The Resilience Illusion in the Volatility Apocalypse

We live in a world where change is constant.. Our society has become a place where uncertainty, change, agility, volatility, ambiguity is the new normal. Our leaders are required to develop resilience….

I don’t even know what this stuff means any more… if I ever did.

We bluster on about leadership like it’s A Thing. With traits. Is this true or simply driven by a whole industry devoted to codifying behaviour and selling stuff that might make you more effective in a leadership context… possibly?
If leadership is anything, it’s probably more an action, an intention, an experience.
Try making a qualification out of that.
Leadership is more often about power and circumstance. It’s sometimes earned, sometimes taken. It’s complicated and important…. not something to take lightly… and I’m damned if I could codify and sell it – but then this is why I’ll never be a rich woman.

Perhaps we are living in a volatile world but it’s richer than that…..am I alone in getting bored with the fear-mongering of this particular now-familiar rhetoric? It’s giving me nothing…. If I look around, I can see volatility, for sure… and if I looked for certainty, for routine and rhythm, for predictability and cause-and-effect – I can find that too… but that’s a lot less juicy, I guess.

The subtext to the “volatility and ambiguity” trope seems to be that in order to “survive” we need leaders to be more resilient and tough-minded – It seems these people alone can survive the uncertainty apocalypse…
Nice. Neat.
I’d like to buy that… only I really can’t…it feels cold.

Seemingly we need leaders with resilience – as in bounce-back-ability – What is valued is your ability to recover in the face of lifestuff, your ability to perform your duties without falling over, your ability to work within uncertainty, to navigate your way through and cope- I get that, get how it’s useful…. and good on you if you have it, or if/ as you develop it….
As one who sees herself as pretty resilient, I know there are times it is a good friend to me…But possibly less-so for the people around me……because…what about everyone else? Whilst we are busy being resilient and pushing through, what happens in our wake? To the folk around us? What about the thousands of employees these resilient power-rangers lead? What if non-leaders aren’t resilient?
Who cares?
Seriously… I’m asking…If leaders have built up their resilience and tolerance to uncertainty who cares or notices those who haven’t?
What if leadership decisions (from a place of being resilient and able to cope) are really really bad for most people?
What if decisions made by a bunch of people who have mental and emotional toughness are horribly skewed and inconsiderate?
What if this push for resilient leaders is actually causing some of the divisions we see within our organisations and society? What if our leaders are actually creating volatility and uncertainty, just in the way they are being?

What I can see as being valued in business circles, which concerns me greatly, is a slightly more complex version of the rough-tough Just F*cking Do It leader that we blatantly pointed at as an unreconstructed, damaging, command and control horror show quite some time ago. It was a lot about: cut through. Be Strong. Get It Done. Crash about a lot. Don’t stop. Don’t listen… and folk got hurt.
Now it’s a little more insidiously dressed up: be resilient, be mindful, cope….and is organisational life much better?
I’m not really sure about this.

Does “resilience” include valuing connection, relationship, generosity, empathy, compassion? Probably not, because surely being some of these things makes you less resilient? You become wide open to the full consequence of a massive restructure where folk lose jobs.. what that does to people, to the culture.. or you begin to notice the huge pay differences in your organisation. That realisation can be deeply deeply disturbing in a way … because what can you do? Your leadership power, your influence, your personal resilience suddenly has a limit…best to mindfully crack on, rather than address the mess fully?
It’s the red pill/ blue pill conundrum. Open up? or Close down?

If you are open, you are, typically, less resilient.. that makes sense, right?…. you feel…. you empathise… things hurt…it stops you in your tracks….it’s deeply human, very very disconcerting and takes a lot longer to work through than just cracking on..
And it is BLOODY inconvenient….. but the truth is from there – from a place of being humbled, a place of empathy and understanding, you see a way to look after you & yours AND work hard to offer the very best for the folk you lead and affect.. Things get simpler. You can get bigger.
I think a little less resilient is good.
Only you can’t tell folk that… they have to experience it…. it’s the most annoying Catch 22 of my professional life.

My favourite leaders are those who deploy their resilience to connect-not-distance. In the face of organisational bastardness they pile in and hold open spaces for ethical, social and relational debate. They challenge with heart and head. They put themselves in the picture, not remove themselves from it. Those are folk who look into themselves, hold themselves accountable, and they grow…. these are not leaders who wait for a Public Inquiry or the Shareholder meeting to rap them on the knuckles for being unfair, unethical or uninclusive. These are leaders who use their powers partly to personally crack on, but partly to stand within their Boards and decision-making spaces, saying “I know we can, but should we?” Or “I think we need to listen to the staff/ residents/ folk whose lives will be fundamentally shifted by this decision”
I genuinely think more of this would go some way to addressing some of the bonkers societal things we are currently witnessing… including volatility and uncertainty.

My favourite coaches and facilitators insist on leaders “showing up”… the best I know don’t sooth and calm and encourage their clients to ignore the gaping holes in front of them. They don’t encourage resilience, they insist on cracking the neat facades & pushing for the red-pill of personal honesty. They know that deep wisdom, proper resilience, comes from facing into the truth of a situation… and living with what lies beyond … they challenge clients to look, to listen, encouraging more honesty, courage, self-reflection and personal accountability.

Then there are the L&D / OD people who are prepared to take risks with Leadership Development and put leaders right INTO the consequences of their decisions, not shielding them from it… Often they get push-back. Often this means it’s good work. This is where we need to be resilient… where we need to equip ourselves and work on ourselves and be a positive part of a solution….

I guess what I’m saying is, there are multiple ways we can make a positive difference to our organisations and to wider society. It’s not about sealing ourselves off. It really really isn’t.
It’s resilience, not from a place of “it hurts and it’s gnarly and I don’t want to look at it” but from a place of – “this hurts and it’s gnarly and we face into it and contribute to it getting better”
Never have we more needed the tools and time for these conversations.

Surely this is leadership for volatile times..where the illusion of resilience is held lightly…. Where we value personal maturity, ethical conduct and an inability to just F*cking do it… where we don’t resist, but we yield and listen…..and we appreciate that uncertainty is certain, so at least that’s one less thing to concern ourselves with…

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Addendum:
I’ve frequently facilitated conversations between Boards and the folk they are there to serve….it disturbs and inspires. After one recent session, a very cross Non-Exec approached me at the end and said he’d hated the process because “I really don’t like to have to listen to all of this…”
We didn’t get into conversation, but I rather hope he slept badly that night having heard what he did…I asked the Chair (who also didn’t particularly like to listen to all of this, but understood the need to and the poor decision-making that was happening, precisely because they weren’t listening) to talk to him later… to see if this listening thing had made an impact on the Non Exec.. or if he chose to be resilient to the dissent and crack on….

Falling Short….

He’s read another leadership article.. and he falls short.

This time it is about Creating Happiness in the team, last time there was an urge for compassion… or was it the importance of focus? I can’t recall… what I notice is that this reading and observing of things he Should Be Doing is…distracting and sometime debilitating for him.
The article is from a reputable source. It’s backed up with good evidence. It must be right. He falls short. Again. What else is out there?

I’m saying I used to have what I think are comparable feelings when I read lots of women’s magazines (I don’t read them any more)
– Pressure to look amazing (but in a particular frame of amazing).
– Assurances that being yourself is enough (if yourself is more like this incredibly high-achieving glossy person who appears to have it sorted).
– The mind-bending phenomena of both inventing and advising me how to solve an issue I didn’t know I had in one short feature….
Leaving me with mixed messages and a sense of my own massive shortcomings– Wanting to strive to be better, but woefully aware of the impossibility of a large part of the task….helpful-not-helpful stuff.

I’m not sure he’s that impressed with my women’s magazine analogy… but hey, I work with what I have, at times. The invitation to him is to look at what he is being sold here and what he is choosing to take in. What is that doing to him? What are the messages and the subtext to what he is taking on? How helpful is all of this? Why is it so derailing for him, when others might not take it on board so? Where is he in all of this?

It seems like a bit of a theme emerging at the moment with a couple of clients (and friends in informal conversations who have been promoted or moved jobs etc) about Who Am I As A Leader?
Generally, these are friends/ clients who soak themselves in Leadership Stuff…they’ve done courses, read HBR articles, sought out business books and worked hard to keep up that side of their development – but somehow this research is unsatisfying…. For me, it’s because the fundamental question of Who Am I doesn’t get answered… if anything it gets obscured.

The meaningful bit, the part where they get to express with comfort and maturity: THIS is who I am in all of this, as a Leader; THIS is how I can and will contribute, THIS is how I will behave, conduct myself & deliver; THIS is what I won’t do …. that’s the bit there seems to be little time for.

When we design Development interventions, are we really giving people time to hone and articulate their own message? We seem to spend A LOT of time telling people what a leader is or could be or should be…. But what does that mean for an individual? Who ARE they, really as a leader? As a person? What are they bringing? How do they see the world? What culture are they creating around them? And can they get OK with that?

It’s about action and reflection – in whichever order you prefer, but hopefully in never-ending lovely loops – and I can’t help thinking this is the key to much of the behavioural change, confidence and capability building we reach for in our talent programmes and development approaches…. For me, the reflective part – sit down (or wander about) express what happened and why and how and what you chose and what was around you and chew it over a bit and refine it – this is so much more relevant, potent and long-lasting (and less judgemental?) than seeking the answers from an article. He wants to Create Happiness? He can’t do that by reading about it. There has to be action and consideration….and places for that to happen.

So go create spaces virtually and face to face which invite and insist on folk showing up as themselves – where flaws and fears can be thought through, where strengths and successes can be too.
Don’t throw too much content or concept in your programme design – let people bring what they have… it’ll be rich enough.
Work with really good, sorted coaches or facilitators, ones who have done their own reflective work and understand their own stuff enough to be able to sit with others’ fears or brilliance… you’ll know who they are… they’ll be recommended to you by people other than themselves.

And for leaders? Maybe get them to detox from some of the messages that are around. Pick one TED talk a year & mull on that deeply… something like that… it might help them know they are not falling short.

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About me:

I’m a Organisational Consultant, Coach, Facilitator, Speaker, Blogger & Dialogue Guide. Founder of #facilitationShindig Working with people & organisations to improve conversations, relationships & learning – Doing stuff with love.

Find me on Twitter @fuchsia_blue and @Shindiggery1

Why You Should Mentor

The word Mentor in magazine letters on a notice board

Today I’m running a Workshop on Mentoring Skills at the CIPD Regional Steps Ahead Summit in Manchester. With over 4,000 mentees already in the programme, 7 out of 10 young people find employment after engaging with Steps Ahead and the CIPD credit local mentors with this success.

It’s got me thinking about Mentoring again, and why it is one of the most important roles anyone can play, personally, professionally and socially. My first deep-dive into mentoring started in 2008, project managing the internal Mentoring scheme for the Scottish Government. When I first took over, it was a small and fairly exclusive affair, designed for the those who showed high potential to be introduced and mentored by Senior Leaders they might not otherwise get access to. It was an excellent scheme, with good training and careful matching… and it had the potential to be so much more…

By the time we handed the Mentoring Scheme over in 2012, we were working with over 400 matched pairs internally and had established other mentoring relationships across the Public Sector in Scotland. The scope of the Scheme had grown to enable specialist mentoring groups to access and use both the scheme and the training content, from LGBT groups to the General Legal Council.
We achieved this by talking to people and finding out what was needed. To encourage interest & also self-selection, I was running 1 hour briefing sessions, 4 times a day, one day a month. This meant potential Mentors and Mentees could hear what it was all about and meet other mentors and mentees, at a time that suited them, and decide for themselves if this was something useful.
Mentors were trained – full day covering skills, ethics, role of mentor and peer support networks
Mentees were trained – 3 hours on what to expect, what to bring, role of the mentee.
If I had my time again, I’d use video footage, podcasts and other things to get the message out, but it was 8 years ago and we are in a different time….

It was an astonishing thing to watch as it grew. The skill and the will of the Mentors, the questions and hunger of the mentees. The tricky issues they faced together, the championing of mentees, the respect for mentors… not all the relationships worked. We put guidance and clarity in for what happens if you are stuck, or it’s done… and sometimes the issues weren’t mentoring ones and these needed to be worked through by mentors and mentees

And as ever, when I became aware I was espousing the good stuff about mentoring, but wasn’t ACTUALLY doing it myself, I started looking at where I could Mentor.

Napier University runs a Mentoring programme for students from Non-traditional background who are about to Graduate. They researched the correlation between successful Graduate Employability and if, for instance, you are the first in your family to go to University, or in a minority group.

 I’m about to do the research a horrible disservice and I can’t find it on Google – so if anyone knows better, please comment below- but broadly the research said: Students from non-traditional backgrounds often see their degree as the goal and stumble slightly at the Employability stage – in other words, if you come from a family who have already done the degree thing, your parents, siblings etc are already pushing you think about the job-at-the-end.. whereas if you are the first ever to go to uni, that alone can be seen as the pinnacle for a while… add on to that if you are from a minority group, all the known barriers to entry and the current difficulties around social mobility in the UK… and these Graduates need a helping hand.

I had the privilege of working with two young women. Each for a year. Each with very different needs and backgrounds. My mentorship involved many coffees, working through application forms, challenging lots of “no. I can’t. that is too audacious” type thinking. I set up a mock panel interview. I help organise a visit to local businesses and got them talking to other Graduates. It was tough at times, figuring out what the right thing to do might be and not getting involved in some of the family dramas that played out in these young womens’ lives… I’m eternally thankful to Claire Bee at Napier University, who was boundlessly positive and supportive in times of doubt.

What I brought was experience, a different perspective, a belief in my mentees, the willingness to listen and offer thoughts and views…. I brought action-orientation, I pushed them to go explore.. Practical stuff like the interview was great… the fall-out learning from it was harder than expected for the mentee and there was a lot of work around confidence and determination….but that’s part of any journey.

What I learned was probably as much as I offered. Applying my coaching training… but also bringing myself in a different way. The actual difficulty of getting a job at the start was brought back home to me, and then add the barriers they faced and I have nothing nothing nothing but respect and awe for these young women. I learned what it’s like to be invested in someone’s future in a different way to friends or family. And how there is nothing quite like the moment your mentee texts you to say: I got it.

Think about what you have to offer someone – someone younger or older, someone in the same field as you or in a different situation… and if you can find a way to offer your time, your skills and your energy? Do it.

More information on the CIPD Steps Ahead programme here:

The Heart of Leadership

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My audible groan is not appreciated. They are looking at me without warmth.
I slightly surprise myself – oh, bugger. Did I make that noise out loud?

What is on the table at this particular design meeting is the integration of a case study. This case study, or variations of it, has been used for the past 4 years with great success. It enables a venerated Professor type from London School of Harvard Tech or wherever to join the programme and work with the leaders. He talks them through something about growth in emerging markets. It’s interesting. They do stuff on it. They discuss and puzzle. They learn.

I really like the Prof – he’s looks good for his age (I’m guessing 60?) and has been doing this leadership stuff for over 30 years all over the world. We have this amazing conversation about a recent Desert Walk he undertook. I totally get why we want to work with him. He’s charming and experienced and avuncular – a natural mentor for the guys trying to create growth in emerging markets. A foil for the raw ambition 70-hours-a-week behaviours that are happening.

And I’m groaning because to the depths of my soul I believe that what would be most in service to this group of leaders, is not another technical, building mind-muscle challenge. They’ve got this. They are a smart, committed, fairly hungry ( if a little knackered) group. They can think their way through complex, VUCA whatever conditions. Demonstrably? They are all OVER that stuff.

What this group of leaders is lacking is joined-upness and trust in each other. The emotional maturity to share without churlishness. The empathy to understand how their behaviour impacts on their team and the grace to accept that sometimes, it’s not great.
The willingness to admit they are scared to let something go, because their need to be perfect and capable and strong means failure is not an option….even though that need is waking them up at 3am and they are a shell the next day, ergo more like to fail.
The recognition that their deep need to always be right and clever means someone else has to be wrong and stupid – and that sometimes, that’s a shitty choice.

The ones who have emotional maturity have been doing the hard graft for ages – building relationships, sorting out issues, oiling wheels, making things work by getting under the egos. Where what is valued is mental dexterity and logical outcomes, this emotional work goes unrecognised, unsung and those who undertake it often don’t value it themselves/ are slightly embarrassed about it – but an engine without oil grinds to a halt…

What the group of leaders we are designing for is lacking is a language to express this stuff – a means of articulating the fear or the joy, the disappointment, the paranoia, the impatience, the shame – and if you can’t talk about it or write about it, draw it or walk with it… if it is nebulous and shadowy and can’t be named, how can you ever work with it?

This can be gnarly work – coming face to face with your nasty, with the bits of you that haven’t contributed to your high-flying career thus far – the Case Study is a breeze in comparison. An easy option. The lovely comfort zone.

For some, emotional, relational stuff is literally learning a new language – something unspoken before, something they don’t understand – it can take a long time… your accent might always be terrible….how embarrassing.
Some folk find working with this stuff overwhelming – they feel the absence of something they “ought” to have and equate that to failure – so run madly from it, muttering about Fluffy crap, no place in business…only to be faced at some point in their lives with the inevitability of lifestuff – death, divorce, illness, change….and then it can all come crashing down.

So why ask leaders to look inward and build their emotional capacity? Easier to stay cerebral and crack on….

Because work without heart leads to heartless outcomes – and we need leadership who operate with compassion and care more than ever. This is not a platitude, it’s a thing – an actual thing. We talk about the future of work, of improving working lives – but a good future requires leaders who can access empathy, compassion, generosity, failure-as-learning and make decisions about their people, resources, markets etc with some ethical and emotional intelligence. A case study in emerging markets kind of bypasses that bit.

I say some of this at the design meeting – not all of it, because me on a soapbox isn’t anything particularly useful at this stage… and we talk about how to get the connection part, the relationship part more front and centre…. and slowly something more heart-felt & human emerges and I’m glad…..

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When they arrive they are polite, slightly scared or bored and the conversations involve a lot of comparisons and competitive niggles. Fast movements, rapid talk. Status games, power games, jostling, laughing….

They leave, days later, quieter, less scared. Less bored. They know each other better. They know themselves better. For some, this is still not right or good – the world seems altered and that’s uncomfortable as all hell – they will very quickly try to recreate their status quo. For others, and the people they lead, it is the beginning of, or the next steps to master, this new language, with all that can bring.

The Power of Humble Leadership

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The words I carried away from the recent CIPD Scotland conference were unexpected. Not “engagement” or “performance”, although these were ostensibly the topic areas being discussed; the words were: “humility” “humbleness” and “humanness”

The notion of “humble leadership” is one I kind of just love. For me, humble leaders work at being in service to those around them, yet still hold their power and purpose. There is strength in holding to a simple truth.
This stuff is about working with grace and dignity.
Listening.
Saying what you believe to be true, even when it upsets… then sticking around to work with the upset it causes. (the very opposite of seagull management – swoop in noisily, shit on everything and swoop off.)
It’s about sticking with folk through the gnarly stuff.
Surrendering control, but not responsibility.
Admitting your mistakes and limits.

Continue reading

Think For A Minute – Reflections on Learning & Leadership


Stop for a moment, good leaders of organisations and people.
Pause, Practitioners of Learning and Development.

Cease acting for a moment, or two, or longer and just….. Hold. Breathe. Be.
Relentless activity.

Constant striving.

Be Better.

More for Less.

Faster.

Now.
Alright. Fine. There is that.

And there is more.

Continue reading

Vapour, Iron & Barriers to Change – a Story

Smoke abstract

This is not what he’s going to want to hear.

Under pressure.
Scrutinised.
A big structural change to deliver.
Budget cuts to the quick of the organisation.
He wants a neat process.
A plan… with outcomes and goals.
Delivery of that plan. Stat.
Seemingly this is where I come in….

Only…
It strikes me, as we talk that he already has this – he and his team have long since mapped the process. They understand the outcomes they are seeking.
Hell – they even took the plan to the Board and it’s all approved.
For months now, it’s been All Systems Go.
They are more than capable of delivering a plan. Stat.

So I’m wondering – why am I here?
(That question seems to annoy him. He is, after all, a very busy man…)

I’m here because I am a Consultant – He needs someone to come in and make the change happen. Run workshops. Facilitate conversations. That stuff.
(I bite down my question… Why can’t you already do that without me?)

The plan isn’t working. The outcomes and goals are not being “owned” outwith the team. The need for cuts and restructures is not widely accepted.
There seem to be barriers and blocks… hard to say what they are…
The Board collectively said yes.
This means The Board are onside.

Really?
Let’s break that down..

Well they are onside – but This Director will struggle to implement the structural cuts in Q2 & 3 because the looming deal means all hands to the pump and the disruption to resourcing is too high a risk. As a key income stream to the business, this area needs protecting.

This Director is going forward – LEAN methodologies in place now – so everything is being looked at carefully and, y’know, that all takes a while to show results. But they are absolutely committed to losing 25% of their staff and budget. It means their reach will be smaller in the Organisation, but they are fine with that.

This Director is close to the CEO and is pushing hard for things to change in their area – already the four Regional Heads are three and the resourcing has slimmed down massively. Staff are warning that it is too much too fast – there is currently a risk to retained knowledge –but that is just resistance to change, of course –that’s what you expect to hear at this stage of the game. This area is really role modelling what needs to be happening.

This Director has taken the Heads Of out for a couple of days. They have come up with a plan for how they can keep everyone and raise productivity. It’s not The Plan. It’s better. They have always prized themselves on their innovation and ability to overcome the odds. This Director is much-loved by the Team. They are the priority.

So here’s the news: The Board are not onside.

Collectively perhaps. Individually…. not so much.
I see fear. I see procrastination. I see care. I see carelessness. Protectionism. Jostling. Attachment.
Individually they have a lot to lose, staff, status, outcomes.

If you want the whole to change… you kind of need to put a lot of attention on the parts.
You want to get things moving differently? Help your Leaders deal with their emotional, relational and attachment stuff.
(Perhaps that’s why I’m here after all?)

He’s looking at me in a way that makes my tummy knot with anxiety.
On the one hand, my dialogue training tells me to inquire into both my own feelings and into the look he appears to be giving me (don’t assume, Jools. Don’t project your own nonsense onto someone else. Notice the phenomena. Work with the data. Ask what you don’t know.. he might really like what you’ve just said)
On the other hand, even my paltry knowledge of reading body language and facial expressions tells me pretty clearly:
I’m on the end of contempt.

He wants answers. I am here to give him answers.
To get the plan going.
To enable the outcomes.
To fix the barriers. Stat.
I’m meant to provide a process. Something clean and clear…. not start on about bloody-messy-fluffy-woolly emotional guff…..

I’m letting him down.

I feel squeezed.
I’d really really like the business… I sense it slipping away as I speak the truth as I see it.
Yet I can only speak the truth as I see it.

So I try to unknot my tummy and breathe into what I know to be true:

Far from being woolly and fluffy, the emotion and attachment stuff your leaders are experiencing is made of iron wills. Your barriers are metallic in their essence – not vapour-fluffy, but hard core emotion.
You want them to own damage to their organisation?
You want them to be onside with cutting jobs, budgets & risking their reputations?
You want the organisation not to be heartlessly, ruthlessly ravaged?
You need to start softening iron wills.
You need an Emotional strategy to back up your Business one.
A place for your leaders to express fear, understand where & why they procrastinate, work with care that doesn’t compromise the whole plan by overly protecting, be considerate not ruthless….
Right now all of that is being left to chance.
How about you have a cohesive plan that takes into account impact of your leaders’ emotions?

And you’re not onside with what I’m saying, I can see that – because you have your own pressure and attachments to this working. I get that, right now, this is not the answer you want….But this is the answer I’m offering you.

And breathe……

Silence ensues and I wait.
The sense of lost work and crumbling credibility drifts over me. This emotional nonsense doesn’t hold up in this world of data and process. It’s too out there….

I sit, checking in with myself – am I still breathing? How hard are my hands shaking? How much adrenaline is currently in my system? I’m working out if my knees will give as I stand. Ah well… if I fall over it’s not like I’m going to see him again.

I finally put my attention back on him.
His expression has changed. There is less contempt now – something is shifting….

He sighs.
Fatigued and irritated he asks:
So what, specifically, would your Emotional strategy to back up this Business strategy be, then?

and it’s here the work really begins….

* this is a composite tale. I never blog directly about clients. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons or organisational situations, living or dead, is purely coincidental… though quite possibly likely