Just about everyone is wrestling with a feeling not unlike being slapped in the face repeatedly with something wet, unpleasant, and fishy just now – as another, probably shocking, news event screams for our attention before the full facts of the previous attack / coup / natural disaster / international incident fade away.

More than one journalist has suggested that a permanent banner should run along the bottom of all screens with the words ‘what just happened?’ repeating endlessly.

People cope in different ways.

Rocking rhythmically backwards and forwards isn’t recommended, but is comforting.

Humming tunelessly to drown things out can hit the spot in a similarly ‘leave me alone its not happening’ way.

As can getting stuck into all things work.

It was in a spirit of clearing up lots of deferred tasks, some of them online renewals, some of them closing down things that should have been closed down aeons ago, that I was reminded of the nonsensical instruction at the closing stage of many online submissions that demands proof that you are – not a robot.

A common instruction for this stage is ‘please confirm your humanity’ and involves, typically, an ironically robotic action- such as copying fake attempts at spidery hand-written characters from one box into another.

Given the times in which we currently live, the turbulence, the challenge to our feelings of what is right / wrong, what is ‘normal’, what is good / bad, and the widespread feeling of existential unease, is this really how to ‘confirm your humanity’?

Something much simpler will do that.

Something we should not be afraid of showing, something which when others reveal it we should respond to with compassion and comfort.



T80pxtreewo themes collide this week.

The first was a serious look at how to help the boardrooms of businesses ‘get’ the idea that old systems of thinking and planning and ‘managing’ are just that – old. Clever people talk of changing mindsets, of having to think differently. “The past is crumbling and the future isn’t here yet” observed a contributor at one seminar.

Why are boards, in particular, finding it so hard to build cultures that dance well with change?

The second theme nestled within an episode of David Eagleman’s series on neuroscience. Programmes about thinking about thinking; absolutely compelling.

In this episode, a beautifully designed experiment looked at empathy, at how we are able to feel what others feel. An extraordinary finding was that the body leads the process. A viewers face ‘copies’ the expressions of the person being watched. The then – felt sensation drives the empathic response.

This jewel of a finding burst into significance when working with people who had received beauty treatments – botox – that basically freeze groups of facial muscles. You would expect (rightly) that their faces would be hard to read, that it would be hard to understand what they were feeling. But these wrinkle- free individuals were cut off in another way. They were unable to deduce what others were feeling – because their own facial muscles did not move.

There’s a connection here.

The old pattern of removed, elevated, even rarified boardroom conversations is rather like freezing those facial muscles. Nothing can be felt or understood.

I’m going to keep my eyes open for this. Business Botox.


T80pxtreehe Marketing Society awarded the Marketing Leader of the Year 2015 prize to Diageo CEO Syl Saller.

Amongst some heartening descriptions of her success and her leadership style was the quoted ‘self-professed lack of ego and a verging on humble attitude’.

Unusual qualities in a CEO, no?

It’s been a tough couple of years for players in that market place, and this leadership approach seems to have united a global leadership team in a real and effective way.  When things go well, when people excel, when leaders are respected, we want to do they do it? We really want to clone, or to copy them, don’t we?

I’m right near the front of that queue.  But I think that the idea ‘ego – free’ may be misleading.

Freud introduced us to the term, describing a sort of ‘psychological apparatus’ that fluidly manages a tension between the impulse-driven(id), and the socialized (superego), parts of ourselves. The word has come to mean, in general use, a sense of self – who we think we are.

But my pernickety reason for looking more closely at ‘ego’ is this: that the qualities of a healthy ego are pretty close to the qualities we need and want in a great leader.

Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists continue to debate the finer points of ego definitions and qualities, but some really crucial characteristics are common across the board.  The quality of ‘reality testing’ for example: being able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, being able to differentiate between the abstract and the concrete. That’s all bound up with a healthy ego state.

The ability to screen out distractions, to be cognitively efficient is linked to a healthy ego.
And how about tolerating inconsistencies? And respecting others as separate entities? The ego handles all this too.
There’s also the hugely important ability to function without emotional conflict – to function in a consistent and integrated way.

And the business-crucial function of perceiving and predicting the consequences of actions, while being able to act spontaneously when appropriate, is laid right at the ego’s door.

The ‘lose the ego, get humble’ instruction sounds superficially attractive.

But the ‘get over yourself’ implicit in this has more relevance to ..brands (They are always trying to force their way into our lives, aren’t they? Another ‘like’ on facebook.)

But Leadership development?

I’d put a strong and healthy ego right up there; seriously.


Penny Hunt's blog coffee conversationsMy father was a professor of maths. His colleagues were rather.…eccentric. Their subject – and its infinite seductive mysteries – were much more real to them than the concerns of actual, breathing, students.

One ludicrously clever professor continued his lecture (ironically, about imaginary numbers) after the summer break at exactly the point where he had been interrupted by the bell 3 ½ months earlier. I think the only punctuation was some throat clearing.
So let me learn from that and quickly remind you where we got up to last week….

We were talking about how the narrative around ‘how to advance women in the workplace’ question isn’t right, and how the usual interventions of quotas and training are just not working.   The job to be done is shifting culture, shifting in order to support everyone – men and women – to be themselves.

And that’s not just a hunch.

I undertook my own research last year into the men and women issue at work to really understand how companies differ, what works, what doesn’t, and why.   I ran workshops, focus groups, interviews, in companies as diverse as BBCWorldwide, FCO, an Insurance giant, Charities, Agencies such as Shine Communications, and many others in 2014 – and found some answers.

Penny Hunt's drawing of how to make things growWhat happens in those environments where men and work wonderfully together?

It’s amazing.

If you want to start encouraging people to be themselves, then don’t try to impose change.

Do something much more radical – start talking.
The common catalyst for change is conversation and contact.
I found that the very act of dialogue changes the environment.
The what, the who, the how takes some thinking about, some careful diagnosis, sure. And it needs amazing CEO support.

The learning helped me develop a process (more of that another time)

But here are some findings and tips to use right away.

Firstly, some simple rules of the change game:

  • Do: open up and allow the organization to value the individual – this helps both men and women flourish – and should happen before introducing any specific interventions to support women.
    Do not: concentrate on a ‘promoting women problem’ as a specific task. Counter-intuitively, this entrenches the issue.
    (what you focus on grows!)
  • Do: diagnose carefully the nature of the culture / industry / specifics of the organization to choose the right participants, process and subject – the right ‘culture conversation’.
  • Do not: promise to deliver listening, and access to leadership, if this is not a real commitment.

Secondly, some tips

  • Mix up teams. Regularly.
  • Set up regular ‘I’ll be having a coffee here’ slots so that anyone can come and talk. Don’t give up.
  • Start a network.
  • Sit in reception occasionally.
  • Watch and listen.

These tips will help loosen that eccentric professor mode (we all fall into it) where the subject of leading and building a great business becomes more real than the people it is all really about.

It all starts with conversation.

And what you focus on will grow.


Penny Hunt's blog coffee conversationsIf “a picture paints a thousand words”, might a little cartoon paint at least a few?

It’s been a week with a particular theme; women and leadership.

Many conversations and sessions, all about how clever women can join their male colleagues at the top table – and stay themselves.

The truth underneath the conversations may take too many words to express carefully.

That truth might feel unbelievable.
It might not be about ‘leadership’ or ‘effectiveness’.
It might not be about that top table place.
It might, just, be about not needing to join at all…….

So, this week, a cartoon.
To save on words.

Cartoon by Penny Hunt