Monday, December 02, 2013

Power and Politics

I am sick to death of hearing politicians from all parties bleating on about the evil energy companies.  Let’s not forget that it was the Conservatives that privatised the electricity and gas industries, thereby moving their primary purpose away from the maintenance of supply to the provision of shareholder returns.

Successive governments of all persuasions have then stood idly by while those same companies have been snapped up by foreign firms (EDF - French, e-on and Npower - German, Scottish Power - Spanish), some of which have very good reasons for branching out from their own domestic markets.  Take the French firm EDF for example; in France price increases have been strictly limited by their domestic regulator, so EDF are selling electricity more expensively in the UK than they are in France.  According to the official EU Energy Portal the average price of a kWh of electricity during May 2013 in France was €0.14466 whereas in the UK it was €0.17078, more than 18% higher.

Although I support the objective of greenhouse gas reductions, when the Labour Government signed the Kyoto Protocol they did so without any means of delivering on their commitments.  They therefore skewed the energy markets by forcing companies to buy a proportion of their power from ‘green’ sources, by subsidising everything from solar panels to wind turbines and by forcing energy companies to insulate people’s houses either for free or at below-cost prices.  And to pay for these ludicrously inefficient technologies, they imposed ‘green levies’ on all of our energy bills that now account for around 10% of the average household bill. 

Our countryside and coast is now covered in windmills that spend most of their time doing nothing and every second house is covered with solar panels generating minute quantities of electricity.

At the same time, successive governments have allowed our power generation industry to decline to such an extent that, whereas the UK once led the World in nuclear power technology, we are now having to go cap in hand to the French to build new power stations.

Yet these same politicians have the audacity to point the finger of blame at companies that are simply doing their job in delivering profits to their shareholders.  And who are the shareholders?  You guessed it – through our pension and investment funds many of us will be shareholders in the major energy companies.

What we need is a sensible strategy and a long-term view – but unfortunately that is as unlikely as it is that a politician would admit to the possibility that today’s problems may have been as a result of their party’s decisions.

Balancing your short- and long-term goals

One of the perennial challenges of virtually every aspect of life is balancing the achievement of our long-term goals and aspirations with the short-term imperatives.  In theory balance should be easier to achieve at work where we are free of tasks such as cooking a meal, cutting the lawn or reading a bed-time story.  In practice, it often seems harder at work where it is not uncommon for people to say that it is not until 5:30 that they finally got the time to start working on the bigger objectives they set out to achieve that day.
While all the literature and training courses on the subject of time management will advise you to set aside time to work on your bigger goals, this is easier said than done when the short-term objectives are typically more urgent. 
Personally I think it is better advice to encourage people to take time to reflect and set out a plan – and the Christmas break provides the ideal opportunity. My suggestion is that you draw three circles on a page (as shown below) and label them short-term imperatives, long-term objectives and personal goals. In each circle write a list of the things you want/need to achieve.
I am sure you can see where this is going, but I would caution that it would be na├»ve to believe that there are simple things you could write in the overlap area between all three circles. What you could do however is appraise each list and see what elements in that list could contribute to the achievement of your other circle goals.  For example, suppose one of your personal goals was to retire early, but to achieve that you would need to earn more.  It might be that you could increase your chances of promotion at work if you were more closely associated with the attainment of one of the long-term objectives and if you prioritised the short-term tasks set by certain people or departments over others.

The objective is therefore not simply to write things in the overlap area (if they were that obvious you would most probably already be working on them) but rather to define and create your overlap area by steering everything you do towards your bigger goals.

I hope you have an excellent Christmas.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Increasing Engagement to Deliver Big Goals

How many of your goals – especially your corporate goals - are exciting for you and the people who must deliver them? Have you even asked yourself the question?

For most of us the emotions that a goal engenders, such as excitement, are simply not considered or discussed. But research shows that it’s the emotional reaction to a goal that ultimately dictates motivation and engagement in the people tasked to deliver it.

Shane Lopez, a leading psychologist on hope, resilience and motivation says in his latest book “Making Hope Happen”:  “The truth is our rational strategic thinking about goals is spurred on by our emotions. As a result we invest the most resources and make the most gains on goals we are excited about”.  This may seem blindingly obvious, but in my experience it is not often considered!

Let’s take a real life example from someone I was coaching recently. Her team was handed down a very challenging corporate goal. They were tasked with generating double digit growth in a mature and declining market in which they already held high market share. This was in support of a plan for uninterrupted dividend pay-outs throughout the company’s entire existence of over 100 years. She said it was like being asked to climb Mount Everest without oxygen - impossible to achieve. Put yourself in her shoes and imagine how you would have felt in the same situation. A typical response could be fear and de-motivation, leading to risk aversion, closing the mind to innovation and a tendency towards a blame culture.

Could the leaders that set that corporate goal have done it differently? I would say yes. They could have followed this 5 step approach to create engagement and a positive emotional response:
  1. Acknowledge the size of the challenge – acknowledge that a fear of failure, anxiety and of feeling overwhelmed would not be a surprising response.
  2. Remind people of other seemingly huge goals they have achieved in the past and draw out the strengths they used to do that.
  3. Let people talk about it – explore and critique, offer different perspectives and test the assumptions. This starts engagement.
  4. Turn around the “story” to make it more meaningful and exciting for the delivery teams e.g. acknowledge it is a huge task but “think about how special it would be to be part of the team that achieves it”
  5. Start asking what might be possible, what could happen, and what might be needed to create possibilities, pathways and buy-in, even if they do not fully deliver all of the goal now.
Using this process should increase the positive emotion associated with the goal, getting more engagement and commitment from the teams tasked with its delivery.

A key learning from recent research is that leaders need to anticipate, create and manage the right emotional response in themselves and others in order to deliver big goals.  In most corporate cultures leaders try to rationalise and almost “de-emotionalise” business goals. Whilst it’s true that this generates rational, concrete goals that appear logical, what emotions are they creating – fear or excitement?

Positive emotions like excitement create the will to engage fully, to innovate, problem-solve imaginatively and to go the extra mile. So when goal setting add an important question to your process “What’s the exciting challenge here?”

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Jump off the Hamster wheel

These days, time seems to be the most precious of our resources. It is used as a universal excuse “If only I had more time, I would write a book”, “I would get better grades if I had more time”, “I have no time for exercise”. We have all heard these, and most likely use these time-based excuses ourselves, without even noticing it!

In coaching, I am increasingly finding my clients so focussed on being productive – and being seen to be productive – that work has become almost an obsession. People become trapped in a “too-busy” cycle, combining activities such as a lunch break with catching up on emails or going to the restroom as an opportunity to mentally draft a report, or a traffic jam being the ideal place to chair a conference call.  Super-efficient to some, for most this lifestyle isn’t sustainable and can result in overwork, overwhelm, stress and ultimately illness. It is like the hamster continually turning the wheel in its cage round and round.

Breaking out can be hard, not least as we continually seek to affirm our actions so having no spare time is likely to be part of our “current normal” - part of our day to day routine. There are many things that we can do, but all require conscious awareness and choice to disrupt the current routine and create a different space for yourself. Here are my top tips to reclaim your time:
  • Find your show-stoppers – make a list of 3 or 4 things that are most important to you and commit to checking in on them every day.
  • Find your timewasters – even if you think you enjoy these activities, take a typical work and weekend day and chunk it down to how you live those precious 24 hours. Did Facebook, Coronation Street or Twitter make the show-stopper list? If not, drop them for two weeks and see what time you created – and assess how painful the “detox” from these timewasters was.
  • Diarise – it sounds so obvious, but unless you have a formal “appointment” for an important activity, the power of being sucked back into your “current normal” is such that you won’t get started on it.
  • Consolidate – why do something 4 times a week when you could consolidate it into once? It is like batch processing in a factory – do your email in one chunk a day, not continuously: go to the supermarket once a week, not every other day.
  • Keep your daily task list to the three most important things you must achieve in the day. It doesn’t mean you won’t get more done, rather it will help you to achieve the most important things as well as not feel overloaded.
  • Do your “Big Rocks” first – The author Steven Covey uses this powerful metaphor to explain that our lives are full of grains of sand, gravel, trickles of water, and rocks. If we liken our day to a bucket, if we don’t fit in the big rocks first, then by the time we have finished with the sand, gravel and water, there will be no more room in the bucket.
  • Learn to say no – remember that every time you say yes to something, in a full day, it logically means you must be saying no to something else. Work out what you can say no to immediately, say goodbye and scrap those activities from your life.
  • Change your routine – how often do we examine our “current normal” and appraise it for its effectiveness? Now is your chance. Ask yourself, is there a better way of doing things? Make a new routine that is more balanced, more optimal, more filled with activities you love.
We all have the same amount of time, and it’s finite and in great demand. But some of us have made the time for doing the things we love doing, and others have allowed the constant demands and pressures and responsibilities of life to dictate their days. So reclaim your time and create the life you want. When you run out of time to think, you then start operating on automatic pilot – and what is the joy in that? Jump off that hamster wheel right now!

Balancing the real, virtual and home office

Since 2001 in the USA there has been a 100% increase in the amount of people working from home. There are significant advantages for both the employer and employees. Companies are spending less on real estate and, according to recent research from Stanford university, working from home can deliver a 13% increase in productivity. For the workers there is the advantage of flexible working, less commute time and potentially a better work/life balance.

Alongside this, there are some important downsides and disadvantages. Remote working can breed social isolation. Not being in an office diminishes social interaction and relationship building between colleagues and in teams. People can also end up identifying less with the organisation they work for and, significantly, they can earn less respect. A recent MIT survey indicates you are 9% more likely to be considered dependable and responsible if you put in “face time” and show up at the office. 

Technology and management advice is continually developing in an attempt to address these disadvantages. Cloud computing, video conferencing, remote meeting software and so on are already in wide use. There are newer technologies too. Sococo provides an office layout on screen, where workers with little face icons can walk about the virtual office and pop into different people’s offices and meeting rooms. People can even meet by a virtual coffee machine for a chat. The company Anybot is going further. They can provide you with what is called a telepresence avatar – it’s a mini robot with wheels, a face and a screen that you can see through, hear through, speak through and drive about a real office remotely from your PC at home. You can park your robot in a real meeting for example. The only problem is they haven’t yet overcome the “Dalek syndrome” – the robot can’t go up or down stairs!

On the management advice side there are numerous recommendations ranging from increasing personal contact with remote workers, promoting networking amongst remote workers, ensuring managers are accessible, developing trust and ensuring people feel respected and so on. There’s also plenty of advice for the qualities needed for a good tele-worker – self discipline and independence being paramount.

Remote workers themselves, together with new virtual office businesses, are also taking initiatives to reduce social isolation. Many cities now have boutique style co-working clubs, where home workers can work independently or together. The style is different to a typical business centre – its more coffee bar style combined with work spaces.

But can all these initiatives overcome the disadvantages of remote working? Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, seems to not think so. She recently and famously issued a memo requiring all home workers to now work from offices. She is of the clear belief that innovation, decision making, turning a company around   all require real people working in real time in real offices.

She may have a point. Despite all the technologies there has been an increase in home workers across the board at least putting in some real office time.

Whatever the future holds companies and individuals need to find an effective balance. Companies need to balance the cost benefit of home working with the need to create a real and collaborative company spirit and culture. Individuals need to balance the advantages of home working with the need for social interaction and real life engagement with management and colleagues that can help them feel an integral and valued part of the organisation they work for.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Emotional Intelligence

There are dozens of management theories about what makes a great leader great.

If we can learn something from each of these, then surely that helps our own development towards becoming a better leader.

The concept of “social intelligence” has been around since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1995, when Daniel Goleman wrote “Emotional Intelligence”, that this theory was applied to leadership and organisational performance.

Emotional intelligence grabbed the headlines as the scientific evidence quoted by Goleman suggested that only 20% of a leader’s success is down to IQ with the rest down to EQ (as emotional intelligence is often called).

People high on emotional intelligence demonstrate a number of characteristics….
  1. They’re articulate and engaging…
  2. They’re good team players…
  3. They create positive work climates… It has been reported that Fred Goodwin, the ex CEO of RBS, was authoritarian and cultivated a climate of fear in the corridors of his Edinburgh HQ. Authoritarianism is the antithesis of emotional intelligence….
  4. They know themselves well…
  5. They’re good at coping…
  6. They’re responsive and empathic…
  7. They are very self controlled…
Some of these characteristics are deep seated and hard to develop – such as an ability to deal with stress – but the starting point in developing emotional intelligence is through increasing self awareness.

Research by the Centre for Creative Leadership has found that the primary causes of derailment in leaders are those low in emotional intelligence, particularly in handling change, not being able to work well in a team and poor interpersonal relations.

What examples have you of working with emotional intelligent leaders? Do you agree that EQ beats IQ hands down every time? Which of the EQ characteristics do you think is most important?

Monday, September 30, 2013


As a coach I have a lot of dialogue with clients who are struggling to fit in all the things they “have to do”. Usually the subject of delegation comes up. When I ask “what’s stopping you delegating?” a fairly predictable batch of reasons to not delegate comes up:
  • “It’s quicker to do it myself“
  • “I can trust myself to do it properly”
  • “It’s important I stay on top of this”
  • “I don’t have anyone with the right skills to delegate to”
  • “Everyone else is too busy – I can’t ask them to do any more”
Some of these may be familiar to you – I know I count some of them as old friends myself.
Each of the reasons may be true at one level. We understand the perceived short-term cost in energy and time to hire someone or teach someone else to do the task, or to manage them until they can do it to the standards we want.
Typically we do not consider costs of not delegating. What could you do, achieve or enjoy with the time if you did delegate some tasks:
  • Things that are more important or productive in your life?
  • Things you like doing better?
  • Time with people you love?
  • Time to focus on things where you have special talents?
  • Time to think how to grow your business or career?
  • Time to expand your focus and not simply tick boxes?
Our time is a finite resource. As we choose how to spend it we are, in practice, voting for certain things to be in our lives. Each vote can only be made once.
If we continue to do what we have always done and not delegate things over time, we are voting to hold ourselves, and possibly others, in a relatively static place. Ultimately we are voting for “less” in our lives.  If we do decide to start delegating more, despite the initial costs, we are voting for growth and development of ourselves and others. In other words we are voting for “more” in life. 
How to start
I’d like to invite you to think how you could delegate just one thing in the next week or month. Pick something that is relatively boring and un-demanding of your talents and ask yourself why you continue to do this and not find an alternative solution? Is there someone else who is better placed to do this task – either because they have more talent at it or because they have more time than you or because it would help them grow and learn. Then get a clear picture of what you intend to do with the time that’s freed up? How much more could you have?  Persevere and you’ll find that over time your time is increasingly spent on more satisfying things – and things still get done.

It's all in the mind

The degree of enjoyment you draw from your work has a direct bearing on your perception of whether you have a satisfactory work-life balance or not. The less you enjoy your work, the more likely you are to consider it an interruption to your life and its priorities. Of course a degree of flexibility and sense of control of your time is important for work-life balance, but beyond these, basics enjoyment and fulfilment counts for far more.

For those whose work is their passion, some artists and athletes for example, the issues of work-life balance rarely arise - it’s just something that has to be managed. But most people aren’t fortunate enough to be in that position, and being passionate about their work, although it’s a fashionable idea in modern management parlance, may be a false ideal to strive for. Nonetheless we can all benefit from working to increase our level of enjoyment and satisfaction in what we do.

There are three primary sources of enjoyment – self, others and purpose.

In the first case there’s the enjoyment you can derive from the work itself. Rather than just doing your job, why not set goals for yourself above and beyond those expected by the organisation? And then take satisfaction in achieving them or at least getting close.

Sources of enjoyment involving others are plentiful. Enjoy having a laugh and a joke with your colleagues, take an interest in their hobbies, their family and their personal life and make it a priority to get to know them better. Beyond that there’s the fulfilment that can come from actively helping others, in a coaching or mentoring role, or simply in being supportive.

Contributing to a purpose is the third source. By this I mean the contribution your job makes to making the world a better place to live in. It doesn’t matter what you do, someone somewhere will inevitably benefit from your endeavours. Consider the famous story of the cleaner interviewed at NASA in the sixties. When asked what they were doing they replied “Helping to put a man on the moon!”  

You need to take ownership of the emotional engagement you have with your work – whether you are satisfied and fulfilled, or whether you are bored and dissatisfied, it’s down to you  and it all starts in the mind.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Generation F

The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of “Generation F” - the Facebook Generation. At a minimum, they’ll expect work to reflect the social context of the Web - open, collaborative and informal.

Although it’s a buyer’s market for talent right now it won’t always be the case - and in the future, any company that lacks a vital core of Gen F employees will soon find itself stuck in the mud. If we hope  to attract the most creative and energetic members of Gen F, we will need to understand these Web-derived expectations, and then reinvent our management practices accordingly.

With that in mind, I came across a list of 12 work-relevant characteristics of online life generated by management thinker, Gary Hamel. In his words, these are the yardsticks tomorrow’s employees will use to determine whether your company is “with it” or “past it.”
  1. All ideas compete on an equal footing. On the Web, every idea can gain a following - or not, and no one has the power to stop a subversive idea or squelch an embarrassing debate. Ideas gain traction based on their perceived merits, rather than on the political power of their sponsors.
  2. Contribution counts far more than credentials. When you post a video to YouTube, no one asks you if you went to film school. When you write a blog, no one cares whether you have a journalism degree. Position, title, and academic degrees—none of the usual status differentiators carry much weight online. On the Web, what counts is not your CV, but what you can contribute.
  3. Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed. In any Web forum there are some individuals who command more respect and attention than others - and have more influence as a consequence. Critically, though, these individuals haven’t been appointed by some superior authority. Instead, their clout reflects the freely given approbation of their peers. On the Web, authority trickles up, not down.
  4. Leaders serve rather than preside. On the Web, every leader is a servant leader; no one has the power to command or sanction. Credible arguments, demonstrated expertise and selfless behaviour are the only levers for getting things done through other people. Forget this online, and your followers will soon abandon you.
  5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned. The Web is an opt-in economy. Whether contributing to a blog, working on an open source project, or sharing advice in a forum, people choose to work on the things that interest them. Everyone is an independent contractor, and everyone scratches their own itch.
  6. Groups are self-defining and self-organising. On the Web, you get to choose your colleagues. In any online community, you have the freedom to link up with some individuals and ignore the rest, to share deeply with some folks and not at all with others. Just as no one can assign you a boring task, no can force you to work with dim-witted colleagues.
  7. Resources get attracted, not allocated. In large organisations, resources get allocated top-down, in a politicized budget wrangle. On the Web, human effort flows towards ideas and projects that are attractive (and fun), and away from those that aren’t. In this sense, the Web is a market economy where millions of individuals get to decide, moment by moment, how to allocate their precious currency of time and attention.
  8. Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it. The Web is also a gift economy. To gain influence and status, you have to give away your expertise and content. And you must do it quickly; if you don’t, someone else will beat you to the punch - and garner the credit that might have been yours. Online, there are a lot of incentives to share, and few incentives to hoard.
  9. Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed. On the Internet, truly smart ideas rapidly gain a following no matter how disruptive they may be. The Web is a near-perfect medium for aggregating the wisdom of the crowd - whether in formally organized opinion markets or in casual discussion groups. And once aggregated, the voice of the masses can be used as a battering ram to challenge the entrenched interests of institutions in the offline world.
  10. Users can veto most policy decisions. As many Internet moguls have learned to their sorrow, online users are opinionated and vociferous - and will quickly challenge any decision or policy change that seems contrary to the community’s interests. The only way to keep users loyal is to give them a substantial say in key decisions. You may have built the community, but the users really own it.
  11. Intrinsic rewards matter most. The web is a testament to the power of intrinsic rewards. Think of all the articles contributed to Wikipedia, all the open source software created, all the advice freely given - add up the hours of volunteer time and it’s obvious that human beings will give generously of themselves when they’re given the chance to contribute to something they actually care about. Money’s great, but so is recognition and the satisfaction of accomplishment.
  12. Hackers are heroes. Large organisations tend to make life uncomfortable for activists and rabble-rousers - however constructive they may be. In contrast, online communities frequently embrace those with strong anti-authoritarian views. On the Web, muckraking malcontents are frequently celebrated as champions of the Internet’s democratic values - particularly if they’ve managed to hack a piece of code that has been interfering with what others regard as their inalienable digital rights.
These features of Web-based life are written into the DNA of Generation F - and mostly missing from the managerial DNA of the average FTSE company. There are a lot of kids looking for jobs right now, but given the expansive freedom of their online lives, few of them will ever feel at home in cubicleland.  If your company wants to engage the best talent in the future, it needs to start thinking about how it will engage the Facebook Generation.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Can You Forward This?

An interesting article once appeared in the Harvard Business Review about an exchange of emails.  I thought the article useful, practical and sensible, so here is a short summary:

A busy executive crafted an excellent email response to an important query posed by her subordinate. Thoughtful, useful, and personal, her answer cut to the heart of the issue while presenting an effective approach for managing it.

The only problem was the executive's note was too personal and, as written, couldn't be shared with anyone beyond the original recipient.  Yet it offered a thoughtful response to a business issue that would impact the behaviour of literally hundreds of employees.  After another email exchange, the executive and her direct report recognised that, as useful as the message was, it could not be shared with other employees.  They spent a quick half-hour editing the original note into a more formal directive.  This revised communication had the desired organisational impact.

A happy result?  Not exactly.  Senior people should (almost) always write emails as if they would be — and should be — forwarded to key players in their organisation.  Rewriting and revising individual emails into more scalable missives is time-consuming and inefficient.

If you're editing even only three emails a week into a forwardable focus — particularly in collaboration with a colleague — then you're arguably wasting 10 hours a month on communications rework.  Why not write it as forwardable in the first place?  Every single significant response to a serious query should be written as if it can and should be forwarded.

This is the happier and healthier corollary to the "Never write anything you wouldn't be comfortable seeing on the front page of the New York Times — or WikiLeaks”.

The downside of this approach is that when you write only in a style to be forwarded, you inherently throttle back some of the personal touches in your communication.  Indeed, this approach insists that communicators be a little less intimate and individual.  That is a loss.

On the other hand, many executives personalize their communications in ways that get in the way of information sharing and, in reality, blur the professional focus of the message.  While efficiency shouldn't always be prized above personalisation, personal flourishes that undermine efficiency waste time and attention.  Those are resources that effective executives are reluctant to squander.

Our True Values

On leadership training programmes we often spend time discussing authenticity and self-awareness. Part of this involves exercises to explore personal values so we can better understand what is important to us and what we stand for.  For many of us, articulating our values and having a language for them is hard: it is often only when our values are challenged in some way that we recognise them as being imperative to the way we choose to live our lives.

Values exist, whether we recognise them or not.  They are core beliefs that guide us on how to live our lives in a meaningful way.   They emerge from a mix of our background and experiences, our emerging personality and sense of self.  Some may remain constant throughout our lives and others will develop and change. When our actions and behaviours are consistent with our values, we are usually happy and centred.  But when they don’t, we can become unhinged and feel compromised.  This is why making a conscious effort to identify our values is so important.

A great start is to think about times in your life when you were most happy, fulfilled and proud.  Think about who you were with, what you did and what choices you made. Then think about times when you were less satisfied and fulfilled.  Gradually exploring the insights from these thoughts will help to start the process of articulating what matters most to you in life.  Choosing then to consciously live these values, to consistently demonstrate and show them will help you to become centred around what you stand for and help others to understand who you really are.

So, how about making June the month you identify what you stand for and investing some time in identifying your values?  It will be time well spent and will, at a minimum, provide you with some food for thought in how you choose to live your life.

I will end with 2 powerful quotes, both from Malcolm X, the Civil Rights Activist, who absolutely knew his values and what he stood for (the second has been attributed to other sources too).

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I am for justice, no matter who it is for or against”
“If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything”

Don’t rush what should be taken slowly

Having just returned from a boating holiday where the maximum cruising speed is 6mph, I’ve been starkly reminded of just how fast the pace of modern life is. After the leisurely flow of English rivers, stepping into my car and navigating traffic and motorways at speed was a sharp awakening indeed.

Speed, and with it the expectation that everything can be done quickly, is inherent to the mindset of modern business life, affecting everything from communications, production, market responsiveness and logistics. There are benefits of course, but the danger is it can give the illusion that everything can and even should be done at speed – and that change can be affected instantly.
Navigating a boat has factors inherently different from driving a car. Steering and manoeuvring has to be done with anticipation – a rudder is not as instantaneous as a car steering wheel. Even more significantly, a boat does not have brakes – you need to slow down ahead of time or use reverse gear to stop. To navigate a boat effectively, particularly in a crowded marina, you need anticipation as you don’t always have the luxury of changing your mind at the last minute.

So whilst speed of communications is great, it’s vital in business not to carry the expectation that all can happen instantaneously. There are some things where slow is definitely best, including strategic decision-making, affecting major changes and altering the direction of a business.  These all require levels of anticipation, precise actions, intelligence gathering and monitoring - all more akin to navigating a boat than driving a car.
Slow is also best when it comes to leading people. We can’t just expect to turn the steering wheel and assume everyone is with us – leadership needs to anticipate the time it will take and the continual reinforcement of new direction.

The anticipation and thoroughness needed to navigate a boat is also needed when taking important decisions in our own life. When it comes to moving, changing jobs or taking on new responsibilities it is best to takes things slow and steady. Most car drivers today apparently use way too much acceleration and braking – if you used the same approach to drive your life you’d wear yourself out in no time!

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Does your afternoon need perking up?

Do you suffer from a post-lunch energy dip?  This some edited highlights from an article that appeared in The Independent with some useful tips on how to keep your batteries charged all day.

Research shows that the most common time for energy slumps is 2.16pm. This is when many people hit a brick wall – and wish they could hit a pillow. Low blood sugar and the body's circadian rhythm hitting a natural low are the culprits. But you can take action.

Don't fight it - Sleeping on the job was once grounds for dismissal but employers are coming round to power naps. After Cornell University found they increase productivity in the workplace, some US companies, including Nike and Deloitte Consulting, started encouraging employees to add an afternoon snooze to their to-do list, and some firms have installed beds or sleep pods.

Have an energy snack - Opt for a snack with low GI, such as oat cakes or hummus and carrot sticks, to raise your blood sugar levels steadily and keep them up. And ideally, eat your snack half an hour before you know you're likely to slump because it takes the body that long to convert what you eat to energy, says Wilkinson.

Revamp your lunch - Afternoon crashes are often the delayed result of too many simple sugars at a midday meal. Replace white bread, pastas and dessert with protein (chicken, tuna, hard-boiled eggs) and a slow-digesting carb (brown rice, lentils, sweet potato).

Drink some water - Dehydration causes fatigue. It diminishes the capacity of most of our organs, especially the brain, kidneys and skin. Keep a filled bottle on your desk so you're more likely to drink regularly and can monitor if you're getting enough.

Have some early nights - If you go to bed late, your sleep cycles get messed up and you may pay for it with a post-lunch sluggish feeling.

Take a break - As soon as you feel slothful, walk for 10 minutes, preferably outside. Rest and recovery in the day is one of the most effective ways to avoid a dip.

Change your work focus - Nothing can sap your energy like filling out an expenses report or listening in on a conference call. So save stimulating jobs for early afternoon. If you’re having a one-to-one meeting, why not go for walk? Walking and talking engages your mind and body.

Never skip breakfast - Low afternoon energy is down to what we eat from the moment we get up and this meal does what it says: refuels the body by breaking a fast. You'll need a healthy, sizable breakfast with complex (slow-digesting) carbohydrates and a little protein. Good choices include an egg on wholemeal toast, oats or sugar-free muesli with berries and natural yoghurt, or porridge with semi-skimmed milk and a banana.

What works for you?

Let it go Louis

Even the best of jobs can have their challenges as not everything is always going to go your way or as you would like it. Upsets, issues with bosses and colleagues, offences, missed opportunities, losses, perceived unfairness and a host of things that can cause negative feelings are going to happen.

The question is how do you deal with them? Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is as much about how we handle our emotions and negative feelings as it is juggling time and energy between many commitments.  If people allow an issue to fester, it can move on from simply being something they moan about for a short while, to becoming an obsession.  In the worst cases, people can harbour resentments, hurts or issues to such an extent that a single moment in time can end up shaping their lives from that point onwards. For example, I knew a man at work once who still went on about the unfairness of a missed promotion 10 years previously! He’d become so resentful and bitter about it that 10 years later it still had him.  Needless to say his ensuing negative outlook made him unpromotable.

What are the keys then to maintaining a healthy perspective and not letting things get to you unduly? 

The first is to accept how things are. You’re going to lose or be offended sometimes, so why let it consume more energy and emotion than necessary?

The second is learning to “let it go”.  There’s a saying that’s become popular in America - “Let it go Louis”. It comes from a Budweiser advert starring frogs, where one frog is going on and on grumbling and the other frog urges him to “Let it go Louis”.  The humour of it caught on and people use the saying now when they see someone continually obsessively ranting about something.
Another saying in the states which I love for its pithy accuracy is; “Don’t let them rent space in your head”.  The point is; deal with the issues you can do something about, but don’t dwell on issues that are beyond your control – let them go and move on.

Have You Done a Strengths Audit Recently?

A Strengths Audit is a great tool to help you focus on behaviours that will improve your performance and increase your long term satisfaction at work and at home. I have just done my own audit and found it an enjoyable and stimulating experience. Why don’t you try it too? Research has shown that greater use of your strengths makes you more successful in your endeavours and happier and more fulfilled at the same time.

Step 1 – do a Strengths 360
In this initial step ask up to 20 people who know you well to give you three stories of you using your strengths. You want them to identify things that you are good at and that absorb and energise you.  Try asking them these two questions to focus the responses:

Question 1:  When do you see me being most energised and absorbed in what I am doing?
Question 2: What am I doing when you see me delivering my best contribution?

Step 2 – Identify the Themes
Read the stories and look for the common themes - behaviours that you demonstrate repeatedly and consistently, behaviours that energise you and that others perceive you as doing well. Focus on finding what you are doing when you are performing at your best and are fully absorbed. These are your strengths and ideally you are looking for your top 5-7. For example I received a lot of stories about how much I like learning things, so one of my strengths is a love of learning.

I found it easiest to group the stories under themes. Some stories cover several strengths so just put them under each one.

Step 3 – Summarise Your Core Strengths  
One of the most valuable applications of the Strengths Audit comes from communicating your strengths to others. To help you do this succinctly, write an overview of each strength, drawn from the stories that illustrate them. Keep each one short, one or two paragraphs at most, and try to capture the essence of how you use your strengths when you are at your best. They should feel relevant and energising. At the end you may well get a sense of – yes that’s me!
Apply Your Unique Special Talent for Excellence  
Combining your strengths defines your unique special talent for excellence. To achieve more apply your strengths more often, in more situations and in different combinations. Think/talk about them when starting new projects, in career development meetings, performance appraisals and, of course, interviews.  A strengths audit gives you the confidence to let others know exactly how you uniquely add value.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Riding Out the Storm

No matter how successful or seemingly secure any business appears, there are no longer periods of calm seas for leaders in any industry.

A broad statistic reinforces: More than half the companies that were industry leaders in 1955 were still industry leaders in 1990. But more than two-thirds of 1990 industry leaders no longer existed by 2004.
Leaders today need to be at home navigating a ship through 40-foot waves — oceans that will never again be serene — and still be able to guide their crew safely from port to port. They must remain highly effective in an environment of extraordinary, ongoing stress.
In his book, Better Under Pressure, Justin Menkes sought to identify the qualities that define leaders who excel in this environment of duress. He gathered performance data for approximately 200 candidates being assessed for the CEO role at major U.S. corporations. These candidates were divided into three groups, with the top-performing quartile labelled "highly successful," the middle two quartiles characterized as "average performers," and the bottom quartile as "highly ineffective."
What emerged was that certain attributes — three in particular — were highly consistent within the top performers, regardless of industry or job type. And, even more interesting, these attributes were almost totally absent among the bottom-performing quartile.
To perform their best in today's turbulent atmosphere, leaders must possess this highly unusual set of three traits that often run counter to natural human behaviour:
  1. Realistic optimism. Leaders with this trait possess confidence without self-delusion or irrationality. They pursue audacious goals, which others would typically view as impossible pipedreams, while at the same time remaining aware of the magnitude of the challenges confronting them and the difficulties that lie ahead.
  2. Subservience to purpose. Leaders who see their professional goal as so important that they measure their lives by how much they contribute to furthering that goal. What is more, they must be pursuing a professional goal in order to feel a purpose for living. Their level of dedication to their work is a direct result of the extraordinary, remarkable importance they place on their goal.
  3. Finding order in chaos. Leaders with this trait find taking on multidimensional problems invigorating, and their ability to bring clarity to quandaries that baffle others makes their contributions invaluable.
According to Menkes, in today's business environment of ever-escalating competition, leaders with these traits are critical to the survival of companies.
The good news is that these three capabilities can be learned. By learning about these attributes, you can become aware of them and choose to build them in yourself. And this can help you bring out the best in those you lead.

Simple Pleasures

Mothering Sunday this weekend was really special. My kids, unprompted by their dad (or so I am led to believe) all spontaneously acknowledged the day, and in so-doing acknowledged me in the most wonderful way. My 16 year old son, untypically non-grunting and up early, brought me a cup of tea in bed; my 14 year old diva daughter told me she loved me and had picked out a movie to watch with me while I relaxed in the afternoon, while my little one presented me with a beautiful home-made card and hugged the breath out of me. In the moment of receiving, I put aside my usual busy agenda of catching up with the housework, email and grocery shopping and gave way to the beauty of the simple pleasures of life with my family.

They say the best things in life are free.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt it is true.  Life is filled with simple pleasures, the little satisfying events we never really anticipate, but always take great pleasure in.  They are true gifts in life. We all know this to be true, but how often do we take the time to really enjoy them and melt into their moments? On Sunday, I took the time to write down my simple pleasures – it felt like a wonderful personal brainstorm of everything in life I really enjoy – and it only took me a few minutes to surface them. Here are the first 20 I wrote down:
  • Luxuriating in a bubble bath with a good book
  • Walking my two cheeky Labradors with my husband on a cold sunny Sunday morning
  • Holding hands
  • Laughing with my girlfriends over a frothy cappuccino
  • Fresh sheets on the bed
  • A roaring fire
  • Visiting the fabric department of John Lewis
  • Karaoke with the kids
  • Bed time reading with my 10 year old daughter
  • Family suppers full of chat and teasing
  • My dad’s jokes
  • Paddling in the sea
  • Finishing a chapter of my book
  • The smell of the baker’s shop
  • A gorgeous view
  • Watching old episodes of Outnumbered
  • Preparing Sunday lunch for the masses
  • Exploring a new city
  • Writing a personal  letter to a loved one
  • Dancing to Take That while cooking!
The very act of writing my personal simple pleasures made me smile. Try it for yourself, then most importantly – go and make one happen immediately. Just step off the fly wheel for a few minutes and consciously luxuriate in your own simple pleasures. As Oprah Winfrey once said “remind yourself that this moment is the only one you know you have for sure, so make it special.”

Special Days

I was inspired recently in hearing about a Canadian software company that regularly has periods it calls “4 hours silence.” The idea is that during these times no one is allowed to interrupt anyone else – the intent being to promote periods of unfettered concentration. It’s a well known time management wisdom that interruption causes inefficiency, and it was interesting to see a company actually institutionalise this idea.

It led me to think of what other workplace practices could be challenged by introducing experimental days. People regularly complain about email overuse, ineffective meetings and many other habitual working habits. By introducing specific experiment days or weeks, it may help to focus attention and at least challenge some of what have become norms.  

So how about an internal email free day, encouraging people to pick up phone or even walk to see their colleague rather than relying on the ubiquitous email - which can socially isolate people who sit next to each other or in the next office.

Or an internal meeting free week. Many people suffer a surfeit of ineffective meetings. In some organisations that overdo meetings I’ve even come across professional meeting attendees – people who seem to do nothing other than go to internal meetings. By not holding internal meetings for a period it will help to reassess their value and discover what’s necessary and what really isn’t.

An answer the phone within 3 rings day is another idea I’ve seen work well – and it’s very appreciated by customers and suppliers in particular. All too often you try and contact people by landline or mobile only to be re-routed to voicemail. It’s all too easy to get the impression in some organisations that no one is in – or maybe they’re all attending one of those internal meetings! Voicemail is just too easy to abuse, so why not have periods of no voicemail and encourage real-time communication.

On a different tack what about a periodic dress-up day. Dress down has become a permanent feature in some organisations, not just an occasional liberation. How about instituting the very opposite, a day when everyone comes to the office in super smart work attire. It would certainly provide a talking point and you never know – a sharp suit might just sharpen the mind for some important decisions.

Of course there are many offices that are like ghost companies these days. Everyone seems to be out or working at home. In these cases I’m not sure these experimental days would make much difference. So my last suggestion is a turn-up day. Too much working at home can also isolate people. A day where absolutely everyone comes in would create a real buzz – hopefully about more than which hot desk to sit at, particularly as many companies don’t have enough desks for everyone anymore! 

Bad workplace habits can set in all too easily. Introducing some radically different days or periods will at least encourage debate and ideas about what effective working practices really mean, and it will keep everyone on their toes.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Loving What You Do

In the early 1900s, an American Engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor, invented the concept of ‘scientific or rational’ management. Workers were like parts in a complicated machine. If they did the right work in the right way at the right time, the machine would function smoothly. And to ensure that happened, you simply rewarded the behaviour you sought and punished the behaviour you discouraged. People would respond rationally to these external forces – these were known as extrinsic motivators.

Based on this and other rational theorists, a whole system of operating and rewarding through performance based pay, developed.

Throughout the 20th century, management theorists such as Maslow and Douglas McGregor challenged some of this thinking and as a result companies relaxed a bit – dress codes relaxed, schedules became more flexible and many of the better organisations looked for ways to grant employees greater autonomy to help them grow.

The beginning of the 21st century has provided even more challenge and made us look again at the whole issue of motivation and extrinsic rewards. The development of open source software and the triumph of Wikipedia, the all volunteer, all amateur encyclopedia, challenged the laws of behavioural physics. Developers were contributing and giving their time, not for extrinsic rewards… but were driven by and for something else.

MIT management professor Karim Lakhani and BCG consultant Bob Wolf, surveyed 684 open-sources developers about why they contributed to open source projects. Lakhani and Wolf uncovered a range of motives but they found “that enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on the project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver”.  What drives these individuals is largely ‘intrinsic motives’ – “the fun … of mastering the challenge of a given software problem” and the “desire to give a gift to the programmer community”.

Daniel Pink, in his excellent book “Drive … the surprising truth about what motivates us” goes even further. According to Pink, not only are people motivated intrinsically but that this intrinsic motivation is just if not more important than extrinsic motivation to an individual’s performance.

Pink identifies areas in which imposing bonuses, rewards and incentives can get in the way and detract from (a) people’s enjoyment of the task and (b) their mastery of the task. This is because extrinsic rewards encourage short term behaviour and encourage individuals to perform to the level at which they are rewarded and then no more.

This is a vast oversimplication of Pink’s research but has huge implications for leaders, organisations, reward consultants and even parents – how can we motivate and reward our children so that learning is fun and not a chore.

In cases where extrinsic incentives can work such as in tasks which do not inspire passion nor require deep thinking, Pink offers some advice:
  • Offer a rationale as to why the task is necessary
  • Acknowledge that the task is boring
  • Allow people to complete the task their own way.
For right brained, creative tasks, Pink suggests that any extrinsic reward should be unexpected and offered only after the task is complete.

Happiness, Success or Both!

“When I am successful then I will be happy” – right? All the research points to the opposite being true: when you are happy you will be more successful.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues have spent over 15 years looking at how positive emotions enhance our capabilities to be more open to ideas, more creative and able to relate to people. She calls it the “broaden and build theory” (you can read a lot more about it in her book “Positivity” published by Oneworld, Oxford).

Take, for example, recognising between individuals in racial groups different from you own. Chances are testing would show you are a lot worse at this compared to recognising individuals of the same race as yourself. Except if – you were feeling positive at the time. When specifically stimulated to feel positive emotions, people’s ability to discriminate between individuals of a different race improved to be the same level as for their own race*.  They simply broadened their ability to see more about the person in front of them.

Think about what this implies for your ability to create a positive relationship with new people. How, and when, could a greater capability to see the person in front of you help in life?  These situations might come to mind:
  • Being interviewed
  • Interviewing someone else
  • Meeting a new customer
  • First meetings of all sorts
  • Difficult staff conversations
  • Handling difficult customers
  • Negotiations
This is just one instance from a lot of research that shows increasing your level of positive feelings before doing an important task will increase your chances of doing it well.

So how do we turn the positive feelings on? Well it’s not simply “thinking positive”. You need to actually create positive emotions in yourself. Many ways have been demonstrated and they can be small, simple and fast.

Some of the simplest include: writing down 3 good things that have happened to you today or 5 things you are grateful for, doing an unexpected act of kindness for someone, looking at a happy photo of people or places you love, savouring a happy memory, having a quick (positive!) conversation with a friend, reading or watching something you find amusing. Over time you will start to notice which of these actions work best for you i.e. give you a burst of positive feeling which in turn opens up your capability to think and interact more openly.

So go on and try one before your next important task. They only take a few minutes, they will make you happier and so more effective in life.

*Cohn M.A. and Fredrickson B.L. (2009) Positive Emotions.  In Lopez S.J. and Snyder C.R.(eds) TheOxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2nd edition,  Oxford, p. 13-24.

Music While You Work

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that music has value in the workplace. For workers involved in more repetitive tasks this has long been known. Music has been shown to reduce stress, relieve boredom and importantly, increase productivity. The rhythmic effect of music in particular has been shown to increase concentration and output. Not just in manufacturing environments either – but in other industries. In the 1980s a British Bank reported a 23% increase in the amount of cheques processed by their clearing centre when staff were listening to music. It appears that music and rhythm helps people get into a “groove” with what they’re doing. The effect is not just psychological – music has an impact physiologically. Amongst other effects music has been shown to increase alertness and help maintain a regular heartbeat.

Since the decline of manufacturing and the increase in automation and office based work – there has been less emphasis on the use of music in the workplace. It was thought that office and executive work would not benefit from music in the same degree. Yet there is evidence to the contrary. Research in Canada with software designers suggests that music also enhances creativity and concentration for demanding mental tasks.

Now we’re in the digital and internet age music listening is more personal – with the ubiquitous use of iPods and MP3 players. The University of Sheffield conducted a study of 300 office workers listening to music of their own choice for a third of their week. The researchers were looking at characteristics including inspiration, concentration, positive distraction, stress relief and managing personal space. Employees used sensible music listening practices including not disturbing fellow workers or appearing unprofessional in front of clients.

Interestingly music was shown to help people both engage in their work and escape from their work – and in that way have a positive impact on their work-life balance.

Music is undoubtedly a powerful tool, so why not try your own research? If you have some repetitive or physical tasks to do, try listening to music with rhythm and beat. If you need concentration for a task, select some music with a more calming effect. If your mood or creativity needs a boost try listening to something that inspires you.