The 7 qualities of exceptional practice

  1. Creativity – Whilst it might seem a strange one to start the list with, the ability to bring creativity into design and problem solving is one of the aspects that really sets exceptional practitioners apart. We can all suggest something we’ve done before, but can we imagine the new?
  2. Empathy – I’m really clear that this is different to sympathy – the cross that the profession has to bear. I’m talking about the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others and consider the evidence from their perspective and to understand their lens.
  3. IQ – Sure, I know this isn’t fashionable, but I see a simple link between intellectual horse power and performance. It isn’t enough on its own, but without it you’re surely going to struggle.
  4. Curiosity – The people who excel are fascinated about learning more and constant discovery. They ask questions, explore and see opportunity in every circumstance. They’re restless and intellectually always on the move.
  5. Structured – I’ve written many times about the benefit of systems thinking in the world of work and the ability to structure and think systemically is key. This doesn’t mean that you need to be PRINCE2 qualified or an engineer, but you need to understand how things fit together and how to get started.
  6. Courage – This manifests in different ways, in the ability to have brave conversations, the comfort in being vulnerable and the drive to constantly want to do more and be better. Courage means that we address ourselves as well as others.
  7. Humility – Most of our practice is not about us and we need to be ok with that. We need to bathe in the glory of others, be proud of the contribution we’ve made and enjoy the success that we help build. Our gift is helping others to be the best they can be, not owning it for ourselves.

Cultures of permission

I’ve had the honour to work in a range of different organisations, in different sectors, to see and support teams that operate both successfully and…well, let’s call it sub optimally. And in every organisation I’ve worked in, at one point or another, I’ve seen teams operating in a culture of permission.

There’s many a definition of a  culture of permission, but for the sake of argument, let’s call it “an organisational system where people have given up their work based autonomy (either consciously or subconsciously) and choose to respond instead to instruction and direction”.

It’s important to separate this from an authoritarian culture where permission is explicitly required – we’ve all worked for leaders in teams that have an inherent need to control and pass everything through a system of sign off and approval. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Cultures of permission fascinate me, particularly the disconnect that is often witnessed between espoused desire and actual contribution. Employees and line managers will talk about the desire to change things, or the desire for people to take action and contribute more and yet the status quo persists.

If only people would take a bit more responsibility
If only we were allowed to take more responsibility

At the heart of this is often organisational memory. Something or someone at some point in time has caused this stasis and the disconnect between belief and action forces the team into a form of vicious circle. The manager becomes more and more hands on and more directive in order to try to get things moving and inadvertently reinforces the learned helplessness.

Ultimately the answer is not to do, but to coach. To support and encourage a new behavioural system and new way of working that align more closely with desired intent. That of course takes time and courage, recognising that not everything will immediately go according to plan.

They say if you want something done, give it to someone busy. That’s an alluring thought, but in a culture of permission one that has to be avoided at all cost. Encouraging and allowing everyone to step up is critical to breaking the vicious cycle that exists.

Change your words, change your thinking

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again –  the language that we use matters. It matters, because through our use of language we convey messages of importance or unimportance, of trust or distrust. Our choice of words conveys more than the simple message we intend to send.

When we talk about our employees or managers as “they”, we differentiate ourselves from them as leaders. “We” think about things one way, but “they” think about it another.  Indeed much of the language that we use in our corporate worlds creates barriers and boundaries that need not necessarily exist. It is the manifestation of an underlying fragmentation in the culture of most organisations.

Let’s take a simple example:

“I have to deal with all these stupid requests from employees, because their managers can’t be bothered”

Whilst the words aren’t exact, this is the kind of phrase I’ve heard throughout my career – and have probably muttered once or twice in the past too!

“I’m helping to find answers to employee problems and support their managers in running their teams”

OK, so I appreciate talking this way sounds and feels a little unnatural – but why? Why should it feel any more unnatural than the first?

Then let’s think about the impact to others of thinking and talking in this way. If your belief system was based on this second statement, how would you think and act differently and what would others see of you in your role? Would you be part of something bigger, or fragmenting yourself into something more isolated?

Choosing our language carefully, every day and in every situation not only changes the way that others perceive us, but it can also start to change the way we think and perform. Our language carries much more importance internally to our belief system and externally to our ecosystem than we sometimes give it credit for.

That’s why language, and the way we use it, really does matter.

The future of jobs

Last week the REC published their report on the Future of Jobs. I’d absolutely recommend taking a read of it if you haven’t already. It is freely available here.

What really excited me about the commission was the range of interests being expressed and how much agreement there was in the views being conveyed by different parties. Ultimately, those representing employees, those representing employers and those representing government and special interest groups want pretty much the same thing. The summary conclusions of the report make this abundantly clear.

For employees:
“The best jobs market in the world for individuals is one with opportunities to get
into work and subsequently progress, and one where people have genuine choice in terms of ways of working. A future UK jobs market is also one where individuals feel fulfilled, respected, and recognised, and where people can succeed irrespective of their background. Realising this vision rests largely with the government – particularly with regards to the need for an education system that nurtures individual potential and prepares future generations for the changing world of work. However, a future jobs market must also be one where individuals take personal responsibility for their own career development and take advantage of lifelong learning opportunities. Advice, guidance, and development for all workers is an essential development.”

For employers:
“The best jobs market in the world for an employer is one where evolving skills and staffing needs of employers are easily met, where productivity levels are improving on the back of increased investment in skills, where recruitment procedures have been ‘re-imagined’ to reflect the new world of work, and where management and leadership capability has been radically enhanced. Planning for the future jobs market must be a priority for UK plc and for the public sector. Demographics, ‘flexible hiring’, managing a multigenerational workforce, adapting to new technologies, and the use of data will prove critical to organisational success. As technology, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and robotics gather pace, businesses, recruiters, and managers must plan their workforce more creatively and ensure that they are able to access the talent that they need. Access to UK, EU, and global talent will remain critical, but we also need to see more employers working with schools and colleges.”

For policy makers:
“Policy-makers should seek to ‘get in front’ of the seismic changes that will impact on the jobs market. The government has a key role to play in ensuring that education is adequately preparing young people for this new world of work. The government must also lead a radical focus on lifelong learning and create an infrastructure that enables individuals of all ages to make transitions and compete in this ever-changing jobs market. The Brexit process will have a profound impact on the UK jobs market; we need to ensure that the post-EU landscape is one in which both demand and supply of staff remains vibrant. In addition to a world-class skills and work infrastructure, we need a progressive and balanced immigration system that allows businesses to ll the jobs they have available. We must not take the UK ‘jobs machine’ for granted. There is a need for a proportionate and effective regulatory and taxation landscape that reflects modern working practices while also facilitating job-creation.”

Of course, saying it is easier than making it happen. But we all have the ability to make micro changes that move our organisations in the right direction. And in that, we need to consider the world through the lenses of all the stakeholder groups. Building a successful future means building one in which as many people as possible can share in and profit from that success. If we can do that, we’ll all be able to be proud of the work we’ve done.