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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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10 Reflections on mch’s 10th Anniversary

July 3rd, 2015

In May of this year, mch: positive impact celebrated its 10th anniversary. Here are some reflections from the last 10 years, which I hope prove useful in your work:

1. Little Things Count

This box of staples was part of mch’s first stationary order back in 2005. I remember looking at it and thinking;

‘Will this box of staples last longer than the company?’

Over the following 10 years, I have been reminded of this question every time I refill my stapler and at various times it has triggered strong feelings of optimism, contentment and resolve.

Little things count. They count in so many ways. I have received very public displays of gratitude, but a very simple and heart felt; ‘Thank you’ from an individual often stays with me longer. In client feedback, it is the little things that are often cited: providing an additional idea or an unexpected resource.

Incidentally, from the original 5,000 staples there are now a little over a 100 left, so the company is set to outlast the original order!

2. Big Things Count Too. The Benefits of Perspective

When founding an organisation, there’s a risk of associating yourself too closely with your ‘creation’. Fortunately, a drive down the Monash Freeway in Melbourne prepared me for such a scenario.

The drive occurred when I was working at the management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company, several years before founding mch. I was working with one other person who was considerably older and more experienced than me. The work required driving to different locations around Melbourne and as we’d established a good rapport, our conversations broadened beyond just the task at hand. It was during such a conversation that I remember receiving the following advice;

“Never associate yourself too closely with any particular work; as one way or another it will come to an end…and when it does you need to be able to answer the question, ‘What am I now?’”

My colleague took his own advice very much to heart, answering the common dinner party question; ‘So what do you do?’ along the lines of; “I’m a husband and a father. I love watching football and travelling to remote wineries……”

Such advice has stayed with me and despite the investment required in starting, developing and maintaining a business, I have always tried to invest more in the things that really matter: relationships, my health, my community. Indeed such advice is largely responsible for why I work a four day week.

3. Prepare for the Worst

Back in 2005, while considering whether to start mch, I was still strongly influenced by the management and leadership training I received while at McKinsey & Company. McKinsey prides itself on its analysis, and while at the firm I developed countless scenario plans for clients detailing the worst case, likely case and best case associated with a potential decision they were considering.

Consequently, I conducted a scenario plan for mch. With a growing set of responsibilities (mortgage payments etc) I paid particular attention to the worst case scenario. Such analysis ‘stress tested’ my enthusiasm for starting the company. It also gave me resolve, as the analysis suggested I could withstand a terrible/worst case scenario year. This is just as well, as I have had a terrible year (largely due to the global financial crisis). One silver lining was that my income during the terrible year was very close to my prediction, which at least showed my analytical skills were up to scratch!

4. Enjoy the Lulls

Being busy is sometimes very difficult to avoid: I have very little control over when a client needs my training and mentoring services. Once the busyness stops, there can be an inclination to try and remain busy: a prevailing view across many spheres of work is that ‘busy is good’. Being ‘manically busy’ seems to be a badge of honour in many workplaces.

I have tried a counter approach, by embracing and enjoying lulls in work. This often requires conscious effort. For example, during the ‘terrible year’ I mentioned above, one of the best things I did was to take a full month off work. I took the view that rather than busying myself looking for work that wasn’t there, it was best to go on holiday. Now there were moments on holiday when I did worry, but in the main I returned to work refreshed and ready to tackle what remained a difficult environment.

5. Intuition is Underrated

I am very lucky in that I choose who I work with. As a result, I’ve genuinely enjoyed the vast, vast majority of my client engagements. However, there have been two or three that have not been enjoyable. On reflection, a common feature of these engagements was that although I could rationalise why they were worthwhile, they just did not feel right.

Following intuition requires faith and courage, as it entails ‘knowing without knowing why’. This can appear a flimsy basis upon which to make a decision, but I have found it to be just as accurate as the more rationale methods of decision making. I believe I am in good company on this reflection, as to quote Albert Einstein;

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

6. Quality is Favourable to Quantity

Despite the ‘terrible year’ outlined above, I’ve had more good years than bad ones. So much so, that there were times when expanding mch was considered. To this end, recruitment, rather than partnership arrangements, was considered the only guarantee that quality and the mch way of doing things would be preserved. Unfortunately, the chances of finding a suitably qualified individual, who was prepared to work for considerably less than they could earn elsewhere, made successful recruitment so unlikely that it was not attempted.

Consequently, mch is an organisation where small and simple takes priority over growth and profit.

7. Regardless of Size and Sector, there are Universal Aspects of Good Practice

While mch may not follow the perceived wisdom of continually seeking growth and economies of scale, some of our working practices are akin to those adopted my large multinationals. For example, mch produces an annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. CSR involves operating in a manner that meets the expectations society has of business. Within the context of CSR, I monitor our client, supplier, employee, community and environmental impact. Despite only having a single full time employee, mch also devotes considerable time to strategic planning. I consider such practices to be a key contributor to the company’s sustainability.

8. Balance is Key

I am a great believer in plans. I also believe that significant parts of work (and life in general) are so complicated that detailed plans are futile and it is impossible to know if outcomes were actually determined by decisions. Consequently, I find it’s best when plans are balanced with reflecting on experience and iterated through experimentation. I also think iterating plans should be balanced with holding on to high level objectives and values.

Interestingly, upon reviewing the previous seven reflections, I see balance is a central theme to many of them.

9. Practicality and Individuality Trumps Arbitrary Norms

As my business has developed, I’ve continually seen the importance of tuning into practical and individual circumstances.

“I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew, their names are ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘When’ and ‘How’ and ‘Where’ and ‘Who’”.

This is an extract from a Rudyard Kipling poem. Consistently, I find this quote more effective for considering strategy/making plans than complex frameworks from management journals, business schools or top-tier consultancy firms. On numerous occasions, time, money and other resources have been saved by focussing on these ‘W’ questions e.g. By exploring ‘When’ a client has realised that while laudable, now just isn’t the right time to embark upon a training programme. Such practical issues are often more insightful than standard approaches to strategic planning.

Tuning into the individual can also challenge arbitrary norms. Take for example a mentoring session. How long should a session last? Many mentors (and indeed practitioners in a variety of fields) stipulate a specific time e.g. 45 minutes, or an hour. In my experience though, such an arbitrary figure does not always fit with how long a mentee needs; which is why mch does not set such a time. Of course there does need to be certain limits, and some mentees respond well to a focused period of time….here comes that word balance again…but starting without a prescribed time limit can offer the freedom to think freely and deeply.

10. There is no 10th reflection!

In keeping with reflection number nine, why should there be 10 reflections just because it arbitrarily fits with mch’s 10th anniversary? Hopefully you’ve found nine to be enough!

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Introverts and Extroverts – Resource of the Quarter - Quiet

May 5th, 2015

A national newspaper used to run a column entitled; “If I were king for a day”; where guest contributors outlined what law they would decree in such an event. The broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman, chose to banish open-plan offices. In his usual indomitable style, he outlined the case against such offices;

“An open-plan office is a way of telling you that you don’t matter…..it tells us precisely what our bosses think of us – that we are employed to fulfil a mechanical task and that we are all interchangeable. Deliberately inventing an uncreative environment is one thing. But it is worse than that…..because the space belongs to no one, it is noisy and grubby…there is nowhere for a quiet chat.”

Open plan offices can be particularly difficult for introverts, but by their very nature, they are disinclined to voice their views when the layout of offices is considered. In personality terms, an introvert is not someone who is shy; they simply find solitude revitalising and social interactions tiring (even if they are very enjoyable). With extroverts, it’s the other way around. Since extroverts readily communicate who they are, they can be easily understood by introverts. It can be more difficult for extroverts to understand introverts, but there are advantages in doing so. Consequently, if you’re an extrovert, click here to find out how. While introverts are often encouraged (often for good reason) to be more ‘extrovert’, there are others who (quietly) outline the benefits to extroverts of introspection, particularly when it comes to creativity. A prime example is the book ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain. For this reason Quiet is mch’s ‘Resource of the Quarter’. To access more resources on a range of development topics, go to mch’s free Resource Centre.

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Emotional Intelligence and Recruitment…Three Cheers for The Abbeyfield Society

December 23rd, 2014

Due to my background and career choices, I’ve been interviewed more than most.  A common reflection on so many of them has been the emphasis placed on experience and technical competencies, rather than an appraisal of me as a person, or on how/if I will fit in.  In short, the focus has often been on whether I could do the job, at the expense of exploring whether I will do the job effectively (i.e. my motivations and fit with the team). On numerous occasions I’ve been told that my lack of success was primarily due to an insufficient number of years of experience.  The quality and the learning of the experience I did have seemed secondary to an arbitrary number. On other occasions, I was told that while I outperformed other candidates in the ‘softer skills’, I lacked a key piece of technical ‘know how’. At times, this seemed short-sighted, as technical competencies can often be mastered far quicker than the emotional ones.

As mch’s focus has moved into staff development, I have fewer interviews.  Indeed, I’m now more likely to be the interviewer, than the interviewee.  However, given that management training and emotional intelligence form a core part of mch’s staff development work, my interest in recruitment has remained. Consequently, it was great to read a recent article about the housing and care charity, The Abbeyfield Society. The article highlighted that many of their job descriptions include emotionally intelligent additions such as; “time for talking and building an emotional connection.”

Sadly, I sense The Abbeyfield Society remains in a minority. However, if you are aware of more examples, I’d love to hear about them.

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Did you know …

August 7th, 2014

… the Latin for charity is caritas … which can also be translated as love.

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