Careful who your heroes are (especially in leadership education)

A crossover moment for me this week between one of my favourite leisure time podcasts (Quickly Kevin – a 90s football podcast) and work related topics.

The issue here, specifically, is (Sir) Alex Ferguson’s management style.

On Quickly Kevin, Lee Sharpe (one of Ferguson’s players in the ’90s) recounts how Ferguson has blanked him at events since Sharpe called Sir Alex a “bully” in his book/biography. This immediately rang some alarm bells for me given Ferguson is often put on a pedestal within the (admittedly bizarre at times) business press and leadership education industries. For example:

The reality is that leadership/management preference is highly culturally and down to personal preference. Ferguson, Brian Clough (a personal hero of mine) and other greats of sports coaching would no doubt be seen as bullies today – not to mention the various cases of subterfuge over the years in cycling, athletics, gymnastics, etc. Indeed Clough, even at his near peak, was criticised for his treatment of Justin Fashanu.

I am currently watching the US version of the Office (very late to the party, I know). As silly as it is, Michael’s attempts at humour and “fun” in the office are very indicative of the problems of culture given that we are all different and will want different things. This is ultimately why we often have a dichotomy in workplaces between dull/quiet experiences where we revert to the mean of neutrality to avoid conflict over noise, “fun”, etc. and the opposite where teams are hired based on existing relationship, personality, etc. and thus we have “bro” cultures in tech and other uniform team building approaches that actively avoid diversity (even if the people hiring do not realise it). In the later the manager is likely to be empowered to act as they wish. In the former there may be perceptions of bullying as people are beaten down to the norm.

As we are all different we then need to be actively careful in picking our own heroes – personally I mute anyone on LinkedIn who shares positive posts related to Richard Branson. For me he is an example of many of the things wrong in the world (not least double standards over the environment). Let us be careful with our heroes and listen to dissenting voices. Personally I would rather celebrate those we have worked with who have had a positive influence on us than celebrating such big names.

Backlash to resilience?

In recent years “resilience” has been one of those buzz terms that HR has jumped onto (2014 being my first major exposure to it) yet, as Donald Clark puts it, “faffing around with [such] abstract words in L&D had become an ‘obstacle’ to progress” too. So where are with resilience – is it a “thing”? Is it something to be considering as we look to improve performance?

Personally I’ve quite liked resilience as a way to describe capacity to deal with the prospect of change and other knockbacks, essentially how “bouncebackable” someone is. However, more recently it has felt like resilience has been increasingly used as a criticism and, to me, tied in with a general approach to blaming workers (at least in the US and UK). See also the similar L&D focus on creativity and the criticisms, even made at the generational level, of a lack of entrepreneurialism. My feelings here have in part been triggered by Liz Truss claiming Brits need to work harder as well as criticisms of workers for “quiet quitting” (QQ). On QQ I agree with a lot of this article, it is both nothing new and also a sign of poor management IMO.

A recent Reasons to be Cheerful pod included a section from Bruce Daisley, who questioned our shared understanding of resilience. This was a little lost at the end of a pod nominally about education given Daisley did not stick to the school focus. Indeed they challenged the usual approach to resilience and instead argued that workplace resilience should not be seen as an individual competence. They, correctly in my opinion, argued that a lack of resilience has been used as a way to criticise individuals. I much prefer his suggestion that resilience comes from a shared capacity and it was interesting to hear Nigel Paine (over on the Learning Hack) similarly arguing for less focus on individual competencies and more focus on team/organisational levels. It didn’t initially click when listening to the Bruce Daisley pod appearance that he is behind one of my other subscriptions “Eat Sleep Work Repeat“.

Resilience is often closely discussed, or used interchangeably, with “positive mindset”. In this regard I often still struggle with the concept of encouraging people to be positive. However, as often mentioned on here, I do remain a fan of the Path of Possibility. That model being part of Strengthscope’s logic and, whilst I remain slightly sceptical on their view on resilience (not least due to the focus on the individual), I do like the concept that strengths (particularly at the team level) are a way to make more resilient organisations.

Overall, resilience is likely to stick around as one of those areas where HR/L&D develop it as topic which will land better with some audiences than others. Indeed there will no doubt be ongoing debate, off-the-shelf learning, etc related to this. I suspect it will be one of these rather evidence-lacking areas that are used to get people to reflect rather than having a noticeable impact on performance. However, as part of a wider set of development including encouraging people to focus on what energises them at work it will likely remain part of our shared terminology and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Lessons from being ill for a while

First things first, this post will probably be even more of a mess than normal. 

Part of the reason for this is that the post is going to be a compilation of some voice notes I’ve left myself over the last couple of months but by the time I edit/publish it not all the dates/timeline will line up.

These notes are a reflection on an illness I’ve had in the last month (the voice notes being down to the fact I couldn’t type very easily).

Bit on the illness

Now it must be said up front, it has been a relatively minor illness thanks to modern medicine. Many articles online would suggest that there should be no (major) lasting effects, and it is certainly not been life threatening by any stretch of the imagination.

However, it is fair to say it has taken longer for me to recover than those articles suggest, and it is certainly the most ill I have ever been.

On reflection, it has really reinforced for me the nature of learning from experiences and experienced-based learning being so valuable compared to, say, learning theoretically through reading or activities. If I had simply read or even watched videos of some of the information around this illness there is simply no way I would feel like I now do about the illness compared to having the lived experience. See the NHS article, for example, on such eye infections

So, first things first, I did the classic thing of having some symptoms that I thought would just go away. In my case this was a badly bloodshot eye that was increasingly sore, and I did not do anything about it for three and a bit days. Here I can blame my mentality of not wanting to bother medical professionals as you know they are so busy. I have always had the mentality that unless you are really sick, you do not go to the hospital or doctors or anything else. Here I under appreciated the gravity of the situation.

This mentality will probably have to change now I have been through this experience, by far the worst illness I have ever had with certainly the longest I have ever had off work sick. Even as a child, I do not think there was ever any time I was ever off school or sick for any anything like a month or so, like I have been this time.

Lessons from this then? 

  1. If you know you are poorly, seek medical assistance, do not try and “ride it out”.  
  2. Try and pre-empt, in future situations, some of the problems. So, for example, the antiviral drugs making me very sick. I could have pre-empted that by perhaps asking if that was going to be likely as the 2nd doctor I saw did give me some medication to help with the vomiting. 

Illnesses and the nature of work

In the greater scheme of things this is a relatively minor illness, and I am very much at the bottom end of the age range of people that normally get troubled by this. How much I have struggled with it has reminded me how lucky I have been up to this point in my life, in terms of illnesses and injury.

The fact that we know so many people are not so lucky is another reason for, as I’ve written before, the need for HR to be focused on the humane side of work. That idea being taken from a CIPD event a few years back, which in hindsight I am increasingly appreciating. Even with the need for recognising people needs related to COVID, I wonder how many HR departments have really taken on this focus? Have we simply reverted to hire and fire HR models, especially with inflation and recessions putting pressure on organisations globally?

There are, of course, other health issues we could support better – sleep obviously is a key thing and I bang on about sleep a little bit on here and on Twitter

Back to my illness and light sensitivity in both eyes is now a major issue, for example even impacting how easy I can walk down the street. While before, when the virus was in my eye and face, it was obvious to people in the street that something was wrong with me now it is much more a hidden illness/condition as I (hopefully) continue to recover.

Yet again, how we can make our workplaces more inclusive – such as with points like the below? 

  1. Acknowledging that people are dealing with a lot of stuff, day-in, day-out.
  2. Catching up, even after only a month off, can be a big ask. And obviously there’s other situations with longer spells away, not least paternity and maternity leave. Dealing with e-mail inboxes and Teams notifications must have become much more time consuming and daunting issues for returning staff in recent years. 
  3. Operating at 100% all the time is not realistic for knowledge work (and not for many other fields either). Did Don Draper have the right idea with lots of rumination, drinking and disappearing from the office for days on end?

So, here’s hoping all organisations are considering this kind of thing – not least with Monkey Pox fears (and COVID continuing).


Sitting in dark rooms for days on end isn’t fun. Coming home early from holiday because my symptoms changed, not fun. I suppose this post is in part:

  1. the learning points I mentioned,
  2. just a wider call to action and
  3. just a bit of venting off my chest.

Also, just a huge shout out to everyone who has helped in the last few weeks – not least the medical professionals involved, colleagues/friends and family.

Also, much empathy with the amazing people who live with constant sight and other health issues. The experience has given me a much more realistic view on just how difficult life must be for some – from silly things such as me walking into the parking meter directly outside the eye hospital itself through to realising quite how screen-based my lifestyle is.

All in all, a very eye-opening experience [sorry not sorry for that bad joke!]. 

The skills to pay the bills: Learning Technologies Digital Days (March 2022)

I blogged a few weeks back that the Learning Technologies (LT) conference and exhibition had been delayed. Since then, three days of online talks were announced and run to somewhat plug the LT gap, under the branding of “Digital Days” (DD) – #LTUK22.

I have tried to summarise how I was feeling during these DD sessions via the power of gif:

Say skills one more time.

“Skills” was the buzzword. No doubt about it.

Thoughts on the sessions (skills)

Now I perhaps have to jump straight to the final day and Don Taylor‘s session to say that he did set out clear warnings about the “skills” bandwagon. This was timely and I particularly liked a section where Don had gone through the archives to try and find the genesis of this current buzz/focus. Interestingly it seems the initial focus was on “knowledge and skills” (i.e. that knowledge workers need ongoing development) but “knowledge” has been dropped through the news, consultancy, white paper, WEF, etc. hype cycles (LinkedIn have been at it since the DD). As Don explained, what we are now seeing is, amongst other things, lots of tools promising AI-powered solutions to the supposed skill crises. However, his call was to remind us all that skills alone do not lead to performance. As always, L&D needs to push back on the latest trends and concentrate on what we know, for example that knowledge alone does not help either (see, for example, this recent argument about needing more than knowledge for real transformation). In a few of the sessions, including Don’s, there was mention of what we really mean by skills, how/if the word is being used to encompass knowledge, if it is just rebranding of competency/capability, etc. Personally I revert to KISME (knowledge, information, skills, motivation and environment) as pretty much encompassing what we need to consider (with a doff of my cap to performance consulting accreditation with Nigel Harrison way back when). If anything, KS and the M/behaviour combine as the competency. Ultimately every org talks about this stuff differently but as Don and others suggested in the DD we are really just talking about people’s ability to ‘do the work’.

RedThread Research’s excellent recent podcast series has shown how business leaders have identified changes and implications around the ‘skills agenda’ [if I can call it that] (for example Deloitte being clear on the importance of skills, not least in ensuring their agility to create project teams). However, you presume this goes beyond the tech skills (which are obviously the bit that does change quickly as argued on the pod) into other things like engagement/project management (activities which also require a lot of behavioural competency). Indeed Deloitte’s model of development paths (as explained on the pod) sounded less than revolutionary – basically a formalisation of 70/20/10 concepts for ongoing development of competency.

The Fosway Group’s DD session mentioned the growth in skills platforms but also (just has been in the case in the past) the issue of what needs to be in the learning platform versus a HRIS or other location. Personally it feels like you really need to take a big picture view of your ecosystem and link things together as appropriate. The session called this something like ‘out of the box ecosystem-ness’ which is probably more suggestive of aspiration than the market’s reality(?).

RedThread did have a slot in the Digital Days too, with a focus on learning content. This session had various messages but I did like the idea of moving “from control…to facilitate”, this has always been part of my mindset to some extent (probably due to my learning experience growing from libraries rather than teaching). The growth in content however, of course, means a greater need for personalisation and RedThread did argue that if you are embracing a skills focus then you also need to think about content from that perspective. They argued for a 4 category approach to learning content:

  • specific and durable
  • specific and perishable
  • generic and durable
  • generic and perishable

The suggestions on what to do with the above was fairly straight forward but I guess makes sense for those who feel overwhelmed with content. Ultimately the most useful bit, for me, was a quote that asked a key set of questions:

“What’s the strategic change that’s happening? Is your learning content relevant to get to those organizational outcomes?”

Roundtable participant quoted on RT’s slides

The event finished with Nigel Paine, I recently blogged agreeing with some of Nigel’s arguments in an article and I similarly found myself agreeing with much of his DD presentation. Learning was pitched as needing to help with transformation by moving from “safe spaces to brave spaces”. This is fair, enough and to some extent an acknowledgment of the need for ‘stretch‘. However, I would say the humane requirement for having safe spaces at work remains, it is not to say that a team building day can not have a safe (culture) but also be very challenging in terms of team aspirations, agility and development. There was mention of Communities of Practice (CoP) as argued for by Wenger, this always get my support as CoP theory was one of the areas that hooked me in learning design in my MA and got me into my career in learning. Nigel correctly tackled the focus on skills, arguing that deep understanding of problems will lead to learning offerings made up of multiple components (people, content, data, technology) under the auspice of appropriate governance. There was a call to reframe, rebuild and redefine learning to grab organisational development, make knowledge management organic and more. All-in-all, a wide ranging call to action that I have probably not done a great job of summarising. There was also a bit on indicators of success.

Indicators of success

Nigel correctly suggested the organisation’s strategic plan has to be the basis of learning’s work. Learning should make promises that developing self-learning groups and other solutions will positively impact on the plan’s goals. Ultimately I think this is the challenge – we might know that learning needs to be reframed when the “classroom assumption” and “training ghetto” are not good for our organisations but how to prove this works for an organisation with very fixed views on “training” and divisions of labour based on that.

As well as the Digital Days, I also recently watched an excellent session in the Content Wrangler series, entitled “Rewinding the Web: The Internet Archive and Its Wayback Machine“. This session reminded me to look again at and the excellent Wayback Machine. These are tools I have used a lot in the past but not so much in the last couple of years. Anyways… I thought I would have look to see which of my “to read” wish list of books are available to borrow via the loan system. One such book was an early edition of “Learning and Development” (by Rosemary Harrison). This book’s editions are nice snapshots of L&D status (the online edition being from 2003). According to the book (which reads like it is essentially exam prep for CIPD qualifications) there are a number of L&D “indicators”:

  1. Integration of L&D activity and organisational needs
  2. Provision of value-adding L&D function
  3. Contribution to the recruitment and performance management processes
  4. Contribution to the retention of employees
  5. Contribution to building organisational capacity and facilitating change
  6. Stimulation of strategic awareness and development of knowledge
  7. Design and delivery of learning processes and activity
  8. Evaluation and assessment of L&D outcomes and investment
  9. Role and tasks of the ethical practitioner
  10. Continuing professional self-development

Ultimately if we consider such a list as what an L&D professional can be assessed on (see also the English Apprenticeship standard) then clearly skills (be it upskilling, reskilling or right-skilling) are very much only part of the puzzle (I also quite like this list as too much focus historically has probably just been on point 7) both as a professional and in what we (can) help with (if empowered to do so by management). Therefore, as Don argued on day 3, lets remember skills but not forget everything else L&D teams can/should be doing.

Thoughts on sessions (Case studies)

There were a couple of good case studies showing how we do have to go beyond skills to really impact our organisations. The British Red Cross and Girlguiding both simplified and aggregated learning for their stakeholders on new platforms. Both took plenty of time to analyse issues, the stakeholder experience, etc. Both found their improved online learning platforms have led to retention, recognising stakeholder’s past experience and building on that (not mass sheep dipping). I liked the Red Cross simplification of message by their presenter, their Chief Learning Officer:

There were some other aspects that sounded similar to models I have used in the past, including Red Cross having a buddy relationship between central learning and those with those responsibilities at site level and the Girl Guides retraining their classroom trainers to run virtual classrooms/webinars. Overall, good examples of being strategic, holistic and delivering modernisation of stakeholder experiences.

[I probably attended a couple of other DD sessions but I’ll leave this post as it is already long enough !]

The awful staying power of Myers-Briggs

Spurred on by a recent LinkedIn poll on the usefulness of Myers-Briggs (results below) I felt the need to do a short post.

Do you believe that the MB personality test is accurate poll result from LinkedIn.

That this group of professionals (it was on the “eLearning Industry”* group) can be so split, almost into equal thirds, really does suggest some of the problems in the learning industry. MB is poor/non-science and is a ponzi scheme, end of. No learning professional should be saying this test is accurate.

I took a look at some of the comments posted to try and get my head around this continuing obsession with MB. The interesting commonality in comments was that lots of people suggested that, whilst some acknowledging faults in the accuracy of the model, there is value. This value coming, allegedly, in making people reflect about who they are, what differences they have, etc. Personally I would say there are more useful approaches to this. Indeed just some targeted reflection, away from daily work, would probably help for most people. If the focus is on teams you could use Belbin as a more practical route. Meanwhile if you are considering team/individual strengths then Strengthscope (and others) are more proven, better, options. Personally I wish Strengthscope went in harder on MB than trying to sit on the fence a bit.

* You would presume a more “classic HR” orientated group would have even higher %s in defence of the assessment.