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Regarding Leadership

The Role of a Multiple Colour Pen in Feedback and Leadership

March 6th, 2018

Much of my passion for staff development comes from my own leadership experience. Such experience includes having been both a CEO and a Chair. In the near future, I will be standing down as Chair of a fantastic social enterprise called DECIPHer Impact (DI), which gets great public health research to those who need it. Consequently, I have been reflecting on leadership in general and my individual approach to it. The reflection was prompted when a friend asked why I always took a four colour pen to DI Board meetings and below is an abridged summary of the discussion we had.

Why the various colours?

I use the various colours to consciously denote the type of notes I am taking. Black is used to record key facts and decisions, blue for my own actions and green and red are for feedback.

Why two colours for feedback?

Firstly, because using 50% of the colours for feedback reminds me of its importance. In my experience, the level of good quality feedback often runs in direct proportion to individual, team and organisational performance. In short, feedback with a positive intent, delivered in a timely manner, is a key ingredient to success.

Secondly, the two colours highlight the type of feedback I am recording. Green records actions or behaviours that I think are worthy of praise. Red records actions or behaviours that cause me concern.

I find that using colours really helps when I reflect upon the meeting and my notes. Due to the colours, I can readily see the number and relative weighting of the various types of notes I’ve taken.

What are you looking for?

When it comes to feedback, ideally, I’m looking for five times as many green comments as red ones for each individual.

What’s with the 5:1 ratio?

The 5:1 ratio came to prominence through research conducted by the psychologist, John Gottman. He was really interested in the differences between successful and unsuccessful marriages. Rather unnervingly, he developed a way of predicting, with more than 90% accuracy, whether a couple would separate within the following three years. A key predictive indicator was the ratio of positive to critical comments between partners. Genuinely happy relationships consistently average 5 positive comments to 1 critical one.

Interestingly, the same 5:1 ratio has been found to be a key ingredient to high performing teams in the workplace.

[Note: The Harvard Business School article, ‘The Ideal Praise - to - Criticism Ratio’, by Jack Zenger and Joseph Falkman, summarises the related study.]

Anything Else?

An absence of both green and red notes is often a cause for concern as it suggests one of the following, none of which is ideal:

(i) I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to feedback

(ii) Individuals or teams are not stretching themselves

(iii) I’ve forgotten my pen!

So a Multi-Coloured Pen is the Key to Feedback and Organisational Success?

No. The colours are just a prompt. The key lies in disciplined actions. The first of these is disciplined reflection. A favourite quote of mine, by the educational reformer, John Dewey, is;

“We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”

In practice, this means taking the time to actively review my meeting notes. It also requires me to be really honest with myself, e.g. Have I been overly critical, by focusing more on mistakes than successes?

The second key action is disciplined follow-up: taking time to give feedback to the right people in the right way and at the right time. While positive feedback in the form of praise can be given within meetings, it’s advantageous to be mindful of individual preferences. While being praised in front of a group will be ideal for some, a quiet word on a 1:1 basis will mean more to others.

Positive feedback which is critical is almost always best delivered on a 1:1 basis. This poses challenges if team members are geographically dispersed. At times, these challenges can be overcome by using informal ‘windows of time’ for feedback, e.g. walking back to the train station with a team member after a meeting. However, sometimes it needs to be more formal and a special effort needs to be made. One memorable example is where I flew over 800 miles, specifically to give and receive feedback. While this was a significant investment of time and money, I’ve no doubt it sent out a powerful signal ahead of the meeting and played a really important part in it ending well.

Like with so much of management and leadership though, knowing what you should do is invariably the easy part. It’s the doing that’s hard. Looking back, I have not always been as rigorous as I should have been and there have been times when the discomfort of giving critical, but positive feedback has won out, and I’ve failed to provide it in a timely manner.

How can critical feedback be positive?

It all comes down to intent. If I genuinely believe that I’m giving the feedback to help the individual, team and organisation, then it can be positive, even if it is very challenging for the recipient to hear.

What about you? Who gives you feedback?

While I ask for feedback, I don’t always feel I get enough of it. This is one of the real dangers of being a leader. However, I often find external ‘critical friends’ to be very helpful, as are reflective conversations like this. Now I’ve got to go, or I’ll be late for the meeting!

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The Ws of Leadership

September 17th, 2015

Peter Drucker was one of the great modern day thinkers on management and leadership. In recognition of his work, he obtained a Presidential Medal and received numerous honorary doctorates. Streets and buildings were even named after him. Yet despite the level of insight he provided in so many areas, his contribution to elements of leadership were, well, a little underwhelming:

“The only thing you can say about a leader, is that a leader is somebody who has followers.”

Not exactly a blinding insight, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Drucker is not alone. Thousands, if not millions of individuals and organisations have attempted to define leadership. mch is one of them and I too have found a concise and meaningful definition for leadership to be rather elusive. mch’s definition is perhaps most useful when applied in comparative terms;

‘Leadership is deciding what to do and articulating the decision well to those who matter…..

..while…

…Management is implementing the decision well, which often involves getting work done through others.’

To me, such a comparison provides one reason for the ‘fuzziness’ that surrounds leadership: very few people are ‘pure’ leaders - they have to do some management too. Equally, many people with ‘manager’ in their title often have to make and articulate decisions, whether they are operational, financial, organisational or cultural. Furthermore, many without ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or ‘executive’ in their title require a blend of both the above definitions; parenthood springs to mind!

When I struggle to gain clarity on a central management or leadership issue from the ‘usual suspects’ of business schools and consultancy firms, I look to more unconventional sources. A great help in this regard has been Rudyard Kipling, author of many famous works including The Jungle Book.

Specifically, there is a quote from a Kipling poem that often helps to test and clarify my understanding of a topic and it is as follows;

I keep six honest serving men

(they taught me all I knew);

Their names are ‘What’ and ‘Why’ and ‘When’

And ‘How’ and ‘Where’ and ‘Who’.

I’ve found that the ‘W’ questions; ‘What?’, ‘Why?’, ‘When?’, ‘How?’, ‘Where?’ and ‘Who?’ are crucial to obtaining clarity on any issue. I’ve also found that, for certain issues, some ‘W’ questions are more important or relevant than others. In my view this is true of leadership.

The What and Why of Leadership

While there can be merit in trying to agree upon what leadership is; spending hours debating a definition is rarely time well spent. Instead, there is a case for moving swiftly on to the next ‘W’, ‘Why?’ Again, there can be much debate on such a question, but in my view the answer is relatively simple; ‘because it’s necessary and important for success’.

I think the sports journalist, Robert Kitson, put it well when he wrote:

“Leadership is one of those things which doesn’t really matter until you look around and realise that you do not have any.”

When

The ‘When?’ question for leadership invokes an interesting dilemma, as it implicitly asks whether the leadership role should constantly remain with the same person. The importance of delegation follows on from such a question.

A common characteristic of all the great leaders I’ve met is that they’ve known when to lead and when not to lead. Doing the latter often requires the most courage and certainly the most trust. The businessman Philip Flynn summarises it well:

“There are always three leadership choices: 1. Lead 2. Follow 3. Get out of the way

All are valid depending on the context.”

How

The ‘How’ of Leadership often receives the most column inches and there are numerous books extolling a set number of steps, secrets or ingredients to successful leadership. Consultancy firms also conduct significant amounts of research on how leaders operate, and a recent study by the firm McKinsey & Company, surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organisations around the world. The study, entitled ‘Decoding Leadership: What really matters’, suggested there were four key behaviours that accounted for 89% of leadership effectiveness:

  1. Being supportive
  2. Being strongly orientated on results
  3. Seeking different perspectives
  4. Solving problems effectively

I don’t know about you, but the accuracy with which they quantify effectiveness (89%!) raises both an eyebrow and a wry smile.

In addition to competencies, ‘How’ also involves one’s style of leadership. There are numerous leadership styles put forward and this blog is not the place to review them all, but for those with an interest in this area, I recommend the book ‘Primal Leadership’ by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

There is general consensus that no single leadership style is superior to all others and a significant amount of research suggests the best leaders are able to vary their style according to circumstances. Furthermore, when it comes to great leaders, whatever their style, they remain authentic. For me, the importance of authenticity is encapsulated in the following two quotes:

“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”

Anon

“It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”

Adlai Stevenson

Where

They say ‘Location, Location, Location’ are the three most important considerations when buying a house. I’m not sure the same applies to leadership, but great leaders are invariably tuned into their environment. They sense where there is a need for public displays of leadership and where a quiet word with an individual is more appropriate. They also understand that leadership cannot be switched off at their convenience. While people will not always do what a leader asks, they’re invariably listening and watching the leader. A great leader understands the role model status that this implies. As the trainer David Cotton puts it:

“Everything that you say and do gives permission for your team to say and do the same things.”

Who

For me this is perhaps the most fundamental ‘W’ question when it comes to leadership.

Are you the right person to lead? Do you want to lead?

In my mentoring and coaching work, these are often the central questions leaders continually ask themselves. Leadership is not for everyone and without both the requisite competencies and an authentic motivation for the role, it is best left alone. Not just for your sake, but for those would-be followers.

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