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To team, or not to team, that is the question…

To Team or Not To Team

We are social animals. We have hunted and gathered in teams for most of our history. Beside the benefits of sharing the burden of survival and gaining insight, learning and knowledge, we also seek out teams for affection, affiliation, acknowledgement and personal self-worth. Even today, banishment or shunning is an important form of punishment in most social groups and organisations.

In the early 20th century mass manufacturing and bureaucracy briefly removed the necessity for teams, when scientific management tried to improve productivity by assigning specific tasks to individuals. But teams reappeared after the Second World War, epitomised by the efforts of William Edwards Deming in Japan, and have since become the basic building blocks of organisations. A shift that has been culturally reinforced, in the western world at least, through the encouragement of group work in schools and our love of team sports.

However, managers need to ask themselves whether teams are always the right answer, because building an efficient and effective team requires time and effort, and if done badly can lead to confusion, waste, delay and poor decision-making. Nor do teams and team working suit everyone. Introverts, who it is estimated make up 40% of the workforce, may loathe them. And while teams work best if their members have a strong common culture, this can easily degenerate into a ‘them and us’ mentality and groupthink, where teams become close minded, overestimate their capabilities, and suffer from pressures toward conformity.

I am not suggesting that we avoid teams, far from it, they allow us to achieve what cannot be done alone. But I am suggesting we pause for thought. Teams do not happen simply by being given the title. They are complex arenas of behaviour that need to be carefully nurtured if they are to achieve more than the sum of their parts.

So how do you know if a team is the right answer? Well start by asking yourself the following key question:

Do I need a working group or a team? In some cases work may be best left to individuals. In a working group the members work separately toward individual performance goals and, if they interact at all, it is only to share information and best practice in order to help each individual perform better within his or her area of responsibility. Beyond that there is no realistic or truly desired common purpose, performance goals, or joint work products. So, is there a significant performance need or opportunity that requires your group to become a team? It is important to be clear on this because investing time in team building may be detrimental to individual performance.

If the answer is still yes, I need a team, then the next step is to measure yourself against some sort of standard.

In their seminal work, The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith describe a real team as a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. And a high performing team as a group that meets all the conditions of a real team, and has members who are also deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success. Let’s look at each attribute in turn

Small number. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, reputedly said that “If I see more than two pizzas for lunch, the team is too big.” More prosaically, Katzenbach and Smith identify teams as between 2 and 25 people, with the majority being less than 10. Larger groups will struggle to find the time and space to meet. They are also more likely to fall prey to groupthink and herd behaviours. And, if the going gets tough, will find it easier to revert to formal hierarchy, structure, policies and procedures.

Complementary skills. This refers not only to technical or functional expertise, but also to problem solving, decision-making skills and interpersonal skills, all of which allow the team to perform and function together. The key watch out is forming teams on the basis of personal compatibility, rather than skills. To be immunised against ‘groupthink’, teams need to contain ‘deviants’, those who are willing to ruffle feathers. Teams need productive conflict between different personalities and approaches. They need some grit in the oyster. A group where everyone gets on enjoys themselves is a party not a team.

Common purpose and performance goals. Teams develop direction, momentum, and commitment by working toward a shared purpose. Fundamentally, purpose gives teams a shared identity, keeping conflict constructive by providing a meaningful common standard against which to resolve clashes. Goals are an integral part of the purpose, transforming broad directives into specific and measureable objectives. They define the team’s work product, differentiating it from individual job objectives, but identifying how individuals can best contribute.

Committed to a common approach. This describes how teams will work together to accomplish their purpose: who will do particular jobs; how objectives will be set and adhered to; how the group will make and modify decisions; and when and how often they will meet. In addition there are social roles to be encouraged such as listening, challenging, supporting and integrating.

Mutual Accountability. This underpins commitment and trust, which is vital for any high performing team. By promising to hold ourselves accountable to the team’s goals we earn the right to express our views about all aspects of the team’s effort and have our views receive a fair and constructive hearing.

Still interested in forming a team? Then you need to get the basics right from the start.

Tuckman’s familiar team development model is useful here, describing the process in four stages: forming, storming, norming and performing. In the forming stage, be prepared for little work to get done and for team members to be overly polite with one another. At this stage team members will seek guidance from you on the team’s purpose, aims and objectives; the contribution expected from each of them; and the ground rules. This period is about helping people to understand why they are forming as a team, what will be expected of them and how they will work together. Expect to deal with the following typical questions:

• Why were we formed or why are we now being asked to be a team?
• What are we supposed to accomplish as a team?
• Whose idea was the formation of this team?
• Why was I asked to participate on this team?

They are also likely to want to know who the other members of the team are. What their roles and responsibilities will be? How are they going to find out each other’s capabilities and characteristics? And how they will be expected to work together as a team? They may ask the following questions:

• How will we arrive at decisions?
• How will we resolve disagreements?
• How will we increase our ability to take risks and maximise our creativity?
• Where, when and how will we meet (whole team, smaller groups, one-to-one)?
• How are we going to make ourselves accessible to each other?

As these questions are explored and debated be prepared to deal with challenges to your authority and inter-team squabbles. This is the storming stage and your role is to explain the boundaries, offer suggestions, arbitrate and ultimately make decisions, while keeping a lid on anarchy. It will be up to you to direct the traffic, in order to identify and establish goals, roles and relationships, lines of communication, likely barriers, and support mechanisms. Norming is when team roles become accepted, team feeling develops, and information is freely shared. And your ultimate goal is performing, when optimal levels of productivity are achieved.

But it’s not over yet. The challenge now is how does the team continue to be successful and not get into a rut? The answer is continuous improvement. Teams need to maintain clarity on purpose and performance; accountabilities and responsibilities; barriers and strategies to get around them; interpersonal issues; modifications to the problem solving and decision making; and intra/inter team communication, to name but a few. The bottom line is that the conversation around the team’s why, what and how is necessarily ongoing, reacting to and evolving with the team member’s environment, just as our species has always done.

Still want to form a team?

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Forget Leadership, Try Management.


Leadership is sexy, management is boring. Yet how many of us have followed plausible and inspiring leaders who it turns out couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag and in the end, if we follow them at all, it is only out of sheer curiosity. Paradoxically, it is management, often regarded as a science, which is more trainable than the elusive art of leadership.

Put simply, management is the science of getting the right people, in the right place, at the right time, with the right kit, in order to deliver the right outcome. This means that delegation is at the heart of good management and perhaps that is why management is often so poor, because we all know that we should delegate but often don’t.

We all know why we should delegate. From a manager’s perspective it can reduce pressure and stress; it increases a manager’s capacity, because it provides more pairs of hands and minds to work on a problem; and fundamentally it provides managers with the time to do the work that only they can do. From the subordinates perspective it is a powerful source of motivation and an essential part of training and developing your team. So why wouldn’t you?

Well let’s be honest, how many of us have not delegated a task because we feel we can do the job better ourselves; because it is easier to do it ourselves; because it is quicker to do it ourselves; because if things go wrong it’s our head on the block; because we’re too busy to delegate; or because we enjoy doing the job ourselves. So how do we get over ourselves? These four simple steps may help.

Ask yourself a simple question
To know if you’re guilty of holding on to too much, answer this simple question: “If you had to take an unexpected week off work, would your initiatives and priorities advance in your absence?” If the answer is no then either you have no staff or you aren’t delegating enough. At the very least you need a deputy, who can step into your shoes. Now and when you move on.

If you’re still struggling to delegate, try this: over the next month make a list of tasks that you might delegate: write them down as you think of them. Then ask yourself: “What can I, and only I, do?” If a certain task could be done by someone else, maybe it should be. The only things you shouldn’t delegate are things concerned with the strategy, planning, policy, standards and objectives. Anything concerned with discipline. Anything you know your boss would not want you to delegate, or you are not authorised to delegate. And anything you genuinely believe only you can perform in the time available, don’t cheat!

Be clear about what you’re delegating and to whom
Once you’ve decided to delegate, you need to be clear in your own mind what you are asking the team or individual to do. When describing the task begin with the objective: what you are trying to achieve, but also why. This provides the overarching purpose, which not only tends to improves motivation, but also sets the task in context, enabling subordinates to adapt should the situation change. Then provide a start and completion date, with an agreed monitoring timeline. Describe what the outcome should look like in terms of quality and in what quantity, how much/how many. Finally, detail the resources available: money, people and tools etc.

When selecting a person(s) for the task, consider their competence for the job and use the traffic light system to gauge the graduated level of support you may need to provide. Red: I’ll do it you watch and learn. Amber: We’ll do it together, or you do it and I’ll watch. Green: you do it.

Always ensure understanding
Remember, if a task goes awry the person usually at fault is the one who issued the instructions, because what you say is not necessarily what is heard, and any teacher will tell you that “Are there any questions?” is itself a poor question. The likely result is silence, because of the social pressure not to look stupid and/or delay the escape to break or lunch! The same pressures often apply at work.

The answer is to ask “Are there any questions, because if not I have some questions for you?” Make it clear from the start that you will be asking confirmatory questions to ensure understanding. This will get people to listen carefully and encourage them to ask questions if they don’t understand. You are now working with, rather than against social pressure: no one will want to look stupid when you ask your confirmatory questions.

Provide feedback
Asking people to complete anything but the simplest task without any feedback is like playing darts in the dark. Without feedback, during a task, or at the very least at the end of it, your direct reports have no way of knowing how they are doing and therefore adjusting their aim or approach.

It is also important to engage them in a dialogue, not a diatribe. Help them learn, by exploring what has gone well, what was done poorly and how it could be changed. Ask them what they have tried and explore alternatives, and allow them the opportunity for response and clarification. And finally, thank and congratulate them when the job is done.

Hopefully, by following these four simple steps, you will ensure that people follow you out of something more than morbid curiosity and amusement.

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5 Leadership Skills in the Age of Networks

Informal networks of connection and control have always existed, but often only vaguely understood within tribal pecking orders, neat corporate hierarchies, and military chains of command. For networks to emerge as a new paradigm it needed a language of its own. A language that has been provided by the internet and social media. The question is do we need to change how we lead within this new worldview? In my opinion, the answer is yes.

Effective collective action will always require some to lead and others to follow. Direction, however subtle, gentle or hidden is always necessary. Formal, positional leadership will remain important, but in a virtual, networked world leaders will increasingly be asked to lead without positional authority and without being able to constantly monitor their direct reports.

Unlike conventional top-down leadership, leadership in a networked world is more about enabling than directing. It is more about influence than control; more indirect than direct; but still obliging leaders to create an environment based on both collaboration and individual autonomy.

It is leadership understood first and foremost as a social process that creates direction, alignment and commitment without recourse to the traditional mantra of positional authority: “because I say so.” It is more a case of ‘power with’ as opposed to ‘power over’.

In her recent book, The Chess-Board and The Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, Anne-Marie Slaughter identifies five skills of a network leader: clarification, curation, connection, cultivation and catalysis.

  1. Clarify – Leadership begins with helping people make sense of their situation and the clarification of goals. Clarification starts when someone steps forward and makes suggestions about how to fix or achieve something. Clarification continues through continually refining what those goals mean in practice through facilitated discussion and working through disagreements.
  2. Curate – Curation is the careful selection of whom to connect to whom: people, institutions and resources. This is a specifically network skill and starts with understanding or mapping your community or organisation, recognising who has what and who needs what in terms of knowledge, skills and resources.
  3. Connect – Having identified the assets in your community or organisation, good connectors are synergy spotters, accomplished at connecting people to each other, cross fertilising and spreading knowledge and connections to help things grow toward a common purpose. It should not be confused with networking. This is about connecting people, skills, knowledge and resources for the benefit of those you connect, not for selfish ends. And once connected, a great connector continually checks in with the members of their network to keep connections alive.
  4. Cultivate – As Stanley McChrystal observed in Team of Teams, leading is like gardening: “Leadership is like gardening, because gardeners can’t do anything. They can’t make plants grow or flowers bloom, they can only create the conditions in which everything flourishes and achieves its best.” The network leader, therefore, focuses on trust building (deepening relationships through repeated interactions), delegation and empowerment, troubleshooting, conflict resolution, setting and enforcing boundaries, sharing knowledge, gathering resources, and holding stakeholders accountable.
  5. Catalyse – a leader must provide energy, not drain it. A leader is the spark, igniting sustaining and rekindling activity in a network. This often requires uncommon powers of persuasion, which can be enhanced by being open to persuasion yourself. Model effective dialogue and a capacity to change your mind, on the basis that to change others you must be prepared to change yourself.

None of these skills are new. Napoleon recognised the importance of clarification when he spoke of defining reality and giving hope. But a new paradigm encourages us and ultimately requires us to look at the world in a different way. Like turning a kaleidoscope the pattern and the colours have been rearranged and we must adapt what we know to this new worldview, discarding what no longer fits, adjusting what still has relevance and, if need be, creating the rest as we go.

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Leadership is a balance between power and love


I can’t take the credit for this one and I’m not even sure who can. I found it recently on an untitled word document, among a pile of papers that I had obviously put to one side to read later. Well I’m glad I finally did read it and I commend it to you, and if anyone can identify the author please let me know.

It begins with a reflection on that iconic moment when Nelson Mandela, as the new President of South Africa, put on the green jersey of the nation’s Rugby team during the Rugby World Cup that took place in South Africa in 1995. As the author notes, it was a hugely symbolic gesture, in effect saying “we are all South Africans now”, which demonstrated both Mandela’s power as president, but also his love for all the people of the new South Africa. It meant getting the balance right between authority and inclusivity, between power and love. So here it is.

‘As leaders we face similar challenges. Our context is changing and those who we lead are watching us. As more is expected of us, what kind of leadership is needed from us in these times of change? Using the analogy of ‘power’ (the drive to get the job done, to push things to a conclusion) and ‘love’ (the drive to connect things, to bring people together, to unify), as leaders we cannot choose one or the other, we must choose both.

There are four tensions we need to navigate when balancing these elements in our leadership.

1. ‘Being a pacesetter’ versus ‘Being a coach’
Daniel Goleman argues that although pacesetting is an important leadership style and is sometimes just what is needed, it won’t provide lasting improvements unless you adopt other leadership styles. Drawing on the work of Goleman, as leaders, if our only style is pacesetting we may find that we have stepped out on our own but that nobody is following, instead they are criticising us from the side-lines. But the answer is not necessarily to reduce the pace, it is to also have strategies to support those we lead in coping with the pace, to be a coach as well as a pacesetter.

2. ‘Challenging’ versus ‘Openness to being challenged’
Great strategists don’t always take people with them. The best leaders must be extremely challenging, but alongside this, we need to show that we welcome challenge ourselves and can model a more open and engaging style of leadership. The best leaders are very challenging but they also don’t take themselves too seriously. They encourage their teams to question their thinking and they go out of their way to make it okay for their teams to challenge them. They ask questions, they are curious. They don’t believe they have all the answers. They involve their staff in crucial decisions and encourage them to test new ideas.

3. ‘Being competitive’ versus ‘Being collaborative’
Our role is to do the best we can to improve our service areas and organisations and this, of course, means that there is competition within and between organisations. Although sometimes it’s not fashionable to admit it, competition stops us from being complacent and keeps us on our toes. Accountability and competition are good things and should be welcomed by all those who want to raise aspirations and help communities to achieve their potential.

However, collaboration is just as important and in fact, without it, all we will get is greater variation in quality. Some will get better and do really well, but overall the system will not improve. The right kind of collaboration is key though, it’s not about huddling together and endorsing each other’s views and practices, it needs to be inclusive but also focused on outcomes, on raising the bar and achieving real solutions for improvement.

4. ‘Being consistent’ versus ‘Being adaptive to context’
To what extent can solutions and good practice be applied across the board or are they context related? If you have a tried and tested system that has clearly worked well and delivered results why should others not use that system rather than try to invent their own, especially if this is based on sound evidence? But there is another side to this, especially when it comes to leadership: context does matter.

We need to have leaders who can adapt their leadership to different circumstances. We have to ask ourselves whether the leadership approaches that have worked for us in the past are still going to work for us in the future, in a world that is very different from the one we have now (whether we like it or not). And, if we do decide that we do need to adapt our leadership approaches, how do we make that happen? It certainly isn’t easy. We need to adapt to support the new leadership behaviours rather than the old ones.

In order to navigate these four tensions, it’s time for us to step up and build a new spirit of professionalism. As the whole system shifts and turns, more than ever before we need leaders who are demonstrating authority, pace and a commitment to systems that work, and are combining it with inclusivity, collaboration, and contextualisation: leaders who are stepping up to lead a self-improving system.

The real watershed moment we are living through is because this is an era that won’t be defined so much by the financial and policy changes taking place, unprecedented though many of them are, but by what we, as leaders, make of those changes, how we seize the opportunity to redefine our approach and to ensure outcomes improve.’

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Leadership is about Grip: Have you got it?


If management is the science of getting the right people, with the right things, in the right place, at the right time, in order to achieve the right effect, then leadership is the art of achieving more than the science of management says is possible. That is, when there aren’t enough people, money is tight and there just isn’t enough time; and that requires ‘Grip’. Leaders need to grip themselves, grip their team, and grip the situation, which means a mix of mental and physical toughness, emotional intelligence, integrity, competence, and the humility to learn, unlearn and relearn. People with these attributes get things done when common sense says it’s not possible.

Mental and physical toughness, or resilience in current management speak, provides the inner conviction of a leader, which in turn gets authority and respect. A resilient leader learns from setbacks and isn’t crushed by them. When faced with a tough decision they sit or stand, they don’t wobble. They know the difference between collaboration and consultation. In the first, the team talks and the team decides. In the second the team talks, but the leader decides, because they have the courage to do so. The moral courage to challenge the organisation, their team and convention. Nobody can be a leader without courage, because by definition leaders break away from the crowd and take people with them, moving from what is known and expected into the new and unknown.

They do this by helping people to make sense of things. Human beings have a need to make sense of things and a desire to give meaning to what they do, particularly in times of crisis and uncertainty. This has never been lost on populist politicians. Recent research suggests that confident, straight talking leaders with clear, simple messages (however economical with the truth), become more popular in turbulent times, because they help people to make sense of what is happening, what has happened and what will happen. Showing where, how and why we fit into the big picture. As Napoleon observed, a leader should ‘define reality and give hope.’

But true leadership is about more than offering simplistic messages and manipulating people with spurious reasons and remedies. True leaders have character, they are genuine, honest and straight with people. They don’t fake it. Ultimately, they are devoted to the cause. Their work is a vocation, expertise combined with feeling, and true leadership relies on it. Great leaders choose a profession that is congruent with their values, a vocation for which they have a deep inner commitment and belief. And if they don’t believe, they have the courage to change.

Leaders are consistent, in both mood and in their sense of direction, they maintain the aim and appear confident and calm in a crisis. They keep their head and their grip. But they are agreeable too, their mood does not change like the weather. They are self-aware enough to recognise their own emotional state and what drives them, and at the same time the impact this can have on others. They are able to control their emotions and impulses, adapting consistently to changing circumstances, while remaining passionate, enthusiastic and motivated. They make decisions, but they also understand other people’s feelings when making those decisions and in truth they influence more than they dictate. They are socially adept, managing networks and relationships, and making an honest and compelling case for movement and change.

A leader’s competence comes from their technical mastery as well as their people mastery. They are able to deal with complexity. They manage, plan, control and provide structure. They are intelligent, able to think critically but also able to think on their feet and process on the fly. They are creative, able to capitalise on opportunities through innovation, improvisation and, if necessary, invention. They think strategically. They understand the bigger picture and are able to anticipate, connect the dots and align stakeholders. Fundamentally, they are flexible, adaptable and responsive to changing tasks, situations, teams and individuals. But perhaps, greatest of all their gifts is that of humility. Leaders with grip are humble, prepared to admit their mistakes and always prepared to learn. Have you got it?

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The 3 Secrets of Happiness, Productivity and Innovation


No doubt you’ve heard it all before: the on-demand economy will exacerbate the trend toward enforced self-reliance that has been gathering pace since the 1970s. Each of us will have to master multiple skills and keep those skills up to date. We will need to take more responsibility for educating themselves, selling ourselves, through personal networking and social media, effectively turning ourselves into personal brands. In a more fluid world everyone will have to learn how to manage ‘corporate individualism’ and ‘You Inc.’
But hold on a minute; surely there’s more to us than a piece of self-imagined corporate merchandise? How do we balance the demands of 21st century work with our personality, preferences and passion? Equally, what about the people we lead and manage? What about their aspirations and passions? So the question becomes, how can we make the most of our own and other people’s intrinsic strengths and motivations for the benefit of ourselves, our friends and colleagues, and the organisations to which we may belong (if only fleetingly)?
In a seminal article in the Harvard Business Review, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? (Later developed into a book of the same name), Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, suggested that to be a true leader you should “Be yourself, more, with skill.” I think this advice goes well beyond leaders, I think it applies to us all. So where should we begin? Well I do like a good proverb, so let’s start with an ancient Chinese one, which describes happiness as something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for. In other words, meaningful work, close ties to family and friends, and a reasonable hope of a positive future? Let’s take them in turn.
Meaningful Work
In ‘Finding your Element’, Ken Robinson describes how making the most of ourselves is about using our particular kind of intelligence in an optimal way. In his view, the only way to prepare for an uncertain future is to make the most of ourselves, on the assumption that this will make us more flexible and adaptable. He believes that each of us should identify and nurture four things:

  • Our Aptitude – our natural facility for doing something
  • Our Passion – what gives us deep delight and pleasure
  • Our Attitude – the drive and grit to succeed
  • Our Opportunity – creating and taking opportunities to find them
    Identifying them will put us in the ‘zone’, which like the state of ‘flow’ described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Mee-Hi Cheech-Me-Sent-Hi if you were wondering), is where we lose track of time, we feel we are doing what we are meant to be doing and being who we are meant to be: time feels different, ideas come more quickly, and it fills us with energy.
    Close Ties to Family and Friends
    Research conducted by Robert Levering, aimed at discovering the essence of a great place to work, concluded that such a place is one in which you trust the people you work for, have pride in what you do, and enjoy the people you are working with. Ken Robinson describes it as ‘finding your tribe’, which can have a transformative effect on both your sense of identity and purpose.
    People who are like you offer validation and interaction, they affirm that you are not alone and enable collaborative ventures. They provide inspiration and provocation, allowing you to stand on the shoulders of others and raise the bar on your own level of achievement. Finally, they provide the ‘alchemy of synergy’ by modelling the three features of human intelligence, which are diversity, dynamism and distinction.
    Diversity describes the breadth of human intelligence from analytic to creative, from practical to emotional, just like the different members of a team. Dynamism is displayed by its interactivity, neurons in the brain fire and connect just like people, and finding new connections is how breakthroughs occur. And finally each of us, and the teams we form, are distinct, every person’s intelligence is unique, like a fingerprint, the key is to identify where our strengths lie and seek out the strengths of others to plug the gaps?
    Reasonable Hope of a Positive Future
    In ‘Drive’, Daniel H. Pink describes how there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Fundamentally, the use of rewards and punishments to control employees is an antiquated way of managing people. To maximise our enjoyment and productivity in 21st century work, he argues that we need to upgrade our thinking on motivation to include autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; mastery, the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and purpose, the yearning to what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. And it is purpose that provides the essential context for both autonomy and mastery.
    According to the research cited by Pink, the most deeply motivated people align their desires to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. As an emotional catalyst, wealth maximisation lacks the power to fully mobilise human energies, because it still begs the question: to what end. Satisfaction depends upon not merely having goals, but on having the right goals: goals that are greater than one’s own self-interest. The alternative is worker disengagement and the poor productivity, which may be one of the reasons why we currently have such poor productivity in the UK.
    Furthermore, neuroscience is now discovering that when people have a sense of purpose, especially a sense of common purpose, their brain chemistry changes. From our perception of pain, to our ability to handle difficult and challenging environments, and even our health and well-being.
    For all these reasons, each of us needs to think about how we can create a purpose and an environment that stimulates us and the people we work with. How can we all be ourselves, more, with skill?

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    Four Fatal Flaws of Poor Leadership

    failure-chalkboard-message-thumbWe can learn a great deal from good leadership but we can also learn from poor leadership. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced some really great leaders, but I’ve also suffered my fair share of real duffers. In a world that increasingly asks us to embrace change and inspire innovation I’ve nailed down my top four fatal flaws of poor leadership, and on the flip slide what good leaders can do to avoid them. They are: avoiding failure (at all costs), blaming others, denying failure and failing to decide.

    Avoiding Failure (at all costs)

    By and large, managers get promoted by showing they’re in control. So even if poor managers recognise that we tend to learn best from our mistakes and that failure is an excellent way to acquire new knowledge, they still do everything possible to avoid it. The way that the good managers resolve this conundrum is to systematically extract value from failure so that it can be evaluated and improved upon. It boils down to two key lessons:

    1. Study projects that do not work out and gather as many insights as possible from them. When something doesn’t go as planned, it’s an opportunity to challenge your assumptions and adjust accordingly.
    2. Record your insights and share them across your team or organisation. It can be a good idea to bring senior leaders together on a regular basis to talk about their failures, with a clear emphasis on learning.

    You could even try celebrating failure! Several firms already do this: NASA has a Lean Forward, Fail Smart Award; and the Tata Group has a Dare to Try Award.

    Blaming Others

    An associated tendency among poor leaders is to shift the blame when things go wrong. The danger here is that blame blocks learning. In the first place, blame stops further investigation. Second, direct reports will only be open and honest about their own failure if they trust their leaders to be fair, honest and diligent themselves. The risk is a circular firing squad, with everyone pointing the finger at someone else.

    An additional problem is that blame and disciplinary action are often seen as a way of instilling greater diligence and motivation, under the banner of: “you can’t let people get away with it.” Yet in hospitals high rates of disciplinary action have been found to reduce the reporting of errors, which in turn leads to an increase in actual errors because there is no opportunity to learn from them.

    Denying Failure

    Both of these flaws are perhaps not surprising given that failure denial is deeply embedded in our cultures and personalities. When confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs. We simply invent new reasons, new justifications and new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the new evidence altogether. This protects our self-esteem and helps us live with ourselves.

    In ‘When Prophecy Fails’ Leon Festinger related the story of how he and a colleague infiltrated the cult of Dorothy Martin, based in the suburbs of Michigan USA, who predicted the world would end on 21 December 1954. When it didn’t happen, contrary to Festinger’s expectations, cult members became even more fervent in their belief, believing that they had saved the world. They changed their interpretation to fit the new facts. Festinger called it ‘cognitive dissonance’.

    Failing to Decide

    As Napoleon observed, ‘Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.’ But if the risk of choosing incorrectly is failure you can understand why poor managers defer, delay and avoid decisions. The remedy is to be thorough and to seek feedback. It’s not fool proof, but nothing is and that’s the point.

    1. Gather as much data as you can, but beware the law of diminishing returns: data will always be incomplete.
    2. Check the factual accuracy of information.
    3. Check your own and other’s reasoning, is it logical and consistent?
    4. Is it free of incorrect assumptions, wishful thinking, errors in calculation and underestimation of risk?
    5. Seek feedback – ask others to critique your approach and solution
    6. Don’t be afraid to use your intuition (tacit knowledge) to make sense of the situation.
    7. Always carry out a post-decision review to identify errors in your decision making process.

    It’s also worth remembering that delaying a decision or not making a decision are decisions in their own right.

    The common thread running through these flaws is ‘avoidance’: if I don’t decide and don’t act I can avoid risk; and if all else fails I can deny that I failed, or blame someone else. It is a status quo mentality utterly unsuited to an environment where change is ever present and innovation is key. In this context, playing safe is the riskiest thing a leader can do. To paraphrase William O’Brien, it is better to have tried and failed, and learned from it, than never to have tried at all.

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    Leadership Lessons of Field Marshal Slim

    Field Marshal Slim

    I am a strong believer that, human nature being what it is, there is little new under the leadership and management sun. So in our September 2016 blog, I shared with you a selection of the leadership lessons from my naval hero Lord Nelson. This time, in the interests of balance, I thought it only fair that I share some leadership lessons from my army hero, Field Marshal Viscount Slim. He’s not a household name like Nelson, or even as well-known as his contemporary Montgomery, but he did write one of the best memoirs of a serving general ‘Defeat into Victory’, which covers his time in Burma during the Second World War.

    He was promoted in March 1942 to command Burma Corps and subsequently commanded the longest retreat in British military history, over 900 miles. Yet he managed to turn a disorderly panic into a controlled military withdrawal and was consequently promoted again, taking over Eastern Army (later renamed 14th Army) in October 1943. On taking command he found himself confronted by three major problems: supply, health and morale.

    Supply was a problem of weather, terrain and distance. He tackled it by giving a trusted subordinate, Maj Gen AJH Snelling, the men he wanted and a ‘free hand’ to carry out his plans. A great example of what we would now call empowerment. He tackled the health issue, with the practical application of the latest medical research; forward treatment of the sick and wounded, to deter soldiers from feigning sickness in the hope of being sent back to the comparative comfort of India; air evacuation of serious casualties, to reassure soldiers that they would be treated as quickly as possible; and discipline, he sacked three commanding officers for failing to enforce the taking of malaria tablets, which were rumoured to cause sterility. As he observed, ‘by then the rest had got my meaning.’

    But it is his approach to poor morale that I wish to focus on. The 14th Army was suffering from a record of defeat against the Japanese; lack of elementary amenities; the discomfort of life in the jungle; and feelings of isolation and homesickness (it is no coincidence that they are known to history as the ‘Forgotten Army’). In response, Slim gave great thought to what he felt were the foundations of morale. He decided they were three-fold: material, intellectual and spiritual.

    From a material perspective he felt strongly that a soldier must feel that he will get a fair deal from his commanders and from the army generally. That he must, as far as humanly possible, be given the best weapons and equipment for his task, and that his living and working conditions must be made as good as they can be.

    Intellectually, a soldier must be convinced that the object can be attained, that it is not out of reach. That he must see, too, that the organisation to which he belongs is an efficient one. He must also have confidence in his leaders and know that whatever dangers and hardships he is called upon to suffer, his life will not be lightly flung away.

    Spiritually, there must be a great and noble object. Its achievement must be vital. The method of achievement must be active and aggressive, and the soldier must feel that what he is and what he does matters directly towards the attainment of the object.

    But he did not stop there, this was not a philosophical exercise in leadership theory, he also thought about how he might put his ideas into practice.

    His approach to the material foundation was to begin by being honest. He admitted to the shortages, but he told his soldiers why that was so: because the German Army was better equipped than the Japanese and the strategic priority was Europe. Second, he stressed that each Commander would do his utmost to rectify the shortages, otherwise they would improvise or simply have to do without. But he emphasised that no one would be asked to do something unless they had the minimum level of equipment required. Furthermore, he instituted half rations for everyone, irrespective of rank, including himself and his staff, and stipulated that there was to be no distinction between race or caste with regard to treatment. This was significant because 14th Army was a multicultural force comprising soldiers and auxiliaries from Britain and the Commonwealth, including substantial numbers of Indians and Africans. A fact that is too often forgotten.

    From an intellectual perspective he began by emphasising the small wins, beginning with a significant Australian victory. He also ensured that fighting patrols and minor operations were carried out with overwhelming strength to ensure success. As well as improvements in supply he emphasised the importance of sharing information throughout his command, and began a news journal called Seac, which was issued to all troops. Reinforcement camps were also improved, to allow genuine recuperation, but at the same time discipline was enforced, the soldiers were not to be allowed to develop bad habits before returning to the frontline. He also ensured that officers were carefully selected for command. Those found not up to it were sacked.

    Spiritually he adopted a direct approach, visiting as many units as possible and speaking to groups of men. He asked all his officers to do the same and to talk ‘the same stuff with the same object’. As he himself said, “…one did not need to be a great orator to be effective.  Two things only were necessary: first to know what you were talking about and second, and most important, to believe it yourself… I found that if one kept the bulk of one’s talk to the material things the men were interested in, food, pay, leave, beer, mail, and the progress of operations, it was safe to end on a higher note – the spiritual foundations – and I always did.”

    As I said, human nature being what it is, there isn’t much new under the sun and there is plenty still to learn from Slim and all great leaders. The context and the times may have changed, but human nature hasn’t. Interestingly, after the War Slim was asked to share his experiences with business and for a time he offered his services as a high-powered management consultant.

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    Network Leadership – How To Use Networks To Get Things Done

    Network-diagramWe live in a networked world in which issues and problems, from global warming to terrorism and inequality, flow through webs of connection causing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). In this environment, people are beginning to question whether traditional leaders are up to the job. Equally, we are seeing the growing power of networks and the capacity they provide for people, resources, and ideas to self-organize. This has led others to question whether traditional forms of hierarchical leadership are still appropriate or whether a more contemporary understanding of leadership is needed, one which sees leadership as a shared process, which harnesses the power of social networks.

    My own view is that network leadership is not a new model of leadership, but rather a lens through which to view leadership. In the same way that hierarchies and org charts have provided a particular way of seeing organisations (often positional, directive and top-down), applying the lens of social networks to leadership provides a new paradigm, or way of seeing the world and organisations, which is facilitative, emergent and lateral, even bottom-up. In this new environment, leaders must do more than set strategic direction, inspire others, and drive execution. They also need to establish strong network performance by building, aligning, and enabling broad networks both within and beyond their organisation.

    The social network paradigm can be used to understand both organisations and communities. In organisations, networks develop largely within work groups due to proximity, homophily (the tendency to associate with people like us) and other natural human inclinations. However, some of the most important ties cut across groups: traversing teams, functions and departments. In this context an understanding of social networks can help identify cliques, silos and gaps in connectivity, which, when dealt with effectively, can improve productivity, smooth channels of communication, and spur change and innovation (see my blog of June 2015 on Social Network Analysis).

    Conversely, in community settings where there is no formal organisational structure, the paradigm can be used to identify, map and build more robust connections between community leaders and groups. Allowing public servants, community activists, and leaders in the third sector to uncover the value in their communities and connect those who have to those who need.

    In both cases formal designated leaders and leaders who emerge from within the network play important roles, but network leadership, unlike conventional top-down leadership, is more about enabling than directing. It is more about influence than control; more indirect than direct; and requires leaders to create a work environment based on autonomy, empowerment, trust, sharing, and collaboration. It is leadership understood first and foremost as a social process that creates direction, alignment and commitment without recourse to positional authority. On that basis I would offer four strategies to help you lead and get things done in a networked world.

    Lead with Understanding. Leading without authority is all about your ability to positively influence the people around you, so start by making sense of things for them. Become the go to person for answers and insights. Take time to understand the dynamic web of connections that have an impact on your collective work; identify the patterns of relationships in your personal network and the broader organisational network that will foster strategic success and those that will inhibit or undermine it; and then communicate this knowledge to your colleagues.

    Lead with Questions. If in doubt ask questions, never be afraid to speak up if you don’t understand or need clarification, but also use questions to lead. You may not be the one ‘in charge’ but you can always lead with great questions. Try out a few of these and see how they can change the course of an entire conversation or meeting:
    • What if…?
    • Have we considered…?
    • Can you help me understand what you mean when you say…?
    • What have we possibly overlooked?
    • Who else should we invite to be part of this?
    • Is the issue we’re talking about here the real issue?
    • What must be done first?
    • Can we describe what success looks like for this project?
    • What can I do to help?

    Lead with Bravery. Step up, speak up and embrace responsibility even if you are faking it at first. It is unlikely that people will follow you and trust your ideas if you seem unsure of yourself or unwilling to accept responsibility? So offer to participate in existing projects or take on new projects; dream up a new initiative; or improve an existing system. And always act with humility. If you mess up, then own up. Describe what you learned from the experience and then try again.

    Lead with Enthusiasm. Emotions are contagious. We are drawn to passionate people on a mission that we believe in. Give people a reason to follow you. Even if you’re not in charge, you can always take responsibility for raising the energy in the group and rallying people around a shared purpose or mission.

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    MBTA ‘Management by Talking About…’

    Graphic_02For the first blog of the New Year I’d like to reinvigorate an old idea. MBWA (Management by Walking Around) is rather taken for granted these days, as is often the case when a good idea becomes cliché. So to reinvigorate the importance of talking with your staff, I’d like to introduce MBTA, ‘Management by Talking About…’. Given that time is precious the emphasis here is on purposeful conversation and I want to offer four valuable conversations to have with your staff, rather than just chatting about the weekend football scores or last night’s TV.
    When it comes to the importance of purposeful conversation I think Colonel Zinoviev Konstantin Provalov summed it very well. While commanding the Soviet Union’s 383rd ‘Miners’ Rifle Division at the beginning of the Second World War, he believed that:
    ‘Authority is gained through the sum of daily conversations. One has to speak to soldiers. A soldier must know his task and understand it. Authority isn’t cheap; it is hard won. Everyone wants to live – including heroes. But knowing that soldiers trust me, I know they will fulfil all my orders and risk their lives.’
    Not a household name in Europe and America I admit, but he was awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” in the early battles of 1941 and the quote has remained with me ever since I first read it, and was brought to mind recently while reading Richard Sennett’s’ excellent book ‘Together’. Sennett writes about ‘earned authority’ as one side of a ‘social triangle’ (the other sides being trust and cooperation), which he identifies as the key ingredient in successful organisations and communities.
    Sennett takes authority to be power endowed with legitimacy, with legitimacy defined as voluntary obedience. In war this means that soldiers will follow orders to fight knowing that it may lead to their death. This is an extreme example, and in civil society legitimacy is better framed in terms of laws people obey just because they seem right. In organisations, therefore, the leadership test for legitimacy, and thereby authority, is: will your subordinates obey you even though they might get away with disobeying?
    Like Provalov, Sennett argues that how a leader earns that legitimacy usually has more to do with small behaviours and exchanges than with any formal right or entitlement to rule. Earned authority concerns more than formal position or technical competence, it involves open dialogue with subordinates rather than rigid dictation to them. In other words, for authority to be legitimate, people who are asked to obey have to feel like they have a voice, that if they speak up, they will be heard. So how should you encourage them to speak up, what should you talk about? Here are a four suggestions for purposeful conversations.

    1. Ask employees for their feedback. Most companies ask customers for feedback about their products and services, but only a handful ask their employees the same questions. This is a missed opportunity. So in addition to asking your customers questions like “Was your problem solved?” and “Are we easy to work with?” ask your employees “Did you solve the problem?” and “Was it easy to access the tools and resources you needed to do it?”


    1. Make delegation easier – use conversations to establish trust. Delegating tasks to employees and then trusting them to make decisions for themselves can be difficult. It is easier to delegate to those you trust. You can build that trust by having conversations with your employees, observing them doing their daily jobs, and providing feedback. That way, when it comes time to delegate a task, you’ll better understand your employees’ strengths and weaknesses and know who is ready to take on more responsibility and who needs more experience or coaching.


    1. Make People on Your Team Feel Like They Belong. It is well known that fostering a sense of belonging helps reduce stress levels, and consequently improves physical health, emotional well-being, and performance. So build that sense of belonging by soliciting people’s input. Ask their opinion, and follow up with questions so they truly felt heard. Tell stories to show your own vulnerability and share your mistakes and successes. This will also help you connect emotionally.


    1. Determine whether a direct report is ready to be a manager? Measure their potential by gauging their interest in managing. Ask them what they believe management entails and what their approach would be in situations you are facing or have faced. Inquire about any experience they’ve had outside of work that could provide useful preparation. Have they been in charge of an athletic team or a group of volunteers? Seek out the opinions of their co-workers, who will have a unique perspective on whether the person is up to the task.

    It may also be worth considering how widespread such conversations are in your organisation. How might other leaders do a better job of managing by having purposeful conversations? Why not have a wander around and find out.

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