Posts Tagged ‘corporate culture’

7 Leadership skills that EVERYONE should develop – Number 4: Encourage Learning

July 9, 2011

If you ever get to a stage in your career when you think “I’ve arrived”, you stop learning … and it’s obviously important that leaders at all levels don’t do this. Perhaps more to the point, it’s crucial that leaders act as ROLE MODELS for learning and development, in order to embed it throughout the organisation.

Cynics amongst you might think “Well she would say that –she’s in training and development!”  and I guess there’s an element of truth in that: but I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe passionately that it’s important, both to individuals and to businesses.

Here are three things to do with learning that I believe that leaders could do better– whatever size of business they’re in.

1) Elevate the status of learning

I’ve written before about whether people approach training to build a person and their skills (i.e. in a positive and proactive sense) or whether they use it to fix problems (i.e. in a remedial, reactive sense).

If training and development are seen as remedial measures, people are less likely to be motivated to learn – either on training courses OR, more importantly, in their own time and in terms of their own personal development. Almost across the board, that whole personal development area is a huge learning opportunity that companies are missing.

As a leader, making it obvious that you yourself are on a learning journey, passing on some of the things you’ve learned and referencing books, courses, online resources and so on will help raise the importance of ongoing learning within the company.

Put bluntly, if you and your people aren’t learning, they’re remaining in ignorance … and that’s not going to bring you a commercial edge.

 2) Condone the enjoyment of learning

Learning is serious business … but it doesn’t have to be a mirthless drudge of lectures, powerpoint presentations and manuals the size of building blocks.

Years of research in both the training and development and education sectors point to the fact that the brain absorbs information (i.e. learns)  through the five senses, amongst other factors, and that by far the most people learn best through auditory, visual AND haptic means.

I was working for an organisation a few years back which approved a very interactive, innovative series of workshops for junior staff, but insisted that senior managers at the same organisation needed a more ‘serious’ approach.

They seemed to somehow be suggesting that once you  get a  ‘senior manager’ plaque on the door, you suddenly lose your sense of humour and personality and more to the point, lose your ability to learn by any other means than didactic instruction.  This of course, contradicts both academic and medical research … to say nothing of common sense. Do senior managers enjoy boring training courses any more than the rest of us?! I doubt it!

Of COURSE content needs to be tailored to the level of the participant group. Delivery methods, though, need to be as engaging as possible in order to be interesting and relevant to learners.

It should be remembered that people learn more when they are relaxed and enjoying themselves. And there’s no age or management limit to that.

 3) Support the implementation of learning

So! Someone comes back from a training course, full of ideas, keen to test out some of their new found skills! What happens next:

a) Hurray! The company already has a learning system in place, and with the full support of their managers and colleagues they successfully build confidence in implementing their new skills until they become habit, modelling positive behaviours and practices in the process.

b) They have a stab at some of the techniques from the course that they’re more comfortable with, stash the course manual in a drawer somewhere, and remember to tick that training course off on their performance management checklist.

c) They try one of their new techniques and their manager /colleague jibes “Oh, well we can see that YOU’VE been on the training course!” leaving them somewhat crestfallen and reluctant to try to implement anything else they’ve learned.

Clearly individual leaders can have an impact on the level and extent to which they provide an environment where learning and trying new skills is the norm, and where practice is monitored and encouraged, and many already do this.

It can be easier, though to assume that people will come back from a training course or other learning intervention and just ‘get on with it’, without recognising how the environment can affect the extent to which this is done.

Leaders who continue to learn inspire others in the organisation to do the same. Leaders who recognise when other people are learning and coach and encourage them to persevere in implementing their newskills are taking HUGE steps to develop a learning culture.

And why bother? In the words of the Chinese proverb  “Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back”.

And who wants their own career, their department or their company to do that?


7 Leadership skills that EVERYONE should develop # 3: personal accountability

June 25, 2011

Ego-massaging though it might be to blame your staff, your boss, your company culture, the system, the government, the environment, your cat, your spouse … sometimes, we all have to face the facts and admit “it’s me”.

Several years ago, I went through the corporate equivalent of a ‘messy divorce’, leaving an organisation with what I perceived as a bullying culture, and making a huge fuss as I did so. Whilst I don’t believe that the debacle was entirely my fault, it took me a LONG time (at least two years) to realise … and accept … that I had contributed to my own sorry situation.  “Mea culpa”.  At least in part.

Happily, leaving there was the best career move I ever made. But before looking at some of the factors that contribute to personal accountability, here’s a cautionary tale that illustrates what some leaders will do to avoid it …

Over the last couple of years, the UK’s members of parliament have opened our government up to ridicule and disgust by falsely claiming hundreds of thousands of pounds in expenses. In what can only be described as a national disgrace, our own elected politicians were, in effect, stealing from the public purse.

When the scandal was exposed, did they take personal accountability for their wrong-doing and offer to pay the money back? For the most part, they did these things instead:

Their first instinct was to try to ban investigations into the extent of the false expense claims. They tried to hide the facts.

When this failed, some claimed that the process for claiming expenses was faulty – it allowed too much scope for fraud. They blamed the system.

Some decided to show no remorse for their theft, and carry on as though it was ‘business as usual’. They tried to pretend it didn’t matter.

Some tried to say that their administrative staff had made mistakes. They tried to blame other people.

Others said that they didn’t fully understand the process, it was very complicated and easy to get wrong. They tried to claim ignorance as defence.

Others said that they were only doing what they saw other people doing. They blamed the culture of the organisation.

Some said that the demands of their job meant that they hadn’t been able to keep on top of all their receipts. They claimed that they had had no time.

At the end of the day, this wasn’t down to the system, the culture, other people’s mistakes or anything else: it was down to a group of people with no sense of personal accountability choosing to do the wrong thing – steal. End of.

The system has changed, and the worst culprits have gone from government office to prison. The damage done to the reputation of the British Government, however, and to the public’s perception of Members of Parliament, has been immense.

Personal accountability takes courage, humility and integrity:

Courage to accept the consequences, whether good, bad or indifferent, and to be prepared to make a stand when and where it counts.

Humility to admit that leaders aren’t infallible, and to ask the question “how might I be contributing / have contributed to the problem?”

Integrity to remain true to your own values, and not lose sight  – not just of who you are,  but of the leader that you aspire to become.

It’s not an optional extra for the leader. It’s an essential pre-requisite.

7 Critical Leadership Skills that EVERYONE Should Develop

June 8, 2011

I’ve been privileged and fortunate to work over the years with a large number of people who are either in positions of leadership, who aspire to leadership, or who have had leadership ‘thrust upon them’ and want to develop their skills.

Through observing and working with them, I’ve recognised that there are certain leadership skills that the good ones simply can’t do without.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing them with you…so here we go with the first one!


Just a quick thing, friends: I’m focussing here specifically on Listening and Leadership – if you’d like to develop your personal listening skills (identifying the mistakes that EVERYBODY makes, and learning how you can avoid them! ) then please have a look at the free download which will be at the Yara website at within the next few days.

At the risk of stating the obvious, listening is a CRUCIAL skill for leaders to develop. Why? Well, first of all, why not? You don’t seriously think you have all the answers without input from others do you?!

More to the point, listening to people does two important things: it makes the speaker(s) feel valued and understood, both of which contribute to motivation, and indeed to further contribution from that individual or group. Nothing shuts down ideas, input and motivation quicker that people feeling ignored.

Listening also provides you with an insight and perspective that you wouldn’t otherwise have…and for leaders, I can’t overstate how vital this is.

Good leaders listen, and listen to the right people. Learning to do it and learning to do it well is a valuable skill which cannot be neglected.

Listening strategically

By listening strategically, I mean considering carefully to whom or what leaders are listening. Listening in the right direction can potentially have a profound impact on decision making and organisational direction.

There will of course be the usual things that leaders listen to: market factors, shareholders, regulators customers etc etc. However, there are a few other directions in which leaders should turn in order to listen strategically – and some issue of which they must beware.

Beware ‘Groupthink’: listening to the same circle of opinions and the same peer group is limiting. It just is.

If everyone’s in a similar position or has a similar mindset, is listening to each other, where is the challenge coming from exactly? Where’s the raw, external perspective? Where’s the often needed boot up the backside?

Take the blinkers off and get out more, and listen in different directions. Fresh perspective is vital for innovation and growth.

Beware forgetting where you came from: I love those fly-on-the-wall documentaries where the Chief Executive goes back to the factory floor, the call centre, the supermarket checkout or wherever.

They invariably learn a massive amount about their people by observing what they do, listening to them, and living their day to day experiences. Perhaps more to the point in terms of STRATEGIC listening, they gather ideas and customer insight that frequently translates into policy and/or new business.

Don’t just listen up and listen out….listen down as well.

Beware the ticking clock: the world is probably moving faster than many companies can keep up with it. Fads can become trends which become major market forces with frightening speed (take Facebook and social networking as a clear case in point.)

Times are changing so fast, it’s an absolutely necessity to keep an ear to the ground, and I’d venture to suggest that using both formal and informal channels is the only way to maintain a true grasp of what’s going on.

Market research yes. Internal reports, yes. But don’t underestimate the value of taking a few minutes to listen and observe what customers are saying to your front line staff. Listen to what’s going on in other areas of your customers lives. Listen out for apparently random connections in other sectors that could give you a commercial edge.

If you don’t have time for that sort of thing, MAKE time…and then honestly evaluate the return on investment of that time spent vs the information it yielded.

The mistake of thinking you don’t have to listen

For whatever reason, many leaders often appear to feel that they don’t have to listen.

Some undoubtedly feel the pressure of senior management to provide the answers. And some, frankly, seem to think that they have it figured out, have made it, and don’t have to listen any more.

If you’ve ever heard yourself say:

‘People expect us to give them the answers because we’re their leaders’.

‘I’m better informed than most’

‘I don’t have time to gather everyone’s opinions – it would just muddy the waters’

‘I know what I need to do: listening to other people could just derail me’

‘We asked them last year – there’s no point going back to them now…’

‘I’m the leader, it’s my prerogative’ …then watch out.

Leaders can rest assured that the QUICKEST WAY to destroy innovation and ideas, de-motivate people, create cynicism amongst staff and customers alike and undermine corporate and brand values is by either NOT listening to people (both internally and externally)…or by pretending to listen to them and then ignoring what they’ve said.

The bottom line is that genuinely listening – and in more directions than you currently are – will earn you respect, motivate your people (and therefore increase productivity and morale) increase customer understanding and therefore retention, and can lead to profitable ideas and innovations being recognised, captured and implemented.

Establishing forums for listening

There’s no point paying lip service to this sort of ‘strategic listening’: you have to DO something to make it happen.

At a broad brush level, it’s about creating a culture where listening is part of leadership, and where staff feel like active contributors whose ideas and opinions are valued, and this HAS to be role modelled from the very top, otherwise it’s just not going to happen. It’s also about creating and encouraging opportunities to listen in different directions, gathering best practice and ideas from other sectors and areas, ACTUALLY listening to customers, and trying something different…as opposed to just analysing statistics.

Mix it up. Get a fresh perspective. Do something different. Learn from it. Develop yourself. And grow your organisation.

Watch out next week for Critical Leadership Skill #2 – Self Awareness.

Unlock Your Hidden Creativity: Step 2 – Create, don’t just Edit

May 10, 2011

Creativity is serious business. It’s about creating new things, coming up with new ideas, establishing new ways of doing things. It’s what can give successful companies a sustainable competitive edge.

Many individuals and organisations, though, settle for editing existing versions of products or processes, never really coming up with anything new, just with a load of stuff that’s a small shuffling step or two away from where they started.

Here are 3 top tips for genuinely creative thinking … as opposed to sticking to familiar patterns and making minor amendments to the status quo.

Please bear in mind that I’m NOT giving a list of techniques here – you can do a Google search for that and come up with dozens of techniques and processes like brainstorming, SCAMPER, role play, blah blah blah … I’m focussing on fundamental pre-requisites to creative thinking. If you don’t have your head in the right place to start with, even the best creative thinking techniques won’t help you.

1. “Set phasers to ‘stun’!”
Before I start, I wouldn’t mind betting that some readers are already thinking, “well, you can’t just come up with new ideas and implement them! You have to do a risk assessment / scenario plan / costing strategy …”    WOAH WOAH WOAH!!!

To those who are doing that, hold on a moment: we WILL do those things. Creative thinking doesn’t stand alone, it must be partnered with practical implementation … but that bit comes later.

At the start of the creative process, you’ll have to ‘knock out’ the internal editor or analyst (hence the Star Trek terminology).  We don’t want to kill them off completely, because they are vital to implementing creative ideas … BUT left brain logic mustn’t interfere too soon.

For some people that’s going to be really difficult, as it cuts across habit and mindsets. However, on the premise that EVERYONE is creative, it can be done.

It’s critical to allow creativity full rein at the beginning WITHOUT the logical editor or analyst coming in and saying “we can’t do that because … have you thought about … we tried that before and …”

Take a piece of paper and a pencil and try this 5 minute exercise.

Think about everything you’ve done since you woke up this morning, starting from the moment you opened your eyes, and start to write it down. Write it down EXACTLY as it comes into your head.

How easy or difficult is that? How long is it before the ‘editor brain’ kicks in and you find yourself correcting spelling and punctuation, revisiting sentences that don’t make sense, THINKING about what you’re going to write rather than just writing what you think?

Freely thinking creatively can take self-discipline. It’s important to learn to silence the inner editor and think freely … otherwise ideas will be stifled at birth and never allowed to develop.

Learn to silence the editor within and give your internal ‘creator’ space at the beginning of the process, whatever specific technique you are using.
2. The Catwalk Model
One concern that logical, strongly left brain thinkers can often have is that allowing too much creativity will lead to the lunatics taking over the asylum. That strange and ridiculous ideas will come to fruition. That profitability and common sense will be sacrificed on the altar of irrelevant arty-fartyness. That reckless and meaningless expenditure will have to be awkwardly explained to demanding shareholders.  That pie-in-the-sky projects will detract from the serious business of generating profit.

Not so.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s watched a TV clip of an emaciated catwalk model (stay with me here, the metaphor is relevant!) wearing something completely bizarre, her hair backcombed to within an inch of falling out, aunt sally make-up, tottering along on impossibly high heels and thought “Who on earth would wear THAT?!”

And funnily enough, on my local high street, and in the fashion magazines, I never see people actually wearing the catwalk outfit … I  DO, though, see people wearing similar but more practical versions of it in terms of size, colour, shape, cut, length and so on.

Creative thinking that initially conjures up the bizarre and  somewhat alarming, actually translates – through a process of analysis, editing, elimination and implementation – into practical new ideas that work.

Tempting though it is to start with the safety of the status quo and tweak it, genuine, groundbreaking innovation comes from new thinking.

Strongly logical left brain thinkers in particular need to remain calm and positive during the creative process, and not shut it down because it looks like it’s getting out of hand.

Strongly creative right brain thinkers need to acknowledge that not everything is going to work out in real life.
3. Get out more!
Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that my clarion call to Do Something Different is one which I repeat often … in this case, it’s an exhortation to get out more!

Creative thinking benefits from inspiration. This is more easily achieved by bringing in external influences, or by going out and doing something different, and not by sitting round a table in an office or training room somewhere with a heap of post-it notes and coloured pens, pontificating.

Excessive inward focus is far less likely to lead to inspiration than looking outwards and GOING outwards in order to make connections and discover new things. 

So be creative about your creativity. Don’t expect to come up with startling innovations by editing what already exists and thinking in the same old way in the same old environment doing the same old things that you always have done.

Do something different. Because doing something different leads to inspiration …
which leads to creativity …
which leads to innovation …
which leads to commercial and competitive edge …
which leads to profits and sustainable business growth.
Next week, more on how you can develop an environment that fosters innovation and creativity.

Change without difference

February 28, 2011

Is there such a thing as change without difference? No. Of course not.

I can’t help feeling, though, that many organisations around the world rather wish that this WAS the case. Mediocre and even fairly well-performing companies look with envious eyes at the truly innovative, and wish they could enjoy a similar success… but seem unwilling to go through the necessary shake up to make it happen.

 How many organisations do you know or have you worked for where the clarion cry is for creativity, innovation, doing things differently, challenging the status quo, improving products and services… only to find that, once you scratch beneath the surface, what’s actually wanted is stability, familiarity, maintenance?

What if more organisations opened themselves up – even tentatively – to genuinely doing things differently: not inviting chaos and disruption, but encouraging facilitated innovation and change, and carefully monitoring the results to ensure and capture the benefits?

How much more productive could we be?

Are there any organisations out there prepared to do something different  (that’s ‘different’ and not ‘recycled’ or ‘reinvented’) …without coming up with a string of excuses as to why it can’t be done?

Practitioner or Advocate? Which are you?

February 24, 2011

OK, here’s a challenge for EVERYONE, me included. Are you a practitioner or merely an advocate?

I’m guessing we’re all a bit of both, depending on the issue at hand. In essence, what I mean is, do we practise what we preach? Do we DO what we advise… or merely tell everyone else how good for them it would be?

A wee while ago, I was asked to devise and deliver a workshop on improving your memory skills. Most of the advice I gave I DO follow myself – developing acronyms, mnemonics, mental images and mind maps for remembering random facts and so on. I am, therefore a practitioner of those activities, not just an advocate.

There was one section, however, on remembering numbers which involved first remembering a series of words or letters that represented the numbers 1 to 10 (or 1 to 100 if you’re really keen) , then linking them to the actual date or phone number to be remembered, and then forming the whole thing into a sentence of some sort… all of which is easier to remember, allegedly, than trying to remember the phone number itself.

A short way into this process, and I’m losing the will to live, and as a result, I’m only a half hearted advocate of this process – I know it works for other people, but I’ll stick to visualising the number and muttering it under my breath until I can grab a nearby piece of paper to write it down.

There, I make a conscious choice NOT to be a practitioner of number mnemonics, because I really can’t be bothered, and I’m happy to tell people “I don’t do this myself, but you might find it useful – others do.”

I’m both an advocate AND a practitioner, however, of the Yara Method: before we unleashed it on anyone else, Mel and I went through the entire process ourselves, and continue to do so to ensure that it’s still relevant, that it works, and that it makes a lasting difference for the better, to both individuals and organisations. How could I advocate something potentially life-changing without having tested it out myself?

What happens, though, when a cynical rather than a conscious choice is made? For example, it’s not unheard of for a company’s senior management to document company values, devise mission statements and develop behavioural competencies… and then blithely ignore the lot in a “do what I say, don’t do what I do” approach. What about those politicans claiming to stand for justice, fair play, and the (wo)man on the street… whilst cheating on their expenses? Or some teachers who demand respect from pupils… whilst treating them with disdain?

At what point does advocacy rather than practice become hypocrisy… and can we really be a believable advocate if we haven’t been a practitioner first?