Why the best leaders are sometimes the least talented

August 6, 2015

The BBC have made a series of short films, #CEOSecrets, in which they ask Business leaders a very simple question: “What is the advice you wish you’d had when you started out?”

The three most frequently given answers were

a) surround yourself with the right people,

b) network all the time, and

c) get on with it!

The third is certainly true, but a bit trite so I won’t comment on that.

If you’ve known me for a while you will know how important I think networking is.  People who are out of work often find it difficult to network if they haven’t been active networkers during their career,  because they haven’t accumulated much social capital, and this makes it difficult to ask for help. That’s why I always encourage clients to make time to network when they are in work instead of burying themselves completely in the new job.  Networking is part of working. It’s how we become effective at work and is not simply done for personal benefit. If you don’t network you’re not doing your job properly.

The first point also interests me very much.  Of the senior business leaders and business owners I have met, the smart ones are those who openly admit to not knowing everything and who have carefully recruited people with complementary skills to run the show for them.  One even happily talks about bringing in much cleverer people than himself. These people claim not to be smart, but actually they are the smartest. Maybe not in terms of IQ, but certainly in terms of EQ.  In fact I’d argue that emotional intelligence is far more important for a business leader than IQ.

Contrast those leaders with entrepreneurs and senior managers who are either so insecure that they recruit people who will make them look clever, or are such control freaks that they do everything themselves. Either way the organisation will suffer.

Is it easy to be a “smart” leader as I have described?  No, is the short answer.  It takes self-awareness, humility and confidence.

  • Self-awareness to understand where the gaps lie between the capability you have and the capability the organisation needs.
  • Humility to know that it’s impossible to build a substantially sized business on your own.
  • Confidence to know that by doing all this you are not going to be considered a talentless waste of space but instead a leader of talent.

Interestingly for me as a counsellor as well as career coach, humility and confidence grow out of self-awareness.  When people understand themselves to a level at which they can acknowledge and accept their weaknesses, humility follows, and then so does personal confidence. Not only that, but of course knowing your weaknesses is the first step on the journey of managing them.

All of which ties up with another of the pieces of advice given by the CEOs questioned by the BBC:  Learn from your mistakes.

The Greeks: What are they like?

July 4, 2015

I confess that the subject of the global economy is not something that keeps me awake at night. I realise this stuff is important but I don’t feel I’m in a position to do much about it, and so I’d sooner focus my attention on things where I can make a difference.

Inevitably that means worrying about individuals, not countries, or economic / political blocks.
And yet, this Greek business has got me thinking. What might be at the heart of the matter is something to do with national character. Now I’m always very wary of sweeping generalisations about peoples. That seems to me to be where racism starts. On the other hand, a shared culture and history must, to some extent, shape the attitudes of a nation. So what might there be to learn about Greek people that can help us to understand how that country is responding to the current economic crisis?

I opened my copy of the excellent “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands” by Morrison and Conaway. The book presents pen portraits of just about every nation and their people in order to make it easy to do business with those countries. As someone who works with individuals I was naturally interested in what it had to say about how people behave. Here are some points it made about Greek people:

  1. Personal relationships, especially family, are of great importance. If you want to influence a Greek person you are more likely to do so if you have established a strong trusting relationship with them. Therefore, information is processed from a subjective rather than an objective perspective so it is often difficult for them to change their view.
  2. Greek people like structure to provide rules and a moral framework because they are generally keen to avoid uncertainty. On the other hand, they tend to make decisions less on the basis of rules, but following on from the point about subjectivity above, the specific circumstances of the situation at hand.
  3. Greece is a patriarchal society where machismo counts for much.

Following the unfolding story of the Greek debt crisis and how the players are communicating, both within and outside Greece, it’s possible to see these characteristics shaping the discourse.  

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s referendum, commentators from outside Greece will no doubt base their analysis of the result by referencing their own framework of understanding of how the world is.

I’m going to try to understand it from the perspective of how Greek people understand the world to be.

It’s not about the money, money, money.

May 16, 2015

At a panel discussion on the banking industry I attended a few months ago, someone asked if it was possible to attract talent to senior positions without the promise of high, guaranteed bonuses.  A senior HR executive from one of the major corporate banks and an academic both answered, quite confidently,  that they thought it was.  Bonuses, they agreed, could be much less than they currently are and banks would still attract top talent.  The academic even said that talented people are not particularly motivated by money, but by the cut and thrust of deal-making.  They want to be in the thick of big M&A activity.  It’s a myth that the banks need to pay big bucks in order to stop top talent from joining other industries.

I asked why the banks didn’t bring their bonuses to a level that the rest of society would find reasonable. The answer was that none of the big players had the guts to try it.  In other words, they were frightened of losing talent not to other sectors but to each other.  If one bank blinks the talent will not be interested in joining and eventually what talent they have will disappear.  If so, then there’s no question that the only way to deal with the matter is at the industry, if not, governmental level.

It has been proved many times that a strategy based around providing the best possible work experience is a more effective way to retain talent than paying the most.  Indeed it was proved just last week by my friends at Goodman Masson, the finance industry recruiters.  Their staff turnover level is well below 20% in an industry where average turnover exceeds 30%. A four point approach won Goodman Masson the coveted Great Place to Work award for Best Workplace in the medium size business category, and those four points are 1) Giving employees the tools and infrastructure to do their job well, 2) Giving them opportunities to develop professionally, 3) Paying them well and correctly, and 4) Giving them an environment they won’t want to leave. (Click here for the full report).

Note that the third point does not talk about excessively high pay, but it does suggest that Goodman Masson aim to be competitive with pay. They recognise that while remuneration is an important factor in staff retention, it’s not sustainable as the only tool in the box, because all it takes is for a competitor to offer more for the strategy to fall flat on its face. It’s the rest of the package that’s really important because that’s what creates the culture required that stops people wanting to leave.  You will never build engagement by throwing money at your staff.  In fact the more you throw at them the more they understand that you don’t care about them, but that you are simply buying them.  People like to feel loved.

Retention comes from engagement and commitment to the company.  It’s about creating an environment with shared values and where people appreciate that the company cares about them.

Now it may well be the case that bankers are somehow different to everyone else and are only interested in money, but that’s not my experience.  In my experience some bankers are perfectly decent and lovely people, and some are something that rhymes with “bankers”.  In other words, they’re pretty much like anyone else.

Can banks change? That’s not looking likely given that they are still a very long way from understanding that a business can stand for something more in the world than profit.  Goodman Masson stands for caring about its people.  Their priority is not about constantly demanding improved results from their staff. As a result of this employee engagement is high and guess what – performance is constantly on the up.

Twenty-somethings and the World of Work

April 16, 2015
“Can you help my child to move their career forward?” is a question I’m often asked.  My first response is to ask whether it’s the child or the parent who is worried.  It’s usually the parent who, understandably, is concerned that their child should start to climb the career ladder and is able to live independently as soon as possible.

If you’re a parent of one of those twenty-somethings, here are a few thoughts that may help you to manage your concerns.

The first thing to say is that it takes time for some people to decide what they want to do and are best suited to.  Don’t worry if your son or daughter spends the first few years of their working life trying different jobs.  this will help them  to work out where their strengths and interests lie.  Are they better suited to working with the public, a close set of colleagues or largely alone?  Do they like to be moving about or sitting behind a desk?  Can they sell? (I always recommend people try at least one job where they have to sell – it’s excellent training for all areas of work). Do they like the cut and thrust of business, or are they better suited to something that is related to social values?

Think of those first few years as a set of extended paid internships and by the end of it they will know themselves pretty well.  I like to think that in the future there will be far fewer people coming to see me around the age of 40 having realised that they have been unhappy for the best part of twenty years because they entered a career without knowing if it really was right for them.

Secondly,  the world of work is probably very different compared with when you started out.  There’s much less long-term careering nowadays.  The workplace is changing so rapidly that skills needs come and go almost overnight.  I think you’re going to see many more people who enter the job market today end up with upwards of four or five different careers behind them.  By the time they end their working life there’s a chance that some of their early jobs will be as obscure and obsolete to their grandchildren as a lamplighter is to us.  In other words, they might look like they are drifting from one thing to another, but the reality is that this is how many people will work in the future.

Which brings me on to my next thought: I don’t think the current generation entering the workforce think about work in the same way as we and our parents did.  Many are still motivated to achieve in a professional sense.  They are concerned about being able to enjoy a good quality of life and they worry about whether they will ever be able to own a property.   Nonetheless, a career (and life more generally) for the next generation will not be about climbing a ladder, but about gathering a range of fulfilling and challenging experiences.

One final thought.  Your children are going to be a long time working.  Much longer than us.  They are going to live longer, and if they retire at 60 or 65 they’re going to struggle on a pension plan that will need to stretch for perhaps 40 years.  They know that they are probably still going to be fit enough to work into their 80’s and they know they will probably need to.  Is it any wonder they’re not all champing at the bit to get started on their career now? In a sense they are bringing their retirement forward.  Instead of going on cruises at the end of their working life, they’re going to irrigate African villages at the beginning of it.

In conclusion, don’t worry that your child appears not to be engaging in their career they way you might expect them to do.  They are probably looking it through a different lens.  Their world of work is very different to yours, and the way they are approaching it probably looks strange to you, but not to them.

Leadership: Talkers and Listeners.

March 17, 2015
It never fails to amaze me how how many bosses are such poor leaders.  The reason, I believe, is that those who are doing the promoting tend to value qualities such as determination, confidence and presentation skills amongst the best indicators of leadership potential, often resulting in the promotion of those most ambitious to climb the ladder.

Furthermore, while they may not realise it, decision makers are highly influenced by the candidate’s ability to “play the game” also known as “managing upwards”.  These people are good talkers able to tell a great story about success, and place themselves in the starring role.

In other words, leaders are often made into leaders not because they have the right skills for leadership, but because they impress, and it’s easy to confuse an impressive personality for leadership potential.

There comes a point, however, when true leadership qualities are required because if they are not present then the right things don’t happen, people leave and organisations begin to fail.

Let’s look at organisations.

For me there are three types of asset in a business: financial, capital and human.

Humans control the financial and capital assets, so I would argue that the best bosses are the ones that are good at managing people rather than those that are good at managing the financial or capital assets.  Interestingly, many organisations promote on the basis of technical achievements – a finance person may be promoted because they are good at making investment decisions, an operations specialist is promoted because they make sound decisions about organising the equipment or properties owned by the business.

Organisations often fail to realise that once promoted these people do less of what they are good at, and instead are expected to direct others who manage these other resources, yet the employer rarely consider whether the person also has the required people management skills.

Managing people is very much about listening because listening effectively builds trust. If I feel heard then I am more likely to put my faith in your judgement.  In other words, trust means a person will follow their leader.

If you want to be a successful leader, any leader, you need followers.  To get followers you need people to trust you and believe in your vision.  To get people to trust you, you need to show you understand them and you can only do that by listening carefully and empathically to them.

When looking for leaders I would argue for seeking out the good listeners before the good talkers.

Cote D’amour: The art of fitting in

February 5, 2015

Alfred Dreyfus was a brilliant student of warfare and military tactics. He was ambitious and dedicated and he was immensely patriotic.  

Against great competition he won a place at the prestigious École de Guerre where he was determined to pass out as the best in his class.  

He didn’t manage that.  He would have been third, an exceptional achievement under any circumstances, but for being marked down to a zero by one of his examiners.  The reason for this zero grade?  Not as simple as you may be thinking. Institutional anti-semitism almost certainly had a part to play, but it wasn’t the whole story.

Although he was intelligent and highly motivated, Dreyfus lacked one important quality:  Côte D’amour; what we might call likability or the ability to fit into a group. 

He lacked warmth as a person, could not do small talk, lacked empathy, had little sense of humour and possessed a dull, monotone voice.  As a result he was not deemed suitable by his superiors for the highest ranks in the armed forces because they felt he would not be liked by his colleagues or subordinates.  

Côte d’amour is important for everyone at work and it is definitely something that can be worked on and improved, but it’s not easy. Many don’t even realise that they need to work on it and it is rarely pointed out in appraisals, partly because it’s often hard to put your finger on why someone doesn’t fit in – it’s just a feeling you get about a person. 

If you’ve ever wondered why you haven’t managed to progress beyond a certain level in your career, or struggle to make a good impression at interviews, it may well be that you lack côte d’amour.


December 22, 2014

This is an article I wrote for my newsletter earlier in 2014 and was meaning to upload it to this blog.  When you read it you may understand why it has taken so long.

Shortly after unleashing my last newsletter article on unblocking, I saw a piece in the Evening Standard under the headline of “Just do it” all to do with procrastination. Immediately I ripped the page out of the newspaper and turned to the sports section, making made a mental note to read it later.

That was a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve just read the article and I’m pleased I did finally get round to doing so. Not because I thought it was particularly enlightening, in fact I found much of it contradictory and confusing, but because it’s given me a something to write about today.  (Yes, I’m still suffering from writers block).

Anyway, the gist of the piece was that procrastination is psychologically bad for us because it means storing up stress.  If we get things done and out of the way we relieve that stress.  However, a peculiar experiment conducted at Penn State University suggests that many of us are so keen to relieve this stress that we will actually put ourselves at risk in other ways to do so.

Here’s a link to a fuller explanation


but for those of you who already have too many tasks backed up and don’t want to add another, the gist of the experiment is that students were stood at one end of an alley along which at different distances were placed two laden buckets. Students were asked to pick up one of the buckets and drop it off at the end of the alley.  The majority picked up the first bucket even ‘though it meant carrying the object further than necessary. The conclusion is that people saw the overall task to be made up of two sub-tasks:  pick up a bucket and set it down at the end of the line.  By picking up the nearest bucket they were mentally ticking off one of the tasks thus relieving a level of stress, but increasing their chance of injury.

This phenomena of doing a task early has been dubbed pre-crastination and it may not be a good thing.  Some problems need noodling over otherwise they may not be done efficiently or well.  Rushing to complete a task may lead to a worse outcome than waiting until you are ready to do it.

The trick is to balance pre-crastination with procrastination.  If you are delaying a task know why, and if you are getting it done quickly know that it is the right thing to do and there are no risks involved.  Of course, this goes hand in hand with prioritisation, the topic of my last newsletter.  You can only procrastinate for so long, and similarly, if the task is not urgent then there is no need to pre-crastinate on it.

Thanks for reading this, if indeed you have got round to doing so. Oh hang on, if you’ve got this far you must have.  Hope you liked it.


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