Connecting with people ignites opportunities for success

Annemie Ress talks to Peter Vogt

This post was originally written as a ‘live blog postcard from the beach’ in my role as beach writer at The Purple Beach Experience 2016.

We can do powerful things when we open up to new insights from employees, said Peter Vogt, leading employee engagement expert and “the guy who invented employee brand” in an interview with Annemie Ress at the Purple Beach Experience.

Peter described his work as helping companies become better places to work, where people feel valued and respected. As a result, employees become more connected to customers and want to create better communities. Pete is also “super big open” about being gay and has done a lot of work to help companies “go on that journey” to become more open and diverse employers, particularly in supporting their LGBT employees. He believes it is vital to build empathy in workplaces for people who think differently.

Peter gave the example of the US company Avon in the 1970s, who began hiring black Avon Ladies to help them sell their products to the African American community. But it was only when Avon listened to their new employees that they started to make any progress. They learned that their existing products simply did not work on black skins and so they needed to create a new product range. This is a great example of the power of empathy and why we need to talk to our own people, because they have the solutions.

When he worked at Visa, Peter introduced a reverse mentoring programme called ‘The Exchange’ to help break down unconscious bias. The idea was to get people from different minority groups and millennials to mentor senior executives about their lifestyles and communities. According to Peter, the benefit of such a programme goes beyond inclusivity, it is about ignition – when we gain new insights from truly connecting with others, it can ignite new opportunities for success.

In the new world of work, ‘EQ’ – emotional intelligence – is outstripping IQ in setting companies for success, a change that seems to favour women over men. In Silicon Valley, companies will increasingly test potential recruits for EQ. The strong message is “you may be smart, but if you’re an asshole, we don’t want to hire you.”

At the same time, Peter cautions that many companies fail by hiring great diverse talent, but without the systems, environment and mentoring to receive them. Peter’s advice is to ‘get your house in order’ and ‘work on inclusion before you try to sell it.’  It is no good thinking you can simply bring in a lot of diverse people and assume this will fix the problem. Creating a diverse organisation needs a thoughtful, systematic approach and that times time and energy. It needs companies to build more conversation and community.  Inevitably, many organisations will be left behind because they lack the courage and the will to do this.

Body language in the workplace

Recently, a client asked me to create a workshop on body language awareness as part of a wider ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiative. The idea was that making people more aware of each other’s non-verbal signals would help to promote respect in the workplace. At first I wasn’t sure if I was the right person, but the client convinced me: “Start with the body language stuff you do in your communication coaching and take it from there – you just need to get people talking.”

Having now run dozens of these workshops in a culturally diverse, UK based organisation, I’ve gained some fascinating insights into the etiquette of the modern workplace. The feedback has at times been humbling, like the self-confessed cynic who said, “I only came along because I had to, but actually this was the most valuable session I’ve attended in years.”

So what have I learned? In the absence of any defined rules of engagement, there is clearly a lot of confusion about non-verbal communication at work. At different extremes, some people are totally unaware of how their behaviour could cause offence, while others are so frightened of getting it wrong they avoid personal contact wherever possible. In today’s diverse workplaces, colleagues are increasingly confused about how to relate to each other.

Take for example something as simple as a standard business greeting. As part of the workshop, I ask everyone to greet each other with a handshake. Then we discuss the experience. As you would expect, people talk about firmness of grip and whether or not someone looks you in the eye when shaking your hand. But what happens when men and women greet each other? From a cultural point of view, some colleagues will not want to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex for religious reasons (e.g. Orthodox Jews, Muslims). It is important to be aware of this to avoid potential embarrassment; a handshake should never be forced. Yet cultural differences aside, some men when shaking a woman’s hand will opt for a brief grasp of the fingers, as if they are about to go down on one knee in a chivalric bow.

Why does this happen? The men who did this told me that it was because they felt that ‘women’s hands are more delicate’. So I would then ask the women how they wanted men to shake their hands. Invariably the answer was in the same way as a man – properly but without excessive force. Interestingly, some women said they often avoided shaking another woman’s hand because it did not feel ‘natural’ to do so. Unless they know the other woman well, they would usually avoid physical contact and simply greet each other with a smile and a nod. In some cases, this has resulted in women course participants resolving that in future, they would make a point of shaking hands with other women.

Eye contact is another fascinating subject. The Western cultural norm is to look at someone when you are listening to them. Yet there are many parts of the world e.g. parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, where it is considered disrespectful to do so, particularly when listening to an elder. One participant who was brought up in Nigeria described having been severely reprimanded by his grandfather for exactly this reason. Yet when he came to the UK, he realized that his ‘respectful’ avoidance of eye contact was not helping him in job interviews. Getting people to share their personal experiences in this way has led to many ‘light bulb’ moments.

By far the best experiences have been running the workshop on location for a whole team. Managers have told me that experiencing the workshop together was a bonding experience that enabled team members to discuss office behavior in a non-threatening way, when previously it had been in the ‘too difficult’ category. For example, it enabled a manager to talk to a team member about their habit of getting too close to people and why some people found this invasive of their personal space. (It turned out that the ‘space invader’ in question had hearing difficulties.) I’ve even been asked to run follow up sessions so that the people who missed the original training didn’t feel left out. How often does that happen for workplace training?

Everyone can dance says Ashley Banjo

IMG_5905This post was originally written as a ‘live blog postcard from the beach’ in my role as beach writer at The Purple Beach Experience 2015.

Only 26 years old, Ashley Banjo has already achieved more than he could have dreamed of, but something tells you that this intelligent, thoughtful and modest young man has a very long way to go. With his positive outlook and disciplined approach to life, he gives the impression that he can achieve any goal that he sets himself.

Before his dance troupe Diversity discovered fame on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, Ashley was already taking responsibility for others. When the Executive Producer asked them to go on the show, Ashley felt the weight of trust from the boys in the group and that his job as a leader was “to steer them in the right direction”. Ashley didn’t expect to win, but simply wanted the group to be “the best we could be”. The rest is popular TV history, with Diversity beating that year’s other phenomenal act, Susan Boyle, (who had already made it onto ‘The Simpsons’!) to win the competition

The group’s first reaction was disbelief – you could see it in their faces. As they later faced a frenzied media conference of 300 people, they realised that “life was about to change forever, and they had to choose whether to embrace it or be destroyed by it.”

Coming to terms with their achievement, Ashley has since reflected that “the public are much cleverer than people give them credit for in voting shows: we were real and public responded to that.”

So how has Diversity become such a highly innovative dance troupe? “I don’t believe concepts are just from me, we still train together 6 hours a day… we store information, like bits of a puzzle in the air – someone learned a new flip, seeing something in a movie e.g. the ‘slow motion dodge’ in ‘The Matrix’. Then we put things together because everyone unites.”

Ashley tends to be at the front of the group’s creativity and knows what everyone in the group is physically capable of, but he describes Diversity as “one big think tank”: “ no matter how many ideas I come up with, the relationship with the group is the key to our creativity, I bring an idea to the table, everyone brings their experience to bring the idea to fruition” Ashley’s mantra is “be open, be honest, take on everyone’s opinion.”

The idea for ‘Secret Street Crew’ came about when Ashley told a TV producer about his belief that ‘anyone can dance’ and to give him a TV series to prove it. The idea of the show is to get people to form a street crew in secret and perform at an event, one of the best examples being a wheelchair basketball team – “Of course they can dance if they want to!”

In describing his coaching method, Ashley says he does not teach, but “gives people the ability to believe in themselves that they can do it, to harness what they have already got.” The show is all about breaking down people’s perceptions of what they think they are capable of and where they belong. “Its about me unlocking someone’s mind a bit – giving someone the confidence to believe in themselves. Breaking down barriers in people’s minds about what they actually can do – its about self belief.”

Ashley sees dance as a “further level of communication”. While describing himself as a very controlled direct person, when he dances, he believes “anything is possible.”

Although not the original leader of Diversity, he naturally became the leader due to his increasing interest in dance and choreography, based on his ambition “to be the best he can be”. As a result, his group members “started to look to me for the answers.”

Ashley also discovered financial responsibility early. At the age of 14, his mother, who ran a dance studio, damaged her knee, which meant that Ashley’s life from that point, including his choice of University (he studied Natural Sciences at UCL) revolved around the need to get home to teach the 5pm dance class.

His biggest challenges in recent years have been to maintain the trust and respect of the group, understanding that this means sometimes having to keep his distance from his best friends to “preserve trust in the interests of the bigger picture.” This gets harder as inevitably team members get older, get married have kids and have their own responsibilities. For Ashley, success is based in legacy; for people in twenty years time to know what they have done.

Commenting on his experience as a judge on “Got to Dance”, Ashley explains how he encourages people to see their so-called ‘failures’ as “steps on the root to success.”

By his own admission, Ashley is intensely critical of his own team’s performance and group members are surprised if he has no critical comments after a routine. He motivates himself by “watching mistakes over and over again”, shuddering to recall when dancer Perry fell on his head in front of the Prime Minister, but got up the next day and did the same performance perfectly.

So what does the future hold? Ashley’s view is pragmatic, to “react to what happens”. Diversity still has “whole new countries to explore” and that is very exciting.

Ashley’s overall philosophy is that “so long as each step is in right direction, we don’t have to look at the final destination… if someone had told me at 15 what I was going to achieve I would have said no way, never in a million years. It’s not about blind belief, but knowing you can achieve something if you want it.”

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Searching for the meaning of life with Alain de Botton

This post originally appeared as a ‘Live Blog Postcard from the Beach’ in my role as ‘beach writer’ at the Purple Beach Experience 2015.

What is the point of culture? asks philosopher and author Alain de Botton. Alain unapologetically offers a utilitarian solution: the human soul is in trouble and art should offer us therapy. This is a theme that he argued in his book, ‘How Proust can change your life’.

When role models and supermodels like Miranda Kerr say they have found solace in eastern philosophy, Alain thinks this is because western thinkers have let us down, by failing to demonstrate a purpose for the arts in society. In fact Philosophy offers answers to our personal fears and crises. Take the idea of success. Our society places huge value on material prosperity as an indicator of how well we are doing. For many people in the west, their greatest fears are humiliation and poverty. This is exacerbated by mass media that delights in stories of failure. But the idea of success is ‘amenable to tweaking’. What if success was defined differently?

Alain thinks the solution to our fears is to work towards a more sympathetic society where we all understand how easy it is to ‘stuff up’; a world where we recognise that our mental health is very fragile and we are all ‘one blood clot away’ from the end of life.

When it comes to existential questions such as ‘the meaning of life’, Alain suggests that the ultimate goal of life is fulfilment and a sense of serving others. When jobs become meaningless, it is often because they have become disconnected from how we serve other people and why it matters.

The difficulty is getting such wisdom to ‘stick’. Hollywood films with mega-million budgets can move us for a couple of hours, but the next day, the effect has gone. Similarly, Alain suggests that companies who want to inculcate ‘values’ should learn from the great religions that used music, poetry, beautiful images, special places and above all, endless repetition from birth to death to establish their value systems.

Alain believes that every human fear presents a business opportunity. For example, Facebook has established a global empire by offering a sense of community to those who fear loneliness. In this era where so many people are searching for meaning, there is so much more to do, so many opportunities to address people’s fears in fulfilling ways.

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Revealing mathematical my5teries with Marcus du Sautoy

This post first appeared as a postcard in my role as beach writer at

Maths is a ‘Marmite’ subject, you either love it or hate it, says Marcus du Sautoy who is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, as well as being a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and an author.

Marcus began with some questions to the audience: What is Maths? Is it a language? An art form? A secret code? And what does a mathematician do, other than (as many people think) long division sums to lots of decimal places? According to Marcus, mathematicians search for patterns to help predict the future. For example, can you predict the next number in this sequence: 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55…. This is the famous Fibonacci sequence, and did you know that the number of petals on a flower Is always a number on this sequence?

Marcus also introduced us to the mysteries of triangular numbers, circle division numbers, even lottery numbers. But his favourite of all are prime numbers, because they are the atoms of arithmetic, used to build all other numbers.

Prime numbers appear in nature, for example the life cycle of the Magicicada septendecin, a very noisy North American insect that hides underground for 17 years, emerges for a six week party, lays its eggs then goes quiet again for another 17 years. Why does it do that? Did prime numbers help these cicadas outfox a predator?

Marcus ended by talking about chaos theory and how in some systems there are thresholds where patterns go from predictable to chaotic. Weather forecasting is a good example of this. With their incredibly complex mathematical models, meteorologists can’t reliably predict more than 5 days in advance. Yet there is no doubt that simply knowing whether you are in a predictable or unpredictable region of your business is very powerful to help you understand the future.

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Are you a psychopath? asks Kevin Dutton

This post first appeared as a postcard in my role as beach writer at

Psychopaths get a bad rap in the popular media, but really, they’re not all bad, says Kevin Dutton, research psychologist at Oxford University and author of “The wisdom of psychopaths – Lessons in Life from Saints, Spies and Serial killers.”

While pure psychopaths with an uncontrolled violent streak are invariably ‘toxic’, for others who are somewhere on the psychopathic spectrum, it’s about achieving control by tuning the dials on the mixing desk to the right level to be successful. In other words, it’s OK to display some psychopathic characteristics in the right context.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that CEOs often score highly for psychopathic traits, such as charm, persuasiveness, confidence, fearlessness, ruthlessness. Similarly, micro-surgeons need the ability to ‘switch off’ their empathy, so they are not thinking about the patient on the operating table as someone’s spouse or child, to help them make cold, clinical decisions. In general, people who score highly on the psychopathic index are often better able to make rational decisions when faced with moral dilemmas; too much empathy can result in procrastination.

Kevin described how an insight from research into 1970s serial killer, Ted Bundy, led psychologists to discover that people who scored highly on the psychopathic index were sometimes better at analysing people’s behaviour, for example detecting people who were smuggling goods through airport security. Kevin says this is due to the psychopath’s skill as a ‘social predator’ in studying people’s body language to see whether they are having an effect. They are matched only by Buddhist monks who can achieve similar ability through years of meditation and self awareness.

Having psychopathic traits can also help people become more creative, through being more comfortable with rule breaking. One way of looking at cheats is that they are also natural creatives!

To find out how you score on the psychopathic index, you can take the test at

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What can we learn from pirates about being more creative?

This post first appeared as a postcard in my role as beach writer at

What can we learn from the golden age of piracy? That was the question posed by Kyra Maya Phillips, co-author of ‘The Misfit Economy’. Sadly, Kyra began by debunking the myth that pirates spent their time making people walk the plank in shark infested seas, had peg legs and said things like, ‘Aye,Aye me hearties’. Instead, pirates were early adopters of hierarchy-free enterprise. All crew members received an equal share in the booty, except for the Captain who rarely got more than a double share. Compare that to modern CEOs!

The quartermaster, responsible for dividing the booty,was also the main recruiting officer. According to Kyra, many merchant sailors who had been press ganged into joining the navy, hoped to be raided by pirates as their only chance to escape the tyranny of their own ship captains. No wonder the punishment for piracy was death by hanging!

Despite pirate crew members’ reputation for being ‘mad, drunk and illiterate’, they were still able to pioneer democratic models of working, based on shared values and common purpose. There is also evidence of early pirate social protection schemes involving compensation for injuries and payments made to their widows.

While not condoning the illegal activities of pirates, or their modern day equivalents (hackers, counterfeiters,etc.) Kyra suggests there is much we can learn from how they organised themselves, giving the example of small gaming companies with ‘no management’ philosophies, who encourage team members to collaborate and innovate spontaneously. It may not work for large organisations, but if you want to make your team more creative, think how they can be a little more swashbuckling!

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When Words Fail, Try Experiences

This blog post was first published on the Octopus HR website

Insights come in strange places. For me last summer, it was while trying to steer a narrowboat on the Avon & Kennet canal. We’d gone on holiday with another family and our children (six in total) couldn’t be persuaded that larking about on the roof wasn’t safe, even if the boat was only cruising at 3 mph. All the usual threats to switch off the Wi-Fi or unplug the TV somehow lacked credibility in the heart of the countryside, when even the adults were complaining about lack of phone signal. Tempers became frayed.

Then my wife wryly suggested I use my ‘professional expertise’ as a communicator. And so, from the edge of breakdown came a breakthrough. We invited each child to take a turn at steering the boat, under close adult supervision. With their own sweaty mitts on the tiller, they finally realised how stressful it is to navigate around trees and bridges when someone is blocking your vision and you’re worried they’re going to end up overboard.

The insight, of course, is blindingly obvious: sometimes you can’t tell people, they have to experience it for themselves. Yet how often do we need to remind ourselves of this simple truth?

In their excellent book, “Influencer – the power to change anything”, the authors (Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, Switzler) tell the story of a US manufacturing company under threat from Japanese competitors, whose productivity levels were 40% higher. To stay in business, they had to make some urgent changes. If their employees wanted to keep their jobs, they were going to have to work a lot harder. But somehow, the management couldn’t get their message across, because the workforce mistrusted their motives. Then they hit on the idea of sending a team of employees on a fact finding tour to Japan. It did the trick. When they returned home and told their co-workers how much harder and faster their Japanese counterparts were working, they accepted that change had to happen.

Another powerful example is the Exchanging Places scheme run by the Metropolitan Police Cycle Task Force that gets cyclists to sit in a lorry driver’s cabin. Once you’ve seen for yourself the size of the blind spot for a left turning lorry, you will never again attempt to undertake a lorry on a bicycle. I only wish we could make every cyclist experience this for themselves.

Thinking about your employee engagement challenges, what kind of experiences could you create to promote the changes you are seeking? For example, if you want your team to become more customer centric, could you send them on mystery shopping exercises, or have them sit behind a one way mirror during a customer focus group? If you want your team to be more creative or innovative, how about taking them on a team building exercise where they experience what it’s like to create something together – and discover for themselves how fantastic that can feel?

My all time favourite team building exercise was an Advertising Sales Director who wanted his team to feel like superstars. So for a team experience, they recorded a pop promo video. Everyone had their hair and make up done, they dressed in wild, spangly clothes and danced around like loons, lip synching to the words of a cheesy pop song. Not only was it brilliant fun, the experience transformed team morale. It still makes me laugh and I watch it whenever I need an injection of enthusiasm!

Does Movember get men talking balls?

Movember is here again and already, less than halfway through the month, there are mucho moustachioed gents around town. It’s an inspired campaign for an important cause that I have supported financially for some years, while resisting the temptation to grow a moustache myself.

Yet, I have one slight reservation. While Movember gets men talkin’ ‘bout ‘taches, does it also get them talking balls (and prostates?) I suspect that many still avoid the subject, preferring instead to fixate on the safer topic of facial hair and how goddamned itchy it feels.

So my contribution to the Movember campaign this year is to write about my recent experience of getting checked out at a urology clinic. Not least because it also relates to my favourite theme of why some people enjoy their work more than others.

My GP referred me to a specialist just to ‘be on the safe side’ after I experienced some mild waterwork issues. As is usually the case, the symptoms cleared up as soon as the appointment letter landed on the doormat. But I decided to be a grown up and go ahead with the check.

As a father of three children, who has been present at all their births (if only at the ‘social end’), I have a good idea of what women must routinely endure in the name of health. But for me this was a unique experience. During the course of two hours, I underwent a decathlon of tests, both invasive and otherwise. I drank several litres of water. I peed into a bucket with a digital counter on it to measure my flow rate. I watched the ultimate reality TV, beamed live from a camera inserted through my urethra into my bladder. I ‘depanted’ on request (to use their delightfully tongue in cheek jargon), coughed and bent my knees obediently. I had an ultrasonic scanner on my tummy and then the whole of me was inserted head first through a CT scanner to create a 3D image of my insides. All this on the National Health Service and within a few weeks of my referral!

The truly incredible thing is that at no stage did I feel at all embarrassed. I put this down to one simple reason: every member of the team helped to create a culture that was characterised by respect, humour, compassion, efficiency and professionalism. Every member of the team – and incidentally, all were women – gave me the impression that they loved their work and wouldn’t swap it for any other job in the world.

I asked one member of the team why everyone appeared to enjoy their work so much and how they created such a great atmosphere. The answer she gave me was enlightening. Every year in the UK, prostate cancer kills 10,000 people and testicular cancer another 75. Testicular cancer is highly treatable if detected early, while prostate cancer, for most men, requires no more than active monitoring. If they can create a relaxed environment that encourages men to go for a checkup, they will save lives. Embarrassment kills.

Thankfully, on this occasion, I got the all clear. But something tells me this won’t be my last visit to a urology clinic. The important thing is that I won’t be frightened to go back. Nor should anyone be. And if wearing a moustache helps to get over the embarrassment of talking about it, then grow the biggest and bushiest one you can, my friends!

As an insight into employee engagement, it struck me how there is nothing like believing in the vital importance of your work to get the whole team working at 100% commitment levels. It is a lesson for every leader and every communicator.

Work shouldn’t be this fun

This week I co-facilitated a leadership development event where the team building exercise was a scavenger hunt, designed in homage to a well known property trading game. The ‘out of the box’ activity from the team at Trainers Kitbag, involved dashing around London, on foot or by public transport, hunting for clues and completing quests. My role was to facilitate and observe the team’s behaviour (more on this later.)

It turned out to be a very fun day, if slightly knackering. The challenges presented just the right level of novelty and stretch. Though as you would expect, perceptions of difficulty differed from one participant to another. When one person says, ‘oh no, that’s impossible’, another says, ‘great, when can we start?’.

Within the freedom of an exercise, I found it fascinating to hear people voice their reactions openly. So often we assume that everyone is equally energised by a task, particularly in environments where the naysayers have learned to keep their doubts under wraps. A great example of this was the challenge at Oxford Street to learn from passing tourists how to say “I love you” in 6 different languages. Even the biggest doubter had to admit it was pretty amazing that within 15 minutes, the team had learned the phrase in Bangla, Hindi, Korean, Creole, Hebrew and a Zimbabwean clicking dialect. In how many cities could that happen? It was so much fun that the team didn’t mind too much when I revealed that the Oxford Street property had already been claimed by a competing team 3 hours ago. Yet earlier in the day, when they learned, after a much easier task, that another team had pipped them to the prize, it was like a collective punch in the solar plexus. Even though they’d not completed the ‘I love you’ challenge first, the experience had lifted their spirits and given them a sense of what they could achieve as a team.

Another enjoyable aspect was how willing Londoners are these days to get involved in other people’s silly challenges. Armed policemen guarding embassies were delighted to pose smiling in a group photo. Chauffeurs outside a Park Lane hotel competed to have the team climb inside their limousine. In how many countries would that happen?

So what was the point of all this, I hear you ask? For a day ostensibly spent in frivolous pursuits, it was rich in learning. During the post session debrief, we shared some powerful feedback and insights:
– Teambuilding: my team hurled themselves into the challenge without spending any time bonding or learning about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They didn’t even share mobile numbers and as a result, almost lost each other in the lunch break!
– Leadership: even though this was a leadership development programme, they didn’t think to elect a leader or decide how to make decisions. As a result, they trusted to an organic ‘group mind’ and drifted along without any strategy or game plan
– Asking permission vs. seeking forgiveness: when given a tricky task that obviously required an element of blagging, some team members couldn’t think beyond finding a person in authority and asking for permission. When this approach failed, inevitably, they were happy to move on, safe in the knowledge that their failure had an ‘audit trail’.

Suffice to say, my team came last, but I like to think that in the real game, they gained the most learning. It was fascinating that while the team members recognised their omissions, it was all stuff they knew already. So what stopped them from using their leadership skillsets? The simple answer is this: when put under pressure without a clear structure, people are inclined to forget what they know and take the path of least resistance. They know that this strategy is unlikely to be successful, but they plod on in the hope that everything will turn out for the best.

If you work in the field of organisational effectiveness or employee engagement, you will no doubt take heart from this. No matter how successful the organisation, your skills will always be in demand – if only to remind people of the stuff they already know!