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Sitting staring at a blank screen (which in my head I still think of as a blank sheet of paper – old school!) has become a bit of a regular event during the last 30 days! I spoke in an earlier post about the importance of determination to complete a challenge such as the Ultimate Blog Challenge. I’ve had to dig deep into my determination reserves… but I’ve finally made it – day 30 is finally upon us!

Setting time aside every day (I never did quite manage to get ahead of myself enough to write more than one post a day and schedule them to post in advance, as some of my fellow participants have done) to write a blog post, sometimes with the kernel of an idea already in my head and sometimes with that perpetual blank screen and blinking cursor staring back at me, has been quite a challenge.

But I have managed to do it and it has been a real reinforcement of that old adage about being able to achieve anything if you put your mind to it. I mean, I know that there are many, much bigger challenges in life than writing a few hundred words and sending them out into the ether every day. But it’s a small example of deciding to make a change and following through on that decision, without allowing the everyday issues, priorities and distractions to get in the way of achieving your goal.

It’s been tough at times to stay on course during a very busy period, but it has been very rewarding to make the time every day, not just to write and post my own blog, but also to read a variety of other blogs on a wide range of subjects and make connections with lots of fantastic bloggers, all of whom have been really generous with their thoughts, comments, tips and advice.

I have definitely got the taste for blogging more regularly than I was before undertaking the challenge, and I intend to keep it up, though daily blogging is something that I’ll keep in reserve for future challenges of this sort, I think!

And overall, I’m feeling a sense of satisfaction for having made it to the end of a challenge I set myself. So well done to all my fellow Ultimate Blog Challenge participants, thank you for making it so enjoyable, and I look forward to staying in contact with you.

 
 
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I've spent the day deep in conversation with the Chief Executive of the Wilderness Foundation UK designing the course content for a leadership development programme we're delivering later this year. 

It was great to start with a blank sheet of paper - and a big pile of post it notes! – and brainstorm what we think would be the key areas for the leaders of tomorrow to focus on. As the programme is being delivered by the Wilderness Foundation, there is a heavy emphasis on nature based learning - using a variety of outdoor exercises to explore leadership skills and abilities. You might have seen in an earlier blog the fun I had hugging trees in an exercise on trust, teamwork and observation – it's activities of that sort that we'll be weaving into the programme. 

After spending the day up to our armpits in post it notes and felt tip pens, we had an overall plan for the structure of the programme. We'd come up with some great thoughts for the detailed activities that will make up each day of the course. 

Tomorrow we'll be putting some meat on the bones of that structure, designing sessions and outlining activities. I can't wait to use the opportunity to be creative, finding new and exciting ways to help the participants to discover the leadership potential within themselves.

Have you undertaken any leadership development training? What sorts of activities, tools, models or techniques really resonated with you? Are there any that you put into practice in your life and how effective have they been? Did any involve the great outdoors? I'd love to hear your experiences. 

 
 
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My wife and I are cat owners. We have three of the little rascals, each with very different temperaments and personalities. I thought I’d share a little about each of them with you today.

First, there’s Scooby. He has been with my wife since he was a tiny kitten, and was a very important (feline) person to win over when I first met her. He is absolutely devoted to her and follows her around the house all day long. He is a very sensitive soul and likes to stay close to home, climbing onto laps for a cuddle and a snooze. His favourite toy in the world is a folded up crisp packet that he loves to play fetch with. Yes, you read that right, he is a cat who loves to play catch. Having been the only cat in the house for quite a long time, he is also used to being spoilt and has developed a taste for some very un-cat-like foods, like Doritos and hummus, for example! He wants to share whatever you’ve got on your plate.

Then came Alfie, a little bundle of energy and fluff who we got as a kitten nearly two years ago. He is the smallest of our household and the one who is very much in charge – pushing the others off their food bowls so that he can eat what they’re having, starting fights with them both even though they’re twice his size, and curling up to sleep right in their personal spaces till they get fed up and move! He is the bravest of the three, venturing off quite far and spending as much time as he possibly can outside, often curling up under a bush for a snooze. He’s extremely independent and usually takes himself off into a different room for a sleep, popping back every now and again for a quick tummy rub. He’s a skinny wee thing, clearly a fan of the supermodel look, and is only really interested in actual cat food – he can’t usually be tempted by any scraps from your plate, perhaps making an exception for bacon fat every now and again.

Finally, Phoenix came into our world. He actually adopted us, showing up in our garden over a period of time, starving and petrified. To cut a long story short, it turned out that he had run away from his previous owner’s home 6 months previously and had been living outside on his own. He decided to move in with us and, by agreement with his previous owner, we kept him, and has been with us about 6 months now. He’s a big, muscly, butch boy, but he doesn’t seem to know it and he’s such a big softy and extremely gentle. He absolutely loves cuddles and enjoys getting as close as he possibly can to your face, including laying on your head in the night. He is extremely timid and doesn’t like it when you’re standing up or walking around, especially if you’re wearing shoes. He prefers you to be sat down and then he’ll come to you and climb all over you until he’s comfortable and ready for a tummy tickle, thank you very much. He’s got a big appetite, enjoying both actual cat food and scraps, but he’s become just as fussy as the other two, well and truly leaving his scrounging for food days behind him!

Before being a cat owner, I assumed that cats all sound the same. They go “meow”, right? What I didn’t realise was that they actually have very distinctive voices, to the point where I can tell them apart just by hearing them. Scooby is generally quiet, but when he does talk it’s a real heart-rending desperate cry. He knows how to get his way! Alfie is ridiculously talkative with a very high little squeak of a voice. And he uses it over and over and over again until he gets his way! Phoenix’s voice is quite unusual, best described as kind of a cross between Frankie Howerd and Marge Simpson. Yes, really.

So why am I telling you all this about our cats? Well, we have learnt that treating all three of them in the exact same way just doesn’t work. We have to tailor our approach to them, calling them in the particular way that works for them, cuddling them in the way they like, fussing those that like it and leaving those alone who are quite happy chilling out on their own. It strikes me that their little foibles are not just influenced by their personalities, but have also been shaped by their experiences.

I think that lessons can be drawn from this and applied in the workplace. It is very important to treat all your staff equally, but this absolutely doesn’t mean treating them all the same. If you are able to get under the skin of your staff and understand what makes them tick, you are then able to tailor your approach to managing them and communicating with them in a way that suits them. In this way, they will feel individually valued for their contributions, understood and appreciated. They will feel better able to meet your needs and understand what is expected of them, and will feel respected as individuals. Applying a one size fits all approach to management just doesn’t achieve the best results because – just like cats – people are not all the same. They have different personalities, experiences and preferences, and demonstrating an understanding of this will go a long way. Just don’t ask if they prefer Whiskas or Go-Cat, or give them a tummy tickle.

 
 
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I promise you, no-one sets up their own business in order to run their own accounts. No-one thinks “ooh it’d be great to be my own boss because then I can sort my own taxes, build a spreadsheet to track my expenses and keep receipts till they’re coming out of my ears”. I don’t think even those who set up their own business as accountants actually enjoy doing it for themselves!

And yet, it’s something that is common to all business owners, regardless of their industry. Plumbers to project managers, car mechanics to business coaches. All have to wrestle with the endless confusions over deductible expenses, tax codes, and the latest changes to the system – real time PAYE, anyone?

So, can anyone guess what it is that I spent most of this morning doing? Yup, sorting through the enormous collection of receipts that had been amassed over the past few weeks (oh, ok, months), despite our firm vow that we wouldn’t let them mount up and would keep on top of it every day.

It’s so easy to let that happen, isn’t it? A day turns into two, which turns into a week, and before you know it, that tiny pile of receipts that didn’t really seem like much of an issue is suddenly looming like some sort of Mount Everest, so that you need to equip yourself not just with a calculator and pencil, but also with a full set of crampons and safety ropes!

So now, what would have been a relatively straightforward, small, regular task, has turned into a daunting, lengthy, head scratcher of a job. Picking through the pile, grasping one long-forgotten, scrunched up receipt at a time and trying to work out what it was for, what you got up to that day, and whether it is an allowable expense. Such fun!

Anyway, no matter, it’s all done and up to date now. And I really am determined not to let them pile up again. Honest…

 
 
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Alongside the work I do with my lovely wife as part of Miller & Miller Consulting Ltd (check out our website for more information on the services we offer), I have been keeping an eye out on the job scene and applying my standard career development approach: applying for anything that looks interesting, challenging, and that I feel I could convince the recruiter and myself that I could do!

It was following this approach that I came across and applied for a role that I felt I had the skills set to be able to succeed in, though not necessarily all the desired experience. It looked like a really interesting and definitely a very challenging role!

So I thought "what the heck?!" and put in an application, thinking no more of it. Not long afterwards, I got a call to tell me that I had been short listed. I was a bit amazed, I have to tell you! But delighted as well, of course, so I set about preparing for the mammoth recruitment day. 

It was a bit like the Krypton Factor - the only test missing was the obstacle course! (Suggestion: don't actually make that joke to your prospective employer, I got blank looks!) We had to lead two group activities, attend a couple of meetings, prepare for and deliver a case study interview, go on a tour of the site and, finally, have an interview. Phew!

During the day, I got to know the other 4 short listed candidates and was filled with ever increasing trepidation. They were all at least 15 years older than I, with more than double the work experience, and most of them had extensive experience in the job in question, or something very like it, or at least the appropriate sector. Uh oh. 

You know those property TV programmes where a couple go on and say "we'd like to buy a 3 bedroom house, with a large garden, in the middle of a (specific) town, and our budget is £x"? And then the hosts choose them 2 or 3 houses that meet that criteria at least more or less and take them to see them?

And then there's always one "wildcard" property they chuck in at the end to try to sway them or show them other options if they're willing to bend on some (or all!) of their criteria? And that wildcard is usually a barge moored up somewhere 50miles from their target area, no garden, no room to swing a cat, but COME ON! It's a BARGE ferchrissakes! The whole countryside is your back garden!?

Well, that was me. 4 well-proportioned, mock Tudor, detached properties in suburbia with large gardens, off road parking and room for a pony. And me - a houseboat. 

Ah well, I thought, nothing to lose here but your dignity! Give yourself a talking to, pretend you're confident, look everyone in the eye, and just give it your best shot. It'll be great experience, if nothing else, but only if you try your hardest. 

So, with my loins duly girded, I carried on throughout the day, and – amazingly enough – made it through the whole process without making too much of a fool of myself. Hurrah! A success, and I could go home happy. 

 
 
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For the last couple of weeks, I've been commuting by train (and sometimes bus) to and from work for the first time in years. I know that, for some people, it's a pain in the posterior and something that they would rather do without. 

For me, however, I actually find it quite a useful chunk of time in the day, especially thanks to the wonders of modern technology. For example, most days I've been able to get my blog at least started, if not finished, on my smartphone before I've arrived home. When I've had bits of reading to do, or even research via our good friend Google, I've been able to do that on the way home, meaning that my time upon closing the front door behind me is entirely my own, with no need for any further extracurricular activities to be undertaken. 

It's a bit like a work decompression chamber, I suppose, where you come away from the working day slowly so that you don't get the (metaphorical!) bends and get closure on everything you needed to complete that day but didn't quite manage before leaving. 

I also tend to use the evening trips home to do some non-work based chores and activities, like catching up on personal emails and replying to people who you've been meaning to get back to but haven't quite got round to it! Or perhaps checking out plans or travel arrangements for that weekend's fun, or even checking my online banking and doing a bit of shopping! With the advent of smartphones, provided you have signal and battery, you can power through large swathes of your to do list whilst sitting comfortably (or standing precariously!) on the train. 

Similarly, on the way into work, I often use it to prepare for the day ahead - last minute reading, getting thoughts together for how you will handle the anticipated plans for the day, and even grabbing breakfast! Just a cuppa and perhaps a cereal bar of some sort though – nothing smelly or messy... me trying to eat a bowl of cereal on a moving train would not a clean and tidy person make!

If I have no "chores" (work- or home-based) on the agenda for the day, it's a great place to unwind and do some reading. Sometimes with an actual real life book made of paper and everything! As long as you don't mind sharing with the person sitting next to you, of course. Very important not to be reading something too embarrassing! 

So what about you? Is commuting a hated burden or a joyful decompression chamber? What do you get up to on your commute?

 
 
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This week I've been thinking a lot about planning. By nature, my preferred style is to "wing it" in meeting, workshop and other situations. I've found that I'm much more natural, comfortable and confident when I'm operating that way. 

However, the ability to "wing it" in a certain situation does actually involve a level of preparation! To start with, I need a pretty good base understanding of the content and context of the area concerned; knowledge against which some key decisions and actions can then be taken in short order where required. 

This means that, when I'm new to an environment or subject matter or both, I tend to rely much more strongly on advance planning. I make quite detailed notes and agendas, which inevitably get largely ignored as I start to get immersed in meetings and I begin to revert to type! But there's something enormously reassuring about having them there to turn to should the need arise. Kind of like a grown up comfort blanket!

I also think that the process of producing that comfort blanket in agenda form is in many ways more important than its use itself, as the thinking that goes into it and talking it through with colleagues etc. to ensure it's not wide of the mark helps to stimulate your thinking and understanding of the subject matter. 

I don't want to give the impression, however, that I "don't do planning"! It's crucial to have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve, how, when by, and who will do what, and planning ahead helps prevent you running up against last minute issues. 

For me, though, a certain level of flexibility is imperative to allow me to respond to those last minute issues that avoid the safety net of the planning process!

So what about you? What level of planning works for you? Are you a list maker with every second of the day planned out to the nearest minute with military precision? Or a "fly by the seat of your pants" type, free and flexible to respond to matters as instinct takes you?


 
 
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What motivates you to perform highly at work? Is it primarily the promise of financial bonuses that drive you? I’m willing to bet that – while a bit of extra money might be nice – it’s not your key motivator. I suspect you’re more likely to be motivated by feeling valued (perhaps being thanked or otherwise recognised every once in a while), or stretched and challenged, or that you’re able to make a difference and be creative. Does that sound about right? What else motivates you?

If you have staff, how do you motivate them to perform well? What sort of rewards and benefits (financial and otherwise) do you employ? There are some fantastic thoughts (and great animation) in this video, which focuses on a number of studies on motivation and presents some rather surprising findings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QM9p4o050EY&NR=1&feature=fvwp

Whilst I was already of the view that financial bonuses are not the primary motivation for most people to perform well, I was still surprised on watching the video that so many studies have reached the conclusion that financial imperatives can actually have a negative effect on performance. So what did you think? Did the video make you think again about your assumptions about what motivates people to perform well? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And if you enjoyed the animation as much as I did, why not check out the RSA’s website for plenty more on a wide range of subjects.

 
 
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I had the opportunity today to spend some time with a group of school children, talking to them about what they would like to see improved about a particular aspect of their school. I was initially quite nervous about the session - would they be interested in what I had to say? Would they engage with me positively? Would I be able to keep everything running to time?

When I got into the session, however, I met the most inclusive, engaging, fantastically creative group of people you could hope to work with. We started with a round robin of names and something interesting about themselves. Even that was creative - my favourite was "My name's Barry* and I like chicken"! Well, Barry, who doesn't?! A brilliant start. 

They were all really willing to engage and participate, even the more quiet characters, and very supportive of each other's ideas, whilst also feeling comfortable enough to challenge them appropriately where they didn't agree. 

Then they were full of great and, if I'm really honest, surprisingly sensible ideas for what they'd like to change. There were occasional digressions into the slightly less sensible, but I enjoyed allowing these for a short while just to see that creativity flow, before bringing the discussion back round to the more feasible options. 

In essence, they wanted more. More choice, more space to relax in, more opportunities to do their homework (yes, really!), more fun things to do, more places to be with their friends. And don't we all want that, really? Apart from the homework, perhaps!

They were also very insightful, bringing up observations on wasted space and missed opportunities for utilisation. 

All in all, I learnt a great deal from them and thoroughly enjoyed the session. I can only hope the same is true for them, at least a little bit! I can't wait for the next opportunity to work with young people, and know that I won't feel anything like the trepidation I felt this time. Hurrah for feeling the fear and doing it anyway!

*Names have been changed to protect the creative!


 
 
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Today marks three weeks of the Ultimate Blog Challenge and I must confess that it is quite challenging to find sufficient inspiration on a daily basis to write a blog post that you hope will be of interest to at least one other person. 

One thing that has become very important to enable me to keep going is determination. Determination to complete the challenge, determination to make time every single day to write a blog, regardless of what other time commitments I have, and determination to commit my thoughts to the page, do my best to ensure that it is as good as it can be, but without overanalysing and trying too hard to reach the unobtainable (and extremely time consuming!) heights of perfection. 

It's tough! But it has been an excellent learning experience for me. I've learnt that I can make time to be creative on a very regular basis, regardless of what else is going on in my life at the time, and that I enjoy doing so a great deal. 

I've learnt that I am able to express my thoughts in a way that (a modest number of) other people can understand, enjoy, and even learn from. Who knew?!

I've also learnt a great deal from the many other bloggers I've been interacting with during the challenge, and the great posts they've been writing. Links are being made, networks are growing, and it's been an extremely rewarding experience so far. 

Finally, I've also learnt that my lovely wife is an exceptional editor and proof reader, and has a seemingly unending supply of patience, mustering enthusiasm every day at the request to read my blog before I post it. Thank you Jo!

As we move into the home straight of the challenge, I will continue to draw on my determination to finish and to develop good long term (but perhaps not daily!) blogging habits. 

So to paraphrase everyone's favourite blue cartoon fish with short term memory loss, just keep blogging... just keep blogging...