Bravo Richard

Some five years ago, in October 2011, my brother Jake was knocked off his bike and received a devastating brain injury. His chances of recovery were minimal and we were warned to expect the worst. As it happens he has made a remarkable recovery, but there were many bumps along the way and it was incredibly hard to explain just what it was like to endure this painful journey, willing him to get better whilst grieving for the loss of the life he once had.

A few months after his accident, whilst Jake was still very unwell, my sister in law and I came across a young man on twitter, Richard Hammond (no, not that one), running an account that was first called @hammondshead and then @myABIbyRH. Using the hashtag #adaptandovercome he shared his experiences during his recovery to address the isolation felt by so many brain injury sufferers and their families. Before being injured in a hit and run, he was a promising young racing driver who was winning prizes, moving in F1 and other professional racing circles and who was clearly destined for great things.

With the support of his family and particularly his twin brother Scott, Richard started on the path to recovery, and his colleagues in the motor racing world did their best to help him get back on his feet, offering him different types of work still connected with racing even though he couldn’t drive at the same level again.  Throughout all of this though, he used his twitter account to encourage others, sharing his successes along with the sadness he felt at being unable to do everything he had wanted to do in the past.

He remained a competitor at heart though, and he decided to raise funds for Headway – the Head Injury charity – through a sponsored cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. During training, disaster struck when he fell off his bike and (despite wearing a helmet) sustained a second brain injury.  It’s hard to imagine how he and his family must have felt and frankly I am not sure I want to. Yet, he still wanted to share what was going on and, as soon as he felt well enough, he would sneak onto twitter and post occasional updates. You could tell from the slightly mangled sentences that he was struggling to express himself but for those of us who had been inspired by his first journey, it was a joyful thing and we rushed to encourage him through a second recovery.

I’m telling you Richard’s story because he is an example of how one person can make a difference. You don’t have to be in charge of a massive organisation to be a leader, Richard inspired and led so many people affected by brain injury simply by sharing his story.  He would talk about how he couldn’t do one thing but could find a way round the problem and exhort us all to #adaptandovercome, and during some very dark days for us and our family he was a real beacon of hope.  As individuals we have the power to motivate, encourage and inspire – all leadership traits which Richard embodied throughout the time I ‘knew’ him online.

Last week, Richard died suddenly as a result of injuries he received following a seizure when the cart he was working on toppled and fell onto him. He was doing something he loved, and in the months before his death he had become a father to a little girl he adored. My heart goes out to his family and all the people who cared about him, and I hope that they know how much he meant to so many people that he never met in person but into whose darkest days he shone a little light.

Zero tolerance

Following discussions with the police last week Angela Eagle cancelled her walk-in constituency surgery after her office was vandalised and she received threats and intimidating messages. On Friday a group of more than 40 female MPs called on Jeremy Corbyn to do more to tackle an “extremely worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility” towards MPs.  Newspaper reports indicate increasing levels of bullying or intimidating behaviour within local Labour constituency meetings and outside MPs homes.  Labour leadership hopeful Owen Smith called for Corbyn to take a tougher line on evidence of intimidation, saying “we didn’t have this kind of abuse, intolerance, misogyny and anti-Semitism in the party before Jeremy Corbyn became leader”.

It’s clear that whilst Mr Corbyn has spoken out in favour of what he calls ‘respectful debate’, saying “I’m not going to allow intimidation of anyone in the Labour Party”, many feel that there is a level of tolerance for what is currently going on – and that’s bad news for his reputation and the reputation of the Labour Party as a whole. Whatever your politics, and whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, strong leadership is critically important when it comes to addressing this type of behaviour.

Just take a moment to think about it.  If any of the incidences described in recent days had taken place in a commercial or publicly owned organisation, imagine what the reaction would have been.  Bullying in the workplace is a very serious matter. It’s an issue that has huge implications for employers, given the emotional and sometimes physical consequences of bullying – and for the employer’s reputation too.   Even setting aside the important moral implications here, (I don’t know about you but I certainly wouldn’t want to work in an organisation that thinks this type of behaviour is acceptable) there are financial implications if allegations of bullying and harassment can’t be resolved, leading to claims of constructive dismissal and the risk of costly legal proceedings. As leaders and managers of people, we are charged with a duty of care towards our colleagues, and that means stamping out bullying with a zero tolerance policy.

It means actively and publicly addressing bullying, building a culture that can shine a light on unhealthy workplace relationships and surface bullying behaviours so that they can be dealt with before major problems arise. In commercial organisations I’ve worked with and led, bullying and harassment are disciplinary offences and ultimately people can be dismissed – indeed, in some circumstances immediate dismissal can be warranted.

A look on the UK Government’s own website tells us that “ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) characterises bullying as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. The impact on the individual can be the same as harassment and the words bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably in the workplace.” Does any of this sound familiar? Even if the behaviour comes from someone outside your organisation, perhaps from a client or customer, you still have a responsibility to protect your employees and you need to address the problem.

And, what do ACAS advise in the case that employees complain of bullying and / or harassment? “Investigate the complaint promptly and objectively. Take the complaint seriously. Employees do not normally make serious accusations unless they feel seriously aggrieved.”  Just saying that you don’t tolerate these behaviours really isn’t enough – action needs to be taken and, equally importantly, needs to be seen to be taken pour encourager les autres.

There are times when leaders need to stand up and be counted, and addressing bullying and harassment is one of them. Oh, and by the way, bullying is in the eye of the beholder – that is to say what is ‘robust’ management to one person might feel like bullying to another – so you need to listen carefully and understand where people are coming from if you find yourself arbitrating in this kind of situation. Whilst your local MP might not technically be the direct employee of a particular political party, if you were in their shoes and found yourself receiving abusive messages I’m willing to bet you’d be looking to your leaders to take decisive action.  Not doing so is a message all in itself.

The power of questions

Some years ago, my business partner and I sold our agencies to one of the top three media holding companies, and we ended up taking over another business as part of our deal.  At the time we had agencies in London and New York, as well as getting to know another business, so in hindsight we weren’t able to spend as much time as we would have liked with our original agencies helping our teams to understand the real benefits of our acquisition.

I look back on that time wishing I’d asked more questions rather than make assumptions about how people felt – as one of those people whose glass is half-full rather than half-empty  I assumed everyone felt as positively as I did. Later, our acquirers sent us on a change management course, where I learned that we were a long way further round the change curve than our teams were. Having made the decision to become part of a larger group to expand our footprint and horizons for the best part of 18 months by the time we were acquired, all of our doubts and questions had been answered along the way. I hadn’t understood that everyone else also needed to go through the journey and had their own questions and doubts that couldn’t simply be answered by saying “trust me”.

Sometimes people don’t ask the questions that they really want to know the answer to, either because they’re afraid of the answer, or because they’re worried that just by asking the question they might bias the respondent against them. As leaders, we need to find ways to tease those questions out of people and to make them feel comfortable in asking uncomfortable questions.

I was fortunate to witness a masterclass in how to answer questions from the CEO of the organisation that acquired us when we got together all of our teams of people in one space for a big Q&A session. We’d set up an anonymous question box to eliminate that ‘fear of bias’ I mentioned earlier, but the questions were all still pretty tame and I worried that they didn’t accurately represent what people really wanted to know (but were afraid to ask).

As he pulled each question from the box, the CEO read it out and then said “what I think you are really asking is…” and proceeded to ask himself the most difficult, challenging, confrontational questions that people really wanted to know the answers to but had only felt comfortable alluding to in the most general of terms.  At the end of the session, he asked for more questions and all of a sudden there they were, people asking him directly what his thoughts were on the things that really mattered – because he’d given them permission to do so by asking himself the toughest questions.

I learned a lot that day about leadership, about how to encourage others but most of all about the importance of asking yourself the questions that other people are afraid to ask, all the “what if’s” and the “why can’t we?” questions that lie at the heart of most people’s uncertainties.  If you never ask yourself difficult questions you can’t understand how others might be feeling. The takeaway? If you know there’s a question on the tip of someone’s tongue, make sure you find a way to ask it. Just make sure you’re ready for what might come next…

Thank you

On Thursday of last week, my role as Chair of Judges for the 2016 Communiqué Awards reached its conclusion when the ceremony itself took place. Attended by nearly 800 people, these awards are the pinnacle of the healthcare communications year. I was honoured to represent more than 100 judges drawn from advocacy, agency, in-house teams in pharma, health & wellness companies as well as professional consulting services and regulators when I gave a brief speech to open proceedings.

I was surprised to be interrupted during my opening remarks by a round of applause – I had referred to the challenges facing our industry as a result of the EU referendum, and I reproduce my words below, as it would appear that this really needed saying:

“It would be remiss of me not to speak to the fact that many of the people in this room, whether from agency or client-side, work in international teams across borders.  Despite the anxieties of recent weeks following the EU referendum, I firmly believe that which unites us remains greater than that which might divide us.

 “In truth, nobody really knows what the future holds but I am confident that, in our industry at least, holding firm to the principles which have made us successful in the past will serve us well in the future. Let us not forget that the work we do really matters. The conversation about health will continue to need leadership, and we will be needed to help shape and influence that conversation to the benefit of all.”

Our industry also needs leadership and we must not be afraid to speak out about the importance of what we do – as business leaders we have a responsibility to do so, to encourage the many people who believe passionately in our work.

I was further surprised (no, honestly I was), to be recognised by my peers as the 2016 Healthcare Communiquétor – an award sponsored by the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) and which recognises “outstanding personal achievement at a very senior level in healthcare communications from a professional who is active within the healthcare industry”. It’s probably the highest accolade you can get and I feel incredibly honoured to have been chosen this year.,_team_and_company_awards/the_hca_award_for_healthcare_communiquetor

Our business is all about teams, bringing people together to do the very best work that they can and as there are no opportunities for speeches when the awards are presented, I’d like to take this opportunity to dedicate my award to all the amazing people it has been my absolute pleasure to work with over the years. Thank you.


Leaders need followers

One of the most important questions for leaders to ask themselves is ‘who do I want my followers to be?’ – now whilst in many situations the answer may seem blindingly obvious, let’s take a look at the current leadership elections and challenges across the British political system in the wake of Brexit to see what this tells us.

Labour’s leadership meltdown since the referendum has been unprecedented, yet truthfully it is a leadership meltdown of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) rather than the grassroots membership (or at least that’s how Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters see it). Last night Corbyn appealed directly to Labour supporters via Facebook, making bold statements about the success of his leadership when it came to opposing the current government, in winning by-elections, local and London mayoral elections, and calling for unity moving forward.  Although, in watching him speak against a bright yellow backdrop I was vividly reminded of the episode of Yes Prime Minister when the hapless Jim Hacker was advised to adopt high-energy wallpaper and abstract paintings as a background to his ministerial broadcast in order to disguise the absence of anything new in the actual speech.

Nevertheless, against a backdrop of a vote of no-confidence in his leadership passed by 172-40 MPs, more than 60,000 people have joined the Labour party in order to have their say should the mooted leadership election come to pass.

Clearly, this illustrates a schism between the MPs chosen by local labour associations to represent them and the views of many of the grassroots membership.  Does this mean that local MPs will be deselected by their own local party committees if the revolt continues?  At any rate, Corbyn has been pretty clear about who he believes his followers are and they certainly don’t include the majority of current Labour MPs.

The discussion in many of the newspapers yesterday morning around Lord Ashdown’s suggestion of a new political soft-left-centrist movement raised the risk that if Labour MPs and Corbyn’s supporters can’t find a way to compromise, there might be a new home and a new leader for his disaffected parliamentary followers. Frankly, with the pace of political change at the moment, who would discount it?  As I write, negotiations are about to start to try to find that compromise – so let’s watch this space to see how that pans out.

What’s the takeaway here? Well, know who your followers are – and know who they aren’t – so you can find ways to reach out to everyone you are trying to lead.  And, remember the power of the individual vs the organisation when you are shaping your communications strategy. More soon.


Did that just happen?

An hour is a long time in politics these days, judging by the events of the last week or so since the announcement of the EU Referendum results. Whether you were a Leaver or a Remainer, the continuing turmoil engulfing our political leadership is unprecedented and highlights some key lessons for anyone seeking to lead others.

Even in the run-up to the vote, the tactics adopted by both sides left a lot to be desired in terms of professionalism, not least because of the lack of understanding both exhibited about the impact of their actions. And at the same time they demonstrated a level of disengagement with great swathes of potential voters that was breathtaking and illustrates just how out of touch our political elite have become with those who vote them into (or more likely out of) government.

Trust is a critically important component of leadership – if people don’t believe what you are telling them, then they have no confidence in the direction of travel and ultimately won’t be motivated to support you or the decisions you take.  Over the past decade many people have fallen out of love with big organisations whether political or commercial, and the rise of the citizen journalist alongside social media tools delivering increased accessibility have only exacerbated this change.  In the healthcare space for example we see patients preferring to seek information from others in their position rather than automatically following the authority of the doctor – the expert patient is an influencer we can’t afford to neglect.

But I digress.  In an environment where a politician rubbishes the views of experts (I believe the exact phrase was “the people of this country have had enough of experts”) and exhorts voters to take back control, what that’s really about is tapping into this lack of trust in companies or organisations that people deem to have ‘something to gain’ from a specific decision or point of view — otherwise known of course as the Mandy Rice-Davies approach for those of an older generation i.e. “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he”.

It’s a bit of a no-brainer then to say that trust is at the core of leadership, and the bigger question this throws up is that of how do you build and retain trust in what is now a more mistrustful, more suspicious, and in general much more anxious environment than it was just a few short days ago.  There isn’t a simple answer alas, but part of it must lie in taking the time to really listen to what the people you’re hoping to lead are concerned about – to genuinely hear and acknowledge their point of view. Doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but if you’re not listening you’ll miss something absolutely critical that has the ability to either undermine or shore up the trust that you’re aiming for.

I daresay that in the time it has taken me to write this post – or for you to read it – another unexpected political manoeuvre will have taken place, so stay tuned and let’s see what more we can learn from a leadership perspective about what happens next. Right now I think my next post might be about understanding the length of people’s memories and how long it can take to overcome or mitigate for leadership missteps, but let’s see where the news takes us.