Martini Diaries – Episode 17. I’m back!

Episode 16 was written on June 15th, 2020. An incredible 95 weeks ago. I just re-read that diary entry, and noted how, after 90 days of covid restrictions, I had hoped it would all be over soon and common sense would prevail (allowing people to make their own judgments about risk). How wrong I was! But, we are now relatively normal, face coverings have gone, travel is open with no restrictions, social distancing is now just something my paranoid dog Molly practices, and for the vast majority of us covid is nothing worse than a common cold. Life must go on – or KBO as Churchill would have said!

In line that KBO spirit the Martini Diaries are back, and with a new audio version that you can listen to on a internet-enabled device – I have not been technologically idle in my absence. There are even plans afoot for a video version of the diaries as well!

Audio recording – 12 minutes

In this episode I travel to Edinburgh Scotland for the first time in 5 years, dine at the Hawksmoor and the Ivy, move onto my first ever visit to Newcastle and dine and stay at Malmaison.

I travelled to Edinburgh on Sunday the 3rd of April. Arriving early at Kings Cross I was able to visit the LNER First Class lounge for the first time, located above the Waitrose store and easy to find. Directly Operated Railways-owned LNER (London North Eastern Railway) is government controlled and has been since replacing the dreadfully inadequate Virgin Trains East Coast in June 2018. They also took over the Virgin First Class lounges. The lounge is adequate, clean and functional. Tea, coffee, soft drinks and biscuits are the standard fare – alcohol is available for purchase. It is a step up from the tired and dis functional Virgin lounge.

The train (I was on the 1430 hrs) was very pleasant. Comfortable seating, clean flooring and pleasantly climate controlled. Three observations from me from the First Class compartment. Firstly, I am not sure the train has to travel quite so fast. There were times when glasses and other items slide across the table as we entered turns – I suspect for those who suffer from motion sickness it might be too much. Secondly, only hot food is delivered on a plate, everything else, including my chicken sandwich, is left on one’s table (in its wrapper) on a paper napkin. Hardly the atmosphere of ‘First Class’. Finally, serving a pungent curry in a confined carriage on a train where the windows do not open should not be allowed – the smell dominated everything. LNER should try harder here. That said, the drinks flowed freely, and the staff seemed very happy and pleased with their tasks (again, a big improvement on the sullen and demoralised Virgin staff from a few years ago).

The time passed quickly (helped along by a half bottle of Moët I carried on with me!), plenty of work was completed, and we arrived in Edinburgh on time at 1910 hrs.

On route to Scotland

In passing I should note no one paid any attention to the announcement as we crossed the border into Scotland to put on our face coverings – there was just much laughter mainly from our Scottish passengers that covid somehow respected physical borders! There followed a bit of a long uphill walk to reach the taxi rank (I would imagine that might be challenging for those with significant luggage), somewhat detached from the Station. A short ride to our hotel – Le Monde, on George Street.

Le Monde describes itself as ‘a world of relaxed global glamour’, with ‘18 individually designed bedrooms inspired by the world’s most stylish cosmopolitan cities’. Unfortunately, the hotel is still emerging slowly from covid restrictions and was very limited in its dining options. It does though have a huge cocktail bar – in fact my taxi driver only knew of it as bar and night club, not a hotel!

Le Monde

My room, the ‘Los Angeles’ was impressive. A large very comfortable bed (that I didn’t want to leave in the morning!), huge bathroom and bath (big enough for three people!), a comfortable seating area, and walls festooned with black and white framed photographs of movie stars (over the course of the next two days the many visitors to my room collectively managed to identify all of them – after I had miserably failed to do so). In a first for me, on my many global travels, I could not fault the room. Well done Le Monde!

The Los Angeles Room

The same could not be said for breakfast – although delicious and very well cooked, service didn’t start until 8 am, and with everything cooked to order a 30 minute wait was the norm. Fine, if you are holiday, but very challenging if it is a working day.

Overall, a big tick from me. A fabulous location, great concept (so much nicer than the bland chain hotels), friendly staff, and great value for money.

Le Monde, looking along George Street

Back to Sunday evening and, after a quick unpack, we headed the short 5 minute walk to Hawksmoor, on 23 W Register Street, located in the rear of the Cheval, The Edinburgh Grand. This impressive building, originally the National Bank of Scotland and designed by award winning architects Mewes and Davis in 1936, finally completed in 1942. It is a stunning example of neoclassical Art Deco architecture. The decorative wood panelling are from American elm, Mexican pine, Honduran mahogany and English oak. Cavernous does not do it justice.

The food, although famous for its steaks, is for everyone. As it was already 8.30 pm we opted to avoid an first course and ordered the smallest steak (a fillet, at 300g). It came in 25 minutes, and was cooked to perfection (medium rare), that wonderful melt in the mouth sensation only possible with the finest cuts of beef. Washed down with a carafe of excellent Stellenbosch, Hartenberg, Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, it was a near perfect experience.

Between meetings on Monday I managed a walk around the local area in Edinburgh. I was very impressed with the restoration work and creations in Multrees Walk (in the corner of St Andrew Square), but thoroughly depressed by Princes Street (which now looks as run down as every high street in the UK). The closure of Jenners, such an iconic building, has added to the gloom. I hope the renovation being talked about for the building may help restore some dignity and glory to the area. But, wow, so many fabulous buildings and monuments in Edinburgh. The ‘cold’ grey stone of the building is somehow at the same time both sinister and majestic.

Monday evening we dined at The Ivy. I have never been to an Ivy before, and was pleasantly surprised (I am always one to be sceptical of hype). The only disappointment was the use of a reduced menu for our table (as we were a large group), and some of the menu items we had hoped to enjoy were not for us! My peach negroni was interesting, but you should never play with a classic. Food wise, the double baked Cheese Soufflé was magnificent, and I had to order some bread to soak up the remaining melted cheese. My turbot was somewhat smaller than I usually see in Portugal (on holiday), but well cooked and satisfying – some roasted garlic would have added to it I suggest. And then the chocolate bomb was sensational. For wine, the Chateau Montrachet lived up to its reputation.

The Ivy, Edinburgh
The Chocolate Bomb

I left Edinburgh on Tuesday afternoon very pleased with the work goals and objectives achieved, and very much in love with Edinburgh – a pleasant surprise to find it recovering very well from covid (there was little local enthusiasm to follow the current Scottish government compulsory, and often contradictory, face covering regulations). I look forward to returning.

Back onto LNER to Newcastle, and into the Malmaison Hotel, on 104 Quayside. My first stay in this chain. A very friendly and efficient welcome at Reception. My room, again, was spacious, clean, with all the facilities I would need (although the red and black striped carpet was not very soothing!). Now an hour ahead of schedule, and spotting a large bath in my bathroom I indulged in a relaxing bath. However, after the bath I attempted a cooling shower and found the shower (in the bath) stuck on scolding hot. My attempts to move the dial resulted in the tap head falling off! Reception advised me that maintenance do not work after 5 pm (!!) so I would need to move room – having unpacked I said no. They kindly arranged for me to have a room key to another room to use that shower in the morning. Well done! (An observation: Both Le Monde and the Malmaison rooms, when I arrived, were pre-set at 23c on the room thermostats. Why 23c? Who on earth heats their house to 23c? No wonder there is an energy crisis if every hotel room in this country is so hot!!)

I enjoyed two excellent negronis in the bar, and then dined in the Chez Mal restaurant. After some excellent calamari I enjoyed another fillet steak (not quite as good as Hawksmoor), and then fell in love with the truffle oil and Parmesan fries – where have they been all my life? All washed down with a very good Saint Emilion, Chateau Saint-Ange. This was an impressive restaurant – the staff were superb, service came at a steady unhurried pace, and the overall ambiance of the room suited the location. I would go again.

Malmaison, Newcastle

After a working visit the next morning to the superb facilities at Newcastle University I caught the 1410 hrs train back to London, eventually arriving home in Ipswich at 1900 hrs. I managed to clear all outstanding emails and catch up with projects, and also enjoy a very good toasted tea cake on LNER in the afternoon (on a real plate!).

So, travel is back, work is productive, meeting people face-to-face is back, the trains are running on time, restaurants are providing great food and service. It seems the country is on the road to recovery – I am delighted to be playing a small part of it! See you next week……

Top Tips for Leaders – Pursue Excellence, not Perfection

Are you, or those you lead, perfectionists? Are you focused on ‘doing the thing right?’ Perfection gets in the way of progressing our projects – they are never quite good enough. The outcome of constantly pursuing perfection can be quite demoralizing for the team. We see paralysis set in, and an inability to innovate can pervade. As Voltaire said “Perfect is the enemy of the good”.

I would rather suggest that you follow a policy: ‘The relentless pursuit of Excellence, not perfection’.

Focus on ‘doing the right thing’ rather than ‘doing the thing right’. Focus on results and impact and outcome. It’s a mindset of ‘test-learn-improve’, where good enough is good enough. Top tips for leaders: Relentlessly pursue excellence. Don’t be a perfectionist.

Top Tips for Leaders – Pursue Excellence not Perfection

Top Tips for Leaders – The Art of Being in Control

How do you manage to keep control of everything that’s going on within your organisation? You need to position yourself where you can have the greatest impact. This is about situational leadership. It’s about taking different approaches to the scenarios you face. So I would suggest you need to be on a daily basis, even an hourly basis, where the action is, as that is where you can have the greatest impact.

Top Tips for Leaders – Make Action Your Goal

Leaders should constantly commit to take action. Taking action is what leaders are all about. How do you take action? Ask yourself a simple question ‘What is the next action step I need to take to move this project forward now?’ Then, the key is to commit to take that action. Next, apply that methodology across all of your projects, and a sense of momentum suddenly starts to take place across everything that you’re responsible for. You are taking action. Make action your goal!

Top Tips for Leaders – Take a ‘time out’

This week’s 2 minute video asks: How do leaders cope in a crisis? How do leaders cope when deadlines are looming and passing, when there is crisis all around them? There is chaos, poor communication, advisors coming at the leader with differing opinions which the leader has to make very difficult judgments upon. The answer may sound illogical, but leaders need to walk away, to take a ‘time out’. It could just be a couple of minutes. It could be hours. It could be half a day or even a full day, but leaders need to walk away. It will be a time to reflect, think, get the bigger, greater perspective and, only then, come back. Great leaders don’t work harder, they work smarter. Watch the video here

New YouTube Channel Launched

Today I launched my new YouTube channel. The idea is create a place to host videos for Top Tips for Leaders. Each video will be just 2 to 3 minutes long, and each will have a single focus.

The first video is called ‘Inspect, not expect’ and deals with how to keep control of delegated tasks/projects without having to be accused of micromanaging.

You can visit the channel’s first video here:

I hope you enjoy it!

Return to The Office

Yesterday, Tuesday September 1st, 2020 my organisation returned from the ‘Work From Home’ situation (employed on 24th March, 23 weeks ago) back into our office. Although the office building was declared ‘COVID Safe’ on 16th June I felt the staff needed a period of notice to prepare to return, and we also needed a better understanding of how reliable London public transport would be. I eventually selected 1st September as the date to work towards and instructed everyone to prepare to return then. Those unable to return would need to apply for ‘flexible working’ as per the pre-existing extant policy.

Continue reading “Return to The Office”

Martini Diaries – Episode 16

June 15th, 2020

In which I travel on public transport for the first time in 90 days to spend a day in London, unfortunately find it a depressing and dreary experience dominated by excessive signs, posters, stickers, one way systems and high visibility clothing, and reflect on how our ancestors would view our inability to tolerate or manage personal risk.

Continue reading “Martini Diaries – Episode 16”

The Martini Diaries – Episode 15

March 25 – June 15 2020.

Welcome back to the Martini Diaries – as we enter the 12th week of lock-down in the UK I am beginning my plans to return to my office in London later this month. I felt it was time for a short period of reflection before we begin to share together the continuation of my life and travels as a CEO of a global non-profit organisation.

What have I learnt about leadership over these 11 weeks of being confined to barracks away from my team?

Continue reading “The Martini Diaries – Episode 15”

Book Review – ‘Staring at God – Britain in the Great War’

A few years ago I was very fortunate to undertake an unplanned tour of the Ypres battlefields from the 1914-1918 Great War. My wife and I were enjoying a short holiday in Brugge and decided to spend a day on a guided tour (because the weather was so brutally cold – it was mid-December – we had exhausted all the indoor museums and the only option left was outdoors. At least on a tour we could be inside a warm vehicle!).

Two memories remain from that tour. The first was finding without planning, thanks to our luck of having a first class military historian as our guide, the area where my Grandfather was taken prisoner in 1940 during the retreat to Dunkirk (he then spent the period 1940 to 1945 in various German Prisoner of War camps). The second was, despite my own natural curiosity in the war from my background as a military officer, a new fascination with the Great War of 1914-1918.

I have read many books since on the military aspects of the war, so to find a book which focuses on what could be described the ‘home front’ has been a thoroughly unexpected education. ‘Staring at God – Britain in the Great War’, by Simon Heffer, is his third volume of the period 1838-1939, and covers 1914-1919. There are 12 sections in the book, logically following the sequence of the period, overlapping chronologically where necessary to maintain the dialogue. We travel from Build-Up, War, through to a Coalition, then consider Conscription, the Political Coup of 1916, Attrition (Somme and Passchendaele), and end with the Armistice and then the Aftermath.

Within these sections Heffer skilfully, and without emotion or bias, stays within UK homes, Parliament, factories, coal mines, munition factories, and spends considerable time discussing the Irish situation, including the Easter Risings. The political plots, sub-plots, scheming, and the air of general incompetence abounds.

My reflections are many. I am left staggered to have found that Prime Minister Asquith, whilst a principled Liberal, was too passive in his approach at war time leadership and spent his afternoons in his London Club reading, evenings playing Bridge and weekends on the golf course. Can you imagine Churchill having adopted such a stance in the Second World War? How Lloyd George conducted a coup against Asquith to replace him as Prime Minister, and then turned into a dictator and a pathological liar (although some would argue he was already a known liar). In his pursuit of personal power he single handed managed to destroy the once great UK Liberal Party – it never gained power again. Moreover, his distrust of Haig (perhaps understandable after the slaughter on the Somme and Passchendaele), nearly led to defeat in 1918 when he lied about troop numbers in Flanders, which enabled the Germans to advance so close to victory in March-July 1918.

The losses of human life are staggering. 744,000 British dead, 1,600,000 wounded, close to 300,000 with no know grave because they just disappeared in the mud or explosions (believable perhaps only if you stand in the Menin Gate and consider the 54,000 inscribed names of missing soldiers in that area alone of Flanders). 18% of ex British Public School boys died, 1,157 just from Eton College alone (the single highest loss for any school), and junior officer casualties 3 times higher as a group than any other rank. Hardly a family in the country which did not suffer some form of loss.

On the domestic front Heffer describes the painfully slow transition of the country to a state of total war (for the first time in its history), and how challenging that was for the Liberal Party to achieve as it went completely against most of their values. The transformation of an economy and a country to a level of state intervention never envisioned – unprecedented levels. Hundreds of thousands of women entering the work force for the very first time. Yet, in a time of national emergency, Unions still calling on their members to strike for more and more pay (often the threat of enlistment of the strikers in the army was the only bargaining chip left for the government).

The war was eventually won not by some heroic battlefield engagement, but through exhaustion on the side of the Germans (before it happened in the UK). The blockade by the Royal Navy of Germany effectively starved them into defeat. Attrition and exhaustion.

I would mourn the loss of the great Liberal Party – it was replaced with a more hard-nosed form of politician, and the beginning of the new polarisation of conservatism against idealistic socialism (pretty much where we are still are today 100 years later). At the end though I am left considering the positives – the emancipation of women, the beginning of better health care and education, a more egalitarian future, a loss of natural deference. But what a price to have paid to achieve these positives.

Heffer captures this transition to the new 1919 UK well – and leaves us eagerly awaiting his fourth volume for the period 1920-1939.