Getting Unstuck

We all get stuck, particularly those of us who try to help others get unstuck.

I know when I’m getting stuck when I find myself repeating the same message in creative new ways. It means I’m not moving on, I’m making camp.

Amongst those I know are those who notice, who can’t be fooled, will call me out and move me on. I value them enormously.

Some of them I don’t know personally, but they have a talent for communicating that I get the same kick as if I did.

I was reminded of this listening to Margaret Heffernan on Radio 4 “Thought for the day” on Sunday. A good way to spend ten minutes listening to here challenge the ease with which we accept what we’re told.

Charles Handy has been a mostly unwitting mentor all my working life. A gentle but incisive philosopher of business, I find his work has a way a centring me when I’m stuck.

Rumi, Marcus Aurelius, Antoine de St Exupery. These are just a few amongst many. What I value is their honesty, their lack of lecturing or trying to be right. They question themselves as much as me, and in doing so create a way forward.

In the times we find ourselves in, a search for answers is much less productive than finding those asking great questions.

You don’t have to know them, just make space to spend time with them.

Everyone wants to be a chef

One of our local schools is recruiting for a chef. The queue of applicants is out of the door.

Another school is recruiting for a deputy head. There is no queue.

Why is that?

Maybe it’s the narrative.

Teachers, and particularly head teachers have enormous workloads, are assessed continually, have restricted budgets and get caught in any crossfire between parents and authorities.

Chefs are cool. Every other tv show features a chef, or a gardener. They are glamorous, creating culinary and horticultural works of art that last a short while, and transitory pleasure in consumption.

Celebrity chefs get to make their living serving other celebrities.

Teachers grow people. The work they do lasts a lifetime, and their capacity to deliver positive change is huge. Their “added value” over a lifetime is incalculable. They make their living, for the most part, working for the benefit of people you will never hear of.

Yet, as a society, we lionise chefs.

Strange.

The Business Garden

Gardening and natural world metaphors abound in business, and provide a solid link to the systemic, rather than a mechanical approach to understanding change.

A new dimension was added for me last night as I overheard a comment on “Gardeners World”;

There is no garden without a gardener”

It struck me that one of the things we maybe do not pay enough attention to is how we lead and manage through this lens of gardening.

We cannot lead a garden, and our efforts to manage it are at best heroic. Gardens will not be commanded, nor will they behave. They are subject to lots of variables, not least weather, and as gardeners we have to work within the constraints that appear. At our very best, we influence. What we end up with is beautiful, but rarely conforms to a precise plan. To create a beautiful garden, we have to dance with the elements.

The same is increasingly true of business. The days of command and control, of five year plans, of a compliant workforce and the protection of national boundaries are far behind us. To create a beautiful business we have to dance with the elements.

Which brings me to the gardener. Every beautiful garden has a committed, sometimes fanatical gardener at its heart. Someone who works with it, understands and learns from failure that is beyond their control without losing heart, and measures success by the beauty of the garden, not the number of visitors it attracts. A beautiful garden is a creation that stands alone in its own right.

Perhaps if we thought about businesses in the same way, with the same level of ownership and commitment and determination to create something worthwhile, we might avoid some of the destruction that arises from catastrophic failure.

As I write, some 150,000 people are having holidays ruined by the failure of Thomas Cook. A business founded nearly two hundred years ago on a simple premise of helping people see the world. That’s a great vision, and has echoes of the garden about it.

It has been brought down by a combination of circumstances, some predictable, some less so but at the heart of it seems to be an absence of the beautiful idea on which it as founded in favour of shareholders who were happy to take the dividends in the good times but not commit to it when the weather turned bad, and banks who seem not to be able to see past the numbers. To be fair – that’s their brief, but when we lose a business like this, and affect people’s lives as a trip wire event, rather than managing it through a bad season, I think it diminishes the reputation of business.

A gardener would have handled this differently.