The MAP is not the territory

I love maps, always have. From my first tentative adventures with a compass as a child to qualifying as a Mountain Leader they have helped me make sense of the world. From life saving maps such as the work of John Snow around cholera to the current visualisations of “big data” – I’m fascinated. So when I was given the opportunity to be part of an elite “blog squad” for an event called “MAP” I obviously leapt at it.

I think I misunderstood.

Apparently MAP also stands for the Midlands Area Partnership of the CIPD, (Ok maybe I did know that really) and I’ve been invited to their Annual Event (8th October) which is all about Building Workplaces for the Future. I won’t lie, when I saw that title my heart sank a little. In my experience we haven’t even got workplaces fit for current purpose and I wondered if it would be all about the rise of the robots etc etc. However, I’m pleased to say that the programme looks really good and grounded in the here and now. Let me run you through what I’m looking forward to and why.

First up is a “Brexit Breakfast – an early bird session about the impact that Brexit (if it ever happens) might make to employment law and the very real problems that the current limbo situation is raising. I’m looking forward to a clear, no nonsense summary and I’ll aim to blog about this whilst registration is going on.

After that it’s Peter Cheese, the top man at the CIPD and he’s doing the keynote with Tim Jones from Network Rail. Being an ex-London Underground employee I’m excited that we will get an industrial perspective, not just white collar workers. Apparently some of the content will be around the recent overhaul of Birmingham New Street station and having got lost there recently I’d like to know what it took to make such a major transformation happen.

After that we are breaking in to 4 smaller workshops. I know that my partner in crime Helen Amery has baggsied “The Complexity of People Issues – Getting Under the Surface” led by Karen Meager so I’m aiming for “New Organisations, New Jobs” – led by Joanne Werth and Peter Kay from Tarmac. Again I’m keen to see where industrial / engineering orgs are with the people agenda and I’m expecting a lot from the Tarmac gang as their sector and company has been evolving at great pace with so many large infrastructure projects happening in the UK.

After lunch there is another round of the same 4 workshops and as I’ve already seen a lot from Laura Overton and her colleagues at Towards Maturity on “Developing Talent – Preparing for the Future of Learning” I’m going to swerve that and aim for “Future Technologies: Making Learning as Addictive as Video Games” – led by Karyn Murray and Nitin Thakrar of E-Learning Studios. Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of using terminology such as “addiction” to describe learning, perhaps biased by doing so much work in Emotional and Mental Health. Having said that I’m fascinated by how technology can make learning fun, portable and impactful so I’m going to give it a whirl and report back.

Finally we have “Keep Stepping! Essential ways to lead yourself and others through challenge and change” with Joy Marsden. Joy has a system which focuses on motivation and resilience through change – things I spend much of my working life dealing with, (particularly when organisations haven’t looked after their people), so I think that will be a perfect way to end the day.

treasure-map-ocal-diff-colours-hiThis sort of event is new territory for me. I’m looking forward to exploring and experiencing it. If you’re attending then please seek me out and say hi. If you can’t make it and / or want to follow along via social media the twitter hashtag is #CIPDMAP16. Do check out @CIPD_MAP and my blog partner Helen Amery on Saturday the 8th October. We will do our best to map the day and provide you with a way of navigating the experience and allow you to reflect on it all.

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Loyal Antagonism

I was listening to a podcast last week. The screenwriter of the Imitation Game was being interviewed about the creative process and the many challenges he had faced whilst preparing this project. He was talking about the importance of a “loyal antagonist” as integral to his success – a person who would be honest with him and challenge him to improve his work.

The most obvious example of this that I have encountered is union representation – many times the unions are seen to have antithetical aims to management and are viewed as an irritant. However in my experience many representatives are actually committed  to the purpose of the organisation, they just express it differently, often because that is the only way their voice might be heard.

As I read around the idea I was reminded of the phrase “Speaking truth to power” attributed to Bayard Rustin, the prominent civil rights activist in 1950s America though thought to have origins in Quaker philosophy of the late 1700s. That then also made me think of the role of a jester, able to speak and mock the monarch, to expose cant and hypocrisy amongst the court. All of these examples say much about the power often residing in elites and there being a limited number of people allowed to challenge orthodoxy.

I’m lucky to have a number of friends who I can count on for advice and encouragement. Like me, many of them work as coaches and I wondered if that is the best example of a loyal antagonist. A relationship where there is no hierarchy or position of assumed power.

My final thought is around leadership.


What might happen if we encouraged individuals and teams to speak out, positively assuming that they start from a position of loyalty ? What if managers learned to accept the challenge respectfully, demonstrating that loyalty goes both ways and allowing antagonism to be seen as beneficial to the organisation?

I still don’t have an answer and I’d be grateful for inputs / challenges to my thinking – in the best spirit of loyal antagonism……


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Informed choice

It’s good that the conversation with my current psychiatrist is actually a proper dialogue. We talk about what matters – to both of us. I’ve made it clear that I’d like the normality of knowing a little more about his role and life experience, about how that informs his practice. He on the other hand wants to know what has worked for me that he might be able to share with others. He’s genuinely interested in me and how I calibrate myself. Unlike some previous examples……

……and he makes time for me.

He openly encourages a broader discussion. Last time we met, we sat and looked up a medication together. Him with his textbook and me using his computer to find the guidance on the Mind website (check out treatment / drug advice here if you need some factsheets) – he even asked me to bookmark the page for his future reference. We discussed how the particular medication might interact with my current regime and also the potential drawbacks. He let me go away to think about it and make my own decision with the caveat that I needed to take some action and if it wasn’t this then we would need to consider what else it might be.

Well, I’ve thought and thought. Turned it over in my mind and also experienced an increasing number of “breakthrough” symptoms on my existing medication regime. Which means it’s time for a change, well an addition. If this doesn’t work out then my next option is probably the rest of my life on a different, more invasive medication. The psychiatrist wanted to give me a chance and exhaust all my options rather than taking what might be an easier route for him.

img_1822I’m conflicted about it. I don’t want more medication, more adjustments, the time taken to work out the titration and side effects. It feels like another small defeat. An abdication of responsibility for my mood is not a good thing but perhaps it is a temporary measure – that’s what I’m telling myself right now. So whilst it feels like another little chipping away of my agency I also know that I can discuss it and get good advice from him. The kind of advice which will allow me to make my own decisions.


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The first round of the table always leaves me watchful for the little niggles between colleagues, the hierarchy being established, power being displayed and measured. It’s the kind of place where everyone quickly states how long they have been there, which evolution of the organisation they joined at – and that’s before the demarcation between functions and operations.

The morning session went pretty well. A good level of interest for the programme and some obviously motivated delegates. This afternoon it’s the second cohort to go through the introduction. We go round the table and the numbers start coming in – my heart sinks a little – 16 years, 19 years, 25 years and then the winner.

Worked here for 39 years.

He’s survived through various acquisitions, mergers, reorganisations and “multiple management training programmes”.

And we are introducing a batch of training designed to ensure consistency across all management grades. Not the leadership stuff but the policy and procedure. This guy has been here longer than most of the procedures let alone his colleagues! I wonder what he will say when answering the question “What do you want to get out of this course?”

I can’t remember his exact words but to paraphrase “I really want to learn how other colleagues solve problems and I’d like to share some of my knowledge or experience if it might be useful”. Which sets the tone for the rest of the session. It encourages older and younger colleagues to swap examples, to share insights and ask each other for help.

The cohorts are not fixed, this collection of people will not necessarily all be in the same session for next months module. Different dynamics will emerge and play out but I hope that everyone will remember this moment. How rare to meet someone of such experience who is so utterly without agenda, who has no need for ego or position to define him in this room.

I can’t wait to work with him again.



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Ticking over

The email from the client had all the usual pleasantries about summer and “how are you?” – I answered “ticking over”. I don’t really like the British defaults such as “not bad” or “mustn’t grumble” so I did give my answer some thought and I found it accurate.

The client is also someone I know socially and we have shared an occasional beer and a couple of working lunches. I certainly know them sufficiently to be honest and open about my mental health. Their response was to state that my “ticking over” sounded like their “well enough” which hints at more but is a perfectly acceptable response in order to be pleasant. Our emails pinged back and forth and it forced me to think carefully about my turn of phrase.

Even allowing for the fact that emails lack tone and nuance I think we all tend to give stock responses, particularly in a business conversation. However I know this client better than many so I don’t need to give an evasive / simplistic answer. So what did I mean? Ticking over isn’t a common phrase for me but it was how I had judged my mood when asked. To me it spoke of a measured calm, rhythmic and steady progress but there was no way that my client would know that. I thought of other phrases I use (and knowingly deploy to give a socially acceptable answer).

  • There is “trundling along” which is closer to the “well enough” my client used.
  • I use “I’m on transmit” as an apology if I feel I’m going too fast / am dominating conversation.
  • In conversation I might say “I’m slow today” as a way to explain a sluggishness of thought but also a low mood or depressive phase.
  • Another one is “fizzy” to describe an elated mood state, less powerful than “on transmit” but also full of (generally positive) agitated feelings. Sometimes a good state for planning / brainstorming.

I could go on but you get the idea. I’m very open about my mental health, it’s a facet of my business after all. I help some people be more open about their mental health, I help others learn the listening skills of Mental Health First Aid. I deliver an exercise about building a mood scale, sharing it with colleagues or loved ones so that you can understand each other easily yet even I give standardised responses. I try not to give evasive or dismissive answers or even avoid the question all together but it’s hard to find something which is a brief nugget to go alongside comments about the weather.

Building a shared language is difficult when working as a freelancer. You don’t share an office or go to the same meetings so that an understanding can be built. Often it is brief calls or email exchanges, particularly with long standing, trusted clients. Many of my client contacts aren’t on social media so also lose that measure of how I’m showing up in the world.

I’m glad we had the email conversation about what I meant. It gave me pause for thought, in both what I say and what the other person thought I might mean (wrongly in this case). I speak a certain code which makes sense to me and to those who know me well. At times I use it to avoid a longer response or as a shorthand but these days I never actually lie about my health. However I realise that I’ve probably sanitised my answers more times than I would have liked.

Later that day I had a client call booked with two contacts in another organisation and when I was asked how I was I replied “a little tired but my mood is balanced and steady”. And yes I know that is also incredibly clunky but the clients know me well enough and deserve an honest answer. Anyway, perhaps I’ll think of a better way to say these things the next time I’m “fizzy”.

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Niche proposition

I fell in to being self employed. It wasn’t part of my plan (not that I ever had much of a plan for my career). I’d seen self employment make my father very ill and experienced the precariousness of his fluctuating income when I was younger. Having said all that I’ve grown to rather enjoy the experience. The flexibility gained and the variety of employers keep it interesting so that what started as a few odd jobs whilst I waited for my next operations role has built in to a small business.

Early on I was encouraged by a number of people, many of them also small business owners. It was suggested that I needed a “niche” – something that I am known for, the “go to guy” for that particular discipline. For a long time I resisted that as I like the variety of differing work. As time has gone on though my work has started to fall in to two main areas. One based on my operational experience and the other based on helping organisations and individuals with their emotional health. The only departure from that is some occasional mediation and generalist associate work.

career_directionI’m currently taking advantage of a few quiet weeks to do some business development (between the Tour de France and the upcoming Olympics / Paralympics I think I timed this well). Seriously though, I’m working on what my narrative is, what I actually do for my clients and I’ve managed to identify an underlying process which works across a variety of my offerings. Right now, anecdotally at least, it’s a tough time for small independent providers and it’s tempting to try to offer more, be all things to all people in an effort to drive business. I’m trying to update my website and display my niche skills whilst still providing visibility to other services I provide……

…..and it’s not easy.

Another variable is that my (perhaps) best known niche is in the area of Mental Health. I make some of my living as an “Expert by Experience” and herein lies the challenge. Does working in this niche actually help my own mental health? It’s a problem I’ve wrestled with before and there don’t seem to be easy answers.

Where does that leave my business development? I’m working in an area where I’m unlikely to go out of business imminently (though it does feel that way often – you have to kiss a lot more frogs than you’d think). However, whilst it’s great helping organisations make changes to the way they look after their staff it does come at a cost to me.

I’m not unique in finding myself in a niche which isn’t where I started / wanted to go – that describes many people in employment. I imagine there are others amongst the self employed who would like to be known for much more than a narrow strand of their capabilities but the reality is that it’s hard enough to get the work, do the work and get paid on time before you think about diversifying.

I don’t have a particular reason for writing this blog, it was just on my mind as I work. Maybe though there is a resonance for both the employed and self employed. What niche have you ended up stuck in and what (if anything) are you doing to break out? I’d be interested to read your stories / comments.



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Always aware

One of the joys of social media has been the ability to connect swiftly and easily with many points of view, so much informed debate and critical thought. My chosen channels are awash with information but it is the quality of the connections which brings this information alive and turns it in to useful knowledge.

Much of my work is within the field of health and organisational wellbeing. There is a plethora of resources shared within this area and then also there are specific awareness days / weeks. One of the criticisms often levelled at these events is that we should be speaking about the subject year round, not just on World Mental Health Day (10th October is the date for your diary). I understand this but I still see the worth more generally.

Next week it is Mental Health Awareness Week and sure enough I’m delivering a talk for the CIPD North Yorkshire branch but in a wonderful moment of serendipity it’s also International Coaching Week.

This led me to a conversation with my good friend and colleague David Goddin and he had a great idea. Harnessing the power of social media and the energy of an awareness week to host a series of bitesize tweet chats about issues within coaching. Obviously with the crossover to Mental / Emotional Health that will be one of the series but we have tried to think more broadly.

We would love you to get involved so every morning next week you can join us on the hashtag #ICWbites at 0900 BST.

MONDAY 16th – “Social Media in Coaching”

TUESDAY 17th – “Coaching for Emotional Health”*

WEDNESDAY 18th – “Coaching and Leadership”

THURSDAY 19th – “The Democratisation of Coaching”

FRIDAY 20th – “Coach Development”

There will be 4 quick questions in each chat and we won’t dwell too long so don’t be late! Hopefully they will start conversations which last long beyond the awareness week.

Awareness Concept - Golden Compass Needle on a Black Field Pointing.

Awareness Concept – Golden Compass Needle on a Black Field Pointing.


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