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.”

– See more at: http://www.purplebeach.com/pBexp2015Postcards/viewBlog/8/Everyone-can-dance-says-Ashley-Banjo#sthash.YxbUlKgi.dpuf

Does your business have a great birth story?

Having a great ‘birth story’ is a powerful engagement tool for customers and employees alike. When I worked at eBay Europe, we always loved to tell the story of how Pierre Omidyar invented the concept of online auction by accident. The first item he advertised for sale was a broken laser pointer and he was amazed that anyone wanted to buy it. Soon, other people were contacting him with goods that they wanted to sell online. Within a year, Omidyar was so overwhelmed with demand that he had to give up the day job to manage it. Stories like this are like gold dust. When you work for a company like eBay, you quickly discover the enthusiasm and passion that customers have for the product. Everywhere you go, you meet people who want to share their own eBay stories with you. It can be a humbling experience.

Last week, I had a similar feeling when I listened to Taavet Hinrikus, Skype’s employee number 1, talk about the birth of his latest business. Transfer Wise, a peer to peer fx company, was inspired by his frustration at getting ripped off by banks every time he transferred money from London back to Estonia. Here is an article that I wrote about his story for the PurpleBeach website.

Why not change money with common people like you?

Taavet Hinrikus couldn’t work it out. Every time he transferred money from Sterling into euros, some 3-4% went missing for no good reason. As Taavet explains it, sending money is about as technically complicated as sending an e-mail, so why do banks take such a huge cut?  In airports, you can lose up to 15% of the value of the exchanged. Even when banks advertise zero commission rate, it’s usually only to disguise the fact that they offer a ridiculous exchange rate. He concluded that the whole fx business was simply ‘a racket.’

Then Taavet had an idea. While he needed to transfer Sterling to euros, a friend had to transfer euros to Sterling. So they agreed to put the money in each other’s bank accounts at the published exchange rate without any commissions. With this simple wheeze, the two friends cut out the middle man, saved a bunch of money and a business idea was born.

You’ve heard before of garage businesses? ‘Transfer Wise’ was cooked up in a kitchen. It offers the opportunity to ‘change money with common people like you,’ (a tribute, no doubt, to the classic Pulp song sung by Jarvis Cocker.)

So far, Transfer Wise has transferred £100m and the amount of transfers has doubled in last 4 months. They exchange 8 currencies and soon will be add a further 10-15. All the growth has come from personal recommendation.

The initial charge of £1 per transaction was, according to Taavet, ‘great marketing, but a bad business plan.’ They have since introduced a charging system of £1 on exchanges up to £200 and 0.5% charge on amounts above that. Taavet contrasts the high fees of banks with the Transfer Wise mindset of ‘how little can we charge to build a global business.

According to Taavet, there is a huge potential market for peer2peer fx, with 200M people worldwide who live, work or study abroad. Taavet says, “Our enemy is the banks. Our target is the 99% of people who go to banks and get ripped off everyday.”

 

How to get more aha moments – do the washing up!

Are you someone who struggles to focus on problem solving when there’s a stack of ironing that needs doing, or a lawn that needs mowing?  Relax – the lastest scientific research says that performing simple non-demanding tasks can free up your creative brain and actually help you generate more aha moments.

In the recent documentary ‘The Creative Mind’, BBC Horizon reported on a psychological experiment by Prof John Schooler at Santa Barbara University, California, to explore how we can all become more creative. Based on a simple test of divergent thinking, participants were given two minutes to list as many uses as they could think of for an ordinary house brick. Those who could only manage ‘use it to build a house’ were classed as ‘not very creative’. Those who saw its potential as a paperweight, a weapon, a unit of measurement, an object of art, etc. (you get the idea) were at the higher end of the spectrum.

After the test, the guinea pigs were then invited to do one of three things. The first group took a rest and did absolutely nothing for a few minutes. The next group were asked to sort out a pile of lego bricks according to colour. The final group used the lego bricks to design a model house. Then they all had to perform the divergent thinking test again and think up some more uses for the house brick that they hadn’t previously considered. Who do you think came up with the most new suggestions?

Those who did the worst were the ones who’d been given the most demanding task of modelling a house. The most new ideas, by a significant margin, came from those who’d performed the simple colour sorting task.

This fascinating experiment confirms the popular conception that we get many of our best ideas when we least expect them. So if you want to generate more aha moments, you need to walk away from the problem – literally. Take a walk, go for a swim, have a bath, do the washing up. By tuning your mind to a more creative state, you will create more ‘ahas’ for yourself.

So here’s an interesting test of divergent thinking: how many applications of this finding can you think of to make employees more creative in your workplace?

This blog post first appeared on www.purplebeach.com on my ‘Beach Writing‘ blog

That joke isn’t funny anymore (in fact it never was)

Ricky Gervais knew what he was doing when he created the character of David Brent in The Office as both a manager and a wannabe comedian, not always in that order. Over the years, I’ve worked with many senior managers who felt they had a talent for humour, who saw themselves as being basically ‘a pretty funny kind of guy’. Often this ‘talent’ emerged alongside their professional success. Rather than having been the funny kid in the classroom, (a time when the individual was probably considered slightly earnest and serious), their sense of humour surfaced as they found themselves managing increasingly large teams and needing to address even larger audiences. I use the phrase ‘funny guy’ advisedly, because these senior managers with comedic ambitions are usually men. By contrast, I’ve met very few female senior managers who wanted to be thought of as ‘funny’. In my experience, women tend to be wary of anything that prevents them from being taken seriously.

The sad fact of course is that funny senior managers are rarely very funny. But who will tell them? As the meeting rooms and conference venues echo with the sound of obsequious laughter, who is brave enough to say that the Emperor has no clothes? That his punchlines have no punch, that his gags make us gag? Easier just to laugh along with a big, shit-eating smile on your face.

So why do so many male senior managers want to be funny?  Does it stem from a desire to be popular, which in turn perhaps derives from a basic insecurity?  Does it relate to the same inner compulsions that drive certain people to the top of their organisations, while other (less funny) people are happy to stay in the audience?  I’m not qualified to judge on these matters, but I hope that some readers with a background in psychology will possibly feel inspired to offer their opinions in the comments section below!

As a communications consultant, my standard advice to any leader who wants to tell jokes is to avoid the urge. Simply, there is no upside. If people laugh at your jokes, it’s because of who you are, rather than the intrinsic value of your material. If they fail to laugh, it will throw you off balance and you may struggle to regain it. So many times, I’ve seen leaders panic when their audience misses a laughter cue, to the detriment of their communication. Instead of focusing on the key messages they need to land, they start to chase the laughs with increasing desperation. I cringe just thinking about it.

What’s the solution for a leader who wants to engage with his employees? It’s simple. Leave comedy to the professional comedians and focus on being yourself. You don’t need people to think you are funny, but you do want people to see that you are a real human being who can demonstrate human warmth. Tell stories that provide insights into why you think the way you do. Chances are they will like you for it and even if they don’t, they will appreciate your honesty. If people are moved to laughter, it is far more likely to be genuine.

As a postscript to this article, I remember a senior leader who thought of himself as a pretty funny kind of guy, whose team would laugh along uproariously at his sparkling wit. Then he lost his job and suddenly he wasn’t funny anymore. I can remember wondering what hit him hardest – no longer being top dog or having no one to laugh at his jokes? Sadly, I lost touch, so I never got to find out whether he rediscovered his comedic talent when he found a new job and a new audience elsewhere!