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Archive for March, 2012

I’ve been thinking about what could be Henley’s official “position” on Personal Development. If this sounds like a simple question to you, then allow me first to disabuse you of that thought; it’s actually quite problematic.

In this post I’d like to try to explain why and then, having addressed that, in the second post I will move on to stating several tentative ideas about PD which, I think, state where we are taking the subject, positioning it not only in relation to the MBA education experience but extending it as a statement of something much bigger.

Many Business Schools have some kind of position on Personal Development. Usually the only way to find out what that is by seeing what they say about it in their marketing material or what they reveal about it via their programme information. Any position on PD could be said, I suppose, to come predominately either from without or from within. ‘From without’ means that a school has probably surveyed what it considers to be its market and come to the conclusion that this market demands PD, or something like it, be a component of the course (i.e. be one of the course’s benefits). Alternatively it could also be that because so many of their competitors seem to be think it so then they, too, must follow suit.  This is a compelling position among MBA programmes entangled in rankings battles and it ensures that PD will be pluralistic, plastic and will often rely on non-teaching staff supplemented by “expert” input bought in from outside. There’s an overlap with career-related skills development and an advocacy of competency-based frameworks, an extensive use of psychometrics (and resourcing), and advocacy of coaching and mentoring support. Actual integration with the MBA curriculum is minimal when it is mainly the external that influences PD because assessment is expensive and integration of behavioural skills to academic learning outcomes is hard to do without a deeper philosophical intent. The net result of this position is often a strong marketing message but a weak return on an MBA’s investment because the intellectual energy of the course is focused on the rest of the curriculum. PD is demoted to a very few measurables, such as how happy the participants were with the CV writing classes, or the presentation courses, or the mock interviews, or the mentor programme, or just simply with the time taken for job placement (and, of course, level of salary). No connection to the education is really needed to measure the effectiveness of the PD in such a case.

The other position for PD, whereby it comes from within, is often driven by the institution’s culture, history and type of clientele (i.e. the sort of students and the sorts of organisations they work for). It is also much rarer in the market. Where a School has taken the position on PD that it is intellectually significant there may still be many of the manifestations of career assistance and advice that one finds in externally driven schools, but there is something else, too. PD is part of the curriculum itself. This may be implicit in practice-oriented forms of assessment that require a reflective component, and it may be explicit in PD being a course in its own right. To take this position is to acknowledge not only that PD is not merely ‘training’ and ‘skills-building’, but is an epistemic member of the family of domains such as Marketing, Finance, Leadership or Strategy (albeit a much less researched one).

Anyone wondering what the hell I’m talking about can compare and contrast two examples. The first, which I would class as illustrative of the “PD from without” school is an Exec MBA from a little-known institution, London Business School.  The second, much closer to my “PD from within” idea, is the Exec MBA at Aston University in Birmingham.

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To talk to strangers, or to avoid really talking to strangers, the British have the weather. In Johannesburg, what the South Africans have instead is “the traffic”. The state of the roads, the amount of traffic on them, debates about road usage and improvements, the advent of toll charges and the seemingly insurmountable topic of the amount of time that it takes to get from A to B, and at what time of day, are what forms the safe subject for any chat.

Jo’burg has invested a lot in its road system in recent years. The World Cup finals were a big part of this on the highways, but they have also systematically replaced many of the chuggering, smoke-blowing old buses and regulated what was a decrepit and corrupt network of privately owned licensed mini-buses with a modern and corrupt network of licensed minibuses. The minibuses are the main means of transport to and from work for thousands of Jo’burgers, and they can be ruthless in their road tactics.

Some countries have road rage to deal with but this city once had serious road crime, with not infrequent car-jackings and armed theft, though this seems to have gone now. Yet the roads remain a staple of conversation and dictate what time things start and stop, what sacrifices people need to make to arrive for important things (such as their jobs, or MBA workshops) on time. The city is spreading and the middle classes are demanding safe housing on new gated estates at the fringes of the sprawl. But the infrastructure doesn’t keep up, and what might once have been quiet suburban roads have become choked single-lane routes that now feed the (finally) free-moving freeways. South Africans call traffic lights “robots”, and these too have been the victim of crime here in the past.

But this is a terrific city. It feels big and wide (it is that, for sure) and full of light. The hills roll on and reveal gentle dips with greenery and streams, and the earth is variously the most fantastic shades of ochre, red, orange and rust. The sky stretches out over it and feels twice the size of the sky in the UK and there is always the feeling (in my mind) that these roads, cluttered though they may be, would eventually lead one out into a massive and fascinating continent full of possibility, culture and history (social and natural) and – above all  – stories.

We start our workshop tomorrow bright and early. We’ll be leaving the hotel at 7 a.m. To avoid the traffic. And have something to talk about.

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I’m preparing to head south on my annual migration to the southern hemisphere for the March MBA starter workshop in Johannesburg.

As usual, I’m reflecting (pre-flecting?) on what’s to come, on how I’ll work with colleagues and new members of the MBA, what state of mind I want them to be in at various points, and so on…

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that reflection is not possible except when we are able to distinguish it as such, which means differentiating it from that which is not reflection. The two are interdependent and inextricably linked. This is how we find the outline of one, against the other. Hardly earth shattering? Maybe. Yet a crucial point precisely because we take it for granted.

So how do we know the difference, in general? This is occupying me, so I may return to this over the coming days as I blog the workshop.

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Yesterday I went to London and had a meal and catch-up with my brother, who works in the City and does something clever with spreadsheets in the money-broking industry. And I do mean clever; he wrote the book, literally, on the subject, available at online bookstores near you.

After eating, we walked a bit. I am always amazed at the combinations of old and new in that part of London, and the sense one gets that – during the day at least – this is a space occupied by human beings, moving (not necessarily with a smile on their face), eating, coming and going, and drinking.  Above all drinking. There are lot of pubs and bars in the City of London, and their role in commerce is immense. So when my brother asked if I wanted to join him for a drink with a couple of former colleagues (actually one colleague and former client, which is how it works – you go drinking with clients) in a pub near Bank, I was curious to see what that was like.

Loud. That’s what City pubs are like. And male, with male conversations. It was interesting to witness, but I was not up to speed – and you’ve got to give as good as you get because the bar (pun intended) for repartee is set high. I think it is both a release for people who have been focused on screens and phones all day, and also a way of glueing friendships with insults.

Anyway, the point of this post – Following a sequence of interchanges and an anecdote so filthy that I could not possibly repeat it here, the idea came up to eliminate all adjectives from speech for a week. That’s a thought. Would it work? Would it change things? Make them better? Do we suffer from a surfeit of adjectives?

I do know that this is  tricky to do. I wrote this post without regard to adjective use, and then went back and tried to remove them all. There were more than I expected, or had noticed, and there are still several I couldn’t remove. It is, however, a discipline worth experimenting with.

Hemingway used adjectives sparingly and this added to rather than subtracted from his power as a writer. I wonder whether the reason for this is that our brains fill in those gaps with adjectives of their own.

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Here’s a thought – given that convention demands that people must apply for jobs by submitting their CV, why are we so obsessed with the idea that the best way to show another person where we want to go, or even where we are at now, is through a ritualised presentation (a re-presentation, actually) of where we have been?

I have two answers to this, and then a suggestion (which I don’t suppose for a moment too  many will adopt) of how it could be different, and how a person’s work-life could be more pregnant with opportunity than laden with disappointment if we did.

First, two reasons why we all do what we do:

1. Once upon a time, a long time ago, finding new work was generally a matter of direct experience, word-of-mouth or being vouched for in a letter of recommendation from a reputable person. The world of work was simplified; guilds, crafts, apprenticeships, professions, hands-on knowledge, family firms and local enterprises.  We now live in a world very separated from such close ties, where in order to find employment people cannot rely on knowing or being known to each other in person. A letter of introduction used to serve the purpose of connecting people who didn’t know each other, but now the reality of a personal connection has been replaced by the illusion of one. Thanks to the industrial revolution, which created the need for management of humans as though they were just a resource, the notion of identity has also shifted gradually. In this mechanised, hierarchical and depersonalised world the presentation of one’s credentials needed to become something more portable and bureaucratic, hence a paper-based autobiography.

2. In our post-industrial, post-personal and (according to some) post-modern world the function of this autobiography is now very definitely expected to present an identity – in the form of a list of transferable work qualities. A good resume merely reduces in the mind of the reader the risk – to them – of selection against other contenders. The more predictable, the better, though there are a plethora of books, articles, workshops and ‘consultants’ out there who will tell you all you need to know to make you feel totally inadequate in this regard. But here’s the thing – no-0ne actually can make any real prediction of future job success on the basis of a chronological presentation of the past.  How many of us have found out, to our regret, that a person hired to a position of higher resposnsbility on the basis of their past turns out to be a flop, with their best behind them. Often the greater the shine in the CV the greater the shit everyone has to deal with when they’re in post. And yet, do we have any choice? Mostly we don’t, is my guess; the parameters of the job search game are set.

I think this is a shame. What we should be producing for ourselves are anti-resumes. I did not invent this idea, by the way, but just came across the thought when reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book ‘the Black Swan’.

There are two ways of defining what an anti-resume is, and the Web has examples and supporters of both. The first is simply the attempt to present a version of the traditional CV that is non-traditional, mostly using multi-media, animation or a non-linear telling of past exploits. The idea is to stand out from the crowd. I don’t really see how this is a game changer.

The second is a position that is the antithesis of what the classic resume stands for – a list, yes, but of all the things you can’t do, haven’t got, haven’t done or have yet to achieve. This makes it risky, of course, but also makes it future oriented and shows a potential employer the space into  which you can grow.

So what is it you haven’t done yet? What’s out there for you to achieve? What’s your real passion, your drea: your true “life project”? How could you communicate this, if not instead of your past, then at least as well as on your resume?

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The philosopher Alan Watts was adept at stating certain truths that would otherwise remain just beyond our grasp (at best), or deliberately hidden from us (at worst). Because Personal Development is often seen as a process of understanding oneself through study of the self, in many people’s minds it is just a type of introspection. And though people may or may not think that they like to introspect, they are frequently willing to subscribe to the idea that the personality is just the set of qualities which one possesses (or doesn’t) and a pre-set series of potentials which one does (or doesn’t) live up to.

This belief has spawned an industry of self-help literature and know-how guides and gurus, and their proliferation is either evidence that the world is really like that, or that it is not. I take the latter view, and I think there is a serious flaw in the idea we hold in our minds when we are thinking about how we come to be what we are.

“Trying to define yourself is like biting your own teeth”, said Watts. And the point is, surely, that we cannot define ourselves in relation only to ourselves;  it’s an impossibility. What we need, in order to find our own outline, are other people’s outlines (and they need ours). So the first point I wanted to make is that our existence and consideration of “self” is entirely a matter of our relations with ‘the other’.  This is true for individuals and it’s also true for organisations, and it’s true for nations… for any concept which is imbued with identity and culture.

The second issue is that we do not seem to be able to talk our way out of this easily. When we come to attach meaning to ideas as if they were “things” with definable qualities, we are caught up in doing what the Polish-born philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski famously referred to as confusing the map with the territory. The truth is that our beliefs and values have no physical reality, neither in personal nor in business life.

This week I have been working with MBAs on their Personal Development. As part of this we looked at the process of learning, through the lens of Kolb’s experiential cycle, and then through the secondary lens of Honey and Mumford’s learning styles (Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist). We also used the labels developed by Belbin to indicate behavioral preferences when working in a group or team (Plant, Shaper, Co-ordinator and so on…). How easy it was to begin to label oneself as being one or other of these “things” (and someone else, by implication, as not). What one is tempted to do is then to identify oneself as these things. When someones says “I’m a Teamworker” or “I’m an Activist”, they are in fact jumping across several levels of abstraction without knowing it. There is “me” and there is my “description of me”, and they are not the same ‘thing’ at all.  Our problem, in short, is our addiction to nouns. We love giving names to things to separate them from the background mess of not-things, and this is so that we can analyse them and, perhaps, infer from that one, tiny part something about the limitless, unknowable rest.

My assertion that we should be very wary of substance does not accord with much of what one will meet inside an MBAprogramme. Subject Matter Experts like to perpetuate the concrete and the measurable over any system of abstractions. To them, their subject “matters”, is material in fact, and any kind of musing which suggests otherwise is a bit of an anathema. I know this because often I notice that this is how I see it, too. Why not? We’re not only very good at it (at imposing order on the world), we have been able to become incredibly productive as a result. And yet I can’t help being drawn to the idea that the aim of education should be to leave everyone involved (faculty and student alike) in a state of some confusion and flux about what it is they are studying, and what it means to “study” at all, and so on.

This may just be one of those “out there” blog postings that hints at something under the surface but does not capture it, and having kicked the idea around a bit then just carries on in the ordinary, day-to-day life – until there is another glimpse, where it resurfaces in another way.

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This past week has been driven by numbers. The first is “four”, which I have to get out of the way. This was the number of goals Chelsea scored last night in their exciting encounter at Stamford Bridge against Napoli, which was just enough to turn the tie around and put them through to the last “eight”. One of the best matches I’ve seen for a long time.

On Friday last week, however, the number on my mind was “three”, as this was the number of PD workshops I’ve now delivered to the Exec MBA group known as EM10. They started their programme in September 2010 and when I met them now they had just completed their “second” MBA exam the day before, a triumph that many of the group had evidently felt deserved toasting well into the night, so the atmosphere in the class was an accurate reflection (oh, how we love that word at Henley!) of the morning after. But they took part, and we soldiered on, and though they were mentally very tired (it’s a gruelling course, not one for light-weights), they provided me with a really interesting opportunity to practice my classroom negotiation skills.

“Fifty-three” was the number of new programme members in my PD workshop on Saturday, “seventeen” of whom were from the new intake in Malta. What an invigorating session it was! I had a great time, and they rose to the occasion by engaging with each other, being open-minded and curious and (thankfully) falling straight into several little traps that I had set for them. But by the end of the day we had established a mood and an energy around the newly formed learning teams that should carry them well into their first year.

The next number was “forty-six”, which is the number of new starters in our groups from Denmark and Finland, also in attendance at Greenlands this week, and victims of the same ruthless Henley PD treatment at my hands on Tuesday and Wednesday. There’s something fascinating about how the various MBA groups manage to be both unique and homogenous – each has its own character and chemistry (no two Starter workshops are the same) and, when you walk in to the room, each is also instantly recognisable as a Henley MBA and not something else.

Nordic MBA groups also have something very interesting about them. Participants from Denmark are used to a direct approach and like to know why they are being asked to do what they’re being asked to do. Finns are very comfortable with long periods of silence. You have to work with all of them on their terms, whilst still keeping your own goals in mind. And if one of your goals is to challenge their assumptions, then this can result to a strange sort of “Mexican stand-off” – resistance to the “why are we doing this?” question and the ” ” silences that deafen you in the room.

“Eight”, this is how many of the Henley-Based group (see “Fifty-six” above) had stayed a full week at Henley to get all their workshop input in one go. We call them the International Stream, and many of them live and work at a long-haul distance from the UK, so can’t fly in and out so easily. Eight is a great number to change the tone and pace of a workshop, and work with the energy level in a more relaxed manner. After 7 days of input-input-input, of course, they were somewhat punch-drunk, so I had to select where we went, and at what pace, very carefully.

Finally, “One hundred and forty” could be the number of new starters I’ll be faced with at the end of next week in South Africa. I love the Jo’burg starter workshops… but 140?!? That will need some thinking about ahead of time. They can count on me! 🙂

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