It's Good To Talk



I have been thinking, writing and presenting on the subject of resolving disputes using mediation skills and processes in advance of the dispute requiring formal mediation.  

Thanks to Felipe Bustos Sierra at Debaser Filums, I have now committed my thoughts and observations to video.

The experience was an enjoyable, if rather nerve wracking one.  

It's not the new Bond movie, but it might be the start of a habit.

Comments and reflections very welcome.

Climb every mountain to resolve disputes

I have been thinking about employment disputes for some time, trying to find imaginative ways of capturing the issues involved and exploring how mediation might be used to resolve disputes before they escalate.

Last night, courtesy of Laura Devine, a group of employment lawyers, mediators, coaches and HR practitioners watched Paul Tinto perform a dramatised version of a dispute which sought to capture the emotional trajectory as experienced by an individual  - frustration, puzzlement, righteous anger, exhaustion, resignation and, ultimately, defeat.  I then facilitated a discussion which explored how mediation skills might be used to intervene at key stages of a dispute to prevent further escalation.

It was a high risk approach to a formal presentation, but one which seemed to work in terms of provoking discussion, debate and some consensus.

After many years struggling with PowerPoint presentations, I concluded they are best avoided.  This was a liberating decision, but a rather unimaginative one because a good graphic or diagram can quickly and clearly convey a complex issue.  

I have worked with Martin Conradi to create the graphic below, which neatly combines two of my interests - getting to the top of mountains and dispute resolution.

It captures the difficulty of managing an employment dispute in the usual way.  

It also captures the real difficulties faced when mediating, informally or formally, recognising that getting to the top of any mountain is always going to be a struggle and will never be risk-free.

From here to there.

Difficult discussions and empathy

An exploration of why difficult discussions are so difficult and why empathy might help reduce the difficulty

Read More

But I would walk 2,160 miles...


The Appalachian Trail stretches 2,160 miles or 3,476 kilometres from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine in the USA. 

Those who complete the Trail, typically taking 4-6 months and travelling from south to north, are known as thru-hikers and will hike through three seasons and 14 States. About one in four make it all the way. I celebrated my thru-hike as part of an important birthday.

The simplicity of Trail life is reassuring and allows quiet contemplation about people and organisations.  

In this blog I seek to make a link between the lessons I learned from long-distance hiking and what this might tell me about leadership in organisations.

Strategy, planning and execution

We need a shared and meaningful long term objective - in this case, Katahdin - which sustains us through difficult and challenging times.  Put simply, the objective is the mountain.

We need a tactical and strategic outlook - the former to get us through each day in good shape, the latter to focus on our objective, even when it’s more than 2,000 miles away. 

The routine of eating, hiking and sleeping requires planning: all food is carried, water found and purified, and sleep happens if intermittently in three-sided shelters or tents along the Trail. The logistics can be exhausting, particularly in baking summer temperatures or spring and autumn storms.

Ordinary people are not

And it becomes clear that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, given the motivation and opportunity. It is amazing how overweight hikers carrying massive, towering packs quickly become highly efficient hiking machines, in part through necessity.

Experience, insight and practice

Equipment and experience is very important, but will not get me to Katahdin. Some luck will be needed along the way to deal with illness, boredom, lack of money, exhaustion, animals and humans, bears and rednecks.

Few hikers are experts, particularly in the first months. Those who claim they are, are not and are dangerous, in part because they lack self-insight. There is a need to learn quickly, through experimenting, to fail and move on with no time for recrimination or blame.  

I just about set a camp site on fire when struggling with my cooking stove and converting it to a flame thrower. I recall the experience every night for the next six months.

Do a series of small things very well and focus on detail. It is tempting to save time by not purifying river water, but water-borne diseases will quickly bring my Trail experience to an unpleasant end. 

Celebrate success and focus on strengths

It’s helpful to know what success feels like and celebrate it at every possible moment. Never assume somebody knows they are doing well when they are exhausted and fraught. Always focus on strengths - weaknesses are evident to all, particularly the individual involved.


Find a means of communication which works, keep it simple and use it or lose it.  Do not rely upon technology. It doesn’t work in the mountains, provides a false sense of security and adds unnecessary complexity. 

Leadership and healthy teams

Small groups of people in particular circumstances can work well without a leader.  Outside this, a leader is required and necessary although the role and requirements change over time. Self-appointed leaders often fail and leave the Trail. 

The team needs to be open to strangers, those in need and new ideas, but closed when threatened or required to protect weaker members. It should be robust enough to cope with extreme experiences and rapidly changing membership. It also needs to find a way of sharing and storing experience for mutual benefit. Reliable information about sources of water is invaluable during dry summer months,   as indeed is insight about sources of cheap pizza and beer at any time of year.

Help others when required and sometimes when not required - it’s good to care for others because they will likely care for you. Be sensitive to the smallest of signals and act quickly, but be ruthless when necessary - moving at the speed of the slowest team member is not always good enough. From early October, Katahdin is covered in snow and ice and the weather does not wait for slow hikers.

Self-insight and humility

Get to know where your physical and emotional limits lie, even when you have moved beyond them. Watch and listen carefully to the body’s tiniest messages - a slight rubbing on the heel quickly turns into blisters which quickly become infected.  

Understand your centre of balance and recovery rate whilst applying the same insights to others. Food, sleep and rest are essential and the absence of any of them cannot be negotiated away or ignored.

Be humble in the face of nature and all other major challenges otherwise failure beckons.

From here to there.

Mediation, HR and Bob Hoskins

For those involved in HR over a number of years, it is easy to conclude that employee relations has become more formal, the risk and cost of litigation has grown and the role of employment law in HR work has increased.  Indeed any number of large employers now have teams of staff to deal with employment disputes.  

Some of these developments have been valuable, giving weight to employee rights and due process.  

I did some research on this issue recently which involved looking at the case load of a firm of employment lawyers over a 24 month period.  I wasn’t surprised to find that grievances are taking longer and longer to conclude, a number of employers are not even prepared to have a discussion about a difficult issue without the use of such procedures and most grievances typically do not find in favour of the person taking the grievance.  

HR practitioners have stopped having difficult discussions, in part because they are frightened to do so, choosing to use grievance procedures instead; and formal means of resolving disputes rarely resolve disputes.

If there were problems at various stages of the production process in a car manufacturing plant, which would eventually lead to cars coming off the road, the production problems would be quickly resolved.  

In employment, the problems are looked upon as part of an expensive dance, typically leading to time consuming procedures, litigation or an expensive settlement.  

Very rarely are attempts made to resolve matters constructively and elegantly.  The increasing use of mediation may change this.

What is mediation?

CEDR use the following definition: 

"Mediation is a flexible process conducted confidentially in which a neutral person actively assists parties in working towards a negotiated agreement of a dispute or difference, with the parties in ultimate control of the decision to settle and the terms of resolution."

The addition of mediation to tribunal claims

Mediation has been used for some time in employment disputes in the UK and increasingly elsewhere, including the Dubai International Financial Centre and Saudi Arabia.  From April 2014, anyone in the UK considering an employment tribunal claim will need to contact Acas. 

This service is called Early Conciliation and will attempt to resolve a dispute outside the tribunal system and before any proceedings are launched.  The process and its benefits are similar to mediation in a number of respects.

It is unclear for the moment what impact this will have on Tribunals and exactly how Early Conciliation will work in the early stages of implementation, given the significant increase in workload this will place upon Acas. 

But it is another step in the UK to resolving disputes prior to litigation and will inevitably increase the use of mediation.

How can you use mediation in your organisation?

The traditional role of HR practitioners as an honest broker between employees and management has changed to one of being an advocate for management and, on occasion, an enforcer.  The skills and practice of mediation reflect the more traditional approach - listening actively to those involved, working to find a solution acceptable to all and exercising a high degree of empathy.

Currently mediation is used when litigation has started, external legal advisers are in place and when at least one of the parties involved is seeking to settle the claim in advance of a tribunal.  

In my experience it is usually legal advisers who recommend considering mediation and yet there is a significant role for practitioners to play in recommending mediation and then being involved in the process.  

The advantages of such involvement are many, including confidentiality and discretion, both of which are typically lost during later stages of litigation.  With active use of mediation, practitioners will protect the public image of their company.  This may also benefit the claimant if e.g. the claimant avoids having their name mentioned in Tribunal proceedings which then appears in on-line searches by recruiters and potential employers.

Even if mediation is not successful on the day, discussions often lead to a resolution at a later date, again without further litigation.  The success rate for mediation is claimed to be as high as 80-90%.  Practitioners can be involved in these discussions and can help facilitate the final agreement.

A family member once neatly summarised my life when in HR - I was paid ever-increasing sums of money to listen to equally over-paid folks complain.  To the extent that practitioners “soak up” concerns and complaints and then deal with them constructively, this summary is correct if rather damning.

Mediation deals more effectively with the emotional aspects of a dispute, providing a space where emotions can be expressed and heard.  It can identify solutions which are not readily available during the later stages of a dispute or subsequent litigation e.g. a simple apology. I was involved as a party to a mediation where it was evident the claimant wanted an apology and this was an essential part of the final agreement.  It was, of course, a shame the apology had not been offered much earlier.  In the midst of a dispute, it is easy to ignore the emotional aspects on both sides, but practitioners should recognise and deal with this.  If they don’t, it is unlikely to happen anywhere else.

Finally one of my objectives as a practitioner was to ensure very few employment disputes reached the leadership team.  Litigation is not only time consuming and costly, it is also distracting and worrying over many months for all involved.  The cost to the individual is clear, but I have witnessed any number of leadership teams in such disputes and it is equally costly for them in different ways. The more HR practitioners can do to ensure such disputes are resolved on a timely basis, the better it will be for everybody. 

The late Bob Hoskins was famous for various roles - a London gangster in The Long Good Friday, watching helplessly as his empire crumbles around him; a private detective in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; and his appearance in BT adverts where he told us “it’s good to talk”.  

His advice is as relevant to employment disputes as it is to making telephone calls. 

From here to there.

This article was originally prepared for my friends at Changeboard and is © Changeboard.

Starting a new business, again

I started my first business in 1997.

I started my second business in 2014.

Much has not changed in the intervening years - the excitement of a new launch; I am responsible for everything; cash-flow is a challenge; the reassuring infrastructure of corporate life is absent; the ups and downs of business development; the absence of a typical day or a team of colleagues around me.  

All of this is very positive, if a little daunting on occasion.

But a great deal has changed.

There are more of my friends and acquaintances now self-employed and this is part of a national trend in the UK.  

Luke Johnson sets out a positive case for self employment in a recent FT article  The Resolution Foundation is not quite so positive in a recent analysis, particularly with regards to earning levels for the self-employed.  

There is a world of a difference between well-qualified professionals charging significant fees and the semi-skilled earning less than minimum wage.

Self-employment is here to stay.

The role of technology has also had a profound impact.

I was quoted £700-1,000 to develop a website, before discovering Squarespace  The process is elegant and idiot proof and is supported by a great customer service team who know what they are doing, speak and write good English and respond quickly.  

My website was up within two days at a cost of less than £80.  It's not perfect, but it's good enough and feedback has been positive.  I now have a presence on the web and a means to advertise my services, in part through this blog.

I don't like PowerPoint and refuse to use it because most presentations I have seen or written are downright boring.  

Prezi is something else and has allowed me to capture my confused thoughts on hiking and organisations in a manner which I never thought possible.

I sought advice on using Twitter, hoping my friends would tell me not to bother and leave it to the kids.  The advice was rather different and I now find myself tweeting on a regular basis. is endlessly fascinating for reasons which I don't quite understand as yet.

And even the UK tax authorities are providing on-line advice and webinars.

The challenge is to focus on selling and delivering work, rather than getting lost in a technology time sink.  Needless to say, there is an app to help manage the sink.

From here to there.

Leadership in transition

We appear to be without great leaders, who display some combination of strength, values, charisma and success.

We have lost a number over the past period - Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is difficult to think who their successors might be.

Perhaps this is because our notion of a great leader has taken a beating over a period of time.

Barack Obama has been a disappointment, although he started with expectations far beyond what any leader could deliver.  

Angela Merkel is a competent administrator who carefully builds relationships and alliances.  

The Presidents of Brazil, Argentina and Chile are all women and compare very favourably to the generals and dictators of 40 years ago.  

But I doubt any of them will ever be described as great.

In business, we have watched carefully since 2008 as institutions and economies have staggered if not collapsed.  Much of this was driven by leaders who were praised and lauded at the time, but were found to be wanting.  

A few have had their knuckles wrapped and their baubles taken away.  Very few have been help to account for their actions.  

It is clear that regulation and the political process appear to be powerless.

We are now rightly sceptical of such leaders and the institutions which bred them.  

In the absence of a major war we are thankfully absent any military leaders of public stature.

Those who do hover into and then out of the public view, look and sound like public servants in uniform rather than military leaders.  For the moment, that is no bad thing.

In religion, the global stage has been empty for some time, although Archbishop Tutu remains a personal hero for his courage, firebrand oratory and great good humour.  

Pope Francis is interesting in any number of ways.  

He publicly and openly acknowledges the challenges facing the Catholic Church in language which is surprisingly frank; is modest in his approach and lifestyle; is focussed on the poor; is putting in place a number of structural changes which may turn this decrepit and deeply flawed institution around; and Francis is admired by many.  

Pope Francis will need to remain in the spotlight to prove that he and the Church are making progress. 

The Economist captures this well in a recent tongue in cheek article.  

We have paid a high price for the "great leader" and the "long awaited saviour".

Perhaps the time is right for modest but very determined, self-effacing leaders who avoid the spotlight and get on with the job at hand.  

Tim Cook rather than Steve Jobs.  Angela Merkel rather than Nicolas Sarkoszy.  Shinzo Abe rather than Junichiro Koizumi, although I miss the rock and roll style.

The lonely leader and the great man model of leadership is over.

The team leader, which assumes active and engaged followers, and the leader as casting director, carefully selecting and nurturing talent, is upon us.  And how very exciting.

From here to there.

Writing about the business of business


I trawl through bookstores, both real and on-line, in search of business books.

The category is big business, but is rarely stimulating and interesting.

Business books often belonging in the engineering – detailed and somewhat mechanical accounts of a ‘how to’ variety – or science fiction sections – so fantastical and imaginative in their prescriptions and analyses of successful businesses that they belong on another planet.  

Anita Roddick’s Body and Soul has been with me since the early 90s when I played hooky from a tedious HR conference and sat in a Harrogate café with it and endless cups of coffee.  My fascination with the book is more to do with her drive and passion than the Body Shop and its products.

I read Subroto Bagchi's The High Performance Entrepreneur on a train journey to the Lake District at a time when I was also reading the Panchatantra.  One a lesson in business, the other a lesson in life, but the defining lines between the two are never all that clear.

Subroto is a founding director of MindTree.  His perspective from the coalface is very valuable, much more so than writers who have never hewn coal or have long since forgotten the experience

He teases out one defining feature of a successful entrepreneur – the capacity to focus both on  a compelling vision and a disciplined implementation of process, which in combination is then scaleable.  He explains why these supposedly incompatible activities of vision and process need to work together.  

His book belongs in the "Imaginative Engineering and Real-Life Science Fiction" section.

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is not a business book - one of its attractions is that it is not immediately clear where the book belongs - but it deserves to be read and then read again by anybody in business.

It is carefully written and densely populated with ideas and reflections so doesn't lend itself to neat summaries.

But the observations keep coming:

  • Successful CEOs rely upon a very significant amount of luck and contribute little overall to the success of their companies
  • Fund managers, investment bankers and other finance experts are clearly not 
  • Predictions about the future are pointless beyond a limited period of time from the present.  The discussion on BBC Radio 4 yesterday about house prices in 3-5 years was an exercise in imagination
  • Job interviews and assessments of potential, including presumably any number of talent management programmes, don't do what they are intended to do
  • Compensation linked to performance is a fudge, if not a waste of time and money
  • Negotiation and mediation activities should recognise the irrationality of much decision making by individuals and organisations

I now understand why I make so many mistakes when hiking with maps.  I force the evidence around me on to the map in front of me, fuelled by a dose of optimism, irrespective of knowing I have made this mistake on countless previous occasions. I shall take Kahneman with me when next I hike.

From here to there.

Or not, on occasion.

Dispute resolution

Sometimes it is easier to talk to resolve a disagreement or dispute.  On most occasions however we struggle to have difficult discussions before disputes then spin out of control.  

Mediation allows a way of encouraging discussions and resolution.


Mediation is increasingly used to resolve employment disputes and is attractive for a number of reasons:

  • it is confidential and any final agreement, which is legally binding, will reinforce the confidentiality of mediation discussions and the terms of the agreement
  • those involved do not have to worry about publicity
  • it is "without prejudice" and thus all possible solutions can be explored before an agreement is signed
  • those involved retain control of mediation and the agreement rather than passing it to somebody else e.g. a Tribunal or an Arbitrator.  As a result, the mediation is less formal 
  • those involved tend to be supported by existing legal advisors
  • it is a cost-effective means of resolving a dispute with a typical mediation taking no more than two days
  • even if mediation is not successful, the discussions often lead to a resolution at a later date, again without further litigation
  • mediation can identify solutions which are not evident during the early stages of a dispute or subsequent litigation e.g. the provision of a reference or an apology
  • Tribunals increasingly expect claimants to have mediated before litigating and will expect the mediation effort to be a serious one
  • litigation is not only time consuming and costly, it is also distracting and worrying over many months for those involved

UK Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) initiative - April 2014

From April 2014, anyone thinking about making an employment tribunal claim will need to contact Acas. 

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act makes changes to the employment tribunal process, including providing for prospective claimants to contact Acas before they can begin certain types of Employment Tribunal proceedings. 

This service will be called Early Conciliation and will attempt to resolve a dispute outside the tribunal system and before any Tribunal proceedings are launched.  The process and its benefits are similar to mediation in a number of respects.

It is unclear for the moment what impact this will have on Tribunals and exactly how Early Conciliation will work in the early stages of implementation, given the significant increase in workload this will place upon Acas. 

But it is another step in the UK to resolving disputes prior to litigation and will increase the use of mediation.

Early resolution of disputes

Most employment disputes have a number of distinguishing features:

  • An unwillingness or inability to deal with difficult situations in a timely and transparent manner
  • Informal discussions quickly lead to formal discussions with little space for resolution
  • Use of internal appeals or grievance procedures which rarely if ever result in a conclusion which is satisfactory to all involved and are increasingly legalistic
  • A suspicion by employers that employees are being briefed by legal advisors, with the employees confused about how best to proceed
  • An escalation of the discussions to HR and in-house lawyers with local management no longer leading discussions
  • Typically happening at times of significant change e.g. economic downturn or during the company’s annual cycle e.g. bonus, pay and promotion announcements
  • The process of managing litigation takes over immediately before or after a claim is made to the Tribunal or litigation is threatened, by which time attitudes have hardened and external advisors are involved

There is a role for mediation at an early stage in potential disputes and certainly before litigation is launched. And it would be easier to talk.

From here to there.



Hiking and Organisations

I hiked the 2160 mile Appalachian Trail and, whilst poking along through the woods, thought of many things.  

One of the things was the connection between two of my obsessions - hiking and organisations.  

I eventually got this in to a presentation which was alright on content  - some insights about the challenges of long-distance hiking, organisational strategy, leadership and teams - but poor on impact.  

Frankly it was boring to look at and to read.

I have been struggling to find a way of presenting this material in a more appropriate manner for some time.  

I discovered recently and this is the result - Hiking and Organisations

From here to there.