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.

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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When the music stops…

Two young people barged past me to get on the train this morning. Result? I was the one person who didn’t get a seat on my carriage. As I stood fuming on the increasingly crowded train into London, I reflected on how the games we play as children prepare us for life. Musical chairs was the example that sprung instantly to mind. As a child, I never understood its appeal. Even then it seemed a dull game, prone to all kinds of despicable, cheating behaviour. Since becoming a parent, I’ve experienced it from the other side, when it’s been my finger on the mute button. At my kids’ birthday parties, it somehow fell to me to supervise the games before the little playmates went home. This was usually after the conjurer had packed away his wand, leaving a room full of hyperactive kids overdosing on sugar and e-additives, while the Mums drank wine in the kitchen and laughed at my incompetence. Happy days.

The kids I wanted to win the game were always the first to be eliminated. They’d be the ones who got so into the zone with their zany dancing that when the music stopped, they didn’t know what planet they were on. Finding a chair to sit on was the last thing on their mind. Maybe I could keep them in the game for a while with a well intentioned ‘OK kids, that was just a practice round’.  But after the third practice round, you couldn’t protect them any longer, the crazy kid had to go. The ones I always had it in for were those who made no real attempt to dance. Instead they would jiggle around a bit, hopping from one leg to the other while hovering no more than six inches from their target chair, their beady gaze locked like a laser beam on my trigger finger.  I found the only way to deal with such kids was to distract them by calling out their name or throwing them a sweet, just as I stopped the music. Then there were the kids who refused to accept they were out of the game. Who kept popping up again and causing mayhem because all of a sudden there’s two kids without a chair. The outcome of  all this?  One kid clutching a prize feeling mighty pleased with themselves, a handful of other kids protesting about perceived (or actual) unfairness and the rest busy destroying the house.

The time when musical chairs comes into its own as a metaphor is during organisational change. The kids I describe above all have their grown up equivalents. The likeable oddball who is so away with the fairies that he hasn’t a hope of ending up with a role and you wonder how he will ever survive in the big world. Or the born survivor who is  so determined to keep hold of their seat that anyone who even looks at it risks having their eyes gouged out. Then there’s ‘everyone else’.

In my experience, the one essential element for communicating organisational change successfully is to create a completely fair and open process. If people get the slightest sense that the process is not fair, it can do lasting damage to an organisation that only a future change of leadership can fully repair. Being transparent means exactly that. As I heard the global HR Director of a major corporate say recently, the thing about opening the curtain is that you have to be pretty sure you know what’s behind it first. So in the example of my dismal attempt at organising a party game, it would be no good telling little Johnny that he didn’t sit down on the chair first, when the real reason was that I was  teaching him a lesson for being so greedy and that it was someone else’s turn to win for a change.

The interesting thing about this little story is that if I hadn’t been deprived of my seat today by pushy commuters, I wouldn’t have thought about any of this. Which proves the other rule of change management, that from personal adversity springs fresh insight and opportunity!

My journey to work courtesy of South West Trains