Vulnerable and Teamwork

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Recently, while part of an Executive Coaching assignment at HBS (Harvard Business School), I was struck by how a team of leaders when, once given the space to be vulnerable with each other, the commitment and productivity of the group soared.productivity One of my tasks in working with this group of 8 diverse senior global business leaders was ensuring they work as a cohesive team. Though we focused on understanding cultural differences, agreeing the rules engagement, expectations, etc., it was the exercise where people opened up and were vulnerable, that had the most profound impact on gelling the group together.

This is supported by the work of Patrick Lencioni in the Five Dysfunctions of a Team where he suggests that vulnerability will greatly enhance a trusting environment, which he defines as “the confidence among team members that their peer intentions are good”.   As a result, this team over the course of 8 weeks demonstrated tremendous commitment to each other (not let anyone down mentality), great work ethic, really smart collaborative ideas and, ultimately an environment where they learned so much from each other. Why did this happen?

Firstly, as the old adage goes “you are most likely to tell your darkest secrets to total strangers” plays out because there is minimal risk that of any perceived or otherwise consequence; therefore, it is easy to be vulnerable. Most human beings really do care and when somebody shows some degree of vulnerability, people naturally want to support and help. But surely this can work to some degree with work colleagues also who, for the most part, have no personal affiliation.

Secondly, it puts everybody on a very even keel. Being vulnerable is a great equalizer, it shows you are human and what is really going on beneath that exterior. When people feel that they are among equals, they are more likely to open up and support each other.

Finally, what was clearly apparent with all the leaders at HBS was an individual strength and confidence, which worked perfectly in alignment with vulnerability. Perhaps it was this unique blend of strength and vulnerability (similar to Collins’ resolve and humility) that provided the basis for optimal teamwork based on dependability/reliability (outward strength) as well as trust/believability (inward vulnerability).

It is important to mention that being vulnerable is not about exposing weaknesses, but rather being truthful about who you are – what’s your real story??

Timing of Training

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Billions of dollars are spent annually on a variety of professional development and training initiatives. In an attempt to improve business performance, there is an understandable belief that if you want people to step up, one must provide the necessary skills and capabilities to do so. However, research by Beer, Finnstrom and Schrader provide caution as to the timing and context of the training. In essence what they are saying is, that unless the training fits into where the organization is at in its evolution, money spent on training could be money down the drain.

So in expanding this further, the consideration is to ensure there is a state of readiness for change as Edmondson and Wooley so eloquently put it that “organizations need “fertile soil” in place before the “seeds” of training interventions can grow”. 38617226 - watering can watering young plants in pile of soil A simple example of this would be where a group of people are sent on a training program and, though their manager might have authorized it, he or she pays little attention to it and has little concern about how they might integrate the learning upon their return. In fact, if anything, the pressure is piled on to make sure they catch up on the time they spent away from their daily responsibilities. Consequently, no changes, so why bother in the first place?

Beer, Finnstrom and Schrader have suggested that a context, or the right environment, needs to happen first through clarity around the values and strategic direction of the organization. This then feeds into defining roles and responsibilities which in turn helps to identify any barriers that might exist. Specific coaching is then suggested around finalizing the required context and then and only then, the training necessary to execute effectively. Consequently, everybody will fully appreciate the reason for the training and will be bought into the necessity of providing the space for the integration of the learning.

Therefore, don’t conduct training to keep people happy, because HR suggest it or, to stop some high potential from leaving. All of these reasons, and it does happen, are a waste of time and money. Instead, as a leader, ensure that the environment is created to receive the training and allow it to bloom. And if it’s not, put the training on hold and take a step back to evaluate the actual direction the business is taking first.

Positive Power

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When people get promoted, it is a wonderful thing. It often comes with prestige, more money, exciting challenges and just the general recognition that is associated with it. It also comes with more responsibility and sometimes the added concern that what got you to this position may not necessarily allow you do it. Think of the best sales person becoming sales manager. So how do you bridge that gap? Some might argue that with greater responsibility comes greater power. In simple terms it means that you can exert greater influence on somebody in order to get a task complete. And with most things in life there is a right way and wrong way of doing that.
34482001 - executive businessman accuses one of his employees

Let’s briefly discuss the wrong way, which sadly for some might come very natural. This is where you force your opinion, demand results, berate people in public and, for the most part, the minimum gets done. There is a short term-ism to this approach and results will only be forthcoming if you keep re-enforcing this behavior. However, eventually people will get tired of it and fight back or they will leave. There are countless studies to support the fact that people typically tend to leave their jobs because of the abuse of “power” by a supervisor or manager.

Thankfully there is an alternative use of power bearing in mind that, when you rise to a new position, what you say or do can be viewed very differently. In his study of power and how to use it in a positive way, Dacher Keltner proposes that “practicing empathy, generosity and gratitude” are a much more effective way of getting things done. There’s a novel thought; be a decent person. Sadly, these virtues often do not come easy to people and its requires hard work, or does it really? Interestingly, going back to the sales person who became sales manager, empathy, generosity and gratitude were probably very common with customers, so what not just do the same with your reports? These virtues (or skills) exists within the vast majority of us, therefore all we simply need to is recognize their value and utility within leadership.

This does not pre-suppose either that this type of leader is soft or not willing to hold people accountability. If anything, they can be quite demanding and challenging, but its more about how they go about it, and the appropriate behaviors they demonstrate. They exhibit strong emotional intelligence and, in so doing, not alone possess self-awareness, but also great awareness of others. They see their success as being predicated on the success of others and therefore channel their power in that direction.

Training Needs – Hard Skills v Soft Skills

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What skills would most benefit an organization? Based on research coming from Stanford University, most people view the answer to this question quite differently when considering their own needs versus the needs of say their peers. More specifically, when asked what they would benefit most from themselves, it tends to be things like time management, finance, strategy, computer skills, etc. These are normally characterized as left brain or technical skills. Interestingly when it comes to identifying what others need, the tendency is to advise more towards communication, interpersonal, conflict resolution, negotiation skills, etc all of which typically fall under right brain or “soft” skills categorization.

So why is there such an anomaly? The answer to this lies in the fact that technical skills are generally perceived as developmental, something that will make you better. On the other hand soft skills are often seen as remedial; fixing something that is wrong. This in turn creates a psychological barrier which forces people to avoid anything that might be perceived as wrong and therefore a weakness.

The reality is that most of the deficiencies that exist in organizations are soft skills related. This starts when people are hired during which the focus is typically on technical abilities. The people doing the hiring are often not equipped to have the “soft” skills types of discussions and therefore avoid it. This in turn creates a situation where the wrong person is hired and the problem just continues to perpetuate itself.

One solution to this lies in facing head on that most organizations have a greater need for “soft” skills development than they think. It should form the part of every employee’s professional development. Needs analysis should focus on what the organization needs rather than what you think for yourself. Otherwise you may end up spending a lot of money fulfilling the perceived needs of the individual but with little value to the organization.

Lean Coaching

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coaching 3Lean Manufacturing has been an attribute of progressive production systems for many years. It was initiated as part of Toyota’s manufacturing process to eliminate waste and ultimately boost productivity and reduce costs. In a recent edition of the Harvard Business Journal, contributor Steve Blank, discussed the use of lean techniques in entrepreneurial start ups. Again within this context of lean, the argument is made that there are quicker more efficient ways of navigating the start up process that can lead to better outputs and ultimately speedier success.

To use the term “Lean Coaching” might almost sound like heresy to some coaches. There might be fears of expediting the process, being insensitive to people’s needs and just being more concerned about a result rather than the process and people involved. However these thoughts stem from a lack of understanding as to what the concept of lean truly means and for that matter, coaching.

Lean Coaching considers all aspects of the coaching engagement. It’s not just the sessions where coach and client converse; it’s also about the activities in between that emerge from these sessions. But more importantly it has to do with the agreement between coach and client as to how best to affect a solution. Coaching is often driven by the supposed “tried and tested” processes of so many sessions over a period of time. Lean Coaching is solution driven and involves helping the client achieve a solution in an efficient manner, with consideration to both costs and time.

In order to be effective in this method, coaches need to be the following:

  • Solution Oriented – start with the end in mind and get to challenge quickly
  • Skills Mastery – become masterly proficient at using coaching skills and tools
  • Multi Facet Communication – utilize all forms of communicate (text, e-mail, phone, etc) to build and maintain momentum
  • Measure Success – be able to demonstrate achievement

This may appear mechanical but don’t forget this is about the client who is at the core of what coaching is all about. It offers an effective way of helping clients realize solutions in an efficient manner; what client’s wouldn’t want this?

The Value of Professional Development

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According to Dan Pink in his book, Drive, there are three components to driving motivation within employees, namely Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy. He argues that essentially people want to understand how their role fits into the overall goal of the business, they need the skills to do it and finally they flourish when given the freedom to execute.

Purpose and Autonomy are pretty self explanatory so let’s explore Mastery in some further detail. Mastery does not imply that you must be the best or that you have nothing further to learn. Rather mastery is viewed as a journey; it is this pursuit of constant learning that enables you to adapt to changing circumstances and ultimately strive towards constant improvement. The more common term to this is ongoing professional development.

Many organizations are looking for ways to enhance the levels of contribution of their employees and ongoing professional development is certainly a key component of this. But when is training right and what are some of the pitfalls? Here are a few tips.

  • Developmental opportunities should be driven firmly by organization needs. It should not be perceived as an employee benefit or to meet a training hour goal.
  • Accountability of the trainee should be built in. This can be in the form of a project submission or an exam but something that ensures that there is means of measuring commitment and retention of what has been learned.
  • The integration of the learning back into the organization cannot be overlooked (though it is often forgotten). When people go back to their busy responsibilities what accommodations are being made to practice their new skills?

If these are followed or used as criteria for training, the thorny issue of what is Return on Investment lessens. In truth training can rarely be assessed in such tangible forms as money, but if its benefits can be demonstrated through improved processes, behaviors and / or activities, then this will become an acceptable alternative.

So rather than asking what will be the ROI, simply ask what will be different as a result of this training and how will we know. If you get an acceptable answer. then the training is right.



Selling Training / Coaching to Organizations

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employeesProfessional development is not an easy sell. In fact in many organizations, training is seen as a discretionary cost and, if budgets are tight, it is often one of the first things to be cut. This maybe perceived as understandable as often associated benefits are less tangible and impact is not typically immediate.

Consequently for those selling their training or coaching services, one needs to be mindful of the agenda of those to whom they are selling to. Quite often it starts with speaking with a Human Resources representative who is charged with the responsibility of identifying a suitable program and vendor. They in turn will typically present and justify their recommendation to the Business Leader of the people identified for training. So here are a few key considerations (and associated questions) to think about depending on whom you are dealing with.

What’s Important to Human Resources
1. Curriculum
What does the program involve in terms of training manual and assessments used? How long does it last and what experiential components are there?
2. Trainer Qualification
Who are the trainers, what’s their style and backgrounds?
3. Testimonials
Who else has done this training? What has been their experience? Can we speak with somebody?
4. Cost (if coming from OD budget)
How much will it cost and how many per class?

What’s Important to the Business Leader
5. Business Benefits
How will my group be better as a result? What are the deliverables? What has been your experience with a similar discipline in another organization?
6. Program Duration
How do you propose to do this training? How much time will participants be away from their work? What else do they have to do?
7. Participation
Who are the best people to put in the first group or should I put those who need it most?
8. Cost (if coming from business unit budget)
How much will it cost and what’s the return on investment

Final Tip: Consider coaching the Human Resource representative on how best to subsequently sell to the Business Leader by sharing all 8 tips.

Positive Perception

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I met with a friend recently and upon greeting him with my usual “well, how are things going?” he responded, “couldn’t be better”, which I found extremely refreshing. I was struck by my immediate response as though I expected the usual, busy with the kids, work sucks, or something else far less positive than the response I got. More importantly it wasn’t fake, he genuinely felt that life was so good that “it couldn’t be better”.

This in turn got me thinking about why more people don’t feel this way. If you polled 100 random people, you might get that positive response from around 10%.   And so it begs the questions “why?” The answer lies in the fact that we all see things a certain way based on own filter systems; these form our perception, which can be positive or negative. If you have a more negative tendency I would like to offer the following 5 tips to help create a positive shift.

  • Consciously seek the positive – you have control of your frame of mind and the lenses through which you see things. Look more for the good and it’s amazing how much is actually there.
  • Stop watching the news – as a society we are sadly drawn to bad news and though it’s good to be informed, there is a balance; sadly the media does not provide it.
  • Give back to your community – there is a tremendous gift in giving and research (Aker) has proved that helping others actually makes you happier.
  • Be the player – too many people are in the victim mode and blame others for whatever their misfortunes might be (parents, teachers, boss, and government). Take responsibility for you and be the main player in your life.
  • Pursue your dream – determine what you want and just start it even if it might take a day, a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Very often the process is more fulfilling than the outcome.

If the above resonates with you, then you are already on the way. If you think it stupid or impossible, though it might be understandable relative to your experiences to date, you do have a choice whether to do something about it or not.   But just imagine what life could be like if you were able to say “it couldn’t be better”. You just need to get out of your own way.

Learning that Works

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trainingWhen we were in school and/or college we became very accustomed to the lecture style of teaching which is still very much in vogue today. In this system teachers share their point of view and the attentive ones take copious notes while the rest drift off to “eyes open” sleep. Periodically a teacher comes along who is engaging, where knowledge is truly imparted and people actually learn something from the experience.

As adults we demand more of training because time is critical. Programs have had to become adapted to facilitate what has become known as “adult learning” because we want experiential, engaging and practical, unlike what we got at school.   The following are key traits of such “learning that works” that should be considered relative to the personal or professional developmental decisions you might have to make.

  • Content – this needs to be relevant and the new knowledge must enhance some aspect of your capability.
  • Environment – how the space is arranged and facilities available creates engagement that ensures a conducive setting for learning.
  • Teachers – subject matter expertise builds credibility and the motivation to learn; great teaching style connects the content and the student.
  • Participants – minds need to be freed to receive and process new knowledge. Ensure separation from daily routine by moving offsite and limiting cell phone usage.
  • Coaching – there has to be some mechanism to translate the learning into real world application. Having some accountability and support via coaching can make this happen.

These may seem very obvious but are often overlooked due to other conflicting priorities. Billions of dollars are spent annually on training, yet the full return is often not realized due to the absence of one or more of the above. Take the time to do your due diligence and you will see the training ROI.

Coaching & Advice

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adviceFor the purist coaches, the idea of providing a client with advice is almost taboo as we believe that the answer lies within. This is true but if we have additional knowledge or information that might be helpful, surely it also beholds us to share this so that the client can make an even more informative decision. The trick of course is how you impart this knowledge. It should be presented in such a manner that the client can process but they still retain the choice as to whether to use or not.

In a recent HBR article, the pitfalls of seeking advice were presented which then lead to some strategies for ensuring it is done effectively. Authors Margolis and Garvin provide the following step by step approach to providing sound advice so that it has the maximum impact. This is viewed from the perspective of the person providing the advice.

Step 1 – Find the Right Fit – are you the right person to offer this type of support?

Step 2 – Develop a Shared Understanding – build alignment around the challenge but do not assume ownership

Step 3 – Craft Alternatives – assist with identifying all the possibilities

Step 4 – Converge on a Decision – prioritize and then select desired actions

Step 5 – Put into Action – provide support and accountability

This is based on considerable research in multiple industries and, if anything, serves to validate much of what coaching is all about. Advice can always be provided so long as it is presented as information that the client has freedom to accept or reject.   Avoid being directive and instead be suggestive. An example might be, “I had a client (or report) in a similar situation and they did the following…………… what do you think?” All too often, leaders, managers, mentors and even some coaches (with the best of intentions) go too far by telling somebody what they should do; consequently they can assume ownership. So the next time somebody seeks your advice, don’t be so quick to solve their problem, but rather follow the steps above.