Friday, December 02, 2011

Evolution or Revolution?

There are two types of change - either gradual evolution or radical revolution. This is true of history, the arts, business, society, economics and all forms of human endeavour. Change is either accomplished by incremental reformation or radical and dramatic measures.  The choice of which path to adopt is a question that has to be faced whenever the need for change becomes apparent. It’s a question I’m sure the Eurozone leaders are asking themselves today.

The same is true in our lives and work-life balance. You can attempt to improve things incrementally through things such as better time management, flexible working, effective delegation, reducing your workload and ensuring you have good quality relaxation and family time.  

But for these incremental changes to work there are two major conditions that must be met: First, you actually have to be able to do them, and circumstance as well as discipline, force of habit and lack of will-power can prevent you. Second, they have to be solutions to the real problem you are facing. For example, no amount of small alterations can help your work-life balance if the real problem is that you’re in the wrong job!

Work-life balance isn’t just about making more time in your life whilst handling a busy schedule. Ultimately it concerns feelings of fulfilment, usefulness and purpose. So before considering how to improve your work-life balance or reduce stress, ask yourself whether its evolution you need or revolution. Regardless of your answer, you will then need to take time out to set out a plan for the actions you will need to take to make it a reality – and what better time to do this than the forthcoming Christmas break.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

To Better the Best

Is there a point in your career when it’s no longer wise to seek professional development?

About ten months ago, a new employer recruited “Brian,” a senior executive. By their own account, it was a long, expensive search for a tough-to-fill, key role. In place for a month, Brian approached the head of HR to request an executive coach for support as he assimilated into the complex, matrixed multinational. The HR head rebuffed, “I thought you were qualified when we hired you.” Three weeks ago, Brian called me. He had just accepted a job offer from a higher tier competitor, which included one year of executive coaching in addition to other generous terms.

We’re accustomed to professionally developing High Potentials.  Progressive organizations dangle it as a perk for which up-and-comers vie.  Yet, it’s hard to deny there’s a point where we view this differently. At a certain career stage or role, we expect the incumbent to have already “arrived.” What would you think of your CFO wanting to learn more finance?  Your General Counsel seeking confirmation about the law?  How about the CEO requesting leadership coaching?

In a recent piece for The New Yorker entitled Personal Best, physician and bestselling author Atul Gawande challenges the successful and accomplished to engage a coach to improve some area of professional performance. Already deeply experienced and highly skilled, Gawande describes how he engaged a retired surgeon from his residency to further hone his specialized technical skills in endocrine surgery. In the comprehensive and nuanced article, he admirably and unflinchingly self-discloses some cases where he underperformed. He goes on to describe how the coaching led him to performance improvements.
When it comes to supporting senior executives with their leadership and team effectiveness skills, I can vouch for two consistent success predictors. The first is whether the “coachee” will be – like Gawande – unsentimentally open about his or her performance. The second is whether the coachee’s key constituencies can handle it. Gawande describes the awkwardness of explaining a coach’s presence to his surgical team and to a patient awaiting anesthesia.  Wait, you mean my expert isn’t the expert?

Gawande cites Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal to point out the inherent irony. There’s no surprise when the world’s elite athletes work closely with a coach. We’d be shocked to hear otherwise. Yet, some institutions – like Brian’s former employer – expect their top performers fully baked. I find this as unrealistic on Mahogany Row as it is on the 50-yard line at Giants Stadium. That’s because we all benefit from some scrutiny to adhere to form, prevent bad outcomes and prepare for future challenges.

Maybe it’s time for organizations to take material steps to destigmatize executive-level performance improvement mechanisms. Build a rigorous program, announce it to the world, measure the results and publish for all to see.  Create pull by providing the support first to the highest achieving, most widely acclaimed performers.  Brand it as a perquisite; not remediation.  Let’s encourage unselfconscious lifelong learning in our institutions.

What do you fear more: death or public speaking?

A few years ago a survey revealed that if offered the choice between death or speaking in front of an audience, more people preferred the former to the latter!

Well known direct marketing guru, Drayton Bird knows all about this – he has spoken in 50 countries and has generated £250,000 in revenue in doing so.

He says …”When I started I was more frightened than you could ever be. It took tranquillisers and drink to summon up the guts to face an audience.”

Yet it's hard to really get ahead without being able to speak or make presentations. And most of us will use PowerPoint.

Somebody has now done research that shows PowerPoint presentations do more harm than good - and can put people to sleep.

This was written by someone else who sounds quite pleased with himself:

"We've all heard the phrase 'death by PowerPoint' - that numbing feeling the brain suffers as confusing slide after confusing slide follow one another. I have to do a lot of public speaking, and am one of those lucky people who think on their feet, without being afflicted by blind panic. But I couldn't help feeling that the good feedback I got from audiences wasn't just because I was a brilliant speaker. I'm not.

"The common factor between my own presentations and others which were far better informed, researched and presented, was that they used PowerPoint and I didn't. Eventually, it dawned on me that PowerPoint really does ruin a good speech."

I doubt whether any of us will give up using PowerPoint, but understanding the reasons why PowerPoint presentations fail might help us make our next presentation a bit better:

1.    The audience is torn between looking at you and looking at the slide.
2.    If you have lots of words on the slide, they'll look more at them than at you.
3.    Words are not as interesting or as memorable as pictures.
4.    Most speakers start by talking about themselves or their firms - deeply boring to the audience (just as it is in copy or websites).
5.    By the time they do start talking about benefits, the audience has given up.
6.    Most presentations lack a logical structure - and are too long.
7.    People worry more about style - delivery - than on content: what the audience will be able to do better as a result.

So what can we learn from this?

•    Plan presentations with the end objective in mind – in other words, worry more about the results of the presentation than the presentation itself
•    Words and pictures working together are more memorable than words alone and
•    Use PowerPoint as a great "crib-sheet" for you by using the notes function.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Making Time

What would you do with an extra hour? It's an opportunity that we have every year when the clocks turn back.

It’s not necessarily an ‘extra hour’ as we have to give it back in the spring, but it is worth considering how we might build in an extra hour of quality time in our day, particularly as most managers complain that they just don’t have enough hours in the day.

Some years ago an HBR article written by Ronald Ashkenas and Robert Schaffer looked at why managers waste time. In the article, a question had been posed to dozens of managers: Imagine if the CEO of your company personally asked you to take on an important assignment — working directly for her. The project would take one day per week but you would have to continue your regular role in the remaining time. Would you take the assignment? Almost all the managers asked said they would take the assignment on.

The reality is that we all have "extra" hours available, without having to turn back the clock. They are buried in unnecessary meetings, inefficient work processes, interruptions, false starts, PowerPoint perfection, misplaced files, and a host of other time-wasters.

We may assume that these patterns are part of the normal rhythm of imperfect organizational life — but unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) we know that these inefficiencies give us a cushion in case we have to suddenly step up the pace or respond to the CEO’s assignment.

So if you need to find an extra hour each day here are some ideas for identifying and capturing a few additional hours:
  1. Do a quick calendar analysis. Go back through the last few months of your Outlook calendar or handwritten diary. Highlight all of the activities or meetings that — in retrospect — truly added value. Then look at the remaining items. Which ones had no impact? If you had not spent the time, would it have made a difference? See if you can find a pattern. Finally, look forward at your next couple of months and see if there are meetings or activities that you could avoid or eliminate without any consequence.
  2. Schedule 20 minute meetings instead of the usual 30 minutes. Most of us fall into the pattern or habit of scheduling half hour meetings without questioning the value of the meeting or whether we actually need that amount of time. If you cut the length of your meetings down your time immediately becomes 50% more productive.
  3. Never attend a meeting without an objective. This is two fold. Firstly, never attend a meeting without an agenda circulated well before the meeting. Secondly, just because someone else calls a meeting doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for opportunities to meet your agenda – even if it’s only building your network and establishing your reputation.
  4. Finally, ask for feedback. Our time-wasting patterns are often invisible to us — but apparent to those around us. Ask colleagues if they could identify some activities that you could do less often, in less time, or stop doing altogether. For example, one manager who did this was told that he didn't need to attend a weekly operations meeting that was run by one of his people — a meeting that he habitually sat in on as a way of "lending support."
None of us have the ability to find more time by simply turning back the clock — except when Summer Time ends. For the rest of the year, we need to find other ways.

How do you find extra time?

Green Leadership

Many companies and organisations actively seek to ensure they have a sound environmental policy. But how often do companies think “Green” about their most important resource and source of energy – the people that work for them. Are there ways of thinking emerging from environmental considerations that could also be applied to the usage of human time and energy in the workplace?

Let’s consider a few:

Energy efficiency

Are the processes and communications in your organisation or team optimally efficient in the usage of time and energy? How much energy is wasted in unnecessary emails, excessive reporting and ineffective meetings for example? Is the organisation encumbered by any outmoded processes or systems for getting things done? It’s a big question but the way to tackle it is to start incrementally. Ask your team what single improvement would make the most difference towards more effective use of their time and energy – and start there.

Alternative approaches and technologies

Organisations and teams often get lost in the processes they use and the way they do things – often simply because that’s always how they’ve done things. Yet the ability to “challenge the process” is an important leadership competence.  It means stepping back from “how” things are done, focusing clearly on the end goal and asking yourself “Is there an alternative approach to achieving the intended result?” – one that is more innovative, competitive and effective - even if radically different.


Energy and motivation within a team or organisation needs to be renewed regularly – otherwise depletion occurs. Regularly involving people in the vision, strategy and direction of a team harnesses the creativity and inspiration within the team, makes people feel more valued and renews the sense of purpose and motivation.


Is the workload demand within the team or organisation sustainable? Is the drive to achieve more with less realistic and achievable? Or is the organisation so lean that excessive working hours and stress levels will simply lead to higher employee attrition rates, loss of morale and impaired work-life balance?

CO2 emissions

What are the toxins in the working atmosphere and what can you do to reduce them? One essential leadership competence, and often the hardest one to learn, is to be open to feedback. If people have concerns or issues do they readily feel they can approach you as a leader? If people feel able to express their concerns and that they are actively listened too, it helps reduce the build-up of frustration, resentment and unresolved relationship difficulties. 

It isn't fair

I have watched with interest the aftermath to the death of Muammar Gaddafi with the different responses of people in Libya and around the world. We see the obvious mix of inevitable euphoria as well as the disappointment that the world will not have the opportunity to see him tried and sentenced in a legal system. This is not the place to discuss his regime, but it raises an interesting question around peoples’ senses of what is just and right.

We do need to recognise that expressions of justice differ in every culture as cultures are usually dependent on a shared history, mythology or religion. Each culture’s ethics therefore creates values which influences the notion of justice. However, most civilised human beings have a subconscious sense of right and wrong and will feel knocked if that sense is challenged in some way. I remember feeling utterly compromised in a job I (briefly) held where, on divesting part of the business, the senior executives were negotiating stock option deals when all around them others were losing their jobs.

So what can you do if your ethics are compromised in some way?

Understand your reaction – the first thing is to acknowledge your immediate response as this is the truth for you. For instance, if you find out about an infidelity in a relationship, is it an absolute showstopper for you? Recognise those initial feelings, as they will always be there, no matter what your ultimate decision is – whether you stay in the relationship or not.

See the bigger picture – ask if it is worth a compromise. Try and step back and look into the situation, rather than embroil yourself within it. This is naturally difficult if it is an emotional situation, which it is likely to be if our values are challenged, however stepping outside will allow us to see alternative perspectives more easily.

Ask for help – the old adage, seek first to understand before being understood holds true here. Take a neutral stand and ask the other party to give their point of view. A bit like being on a jury in a trial – suspend your judgment.

Give feedback – only by offering feedback will the other party have a chance of understanding your perspective and maybe, just maybe making a decision to do something about it.

Make a stand – have the courage to stick by your principles as they are what guide you through life. I would never expect a vegetarian to eat a roast beef dinner just because I have cooked it.

Walk away and start again – sometimes this is the best way, to take yourself away from a situation that, if allowed to continue, would eat away at your very core. Just make sure, in doing so, that you recognise what you are doing and what you may be giving up.

As Mohandas Gandhi says “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”

Monday, October 03, 2011

Planning For the Unexpected

If you ever watch the programme Grand Designs you’ll know regardless of how different the various building projects are, one aspect of all the projects is always the same – the people concerned  never allow enough contingency in their plans and virtually always exceed their budget and schedule.

This tendency to be unrealistic in planning is a trap that many people fall into when managing their workload. Busy people are especially prone to over committing their time, ending up with little breathing space and spending vast amounts of stressful energy rescheduling and juggling priorities.

So here are three tips from a professional project manager:

First - Recognise that optimism is a natural human trait that brings with it many positives, but it also results in us being naturally prone to underestimating how long things will take and how much things will really cost.  By recognising this this is not a failure in any one person, but a trait natural to us all, we can accept it and put plans in place to compensate.

Second - Avoid fragmentation. Important tasks require concentration – if you keep picking them up and putting them down you’ll lose momentum and they will take much longer to complete.

Third - Plan for the unknown. You simply cannot predict the future, so add contingency so that you have some capacity for dealing with the unknown.  Remember, a schedule with no contingency in it is unrealistic from the start and that most professional project managers would add 20% on to any timescales to allow for the unexpected.   

Allowing for contingency gives you flexibility – and applying it even in your weekly schedule has real advantages. The simplest way to do this is to always leave half a day a week unscheduled. It will give you the capacity to handle urgent things that come up or to step back from your busy schedule and plan for the future.  And on those rare occasions when your spare half a day is not needed, you can take a well-earned break!

Will You Get a Seat in The Boat?

Imagine postponing your own wedding because it was “impractical to fit it in”. That’s just what Dan Ritchie, a member of the GB Rowing Team and world silver medallist, has done in order to train for the London Olympics. He won’t find out until April if he has a seat in the boat, but he is focused on his dream of Olympic success.

Hearing of Dan Ritchie’s commitment made me reflect on the parallels between elite athletes preparing for the Olympics and business planning.

Athletes across the world are entering the final stages of preparation for the games: training hard, working with their teams and coaches and honing their plans. Success in business also requires good planning and execution. Even with the forward thinking and goal setting you did in 2010, it’s possible that some of your dreams are not coming true in 2011.

So what can you do now to give yourself the best chance of success in 2012?

Reviewing the process itself is a great place to start. Does your planning involve enough of the right people?  Do you think enough about external trends and their impact? Maybe your planning needs to be looser, or tighter, or more specific. Are you focused enough on the things that really matter? Are you setting goals that really ignite your own and others’ energy and commitment?

Think about the process you used last time – what could you do to make it more effective, more efficient or more engaging?

A strong process is needed to get your own “seat in the boat”. Good forward thinking and preparation allows you to leverage trends and take advantage of the opportunities that arise, whether business or personal. It may not bring you an Olympic medal but it will give you the best chance of realising your own dreams.  

Kicking the Email Habit (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about how we experimented with kicking the email habit. We did this by not checking our emails before noon every day for one whole month (and this included our Blackberries).

Months ago I would have suggested that before trying this out you should get buy-in from some key people who might be affected: clients, colleagues etc. Now I say “forget the buy-in; your sanity is more valuable.” Just do it… you can tell them later.

An important exception is perhaps to encourage those you work with to do the same.

We realised we would never have kept up the discipline if we had not made the public commitment to each other.

Practical issues….

If you are thinking of weaning yourself off email or at least trying to manage it better, here are some of the practical issues you are likely to have to deal with, and some relevant questions to ask.

1.    "I'm afraid that a vital and urgent email will be missed". What is this fear costing you? How many emails never get delivered anyway? If it's a real emergency, they will probably call. If you had been on a morning training-course, you would not have been at your desk. How real is this?

2.    "Email is vital for completion of a task in hand". OK, go into the inbox, shield everything but the name of the person you are looking for, move the relevant email out to another folder ... and get out of the inbox asap!

3.    "Seeing the inbox filling up makes it very hard not to deal with it". True. So don't look at it. Set Outlook default to "Outlook Today" or similar.

4.    "Quick turnaround is vital to our customers". So is quality. Which is more important? Furthermore, our experience suggests that the more we focus our attention, the quicker we get things done and with better quality output.

5.    "I want to be connected all of the time". Why? Is this a psychological need, and if so how is this serving your clients? What are you not doing when dipping into the inbox for a look?

6.    "I might lose a customer". The biggest risk we all run is losing the A-customers we already have by not giving them enough attention. Much of this attention is sabotaged by the C's and D's who are often the source of the last-minute emails, marked "Urgent"

Have fun with this and remember – if you had a trip to the dentist this morning, that vital email would not have been opened until the afternoon anyway!

Monday, September 05, 2011

Working for free

Last weekend it was the village fete.  An hour before it was due to begin there was virtually nothing in the field where it was due to be held apart from stacks of chairs and collapsible tables.  Then people started arriving and, in no time at all, there were people selling cakes, a BBQ, a beer tent, a coconut shy, bouncy castle and stalls ranging from second-hand books to ‘splat-the-rat’.

Four hours later, following the drawing of the raffle and the announcement of which dog won the ‘waggiest tail’ competition, the fete came to an end and the same people who built it set about dismantling it.  As a result of their endeavours, that band of people raised several thousand pounds for the parish church.  But was it all worth it?

If you built a business plan for a village fete and assumed that all the workers drew a salary and that the items sold all had to be paid for you would quickly realise that you were heading for a loss.  In fact, the only reason why village fetes are a success is because people donate goods and their time for free. 

Of the people heavily involved in running the fete, one is a senior civil servant, another a company director and another runs her own business.  These were people with busy lives who are, most probably, already struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance.  Yet they were willing to give up a day of their weekend to work for free.

The reason why they were prepared to do this was obvious when I asked someone running a particularly busy stall whether they had had a good day?  “It’s been brilliant” they said, “it’s always one of the best days of the year because it is one of the few occasions each year when everyone turns out to work together”.

Although everyone looked exhausted by the end, they had all had fun and enjoyed the sense of community that comes from working together.

The lessons for companies are simple: First, people enjoy the sense of community that comes from working together and second, people want to have fun at work.

Who wants to organise the tombola?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Kicking the Email Habit

When I was reviewing my workload at the end of last year, I had to admit that I had been swamped (yet again) by emails. To make matters worse, it appeared that many of these emails were being generated internally rather than externally.

The problem was twofold:
  • email represented a never-ending avalanche of things to do
  • the messages disrupted our existing plans for the day
With my group we looked at various solutions, and discarded several as unworkable. For example, having fewer emails with multiple messages in each, more addresses, using other ways of communicating etc.

Then for a period of one month we experimented with a new approach: switching off all the email alerts and not looking at the inbox until noon.

You would not believe how difficult we found this at first.

We had all become so accustomed to starting the day with email, or at least dipping into the inbox out of curiosity. Giving up sugar is easier.

In the end, we persisted, even though we certainly under-estimated some of the issues involved. For example, there are occasions when we needed to go into the inbox, and just exercise some real discipline when in there.

What difference did it make? Within a month the results had been very positive:
  • a significant (and immediate) reduction in stress
  • a sense of control over our days; by getting something substantial done every morning, we feel we are again in charge of our workload
  • far from getting less done, we became more productive. Some of this was related to a sense of vitality and energy coming from the previous effects above
  • our development projects have really benefited: things that have been "good ideas" for months are actually getting done
  • we have become so-convinced of the benefits of this - despite the few hiccups that it has caused - that we are going to start a campaign to wean the world from the morning email addiction
Since then I have to admit that we have reverted to our bad habits, but most of us now block out significant chunks of time when we close email and get on with important projects.

You may have other ways of experimenting with email to make your life more productive. If you do, I would be interested in hearing them.

Crispin White
BIE Interim Executive Ltd
Business-changing Interim Expertise

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Be proud of yourself

The recent riots in London hit the headlines and of course, have been much debated. I live in Ealing, where on 8th August at 8pm the riots struck and our little town was the scene of major devastation – and very sadly a fatality in the process. I live 3 streets away from the centre and was determined to continue with my business – and it so happened that I had a meeting the next morning in the centre of town. As I took the short walk into town, it was apparent how quickly the streets had been cleared of debris and broken glass and how many local people had turned up to pitch in. Despite being boarded up, having suffered broken windows and looting (who wants to steal coffee and cups for goodness sakes?!), the coffee shop where my meeting was due to take place was open for business as usual. I was struck that morning with an overwhelming sense of pride for the resilience of the people in the town I have lived in for 20 years.

Pride is an interesting emotion – Aristotle considered it a virtue and yet in most world religions it is considered a sin, too focussed on the self. And it is such a strong emotion - I vividly remember the pride I felt at my son’s first sports day; my daughter’s solo recorder recital, my best friend’s battle with her chemotherapy and at the “standing room only” feel at my mother’s funeral.

The problem is that we can perceive personal pride as vanity and in so doing, not allow ourselves to savour the “unforgettable” nature of it. Without consciously doing so, we dilute the experience and therefore remember it in a very different way.

In the leadership workshops we run at Extensor, we ask participants to consider their “personal best” experience – to think of a time when they took some action or went through a thought process that they knew they performed fantastically well in. They are invited to recall what they did, how they felt, the responses they had, the results that came about. Stories we hear are always inspiring and come from the heart. They come from very different places – from someone running her first 5k race, to another being totally sure of his integrity through a difficult change programme, to a gentleman campaigning to keep his local park open, to a lady who talked of her open behaviour through her divorce. The common theme across all of these stories is the pride exuded by each story-teller. And many are surprised they have been able to articulate it, having not spoken about it in those terms before – as we so often suppress our personal pride for fear of being perceived as arrogant or vain.

So let’s have a proud time this month. List for yourself the times when you were at your absolute best and think about what you did and how you felt. In so doing, you create the opportunity to do it again and recreate that feeling. Most importantly, when you are proud of yourself, you need to “wear it”, to project it and talk about it. You will then be open to new situations when you can again have that feeling of pride.

As Lady Gaga says in the explanation about her song “Born This Way” – it is about being yourself, loving who you are – and being proud.

Monday, July 04, 2011

What is it that makes work satisfying?

Obviously the main reason most of us do what we do is to earn money as, if we won the Lottery, most of us would stop doing the job we do.  But despite this somewhat facile motivation,  most of us derive a sense of satisfaction from our work.  The question therefore is what aspect of our work is it that we derive the greatest satisfaction from – is it status, providing for our families, being associated with an organisation or the camaraderie of our colleagues?  While all of these things are important, the greatest sense of satisfaction is that which we derive from being useful and having a purpose.

Most companies have visions and values, but only a few place an emphasis on the organisation’s purpose.  In this context, an organisation’s purpose alludes to its contribution to the wellbeing and maintenance of society.  Take Konosuke Matsushita, the legendary founder of Panasonic as an example.  For him, the purpose of Panasonic was not to make money for shareholders, it was to eradicate poverty through the employment of others and by manufacturing quality goods at affordable prices.

While this talk of ‘purpose’ may seem a little idealistic, it is never the less a concept that leads to better motivation, productivity and employee satisfaction.  For example, would you rather be a road sweeper or a hygiene worker?  Both sweep the street but in one case the job description implies that the role’s objective is simply to pick up the rubbish that other people carelessly drop, the other implies that the purpose of the role is to improve the environment by making it a cleaner, safer and more attractive place to be.  I know which concept motivates me the most!

But in our world of skewed economic values where a bank trader is considered to be ‘worth’ so much more than a care worker, we seem to have lost sight of our purpose in so many jobs.   For example, I recently worked as a team coach for a group of health workers. They were heavily caught up with endless organisational change, regulation, accountability issues and departmental politics. As a consequence they had lost their sense of vocation and purpose, and hence their underlying motivation was suffering.  As an outsider it was easy for me to see that what these people did professionally was incredibility important – but they were in danger of losing sight of it.   However, by spending time focusing on the meaning and purpose of their work and by finding strategies to reduce the distraction of the less important aspects of the role, their motivation and energy quickly returned.

My advice would be the same for anyone.  Rediscover the core meaning and value of your work. Keep it strongly in mind and reinforce it through whatever means you can.  Look at what in your job isn’t part of the core value, or is secondary to it and see what you can do to reduce the energy and effort you spend on those things and, by so doing, increase the attention you can pay to what is important.


I have recently been training some new Vice-Presidents in the investment banking industry. It was fascinating to listen to the issues that these young leaders face today. Given the events of the last 4 years, it is not unnatural that their biggest concern was one of the oldest leadership challenges – how to build trust.  Trust in their industry again of course but fundamentally trust in them as a leader of others.

This is one of the great leadership qualities, a point reinforced to me when I was interviewing successful leaders for my recent book. It is perhaps best expressed in this quote from one of those leaders “People have to know that they can trust you and you have to, through your relationships with them, let them know you can be trusted and you will deliver.”

Trust is the bedrock of good leadership. Just consider what can happen when it is absent or broken. Leaders with no trust can become coercive, bullying people to conform. Power on these terms is unpleasant and counterproductive in business; in world politics it can mean violence and bloodshed as we are seeing daily in other countries right now.

Across all cultures trust is a product of what you do and how you behave. Just as being fit is an outcome of a good exercise regime, so trust is an outcome of a good leadership regime. Stick to your regime, be trustworthy and you will earn the trust of others.

The industry leaders I interviewed identified three key values that need to be demonstrated to build trust: Respect, Honesty and Integrity. Respect for other peoples’ views and values, honesty coupled with transparency, integrity in your own words, behaviours and actions. Consistently behaving in this way builds respect and trust from others. It also builds self trust and self confidence. People who command high trust, such as Nelson Mandela for example, are listened to and believed. They attract followers and even their opponents respect them. 

I find when working with leaders that the quickest way for them to build trust is to focus on matching what they say with what they do. I advised my new VPs to express these three key values in their daily interactions. They went away thinking about what they could do to show the values in action and a commitment to reflect on the impact of their actions. Practice will help them to embed these values in their subconscious, enabling them to command the trust and respect of those around them. I’m really looking forward to seeing their development over the coming months.

The ability to build and sustain trust brings many benefits and should be refined throughout your leadership journey. Whatever your leadership role, perhaps you would like to consider what more you could do to live the values of respect, honesty and integrity, so you can benefit from higher trust levels.

Rosie Miller
International Executive Coach
Maximising Your Return on People

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Don't postpone your life

There’s a common work-life balance trap that many people fall into when they have demanding jobs. They put on one side things that they wanted to do with their life, reasoning that it’s necessary to devote some years to their career.  It could be anything from travelling to learning a musical instrument, to spending more time with their children or making a contribution to their local community, or all of the above. Sometimes people push such desires to the back of their mind, or they reason that when they find the space and time they’ll do it. Their work life goes on and before they know it 30 or 40 years have passed.

Some people then find themselves in retirement or semi-retirement and they struggle with what to do with themselves. Inclinations and desires they had when younger seem distant, and that habit of working for so many years has conditioned them to the point where they feel somewhat washed up and useless. They find it hard to find the energy and will even to do the things they once dreamed they would do.

Avoiding this trap is not so easy with the pressures of modern life – but there is an infallible argument to reason to yourself if you don’t want to end up in regret.

It’s to realise the obvious – you cannot have your time twice. The time you have to live your live is now not tomorrow.  Waiting till tomorrow, or when work is not so pressured, or when you retire, to do something you really want to do is a fallacy.  Its procrastination on a grand scale.

To really have an optimum work life balance you need to not postpone your life, and live your life to the full now – anything less is a gamble with your own future.

This is the simplest and most important consideration in work-life balance. Don’t work so that you can “live” later – live now. If you manage to do this then retirement or semi-retirement when it comes for you won’t be a brick wall, it will just be a transition to a time where even more personal fulfilment will be possible.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Breath and reboot

This week I was watching an old episode of “Sex and the City” and saw a great quote from Carrie Bradshaw for her column in the NY Times.

“After all, computers crash, people die, relationships fall apart. The best we can do is breath and reboot.”

This is so true of life in many situations. So many of us operate to our plan A and sometimes things just don’t go to that plan, we can’t plan for the unplanned – so we just have to dust ourselves off and start again – go to plan B and reboot. But how easy is it to reboot? Isn’t wallowing in a bucket of self pity and frustration or venting with vitriolic anger somehow more likely? Or maybe even more satisfying?

In our complex world with pressure on perfection and performance, we all try to operate to plan A – the way things are supposed to go. But in the history of the world, there aren’t many instances of things that have gone perfectly. Look at the Bible stories for example – Adam wasn’t supposed to eat from the tree, Cain and Abel were supposed to sort things out between them and everyone was supposed to get along! And that is where learning comes in – and in the Bible where moral and philosophical discussions have taken place for centuries.

When things go wrong, we often begin by asking ourselves negative things like “why is this happening to me?” or “what have I done to deserve this?”. In actual fact when things are beyond our control, the only thing we can control is our reaction to them – we can all choose how we react. This reaction either makes the situation better or worse from the start – so take a few moments, lose the negativity, breathe and choose a reaction that will make it better!

A captain of a ship is at the mercy of the elements. Sailors will batten down the hatches in rough weather, so we have to learn to do the same when things happen to us. Here are some ideas:

•    Do take a deep breath and choose your reaction

•    Don’t blow up or lose your cool! It will only get you into a downward spiral

•    Don’t surrender to the situation. Who wants to give up? There is nothing wrong with taking a time out, but don’t run away, there are always ways forward

•    Do break the situation into smaller elements so they are easier to solve

•    Don’t continually refer to the problem, think of alternatives and keep your mind open

•    Do ask yourself what there is to be learned. Be curious and then maybe the ultimate result may be better. Sometimes when things appear to be going wrong, they are actually going to create a better result for you. This is how I met my husband – I missed a flight and he was on the next one!

•    Do keep your sense of humour! Nothing dilutes negativity better than having a giggle at the situation. This may seem hard but if you can laugh at a situation, you won’t build up anger.

Being disillusioned with our life gives us time to re-evaluate what is important and what is worth keeping. It also allows us to think about what can be discarded and so we can shed old ways and find a new way forward.

Maybe late night soap operas such as “Sex and the City” do carry important messages. Definitely time to embrace plan B – and to enjoy the opportunity to reboot.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Symptom or Cause

Is a lack of motivation and drive a symptom of stress or a cause of it?

I’ve met psychologists who argue that feeling low in energy and drive can result from stress. Whilst in many cases that’s undoubtedly true, it is also worth considering it the other way round. If you’re not motivated in what you do you will be far more likely to perceive a demanding workload as stressful and damaging to your work-life balance.

Think of athletes and entrepreneurs who drive themselves to achieve goals. Their self-imposed pressure leads them to experience the positive side of stress. Their motivation brings energy, enthusiasm and a good degree of resilience to stress.  There are two kinds of self-motivation and its worth bearing in mind that they need to be in balance to experience the benefits.

Long-term motivation is about achievement of goals and rewards. We are driven by where we want to get to and the rewards of getting there. But this on its own is never enough. If you doubt this think of the worst job you can imagine and ask yourself would you be willing to do it for a year for the promise of a pot of gold at the end?

The second type of motivation is short-term and in the moment. It comes from enjoying what you do, feeling valued, feeling useful, knowing there’s a meaning in what you do and that you are making a difference.  For example, the athlete needs the drive to achieve long-term goals, but to succeed they also need to love running.

You know when you have the balance right between these two motivations. You arrive home from a day’s work feeling satisfied. It’s the difference between feeling exhausted but happy as opposed to worn out and frazzled. 

Feeling Hopeful

Friday 29th April was a momentous day for Britain. Of course there were cynics, but overall the mood was one of joy, pride and hope for the future. Kate Middleton from her relatively “ordinary” background has catalysed a new, fresh approach for the monarchy and given the country hope. As well as all the hopeful headlines across the newspapers in the last few weeks, the Duke of York has been widely quoted as saying that the royal wedding would help to “inject a bit of hope” into the country.

But what is hope – and is it a virtue?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as “A feeling of desire for a particular thing to happen” – a positive outcome related to events or circumstances in your life.

Without hope there is no reason to believe that your life can be better in any way. Hopeful people never give up on their quest to improve life’s circumstances. But hope without action isn’t much good. We can’t lie in bed all day and expect our lives to take on some miraculous change! And while hope is part of a positive mindset, which has to be good, hope on its own isn’t necessarily a virtue.

The American Psychologist Martin Seligman has conducted years of research into the areas of hope and optimism and points out that hope on its own it is not enough to remedy depression, failure and ill-health. Its limitations include:

•    preventing us from seeing reality with clarity
•    helping some people evade responsibility for their own failures
•    working better in some communities and cultures than in others

These limitations do not wipe out the advantages of hope, but they help to put it in perspective. Natural pessimists are taught to argue against negative thoughts and maybe it would be useful for naturally hopeful people to give themselves a reality check – and in some ways learn from the more pessimistic or cynical around us.

This would be like having hope with our eyes open, using pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to stay in its dark, downward spiral.

The Duke of York may have been right about the royal wedding injecting hope into the country; however we still have unemployment, crime rates and a health crisis to deal with. So let’s be hopeful with our eyes keenly open to what needs to be done.

I leave you with a favourite quote of mine from the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption where even prisoners can escape the inhumanity of their existence by maintaining a little hope:

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”

Monday, April 04, 2011

It's Down to You

The actions and behaviours of managers have a direct impact on the stress levels and quality of the work-life balance experienced by those who work for them.  Crucially, it is not so much the volume of work that causes stress, but the degree to which people feel they are able to control their workload and priorities. 

Beyond more obvious work-life balance measures such as flexible working, there are several things a manager can do to improve the situation of those in their teams:

1)    Create the opportunities and processes to enable individuals and teams to plan their own work, in terms of both schedules and priorities.

2)    Provide as much forward planning information as possible. Randomly announced jobs with urgent deadlines or ever changing goals and priorities simply serve to reduce the control people have over their work.

3)    Give feedback regularly and certainly not just when things go wrong. Feeling useful and valued is essential for an optimum work-life balance.

4)    Be open to feedback on your own management style and how it affects those around you. Working for a boss you can’t really talk to is a major source of workplace concern.

5)    Involve people in the decisions that will impact their work.

6)    Don’t delegate pressure.  Just because you are under pressure does not mean that your team should be.  Remember that the ‘buck stops with you’.  By all means enlist the help and support of your team, but simply passing on the pressure is generally an unproductive approach.

Lastly remember that the job of a manager is to get the best out of their team, and people generally do their best work when they are happy, motivated and having fun.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Leadership in Crises - Lessons from Japan

Japan is experiencing a horrific cocktail of natural catastrophes.  These are made significantly worse by the threat of a nuclear disaster, a threat the Japanese authorities thought they had planned and protected against. Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his leadership team are dealing with a new reality. The situation demands decisive leadership that the Japanese people can trust and follow.

The Japanese are noted for their expertise in earthquake and tsunami preparation, yet were overwhelmed by the events of 11th March 2011. The sheer scale of the natural disaster that befell them was greater and more damaging to their nuclear plant than they had planned and anticipated in their risk management strategies.

Yet the Japanese people are responding with coping strategies rather than panic. The press are full of admiration for their dignity and stoicism.  So whilst their training and mental rehearsal had not prepared them for exactly this disaster they had developed skills which improved their chance of survival and they are expected, as a nation, to come back from this fairly quickly.

Times of crisis force change.  Leaders must let go of existing plans and expectations very fast and create a different sense of purpose and hope that acknowledges the new reality. The speed at which a leader can establish new direction and a sense of control dictates their success in dealing with adversity.

So what are the lessons for us?

We admire people who rise to the challenge of a crisis and lead their followers with vision and purpose through a new landscape. Speed and agility at dropping old plans and setting new ones defines this style of leadership.

We will have to wait to see what the future holds for Japan, but they are a good example of how better outcomes result from improving the pace at which they can get their heads around a new reality. This skill is helping them now as they battle with the aftermath of the disaster.

Should you build your abilities to lead successfully in a crisis? I have done this effectively with several clients using scenario building and strategy testing techniques. It has made them faster at getting through the shock of change, faster at letting go of old expectations, more decisive and better at communicating with people.  Having these skills does not stop a crisis happening but does allow you to take your people with you, enabling them in turn to respond quickly.

Core to that is the ability to give people a renewed sense of purpose, strength and hope; a hallmark of strong leadership and a skill which can be learnt.

Rosie Miller is an international executive coach and author

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Benefit of Being Early

How you begin anything has a determining affect. Image the picture: Over sleeping the first alarm you get up with little time for breakfast before rushing out of the house. You arrive at work breathless and you already have three urgent messages, yet you’re already late and unprepared for your first meeting appointment.  Before you know it you’re the opposite of cool, calm and collected – you’re hot, harassed and dispersed and it’s only 9.30am! The day is leading you, rather you leading the day, and you never catch up with yourself.

The opposite of being collected is being “dispersed.” It means having fragmented thoughts, having six things in your mind competing for attention, rather than being focused on the one thing you’re meant to be doing. It saps energy, leads to irritation and stress, and will definitely over time impair work life balance!

We may all have days like this, but if it becomes a habit, or it becomes part of the culture of your work environment – a definite symptom of which is where you get the symptom of everyone being late for everything – it’s a problem.

Yet there is an appropriately simple solution. Being early. Giving yourself an extra 20 minutes when you get up in the morning – so you can at least register how you are and collect your thoughts for the day ahead; arriving early for appointments and meetings – so you can be prepared and focused on the important objectives; doing something before the deadline so you have a chance to review it for final improvements. Being early will always give you the sense of being ahead and it can give you space to handle the unexpected - such as urgent messages.

If you were the pilot of an aircraft you’d definitely check everything over before taking flight. If you want to pilot your life effectively you’d do the same thing.  Why not try being early for everything just for a day to see how it feels?

Nick Woodeson is a renowned trainer and coach

Choosing Between Right and Right

There is an interesting conversation around risk which is being conducted on a global stage. Bankers, politicians and regulatory bodies are in a heated debate about what sort of risk management we should adopt in our banks. 

Do we want our banking systems to be “Fail Safe” or “Never Fail”? Both could work (and not work), making the choice all the more hard to make.

At the moment some commentators and regulators favour “Fail Safe” and are arguing to split up the banks so that none are “too big to fail”. However this option has its own widespread consequences for the international banking system. While it may reduce the risk of system wide failure it does not necessarily avoid risk at the individual firm level.

Other commentators and regulators favour “Never Fail” strategies but, as opponents point out, that comes at a price in terms of high capital reserves, less flexible rules, and potentially higher cost of doing business. So a “Never Fail “culture can be reassuringly predictable yet low on customer responsiveness and innovation.

Many organisations struggle with exactly this dilemma in their own internal culture.  Should your culture encourage people to experiment and take manageable risks with no loss of credibility, or do you want your managers and leaders to make sure they have no failures? The decision drives not only how the organisation bears risk but also its ability to innovate and to attract and retain different types of talent.

It will be interesting to see how the debate unfolds in the financial industry. To what extent will the decision making be affected by being in the full glare of a critical public eye, amidst the high emotions and painful aftermath of the 2008 crash?

As David Dotlich, Peter Cairo and Stephen Rhinesmith say in their book “Head, Hearts and Guts: How the Worlds’ Best Companies Develop Complete Leaders”:

 “It is easy to choose between right and wrong. The difficult bit is choosing between right and right.”  

Rosie Miller is an international executive coach and author

Monday, January 31, 2011

Overcoming distractions at work

I have had a lovely weekend meeting up with old school contacts, many of whom I haven’t seen for 30 years! As we left with promises of keeping in touch, new language came to the fore “I will facebook you” “Follow me on twitter”. Whilst I applaud the benefits of much of the current social media, it is now part of the plethora of available channels we can use not just to connect with others, but also to distract ourselves. Technology has had a great effect on attention spans and I know how frustrated I get when my Google search doesn’t come up immediately with exactly what I require!

I am, like many others, very distractable. I use the excuse that I can multi-task well and I thrive with variety, but then I bemoan that I have run out of time,
When we indulge in a distraction, we focus our time and energy on something that is inherently more pleasurable than what we are currently doing. Doing my VAT return is boring, so I’ll just surf on you-tube for my favourite band instead. Making that call to the customer will be challenging, so let me read the news first. The bottom line is that distractions are compellingly magnetic because they either give us pleasure or take some pain away. Here are some of my strategies for getting focussed

·         Prioritise your work. The 10 minutes it will take to do this will reap dividends for your productivity each day
·         Focus on the most important tasks first. Make a list and be realistic as to what you can achieve. The reason we get distracted in the first place is because some of the tasks we set ourselves are just not fun to do or we feel really overwhelmed so…
·         Schedule your tasks – and give specific time frames for each activity you love to do and the time you need to do it, so it doesn’t get in the way of tasks you need to accomplish
·         Spread out your work into smaller chunks – it helps give you a sense of accomplishment and keeps you fresh.
·         Switch between high and low attention tasks to give your brain a rest after heavy concentration. But don’t just jump from task to task, without finishing anything at all. This gives you the illusion of being busy, but you will end up frustrated
·         Give yourself breaks – real breaks, not snatched breaks. This will allow you to enjoy what you are doing more and encourage you to finish on time when you are happy and not feeling like work is a burden
·         Make sure your work environment is comfortable. Research shows that natural images, landscapes or wildlife images on the wall can help you focus – they relax you into a comfortable, resourceful state for work
·         Shut out distractions as much as possible. Don’t sit in the same room to work as a distraction trigger, such as your Xbox or a TV. Listening to music, particularly instrumental music can help, producing a steady background noise. This can drown out other noise, helping your focus. Some people even use noise machines to give a steady “white noise” such as ocean waves or falling rain.

Finding the “Zone”

There are some implicit assumptions within the concept of work-life balance that are worth challenging. The first is that work is somehow separate to life – something we have to do before life can resume.  The second is that too much effort and time spent in work impairs the “balance” and the quality of life.  The only case where these assumptions hold absolutely true, is where work has no enjoyment, satisfaction or fulfilment other than financial reward.

For people who consider their work has such meaning that it is their life, or for people that love what they do for a living and are driven by it, these assumptions make no sense. In a recent documentary about Dave Brubeck the jazz composer/pianist a fellow musician made the comment “If you find yourself engaging in something at 8.00 in the morning and the next occasion you think of the time its 8.00 at night, you’ve found what you should be doing for the rest of your life.”  What he was describing has similarities to what athletes call entering the zone: a state of concentration and absorption where everything flows and seems to go right.  Apparently in this state, the brain produces alpha waves similar to those found in Buddhists meditating. Such states have been measured not just in athletes, but in people fully engaged in very different activities including computer gaming, as an example.

Whilst these states are only temporary, they do suggest that the optimum work activity is where a person can be 100% engaged, without distraction, completely absorbed and in effect lost in what they are doing. In such conditions people actually draw energy from their work rather than become depleted by it.  This can only be found in activities you love and want to do.

So with work-life balance it’s not the amount of work you do that is the real issue – it’s what kind of work and your attitude about it. If too many of your days consist of responding to the demands of others, or doing things simply because you have to, your energy will become depleted and dissatisfaction will ensue.

People say it’s only the lucky few who are paid for what they love to do. Whilst in a general way it may be true, it’s well worth asking yourself what are the aspects of your job that you really enjoy and love to do. 

The secret to a better work-life balance might well be not in managing your time and reducing your overall time in work, but increasing the time you spend in the aspects of your job that you find most absorbing and fulfilling. Remember – if the time just passes without you taking account of it, you’re doing the right thing!