Private Equity

Unless you’ve been asleep, hibernating, or out of the country for
the last 12 months, you will be well aware that the Private Equity
phenomenon has well and truly hit Australia.

I can’t remember when it actually hit my radar, but the KKR bid
for Coles
[Updated 20/4/07] last year (ie 2006) was one
of the first to come to my attention. I was certainly aware that KKR
was part of the successful bid for Myer,
but that didn’t seem to be much cause for concern. Coles
hadn’t known what to do with the iconic and once hugely successful
Myer brand for a long time and its stores were floundering despite Dawn
best efforts. Count in that the consortium included
the Myer Family and it all seemed like a good idea.

But then the separate semi hostile bid for Coles raised a lot of hackles
in the community here. Coles was another iconic Australian brand grown
from the battler success story of C.J. Coles — albeit suffering at
the hands of the much more successful Woolworths.
A lot of Australians just didn’t like the idea of big money from the
USA trampelling all over our heritage.

But the big one of course has been the APA bid for Qantas.
There’s nothing much more iconic than the Flying Kangaroo.
Unlike Myer and Coles, Qantas is a succesful business. But Qantas represents
more than an icon. It represents the working conditions of thousands
of Australians and more than a million people in this country value
(like me) our Qantas frequent
Now of course APA claims to be majority Australian
owned and Australian controlled – it needs to be to satisfy the conditions
of the Qantas sale act. However a significant amount
of foreign money is involved in the bid and questions remain around
the degree to which the act applies to Qantas’ subsidiary Jestsar.
What will happen to the working conditions of QANTAS and Jetsar employees.
Will they all be moved to Australian Workplace Agreements,
in the process losing hard won benefits? Will maintenance operations
be moved overseas? And, for millions of Australians, what will happen
to my frequent flyer points.

Notwithstanding that I think the last of these questions is really
of much import, the others are of great concern to those involved and
represent possible encroaching by example of the working conditions
of millions of Australians.

However, to my mind, none of these is the most important concern.
What bothers me most is whether the private equity partners in this
deal (or any other for that matter) have any concern for what happens
to their prey in the long term. Take Qantas as a case in point. APA
cares for one thing and one thing only – the profit they can make from
the deal. My concern is that APA will simply convert value into cash
in its own pockets.

Now I might be wrong about this. Certainly the supporters of private
equity argue that these arrangements enable owners to free themselves
of the short-termism of public equity. They can be allowed to make
losses, or at least not grow profit at the rate required by the market
for extended periods. This, in our mind, is a good thing.

However, is this really what they will do?

I guess we will have to wait and see.

Mistsakes I’ve Made

Julian Lippi‘s PhD thesis has been a rich source of reflection
for me over the last few days.

Today, I was caused to think about mistakes I’ve made both in my professional
career and in my personal relationships.

I was reading Jenny’s story where she said:

… every professional mistake I’ve ever made in my life … has
been a failure to listen. I cannot think of any time … I’ve got myself into
hot water that couldn’t be traced to a failure to engage with the other person’s
data for long enough, or at a deep enough level. Can’t think of a time where
it wasn’t about listening. (p161)

This would be quite true for me as well, although I would add an important
factor that comes into play for me. It might be the same as what Jenny is speeking
about or it might be something different.

For me, I always relate my mistakes to my failure to engage with myselft.
When I think about it afterwards, I realise that at some level I always knew
what was going on. I knew what was going on, or at least I knew that something
was wrong, but I suppressed that knowledge. More important than supressing
the knowledge, I supressed what my feelings about or sense of what was happening.
When I became uneasy, I would allow my natural optimism to overide the unease
and used it as an excuse to not even allow my conscious mind to be aware of
my unease.

In this way, my optimism is a defence against the conflict I fear would, and
often would have, arisen if I had acted.

I regard myself, and most people who know me well regard me, as an insightful
person. One colleague (who I would regard as a person with great insight herself)
I worked with on a year long project remarked to me "You see things that others
don’t." In my heart of hearts, I fully believe this to be true. I don’t like
claiming it for myself because it sounds like I am boasting.

However, because of my fear of conflict, I have sometimes been stingy or mean
with my with my insight. I have kept it to myself. In this way, I lose out
on being acknowledged for what I bring to the situation and the other (or others)
miss out on insight about themselves and how they might do things differently.

It has taken me a lot of personal work to know this about myself and to know
when it is happening. It is still my greatest challenge. Each day and before
each interaction, I need to prepare myself to be aware not only of what is
going on around me but, more importantly, to be aware of what I am observing.


Structure and Methodology

I’ve just been reading about structure in coaching/mentoring relationships.

The comment that jumped out at me was:

You know, I think [structure]’s a bit of a security blanket for me
because I am a person who likes a bit of structure. And for those people who
do like a bit of structure it means that we start with something.

The quote is from Julian Lippi‘s PhD thesis (p149 if you want to look it up).

It made me think about my own attitude to structure. I always feel a bit tentative
about admitting this publicly, but I have never liked structure very much.

My absolute best work has always been done when there was no structure. When
I ad lib. To put this into context, it (good work) doesn’t happen
without preparation. In fact it requires intense preparation. Two kinds
of preparation. The first kind of preparation is around content. What do I
know that might be useful in the situation I am going into – whether that be
a coaching/mentoring role, a consulting role or any other activity that anticipates
some sort of an outcome.

This type of preparation is absolutely necessary for good work to occur but
it isn’t sufficient. The second type of preparation is of myself. I have to
know how I am feeling. I have to know that I am fully available for my client.
I have to be present for my client.

This preparation is awful. During this phase, I go through all sorts of self
doubt. I ask myself why I do this. I feel a fraud. I feel I have nothing to
offer. My mind goes blank. I consider calling in sick – or making some excuse
that I have been unavoidably delayed and can’t make the meeting. If I am already
there, I think about fainting or suddenly developing appendicitis.

When all this happens and I feel absolutely awful when I start, my client
almost invariably tells me that my work was brilliant (or at least very good.)

This has been a consistent problem throughout my professional career. I look
at other people and see their fantastic methodologies and wish I had a methodology
as good as theirs. I wish I had great diagrams and a process. I look at other
methodologies and try to adapt them to be my own. This is always a mistake.
When I offer to work with my clients, I offer me — not a poor imitation of
someone else.

But I have developed a methodology — or rather I have developed a description
of what I do. Finally, I have something that fits me. It looks like there are
distinct stages of the coaching/mentoring process/session which in one way
there is. In overall my clients start by Perceiving (their current situation),
Connecting (with themselves and their enduring purpose) and then Acting (or
planning action, or preparing for action). While this is the theoretical form
of the process they can, like in a Beethoven sonata, happen in any order.

Unlike Zoe, in Julian’s story, I don’t limit myself to particular interventions
in particular phases of the session. Anything can happen at any time. However,
like a Beethoven sonata, you can recognise a recurring theme, you can also
recognise a beginning, a middle and an end — although sometimes the end is
to a movement rather than the sonata itself.

Like the process itself though, I come in and out of my comfort with it. I
have doubts. I have a moment’s yearning for something more defined.

For better or worse though, I am who I am and bring who I am to my work.


Routine and Tradition

What happens when our routine changes? How much are you a creature of routine?
Personally, I love tradition. When our children were young, one of the books
we read about parenting suggested that one of the main jobs of parenting was
to "make memories" for your children. For almost the whole time our children
have been with us, Friday night has been "Pizza Night" at the Curnow house.
We make our own pizzas and usually watch a video afterwards. The whole process
starts about 4pm when I make the dough and finishes when we crawl into bed
between 11pm and midnight.

Summer holidays are the same for us. Over the last few years, we have got
into the habit of going away to Anglesea on Boxing Day for
about two weeks. We have grown to look forward to that absolutle break that
comes with the hectic lead up to Christmas and then nothing – relax.

This year our usual house wasn’t available and by the time we found this
out, a lot of the places we would like had already been booked for the two
weeks after Christmas. We were left to book another house later in January.
We don’t really go for up market all mod-con houses that have been all the
rage in Anglesea over the last 10 years. But there wasn’t much left, so we
ended up taking exactlly that type of house. Oh well, why not enjoy ourselves
once in a while.

Mainly though we just weren’t sure how it was going to go being out of our
routine. Staying home straight after Christmas. At least we didn’t have to
combine Christmas shopping with packing to go away. It was nice but strange
to wake up on Boxing Day realising we didn’t have to rush around getting ready
to leave.

We’re down here now and settled in to the house – for all the mod cons, not
really any better than the 30 year old house we had for the last few years.

I feel strange. I’ve had nearly two weeks holiday before I got here. I should
be back at work by now. I feel like I should be working. It’s hard to now whether
I should just be relaxing or I should be doing some work. I wanted to spend
this two weeks doing some writing while I was away and certainly wanted to
write more than I have since Christmas.

I wonder how much of that is related to the change in routine and how much
is that I was just very tiered at the end of last year and needed a good break.
The proof will be in the pudding.