Tag Archives: competencies

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 www.learningforlifeconsulting.co.uk

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?

Developing your strategic thinking: sharing your strategy with others

In recent days I’ve been writing about developing your strategic thinking and in this posting I come to the question of how to share your strategy with others.

This question implies that you do have a strategy.  It’s been interesting to me in recent days, reading Richard Rumelt’s recently published book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, to notice how he differentiates between having a strategy and communicating it.  The bottom line?  It’s not enough to be charismatic and engaging – you need to engage people in a strategy that is more than just “fluff”.

In case you want to develop your skills in communicating strategy and getting people on board, I offer a number of suggestions below:

  • Observe how others communicate and engage others:  Any number of historical figures have had to communicate a vision to and engage others, including Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and more recently, Barack Obama.  Even as I write, my list gets longer, and I am especially thinking of people who were successful in engaging others in a vision for the future that was subsequently realised.  Desmond Tutu, for example, is widely associated with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which played an important role in a successful transition to post-apartheid South Africa.  In the UK Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevan is recognised as championing what has become known as the National Health Service – free health care for all Britons.  Not all such leaders have been popular or have championed causes which win modern day support – any number of political or rebel leaders nonetheless successfully championed a cause.  The more you engage with their story the more you develop your understanding of the many different ways in which leaders engage others in a vision and strategy for the future;    
  • Get behind the examples to understand the theory:  My old favourite, Goleman’s book The New Leaders, outlines research which identifies different leadership styles and how they work in practice.  It’s a great place to start if you want to understand the impact of communicating a vision and how you can cultivate this style as one of a number of styles you need to lead effectively.  For an example of what different leadership styles look like in practice, you can do worse than hunker down with the grainy old war film, Twelve O’Clock High.  This film shows two different leaders leading the same group of men in different ways and with dramatically different outcomes.  If you can get past the subject and the age of the film it is the perfect companion to Goleman’s book;
  • Develop your communication and speaking skills:  If it’s speaking that’s holding you back, there are many ways to develop your skills.  Toastmasters has often been used by leaders to develop skills in speaking publicly.  Others have trained in neuro-linguistic programming (or NLP), nonviolent communication (NVC), Roger Schwarz’s Skilled Facilitator Approach and other approaches in order to develop a wider range of communication skills.  Of course, you don’t need to go through training to develop your skills in communication.  As an alternative you might want to seek out opportunities both inside and outside work to practice and develop your skills.  These may range from sitting down with your team to talk about the future to speaking at conferences or facilitating discussions.  A good coach can support you in identifying steps you can take which provide growth as well as supporting you in re-framing old fears about speaking.

This is my last posting – for now – on how to develop your skills in thinking strategically.  It’s been quite a series – and at the same time, I recognise the limitations of these suggestions:  if you want to develop your abilities in this area, you need first to identify what specifically you need to develop in order to move forward.  “Strategic thinking” involves quite a bucket-load of skills.

If you have questions that you’d like me to grapple with, please share them using the comments box below.  Many of my postings are inspired by and reflect my work with people in leadership roles.  Equally, if you have other comments or suggestions that could help readers to develop their ability to think strategically, please share them.

Developing your strategic thinking: shaping a compelling strategy

In recent days I have been writing about how to develop strategic thinking, recognising the importance as a leader of the ability to see the big picture, to shape a compelling strategy and to communicate in ways which engage.  So what does it take to shape a compelling strategy?  I offer a few ideas and suggestions to get you started:

Firstly, you might like to carry out some research:

  • Get curious about successful strategies:  There are many ways to come at the question of shaping a compelling strategy and all of them have something to offer.  One place to start is to think of the businesses that have been highly successful and to get curious about why:  what is their strategy?  I think instantly of organisations that have consumer appeal (my own favourites include First Direct banking, Ikea and Pret a Manger).  One example that has become an internationally recognised case study is the Seattle Pike Place Fish Market.  One downside of its fame is that the DVD (for which, follow this link) is priced at corporate prices, though the book (When Fish Fly:  Lessons for Creating a Vital and Energised Workplace from the World Famous Pike Place Fish Market) is easily available.  Another favourite of mine is Clive Woodward’s autobiography Winning! because it highlights what it took to turn aspiration into practical strategies which in turn led to the England Rugby team’s World Cup win in 2003.  Remember, too, to look close to home – to parts of your organisation that have been highly successful or to organisations you have worked for yourself;
  • Get curious about unsuccessful strategies:  Famously, Gerald Ratner’s strategy for his jewellery business was a winner until, in 1991, he shared it publicly.  He talks about this on YouTube in a plug for his book.  Look around you to find examples of strategies that haven’t worked.  Some of them may well be inside your own organisation.  Many of them will be out in the wider world:  what was Lehman Brothers’ strategy before it went bust in 2008, for example?  And what was the ailing Apple’s strategy prior to Steve Job’s return in 1997 as CEO of the company he had co-founded?  In truth, one of the easiest ways to access examples of bad strategies is by reading what some of the academics have to say about bad strategy, which leads me to my third suggestion…
  • Read what thinkers about strategy say:  Currently I am reading the recently published book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt – it’s a goldmine of examples of both good and bad strategy and it also includes thought-provoking ideas from the author on what differentiates the two.  An enduring favourite is Jim Collin’s Good to Great which reflects the findings of detailed studies of what differentiates organisations which have been successful over time from those that have not.  Equally, Sydney Finkelstein’s book Why Smart Executives Fail and What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes includes insights into the errors that smart executives make in shaping and executing a compelling strategy.

When you’ve carried out your research, you might like to distil your learning in two areas in particular:

  • Distil your learning into key measures of a successful strategy:  Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy highlights the risk in shaping a compelling strategy which fails to address key challenges or which fails to translate grand aspirations into a concrete plan.  Before you shape your own strategy, I suggest you identify key hallmarks of a successful strategy – these are the measures against which you will test your own strategy before you start to think about how best to communicate it to a wider audience;
  • Shape your approach to creating a successful strategy:  Once you know what your key measures of success for creating a successful strategy are, you are in a position to shape your approach to shaping your strategy for your own business or part of the business.  Your approach may vary depending on the needs of the business – from sitting down with a blank sheet of paper, through consulting with those you lead to engaging the support of specialist consultants.  

 Once you’ve distilled your learning and designed your approach, you’re ready to…

  • Shape your strategy:  It’s tempting to offer key pointers for your strategy and – at the same time – this topic seems too important to summarise in just one bullet.  By now, though, if you’ve taken time to broaden your view (follow this link to read about this subject), to do some research into what differentiates successful strategy, to distil your learning into key measures of a successful strategy and to shape your approach you’re ready to execute your approach in order to shape a successful and compelling strategy.

I wonder, do you have experiences you can offer here to help other readers?  What have you found most helpful?  Equally, what questions would you like me to address in future postings?

Developing your strategic thinking: broadening your view

In recent days I have been exploring the theme of strategic thinking and what it takes to develop your strategic thinking.

In practice, leaders who think strategically combine strong cognitive capability (or at least, strong enough) with a good dose of curiosity.  They also apply their curiosity to the right canvas for their role – looking sufficiently broadly and far ahead to be able to make sound decisions and taking into account a range of factors:  thinking, for example, about which other parts of the organisation will be affected, about the future implications of a decision and about the impact on a decision of future events.  Strong strategic thinkers are always curious – they don’t wait until they have a task to do before seeking out new information.  Instead, they are constantly and systematically seeking out information relevant to their job.

So if you are thinking about how to develop your own ability to think strategically, you might want to ask yourself:  how curious am I?  And what are the things I’m curious about?

In case you’re wondering how you might develop this broader view, I offer just a few suggestions and resources below:

  • Understanding your current context:  This is about understanding the context of your current job and implies seeking answers to some key questions:  What’s the external context in which your organisation sits right now?  What is the overall strategy and aspirations of your organisation?  How does your role fit into the wider organisation?  How does it contribute to the wider organisation?  Who are your key customers?  Which parts of the organisation do you need to collaborate with and how?  What other considerations (e.g. organisational culture and politics) have an impact on your role and with what implications?
  • Looking at the bigger picture:  The question “what’s the external context in which your organisation sits right now?” is one that merits further exploration.  Some of the strongest strategic ideas come from people who have insights that others miss because they are constantly scanning the broader environment to see what’s changing and thinking about the implications of those changes.  Making regular time to explore wider social and economic developments is one way to do this.  How?  You might start by asking senior leaders in your organisation (and beyond) what publications they read on a regular basis – the Financial Times, Economist and Harvard Business Review are just a few old favourites.  One way to find out what some of the world’s leading thinkers are thinking about is to dip into the library of 20-minute talks available on line at www.TED.com – this is just one way to broaden your thinking.  Engaging with other people can also be a great way to broaden your thinking – for example, by joining your trade federation or other external body;
  • Developing a strategic mindset:  Perhaps you enjoy reading books.  If you do, books to stimulate your ability to think strategically include The McKinsey Mind:  Understanding and Implementing the Problem Solving Tools and Management Techniques of the World’s Top Strategic Consulting Firm (by Ethan M. Rasiel and Paul N. Friga), Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage (by Michael E. Porter) and The Pyramid Principle:  Logic in Writing and Thinking (by Barbara Minto).  Equally, if you prefer to step into an environment that stimulates your thinking, one colleague recommended the work of Richard Olivier under the Mythodrama brand (see http://www.oliviermythodrama.com);
  • Exploring an alternative world:  In the corporate world, it’s easy to imagine a world of people who are also working in corporations.  In practice, many are not.  Recently I heard a statistic that in my own country, Great Britain, 50% of the population are working at any one time, whilst 50% are not.  The percentage of people who actually work in our major corporations is small.  Looking outside the corporate world to stimulate a broader awareness is one way of developing your ability to think strategically.  One colleague, for example, responded to my request for ideas by writing:  “It doesn’t get more strategic than the North American Indian practice of considering all decisions they make based on the impact decisions are likely to have on the following seven generations…. clearly they didn’t have analysts and a stock market”.  If you want to explore this further, check out www.g7sp.com/php.  In my own City of London, St. James’s Church, Picadilly has a long tradition of sponsoring speakers from many different traditions under the name Alternatives, many of which are available on line.  This is just one way to broaden your thinking beyond the confines of your own organisation.

I’d love to hear from you.  If you have followed up on any of this suggestions, which did you find most helpful and why?  And if you’ve found other ways to develop your capacity to think strategically, would you be willing to share them here?

Strategic thinking: more insights into what it looks like in practice

I was struck this week by two comments on a discussion thread I initiated as I prepared to write about strategic thinking, and how to develop it.

One came from Alan Wingrove, on the discussion group Human Resources UK on LinkedIn.  Alan’s comments serve to illustrate just why strategic thinking is so important at senior levels, as well as hinting at what it takes to develop it.  He also makes a couple of reading recommendations:

I currently coach owners and senior managers around their vision and strategy and in my previous ‘life’ I delivered leadership development at a ‘strategic level’.

One continual challenge is to move them from the immediate (day job) to the future (the more holistic view). As John [another contributor] says, learning the theory is different to being able to do it, which is a change of mindset. As I became more and more senior I found myself having to take a more and more external view, to evaluate the impact these external events would or could have on my organisation. For example, I still hear owners of businesses tell me that they have little interest in the current Eurozone crisis, as they cannot see how it effects them. The truth is, it may not immediately, but the longer term effects definitely will.

This necessitated a change in perspective, which I find people grasp best through case studies and the power of stories. I do tend to agree with you about books like ‘Good to Great‘ and I have just finished reading ‘Good Strategy Bad Strategy‘ by Richard Rumelt. In this, he gives excellent examples of how some organisations have flourished through good strategy and other household names have ‘bombed’ through bad strategy, where people have not considered what is coming over the horizon – and he looks at the thinking of those creating the strategy.

A second posting by Fiona Pearson on the same thread also points to the realities of developing strategic thinking:

For managers in new roles the shift from operational responsibility to a wider remit is not always easy especially when day-to-day issues still demand attention. In the current climate people are often bridging two roles while reshaping is progressing. A common complaint I hear about newly promoted managers is a sense of frustration that they are not “thinking strategically” enough and are overinvolved in operational priorities and detail. New reporting relationships, perhaps into the senior team can highlight a surprising lack of awareness of strategic issues. Managers now charged with developing a vision for their service can flounder, unsure where to start, not daring to ask because everyone else seems to do it with ease. Previous experience of contributing to strategic planning often only exposes people to snapshots of the process rather than the full map. The underlying complexities described in an earlier comment can seem impenetrable.

I wonder, do these comments ring true for you?  And what have you found useful in developing your ability to think strategically?

Strategic thinking: what does it look like in practice?

On Monday, I wrote about strategic thinking in my post Developing your strategic thinking.  But what does it look like in practice?

Now this, in my view, is often quite challenging to identify.  Why?  Well, there are several reasons.  Firstly, we’re told that strategic thinking is rather difficult to do (and yes, perhaps it is) and yet, in practice, a great strategic thinker makes the complex quite simple so that his insights are hard to spot.  Secondly, the great strategic thinker often sees things ahead of others.  When he or she first has an idea it may be seen as sheer lunacy by others who haven’t seen it yet.  In hindsight, it may seem rather obvious.

Some of the issues and ideas in the Western world that reflect the strategic thinking of our forbears are in the social rather than the business realm.  Who in the Western world would question the idea that slavery should be illegal?  How many people would really believe in 2011 that women should be denied the right to vote?  How long will it be until same sex marriage, or women priests or inter-racial adoption are just non-issues?  For this reason, insights into strategic thinking can be found in many historical speeches (as well as insights into how to share a vision in ways that are compelling).  Writing this article I made a note, for example, to get my hands on A Call to Conscience:  The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King.

The business world is equally littered with stories of famous business people whose predictions, with hindsight, look utterly ridiculous.  One of the most famous of these was by Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM who, in 1943 said “I think there is a market in the world for maybe five computers”.  More recently, Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., is said to have said in 1977 “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”.  It took Bill Gates to turn this round and to hold the vision of a computer in every home.  (And as I write, I wonder how many people might say “What, only one?”).

One example of strategic thinking in practice was supplied by my colleague in the coaching profession, Emma Chilvers.  Emma offered a link to an extract on YouTube from the film Other People’s Money – follow this link to see just one example of strategic thinking in practice.  From the business world, I was struck by Ray Anderson’s response to questions from his customers about what his company, Interface Carpets, was doing to support the environment.  Anderson went from not having an environmental vision for his company to having a vision for his company which recognised unequivocally the need to manufacture products in ways that are totally sustainable.  Anderson speaks of his personal epiphany in the DVD The Corporation, itself a visionary film.  You can also see what Anderson says on YouTube by following this link.

And how do you develop your ability to think strategically?  Keep reading!  I’ll be offering some thoughts on how to develop your skills in this area over the coming days.

Developing your strategic thinking

Recently I have been assessing candidates for senior roles – a steady trickle of leaders who have their next (and often more senior) role in their sights.  Over time, as well as seeing the unique strengths and areas for development of each individual, I am starting to build a view of the patterns across all the candidates.  One area has particularly intrigued me – the area of thinking strategically.

Now, “strategic thinking” is a rather awkward term, not least because you find as many definitions as you find people talking about it.  Some people think of the kind of deep and detailed analysis that major companies make when they invest in the support of the McKinsey’s of this world.  Some people think of the level of decision-making they like to delegate just one or two levels up the chain.  So, for my purposes in writing, it seems important to define the term.

First things first, I am talking about a behaviour – or more properly a cluster of behaviours.  In particular, I am talking about the ability some leaders have to take a long-term and holistic view of the sum of activities for which they are responsible, setting clear direction based on an understanding of their internal and marketplace context as well as their aspirations for the future.

In truth, whilst the need to think strategically is particularly apparent in an organisation’s most senior roles, it exists from the beginning of our careers.  Early in our careers, for example, it is the difference between executing a task and seeing the full range of tasks for which we are responsible and the context in which we conduct them.  In our first supervisory role, it embraces the need to understand the full range of tasks to be executed by those we supervise and the impact they have on other areas of the business.  With each elevation to a new role the scope of our thinking needs to expand if we are to be truly effective – I often think of people in new roles as needing simply to raise their heads a fraction to achieve a new line of sight:  looking more broadly at the context in which they are working and a little further ahead.

Why is strategic thinking so closely associated with leaders at the most senior levels of an organisation?  Perhaps because, at more senior levels, leaders take on responsibility for deciding on the direction of the organisation and the implications of that direction for the work others do and the way it is structured and organised.  And in what way is strategic thinking more challenging at these levels?  In truth, strategic thinking is about the underlying ability to absorb and process diverse and increasingly complex data, crystallising it into core themes.  It also involves going beyond what is known and certain to make informed guesses about what is possible in the future.  My goodness it looks simple when leaders do it well!  At the same time, the levels of cognitive ability required increase as we take on larger and more senior roles.

But what if you need – or want – to develop your capacity to think strategically in preparation for success in your new role?  This is a question that one client posed in a recent debrief following an assessment and a question I’ll be exploring in the coming days.  I’ll be sharing my ideas – and I hope you’ll share your ideas, too.

What is empathy, anyway, and why does it matter?

We can say that when a person finds himself sensitively and accurately understood, he develops a set of growth promoting or therapeutic attitudes toward himself.

Carl Rogers
Empathic:  An Unappreciated Way of Being

Well, I didn’t set out to make this week Empathy Week and still, I am immensely grateful to my colleague in the world of non-violent communication (NVC), Jeroen Lichtenauer, for highlighting a wealth of resources available to support my exploration.

Today, I have been diving into a paper written by Carl Rogers, entitled Empathic:  An Unappreciated Way of Being.  Before I write about Rogers’ article it is worth saying a few words about the man himself:  Carl Rogers worked as a psychologist and therapist in twentieth century America and his work has been highly influential across a range of related fields.  As well as shaping an approach to therapy which is radically different to some of the more analytical approaches which preceded it, Rogers’ approach has been highly influential in the modern coaching profession and Marshall Rosenberg also points to Rogers as having influenced his attempts to develop an approach (eventually called Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication) which could be shared easily around the world without the costs associated with individual therapy.

Now, Rogers’ credentials are highly rated with some and yet may ring alarm bells with others.  What does all this mean for the average man or woman seeking to find a way through a corporate career?  It’s worth mentioning the work of David McClelland and his colleagues (popularised by Daniel Goleman in such books as Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence).  McClelland’s research showed that our effectiveness in the workplace depends significantly on a number of competencies which depend on our emotional rather than intellectual intelligence.  Empathy matters!  And, in fact, empathy is listed as a competency in the Hay Group Emotional Competence Inventory which seeks to translate these research findings into practical ways of measuring competency and emotional intelligence at work.

Rogers’ paper includes a number of definitions of empathy including at least two of his own.  The quote above, from the conclusion of his paper, points both to what we might mean by empathy and to the significance of empathy for the individual.  Both are big subjects in themselves so let me just say for the moment that when we are able to be present to our own thoughts, feelings, experience and needs (self empathy) or to the thoughts, feelings, experience and needs of another (empathy) without judgement we open up a wide range of possibilities in our relationships and communication with self and other.  This is every bit as significant in the workplace as it is in the therapist’s office, where the presence or absence of empathy will have an effect on key aspects of our work life.  These include our ability to make and execute sound decisions as well as our personal well-being, our ability to engage those we lead as well as our ability to marshall our own inner – and often conflicting  – voices.

What is the key question we might ask our selves to determine the extent to which we are able to demonstrate empathy?  Here is my starter for ten:  am I able to put myself in the shoes of another, to connect with their feelings and needs and in this way to see multiple perspectives without needing to be “right”?