Friday, 12 December 2008

Motivating Staff

One of the key challenges facing leaders at all levels is how best to motivate their staff. The reality is that each person is motivated (and de-motivated) by a different set of factors and the leader can exercise an influence over the vast majority of these. While this is a simple concept, identifying what the factors are for each individual and in turn, pressing the right buttons is not necessarily so easy.

Over the coming weeks I plan to pick the most common of these factors and explore how a leader can both identify which staff are affected by it and how to apply appropriate influence over each factor. This series will be called - Motivation Bite Size.

Before beginning that series, I’d briefly like to revisit what all staff need in order to deliver high levels of performance:

1. They need to know what is expected of them – i.e. clear goals, objectives, targets and standards.

2. They need to be capable of delivering what is expected of them.

3. They need support in helping to overcome any constraints or barriers that might prevent them achieving what is expected of them.

4. They need feedback on how they are delivering in relation to what is expected of them.

5. They need to be motivated.

Points 1-4 above all contribute to motivation. If people have clarity, capability, support and regular feedback, they are likely to be generally motivated. Similarly, a lack of any of these will likely contribute to a degree of de-motivation.

But there are also many other factors that contribute to motivation and these will be the focus of the series that follows. Be sure to tune in regularly and feel free to contribute to the discussion.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Coaching Staff - Part Seven

Having looked previously in this series at the application of the coaching cycle and how a manager/leader can find time to coach, this final instalment is aimed at the relationship between coaching and other learning solutions, in particular, training courses.

There are a variety of learning solutions or tools available for helping staff to learn. The most common is to send staff on a relevant training course but there is also the option of using tools such as eLearning, procedural documentation, technical documentation, team briefings, formal education programs, educational books and online articles, forums and blogs. Critically, all of these tools are predominantly knowledge based and they do not, in the main, develop skills, behaviours or attitudes – all of which are required for a staff member to become fully capable in the relevant area.

For example, is it possible to send a staff member on a relevant training course and as a result, for them to become completely competent in that area without any additional intervention?

The answer is – possibly. But only if they are able to practice what they have learned and develop in that specific task or skill area through self evaluation. From a leadership perspective, it will be completely hit and miss as to whether the individual is able to apply what they have learned and become fully competent.

The chances of a staff member becoming fully competent are significantly enhanced if the leader is able to make regular coaching interventions alongside the alternative learning tool. By all means use training, eLearning or any of the other learning and development tools to kick start or support the learning process but they should always be used in conjunction with one-to-one coaching – not instead of it.

One of the common traps managers fall into is to identify a training need (often as a result of the appraisal process) and to arrange for the staff member to attend a relevant training course and then to simply tick the box – job done! Whereas a smart leader will possibly utilise a training course to kick start the process but they will then work with the staff member upon their return to work to develop opportunities for practice, supported by regular feedback interventions.

In short, training courses, eLearning modules, procedural or technical documentation predominantly fulfil the first stage of the coaching cycle – instruction. They simple do not and cannot replace the following four stages of the coaching cycle – demonstration, practice, observation and feedback. These stages can only be achieved by actively coaching staff on the job.

I hope this series on coaching staff has been useful. Becoming an effective coach is a pre-requisite of becoming an effective manager of people – a workplace leader. If you or your company would like any guidance in developing a coaching culture and improving the leadership capability in this area, please contact me via the ELC website to discuss how we can help you move forward.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Coaching Staff - Part Six

Previously in this series we have looked at the five stages of the coaching cycle; instruction, demonstration, practice, observation and feedback. But knowing how to coach is only half of the equation. Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to staff receiving the coaching they need is that the leader struggles to find time to coach – it is one of the most common objections that I encounter.

Most people would agree that coaching and developing staff is an important leadership activity but it is rarely urgent – nobody (apart from the staff member involved) is going to notice if you skip a coaching session today but all hell is going to break loose if you miss that project deadline! As a result, coaching doesn’t happen as often as it should and frequently managers will absolve themselves of coaching responsibility by sending people on training courses. We’ll look at the relationship between coaching and training courses in the next part of this series but for now, let’s just focus on how you can find the time to coach your staff.

Firstly, let’s be perfectly clear about one thing. If you are responsible for managing and developing staff, coaching is a core part of your job. No ifs. No ands. No buts. It is part of what you are being paid to do and the main way you can get your staff to perform at a higher level is to help them to become more capable. So, the bottom line is this – you simply have to find time to coach your staff. And here are some suggestions that I hope will help you find that time.

1. Schedule – Build it into your schedule (diarise it if you have to) in order to make a clear commitment to coaching your staff.

2. Delegate – Are you doing things right now that your staff could be doing just as effectively? Is it quicker to do it yourself? Are you hanging on to jobs you like doing? The more you coach, the more you can delegate – trust your staff and learn to let go.

3. Good Enough – Are you a bit of a perfectionist? Do you spend more time than you should on tasks to make them perfect? Can you do them quicker and to a standard that is still good enough? Well here’s the thing – good enough IS perfect!

4. Enjoyability – Are you spending more time than you should on some tasks because you enjoy doing them? Are prioritising these tasks ahead of coaching for the same reason? You don’t need me to tell you that more personal discipline might be required then.

5. Automate – Are there some tasks and functions that could be automated? What are you waiting for?

6. Negotiate – When you ask others to do things for you, do you build in some flexibility to the deadline ‘just in case’? Most of us do. So what does that tell you about some of the deadlines you are working to? Yep, there is often scope to negotiate the deadline and/or the work content in order to buy yourself some more time.

7. Innovate – Use your resources wisely. What tools have you got to help you coach? Are there are other people who could help out with some of the coaching activities. You don’t have to do all the coaching yourself but you do have to make sure it gets done.

There are few things in the leadership role that are more important than coaching and developing staff – yes there are some, but not many. You need to find the time to coach, see it as a core part of your job and prioritise accordingly.

In the next and final part of this series we’ll be looking at how you can combine coaching with training courses in order to make developing staff more effective and more efficient.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

King Alfred The Great and his Leadership Legacy

I have recently finished reading an excellent historical novel (The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell) that centres on the early part of King Alfred's reign (871-899 AD), defending his Kingdom of Wessex against the invading Danes.

There was much about this novel that kept me enthralled, not least the climactic battle that took place less than five miles from my home (and I never knew!). But I was also fascinated by the leadership qualities of King Alfred - I guess one doesn't earn the nickname 'The Great' lightly.

He had a clear vision - to see off the Danes and unite England as a single kingdom. Today of course, this would be seen as growth by merger and acquisition after seeing off a hostile takeover bid. He was a strategist with a carefully devised plan to support his vision. Tactical battles and manouevres were always conducted with one eye on the endgame. He was ruthless and driven to succeed (he actually stole the throne from his nephew). He was a calm but tough negotiator. And while he sought counsel from others, he was a decisive man.

But I fear there was a second aspect to King Alfred's leadership legacy that has managed to become part of our management and leadership culture. In an age where few men outside the clergy could read and write, Alfred developed a penchant, some would say an obsession, for record keeping. He would keep minutes of virtually every meeting he attended, from truce negotiations with the Danes through intelligence gathering interviews with spies or prisoners to meetings with his loyal landowners, the Earls who would support him in battle.

Could it be that this legacy led to our practice of minuting meetings? And dare I say, is it this habit that has led us to our obsession with record keeping, such as with performance review meetings? If so, I think we are in danger of losing the thread of King Alfred's legacy. Allow me to provide a simple but painful example.

A couple of months back I was chatting with a relatively senior manager (at least, he managed other managers) during a coffee break in a leadership workshop I was running. He was really proud of the fact that he had made the performance review process with his team so efficient, "We do it all electronically." he beamed, "No need for meetings now we've got this new online tool. They do their bit, I do mine and then it is all available for HR whenever they need it." He was somewhat perplexed when I aksed him about the value (or not) of having regular, focused conversations with his team about their performance and development. And of course, as this guy was managing other managers, they had all adopted the same technique of conducting their performance reviews electronically.

While this (hopefully) is an extreme example, there are elements of truth in how performance review processes are applied in many organisations. It is often seen as a form filling exercise rather than a powerful and motivational conversation. This of course, misses the point completely. The forms that need to be completed are just a record of the conversation. The forms are not and nor should they ever be the end in themselves. It is the conversation that counts and effective leaders should be having these conversations with their staff whether or not there is a process in place and a form to fill in.

King Alfred's legacy was to record the conversation, not replace it!

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

If The Truth Shall Kill Them, Let Them Die

A few weeks ago I was so inspired by this quote that I wrote it down on a scrap of paper and put it in my hand bag. Its a great quote and I thought "YES that really rings a bell with me.

You see, the struggle that I see with most of the people I work with is that they don't know how to be really truthful in the face of "Upsetting someone." Especially the ones you love and care about the most. Yesterday, on the floor of the car I saw a scrap of paper and before I threw it out I took a peek at it and here it is

If The Truth Shall Kill Them Let Them Die, Immanuel Kant

It's now on my office wall on a picture hook and is sums up one of the most important aspects of the leadership Development work that I do.What I spend most of my time doing is teaching leaders how to be truly assertive and to be able to tell the truth with compassion - All of the TRUTH.

So thank you to Immanuel Kant 1724 - 1804 18th-century German philosopher. Your words of brilliance are inspiring me 200+ yeas latter. An example to me and all of us of the power of the written word.

Guest writer Jennifer Elliott is an expert in developing leaders in business.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Performance Reviews

Ricky Gervais (aka David Brent from The Office, UK) provides an object lesson in how not to conduct an effective performance review meeting.

It's not about form filling, it's the conversation that counts!

Friday, 21 November 2008

Coaching Staff - Part Five

So far in this series we’ve looked at how to provide clear instruction, effective demonstrations, enable practice in a safe environment and the under-rated element of observing this practice. In this section we’ll be looking at how to make an effective coaching intervention and provide feedback to the staff member.

In fact, the very phrase, provide feedback to the staff member is wrong. This implies that feedback is a one way process whereas it really should be a two way discussion. Wherever possible, the staff member should be encouraged to review their own performance or progression in the task or skill area with a view to identifying what has worked well and what can be improved. The coach’s role is to ask great questions and listen actively. In Brilliant Leader I recommend the use of the communication funnel as a key coaching technique for such interventions.

Apart from being a two way discussion, what are the other aspects of a feedback intervention that we should consider?

1. Positive Reinforcement – It is vital that people understand what they have done well and why. This is much more than simply praising the individual. It is about helping them to understand the positive behaviours they have employed so that they learn when and how to employ these behaviours in the future.

2. Constructive Improvement – When something hasn’t gone as well as was intended, it is important for the staff member to understand what they needed to do differently and how. The key guideline here is that if they were to perform this task again will they be able to exhibit different and more effective behaviours.

3. Support Interventions – Often, a feedback intervention occurs because the staff member asks for help – usually because they encounter something new or different in relation to the task or skill area. In the early stages of the coaching cycle, the coach might simply provide a recommendation or even an instruction. However, as the individual becomes more accomplished, the coach’s role is to challenge the staff member to come up with their own solutions or recommendations. These can then be shaped, if necessary, before being ratified.

4. Timely – Coaching interventions should be timely. The longer it is left after the event before the staff member receives feedback, the less relevant the feedback becomes. This presents particular challenges for those who are coaching remotely. This might involve coaching via the telephone or video conferencing. It might also indicate a need to meet with the staff member more frequently or to involve additional help in the coaching process from those who are on the same site or location.

5. Motivational – While remembering that the purpose of a feedback conversation is for the staff member to learn, it is also important that the environment that is created is motivational and inspirational. This requires that encouragement is provided even when correcting or improving behaviour. The feedback session should finish on the development of an action plan or a summary of key points that will be taken away from the session and the coach should instil a sense of belief in the staff member that they can successfully implement and apply these actions.

The final point to make when considering the coaching cycle is to remember precisely that – it is a cycle and not a straight line process. The cycle will repeat less and less frequently until the staff member becomes fully competent in the task or skill area. This implies that coaching is an ongoing process not a one off exercise. To be clear on this, coaching is a fundamental part of managing and leading people – it is a core part of the job.

This will be an important point to note in the next part of this series we explore how to find the time to coach.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Is there mold growing in your organization?

My son Nathaniel’s sixth grade science project
was titled – Where mold grows best.

To find out, Nathaniel, placed slices of bread around the house. He misted some of the slices (keeping them moist). Others he let dry out. The experiment was slated to last ten days. Within five we had the answer.

It came in the form of an unpleasant odor wafting out of his closet. Mold, it turns out, grows best in damp, dark environments.
Who knew? ;)

Where’s the mold in your organization?
I’m not talking about physical mold. That can be eradicated with disinfectant and elbow grease.

There is much more insidious form of mold that isn’t physical. It’s cultural. It infects how people communicate, think, and make decisions.

This mold stifles creativity. Erodes trust. And camouflages the real issues. This mold is called the undiscussables.

What are undiscussables?
In every organization and every team – there are “sensitive” or “difficult” subjects that everyone avoids. I’m talking work-related topics (not personal issues like a team member’s new hair color).

These are real issues that every one knows about - but avoids bringing up.

Why don’t we bring up these real issues?
It’s goes back to some of fundamental social wiring. In every social group there are certain topics that become off limits. Think taboos. Topics that are verboten.

People avoid these difficult conversations. And cultures develop ways of not facing uncomfortable truths.

What are some of the undiscussables?
I can’t tell you (. . . just kidding).

Many undiscussables have to do with power -
Like when a boss says she/he wants to “hear others ideas and opinions” – but they’ve already made up their minds and everybody knows it.

But, nobody says so. And everyone goes through the motions of having an “open dialogue”.

Or when team members don’t keep their agreements – but never bring it up to each other.

Other undiscussables are more technical – and business specific – unique to your organization. But a clue to identifying the undiscussables in your organization is to look for a gap between what people say and what they do.

Like talking about “Quality #1!” While pushing for more production – and compromising quality standards. Or talking about “teamwork”. While making unilateral decisions and acting without consulting teammates.

If talking directly about this gap with the people who are involved feels risky – then you’ve likely found an undiscussable.

What happens when undiscussables aren’t addressed?
Just because the difficult issue gets put away – like a slice of moist bread in a dark closet - doesn’t mean it stops “growing”.

Issues that can’t be discussed in the open – still get talked about. After the official meeting. In the halls. At the “water cooler”. In emails.

The undiscussable issue grows like mold.
Even when you’re in a meeting – the odor of the undiscussable issue wafts through the room. People smell it. And hold their breath – hoping it will go away.

The longer the undiscussable is ignored – the moldier it becomes.
The more the culture defends itself from difficult conversations – the more dysfunctional it becomes. Think of the Challenger disaster. Or Enron.

These examples are extreme in scope. But the patterns of denial and defensiveness are common (to some degree) in all cultures.

What can you do about undiscussables?
Recognize that while the truth may set you (and others) free.
First it will make you (and others) uncomfortable.

So, give you (and others) a lot of acceptance and forgiveness as you bring the undiscussable issue into the light (of awareness).

Don’t try to resolve the issue in a single conversation.
Take your time. It is more important to explore the ideas, assumptions, values, and beliefs that have sustained the undiscussable – than to figure out how to fix it.

Focus more on examining the undiscussable – develop deep understanding before trying to solve it.

Recognize that when it comes to undiscussables everyone’s had a hand in keeping the bread in the closet.
But, it only takes one person to open the door and start to let in the light.

But, isn’t it risky?
Truthfully it can be.
But, most of the risks can be minimized by how you raise the issue.
Here’s how:

Don’t be self-righteous
Be vulnerable. Admit your part – and how you’ve avoided the issue.

Don’t blame
Be curious. Listen to understand how others’ have struggled with the undiscussable.

Reflect on the costs of not raising the issue
What will it cost you personally to not bring it up? In terms of your integrity? Your sense of purpose? Your fulfillment at work?

Remember where mold goes best
You don’t need to repeat my son’s science experiment in your organization. We all know that mold (and undiscussables) grow best in the dark. And that leadership starts with bringing the real issues to light.

Guest writer Eric Klein is the founder of Dharma Consulting and architect of the You Are the Leader You've Been Waiting for program.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Leadership Week 3 November to 17 November

Eagle eyed readers will notice that this week's leadership review covers a two week period. This is nothing more sinister than a reflection of how busy I have been. Nonetheless, I've still been reading and keeping up to date and I would encourage every current and aspiring leader to do precisely that - it's a key part of staying on top of your game!

1. Mimi Bacilek posted a great article titled, Bringing your firm through chaos, a real measure of leader's success. Her advice can be applied to leading any group of people in these uncertain times and includes - rallying the troops, empowering teams and rewarding success.

2. Building on Mimi's article Dan McCarthy asks the question, Leading through chaos, does a manager need a psychology degree? His conclusion is that while qualifications are useful, there can be no substitute for experience.

3. Appearing as a guest writer on Tom Peter's blog, John O'Leary discusses Leadership Farming. The suggestion is that great leaders are defined by the product of the talent they nurture. It has really developed into an interesting debate with over 40 comments so far (these are also well worth reading).

4. On the Leadership Now blog, Michael McKinney has posted an excerpt from Tony Wagner's, The Global Achievement Gap on the Seven Survival Skills for the New World of Work that include Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Agility, Entrepreneurship, Communication and Analytical Skills.

5. On his Strategic HCM blog Jon Ingham begins an excellent article by discussing Ulrich's Leadership Code before going on to suggest his own enhancements to the basic model. Both parts are well worth considering.

Why wait another week (or even two!) for my next update? Keep up to date with our Leadership Toolbar that provides one-click access to the top leadership development sites, leadership articles and blogs, leadership books, business newsfeeds and leadership tools. And we've also added a new section on leadership discussion forums. It's 100% free and we guarantee no adware or spyware. Download and install our Leadership Toolbar today.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Colin Powell's 13 Rules of Leadership

With thanks to redruglot on YouTube.

Many leaders would do well to heed Mr Powell's suggestions and I thought it well worth sharing these.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Coaching Staff - Part Four

So far in this series we have looked at how to instruct staff members in a task or skill area, provide effective demonstrations and enable opportunities for them to practice, ideally in a safe or non-urgent environment. An often overlooked and under-rated aspect of coaching is monitoring and observing how the staff member is developing in the task or skill area. This then, is our focus for the next stage of the coaching cycle.

One of the workshops I run frequently is presentation skills. These are highly practical workshops that involve a lot of practice and feedback. When a presentation has not gone entirely as planned, I will often ask both the group and the presenter how it could have been improved. While they often come up with some useful ideas, they rarely get to the root of the issue. And this is where I have to earn my crust as a coach – by not just observing what everyone else has seen but also, identifying what is happening and why. I have to see the things that other people haven’t spotted in order to suggest one or two changes that would transform the presentation.

This is at the heart of coaching observation. The coach has to observe what is happening and also what is not happening. They must see the things that others can’t and identify why things are happening. This enables them to provide feedback that gets to the root of the issue and enables the staff member to improve, noticeably, when they next try to practice the task or skill.

I believe this is an intuitive part of coaching and as such, it is difficult to be specific on how to develop this aspect of the coaching toolbox. However, I offer the following guidance.

1. Observe what is happening but more importantly, identify why it is happening.

2. Observe what isn’t being applied.

3. Ask the staff member to reflect on what you have observed.

4. Get to the root of the issue.

5. Don’t try to improve too many areas at once. Identify the base learning that needs to take place before building on this to improve the finer details later.

In the next part of this series we’ll be looking in depth at the art of providing feedback to staff with a view to reinforcing what they are doing well and improving things that could be done better.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Post Office - An Enigma

One of the beauties of having one's own space on the web is that from time to time, one is allowed the chance to rant. This particular rant will be of more relevance to those readers who are UK based.

What is it with the Post Office and specifically, why are they shutting down so many branches? Is this great strategic leadership or mis-management of the highest order?

The Post Office branches must be one of the best retail brands in the UK. Just about everyone trusts the Post Office. They have a superb product portfolio - great (safe) savings products, a decent credit card, the girobank, postal orders, premium bonds, travel insurance, free currency exchange to name but a few. They also have a captive audience - all of us have to visit the Post Office from time to time.

So why can't these branches be run at a profit?

For a start the internal branding and layout is generally shabby and very, well very 1970s. The staff generally seem very helpful but pretty de-motivated (well hey, they are all losing their jobs) and not very sales oriented. And the upsell opportunities for related products are really not being properly exploited.

The strategic answer is - these branches are not making money, so let's close them.

Did anyone think to upgrade them, re-train the staff and turn them into money making hubs?

As an outsider looking in, it seems like a missed opportunity to me and that is without counting the social cost to those groups and communities who rely on the Post Office much more than people like me. It is an enigma to me as to why the Post Office is not one of the most successful brands on the high street and in every small town and village. Instead, it is a dinosaur that is heading for extinction.

Perhaps someone will explain the error of my thinking - Mr Crozier perhaps?

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Why Training is Essential in a Recession

Many senior managers and business leaders will take the view that discretionary spending must be reduced or eliminated in a recession - it's one of the founding principles behind prudent financial management. And of course, training falls into that category, right?


In a recession, businesses will generally need to downsize which means they need to get greater performance from the fewer resources that remain. And this is the key factor that makes high quality training an essential component of businesses successfully navigating their way through a recession. Let's look at this purely from the perspective of leadership training, although the same principles apply to general staff training.

When resources are cut to the minimum there is no room for passengers or dead wood - everybody has to deliver. And it is the people leaders within the business who need to ensure that everybody delivers by exhibiting exceptional leadership skills.

  • They need to manage performance like many have never done so before

  • They need to upskill their people by coaching effectively

  • They need to motivate their staff when the overall mood might be gloomy

  • They need to instigate process improvements

  • They need to allocate workloads more effectively

  • They need to be creative and innovative when addressing challenges

  • And most of all, they need to get their people really working as a team
In short, leadership skills need to be at their peak if the organisation is going to get the level of performance required from the reduced resources that are available. The really smart organisations would have invested heavily in leadership development when times were good so they already had these skills in abundance as we enter a recession. But here's the thing - when times are good, leaders often don't have the time to attend training courses and even when they do, the hectic environment of growth often doesn't provide people with the opportunity to fully apply what they have learned.

So now is the time to grasp the nettle. As with any discretionary spend the key metric is that the return on investment must be significantly greater than the spend itself and here's how this applies to leadership training:
  1. Leaders must be selected based on the fact that they can improve on one or more of the factors bulletted above.
  2. The leadership training or workshop must be selected on quality first and price second. In particular, the focus should be on the scope and depth of the learning outcomes.
  3. Leaders must be empowered to apply what they have learned upon their return to work and fully supported in this endeavour.
  4. Leaders, provided they are given the appropriate support, should be expected to deliver improved performance via their people.
  5. Leaders should be expected to continue this higher level of performance once good times return once again, ensuring that the organisation exits recession stronger than it entered.

Senior managers and business leaders who adopt a broad brush, cost cutting approach while expecting the remaining resources to deliver improved performance without powerful training interventions are missing the point. Improving the capability of staff (and people leaders in particular) is more critical in a recession than at any other time.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Coaching Staff - Part Three

Previously in this series we looked at how to provide staff members with clear instruction and an effective demonstration. In this third part of the coaching series, we’ll be looking at providing staff with opportunities to practice what they have learned. This requires that first we look briefly at the art of delegation.

Essentially, there are two reasons for delegating to staff members – firstly, to get the job done and secondly, to develop the individual. In delegating simply to get the job done you should primarily focus on ensuring the staff member is already capable of what you are asking them to do. Delegating to develop the individual is what concerns us here.

When looking to provide opportunities for the staff member to practice what they have learned, the leadership challenge is to try and create a safe environment. On occasion, there might be opportunities for safety to be created via a simulation but more often than not, safety comes by the delegation being in a non-urgent situation. This provides the coach with an opportunity to check work and provide feedback before it goes live.

Practice should also be timely. That is, it should occur shortly after the staff member has received instruction in the task or skill area (and optionally, a demonstration). If something is explained today and no opportunity for practice occurs until three weeks later, how much knowledge will have been retained?

In Brilliant Leader, I also make the point that practice should be graduated. That is, the practice should be made more complex in graduated stages until the staff member has developed completely in the task or skill area. The staff member also needs to know that support is available throughout the practice period although as we shall look at in the feedback part of this series, the coach will not always provide the answers.

Before we get to that aspect of coaching, we’ll be taking a brief look at the next stage of the coaching cycle – how to monitor and observe the staff member while they are practising. This will be our focus in part four of the series.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Command and Control

It's funny how tiny things trigger powerful memories. I was reminded today of an event when I was at school and an exchange I had with a science teacher who I shall refer to only as Mr G. Silly as it sounds now, the exchange was all about the pronunciation of the word vitamins. He was adamant that it should be pronounced the amercian way and I was determined to pronounce it the british way - it was a classic 'you say tomato, I say tomato exchange'. His defence was that the word vitamin was derived from vital amins. In refusing to yield, I managed to pick up a detention in order to learn my lesson.

The lesson I learned that day was not how to pronounce the word vitamins - does it really matter - but rather, that command and control doesn't work. Telling people what to do or say doesn't actually gain their buy-in, commitment or indeed, motivate them.

Leadership is about creating an environment in which people can and do deliver great results, consistently.

You can't lead unless people are prepared to follow.

Respect power is more influential and motivating than position power.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Why Training Isn't Working

A survey this week from the World of Learning that was covered by the British Institute of Learning and Development has identified 7 key reasons why learning retention is not being maximised by organisations:

1. Lack of learner buy-in
2. Lack of line management buy-in
3. Lack of clearly defined objectives
4. Lack of preparation
5. Lack of follow-up exercises
6. Lack of coaching/ mentoring
7. Lack of measurement

Organisations need to maximise the return on their training spend, more so in hard economic times than at any other. If learning is not being properly transferred back to the workplace, companies will not see sufficient value in their spend and budgets will be slashed. The World of Learning and the BILD are trying to address this issue at their conference on 19/20 November.

But let me be blunt. There is only a limited amount the L&D industry can do about this. The real issue is that many managers and leaders simply don't understand how to maximise their investment in training and development and the answer lies in those seven key issues.

Lack of Learner Buy-In
The person attending a training or learning event must absolutely understand why they are attending and accept this as a personal development area. It is the leader's responsibility to gain this buy-in by having an intelligent conversation with the staff member.

Lack of Line Management Buy-In
How many managers truly believe in the value of training? I still encounter way too many managers who simply don't get it. They only pursue any staff training because it is part of the performance and development review process and they address development needs by selecting training courses from a menu (with or without discussion with the staff member). Let's be clear, this is not developing staff, it is merely sending staff on a training course to tick a box that enables them to claim they are developing their staff.

Lack of Clearly Defined Objectives
This is part of the buy-in process. Once staff have agreed that they have a development need and that a training course forms part of the solution (along with about a dozen other possible solutions!), the manager should ensure that they are focused on clear outcomes that are targeted from attending the training course. This encourages them to take ownership of their own learning.

Lack of Preparation
I don't necessarily buy this one. There is sometimes value to be had from pre-course work (if it is done). Personally though I'm not a huge fan of pre-course work as long as the delegates are turning up with a clear focus. A professional trainer/facilitator can impart knowledge much more effectively than pre-course work - although I also understand that the current trend towards blended learning can improve efficiency and also engage the learner in advance.

Lack of Follow-Up Exercises
I don't totally buy this one either. The main thing people should take away from a training course is an action plan - what are they going to do differently as a result of attending the programme? This said, there is often some value in having a follow-on session with the trainer a few months after the event.

Lack of Coaching/Mentoring
Assuming that the person has attended the right course and assuming that the course was well delivered, the lack of coaching and mentoring is by far and away the biggest reason why training courses will lack impact. Virtually without exception, the manager should have a discussion with the staff member upon their return to work to discuss what they have learned and to explore their action plan. Opportunities for implementing their action plan should be established and support should be provided, as appropriate. While the staff member is implementing their action plan, the manager should be provide regular coaching interventions - what are they doing well and why, what could be improved and how.

You see, as a professional and experienced facilitator I can cope with a lack of buy-in, a lack of objectives and a lack of preparation because I will back myself to inspire delegates and communicate effectively with them. But what I can't do (unless invited to do so) is support them upon their return to work. The manager needs to do this. The lack of this coaching support was the main reason why I built a dedicated support mechanism into our Brilliant Leadership workshops but this is pretty unique in the L&D market place.

Lack of Measurement
This goes hand-in-hand with a lack of coaching support and the lack of a leader embracing the learning process. Training should not be measured by happy sheets at the end of a workshop. Training should be measured against the learning that has taken place. What were the learning objectives? Did the action plan meet or exceed the learning objectives? Was the action plan implemented successfully? Has their capability improved? If so, the development objectives have been achieved. As a result, performance expectations and delivery should be higher going forward.

Some L&D succeeds in spite of the manager rather than because of them. Some L&D succeeds because some managers really engage in the process and help to make it a success. But frankly, not enough. I didn't need this survey to tell me that many organisations were not getting maximum return for their investment in training - I have score upon score of anecdotal evidence already.

Right now, when the economic climate is at its most challenging, managers and leaders in the UK and around the world really need to engage wholeheartedly and skillfully in the learning and development of their staff. It is one of the best ways to get improved results in the short, mid and longer term.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leadership and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Coaching Staff - Part Two

In the first part of this series on how to coach staff and how to find the time to coach staff, I looked at the instructional stage of the coaching cycle. The need for the coach to provide a clear explanation of the task or skill area by breaking it down into bite sized chunks, delivering a clear and unambiguous message while checking the staff member’s understanding.

An optional tool for imparting knowledge is the use of a demonstration. This primarily enhances the staff member’s knowledge and awareness of the task or skill area by enabling them to see how it is done by an expert or competent individual. However, like each stage of the coaching cycle, providing an effective demonstration is not without its difficulties.

For example, has anyone ever shown you how to do something on a computer? Explanation – Talk – Click! Explanation – Talk – Click! Explanation – Talk – Click! I’m sure most of us have been there and the net result is that we are rarely further forward than when the demonstration began and more often than not, we are more confused.

So how does a coach provide an effective demonstration?

Competent Individual or Expert?
The first challenge is to ensure the person providing the demonstration is able to exhibit model behaviour. The problem often encountered by experts is that they have progressed to a level of unconscious competence – they don’t even have to think about what they are doing. Often, the most effective demonstration will be provided by a competent individual – someone who can think about what they are doing at each stage. This is not to say an expert cannot fulfil the role but they must be able to increase their level of conscious awareness.

An effective demonstration will break the task or skill down into stages and deliver these in a step-by-step format, taking questions at each stage before moving on. This process should conclude with a joined up demonstration that brings all of the stages together.

Running Commentary
While providing a demonstration the coach should provide a running commentary that also allows for the staff member to ask questions as the demonstration unfolds.

While this is technically the third stage of the coaching cycle, an effective demonstration should allow an opportunity for the staff member to have a go at the task or skill in the presence of the coach. This will often include a summary of the issues arising from the demonstration before allowing the staff member to move onto the next stage of the coaching cycle – extended practice.

In the next part of this series I will explore further the challenges that are faced by both the coach and staff member in providing opportunities for extended, unsupervised practice in the task or skill area.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Problem With Delegation

Stop Press - managers and leaders around the world are having problems delegating - it's official!

Apart from the usual excuses such as "it's quicker to do it myself" and "if I want a job done properly I'll do it myself", the current economic climate and the inevitability of downsizing is leading to another challenge "I don't have anyone to delegate to".

As teams shrink to remain lean in tough times, managers and leaders are finding there are less people to delegate to and team members are stretched to their limit. But as you know, this column does not focus on problems, like any good leader should, we seek solutions. So what can you do about today's little delegation dilemma?

Engage your team
Involve your team in the challenge and ask them if they have any ideas or practical measures for improving efficiency. Remember, great ideas can come from anywhere and your team are a great place to start.

Improve Processes
Take time out to review your team's processes to identify where and how they can be made more efficient. The key question you and your team should be asking is "why do we do it this way?". Just because a current process has been working doesn't mean it can't be improved and now is a great time to look for efficiency gains.

Share Knowledge
Are your team still reinventing the wheel? Make sure they are sharing knowledge and best practice, not just amongst themselves but also with other teams. Can any of this shared knowledge be absorbed into standard templates for some of their work?

Now is a great time to look for opportunities to automate your team's work. Talk to other team leaders. Talk to the IT department. Talk to your team. What can or should be automated and how can we make it happen?

Is there anything we are doing as a team that really doesn't need to be done? Perhaps it is a case of partial elimination of some tasks, maybe looking for opportunities in lower impact areas of doing a job that is 'good enough' rather than 'perfect'.

Reviewing what your team does and how it does it with a view to helping them become more efficient will not only improve your options for delegating/allocating work among team members. It will also put your team in a great position to deliver excellent results when growth returns - and growth will return, as sure as daytime follows nightime.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Leadership Week - 28 Oct to 3 Nov 2008

Simon Cooper reviews this week's best leadership articles.

Wally Brock continues to inspire with his Three Star Leadership blog. In this week's gem (although delivered as more of a rant at a NYT article) Wally focuses on motivation in tough times. The great thing about Wally's blog is that it continuously encourages the reader to think and in my case, the writer to write.

Chris Young on the Rainmaker blog looks at five common reasons why CEOs do not share their vision. While reading this article it's worth considering whether your CEO shares their vision and more to the point, would it help you as a manager/leader do your job better?

On Leadership Turn, Miki Saxon explores the leadership silver bullet. This revolves around how managers can change their mindset in order to become true leaders. As anyone attending my leadership workshops will know, the development of leadership attitudes, values and behaviours is close to my heart.

On Mission Minded Management, Michelle Malay Carter makes some strong points about management accountability. The overriding impression for me was that shared leadership (of which I am a fan) should not be confused with shared accountability.

On his Community Blog Stephen Covey analyses trust between the leader, the organisation and the staff members. He discusses how easily it can be broken and goes on to explore the steps required to rebuild trust. This is a must read article, especially for anyone who is familiar with Dr Covey's 13 Behaviors of High Trust Leaders.

Why wait a whole week to see my top picks? Every blog and article listed here (and many more) are covered on our Leadership Toolbar - providing you with one-click access to everything you need to keep up to date with the leadership world, as and when it happens.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Coaching Staff - Part One

One of the key leadership activities in the workplace, especially for those with direct responsibility for people, is to coach their staff. But how do you do it and how do you find time to do it?

In this series I hope to answer both questions. To do so I will be putting a simple coaching cycle at the heart of the discussion. This breaks down as follows:

1. Instruction
2. Demonstration
3. Practice
4. Observation
5. Feedback

This cycle seems relatively straightforward but the reality is that there are challenges presented at each stage. So let us begin with the first stage of the coaching cycle – instruction.

When a staff member is new to a task or skill area, the first thing they need is to understand what they are meant to be doing, why they are doing it and how it should be done. This is the knowledge they need to gain but simple as it sounds, it has some potential pitfalls. The greatest risk is that the initial explanation might not be fully understood and even if it is, human nature will lead to memory gaps during the learning process. So how does the coach overcome and deal with these issues?

Before providing instruction on a task or skill area, the coach should provide the staff member with a clear context. Why do you need to learn this? How does it fit in with the other tasks you are asked to perform? How does it fit in with the work of other team members? How does it fit in with other teams and/or the wider organisation?

Without context, it is much harder to fully understand the task in hand.

Bite Sized Chunks
The best way to provide instruction is in bite sized chunks, particularly for more complex tasks or skill areas. These chunks should be logically organised into building blocks of knowledge so that each new explanation is a natural progression from the last one.

Common Language
It is imperative that the coach uses language that the staff member understands. You need to be especially careful about the use of jargon or internal language.

Keep it short and simple (or keep it simple, stupid if you prefer). Don’t over complicate an explanation. It should be clear, concise and unambiguous.

Message Delivery
Make the message come alive by using examples, analogies and visual aids.

Check Understanding
At each stage of the knowledge transfer process, the coach needs to check understanding. There are several ways to do this. In some situations it might be appropriate to run a test or a quiz. In others it might be more appropriate to ask the staff member to summarise their understanding. A more subtle way of checking understanding is to have a conversation about how to apply this knowledge that culminates in an action plan – the conversation itself enables the coach to be confident that the understanding is accurate.

Reference Material
Ideally, the staff member will have access to reference material that will serve as a reminder to the knowledge they gained. This can take the form of procedure/user manuals, process maps, notes, intranet/knowledge transfer documentation or even a relevant book.

On the surface, providing instruction on a task or skill area appears straightforward but in practice there are a number of potential pitfalls. The guidelines above will help you avoid or navigate your way through these.

In part two I will be looking at the next stage of the coaching cycle - how to provide staff with an effective demonstration.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Leadership Week - 20-27 October 2008

Simon Cooper reviews the week's best leadership articles.

There was a great article by Herb Kelleher this week, talking about his best lesson in leadership - be genuine. Faked behaviour is transparent from a mile away and people don't buy into it. There are many ways to become a great leader but the overriding factor is to be true to yourself and your values.

Wally Brock continues to produce excellent pieces in his Three Star Leadership blog. This week's gem focuses on the differing attitudes towards training and development between senior executives and HR professionals. Do we train to genuinely develop people or to keep the troops happy?

A useful summary by Miki Saxon of a recent Guy Kawasaki interview for the NY Times, including extracts of GIA (Guy's Index of Absurdity) from his recent book, Reality Check. As Miki says, it's not what Guy says that is so original but rather, the way he says it.

Writing on Leadership Village, Maureen Collins makes the point that the key to effectively managing performance problems is to gain a commitment to improvement, not to bully out a submission - how true.

John Agno continues his narcissist's leaders series with a a review of how to avoid the traps that come with this leadership type - including finding a trusted sidekick and seeking therapy (aka executive coaching)!

With the ELC Leadership Toolbar it is easy to keep up to date with the leadership world - the best articles, books, news, tools and more with just a single click. It's easy to install, 100% free and completely adware/spyware free. Why not improve your browsing experience today, it takes less than a minute to download and install.

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Leadership School

I had a fascinating dinner with a recently retired headteacher this weekend. He started off by asking me about the leadership workshop that I ran last week in San Francisco and also about the launch of Brilliant Leader, my new book. What followed though was a real eye opener for me.

He had headed a school (although it was technically branded as a college) that had developed a genuine leadership culture and delivered staggering outcomes as a result of this. An example he used was the cleaners. They were made aware of the school's vision, what they were trying to achieve, how they were trying to achieve it and most importantly, how their role fitted in with this vision. And this was the case with all staff and students throughout the school.

Everyone was encouraged to be part of the team pulling together to deliver the school's strategy. This included regular performance reviews, career/personal development discussions and an open door to ideas throughout the organisation. And when the school succeeded, the team's success was celebrated. Everyone, including the cleaners, were included in the celebration process. Individual success was also recognised through praise and reward mechanisms.

The net result? Everyone wanted to do well and so they did. Exclusions reduced dramatically, results improved likewise and everyone felt they were part of a community that was succeeding. It became one of the country's stand-out success stories and my dinner colleague spent the last couple of years before his retirement briefing headteachers up and down the country about how he went about developing a leadership culture.

It seems to me that lots of organisations and communities around the world would succeed more if they developed a genuine leadership culture. And the thing is, it really isn't that difficult. People respond to effective leadership. People respond to praise and recognition. People respond to being part of a team.

If the classic command and control environment of a school can produce transformational results by developing a leadership culture, then just imagine what can happen to a commercial organisation that follows this example. And with the threat of economic downturn becoming a reality, I would wager that companies who survive and even thrive in this environment are likely to have a strong leadership culture centred on effective communication, teamworking and recognition mechanisms that reward success.

The only note of caution I would add is that it must start from the top - that's where true leadership begins and it doesn't end until it gets to the bottom of the organisation.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops that set new standards in how to build, develop and lead high performing teams as well as helping organisations develop a genuine leadership culture.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Conquering The Iceberg

In my latest book, Brilliant Leader, I make the point that a person's capability can be summed up by considering an iceberg. Some of an iceberg is visible but most of it is below the surface. The part that is visible represents the individual's knowledge and skills and this is the part that most managers and indeed, traditional training courses focus on. However, a much larger part of a person's capability lies below the surface in the form of their character traits, values, attitudes and behaviours. True leaders understand this and focus much more on these components.

Initially, the smart leader will focus on recruiting the right people based on the relevant traits, values, attitudes and behaviours - after all, any missing knowledge or skills can easily be coached or trained. Beyond this, there is also the opportunity to develop these qualities which in itself is a much more challenging proposition. So how can a leader develop traits, values, attitudes and behaviour among their people?

1. Lead By Example
If your staff respect you, they will be heavily influenced by your example. You should continuously exhibit the values, attitudes and behaviours that you want in your staff and over time, your example will rub off on them.

2. Coach
The role of the coach is both powerful and influential. Of course, in order to be effective it requires that you are an accomplished coach. Through coaching, you are able to influence people's behaviour by helping them to consider what is working well and why alongside any aspects of their behaviour that could be improved and how. In turn, a change in behaviour - once it is seen to have been effective - influences the person's values and attitudes and in some cases, it will also lead to the long-term development of their character traits.

3. Teamworking
Just as people are influenced by their leader, they are also influenced by their peers. By developing a great teamworking environment and creating a value led culture, leaders are able to influence the development of values, attitudes and in turn, behaviours.

4. Experiential Learning
Some aspects of experiential learning occur on the job - either through exposure to new and challenging work assignments or via coaching. However, well designed and expertly facilitated experiential workshops can also have a dramatic impact on values, attitudes and behaviours and over the time this will also have an effect on character traits. The reason for this is that throughout an experiential workshop people will have a multitude of 'lightbulb moments' when they can be heard to say "ah ha - now I really get it".

And that is really the point. When people really get something, their attitudes and values are often altered forever. As soon as they apply this to their working environments, their behaviour changes. And over time, this will lead to the long-term development of their character traits.

In an ideal world leaders will hire people with the relevant traits, values, attitudes and behaviours. When this isn't possible they can be developed using the four tools discussed in this article - and preferably a good mix of all four. Either way, the iceberg can be conquered. Brilliant Leaders know this and do something about it.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

Monday, 29 September 2008

No Pain, No Gain

There is little doubt that great teamwork delivers better results than a group of competent individuals working independently. But what is it that makes a great team and how does a team leader go about developing a great team?

This issue was addressed several decades ago by Bruce Tuckman with his four stages of team development - forming, storming, norming and performing.

When a team first comes together they are at the forming stage where members are unsure of their role in the team, cannot yet trust the abilities of other team members and therefore, productivity is low. As familiarity grows and team members start to jostle for position in the team, particularly in relation to roles and responsibilities, tension grows, co-operation is low and so too is productivity - this is the storming stage. As team members settle into regular patterns of working with clear roles and responsibilities (the norming stage), their productivity improves alongside increased co-operation and steady working relationships. And this is as far as most teams get to - a steady, co-operative working environment with decent productivity.

The fourth stage occurs when the team reaches the high performing stage where team members actively support and challenge each other to deliver outstanding results. Mutual trust is very high, relationships are very mature, processes are slick and co-operation is absolute. As a result, productivity is exceptional.

The harsh reality is that few teams ever truly reach the high performing stage. Consider for a moment how many times in your career you have been part of a genuinely high performing team that consistently delivered exceptional results. For most people this is a situation they might find themselves in maybe three or four times in their whole career. Some might never experience it. As for leading a high performing team, the averages are even lower.

What then does it take to lead or become a high performing team?

There are of course several factors, including the condition that the team must stay together long enough. In his book, Brilliant Leader, Simon Cooper explores many of the inputs required by a leader to build, develop and lead high performing teams, indeed, he sets new standards in how to do so. But perhaps the most compelling factor lies in the stages of the team's development and in particular, the storming stage.

The storming stage is uncomfortable. There is high tension among team members, passive or active conflict and low levels of trust. The tendency for most team leaders is to manage the team through the storming stage. This usually involves dealing with issues reactively and focusing on individual performance to ensure that everyone is doing their bit. Worse still, many leaders will highlight the weak links within the team and deliver negative feedback in order to encourage improvement. Additionally, they might manage conflicts as they arise or try to avoid dealing with them at all - the ostrich approach.

What many leaders fail to understand is that storming is actually a golden opportunity that enables the rapid progress towards a high performing team. The tension that is created provides energy that, if it can be harnessed properly, provides the momentum for the team to progress to the high performing state. No pain, no gain!

When the team enters the storming phase the leader needs to draw all the conflicts out in the open and challenge the team to resolve these conflicts based on what each member brings to the team both in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The leader should not avoid these conflicts but rather, they need to be embraced and facilitated. And they should try to take the team through this pahse rapidly. This of course, can be easier said than done.

Quite often taking teams rapidly through the storming stage is the focus of our team building events. We design exercises that draw out the conflicts in an open and safe environment. Our expert facilitators are then able to guide the group through these conflicts to help them appreciate each other, co-operate more and play to each others' strengths while supporting each other in their areas of weakness. And of course, team members have a shared experience to use as a reference point.

In our four day leadership workshop, Brilliant Leadership, delegates are actually taken through the four stages each day. So on the second day we create an environment that makes them storm. We take people out of their comfort zone and put them in situations where conflict is inevitable. We create tension among the group. But then we guide them through the process of using conflict and tension to create trust and co-operation. By the time we get to the end of the workshop, delegates are operating as a high performing team and we help them highlight the key aspects of what they have experienced in order to help them apply a similar methodology with their own teams upon their return to work.

Some people might call it high risk learning. Perhaps it should come with a health warning, 'don't try this at home kids'. Certainly, it requires top quality workshop facilitation to handle the environment we create. But there is no doubt that the learning is both extreme and powerful.

Whether it is via a team building event, our Brilliant Leadership workshop or by facilitating a live team, storming in the workplace, the message remains the same - no pain, no gain!

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Animal Instincts

At the start of my Brilliant Leadership workshops I’ll often ask delegates to compare their preferred leadership style and management approach with members of the animal kingdom. Before you read the rest of this article you might like to do the same by reflecting on the following question for a moment or two:

Which animal best mirrors your own leadership style and why?

Perhaps not surprisingly one of the most popular choices is a lion, the king of the jungle. The lion rules his territory by dominating those around him. Nobody messes with a lion. Male lions are also great delegators; they eat, they sleep and they mate while the lioness takes care of everything else. Interestingly, very few female delegates choose the lion as the animal that best reflects their leadership style and by the end of the workshop, many of those who have chosen a lion have changed their minds. Specifically, a lion tends to represent an autocratic management style, leading through fear rather than co-operation.

More surprising to me are the number of delegates who choose a horse as the best reflection of their leadership style. The reasons normally focus on the fact that horses are strong, quick and graceful. They can be both independent and operate in a herd and can work hard when they need to while preferring a relaxed and carefree existence most of the time. I’m not so sure what this says about the leadership style of those delegates who elect for the horse, perhaps they are leaders who seek an easy life but can work hard and as part of a team when the pressure is on.

Some delegates have maybe been influenced by the ‘Lessons from Geese’ video otherwise it is hard to imagine that a Goose would spring to mind as reflecting key leadership behaviour. Geese of course, are great team players but a flock of geese doesn’t have an obvious leader. But then perhaps that is the point these delegates are making. Allow the team to manage themselves and they will find a way of working together synergistically just like geese do.

Another popular choice is the dolphin. Delegates who choose the dolphin are quick to point out that they are very intelligent animals with great communication skills. They are by and large friendly creatures but can become hostile when under threat. It is certainly my experience that brilliant leaders are also great communicators but I’m not so sure that there are too many geniuses amongst them. The genius of brilliant leadership probably has more to do with surrounding yourself with experts who help you do a great job.

One of my personal favourites is the eagle, particularly to reflect the behaviour and traits of brilliant strategic leaders. Eagles spend much of their time at a great height surveying the big picture but then they spot something of interest and with their great eyesight are able to hone in and look at the detail. Based on this detail, they are very decisive and swift to strike before stepping back again and looking at the big picture. Eagles are also very protective of their young while encouraging independence from an early age. Much of this behaviour sums up brilliant leadership. You need to have a view of the big picture while being able to selectively drill down and look at the detail. Brilliant leaders certainly need to be very decisive and often, swift to act. The idea of encouraging the independence of your staff based on effective coaching is also very positive leadership behaviour.

The chameleon though just pips the eagle for me, although not an animal that is often identified at the beginning of the workshop. Chameleons of course, adapt and change according to their situation and environment. And this is precisely what brilliant leaders need to do. There are times when staff need an autocratic leader and other times when they need an arm around their shoulder or perhaps just left alone to get on and do a great job. The intuitive ability to adapt and change according to each specific situation is often the hallmark of brilliant leaders.

Perhaps you thought of one of the animals above or maybe you had another idea like one of my delegates who put up a brave defence of why she had selected a mouse. The herding instincts of elephants, the communal nature of gorillas and the wisdom of owls also feature regularly among choices of the workshop participants.

But of course, there aren’t any right or wrong answers. Leadership is not an exact science and it is not my place to try and make it so. There are common behaviours and traits exhibited by many brilliant leaders and I see my job as being one of a tour guide. I can point out behaviours or actions and the effect they are having or might have in certain situations just like a tour guide can point out what you might like to look at. But whether you choose to look or not and how you apply what you see is entirely up to you.

At the end of my Brilliant Leadership workshops delegates revisit the same question. Around sixty percent have usually changed their opinion as to which animal’s behaviour and traits they wish to mirror in terms of their own leadership style.

The reality is that there is not a single leadership style or management approach that will work. Brilliant leaders develop a toolbox that they can dip into depending on the situation they find themselves in. And that is the instinct which needs to be developed.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

To Train or Develop?

To train or develop? That is the question.

Consider for a moment how many managers up and down the country sit down with their staff to review their development needs (often as part of the appraisal process) and end up by simply sending them on a training course. Job done? I think not.

When your staff attend a training course, the best you can hope for is that they return with new knowledge, new skills and some ideas about how these can be applied in the workplace. And if you don’t make any interventions you might, just might, get lucky and find that their diligence enables them to apply what they have learned from the training course and actually get better in the area you had intended.

However, all sorts of things can (and often will) go wrong with this approach. Firstly, staff members might not agree with your assessment of their development needs and will not be either a willing or motivated learner at the training course. Secondly, the training course might not deliver the knowledge or skills you were hoping for, especially if you have simply picked out a one-size-fits-all course from a training catalogue. And even if these first two barriers do not apply, the most common problem with using training courses as your primary development tool is that your staff will often struggle to apply what they have learned when they return to work.

Many human resource departments have developed processes to help overcome these common barriers. There is the development section of the appraisal form. There is often a pre-course briefing form where learning objectives need to be identified followed by a post course debriefing form where learning outcomes and action plans can be captured. But here’s the thing. Many managers see these as forms that need to be completed whereas the most important thing is the conversation that needs to take place between manager and staff member at each of these junctures – the form is merely a tool for helping to record the conversation.

These conversations aside, the most important thing a manager can do if they are truly focused on developing their staff is to make coaching interventions as staff members seek to practice and apply what they have learned. Coaching interventions that are constructive, objective, motivational, timely and learner centred. And let us not forget, coaching does not have to be used in conjunction with training courses, it can also be used instead of them. A good coach can pass on knowledge and develop skills just as effectively as a good trainer can.

Why then, do so few managers proactively engage in coaching their staff, preferring instead to rely on training courses to do the job for them? Perhaps it is due to a lack of appreciation for the power of effective coaching, a lack of time to coach or a lack of coaching skill. All of these are barriers that can be overcome and in most instances, relatively easily.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to staff development. The most powerful learning occurs through experience and work assignment where the staff member takes ownership of their own development, supported by effective coaching as appropriate. There are a variety of different types of work assignment that should be considered.

Leap Experiences – This is when high talent staff members with high levels of self confidence are exposed to a completely new and challenging skill set that stretches them to their limit. This is a high risk, high reward learning strategy which if successful, will see the staff member climb a steep learning curve in a short space of time. Well designed experiential workshops offer a form of leap experience with a much lower risk profile and it is also possible to design work based projects that offer leap experiences in a controlled environment.

Good to Great – We often don’t think to develop staff in areas that they are already strong. This can be a missed opportunity when somebody has the natural talent to become exceptional. Having identified an appropriate area, the leadership challenge is to create opportunities in which the staff member is able to advance their skill level by increased exposure to situations which stretch their ability.

Skills Transfer – It is not uncommon for staff members to have already developed the core skill required but struggle to transfer this to a new task. The coaching role here is to help them make the appropriate connections in order to transfer the skill to the new area.

Exposure – One of the challenges often encountered in developing staff is to find sufficient opportunity to expose them to the skill area. This can be particularly true when the development relates to a future rather than current job role. Simulation, secondment or special projects all provide potential solutions in this area.

Confidence Building – Quite often staff members are capable of performing in a new skill area but lack confidence in their own ability. Enabling them to practice in a safe environment with sufficient time to check and correct any errors before the work goes live provides a useful strategy in these instances. You might also look for quick-win opportunities to help build their confidence level.

Marketing – Sometimes a staff member will believe that they are capable in an area which is unproven as far as you are concerned. This can be especially true when considering experience gained in previous jobs or environments outside of work. A useful strategy here is to give them an opportunity to market themselves to you and others by demonstration and example in a controlled environment.

Feedback – Sometimes it is an awareness of a weakness that is required in order to develop the motivation to improve it. This feedback might come from you but can also be driven through multi-perspective feedback. After all, sometimes the leader is not aware of a weakness either whereas others might be.

Assessment – There are times when a general awareness of a weakness is known but the specifics are not. This requires an analysis of the underlying issues, often by an external expert, to identify the specific areas that need to be improved in order for the weakness to be overcome.

Redeployment or Workaround – You cannot put a round peg into a square whole. Sometimes you will have to accept that a staff member simply does not have the underlying talent in a particular skill area to perform tasks requiring that skill. If these tasks are non-critical to the role you might be able to facilitate a workaround by utilising other team members or resources. If they are critical to the role you are best advised to look at opportunities to redeploy the staff member in another role, especially if their general talents and work ethic warranted retaining them in the organisation.

There are then a plethora of development activities that extend way beyond simply sending a staff member on a traditional training course. While training courses have their place in the developmental toolbox, they are best used in conjunction with coaching in order to maximise the return on investment. Coaching can also be utilised independent of any training courses. However, the most powerful forms of development involve engaging the staff member in targeted work assignments or experiential events that enable them to fulfil their potential and deliver maximum return to both the team and the organisation.

To train or develop? Brilliant leaders know the difference focus on developing their staff.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.