De Ma


A short few lines about de Ma, because yesterday was the first Mother’s day in my life without a mother.  The photograph above says it all really.  She was always hovering in the background of my life even when she was not in a leading role.  A constant presence. Mothers are a bit like the Fates.  They weave the threads of your destiny, for good or ill, and they are as subtle about it as an anvil in a sight gag from an old slapstick comedy.

In the modern business world you will hear a lot of guff spoken about “Corporate Values” which reflect the “DNA of the Company”.  Values are things that people have.  Not corporations.  If there are values in a corporation they are the values of the senior managers in that corporation.  If those managers recruit staff with similar values this can make it seem like the company has a set of coherent values.

The truth is values are fed to you by your mother with every bite of bread, every spoonful of oatmeal and every sip of juice.  She spreads values on you with sunscreen and antiseptic.  She dabs them on with drops of iodine on scratched knees.  She interviews you about your friends, then she interviews your friends, and their parents too.  She ingrains you with attitudes to the most basic things in life, such as hard work, sick leave, ownership, permission, self-respect, equality, charity, religion, education, racism, xenophobia, curiosity, danger etc etc.

If you are in a company and they decide to “introduce a set of corporate values” ask them how long they plan to take over this exercise.  1 Year?  5 Years?  How many of your personal values were nailed down by the age of 5?  And that was with 100% devotion from your mother.  How can a company even hope to put a scratch on the values embedded in staff by their mothers for over 20 years?  Or 30 years?  Or 40 years?  Because let me tell you, Mother does not stop just because you got married and bought your own house.

De Ma can be a right interfering oul’ witch, sticking her nose into everything, still trying to run your life long after she has any right to do so.  Until she passes away and leaves a great big gaping hole where all that interference used to be, and you realize how much you miss it.


In Memory of My Mother; by Patrick Kavanagh

I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
You walking down a lane among the poplars
On your way to the station, or happily

Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday –
You meet me and you say:
‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle – ‘
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

And I think of you walking along a headland
Of green oats in June,
So full of repose, so rich with life –
And I see us meeting at the end of a town

On a fair day by accident, after
The bargains are all made and we can walk
Together through the shops and stalls and markets
Free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is a harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us – eternally.


Challenge those “Corporate Values”

It is very fashionable for Companies to talk about their “Values”.  I think it is time to challenge companies back on their values and here is why.

Companies don’t have values.  People have values.  The values of a company are the values of the people.  That generally means the values of the people at the top.

Values are not something you aspire to.  They are not a shopping list of what you want to be.  Values are what you do.  Values are the reflection of your daily behaviour, how you treat people around you, how you approach work and how you treat your family and friends.  Values are who you are now, today, not what you would like to be some time in the future.

Recruiting people on company values is a great idea, if the values are true to the company.  That way you get more people who genuinely share a philosophy of how to do business in the same way.

Consultants are coming into companies and helping them “define” what their values are.  They then use these ‘values’ to underpin the recruitment process.

Talk to some customers or business clients of the company.  Do they spontaneously come up with any of these values?

If there is a disjoint between the actual behaviour of senior management and the aspirational values of incoming staff then you are going to have problems.  Essentially, if your “company” values are not the values of your senior managers then the company is telling little white lies in the recruitment process.

As an applicant for a job it is entirely fair that you should ask testing questions about the values on which you are being recruited.  The recruiting company will ask you for examples in your career of how you displayed these values.  You should ask for concrete examples of how senior managers have lived the values.  If your interviewers begin to struggle this could be a cause for concern.

I have seen people interviewed and recruited on values such as Openness, Flexibility, Loyalty, Trust and Willingness to Speak Out.  Then they join a company where information is hoarded in silos, work practices are embedded, staff are routinely blamed by managers when things go wrong, there is a culture of suspicion that staff are avoiding work.  When you submit timesheets, expenses claims and sick notes they are scrutinized as though they are dud cheques.  Places where anyone who expresses an opinion that does not sycophantically support the management dogma is immediately shot down.

The classic discontinuity is where a company recruits on “passion, enthusiasm and ambition” and then seeks to rule by fear.  Fear kills off all passion and enthusiasm.  It fosters a ‘watch your back’ culture.  You will recognise this kind of workplace by email tennis.  Every email is actioned to prove it is ‘not my problem anymore’ and is copied to a long list of managers.  Woe betide the unfortunate staff member who fails to action the email at the root of the next big problem!

I have seen workplaces seek flexibility in staff.  They want people who work late, attend out of hours events, cancel holidays if needed, travel abroad at the drop of a hat and put the job before family commitments.  When they are asked for reciprocal flexibility they refuse it.  Flexibility does not extend to funerals, child minding, job sharing, working from home etc etc.  Flexibility only works if the bending goes both ways.  Flexibility in only one direction is simply exploitation.

Here are some old fashioned values that seem to be forgotten in this cool, modern world where you can play basketball in the office and get free food at 2am in the morning.

Promises:  A contract is a promise.  It asks for a fixed commitment of work for a fixed commitment of pay.  The worker should honour the work commitment.  The employer should honour the pay commitment.  If the employer offers a 40 hours per week contract, but the “expectation” is really 50 hours or more, you have just taken a 25% pay cut.  Who is the fool?

Punctuality:  If you start work at 9am it is not good enough to clock in at 9am at the front door, put away your coat, stow your lunch in the fridge, chat to your colleagues, make a coffee, switch on your computer, check Facebook, and then start actually working sometime around 10am.

If you finish work at 5pm it is not acceptable for a colleague to set up meetings that start at 4:45 with agendas that run to an hour and a half.  Punctuality works both ways, start time AND finish time.

Productivity: There is a very good reason why we work an eight hour day.  Pioneers of Scientific Management such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, Frank and Lilian Gilbreth measured every aspect of the workplace and the worker.  Companies such as Westinghouse, General Electric and Ford measured worker productivity in a variety of settings and over different time dimensions.

What became very clear is that productivity declines sharply after eight hours of work.  When you pay staff by the hour you get bad value for money in hour nine and beyond.  So the working day became standardised at eight hours.

If you have enthusiastic and ambitious staff burning the midnight oil on a regular basis they may seem impressive, but what are they actually achieving?  Yes, there are times when we need to put in a late night to make a deadline.  But if it becomes a weekly or even a daily event then something is wrong.  Is it bad goal setting?  Is the business understaffed, undertrained, under resourced?  Are opportunities being missed?  Are mistakes being made?

Presenteeism:  It is a bad idea to turn your office into a hospital ward.  Sick staff make other staff sick.  Genuinely sick people belong in bed.  Send them home!

You are your house


I live in the countryside.  I love it there.  I love going to the City.  Usually it is Dublin City, a great city.  But where I spend most of my waking hours at present is in the limbo that lies between.   The soulless non-residential, half vacant wilderness that teeters on the M50.  The developers call it “Park West”.  It is neither a park, nor in the West, in the real sense of that word.

I am a great believer in the theory that physical well-being is strongly influenced by surroundings.  Church architects have long experience of this.

Catholic Church architects build churches as a celebration of the glory of God.  The theory being that the house of God should be a suitable vessel for God.  God’s house should be furnished better than the house of any Lord or Merchant.  Within the house of God there are touch points where you can talk to someone who can intercede with God on your behalf.  So there are side chapels dedicated to saints, altars, shrines, statues, votive candles etc.

Protestant church architects adopt a very different approach.  The more fundamentalist the church is the plainer is the chapel.  Bare boards bereft of ornament.  At its purest a blank space in which you can concentrate on a single goal, the contemplation of the Lord.

Farming community churches display sheaves of wheat, flocks and fruits, the cycles of ploughing, sowing, harvesting and flailing.  Farmers also like to hedge their bets, because they depend so fundamentally on nature to deliver a crop.  Farming churches are far more likely to incorporate elements of pre-Christian pagan fertility symbology.

The office space of a company tells you a huge amount about the values of the company and the way it operates.  If there are lots of offices you can expect a very hierarchical reporting structure.  Open plan offices tend to have a flatter structure, but don’t be fooled by an open plan floor that hides closed offices along one wall, or upstairs on the next floor.  The most collaborative companies tend to have multi-functional spaces where people flow in and out, join for a while and separate to corners for privacy.  They look more like restaurants than offices.

Houses also tell you about people.  So what does your house say about you?  Do you mind if your house is disordered as long as it is clean?  Are you happy to live in filth?  Are you an obsessive compulsive cleaner and organiser?  Does your house look more like an art gallery, or like a lumber room?  Do you like Zen-like clean space, or do you like to surround yourself with lots of beautiful, personal objects that remind you of people and incidents in your life?

If you cut out pictures of rooms that you like from Home Design magazines, and make a collage of them, what does your preferred home design look like?  Now, what does this say about you as a person?

Do you have a house that looks like an architect’s wet dream, all clear pure planes, light and space, a hymn to form, function and material integrity?  Do you live your life so others can look in and admire your style?  Are you prepared to wear clothes that are uncomfortable as long as they make you look stunningly good?

Or is your house like a comfortable womb?  A warm, cosy, personal space, for you and your close ones.  Somewhere you can retreat into away from prying eyes, out of the world.

Perhaps your home is a fortress, a castle, a refuge from the dangers of the world.

Or it could be a functional living space, an emotionless dorm where you perform needed functions of eating, sleeping, bathing etc until you can re-enter your real life.

Is the home you live in your creation?  Are you living in someone else’s dream?  How comfortable are you with that?  Is the compromise worth it?  Are you trying to change the other people you live with to live in the way that makes you happy?

Of course the Chinese have an entire science built around these questions.  Feng Shui.

Finally, how do you picture the landscape of the Jaberwocky?

Jaberwocky; by Lewis Carroll

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!’

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought —

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood a while in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One two! One two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

‘And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.