Ardern’s Leadership Given a Sporting Chance

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Something remarkable has been seen to happen in the world of management and leadership. It’s called New Zealand. I’m biased – I’m also a Kiwi. That said I can, I think, look at NZ in a dispassionate way not having lived or worked there since the 1990s. Much of my time has been spent in the northern hemisphere where things are done quite differently and more recently in Australia, where on the face of its things are similar, but on deeper scrutiny aren’t really.

In the wake of the terrible Christchurch mosque killings we have seen wave after wave of leadership on the big and small scale. Prime Minister Ardern’s role as leader and comforter to the nation is vital and how well she has stepped up to the plate. The three main NZ telcos (Spark, Vodafone and 2Degrees) open letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google is another fine example. Then there are the smaller, but in some ways more poignant, demonstrations of leadership within the community where schools have broken into a spontaneous hakas. The all-conquering Crusaders, the undisputed most successful franchise in Super Rugby history have decided to review their brand name. The list goes on.

Adversity often brings out the best in people, but this tends to be at the level of compassion. This event appears to be bringing forth both the right amount of compassion AND great leadership. Why then has such great leadership bubbled to the surface? What is it about the green unspoiled environment of NZ that seems to provide such clarity of thinking in times when clear leadership is necessary? Why does, Aotearoa, the ‘land of the long white cloud’ produce great leaders?

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Not convinced that they do? In recent days President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has demonstrated his own style of poor Leadership with his inflammatory comments about sending NZ’ers and Australians back in a box from the ANZAC ceremonies in the Dardanelles. Not surprisingly, given there are important elections due in Turkey, he is playing to his base with his hyperventilated comments. Because he didn’t limit his comments to one country, we get a rare opportunity to see how two world leaders respond to a common jibe.

Bigger brother, Australia, through Prime Minister Scott Morrison issues a robust rebuke indicating that without a withdrawal and apology for the outrageous comments then there would be further consequences. The suggestion is a recall of ambassadors and asking the Ambassador of Turkey to leave. Good chest pumping stuff at a diplomatic level! Just what Erdogan wants. He’d love that so he could say “look they killed Muslims and now they kick Turkey’s ambassador out”. As he has a tight grip on media in Turkey it’s a message he can pretty much control for his own people.

NZ a much smaller brother, or should we say sister, has sent its Foreign Minister Winston Peters directly to Istanbul for face to face talks. Erdogan would respect that; two bull-headed men plainly talking behind closed doors.  The difference is in touch and diplomacy. Such differences stem from a different perspective on leadership. While NZ arguably has a more genuine case for being upset at the Erdogan comments, because the bloodshed of the Mosque attack happened on their shores, they have nevertheless taken a less sabre-rattling approach.  Better leadership all round.

So, having made the case what might be the reason for this surfeit of leadership skills? While it’s tempting to say it’s the crystal-clear rivers and lakes and un-spoilt wilderness, clearly this isn’t the underlying cause. I think it’s because NZ as a small country has had long-term exposure to a number of really inspiring leaders and this role-modelling has rubbed off on the population at large. Given sporting heroes are an easily accessible role model for sports-crazy young men and women, its fortunate that Kiwis have had such a great run of those that have excelled and done so with a real humility and dignity over the years.

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Reflecting on leadership I often think of the example of Edmund Hillary. He was the first to scale Everest but never revealed who got there first – him or his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. He even refused to have his photo taken on the summit! That’s a story that every NZ’er of my generation, and probably since, has imprinted in their marrow. He then went on to other feats of daring-do and spent a lifetime helping the people of Nepal. Humility – a cornerstone of good leadership.

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I also recall John Walker, the athlete who won a 1500m gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and broke the world mile and 1500m records on a number of occasions. He kept running for years, even when his age meant he could no longer win. He just ran for the pure love of it. Perseverance – a cornerstone of good leadership.

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Peter Blake was a world-renowned yachtie and someone who inspired the nation through his round the world maxi races and America’s Cup leadership.  He inspired a generation of sports persons through the removal of hierarchy and the ability to instill a single sense of focus. He was tragically killed defending his crew when pirates boarded his yacht off the coast of Brazil in 2001. Selflessness – a cornerstone of leadership.

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Richie McCaw, possibly the greatest All Black to play the game (which means the best player ever) continues to inspire those who follow in his footsteps. He played through pain from injuries and battled the emotional ‘scars’ of losing a World Cup final. His preparation was meticulous and his ability to inspire without compare. Leading by example – a cornerstone of good leadership.

So Jacinda is an inheritor of a fine leadership tradition. She has the strong leadership gene that is engrained in NZ’ers, especially Maori. There is a word in Maori called ‘mana’ that has no easy English translation. As a Kiwi when you see someone with ‘mana’ you just know it. Mana to me is ‘leadership in motion’ and Jacinda Ardern has it in abundance. Now it’s time for young NZ’ers to learn from her example as the baton shifts to the next generation. Given we live in this age of the 24 hour news cycle, assisted by the connectedness of the internet, the whole world now gets to see an emerging great leader in motion, inspiring well beyond the shores of the shaky isles!

Flying in the Face of Hayne

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By all accounts there were some very smart people involved in the Hayne Financial Services Royal Commission. Now that it’s over and the final report has been in the public domain for some time, I can take a more reflective look at the Commission’s work and some of the fallout. It strikes me Royal Commission’s are strange beasts. They are overwhelmingly led by lawyers and are conducted in a manner that has a very legalistic and adversarial framework. Most often they are looking into matters that reflect systemic organizational or cultural issues that are failures of management and leadership. It would follow, I would have thought, therefore that while a solid legal foundation might be needed by the commissioner/s, the most essential skill set is management and leadership (and here I’m speaking of leadership of a company). This is seldom the case and proved true of the Royal Commission chaired by Justice Hayne.

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So that had me thinking – what were the qualifications of the main belligerents? What made them uniquely qualified to sit in judgement of others? Let’s start at the top with Justice Kenneth Hayne. He’s an ex-University of Melbourne double major Arts and Law and did a Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford. Topping that off he is a Rhodes Scholar. Then there was the stellar performance by his counsel assisting, the inimitable Rowena Orr QC. She’s endowed with a Bachelor of Economics and Hons Law Degree and a MPhil in Criminology.

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Then let’s take a quick peek at some of the ‘defendants’. First off Dr Ken Henry, then Chair of NAB, with an economics degree from UNSW and a PhD in economics from University of Canterbury. He was Treasury Secretary for 10 years most importantly steering Australia through the GFC. Another is David Gonski, Chair of ANZ, who began life as a lawyer at Freehills becoming the youngest ever partner at the age of 25. He is equipped with a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Law (winning the University Medal no less) both from UNSW.

What’s striking for me in this is that both sides – the Commission and those being grilled – both appear to have a yawning gap in the very skill area in which they are defending their position, or proffering their criticism. How can this be? I’d never knowingly fly in an aircraft where the person at the controls was not a qualified and experienced pilot.  I’d be willing to guess it has to do with hubris. To become a lawyer you need a great academic result in school that will set you above the less gifted, academically speaking, in what still is (despite increased use of A-i) a highly sought after and hotly competitive area of study. Very few lawyers seem to go on to study management through an MBA or other lifelong learning. Believe me economics and commerce are not a straight proxy for management. They are, off the bat, ill-equipped to speak on matters of management and leadership without bootstrapping some academic qualifications in the field of management.

The fact that the banks and other financial institutions got into trouble, I would argue, is because of lack of management expertise in the first place. Creating highly perverse outcomes from incentive schemes aimed at playing on greed and individualistic reward, was always likely to end badly. The schizophrenia between the advertising of the banks and their actual  behavior must have had many of their non-bonus earning staff shaking their heads in disbelief. The skill of management is about creating growth AND compliance and getting everyone ACTUALLY delivering against agreed values, not just nodding towards them at successive Board meetings. Skills as a Director, which really should be re-phrased as ‘experience’ as a Director, are no proxy for management, nor is it any indication as to how a company might be run.

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I noted during the Royal Commission that the professional organization that represents managers and leaders, the peak body as it were, made the case for all senior execs in the finance sector to become Chartered Managers. This is the latest offering from the Institute of Managers and Leaders ANZ and to my mind should be a prerequisite for anyone looking to lead a company as part of the executive. How many take up the offer remains to be seen. You wouldn’t have your Chief Financial Officer without a professional accountancy qualification CA or CPA etc. so why would we expect companies to be run by someone without professional management qualifications?

So, what were the implications for us as consumers from this lack of managerial skills, experience and qualifications? Well, as already noted, consumers have been ‘dudded’ for some time by financial institutions. But at the Commission itself this lack of depth in management means the recommendations are unlikely to create a coherent plan for a re-structure that can create order out of the apparent paradox of serving the customer and the shareholder. Hayne hasn’t sorted this out. There was also a lost opportunity in addressing a long-existing flaw where the executive and Board lines get blurred. I have been of the belief for a long time that you can be on a Board, or in the executive, but you cannot simultaneously do both. If I was Hayne I would have banished the Managing Director position once and for all. How can the management be held to account if the chief officer of management, the CEO, also sits as one among equals on the Board of Directors in the role of Managing Director?

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Hayne did collect some ‘scalps’ though, so you might think that the consumer at least had some sense of justice. But let’s look at who went. Ken Henry, saviour of the country from the GFC had a mere 3 years as Chair of NAB and much less time as Chair than his counterpart, Gonski, at ANZ. Henry’s gone and Gonski remains in place. This is as a direct result of Hayne and critical comments in his report based on the tone of the ‘cross examination’ during the Commission’s hearings. Had Hayne had more management expertise to draw upon, I suspect he might have understood the emotional intelligence (EI) issues at play and realized that his assessment of Henry was coloured partly by his performance style.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Hayne might have even had the fleeting thought of ‘how dare he’ a mere economist speaking like that to a lawyer! We will never know. What we do know is that those who are familiar with Henry say that when involved in such circumstances he gets very defensive. This, it can be argued, was also a fault of Henry’s own lack of EI. Henry, though, was only responsible for his performance, while Hayne was sitting in judgement where the bar is set higher (excusing the pun). I hypothesize that a Chartered Manager sitting in Hayne’s Chair would have had a better handle on EI and things might have worked differently for Henry and not at the detriment to the findings either. Gonski, a wily performer with more time in the corporate world, made a small target and came through the Commission pretty much unscathed. Was NAB that much worse than the ANZ…I’m not so convinced?

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So I’m advocating for the corporate world to embrace the Institute of Managers and Leaders Chartered Management qualification. I’m suggesting that there be no dual roles as executive and Director for the same person on the same Board. I’m calling for a genuine focus on the customer and concern for the well-being of the workforce. All these things genuine managers do as part of their day jobs. I’m also calling for a more reasoned approach next time the Government decides to call a Royal Commission. By all means have a commissioner with some knowledge of the law so things can go well procedurally, but let’s have some people with genuine credentialed management qualifications and experience. After all if management is the core of the issue, managers need to sort the issues out. If both your pilots fall prey to food poisoning on your next flight, you are unlikely to hear a call out over the PA system asking for someone with experience in Torts!

Streaming Tears for our Entertainment Future

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I was explaining to a youngster over the Christmas period, the old process of accessing entertainment, specifically films to watch, which required a visit to Blockbuster. It generally involved disappointment if you left the run too late to find that the new releases had all been rented by someone else. I was going to go further and talk about getting your camera film developed, but the incredulous look on their face gave me a hint that that might have been a bridge too far already!

Of course, nowadays the inconvenience of having to get your timing right to get to the ‘video store’ and possibly missing out on your desired movie of choice, is a thing of the past. Thank god you might say and to a degree I’m with you. But I still find now, with streaming and poor bandwidth, that if I don’t get my timing right I’ve left it too late for the movie to buffer enough to either watch the film in the first place, or watch it with a degree of fidelity that makes it an enjoyable experience. This is particularly true of Netflix, Stan and TV on demand.

This got me thinking about streaming and its impact on our lives, not only now but into the future. My first reflection is the impact streaming is having on our willingness to wait. This has pretty much been trashed by the always available on demand nature of streaming. In years gone by, the anticipation of the next episode of a TV show that would be on the same night, at the same time a week later, was half the fun. That’s why VCRs were invented – in case you had a function to go to and would otherwise miss your show. In days gone by the conversation next day at work or school etc. had everyone on the same page. Nowadays the conversation goes more like. “Have you been watching [insert programme] on Netflix?” If the answer is ‘no’ it’s generally followed with “well you should it’s great”. If the answer is ‘yes’ it’s followed by “what episode are you up to?” And there ends the conversation when you realise you are both out of sync. No-one wants a spoiler. Not really the in-depth conversation piece of a few years prior when you both were on the same page, as it were, episodically speaking.

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The second by-product of this unwillingness to wait is its spill over into other areas of our life. We start demanding things now and our patience for the delivery of content whether it’s music, films or stuff from Amazon has been eroded to the point that customer fulfillment has become the supply chain issue of our generation. It also means though that there is precious little time planning. No big deal you might think but it has significant issues in the business world where last minute demands aren’t as easily fulfilled as a downloaded TV show. Take ordering concrete for a large pour on a block of apartments. You can’t just ring up and get that delivered within an hour or so. Planning they say “prevents piss poor performance” but this concept is fast achieving second cousin status in our work lives and especially our non-work lives. As any successful business person will tell you, planning, goal setting and evaluation are the three core underpinnings of business. The ability to do this, especially planning ahead is associated with the development of the third and most recent part of our brain the neocortex. To take this out of the equation of our lives will seriously impact our neurological health, not to mention our business.

My next concern and trend in streaming is curated content. I noticed this first in the early days of Amazon when doing an on-line CD (a disc upon which digital music was compiled) purchase. It went something like ‘other buyers who bought this also bought…’ Without realizing it I was getting my first taste of the echo-chamber. Nowadays Apple Music or Spotify can curate your musical content and with iTunes you can buy the songs you want to hear from a myriad of albums (originally a large piece of vinyl upon which a band recorded their latest content) without buying the whole thing. Great for your wallet not so good for expanding your horizons.

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Netflix similarly – although I think with less precision – is sending similar content to me on the basis if I liked that, I’ll like this… The problem here is with neural pathways. New experiences that challenge and arouse create these new pathways expanding our brain and sometimes generate the neuro plasticity that has featured in recent years in neuroscience research. If we get fed the same content, without exposing ourselves to new ideas, our brains will actually shrink. We used to have a phrase for this – we become ‘narrow minded’. Funnily enough this is a reasonably accurate description of the physiological impact on our brain of not expanding our horizons and trying out new experiences or stimuli.

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There’s a less significant but nonetheless important loss also from this and that is the delight in the unexpected. If you bought the song ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles you will have missed the gem that is ‘The Last Resort’. If you bought ‘Werewolves of London’ by Warren Zevon that features on his album Excitable Boy, you would have missed the classic track ‘Lawyers, Guns and Money.’ If you watched say Daredevil by Marvel on Netflix, you will have been encouraged in the direction of Luke Cage, Iron Fist et al.

 

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Chances are you would not be pushed in the direction of the excellent The Bureau (French) or Das Boot (German) television shows because curating doesn’t spread its net like that, plus it’s on the SBS on demand service not Netflix. Expanding your entertainment viewing boundaries is another way to expand your horizons and therefore develop new neural pathways. What we ingest for entertainment is like the food pyramid whereby ‘a little bit of everything’ and ‘everything in moderation’ holds true!

My third and final concern links to this last point. As bandwidth increases so does the size of the signal through your streaming service. I’ve been watching 4k lately (Westworld) and it’s hard to see how that fidelity can improve. I’ve been watching it on 4k blu ray in case you think this contradicts my earlier point. So what might add to the size of the signal hitting your TV or mobile viewing device? I think the next big step to come, and streaming technology makes it possible for the first time, is highly personalized mass customization (HPMC). My streaming service knows me precisely. For example if I bail early to get a good night’s sleep (a further casualty of our streaming fixation – but that’s a subject of a future blog) I pick up precisely where I left off next time I connect. Couple this with information online harvesters have on me and it’s highly likely that this will feature in content in the future.

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We won’t tolerate advertisements in a Netflix show but would we tolerate advertisements within a Netflix show? With high processing power and bandwidth to spare it’s possible, I believe in the not too distant future, that when watching my show of choice (and they know what I’m watching and therefore can predict my future watching patterns), to have a direct appeal or reminder to me encapsulated in the show itself. Product placement will become old hat and viewer specific placements will take their place. Is having a Dell computer placed in a highly visible position in a cop show going to target me more effectively than a Dell monitor in the scene scrolling a message reminding me that my car insurance is up soon an and Budget Direct will offer me a 15% reduction on what my current insurer is offering?  I think not!

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If my favourite basketball player in the world is Kevin Durant, how chuffed would I be to read off the front or back of his jersey a personalised message to me loaded onto the green screen patch affixed to that jersey. My neighbor watching the same game at his place would be getting a very different message targeted directly at him on that very same jersey. Highly effective, hugely valuable for the product and advertisers, but immensely annoying and potentially corruptive. If politicians got hold of this, or unscrupulous operators at state or corporate levels then the very fabric of our democracy and sanity might be at risk.

So next time a younger person is extolling the virtue of streaming and sympathizing with you about all those forlorn trips to Blockbuster, just beware that everything comes at a price. Streaming may turn out to be both detrimental to our health, as well as the democratic process. We might find the price we pay for convenience is too high. The intrusion into our lives of streaming services might well be akin to some dystopian 1984 vision and we need to take heed. But the younger generation won’t know this it was written well before they were born and with no Blockbuster it’s real hard to get your hands on the movie!

That Philiping ‘Sound-Bite Wisdom’

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I haven’t done a blog so far in August and yet I smashed out six in June and two in July. The reason? Well partly a dearth of material, but primarily because I have got into very short-form posts to LinkedIn. They are pithy (some might say pissy) little truisms or nuggets of wisdom that pop into my head from time to time; sometimes at the most random moments. I write them on a flipchart, take a photo, post it and Bob’s your Uncle. I call them #philiped chart – a play on the word ‘flip’ and my name ‘Philip’. Clever huh?

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So over the weekend I paused for breath and had a moment to reflect. This reflection time had me pondering the sort of nano-second world we now live in. Everything seems to be about speed and expediency, meaning activities that are more contemplative in nature tend to get relegated to the ‘too hard basket’ or ‘can’t find time basket’.  We’ve all seen examples of the glib sound bite wisdom, especially LinkedIn memes with some words of wisdom, be it for life and happiness, or how to manage our company or make a million in a week. I’m dismissive of such banality but over the weekend it dawned on me (somewhat late you might think) that I’m caught up in perpetuating the very thing I dislike.

So instead of just lamenting the near demise of long-form and considered written matter, I thought it might be worthwhile considering the implications of the new normal and how it came about.

It probably started before texting and Twitter. The beginnings of this demise can probably be charted back to the advent of television where entertainment was brought to us in a lazy fashion. At least with radio there is the engagement of the imagination. Less books began to be read and before long newspapers – a very good example of long-form journalism –  were flirting with the idea of shortening their pages. First cab off the rank were the tabloids in the belief that their readership wanted their news in more bite-sized chunks. You are hard-pressed today to find even the quality newspapers (broadsheets) produced in the old large format. Necessarily this means more considered long-form journalism is less evident.

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With texting came the expediency of getting a quick message off while the thought or conversation was hot. The days of the well-penned letter well and truly behind us at this stage. Then Twitter forced us to be deliberately succinct to the tune of 140 characters although 280 are available to some. In business there is a tendency to applaud such focus. No-one likes a meandering meeting with no real purpose right? Caution is needed though because not only can little thoughtful communication be conveyed in such a few characters, but the compunction to be brief can deliver dire consequences. The infamous Trump tweets have wreaked havoc across the globe with traditional allies often getting flamed by him. Were Trump to pen his thoughts in a broader manner and expound on his reasoning for the position he was taking, then no doubt the end result would be less inflammatory. As a result of the current trend to brevity, world tensions are now much higher.

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Then came the memes and LinkedIn which was my starting point. A few words placed beneath a  picture of a tranquil lake, while on the face of it harmless enough, can often  be anything but calming for someone experiencing grave difficulties in their life. A glib line that pays no homage  to the travails, scars and complexities of difficult situations does little good and is patronising at best. Knowing that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ for example  is not really that helpful. It kinda suggests to me that the person dispensing this ‘wisdom’ has actually got that sorted and is reaping all sorts of benefits from doing so…a certain smugness comes through. What would be more helpful is a detailed exploration as to how one might get strategy implementation through developing and nurturing a culture whereby everyone knew the strategy, and was clear in their role to achieve it and worked assiduously to make it happen. Sure longer words but, more importantly, a lot harder to make happen.

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Recently I saw on LinkedIn the employability skills required to make us thrive in the age of digital disruption. Rather surreptitiously they all began with C. They were:

C – creativity;

C- critical thinking;

C- collaboration; and

C – communication.

That’s how this whole sound-bite wisdom works. There has to be some short sharp pattern. Like they all begin with ‘C’ for example. Life and management are much more complex than that, but perhaps that upsets the narrative and pattern too much. That had me thinking. Perhaps other letters of the alphabet might also be applied to the skills of the future. Here’s what a quick bit of procratiworking got me:

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A  – agility (agile’s very much on trend right now!);

A – adaptability;

A – ambition; and

A – awareness.

I got on a roll and then thought ‘hey what about B’. Bit tougher this one but came up with:

B – bold;

B – businesslike;

B – big data; and

B – build partnerships.

C’s already been covered so what about ‘D’

D – diplomacy;

D – decision-making;

D – delegation; and

D –diligence.

So you see it’s not that hard to be glib. The fact of the matter is that the complex nature of managing in an organisation, or leading it, requires just three things (isn’t this me being reductionist?):

  • A complex battery of skills, competence and experience;
  • Self-awareness of your own shortcomings to be able to recruit to cover these; and
  • A mix of determination, sheer luck and creativity.

As suggested, this incorporates a huge array of skills and experience that cannot be contained within one letter of the alphabet.

If we are to achieve in improving our business delivery and leadership, it is unlikely that this will occur as a result of a nano-second eyeball capture on LinkedIn. In fact, most genuine entrepreneurs will talk about the hours of hard work and risks taken in order to become the ‘overnight success’ from their ‘genius’ idea. The same is true of effectively managing people and strategy. This can only be done effectively through life-long learning and having a raft of theoretical and practical skills that are constantly added to and updated. At times LinkedIn appears, in management terms, to be the equivalent of classified pages of old newspapers that carried remedies for everything from baldness to hearing loss. There are no simple one silver bullet fixes all ailments here. There ain’t no Rawleighs for management ailments!

The best solution to improving your business outcomes and managing your people for mutual advantage is to have a means by which best practice is available to you in long-form. Having peers with whom you can discuss issues and challenges with face to face, rather than a ‘like’ or ‘comment’ from one of your 800 odd connections, is much more enlightening. That’s why I have joined the Institute of Managers and Leaders and that’s why I sought the Chartered Manager status. The access to quality advice, peers, long-form research and insights provides a great opportunity to keep current in a world increasingly bombarded by little snippets of ‘wisdom’; not unlike what I contribute to most days that distract and dumb down the complexity of modern management. Sometimes too much condensed wisdom makes me want to ‘philip my lid’!

What to Eat and What Knot to Eat

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We’ve all been there. In fact its de rigueur for the first speaker after lunch at a conference or seminar to make a particularly threadbare comment about the graveyard shift’. The implication is you will all be nodding off after stuffing yourself on the hearty food gulped down during the lunch break. This is generally aided and abetted by those delicious and tempting pastries served at morning tea. The fact of the matter is the speaker is right on the money and sure enough the audience will be dotted with people whose bodies jerk awake as they have caught themselves nodding off. It doesn’t have to be like that though. Imagine then, this phenomenon happening in the workplace every day outside of the conference circuit. Imagine it happening when high risk plant is being used on a site, precision manufacturing, or air traffic control. Imagine trying to learn key life-saving information on a training course.

An interesting article appeared in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) this week on companies (NAB, Bupa and KPMG all got a mention) who are getting rid of sugar rich food in favour of healthy options. A big part of their rationale is productivity and wellness. If you think this is just high paid HR people running out of ideas think again. It has been estimated (AFR) that the cost of absenteeism and presenteeism (at work but not fully on the case) costs the Australian economy $44 billion per annum. Put that into perspective – Queensland spends $17.3 billion on its public healthcare system.

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As many will know CTC has had a focus on worker well-being for some time. We are pretty proud of the initiatives we have introduced:

  • 24/7 gym;
  • Mindfulness training for staff and tenants;
  • Relaxation and sleep centre; and
  • Fitness classes.

In fact we were recognised for our efforts in 2016 winning the State Government’s Best Workplace Wellbeing Award. Our efforts have focused lately in the areas of nutrition and mental health and alertness. As I write this we are holding our very first Keto Klub where we will impart information and provide support to those wishing to explore the benefits of a new approach to diet (as opposed to dieting).

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There are those who will argue that obesity isn’t a workplace issue, but I’m not sure I can subscribe to that view. With respect to our own position we provide an on-site café and from here we feed our tenant staff, our CTC staff, students, visitors and course participants. We have a captive market on our Precinct. What we serve everyday has an on-going positive, or not so positive impact on people’s lives, depending on menu options we present. Things are getting worse at a population level for Australians.

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The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare who know such things state that one quarter (26% to be exact) of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2014-15. Alarm bells not ringing yet? They also estimate that two thirds of adults are overweight or obese costing our economy an estimated $8.6 billion in 2011-12. At the very least this is a health and social policy issue of huge significance so it’s easy to see how this could impact on the business world and why the business world may wish to intervene. Regular readers of my blogs will be familiar with my argument of businesses and corporations acting ‘in loco parentis’, as it were, with respect to what used to be the sole domain of governments.

As it happened we have changed our Café operator recently. While we were sad to see our previous operators depart after a number of years running a successful enterprise, that did provide us with an opportunity to re-think our approach to what we offer. How can we sheet home responsibility to the government to fix the obesity epidemic if we keep providing food that runs counter to a healthy diet?

Before selecting a new operator we sat down and worked through an ethos. We sought opinions from our tenants and the main building and construction Union. Guess what? They reported that they we grappling with exactly the same issues of the need for healthy food options for a workforce that traditionally has been eating food of lower nutritional value. Our thoughts can be distilled as:

  • You are what you eat;
  • Providing a range of healthy food that is both nutritious and able to sustain those workers who have manual jobs and who burn off significant kilojoules of energy through manual labour;
  • Recognition of the fact that very few attendees at CTC actually undertake the physical work where they do the high burn of kilojoules. This occurs after they finish their course and leave the Precinct;
  • Students are with us to learn – in many cases to get tickets for high risk work. We want them focused while training not drowsy from stodgy food;
  • Offering healthier options may provide the customer with that ‘light bulb moment’ that may see them want to explore better diet options going forward;
  • Buying local is better from a sustainability point of view and supports local businesses;
  • Reducing food waste is a good thing (Australians waste nearly $10b per year with the average household chucking out 14% of food bought (Huffington Post Oct24 2017);
  • Fresh food is better than frozen;
  • Sugar is the hidden killer so less is more across the food and beverage range; and
  • Fair trade is preferable because we know the provenance. Many attendees on courses belong to companies who have reporting obligations in the very near future under upcoming Modern Slavery legislation currently going through Parliament.

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I just want to dwell on sugar for a moment. Advocate group That Sugar Movement tested 291 employees recently who had no known health issues and found around half (52%) had blood sugar levels out of range. Clearly added sugar in our food is a major culprit and the area that needs most immediate attention. Even if you think you have pared back by having a healthy meal you may just find yourself trapped by a -on the face of it -healthy drink. Common place in our industry are energy and re-hydration drinks, many of which are loaded with sugar. Even pure fruit juice drinks will be high in sugar. The rule of thumb I use is 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon…round it to 5 if your maths is not great! Let’s take Powerade or Gaterade, two popular sports drinks. Both contain 21 grams of sugar in a 375ml (12 ounce bottle) around 5 teaspoons of sugar. That’s probably the value of your hard workout gone before even leaving the gym!

So if you do want to provide food at a function/seminar/conference/training session, or be attentive at a session, what works and what doesn’t?

DO:

  • Have breakfast. Certainly NOT the most important meal of the day but it is if you want to be alert after lunch;
  • Eat smaller quantities;
  • Colourful vegetables;
  • Whole grains;
  • Nuts and legumes;
  • If rice make it brown;
  • Blueberries and walnuts;
  • If providing a sweet option consider sugar-free slices e.g. paleo treats;
  • Lean proteins;
  • Smaller portions; and
  • Water – lots.

DON’T:

  • Turkey;
  • Soy;
  • Eggs;
  • Cheese;
  • Tofu;
  • Fish;
  • White bread;
  • Cherries – yeah go figure!
  • Starchy food;
  • Chips, wedges etc.;
  • White rice;
  • Pasta;
  • Sugar intensive sweets;
  • Too much coffee – might keep you alert at the cost of dehydration; and
  • Big portions.

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 For longer-term alertness in your day job, outside of the conference circuit, there are a number of rules of thumb.

  • Don’t be pressured into having breakfast – being the most important meal of the day is propaganda – indeed intermittent fasting rather than being bad is good for you (seek medical advice first). It’s called autophagy and worth Googling.
  • Don’t eat el desko! You spend enough time there, your meal breaks should be just that; breaks from your immediate work environment. Employers are required by law to provide lunchtime amenity to enable you to escape your particular chicken coop!
  • Lots of water;
  • Moderate coffee intake.;
  • Green or other herbal teas;
  • Oily fish like salmon;
  • Citrus;
  • Eggs;
  • Beans;
  • Avocados;
  • Walnuts;
  • Berries especially blueberries;
  • Leafy greens – perhaps avoid Kale if not organic as this ‘super food’ has an uncanny ability to absorb bad toxins from the environment;
  • Bran cereal;
  • Dark chocolate – really? Yes but has to be real dark i.e. ultra-high cocoa component;
  • (this is my own particular addition to the list) left over food in your fridge at home. Depends of course what it is – a Domino’s pizza from Friday night may not do the trick – but we waste way too much food in Australia (see above).

Of course sometimes stress makes us less productive, so if you want to eat to combat stress add these to your list:

  • Asparagus;
  • Avocados (again!);
  • Blueberries (again -these babies are amazing!);
  • Cashews;
  • Camomile and green tea;
  • Garlic;
  • Dark chocolate (again!);
  • Oysters (not that practical unless you feel stress coming on in anticipation of how you might pay the bill);
  • Walnuts (again!);
  • Oatmeal; and
  • Oranges

The transition from a poor diet to a healthy one is not one that will occur over night. Drastically removing sugar out of the food chain is a similarly long road to haul, but the UK has already introduced a sugar tax on soft drinks. Alison Watkins, CEO of Coca Cola Amatil, has recently acknowledged (AFR June 7 2018) that this lies ahead for us in Australia too. Change is never easy; there will always be resistance to it because what we know is a great comfort to us. We get used to certain things like our diet and our chips at lunch time for example. It will take a while before our new offerings in our CTC café are fully accepted by all.

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We know one thing though and that is we are on the right side of history. Employers and those providing food into workplaces (as opposed to on the street food outlets where ultimately the free markets decides) have a duty of care to employees for their well-being. In fact, it’s a statutory requirement under our Work Health and Safety Act 2011. Everyone wants our workers to return safely to their families or friends each night. We should also want that they return home healthy so they are able to participate as fully as they wish physically, mentally and emotionally. A sound diet plays a key role in enabling this.

I also think, as a society, we want one more thing – that those who are attending courses to learn critical information, knowledge and skills to undertake high risk work activities have been alert all day and haven’t dozed off in that difficult first hour after lunch. Excessive secretion of insulin from starchy, sugar-rich food floods the brain with serotonin and melatonin and we inevitably succumb to that urge to join Noddy and the rest of his friends in la la land. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to us as they are demonstrating tying that essential safety knot!

The Lyonhjelm, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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A couple of things have happened in the last two weeks that on some strange level seem linked to me. There was the outrageous slur by Senator David Lyonhjelm against fellow Senator and Green Party member Sarah Hanson-Young. Then the other day we woke up to the news that the World Cup qualifying basketball game between Australia and the Philippines had ended in farce after a massive on-court scrap. The link? Well both were asymmetric responses to a provocation.

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That had me thinking about how drama -and those two events certainly were laden with drama.  It appears to be a much greater factor in society and the workplace right now. More than ever – and certainly not helped by The Donald – we are fixing our positions on subjects and then hanging on to that anchor point, often without much research to ground our position. Too bad for you if we aren’t in accord with some other person. Not only will they take issue with you on that issue, but they’re highly likely to write you off altogether. To some degree, I blame Facebook with the concept of ‘unfriending’.

Remember the same sex marriage debate? I listened to a podcast where the subject of unfriending somebody if you found they were on the opposite side of you in that particular debate, was the topic du jour. The ‘panel’ was millennials and their consensus was that you should unfriend without much regard and move on. Why waste time on people who don’t share your beliefs and attitudes was the commonly held opinion. It’s called tolerance that’s why!

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I also blame reality TV. Let’s face it, the younger generation have had a pretty strict diet of reality shows as the backdrop to their upbringing. At least the dramas of my generation with the likes of ‘Lost in Space’ and High Chaparral were easily recognizable as fictional. A consistent feature in each and every reality show is the concept of drama – more often than not fabricated or confected. In some shows the drama gets resolved within the arc of the episode, but you can bet your bottom dollar it will be there again in the next episode. Add to the mix that we are told we need to create a brand for ourselves and constantly create a narrative – read as dramatic story – and you can see how drama is now a constant in our lives. Your chances of being successful on a music talent show appear to be lessened if you cannot magic some story to pluck the heartstrings of the audience – whose phone/text votes keep you in the competition. No wonder our younger generation is seeking drama. It’s like oxygen to them.

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Back to the Senate. Without a doubt, both houses of Parliament are theatrical and all too often there are polarised viewpoints that are argued ad-nauseam at the expense of good policy, manners and tolerance. It’s as though, sometimes, we want to create the mayhem and havoc to belittle our opponent, or wind them up where their loss of control causes them to overstep the mark. Having watched a lot of sport, it is a tactic used in that arena sometimes to great effect to create provocation that results in a sanction against the provocatee and seldom any sanction for the provocateur. As we are currently in the midst of the World Cup football this brings to mind the response of Zinedine Zidane for France against Italy when he head-butted his opponent, Marco Materazzi in a World Cup final no less!  A classic example to prove my point. The provocation…. a racial slur, the response over the top and pretty much what everyone remembers from the event.

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In the basketball match I’m advised that the aggression by the Pilipinno players was as a result of constant jibes about the loss of their ‘super hero’ boxing champion Manny Pacquiao to Aussie boxer Jeff Horn. The response by Daniel Kickert, leading with his forearm, when a fellow player was roughly dealt with was clearly inappropriate and fair play to him he has since said he regretted it. Heaps of drama though right? 1,069, 294 views of the fight on You Tube to be exact and climbing!

And so it was with Lyonhjelm, who delivered a metaphorical verbal forearm to Hanson-Young. Excessive, inappropriate and not at all helpful. Why he hasn’t expressed regret like Kickert is beyond most rational folks but he is a wily politician and perhaps he is thriving on the drama of it all? What he missed with his vulgar riposte was the opportunity to focus on the provocation by Hanson-Young which as a result of the furor he created in the media has slipped well and truly under the radar. To label ‘men’ or ‘all men as rapists’ is inflammatory and does not one jot of good in improving the lives of women who are subject to sexual harassment, family and intimate partner violence or inequality.

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Hanson-Young may use in her defense that she was speaking her truth. She might argue she was raising awareness of issues of violence against women (especially in the immediate days after the death of Eurydice Dixon – read my previous blog). Raising awareness without taking action though is merely storytelling. It’s actions that really count. Caroline Myss put it really effectively at a seminar I attended a few years back. Someone asked her a question about their personal relationship and how the person could get their partner to listen when they were speaking their truth. Myss, in characteristic fashion, upbraided the person and commented that speaking your truth is pure BS. Concentrate rather, she bluntly stated, on living your truth. There is a great lesson here for our politicians.

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In society, and therefore the workplace, we are in danger of letting polarized views taint relationships that should otherwise be based on mutual respect, valuing skill sets of others, team effort and the achievement of common goals for the benefit of the business and thereby everyone within it. It is possible to retain friendships with people whose values may have diverted from yours. The danger all too often is we take one ideological perspective and extrapolate it for that person entirely, without checking first their views on a range of other issues. For example, a less than liberal approach to say same sex marriage may well lead someone to believe their old school friend is also anti-assisted dying without actually ever finding out. I’m forever surprised by the rich tapestry that is people and finding that within conservative perspectives there are often flashes of liberalism and vice versa.  Case in point is George Brandis who recently departed from the Senate. His  politics are of the right but gave one of the most effective and moving speeches against One Nation leader and fellow senator when she wore a Burka into the Senate to make her race-laden point. Go figure!

Let’s have more good manners in our political arenas, work places and communities. Taking satisfaction from being victimized and amplifying it to create drama is not where our energies should be going. Let’s hear less of the S words (‘slut’ and ‘shag’) and more “let’s agree to disagree on that” Lets focus on addressing real concerns within both the world of women and of men. Let’s reach out. To quote C S Lewis:

‘Each day we are becoming a creature of splendid glory, or one of unthinkable horror’.’ If we could just give a bit more emphasis to the former, we are much less likely to become the latter! Less witch more lion please!

 

Eurydice and the Confront of Modern Slavery

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Sounds like a Greek tragedy and in many ways it is. The outpouring of grief and outrage at the brutal rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon in Princess Park in north Melbourne has been remarkable. And rightly so. The response was partly assisted by Lisa Wilkinson’s emotional piece to camera on The Project making her point that women have the right to walk at night without fear of violence. Confronting stuff indeed.

So that was one of two things that happened last week that left an impression on me. The response at the vigil, which my daughter who now lives in Melbourne attended, made sure that this event will linger longer in both my and the public consciousness.  The other was attending a seminar about modern slavery. It might seem strange to link the two but in doing some research on Eurydice I discovered that in her stand-up routine on the very night she died, she quipped.

“I’m trying to be more optimistic, so I’m like ‘a slave society … that means no one has any rights. We’ll finally have gender equality. Equally shit – still equal.”

Funny, edgy; it was by all accounts how she lived her life.

The modern slavery seminar I attended was a precursor to legislation that will come into force later this year in Australia that requires companies with turnovers greater than $100m to report on modern slavery through examining their supply chains to ensure that slavery does not feature. It’s based on the lead taken by the UK recognising that slavery didn’t die with Wilberforce. In fact, around 40 million people today live in some form of slavery. Confronting stuff indeed.

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Like most Dad’s I’m sure, after the news of Eurydice Dixon’s tragic death I checked in with my daughter to ask her not only about her safety, but also how she feels when she is confronted with being out at night in public. It’s not the first time we’ve spoken about this, but this time her answers seemed to pack greater punch. My daughter has been followed at night to the point where she has been genuinely fearful on a number of occasions. She has been openly approached for sex a number of times including being offered money. These events have occurred in those transition areas between public transport and the streets beyond, a known danger area and a place where women start to feel on edge. They have occurred in public toilets they have occurred on a university campus. Confronting stuff indeed.

When you do not feel free to walk through parks, be it in the day or night, or are wary knowing you may be approached by men with inappropriate intentions on or around public transport, then to a degree your freedom is being curtailed. In a philosophical and arguably actual sense there is an element of slavery here. Confronting stuff indeed.

Some, particularly the Victorian Police, argued that women need to be more vigilant especially in our public parks at night and this drew the ire of Lisa Wilkinson. Not so, she passionately opined. Rather, she said it was time men stood up and spoke to their sons to tell this that this behaviour towards women is unacceptable. No-one can argue with this. Some of us are doing that and trying to lead by example and we should ensure that this gets recognised and modeled by others. Let’s not have this as a divisive gender debate where the agenda isn’t firmly fixed on a solution. In that sense the diatribe of Dr Caroline Norma from RMIT does not appear to be overly helpful in this space, in my opinion.

Not only though do we need to show right-minded leadership to our young men, but as fathers and, yes, employers – where we manage young women- I think we also have a responsibility to mentor young women so that what happens to them on a frequent basis doesn’t become regarded as some sort of norm. The old adage ‘nothing was meant by that, it’s just the way we are around here’ holds no validity.

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While we may not be able to police the streets, we can manage the corridors -as it were – of our workplaces, where behaviour on a misogynistic spectrum can and should be stamped out. Melbourne-based feminist Clementine Ford put it in her very straightforward way.

“It isn’t up to women to modify our behaviour in order to prevent violence from being enacted against us. It’s up to society to work together to dismantle misogyny and the particular kind of male rage that informs these acts of aggression.”

I’m a fan of Ford’s. In fact when young women leave our employ her book ‘Fight Like A Girl’ is my departing gift to them. It is no longer acceptable to have what used to be euphemistically called ‘locker-room talk’ in our workplaces. Long bow maybe, but this exists on the same spectrum that ends up in aggression and violence against women.

As I have often blogged about before, you cannot just leave matters of cultural shifts and norms to our political classes. Employers are now playing a much greater role in setting value standards, mindful always that reputations tarnished have direct impacts to the bottom line. Look at the recent spate of sexual harassment claims against partners in the big-end of town law firms for example. In fact many times the business world is in front of our law makers and social reformers. Take the case of ex Deputy PM of Australia, Barnaby Joyce where he had an affair with a staffer in his office. Such behaviour has been ‘outlawed’ in many businesses for quite some time before the government brought in its own policy. Funnily enough this hasn’t impacted on the level of sexual harassment though in firms with those policies around office affairs.

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Looking inward to raise such standards is always good, but we should be mindful that our behaviours through recruiting and procurement might well be adding to modern slavery another toxic form of abuse. I just want to bring to your attention some of the stark facts with respect to this issue that many thought had gone away:. Currently in the world:·

  • There are 15m in forced marriage;
  • 25m in forced labour;
  • 5m in sex slavery,
  • 4m in state imposed slavery;
  • 16m in private sector imposed slavery; and
  • It is the second most profitable criminal industry to the drug trade.

There are some industries that are more vulnerable to having modern slavery in their supply chain than others. These are:

  • Retail;
  • Fashion;
  • Construction; and
  • Beauty.

Fortunately, in general, the national rate of murders is in decline at around one victim per 100,000 people. Still this is one too many each time and we need to do all we can to ensure that we are not part of the problem. Unfortunately modern slavery is on the rise so we again, as business leaders, have a responsibility to interrogate in an authentic and thorough way our supply chains to make sure that there is no exploitation of workers. Maybe one can learn from the other.

Perhaps one of the ways of improving the culture and environment for the young women in our cities and towns is to interrogate our own ‘supply chains’ identifying those areas that are falling below society’s expectations and bring about changes at each level? As I heard at the modern slavery seminar…”be impatient – there is much to do”. I think this is apt for violence toward women as well.

In her final clip Eurydice has some lines where she says ‘I can’t stop worrying’. Until we stop worrying these problems won’t go away. Confronting stuff indeed.

Five Blogs in Five Days…I Can Relate to That

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Well I got to day five of my blog-a-day for Men’s Health Week. There’s lots of areas I could cover in the last episode but I wanted to make some linkages to what I have covered this week, so am going to discuss relationships. We know from research that relationships are important in our lives. Good relationships are instrumental to our physical, emotional and mental well-being. The ‘big four’ relationships (in no particular order for reasons you will discover in a minute) are:

Our relationship with:

1)     Our self;

2)     Our family and intimate friends;

3)     Our manager at work; and

4)     Our GP.

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I was going to concentrate on the relationship with your General Practitioner (GP) – and I will get to that – but I went to a master class this morning and it broadened my horizons like all good master classes should. It was conducted by Rasmus Hougaard of The Potential Project. Rasmus has just co-authored a best-selling book, published by Harvard Business Review Press no less, entitled ‘The Mind of the Leader’. Based on extensive research across many countries, where senior executives were interviewed, (open disclosure – I was one) Rasmus found that there are three key components to extraordinary leaders who get extraordinary results. These can be summarised as:

1)     Being mindful;

2)     Being selfless ; and

3)     Being compassionate.

I would strongly recommend getting a copy because it really does provide great insight into how to be a better leader of people and thereby improving business performance. In chatting with Rasmus after the masterclass, I mentioned my blog and he emphasised the point that THE key relationship in terms of  our physical and mental well-being is in fact our relationship with our boss. Clearly I had to touch on that in my blog!

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Given the amount of time we spend at work, our boss can have a direct impact on our mental and physical health. This certainly aligns with what noted management writer and Stanford Business School academic Jeffrey Pfeffer talks about in his recent book called ‘Dying for a Paycheck’. A toxic workplace he argues comes at a huge cost in terms of morbidity and mortality and is a clear work health and safety issue. Managers as leaders in their respective areas have a very strong bearing on the level of toxicity in the workplace, given the culture is either set by them, or allowed to flourish by them. Clearly it’s an area where more focus is needed min addressing men’s health concerns.

The ‘accidental manager’ is often the problem. Frequently technically gifted, they lack the insight to realise that the skills that make an effective leader and manager are not technical at all, but rather the ‘soft ‘ issues like emotional intelligence, insight, reflection , calm, poise, diplomacy etc. Quite often these new managers don’t want to reveal their vulnerability, so fall back on the ego that gave them great succor as content and technical experts. Humility is the key here and the insight to know that it’s good to ask for help. No-one can drive a car without getting driving lessons. Believe me you can do way more damage in charge of people than you can in charge of a vehicle. Learning is paramount and it should be lifelong. Like for me today…I learned new stuff and I do every time I am in the company of people like Rasmus.

The second relationship I want to give some focus to is our relationship with our GP. This is particularly important to us blokes because we under use this incredibly important service. We will get our car serviced within a week of its due date but will put off regular health check-ups. Let’s face it, most of us have less knowledge about what’s going on beneath our skin than we do about what’s going on under our car’s bonnet. Seems the wrong way around somehow.

What if we had a GP with whom we shared a good rapport? I suspect we would be willing to engage with them on a more frequent and earlier basis if they would engage better with us. This is an issue I raised recently with the peak body for General Practitioners, the Royal Australian College of GPs. They have been advertising a lot lately promoting themselves as ‘your specialists in life’, quite possibly mindful of the fact that Ai is already out performing them in terms of diagnosis and treatment choices. So far I haven’t heard ‘boo’ back. A shame really because they must have conducted research in terms of how to engage effectively with their customers, especially men who are a business opportunity just waiting to happen? Before a GP has a practice, first and foremost they have a business. I would encourage all GPs that they need to think long and hard about how they engage with their customers, particularly men to avoid disruption. Ai and machine learning is here and if lawyers’ days are numbered, GPs can’t be far behind.

This would be a great shame because it strikes me rapport with a robot will be much harder to establish than with a human. This got me thinking as to how you might build rapport and get to a level where you have a friendly and trusting engagement with ‘your specialist in life’. Unless you are a contestant on ‘Married at First Sight’ you don’t get married without first building a relationship with your partner. The first step on this journey starts with rapport. If you can’t build this, the marriage is doomed. So it seems counter-intuitive to me to end up with a GP without having some sort of selection process. Otherwise it’s no better than those faux relationship experts who put the MAFS contestants together – and we all know their success rate! I think the best approach if you need a new GP is to draw up a list of what’s important:

  • Would you be more comfortable with a male or female doctor?
  • What age demographic would you feel more comfortable with?
  • Do you need a specialism? e.g. asthma or diabetes – many practices have a sub specialists who cover particular areas in greater depth.

Armed with this list of requirements then, I think the next step is to shop around a few local practices identifying those who might fit your criteria. Asking who specialises in Men’s Health is the next action to be taken. Once you know this you can see whether that GP or those GPs meet your earlier criteria i.e. age, gender etc. Most likely some will.

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The next step, I believe, will be some of the best money you can spend to live a longer, more active and fulfilled life. Book appointments to meet with your shortlist and simply chat with them. This will quickly identify whether they are someone you could establish a long-term trusting relationship with. If you need help narrowing the field, tell them what you are there for i.e. you are interviewing them to see if they will make your short-list. Those interested and understanding of what you are doing should make the list. Those who take umbrage should not. There is no place for ego or power gradient differences with your GP.

If you really want to turn the heat up in the interview, move the patient chair from next to the Doctor’s desk to the middle of the room and get them to swivel their chair towards you. This changes the power dynamic and disrupts what is known as the ‘sociology of illness’ where the patient feels like the child in a parent-child relationship. If they can get through this without batting an eye, they might just be the one for you.

Next you should really dive deep into what does their self-professed interest in men’s health mean for you and what does it look like? If I’m having a GP who specialises in men’s health I need to ‘feel and touch’ the difference. In my experience quite often there is no appreciable difference between a GP who is a men’s health specialist and one who isn’t. This surely can’t be right.

The final clincher is can you see yourself liking this person? Will you build rapport and trust such that you can will be able to tell them anything that may be bothering you no matter how squeamish or embarrassed you might feel? If you can get all these issues covered in an appointment then you are building a key cornerstone into your long-term well being. Be prepared to book a double appointment (GPs love those) and don’t be worried about not finding your ideal match on the first ‘date’.

We know that relationships are key to good health. They can help us avoid anxiety and depression. They can intervene before issues build to a point where suicide might be considered an option. They help us build resilience and nurture us through times of hardship and suffering. Relationships at work can help us flourish or flounder depending on culture and how good the manager is. Relationships play a pivotal role in our physical and mental health. As humans  we want to live longer and be healthy and happy. We can all relate to that!

 

Waisting Away

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In the run up to Christmas last year I caught myself doing something that was at once alarming but also strangely comforting. I was sitting in a slouched position in front of the television and with both hands gave my belly something akin to comforting slap. It was almost as if I had some contented pride in how round my belly had become. I reassured myself up to that point that my particular frontal protrusion was not a beer gut like most other blokes my age but in fact a diaphragm issue. If I just got my core a bit stronger my belly would be taut like in my twenties.

Hopping on the bathroom scales a day or so before New Year when those last minute new year’s resolutions are compiled – like – I’m going on a diet – I was aghast to find that I had blossomed to 91.1kg. Lack of a patent diaphragm and being naturally big-boned – my two escape clauses to explain being overweight- didn’t really cut it as genuine reasons for my weight gain anymore. There’s neuroscience in this space. As a protective mechanism we tell ourselves that we aren’t as heavy as we really are and we also use cognitive filters to protect us from the harsh reality that being overweight comes with some heavy penalties in the longer term especially strokes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes. That said, you can only delude yourself for so long before reality finally cuts through.

I carry my weight in a couple of obvious areas – around my neck and around my belly. Shame my fat collection centre for my body isn’t around my shoulders and arms. A shame firstly because I’m a bit puny there. Having a large set of ‘guns’ is something to aspire to and if hidden beneath a shirt the fact that it’s flabby and lacking definition isn’t noticed. The real issue though is that these two areas of carrying your fat are the danger zones, especially the area around the waist known as visceral fat. Fat that gathers around the middle – particularly for men – has traditionally been passed off as ‘middle aged spread’ or a beer belly as though there is a sense of inevitability about it. Medical science tells us that it is particularly bad. Unlike fat under our skin (subcutaneous), visceral fat lies in and behind the abdominal cavity. Lurking there it:

  • releases fatty acids and pro-inflammatory chemicals;
  • Releases these chemicals rapidly into the liver due to proximity;
  • Taints the blood causing problems in the liver including insulin resistance and steatosis, which is the abnormal retention of lipids within our cells

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Medical science tells us that our girth measurement is key to our long-term health outcomes. Carrying excess weight around our middle is a concern because that is where some of our major organs are, including our liver, kidneys, pancreas and intestines. Having excess fat attached to these is bad news. So my fourth blog for Men’s Health Week, as you will have guessed, is about our waistlines. Armed with the knowledge that visceral fat is a major health risk, the next step towards improved health is doing something about it. This is where there are no short-cuts. Dieting and exercise are the keys to reducing overall weight and in so doing eliminating your visceral fat. It isn’t quite that straightforward unfortunately. While diet and exercise are your choice and you will lose weight when you do this effectively, you don’t get to choose where your fat will be reduced. For me my weight comes off around my neck almost straight away but much slower is reducing my visceral fat.

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Today, as part of Men’s Health Week we invited Body Plan to bring their ‘body bus’ to work to measure a range of physical attributes (Weight, BMI, visceral fat levels, resting metabolic rate etc). Despite now hitting the scales at a more modest 74kg (yes over 17kg lost in 5 months!!) my visceral fat levels are still above the recommended level. I am now looking to focus my exercise regimen much more around my waist to see whether this stubborn fat can be burnt off. While not guaranteed it may be helpful to undertake the following to get your/my visceral fat level under control:

  • Cut out all trans fats from your/my diet because studies show that they store preferentially as visceral fat (foods like donuts, cookies, biscuits, muffins and cakes – all the good stuff right!);
  • Drink less alcohol – it is a beer gut after all but a better way to describe it may be an alcohol gut;
  • Do resistance training;
  • Do high intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • Reduce stress because it produces cortisol which skews your fat towards the abdomen
  • Maintain good sleep hygiene which just means get adequate hours of good quality uninterrupted sleep. Less than 5 and more than 8 and your stomach will start to protrude!

While I’m not there yet, there is good news. Once I do have a visceral fat level that no longer constitutes a danger, I get to choose thereafter where my fat may accumulate if and when it starts to go back on. Visceral fat accumulates very quickly from two key things – sugar rich foods and alcohol. If these two visceral fat enablers are kept within reasonable limits it should be possible to maintain a healthy waistline going forward. Little did I realise all those years ago that getting wasted meant I was getting waisted! Now I know better my gut and health will thank me for it.

Health Warning: Isolation is Detrimental to Your Health

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One of my vivid memories of picking my children up from school – a pretty rare event I have to own up to – was observing the different waiting patterns of men and women. What stood out was that the women were clustered in groups and there was a gaggle of conversation and laughter while the men pretty much stood alone, silent with arms folded across chests. Women just seem to do this ‘tend and befriend’ stuff better than us guys. There’s a world of evolution that sits behind it of course. With men hunting on the savannas of Africa we would be either alone or in small groups often in silence or words seldom spoken. We would be alongside one another and not face to face. Women on the other hand, tending crops and child rearing, would sit around in groups talking and laughing constantly providing an audible warning to foe that they are a bigger group than their actual numbers might suggest. It’s a phenomenon I noticed when picking my teenage children up after dances and parties. With my daughter the car was full of conversation, everyone seemingly talking at once. Picking my son and his mates up was the exact opposite.

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So the third of my blogs for men’s health week is focusing on social isolation. In my first blog I concentrated on suicide and the notion that sharing your feelings and getting issues off your chest so they don’t fester, is part of staying mentally healthy. Perhaps the gender disparity in suicides (more men than women) is partly explained by our lesser ability at interacting and sharing feelings? But social isolation isn’t just about mental health. There is a growing body of evidence that is suggesting that social isolation has a detriment to our physical health and well-being as well. I was listening to the Big Ideas podcast from the ABC delivered by Alex Haslam who is Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland. What he said was quite startling and worth repetition here. He claims that if you are over 50 and join just one social group/club today you will reduce the chances of getting depression by nearly a quarter. Wow. Sign me up!

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Haslam goes further claiming that being socially isolated could be worse for your physical health than smoking or eating junk food. Hard to believe so I thought I would check to see if there is any meta data to support this. Sure enough there is. Peer-reviewed research undertaken by Holt-Lunstad, Smith and Layton called ‘Social Relationship and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review’ published in 2010 concluded across the 148 studies they reviewed, that the influence of social relationships on risk of mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality. In other words, right up there with bad diet, smoking, drinking to excess, lack of exercise and high blood pressure.

Clearly these factors become more of an issue as we age and particularly if we lose a life-partner through divorce or bereavement. So one mate consoling another when advised that his partner has left him by saying ‘mate get over it – it won’t kill you’ might actually be factually wrong! Leaving the establishment of social networks and community until the back end of life is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Established networks might already have been established making it hard to break into already tight-knit groups;
  • Your social skills may well have been severely blunted by this time;
  • You will have had to ‘survive’ until that time with little or no social contact meaning that you haven’t been enjoying the benefits that could accrue over the intervening years.

 

Many of us, and I think this is a gender bias here for men, run the risk of defining ourselves through our jobs and building social networks through work. The trouble here is they can finish very abruptly when the person leaves that workplace, or the workforce. It used to be a common phenomenon for men to retire and be dead a short time later from heart attack or stroke. Perhaps the causation was a sudden loss of social contact? There is another shortcoming of the work as essential social contact approach. Oftentimes the work social contact is a by-product of a working relationship where the focus remains primarily on the work, meaning the depth of the social connection is shallow. The ability to feel emotionally engaged and share thoughts, fears, feelings and aspirations are less likely to occur under such circumstances.

Then there is the issue of time. Where long work hours are commonplace there is little time for establishing and nurturing good social networks. Compound this with men being less able to forge relationships with other men anyway and there is a bit of a recipe here for shortened life expectancy. And sure enough men don’t live as long as women. Perhaps this is why?

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There is one thing knowing this and quite another doing something about it. One sure-fire way to address the issue is by joining a men’s shed. The Men’s Shed movement is amazing and a great example of men (mates) helping each other out. If we do see a closing of the gap in gender-based life expectancy I suspect the Men’s Shed movement will have had quite a significant role in it. For more information on your local men’s shed look here.

Best not to leave it for our twilight years though. At CTC we recognise that, so we have recently introduced an initiative called Social Isolation Prevention Scheme (SIPS) whereby you can take time out during the working day (up to three hours) a week to attend an established club or classes. That way, especially in the run up to retirement, these connections can be well-cemented. Many clubs hold classes during the day which would otherwise be unavailable. Having a common goal like learning wood work, or say lead-lighting, creates a foundation for subsequent social interactions, engagements and friendships to flourish.

The by-products for our business are pretty straightforward. A more contented worker is a more productive worker. A worker with social networks is healthier and more resilient in the face of stress and mental illness and the skills learnt , albeit in cabinetry or woodwork, have elements of creativity, working with others, taking instruction, supporting and problem solving all of which are transferable and high valued in the workplace. If we care about men’s health we should care about men’s friendships.