Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Have you forgotten your inspiration?

I met a client last week for coffee and I found myself recommending the work of Adam Kahane - an amazing facilitator who has worked on some really challenging issues (e.g. forming the new South Africa, drug cultures in South America, climate change etc) and written some of the most inspiring books I've read in a while.

I could wax lyrical about this man but what surprised me was that I had not thought about him for a while. Given this guy is a bit of a hero to me I found it a bit strange that I'd lost sight of his work and had to go and look him up all over again and get re-energised.

So I was wondering if anyone else out there has lost sight of any of their sources of inspiration and might need to reconnect to what has meaning and heart for them.

Here's a link of Adam talking at the RSA (34 min) - hope he does it for you too! Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Working with ‘Problem children’ – issues in coaching

Don’t get me wrong I love coaching 1-2-1 but have learnt to be wary when I’m asked to work with an organisation's ‘problem child’ – that person who doesn’t seem to quite fit in, or whose behaviours have ruffled feathers. “We need you to work with them” is often code for “We need you to fix them for us so they fit in”

My concern about this sort of request is that it puts the focus solely on the ‘problem child’ as opposed to the relationships at work. It is unfortunately all too common for example, to find that the ‘problem child’ has never had direct feedback and that the team they form part of have never had courageous conversations about how they are working together. In this situation the coach risks becoming some sort of surrogate for conversations that really ought to happen at work.

The most effective coaching assignments are those where the work includes the wider team rather than a ‘fix it’ conducted in splendid isolation. Coaching can’t afford to be the outsourced difficult conversation. Views? 

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Don’t coach me, just tell me!

It happened again this week. I’m working with a group of leaders on their coaching skills and we’re talking about potential objections to using a coaching approach with their teams. “My team don’t want loads of questions, they don’t want me dancing around the handbags with them, they just want to be told what to do !” one manager pronounces.

I think this comes back to what you think coaching is... if you believe it us some form of elaborate guessing game then I can see how you can get in this sort of tangle. It would indeed be perverse to withhold useful information or expertise from a team member, making them play ‘read the bosses mind’ instead. No wonder their people regard 'coaching' as time wasting and potentially manipulative. However if you see coaching as a thinking partnership between two consenting and informed adults then maybe these confusions can be avoided.

Great coaching is always based on a relationship of trust and openness - leading questions and pointless obstruction destroy both.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

People Data – getting the wrong end of the stick.

I've become a bit worried about how we use people measurement tools of late - too often I think we confuse measuring something with changing something. Anyone who has been on a diet knows that the scales don't make us thinner ... even if we'd like to pretend it does. 

This issue was brilliantly illustrated by a Global team I worked with recently who were struggling to find more effective ways of working together.

I'd used a team 'climate' survey with them to provoke conversations about how they worked together. Each regional sub-teams were tasked with setting up a meeting to discuss their particular slice of the data. Most managers grabbed the opportunity and were able to have a very different (and better) conversation with their teams resulting in some really helpful changes. However one manager sent out the data in an email to his team with a directive to improve the lowest scores. Any coincidence that this was the group with the poorest overall scores in the first place?

So how does your organisation use ‘people data’? As a tool to provoke constructive dialogue and change or incite recriminations and yet more measurement?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The curse of perfectionism - issues in coaching

I was recently called in to work with a team who by any objective measure could be described as ‘high-performing’. They were leaders in their industry, consistently produced great results and had the respect of their peers and customers alike. However, far from basking in the much justified praise they received from all quarters, this was one of the most miserable and least satisfied teams I have ever encountered. All they could see was how much they had yet to do, and worst still, they saw each other as rivals and competitors. They were in very real danger of fracturing as a group and destroying their hard won reputation.

None of this made too much sense until it occurred to me that this was a group cursed with perfectionism. They had impossibly high standards for themselves – nothing less than perfection was good enough them and even perfection probably didn’t cut it. Rather than motivating them, their self imposed expectations were leading to paralysis, inaction and in-fighting. What really made the difference for this group was discovering – to their huge surprise-  that they all carried a strong sense of failure and under-achievement, and assumed that their peers were more able/bright/together (fill in the blank) than they were. And strangely enough just by being able to see their assumptions they were able to start the conversation to fix the situation. 

So... where are you expecting of yourself? Progress or perfection?

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Killer Question

The Art and Architecture of the Powerful Question

You've heard about the ‘killer question’- it’s that one knock-out question that will unlock our coaching client, springing them neatly into expanded awareness, sustained behavioural change and purposeful action. Sadly I have yet to come across such a question – at least not one that is guaranteed to work on all occasions and with all clients -  so forgive me for a dollop of scepticism on this subject! My ‘best’ questions seem to arise in the moment from my own curiosity and are often the simplest. Having said this however, I do know that some questions are more powerful than others – asking ‘what are you doing at the weekend?’ is patentedly different from ‘what are you doing with your life?’.

I came across an interesting analysis of the 'architecture' of  powerful questions which suggests that we coaches should pay attention to three aspects of our questioning if we want them to be impactful:

·   Depth – do we tend to ask surface questions of fact or deeper questions of feeling, meaning and purpose? A ‘why’ questions is always going to be more powerful than a ‘when’ or ‘where’ question - even if you have to ask it more carefully.
· Breadth – do we ask big enough questions? Are we interested in just the 'weekend' or the 'life'? Do we ask questions just about the presenting issue or about the systemic context?
· Hidden assumption– if all questions contain an assumption (discuss!) do we help our clients to unpick the assumptions inherent in the questions they are asking themselves and perhaps find a better question

Would love to hear your favourite ‘killer question’...

Click here for a copy of ‘The art of powerful questions’ by Vogt, Brown and Isaacs (2003)

Monday, 14 November 2011

Knowing what to do and wanting to do it – Alignment and Engagement

A while ago I had the pleasure of hearing John McLeod, co-author of the governmental report ‘ Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement’. John had spent more than a year researching the link between organisational performance and employee engagement and … surprise, surprise the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour. 

John feels that ‘engagement’ is a much misunderstood (and maligned) term. He believes that employees need to be both aligned – they know what to do, and engaged – they want to do it. Alignment without engagement results in ‘tin soldiers’ following the letter but not the spirit. Engagement without alignment results in ‘headless chickens’ enthusiastically rushing around but creating mayhem.

So... what are the people in your organisation like. Aligned and engaged or neither?
Here’s a link to the McLeod & Clarke report:

Monday, 7 November 2011

Healthy boundaries - issues in coaching

Boundaries seem to have a bit of a bad press - they suggest no go areas or 'thou shalt not's' - and are a bit anathema to conventional coaching which is often about dismantling personal limitations and self-imposed  restrictions.

Yet everyday life is made up of boundaries - the length of reasonable working day, driving on the left (in the UK), or even the time you expect the kids to go to bed. These sort of limitation are not experienced as onus or burdensome, in fact the opposite is often true...without boundaries we often get into trouble. Just think about people whose personal lives have been sacrificed to the job, or cause a crash by veering onto the wrong side of the road, or parents struggling with an impossible teenager

We all need boundaries to define healthy areas of operation and without them we can feel out of control and even powerless. Paradoxically we seem to need to set limits and boundaries for ourselves in order to find freedom to act.

Stressed coaching clients often present with boundary issues - too much work, not enough time, inability to say 'no'. Putting some limits and even 'no go' areas into their lives therefore can be enormously liberating. Now should they choose not to.. well that is a whole different conversation.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Managing change as managing anxiety

I’ve had a suspicion for a while that managing change in organisation is actually often about managing anxiety levels. Just watch your own heart rate go up in a meeting when ‘hot words’ like ‘redundancy’, ‘restructure or ‘pay freeze’ get bandied about.

Change by definition is a journey into the unknown – if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be change. And the unknown brings uncertainty and fear. I see too many managers who try to smooth these reactions away and rather than helping their people face into the future give unwarranted reassurances and are then surprised when nobody puts much energy into the change process. At the other extreme, I see leaders who have provoked so much anxiety that their organisation ceases to function effectively, and they are surprised to find copies of CV’s in the photocopier.

An aspect of managing change is therefore about provoking enough concern to propel people into engaging with change but avoiding the levels of anxiety that bring dysfunction.  Getting the right balance of support and challenge is tough to achieve and a dimension of change too few leaders seem clued into.

So... where is the balance of anxiety in your organisation – too much or too little? 

Monday, 24 October 2011

The 'felt shift' - the change in the room

There is a moment in some coaching conversations when something shifts – there is a sense that something we have been tussling with has suddenly just become clearer and the way ahead more obvious. This shift is often subtle - perhaps the coaching client suddenly stops talking and stares out the window, or perhaps they suddenly sit differently, or sound more definite for the first time.

Peter Hawkins suggests that ‘the felt shift ‘ must start in the coaching session and that if  change doesn’t begin here it is unlikely to happen between sessions. I think I agree with him, however also think that the signs are easy to miss, especially if we don’t pay attention to the embodied non-verbal aspects of the work. Often the clues to a shift come from the demeanour or posture of the client – and may be easy to miss.

So…what is your coaching client telling you with the rest of their body not just with their mouth?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Gathering dust? Development on the shelf.

I had a lovely piece of feedback today to the effect that I designed and ran development programmes where people actually applied their learning in their real worlds and experimented with changed behaviours.

Whilst not averse to a compliment, what struck me most about this comment was that it needed to be said at all. Surely we don't run development programmes for the good of our health? What other walk of life would we invest our time, money and effort and not expect to get some sort of return or benefit. When did it become OK to go on development programme and leave the learning to gather dust on the proverbial shelf. While I get that there may be barriers to applying training messages (time, relevance etc) it does seem to have become normal not to expect much out of a course or that it somehow doesn't apply to us personally - and hey presto we have a self-fulfilling prophecy in action. I also think - while I'm on the subject - that we training designers need to get way more creative and that the ritualised action planning session we habitually include in the last hour is just not enough to ensure application and transfer.

We spend literally billions worldwide on training and development - are we just wasting out time and money or have we (trainers and trainees alike) just forgotten how to take development seriously? OK rant over


Monday, 10 October 2011

Are you taking your 50%?

OK gross generalisation coming up - I meet two types of line managers .. those who take way too much responsibility for their people and those who take too little.

My first type can really go over board with this even to the extent of feeling responsible for the emotions of their staff and holding sense of failure if everyone is anything less than happy and content. This can result in leaders who fudge feedback, struggle with the difficult conversation or (just) spend their spare time in a state of angst. Not good for them and probably not good for their people either. Coaching this type of leader often involves getting them to see that they have reasonably done all that that they should do and separating out a little from the emotional life of their team.

My second type tends to hold relationships at work at some distance and often have problems reading where other are coming from . They don't see that they are part of the life of the team and like it or not do a lot to set the tone and climate in the workplace. It can be a considerable shock for them to find that there is something of a gap between their intent as a leader and the actual impact they are having. Coaching this type involves strengthening the empathy 'muscle' and getting them to use feedback to monitor and manage the intent/impact gap.

So .. what sort are you? Do you take more or less than your 50%?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Resistant Roger

I met Roger (not his real name) last week. I was facilitating an intensive workshop for a large group of very disgruntled managers. They had all been through the mill, bruised survivors of a protracted change process which had left them with roles and responsibilities they didn’t fully understand, and weren’t they wanted. Roger was typical – there was nothing anyone could say or do that would convince him the changes had been of any benefit – and he fully intended to carrying on working as he always had (thank you very much). The management team, increasingly frustrated with his intractability, were running out of ideas on how to convince him.

Rick Maurer (US change management consultant and public speaker) usefully talks about 3 types of resistance to change:
·        Level 1 – “I don’t get it” . This is resistance borne out of just not understanding what the change is all about – the why? and the WIIFM.
·        Level 2 – “I don’t like it” At this level people ‘get’ the change, but they just hate it. 
·        Level 3 – “I don’t trust you/ the organisation”  At this level people respond not to the change per se but who is suggesting it

Roger’s case struck me as good example of how we can deal with resistance at the wrong level. Roger ‘got’ the change, he understood the logic for it. However, the change process has left him with a deep distrust of the organisation and its leadership. The more the management team pushed the logic of the change, the more he dug his heals in. What was needed was not more logic-based persuasion but a chance for Roger to reconnect with the organisation and repair relationships with his leaders and colleagues.

Here is Rick talking about his take on 'resistance to change'

So.. what level of resistance are you meeting in the workplace. Are you tackling resistance at the right level?

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

100 stupid people

I recently had the pleasure of listening to the provocative and insightful Professor Ralph Stacey - prolific writer on the complexity sciences and leadership and management.

He was talking about he experience of lecturing to a class of 100 students  and asking them to write an assignment on what he had just conveyed ... and the frustration of getting 100 very different answers back. "The logical conclusion" he said " is that either I am a very bad teacher or I have 100 very stupid people in my class", neither of which were particularly palatable or likely explanations. Instead of getting frustrated he now thinks this 'failure of communication' should be expected  and maybe even welcomed. After all 100 people will all have their individual ways of making sense depending on their very different experiences and interests - none of us are blank canvasses.

I was thinking about this in terms of communication processes in large organisations and the frustration I meet in leaders who say "I've told them, but they still go off and do their own thing". Stacey's point is that communication is not a simple process of transmission and reception (radio metaphor) but an interaction where both parties make sense together, both influencing and being influenced, the final message emerging out of the exchange. 100 people are bound to hear 100 different messages, particularly when exchange is limited or constrained. Perhaps we would have less compliance issues in organisations if paradoxically there was less dependence on 'tell' and more on 'engage', less reliance on email and more on old fashioned face to face conversation. It will never catch on!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Coaching the team - the 'shared history'

I was recently coaching a team and used an old favourite of mine - the 'shared history' - as a way of catching everyone up with the 'story' of the team. It involves sitting everyone in the order they joined the team and briefly telling the tale of how they came to join and what was going on at time. What usually emerges is a rich picture of the team's back story which gives a sense of the struggles and successes to date as well as the personalities involved.

The exercise had the reaction I often get - the old hands are amazed at how much water has passed under the bridge  - "I'd forgotten about ....I hadn't realised how much we've done!". The new joins are mightily relieved to get a handle on the context they now find themselves operating in and why things are the ways they are - "It all makes a whole lot more sense now!"

The membership and purposes of a team are always shifting yet we often talk and act as if a 'team' is a static entity. How would it be if we considered the team to be new team every time a new member joined? What would it take to pay more attention to their integration and assimilation into the team story?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Elbow room? Do as you would be done by

I spend a lot of time working with managers on their coaching skills and encouraging them to take a coaching approach to their leadership, and have become increasingly fascinated by resistances to coaching in managers. While pretty much every manager I meet want lee way and personal discretion in how they operate .. however... this doesn't necessarily extend to their subordinates. "They just want to be told ..none of this dancing around the handbags asking questions" they report emphatically.

Where is reality in all of this? Do subordinates only want to be told or do managers enjoy telling too much? I know there are times when I need and welcome direction however someone being directive (ie overly controlling) will generally get my hackles up. Mostly I want space to think and act for my self and yes I want someone to consult with just in case my ideas are flawed or too limited. I also know that different people have different needs for elbow room - some folks seem to need acres of personal discretion while others are anxious with anything less than close marking

Part of the issue I think is that it much easier to think about leadership in binary terms - I tell or I coach, I give direction or I consult. What is far tougher ... but vital...is to be choiceful in approach to people management. One style does not fit all situations and reading the situation to make an informed choice of what is required is skill that can be developed.
(Thanks to the work of Emery, Trist et al)

Monday, 12 September 2011

Asking questions in change

I was talking last week with an HR Director who does an exceptional job at managing change in his organisation. "It is simple really" he said, "as soon as you grasp that change means loosing some degree of control then all you have to do is get really creative to help people feel back in the driving seat. Probably the most immediate way of doing this is to help people to ask the question they really want to ask ---then work really hard to get them an answer ".

This is an organisation who takes this sort of process really seriously - they regularly track employee queries and can tell you how they are doing responding to them. Its not that the employee necessarily gets the answer they want to hear, but at least they have the certainty of being heard.

Simple maybe but very effective.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Can you coach a team? Stakeholder management

Much of team development practice pays attention to the internal relationships within a group - we have a vast array of tools, models and processes for helping groups face into how their relationships are inhibiting or enhancing their performance (and peace of mind). All good sensible stuff but often not enough.
Just as with an individual client, I think it is important for teams to consider how they are managing and shaping their external relationships - ie the interfaces with different parts of the wider organisation in which they operate. Teams as well as individuals have stakeholders and all too often these are poorly understood and unsystematically managed. Somehow the conversation about stakeholder management either never makes it to the team agenda or gets squeezed at the end the meeting. However failing to meet stakeholder expectations can be severely career limiting. 

So... do we do teams a disservice if we only teach them how to look in and forget to teach them to look out to the wider world? 

Monday, 29 August 2011

Coaching upwards?

I was asked last week if you could coach upwards - this question was met with cackles of laughter and ribald humour from the rest of the group. "I'd like to see you try" said one, "Sounds like a career limiting move" said another. Much sucking of teeth and rolling of eyes ensued.

I found myself having mixed reactions - if we honestly believe that during a coaching conversation the parties concerned are equals then there ought not to be a barrier to coaching .. in either direction. However folks in organisations don't tend to leave their roles and positions at the door - there are power inequalities whether we like it or not. The boss does have the power to shape the work environment.

I think what my audience were reacting to was the idea that a boss might need help with his thinking or might have space to develop a bit and that is something on the whole they might not want to show to their subordinates. Give feedback to your boss - not a chance!

So.. what is permissible in your organisation. Could you give the boss feedback? Could you coach your boss?

Monday, 22 August 2011

Can you coach a team? Being client led.

Some writers are very clear that team coaching cannot exist - you can only coach individuals not teams they say. However in my work I am as often as not asked to work with a group in some capacity that is developmental or performance enhancing and otherwise looks and feels very much like a coaching relationship except for the fact that there is more than two of us in the room!

One of the knacks I believe is to see the collective as the client, 'defocussing' the needs of the team members.The outcomes are therefore about creating and shaping a more coherent collective that can think and act together, rather than improving the performance of any one individual.

However, staying in 'client-led mode' can be a challenge as I find that groups expect you to 'train' (aka entertain) them or in some other way stand in an expert position ... it's what they are used to after all. However when groups catch on to the notion that you are there to facilitate the conversation they need to have, rather than the one you (or their boss) think they need, they can get real value

Has it built the relationship? Feedback that is...

My third and final test of great feedback is to check whether the relationship between giver and receiver is still in tact .. or better yet, in an even better place. While it is dead easy to drop your message like the proverbial bomb, damaging a working relationship is not great for all concerned. No wonder many managers avoid giving feedback rather than face into it.

However, with skill and a bit of practice it can be done ...  Mike, a Regional Sales Manager, told me a great story of how he had to give some really difficult feedback to a report. He was upfront and honest delivering his message, finally adding 'what would you do in my shoes'. The subordinate had to admit that his delivery hadn't been up to much and that parting company was probably best for all concerned. "The amazing thing" said Mike, "is that guy still buys me a bottle of wine for Christmas and thanks me for the feedback!"

So .. do you drop your feedback from a great height and run .. or avoid it all together?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Will it lead to action/ change? Feedback that is...

I get really worried when managers I meet confuse evaluation with feedback. While it is very nice to hear 'Your are brilliant, keep it up' or worrying to hear 'You are rubbish, stop it'  these are evaluations and NOT feedback .. at least not in my book because they are not useful. The point of giving feedback is to influence someone to change or improve their performance and while nice/nasty evaluations are pleasant/unpleasant they don't necessarily create change. Evaluations in my experience create resistance (or embarrassment) rather than improved performance. 

Far more helpful is to tell people what you want them to do differently/ do more of and then have the coaching  conversation that helps them to figure out how. Perhaps then one day we would look forward to receiving feedback instead of running a mile from it .. happy day indeed. 

Team coaching vs team building

On the whole I would rather be doing team coaching rather than team building. For me, the focus and expectation of team development is all too often on having a bit of fun and doing a bit of work, with the emphasis on the former rather than the latter. A sure sign is when the commissioning senior manager spends more time talking about the fun team building activities he'd like to try out rather than the business objectives of the group.

Quality time together is too precious to waste on building straw towers and so much more can be gained from learning from real work together than on pretend tasks. At its best, coaching a team allows me to work at many different levels - the individual contributor, individual relationships within the group,  the team dynamic, the team task, the team process, and the team's relationships with external stakeholders to name a few.

So can we do a bit more team coaching please and a little less team building?

Monday, 8 August 2011

Coaching as re-storying

The coaching assignments I find least satisfactory are the ones where neither the client or client organisations actually has much interest in change. The client is sent along to be either 'fixed' or 'stroked' by the coach but nobody is up for any real conversation or real challenge to the status quo. The same story stays pretty much stuck even if the client does feel better for having shared it. 

Coaching is at is best when the client not only has space to tell their story (aka 'dumping'), but reflect on and challenge the assumptions and beliefs it contains. I don't believe my job as a coach is to judge or rewrite their story so much as facilitate a process of re-storying. After all, if we can learn to tell a different story about our lives/ work/ relationships/ past what new possibilities does that open up for our present and our future?

Has it landed? Feedback that is...

I was working with Peter this week, a senior manager in a large global corporate on how he was going to deliver some particularly tricky feedback to a subordinate. He'd procrastinated about it for awhile then had a shot at delivering his message but to zero effect. His next attempt faired no better and now there was a bit of an atmosphere developing between the two of them.

Peter hadn't gone to the trouble of figuring out how to land his feedback - ie.  get the recipient to absorb, understand and accept the message.  Most of us respond badly to negative messages and resist the messenger .. irrespective of whether they are right or wrong. Delivering feedback is therefore only part of the battle, we also have to help people 'swallow' it if we expect them to do anything with it. Here's what helps:
  1. Tell it straight but don't make them wrong - clearly and upfront tell them what the issue is but quickly move to solving the problem with them not burying them in manure
  2. Explain why its a problem for them -link it to what they care about - their reputation, their career aspirations etc. 
  3. Back it up with fact and first hand evidence if needs be - but don't ovewelm them with data
  4. Anticipate the gap between intent and impact - most people's intent is positive its just that their impact sometimes isn't
  5. Shut up and ask what their reaction is - get them talking as soon as possible

Saturday, 6 August 2011

" I want to give you some feedback "

Why is feedback done so badly in organisational life - we've all be on the Feedback 101 course but yet it still seems to an area that many of us struggle with. It seems to me that all too often feedback is confused with 'telling off'  instead of what it is -- data to help someone improve their performance. Subtly different.

When coaching managers I ask three questions to check the quality of their feedback delivery:

1. Has it landed? Has the recipient heard and accepted the message. Managers all too often seem to think that delivering the message is good enough, however often all they have done is provoked resistance or worse still an argument

2. Will it lead to action/ change? Feedback is often confused with some sort of evaluation - "that was great" may a lovely thing to hear but actually it doesn't help the recipient understand what they have do do differently or more of or how do it. Brilliant feedback is always followed up with coaching on the way forward.

3. Has the relationship been maintained? Managers seem to fall into two broad camps (ok its a sweeping generalisation) - those that avoid or fluff feedback for fear of damaging the relationship or those that wade in with their size 10's leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Well I'm afraid neither will do.. brilliant feedback delivered well builds the relationship between manager and subordinate .. not the opposite.

So think about the last piece of feedback you gave .. would it pass the acid test?

Monday, 1 August 2011

Untangle ... out loud?

Why is it so hard to sort out our own problems alone?

I am a big believer in externalising our thinking as a way of helping us untangle the strands of our lives. Humankind has always found ways of doing this … the confessional, diarying and journaling, or talking it over with a trusted friend are all ways of getting a problem out of our heads and into some sort of good order

I think good coaching, however, takes it a step further. Coaching not only allows us to get the problem out there, but helps us to understand how we are thinking about the issue in hand – and see how our own thinking often gets in our way. Somehow having our own thoughts reflected back to us, not only helps to put issues into perspective, but improves how we think as well.

So.. what is the problem you are wrestling with in you head? Go tell someone and see how different if feels.

Team to Team coaching – breaking down ‘us and them’

Strange how the same issue hits you from different directions. I was talking this week with leaders from two very different organisations – one a large corporate and the other a medium sized IT company. Both were bemoaning the ‘us and them’ syndrome going on in their organisation... sales hating operations, marketing hating supply chain etc. You know the sort of thing I’m on about, and you’ll also know how much energy this can consume.

What was interesting was how both these leaders saw this as an issue of personality clash rather than of organisational alignment. “I’ve tried for 10 years to build a relationship with those guys but I’ve just come to the conclusion they are odd” said one.

I’ve learnt that one of the simplest and most effective things I can do to help teams function is to get the ‘us and them’ into a room and get to walk in each others shoes – at least for awhile. People just seem to get a whole new appreciation for each other and remind themselves that the real enemy is outside not in.  I heartily recommend it.

So.. who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ in your organisation. How could you find out what it’s like in their world?

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Ask and never Tell?

One of the questions I am consistently asked on coaching skills programmes is if it ever ‘right’ to give answers or solutions. Surely there are times when it is right just to tell them and stop dancing round the handbags with all these questions??

This is an interesting one to tease out and doesn’t have an easy answer. Pure non-directive coaching takes a stance that we ‘ask rather than tell’ but this can be a heck of a stretch for managers who’ve spent their working lives fixing problems for others  and a) quite like doing it and b) are quite good at it. Consequently ‘Ask rather than tell’ all too often seems to get translated into ‘Ask and never Tell’ in the minds of novice coaching managers.

Managers and leaders obviously have to tell at times – it is after all their job to provide clarity, structure and direction for others. I think we do managers a disservice if they take the message from out training programmes that ask= good and tell = bad. The most helpful conversation I can facilitate therefore is the ‘when to coach and when not to’ debate, and help managers get clear on the range of their responses. Managers have complex jobs and need to be able to choicefully meet that complexity with a repertoire of responses – not just ‘ask or tell’.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Charismatic leadership … ultimately disempowering?

Do we confuse charisma for genuine leadership? 

My experience of charismatic leaders is a bit like a chinese meal – great at the time but ultimately insubstantial and a bit unsatisfactory. While charismatics are wonderful to be around - at least for a while - we are in danger of giving too much of ourselves away to these sorts of leaders – we disempower ourselves when we put others on a pedestal.

The most powerful leader I have ever met was also one of the least assuming. What made him great was not his ability to charm an audience but his ability to help his team to tap into their own talents and self-belief . In other words he grew leadership in others and didn't need the focus on himself.

So.. what are you leading for.. yourself or others?

The trusted leader

I met a really great leader last week – lets not worry about his name. What made him special for me was not his intellectual horse power (considerable) or his technical expertise (also impressive) but his humility and integrity. Caught in the middle of an organisational mistake not of his making, he did what few leaders seem to do ...he put his hands up and apologised unreservedly. The result .. a difficult situation was diffused and everyone could move on.  How refreshing.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Do you have time to think?

I don’t know if you have come across Richard Feynman – the chances are if you have you will be a fan. He’s credited as one of the 20th century’s most brilliant physicist and original thinkers winning the Nobel Prize for all but rebuilding the theory of quantum electrodynamics .... we are not talking an intellectual slouch here! Most people first learned of him when he proved – live on TV- how the space shuttle Challenger met its untimely end, but you might not know he also studied Maya hieroglyphs, was a prankster, juggler, safecracker, bongo player, and a proud amateur painter. The Guardian simply described him as ‘probably the coolest scientist who ever lived’.

When asked for advice from his students he would always reply “Don’t you have  time to think?” and encourage them to carve out some time for themselves. Still a great question for leaders trapped in the constant busy-ness of the day to day.

So ... have you got enough time to think? What is stopping you putting more time aside for some quality thinking time?