The revolution starts at closing time

Good insights into ‘Social HR’

So then, social HR. What is that all about, eh?

Not content with beating ourselves up about our lack of a seat at the mythical table (get there early is my advice. There is nothing worse than having to pull up a chair) we now find the “social HR” community (what an awful label) turning in on itself and attacking each other for sheep-like behaviour, being fake and not walking the talk. In essence, the message seems to be “it’s all too cosy and there is no impact on real life HR practice.”

Now I have no problem with the authors of such pieces. In general, I enjoy reading their posts and respect their point of view. They make me think, and if I’m thinking I’m learning.

It’s great to ask questions and have a debate and agitate but come on. None of us can change the world in 140…

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Why IT needs to be more humanistic and how HR can help

hu•man•ist n

1. a person with a strong concern for human welfare, values, and dignity.

2. pertaining to human nature, affairs, or welfare.

– – – – – – – –

I’ve always been interested in people.  Not in a ‘tell me about your mother’ kind of way, as that would likely require a spell at University which I wanted to avoid at all costs, but more in a ‘who are you, what do you stand for, what are your plans’ way.

I couldn’t wait to leave school, really I couldn’t. I wanted a job so that I could spend money on records.  That was my raison d’etre from age 14.  And so I wrote to a high street bank at the end of my high school years, had two interviews and got a job; you could do that in 1987.  As with any fresh faced 17-year-old, I started at the bottom. This meant sitting at a counter all day receiving and dispensing money and smiling all day long.  Actually the smiling wasn’t hard because I came to love those interactions and took a keen interest in those people who wanted to talk.  It helped that I was working alongside my best mate at the time, but the customers genuinely appreciated the banter and I look back on those days with real fondness as they taught me how to interact with different people and obviously they’re a big part of who I am today.

After leaving the banking world I took a job in telesales, not because I thought I could earn a million pounds but because I loved interacting with people.  It turned out that telesales was a great way to do that.  I sucked at selling, but I knew pretty much every pub and nightclub owner in Liverpool at one point, which was much more valuable to me on a Friday and Saturday night!  And it was whilst working in telesales for a regional newspaper that I found my way into IT. This was not (it should be noted) due to my excellent technical know-how and skills, but because I was seen as someone who was good with people; someone with values; principles and dignity.  It was the best thing that happened to me and it was equal parts luck (right place, right time) and hard work.

The world of Information Technology (IT) was alien to me then.  Servers, networks, applications, code, architecture and so on were just words that sought to confuse me all day long.  So I did what I was employed to do, talked.  I talked to the people that knew that stuff in order for me to learn enough to manage a team and figure out when they were pulling the wool over my eyes.  I engaged the same people (and lots of others too) in the plans that I built, the risks that we identified and the issues we resolved.  And the projects were successful.  Not because I learnt any more about technology, but because I used my people skills to get good people to do great things in the time allowed (Year 2000 was approaching fast!).

When I think back to our small project team of 1997 – 2000 it was a hotch potch of technical specialists with poor stakeholder engagement skills who liked to do things that they felt the business would like (i.e. not necessarily the requirements).  Also, there were initially only four women in that team of 30+ staff, although refreshingly, one was the boss.

As I progressed through the IT ranks (less luck, more hard work) I found that whilst technology was evolving fast, the people employed in IT were staying the same.  Sure, new people came along with new ideas and new incredible technologies were introduced, but by and large the human interaction left a lot to be desired and the ratio of men to women remained the same.  In fact, due to the rise of social media and the use of email, I would say that there is less human interaction (face-to-face, phone) with people in IT than there has ever been.  I stick out because I can talk, listen, compromise, apologise and find collaborative solutions.  And it’s just wrong that I do.  Everyone in IT should be taking this approach.


This is an industry that is constantly criticised for its lack of business interaction and yet unfortunately the old IT shops that implement first and collect requirements second are still alive and well.  And they’re still dominated by men.  Why? A survey in the UK in 2013 showed that whilst women made up 49% of the workforce, only 17% worked in IT.  I don’t buy the ‘it’s not glamorous enough’ argument as it’s one of the best paid professions in the world, its employees work in global roles and IT departments are generally equipped with all the latest gadgets.  Maybe it’s the culture that isn’t glamorous enough.

This has to be addressed if IT is to lose its reputation of being only for nerds, geeks and boffins.  That image we all have of introverted, badly dressed men sat behind 30 inch computer screens (x2 usually), moaning about  just about everything and expecting the earth in return.  It’s not a fair image – although each department has at least one of those – but not enough is being done to change it.  So IT departments around the world (if this blog reaches that far), I beg you, the time is nigh take a more humanistic approach.

More talking; more laughing; more accepting of different ideas; more accepting of those people who don’t tick all the boxes; more asking the business what they need; more caring; better leadership; more active recruitment of women; more presentations of how IT can change (itself and the world); better cultures as a result of all this. And whilst I’m at it  – what about  better dress (this is important to both sexes) and might remove the looks I get from wearing a pocket square every day.

HR, you can help.  You can.  IT is not a black box to be left well alone.  Sure, they use terms and phrases that you don’t understand, but how do you think we feel when you talk about Situational Leadership, EFQM, Cognitive Dissonance and Maslow’s Hierarchical Needs?  Exactly.  I thought Maslow was a private detective.  Don’t be fooled.  IT knows everything about technology but needs some serious help with its culture.  Please don’t stand on the touchline watching IT chase the ball.  Get on the pitch and give them some direction.  More goals will be scored that way.

Too often I hear HR expressing their disappointment with IT culture and yet more often than not, they don’t play an active role in changing it.  Skills frameworks; leadership training; 360 degree feedback; easy-to-use performance management tools; active targeting of female employees and a whole load of other initiatives that aren’t leaping to mind.  You have all of the frameworks and skills to be able to make a real difference to the way that IT works and is perceived, please don’t wait for them to approach you as it may never happen.

Now it’s fairly obvious that I haven’t worked in every IT department in the world (check my LinkedIn profile, I really haven’t) and I’m sure things are different at Google, Apple and lots of other forward thinking organisations (I’d love to hear from someone to confirm or deny this), but in my experience whilst the technology is moving forward on a daily basis, the people skills and culture aren’t.  I can’t do this on my own, but I will if I have to. 

Why humour needs to be part of your leadership style

Steve Martin

I haven’t got the greatest memory when it comes to my childhood, but I can remember laughing. A lot. It has a lot to do with the area that I’m from. Liverpool is renowned worldwide for its comedy and whilst it has produced many famous performers, almost every person on the street is a comedian.

When I was a child, almost every week we’d go and visit a relative. Dad was from a family of 7, so there was always someone to see. And unlike other kids who didn’t want to be packed into the back of a car and visit their relatives,  we couldn’t wait. And it wasn’t like we were visiting rich aunties and uncles, in fact more often than not, the walls were yellow from cigarette smoke, there was a pervading smell of damp and mould and the tea they served you could stand a spoon in. But we knew that at some stage of our visit we (3 boys)  would be in absolute pieces laughing at something.

We were of course asked all the trivial questions about school, gently ribbed about girlfriends and of course (being from Liverpool) asked to dissect Everton’s latest performance (the team in red was rarely mentioned). They were interested and proud of their nephews and took a keen interest in what we were doing and encouraged us with stories of hardship and endeavour. Then they would take us – and themselves – to pieces and my stomach would be hurting from laughter for hours afterwards. Those self-deprecating stories added to it and we couldn’t get enough of it.

My parents played their part too and we got to watch shows on TV that continue to be a source of inspiration for me –  Monty PythonDave Allen, Morecambe and WiseThe Two RonniesKenny Everett and then as I got older, Fawlty TowersNot the Nine O’clock News, The Young Ones, BlackadderA Bit of Fry and Laurie, The Mary Whitehouse ExperienceThe Fast Show, The Office, The Royle Family and so on and so on. Comedy became part of who I am and ultimately my leadership style.

As I write this,  I’m taken back to those places and can picture the younger me there taking it all in whilst having absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When my dreams of being a professional footballer died I knew that more than anything,  I wanted to be the kind of person that people enjoyed being around. Someone who had opinions, principles, interests and stories, but was good company and committed to success. Not only that, they were the kind of people I wanted to be around and to manage and motivate me to achieve.

Not all humour works in the office though and you have to drop the tasteless stuff almost immediately. This doesn’t work at all. Humour has to be measured; used at the right time; in the right context; delivered in the right way and never offensive or personal in any way.  Get it right and it works brilliantly, get it wrong and you could be out of a job. It’s that simple. It’s also important to remember that work is not (and never will be) a stand up show, unless you’re Peter Kay. If you’re delivering jokes endlessly, firstly you’re not putting your energy into the right areas and secondly you’ll likely be seen as the class clown.

But why should you use humour at all?  Well, here’s 5 things I’ve learnt:

1. It reduces stress.  Fact.  It’s been proven.  Seriously, count my grey hairs, I’m not doing so badly for 44. Hell, I’ve still got hair, even better. Not just your stress but your teams as well. People will feel more relaxed knowing that the environment in which they work is accepting of laughter and the odd joke here and there. They also know that if you’re having a crappy day, someone will be on hand to lighten the mood and put everything back into context for you. You’ll also be easier to live with and work will be left in the office every night and never taken home.

2. The best teams all have it. Think of all the great teams you’ve been a part of…why were they great? You were put under pressure, you got the work done, you got the rewards AND you enjoyed doing it. You need all of those elements to make it great. You spend more time with people at work than your family so why should it be anything other than enjoyable?  Work should never feel like a remake of Oliver Twist, if anything it should feel like Bugsy Malone. Oh and don’t use the word ‘fun’ unless you’re making balloon animals.

3. It bridges the gap between leaders and staff.  It creates warmth, trust and interest. It demonstrates a humanistic element to leaders that becomes motivational and let’s face it, for teams to be high performing, they need to be motivated, this doesn’t just happen by chance. It singles you out as a positive contributor, someone who isn’t brow beaten by life of the organisations approach to well, everything. Paypal CEO David Marcus caused a storm this month by criticising staff who didn’t support the organisation, telling them in an email ‘… do yourself a favour, go find something that will connect with your heart and mind elsewhere.’ I completely support this stance, providing that he and his management team are creating and maintaining a culture which supports and encourages the passion he seeks.

4. It enhances social interaction. Self-deprecation, good-natured pranks (the recent Ashes cricket scores were left on post-its on my monitor regularly over the Summer) and stories (personal or work-related) all enhance the relationships we have. It can be written as well as spoken and can work on many different levels, although I’d advise against sending jokes by email. That’s what we did 15 years ago, leave those to Facebook now.

5. It breeds creativity. The more relaxed the workplace, the more likely people will be to speak up and share those ideas. If your working environment is tense and stuffy, then the ideas will remain in people’s heads and you’ll move forward in baby steps. If you want someone to participate, give them a safe and encouraging arena in which to do it and humour can be at the heart of this.

Of course, there are way more examples of how humour can help, nurture and support successful leadership, but this is a brain dump in a blog, not an academic study. Nor does it cover the fact that success can be achieved without humour, I’m sure it can, I’ve just not seen it. And anyway, my daughter is begging me to watch Monsters Inc., so I’m really going to have to wrap this up soon.

At a morning tea held in celebration of my leaving (I think they just wanted to make sure), the CEO very kindly said that ‘Colin is one of the funniest people that I’ve ever worked with’.  Kind words which required an instant riposte ‘…so not the most hard-working and dedicated then?’ Although inside I was thinking ‘ONE of the funniest?’  Must. Try. Harder.

Despite what you may have read nice guys can succeed.  And when I find one that has I’ll let you all know what their secret is right after we’ve shared a laugh over a coffee.

‘Life’s too short to be an asshole, as an employer or as an employee.’ Louis C.K.