Friday, December 07, 2012

Keep it Simple

Do you know what is one of the most annoying things in business today? It is the increasing use of business jargon.

I recently read that over 25% of business executives admitted to using jargon they didn't understand in meetings – why would you do that?

For some people I’m sure it’s a way of setting themselves apart, appearing an expert or looking really clever. However, if your intention is to sell or gain support, setting yourself apart surely puts a barrier between you and those you’re communicating with.

When it comes to selling technological things so many messages dissolve into a sort of linguistic swamp.

Here's a good example from an e-mail someone sent me recently:

At Blah-co we have just developed an email stationery online software package that allows one in house member of staff to deploy all email users with a professionally designed Email stationery template, designed by one of our team of designers to all users and to include their unique contact details, meaning not only will the presentation of their emails improve but equally as important all be consistent throughout your organisation. (whew!)

Well, I think I understand the beginning and the end and recognise many of the words in between but I have no idea what they are saying. And if they’ve paid for my email address, they’ve clearly wasted their time and money.

Would this explain it better:

Because of the way the templates are constructed our solutions avoid all types filtering ensuring your mail always arrives.

Here's another series of examples extracted from mailings sent by another firm.
  • Are you one of those lucky few who have bedded down IT operations?
  • Would you realise a significant increase in business agility, accelerated decision making, employees pursuing a common agenda and a heightened awareness of your strategy?
  • Miss or ignore priority system availability or leadership messages.
  • Adopting a new change driver that communicates change and strategy in a high impact and engaging way.
  • Intranets suffer the limitations of pull technology.
  • A controlled feedback channel enables you to capture a snapshot of employee morale in real time.
What are they actually talking about? If they used plain English, we might know.

So this month's idea comes from Winston Churchill, who said, "Use simple words that everyone knows, and then everyone will understand."

This is important especially if you're selling a financial or technical product or service. In the words of world renowned copywriter and direct marketing expert, Drayton Bird – “Use a bit of jargon to reassure the anoraks, but put the rest in English”.

PS - You might also like to check out Extensor's Buzzword Bingo game.  Ed.

How to Survive Christmas

This year at the beginning of November, I started to plan for Christmas. This is most unlike me, as I love to work against deadlines, but a work commitment will take me away from home for much of December. I am now all done – the food is ordered, the cards written, presents wrapped, battle of the grandparents solved, only the tree to put up – and all the decorations are down from the loft ready and waiting. This is not about me being smug, rather the exercise got me thinking about the pressure we put on ourselves at Christmas as this year I haven’t been caught up in the usual hubbub of the December rush.

What is it about Christmas? It’s supposed to be the season of joy and goodwill, yet for many of us Christmas can be incredibly stressful – and there are dozens of surveys to prove it!  Research commissioned by the Food Standards Agency reveals that preparing and cooking a traditional turkey is second only to shopping as the most stressful Christmas activity. A MORI survey of 2,000 adults found that many Christmas shoppers would prefer a trip to the dentist to the stress of hunting for presents and that only one in five adults actually enjoys the experience. And according to mental health charity MIND, one in five of us gets stressed during the festive season.

Christmas should be fun but – if you're not careful – it can also send your stress levels soaring. We are busy for weeks before the festive holiday even starts, buying presents and going to parties. We overload our bodies with rich food and stimulants – like alcohol and caffeine – which increase stress and, worst of all, we have high expectations of Christmas which piles on the pressure. But remember, you can make the choice not to be stressed now.

So write down a list of all the things you absolutely have to do.  If there are too many things on the list, put them in order of priority and cross off the bottom third or give those responsibilities to someone else.  Then, at the top of the list, write down your “Christmas mission statement”:

"To have a relaxing stress-free Christmas with lots of fun and laughter."
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Reversing the Trend

There’s growing evidence that the difficult economic environment is impairing the work-life balance of many managers. The Chartered institute of management issued a report this year “The Quality of Working Life” 2012, which presents some stark findings:
  • Job satisfaction has declined to 55%, as opposed to 62% in 2007
  • The percentage of managers who feel that senior managers are committed to promote employee well-being has declined from 55 to 39%
  • 46% of managers are now working at least 2 hours a day over standard working hours
  • 42% of managers report having experienced symptoms of stress – up from 35%
  • 43% of managers report working in a culture of “presenteeism” – where people do not take time of even when ill. This is up from 32% in 2007
  • 63% or parent managers are worried that working hours are impacting relationships with their children 
It’s a situation that doesn’t bode well for the future – particularly as we’re likely to see and extended period of economic difficulty. It’s interesting also to note that the report also states that the most widely used management style in the UK is authoritarian, bureaucratic and reactive – and that use of these styles is increasing.  It shouldn’t be a surprise, as it’s well known in management psychology that when under pressure people revert to more a more authoritarian management approach.
There’s a danger though -  that all of the good work achieved in the last 20 years in terms of progressive management styles, empowerment, and promotion of work-life balance could be undone by a prolonged period of economic gloom.

In an environment where the culture of the organisation doesn’t promote all the factors that enhance work-life balance, it’s essential that people take a hand in their own situation. The place to start is to re-assess your own values and make a determined effort to live according to them.

For too long work has assumed the number one role in people’s lives, where people have become willing to compromise not only their own work-life balance, but their health, well-being and family life as well.  This happens despite the fact that in surveys most people regularly cite family life as their number one priority.

The central question is: do you have the courage to challenge the status quo of your own life and really start to live according to your values? If well-being, fulfilment, personal satisfaction and family life are really the most important values, then what prevents you not living up to them?

Answering these questions may be difficult, and doing something about it may be even more difficult, but if you are able to get your personal values and priorities in synch with your work, it is likely that you will feel more satisfied and fulfilled overall.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Learning From the Best

The Hay Group conducts an annual survey on the best companies in the world for leadership. They ask employees for their views on their own company and ask them to rate 3 companies they admire most for leadership. The top 20 is a compilation of ‘praise from outsiders combined with plenty of admiration from within.’

Once the top 20 and regional groups have been identified, each of the elite group our analysed as to their leadership practices and key differentiators highlighted (the biggest gaps between the ‘elite’ group and the rest). The 2011 study was headed up by such companies as GE, P&G, PepsiCo and Southwest Airlines.

These companies were better than the rest in a number of different areas but in particular they distinguish themselves in four particular areas.

Firstly, the top 20 companies expect people at all levels to exercise leadership and bring value to the organisation.  This is at two levels – at the individual and at the organisational level. Firstly, individuals feel they have the opportunity to develop and practice leadership capabilities. At the organisational level the business takes and adopts views and ideas from across the entire organisation, not just from headquarters.

Secondly, the top 20 companies ensure they have a workforce which reflects their markets and local communities – they don’t fear other cultures but embrace them. For instance, they are more likely to recruit local leaders to manage local offices rather than send out headquarters staff. Diversity is increasingly high on the agenda for the best companies because they know that 55.1% of the world’s talent comes from south east Asia and only 17% of further educated people are white males.

Thirdly, the top 20 companies have leadership programmes in place to help managers adapt to change and to manage cross culturally. These companies are moving more quickly than others to flatten their business structures and diversify their workforces with the goal of improving their efficiency and competitive advantage in markets around the world. But most importantly they are providing the skills and tools to help their leaders to succeed in these different markets.

Fourthly, the top 20 shows a greater interest in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) than other companies. But this is not all about being altruistic. The top 20 recognise that helping employees achieve greater work-life balance is a critical retention strategy.

How many organisations do you work with today who are really embracing global issues and diversity in the way that these respected companies are.

Some other notable facts from the survey:

90% of the best companies expect employees to lead regardless of their position
100% of Europe’s top 10 companies prioritize work/life balance
Only 9% of Europe’s top 10 use higher pay and bonus opportunities to attract leaders

Food for thought!

Teams and Morale

It’s a known fact that the higher the morale in a group, the higher the performance and the willingness to endure stress and hard work. Think of the effectiveness of morale in the military - who can hardly be said to experience an ideal work-life balance - or consider the emergency services in New York in the wake of hurricane Sandy, with all the reports of their heroic work and 24hour shifts.

Morale is different to motivation - it's a quality and an attitude that relates more to the group than the individual. Teams with high morale exhibit willingness, creativity, resilience and high levels of camaraderie and inter-personal respect. There is no doubt that facing a mutual danger or challenge with a clear sense of mission also helps.

Sadly work for many has become far more individually focused in recent years. People have their individual tasks, responsibilities and performance targets - and whilst the word team is liberally used in the workplace, there is often very little actual teamwork. A team meeting which discusses things and then hands out tasks for individuals is not really teamwork. Real teamwork is about facing challenges together and performing a task as a team - witness the military and emergency services again.

So I believe there's a strong case for bringing more real teamwork back into organisations again- and that many organisations have gone too far towards a culture of individual accountability. I had a job once as an IT manager for an oil services company - and I remember well that the closest we came to real teamwork was when disaster struck with the 1987 UK hurricane. Everyone rallied to rescue the computers and the valuable oil exploration records that we stored on behalf of major oil companies. There was a high sense of mission and the effect on morale was tangible for weeks.

I'm not saying that you need a disaster to build teamwork - but it's well worth looking for opportunities that involve people thinking, deciding, perspiring and doing together. Just talking and holding meetings somehow doesn't quite do it!

Team tasks that break down barriers between managers, staff and ranks are also important. This was very noticeable in Gareth Malone's recent TV programme about workplace choirs. In watching managers and staff singing together in the Royal Mail you could visibly see the change in morale.

If you take the time to create opportunities for real teamwork in your workplace I am sure you’ll reap the rewards.

Driving Higher Performance

Feedback loops are essential for the growth, development and regulation of every living organism. Without messages from one cell to another, none of our body processes would stay in kilter, we wouldn’t be able to respond to new challenges and any growth would be dangerously chaotic.

In many ways our growth and development as an effective manager or leader is similarly dependent on getting the right feedback. I recently came across research from the Corporate Leadership Council* looking at the top 10 ways to drive higher employee performance. One probably obvious but vital insight is that managers can drive or destroy employee performance – by around plus or minus 40%.

Top of the list for things that drive better performance is effective informal feedback. To be effective, the informal feedback should:

  1. be fair and accurate
  2. be from a source knowledgeable about the employee’s performance 
  3. contain feedback that helps the employee do the job better

The greatest negative effective on performance was experienced when a lot of emphasis is placed on weaknesses in the employee’s performance of the job – rather than targeted on what the employee could do better.

Apart from the very important implications about how to train managers to give feedback and performance reviews, it struck me how important these lessons are for our own self-feedback loops. Every one of us experiences a degree of self-talk in our heads – for many it’s their greatest critic! This self-talk certainly qualifies as regular and informal feedback. But how well does our self-talk score in terms of accuracy, fairness, and being focused on how we could do the job better?

In my coaching discussions with effective leaders, I am struck by how well they manage their self-talk. They link their actions to clear outcomes and measure their own success in achieving these. Their inner self-talk is used to review their performance fairly, accurately and openly, aware that some things might have been done better another way. Most importantly, they give themselves the feedback they need to perform better without letting it dent their confidence in themselves.

So if we want to drive higher performance, a very good place to start is training our own inner voice to give us the quality of feedback we need: fair, accurate and focused on how we can do the job better.

* “Improving Talent Management Outcomes” by Corporate Leadership Council

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Flexibility Trend

Over the span of history there has been an undoubted trend of improvement to work-life balance. The average working person in the 19th century worked an estimated 60 hours per week, whereas today in the UK the average is 42.7 hours.  Maternity and Paternity leave are both enshrined in law and in April 2011 new legislation came into affect increasing the flexibility of entitlement for both parents.

In  the last two decades  there has also been a considerable increase in other schemes that positively impact work-life balance, such as flexitime, home working and part-time working. Today, some 26% of employees are estimated to make use of flexible hours arrangements, some 25% occasionally work from home and 27% of UK employees work part-time.  The figures for all these statistics were between 10 and 15% in the Eighties.

Yet despite these trends there are some significant imbalances. One in six UK employees works 60 hours a week or longer.  There are also significant imbalances between the public and private sectors, and between large and small businesses.

Many public sector organisations have a considerable amount of schemes to assist work-life balance. These include provisions for:
  • Special leave including  bereavement leave, parental leave,  elderly or ill dependent leave
  • Career breaks and educational leave
  • Very flexible part-time work including term-time working
  • Job sharing
  • Time-off for community working
Whilst some larger private sector organisations offer a similar range of schemes, there are actually very few legal requirements for flexible working.  The employment act of 2002 introduced a parental leave provision whereby parents of children under 6, or disabled children under 18, are entitles to up to 4 weeks of unpaid leave each year.  For all parent of children under 16 you do have the right to ask for flexible working, and your employer must ‘reasonably’ consider it – but that’s about as far as it goes. The only other clear right that exists is for youths of 16 or 17, where employees must allow a degree or paid educational leave.

The argument for flexible working and other work-life balance schemes does have other potential benefits other than those for the employee.  Most surveys suggest there is an increase in morale, productivity and staff retention where employers offer good schemes. There are wider potential benefits too. The energy conservation benefits of home working as one example.

But despite the improvements in work-life balance schemes, there is still a long way to go. After all, 27% of people working flexibly leaves 73% of people who don’t, and 1 in 6 people working over 60 hours a week is 16%!

For any significant breakthrough or step forward there needs to be a mindset change, where employers challenge commonly held assumptions including:
  • Part-time workers are less committed that full-time employee
  • Job-sharing is impossible for important jobs
  • Homeworking or teleworking makes it hard to monitor what people are doing
  • It’s impossible to accommodate all these flexible working schemes if you’re a small  business
If these assumptions can be challenged and new models found, working life could be very different in 30 years time -  and if not we may well struggle to build an economy with more flexibility, less carbon emissions, greater employment and more social responsibility.   

The Ultimate Question

I’ve spent all of my career in marketing and one of the most interesting customer feedback mechanisms I’ve come across has been the Net Promoter Score.

Net Promoter is a customer loyalty metric developed by (and a registered trademark of) Fred Reichheld, Bain & Company, and Satmetrix.

It was introduced by Reichheld in his 2003 Harvard Business Review article "The One Number You Need to Grow” (which he later expanded into a book “The Ultimate Question”, 2006 HBS Press)

Companies obtain their Net Promoter Score by asking customers a single question - The Ultimate Question -  on a 0 to 10 rating scale: "How likely is it that you would recommend our company to a friend or colleague?"

Based on their responses, customers can be categorized into one of three groups:
  • Promoters (9-10 rating), 
  • Passives (7-8 rating), and 
  • Detractors (0-6 rating). 
The percentage of Detractors is then subtracted from the percentage of Promoters to obtain a Net Promoter score. A score of 75% or above is considered quite high. Companies are encouraged to follow this question with an open-ended request for elaboration.

Proponents of the Net Promoter approach claim the score can be used to motivate an organisation to become more focused on improving products and services for customers and to build ‘good profit’.

The potential downside of NPS, or any survey or feedback programme, is that if handled badly it can have a negative impact on customer loyalty. We’ve all had experience of being interrupted during a family meal or our favourite TV programme by a phone call from someone soliciting our feedback.

But there are ways in which surveying can enhance customer loyalty and Reichheld gives some examples:  
  • At Harley-Davidson, for example, customers are treated like family members – they get phone calls only from recent Harley retirees (hired back part-time) who know the company and its products well and who are charged with listening closely to customers. Not coincidentally, these retirees generate deeper customer insights while also reinforcing the Harley culture and brand.

  • At Southwest Airlines, president Colleen Barrett insisted that any employees who wanted feedback from a customer write a personal letter requesting that information and explaining what they intend to do with it. They must also write a thank-you to customers who respond, describing the actions that will be taken as a result of their feedback.
How many of you have examples along the lines of Harley-Davidson or Southwest? What about the other side of the coin? As always it is interesting to share and learn from others.  

Sense of Belonging

A couple of weeks ago I was the headline act at Wembley Stadium. Before you think “never heard of you”, I was part of a 1000 strong Choir at the Saracens Leicester rugby game. It was a wonderful, proud experience, singing alongside like-minded people who love to sing and it got me thinking about a sense of belonging and community.

In his 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation" American psychologist Abraham Maslow cited belonging as the third most important human need on his hierarchy of needs, after only physiological and safety needs. In a culture that values independence, we sometimes forget that our survival and ability to thrive depend on interrelationships.

It is a reality that we define ourselves by gender, race, creed, nationality, occupation, religion, abilities, hobbies, skills, etc. There are many ways to define ourselves and if you think about it, it mostly has to do with grouping. As much as some of us hate being categorised or stereotyped we do it all the time!  When asked what we do we answer our occupation. In that instance we are defining ourselves by our job.

Even if you see yourself as ‘a loner’, you are still a member of one group or another – family, friends, social media, organizational departments, the gym, your football club, your children’s class at school, etc. Some we enjoy and others less so, some we feel included in and welcomed into and others excluded from – which, as most of us know, is not a good feeling.

Community can help bring meaning and support into our lives but it can be a double edged sword. In some cases, the things that create the sense of belonging are negative aspects of being human; such as drug addictions, alcoholism and racism. Indeed, you can argue that much of what is wrong with this world revolves around either lack of belonging or the reverse - toxic groups and communities.

What is interesting and provides food for thought for all of us is scientific evidence that people with more social support and a sense of belonging in their support networks are less likely to experience depression (University of Michigan).

So spend a few minutes thinking about the groups you belong to. What do they give you? What do you get out of the group? And of course, what do you give to the group? Remember relationships are all about give and take.

I feel genuinely connected to my choir, not just because I enjoy singing or go with good friends, but also because we share a sense of pride and belonging. For me, community is important because a community supports the people in it. And to read in the sports pages of the Sunday Times the day after our Wembley Stadium appearance that “the choir looked great and sounded great” was just magic.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Returning to Work - A New Perspective

Summer holidays can really help in bringing perspective to your work.  Two or three weeks away from your daily routine gives you a distance from which to view things. In the atmosphere of a summer evening away work takes on a different perspective – you can see it as an important part of your life, but maybe not the most important part - and certainly not the all too consuming pressure that it can become when you’re in the thick of it.

Problems and issues at work loom large when you’re caught up in them everyday – to the extent that they can seem larger or more insurmountable than they actually are.  When you have mental distance from them they take on a truer perspective.   
The fresh feeling you get after the holiday break can recede quickly once you are back at work, but returning from holiday does give you a chance to take a fresh look at unresolved issues, challenges and opportunities - and bring a fresh perspective to them before continuing with business as usual. Imagination and creativity can work better after a break as well.  It may well be that solutions to problems come to light that you just couldn’t think of before the break.

Companies hire consultants to bring objectivity and a fresh outlook, which they can do simply because they’re not involved in the everyday business. Taking a break and coming back into work with fresh perspective gives you the chance to be your own consultant – and at a fraction of the cost! 
Many people get one other important realisation after a break, provided they’ve resisted keeping in continuous touch by mobile or email. They realise that the business went on quite well without them!

If that’s the case for you, take the time to consider whether you delegate enough. How did they cope without you? Who rose to the occasion? What opportunity did your absence give others?
So the message for this month is simple – use the benefit of your recent holiday break to put your work into perspective, to view it with refreshed eyes and to share the burden of your work with the people who filled in for you while you were away.

Look for the lessons - even when you succeed

In my last posting (Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success) I described how success can lead to failure as individuals and organisations fail to learn as a direct result of their success.

As individuals we hold certain theories, models, principles and beliefs that guide our actions and our decision-making.

Sometimes these theories are quite sophisticated and rooted in science and in other cases they are pretty informal.

Learning is the process of updating our theories. We will typically challenge our assumptions, models and theories when something has gone wrong.

Failure provides a motivation for individuals (and organisations) to learn. This has been true from the time we first tried to walk or ride a bicycle. We fall down, it hurts and we try another approach.

An amazing number of high ranking executives report that early failures in their careers taught them lessons that ultimately led to their success. Without failure to provide the challenge, we need to challenge ourselves.

Here are five ways in which an organisation can learn from success:
  1. Celebrate success but examine it - when a win is achieved, the organisation needs to investigate what led to it with the same rigour and scrutiny it might apply to understanding the causes of failure. This may be an uncomfortable process and it may reveal tha a company’s major success was due to good luk rather than good judgement. 
  2. Institute systematic project reviews – Pixar, which has had 11 hit animated films in a row, conducts rigorous reviews of its production process. It religiously collects data about all aspects of a production and uses this to “stimulate discussion and challenge assumptions”. Staff don’t like doing them and would prefer to celebrate a film’s success, but Ed Catmull, Pixar President, sees the benefit of not becoming complacent. 
  3. Use the right time horizons – In industries such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace, the development and feedback timeframe is long. It is critical to keep the appropriate time frame in mind when reviewing performance rather than focus on recent events. 
  4. Apply the root causes of the success – replicating success is important but that does not mean creating a check list of all the things to do the same way the next time. Break down each process into “something we can directly control” and “something that is affected by external factors” and study those elements under direct control using such tools as Six Sigma. 
  5. If it ain’t broke, experiment – in scientific research and in engineering, designs are subjected to ever more rigorous tests until the thing they are designing actually breaks. Organisational experiments can be conducted to push boundaries, provided the cost and impact are managed. 
The path to effective learning involves simple but counter-intuitive steps: Managers must actively test their theories, even when they seem to be working and rigorously investigate the causes of both good and bad performance.

Ironically, understanding success can better prepare you to avoid failure.

Engaging People in Tough Times

Employees feel engaged and deliver growth when they share a clear agenda and are using all their talents.  Leaders add true value when they communicate clear expectations, outcomes and boundaries to allow others to be successful. 

Right now we are all being asked to do more with less. Many corporate leaders have responded to the tough environment and huge uncertainties by:
  • Cutting people and rewards – but not necessarily expected outputs
  • Pulling decision-making upwards – to give a sense of control
These actions are very understandable but make it a difficult environment in which to keep people engaged and motivated. In the face of this challenge, managers need to step back and get very clear about how they create employee engagement.

The Business Benefits

Key to engagement is getting people to “buy-in” to the purpose of the work and feel connected with the outcome. This is simply stated in research findings from The Corporate Leadership Council in 2007 which showed that “Employees who can see a clear link between how their individual efforts relate to organisational goals … engage with the organisation and perform at their best. Increasing the connection between the employee’s work and the organisation’s strategy drives positive employee engagement and performance by up to 33%.”

When people are engaged and motivated you get:-
  • Success without having to oversee every single detail
  • Cohesion in a team
  • The energy to overcome obstacles
  • Things done faster, to a higher standard
  • A positive, happy team
  • New ideas and better processes
The 5 Key Principles of Positive Engagement

Creating engagement involves using 5 principles:

  1. Start with creating compelling shared goals – involve people in this process directly
  2. Be motivated yourself – your energy is infectious whether positive or negative
  3. Understand what’s in it for them -remember that what motivates you might not work for other people
  4. Gain the support of all your stake-holders – they affect whether staff believe it’s worthwhile or not
  5. Give feedback - being clear about what is expected of someone is essential to stimulate engagement and performance.
Employee engagement is not something you can get a quick fix for but consistently using these 5 principles builds engagement with both the work and with you as the leader. That leads on to better outcomes for everyone.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success

I was once fascinated by an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success’.  To illustrate its point the article focussed on the case of the Bologna-based Ducati Grand Prix motorcycle team that entered the MotoGP for the first time in 2003.

Being a newcomer, it approached 2003 as ‘a learning year’ – a time to acquire knowledge that would help to develop a better motorbike for future seasons. To that end the team fitted its’ bikes with sensors to capture data on the bike’s performance and riders were asked to provide feedback at the end of each race.

Then something unexpected happened. The team finished among the top three in nine races and with each success the team focused more on winning and less on learning spending very little time analysing the data it collected.

In 2004 they decided to radically redesign the team’s bikes for 2004 rather than incrementally improve the 2003 model. At the end of 2004 they ended third overall which was considered a failure due to the team’s high expectations. Only then did the team examine the team’s approach to developing bikes.

Further research in entertainment, pharmaceutical and software industries saw the same phenomenon. There were three impediments to learning:
  1. Making dangerous attribution errors – any number of factors may lead to success. In racing it could be the rider’s talents and decisions, luck, weather, bad riding by competitors. It is all too common for executives to attribute success to their own insights and managerial skills and downplay random events or external factors outside their control.
  2. Falling prey to the overconfidence bias – Confidence is critical in business but success can make us believe that we are better decision makers than we are. Overconfidence can infect entire organisations causing them to ignore warning signs such as dips in customer satisfaction or increases in quality issues. Overconfidence amongst bank lenders has contributed to our current downturn.
  3. Failing to ask why - success is commonly interpreted as evidence not only that your existing strategy and practices work, but that you have all the knowledge and information you need. When you’re confronted with failure it’s natural to ask why disaster struck – unfortunately success does not prompt such soul searching. Toyota’s drive in pursuing higher and higher sales blinded them to the fact that quality was being compromised. This was only revealed when it was forced to recall a number of its vehicles.
Success can breed failure by hindering learning at both the individual and the organisational level. Learning from success is a great challenge and, because it’s counterintuitive, maybe an even greater challenge to learning from failure.

Going For Gold

When facing an important occasion in your work – be it an important interview, a crucial negotiation or presentation - how do you prepare yourself to be able to give your optimum performance?

Watching the world’s leading tennis players this last two weeks at Wimbledon, there are some lessons that can be drawn about what it takes to excel when things really count.

The physical athleticism and technical skill aside it’s always striking to see that it’s the mental state, attitude and preparation that can make the all-important difference.

So why not draw some tips from the Wimbledon champions for whatever your next important match is?

Make sure you relax the day beforehand – you simply cannot work at pressure all the time and have enough in reserve when you have to tackle something that may demand everything you’ve got.
  1.  As seen with Andy Murray’s coaching from Ivan Lendl – reduce the highs and lows of your emotional state. You may of course be nervous but don’t give way to over elation, anger or disappointment. Extreme emotions simply sap energy, take away from focus, and take time to recover from. Most importantly don’t beat yourself up!
  2. Have a strategy and a game plan, but be flexible and be prepared to change and adapt if it’s not working.
  3. Know your strengths and play to them, but be prepared to take risks at crucial times. Remember you’ve actually got to go for it – you can’t succeed with just a defensive posture.
  4. Be prepared to go the distance. You may face setbacks but you need to have the wherewithal and resilience to turn things around when they’re not going your way.
  5. Don’t project too far ahead. Stay with the next important moment because every small step counts.
  6. Probably most importantly - have an utter and unassailable belief that you can do it.

These tips are not a guarantee that you can just step into the elusive “zone” but it’s unlikely you’ll find that zone without them. Part of the key is in not trying to do it yourself – but trusting in your systems and faculties -  and their capabilities, training and experience. We are at our best when our bodies, brains, mind, emotions and instincts are in harmony - all pulling in the same direction. When that happens the challenge for us is to let it happen and to ‘go for gold’.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A practical plan for when you feel overwhelmed

Sheena Iyengar, a management professor at Columbia University Business School, researches and speaks on the dilemma of choice. In one of her studies, she offered a group of people samples of six different jams available for purchase while she offered another group 24 different jams, including the six jams offered to the first group.

With all that choice you'd think the group offered the 24 jams would be more likely to purchase one. But it's the opposite. Those in the six-jam group were ten times more likely to actually purchase a jar of jam.

The more numerous our options, the more difficult it becomes to choose a single one, and so we end up choosing none at all. That's what happens when we have too many things to do and think about. We become overwhelmed and don't do anything. Sheena says this is ‘suffocation by meaningless minutiae’.

So how can individuals move from being overwhelmed to becoming productive? Partly it’s to do with moving forward and doing something/anything ….getting on with it. And there are a few examples of this work ethic.
  • Trollope used to get up every morning very early - at 5:30 - and write for 3 hours before going to work at the Post Office.
  • Richard Strauss used to be shown to his study by his wife with the admonition. "Richard, go and compose."
  • Sheridan had not written the last act of "The Rivals" on the Friday before it was due to open. They locked him in a room with paper, ink and bottles of port until he did so.
Here’s an action plan that may help you get on with it.

First, take a few minutes writing down everything you have to do on a piece of paper. Resist the urge to use technology for this task. Writing on paper — and then crossing things out — creates momentum.

Next, identify a block of time in your diary which is not broken up with meetings or telephone calls. Aim for an afternoon or morning session.

In 15 minutes — no more — get as many of the easiest, fastest tasks as you can. Make your quick phone calls. Send your short emails. Don't worry about whether these are the most important tasks on your list.The objective is to cross off as many items as possible in the shortest time and launching yourself into action. Use a timer to keep you focused.

When 15 minutes are up, turn off your phone, close down all the windows on your computer, and choose the most daunting thing on your list, the one that is the highest priority or is most stressful.

Then work on it and only it — without hesitation or distraction — for 35 minutes.

After 35 minutes, take a break for 10 minutes and then start the hour-long process over again, beginning with the 15 minutes of quick actions.

Working within a specific and limited time frame is important because the race against time maintains focus. Using a short time frame actually increases the pressure but it keeps our effort specific and particular to a single task. That increases a good, motivating tension while reducing negative, disconcerting pressure. So the fog of overwhelm dissipates and forward movement progresses.

Whilst we still have the endless decisions and dilemma of choice to contend with by actioning items we are creating focus and feel more positive that we are moving in the right direction.

How leaders can facilitate growth

Employees feel engaged and deliver growth when they share a clear agenda, and are using all their talents.  Leaders add true value when they communicate clear expectations, outcomes and boundaries to allow others to be successful. 
From talking to business people and reading the press, it’s clear that many corporate leaders have responded to the tough environment and huge uncertainties by:
  • Cutting people and rewards – but not necessarily expected outputs
  • Pulling decision-making upwards – to give a sense of control
These are perfectly natural responses to a crisis but they have long-term consequences that are starting to appear. Cutting people and rewards without cutting the expected outputs can indeed result in people finding more efficient and innovative ways to do and share work – but only up to a point. The tipping point comes when they feel there is no hope of meeting what is expected of them after which they become de-moralised. In a tough jobs environment some will move on for a better work experience but many will simply disengage.

Similarly many decisions end up going through very senior people to give the leadership the illusion of control. The resulting bottleneck results in chronic slow or, worse still, no decision-making. Despite all the pressure to do more, managers can’t actually deliver their goals because they aren’t allowed to make the necessary decisions and judgements appropriate to their responsibilities. Again, unintentionally, the leaders have disengaged the very people they need to deliver growth and development of the company.

Smart, ambitious people can accept those conditions for a period of time. If it goes on too long they get start to question how much real opportunity they are getting for growth. What can they say on their CVs about these years if every initiative seems to be required and expected of them but all action gets bogged down from lack of senior decision-making?

One of the major benefits of the leadership coaching I deliver is helping leaders push decision-making downwards in their team, releasing strategic thinking time upwards in the organisation. To make this change, leaders have to take some critical actions:
  1. First they have to step back and create some reflective time for themselves - often that in itself requires some tough decisions about control of their time and possibly saying “no” to some “nice to do” tasks
  2. They need to get much clearer what is central and essential to their team’s or organisation’s success going forward – a tough, demanding but clear agenda is much more stimulating
  3. Once clear, they need to communicate these outcomes to employees in ways that allow them make sensible and effective decisions aligned to those outcomes – they need to give back the head-room to deliver.

It's all a question of control

Work-life balance concerns balancing time, priorities and energies between your working life and your personal life – in which the ability to exercise choice and to have some degree of control and flexibility is all important.

But beneath this there are actually a whole range of balances that impact our well-being and ultimately our degree of satisfaction with our working and personal lives. As a quick self-assessment consider the following list and ask yourself what is the balance in your life? It’s not that these balances need to be 50/50, but too much on one side or the other, or a complete absence on one side or the other, may be an indication of something needing attention. Be aware also that many of these apply to both your professional and personal lives.

1. The balance of demands - between doing what you want to do and what others (employers and family) want you to do
2. The balance between being planned and scheduled on the one hand and being spontaneous and unplanned on the other.
3. The balance between the routine and the new.
4. The balance between fulfilling the basic needs in your life and fulfilling your dreams and aspirations.
5. The balance between being under pressure and being relaxed.
6. The balance between being on-line and available as opposed to off-line
7. The balance between being rational and being creative
8. The balance between planning your life and taking life as it comes.
9. The balance between following and leading (yourself and others)

Many people achieve a balance in these things by compensation - in other words, if their job is too routine they look for the new and exciting in the rest of their life, and the converse can also be true.

Ultimately, it is not your response to these questions that determines your work-life balance; it is your ability to influence the answers.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


I was talking to some coaches I know recently about their work in business and life coaching. They all felt that a large percentage of the value they give their clients is simply in being someone prepared to listen. They offer a neutral and impartial circumstance – where people can air their feelings, and explore issues. This process alone – being able to talk things out – may often be all that the person needs to find fresh perspective and insight. It’s a truth that psychologists and counsellors know well also.

Of course there’s a skill and experience that these professionals bring in being able to guide a person towards insight and next steps, but the fact remains that somehow in this world we’ve professionalised listening – and that some professionals have assumed roles that in other times or cultures may have been taken by family members or friends.

Being able to talk openly is essential to our well being. We all need the time and space to express and explore feelings, worries, concerns, aspirations, hopes and difficulties. To do so we need someone whom we can trust, someone who won’t react or bring their bias, and someone not directly involved in what it is we may want to talk about. It’s what friends should be for.

Being prepared to listen is one of the most important things friends can do for each other. So the advice for improving your work-life balance and reducing stress is don’t go it alone. Find a friend with whom you can talk things over.  Make sure to set an understanding first though about confidentiality and trust. It can be a mutual pact – a friend who is prepare to listen to your ramblings as you seek to find clarity and to whom you can offer the same in return.

Mission I'm Possible

A play on words perhaps, but how is it that some people think that the world abounds with possibilities and others look for barriers? Of course the law of probability will show that not everything is possible but there has to be something in the much quoted Henry Ford mantra “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t – you are right.”

Developing a can-do mindset can be a scary road for some people – “what if I fail?”, “what if I don’t have what it takes?”, “what if people laugh at me?” are commonly asked questions when people face challenges. The obvious reframe is that if you don’t give it a go, then you will never know! If “can’t do” becomes a repeated pattern of behaviour then you will continually spend your life within your comfort zone – and maybe worse, become stale, complacent and ultimately dissatisfied.

So how can you adopt a “have a go” attitude? Here are some ideas

1: Consciously challenge the voice in your head that urges caution – listen to it, is it keeping you safe or is it holding you back?

2: Look upon challenges as learning opportunities – so what if you don’t achieve perfection, at least you have learned something in the process. Every successful person has hit setbacks along the way

3: Realise that you have a choice – you can choose to have a go, or not. And in so doing, recognise that you are responsible for your own choices, no one else can make them for you

4: Take on the challenge with gusto! If you are going to have a go, then do so whole heartedly and give it 100%

As the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson says: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us". So change the mindset of impossible to I’m possible. That small change could be so liberating.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Performance reviews - It's not just about what you say

Performance reviews are a management ritual that everyone dreads.

And now, according to Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence author), brain science shows that the way in which that review gets delivered can directly impact an employee’s response and, consequently, their ability to do anything constructive with that feedback.

The neuroscientist, Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, has found that when we’re in an upbeat, optimistic, I-can-handle-anything frame of mind, energized and enthusiastic about our goals, our brains turn up the activity in an area on the left side, just behind the forehead. That’s the brain state where we are at our best.

But when we’re feeling down, with low energy and zero motivation, even anxious, our brain has turned up the volume on the right side and that is the side where we are least productive and energised.

Performance feedback that focuses on what’s wrong with us puts this downer brain area on overdrive. We’re so preoccupied with the bad news (and our thoughts that this means we’ll be fired) that we just don’t have the energy or can’t focus on working at our best.

Not only that, but how you deliver the message has a huge impact on how it’s received. In one study, when people got positive performance feedback that was delivered in a negative, cold tone of voice, they came out of the session feeling down–despite the good news. Amazingly, when negative feedback came in a warm, positive tone of voice, they felt upbeat and energized.

Of course, any manager should be giving staff performance feedback as a matter of routine. But too many are poor at giving feedback. The problem here takes two forms: being hyper-critical and focusing only on what’s wrong without balancing it with what’s right, or undermining even positive feedback with a negative tone of voice.

In theory, well delivered performance feedback improves our performance, setting us on the right track. Such feedback is best given on the spot (not months later in a formal review), and with a sense of trust and openness between the giver and receiver.

One of the most effective feedback styles is:

When you do X (action) it has the impact of Y with the consequence of Z.

For instance,

When you habitually turn up late for meetings (action) it gives the impression that you don’t care about wasting the time of your colleagues (impact) and consequently they don’t want to work with you (consequence)

But now, according to Daniel Goleman and Davidson, you not only have to master giving feedback effectively, you also have to remember to try to deliver it in as positive, upbeat way as possible.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Leaving work behind

A skill that everyone needs to achieve successful work-life balance is to be able to fully switch off your mind from work when enjoying your hard earned family and leisure time. Having work issues and ideas play through your mind in the evenings and weekends is a common experience for many executives, so why does it happen and how can a person learn to mentally close the door on work when they leave the office?
The reason it happens is that our emotions like completions. Unfinished or unresolved business, strategic issues, business uncertainties and open issues by their very nature don’t complete in a day – and can create a symptom of overrun where a person finds it harder to switch-off.
Interestingly surveys report that amongst the most stress free professions are those where there is a definite opening and closing to a day’s work – like a machine tool engineer who sets up the machine to begin and closes down and cleans it at the end of the day. 
Good time- and self-management practices can emulate this closing-off process. Taking the time each day or week to note what you have achieved and completed not only gives a psychological boost, it also gives the satisfaction of completion that our emotional life needs. For open issues making a note of any progress and telling yourself you don’t need to think about them again until you return to work is also a vital self-training. Another practice that works well for many is to finish the week with an empty email inbox. You may have longer-term issues of course, but an empty inbox has a definite satisfaction. 
And lastly, for those that work at home – try not to leave work related papers and files out around the house or home office – every time you see them it will remind you of something!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Where to get ideas

Standing on the station platform, waiting for the Philadelphia train one night in the summer of 1902, Willis Carrier was about to have his 'eureka moment'.

As the fog rolled in across the track, he suddenly realised how he could fix the nascent air-cooling system he'd been working on, using water as a condensing surface.

This sudden moment of inspiration led to the invention of modern air-conditioning, a fortune for its inventor, and the foundation of a multi-billion dollar company.

The lone genius, beavering away in the seclusion of his lab, is how most of us imagine the great moments of innovation have come into being. But is this really the whole story?

Not entirely, according to author Steven Johnson. He believes Willis Carrier is very much the exception rather than the rule. He has written seven books on how science, technology and human experience interact, including the best-selling Everything Bad Is Good for You:How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

"When you go back and you look at the history of innovation it turns out that so often there is this quiet collaborative process that goes on, either in people building on other peoples' ideas, but also in borrowing ideas, or tools or approaches.”

So what should companies be doing to foster innovation in their workforces? Mr Johnson argues that creativity is a continuous process.

"Part of the problem is that one day a year they have a corporate retreat and they all go into the country, and they do brainstorming sessions and trustfalls and then they go back to work.

"But equally you don't want to have a non-stop creative process where nothing gets done.

"Corporations have an opportunity to cultivate hunches and hobbies and the sideprojects of their employees because those are such great generators of ideas."

Google is one company that has famously capitalised on giving space for workers to innovate, with its 20% time system. Employees are required to allocate 20% of their time working on their own pet projects.

According to the company, about 50% of new features and products have resulted from it, including Adsense, Google Suggest and Orkut.

If you don’t work for Google but want to develop your creativity gene, Johnson has a number of suggestions.

"Go for a walk; pursue a number of hobbies (the one trait creative people such as Darwin) shared in common; cultivate hunches; write everything down; but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; frequent coffee houses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent."

So what brilliant suggestions do you have to develop your creative spark? And what are organisations out there doing to promote creativity and innovation?