Friday, 31 October 2014

The Anglo-Irish Experience

The Burren limestone pavement in Co. Clare

Our family holiday over the summer took us to the Emerald Isle.  Thanks to joint international careers in the airline industry we are very well travelled and I am a strong proponent of the idea that travel broadens the mind, having undertaken a US exchange year whilst at University.  With access to an unrivalled international flight network we do try to explore during our vacations, often visiting less obvious locations.  So no sea, sand and bucket and spade for us this summer, the notoriously cloudy and wet western extreme geography of the British Isles was chosen by our eldest son Joel, who was keen to experience first hand the land of our ancestors.  He was excited when I mentioned our royal connections and that he is a sixteenth Irish, as my great grandfather came from Ennis, Co. Clare in the west of Ireland.

Marketing inversion ?

Given our access to air travel and ancestral connection it was really quite surprising that this was our first trip to Ireland (I don't count a half day visit to a graduate careers fair I did way back when).  O'Brien is a very Irish name, meaning of the Raven clan, and 2014 saw a significant 1,000 year celebration of Brian Boru's armies success in ousting the Vikings and unifying Irish power into a single kingdom.  I am still not quite sure how and when 'of Brian' became O'Brien, the most common spelling and there remain a number of similar spelling variants e.g. Irish comedian Dara O'Briain, and also O'Brine, O'Brion, O'Bryan, McBrien, McBrine, Briand, Briant, Brin, Brinnes and Brien.  Near 100% literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon and we need to remember that for most of our recorded history only a minority of the powerful/religious have been able to read and write.  

Arrrgh !  Viking amphibious duck tour

In Dublin our visit to the wax works and on the amphibious Viking Splash ! tour afforded the family a number of opportunities to learn more (something ?) about Irish history, including the 1922 hard fought for independence, driven by resentment towards English landlords whose evictions during the three 1840's potato famines would surely be described as a major genocide this century.  Nearly a million died and two million were displaced, Ireland's population has never recovered.  We weren't taught this in school, in fact, in retrospect I suspect there was quite a lot of anti-Irish discrimination, with migrant workers (who helped fuel the Ryanair low cost airline business that heralded cheaper short haul flying) in UK often forced into taking low paid manual work in industries such as building.  Indeed, musician and Band Aid humanitarian Sir Bob Geldof famously worked on one of the first sections of London's orbital M25 in the 1970's.  

An American ex-colleague from Chicago (where the city's river is dyed green during the major St Patricks day celebrations) asked me a few years back why Paddy's day was so low key in London.  I asked if she had heard of the IRA, whilst delicately suggesting the troubles in Northern Ireland had rather inhibited open arms celebration of Irish culture in UK.  I still remember talking to people who had heard the bomb that sought to kill then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the Tory party conference at the Grand Hotel on Brighton's seafront. A period of relative peace, the Celtic Tiger economic boom (and bust), the craic permeated by Irish pub chain culture, political correctness and further European Union integration have seen many of the negative stereo types banished, replaced by a very positive coolness.

Although geographically close and separated politically less than 100 years, I found during our short visit a number of interesting cultural differences, with some of the more memorable and striking listed below:

Familiar - but not red ?

  • Notably, post boxes with GR (George Rex ?) are painted green rather than UK's red, a source of mirth for my in-laws when they visited. Odd that they remain but the Eire Post Office use progressive sticky backed blank stamps that are printed to order.  An example of nimble and lean approaches that a smaller (or just plain broke ?) nation state can implement.  Physical stamps days are very numbered, I feel.  

  • Much more comprehensive dual language place names - stronger even than Wales, which has put great efforts into regenerating the Welsh language and culture in recent years as it has benefitted from devolved powers and funding from UK. 

  • Road signs were strangely familiar (motorway signs were blue). Cars drive on the left, but following a democratic consultation, distances are in kilometres and my rental Nissan Qashqai 's (built in Englands North East, Sunderland) speedo showed Km/h.  New signs in UK still don't use metric - surely a pragmatic incremental approach to European standardisation ?

  • Material investment in tourism attractions, particularly in the more remote west coast.  I'd hoped to experience natural beauty in an un-developed and low intensity manner.  I was found to be expressing my disappointment in the over commercialisation at the better known locations, that seemed to be far too busy.  Tourism is a significant part of the economy (4%, still low compared with UK 10%), alongside agriculture. Low corporation tax incentivised tech companies like Dell, Yahoo and Facebook bring needed jobs to the Dublin area.  The green screen (Free !) ePostcard facility at the Cliffs of Moher (see image below) did excite me.  Good to see that our EU contributions are being used innovatively.  Clever social media too, with a 10 second video of us waving !  

    Self Service Green Screen technology puts us on the Cliffs of Moher, and makes the sun shine too !

  • One cabbie referred to "Angela's roads", referring to German Euro funded EU infrastructure development that sees widespread and immaculate road surfaces and an excellent Dublin centric radial motorway system, although tolls nearly caught us out requiring Euro coinage we had to scrabble around to find.  Two hard winters and a period of austerity sees roads I use in the south east in a very poor state of repair.

In honour of the US Presidents ancestors:  A petrol station !

  • Barrack Obama plaza, a large scale motorways service station halfway across the country boasting a food court and its own local radio advertising campaign.  I am not sure that having a motorway service station, with impressive food court, is necessarily impressive - however pragmatically practical the investment might have been.  I've certainly never seen this before.  With ex Presidents Clinton and Kennedy and now O'Bama (?) the Irish can claim an impressive range of powerful ancestral connections.  Muhammad Ali, boxing legend who danced like a butterfly, but stung like a bee, visited Co. Clare's Ennis like us, the town where his great grandfather Abe Grady hailed from.  

  • We enjoyed unpicking the rules of Gaelic Hurling, a cross between hockey, rugby and physical intimidation as two local teams competed in a tense semi final.  The scoring took some explaining as a stick smash of the ball into the football goal counted for three points, whilst a rugby style shot through the posts was just a point.  The supporters passion and intensity was familiar, if the teams and sport weren't.  

O'Brien drinking Guinness

  • At the Guinness Storehouse tourist attraction ( suggests Dublin's No. 1) you circle around a symbolic beer glass (the largest in the world our host informed us) passing numerous cafe/pub consumption opportunities before concluding the visit in the extensive merchandising store, having sampled a pint of J. Arthur's best with an impressive view from the top.  Family entrance defaulted to include four child vouchers, suitable only for soft drinks, of course, but highlighting the (unsustainable) conservative Catholic position on contraception and the very young population.  I've begun to question the appropriateness of the 2+2 family discount tickets we often benefit from in the cinema.  

The dead end

  • Local Co. Clare radio had a section on bereavements, publicising times when mourners could visit the family in state and pay their respects.  Some of the more earthy language used in public would not pass muster on the BBC, and we aren't talking clever use of Irish language disguise as the Pogues do. Again on the radio, an animal welfare official who wasn't going to share the details of mistreatment to a dog, lest he upset listeners, but then did, at some length.  

Loved Ireland.  A great experience.  Dublin is a craic-ing Regency town.  Keen to re-visit, gateway Belfast with Game of Thrones location tour and Giants Causeway very much on the to do agenda.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Entrepreneur Profile: James Hind

Employability Insight: working in a start up

Following a surprise hit blog on employability (link) we bring you a Q&A profile of entrepreneur James Hind, CEO and co-founder of carwow

Who are you and what do you do ?

My name’s James Hind, co-founder and CEO at carwow. I started carwow after graduating from university; I had originally planned a career in corporate finance but was put off after an internship.

James Hind (left) with co-founders Alexandra Margolis & David Santoro.

What does car wow do ?

carwow is a comparison site for buying a new car. We let consumers browse offers from authorised car dealerships across the country, so they can see how car prices and dealer reviews compare. We work directly with dealerships, so we provide them with a platform from which they can boost their car sales, and we’ve helped them sell over £100m of cars since we launched last year.

What is the business model and what’s unique about your product ?

We charge a set commission for each car sold as a direct result of carwow. When it comes to USPs it’s simple: there are no direct competitors in the UK market. Whereas car brokers operate behind veils of secrecy and typically only work with one dealer per brand, we are entirely transparent and put our users completely in control of the buying process – just the way it should be.

Where is the company (& customer offering) going ?

We’ve been fortunate enough to grow very quickly. This time last year there were four staff and we worked with a handful of dealerships, now there are 20 of us and more than 400 dealerships across the UK. The plan is to continue to establish our market share in the UK. We’re doing well but there’s still a huge amount of room for growth. Beyond that, we can expand the product into different market segments such as used cars and commercial vehicles, as well as moving into other geographical markets.

What's it like to work in a tech start up like car wow ?

A lot of startups work incredibly long hours, but we prefer to work smart. So it’s a fairly typical working day, hours are 9-5.30. We have a lot of fun, plenty of team nights out, and there’s a ping-pong table in the office. The thing that really sets it apart from a big company is the camaraderie within the team, everybody pulls together to hit targets and keep improving what we do.

What skills do you look for when recruiting new starters and what kinds of people are successful in your organisation ?

We look for hard-working bright people who can work on their own and make their own decisions. With just 20 staff, every single person has a vital role for the business and it’s crucial they can take ownership. We also look for people that we believe will fit the culture, ie people who are able to have a laugh but work hard when required. Fortunately we’ve never really had any staff issues, and the people we bring on board tend to like working here and perform well.

How do you hire people ?

It depends on the position but typically we’ll post out some job ads and use a recruitment agency. The actual hiring process itself is a phone interview, followed by a face to face with the relevant team, and finally an interview with the CEO (me).

Do you offer internships ?

Absolutely, we’re always looking for people and any support we can get is awesome, we’re also

passionate about showing young people how awesome startups can be. If you’re looking for an internship, ping an email over to

What extra-curricular activities would carry the most weight for current uni students ?

Practise what you preach ! If you’d describe yourself on your CV or in your interview as ‘entrepreneurial’, are you a member of the enterprise society ? Do you run your own business alongside your studies ? Basically just be able to back-up anything you claim. We’re big ping-pong fans too so that’s a plus, but don’t be so good that you beat all of us!

What motivated you to start car wow ?

I’d always known I wanted my own business, but figured it would come later in life. After an internship in corporate finance I was stuck for what I wanted to do to kick off my career. I’ve always been passionate about cars and advised friends and family on what cars to buy, so I figured ‘why not now?’, and never looked back.

Over arching mantra ?

Nothing in particular, just to keep plugging away and be patient as one of the founders of airbnb said something along the lines of ‘Our “overnight” success took 1000 days.’

Got an interesting background or experience you would like to share with our dedicated careers team ?  
Please contact 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Base camp to summit: like a hot knife through butter

BiG research makes for easy writing

I am often challenged by colleagues when I ask for big bibliographies, sometimes up to four pages, with double line spacing for a relatively short word count assignment.  I am definitely not a sadist, and there is proven methods in my apparent madness, let me explain more....

Big research = 

STRONG foundations

Inviting students to use the third / third / third approach to using journals, text books and quality industry web sources should encourage some familiarity with the academic writing style, (if you don't read it, you can't know what you are supposed to do) structural conventions and Harvard in text referencing.  

Build your house with strong foundations, do not be afraid of digging down before you go up !

Having extensive notes and a range of ideas helps give students the plurality of opinions and perspectives that are absolutely necessary pre-conditions for developing analysis and criticality, content that gets the chunky marks. I find too many students, perhaps on all nighters, do not bring the required diversity and most importantly, the reflection that garners the poise and balance to achieve the top grades.

You do not just stroll up Everest in one go !                   ( and expect to return...)

For Dom Parry in Bristol
Expeditions see extensive preparations, a clear plan, defined objectives.  Even the BBC Top Gear crazies took instruction from sir Randolph Feinnes prior to their epic journey to the North Pole.  They knew not to sleep under their vehicles and were prepared for polar bear attacks.  They even knew that going to the toilet might be dangerous and made a special tow bar to mitigate this risk.  

So ground preparation sees students reflect on past performance and review assignment feedback comments.  I encourage peer review here, but egos often seem to get in the way here, which is a shame.  Even top marks can be improved and reviewing flawed papers can help reinforce the 'golden path' many students seek to follow.

Physical conditioning is important for students too, and this means ensuring sufficient rest and a healthy diet.  The freshman 5 or 15 ( referring to US lbs sometimes put on by first year students ) highlights that independent living can see fresh young minds ballast up their bodies unintentionally.  I find regular exercise is a great way to reflect and make connections, in fact some of my more creative blogs have come from this.  

I remember being amazed to discover that Everest climbers undertake numerous shuttles between the various camps, not just to acclimatise to the altitude, but to train their bodies to cope with the exertion and hardship.  Students need to do the same with iterations of reviewing marked work and polishing their drafts without fearing cutting back to base camp two and having a plan that provides for shuttles within the ascent.

Big research, little writing 

                   = winning strategy

Writing like a hot knife through butter

Although never popular for forcing deep research, I have had numerous students appreciate the learning and different approach engendered by a BIG research approach after completion, even rarely during.  It can feel like over kill, and probably is for a simple descriptive essay.  

The stress of reading and getting more confused rather than seeing the word count grow is a hurdle to plan to face.  But with rigorous paraphrased notes and faultless Harvard referencing, the writing process can be very straight forwards, like a hot knife through butter.  

The high point earning thinking has taken place in the pool, or coffee bar, or even lying in bed in the morning.  Committing words to paper can bring its own euphoria, the focus and excitement resulting in a joyous feeling, like abseiling down a tree trunk.  

Whilst others run hard to catch the train leaving the station and work disproportionately hard squeezing their lemons to stick twigs together to ape a tree like structure.  Then stressing about whether it was enough.  The challenge is never filling the word count, but getting the big ideas inside the limit.

The graphic tool I have just discovered and used extensively for the images in this blog is called Bamboo Paper.  I am no artist, but I hope you do not object too much !

The final graphic of this entry on the left shows the non-linear twisted journey of investigation as big and bold and red, as the blood like ideas flow around the brain.  

The modest sized ink pen symbolises the easy writing task that follows deep research.  Below is the cerebral confusion (??) and head scratching that a late rush job with limited research can engender and the large pink pen indicates the extra time required to stretch limited, thin content to fill out the word count.  A stretching process that can result in significant and obvious holes and telegraphed by a short bibliography.  

In petrol head, Top Gear parlance, it is SO much easier to write effectively with ample research Vurrrrrmph ! under your bonnet.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Critical Friends: Why academics make great NEDs ?

NED's (Non-Executive Directors) play an important governance oversight role acting as 'critical friends' within a board of directors (& sub-committees), offering strategic external perspectives and fulfilling a key role in board level oversight, ethics and remuneration.  

Having reached the C-suite there appears to be some value attached to the networking and experience that can be gained from taking on one of these 10 to 20 days-a-year roles.  NED positions additionally under pin an increasingly popular 'portfolio career' concept for well rounded and networked silver backs.  

O'Brien "Business School Academics 

can make great NEDs"

Many of my peers who remained in industry are at a point in their career when they are looking to broaden their CV and take on a NED role or two.  The entry point that is often recommended is to find a position in a charity or not-for-profit, who often welcome the business experience and contacts in a sector that is leaning more heavily on commercial business approaches. Leading blue chip companies might look for both extensive NED experience and a complimentary functional skill set that augments their board e.g. mergers, finance, politics and governance.

Mr Steele quoted in the FT noted that a NED "must be skilled in corporate governance, change management, remuneration policy, strategy development, finance and accounting, leadership, the law, corporate governance, and about 15 other things ... and have the personal skills of a saint....Risk: potentially enormous; pay and benefits: negligible."

I argue that more businesses need academic NEDs and here is why;

  • Freedom of speech is enshrined in university lecturer contracts, they are comfortable speaking frankly and directly without undue fear of reprisal.  Career changers are often surprised at the directness that can be used in non-adversarial collaegue exchanges, seen as either rude or grounds for a swift and unplanned career change in a plc, academics do not easily kowtow to authority. 

  • Many academic contracts allow for, or indeed actively encourage, 30 to 50 days of consultancy, which is seen as offering opportunities to develop professional practise that benefits business school teaching and research activity.  Whilst term time teaching is sacrosanct academics are afforded considerable flexibility on how they manage their non-teaching time, which can be three days each week.   

  • The UN Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) sees leading academic institutions well versed in ensuring appropriate engagement with corporate sustainability and social responsibility.  Questioning accepted behaviours using an ethical lens is often second nature to academic minds, where much of the work can have intricate layers of individual and organisational complexity.  

  • Charged with delivering to a diverse range of stakeholder objectives, academics are increasingly tasked with carrying out professional managerial roles in departments and Universities that operate in an ever more dynamic marketplace, under stringent moral, political and financial controls that necessitate a 'balanced books approach' every year end.  

Thus objectivity, a strong ethical compass and preparedness to speak out are often strongly enshrined in the academic experience set. And whilst beatification is rare for Higher Education professionals, the challenges of motivating millennial 'fresh minds' stuck in an iPad and coping the multi-farious conflictions of the public sector on a paltry salary, probably makes business school academics more qualified for NED roles than you might at first have thought.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Up Close and Personal: Photo journalism on the MBA

The Royal Holloway MBA group were exposed to some out-of-the-box thinking during induction by guest speaker Jeff Widener, celebrated US photojournalist who covered numerous dangerous conflicts in South East Asia.  

MBA Director Justin O'Brien has sought to introduce a number of arts based interventions in the traditionally business minded management programme to stimulate creative thinking processes and imbibe students with a strong flavour of Royal Holloway's liberal arts pedigree.  

World Exclusive: breaking East Timor 1994

Challenging bean counting thinking by "the management", Jeff regaled the MBA students of the dangers of penny pinching, behaviour that nearly lost his then agency AP (Associated Press) a major news coup. Having ducked out of the carefully orchestrated press tour of troubled East Timor, Widener found himself literally between the battle lines of civil protestors and thousands of troops. A civil unrest situation the Indonesian regime was trying hard to deny existed. Looking to break a world exclusive that had major political ramifications, he found his New York based office was reluctant to accept his international collect call (reverse charges). A key message of 'perseverance' was landed pretty firmly with engaged students.


Salvador Movie Trailer

The trail of this James Woods movie 'Salvador' perhaps captures the essence of the thrills, very real mortal danger and adrenalin rush experienced by conflict photojournalists.  

A guest of Royal Holloway's economic historian Dr. Emmett Sullivan, Jeff used a stunning portfolio of his work link to share reflections of a 40 year long career that took him up close and personal to life threatening assignments in Tianamen square, East Timor and Cambodia.  His highly regarded professional reputation also gave him access to meet and photograph leading world figures that included Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher.  More conversation reportage with Jeff can be found here.

Iconic 'Tank Man' image in Tianamen Square

The iconic "Tank Man" photo that came to epitomise the failed attempt by the Chinese people to rise up against their Communist oppressors required Jeff to risk his life cycling through battle lines and perch in a dangerously exposed position.  The difficulty of obtaining film saw this image shot using speed exposure, that lacks the fine detail of Jeff's usual work.  Initially lambasted by his editors for sending grainy images 'down the line' (pre-internet telephone line data transfer) Jeff was later eulogised for placing an image that was literally plastered across the front pages around the world.  

If you ever wondered where the expression 'Up Close and Personal' came from - I would point you at this Hollywood blockbuster staring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer....  

Redford/Pfeiffer movie trailer 

'Up close and personal'