Monday, 1 December 2014

Why is Leading Change so Hard?

One of the biggest differences between working with businesses today versus twenty years ago is simply this: back then there were two types of company (a) those going through change and (b) those who weren’t. Now what is certainly true is that all organisations are going through change – and the only certainty is that this will continue to be the case in the future. Change is constant.

So, if, as leaders, our job is to lead, persuade, engage, delight and ignite our people behind change – why is it so hard? This past week I have been running workshops around Europe and the topic remained a constant one for discussion.

Seemingly insignificant behaviour struck me as profound in terms of the size of the task and the relevance of this particular question. Specifically, when I run workshops that last more than a day – what is always true, no matter where I am, that people will automatically sit in the same seat that they occupied on previous days. So what? Well, let’s think about it. As human beings we create habit, ritual, certainty, familiarity at every turn. It’s part of our survival instinct and what helps us to make sense of any situation in which we find ourselves. In a professional context we don’t even think about sitting somewhere else for day two of a workshop; we automatically return to what we know – which is where we sat on day one.

So, if something so seemingly inconsequential is hard for us to do; trying to turn around a business; reinvent a toxic culture; rejuvenate a flagging workforce – these really are hard to deliver in terms of change. At a deeper level; my personal view is that our default, human response to change is that it’s hard wired to loss. In other words, we automatically focus on what change might cause us to lose and not what it might cause us to gain.

So what do leaders need in terms of skills to succeed? Well, I’m constantly saying that leadership is a relationship business and I am forever talking about ‘leadership’ or ‘executive’ presence. So we need to deeply and genuinely listen (an exhausting task in itself), help others to deal with their emotion in relation to the change, ask endless great questions, stay present, remain pragmatic and optimistic, look to the future, encourage others to focus on what they can control (and let go of that which they can’t), and ensure we have enough resources around ourselves to fend off cynicism, defeatism and exhaustion.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Who Else is Living in Your Wardrobe?

I had a conversation this month with a client (male) who asked me to help him update his look. Nothing new in that; and the wardrobe is the right place to start when considering an update to your image. So far; so easy. The booking proceeded very smoothly and we worked quickly and efficiently - until that is - he pulled out the most – well, what can I say - unflattering sweater. It was cream and green stripes (imagine that), hand knitted, moth eaten and smelt……musty. His mother had knitted it for him.

Now, before you leap to all kinds of conclusions, I was struck by a simple question: ‘who else is living in your wardrobe?’ I don’t – obviously – mean literally. However, what I was reminded of yet again was the power, the history and the emotions which are connected to our clothing. Whilst it might be all too easy (but inaccurate) to assume that dressing is an emotional experience for women alone, what was apparent for my client was that this garment had a profound relevance for him as well.

Cast your mind’s eye over your wardrobe (or better still, just open it up and take a look). Who else is living in there? Is it your younger self? An older version of you? A larger version of you? A slimmer version of you? A previous boyfriend? Girlfriend? Your best mate (whose style you love but deep down doesn’t really reflect you)? Your mother? Your husband? Your wife? Your pre-children self? Or someone else?

The point is that this is a powerful question to ask as we take stock of our clothing and the role they play in our lives. Our clothes need to reflect our true, authentic, current selves – and nothing else.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Who Cares About Colour?

On Thursday, August 28th 2014, President Barack Obama conducted a press conference in the White House. It had been a very grim week for the USA with an American being beheaded, the advance of ISIS had continued and a further crisis was developing in Ukraine. Nothing new in Obama talking to the press, and perhaps nothing new in the relentless tide of depressing and negative news….and yet something was very, very different.

The world’s most powerful man was wearing a tan suit. See the suit here!

I’ll say that again. The world’s most powerful man was wearing a tan suit. The press went into hysterics; Twitter was in meltdown and one Republican congressman was seen ranting his way into a frenzy on the topic. Fake Twitter accounts devoted to the suit were created almost instantly, and the most amusing of which that I read was a spoof Hillary Clinton account that tweeted ‘Hey Barack, welcome to my world’.

So the question has to be asked: who cares? Apparently a lot of people do. Does it matter what colour the President wears? Again, apparently so. As an image professional, whenever I talk about colour in the corporate environment it is positioned with a health warning because I’m anxious to avoid the eye rolling. And yet we need to be careful not to be too dismissive.

So why did Obama wearing a tan suit, cause such a furore? The simple answer is that, like it or not, colour is everywhere in our lives and it affects our mood, appetite and even our heart rate. We infer meaning, connection and emotion from colour. The presence of colour is directly relevant to the fabric of our social, political, cultural, historical and economic way of life. Colour is everywhere – literally.

We have ‘rules’ about colour, (all of which can be immediately contradicted depending on where you live, what you believe, and what you do, by the way). For example, don't wear white after Labour Day in the USA, don’t wear white to a wedding, you should always wear black to a funeral. The list goes on...

In the world of business, there is a reason why you don’t see many bright red or bright yellow trouser suits at work. The message behind the colour doesn’t fit with the choice of garment. The typical convention of formal business attire being a dark blue/grey or black suit with a white shirt/blouse is because it conveys authority and presence. Why is that? Quite simply because of the high colour contrast. Depth of colour when combined with lightness of colour is worn in Western society by a lot of professions who are perceived as authoritative (such as lawyers, police officers, judges, nurses, ward sisters) and so we associate this with authority and presence.

The reason why Obama caused a furore by wearing a tan suit when he came into the White House press briefing was because the visual image didn’t align with the verbal message. There was a conflict; a confusion; a distraction.

It’s too easy to say none of this matters, but the reality is that is does. Who cares about colour? We all do.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Why are Professional Relationships at Work so Difficult?

I’ve been working with clients this month who are all about engagement. Engaged employees mean engaged customers and that means more growth and more profit for the business. You can’t turn a business journal page over these days without the phrase ‘collaboration' screaming out at you. And all of my global clients are singing off this particular hymn sheet at the moment – and they are right to do so, by the way.

So if that all makes sense, then why is it so hard to do sometimes?

Working with a leader in the automotive industry this week, it struck me that he summed up the challenge beautifully. The industry in which he operates is fast-paced, results-driven, relentless, and his comment was simple: “we need to make time for people to form relationships at work”.

To be clear – he wasn’t talking about the romantic kind. He was talking about enabling moments for his team to build trust, connection, shared responsibility, honesty, understanding….and hence – teamwork in his organisation.

And he’s right.

The most consistent challenge I hear from leaders is that ‘we don’t have time’. Well guess what? If we don’t make time to do what’s important (even if we don’t think it’s urgent), then all we’re doing is piling up the pressure and requirements on ourselves. And this happens because we’ve not made the time to save time through encouraging our employees to engage with each other much more effectively.

Organisation charts and formal structures don’t tell you how things get done in a business. That’s dictated by the connections, relationships, trust and engagement that exists between colleagues to work for, and with, each other; to go the extra mile; to help out; to genuinely work together.

That means emotional engagement and connection.

Our role as leaders is to engage our talent through enabling these relationships to form.

If we do so; we achieve more together; share greater success along the way and enjoy the journey. That’s real engagement.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Looking Like a Leader

On July 15th 2014, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, completed one of the most radical Cabinet reshuffles in recent years.  Putting aside our personal views on the politics of it all – let me talk about something which yes, is deliberately gender biased.  Bear with me if you’re a gentleman reading this – it is important and it is relevant to you.

One of Cameron’s strategies has been to dramatically increase the number of women holding a Cabinet brief.  So a host of women have been promoted with a deliberate intent to remove the ‘pale, stale and male’ brand of politicians who have been kicking around the Westminster village for a very long time.

So, the scenario is as follows.  These women are about to be photographed as they walk into the very highest echelons of political power – Number 10 Downing Street, London.  My question is simply this: have they been successful in looking like a leader?  Does the look they have chosen for their ‘visual signature’ convey authority, credibility and yes – power? Remember, this is, after all, one of the most important moments (if not the most) in their career.  So, let’s not kid ourselves – what they wear matters.  See the images here.

So, the question is: how did they do?  Well, to be honest – not great.  I see ill-fitting garments, too big, too small, too sexy, too ‘old’, too much like I’m going to an engagement party, wedding, retirement lunch or drinks reception.

Why aren’t women better at consistently getting it right?  Perhaps because they don’t know some critical principles for consistently dressing to look like a leader:
·       Appropriate – for the occasion, time of day, climate, culture of the working environment, objectives in terms of the impression that you want to convey.
·       Fit – because folds in garments, be they vertical or horizontal, mean the clothes don’t fit properly.
·       Colour – too much bright colour or pattern are a distraction.  Where is the eye drawn when it’s so bright or vivid that it can be seen from the International Space Station?
·       Accessories and Details – they need to be business appropriate.  You’re going to work – not a disco (clutch bags for work? I think not).  In addition beware ‘old lady’ shoes; too high a heel; a good bra (one lady bounced in to Number 10), too short a split on a skirt or dress……and so it goes on.
·       Immaculate grooming – always, always, always, always.

Some women did get it right; many didn’t.

Remember, for men and women, looking like a leader means simply this: when you get it right, we notice you.  When you get it wrong, we notice the clothes.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Talking the Same Language?

I’ve been talking with clients this month about how men and women use the same language but mean entirely different things. Really Sarah, I hear you say? That’s not news to me. Well hang on; whilst it may not be anything new, it’s fascinating to think about why and how men and women use language as a mechanism to relate to the rest of the world, where this comes from, and what it means as adults in the workplace.

Linguistics studies have repeatedly shown that we learn language and infer from it completely different things as little boys versus little girls. Deborah Tannen (Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University) has been researching gender differences in communication for over 20 years and has published extensively. In her book, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, Tannen says communication differences between the genders start early. Parents talk differently to male and female children, often without a clue that they are making any distinction.

One of her discoveries is that women and men see the world very differently, which influences how they relate to it. The main difference between the way boys and girls communicate is that girls generally use the language to negotiate closeness - that is, to establish intimacy as a basis of friendship (collaboration-oriented), whereas in comparison, boys generally use language to negotiate their status in the group (competition-oriented).

The theme of using power to negotiate status by males and cooperation to establish rapport by females is consistently played out throughout adulthood and repeated in the social and linguistic communicative styles between the two sexes at all levels: at home, work, meetings, social occasions, and in personal, casual and formal contacts. Consequently women and men tend to have different habitual ways of saying what they mean.

Men see the world as a hierarchy. After all, was it a group of little girls who came up with the idea of playing “King of the Castle”? Whereas females see the world as a community. What kinds of games do little girls tend to play? “House, School, Dolls, etc.”

What does all this mean for how we communicate with the opposite sex at work? Look, it means a lot more than time and space in this month’s newsletter will allow. Don’t worry; I’ll come back to it. However, some key things to think about:

  • Use talk to assert their independence 
  • Do not view sitting and talking as an essential part of friendship 
  • Hear talk of problems as a request for advice or help 
  • Give orders as a way of gaining social status 
  • Use more small talk 
  • Use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy 
  • Perceive talking as the essence of intimacy; so sitting and talking means friendship 
  • Speaking about problems is the essence of connection 
  • May rule by consensus and get the input of others before making a decision 
  • Go in-depth on a topic 
Usually those distinctions are enough to fire up a debate so I’m going to stop now. However, as leaders, it’s worth considering what this means for us and our communication style and approach to others. Leadership is a relationship business, and irrespective of the gender split in your professional world, understanding difference increases our ability to exquisitely influence.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The F Word in Leadership

I was sat at my desk yesterday putting the finishing touches to a proposal which – the week before – I had agreed with the client was due in ‘next Thursday’, when an email landed in my inbox. It was from said client, asking where my proposal was and whether or not there was a technology issue causing the delay.

As a Type A personality and a proud ‘Completer Finisher’, this type of scenario is beyond mortifying.

I checked back over our email communications and realised that one, small word had meant something completely different to my client and to me.

We had corresponded on a Monday and she had written ‘next Thursday’ for submission of my proposal. I took that to mean Thursday of the following week…rather than three days later. If she had meant that, she would have said ‘this Thursday’.

Well, I was wrong.

So, after a grovelling apology and submission of the proposal pronto, I started to think.

We speak the same language and yet we can mean profoundly different things. I read a great Drucker quote recently that said ‘friction, confusion and underperformance occur naturally in business. The rest requires leadership’. I was confused, I clearly underperformed in the eyes of the client and none of that deepens the trust in a relationship, does it?

It also then led me to reflect on other words and phrases that can confuse, cause friction and result in underperformance.

I landed on the word ‘feedback’.

Who reading this is thinking ‘oh good; can’t wait’ when someone says ‘I’d like to give you some feedback’? I know I’m not. I’m thinking ‘here it comes’ or ‘this is going to be bad’ or ‘uh-oh’. Feedback is a word that tends to cause the heart to sink, the eyes to roll and the defences to go right up.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we don’t ever give ‘feedback’, but let’s think about why this reaction may be real for a lot of your team, clients, colleagues? Probably because the word is associated with an experience that is negative, depressing, unclear, unfair and/or unbalanced.

Most leaders give ‘feedback’ dreadfully. One curmudgeonly positive and a long list of ‘must do betters’.

So, get rid of the word; be more balanced in your commentary and start finding more ‘bright spots’ (see my last newsletter if you don’t know what that means!)

It’s the ‘F’ word in leadership that we need to stop saying.

Meantime for me, I can assure you that I used an ‘F word’ when I realised my mistake with the client and the proposal.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Focus on the 'Bright Spots'

I have spent the last couple of weeks working with a number of senior leaders from different businesses, different parts of the value chain and from within different industries. Everywhere from Sales to Service to Supply Chain to HR. From Retail to Law to Digital to Healthcare to Telecommunications.

And yet despite the difference, they all have a common theme – that being the challenge of leaders to get the very best from their people. How do they engage, ignite, motivate, support and challenge their organisation to do well? To do more? To do different? And all with good grace? These questions remain the continual opportunity and priority of leaders in business today, and what struck me was the pervasive presence of a particularly unhelpful habit – one that it’s all too easy to fall in to as a leader who delivers results through others.

Imagine you’re looking at a typical management information dashboard. It’s reporting on the progress of a project, a team, an initiative. You see plenty of green bars and also one or two red bars. Where do you focus your efforts? What do you want to talk about? Lead on? Centre your discussions around?  Undoubtedly it’s those red bars. Let’s flip the example. Let’s say that it’s a dashboard of almost all red bars, with only one or two green ones….again – where is your eye drawn? Where do you want to focus your conversation and energy as a leader? It’s those red bars again isn’t it?

Let’s step back for a second. Do you know anyone at all who needs yet another individual in their life telling them what’s not working?

A fantastic book, which I have been using as part of my conversations with these clients, is ‘Switch’ by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It’s a fascinating read, packed with rich, thought-provoking, real-life examples drawn from many different parts of the world and many different facets of life. Their book centres on the concept of ‘bright spots’. They talk about a number of different examples to reinforce the concept – that being that a ‘bright spot’ tends to be counter intuitive; it violates conventional norms and can produce positively deviant results. They talk about how energy tends to follow focus; and how pride is everywhere; it’s part of the human condition. Traditionally, we have tended to use analysis to focus on what isn’t working; what’s not ‘right’; what ‘could be better’. However, when we focus predominantly on what’s going wrong, we can demoralise, demotivate and distract others from the real purpose. We can become paralysed with fear and uncertainty; we hesitate.

Instead, the authors of ‘Switch’ encourage us to focus on what’s going well; what’s working; what’s going ‘right’. Our goal as leaders is to connect, engage, delight our people to deliver better results for us – year after year. If we really want to succeed and if we really want to excel, do something that for some will be quite different. Focus on the ‘bright spots’.   

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Inside Lane or Outside Lane Thinking?

The Harvard Business Review Blog published some fascinating research this month, concerning senior executives and the notion of what it takes to get to the very top of your game. They found that “whereas technical expertise was previously paramount, these competencies [being sought today] are more about leadership skills than technical ones”.

This reminded me of a metaphor that I use a lot with professionals who are considering where next and what next for their career. It’s simply this: imagine that your career is like the lane of a motorway (or highway if you’re so inclined). What’s it like on the inside lane? Slower, more ponderous, occasionally frustrating as you’re diverted on to the hard shoulder and easy to get stuck behind a caravan doing 30 miles per hour. At times, you feel murderous and will almost certainly lose the will to live. What happens for those vehicles in the outside lane? They’re going further and faster. They tend to steer clear of obstacles, breeze on through and, with care, arrive at their destination on time.

Look – it’s a metaphor, so for all those of you now thinking about tail-gating, dangerous driving and crashing the car etc. Just stop. Work with me.

The point is this: professionals used to rely on technical competence to get where they wanted to go. Whether you were a finance person, a marketeer, a sales guy, an operations specialist. Whatever you were, as long as you were really, really good at your specialism, then you would succeed and get to the top of the tree – right? Wrong. And never more so than today. Focusing solely on your functional excellence is like being in the inside lane – you may get there, but it will be slower, longer, harder - and you might end up on the hard shoulder, having run out of gas.
Outside lane thinking encourages leaders to view their technical competence as a given. Performance is assumed (because if it’s not true, then you’re not in the game anyway). So what do you focus on? It’s about being able to attract, ignite and retain the very best talent in a constant of change and commercial challenge to deliver credible, sustainable results. And that’s not easy. It takes what I call ‘exquisite influence’ and that’s leadership. One of many tools that I use with my clients to encourage more ‘outside lane' thinking is PIE (Performance, Image - by that I mean your ‘Personal Brand’ and Exposure - who knows you.) PIE is a deliberately simple, but powerful tool to identify where, what, who and how to strategise to build your skills and connections so that you stand out, engage, connect and delight those around you. To be seen, heard and experienced as someone who is good technically, won’t cut it. You need to be seen, heard and experienced as a leader – which means a very different set of leadership capabilities. The Harvard Business Review Blog has great data to support a very simple premise. Successful leaders adopt ‘outside lane thinking’, and if you want to get on, get ahead and get to the very top, then so should you.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Art of Appreciation

Whilst sat at my desk the other day, I received an unexpected email from a client of mine with whom I had worked for four coaching sessions. He sent me a very kind thank you note and my pleasure at reading it was underscored because it was so unexpected. Plus – it got me thinking…

Considering the amount of time you spend during your waking hours going to work, at work, coming home from work and thinking about work…..just how appreciated do you feel? When was the last time you were shown some genuine appreciation for what you do and the contribution you make to your employer’s business? And what would it take for you to feel really appreciated? The easy answer would be to say ‘a pay rise’. Well, perhaps, but even so, there is plenty of published research that shows money doesn’t buy satisfaction, fulfilment, purpose or loyalty at work in the long term.

Talking of research, much has been written in the world of leadership development about how to motivate as a leader and there are, undoubtedly, an array of fantastic tools to use. My own view is that for leaders (a) this doesn’t need to be too complicated and (b) in the midst of all the economic turmoil of recent years, one thing with which we have to be careful of being too stingy is our appreciation. In 2012, I commissioned an independent piece of research looking at what ‘Executive Presence’ means and a core component revealed was the notion of how leaders ‘ENGAGE’ their people. By that I mean the extent to which ‘leaders connect with emotion; win hearts and minds; how they attract, inspire, challenge, support, motivate, develop and influence others’.

Appreciation is undoubtedly part of our toolkit here and to be clear, what I don’t mean is that we should start saying thank you every five minutes when our employees simply show up to work. But what I do mean is that being genuinely, regularly and personally appreciative of others should be part of our 'operating rhythm’. So how do you do it? Yes, flowers, food and fizz also go down well as a thank you but it doesn’t always have to be financial reward. Never underestimate the value of low effort/high impact gestures such as:
  • A hand written thank you note (when did you last get one of those, by the way, from a boss or colleague at work?).
  • Call people – just solely for the purpose of saying thank you.
  • Sending a thank you email to their boss about them and copying them in on it.
  • Writing a glowing recommendation on LinkedIn.
  • Or just simply ask them – how do they want to be appreciated? Some people love the publicity more than the prize; others would rather stick a pin in their own eye than be the centre of attention and a quiet ‘well done’ works wonders instead.

So, it seems to me that appreciation is an art; as leaders we should be personal, thoughtful and genuine in how we do it…not forgetting the fact that it makes us feel good when we do it. How’s that for a win/win? Catch your people doing something good and appreciate them for it. Now then, and on that note, enough of this writing; I’ve got some appreciating to do…

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Grace under Pressure

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, Michael Bay, an American Director and Producer, walked off stage, apparently struck with stage fright after his auto cue failed. Think about it. The setting is one of the world’s biggest technology exhibitions; you’re on stage with Samsung, hoping to excite, engage and ignite a global media with the delights of a technological marvel in the form of a 105" screen television. And then the technology fails. The irony of the situation is almost funny.

But let’s get back to Michael Bay. What must that have felt like? And what’s our reaction as the audience? Do we watch and think "ha, ha ha"? Or do we cringe and think "there but for the grace of God?" Much has been written about what this episode means for the product; the expo; the company and Bay’s Personal Brand of course.

But let’s just consider it from a leadership perspective.

We could take the 'show your vulnerability' angle (as many leaders have). But really? Is that how we want to show it? I would suspect Bay would wish for all the world he could have done something different in that moment of disbelief, panic, fear and frustration. Shortly after he dashed off, his next tweet reflected with real honesty what was apparent for all the world to see…….sheer embarrassment. So what can you do?

I work with clients to help build their ‘Executive Presence’ skills, and this situation is a perfect example to show an element of that; what might be termed ‘Grace Under Pressure’.

All leaders need to build skills in this area. 

Why? Because it’s one thing to be confident, authoritative, calm, clear and engaging when you’re on top of your game and everything is working beautifully. But what about when everything is going wrong?

How do we learn the skills to react calmly; to manage our state when our pulse is racing, to manage ourselves when we’re sweating and possibly physically shaking; how do we relax, and to find a way to engage the audience to support you – not judge you or laugh at you?

Some immediate strategies which need practice to be effective in these moments: 
  • Manage your breathing – deep, oxygen rich breaths help manage the adrenalin racing around your body. 
  • Say what’s true i.e. for Bay, that meant he should have simply said ‘the technology isn’t working’. The audience knows something is wrong anyway – don’t try and hide it. 
  • Say what that means for you – again for Bay that might mean ’I feel embarrassed’ because this allows the audience to engage and connect with you at a human level. No-one (unless they’re truly unkind), relishes in the discomfort of others. Instead we connect and line up to ’support’. 
  • Smile – life’s like that sometimes…and make a virtue out of the disaster. The technology has failed. Well, guess what – anyone who has owned or used technology knows this to be true already. They won’t be surprised that occasionally things go wrong. 
  • Tell a story instead. Hone your skills so that you can ‘perform’ yourself, rather have to rely on some ‘thing’. 
Here’s hoping the whole experience hasn’t put Michael Bay off speaking in public again; and that he learns from it such that if a situation arose in the future where his poise and presence are tested once more; rather than run away, he’s able to stay put, dazzle and delight.