When leadership calls

Throughout our careers, there will occasions when we are asked, more than ever, to demonstrate our worth as leaders. Whether through a change, a significant challenge, or indeed a crisis. Any of us that manage people will be asked to step up, to step into the light and to do the thing that we talk and theorise about so often. To lead.

In these circumstances, great leaders put their own concerns aside. They may be worried, concerned or unhappy, but they understand that their role requires them to put this aside. They are there in the service of their people.

They understand that they need to be calm and reassure, that it is only normal that in uncertain times people worry and they look to those in positions of authority to tell them it will be ok. They don’t rush around creating drama, no matter what they may feel inside.

Great leaders understand the importance of simple, clear communications and the need to repeat it more than ever. When we are worried, stressed or concerned we can find it hard to take in multiple complex measures, simple and clear messages make it easier for us to digest and process.

They also know that it is important to play by the rules that they set. That it doesn’t matter how clear and simple the messages are, by contradicting them with behaviours we send out complex messages that confuse. Actions need to match and reinforce messages.

And they recognise the human at the heart of each decision, seeing the impact that each and every choice we make has on people, thinking about how it feels for them and being clear of the why as well as the what. Which means sometimes we can do the right thing and be unpopular.

Finally, great leaders know sometimes they get things wrong in the heat of battle and they are humble and recognise fault. People will forgive you for getting things wrong, they rarely do for denying it or apportioning blame.

When leadership calls, we need to show up as the best version of ourselves. Remain mindful of how we are feeling, what we are thinking and ultimately why we are there. Every day is a chance to practice, sometimes you’re called on to perform.

Unpopular decisions can be right

Leadership isn’t a democratic art and frankly, nor should it be. There is a significant difference between listening, taking account of different opinions and decision by committee. Good leaders know when and how to differentiate between the two.

At the heart of this is my preferred definition of “to lead”, setting an example for others to follow. So much has been written about leadership and the art of listening that it is easy to forget that one of the core facets is acting first, being the one that others look to follow.

That’s why we in our organisational structures we often recognise leaders differently, whether that is in monetary reward or otherwise. The weight and responsibility of true leadership should fall heavy and with that comes the need to understand a multitude of data sets and views, but to be the one  to choose, to act, to decide…to lead.

In doing this we have to recognise that sometimes the choices and decisions we make will be unpopular. Our job is to embrace and not shy away from this fact, but to seek to explain and persuade those that we lead to follow us on this path. Our responsibility is to be the ones brave enough to step out of the line and plot a different path.



We get the leaders we deserve

Many, many years ago I was sat in a room with a CEO and a number of their employees, it was a “meet the ordinary people” type affair. There was a debate about the visibility and availability of the CEO in the various parts of the business, with one of the managers saying that she would like to see them spend more time out on the floor with her team.

It’s the kind of challenge that you hear pretty regularly raised towards leaders and leadership teams. What struck me, on this occasion, was the reply of the CEO.

They went on to explain that they’d very much like to do so. That they’d love to have the opportunity to get to speak to people and interact with them. But they found it really hard to just roll up out of the blue and just start talking and people never really invited them to anything that was going on to help them overcome this challenge.

You mean, CEOs have weaknesses? Well, of course they do. We all do and just because you’ve risen to a position of power doesn’t mean you’re perfect. In the kitchens and copier rooms across the country, we’re busy identifying and outlining the weaknesses of our management teams. We’re incredibly good at diagnosing and highlighting the shortcomings, but what are we doing to help them?

That’s their problem though, you’re not paid to make them better. Right? If you work in HR, I’d thoroughly dispute this but in fact I’d dispute it wherever you work. In many ways, you get the leaders you deserve.

Think about that meeting when you struggled with the P&L for the investment proposal. How would it have felt if someone from finance had come up to you afterwards and kindly offered to take you through the numbers to make sure you were up to speed? What about the time that you were struggling to get your point across in that important meeting? What if someone had asked you questions to help you break it down?

It doesn’t matter what level you are, what seniority you are, how much experience you have, you’re going to have areas of weakness and you’re most likely going to know about them. People pointing them out is often little help, being told what you already know never is. But having people around you quietly helping you to work on them and improve? That’s altogether a different matter.

So next time you want to have a moan about the way your manager, boss or CEO behaves, also ask yourself what you could do to help them cover off that area and be better. You might be surprised by the result you get from them, and maybe also how you feel about yourself and your work.

Modern meeting mayhem

You know why people like the period around a bank holiday so much? Because they get stuff done. For some reason, the organisational cogs seem better oiled around a bank holiday and we come away feeling productive and ending our days with a sense of achievement.

Is this coincidence?

No. It’s directly related to a reduction in the number of meetings being held, because people are on holiday and they become harder to schedule. And the time saved is used on more productive activity than locking grown people in a room.

Because there is an irony in business that the amount of time you spend on unproductive activity is directly proportional to seniority and the amount that you’re paid.. The higher you go, the more time you waste being sat in a room with other well paid people and an agenda.

It really is a thing of dumb assed organisational beauty and some people even boast about it, “I’ve been back to back all day”.

Think about it…..

1) Time slots – Meetings happen in half hour and hour blocks because Microsoft Outlook tells us that’s how it should be. We extend the content to fit the time, we never start with content and then work out how long it will take. You’re allowing yourself to be run by the bastard offspring of a paperclip.

2) Creativity – I don’t know about you, but I normally have my best ideas in the shower or the gym. Rarely have I sat in item 2 of an agenda and come up with a stroke of genius related to the stated topic – no matter how far in advance the agenda was sent out. Sometimes I come up with a brilliant idea for a holiday or something to do at the weekend, but that’s another thing.

3) Physicality – I’m sure the modern meeting is morphing into some sort of modern endurance sport. Here’s a thing….stand outside a meeting room and watch people’s faces as they come out. How many other contexts in life can you come up with where people come together sat in a rectangle, in a room with little air or light that doesn’t constitute a war crime?

4) Inclusion – Imagine you were fighting a zombie apocalypse. Every single person in that room is one less person nailing closed the doors and shooting the shuffling, drooling onslaught in the head (which I’m reliably told that this is the only sure-fire way to kill them), would you still have invited Bob from Accounts, just to keep him “in the loop”?

5) Actions – We spend all our time talking about what needs to be done and making lists, but nobody has time to do them. Because they’re in too many meetings. So we  meet and make them b/f or c/f until they no longer have relevance and we can move on to the next agenda item. Seriously.

So that’s all very good Neil, but what are the alternatives, we need to run this business after all?

Well, I’m not against meetings per se, I get they sometimes need to happen for governance purposes. But I can guarantee that I can diagnose the health of an organisation by their approach to meetings. Take the top 20 leaders in your organisation and look at how much of their time is taken up with meetings. Why? Because you can as sure as hell know that they’re replicating it down the organisation. And ask yourself whether this is why you hired them, to do this.

If we genuinely want people to collaborate, we should facilitate but allow them to come together organically to solve problems and create value. We need to trust and empower people to deliver against an overarching purpose. We need to set them free to contribute.

And meetings, well they don’t even touch the sides……