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 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!

A mysterious package arrives

When our postman rang the doorbell, it wasn’t because he needed a signature for the package he was delivering. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” he said slightly sheepishly, “but everyone at the sorting office is dying to know what’s in your parcel.”  When he handed over the bizarrely shaped package, I realised why it had attracted such curiosity for a team that every day handles thousands of rectangular, cuboid objects.

From his keen interest, I suspected that money might be riding on the outcome. “What’s the current favourite theory?”, I asked. “Well,” he said, stroking his chin, “Most people think it’s a garden rake or a kite, but I don’t think it’s either.”  “Both good guesses, but you’re right,” I replied, ripping open the package to reveal the pair of prawn nets that I’d bought on eBay as Christmas presents, ready for next season’s shrimping expeditions in Pembrokeshire. Our friendly postie was so delighted that he couldn’t get in his van quick enough to report back the news.

I was tickled by the idea of a team of sorters at the post office who brighten their working day by guessing the contents of packages, then sending someone on a heroic quest to discover the truth. How refreshing and inspiring also to come across a team that finds its own way to connect with its customers.

One of my observations about organisations is that no matter what else is going on in the business, good managers will always find creative ways to raise team morale. Walk around a call centre and look at what’s on the boards and walls. You can usually spot the highest performing teams, because they’ll be the ones who’ve created their own vibrant micro-culture based on the team’s personalities and targets.

It’s one of my fundamental beliefs that a sustainable  employee engagement strategy has to support and reinforce the positive relationships that already exist between managers and teams. Campaigns that attempt to reach employees directly, bypassing their managers, tend to be short-lived. Why is that?  Simply because real culture exists at the team level. Anyone who regularly reads pulse surveys will know that engaged employees usually give the highest rating to their immediate team. As employee engagement professionals, we need to work with that trend, not against it.

Mondayphobia is no irrational fear

My journey to work today was delayed by half an hour due to someone becoming seriously ill on the Jubilee underground line. I’ve no idea what happened to this unfortunate person  (in spite of my delayed journey, I genuinely wish them well!) but I found myself reflecting how often this happens on a Monday.

There is scientific evidence that we are at a 20% higher  risk of a heart attack on a Monday morning than any other day of the week.  Not only are mornings generally a bad time, due to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but also, as researchers at Tokyo Women’s Medical University discovered, our blood pressure and heart rate rises due to the stress of returning to work. This syndrome, similar to jet lag, has recently been termed as ‘social lag’ – the readjustment to early starts that we subject our bodies to every Monday after a weekend of late nights and lie-ins.

It’s no perhaps no surprise therefore that Monday is also the most popular day for employees to pull a sickie. According to research by Mercers, an astonishing 35% of all sick leave is taken on a Monday, compared to only 3% on a Friday.

In a separate  study by Mind, the UK mental health charity, researchers found that 25% of people say that their weekends are ruined by the thought of having to return to work on a Monday – a sobering thought for any employer or manager.

As someone who officially ‘likes Mondays’, I’m aware that I’m championing a counter-trend. Following the theme of my most recent blog post on health & safety, employee engagement professionals have a crucial role to play in helping people combat their mondayphobia. By helping create a great place to work for employees, we’re not only promoting the general happiness of mankind, we’re also saving lives into the bargain. Inspired by such a noble cause such, is it any wonder that I regularly skip off to work on a Monday morning?

Secret of a happy life

You would have thought that professional snooker players would rank highly amongst people who if not paid to do their job, would do it for the love of it. Although I find it mindnumbing to watch and impossible to play, I understand why others find the sport so addictive, as they chase the nirvana of that perfect 147 break. So it was a surprise to discover in Jim White’s excellent article in today’s Daily Telegraph about Ronnie Sullivan’s retirement, that  he secretly detests the game and the relentless pressure to perform. Of course, Ronnie is not alone in hating the sport that he has been so blessed to play.

Victoria Pendleton, similarly sees her awesome talent as a curse, ‘I turn left for a living’ she commented drolely after her 2012 Olympic cycling victory and incredible nine world records. The only thing that drove her on was that she hated the idea of giving up even more; could not bear the thought of letting her Dad and herself down.

It’s not uncommon for professional  footballers to loathe the sport that makes them rich. Their idea of fun is often to head for the nearest male grooming salon, bookmakers or golf course. Although highly successful as a football commentator, even the saintly Gary Lineker looks bored senseless when presenting Match of the Day. You get the feeling he would love to do something completely different, but has become addicted to the money and lifestyle.

Ultimately, it’s not enough to be good at something to be happy in your work, even if you have a  special talent. You also have to enjoy it to be there for the long haul. Find something you enjoy doing and get someone to pay you to do it – that’s the secret of happiness. And if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, find something different. In this respect, Ronnie and Victoria are both inspirational role models. I wish them  success in their quest for fulfilment, away from the sports that have made them famous.