Rocket Fuel For The Soul – Take Aim and Shoot for the Stars!

Rocket Fuel for the SoulA new contact of mine Annalieza Landa (Twitter: @allysimone) kindly said that my recent A to Z of Inspirational People was ‘Rocket Fuel For The Soul!’ Obviously that put a big smile on my face, because it’s always great to  get good feedback. But more than that, I love the power of this phrase and Annalieza has kindly let me use it for the title of this post – I hope I do it justice!

So, now I’ve stolen with pride, what does ‘Rocket Fuel For The Soul’ mean to you? Getting a rocket to take off, break the earth’s atmosphere and beyond our solar system to the stars takes a huge amount of planning, energy, determination and investment. So it is for us as individuals if we want to shoot for the stars in our lives!

In putting this post together, it made me think about all of the elements in my life that really give me, and my soul, a boost of energy – people and relationships that are important to me, places that I love to return to, nature in its many forms, hobbies that I enjoy and successful projects I’m working on and so on. I’ve talked about energy in several other posts and quite specifically in High Energy, High Performance where I explained that Personal Energy is made up of a number of types of energy:

Personal Energy = Physical Energy + Mental Energy + Emotional Energy + Spiritual Energy

To shoot for the stars, you need more than the basic fundamentals of life and energy to get there. If you’ve been a Think Oak! reader for a while, you know my passion for having goals. Well that applies managing your Personal Energy too. Take a look at the following list of GREAT GOALS that provide ‘Rocket Fuel for the Soul’ and will help you on your journey to the stars!

G – Goals themselves and their importance in energy management

Goal setting is a powerful tool to change the quality of your life AND bring you renewed energy. It is valuable in your academic life, personal life, business life and for your health too.  Goal setting identifies to both your conscious mind and your unconscious mind what it is you wish to achieve. Many academic studies have proved that setting clear and precise goals can have a significant impact on your life. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence of the power of goal setting is from the 1953 study of the Yale University graduate class that found only 3% of them had written goals.  A follow-up 20 years later found that this 3% had a combined wealth exceeding all the other 97% put together!

To really get the most from goal setting, there are 5 steps you should think seriously about following:

  1. Decide exactly what you want from life
  2. Write your goals down AND put a time-frame on them
  3. Break your goals down into milestones and if necessary inch-pebbles – with target dates!
  4. Prioritise your goals, milestones and inch-pebbles
  5. Start TODAY and act against at least one of your goals every day

It works. Try it. TODAY. You’ll be amazed at what you accomplish in just one month!

R – Relationships and the importance of making them stronger

As Mark Twain said…”Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that. The really great make you feel that you too can become great.”

Surrounding yourself with the right people will have a hugely positive impact on your spiritual and emotional energy. Building strong and lasting relationships with these people can take your life to a whole new level.

Negative people, or ‘Energy Vampires’ as I like to call them, can have a major impact for the worse in your life. If you’re spending large amounts of time with people who constantly bemoan their situation and blame everyone and everything for their situation can easily drag you down to their level. Try a little test that will prove my point. Whilst you’re out and about, ask friends and colleagues how they are. Watch closely for your inward reaction to their response. If someone, says ‘Great thanks. I’m having a really good day!’, how does that make you feel versus the person that gives a 10 minute diatribe on how bad their life is, how horrible their partner is, how bad work is and finally how there’s nothing at all they can do about it. I think you’ll be amazed at the results. I know, that when I first came across this phenomena, and the positive and negative impact that it had on me, I had some serious decisions to make about who I spent time with.

Surrounding yourself with positive and ‘successful’ people can really add fuel to the rocket that is your soul. I put successful in quotes because we all have a different view of what successful is. But whatever your criteria, investing in building strong relationships with people who you admire, can learn from and whose company you enjoy, will make a big difference in your life and your attitude to it.

E –  Exercise your mind as well as your body

We all know that looking after your body is important. Some of us do exercise and treat our bodies well, and some of us don’t, but we all know the consequences! I won’t dwell on this, as there are plenty of people more qualified than I to advise you.

Looking after your mind, however, and exercising that every day, can give you a huge boost in your personal and professional life. Many of us leave school, college or university thinking that that’s the end of study and we’re set for life. Not so. It’s so important to continue to invest in your skills and education throughout our life. Investing an hour or two per day in yourself can have a stratospheric impact on your career, your business, your aspirations and your thoughts and ideas.

I’m hearing shouts of ‘Where on earth am I going to find an hour or two per day? I’m already hugely busy!’ Well, many of us spend between 250 – 500 or more hours per year commuting to and from work. By using this time reading books or listening to audiobooks and podcasts you can get the equivalent of 14 weeks learning within a year! Add to that the hours of television you might watch in a day, week, month or year and you’ll immediately start to wonder how on earth you’ve missed out on this opportunity in your life. I started this process about a year ago and haven’t looked back. Give it a try!

A – Appreciate the world around you

How often do you take time to appreciate what you have in life? – Your family, your friends, the countryside, your town or city, your home, your garden…all the things we all sometimes take for granted. Taking just a few minutes a day, at the start or the end of the day work best, to be thankful for what you have, gives you that kick-start to the day or helps you to go to sleep that little bit brighter.

Spending time exploring new places or even your own village, town or city helps bring new perspectives and ideas. More than this though, spending quality time with the people we love or in places we love or ideally both,  help us re-energise us much more than a good night’s sleep (although that’s important too!).

T – Take time for you

We all live very busy lives, and many of us have people who depend on us – our customers, our boss, our colleagues, our families, our friends, our communities. I could go on. Many people seldom make time for themselves because demands on their life are so high or because they feel selfish by taking time out. Spending time by yourself can actually reduce the risk of burnout and stress and more importantly helps you to put some perspective on life. Some people find that spending 20-30 minutes per day meditating really helps them with balance in their lives, for others it might be a run or a cycle ride, for others, like myself, a walking weekend in the mountains a few times a year. Find whatever helps you truly relax and get started!

G – Give of yourself to others

Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote: “Souls are like athletes who need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.” That’s an insightful analogy, for just as your muscles weaken without physical exercise, and skills weaken without practice and learning, so does your soul weaken without its special kinds of exercise. A great exercise for your soul is the practice of giving. As with physical exercise, the more you do it, the easier it is, and the stronger you will become.

What are the benefits of giving? Here are some of the things you can gain by making giving a greater part of your life:

  • Creating new relationships
  • A sense of empowerment, pride, and accomplishment
  • Happiness that you’ve impacted someone’s life positively
  • Maybe learned some new skills along the way

The paradox is that when you give expecting a reward, you won’t receive one. When you give with joy and selflessness, you benefit greatly. The attitude you bring to your giving will reflect the benefits you gain.

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
― Winston Churchill

Giving of yourself could be in your local community, becoming a personal mentor for someone, doing a sponsored event for charity or even writing a blog to help other people develop!

O – Organise Yourself

The Pareto Principle (The 80/20 rule) states that in many things, 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes.

Studies over the years have observed this rule in action in many different spheres of life.

Some examples:

Business: 20 percent of customers will account for 80 percent of profit.

Relationships: Twenty percent of the people you know (friends, colleagues, family) provide you with 80 percent of nurturing support and satisfaction.

Productivity: Twenty percent of your activities will account for 80 percent of your success.

How can we put the 80/20 principle to good use?
The Pareto principle is great to increase focus. Don’t try to do more. Just do more of the right things. If you have a lot of work to do, break it down to specific activities and figure out what twenty percent of the tasks listed contributes to eighty percent of the results you seek. Second, give your maximum concentration to those 20 percent tasks.

So how do you know if you’re working on the twenty percent that really matters?

It makes you feel good because you are doing what you always wanted or you know it’ll help with your goals.

You are doing the tasks that you’d like to procrastinate, but know that it is essential.

You delegate tasks to others that you aren’t good at.

You are doing something that uses your creativity
Hints that you aren’t utilising your time effectively:

You are doing things that other people want you to do.

You are doing things that you aren’t good at.

You are doing things you don’t enjoy doing (provided that it doesn’t also contribute to your goals).

You are doing things that always take you a lot of time and energy.
With a little effort, and the application of the 80-20 rule, we can save a lot of our emotional and physical energy to concentrate on stuffs that really matter and enrich our life.

A – Attitude is the engine that keeps you going, but like any engine, you need to maintain it

Think Oak Methodology outlines Four A’s for Success – Aptitude, Accountability, Anticipation and Attitude

Aptitude is our ability, talent or competency that we have honed and practised (or not) to do a particular task or role.

Accountability is us taking ownership for our actions, but more importantly our own lives.

Anticipation is our ability to think from the future and anticipate the markets we operate in or what we need to be planning for in our own lives.

Attitude is the engine that drives us to success. With a poor attitude, you’ll be very lucky to even take off, never mind get where you want to go.

In a previous post ‘Aptitude or Attitude~ What makes a Star Performer?’ I covered some of the key attitudes that will get you off the launch pad and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, but there are two more things you’ll need to help you reach the stars!

L – Love Yourself

All of us at one time or another have self-doubt, are afraid of something or afraid to do something. Sometimes we may not like ourselves very much. But before we can truly be happy and successful loving yourself has to be a priority. Easier said than done, I know.

We’re taught by western society that our worth is found in the ‘core’ of our culture—technology, status, youth, sex, power, money, attractiveness, and romantic relationships.

If you base your self-worth on the external world, you’ll never be capable of self-love. Your inner critic will flood you with thoughts of, “I’m not enough, I don’t have enough, and I don’t do enough.”

Feelings of lack are never-ending. Every time a goal is reached or you possess the next big thing, your ego will raise the bar. It’s really important that you recognise when this is happening and put actions in place to reverse the process.

I’ve covered some of these areas in the Self-limiting Belief series (part 1, part 2), but there are other great sources available for you read that I’ve come across. One particular recommendation would be ‘The Chimp Paradox‘ by Doctor Steve Peters.

S – Stay Positive

Finally, on your journey to the stars you are bound to experience some bumps, turbulence, diversions and set-backs. Just remember that each of these is an opportunity to learn. Einstein famously said: “I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” When you’re hit by a meteorite on your journey to the stars, see what you can learn from the experience, re-plan if necessary, change course if necessary, refuel and set-off again with focus on the end destination.

“Optimism is the most important human trait, because it allows us to evolve our ideas, to improve our situation, and to hope for a better tomorrow.” ~ Seth Godin

I’m hoping that these 10 focus areas will help you in your personal and business life, and give you a little Rocket Fuel for the Soul.

A to Z of Inspirational People – Part 4

A to Z Inspirational People - Part 4

Welcome to the final part of this A to Z of Inspirational People. If you missed Part 1 including; Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, David Attenborough and Guy Kawasaki,  please click here. If you missed Part 2 including; Hilary Clinton, J.K. Rowling, Kelly Holmes, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page, please click here. If you missed Part 3 including; Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson and Robert Baden-Powell, please click here.

It may come as no surprise that I’ve added an additional person to this list. I don’t apologise for putting him in the wrong order! Please see the update at the end….


steve-jobsSteve Jobs

I did consider not putting Steve Jobs, the deceased CEO of Apple (as if I need to tell you who he is!) on this A to Z. To some, Jobs’ life has revealed the importance of sticking firmly to one’s vision and goals, no matter what the negative impacts on employees or business associates might be. To others, Jobs serves as a cautionary tale, a man who changed the world but at the price of alienating almost everyone around him.

Jobs’ philosophy was to make products that were at the intersection of art and technology, intuitiveness and design. His openness to being inspired allowed him to live his philosophy, and in turn inspire others.

Jobs has left an amazing legacy of fantastic achievements and great products and he created the ultimate customer connection that others can only hope to come close to achieving. Jobs’ art (that’s what his products are!) and his vision and his success have inspired me. His treatment of people, partners and suppliers, less so.

Seth Godin

Seth Godin has one of the most-loved marketing blogs on the internet, has penned more than a dozen best-selling books and launched a social site that attracts more than 50 million viewers per month. Yet he makes little effort to cultivate a following, preferring to be discovered virally. Those who do find him stick around for his uncomplicated entrepreneurial mantras, which boil down to this: Make something happen. I’ve read, or more correctly, listened to all of his books and I find his work inspirational. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but he makes me think, he makes me think differently and more importantly he inspires me to act.

“Icarus. The original myth had two parts. Daedalus said to his son, ‘I fashioned these wings for you. Two rules. Don’t fly too high, or the sun will melt the wax. But, more important, son, don’t fly too low. Because if you fly too low, the water and the waves will surely weigh down the wings, and you will die.’ We’ve left out the second part of the myth. We don’t say to people anymore, ‘Don’t fly too low.’ All we do from the time they are 4 years old is warn them against hubris. We have created this industrially led structure that says: How dare you.”-  Seth Godin


Thomas Edison

Arguably the most successful inventor in human history, Thomas Edison held 1,093 U.S. patents, and hundreds more in other nations. His most famous work includes the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the alkaline storage battery, and a forerunner of the motion picture projector.

The first great invention developed by Edison in Menlo Park was the tin foil phonograph. The first machine that could record and reproduce sound created a sensation and brought Edison international fame. Edison next undertook his greatest challenge, the development of a practical incandescent, electric light. The idea of electric lighting was not new, and a number of people had worked on, and even developed forms of electric lighting. Edison’s eventual achievement was inventing not just an incandescent electric light, but also an electric lighting system that contained all the elements necessary to make the incandescent light practical, safe, and economical. In 1882, the first commercial power station went into operation providing light and power to customers in a one square mile area; the electric age had begun. The success of his electric light brought Edison to new heights of fame and wealth, as electricity spread around the world.

By the 1890s, Edison began to manufacture phonographs for both home, and business use. Like the electric light, Edison developed everything needed to have a phonograph work, including records to play, equipment to record the records, and equipment to manufacture the records and the machines. In the process of making the phonograph practical, Edison created the recording industry. While working on the phonograph, Edison began working on a device that, “does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear”, this was to become motion pictures. Edison first demonstrated motion pictures in 1891, and began commercial production of “movies” two years later. However, many people became interested in this third new industry Edison created, and worked to further improve on Edison’s early motion picture work. There were therefore many contributors to the swift development of motion pictures beyond the early work of Edison. By the late 1890s, a thriving new industry was firmly established, and by 1918 the industry had become so competitive that Edison got out of the movie business all together.

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

tim-berners-leeTim Berners Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 while working as a software engineer at CERN, the large particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. With many scientists participating in experiments at ‪CERN and returning to their laboratories around the world, these scientists were eager to exchange data and results but had difficulties doing so. Tim understood this need, and understood the unrealized potential of millions of computers connected together through the Internet.

Tim documented what was to become the World Wide Web with the submission of a proposal specifying a set of technologies that would make the Internet truly accessible and useful to people. In April 1993, CERN announced that the World Wide Web technology would be available for anyone to use on a royalty-free basis.

Since that time, the Web has changed the world, arguably becoming the most powerful communication medium the world has ever known. The Web has fundamentally altered the way we teach and learn, buy and sell, inform and are informed, agree and disagree, share and collaborate, meet and love, and tackle problems ranging from putting food on our tables to curing cancer.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting Tim Berners Lee and listening to one of his speeches, and unsurprisingly he’s a very very bright man. He’s also very unassuming, very charming and passionate about the future. Not at all what I expected from a man who has changed the world.


Usain Bolt

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is arguably the fastest man in the world, winning three gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, and becoming the first man in Olympic history to win both the 100-meter and 200-meter races in record times. Bolt won his fourth Olympic gold medal in the men’s 100-meter race at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, beating rival Yohan Blake, who took silver. Bolt ran the race in 9.63 seconds, a new Olympic record, making him the first man in history to set three world records in a single Olympic Games competition. The win marked Bolt’s second consecutive gold medal in the 100. Bolt went on to compete in the men’s 200, claiming his second consecutive gold medal in that race. He is the first man to win both the 100 and 200 at consecutive Olympic Games, as well as the first man to ever win back-to-back gold medals in double sprints.

“It’s what I came here to do. I’m now a legend. I’m also the greatest athlete to live. I’ve got nothing left to prove.”

Winners are always inspirational, but to win so convincingly, with such focus and confidence should be an inspiration to anyone who knows what their dream is!


Vincent Van Gogh

Today, Vincent van Gogh is considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt. He completed more than 2,100 works, consisting of 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings and sketches. Several of his paintings rank among the most expensive in the world; “Irises” sold for a record $53.9 million, and his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold for $82.5 million.

His life is well documented, as is his mental health. Aside from his art, which I love – especially Starry Night Over The Rhone and Café Terrace at Night he was a deep thinker. Some of my favourite quotes are below:

“I tell you: you must not be afraid of making mistakes. People think they will become good by doing no harm, but that’s a lie. Such a frame of mind leads to stagnation and mediocrity.”

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”


Winston-ChurchillWinston Churchill

He was the man who stepped up when the British Empire needed him most.  He held many positions during his long career and was an accomplished public servant.  Churchill entered the Royal Military College of Sandhurst, and graduated with honours.   He later saw action in Cuba, India, Egypt, Sudan, the front lines of World War I, and even took part in one of the last British cavalry charges in history.   When he turned twenty-five, Churchill was elected to Parliament, and began his career as a statesman in the House of Commons.  He went on to serve as First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minster.  In his private life, Winston Churchill was an avid reader and scholar, painter, author, journalist, and war correspondent.  Historians widely attribute Churchill with being “the greatest statesman of the 20th century.”  Churchill was an effective leader and statesman because of his tremendous ability to inspire people; his unique strategic insight; his relentless passion; and his imperturbable personality.

Churchill’s ability to inspire may be seen in the opening days of World War II.  He did not permit a defeatist attitude, nor would he entertain talk of reasonable terms with Adolf Hitler.

“We shall go on to the end.  We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.  We shall fight on beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce was an English politician, from my home town of Kingston upon Hull, who became the voice of the abolition slavery movement in British Parliament.

He was fiercely opposed by those making fortunes from the slave trade, who used all kinds of delaying tactics. The first time a bill was introduced to parliament, Wilberforce lost the debate by 163 votes to 88 but he never gave up. A bill to cease the trade was passed by the House of Commons in 1792 – but with the amendment that the ban should be ‘gradual’, which those with an interest in the trade interpreted as ‘never’.

On 25th March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act abolished the Slave Trade in the British colonies. It was carried by 267 votes. The house rose to its feet and cheered wildly. This was not a vote to abolish slavery as a whole throughout the British Empire, just the trade in enslaved people. William Wilberforce continued to work for the abolition of all slavery within the British Colonies. He joined the ‘Society for Gradual Abolition’ and, when the campaign intensified again in the 1820’s and 30′, he did as much as his failing health would allow.

Despite the groundswell of public opinion, Parliament still refused to ban slavery, until parliamentary reform removed many of its supporters. Wilberforce wrote a last petition. The Parliamentary debate lasted three months. On the 26th July, 1833, the Abolition of Slavery bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons and slavery in British colonies would finally be abolished. Just three days later, on 29th July, William Wilberforce died.

Walt DisneyWalt Disney

Walt Disney and his vision has inspired generations of children and adults alike to believe in belief, myself included. I’ve featured Disney in a number of Think Oak! posts over the years:

Customer Service ~ Basil Fawlty or Walt Disney

Six of the Best …. Failures

Top Leadership Challenges – The Results

Below are some words of magical wisdom from Mr Disney

“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”

“When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.”

“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

“If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember that this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse.”

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

“Too many people grow up. That’s the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up. They forget. They don’t remember what it’s like to be 12 years old. They patronise, they treat children as inferiors. Well I won’t do that.”

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

I can say no more!


Xi Jinping

Just months into Xi Jinping’s tenure as Chinese Communist Party leader, one thing has become eminently clear – in both style and substance, Xi Jinping is different.

Xi has cut a more affable and caring figure in his public appearances. These changing optics have been accompanied by new rules that prohibit “empty rhetoric” at official meetings, and bans on floral arrangements, red carpet, or grand receptions during state inspection tours. Netizen reaction has been positive. Some might dismiss this as a trivial shift in personality with little consequence for Chinese governance.

But Xi’s innovation is not his charisma per se. He is distinctive in that he is the first Chinese Party head to truly understand that authoritarian politicians have something to learn from their democratic counterparts. Western politicians may get flak for perceptions of pandering or placing electoral viability ahead of common interest, but one thing at which democratic politicians unquestionably do better is connecting and empathizing with ordinary people.

Of course it remains to be seen whether Xi will be able to capitalize on his favourable persona. It will require more than popular support to defeat the many entrenched interests that stand in the way of genuine reform. But Xi the politician is off to a promising start, and if he succeeds, he may be only the first of a new generation of Chinese leaders who can speak directly – and compassionately – to the people they govern.



Could you or should you be on this list? What have you done and what are you doing to be inspirational? What even makes someone inspirational?

I’ve come up with a few thoughts based upon my experiences, and also from some of the people who have inspired me:

1. Love what you do – if you’re passionate about something, and express that passion in your communication about it, it can be contagious, people will listen and be more likely buy-in to your vision.

2. Listen – How often do you truly listen to someone when they’re talking to you? Is there a little voice in your head dismissing something someone is saying before they’ve finished their sentence; or you’re too busy preparing your response before the other person has even uttered 3 words; or you think you know what the other person is really feeling and you switch off. Of course you don’t do that…or do you? Some remarkable people listen very closely to every word and truly get the understanding of what you say and what you don’t say…the latter often being more important.

3. Genuinely care about other people – when you are genuinely interested in others and care about what they do and what they have to say, you get the best out of them.

4. Lead by example – If you’re trying to engage people in a vision of anything that needs to last – you have to truly live and breathe your own message. You can destroy any Vision by not living the Values that underpin that vision. I’m sure I don’t need to mention any high-profile examples of where this has destroyed people’s’ careers and philosophies.

5. Don’t try to be something you’re not – Most people want to be a success at something – as a parent, as a friend, as a spouse, in their career – maybe all of those things. Truly inspirational people (certainly those that I know and certainly many on this list), don’t compromise their own beliefs trying to be what people think they should be on their path to success. They are genuine to who they are and to their personal values

6. Have an unwavering vision  and rrelentless focus in achieving it – I would say that this is common denominator for every single person on this A to Z. Decide what you want to achieve in life and focus every single day on achieving it!


Zig ZiglarZig Ziglar

Zig Ziglar, who has died aged 86 in 2012, was an American “motivational philosopher” famous for his “Success Rallies” at which he brought his audiences such gems as, “Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street”; “The person who won’t stand for something will fall for anything” and “The inspiration of today can be drowned out by the traffic jams of tomorrow”.

After service in the US Navy towards the end of the Second World War, Ziglar attended the University of South Carolina, but dropped out to work as a door-to-door kitchenware salesman. He struggled to begin with, but one day met a company executive who told him he could be the national sales champion if only he believed in himself and set himself goals.

Soon Ziglar began winning sales awards, and eventually he became the company’s youngest divisional supervisor. As he was promoted through the ranks, he began giving motivational talks at church and Rotary Club meetings and later held sales training demonstrations for kitchenware sales teams. In 1968 he moved to Dallas to work as the vice-president of a car accessories company. When the firm went bankrupt two years later he started his own company.

Ziglar lived a very devout life; devout to multiple concepts essential to happiness and prosperity. He itemised these concepts, put them into practice, and succeeded with them.  Afterwards, he spent the entirety of his life sharing these life changing concepts to the world. He dedicated everything to passing this wisdom on. Ziglar embodied the professional salesman.



Andy Murray

I didn’t want to tempt fate by adding this person in under ‘A’ on this A to Z for obvious reasons!

Andy Murray, on the 7th day of the 7th month 2013, 77 years after the last British person to do so, became Wimbledon Men’s Champion beating Novak Djokovic in 3 sets. Anyone, from any country, who watched this historic match can’t deny what a tremendous feat of strength, determination, passion and belief this man from Dunblane in Scotland displayed.

Murray has now done the equivalent of the ‘4 minute mile’ for British tennis. I predict that the impetus that Murray will bring to the sport now that he has smashed the false ceiling that a British person was unable to become champion will be enormous.

Murray, in a recent interview, prior to his win, said:

“The difference between top tennis players and guys that are just below, it’s mental strength and belief … the ability to deal with pressure … that’s what separates the best players … I haven’t thought about finishing my career without having won a Grand Slam because I believe I will do it and that’s what I’m working towards … I just got to keep believing and working hard.”

Final words…

Many of the people on this A to Z of Inspirational People are western, predominantly from the UK or the USA. I am very conscious of this as only 50% of Think Oak! readers are from these two countries. This is not through prejudice, but just a personal view of people who have inspired me. I would love to hear from people across the globe as to who their inspirations are and why.

So, that’s the end of this A to Z of Inspirational People – A long one I know, but hopefully you’ll agree very fitting people for the list. You will, I’m sure, have many other names that you would like to add to your list. I know I have, and much closer to home. People that inspired me as I grew up, at home, at school, at scouts, at university and at work and outside of work and I hope these people know who they are, because I certainly wouldn’t have had the life-experiences that I’ve had without them.

Until next time….

A to Z of Inspirational People – Part 3

A to Z Inspirational People - Part 3

Welcome to Part 3 of this A to Z of Inspirational People. If you missed Part 1 including; Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, David Attenborough and Guy Kawasaki,  please click here. If you missed Part 2 including; Hilary Clinton, J.K. Rowling, Kelly Holmes, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page, please click here.


MahatmaGandhiMahatma Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948k) – Known as ‘Mahatma’ (great soul), Gandhi was the leader of the Indian nationalist movement against British rule, and is widely considered the father of his country. His doctrine of non-violent protest to achieve political and social progress has been hugely influential.

He studied law in London, England, but in 1893 went to South Africa, where he spent 20 years opposing discriminatory legislation against Indians. As a pioneer of Satyagraha, or resistance through mass non-violent civil disobedience, he became one of the major political and spiritual leaders of his time.

In 1914, Gandhi returned to India, where he supported the Home Rule movement, and became leader of the Indian National Congress, advocating a policy of non-violent non-co-operation to achieve independence. His goal was to help poor farmers and laborers protest oppressive taxation and discrimination. He struggled to alleviate poverty, liberate women and put an end to caste discrimination, with the ultimate objective being self-rule for India.

Following his civil disobedience campaign, he was jailed for conspiracy for 6 years. In 1930, he led a landmark 320 km/200 mi march to the sea to collect salt in symbolic defiance of the government monopoly. In 1946, he negotiated with the Cabinet Mission which recommended the new constitutional structure. After independence (1947), he tried to stop the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bengal, a policy which led to his assassination in Delhi by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fanatic. Gandhi was a true leader who inspired millions with his vision, his charisma and his beliefs.

Below are three quotes by Gandhi, that I certainly try to live by:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
“A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks he becomes.”
“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was born, 1910, in Skopje, capital of the Republic of Macedonia. Little is known about her early life, but at a young age she felt a calling to be a nun and serve through helping the poor. At the age of 18 she was given permission to join a group of nuns in Ireland. After a few months of training, with the Sisters of Loreto, she was then given permission to travel to India. She took her formal religious vows in 1931, and chose to be named after St Therese of Lisieux – the patron saint of missionaries.

On her arrival in India, she began by working as a teacher, however the widespread poverty of Calcutta made a deep impression on her; and this led to her starting a new order called “The Missionaries of Charity”. The primary objective of this mission was to look after people, who nobody else was prepared to look after.

For many years, Mother Teresa and a small band of fellow nuns survived on minimal income and food, often having to beg for funds. But, slowly her efforts with the poorest were noted and appreciated by the local community and Indian politicians.

In 1952, she opened her first home for the dying, which allowed people to die with dignity. Mother Teresa often spent time with those who were dying. Some have criticised the lack of proper medical attention, and refusal to give painkillers. But, others say that it afforded many neglected people the opportunity to die knowing someone cared.

Over time the work grew. Missions were started overseas, and by 2013, there are 700 missions operating in over 130 countries. The scope of their work also expanded to include orphanages, and hospices for those with terminal illness.

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.” She didn’t attend the ceremonial banquet, but asked that the $192,000 fund be given to the poor.

In later years, she was more active in western developed countries. She commented that though the west was materially prosperous, there was often a spiritual poverty.

Following Mother Teresa’s death, 1997, the Vatican began the process of beatification, which is the second step on the way to canonisation and sainthood. Mother Teresa was formally beatified in October 2003 by Pope John Paul II and is now known as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. An inspiring woman who gave selflessly all her life.

Mohammed Ali

Muhammad Ali is one of the most famous boxers of all time. From the very beginning, he took his training seriously. He trained six days a week. On schooldays, he woke early in the morning so that he could go running and then would go workout at the gym in the evening. When the local gym closed at 8 pm, Ali would then go train at another boxing gym. Concerned about what he put in his body, Ali stayed away from junk food, alcohol, and cigarettes so that he could be the best boxer in the world. His conversion to Islam and draft evasion conviction surrounded him with controversy and even exile from boxing for three years. Despite the hiatus, his quick reflexes and strong punches helped Muhammad Ali become the first person in history to win the heavyweight champion title three times. At the lighting ceremony at the 1996 Olympics, Muhammad Ali showed the world his strength and determination in dealing with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s syndrome.

“Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements. I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.”

Despite the progression of his disease, Ali remains active in public life. He embodies the true meaning of a champion with his tireless dedication to the causes he believes in. He was on hand to celebrate the inauguration of the first African-American president in January 2009 when Barack Obama was sworn-in, something he thought he would never see.

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr was one of America’s most influential civil rights activists. His passionate, but non-violent protests, helped to raise awareness of racial inequalities in America, leading to significant political change. Martin Luther King was also an eloquent orator who captured the imagination and hearts of people, whatever their colour or religion.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood” – Martin Luther King

This immortal speech is still quoted verbatim today, taught in schools and inspires people young and old, from all over the world to believe in dreams. I’ve even tailored it and used it for some of my projects! You can watch a video of the full speech here.


Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, in South Africa. Becoming actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s, Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies.

In 1961, Mandela, who was formerly committed to nonviolent protest, began to believe that armed struggle was the only way to achieve change and subsequently co-founded an armed offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage and guerrilla war tactics to end apartheid. In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers’ strike and was arrested for leading the strike the following year and sentenced to five years in prison. Then, in 1963, he was brought to trial again. This time, he and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis and, as a black political prisoner, received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers. However, while incarcerated, Mandela was able to earn a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program.

Upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela immediately urged foreign powers not to reduce their pressure on the South African government for constitutional reform. While he stated that he was committed to working toward peace, he declared that the ANC’s armed struggle would continue until the black majority received the right to vote.

In 1991, Mandela was elected president of the African National Congress, with lifelong friend and colleague Oliver Tambo serving as national chairperson. Mandela continued to negotiate with President F.W. de Klerk toward the country’s first multiracial elections. White South Africans were willing to share power, but many black South Africans wanted a complete transfer of power. Mandela had to keep a delicate balance of political pressure and intense negotiations amid the demonstrations and armed resistance.

In 1993, Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country’s apartheid system. In 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president. In 2009, Mandela’s birthday (July 18) was declared Mandela Day to promote global peace and celebrate the South African leader’s legacy.

As I write this post, Mandela lays in a hospital bed in a serious condition, with his 95th birthday a month away.

Neil Armstrong + 400,000

I wasn’t alive when Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the surface of the moon in July 1969, but I have read about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Space programs and visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA.

That ‘one step for man’ represented the work of over 400,000 people, over a decade, spending in excess of $100bn to get there…and more importantly back.

It is famously said that in 1969, during one of the press briefings in the NASA command centre in Houston, Texas, the reporters were waiting for the NASA officials when they noticed a janitor with a broom. A reporter asked the janitor what his job at NASA was. The janitor replied – “I help put a man on the moon”.

In fact, it was President Kennedy, who set the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of 1960s, in his address to the joint sessions of congress in May 25th, 1961. “In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon – if we make this judgement affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there,” Kennedy said.

The power of 400,000 allowed Neil Armstrong to be the first man on the moon. That’s inspirational!

Napoleon Hill

An early proponent of positive thinking, Napoleon Hill was a bestselling author, an advisor to presidents, a motivational speaker and, to this day, an inspiration to millions.

Andrew Carnegie inspired Hill’s life work by challenging him to write up a formula for personal success based on interviews with some of the great innovators of the time; not only himself but also Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he advised from 1933 to 1936.

Hill developed the Philosophy of Achievement, which he published in 1928 as The Law of Success, a wildly popular multi-volume set. One of the most inspiring stories in Hill’s life was his own son’s. Blair was born without external ears; doctors feared that he would be deaf and mute for his entire life. Hill, of course, refused to accept this negative diagnosis. “The outlook was far from encouraging,” he wrote, “but desire backed by faith knows no such word as impossible.”

Through a positive mental attitude and a burning desire that his child hear, Hill set about helping Blair, who himself never doubted that he would hear and speak. Eventually, having acquired limited hearing with the help of a phonograph, his family’s persistence and compassionate teachers, Blair found an electronic device that allowed him to hear—and decided to make it his life’s work to help other deaf people.

In 1937, Hill published his most famous work, Think and Grow Rich, which remains one of the leading books on personal motivation and self-help to this day, and if you haven’t read it, do so!

Hill continued publishing books for the next three decades until his death at age 87 in 1970. He also shared his philosophies as a teacher, lecturer and motivational speaker. A true inspiration to many millions of us around the world.


oprahOprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is a self-made CEO worth about $2.7 billion. By most accounts, she’s the greatest black philanthropist in American history and the most influential woman in the world.

What you may not know:

Sexually abused at 9; Ran away from home at 13; pregnant at 14 and son subsequently died shortly after birth; Beauty queen at 17; abused drugs in her 20s; first black American woman on National T.V in America and Millionaire at 32.

In 1984 she got her dream job: hosting a show called ‘AM Chicago’. Under her watch, it went from last to first in the ratings. Two years later, the program was being syndicated nationally as ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’.

That’s when Oprah made the decision that transformed her from an entertainer to an entrepreneur with a salary of $290 million a year.

Today Winfrey is “arguably the world’s most powerful woman” by CNN and, “arguably the most influential woman in the world” by the American Spectator, “one of the 100 people who most influenced the 20th Century” and “one of the most influential people” of 2004 – 2011 by Time.


Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) is one of the most well-known and prolific artists of all time, painting over 20,000 pieces in his lifetime. Starting from a young age he always had immense artistic talent, so much so that his father, also an artist, put down his paintbrush and declared he’d never paint again. Picasso is probably most famous for co-founding the Cubist movement with Georges Braque, but the great thing about Picasso is that within his immense body of work, he developed so many different painting styles while still keeping his own distinctive voice – you know a Picasso when you see one.

“Whenever I wanted to say something, I said it the way I believed I should,” he explained. “Different themes inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress; it is a matter of following the idea one wants to express and the way in which one wants to express it.”


Queen Elizabeth II

I don’t think it’s because I’m British that I am inspired by Queen Elizabeth II. I’m pretty sure that if I was American, Indian, Canadian, Australian or from the Phillipines, I would have the same view.

Throughout numerous periods of great change in Britain and the World, the Queen successfully carried her political duties as head of state, her role as head of the Commonwealth, the ceremonial responsibilities of the sovereign and a large annual programme of visits in the UK, as well as many foreign tours.

The Queen also introduced numerous reforms to the monarchy. In 1992, she offered to start paying income and capital gains tax. She opened her official residencies to the public – including Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle – in order to finance their maintenance. She supported ending the rule of male primogeniture, which now means the eldest child can succeed to the throne, regardless of gender. She also supported lifting the ban on anyone in the line of succession marrying a Catholic.

The Queen introduced more informal engagements and visits, and the ‘walkabout’ – the meeting and greeting of large numbers of the public.

Whilst I haven’t met the Queen, I was privileged to be invited to one of her garden parties at Buckingham Palace a few years ago, and I’m amazed at her poise, her ability to talk to anyone and to put them at ease. She has faced some tough times and probably made a couple of wrong turns along the way, but who hasn’t? I’m inspired that after over 60 years of rule and at an age of 87 at the time of writing, she continues to perform her duties and stated anew in 2012 that she would dedicate herself anew to the service of the UK and the Commonwealth.


Randy Pausch

I hadn’t heard of Randy Pausch until last year, when I read the book – The Last Lecture, and subsequently watched the lecture itself on YouTube.

Randy Pausch was a professor of Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon University. From 1988 to 1997, he taught at the University of Virginia. He was an award-winning teacher and researcher, and worked with Adobe, Google, Electronic Arts (EA), and Walt Disney Imagineering, and pioneered the non-profit Alice project. (Alice is an innovative 3-D environment that teaches programming to young people via storytelling and interactive game-playing.) He also co-founded The Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon with Don Marinelli.

In September 2007, he stepped in front of an audience of 400 people at Carnegie Mellon University to deliver a last lecture called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” With slides of his CT scans beaming out to the audience, Randy told his audience about the cancer that is devouring his pancreas and that will claim his life in a matter of months. On the stage that day, Randy was youthful, energetic, handsome, often cheerfully, darkly funny. He seemed invincible. But this was a brief moment, as he himself acknowledged.

Randy’s lecture has become a phenomenon, as has the book he wrote based on the same principles, celebrating the dreams we all strive to make realities. Sadly, Randy lost his battle to pancreatic cancer on July 25th, 2008, but his legacy will continue to inspire us all, for generations to come.

Robert Baden PowellRobert Baden-Powell

My one claim to fame is that I’m actually distantly related to this person. He was my great grandfather’s cousin.

Lord Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941) was a decorated soldier, talented artist, actor and free-thinker. Best known during his military career for his spirited defence of the small South African township of Mafeking during the Boer War, he is more famous across the globe today founding the Scouting Movement.

For generations of young men and women, scouting and the girl guides has had a profoundly positive impact on their lives, mine included – teaching skills such as map-reading, mountain climbing, camping, cooking, survival skills, leadership, humility and friendship. Scouting has had a ‘profile’ problem for a while, but Bear Grylls, the current Chief Scout, is doing a pretty good job of turning that around – with TV audiences of 1.6bn people globally watching his expedition exploits.

I’ve attached an excerpt from his last note to the scouting movement before his death in 1941. Maybe you’ll understand from this, why he’s on the list:

‘Happiness doesn’t come from being rich, nor merely from being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so you can enjoy life when you are a man.

Nature study will show you how full of beautiful and wonderful things God has made the world for you to enjoy. Be contented with what you have got and make the best of it. Look on the bright side of things instead of the gloomy one.

But the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best. “Be Prepared” in this way, to live happy and to die happy’

You may be surprised to hear that there are at least 12 people on this list that were scouts or girl guides, namely:- Anita Roddick, Queen Elizabeth II, Kelly Holmes, J.K Rowling, Mohammed Ali, David Attenborough, Richard Branson, Ben Saunders, Neil Armstrong, John F Kennedy, David Beckham and Bill Gates.

Roger Bannister

Sir Roger Bannister, CBE (born in 1929) is an English former athlete best known for running the first mile in less than 4 minutes.

In the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Bannister set a British record in the 1500 metres, but did not win the medal he expected. This humiliation strengthened his resolve to be the first 4-minute miler.

This was finally achieved on May 6th 1954 at Iffley Road Track in Oxford, with Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher providing the pacing. When the announcer declared “The time was three…”, the cheers of the crowd drowned-out the details of the result, which was 3 min 59.4 sec.

Bannister’s record only lasted 46 days. More notable was that he had reached this goal with so little training, while practising as a junior doctor.

Bannister went on to become a distinguished neurologist and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, before retiring in 1993. When asked whether the 4-minute mile was his proudest achievement, he said he felt prouder of his contribution to academic medicine through research into the responses of the nervous system.

What inspires me about Roger Bannister is his belief. The belief, despite the common ‘truth’ that it wasn’t humanly possible to do a 4 minute mile, that he would be the man to do it. Once he showed the world that it was possible, many more people broke the barrier. Since 1954 the mile record has been lowered by 17 seconds and even beaten by people in their 40’s. Hope for me yet!

Richard Branson

Richard Branson is no ordinary person. Whether you are starting out as an entrepreneur or you are a seasoned business person like Larry Page founder of Google, Branson has something to offer for everyone. Figurehead of 150 or so enterprises that carry the Virgin name, with a personal wealth estimated at nearly $3 billion and his own island, he has followed a personal dream of making the most of his life. He still holds the record as fastest to cross the Atlantic ocean by boat. He still hopes to be first to circle the globe in a balloon.

He has no giant corporate office or staff and few if any board meetings. Instead, he keeps each enterprise small and relies on his magic touch of empowering people’s ideas to fuel success. When a flight attendant approached him with her vision of a wedding business, Richard told her to go do it. He even put on a wedding dress himself to help launch the publicity!

“It all comes down to people,” he remarks in an interview with David Sheff of Forbes. “Nothing else even comes close.” He writes to them all, all 5,000 Virgin employees, a chatty letter once a month from his paper notebook, and invites them to write to him or call him with their problems, ideas and dreams. They do…and new Virgin successes are born.

I hope you enjoyed part 3 of this A to Z. Part 4 – the final post, coming soon!

A to Z of Inspirational People – Part 2

A to Z Inspirational People - Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of this A to Z of Inspirational People. People inspire me in so many different ways; whether that be through significant breakthroughs in technology, advancement in science, progression of thought or overcoming adversity to succeed. Hopefully this A to Z series will make you think about who inspires you and why.

If you missed Part 1, including; Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, David Attenborough and Florence Nightingale,  please click here.


guy-kawasaki-apeGuy Kawasaki

As one of the Apple employees responsible for marketing the Macintosh computer in 1984, Kawasaki had a first-hand experience with the value of getting in on the ground floor of new ideas. Soon he would bring his evangelism for the Apple brand to the high-tech business world. He is the co-founder of, “an online magazine rack,” and Garage Technology Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm. A writer, speaker, and consultant, Kawasaki has also become a high-tech marketing guru. He has authored numerous books including: Reality Check, The Art of the Start, Rules for Revolutionaries, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy, Selling the Dream, The Macintosh Way and Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions – my personal favourite.

His latest book is APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How to Publish a Book.

Kawasaki is a social media giant and has inspired me to engage, listen and grow my network, sharing insight and good news. He’s one of the reasons I started Think Oak! and started writing my first book.

“Do not write to impress others. Authors who write to impress people have difficulty remaining true to themselves. A better path is to write what pleases you and pray that there are others like you. Your first and most important reader is you. If you write a book that pleases you, at least you know one person will like it.”
― Guy Kawasaki


henry-ford-1919-smallHenry Ford

Henry Ford is a name that is respected all around the world. He is known for many reasons but most commonly for his founding of the Ford Motor Company in 1903. For over 100 years Ford Motor Company has been one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world. The impact that Ford had on the car industry was more than significant. But the car industry is not the only industry that Ford’s innovative thinking touched. His ideas for the assembly line and mass production of inexpensive goods had an effect on a plethora of production industries around the world. His accomplishments should be considered incredible by anyone’s standards.

On top of his obvious contributions to the car industry, Henry Ford helped to make huge advances in engineering of wood products, such as particle / chip board, helped to develop corn as a fuel source, such as ethanol, and helped develop potential uses for cotton. Ford also paved the way for millions of people to grill their food by being an instrumental in developing charcoal briquettes, under the brand Kingsford. On top of these advances, he also made contributions to sociology with studies, inspirational references and writings. His inventions touched, and continues to touch millions of people, all around the world and shape the way that both fuels and the way that we travel.

The best quality that can be seen in Henry Ford’s life is the fact that he never lost sight of his morals, even when faced with criticism. Even in his wealth he remained humble and respected others. He treated people well, especially his workers. His workers were paid more than double of what workers at similar jobs were being paid during that time period.

My favourite Henry Ford quotes:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

“Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” 

“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goals.” 

Hilary Clinton

An advocate for children’s rights and welfare, she became an indispensable champion of gender equality both at work and at home, and a staunch defender of reproductive rights. It is no coincidence that her tenure as First Lady coincided with the passage of key policies for American women and children. In 1995 her declaration that “it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights,” at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, electrified the world. Her run for the president of the United States made the prospect of a woman as commander-in-chief seem not only possible, but inevitable. And in her tenure as secretary of state she has proven that she doesn’t mind ruffling a few feathers, speaking out forcefully on women’s rights. In her long and truly remarkable career, Clinton has been a role model to millions, an indispensable voice, and one of the most relentless advocates for women worldwide. In a recent speech in Toronto, Clinton said electing a woman president “would send exactly the right historic signal to girls, women as well as boys and men. And I will certainly vote for the right woman to be president.”

Hillary Clinton has been an inescapable American public figure for more than 20 years now – First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State. In her whirlwind final year as secretary of state, Clinton became one of the most popular politicians in America and she is increasingly celebrated as a class act who has managed to reinvent herself from losing presidential aspirant to world-class problem solver. At 65, she still seems to have the passion and the energy to make a difference!


isambard-kingdom-brunelIsambard Kingdom Brunel

One of the great British engineers of the 19th century Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) built twenty-five railways lines, over a hundred bridges, including five suspension bridges, eight pier and dock systems, three ships and a pre-fabricated army field hospital. He was the only son of French civil engineer Sir Marc Brunel and under his father’s guidance Isambard was fluent in French and had a command over the basics of engineering by the age of eight.

Brunel’s international engineering status was established by his work on the Great Western Railway (GWR) linking Bristol and London. At the age of 27 he was appointed GWR’s chief engineer. And his achievements included viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, the Box Tunnel and Bristol’s Temple Meads Station. Not content with railways the far-sighted Brunel persuaded the company which backed the Great Western Railway to consider trans-Atlantic travel. The Great Steamship Company was established, allowing Brunel to build a steam ship to cross from Bristol to New York. At 236 feet long the Great Western was the largest steamship of its time. She made her first voyage in 1838. The journey took 15 days and was the first of more than 60 crossings made over the next eight years. Brunel’s next steamship quickly overshadowed her older sister. At the time of the SS Great Britain’s launch in 1843 she was the largest ship in the world. She was also the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, iron-hulled steam ship – a truly revolutionary vessel and fore-runner of all modern shipping.

A celebrated engineer in his era, Brunel remains revered today, as evidenced by numerous monuments to him across the UK.

Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton contributed significantly to the field of science over his lifetime. He invented calculus and provided a clear understanding of optics. Born in England in1642, Isaac Newton attended Trinity College in Cambridge. While there, he took interest in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy.

His most famous work came with the publication of his “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), generally called Principia. In it, he determined the three laws of motion for the universe. Newton then went on to calculate the universal law of gravity. These laws helped scientists understand more about the motions of planets in the solar system, and of the moon around Earth.

His surviving writings and letters reveal a person with tremendous powers of concentration, the ability to stand long periods of intense mental strain, and the ability to remain free of distractions.  In changing from pursuit of answers to the question “Why?” to focus upon “What?” and “How?,” he prepared the way for the age of technology.


JFK John F KennedyJohn F Kennedy

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, is one of the most celebrated and idolised figures in American history and across the globe. Born into a wealthy, well-connected family, Kennedy was bred for a life in politics. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II—JFK earned several medals for his bravery—he ran for Congress and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946. Kennedy served in Congress for fourteen years—six in the House and eight in the Senate—and built a real name for himself in the Democratic Party. Kennedy launched a presidential campaign in 1959 defeating Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in decades. Though his presidency was characterized by a mixed bag of blunders (the Bay of Pigs), successes (the Cuban Missile Crisis), and indiscretions (affairs with numerous women), Kennedy’s charisma was a constant and his vision of American progress was undeniably inspiring. Although John F. Kennedy’s tenure as commander-in-chief was tragically short—only two years and ten months passed between his inauguration and his assassination in 1963—and his accomplishments in the White House relatively modest, he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential presidents of all time.

As the youngest person ever to be elected president, he charmed the nation with his charisma, injecting new energy into the federal government at a turning point in U.S. history. Kennedy ushered in the 1960s, a decade of great activism and social change, with an idealistic message of empowerment: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Through his actions and speeches, Kennedy captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation of young people, urging them to participate in civic life, engage with the world, and fight for equality. Even though his presidency did not yield a wealth of concrete political accomplishments, his legacy in American politics has been profound. By issuing a mandate for public service and inspiring a nation to take on all the challenges of a new era, JFK helped set the stage for the major social, cultural, and political changes of the past half century.

This is my favourite JFK quote:

‘We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.’

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas

Jeff Bezos

If you didn’t know, Jeff Bezos is the Founder and CEO of Amazon, one of my favourite brands.

Bezos is the ultimate disruptor: He has upended the book industry and displaced electronics merchants. Now Amazon is pushing into everything from fashion retailing and feature-film production to iPad-worthy tablet manufacturing with the Kindle. Amazon even sells ultra-cheap database software for businesses.  He’s willing to take risks and lose money, yet investors have embraced him, pushing Amazon’s share price up and up. And even as Amazon expands and experiments, Bezos remains zealous about delivering a good customer experience.

“We innovate by starting with the customer and working backwards,” he says. “That becomes the touchstone for how we invent.” Pushing the publishing industry to make books available electronically was a customer-friendly proposition: Readers got instant gratification at lower prices. Amazon Prime, the company’s popular all-you-can-eat delivery offering, eliminates friction; if you’ve already paid for unlimited shipping, then you order what you want, when you want, in the quantities you want. Amazon Web Services, the company’s newest big division, offers business customers the same sophisticated online infrastructure technology that Amazon has developed for itself.

Bezos is also willing to cannibalise his own companies: Amazon spent nearly $1 billion to acquire shoe retailer Zappos in 2009, but its Amazon shoe site competes directly with Zappos. As well, Bezos is adept both at changing the subject to one of his choosing and at crafting a reality that suits his purposes. Asked if Amazon’s price-comparison app, launched during last Christmas’s shopping season to the intense irritation of physical retailers, was a gentlemanly thing to do, Bezos responds, “I would broaden that to say we live in a world that is becoming more and more transparent.”

Amazon also tolerates businesses under its roof that are unconnected to one another. Amazon Web Services, for example, has nothing in common with Kindles, and that’s just fine with Bezos. He allows each to operate independently as long as they adhere to Amazon’s overall values. He calls this “distributed innovation,” and it contributes to a nimble corporate mindset that allows Amazon to branch out into new areas.
A strong strain of pragmatism, or practicality, runs through Bezos’s decision-making. Sure, he has his credos, and he cites them frequently. “The three big ideas at Amazon are long-term thinking, customer obsession, and a willingness to invent,” he says. A great mantra for any business, I would suggest!

J.K. Rowling

A phenomenon of magic and wizardry was ignited when J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels were published. Although not an obvious choice for this A to Z for many, she certainly is an inspiration to me. Rowling has been a best-selling author, generating huge interest from a global audience. Furthermore, J.K. Rowling herself has been an inspiration to many people alongside her magnificent talent for writing. With her charitable spirit and courageous personality I feel that J .K. Rowling is a worthy candidate for this A to Z.

Rowling lived quite a traumatic life, losing her mother to multiple sclerosis at a young age. She graduated from the University of Exeter and in 1990 she immigrated to Portugal, where she taught English. It was at this stage in her life that she became romantically involved, marrying a Portuguese journalist, Jorge Arantes, and having a daughter in 1993. Unfortunately, this marriage was not very long-lasting and resulted in a divorce. Rowling and her daughter, Jessica, moved back to Scotland.

As with many authors, she had to overcome the difficulties of publishing her first book. In 1999, a small, low-key publisher offered to publish the book, unaware of the exceptional success that would become of this fictional tale. She went from ‘rags to riches’ in under five years! The reaction to the books really exploded just before the release of the fourth book; ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,’ in 2000. This was noted as the fastest selling book in history at the time. She has now sold over half a billion books! Movies, merchandising, video games and a theme park followed. Rowling was involved heavily in all of them, vetoing ideas that were not true to the Harry Potter brand.

In October 2010, J. K. Rowling was named ‘Most Influential Woman in Britain’. She has become a notable philanthropist, supporting such charities as Comic Relief, One Parent Families, Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain, and the Children’s High Level Group.


ken-blanchardKen Blanchard

Ken Blanchard (born in 1939) is an American author and management expert. His book The One Minute Manager (co-authored with Spencer Johnson) has sold over 13 million copies and has been translated into 37 languages. Blanchard is the “chief spiritual officer” of The Ken Blanchard Companies, an international management training and consulting firm that he and his wife, Marjorie Blanchard, cofounded in 1979 in San Diego, California. In addition to being a renowned speaker and consultant, Ken Blanchard also spends time as a visiting lecturer at his alma mater, Cornell University, where he is a trustee emeritus of the Board of Trustees. Born in New Jersey and raised in New York, Ken Blanchard received a Master’s degree from Colgate University, and a Bachelor’s and PhD from Cornell University.

Few people have influenced the day-to-day management of people and companies more than Ken Blanchard. A prominent, sought-after author, speaker, and business consultant, Dr. Blanchard is universally characterized by his friends, colleagues, and clients as one of the most insightful, powerful, and compassionate individuals in business today. Ken is one of the most influential leadership experts in the world and is respected for his years of ground-breaking work in the fields of leadership and management.

Blanchard has inspired me, probably more than any other author. He has written over 40 books, my favourite ones being; Gung Ho! Turn On the People in Any OrganizationFull Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision in Your Company and Your LifeRaving Fans a Revolutionary Approach to Customer ServiceLeading at a Higher Level: Blanchard on Leadership and Creating High Performing Organizations and Whale Done! : The Power of Positive Relationships 

I have given a copy of ‘Gung Ho’ to every manager that has worked for me and if you haven’t read it, you must!

Kelly Holmes

The Athens Olympic Games was the pinnacle of a long international athletics career for Dame Kelly Holmes. Her Double Olympic Gold triumph changed her life forever and fulfilled her second childhood dream of becoming an Olympic Champion.

Her first dream was joining the British Army which she realised at the age of 17; Kelly turned her back on an early athletics career to forge a successful military career and become a Training Instructor in the British Army. She was later recognised for her services to the Military when she received her MBE after almost ten years’ service. However, she was decided to return to the track in 1992.

The build-up to the Athens Olympic Games was the first year in seven, that Kelly wasn’t injured and she made the brave decision to double up in the 800m and 1500m, and the rest is history. She finished her illustrious career with twelve major championship medals from the Olympics, Worlds, Commonwealth Games and Europeans.

As well as her athletics achievements, she ranks one of the proudest moments of her life as receiving her Damehood from the Queen in March 2005. Since retiring from international athletics, Kelly has started a new chapter in her life in the business world; establishing her own company Double Gold and her charity the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust. She has also been active in raising the profile of school sport up the political agenda. Kelly became National School Sport Champion in 2006 for three years and pioneered the creation of National School Sport Week. She also led the creation of Girls Active set up with the Youth Sports Trust to capture the interest of disengaged female teenagers.

She also fulfils speaking engagements to the corporate industry sharing her stories of overcoming adversity, setbacks and desperation to finally achieve her lifelong dreams. In her limited spare time, Kelly devotes time to supporting her chosen charities the Laureus Sports Foundation, Hospice in the Weald and Sport Relief, alongside her own charity.


Larry Page GoogleLarry Page

Google has become as much as a part of our culture as it has a leading site for finding information. It’s even become a verb – I google, you google, they google! Offered in multiple languages, Google – and its products and services – has become a part of our every day lives. Google has expanded dramatically since it was founded in 1998. What is now a multi-billion dollar company, with thousands of workers and offices, originally began in a very different place: a dorm room with just two employees. One of these staff members was Larry Page.

With a love of computers that began at age six, Larry Page went on to develop his passion and talent at The University of Michigan, where he graduated with honours and a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Larry then went on to the ph.D. program in computer science at Stanford University, where he met future business partner Sergey Brin.

Since co-founding Google in 1998, Larry Page has won numerous honours and awards, including being named a World Economic Forum Global Leader for Tomorrow. Page was also awarded the Marconi Prize in 2004 – an annual award recognizing advancements in communications. Page moved into his role as President of Products in April 2001 and continues to run the company along with partners Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt.

Page has never swayed from his desire to provide us easy access to all of the world’s information. His belief in the power of the internet to deliver information instantaneously has led him to a high status on the Forbes Richest American’s list – a $15 billion dollar status to be exact.

As a co-founder of one of the most famous brands on the planet, Larry Page has become an inspiring entrepreneur who has helped his business to grow from a dorm room business run by two students to the multi-billion company it has come to be today.

Leonardo da Vinci

The fame of Da Vinci’s (1452 -1519) surviving paintings has meant that he has been regarded primarily as an artist, but the thousands of surviving pages of his notebooks reveal the most eclectic and brilliant of minds. He wrote and drew on subjects including geology, anatomy (which he studied in order to paint the human form more accurately), flight, gravity and optics, often flitting from subject to subject on a single page, and writing in left-handed mirror script. He ‘invented’ the bicycle, airplane, helicopter, and parachute some 500 years ahead of their time.

If all this work had been published in an intelligible form, da Vinci’s place as a pioneering scientist would have been beyond dispute. Yet his true genius was not as a scientist or an artist, but as a combination of the two: an ‘artist-engineer’. His painting was scientific, based on a deep understanding of the workings of the human body and the physics of light and shade. His science was expressed through art, and his drawings and diagrams show what he meant, and how he understood the world to work. I’ll leave you with 3 of my favourite Da Vinci quotes:

“It has long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

“There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.”

“Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.”

I hope you enjoyed part 2 of this A to Z. If you missed Part 1, click here. Part 3 coming soon!

A to Z of Inspirational People – Part 1

A to Z Inspirational People - Part 1

I’m in the middle of reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography – Total Recall, and it’s a great read from a truly driven, focussed, and like him or not, hugely successful athlete, actor, politician and business person.

I got to thinking about other well-known people who have inspired me and what we can all learn from them, so I’ve pulled together a four-part  A to Z of people who are truly inspirational to me, but also to many others. But what makes someone inspirational? There is no single, clear way to make every person feel inspired, because we are all different and are inspired by different things. I’m inspired by many things; Nature, Music, Books, Art, Love, Passion, Compassion, Humour, Ideas, Innovation, Ambition and Business. That probably comes across in the following list!


albert-einsteinAlbert Einstein

Without us realising it, we encounter Albert Einstein in different fields of everyday life. The GPS system in our cars that guides us safely through the traffic. Our purchases in the supermarket are registered by a scanner cash register. And we took our latest holiday snaps using our new digital camera.

Even if Einstein himself did not write his most important essays for practical use or personal profit, his abstract thoughts on light, space and time have led to many technological innovations which appear to us today to be quite normal. Whether it be a music player, a television set or a modern computer, these new inventions are often based on one of Albert Einstein’s theories.

Einstein was also a great thinker and I’ve listed a couple of my favourite quotes from him below:

‘He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice.’

‘Many of the things you can count, don’t count. Many of the things you can’t count, really count.’

Amy Johnson

Born in Hull, my home city, in 1903, Amy Johnson transcended the contemporary conventions of gender, class and education to become a true pioneer in a man’s world at the time. Through a combination of brains, hard work and sheer determination, she earned her pilot’s licence and became the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930. She subsequently completed many path breaking flights such as England to Tokyo via Siberia and England to New York. Her bravery in making unaided flights made her famous and a role model for women pilots at a time when very few women learned to fly, let alone made arduous trips across continents.

Her life came to a tragic end in January 1941, when she mysteriously baled out of her plane into the icy waters of the Thames Estuary. There is still some mystery about the accident leading to her death, as the exact reason for the flight is still a government secret and there is some evidence that besides Johnson and co-pilot,  a third person was also seen in the water and also drowned. Who the third-party was is still unknown. Johnson was the first member of the Air Transport Auxiliary to die in service.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger on my list? Is he the best actor in the world? No. Is he the best politician or the best entrepreneur? Possibly not. Has he done some stupid things? Absolutely. What he does have, however, is Self-belief, Goals and Relentless Focus. 3 Guiding principles of Think Oak!

Schwarzenegger set himself a goal of being the best body builder the world had ever seen. He succeeded. He set himself the goal of moving to America and being in movies. He succeeded. And he set himself the goal of becoming Governor of California and he succeeded, twice and without any of these things, he’s a self-made millionaire from his real estate and other businesses started long before he became a famous actor.

Through tireless focus, training, education, networking and sheer determination he has achieved everything he’s set out to do. Not bad for a man born in war-torn Austria in the ‘40’s, with few prospects.

Anita Roddick

For me, Dame Anita Roddick was one of the first women CEO’s that I’d heard of. She was the founder of The Body Shop, one of the world’s most successful retailers of cosmetics and related products. She was also known as one of the most outspoken social activists in the business world. The Body Shop still adheres to the core values laid out by Roddick, who sadly died in 2007. Today The Body Shop has over 1,980 stores and more than 77 million customers in 50 different markets serving customers in over 25 different languages. Its success put Roddick’s net worth at more than $200 million. In 2006, the company became an independently managed subsidiary of the L’Oréal Group.

From the outset, The Body Shop had a reputation for supporting social and environmental causes, thanks to Roddick’s strong personal sense of social responsibility. After stepping down in 2002 from co-chairman, she spent 80 days of the year working as a consultant in her stores and used the rest her time to advance causes in campaigns against human rights abuses and exploitation of the underprivileged.

In addition to her extensive travels and speaking engagements, Roddick was one of the first celebrity entrepreneurs to take to blogging with a passion. Her site,, includes extensive commentary from Roddick on activism, politics, women and entrepreneurship.

For me, Roddick proves that you can be yourself in business and be successful. You don’t need to be a chameleon and you don’t need to change your personal values.


Ben Saunders

ben saundersMany people may not know who Ben Saunders is. Ben Saunders is the third in history to ski solo to the North Pole and holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton.

He is currently preparing to lead a two-man team to Antarctica, setting out to make the first return journey to the South Pole on foot. At 1,800 miles and four months, the Scott Expedition will be the longest unsupported polar journey in history and the first completion of Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting Ben, listening to his story, his experiences and sharing our passion of the outdoors.

To achieve what he has achieved takes a special kind of person. To have complete focus on a goal, a trust in your own abilities and the ability to build and trust the team of people who will help you achieve your goal.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates is known across the planet as the co-founder of Microsoft and hugely successful business person. His accomplishments are well documented in hundreds of blogs, books, articles and TV programmes that I don’t need to mention or replicate.

What inspires me about Bill Gates was his ability to predict the evolution of the home and business computer into the next generation at the right time, adapt to the internet effectively (albeit a little late!) and drive shrewd business decisions that would dominate the IT world for more than a generation. Microsoft may not have the excitement and innovation that it once had or a huge fan base like Apple, but millions, if not billions of people across the globe have benefited from its software.

More recently Bill Gates has focussed his energies on giving back to the world. Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. The foundation employs over 1000 people and had given over $26bn in grants since its inception. Now that’s inspiring!

Bob Geldof

Lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, Bob Geldof KBE (Knight of the British Empire) is synonymous with the idea of using famous people, particularly musicians, to raise awareness and funds for the plight of desperate and hungry people in Africa and other affected parts of the world.

In 1984, moved by images of young children in Africa dying of starvation, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure united a “supergroup” of British musicians and singers which recorded the single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. It became the fastest selling single in UK history and raised over £8 million worldwide in funds for emergency aid to Ethiopia. Since then he has dedicated his life’s work to hunger relief.

In 1985, building on the momentum of Band Aid, he organised the Live Aid concerts held in London and Philadelphia. In 2005 he organized the Live 8 concerts to launch Make Poverty History. Speaking on the events, he said; “These concerts are the start point for The Long Walk To Justice, the one way we can all make our voices heard in unison. This is without doubt a moment in history where ordinary people can grasp the chance to achieve something truly monumental and demand from the 8 world leaders at G8 an end to poverty.”

Fearless in questioning and challenging world leaders, Bob Geldof’s voice is both an inspiration and a threat to anyone who thinks the global issues of poverty and hunger need not or cannot be tackled.


Charles Darwin

charles-darwinCharles Robert Darwin was an English naturalist whose revolutionary theory laid the foundation for both the modern theory of evolution and the principle of common descent by proposing natural selection as a mechanism. He published this proposal in 1859 in the book The Origin of Species, which remains his most famous work. A worldwide sea voyage aboard HMS Beagle and observations on the Galapagos Islands in particular provided inspiration and much of the data on which he based his theory.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution based upon natural selection changed the thinking of countless fields of study from biology to anthropology. His work was extremely controversial by the time he published it and many during his time didn’t take it seriously. Darwin’s theory of evolution was a significant blow to creationism and notions of intelligent design prevalent among 19th century Europe.

Having the courage of his convictions, Darwin published his works at great personal risk to his credibility.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”


David Beckham

In a way, I felt slightly fraudulent by having Beckham on this list. Until my two sons started playing football I had never watched a football match in my life. Obviously, I knew who David Beckham was, and knew that he was a great footballer and that he was married to a Spice Girl, but he’d certainly never inspired me in any way.

But in a number of ways, that has changed. Over the last few years, I’ve seen the inspiration that he has given a generation of youngsters to train hard and go for their dreams. I’ve seen a family man, who loves his country, be an ambassador for sport for UNICEF, one of the biggest personal brands on the planet with nearly 28 million Facebook followers, and built a huge personal fortune through his personal football salary and endorsements.

Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso)

The Dalai Lama is a man of peace. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. He has consistently advocated policies of non-violence, even in the face of extreme aggression. He also became the first Nobel Laureate to be recognized for his concern for global environmental problems.

The Dalai Lama has travelled to more than 67 countries spanning 6 continents. He has received over 150 awards, honorary doctorates and prizes in recognition of his message of peace, non-violence, inter-religious understanding, universal responsibility and compassion.  He has also authored or co-authored more than 110 books.

He has held dialogues with heads of different religions and participated in many events promoting inter-religious harmony and understanding.

Since the mid-1980’s, the Dalai Lama has begun a dialogue with modern scientists, mainly in the fields of psychology, neurobiology, quantum physics and cosmology. This has led to a historic collaboration between Buddhist monks and world-renowned scientists in trying to help individuals achieve peace of mind. This has also led to the introduction of modern science in the traditional curriculum of Tibetan monastic institutions re-established in exile.

Three of my favourite quotations from this inspirational man follow:

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

“With realisation of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world.”

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

Daniel Day-Lewis

daniel-day-lewisDaniel Day-Lewis is one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, his work has earned him numerous awards, including three Academy Awards for Best Actor, for his portrayals of Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989), Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007), and Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012), a feat which makes him to date the only male actor in history to garner three wins in the lead actor category. Day-Lewis has also won four BAFTA Awards for Best Actor, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards to name a few!

Despite his traditional acting training, he is considered to be a method actor, known for his constant devotion to and research of his roles. He often remains completely in character for the duration of the shooting schedules of his films, even to the point of adversely affecting his health. He is known as being one of the most selective actors in the film industry, having starred in only five films since 1998, with as many as five years between each role.

In a western world filled with people wanting to be famous and not wanting to work for it, Day-Lewis is an inspiration to those who respect hard work for their ‘art’ and not seeking fame for its own sake.

David Attenborough

For those of you that are regular visitors to my other blog Life Spirit, you’ll know of my love of nature. One person, probably above all others, has been a constant inspiration for that passion is Sir David Attenborough.

The scope of Attenborough’s work now spans 6 decades! So what can we learn from this inspirational person?

When Sir David narrates his documentaries, his passion for the animal kingdom is obvious. His love for anything with fur, feathers, fins or flippers and bringing fantastic footage of them into our homes has sustained his career for decades.  His enthusiastic tone makes his one of the most recognisable voices in the world.

One of the great legacies of Attenborough’s work is the increased exposure to the importance of protecting our environment.

“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”

There is little doubt that many eyes have been opened to the plight of the environment and many endangered species as a result of his documentaries.  The way that he has brought animals into our homes has not just entertained and educated us, but given us an incentive to take action to protect them.

Sir David Attenborough is a genuinely inspirational person whom I have learned a great deal from over the years.  Not only about the marvellous creatures that we share this planet with, but about doing work that you’re passionate about, making a difference and the fact that there’s no use-by date on greatness.


Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler is a Tony Award winning Playwright, performer, and activist, is the author of The Vagina Monologues, translated into over 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries, including sold-out runs at both Off-Broadway’s Westside Theater and on London’s West End  and has been running for 11 years in Mexico City and Paris.

Ensler’s experiences have inspired her to create V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls. She has devoted her life to stopping violence, envisioning a planet in which women and girls will be free to thrive.

Today, V-Day is a global activist movement that supports anti-violence organizations throughout the world, helping them to continue and expand their core work on the ground, while drawing public attention to the larger fight to stop worldwide violence against women and girls. V-Day exists for no other reason than to stop violence against women. In twelve years, the V-Day movement has raised over $80 million.


Freddie Mercury

Freddie_85Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 on the island of Zanzibar off the west coast of Africa. He grew to be the lead singer of one of the biggest selling bands globally of all time with over 300 million album sales – Queen.

Bohemian Rhapsody, written by Mercury, is thought by many people across the globe as being the best ever song written and is also considered by many to be the very first true music video created purely for promotion of a single. Freddie Mercury, both with Queen and with his solo work, was a pioneer of rock’s video revolution.

Mercury was an idol to his fans, a consummate front-man, a rallying figure for those seeking the express themselves through his music, a rock star to the world and one of the true British cultural icons of the 20th century alongside the likes of David Bowie and John Lennon.

Following his death, Mercury’s band mates founded the Mercury Phoenix Trust to raise awareness of AIDs and fight the virus across the world in his name.

Queen’s legendary performance at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid in 1985 remains the most enduring and recognisable image of Freddie Mercury. The manner in which he dominated the stage and the stadium, leading 72,000 people and no doubt many of the 2 billion tuning in on television through the band’s set, including one was ultimately public vocal warm up, created what is unquestionably one of the greatest moments in rock history.

I was privileged to have been in the audience of Queen’s last ever concert in 1986 and to this day is the best ever concert I have ever witnessed.

Freddie inspires people even today through his music and Queen’s anthems are played at sporting and other events across the globe more than 20 years after Mercury’s death.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale carried out pioneering work during the Crimean War (1853-1856) to improve the care of sick and wounded soldiers. She introduced women nurses into military hospitals, set up kitchens to provide suitable diets for the sick, provided recreational facilities for convalescents and improved the distribution of supplies.

These principles became the basis for the way the Red Cross worked in later wars.

One of Florence Nightingale’s greatest achievements was to raise nursing to the level of a respectable profession for women. In 1877 the War Office decided to increase the number of women nurses employed in military hospitals after perseverance by Florence Nightingale in the face of official opposition.

Florence Nightingale is a true inspiration. She was a real leader, not only of nurses but of women, at a time when many things were almost impossible for women. She managed to get many changes by using statistics. She was one of the first people to use pie charts, to demonstrate simply that more soldiers in the Crimea were dying from infection than from their wounds. She was able to work on a broader canvas and we need that kind of inspiration for nurses today, about understanding the impact of people’s lifestyle and emotions, as well as their physical needs.

I hope you enjoyed part  1 of this A to Z. Part 2 here!

A to Z of Project Management

Think Oak!, Mark Conway, Project Management

Most business leaders are acutely aware of the dynamic nature of the business and economic environment and more so today than ever before. Every organisation big or small has to take into account priority, time, resource allocation, scope and budget of each project within their organisation. It is only if these factors are well managed with consistent project management processes, that business will  thrive and get good results. So, to effectively meet the dynamic nature of projects, great project management is a must in business. Delivering a quality service or product is seen as the mandatory obligation for business survival.

In this A to Z of Project Management, I’d like to focus on some of the more critical areas of focus for Project Managers and those working on complex projects.

A – Acceptance Criteria

Acceptance criteria are the specific set of conditions that must be met before a project has been considered completed and the project deliverables can be accepted by the customer, be they internal or external. Normally the acceptance criteria should be outlined in specific detail and signed-off before work on the project has commenced to ensure that all parties are in agreement.

Acceptance criteria are typically used on projects where the customer is paying for specific deliverables or for the completion phases in a project.

You should ensure that the acceptance criteria that are developed, are appropriate to the deliverables, are binary (either acceptable or not acceptable), are measurable, and tied to payments (whenever appropriate). Customers are refuse the sign-off on the deliverables for two legitimate reasons; either the project results have not met their needs, or they themselves were not clear about their needs. By working towards a clearly defined set of acceptance criteria before you start working on your deliverables, you will be protecting yourself, your project team, and your organisation.

B – Business Case / Benefits Realisation

Before the Project: The purpose of the business case is to outline the rationale for undertaking a project, and to define the parameters and management factors involved in the project itself such as time, quality, cost, resources, materials, benefits and timelines. It provides the project manager with a tool to guide the design, management and evaluation of the project.

The business case serves three purposes: it provides the project manager the opportunity to think through the project in a systematic, step-by-step manner; explains why the project should be undertaken; and provides a framework for completion of the project on time and on budget.

During the project: The business case should be updated to reflect actual costs incurred and any changes to forecast costs and benefits. This information can be used by the Project Board to assess whether the project remains viable and to take decisions accordingly.

At project closure: The updated business case should be handed over to whoever is going to take long-term responsibility for delivering the benefits.

Benefits realisation stage: The business case will be used as the baseline against which to measure achievement of the actual benefits and to inform any resulting decision-making. A Benefits Realisation Plan produced during the end of the project should be used to establish what each benefit should be, the units it should be measured in, the optimum timing for measurement, the method of measurement and responsibilities for realisation and measurement.

C – Critical Path Activities and Analysis

Critical path activities are the project tasks that must start and finish on time to ensure that the project ends on schedule. A delay in any critical path activity will delay completion of the project, unless the project plan can be adjusted so that successor tasks finish more quickly than planned.

D – Delivery Success

Delivery success has got to be the number one goal for a Project Manager. Below are 3 key areas that I believe are the keys to delivery success (apart from you being a fantastic project manager, of course!)

1. Comprehensive Planning

Comprehensive planning sets up a project for success from the start. All stakeholders should be on board during the planning process and always know in which direction the project is going to go. Planning can help the team to meet deadlines and stay organised. Good planning not only keeps the project team focused and on track, but also keeps stakeholders aware of project progress.

This first step in the project process allows for a reliable and realistic time-scale to be created. Assuring accurate time for cost estimates to be produced and for clear documentation of milestones and deliverables will make things much easier as the project progresses. A proficient plan details all resource requirements and doubles as a warning system. If task slippage is at risk, then a warning system will provide clear visibility of what to expect.

Use the best planning tools possible to help you and utilise lessons learned from previous projects to help you avoid those common pitfalls in planning

2. The Right People

Without the right team in place, any strategy and plan has the potential of completely falling apart. Because of this, the core project team, expert resources, suppliers and key stakeholders should be part of the team from the outset. All of those involved must have commitment to the group, share similar visions for the projects and strive for overall success.

Project managers can face serious trouble if inadequacy is present within the team. Inept leadership or an out-of-sync team can send a project towards failure. It is important to assign the right people to each aspect of the project and make sure that they are working well together. Additionally, the entire team should be completely informed and involved in order to have the most successful outcome, which means that communication has to be a key priority.

3. Communication

Keeping open communication within the team is absolutely essential. When working under a specific timetable, it is important that the team remains well-informed. If a problem arises on one part of a project, it can negatively impact other parts as well. Communication should also be focused internally within the organisation. Listening to stakeholders and paying attention is a very important ingredient for success.

Good communication also includes knowing when to say no. A project team should never promise anything they know they can’t deliver. Saying no in the beginning could save unnecessary problems later. Always be honest about what your team can do and when it can be done by.

It is the project manager’s job to ensure that everything runs smoothly on a project, but having a great project manager doesn’t guarantee a successful project outcome. The entire team paying attention to key factors is what will help lead the project to true success. This success will then lead to proactive, organized project plans and an increase in quality of all future projects.

E – Executive Support

The importance of obtaining executive management support for business critical or customer projects cannot be underestimated as the executive sponsor is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the project.

In numerous studies it has been identified that:

  • The most successful projects have quality executive sponsors with expert vision and  prompt responsiveness
  • Projects with inspirational executive management support outperform projects that lack inspiration
  • Visionary executive sponsors who enlighten their team have a higher rate of success.
  • Strong and decisive executive sponsors increase the rate of project success
  • Teams that have small and large accomplishments celebrated by executive management continue to meet and exceed project expectations
  • Most failed projects lack quality executive support.
  • Non-responsive or mediocre executive support increases the chances that a project will experience overruns or failure.
  • Assigning project accountability to executive management substantially increases the chance of a successful outcome.

F – Finances

Step 1: Understand and check your budget

The first step towards managing your project finances is to understand the budget you are working to. Don’t necessarily accept the budget to be 100% accurate. I would always advise a thorough review. You need to forecast the total amount of people, equipment, materials and other expenses, needed to deliver the project. You then need to work out when in the project plan, these expenses will take place. By doing this, you can get a picture of your “project cashflow” which tells you the amount of money you need for every week in the project. Hopefully the budget will match the forecast. If not, you’ll need to escalate to your sponsor quickly and before you commence the project in earnest.

Step 2: Contingency

Understand what level of contingency budget you have to work with, if any. This is additional funding that can be used to deliver your project, if you need it. Few Project Managers actually do this in advance, but if you have almost completed a major deliverable and you suddenly run out of money, then that contingency funding might “make or break” the project. You are always in a better position to get contingency funding before you need it, rather than asking for more cash when you’ve already overspent.

Step 3: Tracking

The next step after setting your budget and securing contingency funding is to start tracking your daily spend on the project. You need to track every expense that occurs. Ask your team to notify you of any expenses incurred.

Step 4: Realignment

If you anticipate that you will start spending more than your budget, you have 3 options available to help you stay within budget:

  1. Re-forecast your expenses and present a new budget to your Sponsor for approval.
  2. Start reducing costs immediately. This means spending less to get the same job done. Or alternatively, see if your Sponsor will agree to a reduced scope, so that you have less to produce for them.
  3. Start using your backup funding to get you through the crux of the project.

Step 5: Cashflow Management

Make sure you always have enough funds available to cover your spending over the months ahead. Cashflow management is about managing the cash needed to deliver your project. So, on longer projects, ensure your Sponsor has approved the next 1-2 months of work ahead of time, and that the funds needed to manage the project have been made available. Then track the spending of that funding every week.

G – Governance

All projects involve decision-making and stakeholder relationship management at different points in the project life-cycle and at a variety of different levels. Governance provides the framework for such decision-making. The project governance arrangements must be designed during Project Start-up and will usually be a tailored blend of the basic requirements mandated by your organisation and any specific arrangements to meet the needs of a particular project. The tailoring will depend on such things as predicted benefits, cost, urgency, complexity, risk and type/quantity of stakeholders.

Project Governance provides a framework within which to manage and should cover:

  • Initial and continuing justification of the project
  • Setting up an appropriate management organisation
  • Establishing a framework for decision-making (roles/responsibilities/authorities)
  • Ensuring sufficiently thorough plans are prepared and updated as necessary
  • Implementing a stakeholder management strategy
  • Putting in place a quality management strategy
  • Setting up and operating a project monitoring and control regime
  • Managing uncertainties (threats and opportunities)
  • Managing problems and changes

H – Highlights / Lowlights and Other Reporting

Every project manager understands the importance of project reporting. Throughout all phases of the project, specific information needs to be communicated to the sponsors and key stakeholders. In a typical project, the milestones for reporting are determined in the beginning, or initiation phase, of the project. These reporting timeframes and expectations are located in the project initiation document. Clear communication is critical and will make the project manager’s job easier, as well as help the project succeed.

Project management reports can come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, good and bad.  A good project management report can set a team apart and provide valuable information to sponsors.

Regardless of the project, at least one project management report must be submitted regularly by the project manager. Often-times these reports can be as simple as updates on how the project is going, since many upper-management personnel are not interested in the details of a project. They are strictly interested in knowing that the project is on schedule and on budget and can often be a simple Highlights / Lowlights report.

At other times, they’re more detailed, involving usually six key metrics: meeting scheduled deadlines, cost, use of resources, scope changes, quality control and taking action. Most of your reports will fall into the latter group. But, they will probably all come in different formats.

Your audience is particularly important when writing a project management report. Some people will want more information; some may want less. You may have a large audience or a smaller one. Sometimes the people who are reading the reports have different technical abilities and levels of knowledge. In such cases, you should gear your writing for a wider audience. There will also be different requirements for when project reports are due therefore, it is good to get this information beforehand.

Most customers and managers are not interested in narratives and prefer reports to be around one page long. Many project management reports are simply yes and no answers with brief descriptions. You will have questions like the following: “Did the project start on time?” “Is it on budget?” or, “Are there any issues that have arisen?” As stated, when approached with these type of situations, the person receiving the information is only looking for short answers in addition to the yes or no response.

I – Initiation Document

Have you ever been part of a project where not everyone has the same view of where the project is heading? This lack of clarity can breed confusion: People start pulling in different directions, building up unrealistic expectations, and harboring unnecessary worries and fears. While it’s normal as part of a project to put the detailed plans, controls and reporting mechanisms into place, how do you get everyone on the same page to start with?

This is accomplished by creating a Project Initiation Document (PID) – the top-level project planning document. In it, you bring together all of the information needed to get your project started, and communicate that key information to the project’s stakeholders. With a well-put-together Project Initiation Document, you can let everyone understand where the project’s heading from the outset.

Your Project Initiation Document does the following:

  • Defines your project and its scope.
  • Justifies your project.
  • Secures funding for the project, if necessary.
  • Defines the roles and responsibilities of project participants.
  • Gives people the information they need to be productive and effective right from the start.

By creating a PID, you’ll answer the questions: What? Why? Who? How? When?

J – Juggling Priorities

In today’s work environments where multitasking between numerous tasks is the standard, resources often tend to over-commit by multitasking. When a resource multitasks, all tasks will take longer than if they were done one by one. If a resource works concurrently on two tasks of 5 workdays, chances are he or she will take more than 10 workdays to complete both tasks due to the effort required to “change gears”. Furthermore, the resource will most likely meet its local objectives by doing the easiest task first and the most difficult tasks last. Not always the smart thing to do!

In most organisations, when the project objectives are in jeopardy, functional managers will reassign their resources to have them prioritise their tasks in accordance with project objectives. Shorter project lead times and multitasking explain why resources working for their best interests constantly have to switch to working for the best interests of the project.

K – Kick-off Meeting

The initial stages of a project can make all the difference to its overall success, so the kick-off meeting needs proper planning and consideration.

There are four key principles for good kick-off meetings:


Productive kick-off meetings require good preparation, and your aim is to find the best ways to generate ideas and gather opinions from your attendees. In fact, don’t see it as a meeting at all – see it as a workshop. Design various exercises which guide your team members through the key questions and problems relating to the project. But keep your agenda flexible. Depending on the content that is generated, the discussions and the mood of the room, you might need to change things around on the day to keep the creativity going.


You might be inclined to only invite the key decision-makers to your kick-off meeting, but you’ll limit your project’s potential if you only hear the views from the top. A true collaborative approach is to bring in everyone who will be involved – from strategy to delivery – to shape the project. They’ll contribute valuable insight from their position, as well as getting a clearer idea of the bigger picture for their own knowledge. The exercises you design will be to ensure that everyone has a chance to provide their views.


One aim of the kick-off is to build the team’s energy and motivation around the project, and another is to make it practical. In her post “How to Increase Group IQ“, Annie Murphy Paul, wrote how the most effective teams discuss how they’re going to work together as well as what they’re going to do. Allocating some time to ask people to reflect on what works well (and not) in collaboration will help them to set up better working relationships.

Attendees will also need to come away with a clear idea of what’s happening next and their involvement in this. Ideally, rather than just distributing the meeting’s minutes, the raw notes will be analysed and developed into a document that the team can work from.


An effective kick-off meeting will be a highly collaborative experience and good facilitation makes the difference to this. Your role on the day is to encourage contributions from everyone and guide the meeting/workshop without getting involved in the ideas generation yourself. If you think this will be difficult because you are too close to the project, think about using another facilitator. You’ll need to listen and reflect back key points, organise ideas and identify themes on the spot, find out attendees’ motivations for being involved and develop this into common goals.

Bearing these four principles in mind, a few small changes to your project kick-off can make a huge difference.

L – Lessons Learned

Everything learned from previous projects, whether they were successes or failures can teach a project manager, and people working in project teams, important lessons. Individual project managers usually do learn from their own previous experiences, but are these “lessons learned” shared with others within the project team or within the same organisation? If they are shared, do other project managers apply the lessons to their own projects?

Capturing lessons learned from projects is key for any organisation. Unfortunately, project teams are usually moved quickly from project to project and capturing lessons learned is never a priority. To ensure efficiencies over time and development of best practices, it is essential to capture lessons learned on your projects.

In looking at lessons learned, many times we find things like – should have had a better schedule, or better budgeting, or more communications, spent more time on requirements, etc. All of these things relate to how we do the work, not what we work on. Talking about how things get done or working on how things get done does not, in and of itself, get anything done. This is one of the reasons so many people hate planning – planning is not doing and we all like doing.

M – Milestones & Inch Pebbles

Milestones are events within a project plan that marks the completion of a group of tasks with significance to some other group inside or outside the project. Milestones are often represented in planning tools as a project task without a duration.

Milestones are associated with key deliverables. Crucially the achievement of the milestone must represent “confirmation that the deliverable is fit for purpose”. Many projects allow milestone achievement to be recognised at publication of an unverified (not checked to ensure the development process was followed faithfully) and unvalidated deliverable (i.e.not checked to ensure completeness and accuracy). The value of project planning and tracking is severely undermined if milestone recognition is faulty.

Inch-pebbles are the smaller steps towards a milestone that assist the project manager in assessing if milestone achievement is progressing to plan. Inch-pebbles represent concrete steps (no pun intended) towards deliverables, for example requirements interviews completed or first draft document published.

N – Name and Shame Process

Unfortunately, in today’s climate of doing more with less, project members are often not full-time on a project and they often have very busy ‘day jobs’ as well as the tasks to deliver on your project. Even the best project managers sometimes struggle to use their powers of persuasion to get members of their project to deliver their tasks on time. In my career, I’ve always tried to advocate the 3 strikes process.

Strike 1 – the first occasion of non-delivery

You as the Project Manager have a discussion with the non-performing team member and emphasise the importance of the project, the strategic value and importance to the organisation, and the impact, financial or otherwise that the lack of activity has or will cause the project. Get agreement with the team member on remedial action and put a communication agreement in place, so that if there is a future risk of non-delivery or forced changes in their priorities, you will be informed well in advance of the deadline that there is a problem, so that you might be able to do something about it.

Strike 2 – the second occasion of non-delivery

Assuming that the second instance of non-delivery is a ‘surprise’ and you hadn’t been made aware of a potential slip, then a conversation with the individual and their manager is appropriate. A discussion around communication, priorities and future delivery needs to ensue.  An agreement with the team member and their manager should be reached on meeting project deadlines, and implications spelt out. The sponsor of the project should also be made aware.

Strike 3 – the third occasion of non-delivery

At this point you may have some difficult choices to make, and depending on the priority of the project within the business and the severity of the impact, you will need to consider replacing the individual with someone internally or externally (potentially at a higher cost) and delaying project delivery, which may incur further cost and other impacts such as new revenues, reputation damage or both.

O – Operational Acceptance Testing

Whether internal or external it is critical that the end to end processes for operational teams on the receiving end of a project launch have been tested and documented and that the resources involved within these processes have been fully trained and have signed off on any changes to ways of working.

Depending on the complexity and sensitivity of your project to the ongoing operations of your organisation or customer you may require a significant period of testing or parallel running to ensure that the ‘customer’ is comfortable to go fully live. All of these tests and acceptance criteria will of course have been fully agreed, well in advance of the testing taking place!

P – Planning

Fail to Plan, then Plan to Fail as the saying goes!

A Project Plan can comprise many elements, depending upon the project type, scope, technology, resources and other key project parameters.

In truth, the delivery plan should only be produced once the full scope of the project has been agreed. In some environments, this should be formally approved by the appropriate authority Sponsor / Project Board. It must also be examined rigorously from the perspective of risk . Key strategic project decisions are the most important we make on projects, and have the maximum capacity to influence risk, both positively and negatively. An example could include the partners or suppliers involved on the project – always a potential for risk.

As a minimum, a project plan should contain an analysed project schedule, a resource plan that is driven by the schedule (i.e. changes to the schedule are automatically reflected in the resulting resource plan). These elements are often referred to as the first principles of project management – sadly, these first principles are too often overlooked. The output of this phase should contain or in a sense summarise the results of all planning decisions, including risk mitigation and planning. Ideally it should also be based upon estimates that do not rely upon single point estimates of time and effort alone. Such approaches typically produce a plan that has limited probability of being achieved – something that is often refered to as the ‘happy path’….which often leads to a road of misery for Project Managers and the Project Team!

Planning must include the identification of risks to any aspect of the delivery process or the planned benefits – these can be commercial, organisational, political or any other type of risk – there are often many risks outside of those that relate to the technical aspects of the project. It is typically as sign of weakness of risk management if the only risks that have been identified are technical. Risk mitigation strategies and actions should then be developed and incorporated (integrated) into the mainstream plan.

The plan must also contain relevant processes and activities to assure that all quality targets of the projects are achieved. Again, in many circumstances this will result in an important work stream in itself.

Together, all the work streams or statements of work collectively define the scope of work of the project. In many environments this will be managed via formal change control.

The plan should be formally reviewed by all core team members and relevant stakeholders, for completeness and validity. This is then published and often referred to as the baseline plan.

The best plans also build in sensitivities, based upon those risks identified, so that a worst case, especially from a time and cost perspective can be recognised and mitigated.

Q – Quality, Cost, Time

The three most common primary objectives in project management are lowest cost, highest quality and shortest time. Very often the gain in one of these objectives needs a compromise in the other.

Time is the available time to deliver the project, cost represents the amount of money or resources available and quality represents the fit-to-purpose that the project must achieve to be a success.  The normal situation is that one of these factors is fixed and the other two will vary in inverse proportion to each other. For example time is often fixed and the quality of the end product will depend on the cost or resources available. Similarly if you are working to a fixed level of quality then the cost of the project will largely be dependent upon the time available (if you have longer you can do it with fewer people).
The astute reader will be wondering what happens when two of the points are fixed. This is when it really gets interesting. Normally this occurs when costs are fixed and there is a definite deadline for delivery, an all too familiar set of circumstances. Then, if the scope starts to creep you are left with only one choice – cut functionality. This more common than you might think, in fact its more common than not!

Top tip – The Sponsor / Board should ALWAYS be involved in formal changes to any of the ‘Holy Trinity’ – This is not a Project Manager decision to make.


RAID is an acronym which should be at the forefront of your mind if you are a project manager. RAID stands for Risks, Assumptions, Issues, and Dependencies.


A risk is any specific event which might occur and thus have a negative impact on your project. Each risk will have an associated probability of occurrence along with an impact on your project if it does materialise. An example of a risk might be that a change in legislation could mean you will have to redo some of your project and this will impact the schedule by x and cost y. As project manager it is your responsibility to ensure a Risk Management Process is undertaken, managing and mitigating risks, along with ensuring risks are routinely and effectively communicated with your stakeholders.


An assumption is something we set as true to enable us to proceed with our project or program. Typically this happens during the planning and estimation phase of the project. As an example of an assumption, during the early planning phase we might assume that we have access to skilled engineers throughout the entire duration of the project. By making this assumption it enables us to produce our plan. If this assumption turns out to be false then the project is negatively impacted. Because assumptions can turn out to be false and impact your project adversely, it is your responsibility as project manager to monitor and manage all assumptions so minimal impact to the project occurs.


An issue is anything which arises on your project which you have to deal with in order to ensure your project runs smoothly. Issues differ from risks in that they exist as a problem today, unlike risks which might turn into issues in the future. An example of an issue might be that a key project resource has left the business and it may take a number of weeks to bring in a replacement resource.


A dependency exists when an output from one piece of work or project is needed as mandatory input for another project or piece of work. An example of a dependency in a building project might be that the architectural diagrams need to be complete before the foundations can be laid. Managing inter-dependencies is critical to ensuring projects, regardless of their size, run smoothly. As project and program managers it is your responsibility to record, monitor, and manage these dependencies.

S – Scope

The primary purpose of project scope management is to ensure that all the required work and only the required work is performed to complete the project successfully. This is accomplished by defining and controlling what is included in the project and what is not.

To define a project scope, you must first identify the following things:

  • Project objectives
  • Goals
  • Milestones
  • Tasks
  • Resources
  • Budget
  • Schedule

Once you’ve established these things, you’ll then need to clarify the limitations or parameters of the project and clearly identify any aspects that are not to be included. In specifying what will and will not be included, the project scope must make clear to the stakeholders, senior management and team members involved, what product or service will be delivered.

T – Testing & Training

In my experience these are the two areas of a project that get squeezed following any quality, cost or time compromises. They are also the two areas of a project that, if not carried out effectively or at all, will cause a project to fail or to be delayed. These two areas need to be as rigorously planned upfront as any other part of the project and any contingency built into the overall plan.


There are so many different types of testing that it would be difficult to come up with a comprehensive list. Additionally, each type of testing typically has a number of variants that have been developed based on the team creating the testing strategy. However, the most common types of testing used by a majority of projects are:

Unit Testing – refers to the testing of individual software components as they are completed. This type of testing is typically completed by the development team.

Integration Testing – refers to the testing of components as they are combined or integrated together. This ensures that each component that has been tested on its own operates correctly when it is used in conjunction with the other components that it is designed to interact with. This is particularly important for client/server and service oriented architecture systems.

User Acceptance Testing – refers to testing that is performed by the user or end customer of the system or process as a condition of approval. User Acceptance Testing is where the user/customer ensures that the final application or product meets the agreed upon requirements. This is also why traceability of requirements throughout the entire Analysis, Development, and Testing life-cycle is so important.

Functional Testing – refers to testing the features and behaviour of an application to ensure that it coincides with the functional software specifications provided. This type of testing is also referred to as black box testing because it completely ignores the internal workings of the program and focuses only on the outputs as a result of the specified inputs and execution steps.

Usability Testing – refers to testing the ease in which users can learn the application, as well as the users’ efficiency and productivity while using the application.

Performance Testing – refers to testing performed to evaluate whether the system, product or process meets the documented performance requirements. Performance Testing ensures that the system, product or process will support a specified number of users / activities while still maintaining specific service level agreements (SLAs). This type of Performance Testing is also called Load Testing. Additionally, during Performance Testing, often it will be required to test the limits and determine the maximum number of concurrent users that can be supported before the system fails. This is referred to as Stress Testing.

Regression Testing – refers to testing a portion of the application that has previously been tested following a modification to ensure that the original functionality still works and behaves per the specification. While Regression Testing really just means to go back and re-test, it typically refers to Functional Testing.


Depending on the project you are managing, you may need a significant amount of training for end users, particularly if the project is introducing new software, systems, hardware or significant changes to working processes.

Whilst it is advisable to employ training professionals as part of your team, as a Project Manager you still need to ensure that the training is carried out effectively, in a timely manner and that this is signed off by the client.

Top Tips:

  1. Plan your training effort up-front, ideally as part of the business case. Know who needs to be trained, to what level and what skill levels are required to carry out the training.
  2. Tailor the training. Know your audiences and ensure that the training is pertinent to their role and department in the organisation. One size doesn’t fit all.
  3. Create Super-users. By investing extra time with a number of ‘Subject Matter Experts’ within the client or team, you can reduce the amount of in-life support you will have to cope with, as the majority of user error can be dealt with ‘in-house.

U – Understand Your Scope, Your Budget, Your Timelines, Your Team & Your Customer

As a project manager, if you can have a deep understanding of these 5 areas, you’ll be well on the way to delivering successful projects. An unwavering focus on Time, Quality and Cost, tied with a great working relationship with your teams and your customer will ensure that you keep on top of any risks and issues to your project.

V – Virtual Teams

Virtual teams are increasingly prevalent in today’s world, and a great deal of high quality information exists on how to work effectively as a team. As well as the economies that can be achieved from virtual teams, this style of project offers great potential for harnessing talent from many locations. Managing a virtual project team can be richly rewarding, and requires many of the same core competencies as managing a co-located team, with the added element of being highly sensitive to communication styles and ensuring appropriate styles are used depending on the occasion.

Watch out for future posts on virtual team working.

W – Waterfall and Agile Projects

Waterfall Project Management

Project managers traditionally identify a number of steps to complete a project, which typically must be completed sequentially. In traditional project management there are typically four stages:

  • Requirements
  • Planning & design
  • Implementation
  • Completion

Not all projects will include every stage, but most projects include elements of these stages, sometimes repeatedly as one activity relies on the completion of the last. Most complicated projects require many more stages than this, which could include:

  • Conception
  • Initiation
  • Analysis
  • Design
  • Construction
  • Testing
  • Production/Implementation
  • Verification
  • Maintenance

It’s called the waterfall method because tasks are completed sequentially..

It is widely accepted that the waterfall development model works well for small, well-design projects but can fall short in bigger, less well-defined projects that may change over time. The waterfall model originates in manufacturing and construction, where project are well-defined and after-the-fact changes are extremely costly and often impossible. It was when this model was applied to software development that its unresponsive nature became a flaw.

Agile Project Management

The agile project management model, or flexible product development approach, and is most commonly used in software, website, creative and marketing industries. In this approach project managers see a project as a series of small tasks defined and completed as the project demands, in a responsive and adaptive manner, rather than as a pre-planned process.

Agile project management’s flexible and interactive characteristics are highly relevant to the industry where it was created – software development. It’s thought that this technique is best used on small projects, or projects that are too complex for a client to understand before testing prototypes. It’s also highly appropriate for teams of professionals who work together on a daily basis. It’s much less likely to be an appropriate methodology for teams that are based in geographically disparate locations/time zones, where it probably makes more sense to implement the waterfall method.

Choosing between models can be difficult, so if you’re struggling with this question, ask yourself the following questions;

How stable are the requirements?
If the requirement of a project are likely to keep changing, its best to use iterative approaches such as agile, as it provides a framework in which new requirements can be accommodated once the project is underway. Using waterfall methods is like playing snakes and ladders; you can move forward but you can end up back at the start if the brief changes.

Are project teams working closely together?

If project teams are located far apart, coordination of work needs to be relatively detailed to avoid confusion and wasted time. In this instance Waterfall is likely to be the most appropriate method, offering clear deliverables and project milestones and dependencies. Working closely together with close communication is a key part of the agile approach, which changes and is molded each day by customer requirements.

What are the critical resources?

When projects require unique, specialist skills or equipment and these resources are not immediately available, good planning is required. If this is costly or difficult to organise, it’s important to ensure that the resource is fully utilised during its scheduled usage. For this Waterfall is a better approach, as each milestone must be completed before the project can proceed to the next stage. This will help to ensure that critical resources are used minimally and efficiently.

X – eXpectation Management

Accurately mapping expectations requires skillful listening and the ability to decipher what’s meant, not just what’s said on projects. Don’t be afraid to enlist senior management to ask questions on your behalf. As you begin to understand your stakeholders’ expectations, they will fall into two groups: realistic and unrealistic.

Realistic expectations still need managing. Make sure you can fulfil them — then make sure the stakeholder knows you are meeting them. Your communication plan must present the right information to the right stakeholder in the right manner.

Unrealistic expectations are more difficult to manage. They are unlikely to be met, and when you fail to achieve the “impossible,” the project will be deemed a failure. Fortunately, expectations are not fixed, but exist in a person’s mind and can be influenced or changed.

The key to shifting stakeholders’ expectations is to provide new and better information.

Developing a communication strategy that brings the right information to the stakeholder’s attention in a believable fashion is a subtle art. This is particularly tricky when advising upward with the goal of changing senior managers’ expectations. (I’ll write more on this in my next post.)

Y – Your Role as a Project Manager

The skills required for a successful project manager come from every discipline. Some are basic interpersonal skills while others are more technical. Some of these skills are learned only by experiencing success and failure in managing projects.

Here is a further breakdown of some of the skills required to properly and efficiently lead projects and teams to success:

Personal Skills

  • Team work – knowing how to listen, share, cooperate and learn together as a team
  • Positive attitude – important for difficult times incurred along the way throughout the process
  • Ability to clearly articulate expectations – clearly define what is expected of team members and define expectations on your deliverables to your management
  • Manage by example – project managers must be straightforward and knowledgeable in all dealings.
  • Be direct – do not overpromise and under deliver

Technical Skills

  • Technical knowledge and skills required to complete the project
  • Depending on the type of project it may be certain computer programs and software languages

Management Skills

  • Critical thinking
  • Decision making
  • Negotiation
  • Growing and sustaining a high performing team
  • Managing budgets, costs and expenses of the project
  • Project execution and control

The skills required are many and varied. A project manager must be prepared for all situations and be able to manage uncertainty and change in a less defined environment. A project manager must lead by example and motivate all parties involved. The project manager must strive to further develop and enhance their skills so as to continue leading their team to success.

Z – Zero Hour – Go / No Go

The decision to go-live with a project is one of the most important decisions in the project life-cycle and getting it wrong can jeopardise the success of the entire initiative. Whilst the Project Manager is always under pressure to deliver within schedule, sometimes it is prudent for them to step back and delay go-live rather than risk the consequences of project failure. Project Go Live decision should be taken only after thorough confirmation of following:

  • Sufficient user training
  • Adequate product testing
  • Stakeholders approvals
  • Any security activities tested and complete
  • Resolution of critical defects
  • Mapping workflows and exceptions
  • Business processes documentation and understanding
  • Interfaces integration & validation
  • Successful data migration & validation
  • Ongoing change management mechanism
  • Testing of backups and disaster recovery
  • Clear accountability for ongoing support

So, well done for getting to the end of this A to Z! I hope you found it useful, and as always would love to hear any feedback.

Coal to Diamonds – Raising Team Performance

Rebuilding an underperforming team or department is a huge challenge. The issues you will face from the team could include low morale, rapid staff turnover and high absenteeism levels. The managers involved could alsoCoal to Diamonds have poor leadership skills, which is likely to hinder not help the situation. If employees are uncertain about their own future this can have a further negative affect and will make matters worse. A manager in this situation could feel so overwhelmed by all the problems that they will stick their head in the sand and hope it will go away.

A team needs to analyse its structure – how it works, what its strengths and weaknesses are and the role each individual plays within it. You need to get quickly to the root cause of problems and plan remedial measures to implement quickly. Self awareness plays a huge part. People often don’t know how other members of their team see them. One manager might see himself as an assertive leader but in reality he is an autocratic dictator. He in turn might have a low opinion of the quietly spoken people. Everyone needs to appreciate that both types of people are essential to the success of the team. It relies on three factors:

• Self and team awareness – identifying individual’s strengths and limitations

• Recognise different contributions – teams bring together complementary skills and experience

• Plug the gaps – modifying behaviour brings enhancements to the team.

One factor that differentiates “dream teams” from “teams from hell” is a strong platform of understanding. Self awareness and an awareness of other people’s style are crucial if a team is going to reach more ambitious performance goals. There needs to be an acceptance that WE have a joint problem and WE need a joint strategy to tackle it. Differences are not good or bad, better or worse. A High Performance Team will be aware of the work styles of the different profiles and that each contributes to the team in its own way. Each member must recognise their own limitations and recognise that there are people on the team who can do things better than themselves. People need to cover the bases they are good at and concede to others where they are better. Teams fail because of mismatched needs, unresolved conflict, personality clashes and lack of trust. All these can be addressed through understanding and recognising how each person in the team behaves and responds in different situations.

Improving the self-awareness of your managers and key people will create a strong platform of understanding from which more ambitious performance goals can be achieved. Highlighted below are 6 ways that you can begin to raise team performance:

1. Resist firefighting

When you start a turnaround process, there will be no shortage of people telling you what the problems are and how to fix them. But you need to form your own views, so immerse yourself in the culture of the department, watch it in action, spend time with managers, talk to people and sit in on team meetings. The problems of any failing department will involve people, processes and technology. While success depends on addressing all three, people are the most important and you need to ensure that all members of the turnaround team recognise this. Highly motivated and skilled people will make poor processes and IT work, but the best technology and processes available will still fail if people lack the appropriate skills or motivation.

2. Get the buy-in of all involved

You need to be open and honest with people to get their buy-in. Remember that no one understands a service like the people who actually deliver it. It’s not change agents, managers or consultants who turn things around, but the staff themselves. If you can engage most of them, you’ll have a powerful force for change. Try to win employees’ confidence by listening to their concerns, rather than coming in with a one-size-fits-all change methodology. Ensure any action plan you introduce takes account of concerns, as well as performance and service issues. Discuss the action plan with people in the department and monitor progress, ideally through staff opinion surveys. At this stage it is also a good idea to identify internal champions – people with a can-do attitude who will support you in driving through change.

3. Turn managers into leaders

You need to get the department’s management team on side. Retaining and developing existing managers sends out a positive message, whereas replacing them is risky, expensive and time-consuming. But resistant managers can subvert the change process and there are times when you must be prepared to make difficult decisions. Managers of failing departments need to accept some responsibility for the past and overcome their resentment at others being brought in to fix the problems. While it is important to learn from the past, you need to get them focused on the future and help them to develop new skills and regain confidence. Identify development needs and use external help where you need specific expertise. Managers can feel swamped by multiple reporting lines and targets and may need help in prioritising what’s important. You should also encourage new habits. Get them to leave their desks and offices to engage with the wider team. With a little support, the changes can be dramatic.

4. Empower managers

Failure fosters a blame culture where managers become fearful of making decisions. This does not make problems disappear. On the other hand, bad decisions, though best avoided, can be great learning experiences. Boost managers’ confidence by giving them a chance to test decisions before taking them. Some will only need a little support and encouragement; others may need help to recognise all the implications of a proposed course of action. Encourage courage: managers must learn to make difficult decisions and see them through. Once they have done so and recognise that they have done the right thing, their self-esteem will grow and they will start acting less like the managers of a failing department and more like their successful colleagues.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate

You can’t communicate too much. Use different methods and tools to put out clear and consistent messages that relate back to the overall action plan. If you are part of a team, all members will have some responsibility for communication, but it is critical for you to retain a high-profile with your team. Face-to-face communication is best. You need to demonstrate that you are making an effort to meet people at times that are appropriate to them – for instance, by fitting in with shift workers rather than expecting them to stay after hours. Complement meetings with newsletters, team briefings, emails and via collaborative tools such as SharePoint or Yammer.

6. Celebrate success

A reputation for poor performance can become self-fulfilling. Other departments may have concealed their own failures by blaming yours. Talented people will not want to be associated with a department that is seen to be failing because of the risk to their careers. People can’t take too much failure. It is therefore important to break the cycle of bad news and give them something to celebrate. Publicise good news: the first praise in months from a happy client; another department saying “thank you”; a delivery ahead of schedule; or a real change in performance. You can create your own good news by introducing a person or team of the month award. Over time, as the situation improves, you’ll have much more to celebrate – and a department to be proud of.

I hope you have found this post useful and as always would love to hear any feedback or your experiences.

A to Z of Career Progression

A to Z Career ProgressionThe world of work has evolved and changed significantly in the last 20 years. No longer is a job for life and you need to be in the driving seat when it comes to career progression. When did you last make time to reassess what you want from your career? Maybe today is that day! I thought I’d put this A to Z together to give some tips on where you might focus, what planning you might want to carry out and what action you can take to work on your career.

A – Ambition

I guess you wouldn’t be reading this post at all if you weren’t ambitious and didn’t want to learn more about how to develop yourself, your standard of living or find your next role.

Donald Trump extols the importance of ambition with the following quote:

“Get going. Move forward. Aim High. Plan a take-off. Don’t just sit on the runway and hope someone will come along and push the airplane. It simply won’t happen. Change your attitude and gain some altitude. Believe me, you’ll love it up here.”

Unfortunately, ambition by itself will not get you where you want to go. Ambition must be paired with action and execution to be truly meaningful.

B – Brand You

What is it that you want from life? What’s your vision for your own future? What personal values do you live by? What’s important for you in your life? Where would you like to be in 10 years? How do you want to be perceived by others?

I’ve found a couple of simple ways to get to the bottom of some of these often tough questions.

  1. Imagine that you were told you had 10 years to live, starting today, and you would be completely healthy during that time. How would you spend that time?
  2. Imagine that you’re 100 years old, you’ve lived your life to the full and you know that you only have a minute or so before you leave this world. Your great-granddaughter is sitting by your side and she asks you – ‘From everything you’ve learned from your life, what advice could you give me as to how I get the most from mine?’

Doing these two exercises could have a powerful impact on you. They did with me. Your answers will help you understand your personal brand and brand values and ultimately your OMG – your One Magnificent Goal!

For more information on your personal brand please see a downloadable series of posts – Brand New, Brand You

C – Career Planning

So, you’re ambitious, you understand your personal Vision, Values and what you want from life. That’s more than most people, so you’re off to a good start!

If you’re a regular Think Oak! reader you’ll know what comes next – Goals! Setting Goals for your career path, will help you monitor your progress and give you a plan, that you should revisit at least quarterly, but I would suggest monthly.

Your career plan should have some short, medium and long-term goals. Work back from your One Magnificent Goal, your OMG (if you have one!) and fill in the milestones along the way and more detailed, inch-pebbles in the nearer term.

It’s a good idea to review this with at least one other person on a regular basis to keep you honest and on track.

Download a free Think Oak! Career and Development Template here

D – Discipline

Progressing in your career and working through your personal development plan requires commitment and discipline. One of the main reasons why people fail is that there is no discipline in their action. They give themselves excuses why they cannot consistently follow-up on their plans. You will need to sacrifice some personal time to complete your goals in your career plan and that sacrifice takes discipline. Discipline also ensures that you can be persistent, especially when faced with challenges after challenges in your journey to success.

Entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, Jim Rohn said:

‘We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment’

Your choice!

E – Elevator Pitch

You’re in an elevator, a corridor or at a party and the CEO of the firm you’ve always wanted to work for, is standing next to you. What do you say?

Elevator pitches are developed to relay just enough information to cause the person you’re speaking to, to ask, “Tell me more.” If you’re lucky, the CEO will say, “If you have a few minutes, I want to hear more.” If you’re even luckier, your prospective boss will ask you to set up an appointment the next day to meet up. All of that from the development, memorising, and tweaking of a few simple yet incredibly powerful words.

Putting your pitch together

1. Who are you? Introduce yourself and your credentials up front. There’s no point in saying anything if the listener has no idea who you are or if you have any credibility.

2. What’s your objective? Get to the point quickly about what you are looking for or how that person can help. Being direct not only grabs attention but helps the listener to put your pitch into context.

3. What can you do for the listener? This is where you explain how recruiting you will meet their need. Your goals and dreams are all well and good but remember in the end what you are offering must benefit them. This is your chance to communicate what makes you someone who your audience should consider helping.  People typically like to help those that they feel will be successful in the process.  There are a few things you should think about when highlighting your qualifications:- industry relevance, leadership, expertise, pedigree, and impact.

4. The close – this is tricky to deliver effectively, but ideally you need an outcome to the conversation. This could be a follow-up meeting with the person you’re pitching to, a name of someone who you need to contact to follow-up, or some advice as to how to reach your goal.

Once you have your personal elevator pitch, practice it in front of the mirror. If possible, try to video or audio tape yourself, and watch it in fast forward. You’ll be amazed at your nervous habits!

F – Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway

In Susan Jeffers’ book ‘Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway’, she gives some great insight and practical tools to help you improve your self-belief and your ability to face even the things that you fear the most.

It’s almost impossible to go through life without experiencing some kind of failure. People who do so probably live so cautiously that they go nowhere. Put simply, they’re not really living at all.

The wonderful thing about failure is that it’s entirely up to us to decide how to look at it.

We can choose to see failure as “the end of the world,” or as proof of just how inadequate we are. Or, we can look at failure as the incredible learning experience that it often is. Every time we fail at something, we can choose to look for the lesson we’re meant to learn. These lessons are very important; they’re how we grow, and how we keep from making that same mistake again. Failures stop us only if we let them.

G – Glass Ceiling and How to Smash It

Despite knowing that you have much more potential, is there a limit for “people like you” in your organisation? If so, you’ve hit what’s known as the “glass ceiling.” This is the point at which you can clearly see the next level of promotion – yet, despite your best efforts, an invisible barrier seems to stop you from getting there.

Historically, the glass ceiling concept was applied to women and some minorities. It was very hard, if not impossible, for them to reach senior management positions. No matter how qualified or experienced, they simply were not given opportunities to further advance their careers. Thankfully today, there are many more women and minorities in powerful positions. However, the glass ceiling is still very real. And it’s not always limited to gender or race.

Below are 5 ways you can help to smash through the glass ceiling:

  • Align your objectives and competencies with senior management
  • Build your internal network and relationships
  • Over-perform in everything you do
  • Find a mentor within senior management
  • Move sideways under a different manager who will support your growth

If all else fails you do have a choice to move from your organisation altogether for your next career move.

H – Hard Work

I don’t know many successful people who have got to where they have without a great deal of hard work. True hard work never goes unnoticed. You will gain a recognition and prominence not only in the organisation that you are working in, but also outside the company in your profession.  This will surely work for you when you are creating your job reputation & professional profile.

I’m not saying you have to work 16 hour days every day, although that might be necessary sometimes. I’m saying that 9-5 no longer exists; a job for life no longer exists; and a ‘God-given’ right to promotion based upon your tenure in an organisation, no longer exists.

I – Intuition

Boosting your intuitive intelligence and using it to “coach” you on the job can be your career’s secret weapon. This was confirmed in a research study at New Jersey Institute of Technology, which tested hundreds of business managers for intuitive ability. Those who demonstrated superior intuitive ability also were better at effective decision-making skills. In a Harvard study, 80 percent of surveyed executives credited their success to intuition. And business luminaries from Conrad Hilton to Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey have declared it essential for success. Donald Trump said, “I’ve built a multi-billion-dollar empire by using my intuition.”

So, how can we use this valuable skill on the job to become smarter, better employees? You can boost your intuitive intelligence by becoming aware of it, tuning in to what it’s trying to tell you, and heeding its advice. Like any skill, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.

J – Job Satisfaction

Generally, you can have three fundamental approaches to your work:

Is it your career, your job, or your passion?

Depending on which category of work you put yourself in, the things which offer you satisfaction will vary.

If you feel you are pursuing your career, then chances of promotion and career development opportunities will measure your levels of job satisfaction. Your overall level of satisfaction will be closely associated with your power, status, or position.

If you feel you are doing a job, then it is the salary which will measure your levels of job satisfaction.

If you feel you are pursuing your passion, then work itself will determine your level of satisfaction, no matter what money you are earning or what your position in the organisation is.

In order to attain job satisfaction, first realise what kind of person you are and what gives you happiness. If you are happy, you tend to feel satisfied.

K – Key Performance Indicators

What are your personal KPI’s? Do you have any? Every individual has different goals in different spheres of their lives, whether at work or at home. How do you know when you’re on track or off-track?

By keeping a regular view of what’s important to you in order to advance your career, your relationships, your health or your finances you can begin to understand which areas of your life you need to invest time to improve.

As with any performance indicators, they should have target dates / measures and your should track your progress against them. Where you are falling short, you will need to put remedial action against them. As with your career plan, it is often useful to discuss these with someone you trust to keep you on track.

L – Learn More, Earn More

If you are looking to advance your career, get promoted or even just stay relevant in today’s job market you must be developing new skills all of the time. Many of those skills you will need to develop will be outside of your comfort zone. You need to stretch, take risks and sometimes fail!

Continuous learning is a must for anyone wanting to progress their career. The next few letters within this A to Z will give you some pointers on how to keep your knowledge and learning current and more importantly useful to progressing your career.

M – Mentor

Mentoring is a relationship between two people with the goal of professional and personal development. More professionals these days are actively pursuing mentoring to advance their careers. Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end, these types of partnerships can benefit your career.

A mentoring partnership may be between two people within the same organisation, same industry, same networking organisation or anyone whose professional opinion you value and have a good relationship with. However the partners come together, the relationship should be based on mutual trust and respect, and it typically offers personal and professional advantages for both parties.

A trusted mentor can help you do the following:

• Gain valuable advice – Mentors can offer valuable insight into what it takes to get ahead. They can be your guide and “sounding board” for ideas, helping you decide on the best course of action in difficult situations. You may learn short-cuts that help you work more effectively and avoid “reinventing the wheel.”

• Develop your knowledge and skills – They can help you identify the skills and expertise you need to succeed. They may teach you what you need to know, or advise you on where to go for the information you need.

• Improve your communication skills – Just like your mentor, you may also learn to communicate more effectively, which can further help you at work.

• Learn new perspectives – Again, you can learn new ways of thinking from your mentor, just as your mentor can learn from you.

• Build your network – Your mentor can offer an opportunity to expand your existing network of personal and professional contacts.

• Advance your career – A mentor helps you stay focused and on track in your career through advice, skills development, networking, and so on.

N – Network

Please see previous post on Networking – Business Networking – It’s not ‘what’ you know…

O – Opportunities

Opportunities are all around you, all of the time. So you need to be continually watching out for them. Get into the habit of looking for possible opportunities every day. Keep a notebook or digital recorder with you, or use a smartphone app like Evernote to note down opportunities when you think of them. Write down as many possible opportunities as you can – you can trim your list back to the most relevant opportunities later on.

You also need to make an effort to seek out “hidden” opportunities. These are opportunities like job openings that aren’t advertised, and projects that you can initiate because you have spotted an unfulfilled need within your organisation or industry.

Begin with your organisation. Keep an eye on current internal or upcoming vacancies, and on any plans for the organisation to expand or change direction. Also, think about how you could progress in the organisation from your current position – what paths are available to you?

It might be obvious which opportunity is best for you. If not, it can be useful to do a grid analysis to make a well-balanced decision. This technique works by getting you to list your options as rows on a table, and the factors that are important to you (such as fit with your strengths and interests) as columns.

You then score each option/factor combination, weight this score by the relative importance of the factor, and add these scores up to give an overall score for each option.

P – Politics without the Politics

Please see previous post – Playing Politics without the Politics

Q – Qualifications

Having the right qualifications for your chosen career will very often get you through the door for an interview. Depending on your particular field, and seniority in that field, you may require more or less vocational qualifications.

For any career, keeping your skills current and future-proofed should be an ongoing and important part of your development. In many cases, this may be ‘on the job’ learning and development, but many occupations also demand a level of qualification for you to even be considered to move to the next level. That being said, once you’re working in an organisation, it will very often be your attitude, work-rate, delivery and over-achievement that will count much more than qualifications for progression.

R – Read

According to a Harvard Business Review article last year, the leadership benefits of reading are wide-ranging. Evidence suggests reading can improve intelligence and lead to innovation and insight. Some studies have shown, for example, that reading makes you smarter through “a larger vocabulary and more world knowledge in addition to the abstract reasoning skills.” Reading — whether Wikipedia, Michael Lewis, or Aristotle — is one of the quickest ways to acquire and assimilate new information. Many business people claim that reading across fields is good for creativity. And leaders who can sample insights in other fields, such as sociology, the physical sciences, economics, or psychology, and apply them to their organizations are more likely to innovate and prosper.

Reading can also make you more effective in leading others. Reading increases verbal intelligence, making a leader a more adept and articulate communicator. Reading novels can improve empathy and understanding of social cues, allowing a leader to better work with and understand others — traits that author Anne Kreamer persuasively linked to increased organisational effectiveness, and to pay raises and promotions for the leaders who possessed these qualities. And any business person understands that heightened emotional intelligence will improve his or her leadership and management ability.

Using down-time during your day, you can increase your reading capacity enormously. There are a plethora of ways to access books on the move – Smartphones, tablet devices and audio books. I personally find that using my daily commute to listen to audio books means that I can get through 4 or 5 books per month.

S – Soft Skills

Aside from reading, attaining professional qualifications and ‘on-the-job’ training, it’s also worth investing time, effort and money in honing some of the softer skills, often untaught in schools and universities and expected in senior business positions. This sort of training falls into 2 broad categories, namely Self-Management and People Skills. I’ve listed below some of the skills within these broad headings that you may wish improve upon once you have a good understanding of your Strengths and Areas for Development under letter ‘U’ below.


  • Self-awareness
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-promotion
  • Time Management
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Problem Analysis & Solving
  • Working with others
  • Building Teams
  • Delegation

People Skills

  • Communication Skills
  • Presentation Skills
  • Interviewing techniques
  • Selling & Negotiation
  • People Management
  • Leadership
  • Stakeholder Management
  • Mentoring & Coaching

Getting this sort of training maybe freely available through your organisation, or via training companies or through local colleges. Be sure to get feedback on the course content and quality before you invest your valuable time, effort and money.

T – Treat Everyone with Respect

Albert Einstein said it best, I think:

“I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”

Respect is not only about how you talk to people. Human beings crave the respect of others; it’s in our DNA. When we feel like nobody respects us, it’s difficult for us to be positive and productive. When we don’t respect ourselves, we act in ways that our counter to our interests in an attempt to make ourselves feel better.

Cultivating self-respect and earning the respect of others goes a long way toward leading a balanced, healthy, happy life as well as improving your chances of career progression.

The 10 commandments of Respect according to Think Oak! All of which could be encompassed by – ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated’

  1. Act with integrity
  2. Display good manners
  3. Be punctual
  4. Actively listen when someone is talking to you
  5. Follow through on your promises
  6. Understand the impact that you might have on others – your ‘Shadow’
  7. Be compassionate
  8. Value the opinion of others
  9. Be appreciative
  10. Admit when you’re wrong

U – Understand your Strengths & Areas for Development

On the downloadable Think Oak! Career and Development Template, you will find two sections to complete around Strengths and Areas for Development.

Before you complete these sections, I’d like you to do two separate tasks:

  1. Write down all your Strengths and Areas for Development that you can think of. Refine these down to those you will really need to work on to achieve your OMG.
  2. Get some feedback. You may think you know who your are and what you need to do to achieve your goals, but you may find that trusted people in your network can help you tweak or even re-evaluate some of these.

Now, fill in your template.

V – Volunteer

Whether internally or externally, volunteer to do new things, especially if they’re not in your job description! Get involved in initiatives that your organisation is launching or volunteer in your local community. Getting involved in new initiatives or community activity has a number of benefits:


Many organisations give people opportunities to get involved in projects that are outside of your job description whether that be Customer Experience Champions, Employee Representatives on committees or sponsors for particular projects. Whilst you shouldn’t allow these opportunities to prevent you from completing your objectives at work, they are a great opportunity for you to build you profile with people from around the organisation, learn new skills and widen your sphere of influence – assuming you do a good job and don’t just use it as an excuse to get away from your day job!


If you’re considering a new or change of career, volunteering can help you get experience in your area of interest and help you meet people in the field. Even if you’re not planning on changing careers, volunteering gives you the opportunity to practice important skills used in the workplace, such as teamwork, communication, problem solving, project planning, task management, and people skills. You might feel more comfortable stretching your wings at work once you’ve honed these skills in a volunteer position first.

Volunteering also offers you the chance to try out a new career without making a long-term commitment. It is also a great way to gain experience in a new field. In some fields, you can volunteer directly at an organisation that does the kind of work you’re interested in. For example, if you’re interested in nursing, you could volunteer at a hospital or a nursing home. Your volunteer work might also expose you to professional organisations or internships that could be of benefit to your career.

Just because volunteer work is unpaid does not mean the skills you learn are basic. Many volunteering opportunities provide extensive training. For example, you could become an experienced crisis counsellor while volunteering at the Samaritans or gain NVQ’s towards teaching qualifications as a support teacher.

Volunteering can also help you build upon skills you already have and use them to benefit the greater community. For instance, if you hold a successful sales position, you raise awareness for your favourite cause as a volunteer advocate, while further developing and improving your public speaking, communication, and marketing skills.

W – Work – Life Balance

This is a tough one for ambitious, driven and career-minded people. It’s actually very easy to get to a point when you’re consistently working 12, 13, 14 or more hour days. For most people, it is physically not sustainable to continue to produce continued quality results working at this level. Something will give – your health, your marriage and family life, your relationships outside of work, your personal time or a combination of any or all of these. It is much better to work on your personal time management skills, your delegation of tasks and understanding what’s critical to your success than to burn yourself out. Believe me, I know from personal experience!

Work smarter, not harder. Don’t get me wrong  – You will need to put in an all-nighter occasionally, you will and should invest in entertaining customers or building your network outside of the 9-5, but you should equally invest time in yourself, your friends and family and for relaxation.

X – 10000 Hours of Mastery

X with a horizontal line above it, is the Roman numeral for 10,000 and Malcolm Gladwell in his great book, Outliers, states that 10,000 hours of practice is required to truly master a field in life, citing The Beatles, Bill Gates and others as examples.

In order to be the best at anything, you do need innate talent, but you also need to practice your craft and practice a great deal!

Hard work alone is not enough, however. Talent, passion and spotting as well as taking opportunities also matter.

Y – You are in charge

Your career progression is no-one else’s responsibility other than your own. You set the pace, you decide when to leave a job that you don’t enjoy, and ultimately you decide how much effort you want to invest in your future. With the right attitude, behaviours, skills, experience and support, you can achieve your goals. Take the next step today!

Z – Zeroes and how to add them to your salary

By acting upon this A to Z, you are already positioning yourself for success in your career. It is essential that you continue to work on your career plan. Review it each month and update your 30, 60 and 90 day plans accordingly. Continually look for opportunities and take seriously any that come your way. Whilst it is often easier to stay in your comfort zone, that isn’t the way to progress your career. You will need to take some risks. Some will pay off, others won’t, but you will learn from them!

I hope you enjoyed the A to Z of Career Progression. As always, would love to hear any feedback or thoughts you may have.

A to Z of Customer Experience

A to Z Customer ExperienceI would define ‘Customer Experience’ as:

‘How customers or prospective customers perceive their interactions with your organisation’

Customer experience encompasses every aspect of an organisation’s offering – the quality of customer care, of course, but also advertising, packaging, product and service features, ease of use, and reliability. How can you drive a consistently good and improving Customer Experience for your customers or prospects?

In this A to Z I’ll give you some of the answers and some tips from Think Oak!

A – Attitude

I could start and finish this post with ‘A’ for Attitude.

Not many people wake up in the morning and say “Today, I want to make life miserable for our customers.” Yet every day, employees at all levels of organisations make decisions that end up frustrating, annoying, upsetting or losing their customers.

Changing people’s attitude is much harder than teaching them new skills. It is much easier to get staff to do the “right” things when you have hired people with the “right” attitude and who have a history of behaving the “right” way.

You need to recruit people who understand that the aim in business is to have profitable customers who stay with you for a long time and, therefore, who realise that looking after existing customers so that they come back again and again is the Number One priority.

Dealing with employees with the wrong attitude also needs to be a high priority for you as a leader. Tough conversations and ‘attitude’ management are a must if your are serious about a great customer experience.

B – Behaviours

I’m a raving fan of all things Disney, and Disney takes behaviours and training extremely seriously and they do it very well. So much so that their methodologies are used in many other companies and organisations around the world.

Disney has ‘Cast Member’ and ‘Management’ behaviour guidelines that they have recently updated and rolled out across their theme park employees and managers:

The Disney Service Basics

  • I project a positive image and energy
  • I am courteous and respectful to all guests, including children
  • I stay in character and play the part
  • I go above and beyond

The Disney Leader Basics

  • I demonstrate commitment to cast members
  • I know and manage my operation, and I teach it to cast members
  • I lead and monitor cast performance and operational improvements

Within each ‘Basic’ behaviour lay some underpinning ways of working / behaviours that are expected from all employees:

As an example, within ‘I go above and beyond’ are principles such as:

  • Anticipate needs and offer assistance
  • Create surprises and Magical Moments
  • Provide immediate service recovery

Almost wants you to become a customer straight away!

In summary, consider the following:

What behaviours are central to your Brand Vision?

Do your people know, understand and embrace these behaviours?

What are you doing every day to embrace your organisation’s behaviours and set an example to your people?

How do you drive collective positive energy around your organisation’s behaviours and more importantly are you hiring, developing and firing on behaviours?

C – Customer Centric Culture

How many company vision statements state something along the lines of, “We put the customer at the heart of our business…” and how many companies truly organise themselves around the customer?

I would advocate 5 steps to get you started:

  1. Talk to customers yourself as often as you can and not about your products and services – Get to know their business and their priorities and challenges
  2. Talk to your customer facing people just as often – sales, customer services, cash collection, engineers and so on. What barriers, issues, challenges, ideas, compliments and complaints do they get from customers
  3. Get your people whether customer facing or not to talk to customers at least once a month and if not talk, listen in to customer calls
  4. Make ‘Customers’ a standing agenda item in ALL meetings
  5. Elect some Customer Champions from your best people and get them actively engaged in your most important projects championing the voice of the customer above all else

D – Delight

There’s a difference between consistently meeting customer expectations and delighting customers, and the outcome is the difference between a satisfied customer and a promoter – a ‘Raving Fan’.

Customers expect to have their requirements met. It’s a hygiene factor. You expect your local ATM to work and have money in it. You expect a company to know your spending history when you have a query. You expect your hotel room to be clean when you have an over-night stay. When this isn’t the case you may move your customer from satisfied to a detractor, who is very likely to leave you over time and tell others about their dissatisfaction.

A satisfied customer is likely to leave you at some point for pastures that little bit greener. A promoter, a Raving Fan, will not. They will be loyal and they’ll talk about you positively to whoever will listen.

How to delight a customer will vary widely depending on your products and services, but always be looking for the edge, differentiators that matter. Get your people to do the same.

I would suggest two areas to think about:

  1. Fix the things that cause your customers to call you or cause them pain. Be easy to do business with. I’ve been an Amazon customer for over a decade now, and I’ve had to call them once and that was nine years ago. I literally spend thousands of pounds a year with them and they are so easy to do business with. I’ve never once understood a fuel or electricity bill and consistently feel frustrated with the whole industry. The day Amazon start selling fuel and electricity, I’ll move!
  2. Find ways to delight – it could be as simple as a free cookie on check-in like Double Tree by Hilton or a full valet when you take your car for a service. They stand out….for now. Finding ways to keep raising the bar in customer experience for your industry will ensure you maintain and grow market share as well as increased share of wallet.

E – Engage, Enrol and Enthuse Employees

You can have the best Customer Experience strategy and tools in the world, but without the understanding, buy-in and passion of your employees your strategy is worthless. Please see a previous post ‘Communicate or Fail’ for some top tips!

F – Fail Fast

Don’t get me wrong, failure isn’t a good thing, but procrastination in getting a new product out of the door or not doing something because you haven’t got all the data isn’t a good thing either. Allowing yourself to try new ways of working, marketing, new products or service enhancements in a small way, and finding out quickly what works and what doesn’t from a customer perspective will help you to fail fast, tweak your proposition and try again. Once you’ve discovered what works in your marketplace you can then widen this out further and invest more energy and money into being successful AND providing a better a customer experience.

G – Goals, Objectives and Measurement

If you’re a regular Think Oak! reader, you’ll know my passion for having goals, objectives and that you must measure progress against them. This is especially true of Customer Experience. Many organisations large or small, think that if you hire the right people and put in the right processes that Customer Experience will take care of itself. Wrong. If Customer Experience is to be truly part of your organisation’s DNA, then you need to have at least one strategic objective embracing it with underpinning goals that are regularly measured and an owner whose ‘raison d’être’ is to live customer experience. For some organisations this is where accountability stops. For Customer Experience to be embraced by everyone and for an organisation to be truly customer centric, at least one of everyone’s personal objectives should be around improvement of the customer experience.

H – Heroes

Heroes, your high-performing customer facing employees, can have a huge impact on Customer Experience, and when nurtured and recognised can truly accelerate cultural change in an organisation.  When a company celebrates sales, they sell more – but perhaps at the expense of delivery issues.  When it celebrates product management, new products come out quickly – including those without customer demand.  But companies with a great customer experience use the customer feedback to understand their level of customer satisfaction, and then celebrates those who engage customers at a superior level. Who are the often unsung proponents of customer experience in your organisation? Is it the receptionist, whose sunny disposition brightens up the day of every customer the speak to? Is it a security guard that always goes out of her way to be accommodating for unexpected customers arriving at your car park? Is it a sales person that goes the extra mile to ensure that the customer gets what they’ve paid for on the day they’ve been promised it?

Find these people and make them an example of ‘what we do around here’ and what good customer experience looks like. Tell these stories in company emails and newsletters. Reward your heroes and put them through further development, give them new opportunities to shine and you’ll be amazed at the halo effect these people have in your organisation in a short period of time.

I – Industry Insight

Keeping abreast of what competitors and industry thought leaders are doing and saying is crucial in order to stay ahead of the game with your customer experience.

If we look at the demise of Comet or Jessops as an example. Today’s fast-paced retail market demands an environment that provides shoppers compelling reasons to buy in-store and to convert that sale. By offering too little information on products and poor employee training, retailers like Comet force customers in-store to use their smartphones to check reviews, product specs, and inevitably competitor and price comparison websites. All too often this approach will result in the customer leaving empty-handed and looking to purchase elsewhere.

To survive, high-street retailers, as well as other industries, must operate as a cost leader and adopt a genuine integrated multi-channel approach. They must think about how shoppers want to buy and to be treated – Apple’s showroom approach is a great example of an engaging environment and people that enhance brand loyalty.

J – Joined up Experience

In today’s ‘hyper-connected’ marketplaces, customers can interact with your organisation in multiple ways. They expect a certain level of service using each of those channels – if they tweet to your service department, they expect a response within seconds or minutes. If they email you, they expect a response within the day or sooner. And so on. They also expect you to know who they are when they contact you, how many of your products and services you use, how much you spend with them and ideally know why you might be calling them. How do you ensure that you deliver your brand values across all of these different media with the right customer experience for them as individuals?

Even though most companies have created systems to address most of these channels and touchpoints, they often created them independently, making it difficult to maintain consistency and know what happened in other interactions to improve the next interaction. This often results in duplicative systems and processes, which are not only inefficient, but also costly. The lack of a seamless dialogue between the customer and you across all touchpoints creates customer frustration, which results in lost sales and lower customer satisfaction.

K – Knowledgeable

Unlike the customer of a decade ago who did not have easy access to product information and multiple avenues by which to locate and purchase products, the customer of today can easily access information, compare prices and formulate product or service questions in the comfort of their home, office, train or local coffee shop.

Today’s customer wants the convenience of researching and making purchasing decisions without having to leave their home or office. Does your web presence allow them the ability to acquire enough knowledge about your product or service to make a purchasing decision? Is it possible to make a purchase right now? Twenty-four hours a day? On the other side of the world?

Because your customer has the ability to perform their own research regarding your product or service, they expect your employees to know even more! Have you ever asked questions regarding a product or service only to feel that you knew more than the employee? Your customer expects your employees to be experts. Are your employees trained properly? Do they know the history of your company? Do they know how your products are made? Materials required to manufacture the product? Can they provide comprehensive answers regarding your service concept? Are they familiar with your competitor’s products/services and how they compare to your offerings? When today’s customer interacts with your company, they want assistance from  competent,  knowledgeable employees.

L – Listen, Think, Do and Learn

This 4 point plan is very effective in ensuring you keep focussed and continuously improving your organisation’s customer experience.

Listen – Capture customer feedback and sentiment as often as you can, wherever you can. Obviously regular formal research, is very useful (See A to Z of Marketing), but any interaction with a customer is an opportunity to capture information that could be useful to your organisation.

Think – Gathering information and reporting it to ‘management’ is all well and good, but without analysis, thought, insight and recommended action, it’s pretty useless. Certainly from a customer’s perspective. This is not a one-off activity!

Do – Once you’ve listened and thought, you need to act on this insight. What are you going to do differently? You need a plan, you need to execute against it and you need an owner to drive it through.

Learn – Any changes you make to the customer experience need to be measured and improved upon which takes you back to Listen – get feedback on your changes. Has the customer experience been improved? By how much? For which customers?

M – Moments of Truth

Jan Carlzon, former President of Scandinavian Airline System (SAS says, “A Moment of Truth is a chapter in which the customer comes into contact with any aspect of the company, however remote, and thereby has an opportunity to form an impression.” Each customer contact is a unique, unrepeatable opportunity for a company to differentiate itself from the competition. Every decision should be made with the customer in mind and viewed as another opportunity to make a favourable impression. Unfortunately, failure to satisfy a customer on any Moment of Truth will quickly destroy the customer’s memory of good service. On the other hand, getting it right can erase many if not all the wrongs that the customer previously experienced.

N – Net Promoter Score & Customer Satisfaction Measures

Net Promoter Score (NPS) is used by many of today’s top businesses to monitor and manage customer relationships. It is a useful measure of the likelihood of successful WOM (Word of Mouth / Word of Mouse) of your customer base (see W). I would argue that it is only one measure of customer satisfaction that you should be measuring, as by itself does not give you the breadth of detail you’ll need to address any issues that arise.

NPS is calculated from a single loyalty question, “How likely is it that you would recommend this company to your friend or colleague?” Based on their rating of this question using a 0 to 10 likelihood scale where 0 means “not at all likely” and 10 means “extremely likely,” customers are segmented into three groups:

Detractors (ratings of 0 to 6)

Passives (ratings of 7 and 8)

Promoters (ratings of 9 and 10)

A company can calculate its Net Promoter Score by simply subtracting the proportion of Detractors from the proportion of Promoters.

A successful Net Promoter program includes several factors that work together. Although NPS is useful, the most prevalent cause of failure in Net Promoter programs is the inability of the organisation to go beyond the metric and build out a complete operational model with NPS as its centerpiece. The breakthrough in Net Promoter comes from shifting the entire program from a research model to an operational model and embedding it in the business.

O – Online Experience

As the online channel has evolved, the customer journey has become more complex, and we’ve seen customers exert increasing power and influence over their relationships with brands. I could and will write a whole post on ‘Everything E’ in the coming weeks, but will outline 3 core areas of focus that you should think about for your organisation’s online strategy.

First, realise that it’s no longer acceptable to deliver a one-size-fits-all online customer experience. Instead, you must demonstrate that you know your customers by providing them with a relevant and personalised online experience that takes their preferences, behaviour and past history with your brand into account.

Second, understand that social networks like Facebook and Twitter have raised customers’ expectation levels for online interaction both on and off of social networking sites. To fulfil these expectations, provide your customers with an online experience that makes it easy for them to interact socially with your brand by incorporating user-generated content capabilities such as ratings, reviews or comments into your web presence.

Lastly, with the widespread use of mobile phones and tablets, the online experience is no longer restricted to the traditional web presence accessed on desktops and laptops. Instead, today’s customers are taking the online experience with them wherever they go in the form of a mobile phones, tablets and televisions.

P – Personalise where possible

As I stated earlier, making an experience a personal one for a customer, can really drive customer loyalty and customer recommendations.

Personalisation isn’t simply a case of adding a customer name to the top of an e-mail. It’s now possible for organisations to communicate with their customers about their individual interests and preferences.

The degree to which the experience is able to be tailored towards the needs of the individual and reflects their particular circumstances will vary by market. Customers of Amazon have long marvelled at how the recommendation engine is able to find items that seem to particularly appeal to them as individuals are then able to set a delivery date that meets their requirements for time and cost. Regular customers at the Ritz Carlton love that their favourite drinks and snacks are already in their bedroom when they arrive. Almost every customer I’ve met of the bank First Direct is a Raving Fan. Why? Well they’re treated as individuals, they feel listened to, their issues are resolved first time.

Q – Quirky but Quality

Innocent drinks are now hugely popular in the UK and sold in 14 other countries around the world. When they started selling smoothies, this was not the case. The founders sold them at music festivals whilst holding down full-time jobs. Their founding mission was to serve their customers high quality natural, fruit ‘smoothie’ drink prepared with the best quality raw materials within an affordable price and gradually increase their market share every year. At the heart of the business was a quality, healthy product that did people some good.

Innocent Drinks are known for their quirky, tongue in cheek approach to branding and marketing. They nurture a ‘friendly’ image – Instead of printing the normal small print list of ingredients, Innocent instead print their text in a larger font and include jokes and other amusements in their lists of ingredients. An example, from the blackcurrant flavoured spring water drink, is the inclusion in the ingredients list of ‘1 woolly jumper*’. Following the asterisk gives the reader the word ‘baa’. Sheep are not, of course, an ingredient in the drink. This is one example from hundreds they’ve incorporated into their brand and culture to make them a brand that customers want to be associated with.

R – Relationships

If you haven’t worked it out yet, business is all about relationships. The depth of relationship is proportionate to the loyalty of your customers, the deeper the better. Below I’ve outlined the Think Oak! 6 levels of Customer Relationship:

Mark Conway, Think Oak, Customer Relationships

S – Single View of a Customer

In today’s hyper-connected world, customers can interact with a brand, through multiple channels. They do not split their dealings with a brand into experience by channel, they just experience ‘the brand’ as a whole. It is true that some channels will be stronger than others within a brand’s marketing mix, but the strength of the experience is weighted by the weakest channel across customer interaction. For the single customer view, this means that brands must focus on a unified customer experience and appreciate the role of the individual within that process. The quality of each channel must be consistent whether Facebook page, Twitter stream, mobile application or sales assistant in the retail outlet, and the focus should always be towards the customer.

Investing in the tools and technology to make this happen will give you the return on investment several times over, especially as many of these tools are much more readily available and affordable than ever before.

T – Technology can help, but only so much

Competing in the ‘Age of the Customer’ relies heavily on your ability to deliver technology that improves the customer experience.

In order to deliver this, you must understand your customer experience ecosystem – the complex set of relationships among your company’s employees, partners, and customers that determines the quality of all customer interactions.

With constant technological advances, businesses have a variety of ways to instantly transform the way their customers interact with their businesses. For example, you can use social media for real-time communication with your customers or adopt a customer-relationship management system to manage customer preferences.

Here’s the catch. Your people need to understand that the importance of capturing, cleansing and using the information in the systems. Technology can help, but you need well-trained and motivated teams to truly transform your customer experience.

U – Understand Customer Needs and Desires

The ability to understand and share the feelings of customers is essential to providing better customer experiences. If you understand your customers, you’ll be well equipped to give them exactly what they need. Here are 3 specific ideas that you can use to engage with customers to build a deeper level of understanding.

1. Share customer insights

Customers share their experiences with companies all over the Internet. It’s likely you’ll need special technology to mine through thousands of social media posts, product reviews, e-mails and so on, but doing so can help you gain insight into what your customers think/feel about your organization. Collect and share this data with everyone in your company and talk about ways you can use it to improve customer experience.

2. Become a customer

Mystery shop yourself and your competitors and track your experiences. Walking a mile in your customers’ shoes is the fastest way to gain insight into their perspective and how they experience your organisation first hand.

3. Create a life-sized map of the customers’ journey and walk through it

Make a detailed illustration of your customers as they travel through different parts of your organisation. Map out their experiences. Have employees walk through the customer journey, describing and discussing what they see from the perspective of a typical customer at any given touch point. You’d be amazed at what you’ll find!

V – Values

Do you have Brand Values in your organisation? Are they customer focussed values? More importantly do your people display these brand values? If you answered no to any of those 3 questions, you have some work to do.

See previous Think Oak! post – Strategy AND Culture For Success

W – Word of Mouth / Mouse

More than at any time in history, Word of Mouth and especially Mouse is having a huge influence on purchasing decisions and behaviour of customers and prospects. Whether as a consumer or a business decision maker, I seek the opinion of those I trust before I make a purchase decision. Do you know who influences your customers and where? How do you influence these influencers?

Whether offline or online, you need to understand who these people are and who they’re connected  to. I would really recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘The Tipping Point’ to understand the power of the Maven – the information specialist, and the Connector – a human social hub, the people who know everyone and have large personal, business and social networks.

X – Xtra Mile Experiences

What can you and your people do to go the Xtra Mile for your customers? To get your creative juices flowing, I’ve listed just some of the ways others do that little bit Xtra:

  • Some restaurant chains offer you a free drink or free dessert if your table isn’t ready when you arrive
  • Complimentary Choc-Ice to watch your in-flight movies on Virgin Airlines
  • Stay at a Disney Hotel and you can enter an hour earlier to the theme parks
  • Zappos have removed all the barriers to buying shoes online. They offer free shipping and free returns
  • Tiffany provides (in addition to the little blue box) free lifetime cleaning of your rings

The above examples are ‘processes’ to deliver that little bit extra. What about the non-standard Xtras? Empowering and training your employees to make their own decisions to sort customers’ issues out allows them to create Xtra Mile moments of their own. Check out ‘Stories that stay with you’ from Ritz Carlton

Y – Yes it matters!

By now you should realise, if you didn’t already, that Customer Experience matters. You can differentiate on customer experience and you should! It should form part of your organisation’s strategic objectives, it should be front of mind alongside growing revenues, managing costs and pleasing your key stakeholders, because whether you like it or not, customers are stakeholders in your organisation – without customers, there is no organisation.

Z – Zero to Hero

Even the best organisations get it wrong sometimes. How you recover from a customer-affecting issue can mean the difference between a customer being a vocal detractor and a promoter of your organisation.  In my experience there are several steps you should follow to turn a situation around – BALANCE:

  1. Be Proactive – The best way to avoid a problem becoming a disaster is to be proactive. Build monitoring into your processes so that you can quickly find the route-cause of problems when they occur.
  2. Act Quickly – Don’t wait for an army of customers to complain about the same issue before your start to act. Reacting quickly to a problem might mean you can contain the problem to a small number of customers. Ensure that you have built training and escalations into your problem resolution processes so that decisions can be made quickly.
  3. Listen to Customers – Ensure that you listen to your customer.
  4. Apologise – Effectively communicating empathy and apology throughout the service recovery can rebuild customer relationships and trust. Assure your customers that their problem is important to the company and that it will be addressed.
  5. Neutralise the problem
  6. Communicate – If the problem cannot be resolved quickly, keep the customer updated on progress at regular intervals until it’s resolved.
  7. Exit Effectively – Once the problem is resolved, give the customer the best explanation you can, compensate them if appropriate and give them the confidence that this will not happen again.

When you resolve failures quickly and effectively, acknowledge and apologise for the problem, and then respond to their critical need, most customers will pay you back with continued or increased loyalty, goodwill and even perhaps, repurchasing.  Even major service failures are opportunities to show the reliability of your customer support functions and provide the most positive experience possible, moving you from Zero to Hero!

I hope you enjoyed this A to Z, and as always would love to hear your feedback and stories of great Customer Experiences!

A to Z of Product Management

A to Z Product Management

Product management can be a complex and often misunderstood discipline in business. In reality Product Management in its broadest sense, touches every part of an organisation that sells products and services, and everyone has their part to play in the product life-cycle to ensure that customers get the best possible experience and your organisation benefits from growth and profitability.

In this A to Z I’ll be covering some key processes, tools and terminology to help you understand the world of Product Management.

A – Ansoff Matrix

Ansoff’s matrix is a useful 2 x 2 grid to help you determine your product and service strategies. Within each segment there is a differing level of risk. The four elements are:

Market penetration – This involves increasing market share within existing market segments. This can be achieved by selling more products/services to established customers or by finding new customers within existing markets.

Product development – This involves developing new products and services for existing markets. Product development involves thinking about how new products can meet customer needs more closely and outperform those of your competitors.

Market development – Finding new markets for existing products. Market research and further segmentation of markets helps to identify new groups of customers.

Diversification – Moving new products into new markets at the same time. It is the most risky strategy. The more an organisation moves away from what it has done in the past the more uncertainties are created. However, if existing activities are threatened, diversification helps to spread risk.


B – Business Case

A key part of product management is development of compelling business cases. Without buy-in from senior management to engage resource, money and time, your product is not likely to become anything other than an idea. You need to convince decision makers in your organisation that your product has a market, that people will buy it, that you can sell it and that the return on investment will be more than if the money, time and resources were used elsewhere. Compelling business cases have the following ingredients:

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Strategic Fit
  3. Marketplace Analysis
  4. Product Description
  5. Go To Market plan
  6. Financial Analysis
  7. Operational Impacts
  8. Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies
  9. Project Plan

C – Customer Needs Analysis

Before any product is designed, developed and launched, it is crucial that you know what customer needs will be fulfilled by your product.

Understanding customer needs is not necessarily an easy task however. Unfortunately, determining the real needs of a potential customer is not as simple as asking them what they want. Many people are unable to clearly articulate their most pressing and compelling product or service requirements because determining how products could or should be improved is not forefront in their mind.

To learn what your customer really needs, you must watch them and talk with them. You must be sure you understand their concerns and overall business issues. Only by thoroughly understanding the broad environment your customer lives in on a day-to-day basis, as well as their specific and detailed issues and concerns, can you apply the creative efforts necessary to design a compelling solution that will be successful.

An approach starting to become more widespread in industry is to conduct in-depth customer research throughout product development and to treat potential customers as participants in the new product development process.

D – Definition Document

In order to develop the right product, everyone involved has to know what you’re developing.  The initial document that spells this out, or is at least supposed to, is a Proposition Definition document, or one with a similar name.  The intent of such a document is to define the features and functions of the product to be built.  At the early stage of a project, this is generally a fairly high-level definition, specifying in fairly broad terms what the product is and does, the types of customers that will use it and potential market size.  Its intent is to provide sufficient information for the requirements to be taken to the next level of specification.  When not done at all, a project will proceed with no real sense of direction.  When done poorly (which happens all too often), it gives only a vague sense of definition and/or direction, leaving what the product really is open to individual interpretation, which is dangerous when working in larger multifunctional teams.  When done reasonably, this document gives a clear definition to all of what the product is.  When done really well, it not only defines what the product is, but also what it isn’t.  By defining what a product isn’t as well as what it is, it prevents people from heading off-track in directions that were not intended.  All efforts should be made to provide a really excellent product definition document, clearly defining what the product is, and what the product is not.

This proposition definition document sets the foundation upon which the product will be based.  A firm foundation provides a stable platform to build upon; a flimsy foundation leads to a platform that can later collapse.  All key departments – Marketing, Product Management, Sales, engineering (including development, test/quality assurance, usability, performance, technical documentation, etc.), customer support, field engineering, business development, manufacturing, finance, and others should be involved to ensure their unique viewpoints are properly represented.

E – Evaluation Gates

During the product development process there should always be some evaluation gates where stakeholders are involved in evaluating progress and permission to proceed:

1. Idea screening

2. Concept screening

3. Business analysis

4. Product testing

5. Analysing test market result

6. After-launch assessment (Short term)

7. After-launch assessment (Long term)

Using these evaluation gates help product developments conform to strategic intent, stay on track and realise the intended customer, operational and financial benefits.

F – Forecasting

Forecasting sales of your new product is not an exact science, but I’ve highlighted below the methodology I’ve used in my career to build up a view before submitting a business case.

  1. Determine the total size of a desired market, which is called the total addressable market
  2. Decide what portion of that market the product can penetrate, or the attainable market share
  3. Work out the number of units or the volume that the sales team can commit to sell
  4. Calculate the number of units that can be produced / delivered
  5. Determine realistic pricing for the product and how that pricing will vary over time
  6. Translate the sales and demand forecast into a realistic budget for the product

G – Governance & Getting things done!

Aside from the New Product Introduction Process (See ‘N’) which will help in stage gating new products, it is hugely important that the senior management team are behind your product development and it’s priority in the organisation. Without this backing, you will spend a huge amount of time fighting for resource, agreeing priorities and re-agreeing them, and slowing your overall project down.

All product developments should also have a senior management sponsor and ideally a project manager (or at least someone on the team with that role) and regular project board meetings to keep the development on track and to expedite any issues. Ideally your key suppliers should be represented on the board.

Your key stakeholders need to be communicated to regularly with project updates, deviations to plan and escalations in order to keep momentum and deliver your new product on time, to quality and to budget.

H – Help Sales to Help You

Sales people are a great source of feedback during all stages of the product life-cycle. They’ll give you feedback on what customers are asking for, the barriers to them selling a particular product or service and also views on how they would like to be remunerated! Building strong relationships with sales people is always a good idea, but by involving them early in a new product development will get them on board and excited about your product way before you launch it. If they’re good, they’ll start talking to customers early and start building pipeline.

A note of caution: Don’t let your sales people start selling your new product until you are very clear and confident with your launch date! Customers get very annoyed when they’ve committed to buying something and the launch is delayed 6 months or longer.

I – Innovation

Innovation is rarely about solving an entirely new problem. More often it is solving an existing problem in a new way. Neither is innovation the sole domain of a product manager or senior management. Ideas can come from anywhere inside or outside of your organisation. The trick is to spot a good idea when it comes.

Many organisations have mechanisms for capturing, filtering and taking the best ideas to a ‘concept’ stage. Once an idea has been registered as having merit, resources are assigned to investigate the marketplace, the opportunity, the business and customer benefits, the likely costs, timeframes and resources required to develop the product.

J – Just In Time

In the 1970s, when Japanese manufacturing companies were trying to perfect their systems, Taiichi Ohno of Toyota developed a guiding philosophy for manufacturing that minimized waste and improved quality. Called Just In Time (JIT), this philosophy advocates a lean approach to production, and uses many tools to achieve this overall goal.

When items are ready just in time, they aren’t sitting idle and taking up space. This means that they aren’t costing you anything to hold onto them, and they’re not becoming obsolete or deteriorating. However, without the buffer of having items in stock, you must tightly control your manufacturing /logistics processes so that parts are ready when you need them.

When you do (and JIT helps you do this) you can be very responsive to customer orders – after all, you have no stake in “forcing” customers to have one particular product, just because you have a warehouse full of parts that need to be used up. And you have no stake in trying to persuade customers to take an obsolete model just because it’s sitting in stock.

The key benefits of JIT are:

• Low inventory

• Low wastage

• High quality production

• High customer responsiveness

K – Kaizen

Kaizen , or ‘Continuous Improvement’ is a policy of constantly introducing small incremental changes in a business in order to improve quality and/or efficiency. This approach assumes that employees are the best people to identify room for improvement, since they see the processes in action all the time. An organisation that uses this approach therefore has to have a culture that encourages and rewards employees for their contribution to the process.

Kaizen can operate at the level of an individual, or through Kaizen Groups or Quality Circles which are groups specifically brought together to identify potential improvements.

Key features of Kaizen:

• Improvements are based on many, small changes rather than the radical changes that might arise from Research and Development

• As the ideas come from the employees themselves, they are less likely to be radically different, and therefore easier to implement

• Small improvements are less likely to require major capital investment than major process changes

• The ideas come from the talents of the existing workforce, as opposed to using R&D, consultants or equipment – any of which could be very expensive

• All employees should continually be seeking ways to improve their own performance

• It helps encourage workers to take ownership for their work, and can help reinforce team working, thereby improving worker motivation

L – Launch

The launch of a product or service needs a GREAT PLAN:-

G – Go To Market Plan

R – Reference Customers

E – End to End testing

A – Advertising Materials

T – Trained Employees

P – Processes Documented

L – Legal Documentation

A – Approval from Stakeholders

N – No Go / Go Decision

M – Marketing Plan

See previous post on A to Z of Marketing

N – New Product Introduction Process

Key to development, launch, management and retiring of products is the New Product Introduction Process. There are many variations of this process, most centre around the following core steps:


O – Operational Processes

A key part of any product development is the creation of, or enhancement to, operational processes. It is crucial that and End to End process review is carried out for the new product or service and the department owners document, sign-off on and embed any changes to their ways of working.

In addition it is important to understand any changes to departmental KPI’s and headcount before launch and that everyone impacted by the product launch is trained to a sufficient level prior to launch.

Post launch, it is also important to invest some time in ensuring that any teething troubles are ironed out quickly and any tweaks to process are documented and people retrained where appropriate.

P – Proposition

The traditional marketing mix consists of four major elements, the “4-Ps of marketing”. As defined by Philip Kotler et al. (1999):

  1. Product: “Anything that can be offered to a market for attention, acquisition, use or consumption that might satisfy a want or need. In includes physical objects, services, persons, places, organisations and ideas.”
  2. Price: “The amount of money charged for a product or service, or the sum of the values that consumers exchange for the benefits of having or using the product or service.”
  3. Promotion: “Activities that communicate the product or service and its merits to target customers and persuade them to buy.”
  4. Place: “All the company activities that make the product or service available to target customers.”

All of these elements have their specific place in any company’s marketing strategy.

The 7-Ps of Services Marketing

In the context of services marketing, Booms and Bitner (1981) have therefore suggested an extended “7-Ps” approach that contains the following additional “Ps”:

  1. People: All people directly or indirectly involved in the consumption of a service, e.g. employees or customers.
  2. Process: Procedure, mechanisms and flow of activities by which services are consumed.
  3. Physical Environment: The environment in which the service is delivered. It also includes tangible goods that help to communicate and perform the service.

I would argue that all of these combine to become 1P, namely Proposition:


Q – Qualitative and Quantitative Research

See previous A to Z of Marketing

R – Return on Investment and other measures

Knowing your numbers following the launch of a new product or service is crucial. I have listed some of the more common Key Performance indicators below, but you may have others:

Marketing Performance:

Number of leads generated via channel vs target

Cost per lead vs target

Leads converted to sales vs target

Cost per sale

Sales Performance:

Number of sales per channel

Number of sales cancellations per channel

Number of disconnections / leaving the service

% of pipeline converted to sales

Order Intake vs forecast and target

Operational Performance

Net Promoter Score

Number of Complaints

% of orders complete with SLA

Number of customer service / technical support calls vs forecast

Financial Performance

Monthly revenue vs forecast and budget

Monthly Gross Margin vs forecast and budget

Average Revenue Per User or Customer

Total Operating Costs

Return on Investment


Before any product goes on the market, it’s advisable to carry out an effective market analysis known by the acronym SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Questions you should keep at the front of mind as you consider the SWOT for your new product:

  • What product/s are we selling?
  • What is the process we have in place to sell the product?
  • Who are the customers, who are the people interested in our product?
  • What ways can we deliver the product to the customers?
  • What are the finances needed to create and sell this product?
  • Who will oversee all the stages from having an idea, to having enough finance to complete the task?

Using a 2×2 grid and a selection of people from your organisation, really analyse where your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats are for your market and in particular for your new product or service.

Prioritise them and ensure that any mitigations / activities are built into your plan. Ensure your strengths are clearly articulated in the proposition and opportunities acted upon.

T – Third Party Relationships

In most product developments, you will need to work with third parties to supply goods or services.

The process begins by selecting the right vendor for the right reasons. The vendor selection process can be a very complicated and emotional undertaking if you don’t know how to approach it from the very start. You will need to analyse your business requirements, search for prospective vendors, lead the team in selecting the winning vendor and successfully negotiate a contract while avoiding contract negotiation mistakes.

The most important success factor of managing 3rd party relationships is to share information and priorities with your vendors. That does not mean that you throw open the accounting books and give them access to your systems. Appropriate vendor management practices provide only the necessary information at the right time that will allow a vendor to better service your needs. This may include limited forecast information, new product launches, changes in design and expansion or relocation changes, to name a few.

Another important factor in building relationships with third parties is trust. Be as open as you can with them and if at all possible incorporate the third-party in you new product development team.

U – User Acceptance Testing

In an ideal world, all projects would allow adequate time for testing. Project teams would plan exhaustive testing for each piece of system functionality and if they ran out of time then they would drop functionality from a release rather than compromise on quality.

With business systems, it’s virtually impossible to test for every possible eventuality. We must therefore ask ourselves what is the most important functionality that must be tested within the available timeframe. The obvious answer is – the business functions that the system will deliver and on which the project justification is based.

User acceptance testing should be performed by business users to prove that a new system delivers what they are paying for. Business users have the knowledge and understanding of business requirements that IT testers do not have. They are uniquely placed to accept or reject the new system – after all they have to live with the consequences.

I would also argue that customer testing is also useful during stages of some product development so that areas such as usability and ease of purchase process as well as FAQ’s are meaningful and so on.

V – Value Chain Analysis

The term ‘Value Chain’ was used by Michael Porter in his book “Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance” (1985). The value chain analysis describes the activities the organisation performs and links them to the organisations competitive position.

Value chain analysis describes the activities within and around an organisation, and relates them to an analysis of the competitive strength of the organisation. Therefore, it evaluates which value each particular activity adds to the organisation’s products or services. This idea was built upon the insight that an organisation is more than a random compilation of machinery, equipment, people and money. Only if these things are arranged into systems and systematic activates it will become possible to produce something for which customers are willing to pay a price. Porter argues that the ability to perform particular activities and to manage the linkages between these activities is a source of competitive advantage.

Value chain

In most industries, it is rather unusual that a single company performs all activities from product design, production of components, and final assembly to delivery to the final user by itself. Most often, organisations are elements of a value system or supply chain. Hence, value chain analysis should cover the whole value system in which the organisation operates.

A typical value chain analysis can be performed with the following steps:

  • Analysis of own value chain – which costs are related to every single activity
  • Analysis of customers value chains – how does our product fit into their value chain
  • Identification of potential cost advantages in comparison with competitors
  • Identification of potential value added for the customer – how can our product add value to the customers value chain (e.g. lower costs or higher performance) – where does the customer see such potential

W – Warranties, Service Levels, Terms and Conditions and Contracts

Whilst legal support should be always be sought when pulling together product conditions of service, it is essential that as the person leading a product development you have a clear view as to what the key conditions of service should be for your product or service. This area, depending on your industry, can be hugely complex and may end up being a critical path activity in your project plan, so it is key that you initiate this activity as soon as your proposition is fully defined.

X – X Functional Teams

Ok, I cheated. Cross-functional teams are key to the success of product management, probably more so than for any other business activity. Products cannot be developed successfully in isolation.

A highly effective cross-functional team includes representatives from across your organisation. Obviously, some people will be busier than others at certain stages in the process, but it’s important that you enrol the cross-functional team from the outset and keep them in the loop. Examples of represented areas in your organisation or even outside may be:

  • Project Management
  • Product Developers
  • Customer Service
  • Technical Support
  • Logistics
  • Information Technology
  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Pre-Sales
  • Legal
  • Finance
  • Suppliers
  • And you should consider having a customer or two on your team!

They will be the champion for their department, bringing information from their function to the product team. They’ll also serve as a product champion, communicating back to their department on the product development and what impacts there’ll be back in the department.

Y – Yield Management

Yield management is the process of understanding, anticipating and influencing customer behaviour in order to maximise yield or profits from a fixed and/or perishable resource. Examples of industries where this needs to be thought about as part of product management are:

Airlines, Hotels, Rentals, Insurance, IT and Telecoms

The core concept of yield management is to provide the right service to the right customer at the right time for the right price. That concept involves careful definition of service, customer, time, and price.

Z – Zappos’ Values

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll have heard of Zappos. is an online shoe and apparel shop based in Henderson, Nevada. In July 2009, the company announced it would be acquired by in an all-stock deal worth about $1.2 billion. Since its founding in 1999, Zappos has grown to be the largest online shoe store in the world generating $2.1bn in sales in 2011

Zappos employees live by the following values, ones that the best product managers I’ve come across in my career live by too:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

I hope you enjoyed this A to Z and would love to hear your Product Management stories and successes.


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