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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Terri Simpkin, Higher and Further Education Principal at CNet Training.

Terri Simpkin is the Higher and Further Education Principal at CNet Training. She is also the MD of Mischief Business Engineering and a Visiting Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University. She will be speaking at two events this weekend: What’s your story: counter stories to combat the real sense of feeling like a fake and Witches, wizards and workplace leadership: exploring management science in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld [tickets limited].


Question: Why Terry Pratchett?

Terri Simpkin: He’s one of the world’s great authors.  Laugh out loud funny, riotously clever and incredibly eclectic in content, he wove throughout his Discworld stories snippets of little known knowledge as well as contemporary issues; so much so that on second and third readings you’ll find little gems that you’d not seen before.  The most compelling attraction of his work is his examination of the big, human issues. Racism, power, conflict, gender politics, love and loss. It’s all there and often laid bare with a raw gentleness that defies you to think more deeply about your own approach to being human among other humans.  The Discworld novels in particular are laugh out loud funny one moment, intricately perceptive the next and then all of sudden deeply emotional.  Reading his work on the train can be tricky!!


Q: What can literature teach us about workplace politics?

TS: Literature allows us to see in from the outside.  It allows us to consider how we might act given the circumstances and context of the story.  It develops our capacity for empathy. Sir Terry’s Discworld is set outside of our own context, but the characters, be they human, troll, dwarf or werewolf, for example, grapple with issues of self-interest, ambition and power and those things are universal.  These things exist in our workplaces. Characters such as Vetinari The Patrician, show us how predictable people can be when pursuing power and thus, how they can be manipulated.  On the flipside, the Witches have different methods, but essentially use ‘headology’ to allow people to see how their behaviour should be moderated for their own good or for that of others.  All this exists in workplaces under the guise of a managerial and leadership remit.


Q: What are your favourite Terry Pratchett characters?

TS: That’s a tough one, but it has to be the Witches.  They are powerful, uproariously funny, deeply ethical (to a certain value of ethics!), pragmatic and each is wise in their own way.  Several of them are quite risqué too which makes for an interesting blend of characters.


Q: What can they teach us about organisational leadership?

TS: Some of the best lessons in leadership are to be gained from the dialogue and character of Tiffany Aching.  Much of what Sir Terry was writing, without intention, I’d identify with emerging characterisations of leadership for the fourth industrial age.  Collaborative, caring, socially aware, sometimes conflicted, others-oriented and strong, Tiffany steps up when needed and has no problem in correcting those who would underestimate her. She’s my hero!  Look no further than Sam Vimes for a leader who is classically tough, family oriented and uncompromisingly decent.  A reformed alcoholic and uneasy in his new-found aristocratic power, he still gets his hands dirty and is unafraid to take on the establishment.  He’s also got a fabulous view on economics. You’ll need to come to the session to explore that!


Q: What about gender politics in the workplace?

TS: Where to start?! The novel Monstrous Regiment, to name just one example, draws some glorious parallel to the way women have come into the post-industrial economy.  Largely determined by structures, expectations and behaviours shaped over decades (even centuries perhaps) most workplaces are designed for a different age and for people who need to juggle different demands with work demands.  For many years the workplace didn’t need to consider the role of women as they were largely locked out of work available to men. As a society we’re still seeing under representation in boardrooms, in leadership and in occupations such as those in engineering and science, for example.  

Sir Terry paints a picture of a group of women rebelling against stereotypes because they see little choice.  He makes some very astute observations of the futility of recognising talent in a gendered way rather than as it is.  The story also raises some very topical issues about violence, oppression and recognition of the value of women’s efforts in society as well as the workplace.  Gender, diversity and inclusion are key topics we’ll cover in the session as Sir Terry has some very clear messages to send about the self-evident decency of equality in all its forms.


Q: Are there any other writers who you think could inform leadership training?

TS: Shakespeare.  He also wrote about big-ticket human concerns.  Much has been made of his capacity to examine power, corruption, frailty and social conscience in leadership.  I think Sir Terry’s Discworld novels reflect a lot of what Shakespeare was communicating too… just with more gags, wizards and elephants!


Q: How important is emotional intelligence in an age of automation?

TS: It’s fundamental. Call it the ‘second machine age’ or the fourth industrial revolution or whatever, it’s upon us now despite many people talking as if it’s some future thing.  We already have automation replacing the work of people. Now. That’s a big chunk of work being taken out of the economy and a good deal of tasks that will no longer be done by people.  What that leaves us with then is the need for creativity, collaboration, the capacity to deal with ambiguity and the human demands of social concerns in workplaces and in our communities such as motivation, connection and emotional support.  That’s not easily replicated by machines. It’s that very human suite of capabilities that are left for managers and leaders to enact in an age of robots and algorithms. I was asked recently, if these are female qualities is the future female?  No. The future is human and it’s a great opportunity for us all to ensure that those fundamentally human qualities are developed across genders.