Tag Archives: experts

Shoulder to shoulder

A decade ago, I worked with the founder of a social enterprise that transformed the lives of young people who had been failed by the education system. They did amazing things but had a problem with their young learners – in the mornings they couldn’t get them to turn up on time, sometimes it was not at all! They solved this problem by buying a minibus and picking them up each morning at great expense in terms of time and transport. The tutors would take it in turns to drive around the houses of the trainees and, if necessary, they would almost literally lift them out of bed and dump them in the minibus.

Very quickly they discovered the unexpected benefits of providing this door-to-door transport service – that the conversations that took place in the back of the minibus while travelling to and from home to work gave them far greater insights into the real lives of these young people than any number of face-to-face conversations between tutors and students. The learners found it far easier to ‘open up’ about themselves when out of the classroom; liberated from the confines of the learner-teacher relationship. And another benefit – the young people got to know each other better, made friends, and supported each other.

I was reminded of this the other day when sharing an observation from the Australian Men’s Sheds Association (an observation that regular readers of this blog may already know) – men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s a generalisation of course, but I think it’s generally true. We men are far more likely to open up and talk about the important things in life when working together on a joint project (and, I suggest, when walking side-by-side) than when sitting opposite each other, even in a social situation.

This is how the former head of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association puts it… Put 12 men aged over 55 in a room and say ‘please talk to each other about your lives, relationships and health.’ Six will leave the room immediately, and many of the remainder will sit around the walls. But is you throw in a broken lawnmower and say ‘hey guys, fix that’, within two hours you’ll have achieved your objective, plus they’ll know each other’s skills and aspirations and, of course, you’ve got a lawnmower that works!

Although pointless banter is an important element in any Men’s Shed, I think it’s also the purposeful activity that helps the conversation flow – whether that be making things to sell, getting involved in community projects, or developing personal projects in the company of others.

In my current mentoring work with long-term unemployed people, I am rediscovering the truth of the ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ theory. In those one-to-one relationships I’m aware of the unequal relationship between the ‘adviser/expert’ and the ‘learner with issues’ (not having a job may be just one of a number) and it can create an unhealthy dependency. But recently I’ve been giving car lifts to some of these people – to attend meetings with the council about housing issues, to see charities about volunteering, and to counselling sessions. It means we’re sitting side-by-side in a car and, once again, I’m having conversations that I suspect would never have happened if we were always office-based, meeting on opposite sides of a table.

For more about the magic of Men’s Sheds go to www.menssheds.org.uk

Are experts overrated?

In my work with young people who are thinking about setting up their own business, I constantly stress the importance of honesty. I mean honesty with themselves as much as with anything else. Being self-aware and having the confidence to share personal weaknesses, as well as strengths, can be very powerful in our famous-for-15-minutes-for-doing-nothing society.

Of course, we’re taught to ‘present our best side’ at job interviews and on CVs and a certain amount of ‘embellishment of the facts’ is almost expected. But I tell young entrepreneurs when it comes to business plans, it’s best to be realistic but positive. Business pitches with sky-high sales expectations and false claims about relevant skills (‘extensive experience in market gardening’ was how one young man described his two-week work placement) will be found out and can ruin reputations.

Which is not to say we have to spend all our time telling others why we’re a liability rather than an asset – that’s not the way to make friends and influence people.

In a previous advisory role I worked with charities and social enterprises and, at a first meeting, I’d say “tell me a bit about your organisation”. I still remember the Chief Officer who said “we’re good at this, this and this, we need to get better at this, this and this”. Here was someone I could work with – he knew what he didn’t know (if that doesn’t sound too Donald Rumsfeld). Not surprisingly I’ve forgotten those who, at that first meeting, denied they had any areas for improvement (in which case, why was I being brought in to support them?)

Readers of earlier blogs will know of my love of language and my loathing of carelessly used abbreviations, jargon, and red-rag words such as ‘deliver’ and ‘engage’ which are so vague as to be meaningless. It’s a lexicon for self-styled experts, so insecure in their knowledge and status that they feel the need to dispense wheelbarrow loads of bullshit.

Whenever I doubt my own knowledge (more often than not!) I tell myself that a real expert is prepared to admit their ignorance. Many years ago I was at a public meeting with the then Chairman of the Forestry Commission. He was asked an apparently very straight forward questions by a lad in his early teens. Lord Taylor (the ‘tree expert’) paused for a moment then said, “you won’t believe this, but I don’t know the answer to that… but I’ll find out and let you know.

And even if you are an expert – with certificates, letters after your name, and all the associated bells and whistles to prove it – don’t think you can sit back and bask in the glory. There’s something else to keep you awake at night – the ‘impostor syndrome’. Also known as the fraud syndrome, the term was coined as recently as 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It afflicts high-achieving individuals who are unable to acknowledge and accept their accomplishments and, as a result, they have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud’.

So maybe bullshitting has its appeal after all…