Category Archives: General Writing

Posts that may be of interest to the general reader, not necessarily with a Christian theme.

Measurement and wonder – counting and celebrating


This is an article I posted on my business website, but I thought my readers here might enjoy it too – those of you who haven’t entirely given up on another Wondering Preacher post.)


‘Soon man will count all his days, and then smaller segments of the day, and then smaller still—until the counting consumes him, and the wonder of the world he has been given is lost.’    Mitch Albom, The Timekeeper

Ians HourglassMitch Albom has hit on one of the missing ingredients of our modern pressurised existence. A sense of wonder. We seldom get or make the time to stop and enjoy. Counting and measuring is far more important to us.

I read Mitch Albom’s book, rather significantly, while preparing a workshop on performance management. Managing performance comprises a great deal of measurement. We measure success against our targets, of course, but we also want to know how we fared against others chasing the same targets. Because everyone knows that first is the only position that really matters.

Measurement is essential in business, of course. In manufacturing, mere seconds saved in one part of the process can translate into thousands of rands off the price of the product. In accounting, accurate records ensure efficient management of funds. And cash flow is one of the most important measures in any business.

However, in all the measuring, it is easy to forget the wonder. Wonder? In business? Has all this ‘soft skills’ training made Simply Communicate soft in the head? Actually, no.

Steve Jobs, for all his drive and lack of people-management skills, never forgot the wonder of innovation. He delighted in what he could show us, and delighted us as well.

Richard Branson has always been ready to throw out measures that restrict rather than empower, and in his latest book, The Virgin Way, he explains that he has thrown out the measurement of annual leave.  With employees expected to be available 24/7, a company can no longer measure time spent on the job; how can one justify, therefore, trying to measure the time spent off the job?

It comes with a risk, but it will deliver more empowerment to employees than dozens of other initiatives might. Employees are expected to be up to date and organised before riding off into the sunset, of course, which presupposes that other measures are in place. An employee must know what their job is, for example, and what their deliverables are.

Brand Pretorius writes in his book, In the Driving Seat: Lessons Learned in Leadership, ‘I’m all for chasing the numbers in business, but … I found more satisfaction in the so-called “soft issues”.’
‘I believe that business is about much more than just the numbers. It is about making a difference to the lives of employees and the community. It’s about doing what is right for the benefit of all.’

Do the things we measure add to our employees’ sense of wonder, their enjoyment, their sense of achievement, or do they act as a burden, slowing employees down? Do employees become focussed on the measurement rather than what the measurement enables them to achieve? Indeed, are we so obsessed with measuring achievements that we forget to stop and applaud the achievement itself?

When a child comes home, excited at having come second in the race, do we ask them why they didn’t come first? If their report card says 80 percent do we ask them why they didn’t get 100?

Albom pleads with us to celebrate the moment. Take time to wonder. Applaud the achievement. Most people respond with enthusiasm to recognition and applause. We want more of it and we will do anything to get it. Give your employees and your children something they will want to experience again and again. Celebrate the moment; take time to wonder. And that goes for your own achievements, your own moments of celebration as well.

What have you stopped to celebrate recently? Tell us in the comments below.

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Out of work: A new venture


I handed in my notice this week.  I have done that a couple of times in my life, but this is different. I am not going to a new job; there is no pay cheque waiting; there is nothing out there but good intentions and interested people. While I’m taking early retirement, I’m not retiring, and, having received a salary every month for the past 40 years, that’s a rather scary prospect. 

I have spent the past few years thinking about my future and what I am going to do with myself until retirement age and beyond, and more important, who is likely to pay me to do it.  I have seven years before compulsory retirement age, but I have a mother alive and well at 84, and a father still working as a pharmacist in a local hospital at 86.  You will understand, therefore, that, however uncertain life may be, long-term planning is called for.

What I do know is that I do not want to run an organisation’s Human Resources Department for another seven years.  A training department, now that’s a different matter, but there are few of those opportunities around this area. 

I knew that training would have to be part of what I do; I knew also that writing should play a role, but exactly what I could offer to whom was elusive.  After a long time wondering, praying and generally feeling somewhat inadequate for anything, we finally have a plan.

Raymond Ackerman, of Pick ‘n Pay fame, wrote about four legs to a business table.  Perhaps I am not aiming high enough, but I have three “legs” on my model.  The first is training and development of people.  This will take various forms, including part-time lecturing, workshops and seminars, and individual coaching and mentoring.  The focus of the seminars and workshops will be management skills, so-called soft skills, writing, and other themes that may take my fancy (and that I can persuade enough people to pay for).  Some will be my own material while some will be in partnership with quality training and development specialists.

The second leg is writing.  Having spent 16 years working with journalists I know that I will not, in the short term, make a healthy living from writing (I am no J. K. Rowling).  But my love for writing came as a serendipitous discovery a couple of years ago, and I have been indulging myself (with your help, of course, Dear Reader) ever since. Any form of writing or editing will do, and a couple of possibilities have taken shape.

The third leg will be general consulting work in the field of people management.  There is a surprising oversupply of HR Consultants, from the highly qualified to the not so, in this small city, so I do not expect to do much here, but the other two “legs” may feed work into this area.

I am creating a website with its own blog called Simply Communicate where I hope to draw readers (and clients) to my wise words and helpful hints geared towards managers of people. Do pay a visit, but it will be a work in progress for a month or so. Although some themes are universal, the emphasis will be on the South African workplace, and managing people in the ever-changing landscape (some would call it a minefield) of this country’s labour legislation.  Personally I never complain about the legislation.  Its complexity (trying to bring order and certainty into the mess of human relations) and it’s employee-centred focus has helped provide me a good living for 16 years, and long may it continue.

With the internet, of course, writing is no longer restricted by geographic boundaries, so if you have any writing or editing to be done come 1 September 2012, do let me know, I shall have some time on my hands—not too much time, I hope.

I plan to continue this blog with its particular focus, so don’t go away.

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Defeat or Da Feet: The Great Pink-Slipper Controversy


Something quite different, for those of you who don’t get Pietermaritzburg’s local newspaper.  Here is something I had published on the Great Pink-Slipper controversy: the greatest scandal to rock the South African National Defence Force in modern times—and it’s not what you think. Find the story HERE.

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Grandpa’s Christmas


Christmas gifts.
Image via Wikipedia

One of the advantages of being a Grandpa is that Christmas doesn’t take forever to arrive.  As a child I remember having to wait a lifetime for the year to pass and for December finally to arrive.  Even then it seemed to take another few months to get from the first to the 25th.

Now that I’m a grandpa, it takes no time at all.  “Wasn’t it March just the other day?” one asks on 31 July.  And it seems that, by the time we receive an answer, it’s already the end of October.  I find myself rather wanting to slow the calendar down as we race towards the end of the year.  But don’t tell my grandson that I have such scandalous ideas.

I have no culinary or gift-buying skills—both weaknesses carefully honed.  As a result I am not very involved in the usual frenetic round of buying and baking that accompanies the build-up to Christmas.  I am able to enjoy the more leisurely pursuit of Christmas Carols, contemplation, and the gathering of friends and family, not to mention the benefit of other people’s baking.

One of the disadvantages of age is that one’s pile of presents has dwindled rather drastically over the years.  “Your pile of presents is over there” has been replaced with, “This one is yours, and you can open that one; it’s for both of us.”  However, while my grandson won’t believe it for another few decades, there are more meaningful things for grandpa than presents.  Friendship and good conversation, a chance to relax away from the pressure of work, and the celebration of Christmas with a deeper understanding of its true meaning; these are the benefits of a grandpa’s Christmas.

That is not to say that presents are not welcome or that a slightly larger pile would be wasted on a grandpa.  Each to his own, but this grandpa would love to settle down with a good book—a book token from a local bookshop or money to spend at a second-hand bookshop would do the trick.  A meal out and coffee with friends would go down a treat.  Of course, if your budget allows it, you can send a couple of plane tickets for me to visit my sons and grandson on the other side of the world.  But if your budget does allow it then you probably aren’t on my Christmas list.  In that case a cool T-shirt will have to do.  At least my grandson will think his grandpa is hip (if anyone is still hip).

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Climate Change and Human Dignity


South Africa hosted the COP17 Climate Change Conference down the road in Durban over the past fortnight. 

Whether the “landmark roadmap” agreed in overtime on Sunday will be significant or not remains to be seen.  Otherwise most of what happened seemed to involve a lot of blaming, name calling, and posturing.  The USA and China are said to be the big bad wolves.  Is it significant that, unless I missed something, not once during the two weeks was there a single mention of the talks in the headlines of The New York Times?

Two headlines did, however, grab my attention. 

The first was this quotation in The New York Times on 2 December:

“My rapist has destroyed my future. No one will marry me after what he has done to me. So I must marry my rapist for my child’s sake.”  This was Gulnaz, a 19-year-old Afghan woman imprisoned for adultery after being raped, who had been pardoned the previous Thursday on the condition that she marry the man who raped her.

I felt desperate for this woman, for her society, and for our world.

I also heard a radio report on 3 December of a South African journalist expelled from Qatar.  He was employed by Al Jazeera.  When he arrived in the country he was given a medical and was found to be HIV positive.  According to the report he was bundled off to jail like a common criminal where they apparently gave him another medical in front of other prisoners.  He was then expelled from the country.

I know the climate-change debate is an important one.  Even if (as some suggest) we can do nothing about the changing climate we can make the world a better place in which to live for all its citizens.  But these stories leave me wondering if we aren’t rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.  If we cannot get the fundamentals of human kindness and dignity right and learn to treat the vulnerable as human beings, to treat one another at least as we would want to be treated, then what hope for the world anyway?

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Cut the Gossip


Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...

One of the more important lessons about writing that I have learned is that less is more.  One can always, and I really mean always, cut what one has written.  It’s very difficult and sometimes extremely painful.  I find it particularly difficult to cut out a good story or a humorous phrase that I know will get a good response; but if it doesn’t fit, cut it out.

Being brief, cutting out the nonessentials, is one of those fundamentals we just have to get right if we want to keep our readers to the end.  But, like all rules it can be broken, as long as you know what you are doing.  Put me in a kitchen and you’ll have to give me a recipe, which I’ll follow to the last teaspoon, because I don’t know any better.  An experienced chef will know where she or he can deviate from the recipe.  In the same way an experienced writer can happily break rules to good effect.

John Kenneth Galbraith is one such writer.  His expertise with words makes him a delight to read, even though his subject is economics and he spent his life in academia and government, neither of which is usually associated with elegant prose.

While reading Galbraith’s memoirs, A Life in our Times, I found him breaking the rule about using fewer and simpler words (not for the first time).  He was describing the Scottish-Canadian community in which he grew up.  According to the rule, he should have written, “The people were diligent, gossiped and obeyed the law.”  Nine words which tell us a fair amount about the people.  He wrote, instead, “The people were diligent, given to much harmless pleasure in recounting the physical and mental disabilities of their neighbours, and greatly law abiding.”

Twenty three words but “gossiped” just doesn’t cut it, does it?

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