Let’s challenge things, not validate them

The team I work with spend a lot of time training people.

For much of this we get encouraging feedback, sometimes constructive, sometimes negative too.

I’m pretty open minded about the feedback we receive. As a team we’ve put a lot of effort in to constructive communication and better listening.

But the feedback I really struggled with recently said this:

‘The training validated my knowledge.’

No-one can know it all. Even if the people we’re talking to are experts, I’d like our work to feel a bit challenging.

Feedback like this makes me think that person is holding out on us, or they weren’t really prepared to learn anything new in the first place.

I’m not in the business of validating people’s understanding. We charge a bit too much for that. There’s no value in that. The client doesn’t learn anything. Nor do we.

My aim is to help people with our work. Or at least trigger some constructive disagreement.

It’s a wake up call for me to be a bit less forgiving of vague responses to questions in workshops, or in training submissions.

Being a mentor

I’ve always benefited from having mentors.

Now, it’s been my turn to offer an ear, some support and guidance, and I love being able to help wherever possible.

Mentoring can mean lots of different things. On the Digital Action Plan it can be quite specific to a set of skills, tools or overcoming some fears.

Elsewhere, it can be much more general advice about careers and professional relationships. In this way, I’ve been mentoring two people I respect and whose energy is refreshing.

Both of these approaches have been through formal mentoring schemes, but I think the value for the mentees – and for me – has been in the lack of structure to the relationship.

We’ve been ‘matched’ to a certain extent. I like to think all three of us are fairly quiet, hard working, ambitious. But that’s where it ends. The scheme (so far) hasn’t dictated that we talk about careers, skills, inter-personal communication or contacts.

My default is always to feel like I should mentor people about digital. In actual fact, the lack of structure has given my new friends and I the licence to discuss what’s holding them back, or exciting them most, about work.

The insights they provide in to their working worlds help keep me in tune with the realities of working in big organisations: the opportunities and the necessary risks. It’s a reality check – they haven’t always had the easiest of rides.

Their needs give me a different project to focus on. Something I can keep ticking over in the back of my mind but without stringent deadlines, contracts or budgets to worry about.

Mentoring helps me practice listening and observation, without judgment.

The result of this is that I feel able to give (hopefully) clear, frank advice and suggestions. And the feedback is that they find the chats useful, even if we don’t always agree.

It’s hard to put ROI or evaluation on this sort of unstructured relationship. So when it comes to mentoring schemes, join them, support them, be part of it. But keep it loose and unstructured, for maximum benefit.

Bereavement in the workplace

This is a bit of a sad topic for this blog, but something I’ve been thinking about on and off for years.

When a colleague dies, or a colleague suffers a bereavement, it’s really hard to know what to do. There’s the formal, pastoral, possibly policy-led response:

  • take some time off*
  • click here for counselling etc.

*(varies depending on who it was who died)

Then there’s the more personal response, that’s driven by your own sense of loss, bewilderment and shock. You can’t believe you won’t see them in the office again, or if it’s a colleague that’s suffered a bereavement, that this has happened to them.

We’re used to seeing our colleagues through a fairly professional lens, in a work context. You know they have lives at home, and maybe you’ve had glimpses into that life. But basically we think of each other in terms of roles, responsibilities and projects.

So when they’re upset in the office, or snatched away, or sick, it can be even more of a shock. The dawning realisation that Joe Bloggs had kids, or his wife has died. Wasn’t she the one who sent that cake in last month?

I heard of one team member who drove his colleague straight home – 120 miles down the M4 – after he received some bad news. That’s a brilliant thing to do. Get your colleague home to his family as quick as possible, and in a private space.

It goes without saying that giving people space is the most important thing you can do, but I also think its important to keep in touch and let them know you’re thinking of them. Hopefully it makes the return to work a little less awkward for everyone.

The return to work. Could be awkward all round. Don’t mention this, focus on that. Sweep the office for any inappropriate correspondence. One of my mentors, who wasn’t renowned for his day-to-day sensitivity, actually had a gift for welcoming recently bereaved staff back to the office. He’d suddenly launch a new magazine, website or other initiative for them to lead, creating a busy (but caring) atmosphere. ‘Work should be somewhere you can come to forget your troubles at home’ he said. I’m not sure councillors would agree with that, but I think there’s something in it.


Non violent digital

I’ve been reading about non violent communication.

Non violent communication (NVC) is about empathising, removing your own judgements and pre-conceived ideas, listening to what is actually being said and trying to understand the needs behind it.

I am not your typical NVC customer. None of these guys would have endorsed it. Ten years ago I would not have given this the time of day. Even six months ago I would have been cynical.

Then I got to thinking about the sheer amount of energy that’s required for working in a disruptive field like digital. It can be really hard, month in, month out, to help colleagues and clients build confidence, skills and an understanding of how users consume information online.

On any typical day, I will receive at least one email like this example:

I need to establish a presence on [channel] for the [content] that I am writing.

Because of the importance and impact of this work, affecting as it will all our work internally and across [audience], I think we should have a link on the homepage.

I will also need you to set up publisher rights for myself and X and possibly Y [Z – do you have an opinion on this?].

Can you let me know your thoughts soonest?

Read this in the wrong frame of mind, and you’d be forgiven for assuming the sender is self-important, demanding and has little knowledge about how interested or otherwise their audience is in this content. Who are they to tell me they will have publishing rights, and that their work is the most important thing on my to do list? The urgent final line only grates further.

Apply a bit of NVC, and it’s possible to demonstrate to this person that you are listening and trying to identify the real needs that are driving this request.

For example, ‘I need to establish a presence on this channel…’ is not a need. Nor would it be a need if, when asked, this person said ‘my boss has asked for…’. However, gently reflecting this request back to the originator, and asking questions about their work, should reveal who the intended audience is, and what it is that we are trying to say. Crucially, in terms of productivity, we can also learn when this piece of communication will deliver most impact, and prioritise accordingly.

This example is fairly specific, but I think NVC works really well across all types of channels and audience needs.

Marshall Rosenburg has written a really easy to read book about NVC – I recommend it, if you’re needing some clarity about dealing with competing demands and opinion.


Digital detox

I’ve started running with a club each week. It’s probably the fastest way that I’ve found to improve my fitness.

What I’ve also realised, somewhat shamefully, is that it is brilliant, and rare, downtime, away from the phone and a screen. We tend to run cross country and there is no coverage, even if I was inclined to blog my way through each kilometre. Which I am not.

The runners are a great community, who’ve known each other for the best part of a decade. As I get to know them, I’m picking up on some stories that demonstrate the support goes far beyond running and fitness.

And the best bit? No social media. I’m not connected with any of my co-runners online, except for a weekly email to confirm our meeting venue and route.

This is a welcome change from the Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn environment I have become so reliant on. I actually have to stretch my memory muscles; remember names and faces, stories and backgrounds, sensitivities and interests.

Get yourself into a non digital community, and give yourself a whole new perspective.

Want to make things things better? Respect relationships

One of the greatest mistakes that organisations make is to assume that people are there for the cause.

People attract people. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

You might think that Joe Bloggs has left his job to come and work for you because of the pay, the benefits and the view from the window. But what really sold it to him was you, or at least the other people he met.

Likewise, voluntary organisations attract people based on the sense of community they offer, not the mission statement.

The professional relationships that form, sometimes over years, run very deep, very quickly. As a manager, if you see one of these relationships, you ignore it at your peril. If one of your colleagues introduces Joe Bloggs as a trusted contact, you might make discreet enquiries to verify Joe’s reputation for yourself, but you never openly question the value of that relationship.

These deep relationships, forged on trust and years of acquaintance mean that Joe Bloggs’ presence is considered by your colleague to be almost as valuable as the job you have given him or her. And after all, who’s to say this isn’t the case? Certainly not you. Unless you can guarantee said colleague a job for life (which I am guessing you can’t).

Likewise, voluntary organisations. You might start off giving up your time and skills because you believe in something. But it’s the people who keep you there.

In the past six months I have had the misfortune to watch a local voluntary organisation tear itself apart, because top down reforms took no account of fundamental friendships that were keeping the organisation going. One person goes, they all follow. Trust buys loyalty, causes do not.

So if you want to make things better, respect your peers and their contacts and relationships. This says more about your attitude to trust and understanding of people, than anything else. You don’t have to like these people, but you do have to respect their connections, and recognise the value they bring.


This has been a good week. Mainly because it has involved lots of conversations with real businesses, real people and getting some proper, direct feedback on Government support.


Sat listening to feedback that was both brutally honest and quietly reassuring in equal measure, three business owners all put the same thing on their wish list: a mentor.

That word covers all sorts of roles and forms of support, but it got me thinking about the mentors I turned to when I worked in the private sector. What makes a good mentor? And what differentiates a mentor from a kind boss or an inspiring presenter?

I’ve been lucky to work for loads of great people. Too many to list here, without causing lots of embarrassment and making this post even more tedious.

But the people I consider to be professional mentors are the ones who I find occupy my thoughts every week, if not every day. They didn’t just teach me a skill, or help me out with a project. The way they conducted themselves in business now forms part of my character. Or at least, I like to think that it does.

There are three mentors in my mind, each of them with very different, but never conflicting, attributes.


If I ever find myself short on motivation first thing in the morning, last thing in the afternoon, or any time of the day, I think of Richard.

Richard is one of those people with boundless energy. Not the silly over-caffeinated type that you know are artificially hyper active, but someone who can turn the most staid of office environments into an engine room.

He helped me realise the value of digging deep when to-do lists, clients, funds or time is stacked against you.


It’s always easier to procrastinate, do nothing, blame someone else, or focus on another task.

Ian taught me that this only leads to failure. If I’m ever tempted to ‘park’ a big problem, or pretend that money is not my number one driver for going to work, I see him standing next to me saying: ‘you need to get from here to here’ (pointing at opposite sides of the desk), ‘we can either go straight across, or zig zag’ (still pointing at the desk). ‘Zig zags are more painful and there’s no profit. Which is it to be?’


When times are tough, you need someone who can help you see clearly.

Times were very tough when I worked with Bernard. He helped me to take the emotion out of some difficult decisions. Cheques for huge amounts of money were simply that. They weren’t life or death. Spending time simply worrying about problems wasn’t going to solve them, either.

Now, I hope, I spend more time worrying about the stuff that really matters at home, and less about decisions at work.

These are my mentors. Recognise any of their characters?

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