Category Archives: Developing as a leader

Leadership and the art of standing still

Monday, January 15th, 2018.

I don’t know about you, but it already seems to me that 2018 is racing forward, the year no longer “New”.  Traditionally a time of planning and goal setting, my clients are telling me how much they are in action mode already, with barely a moment to stand still.  In my private life, discussions about the delivery of The Man in the Forest have crystallised around this coming Thursday… if not now, we found, it could be another three months before our diaries coincide.

The Man in the Forest, by Jenny Southam
The Man in the Forest, by Jenny Southam

As I sit and write, I think back to the beginning of my career, in the ’80s.  (How long will it be – if it isn’t the case already – before we designate this time the 1980s, in recognition that this decade belongs not only to the last century but also to the last millennium?)  Starting with a significant recession as the UK government sought to contain rampant inflation, it became a decade of “yuppee” growth and attendant confidence before recession returned and the housing market collapsed in the early ’90s.

For my contemporaries, there was a clear correlation at this time between their willingness to graft and attendant returns.  In London’s premier legal firms, for example, talented young lawyers knew their labours would land them a partnership in their early 30s or, if not, a sought after job elsewhere.  Success seemed assured if you only put the hours in.

Many of us are still “putting the hours in”, as if this alone is our recipe for success.  We do it because it was our willingness to graft that earnt us high performance ratings and early promotions in the beginning of our careers.  We do it because technology has, increasingly, wired us in, 24/7, to respond to whatever comes our way.  We do it because we are anxious about the consequences of not doing it when our contemporaries do.  Perhaps, even, we do it because we haven’t stopped to consider that there might be any other way.

But now?  Really?

If, in your leadership role, you are constantly active with never a moment to pause and reflect, the risks you face include the following:

  • The greatest risk of all is that your responsiveness to others makes you a follower, not a leader.  You are not able to shape a vision or direction of travel because you are busy doing things… doing the “stuff” that others require you to do;
  • There’s another reason why you can’t shape a vision or direction of travel.  You can’t do it because you don’t have time to stop, reflect and notice what is true in the world. You don’t know where you want to get to.  You don’t know where you’re starting from.  You don’t have an informed view of what is true today that wasn’t true yesterday or may not be true tomorrow. How can you think about which way you need to go when you are so ill informed?
  • And yes, there is a risk that your constant “busy-ness” has left you so depleted and tired that your ability to make sound decisions, or even to make decisions at all, has been significantly impaired.  How long has it been now since you felt truly rested?  Only you will know.

So, if I am sharing my picture of Jenny Southam’s The Man in the Forest, it is not only from my pure delight at the prospect of welcoming him into my home.  Whether you are a man or a woman, he has something to teach you.

You cannot shape a forward path without stopping, first, to notice where you are.

What’s more, even more than you, the people you look up to may have lost sight of the way the world is changing or feel desperate to bring it under control.

We cannot bring it under control.

Sometimes it is time to stop running through the forest of our lives and simply to stand still.  Sometimes it is time to stand still and notice every detail of where we are.  Which side of the trees does the moss grow on and how much?  Is there stillness in the forest or a breeze?  Is the forest dry or is there rain?  What young trees are waiting for their chance to reach up towards the sun?  And is there room for them to grow?

Before the year runs away with you, I ask you:  is it time for you stride forward in a flurry of activity or is it time for you to stand still?

Is your context for leadership big enough?

I can’t hold myself back any more.

We need a larger – much larger – context for leadership than most of us are embracing right now.  It’s time to step up.

It’s possible that, in your role as a leader, you are the one who has been telling up-and-coming leaders that they need to think more strategically.  It’s possible that you are that up-and-coming leader, grappling to understand what “more strategically” even means.  Let’s face it, the day-to-day demands of your job keep you busy enough, without having to “think strategically” – even if you could understand WTF this phrase even means.

In 2016, it needs to mean more – much more – than it has ever meant before.

Seeing the earth from the moon

Recently, I came across a short film, The Overview Effect, which explores the experiences of five astronauts who got to see the earth from space.  These men and women describe the experience of awe they had on seeing the earth from afar and the paradoxical effect of both being at a distance from it and feeling totally connected with it – a part of the larger whole.  From this distance, they were able to transcend knowledge and to experience things they had previously known – though only at an intellectual level – are true.

From this distance, the astronauts were able to perceive both the beauty and the fragility of the planet.  I think of this as pure potential which is also at great risk.  The impact of clearing forests to cultivate crops, for example, are not only visible – they become clear.  As one interviewee put it, from this distance, it was clear that if the earth becomes sick, we all become sick.

On earth, we know this at an intellectual level and yet somehow remain separate from it.  And as long as we maintain this sense of separation, the earth’s future – our future – is at risk.

Our future:  an apocalyptic vision

Many commentators believe we are at risk: if we continue in the direction we are heading now, we face a dark and difficult future.

It’s pretty clear – as much as anyone might try to mask it – that we continue to live through major economic challenges and that, in fact, we’re not yet done.  Chris Martenson and his colleagues at Peak Prosperity, for example, continue to point to a further economic crisis, as they did in a recent blog posting, entitled Get Ready… Change Is Upon Us.  In February of this year, George Friedman gave one view of the emerging global situation, pointing to a fundamental shift in power from Europe to the US.  For me, the thought of a new era in which the US, under President D. J. Trump, is in power – well, it’s not a comforting thought to say the least.  In addition, Tobias Stone in the Huffington Post offers a truly apocalyptic view of the times we are in – pointing to a turning point in history, and a profoundly difficult one at that.

Why does it matter?

Why do we need to embrace a larger world view?

Even in the best of times, our ability to step back from our immediate concerns and view them in a larger context provides the basis for effectively assessing our situation, weighing the importance (or not) of the decisions that face us, making decisions and taking action.  Often, we see this in terms of stress management – to be able to do this is to be able to fulfil our goals whilst minimising the weight on our shoulders that comes with our responsibilities as leaders.

But our decision-making is also far-reaching in its impact.  It goes beyond our immediate well-being or that of our staff.  It goes beyond the well-being of our customers or even that of our shareholders.  Ultimately, the decisions we make contribute to the health of our planet or they undermine it.

If we have in our sights the impact of our decisions on the planet, we have some hope of shaping a future that serves life.  This is a future that is bigger than our next pay-rise or promotion and bigger than our next project deadline.  At the same time, many commentators are pointing to issues, at global level, that we are barely beginning to acknowledge, let alone to address.  Some hope that we can address them now, to avert disaster.  Some fear it is already too late.

As leaders, to do anything other than take these issues into account is to fiddle while Rome burns.

Current narratives – a wholly inadequate response

I wonder, how is your organisation responding to the issues outlined by Martenson, Friedman and Stone?

Please don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I don’t see progress in the world.  Nor is my daily life in any way miserable – I am blessed, truly blessed.  I hope you are, too.  Counting my blessings – in my case, keeping a gratitude diary – is part of my ongoing practice.  Even as I write this, I find myself connecting with heartfelt feelings of gratitude for everything that is in my life.

At the same time, there is a larger picture.

In my work with clients across multiple organisations, I see a narrative that is old, tired and untrue.  At best, it points to the cyclical nature of the economy, recognises that we have been in a down-turn, cleans out old wood and carries on as though everything has been sorted.  At worst, it imagines that nothing needed to be sorted in the first place or maybe – as a substitute for something as bold as a statement about what is or isn’t true – ignores a larger picture in favour of getting on with this month’s project or this year’s.

It hardly needs saying that our politicians aren’t doing much – no, any – better.

Measures of good health in the world

How do we begin to assess the health of our leadership approach?  I offer some thoughts below:

Are we pursuing life-serving goals?  How does your organisation support life on earth? Does it frame goals within the context of the health of our planet or of people, animals and habitats?  One of these goals relates to the distribution of wealth, such that people can meet their most fundamental needs – for food, water and shelter, for example, and to live in relative safety.  Yet research tells us that our resources are increasingly concentrated amongst the world’s most wealthy – only recently the charity Oxfam highlighted how the world’s 62 wealthiest people own the same as half the world’s population.  Take a moment to reflect on your goals or that of your organisation and how clearly they are designed to serve life.

Do we value all life equally?  In America, the current conflict between Native Americans and commercial interests over the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline point to continuing systemic discrimination against particular groups of people.  This has also been highlighted in 2016 by the Black Lives Matter movement.  The current rise of the right in countries around the world suggest that as much as minority populations are asking for their needs to be given equal weight, majority white populations resist the implications of true equality.

Perhaps more profoundly – much more profoundly – this unknown speaker suggests, in a short video posted on Facebook, that the narrative of white versus people of colour “us and them” has a history and a purpose which distracts – deliberately – from the real issues that underpin the way the world works today.  This is the context in which I ask, to what extent does your organisation serve black and minority ethnic populations  including your staff, your customers and groups of people who are not within your immediate purview?

Are we looking after tomorrow as well as today?  How does your organisation act to conserve the planet for future generations?  Culturally, traditional native American thinking emphasises the importance of this goal and, as a result, indigenous tribes have long been campaigners on environmental issues.  At the time of writing, their continuing action to protect water supplies from pollution by a proposed oil pipeline illustrates how fiercely our quest for wealth is colliding with the protection of our planet for current and future generations.  Initial reactions to Donald Trump’s recent election highlight the likely impact on climate protection – see recent comments by Noam Chomsky, for example.

For some, climate change seems distant and somewhat unreal yet its effects are already visible if we choose to observe what’s going on in the world.  The history of the war in Syria – described by Al Jazeera as the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed thus far – points to severe drought as a prompt for migration from the countryside into cities, prompting growing poverty and social unrest.  As a leader, you know whether sustainability is about multiple bins for the disposal of rubbish or whether it permeates your organisation’s vision, mission and values – climate, yes, but also education, prosperity, dignity and more.

Do we work within frameworks that support life, both now and in future?  There is a much larger question, which is about the frameworks in which we operate.   I am thinking not only of your organisation’s policies and systems (though this might be a good place to start) but also beyond this to legal frameworks, trade agreements and more.

Let’s take the economy, for example.  In 1992, James Carville, campaign manager to Bill Clinton in his successful bid to replace George H. W. Bush as president, coined the phrase “The economy, stupid”.  As long as you get the economy right, everything else will follow.

Clearly, we are not getting the economy right.

It’s clear that the world economy went through a significant downturn in 2008.  More fundamentally, George Friedman points to the fact that economics as it is currently conceived and designed doesn’t work, a topic that exercises Bernard Lietaer, author of a number of books on money.  Here’s Lietaer talking about Why Money Needs To Change Now.

The economy is just one example of the frameworks that govern us and you may say, “but we don’t create these frameworks”, which brings me to my next question:

Are we proactive in shaping our frameworks with clear, life-serving goals in mind?  Are you and others in your organisation playing a role in influencing the context within which you operate, such that the frameworks that guide you also support you in doing business in ways which serve life?

This is the point at which, as a leader, you begin truly to step up.  In this context, power is no longer something you seek to gain as proof that you are capable, worthy of the next pay-rise, successful or otherwise “okay”.  No, in this context, power is something you receive with humility and seek to exercise with the greater good in mind.  I am not talking about mindless self-sacrifice or corporate martyrdom.  Instead, I am talking about the mindful recognition that you are the guardian of the resources at your disposal and about a curiosity to define goals which maximise your opportunity to serve.  Sometimes, this is about doing what you can in a given context.  For the mindful, it is also about questioning whether you are in the right place – the right job, organisation or broader context – to do what you feel called to do.

If you’ve read this far… phew!  You have read!  And my own sense is that more – much more – needs to be written.

For now, though, I want to end with a question:  what next?

Perhaps you want to step back and ask yourself, how big is my “bigger picture”, and is it big enough?  Perhaps you want to allocate regular time to do your own research.  Perhaps you want to reflect on the questions above or to leave a comment below.

I hope so.  Our future depends on the sum of our contributions.

The boys in the (wo)men who run things

Recently, and for the first time in my life, I walked into a betting shop.

I wanted to find out if I could place a bet, and at what odds, that Brexit will not go through. It was, after all a plebiscite – a non-binding, advisory referendum. And who in their right mind would implement a decision as complex and significant as leaving the European Union on the basis of such a tiny majority of votes to leave, particularly when the overall statistics suggest a broadly three thirds split between “leave”, “remain” and “didn’t vote”?

It seems we are not in our right mind

So many things about Brexit highlight that we are not in our right minds that I need not mention them all.

Perhaps, even, any.

From the safe distance of the US, a friend wrote on Facebook. First, he responded to the result of the referendum, by saying:

To all my friends and colleagues in the UK and the EU: the “Brexit” vote is a huge deal! My heart goes out to you in the instability and change, regardless of which way you were voting.

Sending hugs and fierce love today.

Then, he responded to David Cameron’s post referendum speech by saying:

Can someone explain the intricacies of UK politics to me around a prime minister resigning? I can’t tell, from what I’ve been reading, whether David Cameron is resigning on principle, or if there is a process in the way the prime minister loses his position when something… changes…? <confused>

After I get an answer to this, I’ll ask about the rules of cricket.

Of course, from the safe distance of the UK, the possibility that Donald Trump might become President of the United States also seems pretty off the wall.

Even so, we might still have to live with it.

Wounded Leaders

Everything about Brexit pointed to one thing for me. It was time to read Nick Duffell’s book, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion.

For over twenty years, Duffell has been exploring a topic that came to my attention only because of conversations with a friend: the impact on men and women in adulthood of attending boarding schools in childhood.

Duffell’s thesis is that sending children away to board exposes them to the traumatic experience of being separated from their parents before they are ready. Then, as if this were not enough, they have to make sense of their parents’ reasons for doing it, raising fears that they were sent away because their parents didn’t love them or that the fact that they are not enjoying boarding school means there is something wrong with them. Finally, the experience throws up the need to find ways to survive in their new context. They become bullies or buffoons, or possibly both. In Nick Duffell’s language, they become Boarding School Survivors.

Duffell’s thesis is vividly reflected in a documentary film, made in 1994, entitled The Making of Them, which is still available to view.

As his book outlines, the results of boarding in the adult lives of boarders are also plain to see in the behaviours of our political elite.

You are not alone

You could think that this posting is directed only at people who have been to boarding school, or to people who work with former boarders. It’s not.

Reading Duffell’s book, I found parallels in my own experience both as a child transitioning over time into adulthood and also as someone who works with men and women in leadership roles.

If you, for example, are sometimes triggered in the work place… if, at times, you respond at a speed that can only come from some kind of automatic pilot to the events you face at work… if you sometimes regret your reaction but don’t begin to know what to do differently or if you seek to justify your response by finding fault with the person or people you are dealing with… if there are things you desire as if your very life depends upon it… if you are riddled with self-doubt unless you achieve X or Y or Z… you are not alone.

It is common for children to experience things in childhood that are beyond their capacity to understand. It is equally common for children, in finding ways to cope with difficult experiences, to develop strategies that, whilst far from effective, nonetheless get carried into adulthood. These are strategies that protect us – or attempt to protect us – from the worst fears of our inner child.

At the same time, in our adult lives, our inner child remains stuck unless and until we are able to recognise our pain (the “wounds” implied in the title of Duffell’s book), to understand the source of our pain and to seek out and embody the learning we need to move forward.

When your inner child is running the show

Early in his book, Duffell reminds us of David Cameron’s now (in)famous remark to Angela Eagle in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions: “Calm down, dear”, which he analyses in some detail as an example of the kind of strategies boarders adopt. It’s the kind of strategy that works in the moment, at least to some degree.

At the same time, as you may know from your own experience, strategies that come from your inner child can only work to a limited degree and may even be harmful.

What are the consequences of these strategies, of which we may or may not be aware?

  • Often, they are accompanied by high emotions, particularly anxiety, on the part of the inner child. We may look as elegant as swans on the surface, but maintaining appearances takes untold energy and can lead, over time, to exhaustion, stress and more;
  • Formed in childhood based on the thinking of our immature child, the harm to ourselves is self-perpetuating, because the thinking that drives them is taken as true. You think you have to work ten times as hard as your colleagues to be accepted? You think you have to be top of the corporate class in order to be liked? You will strive, constantly, in line with your inner belief. Worse still, because you fear, at some level, that you are not, fundamentally, okay, it can be hard for you to receive feedback that brings your hidden belief into awareness, lest it be proof of the flaws you fear so deeply;
  • Paradoxically, the very strategy that you adopted as a child may prevent you, in adulthood, from achieving the needs it was designed to achieve. This can become more and more apparent as your career progresses… when, for example, the attention to detail that made you an asset early in your career becomes a failure to see the larger picture in your role as a leader;
  • There may be consequences for those you lead. These are likely to be designed into your strategy but also unconscious. If you strive for perfection, for example, in order to prove you’re okay, you may be highly intolerant of any mistakes, wherever they come from. As a consequence, you will come down hard on the mistakes of others and may even try to make others responsible for your own;

If you’ve read this far, you may already be aware of some hidden anxiety or behavioural pattern that is running the show. You may even be aware of the implications for you and for others in your career.

You don’t need to be alone with it.

It’s not just that you’re one of many people who have one or more stress responses which date back to your childhood experiences.


In addition, there are many ways – such as learning to pause before you act or learning to meditate – to begin the work of re-shaping your approach. In addition, professional support is available from highly skilled therapists, coaches and trainers. Far from being a sign that you’re flawed or failing in some way, the decision to seek professional support signals a step towards conscious self-awareness and making adult choices.

And Brexit?

Nick Duffell would, I think, propose that Brexit is the natural consequence of attempts to survive a boarding school education. In the prologue to Wounded Leaders, he writes presciently:

Having had to do without loving parents and being thrust into a false community – a single-sex institution with a narrow age-range – most ex boarders develop a very complex relationship with groups and communities, characterized by a mixture of suspicion and unfulfilled longing. Despite their intentions, those with an overriding thirst for power seem to end up suspicious of Continental values, backing self-reliance and prolonging a deep conservatism that keeps the old for the old’s sake and robs the country of the benefits of its natural dynamism. This, of course, affects the whole of society from top to bottom.

If Duffell is right, our decision, by a narrow majority of voters, to leave the European Union, is the result of unconscious survival strategies at the most senior levels of Britain’s political elite. In my view, it has also been met by similar survival responses across the electorate.

As for me, I did not get to place my bet.

I explained to the man who was serving me that I had not missed the result of the referendum (as he assumed) and talked about the process of invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. At the time, there were no odds on offer (and I missed the opportunity to place a bet on Theresa May.)

A fellow customer, standing next to me at the next counter, looked quizzically at me and told me that we’ve already left Europe.

Nothing I could say persuaded him that this was not, actually, true.

New Year and the art of rebalancing

Last month, I started to write a post for publication before Christmas.  Finally, I’m publishing it today.

At the time, it was about two weeks since I started to experience some low-level, lingering lurgy.  It had the irritating quality of being not quite serious enough for me to take time out and not quite, well, not serious enough for me to perform at full strength.

It’s interesting to notice that this lurgy coincided with some very difficult world events.  Friday, 13th November, brought vicious attacks on the men, women and children of Paris.  And as if this were not bad enough, the French president responded by launching attacks of their own.  Belgium staged a lockdown.  In the UK, the House of Commons passed a vote which was swiftly followed by targeted attacks on Syria.  And there was more, much more.

More locally, my value-for-money courier company had failed to collect on the day I booked them for.  Or the day after that.  Or the day after that.  Again.  I wish I could say that I managed my inner state with grace but I didn’t.  I responded by feeling frustrated and angry.  Again.

Fortunately, Christmas brought rest, plenty of rest.  Even so, I notice that for many people stepping into the New Year, there’s an uncomfortable gap between the way they are feeling and the pressure they feel to bounce back into the New Year full of energy and New Year’s resolutions.

What’s grinding you down?

At low tide
At low tide

I wonder if you, too, are feeling out of sorts as you read this.  You’re not alone.

Perhaps Christmas was stressful for you, highlighting stresses in your family and personal relationships or the need to “go public” about your pending (or recent) divorce.  Perhaps you have experienced major life events, such as bereavement or redundancy.  Perhaps, like me, you are deeply affected by major world events.

Perhaps you reached the end of the year exhausted after working intensely on a number of fronts.  Christmas was far from enough to restore you.  What’s more, you still face the need to balance your work with your commitments to friends and family, to organisations you belong to outside of work, even to maintain and manage your home.

Perhaps you face uncertainties in your personal and professional life including potential reorganisations (again), health scares (for you or for members of your family), the uncertainty of challenges in your marriage or of children transitioning to the next phase.

Perhaps you find yourself bumping up against the same problem, again and again, in some corner of your life.  This could be the repeated conversations with your noisy neighbour or the demands of a difficult boss or the misunderstandings with colleagues in department X.

It may even be that you feel weary as you face the same issues again and again and again… and not just one but all of the issues that create a cumulative cocktail of challenges.

It may be that even reading this list leaves you feeling yet more out of sorts.

Favourite ways to stay out of sorts

On the river bank
On the river bank

If you are feeling out of sorts, it may be worth asking yourself how you’re keeping yourself in a state of imbalance.  Here are some of my favourite ways to do this – do you recognise any of them as yours, too?

  • I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I keep pushing through. I keep doing the things that need to be done.  I keep telling myself I will get better soon… things will get better soon.  I keep thinking that if I just keep doing what I’m doing, something will change;
  • I keep myself in a state of imbalance by blaming others for ongoing problems.  I look at what other people are doing that is causing the problem and I feel frustrated.  I analyse what other people should do differently.  I look to other people to make changes;
  • Sometimes, I keep myself in a state of imbalance by blaming myself.  Perhaps I blame myself for the difficult things that are happening in my life (the misunderstandings must be my fault, right?).  Perhaps I blame myself for my failure to rise above the experiences I am having;
  • I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I imagine a future that may or may not happen and treat it as if it were true.  When I think about what could go wrong in a conversation or generalise from current difficulties to all the other difficult experiences I have had I am creating a false reality rather than connecting with what really is true;
  • I keep myself out of balance when I take responsibility that’s not mine to take, putting time and effort into sorting out problems that belong elsewhere;
  • I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I fail to face the truth of the issues affecting me.  The biggest failure is my failure to look the truth squarely in the face and recognise that something I want to change just isn’t going to change so that I continue to behave as though this change is both desirable and possible.

And whilst I’m doing these three things there’s one thing I am failing to do.  I am failing to acknowledge and bring care to my own experience.  And because I am failing to notice just what’s going on for me, the experience continues.

Bringing care and restoring our equilibrium

In the midst of writing this posting, more than one conversation I had with clients made me reflect on what we can do to bring care and restore our sense of balance.

On the bank of the Thames
On the bank of the Thames

One conversation was rooted in the recognition that our sense of imbalance comes largely from the way we are reacting to events.  Restoring balance is as much about shaping a more effective inner response as it is about choosing what actions to take out in the world.

Here are just some of the things that help me and my clients to bring care to our experiences and restore equilibrium:

  •  Whether we are experiencing ongoing exhaustion or a sudden surge of emotion, it’s so easy to let our emotions “run the show” or to push back with self-blame or -judgement.  Instead, it’s good to check in with ourselves – to notice what feelings are coming up and ask what we need right now.  When I take time to do this with love, I feel calmer, more settled as heightened feelings subside;
  • One of my dearest friends responds in challenging times by reminding himself that they are only temporary.  Somehow, knowing that intense feelings or ongoing exhaustion will, ultimately, go away helps him to “hang in there” when times are tough;
  • I find it helpful to notice what thoughts I am having and to ask myself “Is this really true?”  Is it really true that I have to keep ploughing on, for example?  Is it true that I am on my own in dealing with a person or situation?  This kind of curiosity helps me to separate what I know, objectively, to be true from the hidden beliefs and assumptions which sometimes guide my approach;
  • Sometimes, the process of asking questions reveals something that is true and that needs to be acknowledged.  Perhaps, for example, you need to acknowledge the real pressure you are under to deliver more than you can possibly achieve in your contracted work hours.  Perhaps you need to acknowledge that, no, you don’t have any support from your line manager.  Facing and acknowledging difficult truths opens up the possibility of taking action based on knowing what is rather than knowing what “should be”.  Taking action from a place of awareness is an important way to restore balance;
  • As you connect with your feelings and needs and as you acknowledge the truth of your experience, it becomes easier to identify and take practical actions to move things forward.  If you’ve identified an assumption that you need to do something “right now”, for example, you can check it out.  It’s always wonderful to me to discover that the thing that’s being asked for is not needed until next week.  Equally, when you’ve faced up to the lack of real support from your boss you can make requests for the support you need or find other ways to meet your needs, such as looking for a mentor or coach or starting the process of looking for a job which affords you the support you long for;
  • When you’re exhausted and overwhelmed or triggered in the moment, the solution may seem enormous.  In practice, maintaining or restoring balance often depends on identifying small practical steps.  Far too much work on your plate?  This may be a sign that you need to delegate more rather than a sign you need to work harder, for example.  One colleague often asks “What’s the smallest and easiest step I can take right now to move things forward?”
  • Sometimes, examining our thoughts also reveals a disconnect between what we know is objectively true and what we experience when exhausted, triggered or overwhelmed.  Think you don’t have what it takes?  Objectively, you know of your successes and yet, somehow, this knowing goes out of the window when your emotions are high or your energy levels are low.  Over time, it’s possible to design a practice that helps you to feel the truth of your successes (or whatever you need to know) even in times of stress.  Taking time to write, for example, can help you to capture your successes – what happened, how you felt, what feedback you received and more.

I hope you find something in this posting that helps you to restore your sense of balance.  Equally, if you’re wondering if and how coaching might help you to restore balance, please contact me directly to arrange to talk.

Coaching: the gift that keeps on giving

Recently, I was absolutely thrilled to discover that former coaching client, Carrie Bedingfield, has done a very successful talk which is available on TEDx.  Her subject?  How striving is costing us everything:  the profit paradox.

I thought of Carrie again recently.  I’ll come back to the “why”.  First though, I want to touch on something that coaches, and their clients, constantly grapple with:

Pondering what return you’ll get from your investment in coaching?

When you make an investment in coaching – time, money and more – you want to know that it will be worthwhile.  This is true whether you are seeking coaching for yourself or sponsoring coaching for someone in your team.

Will coaching help you with the immediate issues that have made you consider coaching as an option in the first place?  You want to know.

Will coaching lead to benefits in the long-term that make the investment worthwhile?  You want to know.

At the same time, coaching holds no guarantees.  There’s no guarantee that coaching will deliver the solutions you are hoping for.  There’s no guarantee that coaching will deliver any solutions.  Coaching, as an “act of faith” remains an expensive option.

What proof is there of the long-term benefits of coaching?

Coaches, too, grapple with this issue.

We look for studies which demonstrate the impact of coaching.  They’re out there but they’re not always easy to find and, quite quickly, they can look out of date.

Sometimes, I prefer to let clients speak about the results over time from their investment in coaching.  Carrie told me at the time what benefits she had from her investment in coaching with me.  In recent days, she’s been kind enough to add a few words about the long term impact of coaching.

This is what she had to say:

CarrieWhen I first started working with you, I was working flat out and trying to make myself available to everyone – clients, team members and others – all the time.  Paradoxically, the more I tried to make myself available to people, the more I was starting to resent people for stealing my time.  Also, I was riding the roller-coaster of other people’s emotions.  A client would be unhappy (or just express something in a way that brought us all down) and I would dive down.  A project would go well and the world was a sunny happy place.  I was feeling exhausted and I knew the approach I was taking wasn’t sustainable.

Like many people, I’m a bundle of sharp contrasts – they conflict all the time which causes wasted energy/effort or even pain.  With Dorothy, I learnt to unpick these. They all want something good for me.  If I can identify how each is trying to serve me, I can end the conflict.  Now I understand, for example, what dangers my desire to be available and my concern to protect my time are warning me against and how they’re trying to help me.  And I can set and communicate boundaries that don’t cause inconvenience for me or anyone else.

Another massive lesson for me was to take responsibility for myself only – one I share with other people all the time.  Clearly defining what I’m responsible for and what I’m not (you need to keep doing this ALL the time!) changes the energy completely and removes the emotional weight of running a service business.  Dorothy enabled me to disentangle myself from all of this and establish what I am responsible for which helps me focus effort on what I can actually change and lift the weight from my shoulders of other people’s responses which are their choice.

I didn’t think it was possible to learn something completely new or to massively grow in an area of little experience.  For me that was coaching and developing others.  I had limited beliefs about what others were capable of so I neither thought they could transform nor that I could help them do it.  I learnt by doing that actually, I could change/develop/grow/learn and that opened up a new world. All these people in my extended team could also develop amazing new talents and I could help them do it!  And that’s exactly what happened.

The work we did together had a massive impact on me at the time.  Learning to coach members of my team meant that they were able to fulfil their potential more fully and I could delegate to them.  My role changed quite quickly.  I went from being key to the provision of services to take on a leadership role and, quite quickly, to become CEO.  This opened up opportunities to do other things, such as lecturing for the University of Cambridge Judge Business School and founding 50th Generation, an incubator for meaningful, growing businesses.

It’s easy to say that, as a result of our work together (and other learning with other learning partners), I became a different person.  I think it’s more truthful, though, to say that our work together helped me to become a more effective, fun and joyful version of myself.

Carrie Bedingfield

Entrepreneur, business grower, investor, communications specialist, guest lecturer

Investing in your life and career

I thought of Carrie because I am currently putting together information about a coaching group I will be offering in the next few days for people who want to make their next career move – people who are seeking promotion within their current organisation or seeking to move from one organisation and another.  If you want to find out more, about this, click here.

Carrie’s experience demonstrates the kind of progress people make as a result of investing in their personal development.  Her testimonial exemplifies the kind of things people learn in coaching.  It also exemplifies the kind of results people can look forward to in the short-, medium- and long-term.

There’s a curious thing, too, about coaching.

Carrie’s testimonial is a reflection of just how extraordinary she is.

At the same time, in my experience, successful coaching demonstrates just how ordinary it is to be extraordinary.

Bringing heart to leadership in difficult times

I have been somewhat parochial in the last couple of weeks in my approach to the news.  On 10th February, the news reached me of the death of someone whose work has enriched my life immeasurably:  Marshall Rosenberg.  Marshall was the creator of an approach to communication which he called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication, a passionate advocate for social change, a great teacher and author of a number of books, including his core text Nonviolent Communication:  A Language of Life.

New concert hall boost for London
New concert hall boost for London

Then, too, there has been a flurry of commentary about Sir Simon Rattle.  Journalists have been speculating for months now that Rattle, whose tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is due to come to an end in 2018, will take up the post of Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  (This matters to me because, in my spare time, I sing with the London Symphony Chorus.)  Rattle has spoken openly about his belief that London lacks a world-class concert hall and some have speculated that he is holding out for a commitment to build this hall as a condition of taking up the post with the LSO.  It seems the politicians have been listening:  in recent days, there have been public statements from various politicians.

There has been wider news.  There was an attack on a café in Copenhagen, which was hosting a discussion about free speech.  Three teenage girls left the UK, apparently to travel to Syria, raising concerns about their safety.  British football fans were caught on camera in Paris, chanting their love of racism.  There have been discussions about the Greeks in Europe.  In the UK, election fever is starting to build.

In the UK, talk of deflation has been carefully framed and, largely, played down.  Still, talking to friends and family, and to clients in the privacy of my offices in Harley Street, I am repeatedly reminded of just how different the business environment is right now compared to ten years ago.  The possibility of a round of deflation is one more nail in the coffin of hope for many businesses.

Is your organisation struggling to weather difficult times?

Businesses continue to struggle:  yours, too, may be struggling.  It can be hard to lead in an organisation that’s grappling with change.

As a leader, you have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, when many things you used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted, such as year on year improvements in sales and in what you can charge your clients.

The decisions you make have an impact on large numbers of people, from staff in your own organisation, suppliers, their friends, family and communities.  This can leave you feeling torn, uncertain, though you try hard to maintain the calm authority your staff expect of you.

What’s more, you know your own employment is at risk and your prospects of career advancement are diminished.  At no other time have you given more, been more tested, with less opportunity for any kind of reward.

How do you weather such difficult times?

Turning the screw on under-performance

It can be easy to think, in difficult times, that you need to use more force to achieve results.

This was the approach that Sheldon took.

Sheldon was a sales manager in a time when sales were sluggish.  Under pressure from his own line manager, Sheldon shared targets with members of the sales team and spelled out the consequences of not achieving those targets.  The consequences for the company were significant, he said, and everyone’s jobs were at risk.

Sheldon piled the pressure on individual team members, too.  One team member was new and struggling.  This team member, Ash, had made a flying start on joining the team but his results had been patchy following a down-turn in the economy.  What’s more, he was finding it hard to balance his core work with his contribution to a new initiative in the team.

Sheldon kept a close eye on Ash, giving detailed feedback on every failing he could find.  Ash was frustrated and devastated when he was copied in to an e-mail from Sheldon to the company’s MD, highlighting a particular problem and attributing it to Ash.  If only his manager had checked the facts, he would have known the problem lay elsewhere.

The thing is, the more Sheldon gave feedback, the more Ash’s performance deteriorated.

With love, not fear

One of the articles I recommend most often to leaders and aspiring leaders is Daniel Goleman’s article Leadership That Gets Results.

In his article, Goleman lays out research which identifies six different leadership styles and explains their impact on the performance of those being led.  This research suggests that the most effective leaders use a range of styles when managing their employees.  It also shows how the most effective leaders do this consciously, because they understand that they need to do what’s most effective in a given situation.

There’s more.

Goleman’s article (which he develops more fully in his book The New Leaders) shows that, over time, the use of four styles in particular is more likely to build a climate in which team members can perform.

There’s one thing that Goleman doesn’t mention in his article and that Sheldon didn’t know either.  Sheldon’s choice of leadership style was largely driven by fear.

Sheldon’s senior management were driven by fear of the consequences for the company of a whole if the sales team did not perform.  They passed their fear right on to Sheldon, together with the responsibility to find a way to increase sales.

Their approach intensified Sheldon’s fear and Sheldon lacked the skills to turn down the dial on his emotions in order to reflect on how best to handle the situation.  Like his own managers, Sheldon passed his fear right on.

Ash was already anxious when his performance started to drop and he didn’t know how to respond.  What’s more, he could see that an initiative in the sales team, designed to give better service to some of the company’s smaller client organisations, was asking members of the sales team, repeatedly, to be in two places at once.  He’d tried to give feedback to Sheldon but Sheldon seemed to be on a mission to prove to Ash that he was not up to much.

Ash was struggling to maintain his confidence and self esteem.

So was Sheldon.

So, too, were members of the senior management team.

About Marshall Rosenberg

On the day I heard that Marshall Rosenberg had died, I noticed my heart opening and the sensations in my body.  I knew it was not a day to bypass my experience but a day to take time out to be with everything that was in my heart, including the great sense of gratitude and the feelings of love.

Following the announcement of his death, colleagues at the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) set up a call for people to share their memories, to celebrate and mourn together.  Intended to last a few hours it went on for seven days.  A group set up on Facebook has become a living memorial to this towering giant of a man.

Early in his life, Rosenberg was struck by the various forms of violence he encountered growing up in Detroit.  He went on to study psychiatry and obtained a doctorate before going on to develop the approach to communication which has become known as Nonviolent Communication, with the aim of widely disseminating much-need communication skills.  During his life he worked widely around the world, bringing healing to many individual people and to troubled, often war-torn, communities.

It’s a testament to Rosenberg’s leadership that he set up a Center for Nonviolent Communication as a way to spread his approach and worked with many people around the world to share his skills.  He leaves behind many people who are themselves experienced in training others in NVC and in mediating conflict.

At the heart of his work, Rosenberg emphasised paying attention to feelings and needs so that we can find ways to meet our own needs whilst also respecting and contributing to the needs of others.  The disciplines of NVC – the process he described for communication – are especially powerful when they are rooted in love and in an intention, where there is fear, to find our way back to love.

I owe much to Marshall Rosenberg and to the approach he developed.  I am particularly grateful to the clarity of intention I have, as a result of studying with him and with others in the community, to live my life from a place of love.

Leadership with heart

This posting is, for now, my own testimonial to Marshall Rosenberg and an expression of my own love for and gratitude to him.

At the same time, I am aware of the power of love as an underpin to the kind of leadership Goleman describes in his article, Leadership That Gets Results.

Marshall advocated separating our observations from our judgements and Goleman highlights the need to step back and assess what is needed in each situation we face as a leader.

As a leader, Sheldon’s experience started to change when he learnt to notice his emotion and to bring care to his fears before choosing how to respond to each situation he faced.

The experience of his staff was also changed by this.

So, too, was their performance.

Marshall Rosenberg, 1934 – 2015.

Managing your boss

Portrait of Albert Einstein
Portrait of Albert Einstein



Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results

Albert Einstein





In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed selling things on eBay.

In recent days, however, I’ve been grappling with a fair degree of frustration.  On Tuesday, I booked a courier to collect a parcel on Wednesday.

The courier didn’t come.

On Thursday I was out and left it with my neighbours.  I checked in with them on Thursday evening.

The courier hadn’t come.

Friday?  I was at home in the morning.

The courier didn’t come.

I had a meeting in the afternoon and left the parcel with my neighbours.  (Again.)  I collected the parcel from my neighbours on my way home.  The courier made his first attempt to collect soon after.  “Everybody’s complaining today,” he told me.  I knew I was not alone.

I was all the more frustrated because this has happened a number of times in recent weeks and my attempts to engage the company concerned have generally been met with an apology and a request that I deliver the parcel to them.

Are you working for your worst boss ever?

Working for a difficult boss is a subject that comes up repeatedly.  If you’re working for your worst boss ever, you may already recognise some parallels with my courier experience.

Your boss is the boss, right?  You expect him or her to do the things bosses do.

You expect your boss to clearly define what he or she wants of you.  He doesn’t.

You expect your boss to support you in shaping an agenda for your part of the business and to help you to gain support for important initiatives.  But you can’t get time in your boss’s diary or you face a wall when you put your ideas forward.

You expect your boss to organise herself to be effective.  You expect leadership from your boss.  But the last thing you get from your boss is good, sound leadership.

You expect the boss to provide support and coaching to help you become more effective in your current role or prepare for your next role.  But all you get is criticism when you don’t do things his way.  (And how the hell are you supposed to know what his way is?  He certainly doesn’t tell you.)

Perhaps you try making requests of your boss or giving feedback.  He may agree with your assessment of the situation but nothing changes.  She may take offence at your feedback.

Over time, you feel more and more frustrated.  Perhaps you feel anxious.  Maybe, if your boss is super critical of you, you lose confidence.  Your performance starts to slide.  Or maybe you find yourself increasingly filling the gap.  Others approach you rather than seeking help from your manager.  Or you start to shape the agenda, to do the influencing, to make things happen.

What Ben knew

Recently, I met someone who had made quite an art out of working for difficult bosses.  I was intrigued to learn more.

The first thing he told me intrigued me most of all.

It hadn’t always been that way.

Early in his career, he had set out to change a difficult boss.  He was confident that his perceptions of his manager were correct and felt sure that if he only raised his concerns at more senior levels, something would be done to address the boss’s behaviour.

In a way, he told me, he got lucky.  His boss’s boss was sympathetic to his concerns.  At the same time, she also highlighted the risks of taking on someone who was so powerful within the organisation.  “You can’t change the others,” she told him.  “You can only change yourself.”

Ben (let’s call him Ben) became curious about the possibilities of what he could achieve by focusing on what he could do rather than focussing on how his boss should be different.

In his first experience, for example, he recognised that his manager had a lot of power in the organisation and a strong desire to look good.  Ben learned to make the most of his boss’s powerful position by working with him to develop initiatives that moved the organisation forward.  “Whatever his limitations” he told me, “I always treated him with the utmost respect.  I shared ideas with him and explored the implications with him.  Quite quickly, I realised I had to start small if I wanted to get him on board.  The effect was to create a pathway towards the next small initiative and the next one and the next one.  I gave credit to my boss whenever I could and, quite quickly, he started to take the credit for the way he had encouraged me.  Once this happened, he started to sing my praises around the organisation so that we both looked good.”

I asked him if this kind of strategy had always worked for him.

“No,” he told me.  “There are times when I look at a situation and ask myself what I can achieve by adjusting my own behaviour and what changes I can make.  In one job, I gave feedback to my boss and he acknowledged all the issues I raised with him – and then did nothing at all to address them.  After I’d had this conversation with him several times I thought hard about my next steps and decided that I needed to accept the situation or, if I couldn’t accept the situation, I needed to accept that I couldn’t accept the situation.   At that stage, I knew it was time for me to move on.”

Tolle2Ben had learnt something I still find difficult.  Eckhart Tolle summed it up like this:  “When you complain you make yourself a victim.  Leave the situation, change the situation or accept it.  All else is madness.”

You could also put it this way:  “When you expect your boss to manage you, you make yourself a victim.  You need to start managing your boss.  Accept that your boss is the way s/he is, do what you can to transform your relationship with your boss, or leave your boss.  All else is madness.”

What struck me about Ben was not that he turned a blind eye to the weaknesses and failings of his line managers.  No.  He was curious about his bosses’ strengths and weaknesses.

He did, though, give up the word “should”:  he stopped telling himself that his line manager should be doing all the things that good bosses do.

My experience with my courier was a reminder that, whatever views I might have about my courier and what they should be doing, they were not.

Making your peace with working for the worst boss ever

The courier should have turned up on Wednesday but it didn’t.

I have already tried to attract attention and get the help I needed.

I’ve used the on-line chat facility and talked to people in Mumbai.

I’ve tried tweeting the UK team.

I tried writing to the courier’s Head of Customer Service.


I got no reply.

Because the issues with this courier’s service have been repeated, I spoke to the Citizens Advice Bureau.

And then I looked hard at my courier’s standard Terms and Conditions.

I was surprised to discover that, as far as the courier is concerned, the service starts once their courier has collected the parcel.  (How weird is that?!)  What’s more, they take no responsibility for events beyond their control, including mechanical failure.  (In short, if the courier’s vehicle breaks down, they won’t collect.)

The thing is, I realised that my courier isn’t going to change.

I thought about the reasons I use this particular courier and I knew they still stand.  At their best, this courier provides a good standard of service at a price that suits my customers on eBay.

I decided to add a few words to my listings on eBay – my own Terms and Conditions – to alert my clients to the possibility of delay.

And, having done this, I felt at peace.

If you’re still waiting for your boss to change you’re doing what I do when I get cross when the courier doesn’t come.  Of course it’s logical to expect my courier to come on the day scheduled.  It’s what couriers do.

But all couriers are not equal and neither are all bosses.

Instead, you will be at your most effective – and peaceful – when you take a long hard look at the boss you have and ask yourself, “Where do I go from here?”

Please let me know how you get on.

Stepping into your power as a leader

Greenwich Park
Greenwich Park

If there’s one word that has people running for the hills in our culture, it’s the word “power”.

In the world of politics, one conspicuous example of this became evident in 2008, at the beginning of a major global economic crisis.

Europe looked to Germany to provide leadership.

Germany had reason – frightening, historical reason – to hesitate to exercise its full power.

“Power” is a word which has so many negative connotations.

No surprise, then, that there’s a phenomenon I notice amongst some of my coaching clients.  You could call it walking away from your own power.

It’s easy to spot amongst the young and talented leaders I get to work with.  But it’s not confined to any age, gender, ethnicity or other group.

Are you walking away from your “power”?

You’re walking away from your own power if you have scope to take action and you’re not taking action.  This is as true in managing your life and career as it is in your role as a leader.

Of course, it sounds so simple but the reality of it – your experience of it – is far more complex.

It’s possible, for example, that you don’t even know how much power you have to take action.  You’re used to thinking of others as powerful, but you?  You just don’t see yourself in that way.

Maybe you lack the motivation to embrace the power you have.  Yes, you want to get things done and to a high standard.  But exercising power?  You think of yourself as a doer rather than as someone who can make things happen beyond the scope of anything you can do yourself.

The very idea of power may be daunting for you.  Maybe it involves giving yourself a level of permission you can barely conceive of at this stage in your life or career.  Maybe you’ve seen how others exercise their power and you know you don’t want to be like that.

Giving your power away

London's Shard
London’s Shard

One client (let’s call him Lewis) recently expressed his frustration at the decisions being made by his line manager and the impact of those decisions on his staff.  Wasn’t it obvious to his boss that the organisation’s plans were ill-conceived and would ultimately backfire?

Another client (let’s call her Maja) expressed her frustration that her organisation was doing so little to recognise her career aspirations.  Yes, she was being offered another job.  But she was painfully aware that it met the organisation’s needs much more than her own.

I asked both Lewis and Maja what conversations they were having with the boss about their concerns.

They weren’t.

They hadn’t realised that talking to the boss was even an option.

Faced with the option of talking to the boss, each one expressed concerns.

Lewis could see that his boss was heavily invested in the decision he thought was so ill-conceived.  He was probably right.  He thought that to raise his concerns would have little effect other than to irritate the boss.

Maja struggled to embrace her talents or to give herself permission to gave priority to her own preferences over those of the organisation.  In her heart of hearts, she was frustrated with her organisation precisely because she was looking to her employer to validate her need.

Lewis, Maja, were both giving their power away.

Your power to what?

What power did Lewis have?  What power did Maja have?  Each one had far more power than they realised.  At the same time, each one had a particular idea of power that got in the way.

Each one saw power as something you exercise when you know precisely what the outcome will be.

Lewis didn’t speak to his boss because the only reason he could see to do this, was to persuade his boss to change her mind.  He thought she wouldn’t change her mind so he didn’t exercise his power to talk.

Maja didn’t speak to her boss because she wasn’t confident her employers would support her career aspirations.  She thought that learning her employers had different plans for her than she had for herself would put her at a disadvantage.

Neither Lewis nor Maja understood that our power to take action does not guarantee a particular result.  Instead, it opens up a conversation.

At times, the conversation leads us towards an outcome we desire.  The boss sees the validity of our arguments and changes his or her decision.  Our employer expresses support for our career aspirations and starts to collaborate in finding the job we want.

What’s more, as well as leading us towards our desired outcomes, the conversation can lead to larger outcomes than we anticipated.  When the boss listens to our arguments and finds them valid, the relationship is changed.  We make a step – however large or small – towards a relationship of partnership with our line manager and our power to influence is increased.  Or, finding our employer supports us in our aspirations, we discover our true worth in the eyes of the organisation.  We also take a powerful step towards finding a role in which we can work to our strengths.

At times, the conversation does not deliver what we hoped for and still, it delivers.  Perhaps the boss remains blind to our concerns.  We feel frustrated at the boss’s lack of insight or the requirement placed on us to do something we have so little faith in.  Still, by having the conversation, we learn something about our boss or about our own ability (or lack of) to persuade.  Perhaps we learn how little our employer supports us in our own career aspirations.  At first, we feel thrown back, betrayed.  We may find it painful to realise that we need to look after our own interests in an organisation that isn’t invested in us.

In the short term, and especially when we first step into our power to hold the conversation, we may feel disappointed precisely by (as we see it) our lack of power.

Over time, though, if we continue to exercise our power, we discover that each time we do so, whilst the immediate outcome may or may not be what we wanted, we are better informed and have more choices than were open to us before we exercised our power.  We discover, too, that the world did not fall apart because we spoke up and didn’t get the outcome we were hoping for.  Increasingly, we feel empowered.

Embracing your power to make a positive difference

London City seen across the Thames
London City seen across the Thames

Whenever you walk away from your power, you walk away from your power to make a positive difference.  You do this, even when you are motivated by a desire to avoid the misuse of power.

You also walk away from your power to take small actions that make a big (and positive) difference.

Whilst Lewis may not succeed in persuading his boss to change her mind, to say no to holding a conversation could be to say no to being the one person speaking up on behalf of his team.

Whilst Maja may or may not get the response she wants, to say no to holding a conversation is to say no to seeking a way to fulfil her potential.  This, in turn, could mean failing to make her full contribution to others.

I wonder, what’s your relationship with power?

The trouble with New Year’s resolutions

Blog Jeju 61


On Friday, 2nd January, I stepped into the office for the first time since Christmas.  I had a small list of priorities, including clearing my desk ready to start the year, some scheduled phone calls and preparing to write this blog.

It seemed to be a good time to reflect on the year just gone and the year ahead.  What did I achieve last year?  What do I want to achieve in the year that has just begun?

If New Year’s resolutions are working for you, there’s probably nothing I can add on this topic.

More often, though, they don’t.

For this reason, I decided to explore the topic in my first blog of 2015.

Does your heart sink at the thought of setting New Year’s resolutions?

Whether you are contemplating making New Year’s resolutions for yourself or setting new goals for your team, you’re probably acutely aware that for many people, the habit of setting New Year’s resolutions can be laced with cynicism and disappointment before the year has even begun.

Maybe you know you need to lose weight or to increase sales across your business.  You said it last year.  You said it the year before.  Saying that you wanted to achieve it did not, though, make it happen.

Perhaps you feel the pressure to come up with new goals.  Maybe you are under pressure to deliver against somebody else’s new goals.  But past experience tells you that knowing the pressure is there has made no difference in practice to the results you and your team have achieved.

To cap it all, the more you focus on what you should be achieving that’s different, the more your heart sinks as you reflect on past failures.

SMART goals – are they any better?

The acronym SMART has become a byword for goal-setting in organisations in recent years.  It didn’t, though, stop one client from complaining about the impossible challenge of setting and achieving team goals.

John (let’s call him John) had been struggling with one particular goal for two years in a row and the need to achieve it was becoming increasingly pressing.  He had checked it for “SMART” and it ticked all the boxes.

Still, they had failed to achieve the goals as agreed in year one.

They had failed to achieve the goals in year two.

Failing to achieve it in year three didn’t seem to be an option.

It seemed to me that we needed to understand why John and his team were failing to achieve their goal before he could make the adjustments that would make the difference.

Two reasons why we fail to turn New Year’s resolutions (and SMART goals) into practice

Let me turn away from John and his team for a moment.  Why, in practice, do we fail to achieve our goals?  I am thinking about our personal goals as well as the goals we set with and for our team.

Reflecting on my own and others’ failures, I notice two key reasons why people don’t achieve their goals or fulfil their New Year’s resolutions.  Firstly, at times, we simply set the wrong goal.  Sometimes, for example, we set a goal for our career and yet fail to take steps to achieve it.  Perhaps it’s a goal that honours the wishes of our family but fails to gladden our heart, for example.  (And yes, many achieve such goals and turn up years later in coaching or therapy clinics, dissatisfied and wondering where to go next).  Perhaps we set a goal for our team which fails to get to the heart of what’s needed or to take account of what’s going on in the marketplace.  (One person I interviewed years ago was charged with a sales goals which was a percentage increase of current sales of a product that was about to become obsolete.  It was clear he wouldn’t achieve his goal and still, he had to fight a hard political battle in his organisation to gain wider recognition of the implications of this change in technology.)

There’s a second reason why we fail to fulfil our New Year’s resolutions or to succeed in meeting a business goal.  Quite simply, we underestimate what it takes to achieve them.  If we know from the beginning what it takes to achieve our goals, we’re probably playing too small a game.  This applies in our personal lives as much as it does in our businesses and organisations.  When I jotted down some of the reasons people don’t fulfil their New Year’s resolutions or their business goals some very human things came up:

  • Lack of commitment:  Have you ever said yes to doing something, only to find that you didn’t, well… do it?  Sometimes we don’t get off the starting blocks because we haven’t really tested for commitment.  This is true when the goal is a personal one – one part of us wants to achieve X, for example, but another part is concerned about the implications.  Across our teams this inner conflict may be replicated many times.
  • Failing to acknowledge the benefits of our current behaviours:  If you want to lose weight and you’re still eating all the foods (or drinking all the drinks) you know you need to give up, it’s because you get something you want from your current habits.  Psychologists call these hidden benefits “secondary gains”.  You may know intellectually that you have some bad habits you want to ditch and still, some part of you is clinging on tight to the same bad habits.  And yes, the same is true across whole organisations.  One organisation I know has repeatedly expressed the aspiration of creating truly equal “win, win” partnerships with suppliers.  At the same time, this organisation has benefited for a long time from seeing itself as stronger and superior to people outside the organisation.  There may be some element of illusion in this aspect of the organisation’s culture and still, it fuels a certain confidence in the marketplace.
  • Failing to identify and overcome barriers to progress:  It’s remarkable how many organisations turn a blind eye to key barriers to progress.  This can extend to using labels (“naysayer”, whinger” etc.) to describe anyone who raises a concern.  At the same time, the self same “naysayers” can be invaluable in highlighting issues that need to be overcome in order to meet a personal or organisational goal.  This failure to face the key challenges involved in achieving a goal can, in turn, lead to another issue which prevents us from achieving our goals;
  • Making too many changes in direction:  Have you ever noticed how team members can greet the goals of the new boss with a quiet resistance?  Conversations round the kettle suggest that he or she will calm down soon and nothing will get done, because who has ever followed through to achieve their goals?  At the same time, I’ve seen organisations invest significant amounts of time and money in a new idea, only to abandon it when it doesn’t go strictly to plan.  It can be painful to face mistakes and to correct them.  Sometimes it’s easier to abandon an idea completely and save face by saying it was a mistake to attempt something in the first place.  Changes in bosses can bring changes in direction.  Even without new people at the top, there can be unhelpful changes in direction before goals are ever met;
  • Timing, timing, timing…  Any number of failed goals are down to timing.  Was it timely to address this goal, or did it need to wait until you’ve addressed something else first?  Were you, your team, your senior colleagues willing to discover just how long it might take to achieve a goal?  Did they value the goal enough to persevere over time?

The reason behind the reason

In his exploration of the reasons he and his team had failed to achieve their main goal, John and his team identified a number of reasons which were both hidden from view and obvious once they had been identified.  It was a painful process for John and for a number of members of his team.

I could stop here.

After all, having identified why they were stuck, he and his team were able to revise their plans to address the key issues and, suddenly, the speed at which they made progress towards the goal they had identified two years early accelerated dramatically.

What had seemed hard suddenly seemed terribly easy.

But one question hit hard as John reflected on this sudden change of pace.  Why was it that such obvious reasons for delays had remained out of view?  And what was it that had suddenly made it possible to identify and discuss – address, even –  the barriers to progress across the team?

John was humble in his response:

“It was so clear that this goal was well within our grasp that every time we met a barrier I felt frustrated with myself or with members of my team.  Why wasn’t one team member doing the things he had promised week after week after week?  Sometimes, frustrated with my own role in the delays, I would give staff a ‘talking to’ and let them know how disappointed I was with them.  I always felt better for doing this, as if I was doing what I should do in my role as leader.  At the same time, I could see heads droop and motivation flounder.  All the frustration in the world, the self-blame, the criticism of my staff… it seemed right and logical but it didn’t make one bit of difference.”

So what did make the difference?

“When we talked about this goal in our coaching, I noticed something about the way you responded.  There was a quality you brought to our discussion which was entirely absent until that point – compassion.  I had been really beating myself up in the days preceding our session.  I was getting ready to do the same with my staff.

“This quality of compassion allowed me to recognise that delays and challenges are perfectly normal.  It also allowed me and my team to explore what was really getting in the way of progress.  It was as if, by taking blame out of the equation, we all became more willing to share our perceptions and to hear each other fully.  Initially, I felt vulnerable doing this and then, because of the lack of blame, I felt safe hearing staff tell me about the issues I had overlooked and about the impact of my approach.”

One afterthought on John’s part particularly struck me:

“I used to think that compassion was the opposite of accountability – a sign of weakness on my part as a leader.  This process has taught me that the opposite is true.  The greater the compassion, the easier it becomes to hold myself and others to account, because we’re not confusing the issues involved with who we are and what we can bring.”IMG_3752

Looking forward with compassion to 2015

Personally, I have a confession to make.

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions this year.

My goals – both personal and business – are anything but SMART.

At the moment, I am feeling my way through a period of considerable personal and professional change.

I have though, like John, learnt the value of compassion.  I have learnt how much more self aware I am when I can explore my desires with compassion.  I have learnt how much I can learn from my own inner resistance and from those who doubt when I can bring compassion to the conversation, for myself and others.  I have learnt how compassion can carry me through times of fear and uncertainty, or lift me up when something goes wrong.

In this moment I am accepting with compassion that I am publishing my first blog posting of 2015 almost a week after I started to write it.  Worse still, I am realising that although I scheduled this posting for 8th January, some glitch means that I’ve discovered, well into the month, that it hasn’t yet been published.

I am also looking back to see what progress I have made in my business and personal life despite the many moments in which I have felt anxious when things have not happened as quickly as I hoped and realising that there’s a much larger picture for me to look at.  From this perspective, I see successes I could never have anticipated and some very human barriers I have overcome.

I am looking forward to whatever life brings in 2015.

I hope you are, too.

PS  The photos are from my visit to a Buddhist temple last year on mainland South Korea.  Buddhism emphasises compassion, which may be why I was drawn to these photos in particular when writing this post.

Conflict at work: alternatives to “fight” and “flight”

20140714_190617I saw my counsellor on Monday, the wonderful David Hamilton.  I found myself laughing as I sat down and saying, I guess you’re going to sit and watch me, waiting for me to say something…  and then I went on to tell him about all the things that had been in my thoughts during the twenty minute walk to his offices.  Our sessions have been part of my self-care following a most extraordinary period, in which I fielded more challenges than I could easily handle and which left me feeling physically and emotionally exhausted at the beginning of this year.

Firstly, I supported a friend in crisis, something I wrote about in a blog posting entitled Preventing employee suicide.

Just as my friend was admitted to a hospital ward that could give her the care she needed, I was ordered to take down a blog posting by… well, I’d best not say in public.  I was happy to make amendments to the posting based on clear and detailed feedback and confident we could find a way forward that met my needs and the needs of this organisation.  But no, I was to obey orders (including orders that went way beyond the legitimate authority of the organisation concerned).  I quickly discovered a clash of values around leadership of monumental proportions.

As the French say, jamais deux sans trois.  As if this wasn’t enough, in the New Year, I found myself in conflict for a second time.  This time, I chose to draw an agreement to a close when I felt my partner in this agreement (let’s call him Carl) was failing to act in line with the spirit and most fundamental clause of the agreement – to be sensitive to each other’s needs and make time to talk about any issues arising during the course of our agreement.

Each one of these experiences was taxing in itself, taking time and energy from other things.  Together, these three experiences left me feeling exhausted and rather bruised.  I knew it was time to take care of myself.

No wonder, if my experience is anything to go by, that people try to avoid conflict.

Trying to avoid conflict at work?

Do you ever find yourself feeling frustrated with the behaviour of a colleague at work and, at the same time, anxious about the consequences of addressing the issues that are stimulating your frustration?

Perhaps you have concerns about the approach being taken by your boss or by your peers.  At the same time, you want to preserve your relationships so you try to smooth things over – but your frustration doesn’t abate.  Or perhaps you’re anxious about the consequences – which you can’t predict with any accuracy – of sharing your concerns.

Or perhaps you are holding back from addressing your concerns with members of your team.  You might be concerned, for example, that if you address those aspects of your star performer’s behaviour that are most unhelpful you will lose not just those behaviours but also the star.  Or maybe the prospect of embarking on a discussion with one of your under-performers fills you with dread.

Or maybe you are watching conflict brewing amongst members of your team and are trying to head it off.  The truth is, many people put off addressing issues in the workplace because of concerns about conflict.

Delaying conflict makes it worse

Now, it would be easy for me to talk about the failings of my partner in relation to the agreement I dissolved at the beginning of the year.   However, years ago, I learnt that you can’t change the others, you can only change yourself so, instead, I’m going to share my reflections on my own behaviour during the course of our agreement.

Firstly, I’m going to give myself some credit.  From the beginning, I put in place an agreement that reflected a fundamental principle… everyone’s needs matter.  I also recognised that neither party to the agreement could anticipate everything that we’d need to have in place for our agreement to work.  That’s why I included a clause in the agreement which said we needed to be sensitive to each other’s needs and make time to talk about any issues arising during the course of our agreement.

Having said that, in practice, I put off having conversations when I started to notice that my partner in the agreement was not doing things he had agreed to do.  In effect, I was choosing to “pick my battles” – deciding which issues were important enough to mention and which issues I should overlook for the sake of maintaining the agreement.

The trouble is, the cumulative effect of my choices were two-fold.  On the one hand, I was putting too many issues to one side so that, over time, I was supporting my partner in meeting his needs – but at the expense of my own.  On the other hand, because I wasn’t sharing my smaller concerns, my partner in the agreement was unaware that his bank account of goodwill was dropping slowly into debit.

I knew he was contributing less than he had agreed and taking more – and maybe he did, too.  What he probably didn’t realise was that, as well as not working for me in the context of our agreement, this was putting a strain on our long-standing relationship. By the time I was ready to move beyond conversations about the detail of our agreement to address my overall concerns, it was already time to dissolve our agreement.  More than this, by the time I was ready to address my concerns, our relationship was at risk.

Do I regret raising my concerns?  No.  But I do wish I’d raised them sooner.

Ground rules for constructive conflict at work

20140714_183513Even when we are slow to address issues in the workplace, there are things we need to know if we want to do so constructively.  You might think of these as “ground rules” or “truths” to focus on when you decide to take action.  What’s more, by sharing them with members of your team, you can help your team to address issues constructively within the team.  Here are just a few of my favourites:

Focus on interests – who needs what?  We get stuck in addressing issues when we take a position (usually some form of “I’m right”) rather than trying to work out who needs what.  Identifying the needs of everyone involved opens up the possibility of finding a way forward that meets everyone’s needs.  Equally, when we try so support everyone in meeting their needs, we leave everyone with their dignity intact, even in the messiest of conflicts.  This is about exploring why something matters to the individual(s) concerned.

Everyone is creative, resourceful and whole.  When we trust that everyone in the workplace is an adult with strengths and capabilities and the capacity to learn, we are more likely to do some of the things that will help us to find a way forward, such as sharing our own views and asking questions or sharing information openly.  (Roger Schwarz offers a great behavioural list in his books and articles under the heading “skilled facilitator”.  It seems to me that we follow Roger’s recommendations most easily when we trust that our colleagues are creative, resourceful and whole.)

Everyone – yes, you, too – has something to learn.  Conflict is most constructive when everyone involved comes to the table willing to learn something new.  Even if our partners in a discussion don’t understand this, we need to understand it for ourselves.  A willingness to learn opens up new possibilities – the possibility of a different way forward in a particular discussion, for example, or the possibility that we might learn something that will make us more effective in future.

The outcome from conflict is always the right outcome – for now.  The outcome from conflict is unpredictable.  We can never know how our colleagues might respond when we raise our concerns with them.  Often, working through conflict means we have to abandon our preferred strategy.  At the same time, handled effectively, conflict can help us to come to a better outcome than we will achieve by avoiding conflict.  It may fit neatly into our plans or it may challenge them.  Either way, it can bring us closer to finding ways to achieve results that meet everyone’s needs.

The aftermath of conflict

You may be wondering what the outcome is from the conflicts I have shared with you above.

One outcome from my experience with the unnamed organisation is that I am much more informed about the style of leadership that currently prevails in that organisation.  As it happens, other people are, too, because our disagreement was a topic of discussion at the organisation’s Annual General Meeting in the spring.  What’s more, people not only know more, they also know that others, too, know what they know.  In my experience, such open debate opens up possibilities, in time, for constructive change across an organisation.

20140714_184222And Carl?  Well, for now, he isn’t responding to my e-mails and has severed our connections on social media so I’m inferring that he wants to take a break or even to sever our connection altogether.  It’s a choice I respect.  For my part, I am clear that our experience offers an opportunity to ask this: is it nourishing for us both to be in contact with each other?  Or are we better off nurturing other relationships?  My choice, which I make with a glad heart, is to stand up for my needs in the context of that relationship whilst also wanting to support Carl in meeting his.

And you?  I wonder what challenges you face at work?  How many of them are an invitation to a discussion and even to a potential conflict?  As I draw to a close, I invite you to notice how many conversations you would have, and with whom, if you only believed that addressing the issues openly – and risking conflict – would be a constructive way forward for you and your colleagues.