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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.

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.

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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.

Sharing lessons learned between projects

May 24th, 2010 No comments

Agenda for post-project reviewI frequently run ‘post-project reviews’ or ‘after-action reviews’. These events bring together teams who have recently completed a project, so that they can learn lessons for the future. The lessons could be ones that the participants will personally take forward with them into their future work, and can also be lessons that colleagues elsewhere in their organisation or partnership need to learn.

I have developed my own approach to running these events, drawing a lot on the ideas of Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell in their excellent book Learning to Fly, and also influenced by Nick Milton. I am quite pleased with the process I have developed, and at the same time I am dissatisfied with how effective it is overall – I think it is effective in helping individuals to learn their own lessons, but not very effective in sharing lessons across projects.

Reading a recent blog post by Nancy Dixon helped me to see where and why my current approach is falling short.

Nancy identifies three stages in the process of learning lessons across projects:

1. Sensemaking: The members of the project team jointly make sense of what they have learned.
2. Formatting: Designers assemble, translate, aggregate, and mine projects lessons in such a way that they are useful to different groups in the organization
3. Moving: KM professionals create both pull and push mechanism so that lessons are accessible to those who need them.

My post-project reviews focus on the first stage, and I feel that they have become effective in helping team members to identify the real issues, discuss openly what went well and not so well and why. But they could be more effective in stages 2 and 3.

The typical output from a post-project review that I run is a set of PowerPoint slides, which include photos I have taken of all the outputs from the review – these are usually a picture of the project timeline, with comments hand-written by the team; boards with hand-written cards showing what the team thought went well and not so well; and more detailed boards probing the key things that went well/not so well, identifying why and pulling out lessons learned. By including photos of the materials produced by the participants, rather than typing up their outputs, I reduce the amount of interpreting or processing of their thoughts – the idea is that the participants will recognise the outputs as their own.

What happens to these sets of PowerPoint slides? They may be read by the participants after the review (or just filed). They may also be discussed by the management team of the organisation that commissioned me to carry out the review (or more likely, the team may look at a formal paper based on the slides I produced). But there may be no other ‘formatting’ (stage 2 in Nancy’s process), and possibly no ‘moving’ at all (stage 3). The likelihood is that most of the learning will stay in the heads of the people who took part in the review.

While it is true that

If knowledge transfer went no farther than sensemaking, a considerable amount of transfer across the organization would have been achieved.

I still have a sense of missed opportunities – that more could be achieved.

What are the implications for me as a facilitator?

I do not think that I want to take on responsibility for stages 2 and 3. My skills as a facilitator are in helping the project team have the conversation during which they identify the learning. I have produced learning materials in the past, but instructional design is not my main area of expertise (nor is it where I want to spend my time). And I do not work within organisations as a KM professional to create systems to push and pull knowledge around.

I do think I have a responsibility when contracting with a client to raise these issues and ask how they think the lessons can and should be taken forward and shared – how do they see it happening? And I could share what I have learned from Nancy’s blog post.

There may also be some learning for me about the lessons learned process. When the team has identified a lesson, I could ask them to identify specifically who that lesson may be useful for – it could be a named individual or individuals, it could be people in a particular role (eg project managers). This would at least help to target the lesson more effectively.

And I could also ask the team to review all the lessons they have identified in a particular post-project review, and identify the top 2 or 3 they think have most value for other people.

What else could I do while still remaining in what Nancy refers to as the ‘sensemaking’ stage of transferring lessons learned?

* The image at the top of the post is from a post-project review that I ran in 2009

Job/career/purpose

May 9th, 2010 2 comments

I got a couple of really good points from the TED video that I have embedded below. The video is a recording of Stefan Sagmeister, who runs a New York design agency. Every 7 years he takes a sabbatical year off, to recharge his batteries and to generate some new ideas.

At 1:30 Stefan describes how he sees his sabbaticals as effectively ‘bringing forward’ some of the retirement he hopes to enjoy at the en of his working life (he has a really nice animated graphic that makes his point very clearly). This is how I have been thinking of my own part-time working over the past five years. Except that I am bringing forward some of my retirement into every week – I am able to do now some of the things that earlier in my life I had been putting off until retirement. But the idea of a year-long sabbatical is even more attractive…

At 2:25 Stefan develops an idea from an earlier TED talk by Jonathan Haidt. He distinguishes between a job, a career and a calling:

  • Jobs: we do them for money, 9-5
  • Careers: we do them for promotion
  • Calling: we would do this even if we weren’t paid to do it

Apart from preferring the word ‘purpose’ where Stefan uses the word ‘calling’, this is also how I think of my own work. I am overjoyed each time I find myself doing work that I would happily do unpaid: playing games with groups of adults; sharing skills and knowledge that I find useful and interesting with new people; coaching people to achieve their goals; mediating between people in conflict. This is great work, and I want to spend more of my time doing it.

Hat tip to Alexander Kjerulf for linking to the TED video.

Don’t talk about morality at work

April 17th, 2010 No comments

Silenced

Silenced

Research** has found that managers often recognise they are making a moral decision at work, and they draw on their own moral standards to make those decisions. BUT THEY DON’T ADMIT IT! When asked to explain their reasoning, they will explain their reasoning in purely rational terms.

Bird and Waters, who carried out the research, refer to this as the ‘moral muteness of managers’.

To me this is an example of not being fully present, of not fully showing up for work. And organisations and individuals both contribute to this happening. Organisational cultures give people particular resources with which to explain their actions – complying with rules and regulations, or doing what we’ve always done, or doing what the boss would want can be the ‘usual’ or expected explanations that are offered for decisions or actions. And as individuals, we can also choose not to disclose the full reasoning for our actions or decisions – for fear of criticism, or because we don’t want to spend the time in debate, or just because we don’t want to stick out and appear different.

The problem is that as a result we shrink a little bit each time we do this. If we don’t bring our moral selves to work with us, then work becomes a place where we can’t develop as moral people. The same happens if we don’t bring our emotional needs, our needs to be physically healthy, or our needs to learn to work with us – work has much less potential to be a place where we can express emotion, be healthy and learn.

I am trying to ‘show up’ more in my work. My focus is on being more transparent about my reasoning (explaining not just what I think, but why), being more curious about what other people think (so I may learn something, and may change my own opinion), closing the gap between what I think and what I say, and speaking up when I am unhappy or have a different view. I’m not finding it easy, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m already a good listener; now I am choosing to speak as well, rather than remain mute.

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

** In interviews with 60 managers, Bird and Waters found nearly 300 examples where managers had dealt with moral issues at work, but in only 12 per cent of those examples was there any public discussion of the moral issues. F B Bird and J A Waters, ‘The moral muteness of managers’, California Management Review, Fall 1989: 32, 1, pp. 73-88. Hat tip to Nancy White, who refers to the study in her book Dialogue at Work.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

January 21st, 2010 No comments

Drilling a well

Drilling a well

This post concludes my summary of chapter 1 of Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations, and covers two new techniques.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

Scott describes a very simple technique which makes a noticeable difference to the quality of conversation. She recommends whenever we find ourselves about to say “yes, but”, replacing those words with “yes, and”.

“I need your help with this project.”

“Yes, but I’m very busy right now.”

The ‘yes’ here does acknowledge the need, the ‘but’ says ‘but I’m not going to meet that need’.

“I need your help with this project.”

“Yes, and I’m very busy right now.”

There’s a bit more wriggle room here – the second response doesn’t quite have the air of finality. There’s some room for discussion.

How does this work? Because saying “yes, but” acknowledges that there are competing needs, and asks us to choose between them – we can only have one or the other. Saying “yes, and” acknowledges that both realities or sets of needs can be valid, and allows us to look for ways in which everyone’s needs can be met. There’s more potential in the second response.

Mineral rights conversations

A ‘mineral rights conversation’ is one that has a clear focus, and drills down deep. The name comes from the idea that if you are drilling for water, it’s better to drill a single hundred-foot well, than one hundred one-foot wells.

A mineral rights conversation has seven steps:

  1. Identify your most pressing issue.
  2. Clarify the issue.
  3. Determine the current impact.
  4. Determine the future implications.
  5. Examine your personal contribution to this issue.
  6. Describe the ideal outcome.
  7. Commit to action.

This is a structure that could be used effectively in a coaching conversation. Scott gives a long example of a mineral rights conversation in the form of a transcript of a conversation she had with John Tompkins, the owner of a fishing company that was in trouble.  In the conversation Scott uses powerful, focused questions that lead the company owner through these steps. The conversation ends with a clear commitment on John’s part to take specific actions. And at no point does Scott offer advice or tell John what to do – he generates his own solutions. Her main strategy is just to ask good questions.

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

Interrogating reality

January 3rd, 2010 No comments

Lion and cub

Lion and cub

This post continues my summary of Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations (I got as far as the introduction last time!)

Chapter 1 (‘Master the courge to interrogate reality’) is the longest single chapter in the book, and will take me more than one post to summarise.

Interrogating reality

Reality changes

‘Interrogating reality’ is one of the four key purposes of a fierce conversation (the others being provoking learning, tackling tough challenges and enriching relationships). This is a never-ending activity, because reality changes. Scott uses a great quote from Lillian Hellman to illustrate this:

People change and forget to tell one another

Worse than this, we ourselves change and we mask it from ourselves quite well too.

Scott introduces the analogy of a beach ball to develop this idea further. Imagine that your organisation is a beach ball – with a blue stripe, a red stripe, a green stripe and a yellow stripe. You are the president of the organisation, and you spend all your time on the blue stripe. To you, your organisation is blue.

But your finance director may spend all her time on the red stripe – her reality is very different. So when you lay out your vision for the future in a board meeting, you talk about blue; and your ideas are brilliant, because they take full account of the blueness of the organisation. But your finance director wonders if she is working in the same organisation as you – she raises her concerns based on her red view of the organisation. Meanwhile the VP of engineering, who lives on the yellow stripe, is so uncomfortable in the face of conflict that he sits so still in the meeting that everyone forgets he’s there – he disappears, and no one can remember later whether he was there or not.

How often in organisations do people hide what they really think? When the boss outlines his or her latest idea, how often do people just smile and nod, while inside they are thinking “This is crazy!”, “It will never work”, “We tried that before and it failed last time!”. These are likely to be the very people who will have to implement the idea, in which they have no faith. How often do you find yourself saying things you don’t mean, just to be polite? What conversations have you not been able to have with colleagues, with your life partner or with your children?

Who has the turth?

Scott believes that most people would rather hear the truth, even if it is uncomfortable for us:

[R]ecognize that there is something within us that responds deeply to people who level with us, who do not pamper us or offer compromises, but, instead, describe reality so simply and compellingly that the truth seems inevitable, and we cannot help but recognize it.

In an organisation, as in a relationship, everyone has a piece of the truth.We only know what we know (the blue stripe, for example). So getting at the truth for an organisation requires everyone to put their piece of truth on the table. Does this take time? Probably. But not doing it might take longer. Failing to take into account the views of others will lead them to quietly sabotage your plans – why should they care about your views, when you show little interest in theirs?

A three-step model for interrogating reality

Scott offers a very simple, three step model which helps to get everyone’s reality in the discussion (this summary uses my words rather than hers):

  1. State your view (including your recommendation if you have one)
  2. Check for understanding
  3. Check for agreement

How does this work?

You should clearly state how you see things, including what you think ought to be done (if you have an opinion on that). Some people choose not to express their view, in the belief that it will influence others and stop them saying what they really think. Scott’s view, which I agree with, is that people will assume you have a view anyway, and will try to guess what it is. Better to just tell them. It also gives people a firm starting point to respond to.

You then check to see whether people have understood what you think – let people ask questions to clarify (and if anyone is looking puzzled or thoughtful, invite them by name to ask questions if anything isn’t clear). And then you ask a genuine question inviting people who see it differently to say how they see it – acknowledge that it may be hard for people to speak up, but show that you are genuinely curious about their point of view. So you can acknowledge that you only know what you know, and others in the room will know things you don’t know, and will see it differently.

It is your behaviour now that will make the difference between this being a genuine discussion, and the discussion becoming a ritual. If someone expresses a view that differs from yours, do not become defensive and explain how you were right all along. Be genuinely interested in the alternative view – could they be right? You need to be tentative about your own viewpoint – could your proposal be improved or a different idea be better? Scott also recommends calling on each person individually to express their view. And ask people to comment on each others’ views too, as well as your starting point.

Well, that’s it for now. There is more to come in this chapter, including a way of holding a conversation that stays focused on the most important topic, and drills down to what really matters. I’ll cover that in the next post.

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

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

December 28th, 2009 No comments

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

My stand-out book of the year for 2009 is Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This book was recommended to me this autumn by five different people who heard about my interest in conversation for change, so it arrived at just the right time for me.

The book is about how to have ‘real’ conversations about the things that really matter, with the people that really matter. While the book contains a lot of practical techniques and exercises to try, it is more than a set of top tips – the core of the book is about helping you decide the kind of person you want to be when in conversation. Do you want to be someone who plays safe and keeps every conversation light, or do you want to take the risk of being seen for who you are, and perhaps being changed?

The book is also packed with nice one-liners and quotes that help to keep the main messages memorable.

I’ll be writing a series of posts summarising some of the key ideas in the book, mainly to help me make sense of them for myself, by putting them into my own words. But I’ve also been trying to act on what I have read, so I may well reflect on that too.

So, what is a ‘fierce conversation’, and why would you want to have one? The best place to start is with the book’s Introduction: the idea of fierce.

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

What is a fierce conversation?

‘Fierce’ can sound threatening, cruel or scary. But Scott intends it in a different way – for her ‘fierce’ means passionate, intense, robust, strong, unbridled and untamed.

In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.

‘Fierce’ doesn’t quite do it for me – I can’t shake the feeling of aggression or threat that goes with that word. So I tend to talk instead about ‘powerful conversations’ or ‘effective conversations’, or just ‘conversations for change’. Not quite as passionate as Scott’s phrase, but then that may say something about me 😉

What are conversations like when they are not ‘fierce’?

Scott adapts a quotation from Ernest Hemingway to argue that “our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.” She paints a picture of avoided or unsuccessful conversations, where nothing real is said, relationships fail, tough challenges are avoided and no one learns anything.

If the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller, until one day we overhear ourselves in midsentence, making ourselves smaller in every encounter, behaving as if we are just the space around our shoes, engaged in yet another three-minute conversation so empty of meaning it crackles…

Many work teams as well as couples have a list of undiscussables, issues they avoid broaching at all costs in order to preserve a modicum of peace, to preserve the relationship. In reality, the relationship steadily deteriorates for lack of the very conversations they so carefully avoid. It’s difficult to raise the level if the slide has lasted over a period of years, and that’s what keeps many of us stuck.

Ouch. Not easy to read, particularly if it reminds you – as it does me – of conversations you are having or failing to have. In Scott’s view, each conversation has the potential to enhance our relationships, provoke learning, tackle touch challenges and interrogate reality. No single conversation can be guaranteed to do these things, but every conversation can.

Scott observes at various points in the book that “when the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation has even ended.” That was certainly true of the powerful conversation I had earlier this year.

At home and at work

Scott considered writing separate books about fierce conversations in our personal lives and in our work lives, but decided that would have been a mistake. In her view (and in mine too) “who we are is who we are, all over the place”. We can’t separate ourselves off successfully and have different conversations at home to the ones we have at work, not in the long run.

Scott’s observation has been that people who have problems at work have similar problems at home. For me, this is also a matter of choice and authenticity (about which Scott has more to say in a later chapter). Personally I want to be the same person at home as I am at work – to talk and behave in recognisably the same way, as much as I can (recognising I am only human and won’t always achieve what I set out to achieve). If I want to tell the truth, tackle a persistent problem or have a better relationship with my partner or my children, then I can approach it in the same way as I would at work. The techniques are the same, and so are the objectives:

  • interrogating reality
  • provoking learning
  • tackling touch challenges
  • enriching relationships

And she quotes the poet David Whyte:

The conversation is the relationship.

Every conversation we have has the potential to either enhance our relationship with the people we are speaking to, or fail to do so. We have a choice about how we want to use our conversations, and how much attention we want to pay to them.

Getting started

Scott is very pragmatic in her advice to the reader; most chapters have one or more assignments to try out. She advises us to be patient with ourselves, as change takes time. We can start one conversation with a time, beginning with the next person who stands in front of us. Her advice at the end of the introduction is to:

Begin to overhear yourself avoiding the topic, changing the subject, telling little lies (and big ones), being imprecise in your language, being uninteresting even to yourself. And at least once today, when something inside you says, “This is an opportunity to be fierce,” stop for a moment, take a deep breath, then come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real…

When you come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real, whatever happens from there will happen. It could go well or it could be a little bumpy, but at least you will have taken the plunge. You will have said at least one real thing today, one thing that was real for you.

So, are you interested in giving it a try?

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