Tuesday, April 14 2015

The more things change…

I’ve been in a lot of professional and personal conversations about change recently. When something changes quickly it might be scary, or exciting, but it is something we can respond to. Other change isn’t an event; it’s an ongoing, incremental process. Some of my conversations and thinking have been around what change is when it’s slower than we’d like; when it’s less than we expected, and if it never actually gets finished.

I’ve been reminded of two things. One is the importance of not getting bored or distracted by new activities or problems, but keeping going even when the change isn’t new and exciting (or threatening) any more. The other is the importance of keeping everyone involved pointing in the same direction and moving more or less together over the long term.

We point new employees in the right direction quite well if we induct them properly. There’s an introduction to the team, a clear statement of what they will do and where their role fits. A corporate induction session gives opportunity to meet colleagues from other areas and hear from senior managers about the organisation’s plans. Sometimes there is even cake!

I’ve been wondering how well we re-induct long standing colleagues so the long term “couldn’t do without them” folk are as up to date as their new co-workers with the organisation’s plans, structures and shared understanding of what is important. I suspect we don’t do this as well as we should. All organisations change and develop in response to a whole host of influences from inside and out. But we assume that the folk who have been there for a while just pick up shifts in direction. Some will of course, but others won’t see keeping up to date as a priority. After all they have a job to do, and they quietly get on with it. Will everyone read the CEO’s latest blog post? It’s probably a disappointment to the CEO, but the answer is “probably not”.

So how do we re-induct the folk who are long term, maybe low key contributors who the organisation needs to keep business flowing but who also need to understand what that business looks like now and how to do it well. Not with brochures and slogans that nobody reads but in a way that is real, and connects with people. Part of the answer is in planned, structured, ongoing conversations. And occasional cake.

Saturday, November 29 2014

We are what we…

Like many old sayings “we are what we eat” has some truth in it. There’s a sense in which we become what we take in, what we spend time on, what we do.

Recently I was with a group of people asked to consider the question “What do you want to build?” It was in a community setting, looking at the sorts of relationships and long term outcomes we want to create. Then came the follow up question: “What are you building?” What if the answers to those questions are different? If there is a gap between what we sincerely want to achieve and the choices and actions we habitually take which divert us.

One of my goals is to run 5km without feeling as though death is imminent. I have somewhere I could run, I have shoes I could wear, I’m inspired by a colleague who has recently achieved this goal and my daughter is willing to run with me. But I use the time I could be outside exercising to read, write blogs, or indeed any number of things which may be good in themselves but don’t get me any closer to the 5km mark.

Someone who wants to be a runner has to run. A writer has to write. A leader has to lead.

It’s easy to put it off. “I don’t have time, it won’t be good enough, it will be difficult” but no one begins by running a marathon. Small steps in the right direction – literally in this case – will move me toward my goal. And it is my goal that is important, not someone else’s: 5km not the City to Bay.

Better aligning what we want to build and what we are building also requires us to feel – think – act. Feeling I want to run is just a dream. Thinking about it is the planning stage. But until I act I’m not running! Likewise setting off on a 5km run without preparation (or acting without thinking) will have painful consequences. Feel – think – act is an ongoing cycle. What I feel may change over time, how I plan and act may change too. I may discover that running is not something I want to continue to do. Or that a marathon beckons (but don’t hold your breath!).

Friday, September 19 2014

Sitting with discomfort

We live in a society where “there’s an app for that!” speed is good and solutions are more valuable than problems. But we know that isn’t true. In our work, our homes and our communities we see (and if we are honest, we experience) unease and discomfort; often around important, complex situations which truly concern us.

I’ve had a number of experiences and conversations lately which have highlighted the value of sitting with discomfort. This might be as simple as resisting the urge to do something else when I’m not sure what to do or how to begin. It might be as profound as being prepared to be with someone who is in distress and risking feeling some of that distress myself.

My tendency is to rush in to make things tidy and “nice”. I’m learning to pause. Not as a negotiating tactic, but as a way of being alongside the person I am with and in the situation. I often don’t get it right, but when I do I find that the conversation has authenticity and space is created to think and respond more effectively. In contrast, a glib response or rushing to suggest a solution or give advice doesn’t honour the person who is sharing in discomfort.

Yesterday I attended a session on facilitation skills. One comment that struck me was when a colleague said that she had learned ask herself whether making an intervention as the facilitator was in the service of the group or to make herself feel better. Sometimes maintaining the discomfort is in the service of those we work with.

And sometimes there are no words. I recall a facebook message from an ESL teacher who has many students with family and friends in dire situations in their homelands. In the face of her students’ concerns she asked “what do I say?” It requires strength and courage to be alongside others but not to say anything when words are not enough.

I’m not advocating wallowing. Feeling uncomfortable or unease is part of changing, doing things differently or recognising the complexity of a situation. I’m learning to sit with it a while before making a more considered response.

Friday, March 28 2014

What does success look like?

International Women’s Day provided an opportunity to rue the small proportion of women in positions of power in Australia. With a single female federal cabinet member and 93% of CEO positions in Australian corporations held by men, the statistics are damning.

While we debate the reasons why women are not more visible in the political and business realms I’d suggest that the lack of diversity in leadership is symptomatic of how we view success.

People with high emotional intelligence, strong interpersonal skills, and a holistic desire to succeed - not only in their work but in their relationships with others and in terms of their self fulfilment - may not align their goals with traditional success. They may choose to opt out. We see talented women leaving or reducing their time in the workforce right at the time a traditionally successful career should be taking off. We don’t see many men from a broader range of cultural, social or religious backgrounds in traditionally “powerful” positions.

Despite evidence that those who demonstrate a range of skills including EI and a life outside the office make better leaders, they seem to be a rare breed. And if potential leaders with more holistic skills choose to leave formal organisational structures we end up with a smaller pool of folk who lack those skills filling the middle and senior leadership ranks. In turn this perpetuates the myth that success looks like a corner office with a white middle aged man behind the desk.

Saturday, February 15 2014

It’s a lot like riding a bike

When my daughter was small she was desperate to learn to ride a bicycle. But she was very nervous about falling off. So she would sit next to me and demand, over and over, “tell me how to ride a bike…” There is only so much theory that is useful before you have to actually get on and peddle!

My recent foray into twitter reminded me of this. You can’t understand it without getting in there and trying it out. This approach challenges me; in my work especially I like to gather information, make connections and craft a response. Not necessarily taking a lot of time over the process, but my preference is to give a considered view, not an off the cuff reaction.

How is it going? I’m finding twitter interesting. I’m not a frequent twitterer (or tweeter, or twit - I’m still learning the vocabulary!) and hashtags remain somewhat mysterious. I’ve responded when I meant to retweet and I still feel I’m making it up as I go along. I’m keeping my involvement contained. I have a (very) small group of followers, and I follow only a small number of people and organisations. Do I want to spend a lot of time there? No. But I’ve subscribed to a fabulous blog that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. And I’m looking forward to using twitter at events to connect and communicate with other participants in new ways. Notwithstanding my L plates, a couple of my tweets have also been picked up by folk far outside my usual circles.

I mentioned to a colleague last week that I need to get brave in order to make the most of opportunities to do new things. Like engaging with Twitter or learning to ride a bike getting brave means not just thinking about it or listening to other’s experience, although both might be helpful. Getting brave means getting out there and doing it, risking falling off, and learning as I go.

What are you being brave about this year?

Sunday, December 15 2013

Messy Christmas everyone!

The lead up to the end of the year is messy. Wrapping up the year that was, planning for the year ahead. So much to do, so little time. And in Australia, where Christmas coincides with the end of the school year and the beginning of the long summer break, holidays loom and the beach beckons.

For those who celebrate the Christmas season, and for whom January 1 marks the beginning of a new year at work, it can be an ambiguous time. We look back with satisfaction, or regret. We look forward with anticipation, or disquiet. It’s a time for personal and professional reflection. A time of endings and new beginnings. Of family, friends and noticeable absences. It’s a time of joy and (dis)stress.

The story my family and many of my friends tell at this time of year contains tensions and ambiguities too. There are ordinary folk and angels, shepherds and kings, wisdom and folly, riches and poverty, the extraordinary and the mundane.

It seems to me that these tensions highlight the need to pay attention to the small, seemingly insignificant things that point to larger truths. Trust is built one conversation at a time. Reputation is formed through behavior day by day. Organisational culture is an amalgamation of all the “ways we do things here” and plans are implemented one decision at a time.

I plan to have a messy Christmas, with all its complexities, and use the season as an opportunity to pay attention to individual relationships and celebrate community. I hope you have a messy Christmas too!

Sunday, November 24 2013

Plan B: lessons learned

The last few weeks have not gone entirely to plan. Now I like a good plan, so this has been both frustrating and a useful reminder of things I know but don’t always practice. So what have I learned and hope to hold on to as life resumes its normal pattern?

I’ve been reminded that perfection is over-rated and that often something is better than nothing. Yes I know, “if something is worth doing its worth doing well” and I agree. It's worth doing as well as it needs to be done. It is possible to get stuck believing that because some things are truly important, they need to be done absolutely properly and therefore need more (and more) time and information. But often action, even if flawed or incomplete, is what is needed otherwise activities get planned but not done. In a seminar on leading in uncertainty recently I was struck by the presenter’s assertion that as things become more uncertain we can rely less and less on data (which tells us about the past). Rather action is necessary because uncertain futures are created by the actions people take.

Not pursuing unnecessary perfection links to reminders to spend my energy wisely and to pick my issues carefully. Always true, but especially if I’m unable to do everything I would like and have to decide what to say “no” to. The flip side to this not to close the door prematurely on future opportunities because I can’t do it today (I don’t have to), it might not work out (it might) and if something else happens I won’t be able to (make the decision then, not now).

When I can’t do it all I need to get the support I need. I see self reliance as a virtue so this is a tricky one for me. Strategic vulnerability is the key. By this I mean letting some key people (who I was confident would be supportive) know what is happening rather than maintaining a façade. My openness allowed them to be their best, responding in a professional and personal way. It deepened our engagement, built mutual understanding and gave me the support and strategies I needed to get over the bumpy patch.

I’ve also been reminded that the important things (activities and relationships that give direction, wellbeing and joy) are rarely urgent and can too easily left for another day while I get on with being busy. But busyness without firm underpinning is exhausting and ultimately ineffective. So I will take time and try to spend it wisely with a long term view.

Friday, September 27 2013

A map and a torch

It’s a myth that we don’t cope with change. If it were true we wouldn’t be living in cities unimaginable even 100 years ago. We wouldn’t be doing jobs that our grandparents would hardly recognise as work using tools that have been developed in the last 5, 10 or 20 years - remember work without email? without mobile devices?

What we do struggle with is uncertainty. And that makes sense if what you don’t recognise might eat you! It makes less sense when life is complicated and there is so much that we just can’t know. So what role do leaders have in changeable, complicated, uncertain workplaces?

One of the things I think leaders do is hold a map and a torch. They have a destination in mind with a broad idea of how they and their team are going to get there. And they shine a clear, bright light on the next step.

Leaders often do the big picture stuff well. They have vision statements, organisational goals, strategic plans… it’s switching on the torch that sometimes gets forgotten. Things like

  • communicating regularly to remind people where they are going and why, and to set out the next step and the one after that.
  • consulting with those affected who probably already see the problems and have some useful answers.
  • ensuring colleagues have the tools they need in their backpack to make the journey.
  • listening

Communicating, consulting, listening and responding…step by step, casting a pool of light that colleagues can step into.

Friday, August 30 2013

Affective organisational stewardship

I’ve been involved recently in a number of conversations about knowledge management. One of the interesting things I’ve noticed is the tensions around

  • capturing information which is fast changing and fluid
  • the best ways of sharing information, or knowledge, usefully
  • being innovative, creative and responsive in a corporate environment where consistency and corporate memory are also valued.

These tensions have led me to think about stewardship; an old fashioned term which points in two directions.

In an organisational setting, stewardship picks up the idea that a steward acts on another’s behalf to use resources wisely. Stewards must be mindful that whatever we have at our disposal is ours to use but does not belong to us. Resources need to be used for the good of the organisation. This is what good managers do. Not for themselves, but for their team, while also ensuring that what their team achieves contributes to the organisation’s objectives.

Stewardship is also about building something so it is better when you leave than when you arrived. This is one thing good leaders do. But again, not for themselves. Although recognition may follow, the best leaders are not primarily motivated by what they gain but by what they create. Fundamentally, people are important. Managers cannot manage without them; leaders who have no followers are delusional!

I’m not suggesting that people are “soft resources” to be used or managed for organisational ends. Far from it, but people working together is how information is generated, shared and used, how innovations occur, how organisations serve their various customers and meet their goals.

In a different context I heard someone comment that we are rightly focused on being effective but that we also need to be affective. To have what we do come from the heart. I’d argue that the quality of our interactions with others and our stewardship will be better if they are affective too.

Saturday, August 10 2013

Follow the leader

The cult of the leader is alive and well. Not just in despotic regimes but in the business section of any good bookstore. So what of the followers?

Most of us will never be CEO, the maths are against us quite apart from other constraints such as talent and luck! We can talk about the importance of leadership at every level and in every role within an organisation. We can proclaim the necessary death of hierarchy, as Shawn Murphy’s recent post on Switch and Shift did. We can bemoan a lack of leadership when we feel we are not being properly represented or appreciated.

Perhaps we are really seeking answers to the question “What is good followership?”

In their recent book 10 Virtues of Outstanding Leaders Al Gini and Roland Green touch on this with their definition of leadership as “a power-laden, value-based and ethically driven relationship between leaders and followers who share a common vision and accomplish real changes that reflect their mutual purpose and goals.”

Leadership always, and only, occurs when people follow. We followers therefore have a responsibility to choose our leaders wisely.

We also need to

  • Understand the organisation’s purpose
  • Understand the part our work team plays in that
  • See where our job fits
  • Be open to doing things differently if that will better meet the purpose
  • Take initiative to make such changes
  • Develop moral courage to know when not to follow, and act wisely on this
  • Be able to work effectively with others (including our leaders) to achieve goals that contribute to the organisation’s purpose.

This takes effort. Followership is active and relational. It is not simply doing as one is told!

The flip side of these look a lot like mainstream leadership advice – articulating meaning, ensuring fit between team and organisational goals, managers and team members creating solutions together, openness to other points of view. They require effective, engaged leadership as well as followership. But a leader is a loner if no one is behind them!

Shawn Murphy’s post

Monday, June 24 2013

The virtues of leadership

Leadership. We know it when we see it. We applaud it with flurries of commentary, social media posts and tweets. We bemoan the lack of it in an environment where leadership has been overtaken by politics, short term gain and lack of vision.

Perhaps it’s time to take a larger view.

I recently reviewed 10 Virtues of Outstanding Leaders by Professors Al Gini and Roland Green. They explore the moral basis for leadership (and followership) with good leadership characterised as being anchored in ethical behavior. At heart it is about motive: ethical leaders exercise leadership for the common good, not for their own greatness. Results are important; Gini and Green also argue that someone who demonstrates virtue and has the organisational capabilities required yet who fails to deliver is not a leader. And followers have responsibilities too. We get the leadership we allow!

The virtues Gini and Green identify are • Deep honesty • Moral courage • Moral vision • Compassion and care • Fairness • Intellectual excellence • Creative thinking • Aesthetic sensibility • Good timing and • Deep selflessness

It can sound idealistic and removed from reality but writing about the protests in Turkey and the government’s response , Thomas Friedman quoted advisor on governance Dov Seidman “ …moral authority is now so much more important than formal authority… Moral authority is something you have to continue to earn by how you behave, by how you build trust with people….every time you exercise moral authority, leading by example, treating people with respect, you strengthen it”.

It is easy to denigrate others for their lack of leadership. But if Gini and Green are right and “what was true thousands of years ago remains so today. The quality of life of a community whether it is a political unit or a business corporation depends on the character of all its members and on the virtue of its leaders”; whether a leader or a follower we need to identify key virtues to develop, practice and make habitual.

Al Gini and Ronald M Green, 10 Virtues of Outstanding Leaders: Leadership and Character, 2013, John Wiley & Sons


Friday, May 24 2013

Feedback loop

I love Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Effective feedback helps us to break that cycle and do things differently.

What I hadn't recognised until recently was how many of the tips, hints and advice around this aspect of work life apply equally well whether you are the giver or the (hopefully willing) recipient of feedback. This highlights a key point: giving and receiving feedback is a conversation. Even better, it's part of a series of conversations which occur in the broader context of an ongoing professional relationship.

Tips I shared with colleagues as part of their structured professional development program that I've designed and am implementing included:

  • Don’t take it personally, feedback is about what you have done not who you are.
  • Take some deep breaths
  • Assume the other person has good intentions
  • Focus on behaviours and be specific
  • Really listen to understand the other person’s perspective
  • Find ways to work together
  • Say what you have learned and what you will do as a result
  • Admit responsibility (and accept praise!)
  • Use the feedback to clarify standards, goals and expectations
  • Role model the behaviours you want to see in others.

I'd appreciate some feedback! What have you found particularly useful in these sorts of conversations?

Monday, May 6 2013

The Fashion for Passion

Passion. I confess, it’s a word I’m uncomfortable with. It brings to my mind business televangelists. And even if I had a passion for something my understated, introverted tendencies mean I’d likely not tell you!

Having and following a single minded passion can rule out too many perfectly good alternative options and doesn’t leave room for other important, necessary, but less exciting things. It also gives too easy an excuse for not actually doing anything while “working out what I’ll do when I grow up”.

So while finding and following your passion might be fashionable advice, what I suspect works for many of us is the connection between productivity and engagement . When we work on something successfully we become engaged in it. I’m not praising the mediocre, but this is more about attitude and hard work than about dreams. It’s about seeing where our efforts fit into a larger picture so we can do the boring bits - and every job has them - because of what they contribute to.

And attitude counts. I had coffee this morning with a friend who is a poet. She mentioned colleagues who undertake an exercise to write a poem a day, every day, for a month. By doing this their perspective shifts and they begin to see the poetic all around them. In our professional lives perhaps we need to focus on doing good work really well, becoming engaged in it as we experience success, and then, just maybe, becoming passionate about it as an outcome, not as a goal.

Some of these ideas are a response to Mark Babbitt’s post “Follow your passion” SUCKS as career advice and Tony Wilson’s AHRI HR Practices Day keynote where he touched on the link between productivity and engagement.

Sunday, April 14 2013

Venus, Mars and leaning in…. What if we are missing the point?

What if we are missing the point? The inclination to see differences makes us blind to the overwhelming similarities of men and women, and we’re easily fooled into seeing dissimilarities that don’t exist according to Stephen Holden. His brief review of scientific studies on gender differences shows mixed findings in recent published work, raises the issue that statistical significance is not always significant and points out that when studies look for gender differences and find none they might not even be published. Perhaps we aren’t from Venus after all!

Pointing out that women and men are much more similar than some recent business and pop psychology best sellers suggest is useful but doesn’t explain measurable differences in pay rates and the number of women in senior or board positions or part time roles.

What it does remind us is that these differences are not intrinsic to being male or female so they must be a result of things that can be changed.

Changing long standing, socially entrenched and unconscious biases is difficult. Anna Genat and Robert Wood’s recent work on unconscious bias shows that for all the emphasis on the importance of intuition and “going with gut feeling” we’d be better to slow down and not only respond to what we feel but analyse why we feel it. And this is particularly true when we might stereotype male and female competencies.

So success for individual women and men will be related to their talents and skills but also to how others interpret and value their competencies and more broadly about the physical and cultural structures and supports they have in their professional and personal lives. Skills, confidence and smart positioning are all important but leaning in without appropriate supports results in falling over!

And success is a slippery concept. Mary Walshok recently suggested that Sheryl Sandberg is probably right; success in America requires singular focus on developing leadership skills and a strong power base. But Walshok goes on to question this definition of success and draws on her work on corporate cultures around the world to point out that in the US -and I’d suggest in Australia to a large degree - success and identity relate to career. Whereas she points to other countries that rank higher than America in productivity and quality of life and have very different values which are reflected in the workplace.

She believes we should not be discussing whether women need to change in order to be successful, but to challenge this definition of success and recognise that not just workplaces but communities and families need time leadership and expertise. I agree.

http://theconversation.com/gender-differences-more-fictions-than-fact-11725 http://voice.unimelb.edu.au/volume-8/number-12/balanced-response-bias http://www.xconomy.com/san-diego/2013/03/18/women-success-and-corporate-culture-are-these-the-values-we-want/

Monday, April 8 2013

Gardener Managers

The manager as gardener. This image sticks with me from the book Manager Redefined by Thomas Davenport and Stephen Harding. They see effective middle managers as creating an ecosystem which allows employees to flourish. So taking this analogy further (and probably further that Davenport and Harding intended) what gardening tasks do managers do?

Pruning is determining what not to do. It’s so easy to keep adding new projects and tasks without deciding that some activities are no longer useful. Even though we do them well, we need to stop. Judicious pruning also encourages new growth.

Weeding removes obstacles. Dealing with small issues early before they can grow and take over . Removing unnecessary policy, procedures or structures that get in the way or take up resources at the expense of desired plants. Removing the weeds gives people the freedom they need to do their jobs.

Fertilising is not dumping manure! It is providing what is needed to support healthy growth: resources, information, and encouragement.

Protection finally, supervisors might need to provide protection from harsh organisational sun and wind (or careful exposure when weaker plants need to toughen up).

The gardener’s work is constant. Small interventions made regularly rather than a bulldozer when the plot is overgrown and weeds have got out of control (although occasional remodelling will be necessary). Wise gardeners know that the garden alters day by day. A garden where nothing changes is either plastic or dead.

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