I don’t know about you, but it already seems to me that 2018 is racing forward, the year no longer “New”. Traditionally a time of planning and goal setting, my clients are telling me how much they are in action mode already, with barely a moment to stand still. In my private life, discussions about the delivery of The Man in the Forest have crystallised around this coming Thursday… if not now, we found, it could be another three months before our diaries coincide.
As I sit and write, I think back to the beginning of my career, in the ’80s. (How long will it be – if it isn’t the case already – before we designate this time the 1980s, in recognition that this decade belongs not only to the last century but also to the last millennium?) Starting with a significant recession as the UK government sought to contain rampant inflation, it became a decade of “yuppee” growth and attendant confidence before recession returned and the housing market collapsed in the early ’90s.
For my contemporaries, there was a clear correlation at this time between their willingness to graft and attendant returns. In London’s premier legal firms, for example, talented young lawyers knew their labours would land them a partnership in their early 30s or, if not, a sought after job elsewhere. Success seemed assured if you only put the hours in.
Many of us are still “putting the hours in”, as if this alone is our recipe for success. We do it because it was our willingness to graft that earnt us high performance ratings and early promotions in the beginning of our careers. We do it because technology has, increasingly, wired us in, 24/7, to respond to whatever comes our way. We do it because we are anxious about the consequences of not doing it when our contemporaries do. Perhaps, even, we do it because we haven’t stopped to consider that there might be any other way.
But now? Really?
If, in your leadership role, you are constantly active with never a moment to pause and reflect, the risks you face include the following:
The greatest risk of all is that your responsiveness to others makes you a follower, not a leader. You are not able to shape a vision or direction of travel because you are busy doing things… doing the “stuff” that others require you to do;
There’s another reason why you can’t shape a vision or direction of travel. You can’t do it because you don’t have time to stop, reflect and notice what is true in the world. You don’t know where you want to get to. You don’t know where you’re starting from. You don’t have an informed view of what is true today that wasn’t true yesterday or may not be true tomorrow. How can you think about which way you need to go when you are so ill informed?
And yes, there is a risk that your constant “busy-ness” has left you so depleted and tired that your ability to make sound decisions, or even to make decisions at all, has been significantly impaired. How long has it been now since you felt truly rested? Only you will know.
So, if I am sharing my picture of Jenny Southam’s The Man in the Forest, it is not only from my pure delight at the prospect of welcoming him into my home. Whether you are a man or a woman, he has something to teach you.
You cannot shape a forward path without stopping, first, to notice where you are.
What’s more, even more than you, the people you look up to may have lost sight of the way the world is changing or feel desperate to bring it under control.
We cannot bring it under control.
Sometimes it is time to stop running through the forest of our lives and simply to stand still. Sometimes it is time to stand still and notice every detail of where we are. Which side of the trees does the moss grow on and how much? Is there stillness in the forest or a breeze? Is the forest dry or is there rain? What young trees are waiting for their chance to reach up towards the sun? And is there room for them to grow?
Before the year runs away with you, I ask you: is it time for you stride forward in a flurry of activity or is it time for you to stand still?
We need a larger – much larger – context for leadership than most of us are embracing right now. It’s time to step up.
It’s possible that, in your role as a leader, you are the one who has been telling up-and-coming leaders that they need to think more strategically. It’s possible that you are that up-and-coming leader, grappling to understand what “more strategically” even means. Let’s face it, the day-to-day demands of your job keep you busy enough, without having to “think strategically” – even if you could understand WTF this phrase even means.
In 2016, it needs to mean more – much more – than it has ever meant before.
Seeing the earth from the moon
Recently, I came across a short film, The Overview Effect, which explores the experiences of five astronauts who got to see the earth from space. These men and women describe the experience of awe they had on seeing the earth from afar and the paradoxical effect of both being at a distance from it and feeling totally connected with it – a part of the larger whole. From this distance, they were able to transcend knowledge and to experience things they had previously known – though only at an intellectual level – are true.
From this distance, the astronauts were able to perceive both the beauty and the fragility of the planet. I think of this as pure potential which is also at great risk. The impact of clearing forests to cultivate crops, for example, are not only visible – they become clear. As one interviewee put it, from this distance, it was clear that if the earth becomes sick, we all become sick.
On earth, we know this at an intellectual level and yet somehow remain separate from it. And as long as we maintain this sense of separation, the earth’s future – our future – is at risk.
Our future: an apocalyptic vision
Many commentators believe we are at risk: if we continue in the direction we are heading now, we face a dark and difficult future.
It’s pretty clear – as much as anyone might try to mask it – that we continue to live through major economic challenges and that, in fact, we’re not yet done. Chris Martenson and his colleagues at Peak Prosperity, for example, continue to point to a further economic crisis, as they did in a recent blog posting, entitled Get Ready… Change Is Upon Us. In February of this year, George Friedman gave one view of the emerging global situation, pointing to a fundamental shift in power from Europe to the US. For me, the thought of a new era in which the US, under President D. J. Trump, is in power – well, it’s not a comforting thought to say the least. In addition, Tobias Stone in the Huffington Post offers a truly apocalyptic view of the times we are in – pointing to a turning point in history, and a profoundly difficult one at that.
Why does it matter?
Why do we need to embrace a larger world view?
Even in the best of times, our ability to step back from our immediate concerns and view them in a larger context provides the basis for effectively assessing our situation, weighing the importance (or not) of the decisions that face us, making decisions and taking action. Often, we see this in terms of stress management – to be able to do this is to be able to fulfil our goals whilst minimising the weight on our shoulders that comes with our responsibilities as leaders.
But our decision-making is also far-reaching in its impact. It goes beyond our immediate well-being or that of our staff. It goes beyond the well-being of our customers or even that of our shareholders. Ultimately, the decisions we make contribute to the health of our planet or they undermine it.
If we have in our sights the impact of our decisions on the planet, we have some hope of shaping a future that serves life. This is a future that is bigger than our next pay-rise or promotion and bigger than our next project deadline. At the same time, many commentators are pointing to issues, at global level, that we are barely beginning to acknowledge, let alone to address. Some hope that we can address them now, to avert disaster. Some fear it is already too late.
As leaders, to do anything other than take these issues into account is to fiddle while Rome burns.
Current narratives – a wholly inadequate response
I wonder, how is your organisation responding to the issues outlined by Martenson, Friedman and Stone?
Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t see progress in the world. Nor is my daily life in any way miserable – I am blessed, truly blessed. I hope you are, too. Counting my blessings – in my case, keeping a gratitude diary – is part of my ongoing practice. Even as I write this, I find myself connecting with heartfelt feelings of gratitude for everything that is in my life.
At the same time, there is a larger picture.
In my work with clients across multiple organisations, I see a narrative that is old, tired and untrue. At best, it points to the cyclical nature of the economy, recognises that we have been in a down-turn, cleans out old wood and carries on as though everything has been sorted. At worst, it imagines that nothing needed to be sorted in the first place or maybe – as a substitute for something as bold as a statement about what is or isn’t true – ignores a larger picture in favour of getting on with this month’s project or this year’s.
It hardly needs saying that our politicians aren’t doing much – no, any – better.
Measures of good health in the world
How do we begin to assess the health of our leadership approach? I offer some thoughts below:
Are we pursuing life-serving goals? How does your organisation support life on earth? Does it frame goals within the context of the health of our planet or of people, animals and habitats? One of these goals relates to the distribution of wealth, such that people can meet their most fundamental needs – for food, water and shelter, for example, and to live in relative safety. Yet research tells us that our resources are increasingly concentrated amongst the world’s most wealthy – only recently the charity Oxfam highlighted how the world’s 62 wealthiest people own the same as half the world’s population. Take a moment to reflect on your goals or that of your organisation and how clearly they are designed to serve life.
Do we value all life equally? In America, the current conflict between Native Americans and commercial interests over the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline point to continuing systemic discrimination against particular groups of people. This has also been highlighted in 2016 by the Black Lives Matter movement. The current rise of the right in countries around the world suggest that as much as minority populations are asking for their needs to be given equal weight, majority white populations resist the implications of true equality.
Perhaps more profoundly – much more profoundly – this unknown speaker suggests, in a short video posted on Facebook, that the narrative of white versus people of colour “us and them” has a history and a purpose which distracts – deliberately – from the real issues that underpin the way the world works today. This is the context in which I ask, to what extent does your organisation serve black and minority ethnic populations including your staff, your customers and groups of people who are not within your immediate purview?
Are we looking after tomorrow as well as today? How does your organisation act to conserve the planet for future generations? Culturally, traditional native American thinking emphasises the importance of this goal and, as a result, indigenous tribes have long been campaigners on environmental issues. At the time of writing, their continuing action to protect water supplies from pollution by a proposed oil pipeline illustrates how fiercely our quest for wealth is colliding with the protection of our planet for current and future generations. Initial reactions to Donald Trump’s recent election highlight the likely impact on climate protection – see recent comments by Noam Chomsky, for example.
For some, climate change seems distant and somewhat unreal yet its effects are already visible if we choose to observe what’s going on in the world. The history of the war in Syria – described by Al Jazeera as the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed thus far – points to severe drought as a prompt for migration from the countryside into cities, prompting growing poverty and social unrest. As a leader, you know whether sustainability is about multiple bins for the disposal of rubbish or whether it permeates your organisation’s vision, mission and values – climate, yes, but also education, prosperity, dignity and more.
Do we work within frameworks that support life, both now and in future? There is a much larger question, which is about the frameworks in which we operate. I am thinking not only of your organisation’s policies and systems (though this might be a good place to start) but also beyond this to legal frameworks, trade agreements and more.
Let’s take the economy, for example. In 1992, James Carville, campaign manager to Bill Clinton in his successful bid to replace George H. W. Bush as president, coined the phrase “The economy, stupid”. As long as you get the economy right, everything else will follow.
Clearly, we are not getting the economy right.
It’s clear that the world economy went through a significant downturn in 2008. More fundamentally, George Friedman points to the fact that economics as it is currently conceived and designed doesn’t work, a topic that exercises Bernard Lietaer, author of a number of books on money. Here’s Lietaer talking about Why Money Needs To Change Now.
The economy is just one example of the frameworks that govern us and you may say, “but we don’t create these frameworks”, which brings me to my next question:
Are we proactive in shaping our frameworks with clear, life-serving goals in mind? Are you and others in your organisation playing a role in influencing the context within which you operate, such that the frameworks that guide you also support you in doing business in ways which serve life?
This is the point at which, as a leader, you begin truly to step up. In this context, power is no longer something you seek to gain as proof that you are capable, worthy of the next pay-rise, successful or otherwise “okay”. No, in this context, power is something you receive with humility and seek to exercise with the greater good in mind. I am not talking about mindless self-sacrifice or corporate martyrdom. Instead, I am talking about the mindful recognition that you are the guardian of the resources at your disposal and about a curiosity to define goals which maximise your opportunity to serve. Sometimes, this is about doing what you can in a given context. For the mindful, it is also about questioning whether you are in the right place – the right job, organisation or broader context – to do what you feel called to do.
If you’ve read this far… phew! You have read! And my own sense is that more – much more – needs to be written.
For now, though, I want to end with a question: what next?
Perhaps you want to step back and ask yourself, how big is my “bigger picture”, and is it big enough? Perhaps you want to allocate regular time to do your own research. Perhaps you want to reflect on the questions above or to leave a comment below.
I hope so. Our future depends on the sum of our contributions.
Recently, I posted on Facebook to express my concerns at the changing use of the poppy, once a symbol of remembrance for those who died in World Wars I and II. I shared an article by Harry Leslie Smith and published by the Guardian in 2013, explaining why, aged 91, he had decided to wear the poppy of remembrance for the last time. And a blog posting, whose author calls herself “stavvers”. My sharing was met with some resistance. One friend responded by highlighting the emergence of the white poppy, available to buy online.
This year, two great political shocks have made me focus with fresh eyes on Remembrance Day and on how I choose to remember. On June 23, 2016, the British electorate voted by a narrow voter majority to leave the EU in an advisory referendum, unleashing a genie from the bottle whose consequences cannot yet be told. Today, November 9th, 2016, the American people elected their 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump. To say that I was shocked by the result of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum is not to exaggerate. I have been less shocked by Trump’s election – Brexit prepared me to expect the unexpected. After Brexit, there were jokes – which had the ring of truth – that Britons would have to relinquish a favourite pass time; that of looking down on the Americans. Today, I suspect that pass time may well find currency again.
But what do we make of it all? And why am I talking of the Brexit and the US election in a post about Remembrance?
Groundhog Day and the cycle of history
If you’ve never watched the film Groundhog Day, now may well be the time. In it, the film’s main character, played by actor Bill Murray, gets caught in a time warp, repeating the same day over and over again until he learns the essential lessons he needs in order to move on.
The act of remembrance was born of a deep desire to save future generations from repeating the mistakes of the past. In Germany, there has been a focus on education with the aim of making sure that the country’s sons and daughters would never again make the mistakes of their Nazi forebears. The European Union was also the child of this deep desire for peace. No wonder then, as imperfect as the EU might be, there are many in Britain who wish to retain our membership. No wonder that colleagues in Europe have responded with shock at how easily we have shown our willingness to jump from the EU ship.
In America, Trump’s candidacy has drawn comparisons with the rise of Nazism under Hitler’s leadership. Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” directly parallels Hitler’s 1930s vision for Germany’s return to prominence. And both appealed – alongside Brexit – to sections of the electorate who felt despairing and down-trodden and saw little hope for the future. Hitler, Brexit, Trump… they all gave hope to what, only today, Trump called his country’s “forgotten people”.
Perhaps our shock reflects a prevailing view, despite evidence to the contrary, that progress goes in a straight line. It doesn’t. The myth of progress-in-a-straight-line leads us, in business, to the view that only targets which show improvements (increased sales, improving efficiency, rises in profitability) are ever needed. The same myth of straight-line progress may well have fuelled hope in America that the first black US President might be succeeded by its first woman US President. Instead, the presidency of the US’s first black president, widely regarded as someone who has combined dignity in office with a huge measure of compassion and humour, is followed by the coming presidency of yet one more white man of mature years and, this time, one who has been variously labelled as bigoted, misogynist, racist, xenophobic and more. Many Americans are thrilled – but not all. At least as many Americans are bewildered, anxious and afraid.
Is love even here?
For those people who have fought for progress over many years, it is tempting to fall into despair. It’s hard to see how progress can come from steps which hark back to a forgotten and maybe even imagined “glorious” past. The phrase “dark day” has graced my Facebook feed today and, more humourously, perhaps “electile dysfunction”. For some, humour is a moment of relief when people can find no other way to find peace.
I am reminded and grateful for the question which is often asked by one of my mentors, the wonderful Mark Silver of Heart of Business: is love even here? It is a question which connects us to love which is, always, here. And I think our hope of making progress – of moving beyond our political Groundhog Day – depends on it.
These are some of the things that strike me about our current circumstances (including many circumstances I have not even mentioned).
The Brexit campaign was a bitter battle as was the US election campaign. Amongst my friends it played out with equal intensity on Facebook.
Both were characterised by lies and more lies in what some have described as a “post-truth” era. In Brexit, the lies were clearly on both sides, with the media criticised for their light touch response to some unholy battle-bus whoppers. In the US election campaign, pointing out Donald Trump’s personal brand of fabrication-despite-clear-evidence drew criticism of large-scale media bias.
Both were characterised – yes, both – by insulting and disparaging the opposition before, during and after the campaigns. In Brexit, Leavers were “stupid” and “ignorant” and Remainers “just need to get over it”. In the US election campaign Trump, together with his supporters, was seen by opponents as an “idiot” and unworthy of anything but laughter and disdain.
But after the battle we are left both with the electoral result and with the needs – the raw, keenly felt and unmet needs – that drove people on both sides of the argument to vote as they did. It seems to me that this is one of the deep lessons of Groundhog Day, just as it is one of the deep lessons of our current political era. This is the lesson that we need to learn if ever we are to move beyond our current cycle of progress and resistance.
We are all one. When we overlook the needs of one, we hinder the progress of all.
Brexit is said to have been won largely by sectors of the population whose economic needs are unmet, even by those who most benefitted from EU funding. In the US, early analysis suggests that it is not the most economically disadvantaged who voted for Trump but the older, white, male vote that won Trump his victory. The “disadvantaged white male” narrative clings on and perhaps there is still some truth in this – for which so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few, most of the population feel keenly their disadvantages. And because of this, there is action and reaction, momentum and resistance.
Until we find ways forward that honour and meet the needs of all, our Groundhog Day will continue.
Beyond “goodies” and “baddies”
It seems to me that one implication of this truth – I’d go so far as to call it as a universal law – is that we all need to let go of our habit of dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” and, instead, start to see each other as the human beings we all are.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not about rolling over and accepting every behaviour as okay. No. But it does require us to see the humanity of those whose views and actions concern us and to be curious. We need to show curiosity about those people we define, somehow, as “other”. What is motivating this support for a different candidate or point of view? What deeper needs are being expressed? And we need to afford them the same respect we would afford anyone whose views we agree with. In the US election campaign, I was inspired by this example from Van Jones, author and – amongst other things – CNN contributor.
Equally, we need to be willing and able to see ourselves as the human beings we all are. As much, for example, as we need to understand that some of the behaviours we find most repulsive in others spring from positive intentions, we need to understand that our own positive intentions give birth, at times, to some pretty ugly behaviours. This opens up the opportunity to reflect on and adjust our approach. We also have the opportunity to be less judgemental of others when we recognise our own limitations. These are not small things.
Until we can recognise, with compassion, our own limitations, we are stuck in our own personal Groundhog Day. Our blind spots become those of our children. Worse still, they become embedded in our culture, in our systems, in our laws. We talk with horror of the Holocaust, for example, yet turn our back to the needs of those people displaced from Syria by famine and war or even supply arms to foreign powers so that they can perpetrate atrocities in distant lands. We invade foreign lands and treat native peoples with brutality and yet fear the invasion of immigrants even to lands to which we were, ourselves, not only immigrants but violent invaders.
Creating narratives for future generations
In the aftermath of World War I and II our continuing acts of remembrance create a narrative for future generations, offering a storyline which may or may not expand their understanding. For this reason, I choose to reflect on the prevailing narratives of our era and to choose my own.
For my own part, I feel concerned as the Royal British Legion, who have provided poppies for our act of remembrance for many years now, begin to talk of a new generation of veterans that need my support. It worries me to read – on, of all things, its “Our Brand” page – “We want people to understand that the poppy is not just about Remembrance; it’s also about providing hope for the Armed Forces community of all ages, throughout the year.” This is a message which dilutes the poppy as an act of remembrance and, by supporting more recent veterans, invites my moral and financial support for the UK’s continuing engagement in armed conflict.
I am not so naive as to think no time will come when others invade our shores. I know that my taxes have been co-opted to fund action abroad. Let my taxes also be co-opted to give due care to those who fight in conflicts, including those I do not support. For my part, by my act of remembrance, I want to think ahead to a time in which we choose to engage with people as our brothers and sisters rather than to demonise them and overlook their humanity.
Today, Angela Merkel extended a cautious hand of welcome to Donald Trump:
“Whoever the American people elect as their president in free and fair elections, that has a significance far beyond the USA. Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position. On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”
For my part, I see Merkel’s words as a reminder of just how deeply the German people have chosen to reflect on their history. Perhaps, too, Merkel offers an invitation both to voters in America and to observers around the world, to remember the dignity of human beings of all political persuasions. It is a time to take stock, to treat each other with love and respect or at least, if caring for each other proves to be beyond what we can achieve right now, to take time to care for ourselves.
Recently, and for the first time in my life, I walked into a betting shop.
I wanted to find out if I could place a bet, and at what odds, that Brexit will not go through. It was, after all a plebiscite – a non-binding, advisory referendum. And who in their right mind would implement a decision as complex and significant as leaving the European Union on the basis of such a tiny majority of votes to leave, particularly when the overall statistics suggest a broadly three thirds split between “leave”, “remain” and “didn’t vote”?
It seems we are not in our right mind
So many things about Brexit highlight that we are not in our right minds that I need not mention them all.
Perhaps, even, any.
From the safe distance of the US, a friend wrote on Facebook. First, he responded to the result of the referendum, by saying:
To all my friends and colleagues in the UK and the EU: the “Brexit” vote is a huge deal! My heart goes out to you in the instability and change, regardless of which way you were voting.
Sending hugs and fierce love today.
Then, he responded to David Cameron’s post referendum speech by saying:
Can someone explain the intricacies of UK politics to me around a prime minister resigning? I can’t tell, from what I’ve been reading, whether David Cameron is resigning on principle, or if there is a process in the way the prime minister loses his position when something… changes…? <confused>
After I get an answer to this, I’ll ask about the rules of cricket.
Of course, from the safe distance of the UK, the possibility that Donald Trump might become President of the United States also seems pretty off the wall.
Even so, we might still have to live with it.
Everything about Brexit pointed to one thing for me. It was time to read Nick Duffell’s book, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion.
For over twenty years, Duffell has been exploring a topic that came to my attention only because of conversations with a friend: the impact on men and women in adulthood of attending boarding schools in childhood.
Duffell’s thesis is that sending children away to board exposes them to the traumatic experience of being separated from their parents before they are ready. Then, as if this were not enough, they have to make sense of their parents’ reasons for doing it, raising fears that they were sent away because their parents didn’t love them or that the fact that they are not enjoying boarding school means there is something wrong with them. Finally, the experience throws up the need to find ways to survive in their new context. They become bullies or buffoons, or possibly both. In Nick Duffell’s language, they become Boarding School Survivors.
Duffell’s thesis is vividly reflected in a documentary film, made in 1994, entitled The Making of Them, which is still available to view.
As his book outlines, the results of boarding in the adult lives of boarders are also plain to see in the behaviours of our political elite.
You are not alone
You could think that this posting is directed only at people who have been to boarding school, or to people who work with former boarders. It’s not.
Reading Duffell’s book, I found parallels in my own experience both as a child transitioning over time into adulthood and also as someone who works with men and women in leadership roles.
If you, for example, are sometimes triggered in the work place… if, at times, you respond at a speed that can only come from some kind of automatic pilot to the events you face at work… if you sometimes regret your reaction but don’t begin to know what to do differently or if you seek to justify your response by finding fault with the person or people you are dealing with… if there are things you desire as if your very life depends upon it… if you are riddled with self-doubt unless you achieve X or Y or Z… you are not alone.
It is common for children to experience things in childhood that are beyond their capacity to understand. It is equally common for children, in finding ways to cope with difficult experiences, to develop strategies that, whilst far from effective, nonetheless get carried into adulthood. These are strategies that protect us – or attempt to protect us – from the worst fears of our inner child.
At the same time, in our adult lives, our inner child remains stuck unless and until we are able to recognise our pain (the “wounds” implied in the title of Duffell’s book), to understand the source of our pain and to seek out and embody the learning we need to move forward.
When your inner child is running the show
Early in his book, Duffell reminds us of David Cameron’s now (in)famous remark to Angela Eagle in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions: “Calm down, dear”, which he analyses in some detail as an example of the kind of strategies boarders adopt. It’s the kind of strategy that works in the moment, at least to some degree.
At the same time, as you may know from your own experience, strategies that come from your inner child can only work to a limited degree and may even be harmful.
What are the consequences of these strategies, of which we may or may not be aware?
Often, they are accompanied by high emotions, particularly anxiety, on the part of the inner child. We may look as elegant as swans on the surface, but maintaining appearances takes untold energy and can lead, over time, to exhaustion, stress and more;
Formed in childhood based on the thinking of our immature child, the harm to ourselves is self-perpetuating, because the thinking that drives them is taken as true. You think you have to work ten times as hard as your colleagues to be accepted? You think you have to be top of the corporate class in order to be liked? You will strive, constantly, in line with your inner belief. Worse still, because you fear, at some level, that you are not, fundamentally, okay, it can be hard for you to receive feedback that brings your hidden belief into awareness, lest it be proof of the flaws you fear so deeply;
Paradoxically, the very strategy that you adopted as a child may prevent you, in adulthood, from achieving the needs it was designed to achieve. This can become more and more apparent as your career progresses… when, for example, the attention to detail that made you an asset early in your career becomes a failure to see the larger picture in your role as a leader;
There may be consequences for those you lead. These are likely to be designed into your strategy but also unconscious. If you strive for perfection, for example, in order to prove you’re okay, you may be highly intolerant of any mistakes, wherever they come from. As a consequence, you will come down hard on the mistakes of others and may even try to make others responsible for your own;
If you’ve read this far, you may already be aware of some hidden anxiety or behavioural pattern that is running the show. You may even be aware of the implications for you and for others in your career.
You don’t need to be alone with it.
It’s not just that you’re one of many people who have one or more stress responses which date back to your childhood experiences.
In addition, there are many ways – such as learning to pause before you act or learning to meditate – to begin the work of re-shaping your approach. In addition, professional support is available from highly skilled therapists, coaches and trainers. Far from being a sign that you’re flawed or failing in some way, the decision to seek professional support signals a step towards conscious self-awareness and making adult choices.
Nick Duffell would, I think, propose that Brexit is the natural consequence of attempts to survive a boarding school education. In the prologue to Wounded Leaders, he writes presciently:
Having had to do without loving parents and being thrust into a false community – a single-sex institution with a narrow age-range – most ex boarders develop a very complex relationship with groups and communities, characterized by a mixture of suspicion and unfulfilled longing. Despite their intentions, those with an overriding thirst for power seem to end up suspicious of Continental values, backing self-reliance and prolonging a deep conservatism that keeps the old for the old’s sake and robs the country of the benefits of its natural dynamism. This, of course, affects the whole of society from top to bottom.
If Duffell is right, our decision, by a narrow majority of voters, to leave the European Union, is the result of unconscious survival strategies at the most senior levels of Britain’s political elite. In my view, it has also been met by similar survival responses across the electorate.
As for me, I did not get to place my bet.
I explained to the man who was serving me that I had not missed the result of the referendum (as he assumed) and talked about the process of invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. At the time, there were no odds on offer (and I missed the opportunity to place a bet on Theresa May.)
A fellow customer, standing next to me at the next counter, looked quizzically at me and told me that we’ve already left Europe.
Nothing I could say persuaded him that this was not, actually, true.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I have been somewhat parochial in the last couple of weeks in my approach to the news. On 10th February, the news reached me of the death of someone whose work has enriched my life immeasurably: Marshall Rosenberg. Marshall was the creator of an approach to communication which he called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication, a passionate advocate for social change, a great teacher and author of a number of books, including his core text Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
Then, too, there has been a flurry of commentary about Sir Simon Rattle. Journalists have been speculating for months now that Rattle, whose tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is due to come to an end in 2018, will take up the post of Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. (This matters to me because, in my spare time, I sing with the London Symphony Chorus.) Rattle has spoken openly about his belief that London lacks a world-class concert hall and some have speculated that he is holding out for a commitment to build this hall as a condition of taking up the post with the LSO. It seems the politicians have been listening: in recent days, there have been public statements from various politicians.
There has been wider news. There was an attack on a café in Copenhagen, which was hosting a discussion about free speech. Three teenage girls left the UK, apparently to travel to Syria, raising concerns about their safety. British football fans were caught on camera in Paris, chanting their love of racism. There have been discussions about the Greeks in Europe. In the UK, election fever is starting to build.
In the UK, talk of deflation has been carefully framed and, largely, played down. Still, talking to friends and family, and to clients in the privacy of my offices in Harley Street, I am repeatedly reminded of just how different the business environment is right now compared to ten years ago. The possibility of a round of deflation is one more nail in the coffin of hope for many businesses.
Is your organisation struggling to weather difficult times?
Businesses continue to struggle: yours, too, may be struggling. It can be hard to lead in an organisation that’s grappling with change.
As a leader, you have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, when many things you used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted, such as year on year improvements in sales and in what you can charge your clients.
The decisions you make have an impact on large numbers of people, from staff in your own organisation, suppliers, their friends, family and communities. This can leave you feeling torn, uncertain, though you try hard to maintain the calm authority your staff expect of you.
What’s more, you know your own employment is at risk and your prospects of career advancement are diminished. At no other time have you given more, been more tested, with less opportunity for any kind of reward.
How do you weather such difficult times?
Turning the screw on under-performance
It can be easy to think, in difficult times, that you need to use more force to achieve results.
This was the approach that Sheldon took.
Sheldon was a sales manager in a time when sales were sluggish. Under pressure from his own line manager, Sheldon shared targets with members of the sales team and spelled out the consequences of not achieving those targets. The consequences for the company were significant, he said, and everyone’s jobs were at risk.
Sheldon piled the pressure on individual team members, too. One team member was new and struggling. This team member, Ash, had made a flying start on joining the team but his results had been patchy following a down-turn in the economy. What’s more, he was finding it hard to balance his core work with his contribution to a new initiative in the team.
Sheldon kept a close eye on Ash, giving detailed feedback on every failing he could find. Ash was frustrated and devastated when he was copied in to an e-mail from Sheldon to the company’s MD, highlighting a particular problem and attributing it to Ash. If only his manager had checked the facts, he would have known the problem lay elsewhere.
The thing is, the more Sheldon gave feedback, the more Ash’s performance deteriorated.
In his article, Goleman lays out research which identifies six different leadership styles and explains their impact on the performance of those being led. This research suggests that the most effective leaders use a range of styles when managing their employees. It also shows how the most effective leaders do this consciously, because they understand that they need to do what’s most effective in a given situation.
Goleman’s article (which he develops more fully in his book The New Leaders) shows that, over time, the use of four styles in particular is more likely to build a climate in which team members can perform.
There’s one thing that Goleman doesn’t mention in his article and that Sheldon didn’t know either. Sheldon’s choice of leadership style was largely driven by fear.
Sheldon’s senior management were driven by fear of the consequences for the company of a whole if the sales team did not perform. They passed their fear right on to Sheldon, together with the responsibility to find a way to increase sales.
Their approach intensified Sheldon’s fear and Sheldon lacked the skills to turn down the dial on his emotions in order to reflect on how best to handle the situation. Like his own managers, Sheldon passed his fear right on.
Ash was already anxious when his performance started to drop and he didn’t know how to respond. What’s more, he could see that an initiative in the sales team, designed to give better service to some of the company’s smaller client organisations, was asking members of the sales team, repeatedly, to be in two places at once. He’d tried to give feedback to Sheldon but Sheldon seemed to be on a mission to prove to Ash that he was not up to much.
Ash was struggling to maintain his confidence and self esteem.
So was Sheldon.
So, too, were members of the senior management team.
About Marshall Rosenberg
On the day I heard that Marshall Rosenberg had died, I noticed my heart opening and the sensations in my body. I knew it was not a day to bypass my experience but a day to take time out to be with everything that was in my heart, including the great sense of gratitude and the feelings of love.
Following the announcement of his death, colleagues at the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) set up a call for people to share their memories, to celebrate and mourn together. Intended to last a few hours it went on for seven days. A group set up on Facebook has become a living memorial to this towering giant of a man.
Early in his life, Rosenberg was struck by the various forms of violence he encountered growing up in Detroit. He went on to study psychiatry and obtained a doctorate before going on to develop the approach to communication which has become known as Nonviolent Communication, with the aim of widely disseminating much-need communication skills. During his life he worked widely around the world, bringing healing to many individual people and to troubled, often war-torn, communities.
It’s a testament to Rosenberg’s leadership that he set up a Center for Nonviolent Communication as a way to spread his approach and worked with many people around the world to share his skills. He leaves behind many people who are themselves experienced in training others in NVC and in mediating conflict.
At the heart of his work, Rosenberg emphasised paying attention to feelings and needs so that we can find ways to meet our own needs whilst also respecting and contributing to the needs of others. The disciplines of NVC – the process he described for communication – are especially powerful when they are rooted in love and in an intention, where there is fear, to find our way back to love.
I owe much to Marshall Rosenberg and to the approach he developed. I am particularly grateful to the clarity of intention I have, as a result of studying with him and with others in the community, to live my life from a place of love.
Leadership with heart
This posting is, for now, my own testimonial to Marshall Rosenberg and an expression of my own love for and gratitude to him.
At the same time, I am aware of the power of love as an underpin to the kind of leadership Goleman describes in his article, Leadership That Gets Results.
Marshall advocated separating our observations from our judgements and Goleman highlights the need to step back and assess what is needed in each situation we face as a leader.
As a leader, Sheldon’s experience started to change when he learnt to notice his emotion and to bring care to his fears before choosing how to respond to each situation he faced.
The experience of his staff was also changed by this.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed selling things on eBay.
In recent days, however, I’ve been grappling with a fair degree of frustration. On Tuesday, I booked a courier to collect a parcel on Wednesday.
The courier didn’t come.
On Thursday I was out and left it with my neighbours. I checked in with them on Thursday evening.
The courier hadn’t come.
Friday? I was at home in the morning.
The courier didn’t come.
I had a meeting in the afternoon and left the parcel with my neighbours. (Again.) I collected the parcel from my neighbours on my way home. The courier made his first attempt to collect soon after. “Everybody’s complaining today,” he told me. I knew I was not alone.
I was all the more frustrated because this has happened a number of times in recent weeks and my attempts to engage the company concerned have generally been met with an apology and a request that I deliver the parcel to them.
Are you working for your worst boss ever?
Working for a difficult boss is a subject that comes up repeatedly. If you’re working for your worst boss ever, you may already recognise some parallels with my courier experience.
Your boss is the boss, right? You expect him or her to do the things bosses do.
You expect your boss to clearly define what he or she wants of you. He doesn’t.
You expect your boss to support you in shaping an agenda for your part of the business and to help you to gain support for important initiatives. But you can’t get time in your boss’s diary or you face a wall when you put your ideas forward.
You expect your boss to organise herself to be effective. You expect leadership from your boss. But the last thing you get from your boss is good, sound leadership.
You expect the boss to provide support and coaching to help you become more effective in your current role or prepare for your next role. But all you get is criticism when you don’t do things his way. (And how the hell are you supposed to know what his way is? He certainly doesn’t tell you.)
Perhaps you try making requests of your boss or giving feedback. He may agree with your assessment of the situation but nothing changes. She may take offence at your feedback.
Over time, you feel more and more frustrated. Perhaps you feel anxious. Maybe, if your boss is super critical of you, you lose confidence. Your performance starts to slide. Or maybe you find yourself increasingly filling the gap. Others approach you rather than seeking help from your manager. Or you start to shape the agenda, to do the influencing, to make things happen.
What Ben knew
Recently, I met someone who had made quite an art out of working for difficult bosses. I was intrigued to learn more.
The first thing he told me intrigued me most of all.
It hadn’t always been that way.
Early in his career, he had set out to change a difficult boss. He was confident that his perceptions of his manager were correct and felt sure that if he only raised his concerns at more senior levels, something would be done to address the boss’s behaviour.
In a way, he told me, he got lucky. His boss’s boss was sympathetic to his concerns. At the same time, she also highlighted the risks of taking on someone who was so powerful within the organisation. “You can’t change the others,” she told him. “You can only change yourself.”
Ben (let’s call him Ben) became curious about the possibilities of what he could achieve by focusing on what he could do rather than focussing on how his boss should be different.
In his first experience, for example, he recognised that his manager had a lot of power in the organisation and a strong desire to look good. Ben learned to make the most of his boss’s powerful position by working with him to develop initiatives that moved the organisation forward. “Whatever his limitations” he told me, “I always treated him with the utmost respect. I shared ideas with him and explored the implications with him. Quite quickly, I realised I had to start small if I wanted to get him on board. The effect was to create a pathway towards the next small initiative and the next one and the next one. I gave credit to my boss whenever I could and, quite quickly, he started to take the credit for the way he had encouraged me. Once this happened, he started to sing my praises around the organisation so that we both looked good.”
I asked him if this kind of strategy had always worked for him.
“No,” he told me. “There are times when I look at a situation and ask myself what I can achieve by adjusting my own behaviour and what changes I can make. In one job, I gave feedback to my boss and he acknowledged all the issues I raised with him – and then did nothing at all to address them. After I’d had this conversation with him several times I thought hard about my next steps and decided that I needed to accept the situation or, if I couldn’t accept the situation, I needed to accept that I couldn’t accept the situation. At that stage, I knew it was time for me to move on.”
Ben had learnt something I still find difficult. Eckhart Tolle summed it up like this: “When you complain you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation, change the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”
You could also put it this way: “When you expect your boss to manage you, you make yourself a victim. You need to start managing your boss. Accept that your boss is the way s/he is, do what you can to transform your relationship with your boss, or leave your boss. All else is madness.”
What struck me about Ben was not that he turned a blind eye to the weaknesses and failings of his line managers. No. He was curious about his bosses’ strengths and weaknesses.
He did, though, give up the word “should”: he stopped telling himself that his line manager should be doing all the things that good bosses do.
My experience with my courier was a reminder that, whatever views I might have about my courier and what they should be doing, they were not.
Making your peace with working for the worst boss ever
The courier should have turned up on Wednesday but it didn’t.
I have already tried to attract attention and get the help I needed.
I’ve used the on-line chat facility and talked to people in Mumbai.
I’ve tried tweeting the UK team.
I tried writing to the courier’s Head of Customer Service.
I got no reply.
Because the issues with this courier’s service have been repeated, I spoke to the Citizens Advice Bureau.
And then I looked hard at my courier’s standard Terms and Conditions.
I was surprised to discover that, as far as the courier is concerned, the service starts once their courier has collected the parcel. (How weird is that?!) What’s more, they take no responsibility for events beyond their control, including mechanical failure. (In short, if the courier’s vehicle breaks down, they won’t collect.)
The thing is, I realised that my courier isn’t going to change.
I thought about the reasons I use this particular courier and I knew they still stand. At their best, this courier provides a good standard of service at a price that suits my customers on eBay.
I decided to add a few words to my listings on eBay – my own Terms and Conditions – to alert my clients to the possibility of delay.
And, having done this, I felt at peace.
If you’re still waiting for your boss to change you’re doing what I do when I get cross when the courier doesn’t come. Of course it’s logical to expect my courier to come on the day scheduled. It’s what couriers do.
But all couriers are not equal and neither are all bosses.
Instead, you will be at your most effective – and peaceful – when you take a long hard look at the boss you have and ask yourself, “Where do I go from here?”
If there’s one word that has people running for the hills in our culture, it’s the word “power”.
In the world of politics, one conspicuous example of this became evident in 2008, at the beginning of a major global economic crisis.
Europe looked to Germany to provide leadership.
Germany had reason – frightening, historical reason – to hesitate to exercise its full power.
“Power” is a word which has so many negative connotations.
No surprise, then, that there’s a phenomenon I notice amongst some of my coaching clients. You could call it walking away from your own power.
It’s easy to spot amongst the young and talented leaders I get to work with. But it’s not confined to any age, gender, ethnicity or other group.
Are you walking away from your “power”?
You’re walking away from your own power if you have scope to take action and you’re not taking action. This is as true in managing your life and career as it is in your role as a leader.
Of course, it sounds so simple but the reality of it – your experience of it – is far more complex.
It’s possible, for example, that you don’t even know how much power you have to take action. You’re used to thinking of others as powerful, but you? You just don’t see yourself in that way.
Maybe you lack the motivation to embrace the power you have. Yes, you want to get things done and to a high standard. But exercising power? You think of yourself as a doer rather than as someone who can make things happen beyond the scope of anything you can do yourself.
The very idea of power may be daunting for you. Maybe it involves giving yourself a level of permission you can barely conceive of at this stage in your life or career. Maybe you’ve seen how others exercise their power and you know you don’t want to be like that.
Giving your power away
One client (let’s call him Lewis) recently expressed his frustration at the decisions being made by his line manager and the impact of those decisions on his staff. Wasn’t it obvious to his boss that the organisation’s plans were ill-conceived and would ultimately backfire?
Another client (let’s call her Maja) expressed her frustration that her organisation was doing so little to recognise her career aspirations. Yes, she was being offered another job. But she was painfully aware that it met the organisation’s needs much more than her own.
I asked both Lewis and Maja what conversations they were having with the boss about their concerns.
They hadn’t realised that talking to the boss was even an option.
Faced with the option of talking to the boss, each one expressed concerns.
Lewis could see that his boss was heavily invested in the decision he thought was so ill-conceived. He was probably right. He thought that to raise his concerns would have little effect other than to irritate the boss.
Maja struggled to embrace her talents or to give herself permission to gave priority to her own preferences over those of the organisation. In her heart of hearts, she was frustrated with her organisation precisely because she was looking to her employer to validate her need.
Lewis, Maja, were both giving their power away.
Your power to what?
What power did Lewis have? What power did Maja have? Each one had far more power than they realised. At the same time, each one had a particular idea of power that got in the way.
Each one saw power as something you exercise when you know precisely what the outcome will be.
Lewis didn’t speak to his boss because the only reason he could see to do this, was to persuade his boss to change her mind. He thought she wouldn’t change her mind so he didn’t exercise his power to talk.
Maja didn’t speak to her boss because she wasn’t confident her employers would support her career aspirations. She thought that learning her employers had different plans for her than she had for herself would put her at a disadvantage.
Neither Lewis nor Maja understood that our power to take action does not guarantee a particular result. Instead, it opens up a conversation.
At times, the conversation leads us towards an outcome we desire. The boss sees the validity of our arguments and changes his or her decision. Our employer expresses support for our career aspirations and starts to collaborate in finding the job we want.
What’s more, as well as leading us towards our desired outcomes, the conversation can lead to larger outcomes than we anticipated. When the boss listens to our arguments and finds them valid, the relationship is changed. We make a step – however large or small – towards a relationship of partnership with our line manager and our power to influence is increased. Or, finding our employer supports us in our aspirations, we discover our true worth in the eyes of the organisation. We also take a powerful step towards finding a role in which we can work to our strengths.
At times, the conversation does not deliver what we hoped for and still, it delivers. Perhaps the boss remains blind to our concerns. We feel frustrated at the boss’s lack of insight or the requirement placed on us to do something we have so little faith in. Still, by having the conversation, we learn something about our boss or about our own ability (or lack of) to persuade. Perhaps we learn how little our employer supports us in our own career aspirations. At first, we feel thrown back, betrayed. We may find it painful to realise that we need to look after our own interests in an organisation that isn’t invested in us.
In the short term, and especially when we first step into our power to hold the conversation, we may feel disappointed precisely by (as we see it) our lack of power.
Over time, though, if we continue to exercise our power, we discover that each time we do so, whilst the immediate outcome may or may not be what we wanted, we are better informed and have more choices than were open to us before we exercised our power. We discover, too, that the world did not fall apart because we spoke up and didn’t get the outcome we were hoping for. Increasingly, we feel empowered.
Embracing your power to make a positive difference
Whenever you walk away from your power, you walk away from your power to make a positive difference. You do this, even when you are motivated by a desire to avoid the misuse of power.
You also walk away from your power to take small actions that make a big (and positive) difference.
Whilst Lewis may not succeed in persuading his boss to change her mind, to say no to holding a conversation could be to say no to being the one person speaking up on behalf of his team.
Whilst Maja may or may not get the response she wants, to say no to holding a conversation is to say no to seeking a way to fulfil her potential. This, in turn, could mean failing to make her full contribution to others.
This year, I have worked on a number of projects with client organisations who want to nurture and develop their high potential leaders. It’s an endeavour that’s full of pitfalls for everyone involved, though this is a topic for any number of other posts. Today I’ll pick just one to explore, which seems timely as Christmas approaches.
One of the people I worked with this year was John. We’ll call him John, though he could have been called any number of names. Indeed, he could have been any number of people I met this year.
John’s employers were sponsoring a leadership assessment as part of their High Potential Leader programme. The interview technique involved asking for examples of recent successes and he described a complex project, fraught with difficulties, which he had led to a successful conclusion on behalf of his employer. Based on the evidence he gave, I was confident that he had a strong and rounded skills set and was ready for his next promotion.
At the same time, John’s work had left him feeling exhausted. As he looked around him, he could see that successive reorganisations had reduced the number of opportunities available going forward. What’s more, having nominated him to take part in their HiPo programme, his employers seemed to be leaving him to it and this was fuelling a creeping resentment on John’s part.
Waiting for your next senior promotion?
If you’re feeling ready for your next promotion, it’s possible that you can relate to John’s experience.
Maybe, initially, you felt really pleased to recognise that you’re ready for the next challenge. However, as time has gone on and without being able to see your way to your next job, you have started to feel bored in your current role, or frustrated with the long wait for an appropriate opportunity to come up.
If you’ve had successes like John has, you may share his sense of resentment. After all the things you’ve done for your employer (and all the personal sacrifices you’ve made in order to do them), it’s hard to see how little is coming back the other way. No thanks. No offers of help to move to the next level. No recognition, even, that just because you’ve handled one big hairy project well, you may not want to take on another.
In truth, if you’ve been working as hard as John had, you may be feeling physically exhausted and emotionally drained. This is especially likely to be true if, in order to do what you did, you had to draw on strengths that are in your repertoire but which don’t speak to your true self – the things you most love to do. This, too, will fuel your resentment: after you’ve given so much time and effort to make a success of something you don’t even enjoy very much?! You may wondering when it will be your turn to do something you really enjoy.
When it’s time to change your career management strategy
I think I was drawn to John (and others like him) because I recognised myself in him. There was a time in my career when people would express surprise when I was promoted (“I thought you were already [insert more senior job title.]”) I was often last in my peer group to be promoted, even though I was seen by my peers as someone who could be relied on to deliver.
At the same time, I’m aware that John was making a classic career management mistake.
He was waiting for the next job to come to him.
Let’s be clear, early in his career, jobs had come to him. John was purposeful. He got things done. He was skilled in handling objectives and getting people on board. Team members loved him. Because of these and other skills he stood out amongst his peer group and was often sought out for interesting projects.
Increasingly, John needed to use a different career management strategy, because promotion at senior levels is different. Whereas John stood out by a country mile in a junior peer group, there were more people to match his talents in his more senior peer groups and all of them chasing a smaller pool of more senior jobs.
There was more. Early in his career, it was enough for John’s immediate manager to be impressed for the opportunities to appear out of nowhere. At his current level, the stakes were higher for his organisation and the jobs were spread more thinly and widely. He hadn’t realised that, as well as networking with senior stakeholders to gain buy-in to important projects, he also needed to ask for their support to progress in his career.
What’s driving your career management strategy?
To me, what was more important to John than a change of career management strategy was this: the reasons behind his strategy. I was pleased to have the opportunity to explore this with him in our feedback session.
What quickly emerged was that, fundamentally, John was looking after his employer’s interests but he wasn’t looking after his own. Somehow, he imagined that if he did a good job for his employer they would do a good job for him.
This was partly a reflection of his early experience. When he’d done a good job for his employer they had done a good job for him.
This was partly a reflection of his early experience… but only partly.
John realised that, to a significant degree, he wasn’t giving himself permission to look after his own interests. To seek out a job, yes, in which he could contribute to the success and progress of his organisation. But also to seek out a job he would really enjoy and which would lead him towards other jobs which really worked to his natural strengths.
Armed with this insight, John realised that he needed to increase his permission levels before he could truly follow through on changes to his career management strategy.
Filling your own cup first
On the surface, this posting has been about finding your next promotion.
At the same time, the principle that applies when managing your career, applies in every sphere of life. We have to fill our own cup first.
John was doing a good job for his organisation. His organisation wanted him to do more of the same. But the projects he was executing so successfully were proving exhausting. Yes, he could do them, but they weren’t really his bag. They were missing key elements of his ideal job.
As a more general principle, whether as a leader or in life, it helps to know that if you want to give to others, it helps first to give to yourself. It’s easier to give with a glad and pure heart when our own cups are already full. As Christmas approaches, it seems particularly timely to remember this principle.
I want to end by saying, in all humility, that I don’t always get this right myself. Recently, after a challenging year in 2013 and a challenging start to 2014, I have been taking time refill my cup. This is one reason why I have been silent on the blog for some weeks now.
I also invite you to ask yourself, are there any areas of your personal or professional life in which your cup is half full?
I’m glad to be back. I hope you are still with me. And I sent you my heartfelt wishes for your own emotional, mental and physical well-being this Christmas and throughout the coming year.
PS In case you’re wondering, the photos in today’s blog are from a recent holiday I took in South Korea. Just one way in which I have been filling my own cup first!
I saw my counsellor on Monday, the wonderful David Hamilton. I found myself laughing as I sat down and saying, I guess you’re going to sit and watch me, waiting for me to say something… and then I went on to tell him about all the things that had been in my thoughts during the twenty minute walk to his offices. Our sessions have been part of my self-care following a most extraordinary period, in which I fielded more challenges than I could easily handle and which left me feeling physically and emotionally exhausted at the beginning of this year.
Just as my friend was admitted to a hospital ward that could give her the care she needed, I was ordered to take down a blog posting by… well, I’d best not say in public. I was happy to make amendments to the posting based on clear and detailed feedback and confident we could find a way forward that met my needs and the needs of this organisation. But no, I was to obey orders (including orders that went way beyond the legitimate authority of the organisation concerned). I quickly discovered a clash of values around leadership of monumental proportions.
As the French say, jamais deux sans trois. As if this wasn’t enough, in the New Year, I found myself in conflict for a second time. This time, I chose to draw an agreement to a close when I felt my partner in this agreement (let’s call him Carl) was failing to act in line with the spirit and most fundamental clause of the agreement – to be sensitive to each other’s needs and make time to talk about any issues arising during the course of our agreement.
Each one of these experiences was taxing in itself, taking time and energy from other things. Together, these three experiences left me feeling exhausted and rather bruised. I knew it was time to take care of myself.
No wonder, if my experience is anything to go by, that people try to avoid conflict.
Trying to avoid conflict at work?
Do you ever find yourself feeling frustrated with the behaviour of a colleague at work and, at the same time, anxious about the consequences of addressing the issues that are stimulating your frustration?
Perhaps you have concerns about the approach being taken by your boss or by your peers. At the same time, you want to preserve your relationships so you try to smooth things over – but your frustration doesn’t abate. Or perhaps you’re anxious about the consequences – which you can’t predict with any accuracy – of sharing your concerns.
Or perhaps you are holding back from addressing your concerns with members of your team. You might be concerned, for example, that if you address those aspects of your star performer’s behaviour that are most unhelpful you will lose not just those behaviours but also the star. Or maybe the prospect of embarking on a discussion with one of your under-performers fills you with dread.
Or maybe you are watching conflict brewing amongst members of your team and are trying to head it off. The truth is, many people put off addressing issues in the workplace because of concerns about conflict.
Delaying conflict makes it worse
Now, it would be easy for me to talk about the failings of my partner in relation to the agreement I dissolved at the beginning of the year. However, years ago, I learnt that you can’t change the others, you can only change yourself so, instead, I’m going to share my reflections on my own behaviour during the course of our agreement.
Firstly, I’m going to give myself some credit. From the beginning, I put in place an agreement that reflected a fundamental principle… everyone’s needs matter. I also recognised that neither party to the agreement could anticipate everything that we’d need to have in place for our agreement to work. That’s why I included a clause in the agreement which said we needed to be sensitive to each other’s needs and make time to talk about any issues arising during the course of our agreement.
Having said that, in practice, I put off having conversations when I started to notice that my partner in the agreement was not doing things he had agreed to do. In effect, I was choosing to “pick my battles” – deciding which issues were important enough to mention and which issues I should overlook for the sake of maintaining the agreement.
The trouble is, the cumulative effect of my choices were two-fold. On the one hand, I was putting too many issues to one side so that, over time, I was supporting my partner in meeting his needs – but at the expense of my own. On the other hand, because I wasn’t sharing my smaller concerns, my partner in the agreement was unaware that his bank account of goodwill was dropping slowly into debit.
I knew he was contributing less than he had agreed and taking more – and maybe he did, too. What he probably didn’t realise was that, as well as not working for me in the context of our agreement, this was putting a strain on our long-standing relationship. By the time I was ready to move beyond conversations about the detail of our agreement to address my overall concerns, it was already time to dissolve our agreement. More than this, by the time I was ready to address my concerns, our relationship was at risk.
Do I regret raising my concerns? No. But I do wish I’d raised them sooner.
Ground rules for constructive conflict at work
Even when we are slow to address issues in the workplace, there are things we need to know if we want to do so constructively. You might think of these as “ground rules” or “truths” to focus on when you decide to take action. What’s more, by sharing them with members of your team, you can help your team to address issues constructively within the team. Here are just a few of my favourites:
Focus on interests – who needs what? We get stuck in addressing issues when we take a position (usually some form of “I’m right”) rather than trying to work out who needs what. Identifying the needs of everyone involved opens up the possibility of finding a way forward that meets everyone’s needs. Equally, when we try so support everyone in meeting their needs, we leave everyone with their dignity intact, even in the messiest of conflicts. This is about exploring why something matters to the individual(s) concerned.
Everyone is creative, resourceful and whole. When we trust that everyone in the workplace is an adult with strengths and capabilities and the capacity to learn, we are more likely to do some of the things that will help us to find a way forward, such as sharing our own views and asking questions or sharing information openly. (Roger Schwarz offers a great behavioural list in his books and articles under the heading “skilled facilitator”. It seems to me that we follow Roger’s recommendations most easily when we trust that our colleagues are creative, resourceful and whole.)
Everyone – yes, you, too – has something to learn. Conflict is most constructive when everyone involved comes to the table willing to learn something new. Even if our partners in a discussion don’t understand this, we need to understand it for ourselves. A willingness to learn opens up new possibilities – the possibility of a different way forward in a particular discussion, for example, or the possibility that we might learn something that will make us more effective in future.
The outcome from conflict is always the right outcome – for now. The outcome from conflict is unpredictable. We can never know how our colleagues might respond when we raise our concerns with them. Often, working through conflict means we have to abandon our preferred strategy. At the same time, handled effectively, conflict can help us to come to a better outcome than we will achieve by avoiding conflict. It may fit neatly into our plans or it may challenge them. Either way, it can bring us closer to finding ways to achieve results that meet everyone’s needs.
The aftermath of conflict
You may be wondering what the outcome is from the conflicts I have shared with you above.
One outcome from my experience with the unnamed organisation is that I am much more informed about the style of leadership that currently prevails in that organisation. As it happens, other people are, too, because our disagreement was a topic of discussion at the organisation’s Annual General Meeting in the spring. What’s more, people not only know more, they also know that others, too, know what they know. In my experience, such open debate opens up possibilities, in time, for constructive change across an organisation.
And Carl? Well, for now, he isn’t responding to my e-mails and has severed our connections on social media so I’m inferring that he wants to take a break or even to sever our connection altogether. It’s a choice I respect. For my part, I am clear that our experience offers an opportunity to ask this: is it nourishing for us both to be in contact with each other? Or are we better off nurturing other relationships? My choice, which I make with a glad heart, is to stand up for my needs in the context of that relationship whilst also wanting to support Carl in meeting his.
And you? I wonder what challenges you face at work? How many of them are an invitation to a discussion and even to a potential conflict? As I draw to a close, I invite you to notice how many conversations you would have, and with whom, if you only believed that addressing the issues openly – and risking conflict – would be a constructive way forward for you and your colleagues.