Making silk purses out of sows’ ears
Recent articles from me have concerned values and being “flummoxed” at what I see happening around me. Combined, I feel even greater disquiet at the accelerating pace by which our world appears to be catapulting itself in a hand cart into hell. Contextually, this is the “sow’s ear”.
I thought I should try and find something positive to say in this contribution to remind myself that there are decent and honourable people in our world who are doing superb work. So, let me tell you about a few people, i.e. the “silk purses”, I know. I respect and admire them for their positive endeavour, driving change and celebrating success. In some ways, this is an advertorial for their work.
Derek Williams: founder of the WOW! Awards
One prompt for writing this short piece is that I’ve now put into my diary the date of being a judge in the WOW! Awards. This is something like the 8th time I’ve had this privilege. Derek’s awards scheme is wonderfully simple yet incredibly powerful. It is celebrating its 20th birthday. I first met Derek when I still had a proper job at Barclays Bank (it remains a source of personal regret that Barclays doesn’t participate but, there again, no bank does, which says much about the primacy they attach to customer excellence). It is a means by which customers or users of an organisation can express their praise for a great experience. The word “users” encompasses the likes of patients, students and citizens of hospitals, universities and residents of police constabularies respectively that have signed up to participate in the awards.
Health and education are the butt of the news and social media’s criticism. Some of it is justified. However, what is revealed during judging nominees from those sectors is some staggeringly brilliant and, especially in health, heart rendering examples of awesome work being done. Much is accomplished despite the odds of incredibly difficult situations. Thankfully, somewhere in the cognitive processes of a leader’s brain they have recognised that having an effective conduit by which praise can be brought into the organisation is going to do a great deal of good.
For the nominees, coming in to tell their story is often a nerve-wracking experience because standing up in front of people and presenting is not their idea of fun. However, their humanity and humility is refreshing and revitalising. The lack of polished presentation technique, dearth of a slick PowerPoint slide-deck, absence of banal jargon and rhetoric means their heroic stories are that much more real and authentic.
The lunchtime event at which the awards are presented is always a great occasion. It is an all too rare event at which people who have made, in many instances, an unforgettable impact on other people’s lives are recognised and celebrated.
If what I’ve said appears a little too “soft and fluffy”, consider the headline of this post Derek made on LinkedIn on Monday, August 14th, “Poor customer service is costing UK firms £234bn every year!”, see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/poor-customer-service-costing-uk-firms-234bn-every-year-williams. That sounds an incredible claim but I’ll buy it because I computed the cost of re-work at the bank where I worked amounting to £500m (and that was 15 years’ ago).
In another report, this specifically concerning WOW!’s work in the NHS, some significant and quantitative financial benefits are cited, see https://www.dropbox.com/s/0qbf5ni4vmpnv0z/Sickness%2C%20Absence%20and%20Employee%20Churn%20in%20the%20NHS%2C%20updated%2019%20Apl%202017.pdf?dl=0.
Have a look around Derek’s WOW! Awards web-site, https://www.thewowawards.co.uk/ and consider how your organisation could benefit from signing up to the scheme. Meeting up with Derek is always beneficial because you always learn from the conversation with him. There will be something Derek has seen or encountered during his two decades leading the awards that can act as a spark of innovation for your business, firm or institution. As a catch-phrase I heard uttered at Disney says, “Copy and steal everything”; in this case, some of the contents of Derek’s memory.
Shay McConnon, An Even Better Place to Work
I’ve known Shay for a shorter period of time than I have Derek. Shay is hewn from different material to Derek but he shares the same positive and altruistic belief that people can delight and surprise you at what they can achieve given half-a-chance. Much earlier in his career, Shay was doing precisely that in working in what was called the Borstal system for young offenders. He got them back on the straight-and-narrow, they won jobs at major employers and held them down. The employers wanted to know what Shay had done. He’d simply strove to understand their needs. From that acorn of an approach Shay has developed the mighty oak tree of his An Even Better Place to Work system.
Whereas so much organisational change and leadership initiative takes the form of a top-down imposition, the secret of an An Even Better Place to Work is come a things from bottom-up. Using a simple yet highly effective 28-item questionnaire, the needs of an employee workforce can be quantitatively measured. This enables leaders to do something about closing the gaps where needs aren’t met and continuing to do the things that see those needs sated. My spin on the seven needs Shay has identified is:
- Feeling valued – little things like saying “please” and “thank-you”, valuing ideas and thoughts, giving praise where praise is due.
- Being open – there is not just “communication” but open, honest, convivial conversation prevails, it is the oxygen of the organisation; what is said is heard, listened to and respected.
- Engaging in feedback – employees want to know how they’re doing, millennials more so, and not in “across the desk” performance reviews but through the sentient, adult conversation that arises from need 2.
- Are motivated – person A can’t motivate person B, but they can inspire them to motivate themselves to achieve remarkable things; what mental strengths were witnessed in the recent athletic world championships that propelled some to win gold and others to fall tantalisingly short?
- Manage differences – Disney uses the phrase VIP to mean “very individual person”; we are all different, which difference should be recognised and celebrated. Diversity is both visible, i.e. gender, race, disability, but also psychological, e.g. we hold different views of the world, we like being in the company of others or by ourselves. Heterogeneity beats homogeneity.
- Take ownership – your needs are your needs and you should ensure they’re met. This could be a recipe for anarchy yet needs are mutual and reciprocal and give and take must prevail. That balance comes through needs 2 and 3 being properly fulfilled.
- Are conflict free – molehills are not allowed to morph into mountains. Feedback is a gift and these gifts should be presented as often as possible provided the recipient is in receive mode. The founder of Ritz-Carlton hotels spoke of creating a sense of “true north” in the business, i.e. there was a consistent and constant understanding about what was trying to be achieved. Where someone was drifting off by a couple of degrees, the situation needed to be addressed before they were at right angles and redress would prove far more difficult.
From where AEBPTW has been adopted by organisations, there are terrific case studies provided quantitative and qualitative evidence of the benefits produced. My favourite is from a school in north London where previously dysfunctional teaching and administrative staff regarded the AEBPTW meetings as “their happy place”. Absenteeism fell significantly saving the school £40k in staff cover costs. The pupils felt the school was a “nicer” place.
Check out Shay’s web-site at https://www.anevenbetterplacetowork.com/. What I really like is the cost of your problem calculator (it tallies with Derek’s LinkedIn post). Have a play with this and see how much money you’re burning through because you’re not addressing your people’s needs. You need a silk purse to hold the potential savings you could make.
Chris Arnold and Marlow Hermsen, World Merit
Based in Liverpool, World Merit is an organisation that strives to provide opportunities to young social, entrepreneurial leaders to make a difference by focusing on taking action to realise the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Merit 360 is an initiative to bring people together from across the globe to make progress in turning these goals into reality.
Last year, Merit 360 took place in the US, combining time at a summer camp on a Native American site with time at the United Nations. The Native American camp was home to part of the Iroquois confederation, whose great law states, “In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations”. In this age of business being driven pell-mell by the reaction of the City and Wall Street to the next set of quarterly results, this genuine approach to long-term thinking needs to be reintroduced, which I see sitting at the heart of World Merit’s work.
This year, plans to return to the US have been upended by Donald Trump’s visa restrictions. These render it impossible to get participants into the country, so the event will occur here in the UK, with time included in our Parliament.
There is another Native American quotation I use frequently, which comes from the Cree tribe, namely, “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money”. How fixated have we become monetising everything? World Merit’s work firmly positions money as a means not an end. Literally, in a more down to earth fashion, I recall a German hotelier who had won EFQM’s small business award in 2000 saying, “Money is like manure, pile it in a heap and it reeks. Spread it about and it promotes growth.”
Currently, there is much discussion about the silent generation, Baby Boomers and Gen X having scuppered the future for Gen Y and the millennials. I wouldn’t entirely disagree with this contention. Considering the great law of the Iroquois nation and the lack of nutritional value of money, what needs to be done to reverse this trend?
Clearly, all those involved in World Merit are doing something directly through their own endeavours. And, there are some fabulous people involved with World Merit and Merit 360. The likes of Sir Ken Robinson and Malala Yousaifzai are two of the most prominent names.
There is so much more that World Merit can be enabled to do through sponsorship, mentoring and other forms of support. Check in with Chris or Marlou and discover what’s possible.
Is that the sun glinting behind the clouds?
I have to admit that I enjoyed writing this piece. It’s been quite uplifting to reflect on the good these splendid people are doing. I hope in writing about them, it spurs readers to try and emulate them or, at very least, to approach them to see what opportunities exist to collaborate and release their particular “mode of goodness” (see Nitesh Gor’s Dharma of Capitalism) as a positive virus to infect your work.