The Samarian Shuffle – were we Creteans or just cretins?

Gorge of SamariaDespite a fellow guest at our hotel on Crete saying that hiking through the Gorge of Samaria was the worst day of her life, we went ahead and got Lisa, our hostess, to book tickets.  We were retired, not dead.  Active swimmers and walkers, we could handle it.  What ensued was an accelerated taste of old age.  The morning after – she, her husband, her daughter and her father all took turns to tell us that it would be the following day that our aching bodies would really feel it.  They were right.

The gorge starts at over 7 thousand feet in the White Mountains and winds up, well down obviously, to sea level a mere 16 kilometres further south: one and a half miles down and 10 miles out, miles of forced march.  What’s worse, forced by yourself as you can’t miss the boat trip to the bus home or contemplate being carried out.  There was an option to climb back any time in the first 4 kilometres if you felt you were not going to make it, but after that the only options were two donkeys and a mythical helicopter.  The helipad was shown on the map but our guide Thomas had not seen the helicopter in all the 17 years he had been doing this daily.  Once you’d passed the 4 km mark the only way out was to press on.

The complex we were staying at has the best swimming pool I have ever encountered, indoor or out.  Roughly circular but with a 30 metre diameter perfect for lengths. The water is crystal clear and doesn’t appear to be chlorinated or have any other taste – the constant bombardment of sunshine probably does the trick.  We swam before a Greek breakfast of yoghurt, honey and fruit.  Probably lunched out and then a siesta by the pool until Liz did a salad composé which we ate on our balcony in the last of the sun. Tans came along nicely as did our progress through reading picked randomly from the equally random library left by previous guests.

And we left all this to get up at 5 am to catch the bus to the Gorge from the village square because?

Of course it was as scenic as hell but you were so busy watching where you put your feet on the boulder strewn trail that you had to remind yourself to look up at the towering cliffs, clad in trees whose ability to cling on defied belief.  And you were reminded to look up by signs that said “Danger falling rocks – walk quickly”.  It seemed silly until something the size of my kitchen sink bounced over the trail and disappeared with a thud.  Thomas confirmed that there had been some direct hits.  So the signs that had lost a letter and said ” anger – falling rocks” made quite believable the idea of Greek gods having a bit of revenge.

At the 4 km mark Liz’s left calf was giving her enough pain for me to break out the Paracetamol.  Climbing is easy.  You pray for a bit of climbing.  Going down stairs for hour after hour is what does the damage.  Thomas laid great stress on our telling him of any infirmities before we started.  We didn’t realise that old age qualified – then.  We both rented Alpenstocks from him which proved a godsend as our normal support systems (legs) proved less and less reliable.

We started at 7:30 am and there were rest points at 9:30, 11:30 and 1:30.  Well, that was the time by which we had to have rested and moved on.  We moved on with half an hour to spare at the first stop but by the time we staggered into the last we sat down, stood up and had to move on, or miss the bus.  The whole of the gorge is in a national park but when their trail comes to an end there is still 2 kilometres to go to reach the sea, the beach and the boat home.  2 kms?  That’s not much further than my Fen Cottage to The Queen’s Head but we sank into chairs offered by some Cretean entrepreneurs and parted with a small fortune for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a seat on a minibus.  The passing hikers were evenly split between those who joined us and those who clearly felt that we were wimps.  A trio of wimps, who we were pleased to see were young, shared the bus with us and on being dropped in the street in the middle of the tiny cluster of restaurants that fringed the quayside, one of them declared that he had been promised a boat, where was it?  “I’m not moving any further” he said.  We hirpled the hundred yards to the beach and found ourselves a rock pool to bathe our feet in.  Life holds no better moments.

We dried our feet, put on fresh socks, and our trainers again – the sand of the beach was unbearably hot – and slowly found the shortest way to Restaurant Kri Kri where Thomas was issuing the tickets for the boat.  You’d think he might have given them to us earlier but this was his quiet way of making sure that none of his charges were missing.  Like Brian Hanrahan said of the Harriers in the Falklands war “I counted them all out and I counted them all back”.  And for us two back markers – he always managed to casually drop back to ask if we were all right.  We lied a lot that day.

We got to sit on the boat as it took us round the coast to a waiting bus.  We got to sit down!  The sea view was enough to keep us awake but on the bus the magnificent views of the White Mountains of Crete got less attention.  The bus dropped us back in the square where it had picked us up 12 hours and a lifetime before.  We tried a stretch around the tiny village to ease the pain.  If you walk backwards, downslopes are bearable.

The good news was that we had become members of a select club.  We told our story to the young woman who checked our hire car on its return.  She was so busy sharing her story of pain that we got waved through.  So even the Creteans could be the kind of cretins we tourists had been.

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Think you’re a good judge of people? Evidence beats Intuition.

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Even if you didn’t know that humans have special brain circuitry devoted to recognising faces, you’d guess that it made sense that our ancestors would need to tell friend from foe quickly and accurately.  Emerging neuroscience (putting people in MRI scanners and watching which bits of their brain light up when they do certain things) is telling us that it’s even more organised than that.  In those bits of the brain where speed is important, special ‘spindle’ cells are used.  There are more spindle cells in the face recognition area of the brain than anywhere else.

So what does that mean?  Within the first 90 seconds of meeting someone we are wired to take a view on whether we like them or not.  The problem is that the definition of friend or foe was a lot easier 100,000 years ago.  (Face painting may have helped.)  These days we’re almost bound to get a positive or negative feeling about someone based on a variety of things that may have no bearing on whether the person we’re meeting is going to be an effective work colleague (or brother-in-law).  And most of the factors won’t be conscious.

I’m going to avoid advising in the area of Speed Dating or the meetings following an online match.  The Prime Directive for any job interview is to put on one side our ‘first impressions’ and painstakingly gather evidence that will underpin a balanced and rational decision.

But why should we be balanced and rational?   Why shouldn’t we follow our instincts, go with out gut feel?

Most people have had the experience of meeting someone casually, taking a liking to them, and then during some project which threw them together as co-workers, discovering that they fell well short of their initial expectations.  Or the reverse may have happened when someone they initially disliked proved themselves to be a capable colleague.  What we are trying to do in any job interview is to reach that same stage of opinion formed from relevant experience – and avoid waking up after a few months to find that our instinctive choice isn’t turning out as we hoped.

Does it matter?  Do we need to be so painstaking?

I worked with the MD of a well-known fashion brand who was convinced that his ‘intuition’ was better than his colleagues’ or advisers’ doubts.  It cost millions, when you realise that wrong decisions in the fashion industry can destroy a season’s sales and probably your reputation going into the next season.  And that’s not counting the cost of getting rid of the people his intuition had hired.

How long do you need to interview to get it right?  For anybody other than a hopeless case, I find that it takes me 45 minutes minimum to get it right.  First impression begins to fade at 30 and at 40 I am taking a slightly different view and – it doesn’t happen all the time.

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COP 21 (the Paris climate conference) was NOT a cop out…

or How do you implement strategies that cope with the future?

The MSM (Mainstream Media) who have the capacity to be one of the less helpful elements of democratic societies, were quick to criticise COP 21 for not getting anyone to sign on the line at its conclusion on 12 December 2015.  That would happen later, in April 2016, but it didn’t stop the trigger-happy journos from sniping.  It triggered me into writing the following:

As everyone who has had anything to do with strategy knows, it’s all about implementation.  Anyone can knock up a strategy (actually, good ones are rare) but getting it agreed and making it happen takes a lot more than writing the paper.  Implementation is about communication.  And communication needs to generate ‘buy-in’.  And generating buy-in needs an understanding of the ‘buyers’.

On paper, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to get more women into Japan’s shrinking workforce was a great strategy.  In practice Japanese culture is not yet ready for this and targets have had to be drastically reduced.

Germany’s problem with its shrinking population (look up the demographics) prompted Angela Merkel to welcome migrants by the million.  For different reasons, the buy-in is not there, and her leadership on this issue has been severely tested.

The story of COP 21 in Paris is an exemplar of the kind of work that you need to do to get a strategy successfully off the ground.  Read Fiona Harvey (The Guardian 14 December 2015) to get a sense of the effort involved.  More important to register is the range and variety of techniques used, many invented just for this event: “confessionals”; “informal informals”; “indabas”.  And the techniques might not have done it had it not been for the attention to the layout:  20 cubicles for the sleep-deprived; offices close to each other for key players.  The layout was good but so was the support: 60 French diplomats; lawyers and translators; TV cameras capturing and relaying everything; a control room.

OK – it was a global conference with 196 delegates, surely you don’t have to go through all that to get a well researched and articulated strategy acted on by a board of directors?  Well, yes you do.  If there is one thing that strategists have in common it is the difficulty of getting listened to when executives get down to making big decisions.

Which brings us to Strategic Foresight.  What distinguishes the use of this term from ‘ordinary’ strategy formulation is its emphasis on incorporating the effects of the future.  And not just the observable future but the future if today’s minor trends become tomorrow’s major factors, or totally unforeseen events materialize.  Rather than try to pin down one future, a number of scenarios are worked up.

So what’s new?  Shell have been playing with scenarios since the seventies.  Hmm.  It’s a difficult question to answer.  (And the people from Shell would agree.  Scenario planning at Shell has almost died and been resuscitated three times.)

Partly it’s to do with getting everyone to see that the future needs to be looked at. Tomorrow isn’t going to be the same as today and it isn’t going away.  To the classic themes that we used to consider: political; economic; social; technical (a PEST analysis) now has to be added environmental.  And, since the seventies, turbulence in every one of these has become the norm.

Partly, there is a slowly growing recognition of which COP 21 is a reminder, that writing compelling scenarios is not enough.  Having them discussed at conferences is not enough.  Getting them endorsed by the right people or organizations is not enough. Cat Tully writes:

“A successful strategy process has the participants internalise and come collectively to a common set of policies and actions. This often means the process becomes invisible and, by the end, its conclusions are seen as ‘inevitable’ and ‘common-sense’.”

Lao Tzu knew it millennia ago.  We need to relearn: “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”  And that’s a lot of work.

It’s the invisible processes that are beginning to get more attention.  If you want to check on their invisibility read the description of COP 21 in Wikipedia.  There is no mention of the inputs, like “indabas”, like Laurent Fabius, the architect of the event, studying climate science intensely for two years beforehand. There’s only a factual account of the outputs.  Such an account is obviously needed, one just hopes it doesn’t encourage the next organiser to underinvest in the processes, particularly the intangible and sometimes odd stuff.

Adam Kahane was the facilitator of the legendary Mont Fleur Scenarios in South Africa just after Mandela’s release.  He has continued to help people ‘solve tough problems’.  Pictures of events he has subsequently managed look like a bunch of adults playing in kindergarden.  And so they should.  People, particularly people in suits and in high places, need lots of handholding and help to speak from the heart and to listen to other doing the same.  And often they need to be ‘tricked’ into dropping their facades.

Techniques for helping this abound: Open Space Technology; World Café; Metaperceptions and the entire output of the National Training Laboratories.  Plus anything you care to invent that will push people into being their best selves.  For COP 21 the proximity in time and space of the terrorist attacks on Paris had a silver lining.  Barack Obama hailed the conference as “an act of defiance” in the face of terrorism.  There’s nothing like the emergence of an external enemy for getting people to pull together.

Every year, at the School of International Futures (SOIF) Cat Tully and her colleagues bring together people involved in strategy to experience Strategic Foresight.  Over three days at a location that relaxes you all by itself, a group of 25 listen to input from experts with global reputations.  They then hear from a senior figure in a country or organization that is facing the challenge of major change.  (In 2015 it was Iran – approaching possible détente with the West.)  Being faced with delivering advice that will actually be used focuses minds and, in small sub-groups they flesh out possible futures and the moves that will be need to be made to survive or thrive in them.

That’s the spine of the event but, just like COP 21, magic is being woven into the mix using and inventing techniques that have participants say things like:

Since my participation in the Mont Fleur scenarios more than 20 years ago I rarely witnessed a more impressive learning experience.

The learning of participants through intense experience is one thing but an unusual addition to their learning at SOIF is how to pass it on.  How to integrate Strategic Foresight techniques back in the office and get them built into policy and planning.  If we are to see more of the responsiveness and resilience shown by the airline industry (still the safest, despite the media’s love of disaster) and less of the dismal reaction to the flooding of New Orleans, it’s this piece of learning that needs to be embedded in institutions around the globe.  And, at SOIF, it’s getting the attention it deserves.

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Action Learning – The Delegation Test

The delegation test: can you let your staff or children learn?

Legend has the father of Action Learning, Reg Revans, sitting in the HQ of the newly nationalised coal industry. In the brave new world that was 1946, people were enthusiastic about modernising about a thousand (!) previously privately-owned mines with pretty variable standards of this and that. There was talk of improving those standards, talk of training, talk of a University of Coal.  Revans decided to see if there were good things happening already – out in the field.

What he discovered was that highly productive mines tended to occur in clusters and that their productivity wasn’t a function of geology (i.e. the mines all tapping the same rich veins of coal). What he unearthed, so to speak, was that in the productive clusters the Undermanagers (that’s what they call the chaps who manage what’s under) had formed the habit of getting together for a pint on a Friday night to talk over the week’s problems.

This is what later became known as an Action Learning Set: a group of people running similar operations, meeting regularly to listen to each other’s problems and to offer advice. Action Learning is as simple as that. Later some argued for the presence of a facilitator, but my view is that the ale and atmosphere of the local pub are facilitation enough. There is a temptation, for all parties, to turn the facilitator into the authority figure who guides the discussion and has the answers – to the detriment of ideas and ownership.  I’ve watched it happen.

Excited by the power and simplicity of his finding, so the story goes, Reg sought an audience with the Cabinet Minister in charge of the Coal Industry. Going into the Minister’s office he met the Vice Chancellor of one of the great universities coming out. Bubbling with excitement he told Reg that a group of universities he represented had just been given £100 million to set up a University of Coal. In vain did Reg try to explain to the Minister that he could save him £100 million and get better, quicker results. The idea of Action Learning was altogether too simple to be believed.

Whether in a huff or not, Revans moved to Belgium where he headed the Inter-University project, set up to improve the ranking of Belgium in the OECD. Working with 5 universities and 23 of the country’s largest businesses, Revans succeeded in raising Belgium’s industrial productivity above that of the USA, Germany, Japan and, of course, Britain.

If you are indulging in a bit of ‘typical!’ and mentally castigating our Minister and his ilk – think on the following. Gather any bunch of senior managers and ask them what they advise for the development of their juniors and the talk will turn to training, coaching and MBAs. Then give them the privacy of working in pairs, with a flipchart, and ask them ‘When in your life, and under what conditions did you grow the most?’  A common story will emerge: ‘I was given a project that was important to the company, dropped in the deep end and left to get on with it.’  Support often came from a senior figure who gave his attention and encouragement but didn’t interfere.

What’s going on? Why do we experience the success of one thing and advocate something else? Similarly, ask a group of people what advice they would give to a recent graduate on picking an employer – it will be based on logical analysis, it will sound right. Ask those same people how they got their first job? ‘My mate went there’; ‘My Dad used to work there’; ‘I met someone in the pub’. It doesn’t sound quite good enough does it?

So we have a tendency to prefer things that sound right, that have an easy logic, that have an immediate appeal. Things that are intangible or that require us to think a bit – they come a poor second.  Does this matter? You bet it does.  We have the daily spectacle of political leaders having to deliver ‘soundbites’ that have appeal.  Failing that, they play safe with empty phrases.  If they dared something a bit more thoughtful, the next day’s headlines would be sure to find in the thoughtfulness something to tear them apart.  And these people are running nations.

At an individual level, our ability to delegate rests on our willingness to let people get on with it in their own way. This could be a way that may not sound right to us, a way without an easy logic or an immediate appeal. Directors of a company I advise were locked in a pattern of criticising each other until I pointed out that there was nothing wrong with the results each was currently producing, merely the manner in which they did it – which didn’t conform to the way that some of the others would have done it.

Delegation, letting people find their own way, is one of the key factors in productivity and innovation. Google allow their employees one day in five to do what they want – so long as they record the results. 50% of their new stuff comes from this day; not just ideas – products. From 1757 the East India Company hired the sons of the British middle class and sent them off to India to rule over bits of it the size of Wales. The only stipulation was that each ‘Deputy Commissioner’ had to send a monthly report to London. Any advice that might have been offered in return would have been irrelevant by the time ships and horses had delivered the mail. Yet this organization of DCs stayed in place for 100 years and – by the standards of the day – they were resoundingly successful.

The East India Company’s approach may have missed the getting-together aspect of Action Learning but it had the trickiest part of it – letting go and letting people learn from doing important things. The monthly report served as a fair replacement for the discussion of problems. We don’t just learn by doing; we learn by reflecting on what we have done. However busy an executive you are, I advocate keeping a daily journal, or giving yourself time for some form of reflection.

On a different front we are now discovering that children below the age of 5 – long thought to be incapable of learning in an ‘adult’ way – have learning abilities that surpass adults. Babies and young children are exquisitely designed by evolution to change and create, to learn and explore. Yet within a few years, with notable exceptions, they will be subjected to the formal input of the classroom. Why? Because formal sounds right, informal is difficult to defend. It’s good to see that the UK’s great love affair with university degrees is beginning to be tested. More young people are bypassing the system, failing as it is to guarantee them jobs. (Whoever believed that it could or should?) And I wish I had a tenner for every executive of the construction industry who has shamefacedly admitted to me that he (construction is a male world) didn’t go to university. They wanted to get out of the education system and ‘do something’. (For followers of Myers Briggs we are talking Sensors – half the population.) The shame rests with a society that allows itself to be ruled by what sounds right.

So here we are, back to Action Learning. The next time your children or your staff seem to you to be in need of learning – find them something important to do and let them get on with it, preferably in the company of others, and under the eye of someone high-ranking who knows how to encourage without interference. And ‘important’ means something that you think only you know how to do, something you obviously need to tell them how to do, something that you can’t afford to have fail.

Easy isn’t it?  Far too simple really.

“Unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.” Reg Revans

In this article the events and their sequence are not totally accurate.  The lessons to be drawn, however, remain so.  I am indebted to Alistair Mant (Google him) for his contribution.

©Brian Chandler 2010, revised 2017

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Norfolk Nights – The Tale of Albert and Eleanor

 

It helps the tale if, in the reading of it, you pronounce Albert in the French way ‘Al-bair’, and know that Eleanor, despite bearing a name that comes from France, was actually English.  They were both in the autumn of their years, or at least the late summer.

Eleanor had the kind of unworldliness of someone who had never had to worry about money.  She didn’t actually have any, well not much, but her faith in the world coming right for her was boundless.  Swiss finishing school had probably helped.

Albert (don’t forget – ‘Al-bair’) was a French peasant, a man of the soil.  He was a very rich French peasant and the soil he was a man of was his own vineyard.  Being a man of substance and a widower he was constantly ribbed by his friends and neighbours in Beziers: ‘You must marry again Albert, and settle down’.  In reply he would explain that he was waiting for a blonde he was being sent, from the North.  That is where blondes come from as you know.

Eleanor was a regular visitor to the Rookingham Centre in East Anglia where she bought the occasional antique from Roger.  Rog ran an emporium stuffed with Afghan rugs, and antiques from France.  His wife Sue ran the restaurant.  Their relaxed atmosphere caused people to drop in just to have a coffee, browse the antiques – and see who else was visiting.  It earned the name of The Vortex amongst regulars.  Sooner or later you got sucked in.

In the days when a lot of English people were buying houses in France, Rog would take their furniture over to them in his big van before refilling it with antiques bought at the French ‘brocantes’ and bringing them back for sale in England.  On one of her visits Eleanor asked Rog if he would ‘move’ her when she found a property she liked.  She said she was heading for Beziers, for no better reason apparently than she liked the sound of the name, and the climate was warm.  It so happened that Eleanor was blonde.

Eleanor sold her house, put the contents into store and gave Rog the details. The inventory started with ‘2 bricks’ and ended with ‘single bed with 3 legs’.  Once you connected the two items it made sense.  Had she been to Beziers?  No.  Was she going directly?  No, she would make her way down through France with her two dogs and two cats.  She offered to pay Rog up front.  Sensing a degree of uncertainty in her planning Rog suggested that she paid when she sent for her stuff.

Crossing the channel, she made her way slowly south.  Her finishing school French served her well and she made friends wherever she stopped.  She was a great correspondent and her letters to Rog and Sue charted her course through France.  Her copperplate handwriting was so good to look at that Sue kept the letters.

In one of them she told how she had met a farming family who had a house that they were having difficulty selling.  The house had belonged to an uncle who had grown old and died in it and the house had grown old with him.  The utilities were primitive if not dangerous, and the house was built into a hill, so on that side, the rooms had stone walls.  Who would touch it?  But the contents of every room had become antique over the years even if they hadn’t started that way.  And the garage housed a 2CV that might have been the first one made.  Eleanor knew immediately who would be interested and put the local notaire in touch with Rog.  18 months later (French property can be tricky to buy) The House in Gouex became a regular feature of Vortex conversations.  But that’s another Tale.

Eventually arriving in Beziers Eleanor met Albert and Albert met Eleanor.  They met when walking their dogs.  Dogs are great socialisers.  Soon they were walking them together.  When Albert heard that she was living in a hotel, his farmer’s thriftiness prompted him to invite her to stay in his house.  On an introductory tour of his estate she noticed him picking up a large snail that was in danger of being stood on, and placing it carefully to one side.  His thoughtfulness sat well with Eleanor’s nature.  She ran a shop in Glastonbury that catered to those who believed in the healing power of crystals.  When she discovered that Albert also believed in such things, it was not long before Rog and Sue received a copperplate message asking for her furniture to be brought to Beziers.  However, it seemed that the 3 legged bed was not required.

One day, when Albert judged that their relationship was strong enough, he took her to the tiny courtyard at the side of his house that was cool and sheltered from the sun.  Opening a small door in the stone wall he showed her the substantial collection of large snails that were enjoying the dark, the damp and the heaps of herbs.  They would, he explained, be in fine condition to be part of the feast which would mark their marriage.

Sue still has the copperplate invitation.

 

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‘Poker Face’ – and the second language of communication

There are many things that happen to us that suggest adopting a poker face would be a smart move.  You may be teased when young, or you may suffer bullying, and showing that you are affected is the last thing you want to do.  The transition from primary to secondary school is rich in occasions when we don’t want to show that we are upset.   Although, in adulthood, there are still situations where this is useful, mostly it’s more effective to let your emotions show.  And we’re not talking about being ‘emotional’ which is the way we describe people who get easily upset and display acutely negative emotions like anger and despair – normally inappropriately.

What we are talking about is the rich range of day-to-day emotions like surprise, amusement, disappointment, disbelief etc.  In fact, academics in this field have listed more than 400 separately identifiable emotions, whose appearance in our faces creates a second language of communication.  This second ‘language’ – our ability to tell what another person is feeling (and thereby guess at what they are thinking) is not something we have to learn, it’s something we become skilful at as young children.  In fact, not developing this skill at around 12 months is one of the symptoms of Autism.  However it’s something we tend to suppress.  Telling someone that you can see how they are feeling, and therefore thinking, is not exactly encouraged in our society.

So bringing this skill back into play and letting more emotions into your face will have a number of benefits:

  • It will make you more accessible to others; people will warm to you, there will be better ‘chemistry’.  A real negative emotion is more attractive than a plastic positive one.  (Whatever you think of ‘Reality TV’ – this is the basis of its appeal.)
  • You’ll be more in touch with your own emotions and better able to guide your accompanying reactions and decisions.
  • It will help you become comfortable in using your ability to read reactions in others.  Exploring someone’s emotional reaction, thoughtfully and carefully, may feel awkward but is seen by the recipient as understanding and helpful.
  • It will open the way to appearing more mature, and developing gravitas.

Find a role model who appeals to you, or just watch for characteristics in others that you like and add them to your portfolio.  The trick in executing any part of your emotional portfolio will be to allow the mindset that would underpin it.   Don’t try to control your actions; we’re talking method acting here.  Just be that way.

We are worse at concealing our emotions than we think, and better at detecting others’.  Our emotions are there for others to see just as theirs are plain to us.  We don’t mind each other’s emotions; it’s the masks that cause distrust.  (Horses, who read human emotion, are at ease with people with Autism and Asperger’s – what you see is what you get.  It’s ‘normal’ people who are pretending one thing and feeling another that spooks them.  Ask a regular rider.)  And as Laurence Olivier is supposed to have said ‘If you can fake sincerity – you’ve got it made’.

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Interviews – who’s in charge? (being a successful interviewee)

You are about to be interviewed for a job you’d really like to have and you desperately hope you come across well.  Stop worrying about your performance, you just need the right interviewer to bring it out of you.  Worry instead about their performance.

Interviewing is like sex, learning from watching someone else is unusual, and it’s unusual to get feedback on your own performance.  Not surprisingly, standards of interviewing skills are not high.  So stop worrying about how well you are going to do as interviewee, and start entertaining the idea that you may have to, gently, influence the event.

It starts with the job ad.  Most are so full of guff about how wonderful the organisation is that they tell you little about the job and the qualities of the ideal candidate.  So start researching and imagining.  Not just about the job, and the organisation, but the industry that it is in and the pressures on it.  Anybody going for a job in the nuclear world has to know how beset it is with safety regulations, and for a job in a knowledge business like newspapers or libraries, the challenge of competing with free information from the internet.

Not only does the job ad fall short but interviewers have been so busy with the day job that they haven’t had time to figure out what they are looking for.  ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ is a familiar cry.

So have a list** of things that you would be looking for in a candidate in terms of the job, the organisation and the understanding of the industry.  And then rehearse stories of how you fit them, ready to pop out in the interview for them to see.

The second pitfall for the busy, unprepared, interviewer is that they grab your CV gratefully like a safety blanket and proceed to talk you through it.  During the process, when they will home in on gaps, or short duration jobs, they will be playing Sherlock Holmes – making their deductions – rather than asking you to explain and give proof of your abilities.

The third pitfall, although it often drowns the rest, is that they start to tell you about the job, the organisation and their experiences – and never stop.  A lesser but similar crime is to find something that you have in common and have a really good chat.  In a way, this is the worst crime because it can leave both parties feeling that they have had a good exchange but with little evidence to support your case when comparing you with others against the requirements of the job.

So have your list** and, if you have to, draw the conversation back to the stories of how you fit the bill.  No need to be pushy: ‘I imagine that you find (X, Y or Z)  difficult.  Am I right?’; ‘I’ve had some experience of … Would this be relevant?’

And I’ve mentioned stories a few times.  Most interviewers will just ask you if you know about/have had experience of/what you think about …  They may accept reassuring but empty noises – what you have to do is tell them your ‘War Stories’ :

Pull to mind 12 stories about you: memorable stories that illuminate your strengths, particularly in relation to this job.  Rehearse them until you can deliver a 60 second sound bite for each.  Write them down if this helps.  Include negatives ‘We didn’t see the solution straight away’  ‘It was tough keeping the team together’:  the negatives will make the positives believable.

The ability to deliver a corroborative story succinctly will establish three things about you in the minds of your audience.

  1. You’re smart – the stories themselves convey that.
  2. You’re articulate – they don’t know how hard you’ve practised.
  3. You’ve got strength in depth – if you can come up with one example off the top of your head, there must be lots more where that came from.

And if your stories are memorable your interviewer will be able to recall them when convincing management that you are the person for the job – despite you salary demands!

And remember, from your own times as an interviewer, you actually want the candidate to succeed.

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