My Coaching Year

If nothing else, 2020 and the impact of the pandemic has taught us that the power of coaching is vital if new ways of working are to have the impact that is anticipated.  Here is a tremendous blog from an ex-IBM colleague of mine, David Tong, who is a fantastic coach, and has collated this year round view of how coaching can make a difference to you and your colleagues performance.

Enjoy and start coaching!

JANUARY:  Start with a Growth Mindset: a better approach to new year’s resolutions.

Many of us start the year with resolutions. Many of us also know these resolutions will not amount to much; they are part of a game we play and by February they will be forgotten. So, how do we make them more meaningful and enduring?

A way forward is to concentrate on our achievements and forget about our lapses. So rather than dwell on the fact that we didn’t go to the gym last week, we should focus on the fact that over the past few weeks we have been going more often than in the past and we can build on this.

This advice is based on a theory from education called the ‘growth mindset’. It argues that achievement is not simply a result of innate ability but in large part is driven by a person’s attitude and commitment to their own self-development. The idea is attractive because those with a growth mindset believe that obstacles can be overcome if they keep trying and are able to learn from their experiences and mistakes. This makes them keen to test themselves in new ways.

The opposite of this is the fixed mindset, where people don’t want to risk challenges if they think these are beyond or beneath their ability. Some want to avoid the embarrassment of failure. Others, fixed in their belief that they are too good for a situation are focused, not on learning and experimentation, but on competitive behaviour, trying to prove themselves at the expense of others, and then consequently feel threatened by others’ success.

These ideas have been brought into the workplace recently (see Daniel Pink’s writings referenced below) and people I have worked with, find the idea of the growth mindset motivating because just knowing it is a ‘thing’, a proven concept, encourages them to try and be more adaptable and resolute when things do not work out. Pursuing a growth mindset is empowering as people realise they can make breakthroughs if they keep going. I also believe this is an important concept for leaders to use as they engage their teams, continuously seeking better interactions and outcomes and sticking to important goals.

There remain times when people’s thinking will lapse into a fixed state. It helps if they try to be aware of these situations and then aim to keep them in check. As part of their efforts to grow, it is important for them to think carefully about how they are approaching a challenge and to gradually build the mental muscle memory to ingrain ‘growth thinking’ and become more settled in this approach.

We know that new year resolutions can be difficult to see through, but if they are set in the context of a growth mindset then this is a powerful combination – so why not make ‘think differently – think growth’ a goal for your new year?

A great read on the concept of the growth mindset is found in: ‘Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us’ by Daniel Pink. He also has some useful videos on his website. ‘Drive’ references the original work on the growth mindset by the educationalist Carol Dweck.

FEBRUARY:  Time for a winter weekend movie: a brief encounter with your career dreams.

Winter weekends are a good time to indulge in a classic movie and recently I settled in to enjoy Brief Encounter for the first time. Made in 1945 it tells the story of a couple whose chance meeting leads to a series of romantic rendezvous.

They resist the temptation to start an affair and instead return to their married lives. For a post-war audience this spoke to the virtues of commitment and selflessness, fitting for that era but how relevant in the modern era?

‘Reach for your dreams’ seems to be the spirit of our time: repressing emotion is bad, breaking with conventions is good.  Yet Brief Encounter has remained popular because it deals with an eternal dilemma – do we take our chances, with all the associated risks, or do we settle for what we have and make the best of it? This is a choice many of us face as we plan our careers.

Shooting for the stars is the right thing to do when we are young, and millennials are wonderfully brave in their search for the right career fit. Promotions come quickly at the start of a career and new responsibilities lead to rapid learning and big changes.  But as we head towards our mid-career the opportunities become more constrained and the risks of change increase – will the grass really be greener in a new role?

One of the benefits of greater career stability is that we can be more ambitious within our role, trying to stretch ourselves in new ways. Alternatively, we can use phases like this to re-consider the very nature of our ambition. Is this the time to consolidate to avoid burn-out, is it the time to invest in self-development to learn new skills and increase resilience? Is it a time to appreciate the more nuanced satisfactions in our work? All this may lead us to more selfless contributions – raising team spirit, investing our experience to help others learn, and promoting innovative ways for the team to work more effectively.

But if in the later stages of our career, the job has gone stale and the options for escape seem limited, this is most definitely not the time to give up and accept our fate. Rather it’s the time to build a campaign to find a way out. We can position ourselves for success by building our network and actively engaging with it, by raising our profile and promoting our personal brand. We can volunteer for activities that increase our exposure to new ideas, new people and fresh challenges both within and outside our organisation. We can also look for ways to document and publicise our successes and achievements, by writing case studies or making presentations about projects we have completed – this is no time to be shy or modest. And if this all seems too remote from any immediate career payoff, we have to accept this can be a long-term game and that the benefits may come through unexpected channels.

An interesting read on adapting your plans over the course of your life is ‘The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity’ by two London Business School professors – Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. ‘Am I ambitious enough?’ is a great article that reflects on different types of ambition, written by Anneke Bots in Flow Magazine.

MARCH:  March is a month of renewal – but at work what drives the search for a fresh approach?

In an episode (series 3) of the Netflix series ‘The Crown’, Prince Philip is seen to be inspired and invigorated by the first moon landing in 1969.

When subsequently asked to address a group of vicars on a retreat at Windsor Castle he advises them to stop their navel gazing and become ‘men of action’, like the Apollo astronauts.

Taking the initiative to drive events is a core element of leadership. Being energetic is an attractive quality and it is important to take risks and test yourself by the actions you take. But without reflection there are dangers; a reliance on instinct, emotion and simply following your gut can lead to erratic actions and decisions that miss the mark.

In ‘The Crown’ Prince Philip comes to recognise the limitations of his advice to the vicars. After a face-to-face meeting with the astronauts, he comes to appreciate that as well as being men of action they are also men of restraint, able to control impulses, weigh options and make good decisions under extreme pressure.

One of the benefits of taking time out for reflection is that it helps us make better decisions by learning the right lessons from our actions and mistakes. It can also be a moment when we rehearse our responses to different scenarios, so we are better prepared when we need to take action.  In other words, in our quest to be better leaders, let’s try to use our head to educate, not eliminate, our gut instincts.

If we manage people, then reflection also helps us to get under the surface of what others say and do. If we take a moment to ‘walk in their shoes’ we may better understand their motivations which will help us frame differently the options for our own actions.

A great read on the topic of becoming a complete leader is: Head, Heart and Guts: How the World’s Best Companies Develop Complete Leaders by David Dotlich, Peter Cairo, and Stephen Rhinesmith.

APRIL:  Springtime and a ray of hope: providing a blend of challenge and support to your team.

One of the battles fought during the war on Covid-19 was that within the media. ‘Too negative’ cried some writers about the reporting of our national response, while others reacted differently – “truth about the virus is better for us than hope” (Daniel Finkelstein, Times, 22 April 2020).

Undoubtedly there are truths that we need to hear and learn from, some of which will be unwanted or inconvenient, but in order to move forward many of us also need to be energised by a sense of hope. This is not true for everyone, but in general, positive thinking helps, so it’s about getting the balance right.

This debate made me think about the challenge we face as leaders – how to find the right balance between providing challenge and support for our team members?

Challenge is essential to our development, otherwise we languor in the comfort zone. Indeed, challenging feedback – delivered effectively by a leader can be transformational – it builds self-awareness and creates a sense of ownership for personal change. This is not to say that delivering motivational feedback is easy; people have different appetites for challenge and this needs to be acknowledged. Some want to build trust and explore issues rather than be shocked into action, whereas others will respond to a more direct approach. The pace and tone of the challenge will influence how well it lands, so thinking through how best to deliver feedback to a particular individual will pay off.

It is also helpful to recognise that a challenge is not necessarily a truth. In human relations there is rarely a single truth, instead there are different perspectives that can be explored so that the truth emerges through the relationship. It may therefore be helpful to think of a developmental challenge as an observation that should be discussed, so that your team member is fully engaged in the process of understanding the feedback and considering its implications.

This is where the need for support kicks-in.  Throwing feedback out like hand-grenades is unlikely to work, but a leader who is sincere in their intent to develop others will follow through on their observations. This need not be complex or time consuming but may involve discussion, consolidation, monitoring and plugging-in occasional interventions when they are needed.

Coaches too are sensitive to the fact that challenge has to be delivered in an environment and overall process which is designed to be completely supportive. One of the key goals of coaching is to help clients see that they have options in dealing with any situation and instil the belief that they can find the best solution for them.

MAY:  Being resilient to survive a difficult year: Mindset, Managing, Motivation and Me.

Resilience is partly about being able to bounce back, but more importantly it is about building the capacity to cope with day-to-day pressures. An expert on resilience, who talks very practically on this subject is Lucy Hone; she advises on disaster recovery in New Zealand and has also experienced personal tragedy, that she has had to overcome.

She has given a compelling TED talk on the subject and I recommend it – ‘The Three Secrets of Resilient People’, TEDx Christchurch.

I have expanded on Lucy Hone’s thinking to create a ‘9 step model of resilience’.

MINDSET

MANAGING

MOTIVATION & ME

Perspective

Prioritisation Purpose

Positivity

Pragmatism

Person #1

Plasticity People

Pause

PART 1 – MINDSET

Perspective

When something unwanted occurs, we should try to avoid asking, ‘why is this happening to me’? This starts us down the path of victimhood – which holds us back from taking an active response to a threat. Instead, our capacity to cope is increased if we recognise that ‘bad stuff’ will happen.

A perspective of ‘acceptance’ is a surprisingly powerful response because it enables us to organise our thoughts quickly and productively instead of tormenting ourselves with a period of emotional anguish when we feel the victim.

Another way that we can develop a coping perspective is to keep things in proportion. Some people immediately see the difficulties they encounter as catastrophes and our primeval threat response short-circuits us into this type of reaction. But if we engage our rational brain to ask, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ this will often help us return to a more balanced view where we can think constructively.

Positivity

People with a positive outlook tend to cope better under pressure. They will see more possible solutions and believe things will eventually get better, giving them the motivation to endure.

If you see yourself as a ‘glass half-full’ person, but don’t want to feel this way, there are techniques you can adopt to change your mindset. Start by ‘tuning in to the good things in life’, noting those things you can be grateful for, recording small events that make you smile and regularly acknowledging your colleagues for their help and ideas. This may sound trite, but there is strong evidence from modern neuroscience that this type of mindset shift is possible. You may be cynical but if you are struggling with resilience, experimenting with ways of becoming more positive is a good investment.

Plasticity

As we try to build a resilient mindset our focus needs to be directed at being adaptable not just strong – keep in mind that the strongest tree sways in the wind. Another saying that some people find helpful in building adaptability is: ‘we may not be able to stop the waves, but we can learn to surf them’. The lesson here is that we may not have much control over external events, but we can learn to control our reactions to them.

Here are two techniques that will help us take control of a tough situation. Before we react or respond we should ask, ‘is this action going to help or hurt me?’ Sometimes, when under pressure, we divert into negative behaviour such as revenge or self-pity, so quickly bringing to mind the challenge ‘will this help or hurt me?’ can steer us towards a better response.

The second technique is called the re-frame. This is best explained by an example. If we are under time pressure, we should try not see our 15-minute morning walk to the station as a frustrating start to the day but re-frame it as a simple way of building exercise into our schedule. In other words, we turn our negative mindset around and see the situation in a positive light. The re-frame is a great way to start building a more adaptable mindset.

PART 2 – MANAGING

A key element of becoming more resilient is to transition from a state where we feel a victim to one where we feel we have agency to take control. Here I have set out three techniques that help us manage the demands upon us.

Prioritisation

This is a technique for managing our workload that many of us use already. With a simple tweak we can make it even more effective. Consider segmenting your ‘to do’ list into four quadrants to highlight both the importance and urgency of an issue.

This simple technique is helpful because it highlights some unwanted aspects of the way we plan our work. Items which are urgent but not important are often prioritised because they represent ‘quick wins’, however this can be a trap because we tackle them first when our mind is rested and fresh – then we leave the important things to a later time when we are tired and ready to stop.

This kind of prioritisation grid can also reveal that important things, like our own self-development and learning, are neglected because they are not urgent.  If your work-life consistently prevents you from tackling really important personal priorities, then this may raise a bigger question about whether this situation is sustainable – are the sacrifices you are making worth it or is it time to find another gear?

Pragmatism

We can learn to manage not just the demands which others make of us, but those we make of ourselves. Simply put pragmatism means – ‘never let great be the enemy of the good’. This can be hard to achieve when you want to give your best, but sometimes we have to adjust our standards and just get the work out of the door. Ask yourself how much extra impact you will get from every extra bit of effort you put in. The law of diminishing returns suggests there is a trade-off to be made here.

People

Resilience is often a group characteristic not an individual one. So, don’t try to cope in isolation from your team – look first to build the group’s capacity.

When you are under less pressure, this is a good time to build your network with people who may be able to support you in tougher times. Working in a modern, complex organisation means you will not be able to respond to every point of pressure alone – so it is important to have allies to draw on – and then have the confidence to ask them for help.

It is also important to be able connect with someone who you can be really honest with about your work situation; someone who will help you offload the pressure and help you gain some perspective about the situation you are in.

PART 3 – MOTIVATION AND ME

This final section on the subject of building a more resilient examines the motivating factors that will help pull you through a period of difficulty and discusses how you prepare yourself physically and mentally to cope with challenges.

Purpose

Our purpose is what shapes our life. Some of us seek power and influence, others want to live a creative life or to prioritise their family. If your purpose has real meaning to you this helps build resilience because it diminishes the impact of setbacks; they become minor ‘bumps in the road’ on the long-term journey.

So, what is your purpose in life? That’s a tough question. We are so driven by keeping our ‘heads above water’ dealing with short-term goals and objectives, that we are unfamiliar with thinking about our big-picture motivations. You may therefore need some help from a family member, close friend or a coach to really think through and be honest about what you want out of life and whether your current path is taking you in the right direction.

If you are able to articulate your purpose this can be a really useful benchmark when things get tough. It can highlight that things are getting too much, that the short-term is suffocating the long-term and things need to change; equally it can help you see what’s really important and that you need to dig-in to stay on course.

Person #1

In the long-term, your capacity to cope will be enhanced if you develop new skills and a fresh way of looking at problems. Therefore, one of the best ways to build resilience is to be a lifelong learner – invest in yourself to grow your capacity – new experiences will help you see things differently and set new goals. With so many learning resources available online or via podcasts, it makes sense to take advantage of them.

Optimum performance also requires you to take care of yourself physically – exercise, diet and hydration all help your body and brain function and if you create a strong level of underlying fitness then you can draw on this in a challenging situation. If you struggle with the self-discipline to do these things, is now the time to build on all that walking you did in lockdown?

Pause

Another way to take care of yourself is to pause; take a break from work and build time for reflection. Taking a break can involve a regular vacation or it can involve mindful activities like exercise or reading. Reflection is important because it allows you to take stock of what is happening and try to get some distance between you and the stressful situation you are experiencing. To do this you may want to keep a daily journal – this ‘objectifies’ your anxieties, making it easier to put them aside, giving you the chance to rest and re-group.

You can also use periods of reflection to work out your stress triggers – when are you most vulnerable to pressure? – what emotions take over? – have you worked through similar difficulties in the past? – what resources in yourself did you draw on then? Using a rigorous reflection process to build self-awareness and reveal the ways you cope best can be one of the biggest steps forward towards resilience.

It is important that reflection does not become a time when you just dwell on the difficulties you are experiencing but is an opportunity to really think through what you can do about it. A technique to help purposeful reflection is visualisation. If you were to watch a video of yourself at work, would you like the person you see? – would you be proud of how they handle situations? If the answer is ‘no’, then try to visualise what different behaviours you would like to see and start to build a plan to transition to the new you.

JUNE:  Stormzy – from fame at Glastonbury to becoming the voice of a generation: thoughts on leading through change.

In June last year Stormzy shot to fame at Glastonbury but now in his latest album he has dealt with the price of that fame. The title of the album paraphrases a speech from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2 which articulates the heavy burden carried by those charged with major responsibility. Stormzy’s lyrics make clear the difficulty he sometimes feels in his role as a generational spokesperson. But are there lessons for business leaders in his story?

Doing things differently and using his position to set an agenda has propelled Stormzy to stardom, but more than that he has become a leader and role model. Establishing a scholarship fund for black students at Cambridge University and launching a publishing imprint with Penguin to showcase new writing from underrepresented voices has set him apart. Cambridge describe him as a ‘relatable character’ – a persuasive and humble advocate for his initiatives.

Listening to his album and reading about the person behind it I felt there may be some lessons for business leaders in his story. His creativity and endeavours in education, personal development and surfacing unheard voices perhaps point to some of the cornerstones of new, agile leadership models.

The traditional leadership virtues of controlling, planning and directing no longer appear to be sufficient. Digital innovation means that businesses are changing so radically and rapidly that greater organisational agility is essential, and this requires new ways of leading.

This is all set out in the McKinsey report ’Leading Agile Transformation: the new capabilities leaders need to build 21st-centrury organizations’. They argue that leaders need to:

  • Adopt new personal mind-sets and behaviours – from a reactive to a creative emphasis
  • Learn to help teams work in new ways – establishing networks of small empowered teams
  • Learn how to build enterprise agility into the design and culture of the whole organisation.

McKinsey’s detailed prescriptions are contained in their report. But as I read it, I was struck that as helpful as this report is, this kind of cultural shift – where leaders, like Stormzy, become enablers for talent – is an incredibly hard one for individuals to make, especially those long schooled in the traditional model.

Knowing how you want to change is only part of the story. To develop the personal tone, the focus and the long-term persistence to convince your organisation that things are going to be different requires support. This may come from colleagues, but it is also support that a coach can provide – a confidential voice that keeps you on track, gives you a safe space to play with new ideas. Ultimately a coach is there to help to lighten that leadership load.

JULY:  Summertime and the livin’ is easy: think abundantly to bring positivity into your work-life.

‘Summertime and the livin’ is easy

Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high

One of these mornin’s, you’re gonna rise up singin’

Then you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky’

Nothing captures the optimism of a summer day better than Gershwin’s lyrics, especially when sung by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald. The song Summertime touches something that we often experience on holiday: a freedom to see things more clearly, generate new ideas, believe we can fix things and sense that there are opportunities out there.

If only our minds could be open to think like this more of the time. Instead, our brain gets clogged-up with problems and limitations.

There is a phrase that is used to describe the vacation mindset and it is called ‘abundance’. A person who views the world abundantly sees many opportunities, numerous exciting things to try and if they fail at something, they will learn and move on. So, when you return to work after your holiday give yourself the challenge to do one thing differently at work – to keep your sense of abundance alive.

If you are naturally a ‘thinker’ try to find an activity that’s positive, like practising your bread or pizza making skills; if you are a ‘doer’ then maybe continue with some of your inspiring holiday reading. Try to find one new thing that is going to challenge you and keep alive that spirit of experimentation, learning and being open to opportunity.

To spur you on why not write down your abundant holiday thoughts so you can return to them later when summer is over, and you need to rekindle some of that positivity.  Thinking abundantly is a way to overcome fears and limiting beliefs about yourself – it helps you take risks and to not be overwhelmed by the downside.

The concept of abundance is discussed at length in Tara Swart’s book ‘The Source’. She looks at the science behind the idea and argues it is too important to be dismissed as ‘self-help candyfloss’.

AUGUST:  My summer reading: great leaders are like secret agents – they make sense of uncertainty.

‘The truth of what is before you is clear only to those who lack certainty.’ Michael Ondaatje

My summer reading included the latest novel by prize winning author Michael Ondaatje. ‘Warlight’ deals with the murky world of wartime espionage.

A young man tries to piece together the life of his mother, an undercover agent during WW2. To make sense of all the half-truths he is told and the fragments on record, he stitches together a narrative of her activities and what motivated her. The novel is his story, blending facts with his carefully imagined version of the missing pieces.

Business leaders constantly deal with a combination of facts and projections. Plotting a course through ambiguity is a critical attribute of a great leader; however, it is important that conviction is not mistaken for certainty.

Certainty can come across as a ‘wall’, meaning ‘no further debate is required, no new insights will be considered.’ This is what I think Ondaatje means when he says the truth is only clear to those who lack certainty.

The successful leader is agile as they flip between periods of conviction and periods of inquiry. They can persuade others about the quality of their strategy yet at other moments they remain open to new thinking.

A client of mine who worked in FMCG and led projects informed by large amounts of consumer data often talked of the importance of responding to ‘soft signals’ to get ahead of market shifts. He was adept at linking data points and seeing trends in the numbers.

Making sense of half-truths is what great leaders have in common with secret agents.

SEPTEMBER:  Reaching Q4 – a time for strategy – what does this mean for you?

As we head towards Q4 many leaders will be embarking on a period of planning and budgeting – a tough proposition in the fog of Covid 19.  It’s a task many would like to avoid this year.

I once worked with an unreconstructed entrepreneur who hated planning and was proud that his ‘strategy was to have no strategy’. Why constrain yourself with artificial limitations when you don’t have to?

Of course, he did have strategies, though they may have been accidental rather than considered. For example, he built his business on a commitment to talent. He hired the best young people and found management roles for them as the organisation grew. This worked until his talented managers became frustrated with his unwillingness to involve them in evolving the business as competition intensified.

Don’t be Afraid of Strategy:  I’d encourage emergent leaders not to fear strategy as something cumbersome. Nor is it theoretical or elusive. Strategic thinking should be a practical and rigorous process – hard work for sure, but also fun and rewarding if you really care about your part of a business and want to see it improve and grow.

Many of the key stakeholders in an enterprise look to leaders for clear analysis – the ability to get to the root-causes of inefficiencies and make sense of opportunities, risks and uncertainties. They also look for clear statements of intent – ‘what we want to achieve, why we want to achieve these things and ignore other things.’ This is what constitutes a strategy – it is not a plan; it is a framework to guide decision-making and investment.

Think Deep to Act Fast:  To get to this point of clarity successful strategists think through the fundamentals of the operations they control, they know how they make money and provide value and where their costs are. They know where their operation can flex and where it is rigid, and they are able to create future scenarios to test and refine their intentions. With these insights the strategic leader is more agile – better able to react when the context changes. You can never know what the future will bring, but strategic thinking ensures you really understand your business, and this loads the odds in your favour. Without a strategy you are just guessing.

One of the reasons why strategic thinking is hard is that it requires determination to constantly question the assumptions that underpin your business model. ‘Are we clear what these really are? Do they remain valid?’ This ability to take nothing for granted will be accompanied by a restless curiosity – the creative strategist will always be observing trends, monitoring feedback, properly evaluating projects and initiatives and talking to customers, colleagues and investors. Thus, they will combine detailed knowledge of the business and its operations with a profound interest in the big picture – they can zoom both in and out as they build strategy.

Strategy for Everyone:  Thinking in this way is not just the responsibility of those at the top of the organisation. Teams at every level can benefit from efforts to create the headspace to think through the way they work and find ways to improve. Thinking like an outsider can be a great technique to bring fresh ideas into the team and ask hard questions about why things are done the way they are and whether this is the right way for the future?

If this all sounds superhuman, keep in mind that strategic thinking is the ultimate act of inclusion. No one has all the answers and so the successful strategist may be someone whose real skill is to bring together the people who can challenge the status quo, provide the insights to create clarity and frame a powerful statement of intent.

If you are a leader, at whatever level, and are switching roles from juggler to ring master, you may want to look at the work of Stephen Bungay, the author of  The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions, and Results. Think deep to act fast is his mantra.

OCTOBER:  It’s Halloween: beware the psychic vampires at work and learn how to manage difficult people.

I had an amusing catch-up with a friend recently.  She owns a womenswear retail business and speaks passionately about her work, aiming to create a warm, special atmosphere in her store.

But there are some customers who, whether they buy anything or not, kill the mood and ruin her day – she calls them ‘psychic vampires’. They are aloof, indifferent, joyless. We all know that ‘psychic vampires’ spook the workplace too. They drain the life out of teams, they lack enthusiasm, fail to commit and most importantly their negative energy spreads.

Leading a team is hard enough without being undermined by a colleague, and in my experience one of the most common coaching problems I get asked about is how to deal with a difficult team member.

Look at Yourself First:  The place to start is to look at your own role in the relationship. This may seem an odd suggestion, but your behaviour and reactions are the things you have most control over. Is there anything that you are doing that could be causing the problem? Are you showing enough interest in their work? Are you being clear in setting out your expectations? Could you modify your management style to bring out the best in the other person?

Experiment and Differentiate:  Try experimenting with new ways of interacting, recognising that people have different needs when it comes to management. There may be a need to respond in a way that better suits this individual. If in doubt, have a conversation with them and maybe you can find a solution together.

Aim to Understand:  Another thing to look out for is an underlying motive or condition that may be driving their behaviour. Again, a conversation can be the best way to surface this, though people are unlikely to open up without a trusting relationship, so investing some time to build trust will pay-off. A calm, measured and empathetic tone is appropriate in these types of meeting.

Set Clear Expectations:  If the poor attitude continues, then it can be appropriate to set goals and targets around the person’s contribution to team spirit and remind them that we all have a responsibility to make a positive impact to the work culture.

Keep Calm, Stay Strong:  If there is anger or cynicism in how the person is responding, then it is important to keep your emotions under control and remain respectful. It is also important that you are able to articulate your perspective on the situation and explain how their behaviour falls short. At this stage it is worth keeping a diary of the meetings you hold and make notes on their performance, perhaps also sounding out others they interact with. Beyond this, if the relationship is broken, you will need to involve your HR representatives in a disciplinary process.

If you want to read further on this subject a classic text on the science of human interactions is ‘Games People Play’ by Eric Berne.

NOVEMBER:  Will you hit your targets for the year? A reflection on success, science fiction and cycling.

Here’s an uplifting idea to contemplate as you look back at your achievements over the last year.

“90% of Everything is Crap!”

This is known as Sturgeon’s law and surprisingly, I believe it points to something really quite positive and helpful.

Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer in the 1950s who got fed up with people telling him that sci-fi literature is crap – he reacted with the epithet that now bears his name. This could be dismissed as sour grapes but the simple truth – one that is easily missed when we first encounter Sturgeon’s law – is that exceptional performance is in fact a rare phenomenon and if we acknowledge this it could help many of us at work.

The data, and think here of the bell curve of performance, bear this out but we tend to ignore this because we are blinded by stories. Over the last 20 years we have lived through a cult of ‘excellence’ where best-selling business texts and biographies of business heroes have told wondrous tales of exceptional outcomes. These are created to entertain but are they helpful when we think about our own performance?

Trying to emulate our heroes is unlikely to work because success is individual and contextual. Also, if we set out with the goal of becoming the star this can distort our behaviour, for example we may forget the team and become overly self-centred. Another reason we cannot mimic success is that a lot of important lessons arise when things go wrong, and these are stories that don’t often get told. As the scientist Thomas Edison famously put it, Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results.”

I sense that many of us are better off not wasting time trying to ‘hit the ball out of the park’ but instead focusing on methods of improvement that relate to our context, that we can control. We can start this process by thinking a bit harder about what is going well at work, what is not and what we can change. And here perhaps is the most important bit – we must be honest with ourselves – are we giving our best or holding back? Only we know the answer and can determine what this means for us.

This type of careful approach to performance improvement reminded me of the theory of marginal gains. This was an approach that powered the British cycling team to many years of Olympic success. They worked out that in the hyper-competitive world of top-flight sport paying attention to small changes could add up to make a big difference to their overall success.

Foolishly I thought this only made sense for those working at an elite level as they tried to find an edge, but we can all embrace this logic. If we pay attention to our behaviour at work and make adjustments, trying out new things from time-to-time, we too can grow and develop and hopefully lock in these improvements to nudge ourselves along the bell curve of performance.

DECEMBER:  The year draws to a close and some thoughts about endings.

Endings are important in organisations. The end of a business cycle, of a project or the relationship with a valued colleague are all events that need to be handled carefully. With the year drawing to a close I felt December could therefore be a good time to think about endings.

Endings aren’t easy – just ask the Beatles. Their brilliant, creative decade of collaboration ended messily.

Was George Harrison’s contribution ever properly recognised? Did they create an agreement where they could work solo as well as record with the band? Did they even discuss these issues? Some immediate lessons here, perhaps.

Don’t expect simple, tidy endings

Paul had tried to tie things up neatly with their last recorded song ‘The End’ on the Abbey Road album. This finished with the couplet:

“And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”

They did all become friends again and I’m sure this involved someone taking a risk and showing their love for the group which was then reciprocated. However, the end of the Beatles illustrates that it can be foolish to expect simple, tidy endings. If we want to avoid pain the best we can do is to think ahead, address tensions and actually care about how we want things to work out. 

Every end is also a beginning

This is a cliché, but in business we want this to be true. We want our project groups to come up with great concepts that can then be handed over and baked into BAU. But with this type of ending, such as the conclusion of a phase or part of a process, we need to work carefully to make an effective transition. Have you tested or piloted your ideas? Is your documentation clear? Are your stakeholders ready? In other words, has your ending made it easier for those who must now start to make their contribution?

Begin with the end in mind

There is a great piece of advice about endings from David Peterson who is Head of Coaching at Google. If you are helping a colleague with their development, Peterson recommends that your discussions should – start fast – go deep – end strong. A strong ending is one where your colleague can achieve meaningful, lasting change and to do this they must be able to answer these questions positively:

  • Insight:  Do they know what they need to develop?
  • Motivation:  Are they willing to invest the time and energy that it takes?
  • Capability:  Do they have the skills and knowledge required?
  • Real-world practice:  Do they take advantage of opportunities to use their skills?
  • Accountability:  Do they feel accountable, to themselves or others?

Because these questions are so powerful, I think they can be shared at the start of a development conversation. Why not be clear about where you want to get to at the beginning of your work together? Stephen Covey sums this up by saying ‘begin with the end in mind’.

Stephen Covey is author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’.

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David Tong is an accredited Executive Coach – trained at Ashridge, now part of Hult Business School and at The OCM.

I have been coaching for over 10 years, but in 2020 I decided to create a series of blogs on coaching, leadership and personal development topics. These take themes that are appropriate to the seasons and that relate to coping with Covid-19 – the pandemic that came to dominate the year.

If you are interested in coaching or looking for a coach, I hope you find these ideas helpful.

David Tong

07768 822298 or David@davidtongconsulting.com

Copyright: David Tong Consulting

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