Category Archives: leadership

Making Tough Decisions

Leadership training, books and articles often make us feel like leading others is plain sailing.

The reality, as you well know, is very different.

Being in a position of leadership means making difficult decisions. For most people, it also means having to question and challenge decisions that were made by someone else or that come “from the top”.

This is particularly tricky if the organisation is continuously investing in a decision that was made some time ago but which is obviously not ripping any rewards. I’m not talking here about decisions which might not be beneficial in the short-term but have a positive effect in the long-term. I’m talking about Escalation of Commitment, continuing with a decision because we have already invested so much in it, we think we have no other choice.

One of the reasons why organisations find themselves pursuing a course of action that is doomed (to put it bluntly) is that the person who made that decision is still around. Usually someone in a top level position who will not back down. So, what do we do then? What happens if we see that, in order for our business to move forwards, we must challenge someone else’s strategy?

Neil Smith, in his blog post at the HBR blog this week, suggests including this “toxic decision” as part of a wider change initiative. Don’t single it out: somebody thought about it carefully at some point, invested energy and time in it. If they feel like they are under attack, they might just become defensive and lose perspective. What are the broad consequences of continuing to commit to the original decision? How might adapting it change the direction of the organisation? Of course, don’t just rely on your opinion. Consult left, right and centre in the organisation. In Neil Smith’s words:

Leadership is both about making tough decisions and about keeping good people on board, making their best efforts. In the interests of ensuring the latter, too many managers neglect the former.

Wide consultation will not only help you keep those good people on board but also make sure that you appreciate the full consequences of your “tough decision”. It might even at some point, flag up something you weren’t expecting which makes you change your mind.

Yes, we are allowed to get it wrong every once in a while.

Further reading:

For more on challenging an executive decision, read Neil Smith’s article Court Controversy, Remove a Barrier to Change.

Wondering whether you are picking the right fights? Have a look at the book “The Right Fight” by Ken Favaro and Saj-Nicole Jon.

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Posted by on June 6, 2012 in change, leadership


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Don’t Forget Your People

A few weeks ago I attended one of the most inspiring talks I’ve been at for a while.

David Pendleton and Jon Cowell from Said Business School in Oxford were talking about the need for shifting how we think about leadership development and practice, especially when times are tough. They touched  on many other aspects of leadership and provided plenty of advice based mainly on meta studies. Most of the issues they raised are covered in Pendleton’s book (co-authored with Adrian Furnham) which I haven’t read yet,  but if it’s anything as inspiring, solid and useful as their talk, I highly recommend it.

There is one thing I particularly remember about the talk, which is an important aspect of self-awareness.

In times of crisis, in times of urgency, in times when we need to change, we’re more likely to switch to our preferred way of working. If we are not aware of this, then we can’t judge how we are affecting our work, our team and our organisation.

If you consider that many managers have been promoted to their role because they excelled at doing, at planning and executing (plans, not people!), then it follows that in times of crisis, these will become their focus. In times of crisis, managers with these preferred modes of working will busy themselves with paper and numbers.

The danger is then that all the “people skills” are left to one side and we stop asking ourselves questions such as:

Is everyone aligned?
Do they all understand the WHY behind the changes?
Is there an atmosphere of support , especially if everyone is just “getting on with it”?
Can everyone  see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel? (For no-one wants to be running towards a brick wall!)

All these things don’t magically happen, they have to be worked at. They take time and they take energy. They also involve thinking long-term instead of short-term, which is really difficult when everything seems urgent.

If you are someone who will instinctively communicate, who will draw people in when the pressure is on, great, just make sure that you are also working to some sort of plan and not getting so involved in making sure that everyone is ok, that planning and strategy are forgotten.

If, on the other hand, the thought of having to spend so much time talking to the rest of your team and enabling collaboration between them doesn’t energise you, don’t worry. There is another way.  If that is not your strength, you have two options.

1) Learn how to change your behaviour, plan moments in your day to interact with your team and ask for feedback and advice from those people you know are great enablers of collaboration.


2) Find someone who will take over that particular role for a limited period of time, to ensure it doesn’t get neglected. This could be official or unofficial; for a short or long time. Can someone be your eyes and ears while you are on numerous strategic meetings or trying to find your way through numerous spreadsheets, to make sure you are aware of where your team are at and they know where you are?

I don’t mean a “spy”. I mean someone who knows where to reach you; who can say “Diane’s not around this week but she’s very aware of that issue and wants to address it next week”. Someone who will say to you, “Shane did a brilliant job the other day, did you remember to thank him? He’s saved us loads of time and money.”

I understand that this might not be easy, as it could be seen as admitting a weakness. Well, it probably is, but it is also a way of showing that you know yourself, that you are aware that this can become a problem during a period of time when you can’t afford for it to get in the way of your team and organisation’s survival. Defining clearly how you will address this in times of crisis should help everyone around you perform at their best.

We can’t all excel at everything, but if you are in charge of people, it is extremely important to make sure that you stay in touch with how they are doing and that you can support their work as much as possible, through feedback, guidance and of course, communication.


Posted by on May 16, 2012 in change, leadership


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Why We Can’t Demand Creativity

When we are faced with a problem, we think all our energies must go into trying to solve it. Keep at it, focus, focus! Keep staring at the problem until we find the logical solution. It seems like we might be going about it the wrong way.

Persistence is incredibly important. If we give up when we hit the first brick wall, we will never advance, we will never create and the world will stand still.

Creativity is more necessary now than ever. Not to grow bigger, get richer or increase our output, but just to survive. The world is evolving, throwing up challenges we’ve never encountered before. Challenges which change every day in nature, in size, in complexity. How can we keep up?

That’s where imagination and creativity come in: problems, now more than ever, don’t get solved in the old ways. 10 years ago, we might throw money at the problem: now there is none to invest. Decisions are being made that solve today’s problems leaving the challenges that tomorrow will bring unaddressed.

Meanwhile, people in organisations are being told “to get creative”, to have ideas, without being given the time and space that creativity needs. Managers, team leaders and “bosses” are still demanding that people be creative. A friend of mine who is shadowing a manager at the moment, shared with me some examples of a very dubious management style. The woman she is observing rarely gives any positive feedback. All her feedback is negative criticism which comes in the shape of public scolding and telling off. Yet in meetings, she will tell her people: “I want you to have ideas!” Meanwhile, she tolerates no failure so everyone is scared to death of taking risks, including having ideas that might be inappropriate or even “bad” ones.

I’m a creative person. Many of my ideas arrive in the shape of artistic projects but I’m also good in a crisis, good at devising new ways of working and creating learning packages in different forms. But tell me to

have an idea

and my brain freezes.

However,  if you present me with a problem and give me 24hrs to think about it, I’ll come back to you with a few things to try out.

During those 24 hours, I will write the problem down. I will gather data, read some articles, surf the web. I will ask others what they think, I will sketch out what the solution will look like. I’ll do all that and more.

But the best solution won’t emerge during all that activity. It will appear the next morning when I’m having a swim; or when I’m daydreaming, standing on the bus; or when I take my 20 minute walk around the park.

Moments of insight are preceded by the same brain activity as that which takes place when we are relaxed (for more on this see Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works). Maybe that’s why when we concentrate really hard on a problem, riddle or puzzle, we can’t solve it.We’re staring (literally or not) at the problem and our brain is constantly pushing hard. Problems which need new solutions can’t be solved by feeling the pressure all the time. To solve them, relaxing has to be part of the process.

Putting people under pressure to be creative might help those who work best when they have an adrenaline rush or when they are afraid, but if you want sustained creativity to get you through the tough times and help you excel in the good times, you have to give people space. (Plus, the stress will eventually have negative effects.)

Space to see the world beyond the four walls of your organisation and its issues; space to let their eyes, ears and minds take in different points of view; space to pursue an interest outside their industry; space to relax to let their brain process the information coming in and dig further into their brains to make the unusual connections which will put i

The need to operate through change may cause panic; this panic might generate stress which will prevent us from finding moments during which our brain can relax and our subconscious help us in putting it all together. No matter how much you thrive under pressure (if you do), remember that not everyone can solve problems and create new solutions without finding some time to disconnect. Be sensitive. Be creative.


Posted by on May 9, 2012 in change, leadership


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From the Comfort Zone to the Discovery Zone

Here are some questions I hope will help you turn change into a learning opportunity.

The comfort zone. That “zone” that a lot of trainers want to take you beyond. I don’t like that phrase.

For a start it implies that we are, well, starting from a point of comfort and that might not always be the case. We might develop habits which are actually preventing us from feeling comfortable: in charge, on top of things and well, happy. However, changing them fills us with fear. Fear of the unknown. Ah, fear, we already know that it is the biggest block to progress – I’ve already spoken enough about fear before, so let’s get back to the comfort zone.

The reason why I don’t like the phrase is because it suggests that, to go outside it, you need to feel uncomfortable. There is a belief that in order to progress, in order to learn, you have to step outside your comfort zone, you need to do things that you are uncomfortable with in order to heighten your awareness and see things differently. Maybe that is the case, but what would you rather be told: that you are going to step out of your comfort zone or that you are going to step into the discovery zone? Both might fill you with a little bit of fear (depending on your personality) but which one has a spark of suspense, a hint of a promise of an uplifting experience?

Change, whether initiated by us or imposed on us by others, will always have an element of discovery within it. We might discover something about ourselves, something about those around us, something about the way the team operates, something about “how things are done” in our organisation.

When thinking about the effect of change, I always start with the effect it has on the individual.

Have a think.

How does change affect you?

It might be better to think about a specific instance, when you had to change something about the way you operate, about the way you behave, about the way you interact with others.

What kind of effect would this have had on others? Were you energised? Was it contagious? Were you frustrated? Was that contagious?

Be aware of what is oozing out of you and how it is affecting everyone else. Be sensitive too. Change will have different effects on different people in a team (I’m keeping this post work-related, for simplicity’s sake) – be sensitive enough to mould your joy if you know that someone around you is struggling with change. Yes, use it to show them there is light at the end of the tunnel, but be mindful enough of their worries.

In a similar way, if you are going through a difficult time, look for support where possible to move on. You don’t need to pretend that times aren’t tough, you don’t need to hide your discontent, but don’t let it wash everything you do and spread to those around you.

Find the right place to voice your concerns.

Try to see your problems from a different perspective. Imagine you are advising a friend, what would you do? (I have observed that we are always better at giving other people advice than guiding our own actions ourselves. For research on this, visit Daniel Pink’s blog.)

If you are struggling with change, it might be useful to look for little nuggets of learning hidden amongst the chaos. What can I learn about myself? What am I learning to do differently that will be useful beyond this experience? How is this changing my relationship with others? Am I acquiring new knowledge, new skills?

Sometimes it might take us a while to see clearly though the discovery zone and sometimes, what we learn won’t always have positive connotations.

But if we have no choice but to go through change, why not try to get comfortable with what we are going through and look for little learning gems?

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Posted by on April 20, 2012 in change, leadership


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The Role of Emotions in Change

Very rarely do I get so inspired by something I get in an e-mail that I want to write about it.

Charlie Gilkey’s newsletter, which I subscribe to, contained a short piece in it which I absolutely loved. He talks about the fact that when we have fears or insecurities, we often think (sometimes we are even told) that we should get over them. This is even more so if the emotions are a reaction to something we are doing at work, for there is still the feeling that fear and insecurity have no place in the workplace.

And yet… We all feel them at some point. I often think that the best way to deal with emotions is by acknowledging them. Self-awareness must come first, or else you will always operate at surface level, not really understanding why you are doing anything.

The next step would be to ask yourself: “What’s the worse that could happen?”

Sometimes the answer to this might make things even worse! But then at least you know that you have reasons for being afraid, nervous, anxious…that you are right to feeling that way. You will also be aware than in moving forwards, in making things better, you might have to fight through those insecurities.

If the answer to “What’s the worse that could happen?” calms you down, then celebrate it. But don’t punish yourself for still feeling strong emotions. We are all human. Just know that your fears will disappear once you begin to change.

Sometimes the emergence of emotions signal that we care. That what we are doing is important to us. That big things are at stake.

In the same way, don’t forget to see this as a reason of why others react strongly against change: sometimes they care so much, they can’t help it.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Charlie Gilkey. He mainly addresses entrepreneurs but I think his thinking translates just as well to the wider workplace as, though we are not all growing businesses, we still keep growing ourselves.

“If you’re doing something worth doing, it’s normal to feel anxious, afraid, insecure or uncertain. Extraordinary journeys come with their fair share of extraordinary emotions.”

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Posted by on April 18, 2012 in change, leadership


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Why We Don’t Like Changing. The Evolutionary Psychology Approach.

One of the most common causes of resistance to change is fear of the unknown – the long-term equivalent of being “paralysed by fear”.

It takes a lot of energy to learn new ways and new behaviours. Most times making changes involves taking risks.

Researchers in the field of evolutionary psychology go as far as to suggest that our attitudes to risk are linked to our survival instinct. Building on the work of Charles Darwin, Nigel Nicholson suggests that just as those species best physically adapted to the environment have survived, the same behaviours that allowed Stone Age Homo Sapiens to thrive, underlie modern human behaviour. One of those behaviours is loss aversion.

If we think about the Stone Age, when food and shelter were scarce, we can understand that those who had just enough resources to survive would not take big risks with them. A small loss of resources would have a big impact on their survival. In contrast, those who felt safe or had plenty to spare, might be more likely to explore their surroundings.

On the other hand, when faced with a direct threat (such as a predator or a natural disaster) our ancestors would fight or flight furiously, taking big risks to avoid death. This means that our instinct is to avoid loss at all costs, unless we are in a dangerous situation.

Now back to the present. To change takes up energy. And if we think that the change will bring losses that won’t be compensated by the benefits, we will avoid changing. So don’t underestimate the importance of making the benefits of changing clear. Be specific. Show how the present will be improved. Show how more energy will be needed if the situation remains unchanged than if you take those necessary steps forwards.

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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in change, leadership


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Actions Speak Louder than Words

What is the best way to turn around a customer service policy that is overburdended with procedure?


That is exactly what Gordon Bethune did when he finally accepted the post of CEO at Continental Airlines.

Bethune turned down twice the offer of becoming CEO due to a difference of opinion with the Board – they wanted to cut costs, he thought that would bring the company down. One of the first things he did after accepting the offer in 1994, was to set fire to a pile of customer service manuals in the parking lot, sending a powerful message: less procedures, more common sense.

(Source The Tools of Cooperation and Change Christensen and Stevenson. HBR Oct 2006, 84 (10) from Bethune’s book From Worst to First: Behind the Scenes of Continental’s Remarkable Comeback

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Posted by on August 12, 2011 in change, leadership


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