Author Archives: Ben Jones

  1. A year on and I’m still smiling………

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    It’s been just over a year. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. 8760 hours and over half a million minutes. And yet it feels like a lifetime. Not in a “you get less for murder” sort of way but in a “I can’t believe how quickly that year has flown – I wish I’d done it much sooner” way!

    I am now into year two of my second career – working for myself with my work fitting around my life after sixteen years of working for others and my life fitting around their work. Sixteen years as a number. Sixteen years of increasingly unreasonable, untenable, unrealistic and unhealthy demands which stretched the emotional elastic band to breaking point. Sixteen years of a drip, drip, drip of fighting against the compromising of my values and integrity so that even though you still recognise yourself in the mirror you rely on denial and self delusion to erase the memory of some of the things you have said and done in the name of what was “right for the organisation”. Sixteen years of saying “yes” when you should have been saying “why?” or “are you kidding me?!”.

    Working for yourself changes all that. You are the boss. You make the rules. You can be yourself. That is the greatest joy for me in my annus mirabilis; I have made decisions that work for me; that work for my happiness and my wellbeing.

    The practical reality of this means seeing my wonderful wife and darling daughter whenever I want; being truly present in their lives, not just being physically at stuff whilst really spending the time thinking about the diary, the inbox, the awful conversations I was facing; fighting the anxiety of the looming and mounting deadlines and the work that was piling up for ever minute I was away from the office. It means taking on the right type and amount work to be challenged but not too much so there is not enough oxygen to breath. It means only working with people you can be honest with about your working patterns, abilities, interests and expectations of what you will and won’t do. It means working the way you want to live; in line with who you really are not who someone tells you to be.

    Gone is the feeling of the heavy brick on the chest; the dread of the phone going (another senior colleague passing to me his – it was almost always his – stresses and pressures); the vivid middle of the night work dreams; the edgy waking before the alarm; the walking the long way around the office to avoid some colleagues’ desks or offices; the constant calculation and recalculation of when you could leave the office or the meeting, dinner, social event or team building session to return to the real world where you could be you again without it being obvious, commented on or being counted against you at the next ratings meeting or promotion discussion. All gone. All gone. All good.

    It’s only been a year and only 6% of my working life and yet it is the most profound experience of my career. Like everything in life, except the love for and of your child, it is not the perfect bed of roses and not without its challenges, but on its worse days it is 100% better than the working life I had before.

    AMJ Comms was named after our daughter – they are her initials – to remind me and my clients what is the most important thing in life. Every time I send an email or open a document now I am greeted by those three letters and a smile comes across my face. Not the fake smiles I would have previously deployed in meeting with former senior colleagues when they made one of “their jokes” but the smile of a man who has at last found life-work balance and joy in his work. A smile that is all me, all the time.

  2. Mental health at work; it’s about culture not courses; respect not resilience.

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    I’m convinced we’ve reached the tipping point. The point of no return. The point at which what was once a fringe issue is now smack bang in the mainstream. Mental health has come out of the shadows in the UK.

    This week, a cross Party group of high profile individuals made huge headlines with their campaign to ensure that mental health services get the same profile, funding and support that physical health gets. The coverage of their campaign was heartwarming. It showed how far we have come. It showed that the argument has been won and now we just need to ensure that this government and subsequent governments put their money where their mouth is. It’s no longer about ‘if’ but ‘how’.

    It was also encouraging to see so many figures from across British public life lending their support to the campaign and telling their stories – doing lots to remove the final stains of stigma which have dogged mental health for generations. Some of these figures came from business. Many businesses, including some of the UK’s most recognisable and iconic, issued supportive comments and statements. All good. But there is one health warning – especially for Britain’s biggest businesses.

    The focus of many of these statements were on ‘the stuff we are doing’……the manuals, the training courses, the awareness raising, the helplines, the intranet pages and the like. This is all good stuff – well, it’s means well and in some cases does well, but it runs the risk of missing the point. The issue of mental health at work – specifically the stresses and anxieties that can breed at work and lead to serious health issues such as depression – are more about culture in these businesses than the courses they mandate people to take.

    I know from experience of working in some fantastic big organisations that they invest time, money and effort in this work. But I also know that it is not the most important contribution they can make. The problem – and it is a major problem in many big organisations – is the culture. The way stuff happens in their organisations. The way people behave. The expectations – often unspoken and almost always unwritten – for what people need to do to get on, fit in and succeed. These expectations are set at the top – the MDs, CEOs and Partners who work consistently anti-social hours and contact their junior colleagues at these times; the sacrificing of time at home with family and friends to put work first; the pressure of unnecessary deadlines and unrealistic workloads to see who can cut it and who cannot; and the anxieties and pressures that people feel when more senior people treat them without the respect they deserve and tolerate others doing the same. This atmosphere is the problem.

    Training can play a role but a much bigger role is played by the organisation not tolerating poor behaviours, bullying, aggression, bad manners and intolerance of colleagues no matter how successful or profitable the culprits are. Big businesses creating a culture that allows people to be themselves at work, supports them to succeed and yes, sets high standards and demands the very best possible work is the big thing they can do.

    I heard one big business this week talk about the importance of resilience and how they work hard to help their employees develop more of it. My heart sank. Of course resilience is important in work and in life but when we talk about people’s health and especially their mental health we should be talking about them as people not sheets of metal. We shouldn’t be sending the signal – as I believe this does – that it is somehow the fault of the person who is unwell – if only they were stronger or could bounce back better everything would be ok.

    It’s about shared responsibilities between employer and employee; creating the right environment for people to succeed and the right support if things get difficult. Like all things in life, it’s about respect. Respecting people as people not as a resource. Respecting that they have lives that are not just about their work. Respecting them always.

    None of this takes away from the progress being made in business and elsewhere to make mental health a priority but let’s never forget work is only work; it’s should never be the thing that makes people sick.

  3. Customer service; a country of non-believers?

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    I love America. I love their boldness. Their ambition. Their confidence – sometimes their over-confidence. Their celebration of success. Their sports – especially baseball. And I love their complete and utter commitment to customer service. It’s a religion. A way of life.

    I’m sad to say that in Britain I find myself surrounded too often by non-believers. Aethiests in customer service.

    Four examples in the last week – two in restaurants, one in an NHS hospital and one with an estate agent has left me in despair. It seems that the old adage of ‘the customer is always right” is not only being forgotten but has been consigned to the deep vestiges of history, never to be mentioned again.

    The four experiences I’ve had recently were not upsetting or insulting, or even the worst I’ve ever experienced, but they were indicative of the way so many have forgotten how to treat people who are their customers.

    I give just one example in detail.

    Lunchtime. Pub/resturant near our home. Empty when we arrived; half full when the “incident” occurred. Lovely lunch. Delicious. Dessert and coffee ordered. 20 minutes later desserts were there none. On verge of going to speak to someone – having failed to catch anyone’s eye for 5 minutes (!), said desserts appear. I politely but firmly point out we’ve waited 20 minutes, seeking something near an apology or an expression of regret. What did I get?

    “Everyone has been waiting today. We only have two people in the kitchen. It’s very busy.” etc etc. A little perplexed I suggested that when a customer makes a reasonable point, offers some feedback or raises a question in a polite way they don’t expect a defensive, negative response. More excuses followed – delivered in a faintly passively aggressive manner.

    I genuinely believe the person in question just didn’t know what to say or how to handle it – the ‘it’ being this outrageously ungrateful customer. She then said in one of the bizarrest moments of the episode – dessertgate; “I was going to take them off the bill, but…….”. She left this threat hanging. Long pause. I assume she was about to say but now I will charge you double! It was almost tragic. I suggested a simple “I’m sorry for the delay” at the first raising of the issue would have resolved it to everyone’s satisfaction. Again, we failed to agree. More defensiveness. More excuses. More noise. Sad.

    The bill then arrived. Desserts not removed. Further discussion followed. Bill updated. More sadness.

    What did this episode tell me? Perhaps I was being unreasonable – I should have taken time to understand the staffing complement in the kitchen, the usual staffing ratios and made a calculation on how long my food would take to bring out (all desserts were cold!). Perhaps I should have been more grateful I didn’t wait 30 minutes? Perhaps few people raise concerns or complaints and therefore the art of responding has been lost?

    I don’t buy it. I think we have lost the understanding of the relationships between outcome and experience. The attitude appeared to be you got your dessert (the outcome) – what’s your problem? My problem is in the experience. I want to enjoy my interactions, especially when I am paying for the privilege . I want to be treated in the same way I treat people – politely, with respect and when I am providing a service (as I do for a living) with an acute sense that I should try to give them the best possible experience I can. My NHS hospital experience was a classic case of you got the outcome you need – seen a doctor, treatment plan agreed etc – so who cares if we treated you like a nuisance getting in the way of our chat at the reception desk; who cares we made you wait in a corridor for 20 minutes with no communication; who cares that your experience was rubbish? I do.

    Every one of the people I encountered had the opportunity to be ambassadors for their organisations – the chance to impress me, who would then go on to tell is it six or twelve of my friends, I can’t remember. Instead they all left me feeling short-changed.

    We seem to have replaced the honest apology and expression of regret with excuses or deflection – not my fault Guv. I have lost count of how many times I have raised a question of an organisation only to be told it’s the system’s fault (it’s being slow today/my machine needs to be rebooted/could you call back later when its less busy etc).

    Not everything done across the Pond is perfect – far from it. Witness the current Donald Trump and Ben Carson show for all the evidence you need. But our US cousins have kept fidelity with the notion of the customer being king. They are still preaching the gospel of the customer being right.

    The legendary hotelier Cesar Ritz had a rule in his hotels; “If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked”. This approach lives on in the States. Back here, the congregation appears to have lost its faith – along with timely desserts.

  4. The Lords; a constitutional crisis? No. A national embarrassment.

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    In the real world, nobody cares about Britain’s so-called constitutional crisis.

    People care about their friends and family being able to pay their household bills, afford their childcare and keep their jobs. They care about what the government is planning to do on tax credits and many will be pleased the Lords took the action it did last night.

    It is right that the timetable for making the dramatic cuts in tax credits is being looked at again. It is also right that we reach the destination the Chancellor has set. Overall, we got the right policy outcome last night but it was an unnecessary mess, with the government mishandling the whole process. We only have four weeks to wait until the mess is hopefully properly sorted out. In the meantime, we have another mess to address.

    This mess is centuries old. It goes to the heart of Britain’s democracy. Its sense of fair play. Its sense of itself. Whether the general public care or not, it is important. It is the House of Lords.

    Britain’s second chamber is an embarrassment. A national embarassment. It is not fit for purpose. Not remotely fit for purpose.

    Too big. Too unrepresentative. Too crony (and criminal) filled. Too party politics dominated. Too disconnected from the country it is meant to be serving.  Too costly. When it works, it works because it contains some committed public servants who do a good job in scrutinising legislation and improving the laws of the land – but that is the exception not the rule. If it was a real house (not a royal palace) it would be condemned and a new building erected in its place.

    It is time to get out the bulldozer and the fresh bricks and mortar.

    Britain does needs a second chamber but a much smaller body – 100 or so strong – the US manages with 100 Senators. Part elected – on a maximum of two 10/12 year terms – with all candidates independents not party representatives. Part appointed by an independent panel on same terms (staggering appointments to ensure continuity but not complacency) – against a clear job description – which ensures the right mix of experience and skills is included, with people from academia, business and civic life. A set number from each category and nominations made by anyone in the country or any organisation if they think they know someone who fits the bill. No more political party patronage. No more Bishops there because they are Bishops. No more great and the good. No more hereditary principle. No more jobs for life.  A second chamber that is fit for purpose with people who are there on merit – chosen by the public or the appointments panel because they are the right people for the job not because they will do what they are told by their political leaders or have a sense of entitlement they get from their family or because they wear a mitre.

    It is time for the government to be bold – really bold – and sort out this embarrassing mess in the constitution of Britain. This is meant to be ‘the mother of all parliaments’. It is time to give 21st century Britain a Senate that lives up to that proud boast.

  5. Toughest job in the world

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    Mrs J and I are 20 months into our toughest job. Just when we thought we were doing ok we got the reality check that every parent knows about.

    There is nothing in this post that is unique to us; nothing that other parents who read this won’t instantly recognise or will not have said themselves. This post is nothing new or particularly insightful – it is more an act of therapy – writing down what has been spinning around our heads all week.

    Seven days ago, our precious twenty-month Miss Jones took a little tumble whilst playing (parents both within a few feet!) and fractured her collarbone. In the subsequent week she has been wearing a sling, taking regular pain medicines, battling croup (a nasty chest infection/cough) and enduring the ongoing delight of teething – her second molars appear to be making their debut. This combination has not been pretty. It has thrown her usual routine all over the place; her sleeping is lighter and patchy; she is off her food a little and generally not as happy as usual. For a very happy child, this is especially miserable.

    She will of course be fine and is just going through the same process that millions of children are every day around the world today and throughout time. It is all part of the journey of growing up and all her ailments are routine and normal. But not for her parents.

    We thought we were prepared for parenthood. As prepared as you can be. We are from strong, close families and have seen up close how great parents go about their business. We are two reasonably accomplished individuals – the ‘reasonably’ is for my benefit- my wife is actually accomplished – and are fortunate to have the resources to be able to provide the best for our daughter. All of that means nothing when you hit the inevitable bumps in the road of bringing up a little person.

    We have been lucky so far that Aoife has been in good health and apart from the odd little scrap and bump, nothing major to deflect us from the path of happy baby and content (occasionally smug) parents. That changed this week – as did our feelings. There is nothing – absolutely nothing as all parents know – that feels so gut-wrenching, sick-inducing, heart-racing, anxiety-rising awful as seeing the little person you love more than anything in the world unhappy or unwell – or both. The cuteness of seeing her in the little blue NHS-issued sling is massively outweighed by the sadness of seeing her struggle to pick things up, ride her bike, hold her spoon and generally be the superstar she is every day of her life.

    The barking cough (it sounds like the Flying Scotsman is about to pass) and the painful arrival of the next wave of gnashers all adds to an impossible feeling of helplessness – the provision of love and medicine aside, there is nothing you can do to help her heal accept wait and wait and wait. The hours pass like days; the days pass like years. You make lots of silent pacts with God or anyone who will listen promising to do lots of good deeds or to swap places with your little princess to stop her discomfort. To no avail.

    One of the things you realise over time is that not only is this the toughest job in the world – a job with no training, nothing else you can compare it to – but it is also a job in which there are times you are a passenger, without control and very little influence. It hurts. Really hurts to know that you can help only a little bit. You cannot fix her. You cannot take away her pain. Perhaps it’s that which makes it tougher than any job; any endeavour; anything you could ever do in your life. But, like all tough things, the rewards are amazing. Even in this crappy week, there have been moments of joy – the smile that says thank you when you lift her for the tenth time that hour; the laugh when your funny walk distracts her from the pain in her shoulder and the hug that tells you everything you need to know about being a parent.

    Definitely the toughest job in the world but without a second’s hesitation, the best. Better than best.

  6. Resignation speeches…….how to stop political careers ending in failure

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    Enoch Powell famously said that “all political careers end in failure”. This week I’ve been thinking about this and those politicians who have been the exceptions to the rule and how they did it.

    One of the ways is to make a powerful resignation speech. Going out with a bang. Making one last wave as they sailed away from public office.

     

    We were reminded of this last weekend with the passing of Lord Howe.

     

    I want to reflect a little on two great examples of this type of speech – the aforementioned Geoffrey Howe and his 1990 speech that all but ended the Premiership of Mrs Thatcher and Robin Cook’s memorable speech in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War.

    What made these speeches so special? Why do they live long in the memory? Why do they transcend almost everything else their makers achieved in their careers?

    I suggest four reasons;

    • They possess a great clarity of message and language – simple messages, coloured with incredible metaphors and imagery which paint a picture it would be difficult to misunderstand and impossible to ignore. They were forensic in their analysis and clinical in their use of words – only the words they needed to build their case – no waffle; not a word wasted.
    • They tell a proper story –  placing their remarks in context, relating the present crisis to history and the future – with the classic beginning, middle and end. They read as well as they sound.
    • There is an extraordinary feeling that truth is being spoken to power like almost never before – a sense that the rules and conventions of normal exchanges have been set aside to allow the speaker to speak with the sort of frankness and directness seldom heard in the code-driven language of Westminster. They both stand before their peers and the nation and explain why the most powerful person in the country is wrong about the things they feel most passionately about. The subject – the first amongst equals of British government  – are sat just a few feet away whilst their own career is being dismantled. This adds to the sense of intensity, theatre and impact.
    • They are intensely personal and called “personal statements”  for a reason – deeply emotional. You got the sense  – and still get the sense watching them back – that they represent Geoffrey Howe and Robin Cook perfectly. They were written with the sort of care and attention as if they feared these would be the last speeches they would ever make. Ever word counting. Every word feeling like they came from the pen of the speaker. They felt then and still feel today like their best work.

    Like all great speeches they were delivered brilliantly. They had impact. They set the agenda. They moved people. Looking back on them – twenty-five and twelve years respectively they still feel like they were delivered yesterday. Fresh. Raw. Powerful.

    The last lines of both are worth recalling here. They both induced unprecendant reactions – the 1990 speech was greeted in stunned silence and incredulity of the brutality of the attack on the Prime Minister’s position – the 2003 speech with applause. Hardly ever heard in the Commons before – some say never – and hardly ever since. Re-reading these two finales it is not hard to see why. Forget their careers; no-one could say these speeches ended in failure.

    “The conflict of loyalty, of loyalty to my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister – and, after all, in two decades together that instinct of loyalty is still very real – and of loyalty to what I perceive to be the true interests of the nation, has become all too great. I no longer believe it possible to resolve that conflict from within this Government. That is why I have resigned. In doing so, I have done what I believe to be right for my party and my country. The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long”

    Geoffrey Howe

     

    “From the start of the present crisis, I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war. It has been a favourite theme of commentators that this House no longer occupies a central role in British politics. Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for this House to stop the commitment of troops in a war that has neither international agreement nor domestic support. I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the government”

     

    Robin Cook

     

    As an aside, when watching the Robin Cook film your eye may be caught by the attire of the current Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Yes, he is wearing a green suit! Why? I can only assume the date was a factor……St Patrick’s Day!

  7. Dual nationality; identify crisis or best of both worlds?

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    I got some great news last week. I achieved a long and deeply-held ambition. I fulfilled a dream. I completed a circle.

    I received a call from the Irish Embassy in London telling me I was to be granted Irish citizenship.

    Ninety-nine years since my grandfather was born in Wexford before coming to Liverpool, I am to join my beautiful wife and daughter as a citizen of Ireland. All three of us – born in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – hold dual nationality.

    I feel incredibly lucky to be part of these two great countries. I was born in Liverpool – some would say that is practically Ireland (!) – into a catholic family with the names Redmond and Maloney around every corner. Throughout the last ten years I have been increasingly aware that although very proud of the country of my birth and the freedoms, choices and opportunities it has offered me, I have felt a deep affection for all things Irish; people, culture, sport and history. I feel even luckier now that I can express this love of both countries in a formal, recognised way; holding citizenship and a passport for both.

    Eirepas

    In the Spring of last year, I heard President Higgins speak at an extraordinary Ceiliuradh (celebration) event at the Royal Albert Hall in London to mark his State Visit to the UK. His speech deeply moved me, especially this passage;

    “This celebration, above all, is in a special way for the thousands of Irish people in this Hall who have made Britain their home or whose parents or grandparents did, as well as the friends, neighbours, relatives and in-laws, they have brought along.

    I thank you most sincerely for the fidelity you have shown to Ireland over many years; for the contribution you have made to the development of Britain; and for your part in the consolidation of an enduring friendship between our two countries.

    You remain and will always be a cherished member of the Irish family.  I thank all of you who have travelled to be here, be your journeys long or short.”

    For as long as I can remember I considered myself a member of the 100 million-strong Irish diaspora. From this point on, I can also claim something formal which makes official what I have long felt – I am Irish! In the words of Andy Irvine, ‘my heart tonight’s in Ireland’ – I now have the paperwork to prove it!

    My Heart’s Tonight In Ireland – Andy Irvine & Donal Lunny

  8. Great speeches in history – Robert Kennedy – 4 April 1968, Indianapolis

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    For the second in my series of posts about great speeches in history, I turn to President Kennedy’s brother and US Attornery General, Senator and Presidential Candidate, Robert Kennedy.
     FK picture 2
    This speech – given with only a few notes which he didn’t look at and without a prepared text – is one of the most stunning I have ever heard. It was delivered on 4 April 1968, just a short time after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Senator Kennedy was in Indianapolis and was due to give a campaign speech. Instead, he told the assembled crowd the news about Martin Luther King. You can hear on this recording that only just before he starts speaking does he find out that the crowd does not know the news.
    This speech – like President Kennedy’s Inaugural – is extraordinary in part because of the circumstances in which it was delivered but it also carries some of the same rhetorical qualities. Like all great speeches, they both have a strong theme – Senator Kennedy’s is one of compassion – President Kennedy’s one of duty. They both make strong use of juxtaposition – placing good alongside evil; hope alongside despair; hate alongside love; division with togetherness.
    Above all, they both possess a great sense – of what in classic rhetorical teachings would be called ‘decorum’ – they both fit the circumstances and occasion. They both capture the moment perfectly. They strike the right tone; they are perfect in length and paint a picture the listener can relate to. They do that using simple language but also by drawing on great ideals and words of the past to give the speech a historic and classic litery quality.
    This speech is ultimately an extraordinary example of how a few words, spoken to a crowd, can make people feel better and start to heal their wounds. Across the US that night most major cities were hit by riots and violence but not Indianapolis. This impromptu, heartfelt, compassionate speech – delivered from the back of a flatback truck – played a major role in keeping the peace that night.
    RFK Speech – 4 April 1968
    The photograph above was taken that night – it included in another great book by Thurston Clarke – The Last Campaign.
    RFK book
  9. What makes the greatest speeches in history great? Let’s start as we mean to carry on…….20 January 1961

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    Over the coming weeks I am going to blog about great speeches and speech-making. I am going to share some of my favourite speeches and draw out some of the things that I believe made them great.
    I have been watching, listening to and reading speeches for as long as I can remember – YouTube now makes that even easier and allows me to indulge my geeky obsession every day. The analysis and anorak-wearing will follow in subsequent posts. For today, let’s start as we mean to go on – at the top with a very high bar – a bar that few US Presidents have met before or after – and enjoy this exquisite example of the art form from 1963.
    President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address is something truly special. The expectations. The setting. The occasion. The weather! The challenge was unimaginable high – not just the transfer of power from one president to another but from one generation to another – a new vision for America and the world – a new start. This masterpiece – true, genuine masterpiece of writing and delivery – sounds as fresh today as it did then, 52 years ago. I have listened to it dozens and dozens of time and still I find it captivating and each time I find new things to like. Take a look; have a read and enjoy.
    President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address
    I will reflect some more on this in future posts but if you really want to join the fan club of this speech, take a  read of this excellent book from Thurston Clarke………
    JFK
  10. Great time of the year for speeches

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    150924103923-pope-francis-speech-congress-martin-luther-king-jr-00002505-large-169
    I’ve always been fascinated by speeches. Someone standing up (literally) for what they believe.
    From great historical speeches that shaped nations to the best man’s speech at a family wedding and everything in between. It’s like going to the theatre, watching live sport or going to a gig – you never quite know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what will be said. How the crowd will react. You don’t know how you will feel afterwards. It’s raw. Scary. Exhilarating. Wonderful.
    Growing up in a Liverpool, Irish, Catholic family you heard speeches all the time. Every day. From everyone. People didn’t tell stories or have conversations, they gave orations. Declarations. Monologues. They performed. They held the floor whilst they made their point – always with passion – always with extraordinary use of language – not all of it fit to hear before the watershed!
    They were determined to influence you; to stir you; to make you laugh or cry. As a child I remember so vividly listening my Nan. Speaking from her arm chair like it was a podium or lectern. Her story-telling was legendary – more often than not it was done on her hind legs – it captured my imagination for persuading – for speech-making. She could by force of personality and power of her eloquence change the course of events or family history. Not that she was conscious of it, but she deployed all the tricks of the great speech-making trade –  often using the rhetorical devices of the Ancient Greeks to get her point across. She wouldn’t have seen it like that – to her she was just talking. Brilliant.
    Going to Mass provided another regular opportunity to see the art form in the flesh. It was a weekly chance to watch someone stand in front of others and try to persuade. To change minds. To inspire others to action. The homily was, and still is, my favourite part of the Mass. To this day I judge the Priest (sorry Father!) on the quality of their argument; the placing of the Gospel in a modern context; their ability to leave me with a message that I remember long after the Sunday afternoon football that follows.
    These early influences were built upon when I realised I’d been bitten by the political bug. I had found a place in which speeches were currency.  I would – and still do – watch Party Conferences and Parliament religiously and back then write to MPs to request copies of speeches I had heard – this was in the days before Google!
    It continues to be a great passion – I love to listen to someone build an argument in a speech to try to shape opinions and change minds. I look for the theme; the structure of it – does it have a beginning, middle and end; does it hang together as a story; and how do they draw upon the history of yesterday and yesteryear to place their case in context to persuade the audience they have the answers for today. It is one of my favourite things.
    This week we were served up a treat with Pope Francis’ extraordinarily-crafted speech to the US Congress – more of that in a future post – and happily we are now in the midst of the party conference season at home. This is a great time of the year for speech geeks like me. Like a golfer waiting for the Masters or a football fan on the morning of the Cup Final.
    Over the coming weeks, I will be blogging more about speeches and speech-making, reflecting on some of my favourites in history and seeing what we can learn for our every day life and our work. In the meantime, if you have chance, read the Holy Father’s speech from this week. It will be time well spent.
    Pope Francis Speech to Joint Session of Congress
  11. Best thing about working for myself? Getting the words in the right order.

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    I am now nearly three months into working for myself. There is lots to like and very little not to like. I was asked the other day, “what’s the best thing about it?” That’s easy. Getting the words in the right order.
    So many organisations – all of those I’ve worked for and many, many I have worked with – mouth the words “work-life balance”. They talk about flexible working, family-friendly hours and respecting boundaries. They ask you to bring your whole self to work and keep work in perspective. They talk about the need for managers to model the right behaviours and the need for leaders to set a good example. They say all these things because they want to believe them. They want them to be true. But they miss the key point – the order of the words matter. It’s not about work-life balance but life-work balance. Work should never come before life. To borrow a corny phrase, you don’t live to work.
    Yes, this may seem semantic. Petty. Small. But words and emphasis matter. Work coming first sends a clear message. It sets the tone. It is in charge. It’s first amongst equals.
    So often the ground rules and principles set down by an organisation fall quickly by the wayside at the first sign of a tight deadline, demanding client or situation, or the pressure of a big project. The family-friendly hours soon take a hit when your boss gets a call from an unhappy senior colleague or client and the deadline gets moved forward. It’s all hands on deck. “I wouldn’t normally ask but…..”.
    The test of true life-work balance is when people and organisations under pressure put life before work and say “we can do that but not straight away” or “perhaps there is a different way of doing this” rather than immediately leaping for the “I’m sorry to ask” email and the pizza delivery number. I saw it nearly every day of my working for others life – someone somewhere being asked to sacrifice their home life – seeing their partner, going out for dinner, bath time, putting their baby to sleep, watching the match or just going home – because someone else has decided that today’s work drama should trump everything else. It doesn’t have to be like that. If organisations wasted less time on internal politics and noise, there would be so much more time to actually get the work done and respond to the unexpected. When you work for yourself you don’t have the monumental distraction of other people’s agendas, the politics of managing egos and the passing on by your boss of their stress and deadlines. Your life is your own. You get to make the choices.
    I absolutely love what I am doing now. I am able to dedicate my working time to doing the very best for my clients and give it my all, whilst doing the things that are most important to me. It may not be be forever – there are some great things about being part of a team and working closely with others – but if I do go back to working for others in the future I will have a much better sense of how the life-work balance needs to work for me – I now know what good looks like – I know exactly how it should work. I have the words in the right order.
  12. My daughter’s face

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    It has taken that picture; that gut-wrenching, nauseating, deeply unsettling picture to remind me what this is all about. It is about my fellow human beings; often young boys and girls not much older than my daughter, fleeing the agony of a war zone to dream of a better life.

    Like many others in the free world – in Europe and beyond – I watch the news every day, read the papers, follow events online and have been aware of the crisis engulfing the world for ages. Yet it took yesterday’s horror to shake me from my complacency. To turn my stomach. To make me face up to my responsibility as a human being. Yesterday, I stopped looking the other way. I stopped crossing the road. I stopped turning the other cheek.
    It is time for those who share my responsibility as a free man but who also have the power to affect change to step up and behave like leaders. We cannot call ourselves just, fair or free societies if we now fail to act.
    It is true that we must focus on the bigger challenge of the instability of the middle east and tackle the fundamental question of Syria and beyond – I was in the minority who supported the Prime Minister and wanted us to take military action in Syria some time ago. But we can do that whilst also tackling yesterday, today and tomorrow’s humiatarian crisis – it is a humanitarian crisis not a migrant crisis – on the shores of Europe.
    I would like to forget the image I saw yesterday of Aylan Al-Kurdi lying on a beach, washed up by the cruel sea. I would like to be able to go back to my cosy and safe life with the cheek turned and the remote control at the ready to switch over when its gets uncomfortable viewing. But I can’t. I see Aylan and think about my little girl. I see his babyish clothes and tiny shoes and see her face. I see him gently carried away by the policeman and imagine for a second the agony of never being able to cradle my precious little one again.
    We can stop this suffering so we must. We can save lives; we can stop the children dying. We must now take our shame and our horror and turn it into action. Now is not the time to turn the other cheek or try to forget what we have seen. Now is the time to prove what a great country we are. Now is the time to remember as President Kennedy said; “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
  13. AMJ Comms……one month in…….every day’s a school day

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    Today marks the end of the first month of working for myself. A month of AMJ Comms.

    It is hard to imagine how it could have gone better.

    I have two fantastic clients. I am having great conversations with others about future opportunities. I am doing fascinating and stimulating work for organisations that do things that matter greatly to people. I am working with some great people. And most of all I am enjoying it. Lots. And lots.
    I am achieving the perfect balance between home and work, with home always coming before work. The chance to work flexibly, spend lots of time working at home, see my daughter and wife in the morning for breakfast, often during the week for lunch and every evening for dinner is something you cannot buy and something you cannot place a value on. The lifestyle change I wanted has happened and it feels great.
    On a practical front, what have I learnt so far about running my own business?
    • You can spend more time on the front foot – being proactive – and working on stuff that makes a difference to you and your clients. This is because you are not forced to spend so much of your days reacting to others and their agendas – no barrage of emails, no internal meetings, no political organisational noise, no massaging the egos of more senior people in your organisation and dealing with their insecurities and inadequacies and no transfer of stress from your colleagues to you as they come under pressure to deliver something they care about but you shouldn’t have to.
    • The lead-in time to move from initial conversation to agreeing to do work and then starting it always takes longer than you might think – and not always with an obvious reason why. Developing a varied pipeline of work with many irons in many fires is very important. This was true when I worked for big consultancy firms but the difference there was that you got paid at the end of every month regardless of how successful you had been!
    • Having a brilliant accountant – which I have thanks to a recommendation from a fellow business owner and great friend – is essential. It takes the strain out of budgeting, tax planning, expenses etc. Thank God for the Accounting Crew!
    • The gap between sending an invoice and getting paid is more than 24 hours! Patience is a vital ingredient in running a successful business and planning ahead to know that things – almost everything – takes time.
    • HMRC send lots of letters which seem to say the same thing in different ways – I guess this falls into the category of ‘hold the front page’ or the toilet habits of bears in outdoor tree-based areas!
    • My MacBook Air is my new best friend. It is the most fantastic piece of kit ever. I have found the best laptop in the world and my Apple obsession grows by the day!
    • Costa Coffee in Victoria station makes good skinny lattes but not quick good skinny lattes – don’t try and grab a coffee on the way to train if you are in a rush!
    • Like everything in life, every day is a school day. Being open to learning news things, reflecting on how you do stuff and trying to do it better is a hugely satisfying effort. I am a better business owner today than I was 30 days ago and will be better still in 30 days time if I carry on thinking, listening and learning. It is great also to have the time to do that – to invest in getting better at stuff and not just getting stuff done.
    One month in and I couldn’t be happier. I feel lucky that it has gone so well so far but am reminded of the great Gary Player’s famous quip when accused of being lucky for holing yet another bunker shot; “It’s funny, the more I practice, the luckier I get!”
  14. AMJ Comms……building the brand

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    I’ve lots of experience helping others to build, maintain, sometimes to salvage, their brands. Now I’ve had do it for myself – or as one of my old colleagues from the States would say (to my great amusement), I’ve had to “eat my own dog food”!
    People often think that building a brand is about logos, websites, fonts, colours etc. These things help people develop a first impression of an organisation or brand but they are just the physical manifestation of two things that are much more important; the behaviour of the brand (the people who represent it), which are shaped by their values and the values of the organisation. We are in danger here of drowning in lots of marketing/communications jargon here so let’s break it down by looking at my recent journey establishing AMJ Comms.Before deciding on the logo for my new business and the look and feel of the website, I thought about what we would stand for and how it should feel to interact with AMJ Comms. As we will all know from our personal lives and relationships we judge people not by how they look – ok, sometimes we do when making a first impression – but over time we judge people by what they do, what they say, how they act, how they make us feel when we see them. If people are rude to us, we don’t put them on top of our Christmas card list. If a business or company give us awful customer service, we don’t keep giving them our business and money. This is not rocket science. Like most things in communications, building a brand is about having a clear, simple and, most importantly, authentic story to tell.

    AMJ Comms stands for two things; high quality work drawing on my consulting and in-house communications experience and my passion for what is important in life. My business is about me getting balance between fantastic working and fantastic living just right. I named my business after my daughter – ‘AMJ’ are her initials. It is a reminder of the most important things in life. Working for myself means that I can give my clients and my work 100% whilst getting my work-life balance right – home always coming before work. I have found so far that my clients understand this – they admire it – respond well to it. Clients who don’t, won’t be clients of mine.

    The rest of my AMJ Comms story is about my experience of working on both sides of the fence – leading in-house communications teams and providing communication consulting services to clients – it means I know from experience how to help organisations improve their communications. I know what good looks like. I know how to help organisations drive change using communication and deliver quick and lasting success. I have bought consulting and interim support and I have sold and delivered it. I know when consultants and interims are a waste of money. I know how to add value.

    My overall brand story is underpinned by my values of putting family first – the most important thing in life; being open and clear with my advice, views and approach; talking and writing using simple language that everyone can understand – helping clients cut through complexity to get the most out of their communications; and doing the best work possible for each client – treating them as unique and special.

    The ultimate test of a brand is not how cool your website looks or whether your logo cuts a dash but whether your stakeholders – your customers/the people you serve – recognise your story as their experience. It’s authentic. It’s real. It’s consistent. It’s what happened to them. They enjoyed working with you. You were true to your word. The proof of the pudding of everything in life is in the eating. So far, my clients like what they are getting but the true test is maintaining this over time.
  15. AMJ Comms – what’s in a name?

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    Once I’d decided to start my own business – the more I thought about it, the more sense it made –  so I could focus on the work I really love doing (and focus less on the bureaucracy, hierarchy and politics of a big organisation and spend more time on helping my clients and making a difference to them) and getting the balance right between home and work – my attention turned to picking a name for the company.

    I had three – then four – criteria;
    • Must be a name that means something important to me
    • Must be a name that says something about what the company does
    • Must be a name that is easy to remember
    • I then remembered that it must be a name that nobody else has – checking the online database at Companies House!
    So, I started with my family name(s) and the main reason why going solo really appealed to me above all else – the chance to do great work I am proud of whilst being the best dad and husband I can be – home always coming before work.
    I played around with my daughter’s name – Aoife – not the easier scan or to remember if you’re not familiar with Irish names and spellings. So far in her life she has been called lots of things, including Arthur! But her initials started to have potential – AMJ.
    I was determined to say something in the name about what my company would do – communications interim management and consulting. Mmmmmn, a bit long. I scribbled away with communication words; shortening them, hyphenating them, capitalising them, mangling them beyond all recognition. Then I started saying ‘AMJ communications’ out loud and then it hit me – what would the website address be – .com? How about comms.com? Lovely.
    So, AMJ comms.com was born. Next step; is the domain available? Has the name been taken at Companies House? No to both. Relief. AMJ Comms Ltd (amjcomms.com).
    Next stop……how to turn a company name into a brand. Next post will reveal more…….
  16. AMJ Comms – starting a business

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    I have just set up my own business. It’s called AMJ Comms – amjcomms.com . More of the name in a later post – BTW, it’s harder than you think to pick one!
    As well as my usual posts, I am going to use my blog (in it’s new home at amjcomms.com) to talk about the journey I am on in setting up a new business and trying to make it a success.
    I’ve spent over 15 years working for other people, including some of the world’s leading professional service organisations and iconic and important brands. I have learnt loads from the great people who work there – lots good, some bad. I’ve decided to put this knowledge and experience to good use to help me and my clients.
    My own business journey has just started – I have set it up so I can start work from 6 July when my time at PwC comes to an end – I leave on 3 July.
    I am really excited about the future and the possibilities – professionally and personally – of working for myself. Watch this space!