Directing HR

Sex, HR and Rock'n'Roll, a heady cocktail

Sex, HR and Rock’n’Roll, a heady cocktail

I was invited to give the afternoon keynote at the HR Directors Forum, held at Mayer Brown Solicitors in the City the other week.  Here’s a few highlights from the event:

Myths and Riffs of High Performance

The morning kicked off with a big bang from Professor Adrian Furnham, who elegantly blew away some myths surrounding the development of High Performance organisations and people.  Here’s just a few of the key insights:

Adrian released some interesting research on Coaching.  Whilst in general research demonstrates that the vast majority of Coaching is fairly ineffective, he highlighted some conditions under which it works.  Like most things, it all comes down to solid preparation:

  • Ensuring the client is ready to receive the coaching – 40% contribution
  • Getting the relationship right between client and coach – 30% contribution
  • Client expectation that coaching will lead to improvement – 15% contribution
  • The coaches’ repertoire of models / strategies and tools to help the client – 15% contribution

This provided me with great levels of satisfaction and a certain level of smugness!! :-) since I always spend a lot of time making sure my clients are fully prepared to benefit from coaching.  We then have an initial session to find out if the ‘chemistry’ will work and I work from a wide palette of approaches to coaching and not just the limited ‘question based approach’ that bedevils the ‘friendly co-pilot’ style of coaching, otherwise known as the ‘dumb leading the blind’.  There is of course a place for purely “Socratic” question based coaching but it is just one approach from a much wider repertoire.

Adrian also dealt a critical blow to the beloved “Nine Box Performance Management model” based on UCL’s detailed research into the model.  Read his new book “High Potential” with Ian MacRae for more insights if you want to do this stuff properly. Adrian also wrote an article on music and leadership for Psychology Today – read it here.

Nine Lives no more ...

Nine Lives no more … read High Potential by clicking on the picture

It also featured superb sessions from Liz Codd, who gave great insights into the realities of assessing leadership potential in an international Asset Management Firm and from John Renz at Novae Group, who also gave a practical example of how to do Coaching well in a business context, giving pragmatic triangulation to Professor Furnham’s ideas

Never Mind the Neuro-Boll … ks …

The most difficult session was an input on neuroscience and HR.  Admittedly, it was far too short to give any real opportunity to dig into the topic so I have some sympathy for the speaker.  My main difficulty with the session is that there was very little that did anything more than to reinforce some well known truths from over 100 years of social research on the topic by Herzberg, Victor Vroom et al. We already know that money doesn’t satisfy and that recognition is more important than reward.  We also know that the alignment of goals with personal motivations matters for high performance.  The speaker admitted that the addition of the word “neuro” to just about everything is simply an example of “old wine in new bottles”.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a scientist by original profession and neuroscience is an important scientific development, but I agreed with her that we must be careful to avoid strapping it on to just about everything.

Be skeptical when being sold neuro - bollocks

Be skeptical when being sold neuro – bollocks

I fought the Law, and the Law won …

Plus a superb session from a Lawyer – YES, a superb session from a Lawyer.  I have suffered the slings and arrows of numerous talks by lawyers when I was Branch Chair and Council Board Member for CIPD, but this was exceptional.  Clear, simple advice and insights from Chris Fisher at Mayer Brown into how companies can protect their intellectual property when people leave plus a range of other topics.

Sex, HR and Rock’n’Roll

The odd ball of the day was the panel session on “Sexism and the City”.  I am a vigorous advocate of diversity in every shape and form, having worked in a meritocracy at the Wellcome Foundation, a company who won four Nobel Prizes for it’s groundbreaking work in medicines for life threatening conditions.  In such a company, the work is much more important than politically correct quotas of black / white, straight / gay, able-bodied / disabled, male / female as a driving force for the selection and development of people.   As a result we had a genuine global village at the company and I found myself wondering whether the square mile was somehow still stuck in the 14th Century?  The session included a rant from a self-confessed “alpha female” who asked for a revolution to introduce female quotas in the City.  There is nothing less persuasive than a single issue protester with a ‘sandwich board’ so it was difficult to hear the sensible arguments that lay beneath it. However there were three other panel members who put forward wider arguments, beyond the outdated idea of bringing back quotas for women in senior positions which has failed over several generations.  After all, do we really think that just transplanting women without the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes into positions is likely to make them shine?  The thinking needs to go much further than this, more along the lines of Professor Charles Handy and Tom Peters’ thought leadership in this area.  Overall, the panel session was provocative and set me thinking about the issues, so it did succeed in its aim of livening up the session before lunch after a long morning.

Adaptation, Improvisation and Organisation

I was asked to deliver the after lunch keynote … where I was rather strangely introduced as “I met some bloke who mixes rock music and business the other week” to a series of slightly confused people who were expecting a thought leader and former CIPD Council Board member rather than a busker.  Oh well, that happens from time to time! :-)  The session went very well despite losing nearly 1/3 of the time available and with this strange beginning.  Here’s my slide deck on the substantial issues of adaptation, improvisation and organisation in HR.  Contact me to discuss the issues I raised or for a personal walkthrough of the talk, where we looked at personal creativity and is relationship to adaptive or learning companies.

We finish with the main title of my talk:

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

 

The Music of Chemistry

Newlands Octaves - a few 'dodgy notes' included

Newlands Octaves

Three fascinations have filled my life : Science, Business and Music. Creativity is the art and discipline of noticing connections between things and this prompted me to write a blog about the connections between music and chemistry.

It was Döbereiner that first noticed the idea of patterns of the elements and, in 1828, he proposed the notion that the elements could be classified into triads, based on their properties. It took 30 more years for French geologist de Chancourtois’ to develop the idea.  de Chancourtois’ organised the elements by their atomic weights and published his work in 1863. It’s most interesting to note that his ideas were largely ignored by scientific community as he used geological terms to describe his insight.

Lesson for Innovators:  Work in the language of your target audience!

In 1865, John Newland came up with his theory of octaves for the elements, organising the elements into groups of 8 and using music as a means of explaining his theories to the Chemical Society in 1866, who refused to publish his work, suggesting that it was frivolous

Lesson for Innovators:  Persist with your metaphors!

There were some flaws in Newland’s theory as some elements did not quite ‘fit’ the law of octaves. It took a few more years before Mendeleev produced the essential breakthrough of what we now consider the basis of the modern periodic table. So confident was Mendeleev of his theory that he left spaces in the table for elements that had yet to be invented.

Mendeleev's periodic table from 1871

Mendeleev’s periodic table from 1871

Lesson for Innovators:  Ensure your theories explain gaps in current knowledge!

These stories illustrates the powerful forces that can operate to prevent a new idea or concept from coming into being.  It points to the need for inventors and innovators to understand and navigate such barriers if breakthrough ideas are to come into being. They are also great examples of pattern spotting as a creative act, as per our article about using mazes and puzzles to solve complex business problems. You will find a few more references to popular science in the business book “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll”:

Business mixed with music and a wink towards my science background

Business mixed with music and a wink towards my science background

Finally, a song that uses chemistry as the basis of its lyric. It’s the song “Bunsen Burner” by “Punk Idol and Two Hit Wonder” John Otway. I sponsored John’s round the world tour a few years back, losing my shirt on the enterprise. The tour was a massive failure in a comedy of errors on a par with “This is Spinal Tap” – It was a brilliant example of a superb idea which did not turn into innovation due to poor execution of the idea. I had been seduced into supporting John’s tour after helping him reach the Top 10 in the charts with Bunsen Burner – a song that John originally wrote to help his daughter pass her Chemistry O Levels.

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

Killing me softly – An interview with Roberta Flack

Killing me softly with her words - Miss Roberta Flack

Killing me softly with her words – Miss Roberta Flack – Photo by Adam Coxon, The Lowdown Magazine

It was an unexpected delight to be invited to interview Roberta Flack recently, still performing at 75 years of age with a beautiful singing voice, wit charm and experience well beyond X-Factor and American Idol wannabes.  Let’s begin with a brief reminder of that beautiful singing, writing, playing and performing talent:

 

Here’s some insights from our dialogue which went on well past the TV interview:

Roberta on Teaching and Learning

Flack started her career teaching music at schools and privately in Washington D.C.  Reflecting on this she said she had some wonderful opportunities compared with the other students.  Teachers would leave the room and say “Carry on Roberta”.  Asked about what qualities they thought she possessed to get this request, Roberta said in a typically self-effacing manner that she had a fairly big mouth!  This ignores all her other qualities: an articulate style; a passion for her subject (in her case all forms of music) and an ability to reach other people’s heads, hearts and souls.  These are all transferable qualities for great leaders in any field. Asked what she had learned through her life she learned to appreciate everything that came her way, even those songs that she knew she could not or would not sing.  At one point she accompanied aspiring opera singers on piano in Georgetown and she got to meet and meet John F Kennedy, who attended the club.  In the course of working there, Flack had to learn to play songs that she had never played.  Reflecting on this she said:

“As a musician, when you get an opportunity to learn something that you don’t know, and to really learn and play it and execute it well, is such a thrill”

There is a direct parallel here for leaders in any field.  As Tom Peters says, execution is everything.  That relies on deep learning, the so-called 10 000 hours effect as quoted by Malcolm Gladwell. Musicians are used to the idea of deep practice as are great leaders.  Check out the full interview here:

 

Transferable Lesson : To become a great learner, learn to teach and teach people to learn

Roberta on Creativity and Reinterpretation

Flack took on the awesome task of reinterpreting a selection of songs by The Beatles in 2012 – Let It Be Roberta, having lived nearby to and also become good friends with John Lennon many years before. Reinterpreting a canon of work of such magnificence presents the artist with an enormous challenge as to how faithful you remain to the original or whether to do something quite different with the songs, which are almost untouchable. Flack wisely chose to do something different with the material to stunning effect. Reflecting on this, Roberta said that, it helped to be a classically trained musician. She was taught by Hazel Harrison, a music teacher from Howard University who excelled in Bach and music of the Baroque period. Roberta said:

“If you can hold on to your love for playing the piano and play Bach this way, rather than playing it like Chopin or Mozart, you will have accomplished something”

So, Flack learned to sight read all the pieces that the opera singers wanted her to play and make the music come to life rather than just to read the notes on the paper.  She was also stretched all the time by people who asked her to modify the pieces at will.  This level of adaptive behaviour provided her will the skill to get inside the heart of the musician and interpret the piece for the singers she had before her.  Undoubtedly this learning was formative in terms of her ability to reinterpret The Beatles material whilst staying true to the heart of the music.

Transferable Lesson : Act from your heart to find your soul

Roberta on new Business models

We held a fascinating after interview chat about Prince and his recent decision to work again with Warner Brothers after 20 years of producing his music independently. Roberta acknowledged the difficulty of gaining funding for your work in the modern age. Off camera we had a long chat about money and artistry. In her own case she set up The Real Artist Symposium, a gathering creative artists who own their own work and have worked with her to help give them a platform for their work.  This is just one of a number of new funding models that have emerged. We recently commented on Bernie Torme’s Crowdfunding Experiment as another exemplar of innovation.  These models are also apparent in other fields, such as publishing, where downloading has democratised the creative process but also made it much harder for artists to earn a living from their art. Business people would do well to learn that if what you are doing isn’t working, do something different.

Transferable Lesson : If your business model is broken, find a new one rather than banging your head against the same wall

And finally, a beautiful rendition of “Killing Me Softly”:

 

The first time ever I met Roberta Flack

The first time ever I met Roberta Flack

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About the Writer:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

Sitting on the Docklands of the Bay

Last week, I hosted a very special event for a diverse select group of guests with my friend and colleague Matthew Green aboard his ship the MV Dana, moored at West India Quay, in the heart of London’s Docklands.  Our evening turned into a brainstorm of ideas for the boat potentially – a unique location / venue (just minutes away from the heart of London’s financial hub) – the obvious options being Executive Education, Meetings, Corporate Events, Media Interviews, Broadcasting etc. to individuals, groups and companies. Commenting on the event my friend Dr Andrew Sentance, former Monetary Policy Member at The Bank of England quipped:

“The evening was proof positive of the well known formula A x B = C

where A = Ageing rockers; B = Bottles of wine; and C = Creative ideas!”

Apologies to our attendees from HSBC and Credit Suisse who certainly don’t fall into the aging rockers bracket!!  Of course I like to believe that the creative ideas came out of our expert joint facilitation of the event and not just the wine!! :-)

Peter Credit Suisse

In the Navy – on the MV Dana, opposite Credit Suisse

The more provocative and inventive “C” answers were to use Dana as:

  1. The city’s equivalent of College Green, the media’s favoured location for interviews with the iconic backdrop of Canary wharf… given that there is no default location in Docklands for this currently
  2. To start a Pirate Radio / TV Station on the boat to broadcast to the financial community in the Canary Wharf area – calling it DLR – “Docklands Life Radio” or…???
  3. Exclusive Leadership events and Creativity and Innovation summits using our joint skills combined with the location
  4. To offer the venue as a unique environment for special meetings that require an offsite location with all the convenience of being connected to the corporate centre whilst being utterly private, secure and discrete (ideal for M&A negotiations, C level assessments / discussions)
  5. To develop an exclusive business networking club on the ship
  6. Use for photoshoots and other red letter days using the massive deck which could be used as a screen, a projection hub, perhaps even a giant whiteboard!
  7. An informal hub for writers, poets, toastmasters and painters to practice their arts & hone their skills, individually, or as group mentored sessions

Just imagine, sitting on the dock of the bay, just yards away from the office, but millions of miles away in terms of thought space …  One of the attendees wrote a delightful poem about the evening – check The Poet L’Oreal out at Launch Party.

Or, for something more lively:

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

Excellence in Thought Leadership, Coaching, Mentoring and Events in an exclusive location

Excellence in Thought Leadership, Coaching, Mentoring and Events in an exclusive location

 

HR Directors Rock in the City

I’m delighted to have been asked to provide the ‘after lunch’ slot at the HR In The City event on May 22 in London, organised by Leadenhall Consulting. Featuring a cast of star speakers and facilitators, led by Professor Adrian Furnham of UCL and author of 78 books on psychology at work:

The bill for the HR Director's forum

The bill for the HR Director’s forum

I have a special offer available as a speaker at the event.  Two free tickets for senior HR people working in the City.  Drop me a line at peter@humdyn.co.uk to claim one of these free places.  I’m also able to offer a discount to readers of this blog on the early bird booking fee for individuals and groups of people wishing to attend.

I’ll be delivering a thought provoking session about becoming a true learning company from the parallel universes of HR and Rock Music. Come along and find out more about what we can learn from Madonna, Prince, Nokia, First Direct, Radiohead and many more about adaptability and improvisation.

The HR Hall of Fame - From Bowie, The Beatles, Madge to Skoda, Nokia et al

The HR Hall of Fame – From Bowie, The Beatles, Madge to Skoda, Nokia et al

Finally some HR related pieces from Madonna on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Prince on Ethics and Systemic Thinking and an interview with Tim Smit, CEO of the Eden Project on Leadership:

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

Harry Potter and the dark side of work

I was delighted to be invited by my good friend Professor Adrian Furnham to the launch party of  his new book  High Potential along with Kate Griffiths Lambeth.  High Potential is Adrian’s 78th book, co-written with rising star Ian Macrae.  The book is a superb compendium of practical ideas about psychology at work, written in an engaging style without all the usual jargon that the so-called professionals like to use to befuddle and ensnare us.

Highly Charged, High Voltage, High Potential - With Adrian, Ian and Kate at Bloomsbury - The Home of HP:  Harry Potter and High Potential

Highly Charged, High Voltage, High Potential – With Adrian, Ian and Kate at Bloomsbury – The Home of HP: Harry Potter and High Potential

The conversation and company were great and Kate and I shared some thoughts about the dark side of life afterwards over some warm beer.

On Twitter and Relationships

Twitter is a massive “Johari Window”, where people crash into each others lives, loves, hopes and fears in just 140 characters.  But, out of this chaotic and complex series of exchanges come a few genuine friendships and connections.  Amongst the people I am glad to know, like and trust that I would not know without Twitter are Trevor Lee, Kate GL, Mervyn Dinnen, David D’Souza, Andrew Sentance, Meg Peppin, Doug Shaw to name but a few, so Twitter works.   However, misunderstandings are the norm on Twitter and I always make a point of meeting people who interest me using more traditional means, such as a cup of tea and a proper dialogue. So 140 characters only take me to the point of “Knowing me, Knowing you, aha” and one needs more than this to create a proper relationship.  More a case of “Text and Drugs and Rock and Roll” … :-)

140 characters is insufficient to move us out of mutual oblivion on Twitter, but it can help us make a start ...

The Johari Window: 140 characters is insufficient to move us out of mutual oblivion on Twitter, but it can help us make a start …

On High Potential

One of the fascinating conversations we held with Adrian and Ian Macrae was on the impact of loss on high potential.  Adrian, Ian and myself share the loss of a parent at an early age and it certainly affected our drive and determination.  But the issue is complex and Ian gave personal witness to his own example, where he and his brother reacted quite differently to the loss.  This neatly explains why some people lose something precious early on in life and “stay in a ditch” whereas others decide to “get out of the ditch”.  Entrepreneurs such as Michelle Mone, inventor of the Ultimo Bra, points to early hardship as a spur to her success, but the relationship is complex and it does not necessarily work the other way, i.e. treat your kids badly to make them into leaders, as one of my MBA students once suggested !! :-)

michelle-mone-in-own-lingerie-77130890-874510

From the Gutter in Glasgow to the G Cup and G String – Michelle Mone’s entrepreneurial journey started with extreme hardship

On The X-Factor

Adrian eloquently explained the problem that can arise when confidence exceeds talent, using the X-Factor as a superb illustration.  High Potential explores the ‘dark side of personality’ and Adrian used Steve Jobs as an example of someone with a number of unappealing traits but who was saved by his unique vision and his ability to almost always make great decisions.  The substitution of confidence for talent is also a potentially dangerous cocktail …  Just witness this demonstration of mutually assisted narcissism on the X-Factor: Adrian ironically pointed out that Bloomsbury had made a great choice in commissioning the book, having also spotted the talent that is J.K. Rowling.  In this context, I was reminded of this simply great piece of popular psychology about the difference between talents and choices from Harry Potter:

Thanks for a superb evening of intelligent conversation, insight and inspiration.

High Potential - Click the picture to get your copy

High Potential – Click the picture to get your copy

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About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

What kind of fool am I ?

On April 1st 1994, I started Human Dynamics, which eventually spawned The Academy of Rock a few years later, so today marks 20 years in business.  It’s quite rare to reach this length of time with many companies going out of business in the 1st 200 days, let alone 20 years.  It’s also been a bumpy ride through the recession and I’d like to take this moment to thank everyone that has supported me and my colleagues in all kinds of ways.

Twin Peaks - 20 years in business

Twin Peaks – 20 years in business

As it is April Fool’s day I thought I’d have a little fun with you.  There are five April Fool’s untruths amongst these 20 factoids about my business and personal life.  I will award a copy of my book “The Music of Business” to the 1st person that spots all five of the April Fool’s untruths:

  1. My mum claimed that I was a Virgin birth as my Dad was 67 and she 45 when I was born
  2. I once presented a copy of “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” to Prince
  3. My first piece of work in the business was a strategic review for Amnesty International
  4. Professor Charles Handy sent me a postcard to congratulate me on my first book
  5. I brought the world’s first AIDS therapy to market by scaling the product up in record time
  6. I lost a small fortune sponsoring a round the world Rock’n’Roll Tour in 2006
  7. I was a member of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD’s) Council Board
  8. Professor John Kotter said he was too busy playing golf to read “The Music of Business”
  9. I nearly died when I was 25 whilst working in India through taking an aspirin
  10. I nearly collaborated on a book with Jim Collins
  11. I escorted Wilko Johnson through French Customs dressed as a nurse
  12. Mark E Smith of The Fall performed alongside me a gig at Kent University in 1978
  13. Richard Branson took a copy of one of my books from an inaugural Virgin flight
  14. Bob Geldof said I was f…cking mad when I met him at a CIPD conference
  15. I’ve been asked to do a PhD at Imperial College London
  16. George Clinton, The Godfather of Funk, bought me a kebab after a Prince concert
  17. I went to the same school as Sir David Frost
  18. We performed at Brands Hatch for the CIPD with John Otway
  19. The Rt Hon Peter Jay once offered me tea and a conversation at his private club in London
  20. I gave Evan Davis of Dragon’s Den a lift to an event he was speaking at
The prize

The prize

To finish, the Beatles also have a view on April fools:

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

Two Tribes – Branding for different markets

One of the challenges of managing a brand with two distinctly different manifestations is the need for each of them to have the same strength and a distinctively different targeting. People that don’t know so much about our twin brands tend to think first of what I call our ‘high visibility’ brand – The Academy of Rock, which offers events that blend business ideas with music. As a result our business consultancy offering at Human Dynamics can get submerged under the hullabaloo of the more notorious aspects of what we offer. Importantly different customers or ‘tribes’ are interested in the two diffferent aspects of our work.  To serve them well, our brands need to clearly target the differing needs and wants of the ‘two tribes’, hence the title of this blog.

Contrasting brand images

Contrasting brand images

Conventional wisdom says that you cannot make videos about a serious business consultancy business, but I like to break rules, so we just made a video on Human Dynamics with i54 New Media.  Take a look:

Jeff Bezos at Amazon says that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.  The next best thing to that is what they say willingly on Linkedin, so this was a great opportunity to bring some of this together.  Making films with 154 new media is really simple and quick.  Within 15 minutes, we had shot the video and the finished product was made in double quick time.  More importantly, the film has been pivotal in securing a creativity and innovation keynote at a conference in Malaysia.

Four branding lessons

  1. A brand is a shorthand intended to stop people thinking when they are making decisions under pressure. Just think of the advertising slogan “Beanz Meanz Heinz”.  In a busy and complicated world, it’s vital that you can convey your brand to others in minutes, preferably seconds.  Andy Warhol said “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”.  In the internet age, that may have come down to 15 seconds.
  2. Brands convey the emotional more than the rational aspects of what your company does. They must rest on some firm foundations to be successful however.  In other words there should be no gap between brand perception and brand experience if you are to succeed.
  3. A brand must tell a story, which reaches people’s hearts, minds and souls if it is to be successful. We will be exploring the business of storytelling shortly on this blog.
  4. Get your followers to become brand representatives.  Their view of what you do is more important than your own and their marketing advocacy is free and more credible than that which you do yourself.  Amongst my various experiences with musicians, I sponsored a Spinal Tap inspired world tour for Punk Idol John Otway. Although the tour was a glorious failure, one of John’s great strengths is that his fanbase offer him an absolutely free marketing service and are passionate brand advocates.

An excellent 5th point arrived on Linkedin this morning, from Brian Shannon on the need to have a point of focus when managing multiple brands:

“When I was the VP of strategy for GlowWear. They had about 10 brand names they were trying to manage and the strategy was clear. Everybody buys clothes but the branding must match the demographic. Demographic = Brands”

Here’s a short video on branding:

Check out John Purkiss’ book on personal branding “Brand You” for some fascinating insights into personal branding.  Click on the picture to find out more:

Brand You

We finish with the title of this blog:

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.  Check out our online Leadership programme for FREE via The Music of Business Online.

TMOB Udemy ONLINE

Hangin’ on the telephone … at O2

This is a tale of appalling customer service, bad data management, a company culture that refuses to deal with complaints, bad HR strategy / practice and employee disempowerment / disengagement at the mobile phone company O2.  It’s a long story which is still developing as I update this post.  In business terms, it teaches us some great lessons about how to get these things right, as many good companies do. Yet I remain astonished at the catalogue of problems that this relatively small issue has thrown up within O2’s culture, structure, systems and HR strategy / practice.  Read on …

March 02 2014

I still require some kind of therapy after a wasted weekend of mind-numbing conversation on the phone with my son Tom’s mobile phone providers O2, part of the Telefonica group.  Tom took a contract with O2 just over a year ago on a special half price offer of around £16 a month provided to him as a former “Pay as you go” customer.  Some months later he noticed that O2 had been charging him nearly £30 per month and he went to the shop to resolve this, but got fobbed off by the staff.  As a 19 year old student, Tom is rather unwilling to have his time wasted on bureaucracy, so he decided that O2’s dishonesty should be repaid by him switching phone contracts at the end of the 12 months, which he did.  He cancelled the direct debit and thought all was well … until O2 presented him with a bill for £61 for overdue bills after he left them.  On inspection I uncovered that O2 owed him £137.77 due to persistent overbilling on their part.  I decided that it might be simple to have a friendly word with O2 about this …  I was wrong …

Tom, before O2 got him

Tom, before O2 got him

So, what’s the big deal?

You might at first be wondering why any of this matters?  Well, O2 recently put a debt collection agency onto the case.  I had explained the situation to them and they agreed that it was not correct and they dropped the matter.  I thought that this was the end of the matter.  Not at all.  I then received a letter from Messrs Buchanan, Clark and White, a firm of solicitors chasing the £61 debt (times must be hard – goodness knows what O2 are paying them to recover £61!! – perhaps it’s O2’s UK tax bill?).  So, the big deal here relates to my son getting a bad credit score rating for O2’s overbilling which caused Tom to leave them. Such things are notoriously hard to remove in the age of computers, even if it can be proved that the data is incorrect.  I have since found out that O2 have logged him on Experian et al as a result of their own error and I’m now about to take Experian to the cleaners for logging false information.

I asked O2 if they could call me to sort this out (Tom is a student and refuses to call them using an 0845 number, which would cost him a massive amount, given the time needed to get through).  To my astonishment, O2 pointed out that they were unable to arrange callbacks.  I thought to myself:

Er, did I just get hear that correctly?  

A phone company unable to make a phone call?  

Yes, you did Peter!

No one receiving - O2's customer contact policy

No one receiving – O2’s customer contact policy

If O2 won’t call me, I’ll call them …

Eventually, I decided that a trip to see my son would be in order and a visit to the O2 shop, so I set off on a 60 mile jaunt to the O2 shop in Canterbury on Saturday.  I explained the problem to the manager.  The shop could not help as his account is not active and therefore their computer “said no”, but they did let me call O2 on their customer phone. After 20 minutes, someone eventually answered, listened carefully for 15 minutes and then agreed to escalate the call. However, there was no one to escalate the call to, so I asked for a call back.  Another 20 minutes later, this had been arranged with a password for me to use on my son’s behalf.  The call was to come within 5 – 1o minutes but no call arrived.  Thus my entire afternoon was wasted for no outcome whatsoever.  I retired injured, having spent the whole afternoon on the telephone when I had gone to see my son for something far more important.  Ho hum, shit happens, and it seems to happen a lot when you phone O2 …

Lazy Sunday … not 

Sunday is a new day so I thought I’d start over.  Firstly online.  In a moment of blind optimism, I thought that maybe I could ask O2 to start where we left off with a call back.  Oh no, we’re right back to the beginning again!  They refused to use the password we had set up on Saturday and also refused to honour the call they never made the previous day.  Interestingly O2 are very keen to get me off Twitter to discuss the matter in private, so that they can continue the process of gradual erosion, sucking the energy, life and soul out of even the most passionate customer, like some kind of telephonic dementors:

O2's customer service centre?

O2’s customer service centre?

Undeterred by about 50 repetitive mind-numbing e-mails from O2’s web team, I set off with renewed energy to the local O2 shop as it seems that the only way I can deal with this is by phone.  An exceptional shop assistant greets me, tries to access the account online, but once again is blocked by O2 as the account is not active.  This time we have a 90 minute phone call to O2, via three of their customer representatives including two senior managers.  The first cannot help but is polite and refers me on again. The second listens carefully but also cannot help and refers to the third (Keeley) who decides to go on the attack. Here’s some of the arguments that Keeley makes:

  • My son should have persisted with queuing for hours to sort the contract out.  He is therefore a wimp for not putting up with O2’s appalling service and it’s his fault that he did not get his money back and now his fault that the solicitors are on his case. She herself points out that she checks everything as people cannot be trusted. This is not a way I wish to run my life, nor have I ever done so.
  • I ask for a copy of the original contract  as he never received one and Keeley disputes his honesty that he bought an offer.  Keeley refuses to send a copy as this information is ‘confidential’.  She says that ‘the computer says’ that my son has not tried to contact O2 (actually it has no record of any contact) and this means that his contract is valid.  I point out that he did visit the shop several times to no avail.  She says that the computer does not record shop visits and implies that the visits did not therefore happen.  When people mistake explicit data from tacit knowledge and information, we are into very dangerous territory.  If it is not on the computer, it does not exist was the line taken by O2.  I am reminded of Little Britain:
  • Keeley likes to point out that it was my son (and not O2) who broke the contract by just leaving O2 at the end of the contract. She thinks this is stupid and that therefore he must pay the price for his stupidity. When I point out that O2 broke the contract in the first place by repeatedly overcharging, she fails to answer the point, simply using the ‘broken record’ technique in an attempt to break my will.  I point out that Tom would probably never have left O2 if the contract had been made correctly in the first place, thus if blame is to be apportioned, then O2 are the root cause of his departure and therefore the breach of contract.  She chooses to ignore this.  I hope she sleeps well.  This seems to be in contrast with the views of Ronan Dunne, CEO of O2:
Ronan Dunne's view of customer service - Fine words, but I think I'd rather hear the views of Ronan Keating on this ...

Ronan Dunne’s view of customer service – Fine words, but I think I’d rather hear the views of Ronan Keating on this …

O2’s HR Director Ann Pickering seems to have a different view of things.  She claims that O2 hire staff that go the extra mile and want to turn their customers into fans … she does not mention of which company though …  She claims that they want to hire ‘disruptors’ who do things differently.  This is a good illustration of the gap between HR strategy and practice. Someone up there has some kind of set of fantasies about what is going on at ground floor level and they never get to have that view disturbed until a customer shakes their paradigm.  Well, Ann Pickering, consider your paradigm well and truly shaken.

Deluded - What HR think is going on as compared with the reality - the fictional world of Ann Pickering

Deluded – What HR think is going on as compared with the reality – the fictional world of Ann Pickering – She is however right about one thing – that their staff are untrained and unwilling

  • Keeley cannot help anyway as the matter is in the hands of solicitors to claim the £61 back. Keeley claims to be a ‘senior manager’.  But just what is she managing?  How has this got anything to do with management?  It appears that the computer could do her job as she tells me that her computer holds all the information she needs to make a resolution.

I still need to resolve the matter or my son gets a bad credit rating for £61, when it is O2 that owe him money. On principle it seems wrong now to just pay up, which is what they expect people to do.  Here’s the account as it currently stands:

  • My son allegedly owes O2 £61 for not actively cancelling his contract
  • O2 owe my son £137.77 for overbilling which caused him to leave O2 thus invalidating his contract with them
  • O2 owe my son an order of correction to Experian et al to ensure that he does not become criminalised at the age of 19 for O2’s mistake in overbilling him
  • O2 owe me £50 for petrol
  • O2 owe me more than five day’s wasted time
  • O2 owe Tom and myself something for the mind numbing experience and a wasted weekend
  • O2 may be sued for inappropriate use of credit rating agencies to criminalise my son at the age of 19 for mistakes that THEY made on THEIR computer, following the recent case of this in respect of Richard Durkin

Lest you might be thinking that all call centres are bad, that’s simply not true as there is a huge differential between these places.  I’ve had excellent service from First DirectEE and The Carphone Warehouse of late.

So, what’s next?  Well, I think we have moved no further forward than when this started and each time I contact O2, they put bureaucratic and petty quasi legal obstacles in the way of resolution.  So it appears that my next steps must be to raise this formally with various people so that they do not get trapped in a similar way.  I must thank Anne Tynan for her excellent article on Why brands must have big ears, which provides a catalogue of advice and examples in this area.

POSTSCRIPT 14.15 Monday 03 March

I have just had a call from O2’s Office of the Chief Executive – The issue appeared to be on the road to resolution but see below. Thanks to all that have shared the blog on social media – I somehow wish that we could have reached this point without the worst two days of my life this year and the consequent losses of business and money.

POSTSCRIPT 09.51 Wednesday 12 March

My optimism was in vain.  I have had considerable amounts of my time wasted by O2’s Executive Customer Relations team over this.  Central to their argument is that they claim that we must have evidence that the contract was £16 per month, but O2 have admitted that they cannot find a copy of the contract themselves!!  I find this astonishing, given that I can recover invoice 0001 from 1994 from my own business, but they appear to be unable to produce a copy of an order from just over a year ago.  They also claim that they are unable and unwilling to stop the contagion of data sharing that has occurred to credit rating agencies in spite of the fact that it was their own computer systems that generated this error.  As a result I have lodged a formal complaint to Ofcom and the Ombudsman – see below:

A case of mis-selling?

A case of mis-selling?

To add insult to injury, my wife decided to cancel her contract with O2 and spent nearly 90 minutes on “Live Chat” sessions trying to get them to send an e-mail confirming that she had cancelled the contract, since O2 insist that “if it is not on a computer, it did not happen”.  On every occasion, she was promised a confirmation e-mail.  On every occasion it has not arrived …  In the words of Timbaland “It’s too late to apologise”.

To cheer me up, time for some Blondie which explains the title of this blog and some other telephone songs from ELO and Sylvia’s Mother, as performed by the bizarre Country and Western 3-piece Glam Rock duo The Cowpokers – the piece starts 2 minutes in:

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

With the Beatles

Poetry in motion

Poetry in motion

A little break from business this week with a superb poem produced by my friend Dr Reg Butterfield in Vienna using titles and lyrics from songs by The Beatles.  Reg has just written a free book about change and natural systems.  Contact him for a copy.

Dear Prudence

Do you want to know a secret

Ask me why

There’s a place

I should have known better

I don’t want to spoil the party

I’ve just seen a face

Tell me what you see

You won’t see me

What goes on

Here there and everywhere

I want to tell you

With a little help from my friends

All together now

We can work it out

Across the universe

Crying, waiting, hoping

Lonesome tears in my eyes

Ooh! My eyes

Ooh! My soul

How do you do it

You know what to do

All things must pass

I should have known better

I’m a loser

Contact Reg for your copy of “Change – A Personal view” by clicking the picture

Click to get a free copy of the book

Click to get a free copy of the book

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.  Check out our online Leadership programme for FREE via The Music of Business Online.

Box Set 7