Feel to follow

guiding starA former colleague recently told me that he had spent a little time helping out at Medecin sans Frontiers. He had found it fascinating in terms of the nature of work this incredible organisation does. It put me in mind of another pal who gave up a good (if dull) job as a tax accountant and moved to Uganda to work for a charity. Organisations such as these offer low pay, no benefits and terrible conditions. Yet the level of employee engagement is incredible – it has to be.

Generally people aren’t excited by making money for the businesses owners, so whilst they want their employer to be successful (which gives job security) they ideally want more than that. Giving employees what one of my colleagues calls ‘a guiding star’ is increasingly seen as a vital tool in engaging with staff.

Of course it’s a pretty straightforward task to set out your core purpose in such an environment, there is an obvious ‘greater cause’ that barely needs spelling out. It is this sense of being part of something much bigger and worthwhile that enthuses people. This principle can be applied to any business, although it takes a little more effort.

If we can identify that higher purpose and the good emotions that go with it employees will surely feel to follow.

How was I to ever,
Believe it?
It’s never too late,
Until it’s too late,
And I’ve been stranded,
And I need something.

Now I can see it,
And I can feel it,
I believe it.
Ever since I,
Can remember,
It’s been as nothing.

Until I almost,
Feel to follow.

Feel to Follow – The Maccabees

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Different People

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We’ve recently returned from holiday. As a family one of our favourite things is people watching and a holiday provides the perfect blend of time and interesting people to watch. I say interesting, all people are fascinating of course and all human life was there. Or at least that slim section of life that can both afford and choose to lie by a pool in the Mediterranean.

There was this one guy, big, overweight, bald headed, no neck and tattoos including a crude England (or should that be Engerland?) flag across his distended gut.  He looked like a builder who had done well, you could imagine him on the terraces roaring the team on.  He spent all day from around 8.00 am under an umbrella, head on a pillow.  He was a hard man for sure, no one was going to invade his space. I wondered how he felt about being surrounded by well heeled Germans and Russians.  Not my kind of guy looking like that.

One guy spent most of the day on his laptop. He lay by the pool tapping away on the laptop or yelling at people down the phone while his younger ‘trophy wife’ baked in the sun.  It was clear that he was utterly indispensable (or he had hired a bunch of muppets and/or was unable to delegate). Twice a day he would swim a lap of the pool with his partner before she went and brought him a cocktail and he returned to his laptop. In his Vilebrequin shorts and designer sunnies he was making sure that we all knew who was the alpha male. I wondered how his partner felt about the lack of attention. Again not my kind of guy behaving like that.

Then there was this guy who had the most loving and tender conversation with his daughter.  He was a bit loud and then repeated it all to his partner (presumably not the mother from the way it sounded).  They were arranging to meet up and he sounded like a truly loving father.  More like my kind of guy expressing feelings like that.

As I said all human life.  And these three blokes all came together – in the same body.  Which just goes to show that appearances can be deceptive, first and even second impressions don’t tell the full story.

Different person, different argument
In my shadow, no more compliments
One more person breaking the rules again
I’m still waiting for someone else to join in

Stand where the others stand
We’re alive tonight
Land where the others land
We’re alive tonight

Different People  – Biffy Clyro

Smile like you mean it

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We’ve just returned from holiday and yes thanks, since you ask it was very nice.  We stayed in a large hotel complex and round the pool all shapes and sizes of humanity were on display in varying levels of undress.

It struck us how many of the young women who had enviable figures seemed unattractive.  One such girl with ridiculously long legs kept her boyfriend running round after her like a lap dog.  Others seemed to maintain a perpetual air of bored indifference, many refused to smile.   I christened these types ‘butter face’ (nice legs, but her face!).

Then there were others less obviously perfect specimens who seemed to be open and friendly, who clearly cared about and enjoyed being with their friends and family.  These were much more attractive.

Ah ah I thought, there is a blog post in there.  Maybe you can think yourself pretty.  Maybe if you just adopt the appropriate behaviours and smile like you mean it then you become attractive.  Of course if you are too skinny or are overweight, have a genuine physical imperfection these won’t go away, but maybe most of us can and do look beyond such superficial things when really evaluating someone as a friend or partner.

Whilst we were being tourists, sunning ourselves in Greece my eldest daughter was travelling in the Himalayas. Trekking and working on a couple of community projects.  She returned the day after we did.  With tears in her eyes and a passion I have rarely seen she talked about the two sisters who had given her a henna tattoo in Leh.  The girls were about the same age as she is but there the similarities end.

As my daughter put it:

“While we were stressing about what outfit to wear that night, whether our A-level choices were perfect and precisely which new laptop to acquire these girls left school so they could support their families.  Day after day they sit on the hot dusty kerb.  They might not want to be in this situation but they somehow accept it, they still have ambitions but they accept that for now this is how it is.”

“We get jealous because someone has some ‘stuff’ that we don’t even need and these girls have nothing, they have the one set of old clothes they wear everyday. Their faces are worn from lack of care and sun. They were so happy and smiled so readily and they found genuine pleasure in talking to us about our lives. ”

“They wouldn’t accept a small tip, even knowing how little is is to us and how much it is to them.”

“They said that we are beautiful, but they are the beautiful ones.”

Yes.  That’s what I was going to say.

Save some face, you know you’ve only got one
Change your ways while you’re young
Boy, one day you’ll be a man
Oh girl, he’ll help you understand

Smile like you mean it
Smile like you mean it

Looking back at sunsets on the east side
We lost track of the time
Dreams aren’t what they used to be
Some things sat by so carelessly

The Killers – Smile Like You Mean It

Identity

Having dusted my old bike off and headed out for a few short spins recently I was accused of being a mamil (middle aged man in lycra).  It is true.  Form fitting clothing is simply more comfortable, allows ease of movement and does not flap about.

It reminded me that during the Winter Olympics a few months ago that for every high intensity event the uniform is one piece, skin tight, lycra. These established sports and athletes have huge research budgets and so it seems probable that there are advantages to this that extend beyond showing off their impressive physiques. Less drag, ease of movement etc.

But the freestylers wear baggy clothing – one competitor, Henrik Harlaut, had his trousers fall down in competition.  I may be wrong but it seems that these clothes are not simply about performance.

 Sweden's Henrik Harlaut performs jump during men's freestyle skiing slopestyle qualification round at 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor

We humans are highly evolved social animals. In prehistory our survival depended on our being supported and protected by our tribe. it’s no surprise then that we are all keen to show our belonging and to conform to social norms. Being evicted from our chosen tribe isn’t simply a matter of identity it’s one of survival.

Our innate desire to conform is possibly why stereotypes tend to have a degree of validity. It also is a great part of the success of many Brands. A Brand, the marketers will tell you, is the encapsulation of the customer experience. It’s what is promised and delivered. For the consumer a Brand can be a shortcut to an identity, a stereotype if you like. And identity is generally not about individualism it is about belonging.

Dressing in a certain style or wearing a certain Brand makes a statement. In one simple logo a whole raft of information about your ideals can be broadcast.

Marketers exploit this strong desire to belong and it’s very hard for an individual to truly break free. Indeed there is arguably a tribe one can belong to whose central doctrine is ‘not belonging’. This tribe of course has a set of rituals, social norms and a dress code just like any other.

Historically freestyle ski-ing and snowboarding were the choice of the rebels. The free spirits. They showed their individuality by dressing in a baggy, looser style of clothing and that has carried through to those competing at a high level, even if it carries performance penalties.

It will take a real individual to start competing in a suit scientifically designed to enhance performance, rather than ensure belonging. A change of identity from rebel to high performer.  That would take real courage.  A need for authentic leadership perhaps?

Identity
Is the crisis
Can’t you see
Identity identity

When you look in the mirror
Do you see yourself
Do you see yourself
On the t.v. screen
Do you see yourself
In the magazine
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream

X-Ray spex: Identity

Lost in the Supermarket

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Today Tesco posted a 6% fall in profits, with like for like sales down 1.4%.  This is the second year running that they have declined.  They are not the only major UK supermarket to be struggling. According to the BBC “Recent industry figures showed the UK’s “big four” supermarkets – Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury’s – all lost market share in the first 11 weeks of this year to rival discount stores, as well as upmarket rivals Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.”

Ever keen to look for an external cause the finger has been pointed at the continental upstarts that have dared to open in the UK  in recent years.  Disparagingly referred to as “discounter’s”, these retailers, most notably Aldi, Lidl and Netto offer a no frills experience that undercuts our established incumbents.

In an edition of Question Time (the BBC’s political panel show) this subject came up and the left wing representative used the opportunity to make the point that the current economic problems had created an underclass so deprived that they have no choice but to turn to these discounters.

I don’t doubt that many people have found money a little tight and this may have tempted them to try the discounters but the success of these challengers is not entirely due to poverty.

When on holiday in Europe we often take a villa and do some self catering.  If we find an Aldi we consider ourselves lucky.  The range is good, prices keen and quality excellent.  Yet I hadn’t tried an Aldi in the UK.  I related shopping at Aldi here with ‘being poor’ and no one wants to be poor, or seen to be poor.  Indeed the view that  you have to be part of a deprived underclass to shop at the discounters was prevalent.  However my daughter’s dance lessons cause us to drive past an Aldi almost every day.  And I don’t mind admitting that saving a few pounds is also important.  Hesitantly at first, apologetically even, my wife went in and bought a few things.  No one in the family complained, there were even compliments about some of the produce.  She returned and tried more.  Now I often shop there, in fact I popped in last night.

Increasingly I find that once I admit to shopping at Aldi others ‘fess up too.  We cheerfully compare prices and smugly feel better about ourselves.  The economy may have helped but there seems to be a growing number of people who can feel comfortable without the security of the ‘big 4’ supermarkets and the brands they sell. Admittedly Aldi is a brand itself, appealing to value conscious consumers who don’t care about or can’t afford to care about labels.  Mine isn’t the only Mercedes in the car park either.

The problem facing the ‘Big 4’ is not just that discounters are cheaper than them, there is no longer any stigma attached to using them.   Furthermore the ‘Big 4’ got big by appealing to a broad range of shoppers.  In the internet world of endless choice that translates as blandness.  If you want a bargain go to a discounter and if you want the best go to Waitrose.  Tesco and others sit uncomfortably in the middle with no real identity.  The CEO of Tesco, Philip Clarke,  stumbled over this point when challenged by John Humphrey’s on this morning’s Today show:

‘Fill in this blank,’ said Humphrys. ‘I go to Waitrose for quality, I go to Aldi for value. I go to Tesco for… ?’ At which point Clarke made some comment about Parma Ham.  Having said that no one could beat discounters on price he then outlined a ‘strategy’ which was to cut some prices and carry out some store makeovers.

We’ve read a lot about the way the big Supermarkets use their purchasing power to beat suppliers into offering unsustainable prices and pay low wages on zero hours contracts.  Surely this means that no one could beat their prices?  Well it isn’t hard to understand.  The discounters are all about value, amongst other things they don’t take credit cards (which charge a commission), the tills are designed to be very fast (to reduce the number of staff) and the displays are simply adequate as is the service.  But the real difference is that in Europe work on a much smaller margin than is normal in the UK.  That’s right, they make less profit.  In % terms less than half than that of the UK based behemoths.  In the UK they can make more profit and still undercut the competition.

Ever wondered why so many European utility companies rushed to buy up our national assets in the form of energy and water companies?  Again they are used to making much smaller margins on the continent than is normal here.  They didn’t have to cut prices as no one rocked the boat and led on price.  A nice cosy, profitable few years followed.  Hopefully we’ll start to see a real challenger brand in this space too.

The big question is what happens when the economy improves?  Will we all revert back to our comfortable known supermarkets and brands?   I think that as a family we’ll continue shopping in Aldi and so will many others because the produce is good.  Not for everything, but for a lot.  The reality is that once you break free of the tyranny of big supermarkets you won’t want to go back, you can even start to look at other labels you can drop once you become comfortable with your own unbranded identity.

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

Lost in the Supermarket – The Clash