Meeting Jim Lovell and Saving the Planet

I met Jim Lovell today!
Yes, Captain James Lovell of “Houston we have a problem” Apollo 13 fame!

Jim Lovell

I am not by any means a ‘space nerd’, but when I had the opportunity to shake the hand of the central character in perhaps the greatest human story of all time, I leapt at the chance.

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We travelled to Pontefract (where a
group of volunteers periodically
organise @Space_Lectures) to listen to
Jim Lovell tell stories of his days as
a test pilot for the Phantom fighter plane, successful missions with the Gemini
programme, and of course his
miraculous Apollo 13 adventure.

Travelling at 6000 miles an hour in space between the Earth and the Moon, one of the Odessey’s oxygen tanks exploded! Without the oxygen or power needed to return to earth, or the use of their rudimentary computer to recalculate trajectories, or a working filter to prevent rising CO2, their safe return was surely impossible! While almost every country on the planet united in hope, the bravery and skill of the crew, and the ingenuity of a few dozen people, turned this potential tragedy into a happy ending.

Jim Lovell described his resolve to “not be an orbiting monument to the space programme”; to find a way through any and all of the problems the situation kept throwing at them; and, to work out a route back to the Earth. As his disappointment over not landing on the Moon gradually faded, Jim began to see this as perhaps the best thing that could have happened to NASA – to show how people could work together to overcome unknown risks and unforeseen events, and continue to rise to the challenges of space travel.

As they made it around the Moon, Jim Lovell held up his thumb to the window, obscuring the distant blue globe that comprised everything every human had ever known. He realised what a special and privileged place the Earth is – that we don’t go to heaven when we die – “we go to heaven when we are born”.

As we all now hurtle through space on our special and fragile planet, running out of fuel and with rising CO2, sea levels and average temperatures, “Failure is not an option!”. Surely we can draw on that same ingenuity and unity of purpose that saved those three astronauts and, with the added advantage of a billion times more computing power, rise to the challenges of global warming and keep our home safe? or will we continue on our way to creating an orbiting monument to the human age?



Ready… Set… Go!

How do you start a new role quickly, effectively and make an impact?
So, you’ve met with your new client/employer: got a reasonable understanding of their needs and expectations; agreed that there’s a good skills and values match; identified what you can bring to make a difference; and, signed up for a start date in a few days time: How do you get into the role and start delivering as soon as possible?

Here’s my simple New Start Checklist 

Get Ready……

1. Handover
If possible, I try and meet with the person who previously did this job, or a similar role (or if not in person, then a phone conversation, or e-mail request for them to do me some briefing notes) to add to my understanding of the role, the organisation, the people and the challenges.

2. Research
I will already have done some research to prepare for the initial interview/client meeting, but I’ll revisit and enhance this by: doing a search for recent news about the organisation, look at their website, find out about the key people I’ll be working with, and highlight a few first impressions as a guide to what’s most important right now.

Get Set…..

3. Message
I’ll craft a message for when I meet new colleagues, who may be thinking

“Why are you here?”

  • As a safe pair of hands during a transition; or
  • To bring a particular expertise to a specific task; or,
  • To deliver an urgently needed change; or…?

And to give them confidence in what I bring and how they can work with me – what’s relevant to tell them about my recent experience, career history, expectations, values and management style?

4. Reading
My reading list will vary by assignment, but will probably include: corporate strategy, departmental budget, performance indicators, structure chart, annual delivery plan, project brief…as soon as I can get access to them, preferably in advance of starting on site.

5. IT and Business Support
It’s not often possible to sort out IT access, laptop, user name, outlook (or equivalent) and phone in advance, so I try and book time with IT on the first day, so they can make time and support available. Its also useful to meet early on, any Executive Assistants or Business Support staff who can help with booking meetings, rooms and equipment and help you identify who to meet next.


6. Objectives
If they haven’t done so, I’ll arrange a meeting with my manager (or client contact) in the first week to talk through draft objectives, and confirm level of authority and reporting arrangements. I think there are 3 dimensions: 1. a sense of the person, their pressures and priorities; 2. What you can bring to make a difference; and, 3. clarity about what, how and when. But, I prefer to keep these as draft objectives, for a short while, until I get to know the key issues.

7. Meet and Greet
I aim to introduce myself to all my immediate work contacts, in the first week, putting faces to names and places on the organisational chart. I use the de Bono trick of enriching the name and image of my colleague with an extreme or humourous association, to fix it in my memory. [Try not to use rude ones in case they ask! But here’s an example: Tom Smith in Finance >> Tom Thumb + Blacksmith = jumping around holding the sore thumb he’s just hit with his hammer, causing coins to fall out of his pockets.]

8. Diary
I’ll follow up initial introductions, by booking 1:1s over the first 2-3 weeks; log which days I will be at the client’s site (or not); and, ask my new colleagues to invite me to all the standing meetings and any other meetings which they think I’ll find useful. And then sort out diary clashes asap to prevent letting new colleagues down.

9. Milestones
By the end of the 3rd week, I’ll have a few early goals and key dates diaried, such as:

  • Feedback to client on learning and issues found
  • Update/complete objective plan
  • 100-day review of achievements so far
  • Briefing for colleagues

10. Ask, Look, Listen
The start of a new assignment is a great time to ask and listen. It’s tempting, as an experienced interim, having worked in my field for over 30 years, to make assumptions, jump to early conclusions, think I’ve seen it before and know the answers. I try and put that to one side and check my understanding, so that my learning, proposals and actions are specific to each client. Breaching unwritten ‘rules’ can get a new start off on the wrong foot, so I observe and ask about: dress code, where to eat lunch, hot-desking (v. territory), punctuality, e-mail norms, humour, etc.

Who Cares?

What does it take to lead a successful, caring service?

James and Paula run a national organisation that supports people with learning disabilities and people with autism, which means they really understand people – what help they need to make their own choices and decisions; what drives some people to support and care for others; and what their role is, as leaders of a caring service.

Care and Support is a difficult business to be in nowadays, with more monitoring, efficiency-savings, timesheets and IT, than you might imagine when you’re caring for people. Public spending cuts, the short-term expediency of commissioners, and increased scrutiny, have a negative effect on caring organisations. The common response is a focus on process, rules and their own survival, rather than on their customers. There’s also the negative impact on the people who provide the support – diminution of terms and conditions, less time to spend with customers, more paperwork, more saying no.

James and Paula believe that, in these conditions, they must model the way by retaining a strong focus on their customers and the core purpose of their organisation, communicating this well and in person. They strive to maintain a balance between “feeding the beast” (of bureaucracy) and quality time spent with the people being supported. Corporate messages, success measures and the daily actions of the leaders must recognise, reinforce and value the transformational working relationships with the people they support.

Supporting disadvantaged and disabled people to live the life they choose, and working with them through their challenges, set-backs and achievements, carries an emotional toll for the service-providers – many of whom are lone-workers, who can feel isolated and have their own issues to deal with. Their managers need to be able to identify when people are struggling and create formal and informal opportunities for people to offload and share their experiences.

At their best, leaders of caring services are inspirational role models, in organisations that provide development opportunities to ‘grow their own’, prevent burn-out and disillusionment. They are visible, accessible, involved and honest – recognising mistakes and learning from them, without fear or blame. They can balance creativity with pragmatism and promote compliance without dampening enthusiasm.

James and Paula say their role is to

“give staff the tools they need to do their jobs and get out of the way”

One in a series of case studies with, which explore how leaders of the social and caring professions can prevent burnout, and nurture resilient and compassionate front-line teams. If any of this is familiar to you, please share your story and your suggestions.

Why do Governors do it?

Many School Governors had never thought about being one, until the opportunity was advertised, or a colleague/friend suggested it to them. I asked my fellow Governors why their response was

“Yes. Why not?”

  • To contribute something to the local community
  • To have an interest outside of work
  • To be involved in decisions that affect the future of the school
  • To be more involved in my child’s education
  • To better understand the way in which a school operates
  • To fulfill my Christian faith and beliefs.
  • Because I am passionate about education
  • As a way of saying thank you
“I remember my first meeting as being quite daunting but as time went on I began to realise that governors are just ordinary people trying to do what is best for the school.”

What do you get out of it?

I enjoy learning about how the school functions and contributing to the various discussions and debates.

It also offers the chance to get to know more about where your kids go and to influence things about it you want to change.

A sense of community and shared goals.

The chance to work with an impressive group of professionals from a diverse range of professions and to learn from each other.

The work sometimes dovetails with my day to day work so it complements my professional interests very well.

Contact with the school where my four children were students for a total of 15 years, and an opportunity to give something back.

I enjoy feeling that as a governing body we make a real difference to the ethos and strategic direction of the school, ensuring that all our students can grow into informed and well-rounded participants in society.

I’m fairly new in the role so I’ve spent my first year listening and observing at meetings and I’ve attended a few training courses too so I feel better equipped now to know how to fulfil the role.

“It’s all about putting something back”

The School Governing Body comprises people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, which all make a difference and add something to the running of the school. For instance:

Having worked for 20 years in business I believe I can offer both level headed and analytical skills to go alongside deep pastoral concern for the fate of every child and member of staff in school.

As I work in education I can offer knowledge and skills in policy, research and professional development as well as information about resources.

I’ve learned business management and leadership skills over 30 years at work, which I can use to help make good decisions and support the school.

I have a particular interest in addressing climate change, I am working with the student Eco Council to try and help them bring about greater environmental awareness and sustainability.

I realised the need for the school to have people from the community to share their knowledge and experience to improve the school, not just educationalists who can get stuck in one mind set.

Make a Difference. Be a Mentor

I am lucky enough to work with a school that runs a mentoring programme for the students, and I know what a difference it makes. If you have time and skills to share, give mentoring a go…

You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” – John Bunyan

I had the pleasure of mentoring a young woman, who was hurtling towards the end of her school career, predicted not to get the target of 5 GCSEs and not to pass English, or Maths, which would make her future career choices really tough. One of the key tenets of mentoring is confidentiality, but let’s call her Tess. Imagine a girl that’s bright, popular, finds teachers boring, and has been on a downward trajectory of poor results, feeding ever lower expectations, and a bigger “don’t care” attitude. In fact you may know someone like Tess, or even have been a Tess!

The school saw the potential in Tess and asked her (and her parents’ permission) to join the mentoring programme. The outcome was:

Tess passed 9 GCSEs, including English and Maths!

It works like this…. A mentor is not an authority figure; they don’t tell, they ask; their ideas and suggestions don’t come with emotional baggage or professional pride – you can’t let them down. There are no bad marks or penalties: the mentee’s actions are their own choices, they set their own objectives, and judge their own achievements.

As a mentor, I always focus on the positives: What are you best at/enjoy most? How can you do more of those? What steps forward and/or little successes have you made this week? What could you try next? And so on. Tess and I never discussed missed deadlines, things she didn’t or couldn’t do, problems in class or at home.

A mentor is not a counsellor, a teacher, or a friend. Mentors are people with life and work experience, who are giving their time freely, and this implies that there is purpose and value in the process and the person. The school must also value and believe in the student to have included them in the programme. Therefore – “I must be worth something”.

And of course they are, and an hour every week or so, is not a big price for such an important investment. In return you get the pride and reward of making a difference at a turning point in a young person’s life and, like me, you might find that you learn a lot too.

When will teachers learn?

Teaching is a physically and emotionally challenging job. Getting 30 –40 young adults to engage, think, work together and make progress in as little as 40 minutes before moving onto the next lesson, means that you have to be resilient, get your job satisfaction from working with and inspiring young people, and be able to use your own strengths and skills to get results. Sharing the joy of learning is all about drawing on your own life experiences and learning from new challenges and experiences. But when and how do teachers get a chance to learn?

Many years of constant change, new national curriculae, inspection, centralised decision-making, bench-marking and new initiatives have stifled creativity and instilled a fear of failure. Teaching is not the revered profession it once was and teachers can feel hard done by, not trusted to use their professional judgment and become risk-averse. For some teachers, the stress from the demands of the job and the regulatory, bureaucratic environment, is such that their initial enthusiasm and energy gets ground down, their performance and motivation goes downhill and their career may even end on a sour note.

Mary, the head-teacher of an achieving comprehensive school, accepts that there is a need for standards, accountability and rigour, but thinks there should be more flexibility in the national framework and regulatory system. Improving teaching performance must include providing security and opportunities for learning and growth, not just finding fault and instilling fear through inspection and performance statistics. Recent policy changes may  have ‘swung the pendulum’ back towards learning and the classroom, but what can school leaders can do to nurture and develop their teachers to be resilient, positive, learning role models?

  • Constantly promote the purpose, core values and focus on the children
  • Find ways of investing in teachers: make them feel valued
  • Accept, encourage and reward different styles and innovation
  • Give praise, positive messages, say thank you
  • Shared celebration of achievements
  • Create space and time in the school day to reflect and recharge
  • Promote a culture of peer review, sharing ideas and giving constructive feedback
  • Allow and learn from mistakes

“I would rather that a teacher tried something new which didn’t work than ‘stuck to the script’ every time.” Mary, head-teacher

But, one of the consequences of public spending cuts is the lack of ongoing professional development and training opportunities for teachers over and above mandatory courses, which are primarily focussed on curriculum and legislative changes. Being observed and judged in the classroom is not something that teachers find comfortable and these skills require training and experience. Investing in education must surely mean investing in the continuous renewal of energy, knowledge and skills of the teachers.

Teaching is personal and teachers give of themselves everyday. In return, Mary would like to see mentoring and/or coaching being more widely adopted, to support personal development and emotional strength, to help build confidence and resilience, and to ensure that teachers continue to learn and develop themselves as well as the next generation.

“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves” Galileo Galilei

One in a series of Case Studies with the Mindful Leadership Foundation which explore why some people in public service become miserable doing what they love: and how leaders of the social and caring professions can prevent burnout and nurture resilient and compassionate teams. If any of this is familiar to you, please share your story and your ideas.

Great Expectations

Housing Officers have always been at the forefront of tackling diverse and difficult problems, working with deprived communities. Recently safe-guarding, anti-social behaviour management, and welfare reform have increased the challenges, whilst reinforcing the importance of the ‘social’ aspect of social housing.


Philip runs a Housing Association in the North-East of England and has seen how the role of the Housing Officer has changed over the years. National housing policy changes provide further impetus to develop the holistic, person-centred role of the Housing Officer.
The promised ‘lighter touch’ regulation and less emphasis on centralised targets and inspection will help to reduce some of the fear, bureaucracy and standardisation which have recently stifled creativity and ownership.


Philip has led his organisation through a major leadership development programme recently and believes this has paid great dividends in developing a positive and performing culture. The leaders in the organisation are the role models and what they say and do every day sets the tone: their written, verbal and non-verbal messages need to reinforce the vision and values of the organisation. They are encouraged to recruit new housing staff with the right competences – particularly communication, empathy, resilience and organisation, and follow through with a comprehensive induction.
Creating a positive,achieving culture must start from the top, and at the beginning.


But it doesn’t stop there. There are job challenges and external pressures that need to be constantly managed to counter the negative effects of too much bureaucracy, a public sector tendency towards command and control, and an emphasis on prescriptive standards and processes rather than purpose and outcomes. In this environment, staff can feel hard done by and undervalued, become disillusioned, lose motivation and get ‘written off’.


Philip thinks his housing staff are of high-calibre and that their motivation, performance and job satisfaction can be maintained by paying attention to a few key leadership responsibilities:

Leadership Rules

  • Communication of a shared vision throughout the organisation, so that everyone knows what they are doing and why
  • Strong focus on purpose and ensuring that ‘form follows function’ (and not the other way around)
  • Delegation and trust to make decisions
  • Give people the tools they need to do their job
  • Positive and constant feedback about progress and achievements, focussing on outcomes for the customers
  • Being proud of what we do and sharing our successes with our colleagues, partners and communities
  • Visibility and presence – staff out and about in their communities, and leaders out and about with their staff
  • Commitment to learning and self-development
  • Valuing and respecting each other
  • Encouraging creativity and trying new ideas – allowing failure without blame.


This case study is one in a series with the Mindful Leadership Foundation, which explores why some people in the social and caring professions become miserable doing what they love, and how their leaders can prevent burnout, and nurture resilient and compassionate teams. If any of these is familiar to you, please share your story and your ideas.