10 keys to powerful leadership

Leadership | 0 comments | by Simon Ricketts

Nearly 20 years of consulting and coaching experience in some of the world’s most effective organisations in virtually every sector imaginable, and the absolute privilege and honour of working at a deeply personal level with the most senior leaders in these organisations has left me with some impressions of great leadership as it is lived on a daily basis.

This is not the result of hours of empirical research with endless questionnaires and data tables. Rather, it is my reflective summary of what great leadership feels like. The list speaks to the habits of brilliant leaders, and can be understood at all levels of an organisation.

Ask great questions that illuminate new solutions – flashes of inspiration, or insights as I prefer to call them, do not just happen to leaders. Great leaders create the conditions within which the people around them have great insights, and they do this by relentlessly asking questions to understand what is before them – probing, illuminating, incisive questions that cause those around them to have a broader perspective and think differently. Fertile ground indeed for new ideas.

Learn to harness and exploit your natural strengths – many of my clients assume that I am there to help them negate their weaknesses. The power of the human mind is such that you get more of what you focus on, and if you concentrate on your weak points, you enhance them. Better therefore to build and exploit your strengths… way more fun too!

Only work on the weaknesses that limit you – we all have blind spots and things that do not come naturally. Great leaders understand that the only weaknesses that matter are those that are either getting in their way or limiting them. In my coaching work, I have found that often even these performance limiting weaknesses get compensated for and minimised by focusing on strengths. So this list should be pretty short – developing weaknesses is a last resort.

Check-in with people more often than you need to – teams and individuals who are being led have a need to be heard, listened to and paid attention to. It is a basic human need to be recognised and valued. Understand this, and check in with your people multiple times a day – you are never too busy to do this. It is amazing what you learn by just chatting to people, and the motivational effect is huge.

Look at industries that are similar but different to yours – when we look at other companies that are similar to us, we simply see a reflection of ourselves. Surely the object of looking outwards is to find something different. So if you are an airline, don’t look at other airlines, look at how five-star hotels or casinos treat their customers and take lessons from that. Maybe this is a better route to finding ways to differentiate in a crowded market.

Look inwards for the solutions not outwards –  in my consulting work I have the privilege of understanding how a huge range of organisations operate – with different styles, structures and strategies – it gives me a wider viewpoint and more perspectives to draw from in helping my clients. However, one thing is clear to me – that ideas and techniques do not easily transport from one context to another, and where I have seen leaders create the best solutions has been when they think carefully about what will work within their organisation, rather than look at what everybody else is doing.

Ask what, how and when rather than why –  any question beginning with the word “why” is surely a probing enquiry into understanding the situation better, isn’t it? What I have observed, however, is that people get very defensive when faced with this sort of question. “Why did you do that?” has an accusatory tone to it which does not exist in the questions “What else might you have done?” or “How might you have done this differently?”.

Answer questions with questions – in a number of the leadership development programs that I have designed and led, participants are asked to spend two weeks asking questions in response to any questions that they are asked by their team. It is a tough exercise. However, the results are invariably along the lines of “I realise that my team already have the answers”, “they are simply looking for me to take the responsibility for the decision” and “they want me to do the thinking for them”. It is very seductive being able to give people answers, but as leaders we are better off taking the harder road which is to ask the insightful question that helps point the way to them finding their own answers.

Be positive in your outlook for the future –  human beings are hardwired to respond to positive ideas, language, attitude and behaviour. Negative people are draining, and with the pace of organisations today we can ill afford this. As leaders we must model the way we want people to be – and being positive about the future gives people hope, and hope gives energy.

Be grounded in your assessment of today –  however, it is critical that leaders see the reality of today, and ground the judgement within this even one being very positive about the future. This is essential to be able to build connection with the individuals and teams that you lead. This is where checking in with people on a regular basis is invaluable – I have seen so many leaders make assumptions about the reality within their organisations, when all they are really seeing is what they want to see. This builds distance between them and their people, and as a consequence the leadership impact is diminished.

Some of these reflections are counterintuitive, or at the very least not how we instinctively behave. I am supremely confident that if you can model at least some of these behaviours within your leadership you will see dramatic improvements. This is borne out by the thousands of managers and leaders that I have worked with over the last 20 years, and the other thing I have learnt is that only you can make these improvements.

Over to you then…

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How to empower step changes in team performance

Leadership | 0 comments | by Simon Ricketts

We have all experienced doing homework in our school days (longer ago for some of us…), and many of us will be parents ourselves now. My question is this: what is the best way for a parent to help their child if they see that they could be approaching their homework in a much better way. The problem becomes particularly acute when the child is a teenager – all parents of teenagers know exactly what I mean by this!

Direct advice is at best short-cutting the child’s learning, and at worst risks developing a passivity in the child that they will be given the answers when their work is challenging for them.

A similar conundrum often presents to technical leaders – how can we use our deep experience and intuition to help teams do better work, but without telling them what to do and so disempowering their creativity and expertise. The key to this lies in the subtle use of questioning techniques allied with a results orientation, and the following quote sums up the spirit of this:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

You want to be able to use your experience to improve performance and help your team to gain the benefits of your experience, but without disempowering them. Neuroscience research tells us that we are all wedded to acting on our own thoughts, and so how can we facilitate the transfer of this expertise from your head to theirs without telling them directly?

It turns out you can have your cake and eat it, and there are 3 key steps to this:

1. Understand the current situation

2. Raise the bar in terms of performance expectations

3. Using coaching questions to help them explore how to meet these higher expectations

Help them feel understood

Your team members need to feel that you understand them before they are likely to respond positively to your thoughts. The first step is therefore to gain a thorough understanding of how the issue is currently being approached through at first open-ended questions, and then more detailed probing around the areas that you are concerned about.

You need to gain a real appreciation of how they are approaching the issue in terms of their thinking to establish where the changes need to be brought about to get the result that you know is possible. Once this is clear to them the way is open to helping them see that something else is possible – before this stage is reached you risk making it you against them in an intellectual tug-of-war.

Moving the bar up a few notches

The next step is to boldly and brashly state that you believe they are capable of creating something of a fundamentally higher performance, and stating clearly what the parameters of this performance level are. It is critical at this stage to keep the focus purely at the results or outcomes level – stay well away from any sense of how these results can be achieved, and especially do not imply any criticism of what has been done so far by the individual or team.
Once they have managed to pick their chin up from the floor, the individual will very quickly start to ask questions about how this level of performance can be achieved. This leads us neatly into the third step.

Let’s think about this for a moment…

Your role as leader at this point becomes to help the person explore the possibilities for greater performance. To do this in a positive and constructive way you need to help them explore new avenues of thinking, by asking questions such as “What would the effect be if we changed this…”, “How could this element be approached differently?”, ” What other options do we have?” or “How could we change the way we are thinking about this?”.

The most important point throughout this process is that you are focusing on how they are thinking about the problem, not on the problem itself. Your task as leader becomes enabling the person to make a breakthrough join their thinking, so that they in turn can produce the breakthrough results that you are looking for.

Don’t forget the line managers

If there are one or more levels of management between you and the person you are helping, make sure that your parting blow is to encourage the individual to collaborate with their manager(s) to find the breakthrough solutions. And of course let the managers know about the conversation you have just had.

Maybe even applying this technique to some teenagers you might know when they are struggling with their homework will enable a breakthrough for them.

Although if they are teenagers, don’t hold your breath.

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Sink or swim

Leadership | 0 comments | by Simon Ricketts

Sink or swim – that was my choice.

This was the first day of my career breakthrough – I had just been appointed to manage Toshiba’s European television manufacturing facility. The first task was to chair the morning operations meeting, and I was faced with a team of supervisors who in turn managed a shop floor of 350 skilled people. They were looking to me for direction, inspiration, wisdom even.

And I was 24 years old.

Previously to this I had been managing product development projects in the Satellite TV industry, liaising with pan-European development and commercial teams to introduce key products into a new market at that time. But this was different. I had the pressure of people sat around me depending on my judgement, words and experience – the last one being in short supply!

With a deep academic background in management, I knew the theories and understood the concepts. They don’t help you so much when you are faced with a decision that needs to be made within the next 20 seconds because a production line has stopped, and there are 50 people staring at you with nothing to do.

It was this experience that gave me my most important and impactful lesson in leadership. This learning would shape the whole of the rest of my career, and enable me to work at the very highest levels in some of the most prestigious and ambitious companies in the world. It has informed every job and project I have since led or been part of, and it has served me well. When I go off track, it is because I have forgotten my learning, and I need to find and apply it again.

And it is incredibly simple. Just ask more questions. That’s it.

Something magical happens between 2 people when a questions is asked.

Firstly, asking someone a question demonstrates a deep respect for their expertise and knowledge, and pays them a huge compliment. You are saying that you need and value what they have to offer. We all want to be needed and valued, and asking the question conveys this to others.

Secondly, being asked a question makes new connections in your brain and helps you to see the world differently. It helps form new perspectives. It helps both people learn. Applying your mind to someone else’s situation or challenge does not just help them – you learn from this experience too.

So I came to learn that questions are possibly the most powerful tool we have in the leadership and management toolkit, and I have spent the last 25 years of my career developing the capability of using questions to illuminate situations, create new insights and find new solutions to old problems.

Of course, there are a great many other skills that need to be learnt on the path from being a technical expert through to becoming an organisational leader, but that 24 year old learnt fast that the art of asking questions, and by so doing shaping peoples’ thinking in an empowering way, is an excellent first step along the road.

Sink or swim. It’s your choice.

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What is Strategic Performance Management?

Performance | 0 comments | by Simon Ricketts

Getting everything aligned to performThe word performance implies a feeling of how well something is working, how efficiently it uses its resources and how well it accomplishes the task for which it was designed.  However this takes no account over whether it is the right tool being applied in the right way for the right purpose.

To take an analogy, a performance car may be able to travel at high speeds through different weather conditions but the primary objective is to arrive in the right place, therefore there needs to be a combination on the car being driven in the right direction to the right place and then using the car’s innate performance capabilities to get there quickly.

It is this concept of knowing where we are going which is important in strategic performance management, which begs the question “where are we heading” and “how can we best get there”?

In an organisational sense we have resources and capabilities that we can deploy, use and enable to perform however success will only be determined as to whether we arrive at our destination, i.e. whether the organisation fulfils its primary purpose or not.  An accountancy firm that is not making both its partners and its clients richer cannot be deemed to be successful however efficiently it may be operating.

So this concept of strategic performance management, it can be seen, can therefore be applied to the organisational level, divisional level, team level and consequently to the individual, and it is the dovetailing and linkage between these different levels that enables an organisation and all of its constituent parts to perform in a more coherent, cohesive way to achieve the organisation’s purpose.

Both clarity and understanding throughout the organisation are what enable us to ensure that we are doing the right things and also doing them well.

But how can this happen?

There are three primary causes of organisations not performing to enable their strategic purpose to be fulfilled and these are in priority order:

–    Clarity and focus – all of the constituent parts and people within the organisation understanding the purpose and their fit and contribution towards it, i.e. what they have to do to fit into the overall plan. 56% of strategic performance failure is as a result of insufficient attention paid at this level.

–    Total commitment from individuals to the organisational purpose.  33% (approximately) of strategic performance management failures are because the organisation has not engaged and committed its individuals to deliver on the strategy.

–    Action – doing the right things in the right order in the right way to achieve the end result.  Errors in this category account for less than 10% of strategic performance failures.

The issues of gaining widespread clarity and focus over what we are supposed to be delivering on and then engaging and committing employees at all levels into this are clearly the core requisites for success in strategic performance.  The strategy mapping approach delivers on these two pre-requisites in the following ways:

–    By providing a common channel, format and language across the organisation and making it easily communicative.  This enables people to easily and quickly access plans of in other areas and a total corporate plan in a way that cannot be done with traditional value systems.  This gives rise to opportunities for departments, people and projects to be linking up together to deliver more value and where there are opportunities for inter-division integration of working.

–    It makes explicit the links that are necessary between various parts of the organisation to ensure the strategy is delivered on.  Giving visibility to these links means that the activities or project teams can more effectively be managed and we can have more confidence that we are using all of our resources across the organisation in a more effective way rather than sitting in our own silos and simply taking care of our own back yards.

–    As a consequence to all of this we gain more effective alignment of corporate, divisional, team and individual objectives, efforts and energies towards delivering on the corporate strategy.  This means we are less likely to get projects occurring that are peripheral to the core purpose of the organisation.

How do we make it live and breathe in our organisation?

All of these plans being created in an intuitive, visual and accessible way is all very well but we need to be able to integrate these plans into life in our own business so that they do not gather dust on a top or bottom shelf.  The key way in which this is done is that we create between six and twelve measures for each map (corporate, divisional or team) that represent the degree to which we are achieving and delivering on our plans.

These measures may be quantitative, qualitative or simply observational; the important point is that we are tracking our progress and taking appropriate action to rectify where necessary.

The common mistake made when developing performance measures is that we try to represent, in the most accurate way, the characteristic or criterion that we are measuring.  This is missing the point about what measures are for.

The fundamental is that measures are there to guide, check and modify our behaviour – i.e. if a measure is a low target we must make sure that the measure is designed in a way that will then cause us to behave in a way or make decisions in a way that will result in a positive uplift in that measure.  This may sound obvious but because of the unpredictable way in which human beings react and behave this is one of the more difficult aspects of the mapping approach.

Clearly measures must also be developed that do indeed represent the aspect that we are measuring, but as we can see this is not the sole requirement and arguably not the most important one.

Ok we now have measures but so what?

Simply measuring things is not enough.  Measurement gives us data, not necessarily information, from which we can make better decisions.  This is why we then represent those measures through a document called the dashboard.  This is a visual representation of our performance and progress against our strategy, be it corporate, divisional or team level.

The main aim of the dashboard is to be able to very quickly and very visually identify which areas of our performance are good, which are under control and which are unsatisfactory, both on an immediate basis and on a trend basis; to ensure we understand what these measures link to, and therefore what we can do about them, and track our progress in taking actions and making decisions to effect these measures.

Visually the dashboard is usually one sheet of A3 per team and is composed of a combination of numbers, graphs, symbols and very short, succinct statements of action or progress made.  However this then becomes the document which enables the strategy and our performance to live and breathe within the organisation and will guide all of our actions.

The dashboard may be composed of a mixture of the following elements;

–    The definition of the measure

–    Graphs representing that measure

–    An indication as to whether the three or six-month trend in that measure is upwards, static or downwards; a visual representation of whether they are on target or not.  Perhaps an indication of some of the “leaders” that we can pull or use to influence the measure.

–    Progress made since the last meeting and actions taken

–    Actions to be taken as a result of the meeting

 What about the individual?

Clearly organisations do not change, individuals do and to this extent the most fundamental and important step is that objectives are cascaded to the individual into an effective and well-designed performance management system.  Through this the individual will understand what is expected of them personally in terms of performance, how it links to their team’s performance, which therefore ultimately links all the way up to the corporate strategy plan.  One of the key complaints from individuals in organisations is “I do not see where I fit in”.  This integrated strategy mapping approach neatly and elegantly resolves this problem and gives the individual this ability of exactly what they are required to do and why.


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The dark side of leadership

Leadership | 0 comments | by Simon Ricketts

We all have one of these in our cupboard somewhere...Do you ever feel that there are people you know who should have been more successful than they are given their talents, experience and abilities? Do you feel this about yourself perhaps? The reality is that we all have our own glass ceiling, self-imposed through our ‘dark side behaviours‘.

Unfulfilled career aspirations and potential, and even outright derailment are all symptoms of our inability to see, focus on and deal with the dark side of leadership. It is tempting to think that these dark side behaviours are overtly negative, and therefore they would be obvious to us and those around us. Unfortunately this is not the case – these derailing behaviours or characteristics or more subtle.

Around a year ago, we took on a psychometric product called Talent Q to offer to our clients as part of our coaching and leadership development work, as part of our armoury in helping leaders to counter the dark side of leadership. The elements that Hay Group have identified as derailers the following (amongst others) as limiters of leadership effectiveness:

  1. Hypersensitivity – are you either too affected by others’ emotions, or not tuned in enough – either way it is a problem for you.
  2. Isolation – too connected to others, or prefer your own company? Extremes are best avoided for leadership success.
  3. Eccentricity – research has shown that not enough creative thought can be just as limiting as being ‘out there’.
  4. Over-confidence – a balance of humility and confidence are required – no shrinking violets, but Attila the Hun had control issues…
  5. Micro-management – are you too across the detail? What would your team say about this?

We have found that leaders find difficulty in assessing accurately their own position on these factors, and so we are now licensed to deploy these reports and debrief fully to help people in leadership position avoid the downsides of the dark side behaviours.

If you would like to know more about how we can help you maximise the positive aspects of your leadership ability, and avoid these limiting factors, contact Simon at simon@warwick-i.com, or just call me on +44 (0) 7711 831992.

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