You will fail

the cane - a school punishment device from the 1970s

In my early years at school I loved learning French. The fact that my first French teacher was a kind, enthusiastic woman who drove a yellow Triumph Spitfire had no bearing on my enjoyment whatsoever. Miss Draisey was an excellent teacher, encouraging and trusting. I remember how shaken she was when discovering two girls cheating in a French spelling test. You just didn’t cheat in Miss Draisey’s class, she was too…nice.

Jump forward a few years and I’m sitting in the exam hall at Purley High School for Boys, aka Colditz. With a few notable exceptions, the teaching staff led by DGS Akers, our thoroughly unpleasant cane wielding headmaster, were a similarly grim bunch. They made Severus Snape look like Mr Tumble. My French teacher at this school was Madame Ananin. She came across pretty miserable most of the time, and seemed to have a loathing not only for all of us school boys, but her beautiful native language too. How odd.

Back to the exam hall. I’m at my desk, just one boy in an anonymous swathe of rows and columns. The teachers responsible for adjudicating the exam stalk the rows and columns as we prepare to start ‘O’ Level French (yeah I’m really that old!). Madame Ananin is on duty and she walks purposefully along the row of desks. She stops, puts a hand on my desk and leans over. She speaks four words, ‘You will fail Shaw’. She moves away from my desk and carries on. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

I passed ‘O’ Level French. I got a B grade and an A grade for spoken French. I won the inaugural Bruce McCallum Memorial Prize for spoken French that year too. My love for the French language was and is too strong for Madame Ananin.

Nowadays in the pursuit of helping people and teams to develop I encourage people to push themselves, often to and beyond the point of failure. Through failure we learn. To make mistakes and to fail is simply human, and in an encouraging environment it is a most powerful thing.

Know this. Creativity and innovation are forever locked in a whirling dancing fling with failure and chaos. As a leader, when you tell me you want creativity and innovation that’s great. And when you join the dance you never know whose hand you’ll take. You will fail. If you practice, you will learn and you will improve. And I will be there to celebrate that with you.

Thank you Madame Ananin.

photo c/o theirhistory


This post was inspired by two things. A talk given by Luke Johnson at the RSA this evening, and Adam Murby, who invited me along to listen and learn.

Entrepreneurship. It’s not about the money.

It’s about the creativity, the flexibility and the suffering, or passion if you must call it that.

And for me, it’s also about the encouragement.

Entrepreneurship. The money is a by product.

What can the world of work learn from entrepreneurs?

Tuning In

Yesterday was a special privilege for me.

I spent time teaching science with the year 3 children at Stanley Park Junior School.

The children eagerly participated as we talked about different things that make sound and then about vibration, the thing that all sounds have in common. The children told me how vibration works – and I showed them how to see sound, courtesy of a tuning fork and a cup of water. In case you are interested, a middle C tuning fork makes water splash a lot better than a fork tuned to A. This great idea was shown to me by the very creative Julia Benbow. Thanks Julia. We also made lentils jump about, we learned how different materials conduct sound, and we twanged and thumped a few instruments and finished with a short song I wrote about sound, vibration, playgrounds and the enthusiasm of the school kids. We all enjoyed our time together and the children appreciated the song very much.

I have never taught at school before and though I had prepared, I was nervous. I needn’t have been. The kids were enthusiastic, innocent, friendly and frank. It was a pleasure spending time in their company and a useful reminder of some great qualities. I’m sure I learned more than they did.

My time teaching and learning yesterday also reminded me of another very powerful learning experience involving children which I participated in recently. I recently wrote about this experience for Michael Carty at XpertHR who kindly published it today.

On that occasion I learned the importance of being straightforward. Of being confident that the kids would handle and respond well to open questions. They responded brilliantly. Just as kids show frankness, they really seem to appreciate, and thrive on it in return.

It’s a shame but too often in the world of work we forget these simple and powerful qualities that children seem to display so effortlessly. I intend to go back to school more often to learn and relearn these things.

Children are great teachers.