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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.

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?

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.

Caring

November 13th, 2009 2 comments

Listening

Listening

I wrote a while ago about the differences between exercising my professional skills as a listener, and choosing instead to actually engage in a conversation and give something of myself. One of the differences is needing to care, in order to actively take part in a conversation.

For example, mediation works well when there is a level of empathy between the mediator and the parties in the conflict. As a mediator, I can only properly empathise with the parties when I let myself care about them – when I have genuine concerns for the pain or difficulty they are both experiencing. I can’t be cool and detached when I am caring, I have to be on their side in some way – on the side of both of the parties, that is (what some mediators refer to as multi partiality).

In their book Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management, the authors link this idea of caring to the idea of being authentic.

It is possible to read plenty of books about listening ‘techniques’ and still miss the point. One of the challenges for us is to develop our authenticity as a listener. This means we listen, not because we have to but because we are genuinely curious and care about the speaker and what they are seeking to communicate. (p. 89)

This is harder to do than it is to say. While I am listening to you, your words are prompting thoughts and responses in my mind. More often than not I am waiting for you to finish only so that I can tell a funny story of my own that you have reminded me of. Or I have such a strong reaction to the first thing you said that I don’t listen to your careful exceptions and explanations – I just want to tell you why you’re wrong.

When I’m doing this I’m not really in a conversation with you – I’m just waiting for you to get off-stage so that I can have the star turn. The hard work is in really listening to what you are saying – all of it – and actually responding to what you said.

This perfection is difficult to achieve – sometimes my internal voice is just too insistent, and I need to speak. And it’s not much of a conversation if I never give my own opinion or viewpoint. But to listen to somebody – to really listen to them – is to treat them as a person who is worth listening to.

If you have experienced another person paying you full attention because they care for you, then it’s a memorable moment. (p. 89)

(Hat tip to Steve Hindmarsh for first introducing me to Ivan Böszörményi-Nagy’s idea of multi partiality or multi-directed partiality.)

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

Holding ideas lightly

November 1st, 2009 No comments

Bird on a wire

Bird on a wire

Johnnie Moore offered a good post today about the dangers of being too certain in the context of making decisions. He quotes Jonah Lehrer as saying

Being certain means you’re not worried about being wrong.

Certainty is also one of the things that drives conflicts – certainty that I am right and you are wrong, certainty that I am seeing things clearly and you are confused, or certainty that I am acting rationally and you are acting emotionally (heaven forbid).

When I am training mediators, one of the skills I help them to develop is the ability to give reflective summaries – to summarise back to the parties in a conflict what they have said, in a way that helps everyone to hear. Mediators try to make these summaries in a tentative way – open to correction if they miss something out or misinterpret what was said. They can not be certain that they have got the summary right, and need the speaker to help them to make a good summary.

One year after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, but while the apartheid regime was still in place, Adam Kahane helped facilitate discussions between the main groups in South Africa. These included groups opposed to the regime (including the ANC, the National Union of Mineworkers, and the South African Communist Party). But the discussions also included representatives of the white business community and academia.

In his book Solving Tough Problems, Adam describes how, over a series of meetings, the individuals were able to better understand each others’ points of view. The group was able to agree on four different possible futures for South Africa. These scenarios influenced the views of the then government, and the government-to-be in the form of the ANC, and made a direct contribution to the way in which power was transferred from the white minority to a democratically-elected government.

Adam attributes much of the success of this process to the tentative way in which the participants held their ideas:

They held their ideas lightly; they noticed and questioned their own thinking; they separated themselves from their ideas (“I am not my ideas, and so you and I can reject them without rejecting me”). They “suspended” their ideas, as if on strings from the ceiling, and walked around and looked at these ideas from different perspectives.

I love the idea of holding ideas lightly, and distancing ourselves from our own ideas by ‘walking around them’ to inspect them. This idea has applications not just in mediation or conflict resolution, but in facilitation and coaching too. For example, in an effective post-project review, the participants will hold their ideas lightly, open to the idea that there are things they do not know, and open to the possibility that their own views will change as a result of what they hear.

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

Conversations for change

October 22nd, 2009 2 comments

Conversation

Talking with passion, listening attentively

I recently had an unexpected, powerful conversation which has had a lasting impact on me. It has also helped me to see more clearly what I am doing when a coaching session or facilitated meeting goes really well.

It happened like this…

I attended the European Conference of the International Association of Facilitators in Oxford in mid September. It was a good conference, well organised with some interesting sessions, and in the beautiful setting of Keble College. But like many events I go to these days, some of the best discussions I had were in the breaks between sessions, or over dinner or a drink with other participants.

One of those conversations took place on the Friday night, when I spent a good part of the evening talking to a facilitator from Finland. She told me a lot about what mattered to her in her life, about big changes she had made and challenges she had overcome. I learned a lot about her in a very short time.

When I reflected on our conversation the next day, I realised that I had done what I normally do. I pride myself on being a good listener, reflecting back and asking questions that help others to open up, and being comfortable when people are showing strong emotions. These are some of the core skills I use in my work, and I had used them in our conversation.

But what I hadn’t done is give anything of myself; I hadn’t told her what I really thought, and hadn’t really revealed much about me.

Opening up

So at the close of the conference, with my bags packed, I made a point of seeking her out, and sharing with her how she had struck me – as a beautiful, strong, confident person, and as someone I admired for the difficult changes she had made in her life. We agreed to walk together into Oxford on my way to the station, and we continued our earlier conversation. As we talked half an hour became an hour, we took a detour to visit my old college and sat on a bench to talk, we went for a coffee and continued the conversation. In the end we spoke for 4 or 5 hours.

As we talked our conversation deepened and became more two-way, as I opened up and talked a bit more about my own life and my experiences. I learned things about myself and my own hopes and fears that I hadn’t been aware of before. And what had started as a farewell became a conversation that has stayed with me and continues to affect me now.

A powerful conversation

So what made this conversation different?

  • There was some emotional content to it. Most conversations, certainly all important ones, have an emotional element. But in this conversation we named the emotions and talked about them directly.
  • Connected to this was an honesty and openness – rather than hiding behind my professional skills as a listener, I chose to also talk and voice my own experiences, and be changed. It felt like I was taking a risk, but a risk I was willing to take because there was already an openness from the person I was talking to.
  • Deep listening – both of us sat and listened to the other talking, and gave each other the space to speak. There were occasional silences where nothing needed to be said.
  • Being in the moment – we both chose to be present in the conversation and make that the main thing we were doing; the time flew past quickly.

Soon afterwards I came across this quotation from Conversation by Theodore Zeldin:

…talking does not necessarily change one’s own or other people’s feelings or ideas…Real conversation catches fire. It involves more than sending and receiving information…

..conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.

And I realised that this is what happens when I am doing my best work – when I am mediating well, or when we make real progress in a coaching session, or when I am really ‘in the moment’ as a facilitator and aware of what is happening in the room. What connects all of my work at its best is this type of conversation – where emotions are engaged, there is an honesty and directness, where people truly listen and allow themselves to be changed by what they hear. Experiencing this personally has helped me to realise that this is what the people I work with sometimes experience as a result of the conversations I take part in.

So what next?

So what has happened since? Now that I am thinking this way, I’m seeing references to conversation everywhere (in the language of improvisation, I’m accepting an offer):

  • By chance, I recently met a former colleague I haven’t seen for three years, Cliodhna Mulhearn. Cliodhna is doing very powerful work using conversation to bring about change, focusing on Appreciative Inquiry.
  • Cliodhna recommended Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management to me; chapter 6 of this book is about the power of conversation, and describes exactly the kind of powerful conversation I had.
  • I talked about these ideas with my own coach, who directed me to a group of academics and practitioners who are using and writing about this approach to change, not just on a personal level, but at a team and organisational level as well.

This has also given me the incentive I needed to start this blog. I know that I usually find out what I think by opening my mouth and starting to speak 😉 So the blog is partly a conversation with myself, and writing these posts may well change what I think, as well as record my existing thoughts. But of course a blog is an open space, so maybe there will be others out there who will join in this conversation, and I’ll learn from them too? If you’re there, it would be nice to hear from you.