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.

Put your phone down for a minute and read this please

December 13, 2014

Yes, I’m talking to you, sitting over there in the corner playing Candy Crush Saga.  Don’t think you haven’t been spotted.

I do feel sorry for Nigel Mills.  Sort of.

I’m willing to bet that the majority of readers of this newsletter have, at some time if not regularly, been bored in a meeting and decided to check their emails.  I would even go as far as to say that a few of you have played games when stuck in a meeting.

One of the problems of the modern world of work is that there are just too many meetings, and they go on far too long.  I was in a meeting this week and the convenor, only half joking, suggested that it would be over and done with a lot more quickly if he removed the chairs.  An idea I’ve heard suggested before and not a bad one.  

We’re obsessed with meetings, and they are usually not efficient.  Think about it.  Eight people in an hour long meeting.  That’s a working day right there, but they are not all working.  OK, there is a value in a group of people sharing ideas and bouncing off each other, but most meetings are not like that.  Most meetings are a series of one to one conversations where people go round the table reporting to the chair on something or other.  Do the rest of the participants really need to be there or can those reports be shared in some other way?  

Yet it’s more than just boredom that drives some people to their mobile phones.

There are many who express their sense of being ignored or undervalued by passive withdrawal, by which I mean they deliberately and obviously detach themselves from the group.  

I’m not saying that Nigel Mills falls into this category.  Maybe he really was bored during the committee session.  Nonetheless, to explain his behaviour as the result of boredom would certainly be the politicians way of handling it.

There can’t be many who would deny that they might find sitting through a tedious hearing as boring, so he’d attract the “he’s only human just like the rest of us” vote. It’s a much better claim to make than “Nobody was interested in what I had to say so I decided to draw attention to myself by playing with my phone”.  That response is only going to result in 60 million citizens clamouring for his resignation as yet another immoral, egotistical MP.

Whatever the real reason, he wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last because many, many meetings are unnecessary wastes of time.

But Candy Crush Saga?  Really?

There are only two types of people in the world.

March 25, 2014

As we all know, there are only two types of people in the world… depending on whatever it is we are talking about.

Actually that’s not true.  In the world of mathematics there are 10 types of people:  those that understand binary maths and those that don’t.

In the world of work there are two types of leader: those that change things and those that keep things as they are.

Leaders who change things are needed when there’s a big problem.  They go in and try to fix the big problem.  Then when they’ve fixed it (or failed to fix it) they leave.  If they have failed to fix it the owners will either appoint someone else to fix the problem, or the organisation will have gone out of existence. When they have fixed the problem they will go and look for another problem to fix elsewhere because they know that they will become bored staying in a place where there’s nothing to fix.

What’s important is that these leaders shouldn’t stay for too long after they have fixed the problem (unless there are other significant problems they can turn their attention to), because if there isn’t another problem for them to fix they’ll probably try to fix stuff that doesn’t need fixing, and then it will break, but because they think they’re fixing something they won’t see the need to fix what they have broken and then the organisation will either go out of existence or they will be fired for being in charge when the thing broke.

If you see what I mean.

Leaders who don’t change things are needed when there aren’t any big problems.  They are very good at keeping things ticking over well.  That’s not to say they are passive people.  They are not.  They are very good at understand the organisation and at spotting when changes in the environment are occurring.  Really good “hand on the tiller” leaders, as I call them, bring in change people (not necessarily leaders) when stuff looks like it might be breaking, so that it gets fixed before it breaks.  When something breaks under a “hand on the tiller” leader the owners blame that leader for breaking the thing, and get rid of them.  Then they have to go and find a change leader to fix whatever it is that has broken.

Because the world of work and industry is changing so rapidly everyone needs to be comfortable with change, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a change leader.  Organisations also need stability and it is the quality of staying calm, not panicking, being able to keep the ship on an even keel through changing times that is why “hand on the tiller” leaders are also important.

So which of the two types of people are you?  Are you the sort of person that fixes things when they have gone wrong (or, potentially when they haven’t gone wrong), or are you the sort of person that keeps the ship on a steady course (or, potentially misses the signs of change that require the introduction of a person who can help you to navigate through choppy seas)?

On Delegation

February 21, 2014

A recent session with an executive coaching client brought up an interesting isight I thought I’d share.

Our conversation revolved around how my client delegates work to his team. Why was it an issue? My client considers himself to be a good delegator, a leader who is keen to develop his team by passing work their way.  So why did he feel busier than ever?

We talked about what he meant by delegation and the tasks he delegated.  It was my client who came up with an elegant way of describing what he was doing and what he should be doing.

What he identified was that he was busy delegating solutions, but not delegating problems.  The result:  he spent his time thinking about the problems and then passed on the tasks to solve those problems.

In so doing my client thought he was empowering his team when in fact he was having the opposite effect.  Delegating solutions takes away all the creative side of problem solving, leaving only the actions to execute.  Team members who are given only tasks to do will improve their execution of those tasks, but they get very little experience dealing with workplace challenges. True delegation requires a transfer of decision making authority.

It’s easy to assume that the failure to delegate is doing everything yourself but that’s not a fine enough distinction.  The failure to delegate is as much about what you delegate as whether you delegate, and what you delegate is not about how many tasks you pass on to team members, but the extent to which you trust the team to come up with effective solutions to your problems.

If you struggle with effective delegation, as opposed to distributing simple tasks around, there’s something you need to work on.

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

November 6, 2013

Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director, often remarks that the key to the success of Team GB cycling over recent years is what he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains”.  These almost unnoticed changes to the way the athletes train eat, rest, as well as the small tweaks to their bikes may not make a marked difference alone, but when combined with many other tiny improvements they do effect significant improvement.

Individually they may seem so marginal as not to warrant the effort required to put into them.  Is it really worthwhile removing a tyre and re-fitting it just because it could be set on the wheel slightly better?  Brailsford would say yes, absolutely. If  the combination of all these tiny improvements means the difference between gold and silver there is no doubt that it is worthwhile.

Are you always going to be the one on the left?

Are you always going to be the one on the left?

The principle is relevant to all areas including job search.  Indeed, especially job search because when going for a job there is only the gold medal.  There is nothing to celebrate when coming second in job applications. Either you get the job or you don’t.

There are many tiny things you can do to make a marginal improvement in your application process.  Here are a handful of ideas.

Networking is the key to increasing your chances of finding a new job because the opportunities to network are almost unlimited whereas the number of jobs advertised is.  So add another networking meeting or event to your weekly job search activity.

Have high quality personal business cards made.  Give them to people.

Be proactive in your relationships with recruiters.  Don’t sit and wait for the phone to ring.  Keep in contact with them but don’t pester them.  Seek their advice about how you can improve your performance in the job market.

At this time of year wear a poppy unless doing so compromises your personal ethics.  It is unlikely to offend anyone, but it will, in a small way, send a positive message about you as a person to the person who is interviewing you.

Phone the recruiter or HR person before applying for any clarification that will help you to construct a better application.

Phone the recruiter or HR person a day after submission to ensure they received it.  Making voice contact will raise you in their awareness and they will feel a tiny bit familiar with you when they see your application.  Obviously don’t pester them or it will have a negative effect.

Read, re-read, and then give your application to someone else who is good at grammar to read over your CV, cover letter and application form.  The third stage is really worthwhile.  You will miss a lot of errors because your brain has learned to ignore them.  Fresh eyes will almost always pick something up you have overlooked.

Plan your journey to the interview carefully and ensure you are early.  Not on time, early.  Be at the reception 5 – 10 minutes before the appointed time, no more.  That might mean sitting in a coffee shop or taking a walk around the block.  No problem, use the time to relax yourself.

Talking of relaxation, if you tend to get anxious learn some simple relaxation techniques.  Don’t be one of those people who always struggles with nerves in interviews.  You don’t have to be that person.  You can learn to control those nerves.

Take extra time with your grooming and think carefully about what you will wear on at the interview.  Make sure all your clothes are properly cleaned and pressed and men, ties go grubby at the knot after a while.  Wear a clean tie or buy a new one.  Polish your shoes. People often think that appearances shouldn’t matter, and maybe they’re right, appearances shouldn’t matter, but they do.  If you want the job, play along.

If you are rejected for the role seek useful feedback.  That means not simply asking “Is there any feedback?”  because that will most likely get you an answer along the lines of “other candidates were more suitable”.  You need to know what you must do to improve your performance next time, so ask for specific feedback:  “What were you looking for that I lacked?”, “What could I have done differently or better?”  “What advice would you give me if I want to succeed next time?”  You won’t always get useful information this way either, but it’s a better way to ask for feedback.

Of course you could look at all these and many other ways of doing things ever so slightly better, and decide that the effort required is not worth the bother, and if you do that you may keep winning the silver medal.

If you’d like to suggest any more tiny improvements people can make please post them up here.


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