Friday, 29 October 2010

More Courses From The Bank: What Coaching Isn't

I did the two-day course on coaching that's part of The Bank's Leadership course recently. Coaching is about having someone else monitor your technique, spot where it could be improved and work with you to improve it. Part of that is helping you maintain the state of mind you need to be in to perform well, but coaching isn't therapy. Nor is it training, which is either about learning skills and knowledge that you don't have or practicing certain moves so that they become second nature. Coaching is about improving what you're already doing pretty well. Or not, if you attended the course. Which was based on the techniques used by soi-disant life coaches, and especially the GROW acronym: clarifying Goals, what the Reality of the situation is, looking at the Options you have and then working out what you Will do to get started. This isn't coaching. It's planning.

The closest we came to getting specific instructions about doing anything was through a role-play. My actress was a middle-aged lady regulatory risk wonk with little confidence and less presence (good acting) who needed some more money and was thinking about promotion to grades where knowledge is nothing and confident bullshit is everything. In the real world, I would never have accepted her request to use my newly-acquired coaching skills, and even if I did, I would have done exactly what I did in the role-play, which was shut the relationship down politely once I realised what kind of person she was. I can't have people like that in my life. I was supposed to have asked questions (I did, just ones that were rather too much to the point) and done a lot of supportive reflective listening. In the second, my colleague had a boisterous but effective team leader who was going to take a step up to working with senior managers and he was slightly concerned that she might make the wrong impression on the upper muckamucks. What he was supposed to have done was ask questions that invited her to reflect on her behaviour: "how do you think senior management might interpret you being late to meetings?" That sort of thing.

Discussing the role-play afterwards, I explained that if anyone but especially my line manager started using those "how do you think" questions on me, I would assume it was Quiz Time and I was being set up. That is not, I said, how you talk to adults, but to children, and the kids don't like it much either. I would have simply checked with my boisterous project manager something like this: "that bit where you're late for meetings? You know you can't do that with senior management, right?" Which I could do in real life because both my project manager and I would know what I was referring to. And which would constitute coaching as ordinarily understood - a quick, on-the-fly technical check.

But not as understood by people who do Life Coaching to supplement their incomes as freelance external trainers. Uh-huh. They need to use the GROW (or any other) acronym because it provides a repeatable structure to their life coaching sessions, which are with people with whom they don't have a history nor a common work culture and can't have the shorthand conversations that you can bet Roger Federer had with Severin Luthi.

Does it matter? Yes. Coaching is one thing and it should not be confused with advising, or training or planning, or helping, or rescuing, or bailing-out-of-the-shit, or discussing-a-problem, or giving a one-to-one, or therapy or appraising or any of those other things it got confused with during the two days. Each one takes place in different circumstances, with different relationships and uses different techniques to achieve different aims. Lumping them all together and calling it "coaching" is just sloppy. It misses the chance to get some serious, specific, useful content over.

Did I take anything away from the course that was useful? Not really. It's aimed at the very people who won't do it: the manipulative managers for whom "performance management" is what you do when you need to get rid of people, and "coaching" is what you do when you've told someone that what they've been doing is wrong and you're very disappointed in them.

Every one of the trainers so far has mentioned Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I'm sure I skimmed it in a bookshop once and put it back because it was too new-age for me. I'm starting to think I need to read it, not because it might tell me something, but because it's the Enemy's Bible.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

In Praise of Billie Ray Martin

Many years ago I poked my head round the door of some Saturday morning TV. There was a band. In less than a chorus I was converted by the singer's soulful, strong, edgy voice. That was Electribe 101. Here's their classic Talking With Myself...

No sooner had I bought the CD than they vanished. It was a while before I found out the that wonderful  singer, Billie Ray Martin, was still working. Here's a stone classic, Space Oasis, from her debut album Deadline For My Memories.

I love the overtones, inflections, variations, passion and colour of her voice: take some time to listen. There's an interview with her as well...

Monday, 25 October 2010

Employment Market Opportunists Number 7: The Career Advisors

Refresh your CV on Monster and you get things like this in your mailbox. The details have not been changed to spare the guilty...

Dear Seven Dials

Your CV has been reviewed online and generated some interest with one of our Senior Consultants at our London offices.

I would be most grateful if you could call me on 077224 30666 to discuss your requirements alternatively email at your earliest convenience with a view to scheduling an appointment.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,
Melissa McBride
Active Career Management Ltd
133 Houndsditch
M: 07722 430666
F: 020 3402 6160

Active Career Transition is a real company. What they provide is career counselling, outsourcing and HR advisory services. They aren't employment agencies and they don't know where the jobs are. They make the majority of their money from companies, mostly from outsourcing assignments, and the rest from charging individual job-seekers for career counselling. Way back in the 90's I went along to a company like them and heard what was so obviously a rehearsed sales spiel, complete with a little ceremony in which the "senior consultant" signed a form "accepting" me as a suitable person to be a client. I can't remember what they charged, but I think there was mention of a career development grant, which was a £5,000 loan from the Government for suitable purposes, which that firm was obviously providing. Can you spell "bottom feeder"?

No, I'm not being harsh. Don't get me started on the whole career-change thing (actually, I will, but not now). The reason you know it doesn't work is that you have never met anyone who speaks highly of them, or indeed at all about them. If it did work, the guys doing the advising - all mysteriously former "senior managers" in name companies who have decided that A Freelancer's Life Is The Life For Them - would have proper jobs with real companies instead of trying to flog you the psychometric testing. (The psychometric testing is always extra.)

Friday, 22 October 2010

How Not To Write A Job Description

Can you spot the give-away verb in this genuine blurb? You do not want to know where I found this, or how much of the company you, the taxpayer, own.

"This suite of programmes and events delivers relevant content and practical tools along with extensive networking and knowledge sharing opportunities. Development is aligned to the Leadership Diamond which focuses on ‘Judgement’, ‘Drive’, ‘Influence’ and ’Execution’ and encapsulates our Values. Our Executive Development approach aims to build on your existing talents and leadership capabilities enabling you to:

· Inspire confidence, restore trust, create followership
· Be a role model for our Vision and Values
· Deliver our strategic agenda around cost, customer leadership and capital efficiency
· Navigate the scale and complexity of our new business
· Be expert in risk management and compliance"

The answer is below, but you'll have to highlight the rest of the page.

That’s right “restore” trust. Not “maintain” or “deepen” or even why would you need to do anything about trust because why would it be an issue? But “restore”. Because it’s shot.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

What's Wrong With Trolley-ology

The obits column of the FT this Saturday tells me that the British philosopher Phillippa Foot died recently. She invented the "trolley problem", which goes something like this: you are standing by a set of points on a railway line and a runaway trolley is coming towards you. If it continues, it will kill five people who are trapped on the line. You can however pull the lever to work the points and divert it to the other line, where it will kill one person trapped on the line and then stop. What do you do?

Most people say they would pull the lever. You can have an argument about it and the point is, there is no right answer, what matter is the discussion in which you make explicit your moral principles. Well, maybe not. Here's a version: we're at war, you're in the army, the Five are enemy soldiers and the One is a member of your platoon. That's not even a decision. Your duty is clear. Here's another version: the One is your thirteen year-old sister and the Five are paedophiles who have been stalking her recently. I don't think that's a decision at all either. Here's another version: the Five are a bunch of bullies who have been making your son's life at school hell and the One is his best friend. Odd how that level has suddenly rusted in place isn't it? Here's another one: the One is a surgeon who is the only person who can do a life-saving operation on your wife, the Five are the medical staff who told her that there was nothing wrong with her and she should stop wasting NHS time. Okay, that lever's still rusty, but you're going to have a conscience about it. Finally, try this: the Five are blameless Philosophy professors and the One is... another blameless philosophy professor. Okay, we're back where we started.

Justice is properly blind. Morality isn't, but a lot of moral philosophers treat it as if it should be. In the trolley problem, it's not supposed to matter who the people are, but from those examples, it's clear it does matter. When Western Liberals are doing their best formal moral philosophy, they stipulate that all lives are equal and pretend that there are no evil people. When Western Liberals are making real decisions, it matters who the parties are.

Of course it does. The whole point of having relationships, agreements and understandings with people is so that you have a priority with each other. Family come first. Military colleagues after family, when on active service. Then friends and after that business associates and neighbours you trust and like. Drug dealers, child molesters, wife-beaters, serial killers and other such low-lives aren't even on the scale. They don't get any breaks. Until you're sitting in a jury, when the rules say they get treated as innocent until you're convinced otherwise. Because that's a legal process and the Law is blind.

But that's not what's wrong with trolley-ology. To explain what is, I'll give you the correct answer to the original problem. Which is this: "I would immediately pull some of the debris at the side of the railway line across the track and de-rail the trolley, thus saving everyone's lives."

I know. I cheated. Where did I get the debris from? Ummmm, ever seen a real railway line near a set of points? There's always debris. But even that's not the point: I'm not supposed to put the problem in a real-world context. I'm supposed to take one or the other option - when neither is really acceptable. Whereas in the real world, there's almost always a third way, there's always some debris - and it's thinking of the other, pragmatic, options that characterises the leader (JFK and the Blockade option especially at 1:15) and the practical person.

So the discussion that the trolley example generates is not just theoretical - which can be a good thing - it's unrealistic, which is always a bad thing. Here's a real life example from a recent trolley article. "When NICE said yes to [the drug] Herceptin, for early breast cancer, one NHS trust closed its diabetic clinic to pay for it,” said Michael Rawlins, head of NICE. “These are rotten decisions to have to make.”

Well, except the Trust should have asked me. I would have told them to keep the Diabetes clinic open. When the first Herceptin request came along, the Trust should have said "we're sorry, but we don't have the money" and that the Trust is an administrator, not a judge of who is more deserving of medical treatment. She was welcome to try other Trusts who might have the cash. I suspect a number of Trusts did that and I bet it worked.

However, cancer drugs have an odd way of usurping others. This is because the drug companies - Genentech make Herceptin - sponsor charitable foundations who in turn help Mrs X (a photogenic teacher with a family to make you sigh "Aaahhh" when you see the photographs) to "gain her rights" to treatment. Once Mrs X turns up with a strangely effective publicity campaign and a lawyer, we're no longer talking about morality, but whether a corporation with a slick PR campaign gets to decide how our taxes get spent on healthcare.

That's what I mean when I say the Trolley problems are unrealistic. Real moral problems, if they can't be solved by reference to the relationships you have with the people, have to be solved by finding the "blockade option". Trolley problems assume we have to choose between two evils and then discover that we have a limited repetoire for doing so.

Monday, 18 October 2010

In The Upper Room - Sadler's Wells

Another trip to Sadler's Wells, this time to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet in a three-part programme with very long intervals (I didn't know about the long intervals). The first piece was Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto, which was pretty and pointless in that strange way that modern dance can be. The second was Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which was fun and sexy. But I was still waiting to be amazed.

The third piece. Twyla Tharp's In The Upper Room. Music by Philip Glass. I'm wondering. This could be painful. It starts.

In three minutes, I'm entranced and it's clear we're in the presence of The Real Thing. The Birmingham dancers were fluid, loose-limbed and scattered around the beat, which gave the whole thing an informal feel - it's clearly notated to an inch of its life, but the dancers made it seem like they were making bits of it up. And I like that improvisatory feel.

The way the dancers seem to solidify as they come through the smoke is slightly magical and the finale will make you shout "Yeah!" If you've ever sat through an evening of rigorous modern dance, thinking "that's a really cool trick, and they are technically brilliant, but where's the fun?", here's your antidote.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Don't Play Interview Battleships

Your skills are there somewhere. Let's see...nope, nothing on A4: how is your department organised? Let's try B7: what do you do in your current job? Maybe H6: tell me about a time you had to respond to a client request quickly. And on it goes. A bunch of questions that make sense if you are already doing what they want you to do for them, but not otherwise.

They don't want to ask straight out if you can do X, Y and Z, because that makes it too easy for you to say Yes with whatever varying degree of truth is involved. To get round that they would have to give you a test, and of course no-one who works there would pass the test. If you did, the chances are you would realise you were working below your abilities in about, oh, a week. And they know that. Tests are fine for commodity code-cutters or people who have to know the official regulations around their jobs, but not for companies hiring non-cookie-cutter jobs.

So they shoot random questions at you and see if you mention any magic words. Recently I was so puzzled by one interviewer's repeated questioning about "what I did" at The Bank, that I eventually cam straight out and said "you want to know what I can do?" And then told him. He fired a quick test at me, which I passed (because I am actually that good). From then on the interview got back on track.

I vowed that the next time someone asked "what do you do at The Bank" I would say "not much of any real interest to you, or to me, which is why I want to work with you. What's interesting to you is that I've picked up skills in (insert relevant stuff here) and some experience of (insert more relevant stuff here). But how I use them at The Bank is more or less irrelevant to what I can do for you." Then go on to talk about their business and my understanding of it.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

High Dependency Unit

There are times when I wonder if I really still like music or if it's just a habit. Do I like stuff because I think I should? Given my recent immersion in the symphonic works of Bruckner, Prokofiev and Shostakovich for educational purposes, you can see how I might have that doubt.

So I was having my pass-the-time-between-work-and-a-movie coffee and cake in the Milkbar on Bateman Street, where they play a steady stream of what seem to be New Zealand bands at a volume so you can't ignore it or hear the conversation at the next table. I was tapping away on my Asus and started to think "that's a good guitar sound"... tap, tap, stare, think, tap, tap "that's a really good guitar sound", tap, tap, think, tap "what is this?" So I asked the guys at the counter, who told me it was an New Zealand band called High Dependency Unit and the album was called Metamathics. Which is not on, but two others are and I've downloaded both onto my Sony Ericsson C510. When that happens, I know I still really like music and my ear hasn't gone soft.

One of those tracks - Masd - is one of the most beautiful sounds I've heard all year. Sadly it's not available on You Tube, but this is, and you should give it a listen.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness - Or What The Founding Fathers Really Meant

As every schoolboy knows, the Declaration of Independence says amongst other things that "we hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

As every schoolboy has been told by his tutors and millions of subsequent mavens, "the pursuit of happiness" is a siren calling to wreck the soul on the rocks of futility, an impossible dream and an occupation as futile as finding the end of the rainbow. Happiness, in the Western World, is to be pursued, surely, but is unattainable. Except for the simple-minded, simple-souled or through some adjustments of the soul that would tax the virtue of a Tibetan monk.

Unless you're one of the Founding Fathers. For them the word "pursuit" did not commonly mean '"chase after" but rather "occupation", "work", "calling" or at worst "pastime". They didn't mean "pursuit of happiness" as in the chase after it, but the actual practice, work, occupation or vocation of happiness: doing stuff that you like to do and not wanting to be doing something else at the same time.

Happiness wasn't a state of mind for them, but a mode of engaging in activities. The right they had in mind was not to some kind of chemical or spiritual high or snatched moments of contentment and bliss, but to work and live in a manner that was such that you want to live like that and aren't always haunted by the idea that you could live better. That's what happiness is, and that's what the occupation, work or "pursuit" of it would be. Not to be blissed-out, not to be vacantly un-discontent, but to be actively engaged in the world in a manner that was satisfying to you. And not to be haunted by nightmares of better.

That's an idea of happiness that only a rich man could have, or a philosopher. The rest of the world in 1776, ground down by poverty and bad weather, saw happiness as the absence of misery, hunger, ruined crops, taxes and anything else that made their lives harder. Poor men conceive of happiness as the absence of everything that makes their live hard. Happiness is to be achieved by the acquisition of tools and goods that make life easier or more productive, that shelter from the storm, ease the pain or bring a moment of release and gladness. And that's the stuff that gets chased after, because you can chase after highs and try to cheat the lows for ever and never succeed. The Founding Fathers were not creating a right of existence for John Deere Corp (agricultural machinery) or for Jack Daniels (easing the pain). They were creating a right for you to pass your life productively and in accordance with your best skills and nature.

Just like they did.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The 2010 A/ W Job Hunt

I spent the first two years at The Bank looking for a way out, but a desirable one came there none (maintenance stock analyst near Heathrow?). At the start of 2009 a number of the agents I trust advised me to hunker down and ride out the recession. I did and they were right: my phone barely rang many of the stories I heard involved people taking new jobs that vanished two months later in a re-organisation.

My phone started to ring a month or so ago and it seems the market has picked up. So after the un-necessarily emotional couple of weeks I've hinted at, I wrote an update mail, assembled the "Agents" mailing list and hit Send. Within minutes the "Undeliverable" messages came back, and a day later the "Postmaster has given up trying to send" messages came. You use those to clean up your contact list.

I was thinking of applying for the supervisory role I've mentioned before. Right up to the point where the new manager told Jack he wasn't going to be considered for the grade two job (Jack's a grade one) , which in everyone else's eyes would be a deserved promotion for Jack, who is an all round Good Guy and knows both sides of the data-world we live in. He also said that if Jack wanted to apply for other jobs in The Bank, he would give Jack his full support - not that he was trying to get rid of him... This is the kind of manager who uses performance gradings to communicate his personal approval of your behaviour and what you'ver done for him lately. I am not going to justify his decisions to my staff when I don't agree. ("Fred felt that your behaviours / performance wasn't quite..."). I couldn't work as a line manager for the guy. That decision just made itself. And starting the job hunt has given me a sense of options that I haven't had for a long while. I feel so much calmer now.

Job hunts are different for different professions and people: a pricing analyst / manager has a very different experience from a credit control assistant. Above two-levels-below-the-Boardroom, you don't really go looking for jobs as mere mortals do. The headhunters call you. If you call them, they will be pleasant and put you on file, but until they get an assignment that matches you, there is nothing they can do. Senior guys and gals can spend a long time waiting for an opening. Many specialists turn out to have a simple plan. A friend of mine is a technical writer: the first time he was laid off in a re-organisation, his manager told him to register with agencies X, Y and Z, as they were the specialists in technical writers. Don't bother with the others, she said. He did what she suggested and it worked out pretty well. Sadly, there are no specialist agencies for pricing guys.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Make Tools, Not Quick-Fixes

Faced with a new task and an eight-hour deadline, do you: a) spend seven and a half hours building a tool to do the job and thirty minutes using it to deliver the result, or b) spend all eight hours working up something that does the trick but can't be re-used?

If you answered a) you are probably an engineer at heart, whereas b) is what everyone else does.

I once spent four days automating a large spreadsheet we used for a weekly report: it had twenty sheets and thirty pivot tables fed from separate SQL queries on a mainframe database. Most of the time was spent on the Query and Pivot Table object models, where the lack of a decent manual had me going round in circles. The report took me about forty-fifty minutes each week to do manually. Over fifty weeks, that's about the same number of hours I spent on the automation. Why bother? Because I learned a lot of new stuff and got practice on the Excel object model (I'm an Access whiz); anyone else could do the report when I was on holiday; I could produce the report faster and more accurately each week, which was what the boss wanted.

One way people make progress is by making tools so they can do in an hour what used to take all day. That way, they have the rest of the day to do something else. And a "tool" is anything that helps you do the job: it might be a piece of software, but it might be a report, your mobile phone, or indeed something you buy in the hardware or kitchen store.

A good tool should be: intuitively obvious to the person who might use it; robust; easy to maintain and modify; and let people do the job in less time and with less effort than they it did before.
Never use IT departments and outside contractors to develop tools for you: what they produce will fail all those tests. And it will cost a fortune.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Little-Known London Institutions: Goodenough College

I was passing a few moments before going to see Winter's Bone at the Renoir cinema the other Tuesday and wandered round the area to the east of the Brunswick Centre - not something I do very often as east of the Kingsway is still marked "Here be dragons" on my psychic map of London. Passing by Coram's Fields with its social-services paranoia sign...

and found myself passing somewhere that looks like this....

... and is called Goodenough College. Which is not a college in the sense that they do lectures and exams, but a hall of residence / hotel for postgraduate students registered on a full-time course in London. Rent is £143 a week for a single room and £238 a week for a 1-bed flat. Which for the somewhere on the doorstep of most of the University of London and within walking distance of anywhere you might want to go except Chelsea and Kensington, is pretty fair. It looks like they have a selection process that skews towards the cool and pretty, but then, wouldn't you? Until that day I had never heard of the place.

Nor had I ever heard of or passed through St George's Gardens, but it looks pretty enough...

... even of you do approach it through some raised coffins.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Crossing A Bridge In Amsterdam

I had the first one-to-one with the new manager last week. Over the next three months he'd like me to train the FNGs, and in the next nine months, work on the integration project. I could hear myself reacting: "nine months! No way nine more months of this s..t." I didn't say that out loud. When we talked about my grade issue - I'm in a lower-graded job and my salary protection runs out in another eighteen months - he said "oh eighteen months is long enough to position you for a Grade Four". There was something automatic about the way he said it that I didn't like: it came across as "Oh eighteen months, great, I don't have to think about it now". We talked a role that's opened up because my supervisor has just put her notice in - with nowhere to go. (So that's job to apply for - it's so easy the current incumbent couldn't take a year.) I've been thinking about whether I'd want that job - it's why I've been going on the courses. He said he'd be happy if I applied, but I would need to be "more corporate".

What's my as yet un-communicated decision? Well, here's a clue. Remember me? The ACoA? Guaranteed to get involved with the wrong people the wrong way? I can't get involved with managing people and I don't want to be involved with solving organisational dysfunctions or people's professional and career problems. It's as bad for me as a bag of Minstrels or a double whiskey. And running a group of junior analysts, half of whom will be new and half have too much history with a string of botched re-organisations, would not be fun. Especially as I know one wants to leave, taking a ton of knowledge with him. I can't do their kind of corporate. I don't want to work The Bank's dysfunctional freaking bureaucracy. And I don't want to supervise a bunch of people who are just producing regular reports until they get so bored they leave after at most two years. (That was the plan, but in this market they might be stuck there a lot longer.)

No. I'm better off personally if I stay working with data and computers and learning stuff. So maybe I can get back into pricing or maybe I stay in MI - SAS / SQL bashing - but with added value. To justify the salary. I'm at whatever they call this stage of my life - the bit where you're not at the top and you're in your fifties. I'm not looking for a career - I'm looking for an income.

A couple of years ago, I was walking through Amsterdam with my friend. We were crossing one of the canal bridges and an open boat passed underneath, with half-a-dozen medical students celebrating. I felt a wave of relief at the sight: it wasn't my world anymore. It was theirs. I'm not responsible for how the world turns out now - they are. My responsibility is to stay employed and build up some savings for when I can't work anymore. That's not a trivial task in today's world. And that's where I am.

I keep forgetting that moment. And I need to remember it.