Will Theranos revolutionise the blood test?

Every now and again something comes along that promises to really revolutionise part of life. I read about one over the weekend. If you’ve ever had blood taken, or watched as your child has had blood taken, you’ll know that it’s a process that many people find really upsetting.

Now, technology developed by a US company called Theranos could change that.

CEO Elizabeth Holmes believes her company has a technology that can check for all kinds of health problems such as high cholesterol to cancer, just by analysing a drop or two of blood drawn from a pinprick from your finger.
Holmes believes her technology will cost a fraction of current blood test procedures. And, clearly, it’s much less invasive.

Read about Theranos in this article from December in The New Yorkerelizabeth_holmes_photo1


A tribute to Maria: an extraordinary example of a great leader

Earlier this week I was privileged to attend a leaving party held in honour of a very special individual who has led an essential NHS service with enormous skill for over 20 years. It is a rare for anyone to receive quite such glowing tributes from all who have worked with her, served under her, or benefitted from the service she had led.

Her own boss gave an excellent farewell speech in which she referred to the 6 Cs – care, compassion, competence, communication, courage and commitment. This philosophy is meant to underpin nursing in the UK, but it struck me that they are fine attributes for leaders in any sector.

No matter where you work, if you don’t demonstrate care for your team, they’ll leave. Similarly, compassion is essential. Your team is made up of real life human beings. Not every day can be a good day. Leaders need to show they have competent skills, and that they can lead their team into action, or else they have no credibility. It goes without saying that they must communicate well and have the courage to make tough decisions.

The lady in question (Maria) had all of these competencies in abundance, and a great sense of humour, too.

She will be sorely missed, but such has been her influence that I have every confidence that the team she leaves behind will go from strength to strength. That, I suspect, is the greatest possible tribute to her leadership skills. Enjoy your retirement Maria.

Did you thank anyone today?

The results of a survey which found its way into The Times earlier in May suggested that a well-timed thank you from the boss feels as rewarding as a £1,600 a year pay rise. The research was commissioned by recruitment firm Monster.co.uk, and whilst it’s never wise to place too much weight on the findings of a PR inspired piece of research (goodness knows I’ve been involved in enough myself!), this one did make me pause for thought.

Saying thank you is of course simply a question of good manners. But how often are good manners left in reception when people go into work? The statistics produced for this research suggest this is happening too much. Apparently 58 per cent of those polled think people don’t say thank you enough in their workplace. Just 2 percent say they hear it too much.

Saying thank you, then, represents an unbelievably easy opportunity for leaders to improve workplace morale, and perhaps even reduce staff turnover. Most of us like to feel appreciated, and will question our loyalty to an organisation if we feel we are being taken for granted.

It’s not necessarily quite as simple as that though. How many of you have been in receipt of what I’m going to call the ‘linked thank you’. It goes something like this: “David, thanks for that report. Great effort, but could you just…..”. There is an element of gratitude, but it’s only linked to a request for something else.

As a leader, we need to think about when and how to give thanks, or the positive effect can be lost. Too much gushing praise can turn some people off, as they may start to question the sincerity of what is being said. Some might like to receive a glowing endorsement in front of their colleagues, some might find that to be hideously embarrassing. Know your audience.

Personally, I feel that these days one of the most powerful methods of saying thanks is to take the time to write a personal note. You know, with a pen, on a piece of paper! It may seem dreadfully old fashioned, but it can have real impact. But this is a job you should not delegate. Do it yourself, write it yourself, sign it yourself. Please don’t have someone sign it on your behalf. That simply says I’m trying hard to show I’m grateful, but I can’t quite be bothered to see the job through.

Good manners are a vital component of a happy and successful working environment. 83 percent of those polled in the Monster survey endorse this statement. It is of course plain common sense, but as I’ve written many times before, common sense is often a casualty at work.

Thanks for reading.

Sometimes the most effective leaders aren’t leaders

With the UK’s next General Election less than a year away, the political battlefield is becoming more acrimonious by the day. But will people vote on the basis of the policies of the main political parties, or will it be a leadership contest between Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, with others like Farage influencing the outcome too?

Increasingly, the leader receives all the attention, not just in the world of politics, but in business, sport and the public sector too. Very few leaders are able to deliver lasting change. There are of course exceptions: President FW de Klerk in South Africa; Steve Jobs on his return to Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. But more often than not, success is short term and sporadic.

Despite this, there’s never a shortage of people looking for the top job in all walks of life. Sure some might be attracted by the financial rewards. Others enjoy the prestige and the fame. But do you need to be the boss in order to lead? Some would say that it is possible to be more influential operating just under the radar as part of a leadership team. Let’s face it the rewards are still pretty good, the prestige high, but the ‘front of stage duties’ are less onerous.

It’s a subject dealt with in a new book by Richard Hytner called Consiglieri: leading from the shadows. It’s a word used to denote a trusted advisor, usually within a criminal context. But here Hytner, the deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide uses it as a more glamorous introduction to the idea of the power behind the throne.

The book is published in early June, but he spoke about it on Radio Four earlier this week, his central premise being that it is often the case that the real power in an organisation resides with people operating just below the very top level. They have the time to effect real and lasting change, whereas the ultimate leader risks becoming the face of the organisation, often front of stage, but thus unable to spend the time needed to make things happen.

Hyntner is a Manchester United fan, and uses the example of René Meulensteen, who was a highly successful number 2 to Sir Alex Ferguson, but who failed when he moved front of stage with Fulham. There are plenty of other examples too. Gordon Brown was regarded as an effective Chancellor in Tony Blair’s government. He infamously craved the keys to Number 10, but was pretty disastrous when he finally received them.

Schools, companies, football teams and political parties need effective leadership teams, not just a good frontman or woman. So if you feel it’s hard to distinguish between the policies of our main political parties, how about taking a look at their possible senior leadership team? How does your view of politics change if you compare arguably the four most senior members of each of the main political parties, namely:

Conservatives: David Cameron, George Osborne, William Hague, Theresa May

Labour:        Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Yvette Cooper

LibDems:       Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Danny Alexander

In the age of the star player, or the most photogenic and media friendly leader, it’s perhaps relevant to remember that the most effective team is usually the one that wins elections, titles or market share. Strong leadership means more than simply having a strong leader.

What if Ofsted regulated the private sector?

My interest in leadership spans the private sector, sport and education. The similarities and idiosyncrasies are fascinating. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of education.

I’m a vice chair of Governors at a special school, and recently went through my first Ofsted inspection. Ofsted is the body that regulates schools in England. For many who work in education, its two day inspections are feared, loathed some might say. Ofsted inspects schools in four key areas, and provides a judgement in each area, along with an overall judgement. Thus each school is graded as being one of the following:

  • Outstanding
  • Good
  • Requires Improvement
  • Inadequate

The school I’m involved with was judged to be requiring improvement. I think it was a fair judgement, even though there is evidently a lot of good and outstanding practice within the school.

Quality of teaching is one of the key areas for Ofsted to inspect. Lessons are observed for 20 minutes or so, a grade is given, and, until now at least, the teacher is then told the grade he or she has achieved. It’s clearly great if your lesson is regarded as being good or outstanding, but I’d imagine it is deeply upsetting if you don’t receive such a positive outcome.

Our school is now working hard to address the specific issues raised by Ofsted. Since the inspection, though, there has been a quiet revolution at Ofsted. Its head of schools, Mike Cladingbowl, now says that lessons should not be graded, and teachers certainly should not feel that their lesson has been judged during the 20 minute observation. Many involved in education have welcomed this. Read David Didau for example. Others, like James Bowkett, are less impressed.

I’m not a teacher, so the debate started me thinking about how we give and receive feedback in other walks of life. I’ve led teams in a number of companies and organisations in both the private and voluntary sector, and I’ve never been judged as ‘outstanding’, or, happily, as ‘inadequate’. I guess those judgements have been made in different ways, though. Working in PR for example, my clients have from time to time been kind enough to describe work as brilliant or outstanding. A few have told me I’m rubbish, too. The praise was lovely, but I set myself high standards, so it’s what I was aiming for.

Sometimes, when I was told I was, to all effects, inadequate. I sulked. Sometimes, as is the way with PR companies, I and my colleagues would whip ourselves into a frenzy of indignation and end up united in agreement that it was the stupid client’s fault. Every now and again, though, I might accept that the criticism had at least a kernel of truth.

Feedback should be truthful, regardless of the profession. But we have to recognise that people receive feedback in different ways. Some might respond to a ‘requires improvement’ judgement with a renewed sense of fire in their belly. Others might go on the defensive and blame everyone but themselves.

What we all have to consider is how to give and deliver feedback in a manner which improves performance, because that’s what we’re interested in, whether we’re a school, a PR firm, or a football team. I suspect this is where Ofsted needs to do more work, too.

I don’t think it is fair to deny outstanding teachers the praise they deserve. Presumably everyone who goes into teaching wants to deliver outstanding lessons and achieve outstanding outcomes. There may be some who don’t, and I’m all in favour of a regulatory system that supports schools in the identification of consistently under achieving teachers who refuse to evaluate their own performance. But few of us go through life without the occasional wobble. We can’t always be great at what we do. What’s crucial is the help we receive when we’re off form.

Final point. The latest public data from Ofsted reveals the following verdict on the quality of teaching in England’s schools. 55% of it is good. 10% is outstanding. 30% requires improvement, and 5% is inadequate.

I don’t claim to know whether Ofsted is doing a good job. I know plenty of experienced and sensible people who hate it. But I’m sure we do need a regulator focussed on ensuring our children are given the best possible start in life. I’d love to hear from you. Should Ofsted continue to grade individual lessons or apply an overall grade based on a series of observations? And outside the education sector, do you think performance would improve if your company used a system of Ofsted style grades to judge individual performance?

Do under-performing staff ever improve?

I’ve given and received a fair few performance appraisals during my career. Hopefully some that I’ve given have been useful, but I have to admit to plenty of doubts here. I’m not convinced there is anything we can do to help under-performing staff to improve. I’d suggest that it is pretty much all down to the individual in question.

In my experience, people who want to up their game don’t wait for a performance appraisal to do that. They seek every opportunity to look, listen and learn, day in, day out. I still do it today. If I see or hear someone I consider to be outstanding, I’m not afraid to try and mimic the skills that impressed me so much. I’d suggest that the employee who waits for a performance appraisal to consider their performance is, frankly, under-performing.

So is there indeed anything  we can do to help under-performing staff to improve? I do think it’s vital to try and establish a sense of trust with the direct report in question. It’s almost impossible to have no holds barred conversations if there’s little or no trust. Then it’s about defining the reality gap. Your definition of acceptable performance compared with their understanding of how they are performing. Once there is real acceptance from the person being appraised that the gap exists, you can progress. If there is no acceptance, it is virtually impossible to move on.

I’ve never found it helps to be brutal in these situations. Speak openly and honestly, but take care to preserve your colleague’s dignity. If they suspect they are under personal attack they will become more defensive, and it becomes harder still to achieve your objectives.

If and when the reality gap has been acknowledged, understood and agreed, there are a number of areas to probe:

  • Are there personal issues affecting performance? Some people love to (dare I say it?) over share their personal challenges. Others fiercely resist, when perhaps it might be helpful if they did let you in.
  • Is there a confusion of expectation? Is the individual unclear what you expect of them?
  • Is there clarity over what good likes? Do you and your colleague simply have a different set of standards?
  • Is the individual a square peg in a round hole? Do they have the talent, but their face simply doesn’t fit in your team?
  • Is the individual bored, and simply needs some new challenges, either within your organisation, or elsewhere?

My theory is that on average within most organisations, public and private, around 10% of staff are underperforming for one reason or another. Stage one is to identify who they are. Stage two is to try and do something about them.

For more on this, have a read of the excellent Leadership Freak

The leader of the Orchestra

As a leader, your aim must be to help others to do the right thing. So said Sir Stuart Rose, one time saviour of Marks and Spencer, and newly appointed NHS leadership guru. I’d read much about Sir Stuart before I saw him speak at an NHS conference 18 months ago. I didn’t want to like him, but I found the energy and sincerity of his talk that day utterly irresistible. He is impossible to ignore.

I like his approach here. Leadership is not about doing everything yourself, although personally I think it is important that your team feels you could and would do everything if required. It’s hard to lead a PR team if your team doubt your ability to pitch journalists. A Head Teacher will struggle to gain credibility with his or her teaching team if they suspect he isn’t a great teacher. An NHS leader may struggle to succeed if they can’t show empathy with patients or an understanding of, say, surgical techniques. Leadership is about supporting others to make the right decisions, and to help them to understand themselves, both their strengths and weaknesses.

That’s why I encourage leaders to consider themselves as  the conductor of an Orchestra. They are not expected to play every instrument, or indeed to know how to play each instrument, but they need an appreciation of the challenges unique to each instrument. They need to have good timing (organisation skills if you will); they must know when to herald a crescendo (the call to action); they must understand when less is more (the need to avoid micro-management and let people get on with their jobs). Most of all, they must bring everyone together at the right time. No need for explanation of that final point.

I’ve found that most people involved in leadership get the Orchestra analogy. I think it’s a handy metaphor to guide everyday leadership strategy and behaviour.

Leadership in adversity: from the Ashes to Tesco

The last few weeks have been pretty unrelentingly dismal if, like me, you’re a fan of English cricket. The Ashes, that little urn contested by England and Australia, have been relinquished after a 5-0 whitewash at the hands of the men in green baggy caps. So what now for England’s leadership team of head coach Andy Flower and captain Alistair Cook?

Leadership in adversity is where great leaders are made. It’s relatively easy to captain a winning team. Less so when the team is in a downward spiral and requires renewal.

The challenge is to gain balanced external perspective. It’s easy to just listen to friendly voices and block the negative ones; to adopt an ‘us against the rest of the world’ siege mentality. But the most effective leaders welcome criticism. They don’t have to agree with it all, after all, if every dissenting voice was heard we’d be left with no players at all bar Ben Stokes. But good leaders have the strength to listen to and consider harsh criticism before drawing up an action plan.

When Flower and Cook return from Australia in February I suggest they will need a couple of weeks off, away from it all. Then they need to chat with a variety of people they respect. Not necessarily allies or people they like, but people they respect.

Within the corporate world winners and losers are emerging from the Christmas period. Companies like Debenhams and Tesco might need to go through the same process as Cook and Flower. Of course these organisations have non-executive directors who should be performing that role of critical friend. It depends, though, on whether those appointments have been made to simply reinforce the executives, or, as should be the case, to provide both support and robust challenge.

Perhaps the England and Wales Cricket Board should consider  a small team of non-execs to work with Flower and Cook, their role being to provide critical challenge rather than simply agreeing the party line. Experts like Atherton, Brearley and Collingwood come to mind. There are others, too, but those three have the kind of calmness, experience and maturity which would allow them to play a helpful background role.

Am I good enough?

Few will admit it, well not at first, but it’s the shadow of doubt that hangs over most of us as we contemplate a leadership role. In my experience I feel that those who can be open about those doubts tend to make the strongest leaders, that’s as long as they don’t succumb to total inertia in the face of doubt. Those totally full of confidence in their own ability often fail to see the iceberg on the horizon.

Leadership is a process that can be broken down into various parts. Indeed the literature on the subject is remarkably consistent in what it considers to be the essentials of leadership. You’ll find words and phrases like envisioningempowering, emotional intelligence and efficiency, along with some words that don’t begin with an e, appearing regularly.

My aim is to try and provide some help to leaders, both existing and budding, in both the private and public sector. I’ve worked in both and feel there are examples of good and bad in both. I’d dare to suggest that the public sector can’t necessarily learn from the private sector. The expertise is spread across all walks of life.

There are four key areas to consider on leadership. Your self, your people, your business, and your customers. I use words like business and customers, but that doesn’t mean to preclude leaders in hospitals, schools, voluntary organisations and central or local government.

I opened with the question am I good enough? Thus in my next contribution I’ll look at the characteristics of effective leaders.