Five signs of an effective leadership team

May 9th, 2017 No comments

Five signs of an effective leadership team

a leadership conversation

How do you know when a leadership team is effective? What are the signs of a healthy executive team?

I’ve just begun working with an executive leadership team. The eight team members are collectively responsible for an organisation that generates £900m in turnover a year. And it’s early days – we are still in the ‘ritual sniffing’ stage, as one of my first line managers memorably called it. We’re getting to know each other.

What I am paying attention to

I’ve been reflecting on what I am paying attention to as I meet them one-to-one, and as I see them at work as a team. Here are some of the things that seem significant to me:

What happens when a team member says something odd, unexpected or controversial? Is there a pause and a silence, and does the conversation then carry on as if nothing has been said? Is that view squashed or dismissed, or do other team members show curiosity: inquiring into the reasons behind the unusual comments?

Why this matters: leaders working in complex, fast-changing environments (and who is not these days?) need to keep their ‘antennae’ open to signals from the outside world that all may not be as it seems. Leadership teams can easily filter out information that does not fit with their assumptions and plans. Team members who say something that sounds ‘odd’ may be noticing one of these signs. In drawing it to their colleagues’ attention, they are doing a service to the team as a whole, and improving the evidence base on which it makes its decisions. But if no one else notices, their service has no impact.

Would an outsider walking into the room know immediately where the power and authority lies? This shows itself by where people sit, who people look at before they speak, the order in which people tend to speak, or who they defer to when they have spoken.

Why this matters: by itself this is neither good nor bad: it depends on the purpose of the team. If the team exists to bring key information from across the organisation to the attention of the Chief Executive, then it is clear where authority needs to lie. But if the purpose of the team is to collectively shape strategic decisions and lead the whole organisation, then authority will need to be more fluid.

To what extent do team members challenge each other? In particular, to what extent do team members challenge the Chief Executive?
Is conflict openly expressed? Or once the Chief Executive has spoken, is that the end of a discussion?

Why this matters: questions about the strategy of an organisation are never black and white – there will not be just one right answer, but several answers each of which will be partly right and partly wrong. For this reason, teams need to explore and test the range of possible answers; they can’t do that if some of those possibilities are never named or thoroughly explored.

Does anyone admit they don’t know the answer to a question? Or express vulnerability or uncertainty, or ask for help?

Why this matters: the foundation of all effective teamwork is trust. And trust comes about when a team member makes themselves vulnerable, and then discovers that their colleagues do not use that vulnerability as an opportunity to hurt them. If team members struggle to be vulnerable with each other, they will have low levels of trust.

Does the team spend any time at all reflecting together on how well they are doing as a team, and what they are learning? Do they make decisions, or do the same issues come back to the table? Are they too busy fighting fires one by one to prevent the fires starting in the first place? Finally, what ‘stuck patterns’ might they be stuck in?

Why this matters: this is what makes the difference between a team that is coping at best, and a team that is raising its game. Teams can only improve by investing time in the present to improve their performance in the the future.

What am I missing?

We see what we look for, and I’m no different. I wonder what I am not paying attention to? What signs and indicators might I be missing? If you know of other signs of an effective leadership team, please let me know by emailing me, or if you are reading this on my blog, please leave a comment below.

Scouting for strategy

September 30th, 2016 No comments

Scouting for strategy

“When faced with the choice to change his mind or find the proof not to do so, the conventional man always gets busy looking for proof.”
J K Galbraith

Developing an effective strategy for your organisation depends on your willingness to confront inconvenient truths, and your ability to see the world as it is, rather than how you wish it were.

The Dreyfus affair

In 1894, a member of the French army’s general staff discovered a torn-up note in a waste-paper bin. When they pieced the note back together, they found that an officer had been selling military secrets to Germany. The hunt began to find the traitor.

photo of Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

Suspicion quickly fell on Alfred Dreyfus: it was no coincidence that Dreyfus was the only Jewish officer of his rank in the entire army. It was at this point that confirmation bias kicked in. Every piece of evidence the investigators gathered was interpreted in a way that confirmed the conclusion they had already reached: that Dreyfus was the traitor. The investigators:

  • compared Dreyfus’ handwriting to that on the memo, and concluded that they matched (even though professional handwriting experts were much less confident);
  • searched Dreyfus’ apartment and found nothing at all to incriminate him (which just went to show what a clever and well-trained spy he was);
  • talked to his school-teachers and learned he had been interested in learning foreign languages (useful for betraying secrets to foreign powers); and
  • learned from his teachers that Dreyfus had an excellent memory (very useful for a spy, who has to memorise a lot of information).

Dreyfus was found guilty, publicly humiliated and imprisoned for life on Devil’s Island, a barren land off the coast of South America.

Mad, bad or wrong?

So were the investigators mad, bad or wrong to conclude that Dreyfus was guilty on such flimsy evidence? Did they know he was innocent but just not care? Was he framed to protect someone else?

Researcher Julia Galef argues that we don’t have to assume any madness or badness on the part of the investigators. What they did was all too human and predictable: we are all guilty at times of the confirmation bias to which they fell prey.

The soldier and scout mindsets

In an illuminating TED talk, Galef contrasts two different mindsets, which she calls the ‘soldier’ and the ‘scout’.

Imagine a soldier in the heat of battle, with adrenalin pumping and heart pounding. The soldier’s actions all stem from deeply-ingrained reflexes: instincts aimed at protecting their own side and defeating the enemy. They are swept along by this over-riding purpose.

By contrast, a scout’s job is not to attack or defend: the scout’s job is to understand how things really are. They may hope to learn there is a safe place to make camp just over the next ridge, but if what they find is an exposed plain with no good shelter, that is just what they will report back to their commanding officer.

These roles are also metaphors for different mind-sets. When the French high command were investigating Dreyfus, they were almost certainly in a soldier mindset. Their country was under threat, military secrets were being sold to a foreign power. It was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. And Dreyfus may well have stood out at first because he was Jewish – for the investigators he was not one of ‘us’, so he must have been ‘one of them’.

Enter the scout

A high-ranking French officer began to suspect that the case against Dreyfus was flawed. Colonel Picquart had reason to believe that the spying had continued after Dreyfus was in prison. But it took 10 years for him to finally have the case against Dreyfus over-turned.

Picquart demonstrated a ‘scout’ mindset. He was interested in confronting the truth, even when that was inconvenient for him personally (during his campaign to free Dreyfus, he himself spent time in prison for his disloyalty to the army). He was curious enough to investigate why Dreyfus might not be guilty, even when his organisation was convinced otherwise.

Scouting for strategy

In developing an effective organisational strategy, you need to follow a process that forces you to confront the world as it actually is, not how you would like it to be. The scout mindset – curiosity, a willingness to look for evidence that disproves what you believe, and an ability feel proud rather than ashamed when we discover our errors – is your friend when facing an uncertain future.

What you can say about this

  • Are we being soldiers or scouts here?
  • What evidence could we find to show this isn’t true?
  • Who am I not listening to right now, because they see things differently to me?

Want to know how to see the world as it actually is when developing your organisation’s strategy? Drop me a line at stuart@stuartreid.org.uk.

Let’s get personal: how personal stories help you connect

March 18th, 2016 No comments

Let’s get personal: how personal stories help you connect with others

a personal storyA couple of weeks ago I was working with a Chief Executive (I’ll call him Andy). Andy is beginning to use more stories in his work – when giving presentations, meeting clients, and talking one-to-one to his staff. His stories tend to be about other people and their achievements – which is great. Leaders develop trust when they are seen to give credit where credit is due. [1]

In a coaching conversation with Andy over a cup of coffee, I encouraged him to experiment with using more personal anecdotes – stories about himself – when meeting people for the first time. These ‘connection stories’ are a great way to reveal something about yourself – your values, your achievements or your experience – in a way that draws your listener in, rather than pushing them away.

“But isn’t it possible to over-share?” asked Andy. “I feel really uncomfortable when people get too personal. I don’t want to hear the ins and outs of someone’s stomach operation when I meet them for the first time!”

And I had to admit that Andy had a point. It is possible to over-share when telling stories – crossing the line between being open and letting it all hang out. I’ve heard stories being told that gave me a strong feeling of ‘too much information’.

How to tell if you are crossing the intimacy line

I shared with Andy some advice from Karen Dietz, a business storytelling author [2]. Karen distinguishes between three types of story: front porch stories, kitchen stories and bedroom stories.

Front porch stories are the kind you would tell to anyone; kitchen stories are the ones you reserve for your ‘inner circle’ or ‘kitchen cabinet’ of people you trust; and bedroom stories are the ones you share with only one or two of the very closest people in your life.

This was a useful ‘mental model’ for Andy: he now uses this as a test by asking himself if a story is one for the front-porch, the kitchen or the bedroom!

How else can you tell if you are ‘crossing the line’? Try testing out your story with someone in your ‘kitchen cabinet’ – someone who will tell you what they really think – and ask them what that story says about you: you may be surprised! If you are happy with what you hear, then go ahead and tell the story.

What you can say about this

“Tell me honestly: is this a front-porch story, a kitchen story or a bedroom story?”

“If I leave out some of the details, can I shift this story from the kitchen onto the front-porch?”

“What do you infer about me from the story I have just told you?”

Want to develop your own connection stories to help you influence, engage and inspire others? Join me in London on 27 April 2016 for Storytelling for Leaders.


  1. Maister, D.H. (2007), Earning Trust, New Careers podcast. 
  2. Hat tip to my storytelling friend and colleague Shawn Callahan, who originally shared Karen’s idea with me. 

Why is change so hard, even when we want to change?

May 1st, 2015 No comments

Why is change so hard, even when we want to change?

I have a masters degree in organisational change from one of the top business schools. I advise leaders on how to navigate change in their organisations. I regularly read books and blog posts and attend seminars on change. So why do I find it so hard to change myself, even when I’m fully committed to doing so?
change cartoon

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

This question came up for me recently, when I reviewed how often I manage to meditate. I know how good meditation is for me, and I am committed to meditating every day – but I discovered that whole weeks can go by without me doing any meditation. I love walking, and aim to walk at least 10,000 steps 5 days a week – but for the past two months I haven’t achieved this goal.

If it is this hard to build a habit when I am keen to do so, how much harder is it for a leader to influence change in their organisation when they are facing active resistance?

A personal inquiry

So I’m kicking off a one-year personal action inquiry into change. My intention is to deepen my understanding of change: what it is and how it happens. And also to develop my practice as someone who helps leaders to navigate change in their organisations. My intention is to deepen my own thinking and understanding of my role in change, and to identify what practices make change easier.

personal inquiry means it’s not just an academic review of what other people think about change: I need to have some ‘skin in the game’. So part of my inquiry will be reflecting on my own experience of change during the year.

And it will be an action inquiry because as well as thinking, reading and talking to others, I’ll be taking other kinds of action too. I’ll be doing some experiments to try to deliberately bring about change. And some noticing and observing change as it naturally takes place around me.

These are some of the questions that interest me right now:

  • Are the processes of change the same for individuals, organisations and cultures? Do the methods that help form new personal habits also help in transforming organisations?
  • What metaphors for change are helpful?
  • What illusions do we commonly suffer from when we are trying to make change happen? (Illusions of control, of permanence, etc)
  • What paradoxes are involved in change?
  • What other ways are there of understanding change? For example, I’m interested in what we might learn from Buddhist ideas about being ‘unattached to outcomes’.

Join me

I intend to open up my inquiry and share what I’m learning with others. And I’d love to hear from and collaborate with you if you are also interested in inquiring into change. I’m going to experiment with ways of opening up that conversation online, virtually and face-to-face as part of my inquiry.

If you would like to be involved in that do please let me know in the comments below, or contact me directly. 

How to be at your best

August 3rd, 2014 No comments

How to be at your best

Seth Godin has published a great blog post about how our behaviour can make our bosses more conservative than they really are. Well-meaning people who try to please their bosses

…buff off the edges, dilute the goodness and quench their curiosity. They churn out another version of what’s already there, because they’re imagining the most risk-averse version of their boss is in the room with them.

I know that I sometimes do this (though in my case my ‘boss’ is a client instead). I want to be helpful, I want to give the client what they ask for, and I want to respect what the client already knows and believes. Sometimes I’m also afraid of angering the client by challenging them, and harming our relationship (and perhaps losing some paid work as a result). But if I fail to confront them and challenge them when I need to, I don’t serve their best interests.

On a good day, I can catch myself doing this. Even better, by being mindful about how I’m approaching a meeting with a client, I can notice in advance that I’m intending to please them. At times like this I use a really useful tool created by the business coach Michael Bungay-Stanier.

“I am this…not that”

Michael calls his tool an ‘I am this… not that’ list. It’s a list of 10 matched pairs of adjectives: one word describes him when he is at his best, and its matched pair describes him when he is at his worst. One of Michael’s matched pairs is ‘Provocative… not sycophantic’ (hence ‘This… not that’). I have something similar on my list.

My list of 10 pairs of words is a useful prompt for me – I carry it around with me wherever I go. It helps me to stay on track and reminds me what I can be like when I’m at my best. And it takes just seconds to scan the list, and re-connect with how I am when I am at my best.

If you’d like to find out more about how to create your own ‘I am this… not that’ list then do get in touch. And if you already have an idea what one of your matched pairs would be – a pair of words that describe you at your best and at your worst – let me know in the comments below.

Categories: Coaching, Conversation, Learning Tags:

Small change

April 29th, 2014 4 comments

Small change

If your organisation needed to save £300,000, would you think about making people redundant? Re-structuring? Business process re-engineering? Or would it occur to you to cancel the olives that you are serving with lunch?

An American Airlines flight attendant took the time to notice that many of her passengers did not eat the olives in their salads. She thought this observation might be useful and passed this observation up the chain of command. It was eventually discovered that the airline was charged by its food supplier for salads based on the number of items they contained. The cost for a salad with one to four items was less than a salad with five to eight items. And the uneaten olives, it turned out, were the fifth item in the American Airlines salad. When the airline dropped the olives and switched to a four-item salad, it saved five hundred thousand dollars a year.
 [from Robert E. Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the kaizen way, pp. 161-2.]

The assumption that big problems need big solutions is natural and beguiling. It gets our brains whirring and we come up with big ideas, grand schemes and elaborate plans. And those schemes can be intimidating – too big to implement. So we can all too easily end up doing nothing at all. Or we start to implement them, and it all becomes too hard, and we give up.

Another approach is to question our assumption instead: that big problems need big solutions.
Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades… There is a clear asymmetry between the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution. Big problem, small solution.
 [From Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: how to change things when change is hard, p. 44.]

 Big problems may need small solutions

So big problems may need small solutions. And more than likely, more than one small solution. And sometimes the first step towards a solution can be embarrassingly, trivially, or comically small. In One Small Step, Robert Maurer tells the story of someone who wanted to stop taking sugar in her tea. So the next time she went to add sugar to her tea, she gently removed one grain of sugar from the teaspoon. The  time after that it was two grains… Pretty soon she had cut out sugar altogether. Robert also writes about people who buy a chocolate bar but throw away the first square… then two squares…

These ridiculously small actions also have the benefit of being ridiculously easy. They’re so easy you can start straight away. That’s a huge advantage over elaborate schemes.

I wrote this blog post by setting myself the goal of working on it for just one minute a day. That made it fun – all I had to do was write a sentence or two, or find the right page number for the quote I was using. And most days I did a bit more than a minute – because I felt like it. In just 10 days I had a finished blog post – the first one I’ve written for nearly a year. This stuff works…

What is the biggest problem you are facing now? And what could be a very tiny step – embarrassingly small – that you could take right now to  move you in the right direction? Share your ideas in the comments below and I’ll respond!

Categories: Change Tags:

Learning fast

July 3rd, 2013 No comments

Today I came across a seductively simple 5-step approach to learning a new skill fast.

In a video interview with Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project, author Josh Kaufman describes how to get ‘good enough’ at a new skill within 20 hours of practice. The five steps, as set out in his book The First 20 Hours: how to learn anything…fast are:

  1. State the level of performance you want to achieve with the new skill. What is it you want to be able to do? So not just ‘learn French’ but instead ‘go to a restaurant where the waiters speak only French, and spend the entire meal speaking only French’.
  2. Deconstruct the sub-skills you need to achieve that level of performance. It’s really hard to practice ‘being a good golfer’. But you can practice ‘driving the ball 100 yards from the tee’.
  3. To help you do step 2, do some research to find out what those sub-skills are (eg skim-read between  3 and 5 ‘how to’ books, identifying the key skills those books identify). Josh warns against over-researching and getting stuck at this stage: this step is about taking a quick overview of the subject area so you can focus in on the key sub-skills.
  4. Make it as easy as possible to actually start practicing – eliminate as many barriers to practice as you can. So if you’re going to learn some chords on the guitar, keep your guitar out of its case on a stand where you can easily reach it in your practice place – not buried at the back of a cupboard.
  5. Pre-commit to practising those sub-skills for at least 20 hours. Then do the practice.

‘Accelerated Learning: how to get good at anything in 20 hours’ on YouTube

I find the first step really appealing – it makes the goal much more achievable: rather than boiling the ocean you are encouraged to think of a very concrete goal. And this step also guarantees that what you are learning is something you can actually use – you only learn the skills you need, rather than mastering the whole field.

Josh Kaufman is happy to agree that taking this approach doesn’t make the practice itself any easier – the first few hours are still going to be tough and discouragain, and all learners will make mistakes. And it’s only when you get to the end of step 5 that the practice actually begins – I know from my own experience that I can spend a long time in steps 1-4, avoiding starting on step 5…

There’s a lovely little moment at the end of the video interview where the interviewer Jonathan Fields is visibly excited by this approach and keen to try it out. But he resists naming what he is going to try to learn, because he realises that he has not fully committed to actually putting in the 20 hours of initial practice. Until he’s ready to make that commitment he won’t be going public.

Early in the video Josh explains how his approach fits with the often-quoted figure of 10,000 hours of practice needed to master a skill. Really mastering a skill – for example, being able to play golf against Tiger Woods and have a chance of beating him – would indeed take around 10,000 hours of focused, deliberate practice. That’s what it takes to be one of the best in the world. But you can get surprisingly good at a new skill – according to Josh – in only 20 hours (that’s 40 minutes a day for about a month).

I’m very interested in giving this a go, and have already thought of a skill I’d like to get better at. But I think I’ll do some practice first before I go public on my commitment… just to see if I can get beyond step 5.

Categories: Change, Coaching, Training Tags:

Change in organisations

January 3rd, 2013 5 comments
Skimming stone

Skimming stone

I was enjoyably provoked or nudged today by a blog post from Rob Poynton. Rob writes about how large scale change seems to need systems and programmes that get ‘rolled out’, but which almost always fail, falter or produce unintended consequences.

It seems to Rob that changes often happen in unplanned, unintended ways – like a stone skipping across water. The path can’t be planned, and we may not even know where the stone has come from. That’s the kind of change that Rob chooses to be involved in.

I intellectually and emotionally agree with Rob’s analysis. It seems right. For example, I think that organisations are best understood as something like conversations – an interactive, creative process that occurs between people, in which we make gestures and offers to each other, which can be received and replied to in unexpected ways that we can’t control. So no one can control what happens in an organisation – they can only make an offer and see how people respond, and in turn respond to those responses.

This is very different to a view of organisations that sees them as being like machines. The machine view leads us to try to change organisations by re-engineering them, changing the wiring, drawing up blueprints etc. It is a view that believes that top-down control is not only possible but also the desirable way to bring about change. A small number of people at the ‘top’ of an organisation make some decisions (which might be written up in a document called a strategy), which are then ‘implemented’ or ‘executed’ by more junior people who can be ‘aligned’ so they face the right way. The cleverer and more skilful the people at the top, the more effectively the strategy can be implemented.

So here’s the thing. Most of my work is with large, public-sector organisations. And I am often invited in by one or more of those senior people who are trying to do this top-down change thing, and my job is to help them. And their job is to do the strategy-implementation thing – if they fail then they could lose their job.

And I do have some sympathy with the people I work with. They want to make things better in particular ways – they want to get their team members working better together with less conflict, they want their organisations to be more productive, they want new types of work to be done to better meet the needs of the people who use their services. They feel they do not have a lot of room to manoeuvre, with pressure from their own bosses, from politicians and from the public to achieve great things in a short time.

These intentions to make things better in particular ways are legitimate, it seems to me. And I want to help the managers to achieve them (they are my clients, and my purpose is to help them achieve theirs). And when I start working with these managers I quickly get seduced by the tools of the machine view: I ask to see structure charts and to read the latest strategy, in the belief that they are important. I start to help the manager to develop a step-by-step change plan, with phases and milestones and structural change, because that is what the machine view tells us we need in order to achieve X change by Y date – because how else do you bring about change? I assume that the objectives are given and not negotiable: that we have to achieve X by Y date with Z resources, and that planned change is the only way to do this.

What would happen if my client had a conversation with her boss pointing out the flaws in the machine model, arguing that we can’t control change only make offers, and that she can’t guarantee that X will happen by Y date? I imagine that this would not be acceptable, she would be told to get on with it or fired and replaced if she refused. And imagining this conversation also stops me having the same conversation with my client – I imagine that if I explained my view then she would fire me and find someone else who would promise to achieve X by Y. And I do want to work to earn my living.

So the machine view has great power. As long as enough of us act as if it’s true, particularly if those with power do so, then it is hard to break out of it (at least, if we want to work it is). And it traps us in a cycle of large-scale, programmed change that doesn’t work (if Rob is right about that).

So how to break out of this? I could start by having the conversations I avoid with my clients, instead of avoiding them. The chances are some of them don’t believe the machine view either. (I can imagine some of them saying “I know this won’t work but I’ve got to do it anyway”). And I’d like to work with these managers to find a new and more effective way for them to pursue their legitimate aims within their organisations, which needs a different understanding of their role as leaders and managers, a different understanding of change, and a different view of what organisations actually are. And it needs a different understanding of what my role is in supporting change. I’m not very sure what that ‘different’ understanding is – particularly what someone actually does who wants change to happen but acknowledges they can’t control it. But I am interested in finding out by trying it.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Categories: Change Tags: , , ,

Are you an 18 second manager?

August 4th, 2011 No comments

Are you an 18 second manager?

This is a nice provocative video from Tom Peters on listening:

Tom refers to research into the length of time taken by doctors before they interrupt a patient describing their symptoms. He recommends that managers and leaders (and in fact everyone in every organisation) develop their ability to listen to their customers, employees and colleagues. It is something that be learned.

Are you an 18-second manager, or an 18-second leader?

Up on the ridge

January 23rd, 2011 No comments

valleys and ridges

valleys and ridges

Up on the ridge

I came across a great article by Daniel Yankelovich the other day on ‘The magic of dialogue’ (hat tip to Lynn Murphy for the original link).

In the article Daniel refers to Martin Buber’s idea that life is a form of meeting, and that dialogue is the ‘ridge’ on which we meet. I like that image, because a ridge is narrow, and we need to take care not to fall off. It takes some effort to stay up there – it is easier to slip back down into our own territory, than it is to stay at the point where we are in a real connection with someone else.

Dialogue, debate and conversation

Daniel explains why he prefers to refer to ‘dialogue’ rather than debate; he feels that dialogue is about seeking mutual understanding, whereas debate is about winning an argument, or vanquishing an opponent. I share his interest in mutual understanding rather than winning, but I prefer to refer to ‘conversation’ rather than dialogue: conversation for me is a less formal, more everyday term than dialogue.

Tips for improving conversations

Daniel gives some great advice in his article for improving the quality of the conversations or dialogue that he is promoting. His tips include:

  • bringing assumptions out into the open (and sharing your own assumptions before pointing out the assumptions of other people);
  • offering a gesture of empathy (what Daniel calls an ‘open sesame’ for dialogue). Empathy usually involved “acknowledging the validity of the other person’s point of view”); and
  • “expressing the emotions that accompany strongly held values”. Conversation about any topic that really matters to people is bound to touch on deeply held beliefs and very personal convictions. “If the status quo is to be subject to question, strong feelings are bound to surface.”

The whole article is well worth a read, and I’m inspired to take a look at his book of the same name (Amazon affiliate link).

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.