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 PurpleBeach.com

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.

See more at: http://www.purplebeach.com/pBexp2014Postcards/viewBlog/7/Revealing-mathematical-my5teries-with-Marcus-du-Sautoy#sthash.DE6QDd0f.dpuf

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!