If this is business, count me out

Two weeks ago, I was at Brussels Airport, waiting to board a plane home.  In front of me stood a small group of business people, a mix of English, Americans and Belgians. They were talking in astonishingly loud voices about a deal they were planning.  They talked over each other constantly, vying with each other to make a smart remark, shout something about their experience, play a game of one-upmanship.  Two of them only engaged with the others when it was their turn to speak.  When their colleagues were talking, they studied their cellphones intently.

The conversation suggested that they were all very senior people in their organisations.  They were, frankly, appalling.  They took themselves immensely seriously. They lacked common courtesy in conversation.  They talked without listening.  Their conversations were a competition to see who could make the cleverest remark and shout loudest.

I began to think about the poor people who work for them and the role models which they present to younger people in their organisations. They demonstrated how not to communicate, whilst displaying narcissistic self-regard.  It’s interesting to hear how often middle-aged business people criticise younger people for their overuse of mobile phones, and their preference for text over conversation.  It might be equally interesting to hold up a mirror to this little group and ask them why (if leaders have followers) anyone should ever wish to follow them.  What kind of role model are they?

I was thankful, as I boarded the plane, to discover that my seat was as far as it could be from them, yet despite the 20 rows which separated us, I could hear every word of their conversation until their alcohol consumption took its toll, and one by one, they fell asleep.

To discuss any aspect of organisational development, leadership and management training, soft skills development or simply pass the time of day, please call me on +44 161 929 4145 or email me at david@davidcotton.co.uk.


Outdated thinking – managing younger people

I was recently working at Manchester Business School, training a group of very senior military people who were about to re-enter civilian life and we started to discuss what’s changed over our lives and how this might affect the way that we manage people at work.

What emerged from the discussion is that most of the talk about management methods assumes that the people we will be managing think as we do.  Looking around the room, we realised that we were all either approaching, in, or at the back end of middle age and that everything we were talking about reflected our ways of thinking.  The new generation of people starting work is simply not like us.  We grew up in a working environment in which things moved relatively slowly, people had some expectation of longevity in an organisation, there was a reasonable distinction between working life and home life and career progression might be relatively slow and time-served.

New graduates have no such expectations.  There is a theory that most will have around seven different careers during their working lives – note that this is careers and not jobs.  The first job is likely to be a stepping stone to something else and that something else may be a in a completely different field.  Slow has given way to fast and there is some expectation of instant gratification: “if you can’t provide this for me here and now, then I can always go somewhere else for it”.  With lower expectations about ever getting on the property ladder, young people are more prone to spend than to save.  They have a genuine social conscience and, whilst many expectations are still paying lip-service to corporate social responsibility, many younger people have a real drive to see greater social justice.  Where we might have gone from school to university to work, many young people have used their gap year not only to travel but to volunteer and work in environments which we may even consider hostile.  This in its turn breeds a level of confidence that I’m not convinced was so widespread when we began working.

Our management books focus on managing in a world which is fast being eroded by social, cultural and technological change.  Can we afford to keep training people to manage others in our own image?

To discuss any aspect of organisational development, leadership and management training, soft skills development or simply pass the time of day, please call me on +44 161 929 4145 or email me at david@davidcotton.co.uk.

The stability paradox

Apparently, Tom Peters once claimed that the paradox for organisations is that they have to  pursue change whilst maintaining stability.  I wonder if the notion of stability is a myth? It used to be said that leadership talk the future into existence and managers manage the status quo. Status quo (literally “the state in which”) is taken to mean the current state of affairs.  Some have interpreted that to mean a static, stable situation.  Of course, it neither is nor ever was.  Stuff happens; things change.  Managers manage in changing times.  If there’s change, there’s no real stability, so the paradox disappears.

If a company has a good and viable strategy, then reaction to external forces will force change to the execution of that strategy – and if instability means it’s not standing still, then the change means instability.  If the strategy is not viable because of external forces, then the strategy needs to change.  The change means instability.  If a company chooses not to notice outside forces, it will probably fail – hence, more instability.

So, back to Tom Peters’ assertion.  Pursuing change is necessary.  Instability is a given.  No paradox.

Have a good weekend.

To discuss any aspect of organisational development, leadership and management training, soft skills development or simply pass the time of day, please call me on +44 161 929 4145 or email me at david@davidcotton.co.uk.

High performance vs tick-box cultures

ImageIf you were to design your own organisation from scratch, would it look like it does now?  Probably the answer is no.  Organisations evolve and functional areas which served a purpose at the time of establishment may become less relevant over time, yet we retain them because, well, we’ve always done things this way.  As the organisation evolves, so we see more controls and systems and processes creeping in to bind together the otherwise rather disparate strands of the organisation.

There is a danger in all this that we evolve into a tick-box culture – one in which everything is driven by rules, regulations, systems, controls and processes.  You find that, in order to spend a small amount of money on the organisation’s behalf, you have to get a capital expenditure authorisation signed by three directors.  You can’t take a day’s holiday at short notice because the rules won’t allow it.  And the tighter the controls, the less freedom you have to make decisions without having to gain committee approval.

The tick-box culture (TBC) may be necessary in some environments.  If I found myself on an oil-rig, I would want to know that it’s not ok to light a cigarette and throw away the match.  Here, the rules save lives.  In knowledge-based organisations the rules may just be plain silly.

In a high performance culture (HPC) the rules and regulations are a given, and sufficiently rigorous to prevent chaos, but sufficiently relaxed to allow freedom of thought and action.  People see the rules as a support, rather than a driver, for what they do.

Let’s take an HR example.  In a TBC, managers set objectives by a specific date, because the system tells them they have to.  There’s no enthusiasm about the process and many do it grudgingly to ‘get it out of the way’.  Similarly, they complete appraisals by a specific date to appease HR, when really the whole process is getting in the way of their day job.  Finally, they sit down and half-heartedly produce a personal development plan with each staff member, usually at the eleventh hour before the HR Department’s imposed deadline.

In an HPC, managers understand the organisational strategy and their own department’s role in supporting that strategy.  Objective setting is taken seriously and objectives are directly tied to strategic aims.  Appraisals are encouraging, supportive and developmental and the personal planning which results from the appraisal is genuinely designed to help the individual develop and grow both for their own and for the organisation’ benefit.

Try this:


Mark on the line where you see your organisation now.  Indicate with an arrow whether it is moving more towards the HPC or TBC end or standing still.

Now mark on the line where you see yourself.  Is your mindset more in line with the HPC or TBC?  Which way are you moving?

Finally, mark where you believe those with whom you work closely would place you on this line?  And which way do you think they would imagine you are moving, if at all?

If you are closer to the HPC than the organisation, what can you do to change it?  What small changes can you make in your own work area which shift you and your team closer to the HPC?

If you don’t make those changes, are you in danger of preserving or promoting something mediocre, which you could change for the better?

To discuss management/leadership development, soft skills training, business strategy development, public speaking or facilitation, please do give me a call on +44 161 929 4145 or email me at david@davidcotton.co.uk

Wasting your energy – misdirected selling and ROI

I am quite a fan of David Maister, author of “The Trusted Advisor”.  One of his ideas which particularly impressed me is about how we target the wrong people when selling our services.  In professional services, we can divide the world into clients and non-clients and people who are and are not aware of their needs.  The greatest return on investment comes from clients who are aware of needs.  It’s an easy sell to them – we already have a good working relationship, they have some measure of trust in our ability and they have already identified a need for some particular offering from us.

The next easiest category is clients who are not aware of their needs.  Again, the trusting relationship is established and, if we work diligently to understand their business or the market forces which may affect their business, then it’s reasonable to propose work which can be really useful to our clients.

The third area for work on a diminishing scale of return on investment is with non-clients aware of a particular need.  Now we enter the world of bids, competition and beauty parades.  The tendering process is long, expensive and painful.  It may yield nothing, and time spent on it is non-billable and an overhead.  It cuts into time when we could be doing chargeable work.

Finally, the area of least likely return is the non-client with no established needs.  These are the cold prospects, and warming them up is hideously time-consuming and expensive.  They are on our wish-list – organisations we want as clients but to whom we have nothing material to offer.

The paradox is that most organisations spend most of their non-billable (hugely expensive) time chasing categories three and four, instead of focusing their energies on categories one and two.  And that focus is about moving up the relationship ladder, from the lowest category, acknowledgment, through understanding, acceptance, respect, trust and finally to bond.  If we take the time to develop our established relationships, we use our energy more productively, selling appropriately and getting a better, cheaper and quicker return on our investment.

If you’d like to talk about management or leadership development, soft skills training, business strategy or organisational development, please do give me a call on +44 161 929 4145 or email me at david@davidcotton.co.uk.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Enthusiasm, cynicism and the kindness of strangers

ImageLast week I was running a training course in Singapore for a group of business people from Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.  Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work in Asia, and something that strikes me every time I visit is the great courtesy I am afforded by complete strangers.  This is not to suggest that Europeans are discourteous, but that the default courtesy control in Asia seems to be set to maximum. In contrast, across Europe it has become increasingly cool to be cynical and there’s almost a fear of appearing enthusiastic.

We could learn a lot from this.  I love enthusiasm.  Much as I hate gardening, I really enjoy the BBC radio programme, ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ because it features people who are absolutely passionate about their subject, and who speak with enthusiasm, joy and humour about it.

I regularly facilitate large conferences and I am struck often by the dryness of language, the dull presentation and the lack of verve in the keynote speakers whom I introduce and who are supposed to set the tone for the conference.  They invite the audience to share their enthusiasm without displaying any – and using the word ‘enthusiasm’ whilst sounding like they are reading the shipping forecast is not enough to convince me that they feel any passion about their chosen topic.

If we can use richer language, align our words, voice and body language we might convince other that we are genuinely enthusiastic and so bring them along with us – enthusiasm can be infectious if we can drop our guard long enough to allow it in.

And I can’t help feeling that, if we were to show a little more spark and joy in our work, we might start being nicer to people.  Weirdly, if we are nice to people, they feel more motivated and they work more productively.

What’s missing in work is kindness – being nice to people for no good reason.  It costs nothing and it feels good.  And when we see the results of kindness and courtesy, perhaps it will reignite our enjoyment of work.

Think back to the day on which you started your current job.  Most of you will have been excited at the prospect, perhaps slightly nervous and certainly enthusiastic, because the job didn’t simply land in your lap.  Over time, you may have been sucked into the cynicism of others, had the positive energy sucked out of you by the office’s ‘mood Hoovers’ whose existence seems to depend on their ability to make everyone’s lives as miserable as their own.  When we start to lose that spark, we forget to be nice to people.  We begin to regard the with suspicion, and we start to play politics instead of simply getting on with whatever we though we were paid to do.  And then we lose that common courtesy which I find so appealing in Asia.

I’m planning a business trip to Oman right now, and another to Kuala Lumpur, and I look forward to the delight that people in each of those countries seems to find in the company of others and the sheer joy they appear to take in daily life.

If you want to discuss any aspect of leadership, management, behavioural skills or business strategy training, meeting facilitation or organisational development, I’d love to hear from you.  You can reach me at david@davidcotton.co.uk or on +44 161 929 4145.

I look forward to hearing from you.

LinkedIn endorsements and other mysteries

Being an independent trainer, I use a number of online tools to raise my profile.  RecentlyImage I’ve been trying to fathom how LinkedIn selects the words which pop up as areas to be endorsed. I have some vague memory of including some keywords in my profile at some point in the past, and though I can no longer find them in my profile, I suspect that whatever I wrote there will now appears as an endorsable skill. Luckily, I didn’t include my hobbies there.

The endorsement thing is a bit of a game, and some days I play and on other days I can’t be bothered. I am delighted that so many complete strangers have endorsed me for skills that they have never witnessed. I think it’s a attempt at a grown-up version of Facebook “likes”. I would’t take it too seriously.

There is one really useful feature of the endorsement game for me – each time I go into Linked in and the 4 boxes pop up, I am reminded of people with whom I have had little contact recently, and it prompts me to re-establish contact. In this way, I am beginning (slowly) to get back in touch with LinkedIn contacts who were fading into the mists of time and memory. Since I became a freelance trainer, I have made it a policy of contacting a couple of people a day for no good reason, and the endorsements boxes not only prompt me to do so, but give me a ready made list of today’s contacts. Sometimes I spoil myself and contact three people. I get work from referrals, word of mouth, repeat work for existing clients and sowing seeds and occasionally remembering to water them. The moment I endorse someone, it sows a seed. I am careful, I hope, only to endorse people for something I believe they possess. That prompts them to think of me – and in a couple of cases already has yielded work or at least a conversation.

Meanwhile, I do see some good in LinkedIn. I like the degrees of separation notifier and I like the fact that, since people theoretically use LinkedIn as an online networking tool, they are prepared to forge introductions. So if I see someone useful (yes, I will be mercenary and use that word) I can see how many degrees of separation exist between us and ask someone to introduce me to someone who can introduce me to them. This is no different than meandering up to someone I know at a conference and asking to be introduced to someone else. And it works very well.

Like anything, LinkedIn is only as good as our use of it. If the internet is,as Stephen Fry said, a city with fashionable areas, sleazy areas, leisure facilities, nice and horrible people etc, then LinkedIn represents a rather mixed neighbourhood, populated by some very nice people, some shady people only there to sell their wares and me. And I can choose where I go within the neighbourhood, choose who to speak to and choose my own friends.

And now, I had better go and see who has endorsed me today.

Difficult delegates

I was prompted to write the following in response to a posting on a training discussion forum which asked about handling difficult delegates on a training course.  As it happens, I’ve been commissioned to write a book on managing difficult people in the workplace, so this was very much in my mind at the time of posting. Although the book will be about  managing difficult people in the workplace, rather than in the training room, the same principles apply.

In essence, I believe that most of us do the best we can in whatever situation we find ourselves. We are the sum total of everything that brought us to that point. I cannot possibly know everything about everyone who comes to a training session, and I have to start with the belief that their fundamental reason for being there on that day (with some exceptions) is not to make my life miserable, because it’s not about me.

In a sense suggesting that delegates are difficult is to suggest that I have an ideal and that they are no conforming to it. Equally, I may not be confirming to theirs. And at some level, there is a supreme arrogance in expecting people to conform to my ideal. Therein lies bigotry, prejudice and exclusion. I like some people more than I like others. I find some fascinating and others boring. I know how I’m feeling and what has influenced my mood before I walk into the training room and I have no idea about anyone else’s day so far. I have been infuriated at times by what I have perceived as ridiculous challenges to what I have said and discovered later that this was simply someone’s way of learning and straightening out their own thinking. I have watched people looking bored and appearing not to be focus and realised that they are reflecting deeply on the conversations around them and retreating inside to examine their own thinking. I have seen people apparently highly engaged who have given a course a low evaluation.

It’s terribly difficult to be resilient in the face of behaviours that don’t suit us and match our hopes and expectations and I don’t claim mastery of it. I do know that if I stop taking things personally – the delegates didn’t come in for my entertainment or to please me – I then pay more attention to the subjective experience of the individuals in the room and, by working harder to understand their experience, can create a better experience for them.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

Leading by frying a small fish

In a moment of madness a few years ago, I translated the Tao te Ching, the 3,000 year-old Taoist philosophy, from Chinese to English and, with a colleague, set about interpreting it in terms of 21st century leadership.  For various reasons, the project was put on hold and one day perhaps I will go back and complete it.  The Tao is the gift that keeps on giving.  Written at a time when direct criticism of the Chinese government might result in death, it’s the work of a collective who wisely couched their criticisms in ways which are open to interpretation and so cannot be seen as direct indictments of a corrupt regime.  And throughout the Tao there are little gems, written in pseudo-verse and offering wisdom around governance an leadership which has as much relevance today as it did 3,000 years ago.

One verse – and I’m slightly paraphrasing here – says that governing a country is like frying a small fish.  Like so much of the Tao it requires a little thought and interpretation before the meaning crystallises.  The bad chef prepares the fish badly, perhaps not cleaning or seasoning it adequately, not heating the oil sufficiently and constantly prodding the fish to test whether or not is cooked.  The under-cooked fish falls apart in the pan.

The good chef cleans and seasons the fish, heats the oil to just the right temperature, gently places the fish in the pan and then leaves it.  A fish is a wonderful thing: given the appropriate preparation, it knows how to cook itself.  The chef stands back and observes – watching, smelling and aware of the fish’s progress.  When the fish is cooked on one side, the chef gently flips it over and stands back to observe again.  Result – beautifully cooked fish.

Great leaders prepare the environment and the people.  They stand back and allow the well chosen, well briefed, well trained and prepared people to do what they need to do, intervening only when they need to.  The result – well executed tasks by a motivated staff, not constrained by micro-management and interference, but trusted to do what they believed they were hired to do.

Another passage in the Tao talks about the great leader preparing the environment, then standing back and allowing the people to do what they need to.  When the people succeed, they congratulate themselves on a job well done, then turn to the leader who is standing slightly on the sidelines and say “thank you.”

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

Feedback – a gift of information

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about giving feedback, not least because I have been running training in this area and have been commissioned to write a book which may well include a section on it.

When I first started work, we used to talk about ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feedback and we were taught to use the ‘positive sandwich,’ in which negative comments should be enveloped between two slices of positive feedback.  This became something of a joke at work, and we would declare “That’s a nice shirt you’re wearing; your work’s appalling but the shirt is nice.”

While the principle of softening the blow of ‘negative’ feedback may be laudable, it dilutes the real message.  If someone has not performed as expected, it’s useful that they know that.  Now this doesn’t mean being horrible to someone and it certainly doesn’t mean blaming them.  Instead it should be delivered in a way that helps them to understand the effects of their performance and encourages them to do something positive about it.

Stepping back from all this, feedback itself is a gift of information.  When I receive a gift, I can choose to cherish it, save it for later, give it away or sell it on eBay. The gift is neither positive or negative – it’s just a gift.  Feedback is not intrinsically positive or negative, when delivered in the right way.  So often, new managers find themselves tied in knots at the thought of giving feedback which may be construed as negative.  It’s worst for the managers who have worked in a team and then promoted to be the team leader.  Giving feedback feels like slapping their friends in the face.  All too often, the recipient of the feedback feels less upset about it than the manager delivering it.

So, in giving feedback, it’s useful to have a structure.  This helps us in delivery and the recipient in understanding that this is a serious conversation.  One regular problem when someone behaves in a way that’s deemed inappropriate at work is that they don’t appear to understand the effects of their behaviour on others.  Another is that the manager delivering feedback tells the staff member the corrective behaviour which they must demonstrate in future.  To remedy both of these problems, try this:

  • Example/Evidence
  • Effects
  • Change/Continue

First, describe what you see.  Be absolutely specific.  There is no sense in saying to someone “I think you have been a little grumpy recently.”  The answer is “No, I haven’t.”  Tell the team member about specific behaviours you have observed – give a time and location if it helps to make it even more specific.

Now, importantly, describe the effects. Be careful not to say “the rest of the team feels the same way as I do” because you’ll  create a division and mistrust in the team.

Finally, ask the team member what they will do differently in future.  It’s far better for them to tell you than for you to tell them because they are more likely to ‘own’ and commit to a solution of their own creation. Notice that the “C” in our little “EEC” structure can also stands for “continue”: the formula can be used equally for praising someone.

Here’s are some examples, first for offering praise and secondly for indicating errant behaviour:

“[E]George, last week when you knew that I was going to be away for the day and our new team member, Sylvia, joined the department?  I understood that you took her under your wing, introduced her to everyone, showed her round the department and took her to lunch with some other colleagues. [E] She was absolutely delighted and said she had been made to feel very welcome.  Thanks very much for that.  [C] Next week, when Fred joins us, would you mind doing the same again?”

“[E]George, last week when you knew that I was going to be away for the day and our new team member, Sylvia, joined the department? I understand that she was pretty much left to her own devices all day – that nobody introduced themselves to her nor showed her around.  [E] When I spoke to her on Friday, she was quite disconsolate, saying that she had felt unwelcome and rather excluded from the group.  [C]Next week, when Fred joins us, what could you do to make him feel more welcome than Sylvia?”

The structure is simple and it gives the nervous feedback-deliverer something of a comfort blanket. It’s important of course to allow the team member space to explain their behaviour.  It’s equally important to help them to see that, whatever the reasons, behaviour creates impact.

Take real care to deal with issues as early as possible.  You should, after all, be dealing with changes in behaviour rather than long-standing issues.  If you leave it too late to give feedback you effectively lose the right to do so.  Imagine saying “Helena – you know you haven’t attended the team meetings for the last five years – well it’s really important that you do.”  Helena has every right to ask why you didn’t question her five years ago if it was so important.

Avoid asking people why they are behaving in a certain way because it tends to provoke a defensive response.  It’s far better to ask them instead what has changed.  “You used to attend our team meetings, and I notice that you have missed the last two – what’s changed?”

At the back of your mind consider that, as a manager, your job is to get the best out of yourself and others as far as humanly and reasonably possible.  Good feedback, delivered early, is one helpmate in ensure motivated, high performing staff.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.