A guide to clever seating

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You’ll know by now that I get the bus. A lot. More than I would like. But what might surprise you is that when I’m met with an empty bus, I will choose one particular seat.

If a handful of commuters are on the lower deck, I’ll sit as close to my ‘seat of choice’ as possible. But if there is just one person sitting (shock horror), already in my ‘seat of choice’, I’ll revert to my second option.

This psychological game plays out in other aspects of my life too. It may be that I’m slightly kooky with behavioural rules that I’ve created in moments of boredom. But gym lockers must be even numbers only – and there are only ever really two choices. I ponder over left, versus right side-of-the-road walking. And ask; where to sit at lunch?

We each have psychological safe areas, you know, those social norms we set out for ourselves and absolutely need to adhere to. We think, what’s going to serve me best? How comfortable will I feel? How will others perceive me?

But how does this translate to the boardroom?

I’ve been looking into it for you, so here’s your guide for social cues to benefit you in the game of seating chess.


  1. The power seat

You know which one it is. It’s on the end. If you’re chairing the meeting, sit there. It says that you’re in control.

If you’re chairing a brainstorm or discussion, why not get rid of the table all together? Circular seating creates a better dynamic for equal and open dialogue.

  1. I’m a team player seat

If you are a part of a team and you are there to collaborate, sit in the middle, away from the power seat and as close to the centre as possible. Your central position says: I’m approachable and open to talking.

  1. The face-off seat

Eyeballing your colleague (or a client) is never a good idea. Research shows that to assert our authority, we often take up a defensive seat, opposite the person we are at odds with. Try sitting diagonally to them, to encourage communication, but avoiding antagonism.

  1. The dead-space seat

For this reason alone, never be late to a meeting. If you sit next to the power player, you’ll never be seen, or listened to. Ok, slight exaggeration, but it’s certainly harder than anywhere else to have a strong point of view.

  1. Taking notes?

Sit at the table. You’re important. There’s no need for you to feel ousted and to sit at the side of the room. Did they invite you to take notes via skype? No. You are physically there, you can’t hide. You shouldn’t have to.

Picture citation: Reynermedia, Empty Boardroom CC BY 2.0

The stories making me proud

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I’ve recently had the opportunity to interview and tell the stories of some incredible people. I’d like to share some of the most thought-provoking with you now.


Care with the personal touch – HomeTouch

“When Dr Jamie Wilson MBA2011 left the medical profession to study for a MBA at London Business School (LBS) in 2009, he’d already caught a bug of his own: the entrepreneurial bug. After working as an NHS psychiatrist, he knew in 2007 that he wanted to have a greater impact on healthcare. Dr Wilson left the profession and forfeited a steady wage to start HomeTouch, which back then was a tablet-based solution to care, but is now a marketplace for finding a carer. The care is personalised, patients are ‘clients’ and the business is “much like a care concierge service,” says Dr Wilson.

Everyone has heard of ‘fail fast’ but if there’s one thing Dr Wilson’s learnt, it’s that you’ve got to fail first. His idea, HomeTouch, which launched in 2012, was a tablet-based software platform – a dashboard to check your family member is receiving the right care. But because tablets weren’t widely used at the time, and Wi-Fi penetration in the demographic (the elderly and the informal carers, aged between 40 and 60) was low, the product wasn’t ready to be widely used. At this point, Dr Wilson changed the business model, re-launching HomeTouch in December 2014 as a marketplace that connects self-employed carers to people looking for home care. The platform allows care-seekers to search for help by postcode, allowing them to browse carer profiles, send messages directly to them and book the person they want.”


How robots are helping humanity

“Around 71 per cent of the earth’s surface is covered in water, so how do you  save  people in hurricane winds and torrential rain without putting other’s lives at risk? The answer is EMILY: the robotic lifeguard that works hand-in-hand with first responders. She’s an unmanned surface vehicle (USV), capable of moving without human controls that can travel at more than 28 mph in hurricane conditions. The robot – which belongs to Bob Lautrup SLN18 (1986) and Tony Mulligan, Co-founders, and Executive Vice President and CEO respectively, at Hydronalix – saves lives not only in the US, but in countries with a high risk of tsunamis and floods such as Indonesia and Mongolia tsunami and flood response.

The company recently won a Tibbetts Award for innovation and was presented the prestigious accolade at the White House on 15 June 2015. The award recognises the late Roland Tibbetts who is widely acknowledged as the father of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme for his contribution to innovation. From over 7,000 ventures shortlisted, just 23 won an award. Bob says: “The SBIR programme enables start-ups to apply their research, creating successful businesses with important jobs and products.”

No computer can replicate human judgement and experience, but Bob believes that with the help of Hydronalix products, humans can concentrate on integrity, empathy and humanity: three traits that he applies to both work and life.”


The harmonious cycle of change

“Every five years, China’s policymakers reveal the direction of the country’s long-term social and economic policies with the aim to boost the economy. The five-year blueprints were adopted in China in 1953 and are implemented by central, provincial, local, and district governments, along with industry regulators. Dr Gus Chow, CEO at Harmony Asset, guides his business strategy to align with China’s focus.”

Picture citation: Jill Clardy, John Steinbeck on Story telling CC BY-SA 2.0

Digital diet anyone?

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Do we have too much information?

Yes, if you read this article from Professor Simona Botti at London Business School. I recently interviewed and ghost-wrote this short piece which throws up an entirely new idea; what if we have too much choice? But it’s this specific section I want to refer to:

“As customers and citizens, we’re surrounded by choice. Think about the number of choices we make every day – what health treatment to undergo, where to travel, how to customise our latest electronic device.

What if freedom of choice comes with too much information? We’re living in the digital era where information is cheap, so access is on the up. But how much information do we need? Do we really want to know whether our movements measured by a mobile phone will predict the likelihood that we’ll develop Parkinson’s disease?  Do we need to ask someone on a date just because an app tells us that we’re well matched and sat at the same bar? If we’re hungry, do we need to see all the restaurants within a five mile radius? Psychologically the cost of choice can be higher than we realise.”

And Professor Botti is certainly right. It’s hard to fight through all of the junk to get to a story, or feature (or blog post) that you actually want to read – and by the time you do, you can’t remember what you were searching for in the first place.

The consequence of more choice is that yes, people can make decisions to fit their specific needs, but what about situations where decision-making just instils pickiness?

Here’s an example. My very intelligent, witty and may I say beautiful friend is dipping her toe into the world of internet dating. But it’s a sad state of affairs when that very same friend received feedback on her texting ability. Yes. She was told off for “not using enough Emojicons”. Let me just intercept the flow of the anecdote with the Emojicon tag line: “Your one-stop plot of internet land for every ლ(╹◡╹ლ), ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, ಠ_ಠ, and (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ you can possibly imagine.”

When did words in a text message become just not good enough? What happened to phone calls and love letters, even an email has got to be better than sinking to the depths of replacing a thoughtful word or two with a fancy icon; hasn’t it?

I have been grabbed by the fear. The fear of too much digital information, too many social short cuts and far too much choice. Having said that, I just popped a thumbs-up icon, as I often do, into my text message. If you engage in a digital diet, I’ll join you too (I can keep my phone though, right?).

Making mentoring magic

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I recently had two experiences with people at opposite ends of the age-spectrum which made me stop and think. We all know about reverse mentoring (if you don’t, read my article Mentor Matchmaking), but how many of us actively seek to set these meaningful relationships up?

My wise encounter

This is the story of my revaluation on a bus. I was running through my extensive (isn’t it always?) to-do list, when a man of around 85-years-old sat down next to (and slightly on top of) me.

After a few minutes I discovered his name was Jay, he was travelling to the hospital and he’d got on the wrong bus. The route would still take him to his destination but he’d decided that he wanted to talk some more to me.

He said: “Would you like to make the journey go a little quicker Anna?”

Of course, I said yes.

He suggested that we can ask each other important questions; if I answered correctly, I’d receive £5, but if I was wrong he’d get £500. If he was right he’d get £500 and if wrong, we’d call it quits. I agreed in theory – fully aware that I was set up never to win £500 and he’d never part with a penny.

He started. “If the moon is at its highest point in the sky, how far away is earth?” I didn’t know. He was already £500 up. He asked, “If a three legged animal goes up a hill but comes down with four legs, what animal is it?” I didn’t know. It was a doomed strategy. I let him know I was nearing the end of my journey and he grabbed my arm and explained the point of the questions: “Young people often underestimate older people, Anna.”

Let that be a lesson. I wasn’t supposed to know the answers; there was never £500 at stake. It was demonstrating the art of being listened to. Taking carefully constructed sentences and making a stranger stop and think.

My magic encounter

I’m sitting in front of my friend’s toddler and she stares right into my face and says. “My eyes are special.”

“Oh!” I say, “Why’s that?”

“Because I can’t see in the dark,” she says. Adding, “You should never trust people who eat tuna sandwiches.”

And there you have it. The door into a world where everything is reasonable. Her eyes were magic because of their inability to share the world with her in the cover of darkness and tuna was bad, well just because.

In the space of a month I learnt how to capture someone’s imagination, and keep it, from two people who are both wise and magic in their own rights, at very different stages of their lives.

How do you translate this into a traditional work environment? With reverse mentoring.

The longer you work for an organisation, the more you know and the less you need to learn, right? No. Not anymore.

Young workers just entering the workplace have exactly the skills and expertise that their more established colleagues need to know. Think social media, emerging customer habits and even technical skills like coding. Intelligent teams know that top-down learning is outdated.

I’d like to see reverse mentoring expand into the social environments outside of work, helping us all build skills and bridge generational gaps.

What can the 28-year-old learn from the elderly man on the bus who uses language as his tool? Imagine the depth of perspective a senior executive reaching retirement could share with a graduate starter. And even the toddler with magic eyes, wouldn’t we all like to exhibit enchantment like that?

Picture citation: Maiara Bolsson CC BY 2.0

A holiday from pre-holiday packing?

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Sometimes we need a holiday from preparing for our holiday.  Read the inner workings of an under-holidayed mind…

I have discovered something.  I don’t go on holiday enough.  People should have a drawer where they put their holiday requisites.  I don’t have such a drawer, because I don’t holiday enough to justify the use of space.  I haven’t been on holiday outside the UK since 2013 and my lack of pre-holiday drill experience shows.  Where’s my plug adaptor, kindle charger, Buzz Off spray and loose Turkish Lira?

kitchen-drawer

Why did write wet wipes on my shopping list again?  I haven’t bought wet wipes since I was last in hospital.  Ah yes!  It’s to clean my hands I imagine, after applying copious sun cream to my grey-pale skin.  That brings me on to sun cream: factor 50 – do pharmaceutical companies make factor 60? I’ll check google.

Now, what else? What’s a ‘waterproof paster’? I see: a waterproof plaster. That’s a funny story actually.  I had a mole removed from my ankle which, though cauterised, has taken up residence as an ulcer.  I shouldn’t swim, but in case a miracle healing epidemic casts its magical wand over all ankle injuries, I’ll need ample waterproof plasters.  Now, on to my swimming hat.  I have big hair. The only hat that keeps my bleach-based hair dry (and in so doing, avoiding a blue-green tinge) is one that Amazon recommended to me – I’d love to know the data Amazon’s collected on my shopping habits to lead it to recommend such a thing.  The cap has an interesting knob attached it, for people with not one, but two hair buns.  When hair and hat are assembled together, my head looks like The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – it’s quite a sight to see − but as my husband says, it makes locating me easy if there’s more than one pool in the holiday complex. So, I’ll pop the swimming hat in the suitcase.  Now, my prescription goggles: essential in avoiding swimming pool people and wall collisions – let’s face it, I’ve crashed into many a wall before, I blame the pool current…

What else have I written? Insurance.  I should have been more specific here. My life, wedding rings, flat, husband, car, fish (dead now, I must cancel that), bicycle and legs (I jest) are all insured.  I’ll assume that I had meant holiday insurance – I’m scanning my emails for the policy wording now and it’s nowhere to be seen. I must have flagged it somewhere smart.  I do that.  Let’s search ‘flagged’. Nope. How about, subfolder: ‘holiday’? Slight issue here, I don’t have a holiday subfolder because I don’t go on holiday enough.  I must make a note for my husband: we should go on holiday more and create a holiday drawer. Let’s try ‘travel’. I’ve just found a host of complaints emails that I’ve sent to national rail about my terrible, mostly-delayed, squashed and smelly commute to work. I digress. It should be under the ‘insurance’ category surely? No? Ok − What about if I just type, ‘cover’?  Bingo!  I’ll print it now. Or, should I be more tech savvy?  I’ll save it to Pocket or Bluefire Reader so that I can just show my policy on my iPad.

Add iPad to the list and the iPad charger. This brings me back to my original question, where on earth did I put my plug adaptor?  If I had a holiday drawer…

I’m going to make a new list.

Things to put in my new holiday drawer

Check and print the following before you travel, and put in the drawer:

  • Valid passports (mine had expired, that’s another story)
  • Holiday insurance – print it out immediately so you don’t have to search for it
  • Car hire − print it out immediately so you don’t have to search for it
  • Airport parking − print it out immediately so you don’t have to search for it
  • Visa − print it out immediately so you don’t have to search for it.

Put everything on this helpful, extensive list in the holiday drawer. If space becomes too tight, create a holiday cupboard.  Alternatively move out from your one bedroom apartment, into a five bedroom house with more space. Why not build a holiday annexe, or put a holiday admin chalet in the garden? Or, just holiday once every few years.

Why inspire?

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Trucks and women don’t normally go together. Japanese owned Isuzu Motors makes world-renowned trucks; its Japanese executives did not expect to meet a woman when the new CEO stepped off the plane in Tokyo, 1996. Such was the confusion of her Japanese hosts, that to celebrate the company’s latest deal they took the very feminine Nikki King to a transgender nightclub.

This week we celebrated International Women’s Day and I was lucky enough to attend London Business School’s student-run annual Women in Business Conference.  You know what?  I left feeling inspired.  It makes me think: where does the inherent need to be inspired come from? And what do we look for in those who inspire us?

For me, Nikki King, keynote speaker and chairwoman of Isuzu truck firm inspires.  I can pinpoint two reasons I admire her: she’s successful in a male orientated industry and she’s funny as hell. If you need more reasons than that: during her keynote speech she swore – for the good of her story. As I interviewed her, she made no apology about eating a biscuit as we spoke, candidly I might add.  She has mentored a company called ‘Women with Waders’ – enough said about that, I think.  She answered my opening interview question “what car do you drive?” with humorous acceptance, as I hoped she would.  And most of all, she knows her stuff.

The science bit: mirror neurons

So, I’m inspired and I have a new role model in Nikki.  But why do I need to be inspired? In modern neuroscience the discovery of mirror neurons is a big deal. They are cells that fire during both the observation and execution of an action or behaviour. It’s worth saying now: the research is still to be understood fully. Nevertheless they have been linked to behaviours and abilities, from empathy to learning by imitation.  In other words, we all scientifically need role models to learn from.

The idea of role modelling, as a way of learning  how to behave and think optimally, could be the key to how we learn a new skill quickly, and perhaps, succeed.  We don’t just learn knowledge, and understanding, but we absorb the attitude of the person we learn from.  Their enthusiasm for a subject can spark a new passion in us that we didn’t ever have before.  For me it’s ‘Women with Waders’.

A charismatic force

One of my many reasons for admiring Nikki is her charisma and her ability to make an entire room of 200-plus women laugh. Raina Brands, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School recently answered the question: what is a charismatic leader?

A charismatic leader is really someone who is very transformational. So it encapsulates a lot of different things but it is somebody who can really set a vision for the organisation and inspire people just through sheer force of their personal charisma.”

Interestingly Brands goes on to explain that being charismatic is in the eye of the beholder.  So, we are all inspired by different people.  Which makes sense – I’m sure mentoring ‘Women with Waders’ and driving trucks won’t do it for everyone.

Some people will feel charisma and some people will see you as very charismatic, but some people won’t be affected by you at all.”

Scientifically-speaking we need role-models. Remember, our nerve cells work by copying what we see and our motor neurons replicate that behaviour.  The good news is that there are role models ‘out there’ for all of us, plenty enough to go around. There are also plenty of anti-role models, typically in the public eye, for us to choose from.  I’m interested, who inspires you?

Picture citation: Benjamin Lehman, Woman’s Work, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kindness in-deeds

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I’m a terrible wife. I did not have a pen on my person when my husband most needed it. The scene unfurls with patting of clothing compartments, and tutting from the queue of shoppers behind us. “Sorry mate, she’s normally got a pen on her,” my husband says. But alas, my pen – which I later found in my jacket pocket – would not reveal itself for the Saturday ceremonial writing of lottery numbers.

But then a good deed happened. A lady with a questionable hat came out from the nearest food aisle and handed my husband a pen. Just like that. Our hearts warmed. Smiles exchanged and the queue moved on.

On 15 March it will be international Good Deeds Day. You will feel the frost melt a little with the warmth of a kind act. All over the world, on Good Deeds Day thousands of people choose to volunteer and help others, putting into practice the simple idea that every single person can do something good.  Businesswoman and philanthropist Shari Arison says:

“Good Deeds Day has become the leading day of giving and this year individuals, school children, students, soldiers and employees from many businesses are joining in for the annual Good Deeds Day with the aim of doing a good deed for others.”

Moral bank

So, what constitutes a good deed? And what does this mean for our moral bank?

Let’s see if London Business School’s Dr Margaret Ormiston can shed light on the subject.  Take a look at this.

Her research examines the underlying psychological processes that influence team and organisational performance as well as top management teams. Dr Ormiston explains that even mundane choices – like an apple or a burger – can have greater consequences. “Every day we face choices between good and bad,” she says.  The more we consciously say no to the burger and yes to the apple; we fill up our healthy, moral bank.  But after research, she discovered that the more responsible decisions we make, the more we feel licensed to undertake in morally questionable behaviour – moral licensing. She directly relates this to CEOs and leaders by saying that when Corporate Social Responsibility is high up on a firm’s agenda, it is often those companies, or their CEOs that carry out bad behaviour.

“Once we are morally full, we can take credits from our moral bank account.” So, if we do a good deed, we will do something bad as a result?  Not necessarily, but perhaps we need to be more committed to good and suppress this feeling of moral licensing.

Banning bragging

Jonathan Z. Berman, Assistant Professor of Marketing at London Business School recently published a paper, “The Braggart’s Dilemma: On the Social Rewards and Penalties of Advertising Prosocial Behaviour” explaining that people often brag about, or advertise, their good deeds to others.

His seven studies investigate how bragging about prosocial behaviour affects perceived generosity. It reveals that bragging signals a selfish motivation and a desire for credit that undermines generosity. Think of the Facebook do-gooders, brag once and you are a hero, brag twice and you’re a . . .

True altruism is rare. Being kind, in my opinion, is not something that requires a deed.  So perhaps we need to say goodbye to good deeds, and concentrate on committing ourselves to being better humans?

Picture citation: José Pestana, Apples… CC BY-NC-SA 2.0