Good conduct – tuneful leadership

3 years ago I joined a choir. It was something I had considered for a bit and I happened to pass a poster on a lamp post in a village near home, while out cycling. The poster said the choir met once a fortnight for 2 hours on a Sunday afternoon, so I thought this was not too great a commitment.

I have always sung, but never in a choir, so this proved a challenge. Initially, I simply could not sing for 2 hours. However, with use – and learning to always have water at hand – my voice improved. The Leader was kindly and patient. One of the other altos took me under her wing and was very encouraging. (Contr)altos, for the uninitiated, sing lower than sopranos and don’t usually sing the tune, so hitting the right notes can be a considerable challenge – still one I don’t always meet! The first concert – occurring as it did after only about 6 rehearsals – was scary, involving audience, costume, getting on and off in the right order etc. But………. I survived and found the experience uplifting.

Back we came in the New Year to find our lovely M was no longer our leader. The story was that he was overcommitted and thus the choir would now be led by Leader 2. I was disconcerted by this news, given I was still finding my feet. Later, we discovered that M was seriously ill, hence his sudden withdrawal. Leader 2 was a different kettle of fish. He worked faster and tended to be more demanding. I struggled. In fact, I struggled so much I considered quitting. I decided to give it one last go and luckily my mentor alto was there that day. I told her how I felt and she persuaded me not to leave and said I needed to be more chilled about the whole thing. I persevered. Things got easier, but Leader 2 continued to be demanding and not always encouraging. However, I loved the material – Dylan, Beachboys, Grease, show tunes, Abba etc. My tastes are highbrow – as you can tell (-;

Concerts and rehearsals came and went. M returned for a summer concert only, and it was wonderful to see him looking so much better. Back we came in the autumn. Leader 2 continued to be temperamental and a number of people fell by the wayside. Last spring, Leader 3 – female – stepped in for one rehearsal and concentrated on the Grease medley in which, she had clearly been briefed, the tricksy rhythms and words were eluding us. Womp-bop-a-looma-a-womp-bam-boomremember Travolta and Olivia Newton John? It’s harder than you might think. Leader 3 had a lightness of touch which was refreshing. She was funny, specific, exacting – but above all encouraging. Our rendition of Grease started to sound vaguely akin to the original. I wanted to glue Leader 3 to the floor and never let her go.

So what does this say about leadership?

  1. You need to have faith in those you lead – and show it.       If you can do that, they are likely to want to deliver.
  2. You need to temper your demands with humour and sensitivity.
  3. You must walk your talk. It’s no good demanding punctuality if you are late yourself. Choir Leader 2 made this mistake.

The choir underscores for me the need – above all – to be positive and encouraging with those you lead. When those involved are doing whatever it is for fun, this is crucial, but a lot of these lessons apply equally to the workplace, where we know engagement – psychological commitment – affects the bottom line. This approach is contagious too, in the best way. I now encourage new and wobbly members and aim to reassure them they will get there – in time.

Recently, we have welcomed another new leader. He is upbeat, sparky, funny, approachable, optimistic and encouraging. Suddenly, where before we had none, we now have some (always hard to come by) tenors. Probably not a coincidence. As with workplaces, word gets around!

Comet tails and coal dust

While I loved the sound of this advent blog theme curated by Kate Griffiths-Lambeth , I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to write – and I have been ill since she and I discussed it before Christmas. Starting to feel better, a memory came back to me in the shower that seemed to sum up the weirdness and wonder of life.

I was driving home from work last summer, south along the M23. It had been a hot day and it was a beautiful evening. And then the coal dust. Ahead of me, near Gatwick, cars were backing up and starting to form a traffic jam. We slowed and slowed until finally we were at a complete standstill. Clearly there had been an accident ahead. Some cars around me were taking their chance and going the wrong way up the adjacent slip road. I toyed with the idea, but became alarmed at the anarchic behaviour which nearly caused another crash as people did random U-turns, and decided not to follow. In true British fashion, we all sat there for some time. I listened to the radio for a while, realising with relief that my husband would not be worried as he was away. Eventually, you get hot and bored. I got out of the car and ventured to speak to the man in front. As soon as I moved towards him, he got back in his car. I think this was coincidental! I turned and walked the other way and was greeted by a jovial man in a military-style uniform. He turned out to be a police officer, also trying to get home, same as me. I learnt that he did a desk job based in Surrey.

The police officer and I stood in the middle lane of the M23 in the stunning evening sunshine and discussed our children, work, driving, Shakespeare. One of his children was taking part in a Shakespeare play. I am a Bard enthusiast so this proved a fruitful topic. He told me about driving courses he had done, about how you learn to check your environment very carefully when you are doing over 100mph, how many drivers behave on the road as if they’re in a world of their own, and what he could tell about the crash from our considerable distance away. He also told me a lot about policing in the 21st century. It was one of those rare, wonderful times when your comet trail coincides with that of someone you would never normally come into contact with.

Half an hour later the traffic started to move. The police officer and I shook hands, said goodbye, smiled warmly at one another, got back in our cars and went our separate ways – me with more driving awareness and he maybe with more enthusiasm for Shakespeare.

To my knowledge, there was no loss of life on the M23 that evening, as I saw no related news coverage whatsoever afterwards. So much for the coal dust. Oddly, looking back, this impromptu meeting is one of my best memories of 2015 – the comet tail.

I wish you just enough grit in life’s oyster in 2016 to find and cherish your pearls.



Invisible Women

Last month, I attended a local business conference. I elected to take part in a session about leadership. Our male facilitator asked us to suggest individuals – dead or alive – who we considered inspirational leaders. Our group came up with a group which included Hitler, Gandhi, Richard Branson, Churchill and Princess Diana. A mixed group came up with no female leaders except Princess Di. Hitler apart (the chap who suggested him later quietly nominated his own wife!) I wouldn’t question the inclusion of any of these, but where were the women?

Somewhat later in the session, I’m ashamed to say, I came up with Angelina Jolie, Martha Lane Fox ( and Catherine Bigelow (film director).  I’m not sure everyone in the room knew who the last two were. There were so many women leaders we could have cited. The following, in addition to the three mentioned already, would be on my list – Judi Dench, Valerie Amos, Rosalind Franklin, Gurinder Chadha, Katharine Viner, Michelle Obama, Francesca Martinez, Marie Curie, Margaret Thatcher, Helena Kennedy, Madonna, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Malala Yousafzai, Anita Roddick, J.K. Rowling, Rosa Parks, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Caroline Lucas, Halle Berry, Nicola Sturgeon, Venus and Serena Williams, Jude Kelly, Lisa Jardine and so on.

3 weeks ago, I attended a packed meeting in my town to discuss the future of our main performance venue which is under threat of demolition. It’s a long story I won’t bore you with here. Emotions are running high – 7,000 people in a town of under 30,000 have signed a petition about it. The audience was roughly 50/50, male to female. Two-thirds of the way through an intense 2-hour session, not one woman had asked a question or spoken from the floor. Eventually, two women – one my companion – asked questions. I came with 3 questions, all of which were addressed by others early on, but I find it hard to believe no other women present had questions or points to make. What stopped them? I witnessed this kind of behaviour at the CIPD annual conference too and have seen it at local CIPD events – it’s just less noticeable because HR is so female dominated.

I am currently the only non-staff female trustee of a local community education organisation. We are advertising for more trustees and I have included a statement encouraging women and members of ethnic minority groups to apply. Increasingly, I find myself favouring quotas. We women have got to help ourselves and each other to be more confident, take a more prominent part in public life and get recognition for our efforts.

We may have got the vote in 1928, and the film ‘Suffragette’ tells us just how hard won that was. Sisters (and brothers) we still have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, I wish you a more equal 2016.



CIPD Annual Conference 2015

It’s 23 years since my first and last visit to the CIPD Annual Conference. I was a student member last time around – 1992 – and had a great time. Older and maybe wiser this time, I still found much to savour and enjoy in my one hectic experience of Day 2.

On the way back to York, where I was staying, I reflected on the fact that at my last CIPD Conference there was no internet, no Twitter, no email, no Facebook , no mobile phones etc etc. And yet what really endured from that conference back in the early 1990s, and this one last week, was presentation and the spoken word. In 1992, I was bowled over by Rosabeth Moss Kanter ‘s long and eloquent closing keynote and the chairing prowess of Peter Hobday.

Last week, I was impressed by all the speakers and the leadership of Peter Cheese. Working backwards, in her keynote closing address, Herminia Ibarra was incredibly humorous and self-deprecatory, while encouraging us all to be brave and escape our comfort zones. Paul Matthews made me rethink what capability is all about. Linda Kennedy McCarthy bestowed some hard-won wisdom on how to have influence in HR and demonstrated right in front of us that you can be both tough and empathetic. She could probably sell hot soup in a heatwave.

I think the session on Diversity and Inclusion would have worked better as smaller workshops, but I admired Stephen Frost’s chairing skills – and his stripy socks.

My gong has to go to Dave Coplin of Microsoft (a company whose products frequently frustrate me I might add). He was engaging, funny, informative, profound and quite brilliant. What was he telling us? In essence, do not be a slave to technology. Turn the damn thing off (phone, tablet, computer) and live in the moment. We have the tools but it’s up to us to use them effectively.

Now, just as in 1992, there is no substitute for high quality face-to-face communication.