Plotting Your Career Success: Ladders Versus Expanders

Career Races are mostly run in a Zig-Zag Line

The last time I met Ray Gamell was about 3 years ago in Abu Dhabi. I was passing through the city on a different mission and called to see him for a chat about Ethihad Airways. I’ve admired Ray for many years and was doubly delighted when he was recently announced as the interim CEO of the airline, having been promoted from the role of HR Director. Ray demonstrated leadership from his earliest days in the Irish Army, in Intel, Ulster Bank and, more recently, in the Middle East. It’s nice to see the Good Guys winning (at least sometimes).

Formal Apprenticeship: Contrast that with a conversation last week with another excellent HR practitioner. A new HR Director had been appointed – an internal promotion, but someone from outside the function. My lunch-buddy was making the point that this just wouldn’t happen in finance or marketing. His thesis: people ‘serve an apprenticeship’ within a function and get rewarded by seizing the top spot on the functional ladder at some point. Accountants eventually become Financial Comptrollers, then Finance Directors and so on. But was he correct? Should you stay within your own discipline or ‘jump across and do something else?

Pfizer Leadership: For the past 3 years, Cathy Buffini and I have been working with the senior engineers across Pfizer globally. There’s no ‘parish pump politics’ at play here. It’s definitely not about who you know. It’s not even about what you know. It’s all about what you deliver. As part of this engagement, we’ve interviewed a range of senior executives (engineers and others) about their careers – the good, the bad and the ugly. What worked. What didn’t. Tripwires that could have been avoided. Key Point: So many of the engineers ‘crossed-over’ into other functions (Manufacturing, Quality, HR) that we lost count. And they also moved internationally. In other words, they were expanders (moving sideways as parallel opportunites presented) – not ladderers (waiting for the next more senior position in engineering to open up). The route up the corporate mountain is often a zig-zag climb, seldom a straight line.

Your Career: In thinking about your own career, you might do well to consider the ultimate destination, sometimes referred to as the ‘step after next.’ Like playing chess, you need to think two or even three moves ahead (in the corporate world, the pieces move around the chessboard suprisingly quickly). Every year (for the past 6 years) MERC Partners publish an ‘Executive Expectations’ survey which always makes for interesting reading. In the latest (2017) survey 59% of executives stated they were much more open to switching roles. People are starting to ‘get it.’

One Caveat: But, there’s one thing to be mindful of. According to Sir William Osler (a Canadian physician,  one of the icons of modern medicine): “The best way to take care of tomorrow, is to do today’s job superbly well.” Even if your current role is somewhat modest and falls short of being a dream job, you need to over-deliver on this. Career success is the ability to manage a dual-timeframe. Planning for tomorrow – while making sure that you deliver today. My personal belief is that the ‘best time to apply for a job – is one year before it’s advertised.’ In other words, you apply for a promotional role, in advance, by delivering a brilliant performance on the job you hold today.

Alternative Strategy: Of course, you can always pursue an alternative strategy. You can tell your boss: “I’m underperforming in my current role, because it doesn’t really suit me. But hey, as soon as I get promoted I will ‘over-perform’ in the new (more interesting, more complex, better paid) role.”  Good luck with making that sale!

Get Wide: In thinking about the future, don’t just see tomorrow as a linear expansion from what you studied or where you are today. Don’t allow a study choice you made as a teenager, set the boundaries on your life. There’s a world of career possibility out there. Go ‘wide’ and grab it.


PS Lighter Notes: This week’s offerings are from Larry McGivern (look away now if you are of a nervous disposition!).


If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,

If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,

If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,

If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,

If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,

If you can conquer tension without medical help,

If you can relax without alcohol,

If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,

Then You Are Probably The Family Dog!


A heavy-set girl served me in McDonald’s at lunchtime.  She said: ‘Sorry about the wait’.

I said: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll find a way to lose it eventually’.


A 10-year-old Irish boy stands crying at the side of the road.  A man passing asks:

‘What’s wrong, lad?’

The boy says: ‘Me ma died this morning.’

‘Oh bejaysus,’ the man says.  ‘Do you want me to call Father O’Reilly?’

The boy replies: ‘No thanks mister. Sex is the last thing on my mind at the moment.’

Air Stewardess (from Aidan Cahill):  The blonde flight attendant saw a suspicious looking couple on board, so she reported it to the Captain immediately.

“Sir, I think we have a case of human trafficking! There is a very
pretty, hot  female passenger on board, who looks quite
frightened. The man she is with is fat and looks like a
lecher, very sullen, mean and dangerous!”

The captain responds: “Patricia, I’ve told you this before. This is Air Force One…”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.



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Here – Kitty, Kitty: Tell me what you are great at!

“Would you like to share my lunch?”

It was one of those nights. A combination of music, fun and a large drop of alcohol had ‘opened up the emotional pores.’   We were flying without wings. Eventually, the conversation turned to the maddest/most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done (and would be happy to share). As the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohan said: most people have a public life, a private life and a secret life! (these high heels are killing me).

Isle of Man: One of the group told the following story. Some years back, he’d attended the Isle of Man TT races, the biggest biking event in the calendar. He’d travelled to the venue in a large camper van – which just happened to have a ‘half-door’ – similar to an old farmhouse you’d see in rural Ireland. They parked up at the side of a main thoroughfare. As the night was balmy, the ‘half-door’ was left open to let in air. But, this was misconstrued. People kept calling over to the Caravan asking for a menu, looking for late night food. So, in a moment of inspiration, they opened two tins of Kitty Cat (food for his cat in Dublin was stored in the caravan) and they fed the masses. Apparently, the cat food went down a ‘bomb’ (they suggested that it was an old Turkish Kebab recipe). People complimented them on the unique flavour and the fact that they were distributing free food! So outrageous, it’s actually funny.

Your Biggest Secret: In kicking off that conversation about the ‘maddest night in history’, I was inspired by a great talent. Irv Yalom is perhaps the world’s best-known psychotherapist. Yalom has conducted an experiment in 14 different countries asking his patients: “What’s the one thing that you would not want this group to know about you?”

Faced with this question, most people immediately think of some drunken escapade (like the Cat food story) or some sexual indiscretion. But, when you discount those one-off stories, the issue that stands head and shoulders above everything else is as follows: ‘I wouldn’t like this group to know that I’m not as confident as they think I am.’ In other words, a red thread of insecurity is hard wired into most of us – across all cultures.   At times, almost everyone feels insecure and unsure – despite our (sometimes) outward bravado. For some, it’s a constant dread. It’s as if the air leaks out of our ‘confidence tyre’ and continually needs to be pumped up.

Building Confidence: In the executive coaching world this issue continually resurfaces. I meet executives who, by implication, are smart enough to get into senior roles. Many have 2 kids, 3 cars and 4 houses. Most have more degrees than a thermometer. But what do they want to talk about? Deficiencies. Things they are ‘brutal’ at. Where they’ve screwed up. And so on. I have to work hard to remind them that their success brought them into the room in the first place. We focus on what’s working really well, alongside what’s broken. In the great song W.O.L.D. (about a regretful DJ), Harry Chapin sings:

“Sometimes I get this crazy dream to just drive off in my car

But you can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are”

In other words, we ‘carry the world inside our head’ – regardless of where we live or our external circumstances. In terms of building happiness, gaining confidence is Job #1. This is not narcissism or false bravado. It’s about building an inner security, a quiet self-belief. And, here’s the bonus. If you acquire this, you have a good chance of passing on confidence to your kids through role modeling.If confidence is on your worry agenda, do something to fix it.

Some people are so busy rescuing others, that they don’t look after themselves. In your mission to ‘save the world’, working on yourself is an excellent starting point. As they say in the airline safety demonstrations: Put your own mask on first.


Ps Lighter Notes: Eclectic mix of stuff today… from the pen of Aidan Cahill (look away now if you are sensitive…) 

A Woman’s Dog is Drowning in the Sea. A passing German Dwarf

dives in, pulls out the Dog, resuscitates it & saves its life.

“Are you a Little Vet?” Asked the Woman

“A Little Vet?” said the German Dwarf. “I’m f**king soaked”!

Blond Jokes (Brunettes secretly love them): A blonde gets a job as a teacher. She notices a boy in the field standing alone, while all the other kids are running around having fun. She takes pity on him and wanders across the yard.

‘You ok?’ she says.

‘Yep.’ he says.

‘You can go and play with the other kids you know.’ she says.

‘It’s best I stay here.’ he says.

‘Why?’ says the blonde.

The boy says: ‘Because, I’m the goalie’

Tim O Neill suggested the following Oxymoron’s…

  • Clearly misunderstood
  • Exact estimate
  • Small crowd
  • Pretty ugly
  • Only choice
  • Act naturally
  • Found missing
  • Fully empty
  • Seriously funny
  • Original copies
  • Happily married (that’s his personal favourite)

 From Cillian Mooney (there’s hope for that lad yet!).

 Wife says to her Programmer husband: “Go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, buy a dozen.” The husband returned with 12 loaves of bread.

 My friend said to me: “What rhymes with Orange?” I replied: “No, it doesn’t.”

“I told my girlfriend she drew her eyebrows too high. She seemed surprised.”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.

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Leadership In Action: Telling Great Change Stories

Leadership & Storytelling are linked

Do you remember any nursery rhymes from when you were a child? Here’s one that sticks in my mind. It was sung to us as we were going to sleep:

“Tell me a story

Tell me a story

Tell me a story

And then I’ll go to bed

You’d better give in, you said you would

You’d better give in and I’ll be good

Tell me a story

And then I’ll go to bed.”

It was a bit of fun at the end of each day – a tradition that I was happily able to keep alive with my own kids when they were younger. They claim zero memory of this but can vividly recall all the arguments!

Easter Eggs: A couple of weeks back, my sisters were talking about the fact that minding younger children can sometimes feel relentless as the kids can be fairly demanding. One sister relayed the following story about a neighborhood Granny who’d died just before Easter. It’s always difficult to know how to explain death to children. Some of the adults in the family were trying to explain loss to her 8-year-old grandson, helping him make sense of this. After listening intently, the child replied: “It’s not that bad really.” When asked to explain (they assumed that the answer was going to be about ‘old’ people dying or something involving ‘going to heaven’) the child said. “It’s not really sad because she bought me a huge Easter Egg before she died.”

There you go. Sorted! What can you do only marvel at the sheer depth of self-interest. It’s only the fear of costly litigation that stops me telling you several ‘adult’ versions of that Easter Egg story.

Self Interest: One of the downsides of becoming an Executive is that some people (a) feel they can talk about themselves without pause and/or interrupt others as often as they want (b) that they could have been a stand-up comedian – as minions always laugh at their punch-lines and (c) they are ‘entitled’ to excellent service in every area of their life. I sat (embarrassed, but said nothing), as an executive recently sent back her coffee 3 times – until she achieved some exact ‘consistency’ of the frothed milk (it was a mystery to both myself and the waiter).

Story Power: Now, I could have made the point that all kids (and some executives) are inherently selfish. But, because we all know that anyway, the delivery needed a new twist. Telling the Dead Granny/Easter Egg story brings the selfishness point alive. But, it can’t be the ‘same old stories’ all the time. Being in the ‘storyteller’ role is a bit like being Elizabeth Taylor’s 7th husband. Broadly speaking, you know what to do, but you have to make it interesting!

Water Charges: The biggest Irish political story over the past 2-3 years has been the effort to make citizens pay for water. We pay for electricity. We pay to have our bins collected. We pay for gas, coal and wood. But water was a new charge to be imposed. The sheer uproar this caused, the levels of protest generated, the impact on the Irish political landscape and so on will be the subject of dissertations for years to come. In a recent book (The Million Dollar Decision: How Education Changes Lives), I wrote about this in some detail. Space considerations won’t allow a repeat of all of the arguments here. But at the heart of this debacle, the ‘story’ of Irish Water became hopelessly confused. Was this an environmental issue (‘polluter pays’ principle), an engineering issue (“We need to invest in new water infrastructure”), a way to increase general taxation (“The right-wing government sticking it to us again”) or a response to a legal European Union Directive (The Water Framework)? These points became hopelessly entangled in a myriad of counter-claims: the water system would be ‘privatized’ as in the UK; Denis O’Brien was ‘pushing’ this agenda with his friends in Fine Gael as he owned the company installing the meters; widows and orphans would be ‘cut-off’ from water supplies and would not be able to live the hygienic life that we’ve all become accustomed to. The pushback from the politicians was that ‘water’ had become a conduit for every ‘left-wing whinger’ in the country along the lines of the Rex Hudler quote: “Be a fountain, not a drain” And so on, ad infinitum, the dialogue of the deaf continued.  And still rolls on.

Storyboarding Change: Managerially, there is a lesson for all of us in the water charges mess. You can’t bring about change unless you can ‘tell the story of the change’ in a way that represents a compelling truth. Compelling = it has to have a blinding strategic logic. Truth = it has to be believable. Screw up the ‘story’ and nothing happens (or worse i.e. you go backwards). When faced with making the ‘case’ around an internal organization change – you essentially face the same dilemma as Irish politicians trying to introduce water charges. While there are normally arguments for the ‘new’, sometimes, there are compelling arguments to stick with what exists today (the old).

Bottom Line: Learn how to tell your story well. Becoming great at storytelling is leadership in action. Get yourself some media training and learn how to do this. In my experience, CEO’s either ‘make their case’ or ‘pack their case.’ The choice is yours.


PS Story of the Week: Met a guy last week who grew up in a ‘poor’ area.  He said: “Our house was so small, that when my mother peeled onions, the bloke next door was crying.”

PPS Lighter Note:  Subject: From Amie Mooney in Australia. The Irish abroad seem to be ‘more Irish’ than those of us left here rusting in the rain. Here’s a few from my daughter….

Be Discreet: Six retired Irishmen were playing poker in O’Leary’s apartment, when Paddy Murphy loses $500 on a single hand, clutches his chest, and drops dead at the table. Showing respect for their fallen brother, the others continue to play while standing up. Michael O’Conner looks around and asks:

“Okay, boys, someone’s got to tell Paddy’s wife. Who will it be?”

They draw straws. Paul Gallagher picks the short one. They tell him to be discreet, be gentle, don’t make a bad situation worse.

”Discreet!!! I’m the most discreet man you’ll ever meet. Discretion is me middle name. Leave it to me.”

Gallagher goes over to Murphy’s house and knocks on the door. When Mrs. Murphy answers, Gallagher declares, “Your husband just lost $500, and is afraid to come home.”

“Tell him to drop dead!”, says Murphy’s wife.

”I’ll tell him.” says Gallagher.

Fight Back: 
Into a Belfast pub comes Paddy Murphy, looking like he’d just been run over by a train. His arm is in a sling, his nose is broken, his face is cut, and bruised, and he’s walking with a limp.

“What happened to you?” asks Sean, the barman.

“Jamie O’Conner and me had a fight,” says Paddy.

“That little f**ker O’Conner,” says Sean, “He couldn’t do that to you, he must have had something in his hand.”

“That he did,” says Paddy, “a shovel is what he had, and a terrible lickin’ he gave me with it.”

“Well,” says Sean, “you should have defended yourself. Didn’t you have something in your hand?”

”I did,” said Paddy, “Mrs. O’Conner’s breast, and a thing of beauty it was; but absolutely useless in a fight!”

Guinness is Good for You: Brenda O’Malley is home making dinner, as usual, when Tim Finnegan arrives at the door:

“Brenda, may I come in?” he asks. “I’ve somethin’ to tell ya”.

“Of course, you’re always welcome, Tim. But where’s my husband?”

“That’s what I’m here to be telling ya, Brenda. There was an accident down at the brewery”

“Oh, God no!” cries Brenda.

“Yes, your husband Shamus is dead and gone I’m sorry”

Finally, she looked up at Tim. “How did it happen, Tim?”

“It was terrible, Brenda. He fell into a vat of Guinness and drowned.”

“Oh dear Jesus! But tell me true, Tim, did he at least go quickly?”

“Well, Brenda, no. In fact, he got out three times to pee.”

From the irrepressible Joe Kenny… The “Agony Aunt’ Column

Dear Abby,

I have never written to you before, but I really need your advice. I have suspected for some time now that my wife has been cheating on me. I’m seeing the usual signs – phone rings but if I answer, the caller hangs up. My wife has been going out with “the girls” a lot recently, although when I ask their names she always says “Just some friends from work, you don’t know them.” I try to stay awake and watch for her when she comes home, but I usually fall asleep. Anyway, I have never broached the subject with my wife.

I think deep down I just didn’t want to know the truth. But last night she went out again and I decided to finally check on her around midnight. I hid in the garage behind my golf clubs so I could get a good view of the whole street when she arrived home from a night out with “the girls.” When she got out of the car she was buttoning up her blouse, which was open, and she took her underwear out of her purse and slipped them on.

It was at that moment, crouching behind my golf clubs, that I noticed a hairline crack where the grip meets the graphite shaft on my Ping G30 driver. Is this something I can fix myself, or should I take it back to the PGA Superstore?


Concerned Golfer

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


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 The Leadership Conundrum: Doing the Right Thing Takes Effort

In Portugal, Nicole (our youngest) was doing an overnight at Pony Camp. Linda and I had a ‘night off’ and could eat where we wanted to – for a change. Duas Passoes is a recently renovated fish restaurant, affording beautiful sea and sunset views. Having pre-holiday made a vow to ‘eat healthily’, this was my moment to shine. I chose Dorado from the extensive fish menu. It never occurred to me to ask how it would be served…

Full-On: When the fish arrived, I started to work on it. Hey, no-one told me that Dorado have 15,267 bones (something like that anyway). I’m not sure if this would be labeled a gastronomic experience. More like a practice session for an intricate branch of micro-surgery. To make matters worse, I couldn’t remember if Linda understood the subtleties of the Heimlich Manoeuver. After a half bottle of Pino Grigio, I wasn’t confident of a well-executed rescue (assuming she’d want to perform this). I ended up essentially ‘pulping the fish’ into a sort of baby food consistency to avoid choking. The next night, I had a burger,  focusing on conversation rather than evisceration. I know, I know. Philistine.

Management Rewards: It struck me afterwards that the same broad principle applies in management. Most managers want to ‘have the rewards’ but some are not prepared to invest the time to get this. Often they are afraid of the unpopularity of the quest. They look for easy solutions, low hanging fruit, quick fixes – the ‘fast management’ equivalent of fast food. It’s reminiscent of the quip from Charles Handy: “Governments often know what they should do, but not how to get re-elected after doing it” (The Second Curve). But, as managers, we don’t have to get ‘re-elected’ so we can’t use that particular excuse. Most of us have not cultivated what the author Tim Ferriss described as: “Developing  the habit of letting small bad things happen.” (in order to stay focused on BIG issues).

Doing the right thing requires effort. Sometimes very unpopular effort. The best leaders understand the need to install ‘water meters’ and then figure out how to make them work. You can’t select the ‘nice bits’ of your job, pushing the other bits to the side of the plate and ignoring them. Leadership is a package of elements – not all of them palatable. We all enjoy  the ‘fillet of leadership.’ But figuring out how to remove the bones is why we’re paid the big bucks. And that’s what makes our jobs so fantastically interesting. When you tackle the difficult issues, the intellectual and emotional stretch felt is both a frustration and a reward. It presupposes that you’ve ‘chosen’ the right issue from the managerial menu.  In the poem: ‘The Time Before Death’, Kabir offers one great line: “If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think ghosts will do it after?”

Go out there and don’t be afraid. Fillet that fish!


Quick Apology: The last ‘blog communication’ sent was a repeat of an earlier communication. I could blame a technical hitch or some outsource provider – but it was my own fault. Sorry about any confusion caused and thanks for keeping up with the blogs.

True Story: Giving Feedback (Ouch!) My brother Anthony, coaches a junior soccer team in Winnipeg. The main coach, a Scottish guy, is what might be described as a straight shooter. He has tons of experience coaching soccer at all levels. During one team meeting, this young kid wouldn’t stop asking questions. “Can I play up front?”: “We’ll see”; “I could play in the middle”: “We’ll work it out!”; “I used to play at left-full. That would be a good position for me”: The coach, exasperated, said: “Listen kid, someday you are going to go home and all the lights will be out in your house because your parents will have moved and not told you!”

PS Lighter Note: Some Sayings These are the printable versions…

  • If at first you don’t succeed, blame your parents.
  • Money can’t buy happiness. It can, however, rent it.
  • A financial wizard is someone who lives within their income.

Yorkshire Humour: Sticking with the international flavour, how about a couple from Yorkshire…

The Cat: Man from Yorkshire takes his cat to the vet: “Ay up, lad, I need to talk to thee about me cat.”

Vet: “Is it a tom?”

Yorkshireman: “Nay, I’ve browt it with us.”

The Dog: 
A Yorkshireman’s dog dies. As it was a favourite pet he decides to have a gold statue made by a Jeweller to help him remember the dog.

Yorkshireman: “Can tha mek us a gold statue of yon dog?”

 Jeweller: “Do you want it 18 carat?”

Yorkshireman: “No I want it chewin’ a bone yer daft F**K!”

The Chemist: Bloke from Barnsley with piles asks a chemist: “Nah then lad, does tha sell arse cream?”

 Chemist replies: “Yes, Magnum or Cornetto?”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


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Training Tricks: Keeping Everyone ‘On Board’

Training course participants have become ever-more sophisticated consumers. It’s the ‘MTV’ generation – an expectation of sound & vision, content and entertainment. They want lots of time to catch up on emails; some want to ‘stay connected’ to the Mother Ship at all times – pleading either importance (“You’ve no idea how much pressure I’m under”) or crisis (“If we don’t get this deal over the line, we’ll be wallpapering the factory with P45’s”). It’s tricky to manage. Participants on training programmes are essentially customers and have to be respected. But…having people coming and going can be disruptive – both for them and for others on the course. While there’s no absolute answer to this dilemma – in the past I’ve distributed the following note to new people joining a programme. See what you make of it…

Nxxdxd Vxry Much

Xvxn though my typxwritxr is an old modxl, it works quitx wxll xxcxpt for onx kxy. Thxrx arx 46 kxys that function wxll xnough, but just onx not working makxs thx diffxrxncx.

Somxtimxs it sxxms that training groups arx somxwhat likx my typxwritxr. Not all thx kxys arx functioning propxrly. You may say:

“Wxll, I am only onx pxrson. It won’t makx much diffxrxncx”

 But, you sxx, to bx xffxctivx thx group nxxds thx activx participation of xvxry pxrson.

So, thx nxxt timx you think you arx only onx pxrson and that your xffort is not nxxdxd, rxmxmbxr my old typxwritxr and say to yoursxlf:

“I am a kxy pxrson and am nxxdxd vxry much”

Your Team: You don’t have to be a trainer to use this idea. Perhaps its time to tell your own crew – that everyone needs to ‘get back on the oars’.


PS Lighter Note: What’s for Lunch?

A large organization had recently hired several cannibals. After conducting a lengthy ‘Welcome Aboard’ orientation the Human Resource Director congratulated the cannibals and said, “You are all part of the team now! You get all of the benefits we have discussed and you can enjoy our company cafe free of charge! But please don’t eat any of the other employees.” The cannibals promised they wouldn’t.

After a few weeks the cannibal’s boss seemed very pleased, but also a little worried. She said: “You’re all working very hard, and I’m satisfied with you. However, one of our secretaries has disappeared. Do any of you know what happened to her?”

The cannibals all shook their heads, “No.”

After the boss had left, the leader of the cannibals was a bit angry and said, “Okay, which one of you dummies ate the secretary?” A hand rose hesitantly in admission.

“You fool!” said the Chief: “For weeks we’ve been eating managers and no one noticed anything, but no, you had to go and eat someone important!”

Inspirational Messages for you and your team…

If you do a good job and work hard, you may get a better job… someday.

The light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off due to budget cuts.

Doing a job RIGHT the first time gets the job done. Doing the job WRONG 14 times gives you job security.

Rome didn’t create a great empire by having meetings. They did it by killing all those that opposed them.

We put the “k” in “kwality”.

Teamwork means never having to take all the blame yourself.

Suggested lunchtime conversation with Millennials: “The elevator to success is out-of-order. You will have to take the stairs i.e. one step at a time.”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


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Working From Home: Upsides & Downsides

Calvin Klein Boxers. Your only man for home workers!

The call from RTE came at 18:00 on Thursday evening. Could I do a ‘slot’ on the following Saturday morning? The Topic: Working from home. In the radio business ‘long-range planning’ extends to about 48 hours – so it’s not unusual to get a last-minute call to action. The industrial relations consultant Dr. Liam Doherty (he’s great fun) argues that the only reason for going on radio is to keep someone else off air. So I said yes – and had to scramble to pull something together.

Not A New idea: Working from home is hardly a revolutionary new idea. The system where Merchants ‘put out’ materials to be worked on in the home was in place for hundreds of years. It changed in the 18th Century when the advent of steam made it economically viable to bring people into central locations (factories) to harness this new power. The banks and insurance companies later ‘aped’ this structure and essentially became the white-collar factories that they are today.

Personal Story: When I started working as a management consultant, we operated from a shared office on Northumberland Road in Ballsbridge. 20+ years ago, consulting was an ‘image business’ and you needed a good address – to make it seem that you weren’t coming up with brilliant ideas in your box bedroom. With the advent of the Internet, people now regularly work from home (or from Starbucks) and customers may actually resent ‘paying the overhead’ on a glamorous city centre office. So, should more people be encouraged to work from home? To come to a reasoned conclusion – you have to weight up the advantages & disadvantages from the employee and the company perspective. Here’s some ideas…

Employee Perspective

Shorter Commuting: Huge savings in time and in money e.g. petrol, wear & tear on a car. Example: A recent commute from Clontarf to Castleknock (about 10 miles) took me 2 hours in the Dublin traffic. That’s a lot of dead time if you had to do this every single day.

Less Stress: Stress is not the absolute amount of work you do – but the sense that you are in control of this. Psychologically, people feel more in control working from home – even for 1 day a week. Being able to run errands e.g. to pop around to the Supermarket – if you need to – decreases stress (and increases productivity).

Dress Code: You can ‘work happily in your dog walking gear’ (albeit some people still like to don the uniform). Less dry-cleaning bills! Less make-up (my lipstick bill has fallen dramatically).

Family Contact: There’s an opportunity to see more of your family e.g. have lunch with your partner. For working women, in particular, it might lower the guilt thermometer (a tiny bit; that needle seems pretty ‘stuck’).

Personal Space: Your home office can have a great layout. Put the copier where you want it, blast out Michael Bublé or fill the walls with pictures of your Granny skydiving. Offices can be noisy places.  In one of the Big 5 legal firms in Dublin – the desks are so close, staff are offered earmuffs to help them work in peace (I’m not joking).

Lower Costs: Commuting costs and food (lunch at €10 per day = €2500 pa = €4K gross). You can probably shave some costs by making your own skinny latte.

Downside for Staff: It’s not all good news. There’s a couple of counter-indicators:

Great Tools: People think that having access to high Internet speeds is only a problem in rural Ireland. A friend recently bought a new house in Rathfarnham and he had to drive to the local pub to get the Internet for almost 6 months. I know, I know. It sounds like a line from Father Ted – but this was actually the case.

Mental Health: Like Chimpanzees, humans enjoy social groupings. Some of our mental health comes from positive interaction with others. My guess is that this applies even more to younger workers who enjoy the social aspects of working. If you already have a solid social circle – e.g. 3 kids and 2 goldfish, then this may not be as important.

Always On: Working from home requires a degree of discipline to avoid some spill-over (a) you are ‘always on’ and never off work – albeit this point can also apply to office workers (b) Some people find it hard to ‘get going’ and keep putting on another wash, or spend the afternoon watching Jeremy Kyle. It’s useful to establish boundaries around this. It might seem a bit harsh, but I never encouraged my kids to come into the office during the day – unless it was something important. The Internet video that went viral (the guy completing the Skype interview in Korea) shows the importance of having boundaries.

Hidden Costs: There can be ‘hidden costs e.g. who’s responsible for computer maintenance and stationary? What about heat and light? Sometimes, people are overjoyed to ‘get the gig at home’ and don’t contract well around this.

Lower Visibility: One BIG (but hidden) downside is that home workers can become ‘invisible.’ They don’t know the inside gossip and opportunities. As a result, they can be by-passed or overlooked. Don’t hide your talent under a bushel!

Employer Perspective: From an employer’s perspective, what’s the skinny? Well – surprise surprise, there are also advantages and disadvantages to be navigated.

Higher Productivity: A recent HBR article found that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than staff in the office —meaning that the employer got almost an extra day a week in productivity. Less distractions. Less sick days + shorter breaks = a win-win solution.

Lower Costs: 70 Square foot per person costs between €4,000 and €16,000 per annum, depending on the office location and fit out. Some companies now use a Hot Desk system where people don’t have individualized spaces but ‘plug and play’ from a free slot – in much the same way as we rent hotel rooms for a single night. By rotating days off, the employer needs less office space and can save significant costs.

It’s Possible: Technology for conference calls is getting better and cheaper. A variety of mobile technologies (laptops, mobile phones) have made this possible. But just because a technology is available, doesn’t mean that people will use it. Some people don’t use Skype – not because of the technology – but because they don’t like looking at a picture of themselves on the screen (before i get a flood of emails – I know you can turn this off).

Staff Retention: People are reluctant to ‘go back’ to a full 9-5 commute. Offering employer differentiation can lead to reduced turnover. While the cost of labour turnover is seldom measured –  substantial recruitment and training lead times represent an enormous cost in some businesses.  In the War for Talent – getting good people can really give you an edge. Working from home – even for part of the week – might just be a lure.

Downside for Employers

Ceding Control: The biggest downside for Managers is learning to let go. There are some Dinosaur Managers who want people at their desk every single day at the crack of dawn. It’s presenteeism. Some years back, I completed a project in Pakistan Railways for the World Bank. Outside one of the offices, I noticed a guy continually pressing the same key on an old-fashioned typewriter. He’d actually worn out one key on the typewriter from ‘false typing’ trying to look busy. The exact same point applies in all companies. Unless they complete a very measurable job e.g. writing X lines of computer code, it’s impossible to fully ‘supervise’ knowledge workers – people with enormous discretion about how they perform their role.  ‘They’re at their desk, therefore I’m in control’ is a nonsense idea.

Lower Innovation: A lot of innovation is driven by team-working and shared spaces/collaboration. Some of this can be planned. Some is ad-hoc and can be lost when people work from home. Arguably, some productivity is driven by competition with peers and this may also be sacrificed (solution: plan central ‘events’ that everyone attends).

Information Security: You have to ensure that the systems being used are data protected e.g. the transfer of emails, access to files by visitors to the home and so on.

Organising Meetings: It can be tricky to line up all the diaries. This is sometimes done through mandatory attendance on particular days e.g. Wednesday.

The Conclusion: Overall, I’m sold on the idea that staff should work from home a couple of days a week where this is possible. Great work can be done in almost any location.   Just recently, I did an excellent job for a client (even if I say so myself) – while sitting in McDonalds in Finglas sipping a skinny latte. The quality of the work is seldom a function of the decor of the office (unless the place is really bad). The upsides of working from home (at least some of the time), far outweigh the downsides. Why not try it on an experimental basis and then make up your own mind.


PS Lighter Notes: From Aidan Cahill: Yearly Dementia Test! (only 4 questions this year). Yep, it’s that time of year again for us to take our annual senior citizen test. Exercise of the brain is as important as exercise of the muscles. As we grow older, it’s important to keep mentally alert. Use it or lose it!

Here’s a very private way to gauge how your memory compares to your last test. Some may think it is too easy, but the ones with memory problems may have difficulty. Take this test to determine if you’re losing it or not. The spaces below are so you don’t see the answers until you’ve answered.

OK, RELAX now, clear your mind and begin.

#1. What do you put in a toaster?


Answer: ‘Bread.’ If you said ‘toast’, just give up now and go do something else. And, try not to hurt yourself.   If you said, bread, go to Question #2.

 #2. Say ‘silk’ ten times. Now spell ‘silk.’ What do cows drink?

Answer: Cows drink water. If you said ‘milk,’ don’t attempt the next question. Your brain is already over-stressed and may even overheat. Content yourself with reading more appropriate literature such as Women’s Weekly or Auto World. However, if you correctly said ‘water’, proceed to Question #3.


# 3. If a red house is made from red bricks and a blue house is made from blue bricks and a pink house is made from pink bricks and a black house is made from black bricks, what is a green house made from?


Answer: Greenhouses are made from glass. If you said ‘green bricks’, why are you still reading this? PLEASE, go and lie down! But, if you said ‘glass,’ go on to Question #4.

# 4. Please do not use a calculator for this, as it would be cheating:

You are driving a bus from New York City to Philadelphia.

In Staten Island, 17 people got on the bus.

In New Brunswick, 6 people get off the bus and 9 people get on.

In Windsor, 2 people get off and 4 get on.

In Trenton, 11 people get off and 16 people get on.

In Bristol, 3 people get off and 5 people get on.

And, in Camden, 6 people get off and 3 get on.

You then arrive at Philadelphia Station.

Without going back to review, how old is the bus driver?

Answer: Oh, for crying out loud! Don’t you remember your own age? It was YOU driving the bus! If you pass this along to your friends, pray they do better than you.

PS: 95% of people fail most of the questions! Sorry for all the spaces. You’d be tempted to cheat otherwise.   If you had fun with this, send it on; I did.

 Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


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Get some ‘R&R’: Building Routines & Resilience

Build Resilience in yourself and in your Kids!

The Hunt for My Pullover: In Ireland we call them Pullovers or Jumpers.   Preferably made from pure wool, it’s the single best way to keep the damp at bay, during the 9-month weather period (October to June) in Ireland when the major meteorological change is the intensity of the rain.

Purple Rain: On this particular Tuesday, I definitely needed a Pullover. It had been raining steadily for 22 hours. The wind was howling in from somewhere east of St. Petersburg. To make matters worse, I’d forgotten to put the office heat on ‘timer’ and the place was colder than a Polar Bears’ testicle. Chained to the computer to finish a report, I was feeling sorry for myself. Whatever the opposite of a Purple patch is, this was it. Something had to be done. Fast.

No Chocolate: It was mid-way through the Catholic period known as Lent – the 6-week run in to Easter. While no-one in our house is religious, Linda keeps a fasting tradition going as a form of self-discipline – with a complete ban on chocolate during Lent. It’s a hard rule to enforce. For example, I could just put €6 of petrol into the car and have a sneaky Mars bar 7 times a week in the garage during refills. But, that solution seems like hard work. Meanwhile, Linda keeps herself busy – buying multiple Easter Eggs for our kids/her nieces/nephews/mother and stacking them in full view on the Mantelpiece in the ‘good room.’   And, like that Oscar Wilde quip, “I can resist anything except temptation.” On such a gloomy day, I definitely needed a fix.

The Raid: The most important thing when launching a stealth mission is to bear in mind the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shall not get caught.” While this may sound self-congratulatory, it actually required quite a bit of dexterity. Maneuvering my left hand through the tiny gap in the bottom of a Galaxy Easter egg and wriggling out the enclosed packet of Minstrels. A slight bend, but not a single tear in the cardboard box. Result! However, the main problem with chocolate is that it tastes like more. Outside, the rain was lashing down, with not a glimmer of hope. There was nothing else for it – but to go back in again. You have to be brave.  That’s what I always say!

Reflection Time: Answer me this: Have you ever (since you were 7+ years old) eaten a huge Easter Egg in a single sitting, wolfing it down in case anyone entered the room and you’d be caught red-handed? I felt queasy for about 12 hours – the potent combination of an upset stomach intertwined with remorse about being weak-willed. Hey, I’m guessing that your empathy may not be in overdrive right now. Perhaps you are busily recalling the wonderfully evocative phrase: “Serves you f***ing right!”

Managerial Discipline: Great managers, in my experience are highly disciplined. Of course, there’s some genius about – people able to foretell market futures, invent computing languages or come up with something equally exotic. But most managerial careers are built on discipline, not inspiration. Woody Allen said: “80% percent of success is just showing up.I believe it. You start by learning to manage yourself and you eventually lead others. So, how exactly do you ‘manage yourself’?

Routines & Resilience: By developing routine processes and sticking to them. By working hard and ‘trusting that the process will deliver.’ By taking account of what other people say and coming back to them – whether the answer is a Yes or a No. By positive self-talk which doesn’t allow you to be moany, embracing a ‘woe-is-me’ narrative – becoming addicted to your own misery. And by resisting metaphorical Easter Eggs that come in the shape of ‘sick days’, taking it ‘handy’ or otherwise slacking off the rope. William Wallace said: “Every man dies, but not every man truly lives” (I’ll make the working assumption that he meant that to apply to women too). Most of the successful people I’ve bumped up against to date, have two things in common. The first is that they exercise personal discipline. Hard work. Routine. Focus. The second thing is that they don’t buckle when (some) things inevitably go south. They have mastered the art of resilience – by building on previous triumphs (which are like credits in the bank) and by understanding that not everything in life goes swimmingly well. They know that 92% is as good as it gets.

Cast Iron? It’s not a cast-iron success formula. Some people deal with awful health issues, for themselves or close family members. Accidents can ruin lives. And so on. The notion that we have full control is a myth. But the opposite notion – that we have no control – is a much more destructive myth. If you can develop a powerful routine and wrap some personal resilience around that – you are well on the road to success. The bonus point is that you’ll be as happy as a hammer in a nail factory.

Too Late? Perhaps it seems too late to start all this stuff? You might be 30, or 40, or 53 and feel that things haven’t  gone so well to date? May I suggest that you steal shamelessly from the JK Rowling line: “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” 

So, how should you respond when someone says they don’t believe this “You are the CEO of your own life bullshit?”  Tell them (honestly) that you’ve yet to meet a rich cynic!


PS Lighter Note:

Last Will and Testament: Dave Smith is on his deathbed and knows the end is near. His nurse, his wife, his daughter and 2 sons are with him at the hospice in London. He asks for 2 independent witnesses to be present and a camcorder to be in place to record his last wishes. When all is ready he begins to speak:

“My son, Bernard, I want you to take the Mayfair houses.”

“My daughter, Sybil, you take the apartments over in the East end.”

“My son, Jamie, I want you to take the offices over in the City.”

“Sarah, my dear wife, please take all the residential buildings on the banks of the Thames.”

The nurse and witnesses are blown away. He’d seemed like a very ordinary guy and they had no idea of the extent of his holdings. As Dave slips away, the nurse says to his wife:

“Mrs. Smith, my deepest condolences.  Your husband must have been such a hard-working and wonderful man to have accumulated all this property…”

“Property?” she replies.

“The arsehole had a window cleaning round.”

From John Mc Glynn: Marriage is like a deck of cards.  In the beginning all you need is two hearts and a diamond. 
By the end you’ll wish you had a club and a spade!

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development

Posted in Executive Coaching | Leave a comment