We need to talk about failure

There is one thing I excel at, it’s failure. I’ve singularly failed at well over half the things I’ve ever attempted to do. And even those of you that are poor at statistics will be able to work out those aren’t good odds.

Learn to play the guitar? Fail
Learn to speak German? Fail
Learn to code? 404

Significant parts of my working life have also included spectacular fails – its hard sometimes to not bring your whole self to work…..

Let me tell you about someone else that failed, my friend Steve. Last week he tried to swim across the English Channel to France. Now that’s not easy, in the same week someone tragically lost their life whilst trying to complete the same challenge. Steve stopped seven and a half hours in to his attempt. In a Facebook post he said this,

“Yesterday was not my day. I’m really disappointed, as can be expected. I trained hard for this for 18 months, and thought I had it covered. Battles were lost in the lumpy sea with wind against tide as we progressed into the open water (albeit that my pilot Simon described them as good for the channel), vomiting everything in my stomach and more after 2.5 hours, and struggling to take on more fuel quickly enough, but the war was undoubtedly lost in my mind, and that’s what I’m most disappointed about.”

Steve failed. And in my book, that makes him great.

In the world of work, we struggle to fail. We invest so much time, effort and energy in making things happen that we become unable to accept that they’re not a success. We make up reasons for the situation, the environment, the market, the opportunity. When you’ve been through twenty-six board meetings, fourteen rounds of business cases and eventually got the go ahead, it is pretty hard to accept that anything isn’t right.

And when we cannot accept that we’ve failed, we pass up the opportunity to learn. We take nothing away, because we create a narrative that explains events through untrue circumstances.

Read that comment from Steve again. Did he blame the waves? The wind? The flotsam and jetsam of our muddied waters? Or did he analyse and own his own performance.

All of us will fail this week in small and inconsequential ways. We won’t all be swimming the channel, or starting new businesses. We won’t be running marathons or climbing mountains. But nonetheless we can learn from our failures all the same.

I love failure, you should love failure. We should embrace failure as our biggest opportunity to grow, not as the biggest threat to our self-worth. At the end of the day, those who don’t try, can’t fail. And the brave will try, fail, learn, grow and try again. That’s what makes them stand out as exceptional.

So as you go about your business this week, remember we can all be successful at not doing a lot, or we can shoot high and run the risk that we miss.

Maybe it’s me, but I can’t help thinking, things could be a whole lot more interesting if we were all just a little bit more Steve.

The HR diagnostic

So here’s a test for you…..

Think of an area of HR (it could be resourcing, talent development, compensation etc).

Argue why it adds value to the organisation.

Argue why YOU need to do it, not anyone else.

Define the value that is being added by doing it (qualitative and quantitative).


Argue why it slows the organisation down, makes things harder.

Argue why it could be better done by someone else.

Define the total cost of doing the activity (time and budget).

Compare the two.

What did you learn?


From strength to strength

You won’t remember, nor should you, but back in 2011 I wrote about you. It was about being yourself, being strong, being able to make your decisions and hold your own in a world where people will be quick to tell you how you should be, how you should feel and what you should say. It was about never being afraid to stand up and have a voice, no matter what people, what society said was right or wrong.

You have one of those moments now. One of those times when everyone else is going left and you’ve chosen to go right. Its time to test your strength and your will and your mettle. It’s no longer about whether you wear your favourite purple jumper in the playground, but how you choose to push yourself, the adventures that you take and the places that you go.

And whilst I knew this moment would come, and whilst this is only really a trial, it feels wholeheartedly like your first step to starting something new The end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. The moment that fills you equally with joy and with fear. The moment that every parent works for, but secretly dreads.

The writing that I do now is so different to the time I first wrote about you. You realise that you’re probably losing me followers, kudos and street cred just by these very words? I know…..to you I have none of these things anyway, so what’s the big deal?

“The world is full of people who will tell you what you can’t do. Ironically they’ll also tell you what you should do. And even sometimes how to do it.  But in honesty they have no idea, they’re just scared and huddling together for the security that mediocrity and conformity brings.  Strength comes from difference.  The way you think, the way you behave, the way in which you treat people.”

And you have never once failed to surprise me in your willingness to grab the world by the neck and forge your own path, with a confidence and assuredness that I can only dream of having. You have never failed to use your strength, your opportunity, your good fortune to help anyone around you that you saw wanting. Not least that morning as you were saying your goodbyes.

I still burst with pride, just less obviously. I still hold you close, just now looking up at you. I am still by your side, just not physically. You’re writing another amazing chapter in the story of your life, one where only you really know the end. Yet as before, my only ask of you is this,

Be strong. Be humble. Be gracious. And beyond everything else. Be yourself.

After the storm…

Last week I wrote a post that became a bit of a beast. It happens every now and then and once it is done, all you can do is sit back and accept the repercussions of your actions.

A number of things were said to me, a number of accusations made and a number of incorrect assertions levelled against me. Now that the temperature has hopefully gone out of the subject, let’s take a chance to look at the facts.

Over 2,500 people accessed the page that the article was on, others read it on Linkedin, via email subscription and in feeds. The post was covered by the Bookseller in a news article on the fall out of the referendum.

Some people hated it. I was called “immature” and “ignorant”, told I should be “ashamed” and the post was described as “awful” amongst other things (thank you all for the feedback).  At the same time, many people contacted me in private to thank me for writing and sharing my views and expressing their personal anger, frustration and despair – but hesitation to express this publicly for fear of a similar response.

So what were the allegations against me?

The post was written in anger
The observant will have read the footnote and looked at the publication date. I wrote the post on the Friday, I published on the Monday. I wrote something else on the Sunday evening taking a measured response, but it just felt inauthentic. I accept that some people will think this worse, that I mindfully posted something that I knew was written in anger – but it felt the only way to be true to myself and I believe people need to understand the strength of feeling.

The post is about the referendum
Not really. It is actually about a topic that is much talked about, much reported and much debated. The provocation was the referendum result, but the issues of education fees, an inaccessible property market, the slow privatisation of the NHS, removal of pension schemes, social exclusion and alienation of the young are not referendum topics. They are economic and social issues that we should all be very worried about. The point wasn’t the leave/remain debate, it was a point about generational difference.

My role as a HR Director should be called in to question
First, my blog has and always will be a personal site, expressing my personal views. That said, it isn’t hard to find my career details. To those working in HR I would say this, if you spent more time discussing issues like this and less time talking about policies, processes and procedures – we’d have a better profession. That’s what we should be paid for. To those not in HR, I’d ask what they would prefer their employers were focused on – society and equity, or profit and personal gain?

I was stereotyping
The quotes at the beginning of the post, “They don’t care about the impression they make on other people, they think everything evolves around them, they don’t care about their reputation and yet they want constant acclaim”, were all taken from articles in the mainstream press written instead about millennials. Not only that, there are a thousand more statements made about young people that you could find that were be as bad if not worse. And I’m the one that is stereotyping?

The blog is discriminatory
Only in the HR profession could I be accused of discrimination and then people have a fight about what specific type of discrimination it was. Regardless, this is pretty stupid and ill thought through argument. I am not the first person to make these arguments, boomers are making the same comments themselves,

“I am part of the most selfish generation in history and we should be ashamed of our legacy” – Jeremy Paxman

“A young person could be forgiven for believing that the way in which economic and social policy is now conducted is little less than a conspiracy by the middle-aged against the young” – David Willetts

The point is to draw out trends and be clear on causes. If I state that men have consistently committed crimes of sexual violence against women, I am not saying that every man has committed such an atrocity, nor am I being sexist. When we say that the Hutus were responsible for Rwandan genocide, do we mean all Hutus? Are we being racist? And how about when we talk about “the problem with young people today”….?

It really beggars belief.

So let’s get things straight. I’m sorry if people were individually upset by the post – I genuinely am. I’m not sorry that I said the things that I said. If anything, my single regret is that the call to action that I intended to come across clearly got lost in the rhetoric.

Because that is what this is about, this is about a message to my peers to do better. A message to my generation to try harder and solve the issues that we are left with. As we move in to the positions of power, in government, in business, in the economy, we have a choice. We can choose to better our situation, to profit, to benefit and to turn a blind eye. We can repeat the mistakes of our parents. Or, we can choose to make decisions that are not about us, we can listen to the angry voices of the next generation and design the world that they want to inherit.

We can create a legacy to be proud of.

When people get angry, when people point the finger, the establishment tell them to be calm, to not place blame. They tell them, “calm down dear”. In itself, the attempts to stifle opinion are as bad as the acts of repression that cause the anger in the first place.

If we want to better, if we want to go further, if we want to change, we need to call out the problems with a clear and simple voice, we need to call out the reasons with a clarity of purpose. Only that way will we be sure to never do the same again.

And if that makes you angry, if you think that somehow I’m wrong then make the arguments for a different reality. And if that doesn’t work for you and you want to get personal, maybe you should get off social media, take a walk around any small town in the Midlands, North East, North West, South West, in fact anywhere outside of London and the Home counties and see the reality of young people there.

If that still isn’t working, then there is always this.