Monday, 16 November 2015

Respect Under Stress

As a consultant specialising in working with managers and staff in the areas of General Management and Communications, I am often brought in (a few months too late...) to very stressful situations.

I recently worked with a set of chambers where the relationship between clerks, support staff and members of chambers had degenerated into a series of shouting matches. In my usual way, I took the Senior Clerk out for lunch to talk about the situation. "You have no idea of the stress we are under. I haven't got time to be nice to people", he said. I wish that view was unusual...

In the first place, I have a very good understanding of the stress he and his staff are under. I was brought in to run an international law firm in 2008 just as Lehman Brothers crashed and the next nine months was rather horrible as all the plans we had discussed pre-appointment were thrown out to be replaced with a mass (and rather panicked) redundancy programme. I agreed to be the last man out in phase 1 - moving from a healthy salary to the joys of self-employment. I know what that sort of stress feels like.

Much more to the point - as I said to my Senior Clerk - now is always the time to be nice to people. There is never an excuse for shouting - or rather for treating people disrespectfully. Never (oh I've done it - but there was never a good excuse for it).

I spoke for a while with the Senior Clerk and then began the process of building respect back into the day-to-day life of chambers. It won't be easy - but it is necessary. Without that, nothing else will work, the sniping will continue and any change programme will fail - spectacularly.

When life is quiet in the field of consulting (that's the problem with dealing in the area of common sense - there are times when no-one thinks they need any help...) I work on film sets. Most businesses could learn a thing or two about leadership and management by watching how film sets work. There is tons of stress - imagine a business where the outgoings are huge and start immediately and the income is (a) uncertain and (b) about two years away. Each day of filming costs a fortune - I was on set last Sunday and if that one day cost less that £300,000 I'd be really surprised. Added to the stress is a huge group of people - crew, cast and extras - who may be on set for one day and may never have worked together. Imagine that your business is like that.

And yet it works - and it works because of the respect that is shown at every stage. Crew are trusted to know their jobs, are consulted and then thanked. Cast and extras are asked politely to "stand there and do that' and then thanked each time. Crowd Assistant Directors are brought in especially on large sets just to look after the extras. Yes, of course, that's partly to make sure they are in the right place at the right time - but I witnessed the Crowd AD (a wonderful young lady by the name of Georgie) make a special effort to come on set between takes with water for her people.

I do not believe that a set of chambers is a more stressful place to work than a film set - and yet one is characterised by calm, respect and politeness and the other, often, is characterised by shouting and blame. Which of the two do you think seems to work better..?

Friday, 16 October 2015

Don't Work Harder

Sometimes all a person can do is to work harder. That's rarely the path to happiness for the organisation or the person concerned. In my experience it leads to frustration (from both) and exhaustion, and possibly illness.

This was brought to mind (again sadly) by a meeting with a Senior Clerk who will remain nameless, as will his chambers. A friend of a friend - another Senior Clerk that I had worked with - had suggested he speak to me (off the record, on the QT, and very hush hush...). Chambers weren't happy with his performance and nothing he was doing seemed to make them happier.

"I'm working all hours God sends", he told me, and it seemed to be true. He regularly got into the Clerks' room before 7:30am and was there past 7pm. He didn't go to lunch, instead having his Junior bring him a sandwich.

It was the understandable reaction of someone who has no training or support to do anything other than work harder.

Sadly, as he was finding out, doing more of the things that aren't working doesn't help very much. If at all.

More happily, he had done the most difficult thing already. He had realised that what he was doing wasn't working and he had asked for help. We spent a few hours working through a strategy for him, which included speaking to his Head of Chambers and beginning to develop a more focussed idea of marketing.

It's a small regional set, so there will be no funds from chambers to engage me on a formal basis, but I've agreed to chat with the Senior Clerk every so often to see how he is getting on - hopefully I can help him persuade chambers that some investment is needed in staff training and support. That would be a good first step to a more efficient, and successful, set of chambers.

It is tempting for us all to work harder in the face of difficulty. We all know that working smarter is the answer, but working harder is, paradoxically, easier.

We need to stop working harder and take the time to work out how to work smarter. It is always worth it in the end and delivers a better result for everyone.

Don't work harder.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Happy Staff

I speak with a lot of small business leaders (by which I mean the leaders of small businesses, not...) and in talking through their challenges and difficulties, I will often try to lead them towards a discussion about how happy or content their staff are. Quite often what I see is a shrug of the shoulders and something along the lines of "What? Keep the staff happy? Yeah - sure. Of course".

What they mean, of course, is "why on earth would I care about that?

Well - setting aside that the sort of person who really doesn't care at all about their staff's happiness is not a good person to be working with - there are so many reasons.

The most important, I think, is because it is quite simply the right thing to do. As a member of the same species, we should try, whenever possible and often when it's not possible, to treat fellow members with respect and dignity. Why not?

Then there are the more tangible benefits. Treating other people well makes you a little happier. We can benefit from other people's contentment. Not only that - if we treat other people well, then they might well treat others well too. And that includes us. Again - why not?

Finally - because some of the people I have this discussion with sometimes need a financial incentive - treat your staff well because happier people work harder. According to Oswald, Proto and Sgroi from the University of Warwick, businesses can see an increase in productivity of up to 12% when staff are happier. The full paper is here.

So there you are. Trying to make your staff a little happier is the right thing to do because they will work harder, be more committed, treat fellow staff better - and, of course, because it is simply the right thing to do.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Temptation to TInker

Speaking with a barrister earlier this week, we were discussing the nature of lawyer-led businesses and the difficulties that so many of them have in actually seeing themselves as a business, and so working in a very business-like manner.

I was reminded of one of my most difficult clients.

Not - it may surprise you to know - because they were dysfunctional, disorganised and chaotic. Quite the opposite. They had engaged me to examine their business structure and operation and to report on necessary changes. After a few weeks, it was apparent that there were no changes necessary - the business was working well, the leadership was well organised, professional and communicating hard. Junior members of staff knew what the strategy for the business was and seemed to be enthusiastic about it and about their impact on it.

I was faced with writing a report that, in effect, said "carry on doing what you're doing". The temptation to tinker was enormous. It's one of the most dangerous thing that a consultant (or a new executive coming into a business) can do - changing things so that they are seen to be changing things. The common perception is that consultants have a look at a business and if services are in-house, we suggest outsourcing - and if they are outsourced, we recommend bringing them in-house. In other words, we tinker.

It's the consulting equivalent of moving into a beautiful newly build apartment and ripping out the bathroom and replacing it. "Look", we shout, "I'm here".

It is, however, something that we must all - consultants and executives - work hard to avoid. There is a real value in acknowledging a good system rather than changing it. Change is not always necessary.  Any system, no matter how good, will need to evolve - but that's a completely different matter.

When I delivered my report to my clients, they were delighted. They were such good managers of their business that, although they thought everything was going well, they wanted external audit and verification - and were pleased that I was willing to present a report without the need for change.

So - today's lesson is to avoid tinkering. If change is required, then start the process of change and work to introduce the new system. If, however, the business is working well, then join in with the process and enjoy nudging an efficient system along into the future.