Archive for the ‘Professional Development’ Category

School subjects essential for business success (no – they’re not the ones you think)

February 19, 2015

gregor kick

I have a friend, Blythe Scott, who’s an artist (at . She’s made the point many times that at primary school, parents are keen to get their children to experience as many different activities as possible.

However when it comes to secondary school, the same parents are rather quick to relegate these activities to being merely hobbies, whilst ‘serious’ subjects take on a higher value in a mini rat-race of academic success.

Sir Ken Robinson has pointed out that in pretty much every culture, there’s a hierarchy of school subjects, with maths, science and language at the top, humanities in the middle…and arts and the bottom.

Prof. Howard Gardner, in his work on Multiple Intelligences points out that the academic system values a very narrow skills set, and that success can be found with a whole raft of talents, many of which simply aren’t recognised in most academic curricula.

So here are three subjects – yep, some of the ones that usually get sidelined as hobbies – that provide youngsters with skills that are critical to business and personal success.


PE and performance management

Physical Education. Something at which I was absolutely hopeless at school, and one of those subjects that can be seen as a lightweight choice for those who don’t have academic ability. Am I right…or am I right? If you’re good at the sciences and you’re pretty sporty too, you’re going to feel a moral and social obligation to be a doctor rather than a sports coach, aren’t you, whatever your heart is telling you?!

However. At a recent parents evening at my son’s school, the transferable skills that PE offers were spelled out for me.

Part of the (Scottish curriculum) course involves students gauging their own performance, measuring against their own expectations and benchmarking against others in their peer group.

They’ll then devise a plan to improve and build on that performance, and review again at regular intervals.

If this sounds faintly familiar, so it should: because it’s the same process for performance management and development that businesses follow.

Here at school level, in one of those ‘also ran’ subjects, students are building a mindset of constant performance improvement, AND developing the skills required to achieve it. And what business doesn’t want that?


Music and teamworking

Music is another subject which, unless someone is absolutely determined, becomes a nice pastime and a subject that’s dropped in favour of something deemed more job-worthy.

However, a considerable amount of research done amongst under-achieving youngsters has demonstrated that improving one’s ability in music improves all round academic ability and indeed one’s attention span and ability to focus.

Consider also the teamwork and trust that’s required in an ensemble situation, be it the full blown symphony orchestra, with its section leaders working under the overall direction of the conductor, or a small ensemble like a string quartet.

Music ensembles provide a valuable metaphor – and indeed many leadership and team working lessons – from which the business community can learn.


Art and innovation

I’ve recently devised a creativity and innovation workshop which focuses on the work of leading artists and inventors, distilling practical techniques which can be applied in the workplace to problem solving, product / service innovation and so on.

Who better to look to when considering creativity than artists, after all?

Again, at school level – art remains one of those subjects which often scores fewer brownie points than more academic subjects.

Yet there are those who suggest that teaching art should be as important as teaching language or numbers (Betty Edwards, author of ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ being one of them), because it gives us a valuable visual vocabulary which most of us lack.

The ability to visualise. The ability to take concepts and represent them as matter. The ability to imagine and turn that imagination into something tangible. The processes involved in creating a piece of art are, in fact, the fundamental principles of creativity in any context….and creativity is the forerunner of business innovation.


So don’t be too quick to look down on subject areas that are traditionally taken by those seen to be not so academic. They may be teaching valuable life and workplace skills that the ‘clever’ kids never get to develop.


The Resilient Leader

January 31, 2014

Developing a strong and healthy mindset for today’s business challenges.

Have we been doing leadership training to death? Are we management modelled-out with regard to the bewildering array of personality profile questionnaires, ‘How Tos’ and books on the issue?

Well actually… probably not: leadership skills are something that we can and should continue to develop throughout our careers.

However, we’re increasingly finding in our learning and development work that something else is creeping into the mix. The world we live in is changing and the way we do business is changing. Increasingly, it means that leaders must be able to deal with the flux and ambiguity that change can create. They need to be able to develop the PERSONAL strength to succeed even in the face of increasing competition and to bounce back from the challenges and barriers they may face.

Low levels of employee engagement and productivity were identified as the biggest HR challenge in 2013 (research from talent and career management company Right Management 2013) and 59% of adults say they are more stressed now than they were 5 years ago (research from the Mental Health Foundation 2013).

In short, today’s business environment requires a different type of leader – one who remains strong and focused in the face of the rigorous and relentless challenges of today’s world.

The question is, how do we build that mindset amongst leaders? More importantly, how do we build a HEALTHY leadership mindset that capitalises on strengths without leading to burnout, and which maintains core values to boost performance and productivity?


1) Recognise how resilient (or otherwise) you are

Recognising how resilient you are – and being brutally honest about that – is a key factor in building a strong and healthy mindset to handle the rigours of day to day business (and personal) challenges. By resilience, I don’t just mean and ‘I’m still standing in the face of the onslaught’ approach, we mean a mindset that enables you to perform well whatever the circumstances around you.

Your levels of resilience are going to involve a number of factors, among them how in control or autonomous you feel about your current situation (and how you feel about your levels of autonomy): your ‘feedback focus’ – do you have a healthy balance between your self-perception / self confidence and other people’s perception of you: how do you respond to challenges, how quickly do you recover from a setback or disagreement and so on.

How aware are you of your OWN levels of resilience?


2) Recognise what triggers you to ‘de-rail’

Last year I wrote a short paper on ‘Leadership in Crisis’ based on research I’d done on leadership behaviours in the emergency services. (The paper, by the way, is a free download at Never Mind the Buzzwords, at

One of the themes to emerge from that research was that leaders in extreme situations recognise when their stress levels are becoming a problem, and they do something about it. They DO NOT soldier on regardless, as to do so could mean endangering their own lives and the lives of others.

The ability to recognise both emotional and physical signals that might build up and throw you off balance is clearly crucial – and yet most of us are too busy or pre-occupied most of the time to recognise what our own bodies and minds are trying to tell us in any given situation.

Recognising what triggers you necessitates the ability to pause from time to time and focus on NOW before charging forward.

PAUSE now – stop reading this for a minute and register what physical / emotional / psychological signals your own body is giving you now.


3) Acknowledge….and move forward

Obviously, it’s not enough merely to recognise what your body and mind are telling you: it’s a question of acknowledging these physical, psychological and emotional signals (they are what they are, after all) and then consciously deciding what to do.

Developing strategies for building resilience are inevitably determined by the individual in question: changing thought patterns, learning to focus, changing behavioural responses, re-discovering core strengths and values to be leveraged in times of challenge – all will be highly personal.

Building resilience requires conscious awareness and action, but its benefits are pretty obvious: more self awareness, better focus, better quality thinking, more productivity.

And those are benefits not just for your organisation but for you too.

 For more information on our ‘Resilient Leader’ programme, combining the latest research on neuroscience, wellbeing and personal resilience with business best practice and experiential learning, please contact or



Business in a cold economic climate: lessons from a squirrel

November 18, 2011

The winter landscape provides a fitting metaphor for the somewhat bleak economic climate in which we find ourselves. At a first glance, there’s no growth and everything seems to be dead or dying off.

So what should we do? Well, whilst no one can deny that times are hard, I’m getting a bit bored of people whinging about the whole sorry scenario, and I think we can take some lessons from nature itself (as outlined in my most recent Youtube clip at and also from the humble squirrel. Yes, really. The squirrel.


Squirrel lesson number 1 – put something by

Now, there’s an element of uselessness in this point: if you’ve not already put something by and prepared for the winter, it’s probably a little bit late to start thinking about it now. That said, it’s better to do something than nothing.

Squirrels are harvesting nuts and stashing their spoils at every possible opportunity right up until the last minute. Even during the winter, if they find something, they’ll not eat it all at once; they’ll keep a bit for later.

What resources can you call upon in this economic winter? What have you or can you put by?

Squirrel lesson number 2 – don’t hibernate

Stay awake and keep moving. Squirrels don’t hibernate … and nor should we. Tempting though it might be to sit tight and wait for the government / banks / local authorities / lotto to come to our rescue, it’s a dangerous strategy, and if we’re completely reliant on these outside forces we might well go to sleep and never wake up.

There’s life out there, we just need to go and find it – like the squirrel.

Which markets seem to survive the economic storm? Where are the evergreens? What about those markets that you didn’t bother with before because times were good and you didn’t have to … is it worth re-evaluating them now?


Squirrel lesson number 3 – learn new skills to get to the best rewards

Squirrels are relentless. They don’t sit around wondering where all the food has gone, they go out and look for it. Sometimes that food is exactly where they left it (just as well they put something by in the first place).

Sometimes,  though, they have to go beyond their natural territory to find the best food. Moreover, they have to be prepared to work it out and develop some new and surprising skills in order to get to the best rewards (nutrient-rich hazelnuts), as evidenced by these astonishing clips …

So the question is, in economic and business terms, not necessarily about how cold it is and how scarce the resources… but what are you prepared to do to go out and get what’s still there?

Don’t lie down and hibernate.  Be opportunistic, and forage effectively.

Playground behaviour in the office – do we really grow up?

November 7, 2011

Alongside my corporate work I’ve undertaken many projects in the education sector. It never ceases to amaze me how the same behaviours that first appear in the classroom and the playground manifest themselves again years later in the office and the boardroom …

I used to work in a place where I could quite literally look around the table at a committee meeting and think to myself, “You were the one puffing away on a cigarette behind the bike sheds … you were the class creep who always brought an apple for teacher, and then slagged her off behind her back … you were the vacant one who’d be watching clouds out of the window and didn’t have a clue what was going on in the room …”.  I’d almost be prepared to wager that if any of my former colleagues are reading this, they’ll know EXACTLY who I mean!

Throughout my training career I’ve come across examples of behaviour which at first seem a little out of place … until you consider their parallels in the classroom.  Clearly, if a behavioural tactic proved successful for someone at an early stage of their life, that behaviour is likely to be repeated – whether or not it’s appropriate at work or not – until it is caught and corrected.

By way of example, I was astonished at a participant on an in-house training programme I was delivering a wee while ago, who took every possible opportunity to convey (both verbally and non-verbally) to the trainers and his fellow participants how senior he was, and how far beneath him the programme content was (and de facto his colleagues in the room).

By contrast, another senior level individual in the room took a much more active role in the proceedings, and generously shared his considerable expertise and experience with his colleagues.

I’m taking a wild guess here that the first participant thought that he was cutting an impressive figure, and cementing his senior status in the pecking order of the group. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when he was at school, he’d see a classmate tussling with a tricky maths equation and say, “This is so easy! I finished it ages ago! I’m bored now! I should be in the advanced maths class, you know.”

At some point, exhibiting these behaviours has probably successfully intimidated other people into behaving towards this individual in a deferential way which fed his ego. And so, inappropriate though it is as a leadership behaviour, it continues today. It will continue to do so until he receives feedback that prompts him to reflect on his behaviour, and change it.

Another example was a young woman I worked with a few years ago. I was working with her one-to-one on her personal presentation skills, and the issue she wanted to overcome was that older male contacts and colleagues (she felt) were not taking her as seriously as they should.  Now, her voice was very high pitched, she spoke very fast, and she had a distracting habit of winding her hair around her fingers as she spoke.

Here’s the thing. We DID manage to address this issue in part. However, an underlying factor was that when she was a little girl, this lady had been very ‘sweet’, with her high breathy voice, fast manner of speaking, and coy fiddling with her hair. And it was difficult for her to let go of some of that, in pursuance of a more grounded, measured way of communicating at work.

I don’t have to look too far for my third example. I have a tendency to ‘ask for forgiveness rather than permission’, which is often not appropriate. My school environment in particular was one where conforming and conservative behaviour was encouraged, and asking permission to do something out of the ordinary was met with a resounding “no”. Best not to ask and just get on with it then. It’s a pattern I still have to watch out for 30 years later.

Take a close look at some of your colleagues – what would they have been like at school? What ‘child’ behaviours and tactics do they bring to work?

Have a look at yourself. What do you do that you learned in your childhood … your actions, responses, attitudes and communication style … and how helpful (or not) is it?

As the poet William Wordsworth said – “the child is father of the man”.  And sometimes we all need to grow up a bit.

Tackling Workplace Stress Head On

September 9, 2011

Gerard O’ Hanlon is a Director at Stredia, a company which provides software tools and consultancy services to identify and measure the causes of stress within the workplace, and provide measures and interventions to eliminate or reduce them.

In this week’s guest blog, he underlines some of the key factors in workplace stress. Over to you Gerard!

When Anna asked me to write a piece on workplace stress for the Yara blog I immediately said yes: it’s a great opportunity to get to share my thoughts with the forward-thinking professionals who work with Yara to improve the people management skills of their organisations. Then came the anxiety! What if I’m not up to the high standard that is usual in the blog? What am I going to say to HR professionals that they don’t already know about workplace stress? I began to feel a little … well .. stressed. To eliminate this stressful situation I had two options either write the blog or tell Anna that I couldn’t… So here it is.


Identify the signs early on

We all know the signs of stress, don’t we? It’s important to be able to recognise the early symptoms, and to take action before stress becomes a real problem.

Symptoms include nervous habits, poor concentration, poor memory retention, performance dip, missed deadlines, uncharacteristic errors, emotional outbursts, anger, tantrums, loss of appetite, violent or anti-social behaviour,  sleep difficulties, alcohol or drug abuse.

Become self aware (or listen to what your friends, family and colleagues are telling you) and learn to recognise these signs as soon as they occur.


Know what causes stress

Can we list all the causes of these symptoms? They’ll vary from person to person.

One teacher we were working with explained it very simply.  When she was asked, “what causes you stress at work?” she  replied, “Nothing causes me stress at work”. Then she paused and said, “but everything causes me stress at work! It’s all those small things that seem to go wrong all at once”.

Be aware of ‘flashpoints’ that cause stress and develop your management skills to eliminate or reduce these. If you cannot eliminate or reduce flashpoints then you will need to develop coping strategies for yourself and your staff, and where possible to plan ahead for when you know times may be particularly challenging.

Don’t underestimate the impact on business

Stress has a high human cost, and its impact on business is hugely significant.

In the UK over 13 million working days are lost every year because of stress.

UK HSE statistics suggest that stress-related costs to UK employers are in the region of £700m every year, and the cost of stress to society is estimated at £7bn per year.

Stress is believed to trigger 70% of visits to doctors, and 85% of serious illnesses (UK HSE stress statistics).

It’s little short of a silent epidemic. And yet many companies do little to actively avoid it and to counteract its effects, until it becomes too late.

Know the law … and best practice

Stress caused at work provides a serious risk of litigation for employers and organisations, carrying significant liabilities for damages, bad publicity and loss of reputation. Dealing with stress-related claims also consumes vast amounts of management time. The cost of a stress claim counting time and money can easily reach £200,000 and more.

Of course we cannot be everywhere all the time to monitor these causes: we have to trust our line managers to be able to identify and address issues. But line managers have responsibility for delivering performance on a day to day basis and identifying and addressing stress might not be high on their list of priorities.

Employers should aim to provide a stress-free work environment, and recognise where the causes of stress may become a problem for staff. Critically, they MUST take action to reduce the causes of stress, and not merely expect people to treat the symptoms.

Stress in the workplace reduces productivity, increases management pressures, and makes people ill in many ways, evidence of which is still increasing. Workplace stress affects the performance of the brain, including functions of work performance: memory, concentration, and learning.

By using the risk management methodology recommended by the HSE in their stress management standards, HR and H&S managers can quickly identify patterns of management that increase the chances of stress occurring in the workplace and develop simple strategies to address them.

At Stredia we like to get managers and staff to think about the things at work that can cause frustration and annoyance, why? Because it is constant frustration and annoyance that can lead to stress happening at work.  When using the management standards, by presenting the information collected intelligently, we can help managers and staff identify these frustrations and develop and prioritise interventions.

Mind your language

What we’ve found is that there is a language issue around the whole area of stress. Whilst employers should create a stress free environment, there will still be pressures, frictions and frustrations, and not all of these are always universally bad.

The Stredia ethos in dealing with stress is to remove the word from the employees vocabulary, always defining specifics such as those mentioned above and talking about pressure, friction, frustration, and so on.

Identifying and addressing the tipping point at which these become unsustainable stress lies at the heart of the matter.

Little things can make a big difference

If you are suffering from stress or you know anyone who is, here are short term interventions you can put into practice. Bear in mind, though, that addressing the CAUSES of workplace stress is going to be the key factor for lasting success.

• Deep breathing is a well known relaxation technique. Breath in through your nose slowly and deeply as you count to 4, then breath out slowly through your mouth as you count to 6 – repeat this three times. As you get used to this deep breathing you can increase the repetitions to 5 times, then 7 times; be careful not to overdo it at the start as you could become light-headed.

• One of the best and simplest interventions is humour, smiling in the face of adversity and retaining a sense of perspective. This is another reason I like working with Yara: there is always a vibrant, good-humoured atmosphere during training.

• Get some exercise. There’s a significant body of research that links exercise with stress reduction. You don’t have to take up a sport or become competitive, just do something to get moving. Yoga is particularly good for stress management – or it might mean simply going for a walk.

• Make sure you take a lunch break AWAY from your desk, and give yourself short breaks from time to time. I have a personal thought here for all of you smokers out there: it’s as much the getting away from your desk that helps calm you as the cigarette itself! Just a thought …

• Keep a good supply of water near to hand so that you can keep yourself hydrated; it will help stop you from getting tired and cranky, and aids brain function.

• Much research has been carried out on the impact of music. Develop a playlist of relaxing music on your ipod or phone.

• Learn to say ‘no’. Don’t take too much on, as this can lead to overwork, time pressures, and stress.

There are lots of exercises available to help reduce personal stress and build up resilience. But the best way to manage stress is to prevent it from developing in the first place. Above all, it’s vital to recognise it and address it rather than trying to struggle on. If you know anyone at your workplace that should be using these exercises because of their work environment or workload, then your organisation is causing stress at work.

At the end of the day, if someone was being PHYSICALLY injured at work, you wouldn’t just teach them how to put up with it, or to become more resilient. You’d take serious measures to stop it happening. If you’re not taking the causes of stress at work seriously right now, it’s time to do that.

Written communication – making a good impression

August 28, 2011

This week, a guest post from professional editor and proof reader Liz Broomfield, at with some of her top tips for making a good impression through your written communications. Take it away, Liz!

Annabelle has been talking recently about how you represent yourself through wider choices – like pizza toppings! – and offers brilliant courses helping you to present yourself in a professional and competent manner; your best self, if you will.

And Annabelle’s asked me, as a writing and editing professional, to come up with a few tips about representing yourself well in the written materials you produce, whether that be in the form of CVs, marketing materials, your web site, blog posts …

So, here are some top tips for representing yourself well and honestly in your writing:

Keep it simple

When I was writing my professional CV for my writing and editing business, I struggled a bit with the level of what I was writing. I sent it to Annabelle for tweaking (yes, even editors need editors – see my last point below!). She pointed out a couple of places where I had assumed my readers’ knowledge of what I mentioned. “What’s this?” she asked. “Explain what this means”. And that extends to all kinds of writing, whether it’s a CV or a PhD.

Try not to use jargon and acronyms. If you do use a TLA (Three Letter Acronym), specify what it stands for the first time you use it. By all means employ technical terms used in your particular line of business, but think carefully about whether your audience will, really, know what that specialised term actually means.

Keep it honest

There are two points to this.

One – never promise in writing what you can’t – or don’t intend to – deliver. You will be aware of this when you’re writing service agreements. But don’t have a web page claiming you’re Number 1 in your category when a little widget placed in the page and linked to a business pages website says you’re not (and yes, that’s a real life example).

Two – don’t pretend to be who you’re not. I’ve known Annabelle for years, and her writing style reflects her personality perfectly – both in the sentence structure and the choice of words. You’ll see from reading this post that, even though I work on Anna’s blog posts, I don’t impose my writing style on hers, and, indeed, write rather differently.

If you’re flamboyant on the page and mousy in real life, or the other way round, then what you’re presenting in your writing is not reflecting the real you – and this could well impact on you if you’re, say, a businessperson who needs to make cultivate a particular impression.

Keep it professional

Whatever you’re writing, especially these days with digital records of everything floating around all over the place, will continue to represent you way into the future. This extends to your online presence in general, of course (but that’s for another post: I’ll just say here, I try never to say anything on the internet that I wouldn’t be happy shouting in public in the square in the middle of my city), but also to all of the words you pour out into the ether.

There are two points here, too. The first is to keep the content of what you’re writing appropriate to the audience, the occasion and your reputation in general. No swearing or ranting, unless that’s how you intend to promote your personal brand. No unfounded criticisms of others’ products or personal insults.

The second point is to be aware of the standard of your writing. Grammar, spelling and punctuation are still important, even in more informal messages such as emails and blog posts.

Consider the poll I have running on my own website asking whether you need to proof-read blogs. 112 people have replied so far – and 63% of them agree that “if a blog has errors I will trust the writer’s judgement and opinions less”, with only 3 out of the 112 saying it really doesn’t matter.

Which brings me on to my last point …

Know when you need help

Writing good, concise, representative and appropriate content for letters, marketing materials, websites or even books is not a skill that everyone has. If you know it’s not one of your core skills, yet you need to create content with which to represent yourself and your company, consider calling in the experts.

You may just need someone to tweak your creative and exciting blog posts, round up their commas and bring them into line; you may need someone to write your web text from scratch or create some email templates.

As I mentioned above, even editors need editors, and I make sure I show all my blog posts to a trusted person before I post them (if everybody has to be careful about the professionalism of their writing, imagine the pressure on a professional writer and editor!) – and there’s no shame in doing that, or asking someone to produce content for you. If they’re good and professional at what they do, they won’t impose their style on yours, but will help you express yourself confidently and represent yourself appropriately.

Thank you to Annabelle for allowing me to contribute this guest post to her excellent blog!