Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I've given up social media for Lent

Six years ago I gave up alcohol for Lent. I never started again. Last year I forsook crisps, but I've now cut down on potato based snacks for health reasons. I could claim to be giving up impulse buys of clothes and books, but I'm skint. So this year I'm giving up Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, MySpace and LinkedIn. To be honest I only really use the first two, and I'm not even sure that MySpace exists anymore. I probably have to carry on with Blogger, but only on Sundays.

But Lent isn't just about giving up and sacrificing things we like, it has to be about what you do extra. I haven't quite figured that bit out yet. It's a time for prayer and reflection, for searching, for resisting temptation and doing good.

Earlier today I posted a blog about health and fitness, which was a strong reason why I won't be fasting as my fairly strict diet takes precedent. I've also been on a long personal journey where I've been looking for guidance and help to stop feeling angry about others. It's something I've struggled with all my life, effectively drinking poison in the hope that it will hurt those I'm angry about. Guess what? It doesn't work. As I sit here now, there are situations where I would previously have seethed at those I've clashed with, gossiped about so-called rivals. No more. Maybe it's been a renewed focus, a health scare, or maybe it's something else. When you choose to look you can bear witness to the inspiring behaviour of people you least expect, people who are capable of such remarkable forgiveness and charity to those who may not deserve it. In my life too I've got the example of my wonderful mother who has reserves of love, loyalty and self-sacrifice that leave me speechless and in awe.

See you on Easter Sunday.

How I came to love the gym and probably saved my sanity

Last year I started training again. Most people my age have some longer term aspirational goal, or a health scare. Me? I just knew I needed to do something again, the scare came later.

That said, feeling persistently tired and having constant junk food cravings aren’t good. I knew that doing the mountain walks with the Freshwalks crew a few times a year, and the full circuit of Marple walk three or four times a week with the pooch, wasn’t going to battle off the middle-aged spread and reduce the chances of getting ill. The stats for sedentary males are a worry - diabetes, heart attacks, tumours, high blood pressure and depression. The comment that stuck with me was that if you can’t find the time for yourself to exercise, expect to give up time to be ill. It became one of those ambitions that I wanted something to work at, but didn't know what. I miss football like mad, but I'm too timid now to risk injury. I even asked the doctor if I was in imminent danger of damaging myself before I took the plunge. I took the bike to work, I used the Mobikes in Manchester when I could and I checked out a few activities at work, but still nothing stuck. I went swimming a few times, but the biggest thing I needed was motivation. With the best will in the world I’m not going to pull off a marathon from scratch and to be honest I just can’t get excited about running. A few years ago I had a personal trainer, Steve Hoyles, who made a big difference and helped me lose weight. Our weekly sessions were good fun, but I was missing too many due to work commitments and I wasn’t sure  what the goals were. I liked Steve’s company and his approach, but wanted something more sociable as well. My pal Will Stone told me about this converted warehouse in Stockport with a no frills approach to fitness and that Steve was doing some work out of there. So, I reached out to Steve again, though events took a slightly different turn.

Five months on I can’t even begin to describe what a difference I’ve felt. Once the introductions had been done, I joined the gym, which almost instantly changed ownership and is now run by Melanie Duffy, a personal trainer who led my first session, under the banner Body Box. There are no machines, no pools, no spa treatments. It is as back-to-basics as they come. Lots of free weights, industrial tyres to flip, medicine balls, punch bags, kettle bells, prowlers and hanging bars. In jest, I say to friends it is not so much a gym as a medieval torture chamber. And I love it.

But the real experience comes from the people I train with. We do our own bespoke workout programmes, but always finish off with a High Intensity Interval Training session. We are as eclectic a group as you could pull together. But the support in the group sessions like ‘HiiT Squad’ ‘Saturday Suicide’ and the punishing ‘Chipper’ is just phenomenal. Someone asked me last week whether I’ve lost any weight and to be honest I haven’t, but I have changed my body shape. More importantly, that's all made me feel sharper and fitter and happier. Sure, some days it hurts, after intense leg work I end up walking like John Wayne the next day, but the warm downs and stretches usually work well enough to avert too many aches. It’s costing me money to buy new trousers as I’ve dropped two waist sizes, even if my pot hasn’t quite shifted yet. I know I have a long way to go, to be as fit as I can be, but the simple act of doing the kind of exercises which were flooring me when I started is such a rush.

At the turn of the year I enjoyed my first post-Christmas sessions and felt a twinge the next day in my lower abdomen. For a day I put it down to training and thought I must have pulled something. It turned out to be much more serious and I had two days in Stepping Hill Hospital hooked up to a drip and on powerful IV anti-biotics. Hospitals are not happy places to be, the consolation that I was reasonably fit and don't drink probably saved me from sliding into a spiral of despair. It was mortifying and upsetting being visited in hospital by my family. The scan revealed no tumours, which was obviously a relief, but the medical advice I'm trying to live by was a stark reminder of the importance of good diet and, of course, proper exercise.

It’s made me more determined to enjoy the gym sessions and take my wellness a bit more seriously. I now have two clinical conditions under control and don’t want another. I was talking to my dearest friend John Dixon about it all recently. We traverse through these ages. Catching up with friends used to be about what great fun times we've been having, then we started taking work seriously, then how our kids are. Now we swap stories of our ailments. There's another age to it, that sort of runs in parallel; what we're doing about it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Why diversity matters

Pic courtesy of iNetwork and Tangerine Event Photography
Public sector leaders from across the country got together in Manchester in January to try and unlock some tricky challenges. I’d been asked to work with iNetwork, the event organisers, on an opening discussion about public service innovation that could stimulate some critical thinking.

As I’ve discovered about myself, although I can come across as quite forceful in some situations (I blame the cropped hair and the new fitness regime), my own personal style on an event stage is very much to allow the other participants to express their individual points of view in a conversational context. I won’t seek to either embarrass anyone, or aggressively press them into slipping up and I don’t ask people for comments on something that isn’t in their sphere of influence or expertise.

My function is to give the audience the best possible insights into the experiences of the interviewee. As a former journalist I’m very driven by the power of storytelling. That’s not to say anecdotes are better than evidence, but that experiences illuminate understanding.

I say all of that because the event I chaired was on the challenge of diversity. Phenomenally self conscious of the fact that I’m an educated middle-aged white man, it was nevertheless my responsibility to trigger the conversation and audience engagement around why diversity is important, not least because I believe it. I hope I avoided mansplaining, or telling anyone what’s wrong with their perspective.

Handily, the story Bury Council’s interim chief executive Pat Jones-Greenhalgh has to tell is a compelling one. From hairdresser, to care assistant, through the ranks, to be chief executive at the council where she’s devoted her life to public service. Understanding the diversity of a team and of all colleagues is crucial to maintaining a positive working culture in the fast changing world of local public services.

It’s one thing to recruit and promote individuals in order to satisfy a well-meaning diversity agenda. What I was interested in exploring was how organisations then embed behaviour and culture that takes on board characteristics that a more diverse workforce delivers, and embracing the virtues of that difference. It’s a danger that we create groups that may look very different, but all think the same.
I also wanted to consider what a workplace that embraces neurodiversity would look like and feel like and why it is important. Is there any evidence that making our workplaces more suitable for people with Autism, ADHD and other conditions, also makes public services more responsive and appropriate to a large part of the community.

There’s a project at the BBC which is exploring how to better support people with what they term 'hidden disabilities', focusing on their strengths and talents, utilising the aptitudes and abilities of individuals with neurological conditions. Much of it aims to dispel the myths, perceptions and even prejudices people may have about these conditions, especially in employment, but the bigger challenge is to shift organisational thinking from a position of compensating for a deficit and really embracing how diversity becomes an asset.

I imagine I’ll be returning to this again soon, and I do have a stake in all of this, but for now there’s a small marker. Hope that’s OK.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Brexit, how we got here and where we might end up

Day by day, I worry quite where the whole Brexit process is taking us. I'm sure I'm not alone. Not just because I work at a University, or are some kind of irrational remainer who can't accept defeat. No, even if I accept that we're leaving, I've never quite understood the interpretation that we have to torch every link with the outside world, leave the customs union and the even the single market. The world is more interconnected than ever, we can't opt out of that world even if there is some kind of mythical 'will of the people' that says we must.

Anyway, Manchester businesses and political leaders will be joining us on campus on the 21st of February for a special lunchtime lecture on Brexit featuring a leading Anglo-European civil servant, Sir Andrew Cahn, and the University's Chancellor Lord Mandelson. Entitled The Challenge of Brexit, how we got here and where we might end up, it should provide some very valuable insights, and some glimmer of hope that there are people involved in trade negotiations who know what they're doing.

Sir Andrew Cahn and Lord Mandelson faced many challenges in their time in the civil service and in government, but none quite like Brexit. After a period in industry, Sir Andrew became CEO of UK Trade & Investment. He worked closely with three successive Prime Ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron and served on the Boards of the Foreign Office and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. 

We're registering people from 11.45, the lecture will be an hour and you can register here. There'll be butties and nibbles afterwards.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Visit Auschwitz, it's hard, but necessary

It's been almost a year since Rachel and I took our youngest son to Krakow in Poland for a city break. Absolutely central to the trip was to visit Auschwitz and Oskar Schindler's factory in Krakow. I haven't been able to find the words to express what we experienced, but not a day has gone by that I haven't been haunted by what I saw, what we all felt and why it's important.

Part of the reason for the blockage is that there are far more eloquent witnesses than I. There are books, documentaries and witness accounts. Anything I can say also sits badly with the rest of what I warble about on this blog. Anything I could possibly express about a place of such bleak barbarity and profound evil will just look awfully crass and unfeeling. I'm sorry for that. We didn't take photographs. We took only our memories and what we were told by a tour guide who managed to describe everything in an incredibly descriptive, powerful and mesmerising way.  But I can't skip it any longer.

On a fairly regular basis friends and colleagues pop up who are planning a trip to Krakow. And to each one, I look them firmly in the eye and say that they absolutely must visit Auschwitz. It is one of the most important things you can do today but it forces you to remember and it forces you to reflect on what happens to people because we let it happen.

This week we have had Holocaust Memorial Day, the day that marks the liberation of the death camp from the Nazis. On this day, many of us remember; we share social media links, sign memorial books and light candles. Others still feel it necessary to question why we need to, question why we should and, outrageously, deny that there is even a need for us to do so. One of the reasons I have found it so hard to write anything about the experience is the sickening prevalence of Holocaust deniers. I followed the earlier trials of these attention-seeking truth twisters with horror. Their insidious motives drip feeding insult upon the injury and industrial scale cruelty of what happened.

I also despair at the hasty "yeah" and the insolent "but" that prefaces a breathtaking rant that lacks both awareness and shame. I lament the numbers game that history forces us to play, but at Auschwitz it's simply too overwhelming to contemplate engaging with anyone who offers a desultory "what about?".

I'll be honest, my primary senses weren't assaulted by either the stench of death or the intense humming of evil. What you see, what you hear and what you feel are far more overwhelming. The first horror is the piles of spectacles, suitcases and shoes in the brick built barracks behind the barbed wire and the notorious Arbeit Mach Frei gates. These mountains of artefacts betray the treachery and deceit that many of the victims were lured to. Then there's the sheer mechanised bureaucracy that sustained the vast camp itself.

On its own the death camp is hard enough to take in. But the context and the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Poland confronts you profoundly in the tour of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow and Oskar Schindler's factory. A people erased from life, eradicated like vermin, reduced to being the "other".

We won't forget that this happened, we can't. The greater danger is that we forget how. That we stop believing in love and give in to hate.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Leading through change - half a dozen thoughts

I think a lot about change and how leaders can successfully manage change in organisations in a stressed situation. One of the (many) bonuses of working alongside the leadership team at Manchester Metropolitan University is the insights we often hear from leaders from outside the Higher Education sector. 

I can't say who it was, but we had a real treat last week with one external visitor talking about a profound turnaround situation, but also drawing on experiences of taking an established institution in a new exciting direction earlier in their career. 

Summing it all up, it's clear that management is about the efficient running of the status quo. Leadership is about change and re-orienting an organisation to a new goal. Here are six key pointers I thought worth sharing.

  1. Create the basis for change, quickly. If an organisation is in a crisis, staying afloat is the priority. Sometimes this isn't grasped fully as it's a hard message to swallow and share. Many leaders wish they’d used the term crisis earlier. When no-one is happy with the status quo, they don’t believe change can succeed and it can take two years to understand the extent of it. Take from Greek philosophy - logos (evidence), pathos (the appeal to emotion) and ethos (trust and credibility).
  2. Have a clear sense of purpose - aspiration and powerful aims. Aspire to be the best.
  3. Surround yourself with great people who share that sense of purpose. Accept that a third of new hires won’t work. Be completely frank. Learn that references count for more than interviews. Many people also struggle with 360 feedback, they find it uncomfortable, but the leadership layer is vital, especially to work together as a team.
  4. Minimise complexity - there is such value in simplicity.
  5. Resilience - single most important attribute for a leader. They don’t teach it at Harvard, but it is so important and it trumps intelligence every time. It is lonely to lead, but creating support networks are really important. People always underestimate how long these things can take. To do so you need to be both patient and impatient. Raise the game, be urgent, but recognise it takes time. Machiavelli said there is nothing more difficult than to create a new order of things, it is the foundation of confidence and determination. Leaders don’t have all the answers - so showing humility is important. Organisations know the truth, it’s up to leaders to ask the questions to find the right answers. Would like to achieve authority and humility. Humour is also important, as is humanity. “Try and be a good bloke” and never underestimate the power of a well delivered and heartfelt thank you.
  6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk less, listen more. Develop an external facing narrative, shift perception, from which other things will flow. Milk the achievements for all they are worth.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hard Sun - Damp squib - BBC Drama in a bit of a mess

By far the best output from BBC Drama at the moment are the trailers. I was completely lured in by the promise of a pre-apocalyptic crime thriller, Hard Sun, but it has been possibly the worst drama series I've seen on the BBC for years, even worse than the remake of Survivors and right down there with last year's execrable Undercover. Badly acted, preposterously scripted, overly lingering on London landmarks and needlessly violent. In fact needless sums it all up rather well. It's Spooks meets Line of Duty with none of the cleverness of either.

Similarly McMafia looked immense in the trailer, it was even quite promising throughout the first two episodes, but has sadly descended into something of a predictable rhythm as we hit the half way mark. The best things about it are its internationalism - the Russian actors, no expense spared on the global locations and the source material of Misha Glenny's factual analysis of globalised crime. The weaknesses are what they do with it all when they've got there. Comparisons have been made with last year's sizzling Le Carre adaptation The Night Manager which kept the tension high throughout with a clarity of motive and that raw sensation of lust and attraction. When you find yourself wondering which is the most dynamic female British character - choosing the compliance manager in a hedge fund, and not the ethical fund manager girlfriend - you know there's a problem somewhere.

Other TV critics have pointed out the grand scale of these projects, and the projection of international place, is both a burden and an asset (Private Eye's excellent TV Eye, notably). I find myself worrying now that Sky Atlantic's forthcoming Britannia, starring David Morrissey, will be an attempt at replicating Taboo, but in Roman Britain. Drama by numbers, it seems that if  something works once, then the formula gets used to death, to the point where the one thing that has always made BBC Drama good is no longer present; originality and the capacity to surprise.

Friday, January 05, 2018

On the Brink - Simon Hughes' North West football journey reviewed

Over the course of the last five turbulent football seasons it's been at times a humbling and humiliating experience as a Blackburn Rovers supporter. True, in any sporting situation there are always winners and losers, that fortunes of clubs ebb and flow.  But for some fans the pain and disappointment is made worse by their clubs falling into the hands of criminals and greedy charlatans.

I like to think I've always been able to spare a thought for the plight of other fans and how the distribution of money is a huge missed opportunity to create something amazing and of a real common good. In the 1980s I was active in the Football Supporter's Association which was moderately successful in giving fans a voice they didn't have back then.

Simon Hughes takes us on a journey around the North West from Carlisle to Manchester and many points in between. He speaks to owners, players, managers, of clubs from the heights of the Premier League to little Droylsden and Barrow and including insights into real grass roots football (which isn't the same as the Academy system, contrary to what Sir Trevor Brooking thinks). I really appreciated the richness of each and every story, wincing at times at what people put themselves through. But I was also slightly jealous that in my own time as a business journalist, covering this exact same patch, I didn't use my access and contacts to do something similar; but grateful nevertheless that Simon has used his position at the Independent to do this.

On balance I'm pleased that the most head-spinning, disgraceful act of larceny in recent North West football history isn't included. I refer of course to the plundering of Blackburn Rovers by Jerome Anderson and Kentaro and the "ownership" of the Venky's. I say I'm pleased because it made me realise there is more to my love of football than the pre-occupations of my own team in the third division. Yes, I have every right to feel hurt and wounded, but so too do supporters of pretty much every club featured in this book. It also raises some fundamental questions of society and how we raise children to play the game. The chapter on Fletcher Moss Juniors in Manchester is particularly poignant.

I genuinely worry too about how one-eyed so much coverage of football has become. I don't have the time or the inclination to pore over the details of the opposition like I used to, I enjoy listening to Jim Bentley and John Coleman on BBC Radio Lancashire Sport, but I only really get emotionally triggered by the interview with the Rovers boss.

It can be an uncomfortable read at times, but it's ultimately optimistic, because it captures a passion so well and I'd heartily recommend this work of real dedication.

Available from DeCoubertin Books.