Ian's blog

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  • Seeking the secret sauce. Capturing the ingredients at the heart of your company culture.

    Does this sound like your worst nightmare? You and 49 of your co-workers are at a company awayday, staying in tents and tree-houses, sharing sleeping spaces and bathrooms. It’s self-catering too, so you have to prep all the food, do the barbecue and wash up afterwards.

    Let’s face it, you can’t contrive team spirit. But last week at the West Lexham retreat in north Norfolk, team spirit was in abundance as colleagues chopped vegetables, assembled salads and laid the tables. The scene was Thomas Cook Money’s second company awayday: an opportunity for team members to get focused and fuelled-up for the business journey ahead. And everyone from the leadership team to the receptionist mucked in (and no-one complained about the do-it-yourself approach). My role at the awayday was to shine a light on some insights about the organisation I’d uncovered, to explore any growing pains and get everyone thinking about the best-practice habits, behaviours and rituals that underpin their company culture.

    With everyone gathered in the barn seated in deckchairs — very apt for a company that’s all about holiday money — I kicked things off by asking: “what is the organisation’s secret sauce?” From London and Peterborough in the UK to Shannon in Ireland and Hobart in Tasmania — we explored the ingredients that make this organisation special across every office.

    Thomas Cook Money launched in 2017 with a mission to reinvent holiday money, developing digital products to help consumers save, pay for and spend on their holidays. The awayday is a unique opportunity for TCM to get everyone together, a business which combines a fierce startup spirit with the backing of a 175 year old organisation. 2018 is about taking things to the next level. But if you’re in search of higher performance, first you need to pay attention to your culture.

    I know that the concept of organisational culture can feel very abstract and hard to define. It’s jelly-like: hard to grasp hold of and easy to slip through our fingers. But in order for any organisation to know where it’s headed and how it’s going to get there, it needs to capture its culture principles as a touchstone.

    For growing organisations such as TCM, maintaining the culture can be hard. As new starters join the business, they might be unsure about how things should be done. But workplace principles are just too important to leave for new starters to stumble upon over time. Get them down from the off. Write them down so it’s clear what’s expected. And if they are not written in stone, they will be lost and forgotten.

    That afternoon in the barn at West Lexham, I shared some examples of how other organisations have captured the habits, behaviours and rituals that underpin their culture. I talked about startup CEO Marc Thomas and how he recently published the cultural framework behind his business; I also showed them the manifesto that Giles Turnbull created at the Government Digital Service, ‘stuff that’s good to know on day one’.

    Next it was their turn. An opportunity for the Thomas Cook Money team to shape their best practice principles. To ask questions like, ‘do we allow people to bring their real selves to work?’, ‘what’s our attitude to meetings?’ and ‘are we good at face to face communication?’

    The process started with everyone split into teams of three. Some of these colleagues hadn’t met each other before today; others were from different departments and disciplines. The 17 teams headed off around the grounds of West Lexham to debate their top three habits, behaviours and rituals.

    As people set up their deckchairs in the sun and scribbled their suggestions on Post-its, I eavesdropped on their conversations. Some were talking about holidays being sacred (and must never be interrupted by office emails), choosing the importance of face-to-face interaction, questioning the relevance of some regular meetings. Some of those there hadn’t even met properly before and yet they were bringing their experiences from different sides of the organisation to create a common thread. Like the best idea generating sessions, they were outside in the fresh air, surrounded by nature and sunshine.

    We returned to the barn for each team to present their three must-have principles to the rest of the organisation. Afterwards the Post-it notes went up on the wall for everyone to vote on their favourites. Coloured stickers planted on each Post-it signalled the popular ones. “Start every meeting by re-stating the meeting objective,” said one. “Work isn’t where you go, it’s what you do. Be where you work best,” said another.

    Next month the top ten will be published as a workplace manifesto, a touchstone to keep everyone aligned with what Thomas Cook Money stands for.

    Of course, it’s critical for any organisation considering an exercise like this that the mutually agreed principles aren’t just empty words on a snazzy manifesto; the actions of the organisation must reflect the culture. And if that doesn’t happen, the manifesto can be used to call everyone to account.

    Later that evening, two of the team from Australia were asked to do what they do best and look after the BBQ. There were groups of people chatting. Some colleagues set out the tables, someone else made coleslaw, another mixed jugs of Pimm’s. I turned around to see one of the team members waving a bottle of ketchup in the air. “Hey Ian,” he called, “I found the secret sauce!”


    Hire me to help your organisation capture its culture, or to fire up your team at your awayday. Get in touch: hello@iansanders.com

  • Why we really should be laughing more at work….

    I hit play and the clip started. A few seconds later the room filled with laughter. Not just light laughter, it was deep, loud belly laughs. Everyone in the room loved it! And getting that reaction sent a tingle up my spine.

    The occasion wasn’t a gathering of friends. It was a workshop I was running for a senior management team earlier this year. What better example to demonstrate the futility of meetings than by using a scene from the BBC Two comedy mockumentary ‘W1A’? That short clip — and the laughter it triggered — seemed to signal a change in the room. I felt a surge of energy course through the room.

    I’d only met some of my workshop attendees for the first time that day, so I really didn’t know any of them well. But in that moment of laughter, it was like we all got to know each other better. It was like I’d glimpsed who they really were underneath the facade and what made them tick. In the session before there’d been a lot of healthy disagreement between the group, but as we united in watching that comedy clip it was as if we were all on the same page. We all found that scene funny. It was as if everyone had let their guard down, they had relaxed.

    So when we moved on to talk about the team’s attitude to meetings, it felt like we were able to achieve much more.

    I think the benefits of joy and laughter at work are underestimated. And to be honest, one of the biggest things I’ve missed about my previous working life as an “insider”, is the office camaraderie, being amongst a group of people and having a laugh. And we certainly laughed a lot at my old company. One of my legacies from my time as managing director of Unique Facilities — a small media company I led — was an annual event I’d started, ‘The UFAs’ (that's me, on the right, above hosting the 2000 UFAs). Every year I’d host an awards ceremony, write a funny script and give out plastic Oscar figurines to staff. We had a great laugh. I loved it.

    I’ve been listening to the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast from Bruce Daisley Recently Bruce and his guests have been talking about the importance of having fun at work. He believes being around people laughing is one of the biggest motivators at work. In his article ‘How laughter makes you a better worker’ Bruce asks, “what if, rather than signalling inactivity, laughing together is something that improves team collaboration and stimulates innovation?”

    I think he’s right. Yet having fun at work still seems to be the preserve of start-ups and small organisations with a younger workforce. Organisations that treat ‘having fun at work’ as trivial are missing a trick; a team that’s laughing together is such a positive thing. As Daniel Coyle, author of ‘The Culture Code’says, “laughter is not just laughter; it’s the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.” Laughter builds bonds with colleagues and shows we are open to each other, that we trust each other.

    As a creative consultant and storyteller, I make sure there is always an element of fun in the work I deliver. In my workshopsI often include an improv storytelling exercise that uses a set of cards with random pictures on. Attendees start out uneasy about the idea of venturing out of their comfort zone, but once they get stuck into the exercise, fun is guaranteed. It’s not that I set up the exercise asking people to tell funny stories, but most people choose to use the cards to make their stories funny. And I mean, really funny. So much so that their efforts often get me snorting with laughter. And if I snort with laughter — well to me that’s a great metric for success.

    So why are so many work cultures so damn serious? When we’re working harder than ever, isn’t it better for our mental health — let alone our productivity — that we have a laugh at work?

  • Re-thinking work. The things that (still) really matter.

    It was a Monday afternoon in the autumn of 2000. I was sitting in the back of Coffee Republic on Putney High Street. It was a time before ubiquitous coffee shop working enabled by wifi; that afternoon the number of pushchairs outnumbered the workers and their devices — which was basically me and my laptop.

    A few months earlier I’d walked out of the gates of number 50 Lisson Street and said goodbye to my last proper job and a monthly pay cheque. I had set myself free, on a mission to rethink that four letter word: w-o-r-k. As I sat there with my espresso I cranked out a list of questions. Because I knew whatever happened next in my career, I wanted to reframe my work life.

    And these are the questions I posed myself all those years ago: Why do we have to sit in grey office spaces to do our work? Why must we be defined by our job title? Why can’t we write our own job descriptions rather than have it dictated? Why can’t we wear more than one hat in our roles, rather than be boxed-in to do just one thing? Why can’t we have healthier relationships with our jobs, to avoid getting stressed and depressed at work.

    These questions were based on my own experiences. I knew what made me tick, and I’d seen the friction between how I wanted to do my job and what I was expected to do in the office. Why couldn’t I just shape my career around who I really was? (and of course that’s what I’ve done ever since).

    It’s been quite a journey since, but those questions and principles have remained a constant. Across all my work with organisations, teams and individuals, what gets me out of bed in the morning is a mission to make the world of work and business more human. Because these are the ten things that — still — really matter:

    1. Make workspaces more human. I’ve traveled around the UK a lot lately and have walked into a lot of different offices. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. So why aren’t organisations better at creating workspaces where people feel optimised to do their best work? Space matters. You can’t plonk a human being just anywhere and expect them to do great work. But you don’t necessarily need huge budgets to spend on architects and designers, you just need an imagination. Earlier this year I ran a workshop at Rabble Studio in Cardiff (above). A little rough at the edges, but a space with heart & soul. High ceilings, lots of natural light, touches of personality.
    2. Step away from your desk. This is what frustrates me the most. Employers insisting employees do all their work at their desk. When I was working with a team of creatives recently, I suggested they get out of the office and go and explore the streets around them. They told me they weren’t allowed to. Why are we still shackling employees to their desks? Instead lets trust people to work where they work best. Let them explore and connect with the real world beyond the office walls.
    3. Gather your team. It surprises me when I meet teams that don’t spend time together (outside of meetings that is). If you want to nurture your team spirit, you have to get to know each other. I once worked in a small organisation; when I joined there were just twelve people. Twelve people is a good number to get around a table. So we had two rituals. Every Wednesday morning at 08:30 we all got around that table and shared what we were up to. And every Friday evening we got around the same table with bottles of wine, bowls of crisps and just had fun. Gathering was our glue.
    4. Create space to think. I feel for those executives whose days are full of back to back meetings and calls. How the heck do they get any work done? We need to liberate employees from meeting-centric cultures, we need to transform their calendars and create blank space. To create space for thinking, for head-down deep work, away from distractions. I know I’m lucky; one of the joys of working myself is to create days where I have *nothing* in the calendar. That’s gold-dust to me.
    5. Talk and smile to each other. I walked into a lift in a company’s building the other day and smiled hello to the others inside. I got some odd looks! It felt like that scene in ‘Crocodile Dundee’ where Paul Hogan says hello to strangers while walking down a Manhattan Street. In another company building, I was leaving at the end of the day and seemed to be the only person saying goodnight and thank you to the doormen as people flooded out of the lobby. And I don’t even work there! C’mon, let’s be friendlier to everyone else in the building.
    6. Bring joy and laughter into work. I think people work better when there is joy and laughter around the place. My legacy at my last proper job? Creating mock-up tabloid front pages with outlandish headlines every time a team member left their job; a tongue-in-cheek annual ‘awards ceremony’ complete with plastic Oscar figurines; office chair racing in the basement. We had a laugh, and it made a big difference.
    7. Go for a walk outside. Look out of your office window right now. You’re looking at the best ‘meeting room’ there is, and what’s more, you don’t even need to fill in a form to book it. Use it. Turn that one-to-one meeting into a walk and talk. Get outdoors at lunchtime. If you need some inspiration on a project, take your thoughts for a walk.
    8. Wander about inside. If you’re a manager it’s your job to walk around and ask how people are. That’s what leadership is; what Tom Peters calls MBWA (management by walking around). But some managers don’t bother. They stay in their office with the door shut. I worked with a small business that had two offices three tube stops apart; one was the HQ, the other a satellite office. Some members of the management team rarely visited the other site. And it was three tube stops away! No excuses…
    9. Count the things that count. Every organisation has systems and structures in place to track business and individual performance. There are targets, KPIs, appraisals, staff surveys. But are we also counting the things that really count, like happiness and well-being? In the late 90s I was a rookie managing director, responsible for growing a business unit. The business was growing well, so I was rewarded by having more ventures to look after. The trouble is, I had too much on my plate, I was struggling. I became stressed and depressed. There was a bunch of spreadsheets to track my financial performance, but no checks and balances for me. Until it was too late, and I became ill. That’s why running my own business I have more than one dial on the dashboard: alongside the spreadsheets, I track my Good Times at work (and out of work).
    10. Mash-up your work. Let’s be more flexible and allow employees to create roles that reflect their real selves. Sure 60% of the role will be doing the job that you hired them for. But if they’re interested — and talented — in other areas, why not let them carve out unique roles that mash-up different disciplines? (Check out my book “Mash-up!: How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier” to discover the difference it can make).

  • Standing back to press the pause button. What happened at my ‘Re-ignite!’ workshop.

    When was the last time your management team stood back and pressed pause? How often do you get away from the office, turn off the phones and allow yourselves to talk about the things that really matter? How often does your team have frank and open discussions? Does it feel like a luxury to head off grid and look at your business differently? Or would you say it’s essential?

    I’ve just run my “Re-ignite!” workshop for the Development Bank of Wales(which has recently transitioned from its former incarnation as Finance Wales). The bank’s mission is to unlock economic potential in Wales and enhance the local economy by providing sustainable and effective finance. The bank’s customers range from house builders to cake makers.

    The transition from Finance Wales to the new entity has taken place over a busy few months. My workshop is the first opportunity for the team to stand back and reflect on the organisation’s future and their role in that. “Re-ignite!” is an exercise in venturing outside of the bubble, helping team members look at the organisation with fresh eyes.

    Here’s what we did, and why, during the day-long workshop.

    Somewhere different

    The Development Bank of Wales is located in Cardiff’s Capital Quarter, a smart and shiny landmark office development in the city’s enterprise zone. The venue I’d chosen for their workshop couldn’t be more different. One mile away from their office, Rabble Studio is a co-working space on the top floor of a Victorian building in the heart of old Cardiff, close to the bay. It has high ceilings, wooden floors and lots of natural light.

    On first appearance it looks a little rough and ready: a bare wooden staircase leads to Rabble’s entrance, up two flights of stairs. Inside the event space, there’s a low stage made from wooden pallets. But it’s friendly too, with a sofa, armchair and coffee table. It’s a space with a heart and purpose. The venue was purposefully selected: it was important the team got away from their corporate environment. What’s more, the building is at the heart of what used to be a thriving entrepreneurial area — across the road is an empty building that used to house Chamber of Commerce — but today Rabble is home to entrepreneurship of the 21st century. Here freelance writers rub shoulders with graphic designers. This is a space where creative projects and business ideas get born.

    Getting close to the customer

    So what makes entrepreneurs tick? The Development Bank’s leadership team is familiar with growing startups and SMEs. But what about the grassroots level of entrepreneurship? We started the workshop hearing from Amy Pay, a Rabble resident, who explains why she’s chosen to work from this space. Amy told us how Rabble affords her the opportunity to collaborate and to be part of a community — so important when working for yourself.

    Next it was time to hear from a current customer. It’s all too easy to stay ensconced behind a desk and to think we always know what our customers want. But nothing beats living and breathing their experience. In the workshop we heard straight from the horse’s mouth, in a session with Marc Thomas, CEO of doopoll, an online polling platform. Doopoll has recently received investment from the Development Bank, funded by the Wales Technology Seed Fund. Marc told us the story behind doopoll, sharing his experiences, and the inevitable ups and downs of being a startup entrepreneur. The Q&A session at the end was invaluable for the team to ask Marc how they could be more customer-centric. Once Marc left the room, one member of the senior management team commented that, in twelve years working for the organisation, this sixty minute session has given him the greatest understanding of what the bank does. If that’s not impactful, I don’t know what is.

    Knowing where the organisation is headed

    This is a senior management team that meets regularly. A typical Tuesday morning sees these ten people around the board table for their weekly meeting. But this Tuesday morning the agenda was very different. Time and space away from the office gave the team a precious opportunity to take stock and reflect on where the organisation is headed in 2018. It allowed each member to focus on their individual role in taking the organisation forward. The bank has been through a major change recently. The workshop was a chance for everyone to agree to goals and where energies need to be focused. The management team decided this year it’s about scaling, and ensuring they have everything in place in order to deliver that growth and to do it safely. CEO Giles Thorley summed it up, “this year is about upping our game.”

    Outsider perspective

    My workshops are designed to get teams out of their bubbles. I’m the outsider — having someone come in who’s outside of your industry helps you see your organisation in a new light and get a fresh perspective on things.

    Beyond a workshop such as this, there are many ways you can keep fresh and stay outside your bubble on a daily basis. I shared a few suggestions with the team: reading business magazines, listening to podcasts, getting out and about visiting customers more, sampling local independent retailers, cafes and restaurants, swapping the boardroom for meetings in coffee shops.

    Getting inspiration from small retailers

    I’m a big believer in getting inspiration from outside the office. I told the team a story about Howard Schultz. When Schultz returned to Starbucks as CEO in 2008 he convened an offsite meeting with its management team in Seattle. Back then the business had lost its way and the soul of the brand was at risk. He knew they needed to put the customer back at the heart of everything they did. So at the end of the first day, the team split up and immersed themselves in some of Seattle’s homegrown retailers. They were told to go to a food market and report back. At a cheese counter, Schultz was struck by the woman serving him and her passion and expertise for the product. Chatting, he was floored to discover she’d only been working there six months. That single experience prompted a retraining exercise — closing 7,000 stores for three and a half hours to retrain baristas to make the perfect espresso. The lesson: you never know what might spark ideas or innovation. Go to a cheese counter and see what you discover!

    Drawing on Schultz’s experience, at lunch the team in Cardiff was tasked with visiting local cafes or coffee shops and to observe and report back what they heard, tasted and felt. This part of the city is blessed with some unique independent businesses. Places like Quantum Coffee Roasters, Nata & Co Portuguese bakery and Gourmet Guru which serves Indian street food from an old shipping container.

    Later that afternoon discoveries from the exercise got a discussion going from Judi, who told us about two good experiences with an airline and supermarket over the Christmas break. It was a reminder that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to customer service; it’s about listening to what the customer wants and acting on it.

    What’s your organisation’s Why?

    Playing a clip from Simon Sinek’s famous TED Talk, where he draws his golden circle with ‘Why’ at the centre, was a helpful reminder for the Development Bank on how it can leverage its purpose. Injecting 1 billion pounds into the Welsh economy and supporting 1,400 businesses (who will create or safeguard 20,000 jobs) is a powerful mission. I related the story of the Welsh jeans brand Hiut Denim and how founders Clare and David Hieatt have succeeded in creating a brand that leverages its story and purpose to get noticed and attract customers. Hiut Denim is a great case study for any organisation or brand looking to amplify its sense of purpose.

    What’s next?

    We ended the day, going around the room, identifying six areas for the management team to work on. At 4pm it was back to their office to deal with their in-boxes and check their voicemails.

    The team will return to Rabble in February for the second part of “Re-ignite!” So to answer my first question, I think off-grid workshops are essential. … What do you think??

  • Stories around the fireside: how personal tales of triumph and trials create a company’s glue.

    Stories are valuable to businesses and organisations. Our brains are hard-wired for stories. Stories are the most useful communication commodity we have at our disposal. So how can organisations use the power of storytelling to get people working better together?

    Coming together

    Picture the scene. On a drizzly Monday morning in late November, a stream of cars and taxis is heading up the long driveway to Oxon Hoath, a historic manor house set in 73 acres of the Kent countryside.

    600 years old, Oxon Hoath is a house steeped in history. Today it’s playing a vital role in the story of Thomas Cook Money, a startup which formally launched just days earlier. Thomas Cook Money, whilst a new company, has its own roots in a brand that has been around 175 years, the Thomas Cook travel group.

    The purpose of the awayday is to help the team communicate better, to define their role within the wider Thomas Cook Money story and get them working towards a shared vision: the reinvention of holiday money. And story is at the heart of achieving this.

    Not only is today the company’s first awayday, it’s the first time many team members have met each other. Those attending today include digital architects, prepaid card specialists, insurance specialists, commercial directors, project managers — and everyone in between. They have travelled from offices in London and Peterborough. From Shannon in Ireland. Australia, even. Some have been working for months on the launch of the company’s apps and digital products. For one woman, it’s her first day in the job.

    This is a corporate event with a difference. Here, regardless of seniority, everyone will be ‘mucking in’. They will have to prepare their own food and wash up. The awayday extends across two days: most of the accommodation is in shared bedrooms.

    Getting underway

    By 11 o’clock everyone is assembled in Oxon Hoath’s wood panelled Jacobean library. Chief Financial Services Officer Anth Mooney kicks things off by telling his own career story. It’s a frank and funny tale of ups and downs through his education, a stint running pubs, and his journey to Thomas Cook via Northern Rock and Virgin Money.

    After a self-serve lunch which helps people to get to know each other, the organisation breaks into smaller groups for a series of afternoon workshops. One group goes to the kitchen to prepare food for this evening, another to the ballroom upstairs for a visioning session, and the third group heads to the library for the first of my storytelling sessions.

    Seated around the fireplace, we start with an improvisation exercise, which helps overcome nerves. People show their natural ability at storytelling and thinking on the spot. Everyone gets a rapid masterclass in storytelling. We discuss the three parts of the story: the situation, the obstacle, and the transformation. Now it’s their turn. In pairs, they use my worksheet to help flesh out their own story, one which they’ll tell in front of the company later that evening.

    I run two more workshops and by 5pm the hard work is done. There’s just enough time to grab a G&T or wine from the bar before returning to the library for the big reveals.

    Fireside stories

    Out through the floor-to-ceiling sash windows, the light is nearly gone. Inside the library, orange flames are leaping in the grate. People have shared stories around fires for thousands of years. At Oxon Hoath, it’s no different.

    And so we settled down to hear about the triumphs and trials of those here today.

    A man talks about his struggles being bullied at school and how his coping mechanisms have given him lessons for life. A woman shares a story of being mugged by a taxi driver in Nigeria: she tells how she was left alone by the roadside, yet remarkable she didn’t let that ruin her experience of meeting her extended family for the first time.

    The stories come thick and fast. Moments of change that led to unplanned trajectories. A moped accident. Returning from Greece after military service. Saving enough money to move from France to London. Working at a New York global investment bank in the midst of the financial crash.

    Whilst everyone here today works in financial services, what’s clear is that there is no single career trajectory. The Royal Navy. Engineering. Journalism. From a job painting railings in the rain to accountancy. A tour of duty in the British Army in Northern Ireland. Advertising. Playing in a band.

    The theme that recurs as people share their stories over coffee and wine is that life and careers don’t happen in a straight line. One man talks of becoming MD of a company at 29, of suffering a nervous breakdown from too much pressure at work, and then of losing his house when another business failed. Now as he looks back on his experiences he is able to be philosophical. He says,

    “Life happens in the peaks and troughs.”

    As each team member finishes their words and passes the spark to the next person, there’s a natural honesty and vulnerability in the room. But also there is a level of humour and banter on display that naturally comes from people at ease with each other. There’s respect and admiration too for how everyone got to where they are today. There’s empathy and understanding about those diverse back stories and experiences. One team member comments,

    “I’m much more interested in our differences than our similarities.”

    Humanising through story

    As the shared stories unfold in this library, it’s a reminder of the rich seam of human stories that lie under the bonnet of every organisation. Perhaps they’re the kind of stories that might have tumbled out over time. Or maybe they would never have been shared. But by getting everyone together for a day, creating the safe and friendly space by the fireside to share, people felt they could open up. It’s a space where they learn from each other. And there’s empathy in spades.

    Sceptics might wonder why it’s important to share personal stories with co-workers. What does that have to do with what happens in the 9–5 of an organisation? But sharing stories like this is a fast-track to better understanding each other, reinforcing humility, and building respect. Sharing their stories is an accelerator for open-minded approaches to their work. The following morning, glued together by this shared experience, they will collaborate well on a design-thinking exercise.

    People here today have different roles in the company and have come from a variety of backgrounds. Today has provided each with a deeper understanding, not only of each other, but of the journey they are on together. All are united by culture and story, and are fired-up about Thomas Cook Money’s mission to reimagine holiday money. They are travellers on the same journey. Everyone understands the common goal and appreciates the importance of their place in the organisation: vital to standing them in good stead on their adventures ahead. What are organisations after all but the sum of its parts — the sum of its employees, and all they have to bring? This is what Anth says about the experience:

    “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team share their stories like that before — it was a privilege to be part of it.”

    On the dusty bookshelves that line three sides of the library, are volumes of Shakespeare and other literary classics. Yet it’s the stories alive in the room today that are captivating. Right now, these are the only stories that matter.

     

  • My Startup of One. 18 lessons from 18 years working for myself.

    In the picture on the left, I’m standing on Greek Street, Soho. I’m at the start of my new independent life, having left the security of an organisation after seven years. I think I look a bit worried. On the photo on the right, taken last year, I’m standing on the same stretch of Greek Street. I’m pleased to say I look much happier, after having worked 18 years for myself.

    If I’m honest, it’s been no mean feat. But here I am at the end of 2017, about to launch into another new year of fresh challenges. And it’s great to be able to look back on those 18 years and feel proud that I’m still here.

    It’s strange now to think that in 2000 we didn’t have WiFi, we didn’t have coworking spaces and there was no such thing as the Gig Economy. It wasn’t so common to work as a freelancer. Today many people choose to work for themselves. As we’re nearly putting another year to bed, I’m looking back over what’s been good, what’s been hard and what I’ve needed to keep me going on my journey. Here I share some of the things I’ve learnt along the way:

    1. It’s an adventure. You know what to expect with an adventure, right? It’s fun, but it’s also scary. Full of ups and downs. That’s been my story. Working for yourself might sound like the ‘easy’ option. All that flexibility and freedom. But it’s been harder than any experience I ever had working for an organisation. You have to expect the troughs as well as the highs, just keep the faith, keep learning and hang out with good people who can give you some advice (see “2").
    2. Two heads are better than one. Okay so you need to be self-sufficient, you need to be able to win the business, do the business and admin the business. But sometimes — or more likely often — two heads are better than one. You need a collaborator, a supporter, a sounding board. My secret weapon these last few years? My wife. She’s become my business partner. A sounding board. An editor. A critical eye. I keep being me, and I don’t always accept the advice, but it’s good to stress test my ideas and plans with someone who really understands me.
    3. It’s okay pursuing multiple paths, but get focused. I’ve always been driven by curiosity, by seeing where the water flows and acting on opportunities. That means I’ve embraced lots of different types of projects and taken a lot of different paths. In the early days I started a little content agency, Ignission. Then there was a creative agency OHM London. I wrote books and for newspapers, I took on marketing projects and advised creative businesses. The plurality and experimentation has been part of the adventure. I knew I could do all those things, so I did them. I spent a good chunk of my time experimenting, and in doing so I’ve been able to understand what I like doing and where I can bring the best value. Now, I can really focus on helping businesses, organisations and individuals on their journeys (and bring all I’ve learned into the process).
    4. Collaborate, but choose your partner-mates carefully. In all these years I’ve only had one relationship with a collaborator that went badly wrong. A guy approached me about us writing a book together. I got us the book deal, went to the U.S. for a week, started writing the book. And then he vanished. I never saw or heard from him again. That was painful. But looking back, I would have never have guessed. He seemed ‘legit’. I’m sure he was. Now I can be more pragmatic about it. Perhaps he was just bad at communicating. At the time, I was mad and upset — a week of my life away from my family that I’ll never get back. It gave me a valuable lesson: pick your projects and those you work with very carefully.
    5. Be part of a community. Working for yourself can be hard and it can be lonely. So you need a space or a group that you can hang out with. It doesn’t have to be a full time residency at a coworking space, it might be a monthly Meetup group or a hot-desking arrangement somewhere. It feels good to be part of something.
    6. Tools matter. You need to be organised. You need spreadsheets for expenses and revenues. You need templates for invoicing. You need apps like TeuxDeux and Google Drive to stay on top of everything. But mindset and discipline beat sexy software. I just rely on some Excel spreadsheets to manage everything, I don’t have any bookkeeping software. And that works just fine. It’s boring, but make sure you stay on top of admin and invoicing.
    7. The worst thing? Debt chasing. If you’re a startup-of-one it can be hard if you’re the one winning the business, schmoozing the client but also chasing late payment of invoices. That isn’t fun. The energy expended on getting invoices paid on time is my biggest stress point.
    8. Don’t work from home (at least, don’t only work from home). If you care about your mental health, if you want to be productive — please, get out of your house! Coffee shops, co-working spaces, hotel lobbies — whatever floats your boat. I do my best work all over the place. Sometimes I need a train ride somewhere, or some time out in a different city altogether. It gives you space and time to physically and metaphorically get away, and get some perspective on what you’ve got going on (and it helps planning for the future).
    9. Set out your metrics for success. A friend of mine who recently went freelance as an independent consultant laid out his business model to me. How he would have failed (his words) if his day rate went below a certain level, how he would have failed if he didn’t bill a certain number of days a month. That’s not my philosophy. Working like this is a way of life, not a business model. Sure, of course, revenues matter. But I choose another metric of success: whether I am happy, fired-up and making an impact (that’s why I still track my Good Times, it’s the best measure of success for me).
    10. Get a reputation for one thing. This has been hard for me. Ask ten different people I’ve worked with over the last ten years, and you’ll get ten different answers of what they think I do. It’s a symptom of having pursued those multiple paths I talked about earlier. Now I’m consolidating all my years of experience and am carving out a more single-minded and purposeful path as a storyteller, coach and consultant. But throughout, I’ve had a reputation for being ‘a safe pair of hands’ — reliable and helpful — two traits that go a long way when working for yourself.
    11. Look after yourself. Woah, looking back one thing I haven’t been good at is looking after myself. I’ve worked too hard, I haven’t given myself enough down time. My health suffered. I learned the hard way. Now my priorities are different. It’s so important to prioritise what you need over everything else, because if you’re not functioning properly you’re no good to anyone else, and certainly won’t be able to do your best work.
    12. Find a guide. Sometimes you need someone who’s ahead of you on the journey to show you the way. That’s why I wrote my first book ‘Leap!’ — to help others on their self-employed journey. Today, I help people on their career journeys as a coach and mentor. I’ve checked in with coaches and mentors from time to time. The key is to finding someone who’s right for you. Take time to find someone who can be that guide, someone you feel you can build a good relationship with and trust.
    13. Stretch yourself. I’m proud to say I have never stood still, I have constantly pushed myself out of that comfort zone. Trying new things, seeking to up my game, constantly learning. Don’t stand still. Often the only way to prove you can do something (that you might not have done before) is to do it. It’s hard to throw yourself off the cliff sometimes, but you have to have faith that you’ll fly.
    14. Don’t follow the £. That sounds silly advice, doesn’t it? Surely that’s precisely what you should do to earn a living working for yourself? Follow opportunities — yes. But, if you choose an assignment or project or client because you’re seduced by the money, that’s where it can all go wrong. There’s been a correlation between high-billing projects and projects that killed me creatively, where I hated them so much, I desperately wanted them to end. It’s not always worth it.
    15. Be brave. No sick leave, no-one to hold the fort when you’re feeling ill or not rocking it one day. The uncertainty of where the next project is coming from. It’s hard. You have to dig deep, put on your armour or grow a thicker skin and get out there. Cultivate resilience — it’s partly about keeping going when things get tough, partly about having a level of self-belief that you can do it and partly having supportive partners or people around who have faith in you and can give you words of wisdom to keep you strong.
    16. Stick to who you are. My self-employed life improved hugely — and my health and happiness and confidence along with it — when I stopped trying to be something or someone else, and stuck — like a magnet — to who I really am. That’s powerful. Knowing what you stand for, what makes you tick and using that as a compass to navigate your paths and choices. Along the way, you might make choices that you look back and regret, but through trial and error you will find your way to where you should be. Give yourself some credit — trust yourself.
    17. Give yourself a pat on the back (cos no-one else will…!). That thank you email from the boss. When your CEO sends you a bunch of flowers. The sticky note on your desk with a ‘well done’. You won’t get any of that! So take the time to celebrate your achievements, pat yourself on the back. Hey, even allow yourself to re-tweet a few successes from time to time ;)
    18. Set yourself free. Yes, there’s ‘free’ in freelance, and that doesn’t mean working for love not money. Enjoy the freedom of the path you’ve chosen. When you have the flexibility, take your work to the park. Go and sit in an art gallery. Go for a lunchtime swim. Celebrate the freedom of working for yourself…
  • Helping people on their business and career journeys.

    I like helping people on their business and career journeys. For those that can’t make it to London for my Fuel Safaris, I offer coaching and mentoring via Skype and Facetime (packages start at £125/ $150 an hour).

    Recently I’ve been working with Nana, an early stage entrepreneur behind an edtech business in California. I’ve been helping her improve her storytelling skills and also acting as a sounding board as she develops her business idea. I recently met up with Nana in Dublin, and she shared some feedback about working with me.

     

     

  • How walking meetings can be a raising agent for relationships and getting things done.

    It was 10am and I was one hour into a mini-workshop with an organisation. A brand new client.

    Sitting in an office in another country with two guys I’d never met until 60 minutes previously.

    This was day one on our working relationship. But this wasn’t the get-to-know-each-other meeting, it was the session to come up with ideas for a big project. The clock was ticking and we had five hours to co-create the ideas before I left for the airport and my flight home.

    It was going well. But by 10am I thought we could benefit from a change in scenery. “Can we go somewhere to get coffee?” I asked.

    “Yes, let’s head out for coffee,” came the reply and a few moments later we were leaving the building and heading outside.

    And that’s when everything changed. As soon as we walked down the road, I could sense we were feeling lighter, looser, liberated. We forgot the demands that lay ahead of us, and relaxed for a few moments. The small talk that happens when you’re walking alongside someone started. We were getting to know each other and shared a few laughs.

    What’s more, once we had been served our coffees and were sitting outside, the ideas started to flow. As we sat and sipped our drinks, we came up with some concepts that felt fit enough for further discussion. The walk and fresh air had reinvigorated us. But to test whether our ideas were good enough, we needed to get moving again.

    When we got walking again, the movement in our body triggered movement in our brain.

    We never did go back to the office. We spent the rest of our time together walking around, grabbing lunch in the office canteen, sitting outside.

    And by the time 2pm came about, we had our ideas nailed.

    As I made my return journey by car to the airport, I realised how productive we’d been in a short space of time. People who’d never met before managed to come up with the goods in such a short space of time.

    Switching what would have been an office session, constrained by four walls, into an (unplanned) walking meeting had been transformative.

    The walking meeting had acted like a raising agent, a fast-track to getting to know each other better, a fast-track to ideas. It was like we’d achieved multiple meetings in a single shot.

    But really it wasn’t a surprise to me. Walking meetings have become my trademark, that’s why I designed my Fuel Safaris out on the street. Just as my workshop had to come up with answers in five hours, my Fuel Safaris provide clarity and answers within three hours. Walking helps achieve so much during a relatively small amount of time.

    I always find constraints can be helpful. Via the walk, my clients and I got to know each other in a way we could have never done inside the office. The walk fuelled us. Our surroundings affect how we think and feel. Office environments can constrain our thinking, getting outside liberates us.

    Go on, get outside, take your ideas for a walk! You might be surprised what you come up with.

    I’m a creative consultant, storyteller and coach who gets organisations, teams and individuals fired-up about their work. If you want to move faster towards your career or business goals, come on a Fuel Safari with me. Get in touch by email hello@iansanders.com

  • How a nomadic work life keeps me fresh and gives me fuel.

    Earlier this week I started my working day here. In White Mulberries, a coffee shop I’d never been to before, overlooking London’s St. Katharine Docks.

    The coffee was good, the atmosphere friendly, and it gave me the fuel for what was a busy day ahead, walking to a meeting south of Tower Bridge, taking the tube to Paddington, and later walking across the city from Hyde Park to Soho.

    It’s a pattern I often follow, moving around the city. My work life is nomadic. I spend the day visiting clients or working out of coffee shops, green spaces or my members’ club.

    This way of working suits me. It aligns with my role of an ‘outsider’ which is where I bring value to the people, teams and organisations I work with.

    Being nomadic means I don’t get stuck in a bubble. And as I’m always floating around I get to experience new spaces. This helps my ideas flow. Never in one place for too long, I don’t get that stale feeling that might be experienced by those who work in the same office every day. I never find myself yawning, bored of my surroundings.

    Yesterday I worked out of seven different spaces: four meetings, two coffee shops and one hotel lobby (not including the work I did in tube and train carriages). It’s the change of place that keeps me fresh.

    This year I’ve probably worked out of fifty different coffee shops in cities around the UK (and it’s only September). Add to that the hotels, offices and spaces where I’ve done work, or delivered workshops, and I reckon that takes the number of different spaces to around 75.

    75 different spaces in under 9 months! Often going to brand new places like White Mulberries. It’s the opposite of Groundhog Day. Those new places prompt new thoughts and ideas.

    You might be reading this and think this way of working is only an option for the self-employed consultant. Not so. Yesterday I had a catch-up with a guy who works for a global tech company. He has the option of working from company buildings in two different locations, plus working from home. When he’s in the building he’s nomadic like me, moving around with his backpack rather than have a fixed desk. He might work on the roof terrace, by the canteen, in a quiet area for a call, or in a communal space.

    A nomadic work life keeps me fresh and makes me productive. As soon as I feel my energy levels plummet, I move somewhere else. Working this way, I don’t go to the office, I am my office.

    So what you can do to be more nomadic in your work life? If you’re a freelancer who spends most of your week working at home, get out! If you work in an organisation, try and move around. See how a change in environment fuels your work.

  • Telling the other side of the story

    I was interested to read that Detroit is hiring a chief storyteller. As the city emerges from a long period of decline, Aaron Foley has been appointed to produce stories and first-person accounts about life in the city. The stories will feature on social media and a new city website. Foley says local residents deserve better and more diverse stories about the reality of living in the city than the usual tales of doom and gloom.

    I live a couple of miles from a city that, like Detroit, has a reputation problem. A classic English seaside town, Southend-on-Sea’s amusement park, beaches and fish and chip shops attract day trippers from east London. As is typical in such towns, away from the seafront, empty shops and vacated office blocks show signs of dilapidation and neglect.

    But that’s just one side of the story. Looking beyond the seafront and empty office blocks there is another side to be found. In the town’s back streets and alleyways, there’s a thriving creative community of independent cafes, record shops, music venues. Of entrepreneurs who’ve chosen to launch their start-ups here.

    Last year local creative agency Grow Co approached me and asked me to tell some stories for a book project for Southend Council called ‘Salt’.  I felt it was important to shine the light on the non-obvious stories away from the seafront ice-cream parlours and amusement arcades. I chose to tell five stories that demonstrate the creative and entrepreneurial flair of people locally:

    1. Lin Gunn and Steve Holford, the owners of Utopia, an independent coffee shop that’s a welcome alternative to the homogeneity of the high street.
    2. Dave and Fi Dulake, two musicians who run The Railway Hotel, a well-loved Bohemian pub with a vegan menu that’s home to a vibrant music scene.
    3. Alan O’Rourke and Neil Adams, the entrepreneurs behind Ruark Audio, a family-owned electronics company that makes digital radios and music systems.
    4. Sarah Parmenter, a digital designer and entrepreneur who speaks at conferences around the world.
    5. Michael Woodford, the former CEO of the Olympus Corporation who is best known for exposing one of the world’s biggest financial scandals. Today he is founder of The Safer Roads Foundation.

    My storytelling work has taken me around Europe and across the Atlantic to the U.S. But here on my doorstep I found that there are still surprises to be had about a town I thought I new well. The project reminded me the importance of going beyond the obvious stereotypes, to dig deep to find the interesting stories. We think we know somewhere, but just like Detroit, there’s so much more going on when you scratch the surface.


    ‘Salt’ is available from the Beecroft Art Gallery, Southend-on-Sea.

  • Back to work: 4 steps to give your work life a shot in the arm

    Although I’d been working during August, it had been sprinkled with a couple of weeks off, estuary swims and early evening barbeques. So yesterday when the kids went back to school, I definitely had that ‘back to work’ feeling about it. And I admit - like my children - I found it hard to get back into the zone. So I sat in my local coffee shop, ordered a long black, reflected on what I’d learned in the last few months and cranked out this list.

    From my experiences running team workshops to leading individual mentoring sessions here are some of the actions that have helped reinvigorate people’s work lives:

    1. Get out of the office. This is my number one plea to you. If you do nothing else, do this. I’ve worked with a number of organisations where employees don’t tend to leave the building during the working day. I know we’re all busy, but please take a breather and step out the front door. When I run workshops with teams I always have an exercise where attendees go outside for an hour, and I see the difference that makes. It’s an eye opener. Everyone comes back refreshed and full of ideas.
    2. Make sure you bring ‘You’ to your work. In my coaching and mentoring work I’ve witnessed the positive change when people have the confidence to be themselves at work. They’re happier, more fulfilled and more productive. We often feel we have to conform at work, and hide who we really are. But those who allow their personality to guide what they do -  and also how they do it - are more satisfied at work. Recently I met a lawyer with a creative streak who creates a storyboard, a visualisation of each transaction or deal she works on. It helps her and the client understand where they are in the process at any given time. What a great idea. The client finds it valuable and she’s more fulfilled, being able to bring her artistic side to work.
    3. Pick the best space for the task. Isn’t it crazy to think that a desk and a chair are meant to give us the best environment to do our work? I was recently working with a business leader who spends her working day moving around the building, finding the best space for whatever she’s working on. She’s rarely at her desk. Sometimes of course, getting our head down is exactly what we need. But for most, a mix of spaces makes you most productive: a sofa, a park bench, the roof terrace, the canteen or a cafe around the corner. Move around. Recognise that different parts of your work will need different environments.
    4. Count the things that count. If you’ve fallen out of love with your job, rethink how you measure success. Job titles and salary might be the right currency for some people, but there are many other ways of creating a successful life: freedom, responsibility, flexible working, the opportunity to make a dent in the universe. Take some time to work out what really matters to you.

    I hope you have a productive few months ahead! And if you need any help putting this into action, give me a shout hello@iansanders.com

     

  • Your business story is your lifebelt

    I think some of us may be missing a trick.

    We see ‘storytelling’ in business as just marketing, a way of making our product or company more gettable, a device we use outside the company, to communicate outwards.

    But of course its potential is far more wide-reaching than that; a business story can become the touchstone for your whole organisation.

    I know an organisation that grew rapidly from having a single entrepreneurial founder with a handful of staff and a single product, to a multiple management team with tens of people and a portfolio of products and services. When it was small, everyone had a clear idea of what the business stood for: telling the story was simply a case of retelling what they’d heard at their job interview and company meetings. Everyone understood the business: staff knew why they were passionate about working there, clients saw the story as a point of difference. The story worked.

    But then something changed. Staff numbers grew, new managers were hired, new departments started up. But the management team forgot to change the story. Executives would go out and pitch the business but tell the ‘old’ story. It didn’t fit. It was the wrong story.The organisation lost its magic touch because the story was neglected.

    So shaping and telling your business story is more than just a way of communicating your products or services. It’s a touchstone to get your team motivated and aligned with wherever you’re headed.

    As a storyteller I help brands and businesses tell their story. It can take some time to extract, capture and craft a gettable story. But once you nail it, a story can reinvigorate an organisation with focus and clarity, engaging staff and clients alike.

    Your business story is more than just a script you can recite when you meet a new contact or are pitching to a client. Your story can act as your organisation’s lifebelt — when conditions gets rough, you might need to grab hold of it to stay afloat…

    Hire me to tell your business or brand story. Whether it's for marketing communications or a touchstone for employee engagement - get in touch hello@iansanders.com

  • Getting teams out of their bubble: my workshops at the BBC.

    On a Wednesday afternoon in central London, six journalists and producers are returning to a room deep in the heart of the BBC's New Broadcasting House. They're on their way back from a Story Safari, one element of my day-long course on storytelling. A Story Safari involves going outside and exploring the immediate vicinity, sparking curiosity and getting the senses working.

    My course is designed for BBC TV news journalists looking for a fresh approach to their work. This year it's toured around the UK to Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow.

    The journalists return to the room full of excitement about what they've discovered from their 'safaris'. Jim works in the BBC London newsroom. Although he's familiar with the streets, walking them every day, he says he made new discoveries just by looking up and spotting architecture he'd not been aware of before. Scott is a reporter at BBC Spotlight in Plymouth - he walked around Berwick Street market in Soho talking to traders about how the market has changed over the years. Oleksandra is from BBC Ukraine in Kiev. Her stroll down Oxford Street opened her eyes to the cultural differences between her home city and London.

    I’m an independent storyteller, coach and consultant - my course looks at the art of storytelling in a different and fresh way. I’m not inside the BBC and I don’t work in a newsroom: my value is as the outsider. Although my course revolves around storytelling, the value for attendees is simpler than that. It's getting people out of their bubbles. It reinvigorates them.

    If you work in a newsroom, it's rare you'll get the chance for much fresh air, let alone a walk around the block to explore local streets. A Story Safari is liberating, giving journalists and producers permission to do just that.

    "The course was very useful. It was just a really valuable opportunity to step back, breathe and think about how we make films and tell stories," says Scott.

    Other elements of the day-long course include: the importance of ‘living the story’; examples of news stories from outside the BBC; a creative exercise in making mundane stories more interesting; and an exercise in improv storytelling.

    Let's face it, in most jobs it's rare to press the pause button, to take a day out and reflect on what we do and how we do it, and also, why we do it; to look at our industry or craft from a different angle. That's what I've designed my course for - getting journalists fired up about storytelling.

    James Harrod is the TV training manager at BBC Academy, he explains why it was important to hire someone with a very different mindset and approach.

    "The BBC is renowned for its outstanding reporting and compelling storytelling across its factual output.  But in order to maintain its world-class reputation, it needs people like Ian to inspire reporters and producers.  Ian brings a fresh approach to storytelling.  He gets delegates to boil down the essentials of what makes a good story and then suggests creative and realistic ways of telling it.  He asks trainees to step back from the daily churn of news cycles and reflect on how to tell stories differently.  After attending one of Ian's sessions, our colleagues go back to their department feeling refreshed, energised and full of new ideas.  I highly recommend him".


    I run workshops in creativity and storytelling for organisations. Get your team out of their organisational bubble and looking at things differently! Take a look at iansanders.com/workshops Email hello@iansanders.com 

  • The importance of being curious at work

    After my presentation at Inspire Live earlier this year - Why Curiosity Is My Compass - I sat down with the Marketing Academy for a short interview. They asked me about the importance of being curious at work and what advice I'd give my younger self. Here's the clip.

  • Breathe fresh air into your work life & get energised

    A one-day workshop in the beautiful setting of Chalkwell Hall, overlooking the Thames estuary

    On Friday 23rd June creative consultant, author and coach Ian Sanders presents a one-day workshop to get you fired up about your work life and energised about the future.

    Get out of the city and spend a day blowing the cobwebs away, getting ready for a new and improved work life, business or career.

    In a full, targeted day that will give you a load of takeaways to use straight away, you’ll be shown how to:

    • rethink ‘work’ and to change your attitude to what you and why you do it
    • treat your career as an adventure
    • put the real you at the heart of your job
    • embrace the inner rebel and have the confidence to do things your way
    • redefine success
    • use your story as a compass
    • rely on your curiosity rather than a long-term plan
    • find your fuel (and what to do when the fuel runs low)
    • use digital tools to  get noticed
    • generate ideas to be more creative and productive

    Who’s it for? Anyone who needs a boost of inspiration and energy in their work life. You might be an employee in an organisation, an entrepreneur or a freelancer.

    When? Friday 23rd June 10:00am - 4.30 pm
    Where? Chalkwell Park, SS0 8NB (fifty minutes by train from London’s Fenchurch Street)
    How much? £150 including VAT, including a light lunch (fee payable in full before the workshop).

    How to apply? There are only ten places available. If you’re ready to fill up your fuel tank and get energised about what you do and why you do it, apply for a place by emailing hello@iansanders.com. In your email, tell Ian three things: i) what’s your current role; ii) what do you want to get out of the workshop; iii) describe your relationship with ‘work’ in one sentence. PLEASE APPLY BY JUNE 1ST.


    About Ian: Ian is a creative consultant, coach and storyteller who has spoken at events including the Do Lectures, South by South West and the Marketing Academy’s Inspire Live. The author of four books on work and business, he has guest lectured at the University of East London and Ravensbourne College. Ian has written about work and entrepreneurship for The Financial Times. He's currently teaching storytelling at the BBC.

    “Thanks Ian.  You helped me rediscover the inner rebel and life is good.”

    Tom Watson, MP

     

    “Working with Ian has given us the confidence to continue to be different. It provided the validation from a smart, external perspective that we should stick to our guns and focus on what gets us excited rather than dilute our story. We now feel more confident in taking our story out to the world.” Tom Hoy, Stripe Partners

     

    “Ian was great to work with.. keeping my focus on what I am passionate about and the opportunities out there. I have come away from this feeling excited about the year ahead.”

    Sarah Prietzsch, freelance TV producer

     

    “If you're looking for an authentic, human experience, you can't go far wrong by spending some time with Ian Sanders.” Claire Van der Zant, Rooster Punk

  • Tips for living a more curious life

    Hello from the window seat of the 16:35 Manchester to Euston train. I love a train ride, it's always a great opportunity to press the pause button, get some work done, catch up on some podcasts but also to daydream out of the window.

    Wherever in the world you are reading this I hope you find time to take a break for five minutes, grab a coffee and check out some suggestions for being more curious at work.

    I think curiosity is so important. It’s easy to get stuck with our head-down in our industry or organisational bubble. Shifting our mindset to explore other worlds and open our eyes to new possibilities can help us do our jobs better. I recently gave a talk about curiosity at Inspire Live at Google's London HQ. One member of the audience told me it had been a "shot in the arm" reminding him and his team to stay curious at work (if your team or organisation needs a shot in the arm, get in touch - contact details at the bottom of this email!).

    So here are some practical steps to get you in a more curious mindset:

    1. Go outside. I know many people work in organisational cultures where they rarely leave the building, not even for lunch. So please, try and get outside at lunchtime, if only for a walk around the block. I bet you’ll find some clarity in the fresh air and who knows what opportunities you might bump into?
    2. Get your shoes dirty. My friends at Stripe Partners run an innovation consultancy rooted in anthropology. I love Stripe’s belief that in order to understand the world around us we need to get our shoes dirty and go and experience things first hand. So embrace your inner anthropologist: spend time walking in your employees’ or customers’ shoes, “get stuck in” to find the answers.
    3. Talk to strangers. Today I’ve been working at Media City UK in Manchester. Walking outside at lunchtime I got talking to a cleaning supervisor called Sonny. As we walked along we chatted about his job - he told me how much he loves it. I found that a conversation with a random stranger really fired up my afternoon. It also turned my perception of the job on its head.
    4. Take inspiration from unusual places. If you’re struggling with ideas or you need a fresh source of inspiration, I find that listening to a new podcast or watching a stimulating documentary can help kick start my creativity. This week I watched one of Benjamin Zand's BBC Pop Up documentaries and listened to the Happy Melly podcast (this episode - Discovering What Makes Us Tick - features an interview with me). And if you're looking for the perfect soundtrack for a train journey, let me recommend this wonderful concert from Tinariwen, a band from the Sahara Desert.
    5. Explore the unfamiliar. When you're traveling on business and arrive in a city you don’t know, rather than take the easy option and head to Starbucks, try going somewhere unfamiliar. On my recent travels, I’ve sought out side street cafes and independent record shops. For me these are the best places to stand back and look at things from a fresh perspective. The vibe is different, the atmosphere feels more creative and you get to meet interesting people who are more likely to take time and chat to you.

    Let me know how you get on!

  • “What does it mean to be a human brand?” A storytelling project for Rooster Punk.

    What is a “human brand”? Is the term just marketing fluff or can being human be an authentic behaviour for brands who want to do things differently and gain a competitive advantage by standing for something other than profit?

    I’ve been working with the folk at Rooster Punk, exploring what it means to be a human brand in the financial services industry. I interviewed the leaders of brands including Metro Bank, Aviva, Co-op Bank, Virgin Money, Profile Pensions, Just and Squirrel to uncover the practical ideas they are taking to humanise their businesses.

    You can read the series of ten stories in “Money Talks” a PDF download from Rooster Punk (grab it here).

    We launched the report at a breakfast event earlier this month - in a Covent Garden pub - where I hosted a panel discussion with Rooster Punk CEO Paul Cash, and representatives from Metro Bank, Profile Pensions, Just and Squirrel (read about that event in this article from The Drum).

    So what are the hallmarks of being a human brand? This is what we discovered:

    1. You must have the right people. Hire for attitude, select people who believe in your mission

    2. Your digital channels should be about improving the customer experience, not denying access to people

    3. If your products and services feel very abstract, use storytelling to humanise your offering and build a connection with your audience

    4. Walk in your customer shoes, understand their needs from their point of view

    5. The brand promise shouldn’t just be a hollow marketing exercise, but you’ve got to live and breathe it. And if you don’t, be prepared to be called out!

    Lifting the lid on the financial services industry was an eye opener. Conducting in depth research by talking to those at the heart of the organisation was an essential way to uncover the truth - and to see if they truly stood behind their claims. Telling the stories was one part. Getting some of these leaders together to debate on stage gave the project another layer, to test their claims about being human in front of their peers and a live audience. Let's face it, some research can be dull. Kudos to Rooster Punk for going with a refreshingly different story-led approach!

    If you’d like to hire me to tell some stories in your organisation or industry, get in touch:  hello@iansanders.com  

    Claire Van der Zant, Business Development Director at Rooster Punk said, “Having worked closely with Ian before, it was a natural choice to work together on a piece of storytelling research in the UK financial industry. It was just a seed of an idea when we first engaged with Ian, and with his help we developed this piece into something that took on a real life and energy of its own. Ian’s energy and enthusiasm for story was the real foundation of success for the research.

     

  • "Why Curiosity is my Compass"

    Earlier this year Sarah Ellis asked me to talk at the Marketing Academy's 'Inspire Live' event at Google's shiny new Kings Cross HQ.  The theme for the day was '10 Superpowers every leader needs.' Sarah asked me to talk about one of my favourite subjects - curiosity; how people can use curiosity as a superpower to unlock opportunities in their business and work lives (here are my slides)

    One member of the audience told me it had been a "shot in the arm" reminding him and his team to stay curious at work. If your team or organisation needs a shot in the arm and you'd like me to run a workshop or give a presentation on curiosity, get in touch:  hello@iansanders.com


    (thanks for the pic Matt Desmier!)

  • My Walk & Talks: what's in it for you?

    In the eighteen months since I started my coaching programme, taking business leaders, executives, creatives and freelancers on walk and talks around London, I've worked with a wonderful mix of people.

    Simon and I spent a couple of hours walking along the Thames estuary on a sunny Monday morning. Helen and I made our way along the canal by Little Venice one lunchtime. Alastair and I met at Tate Modern and headed to Covent Garden along the south bank of the Thames. Alina and I took a route through the side streets of Soho and Fitzrovia (take a look at my testimonials).

    I use the term 'coach' loosely, because I’m not your traditional kind of coach, rather I draw on my diverse experiences to offer a different perspective. Think of me as your go-to outsider, someone you can confide in, offload to and who’ll give you a fresh perspective.

    People come on my walk and talk sessions looking for different things. They want help transitioning to a new role. They’re looking to make major change in their life and they can’t see which path to take. Or perhaps they just need a fresh pair of eyes on a project or business challenge.

    Whatever’s on your mind, here are the benefits of coming on a walk and talk:

    1. The chance for reflection. The importance of pausing for breath. Taking time to recognise what is unique about you, what’s driving you, what makes you tick. To get things off your chest. To uncover talents that may have lain hidden. To shine the light on your story.

    2. Clarity on where to go next. Look at things from the outside, seek a clear direction on where to go next. I’ll help you navigate the way ahead, shining the light on the path that’s right for you.

    3. Fuel for your journey. I’ll get you fired up, reigniting the passion and injecting a sense of excitement about the opportunities ahead.

    You'll get tangible action plans too to help you make the change you need. If this sounds like the kind of help you need, email me hello@iansanders.com  to find out more. And if you can’t make it to London, I offer coaching via Skype.

     

  • More than marketing fluff. Why your business story is a touchstone for the whole organisation.

    A good story well told stays with us. It fires our imagination, gets us emotionally engaged, it makes an impact.

    Stories have the same value in business.

    But if I walk into some offices or boardrooms and talk about ‘storytelling’, I might get some odd looks. There’s a fair bit of cynicism around it.

    The Financial Times’ management columnist Andrew Hill is one commentator who has expressed his concern over storytelling. He wrote,

    “...there is a risk that corporate storytellers start to believe their own stories. To make a business narrative stick, leaders have to repeat it, reinforcing the story for themselves. What starts as a way for chief executives to guide and motivate staff, investors, customers and boards, becomes a plot from which they cannot extricate themselves”.

    I agree it’s a problem if a business’s story gets divorced from reality. If a business leader’s story is bullshit, then it should be treated with the disdain it deserves.

    But when told honestly, a business story becomes so much more than a marketing tool, it’s a cultural touchstone that gets all parts of the organisation aligned.

    So how to steer clear of creating works of fiction? Business storytelling is not about the Disneyfication of a business’s purpose and it’s not about mythmaking. It’s about holding up a mirror. When I work with organisations I often spot a disconnect between what a business says it is, and what it really is. Crafting an authentic story can help bridge that gap. It can help the organisation find its essence: who it is, what it stands for, where it’s come from and where it’s headed.

    Organisations are always changing and growing, but often they don’t update their stories. They tell an outdated story that’s not relevant anymore. Standing back, getting an outside perspective to help capture and craft the real story is a great way to bridge that disconnect. In my experience it’s hard to manufacture a story when you apply an external journalistic rigour to tell it like it is. A business’s story has to be sustainable, it has to be believable. If the story isn’t credible or authentic, then someone will blow the whistle sooner rather than later.

    By telling its true story a business can emphasise its ‘why’, its purpose. A story gives a business the tools to compete in a crowded or abundant market. Brands such as TOMS Shoes, Sugru and Hiut Denim  have achieved commercial success not only because their products are good, but also because they tell a good story: one which aligns with their values and mission. It applies in the same way in B2B, where customers choose companies such as Mailchimp or Basecamp  because they demonstrate their personality via the stories they tell. The stories those businesses tell about themselves - and their customers - helps them stand out. These stories make the customer the hero, shining the light on how their products help small businesses and entrepreneurs grow.

    Getting an honest evaluation from objective outsiders will help craft a story full of fact, not fiction, and will help the business leaders be sensible and honest enough to reframe when they need to.  So let's not dismiss storytelling as just another business fad. A business story told well is a powerful touchstone.

    What’s your business story? If you need help, hire me to tell your business or brand story. Make 2017 the year to tell your story! Get in touch hello@iansanders.com


    Watch my video: Make the customer the hero. How to use storytelling in B2B.