Bad news and leadership – Part 1

Bad news is not the best thing in the world but as a leader but you do have to listen to it, deal with it, work with its implications, results and possibly take decisive action because of it. Over the next couple of blog articles I am going to look at aspects of how you can deal with different types of bad news as a leader. The first one of these is the type that can come from within your team or somewhere else in your organisation.

Picture the scene, and we have all been there: you are on the way to an important meeting or to do something else; your phone rings or someone approaches and you hear the words that mean that something potentially big is coming: “Hello, it is XXXX, have you got a couple of minutes?” Or “Are you aware of….”

The first thing to do in this scenario is get ready to listen. If someone is taking the (potentially brave) step of flagging something up to you, you owe it to them to listen and concentrate on what they are trying to tell you. This is one of those things that must be dealt with at the time it happens. You might have to shuffle your diary or change your plans to accommodate it, but you must find the time for it. If you don’t, then how valued do you think that person will feel? Even if you schedule a meeting later in the day with the person, the chances are the key message will be lost as the mood and motivation will have gone.

Part of getting ready for listening is getting the environment right. If the office is open-plan or the meeting happens on the shop floor, then the chances are that people won’t speak freely and the true problem won’t be identified. So, move somewhere with a bit of quiet and privacy and switch your phone to silent, or off, so you can focus on the person you are meeting with.

This may be a small issue that won’t take too much time or effort but also, it could be an “Enron” which could place the entire organisation in jeopardy but you won’t know until you get more information – lots more! So, before you start jumping to conclusions or planning solutions, get all the relevant information. Some personalities (in MBTI terms, ES’s and EN’s in particular) like to do their thinking “out loud” so won’t necessarily listen or gather all the data before they start speaking. This is a mistake in this scenario so give the person time and space to give you the whole story before coming to any conclusions. You may well find that you have to get information from other people or have to use some constructive questioning techniques to get to the root cause of what is going on.

The other key thing to find out is: what the person is hoping will happen as a result of the conversation. Obviously, some things are more possible/likely than others but you need to manage their expectations about the likely outcome at this early stage. If appropriate, you will also have to keep them updated as events unfold.

Finally, you need to promise some form of investigation or action to resolve the point(s) that have been raised to you. Sitting on it or ignoring it is not an option as it will lose both you and the organisation credibility. Taking action may harm you politically but if you are going to be an authentic leader, then you need to do something about it.

I know of a couple of organisations where a team flagged a particular circumstance that would have grave financial consequences to their leadership for 2 years before those circumstances actually happened. With a bit of analysis, planning and open communication, the organisations would have been in a far better shape to weather the financial storm that engulfed them. And the leadership of those organisations would be far more credible and supported in the future by those teams….

So, in summary:

  • Bad news can come from anywhere and you need to listen to all of it – particularly when it comes from within your organisation.
  • You may need to re-schedule or re-plan your day a result of spending time receiving it.
  • Listening is key before getting in to solutions/actions mode.
  • You then have to take action – ignoring it is not an option – even if it harms you politically.
  • Communications with key stakeholders, as ever, are key.

Changing team members to improve performance

Sport continues to provide some excellent team scenarios that all leaders can learn from. I have used football management as a source of inspiration before and there was more useful advice earlier this year. Sam Allardyce is the current manager of West Ham United FC. He was talking about the realism needed about expectations once major changes have been made to a squad. He used the example of making 9 changes to a group of players and the fact that it takes time to bed down the team. He was forthright about the fact that club owners view changing team members to be a magic bullet to improve results. Rightly, he said that it takes time to do the team building activities required to bring people together and raise performance to the level expected.

So what does that mean for leaders in business? As in football, in business team members need to feel valued and it takes time to build the mutual trust required for mutual reliance. The key thing is spending time together planning, training and testing so that everyone knows how people are going to react to scenarios and who best to use in given circumstances.

It also means that if there are changes to an established group – whether it is performing well or not – there needs to be a period of bedding in. Leaders need to invest in the team, both time and money, for development activities to reduce the time and lost performance that will be the impact of the changes. Even if a leader brings in people who are high performers to drive a step change in delivery, then it will still take time for the everyone to come together and find the new level.

A personal example of this: I used to the in the Royal Navy and the policy was for “trickle drafting” so a ship’s company was always gradually changing. This meant that things were always in a bit of flux in the team. It was only when the ship was deployed and the crew was static for 6 or so months that the team properly came together, aired the issues that needed to be raised and resolved, and learned to trust and rely on each other. The change in atmosphere when the ship returned to the UK and the team started to change again was marked and very rarely positive. It often took significant amounts of training and practice to return the ship to the state of performance it had before.

In summary: if you are changing your team, particularly to improve results, then do not expect progress to happen instantaneously. There is lots of work to be done to take the team to its new level.

Player motivation at the world cup – Part II

I found some of the over and under-achievement by various teams at the football world cup earlier this year fascinating. I am going to take a look at some of the issues that this raised, particularly around motivation, and also the impact on the management of teams in the UK Premiership.

As a non-football fan, I find the impact of teams such as Costa Rica incredible. It is a small country, who were fully behind their team and the players knew this. There didn’t appear to be any “rock stars” but there was a shared ethos, passion and team spirit that meant that meant that everyone wanted to raise their performance to avoid letting their team and their country down.

Let’s contrast that approach with those of Brazil or Portugal: both of these countries relied on superstars. This has some real risks: if the superstar is not playing at their best – everyone has off-days…. – then the whole team won’t get the results they want. Also, if they get injured or suspended, then the rest of the team need to raise their game which may not be that easy in the heat of a tournament. Another way this approach could cause problems is that the superstar can mask the shortfalls in performance of the rest of the team. Then, if they have an off day, the superstar can be working hard with no hope of getting the win they are looking for. This is very demotivating and also presents some physical risks around injury and fatigue.

So why is all this relevant to managers and leaders in organisations? Is your team heavily dependent on one key player who masks shortfalls in other team members? If they are having an off day, on holiday or even off sick, does the performance of your organisation sink? Will their motivation and performance dip if they feel they are not being supported by the rest? Another reason for this being important is that the reliance on one key individual or small group presents a real risk to the business: what happens if they decide to leave, or retire or are incapacitated long term? It is your job as the leader to look at the bigger picture and try and mitigate those obvious risks that could do the organisation damage at a later date.

There was an African side who, famously, had their appearance money flown to Brazil during the tournament. The incident raises a number of issues: is money really a suitable motivator for people to put their bodies on the line for their team or country. Bearing in mind the amount of money in football at the moment, and the massive amount that the stars are being paid then money really doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to them. This was really an issue of trust: the players didn’t really trust the parent associations to pay them what had been agreed to go to the tournament. Not a good way to encourage loyalty and high performance!

The issue of trust is a key one: you have to trust that your team are going to deliver for you and more importantly, they have to believe that you are going to deliver for them.

Finally, the Premiership season has just started again and there has been some discussion in the media about preparation and key team members’ readiness for the new campaign. Fatigue and injury before key activities and high pressure situations are not good things, so my question to you is: are there key people in your team that are permanently working under pressure? Who are so important that they are always busy and your whole team relies on them?

If there are, then what are you doing to provide them with the recovery time (and thanks) that they need to make sure that they are operating at peak performance when you really need them?

The World Cup – how business can learn about motivation from football – Part 1

I will hold my hands up and say that I am not a football fan. I really don’t get the fuss. And the fact that I can’t have a beer whilst I am sat in the ground watching a game means that I am highly unlikely to spend the approx. £90 to go and see a premiership match in the UK.

However it is interesting to watch what is happening in the managerial area of the game, particularly at a national level. It is always going to be hard to motivate a group of people who are (generally) hugely rewarded compared to the rest of the population to put their bodies on the line for their team and country. The recent world cup tournament showed some very different styles and some very different levels of success in motivation.

At the very top of the game – and I am talking top 10 countries in the world – it is likely that fitness levels are likely to be fairly close: certainly within a few percent in any given position. It is also likely that skill levels are broadly similar: ie each footballer puts in a suitable amount of effort in training to hone their skills to the level needed to play internationally. Yes, there are the superstars of the game with exceptional levels of skill, but the majority of the players are good enough to be playing in the tournament.

This means that there are a few areas remaining as variables, pretty much all of which the manager has a big input in to: the team selection, the tactics, the formation to be used and, finally, the motivation he imparts to the players.

Have a think about some of the teams that were at the tournament: who over-achieved? Who under-achieved? Why do you think that was?

In a couple of weeks, I will post another blog with some ideas that I have got.

Being a leader… a lonely place?

How can you be lonely when you are working with other people? Leaders are in a position where they are directing an organisation or a group of people – otherwise they wouldn’t be leaders. This means that they have to have a broad perspective on what is happening around their group and be thinking about how they are going to react and what changes may be necessary to achieve their aims – both for themselves and their organisation. So they are thinking on 3 levels: strategic (what is going to happen in the distant future), tactical (what do I need to get done in the short term) and the organisational (what do I need to implement to position us for the future).

This is a different level of thinking to the majority of the rest of the group. Their focus is getting their tasks done and other aspects of their lives. This means that they are not looking a distance ahead and it is likely that the need for change is going to be a surprise. Their perspective is most likely: what does this mean for me? Do I need to work harder? Is my job/role safe?

This difference in perspective means that the person in a leadership role needs in a very different mental space from the rest of the team or group. They may also have more information about what is going on or they may have access to other resources that their team members don’t.

Can you be friends with people that you are leading? Probably not: you may have to make difficult decisions and in that case, the needs of the team and organisation are paramount. Also, if your team think you have favourites, then that can weaken your credibility as a leader.

So: not only does the leader have to be the dynamo that drives the organisation and sets its direction, they also are working alone when they are doing it. This means that you have to have other aspects of your life that can provide the relationships that humans need to thrive. A lonely place? At work, unfortunately yes.

Not being afraid to change direction

One of the main functions of leadership is setting out a vision for the future and defining the path to get there. This doesn’t involve too much detail or analysis but letting your team know what you are thinking and the benefits of achieving the aims you set out.

The paths we and our organisations take is rarely (never!) linear. Life is not static, change is happening all around us.  Sometimes we drive this change, sometimes it is imposed upon us, but in both cases the effect is the same: the aim and the plan may need to be revisited. Even if the end point still looks right, then it is highly likely that your predicted route will have to adapt to the new circumstances.

As a leader, you have to take account of changes that you can foresee as well as those that happen along the way. This means you need to be both proactive in looking ahead but also reactive to circumstances. When things change, then a leader must not be afraid to re-evaluate both the aim and the predicted path they are taking their team along.

This means that flexibility and adaptability are vital weapons in a leader’s armoury as they should always be looking at new ways of delivering their aims. Teams get confidence from a leader that demonstrates that they are capable of using new information or circumstances to improve the plan as it shows they are listening and paying attention to what is going on around them. It also shows that they have the courage to change direction when it is required rather than sticking to what they may know best.

In summary: don’t be scared of changing your approach or plan in the face of new information or changing circumstances. Being too rigid can mean that you get left behind….

Don’t be afraid of changing tack

Change is coming…are you ready for it?

Over the last few weeks, I have read some interesting articles and seen some great presentations about the way the world is changing around us. I would like to share a couple of them with you:

And also these articles about disruptive technology:

Hardware is dead

Catching the wave

These came on the back of a very entertaining presentation from Rupert Soames, CEO of Aggreko, talking about how we need to supply reliable power to the developing world whilst simultaneously de-carboning our economy AND maintaining our competitiveness. Prior to that, I had been to see a presentation by Jon Moynihan of PA Consulting talking about the continued economic decline of the west.

So what has all this got to do with you and your team?

Change is happening on a macro-economic level and the pace of that change is accelerating. Leaders and teams have to make sure that they are looking at the horizon to spot anything coming that will be disruptive to their business. The pace of technology change is increasing and now organisations can come under pressure from really unforeseen sectors.

Have you had a talk with your team about how things are changing in your market place? What they think needs to change in the organisation? How your organisation could contribute by saving energy, doing things differently or even not at all to reduce resource consumption?

These are all good topics to have a discussion about at team meetings as people feel valued if they feel they are being listened to.

Some key lessons from Richard Branson

Someone on a forum I am a member of posted a link to this video when we were discussing the often fraught relationship between banks and business that bank with them. I watched it and realised that there were some really key lessons in it that were put very succinctly. Click on the title below:

Richard Branson – Advice for Entrepreneurs

The key message is less than 20 seconds in to the video: a company is simply a group of people. Later on, he talks about giving his management team freedom to succeed and make mistakes. Delegation is a strong theme for him as it is the only way that he can manage the portfolio of entities that make up the Virgin Group. In fact, Richard Branson is someone who has built a team of key lieutenants around him who have complementary skills. This enables him to concentrate on the things that he is good at and enjoys.

Industry in the UK has changed massively from the days when there were large numbers of people on production lines, effectively serving massive machines. Now, companies are defined by their processes and intellectual property – which largely reside inside the heads of their staff…. Keeping your people on side and feeling valued is more important now than ever before.

The importance of happiness

Happiness might seem to be an odd thing to be talking about on a website that is all about developing people and increasing what gets done. And yes, it is true that people are not going to be happy all of the time! However, happier people do tend to be more productive people and morale in an organisation is one way of assessing how successful the leadership of that organisation is.

Work is not easy! Managers and leaders have to make unpopular decisions sometimes which can have a big impact on the happiness of their staff. However, that impact can be minimised with the correct communications strategy and messages about why those decisions have been taken and the impact it will have on the team.

So, my challenge to all the leaders out there is: when was the last time you thought about the morale of your organisation, and what small steps could you take to improve it? It doesn’t take much to make people feel valued (or not!) and, more importantly, people that feel valued will be more committed to go the extra mile when you really need them.