Everyone is worried about skills

The ShardI have traversed three continents these last few weeks, from Europe to the west coast of America, then back and across to the Middle East.

The trips all centred around assessment and skills events – culminating in apprentices week in the UK. “Everyone is worried about skills” said the BBC’s Steph McGovern at the CITB Building Futures conference. The challenges are different but the concerns are the same – whether you sit in the US or UK with their growing economies or the Middle East with their large numbers of young people, a shortage of the right skills to meet the needs of employers and their evolving industries will impact progress.

I believe technology doesn’t always help – young people make choices based on cultural changes and technological influences, and yet industries, jobs and the needs of employers are not the same. They must be aligned.

We do have a solution – young people learn from other young people, so let’s showcase our stars and use technology to promote them as case studies of success. In other words, a career in IT can mean working at Sky TV or motor racing, a career in construction might give somebody the opportunity to be in the team that builds the next Shard or Premier League football stadium. Let’s create success stories of young people who love their work and promote them as role models – then use technology to spread the word.

I close with real hope – I was very impressed by the enthusiasm and desire to succeed shown by the apprentices at the JustIT learner awards night where I shared my thoughts on the fusion of technology and education – I will continue to shout from the rooftops, that if you wake up with the attitude, desire and motivation to do a great job, invariably you will do well.

A story for this time of year

CCALast week I presented at the CCA Annual Conference at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms. An excellent event. Despite all the noise around technology – big data, wearables, the internet of things – our audience created more conversation around my stories and emphasis on talent. I liked that. This was a crowd of deep thinkers.

The greatest mix is that of old and new. Whilst I implore companies to give young talent a chance and to watch how the net generation will flourish if we attract and engage them on their terms (normally with technology in mind), I equally underlined the value of the older worker. The more experienced employee has a lot to offer, they are committed, they know the ropes and their experience is telling; and they are staying in post for longer, so the younger generations need to be better skilled to displace them.

Here is a summary of a story I told last week where two generations didn’t quite gel, or understand each other: a young lady beat off other applicants to make it to the final stage of interview and meet the CEO of the hiring company. She arrived on time and was immaculately presented. All good so far.

She was invited into the office of the CEO, a gentleman with years of success on his sleeve and decades her senior. The interview was progressing well, as planned, and then her phone start buzzing in her bag. The young lady pulled out the device mid-interview and started texting in reply, oblivious to the sudden stop in proceedings. This is what she was used to doing. The CEO waiting patiently for her to stop and then ended the interview, thanked her for her time, and saw her to the door. The interview process was about to start again, for this lady did not get the job.

I can see that the net generation does things in its own way and communicates differently, but there are certain rules of etiquette, respect and simple good manners that stand the test of time. I hope those things will never change.

It’s about people – it always is

As far back as 2001, when Jim Collins wrote Good to Great, he said “technology by itself is never a primary root cause of either greatness or decline.” That rings true even today, despite the massive disruption taking place as new generations of workers launch their brilliant ideas – think of Halo, Snapchat and Vine. All of these came about as a result of an individual or a group thinking differently.

When Collins and his team of researchers set out to establish what made companies ‘great,’ they expected that leaders would set out the strategy and the vision, and make it compelling enough that their employees would follow. Instead they discovered something different, that they first got the right people on the bus and in the right seats – and then they figured out where to drive it.

One of the early birds in the revolution was Circuit City, the company that pioneered the electronics superstore in the US (sadly not around today), and the one of the protagonists in their success was asked to name the top 5 factors that led to their transition to a great organisation.

He replied, “One would be people.”

“Two would be people.”

“Three would be people.”

“Four would be people.”

“And five would be people.”

It seems we need to correct the old adage “People are your most important asset.” People are not your most important asset. The right people are.

Borrowing ideas from Apollo 13


As someone with an interest in space, I was transfixed as the team in Houston pulled together to generate ideas when Apollo 13 ran into trouble, particularly how they brainstormed to fix the carbon dioxide removal system.

Part of Mission Control’s method to find a solution was to discover what the spare parts were and not just recycle the same old ingredients. They chose not to sit around in isolation but get more parts on the table to give them options. Eventually they found the answer and saved the crew.

Their approach lends itself nicely to the tech world we are immersed in today. How do we get lots of parts – ideas, even people – to the table? Proctor & Gamble figure that for every senior scientist it employs, there are two hundred others working somewhere else in the world, just as good. Using technology platforms such as Innocentive and Kaggle, it can reach those minds and get access to some brilliant ideas to keep it at the leading edge of its industry.

However we connect, network, generate ideas or discover new products, we must do the same.

My mantra for 2014


The new year is one of the busiest times in the calendar for people looking for inspiration, exploring change and opening at least one eye to new jobs.

I spent most of 2013 talking about talent and the value of our people as our number one differentiator. I will kick off 2014 by helping integrate a division into our business and welcoming a few new people into my team, and with technological change increasing its influence on our work and home lives, it is important to maintain focus on our talent pool.

One of the last presentations I delivered in 2013 was at the cool offices of ITV, thanks to Andy Kyriacou who set up the event. I was inspired by the people who work at ITV but most importantly by how engaged they all were.

The CEO at ITV, Adam Crozier, the man that led much of the cultural change made in the last few years there, once said:

Silver bullets rarely exist – when great things happen, they happen because of good people, teamwork, fantastic amounts of hard work and a giant dose of luck.”

So this has become my chief principle for 2014: look after our people and create the theatre for them to deliver, for they are the best thing we’ve got.

A Laser Focus


I have used a video of this girl using an iPad in some of my presentations, which underlines how adept this generation is at using technology, plus I have dismissed before words that say kids today cannot focus.

On my holiday in the US this summer, I read a lot of good stuff and came across two stories along the same lines involving different youngsters, so I thought it well worth a mention. One in particular was described by Will.i.am. He used to graffiti the classroom, not because he was a vandal, but because he wanted others to see his art – to ‘know’ him. Doctors wanted to give him Ritalin (to treat attention deficit disorder – ADD) and his teacher told his mother not to let them give it to her son.

Instead he suggested that his mother encourage his creativity, that he will work out a way to work with it. How true that was.

A similar story applied to the principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet, who couldn’t sit still for her love of music. Kids do have a laser focus, just not on the often-outdated stuff we give them. We need to learn to work with them on their terms, after all they are our workforce and our customer of tomorrow.

Creative kids from Calcutta


This story inspires me and it keeps me believing in the future.

A group of primary school kids in Calcutta realised that the slum in which they live wasn’t on Google maps anywhere. Their home simply didn’t exist in the eyes of officialdom, which meant they didn’t get access to government services such as running water and vaccinations.

The school kids took it upon themselves to add themselves to the map. They went door to door and took photos of the entire area. Eventually, they were put on the map and recognised by local government.

While one result was great evidence of the amazing outcome that can be achieved by bringing together young people with technology with a community goal in mind, the thing that left me speechless was that this meant polio vaccination rates doubled in the local area. Do we understand what that means to the people there? It means health and life – all down to kids with a camera and creative genius! I am taken aback each time I recall this.

The difference is 5%

At a recent winter Olympics, one of the ski teams famed for their ability on the slopes won no gold models, which was a big disappointment to both team and nation. Post-event the team’s management did some analysis and discovered that if the team performed 5% better – that is an improvement of time of only 5% – they would have won almost every gold medal that they competed for. I think that is a great reflection of society today. One false marketing move, one poor product decision, one error of judgement with a customer and you are left standing and in second place. Technology has sped things up, removed our levels of tolerance and demanded instant and regular communication, but I think the example above reflects true in life and business today. I don’t necessarily like it, but it’s true – just 5% can often be the difference between front page success and dismal failure. We need to ensure our people are the best, our technology is helping us understand and maximise our business, and our strategy clear and lived and breathed by everyone.

Normal is boring

A student was asked to describe her good teachers but she couldn’t, explaining that they were all so different, but she could easily describe her bad teachers because they were all the same.

A recent, brilliant report from Sir Michael Barber at our company, Pearson, about the future of education called ‘An Avalanche is Coming’  (www.pearson.com/avalanche) emphasised great teachers as one of the biggest differentiators in learning, and we see it time and again where students of all ages are inspired because of the person that leads their class.

Isn’t that always the case? Whatever a company stands for, is it not always the people building the relationships, doing the deals and serving the customers who are the face of our companies? Therefore why do we attempt to recruit anything but the best to represent us? As the great quotes states, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.”

Some companies I know such as Cisco Systems recruit staff at odd places, such as the finish line of great races, because they figure these are people with true character, grit and determination.

Normal is boring, quirky is memorable and remarkable is the difference between success and failure.

Haircut sir?

I recently finished Walter Isaacson’s brilliant biography of Steve Jobs. The more it described Steve as different, the more I warmed to him, because the imperfections made him more human.

One of the early Apple board members recounted when he first met Jobs and Wozniak, sharing how he looked beyond the fact that both desperately needed a haircut. He was amazed by the ideas and the work that he saw, figuring that the two Steve’s can always get a haircut!

The Apple ‘Think Different’ campaign really put the company on the map, raising awareness of the brand to new heights. Today, we take the genius Apple products for granted and yet we ignore the talent of people for whom the gadgets and technology are second nature. Remember the need to understand them on their terms, for they will be both our customer and our workforce of tomorrow, so market to them on their terms, and when recruiting them, please don’t ask them to fax through their CV. You will be waiting for some time..