All entries for February 2011

February 25, 2011

Learning leadership lessons

I am a little sad that the module is over, it was truly one of the most rewarding periods of study I have ever attempted :-) Of course, I know that nothing is really over. I will continue to learn about leadership for the rest of my life, the PMA will just be the next major step. I say major, because I am conscious that leadership is really just about engaging with people about ideas that you have, and I will have many, many opportunities to do that in the next six weeks, for sure!

I just decided to self-assess my performance as a leader during the last week, and was quite surprised by the results. By my count, we attempted five team exercises/simulations. I put myself forward as a potential leader four times, which quite coincidentally, all happened to be occasions when there were elements of competition between teams. Of these four (so not including 'Coffee Time' which was hugely valuable in itself), I was given the opportunity to lead three times. Of the three I lead, my team performed best twice, and second best once. On the other occasion, when I was a (proactive! :P) follower, my team also performed best, to the point that we became the first team in the history of Paul's experience with the exercise (which I assume goes back at least 5-10 years) to actually successfully complete. I could go on, but this already sounds quite crass and self-congratulatory to the point that people might start to hate my cocky attitude (:P), so I'll leave it with this: I didn't realise that I had that in me.

It could quite easily have been a fluke, and it might well reflect the fact that I was lucky to work with the people I did, because everyone always worked together quite well. But I won't deny that it gives me a huge amount of confidence in myself. I never really felt before, like I was capable of just jumping into any situation, knowing I'd be able to deal with it.

To introduce a problem to a team. To set my vision of what to achieve. To decide things together and not jump all over people's creativity, but also to know when to push my assertiveness more in the interest of the shared goals. To manage resources and time effectively. To try and coach people rather than tell them things they could/should do. To actively listen to others and put their suggestions into practice for the benefit of the team. To manage information quickly, and make decisions that reflect the best course of action. To put mistakes behind you before they drag morale down. To know when to refocus resources if a decision has not panned out the way you hoped.

Etc, etc, etc. These are just a few of my lessons learned, I know that I will be able to add to this list ad. infinitum

February 23, 2011

Welcome to Hai Pong Inn

I feel like I'm starting to get it now, regarding leadership. I am getting a sense of what works and what doesn't and why, and we are only two days into this module week. I can't wait to see how much more I am able to get out of this fascinating period of learning (study would be the wrong word).

I will put this down partly to really wanting to get better at this. Today, I felt terrible - I was so tired. When Paul said some of would need to volunteer after lunch, I was very tempted to sit back and let someone else have a go. Particularly because I have had a few chances to be leader already, and it would have been fairer at least. Over lunch, I reminded myself about why I am doing this module - it was not really about sitting back.

So, I put myself forward. And I am so glad I did. I enjoyed the simulation immensely, the time flew by, and my team worked together fantastically to create a great outcome that we could all be proud of. I put into practice learning points from previous sessions such as being more assertive, outlining a clear vision for everyone to strive towards from the beginning, and made sure to manage the time well. As ever, there was room for improvement, and I learned from today that some of my team members would have preferred me to take a riskier approach for higher gains. With hindsight, I see their point, but I'm also quite happy with my incremental, sustainable, and balanced approach, that created greater returns year on year, and ingrained a way of working in the team that was positive, structured, and a joy to be a part of.

I hope I am as lucky in the future; the ability of my team to become something more than their collective parts and double the occupancy rates, while increasing the operating profit sevenfold in a 1.5 year period was quite remarkable, and but for one other team, would have been the best result by any team in the history of that simulation in MBE. That is performance to be proud of.

So, I know that I will never stop becoming a better leader, with every experience I can build on. But I'm starting to see it in slower motion, much like Paul's analogy of Rafa Nadal, and you can all be sure I will volunteer myself as a leader as often as I get the opportunity to.

February 21, 2011

I'd make a terrible dictator, and other revelations.

Wow! Good first day of the module week. I thought it had been quite a short day, but upon reflection of each of the sessions now, I'm almost shocked at how many things I learned. I'm enjoying this module a lot so far, I hope it continues in the same vein...

One of the first lessons was a private one. It transpires that I can't be an autocratic type leader! This wasn't much use to the rest of the class (I'm sorry everybody), but no matter how I tried to make myself take complete control and stamp my authority on all the situations I was meant to, in many cases, something internal overrode this requirement, and I went back to the way I naturally am: participative and democratic. I couldn't change, even if it was just a temporary act. I have a theory about this further down. I later asked the question "what if someone finds is hard to use their positional power?" (assuming all other engagement tactics have failed, and in which case it's not positional power really, but just authority). The question was passed around a bit, which annoyed me because I was really hoping someone would come up with something, as the problem had plagued me when I failed as an autocrat. Eventually, James stepped forward, and stunned me with the thought that if someone couldn't use that power, it was probably due to weak strength of character! I really appreciated this insight (so thanks James!), because I've always considered myself to have a strong character, but this made me realise that in this department, I need to find it in myself to be tougher when the situation requires. I know I'm on the right track here, because earlier, the group had given me assertiveness as an area for improvement. Very revealing...

The seminar followed, and it came out that really, whether it comes to managing strong types, or your leader, it's all about engagement. Sure, in the latter case, there may be some risk attached, and you have to weigh potential consequences, and make a difficult and painful decision sometimes, but I suppose if being a leader was easy, everybody would be able to do it. If you can't engage, after many repeated attempts, eventually there may have to be a confrontation, and as a strong person and leader yourself, you need to be ready to stand your ground, own the situation, and be ready for what may happen. What you can't expect to do, is change someone's personality! I think THIS had been my problem earlier in the day: being an autocrat was just too at odds with who I am. And I was always a rubbish actor ;-)

The afternoon gave me first real experience of followership, in a while. Too often in this course (and in my wider life of the last few years), I feel I become a leader by default. People will look to me to take charge sometimes, and won't step forward themselves. Of course, I like being a leader, and none of this is a bad thing (or an indictment of any of my colleagues). I guess it means I must be at least decent at it, but it does also mean that I rarely sit back and experience someone else leading me, which is also nice sometimes :-) Anyway, to be honest, we gave Fani hell! She didn't make it easy for herself to begin with, but with time, she was able to take a step back and achieve a compromise with us all. She did well, and I know she was able to take a lot away from it (particularly when it comes to managing what information everyone has and actively listening to her followers), which is great!

What techniques are there for managing cultural and organizational diversity?

As the world becomes a smaller place, and we find ourselves working with different people from all walks of life, this becomes an increasingly important topic. I couldn't find any techniques as such, but the most important underlying theme was to do with effective communication. People from different cultural/organisational backgrounds will obviously have different ways of doing things, due to varying standards, expectations or norms.

The best way to combat any difficulties that might arise from this is to make sure that people understand each other. Effective communication crosses the boundaries, and help people to empathise with the position of others, and why certain things are important to certain people.

An inclusive environment also helps. People who feel welcome to be themselves are likely to be happier than those forced to live a lie. This may require an open mind on the part of a manager, along with a readiness to compromise and be adaptable to the needs of different types of people.

Brownell (2003) felt that self-monitoring, empathy, and strategic-decision making are important. The first is the awareness one has of how their behaviour affects others, and their willingness to change this based on the impact. The second is the ability of those on the end of communication to go beyond the spoken words to understand what is really meant, based on the communicator's background (feelings, values, assumptions and needs). The last relates to which channels of communication are used, and why. Certain ones will work better on/for certain people. 

Mor Barak (2010) agrees with many of these themes. She also adds that managers should use their knowledge of cultural differences to aid their understanding of what helps facilitate effective communication, and what can create barriers to it.

Brownell, Judi (2003). Developing Receiver-Centered Communication in Diverse Organizations. Listening Professional, 2(1), 5-25

Mor Barak, Michalle E. (2010). Managing Diversity:Toward a Globally Inclusive Workplace. Sage

How do you manage people with strong personalities?

Well, the first thing that strikes me about this topic, is that working with people who have strong personalities is not necessarily a bad thing. From the context of leadership, it can actually be a very good thing, particularly if they share your vision and ideals.

From my own experience, and some quick research, I think there are some do's and don'ts regarding managing or leading a strong personality types. These are in no way exhaustive, or necessarily applicable to all situations:

Don't - 

  • Expect them to change, or think you can change them. Their personality is who they are, and any attempts you make will probably cause resentment on their part. 
  • Try to take the moral highground on an issue - it often leads to the other person getting defensive, making them unlikely or unwilling to cooperate with you later.
  • Make assumptions about why they act a certain way.
  • Try to control them, or show who's boss with displays of power, whether aggressively, or passively by making demeaning remarks to them or others about them. That shows weakness and insecurity.

Do - 

  • Manage your own emotions first of all. Understanding why you feel a certain way is important. Also, taking the time to make sure you are calm means you will act in a rational way. Instant, emotional responses are often destructive and uncontrolled.
  • Target the specific behaviours that you have a problem with. This is not the same as trying to redefine their personality. Addressing things like this in an open, honest, direct, but non-confrontational or blaming way (with reasons for why they are detrimental if possible) leads to positive results.
  • Get them focused on the goals that matter to you, by showing especially how they themselves might benefit. Strong personality types are often strongly goal-oriented, and so really motivated by new ideas and challenges.
  • Show strength and confidence, through assertiveness, body language, speech and tone of voice. People respond instinctively to these alpha characteristics, providing they appear natural rather than forced or over-the-top.
  • Stand your ground when you have made up your mind and don't back down easily.
  • But, always be open to suggestions, and ready to act on them. It conveys respect for their opinion, and by extension, them.
  • Praise them publicly, but only when they have done something that warrants this and they know it's not false.
  • Avoid or downplay conflict.

February 17, 2011

The surprising science of motivation

I decided to write about motivation today, after watching this video, during my break from doing research on the same subject! This is particularly relevant to performance appraisal, and the mini-project we're working on regarding it. You should watch it before you read on.

So, the speaker presents the case for intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, and in a powerful, convincing way. Carrot and stick (reward and punishment) motivators just don't work, at least for the majority of tasks. The reason for this is the kinds of things we do now require THINKING, not just mechanistic, zombie-like, ability. He says it best at 6:30, financial incentives might work, but only if the problem to solve is 'for dummies'! It doesn't work.


What I don't get, is if the science is quite clearly there, why do organisations and managers continually try to go the other way? It's been repeatedly proven, around the world, in all kinds of situations, that pay-for-performance actually achieves a NEGATIVE effect, and yet, this news seems not to have made it up to senior management in most companies.

Knowledge is not being made use of; in fact, it is being actively ignored to the detriment of excellence. Deming is turning in his grave...

I haven't gone into what does work here, but the video covers it pretty well I feel. I'm thankful for companies/leaders who learn and then think, like Google, Atlassian, Semco, or the likes of Vineet Nayar.

February 09, 2011

It can't be taught, but you're not born with it either!

I'm talking about leadership of course ;-) I think most of us on MBE agree that you can't teach it, it's experiential as Paul said. Reading back through some of the other blogs, I see some people feel that it is some kind of innate quality you are either born with or not. I completely disagree! I think the truth is somewhere in the Nature vs Nurture argument that Kieran brought to the fore, which is an argument worth having. 

Let us assume for a minute, that you're not born with it, and it can't be taught. How the hell are you supposed to get it, or be it?! Well, just because it can't be taught, that's not to say it can't be learned... It goes back to experiential learning, i.e. learning from experiences. Nobody is born, and then starts showing other babies how to stand and walk, or say their first word. These things are picked up from our very first leaders - our parents, and others who care for us as infants. You can't lead without first being lead. If you will agree that nobody is born with knowledge or innate understanding of the universe, then it follows that you must learn things in order for people to consider you to be someone worth following. And if you know nothing when you are born, what is it that makes you a leader? Sure, there are some genetic traits and characteristics that might predispose you towards leading, but in the end, we are all nothing but the sum of our experiences. As Awal says, leadership is all about the ability to learn from any situation and implement your learning. And so, we arrive back at PDSA! Hehe! My theory is that great leaders can probably do this better than most. 

I wish I had more time to develop this, maybe you guys can help me if you find the time...

To finish, here is my personal definition of leadership, refined from the one that my group collectively created. I'm settling on it for now, but I expect it will change as I do. But for now, it is right, because it is right for ME!

"The art of forming a vision and influencing others towards sharing it, such that they think and act to help make it a reality."

How can I do it better than my way?

By hearing what others think!

I want to start today, by talking about myself... I led my team in the Winning Strategy exercise. In the style of Vineet Nayar (who I find impressive, and a great example of an unconventional but brilliant-because-of-it leader) I wanted to post their feedback here, because I am interested in what other leaders were told, and I'm hoping you will post. I wonder where the common ground will be... I also wanted to be brave, and put this out there, so people can tell me in the future if they think I've improved or not. For the sake of not typing 5 sheets worth of comments, with differing opinions, I have tried to capture the sense of what was said while condensing. I feel I am being objective, but this may have introduced a degree of bias. If any of you feel I am being too generous, please say so! I can take it ;-)

I was told:


  • Introduced the task well.
  • Regularly got the opinions of others, and took these in/responded to/noted them. Quite receptive.
  • Kept a close eye on time, and managed the necessary tasks well within it. Reminded team of times regularly.
  • Was cool/calm under pressure. Showed he felt it, but also that the pressure was on the team, not just him.
  • Delivered a successful outcome.
  • Had the support and engagement of most followers.
  • Impressive style, with a very balanced, democratic approach.
  • Indirect leadership/He's a thought leader.

    Areas for Improvement

    • Needs to make sure everyone is engaged.
    • Should try to give more direction and a vision from the outset, and show the strategy to get there.
    • Make more effort to directly assess people's skills at the beginning, and make use of their strengths.
    • Easily swayed by arguments. Needs to be 'flexibly' firmer with decision-making and own opinion/vision.

    My own opinions on this? Well, I was reasonably happy with my performance. I think it was a very difficult task, but only because of the lack of time. I made the point that what we did in an hour and a half, you would probably have a few weeks to do in reality. One interesting thing: most of the group thought I was very calm. In reality, I was going a bit crazy in my head! I didn't enjoy having to try and pick one strategy over another, without having the time to fully understand any of them, and this was made harder as most of the team had conflicting views about what was the best way to go.

    Ultimately, I took everything in, and made the decision myself about two minutes before I had to present it. The time pressure forced me to lead instinctively rather than methodically. So, not much time to assess skills, or organise my own thoughts. It was uncomfortable, as I am a reflector, but I guess that was the point. From what I can gather from the above, I do some things quite well. BUT, I need to work on being more direct when the time calls for it, outlining my vision so others have something to follow, and being more decisive, while making sure that everyone contributes, in the way that they best can.

    Not bad for a few hours' learning, I think!

    February 08, 2011

    Why I like to lead

    I've been looking forward to the beginning of this module for some time now. Leadership is a topic that has begun to interest me more and more in the past few years, probably because I became more involved in roles that required it! It is one of the reasons I decided to embark on a postgraduate degree in management, having come from an engineering background.

    The Lifeboat task was very interesting. While we at no point elected a leader, or even discussed the matter, I think the fact that Paul gave me the pack was enough to make me the de facto 'facilitator', if not more. I was happy to take this role, I seem to actively pursue leadership opportunities - I always want to have my say... perhaps I do not have enough trust in others!

    However, it made me think about that fact that quite often, a lot of people don't want to be leaders, they are not interested in it, and relinquish the opportunity quickly! Why? I don't know... I think I used to be like that. There are many possible reasons people don't want to take charge, such as, but not limited to: lack of confidence in self, unwilling to be accountable/responsible, liking things how they are, would rather get on with their job and excel in it, etc.

    I think, for myself, the first reason was applicable. I never wanted to be in charge, as I didn't think I could do a good job, and I was worried of looking like a fool. I certainly no longer have that fear! ;-) For me, it was the experience of having to take charge, because no-one else would (or wanted to), that pushed me towards where I am today. My self-confidence was burgeoning at that point in my life, and I was ready to take that step. Now, my experiences feed my desire. In that sense, I think Surya made a valid point in the class discussion: having leadership experience IS necessary to be a leader, because you have to WANT to be a leader, and the only way to understand that desire is to have enjoyed previous leadership experience. However, that experience doesn't have to in any way be formal - I was an older brother, a reliable and persuasive friend, a hockey player demanding of my team mates, etc... and all long before I actually actively wanted to lead anyone, anywhere!

    February 2011

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