Forget Mickey and Minnie…it’s all about you

Much of my work is focused on helping organisations and individuals make changes that will lead to great performance. I’m often asked what is the key to successful change, and my perspective is that success is determined by how much the changes is desired by the individual or the leaders in the case of organisational change. That presents some challenges for organisations where leaders can find it difficult to bring to life how important the change is to them. With so many things competing for attention how can leaders ensure that the change remains at the forefront of everyone’s mind?

A recent blog by Kare Anderson, What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life, gives us some ideas on how we can get that focus of attention. Kare was asked to carry out some research by Disney World to look at what was catching the attention of toddlers and infants when they visited the theme park. The results were surprising; it wasn’t Mickey and Minnie, who were the objects of their focus, instead it was their parents’ cellphones. The children noticed and understood what grabbed their parents’ attention and they wanted it too.  People in organisations follow the focus of their leaders’ attention in the same way and want some of that too.

So what does that mean for successful change? Leaders must focus attention on the desired change and use every opportunity and conversation to direct their attention and that of others to it.  For some leaders, this is a little counter intuitive as they prefer to set the direction, build a team to deliver, and then shift their focus to the next challenge. The risk of  course  is that everyone’s attention shifts with theirs.  If you think of your leadership attention as the headlights on a car, what direction are you illuminating?

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Get the Message Just Right…

Most leaders adopt three approaches to communicating the need for change: Tell, Sell, or Co-create. Choosing the approach that will get the best outcome for people and the organisation is another of those getting it just right challenges faced by leaders.

When I work with clients, they often recognise the challenge of making the right choice between these three approaches when times are challenging and bad news is to be delivered. Making a conscious choice between Tell, Sell, or Co-create involves understanding how our emotions may be pushing us towards what we consider to be the low risk option of Tell; the voice in our head may be saying ” deliver the bad news and get out of Dodge”.

Great leaders are skilled in managing their emotions and choosing the approach that will deliver the best outcomes. For example, Vineet Nyar CEO of HCL opted for the Co-create option when the recession hit. He made what may seem to be a counter intuitive choice and talked to all the employees and said, ‘We have a problem. A recession has hit. We need your help. Tell us the ideas”. The risk paid off, the employees felt that they were part of the solution and the company managed to cut costs and also increased their share of customers’ budgets.

My sense is that leaders are less aware of the need to get the approach just right when times are good and there is great opportunity. In this scenario, the risk is different. Here we may be carried away by our own enthusiasm and fall into the trap of starting off in Co-create or Sell and end in being perceived as a Tell.

Great leaders are adept at managing this risk and choose the their moment to hold back from adding more value, and go on to reap the rewards of higher engagement and ownership. Marshall Goldsmith challenges us to recognise that while the voice in our head may be saying “it’s good to improve the quality of other people’s good ideas” the reality may be that we’re often just trying to prove how clever we are. He describes this as the challenge of adding “too much value,” and reminds us that while the quality of the idea may go up 5% with our additional value; the employees sense of commitment to it may go down 50%.

Let’s return to the challenge of getting it just right; next time you have an important change message to communicate, pause for a moment to ask yourself; “What approach to communicating this message will be just right: Tell, Sell, or Co-create?”

Now pause again, then ask yourself “Will this approach deliver the best outcomes for the people and the organisation?”

Finally, be conscious of your chosen approach and manage your own emotional response as you deliver the message.

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A Little More Conversation…

In my work with clients I’ve heard the expression ‘more with less’ become something of a mantra. People typically respond with the assumption that it means ‘more output with less cost’ and opt for the usual approaches: downsizing, organisational restructuring, and cost cutting and not surprisingly they get the same old results. All of this, despite recognition that things are changing and that we need a more creative approach to succeeding in this new emerging capitalism.

We keep doing the same things because we have the same conversations or no conversations; and my perspective is that there are two factors at play. Firstly, fear of the consequences of speaking out. Research shows that we overestimate the personal risk of expressing a view that is at odds with our view of what the group want to hear. So instead of asking how does this project contribute to our objectives; we may stay silent or agree with going ahead despite the fact that our heart is sinking. The second factor that comes into play is our habits; we quickly become immersed in the way things are done around here and become blind to how the system is shaping our behaviour. For example, in some senior teams, the role of team members is simply to endorse the CEO’s ideas and plans, and conversations cease to happen and eventually no-one even notices what is missing.

If we could add up the cost of those conversations that don’t happen; all of that missed opportunity, dissipated energy, and lost creativity, it would be of Greek debt proportions. Next time you find yourself holding back from speaking, ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen? Then, remember that we overestimate the risk of letting our true voice be heard.

Perhaps it’s time for the mantra to change to more conversations with less fear.

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Who is the Chief Ethics Officer?

Business leaders face many challenges; not least operating on a global scale in an increasingly resource constrained world. Their leadership also plays out in an environment where the employee and customer base is more socially engaged and more connected into social media than ever before.

There’s been much coverage in the press of Apple’s decision to audit suppliers in China, and that decision has been influenced to some extent by on-line petitions pressing for the use of ”ethical, fair and safe” suppliers. Although, it’s interesting to note that at this stage, there’s been no adverse impact on Apple’s share price.

That prompts the question how does a leader decide on whether a course of action is ethically right. The key issue is less about who makes the decision and more about how to shine a light on the questions about whether a proposed course of action is ethical.

We’d suggest that the CEO also takes on the role of Chief Ethics Officer, but he won’t be effective in that role without some external support. Research shows that the more powerful you feel when making a decision, the less ready you are to seek or take advice. When you next have a big decision about ethics looming; seek some outside views or risk making a flawed decision.

That brings us back to that socially connected employee and customer base that we mentioned earlier. Technology makes it easy for organisations to choose to connect with employees and customers to engage them in discussing and resolving ethical issues. The extent of involvement will depend on the particular situation, but without doubt the need for more transparency and debate around ethical issues is likely to grow. Yet another key leadership element where the challenge is to get the balance just right

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Measurement that Matters

Some varied experiences as a customer prompted me to reflect on what makes some organisations feel human while others seem much more “Computer says no…” . Many factors will be influencing that: the economic  and industry environment, reward systems, leadership style, training, recruitment practices…and of course culture.

While all of those will have an impact, I’m also curious about how our focus on measuring may be helping and hindering  organisations; and shaping the experience of customers and employees.  We’re all aware of the saying “what gets measured gets done” and recognise the value that can bring. Perhaps we need to pay attention to the impact of that approach, as often “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done”. Examples are readily found in the NHS where the focus on  measurement has created ways of working that are focused on achieving targets like bed occupancy at the expense of compassion and caring which aren’t being measured. In the private sector, we find contact centres where a focus on response rates and call times means that agents are prevented from listening with empathy. In both examples, the measurement is getting in the way of a successful outcome; a rapid recovery for the patient, and a sense of being served for the customer calling the contact centre. There is a temptation to say that we just need the right measures and while that may help, my sense is that we need to think more boldly.

Maybe we need to let go a little and trust the people in the organisation get on with the job. I’m not suggesting abdication, more acceptance that we can’t consciously control everything that goes on in an organisation. Much as we  trust our legs to get us across a  road safely and our eyes and ears to keep alert for any traffic. We don’t get in the way by setting a KPI for our legs to get across the road at an average of 2mph, instead we focus on the outcome e.g. I want to get across to Starbucks. The consequences of our body having to constantly report performance against KPIs doesn’t bear thinking about, our brain just couldn’t deal with the information overload and our heads would probably explode. Organisations tend not to explode; rather a focus on targets can cause them to implode with data gathering and reporting becoming internally focused cottage industries at the expense of building real connections with employees and customers.

What can you do about it? Start with a couple of questions to reflect on, and ask yourself and your employees:

How clear are we about what really matters in our business and the key outcomes we need to deliver?

How are the measures and targets we have in place  supporting employees to deliver what really matters and those key outcomes?

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Leadership’s Seismic Shift

I’m an optimist so I can’t help wonder; is leadership starting to shift to a new more inclusive, sustainable, and values based approach that reflects the complex, uncertain, and fluid environment that we now inhabit.

My sense is that a leadership shift is starting, maybe not a seismic shift …yet! This view  is supported by a recent study of a group identified as the leaders of the future which showed that 34% agreed that ‘creating social and environmental value’ was a career goal. 79% also said that they will consider the company’s vision and values when choosing whether to join an organisation.

These future leaders have quite different expectations of the relationship that they will have with their employer. They will also have different expectations of what they want to achieve as leaders and how they want to go about achieving success. As these future leaders shift into their roles, we can expect different approaches to leadership.

While the future may look promising, is there any  evidence that change is already happening? We are already seeing some signs of new leadership styles coming to the fore.

Vineet Nayar CEO at  HCL, a leading global IT services company, is a great example of how a leadership approach based on inclusion and collaboration can achieve great things. He has worked hard to actively engage employees in the company’s strategy and future. He also inverted the organisational pyramid to  make management accountable to employees.

Gary Hamel, in his recent HBR article, “First Let’s Fire all The Managers”,  looked at the radical approach adopted by Morning Star Company, a leading tomato ingredient processor. They have implemented an approach where  employees negotiate responsibilities with their peers, everyone can spend the company’s money, and each individual is responsible for procuring the tools needed to do his work.  Chris Rufer, the founder, believes that the most successful and enduring organisations are based on real responsibility and self management.

These two examples show us that different approaches are succeeding; and will encourage future leaders to find their own approach to fit the needs and challenges of this century not the last.

So.. am I just an eternal optimist or can you sense a shift in leadership too?

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Outstanding Leaders Think and Act Differently

Recent research looked at the attributes of outstanding leaders; it identified some strong and clear differences in how outstanding leaders think and behave.

The Facts:
Based on over 250 in-depth qualitative interviews a study by the Work Foundation provides proof that a people-centred approach to leadership results in outstanding performance. The study included leaders from across industry including: EDF Energy, Guardian Media Group, Tesco and Unilever. The research reveals three organising principles of outstanding leaders, they:

  • think and act systemically, considering the whole picture
  • see people as the sole route to performance and are deeply people and relationship centred rather than just people oriented
  • are self-confident without being arrogant; they are aware of their strengths and their position of influence, yet use these for the benefit of their organisation and its people.

So What:
Not all of the outstanding leaders started their leadership careers with a people-focused approach; they recognised the impact of their behaviour on people and adjusted their style to achieve great results. Typically they arrived at this point through, experience, maturity, and reflection to develop a deep understanding of how their actions affected outcomes.

The skill of tuning in to what is going on with other people and then using that information to effectively manage relationships is a key element of outstanding leadership.

Start by spending some time reflecting on your own leadership, you may want to consider the following questions:

  • when am I at  my best as a leader?
  • how would my team describe my leadership?
  • what kind of leader do I want to be?

Of course, it’s how your team, peers, and managers experience you that truly defines your leadership. You can only get to know about that by asking them…sounds like a good topic for my next blog!

Source: The Work Foundation, Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership

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Time for Leadership?

As a leader you probably struggle for time to work on your leadership; the facts suggest that you may be missing a trick.

The Facts:
Recent research[i], involving 30,000 employees in 15 countries, shows that only 34% of employees are fully engaged by their job and their organisation, while 50% are completely disengaged. Yet companies reporting high engagement levels achieve significantly better results including:

    • 50% higher productivity
    • 33% more profitability
    • retention rates that are 44% higher
    • and a 56% increase in customer loyalty.  

So What:
It’s pretty much all about you… as a leader you play the key role in creating engagement.  Think about your people and the impact you have on them. How do you and your leadership team rate against the attributes shown to correlate with high engagement?  Your people want leaders who:

    • can effectively communicate the organisation’s strategy to them so they can play a meaningful role in helping the organisation succeed
    • have the capacity to implement strategy and create success
    • acknowledge their work and value their contribution.

Of course you are telling yourself…I do all of that. Take a moment to reflect; when someone leaves your office…are they clear, committed, and confident?  


 [i] Source: Right Management Global Engagement Survey

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