Friday 2 October 2020

Diverse communities, and lifelong 'mateship'

To mark National Inclusion Week 2020, I thought I would do something. To be honest, I was reticent, and might have titled this post 'feel the awkwardness, but do it anyway' especially as a white, middle-aged, middle-class hetero bloke. On reflection, I don't think I need to feel this way. I'm going to describe a bit of my background, before focusing on some of the most significant lifelong friendships I've gravitated towards, and incidents that define who I am in the deepest possible way. The recurring theme is one resonating with the Australian concept of 'mateship'. 

Please, don't place me on a pedestal! 

I'm of Austrian-Hungarian descent, first generation British. My father was a refugee who escaped the Hungarian civil war in the 1950s. My mother, a true cosmopolitan, moved here in the early 1960s. Myth has it they met outside the Polish deli in Ealing Broadway and my dad persuaded her to bunk off college for the afternoon... I grew up in the leafy suburbs in 1970s-post-Enoch Powell London. Our neighbours and 'friends' were always quick to point out our foreign heritage; to be honest, sometimes you might have felt it was the 1870s. For me, a lot of name-calling, any excuse to be preyed on, at school and in the scouts. On hot summers when my skin was suitably tanned, I even got called the P-word! I since Anglicised the pronounciation of my surname. 

My primary school was predominantly white, we had a bus of kids from Southall join us every day. One day, my teacher had the bright idea to do a multi-cultural event. I got roped in, without consultation. I had to write a page about who I was and what my background was. People who know me know I have little problem writing a proverbial 'War and Peace', but this was the most awkward thing I'd ever done. 'Hi, I'm Robert, I'm different from you...' Especially when a lot of kids' older brothers were active members of the highly-toxic National Front. It blew over, but subsequently I went as far away for high school as I could, down to Southall in fact! 

The Indian connection

When I was very young, I did not know what it meant to be of one nationality or another. I often played with Ranjit round the corner. 'Ranjeeee!' I would shriek on arrival as was typical went you went round your mate's houses - no phones or even doorbells were necessary. In the early days, we did the usual boys things like ride bikes and climb walls. A bit older and we both got into electronics and built amplifiers and things. Ranj built an entire PA system c/w bass bins that I used to borrow (think Brixton sound systems in the height of Reggae). He got into DJing and I into rock music, but we would occasionally jam - I would blast my guitar over the electronic music of the day, generally annoying all the neighbours with the racket. 

A few years later, William C, 20 years our senior, from Northern India - we met in the pub, Will befriended our gang; we shared good times and drinking. Also a sharing of new experiences - us getting him into heavy metal, him getting us properly into Indian food, Krishnamurti, the art of discussion and enquiry. I visited his extended family in India - unbeknown to me, he told them to 'treat me as family'. Will was, in every respect, an uncle or older brother. 

Balvinder J is my sister's best friend, godparents to each other's kids. This friendship spans the decades, so much so that we are considered family and can call Bal's fairly conservative parents 'Mamaji' and 'Papaji'. Bal taught me to cook Indian properly, completing my education in this respect! 

The theatrical connection

Many of you will know about my musical exploits. I'll relay one story from my time in my first apartment, recently moved into with my new wife. Neighbours Robin and Des were a couple, into bikes, 60s and 70s rock. Des sang in a local pub band. We would often meet their friend Alex, owner of a local hair salon, and guitarist of some acclaim. Alex liked to dress up at the weekends. We must have looked a sight - me young lad in my 20s with long hair and a pint, Alex c. 55 in a little frock, longish silver hair, red sparkly high-heels and a G&T, huddled in a corner. You would never in a million years guess we were intensely discussing Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Marshall amplifiers and the merits of different types of guitar strings. Good times, good mates. It just was. 

The allotment connection

My parents always had an allotment at the back. When I was young, the allotment society was run by a bunch of cliquey cretins who disliked the idea of foreigners having an allotment, and disliked the idea of foreigners living near them full stop.

Fast-forward to now, Bal J is now the allotment treasurer, a first generation Indian Jacob M is plot manager and it is truly the most open and multi-cultural environment you can imagine! We've got English, Welsh, Austro-Hungarian (of course), Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Guayanan, Polish, Latvian, Serbian and probably more. Everyone shares their surplus - people do this on allotments anyway. We have a jolly knees up a couple of times a year. In my view, the society is a beacon in the community, and all the local counsellors and local MP visit frequently.

Friday 28 August 2020

Is there any nobility in our leadership?

I’m not the first to think about whether the qualities of nobility are at risk from being disconnected with leadership. In our 21st century context, this is not about inheritance by bloodline or title, but those qualities that lead others to deem one as ‘noble’, such as,

  • Being honest, courageous, kind, admirable, virtuous, reputable… and many others 
  • Having or showing outstanding personal qualities or high moral principles
  • The notion that leadership is about others

In our fair isle the legends of King Arthur, whether real or idealised, are exemplars for old-school nobility, albeit rooted in a male, monarchic context. Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien speaks about ‘the blood of NĂºmenor’ and a golden age in Middle Earth; this is often interpreted as alluding to Atlantis or the Biblical fall of mankind. I suggest that being of the early 20th century he may well also have been lamenting the decline of Europe into fascism and any number of other ‘isms.

Noble leadership of the kind I suggest at the beginning transcends blood, race and gender. Covid-19 has demonstrated clearly where good leadership at an international level has minimised impact, and where it has been a right ham’s ear. You countries know who you are!

But I really want to talk about leadership at a level closer to home – what of our inspirational industry leaders, project managers, technical leads and supervisors?

I’ve had the privilege of working for some great leaders; people who inspire you to go the extra mile, keep you in touch with their thinking, give you latitude to do your best and also to challenge them. I remember one such case where a big cheese from the US came over to the UK and took time to meet every one of our team informally, in person, in every UK branch office – she did not need to do this. Another case, where I headed up R&D and every experiment, whether success or failure was studied, with enthusiasm by our leader, who really drew out the best in us. The camaraderie on an intense project only works if the leaders join in. Through these people I’ve nurtured my own leadership qualities, admittedly having made mistakes along the way.

I’ve also known individuals who raise to positions on the basis of charisma and ego, have no manifest talent over gift-of-the-gab and might put Doctor Who’s ‘Daleks’ to shame in interaction and cooperation skills. I saw a case where one day someone was a board director and on various government committees, the next day he was in prison for corruption. I’ve seen groups of companies join to go plc, only for it to fall back into shambles, after the directors collected their loot. I’ve been employed on jobs where the bosses really haven’t a flying fiddler’s clue what I do or what I’m capable of. And I’ve seen young people thrust up to management level, where it is evident they do not have experience or greater vision to thrive. And a million more such anecdotes.

So this is why I think there is a crisis, which might have been with us for a very long time.

Without gushing too much on the need to be good and so on, as we all need to hustle sometimes, here’s my take on how to be a noble leader on engineering or construction projects; there could be many more, but I hope you find these of value:

1. Look after your own

This might seem strange to say, but I’ve seen projects where leaders persist in keeping silos separate, they divide and conquer, and even drop proverbial bombs on their teams from time to time, just to see how they cope. They even make spurious promotions, for example removing the subject expert on so-and-so to manage a totally different team! Be fiercely loyal to your team and you stand a chance they will be the same to you and perform over and above. Be anything else at your own risk.

2. Value the importance of the venture, not the leader

The venture is the important thing, not you, the leader, nor your ego. In some Taoist traditions, anyone elected, yes elected to be leader actually had a lower status than the team. Leadership was a special role that meant you were given time and space to truly serve your team. In First Nation cultures, the leadership role was often rotated, so everyone would be leader and follower at some point in their lives. Therefore, watch out for any leader who continually uses language such as, ‘my project!’

3. Be clear on your strategy

This is the one that gets me the most if broken. OK, it is a leader’s prerogative to change strategy, but when it happens on a weekly basis, come on! Also, when leaders do not share their strategies and leave it to you to second guess them, only to be told, ‘no, that’s not it, try again’, you wonder if they really have a clue themselves or are just being disingenuous to cover up inadequacy. When a document gets to draft version 97, you know the top is weak.

4. Avoid micro-managing; trust the expertise of your team

Another one that really gets me. Especially if one goes from being ignored one month to having every action in their day measured, the next. The first duty towards your teams is to ensure they have the knowledge, skills and tools they need. If they haven’t, then invest your time and money in training and then invest in some more. To not train up your teams under the risk they might take their expertise elsewhere is a no-brainer recipe for disaster. Micro-management – the clear sign of inexperienced leaders, who do not know, nor trust the capabilities of their teams.

5. Be accessible to your team

We’ve all experienced it, a psychological ivory tower that surrounds the boss’s office. Snobbery, cronyism, inner circles. We’ve all experienced hierarchies that make the pyramids look flat; as such there is no way you could even go up the line and reach the boss. Definite no-no on both counts. True, the boss does not want to be bothered with every trivial problem, but projects are successful when the leader offers an open-door policy, at least for some of the time.

6. Take interest in the tactical detail

And yes, I know leaders employ managers and experts to run the detail and deal with the problems. But time and time again, especially some project managers in this funny new world often do not have a clue about the technical detail of a project, over and above the glib external messaging – it’s just lines and numbers on a spreadsheet, or if you’re really professional, a Primavera P6 schedule. The best projects I’ve been on are where the top person is a hawk and can tell if drawings are uncoordinated; if a hedgerow has been specified wrong or pipe risers don’t match up. 

7. Be the culture you want to be

If I see my leaders running around like bluebottle flies, too busy to answer emails, too busy to offer any time or counsel, too busy to take any interest, even too busy to delegate; is that really the culture I would want to perpetuate? Maybe it's the culture they want? Focusing on the next generation of young leaders, is this such an excellent role model? I thought not.

8. Look to the future (please)

No, not a Nodder Holder Christmas line, but remember the plc anecdote above? The concept of a job for life has now firmly been banished from consciousness, especially so in the minds of our younger generation. This might, in part be due to a cyclonic convergence of 2nd, 3rd and 4th industrial revolutions, causing such abrupt change in technologies and overnight obsolescence. I do not necessarily advocate trying to build a business for the next 200 years - it is wise to think about beginning, middle and end, yes end of your business. However, please have responsibility for your own (we come back round to no. 1 above), people who will want to give their life blood to you, who will move with you, sign up to mortgages relying on you, 'for the love of Camelot!'

Tuesday 18 August 2020

The path to net zero... in construction

To anyone not in the construction industry, your first reaction might be, "really? Would that be a path of crazy paving; slabs of broken promises?" No, indeed! This is a very serious proposition. If you read the construction trade press, many companies, small and large are taking the plunge and making a commitment to achieve net zero emissions in their operations. 

I recently participated in some Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) research aiming to find out what are the skills needs to achieve net zero. I was feeling a little gung ho on the day of the research interview and we rapidly departed from the 'script'. Instead of emphasising things like skills to specify and install various renewable technologies - which are extremely valuable - I cut straight to the chase and told the researcher, "look, you're not going to get anywhere unless people believe in it. There is massive work to be done in shifting attitudes, before you worry about screwdrivers and tools and things." Not that everyone needs to be a tree hugger (although I've got nothing against them, trees that is...). In the same way that health and safety has become a no-brainer, we need to cultivate an attitude of assurance, good quality, low waste and care for the planet into our DNA. We really need to decide what we value. And we need to do it a darn side quicker than it took with H&S (I remember running youngman boards with barrows into skips when I worked on sites as a student in the summer holidays in the late 80s, 15 years after the HASAW act!). 

I won't give too much more away here, but I'll be speaking about this theme at the University Campus St Albans (UCSA) 'Build Better, Build Faster and Build Greener’ conference on 10 September at 8.30. Event invite here. It would be good to see you there.