Ian's blog

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  • 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.

     

  • 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.