What we've been thinking about and working on lately...

what we've been talking about

Most team leaders go about recruiting and gathering a talented group of people around them. The benefits are obvious - it’s not only about getting the job done well but also about building the reputation of the team, which of course we hope will reflect well on us. But thrown into situations working on something unfamiliar, or working with peers we perceive to be more talented than us can be more complicated. Our confidence and performance can suffer if we are worried about being overshadowed, overlooked or overwhelmed.

I’ve been reminded of some of these fears since joining our local choir. My singing prowess is best described as having the ability to “hold a tune”, but I love singing and a little flicker of interest has grown in direct correlation with Gareth Malone’s TV career. My first “term” with the choir was spent building up to and perfecting a number of songs to perform to a packed and festive audience at the local Abbey the Saturday before Xmas. As we progressed from truly shambolic to full on performance mode, I re-learnt several principles that also apply to the workplace.

  • Singing alongside people with much better voices than me has actually improved my own voice and built my confidence
  • Making a mistake in a loud voice is embarrassing, but can be quickly corrected before it becomes a habit – and the best singers make mistakes too
  • Practicing techniques and having the discipline to warm up and prepare really does improve performance
  • Approaching a new song in bite size chunks with each section of the choir perfecting their own part may feel disjointed, but delivers results   

Singing also has numerous personal benefits - regardless of how “good” you think your voice is or isn’t. I’ve listed a few from singing coach Sally Garozzo below in the hope that it might inspire you to give it a go. Or to be patient with people who are finding their voice!

Physical Benefits

  • Singing increases the amount of oxygen you take into the body which increases alertness as more oxygen gets to the brain
  • As you sing you improve muscle tone in the face, throat, neck and jaw, thereby promoting a youthful appearance
  • Singing stimulates the thyroid gland, which helps to balance metabolism

Mental benefits

  • Like physical exercise, singing requires a level of focus and bodily activity that shifts our minds away from our usual patterns of thinking, even away from quite pressurized and stressful attitudes and so helps to calm mental “chatter”
  • The process of learning to sing and singing, especially with others, dramatically increases attentive listening
  • Learning to sing moves you out of your comfort zone and daily routine and a sense of achievement provides a huge boost to our self-esteem

Emotional benefits

  • Singing releases natural opiates, endorphins, creating a similar effect as when we exercise
  • Singing can make you cry. Singing can ignite your passions. And singing can make you laugh
  • Singing creates positive energy and a happy mood and that's infectious and transparently good for those involved

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These are the people who don’t get a medal, grab the headlines or set a new PB. These people are by the athlete’s side at every step towards success. Every early morning and every late night. Every training camp and every competition. These are the coaches of Britain’s most promising athletes.

At UK Sport, our aim is to support British Olympic and Paralympic sports coaches to achieve their potential, whatever their current position on the elite coach development pathway. We work with ex-athletes helping them transition into coaches, apprentice coaches, and the elite, multi-medal winning coaches. Each have a part to play in creating so many memorable moments as you will undoubtedly recall from Great Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic remarkable success in London 2012, Sochi 2014 and Glasgow 2014.

But what is a world leading coach? What are we trying to develop? What do coaches across all sports have in common and where do they differ?

Of course, every coach operates in a different environment, with different responsibilities and different athletes, but they all have shared experiences; from challenges and opportunities to success and failure, each coach goes through a series of highs and lows before reaching the elite level. But is it possible to really unpick what those elements are?

UK Sport are trying to do just that. We are developing a framework of skills and expertise – the Coaching Principles - that to varying degrees, all elite coaches will require regardless of their sport. We aim to develop transferable skills in coaches that work across all sports. If you know what the ultimate coach looks like for your sport, you can plot which elements are relevant for each individual and put appropriate development in place. We use world leading expertise to help develop coaches on our centrally run programmes, but the Coaching Principles have a big part to play out in the field with the sports themselves. What is ‘world leading’ in your field?

We do not proclaim to understand the intricacies of every sport, this is an evolving process where we allow coaches to interpret our Coaching Principles themselves, so they can refine particular aspects and skills which they find most relevant. What is crucial in one sport, may not be in another.

Our UK Sport programmes are mapped against this aspirational barometer of success, allowing coaches to see the development areas that need addressing and hone in on them. A key element of measuring development of the individual is to also take into account their strengths, to see if they can be leveraged to ‘super strengths’.

Of course arguably you can never reach the end goal of the ultimate coach. The barometer is always evolving and the learning never stops, but by having a yardstick to aim for, those with their sights set on reaching there have a little more direction. They’ll know what to put in their toolbag to help them reach their potential, become world leading coaches, produce athletes to win medals on the world stage and inspire others to join them on their journey.

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Last year I began volunteering with the Wave Project, an award-winning community surf project that helps young people improve health and education outcomes through surfing.  We work with young people from ages 8 up to 21 who are facing a variety of different challenges. 

They run a network of surf clubs around the UK designed to help young people develop both their surfing and life skills. It’s a simple concept, we surf, we encourage, we listen, and have loads of fun!  I’ve seen first hand how going surfing once a week has transformed lives, helping clients feel more confident and improving their outlook.  

TES, the world’s largest online network of teachers, published an article recently about the link between well-being and learning - it made me realise how much impact the Wave Project must have with young people, not just in their personal lives but in their education.  The article discusses a point of view that schools appear to think that making students happy is neither their business nor their responsibility and that this should be part of their core function. Author Clare Jarmy says ‘So students’ happiness is our business and our responsibility, because happy children are effective learners and teaching them is our job…Academic progress is not separate from well-being; it is part of it.  As teachers, we are not simply preparing students for the workplace, we are also playing a part in their flourishing.’

The official definition of ‘Well-being’ is ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy’. We don’t function or perform well if we’re uncomfortable, unhealthy, or unhappy. Well-being is pretty much the root to a fulfilled life, so why isn’t this core to everything we do?   

Well-being is the primary focus at the Wave Project because we know that when young people are healthy and happy, they do better in life.  We have the results to prove it! We’ve seen dramatic transformations in young people that are isolated, perhaps struggling at school or are labelled with a mental health problem, where after surfing regularly with us, their confidence has grown and they’ve found a new passion and excitement for life. And because they are happier and healthier this impacts on their education… 

Well-being in the work-place has been discussed a lot recently but I think we still have some way to go so I hope you, like I, will take some inspiration from the Wave Project. Our development and performance as adults is no less linked to well being than when we're at school age, so as schools have to recognise, so do businesses, that well-being needs to be addressed.

This recent HR Magazine article discusses the link between leadership, promotability and health & wellbeing. Hellen Davis says “…helping employees take responsibility for their health and wellbeing is good – but the direct link between career advancement and health and wellbeing is rarely discussed.”  Here are some tips on how to create a happier and healthier workforce from HR Magazine.

We all want to be happy and healthy, but what conscious steps do we make to get there? This week, do something different, perhaps an outdoor activity with a group of friends that will fill your lungs with fresh air, get your heart pumping and wash away the cobwebs!

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In my last blog post I talked about how I applied Kotter’s 8 step change model to prepare for the Yorkshire 3 Peaks walk. Having completed it this weekend, I thought I’d give you an update.  11 of us participated in the challenge of walking 24 miles (it seemed much longer!) and climbing 6000ft (I’m sure it was much higher) over 3 peaks in around 12 hours. All of the preparation proved essential and we also had a bit of luck with the weather. But in spite of that and the stunning scenery, there were still times when we wondered if we could face the final climb. But we did – and here’s why I think we did:

  • Preparation -in fact we were not quite prepared enough - but on the day this was compensated for by other factors including
  • The guiding team - advice and encouragement from the group, who ranged from marathon runners to dog walkers, and all faced demons from twisted knees, blisters, fear of heights, dehydration to general fatigue
  • Creation of short term goals - stopping for a break, a snack and to pat ourselves on the back at specific landmarks and milestones 
  • Visualisation – looking forward to the breeze and view from the top and imagining the taste of a cold beer back at the hotel  

But most importantly for me, the whole experience was a very real lesson in what we can achieve by taking one small step at a time. This is something we often explore with people through coaching. Thinking about how to break a problem or challenge down into manageable chunks. Identifying what you do know (rather than don’t know) and what can you do (rather than can’t do) that will take you a step closer towards your goal. And the importance of just making a start.    

That first step can be hard, but on Saturday as I looked up at a steep climb with literally no end in sight and not much energy left in my tank, the most important thing I did was to take a few steps and start nibbling away at the challenge. Each time I stopped I felt a sense of progress and literally created a new perspective. And what a perspective it was!

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So it goes like this: we are ALL known for something. In fact, you can’t NOT be known for something. Ask anyone you work with and they will tell you what you are known for...........(a little bit scary I know).

In work this matters a great deal, and the team I was with last week realised that they needed to understand what they were known for with their stakeholders as this would affect how people engage with them going forward. So I shared this simple framework with them and they developed their simple ‘story’ to be able to influence those people that matter to get this major transformation project underway.

It also matters an enormous amount when it comes to your own career development. Ask yourself this: you have to take a risk on someone i.e. a large project, bigger role etc. You have narrowed it down to 2 people both of whom have good positive open communication styles:

  1. Person A  seems to be part of successful projects, but it’s not clear exactly what they did and certainly they aren’t labelled with any unsuccessful projects.
  2. Person B has a very clear list of what they have done, and are currently doing, and could talk clearly and humbly about things they have done in the past that didn’t  go so well but that they have learned from and grown as a result.

This is where you can get clear on your own story and tell it openly and concisely to people. It’s also a chance to correct any old opinions people may have or refresh their stories of you. So give it a try and start testing it with people...

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In July I will be presenting a session at the Institute of Fundraising National Convention entitled ‘Punch above your weight’. 

The session is designed to show how small charities can compete with the big brands in the sector. Having made the transition from a large national charity to a senior leadership role at a small NGO, Magic Bus UK, a former colleague and I will discuss how a diversified strategy and other practical considerations have enabled our respective organisations to ‘punch above their weight’. 

But what does this actually mean? Since joining Magic Bus in 2012 I have experienced a major shift in mind set about the opportunities and challenges of working at a large vs small organisation. Sure, larger organisations have bigger brands, bigger budgets and bigger infrastructure whereas smaller charities can struggle to secure unrestricted funding and brand awareness and may lack systems and processes. 

But, for me, the beauty of working for a small charity far outstrips the benefit of working for a large organisation.  At Magic Bus I have diversified my skill set, assumed greater responsibility, had the autonomy to make decisions, taken risks and made my budget stretch as far as it possibly can for maximum benefit. I have learnt to be bolder, more ambitious, tenacious and agile and I truly believe that my team and I punch above our weight and we aspire to improve every day. 

I have been lucky enough to recruit and develop my own team. They are a flexible, roll your sleeves up, proactive bunch who share my passion for Magic Bus and the children and young people living in poverty in India whom we support. Some of the team have also made the transition from larger charities and what they enjoy most about being an integral part of a team of five is that they have closer internal and external relationships and a greater connection with our grassroots work.

Starting a new job requires the ability to come out of the comfort zone and challenge and stretch oneself. I spent 15 years at large charities and I do not under-estimate the invaluable experience I gained during this time, there were highs and lows and I learnt a lot along the way. Having now experienced working for a small charity, and as a trustee of another small charity and a mentor to several individuals who work for larger charities, I have become a champion for small charities. 

Despite Magic Bus being based in India, I feel far closer to, and more passionate about the cause than I did at any other charity. This is what drives and motivates the Magic Bus UK team every day. We have all taken a leap of faith, come out of the comfort zone and we are on an incredible journey. I remind myself every day personally and professionally that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and that the comfort zone is a dangerous place.

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Cornwall is now very much open for business and we are well on the way to a gorgeous spring but we famously came in for a severe lashing over the last couple of months as storm after storm lifted surging tides to record highs, battering our beautiful coast.  Perched above the beach at Watergate Bay,  Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall is something of a top spot for watching waves and weather, and it was great to see our restaurant team managing so well with the stresses and strains some of our customers had to endure with the floods, power cuts and storm damage caused across the country.  Resilience is the buzz word of the moment, and having seen it in practice recently in some quite severe consequences, I’ve been reflecting on what makes a resilient team.

Our ethos at Fifteen is the development of the whole person.  The restaurant exists to deliver the highest standards of professional training while coaching individual trainees to overcome their personal development challenges and life-blighting circumstances.  It makes no sense to us to train a top-flight chef without helping them be the best person they can be too.  Our daily practice therefore is geared both to professional and personal development, and this helps breed a culture of aspiration and development across the whole workforce. 

My preferred definition of resilience is ‘the capacity of an individual, community or system to adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of function, structure, and identity’, from Charlie Edwards 2009 Demos pamphlet Resilient Nation.  I like it because it is more about people, less about structures than other definitions.  This reflects the way we try to work at Fifteen – organically rather than mechanically.  Starting from where people are, helping them develop a vision of where they want to be, working with them every step of the way sharing regular authentic feedback and coaching them over inevitable obstacles.  Focusing on developing the whole person is good for business, and that’s what I enjoy so much about Fifteen – a very social enterprise.

The ironic sting in the tail is that the only building that was affected by the storms was ‘Matt’s Hut’ where our resident coach and welfare manager took apprentices down to the sea wall for their intensive one to one sessions.  Fortunately he is resilient enough to be able to run those sessions in our private dining room for now.  Anyone want to help us rebuild Matt’s Hut?!

Image: Roger Sharp/SWNS

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I am a fair weather skier. When the sun is shining and the snow is squeaky you’ll find me swooping around the mountain with the wind whistling past my ears (safely encased in my helmet of course). But put me on a run with poor visibility, big bumps or deep fresh snow - and I go completely to pieces. Instead of the wind whistling you’ll hear me squealing as I lurch from one turn to another.        

Last week we were lucky enough to be skiing.  In spite of the heavy snow and poor visibility on several days, I found the lure of the mountains and fresh air overcame my dislike (and slight fear) of skiing in a white out. I chose to step outside my comfort zone, give it a go and increase the level of risk and stress - within limits. When my legs were getting tired and I really thought I might hurt myself, I stopped. After 3 days I had learnt to relax into the bumps and how to avoid getting stuck in snow drifts. Then the sun came out - and it was suddenly all so effortless by comparison.   

The idea of the comfort zone has been around since the early 20th century, when psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort creates a steady level of performance. But in order to maximise performance, we need a state of relative anxiety - a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called "Optimal Anxiety," and is just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we're too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply. 

An article in Future Science Leaders suggests that any goal or challenge could fall into either our comfort zone, growth zone or panic zone. A goal in your panic zone would be too frightening to do now, but if you try similar challenges in your growth zone, your comfort zone expands so that things that would have been unthinkable at one point become challenging but doable. 

Choosing to step outside your comfort zone in a controlled way helps to build the flexibility and resilience to deal with unexpected changes. This could be something as simple as trying a new dish in your favourite restaurant or assigning a regular activity to a different member of the team. Wherever you start remember that small incremental changes are just as beneficial as big steps - and the important thing is to start.

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So we’re 6 weeks or so into the new year – how are those resolutions going?  For many they will have already fallen by the wayside, for others they will still seem a long way off.  

Now is the time to dig in and set some milestones on the road to achieving your goal.  Recognising and rewarding those milestones along the way can play a huge role in helping you achieve the final result which can sometimes seem so distant. 

By celebrating milestones we shift focus from what we have not yet achieved to what we have.  It’s like having your own spin doctor to boost your confidence and give you some much needed motivation. 

Take a moment to remember why you wanted to achieve your goal in the first place, give yourself a pat on the back for how far you have come and then get your head down and get on with it! 

Off for a run then……

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Perhaps you are like me and have never paid much attention to the Winter Olympics, until this year and have been pleasantly surprised… If you’re a regular, then you’ve probably seen a lot of stuff you were expecting to see… snow, people in tight lycra outfits, records broken, bones broken…along with jumps, twists and turns that seem totally impossible.  But I imagine you’ve also been met with the unexpected too…like a Russian police force pop choir, Rock bagpipers, a medal-less Shaun White and a #slopestyle GB medal (well done Jenny Jones!!).

UK Sport director of performance Simon Timson believes Britain's Winter Olympians are now shedding a "plucky losers" mentality and starting to expect to win medals.

"British Olympic winter sport is definitely having higher and higher expectations of itself," he told BBC Sport.  "We're seeing that change in the athletes' mind-set where they're no longer happy to just make a final; they want to be on the podium and they're genuinely disappointed and gutted [if they're not]."

So where did this change of mind-set come from? Perhaps many, like Yarnold, are inspired by Williams’ skeleton win in 2010. Maybe this and now Jones’ Bronze are sparking something in the team, a symbol of hope and proof ‘it can be done’!  It must be hard being the underdogs, motivating a team to win when you start from such a disadvantage - lack of snow conditions, training grounds and medal history or sporting icons/legends to be inspired by. This disadvantage may have held us back in the past, but not anymore.  These inspiring women have focused on what they wanted to achieve, were dedicated, prepared, believed they could reach their goal and have proven that against all odds - you can still reach for gold…

So when it comes to setting goals, are you happy to just make a final or do you want to be on the podium?

Timson’s quote reminded me of a blog Carole Miller wrote about Managing Peak Performance last year, where she discusses her time with the team psychologists from various elite sporting organisations and clubs.  David Priestley from Saracens shared his mantra of ‘comfort the challenged and challenge the comfortable’ and Tom Bates from West Brom FC talked about the importance of supporting people to stretch beyond their comfort zones. 

“It got me thinking about who the Team Psychologists are for teams in business? I’ve yet to come across a team in an organisation who has a dedicated resource who is solely there to support the psychology of the team, I wonder what would happen if there was one..........” Carole Miller

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How many times have we heard this before?  I spend a lot of time planning events for our clients, making sure we get the details right.  We plan our working week, create budgets for the year, we hopefully have a career plan.  But, how many of us have a life plan?  A plan that includes when you would like to retire, the next amazing holiday you would like to go on, a plan to achieve a better work/life balance, to build your own dream home, or to simply spend more time with your children. 

It’s easy to adopt the mind set “get your head down and work hard”, thinking of these goals as being far off in the future but with your goal in mind and a plan as to how to achieve that goal they can be much closer than you imagine.

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The Pearson Teaching Awards were announced last week, celebrating the impact that teachers have on the young people they work with. These are considered the teaching ‘Oscars’ and you might have caught the teachers being treated to the full red carpet experience on BBC Two on Sunday, 27 October at 17:30 in Britain's Classroom Heroes.

Programmes such as Educating Yorkshire and Harrow: A Very British School have recently given us an insight into the vast array of approaches which teachers employ to enable children and teenagers to learn and be inspired whatever their background, environment, social group and aspirations. At the end of, what could be up to 7 years, with a class they then leave and I wonder if they ever get to find out their impact? The little things they did or said which sparked some thinking which ultimately shaped their future.

For me, it was Graham Bryant at Caldicot School who taught me Maths. When Fourier Transforms made my brain explode he gave up his breaks and lunch to help me unravel it. Interestingly it wasn’t what he did, it was how he did it – I never felt stupid or patronised, it was just something to figure out. He also let me play in the boys badminton team (there wasn’t a girls team!), to earn a place I just needed to be in the top 4 players whatever my gender. I was! I played...it taught me to concentrate on being as good as I can be and not worry about the rules too much.

The point is, we just don’t know how we impact people. The smallest comment of encouragement, the lightest reassurance and actions which demonstrate unerring belief – I encourage you to think about who you can be Teacher of the Year to.

And who from your school days would you, on reflection, award a teaching Oscar to and why............comments please!

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Julie Williams

John Lazarus my English teacher because he was so passionate about the subject and took us all over the country to see amazing theatre productions which really brought the books we were reading to life. Although I didn't know it at the time he was a great example of being an authentic leader in that he didn't conform to any stereotype. He was extremely eccentric and as a result his lessons were lively, fun and unpredictable - so kept everyone interested and on their toes. His approach might not have worked for everyone, but it did for me.

Helen Blackman

I really appreciated my design teachers at Ilfracombe College. Looking back, I can see how they nurtured my talent for design. They saw I was passionate about it and gave me their time when I had questions or wanted to put more hours in during the breaks or after school. They also had to put up with my giggling and cheeky, chatty behaviour! Thank you Mr Rinvolucri, Mr Overall and Mr Backhouse for your kindness, generosity, encouragement and inspiring me to pursue a career in design.

This weekend we attended our son’s school quiz night. We went along to support the school, have a bit of fun and enjoy a fish and chip supper with no expectations of winning (good job) but keen to avoid the wooden spoon and not live up to our team name “An embarrassment to our children”.  I’m pleased to report that the company was great, the supper was good and we didn’t come last (although it was close).

During the course of the evening I was reminded of some points I’ve been discussing with clients recently – and these are the resulting lessons and tips:

  • It’s harder to answer questions about our “specialist” subject under pressure than it is to make an educated guess about a topic we know very little about. So remember to relax, breathe, take your time and trust your instinct – the answer that pops into your head first is often the right one
  • When we get the answer to an educated guess wrong we groan and laugh it off – but when it’s our “specialist” subject we are gutted (even without heckling from team mates!) – so we need to let it go, remember the answer for next time and move onto the next item before we miss it    
  • The three teams in the tie break were all regular quiz goers – so it seems that practice really does make perfect 
  • We couldn’t decide when to play our joker and waited until the end along with half the teams, but the top 5 teams all played their joker early – so be bold, be decisive and stand out from the crowd  
  • And finally, the teams who won really knew their stuff. So if you want to win – do your homework!

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With a group this week, the issue of ‘time’ kept cropping up. This is a commodity in short supply given the demands of people’s roles and more importantly, home lives. So how do we find the time to develop ourselves and more importantly, ensure that we are in the right ‘state of mind’ to continue to deliver our best performance day-in and day-out?

There are many ‘apps’ on the market and many are aimed at self improvement – whether it is 5 minute-a-day sit-up routines, or 10 ‘meditation’ apps. This is such a small amount of time that it makes it manageable and therefore more likely that we will do this (the 6 pack is coming along nicely!)

So why not try creating your own 5 minute a day routine aimed at developing yourself. And here’s some great ones for starters:

  1. Take a break and go and give a member of your team some feedback. Don’t wait for appraisal time. Little and often is the key.
  2. Do a random act of kindness. This is proven to make you feel great and what comes around goes around. 
  3. Do something that makes you happy - whether it is listening to your favourite song, looking at your favourite holiday snaps, or phoning a friend. There is a direct correlation between great performance and a positive mindset and it only takes minutes to change. 
  4. Catch someone doing something right and thank them for it. A lot of what makes organisations; successful is the ‘silent running’ and acknowledging that will reinforce both the actions but also create loyalty. 
  5. Be kind to yourself. Go home 5 minutes early and play with the kids or brush the cat. Interacting with others that you care about will give you that chemical feel good factor, but more importantly, show that you do care.  

So make your own list. After all, 5 minutes a day isn’t much to ask...........especially when on average it takes 7 minutes to go to the loo!

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