World War One and all that.

13b-arf-a-mo-kaiserWorld War 1 has an enduring resonance to us here in Britain. Our understanding is caricatured with a mixture of mud, blood, poets & poppies. However we rarely explore the deeper cultural, historical & social meanings and paradoxes. For a humble psychologist, the ordinary soldier and culture of the time are the raw material of understanding people and events. The force of the events at the start of the 20th century in Europe ground toward certain conflict, with the old orders challenged through huge social change and revolution.

With all this political intrigue, feuding royal families and ultimately four years of terrible war put to one side, there are questions as an undercover social psychologist that remain; why did so many British men volunteer for the war, what compelled them year on year to stand in line to fight, kill and be killed for king and country? What was society doing to propel so many young men toward an uncertain future at war? These are the questions this short post will hopefully explore, to dig a little below the surface of a war that changed Britain, Europe and the World order.

Centenary 1914

2014 is the centenary of the start of World War 1 and is rightly in our collective consciousness. Moving public art installations at the Tower of London & remembrance ceremonies compound our belief that the war was pointless and a waste of a generation of young men across Europe. It is difficult to separate the emotional connection with the abattoir of the Western Front, where so many men were killed, wounded or missing in action. It is not the intention to discuss these elements here as we all have our own beliefs & perspectives on this subject. Though perhaps some insight into the early part of the 20th century may help us put the human war into context.

Invariably we can only reflect upon the war from the 2014 perspective of knowing what happened and the outcomes. We know what happened at the Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli & Ypres therefore start from this perhaps one eyed view on history. Very understandable but ultimately this view will not help us understand the social & cultural underpinnings of the conflict i.e. why soldiers did their duty and went to war.

Indeed the Battle of Waterloo was closer to the soldiers and generals of the Western Front than we are to World War 1 today. So with this knowledge we are already in a different time, place and culture. Britain was (and to some still is) a class riven society – though primarily a homogeneous society. The working class were accustomed to being told what to do and the middle and upper classes were good at telling them what to do. So build a compelling case to go to war, with no 2014 24hr news, internet and a wider worldview then the need to do one’s duty and to defend Britain’s green and pleasant land was paramount. Add in unemployment, poverty and depravation of the “industrial class” in Britain, that made an heady concoction for the man looking to get out of the slums of England and do something exciting. Better still get paid for it whilst being fed and looked after. Pals brigades joined together, fought and died together as part of the collective duty and the big adventure in a different country.

The Common Tommy

For the common man the war had a number of compelling reasons for joining up as a volunteer. Firstly, a chance to express their manhood, to be tested and sometimes just to see a foreign country. Many had not been further than their own village let alone France. Huge numbers of pals & volunteers, from all walks of civilian life besieged Army recruiting centres and town halls. Such was the huge response to General Kitchener’s call, that many volunteers were enlisted and then left in limbo to await induction into the newly created army service battalions proper, when they could be housed, equipped, fed and supplied with weapons essential for their training.

By December 1914, after enormous effort, 1 million volunteers had been enlisted. Although an inevitable tapering off in the numbers of volunteers began in October 1914, it was still at a monthly level of 20,000 in early 1915. These huge numbers suggests that there was a profound sense of purpose behind the ordinary soldier to volunteer. In total 2.5 million men volunteered and 2.2 million were conscripted. From the distance of 100 years we may not understand this aspect of their society coming as we do from a more individualistic and human rights centric perspective. Their sense of duty and fighting for Britain, the Empire & more importantly their families propelled them headlong into a savage industrial war that no one could have foreseen at the time. Though ultimately something they saw through stoically to the end.

Playing on the British sense duty the propaganda machine in 1914 onward suggested the Kaiser was on his way to overrun dear old Blighty (Britain) and the Empire. After all the atrocities (some true some not) exacted on defenceless Belgium (that Britain had guaranteed neutrality) by the German troops were enough to promote the fear of invasion in Britain. Indeed the German shelling of Harlepool, Scarborough & Whitby, U-Boat attack on merchant shipping and the aerial bombing of London later on kept the propaganda machine running at full tilt. Women & families were expected to apply pressure on their men to fight & more to the point kill the enemy for them. As the war progressed past the “it will be over by Christmas” (1914) still the majority of people in Britain supported the war but attitudes began to change as time went on. Politicians have never let public opinion get in the way of war after all.

War Poetry.

Today we understand the carnage of the Great War through the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen et al & plays/film such as “oh what a lovely war”. Some would argue that this is correct though it skews our objective and historical view of the Great War. Interestingly many poets changed as they went through the war as a result of becoming bogged down in the inevitable trench warfare. Their early poems celebrated the big adventure and the chance to express themselves in honourable collective conflict, defending the Empire from the advance of the Kaiser’s militaristic ambitions. The gentleman poets were the product of the Empire and therefore the call of duty to Britain was profound. Needless to say, these earlier poems as a narrative of war tends to get ignored.

Privates on Parade.

Whilst the poets were charting their experiences through prose, the ordinary tommy had more pressing needs in the trenches. Ensuring their daily rum ration, keeping warm, dry, a good meal, tobacco, and avoiding trench fever were all upper most in their minds. Lice were a continual bane of their lives and they enjoyed nothing better than evacuating the lice from their clothes over an open fire. Small but necessary comforts. There are many many more accounts of the pleasures of front line duty. These pleasures for private soldier could be exercised fully in the time away from battle. Soldiers would spend only 15% of their time in the firing line; the rest of the time in the reserve areas at the rear. The interesting horticultural activities amongst other aspects help to normalise their very abnormal existence.

In the latter stages of the war saw the promotion of ordinary men to officers, much to chagrin of the existing officer classes. This real meritocracy meant that the ruling class dubbed these new officers of no breeding as “temporary gentleman”. Temporary inasmuch as they had the rank but no manners or a proper education therefore not proper officers These class differences to our eyes and ears are an anathema today but then it was a real opportunity for the ordinary soldier to get on with a bit of social climbing.


Look deeper into the Great War and we can see many different outcomes and what if’s from our 100 year distance. There are always more questions than answers in most cases. From the perceived ineptitude of the generals, their tactics and the huge losses at the Somme and many other fruitless battles. Though 4.7 million British men served in the Great War with nine out of ten surviving the trenches. Sadly some with hideous facial & physical injuries and psychological scars of shell shock. These injuries saw the first tentative steps of psychological therapy & plastic surgery to good effect.

The war created countries and destroyed centuries old royal dynasties along with ushering in change in many societies both good and bad. Democracy was given a chance to flourish in the UK, though once the war was over women left the factories and men tried to go back to work. However the genie was out of the bottle for ordinary men and women in Britain, they fought and won a war at huge cost to them and did their duty.

We may need to pay the 1914-18 conflict with more understanding and forensic examination over the initial emotional response to the Great War. Thus hopefully putting the Great War into a context, teach it historically over the art of poetry and death. Thus helping us understand it properly and perhaps placing the Great War into historical context, though remembering the soldiers and what they achieved.


Managing The “Talent”

images (41)So what is talent? Its a tricky question as definitions of talent and career management vary widely yet the terminology can easily be interchanged. Though for our purposes I will stick to the term talent to avoid confusion (mainly mine). Definitions vary as do the talent management programmes across many industries and businesses. Some good and not so good and some non-existent. So to drill a little deeper l will try to identify some key characteristics of what talent management is and how it can work.

Managing talent in an organisation could be defined as being focussed upon particular people in the business, a set of characteristics or more toward a statement of identified needs for the future. Some organisations see talent as the ability to go on toward leadership & CEO status, or as McCartney & Garrow (2006) suggest as “employees that have a disproportionate impact upon the bottom line, or have the potential to do so” However the CIPD (2006) defines talent management as ‘the systematic attraction, identification, development, engagement/retention and deployment of those individuals with high potential who are of particular value to an organisation’. So how do organisations identify a talent pool or groups of individuals that will have significant effect upon the business and most interesting what do they do with the group when they have been identified?

Toxic Talent Management

Having witnessed unfettered and undefined talent programmes in a large organisation here in the UK, where graduates (mainly young men) were employed on-mass, as being educated therefore talented, that over time created a significantthem and us divisions. The talent management plan was undefined and none of the non-participants of the programme were informed of the plan (or lack of them) to help them understand it and potentially rise to the levels of the talent pool. Thus raising performance expectations for all employees instead of the few. Without this information people easily saw the initiative as being unfair, it effected motivation and job performance.

The chosen few in the talent pool soon became overly competitive, boorish and unmanaged because they could. Young men with little in the way of people skills were promoted way beyond their capabilities and began to struggle with the burden of expectation. They were offered no coaching or mentoring or development workshops just expected to slug it out toward survival of the fittest. Not a healthy state of play and gives rise to the suggestion that managing talent is certainly not easy and not easily defined.

Talent Management Planning

Clearly the management of talent has many areas of focus. Any program will need careful planning to fit in with organisational culture, form appropriate measurement of the high performers and equity within the organisation. Moreover, no one size fits all, as many HR organisations do not see managing talent as a priority. Of course this is perfectly understandable in the current business climate. These programmes need time and commitment from all facets of the business to work and can be expensive. Though there is considerable evidence to show that the business that engage in talent management make significant returns of their investment. Profitability up by between 15.4% to shareholders to 1,289% returns to shareholders over ten years data from So lets move on toward positive talent & leadership development here are a few discussion points to get the ball rolling

Draft Plan

  • Have a clear agreement as to what high potential staff or talent is for your organisation. Is it to lead, manage, sell, or develop products etc that effect profit or what exactly?
  • Define the job roles for this process
  • Are the people inside or outside the organisation for the talent programme?
  • Will performance management programmes be rigorously applied i.e. fit to focus?
  • Have you identified a clear system of identifying the talent potential?
  • Are organisations expectations realistic?
  • Is their an open and honest organisational culture and able to give and receive constructive criticism? Does this programme fit your cuture of operations?
  • Non-participants encouraged to understand the talent programme and aspire to the standards expected.
  • Development centres/workshops to encourage group working, deal with poor performance, taking stock of career progress, personal performance coaching and most of all reflection time for learning and PDP.
  • Ensure development has clear purpose

Managing talent is tough to get right. As to some extents it is counter intuitive in a very lean and competitive business world. Clearly these initiatives are expensive and time consuming as mentioned earlier and need progressive commitment from the organisation to work. However, having key people in key positions leave the business as a result of a lack of career development can be expensive. Both in terms of loss of revenue and recruiting the right type of person to the role. So managing talent could be seen as perhaps inoculating your organisation to potential high performers leaving and succeeding elsewhere. As the old adage goes and adapted for this purpose – train your talent so that they can leave, but treat so well that the don’t want to.

Having a clear focus upon the talent needs of the business demands a framework and expectations clearly defined at the outset. Equally important to the organisation is the ability to engage the whole group in developing a ‘talent mindset’ and to help everyone engage and have the same opportunities. Moreover, encouraging the whole team to strive toward pre-defined objectives for those that can achieve will no doubt lift motivation, productivity and sense of purpose & career direction.

The introduction of talent management can viewed as a highly positive response to a changing business environments. However, talent management programmes will need the commitment from leadership teams, management, coaches and mentors to ensure success. Thus signalling a shift to a more proactive culture of people development and performance management for the whole business. However, committing to the talent management plan and setting out goals and objective is a great start.


McCartney C, Garrow V (2006), The Talent Management Journey, Horsham:
Roffey Park Institute

CIPD (2006), Reflections on Talent Management, Change Agenda, London: CIPD

The Natural Selection of Business & Careers

download (3)Now I am sure we all know the Darwinian model of natural selection & the five theories contained within. If you need a short reminder have a quick look at this very informative web site run by Christ’s College in Cambridge (accessed 3/11/2014). So the question is how can these theories be applied to shedding an alternative light upon how businesses evolve and how your career “fits” the environment, the shifting sands of time, skills and your ability to “mutate” into a new job or career path.

Coupled Darwin’s theory and the term “survival of the fittest” developed by Herbert Spencer to help explain his understanding of natural selection, we arrive at everyday terms to describe how life and for that matter business & careers can (in theory) develop. Needless to say these theories have been hijacked to fit may different ideologies and moral standpoints to sometimes disastrous effect. Such as Social Darwinism that is thought to be responsible for laissez-faire attitudes to war, economics & racism.

The Business of Natural Selection

By this time I am sure your imagination is starting to make the connections between natural selection, survival of the fittest and how businesses & careers are born, develop and sometimes die. Businesses have to compete for resources, evolve through small but distinct stages and that some variants or mutations may help them adapt better to their environment. Apple is a good example of a variation that produce many products that are internally similar to other technology companies (Mp3 players, PC’s, laptops, etc) they just do things differently with distinct styling and pretty boxes. Thus have mutated into a distinct species within the landscape. Its a high wire act and difficult to maintain, as if the mutation looses its distinct adaptation to the environment then they become generalists.

The generalists are other technology companies struggling for resources (profit). These generalists are all fighting for the same slice of the market so have to be nimble, agile and smart to fit products to business opportunities that arise. Products are not generally high value items such as Apple products but more standard offerings that will be less expensive but high volume to make the margins. Similar to species of birds, mammals & rodents – all fighting for the same meagre resources to survive in changing environments. Its hard for both generalists & specialists to survive as there has one eye on changing climates and barriers to their success. Competition is tough for businesses as with species of animals & plants are after the same resources unless they can evolve to adapt before others or sadly die out. I am sure as you are reading this you can apply similar stories to businesses & market sectors that you know? Of course there is nothing more compelling than a good theory – just reality gets in the way!

How does your Career “Fit”

The term “fit & fitness” can of course mean many things but in terms of your career we can use the theory to overlay your skills, abilities, knowledge of your job and how your career trajectory fits into the changing landscape of work. I wager you job or work is not the same as it was a few years ago and that you and your work is evolving steadily. Your job may have been made redundant in the past and had to make significant adaptations of your skills and abilities through re-training or re-branding yourself into a distinctly new career species? There are many ways that your evolution and you may have been naturally selected to give your career and working life an advantage.

The big question is now – does your skill set and career fit with where you need to be? Do you perhaps take a risk and mutate into a new career path or do you find new and novel adaptations to re-invent yourself to help maintain your competitive edge? To that aim I have put together a list of actions to help consider your evaluation career options and interested to hear what else your would add?

  • Identify what works well for you that gives you a competitive edge. May be a skill, an ability, an easy way of doing things others find hard, or even just a different way of thinking. Is it truly an advantage? Does it give really you an edge? Can you repeat it and give you that competitive edge?
  • Now that you have found it – cultivate it deliberately. Refine it, add to it & focus on it. Move on from those things you don’t do so well, build that competitive advantage and not trying to catch up with what others find easier than you do.
  • Now you have found and developed one great career adaptation, find another and keep repeating the process. Create as many natural advantages as you can. See what works and go with it, regardless of whether it’s what you expected or not.
  • Always spend time doing what you do best. Don’t forget your positive attributes, skills and knowledge, ignore them are your peril. By identifying development areas you are aiming to support your strengths enabling you to evolve positively.

Hopefully the short list will help with the adaptations as no species has ever thrived by working on its weaknesses and forgetting about its natural strengths. Don’t try to go against the way that natural selection works with careers and business – go with it and prosper. Creating your competitive edge, overcoming barriers, exploiting your natural attributes and planning for your future will no doubt help you (or your business) see environmental changes as a challenge so you can adapt and manage change effectively. So don’t be a Panda eeking out an existence on bamboo alone – be more…………………………….you fill in the gap!