Taking Risks at Christmas


Did you know that taking risks improves performance? And did you also know that creativity improves when you have a clear objective and need (“Necessity is the mother of invention” they say).



Here’s a little festive tale and a bonus for you, for Christmas. If you love Marzipan (or know someone who does) I highly recommend you read on, as I will be sharing my own extremely easy and also delicious recipe.





Enrobed marzipan with marzipan potatoes

Enrobed marzipan with marzipan potatoes


My mother loves marzipan but is very particular about her marzipan. And she has to have marzipan without egg in it. (You probably didn’t realise that most marzipan recipes have egg in them.)


So that was my challenge and clear objective:


Make some marzipan without egg for my mother’s Christmas present.



Necessity is the mother of invention


I started by searching the web and found various recipes. Some were more difficult that others and all of them had far more sugar in that I like (yes, I did taste them all).


However, I made some marzipan that my mother liked last year. This year I was planning to do the same and reviewed some recipes. The sugar syrup recipe was the best one I had found last year, but was a bit of pain to make. So I was searching for other options.


Then I saw one using maple syrup instead of sugar to bind the ground almond. It was then I noticed another recipe using honey.


So I modified my recipe to include that instead and it was wonderful. The taste was superb, but the texture was a bit lumpy.



The risky bit


As I started my second batch, I was getting a bit lazy so I took a risk. I don’t use icing sugar, I grind my own from granulated sugar. I also grind my own almonds but have never managed to get them completely smooth.


I threw in the almonds with the sugar. To my astonishment that was the key – the almonds ended up ground finely and the resulting marzipan was really smooth. (OK so the only risk was I’d have to eat it all myself if it went “wrong” but it was still a risk.) So here is my recipe for marzipan lovers everywhere.



Very Easy Eggless Marzipan


200g blanched almonds

70g sugar

1 tsp almond essence

2 tsp cherry brandy (or similar)

1 tsp lemon juice

Melted honey – 1 desert spoon or a little more




Grind up the almonds and sugar together in a small electric grinder or coffee grinder. You

Marzipan ready to be coated

Marzipan ready to be coated

may have to do it in two batches if you have a small blender like mine.


Sprinkle the almond essence, lemon juice and cherry brandy over the mixture.


Mix it using a spoon so the flavours are distributed well.


Taste it and add extra lemon/brandy if necessary.


Add 1 desert spoon melted honey and mix that in. If you can start getting it to form lumps, you have enough honey. If not, just add a little more.



What to do with your marzipan


I made mine into cubes and covered them with chocolate. This takes a long time but looks great.


Then I remembered making marzipan potatoes when I was a girl. Just form the marzipan into rough potato shapes and roll in cacao powder, or drinking chocolate – job done!


You can always put it on your Christmas cake of course, but then you have to have a slide of cake in order to get the marzipan.


How can you trust your people when you are not there?


We only speak to customers


I was trying to get a price for my car this week, so I called a company well known for

My old car

My old car

buying and selling used cars. In fact we bought our daughter’s car there. Apart from the fact that there wasn’t enough petrol in it to get out of the car park, the service was generally good.


So I thought they’d be a good place to start.


My call was answered by James. But instead of being able to give me a price on the phone he told they would have to check various things first, including if I owned the car. So they would need to call me back. I knew I’d be in a meeting by then, so asked them to leave a message with Charlie.


“We only speak to customers.” Said James, sounding as though he was reading off a script. I explained the situation; all I needed was the figure. But he was adamant and kept repeating the phrase as though it was on a tape loop.


It was pretty clear that he was just blindly following a procedure.


When he did phone I was in my meeting so he left a message to call him back. When I called him back he wasn’t available and no one else could give me the information. The second time I called back I finally got his manager who, after some searching, was able to give me the figure.




Leadership skills


A key aspect of leadership is being able to get others to do the right thing, particularly when you are not there.





Companies need to have procedures. In this case, they are there to make sure that the sales team does what they are supposed to do and sells effectively.  But the problem is that when you are dealing with customers, sometimes an apparently good procedure doesn’t work for every single client.



So you need to find a balance and trust your people to do the right thing.



Clarity – clear objectives


As well as knowing the procedure, in order for people to be able to give you the results you need, your people have to have clear objectives. Then they need to know exactly what you want them to achieve. They also need to know the boundaries. For example, it may be there is a cost limit to what they can do to get a sale.





Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they need to have the right values. They need to share your values.


If you are clear what your values are, and you recruit people with the same values, then you can be confident that they will do the right thing when the chips are down and you aren’t there.


It’s still important to have procedures, but values trump procedures when times are tough or you encounter a difficult customer like me.




Can you rely on your people?


  • Objectives are what you need to achieve
  • Behaviours are how you do it
  • Values are why you do it that way


So if you have people in your business who share your values, you can rely on them, even if you haven’t set up clear procedures for every situation.


To find out what people’s values are, you need to ask them why they have done things in the way they have. Sometimes the answers will surprise you, sometimes they will shock you, but they will always be useful information that helps you to make better recruitment decisions.


Many years ago, I was recruiting into a management position and we had a particularly tough role-play that seemed to weed out the poor candidates. One candidate got so annoyed with the actor playing the role of Dr Kildare that she lifted him up by his lapels till his feet were dangling in the air.


Up till then she had looked like a great candidate. I asked her why she had approached Dr Kildare in the way she had. If she had told us that she was really stressed and apologised, she probably would have got the job. But what she said was: “When you’ve only got half an hour, you can’t negotiate, you just have to tell people what to do.”


That gave us all the information we needed about her values and what she was likely to do in difficult situations, procedure or no procedure.


Was Nelson Mandela exceptional?


There were many things about Nelson Mandela that made him the man he was. I’m going to focus on just one, his communication skills.




One small example


During the divorce between Nelson and Winnie Mandela, there was a news report featuring Nelson Mandela leaving the courtroom pursued by the hounds of journalists. The microphones bristled aggressively around him and the journalists were all vying for quotes and responses. You will have seen many others respond to this kind of threatening and unpleasant behaviour. Nelson Mandela’s response was both surprising and astonishingly effective.


These are his words, from memory, probably not his exact words, but pretty close. The tone was quiet and kind.


Gentlemen, I’m sure you are all aware how difficult this situation is for my wife and me. I’d really appreciate it if you could let us deal with it on our own.



The crowd immediately fell back and all questions stopped.




Mandela vs. Machiavelli


Just before Nelson Mandela died there was an interesting documentary on the BBC about Machiavelli, who wrote “The Prince”.


Machiavelli wrote about how to attain and maintain power. He wrote on what he observed that he felt was effective. , He said that the best strategy for a leader was fear. To be loved as a leader is not a good strategy, because people can just stop loving you, but they will always fear you.




Your duty


Ruling by fear was not the strategy of Nelson Mandela. In listening to some of the countless responses to his death a few really stood out to me. One of those was concerned with his faults, saying that: “he was too willing to see the good in other people.”


Nelson Mandela said:

“Your duty is to work with human beings as human beings not because you think they are angels. Once you know this man has got this virtue and he has got this weakness, work with him and accommodate that weakness and help him to overcome that weakness.”


I think this was the bedrock of his exceptional communication skills and ability to negotiate with people who had been his enemies. Instead of condemning people for their weaknesses and failings he was able to work with them and to forgiven them.


If you can do that, it makes communicating with people much more effective.




The values come through the communication


Going back to that small example with the press I gave earlier, you can see these beliefs shining through. He addresses the journalists as “Gentlemen”. He sees the good in them. And he does not do anything aggressive, instead he asks for their help, which they happily give.




A harder path, but a better one


It’s much easier to use the strategies of Machiavelli. It’s easier to make people frightened of you and to blame them than it is to forgive them and understand them. It’s probably a quicker route to power. You will have seen examples of this behaviour where you work and in other walks of life.


But I also believe that forgiveness and helping others offers a much better long-term result.




Was Nelson Mandela exceptional?


Desmond Tutu said that Nelson Mandela was not exceptional, because we all have it in us to do these things. He had the ability to question himself and see where he had failed.


I think we can all see where we have failed, if we look hard enough and I’m sure we can all put bit more effort into forgiving others, accommodating them and helping them to overcome their weaknesses. Making a start probably isn’t that difficult.


Perhaps if we all did that the world would be a better place.


What are exams for?


On working for my old employer years ago, I was shocked to discover that they no longer measured the efficiency on the shop floor. This was because the cost of carrying out that measurement was greater than any improvement they could have benefitted from as a result of the measurement.


It made sense, but I found it hard to live with at first.


Measuring performance is difficult and can be controversial. Once again, our government,

What do exams measure?

What do exams measure?

in its great wisdom, has decided to change our school exams.


There will now be more numbered grades replacing the letters, and most of the assessment will be on a final exam.




Before you change things


Before you start messing about with exams, I think you really need to be clear what their purpose is.  I may have missed that part of the announcement, but I haven’t heard anyone from the government explain what they think exams are for.




The purpose of exams


Exams are used as evidence that an individual can do something (usually pass an exam) or knows something. It would be very handy if exams were a useful predictor of future success in some way. Can they, for example, predict which students were going to perform well at University? Could they predict future success in work?



The trouble is that exams on their own don’t seem to be very reliable in either of these two crucial areas. Yes, of course there is some correlation, but it’s not as clear as you might hope. I spent hours trying to find research on this, but it was remarkably thin in the ground.



We’ve all recruited straight “A” students and found them to perform poorly in a job. On the other hand we also all know people who have poor exam grades and do a great job. And you probably also know people who have great exam grades and also do a great job.



But going back to a system that relies almost completely on a student’s performance during 3 hours on one day seems a backward step to me. As an employer, I really want people in my team who perform well consistently, all through the year, not just on one day. I’m struggling to think of a job where it would be acceptable. For a moment, I was toying with the idea of Father Christmas, who has a great deal of work to do in just 24 hours, however, I think he has to do a lot of preparation during the rest of the year.




What affects the results?


Exams are really only measuring what a student is able to do or tell you on the day of the exam. The score probably correlates with many factors like:


  • How hard the student worked
  • How good the teacher was
  • How well-educated the parents are
  • How the student was feeling that day
  • Whether the student was ill that day
  • If the student liked the subject
  • How good the student is at doing exams
  • How well behaved the class the student was in was


(This is not an exhaustive list.)




Changing measurement systems


Once you make a radical change to a measurement system, it means that comparisons between results from the two different systems are invalid. So when students emerge from the new system, employers will not be able to accurately compare the scores from these candidates with those from other years.


They will think they can, but they will not be comparing like with like. But probably far worse is all the cost and effort that will be soaked up implementing this change that could have been focused on helping students to learn and improving the standards.




What do you want to measure?


Exams are a measurement system. So before you start changing them, or any measurement system you really need to be clear about:


  • What you are measuring
  • Why you are measuring it
  • How you will interpret the measurements
  • What you will be using the results for



And remember that the way you measure performance usually has quite an impact on the performance and the behaviour. I haven’t managed to discover what the government is trying to achieve by doing this. If you know, please let me know.



Lastly, if you are going to make such costly changes to any measurement system remember, the benefits really need to be worth it.