Thursday, 22 October 2009

Lessons from Buena Vista Orchestra

Last night was one of the most amazing experiences I've enjoyed for a very long time. Eight months after buying the tickets, I witnessed the phenomenon that is the Buena Vista Orchestra (also known as Orquestra Buena Vista & Buena Vista Social Club).

Many of the original stars from that special night in Carnegie Hall in 1998 have since passed on, but what remains is still a testament to the skill, passion and fun of Cuban musicians, many of whom have been formative in the creation of what we now know as Latin music.

Reflecting on why they were so special, I came up with several things that set them apart from other concerts and bands I have seen (and enjoyed):

  1. A sense of history - Many of these people have helped to create the music synonymous with Cuba, the platform on which today's musicians build. Age is no issue; it's a strength and a valuable commodity. Experience is something we often overlook as we clamber to be new and different; often too insecure to learn from those who've gone before.

  2. A sense of value and heritage - These people are firmly connected to their music and cultural roots. It's not a problem; it's a bonus. They are not afraid of their culture, nor to share that culture and history with their audience, most of whom have little or no connection to it (apart from music). It's not about preaching; it's about showing and sharing; inviting others on board ... and judging by the response of the 2500 people at the concert, they were successful.

  3. They connected with their audience - Many of us could learn a great deal from the members of Buena Vista Orchestra. They brought something that can be difficult to connect with if you're not a part of that culture ... and enabled us to connect with it. Even musicians often fail to connect with the complex rhythms, how the pieces fit together, how the melodies interweave. Others can't handle the fluidity and movement in the music, music that doesn't sit comfortably with a click track yet is devilishly tight. Yet, this wasn't a problem for the audience as these masters of their art communicated with people's hearts and souls, calling them on board to experience something new, even if they didn't understand it. They felt it, were drawn in by it and stoked the fire for more ... which they got!

  4. They promoted each other - The musicians were clearly 'old school' in their playing, but that is what made it so great. There were no stars on stage; they were all stars and they created a platform for their colleagues to shine. Their playing was an expression of themselves but was for each other and the audience, not self-indulgent and about themselves ... a lesson many of us could learn.

  5. They exuded joy - Music wasn't just something technical to be played; it wasn't just an exercise in playing the correct notes; being safe or cerebral. The music they played was part of them; it was their soul; their passion; something to express who they are; from their hearts. It was something to enjoy and that enjoyment spurred each other on and fired the audience. Their enthusiasm and passion was infectious, drawing others in.

  6. They were themselves - As we passed the stage door after the gig (and there was no-one else around ... how rare is that?) the band emerged and were no different to how they were on stage; smiling, laughing and very willing to give time for a brief chat and sign tickets.

It took me a long time to fall asleep last night. I was full of the gig and my mind raced over and over through the tunes and why I'd enjoyed the evening so much.

Now all I need to do is apply some of what I've learnt and hopefully those I meet will benefit.

Thank you Orquestra Buena Vista. Long may you continue to inspire those who have the privilege and pleasure of witnessing your concerts (and your music).

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, 9 October 2009

Interested in Becoming a STEM Ambassador?

The STEMNET web site defines a STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics)Ambassador as

'An everyday person from a real working background who volunteers their time for free to act as an inspiring role model to young people'.

STEM Ambassadors help to stimulate the minds and imaginations of young people. They provide a refreshing change to regular lessons and activities for students and staff, bringing a fresh perspective to STEM subjects and careers.

Each Ambassador is registered, trained and CRB checked.

The STEM Ambassadors programme is STEMNET’s flagship programme, relying on over 18,000 volunteers who offer their time and support free of charge to promote STEM subjects to young learners. It is an invaluable and free resource for teachers, helping them deliver the STEM curriculum in fresh and innovative ways.

The programme aspires to make a real difference to the delivery of STEM subjects to young people. Key objectives include making every school in the UK aware of the programme and providing over 27,000 STEM Ambassadors nationwide by 2011.

The STEM Ambassador programme is co-ordinated by STEMNET via 52 organisations across the country to fulfil a brokerage role to schools through STEMPOINT contracts. Through strong links with business organisations the brokerage service aims to ensure that all schools and colleges can offer their students programmes which support the curriculum and increase the quality and quantity of students moving into further STEM education, training and development.

STEMNET aim to be recognised as the leader in enabling all young people to achieve their potential in STEM by:

  • Enabling all young people, regardless of background, are encouraged to understand the excitement and importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in their lives, and the career opportunities to which the STEM subjects can lead

  • Helping all schools and colleges across the UK understand the range of STEM Enhancement & Enrichment opportunities available to them and the benefits these can bring to everyone involved

  • Encouraging business, organisations and individuals wanting to support young people in STEM to target their efforts and resources in a way that will deliver the best results for them and young people.

I recently signed-up as a STEM Ambassador. If you're a teacher and the above interests you then you can find more about my particular input to the STEM programme here.

If you have a passion to help schools and students in their STEM activities then why not contact your local STEM provider for more details. Full details on the STEMNET web site.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Personal Development & Business Start Up Reading

There are a number of books that I have been reading over the past year-and-a-half that have made a significant impact on my thinking and how I view what I do, what I say, the decisions I make each day etc. These were all recommended to me personally by friends and other people I have met at business meetings etc (NB. All book titles are linked to The Book Depository, what I consider to be the best online bookstore; most prices are heavily discounted and all delivery worldwide is free. I always use The Book Depository: I have never been disappointed and I always use them in favour of Amazon, especially because of the postage I save).

Creativity, Change & Innovation Titles

The Element by Sir Ken Robinson - In all great people there is a spark, an element which enables them to reach their full potential and become world leaders in their field. If we can tap into our element we can reach our full potential too.

Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson - Creativity is at the heart of talent and success and there is a 'war' for talent. Yet just about every education system around the world focuses on only part of intelligence; the intellect. This book is quite deep and very thorough. It explores the need for creative people, both now and in the future, and the need to engage our emotions, not just our reasoning ability as we help people to reach their creative potential.

The Heart of Change by Dan S Cohen - Dan Cohen looks at the process of change and how to manage it effectively so that we take people with us, on our side, rather than alienating them and forming enemies within our own companies. A number of real-life stories provide case-studies on how change has been effectively managed in a range of different situations.

The Ten Faces of innovation by Tom Kelley - Available in Hardback and Softback editions, this book by the General Manager of the World famous design company, IDEO. He explores the strategies they use to foster original thinking and addresses how to overcome the 'devil's advocates' in our organisations.

Personal Development & Enhancement Titles

I Want to Make a Difference by Tim Drake - How to make a positive difference in your own life and the lives of others by changing your mindset. Making life better for your family, friends, colleagues and customers.

S.U.M.O Shut Up Move On by Paul McGee- Paul investigates how we can move from the pont of wishing to achieving. By taking responsibility for our life we can change our attitude, learn to seize opportunities and even respond to adverse conditions with a positive attitude. humorous and pointed all in one go.

Starting Your Own Business Titles

Anyone Can Do It by Sahar & Bobby Hashemi- The founders of Coffee Republic tell how they moved from day jobs to risking everything as they set-up the UK's first New York style coffee house and how that expanded to become a top brand with over 100 outlets around the UK and employing over 1000 staff. The story as it was ... warts and all.

The Small Business Start-Up Workbook by Cheryl B Rickman- This book leads you through the thoughts, processes and activities required to conceive and start your own business; step-by-step. As the title suggests, this is a workbook and therefore, it contains activities to undertake and checks to help ensure that all necessary bases are covered. Very practical, thorough and well thought-out.

Spare Room Start Up by Emma Jones - This is a really practical help on how to start up your own business 'in your spare room' i.e., working from home. Emma uses 3 key themes; business, lifestyle and technology to provide a base on which to build a home business, from scratch and at low cost. Well organised, easy to read, easy to pick-up where you left off.

Start Your Business Week by Week by Steve Parks- The attraction of this book is that Steve Parks breaks down the process of starting a business into week-size chunks, thereby making it accessible and less daunting. Checklists, tasks, targets and useful contacts all help to set-up your own business over a six-month period.

The White Ladder Diaries by Ros Jay- Journalist Ros Jay gives insight into how she set-up White Ladder Publishing with an emotional, touchy-feely quality. The book provides plenty of helpful advice and helps you learn from Ros's mistakes, providing a diary of the lead-up to the first day of trading and beyond.

Setting Up and Running a Limited Company by Robert Browning - Tackling more specific issues surrounding establishing and running a limited company, this book answers many of the questions you need to ask in order to meet the specific requirements relating to a limited company. Appointment of Directors, accounts, shareholders, meetings, minutes and more; the book takes some of the fear out of these formal procedures providing practical help and advice.

The Financial Times Guide to Business Start Up 2009 by Sara Williams- Formerly 'The TSB Small Business Guide' this book has sold well over 1-million copies to entrepreneurs and business owners. A comprehensive guide to starting your own business this is a highly detailed book with lots of useful contacts and advice. Also works as an ongoing business reference book.

I hope these provide you with hours of reading and the help you need to get yourself and your business up-and-running, and to keep you up-and-running.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Making Complex Ideas Easy to Understand

If you read my last blog entry (below) you’ll remember that I discovered what is perhaps my key skill, making complex things easy to understand, following a long period of working with people whose background was very different to my own and thought very differently to myself.
This discovery didn’t come overnight and it was only after working in often difficult and frustrating circumstances that I was able to find my talent, even if it did have to be confirmed by people around me before the ‘light went on’ and I realised what it was!

In reality, the little phrase I now use to crystallise my skill, Making the Complex Easy was only finally formulated a couple of months ago whilst talking to my business mentor about it. Thankfully, Sandra is very persistent and also very perceptive and the phrase eventually fell out as I tried to capture what I did in less than a paragraph!

We were discussing my experiences whilst studying for my PhD; whilst working in the pharmaceutical industry; whilst working in schools; with friends; in church. Time and time again the examples we discussed had the same repeating theme:

How can I make it easy for others to understand what I’m saying?

This was important to me becasue I have always been someone who has had to work hard to understand things. Combine this with a severe lack of contentment if I couldn’t really ‘get inside’ and understand what I was trying to learn. Knowledge for me has more to do with its application than knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

By understanding something I can use my knowledge in how I decide to move forward and use it in my own life and situations.

So, I suppose it was a natural progression that I should want others to enjoy the same opportunities. Here are a few of the instances we discussed of how and when I’d made complex things easy:
  • My PhD was focussed on pain relief and what was involved in helping us control painful stimuli, so important in conditions like malignant diseases. More than once I was asked to explain what I was investigating by friends who had no science background. So, I was often trying to explain complex pharmacological and biochemical processes in simple terms like opening and closing gates, keys in locks, motorways and side roads.
  • One of my tasks whilst working in the pharmaceutical industry was training sales representative, many of whom were from a marketing and selling background and without any science input, on the decidedly unsimple process of our body’s immunological response to infection by viruses. Here terms like cavalry, snipers, secret messengers and chewing and spitting were used to demystify the process.
  • My last role in the pharmaceutical industry before I accepted redundancy was to provide technical and information support to physicians and researchers on the data available to support the use of a specific drug in difficult-to-treat and potentially life-threatening conditions. The problem I was faced with was that I had over 600 slides in my presentation with a usual time slot of a lunch break (i.e., between 10 minutes and 1 hour). My solution was to reverse the process and devise an interactive presentation where my audience told me what they wanted to talk about and we ‘dipped-in’ and ‘dipped-out’ of the presentation and information available. This seemed a revolution to many of my audience and I spent hours discussing how they could put together a similar format for their own work, thereby enabling the passing-on of important information in a more targetted way: reducing a complex array of slides to easy-to-digest, smaller segments.
  • Whilst working I often took time out to visit schools and help children to understand what they were learning in the science of sound arena. As a drummer and percussionist I was used to making sounds (noise some would call it) and as a scientist I understood some of the principles behind the sounds I was making. So I took samples of my drums and percussion into schools and we experimented together and began to understand what made some sounds high, some low; some loud and some soft. What amazed me after these lessons was that I received a lot of feedback on how the children had used some of the more socially orientated skills (listening, talking, thinking together) and the reasoning and experimental approaches in their other subjects and in generally working together in other lessons. Making it easy in one subject had been transferrable to other areas of school life (and hopefully in their wider life).
  • My daughter, who is no scientist, was revising for her GCSEs and needed to understand the basics of the electrophoresis of DNA for DNA profiling. Saying the word is difficult, let alone understanding it. So I explained that the long strand of DNA is cut into lots of smaller pieces by enzymes (chemical saws). The result is a bit like a shoal of fish: some very small; some larger; some longer; some big and some huge. The plate onto which the sample of ‘chewed DNA’ is placed is like lines of fishing nets and when the electric current was switched on, it was a bit like a river or the tide flowing, taking the fish with it. Little fish was pass easily through the nets and the longer and larger fish would get stuck more quickly or have to work harder to swim through the nets. The huge fish wouldn’t be able to get through at all and would stay where they were. At the end of the experiment when the electric current is switched off, it is like taking a snap shot or photograph of where all the fish are. The ‘bands of fish’ are like the bands of DNA on the plate: smaller fish/pieces of DNA have travelled furthest, largest fish/pieces of DNA haven’t been able to move at all. My daughter understood this more pictorial, less scientific approach and manged to answer questions on her GCSE paper, getting a Grade B which was a true miracle.

… and I guess that’s why I’m so passionate about making difficult things easy to understand … once we understand them we have chance to use the knowledge and achieve more than we thought possible.

There will always be those who like to keep things complicated because it gives them a sense of power and importance; they are the only ones who know. But in a world where increasing co-operation is becoming a key factor (especially in business) and clarity of understanding paramount, the sharing of knowledge in an easy to understand way is, I believe becoming ever more crucial, not only for success, but for survival.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

What We Have Not What We Don't!

I don’t know about you, but one of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to overcome (and still fight daily) is the idea that others know more than me, especially in areas where I am dubbed an expert.

I think a lot of it goes back to when I was younger, especially in my teen years where, although I was in the top set at school there were those around me who were like a cerebrum on legs: they oozed ability, knowledge and were more concerned with where they’d lost two or three marks in their exams than with where they’d gained them!

The problem with hanging out with these guys wasn’t anything to do with their personalities: most of them were really great people to be around. It was the toll that it all took on my self-confidence and self-esteem. My mind had a field day, reinforcing all those doubts that had ever dared to enter my thinking, or had been placed there by others.

It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I was forced to go back and revisit these difficult and confusing times when recovering from serious illness. During the long, slow, often painful process that was called recovery I was forced (in the nicest way possible) to see these things in their true perspective and identify the lies that I had taken on-board and made an integral part of my life and psyche.

One of the biggest mistakes I had made was when I started looking at my abilities in comparison to others. We live in a competitive world where we are continually compared to others BUT there is no need for us to do it to ourselves. When we go for a new job, invariably our skill sets, talents and background will be compared to those of others competing for the same job. That is the interviewer’s job.

HOWEVER, we want to be at our best in those situations, showing others our true self and abilities.

If we focus on what we don’t have and what we can’t do as well as others, then we will never see our own unique talents; our own unique skills and the things that we CAN bring to the table that others can’t.

Here’s a couple of examples from my own life that may help:

  • When I left school, I went straight to university but was so clueless and dispirited about what I wanted to/could do that I gave up after a term (though I did return with my first drum kit … but that is another story!). I worked for 3 years and then decided that I would go back to studying as I had a much clearer idea of where I wanted to go (and where I couldn’t go at that time without a degree). I entered the first year of my degree expecting to be worse than the fresh young things entering straight after their A-levels. I looked to the brightest of them for encouragement and help but I was always aware in my own mind that I wasn’t as good as them. That was confirmed in my exams at the end of the year. For some reason and I still don’t know why, I decided over the Summer holidays that I would really work for myself and make sure that I understood what I was doing. This meant re-learning a lot of what I’d not learnt very well during my first year. The second year was different. Nothing changed in my ability to work with others, but my internal focus was now on what I could do rather than what I couldn’t. I really WANTED to learn and understand to the best of MY abilities. I came top of the year in my second year exams, something I could never have dreamed of. I wasn’t the brightest on paper (my A-level results wer mediocre at best) but my focus had changed and I’d achieved my potential (albeit with a lot of hard work). I passed my degree with a higher grade than I would ever have expected and then went on to higher study. The point I’m trying to encourage you with is that if we look at ourselves it’s very easy to see what we lack. But we have so much to offer that others don’t, and others rarely see the failings in ourselves that we do! I’m definitely not trying to propose some self-help mantra but I am suggesting that a change of focus can bring a change of attitude and facilitate us reaching our fuller potential.
  • Another example was when I was working as a member of a Medical Department’s clinical research team in the pharmaceutical industry. I knew some of my strengths: people skills, patience, generally up-beat and good to be around etc. But, it took several years of working with the Dark Side, i.e., members of the Marketing Department, to really bring my core skills to the fore. Medical Departments generally work to a dinosaur type time-scale; it takes a long time to design, set-up, run, and report clinical trials. Marketing work very much in the here and now and want results today (or yesterday if possible). Initially I worked to set-up a Medical-Marketing Interface, a group of people from both departments who could get together on a regular basis to discuss what their priorities were at that time, what they were for the next year and the reality of what information was likely to become available or be wanted in that time. These were not easy meetings but they gradually evolved into a broader set of discussion forums that really helped the two departments work together more effectively. They opened the way for more constructive interaction rather than shooting at each other from the parapets. Through them there was also much closer collaboration in the construction of sales and marketing literature and this is where I discovered something that had probably been obvious but I’d never seen it! My personal ‘gem’ was an ability to make complex and highly technical scientific and medical ideas easy to understand by all, including those from a non-technical and non-scientific background. This did two things: a) It boosted my confidence; I did have something special to offer and b) it paved the way for my last role in corporate business, that of communicating and building professional relationships with members of the medical and research communities and providing fora in which we could openly discuss data supporting the use of specific drugs in difficult-to-treat-conditions. It was also interesting that when I left my job, many of the most moving ‘good-bye’ messages came from these same people.

It took me a long time to realise that it’s not always simply how much we know, it’s a lot more to do with recognising our own skills and talents, developing and using these to the best of our abilities, whilst never missing the opportunity to hear what others are saying about us. As we refine our path, we will be amazed at what we have to offer and as with my university exams, we may just move from being one of the crowd to being a leader.

Even if we don’t, I can guarantee that you’ll feel so much better about yourself and be more confident with what you can offer.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Service or Ripped-Off?

So goes that start of a conversation I overheard today whilst out shopping at our local Market.

What a damning inditement on all those free offers we are continually bombarded with in order to grab our business; offers which, in reality, have nothing free in them. They are a hook to get us to buy and clearly in the mind of individual concerned they had been forgotten: it was the financial transactions that had been remembered, not his free gifts (if they had actually ever received any).

This set me thinking … again … about how we sell ourselves daily: in business and in our own lives. We used to have a saying at work;

'There's no such thing as a free lunch!'

i.e., You don't get something for nothing; everything costs.

To some point I agree. But where that cost lies is the divider between something being perceived as an offer of service and being taken for a ride.

If we make our customers pay, they see it as being taken for a ride and their trust is often shattered. If we take the cost, our customers see it as a service, as a favour, and it builds trust … and if we do make a mistake in the future they are far more to help us solve it than make demands.

This is a simple division, but one which businesses and individuals ignore at their peril … every day. We promise but don't deliver. We offer something for free ... but there's a catch!

Perhaps we need to think more carefully before we advertise our next free offer because if we fail to deliver on that offer, we make our customers (and friends) ever more cynical and thick-skinned: we turn them off rather than turning them on to what we really have to offer. In reality, we turn them off to us because we fail to deliver on what we’ve promised. It is ourselves that we are selling short and it is ourselves that get the bad publicity. We gain the label 'Can't be trusted'.

The idea of personal integrity is getting ever more lost amidst spin and short-term fire-fighting. High profile figures expect us to believe their words, even though we see they are contrary to their actions (the cover up). However, for those who are prepared to match words with actions, the opportunities are huge. There is a saying I like to use for personal encouragement:

'Where the darkness is darkest, the faintest light shines brightest'.

I'm not on my own when I say that by being honest and open, yes, even admitting our mistakes, we build an opportunity for growth and success; for competitive advantage. Despite what the macho businessmen (many of whom are scared witless of failing) may say, customers like attention and they like vulnerability because that makes us just like them, complete with faults and failings, and they can relate to that.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,