Four Spaces – building a network to be proud of

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It’s rare that you get the chance to build something from scratch, unless you start your own business.  I was having a drink with an old friend, and some of her friends, when we began to speak about those brain-numbing, toe-curlingly embarrassing networking meetings.  These are the awkward situations where real conversations are the exception rather than the norm, and where people often spend time avoiding others because they’re ‘not in the market’ to buy anything. (This is not what networking is about, but I’ll cover that another time.)

Another way to network

We all thought that there must be another way to do networking and, fuelled by the wine, we began to think about events where we’d rather be – somewhere we learned something, or tried out something new.  Somewhere where as well as learning about the hottest trends in fashion, we could also learn about how to make a career as an electrical engineer, or what wine goes best with spare ribs.  In short, we wanted to be treated as intelligent human beings where all sides of women – not just the business side – could be acknowledged and celebrated. We came up with the idea of Four Spaces, an event where people could make real connections and have proper conversations, rather than just the sterile exchange of business cards.

Head, heart, hands and histories

Four Spaces is where we look at four elements of women – heads (where you learn something new), hearts (where we engage with emotions), hands (where you try something different) and histories (where you tell your story and listen to those of other people).

We ran our first event in June with our mates and now we’re about to do another event at the end of this month – 27 October to be precise in Central London.  Have a look and if you can spare an evening and twenty quid, please join us!

True to form, it’s not just our development we’re interested in – we’re raising money for The Girls Network, which aims to mentor teenage girls from the most disadvantaged communities.

So if you’re fed up of exchanging meaningless polite chat, come and throw some opinions around with us. We’re looking forward to meeting you.

Change – but the right change


I’m a Dilbert fan, primarily because among the often caustic comments, there’s always more than a grain of truth.

This one reminds me of my coaching practice.

Clients often come to me with the wrong idea about what they want to change. They’ve got an initial thought – it’s my time management, it’s my boss, it’s my job – but what I’ve found time and time again is that, deep down, this is not what they want to alter. What it is, is a presenting symptom.

The way I work drills down into what really should be different, which will make a long-term difference to the way they feel about themselves, about their role, their job.

For example, one client came to me recently saying that their CV wasn’t getting them the interviews they thought they deserved.

The CV issues were easily dealt with, but what was at the heart of the issue wasn’t whether to put a profile summary at the start of the document. What was at the heart of the change was the way in which the client felt about themselves after a disastrous experience when they were asked to do the impossible with no support. This ‘leaked’ into everything else, through the words on the page and doubtless into the way they spoke to new companies.

Working out what the change needs to be is at the heart of effective coaching.

It’s pointless spending time on something which won’t make a real and long-term difference. Often more than one coaching session is spent finding out what the client really wants to work on.

The second message is that if you want to achieve something different, you need to do it differently. Coaching is the most personal kind of change, and it requires effort to succeed.

While stopping everything you currently do might not be the answer, stopping some of the things you do will almost certainly be required. Part of the job of coaching is to be a cheerleader for the client’s success in doing this or to support them in making the changes.

But the key skill of the coach is to help people concentrate on the right things.


Time is fleeting – do it NOW

Charles Kennedy’s death has produced an outpouring of sadness in the House of Commons today. The speakers tell us he was principled, witty, loyal, friendly, human – the list of adjectives describing someone who sounds a seriously nice individual went on for a good 45 minutes.

One of the speakers suggested that it was a great shame that Charles Kennedy couldn’t hear the outpouring of admiration, affection and loss. Sadly, we never know what will be said in our obituary.

It reminds me of two instances which have happened to me over the years. The first was when an author, who I had read avidly for years, died. I had been eagerly awaiting her next book and it was only when I went hunting for it that I discovered that she had died from cancer.

I was surprisingly stricken, primarily because I had almost considered her a personal friend, so much did I like her books. But I never wrote and told her.

The second instance was about a wonderful man I had worked with in my early career. A client, he was communication director for a huge industrial packaging firm, when we plotted and schemed together. Eventually, he moved to an equally huge confectionary giant in Switzerland to become head of investor relations.

He was charming, gentle, very bright and possibly the first real gentleman of my acquaintance. He treated me with unfailing courtesy regardless of disagreements on policy, tactics or – the old chestnut – budget. We had been in touch sporadically and I always thought really fondly of him. Last year, I decided that rather than dithering, I would be in touch again.

Falling back on the snooper of the world, Google, I put in his name – and found to my horror that he had died only a month before, again of cancer. And again, I had missed my chance to reach out, say hello, and also tell him what his support early in my career had meant to me. I was gutted.

This is not just about making yourself feel better, or in some way ‘repaying’ those who have given you joy, so you no longer have the obligation.

It’s making sure that people who you admire, or who have helped you, know about it sooner rather than later.

Or, as in my case, and that of some of the speakers in the House of Commons today, not at all.


The taboo of discussing pay – a good thing or a bad thing?

As collaboration becomes ever-more essential in the workplace, some might consider the move towards greater openness inevitable.  But perhaps not on pay.

Just last year, a salesman at Lacoste in New York was fired for posting his wage slip on social media.

Discussing your pay been a taboo among many businesses for as long as I can remember, but I wonder as the workplace changes with the impact of Millennial workers and new technology, if such secrecy is called for.

We don’t have much to guide our thinking.  Academic research on the subject is remarkably scarce – well, it is secret – and it doesn’t seem to be a uniform phenomenon.  What research there is indicates that the well paid would rather keep their payslips close to their chests; the less well-paid appear to talk more openly about it – but possibly only to complain.

The research is not only contradictory but also fairly difficult to compare.  Studies look at perceptions and employee outcomes from pay secrecy, but they look at slightly different variables.  And therefore, they reach different conclusions.

Of course, at the coal face, business managers might have plenty of reasons to forbid employees to discuss salary or share it with others.   For a start, unless organisations have a highly rational process for setting pay bands and giving pay rises, transparency can lead to an awful lot of explaining.  This doesn’t even touch on employees’ own sense of betrayal and disgruntlement if they find a colleague is getting paid more than they are for ostensibly the same role.

Business might also argue that comparing salaries might also lead to a more competitive workplace.  More openness about salary levels could encourage new recruits to see the published salaries as a starting point for negotiation, thus increasing the salary bill as a whole every time a new employee arrives.

A key point about pay secrecy of course is the opportunity it gives for increasing pay inequality by the back door.  Confidentiality of pay enables companies to hide different ranges of salary for different nationalities and gender – it’s a moot point whether the current secrecy around salaries is contributing to the pay gap between men and women for the same job.

Of course, those in the public sector may point to published salary bands for senior civil servants as proof of their transparency; but The Fawcett Society’s recent review of women’s pay ( ) concludes that although the gap between men and women’s pay is smaller in the public sector (13.6% as opposed to 19.9% in the private sector) – it is still there.

In addition, if there’s no information about salaries, employees may make it up. And it is their perception, rather than the reality, of equity in their compensation that will impact their motivation.

Those who advocate that salaries are made public point out that although the empirical evidence collected by academics is scarce, it does indicate that pay secrecy is associated with low morale and employee dissatisfaction.  More recent and practical commentators (e.g. Pimlico Plumbers, ) believe that once salary information is out, people stop worrying about it as an issue.  Not knowing how your worth is valued in the organisation comparative to other colleagues creates uncertainty, and people are generally motivated to reduce uncertainty or the discomfort that arises from it.  So you can almost guarantee that employees who are uncertain about their relative pay (and relative worth to the company) will keep looking for information, spending energy on it that they might otherwise put into their work.

Also, does pay secrecy impact on the wider frame of organisational trust?  Once upon a time, employees might safely assume that organisations were making efforts in good faith to provide equitable compensation.  But media attention on the huge discrepancies between senior executive pay and the average, and a variety of corporate fraud scandals have significantly undermined trust in business.

Employees may not only be suspicious, but the lack of information about their relative pay may further undermine their trust in their employer.  Trust is essential to employee engagement and if engagement is at historically low levels in business, this might help to explain why.

It may be that pay secrecy is more about the inability of organisations to properly define the value produced by different jobs than it is about a need to keep compensation secret.   But haven’t organisations a duty to ensure that pay is equal and fair?  And doesn’t this mean an understanding about what value actually means?

Proponents of open compensation systems believe they encourage justifiable salary decisions and help employees understand why they earn what they do.   There are costs for organisations, of course.

These costs include a robust method of promotion and evaluation to ensure equitable decisions are made, more effective communication about the criteria for pay and merit awards, and the willingness to enter into real dialogue with employees about their worth and value to the organisation.

However, few organisations take this attitude to pay, which begs the question “Why?”

Zero tolerance to zero hours contracts

The Office for National Statistics has underestimated by 50,000 workers the number of people on zero hours contracts, bringing the estimated total in 2012 to more than a quarter of a million workers.

The total number may easily be double that, according to The Work Foundation, that claims at least 400,000 people are employed on zero hour contracts by the public sector alone. Although the number of people on these type of contracts is small, the rise in use of them is not – more than doubling in the last eight years.

In other news, there is much hand-wringing about the levels of engagement, which came in at a lowly one-in-three from the US from Gallup. Apparently, levels are similar in the UK.

Zero hours contracts are just what they say they are – although you have to be ready and available for work at any time as an employee, as an employer, you’re under no obligation to give any work at all.  It’s true that the employee doesn’t have to take the work, but there are tales crawling out of the woodwork of employees being discriminated against if they don’t take work when it’s offered. According to research by the Resolution Foundation  those on zero hours contracts earn less, work fewer hours, and tend to be younger and less well educated than the average worker.

While some companies – Sports Direct, most recently – hail them as essential to business growth in an uncertain market, the devil is often in the detail.  In this case, the detail is in things such as whether workers should be paid the minimum wage while on call at or near the business or, indeed, whether someone on a zero hours contract has employee status.   Those with employee status have some protection in terms of the law – the right not to be unfairly dismissed, maternity right, redundancy rights.  Those who are classed as “workers” – don’t.

I understand that businesses need to be flexible; but to me it smacks of laziness that companies can’t plan their workforces sufficiently well to avoid the use of zero hours contracts, which can hardly be helpful to the UK’s appalling engagement figures.

This type of work is starting to resemble the labourers who turned up at the dock gates in the 1920’s looking for work.  Surely, we’ve come further than this?

If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.


-  George Bernard Shaw, playwright (1856 - 1950)

People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid.


-  Sören Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher (1813-1855)