“Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house burn down.”
American author and farmer Wendell Berry

After 13 years of ownership we have recently sold our home near Bordeaux … with mixed emotions. There is an expression here that the happiest day in your life is when you buy your first French chateau, surpassed only by the day that you sell it. I know well what they mean.

At this stage in our lives we eventually found 15 acres, 8000 square feet of home, 2 additional cottages, several extra outbuildings, assorted staff and various animals and livestock to be somewhat restricting to our changing lifestyle needs. We will look for a smaller home (2-3000 sq. ft.) on a more manageable parcel of land (1-2 acres) just a bit further away from the city of Bordeaux, and closer to the small pretty village of St. Emilion, where most of our friends live. This should also give us the freedom to be able to spend more time with our daughters, grand-daughters and friends in Australia and New Zealand.

Author: Fabien1309 (own work); CC BY-SA 2.0 FR license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Fabien1309 (own work); CC BY-SA 2.0 FR license; via Wikimedia Commons

This “downsizing” has necessitated the need to seriously unclutter, as having previously lived in a house of similar size in Singapore, we have now had 20 years of living in large homes with unlimited storage.

We have already ordered a large rubbish skip, made multiple trips to the local dechetterie (tip/dump) and charity shops to dispose of accumulated memorabilia, keepsakes and souvenirs including old electrical equipment … TVs, DVD players, VHS tape decks, old irons, PCs and other assorted bits that still worked, so the hoarder in me just found another storage spot for them in our voluminous attics. We have also made a number of trips to the local dog refuge with 4 old large kennels and assorted dog paraphernalia, which we kept after our old dogs went on to doggie Valhalla, despite now only having 2 small terriers. I even finally disposed of the vast assortment of chargers that I have accumulated in a box over the last 20 years, a box that I am sure many of my contemporaries can also claim to own.

Author: Speculos (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Speculos (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I admit that we still have a long way to go !!!

It has made me think about the clutter that most managers tend to accumulate during their careers, and the need that they have to regularly clean out their own “house” in the same way that we are now doing. This includes:

– Followers … Most executives will over a successful career accumulate a coterie of followers, and the tendency for many successful and mobile managers is to take them along in their travels. I believe that this is mostly wrong. A key role of every manager is to create and develop talent for the whole organisation rather than only for themselves. Furthermore, keeping a team of people with you, across different roles and different companies, means that you just continue to perpetuate your own image and beliefs in an ever changing business environment. Your direct reports, especially those that are skilled, are like your children, in that you can train them, grow them, teach them values such as integrity and honesty, and then cut them loose to build their own successes rather than to trail along behind yours. New situations and new companies will need new people and different ideas.

– History … I have no question that it is important that we all learn from history, but it is critically important that we do not become prisoners of history. The fact that something worked (or did not work) some time ago in your past does not mean that it will (or will not) work today. Philosopher and novelist George Santayana (1863-1952) is believed to have said “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. The point is that many of us build patterns that we tend to repeat whether they worked well or not. Successful executives tend to try and address new situations with an open and fresh approach rather than to believe that past patterns will always provide a solution to new challenges.

Author: W. J. Robertson and the Education Department of Ontario; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: W. J. Robertson and the Education Department of Ontario; via Wikimedia Commons

– Beliefs … While key human and business values may not readily need to change, beliefs should be questioned at all times. One such example is the belief that women are mainly only capable of succeeding in certain management roles such as HR and Finance, and that executive roles in fields such as Engineering and Sales are much more suited to males, this being a statement made to me recently by a company CEO. What a load of bollocks, as it has been proved over and over again that management skills and management roles are not gender specific. My father believed that medical practitioners sat at the right hand of god and were infallible, and that bank managers should be revered and feared, both beliefs that have been proved to be entirely incorrect today. To be successful, managers need to ensure that they are not building their environment on ingrained, but outdated and hence questionable beliefs.

– Successful strategies … I have met quite a few executives who seem to have a belief in the “one size fits all” approach when it comes to developing business strategies, based on the simple fact that something has worked for them in the past, and so they are reluctant to let it go. Successful strategies in the past need to remain exactly that … in the past. I have come across people who on their resumes claim to have 15 years of experience, but who on closer examination really may only have 3 years of experience five times, having implemented the same approach and the same strategic initiatives each time, and often having then moved on before this one approach to business challenges even had a chance to be well tested.

Author: Pkor43 at English Wikipedia; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Pkor43 at English Wikipedia; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– Busyness rather than business … Many executives clutter their day with meetings, emails, attendance at conferences and other commitments on their calendar that keeps them incredibly busy, but in areas that add little real value to their careers or to their company. Simplicity is not about how much we can do with how little, but is more about how well we can prioritise and how good we are at doing the important things first. When you are clear about your role, your purpose and your priorities you can more easily discard whatever is unnecessary.

American author Christina Scalise rightly said “Clutter is the physical manifestation of unmade decisions fuelled by procrastination.”



“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. “ Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) an American Founding Father.

Photo by cliff1066; via Wikimedia Commons

I was once asked my opinion about why it was that Americans and Australians were generally so optimistic about life whereas Europeans were basically pessimistic.

After some thought I replied that maybe it was because Australians and Americans had a relatively short history and therefore tended to look to the future rather than the past, making them more optimistic by nature. Europeans, who had such a long and dramatic history, tended to look at the past more often, making them generally much more pessimistic.

It got me wondering about the pros and cons of a long history to look back on, and why some people can be so affected by it.

I have come to realise that there is a difference between people who learn from history and those that become prisoners of their history, and that this can be as true for individuals as it can be for nations.
I have found this particularly interesting in France where some of the attitudes of the people are still coloured by their view of the French revolution of 1789. There seems to be this belief that anything that is hard fought for should never be surrendered, even if it has become outdated, which is one of the reasons that it is so hard to get the French to give up the 35 hour work week, even when it is obvious to all that the country can simply not afford it any more.

It is also one of the reasons that most times it is difficult to do successful brainstorming sessions with French groups, as it is hard to stop people from telling each other why their idea won’t work because, for example, it was tried and failed in the time of Charlemagne (742-814 AD), and so why would it succeed a mere 1270 years later.
In the same way people can get bogged down in what they have done in their past, and just keep creating the same set of conditions over and over again, supporting George Santayana’s statement that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Author: Historical and Public Figures Collection; NY Public Library Archives; via WIkimedia Commons

I have one friend who has been married 4 times to women who are not dissimilar, in that they were all very strong, self-centred women with their own minds, being characteristics that he finds incredibly attractive … for a limited amount of time. It has not been possible in the 30+ years that I have known him to convince him that despite four failures with these specific types of women, that he may actually be better off with a gentler, less driven partner in life. I have even suggested to him that rather than re-marrying he should, every five years, just find a woman that he really dislikes and buy her a house, as in the long run this would be significantly less painful and disruptive to his life.

I see this need to repeat history in many management people as well, who would prefer to believe that strategies that worked well for them in the past will continue to do so in the future.

However, it is very rare that this is the case, as everything around us keeps changing with an ever increasing rapidity, and what we did yesterday to become successful is unlikely to work in the same way today with changing market conditions, competitors, social standards and customer expectations.
It is the same challenge with management practices. For example, “Command and control” may have worked well in the early days of the industrial revolution, with time and motion experts analysing every move armed with their clip-boards, but will certainly not work today.

Similarly I see many managers who were very successful managing a small team, who have not changed their management style or focus when they were promoted to a position where they now needed to manage managers, which generally takes a very different approach. I had a colleague who moved very quickly from sales manager to national sales director to country managing director who continued to spend most of his time schmoozing and socialising with his sales reps, as that had always been successful for him in the past. It certainly did not work in his MD role, as he disregarded other parts of the ecosystem including customers.

Everything that we have done in the past has been instrumental in making us the person that we are today, and it is important that we retain and build on all the history that we accumulate over our lifetime, and that we gather as much learning and understanding of it all as is humanly possible. However, it is critical that we accept that this is all just part of the building of our individuality, and that there are many elements that we have to let go as we replace them with new ideas and new ways of doing things that are more suitable to the current environment. The older we get, and the more successful we become, the harder it is to do this as our history grows, and as the length of this history becomes a greater percentage of our life expectancy. The older and more senior that we become the more important it is that we do not let the past become too great a controlling influence on the way that we live our lives today.

Ultimately “Men are not prisoners of fate or history, but only prisoners of their own minds” Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945) 32nd President of the US.

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; via Wikimedia Commons