January 16, 2013
So the world didn’t end on December 21, surprise, surprise. Here we are in 2013, all systems still intact. I have heard some speak of the Mayan December 21 end-of-all-things-prediction not so much an end of the world, but more of an end of one cycle and the beginning of another. An end of things-as-they-were. Let it be so. Endings can be good and healthy.
I don’t do New Years’ resolutions per se, but I have resolved in myself to focus this year on health, from its broadest perspective. I will endeavour to place attention on the health of those around me, the health of the organisations with which I work and the health of those within them. I will place, firstly, attention on my own health, because leadership is an inside job. We must be healthy ourselves. I view health as an holistic phenomenon: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and relational. This is not merely the absence of dis-ease, but a progressive and thoughtful movement towards greater freedom and happiness. This will come about, I believe, through greater consciousness: a journey, therefore, not a destination. Becoming more aware, in moments, of what is going on for me and others and when it feels unhealthy or unnatural, to seek to do something different. Striving to live this moment freshly and not relying on old default responses.
Often, I suspect, this will involve taking a Cynical approach, though not from the modern understanding of cynicism (disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions), but coming from the ancient Greek philosophy of striving to live a life that is in tune with what it means to be naturally human. It seems the time is right to adopt a Cynical approach to life; it emerged in ancient Greece as a way of offering the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty. Sound familiar? While I’m in the process of simplifying my life a little, I’m not about to dispose of all my worldly goods as the original Cynics did, sleep in bathtubs and wander the streets with my dogs on a piece of string, but I take inspiration from the attitude of happiness as being linked to living a life in tune with Nature. The healthy life. Challenging false judgements of what is valuable and worthwhile, questioning customs and conventions of how things are done. I cannot do this without extending consciousness. This is why I do the work I do. This is why clients work with us: they are seeking something different, something that challenges their status quo. Same old, same old (or a pretty repackaging of the “same-old”) won’t create the deep, systemic transformation they require.
Like the Cynics, I believe the world belongs equally to everyone, that opportunity for happiness and freedom is for everyone; not just for those in “power”, those they deem as worthy or those who believe that money = power. Genuine democracy, having a voice, having agency in one’s life, actively participating in making decisions which affect us. In life, in work, all over the place. This is a challenge to current convention. In my experience, the best customer service comes from people who are being authentic and human and have the freedom to do so. In my experience, the best leadership comes from those who take an interest in their own learning and encourage others to do the same. In my experience, the best and most humane workplaces happen when everyone is accepting of everyone else in their same-ness and their difference, living and letting live. It is also my experience that none of these things happen by chance or good luck. They come about with consciousness.
Some of what I believe goes against Nature and humanity is the (largely unconscious) acceptance of and acquiescence to systems which are unhealthy. It comes through in an attitude that humans are resources, that corporations are somehow “people”, that the reason for getting up in the morning is to make more profit (even at the expense of a rainforest, a community, an ecosystem or some other inconvenient obstacle). I know some may find this irksome, but there is nothing I’ve found in any of the teachings of any of the great historical sages, seers, or prophets that advocates or emphasises owning things for oneself at the expense of others. As far as I have understood, I’m not aware of anything written by, attributed to or uttered by the Buddha, the Christ, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Rumi or Lao Tse that delineates capital accumulation as the road to enlightenment and a better life. I know what you’re thinking: I’m some sort of dangerous liberal, commie, socialist, atheist, pinko abortion-loving anarchist out to destroy freedom and democracy. Or I’m one of those well-intentioned, but muddle-headed, hybrid-car-driving, tree-hugging vegans who still say, “Peace and love, man.” Nothing of the sort. I do, however, go along with Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding who write in “Co-ops help bring economics back to the people,” that “we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state.” Something has to give. Zizek has spoken about getting close to a zero-point; what he terms “soft apocalypse”. Our ecological, social and economic systems are near breaking point and if we wish to retain all the benefits of a humane society, something different is called for. A new game.
This new game must be, if it’s for the good of everyone, co-created by everyone. It’s no good getting a room full of good-hearted people in a room, asking them individually to put forward their plan for a better world and then vote for the most popular. This is the point. This is how we got here. We have to do this together. We have to make these decisions together. Furthermore, we have to do this togetherness thing by bringing the best of ourselves to the party. Patriarchal businesses who still operate out of the “Manager-Knows-Best” mindset perpetuate the disengagement and dissatisfaction in those who work there, no matter how benevolent they may attempt to be and no matter what they try to put in place to mitigate for them. Get out of the way and let people bring their whole selves to work. Give people a bit of credit. AND…..if we are to create a real sense of “WE”, it behoves us all to invest ourselves in growing greater consciousness and our ability to be with each other. My “why”, therefore, is to push for greater self-awareness and consciousness in the world. This will come about with self-discipline, continued learning and a genuine commitment to diversity and engaging others.
Here’s another challenge to current convention: I have no faith that a system of capitalism (conscious or otherwise) will lead to an age of enlightenment. A system operates with a set of rules which maintain its equilibrium. In other words, a system will strive to perpetuate itself. I struggle to see how a system of capital accumulation that operates to ensure its continuation can be for the greater good of Nature and humanity. Fraudulent banksters, tax cheats, self-interested lobbyists and an obscene corporate bonus culture all spring out of a system whose rules say, “This is how you play the game. It’s called capital accumulation.” The ones who pay the price are the ones who haven’t learnt how to play the game well enough. Time for us to play a different game, one that allows everyone to play and demands that the play is fair and equitable. We are not here to serve the economy, it should serve us. Becoming more conscious of what we do that colludes with an inhumane system is a first step in creating something new. Furthermore, becoming conscious of what I do that colludes with my own un-health and that of others and their businesses is a first step to creating something more life-giving.
They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can certainly roll it in glitter. Nowadays we don’t just buy a product, but we buy our redemption from being naughty consumerists because they donate $1 to a starving child in Africa or promise only to use FairTrade commodities. We are no longer just consuming, but we are fulfilling a series of ethical and moral duties, right? I’m not saying this is bad in itself; I am as deeply moved as the next person by images of poverty and injustice and want it to end. I can also understand why some might think I’m being cruel because as Oscar Wilde wrote, it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought. So for me to take a dim view of built-in philanthropy smacks of mean-ness because I really should just appreciate the good that some of these modern businesses do, shouldn’t I? Why not help a starving child? Why not, indeed? I would much prefer a world where starvation was impossible. My point is that the system which dresses itself up as the provider of charity is the same one that necessitates the need. Oscar Wilde recognised this in his day, too. The remedy is part of the disease. My vision is one where the ills of the world (including the modern workplace) are not merely alleviated, but that they are inconceivable. It is possible. Having centuries ago passed through the age of the aristocracy, we could not now conceive of contemporary serfdom. My view, therefore: capitalism will not save the world, conscious or otherwise. Consciousness will, though. Watch and listen to Zizek.
This is the same thinking out of which spring my beliefs that meaning, mastery and autonomy are keys to generating satisfaction and engagement, that Theory Y is much more than a lovely sounding “theory”, that cooperation is far more effective and humane than competition, that learning how to reverse roles with people is good for them and us, that people are not their behaviours and that performance is a systems issue, not an HR one. We know some things that will make work work better for everyone. We need to be conscious of how we perpetuate the old ways and to be conscious of being different.
If December 21 was indeed the end of things-as-they-were, I believe that consciousness will be the foundation of the new thing. Herein lies our work. It is not good enough to rail against unfair or inhumane systems. While, as a systems thinker, I perceive the interconnectedness of us all, I am also cognisant of the fact that the human family is composed of a number of individual elements. These are each of us. We can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others by growing self-awareness and becoming more conscious of our place in the web of life, how we impact it and how it impacts on us. Who are we? What drives us? What gives us joy? How can we nurture mutually satisfying relationships with others? What are my Achilles’ heels and how can I find out? Who will help me uncover that stuff about me that I am blind to? Growing consciousness, extending self-awareness; these are not easy things, these are not necessarily painless things. They are, however, indispensable if we want a better world. We have a part to play. I have a part to play. Hence my focus on health.
Being a great leader, a great colleague, a great customer service representative, a great whatever starts with consciousness. They are all inside jobs. It is not accidental. It requires a conscious choice to develop greater self-knowing, to be honest and gutsy in our conscious self-reflection and taking conscious steps to learning and developing. If, as Zizek says, the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face, we have a lot of work to do. Putting out fire with gasoline? Or, together, setting the conditions so that the fire couldn’t start in the first place?
January 27, 2012
W. Edwards Deming is quoted as saying, “Experience by itself teaches nothing.” In a fast-paced world where we are bombarded with more and more stimuli and we are called upon to carry out multiple tasks, this is truer now than ever before. Our lives are filled with more and varied experiences which, by themselves, leave us with nothing more than information. Sometimes we get to the end of our very busy days and the most we have made of it was, “I was run off my feet all day,” and we let go the opportunity to reflect on what it all meant to us and our lives. Are we doing what makes us happy? Are we spending our lives doing something meaningful to us? Are our lives enriched by the myriad of interactions and relationships we hold? Are we making a difference? If we were asked, we could probably recall the things that happen to us daily, but it is not sufficient to merely recollect if these experiences are to have enormous value to us. In our working lives, which are becoming more unpredictable and and revolve less around the carrying out of rote routine tasks, we are exposed to a veritable banquet of new experiences and interactions. Within these experiences lie the building blocks of our transformation.
To build on a previous article, while we certainly need to be open to new information and experiences, we need to do something purposeful with them. Often in my work, I have cause to reflect on the value of reflection. Just as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, so do life’s little episodes. There is a beginning phase, called the ‘warm up’, the middle phase, where the action occurs, and then there is the last phase, in which meaning is made of the experiences in the action phase. This last phase is where the reflection happens. Reflection is essential in order for the significance of the action to be realised. All too often, we get to the end of the action phase and we hurriedly move on to the next thing. It’s all do, do, do.
I often liken it to digesting. If it weren’t for our digestive system, we would find ourselves either unable to take in any more food or passing food straight through our bodies without the benefit of extracting the nutrients that we need to build and grow. A banquet table filled with food has no significance to us until we take the food into our bodies and let our enzymes go to work. Only when this has occurred and our cells are making use of the nutrients is the food of any real use to us. Experience is much the same; only when we have digested it and made conscious meaning of it does it provide us with sustenance and the building blocks for growth.
One of the most skilled experiential trainers I have ever had the privilege to work with, John Bergman, once said, “I provide people with experiences. I know they’ve had one because I can watch them having it. What I don’t know is what they’ve learnt from it. The reflection afterwards is the most important bit.” Thankfully, I read more people writing about the importance of transfer of learning in the workplace. Whether you are running a training course, carrying out some one-to-one coaching, facilitating a business simulation with a bunch of senior execs or teaching people to apply social media in their work, it behoves you to facilitate and guide some reflection on what you have been asking people to learn. Real learning is integrated into who we are as people. Otherwise, it’s not learnt. Unless we digest and make meaning of something new, it will pass right through us. It’s not an added extra; it’s an integral part of the learning process.
In setting up a learning programme with a new client, I have sometimes been asked, “What will the ‘take home’ be?” If I’m honest, I would say, “I don’t know.” I could tell you what my agenda will be. I could tell you what exercises I will get people to do. I could tell you what I’d like people to learn. I could tell you that I have a great experiential process that will show sales staff the way to providing better customer experiences. However, I think we are well past the time when we can assume that just because someone has sat in a training room that they will have learnt what the trainer or their boss or the HR Manager wants them to learn. Certainly, businesses require people to learn things that will assist them to excel at their jobs and, certainly, businesses want this elusive thing called ROI and certainly, businesses want to spend their L&D budgets on something purposeful that will provide benefits to the people and the business. That said, spending L&D money is no guarantee of learning or development unless the learning programme (whether that’s a series of coaching sessions or an e-learning programme or leadership development programme) has reflection and integration built in to the programme. So what’s the take home? That can depend entirely on how much reflection and integration I ask of people in the session. If there is none, I’m leaving the ‘take home’ to chance; perhaps some of the people are already good at reflecting and meaning-making, perhaps some of them are not.
Developing the role of Astute Reflector, however, is not only applicable in the context of formal learning; far from it. More of what we need to absorb and integrate comes from our daily experiences and interactions at work than from ‘formal’ learning situations. Bringing the learning into work is more than a zeitgeist catch-phrase; it’s about how you view everything that you do, everything that happens to you, every conversation you have. Is your working day just a series of things to ‘get through’ or are you making the most of your daily experiences, pleasant and not so pleasant, as learning fodder? Do you get to the end of a busy week with a sense of indigestion because you haven’t processed and made meaning of the week’s events? We need to shift our thinking so we see that everything that goes on at work is about learning. There are some compelling benefits that can come to us from developing the role of Astute Reflector in our lives.
We become better at learning from mistakes. When our Astute Reflector role is well-developed, we regularly stop and debrief, either by ourselves or with others, to examine what went well and what didn’t go so well. Once we have made this conscious, the chances of us repeating our mistakes begin to fall dramatically.
We distill the ingredients for success. Rather than leaving good performance to chance, becoming conscious of what works well also shows us the way to consistent excellence. This isn’t about finding the one or two things that work well and sticking to them, for ongoing reflection is the thing. However, we can improve our chances of future success if we have actually stopped to reflect.
We see patterns that were previously hidden. When we reflect, we connect the dots with other experiences in our lives. This begins to show up patterns. If you are a systems thinker, you will hold that everything is connected to everything else. Reflection illuminates those connections, from where we become more conscious of values, habits and attitudes which serve us well and those which don’t.
In his excellent article on mastering the art of self-reflection, Adam Chalker lists three kinds of reflection: reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action and critical self-reflection. I believe that all three of these are indispensable abilities of the role of Astute Reflector.
If we inculcate the practice of reflection-on-action, we habituate ourselves to asking questions such as:
- What was I trying to achieve?
- What did my actions and responses create: in myself, in others, in the wider system?
- What did I do well? What did I do too much of (that got in the way of excellence)? What did I do too little of?
- What does that remind me of (from the past)?
Growing the ability to reflect-in-action means that we become more able to notice ourselves while we are doing something and, if necessary, shift our attitudes or actions. It’s a bit like reading a map while we are on a journey, checking to see if we are heading where we want to go. If we wish to develop this habit, we can ask ourselves:
- What am I actually doing right now?
- How are people responding to me?
- How am I feeling right now?
- Am I heading in the right direction? If not, what change of course is required?
I’ve written before on the need to develop more critical self-reflection and self-awareness. This is taking a cold, hard look at ourselves and asking the challenging questions:
- What lies do I tell myself?
- What am I pretending not to see about myself?
- Am I doing something which truly brings meaning and joy to my life?
- How do I enact power? Is it personal potency or power over others?
- Do I like who I am?
Once again, these are not discretionary matters to consider only if we have the luxury of time; the role of Astute Reflector is core to the world of work today. Charles Darwin knew about the value of learning when he said, “It’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.” Making it a habit to ask, “So what?” expands our awareness, helps us to fine tune our abilities and increases our sense of potency in the world. Best of all, it costs nothing to grow the role of Astute Reflector and maximise your day-to-day experiences. Cost of training programme that teaches you nothing new: $2000. Becoming more reflective and conscious: priceless.
November 1, 2011
I recently saw an #occupy placard which read, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this s**t.” I smiled in recognition and instantly made a connection to the feeling I get when I read yet another article about the dearth of good “leadership” in our institutions and how we need to invest more in leader development. At the same time, I go into a huff when I read articles online that seem to intimate that there is no point in trying to teach leadership because it is not teachable. My huff, however, is not a sour grapes huff, it’s a passionate educator’s huff.
I will side with those who assert that leadership training as it has been delivered is well past its sell-by date, but please let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. It is true that a lot of what our institutions require of leaders cannot be learnt in a training room, however I will also assert that there are still aspects of leadership capability that can be grown within the dynamic of a learning group. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some of the capabilities a leader requires are best learnt in the context of a learning group. In this category, I would include capabilities (i.e. the doing of, not the knowing about) related to communicating or managing one’s emotions in response to others. It is one of the paradoxes of learning that nobody can learn for us and that we do it out of our own individual efforts, but that we learn best when with others in a group.
There is a revolution required in leader learning and development and it must come on several fronts. Firstly, it must come in the mindset that approaches it. What happens over the whole timeline of a leader’s development and what we consider as important elements of that timeline must shift; a peer group, such as a Vistage group, is just as much a part of a leader’s development, as is a 360 review or executive retreat. To focus more specifically on what happens in the ‘training room’, there must also be a revolution in both content and process. No more chalk and talk. No more using powerpoint as a drunk uses a lamp-post (for support, instead of illumination). No more long-winded presenters who continually announce that “in a moment we’ll get going with the group exercise” only to run out of time in the last 10 minutes and say “shall we just have a quick group Q and A”. As Donald Clark says in this presentation, the right tools for the right job: for example, working on the attitudinal level requires an experiential tool. He identifies simulation in this category of tool; I would also include sociodrama and Morenian action methods. (I would, though, wouldn’t I?)
The content revolution in the ‘training’ room must be in purposefulness, practicality and relevance. Is what goes on there meaningful to the participants? More importantly, are they facilitated to make meaning of what happens in the room? Is it practical and applicable to their real lives? Is it relevant to their actual concerns and does it take account of what they already know, what they need to develop in order to work with greater flexibility and effectiveness and perhaps most importantly, what they want to develop as human beings? Leader learning must bring work into the learning and the learning into work. What purport to be ‘leadership development programmes’ are flawed if they operate as if the only learning that can occur is in the ‘training’ room, but it is equally flawed to think that deep learning cannot happen in this space as well.
On the process side, I struggle to comprehend that with the amount we now know from neuroscience about what makes learning happen, that there are 1) people still out there purporting to deliver leadership development when in fact they are delivering information sessions ABOUT leadership and leader capability and that 2) there are organisations still paying for it in the belief that it will create change.
A lot of what is currently on offer in the realm of ‘leadership development’ is usually half-day (or sometimes even more cheekily, two-day) events with pre-planned agenda which tell you what you will have learnt by when. How do they know what you will learn? Are they time travelling mind-readers? There is no promise that you will be different as a person, but then again, consultants and trainers shy away from such claims because: 1) they don’t want to scare potential clients away with the idea that people will actually change as human beings (heaven forfend); 2) they often (in my experience) do not possess much understanding, training and experience of applying truly transformational deep learning approaches that generate such profound changes in people-they are more often successful entrepreneurs, economists or managers themselves who believe that anyone can teach, which is not the case; and 3) they are terrified that if they use experiential processes in which people meet themselves and others in any meaningful way, they won’t know how to manage the unpredictable interactions this implies. This last one is entirely reasonable; if you haven’t trained (and done the requisite personal development yourself) in processes which call up emotions, why on earth would you invite people to actively participate. I recently attended something which was billed as an ‘interactive workshop’, but was, in fact, the presenter ‘interacting’ with us via his powerpoint and asking a bunch of rhetorical questions. At least, I think they were rhetorical because he got no response from any of the ‘participants’.
I realise that last bit will have upset some people, and I make no apologies for this. For those of you still reading, I make the point because we are well and truly past the time when this revolution in workplace learning should have occurred. This is urgent. This revolution will be impotent unless it is in mindset, content and method of delivery, because process must be congruent with content. We are facing systemic challenges the like of which humanity has not seen in its history. We require leaders (and I don’t just mean those with leadership title) in all walks of life, at all levels of all kinds of organisations, who act with boldness, vision, creativity and the love of other humans. Settling for same old, same old will not do. Pink Floyd make the point beautifully: we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control. We need meaningful development which unleashes human potential.
My advice if you are looking to develop yourself or those who lead your organisation: don’t settle for anything less than you want. If you are looking for leadership development, then shop around till you find someone who actually knows what the word ‘development’ means. Development is NOT training. It is not a workshop; although workshops may be one component of a systemic approach. I understand that you are crying out for something new, something radical, something that actually works and generates genuine, significant and long-lasting change in relationships and capability in your organisation, but please, NOT naked Fridays. It is important, with the L&D marketplace full of good and not-so-good providers, to sift out the snake oil salesmen and women promising culture shift after a week of high ropes courses or releasing a live pig into the office. Yes, that live pig clip is a satire, but there are many Lester Becks out there, believe me. I have used it before, but this quote from Drucker is apt: “We are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”
If you are getting someone external to deliver some kind of leader development, get a practitioner who understands that development happens over time, and that it is not an event. Work with someone who will assist you to make a rigourous analysis of what your organisation and its people actually need. Get a practitioner who understands that it is a suite of interventions,not simply the series of workshops that they offer; they may even have to call on other consultants because they acknowledge that they cannot possibly provide the whole gamut. Get someone whose practice has solid foundation; i.e., it springs out of some kind of philosophical, ethical or pragmatic set of principles or is highly rigourous. Finally, work with someone who does not claim to have all the answers, but who will keep it simple, focussed and will ensure your active involvement all along the way.
October 18, 2011
Think of one of your best working moments. One of those times when you felt on top of the world, when you were just ‘flowing’ or when you felt the warm glow of success. It could have been when you closed that important deal, when you finally got through to your under-performing staff while at the same time growing positive working relationships or when you overcame your fears to achieve a breakthrough of some sort. You will doubtless have many of these moments; right now, focus on just one of them. Recall what you were doing, who was with you, how you felt, how others responded to you.
Now bring to mind your worst working moment. That time you wanted the earth to open up and swallow you, when you felt so bad that you couldn’t look others in the eyes, that moment you would like to wipe from your memory because the mere thought of it ties your stomach in knots. I won’t ask you to dwell on this for too long, lest it has the power to infect you today.
I will lay good money on two things: 1) the thing that made your peak moment so awesome and your worst moment so dreadful was probably not to do with technical expertise or lack thereof, it was more likely to do with your personal capabilities, and; 2) the thing that made these moments what they were, are unique to you and your makeup.
I want to address these two assertions because they have important implications for leader development. Spoiler alert: some of what follows may incense some readers.
Assertion 1: Technical know-how vs. personal capability: This assertion points to a phenomenon which is already evident, that is, people and organisations are becoming more discerning in how they spend their time, effort and money on workplace training. For one thing, more people are slowly coming to understand the difference between training and development. I said a little more about this in a previous blog article, “Are you Investing in Sticky Learning?”. Neuroscience is now proving what people like Jakob Moreno knew intuitively back in the 1920′s: that we go on learning and developing until the day we die. Neuroscience is also giving us more hard evidence on how learning happens and it behoves us to respond to new facts and information by radically altering how we teach leadership. More organisations are coming round to the idea that what makes us up as humans is pivotal to how we execute our work, even if they don’t know what to do about that. We are living in an age when our personal beliefs and values, our emotions and our motivations must be accorded their due attention when it comes to performance at work. While technical information and job-specific content is, of course, absolutely essential in order to carry out our jobs, they are not sufficient. They are merely the ‘what’.
Who we are, as people, drives how we carry out our jobs, and organisations ignore this at their peril. It is not enough to pay it lip service. A genuine effort must be made to incorporate real and significant personal development into workplace learning. There is a world of difference, for example, between learning about interpersonal skills and developing interpersonal skills. Given the current state of learning and development offerings, if I were to attend a training seminar about Communication Skills, I would expect to come away with not much more than a sheaf of notes and information. As far as I’m concerned, a waste of my time and money. I’ve just done a google search: ‘How can I improve my communication skills?” brought up 74, 700,000 results. We don’t need more information about stuff. If you are still sending your people on an annual sales seminar and your sales figures aren’t changing, I would suggest you try something different. Invest in something which grows capability, not adds information. This is especially true the higher up the food chain you are. If you are managing people, are at C-level or are hovering around C-level, your job is less about technical expertise and more about intra- and inter-personal capability. Capability, mind you; not knowledge.
Assertion 2: The #1 capability that you should learn: The thing that made your worst working moment so horrendous was unique to you. I realise I may upset even more folks with this second point….but give. me. strength. I realise that the rules of engagement on Twitter and other social media dictate some use of hyperbole and superlative, promises of quick enlightenment and feel-good platitudes masquerading as wisdom, in order to draw attention to yourself. Social media ‘gurus’ even tell you this is how to get noticed; and I’m reminded of Peter Drucker’s quote: “We are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”
Using these linguistic devices is tempting. I succumb to this temptation myself; look at the title of this section. The breathtaking cheek! I also use tweet-scheduling on TweetDeck. Such audacity! However, I tire of the “Ten Top Tips When Having Difficult Conversations at Work” or “The #1 Most Important Food Group Every Leader Should Eat for Breakfast”, when, in the realm of human development, there is truly no such thing. Human development is not one-size-fits-all, nor paint-by-numbers. We are still infected by the old mechanistic, cause-and-effect paradigm of seeing the world, hence we are compelled to read something when it promises enlightenment in five easy steps. I do it all the time. And I’m left wanting. The world is not that simplistic nor black and white, and neither are we humans. There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going. If you are looking for the #1 capability that will transform you and make your working life 73% more satisfying, read no further. I don’t have the answer.
Well, I do, actually. But I don’t.
The answer is: the one that YOU most require. Training and development courses promise to provide you with learning that is relevant to you, but how many actually work with YOUR real concerns, help you to really overcome the things that catch YOU out, assist you to really face the things that scare YOU? How many of these courses actually leave you a different person when you walk out of the room? I am not suggesting a day of getting naked with your colleagues. A learning programme is tailor-made when it accommodates your learning styles and preferences, when it takes account of your current knowledge and capabilities and builds on those, when what is learnt is directly relevant and applicable in your day-to-day and when the providers tune into you and what transformation you are at the threshold of.
How do you work out what you need to develop? Some of us just know. If you have embarked on a path of self-knowledge, you are likely to have some sense of the areas within yourself that require further growth and development. There will be other areas that are less known to you. We can surround ourselves with trusted friends and associates who don’t shy away from sharing uncomfortable truths with us. We can develop mindfulness: this is not sitting on a yoga mat burning jossticks (although it may include this); it is developing a discipline of non-judgemental self-observance. Just like our communities and workplaces, we are complex systems within systems. The Top Ten Whatevers may be interesting bits of information, but they are unlikely to transform you.
The point again: what is the #1 capability you should be learning? Answer: the one (or ones) that YOU most need; right now in your life, taking account of what you already know and know how to do and your current situation in life.
August 4, 2011
I’ve recently been taking part in a really interesting thread on LinkedIn about visionary leaders. The question is “Is visionary leadership teachable? Can you teach a leader how to see the bigger picture?” I bang on about how everything is learnable, everyone is teachable…blah, blah, blah. I do actually believe this is absolutely true. In my time, I have worked with senior executives, factory workers, the learning disabled, adolescents, traumatised people, mandated clients sent to me from the criminal justice system…. even engineers for goodness sakes, you name it. I’ve seen it happen. People learn. Oh, yes they do. People change. Indeed they do; sometimes in spite of themselves.
….there will always be factors which impinge on each individual leader’s ability to integrate this learning into their being. There will also be many ‘life’ factors which determine how easily a particular individual will learn and how adept a particular individual is at applying what they learn.
I’ll add that the ability to see a ‘bigger picture’ or to be ‘visionary’ is but one of many leader-capabilities that are required for a leader to excel. These include capabilities such as knowing the self, managing relationships, loving and valuing people, managing time and resources, inspiring and motivating people, coaching and mentoring. There are many, many fine leaders who possess many, many of these capabilities in spades; and watching them in action, and watching them make it look so easy, it would be easy to conclude that they were just born this way. All of these capabilities work in tandem with each other, because we humans are systems of interconnected roles within ourselves. That notwithstanding and even though it’s rather artificial, let’s, for argument’s sake, isolate this thing of being a ‘visionary leader’.
What does it mean to be one of these things? I quite like this description: “The visionary is both the “keeper of the flame” capable of holding focus through the entire creative process and one who can either lead the organization through the unknown to manifest the desired visions and/or create the space for creative spirit of members of the organization to freely unfold to manifest the desired vision.” (RYUC) I also like this link because it lays out some of the characteristics of a visionary leader: possesses a deep sense of personal purpose, strong social presence and superb communication skills, sensitivity to others, willingness to take risks. Wow.
While none of these things is innate, the experiences and relationships we have from the day we are born immediately begin to impact on us and serve as the classroom in which we learn these capabilities. It would be easy to conclude, when observing one of these excellent-leaders-who-make-it-look-so-easy that they were born that way. They were not. They learnt it.
If we take one of those characteristics of a visionary leader, let’s take strong social presence, there will be a difference between those who grew up in a family where they were applauded for being social and those who grew up in a family in which they were admonished when they spoke out. The latter may go on to learn what it takes to be socially skilled, perhaps via other life experiences and relationships or reading self-help books or going on a course, but they will speak it as if it was a second language.
I see a parallel with learning a language. Many, many moons ago, I used to teach a programme called “English for Teachers”. It was for teachers of English who wanted to extend their own knowledge and grasp of the language. They were all non-native speakers, though you would have struggled to tell with some of these folks; they even had an English accent. None of these people were raised speaking English, however they had developed a very high level of proficiency to the point that they were able to teach it to their own students back in their home countries extremely effectively. Some of them would even try to correct my English and therein lies a key difference: consciousness. Because they had to be more conscious about their use of this skill than I did, they were more awake to its use than I, as a native speaker, was. We natives can sometimes be a little lazy with our language, but it’s ours. It is so well integrated into our very core that we don’t have to be so conscious of how we use it as often as a non-native does. Same can go for leadership capabilities.
Some leaders will be blessed by having already been to the classroom of life that has taught them a whole bunch of useful capabilities. Others will have been severely deprived of such opportunities and have to work really hard to learn them. I suspect that most will have gathered a fair amount of these skills already and just need to add some in. This last one is what I usually find. We most often work with people who are already good at the ‘achieving’, who can already master relationships, who are good at motivating others, but who are seeking to develop, say, more of that big picture thinking.
With effort and attention (both acts of will), they succeed. They become fluent over time. To paraphrase the TV ad, “It happens, but it doesn’t happen overnight.” And eventually, I suspect, they will even develop the accent so that nobody will know the difference.
July 29, 2011
There is plenty written about staff retention which tells us that financial incentives alone do not prevent people leaving. High up there on the list of retention factors is purposeful professional development which not only adds to people’s skills sets, both hard AND soft, but also assists people to feel that their work is meaningful and part of something bigger. I would add that people want to feel engaged in a job which affords them the opportunity to grow as a human being, not just to learn some things they can add to their work-based skill set.
It is also well known that the costs of losing people who aren’t quite right can be high, in terms of recruiting replacements, loss of ‘company memory’ and lost production time while getting the new people up to speed. In other words, it is important to develop what you’ve got.
The distaste for the term notwithstanding, it is the so-called ‘soft skills’ of your people which will assist them to put their technical skills into good practice. Poorly developed ‘social smarts’ can get in the way of high performance at work. There was even a survey in 2009 that showed that 85% of high-performing companies identified the soft skills that were essential to improved performance. What I am talking about are such things as empathy, ability to see a bigger picture, conflict resolution, genuine team playing and self-awareness. What’s more, the further up the ‘food chain’ someone is, the more the lack of these soft skills is felt by the business, hence the need to provide opportunities for staff to grow themselves. Once identified, how do you develop such skills?
There are lots of good professional development seminars or presentations providing essential ‘content’ orientated towards ‘soft skills’. This is the ‘what’. You learn about competencies (or soft skills, or whatever term you find most palatable). You learn about emotional intelligence, for example-what it is, where it comes from perhaps, maybe even the ’10 top tips’. But this is like learning about skiing from a powerpoint presentation or a book, rather than learning how to ski…you know, on the slopes?….falling down now and then?….feeling what it feels like to turn gracefully?
The training euphoria that people often experience following many training events tends to wear off rather quickly. At times, any initial behaviour or attitude shifts vanish quickly, and it seems that people are more or less back where they started. The ‘how’ to make the learning stick just hasn’t happened, which leads to the high level of cynicism about ‘soft skills’ training. According to Goleman et al (1998), “In order to reprogram neural circuits connecting the amygdala and neocortex, people need to actually engage in the desired pattern of thought, feeling, and action. A lecture is fine for increasing understanding of emotional intelligence, but experiential methods usually are necessary for real behaviour change.”
The secret is in how you deliver the learning. Goleman’s exhortation to use experiential methods applies here. Use of action methods, such as concretisation, sociodrama and role training is proving to be highly efficient and effective in producing real, lasting and immediate shifts in workplace attitude and behaviour. Such methods engage the whole person in learning: their thinking, their feeling and their behaving. Such methods also facilitate the integration of new learning into the being of the person. Also inherent in such methods, when carried out sensitively, is a dove-tailing of the learning with the person’s own value system. Result: people being authentic and true to themselves while exhibiting behaviours and attitudes which are in line with wider organisational needs.
In the current climate, when businesses are becoming increasingly more careful of how they spend their L&D budgets, it is vital that any investments are well targeted and get best results. This means businesses need to look at both what is getting taught, as well as how this is done with real and lasting impact on people’s performance.
July 11, 2011
I’m currently in the process of working with a bunch of Leader-Managers who struggle to engage with each other in conversations which some call ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’. It has been useful for me to remember that there are two strands to this phenomenon: the cultural and the personal. Just as a ladder has two main rails connected by steps or rungs, if one rail is missing or faulty, the ladder fails to serve its purpose. Similarly, if either the cultural or the personal strands of ‘challenging conversations’ is absent or underdeveloped, the organisation may well find that there are a whole bunch of conversations that are just not being had.
When crafting a learning programme to address this phenomenon, it is therefore essential to address both the cultural and the personal. Send someone off to a workshop to develop the skills within themselves and put them back into an organisational system that does not support these conversations or acts to undermine Managers who try to have them, and what you may see is a Manager who grows increasingly frustrated with the ‘system’. These Managers may decide that it’s not worth trying to have performance conversations because they only end up looking like the office ogre; and nothing much changes. The conversations don’t get had; performance issues remain unaddressed and eventually snowball until they become personal; and HR (or the CEO) who sent the Manager on the workshop wonders why they bother to invest in training because “nothing ever really changes”, amplifying the cynicism that exists in some quarters about Learning and Development.
Alternatively, you could invest in some sort of ‘culture change process’ that highlights the need for the organisation to shift its thinking around performance conversations. This may result in people becoming excited about new possibilities. They now see that being ‘people friendly’ and ‘performance oriented’ are not mutually exclusive. They become hopeful that things will finally change around the place as all those poor performers will FINALLY get a good talking-to. Without attending to the ‘personal’ strand, however, you may find that there are a number of Managers who lack the capability to challenge their staff, their peers or their own bosses without damaging working relationships. Growing a culture that affirms performance conversations is not, after all, a green light for a no-holds-barred free-for-all 1970s style encounter group where you just tell everyone what you think without being aware of the consequences. Without addressing the personal, you may also find that there are still some Managers who beat around the bush so much because of their own internal ‘stuff’ that people are left wondering what point they are trying to make.
An effective programme is one where both the cultural and the personal are addressed. It can be easier to start with the cultural, simply because the things that influence someone’s ability to have these conversations inevitably involves emotions such as fear or disappointment, and starting with the bigger picture can defuse any hijacking of what should be a constructive analysis of the phenomenon. Get a group of Manager-Leaders to discuss questions such as:
- How often do we all challenge others in this organisation?
- What determines how often we do this?
- What are some barriers to this happening?
- What makes it easy for this to happen?
- What would need to change in our organisational culture in order for these conversations to happen more frequently and effectively?
Starting off with the big picture depersonalises the issue from any one Manager or group of Managers and also can uncover the fact that many folks struggle with similar things. This can also warm people up to taking the next step, which is to look at the more personal aspects. These are the things which each person can develop in themselves. An effective programme, when focussing on this strand, will incorporate experiential techniques that coach Leader-Managers to practise new behaviours and to integrate them in such a way that they become part of their repertoire of responses to people.
Addressing the organisational culture as well as the personal capabilities of each Leader-Manager, therefore, is essential if your investment is to pay dividends. Taking such a systemic approach will also require time and patience in order for the shifts to embed and for the improvements in performance, staff retention and teamwork to filter through, but filter through they will.
June 28, 2011
Imagine this if you can….
- Your managers have the flexibility and deftness of thought and action required to finesse your organisation through the current challenges affecting the economic and environmental climate.
- Your organisation is awash with managers who set good examples to their staff.
- Your workplace is full of employees who enthusiastically put ‘all hands to the pump’ such that staff surveys show increases in loyalty and engagement.
- Your organisation manages and dizzying pace of change by continuing to inspire all employees to get involved in problem-solving and innovation.
How is all this possible?
Chaos Theory can give us a little insight as to how…
The global economic and financial systems are just that – systems. Chaos Theory studies systems and patterns that affect systems from a very big picture perspective. It tells us that all systems have a purpose and parameters within which they work, and work well. Changes can occur, and so long as they stay within the parameters, the system will equilibrate, learn and carry on, more or less as it was before. However, when the forces that impact on and within a system go beyond those parameters it will collapse, cascading into chaos and unpredictability which is often perceived as crisis. Sound familiar?
Once the chaos has been entered there is only one thing for certain. That is, that nothing will ever be the same again. Suddenly, what springs to my mind are a lot of our dinosaur politicians and business leaders talking about getting back to ‘business as usual’, but I feel that they are mistaken. There is no going back, and ‘business as usual’ now looks like something entirely different than it did pre-2008/Lehman/Greek debt crisis/sub-prime mortgages. Something NEW is emerging, it always does; but we cannot predict what that might be. Businesses that seek to ride out the storm until they can resume ‘business as usual’ will miss the boat! Businesses that are able to respond, adapt and keep transforming are the ones that will come though the chaos and emerge into the new system READY AND ABLE. These are businesses that are able to LEARN.
Thus it is suicidal in times of budget constraints, roller-coaster share values and erratic profits (along with the chronic skills shortage that some surveys still indicate) to cut investment in people. Yet in times such as these, the first thing a lot of organisations cut is spending in learning and development…..as if L&D spending was discretionary!
In late 2008, just as the global financial house of cards began to tumble, the UK’s top business leaders took out a full-page ad in the UK Sunday Times making a call for organisations to keep investing in people, especially during difficult economic times. These people understood what was required.
It is not a matter of a quick fix. Indeed, in the realm of leadership development there is no such thing. To quote Dr. Lester Levy, Adjunct Professor of Leadership at the University of Auckland’s Business School, people “should throw away the clock and put up the calendar, as the longer the development process is, the more enduring and sustained its impact will be.” We must dispense with the idea that the old ‘training model’ works for leadership development. A half-day seminar will just not cut it. The time is NOW to undertake a process of real development where reflection and longer-term experiential learning are the keys. Dr. Levy’s 2007 “More Right than Real” leadership survey indicates that “the NZ leader is unlikely to encourage and acknowledge differing points of view, has low self-awareness and is resistant to change.” Hardly traits which will help an organisation navigate its way into the new economy!
So NOW is the time to invest in your leaders!
I have written before on the difference between transactional and transformational learning processes, and now more than ever is the time to be looking for transformation; and this starts from within. Much has been written and researched about the link between successful leaders and high levels of EQ. Little in the current range of management education options really confronts and transforms the core issues related to leadership development: growing self-awareness, growing the ability to moderate and regulate emotional responses, growing the ability to stand in others’ shoes, growing the ability to motivate, inspire and coach. What is required is something fresh, something which gets to the guts of what is to be developed. It’s not a warm and fuzzy sort of training event that is needed, but a rigorous programme of self-examination which stretches people beyond their comfort zones and guides them to develop new abilities for a new era. (…and yes, I have some idea what that might look like, if I’m allowed a little self-promotion)
If you are looking to develop your leaders, it is not always wisest to go for the tired old options of years gone by. Remember: old minds think, ‘If it didn’t work last year, let’s do more of it this year,’ while new minds think, ‘If it didn’t work last year, let’s try something different’. If you are looking to develop your leaders, go for the innovative, not the remedial. And if you are looking to develop your leaders, do it NOW. In times when organisations need new solutions to old problems or really effective solutions to new problems, the answer is to invest in your talent; invest in your leaders…..and do it NOW.
December 7, 2010
So you are thinking about investing in your people. Of course you are…. you maintain your plant and machinery, you maintain your office spaces, you maintain your computers….so naturally you want to invest in ‘maintaining’ your people.
So what kind of programme do you invest in? The ‘sticky’ one, of course. That is, the one which ‘sticks’ with people. The one which, when people get back to work, has stuck with them so they put their new learning into practice. Right?
So how do you know which programmes are the ‘sticky’ ones? I say it depends on the thing you are trying to develop.
The tried and true training paradigm of ‘knowledge transfer’ and the training processes used to effect this transfer have some use, but it’s limited. This style of learning is more transactional, the transaction being: you sit there and pay attention and I’ll repay that attention with some useful knowledge. However, the needs of the modern worker and modern organisation have changed. While this transaction is still useful for some kinds of learning content, if you want to develop communication, teamwork, greater customer focus or leader capability, the ‘sticky’ programme is most often not the one that is laden with information; it’s usually the one that is more about the people than the information.
Furthermore, people want to participate in learning experiences which grow them as human beings, and organisations need people who have honed the kind of capabilities the 21st century world of work actually needs; capabilities such as empathy, courage, increased self awareness, and greater ability to communicate and say challenging things to their peers, their staff and their bosses.
The new paradigm is also one that stops looking at the training budget as something that should solely serve the organisation or deliver a quantifiable return on investment. You know that if you spend money on an MYOB training course, you have got a return on your investment if the accounts folk use it effectively and productivity in the accounts department increases. How, though, can you quantify increased empathy skills? Yet you know in your heart, in your mind, in your gut that when your customer service staff have greater empathy, they go the extra mile for dissatisfied customers and stop them from moving over to your competition. You know that when your team leaders can have more robust performance conversations with their teams, morale increases, productivity increases, turnover declines. I’m constantly reminded of the quote that Einstein allegedly had on his wall: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” We are in an age where this is deliciously applicable. Yes, we do need to know that investment in developing people gives a return to the organisation, but let’s expand our minds and our ideas of how we ‘measure’ this added value.
In order to develop these things, a new paradigm of learning and development needs to take hold. People need to be able to participate in learning programmes which are directly relevant to them and which grow them as a person. Transformational methods, those which Phill Boas of the Melbourne Business School calls ‘high intensity relational processes’, and those which we apply in our work at Quantum Shift, are just the ticket. These are processes which are sometimes confronting and which “truly stretch people outside their comfort zones to really review their own style, values and preferences and those of others. It’s not always warm and fuzzy. But that is the reality of work and working relationships”. We can get a picture of the two approaches in this table:
TRANSACTIONAL LEARNING APPROACHES
TRANSFORMATIONAL LEARNING APPROACHES
One-off training events
Learning over time, with follow-up
‘Chalk and talk’ transfer of information
Experiential and interactive
Orientated to learning as a process
Involves feelings and relationships
Methodical, step-by-step, logical-sequential
Divergent and unpredictable
Behavioural and attitudinal
What to do
How to do it
September 30, 2010
>Of course networking works….sometimes WE don’t though. Networking groups and events abound. With the growth of networking, there is a corresponding growth in written material that tells us ‘what to do’. There are books, brochures, pamphlets and blogs which lay out the best tips and strategies. There are workshops with interesting, entertaining and useful powerpoint presentations by dynamic people who know how to work a room and tell us about their successes. Great! So armed with all this information and inspiration, why is it that when we go into a room, some people seem to make it work for themselves, but others just get stuck?
Essentially, we are looking to forge relationships when we go to a networking event. ’Working a room’ requires a whole range of capabilities which we may need to extend in order for us to get the most out of it. There is not one of us on this planet lacking in some basic relationship skills: how could we survive otherwise? But as we go through life, we are constantly faced with new opportunities to stretch our abilities, networking being just one of them. Furthermore, some people have developed the roles needed to network effectively, while others of us still have some things to grow in ourselves. More often than not, when we know what we are supposed to do, but can’t mobilise ourselves to actually do it in the moment, this is pointing to some kind of personal growth opportunity.
Networking skills fit in that category of communication and leadership skills which require deep transformational learning processes in order for them to embed. Information ABOUT networking is absolutely essential; don’t get me wrong. But knowing WHAT to do is different from really knowing HOW to do it……like really knowing in our core selves. We need both the WHAT and the HOW. We get the WHAT from seminars and books, but we get the HOW with ongoing development. We get the HOW from learning processes that are designed to confront what is within us which causes us to freeze or run away and to develop the bits that we need to grow.
Experiential action methods, which activate the limbic part of our brains, when applied appropriately, get to the nub of what we want to learn, especially when what we want to learn has significant emotional content, i.e. anything to do with communication with other humans. To quote Daniel Goleman, “A brief seminar won’t help, and it can’t be learned through a how-to manual.”