The Ascent of Man

60 years ago today, ‘Nature’ Magazine published James Watson & Francis Crick’s description of the ‘double helix’ structure of DNA – an amazing moment for science and mankind. Their work was an important step in the journey towards so much that is important to us today in healthcare, cancer research and many other fields. Jacob Bronowski’s reference to Watson & Crick’s work in his impassioned ‘Ascent of Man’ series ultimately inspired me to go on and study biochemistry at University.

Who could have guessed in 1953 what seems so ‘normal’ now? Huge progress has been made in many areas of science and technology: nuclear physics, neuroscience, communications, the internet and iPads to name a few! And what other extraordinary achievements will we see in our lifetimes? Prepare to be amazed again.

But while science and technology hurtle forward, one thing which, arguably, doesn’t change much is the human condition: our need for fulfilment, meaning, motivation, identity, connection – and how that is manifested in family, relationships, creativity, careers, society and leadership. In the end I wasn’t much of a biochemist and my work now focuses on people – and how they can achieve their best results in their lives and within their human conditions.

In my work as an executive coach people often ask what coaching brings. For me, it’s about providing support for the client’s ‘ascent’ – whatever that might mean for them. Perhaps it’s how a lawyer can connect with and manage their team; or how an asset manager can cut through ‘all the noise’ with clarity; how an accountant can develop the self-confidence to become a leader; or how a multi-national team can build trust and focus together; how a marketing director can build engagement and commitment for promotion; or how an entrepreneur can believe in themself as, well, an entrepreneur! All of these results could have been true in 1953 too.

The answers for dealing with the doubt, anxiety, confusion or isolation that gets in the way come from within their own human condition. And the methods for revealing those answers are grounded in thinking from Watson & Crick’s time (Carl Rogers’s person-centred approach) and much earlier (Socrates!), combined with a clear focus on the outcome they want – and the ‘space’ to think and share confidentially.

I’ll leave you with Bronowski’s final words from his series (yes, I still have the book!) which, for me, captures both the excitement of the future and, also, why my work is important to me:

“We are all afraid – for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilisation, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.”


Thank you for your time and attention. If you’d like to share this message with others, please do. And I’m running the Devizes Half-Marathon this year for Cancer Research UK (science!) and Mind, the mental health charity (the human condition!). Do please take a look and support if you can:


Reward and Motivation in a ‘Post-Bonus’ world

credit card

Tactical cuts so far - a new strategy is needed

To date, it hasn’t been the public opprobrium or even the political pressure that has resulted in sharp cuts to bonuses in the City. It’s economic necessity – reducing the cost base to stay profitable, rebuild equity capital and deal with continuing tough trading conditions and regulatory demands. These are tactical cost-cutting measures so far, but the economic factors driving them aren’t going to change in a hurry. The game has changed and the votes of angry shareholders are starting to count – we may now be in a ‘post-bonus culture’ and a new reward strategy for attracting, retaining, engaging and motivating the talented people needed for the future is required.

When it was just left-wingers, ‘occupiers’, righteous politicians and the odd blogger (see link below) kicking up a fuss, the hubris of the City institutions and other business executives responsible for awarding themselves such prizes seemed undimmed. But now we’re in an environment where everyone is having to take their austerity medicine, and some are gagging on that and hitting back. This is causing increasing political instability across Europe and the rise of extreme or protest voting. Our politicians are sensitive to this. The medicine will still have to be taken but greed will also be hunted down. To repeat, a new reward strategy is required.

Euro protest

Greece, Italy, Spain.. France, The Netherlands..?

John Plender (Financial Times, 21st April), says that investment banking is now “a mature industry that … pays entrepreneurial rewards for erratic and mediocre performance”. The paper also reports, for example, that Goldman Sachs’s Q1 results show revenues and profits very similar to Q1 2006 (Lex, 18th April), highlighting that maturity, despite all the brilliance and hard work of its people (and their huge rewards). How long might its own investment arm tolerate a company which showed no growth over six years whilst rewarding its people like kings? The FT also reports on Citigroup’s shareholder rebellion on their CEO Vikram Pandit’s pay package, and the pressure also being put on Barclays to keep its payments to Bob Diamond in check – we await the outcome of today’s AGM with bated breath.


Executive pay at Himalayan heights

The chorus is growing. Most recently Andrew Haldane, a member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee, said: “while bank performance has fallen off a cliff, executive pay remains close to pre-crisis Himalayan heights”, urging reconsideration of the way bankers are paid. And Henry Mintzberg, the renowned academic and thought leader on management and strategy, was quoted recently (The Globe and Mail, September 2011) as saying: “I defy anybody to measure the effect of a single individual, or few individuals, on the overall financial performance of a company”, adding that “we are seized by this sense of greed and narcissism”, and that “companies are communities”. Now here’s a clue for a different strategy.

It has been well researched and documented over the years (Maslow, Herzberg, McClelland and others, most recently Daniel Pink) that the underlying powerful motivating factors for people are the ‘intangibles’ of: the working environment (including behavioural culture); learning and development; a sense of progress, purpose, opportunity and achievement along with trust, recognition and responsibility. Successful communities and organisations like Google, Amazon, Accenture and Goldman Sachs (as I experienced it in the late ‘90s) offer these factors. Cash has been shown to be a surprisingly poor motivator beyond the short term, over and above what’s ‘necessary’ and/or what’s relative. Which is why if your chosen strategy to motivate people is with ever larger amounts of cash, you’ll always be worried that they’ll move to the competitors as soon as the music stops.

Motivation factors

Most motivating factors are not financial

And this perhaps explains the apparent resistance to change which has been evident since the tectonic shift of 2008. Following Kegan and Lahey’s ‘Immunity to Change’ model, such resistance doesn’t necessarily reflect outright opposition, but could rather represent blockage from competing commitments – in this case the fear of losing their primary resource and potential source of differentiation, ie talented people in the organisation. So, in order to bring about significant and sustainable change to the whole system, there needs to be leadership from specific organisations to change the orthodoxy and burst the ‘fear factor’ bubble. For example, F&C last week spoke out about ‘high levels of compensation which are not sustainable’ – and others will surely follow suit as they realise they are now quite definitely in a ‘buyers market’ for talent.

Reward strategies always need to fit well with organisational strategy and desired culture and can be a powerful tool to drive change in behaviour and values to reflect a different operating environment, and differentiate the business from its competition. Total reward (according to Armstrong and Brown) includes both remuneration – pay, bonus, pension – and also the intangible benefits identified above.

Which City firms will be the bold leaders in looking to motivate their human resources more imaginatively, creating a different kind of business community to match the new environment? The old masters, or a new generation?


John Plender, Financial Times

Lex, FT

Barclays AGM, FT

Andrew Haldane as reported in the Telegraph

Henry Mintzberg in The Globe and Mail

Lloyd Blankfein answers the critics

Wiki on  Frederick Herzberg’s Motivation and Hygeine factor theory and McClelland’s Need theory

RSAnimate take on Daniel Pink’s Drive

And a blog from three years ago

"which City firms will be the bold leaders in looking to motivate their human resources more imaginatively, creating a different kind of business community to match the new environment?"

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