Unaccustomed, as I am, to effusive praise…

That isn’t actually true. Anyone who knows me from days gone by, and certainly anyone who has experienced me on the old public speaking circuit will be aware that I used to carry around a mental list of heroes. With little prompting, I would share the details of these individuals lives and the profound things they had done. In fact, I’ve written about the need for heroism in business too.

They are still there and I do add to the list from time-to-time. Anyone who came along to the Oxford Ecademists’ “Informal Drink with Graham” last Monday now knows the awesome (and I use that word reservedly rather than effusively) achievements of Mrs Birla.

Every now and then, I get asked to attend private dining sessions to stimulate the flow of conversation among naturally reserved ‘people of power’. It’s something I love doing, though I have yet to find a good way of marketing myself doing it! The other week, I was at one such gathering and another of my heroes leapt out of the mental bag… Henri Dunant. Quite a remarkable achiever, with an equally remarkable legacy, and some profound lessons for all of us who are waiting to make our mark (or who made it a long time ago but don’t realise)! He was almost written off at school yet achieved a transformation in the nature of warfare that has saved millions of lives over the years, and founded not just one but two of the most extraordinary institutions that still thrive today.

A couple of months ago, it happened again. I bumped into someone in a lift who had been in a large part of BT who, for some time, I had ‘entertained’ after-dinner in the evenings of their leadership programme. He said, “I am SO glad we’ve met. You used to tell the story of a woman in a hotel who helped a guest. What WAS her name?” It was Elizabeth Mauras – and her story still makes me cry. (Want to know more? You’ll have to ask!)

Of course, most of my heroes were already made before I learnt of them. It was their heroism that brought them to my attention. I don’t claim to be any better than anyone else at spotting heroes in the making – but I do like to try.

Business leadership isn’t always the place where heroes shine, though plenty of my heroes are, or were, business leaders. In my view, there’s a subtle line that has to be stuck to, between a leader who leads – who achieves more with others than any of them would achieve alone – and yet who can contain their ego as they see the results unfold. There are plenty of successful senior executives who have fallen foul of their own egos (and some who don’t understand what it even means). Sadly, it is often only when they begin their search for a new job, that they begin to see that their reputation isn’t quite what they had hoped it would be.

The end-result is important too – a business leader who doesn’t deliver an end-result isn’t much of a business anything. They may be a leader, but not a business leader. That said, there are many who realise that whether or not they see the tangible returns, by giving others something, those people can be successful and a part of that success, at least, reflects on the giver too.

Giving is important in business and a lot of business people seem to forget this. I’m afraid, I think that the media hype about “intellectual property” in the late 90s and early 00s did a lot of harm in this respect, but that’s an aside for another day.

The internet has been an extraordinary commercial phenomenon. I won’t get any praise for my predictive powers by saying that! There have been a few, a mere handful, of people who have emerged from this environment who have, despite all the best (?) efforts of the media, managed to retain an air of dignity, an appreciation that they had good luck compared with others who had bad luck – read Will Hutton’s book to understand what I am getting at there. They may have their downsides (after all we all do – it’s just that ours aren’t usually held up to scrutiny on a daily basis in the tabloids). However, they have achieved their success, and can acknowledge the efforts of others that have got them there, can behave with humility towards those less fortunate, and accept the praise that they do deserve.

So, where’s all this leading? Well, I think I am witnessing not just one new hero emerge but three, and I’d like to put their names into the aether and (in a few years time) see whether my predictive powers are any good after all. It’s the equivalent of putting the answer, to some complex question I haven’t yet been asked, into an envelope, sealing it, and then allowing the audience to ask the question!

Over the last few days, I have been conversing with an extraordinary woman. She is a surviving, Vietnamese boat person. Life has dealt her a pretty rich mixture of good and bad luck. The first half of her story is now told in her autobiography, Blossoms on the Wind (buy a copy now, because I’m sure it’ll be made into a movie one day). Her name is Juliet Lac. I am convinced that I am witnessing one of those heroes emerging. She has turned a lot of adversity into opportunity. Now based in California, she nonetheless found herself for a decade or so as an expat in Paris, France. She founded a women’s network and developed an online journal, ParisWoman. It is one of the earliest examples of geographically-defined, contemporary, social media. She’s emerging as a bit of an authority on new media and its use in communications. I’m not sure what the rest of her life holds in store, but right now she is definitely on my “one to watch” list.

It was while I was browsing Juliet’s site, that a Google advertisement caught my eye. The ever more sophisticated use of adware is a little frightening, especially so when the ad was for an organisation that I feel I know a little about. The marketing model is a familiar one these days… sign up for a free workshop, get to learn more, then buy into a quality-of-life-changing prorgramme and emerge into the new era. OK, that’s my cynical side. But actually, I read the ad and clicked through. It isn’t for me, I am fairly sure, but I was impressed by what I read.

Back in the mists of time, someone had to do what these people are doing with accountancy; someone with law; someone with medicine (I suspect in that order!). In the last century, the trades of dentistry and veterinary science were ‘professionalised’. In my own lifetime, I have seen new professions unfolding – when I first joined C&L as a management consultant I was told I would be ‘learning your tradecraft’, like tooth-pulling in the 1900s, whereas today management consultancy is a genuine profession. The Information Technologists Company and the Guild of Public Relations Practitioners, both herald the emergence of true professions too.

If you browse the internet you will discover hundreds of people claiming to offer ‘internet marketing mentoring’ or some variation on that theme. I’m afraid many are little short of sharlatans – peddlers of 21st century, cure-all, snake-oils who would have been thrown out of town by the Sheriff of spaghetti western fame.

There is a light though at the end of this particular tunnel. A new ‘profession’ is emerging – well, it has emerged, but a couple of people, who have rightly got the credentials to claim to know, and have been preaching the value of ‘giving’ as a basic business skill for some time, have started the long haul that is ‘professionalising the profession’.

It is in the form of a new brand of advisor, someone who helps others experientially, who supports them as they take their stumbling first steps through the maze of the digital era and helps them transform themselves and their businesses in the process. The profession is “digital coaching“, the pioneers are Penny and Thomas Power – who founded their brand, ecademy, over a decade ago. They may not be as well known as the founders of other social media, they have kept their egos in check throughout, but what they are doing is perhaps a lot more heroic. They’ve a long way to go but, with their new venture, they too have joined my list of “ones to watch”.

Best wishes

Graham Wilson – 07785 222380

PS My Business Book of the Week is ““Them and Us: Changing Britain – why we need a Fair society?” by Will Hutton (09/10/10)

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