Machines (Back to the humans) or: who leads whom?

At the most recent Henley Business School global masterclass, I was immediately pulled in by the motto “Championing humanity in a Digital World”. That’s due to two factors:

  1. I recently submitted my Henley MBA on the impact of digitisation on the music industry with its benefits (data transparency) and threats (staff redundancies) and the need for freelance or gig economy workers to do some “old school” sitting around the fire – exchanging knowledge and stories – in other words, cooperate and collaborate – even among competitors.
  2. Some of the most impressive musicians of our times, such as QUEEN, came up with their rather visionary lyrics on the relationship between humans and machines – as in their 1984 song “Machines (Back to Humans)”. As if they’d known that one day, Henley would create a global masterclass on that subject….

In his opening speech on day 2, Henley’s very own Director of Alumni, Jean-Pierre Choulet, created the background scenario by a rather unusual run-through of what humans have achieved so far. His focus was not on what humans invented but their relationship with the items they had “domesticated”.

Humans “domesticated” plants – this led to a dependency on potatoes and rice. We no longer need to hunt and kill what we want to eat.

Humans also “domesticated” 1s and 0s – this led digitisation. We are now dependent on (meta)data and machines.

So who leads whom?

Does humanity lead digitisation or is it the other way round?

Where does the energy of the humans come from? Not from a battery but from other humans or nature. Digitisation may well have bought humans time to do other things by automating previously menial tasks. It has, however, also led to a lack of human interaction.

With Henley’s amazing personal development courses, as part of the MBA, it is clear that their focus is on being “an exclusive faculty for humanity”. Back to the question about who leads whom though.

The course participants reacted with unsure glances at each other when Jon Foster-Pedley asked them to breathe in and out just so they could decide which of the two activities they preferred. All that just to reiterate that just doing either activity, but not both, would kill you. The requirement for a BALANCE between the two activities was the main eye opener of the sessions for me. It hammered home the importance of the equilibrium between the “in and out” and, in this context, the balance between the human and the machine (or digitisation).

As long as neither becomes enslaved by the other, the balance will be maintained and should ensure a more sustainable future for mankind. On a small scale, this balance might be that we should learn to resist the urge to stare down angrily at our mobile phone navigation apps, willing them to lead us to the correct location, and instead look up and ask another human in the street for the way. We may be surprised what else we can learn from such short conversations.

On a bigger scale, this balance might be that corporations and companies remember that humans need energy and the biggest energy provider is nature – which means that innovation to create sustainable ways to live on our planet may well involve digitisation, but it probably also means that we allow ourselves to follow our original gut feelings and instincts – in fact, be human!

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Expect the Unexpected! Doing an MBA (part 2)

Of course the MBA journey is different for everybody.

And, of course, the key learnings are different for everybody.

On Saturday 21st April, at Henley’s MBA Open Day, I was part of the alumni panel. I was surprised how many of my fellow alumni mentioned that some of their key learnings were similar to my own.

The MBA is not just about tangible learnings such as setting up a successful strategy, programming processes, winding your way through workflow diagrams or – heaven forbid – fathoming finance!

The MBA is also about intangible learnings such as your own personal development. And that’s not a bad thing – your personal development acts like an umbrella for all of the tangible modules.

So, just like with the English weather: be prepared for the unexpected and bring your umbrella!

Some major eye-opening moments, and thus key learnings, during my MBA journey relate to the so-called “blind spots”. Trust me, seeing the blind spots has nothing to do with going to Specsavers…

Key learnings or the ‘aha’ effect

Key learning #1: Becoming unconsciously competent

I enjoyed learning that there was a difference in my own knowing that I had a skill, using that skill consciously, and ultimately using that skill like second nature (unconsciously). This is also called the hierarchy of competences.

During the MBA journey, not all of my ‘expert area’ assignments felt as easy to me as I had expected (e.g. International Business). Modules where I had no previous hands-on experience, however, produced not only the best marker feedback but were extremely fulfilling (e.g. Reputation & Responsibility / Relationship Marketing).

Therefore, I realised that I had – in some areas – mastered the level of unconscious competence, while in others I was still at the bottom of the competence ladder – the unconscious incompetent level. Room for improvement – a good thing!

Key learning #2: Listening vs talking

In our first workshop, we were asked to talk to other people. I took this too literally and did the talking, not the listening. Some of us (myself included), feel that if “you don’t tell first, someone else will” (cf. Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry). Therefore, I jumped into telling mode, overenthusiastic and helpful, yet totally missing the point the other person might want to make, just like how a good Formula One racer wants to get that pole position (Ferrari fans, anyone?)

Which brings me to …

Key learning #3: Providing help vs making others dependent

The biggest eye opener was actually a comment from a fellow cohort member: “Weeeeeell, it’s great that you help others but ask yourself this: are you really helping them or are you actually making them become dependent on you?”

I had not expected to talk about unfathomable depths at all (and no, I’m not talking about finance here!).

Don’t worry – your MBA journey will not be a couch session with Sigmund Freud. There will still be enough spreadsheets, diagrams, TED talks, statistics, frameworks and models, assignments, exams and the big dissertation at the end.

However, you may – like me – come away with a clearer view of yourself and a new-found relationship with yourself and your skills and how you use them.

In my particular case, the following proverb sounds like the exact visualisation of my key learning #3, the helping:

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Sooooo –  this obviously suggests that I help someone better if I teach them how to [insert chosen skill here] instead of giving them a [insert finished product here].

That is, alas, not very sustainable if you are a self-employed consultant like I am.

If I taught all my clients to “fish”, then they won’t need me in the future, right?

And that’s where I will save a report on how I took all of my above learnings to make the jump from theory to practice in the next and final part of this blog…

For now, I suggest you pack your brollies!

Once in a lifetime – doing an MBA (part 1)

Henley Blogs

Are you smart enough?

I spent more than 10 years in C-suite jobs in the music industry. I didn’t get there by being smart, or using my know-how alone. A lot of it involved using my heart, not just my head, trusting my gut and also a little sprinkling of luck. 

Being in the right place at the right time, for example gripping someone’s hand in a turbulent flight on an airplane, talking to someone on a train or in a lift or sharing a taxi with someone who might later cross my career path again.

Incidentally, there’s a book called Hearts, Guts, Smarts and Luck which one of my favourite authors, Dorie Clark, recommended in one of her recent TEDx talks.

So back in 2013, I left C-suites and set up as an entrepreneurial freelance consultant. Where had I got to in terms of my smarts

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An MBA can make you even more of a “Wonder Woman”

Henley Blogs

By Rachelle Gaskell (Executive MBA 2014)

In the words of Wonder Woman, if you want to discover and hone your full powers and drive towards true destiny, a Henley MBA will play a huge part in helping you make that happen!

For cinema-goers and DC Comic fans, June 1st 2017 was a big day: the new Wonder Woman film hit the big screen.

Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, Princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior.  Raised on a sheltered island Paradise, Diana meets an American pilot who tells her about the massive conflict that’s raging in the outside world. Convinced that she can stop the threat, Diana leaves her home for the first time, fighting alongside men in the war to end of all wars and she finally discovers her full powers and true destiny.

Director Patty Jenkins is the first woman to…

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Olympics for Freelancers

Gold Silver Bronze shutterstock_29607409 (2)

Medal rankings of the why, how and who of knowings

Have you ever asked yourself whether it’s WHO you know or what you know (your “Know-HOW”) that made you a successful freelancer? Or have you actually considered taking the WHY into consideration – why do freelancers choose their careers, do they choose them at all (or is the choice made for them) and what makes them stay freelancers?

My Henley Business School MBA thesis on independent music industry professionals focussed on strategic options for freelancers (such as creating freelancer co-operatives).

It also dealt with the “intelligent career framework“, in other words, I interviewed music industry players which of the three “knowings” (why, how, whom) they considered to be the main ingredient for the recipe to success.

But first….

So what comes before the WHY?

According to the authors of a recent HBR article, the three things employees really want are

  • a career (the how)
  • a community (the whom)
  • a cause (the why)

So, you may ask, what are the three things freelancers really want?

Well, the cause in the case of freelancers can have two faces – the reason they want to be a freelancer and the reason they have actually become a freelancer.

Why (part 1): the reasons you become a freelancer aren’t always pretty

Digitisation – which obviously also affected the music industry – has led to a slump in profits for some of the bigger companies. Their reaction was a crash diet consisting of mergers, acquisitions and a big red pen. Three guesses what this did to the number of freelancers in the music industry. Exactly. Their numbers grew a lot!

Of my MBA research group, 25% mentioned redundancy or job loss as the main reason for becoming a freelancer. Despite such relatively negative triggers to their career change, not all of them considered their new workstyle as an interim solution, or a ‘stepping stone’ only back to employment. Quite a few actually began to enjoy being a “solopreneur” and reported wanting to remain self-employed. They witnessed a shift in their motivation to work and the alignment of their values with their work.

Why (part 2): Pros of being a freelancer

The major attributes listed by interviewees as the main pros of being a freelancer were:

  • Flexibility
  • Freedom
  • Autonomy
  • Independence
  • Work-life-balance
  • Choice
  • No more politics
  • No more bureaucracy
  • Control
  • Variety

What struck me in particular is that none of my respondents mentioned “getting rich” as their main motivator. Instead, being a freelancer was more a “lifestyle” than a career to them!

Why (part 3): Cons of being a freelancer

The main cons of being a freelancer lie in the insecurity and uncertainty related to issues such as the next payment, as you sometimes have to bang on your customers’ door for payment 4 months after you sent them the invoice despite a 14 day payment term. Being a freelancer isn’t as seamless as many think – the majority only see the benefits (“och, you have it well, you can go for a walk in the sunshine on a Monday, it always rains on Mondays”).

It seems there’s no sunshine without rain (or no spring without snow as the recent weeks showed), as freelancers do:

  • yearn for individualism yet they lament a lack of belonging or loneliness –Richard Branson tweeted “are we better connected but lonelier than ever?”
  • want to be independent, yet they crave a support network – many struggle without an IT helpdesk, and don’t get me started on pension, accounting or tax issues
  • enjoy their flexibility, yet wish they had more structure – this starts with simple things as having some sort of external time management or timetable to guide you through the day

As is the case with many aspects of people and careers, opportunities can also be threats and motivators (the “why”) can also become demotivators.

So what comes after the WHY?

Surely, you might argue, it doesn’t matter after a while why you became a freelancer in the first place. You are partially right as many freelancers’ entry into this world of flexibility and freedom has been involuntary.

However, there’s another side to the coin. The WHY actually continues to be important in your freelancer career as it represents your values, motivation and personality.

In my opinion (and my MBA conclusion), the WHY fully deserves a gold medal. This is due to the fact that your know HOW and know WHOM alone are not enough for success and are thus joint silver medal holders, needing the WHY as the ‘glue’. Success is more likely in the long run if you have got the drive and the passion to go ‘solo’ in the first place.

So, to answer the question from the first paragraph, what are the three things freelancers really want? Well, the first one, an in-house career that employees seek, may not be one of them for freelancers.

But it’s likely from what we have seen above that freelancers may concur with their employee counterparts on the two other things: the notion of community (belonging & networking) in terms of the WHOM and cause (motivation & values) in terms of the WHY.  And as Dorie Clark suggests in her many fabulous publications, the third one is likely to be competence (expertise & mastery), reflecting the HOW.

So how would you dish out the medals?

What you know vs. Who you know vs. Why do you do this at all – is it really a “versus” or is it a holy trinity?

why how whom

Finally, my MBA dissertation topic stands.

It is about the challenges for freelancers in an increasingly competitive environment and the choices for them to select the right mix of ingredients for a sustainable career – in terms of knowing why, how and whom.

Do skills matter, do freelancers need to develop their knowledge – corporations have entire departments focussing on learning & development….

Is it better to be a generalist or an expert/specialist? Are freelancers expected to be jacks-of-all-trades, being their own CEO, CFO, CTO, CMO and CSO (and in a way their own HR Manager – schizophrenia not required, I’m talking about learning and development  here i.e. the what you know)?

Or is it really about who you know – someone that acts as your “door-opener”, word-of-mouth-free-of-charge-marketer? Is it the quantity or the quality of your network – and how about the strength of weak ties (Granovetter)?

This is what I am trying to find out with my qualitative research for my dissertation – based on the wonderful framework called the “intelligent career framework” (DeFillippi et al, further discussed by Parker et al and finally taken towards the freelancers’ world by Dutch academics van den Born and van Witteloostuijn)

I am going to look at these “drivers of freelance career success”, in other words, the knowing why (your personal capital – your identity, personality and values, the reasons why you do things, your motivation), knowing how (your human capital – your skills, experience, competencies, knowledge) and of course your knowing whom (your social or relational capital – network, relationships, reputation, alliances).

The trick will be not to be subjective. I mustn’t turn this into an either / or scenario but tickle out views from my interviewees that may even suggest that there’s a little more than the three knowings mentioned above.

Or, as someone at a networking event at the IOD said yesterday: It’s not what you know it’s whether you know how to use it. And it’s also where to use it and when. From a future perspective, as strategies only make sense looking forward, not backwards, there’s also the topic of not running out of motivation or steam – as my previous post said: the loneliness of a long-distance runner…. freelancers also suffer from loneliness, underlying values such as belonging might be something you miss when you’re a sole trader. As a consequence, I believe the why is really important – your personality, and your personal development – your emotional resilience especially.

As I embark on my research, I must, above all, remain objective and unbiased when interviewing the research participants. But all will be well in the end. And if it’s not well, it’s not the end yet, as we know from the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Just like my learning journey hasn’t come to an end either. It has only just begun.



There’s a light (over at the Frankenstein place)


Every cloud has a silver lining….. there’s a light at the end of the tunnel….

Different people deal differently with failure. The healthiest way is, in my experience, to let it all out (emotions) on Day 1, then look at it ‘neutrally’ on Day 2 (facts only), take stock of what you learned on Day 3 (analysis) and move on altogether on Day 4!

In other words, follow the Atkins cycle of learning (cf Chris Dalton’s blog:

Day Two – Model answer to the question “what just happened”?



To do these things in isolation, however, is not the best idea as the tendency of human nature to mull over the negatives rather than focus on the positives is all too present.

If you have just come out of a difficult work situation, a job interview or a relationship issue, try and do these steps for yourself AND together with someone else.

During the pursuit of your career targets, you will undoubtedly encounter some setbacks, and a friend in need is a friend indeed. They can help you find that light leading you out of the tunnel (and not necessarily to Frankenstein’s place).