New Perspectives?

Yesterday I indulged in one of my favorite pastimes, heading out to a collaborative event between two institutions I respect hugely (one a large Swiss bank and the other a top tier university) to engage in a little networking and a lot of learning. The event, ‘Voices of Experience – Perspectives on Leadership and Career Growth’, was an opportunity for the women of Zurich to come together and hear from one of our city’s very successful women. I thought to myself, this is exactly the kind of company I want to keep.

Before I get swept away again in the daily tide of life and work I wanted to try and capture some of the things I took away from yesterday evening, and reflect on what this might mean for me as I (try to!) cultivate my personal brand of leadership and develop and grow my career in this still unfamiliar city.

Firstly, I found my belief in human resources leadership reinforced. It seems our speaker and I share the view that Human Resources can and should be a real catalyst for change, cultural and behavioural, in an organisation. My ears perked up. She talked about how their organisation encouraged and measured people not only on ‘change and results leadership’ (getting things done) but also on ‘behavioural leadership’ (how we do them). Whilst certainly not a new concept, this was still music to my ears.

She described culture as ‘the thing that employees do when no one is watching’, and like the proverbial tree in the forest, questioned whether we condone bad behaviour if no one is around to see, hear or be impacted by it. Again, it seems we share the view that NO we do not. One bad apple ruins the barrel and organisations that believe or act like culture is some abstract concept removed from the day to day lives of its employees will pay the price. Culture is the PRODUCT of the day to day (working) lives and interactions of the employees. It is precious, should be nurtured, and should not just be trotted out as a set of values or principles once a year for the dreaded annual review process.

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Of all the topics covered yesterday; diversity, inclusion, pay negotiations, balancing life and work, this red thread of culture was to me the most powerful message – as it is the system within which all of these other ‘things’ happen. I had hoped to ask our speaker to elaborate more on the informal mechanisms for culture change that she had seen through the course of her career, as a woman yes, but also as a business leader. We must make sure we continue to challenge ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for creating the kind of culture we want to exist in at work. I know it is cliché but ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ seems fitting to pop in here.

I should note however that it was not all wine and roses last night. Sometimes I feel when we have a powerful and clearly successful woman on  a stage (and a roving mic) we fall into the trap of seeing the wood for the trees – that is to say, asking the granular questions about how to negotiate a salary, or whether men should be involved in the diversity agenda (OF COURSE, everyone should!) and often miss the chance to discuss this system within which all of these things are happening, and from which all of these questions are arising.

But if we listened closely, and stripped away some of the more obvious questions around gender and diversity then there were some real gender agnostic nuggets in there that could and should be considered by anyone growing their career. For example;

  • Let’s not decry the value of the old ‘up or out’ management approach to development – it may just be the push we need to challenge ourselves and do the things that we didn’t think we could – after all, if we are honest we learn the most when we are uncomfortable don’t we!?
  • Qualities seen in strong performers and leaders are not gender specific – we can, and should relish and revere both the hard and soft styles – after all, this is what diversity is really about – celebrating and valuing differences.
  • When approaching a new challenge think about ‘who could do it better’ – NOT from the point of view of ‘I can’t do it’ but more so ‘what is it about them that makes me feel they could and how can I build those skills/experiences/behaviours’.
  • Be comfortable with your deliberate sacrifices. Yes, building a life and a career is a stretch, emotionally and logistically, but you need to own your choices and their consequences.
  • finally, SHOW UP. Set positive examples and show strong commitment to your values and the corporate culture you want to be a part of and at the same time are complicit in creating.

This last point is perhaps the most important when thinking about how we influence the culture around us. Coming back to the idea of informal mechanisms for culture change I have to believe it is the collective effort of all of us to lead by example, to be authentic, to genuinely like people, and to be able to see professional and personal satisfaction in the development and successes of others we have supported and empowered. All this is couched in setting clear guidelines and direction, holding others accountable for their results and behaviours as well as ourselves.

So, new perspectives?… perhaps not. However yesterday served as a very valuable and gentle reminder to me that how we talk about culture change, and the role WE play in shaping, leading and encouraging it, is often underrated and that in fact we have a lot more power than we think we do to move the needle. So let’s move it.

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Serendipitous learning

It’s the end of the summer break, interns everywhere are getting ready to hang up their ties for another semester, unpack their Toms shoes and head back into the classroom. Meanwhile those of us whose offices have harboured these erstwhile workers are left with an odd sense of loss, like a longtime colleague has moved on or our favourite Moleskin is suddenly full and we don’t quite feel ready yet to crack open the spine of a new one.

Very poetic I know, but I had the very good fortune this year of getting to work with an intern who I can see now with a bit of hindsight, let me learn as much from her as I hope she learned from me. In truth, she reverse mentored the hell out of me!

Reverse mentoring, as the name suggests,  allows for a (more) experienced individual to learn from a more junior colleague – like a classic mentoring relationship turned upside down. Most intentional reverse mentoring programs involve being ‘taught’ about social media, or next generation analytics, or how to do all of one’s work from one’s iPhone from the cloudy thing. In my case however I ended up with new perspectives, a heightened sense of purpose, and a feeling that no matter how far down the career road I am, my choices about ME, my development, my behaviour, my successes and how I choose to deal with my failures, still mean that every day can be just as exciting as it was at the start of my career. And just as scary!

Let me take you back a step, because I need to make it clear that this was not an intentional set-up. Our intern, for argument lets call her MC , just found herself sitting next to me by a wicked twist of fate, namely, that there were no other desks. For the first week or so she was quiet as a mouse, but clearly was up for getting totally stuck in during the short time she was to spend with us. When I reflected on one of the many conversations we had towards the end of our time as desk neighbours I realised what was going on… I was learning from her… not the other way around.

So what did I learn, or re-learn?

  • good grace and patience when someone is sharing their experiences with you goes A LONG WAY (thanks for humouring me MC),
  • no job is too big or too small, they just need different timeframes and tools to complete,
  • doing something very different one day to the next is exhilarating – an inquisitive and dedicated mind can ALWAYS get to grips with new content,
  • everyone has a different manner and approach. Whilst you might like some more than others, if you remain positive, professional and friendly to everyone eventually you will get it back in spades,
  • do not be afraid to ask questions, any questions, if they will help you do a better job,

These are just some of many ‘McNuggets’ (excuse the pun) I have found popping into my mind in the last few weeks since we became once again intern-less, but the fact that these keep popping up got me thinking about learning in general; learning journeys, stretch assignments, mentoring, sponsoring and all that other great stuff we know we need to cultivate in our working lives to continue to progress and develop.

When you are an intern you are fundamentally there to learn. It is an opportunity to try on all the knowledge you have been building and experiment with by delivering work in the real world (sorry students, academia is not the real world!). When you are an intern there is no such phrase as ‘that is not my job’ and let’s face it, I think we could ALL take that one on board a little more…

I had forgotten how to experiment at work, how to learn from everyone around me, not just the ones I thought would teach me the most. This has been a revelation for me and has encouraged me to recapture some of my old interests, polish off some of my old skills and find a new use for them in my new role, and think creatively about my impact beyond the linear relationship between myself and my manager.

So for this, MC, thanks! Hopefully one day another intern will pay it forwards for you.

 

To being old and young… hurrah

This time last week I was getting ready to dash back over to the UK, to London to be precise, to spend some quality time feeling 12 years old again… quite a tall order I set myself since I look and feel every one of my 32 years (although sometimes of course I do act and speak like it to the chagrin of my nearest and dearest!).

Let me explain, 12 years old, to me, is sitting at home, snatching some all too rare quality time with my dad in between his super-important-dad-work-bacon-home-bringing-projects (as I knew them at the time), listening to music. YEP, I know a lot of people say the same, but for me and my dad, some of our best times were sitting listening to music made far away and by, in my view at the time, old guys with weird dress sense, bad hair and beards.

Earlier on in his life my dad had spent some time living in America, and brought home with him an affinity for all kinds of music, but what he shared with me most was of the folk and rock persuasion. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, this has meant that although a good 35 years separates us, I am as at home at a concert with my dad than he is in an outdoor store trying on trousers that zip off into shorts.

So there we were last Sunday, in Hyde Park, dad in his zip off trews and me wearing a playsuit from M&S that made me look every bit like my mum did the first time she went to a gig (everything comes back around doesn’t it!) rocking out with 64,997 other people to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

To those of you who don’t know Tom Petty, check because i’m pretty sure you do….those of you who still don’t after double checking, shame on you. This particular  band has been together creating amazing music for longer than I have been alive, but that is not what makes them special to me… that accolade goes to how they make me feel…

From the opening chord I felt simultaneously 12 again and very very old. It has been a while now since I have brought the average age of a concert down, which is great in a way because it shows that good music never gets old, but this gig in particular will stick with me as it made me realise how we change and don’t change, grow and don’t grow, forget and don’t forget. Age becomes irrelevant.

Much like my last post where I talked about how we could be better at borrowing from some of religions rites and rituals to add another colour or dimension to our secular ways of life, so too can music help us recapture some of the feelings of joy, sadness, hope, love, that sometimes we are too busy to really FEEL. I know I rush through life, trying to savour the moments but mostly failing miserably as I push myself more and more to do, achieve, live – all sometimes without really living.

Not much these days transports me in such a vivid way back to my past as that concert did last week. So carving out a Sunday afternoon to watch my dad’s sunhat bobbing up and down, keeping time to the same tunes we were listening to together from the relative discomfort of our Ercol sofa in the 1990’s was time very well spent. It reminded me of what is important, like family, and of the girl I was when I was 12, full of dreams, hope, joy and of course some wicked dance moves.

So, now that I am out in the great wide open, under them skies so blue… and have been for a while, I realise I need to take more care to keep that 12 year old and her attitude with me.  With my dad’s knee tapping keeping the beat in the background I’m sure life can be as vivid as ever.

Back to Basics…being a better agnostic

As you might imagine from a geek like me, I love to read. The result of this is a supply of books that grows faster than I can read them… and I read pretty fast!

Anyway, whilst most of the time these books sit and tantalize me from their designated place on my bookshelf waiting for the day I can crack their spines (Yes, I still read REAL books, they smell better), sometimes one manages to leapfrog the others, it catches my eye, and suddenly I can’t put it down.

With Alain De Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’ this happened. It literally rocked my literary world. 

The premise of the book is that perhaps we (the the atheists among us) should take a moment in our secular lives, to explore and acquaint ourselves with some of the powerful underlying tenets of the worlds great religions and appreciate that, whilst we do not have to believe everything they teach (or preach), we also perhaps do not need to continually convince ourselves that everything about them is nonsense.

I LOVE this idea.

I should preface the rest of this post by saying I was brought up as a Christian and baptized in the Church of Scotland. I attended Sunday school every week as a child, read bible stories and sang hymns when I was told to. Latterly, this dedication lapsed, or was it that when I could choose what to do with my Sunday so many other things came further up the list?. Either way, I gravitated towards the school of ‘I believe in hope and faith and choice but beyond that, each to their own’.

Looking back now, I do feel like through this attitude I lost something along the way. In my desperation to rid myself of the awful ruffles of my Sunday best I forgot many of the lessons I learnt that go straight to the heart of what it means to be human; the power of community, how to take care of the soul as well as the physical needs, the insignificance of my travails relative to the greater suffering of others…. and here I name only a few.

This idea that we can ignore the doctrine and dogma but preserve some of the wonderful celebrations and rituals of religion, adapting them to our modern way of living and thinking struck me as a very powerful win-win for someone like me. Someone a little lost, but not interested in the argument that only ‘religion’ can help me be ‘found’.

As well as making this bold overarching argument, de Botton also looks at this question through the lens of the institutions and activities common to all, irrespective of religion; namely art, architecture, education and even, institutions themselves. For example, how can we curate art galleries to help us understand and reconnect with the whole range of human emotions?; and can we be comfortable with the fact that the art in front of us might be trying to make us feel something or teach us something? Perhaps not. Instead, it seems, we find ourselves in galleries arranged by something so plain as date so scared are we that religious art in particular might Trojan horse religious ideas into us against our will.

Our Education institutions are another example where, de Botton argues, we could really  borrow from some of the successes religions have had in spreading their teachings far and wide. We could have our minds opened not just to new knowledge, but how to think about that knowledge and engage with it regularly and through discussing it with others.  Rather, our secular institutions often simply ‘educate’ us, and as mere recipients of this information we mentally file it away for a test rather than using and testing it in how we live our every day lives.

These are but two examples of the dimensions de Botton explores in his essay book and I could cite many more. Every page turned gave me a small ah ha moment, each little epiphany giving me a little clarity on how I can merge my religious childhood and my atheist present and future. De Botton ends by talking about how we might use some of the good ideas we find threaded through religious teachings and rituals to build better businesses that take care of our emotional needs as well as our physical needs. This resonates with me. I feel I spend far too much time taking care of my physical needs under the illusion this will satisfy my emotional needs, but as I grow older, and work harder, and buy more things, I realise this is not the case. I have been neglecting my soul.

We do not all need to be religious, but we should have a profound respect for religion as a concept, for the hope and connection it gives people – to one another and to hope itself. If I can borrow anything from de Botton’s book is that ironically, in being devoutly agnostic or atheist we may be missing some easy and very non threatening ideas on how we could live and shape our secular societies.

I’ll leave you all with that while I go and re-read my Sunday school stories and ‘steal with pride’.

 

The trials of a trailer…

You know when you are told something by your partner, and want nothing more than to be supportive and so you go along with it not ever expecting it to get anywhere… yes?… well that recently happened to me and two short months later I am in Zurich.

I guess I should elaborate a little…a job search, a great offer, a few interviews, a visit to Zurich to meet the new boss, packing up a house to rent out, getting it shipped (although not arrived yet, a challenge we will come to), quitting my job and saying goodbye to all my friends went by in the blink of an eye this summer and I now sit on a very sunny balcony in Seefeld, Zurich, wondering what to do with myself next.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting my husband, it is his time to shine having been in a job that, whilst he liked, he did not LOVE. I have always had jobs I loved, so it was time for a ‘luck transfer’ within our relationship. He had also been looking for a new job for a while and not had much luck (luck again, we underestimate how important it is in our journeys!), whereas I have only every applied for the jobs I ended up getting – although now 2 weeks later my perfect 4-0 record stands in tatters!.

Its funny as well because I had been all for a move, I wanted to go somewhere French speaking so I could practice the language (which I have some knowledge of already) and generally figure out how to be stylishly bilingual. My husband had other plans however, and we have ended up in the German speaking part of Switzerland, nay, the Swiss-German speaking part (which i’m told is even harder to learn and understand) where my chat and witty reparté, which until now had held me in very good stead, is a little less of a golden asset!

So, what to do? Only one option really isn’t there…. GET ON WITH IT!. Yes, I know about 4 words of german and one of those is Hallo!, yes I haven’t even managed the simple task of getting my groceries delivered at a time I can receive them (although that is more Migros’ fault than mine!), and yes, I keep drawing a tut from those swiss lips every time I walk across the road without waiting for the little amplemann, HOWEVER I do know how lucky I am, to get to start over in a city as beautiful as Zurich.

Zurich has everything you could want; the lake and the limmat where you can swim even now in September, vibrant culture, amazing food and stunning art. Perhaps most exciting of all for me with by business hat on,  Zurich it seems is just bursting with entrepreneurs, which gives it a really special vibe and does make me feel a little like I’m still in Edinburgh (*sigh).

So now that I have given myself a good talking to, I’ll go and take my own advice…

Ciao, Bis Bald!

 

The Institute of the Future

I consider myself to be very lucky.

I work for the University of Edinburgh. In doing so I am exposed to some of the fascinating, game changing research and teaching that this world renowned, ancient seat of learning produces. There aren’t many other roles where my insatiable appetite for learning and knowledge can almost be sated. Today was one of those days…

Today was the University’s General Council meeting, an old tradition of governance which came alive for me today with the event shaped around the fascinating and groundbreaking work of our four Global Academies of Health, Justice, Development and Environment & Society.

A Global Academy at Edinburgh University could be likened to the Scottish rugby team, but instead of men of all shapes and sizes valiantly pursuing excellence in the face of what seems to be insurmountable odds (or at least I think they are!) we have academics and students from all different schools, colleges, disciplines and backgrounds coming together to pull as one and address some of the worlds BIG (scary, seemingly impossible, unsolvable) problems.

Action, not apathy was the vibe of the day. My fellow Alumni and I rallied around the idea of an Institute of the Future. Where we, our students, our researchers and academics can curate the conversation around some of these big challenges facing our societies. Challenges such as mass migration across the planet, climate change, conflict, gender equality, urban justice, marine conservation, to name just a few that occupied our thoughts.

Although the challenges are daunting these academies are not daunted! They are a place for differences to be set aside and collaboration and innovation to flourish. As an alumnus as well as a member of staff I felt proud to be a part of the conversation today about what we want our university to be, what role we want it to play in the future, as these big challenges will not solve themselves!

Our academies, in their research, teaching, and dialogue with the world around us, provide a heartening dose of hope and direction around which we can rally and participate. So come on Alumni #rally, its #all4one and #one4all time!

From arguing…to Negotiating

I should start this post with a huge warm shout out to Natalie Reynolds of Negotiations firm Advantage Spring. She took me from bolshy and argumentative (so my mum says) to sleek, fair, primo negotiator in one afternoon….

Well, that is what I am telling myself, and you.

The last two days I have been living my favourite two days of the year…that is, I have been in London for the 3rd Annual ‘Women in Leadership’ trip for Edinburgh Uni. As ever, it felt a little like a car whizzing past nnnneeeeeeoooooowwwww – a whirlwind of events, workshops and uplifting and thought provoking conversation. Now I am breathing, rebooting and figuring out, like I do every year, just how this one has changed me for the better (helped by a delayed flight and a glass of picpoul!).

I was at a bit of an advantage, as I am every year, in that this trip is my baby. I organise it from the ground up and feel very fortunate I am in a role where I can essentially CREATE the learning and sharing experiences that I truly believe enrich business school experience outside the classroom.

This year we focused on ‘VOICE – Negotiations and Executive Presence’, something I have thought long and hard about given at various times I have felt like speaking out, like keeping quiet, like I kept quiet when I should have spoke out, like an introvert, like an extrovert, like an extrovert’s life coach.. you get the picture.

Natalie stepped in and quietened the noise in my mind about what my voice is and should be, and helped me figure out how I want it to SOUND to the people I am engaging with. Her approach to negotiations is simple… that is is simply…SIMPLE. Often, she says, negotiation skills are dressed up, overlaid with too many models, and almost held up as something that is a natural talent and very hard to master.

Given we banish the fixed mindset from the Knowledge Zig Zag, her approach we like – it has growth mindset all over it. You can learn how to negotiate. So we did. I have included below some of her top tips:

  1. Firstly, just flippin’ do it – often we do not ask for what we want! If we don’t ask, we never enter into any negotiations, we never practice, and we lose out. AGREED.
  2. Be aware of anchors – do not let others set the tone and language of your negotiation. Own it. If they open with a number, do not negotiate from that point – state your own opener and re-calibrate the conversation around YOU.
  3. No is an invitation to negotiate – this is great news for me, as when I hear NO I think, great – a challenge! This is good apparently…
  4. Leave the other side SATISFIED – you are not out to destroy them, you are out to achieve what you need whilst not destroying business relationships.
  5. See the world through their eyes. Bring your capacity for empathy to the negotiating table and success will follow.

In short, negotiation is part of what is is to be human. It is an essential and unavoidable part of what makes us us and binds us together in the push and pull of life. I must remember that my negotiation voice will sound different to everyone I engage with, but that always underpinning it will be one of my most valuable yet fragile muscles – my negotiation muscle.  Like a muscle, negotiation skills can be grown, exercised, strained, torn and re-built, and that for all these things it can be the different between getting what you want, credibly, and ending up with nothing!

Thank you Natalie!

 

Success, and its bittersweet aftertaste!

Today is the end…. the 9th European Conference for MBA Careers Professionals and Employers here in Dublin, has closed. We shared openly, we laughed, we scribbled notes, and I think more than once we all had a bit of decision anxiety about which sessions to go to! I have come away, as I always do, with a warm feeling that only coming together with your favourite network can provide.

This conference, my 3rd in Europe, was my swansong and it was a labour of love 9 months in the planning. As the co-chair I was able to shape the programming and really design a conference I felt would support my peers and I to develop our skills and help us navigate in an increasingly complex and volatile market.

Our theme: Disruption, Resilience, Change: Sharing value in a dynamic world was the outcome of many interesting conversations in the planning committee, through which it was very evident that we were all preoccupied with the relentless pace of change both in, and at the interface between postgraduate business education and the employment market. The ‘war for talent’, the ‘business school of the future’, the ‘new leadership paradigm’, the ‘everything-tech revolution’ are some of many changing dimensions that we must be cogniscent of as we review, re-evaluate and in some cases re-boot how we work with postgraduate business talent.

We know we are not the first to feel like we are drinking from a fire hose in trying to keep up with the pace of change. Today is another page in a very long book characterized by invention, innovation, renewal, struggle, sacrifice, failure, and of course, success.

If we looked in the index of that book for some of Dublin’s most famous sons; George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Dracula creator Bram Stoker to name but a few, we would find that 100 – 150 years ago these men were observing and writing about these same concepts.

Disruption : “You see things; you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

We’ve all met ‘disruptive’ people, the ones who simply refuse to accept the status quo and the next thing we know are launching the next app, product, service that will change the way we consume, interact and live. More and more this idea of ‘disruption’ is not just the purview of the start-up, but is something we can see and experience in any industry.

Resilience: “It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature” (Bram Stoker)

It seems like every day I am thinking about my levels of resilience…and every day my store is called upon! James Joyce is quoted as saying “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day”. This tells me that resilience is a product of our life’s experiences and the choices we make about how to process, store and learn from those experiences.

For example, on Monday I swallowed my fear of tripping on the stage, muddling my words, dropping the mic and deafening the audience and got up in front of 158 of my peers to launch this conference. I knew, If I did indeed ‘trip’, literally or metaphorically, then my level of resilience (and/or the volume of laughter) would dictate whether I would be able to go back in that room the next day! The good news is I didn’t trip, but even if I had, I am certain there would have been 158 hands out to help me up.

Change: Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. (George Bernard Shaw).

Certainly, the pace of change is increasing as more and more demands are placed upon time and resources, and competitive pressure means that customer expectations are increasing exponentially. Shaw’s idea of the possibility of progress through change is an important one. Change for change’s sake is a ‘challenge’, however change for the sake of progress, to meet those enhanced expectations and to better use time and resources, is where I want to focus my energies.

It is this intersection between ‘focus’ and openness to change, a resilient mindset and an innovative and disruptive approach that I hoped we would set up camp for the duration of this conference. And I think we did! I have had a swelling sense of pride these past three days in seeing our programme unfold, and hearing all the positive feedback after every session from my peers and colleagues who were getting as much out of it as I was – I couldn’t believe it! SUCCESS.

But, it is bittersweet for me. I am having to make the difficult step of detaching myself from this CSEA network, as a new role points me in new directions. Leaving behind these colleagues, some of whom I would also now consider friends, is really hard. I wish everyone could see the value in engaging wholeheartedly with peer networks like this. If we spent more time sharing and creating, instead of hiding and competing, then imagine what we could discover!

So success this time is tinged with sadness, BUT… my amazing CSEA friends, I leave with the words of Magnus Lindkvist ringing in my ears…
1. look for secrets…
2. experiment…
3. be patient…

and you know, we can all say we were there when…. and we will always have Dublin #MBACSEADublin

My crumbling palace of memory…

They say elephants never forget…. lucky elephants, what is their secret I wonder…

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I think I’m not alone in sometimes feeling a bit ‘unstuck’ when it comes to memory. I am by no means old (unless I am in a room with undergraduate students, then I find myself the only person with a pen and paper and sounding like my father referencing ‘that cloudy thing’), but more and more I struggle to recall information, words, facts, figures just when I need them.

Maybe I am being dramatic, but as someone who has worked hard all her life to be ‘knowledgeable’ these moments of blankness are alarming to say the least. 

So it was great timing when I heard about a ‘Making Learning Stick’ seminar event where I hoped I would finally find out exactly why this happens and stop it happening again. I was dismayed to find it is not that simple.  As with all things worth having, memories, it seems, are hard to hang on to. This is because memories are hard to encode into our brains and consolidate in the first place and more often than not, we don’t take the time to do this properly.  When we think about remembering something we are really only referring to our ability to ‘recall’ it, which in turn is only as good as our ability to encode and consolidate it in the first place – are you still with me? Good. 

So, therein lies my new big question; where should I start work, my encoding, consolidating, or recall? It sounds like I am building the Matrix! 

Apparently, when we encode our memories they are filtered by what we consider important at the time. That makes sense to me, we take things in ‘in the moment’ – this also helps me understand why my husband and I remember completely different things when we see the same play… this will give me a new found patience in those post-curtain conversations. But it remains that it is impossible to know how a piece of information is going in, and what neural pathways (or something like that!) are being created with the memory for me to access it again in the future. 

One technique is to try to create as many ‘sensory’ associations as we can for each piece of knowledge. For example, using a certain aroma for a topic, which then means that smelling this aroma again could take us back to that learning point. Clever brain!

Another technique we tried was palaces of memory, where you ‘allocate’ a learning point (or an item, from a list for example), to a place (for example, your kitchen or hallway). Then when you walk through that space again, in real life or in your mind, you are reinforcing the learning point you wish to ‘stick’. My coat stand will now forever be the brain stem, my long-term memory (hippocampus) is in the den, and my habit formation and emotional processing are done by my basal ganglia in the garden. Who knew!

Equally important to encoding memory properly is consolidating it. This is most effectively done at night while we are sleeping or during some other period of quiet relaxation. Taking the time to process our new points of knowledge at a time when we are not distracted by new stimuli gives our brains the chance to turn this into solid synaptic coding, or hardwire it into us if you will. Great news, I’m good at sleeping. 

Finally, recalling. This is using any of the sensory cues we used to encode the memory, to recall it, smelling the same aroma for example to trigger a thought or learning point. Great you might think, well unfortunately we can suffer from what is delightfully called ‘graceful degradation’. Graceful degradation means we lose neurones, and by extension lose ‘access’ to the memory through that sensory pathway. This reinforces the need for more than one way ‘in’. Thinking this over I would certainly prefer if my problem were with recall, since it is far scarier to think the knowledge never went in in the first place! 

Final tip, if you re-read this in three hours and whilst simultaneously riding a bike or jogging, you will remember every word… if you want to that is! Research shows that raised heart rate and re-learning or spaced practice (3 hour intervals) are the best practices for making learning stick. 

Either way what is sure is that for effective encoding and recall of memories it really does matter how much we want to learn that information in the first place. This is good news for someone like me, who really WANTS to learn, and also makes me feel less bad about forgetting those pesky physics formulae that I simply HAD to know at the age of 16 but have been of no use since…

The authentic political leader…..and facebook…

An oxymoron you might say.

Many of us are consistently underwhelmed by the politicians and the political dialogue we hear echoing from the hallowed halls of Westminster and Holyrood, but are things changing?

At a recent event hosted by the Asia Scotland Institute we listened to Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s Government and Policy Specialist for EMEA, and Carl Miller, of London based think tank Demos talk about the way Facebook (and social media more generally) is changing how we engage with and in political dialogue.

What struck me most was how I felt listening to Elizabeth talk about Facebook as a steward of the democratic process. As she spoke I could not help but get excited at the power this one medium has had and is having, at connecting political leaders directly with their electorate. Even more powerful, that the electorate feel that they are seeing the ‘authentic’ person behind the leader. Interesting, that politicians who have historically spent too much time behind walls, physical or metaphorical, are now using a virtual wall to break down this distance between them and the people who will put pen to paper and vote for them.

This was a change for me, to see a Facebook wall as something other than a daily dose of soap opera madness filled with pictures of peoples food, teeth, lips, babies and free opinions on everything from the new John Lewis advert to the Syria crisis – everyone is an expert on Facebook now it seems. And there was my problem I think, I had always focused on the individual comments and things my ‘friends’ were posting and in doing so had not really considered the vast opportunity such a platform presents for how we collect, process and regurgitate information in our networks.

If a platform like Facebook then becomes a go-to place for political discussion we have to also think about whether we need to have some etiquette in place – just the same as if we have these conversations off-line. I live in Scotland and during the Scottish Referendum I was stunned by how quickly people who claimed to be ‘friends’ (granted we are not friends with everyone we ‘friend’ on Facebook ironically) turned on each other and sent out vitriolic diatribes that I’m sure one day in the future they might be ashamed for their grandchildren to see.

This of course is not Facebook’s fault – they are the means, they are the platform, they are the stage – but we are the players and this is why Elizabeth’s talk resonated with me so much. If political leaders, as she says, are running their own accounts (with advice I’m sure) and are actively making the effort to engage with the people, and the electorate is responding then perhaps this can only be a good thing.

Imagine what impact this could have for businesses if the CEO harnessed this trend to talk directly to his or her employees. Increased engagement, satisfaction, connection with the business purpose and the boardroom conversations – all things that research shows increases productivity.

It seems to me we are riding the wave of a great opportunity to better use Facebook and other platforms, to access and disseminate knowledge and opinions. We do however need to be mindful that political engagement on-line brings with it a whole new set of challenges for managing your ‘digital footprint’. This openness or access to our political leaders can lull us into a false sense of security – and we must remember that these conversations are not happening down the pub, where a lively debate or an ill-timed comment can be quickly forgotten. Just ask Jon Ronson.