The HR Juggler

Alison and Flora

I’m in training to run my first marathon in April and I’ve just reached what feels like a very significant milestone: on Friday, I ran 14 miles for the first time, the furthest I have ever run. One of the most surprising things is that it didn’t feel that big a deal when I was running it, it just felt like a natural progression from what I have been doing up until now. Which, to be fair, was exactly what it was. The other thing that has really surprised me about my training so far is how much I’m enjoying it. When I have trained for half marathons in the past, the longer distances have always felt tough and something of a chore and I often experienced something of a love/hate relationship with training and running in general at those times.

So what has changed? I guess that I’m probably fitter than I have ever been, I’ve been running four times a week since mid-November and I’ve been clocking up a fair few miles: 100 miles during December and I’m already over that figure for January. I’ve also taken nutrition and hydration more seriously, which has helped. But much more than this, it’s the social aspect of running which is making me enjoy the training more this time around. Firstly, because the marathon is a joint endeavour with my fantastic friend Flora and we are really sharing the experience, through meeting up for runs in different parts of the country, texting, chatting, emailing and generally supporting each other every step of the way. That’s made a huge difference to how I’m viewing the journey and the prospect of the marathon itself.

Secondly, I’ve made so many new running friends. I had tried running with the local club before, but it had never quite clicked for me. This time though, I took what felt at the time like the very brave step of joining the small Friday morning spin-off group of the running club, which was mostly made up of retired or semi-retired older men! I can honestly say it’s been the most brilliant running group I could have hoped for – supportive, encouraging, fun, generous in sharing their experience (there are a couple of serious, serial marathon runners amongst them), sociable and inspiring. We also follow up our runs most weeks with coffee and cakes at the local café…what’s not to like?! As the group has grown, it has also in turn led me to new friendships, adventures and experiences and challenged me in different ways, whether that is running faster or further than I imagined, or simply on different terrain. Sure, there are still days when I don’t really feel like going for a run…but those days are not frequent, and the fact that there is usually someone waiting for me so that we can run together, means that I don’t think too much about it and just get going.

Flora wrote a great post about our learnings so far. There are a few more that I have been musing about too.

  • It’s easy to look at other people and worry about the fact that they seem to be running further, faster, better than you. Chances are that there are just as many who have not done as much training, have run fewer miles at a slower pace…it’s just that you don’t notice them so much! At the end of the day though, it really doesn’t matter and you only ever train for and run your own race, nobody else’s.
  • Last week I was fortunate enough to hear Debra Searle MBE speak at our staff conference and there were two particular aspects of her talk that particularly resonated with me. Firstly, that whatever else is going on and however tough things seem, you can always make the effort to choose your attitude towards it and decide the reasons why you are choosing that frame of mind. This is something that I am definitely starting to consciously do, both when I run and when I am doing other things
  • Another pearl of wisdom from Debra was around comfort zones and how, when you are operating outside of your own, they do not remain rigid, rather they start to shift towards you and what seemed impossible, becomes eminently doable and no longer seems scary. For a long time I thought running a marathon would be beyond me; now I simply feel pleased and proud that I am progressing towards that goal and working to make it a reality. That really is something to celebrate :).

So, that’s my training update! Flora and I are raising funds for Mind and the MS Society with our marathon and if you would like to sponsor us, you can find the link here. Thanks so much for all your support.

PS. The picture at the top is Flora and I after having run a very muddy, wet 12.5 miles together at the beginning of January. We are due our next run together this weekend, which will be 16 miles in the New Forest 🙂


The lovely Flora has written an update on our marathon training progress. I will also write about how we are getting on…but for now, she’s done such a brilliant and articulate job, I thought I would share her post here. If you are able to sponsor either or both of us, we’d appreciate it hugely!


Happy Christmas Eve! I hope you’re feeling festive and ready for the forthcoming celebrations, however you will spend the day. This is the last of the advent blogs proper – I’ve gone old skool and reverted to a traditional 24 door calendar this year. There may be one or two ‘reprise’ posts to follow after the festivities have finished…just in case you miss your daily dose of stories and stakes 🙂

Today’s post is different for many reasons…it is a haiku and is mainly pictures rather than words. It tells the story of the year that Jon Bartlett has experienced…from writing that anonymous blog in January, to everything that followed from there. For me, it’s a powerful story of courage, tenacity, struggle, possibility and hope. You can find Jon on Twitter (@Projectlibero) and over on his excellent blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath who has done a fabulous job of illustrating all of these advent blogs….thank you!


So here we are, year 3 of the advent blogs yet I’m on my 4th submission. Last year I took up two spaces, the first of these was anonymous. The second was attributed, done deliberately to make sure that no-one could guess I was the writer of the first blog. Last January was a scary time. I felt like there was a lot at stake, commercial risk and social approval being top of the list.

The second blog sank without trace but that anonymous one just kept on getting shared, so in the end I came clean. I took the risk of the exposure but then a funny thing happened. People started sharing their own stories, started talking about mental health. We all started to make that a normal, (and at times, even comfortable) conversation.

Of late however, due to the pressures of therapy words have been hard to come by, I’m reminded of the quote by Ansel Adams the great American photographer.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

So whilst my images do not bear comparison with Adams they speak to me. The images here remind me of my past and present and also inspire my future

Thank you all for your kindness and support. I honestly could not have achieved all I did this year without you. I wish you a Merry Christmas and the Happiest New Year.

P.S. If the pictures aren’t enough for you, then here is the thinking behind each image – and yes I did take them all, even the one with me in it.

January – Anonymity – I was safe but adrift somewhere in my mind.

February – Exposure – I took the decision at the #HR4MH event to disclose my identity.

March – Dialogue – So many good conversations this month.

April – Hectic – The respite of work.

May – Surgery – Knee surgery and getting new medication for my mind.

June – Momentum – Finally getting back on the bike (albeit very slowly)

July – Therapy – After 16 months of waiting I finally started therapy.

August – Struggle – Therapy becomes harder and harder.

September – Preservation – The urge to run from therapy, from the analysis, is immense.

October – Advocacy – Honoured to be asked to represent the charity Mind at Parliament for World Mental Health Day.

November – Adjustment – The doctors agree to me coming off medication to allow the therapy to work more effectively.

December – Reflection – An emotional year draws to a close. I struggle to express it all.

2014 – Possibility – There are several exciting announcements coming, watch out in the first few days of the New Year.


And especially for Jon, his favourite Christmassy piece of music

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and all the very best for 2014!


Today’s post is the first ever blog post written by Sarah Mason. She may well be a bag of nerves by the time this goes live and be peeking at the published post through her fingers! I know that you’ll be full of encouragement for her – it’s easy to forget how terrifying writing your first blog is! It’s my pleasure and privilege to post such a fantastic debut :). You can find Sarah on Twitter @SarMason12.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.


The theme for these advent blogs is ‘stakes’; a brilliant topic with a number of meanings and provoking a variety of themes.  Some of the previous posts have focused on staking out boundaries or loosening their stakes and providing some fantastic insight.  For my take on the theme, a stake is a gamble with something valuable. And in this case, the stake is the security and status that comes from a permanent role as HR Director for a growing business.

In the last few years I’ve experienced a few lightbulb moments, causing me to stop and reflect.  Those moments that, whilst not comfortable, are certainly worth paying attention to.  It took me a while to figure out the best response, but as a result, this year has been the year of action and commitment.

The first lightbulb to go off cane in the form of a big dose of self-awareness.  Like many of you, I’ve done plenty of work on this, both through individual development and 360 feedback, and also through developing other leaders to themselves become more self-aware.  So learning something so fundamental and yet so unknown about myself really floored me.

Part of my internal value set has always been about toeing the company line, about fitting into a larger structure. I guess you could say being a good girl. Yet apparently not.  Maybe those who know me won’t be as surprised that it turns out I’m actually someone who continually challenges the status quo (the word ‘maverick’ was used by several people).  I was lucky enough to discover this on a leadership development session led by a skilled external facilitator who helped introduce the idea.

My executive coach, the amazing Craig Sclare from Rambutan, helped me to see that ‘Maverick’ is not necessarily a negative thing and moved me from being horrified to slow acceptance.  The Chemistry Group were kind enough to run some value-based psychometrics that showed my conformity level was extremely low.  They pointed out that a number of their staff had low conformity scores and they were perfectly happy with that.

Given my background in the ‘command and control’ world of the recruitment industry, it was refreshing and reassuring to learn that low conformity can be a good thing.

So far, so surprising and, of course, classic change curve behaviour kicked in with denial swiftly followed by resistance. I spent some time trying to be more conformist, which unsurprisingly wasn’t hugely successful.  But then I started exploring how I could perhaps make it work for me.  I reflected back on my career and this insight helped me make sense of some of the previous events.  I decided to take the leap, to change my career path and to work for myself.  To ensure I gave it a proper go, and not panic and accept the first permanent role I was offered, I signed up for a part time MSc in Organisational Change – I knew consultancy work would help me fit in studying.

And then I resigned from the secure permanent role that I loved.

A big step.

Which is, serendipitously, when the second lightbulb moment happened.  A MSc lecture on Protean careers started to make my decision seem more rational and less emotional.  Research points to a shift from organisational careers, working our way up ladders within companies, to self-directed values-driven careers where the individual shapes their own career based on their values.  That’s not to say it’s right for everyone;  most people I know are really suited to organisational careers.  But for me right now, a Protean career seems worth exploring.

It is a gamble though.  Like all gambles there’s a potential financial loss – in this case from walking away from a regular pay cheque.  I need to provide for my family so the lack of financial security is not insignificant.  There are some other things I stand to lose – I love the people I worked with in my last role and I will really miss developing and leading teams.

High stakes indeed.

But I could stand to win.  Autonomy.  Fulfilment.  Authenticity. Flexibility.  Self development.  Wouldn’t that be amazing?  It’s a calculated risk too.  Through Twitter, I’ve met a load of people who have chosen this path and are making it work.   I find that massively encouraging.

As I reflect on the year, I think I’ve learnt a lot; development is always important to me.  I can’t say I have absolute clarity, or total confidence, on what the next year holds but I plan to have fun finding out.  And who knows, maybe in the future I will end up back in an organizational career with a company that values challenge?

The stakes are high, but so are the potential rewards. For now, I’m committed to seeing if my gamble pays off.


I love the way that people can come into our lives through all sorts of different routes, something that is particularly prevalent in our use of social media channels. Today’s post is written by Tracey Pallett, a friend of a couple of good friends of mine, who in turn is fast becoming a friend in her own right. From my interactions with her, I’ve found her to be articulate, principled, generous, feisty, loyal, honest and fun. You can find Tracey on Twitter (@EhOhSaysYes) and over on her blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.


The stakes are high, but the change is worth it.

For the last two years I have been on a whirlwind romance with a national charity; the main focus of this romance was being about to talk openly about my mental health and sharing my journey through mental health darkness with others, showing them that there is light just around the corner.  Though sadly it all came to an end this summer, and while at the time it felt a great loss, afterwards it showed there was more to life than placing all of your eggs in one basket.

It all started when I wrote a blog about my initial journey; sharing the depths of depression, addiction, domestic violence and homelessness, and how I worked hard to overcome the horrors that visited in my nightmares every night.  While to me it was written as a form of escapism, to others it was like a breath of fresh air to hear someone come out the other end of what a lot of people struggle to overcome.  People would ask me how I came out of something like that, how did I cope with the life changes I went through, or how did I do that all on my own.  My answer was always “because I had to.” There was no ‘choice’ in the actions I took to get out of that situation; I had to do what I had to do.

So, when this blog was published by a charity, the response from people was overwhelming and it led to more amazing opportunities to come my way.  I was asked by the charity to work as a Peer Reviewer for their local organisations, I was given the opportunity to help develop a national website of theirs, I was given the chance to help other people with mental health conditions on a Peer Support basis.  While doing the ‘hands on’ work there were more adventures that were passed in my direction; advertising, publicity, media work, and the most amazing of all was to become one of the faces of this charity.   This was an opportunity to let the world know about this charity without actually saying a word to anyone, my face drew people in to look further in their own time.  It allowed people to see that there was help out there for mental health and that they’re not alone.  This is such a proud moment in my life, especially when you take into account how my life was just 5 years previously.

Then things changed, my view of life changed, my view of how to help people changed and due to circumstances which appeared out of my control I had to make the ultimate sacrifice.  I had to walk away from this amazing world I once loved and would have done anything for.  When it happened I was in shock, I didn’t know where I could turn to for support and I didn’t know who I could trust to discuss the details of what happened.  From letting people know that they are not alone with mental illness, I felt alone myself.  I didn’t know what was going to happen from here on, and I didn’t know whether the stakes of losing this relationship was worth the pain I was feeling.  The future just didn’t look so bright anymore.

While this magical journey was going on, on the side lines I worked my way into medical school.  At the time it felt that medical school was on the back burner while I was happily talking about mental health and making sure people didn’t feel alone.  Though, through the tears and pain I came to realise that I had worked just as hard to get into medical school as I did to get out of that dark period of my life.  Although I went to therapy to work through the emotions of my recent loss, it was talking with friends who reminded me that getting into university was an amazing feat, but to get into medical school was something very special indeed.  For the first time in two years I was able to look at what I could make from my life, for my life.  Why should this incredible journey end here because I couldn’t see the wonder of medical school and where I can take it.

What was at stake for me was losing this relationship with a charity, losing friendships because I couldn’t talk about it, losing my own blogging identity, no longer feeling I had direction in my life.  Though what came out of this loss was something that I feel would never have happened unless I did walk away; the ability to see strengths in myself, to see a future in education, to know that I can make a good doctor, that I can help people from the other side of the desk.  I now have purpose again and with friends helping me see there are great things to discover in the medical world, I can continue to grow and learn.  I can appreciate myself once more.

While the stakes were high in walking away from homelessness, to me the stakes we just as high walking away from this charity.  Though on both occasions, leaving these things behind me has need up a whole new world to me; a world that I want to be part of and enjoy to its fullest, a world of amazement and wonder that can only lead to one thing; true joy and happiness.  It has taught me to not be afraid of change, but to embrace it and take control of where the journey goes from here.


Day 21 is written by David Goddin, who can be found over on Twitter @changecontinuum and over on his People Perfomance Potential blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.


It’s a gorgeous spring Sunday and I’m lying on my bed. I’ve managed to stumble upstairs, struggling for breath, almost delirious with the agonising pain striking across my body. Lying down on the bed the pain seems barely manageable and my mind wonders… is this it?

A few months ago I turned 40. I think of my kids; I think of my wife; I think of my life. If this is the place & time that it all ends then in a strange way that’s OK. There’s sadness in that realisation of course but my 40 years have been full of fortune & fun. I’ve been lucky and if it must end now then so be it.

Isn’t it funny how the mind works…

It’s early August and we’re on holiday in Orkney staying in the house I grew up in. My liver function is finally back to normal – that 40 year old gallstone that decided to shift that Sunday and dramatically block a liver duct is no more. My energy is back to normal and I thank my lucky stars once again for the life that I have. I know I’m fortunate.

This home of my childhood, Woodwick House, hasn’t changed much at all.  Slightly neglected by absent owners and failed attempts to sustain a hotel business, the gardens are overgrown yet still full of enormous beauty both within and behind this wildness. Nestled between the sea and the hills this natural setting can never be anything but beautiful.

The house itself, though fading, is still a safe haven from the elements and a place for family and the noise of life. Empty, lonely quietness doesn’t suit this house well and the ravages of time are showing. This home needs life, a loving hand & sustenance. I’m glad that our presence here brings life back into the bones of this old home and that our weeks’ rental may somehow help sustain this special home.

For some it’s perhaps a strange prospect, returning to a childhood home to stay for a week as a paying guest. For me it feels perfectly natural and welcoming. Like ancient friends, the place & I seem to remember each other well. Though we parted 25 years ago, I remember every nook & cranny like it was yesterday. The mind is a strange and powerful thing isn’t it…

Experiencing it all again, I’m reminded of the life I once had here – one full of exploration, adventure & self-sufficiency. It’s a place that’s taught me a lot.

I know it’s where my love of the landscape & nature started. It’s where my father taught me to shoot & fish. It’s where my interest in gardening started. It’s where I first earned money on the farm next door. It’s where I first saw business ventures start, grow, succeed & fail – the cycle of entrepreneurship perhaps.

It’s where I learnt about breaking rules. It’s where I learnt about the freedom we create for ourselves. It’s where I learnt about the importance of connectedness. It’s where I learnt the value in stopping and looking at the world. It’s where I learnt to become myself.

It’s a place where the noise & connection of familial life, friendship and community can all coexist happily alongside learning & commerce. In fact I can’t help but think that they must coexist to sustain this special place & the people who stay here.

This reconnection to Woodwick House has come at an important stage in my life and it’s surprising the reflection and appreciation this old friend has prompted. It’s been in the company of family & friends whose enjoyment and exploration of Woodwick I’ve found affirming. Perhaps just as it should be!

It’s providing a stake in the ground for me to revisit & better appreciate where I’ve come from, who I am and what I might achieve. It’s provided a fulcrum for some change in our lives now.

As a family, we’re focussing on our happiness – making choices and decisions that we now see we’ve long put off out of fear & laziness. We’re more appreciative of each other. We’re better for it.

As a business, I’m refocusing and pushing through some very exciting projects. Work that reclaims why I started doing what I do. Work that reflects my clients ambitions for me. Work that helps leaders and organisations develop & create sustainable change in ways that recognise their capabilities & needs.

In doing this I have tremendous support from family, friends, peers & clients. They are the people who will help me be the best I can be, especially at those times when I’m the only one who can’t see what that might be!


Welcome to day 20 of the Advent blogs, and today’s post is something of an extravaganza! Written by Kate Griffiths-Lambeth (@KateGL) who regularly shares her excellently researched views over on her own blog, this post is definitely something special. So, take your time, sit back and enjoy the story…

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath and today he has excelled all expectations with his wonderful illustrations throughout this wonderful post.


Once upon a time, in a cave high above a valley, there lived a savage frost giant – he was set in his ways and his wrath, when challenged, was terrifying.  The villagers living on the edge of his mountain were in a constant fear of displeasing him and, as a result, they were timid and browbeaten.  When he made demands they were careful to tell him what he expected to hear, even when the answers were false.  The other giants who lived nearby were also wary of him; most of the time they kept their distance.  However, occasionally they would come together to challenge each other in competitions to see who could hurl huge cannon balls the furthest.

For many years the frost giant had relied on the elderly village blacksmith to make the cannon balls.  As his cave was at the top of a cliff, the giant would haul the old man up to him, in a basket, to give him his orders.  When the blacksmith passed away the villagers were alarmed, as he had left no heirs and there was nobody with the knowledge and skills to take on his business.  In haste an advertisement was placed in the national press, to secure a new incumbent, before the giant decided that it was time for his next tournament and found the blacksmith gone.

A few days later a traveller arrived at the village and asked to be considered for the role.  At first the inhabitants were reluctant, as the applicant was a woman.  Many suspected that she lacked the strength required to wield metal and cast the cannon balls, whilst others feared that the frost giant would be displeased by such an unorthodox appointment.  However, as no other candidates responded (probably out of fear of the giant), the community agreed to give her a go.

The very next day, the frost giant bellowed that he was bored and demanded that the other giants be summoned for a challenge.  He shouted for the blacksmith to come and take his order and threw down the basket on its rope.  The poor blacksmith had not yet even lit the forge fire; she had nothing to prove her skills.  The villagers were nervous, in case her claims of proficiency were false.  They did not wish to be associated with her for fear that she enraged the giant.  However, as they had no alternative, they pushed the poor girl into the basket and watched as she was hauled up to the cave above.  When the ice-clad ogre saw the young woman he gave out a great roar, but she did not quail.  She simply asked what he needed and promised to deliver his request.  The giant snarled – what use could a feeble female be in a role designed for men?  However, his desire for new cannon balls was such that he did not ban her from smithing, although he openly sneered that he doubted her ability to accomplish anything more sophisticated than producing cinders.


On being lowered down to the village, the blacksmith ignited the fire, melted iron ore with charcoal and lime and cast the mixture directly into moulds at the blast furnace’s base.  When these solid orbs had cooled, she loaded them, one at a time, into the basket and the giant hauled them up to his lair.  No thanks nor acknowledgement was given but the following morning the giant’s companions arrived and the competition commenced.  Without considering the impact of their acts, the giants hurled the huge balls across the valley. They smashed their way through hedges and over fields.  A goat was killed, a barn destroyed, crops flattened and the villagers hid in their homes, waiting for the onslaught to finish.  The blacksmith watched the devastation, heard the children’s cries and pondered why these people allowed themselves to live in fear and persecution.

Almost as soon as the contest started it was over, the giant’s boisterous friends left and life in the region slipped back into its ever deepening grooves, but the unmentioned fear of the next session remained hung over the people like a fog.



The blacksmith soon earned her place in the community, her skills at shaping metal and shoeing horses were impressive, people respected her and her open helpful manner earned her friends. There were particular group of fourteen individuals with whom she forged close bonds:

  1. a jovial bear-hug of a man, who carried with him (and added to) a richly illustrated book of wisdom;
  2. an energetic, observant fellow with a bicycle who was often followed by a black dog;
  3. a warm and welcoming mother of twins, who always supported those who asked for help and who was good at running and running things;
  4. an intelligent witness, with eyes deep as Orcadian pools, who knew his own mind and was a good judge of others; he kept in his pocket some pebbles, collected on the beach with his sons – worn smooth by the changing tides;
  5. An eloquent knowledge-sharer, with fiery passion and a taste for ale, who had great tales to tell, especially those that allowed him to wave his red flag with gusto;
  6. A frog charmer, book-worm and dreamer, from North of the Border, with a lilt to her voice and a warmth to her heart that endeared her to those who knew her (even those she didn’t feed);
  7. a wise raven-like academic, who had roosted in the orient for a while and who nurtured the young beneath the wings of a dark cloak tied with red tape;
  8. a mercurial jester, clever and quick, who provided accurate and at times outspoken observations on the world, hugely loving but, driven by a desire to be liked, used his jangling pig’s bladder at times more often than some found comfortable;
  9. an ancient soul, with the eyes of an angel and a fresh flower in her hair, who shared the wonders and love of her world with all;
  10. an engaging but independent bard, travelling his own path, with a guitar to strum slung over his shoulder, a story to tell and a song for most occasions;
  11. A man from the North, with a compassion in his soul that made his eyes sparkle and quick humour and supportive honesty in his words that made those around him shine and glow with confidence;
  12. An artistic confectioner, who made smooth, strong and silky chocolate from beans plucked with passion from the Spice Isles, and who could charm the bees from the trees and get them to offer up their honey;
  13. A calm observer with a beating heart and a heart for the beat, always gentlemanly and often surprising; a capable gardener who shared his produce, squash and alliums as the season offered, as well as his thoughts, as gifts; and
  14.  A young girl, the daughter of cheese makers, with hair like spun gold and a ready smile, who skipped and danced with joy at all she saw around her.


The more time the blacksmith spent in the community, getting to know the people around her, the greater she wished to make their world a better place.  At first she did it by making useful pots and tools, she progressed to ornaments, such as pergolas and decorative well-tops, adding charm to their gardens, and then she made useful communal artefacts, like wrought iron benches for the villagers to rest upon.   However, she knew that these were only superficial improvements.  If she was to effect lasting change she needed to tackle the root of the threat that hung over the people, filling their souls with dread.

It was December and holly, ivy and mistletoe festooned the doors of the houses, candles shone in the windows and mulled wine bubbled on stoves to be offered to any who stopped for a chat.  One evening, the blacksmith sat by her fire, contemplating what gift she could give to her friends.  Little figurines would be easy, but she wanted something more memorable/impactful.  The flames on the log burning in the hearth flared into life, just as the mulled wine started to boil, and that was sufficient to spark her imagination, she realised what she had to do.

As it was still early evening, she slipped out of her house and paid a visit to each of her close friends.  She chatted briefly, but was careful to leave with an object secreted in her pocket: a yet to be illustrated page torn from a book; the hair of a dark dog, a worn lace discarded from a running shoe; a pebble; a small piece of red cloth; some crumbs of tattie scone; a strip of no-longer-needed red tape; a jovial but slightly battered bell; a few flower petals; a broken guitar string; an eyelash; a piece of chocolate; an onion; and a small morsel of golden cheese.

On Christmas Eve each household fetched in its Yule Log, carrying it with ceremonial pride and christening it with wine or cider before setting it ablaze.  The blacksmith was no different, only she had taken care not to trim all the branches off her piece of ash, one stout bough remained, like a long, raised arm reaching out from the trunk.  She lit the log at the end near the branch, using beeswax to encourage the wood to light.


That night, when all had gone to sleep, the blacksmith remained awake.  Earlier in the week she had dried oak logs in a kiln, to make “white coal” that would provide the extra heat required to melt metal.  During the afternoon she had lit her furnace, sealing the exterior with mud to lock in the warmth.  The heat, emanating from its opening, was like a dragon’s breath as she reached towards the entrance to throw in smelted iron and the objects that she had collected from her friends.  Cast iron’s quality is derived from a fusion of iron and carbon melded together when the mixture is molten – the blacksmith needed the objects to provide the metal’s strength but, in addition, she had selected each piece with care, as a symbol of friends and fellowships, to add a little magic.

While the mixture melted to form a glowing liquid and seeped into a bowl at the base of the furnace, the blacksmith took a tray of damp sand and, using a slim wooden wedge as a template, made fourteen, identical, deep indentations.  Taking up the bowl of liquid metal in her tongs, with care she poured the contents into the hollows.  Steam and sparks filled the air, but she remained focused.  Eventually all fourteen shapes were filled with solidifying metal.  It was not long before she could take the tray outside to let the night-time’s chill speed the process.  Once the metal was cool enough, she prized the shapes from their moulds – fourteen shining stakes gleamed in the moonlight.  Along with her hand-hammer, she bundled these into a leather bag that she slung over her shoulder.  Finally, she cracked the metal poker hard against the base of the smouldering ash branch protruding from the Yule log, causing it to snap from the trunk.  This proved an excellent long-handled torch, blazing at its tip.  Using strips of cloth, she was able to bind the cool end to her upper arm so that the flames shed light from above her head, while she retained the ability to use her hands without too much inconvenience.  Thus equipped, she made her way to the cliff leading up to the frost giant’s cave.

Using the hammer, she strove to drive the stakes into clefts in the rock and thus provided herself with handholds and footholds on which to haul and stand.  Slowly and laboriously she climbed her way up the cliff.  It was nearly midnight when she reached the mouth of the cave.  She could hear the giant grunting and snoring, lost in his dreams – he was not disturbed by the gentle glow from the burning ash wood.  It was only when she was standing inside the entrance, had unbound the torch from her arm and was holding it aloft, that she gently called to him and he awoke.

“Who dares disturb me at this hour?”

He bellowed and abruptly rose up from the rags of his sordid bed.  The poor blacksmith was terrified, she had hoped to come and reason with him on behalf of the village, but his face was a frozen mask of rage.  He commenced lumbering towards her, a club from beside his bed grasped in his vast fist.  His fury and menace were almost palpable.  She dreaded him charging at her, knocking her out of the cave mouth to a tumbled death at the foot of the cliff.  In self defence she held the torch in front of her, to try and force him to keep his distance.  Instead of stopping, the giant blundered straight onto the fiery end of the branch.  As the flames touched his frozen skin an extraordinary thing happened, the ice cracked and split, like fine lines in fractured metal, spreading across his torso and then it began to melt. A veritable stream started flowing from the giant’s feet towards the cave’s entrance and poured down, over the line of stakes leading up to his lair.  As the ice melted the giant himself shrank.  He dwindled, while water drained, eventually the blacksmith had a figure the size of a young child huddled in fear on the ground in front of her.

Bending down to him she gently reached out her hand.  Tentatively, the being touched her fingers and then looked up into her face.  His fearful eyes filled her with pity.  She moved closer and held him, in the warmth of her strong arms, as the last melt-water dripped away.

It was nearly dawn when the blacksmith lowered what looked like a small boy in the basket to the ground below and then followed down herself.  She took him back to her home, dried and dressed him and put him to bed.  The villagers were amazed on Christmas afternoon to see their friend accompanied by what could have been her son.  He enjoyed playing marbles with the cheese makers’ daughter and proved excellent at manning the bellows for the blacksmith’s forge.  Looking up towards the giant’s cave, a cascade of sparkling icicles shone and glinted with beauty in the pale sunshine, as they clung to metal spikes.  They hung there until the start of the New Year and the glinting stakes remained thereafter as a testament to the blacksmith’s endeavours.  She knew they would never have been achieved without the help of precious friends, who gave her the courage and the confidence to do the right thing.


I staked my career on a number of things this year – the delivery of an industry leading Leadership Development Programme (which has already made a demonstrable impact); orchestrating an employee engagement survey that took a genuine temperature check and produced world-class scores; agreeing and articulating values; ensuring clarity of understanding of the vision and the establishment of long-term strategic objectives, with a clear linkage between performance and results.  I could not have achieved all of this by myself – I have worked with some of the most amazing people, many of whom I hope will read this post.  I treasure wonderful memories including:

  • Sipping Scotch whilst contemplating Shackleton and leadership with a friend who had the strength and vision to change his own life;
  • Seeing a man I admire raise awareness of mental health within the workplace and the birth of a movement;
  • Being inspired by a lady who called others to action;
  • Sharing ideas with and learning from erudite academics in Cambridge;
  • Celebrating the co-publication of an extraordinary, collaborative book of HR blogs curated by a man I have the honour of calling my friend;
  • Setting the world to rights, as the sun set over the sea, in Cape Town;
  • Being a Dragon assessing employees’ suggestions for a leading NHS Foundation Trust – just one of my roles as a governor; and
  • Sharing precious time with family and friends.

I have cheered people on as they have attained World Records, mourned friends and great leaders who taught me what I should aspire to become and I have made some wonderful acquaintances with creative and inspirational individuals.  Thank you!  You inspired me, enlighten me, encourage and sustain me.  I am humbled by your skills, patience and perseverance.  I can only thank you for being part of my story and, remember, inside most giants there is only a small child…


Day 19 is written by my friend Anthony Allinson, who challenges, encourages and supports me, as well as often making me laugh. You can (occasionally!) find him on Twitter (@allinsona) and over on his blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.


In 1986 I wrote an essay about the potential of the internet. It was hand written, and while I cannot remember the detail of what it said, I do recall the visceral excitement I felt as the revolutionary possibilities for sharing knowledge, connecting people and accelerating business dawned on me.

In 1996 I began to manage the web site for the Wildlife Trust my wife then worked for.  She was appalled by my use of animated GIFs to make their logo, a badgers head, rotate comically every few seconds.  On reflection I can see her point. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

In 1998 my daughter was born, I recorded the experience of our preparations in a log posted on the web. I shared the happy announcement of her birth with scanned polaroid photos within hours of Lydia being born.  She had a blog, we just didn’t know to call it that.

Since then my career has been truly global. I have colleagues scattered all over the world and have begun to learn the art of enabling mass collaboration by connecting community through technology all fueled by the magic of purpose.  It is great fun and I have made some wonderful friends in the process.

That’s all lovely isn’t it?

Well, no, not really, not all of it.

There are aspects of the new media that are poorly designed leading to some highly undesirable consequences. I have written a fair bit this year while I wrestled with the complexities of balancing the experience of joyful and open collaboration with the need to protect us from each other, from the motivations and dominance of a very few businesses and from ourselves.

I could bang on about how we give away our privacy, content, identity, location, presence and preferences for free in exchange for dopemine and adverts. I have done all that elsewhere.

Then there is the view that we should not have controls or be accountable. That is an attractive idea but it seems to be based on the assumption that on average, people are good. On average, people are pretty good. However averages are very dangerous. Bad people, that is a broad term, so for example the <1% of people that are psychopaths, love a free rein, places where accountability and control have been removed.  They tend to take over, the average counts for nothing.

It is how the banks were run and got out of control, we got a very nasty recession.

It is what happens when we remove democracy, we got Josef Stalin etc.

It is how the BBC was run, we got Jimmy Savile etc.

My stakes in the ground are these:

I’d pay for a service that gives me all the media features I am now used to, but allows me to own and control what is mine and express preferences about its use.

I will stop, think, debate and wrestle with the cultural challenges.  The dewy eyed, “It will all be fine because I mean well, and on average so does everybody else”, philosophy is not working. Some controls are essential.

How’s about that then. guys and gals?


Day 18 is written by the super smart Dr Anne Marie McEwan, who can be found on Twitter @smartco and over on her blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.


I am very grateful to Alison for giving me the chance to reflect on work, success and failure this past year. I’ll start by thinking about the long and winding road that leads to an event I went to earlier this week in London, pausing to reflect on the way on Simon Heath’s call to action in the first of these Advent blog posts.

The Road Travelled

I am no flash-in-the-pan, future-of-work type. Although I have been co-facilitating, along with the Director of Workplace Innovation of a large US corporate, a network of IT, HR and Facilities people to explore global trends and how they are impacting work and the workplace – we had our first meeting in 2006 and the last one in March this year in Paris.

Travelling the road towards trying to understand how businesses create the operating conditions where people can give of their best began twenty years ago when out of the blue I got the opportunity to do a PhD at Cranfield University. I am an accidental academic who is now trying to become a recovering academic. But that’s another story.

Manufacturing had begun shifting from traditional ways of organising work – managers do the thinking, operators do what they are told – to approaches that fundamentally depend on a philosophy of involving the whole workforce in continuous improvement, knowledge-sharing and problem-solving. This interested me a lot and so I explored how businesses created enabling cultures and systems.

The next bend in the road took me in a different direction – still the same road though.

I was part of the team in a UK university that developed an experiential learning approach for senior executives with a business problem to solve. Together with another team from the same university, we further co-developed the approach at a university in Moscow.

The aim was to scope a practical project that would serve two purposes – project objectives would emerge (or not) from activities, and at the same time reflection on the experience provided opportunity for learning and developing skills.

The Call To Action

“We have a multitude of tools at our disposal. We’re connected like never before. Our time has come. Our time to act.”

Yes, that’s exactly what I thought. There’s a load of overlooked insight from manufacturing on designing for knowledge-sharing and customer-focused performance. This and lots more besides is ripe for discovering, sharing and experimenting with.

And social technologies are democratising. For the first time, people who previously had no access to a business school education can now get it online. Social technologies have taken a big can opener to the previously privileged experience and prised open opportunities for anyone committed and courageous enough to challenge themselves.

Despite our lack of time, we rushed in droves to embrace MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses are online and free. The most famous MOOCs were initially offered by famous American universities but other academic institutions all over the world are now clamouring to join the party.

Some high-profile MOOC efforts are failing. Although MOOCs are maturing and developing, so far I think they are mostly taking old world learning, ‘the sage on the stage’ lectures delivered by subject experts, and making it available to anyone with a connection to the internet.

What the MOOC explosion says to me is that despite our lack of time, we are using social technologies to educate ourselves. I think the real opportunity for democratised, self-driven learning is in the ‘C’ bit of MOOC, ‘c’ for conversation and connecting as well as courses.  My vision is for Massive Open Online Conversations supported by mentors, coaches, facilitators and – most importantly – each other.

So I approached a UK university and managed to get them to accredit a work-based Post Graduate Certificate on High Performance in the Digital Age – do a practical thing at work and come together online for discussion and reflective conversations. Hurrah, well done me. Except for one thing. It has been a really hard sell.

This as you might imagine has led me to lose confidence and question my ambitions. An online business school experience for people who would not normally have the chance? Who do I think I am? Am I nuts? Deluded? Should I pull the plug? Etc.

The Event

And so it was that I went to London to attend the EUWIN (European Workplace Innovation Network) conference earlier this week. I met many old friends – I have known some of the network members for a long time. I must be honest and say that I went with the expectation of a Groundhog Day experience. I had read one of the research reports saying many things I had heard before.

Well, was I in for a surprise. It was the most enjoyable, energetic and engaging conference I have ever experienced. Yes the issues we talked about and explored were very familiar. Organisations have until now been very resistant to high-performance work practices. But it was the fresh way that familiar themes were introduced that made me feel differently.

We had Forum Theatre introduce a story about the client demanding delivery in an unreasonable time, a shop floor operator with a good idea and a manager who would not listen. There was no script, perhaps the bones of one. Anyone in the audience could shout ‘stop’ to make an observation and the cast improvised. It was very funny and brilliantly done.

But it was the summary of the academic research that was so entertaining – I know, I can’t believe I’m saying that! The review started off conventionally enough, introduced by Professor John Bessant (external examiner for my PhD, I am proud to say). Then we hear a guitar and Professor Bessant picks up a guitar and the two men are joined by a singer.

Very clever and again funny, including a sing-along. I will find out the names of the musicians especially since I am about to quote some of their lyrics. One song included the line “It’s not who you know, but who you know who knows it” and another “Take a risk and play with matches but be prepared to get burned.”

This oddly reassured me. It can be risky to do something different. I know some of the mistakes I have made. I go into 2014 a bit wiser but also knowing that there will be many more obstacles in the way. And if you are trying to do something different in 2014, connect with others doing the same and surround yourself with good energy – the energy from the conference has unlocked something in me. I’ve picked myself up, dusted myself off and will start all over again.


Day 17 is a collaborative post by Jemma O’Reilly (@JemmaOReilly1) and Simon Stephen (@SimonStephen109), both relatively new to Twitter and to my timeline :).

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.


We are two #ukemplaw and #connectinghr twitter types and the opportunity to be part of the Advent Blogs this year seemed too good to miss.  We decided to do a joint blog as that seemed fitting giving the collaborative nature of Social Media.  We also work together closely and our respective families are close so we often spend time together at weekends too!  However we are two very different people and we had different views on what to write. So this has ended up being in two parts. Stories and stakes? Here are our thoughts.

On the 18th of December I (@JemmaOReilly1) am 1 twitter year old. I shall celebrate.  Not only have I contributed to my first blog (this one) I am thankful for what twitter has brought me this year. It has been an entirely new experience and I am still finding my feet.  Yes there has been some law along with (however dull it might sound) the opportunity to exchange views and ideas with other lawyers over a year that has presented significant challenges not least in terms of access to justice in the traditional courts and elsewhere. I got my appraisal feedback on twitter. I have also had the pleasure to be involved in an exciting new project where my twitter connections and the real life connections I’ve gone on to make have proved crucial.  The other side of it has been the people I’ve met, worked with and tweeted along the way. There are too many of you to mention but thanks to you all – it’s been fun.  The highlights include hilarious discussions about body parts, a bit of zombie planning and legging it through Euston to catch the last train: the tweet ups really aren’t to be missed!  On that note, for someone who can be quite shy at first, it really is lovely to greet people as friends even when you are meeting in real life for the first time. The things I have experienced so far have really shown me the power of social media and those connections at their best. I hope that continues into next year and I look forward to it. I think birthday cake is in order (any excuse)…over to @SimonStephen109.

I can’t match Jemma’s tweet up experiences so I thought I would go with the stake angle. Whilst mulling over what to write all I could really focus on was vampires. This was neither a particularly Christmas theme (although my son insisted on going to his school’s Christmas fair as Dracula) nor one I could talk about with any personal experience.  It did however remind me that over Christmas last year I was pretty worn out – to the extent that I was told I looked like the living dead. It was probably true.

Why? It had been an incredibly busy year. I had worked really hard and achieved a lot.  I had dedicated a lot of time to being a father to my young children (who could do with dedicating more time to sleeping). I had also invested a lot of time and effort into ‘extra-curricular activities’. My work and social diary was full of great stuff and I was always busy – after all spare time was time to fill and make the most of. I don’t make New Year resolutions but in the early part of this year I did promise myself one thing. I would look after myself and get some colour back into my cheeks.

I decided that it was time to stop trying to do everything the world has to offer. I was always at it. Work hard? Check. Try and do 3 different sports in the week? Check. Spend evenings completing another ‘classics you must read before you die’ reading list? Check. Sundays doing long distance cycling events? Check. Saturdays out with the family? Check. Compiling lists of everything else you want to do? Check.

It’s been difficult, actually it’s been really difficult because it’s not how I’m wired, but it has been surprisingly rewarding. I can really focus on what matters – both inside and out of work. I have space to breathe and time to enjoy having a family. I can now read for pleasure, rather than purpose. I am also getting so much more out of work and hopefully putting more back in. I have time to read my twitter timeline and benefit from what it tells me. And perhaps most surprisingly I’ve also done my Christmas shopping before Christmas eve.

So we end with a thanks from us both.  We hope all of you get some time off doing things that you enjoy and we look forward to reading all about it.

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