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When to speak up – and when not to

How do you know when to speak up? How do you know when it’s better not to? What are the rules?

Photo: Dawn Arlotta

This is an issue many of our clients seem to wrestle with. It’s often difficult to speak up when you know something others don’t. Here is a step-by-step guide to speaking up.

  1. What’s the context?

The time that people find most difficult to speak up is in a meeting, especially when it’s the boss who has got something wrong. In this situation, ask yourself these questions:

  • How critical is it for me to speak?
  • Do I need to speak now?
  • What are the consequences if I don’t speak?

If you know something important that other people don’t, and the consequences are serious for others if you don’t tell them, you need to speak up.

However, you also need to judge the situation.  If you are about to tell your boss, in public, that they are mistaken, you need to use strong politeness markers.

Depending on the people involved and your personal style, you can signal that you are not being deliberately confrontational, aggressive or offensive with introductions like:

  • “I recently learned that …”
  • “You may already be aware that …”
  • “I’ve just received new/additional information on this issue”, or even
  • “Could you let us know your opinion on this opposing view?”

However, balance this with the fact that if it’s important enough to speak up, then you should try to ensure your message is delivered with confidence, and isn’t lost in too much deference.

  1. Is it essential you speak right now?

If it’s not urgent, find a time later to talk to the person who had the wrong information. Politely let them know you have been given different or perhaps more recent information. Offer to check which of you is correct and update the person later. Try to find out where the other person got their information and be prepared to be wrong.

  1. Is it important?

Sometimes someone is wrong but it’s not important. You need to use your judgement here. If there is no risk and no serious consequences, sometimes it’s best to let it go. Don’t let this become an excuse for never speaking up, however.

  1. Is it personal?

If someone has said something personal, it’s best wherever possible to talk to them later. You are the only person who can judge whether you need to speak to them and when. If you find it’s impeding your relationship, you should seriously consider speaking to them. You may be surprised at how often people are apologetic and upset to find their words were hurtful.

  1. Does it always have to be you?

Observe carefully how other people in the team act in these situations, especially more experienced team members. Are you the only one who ever speaks up? If so, ask yourself why no-one else is prepared to speak. Consider other ways to get your information across.

  1. How can I avoid this situation in the first place?

If you are the subject matter expert, for example in HR, legal or finance, offer to find out the latest information in advance and prepare some notes for your boss for future meetings. A good boss will be glad of the offer of assistance and pleased with your initiative.

Speaking up needn’t be scary. If you learn when to speak and how to speak up politely but firmly, you will gain a reputation as a subject matter expert, a trusted authority and a good communicator.

When do you need a mentor, a coach or … a cheerleader?

Executive Coach Exchange mentor coach cheerleader
Photo: Paula Liverani-Brooks

I am not a morning person. And not being a morning person means that the last thing I want to do when I wake up and have to get ready while the rest of the world is sleeping is eating. Breakfast is not something I can do early. So my lovely husband prepares some slices of toast and puts them in a paper bag for me to eat when the sun rises and I start feeling human again. But that is not all he does … he also decorates them as you can see in the picture. He may not be an amazing artist but I have to say I look forward to looking at what he has prepared for the day – whether it is a prompt of the happiness that we feel on a Friday to some funny exchange we had the previous night to a reminder that he believes I am lovely, strong or funny (which for those of you who do not know me personally I truly am). He is able to capture that motivational angle and give me an extra push to take on the day with a bigger smile.

But cheerleaders are not all we need. In this complicated world we need all the help we can get. So here is my list of the type of people we should aim to have in our lives and a couple of hints.

The first is a coach. Most of us have or have had a coach in our professional lives. The coach is someone who helps you acquire skills, overcome challenges and improve your contribution. I prefer to have clear goals when I talk to my coach, as that way I can get more out of our conversation. I also like to have a coach that has lived through similar experiences to what I am going through, similar businesses and similar challenges and who has a clear understanding of my role and the expectations that come from it. Finding the right coach is not always easy so don’t be afraid to shop around until you find the one who is capable of providing you with what you are looking for.

A mentor is also incredibly helpful, they provide long term support, tend to have known you for a long time and have seen you through the highs and the lows. They can be a former boss or colleague with whom you were able to establish that special relation in which they shared wisdom and experience.

If you have found both a mentor and a coach you already are in a good place, so here are some more ideas of people that you can add to your support group.

A connector is someone that does just that, connects you to others, takes you to events and organises for you to meet people who can help with a particular challenge or just to view things slightly differently. Having moved to Australia without connections 10 years ago I was lucky to find many people kind enough to sacrifice their time to connect me to others and I am still deeply grateful to all of them.

A collaborator is someone who is in a similar situation to your own with similar interests and similar goals. With them you can share road blocks and successes and support each other. These are not too difficult to find and you may form friendships that may last more than the job you are in.

If you work in big organisations (but not only), chances are you also need a sponsor. They are the ones that have witnessed your work and are willing to go out and spread the good news and promote your profile. Personally I have always found this a difficult figure to find. My trick has been to try and think outside the box – they do not need to be your manager … or even your manager’s manager. They can be influential people outside your direct line that you have been sharing insights with, and having conversations after important meetings about how to address issues and ideas. I have found this an easier way to create a sponsor.

Of course, you also need a feed-back giver someone who through direct observation can give you honest and direct feedback. As this is even harder than a sponsor, my only advice is to find someone with whom you can lay down the rules of how the feedback will look like: should always be coming from a place of good intention and if you feel it is not you may decide not to accept it. It is easier when you can find more than one feed-back giver and if you practice often on this one.

The last one is the cheerleader or the encourager the one that provides motivation, support and recognition.

My husband is a great cheerleader but is also a very good feed-back giver, which means that one person can have more than one role. So if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed with the list, see if you can use the same person for different roles.

My last recommendation is that once you have listed them all you make sure this amazing bunch of people is also diverse. And I am not only talking about gender. I am talking about race, experience, age – I am currently learning “lots” from a millennial feed-back giver. Make sure you surround yourself with different people who will be able to provide you with slightly different views. And while you are at it, also make a list of what role you can have in other people’s lives. At times just being a cheerleader for someone can make a huge difference in their day.

Contributor: Paula Liverani-Brooks is an HR consultant and executive coach, and the latest member of Executive Coach Exchange.

I need my team to rise to the challenge – educational scaffolding part 2

If you need your team to step up, you need to show them how.

Last week I introduced the topic of educational scaffolding, a method that enables a student to learn how to carry out a task independently by gradually removing the support of a person with greater knowledge and expertise. In the workplace, this concept can be really useful for the manager as coach.

If you use a ‘sink or swim’ approach when assigning work, you are pretty much guaranteeing failure. The most likely outcomes are that your staff member will fail at the delegated task and lose confidence; and you will have to clean up the mess. It’s bad for productivity and bad for morale. It can also leave your own boss wondering about your skills as a manager – and your technical skills, since you are now doing work at the level of your reports instead of at your own level.

Fortunately, most managers assist their staff to develop skills by assigning work and providing feedback over a period of time. This is a good start but what’s missing is the structured notion of scaffolding.

Highly effective managers provide levels of support tailored to the individual skills and knowledge of each staff member. Depending on the task and the individual, the degree of support ranges from high to low and takes more or less time. Here is how it works.

  1. Start by clearly explaining what needs to be done and how.
  2. Assess how much support your staff member will need. This will help you adjust the next steps.
  3. Provide examples of good practice and models to copy.
  4. Provide opportunities for your staff to work with you and other more knowledgeable people as they develop their skills.
  5. Next, give them opportunities to attempt a task or elements of a task without initial support, followed by feedback and support. A lower risk task should be attempted first.
  6. Finally, let them do the whole task from start to finish on their own and then help them bring it up to standard.

One example of how to apply this method is with high level meetings. Here a staff member might first accompany a manager to senior meetings and listen only; later they might attend less critical meetings with peers; and finally begin to represent the organisation at increasingly high stakes meetings.

I have used this method to introduce aspiring leaders to the Managing Director and then the Board. In this case, they were subject matter experts with no experience in presenting to senior meetings. By supporting them through the process, I gave them the chance to show the Managing Director and the Board just how much they knew.

When you take this path, you get the credit for their expertise. You get the credit for bringing the best out of your staff and training them as future leaders.

I also had this experience as a junior member of staff. My boss, a wonderful mentor and teacher, asked me to draft a letter, then shared the final version with me. I was embarrassed to see only one of my sentences remained in the final version. But then he patiently explained every change he had made. Next, he gave me another letter to draft. Again, he shared the final version and explained the rationale behind his changes. As I progressed, we co-wrote a lot of documents and I learned to understand the sophisticated approaches he was using. Finally. the day came when one of my documents came back unchanged. I was delighted and so was my boss.

Managers I have coached have found this approach really helpful, particularly the idea that the amount of support given must be tailored to the skills and knowledge of the individual staff member and to the task. They have found that, over time, they have been able to delegate far more effectively, having ensured their team knew what they were doing.

Although applying educational scaffolding to workplace learning is time consuming, my experience has shown that it builds not only skills but independence and self-confidence in the team. Its success will mean that managers are able to confidently delegate work over time, knowing that their staff member will have the skills, knowledge and learning to complete the tasks themselves.

Contributor: Dr Catherine Burrows is a Founding Partner of Executive Coach Exchange and the CEO and owner of Innoverum independent consulting.

Help me learn how to do it myself – part 1

Once in a while, you come across an idea so profound it changes your thinking forever. This was my experience when I learned about scaffolded pedagogy and the Zone of Proximal Development, when I was teaching English to adult migrants and refugees. Over time, I realised this concept applied not only to children and adult language learners, but to everyone. Especially in the workplace.

Executive Coach Exchange scaffolding pixabay ahmadardityThe person who conceived this idea was a Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). One of the things that made this so significant for people in the West was that his ideas did not reach the West until the 1960s, largely because of the Cold War. You can read about his theory of social development here.

The author of this article explains: “…Vygotsky felt social learning precedes development.” For me, the implications are that everyone learns at different rates and needs differing amounts of support; and that other people have an essential role to play in helping you learn new tasks.

Vygotsky called these people More Knowledgeable Others, those who have “a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept…normally thought of as being a teacher, coach, or older adult…” and emphasised the importance of cooperative or collaborative dialogue.

Equally important is his idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): “the distance between a student’s ability to perform a task under adult guidance and/or with peer collaboration and the student’s ability” to undertake a task independently. Vygotsky believed that the Zone of Proximal Development is where learning happens.

I believe, not only is our ZPD unique to us, it’s different for different tasks. When you learn something new, you have different knowledge and skills to call on. That’s why each of us learns differently and in different ways. It’s also why individualised learning is so much more successful than a one-size-fits-all approach.

From Vygotsky’s work came a new idea, educational scaffolding, also known as scaffolded pedagogy: “a teaching method that enables a student to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal through a gradual shedding of outside assistance.”

Generally, people begin learning something new with little knowledge and few skills. The More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) ‘scaffolds’ or supports their learning and, as their knowledge and skills develop, the learner’s ability to undertake tasks increases. The learner completes the tasks with increasing success and decreasing support, and the scaffold is gradually withdrawn. Finally, the student is able to complete the task successfully, without support.

A common example is learning to drive. A learner driver must be accompanied at all times by a competent, licensed driver. This MKO starts them off in back streets and empty parking lots, until they can – at the very least – steer and brake. Later, the learner drives on busier streets, then motorways and in peak hour. Once the learner passes the driving test, they are permitted to drive alone. However, their licence is provisional and has specific restrictions. A driver must hold a provisional licence until sufficient time has passed without serious driver errors, when they are permitted to hold a full licence.

While these ideas were conceived in the context of child development, I believe they apply to adults too. How much support you need and how quickly you learn, depends on the resources you have to bring to your learning. If you can already speak six languages, chances are a seventh won’t be too much of a struggle. But if you are learning a second language for the first time as an adult, it will be far more challenging and you will need support.

If you get a new job in your field, you may find some aspects difficult at first. But if you decide to have a career change, chances are you won’t be able to do this without assistance and even formal study.

If you are given new tasks at work for the first time, try to find someone willing to be your More Knowledgeable Other, to work with you and scaffold your learning, until you can complete those tasks successfully – and independently. In other words, find a really good mentor.

Next week – the manager’s role.

Contributor: Dr Catherine Burrows is a Founding Partner of Executive Coach Exchange and the CEO and owner of Innoverum independent consulting.

Cutting edge coaching

Here at Executive Coach Exchange we were delighted to be given the task of coaching an entire team at the Centre for Aboriginal Health.

The Centre, which is part of NSW Health, asked us to work with all the staff there who wanted to participate and we were so pleased that they did. The Centre is developing a reputation for innovative approaches to professional development and we feel privileged to have played a part in this.

The Centre undertakes very effective advocacy for Aboriginal Peoples and is excited by the challenges presented by new strategic approaches in Aboriginal Health. The decision to coach the whole team was based on the belief that each person in the team contributes to the outcomes of the whole team, so each person should be supported to perform at their best.

The Centre has a coherent and cohesive leadership team, who have a strong commitment to the vision of the Centre, to quality improvement and to achieving better outcomes. This commitment is shared by the staff who also share with them a strong appetite to find new and better ways of doing business.

Coaching the entire team meant a significant investment in staff time, as all staff, irrespective of how long they had worked with the Centre or what their role was, were invited to participate.

By expanding coaching from the leadership team to the entire team, the Centre provided staff with the opportunity to build skills in a completely personalised program. This is paying dividends already. We found that staff engaged enthusiastically in the opportunity provided by the coaching program and tried new ways of working as a result. We were impressed and pleased to witness the improvement in work practices and the excitement and energy of the team in trying new ideas.

The Centre for Aboriginal Health is to be congratulated for this program. While executive coaching for leaders and aspiring leaders is becoming well-accepted across the NSW Public Sector, the idea of investing in this type of professional development for an entire team is at the cutting edge of coaching.

It isn’t courage if it’s not scary

We’ve been working with a range of leaders on developing their ideas of the most important traits of good leadership.  Their lists included:

  • Having a vision and being able to share that vision
  • Articulating and achieving objectives
  • Calmness under pressure
  • Being inspirational
  • Being trustworthy
  • Courage

Executive Coach Exchange mountain climbing skeeze pixabay

In discussing these traits, we were considering the impact on people of being courageous. While being courageous can be costly at times, we believe not being courageous can be even more costly.

Here’s why.

If you are courageous, you make a decision to do what you believe is right. Once you have made that decision, you don’t need to waste time second-guessing yourself.

Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

You may feel anxious about the result of your courageous decision but you can be confident that your values are at the centre of your decision-making process. This gives your decision a firm foundation which, in turn, makes you more confident to face whatever flows from your decision.

If you are courageous, your team will trust you as a leader. Even if they don’t agree with your decision, they will know your decision was value-driven. Generally speaking, your team will repay you for your courage with trust, loyalty and hard work.

Your courage must be combined with effective communication. Your staff can’t follow you if they don’t know where you are going and what your objectives are, no matter how courageous you are being.

Candour is also an essential element of courageous communication. The ability to speak to truth to power is essential – but should not be confused with being indiscreet, tactless or domineering, all of which make communication ineffective.

Finally, even those who don’t appreciate the result of your courage will accept it for what it is. They will know that you are forthright and reliable and that you will do the right thing, even if there is a cost. This means you will win their trust too.

Delegating effectively – part 3

In previous posts we looked at how to set up successful delegation and how to follow up to ensure your delegation is successful.

This week we look in more detail at one of the more complex issues that can arise from delegating relationship and negotiation responsibilities.

There is potential for delegates to become so comfortable working with ‘the other side’ that they are at risk of “capture”, forgetting which organisation they represent.

An organisation we’ve worked with provided a clear example of this issue. Account executives were expressly instructed by their management that it was their responsibility to be an advocate for their client. This is not uncommon – account executives will push hard to achieve the best deal for their client, and that can be consistent with building strong relationships with a client and achieving sales goals.

However, the important caveat, that they should advocate for their client when facing inwards to their employer, but still represent their own employer when facing outwards to the client, was glossed over. The account executives found it understandably difficult to change hats. Ultimately, this approach created significant compliance difficulties, and client disputes, when the account executives tried to work around internal protocols and overpromised to their accounts.

An Australian Government department we dealt with was well-known for regularly rotating its delegates.

Executive Coach Exchange colleagues rawpixel pixabayThis was an interesting arrangement. On one hand, it effectively avoided what the department called “provider capture”, where their staff became advocates for external organisations instead of representing their own. On the other hand, external bodies constantly had to provide information which they had already provided, because they were always dealing with someone new. This was not efficient and other organisations often felt the new representative lacked expertise and knowledge.

Our view is that there might be a limit to the effectiveness of this kind of rotation. Nevertheless, we believe you should regularly review your delegation arrangements, at least once a year. By this, we mean looking at the responsibilities each of your staff members has been given and asking:

  • Are the delegation arrangements still delivering the outcomes you need?
  • Has your staff member been successful in delivering these outcomes?
  • Are they still engaged and interested in the area?
  • Are your staff still effectively representing the interests of your organisation?
  • Are you confident they have not been captured by their stakeholders or their opponents in negotiations?

If the answer to any of these questions is “No”, then it’s time for a refresh. While your staff should have sufficient time to learn how to undertake their new responsibilities, no delegation arrangement should be a job for life.

In conclusion, here is an excellent tip from Mind Tools. “When you first start to delegate to someone, you may notice that he or she takes longer than you do to complete tasks. This is because you are an expert in the field and the person you have delegated to is still learning. Be patient: if you have chosen the right person to delegate to, and you are delegating correctly, you will find that he or she quickly becomes competent and reliable.”

Delegating effectively – part 2

Last week we looked at setting the stage for effective delegation.  This week we’re considering how to follow up to ensure that your delegation is successful.

Executive Coach Exchange colleagues starflames pixabayEffective delegation does not mean things will never go wrong. If a task is not on-track, avoid the temptation to take the work back and complete it yourself. Your staff member cannot learn how to do a task properly if they know you will take it back at the first sign of a problem. You should also give a clear message that your staff should come to you when they encounter problems. Your staff should feel confident that they can come to you with a problem and you will help them solve it. You might like to try talking to them in these terms:

  • If something goes wrong, I want to hear about it from you and not from someone else;
  • If something goes wrong, we will work together to find a solution and fix it;

and, as they develop their skills,

  • If something goes wrong, come and tell me about it and propose a solution for us to fix the problem together.

Patience and calmness are essential. If your staff are frightened of your response, they won’t tell you when things go wrong until they become crises. Small, solvable problems can quickly become serious if they are not dealt with early. If you calmly work with your staff member to find a solution, they will build their problem-solving skills. They will be more likely to be able to propose a solution when they tell you about a problem and will learn to solve problems for themselves.

Finally, as you contemplate delegating, reflect on times when your managers delegated to you effectively. Recall how you felt when you were first asked to take responsibility for a significant piece of work. Probably you felt happy, proud and more than a little nervous. What did your manager do to help you get started? How did you know what was expected of you? How did they check back in with you? How did they react when things went wrong? Be mindful of your own experience as you delegate to your staff.

Next week, we’ll look at the interesting issue of capture, and when delegation arrangements need to be refreshed.

Delegating effectively – part 1

Every manager needs to learn how to delegate effectively to be successful. Martin Zwilling comments that while some people find delegating easy, most of us struggle to get this important management skill right.

He refers to Jan Yager’s time management self-improvement program, Work Less, Do More, discussing ways to improve your delegation skills, including:

  • Choosing what tasks you are willing to delegate and the right person to delegate each one to;
  • Giving clear instructions, including a definite completion date;
  • Delegating responsibility and authority, not just the task;
  • Trusting those to whom you delegate; and
  • Giving public credit when your staff succeed.

Zwilling also suggests you delegate tasks you are not suited to, for example those which require particular technical expertise. Yager writes, “Delegating the right task to the right person at the right time is key to growing your business and increasing your productivity.”

Executive Coach Exchange colleagues rawpixel pixabay

Mind Tools has a terrific article about delegation. They ask, since “Delegation is a win-win when done appropriately…”, why don’t people delegate? They suggest people don’t delegate because it takes a lot of up-front effort. However, “Delegation allows you to make the best use of your time and skills, and it helps other people in the team grow and develop to reach their full potential in the organization.”

They provide a checklist to help you decide when to delegate:

  • Is this a task that someone else can do, or is it critical that you do it yourself?
  • Does the task provide an opportunity to grow and develop another person’s skills?
  • Is this a task that will recur, in a similar form, in the future?
  • Do you have enough time to delegate the job effectively? Time must be available for adequate training, for questions and answers, for opportunities to check progress, and for rework if that is necessary.
  • Is this a task that I should delegate? Tasks critical for long-term success, such as recruiting the right people for your team, genuinely do need your attention.

Once you decide the conditions are right for you to delegate, you need to help your staff member to be successful. For this to happen, your staff member must understand the objectives of the tasks they have been given and be allocated sufficient authority and responsibility to carry them out.

Trust is important but this does not mean ‘set and forget’. As manager, your role should be to undertake regular check-ups to ensure delegated tasks are on track. We recommend setting specific milestones for this, with both times and required outcomes.

Next week we will discuss how to follow up on effective delegation.

Joining the old boys’ club

A client was recently wondering how to work effectively with the old boys’ club. This prompted an interesting discussion – how do you join the old boys’ club? The answer is, of course, that you don’t. There are no forms and no annual fees. No-one applies – you’re in or out without even being invited.

Photograph – Evan Vucci: AP

So what does this mean for the rest of us? We need to ask what it is about the old boys’ club that is attractive. First, for most people the idea of an in-crowd who share important resources is attractive. Usually this means influence, information and power.

Second, it could be about a feeling of being chosen and included. And third, related to this, a feeling of belonging. The converse of these ideas is the feeling of being excluded from the group, so lacking access to knowledge and power.

Baumeister and Leary wrote about the “belongingness hypothesis”.  This hypothesis states that “people have a basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior”.

They wrote, “it seems fair to conclude that human beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.”

Some, like Smith, also see this need as an evolutionary trait which enhances survival. “Prehistoric humans lived mostly in small family groups to pool resources and increase their survivability. As populations began to grow, more and more people had to live together to maximize resource utilization and provide adequate safety.”

These issues also tie into the impact on mental health of exclusion and banishment.

It’s no wonder, then, that people look at the old boys’ club and see something attractive. But as we noted at the outset, it’s not something you can join.

A positive response is to develop your own networks, and form a flexible group with whom you can share knowledge and expand influence.

Drew Hendricks proposes six approaches to help you network more effectively:

  1. Networking is a two-way street – whenever you meet someone, you need to ask them as much as possible regarding their business, as well as informing them about yours.
  2. Evaluate your contacts – it’s important to filter through your contacts to see who is worth establishing a relationship with.
  3. Meet-and-mingle – consider finding out where like-minded people are spending their time.
  4. Always get a second date – it can get a bit overwhelming when making the rounds and introducing yourself to professionals you’ve never met before. This is why it’s important to secure a second meeting.
  5. Spend time social networking – use social networking to your advantage.
  6. Nurture and maintain strategic relationships – if you’re looking to establish a meaningful relationship, such as a mentor, then you need to be a little picky. Drew Hendricks suggests that ideally you should limit yourself to 5 to 10 strategic relationships.

He also comments that while you should prioritise people in your network, you shouldn’t burn contacts who are not useful now, as you may find them useful later.

We would add to this that ‘burning’ contacts will certainly not enhance your reputation.

Faye Hollands focuses on internal networks. She recommends building your internal networks, by:

  • reaching out to other people in your organisation when your job doesn’t require you to,
  • talking to and meeting with people that you don’t have to, and
  • being the one to initiate those interactions.
Photograph – @IsabellaLovin

She emphasises that this is not “sucking up” and lists benefits to building internal networks which include:

  • increasing your visibility within an organisation, so improving your chance of promotion,
  • positioning yourself as the ‘go to’ person, once people know who you are, what you do, and how you add value, and
  • providing a platform for career development opportunities.

Building internal networks also makes your workplace a more enjoyable place to be.

Groucho Marx is reported to have said that he would not want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. We see it the other way – why you would want to belong to a club that would not have you as a member? Ultimately, building your own networks will mean there is no need for you to join the old boys’ club.