I really don’t know life at all

10/11/2011 § Leave a comment

I was just listening to a song “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell from the album of the same name that came out a few years ago.  It is a fabulous recording, made by her in her maturity and quite different from the version (which I also like) she did in 1969 on the album ”Clouds”.

I noticed while listening that part of the magic of this latest version is the contrasts: her rough old voice and the smooth sound of the strings of the orchestra; the pretty melody she sings and the simple four notes repeated over and over in the background by the violins; the way she deliberately varies her pace and inserts pauses here and there, while the orchestra keeps a disciplined, metronomic rhythm. Somehow it works – it sounds absolutely right. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

It takes great talent and artistic maturity to carry this off. Benjamin Britten does it, on a recording of English folk songs I have that he recorded with his friend Peter Pears. While Pears sings the tune, Britten on the piano seems to avoid it, either playing something completely different or playing the tune a couple of beats after Pears has sung it.  Again, it works, giving new life to songs that are 100s of years old.

This reminds me of something I often reflect on – that the finest work is produced when you take diverse elements and allow them to express themselves in all their beauty and brilliance, while somehow melding them into a whole. Bringing the different parts together doesn’t diminish them, it amplifies them, takes them to a higher level.

The human body is like this. The lungs are absolutely amazing at what they do, the heart beats again and again, 35 million times a year, your skin keeps you dry yet breathes, the brain is more complex than a city (!), and so on. They have hugely diverse functions. Yet when we meet a human being, an amalgam of all these parts, we experience the extraordinary whole, not just the parts (unless we are in the medical profession, but that’s another story…).

Organisations at their best work this way too.  At Kingfisher, where I used to work, the CEO excelled at attracting and retaining the best people and allowing them to thrive. It seems that Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager, has that quality too. That is why these leaders last (both lasted more than 20 years at the top) – they permit others to shine, while getting them to work together.

To me this is another example of the mystery and wonder of life. It reminds me that, like Joni, I really don’t know life at all….  So I will go back and listen to Benjamin Britten.


Men in charge – why there is so little diversity in the board room

10/03/2011 § Leave a comment

Spot the odd one out - the board of Cadburys that agreed the take over by Kraft

I had to laugh. A letter was published in the Independent newspaper on the subject of the lack of women at board level in companies. Here’s an extract: ‘…I suspect that there might just not be the numbers and, at times, the talent available within the female pool …To be a successful business person you have to be racing fit – intellectually and physically sharp enough to think on your feet, able to get up at the crack of dawn each day… able to keep ahead of the game and with the ability to keep delivering work that is fresh and dynamic. Sometimes women are not able to fulfil all these points because of family commitments…”

No doubt in his childhood this man was fed a rich diet of fairy stories about brave knights rushing about the country rescuing swooning damsels in distress from dragons….

After I read this letter I thought I should write a blog about this subject. I was confident I could provide some insight into this area and present neat conclusions. However the more I have delved into it, the more complex it becomes.

Yet some things are pretty clear to me:

– The men who sit on the boards of major British companies represent a very limited spectrum of society. They are generally white, from a narrow age group (50-65), university educated and have lived their lives in business.

– It is not just women who are excluded from this closed shop. Where are the young, the retired, the social workers, the students, the nurses, the shopkeepers, the single mothers living on welfare?

– Diversity is very valuable when considering complex matters. Ted Happold, founder of the engineering firm Buro Happold, said “The best work is done by the most diverse group of talents who can still live together.” Thus the current state of affairs is not useful to society or to the businesses themselves. It helps explain why so few businesses act as if they really care for their stakeholders.

– Our foremothers and forefathers fought great battles for freedom, to make our politics more representative. They would be disappointed to find so much power still resting in the hands of an unrepresentative elite.

– There has been centuries of male dominance over women. According to some commentators, we have had 5000 years of patriarchy. For Christians, even God has a male form! At the same time this is starting to shift – the age of patriarchy is coming to an end.

– The basic structure of the limited company, with shareholders and a board at the top, hasn’t changed in 200 years. In that time there have been massive changes in the world, including the exponential growth of corporations in size and influence, and huge changes in the way human beings communicate.

– The prevailing cultural myth is that the board is in charge of the organisation; they are the captains of the ship. Yet it is ridiculous to imagine that 12 or so people can be “in charge” of 100 people, never mind 1,000,000 (Wal-Mart). All they can do is pull some levers and trust that the ship will respond accordingly. But organisations are made up of people, not metal and wood. Their behaviour is not predictable.

– It can be pretty stressful being on the board of a large business, particularly when the world is changing quickly around you. You do get a lot of power and money, but you are deluged with information and you have to maintain the pretence that you are in charge, when you know you are not. This can create enormous tension.

How do we make sense of all this? Partly no doubt, the lack of diversity is a hangover from the old days when it was normal for rich men to be in charge.

But there also seems to be something about the very nature of the role. The lack of diversity on the board is a symptom of the way we have set up the corporate structure, based on our cultural myths. We feel the need to pretend someone is in charge. Yet this is strange when we look at the way the non-human world works. Imagine going into a rainforest and asking “Who is in charge, please?”

Looking at this, you start to wonder, who would ever want to be on a board of a large company. You have to be driven to get there in the first place, and once there you have to become a machine, processing large amounts of information and pretending to still function. You must leave your emotions outside the door. The wearing of a dark suit, and the sitting around a dark table, symbolizes this – everything becomes sombre and serious. Who would want this?

The fact is that many of the people we would want to participate at the highest level of decision-making wouldn’t have the time, the energy or the will to sit on a board. And many really talented people, including many women, who could cope simply have better things to do with their lives.

Real change will come, I feel, only when we re-think our concept of the corporation, when we get away from top down hierarchies, when we adopt governance structures and systems that release the control over the people in the organisation and free them up to give of their best. But this is a subject for another blog….

the paradox of richness

14/01/2011 § Leave a comment

It is bankers’ bonus season again in the UK. £7bn is expected to be paid out to our senior bankers – not bad at all, at a time when the economy is suffering and businesses and government departments across the land are cutting costs and jobs.

The funny thing is that the bankers genuinely seem to believe they have earned these ridiculous amounts. According to them, their contribution to society is so valuable that it justifies them being paid twice as much in a year as a teacher, an intensive care nurse or a soldier fighting in Afghanistan will earn in a lifetime. Who are they trying to kid?

But I am not here to bash bankers, fun though it may be. I am really only interested in underlying patterns. I want to know what is going on in our society that allows such disparities of wealth to arise. And I think I have an answer.

It seems to me that the bankers’ bonuses are a classic symptom of a society plagued by the “paradox of richness”. The paradox of richness, as explained to me by a botanist friend, is a counter-intuitive phenomenon in nature, where if you increase the fertility of soil, you tend to reduce the biodiversity. So for example among the most beautiful and species-rich grasslands in the UK are chalk downlands, which can have 50 or more different species in one square metre. Yet chalk downlands have very poor soil – just a very thin layer of topsoil and below that chalk, which contains little that plants can feed on. If you increase the fertility by applying fertilisers you will end up with lots of lush growth but a vastly reduced species variety – perhaps 15 species per square metre. It seems that when the soil is poor, there is a chance for every plant species to find its niche and show its beauty. But when the soil is rich, a small group of species become very strong and crowd out the others.

Now apply this to our society. In the last 40 years or so there has been an explosion in the availability of money. There is simply much more money around than there ever used to be (this phenomenon is due to a number of technical reasons I won’t go into here but that James Robertson explains brilliantly – see his website http://www.jamesrobertson.com). The consequence of this application of excessive fertiliser, in the form of money, to our society is that a few species (bankers, lawyers, accountants, Tesco) have tended to thrive, and become fat, metaphorically at least, while other species (teachers, public servants, nurses, small shopkeepers), that are not designed by nature to flourish in such rich soil, become marginalized or wither away.

Superficially the field that has been fertilised looks healthy and attractive – it is deep green and lush. But a closer look reveals the truth – there are far less flowers, far less insects, far less birds.  What’s more,  the wide diversity of species in the poor soil ensures that, whatever the weather conditions in a year, enough species will thrive to ensure a healthy ecosystem – biodiversity brings resilience. By contrast in the rich field, with just a few species, unusually harsh weather conditions can do far more damage.

So where are our farmers in all this? Surely they can step in and do something? Sadly our farmers in recent times (named variously Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron plus their teams of helpers) have based themselves in farmhouses that are rather too close to the factories where the fertiliser is produced and rather too far from the fields. They spend their time in the company of the fertiliser producers and convince themselves that all is well, relying on distant reports that judge only quantity and make no mention of quality.

If they would only step out into the field and leave their advisers and lobbyists behind, they might see what is really going on. That the world is simply not so beautiful without the corncockle and poppy, the quaking grass and cowslip, the meadow saxifrage and yellow rattle, and all the other beautiful wild flowers that we are slowly driving out of our pastures (the equivalent in our society being the small shops, the small building societies, the teachers – or at least the status of teachers). What’s more, unlike the pampered and overgrown dominant species that require large applications of fossil fuel based fertilizers every year, the wild flowers grow happily, without external aid, year after year. All they need to flourish is a level (playing) field. In such an environment, each species learns not to fight the others but rather to find their niche so that nature’s rich bounty of air, light and water can be freely shared. In effect, they cooperate.

So what’s the solution? You can’t take back the money that has been put into the system, otherwise the whole economic machinery will seize up. What we need to do is make that money less valuable relative to things that have real value (like fertile land, and human endeavour). This is the solution outlined by economist Richard Douthwaite in his contribution to a recently published book “Fleeing Vesuvius” (to which I also contributed a section). Douthwaite suggests that, once we have taken back control of our money supply, we should allow inflation to occur. This should allow the price of assets to reduce over time in real terms, thus allowing us to return closer to balance.

This is not the path that our current political leaders are pursuing – instead they are attempting to slash costs, trying desperately to maintain the value of money. But never mind. Douthwaite believes, and I agree, that in the next few years time this will be taken out of politicians’ hands. He points out the close links between energy and money, and suggests that the coming energy crisis will cause the value of money to decline relative to things of real value. The task for our leaders then will be to help society negotiate the inevitable humps and bumps as we transition to an age where money is more evenly distributed, where small businesses thrive rather than being swallowed up or driven out by predatory larger ones, and where nurses can dream of bonuses as big as bankers. A nice dream…

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