Blog - Never Pretend It's All Real

This was a talk that I gave to a bunch of emerging leaders this morning at a Common Purpose event.

 

It's rough and ready, but I had a lot of fun.

 

I was invited to speak about 'Adapting To A New Environment'........

 

 

“Never pretend it’s all real.”

 

Anyone know how old Gary Barlow was when he wrote Never Forget?

 

Just 24.

 

And yet this is some of the best leadership, life advice that I’ve ever heard. And it displays an incredible level of maturity and wisdom.

 

Because he’s right.

 

None of it is real.

 

None of it.

 

We kid ourselves that it is – that what we see around is fixed, stable, solid.

 

But it’s not. As Take That found out, when Robbie left after they recorded that song.

 

I mention all this because I think the starting point for this topic is wrong.

 

I don’t blame Emily or anyone else at Common Purpose for this; I blame the zeitgeist

 

And here’s my problem with the zeitgeist: adapting to a new environment, necessarily presupposes that an old one exists - and that therefore the challenge is to move from one fixed environment to another.

 

In reality, of course, it’s all changing.

 

All the time.

 

Change.

 

Now there’s a word for our times.

 

How many of you have been on a change management course?

 

I work with clients who have ‘Directors of Change’, ‘Change Tsars’ even. They send their senior people on Leading Change courses, and their junior people on Understanding Change courses.

 

Change, change, change.

 

It’s all bullshit, if you’ll excuse my language this time in the morning.

 

And, by the way, just because it comes out of Harvard Business School or somewhere equally esteemed doesn’t mean that it isn’t bullshit – au contraire some might say.

 

But it’s bullshit because the very word change suggests that there is an end point - that once we’ve made the change, or ‘adapted to a new environment’, we’ve done our work, and we can take a break, a breather, before the next ‘change’ or ‘adaptation’ is required.

 

But life, work, the whole shebang just isn’t like this.

 

There’s no such thing as a new environment, in the same way that there’s no such think as an old environment.

 

There is just ‘an environment'.

 

And this environment is forever shifting, forever dynamic, forever morphing.

 

And either you recognise that and you morph with it, or – you get stuck, you become irrelevant and out of touch.

 

And that – ironically – is when people start talking about ‘change’ . That’s when you know you’re really in trouble, when they bring in the ‘change managers’.

 

Because whilst you’re busy ‘managing the change’, ‘adapting to the new environment’, carefully superimposing your Harvard models, the change has already happened.

 

You’ve fallen into THE BIG TRAP.

 

You got comfortable. You looked around you and you thought it was fixed and stable: instead of noticing what the dynamic was; however subtle.

 

In short, you got hubristic.

 

I went to a comprehensive school, and didn’t know what the word ‘hubris’ meant until I was 25.

 

But as soon as I found out what it was, I realised I’d seen plenty of it in my time.

 

And, as any Ancient Greek will tell you, hubris is always, always, always followed by his good pal nemesis.

 

Look at the banks in the last few years if you want possibly the best example there’s ever been.

 

I got so hubristic that I set up an office in Australia.

 

There I was, 6 weeks in Sydney, meeting people, having lunches and coffees, swaggering around Circular Quay feeling pretty pleased with myself and pretty important.

 

When – I know now – there were very loud alarm bells ringing.

 

But I couldn’t hear them.

 

All I could hear was people telling me how brilliant I was for setting up a business in London, and now one in Sydney.

 

But back in London, that business, my business, was failing.

 

Very quietly, almost imperceptibly, it was failing. We turned it around in the end of course (and what a ‘learning experience’ that was) but the point is I had allowed it to fail.

 

Because the market was changing – as it always does, all the time.

 

Because the clients and their requirements were changing – as they always do, all the time.

 

Because the people we employed were changing – as they always do, all the time.

 

Everything was changing – as it always does, all the time.

 

I’d just stopped noticing it.

 

I’d started to believe my own hype: that it was fixed, stable, and sorted.

 

But it’s not. It never is. Ever.

 

This is a fundamental truth about the world: businesses, organisations, friendships, love affairs even…..

 

Just because my wife thought I was amazing yesterday, didn’t mean she didn’t think I was a tosser this morning.

 

Just because this particular approach worked with a colleague yesterday, doesn’t mean it will work today. And tomorrow, she might find it so demeaning and offensive, that she resigns!

 

Just because we spent X many years making money out of people using landlines, doesn’t mean a whole new market that we don’t really understand - mobiles - won’t emerge.

 

Has anyone else heard those frankly tragic, rearguard adverts by BT? Desperately trying to persuade us, almost blackmail us emotionally, that it’s somehow ‘better’ to call our loved ones using landlines?

 

It’s laughable. Or if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

 

Telephones are interesting:

 

Just because you are the predominant provider of mobile handsets – Nokia – doesn’t mean that Apple won’t come along and smash into your market share by building the iPhone.

 

But of course Apple didn’t ‘smash’ into Nokia’s market share – had Nokia been looking, paying attention, they’d have seen ‘em coming, seen the signals.

 

But suddenly they were the rabbit in the headlights, mesmerised, surprised and unable to move.

 

There are thousands of examples, particularly at the moment.

 

The printed press. Didn’t really see the internet coming didn’t they?

 

HMV. What is HMV for in a world of iTunes?

 

And actually, what is iTunes for in a world of Spotfiy and Last FM?

 

All of these players have all been totally caught out.

 

Totally needlessly.

 

Because they all got comfortable and thought that their environment was fixed.

 

It’s not: it’s ever changing, no matter what field you’re in, no matter what your job, no matter what your situation.

 

To stay on top, in my opinion, the job is as simple as – and as impossible as – recognising this.

 

OK, so how?

 

How do you avoid being that bunny in the headlights?

 

Well, if you’re the rabbit, you notice that it’s not earth any more, that it’s tarmac, that there are white lines that smell different and new, you recognise it’s new territory and so you look a bit more carefully.

 

You force yourself to look again at the environment around you.

 

You develop, to extend my animal metaphor (different animal this time) very sensitive antennae.

 

Antennae so sensitive that they detect the slightest shift.

 

So that you can make the slightest tweak now – and don’t have to lurch, and scramble later, in a desperate attempt to catch up to get back to where you already thought you were.

 

My experience is that it’s all about constantly just tweaking, reacting to the environment.

 

Look at some successful leaders. Caesar (who had never been on a change management course, by the way) had amazing antennae, could keep adapting and changing his approach to suit developing situations the whole time – except interestingly towards the end when he got comfortable, which is when they murdered him.

 

Churchill – perhaps the greatest opportunist of the last century. He could read the signals and environment around him like no-one else, and through very careful positioning over many years, became the only real choice for Prime Minister following Chamberlain’s fall from grace. Hitler, interestingly, certainly from the mid-point of the war, lost his previously stellar ability to smell out the times. It was probably this, more than the fact that he was an evil nutter, that was his downfall: he didn’t look at the environment around him.

 

So how do you develop these antennae?

 

I’m going to leave you today with what I think are the 8 key steps to getting there.

 

1.Step Back.

Watch your own business, career, life as a movie. And comment on it, critique it. Go somewhere different to do this.

 

2. Trend.

What I mean by this is look at the world, listen to the news, and think what it (the news) might be tomorrow.

 

Where do you think things are going? Trust yourself, because you’re a much better judge of this than you think.

 

Think about where you’d put your money if you were forced to literally bet the ranch on a few things happening in, say, five years' time.

 

What would those things be?

 

And don’t worry about how crazy your predictions sound. Crazy is the new normal. Who’d have thought 3 years ago that Peter Mandelson would be Gordon Brown’s deputy PM?

 

Or in the 1950s, that Ronald Reagan, the washed up actor, would be President?

 

Or in the 1980s that George W Bush, the drunk playboy, would be President in fewer than twenty years?

 

Now relate those predictions back to what you do.

 

How can you tweak what you do to be ready for that world?

 

How can you leverage it, take advantage of it?

 

3. Travel.

Don’t think parochially. And by the way, London looks pretty parochial if you’re sitting in Shanghai, Mumbai, LA or Abu Dhabi……

 

4. Seek Challenge.

Force yourself to see people you don’t agree with.

 

Maybe even some people you don’t like.

 

Ask those people for advice, for ideas – and then ask them why they’ve suggested what they’ve suggested.

 

You don’t have to do any of what they say, but the insights that they give you will be invaluable, and make you a richer, wiser person.

 

My experience with clients is that in both the public and the private sector, unthinking consensualism and the absence of constructive challenge are huge barriers to excellence and continued success.

 

So get people to argue the toss with you, and don’t take it personally.

 

5. Understand Popular Culture.

Whether you like it or not, popular culture is coming your way and will – at least in parts, whether you’re conscious of it or not – impact heavily on what you do.

 

The X Factor is sooooo establishment now.

 

Anyone know that story about Deloitte, on the verge of banning Facebook, until they found that the Deloitte user goup on Facebook was bigger and more comprehensive than their own internal employee databases?

 

6. Be Prepared To Fail.

We all fail, it’s a fact of life.

 

And those people who treat it as a necessary – if unwelcome – corollary of success, rather than its antithesis and something to be feared, deal with it: they learn from it, get over it and get on with things.

 

Dispense with the taboo of failure – something our American pals are much better at doing. In doing so, you’ll become supremely self-confident, which is also vital.

 

7. Keep rolling.

Keep hustling, keep moving – never lose momentum.

 

And finally…..

 

8. As Gary and his mates would have, never, ever, ever, pretend that it’s all real.

 

Thank you.

Posted on 2 December, 2009
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Posted on 2 December, 2009 by Emily
I was at the session this morning and it was fantastic. You made people think and provided a lot of good questions for leaders to ask of themselves. Thanks again for your contriubution!
 

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