I paid a visit to my mother last week. She lives in a care home now, an environment I still feel strange to see her in, like something has gone wrong, or I have missed a few episodes as to how she ended up there. Or rather, an entire series. I haven’t though, I’ve been there every step, an up close and personal witness/player in her mental decline of the past few years. Along the way, I have learned the lesson I guess we will all get at some point; that when someone you love is ill in this way, no amount of interventions, pep talks, canvassing expert opinion will change the course that has been set by the illness. You are not in control. No one is. The illness is in control. Tough to take if your own value system and self-worth revolves around your ability to make things happen. Tougher still for my mother.
On this particular visit, another resident – a spindly yet sparky Irish lady of eighty or more – came over to introduce herself. You must be her son. She held my mother close and spoke aloud for some moments of their enduring friendship, their bond and long history together, visits to Ireland; how they had been there for each other in the past, and would be for what was left of the future. She became more emotional and eventually had to leave to compose herself, but not before a tearful final embrace and quiet promises. I was left with my mother, drained and troubled. Why? Because I had never met this woman before, never heard of her. My mother has never been to Ireland. She had clearly been mistaken for someone else, but was unaware of it.
Yet the two seemed to have taken a good deal of comfort from each other’s presence. What would be the point of intruding upon that and adding to their confusion by highlighting the error?
So, obviously, I let it pass. And what struck me about that was it took me all of one nanosecond to decide that, whereas not so long ago I would have needed prolonged deliberation. This has all changed me. Emotional intelligence. One of the few upsides of this experience. Somehow, through the disappointments and read real heartache, I might have become a slightly better person, father and husband. Certainly a better son. I had to.
In business, you don’t often get a chance to exercise your emotional brain cells. The premium is on their detachment – rationality, risk analysis, vigour of process and all that. I’m not about to argue that one is right and the other all wrong, merely that as a leader, if you exist on a day-to-day basis exclusively in one domain, then it’s going to be hard to make the switch when you have to. You push up the ‘emotion’ button on the fader board and bring down the one marked ‘rational’ in balance, but the speakers stay silent. How can you get practice in a ‘safe’ environment so that you are ready? I wish I knew. I’d be a millionaire if I did. I think the only answer is awareness of what you will lack.
What about the other line of thinking this experience triggered in my besieged brain, looking to find anything less painful to muse upon? I began to think about instances where things work, but for all the wrong reasons. Mistaken identity that works in your favour, business-wise.
There was, not so very long ago, a gathering of the Directors of Scottish Water. And we were, in time-honoured fashion, discussing customer satisfaction, and the latest benchmark scores. Now I was (still am!) highly sceptical of the way we gathered these scores (surveys asking ‘were the goods delivered on time?’ etc.) and the value of the insights they were meant to give us. That’s not to say I wouldn’t use them for propaganda purposes when the scores were good, but we never steered the ship by them and the issues of improving customer service verses improving the scores, seemed entirely separate, to me at least. So we are debating how to move the scores – deliver water faster, smile more on the doorstep, all the usual’s – when yours truly begins to muse about what customer service actually means to a water customer who probably doesn’t yet fully realise he/she is a customer. Did anyone notice on this morning’s news, I ask, that the latest Retail Customer Service poll puts Lush (the bathroom fragrance and soap lot) at the top of the high street shops. So? Well, you have to ask, surely, is it because their staff expertise in helping you choose the right bath-bomb for you is so highly valued by their clientele that they are to, or is it because the shops smell nice and are full of bright colours? That people are thinking holistically and not literally about customer service when they answer the question? If there is a mistake with one thing taken for another in the mindset of customer service, can we make that work in our favour?
All of which has our COO – accountable, targeted and answerable on the scores – snorting in disgust at the distraction of the philosophy debate, as he genuinely sees it, I am in danger of kicking off. Can’t we get on with it? he champs.
But we are getting on with it, aren’t we? The crossover in perception between smell and service is hardly irrelevant if half your business is sewage services. Is it? It turns out it is, and I’m yellow carded for timewasting as a committee of talents is commissioned to define more useful correlations and make our water wetter or any such way as to improve satisfaction. To be fair, I’m offered a place on the committee to stop me complaining, presumably the hope being I’ll waste their time instead. Immediately my creative thinking turns to reasons I can’t make the meetings.
I will freeze the scene there and ask how many reading this right now recognise it or something similar ever happening in your workplace? The thing is, Scottish Water was/is a high performing organisation, with a track record of inventive and ingenious ways of scoring highly against regulatory targets. Yet here we are, fighting like ferrets in a sack; a bully ferret insisting on winning every argument, a philosophical ferret overly defending his right to think, and to think out loud. I’m guessing that this is actually a fairly universal situation; I’m guessing that for all businesses, once you have grabbed all the low-hanging fruits and you dig ever deeper for marginal gains, everything gets a bit more fraught, a bit more, you might say, emotional. And things get mistaken in a fraught atmosphere, things go political; well intentioned questions are received as criticisms, attempts to keep discussion on track can come over as territorial.
Solutions? You have all tried them. Let the power struggle take its course. An organisational re-design. A crack of the whip from the very top. Mediation from H.R. Away days contemplating the corporate navel. A mixture of all and more. An industry.
What about something new? Identifying a common language around an issue so that trigger words don’t send colleagues into a sullen, silent sulk with each other, needlessly. What about identifying those trigger words and why they irritate some and inspire others. That’s got to be worth a half day offsite, somewhere, sometime. Because the frictions at the top of any business will be mirrored all the way down, so that if you can understand what’s happening at the Board, you will have cracked it for the entire operation. Assuming you are committed to understanding it and aren’t just going to delegate the confusion down some committee structure because their time is less precious than yours.
The warning I’ll give, as someone who has spent much longer than you looking for examples of where confusion works for good business, is that there really aren’t many examples where this plays well.
Plenty of examples of clarity working though. And if you’ll let me go right back to the start of this post; clarity is a real treasure, worth fighting for.Back