Category Archives: Developing leadership across your organisation

Keeping your best talent: lessons from the school playground

Working, as I do, on two sides of the leadership coin, there’s one thing that intrigues me.

I’ve yet to work with a client organisation in which the most senior leadership cadre complains about having too many talented leaders or aspiring leaders across the organisation.  This remains true even now, in the midst of painful down- (or right-) sizing, when the number of leadership jobs available is diminishing.

It seems that talent is in short supply.

At the same time, working with individual leaders in organisations or at my coaching clinic on a Sunday, I meet men and women who are clearly talented and yet who struggle to find the right next job. (Right now, as a result of these kinds of conversations, I’m recruiting members of a London-based coaching group called Kick start your next career move.  If you know anyone who might be interested, please forward this link to them.)

It seems that people with strong potential don’t always find it easy to find a job in which they can truly shine.

If you read my blog on a regular basis you’ll know that I don’t hold line managers responsible for the careers of their staff.  We all have a primary responsibility to meet our own needs.  Still, if you are a line manager to a talented and aspiring leader, I wonder if you relate to the dilemma faced by your colleagues.

Are you worried that coaching your staff will prepare them for a future in someone else’s organisation?

Learning to hold the reins
Learning to hold the reins

You know how it is.  You’ve made the case for a new member of your team, someone who can take some of the load off your shoulders.  Perhaps it took you a while to ask for help.  Maybe it was a long and painful approval process, so that by the time you get to recruit, you’re almost on your knees.

You advertise the post and get any number of recruits.  Maybe some of them look just right for the post, though your colleagues worry that these well-formed candidates are already ready for the next job and encourage you to take on someone who can benefit from some learning in this post.  You do.

You choose someone with potential and you spend time bringing them up to speed.  For a while, it seems as though you have more work as a result of recruiting them rather than less.  Perhaps you spend six months, eight… maybe even twelve months or eighteen teaching them to hold the reins.

Having delegated all sorts of tasks to your new team member, you’re starting to motor.  You are free now to handle an altogether more strategic agenda.  You enjoy stepping back from the detail to plan your forward path.

And then, just as your plan comes to fruition, they leave.

It may be that this is the reality of your situation.  Perhaps it’s something you worry about even though it hasn’t happened yet.  Is it wise to invest so much in support of members of your team if all it means is that they move on?

Building a learning organisation

In 1999, the UK’s Department for Education funded a major piece of research in order to understand what differentiated the most effective school teachers.  It followed hot on the heals of research into effective school leadership which underpinned the design of a national Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers.

I was working at the time for the Hay Group, which carried out this work.  Although mostly I have worked with client organisations in the private sector, these projects heralded the beginning of my involvement in the education sector.  I was Director of Quality for the conduct and analysis of interviews with teachers across the country, for example, as part of the Hay Group’s research.  After I left the Hay Group, I served for ten years as a regional and then national judge for the Teaching Awards.

One year, it was my privilege to observe a head teacher who, already successful in leading her own school, had taken on the headship of a second school.   The second school was in some difficulty so her remit was to raise standards in the second school whilst maintaining standards in the first.  As others before her had already found out, parents’ fear that standards might drop can make them highly unwilling partners in such an endeavour.

Coaching new skills
Teaching new skills

Nonetheless, the head teacher’s approach was audacious.  She started to make strategic exchanges of personnel between the two schools.  A member of staff in one school would swap places with his or her peer in the other school.  Both would receive coaching and both would work with each other to exchange best practice with the aim of raising standards in both schools.  Hers was essentially a coaching approach.

It worked.

Standards improved across the failing school.  Teachers across both schools reported an enriching experience which had built their awareness of and confidence in their skills.  They improved existing skills and developed new ones.  The head teacher had created what some call a learning organisation, in both schools.  Coaching was woven into the culture and practices of both schools.

What “Miss” knew

What did this head teacher know that made her feel comfortable to take such audacious steps?  Two things.

Firstly, she knew that even without any changes of personnel, the school she was taking on had greater potential than it was currently fulfilling.  She had faith in the people in the new school – faith that they could learn and grow.  She also held the belief that staff in her existing school, already seen as high performers, had the potential to learn and grow.  She set out to make the experience a learning experience for everybody.

So far, so good.  But what about the risk of preparing people for a future in other people’s schools?

In truth, this head teacher positively wanted to prepare people for their next roles, whether or not it was in her school.  You could say that she wanted it because this was a reflection of who she was.  She was, at root, a coaching head teacher.

But in case you are not a coaching leader, you might still want to know why.  What thoughts and attitudes did she have that made her want to coach her staff even whilst knowing they might move on?

This head teacher’s approach was the manifestation of her belief that there are plenty of talented people in the world, people with potential to learn and grow.  She knew that there would always be people coming into her school with potential and with an appetite for learning.  In truth, experience had taught her that creating a learning environment for the adults in her school made the school an attractive place for precisely the kind of people she wanted to recruit – people with aspirations to learn and to work to high standards.  She had no concerns about losing good people because she felt confident of her ability to recruit more good people to the school.

Room to shine

As I draw this posting to a close, I remember that this head teacher’s school shone like a beacon in her area and was heavily over-subscribed.  It attracted parents and their children.  It attracted teaching and non-teaching staff.  What’s more, it attracted applications from precisely the kind of people she wanted to recruit.  I wonder what brand your organisation has in your marketplace, whatever it is.

It’s easy, too, to see that some people also have a personal charisma that makes them shine like a beacon within their organisations and beyond.  These are the people you recruit with confidence, if only you get the chance.

But if you’re not shining as an individual to your current or prospective employers, it doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer.  More likely, it means you don’t know what your talent is or how to describe it.  (If so, please think about joining me to Kick start your next career move.)

And if, as a leader, you want to attract staff who will make a real difference in your organisation, think about recruiting the very people you’d most like to keep, coaching them whilst they’re with you and accepting that, at some stage, they will move on.

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.

Under pressure – are you at risk of derailment as a leader?

Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for

Under pressure that burns a building down

Splits a family in two

Puts people on the streets

Queen, Under Pressure

After roughly six years of blogging I am writing today for the first time in seven weeks – so much for writing at least one blog posting per week!

It’s been an intensive period.  I hope it means that our difficult economic climate is picking up a bit.  In my business, this means “delivery” – juggling client assignments, moving from one area of activity to another (coaching, leadership assessment, executive development…), travel (Stockholm, Munich, London…)

I am reminded of the insistent beat that underpins the song by Queen, Under Pressure.  It is powerful precisely because it mimics the heart under pressure, adrenalin-laden, without pause.  It’s a song that has often been in my mind in recent weeks.

Are you feeling the pressure?

If you’re taking time to read this article, you probably aren’t, right now, “under the cosh”.  At the same time, you’re probably all too familiar with feeling under pressure.

You know, too, that when times are tough – demanding or difficult, frantic or frightening, irritating or intense – you’re probably not at your best.  Whilst some people may claim to thrive under pressure, we all face kinds of pressure that we find hard.

You may even be thinking this:  that pressure is a way of life for you rather than a temporary event.  Or perhaps the pressure has been going on for so long that you’ve stopped noticing and you’re just getting on with it.

If it is, if you are, you may well be placing your health, your well-being and your performance (yes, your performance) at work at risk.

Coming off the rails

Morguefile steam train

As it happens, one of the things that has kept me busy in recent weeks has been working with a colleague to help upwards of 60 leaders understand their personal motives, values and behaviours – including the way they behave under pressure – using the Hogan suite of psychometric tests.

The thing is, we all have our own ways of feeling the pressure.

We all have our own ways of responding to the pressures we feel.

One of the reasons Hogan has established such a strong reputation at senior leadership levels is because these tests recognise that, under pressure, some of the behaviours that fuel our success can become strengths overplayed.

Suddenly, we’re at risk of derailment.

This is valuable information for organisations at the point of recruitment.  It’s also valuable for you to know in your role as a leader.  Wouldn’t you want to know if you’re at risk of derailment as a leader?

Have you noticed how, under pressure, you have a particular way of responding?  Have you even wondered why you respond in that way?  (And why others don’t?)

We feel the pressure most when we face situations that are like those we struggled with when we were very young.  And when we do, we are most likely to use strategies, quite unconsciously, that we adopted at a very early stage in our lives.

Arthur, for example, lost his job as a senior manager because he failed to manage his own patterns of behaviour when he followed his old boss to a new organisation.  Arthur respected his boss highly and they had worked well together.  In his new organisation, though, he reported indirectly to his old boss via a new line manager whom he found difficult and for whom he had little respect.  His old boss urged him to treat his line manager with respect and to recognise his long-standing contribution to the organisation and his power – however ill-founded – within it.

Arthur’s resentment started to build.  He quietly gave priority to assignments from his old boss over the tasks delegated to him by his new line manager.  Others, including his line manager, noticed the delays.  One day, without warning, his line manager called him into the office and told him that his services were no longer required.

It didn’t have to be that way for Arthur.  It doesn’t have to be that way for you.

Bringing a mindful approach when you’re under pressure

More than anything else, two things trigger our sense of feeling under pressure.

Firstly, we feel the pressure when something we experience is at odds with our most deeply held values.

Take a moment to think about this.  When was the last time you felt deep, deep emotion – be it anger, or love, irritation, or gratitude?  What happened to trigger the emotion?  What need was met?  Or violated?

Secondly, we feel the pressure when our own underlying confidence or self esteem is such that we worry about our performance.

Notice how you felt when you last made a mistake, for example, or when you feared you might make a mistake.  How did you feel, too, about the possibility, under pressure, that your staff might make mistakes?

How did you respond to your feelings?

It’s easy to buy the story you have in such moments, the thoughts that are triggered when we feel under pressure and all the feelings that come with them.  This is, after all, what Daniel Goleman has called the Amygdala hijack, when the pressure of the situation triggers all sorts of responses in one of the oldest parts of our brain.

It’s harder, much harder, to simply say hello to our thoughts and feelings… to notice what’s kicking off inside us and to give empathy to those parts of ourselves that are triggered and active at a particular moment in time.  To do this, is to begin to develop our emotional intelligence as leaders.

It’s harder still to notice how, in some situations, we are not alone in feeling the pressure.  Two people, feeling the pressure, can both behave from a place of stress rather than from a place of mindfulness.

Paying attention to how you respond when you’re under pressure and noticing what things are most likely to trigger this response opens up the possibility of managing your response, avoiding a derailment and becoming more effective in your role as a leader.

(Oh!  And yes, life becomes less stressful and more enjoyable, too.)

After the storm

Arthur, frustrated by his new line manager, confused the map with the territory.   He thought his view of his new boss was objective and indisputable and maybe he was even right.

What he failed to notice was his own pattern of thinking and his habitual responses.  What he also missed was the opportunity to choose a different – and more effective – response.

As I sit and write, I can feel huge empathy for Arthur.  Most people, at senior level, are at risk of derailment as a leader, though the form this can take varies from person to person.  What’s more, the strategies we develop in childhood, as ineffective as they are, can be hard to spot and harder still to change.

We do, though, get to choose.  Do we want to be aware?  To catch our patterns in action and begin the process of changing them?  Or to we prefer to say “It’s just who I am”?

This, though, opens up a whole new area for exploration…

Recruiting for integrity? Be careful what you wish for!

What is your concept of “integrity”?

Recently, I worked with a client to shape a new competency model for leaders across the organisation.  There was a time when organisations would pay a lot of money for deep research to establish which behaviours marked out their most effective leaders, but this seems to be less fashionable nowadays.  Few organisations have the budget and some find it hard to believe that yesterday’s stars are the right people to meet the very different challenges of today – let alone tomorrow.

No, this was a more pragmatic approach, mining the wisdom of leaders themselves about the core leadership challenges they expect to face in the next 5-10 years, about those people who are handling these challenges most effectively, and about the core behaviours demonstrated by their chosen role models.

One behaviour, integrity, came up as key – and not for the first time.  It seems that, no matter what the challenges of the era, organisations aspire to employ men and women of integrity.

What is “integrity”?
Often, when clients discuss integrity, they think of someone who has clear values and who acts in line with those values.

The person who shows integrity makes promises and keeps them, and acts in ways which are consistent with the values they espouse (some call this “congruity”).  What’s more, they are not easily swayed from their values, even when acting on personal values carries a high risk.  Ideally, the man or woman of integrity speaks up about wrong-doing in the company and challenges poor decisions, with the greater good of the organisation in mind.

Implicit in the concept of integrity is the idea of “good” values – honesty, for example, probity, perhaps.  Clients also associate integrity with wisdom and emotional intelligence, too.

“How,” you may be asking yourself, “could such a person be anything other than an asset?”

Why organisations don’t like integrity in practice
Years ago, I was briefly the colleague of Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer.  She left the organisation I was working for quite suddenly after her partner, David Shayler, hit the news here in the UK after blowing the whistle on some aspect (I do not remember what) of MI5 practice.

Whistle-blowing is just one thing that people do who act with integrity.  In recent history, for example, whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have been talked about around the world. (Read 5 Famous Whistleblowers Who Shaped History to learn more).  But who loves the whistle-blower?  Rarely is it the higher echelons of the organisations whose practices (mal- or otherwise) have been revealed.

There are other reasons why organisations don’t much like integrity in practice.  If you’ve ever been in a meeting, for example, in which one of your colleagues has made the case – repeatedly – for or against some proposal based on a set of personal values that you don’t share, you will know how much time can be lost in circular discussion.  Especially when the individual’s values are out of alignment with the values of an organisation, integrity can be – quite frankly – a real pain in the arse.

There’s something else, too… that integrity without insight, the behavioural flexibility or even the position to influence or persuade can impede progress towards an organisation’s most fundamental goals.  And who judges whether the (wo)man of integrity is appropriately standing his or her ground or (as Jeffrey recently said of Edward Snowden in the New Yorker) a “grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison”?

If you want your leaders to show integrity, and if you want the result to be positive for you or your organisation, there are things you need to get right.

Getting it right when recruiting for integrity
Here are just four things for you to think about before you include “integrity” as a competency in your model of effective leadership:

  • Are you clear about your organisation’s core values?  Integrity can be a hindrance as much as a help if your leaders show integrity in line with values your organisation does not espouse.  Before you look for integrity in your leaders, you need to get clear on the core values of your organisation.  Only then is helpful to understand if your recruits share your values and can embody them in practice as well as espouse them in theory;
  • Integrity is just one behavioural ingredient:  Think carefully about what other behaviours your leader needs in order for integrity to be an asset to your organisation.  Do your leaders show empathy, for example – the ability put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues and to look at things from another point of view?  Do they show judgement – the ability to see the issue under examination in a larger context or to weigh the pros and cons of a particular forward path?  Integrity without empathy or judgement can look like just plain bloody-mindedness;
  • There may be other things besides leadership behaviours:  If your concern is to promote a certain set of values, you need to look beyond the integrity of individual leaders.  Recent scandals in the UK’s NHS, for example, point to a wide range of issues which undermine patient care.  What checks are in place when recruiting new staff?  What training is provided to develop core skills associated with good patient care?  What is the impact on staff of short-staffing or other issues?  The list goes on;
  • It may not be integrity that secures adherence to values:  This is something organisations struggle with and still, when your organisation’s values are clearly outlined and reflected in policies and practices which have been designed to support them, it may not be the integrity of your leaders that keeps people on track.  Instead, it may be other behavioural qualities such as a desire to do well.

And what about you?
I hope this posting has helped you to think through some of the issues that face you if you are thinking of including integrity as a core leadership behaviour in your organisation.

Having said this, I also want to point to something more personal – your own need to live a life of integrity.

This, though, is the stuff of another blog posting.

Are you confident of recruiting the right (wo)man for the job?

In recent years, the relationship of the UK’s banks with the concept of “risk” has been evolving rapidly.

Risk in the banking sector comes in many forms.  Lending risk is perhaps the most obvious.  The collapse of the global economy in 2008, for example, has been widely attributed to a policy in America of offering sub-prime mortgages – essentially, of lending to people who couldn’t possibly repay their debt.  In the UK, the appetite for lending risk in banking has changed dramatically in the intervening years in response to changes in the regulatory environment and an overall move away from an environment of light-touch regulation.

Another prominent area of risk – in banking and other sectors – is the risk of fraud.  I don’t know about you, but I often field e-mails purporting to be from this, that or another well-known high-street bank and urging me to update my security details.  I’m tempted to dismiss them – who on earth would be fooled by such a scam?!  But the fact that they keep on coming suggests that yes, they work.  Of course, this is just one way in which client accounts are accessed fraudulently.  Banks increasingly have to keep abreast of the creativity of crooks.

Periodically, banks also fall prey to the risk of trading by staff beyond authorised limits with the consequential losses.  Another prominent area of risk in banking is in the failure of IT systems.  And, well, the list goes on…

The risk of recruiting the wrong person for the job
There’s a risk that’s spoken of less often, in banking as elsewhere, even though it’s a risk that we take on a regular basis – the risk of recruiting the wrong person for the job.

Maybe you’ve been there yourself.  You interviewed a range of candidates and one or two really stood out as front-runners.  Perhaps they had a track record of experience that was way ahead of their peers.  Perhaps they had worked for all the best organisations.  Perhaps they had had an early success that made them stand out or, simply, impressed you in interview… you made your decision and looked forward to the outcome…

…except that…

…the person who looked so good on paper and who impressed you so much at interview turned out to be someone quite different once his or her feet were under the desk.

If ever you’ve had this experience, you’ll know how painful it can be and how difficult it can be to unravel.  For starters, even if your antennae start to twitch early on, it takes time to realise that yes, you really have got a problem on your hands.  Probably, you’ll want to take action to support the individual you’ve recruited to give him or her the best possible chance to succeed.  Meanwhile the body of evidence starts to grow which tells you you’ve got it wrong.  Some of these can be hard measures –  deadlines or targets that have been missed, for example, or a failure to deliver something (a proposal, a new client, an IT system…) that was promised in interview.  Some of them can be so-called “soft” measures – a failure to engage with key stakeholders, for example, or to set a clear and compelling agenda.

By the time you’ve identified the problem, tried to support the person you’ve recruited in getting up to speed, realised you need to move them into a different job or to sack them, sacked them and recruited a replacement, the consequences can be bruising and include the time lost in moving forward a key agenda, the alienation of employees or key stakeholders, the costs of recruiting a replacement… the list goes on.

Recruiting for competence
As early as 1973, Professor David McClelland wrote a paper entitled Testing for Competence Rather Than for Intelligence which was published in the American Psychologist.  He proposed that a proliferation of aptitude and intelligence tests had created a whole movement in the US which, however, failed effectively to predict actual performance.  Instead of joining his colleagues in pursuit of a general and universal test of individual aptitude, McClelland proposed an alternative;  he looked for ways to test for competency which were rooted in an understanding of the job and of the characteristics and behaviours that actually differentiated high performers.

Ground-breaking at the time, McClelland is widely credited with opening up our deeper understanding of what makes people effective in a wide range of roles and the word “competencies”, which he used in his 1973 paper, is now widely understood.

Widely, but not universally…

Whilst some organisations have made great strides towards recruiting the right (wo)man for the job, mistakes still happen.  Organisations are particularly vulnerable to making mistakes in which people make decisions based on a poor understanding of the job and of it’s essential requirements, a poor understanding of what it takes to succeed in the job, and replacing effective methods of assessing for competency with over-reliance on a person’s career history (as reflected in a CV), on interview methods which fail to get under the skin of a candidate’s actual capability and on “gut feel”.

If you want to recruit effectively, here are just some of the things you need to be thinking about:

  • Do you have a clear and simple job description in place which clarifies the core purpose and essential requirements of the job?  Too many senior recruitments fall at this very first hurdle;
  • Do you understand the competencies that predict success in a given job?  It seems to me that, at the moment, too many behavioural descriptions are “motherhood and apple pie” rather than reflecting any careful observation of (let alone quality research into) what makes people effective in a given role.
  • Do you have an effective method for testing for competency?  Assessment centres are widely used when recruiting for multiple role-holders whilst I use competency-based interviews to assess candidates for senior leadership roles.

I would add that the use of psychometric tests can enhance your recruitment efforts – though they are not, in my view, a substitute for any of the core elements outlined above.

And banking?
We can all look at the banking sector and name senior figures in the industry who were reckless in the extreme in the period which led up to the events of 2008.  They are casting a long shadow over the industry… the mythology of the banking “fat cat” is alive and well and will no doubt be slow to respond to any actual changes in banking behaviour.

My own experience has been a little different.  Assessing candidates for senior roles in UK banks I have met any number of men and women who are concerned to support the success of UK banking, the effective management of risk and a real connection with the customer.

At least in retail banking, that’s you and me.

PS  The photo came from a recent walk along London’s South Bank.  Some of the photos I took on that day will be appearing on my new website – coming soon – at

Warning: don’t play with our values!

What do your staff see when they read the Our Values statement on the walls of your organisation?  I wrote this posting for Discuss HR blog where it was published yesterday.

Recently I’ve been in the classroom, as a student.  I took my Hogan certification workshop last month with the aim of gaining accreditation to use the Hogan suite of tests and enjoyed the luxury of soaking up new information and insight.  Since then I’ve been diving deeper into the learning – exploring my results from the Hogan tests and matching them against my own experience, conducting my first feedback sessions, diving into the literature, even correlating Hogan’s research against what I know of David McClelland’s research.  It’s been a ball – albeit one with a serious purpose.

But let me get to my subject, which is not Hogan, though it was prompted by a remark by my trainer that Hogan holds the view that if you want to change organisational culture, you need to change your staff.  And I don’t mean gently invite them to change their values – to adjust the things they hold most dear in order to align their view of what’s important with the new list on the wall of their team area or executive office.  No, I’m talking about recruiting staff whose values correspond to those you want to promote around the organisation.

I was curious about this comment because I know how fashionable it has been during the course of my career for organisations to shape a values statement for a new era.  I also know how such statements can become the object of cynicism as the posters that adorn every wall gradually curl at the edges without any fundamental change.  We need to become more competitive and fleet of foot – let’s put that in a new values statement and see what changes.  If anything.

There’s also the tricky reality that people may do the same things for different reasons.  John in Risk and Control may adhere to the rules because he has strong values around acting with integrity, in line with clear principles.  His colleague Charles may also have a strong nose for risk management, which derives from his interest in making money and his understanding that, in a highly regulated industry, you have to be on the right side of the regulator to maintain your mandate to do business.  Each set of values has its advantages and disadvantages and the fact that a single department or team has diverse people with diverse values in the team also has its advantages and disadvantages as a result.

Of course, the ‘change your values, change your people idea’ can indeed play out in the long term.  Whenever I touch on the subject certain organisations spring to mind – Virgin, for example, Ben and Jerry’s or Pret a Manger.  Googling ‘Virgin values’ I came across the following statement on Virgin’s About Us page:  Virgin believes in making a difference. We stand for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge. We strive to achieve this by empowering our employees to continually deliver an unbeatable customer experience.  I suspect that Virgin’s values statement is, though, the cart rather than the horse – that Richard Branson has, over the years, attracted people with similar values to work with him in a growing range of subsidiary organisations.  First came the embodiment of the values and then came the attempt to capture those values explicitly.

If all your staff share the same values, there can be an ease of working together, a strong brand that naturally emerges and the potential to attract a client base that shares your values – these, for me, are the most obvious advantages of shared values across an organisation.  There can also be risks.  The altruistically motivated organisation, for example, still needs somebody with enough commercial savvy to keep a strong eye on the books though he or she may feel unwelcome and uncomfortable amongst people with different values or have to push hard to engage colleagues in the financial realities of doing good for others.

Either way, a key question that the organisational values programme can overlook is this:  how malleable are people’s basic values and motivations?  To the extent that they are largely stable in most adults, investing in a new set of organisational values to meet the challenges of different times whilst keeping the same staff may well be costly and ineffective.  And if it is, how then can organisations drive those behaviours that are needed in a given era.

Most of all I wonder, what has been your experience in practice?

Preparing for longer working lives: time for a revolution in the way we work?

Every few weeks I write a blog posting for Discuss HR.  The posting below will be published today:

Recently Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, who have both served alongside Sir Alan Sugar in the BBC’s Apprentice, explored what it might take for people to continue working into their 70s in The Town That Never Retired.  I found myself wondering to what extent the HR profession is at the vanguard of shaping a way of working in the future which reflects the life expectancy of modern British men and women.

I confess that, for purely personal reasons, I have long been interested in the question of what happens as people get older.  Not surprisingly, my interest starts at home:  I was just 18 when my parents retired, my father aged 70 and my mother aged 51.  My mother, who had always managed home and family as well as working alongside my father on the farm, continued to thrive whilst my father struggled to adapt.  Years later, when he was well into his 80s or maybe even 90s, my father continued to make references to his contribution to the family as a farmer, as if his sense of identity was still vested in his bygone work.  My mother, on the other hand, continued to bring up her children, looked after her parents in their old age and then my father in his.  She has been a church warden for many years, organised an annual concert for 25 years, still organises the bookstall in the monthly village market and even – now aged 81 – continues to cook for the “old folk” at the village lunch club.

As an amateur singer I have also had cause to be aware of just how well some people thrive well into their old age.  I sang under the baton of Leonard Bernstein until he died in 1990, aged 72.  In 1997, I was deprived of the opportunity to sing under the baton of Sir Georg Solti when he died shortly before a concert, aged 85.  I am pleased to say that Sir Colin Davis continues to delight in his 85th year.

But what about corporate Britain?  Some employers have long since cottoned on to the value of older employees.  As early as 2001 The Grocer ran an article entitled Asda and Sainsbury take a positive view of older workers.  The article highlights how, in response to the then government’s Age Positive Campaign, Sainsbury “now offers arrangements which allow older staff to reduce the hours they spend at work gradually, and a new pension plan which allows staff to contribute until they are aged 75”.  In my own local Sainsbury it was Norma, who must be about 70 years old, who served me a few months back on the day that snow had caused travel chaos and staff were still struggling to get in.  I value the older staff in my local supermarket because they have an ease in interacting with people of all ages and experience of using the products they sell – which is sometimes obviously lacking amongst the “youngsters”.

As I sit and muse I realise I do have a vision, albeit barely considered, of a way of working which takes far greater account of the needs of workers and the natural rhythms of life.  For young people there might be opportunities to work longer hours to earn that elusive mortgage deposit.  For parents there might be opportunities to work less and spend more time with children.  For older people there might be opportunities to work shorter hours whilst still making a valuable and valued contribution in the workplace (and, yes, earning a living).  Perhaps, in time, there will be a degree of choice throughout our careers which supports employees in contributing to their place of work and to their family.  To put it another way, the more we need people to work well into their 60s, 70s and 80s, the more we need to design ways of working throughout people’s careers that support health, fulfilment and longevity.  We also need to do our research – one interesting fact from The Town That Never Retired is that research shows, in a way that may be counter-intuitive, that employment prospects for young people are better when older people work longer.

As you’ve no doubt already discovered, I don’t have all the answers, but rather want to ask the questions.  My main question to you is this:  as an HR professional, how far ahead are you looking and how do you envisage the future for the older people of this country?

The perennial problem of change

How many organisations are seeking to make changes right now to meet the challenges of a falling economy (yes, we’re back in recession in the UK), to address problems within organisations, to drive up profits, to seize opportunities…?

Susan Popoola wrote an interesting summary of The Problems With Change Projects in organisations, published on Discuss HR as well as on the Human Resources UK group on LinkedIn.  Discussion is raging on LinkedIn where there are also some interesting links to other resources.

I added my own two penn’orth as a way to give myself a break one day last week.  This is what I said:

Wow! Lots of really great stuff on this discussion! I especially noticed Andy’s assertion that “The business wants the change to happen a.s.a.p, and there’s a lot of energy at the beginning of the change programme which then starts to evaporate when the going gets tough”. 

Is it possible that one of the issues is that people in senior roles get anxious when things look in any way “messy”? If you’re the sponsor of a programme of change there are moments when things are messy and outcomes are uncertain and when you could well be thinking ahead to the personal implications for you if things don’t turn around. In these moments it’s easy to start looking for a scapegoat or for the next great thing.

It’s more challenging (and courageous) to go deep and to ask, just why is this proving so difficult? Especially because this implies being open and willing to learn about our own weaknesses and things we need to do differently. 

I wonder, what’s the culture in your organisation around change?  And how do people respond when things start to go wrong?

Making requests as an aspect of organisational culture

Yesterday I was working from home, as I mostly do on a Monday.  It was a busy day, but not so densely packed that I didn’t have time to take in some fresh air at lunch time.  In fact, I did something that I have recently taken to doing and wandered the length of Lewisham’s market stalls – just two minutes from home – to ask the stall holders if any of them had any waste products that could go into my compost bin.

In recent weeks I have learnt just how willingly the local stall holders give the gift of their green waste which otherwise goes into the immense bins provided by our local council for disposal elsewhere.  Yesterday I even had advice from one stall holder – let us know in the morning or the day before that you’ll be coming to collect and we’ll save it for you.
I would add that, as the recipient of this largesse I am delighted.  It’s not just that I hope, quite soon, to have the best fed worms in the whole of South East London and, in time, a steady supply of compost to improve the soil in my garden.  It’s not even because, until recently, I hadn’t thought to ask.  It’s also because, at a young age, I somehow learnt “not to put people to any trouble” by making a request.  I still have to remind myself that that was then and this is now as part of my preparation for making a request.  And yes, because it’s a request I am learning joyfully to accept a yes or a no.
I know I am not alone.  I invite you to take a moment to ask yourself how often and how openly, you – and others in your organisation – make requests.  And I do mean a request – an open question of someone who might be able to help you and with the option for the person you are asking to respond with a yes or no.  I also invite you to reflect on how willingly you and those you lead own the personal needs that sit behind the request. This is the difference, for example, between saying could we meet at 4pm so that I can get away by 5.30pm to support my partner at home and saying actually, I’m not available at 6pm or maybe even meeting your boss at 6pm and adding it as just one more example to stoke the fire of slow-burning resentment and ill health.
Because yes, there are things that people do to avoid making requests – because to make a request is often to share information about our needs and to open ourselves up to a no and to all the meanings we make of that no.  Making requests can leave us feeling oddly vulnerable, even when we have managed to persuade ourselves that it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
What do we do instead?  Here are just a few examples.  They all come with a price.  Which ones are prevalent in your organisation?
  • Ask a quasi request (“Make sure you check the report before you send it off, will you?”).  The substance of the request is vague, the language is part instruction, part request.  We haven’t asked the person of whom we’re making the request if they can do what we ask;
  • Assume that any half decent member of staff will know what to do and feel angry when they don’t deliver.  (In many organisations staff think this way about their colleagues and even their boss.  In senior leadership roles, we set the tone);
  • Wrap up a request, for example by assigning the need for the request to the organisation rather than honestly reflecting on and sharing our own needs.  Especially when we are in senior roles, this can make it hard for people to say no, though it may lead to all sorts of problems – including a kind of thoughtless obedience or quiet disobedience (yes minister style);
  • Tell ourselves that someone wouldn’t cope or would do their nut (or similar) if we made a request.  This is a great get-out clause – it may be true and, even so, it may mask a more personal reason why we are not making requests.

The approach people have to making requests in your organisation is part of organisational culture and it has significant implications for your organisation’s ability to achieve its aims.  I invite you to a seven-day curiosity exercise – just take time to notice the culture in your organisation around making requests.

Please report back.


Listening to the wild dogs barking in your cellar

Let me adapt some of Nietzsche’s words and say this to you:
“To become wise you must learn to listen to the wild dogs barking in your cellar”

Irvin Yalom
Staring at the Sun:  Overcoming the Dread of Death

I would read anything by Irvin Yalom, which is – far more than its subject matter – how I came to be reading his book Staring at the Sun:  Overcoming the Dread of Death.  I first encountered his deeply compassionate writings when a colleague recommended his book Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy.  I have enjoyed a number of his books including his novels:  Lying on the Couch made me laugh out loud.

Yalom’s work as a psychotherapist has contributed enormously to his field.  Whilst, historically, some psychotherapists have taken the view that psychotherapy is all about the client, Yalom has understood the impossibility for the psychotherapist of being a blank canvas – a distant and dispassionate observer.  For any man or woman brings a personal history to the role of therapist.  The therapist needs to cultivate self awareness in order not to entangle clients in his or her own unfinished business.

What’s more, dispassion and distance does little to promote healing for the client.  Yalom stands alongside Carl Rogers and others in viewing relationship and especially unconditional positive regard as an important contributory factor when it comes to the success of therapy.  His writings offer many examples of interactions with clients which might well horrify colleagues from other branches of his profession.

Now, since I work as a coach and my clients are leaders, you may well be wondering “what has this got to do with me?”  The truth is that both coaches and leaders need high levels of self-awareness if they are to be effective.  Daniel Goleman (in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence) lists three competencies which are concerned with self-awareness, based on research into what makes us effective at work.  Our self awareness is also the basis for our ability to relate to others – our ability to lead, to influence, to develop others (and so on) depends on our willingness to understand others and this, in turn, depends on our willingness to understand ourselves.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to have empathy for others even whilst recognising the fullness of their strengths, weaknesses, quirks and limitations.  We can only do this if we can view ourselves in the fullness of our own strengths, weaknesses, quirks and limitations.  There can be a paradox here;  for if we believe that excellence in leadership depends on being better than our fellow human beings, we undermine the very basis for our outstanding performance as a leader.

It’s for this reason that the quote above strikes such a deep chord.  When we can listen to the wild dogs barking in our own cellars, we can begin to understand ourselves – and others.  It takes a huge measure of compassion to be present to all sorts of thoughts, feelings, characteristics and motivations which, as children, we have learnt to condemn.  It takes compassion, discipline and dedication.

So, if you want to get by as a leader, you can afford to read this posting – and move on.  If, though, you want to go beyond getting by, I invite you to ponder the quote at the top of this posting.  How willing are you to listen to the wild dogs barking in your cellar?