Friday, 26 June 2009

The importance of being lazy

I was at a dinner a couple of weeks ago sitting next to a high powered Washington executive when a young investment banker came up.

"How's it going?" the Exec said. The young banker excitedly said "It's going great. I haven't had a single day off work for the last 6 weeks. I've worked straight through, including every saturday and sunday."

"Excellent" says the Exec. "My staff never go home before midnight. The other night I said goodnight to them at 3am and they just laughed and said "do you mean goodmorning, boss?".

They then both looked at me expectantly. "Ooooh", I said "Well, erm, well, sometimes I do up to 2 hours of productive work a day. On a good day of course". Phew, just listening to these two was wearing me out.

You see, I discovered something interesting a few years ago. It turns out that a lot of what we do at work is a complete waste of time. I reckon that if you work for a large corporate then 60% of what you do makes no difference to anyone anywhere and if you work for a start-up it's more like 40%. Fortunately your corporate competitors probably waste 70% of their effort so your 60% of non-productive effort is pretty good going.

You can do lots and lots of this timewasting stuff in the hope that if you do lots of stuff then you are probably doing a bit more useful stuff. Or you can try to figure out what the useful stuff is and just not bother to do the rest. That's what I try to do.

My strategy is to try to do ONE really high impact thing each day. One critical decision, one cut through phone call, one killer email, one transforming conversation. I know in myself when I've done something that really makes a difference and once I've done it, I relax. Sure, I'll do a few other things but knowing that I've done that ONE BIG THING is enough for me to declare that day a good day's work, even if it only took me 5 minutes.

Mind you, this strategy doesn't work if you kid yourself about whether the thing you did really was a high impact thing. You need to sit down, look at your To Do list and see whether there is anything on it that will make a real difference. If there isn't then prepare yourself for redundancy! You can hid behind "being busy" for a while but it will catch up with you. Come on, is there really anything on your "To Do" list that makes a serious difference? Then, do it.

The other important thing to making this approach work is not to feel guilty, once you have done your ONE BIG THING. If your boss comes around the corner and you are relaxing with your feet on your desk, sipping a cup of cocoa, are you sure the ONE BIG THING is big enough to stop the top of his head blowing off? If it is, then sip away my friend, you've earned it.

I like to think of this strategy as a "Tai Chi" approach to business verses the standard hard-form Karate style of business. It's a soft power approach. If you enjoyed Chinese films in the old days, then you would have loved it when the muscle bound young man attacks the old, blind begger with his powerful karate blows and kicks, but the old man uses his relaxed, almost nonchalant tai chi style to block all the blows, whilst calmly eating a bowl of rice, before causing his over-enthusiastic opponent to punch himself in the head.

Actually the principle I am interested in is that of "Wu Wei", the art of doing things "without action". So, you run around if you want to, hustle, bustle, put those hours in, show those bosses that you've got what it takes. Me, I will think carefully about my objectives, I'll do my ONE BIG THING each day as effortlessly as possible and then I'll relax and cheer you on with my feet up. Good luck!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Sports day in Cape Town

Today the World Economic Forum in Cape Town was all about sports, well for me at least.

This afternoon I joined delegates on a trip to Greenpoint Stadium that nestles between Table Mountain and the Atlantic ocean.

When we arrived we were met by a barrage of photographers and journalists. I knew we were important but not that important, surely? It turns out I was right because after we collected our hard hats and sat in the auditorium for a briefing on the stadium, we were asked to stand to welcome President Jacob Zuma and various other eminent personalities, including the Secretary General of Fifa. Zuma was there to kick off the one year countdown to the first match of the 2010 World Cup.

The President literally kicked off the countdown, as we all went out onto the pitch (I can claim now that I have stood on a World Cup football pitch). In front of what must have been several thousand construction workers, Jacob Zuma spoke more eloquently and fluently than I had heard him in front of the WEF audience, then as we counted down, kicked a ball into the stands.

I did enjoy the fact that, after signing disclaimer forms and donning hard hats, in the middle of the massive construction site, standing under cranes as high as the sky, the South African national anthem was played and we all, including the President, immediately took our hard hats off and held them to our chest. That must have been the health and safety officials worst nightmare!
Later on that evening, I attended a soiree in honour of the 800 WEF delegates, in the presence of President Zuma and a number of other African Heads of State. Again the whole thrust of the evening was the 2010 World Cup. There is such enthusiasm building up here, it is going to be one HUGE party and I am definitely going to come to Cape Town in 2010 to be a part of it.

I thought I had done enough sport when I finally got back to the hotel at about 11pm, only to find all the hotel staff wearing British Lions shirts over their uniforms, because the Lions had just checked in to the hotel that I am staying at. I can see a group sitting round the pool now and I can hear some gentle rugby songs wafting upwards. I have a feeling that this hotel is in for a lively time over the next few days!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

African Flavour

This week I am attending the World Economic Forum on Africa event in Cape Town, South Africa. WEF events are remarkably similar, whether they take place in Davos, China or Africa but this one has a definite African flavour.

Mind you, it's a subtle aroma rather than a full blown, assault on the senses type of flavour. Rather like Cape Town itself. I met an English couple in the hotel this evening and the wife said "this is my first trip to Africa". I felt like saying "Lady, you think Cape Town is Africa? You ain't seen nothing yet".

On the surface this WEF event is identical in look and feel to the others I have been to, whether in Switzerland or China. The "WEF Welcomes You..." banners at the airport, the meet-and-greet staff who direct you to the WEF branded mini-buses. The 5* hotels chosen, the shuttle buses to the conference centre, your WEF bag with the participants book on registration, the security badge are all identical from country to country. Inside the conference centre they have literally lifted up the whole of the Davos look and feel and plonked it down on a different continent thousands of miles away.

However just below the surface there are a couple of differences. Not many, but one or two that give it that slightly distinct flavour.

For example, at WEF events the dress code is business casual. That usually means open necked shirt and jacket, or even shirt and no jacket, particularly amongst tech guys. But at WEF Africa business casual means smart suit and tie and properly polished shoes. In fact it means exactly the same as business formal. When you are going to a business meeting in Africa, if you want to be taken seriously you wear a suit and tie and that's that.

Interestingly, out of the 800+ delegates here from all over Africa not one man (so far) is wearing traditional African attire. Everyone is in Western suits and ties. That's quite unusual really and tells me two things. One is that the delegates are not entirely comfortable with the environment. They don't "own" it. They are guests at this event on their own continent. Secondly it tells me that there are not many Nigerians here, because if there was a strong Nigerian contingent you would see the brightly coloured flowing agbada's being worn with pride. Nigerian's "own" wherever they happen to be at the time, they wear what they like, they will talk as loud as they like and if you don't like it "you can go to hell, blorry idiot".

Some of the women are wearing traditional outfits though, the most notable being Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the World Bank Managing Director (pictured above) who ALWAYS wears her traditional outfits with pride. Ngozi is a very impressive lady. I have seen her speak on several occasions and she is a match for anyone. Today she shared the stage with the likes of President Jacob Zuma and Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, and she more than held her own.

The other African thing that happens here is that the audience applaud after every speaker makes a comment, however short. This is traditional African respect - you are in the presence of your "seniors" and betters, so if they honour you by speaking to you then you should show your appreciation. African's are quite formal, you know. This is something that is not well understood by non-Africans, but the formalities of greeting correctly, showing respect to your elders and knowing your place are deeply ingrained in African culture.

This can sometimes prove an unexpected problem in a Western setting. For example, a young man brought up within a mildly traditional African family will show respect for an older man by looking down rather than looking him straight in the eye, shaking hands carefully, sometimes with two hands and generally transmitting a tone of subserviance. The younger man doesn't actually feel particularly subservient but that's how you treat your elders. Now if that young man goes for a job interview in London, where you are supposed to stride in, hand outstretched looking your interviewer in the eye and talk to someone 30 years your senior as if you "are mates", well he just doesn't stand a chance.

Greetings are all important too. The more junior person greets first and then there can be a lengthy to and fro of greetings that can quite easily take 5 minutes, before any real conversation starts. For example, in my father's area (Afuze, Owan East Local Government Area, Edo State, Nigeria) it will go something like this

Ah hello Sir

Hello boy

How are you sir?


That's good. How are you Sir, still fine I hope?

I am still fine boy. Nothing has changed since we last spoke

That's good news Sir. And the wife Sir, how is she, Sir?

She is fine, boy

The wife is fine, Sir? That is good. Fine is she, Sir?

Yes, boy, she is fine

Good, good. And you Sir, you are fine?

Yes boy, fine

Good. Anyway, I was just passing and thought I'd say hi, Sir

Ok, boy

(silence ensues for a few minutes)

Anyway, Sir, I will be going

Ok, boy

But before I go, I just wanted to ask, how you were Sir?

Fine, boy

And the wife

She's fine too, boy

Ok, Sir, I will be going

Ok boy

(this can go on for several days until one or the other of the participants faints with hunger, allowing the other to sneak off, unless someone else arrives in which case it starts all over again)

So, this WEF event in Africa has a definite if subtle African aroma. It's sort of in Africa but not quite in Africa. It's more "on" Africa than "in" Africa. But that's okay, at least the challenges that the continent faces are getting some attention by an influential group of people and that's got to be a good thing.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

In a diplomatic bubble

I attended a quite unique dinner at the Dorchester, London last night. It was in honour of the Diplomatic Corps and I found myself in the company of 128 Ambassadors and High Commissioners, 19 Lords, Ladies and Barons, 24 Sirs and an assortment of Professors, Bankers, Diplomats, Field Marshalls and political and media folk.

I found myself sitting amongst a small group of political observers, including Adam Boulton of Sky News (he left early and when I got home and turned on the TV, there he was again, reporting live outside Downing Street!), Michael Prescott (former political editor of the Sunday Times) and Anji Hunter (Tony Blair's former spin doctor, who I have since realised is married to Adam Boulton, which explains what I thought was a level of over-familiarity not entirely appropriate for such an event). There was a flurry of excitement and chattering amongst these folk when news filtered through about another Ministerial resignation.

You can always rely on a good speech from senior diplomats and we were not disappointed. The Ambassadors all laughed at the standard joke told at such occasions about the definition of an Ambassador being "an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country", turning to each other to say with perfectly straight faces that that was possibly the funniest joke they had every heard.

We were a bit more confused when the senior diplomat appeared to say "I really believe that we are an honest and corrupt nation". We tittered politely. Did he say that? Did we miss-hear? Perhaps he said "honest, uncorrupt nation" but that's a strange phrase too.

Much of the main speech was about the power of new media, blogs, twitter, youtube and so on. This is an interesting challenge for the Diplomatic Corps who are in the business of controlling communication, not letting it rip. These social media give mere mortals a direct view inside the diplomatic bubble and the senior diplomats will have to move quickly to get on top of them. In fact I heard of a new concept, a "digital coach" who apparently works one to one with a senior executive coaching them through the world of social media (isn't that sort of like a paid grandchild?). I enjoyed tweeting about diplomats talking about tweeting.

This piercing of the bubble by social media will be very interesting, because that world really is a bubble. For a few hours one is dinning with over a hundred senior diplomats and other guests in one of London's best hotels and you are completely disconnected from the everyday world outside. Then at the end of the evening, we go our separate ways. The Ambassadors step into their long, black limos with uniformed drivers (picture a hundred cars all with number plates like "COUNTRY 1" parked in 3 rows on Park Lane) and stay in the heart of the bubble.

Mere mortals, like me, wander off to our parked cars, rip off our bow-ties, stick on some roots music and zoom off back to reality.