaying as many professionalism characteristics as you think you are? 

Would your organisation benefit from discussing these important areas together?  

Give me a call if you want to talk about your conclusions from the scenario above or any other professionalism issue, I'd love to hear from you.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

When we look in the mirror we see what we have always seen.  It’s familiar and comfortable and we accept it as normal.  Things seldom change radically, everything looks normal. To our eyes nothing changes, even though we may have aged and things may have become a bit slack round the jawline or gone south a bit.  And we have all probably experienced that ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’ moment when we are a bit optimistic about what looks back at us because self-criticism is hard isn’t it!

So what does your organisation see when it looks in the mirror?  Do you ever look?  Why would you look?  What would tempt you to look closer?

Because that’s what a governance, strategic or procedural review or audit is designed to do.  It holds up a mirror for your organisation to look into and then reflect on what is happening.  The really clever bit here is that this mirror talks back and tells you the truth.  So why would you not try it and see what can be achieved?

Logic says that all organisations must evolve.  So if you have an inkling – or maybe a huge gut instinct – that your mirror is not quite telling you the truth then we would be happy to look a little deeper with you.  Your first call to us will discover whether it is indeed review time and, even better, is free-of-charge.

It is simply not possible for everything to be the same as it always was but we know the future can and should be much better.  

Imagine how relaxed you'll be!

Good heavens! Suddenly it’s summer.  Diaries are starting to clear and the ‘out-of-office’ messages are starting to multiply as people disappear for their holiday breaks.  Even the sun has made a brief appearance. 

I’ve always looked forward to this time of year as a great space to recharge my internal batteries. If you are lucky enough to be taking a break or even for those of us still at work, this is a great opportunity to slow down a bit, catch up on some thinking time and carve out some equally precious reading time.

As the saying goes, ‘so many books – so little time’.  So what to read?  Well, it is summer after all and you probably want to start with something relaxing, perhaps that fabulous novel you were given at Christmas? But after that, perhaps something relevant for work or enhancing your own skills?

Having difficulties with change at work?  Try ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ by Dr Spencer Johnson.

Having trouble getting stuff done?  Try ’18 Minutes’ by Peter Bregman

Want to make sure that everyone gets it right first time?  You must read ‘The Checklist’ by Atul Gawande.    In fact, I think everyone should read this book ….

Or perhaps ask a colleague or line manager which book they would recommend.  It could start a great discussion. 

I hope your recharging will be most enjoyable and get you ready for what’s next.  Happy reading!

It's all just so complicated

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a weird conversation at work and wondered how you got there?  Could it have been caused by colleagues talking at cross purposes?

The job and recruitment site, Reed, has again published its list of the 10 most annoying phrases used in the workplace and, as usual, it applies to all kinds of organisations.  And the winner is ….. ‘Can I borrow you for a sec’, with a massive 41% of the sample believing it is the most overused, irritating and frustrating phrase heard in the workplace.  You may or may not agree with their conclusions.  

While you are sure to find your own personal favourites among the list, they raise another important problem - the overuse of jargon and the misunderstandings that can occur when we assume or pretend to know what they actually mean.  This is a perennial problem and shows no sign of going away any time soon.  The survey tells us it is now even further complicated by the use of online terms creeping into the real world.  Not a happy prospect.  


He said 'The new governance made a difference'

The benefits of great governance made it to the BBC breakfast show business slot yesterday.  What a change from the gloom of all the stories about boards malfunctioning or in meltdown!

In an interview about the turnaround in the fortunes and future well-being of the Co-operative Group their Chief Executive, Richard Pennycook, stated that they owed their achievements to their refreshed governance arrangements.  The excellent new board that had been put in place had been able to power their new strategy forward .

With its 170-year history, this very mature membership organisation was facing a very bleak future – or perhaps no future at all.  Then its new Chief Executive decided to fundamentally re-examine what the organisation was doing and how it was doing it.  Not an easy task and it didn’t happen without a fairly noisy soundtrack.  However, as a result, the governance structures and processes underwent a somewhat radical ‘refresh’.  The results have been more than impressive, taking the organisation out of decline and probably into a very positive future.

Obviously this is not the only membership organisation with a very long history but it is this very maturity which can pose the greatest challenges in how to meet member needs and try to exceed member expectations today.  Staleness and the effects of ‘but we always do it this way’  can be very difficult to counter.  It can take some bravery to face the fact that a review must be the way forward but the results, as we can see, can be outstanding.  Your members will certainly thank you.

If your organisation has reached that point then delaying the inevitable can be costly. So, if you need a place to start, just pick up the phone and talk to someone external and completely unbiased who will be able to help you make a start. Or you may like to try our  "Non-Profit Health Check Quick Quiz" before you call.  Either way, you will be making a great start.

"The GGF Group had grown rapidly and our governance and structure had not kept pace.  We approached Susie Kay from The Professionalism Group to assist us to move forward.  Susie’s knowledge and experience in the field of Trade Federations was invaluable.  Her pleasant and approachable manner meant the employees were at ease and spoke freely to her allowing her to reach her conclusions.  Her advice and guidance has been invaluable and it has allowed us to commence the process to make the necessary changes to our governance and operations to allow us to proceed.’   Nigel Rees, Group Chief Executive, Glass and Glazing Federation

Great governance - what are you waiting for?

As the old year fades into memory, the Third Sector as a whole realises that the issue of less than great governance is a price that no organisation should be prepared to pay.  In fact, as last year’s very public examples demonstrate, having less than optimum arrangements does organisations no good at all.  It can make them stagnant and internalised and can impede the important work they want and need to carry out on behalf of members, those they represent or those they exist to help.  More than a few organisations, or their controlling boards, suspect that things could be better but haven’t tackled the problem yet.  So what should they be doing right now?

The answer is to agree that this is the year they get it right.  In most cases, all that is required is a review and, potentially, a small refresh or adjustment.  Governance reviews should ideally happen every couple of years but sadly many organisations will admit to a dozen or so years having passed since the last one.  Granted, in some cases, something a little more root and branch will be the conclusion but it’s still no reason to put off starting to look at how things are going.

Unfortunately, results aren’t achieved by wishful thinking.  It takes a serious ‘stand-up-and-be-counted’ moment for a Chief Executive or a board member to insist that the work must start today.  It is so easy to put off in the general busy and worry of day-to-day business.  It is too easy to adopt Scarlett O’Hara’s attitude of ‘I’ll think about it tomorrow.  After all, tomorrow is another day’.  We had plenty of examples, both minor and horrendous, of the results of that attitude last year.  It is worth remembering that members of governing bodies must accept overall responsibility for proper administration of their organisation as well as having a responsibility to act  in the best interests of the organisation at all times.

Starting something that has the potential to create significant change can be very intimidating.  But you might find that it’s not really that bad at all. We also know that having only internal voices in the conversation can limit your thinking.  So just pick up the phone and talk to someone external and completely unbiased who will be able to help you make a start.  

"Susie’s knowledge, her perception and ability to translate into a new Corporate Governance environment which should stand for the next ten years, was exemplary. The Board and Management of FSDF will continue to seek Susie’s advice from time to time on specific issues, but believe that given the quality of work already completed, that will be on rare occasions.”                                                  - Chris Sturman FCILT, FRSA, Chief Executive, Food Storage & Distribution Federation