Ian's blog

  • Cracking under pressure: why we all need a hard hat

    Cracking under pressure: why we all need a hard hat

    In the late 1990s I lived in a pretty little mews in south west London. I loved my house, with its open-plan ground floor with a spiral staircase and the community spirit that existed amongst myself and eleven neighbours. When I first lived there, work was going well. My teenage dream to have a career  in TV and radio had come true and by the time I was thirty I was managing director of a radio studio business. I had a good disposable income, I had no dependants, I enjoyed good holidays, I went out to fashionable restaurants. On the face of it, I had “made it”.

    But underneath the surface, cracks were starting to show. I found the more success I had in my job, the more projects landed in my lap. I was a rookie MD, with no previous management experience, suddenly responsible for a young, hungry team. The pressure was on. Every quarter I had to forecast the profit of the business upwards and somehow I had to meet those targets. I was overwhelmed, I had too much on and no-one to delegate to. The job wasn't me anymore.

    And life back home in the mews was starting  to have its own aggravations. My house was at the end of the mews and abutted a railway embankment - the site of East Putney station - and one day I returned home to find a team of hard-hatted engineers outside my front door. They told me that the embankment was cracking under pressure, the station platform was sinking.

    The attractive trees and plants on the embankment were soon replaced by scaffolding, steel and cranes. London Underground started to pile drive the embankment and rebuild the platform. I was now living on a building site. In order to keep the station open during the day the decision was taken to carry out the works at night, between 2am and 4am, six nights a week. As I tried to sleep, workmen walked along scaffolding inches from my bedroom wall. Cranes swung overhead. Drills vibrated, generators whirred. During the eighteen months of works I logged one hundred and thirty interrupted nights of sleep.

    The railway embankment had cracked and now I was cracking under the dual pressures of a stressful job and a stressful home. I couldn’t cope. My life was making me ill. I was stressed and depressed. At the end of 1999 I quit my job.

    Unlike my nocturnal neighbours in their high visibility jackets, I lacked my own hard hat. I’d been vulnerable and left to cope alone. I didn’t shout for help until it was too late, when I found myself sitting in my doctor’s surgery as she scribbled out a prescription for antidepressants.  A specialist diagnosed my condition as a ‘chemical imbalance.’

    Imbalance. “A lack of proportion or relation between corresponding things.”

    That’s when stress gets dangerous. When there is imbalance.

    So for the last nineteen years I’ve been working for myself, which is of course an experience that is in no way stress-free. It’s stressful living with the uncertainty of what’s coming next. Some of my day to day working life can be stressful. But I’m comfortable with these kind of pressures. Sometimes I thrive on them. How dull would life be without challenges to get your teeth into? After all, how can navigating this crazy new world of work and all that the adventures that come with it *not* be stressful?

    I can deal with it all, as long as I look after myself. Ensuring I don’t have too many late nights, that I can pay attention to my well being, get some exercise. That I’m in balance.

    We all need some kind of protective clothing and a metaphorical hard-hat. Whether it’s finding a supportive partner or turning to family and friends, or just knowing when to say ‘enough’. Listening for those warning signs, checking in on that canary in your mind.

    That’s why I started my ‘Good Times ‘habit where I keep a weekly list of the experiences that fire me up and give me pleasure. Whether it’s the satisfaction that comes from giving a talk to an audience, or the pleasure of sitting in the sun enjoying the first coffee of the day, five years’ worth of Good Times lists provides me with the data to know what fuels me. It’s given me a different metric for success, and it helps me measure my relationship with stress. When I feel stressed or start feeling ill, I take a look at my Good Times and know what I need to do in order to get back on track.

    ...I like to think of it as my hard hat.

    [pic Marco Derksen on Flickr, creative commons]

  • Curries, rabbits and taking the scenic route: my stand out lessons from 2018.

    Curries, rabbits and taking the scenic route: my stand out lessons from 2018.

    I love a list - so here are my 18 things I learned in 2018 to round off the year:

    1. Wander around and your curiosity will be rewarded. This year I visited cities I hadn’t been to in years — places like Liverpool, Hull, Leeds, Madrid. Whilst I was there to do a talk or presentation, on every visit I made space for wandering around the city, taking it in, finding places that might provide inspiration. In Hull I stumbled across a little coffee shop and had a great chat to the proprietor about his story. These little activities around the edges really add another level to my work trips.
    2. Good things happen when people eat together. This year I visited the Jamie Oliver Company HQ. It was lunchtime and everyone was lining up at a kitchen counter for a serving of vegetable curry. Even Jamie was there. This sharing of a meal has become an important ritual that brings everyone together in the same place to share the same dish. It acts as the glue to bind the team together. Those who eat together, stick together.
    3. Choose the venue with soul, even if it’s tatty at the edges. At the start of the year I ran my two-day ‘Reignite’ workshop for a bank. The bank works with lots of emerging and growing businesses, so I wanted to take them out of their shiny office block and closer to their customers’ world. I discovered a lovely co-working space on the third floor of an old building down near the harbour. Some of the attendees seemed surprised when they walked into the venue. I agree, it looked a bit tatty at the edges, but it had soul and character. It was the perfect venue for my workshop, getting the attendees away from their usual corporate realm and into the lives of their customers.
    4. The best connections are the random ones. I’m constantly surprised and delighted by the randomness of the connections I’ve made over the years. There’s the recruitment consultant, Mohan, I met — and who I’ve subsequently introduced to a handful of my own connections — just because I happened to go for a last-minute drink in a bar. He was in a band, playing the keyboard. A few months after that I asked his band to play my 40th birthday party. Earlier this year one of my Cardiff-based connections, Marc, was really helpful in giving me his customer perspective on a client of mine. How do I know Marc? Five years ago I happened to pick up a copy of a magazine in Tate Modern. Marc had written a piece about his fondness for a stove top coffee maker. It resonated with me and I started following him on Twitter. Reach out to people, you never know where it might lead, not least them playing at your 40th birthday party!
    5. When team members share their personal stories, magic happens.One Monday afternoon in June, in an old coaching inn in a village in Surrey, I worked with a team from a global organisation. I ran a workshop getting them to share their personal stories. They each told the group of their journey of ‘how they got to here.’ The honesty and emotion that tumbled out that day was humbling and inspiring. Through the telling of the stories, each of us could see we’re all the same — same worries, same wishes, same challenges. The people in the room bonded through their stories and left a lasting impact beyond that of the workshop.
    6. You’re not for everyone… and that’s okay. One of my gigs stood out this year. It was with a group of attendees who worked in a very corporate environment. There was always a risk that my approach, my style and my ideas might be too leftfield for them. Turns out, I was right. And that’s OK. I’m not for everyone and won’t devote energy and resources to those who just don’t get me.
    7. Capturing the secret sauce that makes a company’s culture adds a lot of flavour. A fast-growing organisation wanted to make sure they didn’t dilute or neglect their culture. At the team’s awayday in rural Norfolk, I led a session to capture their culture. Colleagues were asked to get together in groups and discuss what they felt were the working practices, habits and behaviours that make the company special. These were written down and shared at the end of the day. A final list was agreed on. Now the company has a touchstone, a list of principles which will guide them as they grow.
    8. Take the scenic route. I was in Edinburgh last month to speak at a conference. I could have flown back, but decided to take the slow route on the train. It’s a wonderful route that hugs the North Sea coast before passing across the majestic Tyne in Newcastle and heading south towards London. What I particularly love about a long train journey is how the view out of the window is a shifting slideshow. It really fed my creativity.
    9. The joy of catching up over a slow Saturday morning coffee shouldn’t be underestimated. Lizzie and I live on opposite sides of the UK. When we both happened to be in London on a Saturday morning it was an opportunity too good to miss. We caught up for coffee in Earls Court. We weren’t in a rush and it was lovely to share what we’d been up. More than that, we had a bloody good laugh. That felt good. Thanks Lizzie.
    10. When something merits a old school letter or thank you card, do it. I love sending thank you cards in my business life, something I learned from Tom Peters. It’s rare however that I write a letter to anyone. But when I was reflecting on my experiences working with the BBC, I felt I wanted to feedback my insights to the Director General Tony Hall. So I decided to write him a letter. I knew his office would get inundated with correspondence but Tony was good enough to respond, adding his own handwritten comments at the bottom. He also took the time to say ‘thank you’ on his reply. A reminder that one-to-one, snail-mail communications aren’t dead.
    11. Make more time for what matters. This year an old, old friend of mine became ill. It was natural that I wanted to see him so I took him out for lunch. Picking him up to take him out to a Turkish cafe was the most important thing I did that week.
    12. Know when it’s time to hang up your hat. This year I clocked up my twenty sixth session for the BBC. It had been quite a journey and I had enjoyed it but I decided to call time. After all, I had started to feel less fresh and energised myself, so how was I going to energise others? Quit while you’re ahead.
    13. Treat yourself. I really wanted to see Steve McQueen’s film ‘Widows’. I’d just finished a meeting in Soho, and checking cinema times, I reckoned I could just make it to the 12:30 screening at The Curzon. It was a real treat, going to the cinema in the middle of the working day. It turned out it was a screening just for me — I was the only one there!
    14. It’s harder to feed a rabbit water than you might think. After landing at Madrid’s Barajas airport, a fellow traveller — and complete stranger — asked if I would help her give her pet rabbit Gogo some water. The rabbit had just endured his first flight from London to Madrid, and was now heading to Lisbon. She was worried he was dehydrated. Could I give him some water through a pipette whilst she held him? Sure, I replied confidently. Then after five minutes trying to find its mouth, we had to give up. Who knew it could be so tricky!?
    15. Two heads are better than one. This is nothing new, but something that has become more noticeable this year. When I’m designing new workshops and writing up talks and other articles — having two heads is crucial, not least to give an objective, outsider perspective that helps see themes and acts as a sounding board. Does this bit go there? Does that bit work next to that slide? And so on. Thanks to my creative partner Zoë for all her help this year.
    16. Say hello in the lift. People sometimes look at me like I have two heads when I say hello in office lifts (and I’m not even the one that works there!). Yes, I know it’s not the done thing but here’s to being more human with our fellow lift-riders in 2019.
    17. It feels good to let the inner teenager out. A couple of weeks ago I went to see Johnny Marr play live in Amsterdam, in a venue I’d first been to in 1986. I remember the first time I heard The Smiths’ ‘There is a light that never goes out’. That was 1986 too. The track was on an album I had on cassette and I played it to death. First in my bedroom. And then in the tape deck of my Ford Escort, hitting the fast forward and rewind buttons trying to cue up the one track I wanted to hear. Johnny co-wrote the song. It was wonderful to relive those teenage years, watching him live all these years later and performing the song I’ve always loved so much.
    18. It matters where you put your attention. This year I’ve been focused about what matters, what doesn’t and where to put my attention. I’ve been clear when to say no to projects and approaches, and I’ve only accepted gigs where there’s a chemistry and culture fit with the people and organisations I work with. I’ve not allowed any space for toxic relationships in my life. Making time for swims, dog walks, looking after my mental health. As happiness and productivity guru Gretchen Rubin says, “to live a meaningful life means making meaningful choices for what we do at 10am and at 3pm and in the evening.” So, I wish you all much more of the freedom and clarity to do that in 2019.
  • Get outside and get your shoes dirty

    Get outside and get your shoes dirty

    Until recently, I ran a regular workshop for teams of journalists at the BBC. Over 18 months I clocked up 26 sessions across the UK’s towns and cities: Belfast, Birmingham, Southampton, Cardiff, Salford, Glasgow, Leeds, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle and Swindon.

    There was one section of the day that stood out from the rest. When I designed the workshop back in 2016, I included this element as a bit of an experiment. I wasn’t at all sure how it would work out. But it proved to be the most popular part and participants always learned a great deal from it.

    And yet it was so simple.

    It’s my ‘Story Safari.’ At its essence, it’s an activity where participants wander around the streets for an hour in order to notice the world around them. They’re tasked with observing sights, places and behaviours on their walk. That’s it. Sounds so simple but it’s one that yields great results.

    I used to think that, as most of my participants were journalists, they’d always be venturing out and about. Of course when they’re working on a story, they are on location. But in their usual day to day work lives, often they’re too busy tied to their desks in a newsroom, and they just don’t have time to explore and wander the streets of their towns and cities.

    That’s why my workshop was such an eye-opener. After one Story Safari in Glasgow, a participant came back and told us she’d learned more about a neighbourhood in 45 minutes than she had in twenty years driving through the area to work. She had stumbled across a local café where she’d tuned in to conversations. In Salford, a couple of journalists explained they’d worked at Media City since it opened, but this was the first time they’d walked down the canalside.

    Unshackling people from their desks allows them to notice, question and be present in the environment in which they work. The Story Safari enables overhearing conversations at bus stops and in cafés; walking slowly and looking up; exploring and chatting to strangers.

    A business journalist in one city told me until he’d gone out on Story Safari, he hadn’t noticed how many construction cranes there were in the city, an indicator of economic development. After his walk he planned to do a story on that theme. In London, a journalist who used to work in town planning had ventured into a social housing development just ten minutes from his newsroom. He found the visit enlightening and fascinating. But he’d never thought of going there before. Not until the Story Safari gave him a licence to be curious.

    Staying at your desk — it’s not something particular to journalists of course. It’s something I see in many organisations. I know many companies — large and small — where employees don’t get out of the office either. But whether you’re a journalist, a marketing executive or an engineer, the simple act of getting out of the office can unlock so much. Stepping out of the door gives you a dose of inspiration, can get you closer to the customer and nurtures curiosity.

    So whatever your industry, whatever your field, get out in the real world. I often reflect on what Sarah O’Connor once wrote in the FT, about the ‘best economist’ being ‘the one with dirty shoes’. I’ve referenced it before in a blog post and it’s worth relating again here, because I find the story sums up exactly the point of getting out of the office. British diplomats in Tehran had become detached from what was happening outside the embassy gates. They didn’t see the revolution coming. What was vital was leaving the embassy confines to get a feel for what was happening on the ground. Sarah O’Connor writes:

    One former ambassador to Iran used to check whether his staff’s shoes were dirty. “If not, I knew they hadn’t been getting out of the embassy and meeting people in town.”

    We’re nearly into 2019. The default setting for how and where we do our work should not be a desk. To be more curious at work, to be more creative or just to stay energised and feel more enlivened at work, go on and get your shoes dirty.

  • Heading towards you. A walk to review your past, shape your story and look ahead at your future…

    Heading towards you. A walk to review your past, shape your story and look ahead at your future…
    “To move slowly from one place to another has become a privilege, and many people can’t afford it because they need to get from A to B in a fast pace.”
    Erling Kagge, explorer and entrepreneur

    It’s a Friday morning in November and I’m sitting at the back of a Thames Clipper riverboat as it heads towards Tate Modern. Alongside me is Nick, my client for this morning on one of my recent Fuel Safaris.

    My Fuel Safari is a one-to-one walking-based session to help business leaders, entrepreneurs and executives get a new perspective on their work lives. They’re for addressing whatever is pertinent to the individual and their needs: navigating change, reflecting on their story, uncovering what makes them tick and identifying paths towards their “what next?”. And more.

    The Fuel Safari gets people outside the office, to wander the streets with a stop for coffee along the way. There’s something about the motion of walking, the striding side-by-side, the opportunity to be frank and open that is so productive. Getting outside and moving around unlocks thoughts and ideas that would probably have otherwise lain hidden.

    My favourite routes take in the squares and side streets of Soho and Fitzrovia. Today I’m in a different environment — out here on the Thames — and one much better suited to my client.

    Until recently Nick had taken the riverboat to his office at Canary Wharf where he was VP, Talent & Development at Thomson Reuters’ technology & operations division. After nine years he’s decided to leave to embark on a new chapter in his career. I’m here to help him press the pause button, uncover his story and review his career. So for Nick’s Fuel Safari, I wanted to take him back on the boat.

    Today we’ve travelled from Tower Hill to Embankment, and by the time we disembark we’ve pretty much covered Nick’s life story. Next we walk over Hungerford Bridge and head east on foot along the south bank of the Thames.

    But the aim isn’t to get from A to B as quickly as possible, it’s the journey we’re interested in, not the destination. To walk slowly and give ourselves time and space to explore the themes and ideas that arise. To notice the urban scenery and people around us. It provides a valuable time out of our busy lives, to focus on ‘you’, something that’s so important but also so easily overlooked.

    I’m carrying a notepad and pen to make sure I grab the thoughts that matter, scribbling down a reflection or idea before moving on. As I do on every Fuel Safari, I have a pack of cards with questions to guide me. But also, like any good exploration, we often go off-piste, which allows a deeper probing at certain points to elicit more relevant information. As we pass behind the Financial Times building at the southern end of Southwark Bridge, I reflect on my own experience, having written articles for the FT. We start talking about the importance of space and place. It unlocks a revelation for Nick who acknowledges he needs the right environment in order to do his best work.

    What’s great about this process, outside in the fresh air, is that we aren’t confined by walls, or stuck to one view as we might be in an office or boardroom. Outside, there are no barriers to our thinking. Ideas can rise up freely, there are no restrictions to limit where we go with our thoughts. It enables themes to emerge that otherwise would not have done; we can connect the dots to frame a new vision of the future.

    By the time we reach Tate Modern the rain is falling so we speed up and head to Borough Market for a coffee. Finding my usual place full, we head to The Gentlemen Baristas and sit up at a bar in the window. Over our americanos we have an opportunity to discuss more about what’s next for Nick career-wise. We’re really on a roll now: the coffee and walk have fuelled us and we’re coming up with ideas that spark off each other.

    By 1pm, we’re done. It’s been quite a journey this morning, we have travelled not only from Tower Hill to Borough Market, but we have journeyed through Nick’s life: starting at his childhood where his family moved around a lot, via a student summer job selling encyclopedias in Chicago to a senior role at Thomson Reuters.

    We wrap the day and go our separate ways. But the Fuel Safari doesn’t end there. I take my notes away so I can create Nick’s ‘personal roadmap’, a report that captures his brand values and outlines the opportunities that lie ahead.

    A few weeks later and I’ve delivered Nick his story and personal roadmap. So what did he think about his first Fuel Safari?

    “I found it really valuable stepping back and reflecting, in a very different context than I normally do. I also really, really liked the output — but what I found most valuable and enjoyable of all was the actual Fuel Safari itself.”

    Need some of what Nick had? Get in touch to book a Fuel Safari in 2019 or to find out more: hello@iansanders.com

  • The problem with CVs

    I don’t like CVs. They don’t feel very human do they? There has to be a better way.

    Earlier this month I was at The H Club London for a CV surgery, as part of their Head Start initiative where they help connect underrepresented young people to training, experiences and opportunities in the creative industries.

    A CV needs to emotionally engage with whoever it is is reading it so it stands out from the rest of the pile. So my advice at the CV surgery was to tell your story, to steer clear of the obvious and to shine a light on who you are and what makes you unique.  

  • What should you do with your crazy dreams?

    The great structure glinted in the sunshine as I walked across the bridge over the Serpentine. The sight of the huge floating pyramid in the lake in the centre of Hyde Park was impressive. A towering colourful, confident 600-ton pyramid comprised of row upon row of 55-gallon barrels seemed incongruous in the park setting. And I loved it.

    The pyramid is the work of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude and is their London Mastaba - an ancient and familiar shape in Islamic architecture. I learned more about their work in a recent, excellent BBC4 documentary, about their far-fetched ideas and crazy dreams. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were artists married to each other. Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 and Christo honoured his wife’s vital contribution to their collaboration by incorporating her name into his.

    This London Mastaba is a scaled-down version of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s concept for the Abu Dhabi Mustaba, which was conceived in 1977 but never came to fruition. For Christo then, the London version is “a dream come true” to see it happen. The artists’ work has always been about defying the odds. In 1976, they boldly erected 46 miles of Running Fence in Northern California. In 1995 they wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin in more than a million square feet of fabric. That crazy dream took 23 years to come into being.

    Last week I told the artists’ story during a presentation to students at USP College in Essex. I was there to give career advice to students who wanted to work in the creative industries. I told them the importance of hanging onto their crazy dreams.

    And on stage, I related my own crazy dream. That I’d grown up in a household with no TV set. How that had nurtured a love of radio and that getting a miniature transistor radio as a kid fuelled my ambition to work in broadcasting. My parents suggested I choose a more sensible career. My headmaster at school recommended I should forget the idea of pursuing a career in broadcasting as it would be too competitive.

    At the time, the thought of working in broadcasting felt like a crazy dream, because I had no idea how to make it happen. But I didn’t give up on it. I truly believed it would happen. So I decided to ignore my headmaster’s advice. A few months later I got my lucky break when a BBC local radio station was launched in my home county. After a gruelling interview process, I got a voluntary role working on a Saturday night show, doing the gig guide, conducting interviews. I was in! After university, I went to work in music television.

    My crazy dream had come true.

    The trouble with crazy dreams is that people around us say they’ll never happen. They either don’t have the vision, or worry what’ll it’ll be like when we get disappointed, or they are even fearful of our success. But our crazy dreams are like beacons. They give us something to head towards and motivate us to try. Such dreams are what fuel entrepreneurs and innovators to make their ideas happen.

    Back at the college auditorium, I asked students to share their own crazy dreams. I heard about dreams to become a fashion stylist, a TV make-up artist, a singer, a games developer. I didn’t tell the students that their dreams were unrealistic. I told them that you never know what might be possible if you set your heart on it. If you work hard and persevere.

    But of course, crazy dreams are not just the stuff of kids and teenagers. You’re never too old to have a dream to pull off a new career or life goal or ambition. And if in doubt look at the man behind the Mastaba. He’s 83 and still dreaming up his next radical idea. And I bet you he’ll make it happen.

    What are you going to do with your crazy dreams?


  • Good things happen when you open an organisation up, bring your people together and feed them.

    A workplace ritual that’s all about food

    As I walk into Jamie Oliver’s north London HQ at lunchtime it’s instantly clear where the organisation places its priorities. Straight ahead is a serving counter where two chefs are plating up vegetable curry. There’s a line of people waiting to be served and walking around chatting to colleagues is the man himself. Jamie.

    It’s unsurprising that the focus here is on food, but it’s the workspace that enables that to feed through to every part of the organisation.

    Jamie’s businesses have been based here for around a year. The building was a warehouse in a former life and the new layout has quite literally opened up the organisation. Whereas in their previous building departments lived on different floors, here the new space enables a company-wide coming-together across two vast open floors. The downstairs area looks like the lovechild of a Jamie’s Italian restaurant and a WeWork space, with lots of sofas, mismatched furniture, the bright, open space and of course, a kitchen.

    You get a sense that this light and airy space downstairs is the beating heart of the organisation. There are glimpses of Jamie’s personality everywhere. A map of Essex with “I f***ing love this place” printed across it, a photograph of his parents’ pub where he used to help out as a kid. Some of the furniture has been lifted from his restaurants; others are items he’s personally collected over the years.

    I know well the problems small organisations experience when departments are compartmentalised on separate floors. The company I worked for in the 90s was spread across five floors. There were few communal spaces and however much we tried to mix, the inevitable silos developed. The building limited our engagement with one another and ultimately stifled our culture.

    It’s clear that the new Jamie Oliver building has been transformational. The space provides plenty of opportunity for people to bump into each other as they wait in line for food or as they work at a shared table.

    The 12:30 communal lunch is at the heart of the culture, although it’s a ritual that’s evolved over time. It started when leftovers from the test kitchen and photo shoots were shared out with colleagues. At the same time there was a concern about employee well being: bringing in food from local takeaways wasn’t consistent with the healthy-eating values of the company. The solution? A £3 meal is now served most days of the week.

    What’s different about this canteen to most others I have seen is that only one dish is served. The fact that everyone has the same meal, regardless of role or department, is democratising. That shared experience — lived and breathed by over 100 people — is an important ritual. 12:30 matters. No internal meetings are allowed at that time.

    There’s no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’ but there’s ‘EAT’ in it

    Sharing a meal table with your team members is a sure-fire way of nurturing team spirit. Google is well-known for encouraging communal eating. When the company’s People Operations department studied the characteristics of perfect teams, it looked at the frequency particular people ate together and found that the most productive employees were those who rotated dining companions. That’s the reason the company has cafeterias in its offices: it hopes employees will make new connections.

    The global design firm IDEO takes communal eating one step further. IDEO chooses to have kitchens rather than cafeterias in each of their offices so employees can even cook meals together. “This is an important distinction,” says IDEO CEO Tim Brown. “Employees eat food that’s prepared for them in cafeterias. Families and cooks make food together in kitchens. Our kitchens are hives of community activity.”

    Something similar also happens here at Jamie Oliver HQ. On Friday mornings at 11:30 there’s a cookery class. Employees find a work buddy in the building to cook for, and then the two of them share the lunch together.

    None of what happens here has been contrived to nurture culture — the lunchtime ritual was an idea that evolved from Jamie himself. And yet with the new workspace enabling the coming together of the company, these communal eating habits are strengthening the company’s culture by default.

    Good things happen when you open an organisation up, bring your people together and feed them.

    Oh, and the veggie curry was really tasty too.

    Thanks to Darren Goldsby for inviting me in.

  • My simple tried and tested method for keeping me on track.

    My simple tried and tested method for keeping me on track.

    For the last five years I’ve been making a series of weekly lists in my notepad. I start on a Monday and finish on a Sunday, and write down the moments and experiences that make me tick. I call it ‘Good Times’.

    I don’t separate work from non-work, they’re all together in one list. It’s my best ‘app’ for tracking those experiences that get me fired-up, so I have a clearer sense of who I am, what I stand for and what makes me tick. It’s the perfect way of reflecting on my life — both family and professional — and checking-in on how I’m doing.

    What has this taught me? The importance of living in the moment. The importance of noticing. Of appreciating how lucky I am to live the life I do.

    I’ve learned that it’s those little everyday things that really fuel me, those are the parts in my daily routine that are really important: the walk to school, sitting in a coffee shop getting some work done, laughing out loud at something. But what my Good Times has also given me is a metric for success. Because I don’t measure my success by how much money I have billed or how many five star Amazon reviews my books have. I now have a better way of measuring where I’m at in my life — and what lies in each list are the experiences that really make me feel me, those things that keep me headed towards Ian.

  • Monday morning

    Monday morning

    Monday morning, Kaffeine, Great Titchfield Street.

    I must admit I used to rush around town, arriving just in time for meetings. Always looking at my watch, breaking into a quick step to get from A to B in time. Now I get the train thirty minutes before I need to. So when I arrive, I don’t have to rush. That means I don’t need to grab a takeaway coffee, I have time to sit and think and reflect and get fuelled up for the day and the week ahead. Giving rituals like the first coffee of the day the time it deserves. No rushing. It’s better that way.

  • Are you good at being You?

    It sounds the easiest thing in the world doesn’t it? Just being yourself. But I know lots of people who head in the wrong direction - away from themselves - when they make decisions in their careers and business lives. Something gets in the way. They think they need to have a ‘work’ version of themselves and a separate ‘real’ version. Reconciling those identities can be hard. That’s where people can get lost. They don’t allow their true self to surface at work, and feel frustrated and hemmed in, instead of being free and uninhibited to do their best work.

    Imagine how different things might be if you had the courage to follow ‘you’, to go with your gut and to use that as a touchstone to navigate your career. If you could stay aligned with who you are, what you stand for and what makes you tick.

    If you need help unearthing and tuning in to the real you, come on my Fuel Safari. It’s a one-to-one, three-hour walk around Central London to find your fuel, and to reconnect you with your passion, purpose and story. We start at Seven Dials (pictured above) and by the end of the session you’ll go away reinvigorated with some inspiring ideas, clarity and vision about where you’re headed next. Watch this video to find out more https://youtu.be/nXgaLf80BLc

    Want to know more?  Get in touch: hello@iansanders.com 

  • Create an awayday that gets your team fired-up!

    When running an awayday or team offsite, the challenge - and the opportunity - is to make sure it’s meaningful and has lasting benefits after the event. How can you fuel team spirit? How can you cement your culture? How are you going to get everybody fired-up for the next stage in the journey?  The Ian Sanders Company runs two awaydays to do just this.

    #1 Find Your Secret Sauce

    Find Your Secret Sauce unearths the habits, rituals and behaviours that make your team or organisation unique. It gets you looking at what happens in your workplace that doesn’t happen anywhere else. This session:

    • identifies and captures the Secret Sauce that makes up your culture;
    • shines a light on best-practice examples from other companies, explaining why this really matters;
    • gets participants working in small teams to make recommendations that are later voted on by the group;
    • co-creates a  manifesto of what makes you all tick. It’s  a touchstone to protect and develop your culture as you grow.

    [read the case study: Thomas Cook Money].

    #2 Tell your story

    Why are stories so important in business? Stories humanise an organisation. Sharing stories of a personal nature help nurture psychological safety which builds trusts and ultimately fuels higher team performance.  The Tell Your Story session will inspire your team about the power of stories. Starting with a presentation of why stories matter, everyone then crafts their own personal stories of ‘how they got to here’.  We end the afternoon on a high, hearing attendees read out their stories. You’ll walk away with an understanding of how stories are a powerful organisational tool, as well as having made stronger bonds between colleagues [read the case study: Tektronix].

    This year The Ian Sanders Company has run awaydays and offsites for Thomas Cook Money, The Development Bank of Wales, the BBC and Tektronix. Get in touch hello@iansanders.com to talk about how we can help your organisation.

    “A team event I will never forget. Never in all my years have I seen so many so open, and bonded so well and so quickly.” 

    Sophie, a recent awayday attendee


  • What I learned about company culture inside one room: five tips to keep your culture going strong

    It was on the second floor of an uninspiring office building just north of the Marylebone flyover. Just a typical boardroom with sliding glass doors to an open plan office.

    There were no brightly coloured bean bags, no funky furnishings, just a plain old magnolia-painted room. It was the 90s after all. But whilst it didn’t look anything fancy, the fact is, that room was the beating heart of the company.

    And what made this boardroom special were the two rituals that took place inside it.

    The first. Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 we’d get together in that room for an all-hands meeting, the WMM. We’d go around the table, talk about what was on our minds and what we were up to. The founders would talk about any challenges we were facing. That meeting was the definitive organisational snapshot of our achievements, morale and projects. In the early days, we’d all fit around that table. Then as we grew, people started wheeling extra chairs in, or would stand around the edges. You could witness that meeting and take the pulse of the company.

    The second ritual. We’d all get back in that room on the first Friday of the month for First Friday Drinks. There’d be bowls of crisps and nuts, bottles of wine and beer. We’d sit back, chat about our week and relax. Some of us stayed longer than others or would dip in and dip out depending on what was happening back at their desk or back at home. Then as time went on, work chat would stop. We’d talk about personal stuff. We’d put the CD player on and play ‘beat the intro’. We all had homes to go to, but lots of us stayed late. Why? Because we cared about each other. These were friends as well as colleagues. We had fun hanging out together as well as working together.

    This picture was taken on one of those Fridays. It was a particularly special one as it was also a leaving do for Andy, pictured left. I’m in the waistcoat (what was I wearing?!) alongside other colleagues, Anne and Michele. It felt like a startup, working hard, playing hard and passionate about our company. We’d all go the extra mile because we cared about that place.

    And - like every team - the people were what made it special.

    What happened in that room on Wednesdays and Fridays made up the secret sauce of our company culture.  The trouble is, we didn’t realise it at the time.

    Of course, we knew that one day we were going to outgrow that boardroom, but still we didn’t appreciate just how special these rituals had become. We weren’t paying attention to our culture. And if you don’t protect your culture, it slips through your hands.

    In those early days, when there were just twelve of us around that board table, the founders of the company did the hiring. There was a consistency in appointing the right kind of person.

    But once we outgrew that boardroom, things changed. A new management structure was put in place. These new managers - I was one of them - now made decisions on hiring. We knew it was special working here, but we hadn’t captured what made it so special. So when we started hiring new members of staff, we didn’t always think about chemistry and culture; instead, we just hired people who could do the job. We learnt that lesson the hard way.

    As we grew, the culture that had cemented our bonds and ways of doing things in the early days, the culture that gave us an identity, was diluted. That secret sauce hadn’t been bottled.

    The challenge is that organisational culture can feel intangible. Which means there’s even more reason to get your principles written down, so people understand your ways of doing things, the rituals that matter, good hiring criteria, and so on.

    What I’ve just related took place over twenty years ago. What would I do differently today? Here are five steps any growing company can take to protect its culture:

    1. Capture your secret sauce. Don’t let what collectively makes you tick slip through your fingers. Gather your team at an awayday or offsite and have them co-create a manifesto that identifies and captures the habits, behaviours and rituals that makes your company special. Use that manifesto as a touchstone. Having a visible reminder acts as a compass to keep everyone accountable on a daily basis. Give it to new-starters as part of their induction. For example, imperatives such as “step away from your desk at lunchtime;” let people know what it’s OK to do, and what kind of behaviour is welcome.

    2. Protect the old rituals. Okay, when your team is more than thirty you might struggle to fit everyone into the boardroom but you can still preserve the rituals. Keep the all-hands meeting but move to a bigger space and have people who work remotely dial in to take part.

    3. Develop new rituals. Make sure an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture doesn’t develop, with a divide between people that have been there since the start and the newbies. Develop opportunities where you can throw everyone together so they get to know the person behind the job title. A breakfast to welcome new starters. A lunch & learn with a guest speaker. Inclusivity is key - social events that involve booze and late nights might be off-putting for some.

    4. Tell some stories. Lift the lid on your organisation, unearth and tell stories around the people and the rituals that make it special, note down the things that wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Make them the stuff of legends that everyone talks about. Create a storybook to be shared internally and externally.

    5. Hire on attitude… of course! Keep the founders involved in the hiring process. And when that becomes impractical, make sure that you consider personality and attitude. You want an accountant who can do the sums, but perhaps you also want someone who smiles at new starters and is passionate about your company mission. An old mentor of mine once said he’d only hire someone he could have dinner with. How’s that for making sure they’re a good fit?

    Paying attention to your culture now will reap rewards in the future. It’s not only showing you value your colleagues and care about the health of the company, it’s about creating an environment where people can do their best work. This in turn will fuel high performance and commitment. So getting culture right matters. Bottle that secret sauce before it’s too late.

    Need help? We’re hired by businesses to lift the lid and tell stories about what makes their culture special (here’s an example of some stories we created for Carbon Law Partners); we run workshop and awaydays where you can capture your culture (here’s an example of an awayday we ran for Thomas Cook Money). Get in touch hello@iansanders.com

  • A sketchnote of Fuelling Your Best Work

    A sketchnote of Fuelling Your Best Work

    I love sketchnoting and doodling. I’m a fan of Mike Rohde, Scriberian, Sunni Brown and others who are good at expressing and capturing ideas in a picture.

    So I was really chuffed to see this visualization of a talk I’ve developed. I met Jonathan Hood at a talk Dan Coyle was giving in London earlier this year. We met up a month or so later and Jon told me how he was looking to scratch an itch - to start sketchnoting at work. I told him about this talk I’d just given ‘Fuelling your best work,’ gave him a link to this video, and he got busy.

    Visit Jon’s LetsDoodleIt site to read his blog post behind the sketchnote and to download the PDF.

  • What I wished I’d known earlier in my career. Build a single Lego tower, not multiple ones.

    Looking back at my first few years after I quit my job to go solo, I liken my approach to that of a hungry diner at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I took on just about every project that landed on my plate. Often it was a case of the weirder the better, and the things I got involved in were diverse: working with some old friends managing a band, delivering marketing campaigns for a global fashion brand, co-devising a book for kids, advising a creative agency. I thrived on this variety and took pride in how I’d carved out a work life that reflected my multi-dimensional interests and talents. I was glad that I was more than a job title, that I couldn’t be defined by just one label. And I just loved the freedom to work on whatever I fancied.

    It was an approach that certainly made for an interesting work life, and I wrote a couple of books about this very subject, ‘Juggle!’ and ‘Mash-up!’. But after a while I realised something: I wasn’t building a strong enough profile for one thing. My reputation for plurality was causing some difficulties. Although the multidimensional mindset made me interesting, and led to some great projects, new contacts would sometimes scratch their head about my potential involvement. I could almost see the cogs in their brains turning as they asked themselves: “How could we use Ian on a project?” It just wasn’t clear enough.

    What I’d been doing for all those years was building lots of small Lego towers. But the problem was, by having lots of small towers, and not one tall one, I wasn’t getting noticed. I wasn’t standing out. And with so many small Lego towers, how were my clients, my audience, to understand which was relevant to them?

    For example, five years ago one of those multiple towers was writing about business life for The Financial Times. It was just a side-gig, one of around five things I was working on at the time and I was probably only filing two articles a month. But out of all the towers I had built, people only noticed the “writing” tower because I had a valuable piece of real estate - the inside back page of a global newspaper. Great, but not great. On many occasions people thought that I was a freelance journalist. I’m not a journalist, I happened to enjoy telling stories about people and businesses I was interested in. And yet, that monicker of journalist stuck for a while. It was frustrating, being known for the wrong thing.

    And that’s when I realised I had to start building a single tower of Lego, and one that would reflect the real me. The one that would get me noticed for the right reasons.

    I had to take those bricks, and that experience, and repurpose them into one big tower. The small towers got broken up and the bricks went into building the foundations of the big, single-focused, tall one.

    The good news is I didn’t need to ditch all the multi-dimensional stuff. Because much of that makes me who I am - part of my offering is being across multiple disciplines, industries and being agile. But it’s making sure everything is aligned and that I’m headed in the right direction. That’s the difference when you’re building just one tower.

    So a few years ago, I made that change. Now I’m building a body of work and a reputation in the one area I want to be known for.

    And I still thrive on the diversity of it all: running awaydays and workshops, delivering presentations, storytelling projects, coaching and advising. But there’s a single essential thread that runs through everything, which is (and worth lighting up in neon): “firing-up organisations, teams & individuals to do their best work”. That’s my tower. That’s what I’m building. If I get offered a project that doesn’t add another brick into that tower, it’s not in.

    - Delivering a presentation to get execs thinking differently about work? Yes, that fits in the tower.

    - Helping a business leader navigate the waters of change? Yes.

    - Designing a workshop to help team members capture the secret sauce behind their company culture? Yep.

    It’s about wrapping up all I do, and have done, into one, single minded proposition. Now there is clarity that others can understand. I can be known for something - instead of confusing people with many hats.

    So as you go through your career, whether you work for yourself or for an organisation, you’ll sometimes find yourself at a crossroads, wondering what path to take, what role to seek, what new string to add to your bow, what project to work on next?

    And when you’re making that decision, think about the Lego.  Make sure you build your one, strong, noticeable tower.


  • Sharing stories at a historic coaching inn

    It’s a Monday afternoon in June, and in the picturesque village of Ripley in Surrey, the Tektronix EMEA marketing team has gathered at the historic Talbot Inn for its awayday. A number of colleagues have come from as far afield as Russia and India. Marketing director Sally Wright, who heads the team, has had a somewhat shorter journey: she lives next door. What better way of gathering her team to their inaugural awayday than welcoming everyone into her home? Tonight Sally will be hosting a World Cup screening and team BBQ in her garden.

    The Talbot Inn dates back 500 years and boasts a famous regular: Lord Nelson once used to tether his horse here. The venue is billed as one of the UK’s “most storied” coaching inns which makes it an apt backdrop to an afternoon that’s all about storytelling.

    So whether people have travelled far, or have popped in from next door, this afternoon is about taking the team on a storytelling journey, opening everyone’s eyes to the power of stories and how they make an impact. I kick off my presentation with an example of my own: how getting a tiny, red transistor radio as a child fuelled a passion in broadcasting.

    It’s essential to broaden our points of reference and to take inspiration outside the industry we’re operating in. Examples from Toy Story, The New York Times, Humans of New York and Netflix are used to illustrate how a good story captures the imagination and draws the audience in.

    Small brands are often effective storytellers - leveraging their story is how they get us to notice them. We’ve all heard of David Vs Goliath - it’s an enduring tale that pits the small guys against the big ones. We root for David, and small brands know that in order to stand out, they need to shine a light on what makes them different, better and unique. My favourite examples include Hiut Denim, with its mission to bring jeans-making back to the town of Cardigan; and the red wine Gran Cerdo, whose maker really did stand up to the big bankers who turned them down, and in so doing named his wine “Fat Pig” in their honour. But you don’t need a sexy product like jeans or red wine to use storytelling: there’s an example from Excalibur Screwbolts, a small inventor-owned firm literally sureing-up the UK’s biggest engineering project, Crossrail.

    Before we wrap the first part of the afternoon session, there’s time for my top ten tips: 1) be curious to discover the hidden stories; 2) create an emotional connection with your audience; 3) make it human; 4) paint a picture to give the audience something to grab hold of; 5) lift a lid on your organisation and tell the inside stories; 6) keep it simple and free from jargon; 7) know who your audience is; 8) use the three-act structure to introduce drama; 9) shine the light on the customer, make them the hero of your story; 10) make it the best you can.

    It’s a sunny afternoon so next we head outside into the hotel courtyard for an improvisation game. This is designed to get everybody warmed up and in the story-creating zone. Each team member gets dealt three picture cards. Standing around in a circle, the task is to use the cards to make up a story on the spot. Like the best stories, most of these get everyone engaged and laughing.

    Now everyone is comfortable with storytelling, it’s time for another activity. Attendees are asked to craft their own stories around a journey, whether a life journey or a travel adventure. First we look at how a story is crafted, with a before, middle and end. Each team member is to create their own story with these three parts in mind. To help, I provide an example of my own life journey. Then they are off, working in pairs sitting outside, thinking about a memorable journey of their own. Their partner is there to help them tease out elements that will form their narratives.

    Thirty minutes later, everyone gathers together back inside to share their stories. It’s a revealing session - there’s honesty and empathy, respect and support. It’s an afternoon where we hear stories of challenge and triumph, of issues surmounted, of unexpected happenings, of stoicism and bravery.

    What a collection of lives we’ve lived. Here is a snapshot of some of those stories shared around the table:

    • traveling across India in difficult conditions and the lessons learned about the generosity of strangers and dealing with the unpredictable along the way;

    • a couple trying to have a baby without success and then a New Year’s Eve that brought good news and the arrival of an unexpected daughter;

    • a senior executive recalled the shock of regaining consciousness in a hospital bed ten years ago. It became the wake-up call for rebalancing his life and not working such a crazy schedule, flying around the world;

    • a woman whose love of football as a young girl was inspired by her father, how she learned from him that she didn’t necessarily need to be the best at something, but  just give 100%;

    • the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry in a previous role and how one woman rose through the ranks to become the first female sales manager there;

    • the rigours of one woman planning for a 100km trek across the Namibian desert only to break her toe tripping over her suitcase as she was headed to the airport. She carried on regardless and made it across the finish line;

    • one man’s experience realising he was in the wrong job, having the courage to quit and then taking a big risk to leap to a new role in order to get back on track and find his path again;

    • a woman learning the importance of hard work from her father, and that experience fueling her own journey to be the first member of the family to get to university. Then raising a daughter herself at a young age who would go on to be the second member of the family to go to university;

    • how working at Tektronix had been the best sixteen years of one team member’s working life, finding her dream job and realising her full potential;

    • one woman’s holiday alone in India after a relationship break-up. Falling in love with Asia and rediscovering self confidence and happiness.


    When we think about using stories in business, it’s easy to lose sight of the basics and over-complicate things. This awayday was a reminder that stories are the fabric of our lives, and that the best stories are both simple and memorable. The kind of stories that naturally get passed and shared around.  

    The session drawn to a close, everyone is off to play rounders in the sun and to get to know each other better. No doubt there’ll be more stories to come...


  • 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??

    Probably one of the most purposeful sessions I have attended in over 40 years of working.” Attendee from the Development Bank of Wales

  • 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.