Sunday, 27 March 2016

Stand-up! Leadership lessons from comedy

By Gloria Lombardi 

It is not quite the traditional business industry. But it seems that comedy has much to teach us about leadership, engagement and diversity. Maria Kempinska, CEO and founder of Jongleurs Comedy Clubs, has plenty to say.

Kempinska (pictured right) is a qualified psychotherapist. Yet, she originally fell in love with theatre and the arts. In the early 80s she decided to follow her passion and set up her own creative business. Indeed, still today she likes running the company, with both its challenges and rewards.

Stand up, literally!

During the time she was practising to be a stand-up comedian, Kempinska gained a new perspective on how to think about humour and how to apply it to the business.

"You have to prepare yourself constantly. You have to find new material. You have to know your audience."

Perhaps, there is not another style of entertainment where someone is constantly reviewed as a comedian. "When you are on stage you have to be funny - that is your goal. You are under a lot of stress. You have just to deliver all the time. There is nobody to rescue you."

To some extent it is very much like being an entrepreneur. "As you come off you have to look at what worked and what did not. Where I was successful? Where I wasn't?"

Once of the hardest parts of any business is getting critical feedback. The same applies to comedy. "Especially for comedians. If the public doesn't appreciate their performance they have to hear that face-to-face in front of many people."

Yet, there is the upside. "You are in charge of your own destiny. You have to find your own way to succeed. I don't think that there is any business school that can teach you that."

Managing finances

Another good analogy that Kempinska makes to the world of start-up is around managing finances. "Being a stand-up comedian can be very tense - just as being an entrepreneur. If you haven't sorted out your finances, if you haven't enough cash flow, then your career will become immensely stressful, no matter how many people you borrow from."

Alas, always have some saved money as a contingency plan because things can go wrong.
"It is your own responsibility. People often don't realise how much cashflow they actually need. An entrepreneur has to take everything into account - taxes, paying employee, making new investment and so on."

Which goes back to the stand-up comedian. "Everything is down to you. You have to prepare and put yourself out there."

Dealing with stress

Being herself an entrepreneur, Kempinska offers some valuable tips on managing stress. "The pressure is there. But if you enjoy it, you can handle the stress."

She suggests talking with people. "Not necessarily people who have your same type of business. Someone who understands how to deal with anxiety-inducing situations; someone who can point you to the right areas to focus on."

What people in business also need, Kempinska tells me, are lists. "I live by lists! Do the most urgent things first - get them out of the way. Then focus on the less burning issues."

Also, ensure they have a business plan that takes into consideration possible changes. "Find your safety net. Acknowledge that things can go wrong; think about all the problems that could potentially emerge, and plan for their solutions." 

Ultimately, it is about maintaining a 'What happens if?' attitude. For Kempinska, that means creating a weekly plan that considers possible dropouts from comedians. "For example, at the beginning of every week I ensure to pay for an extra comedian to stand by."

Yet, sometimes even with the best plans and intentions things don't go the right way. In those situations be honest, proactive and forthcoming. "If you promised something that you cannot deliver for a series of reasons, then contact immediately the public and explain to them what happened. Don't wait for them to know and come to you, because that is when disappointment and anger rise. In contrast, when people know the truth, they are generally supportive."

Hiring for attitude

There is no question that finding and hiring the right talent is one of the most difficult parts in running a company. Kempinska has found her own secret weapon. "During the interview I ask people as many questions as I can. I trust them assuming that they are telling me the truth. Then, I get them working as quickly as possible. It is on the job that you can really understand if they are the perfect match."

If there is something that she most look for in her employees it's attitude. "Showing that you would do anything to work for the company; not being too rigid or negative; being willing to learn and taking some pieces of work that may be beyond your official role."

Over the years Kempinska has mastered the skill of recruiting. She has learned that being decisive is part of the process. "If you see that the new hires are not suitable within the first weeks, remove them. It will not get better."

Of course, if people cannot be kept on, "do that in a good way. Your actions matter."

Women in leadership 

While gender (in)balance has been rightly highlighted as a weakness in the corporate world, generally speaking Kempinska feels that: "more doors are opening. Today, there is more need for women in leadership positions. Female leaders assess risks in a different way than men, bringing balance to the table."

I find myself nodding in agreement while listening to Kempinska, perhaps driven more by hope than anything else. Of course, we know that the gap is still stark, and there is much more to be done to change it. But, once again, comedy comes to hand. This time it teaches us assertiveness and sense of humour. "Men are so used to socialising and chatting with each other. It is called 'banter' - the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks."

In fact, Kempinska believes that organising social events for women can be helpful. "You don't need to join them always but ensure you find the time to meet and maintain your networks. Engage with people genuinely. Men do that all the time."

She adds other tips on manner and behaviours. "Don't be too serious. Learn to laugh about yourself. Don't be too critical of other people's humour. If you don't know something, just say that. If you don't understand something, just open up and say that you have not understood it. Don't be afraid to ask. Don't be over-sensitive. Be a leader."

Perhaps to raise the bar of gender equality, we should all consider 'standing up' a bit more.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Business Innovation – stop fearing, start trusting

By Gloria Lombardi
The fear-free organisation is one in which information flows unimpeded, relationships are trust-based and energy is freed to focus on organisational goals, not survival.” – Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson

To be capable of innovating, businesses need to adapt to emerging situations quickly. They need to question. They need to experiment. And, they need to change strategic direction easily when it is required. However, too often, they are paralysed with fear of task they confront and the consequences. The Fear-Free Organization captures the reasons why building a 21st Century company, fearlessly, pays dividends to growth, both at an individual and corporate level.

The topic of organisational fear is, of course, not new. But, what makes the book of Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson different, is that it is rooted in rigorous research on neuroscience.

And, what I liked about The Fear-Free Organization, is its relevance and applicability to just about every field of business transformation, including digital innovation.

The virtual reality of work

The authors remind us that new advances in technology are having potentially life-changing implications. For example, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and Chairman Emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, predicts that 30 years from now we will ingest information through the bloodstream! “If we want to learn something like a new language, for example, all we will have to do is swallow a pill containing the information we want. The information will enter the bloodstream and travel the brain where it will be deposited.”
At the other end of the scale, the rise of robotics and autonomous machines may leave some people behind if they are not able to embrace innovation. Some low-skilled workers, secretaries, and assembly-line workers are already experiencing it. “Adding to the anxieties accompanying a drop in, or loss of, income (and for some a total loss of gainful employment) are the difficulties of having to learn, become adept in, understand and be able to operate all the working implications of new technologies.”

In some organisations, there is a divide between employees operating completely in their comfort zone and others who struggle with new technologically driven communications. “People communicate through e-mails and text messages; via chat forums, Twitter, and social media such as Instagram and Facebook. Meetings are held in virtual reality. Conference calls happen over Skype. For senior executives who entered the workplace in the Mad Men era, it can be quite disabling.”

Yet, with or without fear, the future will continue to depend upon inter-connectivity in virtual reality. And, the future is exciting for companies that are able to adapt.

From fear to trust

Remember there is no final state. Relationships are endlessly dynamic, and business of all kinds is a continuous and continuing journey. The high energy that can be brought into play through human beings in trusting relationships cannot be bought, it can only be gifted.” – Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson

Confronted with a fear of changing, many companies build self-protective barriers. For example, they create increasing numbers of rules and regulations. But, layers of bureaucracy and red tape are not the solutions.

Instead, the authors make the case for creating a “culture of trust,” where communications and relationships are the key drivers of value creation. “Coping with complexity in an organisation and succeeding in a changing business environment depends critically on how people in that organisation relate to one another, and how sense is made together.”


Far from Pollyanna platitude, the authors’ advice actually reflects what modern leaders and effective communicators know: the ability to have good conversations is central to quality interactions. “It is the most important skill humans have to stop fear in its tracks and to create the environment where people can thrive. It is the capacity that is needed to allow solutions to emerge.”

Yet, they point out that not all conversations are the same. They explore distinct but related forms:
“Feedback”: one special form of conversation that allows a check to be made. “It is all about learning how others view a situation – understanding how someone else just made sense of what happened. Incorrect assumptions are undone, replaced by honest understanding.”

“Telling stories”: the understanding of meaning can be much more profound as “facts can be connected with values and feelings all at once.”

“Confrontation”: refers to working together with a potential adversary – rather than being afraid to speak up – in order to reach a shared understanding of what happened. And, to decide “together” what to do next.

I also found the mention of “dilemmas” particularly appropriate. In times of disruption, people can get stuck, “unable to decide the way forward.” There are several related reasons causing it such as the deep-seated values that are powered by emotions and difficult to articulate. Additionally, people find it hard to choose because they can sometimes see the value in conflicting arguments.

Ultimately, “a conversation to uncover the nature of the dilemma is the first step in resolution.”


In today’s digital economy it is more important than ever that businesses innovate. In order to have an impact, they need to respond to the realities of the technologically driven world, effectively.

Fear is, and always will, be part of the human condition. It is linked to notions of loss. In the corporate world loss can be fatal – be that damage to reputation, financial or during crises the death of individuals.

But, if companies remained stagnant because they feared the (negative) consequences or outcomes of a risk they sought to take, then might they over time demise? The great innovations of the last century, and indeed in the first decade of the 21st Century, could not have come about without entrepreneurs taking a risk – they must have had fears, but through conquering them they made progress.

It is refreshing to read a book whose authors believe that the long-term success of a business is related to building trusting relationships. Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson do so in a convincing way without sounding preachy.

Leaders, internal communicators as well as professionals managing business transformation, will find the ideas mentioned in The Fear-Free Organization particularly useful. They will help them build a more agile, innovative and indeed fearless workplace.

This article originally appeared on StaffConnect

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Nurturing Employee Motivation, the Argos for Business way

Are UK workers happy or dissatisfied at work? According to the new study into employee motivation by Argos for Business, 70 per cent of the British workforce feels consistently positive. 
The survey was conducted among 1,000 UK employees ahead of
the Employee Motivation Day on 25th February. The annual day was created by Argos for Business in order to inspire passion and appreciation across the country’s labour force. 

To celebrate, employees and employers use social media to share what they love about working for their company. They use the hashtags #EmployeeMotivationDay, #EMD, #MakeTheTeam and #NatMotivateDay – a nice way to exercise employee advocacy.

The research findings are wide-ranging. They reveal differences in attitudes amongst different age groups, the power of a simple verbal ‘thank you’ and how insights can be garnered through categorising staff into work personalities. 

Millennials – a different world?

A consistent trend emerges from the study: team dynamics play a critical – if not the most important – role in employees’ satisfaction, with two-thirds of workers enjoying being part of a team. 

But, it turns out that there is a disparity between the age groups. 

In fact, younger employees (those born between 1992 and 2000) would like to experience a different way of working: 34 per cent of them are keen to work alone rather than being part of a team. It is a stark contrast to the mere eight per cent of the older teammates who would like to operate solo. 

Yet, the enthusiasm of youth is evident in the research. A third of Millennials like asking questions to get work done, while 58 per cent of their older colleagues prefer to work on ideas independently. 

A quarter of younger employees are also keen to take on new projects. Whereas, only a tenth of all other age groups enjoy tackling new challenges. And, just one in five of the over-55s enjoy motivating and providing support to younger staff. 

The findings are interesting because they highlight the delicate balance between working as a team and being self-motivated. It would be natural to respond to these results by providing staff with a working environment that encourages the best of both worlds.

Additionally, effective communication may be a chance for the Millennials and the older generation to come together. In short, while the disparity will be present, cooperation is paramount to achieve objectives. 

Say ‘Thank you’

The study reveals the influence of praise and recognition in the workplace. Perhaps not surprisingly, yet important to emphasise, a personal ‘thank you’ by a manager or director is the top motivational factor in helping all employees feel engaged. 

In fact, one in 10 workers are more likely to stay at a company long-term if they are regularly praised. And, three-quarters of them remember a time when they were verbally praised. 

Verbal praise is the most motivational for Millennials in particular. Two-fifths of them prefer positive feedback to financial rewards, which only drives a mere three per cent of younger employees. 

Also, for 33 per cent of the board, verbal recognition from a peer is more important than receiving bonuses or having extra holidays, which makes only seven per cent of workers happier. 

The message is clear: whether it is in person or via digital channels, even the smallest gesture of thanking people for their input goes a long way in motivating them to participate. 

But ultimately, if there is one thing I have been seen through all the people interviews and company case studies I write, is that organisations thrive when they reward employees in ways that suit individuals. A one size fits all approach is never an effective solution. As long as a company prioritises their people first and their unique needs, they will have one of the ingredients of corporate success.

Work Personalities

While there is no ‘I’, there is a ‘me’ in a team. Or so it seems. The research explores how various personality types take on very different roles. And, Argos for Business suggests organisations encouraging a collaborative working environment where each work personality can have an impact. 

A fifth of employees see themselves as the Captain Questions. They enjoy problem-solving in a group, convening collective brainstorms to reach a decision, encouraging free-thinking and offering thanks for all suggestions and input.

Conversely, the Independent Introverts (15 per cent of the workforce) take considered, informed decisions in their head before expressing them out loud. The Confident Creatives (11 per cent of employees) follow. 

One in five workers are Big Idea Bod – they let others in the team make the ‘big picture’ thinking happen. And, one in seven are People-Orientated Performers, who prefer motivating others instead of themselves. 

In truth, as a personality framework it, of course, may miss the nuances of working in a real world where each individual is much more complex. Yet, it may be a helpful starting point for anyone who wants to appreciate being part of a team – particularly when you consider how different personality types make up a team>! In fact, for a third of respondents, encouraging working collaboratively and allowing the different types to complement each other was the best way to motivate employees. And, taking the time to listen to other ways of working helped increase the levels of motivation of 36 per cent of employees. 

So, in the long term, it may well make sense for organisations who want to inspire a culture of engagement to acknowledge and nurture the different working styles of their employees. And, to follow up with action

Roger Black – a Captain Questions

t8 As part of Employee Motivation Day, Argos for Business worked alongside 3 times Olympic Medallist and motivational speaker Roger Black
Roger identifies himself as a Captain Questionswithin a team,
encouraging free-thinking and offering words of encouragement to teammates. He likes remembering when in 1991, the British Team won a gold medal for the 4×400 metre relay team in the World Championships. In a brave move, they made a team decision to change the running order the night before the race. That decision ultimately resulted in the gold medal.

By giving your team members room to brainstorm and make collaborative decisions about what they do, you will see an increase in engagement and a greater commitment to tasks – because they have made it their own,” says the medallist.

Indeed, his message resonates in both the sporting arena and the workplace.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

‘Wellcome’ to Internal Communication and Engagement

ChrisN “We fund academic researchers and institutions to look at the big and little questions relating to health,” says Chris Newstead (pictured right), Head of Internal Communications at the Wellcome Trust.

Since 1936, this global foundation has helped to save and improve millions of lives by funding biomedical science and research projects. Last year, they granted £750 million, helping to fund around 11,000 projects. While a majority of funding focuses on work undertaken in the UK, they are international in their outlook. “We have significant centres operating in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, and SE Asia in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, as well as a large partnership with the Indian Government.”

Internal Communication wanted

With around 800 employees based in the UK, “there is obviously a role to play for internal communication to help them connect with the work we fund but also the work of colleagues.”

Employees cover a range of disciplines in support of grant-giving but also further include people working in investments, policy, a public medical library and those looking after Wellcome Collection – this innovative museum adjoined to their offices in central London looks to explore what it means to be human.

Recently the Internal Communication function has been separated from other areas within Communications, reporting now directly to the Director of People & Facilities. “Our team remains physically located alongside our other comms professionals. But we’re building new bridges out through the rest of the organisation, enabled in part by reporting outside of Comms.”

Because health matters at work

Wellcome has an inspiring working environment. With purpose built premises in Euston, they work hard to ensure that employees have not just the basics in place that they need to work effectively.

A corporate well-being group sits at the core of health and safety, ensuring the needs of all the members of staff are considered. “Desks, chairs and individual space are carefully and purposefully considered on a person by person basis.” The office has an on-site gym where classes run throughout the day. And, an award-winning in-house catering partner provides healthy food options. “The restaurant offers everything from meat-free to ‘wonky veg’ and special meals with recent campaigns to reduce sugar and salt in all our on-site food.”

They host mindfulness classes and have appointed mental health first aiders in every division. Plus, their flexible working policies and working parent groups are having a positive impact on people at all stages of life.

Bespoken engagement activities

The organisation offers employees a variety of entertaining – yet work-related – activities to engage with: from games to films, broadcast television programmes, theatre, music and festivals. For example, staff screenings in 2015 included the Wellcome-funded Electricity, a cinema release focused on dementia, and The Secret Lives of Four Years Olds broadcast on C4. They also invite in their academic researchers – on average one per week – to share details about the research or projects they are undertaking, presented in layman’s terms, for science and non-scientists alike to appreciate.

Themed days are also run. For example, in the last 3 months, there have been sessions on virtual reality, 3D printing and the roles of dogs in medical care, which saw several canine friends invade the workplace for 8 hours! “The aim of our activities is always to shine a light on the extraordinarily, wide range of things that Wellcome enables. And, to give our people opportunities to appreciate and feel personally connected with what we do.”


They invite public figures into their offices, across the year, to speak with staff. They are “provocateurs who can bring some fresh thinking.” For example, in 2015, they had the CEO of M&S, the CEO of Twitter UK, the Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and the President of Medicins Sans Frontieres. These activities are an opportunity for staff to gain slightly different perspectives on issues that are important to the organisation. “Whether it’s around environmental issues or global health, there are always new ways of looking at things.”

Knowledge sharing

Knowledge sharing is highly valued across the whole organisation. One way to encourage it has been through a ‘Knowledge Club’. “It’s an idea taken from the lab, whereby weekly Journal Clubs are run for scientists to share with each other research findings that others may have missed.” The Knowledge Club is a monthly event where employees explore specialised or technical topics such as big data or the UK Biobank. Anyone who has an interest in that subject can join the sessions, listen and assimilate and share their own insights as well. “We deliberately try to cross-pollinate knowledge among people between divisions and look to do so in a manner where ‘there are no stupid questions’.”

Once a month, they also have an all-staff meeting with over 200 regular attendees. “Not always the same faces, which is good.” It is an opportunity for five-minute updates from staff in an energised, town hall, magazine format. Anyone can share what they are working on – current projects, campaigns, or initiatives – with their colleagues. “Employees appreciate knowing what others are up to. And it’s great to enable a common platform for all to use, from the most junior to the most senior.”

A place for social collaboration

In September 2015, they relaunched their new Drupal-based intranet, Trustnet. “It is platform and device ambivalent,” says Chris, emphasising that catching up with mobile was an essential evolution. “Being able to work and check news while on the go or travelling abroad was a fairly big leap for us. Overnight it became our central tool not just for sharing information, but for truly connecting people no matter their location, the time of day or the device they had to hand.”

“We use its forums, comment and social features. It’s been fantastic to see discussions involving more than 50 members of staff on topics as eclectic as evolving our corporate font to more fundamental areas such as our strategic framework.” What is clear is that their people care and want to understand better the decisions that are being made throughout the organisation.

Navigating information

The redevelopment of their intranet was also an opportunity to separate out document management. “No documents are stored on Trustnet. We put all of them on SharePoint sites, which we use exclusively as a document management system.” It was an important stepping stone to universal accessibility and enabling flexible working, directly linked with their current rollout of Office 365.

They are seeing the power of connectivity enabled through instant messaging and video conferencing, not in replacement of email or face-to-face meetings but as additional options. With it, there are more opportunities for internal communication than ever before.

“Increasingly in internal communications we are agitators in ensuring more and more barriers to accessing information are removed. The traditional roles of information gatekeepers are becoming redundant. And we are better focused on becoming guides, signposting colleagues so they can find the answers they need and not assuming we know what it is they want.”

This article originally appeared on StaffConnect