A friend of a friend

This morning I was going to post a blog about something else. But the last hour has changed a lot. Changed my mood, changed the moods of those I’ve spoken to, changed the moods of many people around the area in which I live.

That’s because on Sunday night, a friend of a friend took his own life.

A man about my age, perhaps a bit younger. Married with a young family. Not going to be here for Christmas.

He really isn’t someone I know well at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever said more than a word or two to him at the bar or in passing. But he’s a recognisable face. The friend of mine who knows him is a good friend…

(Hang on , do I now use the past tense and say “he was” instead? Seems too soon; a bit cold. But he lives in the past now I guess?)

It’s a familiar story – former armed forces, struggling with his demons. We’ve heard it all before.

And now he’s not around any more. The world around him shattered into a million little pieces. The impact going further than he ever would have imagined.

The ‘former armed forces’ bit is all too familiar of course, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Just a few days back, I read a long, heartfelt post from an old school friend on Facebook, talking about his struggles after having surgery which has left him with a stoma to manage. Mental struggles. Really tough mental struggles. The kind of thing that makes people wonder if it’s worth it.

And another distant family member sometimes posts stuff that feels a bit like a cry for help. So does a mate of mine from Uni. I never really know what to do or say, or if it’s my place to do or say anything.

None of them have ever met each other, and the only thing they have in common is that they’ve all met me at some point (in varying degrees).

Oh hang on, there is one other thing.

They’re all men.

According to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. 75% of all suicides are men.

Click on the pic above to access the CALM website

Some of the reasons they give that men and boys can be more vulnerable to taking their own life are:

They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.

They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.

They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

CALM website

What a fucking mess. This is the other side of masculinity. The flipside of the patriarchy.

In his book “The Mask of Masculinity“, Lewis Howe talks about all the stereotypes that as men we feel we have to live up to. Aggression, invincibility, alpha, knowledgable. It’s all bullshit and yet sometimes as men we end up in weird situations where we feel we have to be more of something we’re not.

Stoicism is the first of these masks in the book. For me it’s the most destructive and dangerous.

Boy’s don’t cry. Grow a pair. Man up. Take it on the chin (literally about being punched in the face). Be a man about it. Don’t be such a girl.

It’s sexist bullshit.

Translation: emotions are female. Females are weak. Ergo, showing, talking about, even having emotions is weak, weak, weak.

That’s why men don’t talk about how they’re feeling. Try to pretend they’re not feeling. Judge themselves for feeling. Shame, shame, shame.

Is there a better demonstration that sexism is bad for everyone?

In that context – with all the masks of masculinity weighing down – it is incredibly brave for a man to show his emotions. It takes incredible strength and courage to admit you’re not okay. Because that vulnerability is something we learnt to hide in the playground, and everything we’ve heard and seen since has reinforced that.

I’ve got two boys, and I’m doing my damnedest to raise them to understand their emotions and those of the people around them. I don’t hide from them when I’m feeling sad (particularly around this time of year when the loss of my Mum a few years back is keenly felt). If they’re sad, or nervous, or unsure, I tell them that’s totally understandable.

I sometimes even bore the daylights out of them by explaining the evolutionary reasons for the ‘flight or fight’ physiological response. Super dull, sure… but they know why they get butterflies. They’ve told their friends about it. It’s something they can talk about.

I’ve done this because I want them to know that it’s okay to not be okay. So they can talk to their friends – if they need it or their friend does. To grow up to be well-adjusted, open, vulnerable, incredible young men. All a parent wants if for their child to be safe. And this is my way of making them emotionally safe.

Being a modern man is about dropping all the masks. Let it all go. Bravery is about opening up, not shutting down. We all get better for it.

So speak up. Or check in. It is your place, as much as it’s anyone’s.

Boys do cry sometimes.

Love and peace.

Please take time to visit the CALM website and share around the place – there’s loads of good stuff in there. And if you’re wondering how to start helping, try following the simple mnenomic below…

Hold the line – a message for the Inclusivity Warriors on their knees

There are people you meet by involving yourself in D&I whom you wouldn’t necessarily meet otherwise. Interesting people (almost without exception): passionate, thoughtful.  Often kind and generous with their input, advice and time. People who are determined and resourceful, strong and inspiring.

Most of them do it in their spare time. I say “spare”. They do it in their own time. On top of the day job.

But when I’ve spoken to some of those same people recently, I’ve noticed that there are other adjectives that I could use which I hadn’t seen before.

Dejected.

Disillusioned.

Exhausted.

“It feels like I’m getting nowhere”

“I’m just so tired of having the same conversation over and over”

“I can’t do this on my own”

“I’m not sure any of this is making any difference”

I know how they feel. Because I’ve felt the same recently as well. Too many to-do-lists where the urgent pushes the important to the bottom. Too many Too many conversations where people are agreeing because they feel they have to, not because they actually, truly believe what I’m saying. Too little actually changing.

In a twisted way I think it might have been easier before #MeToo, when lazy sexism (or any -ism you care to mention) just got blurted out by thoughtless idiots and was there, right in the open, to be challenged and argued. But only the most aggressive provocateur or mindless bigot (or arrogant, power-crazed sociopath like you-know-who) would blurt it out now. And as a life rule I try to make a point of avoiding people like that.

And now I’m constantly wondering if I’m having a conversation with someone who gets where I’m coming from, or someone who knows they have to pretend to.

There are tell-tale signs of course. Any mention that their organisation is fulfilling all legal requirements, or that they’re “looking into D&I really carefully”. Anyone who talks about the ‘unconscious bias training’ that everyone had to do… as though understanding bias actually changes anything…

If you haven’t seen the amazing “Diverseish” work done by some of my colleagues at AMVBBDO for #Valuable500 then check it out below – it’s a demonstration of the conversations across D&I that we’re having all the time…

And we’re all impatient. For others to see the world the way we see the world. When you have conviction in what you’re doing it’s incredibly difficult to see the other person’s world – it’s like having to explain to someone why you believe the grass is green or the sky is blue. You run out of words. Out of energy.

So what words do I have for those people who feel like they’re fighting a losing battle. Good people feeling isolated and small, confidence rocked, idealism shot to shit?

I say this…

Hold the line.

Hold the line and don’t take a single step back.  And know that I am here, alongside you. Arms locked, standing strong. We are all locked together, across geographies and oceans, and our strength comes from one another because in spirit we are as one.

Don’t doubt for a single second that you are making a difference, and even if you have to change the world one person at a time then every single second to that end will be a second well spent.

Listen, I know nothing will change overnight, but believe me, it’s changing. And we’re on the right side of that change, right now.

No Smoking

This is the time of year when dusty decorations are being eagerly extricated from a cupboard, and suddenly tinsel and sleigh bells take their short-lived but disproportionate place in all our lives.

It’s also the time when the season of office parties deliberately blur the line between work and leisure, with games and organised fun and the drinking that goes with it can blur judgement and dissolve inhibitions. It’s the inhibitions bit that makes me a bit uncomfortable.

When I was younger I worked somewhere where there was a senior man who was… you know… a bit ‘handsy’. The young women in the office brushed it off, and just made sure they didn’t find themselves passing on the stairs at the office party or (God forbid) sharing a taxi with him.

There were always stories about someone who’d seen something or spoken to someone, and you know, there’s no smoke without fire, right? But what could I do? He was much more senior than me and it seemed like ‘the girls’ were handling it. We even joked about it a bit at the time.

We don’t joke about it now.

Now, when I meet with people I worked with back then, we feel embarrassed – guilty even – that we didn’t speak up, challenge, DO something. 

Because we all left eventually and went our separate ways, but I’m damn sure this guy carried on doing exactly the same thing for years and years and years. God knows how many young women who added a #MeToo to their social feed a couple of years back, as a small fuck you to the man that made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work.

Today it would all be different. In today’s world he probably wouldn’t dare do it in the first place, but if he did then the young women involved would (I hope) feel more empowered to speak up.

And I know that I would stand up to him too – forget the seniority, you’re out of line and I’m not going to stand by and pretend the talk is just talk. Because you can get smoke without fire, but not this much smoke.

I can’t beat myself up for not doing then what I’d do now. I wasn’t the man then that I am today, and I think if I met my younger self I’d probably think he was a bit of a dickhead for various reasons that have nothing to do with this. But he didn’t know what I know.

What I can do is encourage you not to ignore that tell tale whiff of smoke in the air – in a meeting room, a lift, a conversation. Because if there is just a little smoke, then maybe you should break the glass and press the red button just in case.

Better a false alarm than someone getting burnt.

Checking my privilege

I am The Man. By that I don’t mean that I am totally ace in every way, because I’m totally not. I’m not going for a “You’re the man!” vibe. Rather, I am The Man as in “stick it to The Man”. Because on the face of it, I am the classic authority figure, crossing pretty much every box on a diversity list. 

Male, white, straight, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, neurotypical. Hell, I’m even privately educated. I’ve got a few mental health bits and bobs I’m bumbling through (more of that in a post in due course, methinks!) but on face value I am the establishment; an embodiment of The Patriarchy.

I am “THE MAN”.

Each one of those has got me some kind of advantage, in some way, big or small, that I didn’t earn in any way. All of it was just handed to me by nature or nurture. All of it is a privilege in some way.

I’ve always been aware of that privilege to a degree, but it’s not until I’ve found myself in more and more conversations around different areas of diversity that it’s been clear that I’m pretty much always in the majority rather than the minority. And on the whole it’s not the majority who get beaten down or overlooked or oppressed.

In Grayson Perry’s book “The Descent of Man” (read it, it’s good) he calls it “Default Man” – the ‘norm’ around which the world is forced to adapt.

That’s what privilege does for you. All of which sometimes makes for some interesting introspection. When you’re THE MAN, you’re the bloody problem – can you be part of the solution too…?

On top of that, there’s an interesting nuance to show that even if you don’t cross all the boxes, there might still be privilege, because it’s fluid and relative, as demonstrated by a story a good friend told me recently of his own experience.

He’s a highly intelligent and highly educated man who happens to be gay and decided to get involved in his work Pride event. At the first meeting, and for the first time in his life, he was faced with the idea that actually being a middle-class, white, gay man is a bloody breeze when you don’t have to layer on racial stereotypes or cultural expectations, or being transgender, or being disabled.

Suddenly “just being a gay man without anything else to worry about” was a privilege in itself: a new perspective, and one that was both surprising and humbling.

Cards designed by Fabiola Lara https://www.instagram.com/fabiolitadraws

Now, I’m hyper-aware of my privilege, across all the parameters outlined and probably a few more too. But rather than let it hold me back and be a reason not to have a point of view, I think it drives me on. Some of the advantages I’ve had have, in some way, got me to where I am today, with a point of view and a social conscience, outwardly confident, usually erudite (if a little verbose) and, now in my life and career, with something to say.

And so I believe I’ve got a responsibility – a duty even – to stand up and speak up. Because if I can’t speak up, with all the privilege I benefit from, then who can?

All any of us can do is be aware of our own privilege, and be respectful of the advantage that gives us. And, whatever privilege you have, use it for good if you can. 

Because from someone else’s perspective, there’s a good chance that you really are the lucky one.

Why the hell do we need International Men’s Day??

Chances are you’ve probably heard of International Women’s Day. It lands on March 8th, and always has a celebratory feel – women celebrating other women, supporting each other and championing gender equality.  Big events, talks, commentary – all positive and future-focussed.

But also on International Women’s Day, there’s always an undercurrent from a certain type of man; a dismissive, faux-outrage “what a load of nonsense” response which is summed up by…

“Oh great, when is International Men’s Day??!!”

The comedian Richard Herring (https://twitter.com/Herring1967) actually dedicates his entire day on March 8th replying to all the men who tweet something like that and replying to them with “It’s on November 19th” or similar. Such a lovely, very British (read: passive aggressive!) retort, highlighting the lazy fatuousness of the question…

Just one of several hundred examples…

So to all those men, I say Happy International Men’s Day today. Hope you’re out celebrating and putting up bunting. But I’m guessing probably not. Probably something else to be outraged about today…

Whilst we’re on the subject of faux-outrage and backlash, there’s no better example than the reaction to at the beginning of this year we also had the Gillette ad which ran, trying to point out that traditional, old-school views of ‘masculinity’ don’t really fit with a modern world, and could end up being ‘toxic’.

This time the outrage came from all sides at the idea that Gillette dare suggest that masculinity is toxic.  Which of course wasn’t the point at all. But it did give people who like to be shocked and appalled by things like this something to be shocked and appalled about for a bit.

Someone being shocked and appalled whilst their co-worker pulls a face of incredulity.

That misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) did hurt Gillette – especially in the US where debate is increasingly divisive and “if you’re not with us you’re against us” indignation seems like a national pastime.

But whilst Gillette’s reasons were self-serving (their business model is under huge threat from online suppliers), the execution was underwhelming (the whole thing looked like the client had just gone for the first draft of the ‘manifesto film’) and the response to the inevitable backlash was disappointing (once sales dropped initially the whole idea was quickly dropped), there was an important inflection point in there too.

Because all the “traditional” ways that masculinity is meant to represent – that’s not me. It never has been (although, like most men, I’ve bluffed it so many times over the years).  It starts with the idea that boys don’t cry, and from that moment on we have the vulnerability drummed out of us to be replaced with stoicism.

To re-use some words from a talk I gave at the Omniwomen Summit on International Women’s Day last year:

Bravery is lauded. Confidence and strength still often defines social status. We’re not taught empathy we’re taught resilience.

That is why I think International Men’s Day is important.

Not to push men forward – God knows that happens pretty much every other day of the year anyway – but to have a space where forward-thinking men can set a vision of the future where men have the right to be all the things they want to be without judgement. To be free of the expectations of a society built around rules that none of us signed up for but all of us – men and women – are expected to play by.

Grayson Perry puts it best…

Men’s rights: The right to be vulnerable The right to be weak The right to be wrong The right to be intuitive The right not to know The right to be uncertain The right to be flexible The right not to be ashamed of any of these.

Grayson Perry – The Descent of Man

That’s real masculinity for me – nuanced and thoughtful. And strong with it. It takes a shitload more strength to admit that you’re weak sometimes than it does to pretend that you’re strong all the time.

And by doing that we create space for others.

Inclusivity starts when those in positions of power or influence have the self-assurance to take a step back, perhaps even admit some of their vulnerabilities. Without that there’s no air for inclusivity to breathe and thrive.

So a very happy International Men’s Day to all the men out there. Use it to be the best friend, colleague, brother, son, husband and dad you can be. On your terms, with honesty and truthfulness.

You owe it to yourself. In fact, perhaps you even owe it to your true self.

Solidarity brother!

Why this, why now?

I’ve always loved writing. When I was a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on, and then when I’d read everything I wrote stories and collected interesting quotations. When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry (of course). When I was in my twenties, I wrote a whole novel (which I only ever showed to one editor because they didn’t like it and I didn’t like them not liking it – not exactly JK Rowling levels of thick skin and determination).

And I’ve always been fascinated by the power of words. The power to move people, to support or cajole or challenge. To connect and to divide. To rise up or crush down.

Over the last few years, my own words are something that have started to bring more responsibility too. Whether that’s presenting to my clients about brand strategy or creative, talking to the agency about our values and vision, coaching or mentoring individuals to be their best, or (increasingly) talking to large groups of strangers about gender equality and building an inclusive workplace… my words have some of their own power of influence too.

Speaking at WACL Gather in May 2019 (picture ©BronacMcNeill)

It occurs to me that pretty much all of the people in the above groups kind of have to listen to me whether they want to or not – be that through politeness or payment. But you don’t have to read any of this, so if you’ve got this far I reckon you’re doing pretty well already.

Here I’m going to be using my words to try to make the world of work and life a better place. At heart I’m a dreamer and an optimist, and that has its strengths and weaknesses – all of which will be on these pages somewhere, asking questions and challenging on how we take things forward.

I’ll be blogging about things that make me want to speak up, but only things where I’ve got a perspective or something to add. None of us need more words about some certain subjects. I’m interested in asking questions and giving food for thought – how can we build truly inclusive working environments where people can be their best and do their best work? How can a shift towards modern masculinity improve the lives of both men and women? How do we turn the theory of all this into practicality?

Through doing this, I’d like to give people pause to think, and perhaps some positive ideas to take forward. If I can connect with some like-minded people then that would be great too.

Please note, there’s a decent chance I might swear a bit here and there, so if that’s not your cup of tea then I apologise in advance and suggest you quietly look away as I take the opportunity to shout #$@&%*! at the absolute top of my voice.

So without further ado, you’re reading, I’m writing… shall we?

My First Blog Post


If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants

— Sir Isaac Newton
Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

So here it is – the very first post on my new blog. How exciting. For me anyway. Probably less so for you I’m guessing…

Oh look at that, I’ve started the self-editing inner monologue thing already haven’t I? Can be a bit much and I kind of promised myself I wouldn’t. I’ll do my best from here on in…

Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some amazing people. I am who I am today because of them, and so if I can see anything (let alone see further) then it’s them who take the credit.

So here’s to those who make me laugh, make me think, make me playful or pensive. Those who support me, or challenge me. Those who make me want to be a little better tomorrow than I am today. A better son or brother or cousin, a better colleague or a better leader. A better dad. A better man.

Every journey starts with a first step, and this is mine. Subscribe below to get notifications when I post updates.

Now all I have to do is press “Publish” on this. Which I’ve been putting off for at least a couple of weeks already. Here goes nothing…