Why performing open heart surgery on yourself can be a good idea.

Reader reassurance:  this article is NOT about IT or any other technical issue.  There are several other people on the planet better placed to write about that than I.  I know my limits.

Dysfunctional meetings.  Tool 2.  Knowing what we're talking about and why.On Friday I fired up my laptop and it froze at “Starting Windows”.  I waited in silent prayer for a few minutes, then remembered I don’t have an IT department to go and bleat to when my stuff goes wrong.  With a heavy week of training delivery coming up and materials to write, I had better get on with sorting this out myself.

I spent about an hour trying to research the solution via my iPhone, and found myself learning a whole new language, including “kernels” and “grubs”, and joined some learning forum about something called Linux.  Ahem.  Think I may be getting out of my depth here.

I decided I needed to be a bit more courageous.  The laptop, from its state of hypnosis, managed to offer me one option I had not yet dared to consider:

“Restore factory settings.  Note:  all files and installed software will be removed.”  

Gulp.  You are inviting me to perform open heart surgery on myself.  All of my business sits on this laptop:  my clients, my content, my finances, my network.  What if it all goes wrong?  Million of concerns, such as:  “I keep all my download activation codes and other gubbins in a folder in Outlook.  If I can’t get into Outlook because I haven’t reinstalled it yet, how will I be able to reinstall any of my software?”

I weighed it up.  If I restore factory settings will I pass a point of no return, and make things worse?  Conversely, it is at least something to try, and I can’t end up much worse than currently, surely?

I decided to take the plunge.  My heart thumping, I hit the Enter key.

Fast forward one day, 165 Windows updates,  and a lot of reinstalling, and my laptop is like new.  It has belched out all the rubbish, runs much quicker (and I hope virus free), and best of all I now know what to do to recover if and when this happens again.  I have learnt a lot, and best of all I have reminded myself of something important.

When you’re in a hole no one else knows even exists, the best person to get you out is you.

This was firmly impressed on my when I was about 25, on a leadership course in Devon.  We were down an hole, funnily enough, this time a pothole.  There were about 10 of us.  I was second from last in the group, with a course instructor at the back.  Until he disappeared.  The reassuring light from his helmet vanished, and I suddenly realised I was on my own.  I was x hundred feet below ground, I couldn’t hear any other human, the only light was from a weak lamp on my helmet, and the tunnel had just narrowed down so you had to crawl on your belly.  I felt ahead with my hand and realised the next challenge was to put my head underwater, without knowing how long for.

Thought about calling out, realised it was pointless, and paused to think for a moment.  Two choices:  wait until they realised I was missing (hopefully), or keep going.  I chose to keep going.

Fear of the unknown often holds us back, and makes us reliant on others.  Sometimes the best way to grow is to take the risk.  Maybe you have more potential than you realise?  This is something I keep telling the people I work with in training rooms.  It’s not something I practice enough on myself.

What might you be telling yourself you could never do?  How about suspending that thought, just this once?  Go on, I dare you!

Posted in Life Skills, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Why were you born? And what if you haven’t worked that out yet?

“The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Thank you Mark Twain, that has to be the best quote I have heard this year.

Looking back at my professional life, I can see that I spent much of it drifting, waiting for something to happen, and feeling mildly bemused at the question at the back of my mind:  “What’s the point?”  I managed to survive 14 years in corporate land in a range of reasonably well paid jobs in sales and marketing, without ever getting round to considering what the point was. What difference did I make, and why should anyone care?

Thank goodness they laid me off in my mid thirties before it was too late, and I woke up with a jolt.  I got lucky and moved into the learning and development world, where I discovered I could genuinely help people to cope with the stresses and strains of professional life, and that it made a tangible and in some cases immediate difference.  I started to discover that most people have far more potential than they realise, and that helping them to unlock it is a fulfilling and worthwhile thing to do.

I have an answer, at least, to the question of why I was born.  To help others fulfil their potential.

It won’t change the course of history, but for some people my help is significant.  I know because they tell me.  For me that’s enough.

Many of the people I work with have not worked out the answer to their “Why”.  They work long days, often feeling overwhelmed with what is asked of them.  They have increasingly fragile relationships at home because of the intrusion of work into their private lives.  And all for what?  I recently heard a Director telling a group: “We no longer have a work-life balance to manage.  We need to manage our work-life integration.”  Gulp.

I remember having dinner once with a middle manager who was about to hand in her resignation.  “I realise I’ve been burning myself out for the last 5 years trying to improve a customer invoicing process,” she told me.

I’m not dissing the contribution people make at work, many of whose jobs are of course repetitive, mundane, non negotiable and so on.  But if there is no meaning to them, that’s all they are.  Stuff.  A means to a pay cheque.  For those of us in leadership positions, how do you expect to motivate and inspire your people, if you’re not sure what the point is either?

SimonSinek_readSo how do you do about injecting meaning into your professional life?  Have a read of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” for a start, that should prompt some ideas.  Allow yourself to consider for a moment (a problem, I know, you don’t have a moment do you?), the bigger picture.

Where does your contribution fit in?  What happens if you succeed?  What happens if you fail?  And why should anybody care?

Or take it to the next level.  Ask yourself what your legacy is going to be.  What do you want to see engraved on your headstone when you die?

“He delivered the best customer satisfaction results in the south west two years running.”  I think not.

For further thought provoking material on this, I recommend Stephen Covey’s “The 8th Habit: from effectiveness to greatness.”    

You may have heard the story about President Kennedy’s visit to NASA in the 1960’s.  Whether it’s true or not, it makes the point nicely:

Kennedy toured the complex and met a man in overalls. “What do you do here?” he asked. The man replied, “I’m earning a living.” Kennedy nodded and moved on. He met another man in overalls and asked him the same question. “I clean away all the rubbish,” the man said. Kennedy smiled and strode on until he met another man in overalls and put the same question again. This time a big smile came across the face of the man who replied, “Mr President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

At a leadership workshop recently a finance manager spent some time considering his “why”, and came up with this:

“My purpose is to make finance easy”.

Genius.  A reason to get up in the morning and have something to work towards.

I’d love to know what your “Why” is – please share!

Posted in Leadership Skills, Life Skills, Time Management | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Why it’s so hard to lead when you’re scared

I was recently working with a group of senior leaders on a leadership programme.  On the first day they came across as on message, did well in the various activities and we had plenty of lively debate.

Bad-smell1But something was missing.  It felt like they were holding me at arm’s length, not really opening up.  Talking a good game, but there was a whiff of something malodorous in the air.

Next morning I decided to see if they would open up on this.  I told them I didn’t think they were playing straight with me.  I was confronting them, but in a nice way.  I use language along the lines of “I have an itch and with your permission would like to scratch it”.

Fortunately they decided to play ball (maybe because I had taken a risk myself in confronting them), and someone said it was because they didn’t trust each other.

When pushed it became clear that part of the problem was that the boss was in the room.

We then did a couple of activities which examine Trust, and saw for ourselves how their mutual lack of trust led to weak results.  They operated in silos, and missed all sorts of opportunities for collaboration and creative win/win.  Their conclusion was that back at work this lack of trust is real, and makes a real difference to results.

Imagine you’re the boss in this situation.  Your top people have revealed that they don’t trust each other and they don’t trust you enough to open up and be real with each other.  Relationships lack authenticity, energy is low and results are weak.  What can you do about it?

To his credit, the boss tried something, and it worked.  He told a story.

He told us about the charity work he used to do in Africa, and how he learnt there that in general people treat the Africans like children.  When they treat them as Adults the results are far more sustainable and rewarding.  He had realised from this leadership workshop that he has been treating his team like children, and that he needs to treat them as Adults, as he used to do in Africa.  He became quite emotional as he told the story, and displayed some vulnerability.

Others in the room then followed suit, and as they did so you could almost see the layers of fakery peeling away, and sense how relationships were immediately becoming more real.  Trust began to develop right before our eyes.

This experience reminded me of two things:

1.  If you’re scared it’s hard to trust other people, and if you don’t trust them it’s hard to be yourself.  If you are not true to yourself, it’s pretty hard to be a convincing leader.

2.  To build trust you need to make the first move.  Take the risk, remove the first layer.  Others may often then reciprocate, and you can jointly work towards more openness.

All the above, by the way, flies in the face of the advice you would be given in you were in the US Military, and quite possibly any military organisation, I guess.  There you are taught to hide your vulnerabilities, which would otherwise be seen as a sign of weakness.  Organisations which have a military-style culture find it hard to develop a coaching culture, because being coached is seen as displaying a vulnerability.

I think this may be part of the explanation as to why Trust was so hard for the people I’m telling you about today – their historical roots which had distinct military-style origins.

Here is  Colin Powell talking about how he was taught to deal with vulnerability.

How vulnerable are you allowed to be in your organisation, and what are the consequences?  What would happen if you were to open up with someone where you want to develop trust?

 

Posted in Leadership Skills | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Leading through storytelling

I was running a Leadership workshop a couple of weeks ago with a bunch of Innovation leaders in a European Telecoms company.  We were working in their Innovation Centre, a closely guarded environment in the bowels of the building.  It had no windows, black walls, plastic grass for a carpet and car seats to sit on.  In other words Dead Funky and an inspiration for innovation, right?  Perhaps not.  It was cold and noisy, and one of the most joyless environments I have ever worked in.  But that’s another story.

By Day 2 it was getting tiring.  This was a bunch of highly introverted technical experts, managed locally by a technical genius whose style would best be described as “directive”, to put it politely.  It was partly a language thing, I suspect, and partly because the idea of leading through inspiration and trust was such a new one for them.  Most of them had been there 10 years or more, and were used to leading others and being led themselves by issuing instructions.

Then something transformational happened.  Their new CEO, who is demonstrating his commitment to building leadership muscle within the business by attending all of the workshops we are running, told a story.  He took a calculated risk with this and shared something only a very few others in the business knew.  It was a deeply personal story, and not a happy one.  It was to do with life at home as a teenager and his troubled relationship with his father.  He shared it quietly, slowly and with utter authenticity.  You could have heard a pin drop if he hadn’t been battling with the fork lift truck and building works outside.

The effect was galvanising.  It was as if someone had plugged in an extra power supply to these people.  A new human connection had been made, and layers of veneer and self protection fell away from the others in the room.  We were able to be more honest with each other, and started to share, coach, give feedback and tell stories which would have not been possible unless their new leader had made the first move.

Telling stories is a way of providing inspiration and motivation for people.  Leaders have used them for centuries to engage others and to develop a sense of collective understanding.  Storytellers across the world have often been appointed as head of tribes because it is such a valued skill.

Stories appeal to amygdala, not the neo cortex.  That’s where decisions are made, and it’s also where the long term memory sits.  When we ditch the facts and figures and instead use pictures, metaphor, anecdote, humour to colour in a story, it fires up the imagination, gets the blood moving, and leads us to recall and share the story with others (just as I am sharing this one now).

When the story you tell is a personal one you are taking a risk.  You leave yourself open to be judged by others, and it may backfire.  But opening yourself up, and being the first to do so, requires courage, and people recognise this.  It displays openness, and openness is a key step in building Trust.  Putting your vulnerability out there in a planned way  is what is often called “controlled disclosure”.  Leaders use this to great effect.  An example springing to mind is John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, who is open about his dyslexia and how he has to compensate for it.  Being open about this encourages others to do their same with their vulnerabilities, whilst also generating respect.

Good leaders tell great stories.  Martin Luther King did not create a watershed moment in the development of human rights in America by putting facts and figures out there.  He had a dream, not a plan.

So how would it be if you were to weave in story telling more often into your communications?  What about switching into a story after you have conveyed the facts and figures when you make your presentation?  What about getting your audience to use their imagination more, rather than spelling it all out for them (and having your message vaporise within minutes of you doing so?).

nancyduarteNancy Duarte says it way better than I could, and I urge you to free up the 18 minutes you need to watch this TED talk. If you’re looking for a presentation structure that moves hearts as well as minds, this video has the answer for you.

She also models “controlled disclosure” at the end with a personal story which again has a galvanising effect.  Ask yourself what the impact on you as the audience is when she displays so much courage in sharing this.

Back to my group of Innovation leaders a couple of weeks ago.  At the end of the event we asked each of them to stand up and tell us a story about what the programme had meant to them and how they planned to use it.  The team manager (the one with the “hands on” style) stood up, and told us a story about the concerns he had before coming on the programme, how he doubted its value and would rather have been doing something else.  He told us that he now recognised that his leadership style has been too directive, and that he felt that his relationship with the team has been “autistic”.  He knew what he wanted to change and was determined to do something about it.

I suspect he will now see his team behaving differently towards him, and the upside could be significant.

What stories can you tell, and need to be told within your line of work?

 

Posted in Communication, Leadership Skills | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

How to be more successful. Stop trying so hard.

When I was a shiny faced graduate trainee learning the craft of management skills in the Distribution division (what they now call Logistics, I believe) of a large brewery, they decided that I needed to get my HGV Class 1 driving licence.  Apparently if you are going to manage someone you need to know how to do their job as well as they do.  (I believe this view has become a little outdated, in certain businesses at least, thank goodness.  This was the Dark Ages, remember?).

Mine wasn't quite as big as this.

Mine wasn’t quite as big as this.

After a 2 week intensive course involving drinking lots of tea in greasy spoon cafés and reversing around traffic cones on a disused airfield, , I was ready to drive my 35 ton vehicle to the dreaded Test Centre and undergo the 2 hour practical exam.  I’ve never been so nervous.

“Turn right at the first T junction”, the examiner said as we drove out of the test centre.  This junction has a pedestrian crossing just before you get to it, and no traffic lights, so the only way to get to turn right is to nudge your way up to the junction and wait for a break in the traffic.  This I did, only the traffic was very heavy and I had to sit there for a while, with my 40 foot trailer straddling the pedestrian crossing.

To my horror, a lady appeared at the crossing with a pram, and she had to stand on the pavement waiting to cross it whilst this idiot in a lorry blocked her right of way.  “That’s it, I’ve failed, 5 minutes into the exam.  Well done, you dipstick”, I said to myself.

Thereafter I treated the rest of the exam as a day out in the country, my and my lorry trundling around the lanes, nice guy in the passenger seat doing the navigating, what’s not to love?

When he write out my PASS certificate I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I had passed by not trying too hard.

I can think of so many other instances where this has worked for me.  I applied to win an organ scholarship to Cambridge University.  I messed up so badly it was embarassing even to the examiners, I think.  When I had another go, this time to Oxford, again I was thinking I had no chance and that I should just enjoy the break away from the school regime.  Again, stone the crows, I confounded no one more than myself by getting in.

Advising you to stop trying so hard seems to fly in the face of so much tried and tested theory:  visualise yourself succeeding, make sure your self talk is positive, set yourself ambitious goals, and so on and so on.  Yet I am sure there is something in it. One well known creativity tool is to let ideas gestate, to let them work in your subconscious.  For this to happen we have to relax and let things take their own time.  Maybe that’s partly it.

I also think that we are turning into such an anxious species, constantly checking our phones, never switching off, worried we’ll be seen as lazy if we go home too soon etc. Kids are required to survive the most punishing of regimes both in and out of school, for what?  So they don’t slip behind their peers, and probably to address the anxiety of their parents. Where does this all end, I ask myself?

lemmingsSo, controversial as it may sound, I ask you reflect on whether you are trying too hard, and whether there is a more fruitful and less stressful way to achieve success.

Are you getting the balance right, or are you being led down the same path as the rest of us lemmings?

I’d love to hear your stories of when you succeeded by not trying too hard.  Hopefully I am not totally alone on this one!

 

 

Cartoon ©Matt Wuerker

 

Posted in Creativity and Innovation, Life Skills | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

7 ways to not answer a question when you are Presenting.

There are people on the planet who believe that when they are presenting they are required to answer any question they may be asked.  Believing that they, and only they, must answer any question thrown at them, they then do two things, neither of which is very sensible.

nervous presenter

Firstly, they over prepare, hoping to cover off any eventuality by boning up on their topic until their head hurts.  This not only exhausts them and wastes huge amounts of time, it causes them to be nervous about forgetting what they have learnt, which makes them perform worse on the day.  A double whammy of woe.

Secondly, they attempt to “manage” the flow of questions by making the audience wait until the end of the presentation.  If they are really cunning they then make sure they eat into the time allowed for questions by “accidentally” over-running.  This control mechanism is also flawed, because it means people with genuine questions (often where they do not understand something) have to wait until the end, by which time they have tuned out because they are now hopelessly lost.  It also means the energy and interaction you gain from questions is lost, and the focus remains on you, the presenter, throughout, instead of being spread around a bit (see below).

There are in fact at least 7 things you can do with a question, none of which involve you answering it.  You’ll have seen others using these, I’m sure:  I’m not claiming a breakthrough model of question handling.  It’s just a matter of being aware of them and practising using them.  Here goes.

1.  Reflecting.  Give it back to the person who asked.  “What are your thoughts?”  This one works really well with show offs, experts, cynics and bullies.  When you let a show off show off, they love you for it and become your friend.  They also no longer feel a need to do so.  It’s a great one for experts, because they too become your friend, and can help you to answer questions where you don’t have an answer.

2.  Deferring.  “Do you mind holding onto that one, I’ll be covering it later?”  Self explanatory.  It leaves you in control and able to stick with your agenda.

3.  Deflecting.  “Does anyone have any thoughts on that?”  This one wakes the audience up, makes it interactive, shows you are crediting the audience with at least an ounce or two or brainpower, and of course is the perfect strategy when you don’t know the answer.

4.  Scoping.  “Do you mind if we take that one offline?”  Do this with the irrelevant, specialist, time consuming, unhelpful or awkward questions you’d rather not deal with in public.

5.  Answer a different question.  This is the politician’s favourite.  When it’s an unhelpful question, veer away from it onto something similar which is helpful, and then smile sweetly at your question raiser and ask “Does that answer your question?” with a downward hand gesture which means “Shut up or I’ll knee you in the groin” and walk away slowly to another part of the room.

6.  Tell them it’s the wrong question.  I’ve only ever seen this done a few times, and it works brilliantly.  It takes a bit of confidence, but gives you an air of brilliance if you can pull it off.  “Personally I think a better question might be….”

7.  Say you don’t know.  Some people don’t realise this is a perfectly acceptable answer.  No one could ever know everything about anything, so why try?  80% knowledge is probably find for most reasonable people, so when the weird left of field question comes in that you have never considered, say so and tell them you’ll look into it and come back to them.  Just try not to use this one on every question:  there is a competence issue to be addressed somewhere along the line here!

So there you have it.  See whether you can use at least two of these next time you present. And give yourself a bonus if you use number 6.

Have a missed any?  Please share if you can think of any more.

Posted in Presentation Skills | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments