Sunday, 29 June 2014

A Dubious Mentor

On one of the discussion groups I'm a member of, someone posted 'Mentor comes from the Greek word Meno's meaning intention purpose and force. Sounds like something everyone should have.'

Somewhere at the back of my mind a small doubt emerged, and I did a little digging. Along with all my other endearing qualities, I have a pedantic instinct, particularly with regard to language, and the claims trainers make...

A modicum of research both confirmed and allayed my doubts.

The modern usage of mentor probably dates from Fénelon's 1699 novel Les Aventures de Télémaque, which takes up a character (called Mentor) from Homer's Odyssey - who was (in both cases) a trusted advisor. Homer may have based the name on mentos (not meno's), but that is not certain. But Mentor's role in Homer and particularly in Fénelon is very analagous to our modern understanding of the role of mentor. 

It gets more complicated, though. In Homer, Athena disguises herself as Mentor, and advises Telemachus under a false identity.  So we have the first example of someone pretending to be a mentor, who has a hidden agenda.

Not, perhaps, the role model for modern mentoring: but it does seem to be where the term comes from.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

What's the contract?

This week, a friend of mine who is a senior teacher has just managed to find a suitable new job, after quite a search. He had not wanted to leave his last school, but his job fell foul of a reorganisation.

Another friend has just left a senior job in a charity, which he had only started earlier this year.  I am not clear on the details yet, but gather it was a political issue, rather than anything to do with competence or performance.

In both cases, these were senior and successful people, who could reasonably have assumed to have some job security.  Both are also the main wage-earners for their families.

Which raises the interesting question: what is the (implicit) contract governing employment these days.

There used to be an understanding that normally, if you were competent and worked well, you could be fairly secure in a job, at least with a large organisation.

Peter Block writes about this in an interesting way, in The Empowered Manager.  He contrasts two types of implicit contract, which he characterises as the Patriarchal and the Entrepreneurial.

The Patriarchal Contract: This contract assumes that the organisation or boss knows best.  Therefore obedience is at a premium, with an associated denial of self-expression.  Moreover, we are expected to make sacrifices for unnamed future rewards, and believe (or pretend to believe) that this is just.

The Entrepreneurial Contract: The essential difference in the entrepreneurial contract is a fundamental shift of attitudes about people.  The Entrepreneurial Contract is based on the belief that the most trustworthy source of authority comes from the individual, rather than from the boss.  The primary purpose of the leadership is to enable people to give of their best in the service of a joint vision.  

He teases out the implications of each in interesting ways.   For example, the idea of sacrifice for unnamed future rewards leads to resentment and cynicism.  The implicit reward is often ‘if you work hard you will have a promotion/job for life.’  However no organisation can guarantee that, and as they lay people off, they violate that bargain, causing deep resentment.

In fairness, I should say that both of the friends I referred to at the start of this post are unlikely to harbour resentment and cynicism, as they are too sensible and focused on moving on.  However, that does not mean that their treatment was just; and also the fact that they will not harbour resentment and cynicism does not mean that others who have witnessed their experiences will not.  Organisations are finally catching up with the fact that their treatment of one person who exits the organisation sends strong messages which are most certainly read by those who remain.

So it is worth reflecting: if you are a boss, what is the implicit contract you have with your people?  Is it just and honest?  Can you honour it?  Or should you consider a more explicit contract, that is more just and honest?

And as an employee: what assumptions are you making about your contract? What do you think is expected of you?  Is it just and honest? Can both you and your employer honour it?   Or should you consider a more explicit contract, that is more just and honest?...

Monday, 16 June 2014

Journey as metaphor

I am just back from a pilgrimage: walking from Notre Dame de Paris to Notre Dame de Chartres. That's some 70 miles in three days, camping overnight en route.  The power of a journey, particularly a pilgrimage, as a metaphor for life is very ancient. 

Those who know me will remember my interests in the links between the physical, mental, social/emotional and spiritual or existential issues we face.  The research on the impact of all of these, on resilience in the face of increasing pressures, for example, is very powerful.  Each can support the others, and a deficit in any one is likely to impact on the others.

So a fairly gruelling walk, with a large number of people, some friends, some strangers, complete with meditations as we walked... well you can see why it appealed.

But I remain curious about the power of the link between the physical hardships (26 miles a day under a hot sun is quite tough!), the spiritual insights, the mental stamina, and the relationships one builds on the way.

Part of the power, of course, lies in taking the time away from all the busy-ness of normal life. I deliberately turned my mobile off at the start, and kept it off.  So there was plenty of time to reflect, prompted by the various meditations. Then there is the physicality: the need to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when all you really want is a hot bath. And on top of that, the need to support others who may be struggling a little more than I am with the final miles. 

This was not quite Chaucer's trip to Canterbury, with everyone telling a story in turn; but friendships sprang up between people who might not ordinarily talk to each other.  And curiously, the tiredness and heat helped with that. The veneer of easy chat was stripped away by the rigours of the walk, and conversations seemed more authentic.

And then, of course, there is the exhilaration as one reaches one's destination.  As we arrived in Chartres the heavens opened, with the most almighty thunder storm directly overhead. Vivid lightning cracked the sky open, as we sang lustily to help us up the final hill to the Cathedral.

The final liturgy, in Latin, with bells and smells, plainchant and polyphony, in the glory of Chartres Cathedral, was quite stunning.

As I said at the start of this post, I am sure this is all a metaphor; now all I have to do is to work out what for...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Collision Spaces

Over the last week, I have begun reviewing the series of Strategic Workshops I have been co-facilitating at Cardiff University over the last academic year.

I always find that a useful process: it is invariably interesting and sometimes humbling (in different ways) to hear what people have taken away and implemented from events.

One thing that has struck me has been the importance of collision spaces.  This has come at me from three different angles, as it were.

In the first place, we have been using an Open Space approach. I have blogged about Open Space (albeit in a different context) before, here. But one way of thinking of it is that it provides precisely a collision space: we start with no fixed agenda (though there is a clear theme) and participants propose what they think it would be most fruitful to talk about, team up with others who think they too would like to talk about a particular issues, and ideas and experiences thus collide. As a result, new ideas can (and do) emerge.

The process is simple: we start with an empty agenda: merely some time slots and some available rooms (first picture). People then propose ideas for discussion, post them on another board or wall, and sign up to the topics they most want to talk about (second picture). They then pull together an agenda with different conversations taking place in different rooms at the same time, trying to create a sequence that allows all to participate in the conversations they have signed up for (third picture).

One of the gratifying things I have been told whilst conducting the review, is that many people found this approach particularly helpful, to the extent that they have been running Open Space events themselves since, to address a range of issues; and that these too have been very valuable.

Related, but different, is the drawing together of people from different places within an organisation, so that they collide, or at least come into contact, with those who they don't normally speak to. Again, the feedback has been consistent that this is very valuable; but people report that they are too busy to make this happen unless some structure, such as a workshop (or even a regular coffee break) is put in place that engineers it.

The third angle on this was a topic that came up frequently in the discussions. Many people suggested that the University needed more physical collision spaces - coffee rooms, water cooler corners, cafés and so forth - where staff would bump into colleagues in an environment other than formal meetings, and where different types of conversations could happen, perhaps with different people. Many spoke of the value of such serendipitous conversations, which can build relationships, smooth processes, and even lead to new research collaborations.

So it is worth considering how we can create such collision spaces - whether the physical space, or the enabling events such as agreed coffee or lunch breaks with colleagues, or indeed the larger scale workshops and Open Space activities.

The temptation is always to get on with the work, of course; but again and again, people attest to the fact that taking a break and making time for others is not only humanising, but also truly productive.